Three By Shadow

Act IV: Tyranid - Scene 1

The 'Spike

Moonclaw plants her feet and stretches her body to its full length, working out the tension in her muscles from the harrowing astral quest. Nothing in her life had ever challenged her in so many ways, had ever pushed her so close to the edge of defeat. Her battle with herself had literally come down to a game of chance, so evenly was she matched with her doppelganger. She shudders to think how easily it could have been her lying dead on the top of that mountain, run through with a wooden spike or knocked dead by a blast of mana. Would the other Moonclaw be standing in her apartment right now had she lost?

Her brief existence as Wophe, the White Buffalo Calf Goddess herself, had filled some void within her which she could not have pointed out before the vision quest. Where once she was adrift in a sea of nihilism, seeking only wealth and power, now she had a people, a sense of belonging and purpose which transcended the material world. The change was almost frightening in its breadth and depth, yet it also almost made her smile, thinking back on the glowing faces of the chiefs at counsel and the dance of the spirits as her people learned the Ghost Dance for the first time. Almost.

On a whim, she calls out to Wophe, invoking her name with a Lakota prayer as she forms a chaos field in her upturned palm. The resulting mass of obfuscating energy is more potent than anything she could have ensorcelled a mere two days ago, its force somehow amplified by Moonclaw’s newfound connection with her ancestral homeland. [Moonclaw learns the centering metamagic, using Lakota prayer as her chosen skill. Her mass confusion spell has increased to force 5.]

She lets the spell disperse, satisfied that the taxing trial was worthwhile in the end, and sets about preparing for tomorrow’s run. Surely it could not be as difficult or dangerous as what she had just experienced in the confines of her own mind. Moonclaw does a once-over through her gear, lingering over her Smartgun, suddenly more appreciative of the comfort the mundane implement brings her. She lays out Mesay’s foci, the cat bone ring, manacle pendant and silver die now more hers than his, along with her pistol, grapple gun, folding bow and quiver of arrows, taking special care not to nick herself on the barbs laced with the Krieger virus. Finally, she smooths out her camo suit, doing her best to rub the bits of zombie flesh from its dappled surface of blues, grays and blacks.

The cat shaman prepares a meal of vacuum-sealed salmon and rice, devours it with unexpected vigor, then turns in for the night, thankful to have returned once more to the confines of reality.

~

Ling Fei does her best to keep her mind occupied over the two days leading up to the next run, lest she run herself down with worry and fear. She had alot to worry about—her parents had not bothered to return any of her calls in the past week, and this had brought on a fresh wave of anxiety as she contemplated the ways in which Wuxing might be tapping her calls, or even worse, tracing them back to her family. But matrix coverage in Taiwan was spotty at best, she reassured herself, and this wasn’t the first time her absent-minded parents had forgotten about their daughter in the States. Compounding this was, of course, fear for her own safety, and the safety of her partners in crime, as well as all of the new friends they had made. Ling Fei even found herself worrying about the two dwarves from time to time. And was that so bad, in the end? Riggers had to look out for each other on the mean streets of Chicago.

Beside the obligatory hours in her garage, tuning, rebuilding, and oiling, Ling Fei keeps herself busy through idleness, watching ‘trid soaps about high elven fantasy or the Trojan war, playing tactical sims and working on her drone designs. One night, she even builds up the courage to go out with an old friend from Harbin University, scoring bubble tea and synth-noodles in Chinatown’s quieter Southern quadrant after a round of mani’s and a fresh bleach and perm. It was nice enough to see old friends and reminisce about college, but Ling Fei found she had less and less in common with the non-runners of her past life. How could she pretend to be interested in the ordeals of wageslavery when she compared it to her own line of employment?

When Ling Fei sleeps the night before their meetup with the orks, her dreams are filled with robot dogs, fast cars, and flashing steel.

~

Crusher is too old to do things like fret about that which he does not know. For him, a bit of ‘yen in his account and the prospect of future work are enough to distinguish good days from the bad. He cleans his apartment, sharpens the knives implanted in his hands, and does a load of laundry. He even manages to get through three Sherlock Holmes novels over the course of two afternoons. His favorite is The Sign of the Four, a tale about a group of men who go off to an island in search of treasure and adventure. Crusher is satisfied that he could, as usual, deduce the solution to the mystery before the end of the book, though he scoffs at the sidearms Holmes and his companion are packing. II’ll take a smartlinked Max-Power over some dinky revolver any day, he thinks to himself as he puts the worn novel back on the bookshelf.

