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[nsfw] The Unconquerable [transubstantiation Cyoa, Multicross]

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  OK, regular readers of my stuff will know that I mostly write my long-runners on SB, and that I'm not much for writing lewds. People who have been following my snippets thread know that my father fell ill a couple months ago, and that last month he died.
  Well, we've finished burying him, I've mostly finished dealing with all the finances and other stuff, and things are starting to settle back into a routine at home with me and mom. Which leaves me with time to sit and stare at the wall.
  I had a major project ("The Light of the Forge" on SB) that I put on hiatus when his illness started, and I am not yet ready to take it off of hiatus because I was trying for actual character development and serious world-building in that one. However, I need something to distract me, and to be honest right now I really want to just escape into some OP wish-fulfillment shlock.
  (add) As of June 2022, "Light of the Forge" has been permanently abandoned without resuming. It would just never stop being 'The story I was in the middle of writing when Dad died'.
  So I'm going to take a CYOA premise that so far I haven't seen anybody try to write, because to be fair it's really not easy to write, and see if my pattern of 'Tackling what should by all rights be dumb premises and getting readable stories out of them anyway' continues one more time. I make no promises, I really have no plan, and I'm basically gonna wing this and see what happens. But hey, it might work, so...
  Also, I'm going to actually try and write some damn sex this time, because as long as I'm trying to do things I've never really done as an author before I might as well pay the NSFW forum tax. Don't set your expectations too high, tho.
  Note: Despite the question marks in the thread tags, I actually have already chosen the CYOA in question. However, as the MC doesn't start off knowing what CYOA and what options ROB has picked for him, neither will the reader until the dramatically appropriate time - i.e., after the MC finds it out in-story. When the CYOA and picks actually are revealed, this post will be updated with the info. But the CYOA I'm using was posted on the QQ CYOA thread, that's where I first saw it.
  (update 10/18/21) If I seem like I'm being a teasing bastard, that is indeed partly because I am. But it's also because the last serious attempt I made to Jumpchain on SB had the min-maxers drive me fucking nuts with constant "suggestions" as to how I could allegedly twist maximum utility out of the posted build, along with the not-occasional-enough obnoxious comments about how made of fail I was for not doing so. Apparently the idea that the author needs to get an actual, readable narrative out of the whole exercise and that sometimes this means not piloting your MC like he's a mecha meat-suit wrapped around a "Rationality" Elemental was utterly beyond them.
  So this time I put the build sheet under [REDACTED] because the kibitzers can't min-max what they don't have the rulebook for. That's also why I'm posting this story on QQ, to be honest. It ain't just that I hope to experiment with lewds, it's also that SB has really annoyed me recently. I didn't even entirely admit this to myself until, well, just now, but that's the truth.
  (update 11/04/21) As the spoilered discussions were getting cumbersome, the CYOA power has been revealed.
  The CYOA being used is Transubstantiation, specifically the Conquest option. The text of Conquest is reproduced here for your convenience.
  People are reminded that the MC is as yet unaware of their exact abilities in-story.
  Without any need for reason or justification, you will find that there is no-one in this world or any other that you cannot overcome, for your raw ability scales seamlessly to match and just then just barely overcome any and all opposition you face in all your endeavors. If you would kill a man where he stood, your strength and cunning would best him. If you would take a lover for your own, you could chase them down to the ends of the earth and subjugate them beneath your body. If all humanity were to turn against you and deny you your right to do as you please, you could dance between the rain of all their weapons and prove your supremacy by force. If dragons would keep you from the treasures you seek, you could rip them from their hoards and cleave their skulls in twain, and if the very gods themselves would name you as their enemy, you could hurl them screaming from their thrones and force them into submission.
  Though naturally limitless in every respect that matters, your puissance is best expressed through paths of least resistance: you'll find that those capabilities you already possess are always infinitely quicker to expand in scope, scale, and potency than any entirely new abilities are to appear at hand. Likewise, you'll far more readily find raw ability and talent within yourself than you'll find cultivated skill. If you were to challenge a king of games to a game of chess for his throne, you would sooner find the sheer genius you needed to outwit him than discover the specialized professional understanding of a chess grandmaster, let alone the blessings of a god of the chessboard.
  As this ability gives you exactly what you need and no more at every turn, you will never lack for a challenge by virtue of this power alone: the limitless power you find within you when you exceed your grasp and your limits are tested will never sully or obsolete the simple pleasures of overcoming the mundane, and you will never be bored by the battles you might face. Similarly, though you may find the strength within you to wrest stars in twain, it is only an extension of your own will to power, and thus will never overflow beyond your ability to control; you will never face a "world of cardboard' except insofar as you actually want to rip it all to shreds in your hands. And on the flipside, you can also never be surprised (and thus overwhelmed) by any factors you would choose to struggle against if you knew of them, for your will cannot be so easily overcome. If unseen enemies were to conspire to assassinate you, you would find it in yourself to dodge the killing bullet or purge the lethal dose from your flesh.
  Finally, whatever form of pleasure, satisfaction, and happiness you take in your victories, you may freely share at your discretion with those you have overcome. Whether this is merely another form of violence you're capable of inflicting upon others, a guilty pleasure you needn't deny your unwilling subjects the opportunity to experience, or a final self-demonstrating proof of the ecstatic rightness of your rule, is up to you.
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  Last edited: Jun 23, 2022
  New: Death and Dishonor (Vorkosigan Saga, oneshot)
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  The list of my content is available in my snippets thread. You may also be interested in my content on Spacebattles.
  Official Duke of Cheese of CYOAs.
  cliffc999, Oct 12, 2021Report#1Like+ QuoteReply
  centurion1291, jvfg9, Coleray and 344 others like this.
  Threadmarks: 1 - Awakening (Shadowrun)
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  Someone kicked me in the ribs, hard.
  "Hoi! On yer feet!" a gravelly voice rasped out as I yelped in pain. As I awoke I realized that somehow I'd gone from being in my own bed to lying on my side on a concrete floor- no, we were outside-
  The same boot that had just hit my ribs slammed into my kidneys as I lay curled up on the ground.
  "I said on yer feet, smalltooth!" the same voice shouted, in a distorted tone of voice I'd never heard anyone use before, while several other people laughed raucously in the background. My eyes winced shut in pain as I huddled on the ground in panic and confusion. I frantically tried to focus-
  My teeth snapped shut in an angry grimace as a huge surge of adrenaline wiped away the pain and kicked my brain into high gear. My eyes snapped open as I looked/listened/touched/smelled all around me.
  I was laying on my side on the floor of a filthy alleyway in dim twilight. The chilly bite of the air and the clumps of dirty snow visible in my line of sight told me that it was winter. The smoggy taste of pollution, almost thick enough to chew, told me that I was in a city- a large city- and one that was far dirtier and smoggier than any city I was familiar with. The painful rasp of loose gravel and on my palms and knees as I rolled to my feet told me that I was naked. Somehow I'd been abducted from my home and my hometown and dumped off in another city-
  And then the person who'd kicked me, along with his three friends, came into my field of view as I finished rising to my feet and turning around told me that I'd been taken far, far further away from my home than merely another city.
  Half a head taller than me and as bulky as an NFL lineman, my assailant's pointed ears, flat nose, elongated jaw, dusky gray skin color, and prominent tusks were clearly not those of a human being. His friends were all of the same race as he was, and my still-racing mind methodically noted that they were clearly gang members - their leather jackets all bore the same shoulder patch and colored stripe, they all had pistols shoved in their waistbands and one of the flankers was melodramatically waving a large knife around for intimidation, and oh yeah, they were all having fun kicking around a naked guy they'd found passed out on the floor of an alley in what was clearly the bad part of whatever town this was-
  "Happy New Year!" the leader bellowed with a cruel smile on his face. "Had a good night, didn't ya?"
  Yet more proof, as if I needed any, that I'd somehow been isekai'ed. Because it had been May when I'd gone to sleep last night.
  "You're going to kill me, aren't you?" I heard my own mouth saying. Because now that I thought about it, it was the only logical conclusion. I was naked and alone, so I didn't have anything to steal. If they didn't care one way or the other, they'd simply have left me laying where I was. If they were simply checking to see if I were dead or trying to get me to leave their turf, they wouldn't have kicked me so hard, or repeatedly, and toughboy's posse wouldn't be deliberately spreading out to try and cut off my line of retreat. No, they'd clearly decided to take time out of their day to beat on the naked guy in the alley simply because they wanted to have fun beating on him - and the drawn knife and the sadistic, eager expressions told me that they weren't going to stop with just beating.
  "Sober already, gonk?" one of the others scoffed at me. "Whatever you wuz drinkin' last night, you overpaid."
  "Enough jawin'," the leader said, "Dumbass might have been brain-dead enough to get passed-out drunk and then robbed in Touristville, but he still figured it out. So might as well skip to the happy endin' and waste 'im-" he gloated, while melodramatically cracking his knuckles and then raising one ham-sized fist to start throwing a haymaker-
  A blow that never landed as I caught him flat-footed with the first punch I'd actually aimed at another human being since my parents had pushed me into taekwondo lessons as a kid in grade school. But despite all the years between that abortive, short-lived effort and now my hand still curled into a proper fist just as smoothly as if I'd practiced it every day between then and now, and I got into proper stance, balanced, and then stepped forward in one continuous flowing motion and all faster than my opponent could react. My punch began at the soles of my feet and ended at the back of his throat, and despite his thick neck being positively wrapped in cords of dense muscle I still felt his trachea crush beneath my knuckles.
  "Ghrrrk!" he choked faintly as his eyes bulged and he began to fall backwards. With his larynx shattered he'd spend the rest of his life busy choking to death on his own saliva and blood, and since he hadn't even had a chance to draw a breath he'd be lucky to remain conscious for another thirty seconds. I used the momentum of my fist rebounding off his throat to help draw my punching arm back even more quickly, counter-balancing myself as my off hand shot out, palm open, to shove my victim even further off-balance and knock him into the one standing behind him and to his left.
  One second.
  Of the two assailants standing behind and to the right, one of them - the knifeman - had reflexes fast enough that he'd already shaken off the shock of my unexpected attack and started to step forward and slash at me. His weapon hand rose high in the air and began to swing down, and I ignored the pain of my bare feet stepping on the shards of broken glass in the alleyway as I pushed off with one foot to hop back just far enough to let his hasty slash miss me several inches to the front, planted my receiving foot as I landed from the hop and bent the knee, then turned and rebounded straight into a crossover sidekick - a move I'd never even used before, and only knew from having seen it demonstrated a couple times in those long-ago childhood lessons - that put the ball of my foot squarely into the knife-wielder's shin. Since this guy was a bruiser who had to be almost two-hundred-fifty pounds of blubber and muscle on a six-foot-plus frame I wouldn't have expected that my kick would do more than bruise him and break his step, but instead I somehow put enough force behind the blow to shatter his shinbone and snap his tibia like a breadstick. He shrieked in agony, dropped the knife, and began to helplessly topple forward under the momentum of his own charge.
  Two seconds.
  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the man on the left was falling towards the ground, having been knocked off-balance by his leader's considerable bulk that I'd shoved/thrown into him, but the majority of my attention remained focused on the second man to the right - the only one in position to attack. The strange clarity that had filled my mind ever since I'd committed to the fight kept me from panicking as I noted that not only was the fourth man's hand reaching down towards his waistband to grasp his pistol, but that despite his initial lack of reaction due to the shock of my attack, now that he was reacting he was moving with borderline superhuman speed. By the time I could finish taking the several steps to reach him and punch him he would already have finished drawing his gun and firing it-
  The dropped knife landed neatly in my left hand as I realized that I'd reflexively stepped forward and snagged it out of the air before it could even fall. The barrel of his pistol cleared his waistband and began to rise up and draw a bead on me as my hand and arm, moving on some kind of autopilot, effortlessly flipped the knife in my fingers to where I was grasping it by the point, cocked my wrist, and threw. The knife sailed easily through the air, doing a lazy half-turn as it crossed the eight feet between me and the would-be gunman, and landed point-first directly in his left eye.
  Jesus Christ. I'd never even thrown a knife before! The closest I'd ever come to even knowing how to throw one was reading about Willie Garvin doing it in a Modesty Blaise novel!
  Three seconds-
  "You fraggin' motherfu-" the man on the left shouted at me as he frantically tried to shove the dead weight of the first man I'd punched off of him and get to his feet, whether to continue the attack or run for his life I had no idea. The man whose leg I'd broken grunted in pain as he tried to grab one of my ankles from his prone position, and I knocked him cold with a swift kick to the forehead and then smoothly but still hurriedly knelt to pull the pistol out of the prone man's waistband.
  Look for the safety catch, flip it off, pull the slide to chamber a round, point the pistol at the target's main body, pull the trigger, pull it again. I silently itemized the steps one-by-one, because the sum total of my firearms experience was some basic range safety training I'd gotten from my dad, reading John Ringo novels, and watching action movies. Still, that plus the strange overdrive mode I'd somehow snapped into got me through the process of putting two quick bullets into last man's chest, and that gave me all the time I needed to leisurely line the sights up on his forehead and fire a third shot directly through his brain. The Mozambique Drill, just like Tom Cruise's hitman character from "Collateral".
  I took a deep breath and let the world resume normal speed around me. I'd just killed two men - well, people if not humans - and as soon as the leader finished choking to death on his own blood and saliva I would have killed three. The fourth was lying prone and unconscious at my feet, and I still didn't know where I was.
  As I looked down at the 'borrowed' pistol I was holding, that last question resolved itself. The manufacturer's logo etched on the side of the grip was a stylized silhouette, a profile of a man wearing a Greek-style helmet with a prominent crest. Engraved beneath it was a name - Ares. A quick searching examination of the gun revealed the name of the model as well - Predator.
  A heavy pistol called the Ares Predator. The gang boss's mention that somewhere nearby was called 'Touristville'. A group of gangers that were clearly orcs of some kind. All of the overcast, smog-ridden urban blight that I was surrounded by-
  Shadowrun. Somehow I'd ended up in the setting of the Shadowrun computer games by Harebrained Studios. I also recalled that it was the setting of a major tabletop RPG franchise... and cursed under my breath that I'd never really gotten into the RPG. As is, my only knowledge of this setting would come from the games and from what few bits of cultural osmosis about Shadowrun that I'd picked up here and there. My main tabletop RPGs had been Dungeons and Dragons and Vampire: the Masquerade. I hadn't really gone in for cyberpunk or sci-fi games. I cursed yet again... dammit, if I had to end up isekai'ed like some anime protagonist, shouldn't I at least have gotten to go to a setting I knew?
  Then again, only an idiot would want to go to the World of Darkness. Even mostly unfamiliar grungy cyberpunk was still a definite step up from that.
  As my adrenaline surge wore off I felt the shock of fucking everything start to dimly creep in around the edges of my consciousness. I'd lost- okay, I hadn't exactly had the most awesome life beforehand, but I'd still had a life. I'd had a job, I'd had an apartment, I'd had people to hang with, I'd had stability. And now I was stuck in another universe entirely somehow and I was literally buck-ass naked in the middle of winter and I hadn't been here three minutes before a whole gang of fuckers had just tried to kill me and I'm all of a sudden doing shit I don't even know how-!
  I gritted my teeth and got a grip on myself. It didn't fucking matter how impossible this shit was, or how unfair it was, or how wrong it all was. Unless I wanted to just turn this gun on myself right now, I had no choice but to get a grip on myself and fucking survive this shit.
  I concentrated as hard as I could and tried to reach for the mental clarity I'd had before. I felt the sense of focus descend on me again as I calmly and methodically evaluated my options and resources.
  My first immediate decision was - and even through my current zen state, I still inwardly winced - whether or not to finish off the last surviving ork. And as much as I hated to admit it, cold logic said "yes". They'd all been perfectly willing to kill me even before I started fighting - the leader's last words had openly admitted as much - and if this was Shadowrun and near 'Touristville' then that meant I was currently standing in the Redmond Barrens. Which meant that there was literally no rule of law here - the Barrens were a "Z-zone", an area where the local police deliberately did not travel and did not enforce any of the criminal code whatsoever. The legal fabric was more than a little patchwork and decayed anywhere in Shadowrun, but places like the Barrens were where they didn't even pretend that it was anything but the law of the jungle. So ethically I had every right to kill this asshole - he'd attempted to murder me unprovoked and was basically hostis humanis generis anyway, given his profession and the local environment- and legally there'd be no comebacks for anything I did here.
  Now practically there entirely was a possible set of comebacks - notably, the rest of their gang. However, that was something whose probability I'd exponentially increase by letting this guy survive. Even if I walked away before he woke up, he'd still remember my face and he'd go looking for it again with all of his surviving gang buddies that he could rope in. But if I finished him off, then I only might have the rest of their gang knowing who to look for, and them only showing up later. Hopefully much later, after I'd already figured out a long-range plan for survival.
  But in the short-term, there was no way I could leave this murderous thug alive behind me. And so I took his own knife out of his pocket and rammed it into the base of his skull, and that was that.
  My next step was to get some clothes. And that's when I realized that on top of all the other impossible things that had happened today, I'd somehow ended up in a new body. A hasty glance at myself in the mirrorshades I'd taken off of one of these mooks revealed that my face was that of a younger, handsomer, more rugged-looking man - the sort of guy who'd be the main character of a TV show or an action movie, not the average thirty-something schlub I'd been. My body was also younger and in better shape - the lean, muscled body of a champion swimmer, not the body of a short, averagely flabby office drone. OK, fine. Whoever or whatever dumped me in an entirely different universe and gave me some type of street-level badass boost also wanted me to look the part.
  I cursed ROBs and Internet CYOAs and isekai fiction in general, and kept stripping the corpses until I'd managed to find the least dirty and ill-fitting skivvies, pants, boots, and jacket among all four of the dead guys and get them on. I tsk'ed at the minor cuts on my feet from the broken glass I'd stepped on in the alley, but outside of picking the bits out and then wiping off the blood with one of the shirts I wasn't using there wasn't much I could do about possible infections or suchlike until I actually reached anywhere with medical attention available.
  Which was going to be a problem, given that I was a stranger in a strange universe. Now, I had at least some starting gear from looting all of these guys. Each one of these guys had had a knife and a gun of some kind, and I kept the best one of each for myself and unloaded and wrapped up the rest in a spare shirt to sell later. They'd also all had credsticks in their pockets, and now those were mine. The leader had also had the local equivalent of a tablet computer in his pocket, and its date-time function told me that it was 7:44 AM on January 1, 2065. The locator function was disabled, but a quick check of the browser history revealed that the last time its owner had gone searching for any local businesses they had indeed been in Seattle.
  Right. I finished grabbing everything I was going to take with me, leaving behind the things I didn't dare try to wear or fence (such as all the jackets with distinctive gang colors on them) or that weren't any good to me (such as the less-than-useable pieces of clothing whose immediate salvage value had been ruined by things like bloodstains, bullet holes, and/or piss and shit from dying men's sphincters). And then I jumped on top of a nearby dumpster, jumped up from there to grab the edge of the roof, and got the hell out of that alleyway by climbing over the adjacent one-story building rather than leaving any tracks to show which way I'd went. And, of course, brushing out any tracks I did leave on the dumpster or the rooftop.
  Plus, I'd wanted the vantage point to try and see which way "Touristville" was. The first Shadowrun computer game, 'Shadowrun Returns', had been largely set there. The Redmond Barrens were one of the most lawless, blighted, and run-down stretches in the entire Seattle Metroplex, but the few square blocks of 'Touristville' were that part of the Barrens closest to the high-class neighborhood of Bellevue. And sure enough, jaded rich people looking for a certain variety of fun would gladly bring themselves (and their bodyguards) down to the very edges of the Barrens to get a vicarious thrill "roughing it" among the lowlifes, who of course responded with the well-known entrepreneurial spirit of street operators in any cyberpunk setting and gladly erected whorehouses, bars, and black-market shops that were still lawless and downscale enough to be part of the Barrens but at the same time relatively polished and patrolled enough that patronizing them would be a titillating thrill to the rich tourists from uptown as opposed to being a Darwin Award entry.
  So, that's definitely where I wanted to go first. Because as a stranded person from another dimension, I was going to be facing a lot of challenges. Not least among them being my complete and total lack of a background or any kind of legal paperwork proving my existence. Fortunately for me, my arrival in Shadowrun was a mixed blessing in that regard - while this was a very easy place to get killed in, it was also a place where 'people with no background' were not a remarkable phenomenon. While every legal citizen had a System Identification Number or SIN, which when combined with the ubiquitous computerized recordkeeping of cyberpunk meant that basically their whole lives, financial transactions, and daily activity patterns were trackable online to a degree that the NSA plus Facebook/Google/Amazon/etc. could only dream of...
  ... there were also the SINless, or people whose births had never been legally recorded, registered, numbered, filed, classified, stamped, taxed, folded, spindled, or mutilated. Who got by via the gray-market and black-market economies, using barter and anonymous untraceable 'certified cred' - the Shadowrun equivalent of bitcoin, basically - instead of SINs and bank accounts and registered credsticks. Anonymous, officially un-people shadow people ranging from the lowliest of Barrens dwellers and dispossessed refugees all the way up to the highest-end corporate black ops subcontractors and crime kingpins.
  But the most famous type of SINless, the one that anybody even remotely familiar with the game knew of, were the shadowrunners. An entire subcaste of mercenary freelancers, the only consistent thing about shadowrunners was their diversity. Some came from the streets and some from the executive suites. Some were ex-military, and some had never had a day's formal training in their lives. Shadowrunners came in every variety from shooters to stealth experts to hackers to facemen to every imaginable kind of specialist and many you couldn't imagine. The only common denominators among them were that they had backgrounds anonymous and untraceable enough to be deniable assets, skills that were useful enough to sell, and toughness enough to survive the lifestyle. Every power player from the megacorps to the syndicates to the governments hired shadowrunners to subcontract the dirty work that they couldn't afford to be caught doing themselves, even if none of them every really trusted them. The best runners could get very, very rich. And most runners ended up either eventually finding a path back to civilian life, or ending up very, very dead.
  And as I reviewed everything I could possibly remember about shadowrunners and shadowrunning, at least the mystery of my 'suddenly badass killing machine' became explainable in hindsight. Shadowrun wasn't just your typical cyberpunk setting, but one where magic had returned to be used right alongside technology. That's how you had races like elves and orks and trolls as player characters - as witness the four orks I'd just fought and killed in that alley. And one of the magical character archetypes available in Shadowrun was the "physical adept", who instead of casting spells focused their innate magical potential into doing things like magically augmenting their strength and speed, or their mental focus, or instinctively boosting their combat skills, or several other classes of adept powers all fitting within the vague theme of mind-over-body magic kung-fu badasses. Just like I'd done in that alley.
  So that was what I was now, I supposed. A physical adept, and a shadowrunner. And it's not as I had much of a choice about that right now, to be honest - I was not only SINless, I'd already shed blood and taken lives. I'd killed people and taken their stuff just to survive, and I didn't really see where that pattern was likely to change in my immediate future.
  I nodded to myself as I stood in the last of the early morning dimness and looked from my rooftop towards the bright lights of Touristville just visible in the distance, standing out against the much dimmer and spottier street lights and signs that reflected the incompleteness of the power grid further into the Barrens. Then I yet again inventoried all my gear. One Ares Predator heavy pistol with underbarrel laser sight. Nine clips of ammo, not counting the one already loaded with three rounds short. A short Cougar Fineblade, Several spare pistols and knives of lesser quality. A pocket computer. A few hundred nuyen in certified cred. A dirty t-shirt. A pair of oversize jeans. An equally oversize set of steel-toed boots. And a pair of mirrorshades.
  It'll have to do.
  Author's Note: So, here we go. Our dimensional castaway is now in the Redmond Barrens in Seattle, in Shadowrun, a little more than a month after the Crash 2.0.
  Let's see what happens.
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  Last edited: Sep 13, 2022
  New: Death and Dishonor (Vorkosigan Saga, oneshot)
  Current Project: The Unconquerable (Multicross)
  The list of my content is available in my snippets thread. You may also be interested in my content on Spacebattles.
  Official Duke of Cheese of CYOAs.
  cliffc999, Oct 13, 2021Report#4Like+ QuoteReply
  centurion1291, M.Silver, Coleray and 590 others like this.
  Threadmarks: 2 - Settling In (Shadowrun)
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  I took comfort in the fact that it might be a different world and a different time, but fast-food places still leave you alone if they don't need the seat and you've still got a coffee cup in front of you.
  Despite my initial impulse to snag the loot for later resale, I'd reconsidered that as soon as I stopped and put an actual neuron of thought into it. Several bodies stripped of gear meant that the first thing their gang buddies would do is keep an ear out for anybody fencing that gear at the local pawn shops or suchlike, on top of my not even knowing any fences here in the first place. So I'd gone back down from the rooftop and stuck most of the looted guns and knives and shit back onto the corpses I'd gotten them from, with a little rearranging and swapping around so that only one gun, knife, and set of clothes would be missing. I then hoisted up the corpse of the guy I'd nailed in the eye with the thrown knife - because his wound was the one that would make people the most curious as to the skill level of the opponent in question - and, doing my best to make sure nobody saw me in the process, stuffed it into a dumpster a block away behind another building.
  There. Hopefully three dead guys without any of their credsticks but still with most of their gear and one missing guy will lead anyone to a conclusion of 'there was some kind of quarrel, the survivor grabbed the money and ran, case closed'. Anything rather than have the rest of their gang immediately start searching the immediate vicinity for any strange people who'd just showed up.
  So, having covered my tracks as best as I could, I thanked God that nobody was out and about at this hour in the Barrens to see what had happened and then legged it for Touristville as fast I could. And the first thing I did as soon as I reached there was find somewhere to sit down and eat, both because I needed a chance to think and because my stomach was starting to growl like a cave full of hibernating bears. I decided to take a pass on any restaurants or taverns because they'd almost certainly be set up for the tourist trade and at tourist prices, and given that it was just hitting 8am would almost certainly be closed or closing. But the people who worked in the tourist traps still had to eat, so I kept walking until I saw an obvious fast-food chain joint called "McHugh's".
  Right. Test number one. Exactly how much can I get away with walking into a public place while strapped? I had my Predator tucked into the waistband of my pants - the only place I had to put it - and my t-shirt's tail pulled out and draped down over it, but anybody who'd survived any length of time living in this place would almost certainly still have noticed it. On the streets of the Barrens being strapped would just make me an average passer-by, but did places like this allow me to wear it inside?
  The suspicious glance I got from the security guard - and isn't that just another clue I now live in cyberpunk world, that a simple fast-food joint has armed security - as I stepped through the door told me both that I was allowed to wear it inside but that the uniformed rent-a-cops who were standing post would gladly draw down and blow me away as soon as I actually went for it. I nodded respectfully to the nearest guard as I walked past him towards the counter and kept my body language as non-threatening as possible while I placed my order, waited a minute or so for it to arrive, and took my food and sat down.
  Not that anyone could rob this place anyway - the two guys with guns were the only employees visible from the floor. The actual food preparation apparently took place in a separate kitchen that was sealed off from the customers, and the only interaction with the food preparers was through automated touch-screen kiosks set up at the counter. Even your food was delivered to you through a little sliding door at the back of the counter, without you ever actually seeing the people who'd prepared it. And obviously there was no option to pay in cash, just a little hole near the touch-screen that you stuck your credstick into. Fortunately for me, even the anonymous certified cred SINless people like me used spent as readily in a credstick reader as any regular citizen's and was digitally loaded onto anonymized 'certified credsticks' that could be used by anyone who grabbed one. And the orks who'd robbed me were also SINless, so that was the only kind of cred they'd had on them. So I grabbed a breakfast patty, some hash browns, and a "soykaf" - real coffee from real beans was apparently not a thing in the dark cyberpunk future anymore, at least not in places like McHugh's - and sat down to eat and think.
  Now what the fuck did I do?
  To be honest, I was kind of freaking out at how much I wasn't freaking out. Weren't you supposed to be all torn up inside after you'd killed someone? I'd never been in the military, or in combat, or even in a schoolyard fight since junior high. And now I was less than 20 minutes after having just done up four guys with my bare hands, a knife, and a gun - one of them in cold blood after he was already down. And yet somehow I was still keeping it together. And it wasn't just being in shock or being numb, either, because even after I'd sat down and eaten a meal and taken a deep breath - well, that would have been the point that the shock finally started wearing off, and yet my feelings didn't change.
  New body, new powers... new mentality too? I didn't feel anything when I killed people? Shit, was I some kind of sociopath now? Was I going to have to make rules for myself like Dexter? I still had no clue what had done this to me - although all the fanfic I'd read about CYOAs and ROBs gave me an obvious first conclusion to jump to - but clearly it had had more effects than were immediately obvious.
  So, what effects had this isekai bullshit had on me? Besides the new action-hero looks, the younger, fitter, and healthier body, the physical adept superpowers, and the ability to stay calm and focused despite having been in a deadly force situation I'd never been trained or prepared for? What else had been done to me? I swiftly but methodically reviewed all the actions I'd taken since awakening here and began evaluating what they might mean in hindsight, and-
  Oh. Okay.
  I suddenly realized that I'd just done a detailed mental playback of all my actions since arriving here and what I'd been thinking while I did them, and done it all in just a few moments. Which was well beyond anything I'd ever been capable of before. I'd been the sort of guy who forgot where he left his car keys if I wasn't careful to use the same habitual place for them every time, and now I had total recall? And it wasn't just the level of detail in my recollections, but also how swiftly I could go through them and how quick I was to spot the implications of things within them-
  At any rate, my quasi-mentat-like review of my actions since arriving here brought me to the realization that whatever mysterious force had sent me here had also boosted me. And not just with my adept-like powers, but also in a general way across the board. I'd never felt that I was particularly stupid in my past life but I'd never been this quick on the uptake before, and neither had I been this able to mentally focus or just generally insightful in general. And I'd certainly never been this strong, agile, or healthy-
  I'd need to do more detailed testing to confirm my first impressions, but as near as I could deduce someone had, to put it in Shadowrun terms, "maxed out my character sheet". If I had an actual stats display - which I didn't, despite concentrating and wishing for one, so this was apparently not some Gamer-type experience - I had no doubt that all of my basic attributes would be showing a value of 6 right now, because that was the value for unaugmented human maximum in the Shadowrun rules system. Which probably explained my relative lack of freaking out, because one of the stats in Shadowrun was Willpower and a Willpower of 6 basically made you as mentally resilient as John Wick. Which meant... that I probably wasn't a sociopath or a psychopath now, I was just fast-forwarding through the process of coming to terms with what I'd done. I mean, those guys had been out to murder me, so it's not as if I'd suddenly burst out in irrational violence-
  So, apparently I was physically and mentally peak human right now, at least by real-world/street-level RPG if not by outright comic-book standards. Plus the not-just-peak boosts I'd seen at the critical moments of the fight, as well as the massive intuitive boosts to the rudimentary fragments of combat skills that I'd already learned in my past life, which still looked more like "physical adept" than anything else I could think of. And on top of all that I had an eidetic memory as well, one that even worked retroactively, because so much as wishing to remember everything I possibly could about Shadowrun retrieved every detail I'd ever seen about the game so much as once, from every playthrough I'd ever done. And the same proved true for any other kind of recollections, once I thought about trying them.
