Hulder grunts his response. “Sounds like a safe place; they’d be crazy to send pinkskins into that ork ’burb. Lead the way.” The two other engines collectively throttle down until they draw level with Boxcar, and they follow close.
Ling Fei sits back and takes in the information from her spotter; the scene below the roto-drone’s cameras is one of ordered chaos. Corp goons swarm like insects around the top of the ramp, clearing the bodies and wounded from the grenade blast while hurrying down towards the limo. The limp body of the impostor Minister lies where it was thrown, forgotten. The assassin has yet to show himself again, and men with stun batons creep slowly toward the edge of the cloud, wary lest they be pulled in and dismembered.
Further East, along Lower Randolph, the runner convoy breaks out of the tunnel system into the morning sun and turns right, headed through Grant Park on highway 41. A tense silence takes hold of the teams, as each man and woman stops to take in the close call that they just had. One exception is Charlie and Bakcha, who joke and trade incredibly racist jokes in the back of the truck. Blitz wears a bemused grin on his face, laughing along with his brother and sister despite his injuries.
The drive takes them South, along the coastline, and the spray from the Lake washes away some of the coppery blood smell which clings to the wounded and wafts off the bodies in the flatbed. Soldier field passes them on the left, and Crusher, Moonclaw and Ling Fei watch it drift past, thinking of their clandestine meeting with the corporation there, not knowing then that what they were stepping into was a big setup, one that would cost lives. The autonav swings right shortly thereafter, heading south on I-90, making good time against the flow of rush hour traffic heading into downtown. They hook up with I-57 and from there head Northwest up 294, the great highway that rings the city proper.
The drive is short, and Ling Fei manually pilots them past Rubio Woods, on their way to Crusher’s hideout, so that they may dispose of the bodies. The woods themselves were once an old government preserve, before they were inhabited by foul spirits and paranormal critters. The daylight seems to keep these walking horrors at bay, but Moonclaw can sense the corruption here, can see it in the grasping motion of the tree branches and the sickly morning mist which seems to seep from dark holes in the ground, thick despite the sun’s warmth.
She doesn’t have a lot of experience with other runner teams, but she balks when Bakcha and Molly jump out and unceremoniously dump the pieces of Hackworth and the mage at the base of an old redwood. They rifle through their clothes first, removing credsticks and weapons, and keep Hackworth’s deck. They don’t look the least bit unnerved at this, like they’ve disposed of their share of teammates in the past. She gets the feeling she might have to get used to this kind of thing.
A few more minutes travelling West brings them to Crusher’s hideout: a low-ceilinged loft in a shit part of town. The building itself is worn white fiberboard, and the top level looks like construction was suspended when it was halfway complete. Wires and plumbing stick out of the foundations, exposed to the elements. Crusher leads them through a side door and down a dingy, splattered hallway. Some of the rooms look condemned, while others host squatters who peek out at them from behind their tarpaulin barricades, then quickly duck back when they see the guns, turning down the lights and staying quiet. An old fashioned metal key gets them through the door to Crusher’s safe room.
The heavy steel door protests on rusty hinges as Crusher shoves it firmly with his shoulder, stepping out momentarily to help Hulder muscle Grendel’s bulk through the doorframe. “Yea,” the ork grins, “welcome to my home away from home.”
The runner teams take in Crusher’s spartan safehouse as they file in. In reality, it’s more of a safe room, roughly 20 feet square. The far-right corner is walled-off to house a toilet, and a flimsy looking counter with a small sink runs halfway along the right-hand wall, stacked haphazardly with cans of beans, corn, and sterno, along with a few half-filled boxes of ammo. A fold-out card table sits next to the counter, flanked by four fold-out aluminum chairs, all of which are strewn with dishes, paperback mystery novels, and even more random shells. Three stained mattresses lie against the far wall, one of which has a mess of relatively clean-looking sheets on it. Across from the mattresses, to the door’s immediate left, is a giant, ratty, ork-sized couch, with a halfway-decent sheet thrown over it.
The mercenary laughs nervously, apologizing for the squalor of his pad. “Sorry about the mess guys, I never expected more than the three of us would be crashing here.” The more helpful among the party members get to work making space for everyone, laying out the three most severely wounded runners on the mattresses. Hulder props himself up on the bed closest to the table, where Crusher, Moonclaw, and Aleister have settled to hash things out.
Crusher speaks first, carefully stripping his armor away from the gash spanning his chest as he addresses those seated around him. “On the surface this felt like a standard setup, yea? Hire some expendables to make it seem like they were guarding something real, then sound the cavalry once the target flushed.” He eases back in his chair with a tired sigh, laying his sidearm on the table with a heavy thud. “But why open up on us too? We were still on their contract.”
Moonclaw interjected, her head tilted to one side in careful thought. “We weren’t under contract so much as under threat. . . Moreover, even if they had kept their word they would be under no obligation to pay us, as we all failed to make the kill.” Her eyes shifted to Aleister. “I still maintain they were trying to eliminate us, as they did that gang, the better to keep their secrets.”
Crusher scowled in frustration, baring his tusks. He swept his hand across the room, indicating the shadowrunners packed together in the tiny flat. “Then why draw everyone else into this? Whatsit to them to kill all of you?”
As the rest of her team mulled over the larger picture, Ling Fei was busying herself among the wounded, doing her best with her portable medkit to clean and dress the wounds of both trolls and all four orks. She had called back the last of her drones as they reached the edge of her transmission range, and now they were safely stowed within Boxcar, which sat outside with the other transports, watching for new threats with its electronics idling. She voice dials Doc Matthews as she dabs at Blitz’s dagger wound with an alcohol swab. “Hey doc, it’s Ling Fei, ah, Crusher’s rigger friend. Listen, we’ve got a half-dozen wounded orks and trolls here, two of them pretty serious. It would be huge if you could come out, or at least send someone to help me sew them up – I’m in way over my head here!”
Crusher’s gestured question is met with awkward silence. The members of the other teams shuffle around and tend to each others’ wounds, and nobody says anything. The quietness grows tense. Ling Fei is unable to reach Doc Matthews, and leaves a hurried message.
Finally, Hulder speaks for all of them. “There’s only one thing we could all think of.” The stern looks of agreement exchanged around the room lend the statement a conspiratorial air. “Our decker got in touch with the dwarves here before he got offed—” a nonchalant wave towards the riggers, who are lounged across one of the far mattresses. “Found ‘em through the ’net, figured there was gonna be some noise about this run if it was big enough. Due diligence, and all’at. Turns out we have some common history.” It’s weird to hear a troll sound so articulate; the words do not fit around his tusks like they are supposed to.
Hulder continues. “A few weeks ago, my team and I got this run… A real scrap job, just roll a small-time fixer with some big-time muscle and get out clean. Lost one guy in the snatch, but we gave ‘em more’n we got. Weird part of it was, the hiring corp didn’t want anything out of it. Not one thing, they said we could take whatever we found, and just to leave nobody alive. We cased everything, got some nice gray-market cyberware and guns ‘n ammo. And one other thing… there was a metal briefcase in with the fixer’s private stuff, we took it all and got out, and didn’t think twice about it ’til later.”
“We were keeping our loot in a safe-shed in the suburbs, with one of Jets’ boyfriends, a hired goon for hired goons. Problems start up about three nights after we cased the fixer. People in black vans driving up and down the street, hobos in Armani rags runnin’ surveillance at night. You know, sneaky back-door corp shit. We get wind of it, and the night we go to move the valuable stuff, we get a nasty surprise.”
Jets is sitting on the floor by the countertop on the right wall, rocking gently back and forth and shaking her straight, elven hair. At this point in the story, she puts her head down on her knees and seems to tense up. “Open the locker, and there’s these fuckin—I don’t know, these armored suits in there, riflin’ through our shit! They aced Jets’ boyfriend and got out with that metal case before we could stop ‘em. Roughed her up pretty bad, too. Few minutes after they disappear, the whole fraggin’ safehouse goes up, boom, real smoke-job, ‘n afterwards it was like nothin’ was there. Get back to my flat, same thing, scorched earth. Ditto for Molly, Hackworth and Cardini—we’ve been living outta hotels for weeks, watching our asses. Today was the first job we got, figured it was a lucky fuckin’ break.”
The male dwarf speaks up now, his first time communicating without a set of speakers. His voice is husky and strained, like he isn’t used to using it very often. “We were blackmailed into this job, too. We got offered the logistics end of a tactical insertion week before last. We dropped some ops team off on top of a corp HQ, were supposed to provide air support and recon until they got back.”