The mercenary fits in a visit to Harriett Matthews and a round of drinks at HAUS before the day is done, then preps his kit before turning in. He clips three of his new incendiary grenades and two HE’s to the inside of his longcoat, stuffs plenty of ammo into his belt and pants pockets, including his explosive rounds and both APDS clips, along with some mini-grenades. The rest of his ordinance—the C4, his Valiant and its bulky gyro-harness, and more grenades and ammo than he can count—he stuffs into the massive army duffel to leave in the van.

When Crusher’s face hits his pillow, he sleeps like a rock, or a man that’s dead.

Gamemaster:

The night of April 7th rolls around like a tumbleweed in a ghost town, quietly and with no fanfare. Crusher’s comms unit buzzes across his table just as the sun sinks below the horizon, and he checks it to see a simple SMS from Blitz:

Meet @ the Spike, 7101 Cermak Road in Berwyn in one hour. Bring the ruckus, chummer.

The missive seems normal enough. Crusher stops just long enough to wonder if gang meetings are usually arranged, last-minute, via text message, but figures it must be a security measure. His gear already packed in its duffel, he has only to gather his team and get to the meet.

Player:

Crusher commits the Berwyn address to memory, deletes the text, then dials his rigger. Ling Fei picks up by the second ring.

“It’s time,” Crusher deadpans. “Get Moonclaw first, and meet me at my apartment.”

“Ten-four, big dog. Be there in thirty.” Crusher grunts. “Step on it. The meet is on the West end, in the badder ’burbs. And we only have an hour.”

Ling Fei laughs on the other end before hanging up. “Step on it? Don’t I always?”

The old mercenary calls the shaman next, giving her the news. She humphs impassively before closing the connection without another word.

Crusher steps outside as Boxcar Rebellion rolls down his block a half-hour later, her throaty diesel engine reverberating through the night air. He stamps his boot once on the pavement as the van door slides open, heaving his munitions duffel in before settling into the rear bench seat. The smell of bleach does a poor job of covering the trace odors of blood and feces which have long since ingrained themselves into the armored transport’s cabin.

Ling Fei angles Boxcar West, cutting straight across the ork slums of Crusher’s turf to hit local 50, which will take them North to Berwyn.

Gamemaster:

Boxcar Rebellion’s throaty engine fills the slums of Ford City and Sleepy Hollow with its reverberating roar as Ling Fei makes her way North with her two companions. The van’s ASIST thrums in the back of her skull like a second heartbeat, and she snuggles down into her VCR like a safety blanket.

Crusher’s bulging duffel shifts a little as the foam-filled tires eat another pothole, and he checks his gear again, just to be sure. The ammo-feed for the Valiant scrapes against the gyro harness, so he rearranges them and then checks the mags for his Combat Gun. Satisfied everything is in order, he sits back and waits for their arrival. His wound has mostly healed, but it still pains him when he shifts his weight. He growls under his breath; in another few days his tough old body will have completely recovered, but the swordsman cut him deep.

Moonclaw looks out the armored vision slits at the passing landscape: row after row of dilapidated housing, mostly stripped of all salvageable material and now home to gypsies, squatters and paranimals. The scene reminds her of her walk down 87th street a few days ago, seeing the identical houses and occasional colorful playset. Somehow, the run-down uniformity of these neighborhoods is more comforting: they, at least, have embraced their lot in life and given up the ghost. The swingsets blowing in the cold wind were too much a reminder of what this place had once meant to so many, before the Awakening, the VITAS plagues, Dunkelzahn, Deus, goblinization… the world used to be such a different place, and the parts of it that have not moved on are a haunting reminder that life had been good, once.

They turn West onto Cermak road, putting the stacked neon hives of Chicago behind them. It is not long before they reach their destination, but they hear it long before they see it.