  Which detailed recall wasn't quite as much help as you might think, because contrary to the usual stereotypes for this kind of story I hadn't arrived just in time to know the entire plot in advance and exactly how to make the world my oyster. The computer games for "Shadowrun Returns" and "Dragonfall" had both been set in 2054, and "Shadowrun Hong Kong" had taken place in 2056. Even the SR:Hong Kong fan expansion packs that I'd played - which weren't necessarily canonical anyway - such as "CalFree In Chains' had - had taken place in 2061 at the latest. And here I was at the start of the year in 2065. Terra incognita as far as I was concerned. I would not have any real metaknowledge here - hell, I didn't even have contemporary knowledge! All I had was years-old historical and setting background material, which was not exactly what you'd call detailed preparation for anything.
  Heck, I wasn't even entirely certain that what meta-knowledge I did have from the games was all accurate - despite my having walked all up and down the few blocks of the Touristville district in every direction I still hadn't found anyplace called "The Seamstresses Union", despite it being the single most prominent location of 'Shadowrun Returns'. So either it had gone out of business in the interim between now and then - which was unlikely considering how large and stable a concern it had been for how long - or else it had never existed in this world at all. So while I was clearly in Shadowrun, I couldn't even rest assured that it was the same Shadowrun I thought I knew until I'd checked things out for myself.
  Which meant that unless whatever mysterious whatever had sent me here chose to send me a quest-giver or at least a big strong hint as well, I'd have to operate on the working assumption that there was no grand destiny or big plot I was "intended" for. I'd have to assume as a matter of course that there would be no fate for me here except that which I made.
  Which was a mildly disturbing thought, because it would have taken great and unprecedented power of some kind to snatch me from one reality to another and give me all these boosts in addition. Nobody would do that unless they wanted something, so who the hell had done this to me and why-?!?
  When one of the guards started looking at me restlessly I went and bought a refill on my soykaf - which tasted like recycled shit, by the way - and sat back down to keep sipping it and thinking. Okay, let's put the big philosophical and long-range ponderings back up on the shelf for a bit and turn to the more immediate priorities.
  I'm homeless, I'm SINless, I have nobody in the world who even cares that I exist yet, and my total financial resources are the clothes on my back, my new gun and knife, a cheap tablet computer that said it was a 'Renraku Sensei pocket secretary', and 422 nuyen in certified cred. And given that I'd just spent 7 nuyen on breakfast and was losing 1 nuyen more every time I refilled my soykaf, that wasn't going to last me very long. Before the end of today I'd need to find a place to sleep that wouldn't have me dying of exposure or getting murdered by another group of fuckheads like the last one, only smart enough to not let me wake up and get to my feet first before starting the serious ass-beating. Which would rapidly deplete my available cash; I could eat for over a week at fast-food prices if I didn't spend money on anything else, but God only knew how much even a cheap flophouse would charge per night.
  So I'd need another source of money in both the short and the long term, which means I'd need work.
  Which posed a bit of a quandary, given that my only salable skills in this milieu seemed to be violence. It's not as if anyone was likely to pay me for my expertise in operating by now long-obsolete early-21st-century office equipment, or my years of experience as a customer service representative - particularly not if I were SINless. And on top of the all possible moral and ethical quandaries of being a gun for hire in the dark cyberpunk future, there was the practical fact that while I certainly had a vast aptitude for the field so far I didn't really have much knowledge of it, let alone any actual experience at it. Even my recent fight in that alleyway had mostly been me applying the rudimentary scraps of knowledge I'd already known about martial arts and guns with total mental focus and physical adept boosts making them actually dangerous. That still didn't make me an expert at martial arts or tactical shooting. I was barely even able to even reload the pistol I now owned, and I still didn't know how to clean it.
  So going around and representing myself as a shadowrunner for hire would rapidly founder on the rocks that I didn't know shit about actual shadowrunning, however fast my hands or naturally talented my aim. And it's not as if there was a Shadowrunner's Training Academy you could just go to. If Shadowrun tabletop was anything like d20 tabletop, then the vast majority of players just rolled up their character as if all their baseline skills simply appeared one day along with their first character level. The computer games certainly never got into actually giving you an origin story for any of your characters beyond 'They grew up on the streets', and most of them hadn't even given you that much.
  But I didn't have a gang to join - nor any desire to, given the things I'd heard about gang initiations and the criminal lifestyle in general even prior to being shanghai'ed to here - and without a SIN I certainly couldn't do something like join the military or the cops. And I certainly didn't have enough nuyen to hire instructors to tutor me privately, and without the skills to help pay the bills I couldn't make the nuyen to get the skills-
  I sighed as I realized that despite the obvious pitfalls of that particular approach, I would still have no real choice except to fake it until I could make it. Great. That would mean that I'd have to find a regular supply of clients who were even more ignorant about proper shadowrunning than I was. Where the hell could I do that?
  I kicked myself inwardly when I realized that I already knew exactly where.
  "Tonight will be your night to enjoy and I'll just be along for the ride, right up until when the drek hits the fan. As soon as that starts then you need to do exactly as I say. If I say get behind cover, you get behind cover. If I say run, you run. If I go left, then you don't go right. No questions, no hesitation, no second chances. This is the Redmond Barrens, not Bellevue, and if you put a single foot wrong here then it might be the last thing you ever do. But if you let me do my job then I'll make sure to get you through this alive. You got that?" I finished dramatically.
  "Yes sir!" the nervous-looking salaryman acknowledged me, as his drinking buddy nodded silently in the background. They were typical examples of exactly the sort of gullible idiot that Touristville had been set up to extract nuyen from as painlessly as possible - lower-ranking denizens who mostly lived within the corporate bubble in the nicer neighborhoods in Seattle, come down to the fringes of the Barrens to get drunk and laid and be able to brag to their buddies how they survived the real mean streets. And of course these were exactly the sort of people who'd hire "real live shadowrunners" to be their guides and bodyguards for the night, and not have either the experience or the discretion to be able to tell a street legend from an empty suit.
  After buying some basic first aid supplies in a nearby store to treat my minor cuts and bruises, I silpped fifty nuyen to the doorman of the nearest whorehouse I could find and he put me alongside a local fixer named Max. Who, after a brief job interview had decided to take a chance on me as one of the 'professional bodyguards' he rented out to idiot tourists. After all, it's not like they were actually paying for quality personnel, and unlike most of the low-rent thugs walking in Max's door I had several useful considerations. One, I cleaned up very nice - my Charisma score was apparently a 6 as well - and that was useful for bringing in more business from the clients. Two, I wasn't actually a gang thug who'd grown up in the Barrens with the social skills and volatile outlook to match, so I didn't have much trouble convincing Max that I wouldn't scare off or get excessively frustrated with the tourists (which was the chief way walk-in muscle like me failed out of this job). Three, I was a physical adept, so he could charge a premium fee for me.
  And most of the serious street predators tended to avoid Touristville because the owners and operators of all the tourist traps around here paid for enough protection from the local syndicates to discourage that kind of thing. Of course there were still some - nothing short of outright martial law and putting a Metroplex Guard platoon on every street corner could hope to actually eliminate all street violence from any given section of the Barrens - but that sort of casual low-end stuff was why the richer tourists either brought their own private security or hired it locally.
  So even my very basic skills at throwing hands and looking tough were enough to get by when all I had to do most nights was just follow drunk idiots around and stare menacingly at even drunker low-rent thugs to encourage them to go hassle other people who hadn't paid for bodyguards, and at seventy-five nuyen an hour - I cost more, actually, but as the hiring agent Max kept a good chunk for himself - I was making good enough money to pay for three slops and a flop, to get myself outfitted with actual clothes and even a nice-looking armored jacket I picked up cheap from a pawn shop - and was putting the rest of it aside to make myself a nice nest egg.
  As for originally not knowing my way around Touristville, that was a problem that also largely solved itself. Fixers like Max collected on both ends of the equation - people looking for armed escorts came to him to be hooked up, and the owners of various nightspots around here paid Max off to have their places be first on the list whenever a tourist would ask 'Where could we go to find..?' I got paid in tips for every pigeon that I could steer into a place that was on Max's "recommended list", which obviously meant that I had to be told where they all were and how to get in.
  Of course, I didn't intend to spend the rest of my life, or even the rest of this season, just being a glorified tour guide. This was purely a short-term gig I was doing to build myself a stake, while at the same time I watched and listened and networked around to see what kind of opportunity I could find next. After all, drunk people were very often chatty people and just because most of the clients were tourists didn't mean that they didn't have day jobs and didn't know people. And with my total recall I could memorize every word they said even while doing my job of paying attention to the surrounding environment, and while most of it was as banal and forgettable as you'd imagine there still was the occasional bit of paydata. Not that I sold any of it - part of the service the clients were paying for was discretion, and I was like hell going to do something that pissed off the only fixer in the world who could give me a favorable recommendation to any future employer - but I still noted and filed it. After all, the more I could learn about current events the better. Even despite my "strong, silent type" act I could still deflect only so much casual chatter before I had to participate a little, and I risked outing myself as a dude from another planet whenever I so much as failed to recognize the name of a local sports team.
  So I showed up every evening and called Max to see what the night's assignment was, and escorted whatever pigeon or pigeons had paid for the service that night around to the same places in Touristville, and then went back to my rented room in the early AM and slept it off to do the same thing again. It was mostly being paid for being patient and present. The primary job of a bodyguard wasn't to inflict violence but to deter violence, after all, and you did that largely as a function of presence and demeanor. And I was talented and diligent at both. I did manage to find out that one of the local weapons dealers in Touristville not only offered gunsmithing services but a no-questions-asked firing range in his basement as well, and so I not only picked up a cleaning kit for my pistol as well as some basic instruction in using it but also started getting in some actual practice with it.
  It wasn't until I had over two weeks in on the job that I had to draw a weapon in anger again, and that's when I learned that I apparently had the physical adept power for enhanced aim as well. The first guy I'd shot in that alley had gotten a moderately accurate Mozambique drill because that's all I'd been trying for at the time, but when two razorguys flying way too high on BTL chips decided that slashing the face off the young lady I'd been bodyguarding was a great idea, they were both wired up enough that I didn't have time to try and be methodical. Wired reflexes, hand razors, and BTL-induced psychotic breaks were a nasty combo to let get anywhere near the unarmored civilian so I had no choice but to go for headshots and I had to do it as fast as I possibly could. And when I scored two hits out of two shots fired directly to both of their foreheads before they could get more than three steps into their lunge, despite having only owned this pistol for a couple of weeks and having only had several opportunities to even take it to the range since then, well, that's when I realized that on top of all the other gifts I'd somehow received in the transition I was also a superhumanly accurate marksman.
  Some discreet experimentation the next day out in a more isolated section of the Barrens confirmed my results, and also made me realize that my preternatural aim wasn't limited to just short ranges. I was tack-driving accurate with this pistol out to anywhere within one hundred meters, and I was pretty sure my aim started falling off beyond that point only because of inherent ballistic limits. And that was with a pistol over iron sights. The mind boggled at what I might possibly do with an actual rifle. It wasn't enough that I was a physical adept with all-around maxed stats and an eidetic memory, but now I was basically Clint Barton as well?
  Needless to say, after the headshots incident Max started using me for more challenging work. I wasn't just escorting tourists around to the local nightclubs anymore, I started doing ride-alongs with some of his other regulars for things like escorting business owners on bank runs or bodyguarding higher-value clients who wanted to skip Touristville and head deep into the Barrens to check out real hotspots like the underground casinos that some of the syndicates ran out there. I kept my mouth shut, did what I was told, and tried to ask only intelligent questions as I attempted to learn the intricacies of the business beyond merely looking tough, staying alert, and shooting straight.
  Which is how after a couple more weeks of the new assignments I got invited to go drinking with the boss. In that he ushered me into his office - the inner one, not the outer one - and laid out two shot glasses and a bottle. He poured, and we toasted each other's health and drank.
  "You know, Alex, I can't figure you out." Max said after we'd both downed the first shot of vodka. I'd been using my birth name ever since I'd arrived in this world - after all, it's not like it was on record here anywhere.
  "In what way, sir?" I politely replied.
  "A man's past is usually his own business, especially around here." he replied. "But on the flip side of that, a man has to know what kind of person he's doing biz with. And usually I'm good at sizing people up, but you are an enigma." Max nodded at me. "You don't drink, you don't use, you don't do anything except work, study, and sleep. You don't even check out the girls at Lady Anne's, and I know you've been getting offers."
  "Well, you know I started off without any kind of stake." I answered. "So I haven't been spending anything on non-essentials while I built myself back up."
  Max acknowledged that and poured two more shots. "You weren't born here, were you?" he asked me while I was halfway through sipping mine. Manfully, I controlled my startlement and just looked back at him coolly.
  "No sir, I was not born in Seattle." I non-answered.
  "Pffft." he snorted. "I meant you weren't born here. Down in the gutter, like all the rest of us were. You're too straight, too clean. And definitely way too self-disciplined." he finished insightfully. "You're from uptown, aren't you?"
  "What would someone from uptown be doing carrying a gun down here?" I deflected.
  "You haven't heard?" he probed. "Of course it ain't been in the news, because the corps and the government both want a lid kept on it, but they haven't been able to keep it from leakin' to the Street. The SIN databases weren't fully restored after the second Crash. They're finding more and more people who just woke up one day and pffft!" he waved his hands. "Everything's gone. Locked out of their own houses because the security systems don't recognize 'em anymore, can't touch their cred because the bank account's linked to a SIN that no longer exists, can't go to work because Human Resources doesn't have any records of an employee with that name. Educational transcripts, credit history, work history, birth registration... it's all cross-indexed to the SIN, and if the SIN isn't in the database or any of the backup databases then where does it all go?" He sighed. "Heard about a case like that just the other week from a friend in Lone Star. Found a wino frozen to death in an alleyway, except the autopsy found that his dental work and his cyberware were for somebody way too rich to be a wino. Arrest records linked to his fingerprints had him showing up out of nowhere a couple months ago, arrested for creating a public nuisance after having stolen some rich guy's clothes and credstick. Turns out those were his own clothes and cred... except his SIN had vanished from the system, and all his biometrics with it, so he couldn't prove he was the owner of his own clothes off his back! From junior corporate VP to homeless bum in one shot, because his ID number had vanished from the database. And since the last thing any bigshot ever wants to admit is that the Global Identification Registry can fuck up like this, it was easier to just let the guy and everybody like him rot and die instead of to actually try to fix the mistake."
  "Isn't it normally impossible for a SIN to vanish from all databases, given how many dozens of redundant backup mirrors of the Global Identification Registry are separately maintained by every government and extraterritorial megacorp?" I asked.
  "Yeah." Max agreed. "Of course, it's equally as impossible for the entire fucking Matrix to crash and stay crashed across the entire planet for like a fucking week because of how much double triple twenty times over redundancy it had in the everywhere as well. Except that shit happened just last November. So...?"
  Well, damn. Apparently whoever or whatever had chosen to insert me here had picked this time and place because the global Matrix Crash 2.0 (Crash 1.0 having been sometime in the 2020s) was a perfect cover story for someone from a more civilized era showing up apparently out of nowhere. And Max, after several weeks of carefully observing me, had expertly added two and zero together to get four.
  "Yeah." I said, putting on as somber a face as I could. "I used to be- well, you know. A regular person, with a number and a bank account and everything-" I gulped my vodka and held the glass out for a refill. "And then suddenly, I wasn't."
  "Figured." Max said. "But what, you didn't have a family or anyone you could stay with?"
  "I was on my own." I shrugged. "Still am, really."
  "Where'd you learn to shoot?" he changed the subject.
  "Dad taught me the basics, while he was still alive." I said. "But the accuracy? That came in with the rest of the physical adept stuff, not from training."
  "Useful." he said. "So, what did you do? Y'know, before?" he kept probing.
  "I was in college." I non-answered. "Business Studies." I continued, having decided to just spin this line of BS out as far as possible. "I wasn't really passionate about it, but... y'know. Career possibilities."
  "And now you're down in the Barrens shooting people for nuyen." Max said. "That's a hell of an adjustment."
  "I cry on the inside." I looked back at him challengingly. "I mean, fuck. It's not like I have any choice about taking it as it comes. This shit's going to keep happening whether I accept it or not. And so it's either lie down and die or keep on doing what I have to do, even if that means being someone completely different from the guy I thought I'd grow up to be." I shrugged. "At least this is still mostly clean, even if it's not legal."
  "Yeah." Max agreed. "I get that. I mean, I could be brokering other jobs. Make a lot more money doing it, even. But nobody comes looking to put you in the ground if all you're doing is making sure that people stay safe and their shit doesn't get ripped off. Some other fixers, they live big and die young. Me, I'm gonna live boring as shit and die older than shit." He poured another shot for both of us. "And you?"
  I paused and thought that one over for a few moments. "Right now, all I've really decided is that I'm going to live." I said honestly.
  "I get it." Max nodded. "But even with all the self-study you've been doing - don't think I haven't noticed - you're still not really trained up on what we do here, outside of your innate gifts, right?"
  "Right." I nodded.
  "But you don't want to just be a security guard for the rest of your life." he probed yet again.
  "... no." I admitted softly.
  We both finished our drinks in silence, and then Max bid me good night and sent me home.
  Author's Note: Still winging it! And as for the reason our intrepid MC was dropped into this particular time period... well, it's what he thinks happened, from all available data. Still not going to make any guarantees that in-character knowledge is also accurate OOC.
  Don't worry, the 'OP' part will kick in soon enough. And in fact, even right now he still is OP by Shadowrun starting character standards.
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  "Behind you!" Netcat screamed loudly as her eyes widened at whatever she saw over my shoulder. We'd both been caught out in the open as we were trying to sneak across the cavern floor, and only she'd had the credits to afford a suppressed weapon. So I'd had to let her deal with the lurking gargoyle while I'd stayed in melee mode and stood by to back her up, so that my gunshots wouldn't attract a whole horde of hostiles to us. Except that even with us maintaining noise discipline, something found us anyway.
  I spun around as quickly as I could, but this was not the reality I was used to and my supernatural speed no longer functioned. In this pocket universe I was limited to what the creators of this reality had decided was the maximum possible reaction time for a metahuman being, and so I didn't have the fractions of a second that I'd learned to instinctively rely on in combat situations-
  But at least my superhuman accuracy still functioned. My M-23 assault rifle slid smoothly into position against my shoulder as I finished my spin and quickly scanned the half of our cone of vision that we'd agreed would be my area of responsibility, just as I heard Netcat's silenced SMG already spitting out bursts of fire against whatever was in her area. The meter-long furry bodies and gleaming beady eyes, along with the infernal chittering, told me that the half-dozen or so charging critters were devil rats.
  The first charging rat died as I put a bullet directly through its eye. Then the second, and the third, and the fourth, as I serviced targets as quickly and precisely as any aimbot program could have. Not possessing my superhuman accuracy but having notably more experience at this then I did, Netcat she expertly walked short bursts of fire right across several of the rats on her side as they charged. Then I heard her silenced SMG stop coughing-
  "Reloading!" she called away, and I quickly swiveled my rifle barrel over to cover her while she was out of action. There was only one rat left on her side, a slightly larger one that was clearly the alpha rat, and I put one directly in its forehead and watched its brains splatter-
  -and cursed incredulously as the fucking thing just kept coming even as the hole in its head spontaneously knitted back together. Contemptuously ignoring the large gout of gray matter that had just spurted out the back of its fucking skull, the rat shrieked like a jet turbine on takeoff and leapt-
  I frantically yanked the selector switch to 'Burst' and put three rounds through the fucking thing as it was in mid-leap, but the physics engine contemptuously ignored me as it finished its assault anyway. Netcat shrieked and died as the rat finished its leap with its oversized teeth directly in her throat, and I swore like a sailor who'd just found out that payday had been cancelled as the two more bursts I put through the goddamned immortal rat didn't slow it up enough to keep it from turning on me-
  NETCAT has been killed by a DEMON RAT.
  XDD-206501-00107843 (F2P) has been killed by a DEMON RAT.
  "What the hell was that shit?" I swore as Netcat and I both had our game avatars rematerialize in the lobby to wait out the rest of the round.
  "I know, right?" Netcat swore. "A demon rat? A goddamn demon rat mixed in with the common devil rats? On level two? They never put a mob of that tier on that early a level before! What were they thinking?"
  "Especially given that this is the 'Free To Play' promotional week to celebrate the game's grand re-opening after the Crash 2.0 took it offline. Great way to make the n00bs like me decide they really love themselves some Paranormal Crisis and want to keep playing!" I huffed sarcastically.
  "No kidding. I'd had to switch to incendiary or acid rounds to kill that thing, what with its regeneration trait. You couldn't even hope to chip it to death with just the starter rifle and standard ammo." my fellow gamer groused along with me. "So of course the damn thing only comes in just when I'm stuck in a reload cycle-" She broke off and sighed. "I used to home-away-from-home in this game - hell, I was actually logged in here at the moment the Crash 2.0 hit, and do not get me started on the dumpshock I ate from that one. And then I come back to this kind of crazy-ass game imbalance? So much for getting back on the VR horse!" she spat.
  Because our recent life and 'death' experience had all been a VR Matrix sim, of course. Paranormal Crisis was the Call of Duty franchise of the dark cyberpunk future, the #1 online multiplayer first-person shooter. Only instead of playing it with a mouse and keyboard, instead you jacked in (or used a neural interface 'trode set like me if you didn't have datajack cyberware) and let the miracle of simsense technology actually make you believe you were trapped in some underground hellhole with a ton of mutated, paranormal, and/or cyborged up death critters while you and your fellow gamers FPS'ed your way through twelve increasingly hellish levels of death to kill the boss monster. There were in-game puzzles you could solve for bonus points, but mostly it was a straightforward 'kill stuff for XP to unlock higher tiers of gear and abilities to kill more stuff with, rinse and repeat' gameplay cycle. Just like Call of Duty had been. The more things changed, the more things stayed the same.
  Although I'd before played an online game that felt so real. Shadowrun's Matrix had been aptly if coincidentally named- when you laid down and plugged into full VR, it was just like Neo jacking into the Matrix in the movie. Simsense VR meant that all of your physical senses were fully engaged - not just sight and sound but smell, touch, even proprioception. Even on 'cold sim', with the neural feedback stepped down to legal levels, your mind made the experience real enough that it took preprogrammed safety cutouts to keep the shock of being 'killed' from actually knocking you unconscious in reality. When in illegal 'hot sim', the super-charged levels of neural feedback that high-end deckers used for maximum responsivity and speed in the Matrix even at the expense of safety, harmful neural feedback from getting your icon/avatar shredded could easily reach lethal levels. "Your mind makes it real" indeed.
  Although given how intense even cold sim could get - I felt fully as drenched in sweat and adrenaline as if I really had just stepped out of a pitched battle right now - I honestly wondered who the hell ever hit themselves with full brain-frying levels of hot sim. Especially when done purely for recreation, like Better-Than-Life chip addicts did-
  The server will be shutting down for an unscheduled update in 15 minutes. New games may not be started until the update completes.
  "Aaaaand, that just puts the capper on a perfectly wonderful day." Netcat swore. "Well, it was nice meeting you-"
  "You want to just log off and go hang out or something?" I felt an impulse to ask.
  "... you do know a lot of gamer girls on the Matrix are actually guys, right?" she arched an eyebrow at me.
  "At this point I don't care if you're actually a talking dog." I shot back. "I have spent the year so far doing basically nothing but work, study, and sleep, and today is the first day of social interaction I've had with anyone that was actually social in way, wayyyy too long."
  "...I definitely know what that feels like." she agreed with me wistfully. "I've basically been a cavewoman inside my apartment ever since the Crash- oh hell with it, why not?" she shrugged. "Your profile's location tag already says you're a Seattle local like me, so, are you anywhere near the University?" I inwardly raised an eyebrow in shock as Netcat obviously meant that she wanted to meet up physically - I'd just been asking her if she wanted to go log into an online chat room somewhere - but apparently she was not only feeling particularly lonely, but also was notably more trusting than I was.
  Then again, if she was really at the University of Washington then she'd have at least some reason to feel relatively safe meeting a stranger - the U of W, or "U-Dub" as the locals called it, was not only in the heart of the Downtown district and an A-rated security zone by Lone Star but also had a decent campus security force of its own. And while the low-end fake SIN I'd bought from a local hacker gang was barely enough to buy a subway ticket without being pulled in for questioning, that would still be enough to let me safely enter a patrolled zone and eat a meal in a public place.
  "I'm more out Bellevue way, but I can hop a bus." I answered. "Meet you at the Student Union?"
  "Sure, that'll work." she smiled at me. "Put a snapshot on your profile so I know who to look for?"
  "I can do that." I said, and switched from VR to manual controls without logging out just long enough to use the webcam on my cyberterminal to snap a photo of myself while she did likewise.
  My eyebrows raised as I saw that Netcat was not only an actual girl, but at least as pretty an elf in real life as her avatar had been sculpted to be.
  Despite my nigh-superhuman mental focus and endurance, the fact remained that all work and no play eventually made Alex start climbing the ceiling. So I'd actually started to spend a little of my hard-earned savings on (relatively) luxurious items such as an actual desktop PC - or 'cyberterminal' as they were called around here - and a Matrix account of my own, even if it was from a 'black ISP' run by a local hacker gang down in Redmond and not one of the legitimate telecom companies that SIN-having people used. It was still enough to let me start using all the digital services of the cyberpunk future, such as the all-in-one voice/text/videophone/chat/e-mail services all lumped together under your commcode, the ability to surf the public Matrix - which had proved invaluable for my ongoing efforts in self-education and local historical and cultural research - and, with a trode headset, the ability to enter Matrix VR to do basic simsense things like online "hands-on" tutorials, the sort of cheap training sims that could be run on a desktop cyberterminal - and online games like Paranormal Crisis.
  Which I'd gotten into both because I'd always loved Call of Duty, and because the full-VR immersion element had me hoping that I could use it to get in some training on milspec weapons like assault rifles and grenade launchers and other things I couldn't hope to find practice facilities for in meatspace any time soon. Especially since according to forum chatter, Paranormal Crisis's game engine had started as a simplified civilian adaptation of UCAS military VR training technology. And hey, it had been Free-To-Play week to not only celebrate their servers going back online for the first time since the Crash 2.0, but also try and get the customer base back up after the Crash had scared quite a few people off of online gaming.
  Especially given that AIPS, or Artificially Induced Psychotropic Schizophrenia, had shown up in the diagnostic lexicon after the Crash. Apparently having actually been logged into VR at the time the entire global Matrix was taken down by the several competing digital apocalypses ranging from mad AIs to even madder digital terrorists with psychotic 'war code' Dissonance worms to outright EMP tacnukes being used on major grid junctions left quite a few people with harmful neural feedback that resulted in all sorts of nasty symptoms and twitches even months later and when jacked out. No wonder that all the major online franchises were doing sales gimmicks like this for their post-Crash relaunches, they needed to rebuild that customer base.
  And to think that people used to complain about lag or patchy wireless. Hell, I was still getting used to the part where the dark cyberpunk future didn't even have Wi-Fi, something that back in my original world had been nigh-ubiquitous by 2010. Apparently the technology had been completely abandoned as far too much of a security risk after the first Crash and the invention of neural interface technology and cyberdecks, which even the earliest crude versions of which had let the first-gen deckers effortlessly rip through the most advanced computer security technology of the early 21st century as if it didn't even exist. Between the first Crash, and the arrival of magic in the Awakening, and all the upheavals and plagues and wars and economic collapses since then, as well as the Darwinian technological evolution of the Matrix in other directions... well, only now, after the second Crash, were they even beginning to talk like wireless Matrix technology was going to make a comeback. And even that largely because the EMP attacks on the major grid nodes that had so contributed to the Crash 2.0 had made the Powers That Be start developing a new interest in ubiquitous mesh networks instead of excessively vulnerable centralized grid architecture, something that would obviously require Matrix technology to go wireless.
  Not that I was majorly interested in the evolution of Matrix SOTA or anything. However, Catherine - Netcat - was, seeing as how Matrix Technology and System Development was actually her major at the University. And despite having a degree of good looks that would have reflexively prepared me to expect someone who had all the social skills of a person who'd been on the Very Popular track in high school, Netcat was more than enough of a geek to talk the ear off a stranger about the Wireless Matrix Initiative and data infrastructures and other high-level nerd theory even in the first hour of having met the guy for a cafe and chat.
  But I didn't mind. For one thing, this actually was useful knowledge for someone frantically playing catch-up in a new world, just as almost any knowledge was. For another she really was cute, and seeing someone so honestly and sincerely passionate about something was just plain endearing. Especially given that ever since I'd arrived here I'd basically been dealing with no one except my fellow SINless denizens of the underworld, who were anything but open, unguarded, or innocent. Basically, Cat was the first person I'd really interacted with since I got here that seemed as relatively unwary as the average person had been in my original life, and I was definitely going to enjoy it while it lasted.
  "-but enough about me. What do you do?" she asked, after having finally realized she'd gone off on just a bit of a tangent about her college major.
  "I'm a security guard." I answered her.
  "Corpsec?" she asked back, obviously intrigued.
  "Ah, no." I demurred. "It's a little local firm, we mostly do armed escorts or overflow subcontracting. A lot of the time it's not anything much more involved than being a bouncer." I stopped and decided to course correct a bit, because I didn't want to sound too boring. "On the other hand, if you ever want to get into Underworld 23 then I know the doorman." I finished with a smile.
  "Really?" she flirted back at me, not being so naive that she didn't realize why I'd brought that up.
  "Well I can't get you in the VIP line on zero notice." I admitted. "But yeah, if you ever want to go then let me know a few days in advance and I can trade a favor to get us a reservation, no problem."
  "Underworld 23's a really hot nightclub, but it's also down in the Puyallup Barrens," she asked. "I'm not sure about going to that neighborhood."
  "I wouldn't advise you to go alone." I agreed. "And even I wouldn't go there without my pistol, physical adept or not. But people do go there every night and come back perfectly safe and sound, even people with money and flash. The trick is to take an escort, know which cab company to hire, and to not make any side trips. The club itself is a safe zone, so all you've got to worry about is the in-and-out."
  "You're a physad?" she shot back. "No wonder you shot like an aimbot! I'd almost thought you were hacking, except even I can't get past the anti-cheat software on Paranormal Crisis." She actually blushed a little with embarrassment as she continued. "And I'm not saying I've tried, but I'm not not saying that."
  "Somebody's been naughty." I sing-songed teasingly, before continuing on more reasonably. "Yeah. That ability of mine still works in VR because its largely based on perception and hand-eye coordination, which doesn't really change for the avatar. But I can't use my boosted reflexes in there because the game avatar caps allowable reaction time and running speed at normal unaugmented maximum-"
  "They have to." she nodded. "Otherwise everybody with wired reflexes or neural boosters would be pay-to-winning all over everyone else."
  "So yeah, sometimes doing online shooters feels like doing tai chi to me." I continued. "It's still martial arts, but in slow motion."
  "Do you shoot a lot in real life?" she probed.
  "God no." I said. "I mean, I've had to draw my pistol on the job once or twice, but-" I shrugged. "I don't go looking for life-and-death fights every day. Except when its free-to-play week, that is." I ended more lightly.
