In the back of Lorry’s Bulldog, Shadow runs his bug scanner over the brick sized envelope.
“It’s sending some kind of signal,” he announces to the team.
“Give it here.” Without waiting, Sunny takes it from Shadow. It squishes in her hands, a distinct feeling of paper and bubble wrap over something solid. She shakes it next to her ear, then scrutinises it in AR. Her mind sends commands to her deck, telling it to dig deeper into the Matrix code and find the icon. In seconds she’s got it. She narrows her gaze in, and a read out appears before her eyes. “It’s a GPS tracker.”
“Just making sure we do the job,” 2Graves says with a shrug. “Leave it alone. We were told not to tamper with it and if we mess this up, it makes my fixer looks bad, and that makes me look bad.”
Shadow nods. “I don’t think we need to know anymore. If Mr Johnson is going to try and cheat us, we can just blow him up and the Barn Burner with him.”
“What? No!” Sunny protests. “Jeez, Shadow, you haven’t changed since college. This is the dean’s car all over again.”
“He shouldn’t have parked in my spot. I know it had his name on it, but it was my spot.” Before anybody can point out any supposed flaws in that argument – he’s heard them all before and it doesn’t change the truth – he switches topic. “But, you know, we should have said there’s another person in the team. We could have scored a whole extra 10 thousand for this job.” The team stares at him with quiet disapproval. “If we ditch Lorry, we could claim his extra seven thousand and divide it between the four of us.”
“Don’t say that! He’s right there!” Sunny says, a look of horror on her face.
“What? He might not have a problem with it. He’s got three thousand already. Hey, Lorry, how’d you like to call it a night? Three thousand for nothing is good money.”
Lorry grunts and glares at Shadow through the rear vision mirror. “How’d you like to get out and walk? Bastard.”
“My SUV is right behind us,” Elros mutters.
“Lorry’s not going anywhere,” 2Graves says with a tone of finality. “We’re almost on site, so stow the drek and check your gear.” Leading by example, 2Graves checks the magazine of her assault rifle and aligns the sight. Shadow slips into his chameleon suit and loads both predators with stick ‘n shock rounds. He tells the team:
“We should go non-lethal.”
“I’m not bothering to shoot knights with gel rounds,” 2Grave says. “They’ll bounce off their body armour. You go non-lethal, I’ll go as lethal back up.”
Trying not to look flustered, Sunny says: “I’ve only got regular rounds, but if I’m shooting anybody, we’ve got problems and the bullet’s probably for me. Is that as morbid as it sounds? Sorry, I didn’t mean to be so dark. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
“Stay focused,” 2Graves tells her. She resists the facepalming urges welling inside her.
Lorry turns the van onto East Harvard at the arse end of Redmond. The Ares factory matches their expectations: three floors marked by even spaced rows of foot high windows, walls of black brick, secluded behind a concrete fence and a small army of knight errant security. Beside it, a chain link fence bearing SoySpam Inc and Pyramid Construction logos surrounds the steel skeleton of a warehouse. Unlike the Ares factory, busy with patrolling knights and humming with the sounds of industrial machinery, the construction site is dark and abandoned; the perfect place for a silent approach. Lorry parks the van at the far end of the chain fence, as far from the eyes of Knight Errant as they can get. 2Graves and Shadow scale the fence and crouch into the deep shadows. The factory, their target, might be lit up and teaming with life, but the streets of the Barrens are empty. The street lights burned out long ago and were never replaced. The cold January night has driven all the squatters off the sidewalk and onto warmer pastures. As they approach the factory, they are ghosts in an ebony shroud.
Meanwhile, Sunny stretches out on the seats of the Bulldog and slips into something more comfortable: Virtual Reality. On the Renraku grid, even the Barrens is place of serene domestic beauty. There are no long shadows, no cement walls, no factories puking smog and noise into the night. An artificial sun shines on artificial lawns behind artificial picket fences decorated with artificial gnomes and artificial flamingos. Sure, every now and then the static of the Barrens forces a gnome to flicker in and out of existence, but it’s better than what she’s left. As she takes in the surroundings and adjusts to this new better reality, she spots Elros’ pulsating persona. She sees his blank stare and knows that even though he’s there, he’s not truly with her, right now. He’s playing with his toys. Good for him. She leaves him and thinks her way over to the factory. There’s business to attend to, after all.
