Crusher’s heavy, cracked leather combat boots bite down on damp pavement, and the ork hugs his jacket closer to his body, out of the arms of the whipping wind. It is Friday, April 1st in Chicago, 2061, and, though Father Winter’s figure is gone on the horizon, his snippid scent and harsh breath remain in the air. Dusk lights the lanterns hanging over the street, and the sun bids the Windy City farewell as it sinks below the horizon, heading West, out and over the NAN states.
The mercenary brushes his hat back with a meat hand, ashy despite the weather, and looks up at his destination. The gaudy, neon block letters above simply read, ‘HAUS.’ Crusher sighs and enters the club.
A bar runs nearly the entire length of the left wall, with the rest prohibitively reserved for dancing. Fortunately, Crusher’s watch reads 6:00 PM-too early for even the roughest denizens of the orkish South Side to begin the Friday night’s drinking. Spying his troll friend Valentino, Crusher makes his way over to the bar, removing his hat and tucking it into a front pocket. He sits down, heavily, on a barstool made of wood beams 6 inches thick-this bar knows its clientele.
Tapping a metal fingertip twice on the counter, the bouncer turns around, distracted from his task of stocking the tall liquor cabinets behind the bar. A huge t-shirt is sloppily held together by a denim jacket, sleeves torn off, over jeans similarly adorned. The troll looks down at the ork and acknowledges him with a raised eyebrow-Crusher is a regular in this part of town, if not the club itself, and by word of mouth of the last run, he is well-known as a good source for hired muscle. They have dealt only once or twice before, but each understands the other’s… situation.
Valentino listens to the mercenary lay out his offers, and his answer is a treebark-like rasp which breaks a path past the cracked tusks and perpetually broken nose.
“Well, hrrh… you’d have to ask somebody else about the armrr- a smith, I rreckon, though I don’t know any. And I’d have to see those weapons bfrre I put rreal money down, but I rreckon I could find a guy on the fence frr two grrand.” Crusher does his best to talk the bouncer’s price up, getting the sense that he is being low-balled. Taking advantage of the troll’s slow method of thinking proves fruitless; he is unable to cut a deal for any more. To top it off, the bouncer pays him with cash, a difficulty, but a point on which Crusher decides not to press.
Valentino straightens up at the mention of training. “I used to go sprrring with the club ownrr. I once saw a guy, knew a thing rr so abut disrrming knife fightrrs with ’em handblades. I can show yeh.” He reaches under the bar, and pulls out a large kitchen knife with a wide silver edge. He flips the metal-studded handle in his fingers easily, as a pencil in the idle hands of a student, and clears a space on the dance floor for them to work.
The way the troll relates it, the technique involves deflecting the knife edge with palms flat, striking with a point along the blade of the hand and rolling inward to grasp the wrist or the weapon. They spar quickly, dangerously, incurring minor cuts which don’t even break their tough, metahuman skin. Crusher wonders privately whether any blade could slash through the troll’s thick dermal plating and mounded scar tissue-he doubts it.
After a few matches, Crusher is proficient enough to slice the knife out of Valentino’s grasp; wired reflexes prove to be a good mentor. Valentino also tells him a story of a bouncer he knew that could handle guns with the blades deployed. Crusher thinks on it, and makes a mental note to practice moving with guns up, in open and enclosed spaces.
Crusher bids his contact farewell and dons his wide-brimmed hat. Walking out of the club, it is dark, and early nighttime crowds are starting to converge; their stir is felt as a shift in the human aura-the meatspace aura-appearing not as colors or visions, but showing as the familiar, rough faces, the accustomed nocturnal movements.
Crusher stops to tie his flapping jacket against the wind, and the cold-steel of the sky is reflected perfectly on his armored arm. He pauses to consider the last two months of his new career, this being near his two-month anniversary as a shadowrunner. Ironic, he thinks: April first, April Fool’s Day, and he can’t get the thought out of his head that the world may still be proving him the fool. Still, he encourages himself, April will be a new month, with new possibilities.
And this, an auspicious April. It is Friday, and in two weeks’ time is a total solar eclipse, an event filled with supersition since the Great Ghost Dance, which was believed to have been aided by the solar eclipse of August 17, 2017. As survivors of that event recount, the storms and natural phenomena caused by the Dance during the 17th were terrifying, and deadly in the extreme. At the high point-during the eruptions at Mount Hood, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams-it is said that passive natural phenomena took on a supernatural aspect. Tornados in the shape of giant claws touched down in the plains along the Western UCAS, tidal waves in the form of galloping horses were reported destroying massive sections of the Southeastern CAS coastline and parts of Mexico, and a large humanoid shape was supposedly seen flying from mountaintop to mountaintop in Northern Canada, touching down to cause avalanches before flying off again.