  "You're not wearing your pistol now, though." she said accusingly. Because I'd left it back in my rented room in Touristville, not remotely having the sort of official paperwork that would let me risk carrying it on the street in any part of town where Lone Star actually worked for a living. At least not while I was trying to blend in and be legal.
  "Not licensed to carry it on campus." I replied. "Like I said, small local firm. We're definitely not Wolverine or Hard Corps, let alone Lone Star or Knight Errant."
  "Yeah, this is a pretty safe neighborhood." she agreed. "That's why I- ow!" she winced, her eyes squeezing shut. "Damn it, not now!"
  "Are you okay?" I asked her concernedly.
  "Migraines." she grunted, still wincing. "Hang on a minute-" She reached into her jacket pocket for a bottle of prescription pills, opened it, and shook one out onto her palm and washed it down with her soda before putting the bottle back into her pocket. "Okay, give this a couple minutes to work and I should start feeling more metahuman again."
  "I'm having a great time hanging out, but if you need to cut this short-"
  "Nah, nah, they're just something I have to live with now." she demurred. "I don't want to ditch on you either, not this early."
  I looked more carefully at her, trying to judge if she was really okay or just trying to put a brave face on it. Because while I was very much enjoying my first opportunity to actually hang out with a pretty girl like a regular person on a regular date in a regular world, I was not enough of an asshole to want to let her push herself too hard if she really was sick.
  "AIPS?" I asked her very softly, pitching my voice to barely above a whisper.
  "How the fuck did you-?" she shot back equally as softly, her eyes going wide in alarm.
  "Physical adept." I tapped one finger beneath my eye. "One of my abilities is the boosted vision. I can read a street sign at half a mile in the dark, so I could definitely read the label on your pill bottle across the table. And beta-deperidine isn't any painkiller I've ever heard of, certainly not what's commonly prescribed for migraines. That plus your mentioning that you were online and got dumpshocked during the second Crash plus your also having mentioned that you haven't really gotten out any in the past couple of months-?"
  "You're sure you don't work for Lone Star?" she shot back warily. "Because that was some serious Night Stalkers detective bullcrap right there."
  "Skill number one for security is situational awareness." I said. "And I'm sorry- I didn't mean to make you feel bad. I just... wanted to you know that I knew, but still didn't care."
  "... thank you." she said, relaxing. "Because you're right, I got it. And it's a real pain to have everybody you know look at you like you might flip out and become the next Mayan Cutter, just because you had the bad luck to be jacked in at the wrong time and ate the Dissonance worm right across the forebrain and walked away with jangled neurons." She exhaled heavily and continued more sadly. "But hey, even with all the migraines and occasional weirdness I'm still one of the lucky ones. A whole lot of people who got Crashed never woke up at all, or with things like grand mal seizures or limbs that don't quite work right anymore. At least I can still walk and talk and work-" She closed her eyes for a few moments, breathing in and out heavily, before opening them again. "Even if the headaches are a bitch."
  "The situation's never as nice and neat as the corporate news says it is, is it?" I commiserated with her.
  "No it's not." she agreed. "Not on any topic, at any time."
  "I'm assuming you haven't been anywhere outside U-Dub's immediate safe space in the past couple of months because you're worried about migraineing at the wrong time and not being able to defend yourself." I said. "But hey, even with my sidearm back in my apartment I'm still a superhumanly strong and fast professional bodyguard. So, if you don't want to cut this afternoon short, then do you have anywhere that you've been wishing you could go but couldn't?" I stopped and continued with just the right degree of self-deprecating humor. "Although if you say 'the Barrens', then we are putting that on hold until I can go get my iron."
  "Is it even legal anymore to be as nice a guy as you are?" Catherine asked me humorously.
  "Okay, you caught me. I just wanted to stand behind you and watch you walk for the next couple of hours." I said lightly while waggling my eyebrows like the main character of a cheap porno. "Because while I'd certainly hate to see you go, I'd love to watch you leave-"
  She laughed so hard she snorted.
  I didn't get lucky that night - although I probably could have, given that contemporary dating etiquette was that sex on a first date was not particularly sleazy behavior if you liked the cut of each other's jib well enough. And both 'Netcat' and I were very pretty people what with the elven metatype running to where even the uglier elves were still fairly good-looking by human standards and 'Cat being blessed with a favorable draw of the genetic lottery even for an elf, and myself having been gifted with a movie-star quality new body by whatever imponderable forces had dumped me here. But if I'd just wanted cheap sex then I could have gotten enough of that in Touristville - and without paying for it, given how many times I'd been hit on by drunk lady tourists or even just bored locals - so despite my being a little backed up because I hadn't actually accepted any of those offers, I still didn't push it with her. Despite our being from different worlds and both of us having things we hadn't remotely wanted to share with other people - even if I'd already guessed hers - the fact remained that we had both been lonely people living in intense little bubbles for too long, and we both welcomed the chance to actually make an old-fashioned human connection with anyone. Especially someone about the same age, very good-looking, and basically compatible.
  So we danced the classic dance of flirtation and getting-to-know-you that young people our age did, and had a fine time at the play - because where 'Cat had wanted to go was to catch a live stage production at the big theatre downtown near the Space Needle - and had a nice dinner at a little neighborhood Japanese place, and traded commcodes, and were reaching the stage of the evening where it was time to either say goodbye or stay the night, even if we didn't quite want to do either.
  And then, just as I'd finished walking her back to her apartment building, 'Cat proved that I wasn't the only one in the conversation who could pull a Sherlock Holmes.
  "You're a shadowrunner, aren't you Alex?" she asked me softly.
  "... what gave me away?" I replied. Because after catching her out on her AIPS and her dealing straight with me on that, it's not like I had much high ground to try bullshitting her when she caught me out.
  "You said you worked as a security guard and that you carried - and used - a pistol on the job, but you don't have a concealed weapons permit when that's a legal requirement for any armed security position in Seattle." she said analytically. "You managed to go the entire evening when we were trading life stories without actually being specific about the 'who/where/when' even as you were talking about the 'what', meaning you didn't want to actually give any traceable background. You talked down your experience and claimed to be relatively new to the business despite the fact that you mentioned you had the adept powers of heightened reflexes, strength, and running speed to the point that stepping down to a max-human avatar in virtual reality felt confining for you, plus aimbot-level accuracy with ranged weapons and enhanced senses. And a physical adept doesn't express that many separate gifts at that kind of level unless they've been training hard for a while, meaning you were deliberately underselling yourself. But you're a guy trying to impress a pretty girl you just met, so if anything you should be talking yourself up." She nodded at me, clearly impressed with her own deductive skills. "Inference; you have a background you really want to bury in casual conversation. So it's either shadowrunner or high-end corporate hired gun, but a company man wouldn't worry about getting a pistol past University security." She smirked. "Also, he'd be carrying a much better degree of encryption on his pocket secretary."
  "... you slipped me a virus when we traded e-cards just now." I glowered at her. "Because I know I didn't leave you alone with my phone long enough to crack it manually."
  "Just a little one!" she said entreatingly. "A girl has to look out for herself on the dating scene, so I have a little spy program I use to check a guy's contact list out for things like, oh, him already having other girlfriends. Or a wife." she finished knowingly. "But your phone's was blank, except for some guy named 'Max', a couple line items for things like 'Dojo' and 'Doc'... and me. You get a new burner phone every couple of months and toss the old, don't you?"
  "I actually am new." I explained to her. "At running, at least. I used to have another life, but-" I switched to asking a question so I could imply without actually lying. "You're in the Matrix programming track, so have you heard about the problems with the Global SIN Registry that they're not officially admitting to?"
  "Damn." she winced. "Really?"
  "Officially being unpersoned and with no chance to ever go back to my old life was my New Years' present for 2065." I confirmed.
  "And I bitched about the Crash just giving me a few singed neurons for a present." she winced. "You're sure there's no hope to get it back?"
  "I think we're talking rewrite-the-very-fabric-of-space-and-time level miracle on that one." I sighed. "So..." I shrugged. "I'm not even sure this is what I want to do for my life now, but when you get dropped into the shark tank then you've got to tread the water."
  "That really sucks." she said compassionately. "But... look, I don't believe everything they say about all shadowrunners automatically being psychotic criminals. But that doesn't mean it's a lifestyle that's very nice. And it's definitely not safe. Do you..." she paused, and continued. "Do you actually want to try and get a new SIN, even if you can't ever reconnect to your old one?"
  "Can I even do that?" I asked her. "I mean, aren't SINless people basically condemned to official unpersondom forever? Even if I got sent to prison and picked up a 'criminal SIN' that way so they'd have a number to track my rap sheet with, that's still not the same as actually getting official citizenship and civil rights in anywhere back." I sighed. "Not with the way they rigged 'criminal SINs' to not actually be SINs legally, even if they are bureaucratically."
  "Off the top of my head, I don't know." she agreed. "But data research - and a little hacking, even if I'm definitely no Fastjack - is what I do for a living. So, if you want I can try researching options for you."
  "That's a lot of work to go to for a guy you just met. A strange, SINless guy who just admitted that he rents violence down in the Barrens for nuyen." I deflected.
  "Yeah, but I like you." she blurted. "And you like me- hey, don't laugh! Life is too short for all that rom-com not being able to spit it out stuff!" she trailed off embarrassedly.
  "If you want to look into this topic for me, then you do that." I affirmed to her. "But please don't go to any major efforts on my account, and definitely don't risk drawing any heat down on yourself. I don't even have any idea what I want to do in the long term right now, not least because ever since I lost my old life I haven't really had anywhere I could sit and think about anything except what I needed to do next to live through the next day-" I stopped and continued more softly. "Until today, at least."
  "Okay." she agreed. "I can do that for you. And yeah, I can't even imagine what kind of upheaval you've been through. Even all of my adjusting recently has been me trying to deal with a new me, not a new everything else." she shrugged. "My life is still my life, I just have some medical things to handle. You-" she smiled at me. "If I can be a place where you can feel safe enough to actually start thinking about your future, then I'd be glad to."
  "And if I can be a useful kind of friend when you need one, I'd be glad to as well." I agreed.
  "Then we're agreed then!" she said brightly and a little too quickly, and we stood there staring at each other until I very, very slowly reached out to take her hand and- waiting and still not seeing any little signals of 'Too close!'- gently pulled her in for a goodnight kiss.
  I knew it was just my imagination, but I could still taste her lipstick all the way through the bus ride home.
  Author's Note: How the hell did this become a meet-cute? I'm the guy writing this thing and even I still don't know how the hell this became a meet-cute! This was supposed to be a power fantasy, not a romantic comedy!
  And yes, that is indeed the very same Netcat who in Shadowrun 4th edition was the signature technomancer NPC. (As canon inconveniently failed to give me a real name for her, I had to pick one myself. And if she was amateur enough to use her old gaming handle for her shadowrunner street name - which she was - then she'd also be amateur enough to use her real name as part of her handle.) People who own the Unwired supplement might recall that her origin story does indeed have her being a comp-sci major at the University of Washington circa 2064, who was a minor-league hacker prior to her emergence as a technomancer and a dedicated online gamer as her hobby and passion. And she was indeed, canonically, logged into a session of Paranormal Crisis when the Crash 2.0 hit and came out of that with her brain whacked in the way that produced the first-generation technomancer, which was often misdiagnosed as AIPS. And if she seems a lot less hardened and streetwise than you'd expect a prime runner to be, remember that this is back before her running career really started.
  At this point in the canon timeline Netcat was not yet consciously aware of her developing technomancer abilities, and would spend the next several years slowly self-discovering out what she was and how her powers worked and be drawn into the shadowrunner subculture by her growing alienation from regular society and the almost 'mutant in an X-Men comic' levels of bullshit the technomancers had to go through during the first stages of the Emergence arc.
  But now? Who the hell knows, least of all me. I was already winging this thing, now parts of it are basically winging itself.
  But hey, we'll get to the major shadowrunning stuff as soon as I design some more NPCs or decide which canon ones to incorporate.
  And sorry, Slamm-0 (Netcat's canonical common-law husband in the later timeline), but in this timeline Alex saw her first. But hey, there's other nice hacker girls you can date. I actually liked him until he got caught in the edition 5e+ general wave of 'let's turn all our sig NPCs into fucking assholes', so I certainly don't wish him ill as a writer.
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  "Shit! Out!" Samson called as I yet again put him face-first on the mat and dug my knee into his back.
  I let go and stood back up immediately as he called my point, and the burly ork pushed off the floor with his hands and sprang nimbly to his feet. "How the fuck do you keep doing that to me, kid? I been at this for more than twenty-five years!"
  "What can I say, boss? I'm a natural." I smirked and tried to pass it off as just the cockiness of youth.
  One of the first things I'd done as soon as I started getting myself a stake and a few local contacts was look up where you could go in the Barrens for actual martial arts training. The dojo run by Samson, an ork physical adept who'd retired from being a professional legbreaker for... various people... had been the first one Max had recommended to me. Samson was an expert in several martial arts schools, including the original school of hard knocks, but the main art he liked to teach was Systema. Which was a Russian military martial art that was like if krav maga had had a love child with tai chi who'd then spent twenty years in a Siberian prison mine. It didn't have belt rankings, grades, or titles. You studied and kept studying until either your instructor either agreed you were finally proficient enough to call yourself a systema practitioner for real or you quit or got thrown out. As Samson was fond of saying "The streets will grade you on a strict pass-fail system, and so will I."
  So despite it costing me a fair chunk of nuyen each week, I'd signed up for tutoring. And after I'd somehow hauled out enough of a burst of speed to actually beat him in our initial spar, I rapidly got bumped up to individual lessons. Whether that was because he'd recognized me as a prodigy or because he didn't want to drop any more face by being thumped hard in front of other students I wasn't certain. Probably both.
  At any rate, since I hadn't come here to coast on my innate gifts but to actually learn, from then on I largely concentrated on trying to perfect my form and not on trying to beat the instructor's ass. So Samson wrote off my initial win as a fluke and his own sloppiness and, after thumping me a little extra to communicate the proper degree of respect he felt he was entitled to, we settled down to a productive couple of months of not only teaching me some actual technique but also helping me hone my gifts as a physical adept. Samson was the one who'd told me about some of the sensory boosts possible to a physad, for example, and ran me through several mental exercises to see if I had the potential for them. Which as it turned out I did.
  In fact, I was starting to draw quite a bit of curiosity from him because I seemed to have a potential for anything. Whether it be boosting my attributes, passively enhancing my baseline reaction time speed to a point that easily competed with wired reflexes, giving me boosted vision and hearing comparable to SOTA cybereyes or cyberears, or heightening my sense of balance to almost wire-fu levels, I could not only do it all but could pick it up in record time. I did the same thing for actually learning the art of Systema and the mish-mash of streetfighting tricks he taught alongside it as well, and only just managed to pass that one off as being a black belt in taekwondo (even if I'd actually barely made yellow belt) and was just here to learn a new martial arts school while already being an experienced martial artist.
  And I hadn't even thought about telling him about my bullshit-tier gun-fu. That would have just completely broken an already fraying suspension of disbelief.
  But even with everything I could do to hold back and pace myself, I'd still rapidly levelled up to the point that not only was I routinely matching my instructor but I was just about ready to be fully graduated as a Systema practitioner. Which normally took years, not weeks. It was yet another data point on my growing list of reasons to suspect that while I might be a physical adept I might also be something more.
  I was simply too versatile, and was learning too many separate and diverse adept abilities too quickly. In fact, I was learning everything quickly. I'd been fairly intelligent in my old life - I'd never had any problems passing classes even if I never did homework - but I'd never been like this. I'd already known about my having gotten total recall in the transition but I'd also somehow become practically a single-repetition learner even for things that weren't just rote memorization. The basic gun-care lesson I'd gotten at the local Weapons World had combined with Matrix-aided self-study to make me a fair amateur gunsmith in less than a week, able to not just clean but also field-strip, maintain, and troubleshoot almost anything in the common arsenal. Simply hanging out and learning on-the-job had helped me go from a guy with great reflexes to a decent bodyguard and bouncer, not just combat-wise but also in the more subtle skills of keeping an eye on everything while not looking like you were paying attention, putting small clues in the environment together to sense trouble before it started, and even basic conflict de-escalation and other bouncer tricks for dealing with angry drunks or dopers. As well as an overall introduction to living on the mean streets of Seattle in general. I still wasn't anywhere near being a prime runner, but I wasn't a total greenie anymore either. And in addition to the training in knives, batons, and other such things that were part of the Systema course I'd also used a combination of training sims, rented time at the range - and Paranormal Crisis - to get myself qualified with assault rifles, SMGs, and shotguns as well as pistols. Although I still hoped to do at least some live-fire on an actual urban combat course before I tried getting into any serious urban combat for real.
  And all that speed-learning was before we got into how I was progressing an adept. The phenomenon of physical adepts had been known for several decades by this point, and there was over a generation's worth of scientific studies and progress charting put in by the military and the corps in figuring out how best to train them. The average adept had a fairly consistent growth rate as well as an overall limit on the separate number of adept abilities they could master to what degree before maxing out their innate magical potential and requiring Initiation - an advanced stage of enlightenment and self-mastery - to progress further and/or diversity their adept portfolio. Really advanced adepts, guys who would be considered martial arts grandmasters and legends, had been through multiple grades of initiation. Even Samson had only initiated twice, and he'd been doing this for longer than I'd been alive.
  Which is why it was seriously bullshit that I'd already advanced and diversified my adept abilities to the point that going by all known metrics I should have had at least three grades of initiation already just to cover them all, and I hadn't initiated so as much as once. And while it was theoretically possible to self-initiate without knowing it, that didn't work three times in a row. Not unless you were a one-in-a-trillion prodigy at being a natural ki master (it turned out that in this world all of the martial arts folklore about 'chi' and suchlike had actually been dimly-grasped and partial bits of knowledge that still worked in the low-mana conditions prior to the Awakening and the return of magic in 2011) that made Ranma Saotome look normal. Samson was already seriously starting to suspect something was hinky with me as is, and that was with everything I'd done to hold back the full extent of my powers.
  Still, I'd just passed my final exam to graduate Systema so after putting Samson off with my usual round of excuses, I paid him for my last lesson and then left his dojo fully intending to never go near the place again until enough years had passed I could actually explain my level of growth. Assuming that I hadn't evolved into a Super Saiyan by then or something equally as ridiculous. So, day by day I was making myself more knowledgeable, more aware, and more qualified for my upcoming career as a real shadowrunner.
  Assuming, of course, that that's what I ended up deciding to do.
  "The UCAS military will enlist SINless under age twenty-five if they can pass drug and psych screenings and don't have an 'excessive criminal history'." Cat led off when we met up for lunch the next day. By this point it had been almost a month since our first date, and even after paying for quarters, upkeep, and some relatively expensive martial arts tutoring I still had enough left over in the average week to make it downtown and hang out with her every weekend. Which arrangement suited her just fine, given that during the work week she was pretty busy with her classes.
  "If they're giving UCAS citizenship away with the package then I'm assuming they'll want more than just four years?" I guessed, having been in this world long enough to know that the governments and corps had an overall view of 'labor relations' that made the worst penny-pinching factory owner back in my old life look like the Richie Rich movie.
  "Ten." she admitted sheepishly. "And you get a limited choice of MOSes with the SINless enlistment."
  "Have the recruiters dredge the ghetto, then send all the poor and poorly educated young people out to be frontline fodder." I said cynically. "Well, that's not historically unknown."
  "True, but you're Awakened, remember?" 'Cat pointed out to me. "And less than two percent of the population is. Magicians and adepts always get prime signing bonuses and are assigned where their talents won't be wasted. So you wouldn't be marching in the mud on the Algonkian-Manitou border."
  "Special operations." I agreed. "Or at least the Rangers. But..." I sighed. "Ten years, and then either trying to live through ten more years so I can retire, or getting out and then going straight into Ares or one of the other corporate armies. It would be more stable and legal than shadowrunning, but not really safer."
  "Valid point." she agreed. "And yeah, with your adept gifts most of your possible career paths are going to be... y'know, active... but that doesn't mean you have to kill people for a living. If you hadn't lost your SIN you could have gone into Urban Brawl or Ultimate Fighting- hey, wasn't there an Urban Brawl physad who started SINless? Svetlana something... you know, the naked one?"
  "Half-naked." I corrected her, knowing she was referring to an infamous rookie on the European Urban Brawl circuit who'd developed a publicity move of going topless during matches as a way to not only distract the enemy team but also pump up her own Q-rating. But then again, there were two rather prominent reasons besides her being a skilled parkour adept and high-jumper that Svetlana Jurjewa had been nicknamed "Bounce". "Unfortunately, while the European circuit has teams willing to hold open tryouts in Z-Zones the North American teams are SIN-only. I checked."
  Because one of the first things I'd done after finding out that the sport even existed was to try and see if I could get into Urban Brawl - after all, being paid NBA basketball player money to shoot non-lethal ammo at people in a stadium while wearing the best body armor money could buy and with team physicians available at the sidelines certainly beat being paid money to shoot at and get shot at in the Barrens for real. And wasn't it just a measure of how far in the dark cyberpunk future I was that 'let's throw a bunch of people with real guns and gel rounds into a stadium and have them do Team Fortress style combat in live action' was now a recognized professional sport.
  "That's lousy luck. The way you can shoot you'd have made the starting bench in no time. And I'd have loved to be dating the next Sean Benton." she smiled at me.
  "Well, when you invent the next Fairlight Excalibur I can move in and be your kept man. They say I make a mean omelet." I teased her.
  "Oooo, would you cook naked apron style?" she teased me back.
  "Spattering hot grease at waist level? Not even if I developed the adept power for iron skin." I winced, and she giggled.
  "And as for corporate recruitment-" she shrugged. "I didn't turn up any possibilities. If you were a magician then any megacorp would take you so long as you looked remotely willing and reliable, regardless of background, but they don't seem to have any similar 'get a SIN' tracks for physical adepts." She shrugged. "I guess when you can afford meganuyen worth of cyberware for your elites, you don't feel as much need to recruit the magically augmented."
  "Probably." I said. "So, its either ten years in the spooky troops or... not much else, as far as a quick path back to regular life right now." I shook my head. "I'm not sure I'm a big enough fan of the current government to spend a decade killing in the name of, and I am sure I don't want to leave Seattle right now."
  "So, we'll keep looking for something long-term." she agreed hurriedly. "How are you fixed for the short-term?"
  "Work's starting to dry up a little." I admitted. "Max looks like he's thinking I'm overqualified for the kind of work he hires people out for, and I'm getting gently encouraged to try finding another fixer. I guess he's really sincere about playing it safe rather than wanting larger commissions."
  "I don't blame anyone for sticking with what's working for them." she agreed. "A whole lot of people in this town don't even get that privilege. So, what are you going to do?"
  "Not starve." I reassured her. "I mean, my single largest expense - my martial arts lessons - just got paid off, so even with the op-tempo of things slowing down I'm still solvent. But yeah, I need to start working other types of gigs." I paused, and decided to be open about it. "I've already got a line on one, I'm hoping it pans out."
  "It's a pity Shadowland went down in the Crash and hasn't come back up yet, or you could get registered there and start checking all the job postings for runners." she commiserated, referring to the BBS/forum/Matrix portal that had been Seattle's single most useful connection for any local shadowrunner. "I heard the sysop died fighting the Crash worm, poor guy."
  "Were you on there before?" I asked her, not having expected Netcat to actually know about an online runner haven.
  "Nominally." she admitted. "They had an account tier system with access and privileges to match, ranging from 'prime runner that the insiders personally knew and vouched for' all the way down to 'tourist'. I was barely a step above the latter. I mean, I hack things semi-professionally, so technically I'm on the shady side of Seattle like you are. But realistically? On a scale of one to actual shadowrunner decker, I'm maybe a five."
  "That's still not bad at all, given the crazy shit that you hear about deckers pulling off all the time." I complimented her. "And it's not like you hack as a full-time lifestyle like they do. Or risk the same kind of attrition rate..."
  "Yeah." she nodded vigorously. "I got brainfried once, and was lucky to come out as relatively intact as I did. Not eager to look for a repeat."
  "Speaking of, how have you been doing?" I asked her, to be worried when I saw her expression turn guarded behind a bright yet insincere smile. "And don't say you're fine, because you just twitched."
  "I have got to get a better poker face." she grumbled. "Well, the good news is that the migraines have stopped being as frequent. The bad news..." she sighed, and continued on in a reluctant murmur. "New symptom. Auditory hallucinations."
  "Hey." I said, reaching out to take her hand reassuringly. "I'm here, okay? What do you hear?"
  "Mumbling, mostly." she said. "It's like someone is having a conversation behind me, but I don't know the language. It's not constant - thank God, or I'd never get any sleep - but I'm good for at least a few bursts of phantom speech a week."
  "So, you're not hearing the neighbor's dog tell you go to shoot up a nightclub via coded barks." I deliberately made a joke out of it.
  "Who even thinks of a mental image like that?" she goggled at me mildly. "And no, it's not that kind of voices. Believe me, campus psych would have freaked out and thrown a hold order in every direction if it had been. It's just-" she hunched her shoulders nervously. "Yet another damn neural misfire. I don't like collecting new ones. I mean, if it's a progressive ongoing process-" she sighed. "Then when does it stop?"
  "I don't know." I told her honestly. "But if I can help you, I will."
  "I don't know how you can, but the thought does count." she smiled weakly at me. "And in the better news department, even despite the new quirks I have not been put back on the seizure risk list. Thank God, because I spent a month living like that right after the Crash and eugh."
  "Well, if you're not at a high risk for seizures then it's still safe for you to indulge in things that involve elevated heart rate and neural activity, yes?" I grinned at her.
  "You mean sex." 'Cat smirked back at me. "And hell yeah we still can, or else why would I have brought it up?"
  "Check please!" I signaled the server.
  It is a truism that whatever universe you might be in, once you get past their outer shell then nerd girls are freaky.
  We'd actually made it to the third date before clothes came all the way off, but once we'd started then we certainly made up for lost time. Honestly, it was a good thing I was a magically-augmented athlete in Olympic condition because otherwise I'd have been the one walking funny after that first weekend. As is, I had to be the voice of common sense that called a halt to things before someone risked a UTI or else we'd literally have not gotten out of bed all Saturday except to eat and take a shower. And even then we were right back at it the next day. Somebody was more than a little touch-starved after having been socially isolated like a semi-invalid for months - and I'd picked up the impression that even before the Crash 'Cat still hadn't had much luck on the dating circuit despite her looks, due to not having as finely-tuned a creep radar as she'd needed to have.
  Hey, there was a reason she'd devolved down to hacking a guy's smartphone to run a background check on the first date. I'd even gotten one of their names and descriptions out of her, so I'd know to punch him into next week if I ever caught him hanging around outside her place. Jerk had not only been married but also had another girlfriend on the side, none of whom had known each other... let's just say that despite my lack of SIN or stable income and my general criminal existence, I was still the most decent guy she'd dated for any length of time and leave it at that.
  As for me, I'd been dumped into a strange planet entirely and she was the first person I'd met that I didn't have to worry about keeping my guard up with, and it had been a pretty long time for me too- at any rate, while we hadn't formalized our relationship to any degree beyond 'we're dating and exclusive', we were still thoroughly enjoying our 'honeymoon period' as it were. Because while it wasn't necessarily love at first sight, it had certainly become like at first sight. She was rapidly becoming a best friend as well as a lover, and likewise for me on her part. I was already willing to go pretty far out of my way to keep her from being hurt or sad, and likewise her for me.
  And that's why I was less than entirely comfortable about what was coming up next. Because even my having lived in Touristville for only a couple of months had already started giving me an education in how trying to sustain a relationship across the SIN/SINless or straight world/shadowrunner divide was almost never viable in the long-term. You only had to watch all the businessmen who kept mistresses on the side down at the edge of the Barrens and the cynicism and high turnover rate of that lifestyle every night to know that one. Or watch the young Touristville townies fall for the 'bad boy' type of runner like me again and again, and get their hearts broken again and again. And while I could admittedly control that factor of the equation by not being an asshole, I certainly couldn't control all the rest of the risk factors involved in that equation. After all, sometimes those broken hearts weren't from the guy cheating on her or dumping her, but instead dying on her-
  Well, I certainly had no intention of doing that. Not tonight, and not any other night.
  So after I'd left 'Cat's apartment I'd gone back to my place - a cheap one-room apartment in Touristville that didn't ask questions or want ID, just the rent paid in certified cred in advance every month - caught a brief nap, and then checked my weapons and strapped on all my gear. Since I didn't have a car I'd have to jog to the meeting point, but with my speed and endurance boosts I had no problem getting anywhere relatively nearby via Shank's mare and still having enough left at the end to work all night if need be.
  Which was good for me because it was a little past 2200 hours on the evening of March 2, 2065, and in less than thirty minutes I'd be starting my first real shadowrun.
  "You the newbie that Samson recommended? The physad?" the heavyset black ork woman said to me as I arrived in the empty industrial park I'd been told to meet the others at.
  "Wild Man." I acknowledged to her, using the nickname that one of Max's other regular guards had stuck me with in ironic mockery of my being the most calm, boring, and un-dramatic muscle in his stable and my steadfast refusal to so much as sniff a cork while on the job. Hey, it worked as well as any other street name and at least this way I couldn't be blamed for picking it.
  "Fatima." she nodded to me. "I'm a magician."
  "Livewire." the gangly Caucasian elf in a green mohawk nodded to me. The visible cyberware and his own weapons loadout advertised him as a street samurai.
  "Green Dreams" the young troll around my age nodded to me, his cyberdeck case slung on one hip. "I'm the primary on this run. It's a datasteal, you know. Makes me the mission-critical one." he bragged.
  I acknowledged that with the complete lack of reaction it deserved and turned to the last person there, another ork. "Pipes. I'm the wheels." Between that statement and his own datajack, I pegged him as a rigger.
  "We waiting for the client?" I asked Fatima, who seemed to be the oldest and least melodramatic person here.
  "Yup." she said stolidly. "What were you told about the job?"
  "That the target was the Humanis Policlub." I said. "That's all Samson really knew about it."
  "And that's all I need to know." Livewire said icily.
  "I'm actually surprised you're okay with that." Green Dreams said to me challengingly. "You know, what with you being the only human here and all."
  "Do we really all look that alike to you?" I threw one of the classic sound-bites from a Mothers of Metahumans PSA back at him, and Fatima barked a laugh.
  "Wild Man's right, Greenie." she said to him reprovingly. "Only half the smalltooths in Seattle think the sun shines out of Brackhaven's asshole. The other half think he is the asshole."
  "Well said." Pipes chimed in.
  Livewire just ignored Green Dreams as if he wasn't there, and I followed his lead. "Physad, huh?" he turned and said to me after a short pause. "What's your style?"
  "Systema, mostly." I answered him. "I also gun-fu."
  "Explains the rifle." he acknowledged, nodding to the cheap yet serviceable AK-97 slung across my back. "Think we'll need it tonight?"
  "Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it." I replied. "What's your favorite style?"
  "Arnis." he answered me, briefly extending and retracting a long cyberspur out of the back of his hand. Yes, I could see where the Filipino long-knife style could be easily adapted for arm spurs. "You do much with blades?"