Thespike

The “Spike” is well named: a stack of old fossil-burning cars adorns a 50’ metal spike in the middle of a shopping center parking lot. The once-colorful cars have all but gone the blood-red color of rust, and a few have fallen off and collect at the base of the monument like dead animals. An apt meeting place for the heads of the five lesser gangs of Chi-town. About a hundred figures are gathered around the base of the spike, of varying sizes, shapes and colors.

Crusher moves to the front of the van to get a better look at the gangers which swarm the scene. He can make out five distinct groups, including the Spiders in their signature red and black. Fifteen orks, male and female, mill around a large, armored palanquin. This strange contraption must be for show, or transport of some unwieldy equipment, because a large rigged military-style halftrack idles beside it, its bed fitted with a mechanical servo-arm which can attach to the top of the palanquin to move it. Another armored Ares Roadmaster idles beside that, a reflection of Boxcar Rebellion done up in red dagz and black webbing patterns. The bladesmen and women are all cybered, like Blitz, Bakcha and Charlie, and look as hard as they come. Katanas curve wickedly from their hips and SMG’s hang from shoulder holsters and chest bands; grenades and other military accoutrements rattle and glint under the orange streetlights.

Crusher’s attention shifts to the next group, a smaller band of thirteen thin elven warriors in spiky, dark-green plated armor with a bold, purple ‘88’ emblazoned across the chest. Each are adorned differently: a barb here, a scythe there, grisly tokens of war strewn about their persons in the form of ear talismans and shrunken heads. One thing unites them, a cybered left arm ending with a three-fingered cyberhand, done up in the same green as their armor. The long faces of the elves bear a sinister look under black hair worn in high piles on top of their heads. One among them stands apart, taller than the others, with a large array of blades fanning upwards from his back like a sunset, framing his figure. His eyes beam out from behind a tall, scorpion-like mask, and both of his arms are cybered, bearing the three-fingered hand of their order.

A spotlight sweeps through Boxcar’s armored windscreen, triggering the flare compensation in Crusher’s cybereyes. He looks up at the source to see a grey-blue Aztechnology Aguilar-EX assault chopper hovering 100 feet above their position, Japanese characters stamped in yellow on the underside: 宇宙狼. The meaning escapes Crusher for the moment, but he looks out over the assembled gangs for the group that belongs to this Japanese gang, probably one of the Yakuza splinter sects of Chicago. He spots them easily, eight suits of hulking, military-grade powered exosuits done up in the same blue-grey as the chopper. Thick boots stamp heavily on the ground and servos whine in the joints of each soldier as they sweep the area with rifles the size of small rocket launchers. Closed helmets bristle with an advanced sensor suite and rebreather gear, giant shoulder pads with various kanji in block letters move organically under their own power; every inch of the men inside is armored from head to toe in the latest tech. Though few in number, Crusher thinks that they are the most heavily armed of all the assembled, even without the air support. He can’t see their leader, but so little of each individual can be distinguished from the others that he could be any one of them.

The other two groups are more familiar to the ork, one especially so: furthest from their approach of the Spike are what remains of ECM, in their signature black and yellow. Theirs is a mixed lot, with all races, creeds and colors represented, and looking worn and weary. Though poorly armed, they must number thirty head at least, each armed with a motley array of weapons, some clearly scavenged, others fairly new and advanced. Some members brandish nothing but clubs and chains, and wear ripped leather jackets with metal spikes and ripped jeans. The Ancients are also here, with many of their various factions represented, including the Englewood branch. The black-skinned elves look like they have just come from a party; several are visibly drunk or actively drinking, and a ring has formed in their midst, with two dark-skinned elves fighting each other, to the jeers and roars of the crowd. Like ECM, the Ancients vastly outnumber the other three well-armed factions, numbering about forty.

Boxcar Rebellion rumbles down Cermak road, which forms the northern border of the rectangular parking lot which the Spike calls home. To the south, the large, blasted-out shell of Cermak Plaza stands alone in this area of the neighborhood, clearly not attended any more by the corporate inhabitants which owned it last. The west side of the lot is S. Harlem Ave, and to the east, Home Ave. There is nothing but a few rusted-out old cars in the lot, leaving the entire area exposed, which, Crusher supposes, is part of the point: nowhere for any one of the gangs to mount an ambush, no hidden entrances or exits. No man’s land.

