The crew spends a few minutes studying the map and agree they should begin where the truck was last connected to the Matrix, but first they need to get together in meat space. Elros picks up Sunny from her Auburn home and the two head for Redmond to meet 2Graves. At 2Graves’ home, the three take in an episode of Neil The Ork Barbarian while they wait for Shadow, coming all the way from Everett. They sit in silence and watch the trid, enjoying some relaxed camaraderie. It has to end soon. The bitter cold and deadly shadows await them, and they know it, but for now, for now they can relax as something like friends.
Shadow arrives shortly after the episode ends and the team piles into Elros’ SUV. It’s a little after 1pm when they reach The Verge. The sky is covered by thick grey clouds. As they park the SUV and step onto the streets, a light snow begins to fall, dusting the decrepit buildings and crumbling road in a blanket of brown, yellow and coal black frost. The crumbling asphalt is slippery beneath them and the air so frigid that they can see their breath. A rainbow of gang tags marks every wall in sight, some fresh, some faded, some so layered with different tags that they have become indistinguishable. This is where the Renraku truck vanished: a desolate four-way intersection. Here, the most prominent gang tag is a flaming Jack-o-Lantern. 2Graves gestures to one of them and announces:
“Halloweeners. This is their territory.”
There are no sights or sounds of life, but Sunny can do better than real life. She has augmented life at her call. She boots up her deck and scans the area for devices running silent. She spots four PANs a couple of streets west and a datajack on the other side of the buildings to their south. The PANs include weapons, a pistol each. Sunny lets the team know.
“Let’s go talk to the datajack first,” 2Graves says.
Shadow nods and starts walking. “Yeah. The guns are probably gangers and I doubt they’ll be willing to help.”
Sunny begins: “What should I—“
“Stay in the van,” 2Graves tells her. Elros pops the turret up on the SUV and sends his rotodrones up on guard duty above the street, then jumps into his Steel Lynx to follow 2Graves and Shadow. They pass through an alley between buildings on the south side of the road and emerge onto a similar cold and decript street jammed between looming ruins of office and apartment buildings long abandoned by their lawful owners. But unlike the street they parked on, there’s somebody here. On the far side of the road, the team spots an elf huddled in a pile of wet garbage, clutching to a page from the Seattle Times, pulling it around him like a shawl. He looks as tragic and decrepit as the buildings around him. His skin, dry and yellow like old parchment, appears to be peeling away from his bones.
“Hey, have you seen anything strange?” Shadow calls out from across the road. The squatter looks up and scans the street.
“Don’t shout. You’ll bring the whole Halloweeners gang down on us,” Elros tells him.
Shadow ignores the e-ghost and continues shouting: “Not now. I mean in the last few days.”
The squatter doesn’t reply, just lowers his gaze to the street. Undeterred, Shadow crosses the road to get closer. With less distance between them, Shadow sees that the elf’s skin isn’t peeling, but every inch of him is covered in slap patches. Some fresh and white, many decayed, yellowing, and losing their adhesion. The squatter looks up to acknowledge Shadow. His eyes – old model cyber eyes – are milky white, the right one has a visible crack through its surface. Beneath the peeling slap patches are visible bruises on the squatter’s face.
“I guess you didn’t,” Shadow says. “Did you hear anything?”
“I heard you. Got any bliss?”
Sunny, watching through the video feed of Elros’ lynx is overcome with horror at seeing the man’s sorry condition.
“We have to help him, guys. Look at his eyes. Somebody really hurt him.”
“I didn’t bring my cyberware tools with me,” 2Graves says. “Even if I did, they look beyond repair.”
“I could fix them,” Elros says. “I mean, if I had a body.”
“Well you don’t, so it doesn’t matter.”
“But you have the tools, right?” No longer satisfied to sit and listen to her team bicker, Sunny climbs out of the SUV and hurries through the alley to join them. “Let’s put him in the van and take him with us. Hey there, friend. What’s your name?”
“They call me B,” the squatter answers. “Got any bliss?”