  "Just my holdout." I said. "If I want them dead I usually shoot them before they get to melee range. Hands are supposed to be for subtlety. Or desperation."
  "Not a bad plan." he agreed.
  I picked up the faint sounds of an approaching car - which given the isolation of the particular stretch of the Barrens we were in meant it was almost certainly our client. "Car coming."
  "Good ears." Fatima nodded to me, after the engine noise became audible to everyone else shortly afterwards. "Okay everyone, try to look like we're worth paying."
  We drew up in a reasonable approximation of a sober and sharp team of professional shadowrunners, as opposed to the pickup squad of people who mostly worked alone that had all heard about this job from one contact or another of theirs, and waited for the client to step out. My eyes narrowed as I noted that the stock Ford Americar and the generic cheap suit said 'ordinary citizen', but the complete lack of nervousness and the mild disdain of us streetscum leaking through his demeanor said 'professional negotiator'. Looks-wise, he was a classic example of what a Lone Star profiler would call "Great, yet another Unidentified Dark-Haired Caucasian Human Male."
  "Good, you're all here." he opened briskly. "My name is Mr. Johnson, and I'm here with an urgent short-term opportunity regarding a datasteal against the Humanis Policlub office in Auburn."
  "Hell yeah! I'll rip whatever cheap-ass excuse for a datacore those pasty white boys have wide open!" Green Dreams boasted.
  "I'm certain you will." Mr. Johnson answered calmly after a momentary pause. "However, it might help if you knew what paydata in particular we were after."
  "Just might." Fatima drawled lazily.
  Mr. Johnson laid his briefcase on the hood of his car and opened it, then reached in and drew out a printout. Livewire and Fatima both drew a deep breath as we saw it was a crime scene photograph of a young ork girl who'd clearly been shot several times while walking down the sidewalk.
  "My niece, Carla Rojas. She was the victim of a drive-by shooting last week ago in Auburn. Eyewitnesses noted a 'Pure Humanity' bumper sticker on the car, but despite that and the license number Lone Star was 'unable to turn up any leads'."
  "You want 'em hurt, dead, or hurt and then dead?" Livewire asked levelly.
  "That will be determined at a later date." Mr. Johnson said calmly. "For right now the objective is to find out who."
  "Hence our doing a datarip on the local Humanis hall." Fatima agreed.
  "Yes. I'll give you a copy of everything that the private investigator I hired was able to determine before he hit the limits of what information could be legally gathered and had to give up the case. I'm hoping that Mr. 'Green Dreams' here can go through the local Humanis hall's Matrix host to further link those clues to actual names and faces. However, as they keep the more sensitive data offline from the Matrix, you'll have to physically intrude into the building to find an internal network connection-"
  "Hence the two muscleboys and the mage to cover the decker while I keep the van hot for a quick getaway." Pipes said.
  "Get in, get the paydata, get out. That's what shadowrunners do, isn't it?" Mr. Johnson smiled at us. "It's a measure of their prejudice that they overlooked that many metahumans still have human relatives. And that unlike my sister's family, I am employed in a responsible enough corporate position to have both some experience at hiring subcontractors to find... creative solutions... and the funding to do so."
  "Speaking of that..." Fatima began.
  "Five thousand each." Mr. Johnson replied.
  "For a smash-and-grab on a Humanis office? There could be a hundred guys on-site for all we know." I broke in.
  "The reason the time window is limited is because my information is that they don't have any activities planned tonight, so it should merely be the night security staff and nothing more." Mr. Johnson replied, slightly nettled. "But I cannot speak to tomorrow night or any other night, which is why you need to go now."
  "He's right." Pipes said stolidly. "All of us are betting our lives on your intel. That means the job pays risk premium, which means five thousand is way too low. Fifteen each."
  "Preposterous. Seven each." Mr. Johnson snorted.
  "Thirteen." Fatima said, giving a low handwave to Pipes and the rest of us to let her do the talking.
  "Eight." Mr. Johnson replied, and the age-old haggling dance continued until back and forth until the Johnson finally agreed to ten-all... with half up front, but the latter half payable only if we brought him useable paydata.
  "I'll leave you a one-use commcode to contact me with when the job is done, and we'll set up a time and a place then for the hand-off." Mr. Johnson said. "Does anyone have any questions?"
  "You got any other intel on the target site?" Livewire asked. "Floor plans, security?"
  "Just what you see in my investigator's datachip." Mr. Johnson answered levelly. "And it's almost eleven, and your time window is quite narrow, so I'm going to leave you people to your work. Good luck."
  We watched him get in and drive away, and Pipes led us over to where his van was parked inside a nearby loading dock. We all got in the back and he began the drive to Auburn.
  Green Dreams slotted the datachip into his deck and jacked in to go through it, and after curtly ordering him to download a copy to his local storage so the rest of us could read it Fatima snaked it back out of the chip socket and jacked it into her own pocket secretary. We all gathered around. Copies of police reports and eyewitness statements, the notes of a typical low-end P.I. who'd spent a couple days doing the routine checks and not much else, crime scene photographs, a disturbingly detailed autopsy report on the victim... I couldn't imagine how this could be turned into actual useful leads even with all the files of the local Humanis office at our disposal, but then again I wasn't an expert in decking or data analysis. I'd just have to hope that Green Dreams, for all his cocky punk bullshit, could still do his job as well as I intended to do mine.
  "Either of you loaded for non-lethal?" Fatima asked me and Livewire.
  "Wasn't told to be, so didn't bring any." I answered her. "If we need soft take-downs I've still got these, though." I held out my hands.
  "Non-lethal? Against Humanis?" Livewire asked angrily.
  "Risking a multiple homicide investigation costs more than ten thousand." Fatima answered soberly. "Our goal is paydata, not burning the place to the ground."
  "Tempting as that latter always is." Pipes chimed in from upfront.
  "... if you say so." Livewire grudged. "However, like our young friend here I'd have to stick to bare hands to guarantee their surviving it."
  "I already know you can sneak, Livewire." Fatima acknowledged him. "How about you?" she turned to me.
  "I can lightfoot." I reassured her. "So do we go in first and try to catch patrolling guards offsides, or do you stunbolt first and we back you up?"
  "Good question, and the answer is 'It depends on what the layout looks like when we get there'." Fatima nodded. "Fortunately this place is not the sort of corporate site that can afford astral warding, so I should be able to recon the building and mark any guard posts before they have a chance to see us. Green Dreams, how are you on hotwiring alarm systems?"
  "The best you've ever seen!" he bragged.
  "... okay." Fatima acknowledged that with about as much confidence as the rest of us felt. I sighed inwardly at how clunky this pickup squad of runners was-
  Wait. None of us had gotten this job through a regular fixer? It had all been friends of friends?
  I reached into my pocket and pulled out my own pocket secretary. Wireless Matrix was still several months away from its Seattle rollout, but the regular cell phone function and text still worked.
  "Who you calling?" Green Dreams asked me nastily. "Your secret Humanis buddies?"
  "I'm texting my girlfriend." I answered truthfully, while budging over and holding up the screen so Livewire - who was sitting next to me - could see what I typed.
  You up? I texted Netcat.
  Are you okay? she answered back.
  All calm so far. Could use some legwork, please?
  "It's his girlfriend." Livewire reassured Green Dreams, after giving me a brief wink.
  Can do! What do you need?
  Carla Rojas, ork drive-by victim last week in Auburn. Pull everything you can get from public nets.
  On it. Will text when I get anything. Stay safe!
  "She know what you do?" Fatima asked me affectionately as I set my phone on 'vibrate' and put it back in my pocket.
  "She does." I acknowledged. "She just worries."
  "In my experience, those two things kinda go together." she agreed with me.
  "We're almost there." Pipes said. "We got a plan yet?"
  "Stop a couple blocks away, I'll buzz the site astrally. Then we'll pick a parking spot and an approach route." Fatima told him, and after he found a place to pull over she leaned back against the side of the van, closed her eyes, and dropped into a trance.
  "Two people in the building, one in the lobby and one rover." she opened her eyes and said after a few minutes. "Probably the night guards. Nobody else. No spirits, no magic."
  "The hoodboys hate the Awakened almost as much as they hate anyone with the wrong-shaped ears." Livewire agreed. "So, it's wide open?"
  "We'll still need to get an external door open without triggering an alarm." Fatima said.
  "I can hack it!" Green Dreams said. "I told you-"
  "And if there's external cameras the lobby guard is watching?" Livewire cut in. "You think he might be curious why there's a big-ass troll huddled up to the back door trying to use a maglock cracker?"
  "As if those retards could-" Green Dreams began hotly, only to be interrupted.
  "As our decker friend has pointed out on several occasions, I do not racially fit in with our group at all." I broke in smoothly. "Maybe we can use that."
  "HELP! HELP! THIS TROG IS GOING TO KILL ME!" I screamed while frantically pounding on the front entrance of the Humanis hall. We'd timed my Trojan Horse gambit for when the roving guard would be on the top floor of the three-story building and out of earshot, so only the one guard should respond.
  "Get the fug back here ya fuggin' small-toothed piesh of shit!" Fatima yelled faux-drunkenly as she lurched up the sidewalk towards where I was 'trapped' against the front doors. "I'm gonna pull off your fuckin' dick and make you eat it, if there's enough there to swallow at all!" Since Livewire was on overwatch with my rifle and Pipes was busy keeping the motor running - and nobody trusted Green Dreams' ability to act his way out of a paper bag - she'd been chosen to be the 'mugger'. That she wasn't visibly armed was also a plus, because the guard was much more likely to open the door and try to deal with things himself if he only saw what looked like easy odds as opposed to, oh, enough heavily armed metahumans to make him immediately call Lone Star. She'd also put a Physical Mask spell on me so that I'd look like a sufficiently 'helpless civilian'. Since I was the one person the door guard - and the front door cameras - would have to get a clear view of, we didn't want Humanis having an accurate photo or description to give to Lone Star later. Surgical masks or bandannas and mirrorshades normally sufficed on runs like these, but the Trojan Horse gambit required looking innocent.
  "HEEEELLLLLLPPP!" I shouted more loudly, frantically slapping the door. I grinned quietly to myself as I heard the footsteps approaching the inside of the door-
  "Back the FUCK up, you subhuman piece of shit!" the beefy Humanis goon shouted as he opened the door, his shotgun already out and aimed at the 'ork mugger'. "Or I'll clean the gene pool right here and no-"
  His breath cut off with a WHOOF as I simply reached up and grabbed the top of the shotgun's receiver, then pushed it back into him as hard as I could. This had the double benefit of simultaneously moving his finger away from the trigger as the gun lurched backward and rendering him unable to yell any kind of warning as his wind was suddenly cut off by the hard thump to his ribs. And given that he was entirely unaugmented, he was essentially moving in slow motion as I then firmly pulled the weapon free of his slackening hands, then gave him a fast shot to the solar plexus to put him on the ground.
  Fatima stunbolted him without even breaking stride and the rest of the team hurried up and dashed inside with us as we discreetly pulled the unconscious security guard back into the building, put him in his own handcuffs, and gagged and duct-taped him to a chair.
  "Why did you even bring duct tape?" I asked Fatima as she finished restraining him.
  "You always bring duct tape." she answered me wisely. "And it's always useful."
  "Status on the other guard?" Livewire asked Green Dreams, who was busy at the security workstation at the front desk.
  "Still clueless." Green Dreams answered, looking at the displays. He then reached out and tapped a series of controls on the touch-screen. "Okay, the cameras are still on so we can see what they're doing if need be, but they're no longer recording anything. I'll zero the rest of the security logs when I crack the host."
  "I'll go take care of the guard." Livewire offered eagerly.
  "Wild Man takes the rover." Fatima answered him as she dropped her Mask spell on me now that the cameras were taken care of. "You cover me and Green Dreams as we go for the computer room."
  "I'm on it." I answered her, and after taking my guns back from Livewire - we hadn't wanted to chance setting off any weapons detectors near the front door - and borrowing Fatima's roll of duct tape I went off to do just that.
  My phone buzzed just as I finished ninja'ing up on and taking out the roving guard, then leaving him safely handcuffed and duct-taped at the top of the third floor atrium where he couldn't possibly be missed in the morning. I took it out and noted the 'You've Got Mail!' icon, then tapped it.
  Here's everything I found. Netcat's email said, with a text file attachment that contained a quick summary of her legwork results. I speedread and memorized it all, cross-referencing each bit with the Johnson's briefing package. OK, everything matched as far as it went...
  ... except for the text of her brief, sad obituary on the local M.O.M. chapter's Matrix blog, the only news outlet that had bothered to write one for her. Carla Rojas is survived by her parents, Juan and Mary Rojas, her older brothers Mario and Carlos Rojas, and her aunt Estella Rojas.
  No mention of any uncle. And the Mothers of Metahumans chapter campaigned against reverse racism almost as firmly as they did against anti-meta racism - unlike the Sons of Sauron or other more militant pro-metahuman policlubs - so unlike most 'respectable' news outlets they would never have deliberately buried a mention of an ork family's having a human relative.
  Author's Note: While I normally loathe the Johnson Screw as a far too overused trope, it actually is appropriate sometimes. Like right now.
  Veteran Shadowrun players almost certainly already noted all the warning signs going in, and they were indeed put there deliberately. (For one thing, the investigator's being so heavy on the autopsy report and the crime scene gore and so light on useful details was deliberately aimed at inflaming the runners' sentiments enough that they'd miss the warning signs.)
  Fatima is a canon NPC, the rest are OCs. Amazingly, Svetlana "Bounce" Jurjewa is also a canon NPC. Man, the worldbuilding lorebooks had some fun stuff in them at times.
  As for the fade to black over the sex scene - I know I said that I was going to try and actually branch out into writing some lemons this time. The problem is that Netcat evolved into First Girl almost entirely unexpectedly (it had originally been planned to be Kat o' Nine Tales, who as veteran Shadowrun players know is a hedonistic free spirit who quite literally lives a rock star lifestyle, being a rock star as well as a runner), and when the moment came I just didn't want to try and write any graphic involving her. It felt like trying to write Disney Princess porn. And while I'm well aware that many people on this forum have absolutely no problem doing that, well, I'm apparently just not that guy. :)
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  I frantically flipped through the rest of the data Netcat had emailed me, looking to see if anything contradicted the conclusion I'd just leapt to. Unfortunately, nothing did. In fact, the FundItNow! link on the Mothers of Metahumans site for the Rojas family said that they were facing notable financial hardship what with the expenses of Carla's burial and the medical expenses of her brother who had been injured in the same attack... a problem they obviously wouldn't have been having if they'd had a well-off corporate uncle, even if he were 'unofficial' or only a friend of the family.
  Which meant "Mr. Johnson" had lied to us. Which was fairly common in the shadowrunning business but normally the lies were polite lies - 'I work for X corp' when he really works for Y, or 'The purpose of the run is to send a message' when it was actually 'The purpose of the run is to create unfavorable press that will drive down the stock price so we can execute a takeover'. Lies that didn't materially affect the survival prospects of the runners in question were just part of the biz.
  But given how, in hindsight, the entire presentation of this run had been a sob story designed to emotionally inflame any metahuman runner against Humanis to the point they'd rush in where angels feared to tread, however experienced or sensible they might normally have been? The odds were overwhelmingly large that this was the other kind of lie - the kind intended to set a shadowrunning team up for a double-cross.
  My brain kicked into that weird overdrive again as I worked through the entire extended chain of reasoning in the blink of an eye. "Mr. Johnson" had set us up on a run that for safety's sake I had to assume was intended to fail. Since us failing would be only of direct benefit to the Humanis Policlub, the most probable theory was that he was with them or a sympathizer. There were any number of possible secondary plots that could be going on, but I had to make a decision in the next several seconds and I had to make it on insufficient data so that meant it was time to follow the "maximum drek" rule - if you're not sure what's going on but you need to decide anyway, then assume the state of affairs that would get you in the maximum drek if you guessed wrong and plan accordingly.
  So I had to assume that the instant Mr. Johnson knew we were actually on-site, he'd tip off either a Humanis kill team or Lone Star and they'd come in to catch us filthy metahuman criminals red-handed. But since he knew our team had a magician he'd had to plan for us having astral recon available, meaning he couldn't have anyone lurking in the building or even immediately next door without risking Fatima seeing them. The auras of living beings showed up on the astral like glowing beacons to anyone with the eyes to see, unless magically masked or warded. And since he also knew we had a decker, however overconfident, he couldn't 100% rely on the building security systems either, unless-
  As quickly as I could, I stepped over to the nearest wall and punched the fire alarm. Klaxons started blaring as the little wall panel started blinking bright red. Manual Fire Alarm Acknowledged - 3rd Floor. PANICBUTTON alert system engaged. Franklin Fire Services acknowledges PANICBUTTON.
  I stopped gawking at the shiny future toys like a tourist and tore the unconscious guard free of the chair I'd duct-taped him to and hoisted him over a shoulder. If this run really was a tail-chaser setup then the absolute last thing we could afford was for this shithead to get killed-
  I easily cleared the rail of the atrium balcony and went three stories straight down to the front lobby, supernaturally bracing myself for the impact and taking it with nothing more strenuous than a deep knee bend. A quick glance all around to check-six - wait, what's that beeping from the front desk's workstation, and that flashing message I can see from here?
  I hurriedly crossed over to look at the display. The big alert popup there from the PANICBUTTON system made me realize that damn, Matrix-aided agent program support really did change the whole picture in the future.
  Franklin Fire Services remote sensor telemetry does not detect a fire at your location. Building security, please confirm or deny manual alarm.
  I frantically looked for a confirmation/false alarm dialogue, but that window was greyed-out and masked by a fresh pop-up:
  ALERT: Matrix Host on-site registering hostile security penetration. Anomalous fire alarm. On-site security unresponsive. PANICBUTTON is upgrading trouble call to Active Threat and Possible Medical Emergency. Lone Star responding. Franklin Fire Services (1 pumper, 1 command car) responding. DocWagon (1 Standard Response Team) responding.
  I sardonically noted in passing that while the responding DocWagon ambulance and fire trucks had little GPS pop-up windows available giving current location and estimated time of arrival just like some demented Amazon Delivery Tracking system, the Lone Star subsystem did not. Makes sense the po-po wouldn't want anyone at the location they're rolling towards to know exactly what their response time would be.
  At any rate, we had slightly less than six minutes before the fire trucks got here, so that was the maximum time window we had to get the fuck out of here. I heard approaching footsteps-
  Fatima and Livewire, both of them rolling along an unconscious Green Dreams who was just barely fitting onto a wheeled office chair, entered the lobby.
  "What happened?" Fatima called out to me angrily.
  "Fire alarm plus the Matrix host registering a security penetration equals PANICBUTTON is calling everybody." I answered her truthfully but incompletely. "ETA on the fire trucks is about five minutes, DocWagon shortly behind that, and who knows for the Star."
  "Pipes, we're blown! LZ is cold but we need immediate extract at the front door, we've got wounded!" Livewire muttered urgently into his own phone, our team being a pickup group and not having dedicated radios.
  "What happened to him?" I nodded at the unconscious Green Dreams.
  "Brainfried as soon as he jacked in." Fatima answered curtly. "It wasn't lethal, but he ain't waking up any time soon."
  A screech of wheels and approaching headlights signaled the arrival of our getaway vehicle. The combined muscle of all three of us was just barely enough to carry Green Dreams out - hey, trolls are heavy - and load him in the back. We left the unconscious security guards safely out on the front lawn for the fire department to deal with and peeled out just as the sirens became audible in the distance.
  "So what happened?" Fatima asked me challengingly as Pipes burned rubber back for the safety of the Barrens.
  "I asked my girl to do some more legwork for us on the way in." I answered Fatima, as Livewire nodded to her to confirm. "She got back to me just as I dropped the second guard. Carla Rojas didn't have an uncle, and the family had no rich benefactor of any kind." I hauled out my phone and held up the display of the Rojas' family FundItNow! blurb on M.O.M.'s website asking for emergency donations. 'So I punched the alarm as the fastest way to warn everyone."
  "Shit." Fatima swore. "Fucking tailchaser setup." She sighed and continued more calmly. "Okay, you made the right call. Even if-" she broke off and angrily nudged the unconscious troll on the floor of the van with her foot.
  "Wait, why'd he still jack in after I hit the alarm?" I asked them, remembering the second security alert on the status display.
  "Pure overconfidence." Livewire cursed. "Fatima called abort as soon as the sirens went off, but cocky kid swore he could disable the alarm and head off the PANICBUTTON and dove in before we could stop him."
  The 'knockout' variant of black IC, then. Harmful neural feedback aimed at injuring the decker's brain and not merely the cyberdeck, but still kept at non-lethal levels. Then again, the probable intent of this setup had been to produce a nice fat juicy crime scene for Lone Star, and lethal black IC was illegal to use on UCAS soil, which is why you didn't see it except on high-end megacorporate hosts where they could benefit from megacorporate extraterritoriality or illegal underworld hosts that were already screwed if Lone Star's GridSec ever got that far anyway.
  "So he went right ahead and did the exact thing I was trying to prevent him from doing." I facepalmed. "Because the simplest way for Mr. Johnson to know exactly when to call the Star would be to booby-trap the host with a touch-me-and-I'll-scream program that they couldn't normally use on a working system. Beats staking out the building all night, because we'd be too likely to see their lookout."
  "That's hindsight - even if you're entirely right - and what we need now is figuring out where do we go from here." Fatima declared. "Speaking of, you know where Butch's current place is?"
  "I know it." Pipes answered. "We dropping Greenie off there?"
  "I damn sure ain't taking him home to feed chicken soup." Fatima answered sarcastically. "Butch can take her fee out of the five large he's got in his pocket right now. But yeah, where we go after getting dipshit here some medical attention, now that's the question."
  "We thank the Great Form Gun Spirit that we got out with our asses intact and go home to lay low and drink up the five thousand we got in advance. Case closed." Pipes said curtly from the driver's station.
  "Problem with that is if Mr. Johnson was breaking street etiquette that badly then he almost certainly recorded the meet as well." Fatima said wearily. "Which means he has all our mug shots. Humanis wanted a big dramatic 'Filthy trog runners caught red-handed!' photo-op for some reason, and they're not going to give up when they can pivot to a 'Have you seen these trogs and pixies? Call our tip line if you have anything that can help our dramatic manhunt! News at 11!' she vented.
  "Hey, don't forget the race traitor," I said lightly. "But yeah. Mr. Johnson needs to wait at least a few hours before handing over our street names and photos to the cops as either 'anonymous tip' or 'private investigator work', because even Lone Star will get a little curious if he drops that stuff on the investigating detective fifteen minutes after the case opens. That plus the fact that he probably went home to get some sleep. So we've got until he gets up tomorrow and checks the morning news to find him and whatever evidence cache he was making to burn our run with."
  "Finger right on the pulse there." Livewire agreed. "But it's literally oh-dark-thirty right now. How do we find a professionally anonymous corporate bastard who could be almost anywhere in Seattle in maybe six hours, starting from zero?"
  "Assuming that Humanis went for the KISS principle in setting up this run - and we already know they used a genuine drive by of theirs as the bait - then they likely just hired a genuine private investigation firm as well instead of spending that much time forging a bunch of reports. And legitimate licensed PI firms working for legitimate corporate clients bill their SIN." I replied.
  "So we need the billing records of the PI firm." Fatima nodded to me respectfully. "Works... except that after eating that big a dose of gray IC our decker's is not gonna be back in action before morning. And my girl Pistons is out of town this weekend... Livewire, Pipes, either of you know any Matrix jockeys who wouldn't mind a fast little temp job?"
  "None I can get in touch with at this hour." Pipes said calmly.
  "Not me, either." Livewire shrugged. "But he does."
  "What's happened?" Netcat said to me worriedly. I didn't blame her, because turning up on her doorstep well after 1am when she knew I was on a run tonight and hadn't expected to see me until next Friday anyway clearly meant something wrong. Especially given that I was still done up in my armor jacket and full runner gear. The only concession to being on University grounds that I'd made was leaving my rifle in the van. We'd already dropped off Green Dreams at the street doc's and Pipes and Livewire were still waiting in the van, while Fatima had accompanied me up to 'Cat's apartment.
  As she sat us down around her kitchen table and fed us some instant tea, I quickly brought her up to speed.
  "So that's the situation. If we can get the billing records from this place before morning, we can find Mr. Johnson and have a good chance of vanishing what he's got on us and keeping this thing in check. If we don't, then me and all the rest get to headline Seattle's Most Wanted until even the Humanis PR machine can't keep people all fired up about a cold case." I wrapped up.
  "Or they catch us, which is why everybody on the run would have to leave town until the case did go cold. Call it a couple months." Fatima agreed professionally. "And I've got people down in San Francisco I can lay over with, and I'll hook your guy up with them if need be, so-"
  "You're saying it's not life and death if I don't help you." Netcat agreed. "But it would still be a lot better for everyone if I did."
  "I-" I began, and then broke off. "... do you want my advice?" I finally asked her plaintively.
  "Say good-bye and I'll see you in the summer?" she said affectionately. "Al- Wild Man, you are so caught up between wanting to keep me safe and wanting to let me make my own choices that it's killing you, isn't it?"
  "I should have told Livewire to just stuff it." I said morosely. "As is, I'm guilting you into a box."
  She reached out across the table and took my hand. "No, you're treating me like a grown woman and not a sick little doll you keep on a shelf. And I- really appreciate that, honest. But it's not as if you're asking me to lose my criminal virginity or anything- I already told you that I hacked stuff before we'd met, right? And I didn't mean just bootlegging myself more access time on the university mainframe host. Even if I was hardly up to a Shadowland Platinum account, I was still on there."
  "You're that Netcat?" Fatima raised an eyebrow. "Small Matrix! A friend of mine still uses that video codec cracker tool you made, she loves it."
  "Oooo, undying fame at last!" Netcat giggled. "I got lucky with that one - MegaMedia farmed out their latest video DRM encryption program to the U-Dub CompSci labs for us to do the gruntwork on, so they could get free labor and we could get 'valuable work experience'. Not hard to write a DRM stripper when you helped build the copy protection source code in the first place."
  "Okay, I'll admit that the sentence for writing commercial video piracy tools is actually higher than the one you'd get if you were caught red-handed doing this." I conceded. "But hole-in-the-wall that it is, the target is still a private investigation firm that advertises client confidentiality. So we're talking an Orange-rated security host at a minimum. There's no way you're hacking that with a keyboard, you'd have to deck it. And... I know you worry a lot about dumpshock." I finished diplomatically.
  "I can do it!" Netcat agreed resolutely. "Well... if you can get me a deck." she admitted sheepishly.
  "We borrowed Green Dreams' deck. I'll have to get it back to him when you're done, but he won't even be waking up until at least noon." Fatima reached down into the tote bag she'd brought up and hauled it out and up on the table. "Can you do anything with this?"
  "Novatech Hyperdeck-6, uses the same base architecture as the Novatech LD-35 security cyberterminal only with stealthed MPCP, expansion-board Masking chip, and boosted RAM. And we used the LD-35's for cybercombat drill in lab all the time..." she murmured analytically, picking up the cyberdeck and briskly turning it over in her hands. She punched the manual boot button and pursed her lips at the numberpad display that came up on the status screen. "Wants a PIN code-" Her long nimble fingers reached out and pressed on the back of the case, sliding open an access panel. A couple seconds' worth of manipulating whatever dipswitches or jumpers were inside and the numberpad blinked and cleared, showing the normal boot screen. "-aaaaand, manufacturer's repair reset done!" she finished triumphantly.
  "Cat, San Francisco isn't that bad." I said to her. "You've got nothing to prove to me- okay, you genuinely feel like you have a lot to prove to me, but you have nothing you need to prove to me. I like you just the way you are." I said as affectionately as I could. "Don't get caught up in enthusiasm or thinking that you need to 'keep up' or anything. I didn't get a choice about my lifestyle. You do get a choice, so don't make it lightly."
  "Exactly," she said bravely. "I get a choice. And I already chose it - to help you however I could. Because I- I like you just the way you are too." she finished softly.
  Fatima looked at us both and manfully restrained a grin. "So, are you coming?"
  "She is." I sighed resignedly, her answer already obvious even before she chimed in to confirm. After all, 'Cat had never been able to beat me with her poker face yet and she certainly wasn't starting now.
  To be fair, even with all my worrying about it we still hadn't actually been asking Netcat to really shadowrun. While the hack itself was not something for script kiddies to tackle, a midlevel Orange-rated host backed by gray IC still wasn't 'Somebody call FastJack!' territory. And as a legitimately trained and talented Matrix technology major, 'Cat's hacking skills backed by a decent shadowrunning cyberdeck were up to the job. Even if I knew she was gritting her teeth on the inside and fighting down her little phobia about dumpshock and harmful neural feedback, and even if I cursed myself for dragging her into this at all, the fact remained that all we'd had to do was find a maintenance jackpoint on the University grounds that wouldn't be immediately traceable to any individual student and plug her into it. It's hardly as if we were breaking into the Aztechnology pyramid here or anything. Even in the worst-case scenario where she got knocked out harder than Green Dreams all we'd have to do is unplug her, pick her back up, and get her back to her apartment before campus security came around. Null perspiration.
  So she plugged in, went under, and came out only a few minutes later with all the info we needed. Mr. Johnson - or to use his proper name, Derrick Bole, listed as a 'Logistical Resource Manager' at Brackhaven Investments - had indeed hired Barron's Confidential Investigations, Ltd. for a job whose records exactly matched the ones we'd been given as part of our briefing packet. Since BCI had a charming habit of taking photographs of clients and appending them to client records just in case of people hiring them under aliases, we even knew it was our Johnson and not someone else working with him. And, of course, once we had his SIN we had everything that was publicly accessible about him - address, commcode, LiveSpace profile, the lot.
  Including the most recent post on his LiveSpace page that told us that I'd guessed wrong and he hadn't gone home to get some sleep after meeting us. No, apparently someone had wanted to celebrate a job well done even before he'd actually completed it and had gone out to celebrate.
  "Club Penumbra." Fatima sighed. "I remember when that place was the most banging shadow-club in Downtown. But ever since the Arcology Shutdown, well, there went the neighborhood. Now it's full of nothing but corp-stink and hardboys with badges."
  "Just the sort of place this guy would go to get loose and laid while still being relatively safe." Pipes agreed. "But yeah, we ain't taking him out of there."
  "Average Lone Star response time in that part of town is three minutes, and that's on top of club security and all the Metroplex Guard assholes who drink there." Livewire chimed in.
  "Well the Trojan Horse worked for us once, so why not twice?" Fatima said.
  So after putting on my new face as a Brackhaven Investments mid-ranking corpsec goon that Fatima knew and loathed, I placed a call to the front desk of Club Penumbra on a burner phone that Netcat helped spoof as supposedly coming from Brackhaven's corporate HQ and politely asked that Mr. Boles be paged to meet me at the front desk because he had an urgent recall from his employer and I was there to escort him back to work. A stern demeanor and a touch of the Bavarian Fire Drill got me past the doorman without having to actually show a corporate ID, because after all I wasn't trying to get into the club now was I? I was just here to pick up a corporate client as a chauffeur service.