The meeting hasn’t started yet; none of the gang activity is focused enough to indicate any amount of common activity. In fact, some of the fringe members of ECM and the Ancients have begun to quarrel; Crusher remembers what Bakcha and Charlie told him about the gangs having bad blood with each other. Time remains to gather tactical intel and take a thorough survey of the area; there may be portions of this meeting-spot which remain as yet undiscovered. Crusher sets his face in stone and remembers that these men are the soldiers of the Chicago streets, no different than his brothers in the Corps during his deployment. They know only one thing, violence, and have the blinding loyalty and brutality to use it.

Player:

Crusher points to the group of gangers in black and red. “There are the Spiders, Ling. Pull up by them.”

“Aye aye, cap,” Ling Fei responds cheerily, the excitement of the massive gathering filling her with a nervous giddiness. She pulls Boxcar into the lot, circling around the perimeter of the gathered masses to reach their allies. As they move, she ejects her Condor from the opening in the van’s roof, ordering the trusty micro-blimp drone to a holding position above the central spike while staying clear of the Yak’s attack chopper. She wanted to be certain her team had as much intel as possible in case things got hairy.

Surprisingly, for once Moonclaw and Ling Fei have similar instincts. The shaman buckles her seatbelt and projects her astral form, passing out of the vehicle to drift above the assembled throng and sniff about for signs of magical activity.

Crusher steps from the Roadmaster as they pull up alongside the Spider’s halftrack, scanning the assembled orks for the familiar faces of Bakcha, Blitz and Charlie. He’ll want to see what they can tell him about the situation, at the least. At best, he would like to clang fists with the Grand Spinner himself, whom he suspects may be the occupant of the fancy palanquin the Spiders have brought with them. Crusher wasn’t sure if the Spider’s boss would meet with him yet—gangs run on reputation and street cred alone, and Crusher didn’t have much in the way of this currency yet. All in good time, my dear Watson, he thinks to himself as he flexes his steel fist. All in good time.

Gamemaster:

Ling Fei waits for the Condor to gain altitude, letting it drift on its tiny blimp until she gets the feed in her peripheral “vision” via the remote VCR link. The picture is grainy at first, but quickly resolves itself thanks to the Condor’s advanced sensor package; the machine even analyzes the available tactical feed coming from Boxcar, sifting out salient details until it gets enough metadata to highlight the factions and link her current position. The spiders show as red blips on her HUD, 88’s as green, Yakuza as grey-blue, EMC as yellow and Ancients as black. Boxcar Rebellion shows up as larger green dot and the ‘Spike is marked with an orange reticle. It’s no BattleTac© system, but it will do for her small group.

Car spike map small1

The view is a top-down view of the parking lot, overlaid by a grid of 5×5 meter green squares. Ling Fei notices a few things immediately: first, the southwestern side of the lot is much more full of cars than it appeared on their approach down Cermak road. The lines of parked vehicles effectively hide each other, but the Condor can see that the parking lot is almost full to S. Harlem. The east is relatively clear; a clean LOS extends from Boxcar’s position to an old mall building fronting on Home Ave. Second, there are two lifeforms which the drone has flagged as Yak snipers sitting on top of the Cermak Plaza building, effectively obscured from the parking lot by the dusk light. The blue-grey Japanese helicopter slowly circles the entire scene.

Moonclaw’s astral form floats up with the drone, her back to the stars as she takes in the scene beneath her. The glowing forms of life around the ‘Spike pulse gently against the muted luminescence of Gaia beneath the pavement. Only a few of the assembled are Awakened: one of the Yaks, one of the 88’s, and a handful amongst the Ancients and ECM; all of the Spiders are sleepers. There are no wards or astral barriers in the parking lot that she can see, so she looks around herself in astral space and is surprised to see two astral forms in the sky with her. Their auras match those of the Yak and 88 magi, but they keep a good distance between her and each other. A cautious truce, perhaps.