“No, but I have some Amber Gel. Come on, come with me.” Sunny pulls B to his feet and enlists Shadow to help him back to the van. 2Graves spots several onlookers peeking out from broken windows or empty doorframes, a mix of hunger, sadness, and curiosity on their faces. Each is as pathetic as B in their own unique way. Without a word, 2Graves gestures for Elros to head back to the van too, then she moves to catch up with Sunny. They don’t get far before the onlookers begin crawling out of the ruins and by the time Sunny has B loaded into the van beside the heater and eating a tub of amber gel, a dozen squatters of every shape and size and metatype has surrounded the team. Elros commands his drones to come down and ready their weapons. The turret on the van swivels to take aim at the hopeful, desperate pack of squatters. None of them flinch at the show of force, but the sudden drop in their mood is palpable. They are not scared, they are resigned. They have nothing in their life that death can take from them.
Shadow looks over the group of homeless, picks out an elf and approaches him.
“Have you seen a van?”
“Sure,” the elf stutters out with effort. “Got any food?”
“Then I’ve seen a van. I’ve seen three vans, if you want. Give me the food and I’ll tell you.”
“Does the van have a Renraku logo on it?”
The rest of the gathered squatters begin to shout in a pleading chorus: “I know that van! I’ve seen it! I can take you there!”
Shadow keeps his focus on the elf before him. “Well?”
“Yeah, I know where it is. The food.”
“Van first. Then food.”
“Will you show me the food? I want to see it.”
“Sure.” Shadow reaches into his coat pocket and takes out an expensive protein bar. Never has he been so thankful for his healthy snacking habits. This is what makes an excellent negotiator. What is so simple for him is now his greatest adv—
The hungry squatters fall on Shadow in a single mass, snatching and clawing. The protein bar disappears from his hand and the writhing, tearing swarm of starving vagrants battle amongst themselves over the morsel until Elros commands his rotodrone to fire its taser. It takes two shots and two twitching drooling squatters on the ground to send the group into a scatter. Elros retrieves the protein bar from the road and, with a gesture to the unconscious elven vagabond, says to 2Graves:
“Can you wake that one up? He said he knew where the van is.”
“Sure,” 2Graves says. “Help me get them both off the road, first.”
Once they have the road clear of squatters, 2Graves applies some rudimentary first aid and Shadow recommences negotiations. The vagrant confirms he knows the location of the Renraku truck and can take the team to it. Shadow offers half the protein bar in advance and half when they find it, and the terms are agreed. Sunny, meanwhile, makes a different offer to the other tasered squatter. She gives him her scarf wrapped around a 250 nuyen cred stick and sends him on his way, encouraging him to buy some food. She tells B to wait in the van while the team goes to finish the mission. B, vitalised a little by the warmth and food, agrees to wait, but seems mostly confused by his circumstances.
“All those people,” she says as the group begins to walk again. “They were so hungry. This is terrible. How many poor people are there?”
“More than we can help,” 2Graves says. “There’s probably a couple of hundred within a square kilometre of here.”
“We have to do something!”
“Right now we have to finish a run. Worry about them later.”
“You’re right. But I at least want to get B’s eyes fixed. I’ll pay for it if you can do it, 2Graves. And a detox.”
“Run now, Sunny. The rest can wait.” 2Graves checks the clip in her ingram and chambers a round. The quick maintenance helps her to refocus. It’s not that she doesn’t care, not that she thinks Sunny is wrong, but what can she do? Is she supposed to save everybody? Save the world? Sure. She’ll get right on that just as soon as she can afford to pay her rent.
The elf squatter walks the crew a few blocks north of where they parked, takes them down an alley and stops at a rolling garage door at the back of an office block. Elros sends a flyspy in through a broken window and after some exploration, finds a door to the garage and sees the Renraku truck they’re after. It’s locked up tight, but Elros can see the blood stains in the cab.
“This is it,” he tells the team. “Now we just need to get in.”
