Seattle, 2076. Redmond. Tuesday morning.
It stopped raining sometime after 2am. They were still on the run, then, still unseen among the long shadows and monolithic server banks that twinkled with green and red LEDs like a neon night sky. It wasn’t until 2.30 that the run went to drek and they bugged out. The smell of burning rubber on asphalt blended with damp acidic air and the stench of poverty, an overpower olfactory cocktail adding insult to injury as they pulled the Gopher’s doors shut and fled the Doc Wagon Datacentre.
2Graves, an elf with an unmistakeable military air, rode shotgun, resting her Ares Alpha in her lap. She’d left her Desert Strike behind, used it to bar a door before the datacentre zonies could hit them. She would be angrier about the loss if she wasn’t so damned tired. Is her exhaustion why the run went bad?
Sunny, resident decker, elven fashionista, and all around green horn sat in the back trying to carve out some space on the seat between an Armtech MGL-12 grenade launcher and a duffel bag packed with she-doesn’t-know-what. The silence in the van weighs on her. She’s wet behind the ears. She knows it, they know it. Are they blaming her?
Shadow, chin held high as always like a renaissance marble statue, parading his impeccable bone structure (even by elf standards) for all to see. He wanted out of the chameleon suit as soon as possible, into something more his high-class standard. He’s confident this wasn’t his fault, but maybe he hadn’t communicated his plan well enough. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d suffered such an accusation.
Floating between them in AR, Elros the e-ghost, appearing as a brilliant vibrant collection of data strings in constant flux shaped into the body of an elf man. This run might have been his shot at escape. It wasn’t just about nuyen, it was about the priceless paydata waiting for him inside Doc Wagon’s records. Probably. Maybe. Had he chased that hope to eagerly? Had he lost sight of the run? Is that why it all went wrong?
The only runner sure it isn’t his fault is Lorry, the burly (by troll standards) troll with the thick cockney baritone, the owner of the Gopher, the MGL-12, and the Warhawk he keeps strapped to his thigh, just in case. Lorry doesn’t know what happened inside, he doesn’t leave the van, but he can read the silence, he heard the comm chatter. He knows they’re not getting paid.
“I’m stopping for a snack,” Lorry announces, and makes a sharp turn. “Anybody else hungry?”
Moments later, the team is parked outside a Stuffer Shack in Bargain Basement. Lorry climbs out onto the street and hurries inside. It smells like more rain is about to hit the Barrens and he forgot his poncho. Sunny follows. It’s a good opportunity to pick up supplies.
“Take this,” Elros tells her. He gestures to a commlink on the seat. “It has a sim module, link it to your datajack before you eat. It’s been so long since I ate anything. I think this will work.” Sunny picks it up, and the fly-spy attached to it. It might work. It won’t work well, but she doesn’t have the heart to say no. She joins Lorry in the store, heads for the periodical datachip shelf but an ork sized display promoting this month’s Stuffer Special: Amber Gel catches her eye. She’s heard of it, it’s supposed to be pretty good. She picks up three tubs, leaving the display tragically barren, and continues to the periodicals. She’s behind on the fashion zines and, call her old school, she likes to have the datachips all lined up on her shelf in meat space, even though she could get it all straight off the Matrix.
She’s too busy to notice the three gangers cross the parking lot. 2Graves has fallen asleep, so she doesn’t see them either. Shadow sees them. It’s not just the matching snow jackets with synth fur trim and icicle skull design on the back that gives them away, it’s the way they stop at the door to draw pistols and hype themselves up. Shadow draws his Predator and hustles across the parking lot. One of the gang bangers raises his gun in the air. Shadow interrupts:
“Knight Errant! Drop your weapon!” The gangers panic. One of them drops his gun, another leaps in fright, twitches the wrong finger and shoots his buddy in the gut. The Stuffer Shack customers scream and hit the deck, except for two who draw their own pistols and grab hostages. Plants. Gangbangers on the inside waiting for a signal. Shadow knows the drill.