  "It's a quarter to three." Boles cursed as he finally arrived in the lobby to meet me, red-faced and visibly with a buzz on.
  "Mr. Brackhaven wants to speak to you immediately, sir." I said as tonelessly as I could, and watched him go paler than a bedsheet.
  "Mr. Brackhaven?" he almost stuttered. "Now? Why?"
  "Something went wrong in Auburn. Very wrong." I continued. "And this affair needs a face-to-face in a secure location to discuss any further."
  "I-I see." he said, frantically trying to think of what could have possibly spun so far off the rails that the CEO himself had been woken up in the middle of the night over it. "I'll-"
  "With your permission, we'll pick him up at the rear entrance." I asked the doorman. "Discretion. You understand."
  "We'll escort you there, sir." the head doorman agreed professionally, and we were discreetly, briskly, and efficiently led down a hallway and to one of the rear doors facing the alley, which the club staff were more than accustomed to see being used for 'discreet celebrity extractions' as it were. Boles started to realize something was wrong when he saw the anonymous armored van waiting for him instead of the executive luxury car he'd expected, but Fatima was standing by with a quick Control Actions spell to hit him with as soon as he was visible around the corner of the van. With his willpower already dampened by being drunk and being caught off-guard to begin with, her spell held long enough to make him silently dismiss our escort and then climb into the back of the van without any visible protest. The Penumbra security staff saw no one except me, him, and some dimly lit silhouettes, so with suspicions unaroused - after all, their patron had recognized me and not made any protest at all, hadn't he? - they calmly let us drive away without a care in the world.
  Inside the van, of course, Mr. Boles was anything but calm. But he was also enough of a realist to know that whether or not we were going to kill him at the end of the night would not be a decision materially affected by anything he said right now, so he might as well just talk it all out and at least guarantee that he wouldn't be the only person having a miserable evening resulting from this. Spite truly was one of the primary fuels that that corporate politics ran on.
  As it turned out the primary target of the setup had been Fatima - as a veteran runner who was one of Mothers of Metahumans' most reliable on-call street operators, as well as a networker among the shadow community for them, Humanis had come up with this scenario to take her out of play. While they could simply have ambushed her at the meet with enough guns, the goal hadn't been to kill her but instead to get her arrested and inside a Lone Star interrogation room. So they'd set up a job with the perfect emotional bait to get her and whatever other metahuman runners could be sucked into the trap all fired up and too angry to spot the warning signs in time, with the endgame of a Lone Star tactical team dropping on us and catching us red-handed in the middle of breaking and entering. They'd also expected us to be bloodthirsty enough to kill the pair of mooks they'd left dangling out as live bait, because of course all us trogs and pixies (and race traitors!) were bloodthirsty barbarians, weren't we?
  And once Fatima was caught red-handed and part of an ongoing major crimes investigation, Brackhaven's money and influence as well as Humanis sympathizers in Lone Star could be relied upon to expand the case into investigating any 'suspected accomplices' or 'underworld connections' she worked with... such as her friends in the local M.O.M. office. Ideally, they could have spun things up into a RICO investigation that would have allowed them to wreck the Seattle M.O.M. chapter and taint most of everything they'd ever touched - after all. M.O.M. did often subcontract shadowrunners to commit less-than-legal things on their behalf. As did the Humanis Policlub, Brackhaven Investments, and literally every other corp, policlub, or other faction both large and small in Seattle. Everybody did it... but it was still a sin if you got caught.
  However, we had entirely dodged the trap. The Lone Star tac team that had been set up to be first responders to our intrusion had been carefully selected for being staffed by 'the right sort' of people, which meant they hadn't been on the regular alert grid as they couldn't risk being diverted for a genuine trouble call at the wrong moment. Instead they were officially logged out on a 'detached assignment' and would have reported having been 'coincidentally in the neighborhood and seeing something wrong' when the time came to drop on us.
  Which meant that my hitting the fire alarm - which had pushed any and all further trouble calls from the building's systems out onto the normal PANICBUTTON alert grid instead of the preprogrammed script that the trap in the security host had been intended to send them to - meant that the one Lone Star team in Seattle that had been specifically intended to come charging in from their pre-positioned staging area two blocks away was the one team that hadn't even known anything was wrong until the sirens of the fire trucks blazing right past their cooping spot woke them up. And the regular Lone Star units that had been paged for the call hadn't even made it to the Auburn Humanis hall until after we'd been several miles away. So with us not even spotted anywhere near the scene and Mr. Boles taken out of play and all his evidence cache burned and tainted there was less than zero chance that Fatima or any of the rest of us would be connected to it ever. Humanis and Brackhaven had taken their best shot and had been left punching air.
  As for "Mr. Johnson"? Well, we had seriously considered just taking him out to Puyallup and introducing him to the devil rats, but we hadn't ducked a homicide investigation once tonight to just hand Humanis another one to try and hang on us for free. Still, it was such a pity about that scandal with all that elven kiddie porn that was found on Mr. Boles' pocket secretary after he was picked up by Yamatetsu corpsec in one of their corporate parking garages shortly before dawn while flying high out of his mind on novacoke and having savagely vandalized that assistant VP's limousine. Really, what is this world coming to? And that's why he'd be spending the next several years as the guest of a corporate prison system administered by a AAA megacorporation whose CEO was an ork, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer racist.
  So as the cold light of dawn began to dimly color the eastern sky, our impromptu shadowrunning band all sat down in a McHugh's for some quick breakfast and soykaf before breaking up and heading home to get some sleep.
  "Dipshit had still ten thousand in certified cred on him - must have been skimming the allowance he'd been given for our up-front money - so split five ways that's two grand each. Here." Fatima said, putting the sticks out on the table.
  "Five ways? No way Greenie gets a share- oh, duh. Netcat's?" Livewire finished embarrassedly.
  "She contributed, she gets paid." Fatima agreed, pushing two of the credsticks over to me. "Fair's fair."
  "Thanks." I said, putting them in my pocket. "Although-"
  "Seven thousand ain't ten, but it's better than five." Pipes agreed. "All right, I'm out. Buses started running again at 5, you guys can get home on your own." He stood and left.
  "You didn't like getting her involved." Livewire said to me after our standoffish rigger had departed. "But you'd already hit her up for legwork on this job, and that was already involved. Honestly, I thought she was your regular decker." he semi-apologized.
  "She wants to help." I sighed. "Which means if she gets herself messed up doing this, I'm responsible."
  Fatima softly bonked me on the side of the head. "Feminine viewpoint says we hate being patronized like that, kid. You even already figured out why. I heard you do it. So don't backslide."
  "I've... never really had anybody I cared about like that before." I admitted embarassedly, feeling by far the least badass that I had in weeks. "I'm still getting used to it."
  "I had someone like that once." Livewire said unexpectedly, wistfully. "And yeah, she lived in the straight world and I didn't. So... we had to split up." He looked back up from his soykaf cup to stare me in the eyes. "But that was back when I was running with the Ancients, and that gig was a lot grittier than what I do now. So it doesn't have to end the same way for you."
  "You lived there too, didn't you?" Fatima said insightfully. "And you didn't like the transition. That's why you angst so hard about risking putting her through the same one."
  "Voice of experience?" I said, looking at the ork woman who now that I saw her in daylight looked to be pushing at least her late thirties if not early forties - experienced for anyone, and quite old for an ork with their shorter lifespans.
  "Yup." she agreed, not elaborating any further. "But if you're taking advice from new friends, here's mine; you're an idiot if you ditch her, and an even bigger one if you push her to ditch you. Hell, as 'civilian' as she is I'd still rather take her along than that punk Greenie on any run anywhere."
  "Thanks." I said. "And 'new friends'?"
  "Dude, you saved all our asses." Livewire said amusedly. "And any time we needed a good idea tonight, you found one. So yeah, you ever need a recommendation to a fixer then drop my name or Fatima's. We'll vouch."
  "Damn right we will." Fatima agreed. "In fact... you looking for more work?"
  "Am I ever." I nodded.
  "Well, grapevine says that Shadowland Seattle should be coming back online in a couple weeks. Facet's going to be the new sysop. I'm a Platinum regular, so when I get back on I'll make sure Netcat's account is one of the reactivated ones and recommend her for an upgrade and get you hooked up as well." Fatima agreed. "Least I can do to pay back for what you did tonight."
  "Thanks." I said. "So... until we meet again?"
  "Au revoir." Livewire agreed, and we all clinked our little styrofoam cups together and drank to the new day.
  Author's Note: And so the first run ends, and someone takes her first fateful step into a larger world!
  Yeah, it wasn't exactly the hugest run ever - I was intending for more blood and thunder when I started the 'First Run' arc - but as I said, I am doing this thing as a sort of Zen spontaneous writing exercise right now so it flows out like it flows out. It still showcases that Alex is actually quite intelligent and insightful at this kind of thing, if not entirely experienced yet. And hopefully it also clarifies a bit how veteran runners like Fatima got sucked in here.
  The PANICBUTTON system is the all-in-one emergency services first responder Matrix grid, comparable to the 911 system today. I had fun trying to worldbuild 'what would the cyberpunk future really look like, with ubiquitous networked computing and semi-intelligent agent programs and all the rest?' Hence real-time updates on your 911 response like Amazon Delivery driver GPS, and automated building security scripts, and all the rest. Yes, the cyberpunk future is full of little digital miracles! ... if you can pay for them.
  And the Wireless Matrix isn't even online in Seattle yet! That happens later this year...
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  Threadmarks: 6 - Springtime For Wild Man (Part 1) (Shadowrun)
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  Although the phrase "This will be a milk run" is by far the most fearsome thing a shadowrunner can ever hear, the next several runs I went on were milk runs.
  With Fatima and Livewire both willing to give me an endorsement to the local runner community, I'd shed that 'n00b runner' tag that any experienced fixer could smell a mile off. A lot of first-time runners were much like Green Dreams (who had also been on his first real shadowrun, just like I had been) - too inexperienced to even know what they didn't know, and covering up with bluster. He'd been a member of a small-time decker gang who'd finally decided that he was ready to self-promote himself to the major leagues. And as it turned out, he hadn't been. Still, he was lucky - at least he got to survive his first botched run. A lot of would-be 'Prime Runners' didn't.
  After all, there was a reason that regardless of who you were or what you'd done prior to showing up on the scene here, if you didn't have any kind of Seattle street rep then no sane fixer in Seattle would treat you as anything but a greenhorn. Which generally meant being sent on nothing more than a small step above the sort of low-end muscle work I'd been doing in Touristville. If you could get yourself through the probationary period without showing conspicuous bad attitude or poor judgment, then you'd start getting offered genuine work. And of course nobody ever told the new prospects this, because filtering out the sort of desperate bluster and courage-born-of-stupidity that most of the gangbangers-turned-wannabe-shadowrunners brought to the table was the entire point of the exercise.
  But as the old saying went one hundred attaboys could get erased by one 'Aw, drek.', so I didn't let my having aced my first run get to my head. I just listened to the fixers, picked the jobs that I could stomach, and concentrated on the work, Mr. Johnson wants me to stand around and guard a meet? I stood around and guarded a meet. Union wants a construction site trashed because they're hiring too many scabs? Pass me the sledgehammer and the gasoline. Gangers in the barrens are hijacking too many McHugh's food trucks? Sure, let's go clip 'em back a little.
  So I spent the next couple of weeks making good nuyen - oh, nothing huge, but still several times what I averaged a week working under Max - while building my reputation as a sober, steady guy who could punch, shoot, and sneak. I didn't run into anything else that required me to risk dragging anything else back to splash on 'Cat, and when Shadowland Seattle finally came back online as ShadowSEA 'Wild Man' was one of the new accounts registered on its first day up, at an account level of 'Bronze' - the highest level someone without at least two solid years in the Seattle runner community could be given. Netcat was also upgraded to Bronze from her prior level of 'Greenhorn', also on Fatima's recommendation.
  ShadowSEA was still in the process of being restored to full functionality, given that the Crash 2.0 had not only killed the local sysop and nuked the Shadowland Seattle host but had also ground most of the entire Shadow Matrix into gravel. Even the Denver Nexus, the central outlaw data haven of the digital world's underground subculture, had been kicked offline for almost a solid month by the Crash and this despite the fact that it had had digital defenses layered in depth around it almost rivaling anything a megacorporation's central host could have boasted. So the heyday of the online shadowrunning world where you could sit in Seattle and do biz practically in real-time with anyone from Bangkok to Berlin, complete with rep scores, forum search histories, a Web-of-Trust style authentication, and everything else... well, they were still working on it. But the local forum community still worked, a lot of the old shadowfiles and backlogs and information sources still worked, and even some of the freeware simsense tutorials that had been put up in a desperate self-defense attempt against idiot newbies running the shadows without even the most basic awareness of elementary concepts were back up. And, of course, the job postings and connections forums had been two of the very first things restored to functionality.
  For all that they dramatized it on the trid as a life of constant action, the reality is that its core shadowrunning was gig work. And like anything else done on the gig economy, you did a lot of little assignments and a lot of waiting in-between the few lucrative earners that you could find. Shadowrunners called anything that paid less than a few hundred nuyen and could be completed in only a couple hours a 'beer money' run, and those kinds of jobs ranged from helping your street doc move boxes - which still required armed security when those boxes contained pharmaceuticals with a street value of 'Worth hijacking' - down to literally killing devil rats in a basement. What was this, the Elder Scrolls?
  Since I didn't seem to need as much exercise to stay in shape or in practice as other martial artists did, and I also seemed to be able to get by on less sleep than average - yet another couple of anomalous data points in the growing list of little weirdnesses I was noting about me - I had a lot of time to surf the Matrix and a lot of time to think about my life. And I was coming to the conclusion that while I had every prospect of becoming a prime runner in the fullness of time, I wasn't sure if I'd welcome the result.
  For one thing, the work was hardly all Robin Hood. Folks like Fatima and Livewire were actually on the higher end of the ethical spectrum in shadowrunning - they did as much charity work for their favorite causes (M.O.M. and taking care of her home neighborhood in Fatima's case, and beating the fuck out of Humanis in Livewire's case) as they did paying work, they didn't hurt civilians or noncombatants if they could help it, and they didn't screw fellow runners or ditch them in the heat. And there were a lot of assholes with noteworthy street cred in Seattle that you couldn't say that about. But even they and the fixers they dealt with still dealt with and did a lot of gray stuff.
  To take just one example, those food truck hijackings? Sure, if we hadn't stopped the rip-off parade versus the McHugh's soypatty run then several fast-food places bordering the Barrens, including my old dining spot in Touristville, would have been in dire straits. However, the fact that we did stop them meant that deeper in the Redmond Barrens, a local street gang - and the neighborhood they controlled - now were getting a lot less to eat, and knowing the Barrens they'd already been on the verge of starvation anyway. Which meant that by successfully guarding the interests of one neighborhood another one would join the chain of urban collapse and fall apart, unable to hold onto and provide for their residents and with the survivors scattering off to hopefully find new places to exploit or be exploited elsewhere - or not. A zero-sum game where in order for yours to stay fed, theirs had to go hungry. And that was with a run as relatively uncomplicated as 'stop a particularly nasty bunch of gangers from killing any more truck drivers'.
  Playing games about the dark cyberpunk future really didn't prepare you for the reality of living in it. For all that I'd complained about things like hypercapitalism and corporate cronyism and corrupt politics back in my old life, that shit was fucking Equestria compared to the new normal around here. The AAA and AA megacorps literally wrote their own laws and enforced their own 'justice' so long as they were on their own property, and abused that privilege as much as possible to cover up any number of sins and exploitations of both their own workforces and their consumers. The national and municipal governments were a sick mixture of being unable to enforce the law against anyone rich or connected enough and unwilling to - even when they were actually trying, between corporate extraterritoriality on the one hand and widespread corruption on the other it was impossible to get any evidence or keep it from being tainted even if it were. There was a reason that virtually any faction that was of any importance at all hired shadowrunners to do crime on their behalf sooner or later - the system was so rigged that far too often only by going outside would allow things to really get done.
  So in essence, the law in this world could only enforce itself against the people without any of the power to subvert it - meaning that it would always fall heaviest on the least offensive and least powerful offenders, while the powerful far too often got away with murder. That was the reality of the era, and everything else was just normalcy bias. A favorable illusion that the vast majority of law-abiding citizens all unconsciously agreed to share. A fervent desire to block out any awareness that the world they were living in was really that bad, because mentally confronting a horrible reality that you had no effective power to change or escape from was something the human mind just didn't do very well.
  Unfortunately for me, I was not a lobster that had been boiled slowly enough it could ignore the temperature of the water. I'd been dropped straight into the UCAS of 2065 from the United States of 2021, so once I'd finally started assimilating the history and culture of my new home in any detail the truth hit me like a bullet in the face. And that truth was that this world was fundamentally broken. Oh, it wasn't some gaping pit of evil or even some insane Fallout-esque parody - even in my short time here I'd met any number of people who were just like people back home or anywhere else, ordinary decent folks who just wanted to get by and raise their families. People who even in the middle of all the stress and crime and general shabbiness that seemed to cover Seattle like a layer of ash anywhere that it wasn't covered up with a nuyen-driven facade of corporate conformity instead still could do things like be kind to strangers, or tell lost kids which way their neighborhood was, or help an old lady with heavy packages.
  But even though it was only a feeling and not something I could actually prove with charts and graphs, I was certain that that spirit of community was going to get rarer and rarer as time went on. Between the Scylla of excessive urban decay and a financially and morally bankrupt government on one side and the Charybdis of rampant amoral hypercapitalism without any cultural, ethical, or legal restraints on the other side, a slowly widening pit was forming in-between them that was gradually eroding away the fundamental basic human decency that kept mankind from being animals. It was almost enough to make you march right out and sign-up with the Neo-Anarchists, whose amateur sociologists and demographers had as near as I could tell accurately charted not only many of the problems with modern corporate-driven society but also at least roughly estimated the rate of decline.
  Now if only they could possibly have come up with any solutions to the dilemma that weren't pants-on-head retarded. Seriously, a neo-anarchist utopia that was held together with basically nothing except gentleman's agreements, and with the obvious objection of 'what if someone just decides to not hold with that?' being 'we'll set things up so that the social pressure for not doing it is intense enough to actually discourage them!' Seriously, Neo-A's? Hey, do you know what class of people are simultaneously utterly oblivious to social pressure except in the most superficial sense of 'We recognize the need to appear to conform just long enough to avoid censure' along with a heightened capacity for being glib, superficial, manipulative, and all the other traits optimized for manipulating social pressure away from them and onto scapegoats? Psychopaths! You know, like a lot of the assholes in boardrooms who are the reason this world is so fucked up already! Your scheme for fixing society is about as useful as drawing up a plan at the Daxamite War College for how to conquer the Planet Made Out Of Lead!
  But I digressed. The thing bumming me out so hard wasn't so much that the world was ruled by shitty people - after all, that was only different in degree if not in kind from things I'd known before - it was that this world was so much closer to the tipping point than my own had been that between that factor and my having no legal existence here, my solution for coping in the old world was completely non-operative. I didn't have a stable life in a nice neighborhood I could immerse myself into and generally not think about the bigger picture because it still wasn't that bad. I didn't have a stable life at all, the only nice neighborhood I even visited was one I could get tossed into jail just for having entered if Lone Star ever noticed my ID was fake, and the big picture was that bad.
  So was this all I had to look forward to from now on? Being a criminal mercenary whose talents were devoted towards nothing more than trying to get rich, stay alive, and not do anything he found too irredeemably damning in the process? Apparently, even being young, super-healthy, super-talented, and with street-level superpowers wasn't enough to ensure happiness here. And most importantly of all, what about Catherine? Two months and change was a little early to start using the l-word, but by this point it would have taken some serious self-delusion on either of our parts to call what we had just a fling. She wasn't a perfect princess any more than I was a knight in shining armor but she was still so goddamn nice... and unless I wanted to completely surrender to the obnoxiously corrupt system I was growing to hate more and more and take that UCAS Army enlistment after all, then my living in crime world and her living in straight world would inevitably-
  I swore and logged off from my cyberterminal. Angst later, work now. I was meeting up in the flesh with Fatima for the first time since the Auburn thing - there was a major shadowrun coming down the pike, one that Fatima had told me would be against a high-end corporate target, and she'd recommended me for a spot on the crew being put together for it.
  Time to focus on the job.
  I arrived at the anonymous rented office in the anonymous little one-story strip mall in Tacoma, and met the rest of the team in an outer lounge. Some sports drinks and a tray of snacks had already been laid out for us, and sipped and nibbled and got acquainted while we waited for the Johnson.
  Fatima I already knew, and accompanying her tonight was a wiry human woman barely over five feet tall even in her combat boots and yet with a demeanor and posture so intense that she gave off the impression of being six feet tall. The ruggedized Transys cyberdeck on her hip looked to be an advanced custom job, and the glittering datajack in her temple only confirmed that she was our decker.
  "Pistons, this is Wild Man. Don't let the name fool you, he's got the steadiest nerves I've run with since you. W-M, this is Pistons, my partner."
  "Pleased to meet you." I said, shaking hands with Pistons. "If you're as experienced a decker as Fatima is a mage, we really missed you on that Auburn job."
  "Almost certainly why the bastards waited until I was out of town before springing their 'urgent short-term opportunity' on you guys." Pistons agreed with me. "And damn it Fatima, I have told you again and again to check out a job before you jump on it, especially if it's a hot button!" she turned to face her partner with the weary frustration of someone having the same argument for the fiftieth time."
  "Not now, Pistons!" Fatima waved her off urgently. "It's almost time for the meet!"
  The chromed troll in heavy combat armor nodded to me from where he occupied the largest armchair. "Don't ever get in between them, they argue like old married couple." he said to me amusedly in a thick Russian accent.
  "We are an old married couple, and you know it." Fatima shot back at him.
  "Sergeant Ivan." he introduced himself to me, benignly ignoring her before turning to Pistons. "I was told five of us, yes? Who is missing?"
  "Me." a voice came from the direction of the foyer, as our last member, a short red-headed guy in his early forties, entered the room. "Caveman. I'm the pilot."
  "You're all here. Good." a smooth contralto voice surprised us all from the direction of the inner office door, which I'd have sworn was shut just a second ago. All of us turned to see a tall, ice-blonde elven woman dressed in impeccable executive wear well above the usual run of the neighborhood that was marred only by a rich leather sword-belt and the slim-handled longsword in the scabbard, matched by a holstered SMG on her other hip. She looked to be in her late twenties or very early thirties, which on an elf meant she could be anywhere between thirty-five and fifty. Elves ran to taller than human average - 'Cat was only several inches shorter than I was, and I was six-feet-two - but this woman could look me in the eye while wearing flats. And while Cat had more junk in the trunk Ms. Johnson's figure still had nothing to be ashamed of and was topped by an angled, supermodel-quality face where 'Cat was more cheerleader-next-door- I finally dragged my distracted thoughts away from ogling her and got back to evaluating her from a professional standpoint. Honestly, I was going to blame my girlfriend for this one. Shadowrun elves were just plain sexy, dammit.
  "Good evening, everyone." she continued after we all re-oriented. "You may call me Frosty, and I am both the client representative for this run and will be accompanying you in the field."
  Crap, a ride-along? Would she even be able to keep up-? I took another, closer look and noted that Frosty's stance had the poise and balance of an experienced martial artist. I could already testify to her stealth. On a closer look her elaborate sword looked to be a magical weapon focus, which by itself would have hinted physical adept, but the equally elaborate power focus - a heavy platinum ring cast in the shape of a coiled dragon - suggested mage. A searching examination revealed that her neat professional clothing bulged slightly in the way that suggested it was hiding custom form-fitted body armor, the expensive kind. And her muscle tone was that of someone who ran at least a 5k every day and also did serious calisthenics- okay, she was clearly some kind of veteran operator. I relaxed a tiny bit and decided that even if the Johnson was inviting themselves along on this run, at least they probably wouldn't kill us with some stupid amateur mistake. And at least they'd be where we could reach them if they double-crossed us.
  "Johnson wishes to ride along?" Sergeant Ivan said what we were all thinking. "Target is that sensitive, da?"
  "Aztechnology. The Seattle pyramid." Frosty replied with a thin smile. "So before we get started, does anyone want to get out?"
  "Is this going to be another one of those 'the time window is limited, we have to go tonight' ones?" I observed softly to Fatima.
  "This one's okay." she reassured me equally as quietly. "Tonight's briefing is for the team, but Pistons and me have already been helping Frosty with the legwork and setup for the past few days. She's reliable."
  Frosty nodded at Fatima's answer to me and continued her briefing. "You are all aware of the Draco Foundation's bounty on blood mages?"
  "You've got to be fucking kidding." Caveman swore. "Go into the Pyramid, then get up to the top, then bag a blood mage, then drag him halfway across Seattle still alive? With every Azzie hardboy in Seattle from the Leopard Guards on down out for our heads? Lady, I don't care that Draco pays a cool million each for every blood mage in the bag, that's barely one-fifty each split among us all! I ain't dying for that!"
  "It would be slightly over one-hundred-sixty-five thousand each if split six ways." Frosty corrected him like a prim schoolteacher. "Which it won't be. I just want the intel that will be produced from the blood mage's interrogation - the Foundation's bounty will be equally shared among the five of you. Two hundred thousand. And in addition to that, I will match the bounty."
  "Four hundred thousand." Ivan responded, impressed despite himself. "Two million total. That is the payment?"
  Frosty nodded. "You'll each get my two hundred thousand wired into the one-time accounts you've already provided as soon as our boots hit dirt at the Pyramid's perimeter. You get the rest if we successfully bag the blood mage for the Foundation."
  Two hundred thousand in advance, and the same on completion. With the up-front money paid into an escrow so that even if we died on the run, whatever people we left behind would still get it. This wasn't just a high pucker factor run, this looked like a goddamn suicide mission. Why the hell had Fatima recommended me for this? Hell, why was she taking herself and her partner down the Leviathan's gullet as well?
  Not that I could turn this down, not unless everybody else did. Bailing on a suicide mission when it was generally agreed to be one was one thing, but being the only runner on a team who asked for an ejection seat? That was telling everyone in the biz that when the going got tough, you got going - right out the door and down the road. Which meant no fixer in Seattle would ever hire you again for anything above make-work runs. I couldn't begin to make any kind of new life on that. Hell, given the attrition in the shadows, there'd be any number of newbies who didn't have the 'coward' tag on their street reps to outcompete me even for the garbage runs.
  And on the flip side, four hundred thousand. That was GTFO money. That was maybe buy a new life money, if you could manage it right. That was- shit, my timing was positively improbable.
  Well, if Fatima and Pistons were already part of this crazy-ass thing even in the setup phase, then that must mean they thought they could survive it. And Pistons at least seemed like the pragmatic, look-look-and-look-again before leaping type...
  I decided to go with the flow and pray that they knew what they were doing. Not like my other choices were that great!
  "If there's already been extensive prep work for this mission, then we presumably have more intel and more of a plan than just 'Kick the door, run and gun, bag and drag.'" I observed mildly.
  Frosty quirked her lip and gave me a respectful nod. "We certainly do."
  Well, at least she hadn't called this a milk run.
  "Why did you recommend me for this again?" I whispered to Fatima as we waited for the go signal. "I'm flattered at how badass you think I am, but you don't think this is a bit above my pay grade?"
  "Anybody who can whip Samson's ass two out of five times on his final exam - especially when Samson swears you were still holding back some - is not a newbie." Fatima whispered back. "Hey, this is the shadows and your past is your own, I get it, but you're clearly not the shadowrunning virgin you pretend you are."
  "Fuck." I facepalmed. "Fatima, you have no clue how wrong you've guessed."
  "Well let's hope you can get by on talent then." Pistons chimed in amusedly. "But you vibe like a vet to me too. And I was in Firewatch for almost two tours before I dropped out to freelance instead, so I should know." I mentally raised an eyebrow as I realized why Pistons seemed so intimidating for such a little thing. Firewatch was the spec-ops commando branch for Knight Errant, the chief Ares Macrotechnology PMC/security subsidiary and widely regarded as the #1 corporate military on the planet. If Pistons had done an extended tour there, even as an electronic warfare specialist and not a shocktrooper, then she was no pushover.
  Still, that also meant that she was a high-end professional at this - and as she'd also done most of the legwork and intel support for this operation, that meant it couldn't be the suicide mission it looked to be at first glance, or else she'd have already bailed. Well, at least that made me feel a little better.
  I'd invested some of the money I'd been making over the past weeks into better gear, but as a physical adept I didn't really use smartlinks or heavy weapons anyway so even upgrading to an advanced M-22 assault rifle (integral thermal imaging scope, underbarrel grenade launcher, and advanced recoil compensator factory standard) and a good used hard-armor vest to back up my Ares ballistic jacket had not set me back very far. I'd also been putting in some weekend lessons with Livewire on long blades, so I had a shortsword much like Frosty's - if plain steel as opposed to her orichalcum-inlaid focus - for quick CQB takedowns. Caveman was along just to fly the helicopter we were about to hijack so all he had was a pistol, but Pistons was packing an assault carbine in addition to her deck. Frosty had her sword and her spells - she was indeed a mage - just as Fatima had her sidearm and magic. And Ivan was a walking arsenal with a semi-auto heavy anti-vehicle rifle for long range, a flechette-loaded combat autoshotgun for close range, and a goddamn clip-fed grenade launcher for just abandoning subtlety completely. For close-in work he didn't really need anything besides being an extremely large and cybered troll but he was packing a sharpened military entrenching tool along anyway, apparently for sentimental value. As tonight's mission was live capture we also all had Narcoject dart pistols supplied by Frosty, which we were encouraged to keep as a bonus.
  Stage one of the run would take place nowhere near the Pyramid. The Aztechnology Pyramid in Seattle was only a miniature version of the big one in Tenochtitlan, but it was still a 73-story corporate skyscraper/arcology. That was almost 3/4ths the size of the Empire State Building. Going in the front door and trying to fight or fast-talk our way to the roof and back was about as survivable as jumping down Lofwyr's throat screaming 'ALL DRAGONS ARE BASTARDS!' - hell, there was an entire battalion of Aztechnology's Leopard Guards in the Seattle Aztechnology complex on top of the hundreds of normal security troops, this being Aztechnology's main staging base for the entire Northwest as well as their Seattle HQ. And landing on the roof helipad was equally as suicidal, given that it was in the field of fire of multiple air-defense-artillery and SAM emplacements in addition to the bound elementals and spirits working astral security.
  So the only way we could hope to get the hell in and out of there was to ride in and out on a vehicle they were already expecting and which had the proper please-don't-kill-me codes for its transponder. Which is why step one of the job was to hijack an Aztechnology helicopter and do it quick and subtle enough that the Azzies would never noticed it had been taken until it was too late.
  Hence our being out and rained on in the woods approximately thirty miles out from Seattle's downtown, waiting for the helicopter intended to meet with a gang of poachers who were raiding Salish-Sidhe territory for a suitable large, magically-active paranormal critter for tonight's sacrifice. The poachers had already been ambushed and dealt with by some tribal friends that Frosty had paid off for the occasion, and covered by our two mages' illusion magic we and an illusionary wolf shapeshifter in chains stood waiting at the arrival point for the Azzie pickup chopper they'd been told to meet.