“The run took a lot longer than it was supposed to, and when they got out, all but two of them were gone. The guys who did get out were both shot up, and blasting their way out onto the roof. We laid down some rain and got them out fast, but they both geeked it in the chopper on the way back. Naturally, we stripped the bodies and dumped them, out in the deep lake. Nothing unusual on them as far as we could tell—the black box they were carrying just had a few megapulses of data on a SONOS-chip, and a knowsoft.”
“I don’t know how they found us, but they did. We get home that night, and some Johnson fuck is sitting in our home, and he’s threatening us, saying he’s got our place wired to blow all to hell, and that they’ve taken our daughter. Won’t tell us where, won’t tell us why, just says to hand over whatever we got off the run. We give him the black box and the guys’ gear, and he tells us to meet this morning, then leaves. We still haven’t seen our Ella.” His partner—and wife, presumably—holds his hand in a tight grip, and tears show on her rosy dwarven cheeks.
The one group left silent is the black and red Spiders, who sulk near the couch. When all eyes turn to them, they get defensive. Charlie spits acidly, “Look, chummers, we’re here on gang business and that’s all we know. If you wanna take it up with our boss, you’d be lucky to get in two words before he cuts you in half. Secrets iz secrets.” And with that, all three cross their arms and clam up.
Molly speaks up for the first time. Her voice is icy and loveless. “None of us were getting paid for this run, then. Sounds like this corp had a mess to clean up, so what’s the common thread between us all?”
Moonclaw sits upright in her folding chair, one leg crossed over the other, back and neck erect. As she listens to the other runners speak, connections begin to form in her mind, and she becomes conscious of her pulse quickening with the excitement of discovery. She breaths deep, reminding herself to maintain a rational edge and approach the situation with her eyes open to the myriad undercurrents of meaning.
“Common threads indeed,” she murmurs, fixing her gaze on Hulder. “You, troll, you said you were attacked by ‘armored suits?’ Were they like the men who we fought today?”
Ling Fei’s heart begins to race as well, but in her mind all interest in the situation at hand is lost as the dwarves tell of their lost daughter, her stomach knotting as she recalls the Johnson’s threat to her own family. The elf fumbles with her phone, finally pressing the speed-dial of her parent’s home in Taiwan, hands slick with sweat as she listens to the dial-tone.
Ling Fei’s call goes through the usual international connections, then connects to her parents’ home network. Nobody answers, and after a few moments the machine picks up; nothing unusual, it is almost 10 PM there and they may be asleep or out. She tries not to worry, but cannot get the thought out of her head that something may be wrong.
Hulder says, “Those suits in our warehouse were definitely military grade tech. Powered exoskeletons, environmental seals, reactive armor, the works. They were running hotter than the boys we tangled with today, but a big enough corp-or a nation-state-could definitely field a small tac-op like that if what they were going after was valuable enough.”
Aleister interjects, “My employer was held at ransom recently, which is the reason for our involvement here. Is it possible that we are all being blackmailed by the same entity… someone with a secret to keep? That would explain how they got us together and why they ambushed us.”
From her seat on the floor, Jets speaks up for the first time. Her voice is sing-song and airy, with the lilting inflections of the San Fernando Valley. “What about that assassin guy? The guy in black. They were after him, not us, right?”
“That’s right. I feel like we were set up as bait,” Hulder says. “I’d never seen a guy move like that before, and I know I’ve never faced him in combat.” His hand moves to the bandage across his abdomen. “What’s tying him to the corp’s Foreign Minister, and what was his motivation for attacking them in the first place? We definitely need to do some digging on this one, ‘cuz it sounds like whoever’s got it out for us has deep pockets and a nasty killin’ streak.”
Molly’s frigid tone cuts in again. “Hey, ork.” She points at Crusher. “You never told us what brings you into all this. Seems like the rest of us have met this corp before, but you haven’t said a word. Maybe you had a bad ’run you want to tell us about?” She adds suspiciously, “Anything… weird you want to get off your chest?”
Crusher eyes Molly Millions, briefly contemplating the ways in which he could crush her little razorpunk skull. He quickly checks himself, acknowledging the value of these new allies despite this leather chick’s shit attitude. He was, after all, exhausted, in pain, and extremely on edge.
He puts on a bullshit apologetic grin and shrugs his shoulders. “Yea, sorry—we’ve been sitting here grilling all’uve you and we haven’t even told our own piece. Aleister’s Johnson brought my team together on a few ’runs, which carry alot of similarities with yours.”
First job we did, picked up a messenger with a metal briefcase ‘cuffed to his hand at O’hare. Roughed him up a bit," he grins at Moonclaw, “spilled the bean pretty quick. Said he was just an average Joe, the whole wife and two kids sob. Literally shit himself begging for his life. Let on that they’d stuck him with an egg bomb—nasty fucking invention. . . saw all sorts of inventive uses for them in Iran.”
Anyways, we dropped him at the Johnsons, money in the bank. Picked up another contract by the same employer a few days later. Related? Hard t’say. The John says he hired some gangers to steal a special knowsoft and some data, but that they made off with the goods without completing their contract. Apparently the chip was cutting edge drek, could make wizards out of average folks." He squints at Moonclaw. “What was it called? Cactus something?”
The shaman regards him calmly, unamused and unsurprised by his ignorance of the awakened world. “Culexus.”
The mercenary continues. “Right, that. So, we roll up on the banger’s turf—East Coast Massive, if you’ve heard of ’em—drop a half-dozen bodies, collect the goods no problem. Get this, though—their boss slotted the damn thing himself, completely fried his noodle.”
Anyhows, we bring the goods back, payday again." Crusher pauses here, his expression darkening as he recounts his team’s most recent events. “Yesterday, our rigger Ling Fei here gets a call from a new Johnson, basically threatens us into meeting up with him at the old baseball field. We make the meet, and he tells us our new job is to protect their suit against this unknown assassin, whether we like it or not. Hostile as fuck the whole time.”
We roll up this morning, and Al here tells us our old Johnson’s been kidnapped by this new Corp, so they’re being blackmailed into the ‘run too. An’ you guys know the rest. Real shitshow."
Crusher sits for a minute, rubbing his chin while the room takes in his story. Then he continues. “So here’s my read. All three of our teams, and maybe you Spiders too, if you’d have the courtesy to share, get hired to steal these mysterious suitcases containing this cutting edge magic drek. Then, some high-powered Corp shits all over each of us and takes the cases we just stole.”
Now, if the Corp that busted into your warehouse, or kidnapped your daughter, or bagged your employer," he gestures to each of the teams in turn, “was the same Corp that originally owned the shit in the first place, they would have just taken it back. Why bother with the elaborate setups and kidnappings?”
Crusher leans forward in his seat, his cybernetic arm propping his sizable bulk up against the table.“How about this: A rival Corp wanted the knowsoft, but didn’t want to start an expensive all-out war. So they feed intel to shadowrunners who nab the tech, and then turn around and take it from the ‘runners. Adds a whole ’nother layer of separation between their goons and the merch’.”
He balled his hand into a steel fist. “Then they hire us all for one last, impossible ‘run against this mystery swordsman who’s been slaying all of their execs. If we all get cut to ribbons, then their dirty secret is tidied up. If we end up killing him, then we’ve solved their problem, and then they can geek us at will.”
The mercenary spreads his arms. “What do you guys think?”
“Nah, I don’t buy it. Too many loose ends.” Hulder says. “For one thing, if another corp just wanted what we stole, there’d be no reason to leave us alive after taking it. It wouldn’t make sense to lead us around in the dark anyway, ‘runners never know who we’re working for and there’d be ways to make sure we didn’t know what we were stealing.”
Aleister speaks up, “There’s something we’re missing. Something is tying the people in this room together, and the only thing that seems obvious is those stolen cases. But, if we don’t have the cases anymore, then what’s the common thread? And who was taking the cases from us?”
“Maybe it was the same corp.” Everyone turns, surprised—Bakcha makes himself heard from the couch for the first time. He explains himself, “Crusher, what you said got me thinking. It makes sense that the corp owned the shit before. Sounds like in all our runs, tech got stolen and someone was getting it back. Then we got blackmailed into dealing with their assassin for them. But why did it have to be the teams that handled the cases, why all this morning, and why on their terms?”
“Interesting.” Hulder folds his arms skeptically, and sits down on the metahuman-sized couch. “That assassin attacked us first. He went after our lead guard when he could’ve just snuck the limo and scragged the target. He might’ve wanted to kill us, too.”