“I’ve got a crowbar,” Shadow says, pulling said crowbar from one of the numerous concealed and seemingly bottomless pockets of his greatcoat.
“What else have you got in there?” 2Graves asks.
“I’ve got a duffel bag with my wilderness survival kit?”
2Graves arches an eyebrow at him.
With a playful smile, Shadow admits: “Okay, I don’t have that. But I do have a medkit in here somewhere, and a gun. And a crowbar. Want to do the honours?”
“Sure. Give me a hand.” While the two of them work on breaking into the garage, Sunny gives their guide the second half of the protein bar and offers him a credstick loaded with 250 nuyen.
“Buy food with it. Keep it secret, too. I don’t want anybody to hurt you for it.”
“Thank you,” the guide says, stuffs the credstick into the pocket of his coat and makes fast tracks.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Elros says.
“Do what?” Sunny asks.
“Give them money. They’ll just spend it on drugs or gamble it away or just drop it in the snow.”
“He said he was going to buy food.”
“If he spent his money wisely on things like food, he wouldn’t be homeless. All of them, they’re in this position for a reason. They got themselves into this situation and they’ll stay in it until they get themselves out of it.”
“That’s… That’s awful.”
“It’s—“ a loud crack and screech of metal cuts Elros off before he can finish. 2Graves rolls the garage door open, hands Shadow his crowbar back and says:
“Stow it, you two. Let’s see if the gear is here.”
The van is locked, but 2Graves makes quick work of that problem by breaking a window in the cab. Without a key, they can’t start the van, but there’s a switch to unlock the back. There’s also a data port for Sunny to plug her deck into and, with it, she’s able to, upload Elros to it, and the elven e-ghost reprograms the truck to recognise him and him alone as the owner. While they work on that, Shadow and 2Graves open the truck and discover…
Disappointed, but hardly surprise, they regroup around the van and 2Graves announces their discovery:
“It’s empty. The simsense gear is gone.”
“But we have a truck. Well, Elros has a truck. Renraku might want it back, though.”
“What’s that?” 2Graves says and makes a nod towards the passenger seat. All eyes follow hers, but only Sunny sees what she’s talking about. Sitting on the passenger side floor is a datachip stamped with a burning Jack-o-Lantern symbol.
“Is that…” Shadow asks.
“I think so,” Elros confirms.
“Only one way to find out,” Sunny says. She picks up the sim chip, slots it into her sim module, and presses play.
In a dimly lit dining room, Sunny sits in a gilded claw foot chair. A long mahogany dining table extends into the darkness in front of her. Silverware and ornamental ceramics are piled with charred meats. Looking closer, Sunny sees that they’re all human remains. A collection of burnt hands sit on a platter, on the plate in front of her is an arm missing chunks of flesh, exposing the bone. Sunny stands and steps away from her chair. The walls are draped with black tarps, but she sees a partiall exposed window and in it her reflection. She’s wearing a heshen mask over her face. The sight fills her with pride. Outside, she can see ruined buildings circling a frozen lake. Sunny turns and walks along the table until she reaches the other end. Sitting at the far side of the table is a human man in nothing but his underwear. He’s in a similar dining chair, but his wrists and ankles are zip tied. Without taking eyes off him, Sunny reaches down to the table and picks up a carving knife. The human begins to scream and struggle against his bonds. Sunny has never felt so excited. She gives him a moment to realise the futility of his desperation, then begins. Switching between the knife and a stun baton, Sunny spends 15 minutes of torturing him before he dies. She enjoys every moment of it. It is an unmatched thrill. She’s never known joy like this.
Then Sunny wakes up, rolls over and vomits. She knows it’s awful, she knows what she’s seen is wrong, but in those first few moments when the BTL ends, she wants to go back. She forces any thought out of her mind, purges herself of the impulse like she’s purged her stomach, and assures herself that it wasn’t her. She didn’t do the killing. She’s not a monster.
