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tisoz
Presented for your enjoyment and discussion are the entries for the latest Shadowrun Fiction Contest. Show you care by letting the author know what you like and dislike about their story (feedback is great, sometimes even when it hurts.)

Believe it or not... I have not read any of these unless the author asked me for an edit or critique. They are as new to me as to you. I wanted them to be fresh for me.

I listed the submissions alphabetically, to try to be fair and maintain anonymity. Authors names will be added to their stories when the contest is concluded. If any more edits would like to be made, PM me and I'll get to it ASAP (which might seem like a long time with my schedule and internet access. I should have free time this weekend, so check your story and let me know asap.)

Titles - I either quoted the title from the submission, or centered and bolded it to give it a little oomph and to keep it similar to other submissions. If anyone wants their title changed just PM me.

Let us enjoy these, and let us give thanks to the authors for sharing the fruit of their talent with us.
tisoz
Butterflies

by northern lights


Aurora stood at the side of the boat staring into nowhere as the waves sped past. Moonlight shone clearly from a cloudless sky yet she did not perceive this, for her mind was not without clouds. Silence wrapped her so completely the others on board dared not interrupt it with sound. She led them now, though the cost was horribly grievous. She could not show it, and thus she did not show it, and she knew that brought upon her great resentment. The boat slid along the water smoothly, its engines making little noise as they made their way toward an island whose name she did not know, nor care to.

Therein lay the troubles upon her heart. She did not belong on this boat with its haughty wench of a “captain?. For her place was on another boat. One filled with the merriment of friends, amidst parties with little girls and puppy dogs. Mac was the one who should deliver them to their destination that they might collectively put right the pains of their past.

Softly, she whispered his name and waited for him to answer. She would wait a lifetime and more for reply. Death did not release his captives, nor permit them to speak. Still, she told herself he was there with her, told herself this in the way a child is comforted after the loss of a grandparent. The child in her found comfort in this, and she sighed.

Aurora turned her head and looked out behind the boat. Her thoughts followed her eyes and lingered on the Seattle sprawl receding slowly into the distance. A part of her wanted nothing more than to leap into the water and go back. She could swim quite well from what she remembered. She had had a life once. A life with swimming pools and backyard barbeques and the security vacant in her short adulthood. But alas, no amount of swimming could undo the past. Sadness blossomed within her breast and Aurora cried.

She had cried too, against her wishes, when she had seen Mac returning. She had fought the tears even as she fought the twisted puppet he had become. Mac had easily been her better in combat; hers was the realm of determination to dominate. Her skills were pitiful in comparison, but her will had lent great strength to her and fueled her vengeance. She had put him down herself; none other here was worthy of that. And later that night she had said her farewell. A goodbye of sobbing silence and lonely loss amidst the rooftops of the bleak landscape that was once called Puyallup.

Aurora willed an image of Mac to form in her mind. She had never known his true face; the man and the magic had been torn away years before they had met. After he had vouched for the effectiveness of some mega-corp’s latest toy in the desert, cosmetics could repair the flesh on the outside, but only cyber replacements could allow him to see and hear. She had come to curse herself for the first impression she took of the man in the long months since, but only now did she begin to understand and furthermore to respect.

To have something integral to you ripped away and the burning desire that never quite filled the depths of the emptiness left behind. Now she realized she had mistreated him, done him an injustice of the most personal nature. She knew it would never be righted, but hoped a small part of it could be laid to rest on this night.

Aurora tried to put her mind to rest as she made her way to the front of the boat. That damnable woman and her “prow? could shove it up her ass for all of Aurora’s cares. It might have even fit, one never knew with humans and their inherent lack of grace and refinement. Mac would never have corrected her, but Mac was not here. Nor was Dana, nor Chris for that matter; only she remained. She was grateful that Dana had possessed the sense to walk away so long ago. She still kept in touch, if distantly. The others were dust to the wind. Doomed to live on only in the haunting of my dreams, she thought bitterly.

And in their stead stood the dregs of Seattle’s streets; twice in number but half in heart. She hated herself for so much as speaking to them. Yet she needed them, needed to use them, and use them she would. Dobie and Neon aside, she would use them up and cast them away like the rubbish they were. Her faithful hound had proven himself through great anguish and a kinsman was always well regarded, even one still trapped in the folly of youth. She feared for them, though never for herself.

Silently she asked Mac for help in seeing them through to the end. Then she locked him away within her heart. Tonight’s work was ahead of her and Mac would wait; wait until the end of her days, she was sure.

Dobie flinched as Aurora put her hand on his shoulder. She remembered a Dobie that did not flinch at her touch, a Dobie whole and without scars. Much and more to set to rights, she thought as her eyes glossed over and the world changed. Despite her fascination with the astral world, Aurora rarely visited. Early on she had learned that she was a mewling babe in the world of pure magic. Yet with Dobie at her side, she felt confident. “I see nothing, my friend.?

“The sight of a pup whose eyes are not yet open,? he replied warmly. “Shall I tell you what you do not see??

“No. Surprise suits us better this night,? or so I hope.

“You do not know her as I do. There will be no surprise.? Dobie shrunk beside her; curling in on himself, a dog too oft beaten by his master. “She did things to me I shall never forget. Things I relive each night in my dreams. Would that I could never sleep again,? Dobie trailed off with a whimper.

“I know, I know,? Aurora patted his shoulder reassuringly. “We’ll put those dreams to rest tonight. I promise.?

“Thanks, Aurora.? The dwarf looked up at her. “Thanks,? he said again softly.

“Even as a little girl, I had a soft spot for ragged looking strays,? she smiled at her friend. “They always prove themselves in the end.?

Aurora gave Dobie’s shoulder one last squeeze and set off to her other responsibility, trying to choose her words carefully. It so seldom worked.

“Little Sister,? she called to Neon, but as always, she had to touch her to get through. She laid her hand on the older elf’s arm lightly.

A lazy smile crept across Neon’s face and she slowly opened her eyes to meet Aurora’s then shook her namesake dyed hair to remove her earpiece. The night’s wind swept through green and pink tresses as she tossed her head first left, then right. “Did you just call me ‘Little Sister’ again??

“We are kin, Neon. It is known in your heart.?

“It is known,? she repeated though her eyes had been rolling since Aurora spoke. “Even if I go along with that shit, I’m still two years older than you.? Neon cocked her head and nodded exaggeratedly.

Aurora could not help but smile, Neon’s flippant charm was never lost on her. But tonight's business was far too serious for Neon's casual demeanor. “'Young' and 'youth' are two distinct ideas, but we use the same word to describe them both. English is so inadequate.? She favored Neon with a disdainful look and reverted to her native tongue, “Shall we speak the old tongue?? Everyone on the street knew enough Sperethial to get the gist of that comment, and the jibe was not missed by the trendy elf before her. Neon blinked rapidly and Aurora’s lips thinned in disappointment.

Neon let the software generated reply die on her lips as she saw the look on the younger elf’s face. “I know,? she said summing up months of their relationship in two words and a browbeaten shrug. “Don’t you ever let up? I mean look where we are!? She turned her head and stared blankly into the night, letting it drink her frustration.

Sitting beside her, Aurora leaned close and spoke softly. “I do, much as you might not think so. That’s why I wanted to talk. I have plans for you,? she sighed. Careful words! Neon tensed beside her and she had to speak quickly to reassure her. “I won’t force decisions in your personal life, you know me better, I daresay. But if you choose to, your heritage, our heritage, lies before you. I know little more than you, but already it has tempered my fury and strengthened my will. It has much more to offer me - and you if you so decide.?

Tempered your fury?" Neon spat back at her, eyes narrow and cold as she stared. “May I see your pistol, Sister?? Venom all but dripped from the last word. Aurora knew where this was heading even as she pulled her Hammerli from her holster. Again, she thought as the elf beside her took the weapon and scanned the orichalcum engraving that had cost her so dearly. The software did its job in less time than Aurora’s living mind could. Or so science would say, but it had been proven so definitively wrong in this the Sixth World. Neon’s withering look and silence was a very deliberate feign of ignorance on her part. She handed back the pistol and crossed her slender arms beneath her breasts. “It looks the same to me, but I don’t speak the old tongue. What does it say again?

“Mine is the fury,? Aurora quoted in resignation, dropping her head. “Neon, I laid Mac to rest sixteen days ago. Why was I not here the moment my vigil ended?? She did not give her friend time to answer. “That’s for another time. All of it is. We’re here now and that’s what I wanted to talk about in the first place. It’s not easy for me to relate to you, to let you know how I feel – how important you are to me. Will you hear me out, please?? Their eyes met and she thanked Neon silently for the slightest of nods before going on. “You are important to me. You and Dobie both. But not in the way the others are. I don’t just need you to do your job, Neon. I need you to come back with me. Everyone else, their part in the play is done with the deed. But you must be with me when we take our bows at the end of it all. Please understand this. People are going to die here tonight. I need you to be on task, keep yourself together, don’t let yourself be distracted. Please, Neon.

The elf beside her nodded, “Yeah, sure, I got it.? Aurora hoped her pleas had not fallen on deaf ears. Neon was not lightly taken with such ideas as this that bordered on questioning her abilities.

She stood and kissed her fingers in rising then reluctantly let them fall to her side; Neon was not nearly as comfortable with such antiquated gestures. “Thanks!? She winked and walked away promising herself it was enough.

tisoz
Carding Estates

By Zen Shooter01


Exec Protect Detail Supervisor Daniel Cho slept a little. Fatigue was one of the leading causes of mistakes, and it was Renraku policy for bodyguards to rotate naps on long jobs like this one. It was safe, here. The only other people awake were his subordinates Pender and Zilinski, maintaining the perimeter, and their host's brother, Jeffrey, who was totally absorbed in his augmented reality again.

Jeffrey Hatteras was twenty-five years old, and was employed in technical support by a small packaged foods company that was a Renraku subsidiary. Two minor drug possession charges in his teenage years. Had undergone therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms, now recognized as Artificially Induced Psychotropic Schizophrenia Disorder, as a result of having been online during the matrix Crash of '65. They'd vetted Jeffrey when their subject had taken up socializing with his brother, and even half asleep Cho remembered his biographical details.

Jeffrey's brother, Aidan Hatteras, was twenty-eight, with more than a few minor drug possessions in his past, who worked in a men's clothing boutique (a Renraku-owned chain) in a nearby mall and was a very minor audio recording artist, whose close personal relationship with the subject was boosting his career. Pictures of Aidan and the subject together had appeared on the matrix, and Aidan was getting mentioned on the celebrity gossip sites. Cho knew that this had boosted downloads of his music by 127%, although the total number was still an ass-wipe number by Adams-Westlake Mediaworks standards, the subsidiary of Renraku for which Cho, and his subject, worked. Adams-Westlake approved of the relationship between Aidan Hatteras and the subject because it lent an everybody's-a-star cachet to the subject's career.

With his head nodding in a tidal-pool-blue, eco-friendly recliner that had been manufactured up the coast in Tir Tairngire, Cho saw in his mind's eye some of the video of the subject with Aidan, shopping on Rodeo Drive...the semi-dream was almost like watching video on his artificial eyes, except that he couldn't control the images he saw in dreams. Dozing, He saw the subject getting out of a limousine wearing a wide, delighted smile. He remembered the limo from an episode of the show, but in his dream, instead of getting out of the limo in front of a fashion designer's home, the subject was getting out of the limo in front of what looked like a Scottish castle...

But then he heard his own recorded voice in his ears, coming out of the commlink implanted in his skull, being beamed to his earbead speakers. "Naptime's over, Cho, wake up. Naptime's over, Cho, wake up..."

He did wake up, then, opening his artificial eyes and seeing that the living room of Aidan Hatteras' condo was dark because the windows were darkened in strips that were meant to suggest old-fashioned Venetian blinds. His eyes could see into the thermographic spectrum, and were fitted with high-definition, pattern recognition firmware, the best out of the Neo-Tokyo labs, so he easily picked out Jeffrey Hatteras by his body heat, sitting cross-legged on the couch, wearing goggles and AR gloves, his commlink glowing on his wrist. His gloved hands were on his knees, not moving.

Lucinda Valasquez, a dwarf woman with Catholic saints ink-tattooed on her forearms and one of last night's partygoers, was curled up asleep on the floor with a blanket thrown over her. The smuggled bottle of Aztlaner tequila she'd brought with her last night was mostly empty on the coffee table.

Still waking up, Cho paused to savor the pleasantly heavy, inert sensation he always had from his right arm at this moment, almost an ache, almost a nothing. The arm had been built in a Renraku cybernetics factory, it had cost him six months salary even after his security employee discount, but it was absolutely wonderful. He'd had it for six years and he still loved it. He'd downloaded every software service pack, and the company provided intrusion countermeasures free to security employees to protect it from interference from enemy hackers. It was more agile than he was, it was stronger than he was, it was tougher than he was, it carried a number of essential modifications, and he liked to think that it slept, but not at quite the same time that he did. It stayed up a little later, and it always slept a few seconds longer, the last part of him to come awake. Although in emergencies, it was the first part of him that came alert. It was always there with him, ready to help him protect those who couldn't protect themselves. Who didn't even know the thousand kinds of danger they could find themselves in.

He'd had the arm done the year after he'd had his skull replaced.

It was 0953 hours.

He got up quietly and went out into the hall that led to the bathroom and the bedroom.

Zelinksi was standing there, her hands clasped behind her back. "Good morning, sir," she said quietly. Zelinksi was an ork, and her thighs bulged her khaki uniform pants. She was about four centimeters taller than Cho, and wearing her black mirrored display glasses.

"Good morning." Through his implanted commlink, beaming the display to his eyes, Cho was checking the video feeds of the Flyspy drone they had in the street and their two SUVs. There was nothing unusual to see in this East LA neighborhood. "Everything still right in the world?" Cho asked Zelinsky.

"Yes sir. Our subject is in the bedroom with Aidan. Pender's in the lobby. That blonde girl left thirteen minutes ago."

"Good, good." Cho had come close to being awake when the blond girl, who called herself Stargirl but had been born Ellen Lorenzo in a small town outside Toronto, had gotten up off the floor, repacked her purse with the repeating graphic of leaping dolphins on it, and crept out. She hadn't even glanced in the direction of the bedroom, which was information the marketing people were going to want. The ungrateful girl's Persona 2.0 rating had gone up four places last night just from meeting their subject.

Cho cycled to the hidden remote camera they had in Aidan's bedroom. Their subject had insisted that there be no camera in the bedroom, so Cho hadn't told him about the one they'd hidden at the top of the doorjamb. It was heavily encrypted and packed a very serious anti-intrusion software agent, to keep the paparazzi out of it. He saw their subject and his boyfriend stirring in bed - their lips were moving, and they were facing each other. "They're starting to wake up," he told Zelinsky.

"Yes sir," she answered. She had the deep, abrasive, through-the-tusks voice that orks had. The voice and the teeth were the reason Cho had never had sex with an ork. He didn't even like ork porn. He liked elves in porn - elf girls with curly blonde hair. Yes, it was a cliche, but he was comfortable with it. Who said he had to be original?

Their subject was Mr. Winsloe Castling, real age thirty-two, human, bisexual, biotechnologically modified hermaphrodite with a pixie-cut of white-gold fiberoptic hair and silky skin that was also a surgical result. Castling was the star of a matrix program called The Fashion Monitor, where he had fashion-world guest stars, did makeovers and criticized celebrities owned by corporations other than theirs for the way they dressed. It was swiftly rising in the ratings. Castling had also recorded ten tracks of club music, released on the Adams-Westlake label.

The clubs they'd hit last night had played those tracks, starting the music as soon as Castling had walked in the door with his commlink broadcasting his identity to everyone watching through augmented reality. They only went to clubs selected by the media handlers as small enough that Castling would be one of the highest P2.0 ratings there. Cho knew without having to look that last night's videos would be up on the fan sites already.

It had been back to Aidan's place at 0152 hours, where a lot of tequila was drunk, then the partygoers had all gone to bed about 0345, with a round of fellatio first for Aidan and the subject.

Cho told Zelinksi that he was going downstairs to check on Pender and get some air. On the way down the four flights he used his commlink to check the doggie cams at his own condo, in a building on Arcology Mile where Renraku owned the 10th to the 25th floors. Giri, his black Labrador, was drinking from the dog waterer in the kitchen. Zaibatsu, his chocolate Lab, was asleep on the living room floor. "I'll be home soon, boys. Just be patient," he said to his dogs, although they couldn't hear him.

"Morning, sir," Pender said when they met in the lobby. "Have you seen the fan videos from last night?"

"No."

"Gerard is already linked to them."

Cho rolled his eyes and swore.

Markus Gerard was the name of Cho's anxiety disorder. He was twenty-six years old, and lived in his parent's basement in the suburbs east of the city. He had his own personal Winsloe Castling fan site, with two-hundred and eight-odd hours of video of the subject, and about twenty hours so far of Gerard talking obsessively about the subject, and how all the problems of the world would be solved if fashion just adopted dojo styles. The fun part was that on top of being unstable, Gerard was an adept. There were hours more video of Gerard kicking a punching bag until it split open, of him putting his fist through a sheet of plascrete so quick it had to be watched in slow motion. He was rated their number one stalker threat. Cho really wanted to see Mr. Gerard on the perimeter some night soon, so he could put two exploding slugs through his face and rest assured his subject was safe. He had recommended that Gerard be pre-emptively neutralized, which he did not do lightly, but apparently no one was reading his reports.

Cho started to say, "I'm going to check - " But then he stopped, because he felt the floor starting to shake beneath his shoes.

He and Pender looked at each other, automatically widening their stances to keep their balance. The leaves of the two miniature potted trees in the lobby rustled loudly.

The earthquake tremor wasn't passing. It was getting stronger.

"Secure the street," Cho ordered Pender, just before sprinting back up four flights of stairs. Before he was halfway up, the stairwell seemed to be whipping back and forth like a rubber hose, the stairs under his feet screaming with the stress as they rippled like a punched face. Dust and bits of plascrete were raining down the stairwell shaft, smacking into the floors.

He was a little past halfway up when he heard the sound of a group of people coming down fast, and Zelinsky came around the corner with the subject thrown over her shoulder, Castling completely naked but trailing a blanket in one fist. Behind her was Aidan in boxer briefs and a tank top, and behind them some others. Cho didn't stop to look. He turned around and started running down the stairs as fast as he could, sliding down the banister rails on the palms of his hands.

In a major earthquake, Cho remembered from his natural disaster training, the best place to be was in a large open area, out of doors. And this was, no doubt, a major earthquake. It felt like the entire condo building was bouncing up and down as if some rogue of the celestial bureaucracy had decided to dribble it like a basketball. Cho wanted to get Castling - and the other Renraku employees - out of the building, before it fell down.

As they raced through the lobby, they were hearing everywhere the crack and cascade of breaking glass. Tiles fell out of the ceiling and plopped against the floor, like flat, dusty toads.

As soon as Cho exited the front doors he stepped to one side and counted the people coming out. First Zelinsky barreled past, carrying the subject. Close behind her were Aidan Hatteras, Jeffery Hatteras, and Lucinda Valasquez, the dwarf Latina. Cho had a moment of relief - but then he saw a curtain of plascrete dust drop free of the condo building, mixed with some broken glass. He looked up, and saw centimeters-wide cracks networking themselves throughout the facade. The building was slumping.

He turned and screamed: "Go! Go! Go! Go!" He was running. His reflexes were another thing enhanced by the company cybersurgeons.

He ran past Valasquez. All of LA was nothing but a crumbling shattering bellow of pain. He was crossing the street in great running steps, he slid across the hood of a hatchback that had stopped in the middle of the street, he had one glimpse of the man's face inside it, and then he heard tons of rubble that had moments ago been a condo building roll crushingly against the other side of the car and fall on its roof. The squashed windows blew out and Cho felt glass fragments pelt the back of his neck and head.

He staggered forward toward his group.

The collapse of the building they had just escaped had thrown a thick white fog of debris dust up and down the street. His team and his subject and the associated civilians were a small group of gauzy silhouettes of blood red body heat in the white.

He heard their coughs. He was coughing himself.

*****


Pender was on the pavement, lying on his side, propped up on one elbow. Zelinsky had
put Castling down, and Castling was wrapping the flapping sheet around himself. Aidan had his arms half around Castling, and Cho saw that Aidan's bare feet were leaving bloody tracks. Aidan's brother Jeffrey was turning in circles, facing north, east, then south, then west, with his mouth open, and the white dust collecting on his lower lip.

The earthquake tremors were subsiding. Now the ground shook in pulses, as they heard other buildings collapsing. Up and down the street, through the white dust, Cho saw rectangles piling downward, into rubble.

"Are you all right? Are you all right?" Zelinsky was asking the subject.

"What happened..? What happened..? Yes, I'm fine, but what just happened?" Castling was asking plaintively.

Jeffrey Hatteras was saying to his brother, "I think the building's gone. Aidan, dude, your house is fucking trashed."

"Oh my God...oh my God," Aidan put his hands to his face, his eyes wide open. His eyelashes were clumping with the dust.

Pender got up. He wasn't hurt, the quake had just knocked him off his feet.

Cho sipped a small breath through clenched lips, to avoid breathing the dust. "It was an earthquake. A very powerful earthquake. We're all right here. We're going to be fine."

He paused as he heard a warping metal noise. He watched a street lamp pole sticking up out of the condo rubble as it bent over and over and over under its own damaged weight, until the lamphead cracked into the street fifteen meters away from them.

Cho went on. "Is anyone injured? Mr. Castling?"

"I'm fine!"

"Pender? Zelinsky? Anyone else?"

Aidan volunteered that he'd cut his feet. Jeffrey had mashed his hand against a door in the rush out of the building, and now his thumb and first finger ached where they attached to his hand.

Cho tested his commlink. His link could communicate with Pender and Zelinsky's directly, but he couldn't get a connection to the matrix. "Jeffrey, can you get a matrix connection?"

The food factory's technical support man frowned emphatically. "You mean there's no matrix?"

"I mean I need you to get a connection for me. Pender, go find our trucks, we're going to need the gear. Keep an open link to me, I don't want to have to come looking for you later. Zelinsky, you're with me. Mr. Castling, I'm going to need to cut some strips from that sheet for facemasks."

"Oh, good idea," Castling said, and gracefully unwrapped himself ten percent of the way. "Who knows what's in this awful dust."

Cho click-ck-ed the folding blade out of his mechanical hand.

"Where's the dwarf girl?" Aidan suddenly noticed their shortage.

"She didn't make it out, Mr. Hatteras," Cho said, glancing up from where he'd knelt to slice the sheet.

Aidan's brow slowly furrowed. Aidan slowly said, "Oh..."

The dust cloud, which informed everything they could see, which bulked into every square centimeter, was not dissipating. It hung in the air; it fell slowly, slowly, like singed and cloying snow. Cho sliced strips off of his subject's blanket, and they tied them around their lower faces. Instantly, the folds in their masks were dirty white-gray. Castling, still looking up and down the street with his mouth turned down at the corners in an expression of sorrow and concern, tucked the remainder together at his chest so that he'd fashioned a sarong, also dirty white-gray, that clung to the sleek-soft curves of his hermaphrodite body, with just a subtle bulge between his smooth legs. The fashion expert looked good.

"I think something is on fire over there," Castling lilted, pointing through the place where Aidan's condo had been.

Cho glanced over and saw that a four-story building two blocks over was starting to burn. "That's no problem for us. How's our matrix connection coming?" Cho asked Jeffrey. Jeffrey didn't answer and Cho snapped his fingers in front of Jeffrey's face.

"Shitty. I had a connection for a second or two, but..."

"Keep working on it. We need that connection."

Pender called Cho on his commlink and Cho brought up the audio. "I've found one of the vehicles, sir, but it's mostly buried in rubble. I'm going to try to smash out the rear windshield, but that's going to be tough to..."

Cho stopped listening to Pender on the problems of bullet-resistant glass, because, even in the muffling dust, even over the distant shouting of other survivors, he heard another, unexpected noise. And he liked it so little that he even drew his pistol out from under his armor jacket, the gyroscopic counterweights deploying out of his mechanical wrist automatically. Seeing her boss draw, Zelinsky dropped into a shooting crouch and drew her semiauto as well.

The first dog went by them. A cocker spaniel with bloody fur. Then a poodle came out of the cloud on their left.

"Oh, the poor things!" Castling said, and Aidan repeated.

Three cats went by at a silent trot, their fur thickly layered with the dust. An English bulldog ran by.

What in the eighth hell...? The smartgun system in Cho's eyes had engaged when he put his hand on his weapon, and the crosshair was blinking red in the center of his vision.

"Oh my God!" Castling squealed. "Oh, yuck!"

A pack of Devil Rats came out of the dust. Fat and bulging and low to the ground, there were at least six of the hairless beasts, sharp jumbles of ratfang jutting out. Rats generally gave Cho the creeps, and Devil Rats especially. The metarats sometimes attacked and killed children or even adults when they hunted in packs. But normally you saw them only in slums - normally you didn't see them at all, because they could hide in the tiniest scrap of shadow, and sunlight irritated their repulsive skins.

But now seven of them were running straight down an East LA street a few minutes after ten in the morning, traveling directly west to east, like the dogs and cats had. A pack of them presented a danger to the subject, so Cho reflexively shot at two of the meter-long vermin, bringing one to a dead stop, causing one to leave a trail of blood behind as it passed them. Zelinsky shot at one.

Then, at the far distance of his enhanced vision in the cloud, from the same direction the dogs and cats and rats had come, Cho saw a wall of water coming through the neighborhood - coming straight at them. It was coming fast, gobbling up distance, crashing over cars and rubble heaps, rolling over people. It was at least two meters tall.
All he could do for the first fraction of a second was think, Where the fuck did all that come from? Broken water mains? He saw two little single-passenger cars rolling along like ping-pong balls in the vanguard of the wave.

"Uh, uh..." He was staring at the oncoming water, trying to think of a solution. "Everybody upstairs!" He shouted. Now he needed to find some stairs.

Luckily, Zelinsky knew where there were some. She put her callused hand in Castling's back and pushed him toward the apartment building that was still standing directly across the street from the former site of Aidan Hatteras's condo. Aidan tottered after his lover on his injured feet. Castling ducked free of Zelinsky and ran back to throw his arms around Aidan. "Baby! Come with me!"

Cho raced to the building's front door, which was up half a dozen steps from street level. The outer lobby doors looked crooked. They each had large armored glass windows in them. Cho fired his pistol into the one on the right twice with no effect.

His heart banging in his chest - he could hear the water now, he could smell it, he could hear people trapped in the torrent screaming to their gods - Cho said a silent prayer to their guardian kami, Inazo Ineki, the revered founder of Renraku Computer Systems. He holstered his weapon and grabbed the door handle with his Chiba-built arm. The red warning CYBERLIMB REDLINE! appeared in his vision as he switched off the limb's safeguards and prepared to either rip the door open or leave his arm dangling from the handle.

But then he was surprised to feel a slight vibration through the door handle, and hear a mellow male voice say through his earbeads, "Welcome home, Mr. De Los Santos. Welcome home to Carding Estates."

He flung the door wide open and held it that way with his back as Zelinsky went through carrying Aidan, and Castling following.

Cho wanted to talk to Pender, but the water hit them when he thought he still had ten seconds to spare.

The stoop he was standing on was a meter above street level, and had waist-high plascrete walls. The water blasted up over the wall behind him, slamming the door half-closed with Cho's body pressed between it and its mate, Cho facing outward. The water soaked his hair and glued his improvised breathing mask to his face. He tasted brine on his lips. Jeffery Hatteras, the food factory tech support man, had been knocked to his knees and was up to his chest in roiling brown water. He had his arms fastened around Cho's waist.

The water had slapped an elderly Chinese human down on the steps about two meters away from Cho. The man was layered with salt water and debris dust. His eyes looked stunned, but his mouth was wide open, and he was holding up one hand crooked. He looked a little like the grandfather who had given Cho his last name and his black hair. The man was trying to say something, but Cho couldn't make it out. The old man was wearing a windbreaker with the familiar fractal teardrop of the Renraku Computer Systems logo on the breast. Cho lunged to grab him: another wall of water churned over the stoop and Cho was left holding the windbreaker by the sleeve in his mechanical hand.

He dropped it into the water and dragged Jeffrey to his feet, fighting to get them inside the door. Something white and blue flew at him out of the brine spray, and he didn't have a free hand to knock it away. He felt the old school yard sensation of getting smacked in the eye with a soccer ball.

Oh, God damn it! Gimme a break! He thought.

*****

They regrouped in a third floor apartment. Jasmine and Paulina Abernathy lived there, mother and daughter, two human African-American women with milk chocolate skin. The mother, Jasmine, in her early fifties, had her hair in long braids, and a turgid purple bruise high in her hairline. The daughter, Paulina, late twenties, had kinky hair pulled into a long pony tail, and was limping. When the quake had hit, their door had become jammed in its frame, and a rack of pots and pans had fallen out of the kitchen and in front of the door. They had just cleared their way into the hall when Zelinsky had come charging through with Aidan over her shoulder. Jasmine worked for Renraku, in LA vehicle maintenance; Paulina was in the company as well, a server at one of the executive sushi bars. When they'd seen Renraku uniforms they'd rushed forward.

Cho, dripping a soupy ash and water mix, learned all this about the Abernathys in his first two minutes in the apartment.

The Abernathys' Irish Setter, Jojo, was running in circles with her hair on end, keenly sensing her metahumans' fear and barking confusedly at the strangers. "Nice doggie, nice doggie, why don't we be friends?" Castling was asking Jojo. Jojo seemed to be responding.

Jeffery Hatteras had his commlink on the Abernathy's kitchen counter, looking not like a whole unit but like two pieces pressed hopefully together. "Damn it. Damn it...this licks a barghest's balls!" Little puddles of dirty water had formed around it.

"That looks broken to me," Paulina said to him.

"It's wasted," Jeffery shook his head angrily.

"What about that matrix connection?" Cho asked.

"It's wasted!" Jeffrey gestured at his machine.

"I see that, Jeffrey. How do we get a matrix connection?"

Jeffrey was frowning, filthy, covered in mud. "The local grid is probably fucked. For kilometers around. There's going to be no connection through the local city grid."

Cho tried to call Pender - even though the matrix was out in the disaster zone, Cho's commlink, which had survived the stoop, was still working and able to call Pender's computer if Pender was within a kilometer. But Pender was not answering the call. Cho expected that Pender was drowned, or crushed under a car that the water had thrown on top of him.

The building they were now in, Carding Estates Apartments, vibrated with the flow of water against and through its ground floor. There were fresh cracks across the Abernathy's walls and ceiling. Their living room ceiling fan had crashed to the floor. Their electricity was out. The light came through the empty bay window frames, and it was weak, ashen gray. Cho assigned Zelinsky to watch the hall. He went to the living room windows, stepping over the ceiling fan, and looked down.

The street was a canal. The water was going back the other way. Much more slowly than it had come in, but he could see by the sheets of digital paper, the clothing, the uprooted trees floating in it, that it was streaming now east to west, back toward the sea. Looking down on it from the third floor, Cho knew now that it must have come from the sea. He still smelled the salt.

Tsunami, he thought. He tried to remember how many kilometers they were from the beach here, but he couldn't.

The sky above the canal that had replaced the street was soot gray. Fat columns of smoke lolled in the sky, and there was a smudgy glow a few degrees east of straight up that marked the position of the sun. The ash and dust were still falling, falling slowly, sprinkling the murky water below, and gritting the windowsill.

The skyline had thinned, gaps now where buildings had had their foundations yanked out from underneath them by the quake.

In the street the traffic was bobbing corpses. Floating face up or face down, their clothes billowing in the murk. They got caught against the roofs of automobiles sticking out of the current. No warmer than the water, they wrapped like rubber around lamp posts. Adults and children, female and male, every metatype. The whole population of the neighborhood was being sucked back out to the ocean, as if they had transformed into speechless crustaceans, to scuttle across sea-bottoms. They drifted by no more than ten meters below him.

He saw an elf man roll over in the water on his way west. With his enhanced eyes Cho glimpsed a datajack at the cadaver's temple. The man's blue shirt was undone, and Cho saw the nanotattoo on his chest still cycling its animation: a deck of cards dealing out hands. He saw a pair of eights, and then three jacks, before the corpse rolled again.

He tried to contact the company's LA security office to report his position and condition, but he couldn't get a connection. He tried to raise their Flyspy drone, and got nothing - it had probably been smashed out of the sky by a falling building. He could call Zelinsky, ask her the status in the hall, but he could yell to Zelinsky from where he was standing.

He remembered a training sim the purpose of which had been to teach them adaptability - they'd played samurai, defending a 16th century daimyo's inner courtyard at the dark of the moon, against a team of ninja assassins. No commlinks, no security cameras, no electricity, no telecommunications.

One thing hadn't changed in LA. He still had Renraku citizen assets to protect, Winsloe Castling the priority among them. He was still a company man.

This city was devastated in half an hour. But we are still Renraku Computer Systems.

*****

Jeffrey was determined to fix his commlink. Jasmine had a miniature set of screwdrivers and a tube of nanoglue, and Cho was frankly surprised when Jeffrey announced ten minutes later that his commlink was repaired.

"You could have just borrowed mine," Paulina told him.

"I need the programs on this one," Jeffrey told her.

"It's not lighting up," Paulina said.

"Yeah, the unit display's screwed, but the gogs are working. No problem."

"Can you get a connection?" Cho asked.

Jeffrey was peevish. "I just fixed the commlink, not the whole fucking local grid."

"Could you use a satellite link to get a connection?" Paulina asked.

"Yeah," Jeffery said, like it was obvious.

"I probably know where one is."

A friend of Paulina's lived two floors up, and he probably had one. His name was Lyle. By the look on Paulina's mother's face, Cho thought that maybe Lyle was a not-so-good ex-boyfriend of one degree or another. He sent Jeffrey, Paulina, and Zelinsky up to Lyle's place while he kept an open channel to Zelinsky. Lyle didn't answer his door, so Jeffrey worked a little technical mojo on it. Cho remembered the building's front door had thought he was someone else, and he was starting to think that there were things about Castling's boyfriend's brother that the security vetting had not turned up. But it did turn out that the absent Lyle had a satellite link (sadly made by Renraku's rival, MCT). Cho wondered what a security vetting of Lyle would turn up.

They used the nanoglue to stick the satlink on the wall outside the living room windows. Cho told Jeffrey to operate the satlink in hidden mode, so that it wouldn't be detectable by every commlink in East LA. Who knew who that would attract?

"I'm getting the satellite," Jeffery said, goggles on his face.

Cho sat down in a recliner layered with debris dust that had come in the windows to try a connection. Jojo, the Abernathy's Irish Setter, came over and laid her red head on his leg.

"She likes you, Mr. Cho," Jasmine said to him.

Cho stroked the top of Jojo's head with his robot hand. "She's a pretty dog."

To his relief, he got through to Renraku security right away, but was put on hold for six minutes, watching advertisements for the Renraku Ichi operating system. They were starting to hear sirens now, in the far distance. And some helis.

He watched Castling sitting across from him with Aidan on a loveseat, their arms around each other, looking traumatized. "The whole condo is gone," Aidan kept saying.

Then Cho's commlink asked him to give his retinal scan and enter the code phrase. When that was done, Cho was disturbed to see the face of someone he didn't recognize. A caption under his image identified him as Daiki Hiroto, a security manager at Renraku Seattle.

"Good morning, sir. I'm sorry, I was trying to reach the LA offices," Cho said in Japanese. He was using his subvocal mike, so he barely had to whisper.

"You may speak English to me," Hiroto said in Japanese. "LA has been overwhelmed by the disaster, and we in Seattle are handling the communications overflow. What is your detail's status?"

Cho reported that Castling was alive and uninjured. He reported Pender as missing and presumed dead. He gave their location and the fact that their vehicles had been rendered inoperable. He requested emergency extraction. He asked what had happened to LA.

"Simultaneous earthquakes in the San Andreas and San Pedro Shelf faults which subsequently triggered a tsunami. You are ordered to hold your position and await pick-up, but be advised this may take some time. The disaster has inflicted severe damage on Renraku assets in LA."

"Yes sir," Cho answered. It was one hour, five minutes after the quake.

Dreading what he would find, Cho tried to connect to the doggie cams in his condo. But they would not come online.

Does that mean the local grid is out there, too? Or just the power? Cho chewed his lip; he felt his chest tighten, and tears lubricated his cybernetic eyes. Or did the whole goddamned tower come down, and Giri and Zaibatsu are dead?

There was no way to know. It was unprofessional to ask Renraku Seattle the status on his pets.

Please be okay, boys. Please be okay.

*****

They sat through some aftershocks, but there was nothing to do about that except hope the building didn't fall on them.

The water, in their neighborhood, at least, was receding rapidly. By the soot-twilight of 1400 hours, it was only ankle deep in the street, and bodies were coming to rest on rubble heaps. The street outside was empty of life. They heard distant shouts sometimes, and distant gunfire. That made Cho clench his jaw. At one point about 1200 hours they heard a duel of autofire that lasted more than twelve seconds.

Cho was surprised to hear someone outside shouting his name. He looked out and saw Pender wading through the brown water.