For the second time in one night, hell breaks loose. Glass and plastic shatter, stuffers in every colour and texture rain on the Stuffer Shack floor. 2Graves wakes up, kicks her chrome into action and brings the Ares Alpha to bear. Sunny rushes into the bathroom, bites down hard to keep from vomiting when she sees the unmistakable brown stains as old as the sixth world marking every surface. No time for that. She drops into VR, deck clutched to her chest. Lorry draws his Warhawk, shows them how they deal with a stick up in old London town. Shadow catches a couple of bullets early, puncturing his flesh as easy as they puncture his chameleon suit, before he can take cover behind a car. Elros detaches a Nissan Rotodrone from the Gopher roof, sends it in for aerial support. Meanwhile, his fly-spy sits like a proverbial on the wall, sharing its view to Sunny while she battles on the Matrix. Seeing Shadow and 2Graves on the wrong side of hot lead, he jumps into the Gopher and pulls it forward for better cover.
The battle, a white-hot maelstrom of pain and chaos, is over almost as fast as it begins. Three gangers die on their feet, defiant until the moment a pistol or assault rifle round explodes through their skull, spraying blood, bone and grey matter into the murky brown ocean of spilled stuffers. Two more, including one with a gut wound inflicted by his own gang, desperately kick at the back door until 2Graves, taking pity on the misguided youthful rapscallions, puts three bullets through the lock (shooting like a pro from the parking lot) so they can run free. Unfortunately, Young Master Gut Wound doesn’t see the rotodrone hovering by the back door and gets tased into unconsciousness.
The last runs free.
The battle won, the crew returns to business. Mr Nick the Stuffer Shack manager, impressed by the quick response time of Knight Errant, given the area, asks who he’s supposed to talk to about the many broken and now un-sellable stuffers. Sunny shrugs and asks that he get to ringing up her datachips and amber gel. Shadow assures him that if he invoices Knight Errant, it will be dealt with.
“Invoice who at Knight Errant?” Mr Nick asks.
“Just send it to the accounting office,” Shadow tries to be patient, but he’s bleeding patience as fast as blood. “Don’t you know how this works?”
“No. Knight Errant’s never been here before.”
“All right. Give me the invoice and I’ll take it to the office.”
“And next time, just pay your protection money and this won’t happen,” 2Graves adds. She knows its sound advice, even if Mr Nick replies with a confused stare.
Heading back to the Gopher, Shadow calls his contact, Nathan, at Ares and asks him to take care of a bill. Nathan grumbles that he’ll take care of it, but next time he’d appreciate it if Shadow clears it with him before incurring costs. Meanwhile, Lorry has struck up conversation with a well-dressed man with silver rimmed glasses, silver hair and a grey suit that, now they look at it, does have a kind of silver sheen to it. He’s all cop business at first glance, but Sunny spots tattoos peeking out from his collar and some jewellery with unique animalistic engravings. They’re not standard issue for a wage slave, neither is a Stuffer Shack in the barons. She does a quick Matrix Search and finds similar items in a Talismongre’s catalogue, made to order for the busy inner-city shaman.
“This is George,” Lorry says.
George makes it understood with no uncertainty that he knows they’re not really Knight Errant, but more specialised. He happens to be in the market for specialised freelancers like them, particularly those willing to shoot down some gangbangers pro bono. It’s late, it’s wet, half of them are bleeding, but turning down work isn’t how you pay the bills.
“Do you have somewhere we can talk?” Shadow asks, ever the face. George does, as it happens. A store not far from the Stuffer Shack. Into the van they pile, and to his store they travel.
