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Luke Hardison
I've been posting and reading here since about 2003, but I've been very inactive for years. However, I recently started running a new game, and I'm writing up the runs as fiction as we play. We're about six runs into the campaign now, and I'm amassing a lot of stories. A long time ago, we used to share a lot of fiction on the board, but I haven't seen it here for quite a while.

If I wanted to share some of it here, would this forum be the right place for it? I thought there used to be a sub-board just for fan fiction, but I don't see it anymore. Either it disappeared, or I misremembered. It happens. grinbig.gif
I think that there is a a fiction board over on Shadowgrid (the official forums /, but the site appears to be hacked right now (?!?) so I can't check for sure. If you'd rather post here, perhaps on the 'welcome to the shadows' forum? It is mostly used for play-by-post games, but the jump from there to storified session summaries isn't huge, at least to my mind.
This has been the spot for fiction for my past contests as well as a few authors. If it reads like fiction, post it here. If it reads like a game log, then here or Welcome to the Shadows. Basically which is the intended audience.
Luke Hardison
QUOTE (tisoz @ Jun 1 2017, 04:41 AM) *
This has been the spot for fiction for my past contests as well as a few authors. If it reads like fiction, post it here. If it reads like a game log, then here or Welcome to the Shadows. Basically which is the intended audience.

It was actually your contests that I was fuzzily remembering, not a separate forum. (If I'm not mistaken, I was the first winner.)

They're expanded into a fiction style. I guess I'll share it here.
Luke Hardison
Love at First Byte

Tonight couldn’t possibly get any worse. It was not the first time that Luke had ever had that thought on returning from a run, but it was certainly the truest. He shouldn’t have accepted the run in the first place; between his trusted decker Tina disappearing without a trace – again – and his faceman Nathan choosing to retire to greener pastures before his luck finally ran out, Luke was working with a skeleton crew and minimal intelligence. He would have passed on it entirely if not for the frantic urging from Sammy, his team mage. Sammy had a bit of a gambling problem, and his most recent losses couldn’t wait to be recovered. So, Luke accepted a job that was too big, too quick, too fishy – and it bit him in the ass yet again.

The pair had been compromised right from the beginning. The surveillance drone was hacked, their escape route compromised, and their getaway car was sabotaged. Sammy was cut down by a sniper before Luke even knew that they were blown. Luke caught half a dozen shrapnel bits in the hail of grenades that beat down on their position at almost the exact same time. The claymore mine at the planned exit would have been the end of him, but Luke invented that trick and managed to not fall for it.

Luke burned four magazines through his rifle in seconds and spent seven grenades. He couldn’t be certain, but he thought that he had taken out close to a dozen guards before he finally found his out, blowing a hole in the perimeter fence with his last grenade and dropping a mix of smoke and Neuro-Stun gas grenades at the exit as he ran. Glancing back over his shoulder, he could see the van that was supposed to carry him to safety as it was consumed in a massive fireball.

Ten blocks away, Luke discarded all of his combat gear behind a dirty dumpster in a dark alley. He slapped bandages on the worst of his injuries until he was out of bandages. He hated how dirty and desperate he felt when he was holding up a homeless man at gunpoint in the man’s own squat nearby for his overcoat, but it enabled him to get on the tube with minimal effort without too many stares. With no sign that he had been followed, he got off at a stop still about eight blocks from his safehouse and walked the rest of the way in silence and excruciating pain.

Luke paused a little of a block away from the safehouse, fighting his urge to run to relative safety. It’s too clean, he thought. They knew our plan, our approach, our breach, our egress. What are the chances they don’t know my safehouse? He wondered if the blood loss was making him paranoid or if the situation was really that bad. With a heavy sigh, he trotted into an alley where he could access the fire escape for the building next to his. Climbing the rusty, unsteady contraption would have ordinarily been a simple task, but in his injured and exhausted state, it was slow and tedious. He reached the roof a few minutes later and threw himself over. He quietly made his way to the far edge and looked down to the access.

The apartments in the area were in shambles, but Luke had picked it for reasons other than aesthetics. Each cookie-cutter unit consisted of a single small efficiency apartment, but the ground floor apartments featured a small, single car garage or storage unit and had the apartment built in directly over the garage. The design gave him more space to stash emergency equipment, which was why he was looking forward to being there so much tonight. He could pick up fresh armor, another assault rifle, plenty of ammunition, first aid supplies, a change of clothes, and, most importantly, a motorcycle.

The street below in front of the entrance to the safehouse was empty and quiet. Luke stretched out his senses, heightened by cutting-edge technology. His hearing was amplified, filtered, and enhanced; his eyes included the latest in night amplification, thermographic imaging, image enhancement, and magnification. On top of all of that, his abilities to pick out threats in the night were honed, first from a career as an elite sniper in the CAS Marine Corps, then during a career running the Denver shadows. All together, he was a hunter of men; hiding was quite difficult.

Luke could hear a running car engine softly in the background. From the volume, it had to be two or three blocks away. That was uncommon at close to 0400 hours in this neighborhood, but not rare. He increased the volume enhancement of his cyberears until he was beginning to pick up his neighbor’s trid programs, then turned it back down to filter out the distractions. Nothing stood out anywhere in the street or in Luke’s building, either. He stayed stock still on the rooftop, monitoring, for five minutes. Then ten. As fifteen minutes went by, Luke took a long, slow breath. He started to relax slightly.

As Luke began to withdraw from the building ledge, he saw two figures turn down the street from a block away. At first, they were really only visible because of Luke’s enhanced thermographics. They were both wearing drab, nondescript clothing and were walking naturally. In other circumstances, they would have blended in almost anywhere, but Luke knew that he was being hunted. His enhanced eyes zoomed in until he could see the men’s faces. They were both wearing street clothes: blue jeans, heavy jackets, and baseball caps. The jackets were generously cut in all of the right places, and even though Luke couldn’t see the armored plates and patches specifically, he could tell from the way that the fabrics fell that they were heavily armored. In fact, Luke was fairly sure that he had the exact same jacket as the one on the left hanging in the closet in his safehouse. Both men wore heavy, sturdy boots and carried themselves with an upright, confident posture. If these two weren’t here chasing Luke, they were plucked from the same mold as the ones that would.

Luke swore softly. He wasn’t in danger of bleeding out on this very rooftop, but he was still seriously injured. He had been forced to ditch his damaged armor along with his heavy weapons, and he was down to a single handgun and two magazines of ammunition – hardly sufficient to start a fight with two highly trained and equipped corp thugs, especially if they had backup nearby. He had to assume that they did.

Luke had a quick decision to make. If the men were going to take up an observation position and watch his front door, then his only escape would be to leave while they were setting up and disappear into the night. That was a quick option, but would cost him. It would also be easier to take that option the earlier he decided, as the men could easily choose a vantage point that would overlook Luke’s own position; they could easily choose Luke’s position. However, if they planned on breaking into his safehouse and waiting for him there, he might have another option.

The men kept advancing down the street. Eventually, Luke decided that they had come too close to set up an effective overwatch point and decided that they must be planning on going in to his safehouse. His one chance to gain an advantage would present quickly, but it was a limited window. He would have to work fast.

Luke slipped back away from the ledge, then sprinted across the roof and back to the fire escape ladder. He bounded down the side of the building as quickly as he could manage, diving off from the second story and rolling onto his feet. The impact jostled his wounds, but he gritted his teeth through the pain as he sprinted to the building corner. When he arrived, he could see the two men just arriving at the entrance door to his safehouse. One of them gestured in the air, and Luke interpreted his gestures to be the man manipulating through augmented reality to hack the lock to the garage door. Luke drew his suppressed pistol and melted into the shadows of the alley, waiting.

Inside the safehouse, a computerized system controlled nearly every facet of the home’s operation, from the refrigerator to the thermostat to the door locks. While prying door or breaking windows continued to be the quickest, easiest, cheapest, and most reliable ways into a home, attacking the electronic door guard was the definite hallmark of a professional who wanted access without leaving a visible trace from outside the home. It was exactly the tactic that Luke expected from anyone capable of identifying and finding his safehouse, and he was completely prepared for that eventuality. In addition to the common household items on the net like the stove and trid, there was an additional icon right at the entrance that would appear to any snooping eye as an overhead door opener. However, in reality, Luke had removed the overhead door opener when he first moved in in favor of a silent operating manual system with counterweight tension springs. Instead, a command sent to the icon that appeared to be a door opening system would –


As the would-be home invader activated the controls that appeared to operate a simple, run-of-the-mill garage door opener, he activated Luke’s insurance policy against home invasion. The door popped open at the bottom, just a few centimeters, exposing two overlapping claymore mines that detonated immediately as the door cleared the blast. At the same time, four grenade canisters of neuro-stun gas fired, dumping thick clouds of their payload into the street. The desired effect was achieved. The payload from the mines, hundreds of ball bearings, tore into the hitmen’s ankles and calves, throwing them violently to the ground, stunned and maimed. They had no way to leave as the cloud of gas grew over them, and they were soon unconscious.

Luke checked up and down the street, but no one was yet running towards the sound of the blast. Unhurried, he crossed the street to the safehouse door. As he left the curb, he mentally activated a tank of compressed air implanted inside his ribcage. The tank could provide air directly into his lungs for hours, which meant that he could stand in the cloud of knockout gas for a lot longer than he needed to. He barely looked down as he fired two additional rounds each into the faces of the downed hitmen. He quickly searched them, but found little in the way of clues. It was common for operatives who were working in hostile territory to avoid carrying anything that might identify them, and it seemed from his cursory search of their persons that they were following that simple tradecraft. One carried a simple, nondescript commlink, a compact, suppressed submachine gun, and a handful of professional plasteel restraints. The other carried a suppressed handgun and a compact cyberdeck in a plain case. The electronics both appeared to be of Russian make, but Luke could not be sure. They would likely yield invaluable intelligence if they were examined, but Luke couldn’t dare to take them; they would be like carrying around a bright flashing beacon telling everyone of his location.

A quick glance at the chronometer that floated in the bottom right corner of Luke’s field of vision told him that nearly forty-five seconds had passed since the blast. Luke knew that he didn’t have long before either authorities arrived to investigate the blast, or the backup team for the hitmen arrived. One was measured in minutes, the other in seconds, and either would have a profound negative impact on Luke’s safety. He pulled up the door to the garage. As he surveyed some of the prepared equipment inside, he winced at what he would have to leave behind. Every single bag, box, and crate would be worth its weight in gold in the next few days, but his options were very limited. He grabbed a small backpack that sat next to the workbench and shrugged it onto his shoulders. Sixty seconds.

Luke sent a mental signal through his commlink to the sleek, graphite gray motorcycle in the middle of the garage, and it roared to life. He had chosen the Mirage for its benefits; it was fast, agile, easy to hide, and relatively cheap. In the moment, all he could see were its drawbacks. It felt exposed, naked. It also denied him the ability to take the gear he wanted. That’s what makes a go bag a go bag, he thought. Seventy seconds.

The bike’s instrument panels flared to life into his field of vision as he threw his leg over the seat. He pushed aside the helmet that was hanging from the throttle handle and gave it a twist, hearing the engine cry out. With all of the speed that his enhanced nervous system could manage, the kickstand was up, the clutch was in, the shifter was down. With another twist of the throttle, he let out the clutch and peeled away through the cloud of gas that still lingered at the exit. He turned right, headed away from the direction from which the team had come. In his mirrors, he saw no one and nothing in the roadway. The glow of headlights loomed around the corner, but before they made the turn, he hooked a hard right onto the thoroughfare and punched it, zooming away in the dark city street.

Balancing the need to get as far away as possible as quickly as possible with the need to not attract attention or the authorities or any other elements of the pursuers was tricky. Luke kept up his breakneck speed for about a kilometer through the city streets, occasionally changing his direction, before he slowed down and merged into traffic. A fear had been growing in him ever since he turned down the opportunity to pick up the hitmen’s electronics. He pulled onto highway 70 and headed west. He pulled up a secondary screen in his commlink’s augmented reality display and confirmed his fears when he saw his account balance: 0¥. He checked a fallback account, with the same result. One final emergency account, on that was tied to a unique ID that had never been used elsewhere, became the final nail in the coffin. As he crossed the Bridge to Tomorrow, he drew his commlink from his pocket and threw it over the edge and into the icy waters below. He hoped that would give the impression to anyone tracking the phone that he had crossed the bridge into Golden.

As soon as his motorcycle crossed the threshold of the bridge, he dropped the brake and flipped around, crossing the bridge yet again. Dawn was fast approaching, and he had somewhere to be before the sun came up.
Luke Hardison
The sun was rising over the horizon as Luke pulled into the small airstrip on the east side of Denver. He rode up to a private hanger in the back that was covered in “No Trespassing” signs. He turned off the engine and rolled into the hangar, intentionally setting off the laser beam at the entrance.

Across the hangar, a portly dwarf was on a bright orange creeper rolled up underneath a dented and worn Banshee. He rolled himself out as soon as Luke crossed the threshold, jumping up so quickly that he narrowly missed hitting his head on the port engine. “Damnit, Tripwire, sneaking up on me! What are you doing here, showing up unannounced! I don’t have anything for you.”

Luke pressed a finger to his lips. “Calm down, Sunshine. I would have called, but ….” He gestured down to his bloodstained clothing.

Sunshine looked around suddenly, spooked. “Were you followed?”

