Help - Search - Members - Calendar
Full Version: General IC [2075: Game World]
Dumpshock Forums > Discussion > Welcome to the Shadows
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

*This thread is intended for anyone playing in the 2075 Persistent World to post in (that is outside a specific sub-thread). Karma and cash awards are cumulative with any sub-threads. Anyone can act as GM here but there isn’t a requirement to have one in order to post*

[Thursday July 18th, 2075; SEAѤ67-∑2: The Citadel Virtual Game Host, Seattle Local Grid]

Aria traced her fingers through the verdant vines that draped the impossible treescape in her throne room at the pinnacle of the Citadel, glorying in the scents that assailed her. Vivid birdsong erupted above her as she knelt, her diminutive naked form reflected in the metallic pool at her feet. As her hair cascaded into the liquid the view changed to reflect the Gathering Hall at the base of the gothic spire…

Here a multitude of personas flitted about around the great planar orrery and Aria watched their bustle, the host subroutines automatically cataloguing which game world was the most popular and how many gamers were inside. She was amazed that this creation of hers, with her master’s acknowledged significant aid, had stood the trials of the last few years when so many other virtual phenomenon had been and gone. No doubt the appeal lay in its ever changing structures and fantastic escape from the grinding reality of the sixth world…

Summer appeared in the node, rising from one of the limpid pools like the veritable Lady in the Lake. Beside the unchanging persona of Aria’s, Summer’s Alice had matured with her, aging more with the tide of grief and the burden of her visions than with the mere span of years. She was accompanied as ever by the Old One and despite recent advances his persona still flickered with static as it struggled with the unusual interface that he was using.

Aria, I have seen it again, it plagues my thoughts

I have told you child, metahumanity is always lurching from one disaster to the next. This nebulous thing that you fear will no doubt be one of those, cataclysmic to those that experience it first hand, but in the end just another event.

Yes, I know you say that but I also can hear the doubt in your words

Peace” the Old One interjected “The things we have set in motion will counter this and other such disasters. They represent a new way for us all, my kind as well as metahumanity…

My master would be pleased to hear you link yourselves so to mere metahumans” Aria quipped with a mischievous smile

Enough Aria, willfull sprite, we are in this together whatever the others believe” his tone is affectionate

[Thursday July 18, 2075; Dirty Dick's Fine Food & Spirits, on the water just off Alaskan Way]

“Listen, toots. You look like you kin handle a stick. Why not take ol’ Al fer a test drive?”

The girl moved off through the smokey bar without a shade of response, a clutch of brews artfully balanced on her tray.

“Don’t know whatcher missin’, hon. I can really drive a bed,” the ragged little man shouted at her back, before the strain sent him into a fit of coughing. He produced a generous wad of something not quite green and deposited it in a plastic beer stein, which had somehow emptied itself far too quickly. Five years now, curse his damned lungs, curse Ghede, and all Chinese sailors everywhere.

He felt a bit sorrowful about the last part. They’d been good boys, they had. Come to a bad end ‘at wuz none o’ their deservin’.

The thought made Al thirsty. Who knew when the waitress would be back, and he wasn’t one to wait.

He pulled himself up from the rickety synthwood chair and made his way across the cement floor of the basement watering hole. Arriving at the bar, he signaled the fat man working behind it. Knew he was the proprietor of the place, but couldn’t never recall the feller’s rightful name. Knew it wasn’t Dick. The name of the place was Dirty Dick’s. Actually, Dirty Dick’s Fine Food & Spirits, to be precise. But they didn’t have neither. And the guy who owned it, his name wasn’t Dick.

“What’ll it be, Al?” asked not-Dick. His jowls sagged off his skull and pulled on the corners of his eyes in a way that made him look like he was always crying.

“Ya got anything but piss-tastin’ beer?” Al had to almost jump to get onto the bar stool, and his tobacco-ravaged voice sounded like a corpse being dragged through a gravel pit.


“Then I’ll have a piss-tastin’ beer.”

The man waddled over from the tap and set the stein in front of Al with a careless slosh. “Onna house.”

“I’ll pay.”

“Come on, man. Reggie’s laid up. I gotta have someone.”

“Been on the ‘lift fer back ta back shifts. Plumb tuckered out.” Hoping to double his usual fee.

Always-crying not-Dick put on a pained expression, feigning hesitance before relenting. “Okay man...three beers.”

Triple! Al silently congratulated himself on his amazing haggling skills. Ma Guthrie didn’t raise no fools. He grinned, and it was a feral thing - lips pulled back in a rictus from yellow teeth, a filterless Lucky Strke clamped in the very center. “Well I ain’t sittin’ by that door agin’. Too damn drafty.” He zipped his ancient brown leather jacket a little further up toward his unshaven chin, as if to emphasize the point. “Not doin’ none ‘o that other crap neither.” Picked up the first of his three free beers. His hand looked like it was melting - a great mass of burn scars. “Be sittin’ inna back over there. Somethin’ catches yer craw, ya jist let ol’ Al know.”

Settling back into the warmest corner of the basement dive, perched so he could see the whole room, he started in on the beer. It wasn’t exactly the contemplative evening he’d been set on, but hell, that was what a man did. A man worked for his keep. Or he weren’t no man at all.
[Thursday July18, 2075; Dirty Dick’s Fine Food & Spirits, on the water just off Alaskan Way]

Nursing his beer, eyeballin’ folk.

Place had filled up real good with the end of the swing shift. Always did. Tired longshoreman could buy himself a big load of forget on the cheap at Dirty Dick’s.

Sorry Thorin Oakenshield-lookin’ halfer picking all befuddled-like at the chunks of soy-supper he’d just launched into his beard, before falling off his chair.

Skinny crane operator from the MCT terminal getting dragged off home by the ear, courtesy of his old lady.

Two of the street girls, going table to table, looking for anyone drunk enough.

Some trolls walked in. Black watch caps, Seattle Screamers T’s, all from different seasons, work boots. Trio of sturdy ingents such as that fetch good coin on some of the unregistered, less automated yards. The sort where Al generally worked, though he’d not yet had the pleasure with these three.

A thunk into one of the dart boards. They had real ones in here. None of that newfangled AR crap. Something changed hands.

Applause and whistles as the bar girl from before was helped up onto first a chair, then one of the tables. Little man smiled. Then the crappy little Meta Link started vibrating like a Bangkok pleasure treasure. Al ignored it as the girl started to dance, but the danged thing wouldn’t quit, and out of the corner of his eye he saw not-Dick tapping insistently at his ear.
Sweat o’ yer brow, jist like it sez inna Good Book, he thought as he fished the offending trinket from a deep jacket pocket.

Put it to his ear. Nothing. Then he recollected - for the thousandth time - that folk didn’t much do that no more, and he looked at the screen. The three trolls. Al looked over and gave a shrug, a quizzical look - they ain’t done nothin’...Not-Dick spoke into his device - and a text appeared. Go figure. They’re the reason Reg is laid up. They’’re 86ed.

Under his breath, Al started his chant. He’d need all the help he could get against the Three Trollsketeers.
[Thursday July 18, 2075; Dirty Dick’s Fine Food & Spirits, on the water just off Alaskan Way]

Al kept his glossolalic muttering up until he was in earshot of the trolls, which wasn’t far considering the clapping and whistling for the girl, and the piped in pop-crap she was gyrating to.

“Evening chummers,” he croaked. Voice was like someone trying to put a car into gear with a stripped clutch. He stood by their table, hands flat on the surface.

“Back at ya, breeder,” replied the biggest one, with an almost congenial nod. One gnarled horn wound its way up at an odd angle through a convenient hole in his watch cap. The one on Al’s left asked, “What’s wrong with your paws, omae? You a damned leper or somethin’?”

The little man smiled,, scratched his ear, and reached into the pocket of his jeans for a big silver Zippo, to light a cigarette that hadn’t been in his mouth a moment earlier. “Only skin deep, muh friend, an’ not catchin’. Had me a little disagreement with somethin’ that didn’t belong here.” Pocketing the lighter, he held up the burn-mottled hands and wiggled all the fingers. “See, workin’ jist fine.”

“Didn’t belong where?”


“You said you had a disagreement with something that didn’t belong here.”

“Oh. God’s green earth, I reckon.” You probably had to be paying attention to notice, but things were starting to get quieter in the bar. “Lot like the predickimint we got ourselves here.”

“What the hell do you mean by that, smoothie?”

“Well, like I done sad, y'all don' belong here. As a reppersenative o’ the managemint o’ this here esteemed establismint, I’s gonna hafta ask you gents to vacate said premises.” He pinched the filterless cigarette between thumb and forefinger and drew deeply. “Besides, ol’ Reg may’ve been a damned fool, but we’d shared smokes.”

The three huge men stood, and the gradual silencing of the room became complete. Al’s face was roughly level with the leader’s navel. “Or maybe we just bust this crappy dive up and then use your sorry face to wipe up the broken glass.”

The wolflike grin straight up at the horned behemoth, teeth gripping the Lucky Strike. “Well that dog shore will not hunt.”


Sometimes when talking with trolls, Al liked to look for patterns or shapes in the warts on their misshapen faces, kind of like with clouds on a lazy summer afternoon. This feller seemed to have a vine of blossoms making its way up his left cheek. Magnolias. Al congratulated himself on his ability to find beauty anywhere. He shrugged. “I said, your world, kemo sabe, your world. I wuz jist makin’ conversayshun.” And he backed away, hands held up in a gesture of peace.

The trolls sat back down, hurling a few dismissive epithets. Busy with their beers and their talk, the three relative newcomers didn’t notice that the noisy hubbub of the place had in no way resumed.
[Thursday July 18, 2075; Dirty Dick’s Fine Food & Spirits, on the water just off Alaskan Way]

A minute or two later, Magnolia heard the muttering behind him, the train wreck of a voice unmistakeable. “What? Are you gonna cast a spell on me or somethin’ ya little runt?” He turned his head just in time to see the heavy synthwood chair careen across a wide arc directly into his face.

Blood from his crushed nose sprayed across the room as the chair splintered into a hundred and one pieces. But instead of falling, the monster stood slowly up from his chair, eyes burning with rage.

Joseph an’ Mary in the manger, all I done wuz wound the grizzly, Al thought. And all he had left of the chair was one leg.

But it had a nail poking out of it.