The ork slowly makes his way down the street, coughing heavily into the wind. Tonight will be an early night for him; he has business to conduct in the morning.
Daybreak in a military camp is a sight to behold: the sun parting the horizon in the East, reveille sounding from a lone bugle, and on the athletic fields, a literal army of men exercising and drilling in unison.
Crusher has been asked by Lieutenant Rawls to join his unit in the day’s workout. Even though this is a small private army in the UCAS-where private military organizations are put under a little more scrutiny than elsewhere-the base’s facilities are exceptional. Well-kept weight rooms the size of hangars, with exercise machines with servos instead of counterweights sit alongside more traditional fare: bench press, jumping rope, dumbbells.
Rawls is, of course, out on the field, leading his men in a grueling cardio exercise, dozens of sets of up-downs and lunges lasting 15 minutes or more. The squad is a mixed bag of races, mostly humans, orks, and dwarves. Trolls and elves can be seen drilling in their own squads-being honed to suit a different combat function. Despite being human, Rawls stands a very solid 2 meters, and must weigh almost as much as Crusher. The Lieutenant nods at him to join in, and the sweat on his jaw drips to become dew on the shadowed grass.
Thus begins 4 of the most grueling hours of Crusher’s recent life. Despite his age, he performs admirably-his old bones still remember the training from when he was a star lineman in high school. The middle of the day sees Rawls’ platoon off for live-fire exercises, but the Lieutenant hangs back, just now working up a good sweat in the noon heat.
Breathing heavily, he gestures crusher over to a set of wooden sparring dummies. Squaring himself with one of them, he balls his hands into rock-hard fists, and strikes at the limbs, two at a time. He breaks the 8 protruding dowels in quick succession, and points to Crusher to give it a try.
After mastering this warm-up technique, Rawls brings Crusher in front of some thick plywood doors set in stand-up doorframes in the field. Taking a walking headstart, Rawls approaches the door and strikes it with his knee and elbow simultaneously. The wood shatters around the lock and the door swings open neatly as Rawls follows through and is inside. It takes Crusher only a few tries to perform the move fluidly, as his weight and metal limb aid him over the human instructor. Rawls explains that it aids in fast entry of enclosed spaces, and weapon readiness.
The exercises continue until about 2 in the afternoon. Crusher and Rawls stop for a break, and Rawls addresses Crusher’s purchases.
“Well, the C4 and dets, and the comm equipment, all that we have right here, and just the guy to teach you, although he says he’d like a tip for his time-500 ‘yen ought to cover it. The whole lot’ll run you five grand, equipment and training.”
He continues, “the Ay-Pods ammo, now, that’s another thing. It ain’t that it’s illegal to have-none of this is-but it’s just two damned expensive to be putting through assault rifles. We have spare sniper rifle caliber rounds, but none for that Combat Gun of yours. Anyway, I put in an order for a brand-spankin new clip to be processed. They make it in Hungary!” He seems too excited about this. “My point is, it’s expensive and rare, ‘cause of the distance. That one clip’ll run you twelve hundred, no markup because you’re ex-mil. You can pick it up here in four weeks, or-” he adds with a grin, “-you can invite me along on one of your little pony-rides and I’ll deliver it then myself. Word is you kicked up quite a stir last month on UCAS ground and nobody said a word. I want in. Working home turf is supposed to be exhilarating.”
With this strange request, Rawls waves Crusher farewell and retreats deeper within the military compound. Exhausted, Crusher heads home to recuperate.
Crusher gets back to his old flat on the south side and stumbles into the shower, every inch of his body that isn’t made of steel aching from the brutal workout session with the lieutenant. After giving his ancient body a long soak, he emerges and lets his massive frame sink into the one huge recliner which occupies his living room. He puts the ‘trid on in the background, and begins the regular maintenance work that comes with the chrome. First he cleans out his cyberears, delicately removing grime from the inner canal before plugging them into a small calibrator to tune them back to the proper frequency. Next, he cleans his cybereyes, wiping them down with a special cloth before adding various drops of lubricants and cleansers. As he begins to unscrew the casing of his cyberarm, he cradles his comm phone against his head, punching in Rawl’s number. Hunched over, squinting to see the individual servos of his wrist and fingers as he cleans and oils them, he leaves a message for his old friend.