“It’s been nearly two hours. I’d know by now.” Luke’s assurances sounded hollow, even to himself. “I even ditched my ‘link, which is both why I couldn’t call and why I’m so certain they don’t know I’m here.”

The dwarf relaxed slightly, wiping his sweaty hands on his stained coveralls. He nodded slowly, then frowned. “Wait, why are you here? I don’t have a delivery for you.”

“I know, Sun.” Luke looked around uncomfortably. “I’m the delivery today. Assuming you’re still making runs to Seattle regularly?”

Sunshine’s eyes bulged. “If you’ve been that shot up, you’re way too hot to transport.”

“Okay, first – you owe me one, and you know it.” Luke held up a tired finger. “Second – I’m hot enough that this is my only way out. You’re the only one in town that can make it there today without ID and asking me questions.”

Sunshine let out long sigh. “You’re going to have to ride in the cargo hold.”

“I figured. There’s one more thing.”

“What now?”

“One crate. It’s everything I own in the world now, and it’s locked up in a micro storage unit across town. I need you to go pick it up with the truck, and then fly us both out.”

The dwarf let out a frustrated sigh. “You’re going to put me behind schedule. I don’t like being behind schedule.”

Luke looked down. “I don’t have anything to sweeten this deal, Sun. I mean, nothing.”

“Well …” Sunshine glanced down at Luke’s motorcycle. “I wouldn’t say nothing …”
Kren Cooper
Nice... like it. Good descriptions and pacing, evocative of the mood.
Is there more, or is this by way of an origin story for a character joining a game?
Luke Hardison
QUOTE (Kren Cooper @ Jun 6 2017, 03:16 AM) *
Nice... like it. Good descriptions and pacing, evocative of the mood.
Is there more, or is this by way of an origin story for a character joining a game?

This was all backstory for my character for the new campaign. Luke has been a concept that has been revived in each edition since I started playing in 2nd back in the 90's. He's a quintessential boy scout: Always Prepared. In most of his previous incarnations, that has meant a high-resource build. I built Luke two or three times in that fashion for 5th edition and really wasn't happy with any of them. Truth be told, that type of build for a generalist started getting hard in 3rd edition and harder in 4th. I hadn't been happy with the character I got from those builds for some time. I decided on another concept and built him with this priority build: A-Skills, B-Attributes, C-Resources, D-Race, E-Magic. I wound up liking the character a lot more, but he looked a lot different. I was used to multiple equipment stashes, weapons for all different conditions, multiple sets of tricked out armor: basically, a different toy for every circumstance. This time, I gave him all of the skills for a long history of military service and shadowrunning, but stripped away all of his equipment. He was pretty much left with a few cheap guns and his cyberware. I wrote his background to put him in that condition: in a new city without the crutch of all of that gear. Then, as if by magic, I liked the character build again. It was a different approach to the problem, but I liked it and I'm loving playing the character.

There is much, much more. The word document is about 85 pages right now and counting. I've just been spacing things out here so it isn't quite so overwhelming.
Luke Hardison
When Sunshine dropped Luke off, he didn’t even have a commlink or enough nuyen to pick up a night in a coffin motel. With another huge sigh, the smuggler offered fifty to unload all of his cargo, plus another fifty to load the ‘bird with the cargo that was waiting to return to Denver. It was taxing work, even more so because Luke was exhausted from lack of sleep and still bloody. Sunshine showed the slightest bit of humanity when he passed Luke a small black credstick with 200¥ wrapped in a scrap of paper with a commcode written on it.

Luke looked up, surprised. “What’s this?”

“You did work for Snowman before, right? Couple a’ years ago?”

Luke nodded, and there was a little bit of spark in his eyes. “Yeah, I used to catch pretty steady work from him. About a year ago, he disappeared and dropped his comm. I thought he finally pissed off the wrong guys.”

Sunshine shook his head. “He got the same idea you did. He just got it before he wound up … well, like you.” His gaze took in Luke’s torn and bloody clothing. “Anyway, he asked for a reference with a few guys out here, so I did what I could. He throws some guys my way, I throw some his. He’s good for business.” The dwarf’s lips curled slightly in a wry smile and he let out half of a chuckle. “Sometimes.”

“You’re all heart, Sun.”

“Hey, I’m squaring my debts. I don’t like owing favors.” Sunshine looked away for a few seconds. “You just remember this when you need something moved in the future, huh?”

“Always.” Luke’s voice turned serious. “I know this took some trust for you, Sun, and I appreciate it.”

Sunshine brushed off Luke’s comments with an upraised hand. “Look, just come back and get your crap as soon as you’re settled. Space is money, and I can’t store this stuff forever.”

The airstrip that Sunshine used in Seattle wasn’t in any better of a neighborhood than the one that he used in Denver, so Luke had minimal worries about being hassled by a passing authority figure as he headed down the street towards Seattle proper in his torn and bloody clothing. However, he knew that he would need a change of clothes before he made his way to a neighborhood that could pass for society. Before too long, he passed a vending machine that was old enough to have a credstick slot, so he bought himself two sets of flats – disposable soy-based clothes. They looked enough like real clothes to pass for a while, and you might even get a second day out of them if you were careful. He tucked them under his coat and kept walking.

In about an hour of walking, he came to a part of town that struck the balance he sought. It was run down and mostly vacant, but holding on to just enough vestiges of civilization that he didn’t likely have to worry about roving gang members busting in on him in the middle of the night. It wasn’t long before Luke stumbled on a tiny street corner coffin motel. He walked up to one of the pods near the center on the side away from the street and found the credstick slot. The interface was clunky, with manual controls that were clearly an afterthought to the integrated augmented reality interface, but without a commlink he was a real relic for the moment.

The interior was exactly what he expected: a small bed on a platform of drawers that served as closet, sink, and trash can, a combo comm/trid system mounted into the wall, and a ceiling just high enough for him to sit on the bed without his head touching. There was about enough room between the bed and the overhead door to keep a suitcase or two, but that was about it. For what Luke needed, it was perfect. He stashed his folded flats in the drawer under the bed and lay down, fully clothed. He adjusted uncomfortably for a minute or two as he tried to find a way to lay that didn’t dig his handgun into his body too painfully, but moments later he was out, sleeping the deep sleep of exhaustion.

Many long hours later, Luke woke naturally. It was pitch black inside the tiny room. He managed to find the controls for the comm system quickly; after all, there wasn’t much space for them to hide in. The trid danced to life, projecting a simulated three-dimensional image onto the wall by the foot of the bed. He discovered that he had a choice of three free channels with his night’s stay, plus about three hundred that he could choose – if he wanted to pay for them. He selected the least objectionable, which seemed to be live feed from a local low-budget news crew, and left it on for background noise while he sat up.

Luke finally stripped off his bloody clothing. The pants and boots could probably be salvaged, but most of the rest would need to go. He shed everything down to his underwear and started washing what he could in the tiny built-in sink underneath the bed. Once he was as clean as he was going to get, he climbed into a new set of flats that consisted of a pale blue shirt over a set of darker blue pants. They didn’t fit that well, but they were just sufficient to conceal his belt and holstered sidearm underneath. He hoped he looked less bedraggled than he felt.

Sighing, Luke pulled Sunshine’s slip of paper out of the pocket of his jacket. He punched up the number and made the call. A few seconds later, the trid display minimized into the corner and Snowman’s dark face filled the screen. Luke could only see the ork’s face and the edge of his shoulders, revealing a deep purple suit and powder blue shirt collar. Snowman’s yellow tusks curled up over his upper lip, framing his face with a sinister sneer.

“Who the hell do you think –“ Snowman cut himself off with a start, his eyes widening. He snorted a short, derisive laugh. “Well, well, well. I know that face.”

“Snowman. You look like you’re doing ok for yourself. Hope you’re not getting soft up here from all the easy money you’re making!” Luke had known Snowman for years as the big ork made a name for himself as a fixer in the Denver underground. Fixers, by and large, prided themselves on their ability to always know who to call and how to get anything, and they tended towards the flashy as a way to show off their skills. From experience, Luke knew that a little ego stroking would go a long way, and he hoped that his reputation would get him the rest.

“Oh, I’m getting by. I think you’ll find me harder than ever. You’re calling from a Seattle prefix, chummer. You in the sprawl?”

“I’m in the process of relocating, Snow. I wanted to touch base, maybe see if you had some work to throw my way.”

The orks thick brow furrowed. “You’re not too hot to handle right now, are you?”

“Listen, if I was that hot, you would have known before I did.” Luke threw in another appeal to the fixer’s ego by insinuating that he had considerable clout in the shadows of Seattle.

“I guess you’re right, at that. It just so happens that I had a … last minute cancellation on a job. I need to grab someone to fill in as some light protection on a job tonight. It’s pretty simple stuff. Someone with your background shouldn’t break a sweat.”

“I’m pulling into town a little light in the resource department, Snowman. I need a startup package. You interested in a trade?”

Snowman smirked, and his yellowed tusks pressed into his unshaven cheeks. “So that’s the rub, huh?”

“Look at it as the start of something wonderful.” Luke forced a smile.

“As luck would have it, the same issue that creates your job opportunity also creates a certain vacancy in some property that I’ve been managing. The rent is covered through the end of the month, but after that you’ll be on your own. If I know you, you can be on your feet by then.”

“It sounds like what I need.” Luke decided to go for broke. “I also need a clean ‘link. I had to ditch mine during my … move.”

“That can be arranged. It’s going to cost you more than one night on the job, though. This deal tonight could go two, maybe three nights, all told. You take this, you’ll see it through to the end. If everything goes smoothly, you might even earn a little cred after it’s all said and done. Do we have a deal?”

Luke’s gut tightened while Snowman spoke. There was no way that this deal would ever work in his favor, but he didn’t really feel like he had much of a choice. Besides, ingratiating himself with Snowman now would be his best bet at a real payday in the years to come.

“Alright, Snowman. You’ve got a deal.”

“Excellent.” The broad grin on the fixer’s face confirmed Luke’s suspicions that he had gotten the short end of the deal. “I’m sending over your new address. An associate will stop by with your equipment and mission profile in a few hours. I look forward to a profitable business venture with you.”

An address appeared on the commscreen as the connection faded to black, along with an eight digit alpha-numeric code. Luke recorded a quick photograph of the image with his cybereyes, and then turned off the comm. He grabbed his spare set of flats and headed home.
Luke Hardison
Navigating a huge city like Seattle without a commlink could be cumbersome, especially when all you had to go on was an address. At a small tourist trap in the outskirts of town, Luke found a somewhat old fashioned solution – city maps on chip. It was something that would have been pretty standard about ten years ago, but was a dying commodity now. The shop even had some custom maps printed on wireless paper that were an interesting blend of high and low tech, presumably for travelers from abroad with limited resources or incompatible tech.

With the map slotted into his datajack, Luke could navigate with ease. He planned out a route using the tube system so that he could traverse the big city in reasonable time. Unfortunately, Sunshine’s airstrip was on the east side of Auburn, and Luke’s new digs were down by the docks on the west side of Everett. He took a cross-town express, then connected two more times before emerging from the station just down the street from a neon sign that proclaimed Rikki’s Rat Hole.

A few blocks down from the station, Luke found his new home. An ostensibly gated apartment complex, the automated office was a simple kiosk on the street by a bus stop. It looked like the touch screen was more or less intact, and it would likely at least accept rent payments. The gate was twisted from some long forgotten crash, the bars rusting through in places; it hadn’t moved on the rail in years.

When Luke reached the apartment number that Snowman had indicated, he frowned. The front door was a heavy, reinforced metal replacement, but it had obviously been set into the original flimsy wooden frame. Since then, the door had been pried by someone quite dedicated to the task, nearly obliterating the form of the door frame. After that, someone had taken to a zealous but unskilled repair, with what amounted to a heavy steel frame welded over the existing jamb. The end result was sturdy, but looked like something out of a junior high science project rather than a professional building. He pulled on the door and could tell that it was quite solid. Unless someone hired a troll Olympic gold medalist in door bashing, Luke wouldn’t have to worry about burglars.

The amateur door sported a very professional maglock. After a few seconds of searching, Luke found the button that revealed a shielded keypad that served as a backup for the resident who forgot their commlink. Luke punched up Snowman’s code, and the lock popped open. The unwieldy door gave way to a heavy push, and Luke walked in to a small, dark apartment.

Luke’s enhanced eyes automatically adjusted to the lighting, and the living room glowed an unearthly light blue. Huh, furnished. The living room contained an oddball collection of furniture; an armchair, a small couch, a folding table propped against the far wall, and a small wall-mounted trid unit. He touched the controls of a lamp by the front door, and his enhanced blue tones made way for harsh white LED lighting. An unmistakable spray of red-brown, just about eye level, adorned the wall near the far corner, accompanied by a swirled stain in the carpet just below it. That explains a lot. Suddenly, Luke understood why there were unexpected vacancies in his job and in his living arrangement.

In the kitchen, Luke found about a week’s supply of unflavored NutriSoy and a small flavor faucet, a handful of mismatched dishes, and three bottles of cheap beer in the fridge. The sole bedroom was sparsely furnished, with just a bed and another folding table. His hopes perked up when he saw that the closet was full, but he then realized that his predecessor had been an ork with broad shoulders and very little variance in fashion. Luke could press a few of the hooded sweatshirts into service and maybe a jacket or two, but everything else was going to be too baggy to be of real use.