The troll buckled over and dropped to his knees, face contorted in agony and both gigantic hands clutching his crotch, a widening dark spot spreading in every direction across his groin.

A sledgehammer fist from the second swished toward the human, but he sidestepped that and the next three blows lazily. Choosing his moment, he reached up and caressed the offending arm, which broke with a sickening SNAP. There was a bellow of pain and Al jumped on a chair to grab a horn in one hand and insert a thumb securely in one eye socket. Just the right amount of suggestive pressure there, and the eight-foot dockworker kept hollering but meekly stopped moving.

The last troll looked uncertain. Same as always. Al’s sandpaper voice was calm and reasonable. “I know ya think ya owes yer mates somethin’. I kin respeck that very much indeed. But like it sez inna Good Book, if’n yer knee’s busted, how’s ya gon’ get ‘em to a doc?”

When he sat back down, wheezing and hacking, trying to catch his breath, all he could think was, next time, he’d insist on four beers.
[Friday July 19, 2075; downtown waterfront]

Eight raucous but uneventful hours later, the only remaining patrons were either curled up beneath tables or nodding in their chairs. Al sat tilted back precariously in his seat, aging Docs on the ring-stained tabletop, idly prying the grime from beneath his nails with a huge knife while watching the two skells clearing away empty plastic beer mugs. Smoke meandered up from his cigarette, only to be sucked away by the venting fans once it neared the cobwebbed ceiling.

An acne-ridden ork kid worked the room with a mop.

He lifted his feet, let the front legs of the chair hit the floor with a thunk, followed by his boots. Got up and shared a congenial nod with not-Dick before breaking out into the night air of the waterfront. He could immediately smell the salt, even though the actual water was a few blocks yonder, other side of Alaska Way.

He took a long piss against a wall, his small form occasionally silhouetted by the headlights of passing cars. He shivered as the heat left him, and once he’d buttoned up he was hit by a long spasm of coughs as the crisp summer night air worked itself through the dark, hidden places of his ravaged lungs.

He headed south, catching occasional glimpses of Elliott Bay on his right between gaps in the various industrial facilities that lined the water here. South. Keep walking long enough, he’d get there. Hollywood. Danged injuns owned it now, but that didn’t make no matter nohow. Any day now. But after twenty-five years on that road, few more days wouldn’t hurt. Just as soon as he got his health back. Shouldn’t be much longer now.

Nope. City of Angels too far for tonight. But home was close, and Marge’s half again as near. Hun would be there getting some breakfast after the graveyard shift, give him a ride the rest of the way.
Friday July 19, 2075; Marge's

A long, slim, low-slung slug-silver semi-cylinder sat astride a disused siding at the sullen outskirts of the railyard that served the downtown docks.


Weeds grew up around the plywood skirting that housed the wheels, and approaching on foot, the most prominent sound was the parched hum of the portable generator locked in a steel cage out back.

No streets led to the classic railcar diner, but it was easy enough to navigate a car or truck the hundred meters or so from the nearest access road. The intervening space was pocked with deep mud pits and festooned with browning tussocks of razor grass. But a little skill could get a set of wheels to the fringe of coarse gravel that surrounded the place. Hun had done it, because his primer-gray ’66 Americar sat in its usual spot off to the side.

Without even thinking about it, Al veered closer to the jalopy on his way into the diner to get a whiff of her. Most of the punks these days, with their ARO diagnostics and DNI interfaces, hadn’t the faintest clue how much you could tell about an engine by her smell, especially if you’d done as much work on her as Al had this baby.

Satisfied with her health for the moment, he entered the brightly lit converted dining car and was glad for the warmth. Hun was slouched into a corner, face behind a menu even though his soybrek was already on the table in front of him, plus he was the sort that always ordered off the ARO specials board. If Al didn’t know better, he’d say the Cambodian was trying to avoid him. Hun Sen had a medium build, which made him big for his Delta tribe, and taller than Al. A careful moustache - well grown in, but nothing past the corners of his mouth. And he was the only dockworker Al had ever met that wore a tie to work. Always puttin’ on airs with the damned tie. But he had his uses.

Al made straight for the booth, but the Asian held onto hope to the last possible moment, not coming out from behind the menu until he was certain the unshaven little redneck had seen him. With a sigh of resignation he looked up and forced something like a smile as the impish cretin plopped down opposite and used his grimy yellowing fingers to fish a soysage off the half-finished plate that sat on the table. So much for breakfast. The old man was mannerless and insufferable. And never shut up. But he had his uses.
Friday July 19, 2075; Marge’s

“Black coffee, toots,” Al rasped around his mouthful of soysage. The waitress had stubble on her legs and a smile that had been faked too many times for too few tips. She popped her gum in acknowledgement and walked away wondering how the freshly lit Lucky had suddenly found its way into the little man’s mouth.

“How’s tricks, boss?”

“Excuse me one more time please.”

*How are ya?”

“Yes, very fine, thank you. And you?”

“Can’t complain. Any trouble with the Eye-Ties tonight?”

“I am sorry. One more time?”

“The Gianellis. Any problem tonight”

“No, nothing.”

“And the two new halfers on the crew?”


Al gave up and spoke in Khmer. “The two new dwarves.” Promised he’d help with the English, but took a damn mule’s years to get past a how d’ya do.

“Ah, no problem.” Impatient clod. I was doing just fine. Impossible language anyway, English.

“Okay, how about the other thing?” Damned ugly lingo, but at least Hun had the basic decency to smooth out his Krom accent, speak the Central that Al was more comfortable with.

“The other thing takes time. Not easy to find on short notice.” Why didn’t he just spring for a chip? The bumpkin’s honorifics were nonexistent at best, offensive at worst. But he is so much smarter than he acts. Is he truly just unschooled in the proper forms of respect, or feigning ignorance to insult me to my face?

“Short notice? I have been asking for two months. I do not need to get into the Pyramid, just around town without being bothered.” Why didn’t this cheapskate just spring for a chip?

“All right then, how much you got?” But the day he bought a chip was the day he would be giving up on learning this land’s insanely complicated language, and he was here to stay. Think long term. Don’t be who you are, be who you want to be.

“Just get me the best you can, and I will pay what it is worth. I have some money saved.” Little bastard’s holding back, figures I get a number I won’t have to work on his crappy unlicensed dock.

“I am doing my best, of course. But I need funding to make enquiries.” And enough money to compensate for the loss of your services, since I know you will go to a union job once I get you the ID.

“We have been over this. The getting is your job. I pay on delivery.” Greedy thief.

“Well I can only do my best.” And I can’t string him along much longer. Need to get him the SIN soon or I will lose the deal and his custom altogether.

The coffee came. “What sorta talk is that?” the waitress smiled.

Hun’s face reddened. How humiliating. How she must see him as some ignorant Third World yokel. He would learn English.

“Aw, we’s jist a’practicin’ our Latin, hon. Nothin’ to it.”

“Latin? Like in the Bible? Say something else.”

“Oo-yay uper-say exy-say, oney-hay.”

She giggled. “Sooo clever. What’s it mean?”

He pulled a crumpled twenty-nuyen note out of his pocket, laid it on the table. “Means its high time to finish our business,” he said with a smile to her, but a look at Hun.
Friday July 19, 2075; International District

The ride south to the International District with Hun hadn’t taken long, though the way the sluggish Americar crawled along the road on GridGuide made Al crazy. What a piece of crap.

The first rays of a glaring Seattle summer dawn were hitting the grimy brick walls of the District’s seamier side when the car pulled up in front of the tenement that housed Hun’s own little piece of Cambodia. No one was around outside at this hour, with the exception of some stray mongrels rooting around the garbage. Al looked for the black one he thought of as Spike - he’d had his eye on that big alpha since its first appearance about a week ago - but no sign this morning. The two men went inside.

Through the foyer hung with laundry, and then without a word Hun headed up the stairs and Al opened the maglock on the service door that led to the basement. Concrete steps ended in a barely-lit maze of utility rooms, boilers, and makeshift three-sided cinderblock storage areas with sheets of chainlink padlocked across the fourth sides. In the corner farthest from the stairs were a few more steps descending into a foot or so of standing, brackish water. Al sat down on an ancient chair at the top of those steps and removed his Doc Marten’s work boots, swapping them for a pair of rubber rain boots from under the chair. Then he went down and pushed the door at the bottom steadily through the water - there was no lock - and he was home.

He flipped on the light - he’d rewired the unused room to bring everything with voltage above the waterline - and threw his heavy brown leather jacket onto a hook. There was a fridge and hot plate up on some boards laid across stacks of bricks. There was a broken-down trid he’d resurrected enough that he could watch a pirated feed from a handful of less encrypted channels, also on a wobbly platform, as was the plywood-on-plastic-crates beer table, which sat between the trid and a rat-infested sofa. He sat down on the latter for about thirty seconds, time enough to realize he was dead tired. Tired enough that maybe he could sleep a little.

Sloshed his way over to the bed he had bolted up on one wall. There he took off his yellowing white T-shirt and ripped button-flys, put them on a shelf. Peeled off his socks and skivvies, and set them to soak in a small sink filled with fresh cold water and some powdered detergent. Dropped his still-burning Lucky into the water below him and pulled himself into the bed. It felt good.

Closed his eyes and thought of girls with hair the color of root beer, praying for sleep. Sleep and good dreams.
Friday July 19th 2075 District of Renton

Nom percieves the stream of characters and his Avatar nods in agreement......
The Host Operator of Fenris_Sonen, rather his Avatar then waves a hand signal stopping the stream of data. "We can really use this" "True enough but it will take some work."

The progress on the program code is impressive.... "So this is what Hinsu's been working on. An Agent."
"I'll make up routines myself to help out. but I'm getting one when It's finished." His Avatar makes laughing gestures. "Of course"
Both Avatars turn away, Nom's leaves fenris_shonen for the Local Grid.

Completely Jacked out Nom take a look around. The windowless cafe is still mostly empty. Not wasting anytime he then leaves the building. But not before nodding the slightest of acknowledgements to apparently nobody.
Friday July 19, 2075; International District

When Al woke up, there were two people with him. Both were Chinese and both were dead.

Feeling a little uneasy, he put a fresh Lucky Strike to his lips. His lungs felt like they were half full of fluid. He reached for his big Zippo but in his hands were only a couple of torn plastic packets. Sterile wrappers for slap patches.