“Hey, Rawls, ‘s Crusher again. Everything sounds good with the C4, I’ll stop by in the next couple days to pick it up and learn how to use it. Thanks again for going through all the trouble ordering them AP rounds,” he curses under his breath as the tiny cleaning utensil slips from his large fingers and rolls beneath the seat, “Shit, uh, I mean, hey, thanks for everything really. Uh, listen Rawls, I got one more thing to ask ya-you boys have anyone down there who can repair body armor? My shit’s real fucked up. Anyway, you let me know. If we need a man of your caliber on the next run, you’ll be the first I’ll call. Right, uh, I’ll see ya around Rawls. Thanks again.”
Wide Paula is just as she would seem. A thickset dwarven woman with black hair, a loud voice and lofty ambitions, all four vertical feet of her are large and in charge. She wears a red and white checkered apron over a metalworker’s habit, and a large shielded welding mask sits atop her head at chest level, getting in the way of normal-height people as she storms about her shop, overseeing drone repair and circuit construction with a discerning eye. Slag-burns and weld marks cover her clothing, marking her as one of the initiated in the mechanics’ circles she frequents.
Her moniker, ‘Wide Paula’, stems from the fact that the measure of her body on the horizontal is almost equal to her height. Her husband, a mathematician, praises her high degree of symmetry.
A large sign metal hangs over the entrance to the business, reading, “ElecB/R”. Like Captain Winters’ shop, Wide Paula’s electronics workspace is cluttered and busy. Unlike Winters’ shop, however, this space is not covered in macro projects: there are no giant internal combustion engines sitting on blocks, sawhorses do not support gun frames or barrels the size of tree trunks. Instead, a number of small workstations ring the circular main space. Engineers, mostly dwarven, quietly tinker away at knee height on robots large and small. The twinkle of spot-welders and acetyl torches is reminiscent of Santa’s workshop; the average stature of the employees reinforces the image. Doors here and there lead out into circular side rooms containing more specialized equipment.
Wide Paula receives Ling Fei in her office, a desk cluttered with papers and wireless infonet pads, open to the workspace and within shouting-and throwing-range of her employees.
Inviting Ling Fei to set her damaged drone down on a workbench, she examines the damaged drone with a practiced eye. She speaks like she works, fast and concise; “Don’ see a whole lot of impact damage on these parts, here. Try flyin’ high’r! HAW!” A great, gutsy guffaw.
Turning her attention back to the drone, “Looks like the servos here an’ here are outta wack-that’s like throwin’ out the rotator cuff in yer should’r. And these sens’rs here, they needs to be recalibrated, and the gimbals on the inside might’ve sprung a le’k, from th’ way y’ told it.”
She bustles about in her old-fashioned paper ledger, jabbering as she goes, “So, ya sed ya want’ lern these thngs workin’ insi’d’n’out? I c’n shew you that, f’r sure. And I’ll only ch’rge ya a thousand even for th’ p’rts ‘n trainin’. LLOYD!!” She roars across the shop, and a skinny dwarf pops his head up over a small mountain of flexible nano-PCB. She jangles a ring of allen wrenches menacingly at him. “Git yer skinny boots over ‘er and g’ve this’r elf fren’ a through’n’through on this thing.”
The slim dwarf waddles up, and turns a handcrank on the desk, lowering it to afford him a better view. His initial inspection confirms Wide Paula’s suspicions about the nature of the damage and repair needed. He brings up a handcart and carries the drone over to another part of the shop, this one a circular room built off from the main one like a pod. Electronic calibration equipment hangs from the walls like medieval sconces.
The repairman hoists his mechanical patient onto a hydraulic lift in the middle of the room. Pulling a wire from underneath the lift and slapping it into the cyberjack at his temple, he starts the repair by removing the vectored thrust engines on the sides of the chassis. Without it’s wings, Sparrow-1 looks like a dog-sized helicopter body; Lloyd reaches up and grabs an arthroscopic camera and multi-tool, mounted on hanging wires from the ceiling, and uses them to tunnel through the holes left by the engines, repairing the stress fractures to the delicate lubricating bladders surrounding the gyroscope’s primary gimbal motors; without these motors, he explains, the craft can’t maneuver itself at all past an absolute horizontal, and if one of them jams the gyro’s axles in any way, the craft can skew out of alignment and crash.