There was a footlocker in the bedroom that looked promising, but Luke soon found that it was mostly full of novelty swords, broken electronics, and mismatched military surplus uniforms that were a few generations out of date. There was about half of a box of 10mm caseless rounds of reasonable quality that would fit Luke’s Guardian until he could buy some more ammo and a slightly rusted smoke grenade, both of which Luke sat aside for later. With nothing else to do until his commlink arrived, Luke settled in for a nap.

Luke jolted awake to a knock at the door. He had the strange, disoriented feeling that accompanied waking up in a new place for the first time, and had to remind himself that he was in his new home. He went to his front door and checked the cracked viewfinder. In the breezeway stood a young woman with long auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail high on the back of her head. Her neck was strained off to her left as she looked back towards the parking lot, checking behind herself. She wore a black hooded jacket that gave off a dim, subtle blue glow along lines drawn to resemble circuit boards down both arms.

“Yeah?” Luke projected through the door. The easy assumption was that this was Snowman’s “associate,” but in this neighborhood, she could be anyone. It didn’t pay to open the door to strangers in places like this.

“Snowman sent me.” The woman looked up directly at the door camera. Her irises pulsed with the same haunting blue glowing circuit board pattern that adorned the sleeves of her jacket. Her gaze was piercing even without the enhanced glow.
With a mental signal, Luke strained his augmented hearing to its highest level, listening for a noise from the outside of the door that would give away an ambush – a hushed voice, heavy breathing, the scuff of synthetic sole on concrete. He paused for a long count of five, but heard nothing aside from the increasingly impatient foot tapping of the woman on his screen. He freed the heavy magnetic locks and they slammed home with a thunk.

It was her turn to look him up and down, quickly taking in the room and Luke all together, from corner to corner and head to toe. She pressed inside and he had to move a little to give ground. As the door closed behind her, she eyed the high velocity spatter on the living room wall.

“I love what you’ve done with the place. You really have to give me the name of your interior decorator.”

“Don’t ask me. The agent didn’t say anything about a paint job.” Luke gestured to the couch. “Have a seat if you like. I don’t vouch for the upholstery any more than the walls. I’m Tripwire.”

“Paradox.” The young woman surveyed the couch, then decided on the armchair and folded into it with her legs crossed. She unzipped her jacket and reached inside, pulling forth a small commlink in a simple but sturdy black case. “Snowman said you needed one of these.”

Luke nodded. He reached out his hand and accepted the extended commlink. He unspooled some of the cable and plugged the end into the datajack on his left temple. Augmented Reality displays began to spring to life in his view. He had never realized how comforting the steady flow of information was to him until he had gone without it for several days. “This isn’t a default UI,” he observed. The interface that was coming to life around him was streamlined. It wasn’t what he was used to, but he could already see some very subtle design choices that were improvements to what he had used. There was a digital compass built directly into the clock, and the readouts for both were bold and easily legible but also highly transparent, so they were easy to reference but didn’t block his view. As he had begun registering some of his other devices into the PAN, he could already see that the smartgun interface with his Guardian was sleek and unobtrusive, with a prominent digital ammunition counter and a small but easily distinguished icon that acted as a reminder that the suppressor was attached. Usually, the commlink out of the box was cluttered with dozens of bloated, consumer-focused programs that slowed down the operation and overwhelmed the interface, but the display that greeted Luke was unusually minimalist. Yet, despite that, everything that he would actually use regularly was still in place. “This is impressive. Very well done. Custom?”

“Yeah, it’s mine. I made some changes to make it work better for you and clean it up. Snowman told me you were a bruiser, so I cut the crap and made it simple.”

“When I asked for a ‘link, I didn’t know I’d be getting a custom job. I’m guessing it’s going to cost me.”

“He didn’t tell me to do it and he didn’t pay me to do it. If it helps you keep me safe, it’s worth the ten minutes of my time it took. Besides, I already wrote the code. It’s a shame not to use it.”

Luke gave a short nod. He explored the case in his hands. On the back side, there was a tiny compartment that, when pressed in, angled out with a positive ‘click.’ Inside was a small circle of reusable adhesive that surrounded a subvocal mic. It practically disappeared as he pressed the adhesive circle to his throat. “He also said you would have the details of a job for me?”

“Yeah, real milk run. Here, I’ll send you a file.” She reached out with a gloved hand and flicked her wrist with a throwing motion towards Luke. A bright glowing icon appeared in his view, a neon electronic representation of a file folder. Luke sent a mental command to his commlink to open the file.

A three dimensional map of Seattle appeared on his living room floor between them. “We’re headed here,” she said as an area of the map about six city blocks square turned bright blue. “This area is tentatively held by a street gang that calls themselves Chrome Cutters – strictly amateur hour. However, ten years ago, this was a decent neighborhood.” The map enlarged the selected area and overlaid an image of a pair of red, overlapping C’s that Luke assumed were the gang’s colors or tag. “Way back when, some corporation set up an ‘asset’ somewhere in that territory,” she continued. “Now, they want to know if the gang knows about it. I’m guessing they want to decide if they’re going to take it back, abandon it, or maybe blow it the hell up.

“Since they haven’t made up their little corp minds, they want us to go out and spy on the gang. I’ll be signal scanning and intercepting to find chatter within the gang. Hopefully, we can find out if they know about this thing or not and build a little intel in case they want it later.”

“A recon job?” This type of assignment had been Luke’s specialty when he was in the Marines, so the assignment description felt comfortable to him.

“Yeah, pretty much. It’s really a one-woman job, but the neighborhood is rough enough that I’ll need someone to watch my back while I really get into my work.”

“I’ll assume that you don’t know what corp we’re dealing with? Do we even know what kind of ‘asset’ we’re talking about? Or where? Or why they don’t want to do this recon themselves?”

“You have done this before.” Paradox looked slightly exasperated. “No, I don’t know what corp. They don’t want anyone to know or even guess who they are, which I’m guessing is why they opted to spend the dough on runners for it. No one will notice a corporate marked van and wonder why they’re hanging out in the neighborhood.

“As far as what or where – no, I don’t know that either. Just that it’s somewhere in the area they shaded on the map.”

“Sounds more like a concealed location. Probably a safehouse or some kind of secret equipment stash. Maybe a lab or something that was later abandoned? Or a long term research project?” Luke frowned. No runner ever picked up a job with all of the information, but this run had more holes than most. “Well, if it’s really just a recon job, I guess it doesn’t matter.”

“That’s all we’re getting paid for. The rub is that I don’t know what signals are what, so I’m going to have to do a lot of sorting and searching. It will probably take hours. The intel packet says the gang is most active from sunset until about two, so that’s when I plan on arriving.”

Luke blinked. “Sunset? We need to get going, right now. You have wheels?”

Paradox looked surprised. “Now? Why? We have like three hours before sunset, and we’re thirty minutes away. I’m going to go through a drive-thru and then catch a nap somewhere before we go.”

“I just got into the apartment today. All of my gear is in storage clear across town. If we leave right now, we can be back in time for your burger.”

Paradox sighed. She looked like she was really going to miss that nap. “Alright, fine. But I’m not carrying your crap.”

Luke was relieved to see that his partner had arrived in a large cargo van. It was cramped in the back, as the cargo area had been converted into a workspace with tons of electronics and tools, but because it was meticulously organized and well thought out, there was still space for Luke and his crate. In about an hour, Luke had his crate loaded up into the van and they were on their way to the target neighborhood.

Paradox let the van’s autopilot drive towards their destination as she rested in the driver’s seat. Luke sat on a bench in the back workspace of the vehicle and engrossed himself in his preparations. He took off his stolen coat and opened his crate. Inside, he found additional ammunition and magazines for his handgun. He topped off the magazine that was already in his gun, making sure that it was completely full, then checked that the chamber was loaded and he magazine was seated before he returned it to his holster. He added two additional magazines in pouches on his left hip, including one that was completely full of armor piercing rounds. He withdrew his taser, a Yamaha Pulsar, and hooked the holster complete with one spare cartridge onto his belt up front. He hooked two grenades onto his belt, one a flash-bang and the other a smoke grenade. He unfolded a dark gray armored jacket and shrugged it onto his shoulders, concealing the other weapons underneath. The weight of the armor and weapons were comforting and familiar.

He looked at the two rifles that remained in the crate. One was a scoped hunting rifle, a Remington. It was a pale imitation of the sniper rifles that he preferred, but it was a cheaper and easier to find option that made more sense when he was packing up the emergency crate years ago. It was a powerful weapon, especially considering Luke’s training and skills, but it was large and unwieldy, making it unlikely to be useful for him during this particular mission. Instead, Luke reached for the second rife, an Ares Alpha assault rifle. A sleek bullpup rifle with a built-in grenade launcher and a pattern in the finish that was reminiscent of a dark gray viper, the Alpha was a deadly paragon of versatility. Luke hefted the weapon, ran a diagnostic on the smartgun system, loaded a magazine, and chambered a round. The heads-up display showed a fully loaded magazine and four mini-grenades in the grenade launcher magazine. He slid two spare magazines into pockets sewn into the inner lining of his jacket for just that purpose.

Paradox frowned at Luke from the passenger seat. “You know we’re not going into a Z-Zone, right, Tripwire? No explosions, ok?”

“Yeah, I know where we’re going. I also know that, if we get surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered by bad guys, an overwhelming show of firepower is our best bet to slip away and fight another day. Don’t worry – unless the Cutters dictate otherwise, the hardware stays in the van and out of sight.” Luke put the rifle down next to him on the bench. He called up the map that she had shared with him earlier and studied the layout. “ETA?”

“We’ve got a good twenty minutes before we hit their turf. We made good time.”

“Okay, then, you’ve earned yourself a burger, if you like. Do you know where you want to set up?”

“I thought I’d start off with the van set to drive through a grid pattern though the neighborhood and search through signals while we’re moving. Once I get a feel for where the highest signal density is, we can concentrate on that area.”

Luke nodded. That technique was very similar to the way that a military decker would search for a target via aircraft or armored vehicle in a war zone. “That’s thorough and it’s fast, but it could draw attention. I doubt there’s many cargo vans driving around the area after dark most days. It’s not like it’s a good neighborhood where the delivery crews feel safe.”

“I was going for thorough and fast. You have another idea?”

“Thorough and sneaky. We move a block or two at a time to lessen the number of people that see us, and then stay still for five to ten minutes while you do your thing. By the time anyone gets a few people together to come check us out, we’re moving again and setting up on the far corner. We keep the move-stop-move combination going all night until we’re out of signals. It attracts less attention than either staying still all night or moving through every street without stopping.”

“That’s –“ Paradox bit off her comment. “Worse for me, but better for you, I guess. You’ve done this before?”

Luke nodded. “I’ve done it your way, I’ve done it other ways. I prefer the stop-and-go in the city because it’s a little bit more clandestine.” Their eyes locked briefly, and Luke saw pure fire behind Paradox’s eyes. “There’s not a right and wrong way to do this.”

“Look, I know you’re coming into this late, but jobs like this are what I do. Your way will add at least four or five hours to this job, if not an extra day. You’re just here in case there’s an emergency, alright? I’d do it myself if it was in a nicer neighborhood. Just sit back and relax, and I’ll call you if there’s trouble. Deal?”

Luke nodded again. “You do your job. I’ll keep you safe.”

It didn’t take long at all for Paradox to find a Stuffer Shack with a drive-thru attached. They both got dinner, and she picked up some snacks and supplies to fuel her all-night deck-fest. By the time the sun dipped below the horizon, the Bulldog van was backing itself into an un-used loading dock in a dark alley behind a business in the outside area of their target zone. Luke stretched his neck and prepared himself for a fight. He experimented with a variety of different vision modes until he found one that was just right for this particular alley. He tuned his earbuds until he could just barely make out the distant background sounds but not be distracted by them. He activated his enhanced reflexes and felt the flood of sped up thoughts that came with them.

Paradox had her own preparations to make. She opened the driver’s window of the van slightly and let two of her tiny drones out into the night air. One was an MCT Fly-Spy, one of Luke’s favorite drones. It was tiny and very hard to spot, but very good at watching your back. The second, a Horizon Flying Eye, was slightly larger and faster, but performed essentially the same function. As the drones took up their places watching the entrances on either side of the alleyway, the video from their respective feeds glowed in her HUD. She shared the live feed with Tripwire and saw him nod as he received it. She pressed back into her chair and immersed herself into the digital world of the Matrix.

The world around her took on a bright green neon glow as the various nodes of local traffic zoomed to life all around her. In place of her own meat body, she found herself swallowed by her icon, a prim and proper pin-up straight out of an ancient pulp novel. She wore a starched white blouse and pencil skirt with horn-rimmed glasses low on her nose and her hair in a tight, neat bun. She had designed the icon to be the epitome of restrained conservatism and unbridled sexuality all at the same time. She scanned around herself, looking for any signs that anyone was out sharing her digital playground right then. Seeing nothing and no one, she flexed her digital legs and leapt, flying straight upwards like a shot. As she reached a low altitude, rising just above the nearby hosts, she looked a second time from her bird’s eye perspective; again, she found no one nearby. That was a good start, but in the virtual world that could change in literal nano-seconds, so she knew not to waste time.