“Bug scanner says there’s nothing on the windows. You’re clear to go in,” Shadow says. Elros doesn’t need to be told twice. He sends the two flyspy drones in first, one heading above the factory to give him a wasp-eye view, the other in through a third-floor window. He counts three knights on roof patrol and a dozen or so on the ground. He feeds the image to the rest of the team, then puts his focus on the flyspy inside. It looks like an office, which matches what Mr Johnson said would be on the third floor, but no sign of the target. Elros flies his drone in further, through doors, down a hallway, into a kitchen and finally to a spartan bedroom. A weary Chinese man, probably mid 30s, sits on his bed tapping at his commlink.
“Is he using the touch screen?” Sunny asks, staring at the video feed, jaw agape. “What kind of savage doesn’t use AR? Where’s his datajack? Whatever. How should we go about this?”
“Anyone got a paper and pen?” 2Graves asks in a deadpan tone. She and Shadow put their backs against the fence and slide closer to the ground. Less than a metre away from them, knights stomp by in jackboots at regular intervals. More sneaking comes later; now is brainstorming time.
“Send some kind of message to his commlink,” Elros says. “Something vague enough to get him over to the window and we can send the package in on a rotodrone.”
“His commlink is probably monitored by Ares,” Shadow says. “If they suspect something, the whole run is hosed. Sunny, check out his commlink, first.”
“On it,” Sunny chirps. She adjusts the filters on her deck and scans the local icons again. Eight machines in the factory are running, there’s 25 pans including comms and weapons moving around, a lone commlink, and one cyber-terminal. Nothing running silent, no host. In Sunny’s professional opinion: a load of drek where security should be. Even so, she knows better than to go in overconfident and underprepared. With a quiet whistle, she activates her agent program and the corgi materialises beside her. She marks the lone commlink, then sends a command for it to reveal all secrets to her. She sees her mark on the icon, but no secrets come. Frag.
Through the flyspy, the team watches Jao Chung scratch his head and stare at the flashing screen of his ‘link. Elros moves the mechanical wasp in closer, buzzes around his face to get his attention, then backs up and buzzes up and down. Realisation dawns on Jao Chung’s face. He turns pale white, eyes widen, he frantically taps at his commlink and suddenly the whole screen is filled by a big exclamation mark and the words PANICBUTTON! ™. It takes less than a second for his finger to hit the screen again. It takes Sunny less than less than a second to send another command to the commlink, shutting down the PANICBUTTON! ™ program. With another thought, she opens up a note file on the commlink and types out COME TO THE WINDOW. No point being subtle, now. Everybody sees further panic take hold of Jao Chung and he shuts the commlink down and throws it across the room. Elros calls his flyspy back. They planned for everything but the target being an idiot.
“Security!” Jao Chung calls out. “Somebody help!”
“I guess it’s my turn,” Shadow mutters mostly to himself.
Without hesitation, without waiting for the team’s opinion, he stands, scales the fence, and drops onto the factory side of the wall. He rushes between the patrols, leaps up to grab hold on a window ledge, and scales the building. By the time the next patrol passes beneath him, he’s cut a window open with his monosword and crawled inside. He hustles towards Jao Chung, stops at the bedroom door and listens. He hears Jao Chung babbling in a frenzy:
“There was a wasp attacking me and buzzing around like it was angry, then the commlink started freaking out and telling me to come to the window. It’s got to be snipers. Somebody wants to kill me!”
“Angry wasp. Snipers. Sure.” The other voice, a knight, sounds not-so-much concerned as bored. “Which way did it go?”
“The wasp? That way!”
The knight grunts, then Shadow hears his footsteps as he approaches the door. Shadow backs into the corner of the room, holds his breath, and waits. The knight enters the kitchen, turns left, turns right, looks up, then moves into the corridor. Stealth success. The way clear, he hurries into the bedroom, takes the package out of his belt pouch and says to Jao Chung:
“Delivery for you.” It’s satisfying to say it out loud. They’ve succeded. The job is done. The target has been reached. Everything is going to—
Jao Chung screams.