He ordered Zelinsky to remain with Castling and he ran down the stairs to meet the security man.

Pender was stained and filthy, limping badly. His face was black and blue all down one side and both his front teeth were gone. His commlink and display glasses had been ripped away. "Aluminum bone lacing by Renraku Asia!" Pender groaned in triumph. Cho laughed in relief and put his arm around his subordinate to help him up the stairs.

"I found one of the vehicles," Pender got out. "The wave cleared some of the rubble off it, but I couldn't get the truck to unlock itself, before the wave, I mean. I think the onboard computer was out of commission."

There was equipment in the SUV that they were going to need.

Back in the Abernathy's apartment, Jasmine and Paulina told Cho that the building superintendent's workshop was in the basement. There might be some tools there.

Cho took Zelinsky down there. Jeffery said that he could stay in touch via link and give technical help from the Abernathy's apartment.

But Jeffrey couldn't offer any help. The ground floor of Carding Estates was actually a meter above street level, so it was dry now. But the basement level was filled with water up to Cho's chest. Without electricity it was dark as a lightless hell. Staring at that water, Cho felt a shivering slackness invade him.

He took a deep breath, turned to his ork subordinate, and said, "Zelinsky, I'm afraid of rats."

Zelinsky looked back at him. "Yes sir."

There was a pause.

"You don't have to go in there, sir. I'll go," she offered.

"Oh, no, I'm going," Cho said. He knew his original hand was visibly shaking, now. "I just wanted to give you the FYI. You don't hear rats squeaking right now, do you?"

"I'm sure that's just water dripping, or the pipes or something," she told him.

Cho nodded, clenching his jaw. He drew his pistol and activated it's tactical illuminator with a mental command to his implanted commlink. He followed the bright white circle of light down. The black water came up over his knees. It squeezed around his genitals. It poured in over his waistband.

"That's definitely the squeaking of some filthy fucking rats," Cho grated. The noise bounced off the water and the concrete walls.

"I don't think they'll come toward the light, sir." Zelinsky was three meters behind him.

They waded down the hall to the workshop, the door of which was standing wide open. The rats kept chittering, their calls deep enough to reveal them as the husky Devil Rat variety, but they never saw any. Cho had to duck under the water with his gun and light, but they did find a circular saw, with batteries, and an old fashioned sledge hammer and crowbar. They waded back out, Cho feeling like a Devil Rat was clinging to his jacket between the shoulder blades the whole way, breathing in his ear.

Cho told Jeffrey via link that they were going to salvage equipment from the SUV.

The world outside the front door of Carding Estates Apartments was like hell with high humidity. There was still two or three centimeters of dirty, salty water running past, going west. The dead bodies were precipitating out of it, lying on the cracked asphalt like leaves in a stream in a dry season. Cho saw one dead naked child out there, face up. The sunlight was still groping sickly across the scene, because the sky was still full of towers of smoke. The wave had made the street into a jumble of empty cars.

Via link, Cho and Zelinsky had Pender telling Jeffrey telling them where to find the black SUV. Its tires were all flat, and the rubble of Aidan's old condo building was heaped against one side of it and pressing underneath it, even tilting it about ten degrees. Amazingly, each of the armor glass windows were still intact.

When it came to dragging three bodies away from the vehicle, Cho really appreciated how his strong mechanical hand spared him skin-to-skin contact.

He climbed up on the hood, brushed a few bricks and half a coffee mug off with his foot, and knelt. He gripped the saw with his left hand, and put his mechanical hand on top of it. Then he squeezed the trigger, and the saw screamed to life. He pressed down, and the saw groaned into the armor glass.

He was making slow progress. A centimeters long cut was lengthening in the windshield. But Cho had a feeling that the saw had been damaged during it's submersion; it didn't seem to have the power it should.

Then Zelinsky banged her fist on the hood twice. Cho let off the trigger, the saw went quiet, and he heard from down the street, from the west, a voice yell: "Hi there! Is anybody there?"

Zelinsky went down on one knee against the side of the truck, and Cho did the same on the hood, and they both drew their pistols. Cho peeked over the debris on the roof, pointing his weapon where he was looking, and he saw someone's head peering out from over a beige compact.

"I don't want any trouble," the head called out.

Cho thought about that while the newcomer waited for his answer.

"Come out where we can see you!" Cho called. "We don't want any trouble, either!"

"Okay," the voice was male. "I've got some children with me. So just take it easy, okay, man?"

Cho thought about that. "...Okay!" He yelled back.

The man came slowly out into the open.

He was human. He wasn't much under two meters tall. His arms were lean and hard. He was carrying a White Knight machine gun with the distinctive gas vent on the muzzle and the detachable box mag. His tactical vest had a pistol holster, a big pocket for box mags, and four grenades. He wore a scarf over his head, clotted with the gray-white debris dust, and a surgical mask in an urban camo pattern. He had black goggles on his face. He kept the LMG pointed away from Cho and Zelinsky.

Appearing in line behind him were four children, the oldest about twelve, with a disposable missile launcher slung awkwardly on her shoulder. The next child, an ork, had a duffel bag. All the children had the same surgical masks.

"Just take it easy, man," the newcomer said. We've all got the same problems, you know? Right?"

"If he wanted to kill us he would have just opened fire," Cho whispered to Zelinsky. She nodded. Cho motioned the man to come closer. Soon they were all face to face in the street. Cho stood close enough to the newcomer so that he'd be able to grab him with his artificial hand faster than the newcomer could bring his machine gun into play.

"How's it going, dude?" The man asked, pulling down his mask. "My name's Crowbar." He smiled, showing a block of white teeth. "You guys with Renraku?" He could see their uniforms.

"Daniel Cho, Mary Zelinsky, Renraku corporate security."

"That's cool, man. I used to be with 10,000 Daggers, the mercenary outfit? So, what are you guys doing?"

"We're trying to salvage some supplies out of our vehicle."

"Can I give you a hand?" Crowbar offered.

"No, thanks, I think we've got it under control."

"Okay," the big man nodded. Up close, Cho could see that one half of Crowbar's face was tattooed in a tribal pattern. He saw bits of it around the goggles and the mask. "Do you guys have any idea, like, what happened here?"

"The office tells us it was two simultaneous earthquakes, then, uh, the tsunami."

"One big fucking wave, dude! The biggest!" Crowbar leaned back as he spoke, for emphasis. "Mother Earth showing off what she can really do! I'm just heading east till I find some kind of civilization, you know? Trying to get these kids out of harm's way. But, fuck, dude, two of them don't speak any language I know! You sure I can't give you a hand?"

"No, thanks. We've got it." Cho waved the offer off with his right hand, and Crowbar laughed.

"Give you a hand, dude! I didn't even notice that piece of equipment till right now. All right, if you guys are all right, then we're gonna just keep walking. Peace, okay?"

"Thank you. Good luck." Cho said. And Crowbar led his children on down the street, vanishing among the cars and the pulverized concrete.

The saw quit on them. Zelinsky did the rest of the job with the sledgehammer.

*****

Now they each had a smart submachine gun, a Renraku product similar but superior to the HK MP5-TX, with four magazines of explosive ammo apiece, two flashbang grenades each, and a Superior NanoMed first aid kit with the fractal teardrop logo on it, along with three sets of nanite solution refills. With the kit's computer, Cho was able to treat Pender's contusions and lacerations, Aidan's lacerated feet, Jasmine's head, Paulina's ankle, his own aches and pains from being tsunamied on the stoop, and the two cracked ribs he discovered in Jeffery when the technician complained that his side hurt.

Castling insisted he treat everyone else first before examining him. His subject turned out not to be injured. That's something, anyway, Cho sighed to himself.

After that, they were waiting. The afternoon and the evening stretched along, as the breeze off the ocean brought ash and salt smell in through the window frames. Cho posted one of them at the door, and one of them at the bay windows in the living room, and let the other rest. Pender's glasses and link were gone, so they traded gear off as they rotated in and out of the rest position.

Jasmine and Paulina admitted that they watched Castling's show - were big fans, actually, but hadn't wanted to mention it because they hadn't wanted to be intrusive. "I don't want to sound like a stalker or anything," Paulina said.

Cho rolled his eyes at their broad definition of stalker, and hoped that a suburban roof had fallen on Markus Gerard.

"Ohhhh, you watch the show?" Castling squealed. "I'm so pleased! You like it?"

"Very much," mother and daughter nodded and smiled like a button had been clicked.

"I'm going to do the next episode on this apartment," Castling said solemnly. "Aidan, baby, wouldn't that be great?"

"Oh, yeah!" Aidan agreed.

Castling spread his hands. "I makeover the apartment of the nice, nice people who took me in during the big quake of '69, and lent me their clothes." Paulina had given him something to wear instead of his bed sheet sarong. "I see some fabrics in here, bright colors...we'll get some monowire booby traps for Mr. Cho!"

Cho smiled as Castling said that last to him. He'd seen this many times, how Castling grabbed attention and revved spirits, just by talking about clothes and end tables and things. It was why the hermaphrodite was a star. He brought happiness to people. It was Cho's duty to see that Castling could keep bringing that fun and excitement to people through Adams-Westlake Mediaworks, and he was going to see his duty done.

Jojo, the Irish Setter, kept following Cho around, nosing him to be petted. "Damn, she likes you," Jasmine said. "Sometimes she's afraid of people with prosthetics."

"I've got two dogs of my own," Cho told her. "On Arcology Mile...I hope."

"Are your dogs okay?" Castling asked, his eyes big.

"I don't know, sir, I can't raise my home cameras."

Castling was very upset about Giri and Zaibatsu. Cho regretted mentioning it. It wasn't
professional. Castling's concerns were his concerns, not the other way around.

Castling was in the kitchen, his slender neck craned up, a look of far-away speculation on his face. "We're going to hang a distressed iron pot rack right up here...One of those ones the elves make in Portland."

*****

Outside, the sun struggled to come through the smoke before disappearing into the sea, the same way East LA had. They heard sirens, and they saw columns of ash from distant fires. It was rare now not to hear gunfire for five minutes together. Helicopters thupped through the blackened air.

Every six hours since his contact with Renraku Seattle, Cho sent an update on their situation. At 2003 hours he got a reply telling him to hold his position again.

Sitting with nothing to do, talking about dogs and interior decorating, Cho was getting more and more restless. And he started to wonder (he acknowledged a little ridiculously), what had happened to Markus Gerard, their top rated stalker threat, the obsessive adept.

It seemed unlikely that Gerard was so insane as to be clambering through the rubble, on his way to Aidan Hatteras' condo. Even if he was, how would he find them in the Abernathy's apartment?

But the idea of it made Cho's heart tighten, and he watched for Gerard in the street.

With the satlink he monitored the newsfeeds. All the news was about LA. The entire metroplex was devastated. The smoke filled the satellite photographs of the region. Smoke from LA and San Diego, although San Diego was across the border in Aztlan and there was little official word from the Aztlaner government. No one had any idea how many had died - the estimates were in the tens of thousands. There was video of trolls carrying the wounded and dying two at a time into an aid station set up in a UCLA gymnasium. Rescue efforts were paralyzed in many parts of the city by blocked roads, out of control fires, flooding, looting, anarchy, and matrix loss.

Allegedly a Horizon corporate security detachment had fired on their Ares Macrotechnology counterparts in a mistaken engagement at the west end of Arcology Mile, near the flood zone, but that was from an Ares-owned network.

He found some amateur video online that included his building. Most of the windows were missing and smoke was coming out of it at several levels. A firefighting helicopter was spraying foam in through the missing windows. The eleventh floor, where he lived, looked relatively undamaged. But he still worried about smoke inhalation. "Hang in there, boys..." He whispered. "I'm coming as soon as I can."

By 2300 the Abernathys and Jojo were asleep. So was Jeffery. Aidan and Castling were looking run down, and resentful of the tedium. Pender and Cho were on watch and Zelinsky was resting. The street was clear, although Cho shuddered to see that once the sun was down the rats were running loose across the wreckage. He saw two or three mundane rats in the hall.

That's when a new voice said, in the middle of the living room, "Supervisor Cho?"

Cho yanked his head in from the hall and snapped his subgun up, and then up again, when he saw that there was a man with his back pressed against the living room ceiling.

"Stand down!" Cho yelled to Pender, who'd been about to fire. His emotions running away with him, Cho shouted, "God damn it, Oglesbee! Do you want to give me a stroke?"

"Sorry," Oglesbee said, not sounding like he meant it. He shrugged his hazy shoulders. Cho could see the cracks in the ceiling right through him.

Oglesbee was a security mage from the company, projecting his consciousness through the etheric plane, manifesting here to talk to Cho. "I'm making astral contact with all located, isolated Renraku assets," the mage told him. "What's your status here?"

"Holding as before. When are we expecting extraction?"

"Around dawn is what I'm told. Every company VTOL or chopper in the Pueblo Corporate Council is in the air right now, but every other company with LA assets has deployed their aircraft and security, and it's making the situation even more dangerous. The etheric plane is abuzz, as well. We've had encounters with free earth and water elementals thrown off by the earthquake and tidal wave, and at least one free spirit of man appears to have gone completely insane. The flow of mana has become erratic. Also, there's a serious infestation of shedim. My body is behind a mystic ward, protected by a fire elemental, but I am not too comfortable about leaving it alone. A shedim will steal it from me without hesitating."

Cho felt his face falling. "Understood," he said dully. He hadn't thought about the shedim problem.

Oglesbee told him, "Be on the alert. You can email Seattle if you need arcane back-up, but we don't have the resources to leave a magician or a spirit with you now."

"Oglesbee," Cho asked, "How's the building?" Oglesbee lived four floors up from Cho.

"Power's out, matrix router's down, lots of injuries."

The way Oglesbee said lots of injuries, instead of something more upbeat like, company EMTs are working hard on the injured, offended Cho's company loyalty. But he let it go. Magicians were notorious for their out-of-bounds attitudes. "Can you check on my dogs?"

Oglesbee smiled a very small, scrappy smile and said, "If I get a minute I will."

Then he melted back through the ceiling, his ghostly boot toes the last thing to disappear.

It was less than two hours later that Cho saw the first shedim.

He had slept, and been rotated back to the window position. He was careful to stand back from the window, not lean out of it, to minimize how visible he was from the street. He heard the thing before he saw it. It was kicking through the debris, sending hub caps sliding, plascrete chunks rolling, as if it didn't care what it brought its toes against. It came out from around a pile of debris across the street, ducking under an I-beam one end of which was buried in rubble, one end of which was hanging in the air.

It was no warmer than the asphalt was, Cho's thermographic eyes could see. It was wearing the skin of a woman: a human in a white leather double breasted coat, with clips still holding up her bedraggled blonde hair. No shoes.

It came into the street, and it came toward the front doors of Carding Estates Apartments. It came with that heedless, plowing walk. Its head jerked one way. Its head jerked another.

Cho stood very, very still. The subgun's grip was in his mechanical hand. The recoil-absorbing gyroscopes were sprouted from his wrist. His smartgun's reticule blinked red on the dead thing's throat, waiting for him to point the weapon where he was looking.

He drew back inside, against the wall...very, very slowly.

He heard the thing sliding-plowing through the street as it turned east. There were soft throbs of noise as it tread on corpses.

Pender, at the apartment's front door, threw him the hand sign for what?

Cho threw him the signs for stop...danger!

They were spirits that wandered the etheric plane, looking for a dead body to possess. And when they found one, that body went walking, looking to kill.

He heard a second thing moving outside now, shuffling through a drift of broken glass.

The hours of the night ticked by. Cho woke everyone who had been sleeping, one at a time, and advised them to stay as quiet as possible. While they were silent in the apartment, Castling using his commlink to browse paints and fabrics with the Abernathys, the outside sounds of sirens and gunfire and low-altitude helis rose and fell like the noises of a new ocean.

A fine layer of ash crisscrossed by the shoeprints of the security personnel had fanned out on the floor by the window.

At 0529 hours the day after the earthquake, Cho received a message from Renraku Seattle asking for an update on his status. He replied they were holding but shedim had been sighted in the area. The company told him to await extraction by air, approximately 0800 hours. Cho acknowledged. He used his sub-vocal mike to email everyone in the apartment with the information. There was relief, but there was also a sudden slowing of time. Two and a half hours were going to go by thirty seconds at a time.

At 0733 hours, Zelinsky was at the window. There were noises in the street. Zelinsky threw Cho the handsign for danger, and then there was a banging like some heavy animal or metahuman scrambling up onto the top of a car.

"Tango coming up!" Zelinsky called out, and the splattering flash of her subgun reached down toward the street.

Cho shouted, "We are engaged, repeating, we are engaged!" And ran to the windows, instinctively taking up position as far from Zelinsky as possible, an artifact of their training against foes presumed to have guns, explosives, and area effect sorcery.

Pender came barreling out of Jasmine's bedroom, done with his rest rotation now that the shooting had started, subgun at the ready. "Pender cover the door!" Cho yelled.

He looked down out of the windows. Zelinsky was firing short bursts at a man who was clinging to the bay windows one story below them, and who was climbing up. He had dark brown skin and short, tightly curled hair.

Cho selected automatic fire through his smartlink and pointed his weapon at the top of the man's head. They had learned in training that careful aiming for vital areas was the most effective shooting against spirits, and corpses possessed by spirits.

The shedim looked up. It's face was pulped, flesh peeled partly away from the cybernetic eyes. Both eyes were cracked. With a mental command to his smart gun Cho fired a five round burst into the center of the shedim's borrowed face. The subgun's folding stock and gas vents absorbed a lot of the recoil; his good right arm and its gyroscopes smoothed away the rest. The thing jerked its head partly out of the way, but its lower jaw was ripped off. It let go of the wall, and fell into the street.

But it jerkily began getting up again. And now there were two more running straight for Carding Estates.

"Oh my God! Oh my God!" Castling was screaming over and over.

"We have to get out of here!" Aidan was begging. He lunged forward and grabbed Cho's elbow. Cho shook him off.

Zelinsky fired a burst at the shedim they'd just knocked off the building, but Cho told her to wait for it to get closer. The two creatures that had come running across the street went straight in through the building's front door.

Cho crossed the apartment to reinforce Pender at the front door. "They're coming up the stairs to you!" But they could already hear the grotesquely reanimated feet booming up the stairwell.

This pair was a Latino human in her forties with short hair, and a chubby Caucasian human male in a blazer with a Horizon corporate logo on it. They came straight down the hall at them with a stomping, jagged gait, hands outstretched.

"Flashbang going in!" Pender said and tossed a bomb, which didn't bother the things at all. Cho fired another five round burst out of the smart gun - the bullets ripped a shedim's sodden clothing, but did nothing else. His modified reflexes gave him the chance to fire again, and one of the things went face down in a splash of gore and salt water. The second one was three or four meters away.

Pender suddenly gave out a scream - an insane scream. And he turned on his heel and bolted away from the oncoming enemy, running headlong down the hall, dropping his weapon.

The sudden breaking of Pender's will was the most frightening thing Cho had seen in the last twenty-four hours.

The Latino woman - the shedim - went right past Cho, going after Pender. Cho pivoted on one foot and blazed another long burst in between its shoulder blades at a range of less than two meters. It went down on one knee and came up facing Cho. Cho ripped off the last six rounds in the magazine, and that killed it.

Through his smartgun implant he gave the command that dropped the empty magazine and he slammed a new one home. He glanced into the apartment and saw Zelinsky backing away from the window, firing furiously at two elf corpses that were dragging themselves in. Cho moved in to stand shoulder to shoulder with her and emptied his magazine to put them down, but not before one had gotten its hands around Zelinsky's neck. She shuddered as the creature fell to the floor, and stuck her tongue out in revulsion. "Disgusting!"

Cho looked around. "Where are the Abernathys?"

"Bedroom," Zelinsky gestured with the muzzle of her gun.

He could see Castling and Aidan with their arms around each other in the kitchen, screaming incoherently. He would have told them to shut up, but the gunfire had already given their position away. Jeffery Hatteras was sitting in a chair, goggles pushed up on the top of his head, commlink on his belt, slumped so far forward he was almost doubled over, palms together near his ankles.

He asked Zelinsky, "What happened to him? Is he hit?"

"I don't think so," Zelinsky said. She shivered again, and made a noise like she was hocking something up. "Auck!"

In the last twenty seconds, Cho had expended half his ammunition.

"Check the street," he ordered, and he used his commlink to send an urgent message to Renraku Seattle that they needed Oglesbee back ASAP. Traveling on the etheric plane, the mage could go around the world in an hour - the problem was getting a message to Oglesbee on the etheric. It wasn't like Seattle could just call his commlink.

But what he really needed to fight the animated dead was a magician.

"Fuck! There's eight more out there!" Zelinsky yelled from the window. She fired two short bursts. "They're going to be coming up the stairs!"

"I've got the door!" Cho shouted. "Stay where you are!" He bellowed at Castling.

Just as he took up a firing position from the door to the stairwell he heard the obscenities pounding up the stairs to the third floor, the noise echoing down the hall.

Then he heard another noise, swooping in through the bay windows, slicing the air - a small heli. As the two new shedim burst into the hall, their gross heads jerking instantly in his direction; as he lit them up with his subgun, the muzzle flash whitening the hall where the electric lights were all dead; he heard a machine gun start spraying in the street. And the noise of the heli had gotten a lot closer, like the aircraft was trying to land in the apartment with them.

The shedim came at him exactly like a nightmare. He emptied his magazine as they came but they were on him before he could reload. Shot and torn and leaking blood, but willing to suffer anything to kill him.

He dropped his subgun and hammered his right hand into the solar plexus of the first one, discharging the electrical capacitors built into the hand to lightning the thing with 50,000 volts. It jerked back from the attack and kicked strongly at his knee, but the blow only grazed his calf. He smashed his elbow into its jaw and felt drowned flesh squick. Then another right hand for the solar plexus, but the corpse leaned back out of the way with a
nauseating precision. For a dead thing, it was just as fast as he was.

Zelinsky came up behind him and shot clean through one dead skull, and the obscenity hit the floor. Cho was going to scream at her to hold the window, but now he could feel the downdraft of the helicopter blowing through the apartment and into the hall, making his pantlegs flap hard against his shins, and the noise of the heli's gun was concussing against his face.

He yanked out his sidearm and shot the last thing in the belly while Zelinsky ripped rounds into its chest. Then he shot it several more times as he backed away from it. It kept coming and coming; his gun kept bucking against his hand.

"Hold that fucking thing down!" He roared. Zelinsky threw her heavy arms around the shedim. It slammed its elbow into her back as Cho took careful aim on the corner of its left eye and blew its brains out.

"Tango coming up," Zylinsky said crisply. She stepped out into the middle of the hall and pointed her weapon toward the stairwell. Cho pointed his weapon.

But the new monster saw four bodies in the hall, and didn't come forward. It stood in the stairwell, wearing the body of a dwarf, pushing the swinging door open with its head, only wide enough to show them one blue eye.

They stood staring at each other, the corporate security and the dead thing. The heli noise thrummed through the hall. The wind battered Cho's pantlegs.

I need you to step back now please," Cho said. It was something from crowd control training.

The thing withdrew. The door shut with only the slightest sound.

Cho gave hand signs to Zelinsky that they would hold at the door, to cover the hall and the bay windows across the apartment with their combined firepower. Zelinsky acknowledged.

Cho looked out the Abernathys' windows.

Hanging in the air outside was a small helicopter gunship designed for urban security work. It was a dark, glossy blue in the little starlight outside. Cho's enhanced eyes saw the glow of the engines. He saw the words Mitsuhama and drone gunship painted on the aircraft's side.

It was totally bizarre. Why would the heli's operator, wherever he was, fly so low to the ground? Why would he hover right in front of the windows, as if he were physically blocking them, when he could have stood a hundred meters higher, with more room to maneuver, and commanded a larger area? It was as if the operator had slept through combat flight school. Why wasn't the operator trying to contact any active commlinks in the apartment?

And why in a cold hell was their great enemy, Mitsuhama, sparing a drone gunship to defend Renraku assets?

Not having the answers bothered him, but having a friendly machine gun in the sky was a great comfort.

They held there for fourteen more minutes. Then a call came into Cho's commlink.

"Supervisor Daniel Cho, this is Renraku Titan heli victor kilo niner niner zero. Are you receiving me?"

"This is Supervisor Cho. Request security recognition code."

Titan VK990 supplied the code. "I'm about four minutes northeast your position. Is your position secure?"

"Affirmative," Cho said, after a moment.

"Roger position secure. Prepare for extraction." The pilot delivered a set of GPS coordinates to Cho's link. "I've got a drone LAV on overwatch, so don't be surprised when you see it."

"A Renraku drone gunship?"

"Yes sir."

The drone outside the window still said Mitsuhama on it.

"Affirmative, we are standing by for extraction. Great to see a friendly face."

"Yes sir. Oh, I'm supposed to inform you of an incident at Winsloe Castling's home yesterday afternoon. Apparently one of his stalkers showed up, Markus Gerard. Came over the wall and beat two security guards almost to death."

"What was the resolution?"

"Pool deck sentry gun sawed his head off. One less thing to worry about, right?"

Cho smiled his first smile all day. Relief like a tranquilizer flooded through him. He knew the sentry gun, it was hidden in a potted fern about a meter and a half tall.

As soon as Cho was off the link, the Wasp suddenly hovered up out of sight. He heard its engines receding away west.

Once the tilt-wing Titan aircraft was in the street, with its drone LAV circling a hundred meters overhead, an armored brick held aloft by the brute force of vectored thrust and armed with an autocannon, Cho led them down the stairs, with Zelinsky in the rear. He didn't know what had happened to Pender, but his priority was to get the assets out. He wasn't going to endanger that by walking around yelling Pender's name. Jeffrey came out of his stupor just in time to leave the apartment on his own two feet.

The LAV fired its autocannon at something Cho couldn't see east of them, although he could feel the street tremble underneath him as the big millimeter rounds hit.

The inside of the rescue Titan was a different world. A world where they all smiled and hugged, and exhaled for the first time in more than twenty hours. Castling and Aidan kissed frantically. Jojo barked.

"Take us to Arcology Mile!" Castling sang out.

The pilot was slumped unmoving in the front seat, immersed in the virtual reality interface through which he controlled his aircraft. But his voice came through speakers in the ceiling.

"No sir, my orders are - "

"I am Winsloe Castling, bitch!" The Fashion Monitor snapped. "This man - " Castling thrust his finger at Cho, his arm at rigid extension, "Hasn't slept or eaten throughout this entire ordeal, this man doesn't have one drop of fear or concern for himself in his whole body, this man is going to be a fucking security general when I'm done with him - " His voice was getting higher and thinner. Tears glistened beautifully in his eyes. Castling had charisma even when he wept. "He saved me, he saved my Aidan...he saved these nice people, and we are going to rescue his dogs!"

The Titan was rising up out of the street.

"Uh, uh, well, yes sir," the pilot stuttered.

"If you don't think you won't end up on a highly rated matrix show dressed like the doorman at a fourth rate Bangkok hotel," Castling sniffed, "then you don't know who you're dealing with."

tisoz
The Conversation

by martindv


Jae stood on the balcony of his hotel in the heart of Madrid, leaning over the railing as he peered over the eight-meter high wall onto the courtyard of the UCAS embassy compound. He looked at the eight-story office building that rose over the wall wondering what the point was of a diplomatic building with grenade screens on the narrow, black windows separated by ferrocrete dividers. What point is an embassy that screams "GO AWAY!" he thought. Then he turned his gave up the street to the office tower next door. It housed the NEEC and UN liaison offices for the Iberian Peninsula, and could barely believe the difference. The red-topped tower looked like the many more relatively accessible banks and corporate offices lining Salamanca on one side and Paseo de la Castellana on the other side of the block. But from both, he could almost feel the multitude of infrared laser designators painting him for the automated sentry guns on top of both towers. Switching to the infrared spectrum on his sunglasses, he counted five white lines aimed at his chest. Three came from the two buildings, and the other two came from two arcologies on the other side of Castellana.

The hotel he was staying at had been a popular place for NATO officers to stay who didn't have enough stars or favor with the Americans to sleep over in the ambassador's mansion. It was still popular with military officers, though now they were doing business with the NEEC's EuroForce or the United Nations Armed Forces. Jae had amused himself earlier in the lobby when he was checking in. A group of junior officers from EuroForce were discussing some technical military terms in learned Spanish--clearly, no linguasofts there. But as soon as the Spanish colonel left with his own entourage, the others--two Brits, an America and an elf with TRC insignia--couldn't go back to English fast enough as they discussed not knowing how to ask for the bill at a restaurant down the street the last time they were in town. Jae and his confederates traveled to a handful of Spanish-speaking countries, but yet it was the sheer absurdity that made him laugh before he made a smartass comment to them in Tagalog.

Turning back towards his room, Jae noticed a Marine who decided to start giving him the stink eye from the roof of the ambassador's residence down the hill closer to Castellana. He didn't hesitate to flip the bird at the sentry before he disappeared behind the drapes. Jackass. He'd be inside the building if it didn't eat him up inside. Once inside, he grabbed his commlink and noticed that Tony had chirped him a message while he was pining out on the balcony: 5x5. Super, he thought. He checked the chronometer. They wouldn't be done for at least another twenty minutes, at least.

"Fuck," he cursed to himself. He grabbed the remote, and turned on the trid set. A BBC World anchor was reporting cricket scores. The trid went off again, and Jae then threw it back on top of the unmade bed. He needed to get out while he could. Checking the commlink again, he noted the trace evidence neutralizing cloud was done. Fair deal, he thought. So he grabbed his suit jacket and disappeared out the door.

The business was unusual. He didn't even like thinking about it as business, but he had no choice. It was a business, and he was the agent for the girl fucking the ambassador while his wife was up to no good of her own in any of a thousand ways in Geneva. He was a pimp. Even if she was willing; even if it was of her idea; even if he didn’t beat her or drug her or extort her. Even though he loved her more than anyone in the world, the fact remained that he was her pimp. The very thought of that created a sudden pang of guilt in him.

Jae didn't make it very far. He had just crossed Diego de Léon on Salamanca when he felt drawn to the entrance of the Jesuit church across the street from the NEEC building's front door. The church had a history. In 1973, ETA assassinated Premier Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco's second and heir apparent, as he arrived for morning mass at the church's rear entrance on Calle de Claudio Coello. Amazingly enough, no one saw a thing in spite of the neighborhood being upscale and the U.S. embassy being less than a hundred meters from the blast site. But Jae didn't come for a history lesson. Of all of them, he was the only one who didn't keep a small white dragon on his person. He stayed with the crucifix around his neck like the rest of his family.

He took a seat in one the back pews, and started thinking about the past. Chris stood in the foyer watching his back. This may have been the newly enlightened Spain with a new movement following the ascension of Alfonso to the throne, but an ork is an ork and in the neighborhood there may as well have been giant glowing signs saying “No Trogs Allowed.? But it did keep people off his ass to have one walking two paces back and to the left.

At least, that was the idea. He should have known better, but maybe he just didn't have a choice. He was hanging out on one of the most heavily monitored streets on the peninsula. But what were the odds? He’d been here before, and been around with her before. He relied on the Law of Averages that no one would ever put one and one together. But the problem with the Law of Averages is that it still allows for someone to put it together; to hit him once. It was just a matter of time and luck. He had to be lucky every time they went out in public. And the odds these days were waning in his favor.

When the young priest appeared next to him, Jae felt a sinking feeling that the odds caught up with him. He wore the classical black cassock of the Jesuit order, but something seemed off. And yet Chris remained in the foyer, silent and apparently unaware.

"Come," the priest ordered. "Let us speak of The Mistress." He wasn’t Spanish. When Jae got a look at his face, he recognized him as Cuban. The accent narrowed it down to New York. Spanish Harlem. Just his luck. The priest paused for an answer, and then looked up to see Chris standing in the doorway. But the ork didn’t do anything, or say anything. "Alone."

“So that’s how it is? Back to the hood.?

“Let’s go.?

* * *


"You have the taste, eh? The high-end girls. The really good shit. Gene mods. Nanites. Simsense PAB-modified. The works. Trained and all. Man, it must have been some incredible luck to find one that would finally love you back." The skinny "priest" was now wearing a charcoal suit and sipping his second small glass of beer since they walked into the nearby bar. It was early, and deserted. Thank god for small mercies, Jae thought for a brief instant when he walked inside.

"Fuck yourself," Jae hissed.

"Hey, it's the real deal. I get it."

"It is. And, no, you don't get it. So what do you want? You don't need to go through all of this clandestine shit to make a deal."

"I don't care about the girl." Jae felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as he watched this man sitting across from him pick at the plate of peanuts and smile. He was afraid that he didn't know what move to make next, and sat silently as the man called out to the bartender in Spanish for two more beers and some fried anchovies. Jae suddenly got a queer look on his face.

"I'd have preferred the Irish bar next to your hotel. But from what I understand it's been no fun ever since the keebs moved their chancery out to the sticks.

“Well, that’s not entirely true."

"What are you? Government? No," he added before the man could respond. "You'd have made a scene that like when Juan Carlos came calling on the Americans before he took residence in Zurich. “

"But I'm not who you are afraid of."

"Not being murdered in my sleep doesn’t make me feel any more comfortable at the moment. And that is what does concern me." Jae looked up at the bartender, and then back at the man.

"Don’t mind him. English isn't as common as some Americans would like or expect. And everyone around here would rather it stay that way." As he watched the man pick the flesh off the rather impressive little fish before tossing its spine away, he wondered if it was magic or fate that made his grin so bone-chillingly devilish.

"Go ahead. Say it."

"What do you want?"

"I want to know everything. What you know. When you learned it. What she knows, and the others know. How your little enterprise works. But mostly, I want to know why. Why, Mr. Khoi, do you maintain the status quo? Is it fear?"

"No." he replied in barely audible low voice.

"Right. Because it would make you just as bad as the cocksucker you bought her from. Wouldn't it? Worse even. Because even he didn't know. But you did. And now I do. Because if I wasn't sure before, I am now. Because you just told me so."

God, forgive me. He thought to himself what had come to pass.

"I just want to know how some runner with dreams of grandeur figured out what no one else on Earth has. It was the signature, wasn't it? You found the one girl who didn't have it in inserted into her junk DNA. Because she wasn’t engineered."

"I have ... I was looking. I got a sample. It wasn't exactly hard. When I found out, I nearly had a heart attack. This man running his business out of a hotel room in Singapore didn't even realize what he had. So I went to buy her. I pulled every nuyen I had saved, and that was that. But then I killed him. And everyone who worked for him. I didn't want to know what happened. I just wanted her.

"But I still had to pay. The Yakuza was fairly reasonable that way. God knows they don't think very highly of people with my ancestry. I was just another crazy Filipino. And American-born to boot. I may as well have been a nigger troll. But in the end business is business. They took their blood money, and my arm. But we disappeared without them on our asses."

The man laughed. "That's something. I bet it's a load off your mind."

"Hardly."

"Maybe not. But I own you now." The man wiped the grease off his fingers, and then reached into his jacket. He slid an optical chip across the table. "You should visit the Irish bar. The blonde bartender is quite friendly with men like us. And knows other friendly people on this peninsula."

Jae looked at the chip, and squirmed. "Why should I? What makes you think I, any of us, will go along with this?"

"Because I now own her, too. You don't have to worry about being her pimp anymore Mr. Khoi." The man finished his beer, and then looked out the window. Jae turned as well, and watched Tony and Chris escorting the most beautiful Slavic elf either man had ever seen through the front door. The woman he killed for, and would die for. Jae saw the man's smile again and shuddered. He clearly had no problem with Jae dying for her.

"I own you, Mr. Khoi. You're just another one of my whores now." Jae closed his eyes and sighed. He then looked across his betrayers, and then back to the Cuban.

“Sure. You own me.? Mentally his commlink was already activated, in his address book, and hovering over a number for a, "Cleaner." It was so easy, he thought, for what should have been an agonizing decision. But he was a possessive man, and when at an impasse he was willing to accept a Pyrrhic victory, knowing that at least he had her for a while. But they never would. He "pushed" the Call button.

Suddenly Jae’s brains blew out the back of his head, splattering the wall behind him in blood and brain matter. Everyone stared for what seemed like an eternity as they were struck dumb at the sight of Jae's face in the Cuban's fish spine plate. Almost everyone.

“Treacherous little bastard.? The men in the bar slowly turned and looked at the woman standing across from where Jae had been sitting a moment ago. “Let’s discuss this further at the gentlemen’s club behind the museum. You,? she commanded Chris, "deal with this."

They all just nodded as she didn't even seem to acknowledge what had just happened. No one had the sense or the fortitude to question her claim that such a club existed on this street. And then she just walked out as if nothing had happened, and with the others following behind her like ducklings behind their mother.
tisoz
Dark King
by knasser


I thought I was alone.

I'd outlasted the other management-wannabes and the little red clock in my retina read 01:00 hours. The building was silent except for the dull battering of rain against the windows. The ever-recording cameras were my only company.

In my mind, a window opened right on time. It floated green-framed above my desk and a mercury-red devil grinned out of it. “Hoi, corp-man. Buying?? Non-existent firelight shone from its bald red pate, reflecting an environment that was somewhere else, not here.

I tapped a few fingers on the hard empty desk, hitting icons only I could see, Yes.