She descended back to her spot among the terrestrial hosts of the nearby businesses. She loaded an agent program of her own design, and was immediately greeted by a large, glowing, electronic Doberman, equal parts playful and fiercely protective. She reached down to pet her agent’s icon, which had no effect but to make her smile. She sat the agent on a simple task: find a commlink, sleaze a mark, then snoop the traffic. This way, the agent could make its way from device to device, accumulating a massive amount of snooped data. It would alert her if it was spotted, and would alert her if any of the snooped data contained any of a list of keywords that she had pre-selected for the mission: things like ‘steal,’ ‘hit,’ ‘corp,’ and dozens of slang terms for the same. Then, through the night, her job would be to wade through the piles of data that her little dog retrieved, looking for the messages that would tell her that someone had taken an interest in the ‘asset’ that they had been hired to protect.

The agent would compare the traffic in and out of each device to two other lists as well to alert Paradox: one list had keywords that would tag the messages as being gang related, and another list aimed to identify if someone had spotted her or her activity. Using three lists was more thorough, but would mean a lot of noise for her to scan through as they went. She really hoped the little doggy could dig up some real treasure quickly.

As a final touch to keep for getting spotted easily, Paradox loaded a wrapper program, changing the appearance of her adorable helper agent into an icon that she had copied to look exactly like the Stuffer Shack mascot icon. That way, if her agent was spotted by a casual user, it would look like one of the many advertising icons that were so common throughout the sprawl. The little trick wouldn’t fool any decker worth the name, but it was usually good for the unwashed masses of users.

As her little helper left on his assigned task, Paradox began on the final layer of her misdirection quest. She found the nearest small, local Stuffer Shack host. As her icon glided to the ground next to the host, she innocently laid her palm against the door, placing a tiny mark onto the host. The small chrome silhouette of a reclining woman would be difficult to notice, but would allow her to take certain actions on the host’s behalf. It wasn’t supposed to be there, but she would intend to scrub it out before anyone noticed it was there.

Paradox’s commlink sent out a message to every available device within 500 meters inviting them to come try the high-quality merchandise at low, low prices available at the local Stuffer Shack. The message was spoofed, and would appear as though it was received from the local Stuffer Shack host. That way, if anyone even thought twice about her agent, they would associate it with the completely legitimate message they had already received and not even look twice.

Her groundwork set, Paradox closed her eyes and re-emerged in her meat body, still in the driver’s seat of her van. She looked back over her shoulder. “Ok, everything’s set. We’re going to get moving before anyone realizes that we’re here.” She gave a prepared instruction to the van’s autopilot and it moved from the parking lot into the street, beginning its selected route throughout the neighborhood.

Luke had his work cut out for him. He managed the video feeds from the drones to the front and the rear as well as side and rear cameras built into the van while also looking physically through the windscreen. He also tuned up his earbuds as high as he could to pick up sounds from his surroundings without drowning himself out in ambient noise. He found an application already built into his commlink that was capable of monitoring the Knight Errant public radio traffic and turned it on as well, selecting live feed that seemed to be relevant to the area where they were traveling.

The pair travelled in silence for hours. The van obediently followed its route instructions, running a simple pattern that amounted to a grid search of the neighborhood. When they began, there were few people out and about. It was too late for the innocent to feel safe going out and too early for the gangers to feel empowered on the streets. As the night grew, however, he began seeing groups of two and three gathered on staircases and street corners. Luke kept a mental tally and estimated that there were around thirty people out and about in the neighborhood. He counted eight with clear gang colors and estimated another four to six from people wearing likely colors or simply associating with the others. So far, none had given the van any more than a surly look.

The neighborhood wasn’t so bad that there were bangers walking around the streets with visible chrome and shotguns in hand, so Luke assessed the biggest threats to be small concealed weapons: knives and handguns. Between the armored vehicle, personal armor, and weapons onboard, that wasn’t much of a threat. “Is there any chatter about the van?” Luke asked Paradox.

She started very slightly, breaking from her digital reverie where she was engrossed in data. “Nothing so far. Nothing flagged, at least.”

“Ok. I’m not seeing anything in the area that says we’re spotted. It’s close to 2300 right now.”

“Oh, wow. I had no idea it was so late.”

They returned to silence, and the van kept rolling.

By midnight, Paradox felt that she had accumulated enough marked devices for her to stop moving. The message chatter had accumulated to the point that she was having trouble keeping up with the incoming data streams, even with her agent filtering the results for her. Cautious about attracting too much attention, she instructed the van to pull into the parking lot of a small time delivery company that had a package office in the neighborhood. The company had a pair of marked Bulldog delivery vans in the lot, so she hoped that she could park her own alongside the other two and blend in, hiding in plain sight. In order to sort through more of the incoming data more quickly, she went limp again into the van’s bucket seat, diving into the Matrix.

Luke saw Paradox slump in the seat. Figuring that he had some time to kill, he stood and stretched himself. The confines of the van were tight and didn’t allow him to stand fully erect, but he could stretch out a bit and undo some of the stiffness from sitting for so many hours. It paid to get moving occasionally during these long surveillance operations. He opened another Kaf-Kaf drink from their Stuffer Shack run and sat back down, killing the time with silence.

It was close to 0130 when Luke froze, focusing on the video feed from the Flying Eye drone that was watching the back corner of the parking lot. With a thought, the video playback zoomed to fill his display and confirmed his suspicions. In the darkened corners of the lot, there was a group of five wearing Chrome Cutters colors. A big ork walked in front, practically strutting. He wore a red and silver jacket with a hood and a red patch with two overlapping “C” letters on the breast. He was certainly fearless about his involvement with the gang. The two guys walking shoulder to shoulder behind him Luke took to be new guys, maybe initiates. They were walking in step with the big ork in the front and didn’t take their eyes off of him. They were wearing jeans and red t-shirts, but Luke didn’t see any obvious colors and they didn’t have the air of confidence that the ork did. Pulling up the rear was a woman in riding leathers and a tall, skinny human sporting three high-chrome datajacks on the shaved side of his head like they were trophies. They both wore red bandanas tied around their necks, something Luke had seen frequently on the more gang-affiliated parts of this neighborhood.

Company. Luke sent the short, urgent message by text to be sure that it would make it through the jumble of messages that Paradox was sorting. A second later, she jolted up, shaking off the fog of the transition back into the physical world.

“What? Where?”

Luke gestured in the general area of the back of the lot. “They just turned the corner into the lot. Five of them. No visible weapons, but I’m pretty certain they’re Cutters.”

“There was no chatter. Nothing. Are you sure they’re here for us? Maybe they haven’t noticed us.”

“Could be. They’re the only people to come down this block in almost two hours, though. That doesn’t bode well for them, or us.”

“Hang on, let me check.” Paradox sunk back into her chair, diving into VR. She returned seconds later. “They aren’t hiding much, but they aren’t giving much away either. I’ve already marked three of the five commlinks that I see right now. There are at least two guns; they either don’t know how to hide the tags on the magazines or don’t care.”

“Which ones?”

“The ork and the guy in the back.”

“Well, they’re getting closer. We can wait and see what they do, but then they might be so close that we get forced to fight in a bad position. We can try to burn out before they get here. I don’t see any vehicles, and they can’t keep up with the van if we just punch it and go. Or, I can get out and try to circle around to ambush them from behind.”

“And what if they would have walked on by?”

“Then I let them walk on by.”

Paradox nervously tapped on the armrest of the van. She didn’t want to blow the mission, but being ambushed would be just as bad for business as ambushing, and it was much more dangerous. The crew was moving with a purpose down the sidewalk, staying to the dark shadows against the row of businesses that included the delivery company. If they were planning on walking right by, they would definitely be interested in the van after it peeled out. “Go. Set it up, but if they’re going to leave, let them.”

Paradox had barely finished speaking before the door closed behind Luke silently and he disappeared into the night. She had to hand it to him: this was his strong suit. He blended into the shadows of the parking lot, ducking between the scattered few parked cars in spaces of darkness. She knew exactly where he was because of their open commlink channel and she still had trouble spotting him out in the darkness, even with low-light enhancement.

As Luke hit the ground by the van, he had already registered the smoke grenade on his belt to his commlink and armed the grenade. He dropped the grenade on the ground by the door, kicking so that it lodged firmly underneath the rear tire. He kept low to the ground, moving between the open spaces of darkness between the few cars still parked in the lot as quickly as possible and pausing to observe the gangers. He had the advantage of overhead surveillance as he continued to watch the video feed from the drones as he moved, and he could see that his movement had gone unnoticed by the group. He circled around to a small Gopher pickup that would provide him some cover and concealment from the group as they approached the van.

Sure enough, as the group hit the edge of the delivery business, their demeanor changed significantly. The skinny male from the back of the group stayed at the corner of the building, looking back over the parking lot and into the alley. He and the woman both reached up and pulled their bandannas up over their faces, covering themselves from the nose down. Incoming. Kill the comms. The other four started jogging into the parking lot, headed towards the van.

The way that the team had split up was a good tactic, and not at all what Luke had expected from a gang as inexperienced as the Chrome Cutters were supposed to be. It limited his options. He waited until everyone in the group of four that headed to the van had passed his hiding spot and focused his attention on the rear guard. The guy had his hand thrust underneath his jacket, in a pose that Luke recognized as a nervous man reassuring himself that his trusted gun was still there. He hadn’t turned his back completely on his companions, and there was too much light in the lot between Luke and the ganger for Luke to be absolutely certain that he wouldn’t be noticed if he snuck up on him to take him out silently.

Instead, Luke drew his holstered pistol. The suppressor should keep the sound of the shot from alerting the other gangers, at least for a few seconds. Once a body hit the floor, it would only be a matter of time and he would have to be ready to move. Luke settled his knees into the pavement, resting his right elbow against the body of the small truck for stability. He exhaled, slowing his breathing. His enhanced eyes zoomed in to the ganger’s head until he could rest the red reticle of his smartgun right on the man’s right tear duct. He pressed the trigger once, smoothly, and watched as the slug slammed right through the man’s head and out of the back. To Luke’s enhanced hearing the sound of the silenced gunshot was deafening, as was the noise of the impact and the sound that the man’s body made as it hit the ground.

By the time he heard the sound of the body’s impact, Luke was up and had moved around to the front of the truck, opening his line of sight to the van and the four figures who were just arriving at the boxy frame. His revved up reflexes were firing at their fullest extent, making his movements unnaturally smooth. The gangers seemed to be jogging in slow motion like lifeguards from some hypothetical beach. No one reacted to the shot. He opened up again with the big automatic and watched as the round impacted the big ork in between his shoulder blades. In the same instant, he triggered the smoke grenade he had dropped by the van, and the lot began to fill with smoke. He could hear the chaotic murmurs from the three standing gang members as they saw the ork go down and were immediately enveloped in thick, white smoke. Luke switched over his vision to the thermographic spectrum. The smoke did little to inhibit his view in that mode, but the gangers were running blind.

Terrified, the remaining three scattered like cockroaches. With no idea of where the origin of the shot had been, they were lost even before the smoke disoriented them. The woman ran straight towards the truck where Luke was taking cover. He stepped out as she approached, and she never saw him as she ran straight into his outstretched arm, which caught her just under the chin. She flipped up in the air so hard that her boots came up above her head before she crashed down to the pavement, unconscious. The two uninitiated boys ran feverishly. One of them went generally towards the rear guard, but as soon as he got out of the smoke and could see his buddy laying on the ground, he turned around and ran as fast as his legs would carry him. Both of them disappeared around the corner of the building, and Luke let them go.

Luke bent down to check the woman that he had clotheslined and found her out cold. He lifted her jacket and was in the process of searching for her commlink when his enhanced hearing picked up the sound of metal scraping on pavement coming from behind him. Reacting at inhuman speed, Luke dropped his hips to the ground behind him and came up with his pistol out, pointed back in the general direction of the van. There, right by the driver’s door, he could see the big ork lying on his side in a pool of his own blood. The ork had propped himself up and had his big hand cannon raised, pointed at Luke. However, his head was up and looking back over his shoulder, straight down the barrel of Paradox’s Predator. All three froze for several heartbeats. Finally, the ork’s big gun dropped from his hands. A moment later, he collapsed face down at her feet. Luke’s eyes met Paradox’s, and he thought he saw her smile ever so slightly.

A text message appeared in Luke’s HUD: I bricked the other two commlinks. They won’t be calling for backup. It was Luke’s turn to smile. He checked the video feed from the aerial drones for signs of law enforcement approaching, turned up his hearing augmentations, and re-activated the police scanner feed. He saw no immediate signs of law enforcement response, and Paradox had told him briefly to expect around ten minutes for Knight Errant to respond to reports of gunfire in this neighborhood. Since the only shots fired had been silenced, Luke figured he likely had longer than that – if they would even come at all.

Even so, loitering around with dead and wounded on the ground was a bad idea. Luke went back to the unconscious female at his feet, removing her commlink and helping himself to a certified credstick that he found in her jacket pocket. He also collected a very basic cyberdeck and a heavy pistol, neither of which the hapless rear guard had never had the opportunity to use. He was also wearing an armored vest that hadn’t taken any bullets and didn’t appear to have very much blood on it. He was relatively close to Luke’s size, too. When he added the commlink and Room Sweeper from the Ork, he had a fair collection of usable or fencible loot, plus a cleaner crime scene and no way for the goons to call for backup.

Luke held up one of the commlinks to Paradox as he made it back to the van. “I assume you can clean this?” he asked.

“Yeah, null sweat.”