The steel walls were bare except for one big poster of a naked Japanese girl, a real Akita beauty. Her coquettish smile looked vaguely reproachful.

The Chinese man with bloody holes for eyes started groping around. The room was very small.

Al really needed to light his Lucky, but he couldn’t move. Pretty soon the Chinese man with bloody holes for eyes would find what he was looking for. The room was very small. His friend the Chinese man on the floor started talking to him, directing him.

The steel walls were bare except for one big poster of a naked Japanese dog, a real beautiful Akita. Its wolfish grin looked vaguely reproachful.

The fingers of the Chinese man with bloody holes for eyes brushed his leg. He tried to pull himself further into the corner with his Lucky, but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t go anywhere. It was a very small room.

The Chinese man on the floor reached for a thin bamboo cane. Al was glad he had his boots on.

The steel walls were bare except for hundreds of pictures of naked Japanese dogs, real beautiful Akitas. Their wolfish grins looked vaguely reproachful.

The Chinese man with bloody holes for eyes was hugging Al, and the Chinese man on the floor was striking at the soles of his bare feet with a thin bamboo cane.

The steel walls were bare except for Al woke up and checked his MetaLink. He’d been sleeping for twenty-seven minutes.
Friday July 19, 2075; International District

He tried to go back to sleep, but it just wasn’t going to happen. So he waded over to the sofa and sat his bare ass down on the moldy fabric. Something rustled deep down inside the rotten piece of furniture, but he’d long since taught the rats he shared space with to leave him well enough alone.

On the beer table, along with an assortment of empties, were a couple of decks of cards. Cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, Al resumed his endless practice of The Invisible Flight. He had the top change down cold, but could never finesse the palm change to his satisfaction.

He worked at it until late in the morning, until the racket outside drove him to distraction. Hammering and jabbering. Going on three weeks now. He got dressed and went outside. He needed the book.

Outside, Hun was berating several sweating Cambodian workers outside the near-complete shell of a capacious annex to the brick tenement they shared. “Tell me again what you’re building here,” Al asked in Khmer.

“Told you a dozen times - garages for people’s cars.”

Except no one that lived here had any cars.

“Looks almost finished.” Stamped out his cigarette. “Any takers yet?”

“If I build it, they will come,” proclaimed the Mekong refugee in English.

Al gave him a good luck salute and wandered around the corner of the building. They were there, the whole motley pack, and there was Spike, big and mangy and beautiful, holding court like the King of Siam.

They scattered as the little dockworker approached - all but Spike. The two men - one on two legs, one on four - stared into each other’s eyes as the distance was closed. But Al was no cheap date. Once he was crouched face to face with the beast, all he did was rasp a few words in Tamasheq: “Spike. You’re a good boy, Spike. Spike.” Then he walked away.

Always leave them wanting more.
Friday July 19, 2075; Capitol Hill

Once Al had finessed his SIN-free self onto a northbound bus, he realized he’d gone the whole morning without coughing up any more parts of his lungs. Smiled to himself - couldn’t last long, but hope springs eternal.

And then the automated voice announcing Capitol Hill woke him up. Instinctively checking his pockets to confirm his forty winks hadn’t cost him anything, he hopped off the bus on 10th Avenue East, just north of Aloha.

He headed straight off of 10th, ducking west into an alley lined with small businesses. This was his favorite part of Seattle - he loved watching all the hippies, keebs, devil-worshippers, and other degenerates - but the Man would still give a working joe a hard time out on the main drag. Besides, all the quaint indy lore shops and coffee houses lining 10th, Roy, Broadway and so forth were just fronts - big corp outlets festooned in local flavor so the glass & steel types could feel earthy, forget they’d sold their souls.

No, the back streets of the Hill were where the real color was. Injun trinkets, real homespun telesma, street food to take your taste buds around the world. Just the smells sent him back to Cairo, Chiang Mai, Colombo. Hand-woven carpets and tapestries, incense, every kind of non-traditional medicine you could think of (he’d tried most in the last five years). And of course antique books, his target for the day.
Friday July 19, 2075; Capitol Hill

“Lookin’ fer Erdnase.” That was how he started each visit. All the joints had that musty old book smell he loved, and none employed anyone stupid enough to suggest he buy a download. And on the fourth stop, the response was promising.

“The Bible?” confirmed the slight proprietor of One Hundred Books (a gross understatement). He must have been about seventy-three, with long spidery fingers tipped by immaculately manicured nails. He had a receding hairline that left a slight widow’s peak in its wake, but otherwise even, unremarkable features. He wore a maroon wool sweater beneath a houndstooth blazer. Al was the only customer in the place, and before he could answer, the older man asked him to name a card.

“Seven hearts.” To which the bookseller responded by pulling a pack of cards from his jacket pocket and revealing the top card. It was the seven of hearts. “Tie me up an’ toss me to the gators, that there’s Dai Vernon’s first trick!” Al croaked.

“Actually, no, though that is a well-established piece of apocrypha from his youth. The Professor had memorized - and I do mean memorized - The Expert at the Card Table by the age of thirteen, and well into his nineties was still quoting it by page number.”

“Anyone ever figure out who ol’ Erdnase was?” Like a cast-iron stove skidding across asphalt.

“Thankfully, no. It would seem almost sacrilegious at this point. And of course over the last few decades there have been a number of ritual attempts to divine his identity.”

“Damn devil worshippers,” Al spat.

The bookseller raised his eyebrows slightly, but made no comment.

“So you got a copy?”

“Sadly, no. But I have a wide network. Are you a collector, or simply one who appreciates tactility?”

“Nothin’ like that, I jist like ta hold it, feel the weight while readin’ the thing.”

“Well, if ever there was a tome to be held in the fingers... Let me make some calls. Please have a look at this while you wait. It was written by a student of Vernon’s.” He handed Al a frayed copy of Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women before retreating to an office. Al skimmed the book with interest, but ultimately despaired of finding any card tricks.

The proprietor returned. “I can have a copy here for you tomorrow, or mailed to you. It is a 2037 printing, and well worn. But of course that also makes it quite a bargain at fifty nuyen.”

“Deal,” said Al, reminding himself not to spit into his hand before offering it to the man to seal the bargain. A thumb on his MetaLink flashed the address of the tenement. “Care of Al Guthrie.”

“It was a pleasure having met you, Mr. Guthrie.” The man gazed at Al for a moment, and then decided something. “Forgive my presumption, but can I ask if, like cards, you are also a connoisseur of the tattooist’s art?”
Friday July 19, 2075; Capitol Hill/International District

Mission du jour accomplished nicely, Al wandered a bit. Grabbed some street food. Ducked into a friendly-looking lore shop, but they didn’t have anything useful to him. Seattle was all injun animism and math magic - just different sides of the Adversary’s dark coin. Waxing nostalgic for the Big Easy, he scrutinized some of the masks, sniffed at a few open pots. Poked around the baubles and trinkets for a bit, feeling the frizzy-haired shopgirl’s witch eyes on his back. Let her get an eyeful - once they did, they never minded how long he hung around. But all their Sight showed them was his juice, not the Source from which it sprang.

Leaving the shop, he wove through the gathering early Friday evening crowd, fingering the embossed business card the bookseller had given him. A referral to an artist who did things “the right way.” No question Al had been turning another piece around in his head for a bit, but he hadn’t had no ink showing, and he’d be damned if that old shopkeeper had any at all. So why offer the card?

Al congratulated himself on having the sort of winning personality that made everyone instantly love and trust him.

Then he was outside a pet supply shop nearer the main street. He pulled deeply on his Lucky until the smoldering tip nipped at his fingers, stamped it out on the street, then went in and bought a cheap bag of Scooby Snacks.

When he got home, Hun was sitting in front soaking up the last of the sunlight. Shirt white, tie cinched up, and eyes twitching back and forth. He must be reading something - doubtless another one of those damned self-help, get-rich-quick downloads. All that godless humanism couldn’t start to stack up against a good five minutes in heartfelt prayer, but there was no telling that to Hun. Still, he’d done pretty well for himself, all things considered. And as Al approached, the Asian man stood up, came close.

Offering an altogether uncharacteristic hug, he whispered in his language, “It is done.”

Some people’s lives were way too boring, but Al would play along. “What’s done?” he said, almost inaudibly, looking for no reason whatsoever up at the sky.

“What you asked for his morning...” The “ moronic bumpkin” went unsaid, but Al could still hear it loud and clear in his landlord’s voice. He wondered what that would have come out as in Khmer. He was pretty sure he didn’t know the word for bumpkin.

Hun glanced pointedly at the pocket where he knew Al kept his commlink. “Check it.”

“Later. I trust you.”

“Well, you can trust me eleven thousand six hundred nuyen. I got you the good stuff. Memorize the legend.”

“Right, so when’s my next shift?”

Now it was Hun’s turn to be surprised. “What?”

“I know you thought I’d stop taking work from you once I had a number.” Al stopped. There was no use trying to explain himself to this guy, might as well try to teach flower arranging to a mule. And he was getting tired of speaking Khmer. Passing a fat credstick to the man, he simply said, “Here’s your cred. Now I need two things from you. Shifts, and a Remington 950 plus a box of ammo.”
Thursday July 19th District of Renton

Nom Adjusts his position in his chair. Through the Haze of deepweed smoke he looks out into the 'world' and sees the subtle hues, shapes of thing change and respond to the slightest of stimuli....
Even the Smoke itself seems thick and animated. sometimes looking to turn on itself, then suddenly changing to appear as living things moving effortlessly around some unseen focus.

He grooves to the electronic music some more and switches his attention to a couple of patrons talking excitedly in a shadow. He can't hear them and can barely see them but he percieves the couple as clear as if they were in the bright sunlight. The couple's auras are getting more agitated, turning dark and stormy.
Then suddenly a flash of movement and one is struck by the other.... "With a bit of luck he could of avoided that sting to his pride." He laughs inwardly....

"'Luck' is what we will need to get this thing up and running not just geometric logic...."

Thrusday July 19 District of Redmond

Rimbur Has been standing in the access tunnel for just a few minutes but his instincts tell it's already too long.

The Grid Access Point sits in its place almost hidden among the service pipes. No power, no working indication of useability...."Just plain old luck one of these is just sitting down here."He dares not touch or linger down here any longer. He wishes to avoid Sec Security or Local Police notice or worse. It is not good to be caught in places like this. "Don't want stir up the mind police do I..."