“I can give you another week-license, corp man, but the price is up. 'S'my way of saying I'm concerned for your health.?

I didn't believe that for a moment, but when the devil demanded 300¥ I meekly took it. I had no choice. I was only thankful that the street dealer had no idea what I actually earned. I'd keep playing the outraged addict while I could. A chime sounded in my head signalling the arrival of new codes to unlock my chip for a little longer and I was grateful. The me I was when I had the chip didn't really like the me I was without it. I became weak and unmotivated without my little helper. Deal done, the devil rolled up the window into nothing and vanished. A small iconographic trick.

With the window and its occupant gone, the last artifice was stripped from reality and I was left in the silent rows of furniture. Paradoxically, the office seemed even more unreal when bare of the usual arro bedlam. I glanced around, feeling as though I was being watched, but I knew that had to be the paranoia of the criminal. Even if someone had been sitting next to me, they would not have known about the encrypted transaction that had just taken place. Still, I was uneasy. And I was tired. I decided to get going. Nobody who seriously wanted on the management track in Ares didn't have a sleep regulator implant, but even we need to crash sometimes.

I stood and rubbed my eyes, making the little clock in my vision dance. Then just as I opened them I saw movement from the corner of my eye. I jerked around, trying to see who was in there with me. I saw only the lines of desks and terminals, but a chair two rows away span round slowly. There was no reason for that which I could see.

My thoughts flipped back to a security trid I'd had to watch the month before “What to do in the event of hostile intrusion.? Crap about concealment and escape. I'd slept through it and now I cursed myself. I didn't want to take a single step closer to that chair. Knew that ordinarily I would run at this point. But I was chipped-loyal to Ares and that loyalty over-rode everything else. An insane fantasy of foiling dangerous intruders was playing through my imagination. I took a first step towards that chair, then another. With each step my heart beat louder in my ears. I nearly jumped out of my skin when a cleaning drone zipped from under a desk and nudged against my foot. It bleeped apologetically at me and quietly rolled away like a fat silver pillbug.

The drone must have nudged a footrest. I sighed out loud, but went to the chair anyway. I stared at it for a moment, not comprehending what made it look odd. And then I realised that the fabric covered foam of the seat was pressed down by an invisible weight. Someone I couldn't see was sitting there right in front of me, silently watching. While I stared, the foam decompressed as the unknown thing rose to stand. There was an exhalation of breath from something in front of me and panic brought me back to sanity, and I ran.

I shot out of the building into the compound and carried on sprinting through the downpour, glancing backwards to see if I could spot any odd patterns in the rain, a moving vacancy amidst the drops perhaps, coming after me. I could see nothing but I fled across the compound heading for the residential zones as fast as I could.

Eight minutes later, I let myself hurriedly into my apartment with the quiet click of the maglock. Even as I fell back against the door, the sick rush of energy that fear had leant me was failing – I didn't have any reserves at all these days, and it was everything I could do just to not sink to my knees there in the hall. I massaged my temples, trying to focus my thoughts.

I knew I should call security right now. Ordinarily I would have alerted them immediately. But the horrible thought of what I'd been doing at the time terrified me. There wouldn't be any reason to go through my access history during the incident. But if they did... I was terrified of being found out. I could lose my job. And the longer I left it, the more suspicious I would look. Logically, I knew I should raise an alert right now, but logic wasn't in control. The risk was too terrifying and I was chip-frightened of being fired – an agonising, paralysing terror. I just couldn't get past the fear of jeopardising my job. I sat there slumped against the door wrestling with my feelings until I was finally too exhausted to try any more. Against my better judgement, I bowed to my feelings. The moment I stopped trying to persuade myself to contact security, the fear stopped. Nobody should have mood changes that sudden and that complete, but then my personality wasn't exactly the most psychologically plausible combination of traits.

Exhausted, I dumped my jacket on the couch and tore my shoes off. My wife had precious little enough to do with her time. She could put them away in the morning. I headed up.

On the landing I toyed with sticking my head round my daughter's door to see if she were sleeping, but a quick query to the house node confirmed that she wasn't there. The little bitch was almost certainly still out at wherever the Hell she went, embarrassing me and damaging my career. It was a mixed blessing that she'd finally grown out of causing trouble in the youth facility that Ares generously offered and had taken her silly rebellions off-site where she probably got into worse trouble, but fewer people found out about it.

I slipped into bed beside my wife without her waking. I looked at the clock in the bottom right of my retina. I'd pulled 17 ½ hours straight. A big part of me was proud of that. But it wasn't a real part of me. With a muttered curse I slotted the personafix chip from my datajack and let the doubt and despair come washing back.

I hated this part, when my whole career and work seemed meaningless. It was even worse tonight. Usually I just had to look back on what a single-minded ass I had been during the day. But now I glumly contemplated my irrational behaviour in not calling in the security breach half-an-hour ago. I knew that I had taken endless precautions in my purchases. I would have been fine. But that other personality, the one I carefully placed in the bedside cabinet each night, threw fits at the mere suggestion of risk to my job. So now, even if they didn't investigate what I'd been doing, I'd still merit psych-examinations for my prolonged hesitation and that would be dangerous. My career would be set back just when promotion was almost in my grasp. I looked at Jasmine beside me, her delicately tapered ears showing between wisps of white-gold hair, sleeping softly on the freshly laundered sheets. Without my work, what would we have? I would have to go with my initial reaction, no matter how dumb it had been, and hope nothing came of tonight. Troubled, I fell into a deep sleep. My last thoughts were the image of that seat rising as an invisible weight lifted from it. I wondered what had been in that office with me, silently watching me and for how long. The world was suddenly larger and darker than I'd known.

* * *

I woke alone. A few precious moments of grogginess held off reality before it came crashing back at me. The little clock in my retina had woken me with it's flashing. 07:30 and “Time to Get Up? icon. Some of my colleagues would already be in the office it was true, but none of them had the average hours that I did. Our productivity rate was also monitored by various means such as file activity, and I was confident none of them could match me there, either. Alan Morn – perfect employee. It was just that I wanted to scream and burn the place down sometimes.

Of course, I had a cure for that, I thought blackly. I pulled open my bedside cabinet and picked out the chip. It was a plain, charcoal-grey little spindle the length of a fingertip, designed to slot into my skull socket. Nothing suggested the illegal persona-fix technology it ran. Workaholic was the program that it held. Company Man. Bad Husband. Absent Father. I hated myself, but I knew that shortly I would want to put it in if only to make the loathing stop. And really, what choice did I have? The apartment we lived in was Aries property, my wife's clothes and jewellery were bought with Aries pay checks. My wonderful daughter's wasted schooling was paid for by the Aries family education benefits program. When I got the promotion, I'd be able to stop using the damn thing. Or at least cut back. Right now though, the chip-forced loyalty to the company was the only thing that kept me from a breakdown.

My wife had laid out my clothes for the day and more from habit than will, I dressed and slipped the chip into my trouser pocket.

Her and my daughter were already up, which was unusual for one of them. Jasmine passed me a glass of nutri-sweet and a plate of soy-bacon. She was smiling which reminded me just how beautiful she was. My daughter was glaring at me with ugly contempt though, so it all balanced out, I guess.

My daughter's mood shattered the brittle cheerfulness that Jasmine was trying so hard at.

“Have you seen the careers consultant, yet,? I asked?
“They wont have anything for me. Not qualified.? My daughter said it with pride.

My wife gave me a pleading look. It was out of place on her slim, elven face. She still didn't look an hour older than the day I'd married her and not for the first time I had a dark premonition of our future together that made me feel cold. I knew she wanted me to let the subject drop, but I was tired and angry.

“Would you like to tell me again how you failed your exams? You're always reading. We assumed you were studying.?

“Don't need certificates,? she said. “Gonna be an artist.?
“I've seen your artwork and it's shit,? I replied, the ever-present anger bubbling to the surface once more. I spoke slowly as if to a five-year old. “It's creepy and it's disturbed and no-one in their right minds would want those faces on their wall. Get this straight, Melanie, no-one will ever pay you for those holos.?

Her answer was an arrogant smile, as if at sixteen, she knew so much more than I did. I swore at her. I shouted about how I provided for her, about how she didn't understand what the corporation did for us, I don't remember the specifics. It was just the same argument as always. She sat there and smiled while Jasmine bustled brightly, asking if we wanted more juice. My daughter's miserable rejection of all I did for her and my wife's falsetto smile - I couldn't bear either any longer and stormed out, leaving my breakfast on the plate. That wasn't unusual these days, either.

Our apartment was on the compound. As I walked towards the offices, I discretely pulled the chip from my pocket. If I was this much of an ass hole by myself, I didn't see that the chip could make me much worse. It slipped into my skull where it settled like an old friend. There was a moment of perfect emotional numbness where nothing meant anything, and then my mind filled with a blissful joy at my role in life. The worries and anger were still there, floating along like ghost emotions, but drowned in the 70 millivolt waves of electric dedication to my job.

Some rational part of me, some part that really was me I was sure of it, kept telling myself that I mustn't report what happened last night. If I reported how I'd behaved I'd be investigated and taken off the project. And then the project would suffer and that must not happen. I repeated it over and over like a litany, determining that my sudden surge in loyalty to the corp wouldn't suddenly throw the truth about last night out my mouth. It seemed to work. It wasn't that different to the way we usually lie to ourselves, after all.

***

Work went well for the morning. And no security alerts went around, no reports of a break-in last night. I'd half convinced myself that I had imagined that invisible presence waiting in the silent office. In the busy bustle of the day, the world seemed too solid and real for the intrusion of magic. Most of us sat in comfortable chairs with AR windows floating in the air above our empty desks. Usually they were set to public so we all had an idea what each other was working on. Networking multiple screens together was as simple as sending a link between them and numerous little pipe works of different colours hovered below the ceiling tiles, extending downwards to those screens they linked. In some offices, turtles would make do with physical terminals and actual keyboards, but no-one would ever have been appointed to our project group without having had a datajack fitted. No turtles amongst us!

At 11:00, it was policy that we would take a break. Official ruling was that we would put our work aside for half an hour. The unspoken assumption was that we'd shave half of that off for fear of looking unenthusiastic. And often the break we did take was filled with work chatter. I was reluctant to break off my work, but I was respectful of Aries policy. How could I not be? I disengaged myself from running stress simulations on the material our labs had been cooking up, and strove for something non-work related to talk about with my colleagues. On a sudden impulse, I pinged a co-worker called Drew to get his attention.

“You know my daughter does art,? I asked?
The response was a non-committal grunt and a slightly raised eyebrow. The fact that the daughter of one of the chief engineers had grown up a drop-out was a bit of a taboo in the team. For several years now, she had been a tremendous embarrassment to me, rejecting the normal peer groups in the corp and raising all sorts of Hell. And starting from last month, a rumour had reached me that she'd been seen hanging out in some of Seattle's worst nightspots with some deeply unsavoury people. The topic was normally avoided where I could overhear.

“I want your opinion on this,? I said. I patched our private channel into my home node and linked to a holo my daughter had on her wall. Of course she had locks on her room files, and of course I could bypass them. With a mental nudge, I replicated the AR version for Drew's filters.

“I don't see it,? said Drew after a moment.
“Wait,? I said.

Suddenly he jumped, turning to his left just too late to see a face fading back into the white wall. He only caught the lines of a misshapen head sketched in the plaster, fading quickly away like ripples. After a few moments, he somehow became aware that something was watching him. Turning, he thought he saw a hooked, not-quite human head draw back into the wall but again it was gone. The expression was malevolent.

“That's pretty creepy, Alan,? he said after a few more almost glimpses.
“You should try running it over your whole house at night,? I said. “But is it art??
“It's clever,? he said after a moment. “Can you ever actually catch it??
“I'm not sure. It times itself based on where you're looking. The routines are simple enough, but the proportions of the head – there's something not human about it that I've never been able to put my finger on.?
“Yeah,? Drew agreed. “If that were actually modelled on someone, I wouldn't want to meet them. It's something out of a bad dream. Does it have a title??
I checked the file - “She calls it 'The Dark King.'?
“If it's got a fancy name, then it's art,? said Drew confidently. “That's how it works.? And after a moment, he added, “could you turn it off now, please.?

The rest of the day passed normally. The only part that worried me was the late-shift security coming on-line in the evening. Michael, a security guard who'd been with the corp since the 40's, patched in to comment on my abrupt departure the night before.
“That was some speed you put on last night there, Dr. Morn,? he said.
“Yeah,? I replied casually with my heart pumping in my ears, “how about that rain??
“Yep, quite a downpour. Can understand you not wanting to hang around. You scared the dog brains, though. All the motion sensors were bleeping at us – thought your behaviour was out of character for your RFID signal.?
“Drones don't care about getting wet,? I joked.
“That they don't Dr. Morn, that they don't. One more advantage they have over me,? replied Michael sadly. “I wonder sometimes if I'm going to last until retirement the way they're replacing us with those things.?
“You'll be fine,? I said. “You'll be fine.?

***
“Dad, it's me.?

I was working down in the labs tonight. Once more, proud to be the only one left. Outside the window was nothing but shadows and black.

My daughter had no data jack or sim-implants. She'd refused them despite we could afford them easily. Her voice came from a little stylised icon hovering in the air next to me, like a serpent with spines. It was 00:34 and I expected her to have gotten into some sort of trouble if she were calling me.

“I wanted to talk to you,? she continued.

I stared at the materials samples on my worktop, clinched between stress-guages under the electon microscope. The p-fix me really, really wanted to get back to my analyses. “So talk,? I said with great reluctance.

“I mean in person, dad. It's real important.?

I sighed. “Come on over then, I'm in the labs. Wait for the guard. The motion sensors will go ballistic if they pick up someone in this area unaccompanied.?
I patched through to security and got Michael again. “My daughter wants to see me,? I told him. “Can you go walk her over, please??
“No problem, Dr. Morn. Be there in five minutes,? he said.

I stared at the apparatus in front of me. I still had a strong desire to lose myself in my work but I'd now pulled down over sixteen hours. My hunger for work was at least partially sated. I could be proud of myself. And I was – I was filled with a sense of satisfaction better than any drug. I could spare my daughter a few minutes. Maybe she wanted to reapply for the Ares certification program, at last.

The door to the lab slid open with a quiet whir and Melanie came in. I was mildly surprised not to see the guard with her, but he might have left her once he'd brought her through the motion sensors outside. She looked very pale. More than pale, she looked dreadfully ill. Her face was glistening with sweat and her hands were ghastly white. I rushed towards her, frightened she was about to collapse. Her slim 16 year old frame fitted into my arms like a doll and her body felt cold beneath the black synthleathers. She looked up at me and smiled. But it wasn't warm. It was the smile of the face from the holo.

Melanie let out a little sigh of release and the air shimmered. Two figures appeared out of the air beside me. A large, Caucasian ork and a black human. The human's fist slammed into my gut and then his backhand knocked me sideways. It felt like my cheek had been struck with a baseball bat. I sank to my knees and the ork stepped behind me, dragging me backwards away from my daughter. The human followed, staring down at me. He had a beautiful face, but cold, dead, cyber-eyes.

It was only then, looking back at Melanie that I realised that she had brought these two strangers here willingly. And the implications of how she had brought them here were simply too big to take in.

The human wasn't as big as the orc, but his muscles were dense knots and he grabbed my head and hoisted me upwards. I scrambled to support myself before my neck was dislocated. He slammed me back against the wall then, and I felt a terrible pressure across my temples as his smooth hands gripped my head on either side.

“When I bought these muscles,? he told me in a voice as soft as an idoru's, “I said to the doc I wanted to be able to crush a man's skull between my hands. I've tried it and I can. If Mr. Corp Scientist doesn't want a demonstration, he tells me where the samples are now.?

Behind him I could make out the ork's face, neutral. This wasn't his thing, but he wasn't going to interfere. He had one meaty hand on my daughter's shoulder, supporting her. My girl's face was a fixed smile, but I could see the doubt in her eyes. She looked... haunted. And I wondered if I wasn't the only member of my family with a demon.

“Samples,? I said to the man, “let me get you samples.? The pressure was released and I staggered to a store-cupboard to get a sample tube. An insane part of me kept worrying about the project, about my test schedules. That was the chip part of me babbling like the worst case of obsessive-compulsive syndrome you could imagine. I kept wanting to crawl back to my desk and continue stress analyses like needing to scratch an itch, but I didn't dare make one false move under the cold chrome eyes of that stranger.

I pulled a plastic cylinder out of the cupboard and unscrewed the lid, holding it towards the man so he could see the dull grey strips inside. “Should be plenty to make Boeing happy,? I said as I put the cap back on. Suspicion filled his face. “How do you know we're working for Boeing,? he asked looking at my daughter. “I didn't,? I said, “but I do now.? It was the chip talking, getting away from my control for a moment – the loyal company employee fantasy it provided making me glib. The man's kick knocked me down before I even registered his movement. I gazed up blearily as he raised his gun towards me.

Everything happened quickly then. I was aware of my daughter straining against the orc's grip, screaming 'no!' I saw the psychopath's smile as he savoured my terror, and a yellow framed box appeared in my lower left vision reading 'Ares Security – Connect?'

With a thought, I transferred the image to a wall-display unit, where it blinked – a bright panel of off-on colour. It was accompanied by the tonal pinging of the connection request. The barrel of the gun was hovering two feet in front of my face. I looked up at it and at the man holding it.

“If I don't respond, you'll have a full Ares drone squad here in under a minute. At least that's what happens in the drills.? I started to get up and was yanked to my feet by the human.

“Tell them,? he began, and then paused, unsure. He couldn't think of anything. He stared dumbly at the welling red patch on my face where he'd slapped me.

Ping Ping.

I was suddenly angry. Ridiculously so. This psychopath, all muscle and murder, had used my daughter to gain access, without any real planning. I was willing to bet that even the idea of having the two invisible intruders walked across the sensor field by a guard was my daughter's idea. For all his tough action and scultped features, he was just some cybered thug. I shrugged his hand off me, I was that furious. “You are not going to get my daughter in a re-education camp because of your stupidity,? I hissed. I strode to the wall panel motioning for the shadowrunners to drop down out of sight. The human looked at the ork who was looking close to panic. There was no help there. Numb and rudderless, the runners obeyed. My daughter's eyes were wide.

I faced the screen, only ten seconds or less had passed since the connection request, but I expected drones were already warming their motors. I swallowed. How can I describe the conflict between my chip personality and the buried remnants of who I was? It was like walking away from your ultimate fantasy, it was like going against your deepest desires. Think about hurting the one you love – p-fix guilt feels like that.

I made the connection to security.

“Dr. Morn,? said the night security captain on the other side of the screen, “are you alright? We have a security team on its way. One of our guards is not responding.?
“Might want to cancel that,? I said grimly. “The reason you can't raise your guard is because I just punched the old pervert out.?
The guard captain's face at the other end was stunned confusion. “What,? he managed after a moment?
“Your guard just tried to touch my daughter,? I hissed. I absent-mindedly rubbed my knuckles as an afterthought, every inch the outraged father. The captain hesitated unsure what to do. He took in my reddened face, my daughter looking frightened in the background. I guess he didn't want to send a security team into the middle of something he'd rather keep off the records. I gave him another nudge, taking control: “I think you and I should have a quiet little chat about this first, don't you? And I can have a think about how I want to handle this.?

“I'll, ah, come right over,? said the captain. A cancellation notice for the alert that had gone out scrolled across my view even as I saw him tapping at his AR interface on the screen to send it.
“You do that,? I said and flicked the view-panel off.

I turned back to my daughter and her 'friends', but it was only my daughter I was interested in. I wanted to laugh at her open mouthed expression. It was bizarrely funny that she somehow knew I could head up a nano-materials research project and yet was still surprised I'd have the brains to outwit a security guard. But it wasn't the time for funny. I'd probably bought her another five or ten minutes and no more.

“Let's get going,? I said. “You're going to need me to get back through the sensors.?

At the perimeter gate, Melanie stared up at me in exhaustion. On the trid shows that I never watched, magicians were always mighty and powerful. I had never considered that my little girl could be one, and I could see from the strain in her face that it cost her much more than the trid shows suggested. The relief showed when she released her spell and her two companions reappeared. There was little use in subtlety now. The perimeter fence was electrified, but the ork cut out a doorway in moments with some sort of laser tool and we all passed through. Three lonely bikes were parked across the street.

I became aware that the human had a gun trained on me, discretely held at his hip. To my surprise, the big ork reached across and laid a restraining hand over his. The man looked angry for a moment, but put the gun away. He mounted his bike, clearly impatient for Melanie to join him.

I knelt down, and stared into my daughter's face. “I'm sorry,? I said. “For everything.?

If we had had time, perhaps there would have been a reconciliation then. But the human motioned her onto her bike and moments later they were gone into the night. The life I'd known was over now, too. What was left of it was riding away forever. I followed Melanie's icon on an AR street map for a moment, and then it winked out as her comm was turned off. And that was it.

The fantasy of being a perfect employee was still playing in my mind like an endless longing, tempting me back to a forfeited job. I pressed in on the little bud of the chip and it sprung out, leaving me empty. I turned the P-fix over between my thumb and forefinger. The plastic casing was too hard to break. Instead I tapped the gold contact panels to the electric fence, enjoying the shock of real pain that ran through it, frying it and jolting my arm.

And as I heard the first security drone rising up over the compound, coming for me, I let my old self fall from my fingers, burning, to the grass.
tisoz
A Dragon and Some Lightning

by Glayvin34


As Lua began to cough herself from sleep, Derek was already awake, as usual. The morning cough always came just as the sun began to peek through the trees past the transparent nanotent over their makeshift campsite. It usually began as a stuttering rumble in her chest, building on itself as the spasmodic rhythms fought with each other. Eventually she would begin drawing ragged breaths, which meant she was awake and focusing, trying not to explode into a fit of epithelial tissue and blood.

Derek knew that she tried to stave off her coughing fit so that he could rest, and in return he would feign sleep to give Lua the illusion of control over her disease. In reality she had no control over the Delta-Mucase virus. It lived in her DNA and crept out under the cover of the immune system, mercilessly denaturing any mucin proteins produced by her body. The few cut-rate genetech treatments they managed to finagle had not helped yet. As a result her mucus membranes were constantly hemorrhaging, never able to move particulate matter from her vital orifices- the metahuman’s connection to this world.

Predictably, Lua’s back suddenly arched and she made a noise that sounded more like an old sewer pipe finally giving in to years of deterioration than anything organic. The loud hack sounded hollow inside the tent. Derek flew into his act, pretending to be jarred from deep sleep. He kept his eyes unfocused and dazed, thinking that he looked to be on autopilot.

Fumbling about next to their sleeping pad, he pulled a sandalwood rosary from his pack. Sliding up behind Lua, he placed one hand on her chest and the other on her stomach. Murmuring softly in alternating French and Latin, his thumb moved from one bead to the next.

Moving his left hand counterclockwise and the right clockwise, Derek kneaded clean healing mana into her clogged and polluted systems. Lua stopped coughing almost immediately, and began to draw short and ragged breaths again. Slowly, as the minutes went on and Derek’s ritual continued, Lua began to breathe easier, eventually taking deep and silent breaths.

Without breaking contact, Lua reached out and picked up the rag she had placed beside their bed the night before. She pressed it against the wet pool of blood amongst many dried pools on the soft sleeping pad. “That one wasn’t so grim. I haven’t completely glitched into unconsciousness in a few weeks. Maybe this is finally phasing away.?

“Yeah, babe, -finally!? Derek laughed and squeezed her flesh above her hip. Lua giggled and rolled away from his prodding fingers onto her front before rising up in a cat-like stretch. “One of these days I might be able to sleep in instead of forging a new trachea for you, huh?? Derek said, placing the rosary away and grabbing an acetaminophen derma for his pounding healer’s headache.

“It hasn’t begun to pry your plates, my DM, has it?? Lua looked apprehensive.

Derek’s face froze, his eyes glazed over and he began to talk in a simulated-sounding voice. “Automatic response number 552- no, babe, I love you no matter what you’re infected with.?

Lua giggled again and curled up in his lap. “Wiz answer, even if it is automated.?

Breaking camp was simple, even if it took a little time. After she was sealed behind her multihued envirosuit, Lua told the nanotent to fold up, the biting and polluted Seattle air instantly spilling in and spoiling their temporary sanctuary. The nanotent, arguably the best thing they had ever stolen, folded into a small package all by itself in under a minute. The sleeping pad also rolled up nicely, even if it did need help from Lua or Derek.

Once the gear was packed, Lua pulled out Mildred and Woody’s holoprojector. It was unclear exactly where the pair went when they weren’t summarizing the entire matrix’s opinion on a miscellaneous topic, but they were always ready when Lua called them.

Gray pixels scattered themselves in midair for a few seconds before taking on color and shape. A one foot tall elderly couple coalesced into existence. Mildred’s voice started squawking in Derek’s earbuds before her form was even finished. “Ah, Derek! So good to see you, bubula! You look like a billion nuyen, as does Lua, just a couple of fresh-faced youngsters! Mesh over to my world for a second, hun, Woody wants to show you etvos.?

Derek frowned and dug his old trodes out of his sack. Licking the contacts and setting them on his temples, he clicked the stud on his comm that sent him into full VR.

Derek’s personal node was uninspired, a drab workspace with a desk, a few tools and his data all neatly ordered and in their place. Mildred and Woody shivered into existence next to him, shortly followed by Lua in her Polynesian finery. Woody spoke three of his few words, “May I, Derek??

“Of course you may, Woody.?

Luminescent Hebrew phrases with pointed German callouts began to march away from Woody, reaching Derek’s architectures only to melt away, becoming standard processes and subroutines. Soon they were floating above Seattle, looking down at the metropolitan area. Woody placed several markers around the diverse weather systems approaching the area and flashed numbers across the ionosphere and out beyond.

“What? I don’t see much,? Lua said.

Mildred turned, put her hands on her hips and glared at Woody. “Woody, add false color pressure readings and mark those transient emf fields the UCAS Navy ships are tracking. Derek and Lua have more important things to do than practice their instant meteorology. Did you think that they would look at clouds and just know like you and your nebishes??

Woody added in Mildred’s suggestions but did not meet her gaze. Lua and Derek looked at each other. Lua’s avatar smiled brilliantly. “This is exactly it- what we’ve been waiting for all winter. The meters on the surface are recording the charge separation with at least double the magnitude we would need. When will that system click, Woody??

Mildred responded before Woody could. “Baldik, child, baldik! Tomorrow night, we think. Should I go and see if they’ve added any extra security over at the lab? I shudder to think of you shefeles going in there if they’ve gotten some of that magical security.?

“Yes, Mildred, go and do some light recon,? Lua said. She looked over at Derek. “So, St. Paul’s for grub??

“Ugh. Dry soy and water? I guess we need to snap up and they are the closest.?

Lua grinned. “And you can’t beat the price.?

--

St. Paul’s Cathedral was one side of the Dolston neighborhood square, a small township long since absorbed by the ravenous Redmond Barrens. Across the square from the church was a dilapidated hostel, and perpendicular were unswept shop fronts. A handful stood open, peddling used clothing or spare parts under the watchful gaze of the half dozen Crimson Crushers that were usually milling around the square.

Derek and Lua sat against the side of the church, contentedly crunching through their dry soy cakes and taking swigs of water as the food managed to pull all moisture from the mouth. Derek tried to talk business around a mouthful of brownish paste. “So, we got a short timeline, but fortunately not much to do, Mom Nature’s taking care of the munitions. We’re going to need some more hands- at least two kick artists and someone with a good rig; and we need to go over to the facility tonight and make sure nothing’s changed that Mildred couldn’t ferret out.?

Lua nodded and pinched her eyes shut as she forced the soy down her non-lubricated throat, feeling the sharp points of unmoistened protein rip at her insides. “Well, we should be able to call CC Markie, that gillette from the Knight Errant job??

Derek almost choked on his mouthful. “Markie? She blanked eight sec guards! The entire reason we got so much blowback from that job was the sheer volume of death we left behind! The CC stands for Crazy Chrome, fer chrissakes.?

Lua shrugged and did not look at Derek, just shoved another morsel of soy through the slot at the base of her mask and pulled it into her mouth with a lap of her tongue. He knew this was her way of telling him not to argue. “And what will be doing at that UO facility? Slotting joytoys or blanking sec guards??

“Alright, calm down, you’re right. But I want to talk to her and whoever she brings this time before we go in.?

“Okay, but I’m going to ping her right now, there’s no time to waste.? Lua’s eyes unfocused for a few moments, tittering back and forth as her brain sifted through electromagnetic patterns. “Yeah, she says she’s been out of work and that her and some other slot Johnnie DMV are ready to roll.?

“Johnnie DMV and CC Markie? Are you koinkin’ me? Who are these slots? Patch her through to my comm, I want to tell her some things.?

“No, Derek, this job won’t require much finesse, so let her stab and shoot.?

Derek pushed more soy down his throat and took a deep breath. “Fine, whatever. What about a driver? Let’s use that rigger from last time. The Blob from Bellevue or wherever. What was his sign- Accent. We should call Accent.?

“Hm, yeah, he might work. But he’s so… odd. All that modification to his face just so he could park his blubberous self in the driver’s seat and fully mesh??

“He’s a victim of that post-poser ghoul hermit trend. A rather tragic one. I guess his options are to get thin and do his best to look like a trid star like everyone else, or act as if he put all that fat on his body on purpose.? Derek smiled internally, he envied Accent’s apparent confidence with his form.

“Well, I hope it works out for him. Socially, I mean.?

“Me too.?

Derek whistled though his teeth. “So, do we have the pour to cover the services of these fine folks??

Lua nodded. “Yes, but there won’t be anything left in the genetech fund.?

“In other words, this better work,? Derek said glumly.

“It’s my last chance.?

--

Many years previous, when setting up power stations in the cascade mountains, Lua and Derek got separated from their work group and managed to stumble upon every Shadowrunner’s worst nightmare and wildest fantasy all rolled up into one- an old and potent Dragon guarding her lair. Hi’ensa did not kill them outright as they expected, but rather invited them in for a chat and shelter from the storm raging outside. After hearing they were on their way back to Seattle, she mentioned a task that she would pay dearly to be completed. She explained that, as a Dragon, she had only limited access to nuyen, but could perform feats that prove reality is the veil it appears to be.

They had fled the underground cave the moment they were sure it was safe- never thinking for a moment that they would ever take the Dragon up on her offer. They even questioned the wisdom of holding onto the strange token Hi’ensa had given them that would summon her should the task ever be completed.

Then, about four months ago, Lua’s cough started. It was innocuous at first, just a few here and there when she exerted herself. But it wasn’t long before she was regularly incapacitated by diaphragm spasms. Derek began taking free classes in mystic healing from Renton Community College, and learned a handful of techniques to help stave off Lua’s symptoms, but there seemed no way to cure her disease with any common magical technique.

So their thoughts turned to Hi’ensa and her offer. The Dragon had asked for something oddly simple, but still diffidcult to accomplish- a targeted hit on Ingersol and Berkley’s Wilson 5 telescope. She specified that there were several crystals used in the construction of the optics that must be shattered.

It didn’t take much digging about on the matrix to learn that Dave Wilson had also built the telescope to try and pick up astral readings from beyond the earth. Apparently this function of the telescope was its most costly and most disastrous, given that nothing astral was ever detected. However, the rumor mill suggested that he had hired some Shamans to construct some components of the telescope. The conspiracy theory bloggers wondered about what those Mages had done to make- or steal- those enchanted components. All that Derek and Lua needed to know was that their destruction would put Hi’ensa deep in their debt.

So, Lua and Derek hatched a plan to work for a dragon, to save Lua’s life.

--

Crazy Chrome Markie and Johnnie Demented Manic Venomous were probably the most obnoxious slots that Derek had ever dealt with. Lua respected Markie’s don’t-look-at-me-or-I-will-cut-you attitude and laughed at Johnnie’s constant belligerence around anything that was even slightly unfamiliar. Derek thought they were selfish, ignorant, arrogant gutter dwellers. Not like him and Lua, proper Street People.

“What you just call me?? CC screeched at the guard by the exit to the tube station.

The older guy looked exasperated, tired and angry, and just wanted CC to obey the rules. “Look, I said in future you better leave that blade at home when you’re riding, no steppin’ razors are allowed on-“ Johnnie DMV’s eyebrows raised a little as the oblivious guard spoke the phrase again and CC promptly jabbed him in the gut with the very blade he had asked her to leave at home next time.

The poor slot looked much more surprised than in pain and exclaimed as he fell back against his little desk, “What the frag? You fraggin’ slitch, you stabbed me, you slitch! She stabbed me!?

“Time to toss,? Derek said as he grabbed Lua by the arm and motioned for Johnnie to do the same with his counterpart. CC and Johnnie probably wanted to stick around before the Star showed up and make sure that the guard understood the finer points of etiquette when speaking to a mercenary, but did jog after Derek down the street in the pouring rain and into a busy fleatech market.

Derek looked over at Lua. “Did they make us??

Mildred’s full voice answered before Lua could. “Of course not, bubula! Woody managed to get all the images of each pretty ponem of yours out of their optics before the data was mirrored and transferred!?

Derek nodded, barely noticing the second half of what Mildred had to say in the face of the assault on his senses currently perpetrated by the fleatech environment. Lua noticed the blank look on Derek’s face past the swarming messages on the flexiglass covering his eyes. Abruptly all of the AROs hitting Derek’s node coalesced into a single form- Lua, sans clothing, blowing a kiss and winking before disappearing and revealing the market devoid of advertising.

“Thanks, babe. You always find a way to make the worst drek look wiz.?

Derek didn’t need to look to make sure that CC and Johnnie were behind him, he could hear CC’s squealings about what wageslaves should and shouldn’t say, and Johnnie’s “yah, yah!? in response. He turned his shoulder forward and began to push through the crowd. The fleatech clientele and salesmen were usually older, now confined to gray market stalls when they used to furnish their gear by screaming around on the wired Matrix. They were easy to push aside, in other words.

Words printed themselves across Derek’s AR display:
SECONDARY PICKUP SPOT IS GO-- ACCENT.

“You all got that trans from Accent? Let’s grease, but don’t draw too much attention,? Derek subvocalized to his team.

Deeper in the space reserved for the market there were less people, but still several stalls with merchants waiting with bated breath for anyone to make eye contact with them so they could launch into their Spiel of Quality. The team walked up to a wall as Derek pulled his rosary out from beneath his shirt. Speaking a few words, a 3 meter section of chainlink turned red, orange and then white as rain drops vaporized on contact with a hiss. Then the metal combusted, leaving nothing but an acrid haze.

The team walked quickly through the haze and to the waiting vehicle in the alley beyond. Accent’s bulk was clearly visible through the open door, packed into the single and centered pilot’s chair at the front. Black spikes protruded from his forehead and scalp, and intricate designs of precious metals swirled their way around his cheekbones, nose and mouth. His well-defined face had the appearance of being cast afloat in a sea of flesh.

CC and Johnnie piled in the back with their long coats and assorted weapons while Lua and Derek sat directly behind Accent. Before the door even whistled shut, the sound of a laser lighter filled the contained space with a low hiss. Derek spun around to see Johnnie with a huge hand rolled cig of some sort poking out of his mouth.

“Hey! No smoking in the van!? Accent’s modified baritone called out. The rigger still seemed totally meshed, and was talking out of the internal speakers.

Johnnie took a long drag and passed it to CC as he exhaled a cloud of smoke that obscured his head completely for a few seconds. The bluish fog smelled strong, and Derek could pick out hints of cannabis, nicotine and opium almost overpowered by a strong flowery scent.

“Aw, let it run, fatboy. Your optics could use a lil maxin’,? Johnnie said. His speech had already slowed down as a result of his inhalings.

“What? That doesn’t matter one drek- no smoking in the van. And please call me Accent.?

At this point CC was also exhaling a massive cloud. “Fatboy, drive. If we break your draz then Lua n’ Derek will deduct it from our nuyen. No shatter, no offense, right? Jus drive the car.?

Accent was clearly at a loss. Lua tried to help out. “Just ignore them, Accent, and we will give you some extra pour to get the smell out.?

The van started rolling forward silently with Derek’s equally silent sigh of relief. Johnnie and CC continued to yak in the back seat and trade the blunt between them. The window behind them rotated its slats, letting out their exhaust and letting in the sound of the rain.

An AR message from Lua marched across Derek’s glasses. THIS JOB HASN’T DESYNCHED, RIGHT?

Derek turned and looked her. “Babe, I will make sure this job stays synched if it kills me.?

“Don’t go that far, purposes would be defeated.?

--

The Snohomish Universal Omnitech/Ingersol and Berkley facility was actually a sprawling campus of which the Wilson 5 was only one feature. Most of the facility was covered in large green aquaculture domes that would occasionally vent, making the whole place smell like fermenting soy.

Security was fairly lax given that I&B had taken to renting out small domes for citizens to grow their own crops. Woody had already dived into their system and made sure the team had passes, and Derek and Lua were wearing the standard aquaculture gear and carried faux OXSYS gills to complete the ruse.

As they approached the front gate, Derek told CC and Johnnie to put their comms on hidden mode and not to say a word. He then pulled out his rosary and wrapped them and the van in layer after layer of mana, tempering it to change the appearance of the vehicle and mask the presence of living beings. He and Lua then hopped out and walked next to the vehicle.