“Then let’s go. It’s getting warm here.”
Nice. More.
Luke Hardison
The next evening, Luke walked into Britney’s, a hole-in-the-wall that was within walking distance from Luke’s new doss. Paradox was right behind him, their arrivals coordinated the night before. Luke had some concerns that he might be hassled for wearing his armored jacket into the bar, but the bouncer at the door didn’t look twice at the pair as they walked in. From the condition of the place, Luke decided that they probably preferred to react to problems rather than prevent them. As he looked around the sparse group of early-bird patrons, he realized that turning away armored clothing would pretty much put the place out of business.

The pair walked together to the back of the bar where Snowman was already seated in a dark booth. The music was loud, but manageable, and the environment was conducive to private business. Luke made a quick note of where the exits were and slid into the booth across from Snowman. The small backpack he was carrying made a light thump as he dropped it onto the floor under the booth. He kicked it over to Snowman’s side.

“What’s this?” the ork asked, arching one eyebrow, as Paradox slid into the seat by Luke.

“We had a little run-in with some Chrome Cutters last night. After we finished talking, they were kind enough to drop off some electronics that they’re no longer using. I hoped you might help me find them a new home.”

Snowman grunted. He pulled the bag into his lap and began looking over the contents. “How did it go? I haven’t heard anything from you yet, Paradox.”

“Everything went smooth. I got almost five hundred devices and over forty-thousand messages. I found no indication that any of the residents or gang members are talking about the corporation asset in the neighborhood.” She made a small motion with her right hand, like she was sliding a playing card across the table to Snowman. “Here’s a file with all of the interceptions, since I assume they’ll want to go over it themselves.”

Snowman reached out a gloved hand and lifted an invisible card, viewing the file in AR. “That will do. Here is your pay.” Paradox saw the transfer confirmation illuminated in an AR window. He looked back down at the bag and then back up again. “I’ll give you ten, flat, for the bag.” Luke caught Paradox’s eye, and she nodded. He looked back at Snowman and nodded agreement. Paradox’s AR screen lit up again with the cash transfer. “I will call you when I find more work for you.”

About that time, the waitress arrived at the table. The young girl sat down a small, stout glass full of dark brown liquid in front of Tripwire and a tall, murky cocktail before Snowman. Paradox looked up a bit, confused. She assumed that either Tripwire or Snowman had made the order in AR while she was busy handing over the paydata.

Luke acknowledged the waitress with a nod, and she left without a word. He raised his glass to Paradox. “Thanks, Paradox. It was a pleasure working with you.”

Paradox’s gaze slid from Luke to Snowman, and it began to sink in that she was being dismissed. She bristled. She had been selling her skills to Snowman for almost a year now, and she felt betrayed: if anyone should be sitting down for a drink with the fixer, it was her! Her eyes turned sullen and ice cold, but the circuit board pattern in her irises glowed deep red. “Yeah, a pleasure. See you around.”

She turned her back on the boys without even so much as a look at Snowman. She drew herself to the fullest height she could manage and walked out the front door like someone had surgically implanted an iron rod along her spine.

Snowman watched cautiously as Paradox passed from view out the front door. “You certainly have a way with women, omae.”

“Huh?” Luke looked up from his drink, genuinely confused.

Snowman rolled his eyes and said, “Don’t worry about it. Either she’ll tell you, or she won’t. Either way, you’re screwed.”

Luke shook his head, dismissing whatever Snowman had seen in his partner. “I hope you’ve got some more work to send my way, Snow. I’m running on fumes, and it’s going to take years to rebuild what I had back in Denver.”

“Paradox sent me a video of you in action from last night. If that’s any indication, you haven’t lost your edge over the years. I will find you work, old friend.” Snowman took a long draw from his drink through his straw and smiled. He tasted citrus, tequila, and some sort of spicy and smoky hot sauce. “It’s been a long time since I even thought to order a Diablo.”

“Yeah, say what you will about the Azzies: without them, we wouldn’t have tequila.”

There was a long pause as both men silently enjoyed their drinks. Finally, Snowman asked, “So … how was she?”

“She’s focused. Got her job done and expected me to do mine. She knows her own skills. I didn’t have to remind her to take care of anything. She kept a level head when things went south, reacted fast, and was there to cover my back.” He paused to sip his drink. “That milk run wasn’t much of a test, but if she keeps her head against two guns, she’ll probably keep her head against more.”

“She served, too, you know. UCAS.”

“I thought so. The way she talks and carries herself gives it away. Her bearing. She hasn’t been out long, maybe a year?”

Snowman nodded. “She’s been bringing in a lot of gravy for me. I use her as a ringer for paydata, and she comes back with better results in less time than most of the other players around here. I think she’s ready for the big time.” His eyes narrowed as he made sure he had Luke’s gaze. “That’s you, omae.”

“A real team is going to take a lot of time. You know that.”

“I know, I know. We’ll take it slow.”

Luke drained his glass. “I’m tired, Snow. I’m not young like I used to be.” Luke gave a wry smile. “I’m going to jet. Call me when you get something.”

Snowman raised his glass in salute as Luke stood and left.
Luke Hardison
Back at her own condo, Kat stewed. The run itself bothered her, because there had been far, far too much data for her to properly analyze before she turned it all over to Snowman and his unknown Johnson. Her curiosity drew her to the data, and she had been spending hours poring over the file looking for clues, patterns, and anomalies. She tried to throw herself into the data again, but she was distracted. She was thinking about Tripwire and the puzzle he presented.

Kat had spent hours with Tripwire in the close confines of her van, but he hadn’t talked about his history. He didn’t brag about his skills or the people he had beaten in combat. He didn’t talk about his gear or show off which of his weapons were new or what augmentations were still healing. In fact, despite the long, boring hours, he hardly talked at all. He was different from any other combat support team member she had ever run with before. As the night bore on, she started to doubt Snowman’s confidence and wonder if he really would have her back.

Then, like a flash, his professional focus on the task at hand allowed him to react immediately to a dangerous situation. In a matter of seconds, he was on his feet, setting up a one-man ambush for five with nothing but a handgun and a single smoke grenade. He had done amazing work in the meat world almost as fast as Kat could react in the Matrix, which was something Kat wasn’t prepared to deal with. Then he was a blur of silent, lethal action, and it was all over. He covered all of the angles, got back in the van, and was ready to drive away – and he still didn’t take the time to tell Kat how great he was. In some ways, it was a refreshing change. At the same time, she found the lack of information mysterious and confounding.

Once, when Kat had still been working for the UCAS Navy, her Destroyer had taken on a team of UCAS Navy SEALs and transported them from their working carrier to a helicopter drop point. There were only ten or twelve of them on a ship that routinely housed over one hundred, but scuttlebutt flew everywhere about the team. They lived on the ship for three days, spending their time together but managing to also mingle through the crew and interact with the sailors on board. Every eye of every sailor was on this small group of legendary fighters. When they boarded the helicopter and left the ship, however, Kat realized that no one on the ship knew anything about the men beyond their names: no one knew their unit, where they were stationed, where their last mission had been, or where they were headed. Even with a hundred sailors watching and listening to them, they managed to spend three days among the ship and never talk about an accomplishment or planned conquest. Now, as she stewed over the last two nights, Tripwire reminded her of that small, elite group of men.

Was he military? Where? When? Where did he learn to do all of that? Kat wondered as she idly sifted through her data. She was frustrated that she had no idea how he felt about her performance. She was frustrated that he had given her the brush-off with Snowman. More than anything, she was frustrated that she cared what he thought of her performance or that he blew her off.

In her reverie, she suddenly realized that she had read over the same data three or four times. She cleared her head a bit, looking over the data again. Then she realized that she had read the same address several times, but in multiple places. She pulled up the messages side by side. In the context of the streams of messages, she could see that there was an address that was being referenced several times by members of the gang: here one member told another to meet up at the address to plan a job for later in the night, there a member told a fence to meet him at the address in the middle of the night. She locked onto the address and started digging.

An hour later, she pinged Tripwire’s commlink.

“Hello?” Tripwire answered quickly.

“Tripwire, it’s Paradox. You said you were rebuilding some gear? I have a plan that might interest you.”

An hour later, Kat was sitting in the van in a vacant parking lot on some Chrome Cutters’ turf. She sank into the driver’s bucket seat, diving into the consensual hallucination of complete virtual reality immersion in the Matrix. Even in this dark, grimy part of Seattle, the sprawl was aglow with the deep green hum of the Emerald City grid. She soared upwards, avoiding all of the noise of the heavy concrete buildings, and zipped down a block until she could see her target, a row of old-fashioned storage units along the street across from a corporate drone-operated warehouse.

In the street below, the icons of a half-dozen cheap commlinks moved about. To Kat, fully submerged into the datastream itself, the icons that were tied to their meat-world counterparts seemed to be moving in super slow motion, a cluster of glaciers moving at random. She saw other icons, too, that immediately grabbed her attention: weapons. She could make out an icon that looked like a shotgun, and another icon that looked like a handgun. She placed small, subtle AROs on each of the icons: red for armed, amber for unarmed. She looked over the storage units, but she could see no indication of locks, alarms, or cameras.

Kat turned her attention to the modern warehouse across the street. It was about two stories tall and sat above its neighbors. Public records information indicated that it was a distribution hub owned by a Shiawase subsidiary. She could see icons appear for devices all over the exterior of the building, mostly door locks and motors for all of the different loading bay doors around the warehouse. On the roof, she found an access door with another lock. She assumed that there would be other devices there, so she checked and found that there were silent-running icons nearby. She checked around the rooftop door lock and found an alarm wired into the same system. She marked that alarm with another ARO, this one a big red circle with a line through it to discourage her teammate from coming near it. She shared all of the AROs with Tripwire, then sent him a quick text message. Six in the road. Roof access alarm. You’re up.

Soon, she could see Tripwire’s icon as he moved quickly and quietly through the alleyway and across the street to a ladder that could access the roof of the corporate building. His approach didn’t appear to be tremendously stealthy to her, but his icon was hidden to other prying eyes. None of the gang members in the street reacted to his presence as he made his way across, so Kat had to assume that they had not noticed his passing.

Tripwire reached the building and climbed up the roof access ladder on the side, away from the gang members’ prying eyes. As he reached the top, he pulled himself up to the ledge level and peeked over the top. Suddenly, he slacked his arms back down and hung from the ledge out of sight. “Shit! You didn’t say anything about the camera!” he subvocalized into his comm, which was open for Kat to hear.

Kat’s attention was directed to the glowing icons of the gang members in the street below, but she immediately jerked her digital head back around to the rooftop. As her icon flew at blinding speed to the rooftop, she sent out another ping looking for silent-running devices. She found that there were still more devices hiding. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. She had never gone back to search for additional devices after finding the alarm. Finding the icon was simpler now that she knew what she was looking for, and she located a shimmering camera icon perched above the roof access door. Her icon reached out hastily and slid a pair of tiny chrome pin-up silhouettes onto the camera. She pulled up the recording file, copied the last three seconds of video, and looped the video feed back into the system. In a matter of three seconds, it was all over.

Camera’s looped. Kat texted Tripwire, and he pulled himself up and over the ledge. His hunting rifle was slung over his back, and he pulled it around and into his hands as he moved silently to the ledge overlooking the street below. With a simple mental command, the bipod underneath the front stock of the rifle sprang to life, and he settled the rubber feet onto the concrete ledge. At the same time, his augmented reflexes sparked to life, responding to his mental command, and the world outside his own head slipped into slow motion. He texted back, I’m in position. Everything was ready.

Tripwire scanned the ground below. The glowing red stylized reticle of his smartlink stayed motionless against the wall of the storage units as his cybereyes zoomed in on the Chrome Cutters members loitering in the street below. They were on the sidewalk and out in the street, generally clustered around storage unit #114. He knew from the briefing that Kat had given him earlier in the evening that this particular unit was frequently mentioned in texts between gang members, and she had surmised that it was most likely some kind of equipment stash that the gang was using to hoard goodies. They had taken it upon themselves tonight to raid the storage unit in order to simultaneously hurt the gang whose turf they found themselves running on and help Tripwire rebuild the equipment stashes that he had left behind.

During about an hour of pre-surveillance using Kat’s drones, the pair had seen a consistent revolving group of four to six young men wearing Chrome Cutters colors hanging around the outside of the unit. Occasionally, one or two would move away and come back a little later, probably meeting up with some customers around the corner to sling dope or BTLs or any number of other scuzzy pursuits. However, as Tripwire watched over the group from the rooftop, something else was happening. The gang members were less disorganized and seemed to be waiting for something. Two wandered out into the middle of the road. One of them swung a baseball bat idly and occasionally rested it on his shoulder. The other one lay down in the middle of the road. One of the gangers, wearing a long, dark trench coat, looked around uncomfortably and stood close, but not too close, to the pair in the middle of the road. Tripwire noted that he was marked with a red ARO, meaning that Kat had identified him as armed with a gun. The other armed ganger was making his way to the street corner, looking around nervously. Another ganger moved to the opposite corner, spreading out.

Tripwire didn’t know what the gang was reacting to, but he knew an ambush when he saw one; he specialized in setting them. Just then, his augmented hearing picked up a siren approaching from the distance. At first, he thought that the approaching siren might scatter the gang, but as it got close enough for the gang to hear it, they seemed to settle in and tense up. Whatever was happening, it was coming soon.

The siren came closer and closer, until a CrashCart ambulance turned the corner onto the nearby main street and headed straight for the gang. Tripwire put together the gang’s behavior and the presence of the ambulance just as the street-corner ganger began waving down the approaching ambulance. They turned down the street and pulled right up to the ganger who was lying down in the middle of the street. They’re pulling a hit on the ambulance, he texted Kat.