“There’s another thing that’s botherin’ me. A guy like that, he’s not some merc-for-hire. He was an adept, and adepts with those kinda skills, they ain’t trained, they’re bred. And since killers like that don’t whore themselves out for ‘yen, there’s probably a personal reason we were on his shit list.”
Aleister speaks again, “Then our assassin friend is tied to whatever it is that we all have in common. If it’s not the cases, then I don’t know what. Obviously, we need more intel on two things: him, and the Culexus items.” This jogs Ling Fei’s memory, and she recalls the favor she called in to Audell before this run; maybe it has turned up additional info on the corp.
Hulder stands with a grunt of effort. “Alright, then. If we ain’t got any objections, we’ll meet back here in two days. Find out what you can by then, keep contact if you must, but I don’t know if meeting anywhere else in person is going to be a great idea. Stay frosty, chummers, I have a feeling that blade-chuckin’ asshole in the PJ’s is gunnin’ for us.”
Moonclaw speaks up, her voice soft and aggressive. “Aleister is right, there is a common thread between us, and more must be rooted out about the knowsofts and the assassin before we have the truth.”
The shaman directs her gaze at any who care to meet it, the head-on, unblinking, wide-eyed stare of a creature who does not regard humans as her kind. “But I think there is more common knowledge to uncover before we part ways. I, at least, have more questions to ask.”
She begins to recite questions as if from a mental list. “Did anyone assence the knowsofts other than us? The item we recovered carried a bound toxic spirit, but I would be curious to know if the other chips were the same.”
She turns her head ever so slightly to regard the rigger couple. “Did you halflings manage to access the data on the SONOS-chip before it was taken from you?”
“And the assassin,” she turns now to the gangers, “you are trained in the arts of the blade. Did any of you recognize his technique as belonging to a particular school or discipline? Moreover, has anyone seen movements of such an. . .” she pauses, searching for the right word, “occlusive nature? I believe his evasive talents stretched belong the capacities of a mere. . physical adept.” She utters these last words as if they left a bitter taste in her mouth. “Perhaps he was enchanted by a more awakened accomplice before his attack?”
She twists her neck to address Aleister. “Hermetic, did you have a chance to see his aura? I admit I was too busy conjuring to use my sight.”
Hulder seems to give Moonclaw the cold shoulder at first. Clearly, he is someone who would rather put his trust in gunpowder and metal before mystics and conjurers. He also looks like he’s itching to get out of the safehouse. Then, he snaps his large fingers, as if something has just occurred to him. “Ya know, I do remember Cardini said something about that case. Said it gave him a splittin’ headache. Said we should get rid of it as fast as possible, and he wouldn’t ride in the truck with it. I figured he was just havin’ his time o’ month, but maybe there was something else to it.” The rest of the mercenaries look around, but nobody else here is Awakened, least of all the cybered ork gangers and plugged-up riggers, so no further information is available.
The male rigger bristles a bit at being called a ‘halfling’, and replies tersely, “No, that data was encrypted. We would have been able to crack it with time, but the Johnson took it off our hands before we had the chance.”
Bakcha’s hand comes to rest on the end of his katana, worn in the traditional place at his hip, but bolted into his armor instead of tied with an obi. He wipes at the blood on his broken nose, “I saw his style once on a wushu competition on the ’trid.” Like many blade-bearing gangers, the Spiders teach themselves and each other the art of the blade, with no formal sensei. Those that could not master their weapons generally did not survive; thus the style maintains its rigor.
“It looks like a Chinese style, all those fancy moves and spins. Thought it was faggy as hell when I saw it. Those swords don’t look like they could hold up to real steel, either—they was all floppy and loose, not cut up for street work. Never seen one used in combat before.”
Hulder speaks up again. “I have. This one time, workin’ in the Tir.” Ling Fei’s ears perk up. Non-elves aren’t supposed to be allowed to do military work within the Elven nation. “This group ‘a privateers and me, we’re invited in to this meet-‘n-greet. Buncha corporate elf-types wanna show off and get in good with the fraggin’ outsiders gonna do all their dirty work for ‘em. So they bring us to this Chinese-lookin’ pagoda, sit us down and feed us all kinds’a crap, eels on sticks and fried tofu, cups of fuckin’ tea. Those elves, they really see eye-to-eye with the slopes, s’way I figger, ‘cause they’re all from the same place. Asia used to be the cradle of civilization, right? Stands to reason there’d be some old elven blood out East.”
Charlie starts to look impatient. “Anwyay, we’re sitting down, all smilin’ and bullshittin’. This server comes forward to clear the plates for the Elven officials, and before you know it, there’s this sword in his hand. Cut his jacket clean off his back when he drew it. Fuckin’ beheads the two guys in front of him, and turns to charge down the rest of the table, yellin’ in Sperethiel. Me ‘n the crew flip up our wires and blew his ass to pieces, right in front of the ambassador. Funny seein’ straight-edge guys pickin’ brains offa their suits like that. But yeah, I’d recognize that elf shit anywhere, same moves, same dodgy bladework, same purpose: assassination.”
After a moment, Aleister weighs in on the assassin’s aura. “I don’t think that he was enchanted, Moonclaw. I didn’t look at him astrally either, but he exhibited all the talents of your usual physical adept; refined to an incredible degree, true, but still more or less things that any Awakened could achieve with time. And anybody can hide in a smoke screen, particularly someone with ninjutsu training.”
Charlie shakes her head. “I dunno, doc. When me and Bakcha were in that smoke cloud, we couldn’t see or hear shit. And we would have.” She taps a metal ear. “It was like he was really gone, like a spell was on him makin’ him part of that smoke.”
“That’s right,” Bakcha agrees. “I’ve tangled with adepts and ninjas before, and none of them’s ever been that good. This guy was fast, strong and quiet. Nobody I’ve seen before has been all of those things all at once, not like this guy. I think someone else was helping him out.”
Crusher hauls himself to his feet, surveying the rag-tag group of runners assembled in his safehouse. His eyes are orbs of matte black, etched with concentric metallic rings where his irises should be. “Right then, all debates aside, I think we have our marching orders. We’re digging for two things: a corp with ties to all of us an’ these Culexus chips, and this assassin, possibly with Chinese or even Tir Tairngire ties. We’ll meet back here in two days, midnight sharp.”
Ling Fei speaks up for the first time as Crusher hefts his heavy pistol. “I’ve been thinking, and well. . . if these people know about our homes and families, and even our comm numbers, we’ll all have to start from scratch if we’re actually going to be moving against them out there.”
Her simple good looks strike a hard contrast with the augmented robustus and ingentis sprawled about her, their heavy armor uniformly caked in blood. “In order to keep safe, we’ll have to get disposable phones, stay away from our homes, and make our meets in new locations.”
Crusher gives a silent nod, confirming her advice as sound. He moves to the door, priming his combat implants, his senses sharpening as the world slows to a crawl with the sickly artificial adrenaline boost of his ’wires. Brandishing his Browning, he cracks the heavy door and leans his head out, checking the corridor for signs of danger.
A quick check to either side reveals that the corridor looks clear. Hulder gives Crusher a knowing glance as his team makes an uneasy exit. The dwarves follow, but the Spiders tarry, asking whether they can recuperate in the saferoom until their comrades can retrieve them.
The rigger’s drone has been circling the building slowly, keeping to the shadows. It chases off one last vagrant as the other runner teams exit, and then the dwarves climb into their Westwind and head South.
Hulder climbs into the cab of Jets’ truck, and his spritely elven driver leaps in beside him. Molly climbs into the bed and her lithe, muscled arms pop the receiver of their late-model M60 machine gun. She clears the broken links from the top of the vehicle, slaps a new belt into place and racks the first round into position. The glassy lenses over her eyes regard Crusher’s team coldly as they drive away, heading East.
Crusher, Moonclaw and Ling Fei are left alone outside the safehouse. The day has already broken, and it is now between 9 and 10 AM. The usual cold wind rustles their clothes, and a few clouds cut across the sky, heading inland. The sun does little to lessen the Chicago chill.
Crusher hails the Spiders on his headset, inviting them to make themselves at home, and lock up when they leave. Closing the radio channel, he takes a moment to collect himself, his accomplices waiting patiently to either side of his immense form.
Moonclaw looks the ork over with her sight, gauging the warrior’s health and emotional state. His essence is rough, worn in like old leather. What’s left of his spirit is crisscrossed with the negative space of his implants, dark lines running along his spine and out into his limbs, the glow of his chest, arms, and thighs muddled with the opacity of subdermal plating. His entire right arm is a void, and his eyes are black pits which make her stomach turn. His chest still throbs with the fresh wound, and she can read Aleister’s hasty healing spell, a web of calculated infusions designed to bind the wound like a surgeon’s thread.