“It’s…” she coughs, wipes her mouth, and stands up. “It’s a snuff BTL. They’re using the simsense equipment for snuff BTLs.” For a moment, nobody has anything to say. Then Shadow says:
“New plan. We find the equipment and we kill them all.”
Elros drives the truck out of the garage and brings it up beside his SUV in the street. Taking both vehicles, the team Drives a few blocks west to where Sunny sawed armed PANs when they first arrived. They park some distance back. Elros sends his rotodrones into the air to prepare for whatever comes next. 2Graves uses the door of the SUV to steady her assault rifle, and looks ahead. Just as they expected, four Halloweeners. She puts on in her sights.
“I’ll go and do my face thing then, shall I?” Shadow says, but begins walking before anyone answers.
“Got your gun?” 2Graves asks.
Shadow pats his holstered pistol through his coat. “Yep.”
Sunny watches him until he’s out of ear shot, then says “He’s going to get shot.”
“Yep,” Elros agrees.
“Everybody be ready,” 2Graves tells them.
Shadow approaches the group of Halloweeners casually. They’re dressed in chains and black leather, the flaming Jack-O-Lantern printed on the backs of their jackets. Each has a Browning Ultra on their hip. Subtle, they are not.
“I’m marking their guns,” Sunny tells Shadow over her commlink. “Give me a minute before you start.”
Shadow continues his approach a little slower.
“Drek. Okay, that didn’t go so well. Hold on.” Before Shadow can ask what happened, the four Halloweeners draw their guns and start looking around. One begins tapping on his commlink. Another take his ‘link out and makes a call. Another sees Shadow approaching and calls out:
“Yo, chummer. This is Halloweener territory. You want to walk around here, you’ve got to pay the toll.”
“What if I don’t want to walk around here? Can I go walk somewhere else?”
“Too late for that. You’re already working, which means you’re paying the toll. 200 nuyen.”
“Seems expensive just for walking.”
“I don’t get a frag how expensive you think it is. That’s the toll.”
“All right. Have you got a credstick so I can make the transfer? I don’t carry any, myself, and obviously I don’t carry money.”
The Halloweener stares dumbfounded at Shadow. “Are… Are you an idiot? The toll is 400 for idiots. You owe us 400.”
“Okay, but I still don’t know how I’m going to pay it.”
“Well, what have you got that’s valuable? That coat looks nice?”
“I’ve got this,” Shadow says and takes his medpack from one of his innumerable pockets. “It’s probably worth about 400 nuyen.” Shadow extends his hand towards the Halloweener, keeping his eyes on the ganger, smiling his most foolish smile. The Halloweener reaches out to take the medpack. Just before his hand closes, Shadow drops the medpack and as the Halloweener watches it falls, Shadow draws his pistol.
Elros shoots first, launching a surprise burst of assault rifle fire from his drone. 2Graves follows suit, putting a couple of shots into a Halloweener head. Sunny has three of the Halloweeners’ guns marked and launches a dataspike, turning it into slag in the ganger’s hand. Before she can hit another one, a warning sign pops up in front of her. Somebody has just tried to mark her deck.
“They have a decker,” she tells the team. She runs a quick search and spots the decker’s avatar a few hundred metres north. “Sending coordinates.”
“I’ll get him,” Elros says, and sends his second rotodrone to deal with the hacker. Shadow and he Halloweeners swap lead with each other, but the Halloweeners are outgunned and caught off guard. 2Graves takes down another with effortless ease, sighting them in her scope and pulling the trigger with the serenity and of an expert marksman. Sunny frags another of their weapons, blowing off the ganger’s hand as she does. The last Halloweener standing looks the situation over, gives it a second thought and bolts. He doesn’t get far before 2Graves puts a bullet through his knee and Shadow tases him into submission. Not far away, Elros’ rotodrone breaks through a window and with its own taser, knocks out a Halloweener decker.
Shadow holsters his weapons and signals for the team to join him in the upcoming interrogation.
“Now,” he says to the Halloweener. “I’m going to ask you some questions. But first, what have you got on you worth 400 nuyen?”