The guards at the front gate saw two aquaculturists and a large unmanned truck laden with fertilizers and piping and obscured by increasing rain. They didn’t even look up from whatever trid show they were engrossed in and allowed the automated systems to scan and verify the approaching group. Derek’s spells easily fooled the simple equipment and they walked in like they were supposed to be there.

After they were all back in the vehicle and moving through the darkness between the verdant domes, Derek stopped feeding his illusory spells mana and let them fade. Accent stopped at the predetermined place, and the door whistled open.

Derek put his forehead against Lua’s faceplate and looked into her eyes. “This is it. Our luck will hold. It has to,? he spoke softly.

Lua’s eyes were steady. “Go, then. Hi’ensa is waiting. I’ll see you when it’s set. And Mildred and Woody are watching, so call out for them if you need.?

Derek took a deep breath and joined CC and Johnnie outside the van. Accent moved the vehicle off to wait at the pick up point.

Now alone and in the rain with slots he couldn’t stand, Derek tried not to think about the gauntlet he was walking. Johnnie gestured to a large metal disk on the ground. “Help me with this un, yah??

Derek nodded and knelt, placing his already numb fingers into the handholds at the side of the disk. Calling on the ambient mana, he strengthened his body and pulled hard. Johnnie’s organic parts stretched taut and were dwarfed by the synthetic musculature that pumped out around his elbows and shoulders. With a snap the cover gave up, giving access to a long ladder leading down into darkness. Derek went in first, followed by CC and then Johnnie replacing the cover.

The ladder seemed to go down forever, finally landing in a small maintenance room. CC picked the lock and the team entered another long and dark tunnel, this one parallel to the surface instead of perpendicular. They reached another door, and CC put her ear against it and stood motionless for a full minute before giving her report. “There be five wageslaves in there and one guard.? She then called out a series of numbers corresponding to where each target would be.

Derek was ready as he would ever be. “Drek. Let’s do this. Woody, kill the power in there and suppress any alarms.? Derek felt more than heard Woody’s affirmation.

They heard a konk as the wires ceased to move electrons and CC pushed the door open, long knife in hand. After she took one step, her knife arm seemed to fall off, landing on the ground with a synthetic clatter. As her head turned in amazement to look at the disembodied arm, it, too, fell to the ground. Her body crumpled and fell in front of a motionless figure leaned back in a casual fighting stance with a humming falchion held before him with both hands.

Johnnie didn’t waste a moment, he fired several shots from his big pistol at the swordsman. It was unclear if he hit his target as the assailant twisted down and behind a large piece of equipment. Derek called enough mana into his muscles to make them twitch, and moved into the room.

Instead of proceeding forward, Derek reached up and gripped the lip of the door frame. With a heave he threw himself higher in the air, grabbing a skyward aparatus. Pops and swishes resounded in the room as Johnnie and the swordsman tried to kill each other. Derek leaped from his perch and onto the ground in the darkened room, completing a roll as he hit. He then darted forward, throwing all of his momentum into a kick at the nearest person’s head. Unsure if they were guards or techs, he took down all six targets before the gunfire at the other end of the room seemed to cease. Slipping into the Astral, he looked to see if the dim living aura was Johnnie or his adversary.

Fortunately he didn’t need to, as Johnnie called out, “Derek, mon? Do you thing and we gotta grease, I be losin’ blood.?

Without speaking, Derek walked to the center of the room and looked up with his enhanced vision. Lenses and actuators eclipsed most of the bulk of the Wilson 5 high above, but Derek could still see some parts of the main cylinder. Pulling out a piece of chalk, Derek began to carefully draw a circle around himself, placing runes and Latin phrases at each cardinal direction. He then gripped his rosary tightly and began to almost scream Hail Marys while looking up at the Wilson 5. Wisps of light fell around him, soaking into the chalk circle. The light became brighter and more defined, becoming words and symbols intersecting with the arcane marks on the ground. Then the light faded and Derek fell to the ground with a groan.

He awoke to a paler-than-earlier Johnnie slapping dermas on his forearm. “Let’s go, mon, we gotta run now.?

Derek felt the drugs in his system forcing awareness through the injuries he had sustained from enchanting the room. There would be a cost for that later, he knew. Wiping the blood from his nose, he and Johnnie walked to the exit door.

--

Accent was waiting where he said he would be, but was held down by light arms fire. His two Nissan drones were returning supressive while Accent tried to lob grenades from the launcher on his van. Apparently he was meeting with limited success. “About time you got back- where’s CC? Run into trouble?? Lua’s voice sounded tight as Derek sat down next to her in the van.

Somehow Johnnie was already smoking a blunt, and spoke as he exhaled, each word another bluish puff. “She done reached that Creator. Markie done live her life like that, trying to reach the Creator. She done now.? His short speech had a very final quality to it, as if he had memorized it for the perfect time.

“Uh, right, or… she’s dead. Anyway, what are our options? We gotta grease, and gotta grease now. I have no idea when that storm is going to arc, but when it does everything you see here will be plasma,? Derek said.

“There’s a bomb? Explosives make me queasy.? Even though Accent modified his voice to sound tough, he always managed to foul up any perceptions with his choice of words.

“Not exactly, but it might as well be. We have to punch through their line, there’s no time to debate this. Just go, Accent, I’ve got you covered.? Derek called more ambient mana, wrapping it around the van to add a little more protection from speeding bullets. He nearly lost consciousness again, but fought through the blackness closing in on his vision.

With a squeal of tires, Accent’s van moved with surprising agility out from behind the dumpster where he had sought cover. His drones jumped from cover a moment earlier, charging the line of security guards behind their vehicles. As they closed in, the drones exploded in bright white flashes that lit up the night and cast sharp shadows on the buildings nearby. With screams and curses the opposing fire ceased.

The van blasted through the facility with amazing alacrity, pulling off turns that didn’t seem possible for a thing of its bulk, not to mention the bulk of its driver. There were a few close calls on the way out, but Accent managed to get them to the exit without getting shot at. Derek called the strongest spell he dared to mask the vehicle on the way out, but the guards at the front entrance were waiting with drawn sidearms.

There was a soft thump from above and a grenade was already on its way. It detonated directly between the two, tossing both like ragdolls. Accent powered past their bodies, and up an incline. The van stopped at the top of a hill overlooking the facility. “Looks like we’ll get to watch, huh?? Derek said. He wasn’t excited and his head hurt, but he did want to witness the fruits of his labor.

They could see the flashes of spotlights over by the Wilson 5, and Derek couldn’t help but feel sorry for the personel. He turned the flare comp on his glasses to max, and waited for the show to begin.

Many minutes passed, and Derek began to get nervous. He had set up his incantation to generate a vertical stream of ions in the atmosphere. The positive would flow toward the sky, seeking the charge of the ionosphere, and the negative would flow toward the ground, seeking the earth. The flows of electrons would generate a current, which would generate a concentric magnetic field, which would concentrate the stream of ions, which would allow more current to flow, which would feed back and strengthen the magnetic field. This process effectively ruined the atmosphere’s ability to keep the earth insulated and away from the charge instabilities of the greater solar system.

Woody explained the finer details of the Plasmatic Dynamo theories he had found on the matrix, but Derek doubted his reliance given that both he and Mildred both claimed to think RL didn’t really exist. Derek wished he had some equipment to watch the ionic current forming, but it would have required a whole separate and probably more dangerous run to acquire some. The visual spectrum as detected by his AR goggles would have to do.

It began slowly, but a multitude of exponential effects pushed the rate of growth very high very quickly. There was a hazy triangle of light in the clouds, one point of which was touching the Wilson 5 with a thin and crooked line of blue light. Then it all happened very fast, as one might expect when dealing with lightning. Suddenly the entire facility was lit up by a vivid column of oscillating light connected to the heavens by the Wilson 5 compound. The incantation that Derek had placed had indeed caused closed the circuit between the earth and the ionosphere and a massive amount of charge was flowing back to the earth in a short amount of time. The entire city lit up as a million strobing suns all flashed through an overcast sky.

Derek’s mana-enhanced reflexes caught the plasma current in its intricate dance to the earth with his mind’s eye. The snaky shape lacked any regard for physical process, descending in a near straight line. It formed a helix, then broke into two intertwining helices, then six. The six helices remained stable for several seconds, jittering and convulsing. Then everything was over quicker than it began, with the shaky energetic column suddenly winking out without any charge differential to power it, leaving an afterimage on the retinas regardless of the degree of filtering any technology offered.

It was replaced by a long gray column of particulate matter some of which used to be the crystals that Hi’ensa hated so much. Derek looked at it for a moment before his world was filled with sound. All other senses became obscured as the thunderclap rolled over him. The world returned inundated by a high pitched buzz and a pounding headache.

The Wilson 5 site was an orange hexagon of a crater glowing through the dust, and a few of the surrounding agriculture domes were shattered. Derek clicked some of the studs on his comm, transferred some nuyen to Johnnie and Accent, and split CC’s portion between the two of them. Fingering the token in his pocket, he and Lua left on foot, to meet a dragon.
tisoz
Finally Awake

by ZenGamer


Dear Scarlet,

I wanted you to hear directly from me in my own words what had happened during all that time, and the attached file is something I wrote to try to make sense of things. I keep trying to figure out if it was a dream or not and still have no idea. I haven’t yet tried any magic and therefore haven’t been able to assess whether it was just a weird withdrawal induced dream or something far more important. Is it possible that I could truly have awakened? Something must have happened to save me that night, right?

Anyway, what I’m writing is the truth as I remember it. After all, you have seen me at the lowest point of my life so what could I possibly have to hide from you?

If you have any questions or want to talk, you know where to reach me and as always let me know if you have any jobs available.

Forever Grateful,
Exeter

<<File Attached: “finally_awake.txt?>>

Living on the streets will wear a guy down. But when you’re lying low and have nothing but time and a datajack, you pass your loads of free time with sim. No biggie, right? Well, sooner or later you try BTL, and be sure that “Better Than Life? is aptly named. Imagine having sex with the hottest movie stars. Imagine being a hero and saving a city or a beautiful woman from disaster. Imagine raping and murdering someone without any guilt or chance of being caught. That’s what BTL is, a way to do anything you desire without consequences. The first time is usually about sex. Isn’t everything? But the more you do it, the more you get into freaky stuff. Murder. Stalking. Torture. Then being murdered and being tortured. Then an assortment of all kinds of strange things that are nearly impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t been there. In my time I’ve fragged every hot sim star - both men and women. I’ve screwed animals. I’ve killed women, children and babies. I’ve been beaten, stabbed, shot, murdered, thrown off a building and just about anything else you can think of. If you can imagine it so can the sim directors and writers. The problem is though that it’s very, very addictive. And when I said before that it doesn’t have consequences… well, that’s not entirely true. Using BTL has some pretty fragged up consequences. They say it causes neurological damage but I don’t know much about that. What I do know is that you lose yourself to it. You become it. Who you were before pales in comparison to who you can be if you just turn your sim unit on, so you abandon yourself and do things you could never have dreamed of doing otherwise and even if you had done them, it wouldn’t have been as good or as potent of an experience. You forget to eat. You forget to sleep. You sometimes forget to drink water. Reality dissolves into whatever you have running on your sim module. That’s where I was in late January when the life I had known ended.

I was on my way to meet my dealer in person for once because he had some hot new BTL that he could only get on chip, so it couldn’t be wired to me like usual. I was early for the meet and it was cold outside so I wandered into some dive called Clancy’s for a drink to pass the time. The place smelled like incense and everyone inside looked like a movie star, all staring at me, sizing me up with lustful eyes, and I walked up to the bar. The bartender looked at me, wide-eyed, and said “What can I get you? Anything you want is on the house.? “I expect nothing less.? I replied. “I’ll have your finest scotch. Make it a double.? That’s the way I remember the bar anyway, but the truth is the reality filter was running on overload to make the vomit smell like incense and the junkies and drunks look like movie stars. The bartender hurried to get my drink and the reality filter must have glitched out because I sat down next to what must have been the foulest smelling dwarf in all of Seattle. He smelled like feces must taste and he looked like he had seen the depths of hell. He looked at me with blank, dead eyes and without a word got up and moved to a table on the other side of the room, as though I disgusted him. The bartender returned and I took a sip of my beer and paid. At that point I felt like I had to vomit so I went into the bathroom, which was immaculately clean to my surprise, and took a piss which came out like syrup and felt like razor blades. After that ordeal, I figured I’d go check my hair in the mirror so I could look good for all the beautiful ladies out in the bar. Maybe I’d get laid tonight, but then again I got laid every night so why should tonight be any different? The mirror was filthy but not so filthy that I couldn’t see my beautiful face. Ruggedly handsome, a weeks worth of stubble, tousled dirty blonde hair. The kind of rugged face the women go wild for. I smiled an actor’s smile, showing off my perfect teeth, and looked down to turn on the water and wash my hands. It was that moment that my commlink chose to crash, taking the glitchy reality filter down with it.

I’ve always been a very lucky person, but whether you call it luck, divine intervention, or simply the worst moment of my life isn’t important. What is important is that when I looked back at the mirror to see my winning smile I got a rude awakening. The thing looking back at me from the mirror was like something out of a horror sim. Sunken eyes, rotten teeth, varicose veins crisscrossing the face and a vomit stained shirt. The sight startled me half to death. I thought one of those junkies had followed me in to the bathroom to try to steal my commlink. Then I heard a sound that started as a low moan and increased in volume and pitch to become a tortured, ear-piercing wail. I started trying to figure out where it was coming from but then realized it was coming from the guy in the mirror. In a moment of clarity I knew that I was in fact looking at myself for the first time in I didn’t know how long. I knew that I was staring myself straight in the eye and all there was to see was the horror and shame of what my life had become. I was screaming in anguish and pain and no one was listening except the filthy toilets. I stumbled out of that bathroom on weak legs so quickly that I tumbled to the floor in the middle of the bar. Delirious, still hearing the unearthly wail coming from somewhere far away, I lay there for awhile and when my eyes opened I saw an angel. I know what you’re thinking - junkie hallucinations. Well maybe. But at that time, as far as I was concerned, there was an angel standing over me, her eyes like ice and hair like fire – cloaked in shadow with skin of the brightest ivory. Her lips were the color of roses. The wailing stopped. I remember wondering what such a beautiful creature must be thinking standing over such a wretch. I remember thinking that a being as beautiful as her doesn’t even exist in a BTL sim and that I wanted to be dead. I remember starting to cry. “Get him the frack out of here!? she barked. Two massive gorillas appeared and dragged me to my feet. I was devastated. To think even an angel of heaven would reject me, how could I have fallen so far? I struggled but had no chance of breaking free. I had one last glance at the angel and for an instant my eyes met hers and I whispered three words, “Please save me.? I don’t remember exactly what happened then but I remember the angel telling the gorillas to stop. I remember that she asked questions and I answered, but I don’t remember what was said and then being taken to a car. I guess I must have passed out at that point. To this day I have no idea why she decided to help me.

All I remember after that point until the end of this story is lying on a table, but that entire period is a blur. I remember bits and pieces though. Once the angel came back but this time she looked more like a demon. Her hair was still fire but her icy eyes were also ringed in fire and she was dressed in a black and red bodysuit with a dragon coiled around her. Her lips were blue – I thought she was suffocating but she looked angry.

Another time I remember a man in a white coat poking me with cold uncomfortable things as he mumbled to himself in a language I didn’t understand. He was not being gentle and I told him to keep his fracking hands off me but I don’t think the words came out right because he started laughing and, in English, told me I was brain dead and that I would never wake up from my nightmare. He said that Scarlet was an idiot for wasting her time and money with me and if it were up to him he would have my body cut up and sold to the ghouls. He said that the funniest part was that I couldn’t even understand anything he was saying because my brain had turned to cottage cheese.

The only other thing I remember from that time was a red headed woman with sky blue eyes standing over me with a look on her face that nearly broke my heart. A man’s voice from somewhere said that there was just nothing that could be done except to cut out the datajack and sell it. Then the voice said “You already sold everything you found in his apartment, right? I bet it wasn’t worth a single hour of my tender care, was it?? The red-headed woman replied “I’ll sell it tomorrow, and you’re wrong. He had a lot of military equipment hidden in his filthy apartment.? She hesitated, “Take the datajack out and sell him to the ghouls.? Then she looked at me and said that she was sorry. “No!? I yelled. “I’m here! Please don’t kill me! I just need a little more time!? But she was already turning and walking away. The doctor came into view then started disconnecting tubes and monitors. He said “Goodnight. I’ll get the datajack out in the morning when you’re dead and won’t bleed. The ghouls like it better when it’s a few days rotted anyway.? I wanted to kill him.

Things got weird then. The lights turned off and it felt like I was falling. I felt cold and hot all over, like taking a cold shower and then just when you start getting used to it turning on the hot water. It was like I was freezing and burning at the same time.

When the lights came back on I was lying on my back on hard-packed dusty earth staring at the moonless night sky. It was very cold and the air was perfectly still. For some reason I was counting the stars through the branches of a dead tree. The tree was bleached a stark white, like bony fingers frozen in time eternally reaching for the lifeless stars. “Five hundred sixty four… Five hundred sixty five…?

From nowhere came a voice. “Are you going to just lay there all night counting stars??

I stopped counting and turned my head to see a grey dog sitting there staring at me. I stared back for awhile. “Am I crazy? Did you just say something??

“Possibly and yes? replied the dog.

I blinked hard but the talking dog was still there. I sat up, or tried to rather, because I got halfway up before I realized how much pain I was in. I fell backwards with a grunt into the dust. The stars winked down at me invitingly, so I began to count again. “One… Two… Three…?

“Are you going to just lay there all night counting stars??? said the dog.

“I think so, yes. Four… Five… Six…?

“Why?? asked the dog.

“It seems like the only thing left to do. Seven… Eight…?

“But you have to get up? said the dog.

“Why? Nine… Ten…?

“Because you are needed.?

“By who? Eleven… Twelve...?

“Your friends need you.?

I stopped counting. “I don’t have any friends. Not anymore.?

“Of course you do? said the dog, “You just haven’t met them yet.?

The moonlight spilled down on me through the bony fingers of the dead white tree. Shadows crisscrossed my naked body and I shivered in the cold. What he said didn’t make sense but I found myself wanting to believe him anyway.

“I can’t get up. I’m brain-dead. My brain is cottage cheese? I said.

“No, your body is cottage cheese? replied the dog. “Your brain is more like mashed potatoes. Even so that shouldn’t stop you. You have to be who you were meant to be.?

“But I’m dead. I am in a cold desert at night counting stars and talking to a dog, after all.?

“True, you might be dead. Even so, you shouldn’t let that stop you. There are still things you need to do.?

“I can’t! I can’t get up! It hurts and I’m dead and the angel told the doctor to feed me to the ghouls and I’m good for nothing! And now I’m lying naked in a cold desert and yelling at a talking dog, so I’ve obviously lost my mind!? My voice sounded strangely hollow and weak in the still night.

“It seems to me like you would rather just give up and lay here counting stars until morning when you will be fed to the ghouls? said the dog. There was no anger or sarcasm in his voice, just sadness and kindness.

“I want to get up and see the angel again, but I don’t think I can.?

“Try.?

I tried. In my life I had been beaten to within an inch of my life. I had been shot and stabbed. I suffered through a very painful spinal condition that required surgery and bio implants to correct. But until this moment I had never felt pain. I fell back into the dust panting and crying.

“Try harder? said the dog.

I was getting tired of this damn dog already. I tried again and through the haze of pain managed to sit, propping myself up with my arms.

“You have always been loyal to your friends? said the dog. “When you were a little boy you defended your best friend from gangers even though you knew they would beat you, and they did, nearly to death. Do you remember? You were in the hospital for two weeks. Later in your life, when you were in the army you would have done anything to help your teammates. You would have faced any odds to save them if they were in trouble. In the end they betrayed you. They left you for dead. When you returned, they threw you in prison as a traitor and didn’t even tell you why. Do you want to know why??

I hesitated. “Yes? I whispered.

“They sacrificed you so that they could get away clean. It was their plan all along. The objectives you were given were false. You were the only one that didn’t know the real reason for sneaking into the Tir. They were confident that you would get caught, they counted on it. You would be interrogated but wouldn’t be able to say anything because you didn’t know the truth. The elves would kill you and your comrades would have gotten away clean. When you returned unexpectedly they didn’t know what to do. They were afraid the truth would get out and they couldn’t allow that so they threw you in prison and were planning on executing you for treason. I know this because you know this; you just won’t admit it to yourself.?

I was crying. I hadn’t even remembered any of that until now.

“You were in prison for a couple of months and even managed to make a few friends in that time. When you finally had a chance to escape it was me who helped you even though you didn’t know it. The runners who infiltrated the prison were there to spring one of the prisoners in your cell block and they used you and all the other prisoners as a diversion. That was their shaman’s idea - my idea. Not only did you escape, but you managed to help some of your friends escape and some of them even deserved freedom. You always were a loyal friend.?

I didn’t know what to say. All of a sudden I realized that there was always so much more going on behind the scenes that I was never aware of. I could almost see an infinitely large spider web pattern with tens of billions of metahumans in it, all working together to maintain some sort of cosmic order. It was beautiful but it added a monstrous headache to my already significant discomfort.

“After you escaped to Seattle you fell into a depression. Understandably so. But then you started to poison your mind and spirit with BTL. It was your choice and I wasn’t about to stop you. I thought you were gone, that you were going to die. It happens. But then you surprised everyone in Clancy’s that night, especially me and Scarlet. That’s your angel’s name, by the way. You’ve been drowning ever since and it’s the end now. You’re dying.?

“If I’m dying why are you bothering me?? I croaked between sobs.

“You can still do something about it, you can stand up. You can go save her like she saved you. Are you really just going to lay here counting stars until the end? After all of the pain, humiliation and betrayal you’re just going to lay here and give up??

“No? I said, “but what can a burned out BTL junkie possibly do??

“There’s still a little bit left in you and your body and mind can be rebuilt with effort. With my help you just might be able to do more than you ever thought possible. Now stand up.?

I struggled painfully to my feet and stood on shaky legs.

“If you can make it back to Seattle you will live, but don’t think that it’s going to be easy – Seattle is a long way from here.?

“Where is here?? I asked.

“Where you’ve been and where you are is not important. All that matters is where you must go. Call it a spirit quest if it helps, but don’t worry too much about it. You’ll know what to do when the time comes and I will be with you the whole way. I will teach you to summon spirits, cast spells and protect your friends from magic that would otherwise harm them. If you succeed you will be awakened.?

“I will succeed.?

“I know. Now run.?

I ran. Slowly at first. I stumbled and fell to my knees. They started bleeding but I got up and started running again.

“I’ll be with you from now on for as long as you walk the path you have just chosen. I’ll help you when you need me and together we can do what needs to be done.?

“Thank you? I breathlessly said. “I am grateful.?

Just like he said he would, Dog taught me during the journey, which took years. In that time I learned to shapechange into animals, summon spirits and defend against hostile magic. By the time I reached Seattle I had a dark suntan and a beard down to my waist. I had climbed mountains, explored labyrinthine caverns and learned the secrets of the awakened world that only the awakened know. When I got into the city Dog led me to the office of a street doc named Dr. VanBruen. He stopped me before I went in and told me to expect to be contacted by a man named Jinx, a street shaman and talismonger. He said that Jinx would help me get settled into my new abilities and that he would be able to hook me up with all kinds of trinkets and magic as soon as I had the money to pay for them. I turned and thanked Dog for his help, but he was gone. The whole city was gone, the whole world in fact except the Doctor’s office and me. I was alone again for the first time in years but somehow I didn’t feel alone or scared anymore. I felt confident and whole. I felt like myself again, like I was finally awake.

I had a feeling as though I knew exactly who Dr. VanBruen was and he was not going to be happy to see me alive in the morning and I was going to be very happy to see the startled look on his face. Maybe he would die of surprise and save me the trouble of kicking his smarmy ass. There was only one thing left to do - I walked through the front door. After a moment of dizziness I woke up on a surgery table with Dr. VanBruen standing over me, scalpel in hand…

<<Endfile: “finally_awake.txt?>>

There’s more to the story but I’ll end it here because you already know the rest. If you do want to hear more maybe we can discuss it over dinner sometime.
tisoz
Redemption

by HMHVV Hunter


“It is his capacity for self-improvement and self-redemption which most distinguishes man from the mere brute.?
-Aung San Suu Kyi, “Freedom from Fear?

What makes a man worthy of redemption? Is it ever too late to atone for ones’ crimes? Is there a point where someone has simply gone too far to ever be redeemed? What makes a man worthy of it? For that matter, is it only a man that can find redemption – or can monsters find it too? I used to think the answers to those questions were so clear, so cut-and-dried. Now I’m not so sure.

I suppose I should introduce myself before I go further, or this little tale might not make much sense. I go by the name “Helios? among shadowrunners and other members of my chosen profession. That profession is an HMHVV hunter. Vampires, ghouls, wendigo, the monsters that prey on humanity – they are my prey, my targets, my paycheck.

Been at this for 14 years, ever since I was 16 years old and I came home from a night out with friends to find my entire family killed and about to be turned by a bloodsucker. Killed that fucker for what he did – made him feel every second of it, too. That was the night I Awakened as an adept.

The job has its hazards, sure. I’ve come close to death – or worse, being turned – more times than I care to think about. But I’ve come a lot further than most hunters I’ve fought alongside (when I’ve bothered to fight alongside them – I tend to hunt alone whenever possible). This is one of those jobs with a high learning curve; one mistake early on, and that could be it for you. The fact I’ve survived 14 years, despite my share of mistakes, either means I’m one lucky son of a bitch, or that I really am one of the best. I’ll let others decide which one it means. For me, it just means I’m alive and still hunting, and that’s what matters.

Never exactly shown mercy to any of the monsters I’ve hunted either. Why should I? Did those bastards show mercy on the poor schmucks they sucked dry for their own twisted existence, their perverted thrills? I must have killed hundreds of HMHVV monsters and never met one that did. But recently I may have met the exception to that rule – or maybe…I don’t know. I’m still trying to make sense of it myself.



I’ll start off where this story really begins, at the tail end of a “fumigation? run I ran with several other hunters.

“Fumigation? is hunter slang for “if it moves and it’s Infected, kill it.? We’re sent in to take out every Infected target in a given area. Difficult job, typically with a very high chance of dying or being turned, which is why those jobs sometimes pay enough to cover rent in a snazzy condo for a year before being divvied up among team members.

This particular fumigation run was on an apartment complex in the Renton district of the Seattle Metroplex, which is where I just happen to call home. Seems that a gang of ghouls calling themselves Mordiggian’s Bastards were seeking to make a name for themselves in the district, and decided to make their mark by bushwhacking a three-story apartment building, killing the residents and making it their “base of operations.? They’d holed themselves up in the building, shooting at anyone who approached too closely – and with all the residents that they’d killed in there, they had enough ghoul chow to hold out for a long time.

The Bastards proved how dangerous they were to the other gangs in the area by tearing apart a troop of the Night Hunters that tried to dislodge the Bastards – in hand-to-claw combat. Not gonna shed any tears over that incident. I don’t care much for Humanis racists or skinheads like the Night Hunters. Those fuckers can stay ghoul food for all I care.

Well, after a Knight Errant Firewatch team tried to take the Bastards out, and got two teammates mauled to death and several others badly injured for their trouble, Ares Macrotechnology (KE’s corporate parent, y’know) decided to hire “outside help? to deal with these bastards. They put out a call on the local underground hunter message boards asking for help. I jumped at the chance. Like I said, I don’t care much that they slaughtered some Night Hunters. The world can do without scum like that wasting our precious air. I do care about the fact that they slaughtered an entire apartment complex of innocent people to prove who has the bigger dick to other gangs.

The Ares Johnson was happy to see me on the job. A solid 14-year career does wonders for your reputation. By the time the hiring period was over, I had five partners in hunting. The deal was five of us against an estimated 35 ghouls, all armed and all ready to bum-rush us en masse on sight.
Amazingly, it didn’t really start to hit the fan until we hit the third floor…



“SHIT!? I yelled as a half-inch slug tore into the doorframe mere inches from my arm. When gunfights begin and the lead starts flying, your vocabulary tends to get reduced to four letter words.

We’d cleared out the first two floors of the apartment complex with minimal sweat. We were prepared to get bushwhacked by all 35 gang members right off the bat, so we went in with appropriate tactics – lethal force, shoot to kill at anything that moves. This was more than enough to take out the few ghouls that were actually on the first floor, eight by my count. They probably weren’t expecting professional hunters on the job.

The ghouls on the second floor, another 16, had obviously tried to make a better go of things, but their flimsily-prepared defenses weren’t nearly enough to stop us. A few panicked shots from the ghouls had left some of us wounded, though, and we took a break to patch those wounds before continuing on.

The ghouls on the third floor had obviously been preparing while we’d been patching up. I glimpsed overturned tables in the apartment hallway before I had gotten completely up the stairwell – roadblocks. I had already been expecting ghouls to hide behind them, so I wasn’t too shocked when one of them popped up and fired a pistol at me. Still didn’t make it any better when the bullet nearly tore a hole in my arm. The rest of the team ducked in the stairwell landing, having stayed behind me.

“Anybody got a clear shot?? I asked. A tusked grin crossed the face of V.H., one of the other hunters, as he raised a large rifle-like weapon towards the hallway. I smiled and gave him a series of hand signals that indicated I wanted two shots fired at each barricade, and the ork nodded.
Seconds later, four explosions rocked the hallway as four grenades discharged from V.H.’s grenade launcher, obliterating the makeshift barriers.

I popped out of hiding after the shrapnel cleared and emptied half my Ares Alpha’s magazine into the smoke filled hallway, not stopping until I was damn sure I couldn’t see anything moving and couldn’t hear anything speaking. Four dead ghoul bodies greeted me when the smoke cleared, two of them with limbs torn off, doubtlessly from the explosions. Twenty-eight down, 7 to go.

We approached the bend in the third floor’s L-shaped hallway, and we all got frosty as we approached. I hand-signaled the team to a stop as we approached the bend and motioned V.H. forward. He nodded as he took up a position in front of me for pop-out fire.

I gave him the nod seconds later and we both popped out, spotting the ghoul and firing at the same time. A few perfunctory rounds from my smartgun-aided rifle proved pointless, as a launched grenade from V.H. blew the ghoul to bloody bits a second later.

Once my adrenaline receded, I realized that that was the only bogey visible. There were supposed to be at least another six ghouls unaccounted for. The penthouse where the gang leader was holed up was facing us at the other end of the hallway – and yet that was the only one we saw.

Ambush, I immediately thought, and motioned the team back.

“They must be set up in the apartments lining the hallway,? I whispered to the other team members. “They’re gonna try to ambush us.? I pointed at two other team members – Ray, our magical support and Jayna, a razorgirl – and motioned towards V.H., who had already holstered his grenade launcher and was prepping a machine gun he’d brought with him.

“You two, go with him and check every room on the right side of the hall,? I whispered. “Kick the door down and shoot everything that moves. At least one of you watch the other two’s backs.? I pointed to the other two members – Bram, another spell-slinger, and Artemis, the team’s resident crack-shot – and told them to come with me as we did the same. Creeping down the left side of the hallway, Bram moved his huge troll bulk in front of Artemis and I as he assumed the door-kicker position. I nodded as I took second position, ready to back him up, and Artemis stood prepared to cover us.

One…two…THREE! The door splintered under Bram’s kick, and somehow I managed to squeeze by his massive frame as he rushed through the doorframe.

I heard a “fwoosh? sound behind me as I swept the right side of the room, and figured that Bram had bagged a ghoul. The smartgun crosshairs displayed on my sunglasses didn't find a single target to track as I finished my sweep. Creeping forward slowly, I was about to kick open the door to the bathroom when I heard a decidedly different sound coming from behind me – a wretching sound, like someone about to hurl.

Turning back, I hurried back in Bram’s direction, where I’d heard the sound come from, and ran into the bedroom he had swept. Bram was kneeling next to me, a puddle of vomit collecting on the floor beneath him.

I looked up and immediately saw what triggered his reaction. Four human heads, mounted above the bed like hunting trophies - a man, a woman, and a little boy and girl. I figured they must have been the apartment’s occupants before these Infected marauders ransacked the place. I was staring in disbelief at the sight, when Artemis’s call of “Look out!? turned my attention 180 degrees.

I wheeled around and saw two flesh-eaters busting out of the bathroom door I had been about to kick down seconds before, both pointing guns at us. I was too pissed off to do anything but shoot to kill. Six slugs from my rifle tore into the body of the left ghoul while three very well-placed shots from Artemis’s pistol caught the right one between the eyes, dropping him instantly.

I strode over to my target, rage doubtlessly in my eyes but hidden from the rest by the smartlinked sunglasses I wore.

The ghoul, still alive, twisted on the floor in obvious pain, his grayed skin opened and bleeding in half-a-dozen places. I placed my foot on his neck, hard enough that he had to struggle for breath, and pointed the barrel of my Ares Alpha at his forehead.

“Was slaughtering an entire family worth this, you sick son of a bitch?? I asked, cold rage smoldering in my voice. He was trying to croak an answer through his increasingly-crushed windpipe when I decided I didn’t give a shit what he had to say and emptied the remaining 15 rounds into his head, leaving very little of it left.

Striding back over to Bram and slamming a fresh clip into my Alpha, I put my hand on his back as he finished emptying his guts. This was his first hunt – I couldn’t blame him for losing his stomach contents.

“You know the rules – hold the vomit until after the mission,? I told him, trying to strike that delicate balance between encouragement and discipline as I helped his big-ass self up. It apparently worked, because he nodded at me and shook his head, trying to mentally steady himself for the fight ahead.

We met up with V.H.’s team in the hallway, and he held up two fingers as he saw me. Two ghouls down on his end, three on ours. One was left, and I had a good idea where he was.

“He’s probably in the penthouse at the end of the hallway,? I told the team. “I’m going after him; the five of you, watch the doors and behind us for ambushes in case I’m wrong.? All five of them nodded.

I strode ahead of the rest of the group, slinging my assault rifle over my shoulder. Whenever you’re dealing with a gang, it helps to know a little bit about the leader, given that gangs tend to be one part criminal organization and one part personality cult – at least according to a few sources I’ve read. Fortunately, Knight Errant had a file on the head of Mordiggian’s Bastards.

Thirty years old, calls himself “Hannibal?, and loves to tear his opponents apart up close. “It’s more visceral? was the excuse he used, I believe. Fortunately, I came prepared.

Arriving at the door to the penthouse, I kicked the door down with all my might, sending splinters flying in several directions.

The place was rather luxurious for an apartment complex like this – big room, lots of amenities, nice view of the city street below.

Somehow though, I doubt the dead bodies piled up in the corner were part of the package, nor was the gray-skinned figure sitting in the swivel chair facing the door, a TV blaring the latest Urban Brawl game on the far wall behind him

The leading ghoul looked surprised to see the six of us busting through the door, but quickly reverted to a cocky demeanor as he stood up to his full seven-foot height.

“Guess I should have hired better help when I started this little band of warriors,? Hannibal said, almost mockingly.

I ignored his attempt to rattle me, my earlier rage having subsided into a more calm, cold, calculating state.

“This ends tonight, Infected filth,? I said, trying to face him down – though that’s not so easy to do to someone almost a foot taller than my six-foot-two height. Hannibal threw his head back and laughed.

“You think that because you hacked your way through my lackeys, you can stop me?? Hannibal said. “Do you even know what I am?!?

“Somebody very deep in denial with a hell of a superiority complex, if you think you can stop us where 34 of your goons failed,? I shot back.

I guess I was off my game that night, not paying full attention to the situation, because what happened next caught me completely off guard. His fingers were around my throat before I could react, and he lifted me off the ground with one arm. I struggled against his grip, but he was too damn strong.

“Do you think I led this motley bunch by being an ordinary ghoul?? he growled, throwing me against the wall on the opposite side of the room. I landed back-first on a table, the sharp corner sending a hellacious pain into my back as I fell to the floor.

Hannibal obviously wasn’t finished with his object lesson though, judging by how he was storming towards me, every footfall causing the floor to shake. I tried to get up, but only got halfway up before he landed a massive punch on me, sending me through the thin apartment wall into the penthouse’s master bedroom.

Once I realized that Hannibal wasn’t storming after me a third time, I assessed my situation. The punch had hit me square in the armor jacket I was wearing, leaving a nice imprint in the stomach region. It took me a second in my dazed state to realize that punches shouldn’t be able to do that. If I hadn’t been wearing the armor, I could have been cut open, or even sustained internal injuries.
It suddenly all made sense to me.

“An adept,? I said as I stood up. “A ghoul adept.?

Hannibal flashed his evil grin again.

“Alright you murderous son of a bitch,? I said as I strode forward into the main room, shaking off the stars still circling my head. “You’re mine. You and me, mano-a-mutant.?

Hannibal grunted another laugh, but didn’t raise any objections as he dropped into a combat stance, cracking his knuckles. I followed suit, drawing the katana sheathed across my back, also holding my hand, palm-out, towards the other five – a signal to stay back and let me handle this. I felt the adrenaline flowing through me as I prepared for the duel. I have to admit, I always enjoy facing the Infected like this. It was different from just shooting guns, much more intense.