Leaving the access tunnel through a door in the side of a concrete lined drainage branch, he climbes the ladder taking care to look for spies to his actions. Seeing none he leaves the area quickly. Back on the Main streets, he reviews mentally his find. The possible model of the unit and the most likely owner or installer. He decideds he knows both pieces of information from previous experience. "If they don't replace it I may yank it out myself..." He smiles.

Thursday July 19 Home, District of Renton

Nom is laying comfortablely on his couch after casting. An hour has past and he beginning to feel himself again. He is pleased with his sucess and is sustaing the spell without effort....

He figures in about another hour or two he will be back up to strength. While resting, total sleep eludes him, the task before him and the rest of fenris dominates his time.
Images of the living smoke witnessed under deepweed begin to take the form of raw code in his mind....
Saturday July 20, 2075; International District

The horn on Hun’s crap Americar blared insistently. Al finished the last of his chili. Soyburger, and not a drop of milk in the cheese, but real kidney beans, and fresh onions on top.

He’d spent the better part of the morning memorizing the backstory on the fake SIN Hun had scored him, before double-checking that his ‘link was not broadcasting it in his PAN. This thing had to be used with a modicum of judiciousness, or it would soon be worthless. No point in tossing it out there like a three-nuyen whore anytime he didn’t need it for something.

Around mid-day he’d gone out and tossed some Scooby Snacks at the local pack, throwing them high enough that Spike got about eighty percent of them. A real pleasure seeing that boy jump. Then he’d gone back inside, feeling the dog’s eyes on his back.

And then in the early afternoon one of the kids that lived in the building brought him a parcel with his Erdnase in it, and it was a good afternoon. Of course he’d already read it several times, but holding it while practicing his one-handed shuffle, or leaving it open on the table while he worked through a trick, that was how it was meant to be. It was the first time in a while he was annoyed when it came time to get ready for work.

Sweat of your brow. Just like the Good Book said.

Al congratulated himself for being so pious in this world of trouble and sorrow.
Saturday July 20, 2075; Terminal 46

Five short minutes later and there she was, Port of Seattle’s Terminal 46 - eighty-two acres of fun. Even before they entered, Al could see a big Yang Ming tramper sitting low in the water, just waiting for a particular motley bunch of underpaid and unregistered workers to relieve her of her burden.

The primer-gray Americar pulled through the gates without a glance from the rent-a-cops, all suddenly very very busy with critical administrative chores inside their little shack. Damned security nightmare, but everyone was getting their piece. Well, almost everyone.

Terminal 46 was one of the jewels in the Port’s crown, so of course it was all sewn up tight. Operated by an uneasy consortium of megas under license from the Metroplex government, and all under strict UCAS oversight. No way the Feds could keep their hands off their one point of access to the Pacific. And naturally a place like that was a union shop.

But with that many pencil-pushers and bean-counters in the mix, there were always cracks. Especially since everyone wanted the cracks to be there. They didn’t get taxed, nor pay union dues, but working at a base rate around a sixth of what the SINners got and, more important, with no bennies or health & safety regs, crews like Hun’s could be mighty attractive to middle-managers trying to shave a few hundred k off their COGS quarterlies.

But it wasn’t just the managers that came out all gumdrop candy mountain. Everyone had their finger in the pie one way or another. Every hour - every minute - in the berth cost the shipper money, cost the cargo owner, cost the port, cost the next ship sitting out in the Sound. So if a gray crew could work through safety slowdowns and union-mandated breaks, the port, the ‘plex, the shippers, they were all fat and happy. The Gianellis, who really ran the unions, got paid to keep everyone’s mouths shut, and the mob in turn made sure to buy flash rides and disease-free girls for the union bosses. And if the whole thing was a tacit threat to the union rank and file about how easily they could be replaced, or if they lost a little of their precious time-and-a-half, everyone knew they were getting paid twice what they were worth just so they could be the poster children of the suits’ CSR portfolios. They knew which side their bread was buttered on, and if they forgot, the wise guys reminded them.

Whole thing ran like clockwork, giving honest working men from the wrong side of the tracks a chance to keep their families above water. Until, that is, some genius would come along every so often and try to streamline things in his favor. And this time around, that genius was Hun Sen.

For Hun, all the players brought some sort of value to the table. All, that is, but the mob. They didn’t work, they didn’t provide capital, they didn’t provide security except from themselves, they weren’t consumers. They were leeches. And he wouldn’t pay.
Saturday July 20, Home; District of Renton

Nombu rubs his hands and stretches in his chair. The light from the lamp barely casting enough light for the work area illuminates a sheet of parchment coverd with characters and symbols.
He rests the parchment on the work area and gets up..."I've put this off for so long but now, I'm ready..." He picks up the parchment and sets fire to it.
Half singing half chanting in an old tounge he drops the burning notes into a waste basket and turns away."I will finish my Lodge..."

Saturday July 20, 2075; Terminal 46

“Well, can you fix it?” growled the ork in the Timber Wolves cap. His name was Buntha and he was Hun’s number two. They were from the same tribe, supposedly, but the ork was third generation Seattle and spoke almost no Khmer. One of Al’s pleasures in life was mistranslating their conversations.

“Well ‘course I kin fix it. Who ya think yer talkin’ to?”

There had been a problem with one of the logistics outfits and now they were having to split all the pallets from three containers into different warehouses to await the newly arranged pick-ups. They were twenty-two minutes behind schedule and standing beside a broken down Raymond electric forklift, a reach truck rated at 2,000 kilos with an upward reach of 8 meters.

“So how long?”

Al’s broken glass voice sounded even more grating - if that was possible - from inside the engine compartment. “Bad news is it ain’t the engine.” He emerged with oil smudges on his face, which Buntha noticed was looking less pinched and weary than usual. The little guy still had bags under his eyes and a frighteningly sallow complexion. Sort of like he was still dying, but maybe not of starvation anymore. Moving around to examine the vehicle’s carriage apparatus, Al pointed out the problem: “Cracked yer starboard tilt cylinder. Safety cutouts shut the whole beast down.”

“So just override the cutouts. We got work to do.”

“Set those cutouts muhself last week - we’s already operatin’ way past safety regs an’ on into thrill-seeker country. You lift anythin' heavier’n a barrel o’ Jack on this baby, you’ll lose the whole goldurned mast, be a lot further behind schedule than now, if not down a man or two.”

“So how long?”

Al grinned around the Lucky that had inexplicably appeared between his teeth. “Thirty minutes after you get me a new tilt cylinder from the facilities hut.”

The ork cursed and spat. In the delicate balance between the competing interests on the terminal, the union had the 1,468-square-meter maintenance facility locked down tight with a strong argument about unrated workers posing a threat to its millions of nuyen in sophisticated equipment. Al had gotten in once, for a few minutes, and thought he’d shuffled off this mortal coil and flown on angel wings through the Pearly Gates. That place was a grease monkey’s Nirvana. And there was no way Buntha was getting anything out of it without a 24-hour requisition process.

After a minute watching the foreman squirm, Al put an end to his suffering. “Keep yer panties on. I kin patch it with some polysilicate epoxy, keep ‘er goin’ least till the job’s done. Have to drive ‘er muhself, though, sweet talk ‘er through it.”
Saturday July 20, 2075; Terminal 46

Pallets reconfigured and all that hustle for nothing, since the Yang Ming vessel had developed a fault in its crankshaft-screw coupling. Al tsked to himself - common enough problem with two-stroke crossheads, but avoided easily enough by a machinist that knew his head from a maple stump. Looked like an hour until she could pull out and let the waiting Kawasaki Kisen dry bulker into her berth.

And that meant beer break.

Stepping out of the warehouse and sucking in the chill air, Al coughed - once, twice, three times. That was it. "Well what inna name ‘o Santa Claus an’ the Easter Bunny you layabouts starin’ at?" he demanded of the men around him, who had indeed turned and looked, startled by the brevity of the fit. "Shouldn’t come as hardly no surprise ta no one, ol’ Al reclaimin’ a bit of his usual robust institution.”

Leaving them behind, Al moseyed out the south side access gate, where a public access lane ran along the edge of the giant pier just outside the fence line. It was no more than five hundred meters from there to the disused neighboring jetty, the very tip of which was host to Humpty’s Dump. Little more than four walls and a roof of ill-fitted and corroded plastic sidings, it suited Al just fine.

Walking up on the place, Al immediately recognized the sleek black Nocturne parked out front. He stepped right up to it and peered in, his face no more than two inches from the bulletproof glass, but he couldn’t see anything through the car’s black-as-night windows. He knew they were in there, though - Arturo Gianelli hated the Dump.

Al shrugged and went inside. There was music. It was loud and it was crap, but they’d long since banned him from calling up decent tunes, so there was nothing for it if he wanted his cold one. Aside from the one waitress, Darla - half grown-in mustache and three kids by as many fathers - there were no womenfolk here, just working stiffs on their breaks. A bank of old microwaves hummed behind the bar, heating the instant soy delicacies that were all the place had besides beer and hard liquor, and also behind the bar was Mordecai Sparks. Al climbed up onto a stool and Sparks put a longneck on the counter. He was real tall, wore a tattered Concrete Dreams T-shirt, and gray muttonchop sideburns crawled down his face from a thin head of salt-n-pepper hair. He was missing more than one tooth in front, and who knew how many in back. A good Southern boy that had hit the Emerald City back in ’56 as a roadie for some no-name opening act. Band had folded and he’d stayed.

Wind blew in through the cracks between sidings. The smell of salt wafted up through knot-holes in the raw planks of the jetty that was all there was for flooring. Sparks struck a match and proffered it in a cupped hand to Al as the little man pulled out a Lucky. Sharp eyes.

“They’re here fer you, ya know. Come in ‘bout an hour ago askin’ after ya.”
Satudray July 20; District of Redmond

Rimbur, finished with his search and discover tactics for a while makes a stop before making the cross into Renton and back home, maybe....

A locked gate to a old powerstation serves a chair back while a slab of concrete serves a chair cushion.