Contrasting the clean shaven and neatly dressed George Hampton, his store looks like a medicine lodge exploded. There are shelves, but there are as many talisman and reagents scattered around the floor or hanging off walls as there are on the shelves. If there’s an office, George neglects to mention it, and instead hosts the runners in the front. He gets straight to business, explains his daughter Moxie has been taken by the Fratelli family mafia, that they want money he doesn’t have, that he’s willing to pay the crew 500 nuyen each and throw in some medical attention (now, or at a later date) if they bring his daughter back alive. He recommends they speak to Vic Fratelli, who can be found at a nearby McDonalds, an unlikely location, he knows, but George is sure it’s a mob front.
The run doesn’t pay well, but it should be quick work and who doesn’t love a good cause? Plus, they’re a crew without magic, so being on good terms with a shaman would be a long-standing benefit, assuming George and Moxie don’t leave the city as soon as they’re done, which is probably an idea worth suggesting to him. After all, the Fratellis will just keep coming. Shadow asks if George has any astral powder, and that he’d take that in lieu of the nuyen. George agrees, and so they reach an accord. One daughter, delivered at mate’s rates.
“While we’re getting her, you should probably make plans to leave Redmond,” 2Graves recommends. “Or start paying your protection money.” She knows it’s sound advice, even if George Hampton replies with protestation and money woes.
Back into the van. Back onto the streets. Late night run to McDonalds, just like the old days, hey, chummer?
Lorry parks a few blocks up, volunteers to man the wheel while they take care of business. Shadow instructs the others to go ahead while he dresses into something finer, something more akin to the high-flying Biz professional he is. Elros jumps into a rotodrone and provides air cover like the high-flying rigging e-ghost he is. 2Graves and Sunny approach on foot, taking a minute to crouch behind a car, away from the McDonalds door, to hack and disable the metal detectors. A security guard manning the entrance and the prominent No Firearms sign make the McDonalds look like a thousand others across Seattle with the same policy, but if this is a mob front, walking in unarmed isn’t the wise option. Fortunately, the hack seems to have worked, and there are no alarms when 2Graves walks through the doors. People have said 2Graves is more machine, now, than elf, but the metal detector hasn’t noticed, nor does it notice Sunny’s Predator or Deck squirreled away in her bag. The two runners order some food at one of the half-dozen self-service ordering kiosks and take a table. The open plan dining gives them excellent view no matter where they sit.
The sudden acid reflux following 2Grave’s first bite is unfortunate, but she’ll live to fight another day.
As they battle food poisoning in the form of an impressively meaty soy Quarter Pounder, Shadow makes his entrance dressed to the nines in suit, tie, and armoured great coat. He looks around for the best dressed diner, spies a human man somewhere in his thirties, wearing a brown suit, a white shirt with mustard stained lapel, and with hair greased back slick. He looked like greaser in an old flatvid playing dress up with his father’s business clothes.
“Vic Fratelli?” Shadow asks.
Vid nods without stopping masticating.
“I need to talk business. Do you have an office where we can talk privately?”
“This is my place of business. You want to talk business, talk here.”
“If it’s like that, maybe I’ll take my business somewhere more professional.”
“If you’re set on playing small time, sure, take a hike.”
Shadow doesn’t answer, just stares the tough-talking burger-chewing gangster square in the eye. Vic, unimpressed and unintimidated stares back, his jaw moving in a steady rhythm, devouring the first of the two soy Big Macs on his tray. 2Graves, her head on a swivel, catches sight of the cooks in the corner of the room – not the usual young and under-employed McDonalds staff, but men with muscle and hair and mean looks in equal plentiful measure. They’ve lost interest in cooking and stare hard at Vic and Shadow, exposed biceps twitching with anticipation. The customers continue to eat, seemingly non-the-wiser, except for one middle aged human man. He looks like a ragged, sleep-deprived wage slave pushing his second 20-hour day in a row. His flesh glistens in the cold white restaurant lighting He has a burger and chips on his tray, and a steaming soykaf, but he’s staring holes in Vic. She’s seen battle of every kind, 2Graves has.
She knows a calm before a storm when she sees one.