I see it. Kat was watching on the feed from her drones that were on over-watch near the rooftops. The guy in the trench coat pulled out the big shotgun that was hiding underneath his coat and immediately started firing slugs directly into the engine of the ambulance as soon as it stopped rolling. Thick clouds of steam rose up from the hood of the ambulance. At almost the same time, the ganger on the ground leapt to his feet and ran to the passenger side door, ripping it open and pulling out the medic from inside. The goon with the baseball bat was throwing the driver to the ground at the same time. Some words were exchanged – Tripwire couldn’t make out what was said, but it definitely made the gangers angry and animated – and the thugs began raining blows down on the ambulance crews. The head of the shotgun wielding thug loomed large in Tripwire’s vision, the center dot of his crosshairs overlaid on the top of the man’s left ear.

It's probably a bad idea to get involved. What do you want to do?

Inside her van, Kat bit her lip. They had planned on creating a diversion and looting the storage unit while the gangers were occupied. They didn’t plan on getting into a six to two gunfight in the middle of the street. Still …

You don’t mess with medics.

Let’s punch the clock. Before he could even finish that thought, Tripwire pressed gently on the light, short trigger of his rifle. It spat a muted report and he watched the solid copper hunting slug explode as it left the opposite side of the man’s head. He dropped to the pavement like a puppet with his strings cut. All of the gang members knew instantly that something was wrong as they watched their leader drop in awe and horror, but because of the silencer attached to the muzzle of the rifle, they could only search in all directions, looking for someone to fight.

Kat selected the interface menu for her Rotodrone, the only armed drone in her collection. Silent attack. First attack priority – red AROs. Second attack priority – yellow AROs. Blue AROs are DO NOT SHOOT. She sent the collection of pre-selected orders to the drone with a thought. Working at electron speed, she swapped out one of her loaded programs for her agent. The dog sprang to life at her feet, waiting obediently for her command. From his menu, she selected, “Jam ‘em, boy!” and his tail began to wag vigorously in acknowledgement of her command.

Tripwire found the other armed ganger waving a handgun around and searching feverishly for a target. He put a second slug cleanly through his chest, punching through his sternum. Before he hit the ground, the rifle bolt was already cycling in Tripwire’s hand. He heard the distorted crackle of suppressed automatic fire from the drone hovering back twenty meters over his right shoulder and could see the other street-corner thug dropping to the ground, clutching his own chest.

The thug who had been beating up the defenseless medic passenger dove for the leader’s shotgun, scooping it up as he ran. Kat immediately changed his ARO to red to update his armed status and swiped a hasty mark onto the gun’s icon, intent on shutting down the biggest threat. Just then, the clarity of the grid blurred significantly, like a streaming video being throttled, and she realized that the nearby signals were being jammed. She watched through her drone’s high resolution camera as the shotgun fell to the ground again as the carrier fell to another surgically placed sniper shot from Tripwire.

The thug with the baseball bat was the next to fall, shredded by another long burst from the suppressed Ares Alpha on Kat’s Rotodrone. Kat gained control of the unattended shotgun and rebooted it, sending the software into a spiral as it tried to recover. It would be out of the fight – what little there was left.

The last man standing looked about wildly. His comrades were falling left and right, and he couldn’t find where the shots were coming from. He froze, indecisive, the collar of the medic he had been beating finally falling from his grip. That was all of the time that Tripwire needed to place the smartlink reticle onto the punk’s chest, centered between the top of his ribcage and his throat. The recoil pushed the padded butt of the rifle into the sniper’s shoulder sharply.

Gunsmoke stood in the still air. In one smooth motion, Tripwire stood and slung the length of his rifle across his back, the bipod responding to a mental command to collapse as it moved. He jogged to the ladder and slid down to the ground, braking himself slightly with the upright ladder struts. He walked quickly towards the ambulance crew, unholstering his handgun as he walked. He passed by one of the gangers that had been felled by the drone on his way. The little punk was struggling to stand up. Tripwire recognized him as the one who had been wailing on the driver with the baseball bat just moments ago. He didn’t even spare him a second look as he anchored the thug to the ground with a handgun round through the head.

Tripwire holstered his handgun as he knelt beside the passenger-side medic, who was conscious if bruised and bleeding from the nose and mouth. “Can you stand? I think your buddy needs your help.”

The medic looked up, agape. “Who the hell are you?” he asked, stunned.

“Neighborhood watch. Come on.” Tripwire hoisted the terrified and bloody man to his feet with an arm under his armpit to steady him. Together, they walked to the opposite sidewalk where the driver was unconscious.

“Oh, shit – Mike!” The medic seemed to finally understand what had happened. He dropped down and started checking on his partner. As he realized how serious things were, he looked around, frustrated. “I need our gear.”

Tripwire was already at the back of the ambulance, trying to open the back doors. “It’s locked up. How do you open it?”

The medic grimaced. “We use our commlinks.” He gestured to the pile of broken plastic and metal that had formerly been Mike’s commlink. “We can’t get in. We can’t … we can’t …” he trailed off, looking back at the driver. His eyes were starting to glaze in hopelessness.

“Paradox, the lock on the back of the ambulance – can you open it?”

If Tripwire had been looking at the lock through the eyes of a decker, he would have seen the pair of chrome silhouettes that adorned the device’s icon. I’m way ahead of you, she texted back, already sending the signal that would unlock the maglock and open the door. What Tripwire did see was the small LED on the top of the lock change from red to green. He pulled open the doors and climbed inside.

Returning with a hefty medkit full of supplies, Tripwire paused to pull the backing off of a Stimpatch that he had picked up inside, pressing it onto the medic’s neck. The man’s eyes widened almost instantly with the rush of stimulants that flooded his body. “That’ll help you work. Now let’s help him.”

They went to work together wordlessly. Tripwire was no medic, but he had accumulated more experience than he cared to admit while working with combat wounded during his military career, and even more now that he ran the shadows without the support of dedicated medical corpsmen. In a few seconds, they had the automated parts of the medkit strapped on and attached. The bot went to work while the medic went to work strapping a flexible metal field splint onto an arm that was visibly badly broken. A second later, there was a sharp gasp from the driver as he reacted to the cocktail of drugs that the medkit had injected into him.

This hood isn’t enough to keep KE away from this. Incoming. 30 seconds, max. Kat tried to send as much information as possible in a short text message. She had picked up the icons of a Knight Errant cruiser approaching the scene fast, and knew that it would be on them quickly. She placed a big, glowing ARO onto the cruiser and shared it with Tripwire.

Tripwire sent his own quick response. Pull the van around. I’ll make a diversion. He then turned to the standing medic. “Their buddies can’t be far away. There’s a cop car coming from that way,” he said, pointing towards the ARO in his field of view. “Scoop him up and go for help as fast as you can.” Terrified, the medic complied as quickly as the stimulants pumping through his blood would allow, and the two medics began to hobble off together. As they cleared the corner, Tripwire sprinted over to the targeted storage unit. They would buy some time as the cruiser stopped to check on the limping, bloodied medics coming at them in the roadway, but that put the pawns a block or two away at best. They would have to work fast.

He reached the door in a few loping strides and reached into the back of his jacket. He emerged with a tomahawk that had been modified to function as a custom breaching tool. The door numbered 114 was secured with a simple padlock onto a stainless steel hasp, a nineteenth-century solution to a twenty-first-century problem. In one smooth motion, he jammed the spike on the back of the ‘hawk into the hasp of the padlock and cranked the handle around in an arc, pressing deeply into his augmented muscles. The metal of the lock and the hasp peeled apart like the lid of a cheap nutrisoy can, flying apart into pieces. He replaced the tomahawk into its sheath with one hand while he threw open the door with his other.

All at once, Tripwire was relieved and disappointed. He felt some relief that there was some actual equipment inside the unit and the whole night had not been a waste of time. Still, he was disappointed by the pickings. He wasn’t sure what he had expected. Crates of military grade ammunition? A rocket launcher? Some experimental beta-grade cyberware in original manufacturer’s packaging? What awaited him was much more representative of the kind of gear that a low-level street gang like this would hoard: another shotgun, a box each of shotgun shells and slugs, a directional jammer that looked like it had been burned out, a sleek motorcycle with a visibly broken ignition. He started grabbing what he could that looked useful. As he turned, he found that Kat had already backed the van down the street to the unit and was picking up the shotgun out in the street.

“You think this’ll fit?” he asked, rolling the motorcycle out into the street.

Kat’s expression was equal parts bemusement and confusion. “Give it a shot. I thought we were in a hurry?”

“I am in a hurry. I’m also a pedestrian!”

The motorcycle fit into the back of the van, but just barely, wedged tightly between the tools and workbench that Kat had fit into the cargo area. When Tripwire returned to the storage unit for the shotgun, he saw a crate on the floor that had been covered up by the bike when he started. The stenciled paint on the top read, “Danger! High Explosive. 10kg.” The crate was painted with a logo that he recognized as a Saeder-Krupp subsidiary, which filled him with further hope. He opened the top and found that five of the ten individually sealed one-kilo bricks were still inside. It wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it was more than he had before. He scooped up the ammunition, electronics, explosives, and the shotgun before jogging back to the van. He arrived just as Kat was throwing the second medkit into the van from the back of the ambulance.

“What? Might come in handy …”

Tripwire could only nod. He agreed completely. The van started to pull away before he even climbed in through the passenger door, and they sped off into the dark night.
Kren Cooper
Thanks! Nice stuff, and an enjoyable read. Interesting to read all the stuff about the AR/VR and extrapolate from that into what I presume is 5th edition rules.
Luke Hardison
The harsh chirp of his commlink jolted Luke awake. He blinked through the sleep and saw the time display in his field of vision. It was just a few minutes before noon, and his commlink said that Snowman was calling. That woke Luke up in a hurry. He hadn’t scored any more jobs since he went with Paradox to raid the gang stash last week, and he didn’t need to miss any opportunities. He picked up the call, voice only.

“Hello, Snow.”

“There’s my favorite heavy hitter. Hang on, I have to get your partner on the line.”

Luke blinked. Partner? When Snowman returned on the line, Paradox’s Matrix icon was displayed alongside the ork’s smiling face. I guess we’re a pair now, at least in Snowman’s world.

Paradox sounded more awake than Luke expected for the early hour. “Hi, Snowman. Tripwire.”

The ork smirked as he began. Snowman rarely missed the opportunity to appear in video during his calls. “You two seem to have made a friend. I just got off the line with the peculiar gentleman who authored your last assignment. He was quite satisfied with your performance with his previous request and asked that I set up a meet with you, in person for some more work. He didn’t give me any specifics – not unusual when he already knows something of your capabilities. Interested?”

“I’ll take it.” Luke said quickly, forgetting for a moment that he didn’t want to appear too desperate. He was glad when he heard Paradox respond that she was in as well.

“Excellent. Meet him at De Moda tonight at eight. Ask for the private dining room. You’ll be expected.”

The commcall ended abruptly. A text message from Paradox floated in his HUD: I guess you’ll need a ride tonight? Luke had just walked out from the bedroom into the living room. He looked across the room at the broken motorcycle that he had hidden inside the apartment. Ignition repair, removal of identifying marks, and professionally forged plates and registration all took money, and that was a scarce resource at the moment. That would be best, yes.

Luke was already trying to plan his night, and had an augmented reality window open in his display, searching for information on the restaurant where the meet was to happen. He saw promotional images of people in fancy clothes, waiters in bow ties and vests, and valet parking. The tagline read, “The Ultimate Peruvian Fusion Dining Experience.” He thought of his closet full of ill-fitting hooded sweatshirts and cringe-worthy garish colors. I guess I’ll need a suit, too. He texted Paradox. A moment later, she replied, I just searched the place. I guess I’ll have to go shopping, too. He couldn’t help but chuckle.

It had been a few years since Luke had bought a suit. It was best to head to a shady kind of place where the tailor wouldn’t ask questions about why you needed to hide so much ammunition in a suit. However, when both money and time were at a premium, you could compromise. Most modern big-name stores now had a robotic booth where customers could walk in, strip down to their underwear, be scanned by numerous high-precision scanners, and walk out with a mechanically tailored suit in less than an hour. It wouldn’t pass for high fashion, but it would fly under the radar for what he needed tonight. Nicer places would require a SIN, but maybe if he searched …

Two hours later, Luke walked out of a clean but very questionable Meyer’s where the auto-checkout took a certified credstick without too much hassle, a very bland and neutral gray suit in a bag over his shoulder. It wasn’t perfect, but it should get him through the front door.

Just before 7:15 that night, Luke walked out into the parking lot of his apartment complex to meet the waiting van. He pulled open the passenger door to climb into the seat and suddenly struggled not to gape openly at Paradox. She had undergone a complete transformation. Half of her deep auburn hair was up, gathered into a meticulous bun, while the other half spilled to her bare shoulders in neat curls. She was wearing makeup for the first time that Luke had seen, drawing attention to her crimson lips and accentuated emerald eyes, glowing with dim electricity in the dark cab. A green dress with the faintest shimmer clung to her upper body and flowed to the floor, covering her matching kitten heels. An armored long coat was thrown over the center console with a stylish handbag on top, just large enough to conceal her cyberdeck within. Luke recovered quickly and climbed into his seat, hoping that his double take had not been noticed. When he left his apartment, he had thought that he was looking good because he had showered, trimmed his beard, and wore matching shoes. After he saw Paradox, he felt genuinely outclassed. In a good way.