He lights his Erika MCD in wireless-off mode and opens his editor. "traffic linkage......., Respose codes......, Wireless cutover......, Non rated traffic......, Time to response......,"

Reference after reference leaps to his fingers.
Names and numbers that will represent raw code. Long the experimental lab of sorts for the Matrix, Redmond still possesses much potential for discovery.
Mostly written off by the general population, yet the entire infrastructure is mostly serviceable and still supported though low on that priority.
An expolitable oversite not missed by Rimbur. An id number, model code, a shell color even is all he needs and a logical map of the surounding matrix begins to form in his mind......

"Bypass speeds......, Overflow data......, Message lines...., Termitation numbers......,"

Saturday July 20, 2075; Humpty’s Dump

Al hawked something up and sent it expertly through one of the knotholes in the floor. “Well, comin’ straight in after me’d jist be too uncool fer school. These hombres always gotta feel like they’s doin’ things on they own sweet time.” He took a long pull on his beer and then replaced the cigarette in his mouth. “Reckon we got, say, twenny minutes.”

And that was how long he sat there and drank before two men in suits entered the dive. “Shore as shootin’,” Al winked at Mordecai, and they shared a high-five before the taller man directed himself to serving some orks their instant burritos. The newcomers were clearly nonplussed - it was not the sort of reaction their appearance usually elicited.

They were both young, though a scar here and a bit of uneven cartilage there told Al they’d seen at least a few scraps. Messenger boys. Probably spent more than they could afford on the threads. Hadn’t gone too far wrong - not effeminate, but still a bit dandy for Al’s tastes. He idly scratched a knobby yellow-white knee poking through the huge hole in his jeans. Wondered how much the matching magenta silk ties had set them back, and whether they were real or clip-on. Yep. Half a millimeter of color below one wise-guy’s collar confirmed real. Idiots. He filed the information away.

“Mr. Guthrie,” one man shouted over the music from about a half-meter away, “We are sorry to disturb you. But our boss wishes to have a word.”

Al motioned to the stool beside him. Pitching his voice to be heard: “Have him come in, I’ll buy ‘im a drink.”

“I am certain he would be honored,” and the veneer of obsequiousness cracked for a moment as the man glanced about at the squalid surroundings, “but...” eyes gestured vaguely around at the music-laden air, “ understand...he would like a quiet conversation.”

Al shrugged, grabbed his beer in a burn-scarred hand, and jumped down from his seat. Stepping outside he saw two more men - one was Arturo Gianelli. The car had been around from time to time since Hun had started making trouble with these guys, and Al had caught occasional glimpses of this particular mobster, though he seldom emerged from his beloved GMC Cadillac Nocturne. He was standing beside it right now.

So Al walked the other way.

Ended up perched on an old packing crate, forcing the low-level boss to cross the dozen meters to him. There was nowhere else to sit, so the man stood. Al could already see him straining to maintain his patience. But he had clearly chosen to lead with honey, so why not milk it? The mobster put out his hand to shake. Al removed his right hand from his pocket as if to accept the offer, but at the last second diverted it up to run his fingers through his hair. Fake!

Al congratulated himself on his sophisticated sense of humor.
Sunday July 21; District of Renton

Rimbur feels and hears the call notification from his comlink and checks the I.D. stream. He recognizes it....

he Accepts the connection and a small point of light changing into a streaming interlock of characters, back into a single point represents on his video. It's Hinsu's, Agent?

<<Oeye!.... We are proceding with you in our plans. All is well. Please look to your left to verify>>

Rimbur walks a few feet then turn towards the street as if to cross mid block. Across the street is a shopping district with ARO's displaying any number of action scenes.

Several suddenly change color into a connenting stream of rainbow colored, three dimensional blocks, writhing like a snake ...
Sunday July 21; Home, District of Renton

Nombu sits on his rug crossed legged. Deepweed smoke lifts into the air to join it's apparent just about a standing man's eye level in the room. The shifting smoke dances and swirls to an unpercieved current....

Just then, Nombu glances to his left and just from the cornor of his vision a vision of a snake flashes multicolors and dances and coils to a rhythm...

Both Snake and Nombu form the words in rhythm as if communicating to a third....
"For the wicked.... Carry us away in captivity, Require from us a song......."

Sunday July 21; District of Renton

Dispite the Rain The weather is too warm. Even for nighttime.
Rimbur look up at the sky and notices an Airship flashing advertisements, spotlights scanning here and about.
Noticing he's the only sole on the street, Rimbuer hugs close the brick walled buildings. "Ill stop for a bite before I head home".
While Renton is pretty much an unimpressive city The nothern extremes, where he's going, are not where you want to be caught unawares...."I dont know who's worse the gangs or the Sec squads..." he sighs.

His mind drifts back to the the Data-Lift he and Hin went on some time back.
How he knew to look for that directory where it was still amazes him. But he pretty versed in that company's Matrix Ops plus he does it a lot. He said it was a standard procedure to update rollout code just that way. But the hole in the archive was, and still is, most likely is impossible to find....

"Impossibe." he laughs out loud and begins to think of dumplings.....

[ Spoiler ]

Saturday July 20, 2075; Humpty’s Dump

The portly mafioso had absolutely no idea how to respond to the juvenile gesture, so he did his best to ignore it. “Vinnie here” - his head inclined to the man now at his flank, the one he’d been standing with at his car - “Vinnie says you’ve done some good work for us.”

Al scratched at his crotch, taking his time, then, “I’ll allow as I have, time or three. Yer people done treated me fair, honest pay fer honest work, as mem’ry serves.” The cigarette lodged in the corner of his mouth danced as he spoke, and in the starlight on the unlit jetty the lit tip looked like a firefly frolicking around the side of his face.

Vinnie stepped forward and offered his hand. “Good to see you again, Al.”

Al shook the man’s hand idly, his expression quizzical. “Again?”

“It’s okay, Al. Uncle Arturo knows all about our work.”


“Al, it was myself that hired you those other times.”

“Wuz it? No offense, son, but ol’ Al wuz pretty drunk alla them times. Bibacious. Bibulous. Blasted. Blitzed. Blootered. Bombed. Blotto. Buttered and besotted. Cain’t say I recollect much in the way o’ detail.”

It was too dark to see, but Al could feel the younger man’s face reddening, as the older Gianelli’s expression looked increasingly doubtful about the advice he’d been given to speak with the diminutive dockworker. Still, if this homeless-looking scamp had the ear of the upstart little crew chief that refused to make his payments and didn’t even speak American, well, it might be worth five more minutes.

“Getting down to business, Mr. Guthrie, we’d like to talk about Hun Sen. You do remember him, don’t you?”
Saturday July 20, 2075; Humpty’s Dump

Arturo Gianelli was clearly a member of the Family literally as well as figuratively - his sloping forehead, close-set eyes, and unusually prominent chin all testified to the generations of loose inbreeding prevalent among the upper echelons of the Mafia. Al wondered what it would be like to live a life so full of fear and mistrust that you didn’t dare marry anyone that wasn’t already bound to you by blood.

Probably made for a violent and unpredictable disposition, Al decided. Well, no percentage in riling him up. This wasn’t even his fight.

“Shore, reckon I do. Runs the crew I work.”

“Precisely. And we also understand that you speak his language, or have it chipped or something.”

“Lipstick me up an’ throw me in with the sissyboys if’n ya ever catch ol’ Al talkin’ off a damned chip.”

“No offense intended. My point is that you have the man’s ear.”

“Speak from time to time, as needs occasion.”

“Well then, you may be familiar with the fact that he is in arrears with us.”

“Might’ve heard somethin’ ‘bout it.”

“Well, as you can appreciate, this is something that we cannot let slide. But at the same time, drastic action is always bad for everyone. It always carries myriad costs. If people can be made to see reason...”

“So ya want ol’ Al to talk a lick o’ sense into ‘im.”

“We would be very grateful. And it would be good for your associate.”

“S’pose I could lay out the odds for ‘im. He likes ta talk about cost ratios an’ other crap from the fancypants datasofts he reads. Pretty easy to paint ‘im a picture of the long-term profit-loss impact or some such crap. Or ‘splain to ‘im about how yer motor oil don’t move the engine none, but things gon’ seize up good if’n ya go an’ skimp on it - show him how y’all’s operation provides that sorta needed lubricant in this right complexicated stevedorian ecosystem we got ourselves here.”

“Mr. Guthrie, that is precisely what would make us happy.”

“‘Ceptin’ yer problem is, I done already told ‘im all o’ that.”
Saturday July 20, 2075; Humpty's Dump

“You did what?”

“Sumbitch keeps me in a state o’ gainful employ, an’ it ain’t like beer an’ smokes grow on trees. Ya think I want him up an’ gettin’ disappeared on me? Been chewin’ his waxy yellow ear off ‘bout whut a blamed fool he is ta be messin’ with y’all. Ain’t done a blessed bit o’ good.”

It amused Al to no end that these mooks had taken such trouble to see him, when all they wanted was something he had already done. He sympathized with Hun for the course he’d chosen, even admired it, but he knew a losing proposition when he saw one. A rock and a soft place were about to come together, and the last place he wanted to be was in the middle.

“Well, that is disappointing indeed. The record will show, however, that we tried to conduct business in a civilized manner.”

“Oh, a right bunch o' Gandhis is whut you all are.”

The magenta tie twins stepped forward, but the elder Gianelli held up a hand. “Although your news saddens me, Mr. Guthrie, this need not have been a wasted outing. I can see you are blessed with judgement and foresight, and I am pleased to know that we can count on your support.”

“Whoa, now, Nelly. Artillery an’ underwires, them’s whut does the supportin’ in ol’ Al’s world. Me, I’m jist a looker-onner, a fly onna wall. Everlovin’ Switzerland, that’s me baby. I jist work fer the guy, got no say in his bizniss decisions, so y’all kin leave me well an’ truly out o’ this here fracas-inna-makin’.”

“Mr. Guthrie, it is our general policy that those not with us are against us. However, in this matter, I am happy to accept your neutrality. For the time being.”

Happy to have dodged a bullet, Al resolved to finish out the night and then miss the next few shifts - it never paid to have to choose between the good side and the winning side.
Sunday July 21; Home, District of Renton

Nombu sits comfortable at his desk with his Microtronica slaved, cabled to his comlink and all patched to the datajack. A glass of something cold to drink sit near him.
The Arcane language examples he is studying are entered into his visual windows, alphnumeric symbols, geometric shapes joining to represent logical patterns, are being interwoven and stretched into a more familuar virual representation of the same.....