Hannibal made the first move, taking a swipe at me with his claws. I dodged backwards, taking a slash at his outstretched arm that tagged him, a line of red appearing on his forearm.

My turn.

I launched myself into a quick sideways slash, aiming to decapitate the monster and finish the fight.
But this guy was just full of surprises, it seemed.

As my blade reached the ghoul’s shoulder area, it was met with resistance and a simultaneous “CLANG? sound. A second later, my eyes focused on my blade, and I saw it – a spur, jutting out of his left forearm.

Cyberware. Fuckin’ figures. I kept the resistance on my blade up, hoping he’d make a move I could exploit to end the fight.

I wasn’t too surprised when I heard the “snickt? sound of another spur extending from his other arm, and I was ready for the forward thrust that came soon after it. I lifted my sword and spun myself around and to his left, staying far back enough to avoid the arc of his left arm spur, which sure enough completed its arc with no katana to press against.

I then switched my blade to my right hand and brought the blade down. I felt the ghoul’s flesh, muscle and bone attempt to resist and finally give way under the sharpened katana’s assault, and heard the howl of pain coming from my monstrous opponent. Wasting no time, I switched back to a two-handed grip and brought my blade up through his still-outstretched right arm, slicing it off at the elbow.

The ghoul, the guy who was playing Mister Invincible just a second ago, knelt to the ground whimpering in pain, the bloody stumps of his arms dripping Krieger HMHVV-infected blood onto the wooden floor of the penthouse.

Time to finish this. I put my katana’s blade up to the front of his throat, using the flat to lift his head up to meet my eyes. There was no trace of the cocky arrogance that I saw just a moment before. There was only fear and dread.

“Please,? he croaked. “I surrender. I’ll go with Knight Errant peacefully.?

Rage boiled in my veins as this pathetic subhuman begged for his life, the severed and mounted heads of that family – including two children – that had been killed by the hands of his pet monsters flashing through my mind. I have no room for mercy for murderous bastards like this.

“Go to hell,? I said in reply, and with a quick flick of my wrist to the right both Mordiggian’s Bastards and their leader were headless.

* * *

Life took a turn for the calmer for a while after that job, a rarity in my line of work. The job’s payoff came just in time for Christmas a couple weeks later, so I made good use of the money. It was enough to give me a little time off from work too, so I didn’t mind that I didn’t receive any calls.

I was just starting to get bored with my off-time, watching the same damn rerun of “Behind the Brawl? for the ten thousandth time, when my wall phone started to ring with the custom ring tone I set up for my fixer.

Muting the trid set, I walked over to the wall phone and tapped the “receive? button. Sure enough, the face of my fixer came up onto the screen – sharp business suit, sunglasses and same stiff-as-a-board expression.

“Mr. Anderson,? I said, calling him by the alias he always went by. I never bothered to ask his real name. Even when I was a newbie runner, I knew that was one question you didn’t ask unless they volunteered.

“Mister Helios,? Anderson said with his usual business-like tone. “Apologies for interrupting your little vacation, but I have an interested party that wishes to talk to you about a job.?

Right to the point, like always. I tapped a button on the com unit and opened up the calendar function. “Who’s the employer?? I asked.

“Lone Star,? Anderson replied.

That made me pause for a second. I’d never taken a job from the big cop corp before. Yeah, I’d worked for Knight Errant on that fumigation job and a couple times before, but something about Lone Star was different. Where Knight Errant often felt more like a mercenary squad, Lone Star truly felt like law and order, at least that was the image conjured by them.

Still, work is work.

“Time and place?? I asked.

“Tomorrow morning, 0900 at Tam’s,? Anderson said. “And they say to leave your weapons at home.?

Figures. People in Downtown Seattle tend to get twitchy if they see a firearm, especially so close to the Space Needle. Good thing I don’t need weapons to be deadly.

“Got it,? I said. “I’ll be there.?



The next morning, I found myself in the shadow of Seattle’s famous Space Needle, at the location Anderson mentioned. As meeting spots go, it wasn’t a bad choice – public place, a dinky, ho-hum restaurant without much setting it apart from the rest. All in all, not a bad spot to conduct a little clandestine business.

The time read 0900 by the time I got there. I usually try to show up early, but given that I had no idea what these officers looked like, I decided it would be better to arrive on time, when they were certain to be there. Anderson had told me which table they’d be at, a booth by the window, so I headed over to that table and wasn’t at all surprised to find two guys in blue uniforms sitting at the table. One young guy, probably the rookie in the pairing, and an older guy with graying hair at the temples.

“Officers?? I asked, strolling up behind them. The two turned to face me as I slid myself into the booth seat across from them.

“I take it you’re the hunter Mr. Anderson said he would contact?? the veteran cop asked.

I nodded, my arms crossed.

“Good,? the vet said. “Then maybe we have a chance of solving this after all.?

The waitress came up and took our orders about the point, so we waited to continue talking shop until she was well out of earshot.

“My name’s Lt. Carstairs, and this is my partner, Officer Maxwell,? the vet said. “And we need your help.? Carstairs pulled out a file folder from his seat and slid it in front of me.

“This is the case we’ve been working on for the past several months,? Carstairs said. “I think you’ll see where you fit into all this soon enough.?

I opened the file folder. The title page read “File 2070-767769? – suitably dry, formal stuff one would expect from an official report. The title below it caught my eye though, “The Regret Killings.?

What is this, a bad mystery novel? I thought to myself, giving the cops a raised eyebrow.

“Just read the file,? the rookie said, annoyed.

I steeled myself, preparing to look upon some horrific crime scene photo with lots of mutilated bodies, as I turned the page.

Instead, I was greeted with a relatively tame sight for a murder file. The body of a woman, lying on a carpeted floor, arms crossed across her chest. There were red smears across parts of her face, far slighter than I would have imagined for a murder. Into her forehead, a cross was faintly etched, not gouged into her forehead so that it was bleeding, but more like a chalky pattern, like the kind you get when you scratch just a layer of skin or two deep. A wooden stake was also driven through the body’s chest, to keep the victim from rising as a vampire no doubt, though I couldn’t imagine why any vampire would do that. What vampire wouldn’t want an army or cult of bloodsuckers following their every word?

“This was the first body found, about six months ago,? Carstairs said. “Found it when our dispatch center got an anonymous call reporting it. Never did find out the caller.?

I turned the page and found a close up picture of several wounds, wounds I’d become all too familiar with in the last 14 years.

“Fang marks,? I whispered.

Carstairs nodded.

“So what’s with the posing of the body and the smudged blood?? I asked as I flipped through the crime scene photos. “The smudges make it seem like he tried to clean her up, but the posing…??

“We’re getting ahead of ourselves here,? Carstairs interrupted. “We’ve found four more bodies like this in the past six months, all posed the same way, all cleaned up.?

I closed the file and set it down.

“Well, I’m sure you have somebody working on this case,? I said. “Why do you need me all of a sudden? Why be so clandestine??

Carstairs looked down at his coffee for a second.

“Because we have to admit that we don’t know what we’re up against here,? Carstairs said. “There aren’t too many specialists in hunting down the HMHVV-Infected in Lone Star, period, and certainly not on the Seattle force.? Carstairs took a deep breath and sighed outwardly as he continued.

“Plus,? he said, “we’re keeping our options open, in case an arrest is… impractical.?

I nodded, understanding the subtext here. If it became necessary to kill this sucker they didn’t want the blood on one of their officers’ hands, but the hands of a guy who does it for a living would suit them just fine.

“What do you want me to do?? I asked

“We’ve had a forensic psychologist working on this case for the past couple of months now,? Carstairs said. “We want you to assist him with your knowledge of the Infected, try to find a pattern to the vampire’s crimes, and hopefully stop him before he kills again.?

I nodded. An advisor’s position, it sounded like. Sounded like it could be kind of boring, but it was work. Infected-hunting didn’t always take the form of fumigation jobs, after all.

“What’s the pay?? I asked.

Carstairs turned his head and nodded to Maxwell. A second later, I felt something prod me in the leg. I looked down and saw a certified credstick in Maxwell’s hand, which was under the table. I discretely took it.

“That contains 15,000 nuyen – half the pay we’re willing to offer for this job,? Carstairs said. “The other half to be available upon completion.?

Thirty-thousand nuyen for a low-action job. The price seemed right.

“When do we start?? I asked.



A few hours later, at dusk, duffel bag in hand, I was standing at the address Lt. Carstairs had given me, looking at my base of operations – a van. A shitty van. Parked in the Barrens.

I figured this either had to be a joke or the Star’s budget was even more in the shitter than people thought. Oh well. I wasn’t being paid to ask questions. If I had to stay in here a few days, those were the breaks.

Walking up to the rear double doors, I gave it a quick knock.

“Hired help,? I said, using the code word Carstairs had given me. A second later, one of the doors opened a crack.

“Ah yes, we’re expecting you,? an accented voice said from within. “Please, come on in.?

I pulled the latch on the door and opened it, mentally prepared to dodge a deluge of bugs that were doubtless to come swarming out. Instead, my jaw dropped as I took stock of what was inside the van.

The thing was a techno-fetishist’s wet dream. A bank of computers with several screens lining both sides, along with even more cool stuff I couldn’t even begin to describe. I was so surprised I almost forgot to close the door behind me as I crawled in.

“Holy mother of crap,? I said as I looked around. “You pull out all this stuff to catch every serial killer??

“Nah, just the ones that risk making the Star brass look bad,? a gruff voice said from the front of the van.

A chuckle sounded from the guy that had let me in, an Asian-looking elf that was facing the main computer bank.

“I see you’ve already heard from our resident rebel, Officer Conway,? he said, spinning in his chair to face me. “I’m Lt. Sato, profiler with the Forensics Division.?

“Profiler?? I asked. “You mean you get inside the criminal’s head, try to figure out where they’ll end up next??

Sato nodded. “More or less.?

I suddenly saw why they wanted my expertise in Infected psychology. Paired with a forensics wiz like this guy, I couldn’t think of a better way to track down a serial killer.

“So what’s all this stuff?? I asked. “I assume this isn’t all here for show??

“What we’ve got here is a mobile database,? Sato said. “A wireless, secure hookup to the Lone Star mainframe so we can access whatever info we need, top-flight communications gear, plus all the advantages of mobility in case we have to take off ASAP.?

“Awesome,? I said, taking a seat.

Sato took a glance at the duffel bag I’d brought in.

“So what’s…? he started.

“You probably don’t want to know,? I said. “I’ll just say it’s nothing hi-explosive and leave it at that – and that it may come in handy if we can’t wait for backup.?

Sato nodded.

“Alright, I guess the best place to start is from the beginning,? I said. “What do we know so far??

Sato spun around and punched a few keys, bringing up several crime scene photos. Several victims, all with their arms crossed, all with smudges where the killer had cleaned up after himself, all with the same cross lightly scratched into their forehead.

“Well, either this guy’s got a thing for posing people like Egyptian mummies, or…? I said.

Sato shook his head.

“I’ve seen bodies like that before,? Sato said. “That pose typically means things like remorse or regret, feeling bad that he’s killed.?

“HA!? I laughed out loud. Vampires, killing machines by nature, feeling regret for their victims? Sato tilted his head to one side and regarded me with a weird look.

“C’mon, since when do suckheads feel bad about their victims?? I asked. “Only time I ever met a bloodsucker that felt regret was when I had my blade poised at his neck.?

“Look, all I can tell you is what I know from my years of experience as a profiler, and this just screams ‘I’m sorry’ from where I’m sitting,? Sato said. ?look at the bodies – all with wooden stakes driven through their chests. He obviously meant to stop another vampire from rising.?

“Probably looking to eliminate feeding competition,? I said.

“Or maybe a symptom of regret,? Sato said. “Also, look at the smudges where he tried to clean up the blood.?

“Trying to cover his undead ass,? I said.

Sato shook his head. “No, if all he wanted to get rid of the evidence, he could have burned the bodies.?

I had to concede that point.

“Look, I can see you’re having trouble grasping the idea of a vampire with any emotions but murderous rage, but just try to bear with me for a second,? Sato said. “I’m convinced that he’s suffering regret for what he’s done based on what he does with the bodies, but that leaves the question – why??

Good question. If this guy was getting all teary-eyed about his prey, why was he doing it at all?

“You know, most HMHVV-Infected start getting ravenous as they lose their life force, to the point where as it ebbs away completely they become complete mad dogs,? I offered. “If this guy is…?
I struggled to get it out, but it eventually came. “…remorseful, then maybe he’s trying to hold off of feeding until the point where he loses it completely.?

“I hadn’t known about that, but that would be a good explanation,? Sato said, nodding.

“So do we have any idea who this guy is?? I asked.

Sato shook his head. “I’m afraid we can’t find any connection between the victims,? he said. “No two are from the same family, and we haven’t been able to find any connection between any of the victims.?

I sighed and sank back in my chair. This was gonna be tough. No leads, no connections between the victims except how they were posed…

“I suppose it’s too much to ask that the guy left his own blood at the scene?? I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Seems to be,? Sato said.

No DNA evidence either. Great.

Our thoughts were interrupted by a call from the front seat.

“Hey guys,? Conway’s voice shouted from the front. “Got something over the radio you guys might be interested in.?

Tell me it’s not…

“Another victim?? Sato asked, finishing my thought.

“In a sense,? Conway said. “Some off-duty Lone Star cops broke up a fight between a gang and an innocent bystander somewhere in the Downtown area.?

That explained why they gave a shit about a gang dust-up. Downtown was one of those areas lucky enough that the Star gave a shit about keeping things non-violent.

“So what’s the big deal?? I asked.

“Well, there’s two interesting things about it,? Conway said. “One, that gang is a small gang of vampires.?

The surprise of that announcement made me stand up quickly, banging my head against the van roof and drawing a curse. I crumpled back into my chair, holding my head, which was now throbbing with pain.

“And interesting point number two?? I asked through gritted teeth.

“The gangers are claiming that innocent bystander was a vampire too, and that he attacked them. And they claim he’s ‘the vampire serial killer we’re after.’?

This was getting interesting all of a sudden. Assuming these suckheads weren’t bullshitting, how the hell did they know about this investigation?

“What have we got to lose?? I said. “Where are they??

“They’re being held at the scene,? Conway said.

“Take us to a block from there, then let us off,? Sato said. “We don’t want to draw attention to our mobile base here.?

Conway nodded and started up the engine, sending Sato back into his chair as the van started rolling.

“Mister Helios, I think that things might go smoother if I do the interrogating here,? Sato said.

“Why?? I asked, fairly offended.

“You have a reputation among these… circles, as I’m sure you know,? he said. “If they think you’re just going to kill them anyways, they may not give anything up. If you’re standing behind me though, I might be able to use the intimidation factor to my advantage.?

He had a point. I wasn’t going to be able to kill these vamps without depriving us of information on the job at hand. Besides, I could always make a mental note of them later and take care of them in the future if they caused someone else trouble.

“Fair enough,? I said. “But I’m taking my stuff with me.?

Grabbing my duffel bag and opening it, I started hauling out my usual toys – shotgun, pistol, body armor, sword.

“Are you sure you need all that?? Sato asked incredulously.

“You’re the one who wanted the intimidation factor,? I said. “What could be more intimidating than someone who looks like they can waste their entire gang in seconds flat??

I checked the clip in my Manhunter. Green paint on the underside, and oak-jacketed rounds in the clip to match. I’d developed a color-coding system for my specialty ammo a while back – green for oak-jacketed, blue for silver, red for iron – but it always paid to check.

Minutes later, the van pulled up to the scene of the crime. As soon as it stopped, Sato opened the back doors, with me following close behind him, Remington in hand, Manhunter on my hip and katana on my back.

Sato and I walked up to a group of cops several yards away, clustered near two police cars – the cops who’d handled the whole mess, I assumed.

Sato whispered something to one of the cops, who nodded and pointed to someone in another crowd of people – a group of street punks handcuffed and sitting on a bench on the sidewalk, being carefully watched by two more cops. Sato started over towards that bench, and once again, I followed.

“Alright young man,? he said, talking to the punk the cop pointed at, “tell us what happened here.?

“Yeah right, like I’m gonna tell you shit for free,? the punk sneered. “What are you gonna give me??

Sato turned his head to give me an annoyed look before going back to the gangers.

“Know who I’ve got standing behind me?? Sato asked.

“Give me a reason I should care, ya Jap pixie,? the vampire punk snarled.

“That’s a hunter,? Sato said. “A vampire hunter, to be more precise. Now I don’t know much about this guy’s history besides what I’ve heard, but if half the stuff I’ve heard is true, he’s got more vampire kills in 15 years than most Desert War MVS candidates have career kills. And I’m willing to bet he wouldn’t hesitate to add a few to his list.?

Sato turned his head to me and nodded.

“Time to play hardball,? he whispered, “the only way they know how.?

I nodded my understanding. A second later, I brought my shotgun up to one of the other punks, ka-chucked the action, and pulled the trigger, the thunderclap of the gunshot echoing so loudly I thought all of Downtown Seattle heard it.

The ganger punk I aimed for let out a decidedly un-manly “eep!? of fright as he regarded the hole in the bench where the oak-jacketed slug had torn through the bench. If he was still living, I’m certain he would have shit himself.

“By the way,? I said, lowering my shotgun, “those are oak-jacketed rounds. So much as think about going into mist form, and I won’t miss with my next shot.?

“Fortunately, this hunter here is on my leash, so he doesn’t haul off and kill you all right now,? Sato growled. “But give me a good goddamn excuse, and I’ll make sure all of you punks are being used for cat litter. You got me??

That object threat I’d just delivered, plus Sato’s speech, grabbed the punks’ attention immediately.

“Now,? Sato said, “what happened here??

“Ok, ok,? the vampire leader said. “We’ve been hearing rumors about some newly-turned vampire guy going nuts, killing people, and we think he’d make a good choice for the gang, y’know??

Figures. Bloodthirsty bastards.

“Only problem is, this guy’s a complete fucking shadow – no trace of him, hard as hell to find,? he said. “Well, one day one of our posse here looking for a meal lucks out on seeing him drain someone dry – some cute redhead or something. Damn, if she was as hot as he described, she must’ve tasted…?

I ka-chucked the action on my shotgun again and gave the punk a glare to indicate that he should move on or risk getting his fucking head blown off.

“Right, right,? the punk leader said hurriedly. “Anyways, our gang member says that after he’s done, this guy starts acting like a huge pussy – crying about how he’s killed again, asking God to forgive him, and all that pansy shit. Then he said that the wuss started posing her like a mummy or something.?

“Doesn’t sound like he’d fit in with your lot,? Sato said.

“Not at first, but this meant a challenge for us,? the leader said. “Y’know, breaking a guy in, turning him into a weapon.

“Well, we finally tracked this guy down and told him we wanted him to join us. Give him a group of people just like him to hang around, y’know? Well this guy just freaking LOST IT. Started screaming at us about how he was nothing like us, and how the world would be better off without us, and then he starts biting and swinging at us, draining some energy out of some of us even. We all piled on him, and that’s when the cops came along. The guy went to mist form and just drifted away.?

“So why didn’t you follow?? Sato asked.

“We were going to,? the leader snarled, “but then the pigs heard we were vampires and blasted us all with tasers, keeping the shockers on so we were too fucking distracted with the pain to go to mist form. Then they told us someone from the Dips was there with wooden stakes just in case we got any ideas.?

Good idea, getting the Department of Paranormal Investigation on this. Bastards can’t go into mist form if they’re constantly getting stabbed with pointy sticks.

“So how did you know we were after a vampire serial killer anyways?? Sato asked.

“Y’know, us vampires can be hackers too, y’know,? the leader said. “Our hacker said your system was pretty pathetic.?

They hacked the files. At least that was explained.

“Alright,? Sato said. “We’ve got our sketch artist here, and you’re gonna describe what this guy looks like. Helios, stay here while he does his work.?

I nodded, and seconds later the sketch artist was taking information.

About a half hour later, the vampire punks were cut loose, with yet another warning from Sato and me, and the sketch artist had his artist’s interpretation of who we were after.

He definitely didn’t look the serial killer type. Aging guy, probably in his 40s, thinning hair… the kind of look you can only get through a lifetime of boring white-collar work. Made me wonder if the guy who made him a vampire turned him on purpose or if he was an accident.

“So what do we do with this now?? I asked. “We’ve got a good idea what he looks like, but we’ve still got no name.?

Sato seemed to consider that for a second.

“Let me get on the horn to HQ,? Sato said. “Maybe it’s time for this to go public after all.?

Sato clambered back into the van while I leaned against the van’s exterior, pondering where that decision could take this case. If this went public, maintaining my anonymity would be an even greater concern. Bad for Star PR to have me blowing away a vampire on local trid, especially a shadowrunner. A few minutes later, Sato stepped out of the van.

“The chief’s calling a press conference at 9 a.m. tomorrow to announce who we’re after,? Sato said. “He agreed that we’ve run out of ideas for finding this guy unless we’ve got some help from the public.? Sato cleared his throat before continuing on.

“He also told me that you’re to be kept on ‘an extra-short leash,’ Sato continued. “With the public watching us, we have to do things by the book - that means proper arrest procedure, no lethal force unless absolutely necessary, the works.?

I cursed silently. I hated complications that cropped up like this, especially complications that only existed to save somebody’s PR image.

“I understand that you’re not quite acquainted with such things, so I’ve been asked to give you a crash course,? Sato said.

A lecture. Great.



Sato mercifully concluded his lecture by suggesting that we all get whatever sleep we could in the van’s confines before the next day. Fortunately the back was (just) spacious enough for a couple of cots, while Conway seemed content to sleep across the front seats. We also managed to find a place where the van wouldn’t get robbed blind in the middle of the night.

The next day, we all watched the chief’s press conference. He announced the wave of serial killings over the past few months, confirming some details for the press, and announcing a 5,000 nuyen reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction.

By noon that day, there were at least 300 calls logged into the information hotline, claiming to have seen the vampire killer. Of course, most of them were complete morons looking for a quick buck with absolutely no reliable information. Such were the risks of those things, but we were still hoping someone would call in with real information.

Right about 2 p.m. though, Sato got a call that sent our investigation forward again. A group of people were coming to the Star’s station house.

They were the vampire’s family.



An hour later, Sato was sitting down in one of the Star’s interview rooms, across from a group of new faces. They were a pretty average middle-class family – a big bearded guy who looked to be in his early 30s or so, a brunette late-30s woman, and an elderly couple that I had to guess were the vampire’s parents. Sato sat them down in some chairs in the room and sat across a table from them. I sat in the next room behind some one-way glass listening to the whole exchange.

Sato placed a digital recorder on the table.

“For the record, we’ll need you to state your names,? Sato said, trying to be as gentle as possible with the family.

“My name’s David Jenkins,? the old man said, ?and this is my wife, Ingrid. We’re Martin’s parents.?

“And Martin is…? Sato prompted.

The old man sighed, as if he didn’t want to say what he was about to.

“He’s the vampire that you guys are after,? David said. “These are Martin’s siblings, Jonathan and Carla.?

“Ok,? Sato said. “Do you have any idea where Martin is??

All four of them shook their heads.

“We haven’t seen him in months,? Carla said, tears starting to fall from her eyes. “It’s been so hard, we used to see him every week, and now…?

Ingrid put her hand on Carla’s shoulder, trying to steady her daughter.

“About a year ago,? Ingrid said. “We got a phone call from our son on his usual visit day. It was already weird, he hadn’t shown up when he usually did, and he couldn’t have gotten lost - he grew up in the house we live in. But it was about to get worse.

“He said that he couldn’t see us anymore, that it would be better for everyone’s safety if he just didn’t see us again.?

“Did he say why?? Sato asked.

“All he said was that he was scared for our safety if he got close to us,? Jonathan said. “He said that his soul was in danger already, and that he couldn’t risk putting our souls in danger too. He was always a very devout Catholic like that, always looking out for us well-being like that, making sure we did the right thing.?

“At the time all of us figured that he’d gotten into some trouble, maybe made friends with some bad people that were out to get him,? Carla said, shaking her head. “But this… we couldn’t have imagined this.?

I couldn’t imagine what they must be going through. Finding out that their loved one had turned into a monster, that there was nothing to change him back, that the virus had turned a gentle man into a serial killer…I was amazed that the elderly parents hadn’t died from shock when they heard the news.

“Do you have any idea where he could be?? Sato said. “Any friends he could have gone to for help, anybody that he would trust??

David took a deep breath.

“I think he already did,? David said. “That list of victims we saw on the news…they were all friends of Martin’s.?

So that was the connection between the victims that we were looking for.

“Something must have come over him,? Carla said. “He wouldn’t murder his friends in cold blood. Something must have made him do that, something that the virus did to his mind.?

They were closer to the truth than they realized.

“Does he have any other friends that you know of besides those?? Sato asked.

The family all shook their heads. Sato breathed a shallow sigh.

“Ok,? Sato said, switching the recorder off. “Thank you very much for coming in. And I’m very sorry for what’s happened.



A few hours later, as dusk approached, I was back in the van, sitting down and thinking about the twists this case had taken. The deeper I got into this case, the more I found myself feeling sorry for everyone involved. Not just for the family, but for the vampire himself. From what everyone had said about him, from all the evidence in this case, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the shitty hand that fate had dealt this guy.

I’d never felt this before about a target. In all my hunting career, I’d never met a vampire who felt the slightest trace of remorse about his actions. Now here was a guy who started out as just another target, and it had led me to… well, all this. Just when I thought I had life figured out…

The van door opened, interrupting my thoughts as Sato climbed into the back with a few bags of Nukit Burger food.

“Dinner is here,? Sato said, handing me the bag with my order in it.

I took the bag and started digging out my food, thinking over the case in my mind as I munched on the fries first. We’d exhausted the leads we had, and we still had no idea where this guy was going to go next. His friends were dead, his family didn’t know where he was… the only thing I could think of to do would be to wait until another victim popped up, but I didn’t want to actually do that. Too many people had already died in this whole matter; I didn’t want anyone else to die at this point except the vampire – he was still a mad dog that needed to be put down for the sake of everyone’s safety.

“Well, I hate to say it, but I’m tapped out of ideas,? I told Sato.

Sato nodded, obviously wishing he had better news on his front.

“I’ve been going over that interview recording so much I bought fresh batteries just in case the recorder ran out, and I’m still not finding any new leads,? Sato said.

I nodded, trying not to growl in frustration. This was maddening. Who else would the guy go to for comfort or help? Not his family, his friends were dead…

Wait a minute, what did that one family member say about him? He was a devout Catholic?

I’ve never been a religious man myself, but I’ve worked with a number of hunters in the past who were – and I knew about several aspects of the religion, including Sunday mass, In Imago Dei… and confession. In that second, I knew where he was going.

“Sato, can you punch up a map of Seattle?? I asked

Sato, looking momentarily surprised, went over to the computer and punched a few keys, bringing up a map of Seattle.

“Do we know where the Jenkins parents live?? I asked.

Sato called up the Seattle telecom directory, and a few key punches later, the screen had zeroed in on a zoom-in of their Lower Queen Anne Hill house.

“Where’s the closest Catholic church to their house?? I asked.

A few key punches later, the map zoomed out and highlighted two locations – one being the Jenkins home, the other a place identified as St. Paul’s Church, barely three blocks away in Downtown Seattle.

“That’s where he’s going,? I told Sato. “Conway, how far are we from St. Paul’s in Downtown??

“Probably about 15 minutes,? Conway said from the front seat.

“Gun it over there, but stop about a block away,? Sato said. “I’ll arrange for backup to meet us there.?



Fifteen minutes later we were at the location, but no Lone Star vehicles were there to meet us.

Figures, I thought cynically. Probably some rich guy getting mugged somewhere that’s sucking up their resources.

“Our backup’s been delayed,? Sato said, receiving a report from a headset. “There’s a gang dust-up on Redmond that’s leaking over into Renton, and our assigned backup was dispatched there to make sure it stays contained.?

“Dammit,? I cursed. If we waited any longer, we were going to lose our quarry.

“Fuck this,? I said, strapping my Manhunter and holster on. “Take the van over to the rear entrance of the church and I’ll get off there.?

“We can’t do that,? Sato protested. “We have to wait for backup first.?

“If we wait any longer, we’re going to lose this guy, and there’s no telling where he might go after this,? I said, checking to make sure oak-jacketed rounds were loaded into my pistol.

Conway, for his part, had already started driving towards the church, and by the time I’d strapped my body armor and sword on, we were already there.

“At least let us assist you,? Sato said.

I shook my head.

“I’ve worked alone on enough of these cases; I know what I’m doing,? I said, unlatching the back van doors and taking an earplug radio from the computer console. “Stay here and wait for backup, then signal me when they’re ready to come in.?

I crept up to the rear entrance, actually more of a side door into the church, and saw that the lights were still on inside despite the late hour. It was well after evening mass.

I checked the door. It was unlocked.

Slowly opening the door, I crept in and was greeted by the opulent cathedral within. The place was easily big enough to seat a few hundred people. Nobody was behind the altar, however. Nobody anywhere, in fact.

Slowly withdrawing my gun from its holster, I crept towards the confessional booth towards the rear of the church. If he was going to be here for confession like I thought, he’d be in one of the two booths. Carefully stepping towards one of the booths, I pointed my Manhunter at the door I was about to open – the confessor’s side.

I reached my hand forward, slowly, and yanked the door open…

Nothing. Nobody was inside, no signs of recent activity. And from the looks of the open confessional screen, there was nobody on the other side either. Walking over to the other confessional booth, I went over to the confessor’s side and yanked the door open, and was once again greeted with an empty seat.

This time, though, I was also greeted with an awful smell coming from the priest’s side. I pulled the priest’s door open and managed to keep my still-digesting dinner down in spite of the sight that greeted me. A man in priestly garb and a Roman collar was sitting in the chair. Eyes closed, arms crossed, wooden stake through the chest.

Sure enough, a check of his neck turned up fang marks. Martin Jenkins’ latest victim.

My mind was already drifting to where else Martin could be, figuring he must have left already, when a sound caught my ultra-sensitive ears – a sobbing sound coming from the front of the church. Turning around, I caught sight of someone sitting in one of the front pews.

I crept towards him, my adept abilities keeping me from making a sound as I walked up to him. I adjusted my eyes to thermographic mode, my adept powers once again kicking in. The guy was registering as cold.

Vampire.

I raised my gun as I walked closer, holding it at my hip, the laser sight painting a red dot on the man’s head.

“Martin Jenkins?? I asked, barely ten paces behind him.

To my surprise, the man didn’t jump out of his seat. He didn’t move much at all, in fact. He simply turned his head and nodded in response to my question. His face, which matched the earlier sketch to the smallest detail, told me all the rest of what I needed to know.

“You’ve been sent to kill me?? the vampire asked, the sadness still in his voice.

“There’s certain people who’d rather I take you in walking under your own power,? I responded. “But if I have to, yes.?

“You’d be smart to just kill me,? he said. “I’m a danger to society. I’m a monster that shouldn’t exist.?

If any other vampire had said that, they wouldn’t have gotten an argument from me. But this guy was different, as I’d found out over the past day or two.

“I’m not sure I believe that,? I said. “From what I’ve seen, you’re more like a dog who’s been stricken with rabies and gone mad, driven to kill by something beyond your control.?

“Then my fate will be the same,? he said. “I’ll need to be put down.?

“If it comes to that,? I said, nodding.

Jenkins stood up and turned around, and I thrust my gun out in front of me, but he didn’t move any further from where he stood.

“Do it,? he said. “Put me out of my misery.?

I was genuinely surprised to hear that. Even considering how much pain I could see he was in, I never thought I’d hear a vampire begging for death.

“Come on!? he shouted in anguish. “Do it before I kill again! God knows I tried to do the deed myself, but… if you die with a mortal sin on your head, you burn in Hell.?

He collapsed into the pew, sobbing anew.

“I’m such a selfish coward!? he said. “I tried to remove myself from this world so that no one would have to suffer – burning my apartment down, facing the sunlight, even a gun. But each time, I became so afraid of my own damnation that I stopped myself.?

“So you went to your friends for comfort,? I said, pointing my pistol towards the floor.

Martin nodded.

“And for a time, it was alright,? he said. “It took a while for many of them to adjust, but they all wanted so desperately to help me. But eventually…the virus, and the thirst, took me over again, and I’d get so hungry…my damned survival instincts kicked in, and…another of my friends would be dead! And every time that happened, I’d want to kill myself all over again, and the cycle would begin anew!?

I walked slowly towards Martin, sitting down in the pew behind him.

“How did it happen?? I asked. “How did you get turned??

“It was a woman,? Martin said. “I met her while I was out drinking one night. I’ve never been very lucky in love – for God’s sake, I’m middle-aged and still single – so when she expressed interest in me, I fell for her completely. Later that night, when we were alone, she drained me and turned me into… this.?

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a fist-sized object I recognized as a grenade.

“I planned to kill myself with this tonight, after confessing my sins to poor Father Jacob,? he said, pointing to the confessional. “But the thirst took over again, and I drained him before I could get a single word out.?

He handed the grenade to me. I checked to make sure the pin was still in before pocketing it.

“There’s no way I could have gone through with it,? he said. “I’m such a damn coward there’s no way I could have done it.?

This was getting neither of us anywhere.

“I’ve been asked to take you in,? I said. “If you come with me, you can have a chance to see your family again, maybe…?

“No, no,? he said. “If I’m allowed to live at all, I’ll just kill again. At best, I’ll live in inhumane conditions, with special measures keeping me captive, in this hellish damned state, for all eternity – or until the last of my stolen life force drains out of me and I die like a caged animal, clawing at the walls in hunger and rage. I’d choose any way to die other than that.?

For the first time since becoming a hunter, I was dreading doing what I had to do. The fact that this guy wanted to die didn’t make me feel any better about it.

“I can give you that much,? I said, ejecting the clip out of my gun. “See these? Oak-jacketed rounds, designed for vampire hunting. A quick, guaranteed end.?

Martin thought about it for a moment, then nodded.

“Before you do that,? he said, digging through his pockets, “take this.?

He pulled out his wallet and handed it to me.

“In there is a note to my family, and some pictures of happier times, with all of us together,? he said. “Please, give those to them. I don’t want their last memory of me to be an item on the evening news.?

I nodded, and put the wallet into an inside pocket of my armor jacket. I then stood up, re-loading the clip into my Manhunter and pulling the slide back.

“Before you do that,? Martin said. “can you do one more thing for me??

I nodded.

“Be my confessor,? he said. “I can’t die with all this blood on my soul, not if I hope to end up in paradise.?

“Doesn’t a priest have to do this?? I asked.

“We don’t have one handy,? he replied. “This is an emergency. I don’t know all of how God works, but I find it hard to believe he’d refuse someone absolution because of red tape.?

I thought about this for a second. I wasn’t Catholic, and I didn’t know a thing about this sacrament of theirs’.

But this was the last wish of a dying man – a man who was already dead, as far as he was concerned. I couldn’t refuse this.

“What do I need to do?? I asked.

“Listen to me confess, and then say the prayer of absolution,? he said. “And then…end it for me.?

“What’s the prayer?? I asked.

“Look in the confessional booth back there,? he said. “Father Jacob was just out of the seminary; he still had a note card that he wrote down some crucial prayers on.?

“Alright,? I said. “But you’re coming with me, back there.?

Martin nodded and got up.

I let him walk in front of me to the back of the church, and we made our way to the confessional where Father Jacob’s body was. I looked around the confessional booth, and sure enough, there was a note card sitting on one of the wooden shelves marked “absolution.? I pulled out the benches from the empty confessional booth and motioned Martin to sit down across from me on one of them. He took his seat as I sat down, pulling the slide back on my pistol.

“Go ahead,? I said. “

Martin crossed himself as he began his prayer.

“Bless me, for I have sinned,? he began.

Over the next few minutes, he recounted his litany of sins – mostly the murders he had committed since being turned, but even confessing to attacking the vampire gang that tried to recruit him. He also let a few other things off his chest that I couldn’t figure out – unresolved issues from before his turning, I suspected.

Fifteen minutes later, he had stopped recounting his sins and started into another prayer. When he ended the prayer with “Amen,? he motioned to me, which I took as my cue. His eyes never left me the entire time. He was obviously determined to go out courageously.

I had spent the past few minutes memorizing the prayer on the card as well as listening to his sins, so I didn’t have to look down at the card while intoning it.

“God, the father of mercies,? I began, “through the death and resurrection of his son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.?

My heart grew heavier as I approached the end of the prayer.

“Through the ministry of the Church,? I continued, “may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins…?

I pointed the Manhunter at Martin’s head, the laser sight painting its red dot on his forehead once again.

“In nomine Patris,? I said, switching to Latin, “et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.?

Martin crossed himself again as I intoned the Latin verse.

“Go in peace,? I whispered solemnly.

One second and one trigger pull later, it was over.



A few minutes later, after moving the benches back and composing myself, I stepped out the rear entrance, my pistol holstered. The Lone Star backup still wasn’t there yet, not that I expected them to be. I knocked on the van’s back door, and Sato opened it.