Paradox must have noticed, though, because her cheeks colored slightly. If she had thoughts on the length of his look, however, she kept them to herself. “I hate dresses,” she said instead. “I can never get comfortable.” She shifted slightly in her seat as the car pulled away, reminding herself of her own discomfort.

“Well, regardless, you pull it off. You look great.” Luke cleared his throat and changed the subject. “Any ideas on what we’re walking into tonight?”

“I haven’t been able to think of anything that it could be. They might want to go over the data, or maybe they want some more data. Maybe they’re finally going to tell us what this ‘asset’ is that they’re so concerned about.”

Luke gave a wry chuckle. “Yeah, I’m sure they’re jumping at that, as hard as they were trying to keep it a secret. But, who knows?” He pulled up a map inside an AR window and then shared it with his partner. “I found a paid lot for us to park in that’s only about four blocks down from the restaurant. That way, we can go in on foot and you won’t have to give away all of your gear to the valet.”

Paradox smiled. “That’s the same lot I picked.”

Traffic was light as the van followed its GridGuide instructions, carrying them down The Five and into downtown. About half an hour later, they traded the bright neon assault of the sidewalk outside for the dimly lit interior of De Modo and were greeted by a maître d’ in a sharp, dark suit and golden tie. The small, crowded foyer was sleekly appointed with real wood veneer and subdued art on the walls, augmented with small, unobtrusive AROs that explained each piece and artist. A small wheeled drone just the right height for a table moved about mildly, taking drink orders and handing out cocktails. Luke noted the security at the door, which included two suit-clad toughs and a camera by the reservation desk, but no visible weapon or cyberware scanners. However, high end places like this one tended to conceal those scanners, as not to remind their wealthy patrons of the ugly fact of their necessity. Luke relaxed a bit when, after they announced that they were expected in the private dining area, they were escorted to the back of the restaurant without any further wait or inspection.

The pair was swallowed by a dark curtain as they entered one of the half-dozen or so private dining rooms set into the back wall of the restaurant. It was a very cozy space, with dim recessed lighting in the ceiling that changed colors with the pulse of the quiet classical music playing throughout. The table was just big enough for four or five.

A tall, slim man with long, black hair slicked back into a ponytail was occupying a dark corporate-cut pinstripe suit in a chair on the far side of the table. Luke found his eye drawn to the deep purple pocket square peeking out from the breast pocket of his suit before he realized that the design was a very understated ARO. His bearing and presentation oozed corporate money, and his clothing and setting said there was lots of it. Luke had never seen the man before, but had met him over and over again – Mr. Johnson. The only other soul visible was a powerfully built figure standing in the corner. His suit strained against his shoulders and arms, and the jacket was just tight enough to insinuate the holstered handgun at his side. He looked everywhere and nowhere all at once, never making eye contact or looking directly at Luke, but still following him everywhere he went.

Looking up at Luke and Paradox, Johnson waved away his AR display and gestured to the empty chairs on the opposite side of the table. He smiled coldly and said, “Welcome. Please, have a seat.”

Luke pulled out the chair on the far side of the bodyguard for Paradox, placing himself between her and the biggest threat. Just in case. She seemed surprised by the gesture, but recovered quickly and made a brief show of settling herself into her chair. The Johnson’s eyes followed her down into the seat.

As Luke settled into his chair, the Johnson spoke again. “Thank you for joining me. I took the liberty of ordering some wine already. Please, take your time. Look over the menus and order yourself something. We have the luxury of some time this evening.”

A carefully designed and presented menu flickered in an ARO from an embedded tag in the table. Luke took a brief look over the offerings and suppressed a smirk. He sent a quick text message to Paradox: So, how’s your Spanish?

Though she tried to hide it, Paradox’s face showed a hint of her surprise and frustration. Nonexistent.

You trust me to order for us both?

Go for it.

I hope you like fish.

Paradox smiled in response, nodding. Right then, the waiter appeared with a bottle of red wine. He displayed it for the Johnson’s approval and waited while he tasted a small sample in his glass. He approved of the selection with a nod and spoke with the waiter briefly in fluent Spanish. The waiter then turned to Luke and began filing his glass. Before the waiter spoke, Luke made an order for himself and Paradox, addressing the waiter in his own fluent Spanish. The waiter smiled and nodded, complimenting Luke on his order, before he disappeared from the private dining room. Paradox smiled gratefully.

“Thank you both for meeting me on such short notice.” Mr. Johnson began. “I wanted to congratulate you on your previous performance. My analysts have been poring over your data, and they agree with your preliminary conclusion. However, I have another problem that I believe you may be able to help me with.

“The asset that I have been working to hide is a safehouse that I have maintained for my employer for some time. I had given over the day to day operation and preparation of the safehouse to a … freelancer. His name is Armando Castillo. He has maintained the secrecy and availability of the asset for almost three years. Last week, he failed to make a regular scheduled check-in. We have not been able to make contact with him since.”

Mr. Johnson paused for a sip of wine. “I had hoped that your assignment last week would have told me what I needed to know without revealing the existence of the safehouse to anyone else, but unfortunately it has brought me no closer to finding Armando. It is important to me, and to my employer, that we be connected in no way to Armando or to the safehouse. I want you to find Armando and extract him back to me for debriefing.

“I recommend that you begin by confirming that the safehouse is secured. You’ll have to track him down from there, because I have no idea where he may have gone.” Mr. Johnson waived his hand, and a default file icon appeared in Luke’s HUD. “The address is in this file, along with some information about Armando that you may find useful.”

Luke opened a summary view of the file, finding an organized dossier of Armando and the safehouse complete with several photographs of Armando. The slag even handed out shadowruns like a corporate bureaucrat. “Have you considered that Armando may already be dead? What do you want us to do then?”

“Of course, that is a possibility. If so, provide me proof of his death so that I can make other … arrangements. This assignment has a certain urgency for myself and my employer. I will offer you twenty-thousand for Armando’s return or proof of his death. Half up front. There will be a bonus if you make delivery by noon on Friday.”

Luke shifted in his seat. Four days was lots of time to look for someone who was alive and wasn’t hiding. It was an awfully short time to find someone kidnapped. Or hiding. Or murdered. There were a lot of variables. As he considered, he texted Paradox. I’m in. You?

I’m in.

“Ok, we’ll find your runaway.” Almost before he spoke, Luke saw the wireless funds transfer pop up in his AR overlay. He nodded approvingly.

“Wonderful.” The Johnson’s eyes softened, the first clue Luke had seen that he was feeling stress over the process of hiring the ‘runners. “I have other pressing matters to attend to. I invite you to finish your meal, if you wish.” He stood, and the silent bodyguard moved from the corner to meet up with him. They excused themselves into the main restaurant floor without another word. The waiter, just arriving with a tray of food, held the curtain for him as he passed. If he thought it was odd that the man had left without ordering food or before the food arrived, he didn’t say anything or react visibly. He does this often, Luke concluded.

The waiter sat down a platter of fish tacos with quinoa and sweet potatoes in front of Paradox. Luke received a heaping pile of humitas, a spicy dish of pork and olives wrapped in cornmeal. Luke assured the waiter that everything was perfect, and they were suddenly alone in the dark, intimate room.

Luke picked up his plate and wineglass and move across the table, to the seat that had been occupied by the Johnson before. From there, he could see the dining room entrance and, quite fortunately, Paradox, much better. She looked uncomfortable, like she couldn’t decide what she was supposed to do under her circumstances. “It would be a shame to waste the food,” he said, gesturing with his wine glass.

“It smells amazing. What is it?”

“The menu is mostly coastal street vendor food with a flare of advertising. Fortunately, Peruvian street vendor food is pretty amazing. It’s a little spicy, but not bad. I picked something that should be a little familiar to you but should also be pretty tasty. And, so far, it all looks like real food.”

Paradox lifted a taco tentatively, smelling it. “It does seem spicy.” She took a bite, and almost immediately grinned. “It’s fantastic!” she smiled brightly.

“I’m glad you like it.” Luke lifted a forkful of his own dish and chewed slowly. The combination of flavors and textures brought him back to South America.

They ate in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Paradox asked, “So, where did you learn Spanish?”

Luke paused for a few seconds. He didn’t talk to very many people about his past. To a Shadwrunner swaddled in a comforting blanket of relative anonymity, it felt very vulnerable to talk about his real past. For some reason that he didn’t really fully understand, he said, “I used to do work in Aztalan. A lot of work. It paid to speak the local language so that I could blend in, at least a little.”

“Work?” she asked, confused. “You mean, ‘running?”

“Not exactly.” He paused again. For some reason, he just wanted her to know. Partially, he just wanted to talk because he had the attention of a beautiful woman for the moment, but there seemed to be more to it than that. “I was in the military.”

“I thought so.”

“I guess I don’t hide it so well, huh?”

“Hard to hide it from others who served. I was in the Navy, UCAS.”

“I guessed something like that. Snowman confirmed it for me.”

“That’s where I learned computers. I used to work DMA from a mobile destroyer group.” The military shop talk was causing her to subconsciously revert to the lingo – she hadn’t used the military acronym for Direct Matrix Action in conversation for a while. She paused for a moment, weighing everything that had been said. She was relaxing, feeling more comfortable at the table. “So if you worked in Aztlan, that’s probably CAS. Goodness knows the Azzies piss off everyone, but you’re really the only ones shooting at them at them. At least recently.”

“Tell that to the Germans.”

“Really? Germany? Wait, what?” Paradox’s genuine confusion brought a smile to Luke’s face. “Well, you’re not German. So CAS, then.”

Luke nodded. “Yeah. Marine.”

“That tracks. I’m guessing from what I’ve seen so far that you were a sniper?”

“That’s right.”

“And, if you needed to speak Spanish and ‘blend in,’ then you did something black. So – Recon? CASMARSOC? How am I doing so far?”

“Not bad, detective.”

“And since you still haven’t said, I’m going to go one further. Ferrets?”

His eyes widened a bit, providing all of the confirmation she needed. “Lucky guess.”

“Ha!” she shouted, and then immediately looked around, embarrassed. “Wow, an honest to God Ferret. There can’t be more than, what, 200 of you guys at any given time?”

“That’s ... actually pretty close. You work with special ops a lot? It sounds like you know the community.”

Her cheeks colored a bit and she looked away. “No, I didn’t. I kind of wanted to, but I never got a spot in Support Ops. DMA teams worked pretty far from anyone who knew how to shoot a gun, for the most part.”

“Ah, you saw the icons, but not the men?”

“Exactly. They would go out and do all of this amazing stuff, and we’d just watch their icons from the Matrix.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “Once, I got a medal for blowing up a power plant. I didn’t do anything but overwatch for a SEAL team. Nothing. I never sent a single line of code, just stood by ‘just in case.’ Of course, they never got spotted. Navy needed someone to award for it, but they couldn’t admit who had done the work, so they gave it to me.”

Luke laughed heartily. “That’s brilliant. I think my bosses always just ignored what we did instead of pinning the accomplishment on others.” They shared a moment of mutual laughter as the conversation hit a natural pause. Luke found himself locked in a long moment of eye contact, and for several heartbeats he couldn’t break away. And he found that he didn’t really want to. “Call me Luke.”

She cut herself off mid-laugh. Her hesitance was palpable, and for a moment Luke feared that he had misread the situation completely. He opened his mouth to apologize or change the subject, but a fraction of a second before he spoke, she said, “I’m Kat.” A soft, shy smile grew on her face.

Relieved, Luke looked down at the table and found that their plates and glasses were both empty. “Well … Kat,” he savored her name on his tongue. “The night is young, and we shouldn’t overstay our welcome. What do you say we get to work?”

They rose and moved to the curtained exit. As they began to move into the restaurant floor, Luke reached out and rested his hand low on Kat’s back to guide her. She tensed for a moment, and he drew back the pressure, but she yielded without a word and led out towards the door.
Luke Hardison
Since they had a schedule to keep, they decided to work quickly. Kat adopted the change of clothes that she had stored in her van, changing in the back while Luke went into his apartment and changed there. When he returned to the van, he was dressed more casually, wearing jeans and his armored jacket. He brought out his rifles to the van wrapped up in a blanket from the bedroom.

They had studied some aerial maps of the safehouse address that Kat was easily able to find on the Matrix. The address that Mr. Johnson had provided was a derelict condo in an aging residential strip. The buildings to the east and west had each been condemned and abandoned, each likely housing a squatter community by now. The target building was holding on by a thread. Structural damage was clear even from the Matrix photographs, and Luke judged it unlikely that it had gotten better with time. They chose an automated parking garage that fed an equally dilapidated shopping center across the major thoroughfare from the condo building that offered an elevated view from which they could scout the building.

The condos had balconies that faced out to the main road and primary doors that faced the opposite direction, into the resident parking lot on the back side. Their target unit was on the third floor, so the front door was the only entrance they could use to avoid a climb. After a few fly-arounds with the mini-drones found nothing out of place or unusual, they parked the van on the top of the parking garage. Luke maintained a physical over watch using the drones and his own enhanced senses while Kat dropped into virtual reality to scout out the building in the Matrix to look for surprises.