Crusher exits the Roadmaster, and two of the Spiders break off to greet him; it is Bakcha and Charlie. The old ork’s metal arm greets theirs with a clamorous ring, and he finds himself amongst the Spiders, the hard faces of orks and trolls peering down at him from above cybered chests and heavy armor. The red-and-black spiderwebs are everywhere, and each man or woman’s hand rests easily on the butt of a katana. The swords are decorated as wildly as their bearers, with heavy steel tsuba in many forms, and spiders and eight-legged charms hanging from battered kashiri.

Bakcha speaks first, “‘Domo, chummer. We got here a few minutes ago, it looks like the others have been waitin’. The GS is about to start the meeting in a few minutes, but we gotta stop you here. Nobody within sight of the Big Boss unless he says so.”

“And he ain’t said shit ’bout you, so back it up.” Charlie’s attitude has not brightened, it seems.

Bakcha continues, ignoring her, “We just need you to hang here, keep our northern flank covered from the road. Keep an eye out on the other gangs, make sure nobody starts any funny business; especially those Jap bastards, they’ve been untrustworthy in the past. And don’t worry, the GS knows you’re here. I recommended you myself. The other gangs probably have mercs hiding in the wings too, so stay sharp. Do good and we’ll see about getting you invited to another one of our parties. Any questions?”

Player:

Crusher presses a finger to his earbud. “Copy that, Ling Fei? We’re in charge of the northern approach. Deploy your armor and keep overwatch.” The rigger’s synthesized voice buzzes affirmatively in his ear, “overwatch, aye aye,” and the mercenary watches as Boxcar about-faces to overlook the north, her pop-up turret deploying with a pneumatic hiss as both ground-crawlers roll down the beast’s rear ramp to take up holding positions alongside their master.

Satisfied, the old ork turns back to Bakcha and Charlie, his greatcoat flapping in the wind. “We’ll be ready. Tell me ‘bout your standing with the other crews—will they really fall in under the black and red? I know the ECM ain’t shit,” he pats his Ares Alpha with a sly grin, “But the 88’s and Yaks don’t look like they’re drekking around. And where’s Blitz? Ain’t he done leakin’ yet?” Crusher’s own sword wound begins to ache once more at the thought. He growls low. “Let’s get this started; I’m gonna crush that daisy eater’s head like a fucking melon.” The sections of his steel hand grind together as he clenches his fist.

Several feet and one world away, Moonclaw circles slowly above the assembled throng of gangers, the tides of human emotion buffeting her on the astral wind. Bloodlust, machismo and pride strike her tongue in equal measure, each more distasteful than the last. The cat shaman’s eyes settle on their supposed allies’ palanquin, and once more she finds no reason to fight her own curiosity. Moonclaw swoops low and cautiously penetrates the gray immateriality of the veiled litter.

Gamemaster:

Bakcha speaks for his gang, “We’re not trying to assemble an army, here—nobody in this group’d follow one man anyway would rather kill each other ‘fore that. Nah, GS is just trying to mobilize some of the groundwork, get ready for a kind of, I dunno, unified uprising. You know, hit Wuxing in all it’s Chi-town ops, all at once. Suspend the cease-fire on suits, maybe kidnap some execs and torture the fuck out of them, to let ‘em know we mean business. It’s gotta be fast but hard enough that they don’t keep up their bullshit.”

He spits a gob of something black on the pavement. “See, normally the corps get along just fine with the black markets, gangs, runners—they know it’s useless to try to stop us so they let us alone. But recently they been breaking that little pact—kidnapping gangers, leading us on bad runs that turn into ambushes, bombing our safehouses. We don’t know why yet. This business with the assassinations—we think they’re pegging it on us, but we got nothing to gain from that. Idiot wageslaves. So it’s time they got as good as they give. Payback for Blitz, he’s not doing so hot. Knife wound got infected somehow.”

Charlie interrupts with a hand on Bakcha’s metal shoulder. “Brother. Meeting’s about to start.” The other Spiders in their squad are waving them over. Bakcha nods to Crusher and leaves with his blade sister.

~

Moonclaw’s cat-like qualities having gotten the best of her, she pokes her head through the Spiders’ palanquin. The front of the thing is a closed set of metal shutters, like the wings of an insect, and she notices that much of its bulk is not devoted to passenger space, but machinery. She drifts into the darkness of the enclosed space, losing Gaia’s light entirely, and finds the only illumination inside is herself and the scrap of aura she finds clinging to the body of an ancient human. It is impossible to tell from this plane where his meat ends and the palanquin begins, but his haggard, twisted face—what is left of it—turns her stomach.