“It’s done,? I told him. “The target’s dead.?

Sato nodded.

“No chance of an arrest, I take it?? he asked.

I shook my head.

“None.?

“Well, we always knew it was a possibility,? he said. “But if it had to be done, it’s an acceptable price to pay for the streets being a little safer.?

He was right, it was.

I just wish it didn’t have to happen to that kind of a person.



A couple hours later, after a debriefing with Sato and his superiors, I found myself standing outside Jenkins’ parents Queen Anne Hill house, a small box in hand containing the wallet that Martin had given me, and inside that, the note and pictures Martin wanted me to give his family.

I had thought more than twice about doing this right after having shot Martin, but this couldn’t wait – I didn’t want them to hear the news that their son was dead from some soulless news anchor.

I’d left a note in the box for them that simply said, “Delivered at the request of Martin, who now resides in paradise.? I figured whatever note Martin had written them – I hadn’t look at it out of respect – would explain everything else.

Setting the box down, I rang the doorbell and took off in a roundabout route towards Downtown, my adept powers concealing my footfalls.



“And in local news,? the news anchor said, “the so-called ‘Vampire Serial Killer’ was shot dead overnight in a fight against Lone Star officers. Lone Star has so far remained sparse on the details, refusing to make any further comment other than confirming the death of the suspect.?

I changed the channel on my trid set. The last thing I needed was to be reminded of the job I’d just completed.

By the next morning, the second 15,000 nuyen payment they’d promised me at the beginning of the job had been delivered to me.

I was glad that I’d gotten so much money off of this one job, because I really needed some time to decompress after this job.

In 14 years of hunting, I’d never met an Infected like this, who actually felt bad for what they’d done. And now I’d met the exception to the rule, and it had thrown my whole worldview into question.

How do I approach the hunt, now that I know that vampires like that exist? Do I go at it with abandon, like I had with the many fumigation missions I’d gone on? Or do I treat every hunt like I’m putting down an ailing dog? Or do I judge things on a case-by-case basis, enjoying taking out the truly evil and feeling pity for the unfortunate victims of circumstance?

Of course, the first question that came to mind was, do I hunt again at all?

The answer to that came in a matter of seconds: Yes. Because whether or not they’re evil monsters or just “mad dogs,? they pose a threat to the world. And as long as they’re around, someone has to defend humanity from them.

I still had a job to do. And I would do it to my dying day.

I am, and always will be, an Infected hunter.
tisoz
Salt Lake Shadows

by Alex


As I jumped the handrail of the second story balcony at BYU and aimed for the snow drift below, my thoughts flashed back to earlier. Who would have thought this would go downhill so fast. If I live through this, I’m going to kill that Johnson. It wasn’t the first time that I had thought it, nor would it be the last.

Perhaps an introduction is in order. The name’s Slicer, and I cut through code faster than anybody I know. Yeah, it’s a cheesy name. I know. I picked it when I was twelve, and when was the last time a twelve year old had good sense? Anyway it stuck, and since my rep is tied to my name, I guard it. After all, if you don’t have a rep, what do you have? Where was I? Oh yeah, that run. Well maybe I better start at the beginning.

I never even cracked my eyes open. The AR display linked directly to my brain told me that it was 1758. I couldn’t remember the last time I had woken up before the alarm and wondered why. In my neighborhood not knowing what’s going on around you is a fast way to die. I kept the ole meat eyes closed and listened for all I was worth. Coffee maker, check. Loose siding slapping against the house, check. Some member of the Layton Lions roaring through on his nightly patrol, check. Fluffy, pacing around the house, nope. Shit. That meant someone was inside. Fluffy, my cat, only comes out when I’m alone. I had to decide how I was going to get up without letting whoever, or whatever, it was know I was awake. I rolled over and pretended to still be sleeping. You’d be surprised how many girls expect a man to fall asleep when his head hits the pillow, so I have this down to a science. I opened a menu in my PAN and accessed the cameras hidden around the house.

It was Trigger, sitting there in my living room drinking my beer. For at least the hundredth time, I thought to myself, Damn it, Trigger! How hard is it to knock on my front door? I got up and walked into the living room.

“Girl! I could have killed you.? Both of us knew I was only playing when I yelled at her.

She laughed and replied, “I doubt it, sleeping beauty. But, you are more than welcome to try - I haven’t had a good workout in a couple of days. Get dressed! We have a job interview today.?

If it had been anyone else, I would have asked if they meant an honest job – working the settlement ponds at the Great Salt Lake, or working for Saeder-Krupp at the Mines. With her, I just knew: she was talking about shadow work. I didn’t mind, in fact I liked it. When you don’t have a SIN and your provisional residency share of PCC stock expired a few years back, you take what you can get. In this town those opportunities were few and far between. Most runners think of the Salt Lake Metroplex as an LZ or pit spot when things were hot. Very few lived there. Trigger and I were two of those that lived in the area. Believe me when I tell you that we did the best we could to keep our heads down and our asses out of trouble. At the same time, we had to keep our faces out there enough to keep getting the work. That could be hard at times given the control the Church has over the ‘plex and its general distaste for crime in any form.

For those of you from somewhere else, please let me enlighten you. I am referring to the Mormon Church… well, more precisely, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But since everyone calls them the Mormons, it’s just easier to refer to them that way. They control the Salt Lake Metroplex. The PCC just kinda left them in charge when they took over a few years back. Supposedly the PCC is in control, but really the Church is still running things. I guess that the PCC looked at the job they were doing and decided that a bigger slice of tax revenue was better than trying to manage the city.

I walked out of the bedroom in my birthday suit and grabbed some soy toast and squirted it with blue from the auto-faucet. I cursed when the green didn’t come out, too. Just another thing to have to worry about today, I thought to myself. I stuffed the toast in my mouth and slammed back the coffee. Trigger just watched like I was a lab rat. We thought of each other as friends with benefits; however, first and foremost, we were professionals. There were no secrets between us. I headed back to my room for a change of clothes and absent mindedly asked if the dress was casual. Trigger nodded and I grabbed the most comfortable thing I could find. I slipped a throwing knife into each boot, as well as a one-shot ceramic pistol in my waistband. Less than five minutes after Trigger’s presence had kicked off the alarm bells in my head, we were off.

I jumped on the back of her bike and we headed west to get to the interstate. We passed a Layton Lion who's bike I'd heard from a few miles back. Since it was Sancho, Trigger slowed down enough for me to pay him the protection money that was due that month. I’d love to say that I was rough and tumble enough not to need protection, but the truth wasn’t so pretty. I lived on the east side of Layton next to the mountains. Layton is an old suburb of Salt Lake and in a part of the metroplex that no one, other than the Mormon missionaries, seems to care about. However, being so close the mountains means that the animals do care and sometimes decide to come down and visit. Not all of them are normal or friendly. The Lions try to thin out the worst of them and function a lot like a government, or at least as much of one as we needed in that section of town. We got to the old interstate a few minutes later. We had to slow down for the passing herd of mule deer grazing in what used to be a park.

The open road let us breathe a bit and chat via AR. Trigger pointed the bike south, toward Salt Lake and let the auto-pilot do the rest. As the interstate bent to the east, I looked for the Wasatch Mountains in front of us, but only saw the blank expression of the winter haze that seemed to loom over the valley every year. There was no need to look west toward the Oquirrh Mountains. Even when the winter haze wasn’t present, the haze from Saeder-Krupp’s mining operation hid them.

Trigger swerved between two cars on the interstate and I came back to the business at hand. I was always glad to have her with me on any run. She could do a lot of things – most involved people dying or wishing they were dead. One that didn’t leave blood everywhere, normally at least, was driving. She was a different person on her bike – almost happy, definitely crazy. I settled back on the bike and let my mind wander over her for a minute. Despite being a muscular ork, she still radiated the light quality of an elf. Her tan skin and long black hair seemed ill suited to her chosen profession; however, I knew that there was more to her story than she ever told me. Perhaps, one day, I’d find out what it was.

As we began to pass better parts of town I went through the mental part of the meet. It would be held in Southern Exposure, a strip bar with a long history. That meant the Johnson liked entertainment. Hopefully, I thought to myself, he likes liberal amounts of the strong homemade stuff that Lucy cooks up in the back. That’ll help with negotiations. I should have drunk liberal amounts of that stuff myself, looking back.

I mentally reviewed the reps of those Trigger had told me were coming. Mouse, a jack of all trades, would serve as our front man. His specialty was getting into and out of places with information that no one else could get. I had worked with him in the past and knew he could be trusted. That, to me at least, meant a lot. Trigger was both muscle and wheels. Fat Tony, an ork gunslinger, would be the heavy artillery on this outing. I bit the inside of my lip. Tony was a mystery as he had no real rep to speak of. I wished for the hundredth time that we could scare up a mage or shaman to go with us; however, it just wasn’t meant to be. The mana in and around the ‘plex is 'bent'. Well, that’s what Mikey told me once. He said, “It’s 'bent' toward the Mormons and their beliefs. Magic, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t work in the ‘plex unless you’re a Mormon with Church permission, performing magic on behalf of the Church.? To me, that sounded like getting your ass handed to you by a sculpted system. That’s no fun for anyone.

I’m a different kind of magician – I focus on the Matrix with its ebb and flow. Now, I’d heard rumors of those that breathe the Matrix like I can only dream; however, I’d never met one of those technological mages and I wasn’t too sure I believed in them. Little of that mattered as we hurtled through the never-dark toward Southern Exposure.

Trigger executed a maneuver that surely would have attracted the notice of Salt Lake Metro Security (SLMS) - aka 'Slims' - if it weren’t rush hour. She pulled off the interstate and headed to the strip club parking lot. The gravel lot had gotten bigger over the years but, no thought had ever been given to paving it. We headed in and tipped the bouncer who tipped his hat when he recognized us. The club was running full tilt as usual. The amateur talent was against the southern wall and from the sounds of it was getting all the encouragement or criticism they would ever need. The bar was starting to fill up, but Lucy, the manager, grabbed a couple of beers and motioned us toward the back. Mouse was already there nursing a watered down drink. The skinny elf doesn’t like to drink too much before negotiations and Lucy knew it. He didn’t look like much but he could shoot straight and was good for the odd situation. The negotiation end never went as well as when Mouse was handling it. Trigger sat down beside him and whispered something in his ear. He glanced up at me, laughed and went back to his drink. Fat Tony still wasn’t there. I was wondering to myself, Where the hell is he? The J will be here in a minute. Not two minutes later, an ork walks in with an attitude to match the figurative hell I had conjured up for runners who make me look bad.

“Damn traffic!? was the only thing he said.

Shortly thereafter, the J came in. He was dressed in a three piece suit with a small black nametag on his shirt reading 'Elder Johnson'. He sat down and said, “Sorry I’m late. I hope that you don’t mind if some friends join me.? His friends were two joygirls from somewhere. I risked a glance at Mouse, who motioned to his comm.

The message came through in a hurry:

"This guy is a joke. Drinking a long island ice tea with a joygirl on each arm and trying to act like a Mormon. I’m half tempted to walk right now."

Trigger cut in quickly:

"Let’s hear him out first. This wouldn’t be the first J who thinks that it’s funny trying to pass himself off as a Mormon. If the cred is good, I don’t care what he plays for dress-up."

The three of us sat back and, not having been part of the conversation, Fat Tony sat back as well. The newly dubbed 'Elder Johnson' began to speak. “I have a job for you. It should be a simple job so I expect that the four of you can handle it without any problems…"

He went on for a bit and explained that we were going to hit a research lab at BYU. The target had to be hit in the next forty-eight hours before the MacGuffin was to be moved. He then gave us some time to think it over while he talked with his entourage. Not surprisingly, they made use of the private room off to the side that Lucy rented, when no one was talking business. The four of us sat in a small huddle off to one side of the back room and discussed the offer in a private AR chat room I conjured up from nowhere. I played some of my favorite artist from the last century, Bob Marley, to cover the disgusting sounds coming from the little room off to the side.

Fat Tony was the first to speak, "The job seems straightforward enough. We break into a lab at this “BYU? and steal a prototype. Not too hard. Like he said, a smash and grab operation. I have nothing better on my calendar this evening. I say go for it."

Ahh, he had a Southern accent. No wonder he didn’t have a rep to speak of in the area. The discussion went on for a while with both Mouse and Trigger in favor of it. I was the lone holdout. Perhaps it was because the J actually had the nerve to call it a smash and grab. For some people, I guess that the amount of cred he put on the table would have erased their doubts; it just made me paranoid. Nobody puts up ten large, each, for a smash and grab. Mouse had twisted this guy around his fingers and got a little more information out of him but he clamed up when he asked about the high payout. Personally, I wouldn’t have mentioned the pay; however, Mouse was a wizard when it came to social graces.

Even before the J rolled himself away from the table, I had gotten the feeling that this was a dead-end run, and that we would end up as the 'dead' part. For some reason, I caved to my friends and took the job anyway. Maybe it was pride, maybe it was stupidity. If I’m honest though, it was hunger. Not the kind of hunger that some get for glory. It was the honest, I-need-to-eat hunger. Most of us hadn’t worked in a while. Trigger and Mouse had had to run from the Slims and lie low for longer than normal after their last run. I had been stiffed by the J from my last job. He was now SINless and living somewhere in Seattle, by the way. Good luck, chummer. I hope the Yaks, Triads and Mob don’t take bounties on informants too seriously.

The thing that concerned me was that the Slims provided security for BYU. Please understand, this is not your normal, run-of-the-mill police force. These guys do not play nice. They looked all cute and cuddly with their stun batons and soft soled shoes; however when they feel a threat, they open the trunk of the squad car and bad things happen. The drones get launched and the heavy weapons come out. These folks do not have a sense of humor, and you are on the list that doesn’t include flowers and candy. Unlike the Star or Knight Errant, these are all Mormons who think of the metroplex as their own country, PCC be damned. They defend it like that too. Cross these guys and they hunt you. Kill one of them and you have pissed in your bed. I have never known anyone to live who killed a Slim, and you don’t want to know what the SWAT division looks like. Anyway, I was thinking about all this when Trigger snapped her fingers and brought me back to reality.

“Sleepyhead, you still with us?? she asked.

“Yeah,? I replied. “Let’s go.?

We talked with 'Elder Johnson' once more and got the drop-off/pickup details and then headed out while he headed back in. Lucy nodded and asked if the J was going to use the back room. She got the point when Mouse shook his head in a disgusted manner. We headed out of the club and headed downtown. There was still one bar that the Mormons hadn’t run out of business and that was the New Yorker. It was a "Private Club for Members? so I whipped up some fake memberships for us. They would last for that night and maybe a few more days. That was more than long enough to plan our run. The maitre de checked our memberships and asked Mouse a few questions, since the scanner picked up some fluff on him from somewhere. I was going to have to make him a new ID, I was sure of it.

We sat down in the leather seats of my private booth and drank some decent scotch. I had the waiter put it on my tab, which, conveniently, had just been paid off according to their records. I even gave him a tip – in real cred no less. Planning a run and sipping scotch. Those are good memories. Turns out I was right: Fat Tony was hiding from some heat in Atlanta. I got the feeling that he assumed the name Fat Tony when he came to Salt Lake. He had a small arsenal that he carried with him wherever he went. I told him to leave most of it at home, since killing a Slim is a bad idea. The planning and drinking went on into the night.

The next afternoon, we got back together near a park in the downtown of old Salt Lake and then headed to Provo. Technically outside the ‘plex, Provo has Swiss cheese-like holes. In those holes you find BYU – Brigham Young University, if you care. Owned by the Mormons and run as a college, BYU pumps out armies of Mormons headed off to Church or Corporate jobs everywhere in the world. We were tasked with breaking into a research office in the Eyring Science Center. I was able to determine that about half of the projects in the building were for Saeder-Krupp, and the other half were divided among several of the other Majors. We had decided to wait until the middle of the night, when most students were home, before heading in. The cleaning van I had appropriated from Sally’s Servants was cramped with all of us and our gear; however, it offered us some cover both during the last pale rays of daylight as well as when we drove on to campus.

The Science Center was quiet. The security guard smiled and buzzed us in, not bothering to look us over very carefully. I remember thinking, This is too easy. We grabbed the service elevator and headed up to the floor we wanted – just below our target and under remodeling. I knocked out the security cameras on the floor, erased the last week’s footage, and logged three work orders and two complaints with the maintenance department. We changed into our gear quickly and without talking. I was glad to see that Fat Tony had some discipline. Mouse had decided to wear a generic looking corporate suit and had dressed us in generic corporate security gear. If anyone other than Mouse had told me what he was planning, I would not have believed it was possible. However, Mouse had this way of convincing people on the street to hand over their drink and comm without complaint. Sure they eventually noticed; however, he was gone in the two or three minutes it took them to register what had happened. He was going to pull the same thing in the lab that night, or so he said. We took the elevator to our target floor and were greeted with a mini-gun when we stepped out. Mouse launched into his routine, screaming in German about lax discipline and why the gun wasn’t manned. The bewildered guards were about to spool the damn thing up when Mouse relaxed and started in on them in English.

“Where the hell is the commander here?? he asked. The poor slot looked like he was about to piss himself and buzzed us in while he called his commander. Trigger took the opportunity to walk over to him and ask about the minigun. Happy to be able to answer a question and not have Mouse’s overbearing presence focused on him, he started talking which meant that Trigger was able to nail him with a knockout patch. While he excused himself to get some water and no doubt try to wake himself up, I hacked the system and shutdown the alarms and outside connections.

The supervisor came up to us and wanted to know what we thought were doing on his turf. Mouse laid into him, with a smattering of German thrown in for good measure. The poor guy smiled at us. I though Fat Tony had lost his mind when he unloaded on the guy; however, the secondary explosion from the grenade his buddy was carrying told me that Fat Tony had made the right call.

We were now in a fight against the clock. As far as I knew, we may have even lost it if this was a setup. Fat Tony had insisted on bringing his arsenal and now I was glad for it, even if large amounts of lead weren’t my personal style. We fought through to the next room in a running gun fight until we reached the area we wanted. I hunkered down and tried to open the connection again.

“Damn it! This is a setup!? I yelled. Everything that I had done was gone. It was obvious that I had hacked a shell system. We headed for an interior wall our research had told us was hollow and led to a service shaft that the cleaning droids used to access the various labs that didn’t allow outside companies to enter. Fat Tony rolled a grenade to the wall while Trigger covered us. Mouse was lost and looked like it - he was definitely out of his element. Nevertheless, he was plugging away with his pistol like his life depended on it – and truthfully, it did.

The grenade went off an opened up our way out. Mouse clamped the climbing lines to the structure while Trigger and Fat Tony laid down some mini-mines of his own invention. We zipped down and were almost to the second floor when our lines were cut. I fell the last few feet and twisted my ankle. We headed for the balcony just outside the second story atrium doors. Of course the Slims would be waiting, wouldn’t they?

As I jumped the handrail of the second story balcony at BYU and aimed for the snow drift below, my thoughts flashed back to earlier. Who would have thought this would go downhill so fast. If I live through this, I’m going to kill that Johnson. It wasn’t the first time that I had thought it, nor would it be the last.

I somehow managed to make the landing despite the ankle. Fat Tony was squaring up for a shot at the Slims.

“No!? I yelled, “Unless you want to sign your own death warrant.? He fired anyway. I ran as best I could for the van. So did Mouse and Trigger. We had run the shadows long enough to know not to shoot a Slim. We heard Fat Tony go down to what sounded like a Vindicator mini-gun. As we rounded the corner Trigger went down to a stunner round.

“Go!? she yelled. “I’ll be fine.? I didn’t like leaving anyone behind; however, I trusted Trigger’s gut and I ran. No, I’m not proud of it, but I’m alive to tell you this story. I jacked three cars and sent them out in different directions. Mouse and I piled into the van and laid low while the autopilot took us off into the distance.

* * *


It was a tense three days while the Slims tore up the ‘plex from one side to the other looking us. I couldn’t help but wince for Trigger who was, no doubt, on the inside. True to her word though, she never rolled on us. Mouse and I cautiously went back to work. Mouse had another run go south on him about three months later. He quit and moved to Seattle. I have no idea how things are going for him there – we don’t talk anymore. I heard that Mouse had died but the description doesn’t match him. I imagine that he found a patsy and re-invented himself.

A few weeks later I found the 'Elder Johnson' that had set us up. He was swilling booze in Southern Exposure and looked like he was getting ready to work with another team. I hacked the samurai’s comm – why can’t they learn to get their hacker buddies to close the holes? Anyway, I hacked his comm and set myself up to read and send messages on their private chat. I sent the hacker a message about the double cross. Smooth as silk she started tracing me. She was good, but not as good as me. I routed her to some poor slob who thought that she could dance. She glanced up, looked around, and smiled at me. Then she asked the Johnson, “So, what happened to the team that did the BYU run for you? By the way, Slicer says hi.? The white-faced look was all the team needed. They stood up and walked. She sent me a note: “You’re gonna love what I do to this guy.? Within three days he was dead, apparently killed by his former employers. I don’t know, nor do I care. Dead was how I wanted him.

I tried to find out what happened to Trigger. I created a persona – real life, not digital – for a ganger friend of mine, and sent him to ask questions at city hall. He got nowhere. I looked for a while, but all I hit were brick walls. Eventually, my questions must have roused the attention of someone else. My house of record was the target of an attack. Like I said, the Slims don’t play nice. My true house was safe, but I could read the writing on the wall. I paid Sancho the monthly protection money and told him, “You haven’t seen me. I haven’t paid and you don’t know where I am. Here is a new identity for your girl. She has apparently inherited some money from a long lost relative. The SIN is good for at least a couple of months, more if she doesn’t use it for much more than paying rent and collecting her inheritance.? Sancho nodded. That meant I had a couple of days to get out. I got my stuff and was gone in less than 12 hours. Well before my house was consumed in the fire – the Lion’s calling card. Sancho lit it himself.

That was four years ago. I found one of those supposedly imaginary Technomancers. She and I have been together for about two years now. When Salt Lake turned hostile toward me, I started looking for a new place to live. I met Marisol after I moved here to Denver. We now rent our services to anyone who can afford us. The last time I was in London, I ran into Trigger; however, it was hard to tell since she was in a dress that actually covered her body. She recognized me and, for the first time in about fifteen years, I heard my given name – yeah, you didn’t think I as going to tell you what it is, did you? She and another girl came over to where I was standing. She introduced me as a friend from Salt Lake to her companion. The other smiled and looked a little nervous but she let us talk. Trigger chatted with me for a minute or so before asking me, in all seriousness, if I wanted to read a copy of the “Book of Mormon?. Now I know what happens to runners unfortunate enough to be caught by Slims.

So, omae, when you jump the border, keep that in mind.
tisoz
Hey,

JBlades did a great job editing for me and here's the final product. It is remaining a cliffhanger / teaser story. There will definitely be more to come, I'll either post a conclusion to the story on dumpshock, or make it available somewhere else. Hopefully that aspect doesn't turn people off too much.

--------------------------------------------------


Uninvited

by fulcra


Chapter 1 – A Night on the Town

Kestrel’s fingers stroked the black alloy body of her heavily modified HK MP9 in a display of irritation. She hated it when people were late. She checked her comm for the tenth time which prominently displayed “5:34pm, Jan 16-68? and “No Messages?. She sighed, and looked around the quiet 5th level of the disused parkade where she was waiting. The remains of several stripped cars sat in parking spots where they’d been sitting for a couple of years. Garbage was strewn about the place, at whim of the cross winds that blew through
the structure. Larger collections in corners made up nests for the local inhabitants. They wouldn’t cause her any problems.

The structure shook slightly and she could hear the faint rumble of an engine down below. Finally. She checked her escape routes; the stairwell seemed dark and quiet, and the ramp up to the roof was close. She mentally checked off her other options, such as sliding down between levels or if things got desperate leaping out of the open parkade. Five stories would probably break both her legs, but she was near enough to the parkade sign on the wall that she wouldn’t need to free fall. She could jump down to the top of the sign then get back in at a lower level.

The digital display across her clear glasses showed the full clip size of 28, and the current targeting point of her gun, a bright glowing dot near the middle of her dashboard. The safety was listed as “off?, and the user listed as “Kestrel?. She was ready.

A van pulled up the final ramp onto this level and pulled up, two spots away, to park. The driver door was facing her. If it had backed in to face it’s rear or side door towards her, she would have known something was up. As it was, she’d have a few moments to respond if more than one person existed the van. She glanced through the tinted glass. She briefly concentrated, feeling the magic flow through her body, letting it open up another sense to her. The world around her became tinted with dim grey and the occasional reddish glow from a few nearby heat sources. Glancing through the tinted glass she saw only the dull grey. There was no driver. Autopilot. Not unusual in the slightest.

The back door opened and a large, ugly man in his 50’s stepped out. He would have really have been a serious attraction once with bushy blonde hair tied back in a pony tail, and a hulking physique, but he’d been burned bad at some point and his face’s flesh was mottled and red. He didn’t even bother to put his coat on as he walked over to the driver side window of her car. She had full view of his nickel-plated Beretta heavy pistol sitting in its shoulder holster. Beretta 32, silencer, Smartgun targeting system and an old fashioned thumbprint scanner. Comm links were more advanced, but it was always possible to hack them, whereas those old fashioned thumbprint scanners were much more difficult to get around; unless of course you’ve got the owner and some hedge clippers.

The man she knew as “Macky? tapped on her window. He wasn’t wearing any glasses and she knew he had no talent, so he wouldn’t be able to see her through the tinted glass. Kinda sloppy she thought wryly. She touched the window key and it lowered smoothly. Macky wordlessly handed her a certified cred stick. She took it and passed it near her comm. The comm display lit up with “$5023?.

“Weird number,? she stated.

Macky grinned, “That’s a little somethin' extra from Macky for ya, girl. Nice job.?

Kestrel smiled, “Wow, twenty three bucks. That’s really something.?

Macky shrugged, still grinning, “Hey, times are hard, take what you can get.? She just continued to smile and shook her head disapprovingly. “Anyway, I ain’t got nothing new for you right now, maybe in a couple days.?

“That’s ok, I could use some R&R.? She meant it.

“Enjoy it girl. Talk to you later.? He turned and walked back to this van’s back door. He glanced around the lot quickly before getting in and closing the doors. The van backed up and then made its way down the ramps.

Kestrel considered her options, and touched the front of her comm, “What night clubs are near here??

The comm lit up, a list of clubs displaying down. As she scrolled down the list, information about each scrolled by. She stopped when she spotted Wild. That place usually had a good crowd. Besides, it was Saturday, most places would be packed. She punched the location and hit go. Her car started up, the lights flicking on, and it slowly rolled forward towards the ramp.

On the way, she put her HK back in the hidden drawer underneath the driver’s seat and deposited the cash into one of her accounts. Rain started to splatter against the windshield and the wipers started up. The south Tacoma neighborhood she was passing through was in a sorry state. Many of the businesses were boarded up; mostly hip clothing stores and specialty coffee shops. Only a few years ago this place had been a rather posh part of town. Shocking how quickly things fell apart. Now shops were empty husks for the homeless and the streets were still cluttered with the occasionally deserted and stripped car.

A lone star cruiser passed by going in the other direction. Her car and comm both responded to the query that came from them as they passed by. Both gave false information drawn from some data store somewhere. As she watched it continue past without reacting, she gave a quiet thanks to her very solid hacker friends.

The car lurched to a sudden halt. Her hand was already on her hand gun within her concealed holster as she brought her attention up in front of her. The car issues a small verbal message, “Impact avoidance applied.? A foul looking unshaven man with red shot unfocused eyes had both hands on the hood of her car, somehow shaking off his drugged state enough to realize he’d almost been run over.

He raised both hands and shouted, “Damn the owners! I hate they watch! Be careful she said!?

Continuing to spout nonsense he slowly continued his ambling stroll across the rain slicked street. Sighing and releasing the grip on her gun, she reached forward and tapped the “Continue? button on her car’s console. The car continued on, nonplussed.

A few minutes later the car pulled up in front of a dark looking building. The plain cinder block walls were decorated only with a graffiti style paint job that said “Wild?. The door was partially open and just inside stood a big black troll in a tight shirt. She smiled, Treo was working. A lineup of a few dozen people stretched down the street. Done up girls and casual dressed guys huddled under umbrellas waiting for admittance. She stepped out and walked to the front of the line. Treo was focused on something inside and hasn’t been looking out to the street. She jabbed two fingers into his side, “Stick em up sucker,? she said.

Treo slowly turned his head to look back at her, and a grin broke out on his face. “Hey sweetheart, glad to see you. Come on in, come on in, it’s hoppin tonight. “

“Sure hon.? She turned to look at her car as she pushed “Autopark? on her comm. The vehicle slowly pulled away.

Treo subtly passed her to one side of the firearms detector and said, “Make sure you come chat to me later.?

“Will do,? she said as she strolled into the club. The warm moist air and thudding music hit her like a wall. She smiled to herself a moment later, seeing the crowd pulsing up and down to the beat. “This will do nicely.? She continued into the party, leaving behind the paranoia and stress of her job; for a time anyway.

Black lights, lasers, and projected images assaulted her eyes in the darkness of the club while the music and vibration from the dance floor made her entire body shiver. She made her way to the bar where a mash of activity and people pushed about in probably the only place where the music was slightly dampened. She waited her turn and then asked the girl behind the counter for three tequila shooters and a margarita. Drinks in hand, she made her way upstairs and found a spot to stand next to the railing where she could watch the dance floor downstairs.

One, two, three, squeeze the lime, lick the salt off the margarita rim. The warmth flowed down to her stomach. The pleasant warmth slowly spread to the rest of her body along with a protective sphere of dulled senses and slowed time. She sipped on the margarita as she enjoyed standing and watching, her hips twitching slightly to the beat.

“Hey, hey, do you want to dance?? Some guy, braver than his friends over at the table over there was standing before her. It took a lot of nerve for a human to work up the guts to approach her. Not bad looking, though a little young for her tastes, usually. She grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him forward, locking her lips onto his. His shock quickly dissipated into pleasure.

Sometime later she’d lost her boy and was dancing on the dance floor among the press of people. The gun under her stylish short jacket bounced and jostled into her ribs, but she didn’t mind. Even drunk she kept her arms low enough to keep the weapon concealed. The press around her was as intoxicating as the tequila. Somehow she’d acquired a different drink, something green and overly sour. Sweating, she made her way from the dance floor and found a spot on the wall to lean against. She was suddenly very tired. She stumbled towards the entrance and sort of fell into an awkward embrace with Treo, putting her arm around him and letting her body weight lean against him.

Treo laughed and smiled down at her, “Hey, looks like you’re having some fun.?

She smiled and stood up on her tippy toes to land a sloppy kiss on his mottled troll cheek in response, then patted him on the chest. “I should go home…I’m really tired.?

He laughed some more, “Is that an offer? I’m not done here for another hour.?

She smacked him girlishly on the shoulder, exaggerating an insulted demeanor “Nooo, too tired…?

He stared at her for a moment then reached across her body and touched her comm. Soberly he said, “Your car should be here in a minute. Come on, I’ll help you into it.?

Chapter 2 – Running the Shadows
Bullets zipped through the air around him, followed by the windshield blowing out and the sound of bullets ripping through carbon. He took a hard turn down a side street, trying to avoid spinning out as the rain slapped him in the face. An oncoming car swerved to avoid him, its horn blaring, as he slammed on the gas to get some distance down this street. Behind him, the chasing vehicle took the corner too hard and lost traction in the rain, sliding sideways into a light pole.

Wiping rain from his eyes and glancing in the rear view, he could see that the man who’d been leaning out shooting at him was draped over the side of the car, his body bent unnaturally. He took another quick corner and another, racing down narrow streets lined with cars. Five or six story apartment buildings crowded this entire area. He took another quick turn, where his luck finally ran out. A large delivery truck was stopped in the middle of the narrow road blocking it entirely. With too much momentum to stop, his reflexes yanked the steering wheel to the side, even though there was nowhere to go but into parked cars. A sudden violent stop, Quikfoam deploying, glass shattering, metal and carbon rending. His head flopped back, giving him a moment to assess the damage, as the chunks of white Styrofoam surrounding him slowly dissolved.

He looked down at his side, brushing away the white flecks, to reveal the bullet wound still pumping out a thick ooze. That was probably bad, some organ or something. Rain splashed off the cars dashboard and sprinkled him with water. Wincing in pain he reached down through the dissolving foam to the passenger floor where the backpack had fallen and picked it up. The door still worked and he pushed it open and stumbled out onto the rainy street. He looked around, a few curtains were being quickly drawn aside, curious faces looking out into the dark street. Two buildings down, some guy opened the glass door and looked out. With no other avenue of escape, he quickly limped that way, clutching his bloody wound.

As he got closer the guy looked down and seemed to gag a little. “Dude, are you all right, do you need an ambulance??

He reached out and grabbed the guys shirt with his bloody hand. “A thousand nuyen if you hide me in your apartment. Right now.?

A few unreadable expressions flashed across the guys face, chased quickly by fear. “Oh, uh, look man, my girlfriend…she…uh, dude…. “ He could practically see the thoughts shuffling across his face trying to figure out how to get himself out of this situation. “Oh, hey, you know, there’s this totally bad ass chick that lives on the fifth floor, an elf. She might help you.?

Grunting in pain, he pushed past the guy into the building and headed for the stairs. The sound of a car screeching around a corner was heard out in the street just as he entered. “You’d best close the door and get inside,? he offered to the guy at the door as he began up the stairs.

Chapter 3 – A Bump in the Night
The elevator door opened directly into Kestrel's fifth floor apartment. There were two apartments on this split level floor and she owned them both. The elevator opened into either. In this case it opened into the one that served as her living space. As the doors opened, the lighting slowly came up and some soft music began playing. She’d left the stereo on again.

She took off her heavy jacket and dropped it on the floor as she stumbled over to the sink. Her apartment was a big open room, dotted with supporting pillars down the center and with vaulted ceilings that led up to a steel girder roof. Small skylights dotted the roof just past the big industrial hanging lights. In the back area a stairway led up to a small loft bedroom that looked down onto the rest of the apartment.

Now at the sink, she grabbed a glass and choked down a big glass of water. She slipped her shoes off, and then her gun, dropping it on the kitchen table that sat between the kitchen area and the living room area.

She wandered over to the leather sofa and flopped down on it, her still damp clothing sticking to her in uncomfortable places. Her eyes closed and she listened to the staccato of rain falling on the steel roof above her. In moments she was asleep.

Something woke her, but she wasn’t sure what. She looked around. The lighting had dimmed and the music was off. Not unusual, if there was no one moving around inside the apartment, it went into low power mode. Checking her comm it was now 2:33am. She’d been sleeping for an hour. She sat up and made her way to the washroom. Pee, glass of water, sitting there, in a daze.

Bam bam bam! A knock at the door. She immediately tried to shrug off her tired, partially drunken fog and think straight, as she stood and pulled up her pants. No one knocked at her door. Everyone took the elevator and buzzed up from there. No one visited her at 2:33am. Maybe it was Treo. He did know where she lived. No, the knock had been rushed and impatient.

Bam bam bam! Again. No, too urgent, something was wrong. She picked up her pistol as she made her way in socks to the door. She touched the door viewer. The screen lit up, revealing a view of a human in his 30’s. Scrawny, though well-shaven and with nice clothes, she thought silently to herself. His comm unit was a very nice model, brand new, personalized and shiny. He was soaked, and breathing very heavily; too heavily just for run up the stairs, he looked ready to collapse. Her eyes quickly took in the less obvious things. He was clutching his side, and the dark stain on his shirt there wasn’t water, but blood, including some very dark oozing. His liver may have been pierced. Fatal if he didn’t get to a hospital quick. A trail of blood drops littered the floor behind him, and a bloody hand print was smeared on the stairs railing. His other hand clutched the backpack over his shoulder so tightly that it was white. He looked terrified and in pain, but unarmed. Holding her pistol behind the door, she opened it a bit.

“Who are you? What do you want?? she questioned.

“Please, lady, if you keep me alive tonight, I’ll give you a hundred K.? he said, his voice quavering.

That was unexpected. Questioned streamed through her mind but she sectioned them off for later, this was a hurried situation. She was probably being mortally stupid, but 100 K, plus, she was curious. “Fine, come in,? she said, opening the door. He limped into the room and she closed the door behind him.

As the door was closing she paused, hearing something five flights down. The sound of glass smashing…probably the front door, and someone speaking, a voice shouting, “Were’d the guy go?? “What guy?, the sound of scuffling and the crack of a skull being struck by something. It was quiet, but she had excellent ears. Then a dim voice, “Yo, the stairs.?

She closed the door quietly and locked it, heading straight for the elevator. She pushed the call button and switched on the viewer into the rising steel box. First floor, coming up, empty. She went for her shoes next, and her jacket, and pulled them both on while waiting for the elevator. The man was silent, his eyes closed as he clutched his side, his body swaying from side to side. She quickly keyed her comm and fired off a message. It was to Dax; “Help, at my apartment, RIGHT NOW.?

The elevator opened and she stepped inside, pulling the man in tow. “Stay on this side of the elevator, don’t bleed over everything.?