A small grouping of symbols are transfered to his encryption/decryption application. Very crude and only set for this small purpose...
The proper keys sequences are entered and, sucess. The expected string of characters is the finished result. The application shows no errors as the flashing cursor representing a running, command ready utility shows true.
"Just the biginning. This will be a great asset.. We will have our agent...."
Saturday July 20, 2075; Humpty’s Dump

The four men headed back toward their luxury sedan while Al ducked inside to grab one more beer for the walk back. No sooner had he stepped through the door, however, than he heard the loud crack of a pistol. It started out with a few shots and quickly escalated to sustained fire from multiple weapons.

The dive’s patrons dove for the floor, but Al immediately noted that no rounds were coming through the walls. As always, curiosity got the better of caution, and he poked his head out the door.

All four mobsters were emptying clips into the sky while a terrified seagull ducked and swooped in panic. Firearms were reloaded and more rounds squeezed off in quick succession. From snatches of Arturo Gianelli’s enraged screams caught between volleys, it became apparent that the offending bird had relieved itself on the mafioso’s beloved ride, and indeed there was a prodigious white splatter contrasting nicely against the jet-black windshield.

One by one, the pistols clicked dry, though adrenaline-flooded trigger fingers pulled convulsively for a few moments longer.

The seagull flew off, unharmed in body if not in spirit.

As the underboss exhorted his minions to quickly find something with which to cleanse his once-pristine car, Al returned to the bar shaking his head in incredulous amusement at the sorry sight. Maybe Hun had a chance after all.
Sunday July 21, 2075; Terminal 46

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, Al was finishing his shift at full tilt. Even working balls to the wall, though, on nights like this he was always sure to savor all that the good Lord had blessed him with.

The container crane’s cab was suspended from the trolley 127 feet above rail, so roughly 150 feet up depending on how laden the ship below was. To his north, the half-dark bulk of the ACHE completely obscured the more spectacular night sights of Seattle Center, but that didn’t matter in the least when Al could gaze straight ahead to the west. It was a perfect summer night, with a full moon reflecting off the calm waters of Puget Sound. And on the horizon, the scattered lights of residences and small facilities on the east coast of Bainbridge Island. Soft, incandescent clusters of warmth peeking out from between trees and behind promontories, all providing just enough ambient illumination that he could make out the misty silhouette of the hill-covered island. A steady easterly wind brought the smell of sea salt and pine resin through the open cab windows.

Al couldn’t resist a pause here and there to become one with that wind, which was why he was three containers behind. The Yokohama-registered dry bulker had been a BIBO-configured sugar carrier, so had practically offloaded itself in no time flat, and in its place another Yang Ming container beast had sidled up to the pier. It was one of the new mega-capesize class, with hatches fore, aft, and midships as well, and management wanted it done by dawn, cost be damned. So as it pulled in, Al had gotten to do what he loved best - he and two other operators had had the rare opportunity to fire up the massive tracks that could move the huge Super-Post-Panamax Mobiles to new positions on the pier, and they’d had them locked down and lined up with the three hatches the moment the anchors were down. Al was at the aft hold, the southernmost position, right at the southwest corner of the terminal near the access gate he’d used earlier for his beer break. To his north at midships was the operator Al was racing, Lawrence Ayolede. Larry was a hard working kid from some place Al could never remember the name of in West Africa, and he was the only one on the crew with a control rig. But he had joined the team after some sort of trouble with Franklin - he was a firefighter, not a dockworker. He still handled the crane like a bunraku puppeteer, but he didn’t know the vessels, the crews, the containers like Al did. And Al took pride in always at least matching Larry’s speed.

He knew it was only a matter of time before the rigger beat him, but if tonight wasn’t going to be that night, he’d better haul some ass. He threw himself into his work. So much so, in fact, that he almost - almost - failed to notice a familiar black GMC Cadillac Nocturne glide noiselessly up to the southwest access gate.
Sunday July 21, 2075; Terminal 46

Watching the car with half an eye as it pulled to a silent stop, Al couldn’t imagine what those buffoons would be up to right here at the terminal itself. But he reminded himself that whatever it was it could be dangerous - idiotic as the men in the car clearly were, they represented an organization that was not to be underestimated in terms of reach or ruthlessness.

Of course, whatever they did or did not do was no concern of Al’s. He’d washed his hands of it. Still, he took advantage of a brief stall as the ship’s crew repaired a broken cornercasting to open a panel under his seat and reach down, fingers probing for a particular circuit.

Ninety-plus minutes later and the containers were nearly offloaded, the barest hints of dawn were sneaking over the Cascade Range, and no one had gotten out of the Nocturne. Another ten minutes and Al would be on his way home and clear of the whole mess. But then some movement caught his eye from inside the fenceline, and he cursed himself for a damned fool for not checking on Hun the moment he saw the mobsters arrive. For there were Hun and Buntha walking purposefully toward the access gate, three of the boys trailing close behind.

Al ran the formula through his mind: [(stupid + arrogant) x (stupid + naive)] - common language + guns = dead dockworkers. And here Al was, hanging in a metal box half a football field skyward.
Sunday July 21, 2075; Terminal 46

It was like a silent movie. Al could see everything but couldn’t hear a word.

Hun and Buntha walked through the access gate, apparently expecting some sort of talk, and the moment they were beyond the fence, the magenta tie twins were out of the car with Franchi SPAS assault shotguns. They drove the other three dockworkers back inside, isolating the two Cambodians.

Al spared a glance at the nearest security shack. Dark as the heart of a politician. No point calling them for help.

Arturo and Vincent Gianelli emerged from the car, adjusting their ties, buttoning their suit jackets. Preening that bespoke confidence. There were about thirty seconds worth of attempts at conversation, but Hun was doing half the talking and Al couldn’t imagine anyone had any idea what the man was saying then Buntha started talking too but it was immediately clear that Hun didn’t like whatever it was he understood the ork saying and then Arturo was shouting so loudly that Al could hear the voice if not the words and was sure no one else could hear anything in any language but Hun’s lips were still moving a mile a minute and before anyone on either side knew what was happening the two dock foremen were on their backs with designer Italian shoes on their throats and four gun barrels in their faces. And Hun’s lips were still moving.

Al cursed the names of every saint he knew from four religions and in as many languages. But there was nothing for it. They’d shared smokes.

Arturo Gianelli was standing astride Hun Sen with a quiver in his gun hand that convinced Al his landlord had seconds to live.

The boom had an outward reach of 200 feet. It would easily reach the scene, except that the crane had a safety feature that prevented any part thereof from crossing the terminal boundary. Or at least, it had had such a feature, until Al had reached under the seat and disabled it an hour-and-a-half previous.

At this point, Hun had his attempting-to-curse-a-blue-streak-in-English face on, and the puzzlement mixed with rage on Arturo Gianelli’s face made Al suspect that the only reason Hun’s life was being prolonged by a few God-granted seconds was that the mobster was trying in vain to understand whatever horrible thing it was he was being called, and whether it was even the English language he was being cursed in.

The boom swung noiselessly over the fence. Higher than the lamppost-fixed spotlights used to light up the terminal, it cast no shadow. But as Al dropped the spreader towards the Y80,000 car, Arturo must have seen the look on his henchmen’s faces. He turned in time to see the massive thing hovering like a great steel mantis above his pride and joy.

Of course, the twistlock mechanism could never contract to the size of the puny car, but with a flip of a blue switch Al activated the magnet and the car leapt straight up faster than the eye could follow, connecting to the underside of the spreader with a solid ferric smack.

Rated at 120 metric tons of lift, Al could have had the hoist raise the car skyward like a yo-yo, but he was worrying about it slinging up and hitting the boom. Besides, slower was more dramatic. He reeled the shiny black vehicle up meter by meter. One of the magenta boys actually jumped up and grabbed an axle. Possibly good judgement but more likely grease caused him to loose his grip a moment later. All four wise guys had their full attention on the cab of the crane now. Arturo Gianelli’s lips were moving frantically - clearly he was threatening and begging for the car to be put down. Al watched the man’s eyes as he swung the car gently out over the water. And he knew that the other man knew, just knew, it was him in the dark cab.

Hun and Buntha had wasted no time making their escape into the terminal. Al could see they were safe now.

No reason to keep threatening. No further need for a distraction.

Could just put the car back down, fresh paint job, good as new.

But she was two hundred feet above the water now, and all Al could think about was velocity and resistance and structural integrity and whether she’d slide through the surface like a dolphin or explode into a million bits like glass on ferrocrete.

Making his decision, Al congratulated himself on his fearless dedication to empirical scientific enquiry.
Sunday July 21, 2075; Terminal 46

All bets now off, the men below started shooting at the crane’s cab, and Al started thinking about how he was going to get down. After the scene with the seagull, he wasn’t excessively concerned, but the long climb down the ladder nonetheless seemed like a losing proposition.

Swinging the boom out across the container ship, he took off his Docs and his socks, along with his jacket. It was a warm enough night. He picked up his MetaLink and called Hun. “Fetch muh gear from the cab an’ meet me at Pier 48 in half an hour,” he rasped, and without waiting for a reply put the cheap ‘link back into the jacket pocket.

Exiting the cab through a window, he made his way out onto the boom’s main strut. It was designed to be walked on to facilitate maintenance, and the cool steel felt nice on his bare feet. Occasionally an uncharacteristically accurate shot pinged on metal near him, reminding him to exercise a modicum of haste, and soon enough the shots had ceased as he’d gone too far over the superstructure of the containership to leave anyone a shot.

At the end of the boom he took his time taking in the view. It was a lot better from here than it had been from the cab. He thought of an old flat he’d hated and chuckled to himself, “I’m on top of the world.” Then he dived.

Completely unlike Arturo Gianelli’s GMC Cadillac Nocturne, he sliced the surface smoothly. Exercising caution for the first time that night, he declined to resurface, swimming at a depth of about five meters the entire way. And thirty minutes later, he walked dripping wet onto the shore, where a crap primer gray Americar awaited him.
Sunday July 21, 2075; Driving southwest on Alaska Way

Hun was driving and Buntha was with him riding shotgun. Only without the shotgun. Al climbed in back and the electric car navigated some small feeder roads to reconnect with the GridGuide on Alaska Way.