These repairs complete, he hands the actual engines off to a subordinate to have them replaned, and to have the rotors reshaped and aligned. He takes a few seconds to remove the eyepiece in the camera assembly, and takes it over to a vice, where he sets it upright, the eye staring into a laser assembly attached to a cyberterminal. His hands work fast as he deftly switches cyberjacks from lift to terminal; he thinks for a moment, and then offers Ling Fei a secondary jack. She plugs in, and he steps through the motions of calibration slowly, showing her the process. The machine hums for a split second and he pops the jack out and reattaches the eye. The elven rigger wonders how he deals with constantly severing these ’jack connections; it normally gives people a moment of dizziness to do so so quickly.
Ling Fei emerges, enlightened, from the room, and finds that her drone has been wheeled out and mounted, upright, near an understudy’s workstation, and is having its engines reattached. She is impressed by the speed and precision of the dwarves employed here. Thanks Wide Paula, she receives a gruff, “G’bye!” in return. THe door swings shut behind her and her drone is loaded back into Boxcar Rebellion.
Captain Winters is found as his shop, likewise scuttling with lively dwarven mechanics in their element. Taking Ling Fei into his office once again, he sits her down and inspects her buy-order, squinting down his nose at the single line-item. He barks his sharp military reply: “We should have a pair of these gas-vents around the shop. One of the boys made his own a few weeks ago; they’re not hard to fabricate. We’ll get you some off-the-shelf model for the LMG’s, though. You can get the pair for ¥800.”
Satisfied with her purchases, the elf heads home.
Doc Matthews receives Ling Fei a few days later, having given the elf notification that she was up for the local area medical volunteer shift; her number had been drawn in a lottery held between street docs in the area. The shift itself was a 24 hour watch period over a designated block of streets, during which the doc performed basic emergency medical services, like a stand-in DocWagon for the primarily orkish neighborhood.
The watch begins at midnight and lasts until the next night. The doctor’s guild loans them a handicapped-accessible, old ambulance. The scuffed white paint is peeling around sirens gone silent and a lightbar populated with broken bulbs. Matthews’ assistant drives, and she relaxes in her chair in the back, servo arms flexing and twirling idly. The shift comes in the middle of the week; Mondays are the worst, she explains, and tonight shouldn’t be that bad. The perfect night for a little paramedical training.
Their first stop is a gunshot wound victim. Matthews explains her assistant’s technique as the young ork binds the wound and applies a make-shift bandage. “See how he puts pressure directly on the wound? That helps the blood clot. This isn’t always a good thing; though. If blood clots form upstream of the heart, they can travel along through the arteries and cause cardiac arrest. Certain metaraces are better at clotting blood than others, too. And look: this trolls’ skin is thick enough to perform minor invasive field surgeries without anesthesia. If you’re strapped for needle and thread,” she chuckles, “wood glue works just as well on this kind of dermal armor.” Ling Fei wonders if the troll’s thick skin is really what is preventing the thug from feeling pain.
Their next stop at first appears to be a hanging. A young ork male swings to and fro in his own closet. The young ork assistant points to the signs of a scuffle located around the room, and points out the telltale rings around the ankles and wrists, indicating that the victim was bound and cut loose after death.
The third stop is an ork woman with a broken femur. She speaks only Spanish, and so the volunteers-cum-doctors cannot explain or give her a warning for the pain to follow. Having no anesthestics in the van, they are forced to set the bone with the patient conscious. One of Doc Matthews’ mechanical appendages rises from her chair, a two-jointed tool-arm extending a pneumatic drillbit.
As her assistant and Ling Fei hold the woman still on a table, she drills a hole through the leg and bone on opposite sides of the break. There is an awful scream and blood flows; the woman struggles but cannot break free.
After this harrowing visit, the rest of the night is relatively silent. Ling Fei stays with the pair through the entire 24 hour ride, and sees a lot of things she wishes had been left unknown to her.
They drop the elf off beside Boxcar Rebellion, and Doc Matthews gets to idle talking while her chair is lowered to the ground on the handicap lift. “You know, elf, if you ever want to drop your trade and come work with me, we’d be happy to have you. There aren’t a lot of your kind ‘round these parts, true, but I’m sure everyone would get to know you. We do get a lot of very… cosmopolitan… customers, after all. Anyway, if the shootin’ and fightin’ ever gets too much, you just give me a call.” And the happy old ork woman wheels her way up the ramp to her house and waves goodbye as the screen door slaps shut.
[Doc Matthews becomes a level 1 contact.]
Boxcar Rebellion welcomes her back with a singing engine and warmed seats. Sometimes, she wonders about whether what they say about the ghost in the machine is true. There had been recorded AI presences in the Matrix; the most notorious of these being the emergence of the self-aware server cluster, Wintermute, inhabiting a satellite orbiting high over the Earth. The program was eventually infiltrated and hacked from the inside, but not before it had created a strong legal precedent for the civil rights of non-organic lifeforms.