Something else about Crusher’s aura catches the shaman’s eyes, a minute whorling pattern which slowly works about his torso, like the movement of clouds viewed from high orbit. She has seen such phenomena only a handful of times in her life, in the most expensive foci adorning Talismania’s back room, and in her own totemic mask as well—the mark of ancient magic, originating before the Awakening. She blinks and looks again, but the effect seems to have faded, if it was ever present at all. She reasons that her assencing must be skewed by his ’wares, for if his aura was truly pre-awakening, that would make the mercenary 50 or older, and orks rarely lived past 45. Besides, his physical fitness showed him to be far younger than that. The anomaly was curious, to be sure, but Moonclaw was tired. Perhaps she was seeing things.
Crusher let out a weary sigh and looked down at the two women, doing up the buckles of his armored vest. His assault rifle dangling heavily from his shoulders beneath the stiff folds of his lined greatcoat. “Shall we?”
The rigger gave a wry smile, and beyond them the armored van roared to life in its spot on the street, spewing oily diesel exhaust. Crusher begins to trudge towards the vehicle, adjusting his wide-brimmed hat over his horns, which draws a chuckle from Ling Fei as she strides beside him.
The mercenary scowls at her. “What?”
“That hat,” she laughs back. “It’s so out of fashion. Only an old geezer would wear that thing.”
Crusher guffawed loudly, finding the jab far funnier than he should have. “Fuck you, elf. I like my hat.”
Padding double-time to keep up with the metatype’s long legs, Moonclaw raises an eyebrow at Crusher’s unusual response.
Boxcar’s doors pop as they approach, and the team settles into their usual seats. “Where to, big dog?” Ling Fei queries as she jacks in.
“Well, I’d like to check in with a barkeep I know downtown, and I know a guy with military ties who might know something about a fighter of this caliber.”
“Don’t you think we should check in with Doc Matthews first? She wasn’t answering my calls. What if something’s happened to her?” Ling Fei worried.
“No.” Moonclaw cut in flatly. “We don’t have the time to check in on people who won’t have any information. I have a contact with leads to both technological and arcane matters. If anyone can help us, he can. Moreover,” she added, “he can set us up with burner phones so we can make secure calls.”
Both women turn in their seats, looking to Crusher to make the final decision. “I have’ta go with Moonclaw on this one, Ling. Harriett’s my friend too, but we’re in too much hot soup to be guided by sympathies.”
Ling Fei reluctantly puts the transport in gear, snaking out of the ork slum and cutting east across the city’s suburbs to the docks of southern Chicago.
The docks surrounding Audell’s shop have gone unused for the six years since the emergence of the Containment Zone. During the quarantine, shipments received at Chicago seaports were subject to rigorous government “inspections”, which meant, more often than not, that the contents were seized and sold in black markets. Maritime trade between Chicago and Southern parts of Quebec suffered, harming the city’s businesses and forcing it to become more reliant on aid and commerce from within the UCAS.
As a result of this depleted use, the docks suffered as areas of business. After only six years, the entire wharf front around Lake Calumet and its feeder channels has transformed from major industrial to run-down residential. Some commercial enterprises survive, mostly entrepreneurs like Audell Scarlett, who run their businesses out of their homes.
The door is opened after the secret knock is exchanged. Audell welcomes them into his home/storefront, a space cluttered with electronics gadgets, and immediately begins. “You guys have gotten into it big. I’m no hacker, but from the IC surrounding this data, it looks like you guys have gotten yourself into some serious shit.”
He pulls himself over to a deck with a live Matrix feed displayed on an external trid set. He grabs the ‘dumb’ manual controls and navigates slowly through the net, speaking as he goes. “See this yellow SAN here? This is the entry point to Wuxing, Inc.‘s headquarters in Hong Kong. They’re new to the megacorp game, they just got their triple-A and a spot up in Zurich-Orbital, so they’re hungry to make a name for themselves. And it looks like they’ve got a hell of a project to do it.”
Audell punches up some rudimentary spoofing procedures and sleazes past the initial gateways. “This is as far into their systems as I could get on my own. See, it’s your standard internal portal, has access for employees, links to the main datastores and Wuxing’s primary departments: shipping, finances, consumer goods and services, typical corp wage-slave shit. But yer story intrigued me, so I rang up a chummer o’ mine, real deckhead, y’know, and he was able to dig up some paydirt.”
The image sinks back through the Wuxing architecture and the deck disconnects from the Matrix, now running its own internal file systems. “I don’t ask how he does it, but he gave me a couple megapulses of data which you’ll be interested in…”
The deck’s internal storage is rendered as a white room with files arranged on the walls, and a worktable in the middle. Ivory filing cabinets ring the space, and the deck’s view shifts to one of them. An invisible hand opens the top drawer and the files within fly across the room to display themselves in a preconfigured pattern on the far wall.
Audell turns around in his chair, explaining, “So, like most big corps, Wuxing has their hands in a lot of stuff. What they’re really known for amongst members of the Pacific Prosperity Group is their research into abnormal magical applications, especially stuff like this—” The terminal view flies to a white paper marked ‘CLASSIFIED’, and the first few pages flip back, revealing a header in large black font: ‘Ancient Spirits of the Elements: Applications, Research and Development.’
“The rest of this doc is mostly legalese, but at the back is where it gets juicy. Tell me if this looks familiar..” An image floats across the screen, and Moonclaw feels chills run down her spine. It’s a schematic of the Culexus knowsoft, all of the printed circuitry and hardware laid out plain as day. The patterns in the circuitboards are arranged in hermetic circles and ideograms, fulfilling their dual purpose of channeling both magic and electricity.
“You’d mentioned something like this, so I had my guy dig into this project some more. Seems like Wuxing found a way to harness spirits and bind them onto physical objects. As of now, they haven’t figured out how to get the spirits to do anything, not without human input anyway.”
Another image flicks up on the screen, showing a wide warehouse floor, bare but for a gigantic ritual circle in the middle, covered in blood. “This was taken by a team of runners infiltrating the Wuxing presence here in Chicago, on an unrelated run from yours. Their report says it looks like a site used for ‘ritual blood magic’, but you’ll have to ask someone else what the hell that means. The team that went in followed a bunch of elves looked like they were straight out of Tir Tairngire, said they were all Awake except for one guy, and when they came back out of the warehouse, the mundane wasn’t with them. They think they were trying out this spirit-binding tech on people, but that’s some major-league conspiracy stuff, nobody really believes it’s possible.”
Audell coughs, and shifts in his seat uncomfortably. “Getting at the higher-ups in Wuxing is going to be tough, if not impossible. I’d consider it a dead end, unless you can figure out who in the corp knows about this stuff, and where they are. Personally, I think there are angles to this thing that haven’t made themselves clear. Maybe someone else in the Awakened world has heard something that can be of use.”
“Now,” he slides back, all business. “I’m a friend, but I got needs too, and I don’t work for free. Is there something else you need from me, or should we talk payment for services rendered?”
Moonclaw uncrosses her legs and rises deliberately from her seat in front of the ’trid. “No, Audell, that is all the datawork we need for now. If you can furnish us with three pre-paid comm sets, we can be on our way.” Her hand goes for a credstick tucked into a belt pouch.
Throughout Audell’s presentation, Crusher has been jotting down names and connections in a small leatherbound notebook. He hauls himself to his feet beside Moonclaw, tapping his pad with the nub of his pencil. “Actually, brother, there is one more thing you could help us with—this runner group, the ones that did recon on the Tir doing the blood, uh, stuff. If you can get us in contact with them, it’ll be more easy cred in your pocket.”
Ling Fei is the last to stand, clearly still a little dazed by the volume and portent of the new findings. “Sir, would you mind putting a copy of those files on this, for posterity?” She produces a small data unit from her jacket pocket and hands it to Audell. “The amount of information you’ve been able to collect here is really pretty impressive. Although, as you can tell, it looks like we’re a long, long way from any sort of payday. I hope that in light of our situation you can give us your most. . . competitive pricing.”
[Ling Fei uses her Negotation (Bargaining): 3(5) skill.]
Audell takes Ling Fei’s data unit and places it on the transfer circuit embedded in his desk. Activity lights in the small pad glow blue for a moment, and then he hands the unit back [2 MP of data have been written to the data unit]. He stands and moves toward a back room, but pauses for a second to give Crusher an admonishing look. “You should know that I can’t tell you anything about my other clients. You wouldn’t want me selling your information to Wuxing, would you? Doublecrossing runners is a great way to get killed.”