This is a creature well past what should have been the bounds of its time on this earth; even his arms and legs are gone, his internal organs replaced by a Frankenstein’s monster of biological vats, humming nanohives and suspensor webbing. His mouth croaks and his one good eye flits around to a sensor panel on the side of the litter, which lights up at his attention. A metal voice grates out from a speaker on the outside, “Let’s begin.”

The palanquin lurches forward, and Moonclaw drifts through it as it is carried by two trolls away from her. It seems the meeting is about to commence.

Player:

The Grand Spinner’s appearance gives Moonclaw a visceral, gut-churning reaction, her astral presence flickering as her concentration wavers. Content with her brief interplanar furlough, and eager to return her senses to a state in which she can only see the outside of the palanquin, the shaman releases the exertion of projection, letting her essence slip back into her mortal coil.

Moonclaw opens her meat eyes and takes in a gulp of air, quickly re-orienting herself in the physical world. She throws off her seatbelt and steps out of the van, jogging to join Crusher as the gangster’s summit begins.

The old merc follows the orkish pair toward the center of the meeting grounds, leaning in to mutter in Bakcha’s ear. “If you’re interested in hitting Wuxing where it hurts, I have a line on their HQ in the city, south of the river. My team has some unfinished business there—wouldn’t mind tying up loose ends while we’re causing chaos in the Spiders’ name. Two birds and all, you natch?”

Gamemaster:

The ork grunts noncommittally and heads off with his group. He doesn’t seem interested in anything other his gang and the meeting at the moment. Swords rattling in their scabbards, he and his companions move off towards their leader while the last rays of sun set, blessing the proceedings with nighttime.

Crusher looks on, watches the palanquin picked up by two of the black-and-red trolls, who move it away from the halftrack and towards the base of the ‘Spike. Seeing this initial movement, the green-armored leader of the 88’s calls his clan together with a feral whoop, and the grey-blue Yaks move as one, each keeping their facing in the squad, professional and deadly. The ECM and Ancients have started squabbling together, a fight has broken out between two of them but the self-appointed lead groups of both make themselves known. The Ancients’ man is a huge, black elf, tall but thick and athletic, wearing black leather armor under what looks like football pads. Chains and spikes adorn his figure, and a heavy pistol is worn at his hip. He approaches the base of the spike with a pair of attendants, high-up officers of the gang, by their bearing. One has a green and black ‘A’ flag draped across his shoulders. The ECM sends forth their motley group, a half-dozen humans with no clear leader amongst them. They do not have the bearing of Big Jack, or the impressive charisma of Big Boss—well, from what Crusher can remember of his corpse, it was a very charismatic one.

The leaders meet each other under the monument and regard each other coolly for a moment. The ‘Yaks deploy a portable ’trid display on the ground, and a picture-perfect projection of an old Japanese man blinks into life beside his armored honor guard. The grating metal voice of the palanquin sounds out, but from this distance, Crusher has a hard time making out specific words. Minutes pass, arms are waved and the talking becomes louder at one point, but it still seems like a normal pow-wow. Beside him, Moonclaw yawns: it looks like she hasn’t slept in days, but maybe that’s just his head playing tricks on him. His military training perks up and he looks around him, taking in the scene, painting a tactical picture of his surroundings and looking out for the other mercenary units the Spiders hinted at.

The ‘Spike is to his immediate South, and Cermak road runs close by him—no traffic, but that’s not so strange in this kind of place, at this time. Ling-Fei’s metal dogs have taken up positions beside Boxcar, but are still for now. He can’t quite see past the throng of people and cars to the Southwest, and his view directly West is blocked by a large white semi about 50 meters out, propped up on cinderblocks and clearly not going anywhere. Above that he can barely see the orange awnings of one of those horrible synth-meat burger shacks, peddling inedible swill at all hours of the night. He turns around to face East—there is some movement among the cars at that end of the lot, but it is distant, and the light is bad. He flicks on his thermals and image magnification, just for shits, but he can’t tell at this distance what the few people milling around over there are doing. They aren’t openly carrying, that’s for sure. Come to think of it, he and his team are the only ones packing outright other than the gangers. He just has time to register that as mildly strange when a new sound pricks the hearing amps in his metal ears.