The rigger shrugs, tired, and the engine sings her home.
Ling Fei pulls the heavy transport van into the garage of her basement apartment, letting the autonav ease the vehicle into the cluttered garage area. She slips the jack from her skull, letting the heavy beast idle on her remote control network as she climbs out of the driver’s side, scooping up her shotgun and the bag containing the gas vents. She calls up Lockjaw-1, walking around to meet the Doberman as it rolls from the bowels of the modified Roadmaster.
The elf kneels in front of the drone, surveying the surface of the vehicle. The hull is pitted and scorched from the numerous buckshot rounds it took over the run, but the thick, high-tech, Ares-manufactured armor doesn’t show the slightest hint of real damage. She circles around behind the crawler, sliding the bolt of the LMG back and dropping the live round into the ammo hopper before drawing her eye down the length of the turret barrel. She carefully screws the market gas vent onto the barrel, taking care to check it’s alignment before stepping back to admire the addition. Crusher packed an external vent system on that tricked-out rifle of his, and his fire seemed to be more on target than her shots. It would be a good start, regardless. It might be a stock model, but she was proud of the miniature war-machine. Some day she would build her own combat drone, but she needed more money, more time.
She orders the Doberman to wheel around to Boxcar’s right side, commanding the van to deploy it’s turret as she climbs on top of the drone, wobbling to stay balanced. The Roadmaster’s own Ingram Valiant tracks to the right with a pneumatic sigh, poking out over the van’s side within reach of Ling Fei’s arms.
She installs the weapon system and puts the transport to rest, pausing in the door of the garage to look over the tools of her trade. She was really doing it, she thought to herself as she flipped the light switch and closed the door, she was making it as a shadowrunner for hire-she was a going to be a pro rigger on the mean streets of America. She couldn’t help but smile at the idea.
Mesay’s shop, ‘Talismana’, is a hole-in-the-wall on the corner of a seedy bazaar on the Western outskirts of Chicago, inland from the Lakes and thus protected from their supreme winds. Moonclaw approaches the talismonger’s business, navigating past open-air markets filled with farmers’ produce and black market items: books, magical novelties, and strange and exotic flora and fauna line the streets here. Some of the animals are caged, and, she notes nervously, so are some of the plants. Pelts, foci, and lodge materials form makeshift storefronts, and vendors and tradesmen holler their prices, each trying to one-up and undercut all the others.
The small shop windows of Talismana display a modest collection of shamanic ritual items and novelties: enough to attract passers-by, but nothing noteworthy to a real magician. The shop’s true patrons know that the hidden treasure is in the back, under lock, key and watchful eye.
Inside, it is quiet; pushing the wooden door open jangles a small crystal bell, announcing Moonclaw’s entrance. The thin shop is empty of customers, but still cramped; the place is strewn with magical wares in every available place. Her long, black braids brush past all manner of the occult, items with both real and imagined power: images of Pan and Baphomet adorn the walls next to Goetic circles of invocation, prismatic circles of protection and wards animae. Glass cases also ring the cluttered room, filled with a myriad of ritual items: powdered magnets, amber, the bloodletting daggers of pure silver known as klaives, haruspicy bowls, bone wands, Brazilian palos, pouches of halite, bone-handled athames, incense. A wooden rack on one wall contains jars of the familiar blue, black and red salts and the chalks with which to inscribe them. Voluminous, leatherbound tomes occupy the thin spaces between the glass cases; almost all are handwritten instead of printed. Moonclaw recognizes the old historical texts: The Book of Shadows, The Book of Lies, 777, Awakening, and various writings on Qabal, Thelema and ritual in general.
Animal products give the place a rancid smell: rare dragon’s blood sits in sealed crystal vials next to eagle’s feathers, serpent’s eyes, and bits of refuse once inhabited by urban spirits. Live paranimals are valued in certain rituals performed by the modern haruspex; their muffled cries can be heard coming from the back of the store.
Moonclaw notices something new about the shop, out of the corner of her eye. Looking up at the tile ceiling, she can see a fresh inscription, in animal’s blood. Starting at the back of the room and working its way down towards the front is a large ritual inscription of the Tree of Life described in the Zohar, containing the ten sefirot picked out in gold circles and joined into a web by thick, crimson lines. From what Moonclaw can remember, the Kabbalists describe the sefirot as representing the ten attributes by which God shapes creation, from Keter, the crown, to Malkuth, the Earth. The Tree Of Life describes their relationship between one another as balancing and competing forces of the same Godhead.