The lanky African’s tan shoulders roll as he rummages through a plastic trash bag. He stands and produces three shrink-wrapped handsets from the bag, just cheap plastic cell phones about the size of a cigarette pack, and hands them to each team member. His hands tarry as he gives Ling Fei her phone, and he smiles at the pretty elf. “Well… I guess I don’t have much to worry about competition. You can have the phones for free, but I already paid my netrunner, and I can’t just write that off.” He shrugs, “his bill came to ¥1,200, which is friend prices considering what he risked to get that info. Believe me, he could have gotten much more for that on the black market. You’ve got my word that you’re the only ones’re gonna see that information, though.”
“Fair enough, sir.” Ling Fei tucks the phone and data unit into her armored jacket and gives the tech peddler a smile as she turns to leave. “Thanks for all your help with this.”
Crusher steps up next and gives him a terse handshake, taking care not to crush the man’s hand. “Well thanks for all the info, Audell. Guess I can’t fault you for watching your own hide out here.”
Moonclaw lets him swipe her credstick as the others shuffle out. “Your services were of quality, as usual, Mr. Scarlett.” She gives him a nod. “May the spirits watch over you.”
The trio heads back to the waiting van, each one wary and on edge. Ling Fei worries to her companions as they climb back in. “Holy shit. . . Can you believe this? Wuxing?”
Moonclaw cuts her off impatiently. “Our time is short. We can discuss on the way to our next destination. I’d like to show those files to a talismonger I know, near Columbus park off 290. Unless some else has a better idea?”
Crusher nods. “Sounds good. Punch it, Ling.”
Ling Fei fumbles with the rigger jack, and within moments they are cruising back down I-90. Her voice comes in nervous over Boxcar’s intercom. “I can’t believe we’re up against Wuxing—I mean, we’re totally fucked. How can a dozen runners possibly survive with an entire megacorp after us?”
Crusher does his best to sooth her from the backseat. “Alright, calm down Ling. I’ve gone up against bigger things than corps and I’m still breathing. It sounds like you know of them?”
“Okay, yeah, I guess there’s no use freaking out about it. Yeah, I know about Wuxing, ‘course I do. The name means ’five elements.’ In ancient Chinese culture they referred to the five elements for everything: medicine, philosophy, feng shui, you name it. Don’t know what the name has to do with the corp itself though.
“Wuxing is from Hong Kong. They founded the Pacific Prosperity Group two years ago, which was responsible for challenging the Japanese domination of the southeast Asian markets. At least where I’m from in Taiwan, they’re almost like heroes.” She sighs, a strange sound to hear coming from a vehicle. “If they had only come around sooner, my dad might still have his business.”
Crusher snorts. “And now they’re trying to kill us.”
Moonclaw cuts in. “I’ve heard of Wuxing a few times myself, but only in passing. They do a great deal of research on the nature of spirits. I’ve read a few of their articles online. In retrospect I’m not surprised they’re the ones behind this.”
In the back seat, Crusher puzzles over his notepad, absentmindedly rubbing at his enlarged teeth. “So Wuxing made the chip, but what about these Tir Tairngire elves, and their. . what is it. . ‘blood magic’?”
“They must be related to the assassin we fought this afternoon,” Ling Fei’s voice crackles. “Audell said that there was only one mundane with them, and he didn’t come out. Maybe this odd one out is the assassin, somehow estranged from the group?”
Moonclaw shakes her head. “Even given what I have seen these past few weeks, I cannot believe that a mundane could be given such powers as he had, regardless of the means. No, I believe the mundane didn’t come out because he was sacrificed—blood magic is so named because it requires a blood offering. It is powerful, and quite illegal in this country.”
“Ah, that makes a lot more sense,” Crusher says excitedly. “The pieces are coming together. Most straightforward explanation would be. .” he jots a few more notes down on his pad. "Wuxing loses track of their Culexus chip, hires these East Coast Massive thugs to get it back. They drek it up, Johnson brings us in to retrieve it. But Johnny tries to cross Wuxing, he gets plucked, and lands us in the soup too. This assassin has some sort of beef with Wuxing, and they throw us all in the mix to try to tie things off.
“I’m gonna call a buddy o’ mine, see if he can confirm that it was the Tir and Wuxing that were throwing down today.” He works his new com unit angrily, his orkish fingers too unwieldy for the human-sized keypad. “Damn thing. . so small. . ah, it’s ringing. Hey, Rawls, got a few quick ones for you. I got in a scrap today, and I need to confirm who I was fighting. First off, tell me what you know about Wuxing Inc., specifically, if armored vans and suits packing Preds’ fit the bill. Second, I need to know what you’ve heard about Tir Tairngire activity in Chi town, especially relating to Wuxing.”
The military grunt’s voice on the other end of the line is taxed and hoarse, probably as a result of his ceaseless training. “Hey Crusher, sorry to hear you went into action without me. I haven’t heard about Wuxing specifically, but a well-equipped outfit like a corp would probably field something along those lines. Usually if they’re operating inside urban centers —seems like the stigma about that has died down recently —they won’t bring out the really big guns.”
Boxcar’s engine hums along, merging them onto the 90-94 split. “I don’t know much about elves operating in Chicago, either- sorry, bud. You know those elves: they usually keep shut traps to everyone but their own.”
“Alright, I’ll be in touch Rawls. Thanks.” Crusher pockets his phone and shakes his head. “No dice. We’ll just have to wait and see what Moonclaw’s contact has to say.”
Usually, the bazaar around Talismana is a bustling place of paranormal commerce, but this morning it is eerily quiet. The lean-to inventory shacks and vendor stands are mostly empty, and those sellers that are present are nervous and on-edge, lacking the usual cries extolling their magical wares.
The team makes its way cautiously through the open-air market, heading to the far left corner where the lower floors of some abandoned apartment complexes have been re-purposed to create a strip mall-style series of shops and boutiques. Here is where Mesay and some other enterprising traffickers of magical items have set up their places of business.
Dust runs in streaks across the inside windows of Talismana. The windows display their accustomed set of wares, but the unusual silence of the courtyard around it, coupled with the events of that morning, have made the team more wary than usual.
The door to the shop stands ajar, another item out of place. There is no familiar jingle of the crystal bell when the door is pushed open. For no certain reason, the hairs on the back of Crusher’s hand stand up as the door swings open to reveal… an empty shop.
Mesay is not behind the counter; even the squawks and screeches of the paranimals cannot be heard. There is a door leading to the rear of the building, covered with a lilac curtain just behind the counter at the far wall. The rest of the store seems to be untouched.
Moonclaw gestures to the others to stay put and quietly draws her pistol.
Crusher pulls his Max Power in one fluid sweep and ducks between two dusty shelves, watching for danger from without.
Ling Fei hesitates at the sight of her partners’ weapons, unsure of what to do with herself. She finds her composure and takes cover in the aisle opposite Crusher. Heart thumping, she fumbles for her own pistol, the holdout piece diminutive compared to Crusher’s large-bore slug thrower.
The shaman pauses at the entrance of the talismonger’s shop and focuses her senses upon the astral plane, casting over the room for a sign of her contact.
The store is silent as the grave, and a lonely wind creaks the hinges on the blue door, ringing the crystal bell gently. Silence draws taught like a noose as the team scans their surroundings. Crusher can neither see nor hear anything amiss as he surveys the area; no other patrons appear to be approaching or entering the store from the outside.
Moonclaw stands tall and focuses inward, calming her sense and letting the sensory input of the familiar store wash over her, trying to see the place for what it is, and not what she knows it to be. A few moments pass and she cannot perceive anything amiss on the physical.
Turning her attentions to the astral plane, the world blooms into life in front of her, and the interior of the shop radiates blinding light, each magical item glowing with it’s own magical essence. A sealed rack of staves lights up like a lamp, and in the sudden illumination she assenses something… a familiar presence, like the smell of a childhood home long since departed . The feeling fades as quickly as it came over her leaving her with a faint notion of dread.
Turning her attention to the door in the back of the shop, she can perceive a faint life force just beyond the wall opposite, slumped down on the floor in the back of the shop. The aura is distinctly that of Mesay, but his strength appears to be ebbing.
Moonclaw strides softly down the main aisle, back arched and pistol held ready, alert for signs of danger as she approaches the rear door. [Moonclaw is using her sneaking 5 skill].
Taking on the airs of her feline counterpart, the spec-ops-trained shaman expertly maneuvers down the center of the store, keeping low and making no noise. Reaching the back counter, she can hear a faint, wet breathing originating somewhere behind the purple curtains.