She keyed her comm for her other apartment. The doors closed, the elevator moved up slightly, and then the doors opened into her other apartment; her workshop. This place also had vaulted ceilings, but the sky lights had been sprayed out and the windows were all covered with brown paper. Florescent lighting turned on automatically, revealing the cabinets and benches that lined the walls, workbenches with metal working gear, vices, grinders, and gun paraphernalia lying about. She keyed another button on her comm and one of the cabinets lit up. Its white frosted glass slowly faded to be fully transparent and revealed a rack holding five state of the art custom SMG’s. She popped the case open and pulled one out. Grabbing ammo, her brain quickly passed up the gel rounds. It was EX and AP tonight.

She activated the weapon and put on a nearby pair of glasses, turning them on as well. She jammed the extra clips into jacket pockets and selected a clip of explosive rounds to insert into her gun. She walked back to the elevator as the lights faded off, checking ammo levels, safeties, and id check. She keyed the first floor and the doors slid closed. With any luck, the pursuers would be on the fourth floor and they could just stroll out. As the doors to the elevator closed, she heard the blast of a shotgun going off outside in the hall, as whoever was chasing this guy broke into her other apartment. The doors closed and further noises could no longer be heard. The elevator began its descent.

The guy leaned on the wall in the elevator, amazed by the gun workshop and weapons he’d seen. Between deep breathes he wheezed out, “Wholly crap lady, who are you??

“Kestrel,? she replied in a business like fashion. She checked the floor indicator and turned to the guy, “Stay hidden when the doors open.?

She brought up the sound suppressed barrel of the HK and the green dot on he clear glasses indicated she was aiming directly at the center of the doors. She crouched slightly and waited. The elevator came to a stop, and with a quiet ‘ding’ the doors began to crack open. Just as they opened enough to reveal a tiny slice of light from the hallway, she realized someone was waiting for them in the buildings entranceway.

Before she could react the loud blast of a shotgun echoed through the floor and a shell ripped through the center of the door and slammed into the wall behind her. Another shell ripped through part of the door, bouncing off of her armored jacket with bone cracking thud. More dents appeared in the door as a heavy pistol added to the fire. She spun to the side to avoid more shrapnel. She cursed. She’d thought there was just a couple, maybe up at her apartment now, and had thought they could just stroll out the front door while they were upstairs. Looks like she was wrong.

All the things she could have done to throw them off jumped through her mind, but it was too late for that. They had paused their firing for just half a second, so she quickly spun out to lay down some fire, but they had been waiting. Now the doors were half open and she could see there were two of them, taking cover in doorways. They both let loose some more when they saw her. One round slammed into her leg ripping through the armor fiber tights she was wearing spraying her blood across the back wall. She continued to spin into cover next to the guy as more rounds sprayed into the elevator. The back wall has been reduced to shattered decorative plastic and a plain metal elevator wall that was peppered with bullet holes. She waited, with cover until the fire stopped.

She did some quick calculations. It had been maybe a minute, minute and a half since she’d called Dax. He lived about five kilometers from here. She was on her own. A heavy thud as something besides a bullet slammed into the back wall and landed on the floor. Grenade, she realized in that instant, a small red light on it revealed it was armed for “momentary collisions impact?. That is, it was in a mode specifically set to strike something, fall, and then go off, immediately. She didn’t even have time to think of a curse.

An explosion ripped through the elevator. Pieces of shrapnel ripped into her arms, legs and through her jacket. Even though she was well armored, the hot metal and concussive shock wave pummeled her body and she was thrown against the wall. The world faded from dark gray to black and then back to gray as smoke surrounded her. She couldn’t hear anything but a loud piercing ring in her head and burning pain from all over mixed with a frightening lack of feeling in some parts of her body.

Limp and unable to move she watched through blood stained vision as the two men came to the now completely destroyed elevator entrance, guns ready, and then relaxed. One touched his comm and spoke for a few moments while the other brushed burnt pieces of wood and plastic from his armored long coat. Her vision faded out and a blackness encompassed her.

Chapter 4 - Flight
Her eyes opened, she was being dragged along the ground, still in her entrance hallway. A person in a long coat pulled her by one leg from ahead. The lights from the ceiling shone down into her face. Still no sound, and nothing but all encompassing pain. She felt her leg being dropped, and the dragging stopped. Unable to move much, a vibration drumed through her; she may have just groaned.

Suddenly there’s a bright flash, though she can’t tell from where, and a strange white streak seemed to cut across her vision. Then the halogen light in the ceiling above her exploded. Blue flashes of electricity danced around the steel frame as thin glass fragments fell onto her face. Her vision faded slightly but somehow she managed to hang on. Able to tilt her head slightly, she looked towards the front doors. The man who had been dragging her laid across her legs, but she was unable to see more. Something was happening, but she was powerless to respond.

Then, as if her vision was still playing tricks on her, the form of a man did a slow fade into existence as he walked towards her. He was tall, with tanned skin and chiseled features. His green eyes are piercing and his black hair was short. He was wearing an expensive long coat over some jeans and a turtle neck sweater. His lips moved, but she couldn’t hear. He gently brushed the glass from her face, then tilted his face up to look down the hallway behind her in concern.

Looking back at her, he frowned. Then she started to feel a warmth spreading through her body. Pins and needles, painful, lanced through her body and the ringing in her hears seemed to subside, replaced with the hollow wailing of air rushing about. Slowly hearing returned. She blinked, and found that she was able to feel her body, and move, though the surge of various sensations almost overwhelmed her.

Dax spoke, “There’s more coming down the stairs. I can’t take them all out, and you’re in no shape to help. We have to get out of here.?

Able to sit up partially, she looked around and saw the ruined body of the man she was going to protect. His backpack was not with him, but a quick glance around reveals it in the limp hand of one of the men down the hall, on the ground next to where he collapsed. “Take the bag… the.. black... backpack...? she said in a hoarse voice, pointing with a shaking blood covered hand.

He looked back and then nodded, while pulling her to her feet. She almost passed out again. “Stay with me,? he said. He helped her limp slowly towards the front door, and bent to pick up the backpack as they passed by it.

Outside in the rainy, cold night air she saw a strange scene. Four more forms lay limply around the street that is clogged with cars. A car parked on the side of the street had been smashed by another car, both empty, and two more cars and a large van are all parked in the middle of the street. The forms on the road were smoking still, black burn holes through parts of their clothing.

Dax gave a meaningful piercing stair at the van before grabbing her firmly around the waste. “Let’s go,? he said. A sudden feeling of falling gripped her and her muscles involuntarily tightened, but Dax had a good grip on her and she held on as the two of them floated off the ground and began going upwards. Their speed increased as they cleared the top of her building and turned to fly over the rainy city streets. A cushion of semi-warm air seemed to encompass them, protecting them from the wind and rain as they went.

It was too bad she felt like passing out, puking, and screaming in pain simultaneously so that she couldn’t enjoy this amazing experience. It was all too much in the end, everything, and the adrenalin finally let her down hard into a cushion of black oblivion.

Chapter 5 – Failed Sanctuary
Kestrel opened her eyes and looked up at a spackled ceiling, dimly lit by a single light, one of those ones that looked like a boob. Through the white frosted plastic she could see that the two bulbs glowed slightly different colors, one blue, one pinkish. The ceiling had occasional stains and a few chunks of god knows what stuck to it. All around the room the off-white spackle met brown striped wallpaper decorated with tiny red roses.

She sat up, feeling groggy but relatively comfortable. Damn good drugs she thought. She was laying on one of two single beds in a small hotel room. The red comforter beneath her was dotted with spots of blood, her blood. The other bed was empty and untouched except for her shredded armor jacket lay on the end of it next to the black backpack that the man had been carrying, still closed. She swung her legs off the edge of the bed and lifted her arm up to get a good look at the damage. Pink patches of new skin covered her arm amidst the streaks of ash and blood. Her wounds had been almost entirely healed. She looked at the other arm, same effect, and knew that if she looked at her legs, or found a mirror to see her face and neck, she’d see the same thing.

Now sitting, she realized she did feel quite awful still, despite the mended flesh. Perhaps because of the rapid magical healing, she felt as if she’d been totally sapped of strength. Her whole body trembled and nausea swirled through her chest and head. She felt as if she’d been hit by a truck actually. She also felt incredibly thirsty. She noticed a large glass of water on the bedside table. Shakily, she grasped it and brought it to her lips, gulping it all down. Her head swam, and despite her curiosity, and feeling a need to address her situation, she lay back down and closed her eyes. She was asleep in moments.

Once more she woke to the same ceiling, but this time there was the sound of a trid playing in the background and the blue light from its large screen flickered across the ceiling. She tilted her head to the other bed to see Dax sitting on it, back against the headboard.

He looked over and without much inflection said, “Morning sleepy head.?

She noticed the glass of water was refilled with orange juice and went at it. It was thick with real pulp and was delicious. As she bent to put it back she looked at the clock. It was past 6am. The light of morning frayed at the edges of the thick blackout curtains barely penetrating the into the room.

“Did you get this room by the hour?? she says, smiling at him.

“No.? he replied. “I prefer my women considerably less blown up.?

She sat up, feeling her body creaking, and strange twinges travel up and down her back. She was still quite weak and felt off. “So, what the heck was all that about anyway??

“I was hoping you could tell me. You mean, you don’t know?? he asked, looking puzzled and concerned.

“No idea. Some guy came to my door asking for me to protect him. He had that backpack with him, was holding onto it like his life depended on it. Maybe it did, who knows. I have no idea who those guys were. They had nice guns though, and nice grenades too.? She smiled wanly. Though they were keeping it light, she was very worried. Her entire life was cut off to her.

“Well, here’s the backpack,? said Dax. They both looked at it, and a significant silent moment passed between them. “I guess we should open it.?

He reached for the shredded bag, and unzipped it. He reached in and pulled out a roughly square shaped package, perhaps a foot a side, wrapped in armored cloth. The cloth was damaged by shrapnel, but the fragments had clearly not penetrated the wrapping. Dax handed to her. “It’s all yours Pandora.?

She grimaced without looking at him and took the package. She unwrapped the armored clothing and revealed a metallic box. Without any preamble she slid the lid off and looked into the padded box. A clay tile sat within. Elven script and imagery decorated it. “It’s just some old museum piece,? she told Dax, tilting the box so he could see.

“Weird? he replied with a small shrug.

She put it on the table and picked up her comm. It was off. It looked damaged, but she tried switching it on anyway. Its screen came to life. She watched it boot up and it seemed to be functioning correctly. She took a picture of the item and sent out a bot on a search. Matches came back immediately. She followed the first few links and ended up at a news article. “Elves Could Hold Key to Magic!?

Quickly scanning the texts, it appears as if some ancient Elven artifact had surfaced. It seemed that this Elven artifact had keys to the origins of magic or something. It had ‘strange’ properties apparently and the Tir government had been studying it intensely. “It’s from Tir, it has something to do with magic, and maybe its source or something.? She turned her comm so Dax could read.

“Interesting,? he mumbled as he read.

She turned her attention back to her comm just in time to see the screen flicker. She narrowed her eyes at it. She quickly began tapping on some keys, triggering programs.

“What’s wrong?? asked Dax.

“Um, this could be bad, my comm might have been hacked.? She continued to scanning her comm. before one of the apps she had installed noticed the extra packets of information sneaking out the back door of her OS. She identified the processes and began killing them, watching them reproduce and move about her system. She triggered some find and destroy software and continued to work.

After a few minutes, confident that had cleared it out, she turned to Dax, “I was hacked. They probably know where we are. Let me check your comm.?

He shook his head, “Not necessary, it’s been off since I got your message.?

She nodded. Dax was a professional when it came to avoiding attention and authority. That, and he wasn’t so good with technology sometimes. He claimed computers had something against him.

She had copied some inert processes for later analysis, but if they had hacked her comm, they’d be coming here right away, able to access her position on her system. “We need to get out of here.?

He looked up suddenly, standing and staring at the door to their room. “Shit, that was really really fast. They’re here already.?

She shook her head. They screen flicker was when the program must have activated. It couldn’t have been more than 2 minutes…there’s no way they could have found them so fast. What the hell.

Dax grabbed her wrist with sudden urgency. “We have to go, now.?

She pulled her wrist free and quickly began wrapping up the tile. The padded steel box was closed and half wrapped in ballistic armor, clutched in her arms when there was a thump on the door.

“Down!? said Dax as he leapt behind the far bed.

She just had time to crouch and turn her back to the door when it exploded inwards. Fragments of shredded veneer and particle board peppered the room; furniture leapt with the boom and her ears were ringing as a smoke and dust cloud spread across the room. She could just see the top of Dax’s head peer up over the bed.

The bed she was hiding behind suddenly rose off the ground and with a lurch flew to the doorway, slamming against the wall and blocking the entrance. Dax stood, his arms extended towards the bed, keeping it solid against the open doorway with his abilities. He then turned and looked into the bathroom wall, raising his other arm, and it was as if a giant fist slammed the wall, the wallpapered dry wall caved in, splintering a beam, and smashed clean through into an identical looking washroom on the far side of the wall. A shotgun blast ripped through the center of the bed blocking the door, then another. It shuddered slightly as something struck it, but it stayed firm. Swearing and yelling could be heard from outside. “Through the hole, quick!? said Dax, backing up towards the bathroom, keeping his one arm extended towards the bed.

Shaking off her momentary inability to move, she ran to the hole and leapt through in one clean motion, absently noting the cobweb filled space between the walls and the old copper piping. She landed heavily within the next room, splayed out from her flattened dive through the wall. Picking herself up off the drywall and wood chip covered floor she ran through the empty room to the door leading out on the far side. From the other room she heard the sound of glass shattering and a heavy thud land inside the room a moment later, followed quickly by shotguns going off.

She leaned down so she could look through the hole in time to see the other bed go flying towards the window, smashing into a form just standing up inside the room where he had landed after leaping through the glass, the bed slamming him against the wall. A moment later Dax leapt through the small hole between the bathrooms, landing awkwardly half through the hole. He squirmed and got up, and ran towards her as a staccato of gun blasts ripped into the floor and wall around him.

She opened the door, momentarily imagining a form in armor with a big gun waiting just outside the door. No one was there, and she could see the rain coming down in the morning light. They were on the second floor of a motel, the white metal guard rail was rusted. This side of the motel looked down onto a small alley with parking spots against the motel. It edged up against a lot containing a burger joint, the drive through was facing them, separated from the motel parking and the alley with a chain link fence, and a slight upgrade of a foot or two.She stepped out, looking frantically both ways. Down the walkway both ways was clear, and there appeared to be stairs on both ends. Dax ran out of the room onto the walkway beside her, and then glanced back into the room.

A form in full contoured body armor, all blacked out, came to the hole, his shotgun pointing through. His entire face was covered by a fancy high tech helmet. Sensor clusters all around the suit fed him images and information to screens within the completely solid helmet. He would be seeing their body heat overlayed on the images of their bodies, complete with information telling him how far each of them was from him, and where his gun was targeting. It also showed him his location, blueprints of the building if they had them, and where all of his team mates were. They were probably tagged as enemies, so everyone would know exactly where they were. All he saw was integrated with his other team members and they were being fed their positional information. This was high grade military stuff. Either these guys were black ops, or they were very well funded, and illegal, mercenaries.

Just as he got to the hole and trained his gun, the bathroom door slammed shut and both beds in this room flew up and slammed against the door. The gun went off and a shell ripped through everything and slammed into Dax. It bounced off his chest, and fell to the ground, knocking him backwards against the rail. The two beds and the door had slowed it down enough that it hadn’t gone through his armored clothing. A second shell ripped through everything and slammed into the door frame, smashing it.

The two of them ran. Dax stopped her, only a dozen steps down. She glanced around, seeing nothing, but then heard the sound of screeching tires from the far side of the building. Dax was concentrating, and she slowly saw her own body ripple and begin to fade. Only a few moments later they were both completely invisible.

Dax grabbed her wrist and she felt her stomach lurch as her feet lifted off the ground. The two of them lifted out of the open side and up onto the roof, where, instead of fleeing immediately, Dax brought them down to land. The roof was a flat affair with a slight lip around the edges. Some HVAC machines sat at one end, and a couple of collapsed rusted lawn chairs were on the black asphalt expanse, but nothing else. Several largish puddles dotted the roof. The rain continued to patter on the two of them. She looked where she thought Dax was standing and noticed that she could see water splash off of mid air at times. If it was raining harder, it would be possible to see them.

A black van came screeching around the parking lot corner and came to a halt at one end. At the other end, the end facing the front street, a few cars screeched to a halt to stare at the black armored figures with guns that came running around the building. The van’s side door opened and two more figures in black armor, these ones with assault rifles, came walking out. She looked at the models of the guns. As the figures came slowly forward in a pinching movement, scanning around with guns and sensor suites, she finally figured out what type of gun it was: T30. The attachments all matched the make as well: Tir.

She whispered to Dax, “They’re Tir operatives.?

He gently squeezed her hand in response. Below, she heard the smashing sounds of some furniture being overturned. She supposed they must have come through the hole in the wall by now. A floor board on the walkway, just beneath them creaked. Despite the suppressing sound of the rain, the distant sound of police sirens and the quiet thudding of a far off helicopter could be heard. The figures did not immediately respond, but instead continued moving about, scanning the entire area for their prey. Despite being several meters down from the door, they seemed to be slowly closing in. They could hear only muffled sounds of speaking coming from the helmet of the figure below them.

Then, absurdly, the helms of the soldiers in the parking lot below tilted, ever so much, as if they were looking up to the roof. It was clear they couldn’t see them. If they had, they would have lifted their guns up and started shooting. Somehow they knew where they were without being able to see them. There were some scuffling sounds, of metal on metal, with the railing below, and then two armored hands gripped the edge of the roof. Someone was climbing up.

Dax tightened his grip and her stomach lurched again. Her body rocketed upwards as the two of them flew straight up. Below her she saw the soldier pull himself up and onto the roof in a smooth movement, and instantly sweep his gun around the roof, scanning. The last view she had of him before the rain clouds enveloped them was his head tilting straight up and seemingly looking directly at them.

To be continued...
tisoz
I really appreciate the edit. Jblades found some things that I had somehow missed in the 30 or so edits and re-writes here on my end. thanks again.
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"Wet Behind the Ears"
by kanislatrans


Cold stainless steel and antiseptic white assaulted the battle-ready dwarf. Her feet tapped anxiously as the pressure seal popped on the door and it slid hissing back into the wall. She dropped into a series of forward rolls and blasted into the nurse’s station like a rabid armadillo on Jazz. The two male nurses, whose badges identified them as Bowman and Shaffer, froze. They looked confused as the short figure in form fitting body armor pointed a nasty looking Ares Alpha assault rifle their way. Unfortunately, she wasn’t who they should have been looking at.

The rapid “Tappap! Tappap!? of two silenced Ingram smart guns announced the presence of a much bigger threat. Had the nurses stayed conscious after the barrage of Stick-n-Shock rounds stitched them from hip to shoulder they may have seen the heavily armed troll in the door way. His face was partially obscured by the riot helmet on his head, but his toothy smile told any one watching that he was really, really enjoying himself.

To the left of the plasteel and formica cubicle a door marked ‘Security’ burst open and two guards fluidly dropped into combat positions. Their moves were training session perfect, one dropping low and covering the left arc, the other leaning over his companion covering right, their shotguns projecting perfectly overlapping fields of fire. The intruders looked somewhat surprised and the kneeling sec guard smiled to himself. "Bonus time," he thought as his finger tightened on the trigger.

Agnes D’Amato, a.k.a "Turtle", smiled to herself also. Looking at the display in the upper right corner of her Chiba Nightshark combat goggles, she let her eye twitch on the icon of a cartoon bomb. On command, the grenade she had dropped in front of the security door on her roll through the room exploded in a flash of searing white light.

Both guards were thrown back into the security office by the force of the concussion grenade. As they tried to get to their feet and regain focus through partially blinded eyes, the troll casually took two steps and pumped a burst of Stick-n-Shock into each, sending them to the floor unconscious. Scanning the office for any other targets he spoke quickly into the sub-vocal mic at his throat; "2 o'clock clear. Moving to tee-time." He held up the custom pair of red chromed SMG’s ejecting the partial clips and began reloading fresh ones. Turning to Turtle he smiled again and with an elegant bow (for a 2.7 m troll) motioned her towards the room at the end of the hall. "After you, M'lady. I believe our maiden in distress is right this way."
* * *


Darkness... there was darkness all around. A sound, ribbon thin, wound its way through the black nothingness, growing stronger as it found its target.

"Wakee, wakee, Tail-Chaser," a voice called, drawing Evan Collier from the cold, dreamless sleep. Color swirled and coagulated, flooding his perception, slowly settling into focus. Evan found himself sitting next to a crystalline pool in a forest. The moss under him was cool and slightly damp. He could see large rainbow trout circling above the algae covered rocks at the stream bottom. Looking around, he felt eyes on him and knew wasn't alone in this picture perfect glade. He turned to his left and almost touched noses with a large, shaggy coyote. The canines muzzle stretched into a grin and a voice, old and gravely touched the young man's mind.

“‘Bout time you got here.? The coyote said. Their eyes met and Evan knew instinctively that this must be Coyote. Not ‘the coyote’ or ‘a coyote’, but Old Grandfather himself. “The one thing that always impressed me about you, Tail-Chaser, is your mastery of the art of napping".

Reaching back and running his hand through his shoulder length hair, the young man took a second to look around and examine his surroundings. Everything looked real, maybe even a little too real. He had been following the path of the shaman for a couple of years, but had never experienced anything as vivid and well... real as this before. Not ever in the sweat lodges that he had attended, or the personal dream quests he had taken, had things felt so vibrant and alive.

"Shit!" he thought to himself, "I'm dead!? Forming the words slowly he asked, "How did I die, Grandfather?"

The song-dog grinned ear to ear, “You’re not dead yet, although you came damn close. You’ve been restin’ on your hindquarters for quite a long time." Coyote tilted his head and looked hard at the man. “About 60 years actually.?

Evan's head spun, trying to grasp the concept that he had slept for that long. He leaned over slowly and peered at his reflection in the pool. He was pleasantly surprised to see that he hadn’t changed much. The same average looking 30-something white American he had always been peered up at him. "Well, it looks like at least I've aged well,? he said to Coyote.

Coyote laughed, his laugher resonating through the grove, its power and strength creating ripples on the pool's glassy surface. "Yeah, I guess you have, although, here in the dream-world you will always appear the same. It’s what you think, not what you see that matters.

"Listen to me now, Pup," he continued. "I had planned on meeting with you long ago, but before that time arrived you had yourself an accident. You got tagged by a power line if I remember correctly. Bunch of doctors scooped you up and talked your family into donating your mangy hide to science. They froze you and have been shipping you all over the place since then. Hell, if you only knew lucky you are! There have been a lot of troubles and changes since you got turned into a corpse-icle. Now someone wants to try and thaw you out. You and me are gonna put a bee in their bonnet, so to speak. Your gonna wake up, just like they want, but your gonna add a little chaos to shake ‘em up some.? Coyote grinned.

Evan leaned back and plucked a blade of grass. It was a lot to soak up, but most of his life had been learning to adjust to life’s quick ups and downs. Landing on his feet had become second nature... "Ok, Grandfather what do you need?? he replied, still a bit rattled.

"First I have a couple of gifts for you, Pup. Believe me you’re gonna need ‘em.? The totem spirit stepped back and dropped his muzzle towards the ground started choking and gagging eventually coughing up a slimy ball of something onto the grass. Evan could barely make out the legs and black spots of the half digested leopard frog. “Go ahead Tail-Chaser, eat it,? Coyote ordered.

Not sure if the song-dog was serious, Evan picked up the gob. It felt as bad as it looked. He looked at his spirit guide, and steeling his stomach tossed the mess into his mouth and swallowed. Amazingly he managed to keep it down. He was feeling a bit proud of himself when Coyote started his gagging and hacking routine again, spitting out a rabbits foot. “This one too, tail-chaser,? he said. The second “gift? didn’t taste much better than the first.

Once more Coyote spat something onto the grass. It was a small obsidian coyote, no bigger than Evan’s thumbnail. Evan put the statue in his mouth and it dissolved. Knowledge flooded his being. His spirit soaked up the gifts: songs to summon allies from the spirit world, a song that would make him unseen, and an understanding of Coyote himself that left his head spinning. This was the contact, the Knowing; he had searched for, for almost ten years. The connection, the feeling of oneness, slipped over him and left him speechless.

Coyote’s laughter shook the pond. “I knew I could count on you, Tail-Chaser! You’re gonna wake up soon. You’ll have to get moving fast and get out of the place you awake in. Find an elf named Magpie. She owes me a favor and should be able to bring you up to speed."

Coyote's words broke Evan out of his euphoric haze. “Wait a second," he asked. "Did you say elf?"

Reality began to spin as Coyote smiled and spoke, "The world has changed a lot since 2010, Tail-Chaser, but you’ll adapt. I know you will...? As the blackness closed in Coyote added, "You might want to find yourself some guns. It’s pretty dangerous out there."
* * *


Dr. Noah Hadley frowned as he studied the AR text floating over the body of the caucasian male on the steel gurney. He had hoped that this subject would be useful in the testing of the bioware the company was developing. However the initial scans showed a scrambled DNA sequence that he recognized as a rejection cluster. There was no way the revived body, even though it was one of the few successfully resuscitated, would accept any invasive upgrading.

"Scrap this one, Rodney, its flawed," he spat. ?Start thawing me another and dispose of this." Frustration shadowed his stress lined face.

“Damn," Rodney Ellis, his assistant, replied. “I was hoping since this one was breathing on its own we would be able to move onto phase two with the new orthoskin project.? Never taking his eyes off the glowing data hovering overhead he added, "How many more of these corpse-icles do we have?"

Dr. Hadley’s head snapped around and anger lit his steel gray eyes, “THEY ARE NOT CORPSE-ICLES!!" he yelled. Catching himself, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. After a moment, he collected his emotions and regained composure, then motioned for the lab tech to sit. Taking another a deep breath, Hadley spoke, “I apologize Rod, shouldn't have snapped at you like that. Not to excuse my behavior, but there have been noises coming from upstairs about closing the whole project. Its...well... I've put too much damn sweat into this project to have some number cruncher pull it out from underneath us". He slumped forward "If we can show the board that these cryogenic lab specimens can be used as viable test subjects, Omni-Chron could save billions. If we succeed in our work here, there is no chance of another Whitmore incident. After all, this person," he nodded towards the gurney, "has been legally dead for over 55 years."

Rodney grimaced at the mention of the Whitmore fiasco, an event that had occurred over a year ago but whose ramifications still reverberated through the research department. It had all started with a volunteer in a battery of tests involving move-by-wire cyberware. She was a walk-in who claimed she to be SIN-less, a claim no one had verified by doing a background check. The project director, the good doctors’ predecessor, had cleared her for experimental surgery. Every thing looked fine until a month after she had the cyber ware installed. The subject began having psychotic episodes and had escaped from the Omni-Chron research facility.

Two days later she walked into a classroom at Seattle University and shot 23 students and an instructor. She drifted to the commons and killed 4 campus security guards and wounded a Knight Errant patrolman who had responded to the shots-fired call. She was finally taken down by a magic theory instructor who hit her with a mana bolt that left her dead. To make matters worse, she was Colleen Whitmore, the niece of Elaine Whitmore, a city councilwoman. It had cost the company millions of nuyen in settlements and damage control. "Don't worry, Doc. We'll get one eventually,.? Rodney said reassuringly. "I'll just unplug this one and go...."

The door to the lab hissed as the environmental seals separated. Dr. Hadley looked up and a hint of a smile crept to the corners of his mouth.
* * *


Turtle's fingers tapped on air as she and her companion, the troll known to his chummers as ‘Grog’, approached the door to the laboratory. “On the tee. Need the castle opened," she sent as a text blurb via her commlink to the rest of her team.

Neville ?Dash? Conner, the group's tech-head and hacker, waiting in the building's security control node, flashed back an ?A-ok," and sent the command to open the lab door. Somewhere in the data stream the command bumped into a blip of static; it bounced, changed color, and proceeded along its virtual course.

Dash was happy with the way the run had gone so far. They had gotten lucky and the intel the Johnson had supplied had been accurate. He had exploited a small flaw in the building's security and hadn’t even broken a sweat taking control of the whole system. “Cake walk," he thought. Suddenly green lights lit up the whole node, illuminating the hacker’s icon, that of a pale elf in a skin tight blue shirt and black pants. He raised an eyebrow as every door in the building began to open. Quickly he double checked the command code for errors as he watched the spectacle. All of the doors in the facility were unlocking and swinging open. Even the lockers in the security office clicked open, as did the vending machines in the nurses’ station.

"What the... ?" he thought. Touching the gold star on the front of his shirt he launched a program and a cylinder of static formed next to him. A figure slowly materialized as the cylinder faded out. Speaking to the agent he said, "Paddy, I thought you said there was only one life form in this system."

The program, dressed in a red shirt and black pants similar to the hacker’s persona, replied in a heavy Irish brogue, "Aye! That I did! There’s no one here but us, Cap'n."

"Hmm," the hacker thought. "Interesting." He quickly sent a text message to the team, "Keep your heads up, I just had a command glitch. No sight of any trouble but its worrying me...?

Grog pivoted, bringing the two cross hairs on his helmet's HUD in line with the flashing adverts on the vending machine as its front panel banged open against the wall. Packages of Uncle Charlie’s Jalapeño Caramels and bags of Mondo Krispy soy chips tumbled to the floor. The GlamKola machine began dumping plastic bottles across the white speckled tile. The troll's wired reflexes had triggered in response to the spike in his adrenaline levels, making the bottles circle in slow motion. Hearing the hiss of the door now at his back, he hoped Turtle had it covered. As he turned once again, he heard Turtle's voice and knew things were frosty. “Say goodnight, Gracie," she said as she opened up with the Ares.

Two human men in lab coats stood next to a surgical table, both turning to face the door as it opened. The man to the left was the younger of the two. His hair was cut in a classic conservative comb-over in a vain attempt to hide a receding hairline. His hands had instinctively gone skyward at the sight of the armored dwarf. He backed away, a look of panic on his face.

The wide burst from the assault rifle caught both men and the Stick-n-Shock put them down hard and fast. Seeing the men drop, Turtle ceased firing and turned to scan the room. As her eyes drifted across the trauma and resuscitation equipment next to the gurney, the assault rifle in her hands suddenly spat forth a three round burst. The machine it hit sparked, and red lights began racing up and down the video screen mounted on the front.

The troll street samurai grinned as he watched Turtle shoot the piece of machinery. "Umm, I think it’s dead," he quipped.

Turtle grimaced. "Drek! Wasn’t me, omae. Slitchin’ thing just fired by itself… Weird, still in full auto but only fired a couple a’ rounds." She brought up a diagnostic program via her skinlink and clicked on the 'run' icon. As the results flashed across her vision, she said, "Fraggin' spooky, I hope our rent-a-mage has things covered out there in dreamland. It’s looking like we might have a spirit hanging around.?

She bent down and roughly flipped over the two corporate researchers. On the right hand of the older one she found what they were looking for, a Pi Kappa Epsilon fraternity ring. “Hole in one. Prince Charming leaving the castle," she typed in a flash. She scooped the prone form of their target off the floor and slung him over her broad shoulder.

"Johnson said Princess would have a package. See if you can find it," she said to the troll.

“Roger, roger? the street samurai replied. Searching the room, he spotted a blue briefcase on the table of surgical instruments by the door. ?This it?? he asked.

"Gotta be,? came the reply from his team mate. ?Only thing here that isn't stainless steel. Time to fade, chummer.? Turtle headed for the door. The two runners quickly began making their way out of the research building.

Had the pair glanced at the screen over the resuscitation unit that had been shot, they may have noticed the red lights flashing back and forth on the machine, right before a soft female voice announced, "Nano-flush complete. Initiating neuro-stimulant infusion"

Evan's first sensation upon regaining consciousness was one of cold and pain, followed quickly by heat and pain as the pharmaceuticals flooded his body. The light over head wavered in an out of focus. A faint tremor began to resonate in his limbs, and quickly built into full muscular convulsions. His muscles rippled and writhed as he thrashed on the table. His legs pumped, kicking of their own accord and slammed into the steel. A hoarse cry was ripped from his throat as his body shook and bounced frantically. Still twitching as the IV and 'trodes pulled free, he gasped before finally crashing to the floor. He caught his breath as the last of the tremors subsided. The stimulants left his heart pounding in his ears and specks flashing across his vision. Lifting his head, he looked around. "Hospital," his mind gasped. "I’m in a hospital… must be sick, or something." Crawling his way around the gurney, he almost fell on top of an unconscious form in a white lab coat. Confused and disoriented, Evan paused, eyes watering and mucus running from his nose. He shivered, feeling the cold concrete floor against his skin. Instinctively, he reached for the coat, clumsily pulling it from the body of the inert intern. He huddled against the cabinets, his breath coming in sharp gasps as he surveyed his surroundings. Turning, he rolled onto his hands and knees, his gaze finding the open door. He was moving even as his mind fought to register the image.

“You’ll have to get moving fast and get out of the place you awake in.? The words from the vision filled his head. Still not sure of exactly what was going on, Evan knew one thing: he had to get out of here. The need to flee rolled over him in a wave as he pulled himself through the threshold and into the next room.

In the room he had just left, the resuscitation machine blinked and began shutting down. The lights went blank and the female voice softly chimed, “Full revival program complete. Welcome to Omni-Chron industries. Enjoy your stay with us and welcome to your future!?
* * *


Coyote watched from astral space as his new pupil staggered through the facility. The newborn mystic adept grabbed weapons, clothes, food and water, hurriedly stuffing them into a laundry bag from the security office. Leaning on the wall for support, he weaved down the hall and through a side door into an alley. Grinning widely, the totem spirit turned and willed his essence to materialize in front of the nurses' station inside. Sniffing around, he found Nurse Bowman’s data pad on the floor. He lifted his leg and marked the spot.

As the stream of mana flooded over the electronic device, the optical chips it contained erased themselves and the screen went blank. The system rebooted, and as the display came back online the vid screen filled with a single canine footprint.

Laughing to himself, Coyote turned and in two bounds, leapt into the astral…
tisoz
Oh yeah, I left in the notes of thanks to JBlades, because I thought it a nice tip of the hat to someone who volunteered to do a job for free.
Or he wanted sneak previews of a bunch of stories. smile.gif
fulcra
A lot to read, but thoroughly enjoyable. I was surprised at how rich and well written the stories were. Great job all around.

Edit: And of course, thanks so much to Tisoz for putting this together. Nice work!
Zombayz
Very well done, but I especially liked Redemption and Carding Estates. Congrats to whoever wins this, because they will most certainly be a most kickass author.
JBlades
Thanks for the props. embarrassed.gif It really was my pleasure! I got to help some nice folks and read some great stories. biggrin.gif
I'm really impressed by the level of the fiction here, and hope everyone appreciates it!
martindv
I couldn't stand Finally Awake.

Recovering addicts don't talk like that. They don't act nonchalantly about moving from a baseline to something as hardcore as snuff BTLs.
knasser

As one of the authors, I don't want to give anything away by commenting on all the stories except mine, so I'll wait until after the winner is announced and the authors revealed. But I just have to say that there's some really good work in here that I'm enjoying. I'm about half-way through them so far so I haven't voted yet.

Good stuff!

-Khadim.
tisoz
16 votes so far, only 10 authors (even if they all voted for themself. wink.gif)

Where is the feedback? Let me and the authors know what made the difference. What did you like about some stories? Where did some stories fall short? Writers crave feedback. You can give some directly and perhaps influence my decision. (It has happened before.) The least you could do after the authors spent the effort of writing these is reading them (which I will get to, I promise), the next is voting, but then when you have done both, make a bit of effort to let the authors know where they succeeded or failed, what were the strong and weak points to their stories. (You might even make a few notes during or after reading an entry so you remember.)
Critias
I know as well as anyone that authors crave feedback. I also know, however, that I'm absolutely horrible at giving feedback out because even when I'm writing a story I have no idea what the hell I'm doing (it just happens). I'm going to spend some time this weekend going back over all these in a little more detail and trying to organize my thoughts on each one, so I can share 'em (inasmuch as I'm capable).

That said, none of them leapt out at me as horrible pieces of shit. This is, in and of itself, a good sign.
knasser
QUOTE (tisoz @ Apr 12 2008, 04:49 PM) *
16 votes so far, only 10 authors (even if they all voted for themself. wink.gif)

Where is the feedback? Let me and the authors know what made the difference. What did you like about some stories? Where did some stories fall short? Writers crave feedback. You can give some directly and perhaps influence my decision. (It has happened before.) The least you could do after the authors spent the effort of writing these is reading them (which I will get to, I promise), the next is voting, but then when you have done both, make a bit of effort to let the authors know where they succeeded or failed, what were the strong and weak points to their stories.


I fully intend to post feedback on the stories. As I said, I just thought I ought to wait a bit because as one of the authors it would be a bit obvious if I commented on nine stories, but not one in particular. wink.gif That said, it was a definite choice between two particular stories for me, though a third one I liked a lot and didn't consider voting for for a purely technical reason - nothing to do with the writing. And no, I didn't vote for my own story. biggrin.gif I voted for the one that I thought was best other than my own as all of us authors should do. Though having read the entries, mine is not the best anyway.