A scream is heard through the night, set apart from the background noise by its sudden… urgency. Is that the right word? It’s primal, for sure—an animal scream, not a sound you can make on your own. It comes from the Southwest, the corner of the Cermak plaza building. He looks around—Moonclaw didn’t hear it, her attention is elsewhere. Ling-Fei hasn’t moved, but she’s jacked, and the gangers that he can see don’t seem to be reacting, either. Maybe it’s nothing.

Player:

Crusher frowns, taking a moment to consider the evidence proffered by the senses of his cyber-enhanced form. Enemy activity, his instincts warn on some basic, predatory level. Find cover, shoulder your rifle.

The mercenary takes up a firing post on Boxcar’s back right corner, his side flush against the solid armor plate. He whispers into his mic, “Ling, deploy an attack drone on our southwest vector, possible hostiles. Moonclaw—ready up.”

The Lakota shaman ducks into the ork’s shadow, crouching low and holding up her first two fingers to the night sky. “Ate Wakantanka, wahinajin ki. Allspirit, accept me in thy sight.” The cat-bone ring on her middle finger begins to shimmer.

Ling Fei sends Sparrow Two its boot command and deploys it on her van’s custom drone rack. She watches from the top-down HUD as the lone combat drone speeds along a southwestern arc. The rigger grabs both ground crawlers and re-positions them along Crusher’s line with their LMGs trained downrange, but keeps the transport facing north. Boxcar’s engine roars anxiously, like a horse that smells lions in the tall grass.

Gamemaster:

Moonclaw whispers into her hand besides Crusher; he checks downrange and makes sure his ammo count is up, then turns around and… she is gone. He blinks once, then dismisses it; the cat shaman is always sneaking away somewhere—she’s probably just on the other side of the van. Moonclaw’s body heat and signature still appear on Boxcar’s thermal and millimeter-wave, however; Ling-Fei is not even aware that anything has changed. Instead, she focuses on the feed coming form Condor-1 and Sparrow-2. Her Ares Guardian detaches itself from its armored perch and gains altitude, soaring over the heads of the assembled gangs. It makes its way quickly southwest across the parking lot, vectored thrust engines angled directly forward to make the best time.

The drone pulls up as it spots something out-of-the-ordinary, but the little pilot brain was just tricked by some blowing trash and the heat of a parked car; it processes these things for a second and then scoots forward again, wiggling the FN-HAR under its nose. The Guardian moves another hundred feet and stops again, focusing on another heat signature. Chirruping to itself, it decides this is worth reporting and sends Ling-Fei a low-urgency ping.

She pulls its visual data into her primary view and sees from the drone’s eyes. The thermographic lens is on, overlaying orange heat signatures on the washed-out low-light imagery. Sparrow-2 is focusing on a human body laying on the sidewalk at the corner of Cermak plaza, a human female with a pool of rapidly cooling blood spreading out around her. There are no other people in sight.

Player:

Ling Fei’s voice crackles through their private radio channel. “Crusher, I’ve got one casualty over here. Civilian. I think we should probably go check it out.”

“Negative,” the mercenary replies. “Spiders want us to cover their rear, we’re going to cover it, not go chasing after shadows. Check it out the best you can with the remote unit. Moonclaw, if you’re out there somewhere, hold position.”

The cat shaman activates her subvocal mic and mouths a response. “I will stay for now.” Moonclaw deploys the folding stock of her Ingram Smartgun and leans around Crusher, checking the astral plane for signs of foul play. There were too many casters involved in this job for her liking, too many variables beyond their control.

Ling Fei jumps into Sparrow-2, letting the sensations of the VTOL drone become her own. She hovers close to the corpse, checking it over with her visual sensors for signs of physical trauma, gunshot wounds, or other clues as to the woman’s death.

Gamemaster:

The advanced sensor package on the nose of the Guardian is much more sensitive than that of the Condor high above, and it picks out the body in fine detail as the drone circles it slowly. The victim lies on her face, one arm slumped unnaturally across her back and blood seeping into her clothing. No exit wounds in the back or limbs can be seen to suggest what kind of weapon killed her. The body is normal otherwise.