A large splash of blood at the bottom of the diagram reads, “Ein Sof”, block letters in white negative space. The shaman’s eyes wander over this manifestation of the divine, wondering at its meaning. The work was done with such meticulous care that it might have served a real, magical purpose, although no actual magical nature has ever been attributed to the Zohar, its derivations, or any of the thousands of entries in the Bible, New or Old.
Shrugging, she moves on, approaching a carved wooden counter at the most interior point of the shop, behind which sits the proprietor, Mesay.
Mesay is a large, tan man from Africa’s interior: Congo or the jungles of some other hellhole, or the desert, Moonclaw forgets which. Even the advances in modern technology in the day of 2061 have not enabled these remote forests and steppes to be populated heavily; as such, Mesay has a strange way about people, especially Westerners. He is tall and bald, not actually black but a very deep bronze, with deepset, charcoal-ringed eyes. A sad mouth sits at the Southern end of a long face; the thin nose in the middle is like the arrow of an inscribed windrose. Thin and gangly, he wears the loose, embroidered tunic of his homeland. He address Moonclaw as she approaches, with his strange, whispered inflection:
“Cat shaman, slinking
back through the alleys and dark,
for what have you come?”
She lays out her request, doing her best to weedle a deal out of the intractable African, explaining that she doesn’t have all the money, but can perform freelance work as required. Her best efforts are met with a shopkeep’s well-honed bargaining.
“You are generous
to render services so,
but more is needed.”
Explaining that she does not have that kind of money now, he replies:
“If need arises,
reaching to your breaking point,
a deal may we strike.
Until then, I sense
Only echoes of wanting,
not pain of needing."
Stumped, Moonclaw looks around, suddenly having no need of the shopowner. Conversationally, she gestures upwards, inquiring about the inscribed Tree of Life adorning the ceiling with a questioning look. The haggard face across from her suddenly takes on a pained, fearful countenance, and a trio of whispered warnings hisses out from the dark man’s lips:
“Ask not! Feared things,
these names of evil and good,
part God and part Man.
Hope you are not brought
to the blinding light therein;
Confronting these names
is to face what is human
and to cast it out."
The old wanderer shivers a bit, and grips his tunic about him; the room is suddenly filled with the creeping uncertainty of the Dark Continent, that unexplored place where magic yet roams free, and the untamed will of Nature basks herself in hidden, incestuous glory. He looks pointedly towards the door, and leans back on the balls of his feet, centering himself and trying to block out the grasping talons of some mental demon. Clearly, Moonclaw has overstayed her welcome, so she leaves the way she came.
Exiting the shop, a cold wind stirs the shaman’s fur-lined jacket; it is afternoon, but the bazaar seems quieter than it did when she arrived. Taking this as an ill portent, Moonclaw covertly casts backward glances as she finds her way home to her loft by the docks.
The next day finds the human female at Audell’s electronics shop, really just a boutique business he runs out of the spare space below his apartment. The place is run-down and dingy, being close to the docks where Moonclaw lives, damp circles crusting the ceiling like barnacles. Audell is a shorter, paler version of Mesay, but, having grown up in a metropolitan area of Liberia, is more versed in the conversational give-and-take required by modern social interaction. Strange, then, that he would be the struggling businessman between the two of them; truly, there is no accounting for a capitalist’s instincts.
The two sit down for a long afternoon discussing the finer points of integrated circuitry, hotwiring, shortcircuiting and electronic sabotage. They go over the motions, the shaman refining her skill with modern electronics, but her mind is elsewhere, still chewing over the incident at Talismana the day before.
She’d never known Mesay to break his outward appearance of the calm negotiator. For all she knew, the African had never been surprised or frightened by anything in his life; it wouldn’t surprise her. But the look in his eyes as he gazed up at the crisscrossing patterns in the lines stuck with her: it was the look of a man gazing into a wild predator’s eyes, quivering with the anticipation of death.
Moonclaw’s mind had started to wander, and Audell brings her back sharply to the present with a snap of his fingers. He checks his watch, realizing the time, and apologizes for keeping her late. The reclusive electrician sends her on her way, telling her it will be a few days to get together her order, the micro-transceiver and wireless throat microphone. He tells her it will be ¥4,750, and he’ll have it delivered to her loft in lieu of her making the trek out to his place again. He also gives her a small collection of electrician’s gaffs, like lockpicks for hotwiring: curved pieces of metal in all shapes and sizes meant to strip wires and create shortcircuits, and tiny prybars for getting into enclosed casings.