  As for the poachers? Kidnapping sentient magical creatures for blood sacrifice was an automatic death sentence in Council territory, and it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of degenerates. I didn't know how whatever patron Frosty was representing had gotten the intel into Aztechnology's movements tonight, but so far everything was right on the schedule we'd been told to expect.
  "They're coming." Pistons said from where she was manning the poachers' radio. "And according to their instructions, they were supposed to light the infra-red blinker... now." she finished, activating the little beacon the poachers had been given to mark the LZ. A darkly humorous part of my mind noted that the usual use of those blinkers was to mark targets for air strikes, and hoping that wouldn't be prophetic-
  "Places, everyone." Frosty said. "Nobody goes until after I call it - if they get a radio call out before the jammer lights, we wasted the whole trip."
  "Acknowledged." Ivan said stolidly, and the rest of us affirmed as well.
  The sleek-looking Aztechnology executive transport came into view above the treeline, swiftly lowered, and did a neat almost-touchdown in the little clearing we were waiting in. The pilot betrayed his military training as the wheels stayed several inches off the ground and the rotors kept turning at full speed as he kept it in a zero-altitude hover instead of actually landing, both to be able to dust-off in an instant if shit went wrong and to avoid setting off possible land mines. That was certainly going to make the hijacking tricky-
  "One mangy wolf?" the lead Aztechnology agent said as he and the several hardboys with him all dismounted from the helicopter. "We were paying you for an effort."
  "Salish troops were out in force tonight." Pistons answered curtly. "Job was for at least one, you get one. Where's the cred?"
  "I want to examine it first." the man said, leaning forward to carefully peer at what was a patch of empty air covered by Frosty's best illusion. Well, we'd had several possible approaches-
  "Now." Frosty whispered into our headsets, and Caveman lit off the jammer he'd prepositioned as Frosty dropped her illusions and concentrated all her effort on hitting the pilot through the transparent windscreen with a Control Thoughts spell to do nothing except Land it now! Caveman was hanging back with the auxiliaries, not being a CQB specialist of any kind and also being our only pilot and thus someone we couldn't afford to risk even getting nicked in the upcoming scrum. That left three of us to do what needed to be done-
  Ivan's reflexes were wired almost as hot as mine were magically augmented, and with speed far in excess of what anyone would expect from such a big man he drew his sharpened shovel in a flashing fast-draw and used it like a short-axe to cleave directly through the head and armored helmet of the Azzie trooper nearest him. An equally fast backswing took out the second man before he could even draw, and by that point I'd already put one of mine on the ground with a fast trip-and-shove, shanked the other one in the throat while the first one was busy re-orienting, and then finished off the first one before he could rise. If they'd had a little more time to get set even we would have had trouble - Aztechnology had paid for high-end reflex boosts on these guys as well - but we'd caught them entirely off-guard, and so they didn't have a chance. Fatima's manabolt burned the lead Aztechnology rep down in his tracks, and Pistons' assault carbine was trained steadily on the cockpit window as a contingency against Frosty somehow missing with her spell. But she hadn't.
  "Send the all-clear and say you're on your way back." Frosty forced the enthralled pilot, and then followed up with "Give her the clearance codes."
  "They check out." Pistons said calmly after going up into the cockpit and verifying the codes at the chopper's electronic warfare station. "And I've got enough of his voice recorded to synthesize it, as long as they don't get suspicious enough to put it under high-end analysis."
  "ATC for a scheduled cargo flight?" Frosty said. "They won't. Sleep." she commanded the enthralled pilot - her last command, as she then dispassionately executed him while he was mercifully unconscious.
  "O-kay..." Caveman noted, only mildly discomfited as the pilot's corpse slumped over in the seat from where Frosty had mana-bolted him to death. He shrugged and unsnapped the corpse's restraining harness, then started dragging it over to the door to toss out onto the pile with all the rest.
  "Good. Jack in and get this bird spinning again. Everybody else, load up." was Frosty's only comment after we left the bodies in the clearing for the Salish auxiliaries to come and clean. It was less than an hour to midnight, and we had to be back in Seattle and on final approach to the Pyramid at just the right time.
  Author's Note: Time to start some prime running! Yes, pity our poor MC, who so impressed his first major runner contact that she's thinking he's some old vet from out of town who had to totally new-life-new-face-start-again from scratch instead of what he actually is and thus fast-tracked him to a top-end run. Yes, I'm using that as an excuse to narratively move things along a bit, but hey.
  Pistons is a canonical decker sig NPC, as well as Fatima's canonical long-time girlfriend. She has no canonical physical description that I know of, so it amuses me to think of her as a dark-haired Murphy from Dresden Files. It is canonical that she's ex-Knight Errant, although they don't mention what unit so I just signed a boarding pass for the USS Make Shit Up as I always do on such occasions.
  And yes, it's really not fun to live in the dark cyberpunk future if you really think about it. And sadly for Alex, he's a thoughtful man.
  Caveman is an example of my not really having any pizzazz at creating rigger NPCs. Sergeant Ivan is one of my old PCs, somewhat adapted to better fit this chronicle. Look, we all had that ridiculously borged out troll street samurai at one point, just admit it. *g*
  And Frosty? Congrats, you just saw your first immortal elf. Although to be fair she is one of the youngest on record - she's one of the two canonical ones that were previously mentioned in-thread as having been born only in the modern era, so she legitimately is only about as old as she looks. Hence her just being a powerful mage (as in, above starting character level but still actually possible for a player character with a good chunk of earned XP) as opposed to being a plot device like Harlequin or Ehran the Scribe.
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  The Aztechnology Northwest Complex occupied a full city block of Downtown Seattle, and was the most heavily-armed and secured piece of extraterritorial turf in the entire Metroplex ever since the Deus incident had devastated the old Renraku Arcology. It was a mixture of ultra-sophisticated megacorporate office plaza, foreign embassy and attached suites, and an outright military base. The central HQ building of the complex, aka 'The Pyramid', rose a full seventy-three stories from ground level and was one of the tallest elements of the Seattle skyline.
  A full battalion of the Aztlan military's - not that there was any difference between the Aztlan national army and Aztechnology Corporate Security except on paper - elite Leopard Guards were based on-site, along with at least a thousand additional ACS hardboys and support elements. Since not even the Business Recognition Accords stretched quite far enough to allowing extraterritorial megacorporations the right to position heavy artillery in a position where it could easy bombard national territory outside a corporate enclave, the fixed defenses on the ANC were "limited" to the four short-range SAM batteries and accompanying radar-guided autocannons intended for securing the restricted airspace over the complex and multiple anti-infantry hardpoints emplaced at the ground level. Backing those up were multiple bound elemental spirits of air and fire - and, it was rumored, darker things. Under normal circumstances, even the UCAS military would want SAM suppression runs from Wild Weasel fighter-bombers and heavy magical backup to try and knock down the layered anti-air defenses before trying to land an airmobile assault on the roof, and nothing less than an armored regiment with full infantry support would be able to take the complex by main force from the ground... and even then the central pyramid would be a giant multi-layered deathtrap you could use up an entire army division laboriously clearing room-by-room for the next several months.
  So when looked at from that point of view, us trying to penetrate this place and involuntarily extract one of the highest-value targets on site with only six operators in one lightly-armed transport helicopter was just a tad over-optimistic.
  "Progress?" Frosty asked Fatima, her voice rigidly controlled. Caveman was sandbagging our flight route back as slowly as he could, to the extent of faking an attempt to 'evade' a Salish patrol chopper near the SS-Seattle border, but we still had a finite time window to finish the next step before we needed to abort.
  "It's rough, but she's doing it." Fatima reassured her. Pistons had jacked in and gone full-VR in the Matrix as soon as we'd lifted off, using a portable satellite rig to sustain a connection even as we flew back out from the nearby Cascades. Fatima was wearing a set of 'trodes on a 'hitcher jack', to allow her to view Pistons' progress in VR from the Matrix equivalent of spectator mode and relay news to the rest of us. "She says three more minutes."
  "Our window expires in nine." Caveman said calmly from the cockpit, as the rest of us breathed deeply and waited. Two minutes and forty-six seconds after Fatima's announcement, she slumped in relief as Pistons' eyes opened and she shook her head to finish clearing away the VR fog after logging out.
  "Okay, it's in." she said while popping her jack. "The agent's passcodes gave me enough of a window to make it up through the Pyramid's security host. The seed's in place, all we've got to do is water it."
  "Did you load the other component into the transponder?" Frosty asked her.
  "Already done." Pistons reassured her.
  "Good job." Frosty said with a touch of relief. "All right, Caveman, take it straight in."
  "Wilco." he answered her briefly and the rotors whined more loudly as he gave it the gun.
  The plan had been to disable the technological anti-air defenses by using an advantage the vast majority of attempted intruders wouldn't have - one of Aztechnology's own helicopters with a still-working transponder. Not just a copy of the transponder codes but the actual hardware itself, complete with the in-built firmware passkey that authenticated the device as being this particular piece of hardware and not someone trying to clone the account. And since the Azzies were still unaware we'd hijacked the bird, the passkey was still valid. So any datapacket sent from the transponder would go directly into the complex's air-traffic control host without being stopped by any of the security software, except of course for the real-time anti-virus monitoring intended to prevent exactly the hack we were trying.
  Which is why Pistons had just done some top-tier decker work in sleazing the Aztechnology Seattle security host from the outside, promoting her stolen user account to one of the sysop tiers and using that to swap out the antivirus signature/heuristic module on the air-traffic control host for a finagled version she'd spent the past day specially encoding. So the virus trojan our helicopter would inject straight into the Pyramid's air defense network as soon as the tower pulled our IFF ping on final approach would have free reign of everywhere, because now it was on the antivirus whitelist. And while ultra-secure corporate hosts had the security deckers run regular audits of relevant file checksums every few hours to stop precisely this trick, we only needed that hack to remain in place for less than half an hour.
  The magical defenses would still have normally been suicide to try and fly through - multiple bound elemental spirits were no joke for a light aircraft to deal with at low altitude, and no amount of IFF spoofing would stop a spirit from trying to kill whoever its mage-handler told it to go kill. But that's why the timing on this run had to be so specific - today was the night of the spring equinox, and the astrological mana surge produced on that date was why Aztechnology Seattle had picked this day of the year to hold the grand ritual ceremony that would renew and replenish the wards and bound spirits on the entire complex.
  And it also meant that for the critical hour we were striking in, the magical defenses on the entire complex would be down. I had no idea how the hell Frosty's backers had turned up the critical intel of which of the equinoxes the rituals of renewal would be cast on, because for obvious reasons the Azzies switched that around from year to year as much as possible and damn sure didn't advertise when, but she had. And the fact that the defenses and summonings and bindings would need a grand ritual renewal also meant that the seniormost mages on site, including at least one of the several blood mages known to be assigned to the Pyramid, would be entirely occupied with the group ritual casting and in known positions. And while the bulk of the mages involved would be doing things like helping anchor the corners on the ground, or hidden away in whatever secret and sealed sub-basement chamber the really grotty blood magic ceremonies were held in, at least one of the senior ritualists would have to be in the main public temple complex to anchor the whole thing... and that temple complex was, as per Aztec tradition, located directly on the roof of the Pyramid.
  So that was the plan. Hack the technological air defenses, use the open window in the magical defenses, and infiltrate the rooftop telepad disguised as the ferry crew bringing back a magical creature for the sacrifice crews at the last-minute. Then get through the final line of defense on the roof, blitz whatever bodyguards were screening the blood mage in the rooftop temple, bag and drag the blood mage, and fly back out while Pistons' hack and the trojan IFF package kept the air-defense computers too locked up to shoot us down on the way out. It would be Caveman's job to break contact with any air assets Aztechnology could get off the ground and get us safely to the LZ, at which point we'd do the hand-off to the Draco Foundation reps and collect the second half of the payment.
  And it would be everybody else's job to kill their way through God only knows how many Aztechnology elite troopers backed up by a major blood mage before we could even get that far.
  "Check parachutes fore and aft." Ivan called out as we slid over the Seattle skyline on final approach. The Pyramid was only traditionally sloped on three sides - both the limitations of the complex's geography and Aztechnology's desire to use the fourth side as a giant projection screen for advertising purposes meant that the east face of the Pyramid was near-vertical. So as a backup "It all went to drek" escape plan in case we had to abort and we'd already lost the helicopter, every one of us had also been provided with a parachute to BASE jump off the east side of the roof if need be. When I'd brought up that I'd never parachute jumped before, Ivan answered with stereotypically Russian humor that the odds of a first-time jumper surviving the landing were well in excess of the odds of someone caught on that rooftop without a way down, so I might as well jump anyway. And to be fair, the man entirely had a point there.
  I finished checking harnesses fore and aft, just like the people nearest me checked mine, and we reported all clear to our self-appointed jumpmaster. "Load up." Frosty called as soon as we'd done that, not even waiting for Ivan's acknowledgement, and the chopper's passenger compartment filled with the sounds of ammo being inserted and rounds being chambered.
  "Thirty seconds to Azzie airspace." Caveman notified us. "Time to send it."
  Frosty nodded and keyed a passcode into her smartphone. The text authorizing the transfer of the first two hundred thousand nuyen into our escrow accounts was sent.
  "IFF transmitting." Pistons called away softly from her position at the chopper's electronic warfare station. We all held our breaths...
  "IFF received... and yes!" Pistons finally whooped triumphantly. "Spiked and set!"
  "Pyramid just gave me an emergency wave-off." Caveman chimed in. "Too late, chumps! And doors opening on the port side in three... two... one."
  We came to a low hover over the helipad we'd just been told not to land on as the left compartment door opened, and Ivan and I were already in position and our rifles were already out and aimed. My job was fire suppression and removal of any visible targets that were lightly armored enough I could disable them with assault rifle rounds - and since I had APDS loaded, that would be almost any target except the ones in the heaviest milspec armor. For them we had Ivan and his Ranger Arms SM-3 - a 14mm anti-vehicle rifle that was basically a baby assault cannon and, when loaded with modern hyperdense penetrators, could literally go through a Lone Star armored SWAT van - lengthwise.
  The world shifted into slow motion as I ramped my enhanced reflexes up to max and my preternatural vision picked the targets out of the nighttime gloom as easily as clay pigeons on a high-contrast background at noon. My M-22 fired six times, and six men hit the ground with bullet holes in their helmets' faceplates. Ivan's rifle had fired only four times to my six, but the two heavy weapons troopers amongst the two squads of ACS troops guarding the helipad had 14mm holes through both their hearts and the two sentry gun turrets trained on the helipad were sparking ruins.
  T plus two seconds.
  One of the several malware programs running riot through the Pyramid's air-traffic control host was convincing the emergency systems that there was a massive runaway fire and explosion risk in the jet fuel tanks adjacent to the helipad, and as per the emergency protocols for the tower all of the exterior hatches leading to the roof were sealed and in lockdown except when specifically authorized by responding damage control crews. Unfortunately for Aztechnology, the ID verification code on that particular lockdown circuit seemed to be having a slight bug right now and couldn't remember who any of the authorized damage control personnel were. So until the Azzies could manually hotwire around their own critical emergency systems that were specifically designed to not be hotwired around, several battalions' worth of troops manning the Aztechnology Northwest Complex might as well on the moon for all that they were going to affect anything we did tonight. The only opposition we'd have would just be the troops, bodyguards, mages, etc. that had already been stationed up on the roof level as part of the floor's normal complement or manning the temple for the big ritual.
  Yeah. "Only." Still, it beat fighting the entire Azzie army in Seattle.
  "Overwatch set!" Ivan called, having appropriated for himself the little strongpoint built onto the roof platform intended to allow an Aztechnology sniper team a clear field of fire to dominate almost everywhere on the open roof. His job would be to lock down the exterior of the rooftop and call out patterns and strays in the open backfield while the rest of us hit the temple. And if the Azzies managed to get the rooftop doors open prematurely, his grenade launcher and the nose gun on Caveman's chopper would hopefully bottleneck the reaction force just long enough for the rest of us to abort and get the hell off the roof.
  We'd have used the nose gun to do the initial clearing of the helipad, but that would have given the sentry turrets enough time to shoot back. As is, the roof security teams hadn't made the transition from 'God dammit, we told you to wave off!' to 'Oh shit, that's not our guys!' until it was too late... and at the speed of wired or adept reflexes, 'too late' was quite often very damn soon.
  As for the rest of us, Frosty had prepared before the run tonight by summoning a bigass pair of elementals - one air, and one fire - and had just called them to her. Fatima had also summoned her own elemental beforehand and called it in. So we had three spirits of our own as extra muscle, Frosty anchoring the base of fire, Fatima and Pistons forming their long-practiced two-woman killing team, and the point man - me.
  Two more skirmishes versus responding Azzie fire teams got us all the way to the temple door, while the regular KRAK of Ivan's rifle told us that he was still methodically pinning down and eliminating stragglers in our backfield.
  "Fuck." Fatima swore as we made it to the doors to find our three elementals floating outside of them, apparently stymied. "You see it?"
  "They already renewed the ward over the temple itself." Frosty agreed. "Small one, but we can't take the spirits in there. All right, entry plan two."
  "Ivan, it's entry two." Pistons called into her headset. "The spirits will switch to sweeping the roof and guarding our six, stack up with us at the door."
  Barely twelve seconds later Ivan arrived alongside us, his grenade launcher out and ready. Without the elementals to clear the way, it would be up to both of the frontline fighters to do the dynamic entry. He had a drum of mixed concussion and flashbangs ready just for the occasion, and it would be my job to track and remove individual targets while Ivan saturated the room. And once the initial shock and awe phase wore off, we'd just have to all go in and try to kill them faster than they killed us.
  "OK, maglock's trashed." Pistons said, hurriedly pulling her cracker kit free from the door.
  "Breaching charge set." Fatima called, right on Pistons' heels.
  Frosty nodded to us and took a deep breath, flexing her fingers and getting ready to counterspell like she'd hardly counterspelled before.
  "Three. Two. One. Breach!" Ivan called away, calm as a glacier, and the armored security door of the temple flew open as Pistons detonated the charge. Ivan and I both went in the instant the shrapnel stopped flying, right out of the SWAT manual, as a veritable rainbow of elemental death splattered hard off of Frosty's mana barrier a couple feet in front of us. We heard her grunt with the effort of blocking all the offensive spells even through the hail of gunshots, as we both fired perfectly non-magical projectiles back through it as quickly as we possibly could. The ACS troops in there were also serving bullets as fast as we were, but the painful thumps and thuddings of the few rounds that actually hit me were dealt with by my armor. Ivan was serving as a living wall for Frosty and Fatima, and between his heavier armor, cybernetics, and being the biggest goddamn troll I'd ever seen, I was pretty sure he was asking 'Is it raining?'
  With the bad guys inside not only on alert but stacked up on our entry point - even Pistons' best hack couldn't disable all the rooftop cameras, so we had to accept the bad guys marking our movements at least as easily as we could mark theirs - this was anything but the same kind of turkey shoot as the helipad was. Although this was actually my first extended firefight for real, somehow I managed to keep any of the veterans flanking me from noticing that I wasn't one. Naturally quick on the uptake and with that slow-motion overdrive mode to help me out when I needed it, I rapidly learned to put theory that I'd picked up from things like simsense training or Paranormal Crisis into actual practice; notably, the fundamentals of infantry combat. How to advance under fire, how to use your own fire and grenades to not only suppress enemy fire but funnel them into less favorable terrain positions while you seized more favorable ones, calling your moves and coordinating with the rest of your fireteam.
  It took slightly less than the most hectic minute of my life to date for us to finally deal with the literally half a platoon of ACS hardboys and the several mages that had been inside that temple. Since we had of course all memorized the mugshots of the three blood mages known to be at the Pyramid, none of us had done a dumbass move and forgotten who we weren't supposed to shoot. So after having laboriously killed our way through and across the grand vaulting temple chamber in a sequence worthy of being any Call of Duty boss fight, Frosty's own very impressive magic managed to lock down the blood mage in cover behind the main altar long enough for a stun grenade and a pair of Narcoject rounds to wrap him up. Apparently even Aztechnology blood mages weren't quite as fearsomely powerful as advertised when caught off guard and with no chance to do a blood ritual-
  "Oh FUCK!" Frosty swore in a completely uncharacteristic loss of composure as she examined our prisoner. She reached down and tore something too small to see off of the lapel of the blood mage's expensive tailored suit... and our hearts all sank as the man's appearance instantly reverted to that of someone else entirely. The pistol bullet she angrily put through the prone man's forehead only punctuated what we'd all figured out in hindsight by now - our target had pulled a shell game on us. Somehow the blood mage had deduced that his live capture was objective numero uno tonight, so he'd used a spell lock and a Physical Mask spell of his own to dress one of his subordinate mages up as a decoy while he scampered off to who the hell knew where. And if he so much as kept a basic invisibility spell up, Ivan or Caveman wouldn't have seen hi-
  Oh, fuck.
  "Caveman, respond!" I frantically murmured into my headset, barely a step ahead of Frosty doing the same thing. Not loud enough that anyone adjacent to him could hear it and order him to answer-
  And sure enough, he didn't answer. Because we'd hijacked a helicopter tonight by magically mind-controlling the pilot, so why couldn't someone else?
  You never in your life saw five shadowrunners do the hundred-yard dash back to the helipad as desperately as we did. Despite frantically calling upon them, none of our bound elementals answered our casters - the blood mage must have banished them somehow on our way out, and with the press of the desperate firefight we'd just been in Frosty and Fatima would have been too distracted to notice. As if we needed more proof that our target was not only still in play, but was moving around in our backfield to steal our escape route-
  "The fuck is that?" I shouted in alarm, in the lead by several lengths as I skidded around the corner and saw what was waiting for us at the foot of the stairs leading up to the elevated surface of the executive helipad. It looked like H.R. Giger's anchovy pizza nightmare as CGI'ed by Industrial Light and Magic-
  "Blood spirit!" Frosty shouted frantically. "Split up, go around, go around!"
  I flexed my knees and high-jumped without breaking stride, clearing the ground in an anime-worthy leap to go right over the damn thing's head and hit the helipad rolling. I distantly heard manabolts start to fly as our mages did their best to occupy the spirit, and Pistons and Ivan cursing as they tried to find a way up to the helipad after me, but all of my awareness was focused like a laser on our helicopter.
  Because the blood mage had indeed done exactly what we'd surmised, and Caveman was already punching the throttle for lift. I hit the helipad with both heels and launched into a forward rolling flip, as the blood mage's lightning bolt just barely missed me and scored the armored plascrete of the helipad surface behind me, and then rolled out and did the most desperate high jump I possibly could. The skids were at least ten feet off the ground when I made my leap, and I just barely got one hand around one of them.
  "Shake him-" the blood mage started to order Caveman, our enthralled pilot having entirely ignored my efforts except to automatically compensate for my weight yanking the chopper to one side. Without fresh orders Caveman wouldn't do anything except continue on the slow, methodical flight path he'd already been told to use, which is precisely why this Azzie asshole was telling him to dump me.
  But that's why I only had one hand on the skid. Because I'd already given my enemy credit for being quick on the uptake - I'd had to, seeing as how he'd already gotten this far - and had used my other hand to draw my Narcoject pistol as I'd leaped. And no matter how powerful the blood mage, a drug dart right through the palm of his hand tends to disrupt a man's concentration. Fortunately he'd been the sensible type and had already strapped himself into a safety harness before he went leaning out any helicopter doors to play magical door gunner, or else I could never have risked this.
  As is, the moment of time he spent trying to figure out what I'd just hit him with gave me enough time to ditch the pistol - I needed both hands for what was coming next - and pull with my anchor hand as hard as I could while I twisted my hips and brought myself swinging up and sideways to roll in the door with my off-hand out and reaching to grab that fucking safety strap. With a solid grip on one of the unused door gunner harnesses I was able to pull myself into the helicopter, and-
  Go flying back out the open door and into the Seattle night as if I'd been launched from a cannon.
  The last thing I saw as I began to fall over a thousand feet to my death was the snarling face of the blood mage who'd just hit me. As soon as he'd felt the drug enter his system he must have known that he would inevitably fall unconscious within the next few moments. And as soon as he did that, his Control Thoughts spell on Caveman would end and he'd be helpless and delivered straight to his enemies. So with only one chance left to cast a spell, he'd decided to make his last act a simple telekinetic shove against me as hard as he could. Nothing I could defend against, and-
  Youth and enthusiasm substituted for training and experience as I frantically got into a dereve position. I had a parachute, after all, even if I'd never used one before. Because right now I felt seriously motivated to learn! So after getting facedown and with arms and legs in a reasonable approximation of a skydiver's, I pulled the rip cord-
  -that wasn't there. At some point in the frantic skirmish during the temple, a stray bullet must have blown the handle away. I didn't even have enough of a stub of the cord to try and pull with my steel-thewed adept fingers.
  I looked down at the Seattle streets beneath me. The helicopter hadn't flown far enough to get us past the borders of the Compound, so it looked my impact point was going to be somewhere between the vehicle park and the outer fence. Good. At least whoever I fell on would be just another fucking Azzie-
  My brain uselessly ticked through distance and impact calculations as I fell. Approximately 1000 feet straight down, call it ten seconds to impact. Already used three of them. Far too much time to ponder what comes next, nowhere near enough time to kick myself for what an idiot I was. Did I think this was all a fucking game? Do the one big job, hit the big score to buy a new life- you idiot, you'd already seen that movie!
  The ground below came rushing up towards me far too fast as I began to pick out that my impact point was apparently going to be directly on top of an Azzie-model APC in the vehicle park. Great. As if falling at terminal-velocity onto concrete wouldn't be bad enough, no, I have to do that fatal piledrive right onto a fucking tank. Looks like whatever cleanup the janitor will be doing on me in the morning will only need a hose and a mop bucket-
  My rage and frustration bled away like air from a popped balloon as the last several seconds ticked away. All I could feel was regret, and loss.
  I'm sorry, Cat. I wish it had worked-
  My eyes opened, but I saw nothing but blackness. Some part of my brain dimly noted that that was because I was lying facedown, and so I automatically rolled over to look at the sky.
  How the FUCK was I STILL ALIVE?!?
  I incredulously noted that somehow I was not only still breathing, I wasn't even injured. Oh, all of the bruises, bumps, and strains I'd accumulated before my recent experiment in chuteless skydiving were all still there, but as near as I could tell I hadn't picked up so much as a fresh bruise from going over a thousand feet straight down to faceplant right on top of fucking tank armor-
  "Wild Man? Wild Man, are you there?!?" I heard Frosty's voice shouting into my headphones. Damn, kudos to the manufacturer if those still worked.
  "Yeah!" I coughed. "I'm in the tank park on the west side-" I frantically prayed that Caveman had been too out of it and looking the wrong way to actually see the details of my skydive. "Chute worked." I lied.
  "Told you so!" Ivan laughed into my ear. "Status?"
  I looked around and noted that apparently the Azzies had yet to realize somebody had air-dropped into their military base's motor pool. But I certainly still didn't want to be here when they finally did. Thank God there didn't seem to be any security cameras with a line-of-sight to my landing point-
  "Still clear, but I don't want to wait here! I need an exit strategy!" I replied.
  "Wait one." Ivan said, to continue about ten seconds later. "Overwatch set. I'll cover you past the fence line, exfil on foot."
  "If you can be sure no tail, RV with us at the tea place." Fatima broke in.
  Caveman's voice broke in. "I'm straight in my head again, and mageboy is out like a light. Be back on the roof for the rest of you ASAP."
  "Moving." I answered back, and with a couple of sniper shots down off the roof to disable the gun emplacement covering that sector of the perimeter I was able to high-jump the outer wall and make it safely back into UCAS territory and off into the night. All I had to do now was make sure I had no tails, and I could make it to the University and Netcat's apartment. Cat had served me and Fatima tea there the night she'd helped us with the Auburn job, and U-Dub was also in the Downtown district so it was the nearest place we both knew.
  As I faded into the Seattle night like a ghost, I let the immediate shock wear off and the situation sink into me. Despite all the bumps in the road - hah! - we'd achieved full mission success. The crew had the blood mage alive and in custody, and by noon today we'd all be sitting pretty on four hundred thousand. I might be able to buy a highest-end fake SIN, or to hire a lawyer - hell, maybe even bribe a fucking Senator if I had to. And likely still have enough left over to get a decent place, the sort of place a young couple could live together-
  I'd rolled the dice double-or-nothing, and I'd just rolled a natural seven. I'd solidly carved my name into the Seattle runner scene as a definite A-lister; never mind that I shouldn't have been here in the first place and had only gotten in by luck and knowing the right people and getting a recommendation off of a misleading first impression, the fact is that I had faked it until I made it. Hitting the Aztechnology Pyramid and walking away alive after a pitched battle like we'd just had was the sort of ridiculous bullshit even high-end runner crews would consider a stretch, but between the sharpest damn crew I'd seen since I got to Seattle, a seriously connected and powerful patron with vast resources to toss at the problem - and a fuck-ton of luck - we'd made it. So going by the form card, any outside observer would say that I was riding high and with smooth sailing ahead of me.
  Except, of course, for that one little problem that had just come to light.
  I'd just survived a terminal-velocity impact that would have shattered the spine of a fucking dragon if it had been unfortunate enough to do the entire long fall without any wings or magical aerobraking. Even the most powerful physical adept considered theoretically possible should have been turned into strawberry jam by what had happened. And I'd gone through it without so much as mussing my hair, despite my having taken injury and exhaustion and strain just as readily as any other human - well, as any other human who was a high-grade physical adept - just immediately prior to my airdrop.
  What the hell was I?
  Author's Note: I told you it wasn't anything from inside the Shadowrun rules system. But yes, the people who guessed our MC had yet to hit his limits had no idea how right they were. *g*
  And yes, of course the heist crew had a plan. But as people said, a heist movie always camera cuts around the actual nuts-and-bolts planning session so the audience can be surprised at each new stage.
  And no, Aztechnology does not know he's, y'know, anomalously superhuman. Alex was correct in that there were no security cameras watching his impact point. I mean, who watches a parked APC in the middle of the night? The motor pool gate, yes, but not the vehicle park itself. Likewise, the team didn't see his fall either (or, rather, they didn't see enough to know he lied about using a parachute) - their reaction would have been notably different if they had.
  And so the first arc comes to a close. Our hero has arrived, met a love interest, gotten set up in his new professional community, and has just made a key discovery about himself. Now the author shall take a brief rest to let new ideas flow, as even zen spontaneous writing only goes so far before you have to do at least a little thinking.
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  "Contact left!" the stentorian voice barked.
  I reflexively responded to the target call like an automaton. Sweep the sector visually, mark the motion that doesn't fit the previously established pattern of light-and-darkness I'd noted shortly before, identify it as hostile, check the line for friendlies, fire! The AK-97's shock pad helped cushion the impact against my shoulder as my trigger finger smoothly squeezed out a three-round burst, and the menacing silhouette went down.
  "Good! Contact right!"
  And again.
  "Contact front!"
  And aga- civilian! My trigger finger stopped just short of a fatal error and after a two-second pause, the not-a-target ducked back unharmed.