Back at Boxcar Rebellion, Moonclaw’s vision swims crazily in the accustomed manner, and then she is seeing the spirit world. The two astral forms of the patrolling magicians above have moved off somewhere and are no longer in sight. Other than that, the auras of everyone she can see in the crowd seem as they did at the meeting’s onset: angry, sad, confused, afraid, but not dangerous or near panic. Even the scuffle between the Ancients and ECM doesn’t seem like it carries genuine, murderous intent. These are just animals trying to stake their claim.

The noises of the negotiations between the gang leaders is growing louder, and each of the three runners hears it in their own way. Ling-Fei’s auditory cortex, rewired through her VCR, tunes out the hum of the humanoids and focuses on the sounds of machinery, listening constantly for armored threats warming up. Moonclaw hears the mundane sounds of conversation, yelling and shouting mixed in with the whup-whup-whup of the Aguilar-EX hovering above.

Again, it is Crusher’s cyberears which hear the noise that doesn’t belong. He pricks them up as he eavesdrops on the meeting—it seems that the Yakuza are pledging some kind of aerial raid on a Wuxing-controlled warehouse nearby. Remembering his duty, he tunes them out and casts his attention across the lot again, in the direction of the body on the sidewalk. He hears Sparrow-2’s engines, traffic on the street, an electric transmission whining, and a strange scuffling sound, almost so soft as to be white noise. It sounds like bricks being dragged quickly along the ground, accompanied by a staccato click-clack-click-clack. The cadence of the noise is unmistakably biological, most likely something running or limping on all fours, but he hasn’t heard anything exactly like it before.

Player:

Drek this, Crusher thinks to himself, something is wrong and I’m not going to wait around just to get caught with my pants down. The mercenary breaks cover and begins striding across the parking lot to the where the gangers have gathered around The Spike, intent on speaking to his contacts with the Spiders. He presses one finger to his ear, “Everyone hold position, I’m going to tell Bakcha that I smell a rat.”

Ling Fei throttles up to gain a few more meters of altitude then begins to fly a tight circle around the body, trying to conserve fuel while still maintaining visual on the scene. She puts the Guardian’s sensor package to work, sweeping the area around the body with every module the combat drone has equipped.

Moonclaw kneels on the pavement and pulls a satchel of concrete powder from her belt. She pours the coarse material in a small circle at her feet then bisects it with crossed iron rebars before pressing her palm to the ground. “Wakantanka,” she intones, “even the cities heed your cry—hear mine now, and send to me a child of brick and mortar. Make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.”

Gamemaster:

Moonclaw speaks to herself in English, but what Crusher hears muttered beside him is the ancient language of the Lakota in rhythmic harmony. The chanting helps the shaman concentrate deeply, and Chicago grants her two services as its end of the bargain. One of the city’s agents appears in the ether to perform her work, and astral sight reveals the spirit’s shape: a swirling, baleful cloud of loose brick, cinder blocks, rebar and crumbled concrete.

Ling-Fei knows something is wrong the moment she gains acceleration; she swears the drone’s many eyes are picking up movement across the street. The failing light is not enough to pick out just what, so she enhances digital mag and increases the thermal feed… before she realizes what she’s looking at, the proximity siren for Sparrow-2 sounds in the back of her brain, and the Guardian pilot is highlighting the incoming objects in bright red triangles on her display. The signatures are so faint they must be biological, and they are making their way across the empty lot on the other end of S. Harlem at a very fast rate. The drone counts a few dozen separate lifeforms moving; to Ling-Fei, the way they move makes them look more like a pack of dogs than anything else.

Crusher runs up to the Spiders and is blocked by two trolls watching the rear of the group. Their blade brethren stand beside in a loose trio, watching him out of the corners of their eyes. None of them is familiar to Crusher, but he can spot Bakcha’s war-painted cyber below the Spike, near the Grand Spinner’s palanquin.

“What do you want?” One of the trolls sneers. The other drips ugly, black machine oil at him menacingly. Their metal hands move to the hilts of their gigantic katana.

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