She steps onto the sidewalk outside Audell’s business/home. Tall, darkened highrises sprout from the urban turf like weeds here, creating a 100-foot labyrinthine series of walls and dead-end alleys. One must tread carefully in these bad neighborhoods, or risk a unpleasant end.
Moonclaw is, of course, at home on streets such as these. When she was called Awele, during her childhood, she spent her days as a gutter rat, a street urchin who slept in dumpsters and stole to survive. She knew what these kinds of places could do to people, could turn them into or make them become. She has started to attract just this sort of attention from the denizens of this place, who turn a greedy, hungry eyes toward her. She knew some simply wanted her credstick, but that others were certainly interested in more perverse ends.
As the first of the vagrants makes a move, sidling down the street in her direction, she turns down a darkened alley and is gone, quietly as a cat.
Moonclaw crouches low on the corner of a project rooftop overlooking the gaggle of thugs, her mind lost in thought. She lets out a slow, controlled breath, opening her perceptions to the feelings within her. Most powerfully she feels the urge to punish, to cleanse-to drop down, invisible, silent, among the street trash, sowing havoc and fear as she disabled them, one by one with a shock glove to the throat or groin, letting them tremble on the concrete, soiling themselves and begging for mercy. Then comes a deeper desire, a desire she has felt grow more powerful with age, which washes away the smaller-scale ambitions of her teenage years. Rather than terrorize this handful of trash, she would see the whole alley burn, the whole block and neighborhood awash in cleansing fire, only to let it regrow in the glory of Gaia’s touch, slums and ’chip houses choked with vines, their foundations cracked by the roots of mighty trees.
The wind shifts, bringing a cold, fresh current from the lakes, washing away the stagnant, fetid breath of the streets below her. She turns her face with the breeze, letting her eyes play over the Chicago skyline as new questions grow in her mind. Neither her nor her totem, in all of its veiled ways, have ever questioned her disdain for the foul world of man. Her childhood as a fly on the streets and her upbringing in the traditional Sioux cosmology have both left her with no doubt that the structures of the white man stood to be toppled by bringers of truth such as herself or Dances-With-Wolves.
Yet the free toxic spirit bound to the knowsoft had formed great rifts in her understanding of the world, cracks in the wall which she knew kept her from the light of the other side, the light of true comprehension. As a shaman, her power stemmed from her totem, and as Cat, her totem’s power flowed from the urban domain. Could this mean that the very source of her power was that which she would see toppled? What would become of her if her goals were met, if she did manage to return mankind to its proper harmony with the Earth? If she was trying to destroy that which gave her strength, what did this say about her entire existence?
But there were other sources of power. Her limited knowledge of toxic domains had told her simply never to step foot on one, that there could be no energy drawn from them, nor spirits called within them. But she had seen with her own eyes toxic energy harnessed and bound by human hands. This could only mean there were other sources of power, other avenues toward Godhood which did not rely on subservience to a totem or the study of magical formula. Her totem had taught her everything she knew, yet she was becoming her own woman, beginning to forge her own way. The time would come when the spirit world would call her master. She could feel it. She took in a deep breath of the frigid air, rose from her crouch, took a running head start and vaulted the space between this rooftop and the next.
The shaman drops from the skylight of her apartment, landing quietly, pulling the string tied to the window until she hears the latch click. She surveys the room for a moment, letting her meat eyes play over the Neo-Brutalist decor of her apartment for signs of tampering before checking over the space again with her astral sight. Satisfied, she sinks into the chair in front of her desktop matrix terminal, drawing her Fichetti from its thigh holster and placing it on the desk beside the keyboard. She logs in and calls up the Grimore.net, a shady infonet repository of the arcane which Mesay had introduced to her. She scrolls through what there is to be read on the Zohar, apparently a basis for the white man’s Jewish faith, letting her eyes play over the various charts and symbols associated with the tree of life. They were similar to those she had seen in Talismania, at least in her eyes: equally meaningless, equally showy, they stank of typical hermetic semiotic drek. There was little hard evidence that there was magic to be had in them, only far-flung speculation by a handful of burnt-out mages who lurked in on the site’s message boards. She searches one more term, “Ein Sof,” which brings her back to the collection of data on the Zohar. It means “endless one,” that which was prior to existence, a concept lacking in the Sioux cosmogony with which she was familiar. Foolish African, she thought to herself as she powered down the terminal-if there are answers to her questions here, they were veiled and beyond her grasp. She retired to her makeshift spiritual room, not yet a true shamatic lodge, and sat amongst her pelts and cushions, lighting a handful of incense and scattering them at the foot of the feline statue dominating one corner of the room, a massive carving of soot-darkened oak with silver inlay around the eyes and face. She drew the small totemic mask from her belt, placing it over the eyes of the statue before bending forward in supplication. She would need many hours of meditation and communion with her totem to wrap her head around the latest events.