The building looked fairly normal from the outside, with everyday icons doing everyday things. The interior of the building looked hazy through the Matrix, which was normal. The signal degradation that came with large buildings caused a bit of a foggy or murky outlook when viewing from one side to the other. However, the individual unit was flat out dark, not just foggy. As Kat’s virtual reality persona passed through the outer walls of the apartment, she felt a sensation not unlike swimming through jelly. There was a bit of drag on her electronic form, and once inside she felt detached and distanced from herself. She immediately recognized the effects of wireless inhibiting wall treatments. Some especially security conscious folks would hide metallic shavings in the paint or under the wallpaper of their buildings, hoping to keep the outside world out and the inside world in. The lag between her deck and her persona spiked, and she started feeling a dull headache.

Kat swapped out her deck configuration, boosting her power and filtering with some software utilities that would analyze the background noise. It lessened the effects, but she could still tell she did not have her full abilities. She would have to be careful.

Kat moved about the apartment, placing ARO’s on the significant devices that she found. There were maglocks on the front and back doors and an alarm system wired into each. Curiously, she found a host in the living room. It was the kind of small, local host that she would expect to find in a business or government office; they were rare finds in residential areas. It was intentionally kept small and local to the apartment, not even filling the whole living room, and had been concealed by the wireless inhibiting treatment. Closer examination revealed that, even though everything else in the apartment was running on the Emerald City grid, much like Kat herself, the host was running on the Aztechnology Global Grid.

The apartment was cozy, but had three bedrooms laid out around a linear hall that fed a straight line from the front door to the back balcony. Kat found no other icons for commlinks or cyberdecks or anything else inside the condo that would lead her to believe that there was anyone inside. She delicately began placing her chrome silhouettes on all of the important icons, marking the alarm and both door locks before returning to her meat body. “Anything?” she asked as she came groggily back to augmented reality.

“Nothing. It’s too late for the decent people, too early for the real problems. Good time to sneak in, if that’s what we’re doing.”

Kat nodded. “Go for it. It doesn’t look to me like anyone’s home. Both doors are locked up, and there’s an alarm. I’ll switch it off and open the door when you’re ready.”

Luke slipped out the back door of the van, leaving Kat alone inside. She locked the doors, set the security system to alert her to anyone approaching, and slipped back into VR. She had incorporated Luke’s commlink and all of his other devices, including his weapons and cyberware, into her own PAN, meaning that she could follow his Matrix icon anywhere he went. Even with that advantage and the video feed from her drones, she had trouble keeping him in sight as he crossed the street and moved to the front door of the condo. There was just something about the way he moved that made him hard to spot, no matter what. It was unnerving.

Luke discreetly climbed the stairs on the exterior of the building to the third floor. As he stepped onto the landing, he spotted the front door of the condo. He sent a text message by direct mental command. The front door hasn’t been forced. It’s locked up. Knock, knock. As he walked casually to the door, Kat sent the mental commands that would disable the alarm and unlock the front door. Hitting the door in stride, Luke glided in quickly and smoothly, his cybernetic eyes adjusting instantly to the darkness as his pistol left the holster. He flowed through the condo, but quickly came to the same conclusion that Kat had: no one was home.

The front door opened into a living room that was open with the kitchen and dining area. There was one, larger bedroom on the left side, by the dining room, and two smaller bedrooms on the right side. Everything fed off of a central hallway, so there weren’t many places to hide. The living room included a wall mount for a trideo unit, but it was empty. The master bedroom was simply appointed and looked quite “lived in” – it was like a petulant and unruly teenager had been staying there for years. The back bedroom across the hall looked like it had been converted into an equipment storage room, as there were shelves and lockers up against all of the walls and in the middle of the room. However, the shelves were cleaned out, the lockers emptied and standing open. The only thing in the room that was still secure was a metal footlocker that looked bolted to the door. It was secured with a simple combination padlock. When Luke looked closer, he could see that the padlock showed some tool wear where someone had tried to pry it off, but didn’t have the combination of strength, technique, and proper tools that they needed to remove it.

The front bedroom was unsettling. The room had been completely refitted as a surgical suite. A massive, powerful light source was mounted securely to the ceiling, on a robotic arm for mobility. There was a stainless steel table in the middle of the room, bolted to the floor. The walls were lined with transparent cabinets and drawers, all standing ajar and empty. It was like someone had cut out a surgical suite from a major hospital and transplanted it into the apartment. However, someone had gone through and taken anything that was not nailed down.

“It’s empty.” Luke subvocalized over their open commlink. He had the live feed from his cybereyes transmitting over the network, too, so he knew that she could see everything he could. “The place looks cleaned out, but the doors are undamaged and were secure when we got here. Either we’re dealing with the most polite burglars in the world, or …”

“Or Armando cleaned it out himself. But why?”

“No idea, yet. I’m going to look around for clues. Let me know if anyone is coming knocking.”

Luke dove into the apartment, starting in the disheveled bedroom. He came up with a stack of flyers so big that he could hardly hold them in one hand. The flyers all featured different dancers at Moonbeams in Redmond, posing in various states of undress and expressing their desire to make all of the viewers dreams come true for a price. There were still more flyers on the bed, the dresser, and the floor. All of them were equipped with AROs with short, looped trideo segments of the dancers moving and gyrating. With so many of the grouped together, their grinding bodies overlapping in translucent displays, it really made quite an odd spectacle. “Looks like he’s a real regular at this place. Someone there might know more about him.”

“You want to take me to a strip club?” Kat’s voice sparkled, playful but just a little incredulous at the same time.

Luke barked a short laugh. “Hey, I didn’t pick the guy’s proclivities.” He held up a single flyer so that Kat could see the paper and ARO together clearly through his eyes. A tall, leggy blonde named Bambi repeated the same pouty-faced hip thrust over and over on repeat; her parents hadn’t given her that body any more than they had given her that name. “I guess I could go by myself, if you’d rather …”

Kat’s eyeroll came across the voice connection quite clearly. “We’re under a timeline, remember? Money?”

“Oh, yeah, money. I knew there was a reason I was here.”

Luke picked up a sheet of digital paper from the dresser in the bedroom. It was a journal of sorts, something Armando was using to write down his thoughts before eventually transferring them to a more permanent storage place. It only had about six days of entries, but they were telling. They started fairly unremarkable, with Armando taking to the page to write about the weight of the mind-numbing boredom that he faced manning the small safehouse day in and day out with no human interaction. At the bottom of that entry was a hasty, scribbled note – an address and the name “Bailey.” However, as the days passed, the entries devolved into hyperbole, paranoia, and nonsense. The last entry was almost completely incomprehensible, as though the writer had gone stark raving mad in only a week’s time. Luke copied the file and shared it with Kat.

“Creepy,” was the only reply she could muster.

“Yeah. Definitely makes me want to know who Bailey is. And why Armando went bonkers a few days after he wrote down his name and address.” Luke continued his search, but found little else of interest. “Alright, I think I’m just about done here. There’s only one place I haven’t searched.” His eyes drifted down to the secured lockbox in the equipment room. “It looks like someone else tried to get into it, and everything else in the apartment was stolen. Who’s to say they didn’t get into this one, too?”

“What do you think’s in there?”

“Only one way to find out.” Luke drew his tomahawk from the sheath on his back, underneath his jacket. He torqued the lock as far as it would go against the ring, shoved the spike on the back of the tomahawk through the lock hasp, and twisted it with all of his strength and body weight behind it. It gave way quickly.

Inside the case were two small, black backpacks. They were pre-loaded with identical contents: a submachine gun, three magazines of ammunition, supplies for a first aid kit, a small walker drone, and several sets of very professional plasteel restraints. Luke hefted one of the submachine guns, and his eyes widened in approval. It was a Fabrique National design, bullpup, and well crafted. The weapon was upgraded with a sling, a smartlink, and a permanently mounted gas vent on the barrel. It was basically set up exactly how Luke would have set it up himself for his own use. The magazines in each backpack were loaded with high-quality armor piercing ammunition. He recognized the design, an FN P93. Those weapons had been initially designed for Corporate Court strike teams, but a number found their way onto the black market from time to time. They were excellent, reliable, and effective weapons. They were accordingly rare, expensive, and coveted. He examined the AROs for the guns, and found that they were unregistered – they had no owners. They were, in essence, untraceable and ready for the taking.

“Nice fragging guns. With handcuffs. And combat drones. And medical supplies.” Luke commented. “These are extraction kits, and they were put together by someone who knew what they were doing. Look around the room. There was tons of gear here, but just these two packs were locked up and the keeper didn’t have the key. These kits were the primary purpose of this safehouse.”

“Between those kits and the medical room … I’m not so sure I like where this goes.” Even detached from her body in VR, Kat shuddered.

“I think it’s time for me to leave. You ready?”

“Ready. When you get back, I’m going to dive into that host. It’s out of place enough that we have to look there.”

Luke quickly and quietly made his way back across the street and met up with Kat at the van. Once he was back and able to take over watching her back and their surroundings, she felt free to intently focus on her own tasks. She braced herself as she passed through the outside walls once again, feeling the uncomfortable interference. She stood by the host, taking a deep digital breath. Once she felt fully steeled, she reached out, subtly placing one of her chrome silhouettes onto the outer surface of the host. A brief shimmer in the wall of the host told her that she had been accepted, and a simple and functional door slid open directly in front of her.

Inside the host, she was greeted with the bright, clashing color scheme that was prominent on Aztechnology grids and hosts. The host was small, with the layout of a humble office building with a file room. She could immediately see a patrol IC at the entrance, its icon appearing as a tall, attentive, suit-clad security guard. Running silent, Kat could slide right by like she was invisible – at least until she did something to warrant additional scrutiny.

A little uncomfortable running around in an Aztechnology themed host running on the Aztechnology grid, Kat worked quickly. She let herself into the file room just off of the main office. She started searching through the active files, looking for any references to Armando or to Bailey. She quickly found a data file with Armando’s name attached, which she copied and put back almost immediately. There was another data file that she came upon with a little searching. It was cryptically titled and filed away in a dark corner of the host, but it had something to do with Armando. She started to reach out to copy the file, but something deep inside her gave her pause. She looked closer.

Attached to the underside of the file, she found what she feared: a small icon that resembled a bundle of dynamite sticks – a data bomb. Kat was frustrated. Data bombs weren’t exactly her specialty, as her military training would have been to call in a specialist. She had interacted with them infrequently as a runner, and knew enough to know that they were trouble. Back in the van, her breathing quickened and her brow glistened with sweat.

Gingerly, Kat touched the data bomb icon. The interface opened in her vision, requesting a password that she didn’t have. She opened another window of code and watched the characters stream by as her utility worked on disarming the data bomb. While that code was running, she opened another small window for a second utility. She began executing commands, probing for weaknesses in the structure of the data bomb’s code. Fortunately, the decker who had set the bomb had used some publicly available code that Kat had seen before with a few known errors. She adjusted the settings of the code window, narrowing down the attacks it was throwing at the data bomb. In the impossible speed of the Matrix, the operation seemed a long and tedious task, but in the real world it was over in a second. Kat’s utility beeped and the dynamite icon fell detached from the file, dissolving into shining electrical motes before it hit the ground.

Back in the van, Kat’s breathing slowed and grew more even. The worst was over – she hoped.

After copying the mystery file, Kat’s icon glided back into the office. There was a security desk over by the IC, which usually represented the interface with any other security options for the host – the cameras, alarms, booby traps, that kind of thing. Kat already knew that the cameras and alarm weren’t slaved to the host because she would have noticed that when she was hacking them earlier in the night. That made her very curious as to what she would actually find there.
There were no devices at the security station, but it did hold more files, including the access logs for the doors and alarm system. Finding them clear of any nasty surprises, Kat copied both of those files as well. She blew a kiss to the oblivious patrol IC as she jacked out from the host.

Back in the safety of the van, Kat found Luke waiting on her when she emerged. “I’m done. Let’s get out of here before we get spotted.”

Setting the van’s auto-pilot to take them to Moonbeams, Kat settled in and started going over the files. The first file, with Armando’s name in the title, was a simple text file that someone had been using as a dead drop. Armando would check in three times a week by editing the file and reporting no change. Instructions were occasionally left behind by another, anonymous, user. In almost three years of tending the house, Armando had never reported a problem or even missed a check-in. However, Armando hadn’t updated the file in about a week. The lock and alarm access logs showed that Armando had locked the door and set the alarm behind him a week prior, but then no one had been into the apartment until Kat opened the door for Luke earlier that night. The other file, the one that had been protected by the data bomb, was a little more interesting. It was a running log of GPS coordinates with time and date stamps. It contained about two months’ worth of data, and it looked like it was automated. Based on the header, it looked like the file was a running log of the physical location of Armando’s commlink. Kat sorted the data by time stamp and scrolled right to the bottom. The last location hit had been about three days ago; after that, the system had stopped recording new locations. There were about four pings an hour, and the last twelve in the log were in the same place.

Kat dropped the coordinates of the last several pings on Armando’s phone into a map and shared the results with Luke. They were looking at a large warehouse, run down and likely abandoned, that was in Redmond, just a few blocks down from Moonbeams. Luke reacted quickly.

“Hey, I recognize that address. That’s what was written down next to Bailey’s name in the journal.”

“Sounds like Bailey and that warehouse are pretty central to this. Should we go there first? Or keep heading on to the club?”

“Let’s try the club first. Maybe that will give us some idea of what we’re walking into.” Luke checked the time display in his HUD. “It’s just now midnight, so the club should be pretty active. It’s the perfect time to hit it.”
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