Al’s stuff was in the back, and for a while no one said anything. He put on his dry socks, laced up his boots, and pulled his ancient brown leather jacket on over his soaked yellow-white T-shirt. Pulled his MetaLink out of his pocket and started typing out a list in Khmer, though the brand names and specs were in Roman characters.

At some point while he typed, Buntha turned and said, “Thanks man. Knew this guy,” inclining his head toward Hun, “was steerin’ us for trouble, but now you’re in it too.” Every time they passed under a streetlight, Al could see the blackening bruises on the ork’s face.

“Up to muh eyeballs, baby, but they’s pansies anyway. Ain’t one of ‘em done an honest day’s work in a lifetime o’ bad choices. Screw ‘em.” Yeah, screw them, and their cousins. And their nephews and brothers and in-laws. And a few hundred hired guns. And affiliated thriller gangs. Dozens of K-E rollers in their pockets, judge or two. Corp affiliations and hackers on tap.

Unable to understand anything Al said, Hun was feeling left out and started ranting in English: “I will never pay those assholes. Never pay.” And on and on for a minute or so, then abruptly: “Where I drive you?”

“Home, Jeeves. Gotta git out while the gittin’s good. Jist hope they’s pissed ‘nuff at me ta ignore y’all long enough to clear out yerselves.”

Buntha sighed and slumped with a groan into his seat. Hun demanded, “What you talk about, old man?”

Al switched to Khmer. “They’ll look for me for a while, because I made it personal. But soon they will come for you, and they will come for you at home.”

“Never. We live in yakuza territory.”

“You paying them?”

A long pause. “No.”

“Then you got nothing. Foreign turf may slow them to a cautious pace, but they will burn your little piece of Cambodia to the ground.”
Sunday July 21, 2075; International District

Hun launched into another incoherent tirade about never paying, so Al interrupted him by flashing his list to the Asian’s commlink. A dangerous choice since Hun was a crap enough driver anyway, and now he’d be reading on his contacts, but anything to shut him up.

“I already got the one thing on this list, the one you asked for the other day. Look under the seat.”

Al reached down and found a long, butcher paper-wrapped parcel, and several boxes of shells. Some appreciation at last. “Thanks.”

“Thank the cred reader. Guns are not free,” answered Hun as he handed his comm back over his shoulder to take payment. Al sighed and slotted a certified stick. What had he expected? “New, no history. Tags wiped, engraved serial number matches your license. I do good work.”

Al told them to keep the car running as he quickly slipped into his flooded basement squat. It took him less than five minutes to gather his few clothes, toothbrush, cards, new book, and most important, his T-250. Then up top for one goodbye, temporary, he hoped.

Spike was there. Of course he would be. Now, at this moment. Al congratulated himself on how things always fell together so poetically in his charmed life.

As always and without exception, Al spoke Tamasheq, a tongue that suited his gravelpit voice perfectly. “Spike. We were just getting to know each other. Spike. Watch out for the little kids here for me. Spike. The Prophet knows no one else will. Spike. I’ll be back for you, Spike.”

Back into the car but only as far as the nearest taxi rank. Getting out, he said, “You want more cred, you’ve got twelve hours to get me what you can off the rest of the list. Don’t bring it yoursefl. Have it delivered right at eight to the lobby of Carl’s Coffins in Touristville. I’ll be waiting.”
One Year ago; Home, District of Renton

Rimbur sits one the carpeted floor of his place leggs crossed, back straight, in a tecnomancer AR trance, while his Deck is open to his operator channel to fenris_shonen.....

On his deck virtual displays he is accessing Host environments. Environment Rating, 4.... Users, none...., Marks, none....., also various graphs and messages updating data passthroughs and usage are active. Today his attention is on the running IC, an special Patrol type.....

He shifts his attention to the inner perception of the Matrix. The IC is represented as a constantly shifting polygonal form. Sometimes solid, sometimes completey transparrent. Then sometimes completely gone....

"Almost there...." He shifts back to the AR displays of his deck, finds the program lines he was tuning....
The Hidden IC 'hack' he helped with. His friend at the Security Section will take this and write a complete update for the IC.
Sunday July 21, 2075; Redmond

In the cab across town to Touristville, Al tried to catch a few winks but of course it was impossible. His mind was busy turning over the issues at hand. If you didn’t count Thailand and Cambodia, which one must allow had been a very different scenario, then he’d never really had any organized crime types on his tail before. But he’d seen this sort of situation handled many times on the trid, so he was confident he knew what to do.

Since his particularly undocumented arrival in Seattle five years ago - and his horrified realization of the suffocating degree to which this whole Personal Area Network monstrosity had proliferated - he had always made a point of running dark. And now would be no exception. He paid the cabbie in certified cred and used the same at a mid-range capsule hotel seven blocks from Carl’s Coffins. The place had the obligatory vending machines, so he didn’t have to go out until late afternoon, during which time he actually managed a few hours sleep.

Near the end of the day he made for the nearest Yamaha dealership and used his shiny new ID to buy a solid new-model Growler. The rep had tried to put one over on him, of course, but he was no fool, and got it for list price, and none of those incentives or whatever they were, neither. And laughed in the feller’s face when he’d tried to sell him a helmet. From the dealership he broadcast his ID at the minimum setting to be street-legal, and only when on the road. He’d never used this fake before, so the only way the mob could track it was if they were tied into the network Hun had gotten it from. But Al knew Hun used a triad affiliate - the Chamomile Octodragon Incense Lords or some such crap - so he wasn’t too worried.

Headed straight for the parking structure he knew was across from Carl’s. He had already rented a capsule there online. Watched the place from the fifth level for a couple of hours until at eight o’clock he saw a Jackrabbit pull up and a Cambodian kid (dammit, Hun!) get out, pulling a big Santa-looking duffel out of the hatchback. Al held his breath, flipped his eyes to wireless/AR just long enough to get the kid’s comm number, called him, exchanged greetings in colloquial Khmer, and gave him the capsule tag and entry code.

After spending a few seconds satisfying himself the boy hadn’t been followed, Al went to the capsule and checked the bag. Everything was there, and he sent the cred to Hun. Used the tag eraser to kill every signal his MetaLink could find - the fixer was careful with guns, not so much so with off-the-shelf items like camping gear. Out to the bike, collected his guns from the other capsule, pre-ordered cherry-flavored ration bars and two cases of beer from the local Kong Wal-Mart, and picked up his purchase at the drive-through window. The load on the dirt bike had been pretty well distributed, but the cases of beer now made it look a bit overladen. Nothing for it - man had to have his priorities.
Sunday July 21, 2075; Seattle-Salish border

From Touristville, Al made a beeline on the thin trail of quasi-civilization that crossed the Redmond Barrens known as Highway 202. He still kept a hand on his Defiance the whole ride, but as one of the main arteries for injun trade as well as commerce originating in UCAS proper, it was kept relatively clear.

And then there was the crossing. Al kissed his MetaLink, activated his PAN fully and, having made sure not to eat in the last few hours, opened up to AR to make sure he didn’t miss and thus fail to comply with any instructions.

The UCAS checkpoint was a wave-by, but then fifty meters later came the Salish side.
Sucking the aromatic fumes of a big Roadmaster in front of him, Al prodded his bike forward car length by car length, and the closer he got the bigger the sidearms those injuns were toting started to look. Not to mention the razor wire and towers, where he saw the heavy stuff pointed rather undiplomatically down at the rigs seeking passage into the Amerind lands.

Still, it wasn’t the hardest checkpoint he’d seen. Sure, there were little armored booths for the agents, but most were pretty casual about approaching the vehicles, talking to the drivers, and having as thorough a look-see as they were inclined. They must not have thought his little dirt bike was much of a threat, or at least assumed there wasn’t much trouble it could carry that their sensors couldn’t sniff out, because they didn’t pay serious attention to him. He wove the bike back and forth through a few concrete barriers, and at a few points someone asked him some similar but differently worded questions about his plans. But his talk of camping was consistent, and his weapons licenses were found to be in order, and he was through in no time.

And then there it was. Five years he’d spent in this sprawl knowing it was right out here and always being too lazy to go have a look, and now Al passed through the wall and entered the sort of world a man could be a man in. After passing through the urban blight of the Redmond Barrens, riding up into the feet of the Cascades was almost traumatic, like a starved man suddenly being force-fed. The mountains started where Seattle stopped, and within a few miles the paved highway was lined with Douglas firs and western white pines, with the white blooms of Pacific dogwoods peeking out from around their bases. Wasn’t exactly the shortleaf pine and cottonwood of back home, but still played a note on his soulstrings, and a warm tear tickled its way down his cheek and into his graying stubble.

Al had preplanned his route, and in less than thirty minutes he was away from the traffic of the highway and on a local road headed up into Cascade Ork lands. Darkness soon set in and he was alone in the noise of the bike and the intoxicating scent of the conifers, his headlight cutting a narrow cone of illumination ahead.
Monday July 22, 2075; Cascade Ork lands

Al had passed the occasional roadhouse or filling station for the first couple of hours, but hadn’t been able to tear himself from the reverie of wind in his hair and the scent of pine in his face. They’d soon gotten fewer and farther between, though. Then approaching midnight, just when he’d thought he’d seen the last of them, there was a long, low wood structure, cars parked around, pumps out front, and neon beer signs in the windows. Not knowing which was thirstier, his bike or himself, Al pulled up, parking in view of he biggest window he could find.

The place had no sign, no name, which was a disappointment and perhaps an omen. But he pushed on in, swimming against a tide of smoke and country-western music, and took a look around.

The music didn’t actually go off, but it felt like it had, the way everyone stopped and stared at him. Maybe twenty pairs of eyes, accompanied by exactly as many pairs of tusks.

Well, it wasn’t the first time Al had walked into an all-ork bar, and it wasn’t far off his expectations anyhow, considering where he was. So he went up to the bar and ordered a whiskey. The girl that poured was amiable enough. She had a gold nose ring, a fake-garnet tusk-stud, cleavage busting out of her black scoop-necked T-shirt, and hair in two long jetblack braids. Like most of the others, she looked Native American in both style and complexion, and she looked down at Al and said, “Heya stranger, ya up huntin’?”

“That the only thing folk come up her fer?” He lit the Lucky that had appeared in his mouth. The girl did a slight double-take - he’d caught her - and even though she kept her cool and carried on talking, Al congratulated himself on being such a masterful prestidigitator.