  Pause in the target calls. Wait, was it over alre- shit! That was three times! I hastily pulled back from the low earthen berm in front of me and frantically duck-walked down the scrape over to a new firing position before laying prone again and inching my head up.
  "Finally remembered to stop camping, did we? Contact high!"
  And again. I checked the ammo counter and noticed I was almost at the end of the magazine. "Reloading!" I called, and the targets obligingly paused while I ejected, reloaded, and chambered. "Ready!" I followed up.
  "Contact front!" Master Sergeant Martinez bellowed, and the drill continued. And eventually the target pop-ups stopped and I safed my weapon, popped to port arms, and waited for my score.
  "And the final score is... 29 out of 30 dead hostiles with 104 rounds fired, 0 out of 5 noncombatants, and a total time of four minutes forty-six seconds." His graying eyebrows raised. "Congratulations, Recruit Connors, you just qualified as an Expert marksman with the AK-97 rifle. And even more than the rest of it, your trigger control in particular is well above what I usually see in newbies. Where'd you learn to shoot?"
  "Um... Paranormal Crisis, Master Sergeant." I admitted embarassedly.
  "... seriously? You came in here and showboated all over my firing range just because you thought you were hot shit from a goddamn Matrix game? What the hell was your kill-to-death ratio, Recruit?" he shouted at me.
  "Twelve point seven six, Master Sergeant!" I squeaked in terror.
  "Damn, I never got above eight point five." his mildly awed comment almost shocked me into almost breaking position. "That's top 1000 leaderboard territory. And since you're actually translating VR reflexes into live action at least halfway well, maybe I should put you in the designated marksman track."
  "Respectfully, I would prefer to continue in my assignment as a Matrix specialist Master Sergeant!" I replied smartly.
  "Duly noted." he answered me with that particular expressionless twitch that was as close as Master Sergeant Martinez ever came to a smile. "All right, you passed. Clear and turn in your rifle and unass the course for the next victim."
  The bustling sounds of the walled Cape Town compound that was the southern home-away-from-home for the 77th Independent Rangers filled my ears as I jogged off to the next stop in my final recruit evaluation. The 77th was one of the many registered and bonded PMCs that made up the Mercenary (not Mercenaries') Guild, and although only an oversized company - almost a double company - plus supports in size it still had a high reputation in the mercenary community. Founded over ten years ago by Colonel Juan 'Matador' Pererya, despite their lack of corporate sponsorship and their modest equipment budget the 77th had long had a justly-famed reputation for tenacity, versatility, and highly restrained and honorable behavior. Although the Colonel had been killed in action during the Tsimshian border wars in 2062, the 77th had continued thriving underneath the leadership of Major Carmen 'Picador' Lopez y Cabrera. Homeported in Lisbon, the 77th also maintained rented compounds in several other cities such as Cape Town to better support unit logistics when contracted in the region. Currently the unit was just wrapping up an almost year-long contract from the United Nations to help secure and distribute humanitarian aid shipments in Azania in the wake of the economic crisis provoked by the Crash 2.0, and so everybody was rushing to finish up things like maintenance, rest and refurbishment - and training - before the Company would have to pack up and move on to wherever our next contract would be.
  The crisp spring weather of Cape Town in October ruffled my freshly-cropped hair as I reported in to the next stop on today's circuit. Assuming I managed to get through this last round of proficiency exams without bombing out, I'd leave the basic training pipeline and get myself slotted into Headquarters Platoon as the new junior signals intelligence operator. Alex had already earned himself a slot as one of the special warfare operators in Recon Platoon... and that was great because it would mean that neither of us would be in the other's chain of command and so the fraternization regs wouldn't apply to us. And we were totally going to break the bunk tonight to celebrate my graduation because after an eight-week dry spell for recruit training Mama Cat definitely had some places that needed scratching. Ahem.
  I arrived at the computer room and waited for until they had a moment free to jack me into a deck and give me my final checkout in offensive cyberwarfare. I braced to attention against the wall and put my mind in neutral, and as before my thoughts drifted back to exactly how I'd gotten here...
  As cliche as it was, the first thing Alex had done after the big run had been to go to Virtual World Disney.
  I'd almost screamed in horror when I'd found out that the run Fatima had sponsored him for had been against the Aztechnology Pyramid, of all places! Was that infuriating man trying to get himself killed? Hearing from Fatima about that fall from the helicopter and about how his parachute almost hadn't opened had straight-up knocked me on my ass, let me tell you!
  Still, I'd accepted that he hadn't told me about the full insanity of his upcoming run because he hadn't known what the target was until after he'd already arrived for the final muster - operational security and all that - so I couldn't fairly blame him for not telling me. And I knew the theory of street rep and how to lose it as well as he did, so I also understood why he couldn't have backed out once he was committed. But we actually had time to talk that out among ourselves at leisure because the first thing any wise runner did after pulling off a score of that size against that kind of target was get the hell out of town and stay out for at least a few weeks, so since it had almost been time for Spring Break anyway I took advantage of my remaining classes being Matrix-learning-capable to ditch town early and hit the road with him. And I even graciously allowed him to apologize for giving me such a fright by treating me to a lovely all-expenses-paid vacation down in Orange County, to take advantage of the grand re-opening celebration for the buyout of VWD as part of that new Horizon Group corporation. Aren't I nice?
  Of course, if I thought I'd been frightened before that was nothing compared to the shock I got when we finally had enough privacy - and enough distance from Seattle - for Alex to tell me the truth about his fall. And all about where he'd been living before he came to Seattle, and exactly how he'd gotten here. I'll be honest, at first I thought he'd gotten brainburned. Not that I would have ditched him - I was the last person who could judge anyone else about the odd little hallucination here or there - but I had been urgently trying to figure out exactly who in the shadow community you could possibly call for emergency psych treatment until he'd finally been able to persuade me that no, that's what had really happened.
  So. Okay. I was literally dating a time traveller. An alternate universe time traveller, given that he'd come from a world with no Seretech Decision in 1998 and certainly no Awakening in 2011 - no magic at all, in fact! Wowsers.
  Still, I wasn't a STEM scholarship student for nothing so after the whole paradigm-shifting-without-a-clutch thing I stopped stripping my mental gears and actually started to apply some analytics to the equation. One of the first things we'd been able to determine is that Alex did indeed have selectively toggleable invulnerability - if he really didn't want to get hurt, he wouldn't be hurt. Admittedly, my heart had been in my mouth when we'd actually gone to the extent of putting his pinky finger in a shop vise and cranking it, but even though we stepped up the force as gradually as possible there never was a point when he actually started to feel pain, let alone bruise. And even the adept iron skin power would have been hard-pressed to explain the part where the vise eventually broke before his hand did. Apparently the only reason Alex had taken normal injuries before is because they hadn't been threatening enough to subconsciously make him activate whatever mysterious power(s) he had, but he entirely confirmed my guess that right before the moment of impact there was nothing in the world that he'd been wishing for harder than not to die.
  But now that he knew about this ability - well, I'd certainly worry about my man going to work a lot less now that he knew how to be bulletproof, even if we both had more than enough sense to know this was not a power to be casually revealed. So, that was a plus!
  Yes, "my man". It was just a wee bit whirlwind, but even before I'd found out that I was dating a time-travelling superhuman I'd already admitted to myself that I'd fallen and fallen hard. What can I say, he was just so... cute. I mean, by every objective quality a girl looked for he was a ten out of ten... well, except for that whole lack of SIN and irregular income thing. But for somebody with his looks, his brains, his potential, his basic human decency... honestly, finding out that he'd come from a world that had never known VITAS or the rise of the megacorps or the balkanization of the United States actually solved the mystery of where he could possibly have been raised, because for all his shadowrunning skills he'd just completely lacked so many of the cynical instincts that essentially anyone needed to get by in the 2060s.
  Okay, and there was also the part where he was the first lover I'd ever had who could reliably ring my bell every time. Whoo and also hoo! I'd never exactly been a bashful virgin even as far back as high school, but regular sex with a man who was that good at it could positively spoil a girl, let me tell you. The fact that in addition to being the best I'd ever had he was also the most honest and reliable was just an embarrassment of riches. Seriously, I was not unaware that I had a bad habit of not always being sufficiently tuned in to my creep radar, as witness several memorably awful ex-boyfriends... but I digress.
  At any rate, Alex had been showing every sign of being as into me as I'd been into him - his little guilt complex over letting even the periphery of the shadows touch my life was just a tad bit diagnostic there, and then there was the whole 'I need to get a SIN' thing - so even despite certain revelations regarding a complete breach of the laws of time and space, I had every intention of sticking with him for as long as he wanted to stick with me. I'd started searching for another, slightly larger place we could possibly rent together for next semester, one in a sufficiently safe neighborhood but still where the landlords didn't insist on SIN checks at the door, so I didn't have to keep semi-sneaking him on and off-campus every weekend. We'd only begun to use the l-word, and nobody was even seriously thinking about the m-word yet, but cohabitation was certainly on the table.
  It helped that Alex had basically taken the spring and early summer off from running. Not that this cost him any real face in the Seattle shadow community - while the crew had obviously not advertised what run they'd just done, and Aztechnology had steadfastly refused to admit that anything had happened at all, it was generally understood that Fatima, Pistons, and several of their old and new friends had come into a successful streak and were thus going to scale it back for a bit while they rested, refitted, and tended to whatever personal interests they had. So Alex basically did nothing but pitch in to help some friends of friends and start slowly growing some contacts thereby, and there were those couple of jobs that were basically Robin Hood runs, but mostly he got to live an existence as my kept-as-often-as-possible houseboy while I tore into the spring semester and finals. And he really did cook an awesome omelet.
  Never could quite talk him into the naked apron, though. Frustrating man!
  Of course, we didn't spend all that time in bed. Youth and enthusiasm were certainly things we both possessed in abundance, but I didn't have functionally unlimited physical endurance and selective invulnerability. After the limping all weekend incident we had quite firmly charted my limitations and knew how not to go outside them - okay, I knew how not to go outside them, because while he'd voiced a concern at the time I'd been entirely worked up enough to ignore the voice of reason. And that lesson being learned was quite useful, because honestly? If I ever got that sore again then it might put me off sex entirely. Well, at least for a little while.
  Let's just say that it was a good thing that mental and emotional satisfaction could equal physical satisfaction for Alex or else his powers would be as much of a curse as a blessing. Either that or I'd have to somehow conjure up my magical twin sister out of the deep metaplanes and let her trade shifts. But I digress again. Mind, gutter, out!
  And then there was that time where Alex had had the horrible thought that perhaps his superhumanly limit-breaking and unconsciously activated adept powers might explain the whirlwind nature of our courtship. After all, 'social adepts' who could use superhumanly persuasive skills to mess with peoples' heads was a known thing. But I came up with a story for Fatima about Alex being worried that he might intuitively be using untrained social gifts, and she assensed my aura and also did some assensing tests of the two of us interacting, and the verdict came up clean. So she reassured us that there was no magic going on in re: how much I loved my guy or vice versa except the oldest magic of all, l'amour.
  And then she goosed me and cracked a joke about our love life that was so filthy even I blushed.
  At any rate, our experimentations into Alex's powers didn't get as far as either of us had hoped. Oh, we certainly learned things, but the rate at which we could experiment were curtailed by things such as privacy risks, lack of facilities, and the limits of what we could test safely. Even the vise incident had been pushing the envelope for us - after all, if Alex had guessed wrong or if his invulnerability had timed out at the wrong moment due to an endurance limit being reached or something, he might have well ended up with a hand so crippled that a goodly chunk of his Aztechnology payout would have had to go to DocWagon to buy a cloned transplant!
  Even so, we knew that he not only could be essentially invulnerable at need but that he only got tired if he thought he should get tired. We didn't let the sleepless experiment go past three days, however, because there was no way except the hard way to find out if he'd go off his nut from lack of REM sleep and even the faintest possibility of an invulnerable and delirious Alex rampaging in the street started off at Nope! and ended somewhere down around We are not risking you exposing your anomalous powers in public and being involuntarily extracted to some megacorporate vivisection lab!
  On the mental scale, I managed to bootleg a copy of an IQ test module - we certainly didn't want to use an online Matrix one, those goddamn things logged your scores and were far less anonymous than they promised to be - and came away with the result that, well, Alex's IQ was not measurable by standardized testing. If he really pushed his brain he was capable of neurally accelerating into the range where he was more intelligent than any metahuman known. And while the benchmarks weren't even vaguely reliable at that kind of level, it was entirely possible he might end up competing in Great Dragon territory. They said Lofwyr could simultaneously follow up to several dozen separate conversations on separate screens and track most of the economic activity of the Saeder-Krupp corporation in his head, and while we hadn't been able to arrange that kind of experience for Alex, we had achieved one rather dramatic result.
  You see, after I'd spent a good chunk of an afternoon teaching him how to do that kind of advanced math, I set him some decryption problems. Recently obsolete ones, given that Professor Heinrich Andrews at the University of Stuttgart had just published what crypto students everywhere had instantly dubbed the 'Heinrich Maneuver', a particular subtlety of higher mathematics that took advantage of a heretofore unknown root weakness in the base theory that underlaid every commercial encryption algorithm to date to make any of them almost instantly crackable. But we'd both needed to split a bottle of the good scotch after that test revealed that Alex had solved, in his head, a large-factor key decryption problem that the U-Dub mainframe would have needed approximately half the projected lifespan of the observable universe to finish brute-forcing before the Heinrich Maneuver had been invented.
  In less than one second. Gulp.
  Honestly, I wanted to faint. That didn't just violate everything known about metahuman neurology, it outright violated the laws of physics. It was basic thermodynamics! The Bekenstein bound limited the maximum amount of information that could theoretically be stored in a particular volume of space before entropic limits made further data compression impossible - and we were talking ultra weird conjectural physics such as 'store 1s and 0s in the wrinkles of a quantum black hole's event horizon' to even get that far - just as Bremermann's Constant put a theoretical maximum on the computational speed of any device possible to even Clarketech, which was based on hard limits set by mass-energy versus quantum uncertainty constraints! And what Alex had done had blown right past both limits by... I didn't even try to run the numbers as to exactly how many orders of magnitude he'd blown both limits out by. Honestly, I didn't really want to know.
  Now admittedly, this was not quite as brain-breaking a revelation as it would have been before the Awakening. Because shit happened that outright obliterated the laws of physics and thermodynamics every day everywhere in the world, and it was called 'magic'. So, apparently Alex had some really powerful magic, and one that seemed to be uniquely versatile and upward scaling without any but arbitrary and still largely unknown limits. That was still enough to make us take a deeeeep breath sometimes, but not quite enough to make us start fearing that Dreaming R'lyeh would rise from the ocean depths as all sanity and reality broke down and now there would only be chaos.
  Still. Even if advances in modern quantum encryption theory had just made a mental power that might have single-handedly taken down Deus or the Dissonance Worm even just a year or several ago into what was now effectively a parlor trick - thank you, Heinrich Maneuver! - that was still one hell of a trick.
  Honestly, at this point I began to develop the suspicion that the poor dear was starting to throttle his brain back a bit because he didn't want to overshadow me. After all, being brain girl was kinda what I did. I did know that he backed away from my offer to start mutual Matrix studies so he could dual-class in physad and decker like it was covered in insect spirit guts. Argh! I didn't push it because honestly, it wasn't the end of the world if he chose to devote his finite time to mastering other professions. It's not as if there still wasn't a lot to do.
  Also, I was just a tiny bit afraid that he might be right about there being possible eventual resentment if he could magically overshadow everything I did in everything. I mean, I liked to think that I was a good person but I was still only metahuman. And if given a choice I didn't really want to risk what we had either. For all that we were seriously falling for each other it was still early days, and there were worse things for us to have at that stage than a wish to not excessively crowd each other's self-actualization.
  So that's how we occupied ourselves until midsummer, when something else decided to step in and excessively crowd my self-actualization.
  NeoNET had gotten the Wireless Matrix Initiative contract for the Seattle grid, and I along with hundreds of other talented young people from every tech college in the area had been hired as temporary subcontractors to augment the corporate crews doing the nuts and bolts of installing all the wireless mesh hotspots and hacking together the protocols and grids that would connect them all. All the various megacorps had gleefully been augmenting their cash flows with 'Everybody needs to buy new everything for personal electronics now!' to make them wireless-Matrix-capable, which is why everybody who could afford it in Seattle was now sporting new pocket secretaries - or 'commlinks' as they were being called now - new wireless cyberterminals, new wireless host services, et cetera, et cetera. But that didn't magically make the new city grid just poof into existence and that meant a whole lot of people at the grunt end setting up host systems and installing drivers and calibrating antennas, and that meant me. Even the summer temps were making good money, given the rush-job nature of the project, and it would certainly have been an awesome line item on my resume for when I finished senior year next year and had to hit the job market for real.
  Which is when real life decided to kick me square in the tits, and let me tell you boys that actually does hurt us at least as much as taking a shot to the balls hurts you, and ramp my AIPS into freaking overdrive. The auditory hallucinations kicked up from several brief incidents a week to almost daily, and the incidents kept getting louder and longer. I ran through several prescriptions, made multiple visits to the clinic, and even cut as far back as possible on my hours when it started getting really bad. And while that did help a little, because rest and less stress helped, the attacks continued even on days when all I did was lie in bed. Poor Alex almost went out of his mind with worry for me - for all his superpowers, this wasn't a problem he knew how to punch away, and even ramping his brain up to maximum and a frantic self-study course in medicine didn't let him solve my dilemma. Although he did manage to become most of the way to a qualified EMT in two weeks.
  And then U-Dub decided to give me a cancellation of my scholarship for a Christmas in July. Too many medical incidents in too short a time, plus an 'unfavorable work evaluation' from the University's 'corporate contracting partner' NeoNET equals it doesn't matter that one Catherine Connors was practically straight-A'ing (a B in Matrix History does not count, the professor of that course was a drunken idiot) her classes and that there were still any number of consultant jobs in the Matrix technology field that a person with intermittent medical issues schedule her own hours. Nope! No grant money for you!
  While Alex had of course immediately offered to pay my senior year tuition out of his savings, the red tape brigade nixed that hard. Blah blah it's too late to re-apply for the upcoming fall semester as a paid student, never mind that you were up until yesterday a scholarship student, and hey, how did you even get all this money anyway? So, there we were, busy boxing up my stuff and clearing out my apartment for the next person - because my lease had been a student lease, the nice apartment in that neighborhood at that rent also being a U-Dub subsidy I was no longer eligible for - and trying to figure out what I would do without my degree and where Alex and I could set up our new, involuntary digs.
  And then, after several days of brooding and going off alone to visit various contacts and friends, Alex proposed a solution I'd never have thought of in a million years.
  As it turned out Sergeant Ivan, the troll weapons expert on the Aztechnology run team, had a very interesting way of doing 'out of town cool-offs' after runs that had generated major heat. Usually, runners would just deal with that problem by living off of savings while they went on vacation elsewhere. Depending on the heat level involved, they might go totally off the grid in remote safehouses. At best, they'd just temporarily move to another city to find work on the out-of-town friend-of-a-friend runner circuits.
  But Ivan? He 'cooled off' from shadowrunning by going to foreign war zones. There were several merc companies who all knew him as a reliable off-and-on 'stringer', and as he'd apparently gotten his start in the Russian special forces before even being a shadowrunner he was more than qualified for any PMC without additional training. Indeed, he could have made a steady living as a full-time field merc except that in his older age he'd decided he liked living in cities and being able to sleep in mornings a lot more than he liked yet more full-time barracks drill or living in the wild, even if he had no problems with doing the occasional 'augmentation' tour with old acquaintances. And of course the merc companies in question had no problem accepting the deal - an operator of his quality was worth putting up with more than a little eccentricity to get, especially when he was working for the standard enlisted man's salary and nothing more.
  And so Ivan, after hearing our plight, had found a reliable merc company now run by the protege of what had been an old friend of his - the 77th Independent Rangers - that had simultaneously had openings both for an experienced special warfare operator and a junior signals intelligence technician. Given certain medical things on my sheet I couldn't have hoped to get a waiver to get in on my own, but as a package deal with Alex? Oh, I'd still have to get through their boot camp without any free passes, but given that merc companies also would need to upgrade their systems to the new Wireless Matrix standards and I was the 77th's chance to get a technician with hands-on experience for that particular changeover cheap, the Major was willing to take a chance on me.
  And although I'd honestly been expecting to feel like death warmed over even trying, once I got out of Seattle and on down to Cape Town to report in to the 77th's encampment there and start being run through their own in-house boot squad, I started feeling better and better. The frequency of my attacks dropped down to almost nothing, and even then it was usually just lesser AIPS symptoms and not the gods-damned hallucinations. Even when the auditory crap started up again it was stressing me out a lot less - not just the frequency or scale of attacks, but also the fact that the attacks themselves seemed to be less bad even while they were going on, somehow. Huh. Maybe it was the polluted Seattle air, or the student stress?
  Alex, of course, hadn't had to go through the boot camp squad. While he'd still demurred at having any real military experience, he was not the first high-end shadowrunner to try and make the runner-to-merc transition through the 77th. Matador had found some of his best operators that way, and Picador had carried on the tradition. So instead of going through the basic-basics like I did, they just run Alex through a series of proficiency exams to chart what he did know and what he didn't know, and liked the results enough to fast-track him straight into their Recon Platoon as a physad stealth-and-CQB type. He'd also been noted as instructor-qualified on Systema and tapped to back up the senior unarmed combat instructor as one of his assistants. And the still-remaining gaps in his professional knowledge were explainable away as artifacts of the shadowrunner-to-soldier transition having only just begun, and would be soon enough remedied with on-the-job training.
  So, I was a soldier now, just like Alex. I'd never expected to end up here as a career, and I certainly didn't imagine myself staying here for life, but the free companies were entirely used to square pegs drifting on through because life was too full of round holes. Hell, I was anything but the weirdest recruit story in the history of the 77th. Major Cabrera herself had been the useless trust-fund fourth daughter of a rich family in Portugal and a poetry major of all things before she got a wild hare, dropped out to go find herself as an international soldier of fortune, and by some miracle not only ended up as Matador's junior protege but turned up a talent within herself as an ace battlefield commander and grew up to inherit his unit after he died! Really, on that kind of scale then little Netcat's promotion from busted-out undergraduate to aspiring mercenary combat decker was sort of mundane. I wasn't really getting any shit from anyone; I was competent, I was actually one of the better shots in the unit, and my boyfriend was not only a vouched-for veteran (even if he technically kinda wasn't veteran, not that they knew that) but was also the new unarmed combat champion of the unit.
  And while we hadn't solved Alex's dilemma or mine, not permanently, we had certainly bought ourselves more time to solve it. The 77th's educational assistance programs would help me transfer over my earned credits and finish my degree via one of the more reputable online Matrix universities, and I'd be making fair money in the interim and not have to support myself. Meanwhile, Alex could see more of his new world than just Seattle as we followed the 77th around to one global hot spot and another, and from a great vantage point to see both the legitimate and shadowy sides of the line given how the international mercenary world kinda straddled the gap. And he could also master the sort of skills here to become a real high-end special ops veteran, as opposed to just having people like Pistons and Fatima assume he was, because even with superpowers like his you couldn't assume you'd be lucky forever. Plus, it gave him a chance to decide on if he wanted a legal military career more than shadowrunning without having to commit to a 10-year enlistment in return for a SIN. (Not that bonded units like the Rangers were technically supposed to recruit SINless, but nobody ever looked too closely at fake IDs on a unit muster roll in this business. It was just assumed as a matter of course.)
  Oh, the risks? Of course there were risks. This was international mercenary contracting, not a Disney Jungle Tour. But I was going to be in the HQ shack right next to the secure dataservers. The sort of total wipeout that destroyed a unit right down to the comm techs and clerks was not unknown in the business, but it almost inevitably required a far more inept commander than Picador was. And while Alex was in one of the riskiest job slots in the field, he had his secret 'dying is optional' card to play so no real worries there.
  So despite everything that had happened to both of us, we'd found our own little place to be. And even if it likely wouldn't be a permanent place, it would still give us more time to finish figuring out who we were, what we wanted, and what the heck was going with Alex's weird everything... and what he and I might be able to build together.
  Here's to us, the wild geese. Let's see where we can fly.
  Author's Note: I still have little idea on where arc two is going to go, but this morning I had a sudden inspiration on where at least it could start. So Netcat gets an interlude to help set up the upcoming timeskip, and we'll see what crazy shit crawls out of my subconscious next.
  As canon was massively unhelpful for giving her a real name, I picked one out of a hat. And now you know why she insisted on 'Netcat' so hard even before she was a shadowrunner. How many embarrassing schoolyard taunts can you get out of 'CC' as a set of initials? That many.
  The Heinrich Maneuver, Matador, Picador, and the 77th Independent Rangers are all canon. And while I certainly hadn't planned on the timing of the 'we're using the 4e encryption tech now' development, I'll certainly take advantage of it to explain why the ability to solve arbitrarily large math in his head is no longer the gamebreaker it would have been 2065. Convenient timing that works out for me by pure luck is still convenient. *g*
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  Content Warning: African warlords, "conflict oil", and extreme Third World poverty.
  When I'd first learned about the VITAS-I and -II plagues that had devastated the world in the first quarter of the 21st century, I'd been so shocked that I'd felt like I was having an out of body experience. VITAS-I had killed a full twenty five percent of the global population from 2010 to 2012, and VITAS-II had come roaring back in the 20s to kill at least ten percent of the survivors. History said that the old 'Spanish Flu' of 1917 had struck so quickly that in the worst-case scenario a person could go to bed at night feeling no symptoms and still be dead before they woke up in the morning. Virally Induced Toxic Allergy Syndrome had brought that back with a twist - in addition to being the world's nastiest case of 24-hour flu, just about the time you were becoming really miserable your immune system would not only collapse and let even the slightest secondary infection run riot but also go berserk and start giving you antihistamine reactions to goddamn near everything, including yourself. The chief cause of death from VITAS was choking to death on dry land as your tissues swelled in your throat and lungs. Even the Spanish Flu, by far the worst pandemic in my birth world's history short of the fucking Black Death, had only killed one-thirtieth of the total global population... and had had approximately a ninety percent survival rate for those infected! But VITAS was like something out of a virus movie. Hell, even most virus movies weren't this bad. This was damn near Captain Trips territory.
  And the survival rate had been horrific. While the odds of surviving VITAS initial exposure without drastic medical intervention had ranged from approximately one in four for orks and trolls on down to 'Start digging the hole right now' for humans and elves, the fact remained that it took quick and sudden treatment with antihistamines, antibiotics for the myriad secondary infections that the compromised immune system would start to let run amok, and general support to get someone through it. Which is why the casualty figures in even the modern, industrialized portions of the world had savaged an entire generation at least as thoroughly as World Wars I and II had cut the heart out of Europe. Still, even though literally no one came through that generation without mourning at least one family member, lover, or friend, many people had avoided infection and quite a few of those who had been infected had still survived. But that had been in the First World.
  Because in the Third World? Where there wasn't even reliable access to something as simple as clean water, let alone antibiotics? VITAS hadn't just been the worst pandemic in history, it had been the motherfragging apocalypse. Literally three out of four people had perished just in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Entire tribes, cultures, and even nations had ceased to exist. Between the return of magic, the widespread distrust of "colonialist" science and propaganda, and the sheer horror factor involved... it was as if an entire continent had gone almost completely mad. The bodies of the dead had fueled funeral pyres for literal months without letup. People everywhere had frantically abandoned everything they'd ever known in a mad rush to go anywhere they thought might possibly shelter them from what was coming next, and then they'd fought with everything that came to hand over every possible scrap of resource or acre of arable land or every old hatred, fear, and division-
  And at least thirty million of those refugees had all crowded desperately into here, the largest remaining city in West Africa. Lagos, Nigeria, perhaps the purest distillation of Third World squalor and greed you could find on the planet. Even over forty years after VITAS there were still at least twenty million souls - not that any even semi-accurate census had been held here in over a century - crammed into less than four thousand square kilometers of decaying shantytowns and burnt-out buildings and huts and canals full of rotting sewage and the few gleaming modern enclaves of the corporate and local exploiters, power brokers, warlords, and would-be kings taking advantage of the fact that literally nobody cared about Nigeria. Even Nigerians hardly did, except to the extent of trying to claw their way to the top of the pile over everybody else except for the people they were immediately related to and sometimes they weren't even that nice.
  Picador hated coming to Lagos. Not least because the definition of 'combatant' in this place was 'as soon as they're tall enough to hold the rifle'. If she didn't think you could emotionally deal with having to put a bullet in a ten-year-old because that ten-year-old was about to go full-auto in the marketplace, you weren't even allowed to leave the compound. If possible you weren't deployed to Lagos at all, even as a base-bound fobbit. And even the hardcore line animals weren't allowed outside the wire except in squads. Still, most of the nuyen and oil and gold and diamonds and everything else worth killing over in this part of Africa all touched Lagos at one point or another, so if you did the merc circuit on this continent then you simply couldn't avoid this place forever no matter how much you wanted to. And while Cat and I been with the 77th for almost a year and a half before we'd finally seen here, the early months of 2067 had at long last brought us to Lagos because despite the Major's best efforts to avoid it the 77th had finally had to take a contract in the Seven Kings War of Nigeria.
  The economic dislocations of Crash 2.0 had had aftershocks echoing around the world, and 2066 had been an unstable transition year in many places even by the standards of the dark cyberpunk future. The First World regimes hadn't had any borders actually changing, but even the Great Dragon Lung hadn't been able to prevent several of the splintered warlord states in what had used to be China from going to war with each other and redrawing some of the maps. Aztlan and Amazonia were still staring at each other in a tense South American stand-off across the Panama isthmus as proxies and 'independents' on both sides bogged down in a savage jungle war neither side would officially declare. Just a little further north, the Pueblo Corporate Council of the NAN invaded/liberated southern CalFree to help run the Azzie occupation troops all the way back to San Diego and then go on to plant their flag as far north as Los Angeles. Europe was still a tense political struggle between the ultranationalists of multiple nations and the factions trying to forge a New European Economic Community out of the post-Crash chaos, a political and ethical question more than a little complicated by the fact that the NEEC movement was in large part a front for the ambitions of Saeder-Krupp Heavy Industries and the Great Dragon Lofwyr (as if there was any difference) to economically and politically dominate all Europe at second-hand. The Russia/Polish war continued its tense border stand-off as the 2062 collapse of the Russian-puppet Rybinski regime to the 'Liberation Army' had needed several years to stabilize just enough to let the provisional martial law of the liberators relax enough to actually hold elections, a job that the Crash had delayed for a second year. And that was just a random sampling of dozens of other hot spots and cold wars and other things that had busted loose.
  So if that's the sort of churn that was going in North America and Europe, try to imagine how fucked up Africa was. The big new corp-sponsored oil pipeline from the coast to the Niger Delta had just been finished in time for Crash 2.0 to fuck everything up, and by the time that shook out literally every would-be warlord in the region was gladly killing everyone up to and including their own grandmother for a shot at conquering even just a few square kilometers of 'turf'... so long as that turf was adjacent to the pipeline, and would thus allow them an opportunity to be paid off by the oil corps in return for 'guarding' it. Even though technology no longer used petrochemicals for internal combustion fuel the insatiable demands of the chemical and plastics industries still needed crude, so literally billions of nuyen of liquid wealth would flow from the interior oil fields to the coast to be loaded on tankers at Lagos Port every year.