Her senses still upon the astral realm, Moonclaw ducks beneath the curtain and enters the back room, weapon at the ready.
Talismana’s storage area is a rectangular room cluttered by a dusty jumble of books, boxes and cages. The room opens up out to Moonclaw’s right, and as she brushes the curtain back to get a better view, she sees a pair of legs protruding from a pile of books and broken glass jars.
Looking closer, she can see it is Mesay. He has been badly beaten, and his face is swollen and bloodied. One arm hangs at a painful angle, broken at the elbow. He makes no movement as she enters, but her astral sight tells her that he is not yet dead.
Ever cautious, the cat shaman scans the back room with her sight, alert for signs of the talismonger’s assailant.
A metal emergency door leads out from the back of this room, opening onto a small alley in the back of the shop, skies criss crossed above with the forgotten laundry of long-vacated tenants. The back of this alley ends in a T-intersection with another brick building, chipped mortar heavy with faded grafitti. Moonclaw checks the alley and the room quickly, but nobody is present.
Turning back to the room and the wounded man, one thing disturbs her. The aura of the attacker is still present, faint but noticeable, and it appears that he had magical company. The color of the residual presence is neither completely human nor completely otherworldly, but a little of both. Whatever it was, it was certainly Awakened, and it traveled the physical realm as if inhabiting a body, but also left marks on the astral, much in the same manner as spirits. Consulting her magical background and Sioux mythology, she does not think she has ever seen anything like it before.
The man on the floor groans, feebly, “He… help us… the hand of Iehov has come… come to right our wrongs…”
Satisfied for her own safety, Moonclaw holsters her sidearm and slinks to the talismonger’s side. She draws close, taking care not to kneel in the blood seeping from his broken form. “Mesay,” she whispers, “what has done this to you?”
“The left hand of God. A man in black, with twisted arm… looking for you. Beware, cat, this dog….” he loses consciousness with a boody splutter and slumps backwards amidst his books.
A look of mild concern crosses the shaman’s face. She pinches her sub-vocal mic to radio her team, “Get in here you two. My contact is down, I may need you to patch him up if his wounds are too old.”
Moonclaw pauses for a moment to listen for the sound of her teammate’s feet. Satisfied of their coming, she turns her otherworldly sense fully upon the old man, scrying his broken form for signs of life and the age of his injuries.
Several wounds and blunt impact marks mar the African man’s aura. The extent of the damage is severe for the small number of injuries he has sustained; the shaman deduces that the power behind each must have been devastating. Unfortunately, they are too old for her to heal magically; her suspicions are roused when she realizes that they must have come from earlier that dawn, mere hours before their conflict with the assassin.
Crusher comes thudding into the back room, Browning raised, with Ling Fei following closely behind. She rushes to Moonclaw’s side as Crusher moves to check the back alley.
“Holy shit, what happened here?” she demands, checking the talismonger’s pulse and breath.
“Something powerful,” Moonclaw indicates his broken arm, “using physical strikes, most likely of a paranormal nature. Anyway,” she sighs, standing, “there’s nothing I can do for him.”
Crusher curses under his breath as he takes a better look at Mesay’s shattered form. “Well Ling, he gonna make it?”
The elf ascertains the state and severity of the injuries. It’s hard to discern, but the African’s wounds seem deadly. He may not survive on his own, and certainly won’t stabilize without medical attention.
“Shit,” Ling Fei sighs, withdrawing her doubled fingers from Mesay’s neck. "He’s bleeding out quick. Uh. . " She hesitates for a moment, her voice wavering with stress. “Let’s see, uh, Moonclaw—find some cloth in this dump. Crusher, run back to the van and grab the medkit.”
Crusher grunts and hustles back outside to grab the kit. Moonclaw hesitates. “Honestly? Can’t you just wait for Crusher to get back with the gauze?” Receiving no response, she growls and begins to cast about the cluttered boxes for a bolt of clean cloth.
The rigger thinks back on her brief experience with Harriet Matthews, trying to imagine what the old street doc would do to stabilize a man who was bleeding out. Suddenly, Ling Fei recalls that Matthews hadn’t been answering her com calls, immediately filling her with worry.
She shakes it off, willing herself to focus on the task at hand. She gathers what’s left of his shirt to begin staunching his wounds, doing a more thorough job as Crusher arrives with the medical supplies.
The old man’s body responds well; as Ling Fei ties off bandages above the wounds, the blood flow slows enough for her to add some QuickClot, which seeps into the cut flesh and hardens the blood into thick, black scales. She takes another look at his left arm, which is clearly broken, but decides not to set it there for risk of causing more hemorrhaging. There is not much she can do for the internal bleeding and bruised organs, but for now, his condition is stabilized. He still needs to be taken to an intensive care unit to recuperate; he might be unconscious for days yet, or weeks, before he is able to speak or give information related to the attack.
Ling Fei leans back, her hands caked with layers of Mesay’s blood and the powdery clotting agent. She wipes her brow with the sleeve of her armored jacket and looks up at her teammates. “I got him stabilized, somehow. . . but he’s still bleeding internally. He won’t make it without real medical attention. We need to get him to a hospital, or at least to Doc Matthew’s, but she wasn’t picking up her phone this morning.”
Moonclaw huffs contemptuously. “A hospital? If Wuxing found him—a SINless immigrant in the projects—what makes you think they won’t know if he gets checked into a hospital? He’d be better off bleeding out here on concrete.”
“She may be right,” Crusher snarls. “A street doc is his best option.” Real concern flashes over the mercenary’s face as he considers the possibility that his old friend was visited by the same people who came for Moonclaw’s contact. “I’ll try her again,” he says, dialing her number on his new phone.
The ork checks his watch as he listens to the dial tone, trying to gauge how much time the party has left until their scheduled meetup with the other ’runners.
It is only a little before noon, and Crusher estimates they have about two and a half days until the scheduled midnight meetup with the other runners, back at Crusher’s safe house. He wonders idly what the other teams are doing to keep their heads out of trouble. They all seem like experienced runners, which as a matter of course means they are good at hiding; you don’t get far in the shadows without knowing where the searchlight is shining.
The dialtone on Matthews’ end of the line is a muted insect drone in Crusher’s ear. Eventually, however, the call is answered by a young-sounding ork youth; it must be the Doc’s assistant. “Doc M’s chop ’n shop—you blast ’em, we patch ’em. What is the nature of the medical emergency?”
Crusher grins widely and gives the thumbs up to his teammates.
“We’re taking him to another one of our contacts?” Moonclaw asks sarcastically. “Considering the situation, I hardly feel like that’s the most logical step.”
Ling Fei shoots a nasty look in the shaman’s direction. “For god’s sake Moonclaw, he’s your friend. Don’t you want him to live?”
“Come on,” Crusher adds, “we might even be in time to save her from whatever did. . . this.” He gestures to the battered man at his feet.
“Hey kid,” the ork calls into the phone, “Is the doc in? I got a bleeder here.”
The tinny ork voice on the other end mumbles something unintelligible, followed by a muted yelling to someone else in the room. The phone is dropped once, clattering painfully in Crusher’s ear, and then, for a few seconds, silence. When he gets back to Crusher, he seems out of breath. “You an ork? This Crusher? Yeah, we’re—she’s in surgery. It’s Monday, so it’ll probably get real busy in here; try to make it before the noon rush if you want a good spot in line.”
“Alright,” Crusher barks, “we’re on our way.” He nods to Ling Fei. “Bring the van around, let’s get him loaded up.” The rigger nods, then glazes over as she sends commands to Boxcar’s pilot system.
Crusher stoops and gingerly collects Mesay from the floor, then carries him slowly outside. Ling Fei rushes ahead of him to prepare the van for their newest trauma victim.
Moonclaw lingers in the back room, wondering whether she should object more seriously to taking Mesay to another one of their contacts. She knows each meeting is an opportunity for Wuxing to sniff them out, and fears that their luck may be running out.
Ultimately, though, if Mesay survives his wounds he could have vital information, despite his cryptic mannerisms. Moonclaw has spent enough time on the street to know the difference between insane ranting and mystic insight, and hopes she is right in believing that Mesay speaks the latter.
Still, she cannot shake the foreboding feeling that she is missing something. Something crucial. The cat shaman snarls quietly to herself, then takes one last look through the store for any valuables which might be of use before following her team out of the shop.