“No, but it’s the only thing guys traveling alone on beer-laden bikes with side-slung shotguns come up at midnight for.” She had a sweet smile for a goblin, and he conceded her the point.

He downed his whiskey with the cigarette still in the corner of his mouth. “Goin’ fer some turkey.”

“Got eastern wild around here, but you gotta know where to look. First-timer up here like you be better off going for deer this time of year, you don’t mind dodging the wardens.”

“Deer’s a beautiful creature. An’ ol’ Al wouldn’t be able ta pack it out on that toy out front.”

She nodded approvingly and then they were interrupted.
Tuesday July 23, 2075; Cascade Ork lands

“You looking at my girlfriend’s tits, paleface?” He was a relatively large specimen. Like Al, he wore faded jeans. Had a rodeo champion belt buckle, a tank top, and a wool-lined denim jacket with the arms cut off at the shoulders.

“Lay off, T.B. He seems nice.”

T.B. ignored her and looked down challengingly at the small human. Al could see he was not drunk, and he didn’t believe the bargirl was actually his girlfriend. No, he was bored, and had friends to amuse. But he didn’t seem as mean as he wanted to.

“Well, I’ll allow as they’s hard not ta notice. What’re ya drinkin’, amigo?”

“I’m about to kick your ass and you want to buy me a drink?”

“Call it a survival instinct.”

“Heh. Tell you what, breeder. You arm wrestle me, and you win, I’ll let you live long enough to ride outta here.” Scattered snickers. Under his oversized leather jacket, Al test-flexed the bicep on his still-emaciated right arm, then looked at the football-sized guns on the ork. Naturally, he accepted.

Onlookers chuckled and shook their heads as they gathered around a table, then the mirth kicked up a notch when Al took off his jacket, revealing his skinny frame. Cigarette dancing in the corner of his mouth, the human asked, “So, ya got any sort o’ local injun rules or somethin’ I should know ‘bout?”

“Rules?” More laughter all around. “No rules, whitey, just arm wrestle like your teeth depend on it.”

Al nodded as he sat, and reckoned he could hold the ork off for roughly zero-point-zero seconds. So in the precise moment that the old coot with an upside-down feather hanging from his hair said go the toe of Al’s Doc Marten connected silently with the ork’s shin, and the little man slammed the back of the stunned ork’s fist onto the table top.

A brief spell of disbelieving silence was followed by wild applause. Al smiled his big wolfish grin but had eyes only for his opponent - the only other person in the room that knew what had happened. He watched the ork weigh the options of complaining and looking like a whiner, or hitting the smaller man and looking like a bully. But Al had judged correctly. “I’ll take that drink now, paleface,” he smiled, and leaned in to add quietly, “And you’ll buy a round for my friends, too. Name’s Tall Bear.”
Tuesday July 23, 2075; Cascade Ork lands

Al woke on the wood plank floor in a pool of his own sick, the dawn light shimmering on its slick surface. Tall Bear lay next to him snoring loudly. It had been a great night.

He stepped out the front door, lit up, and relieved himself, then checked the balance on one of his certified sticks. It was light about a hundred nuyen. Small price. Then he checked the bike. They’d taken the liberty to have a good look, but except for some of his cherry-flavored ration bars, everything was where it should be. Good folks. He’d be sure to stop by on his way back out, but for now he had hunting to do.

Checking the ties on his load, he mounted up and headed deeper into the woods.
Saturday July 27, 2075; Cascade Ork lands

Al sat by his big campfire wiping turkey fat from his chin with one hand and juggling the business card around the fingers of his other hand.

He’d gone up gated logging tracks for a while and then off road for a spell more, then made camp and boiled his clothes. Spent the first two days scouting the area, noting the signs. He was basically done the first day, but it was just so damned pleasant tramping around among the old growth, alone. He’d done a good job picking his spot - he built a blind at the end of the second day and on the third day he had three big birds before noon. And for the last day and a half he’d been eating.

Of course with all that time on his hands he’d worked on his Erdnase, and a little with his cuffs as well. The quiet was good for magic tricks. But mostly he just contemplated. And most of what he contemplated was mostly just nothing.

And by night he counted stars, and thought about all the lives he’d lived, the ones that could have been, and the ones that still waited for him. And every night, that business card he’d gotten from the book guy kept finding its way into his hand.

He’d looked at the address again on the first night. There was no comm signal up here, but he didn’t need it to put the place in Puyallup, a few blocks from Underworld 93. Interested as he was, that was the Gianellis’ back yard, so he’d tabled the idea for a while. But every night he’d be looking at the stars and realize the card was there in his hand, and he was getting used to the idea.

What the hell. It had been almost a week, after all.

And they were just mobsters.

It was time to go get some ink.
Sunday July 28, 2075; Cascade Ork lands

Al broke camp before dawn, and headed back toward Seattle. Like most of the journeys in his life, however, his path was not the straight one. Hiking back down to where he’d cached his bike, he’d stepped on a gopher snake, a big one, and the triangular head, the markings on its back, made him realize there was one more thing he needed before returning to the godless ‘plex. And to get it, he’d need to see the other side of the mountains.

At the roadhouse he filled his tank, grabbed a beer, and chatted up the bargirl from his first night there, who was serving breakfast to some loggers and whose name was Eileen. “Woulda guessed Curvy Willow.” “Would have guessed smarter than the average white man.” Tall Bear wasn’t there, but they had a store area, and he bought a good flashlight. Working his way back to 202, he headed east instead of west, and the irony forced a chuckle. The dirt bike was hardly built for road speed, and it was noon before he crested the range. He made better speed after that, and soon the lush coniferous rainforest was gradually giving way to a much drier climate. Once he was down to about a thousand feet, he started looking for the right terrain - just the right combination of brush and rocks in the floor of the thinning forest. By around two he dismounted, taking his flashlight and the big canvas bag Hun had sent his gear in. The day was nice and hot, and he left behind his jacket. Marching out away from the road, he focused mostly on the ground as he made his way methodically from sunlight patch to sunlight patch.

The ground was pretty rocky, but it wasn’t too long before he found what he was looking for - just hints spread along a small game trail, but his mind connected the dots into the undulating line he wanted. And three hundred yards later there it was, lying in a narrow spot of light between a rock and some scrub, catching the sunlight but mostly obscured from above. A real beauty, almost three feet long, wide triangular head, and black dorsal patterns on its light brown scaling. Rattled a bit as he approached, but stopped shortly after he picked it up. Put it straight into the bag, fastened the top, and then started the real work. Hopefully it hadn’t ranged too far afield yet, but it was late enough in the summer now that he had to be prepared for disappointment.

But after an hour of widening circles around the spot, he was pretty sure he’d found a heavier concentration of sign, and followed it while the light was still good. Just as the sun was thinking about sinking behind the mountains, he spotted a big rock outcropping. If his luck held out just a bit more, there’d be a way in.

It was tight, but no worse than the pipes and shafts under the arkoblocks he used to service, and he worked his way in on his stomach. The second irony of the day.

It was pitch black, but once he sensed the space widening, he turned on the light and there they were. Dozens of them. He’d have his pick.

Selecting the biggest ones - there were several approaching three feet - he started checking sex. He hadn’t cared about the first one - it would never have been out of the nest at this time of year if it were pregnant - but any of these could well be, so he took two males with swells in their midsections telling him they’d fed recently. Into the sack, back out the front door, and job done. No longer tracking, he’d be back at his bike by suppertime.
Monday July 29, 2075; Seattle-Salish border

It wasn’t until he was at the border, filling out the AR customs questionnaire and trying not to toss his cookies, that he remembered the “live animals” box on the declaration form. Well, there was nothing for it. Besides, he knew the Good Lord wanted him to have those serpents, and the angels would be on his side. So he just ticked the “no” box and rode right up.

Sometimes you get lucky.

Once back in the sprawl, he made straight for Puyallup. He’d need a place to doss up post haste. His new friends were durable and damned low maintenance. The only thing they’d need for a few days was enough air, which was a trick in that the rascals could be regular Houdinis given half a chance. Main thing, though, was that they weren’t real pleased bouncing along on his bike, and if a snake could go loco, these would soon.

But first, he was checking out the address on the card.
Monday July 29, 2075; Puyallup City, Puyallup

With the two cases of beer gone, the bike was no longer so ridiculously off balance. Still, everything he owned was on it, and even though this was Puyallup, it was still...well...Puyallup.

Being homeless sucked.

He parked as close to his destination as he could, and slung the two most tempting targets across his back crosswise, the Remington one way, the Defiance the other. There were rollers around - he’d already seen some pawns patting down a group of keeb kids just up the street - but there were also lots of people carrying weapons, probably along with license icons. He’d have to do the same. Caught his reflection in a plate glass window, and liked the bandito look he’d created. Just have to get some bandoliers or something. Maybe once he got to Hollywood he should start his career by reviving the Western genre.

He set the big bag right on the seat of the bike and then rigged the drawstring to come open if it was removed. Anyone tried to boost the bike, he’d hear the commotion.

Crossing the street, slick from a recent summer rain, he walked down a couple of doors to the address. The card said Rocco’s, and down in the corner of the display window, small enough you had to look for it, the same was stenciled in gold. The windows and glass door were entirely blocked by red velvet curtains. Hard to say if the place was open, or even if any lights were on.

It was about ten in the evening now, and the street’s nightlife was just coming online. Down about two blocks, just as he looked, he could see one of Underworld 93’s big holograms shimmer into rez. People were already lined up around the block.

This street had small eateries, a range of watering holes catering to all subcultures and demographics, and about half the shops were in the body mod biz. Tats, piercings, fetish alterations, hobby-grade prosthetics, cosmetic implants. Whole lotta frippery, mostly, but he could see why the kids dug it. All the joints lit up dark, trying to look badass, most blaring music, so the whole drag was a sort of oceanic roar that dissolved into actual music only when standing directly in front of a single storefront. Lots were plying their trade right in the windows, where they doubtless worked on their most attractive clientele.

The last thing he did before trying the door was take a look around in AR. Basically just another, even gaudier, layer of the same promises of shock-the-parents thrills as the meat street, though the combination in overlay was almost seizure-inducing.

Except for Rocco’s, which was a complete AR blank. Al smiled and congratulated himself on his discerning taste.
This is a "lo-fi" version of our main content. To view the full version with more information, formatting and images, please click here.
Dumpshock Forums © 2001-2012