Drek. Shadow throws the package at Jao Chung, turns on his heels and bolts back through the door. He takes a sharp breath in, holds it, and presses into the opposite corner of the kitchen. Half a second later, a knight barrels through the kitchen and into the bedroom. Shadow lets out his breath and sprints as quiet as he can for the exit. He makes it out the window, climbs down the building, and touches the ground just as the third floor of the factory explodes, flames erupt into the night, debris and embers rain down around him. He runs for the fence, leaps up, swings one leg over, but snags the other on the fierce grip of a knight.
“No you don’t!” the knight shouts at him and yanks on his ankle. Shadows holds fast and looks down at 2Graves. This is no problem. The job is done, the team is there to back him up, everything is still—
The roar of flames is joined by the screech of a siren and the crunch of metal as a Lone Star cruiser bursts through the chain link fence. In unison, the front doors open and two Lone Star officers step out, aim guns at 2Graves and shout:
Fragged. Everything is fragged. Shadow draws his predator, puts an electric slug into his would-be captor and drops down into the construction site. 2Graves responds to the Lonestar orders with suppressing fire, forcing them to take cover behind the doors. She keeps them pinned while Shadow rushes back to the Bulldog. She waits for him to get clear, tosses a couple of flashbangs at the cruiser, then bugs out.
Sunny thinks herself back to the Bulldog’s icon and spots another cruiser parked in front of it. She orders her corgi to mark it and prepares a dataspike. Elros spots it as his flyspy drones buzz back to him. He commands them to pack themselves way, jumps into the truck and activates the turret. Before the bronze can even open their doors, he sprays them with lead. Lorry has a similar idea, but instead of a corgi or a machine gun, he has a grenade launcher. He loads it up, takes aim at the cruiser trying to block the road, and fires. The insides of the Lone Star cruiser explode. The driver struggles with the slag that used to be his door, desperate to escape the flames. But his charred limbs don’t move fast enough, and Sunny hits the vehicle with her dataspike, destroying the car and its driver once and for all in a spectacular display of smoke, fire and carnage. Lorry climbs back in the van, starts the engine and shouts into the open comm channel:
“Shadow, 2Graves, how far away are you?”
“Take Sunny and go,” 2Graves responds; her military instincts and commanding military voice come back naturally to her in the heat of the moment. “We’ll go with Elros. Split up, lose the bronze, head back to Auburn.”
“Got it,” Lorry says and pulls the van past the wrecked cruiser and far from the scene of the crime. Elros opens the doors of his SUV, waits until 2Grave and Shadow are off the ground and inside, then burns rubber, makes a turn and heads somewhere, anywhere, far away from the chaos.
They give it the better part of an hour before they head for the Barn Burner. They’re still on edge, still ready for the worst, and their paranoia pays off. They see the two Lone Star cruises parked beside the restaurant, see the bronze standing by the door, and they drive on. Elros sends in the flyspy to scan around, finds no trace of Mr Johnson, and calls it a night. It was all a set-up. He figured – they’d all figured – the run was a lie, that the package would go boom after they delivered it. But Mr Johnson didn’t just need a wet team, he needed somebody to blame, somebody to capture and pin it on. The money had been too good, the timeframe too urgent, it all stunk from the moment they sat down, he just didn’t know how bad it stunk until it was too late.
The team head for their homes or their night haunts of choice to drown their frustrations in a little synthahol. 2Graves places a call to her fixer Carter:
“The job was a set up. Mr Johnson tried to screw us and disappeared before we could collect the rest of the payment.”
“Go figure. I knew there was something wrong with that job when I called you. Gave everybody bad vibes. Leave it with me, I’ll see what I can find on Mr Johnson.”
Shadow decides to get in front of the damage and confess his sins to Nathan. Nathan’s voice is neutral as always, his tone all business, but Shadow has known him long enough to see, in his mind’s eye, the cool, almost inhuman look in his all natural eyes as he does the math in his mind and calculates what this is going to cost him, cost Ares, and cost Shadow. “So, you’re saying somebody – nobody specifically – but somebody blew up an Ares factory. You happened to be in the area and see the explosion, and you witnessed a quick response by Lone Star, which leads you to believe this was some kind of espionage against Knight Errant by their biggest competitor?”