The back room is cluttered with the evidence of Mesay’s struggle, but it is, after all, a shamanic supply shop, and literally full of temptations for an Awakened burglar. The contents of a large bookcase are turned over in front of her, and beneath torn parchments and spilt spellbooks, she can spy many valuable magical radicals, ritual materials, and reagents. She looks around the room for more items of worth.
There is a glass case of assorted semiprecious stones and trinket jewlery by the far exit door. It is obvious their value is not material, and the glass case suggests they were designed to appear that way. Moonclaw guesses they are minor foci, but minds that they may be bound to the store’s proprietor. Stereotypically, a gnarled and twisted wooden staff leans between this case and the doorframe, looking discarded but worldly.
A large standing cupboard hang its doors on bent hinges by the door leading back to the store proper. There are assorted animal pelts, horns and teeth, and dried plant material spilling from runed glass vials. A silty powder cascades to the floor, forming a half-hourglass between the wide wood slats. Moonclaw thinks she could increase the efficacy of her shamanic lodge by sanctifying some of these items.
The back corner of the room is blocked off by a rectangular, ceiling-height metal barricade, covered with a large, heavy chain and padlock. It is the only feature in the room that does not appear to be damaged by the fight. Mesay is a talismonger, so the shaman guesses that this must be the supplies for his enchanting shop. He probably utilizes the shop on the roof or out on the docks, as the enchanting process sometimes involves smelting and processing metals. The only thing of use to someone without the skill to enchant items would be the ancient recipes and secrets involved with each enchanting.
She finishes her survey of the place. There will obviously be magical shielding or tracking wards on the more valuable items, and she feels dubious about robbing her friend’s business. The items surrounding her are probably worth a small fortune in the right hands, though, and the temptation to help herself to them is palpable.
This is the first time Moonclaw has considered stealing from someone she knows well, and she stands stock still in the room, her body tensed as if someone were watching. The reasonable choice would be restraint—her relationship with Mesay was valuable, and he would be a foolish talismonger indeed if he did not notice her using a piece of his own merchandise.
The shaman slinks warily to the glass case, already beginning to covet the items within. magical gear is incredibly expensive, she reasons with herself, far beyond the kind of cash she was banking. And Moonclaw could use an edge, especially now. If it came down to it, she could always lie, perhaps say she took it from a man she killed. Or that she was holding it for him, to keep it from being stolen by someone else. Either way, leaving the back door open would invite other robbers to cover her tracks.
Moonclaw shifts her sight to the astral plane and browses hungrily through the arrayed wares for foci of considerable power or interest, as well as signs of protective enchantments.
Moonclaw brushes her hand reflexively past the glass-encased collection, pausing at each piece to assess its worth. Some bear the hallmarks of custom pieces, being bound to spell categories and functions unknown, their function surely as mysterious to Moonclaw as most of the store’s inventory would be to any mundane.
All of the items’ astral signatures match that of Mesay, so pervasive is his mark on his wares; it is as if tiny arrows are pointing out their owner’s location at all times. An astral signature is a delicate thing, like a person’s scent and image and personality all rolled into the same sensory experience. It is impossible to mistake one person’s astral signature from another’s in the same way that it is impossible to mistake a stranger’s voice from that of a close friend. All in all, once an Awakened is acquainted with your astral self, the quirks and nuances of that self are not easily forgotten.
She picks out the points of power in the case. Those items that have required more than a cursory bonding stand out to her like lamplights to a moth, and her hand pauses an extra fragment of a second over each. The most powerful focus she can assense in the collection is a generic sustaining focus in the shape of a bone ring, fashioned from the hollowed knucklebone of a large, feral feline. Its strength stands out amongst its neighbors, but it is still not quite capable of sustaining very powerful magicks on its own.
Two more bright beacons draw her attention as well, another ring, this one of ivory, and a jade charm in the shape of an elephant. The first radiates a feeling of emptiness and void; the shaman twists the emotions in her head and realizes it must be a magic nullification charm, meant to aid in magical defense. The elephant grins a heartwarming, tusked green grin at her, and flashes once in the morning light. A matronly feeling cascades from its polished surfaces, and despite elephant spirits being uncommon outside of the voodoo pratices, she can understand that this one wants only to improve the wounds of others. It would make a good healing amulet.
Small bags of ash cling to one another in static embrace, leather tongs coiled loosely around the bags proper. Moonclaw guesses that these contain foci for the summoning of spirits, one bag for each specific domain, containing materials that would aid a magician in drawing out a spirit of that plane. One sack is leaking powdered glass, a sure sign that it’s use was intended to be conjuring city spirits. The others are filled with various forms of dried plant matter and animal refuse, in abstract representation of most of the accepted spiritual domains.
The two lesser items she is interested in belong to the two more common branches of foci: spell and spirit. The spell focus is a silver 6-sided die, each numeral etched in callilgraphed black ink. The spirit focus is a pair of tiny golden manacles, perfectly wrought except for that each side is missing the key to its lock, creating an unbreakable metal band. These two items are the weakest in terms of magical potency, the others either being stronger or appointed to an indvidual’s spellcasting needs, and thus useless to anyone but the individual in question.
The foci here beckon the shaman with the temptations of power, and, as all humans who are tempted with power must do, she is forced to weigh the consequences of seizing that power with the responsibility of wielding it appropriately.
The slowly dancing lights of the foci’s combined auras entrances Moonclaw, her imagination racing as she considers the manifold possibilities such equipment would offer. In all reality, she admits to herself, the decision had already been made the moment she decided to take one last look around the shop.
The shaman picks up Mesay’s wooden staff with both hands, swings it once through the air to gauge its heft, then brings it crashing down into the display case.
The braided wood is warm, and light, under her fingers. She hefts the four foot staff and feels the smooth texture of the wood, the corded knots and tendons worn to a marble polish by years of handling. It is a solid and unbending weapon, with a clubbed top where the wrapping wood gathers into a heavy fist.
It raises itself into the air with ease, and she pauses at the zenith of her swing to appreciate the natural feeling of the weight in her hands. She is part of the club as it begins its downward arc, and she closes her eyes against the flying glass as it hits a home run Babe would be proud of. The case offers no resistance, and the wooden weapon shatters all three shelves and both doors, leaving only the metal hinges screwed into their transparent moorings.
The trinkets scatter themselves at her feet, seemingly defiant of this theft despite their inanimacy.
Moonclaw casually discards the wooden staff, its utility spent. She kicks aside the larger pieces of glass, then picks each foci carefully from the mess of shards. After a moment’s search, Moonclaw locates a plain leather bag and carefully fills it with the jewelry. Holding the burgeoning satchel in one hand, she can feel the pulse of the collected items, even without switching to astral vision.
The cat shaman takes one dispassionate glance over the ransacked room, then spins on her heel and jogs out to the waiting van. She squints into the afternoon sun, shielding her eyes as she springs up into the passenger seat.
Boxcar’s turbocharged engine roars to life as Ling Fei takes the party out of the bazaar and back toward the highway. The rigger’s head turns to address Moonclaw, but her eyes are glazed and distant, her voice synthesized over the van’s speakers. “What were you doing in there?” she asks, dodging through two-lane traffic as she approaches the on-ramp.
Moonclaw shakes her head irritably. “It’s nothing,” she responds, slipping the sack of foci discreetly into the glove compartment. “Just had to grab something for later.”
Ling Fei’s impulse is to raise her eyebrows questioningly at the shaman, but the lower functions of her brain are currently hardwired into Boxcar’s ASIST interface, translating her kinesthetic commands into piloting input. Her face remains slack and expressionless as a result.
“Whatever,” she sighs, dropping Boxcar down a gear as they make the turn back onto I-290, heading east toward Doc Matthew’s.
The drive to doc Matthews’ is uneventful; Mesay has gone completely unconscious and listlessly rolls in and out of a fevered delirium. Boxcar maneuvers calmly in and around traffic, its servo-shock absorbers recoiling and bracing at their rigger’s command to keep the cab as level and steady as possible.
The drive goes quickly, but it still seems an agonizingly long time before they arrive at their destination. The street doctor’s house looks as decrepit and rundown as ever, but the team knows from firsthand experience that the looks of this place can be deceiving.
Crusher steps first from the van, his heavy boot crunching into the gravely surface of the broken pavement. He checks the tilt of his brimmed hat, his eyes whirring in their sockets as their aperture adjusts to the afternoon glare. The familiar smells of the Auburn Gresham slums fill his nostrils: fresh asphalt, human urine, the smokey, minty bite of cheap synth-menth.
The old ork reminds himself to stay frosty, even on his home turf. Especially on his home turf, even. Familiarity leads to complacency, complacency to death. And considering the caliber of enemy they were brawling with—entire megacorps, these Tir dandies—they couldn’t afford to get complacent.