-Khadim.
ZenGamer
QUOTE (tisoz @ Apr 12 2008, 10:49 AM) *
16 votes so far, only 10 authors (even if they all voted for themself. wink.gif)

Where is the feedback? Let me and the authors know what made the difference. What did you like about some stories? Where did some stories fall short? Writers crave feedback. You can give some directly and perhaps influence my decision. (It has happened before.) The least you could do after the authors spent the effort of writing these is reading them (which I will get to, I promise), the next is voting, but then when you have done both, make a bit of effort to let the authors know where they succeeded or failed, what were the strong and weak points to their stories. (You might even make a few notes during or after reading an entry so you remember.)


I generally don't like to give feedback because I'm not interested in defending my opinion, and I am also hesitant to say anything either bad or good about someone's work (I would make a poor boss). Also, as one of the authors, I can say without doubt that not all authors want feedback. I write infrequently and only for myself. I make very little of what I write available for anyone other than myself to read - I write as more of an exercise in organizing my thoughts than anything else. That said, I only entered the contest because I had an appropriate story available and wanted to read the 9 other entries sooner!!! Of course, this doesn't mean I mind if anyone comments, just that I don't really mind one way or the other...

I will say however that of the six stories I read so far (not including mine), I really liked all but two, and even those two were pretty well written and worth reading. After I read the final three I will definitely cast my vote, and not for my own story, that's for sure.

Thanks to all for giving me something "shadowrunny" to read!
.
Ice Hammer
I will be happy to give feedback on one of the stories, Carding Estates. The first thing that struck me about the story was its originality. I thought it was a great choice about writing about the people that lived through the earthquake in LA. The details were exceptionally vivid and plausible. In fact, it was the details that really drew me into the story. I liked the details of the crisis, and I liked the specific details of the type of equipment, cyberware, and methods that this particular team was employing. I also particularly liked the action scenes as well. When my gaming group gets to the point of the earthquake (they are still only in 2066), I could see myself using a couple of ideas from this story to include in the runs. Specifically the shedim. I would not have thought to have used them in the aftermath of the quake, but it makes sense. Good job.

Now for the constructive criticism. I thought that the story had some problems with pacing. In my opinion, it tended to drag just a little in certain spots. It just needed to be tightened up, to improve on the pacing, and to give the story a sense of urgency. Also, I think that the extraction was too soon. Personally, given the widespread devestation, this team and their guy would not have been a top priority for extraction. Researchers, executives, and possibly some high end equipment would get the priority for extraction over them. Extracting this team and their guy probably would have taken several days at the very least, if not a full week, in my opinion. I think scavaging for food, water, ammo, etc, would have helped create a greater sense of urgency in the story. In addition, having the characters worry about ammo conservation would have helped as well to create that, we're in a lawless, feral city now, we have to do everything we can to hold out until we are extracted. It would have also been interesting to the see the team try to take on the shedim first in melee combat, simply because of their concern about their ammo. But overall, I thought Carding Estates was a terrific effort.
northern lights
i told myself i wouldnt' vote as i subitted an entry, but if i had, i would pick Carding Estates, not for the actual story or its writing, but for Jojo the irish setter!!! i love setters!!! my Aemon the Red is as good a pup as i could reasonably ask for.
Prime Mover
Been busy few days still trying to read all, and need to keep post bumped up notice it keeps slipping off of first page, hard to vote if people don't see it.
Pendaric
Butterflies
Well written, good characterisation but lacked the punch of a story. Enjoyable but more of a character excersie. Would love to see more.

Carding Estates
Again solid characterisation and a very interesting premise but I found the story overly long for the concept. Perhapes because I knew where it was heading to fast and really found I did not care about the protagonists. It felt to much like 'and then this happen' ,
but am not a fan of disaster stories.

The Conversation
Great narrative. Interesting and engaging but the effect of only hinting at what was occuring, while lovingly subtle also left the middle and ending feeling clipped. Could of stood to be a little longer and more meat on the bone. Still good stuff.

Dark King
Throughly enjoyed this story. Novel concept, engageing protagonist and characters. Well edited for content and well balance to/through begining, middle and end. Good narrative and description and perfectly observed and timed.

A Dragon and Some Lightning
Great characterisation, scene setting and pace. I think the run formate has worn thin for me but the concept was solid and I really would like to see more about the lead characters. Just finding a dragon stretched belief slightly but thats the only slight weakness in an other wise tight plot.

Finally Awake
I like this more for the middle and the end than the begining. The start is a good write up for the setting up the rest of the story and lets you understand the harshness of the change for the character. The spirit quest is great work. The totemic influence surrounding the character is a nice touch.

Redemption
Good description but I found the piece to long for the surporting concept. It has been done before and therefore I lost interest half way through, mostly as the main characters simply where not complex enough to hold my attention. The first section of the story though well written was to my mind an excessivel use of space to outline the main character. A heavy use of editing to pare this down to a more punching story would turn this from so so to solid. Saying that the description though out was very good.

Salt Lake Shadows
Very good characteristion, good narrative especially for setting and interesting take on the run model. Using the run as a back drop to what is important staved off the feeling of a listing of events. I was skeptical of the switching between teaser intro to the action to flash-back but in retrospect it was well handled. A fresh and interesting read.

Uninvited
Im liked this, which suprised me. The main character seemed a little sterotypical but despite this I was fully immersed in to the flow of the story. Though not an unknown devise, the entry into the action is unexspected and feels smooth. Look forward to seeing this one given an ending. Solid narrative, plotting and pace. Little more work on the character in the unwritten chapters and this will shape up to be great.

Wet Behind the Ears
Again well written, nice narrative and pace. No wasted print. Love Coyote's gifts and the manipulations of the totem. The run plot intersecting with the mystic plot led to a nice rounded story. The cutting of scenes was well handled and well placed. Nice concept maintained through out. Nice read.
ZenGamer
Okay, I finally got to read them all and now it's going to be hard to vote - so many great stories!!!
HMHVV Hunter
Bumping this.

Is there any way we could sticky note this or something, just to make sure it's readily visible to everyone?
kanislatrans
Maybe once every hour or so I could post one line from my epic elvish sonnet "For Love of a Willow" wink.gif .

Its still a work in progress but at 37 pages I could probably keep the thread on top for a month or so and bring some culture to the forums as a bonus! spin.gif spin.gif spin.gif

P.S. these are some of the best short fiction I have have the pleasure to read in years. quality work all the way around. I feel humbled to have my work in such excellent company. (drek, now Im getting all teary eyed!)
Seriphen
I'm bumping this as well. I'm only half way though these and I am impressed so far.
kanislatrans
nother bump.
and the first line from "For love of a willow"

"On a throne of silky,silty velvet green she reigns,
virgin princess of the court eternal."

wobble.gif wobble.gif
kanislatrans
bottom of the page again. Bump.

line 2 of the critically acclaimed "For Love of a Willow"

"Her knights of oak and ash defend her graceful bows,
and guard gainst beasts infernal."

upsidedown.gif
fulcra
if only we could all contribute to the "For Love of a Willow". Like one of those stories where every person adds one word.

I'd write line 3 as:

"The lone hunter spies her valued bone,
then she pulls out her 12 gauge and BLAM! kills the Lumber jack!"

Hmmm, maybe I should leave it to kanislatrans.
Ed_209a
Butterflies -
I really like Shadowrunner characters who are more than Darth Maul-like killbots. I like when shadowrunners miss their fallen comerads, like Aurora and Mac. I like the feeling that the 'runner can't lose one more teammate (as opposed to hired beef), because it will break them.

Carding Estates -
This is one of my favorites, and likely the one I voted for. The disaster plot was tense, but not in the "one wrong step and everyone is dead" way that many disaster plots are.

Daniel Cho's concern for his dogs made the story more personal for me.

I still wonder what the Mitsuhama gundrone was all about. It seems like there was a lot of setup for just a little cover fire.

Cho mentioned a trainsim set in medieval Japan. I was wondering if the entire story would end up as another trainsim.

The Conversation -
I really like stories that are stingy with showing the reader/viewer the big picture. This one was a little too stingy. This is more like the first few chapters of a novel than a short story. The "novel" got my interest though. I'd like to read the rest, if there were any.

Dark King - wageslave with P-Fix
Wow, 1960's disfunctional families amped up to 11! A distant, workaholic husband/father, wife wearing a protective mask of pleasaant normalcy, rebellious children wanting to be nothing like the parents, It's all there, but with a 2070's twist (of the knife).

A Dragon and Some Lightning -
Salt Lake Shadows -
These were essentially shadowrunner procedurals. I like detailed procedurals, but no new ground was broken here.

Finally Awake -
Interesting take on a druggie digging himself out and straightening out. I liked how the BTL user's reality filter kept him from knowing just how far he had fallen.

Redemption -
Enjoyable read, if predictable. I don't mean that in a negative way either. Predictable can be comfortable.

Uninvited -
You have my attention... I am very interested in the rest of the story.

Wet Behind the Ears -
I liked the cryogenic twist, along with Coyote using/creating coincedence.
knasser
MODS! Fisty, Eidolon, Somone... Can we get this stickied for the month or something, please? I ask for two reasons:

Firstly, a great deal or time, effort and heart went into producing these stories on the parts of their authors, and we have had far too few votes and comments on them considering, quite honestly, the really high quality of the work. It's disappointing after so much work, but I think the simple reason is that it takes a really long time to read through all the entries, and people are naturally witholding comments and votes until they've read each one. So because the popularity of this thread wont be reflected in posts in the same way a normal thread would be, and because such a large amount of effort is deserving of it... and simply because good quality Shadowrun fiction is a fantastic resource for GM's, players and potential players, I think there's a wonderful case for stickying it.

The second reason for stickying it is that it's the only way I can see of stopping kanislatrans from posting any more of that nauseating elven dogerel. I'd suggest revising the CoC in light of it to include Really Bad Poetry as forbidden.
Thank you,

-Khadim.
ZenGamer
Okay, even though I said I wouldn't, here is my commenatary on the stories.

Butterflies
A well written and interesting exercise in character development, with a focus on a potentially interesting character. Unfortunately, it felt as though nothing happened in the story. There was no actual event. This would have been much better if it were longer as it felt as though it had alot of potential but then left me hanging.

Carding Estates
I really liked this story, as did everyone it seems. Very well written, easy to follow, interesting, exciting with very touching moments between the well-developed characters. I had assumed that it was being hinted at that one of the characters was a Technomancer, but then that potential plotline just never panned out. Great story, but also very epic (or at least grand) in scope. Well-done.

The Conversation
This story was well written, but I felt the execution was off. I tried very hard to figure out what was going on but never managed to understand the plotline. Who were the characters? What were they doing? And why? It felt very unexplained and could use some clarification. So many subtle plots and devices were alluded to but then never followed through on to help explain the story.

Dark King
This story grabbed my attention very well. Very interesting read, and very fufilling. It left me wondering what would become of the girl and her father, and actually caring about them.

A Dragon and Some Lightning
A well-written and detailed shadowrun. A great description of the job. I would have liked more character development.

Finally Awake
This one is mine so I have nothing to say about it.

Redemption
I love vampires and vampire related stories. Vampire hunters are very cool in my book. This story was well written and executed, but for me it was surprising that the main character would be so surprised by a vampire who regrets what he has to do by necessity. The main character didn't feel as though he had as much experience as he was made out to simply because he seemed naive on this issue, but then again I feel alot of sympathy for vampires and their curse, possibly because I also play Vampire: The Masquerade in addition to Shadowrun. Nevertheless, I loved this story, particularly the way it started in the middle, then backed up to tell the "fumigation" part, and then proceeded to the final point. I thought it would have been good to have the ghoul leader seem more remorseful and be slaughtered anyway by the main character, because it would have given a nice forshadowing effect and given the main character something more to be regretful of. The main character also could have had a feeling of self-loathing as most vampire/ghoul/zombie hunters would. Afterall, the monsters they mercilessly slaughter were once people, and this makes them monsters in their own right. Edit: After thinking about it I realized that I shouldn't be giving suggestions like this... It's just because I love vampires and I have so many ideas of my own on this topic.

Salt Lake Shadows
Great story, and I loved the ending. I felt the shadowrun as described was a bit short and could have used more detail, and some explanation as to why the group was betrayed.

Uninvited
Fantastic action and memorable characters. It seems so hopeless for them but they have so far managed to keep alive and I can't wait to read more.

Wet Behind the Ears
This was my personal favorite because I really liked the whole cryogenic angle and the way the random run tied in with Coyote's plans. The whole implication of everything being connected and powerful beings pulling strings to get things done was great. Coyote puking up "gifts" to bestow powers to the new shaman was a really nice touch, and Coyote erasing the records by peeing on them was a really good and amusing ending.
Seriphen
Okay, now that I have finished all of the stories I figured I'd add my 2 nuyen.gif

Butterflies

I like the way this was written. It was very descriptive and gave an interesting look at the thoughts of runners who had become close. Like other people have said though I feel it was a bit short and would have liked more. It just feels as if it is a small part of a much larger story.

Carding Estates

I enjoyed reading this one very much. The premise for the story is great. It is interesting to see the events of the world take place from the prospective of someone who is experiencing them. The way the main character is written also helped to relate to him and the story as a whole.

The Conversation

This story confused me a bit. I really liked the imagery and how you could really see the area of Spain that the story took place in, but I had a hard time actually following what was taking place and why the characters were doing what they were.

Dark King

I was impressed by this one as well. The interaction between the main character and his family was interesting and helped make them feel real. Also the struggle the main character faces with both the chip and then the final situation was done very well. It causes you to feel for him.

A Dragon and Some Lightning

I liked the characters in this one. They way they were given unique personas and you could visualize them. The one thing I missed with this one is a personal preference and not a problem with the way it was written. I just wanted to know the resolution with the characters and the dragon.

Finally Awake

I found this one interesting. I liked the way it let you see things from the ex-junkie and his struggle to pull himself up again. It was interesting the way it was written to be a message.

Redemption

This is the one I voted for. I liked the way the characters were written in this one. Yes, it a bit predictable, but I thought that it was executed very well. You can relate with both the Hunter and the Vampire. I also like the way you come to understand the Hunter by the fumigating incident.

Salt Lake Shadows

I enjoyed this one as well. It helps that I know the area and landmarks used in the story very well as I live in Utah. The depiction of ‘70s Utah is very interesting as well. I agree that the run and motivation behind the betrayal could have been expanded.

Uninvited

I like the tone set in this story, and how it is supposed to be a struggle for the characters. I would love to see the rest of this story as this just really starts things off.

Wet Behind the Ears

The two storylines working together by coincidence and the manipulation of Coyote in this story was very well done. I like the characterization of Coyote as well. The take on Cryogenics in the ‘70s is also very interesting.

JBlades
*bump*

Did anyone else hear that? Sounded like a bump in the dark...
ZenGamer
Bump for the win!!!
fistandantilus4.0
QUOTE (knasser @ Apr 16 2008, 12:39 PM) *
MODS! Fisty, Eidolon, Somone... Can we get this stickied for the month or something, please?
Firstly, a great deal or time, effort and heart went into producing these stories...

The second reason for stickying it is that it's the only way I can see of stopping kanislatrans from posting any more of that nauseating elven dogerel

Thank you,

-Khadim.


Done.

We also would have accepted "...because the Mods are strangely attractive and every mod action, including simple Topic Pins, makes our collective breath's quicken."Flattery doesn't get you everything, but it couldn't hurt. wink.gif

knasser
Thank you enormously! I'm sure this will help a lot with getting the stories read. I got to say that 31 votes is dissappointing. We KNOW a lot more people than that out there have been reading this thread so I don't know why more people haven't voted.

Now, on the subject of feedback, I'm going to go ahead and post my thoughts on the stories here. It might actually be better to do this while we're still all anonymous. In order not to give mine away, I will do a short critique of mine as well, cunningly disguised. wink.gif No-one should take offense at my thoughts on their story. It's meant as constructive criticism to be useful, but its still just my opinion so disregard if you think I'm wrong. And so...

Butterflies.
This didn't really grab me, I'm afraid. I don't dislike heavily introspective prose, but I found this very wordy and it was hard to understand what was actually going on. I guess mostly it was the style of language:
QUOTE
"Therein lay the troubles upon her heart. She did not belong on this boat with its haughty wench of a “captain?. For her place was on another boat. One filled with the merriment of friends, amidst parties with little girls and puppy dogs. Mac was the one who should deliver them to their destination that they might collectively put right the pains of their past. "

Nobody I know talks like that. It's in the style of a fairy tale narration, very stylised, and for me it just doesn't portray the characters or the mood. Does Aurora really think of the captain as a 'haughty wench'? If Aurora actually uses such terms, we need to know why, I think, because it makes Aurora sound like the haughty one, to dismiss others in those terms. I think the best thing I can suggest is to try and show the mood through actions, rather than description. Something like:
QUOTE
Aurora gazed deliberately out to sea as the captain passed by her. The captain's overly-tight clothing and aggresively sexual manner was the antithesis of the austere elf whose beauty was more refined, but cooler, like the moonlight that lit the deep waters.

It still shows Aurora as a sad, beautiful figure, it still shows the captain as "wenchy" and it still shows the dislike they have of each other. And it's still a little poetic in its imagery. But it gives the reader something to visualise and that's what I think was really missing in Butterflies. Some narration telling us what people feel is fine, but the reader has to also see the characters in order to care about them.

I've been quite critical of the story there, but I don't mean to say it is not worthwhile, I'm just offering suggestions that (I think) would help bring the story out more to the reader.

Carding Estates
I've not much to say on this story if only because there's not much to criticise. I can see why it's got all the votes that it has and it nicely runs an action narrative in conjunction with reflection from the main character. The pacing worked quite well also. I didn't vote for this story (unlike everyone else, it seems), but I think it is good. The end was just slightly too abrubt and should have had more set up, but that's about it. Nice work.

The Conversation
Possibly I was supposed to know something from the setting for this, but whatever it was, I didn't get it. The writing was fine, but I found the obscurity of the plot left me on the outside. It worked well as a piece of descriptive writing, but I felt it was only barely a story. The self-sacrifice at the end had an effect, but really we needed more set up and more context. So I guess that's fairly critical, but if you boil it down, the criticism is essentially "not enough of it" so it's not a bad criticism. wink.gif

Dark King
I liked this one. It had very good level of detail for the setting and it was very integrated into that detail. I didn't quite fully get the character of the father but I suppose inconsistency might have been the point. I really liked the technique of the daughter using a security guard to actually escort the Shadowrunning team through the security systems and I'll be using that in one of my games. smile.gif It felt like it should have been longer though and I definitely would have liked to see more of it. It was a nice change from the stereotypical Shadowrun story.

A Dragon and Some Lightning
This one really grabbed me. It had a really strong beginning, very vivid and strong characterisation. The plot was just something to hang the action on really, but I found I didn't mind because it was good action. I suppose it's not exactly high-art - there are no over-arching themes or wider implications, but it's dramatic, I like the means of calling the lightning and the author has shown they can write and visualise well. I also like the realism of the tension between the runners. I almost voted for it, but went for another in the end. I'd basically like to see the author do something larger in scope and with a more meaningful plotline. It's a bit of a shame to confine that sort of energy and characterisation to a campaign excerpt.

Finally Awake
This is the one that I did vote for. That doesn't mean it's necessarily the best story, just that it was the best for me. But then I've always been a sucker for redemtion stories. wink.gif What did I like about it? There were nice ideas in it, I liked the characters in it and it didn't drag on or feel like it was hurried. So I probably can't say it was the most amazing imagery or dazzlingly witty story I've ever read... but it left me feeling good at the end of it and when all is said and done, I measure a story by the effect it has on me - hence my vote.

Redemption
I'm sorry to say, but I just couldn't get into this one at all. It was very long and I couldn't identify with the central character at all. Many things in it rang false for me: the fourteen years that the character has been going toe to toe with vampires yet is still dumbfounded at one that shows remnants of a former personality as well as the tactics and approach taken by the Johnsons. The ghouls also didn't fit with the cannon ghouls in Shadowrun, I thought. I think for me to like this story, there would have to be a lot more emotional insight into the main character. The fight scenes in particular are very much an account of what he did, move by move, without any real tension that would be generated by fear or doubt or rage we saw the main character feeling.

Salt Lake Shadowsp
This was pretty well written. The ending was what hit me - it was a horrible fate and I would love to see the story go futher with Trigger's former runners either rescuing and freeing her, or at least providing her with death. I didn't really like the seeming unstoppability of the "slims" and I think we really needed to learn more about the actual run and who the Johnson was in order to avoid feeling there was something missing by the end of the story.

Uninvited Several of my comments from "A Dragon and Some Lightning" fit with this story just as well. It was well written with nice SR2070 detail. The central character is well realised and I liked the scene where she goes clubbing and the relationship with the bouncer. But it's even more limited in scope than "Dragon". I'm absolutely glad the author posted it and enjoyed reading it. I possibly would have voted for it if I hadn't felt that it was "half a story." This needs to be finished (so that I can read the ending). In terms of constructive criticism, the fight scenes could have been a bit clearer as it got slightly confused as to what was going on. Good work though, and the author definitely should not be worried about including more "fluff" scenes as they were some of the parts I enjoyed the most.

Wet Behind the Ears
What can I say? Coyote is a favourite of mine and the coughing up of the gifts was just great. It has obvious parrallels with "Finally Awake" and I like both of these stories. I have some criticisms of this story, but I want to stress they are minor and taste-related. I thought that more time should have been taken in fleshing out the runners. I know they're not the focus of the story and you really want to keep them from soaking up the readers attention, but I think the runner sections needed to either be more vividly drawn or maybe even more abstract ("dark figures in cammo suits moved through the hallways."). The way they're currently done, it just feels a litte uneven. The end could also have had more drama added without harming the story - just a few more details of Evan stumbling from the complex into the night. But I liked the story, don't get me wrong.

Anyway, that is my feedback. I was going to wait until a winner was announced, but I found that I really enjoyed reading people's feedback on mine, regardless of what they said, so I thought I'd post this now to keep the thread active. I hope the feedback is taken in the friendly manner it is intended. The standards in this competition were much higher than I expected. I thought we'd see large quantities of "and then I picked up the Vindicator Minigun with integrated missile launcher and shot the were-sasquatch" sort of stuff. In fact, it's a huge pile of genuine achievement and / or potential. So my sincere thanks to tisoz for organizing this and encouraging so much worth reading.

-Khadim
Rad
Wow, I was really surprised by the level of quality here, several of the stories deserve to be published, IMO.

(I'd love to help with that, but I'm still trying to get my own novels published, atm. talker.gif )


Butterflies:

This one was well written, but had a few things pulling it down that kept me from really liking it. The biggest problem being that it didn't come from or go anywhere. You got the sense that something had happened, and that something was going to happen, but you were stuck with "runners sitting in a boat being melancholy and not doing much of anything."

Personal drama can help a story, but unless you know why they feel the way they do or what they're going to do about it, it's just some slot being angsty. If there had been more detail such as a flashback to when Mac was killed, allowing us to see what actually happened between them, that could have made a big difference.

Carding Estates:

Allow me to say: Holy Crap!

I'd like to say something more constructive, but when I think back on the work it all blends into a haze of awesomeness. Definitely feels like just the beginning of a larger story, and my only complaint is not being able to read the rest of it. (On account of it not being written yet.)

I think my favorite part was that the characters seemed like people, and not just characters in a story. There wasn't a single moment that dragged me out of it and reminded me that I was reading fiction.

(If you can't tell which story I voted for, it was this one.)

The Conversation:

I liked the beginning of this one, but it seemed to suffer from the same problems as Butterflies--not enough information about what was going on, and why. The story was great up until the protagonist sat down in the bar with the Cuban, and then I had no idea what they were talking about. Given that the title of the story is "The Conversation", having the conversation be the weak point isn't exactly a good idea.

I get that there was something about the girl that was different--and sought after--but there's no explanation of what it is, not even a hint. It makes sense that the characters would be vague when discussing such a MacGuffin, but the reader needs to be let in on the joke--otherwise you're left feeling like an ork ganger watching two keebs discuss the finer points of matrix theory and encryption algorithms.

Also, the ending really threw me off. After reading it four the fourth fifth time, I think I'm finally starting to understand what happened, but at first it was way too confusing.

If my assumption is correct, and the woman at the end was the girl they had been talking about, give her a name. Giving the reader her name at the beginning of the story and then calling her that instead of "the woman standing across from where Jae had been sitting a moment ago" at the end would go a long way towards clearing things up.

Also, the ending itself feels a little forced and Deus Ex Machina-y. Why didn't Jae notice she was in the room when they came in? How did she know that he was calling a cleaner that second to have her killed?

Or did she somehow assume that Jae was working with the Cuban?

Speaking of which, why did everybody just do what she said, as if she was their leader?

Granted, she had the gun

Okay, I'm leaving that in so you can get an idea of just how confusing it was to me. There needed to me more references to who was doing what and where during the conversation. It was hard enough figuring out whose lines where who's, to the point where I had completely forgotten she was in the room.

And that still leaves the question of why she shot Jae, why she called him a "traitorous little bastard", and why everybody in the room just followed her orders like she was in charge.

If she was behind the whole thing, then she was the traitor. Unless she somehow magically knew that Jae was calling an assassin to kill her at that very moment, there's no motive for her to view him as the betrayer.

If she wasn't running the show, and thought Jae was selling her out to the Cuban (how she could get that impression after hearing their conversation is beyond me) then why did everybody just do as she said afterwards?

Sure, she had the gun, but with three guys--two of them runners and at least one of those being an ork--it's hard to believe nobody pulled a gun or at least said "fuck you" as a token show of resistance. Let€™s face it, blowing someone's head off by surprise isn't that shocking or intimidating to professional runners.

This story seemed like it had alot of potential, but the ambiguity and confusion in the ending really holds it back.

Dark King:

I loved this one. Believable characters, suspense, a rich, complex depth of human emotion and inner conflict, and a great film-noir ending.

Honestly the only reason I picked Carding Estates over this one is because I'm just not that sympathetic towards a wage-slave, no matter how well-developed his character is. Chalk it up to personal bias, like a racist not liking a story because the protagonist is black, or troll, or whatever. Honestly, this was the better story.

A Dragon and Some Lightning:

This was a good story. I liked the interaction between the two main characters. It did seem a little "flat" in places, and the other runners on the team seemed a little two-dimensional, but it fit their character to be that way--these were people who were trying to project an "image" of themselves. All in all the worst thing I can say about it is that it just didn't stand out that much, especially following works like Carding Estates and The Dark King.

I like how it was implied that the dragon may have caused Lua's illness to get them to take the job, without being definitely stated or banging you over the head with it. That kind of subtlety is really important in fiction and really hard to do. Over all, this piece did a good job of giving the sense of a complete world, going on just past the edges of the story, with the characters and their lives being only a small part of it.


Finally Awake:

This is another good story that I just didn't like as much do to personal prejudice. I guess I'm just not that big a fan of "pathetic"-type characters.

Don't get me wrong, the story was great and the characters had real depth to them. I especially liked the description of the awakening scene where he just lies there counting stars, as his mentor spirit urges him to get up. I just couldn't bring myself to care too much that some burned-out chiphead was getting a second chance--I know, I'm a heartless bastard, so sue me. nyahnyah.gif

I also liked the deadpan way in which he described his fall into virtual depravity--as though he was so jaded by all he had seen and done that none of it seemed like that big a deal anymore. I know one of the other posters complained that an addict would never treat the subject so lightly, but I think it perfectly illustrates the sociopathic, "so what" apathy that only the really hard-core stuff gives you. And best of all, it wasn't some chiphead bragging about what a hard-core user he was or trying to make you feel sorry for him by laying on a thick sob-story--it just was what it was, and wasn't even that important to him.

Redemption:

I liked this one too.

Someone commented that it seemed unrealistic for Helios to have worked as a hunter for 14 years and never encountered a sympathetic vampire before, but I disagree.

First off, you've gotta remember that this guy is only 20 years old, and has a very strong reason for hating vampires. Given the "shoot it before it kills you" nature of his work, it makes sense that he wouldn't have much time to get to know a vampire until now, so there was no real reason for his prejudice to have worn off.

To put it simply, this was a kid who thought the world was pretty cut and dried, and was just finding out that it wasn't.

I liked that we start off with a big fumigation run, clearly illustrating his "shoot the fuckers on sight" philosophy and showing what a contrast his job with the Star was compared to his usual work. I doubt he'd ever been on a job where bringing one back alive was a consideration, or where he had to get inside the vampire's head and understand its feelings.

The final scene between Helios and the vampire was brilliantly written, and really captured all of the emotional undercurrents to the situation. That's not an easy thing to write, and the author did a damn good job.

I also liked the old-school vampire references in the names of the fellow hunters (Bram Stoker, V.an H.elsing) not to mention the Greek deities Artemis and Helios, even if it did break the illusion and remind you that you were reading a story for a minute.

Salt Lake Shadows:

Another good one. Really had a unique feel to it and set the environment as its own unique place with its own rules and dangers.

Slightly formulaic in places but all of these were solid film-noir formulas that really help a story more than hinder it, and the 1984-esque ending was perfect. You get the feeling the main character grew a lot darker and more cynical from the time of the story to the time he was telling it, and it was interesting to see a hard, stereotypical runner recalling brighter days when the world wasn't quite so fragged and the living was just a little bit easier.

My only suggestion would be a little more information about the run they were supposed to do--the one they thought they were on before they realized it was just a setup. A little more reference to what their actual objective was before everything goes to hell would have been nice, otherwise it feels like they only went in there to get shot at and escape.

Uninvited:

This was probably my least favorite. That isn't to say it sucked--it just didn't live up to the awesomeness that came before it. The sentence structure was a little strange in places and didn't really flow for me, and there were some spelling errors such as "Wholly crap" and "piercing stair" that made it seem like English might not be the author's primary language.

That may seem a little nitpicky but it really kills the suspension of disbelief when you have to mentally edit a story as you read it. Proofreading and editing is a bitch, I know, but it really makes a difference.

All in all this story seemed more like a fan-fiction, whereas most of the others seemed like they had come out of a novel or something. For a fan written piece of work, this story was pretty good, it just didn't have the professional quality that some of the others did.

Wet Behind the Ears:

This was really great. It had a very unique feel to it and great imagery. I particularly loved the similes and the off-kilter way Coyote acted.

"She dropped into a series of forward rolls and blasted into the nurse€™s station like a rabid armadillo on Jazz."

Priceless.

I also liked the effect of having the runner's assault on the research lab happening at the same time as Evan's encounter with Coyote, the combination of fast paced action and slow surrealism really worked to make the story interesting. Having Coyote call Evan "Tail-Chaser" as if it were his Amerindian name was brilliant. As soon as I read that line I though: "I should make dog shaman character who uses that as his handle", only to find out you had already done it.

A very interesting piece with some very unique ideas and imagery, bravo.
knasser
Reading through these comments whilst looking at the poll results, I'm realising how difficult it is to get an actual feel for what people liked from just the numbers. Clearly Carding Estates is very popular and the first choice of a lot of people. But because everyone only gets one choice, that leaves the rest of the poll a smattering of votes here and there. I think it would be fascinating to see what a poll of people's second choices would look like. To some extent that would be a "if it weren't for Carding Estates" poll, but not entirely. Would there then be another clear second favourite, or would people's tastes begin to fragment.

I'm really curious to know how things would break down with more than one vote, but I'll leave it to tisoz to consider. I believe you can actually put multiple polls in with the new forum software, can't you?

And thanks to people for the feedback (though I'm not saying on which one. nyahnyah.gif )

Khadim.

EDIT: Although reviewing that poll, we might just find that everyone who put Carding Estate's first just then moves to Wet Behind the Ears and vice versa, whilst everything else remains the same. biggrin.gif Maybe a third poll. wink.gif
Backgammon
I'd like to vote, but god damn you people wrote long stories this time. Still reading...!
ludomastro
This is the first time that I entered one of tisoz's contests and have enjoyed the process immensely. I have gotten good feedback on my writing and these are some great stories. I am not sure that I can offer anything new for those that wrote stories but I feel that I would be amiss if I did not try. I will follow knasser's lead and give feedback on my own story to attempt to preserve my anonymity.

Butterflies

I could tell the amount of effort that went into this story; nevertheless, I couldn't get into it. The main character's thoughts were well done but I wanted to better understand what had happened that put them all on the boat in the first place and what had happened with Mac.


Carding Estates

This story drew me in from the beginning with the crisp characterization of the security detail. It was little details like Cho's worry for his pets that made this one stand out in my mind. One of the best, if not the best, story written for this contest. There are two issues that bothered me about this story though. The "chance" meeting with the kids and the merc seemed out of place. It did heighten the tension but then seemed to fizzle. The other was the Mitsuhama gunship that seemed horribly out of place. I kept thinking that our merc friend had hacked the thing to help them out. Some acknowledgment of this would have been nice. All in all, it was a great story.


The Conversation

My head still hurts from reading this. I still don't know what happened. I liked the feel but not being able to understand the story left me with that late-night-middle-of-the-movie feeling you get when you're surfing the TV and can't sleep.


Dark King

I really liked this story. It was definitely not what I expected and that was a good thing. This one reminded me of people I work with ... which, upon reflection, is very scary. I really liked the father's self-loathing in this story. The ending was not what I was expecting which made the story more interesting. Well done!


A Dragon and Some Lightning

I like the devotion and tenderness between the main characters - something I don't see often in Shadowrun. I also like the hint that the dragon may be making our female lead sick in order to get her way. I love reminding people that they should beware dragons as they are ... Well, you know the rest. I would have spent a little more time on the seemingly two dimensional hired guns; however, I can understand why they weren't a big part of the plot.


Finally Awake

I loved the texture of this story; however, something just seemed off to me. I can't put my finger on it, I just couldn't relate to this one. As far as the junkie's dive and how he never saw it coming - I am telling the author that the idea has been stolen.


Redemption

I enjoy vampire stories, so I am no doubt biased on this one. I thought the story was well written and did a good job of playing on the emotions of the hunter. The Star investigator and the runner playing good cop / bad cop seemed off to me. It seemed more Law and Order, less Shadowrun at that point. I did enjoy the little hints of "standard" vampire lore thrown in for good measure. The church scene was great!


Salt Lake Shadows

I am not sure what to say about this one that hasn't been said. As a stand alone story, it is good. Against the awesome competition that surrounds it, still good just not at that level. There was a plot hole with the Johnson's motivation that would have been nice to see filled. Otherwise, I liked it.

Something noteworthy (to me at least) is that I was transfered to Salt Lake by my employer about three years ago. I have seen or heard of all the landmarks used in the story. Also, I'm LDS, so the inclusion of my faith in the story was interesting to read as well.


Uninvited

This read more like the opening to a novel than a short story. Therefore, I can't critique it as a short story. I will however, happily wait for the author to write more so that I may bask in the adrenaline rush. Looking forward to more.


Wet Behind the Ears

I was torn on this one. The characterisation of Coyote was perfect. The play between "the meat world" and "the spirit vision" was one of the better parts of the story. Coyote hacking up the "gifts" was pure genius. On the other side of the coin, I kept wondering how Coyote was messing with the digital world. That cost me a little on the suspension of disbelief and I had to keep hitting the I Believe™ button. I chalked it up to Coyote being a totem / demi-god and let it ride though. This was in my top three.
JBlades
QUOTE (Rad @ Apr 19 2008, 07:15 AM) *
Uninvited:

...and there were some spelling errors such as "Wholly crap" and "piercing stair" that made it seem like English might not be the author's primary language.


Oops! I have to take the hit on this. I edited that story, and it seems I blew it on those 2 occasions. I can't believe I missed that. frown.gif I'm really sorry!
martindv
The one thing above all else that made me not like Carding Estates was its subject matter.

A tsunami wave making its way from Santa Monica/Del Mar past the Long Beach Freeway is so absurd, even if it is canon, that I could not read any further. And that's assuming the shorter distance of it coming west to east, and not south to north.

Perhaps because such a wave going east would have wiped out Hawaii and parts of Asia.
northern lights
QUOTE (martindv @ Apr 22 2008, 05:25 PM) *
The one thing above all else that made me not like Carding Estates was its subject matter.

yeah, but i can look past it all. so long as jojo is in the story, lol!
Zen Shooter01
martindv:

The LA section of CE explains that simultaneously with the earthquakes, a lot of LA sank because of the appearance of a network of alchera beneath the city.

So, by canon, it was the quakes, the wave, and the unprecedented magical phenomenon that caused a lot of Los Angeles to end up underwater. You're right, mundane geology says its impossible.
martindv
It's canon? Really? You don't say.

And it was "explained?"

Wow. I did not know that.
knasser
QUOTE (martindv @ Apr 24 2008, 12:26 AM) *
It's canon? Really? You don't say.

And it was "explained?"

Wow. I did not know that.


Why the super sarcasm? Carding Estates is a well-written story. Not my favourite, but very well executed. You declined to read it because you thought the subject was silly, but the author would have been picked up by far more people if he or she had contradicted cannon. The competition was for Shadowrun stories - they are supposed to match cannon. Why make snarky remarks to Zen Shooter for pointing that out?
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