“Quite the theory, Lone Star working against Knight Errant. Nobody would suspect it. I’ll look into it and see what I can find.” His sarcasm is as imperceptible as his irritation. “In the meantime, try to avoid any more detonating Ares holdings.”
“Of course. You know I’d never be knowingly involved in destroyed Ares property.”
“Of course.” The line goes dead. Shadow knows Nathan’s not happy, but he’s sure their friendship will endure and Nathan will come up with some way Shadow can make it up to him. He always does.
The team takes a few days to rest. No calls come in and no bronze come knocking at their door. It’s like they say: What doesn’t kill you pays the bills.
On Thursday morning, just after 11am, Sunny’s commlink buzzes and a photo of her old friend and Renraku colleague, Sable, pops up in her AR feed. She accepts the call and says, with a grin:
“Hi Sable. How are you?”
“Busy as always. Actually, this is a business call. I need some outside help and I hear you’re running with a team, now.”
“I sure am! None of them are dead, yet, either.”
“That’s wonderful. I knew after what happened and you leaving that you’d find a way to make do, and it looks like everything has worked out for you. Well, as much as it can work out being a shadow runner. But good for you!”
“Thanks, Sable. I think.”
“Do you think your team could meet me at the Seattle Central Stuffer Shack host? Like I said, I need some help from outsiders on a problem at the company.”
“Is now okay? I’m about to take an early lunch, anyway.”
“All right. What should we call you?”
“Since it’s not just you and this is business, Ms Johnson is appropriate.”
“Okay. See you soon.”
Sunny puts out the call to the team, tells them one of her contacts has a job for them (convinces Elros that his Age of Neil: Barbarian Adventures guild can wait and the raid can happen without him) and they assemble at the Stuffer Shack host. The host for Seatle Centre’s Stuffer Shack’s is a unique open-air design, placed at the foot of the space needle. Unlike the real foot of the space needle, the host version is surrounded by a beautiful park with water features, topiaries, and rose gardens. The dining area is reminiscent of a classic Parisian café. Sable, a plain looking dwarven woman in a business suit, sits drinking a coffee. She’s the only customer in this host, this morning. The team joins her, and she says:
“Thank you all for coming. Let me begin by saying I represent Renraku. You’re going to find out as part of this job, anyway, so no sense hiding it. Two days ago, a Renraku truck carrying simsense equipment was attacked on its way through Redmond. The truck went off the grid, and it along with everything inside it has gone missing. The company has tried finding it, but nobody is willing to talk to corporate suits in Redmond, so we need some outsiders to investigate for us.”
“Sounds like a job we can do,” Shadow says. “What does the job pay?”
“I’ll pay you 20 thousand. Half in advance.”
“That’s acceptable to us.”
“Excellent. Is there anything else I can help you with to get you started?”
“What other details do you know about the truck? Can you tell us the route it was taking?”
“Yes, of course. As I said, the truck was carrying simsense equipment, practically an entire studio’s worth. Two days ago, it left a Downtown recording set for the North Seattle Refuse and Reclamation Centre, travelling primarily on the 520 through Bellevue.” As she speaks, she waves a hand and the Matrix responds by bringing up a Seattle map on the table, a red line traces the journey of the truck from the heart of Downtown, direct along the 520 highway through Bellvue and deep into Redmond, then travelling almost as the crow flies along major roads. Suddenly the line makes a sharp turn south. “The driver called in here to say a road was blocked and the detour would delay him. Five minutes after that he hit his PANICBUTTON!(tm) on 190th Avenue – that’s in The Verge – then the truck and his commlink went off the grid. We assume the driver is dead and the truck is probably scrap by now. Our main concern is retrieving the simsense equipment and finishing the delivery. All we need from you is to get eyes on the gear, confirm its ours, and we can send in a security team to collect it and move it on. I’ll send you the serial numbers so you can be sure it’s the right equipment.”
Sable finishes her coffee, stands, thanks the team again, and fades away. The team takes another look at the map and begin planning their next move.