Crusher can tell Moonclaw is standing quietly behind him, can sense her impatience.
The mercenary stamps his boot. “Alright, I’m going in to get a stretcher. Watch the block, stay alert for fuck’s sake.”
He marches up the porch steps, swinging the broken screen door aside so he can bang on the front door. “Doc? Doc! It’s your boy Crusher! I gotta mark needs a patch job!”
A ringing crash of metal-on-metal echoes from within. Crusher can see the ‘waiting room’ through a glass window in the white door, ratty couches and lawn furniture ringing a living room with textured yellow paint on the ceilings and walls. A few ork patients idle here, leafing through dog-eared travel magazines: a broken arm, a bandaged eye, a gunshot wound which leaks onto the stained hardwood. A very old orkish man sits up against the wall, muttering to himself, with nothing outwardly wrong with him; he is coming off of a drug binge, perhaps, or has some other psychological damage born of weapons far more scarring than a blade or bullet.
There is a long hallway visible from the front door as it leads away from the living room, other spaces branching off from it. The familiar young ork aide stumbles into this hall from a side room, hopping on one leg to free his other from the clutches of a blue tarpaulin. He kicks it aside after some effort and runs up to open the front door.
Breathlessly, “Where’s your injured chummer, chummer?” He grabs a folded stretcher leaning against the wall by the door.
Crusher jabs his thumb over one shoulder. “He’s back in the van. ’Ere, let me help with that.” Between the two dark-skinned orks, the stretcher seems like a miniature toy. He grips it in his left hand, letting it jostle limply between them.
Being back at this house always recalls Crusher’s mind to his first piece of cyber, the one he got after the war in 2020. It almost feels as if it were real, just a little heavier, but when he looks down at it, his memories flash back to that day: his entire right half engulfed in flames which danced impossibly from pink to blue, and the beast’s great horny head, twice as big as a Sherman, spitting out arcing gouts of burning liquid into the convoy of Hummers ahead of him.
“Crusher? Crusher?” His mind swims lazily back to reality, the events of the past racing away from him like a bad dream. A youthful, native-looking chick is standing in front of him in some sort of ‘Solid Snake’ getup.
Moonclaw watches him impatiently. “The body isn’t going to move itself. Any ideas?” Crusher shakes his head, apologizes, and ducks into the van to help muscle the talismonger onto the stretcher.
Ling Fei runs up alongside them as they cross the brief, poorly kept lawn, taking care to avoid the wild clumps of crabgrass growing amongst the dirt.
Their patient, now freshly going into shock, is carted straight through the waiting room and all the way down the hall, to the last door in the house. Paint chips flake down off the ceilings and walls onto the floor, pooling at the baseboards like wax.
The end room is devoid of furniture, save a sturdy fold-out table covered with a clean surgical tarp, and Doc Matthews’ wheelchair. The doctor looks Crusher up and down, eyeing his sword wound and the disheveled appearance of his armor, breathing in the potassium nitrate from caked-on gunpowder fumes. “Alfred, are you sure it’s not you that needs attention today?”
She turns her practiced eye toward her new patient, noting the shattered bones and contusions, the bruising around the impact sites, the hemorrhaging. “Your friend here took quite a beating, but it looks like it wasn’t meant to be fatal. We can get him fixed up with some blood, the nano-platelets should do the rest. As for the broken bones, we’ll have to wait until he wakes up to see if he wants them replaced, but in the meantime we will set them. Mork, start the transfusion here—” she taps the inside of Mesay’s right elbow, “—then get the osteovice ready. Alfred, if he lives, he’s going to need to pay for our services, but we need some money up front to make sure we’re not doing charity work. You understand, this is a business. Whatever you can part with now is fine, I understand you’ll get it out of him one way or t’other.”
Crusher bares his enlarged canines in frustration. “Shit Moonclaw, good thing we went to see this guy.”
The shaman ignores Crusher’s taunts and draws her credstick. “I will give you five thousand now, the balance as you see fit after the operation.”
Moonclaw looks down at the street doctor as she hands over the money, examining the ork’s gnarled form, the array of mechanical limbs splayed out behind it in some sick parody of natural life . She fights to keep her nose from wrinkling in disgust. “He is, of course, a magically active being. Any unnatural augmentations to his body will have. . . repercussions. Even the loss of a limb will reduce his ability to draw from the rivers of Gaia. I trust you have operated on our kind before?”
The doctor adopts an uncharacteristic air of condescension with Moonclaw. Out in the real world, she might have been more polite, but here, as an elder in an ork ‘burb, with nobody but the local tusks to watch each other’s backs, she is used to a little more respect. “Young lady, I assure you we will not damage him any further than he has already been damaged. There may still be a risk of some magic loss, as you know, and—” she chuckles, looking down at the credstick as she slots it into a port in the side of her chair “—this isn’t nearly enough cred to get this man the cyber he needs to walk around tomorrow. We never amputate unless it’s necessary.” She hands the shamans’ credstick back with a wrinkled, arthritic meat hand.
“Now, please, wait outside or come to pick him up later. We have to resanitize the OR and you lack the necessary safety equipment.” As she speaks, a metal arm slowly lowers a black rubber gas mask over her face. She gingerly fits her tusks in with the air scrubbers and pulls her goggles down over her eyes, completing the image of a mad scientist, spidery limbs uncoiling and flexing their various faculties around her.
Mork finishes placing the central line and pulls a white sheet over the body with a practiced tug. He reaches up to the ceiling and pulls a black metal sphere down from a hanging mount. He calibrates it for a few seconds, then pulls on a gas mask and goggles and waits expectantly for the team to leave.
Moonclaw retrieves her credstick with a huff, holding Matthews’ gaze for a moment longer before stalking out onto the front porch. Ling Fei follows quickly after, embarrassed once again by her partner’s brazen haughtiness.
Crusher lingers behind, concern on his face. “I owe you again, doc. You watch out for yourself, you hear? The streets. . . are hot these days.” He stares dumbly down at his boots, rotating his cyberarm in its socket. Finally, he inclines his head to her, showing her the respect due a matriarch, the closest thing he’s had to family in his adult life. She nods knowingly back to him, breathing evenly through her surgical mask.
Crusher bats the screen door aside casually, enjoying the freedom of walking through ork-built doorframes. He steps off the porch to join his unit, scanning the horizon for trouble from beneath the brim of his hat. His shadow pools beneath him in an indecisive blob, the wind whipping up the tails of his overcoat. The gusts have almost lost their frosty bite now, and he could even feel his face, cold as it was. April in the windy city.
“Now what are we supposed to do?” Ling Fei forces an optimistic smile for the sullen pair.
Crusher shrugs. “I have one more guy I want to see. Anyone else?”
Ling Fei shakes her head. “Unless we’re trying to build some sort of remote-controlled death robot, none of my contacts are too useful.”
Moonclaw tries to act casual. Her mind is already drawn to the contents of the rigger’s glove compartment, filling with the tasks ahead. “I have. . preparations to make. If you don’t mind,” she adds.
Crusher shrugs again. “S’up to you, I just want to stop by my buddy Rawls’s—see if he can’t produce something a little more. . .” He searches for the right term. “Fire producing, I guess.”
“Well, I don’t really think you’ll need me for that.” Moonclaw responds flatly.
“I’ll give you a ride over,” Ling Fei offers, “I don’t really have much to do anyway.”
The street shaman watches the armored van power away to the south, away from the city. She takes a moment to find her bearings in the unfamiliar neighborhood. She walks to the closest intersection, finding to her surprise that she is on west 87th, the same street that runs all the way to her block.
She sets off east, keeping to the quieter streets when possible within the dangerous ork ghetto. She is making a deliberate beeline to her apartment, heading beneath I-94 on her way to a construction site she knows of.
Moonclaw takes out the satchel of foci as she walks, going over the items again. She mulls over the 5k plus she has just dropped on a man whom she knows only through business, although she ultimately tallies the talismonger’s medical bill in her favor, as his services, and the avoidance of his wrath, were both valuable.
But there was nothing to be done now. She will need to build another lodge to bind the foci, now that she had moved to a new building. She would need aluminum piping and tarpaulin, as well as most of the standard urban elements—concrete powder, steel in some manageable form, and glass if one could get it. She smiled to herself, recalling the havoc her glass spirit had caused earlier that morning. Yes, she would have to get some glass as well.
Eager to bind these new objects of power, the young cat shaman quickens her pace, anxious to reach the construction site and begin her collection.