A few days pass, and the runners collect their respective gear, waiting for a call from Mr. Johnson, or a visit from Aleister or the troll. Crusher picks up his comm and det equipment from Rawls, and is trained on its use; Moonclaw’s package from Audell arrives surreptitiously at her doorstep one morning. Still no sign or word from Mr. Johnson. The team keeps to their training, keenly wary that, for whatever reason, they may have already estranged one of their employers.
However, patience on Crusher’s part prevails, and on the 8th of April, a rainy Chicago Friday, a call comes in on Ling Fei’s private line. The voice on the other end is not Mr. Johnson’s. A deep voice on the other end makes a request.
“Chi Ling Fei. I represent the military arm of a large research corporation. It has come to our understanding that you have recently been in contact with one of our experimental projects. This was sensitive material which we will keep secret.
“You have one of two options: you can meet us at the ruins of Soldier Field to discuss a business arrangement, or we terminate you and your team.
“I suggest the former. Meet there in one hour. Bring your business partners. We will be waiting.”
The line clicks dead on the other end, and the dial tone hums in the elf’s ears.
Ling Fei holds the phone to her ear for a moment, frozen in shock, listening to the dialtone. She lowers it slowly onto the kitchen table in front of her, heart racing and mind scattered. Realizing the severity of her situation, she suppresses the animalistic fear in her, forcing herself to act. Her first instinct is to call Crusher, certain that he will have a definitive course of action. As she listens to his phone ring, once, twice, she suddenly realizes the time constraint the mysterious voice had placed them under. One hour to collect the whole team and meet halfway across town at the old stadium?
She slams her phone shut, her chair clattering to the floor as she bolts upright, sweeping up her armor-plated jacket and Walther as she strides through the living room toward the garage, praying to the heavens she wouldn’t need them tonight. With a mental impulse, she boots her cranial remote control rig, and the throb of Boxcar Rebellion’s engine roars in greeting as she rushes into the driver’s seat. She is already on the comm describing the unknown call to Crusher as the Roadmaster blasts out onto the streets of Chicago, racing to the East side slums.
The old ork is waiting on the curb when she screeches to a stop in front of him, assault rifle poking surrepticiously from beneath his overcoat, a massive, army green duffel bag at his feet. Ling Fei pops the back door and the mercenary heaves himself into the back, Boxcar’s suspension creaking in protest. The van is speeding north up the coast to Moonclaw’s general location before the sliding door has time to close.
Ling Fei’s voice crackles forth from Boxcar’s interior speakers. “What’re we going to do, Crusher? I can run air support while you two assault the front. Or should we send Moonclaw to scout them first, see what they’re up to?”
The ork sits somberly in the middle of the back seat, arms folded across his broad chest, a look of cold calculation etched into his brutish features. Four thick, steel fingers drum absent-mindedly upon his bulging bicep as he responds. “Attack them? No, not these guys. Any Corpsec working for an outfit deep enough to make something like that, uh, chip thing, are going to have more shit than we have fan.”
“Then what the hell are we going to do? Just go in and have a nice sit down in an abandonded sports arena with an army of guys who threatened to kill us?”
“They’ve got us by the balls, Ling. Johnson must have given them our personals, or they found some other way into our lives. Either way, we have to do the meet. We’re gonna go in there, guns armed but lowered, and we’re going to see what they want. If they try to kill us, well, say lah vee.”
When they stop to pick up Moonclaw, she is already suited up, the blue-grey urban camo of her jumpsuit doing well to break up her form in the shadows of the alley from which she emerges. Her back is studded with the tools of her trade—pull bow, Smartgun, grappling rifle. Her hair is in two long braids which hang in loops from the sides of her head, tucked underneath the straps of the totemic mask and smartgoggles resting on her forehead. As she vaults into the passenger seat of the van, her movements seem more lithe, confident and alert.
She turns to nod to the mercenary in the back seat, and he gives her a crooked smile, nodding in return. “Moonclaw, good to see you.” She nods silently, the expression on her face subdued yet wild, alien. “We’re going into this one by the books. No tricks, let them play their hand. But be ready either way. After all, they already promised to merc us if the milk goes sour.”