  Provided that the situation ever stabilized enough that the pipeline didn't get chunks blown out of it every other month, that is. As is, while the oil was certainly flowing often enough to pay a lot of bills, it wasn't anywhere near as stable a situation as the Powers That Be would like. As soon as corporate interests started taking a hand, most of the smaller contenders either picked a side to shill for or got the hell out of the way before becoming part of the grass that was about to be trampled by the elephants at war. Because life would have been a lot simpler if only one megacorp had had an interest in the pipeline.
  The several megacorps that had allied with each other and paid off several of the largest tribal 'kings' in Nigeria to get the pipeline built in the first place immediately fell into a round-robin backstabbing session as soon as Crash 2.0 had tilted the table. And that, of course, had brought in several more would-be hopefuls, ranging from relatively small local consortiums that would still have been called Fortune 500 companies back in my old life all the way up to the big dragon itself, Saeder-Krupp. And each one of them had their own pet warlord/king to back, ranging from people like Oni Adegoke of the Yoruba, heir to a throne that has claimed the rulership of all Yoruba tribes (Nigeria's second-largest ethnic group) back to God and tribal historians only knew when on down to Haram Bokole, a mixed-blood thug of no ancestry he could admit to whose sole qualification for being a 'king' was the thousands of other jumped-up brigands with assault rifles who agreed that he was and a corporate sugar daddy willing to play ammo fairy for him. Not that Adegoke was any kind of moral paragon to say the least, but at least his family had a track record of being able to keep their territory's borders from violently changing every other week.
  And so you had the 'Seven Kings War'. Which had been going on long enough by this point that like a giant sucking hole, it had pulled most of the freelance companies working the African circuit into its orbit at one point or another. Picador had put the moment off as long as she could, but the seasonal dry-up of work in other places plus the significant capital upgrade of the latest round of SOTA equipment upgrades plus the 77th's slow expansion from an outsize company into a small battalion meant that purely and simply, we needed the money. And barring a major change in the churn, there weren't going to be any big tickets written for mercs in Africa that weren't cashed out here. So it was either the Seven Kings War or jump over to the Amazon, and as bad as a corp-sponsored oil war in Nigeria could get butting heads with Aztechnology's forces in Vietnam II: South American Boogaloo Only Let's Add Toxic Spirits And Magic Too could get far, far worse. And there wasn't a chance in hell that the Major - or anyone else - in the 77th would ever take the Azzie side of the coin in the Amazon conflict, so, that settled that.
  "And that's the situation. I remind you all yet again that our contracting authority is Global Sandstorm Inc., not King Efosa. We have a security ticket for the pipeline, the pumping stations, and the attached camp for Global Sandstorm's own employees and that's it. Make sure every one of your troopers understands that if one of the Edo Kingdom's 'officers' demands anyone do anything outside the agreed-upon spec that they say nothing except they're not allowed to do it without the permission of an officer and then immediately flash it up the chain. Officers, your only line is that you aren't allowed to do whatever-it-is without permission from me." Major Cabrera - Picador - finished from her position at the head of the briefing tent, as the officers-and-NCOs-assembly of the 77th all paid respectful attention.
  "And, of course, the standard Rules of Engagement apply in all particulars, with a particular emphasis on my own custom West Africa endorsements. The 77th has never yet been brought up on war crimes in front of either a Guild tribunal or the UN court, at least not without that asshole Navarre suborning perjury to make it happen-"
  Everyone in the tent, even those of us who hadn't been anywhere near the 77th at the time, dutifully chuckled at the reference to the infamous incident where Colonel Navarre of Navarre's Raiders had committed outright atrocities in a 2050s battle that the 77th had also been present at, and then tried to frame Matador and the 77th after the Company had reported Navarre to the UN observers for it.
  "-and even then the desgracado couldn't make it stick. And you and every soldier underneath you may rest assured that the first one to break that streak for the 77th won't have to worry about living long enough for a UN tribunal to order them to be hanged." the Major finished intensely. For all that the usual cliche in the business was that the officers with the best "show" were the ones with the worst "go", Picador was simultaneously a highly skilled orator and a thoroughly competent tactician and strategist. It's how she, as a recently-promoted platoon commander, had taken command of a shattered company that had lost both its commanding officer and its XO to sniper fire in the same ten-minute period and then led that company to a victory so unquestioned that every remaining officer, most of whom had had date of rank over her, unanimously voted to make her the next Colonel. A rank she'd refused to accept out of respect for the fallen Colonel Pererya, thus forever capping the 77th's rank structure at Major. God only knows how she'd handle it if the 77th ever expanded above battalion size, but that was a problem above my pay grade.
  "So here's to a long, dull patrol and no more funerals." she gave her traditional end-of-contract-briefing closer. "Dismissed.", and we all got up and headed back out to our work.
  (Picador) Meet me at my office at your earliest convenience. The text flashed in the HUD projected onto my eyes by the wireless-enabled contact lenses slaved to my commlink. I reached down to that commlink where it hung on my belt and thumbed the button to acknowledge, then dutifully jogged over to the prefab hut that held the CO's office and her immediate staff and waited for her.
  "Relax." Sergeant-Major Martinez reassured me as he reached the hut at about the same time and sat down at his desk to get back to the day's paperwork. "She's in as good a mood as Lagos ever lets her be."
  "Beats the alternative." I agreed with him wholeheartedly, and we both respectfully stood to attention as the Major finally entered the hut behind us.
  "Anything blow up in the whole hour we've spent with our fingers off the dime, Sergeant-Major?" she asked him.
  "No ma'am." he nodded to her.
  "Thank God. Sergeant?" she turned to me, and I followed her into her office, shut the door, and stood to attention in front of her desk.
  "Take a seat," she ordered me as she assumed her own. "Okay. a private refresher on my usual contract lecture. As one of our lead special operators, and with a prior shadowy reputation besides, it is almost certain you will be individually approached by either King Efosa's people or corporate representation with an offer for an individual assignment. It's even possible that they'll use my name. So we're having this discussion so you can truthfully say that primus, you were given my word of honor that any 'special' assignment would come through me and only through me and secundus, you are under specific orders directly from me to deny such 'requests' from any authority whatsoever without my express permission in advance - even if they come from our own Global Sandstorm contracting officer. Please acknowledge by voice."
  "I understand and will comply, Major." I replied formally.
  "Good!" she said more warmly, switching off the recorder. "Right, that's on the chip and I can play it for any suit who pushes it. Next on the agenda is better news. But first, a personal question... relevant, but still personal. How are things between you and Cat?"
  I mildly raised a metaphorical eyebrow as to what that question could possibly mean, given that the Major's usual policy on the personal lives of her troops were that so long as it didn't violate the regs or operational security then she didn't care if you peopled your bed with goats. "We're as close as ever, ma'am." I said. "May I ask how that's relevant?"
  "Because I wanted to discuss long-term career options with you, and your own family planning would materially affect that." she said reasonably. "And speaking of, are you two ever tying the knot? Or did you already and will I have to become direly offended at not being invited?" she continued with a fair bit of personal warmth.
  I began to see where this was going, so I answered that without offense. "We are close, ma'am, and neither of us can really imagine not continuing to be close for a long, long time. But as much as the 77th has been a good place for us to be, we also don't intend to either get married or have children while living in a mercenary camp."
  "Not uncommon in troops your age." she nodded wisely. "Which is why, before either of you started having the 'up or out' talk with each other, I thought I'd let you know of something that might inform that decision." She opened her desk drawer and with a brisk efficient motion reached in and hauled something out to lay on the desktop between us. Specifically, a set of lieutenant's bars.
  "Want 'em?" she asked simply.
  "I never even thought about being offered a set." I answered honestly. "There have been noncoms here for eight years who never even got considered, and I'm still a few months out from two."
  "And I can name which ones." she agreed. "But you have to know that you've become my best sniper and LRRP operator, just like Specialist Connors has become one of my best electronic warfare operators and intel analysts." the Major said. "And you've also simultaneously become one of my best instructors - hell, you even managed to finally teach Corporal Leonardwood how to throw a basic punch, and he's been failing the unarmed combat qualification since he joined. If he hadn't been such an ace drone mechanic, I'd never have waivered him." She nodded to me. "You have consistently performed up to and beyond expectations in every task you've been assigned. You combine versatility, proficiency, sound judgment, and most importantly of all integrity. And on top of that, your people like you. This lion cage is a spirited bunch at the best of times, and you share along with the Sergeant-Major the rare quality of never having needed to have the same argument with the same person more than once. And while I can hardly promote him to officer rank-" she broke off invitingly.
  "Not only would the company fall apart without him exactly where he is, you couldn't make him accept it with a gun to his head." I agreed with her.
  "-I was thinking that you might like it, along with command of Recon Platoon. Especially given that officer's quarters and home port rotations would mean that it would be possible to raise children, even if you and Cat might have to spend some deployments separated home-and-away." she explained.
  "Damn." I said. "How much time do I have to think this over?"
  "In confidence, what prompted this is Captain Davies choosing to not renew his contract. So he's gone in a little over two months, and Lieutenant Chang is going to take his slot. That's how long before I'll need a new Recon Platoon commander, so if you're not going to go for it then I'd appreciate having at least six weeks to find someone else."
  "Two weeks, then. All right, ma'am, I'll talk it over with 'Cat and let you know by then."
  "You do that." the Major agreed. "Because while you can refuse this offer and continue on in your current post without prejudice, I have not been in the business this long without being able to tell when one of my wild geese is starting to think about flying away." She shrugged. "But hey, the single most common reason that anyone leaves to follow the freelance drum is because they're looking for a place they can fit in the world. If El Cuadrilla isn't that for you or your lady, then you have my best wishes in finding that place wherever you can. Or you can stay here and I'll run your asses in the field until they fall off, either way." she finished with a smile.
  "Thanks." I said to her, getting to my feet as she did the same. "And no matter what we choose, we'll never regret we came."
  "That's all I can ask for." she agreed. She held out her hand for me to shake, I took it, and then I got back to work.
  "Wild Man to Jack. Infantry in the open, gridref 224-651. Call for 105 frag one." I subvocalized into my throat mike. A more sophisticated setup would have used BattleTac software to automatically mark and track every heat signature in my electronic binoculars' field of vision and serve up all the little GPS tags to the fire direction center on a plate, but the 77th didn't pay for platinum when training could do the job instead. Besides, you couldn't jam the old Mark I Visible Light Sensor.
  "Jack to Wild Man. Acknowledge single 105mm fragmentation. Cleared to fire, stand by to designate." the FDC's voice sounded in my headphones.
  "Laser on." I called away, flicking the switch on the underbarrel attachment as I kept my marksman rifle trained on the slowly advancing platoon of enemy.
  "Shot out." Jack replied. "Impact 23 seconds."
  Several seconds after the call, the platoon of warriors I'd just called in artillery on suddenly started running a lot faster.
  "Blinker Blinker Blinker!" I called away urgently, using the code word for 'Enemy counter-battery radar in effect.' as I switched off my laser designator and got the hell away from where I'd just been standing. "Game just flushed!"
  "Hog One relocate immediately!" Picador's voice sounded on the override push, not bothering to use her call sign because there wasn't a man in the 77th who couldn't recognize the Major's voice while all drunk and half dead.
  "Hog One is gone! Trophy system online!" the gun captain of our lead self-propelled 105mm howitzer acknowledged as they stomped on the gas.
  "Incoming!" Netcat's voice sounded in all our ears, as she was the duty sensor watch on this shift. "Hostile rocket artillery bearing zero-three-three, eleven seconds to firefall!" Simultaneous with this the projected impact point of the rockets flashed on the HUDs of everyone near the relevant zone - which apparently wasn't me, thank God!
  The supersonic crack-whoosh of modern hypervelocity MLRS munitions - someone on the other side was paying big money here - sounded high over my head as I legged it to another vantage point and started to hurriedly scan the savanna behind me, looking for whatever surprise was going to come crawling out next.
  A series of loud explosions from the direction of our hasty firebase several miles behind me let me know where the enemy's counter-battery rockets had just landed.
  "Report casualties." Picador's voice called out tonelessly.
  "Missed us!" Hog One called breathlessly. "But we just lost the reserve ammo!"
  "Wild Man alive and undetected." I answered quietly, as I did my best to keep it that way
  The explosion of the 105mm shell I'd called in landing and wasting its effort on an empty patch of dirt was just the perfect punctuation to this whole disappointment.
  "Warthog to Picador. One reserve ammo trailer gone, no crew casualties." the voice of Artillery Platoon's commander sounded out. "But holy shit, Major, their counterbattery fire was already hitting our positions before our first shot even touched the ground. Until the enemy artillery is neutralized, I cannot guarantee our effectiveness in any future engagement." Which was official comms language for It would be fucking suicide, ma'am.
  "New player brought a new payroll." Picador sighed. "All hands, new op order is CATALINA, I say again, CATALINA. All Hogs RT base camp. Alpha and Bravo platoons boots and saddles, you've got three minutes to reposition as designated on your HUDs. Wild Man, run away home, you can't do any more good out there today. Jump!"
  Over the course of the afternoon we lost one of Alpha Platoon's APCs and six more of the riflemen as the desultory advance of the 'disorganized tribal bandits' we'd deployed ten kilometers away from the pipeline on this axis to repel the assault of was revealed as the screen for an advance of an entire armored company of MET2000 troops. One of the largest of the "private" corporate armies, MET2000 was a mercenary 'company' from Western Europe that was actually a private army. Over 200,000 men and women wore MET2K colors all around the planet, and the ultimate shareholders of the privately traded corporation were a devil's brew of Ares Macrotechnology, the Allied German States, a couple of the big AAA Japanacorps, Ruhrmetall (a proud subsidiary of Saeder-Krupp, even if nobody ever actually admitted it) and some other odds and sods.
  It was, in short, nothing but a giant corporate stooge. MET2000 troops were known for their top-of-the-line equipment, their ubiquitous use of SOTA cyberware, the best tech support and intel support that money would buy, and a serious fucking attitude problem. The only thing that kept them from crushing all mercenary opposition out of existence was the fact that as a front puppet for multiple competing AAA megacorps they were a classic case of 'I could take over the world with this army if I could ever get all of its weapons pointed in the same direction' and the fact that their unofficial motto might as well be 'Who needs skills? I have technology!' So while MET2000 was seen on battlefields all over the world, it was usually doing more corporate things such as remote site security, convoy escort, 'hostile environment pacification' (read: paid colonial oppression), and other things that didn't bring them across the orbit of the real freelance companies too much. And when they did cross there it was usually as a small detachment hired by a private client who had too much cash and wanted the flash.
  But while they weren't entirely as dangerous as their gear would let them be, that was a far cry from being actually incompetent. And someone in the Seven Kings War had decided to really open the war chest and pay for the would-be chrome kings of war to arrive... and worse yet, in force. As near as intel and chatter could turn up there was only a short battalion of them coming in on the other side, but that was still the absolute worst case scenario for a company like the 77th to fight MET2000 in - at even odds, when we had much less equipment, and worst of all when we were the ones anchored to a fixed defensive position.
  We'd gotten a fairly nasty bloody nose just in the first skirmish, and the Major had had to deploy a goodly chunk of the company and take merciless advantage of our home-field advantage just to stop the three platoons they'd arrogantly assumed would be all they needed for today's thrust. But even though they'd left having to drag the burning wrecks of two of their shiny tanks (mediums, thank God, because we'd have been fucked beyond fucked if someone had been insane enough to actually pay to haul first-line MBTs down here) out on tank recovery vehicles behind them, the exchange of losses had still been lucky to just be relatively even. Which meant that we were now facing a war of attrition versus an opponent with a much superior cash flow.
  And the enemy's objective had been all too clear. If they'd just wanted to knock a hole in the pipeline like your average bunch of raiders, then they could have simply bombarded it with those fucking rockets from beyond the range our own artillery could hope to engage them and there'd have been sweet fuck-all we could have done about it. Which meant that their objective had almost certainly been the workers' camp where the Global Sandstorm pipeline crews were quartered.
  I didn't need Picador's years of experience at this game to flowchart the whole thing from there. The biggest thing that they could do with the corporate camp that they could only do there on foot and not by remote bombardment would be to kill everyone in it. If they'd simply used stand-off weapons to crater the place, well, that would have been a blatant war crime you couldn't ignore even in Nigeria - at least not when Global Sandstorm was the victim. Global Sandstorm might have been largely a regional corporation prominent only in the Arabian Confederation, but it still wore the biggest turban in its local area and was a heavyweight player in North Africa and near Asia that even the big AAAs couldn't casually bully. More importantly, as a AA corporation it was large enough to have megacorporate extraterritoriality of its own, meaning that unlike any other lesser entity it could actually lay suit before the Corporate Court itself.
  So war crimeing the entire Global Sandstorm camp would get even whoever had the juice to hire MET2K for this ticket facing some nasty litigation right up on Zurich-Orbital itself... unless they used a relative degree of subtlety. Such as 'We were just occupying the camp, honest, and safely detaining all the uninvolved corporate employees when those horrible nasty mercenaries started ambushing us and we had to fight back! Such a regrettable accident it was! They should be punished for excessive collateral damage!'
  Because paying for 'routine pipeline breakage' was one thing, but replacing that many skilled workers and technicians? Yeah, not on. The expense by itself would be nontrivial, the amount of risk premiums Global Sandstorm would have to pay their replacements would be unconscionable, and that's assuming the Edo Kingdom didn't have a total failure of nerve and toss us and Global Sandstorm the fuck out so they could rush to cut a deal with whoever MET2K's paymaster was. We had to stop the 'Metalheads' from pushing us back far enough to take that camp, or else we lost this whole contract and everything attached to it. And that's before we got into the part where several hundred entirely innocent people would be murdered out of hand just to get someone a slightly higher market share...
  So yeah.
  Fuck. So much for a long, dull patrol and no more funerals.
  Author's Note: I'd actually had the vague idea that their time with the 77th was going to be mostly done in the timeskip and we'd come in just as they were leaving, but as I was brainstorming things something in me just wanted to try seeing if I can write a war story.
  So, okay, let's write a war story!
  El Cuadrilla is the unofficial 77th unit nickname ('cuadrilla' is the noun for a bullfighter's support team, so it's a reference to the 77th's first CO "Matador".) MET2000 is a canon PMC, as the Seven Kings War and the Nigerian pipeline is a canon in-setting historical conflict. Most of the long-established players named in that war are canon as well but 'Haram Bokole' is an OC, created as an example of the many here-today-gone-tomorrow warlords that the eternal chaos in Shadowrun Africa produces far too many of.
  One of my most favorite Shadowrun sourcebooks is 4e's Feral Cities, especially the Lagos section. Because holy fuck does it not pull punches as to just how horribly fucked up things are on the Dark Continent. I mean, real life is more than bad enough there, try to imagine how the dark cyberpunk future rolls there. It was both horrifying and fascinating. It positively dripped with dramatic potential even at the same time it got really dark. And it was certainly anything but 'more of the same, the cyberpunk sourcebook'.
  So, this is how our crazy kids are starting to get along in 2067. Yes, by now they've already had the eventual marriage talk (I mean, look at how long they've been together. It would be unrealistic of them not to start.) And I'm only just beginning to evolve the upcoming arc and how our two crazy kids have developed during the timeskip, so, stay tuned!
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  Content Warning: Offstage mentions of slavery and underage prostitution.
  "So they're not pulling out?" I asked Cat as we laid together in our bunk. Shacking up with one of the HQ Signals people meant that you could stay current on all the gossip.
  "No." she replied, shifting her head a little on my chest. "Global Sandstorm is taking the position that securing their facilities here is what us mercs are being paid for, so why don't we just stop whining and do our jobs already? It can't be that hard, right?" I could actually feel her eyes roll as she delivered that one.
  "Global is aware that the simplest way to shut down the Metalheads is to not give their client any return on investment that's actually worth what they're shelling out for all that chrome, right?" I asked rhetorically. "If they wanted to just scrap the pipeline they could have done that with a cruise missile on day one, so they obviously don't - almost certainly because their client wants to take it from us, not to scrap it. Breakage and harassment is one thing, but actual scorched earth is another."
  "Yeah." Cat agreed. "You don't contract for that much firepower unless you really want something to get blown up. And the corporate housing here is movable, or at least the people in it are. Temporarily evac most of them, keep a critical skeleton crew dispersed around the kingdom and fly them out to trouble spots on the pipeline as needed - it would still cost some, but nowhere near as much as some other alternatives."
  "And a couple months of GS paying for that and our upkeep while the pipeline mostly rolls along, while the Metalheads' patron has to pay their fees and upkeep and gets back mostly bupkis in return - voila, a new war of attrition but one that favors us instead of them. That's exactly why the evac-and-stand-off plan was the Major's first suggestion." I waved my free hand angrily in the air. "Nope!"
  "No kidding," Cat sighed, hugging me a little more tightly. "You'd think the one thing a megacorp could understand about military strategy better than mercs is the part where war costs money. And that if you bankrupt yourself to win, then you've lost."
  "That's a very good point." I said, my eyes opening a little wider. "Why don't they understand? It almost smells like some kind of deeper game is being played here."
  "Shit." Cat swore. "If that's the case-" She sighed. "Looks like Intel's got even more work to do tomorrow."
  "Could we be the target?" I continued thinking out loud. "The 77th, specifically?"
  "Vendetta?" I felt her shrug. "It's theoretically possible, but who? It's not like the unit has any personal grudge with MET2000. And Intel's already been trying to run down candidates for who's paying for the Metalheads, but none of the possibles on that list are anyone who'd pay this much nuyen just to destroy the 77th. You know as I well as I do that one of the reasons the Major puts so much effort into keeping us fighting only within the Code is to avoid leaving behind some Count of Monte Cristo situation."
  "Still, something to look into." I observed.
  "Everything is something to look into at this point." she agreed ruefully. "But yeah, I'll put it on the list."
  "Well, you'll have time to work on it." I agreed.
  "When will you be back?" she asked softly.
  "A few days. I don't know exactly." I replied equally as softly.
  "And couldn't tell me if you did. Op-sec." she acknowledged with a pout. "I hate it when you have to go dark. When you're on long patrol I can at least keep track of you from the comm center, but not having even a vague idea of your location or status- I have no idea how the women who marry soldiers that they only see in-between deployments can stand it."
  "I know." I said consolingly as I pulled her close. "But it'll only be for a little while."
  "Just shut up and kiss me, Sergeant." she fired back, and then we put words into action.
  Becoming international soldiers of fortune was not the only option we'd had after Cat had lost her scholarship, but after mutually discussing it amongst ourselves we'd agreed that it was probably the best choice actually on the menu at that time. She could have taken the two-year degree she could already qualify for as someone who'd just passed their junior year of undergrad studies and gone on the job market, but the post-Crash job market in Seattle was pretty dire that summer for people with anything but perfect unblemished resumes and even they were struggling. Even her student internship with NeoNET (formerly Novatech) through the University had been a noteworthy stroke of luck for her at the time. And then there were her health issues, and the fact that it wouldn't have solved the problem of her and I trying to sustain a relationship across the SIN/SINless divide...
  Contrariwise, she could have stepped full-time into the shadows with me. There had certainly been newbie starting deckers (or hackers, as the lexicon was starting to shift into) with less qualifications than her. I'd had to put up with one of those on the Auburn run, after all, and he was hardly alone. And Pistons and 'Cat had hit it off almost from first acquaintance as fellow members of the sorority of Matrix geeks, so on top of me and several of my contacts willing to vouch for her 'Netcat' could easily have slipped into the Seattle shadows as Pistons' apprentice. Pistons was a solid A-list hacker with a street rep dating back almost a decade, after all, and training up a protege was a thing veteran runners often did around that stage. But even though it was entirely possible to start running the shadows even if you were born a SINner - Pistons had, after all - it was still a huge commitment. And neither of us had felt comfortable about her burning her SIN at that stage, least of all me.
  And then Ivan had pointed out a third way that we'd overlooked, one that entirely sidestepped the Morton's Fork we were stabbing ourselves with. The free companies on the international merc circuit were a long-established gray area where the divide between the straight world and the shadow world wasn't drawn in remotely as sharp a contrast as it was in the big city, especially when outside of North America or Europe. Technically I had a SIN as 'Alex Kincaid' because the licensed and bonded free companies could not legally employ SINless, but the bewildering variety of nations of origin and home nations of record for all the freelancers and the outfits that enlisted them made actually keeping any kind of rigid registry impossible. My SIN was as phony as a three-dollar bill, and so were quite a few others around me - but in the merc world, nobody would ever really notice or care. Except the 77th's paymaster, of course, but then again they were the person who'd gotten my current ID for me.
  Not that the 77th would have even risked hiring someone with chronic health issues like Cat's except as a big favor to a friend of the CO's (and an old friend of the prior CO for that matter) and as part of a package deal to get a prime asset like me. But even if her health hadn't let her actually succeed at the chance they'd given Cat I still would have had more than enough savings from the Pyramid job to put her up in Lisbon at the 77th's home port and still see her on leave and in-between contracts while she finished her degree via a Matrix university and self-study. As it turned out, though, simply getting out of Seattle and into the 77th's recruit training squad had done wonders to help 'Cat shake off her AIPS attacks. At the time we'd come to the conclusion that she'd apparently been developing some sort of allergy to the city air as an unrelated complication and were simply pleased that she was returning to full health and able to quality for duty.
  And then her 'auditory hallucinations' had returned after a couple of months, but without any of the other symptoms of her AIPS or the general debilitation. It had been quite a stumper for us until we'd finally built up enough observations in her symptoms diary for us to calculate that the only common factor to the incidents was ambient density of wireless Matrix transmissions - a job of plotting made far easier by the fact that given the places the 77th was deploying to, our own signal corps were often the only source of wireless hotspots in the area. 'Cat hadn't ever been hallucinating at all, she'd been receiving. Somehow she'd become a living wireless antenna.
  As she'd already had CT scans as part of her initial AIPS diagnosis and treatment, we already knew that no one had stealthed a cyberimplant into her head while she wasn't looking. But the ability to receive and decrypt digital encoded Matrix transmissions was a far cry from just being like the guy in the 1940s who could hear Morse code transmissions through his dental fillings. That had just been simple off-on, and the silver in his fillings reacting with the acid in his saliva had produced a crude galvanic antenna just as the bone conduction and resonance of his own skull had made a speaker. What Cat was doing, on the other hand, would require her to somehow have her nervous system doing the same job as the network stack of a commlink OS, because in order to turn the local comm traffic into audible language she'd have had to be decrypting network packets in her head. In fact, her uncybered brain had to somehow be capable of doing the job of every piece of protocol and driver software in-between the hardware layer and the application layer.
  So, yeah. Although it was nowhere near as physics-breaking as what I was doing, turns out that my girlfriend was also struggling with weird-ass superpowers that had dropped on her from God knows where. Now there's something I'd never have expected in a million years. I was momentarily panicked that somehow I might have caused this in her until simple logic told me that she'd already been expressing all the symptoms of her condition before I'd even arrived in this universe, let alone before actually meeting her.
  Now it's not like we'd been making major headway in studying my weirdness either. Until I'd eventually been promoted to Sergeant I hadn't even had so much as a private set of quarters to be alone in, let alone any real facilities for in-depth experimentation. And even as an NCO I still didn't have any large amounts of free time to spend safely unobserved or to spend anywhere else for that matter, the military lifestyle being what it was. Oh I'd certainly figured out a few other things I could do, and intensively trained up on any physad power or military skill my position allowed me to even semi-plausibly learn, but I knew full well that I was not even remotely pushing the envelope of what I might potentially ramp my body or my mind up to if I went for broke. But I simply couldn't afford to break cover, and so I mostly didn't.
  And on top of that now Cat had her own weird superpowers to be exploring. And even if so far all she'd been able to do is receive and decrypt nearby wireless transmissions that was still enough to make us intensely curious as to the how, why, what the fuck, and would it be a problem later. But again, that was a problem we didn't really have the ability to tear into deeply for as long as we were both enlisted in a full-time military lifestyle. Not to mention that while Picador and the 77th were by and large entirely decent people, we didn't actually want to tell them about what was really going on with us any more than we'd wanted to tell anyone else. Hence the burgeoning restlessness of ours to find a new place to move on to that the Major had picked up on. Even if neither of us had any real idea where that new place would be yet.
  But hey, at least having turned the corner and realizing what was really going on with her had also let Cat make the mental leap of how to find the volume knob and the squelch knob in her head and tune out any inconvenient transmissions at will, so her 'AIPS' was now on her medical records as entirely in remission. And she'd finished testing out for her bachelor's degree in Matrix Technology and System Development a couple months ago, so yay for both of those!
  I grimaced and pulled my wandering mind away from things like family planning and thinking of the future, and got back to focusing on the task at hand. Lagos was not a city that was kind to the unalert, to say the least.
  Although Picador was determined to keep the 77th as clean as possible, the fact remained that if even a human rights organization like Mothers of Metahumans still had to hire shadowrunners occasionally just to keep their less scrupulous opposition from owning their lunch then nobody in the 'we shoot people for money' business had the slightest hope of avoiding that necessity. Which is one of the reasons why ex-shadowrunners could find places in the 77th if they were suitably professional and reliable - which admittedly a whole lot of runners weren't. But that necessity was one of the reasons why I'd been such an eagerly scouted prospect to recruit once Ivan had referred me to Picador's attention, and also why this wasn't the first time I'd been 'detached' from Recon Platoon. And so just like I had on several prior occasions, I officially checked out on 'leave', ditched all my ID and tags, picked up a totally sterile set of gear from the quartermaster, and then went "dark" to go do certain things that needed to be done.
  Although this time my task was merely a reconnaissance. If one of the players in the game had just started a major play to push Global Sandstorm entirely out of the running, then they'd do more than just hire the Metalheads to run us out of our positions and then set up a scenario by which Global Sandstorm would either lose their alliance with the local king or lose their nerve on their own. They'd also have to at least begin laying groundwork elsewhere to get ready for when it was time to consolidate their victory, because a pipeline had two ends.
  Prior to the Awakening and VITAS, the Nigerian oil fields had both refined the crude and offloaded the product to tankers at the city of Port Harcourt down at the mouth of the river delta. However, the upheavals of the 2020s meant that Port Harcourt, like quite a few other cities in West Africa, didn't exist anymore. By the time the megacorps even began to come back to Nigeria over a decade later to start exploiting the local resources again the remnants of the port and the refineries had decayed into wholly unusable - and worse yet, massively industrially polluted - wreckage. So despite the project not being remotely cheap at all, it had still been cheap-er to build a new refinery complex outside the nearest city up the coast and then expand the already-existing port at Lagos with a tanker-compatible set of docks.
  Which is why I was now back in the feral heart of Lagos, alone and SINless and with nothing to connect me to the 77th. Because Picador needed someone to gather intel on whether or not anyone new had been making moves at the pipeline terminal and the port complex, and since there wasn't anyone currently enlisted in the 77th who'd have had local ties to draw upon then that meant trying to plug into the local underworld community.
  Although this particular shantytown looked to be just more of the anonymous dirt-poor squalor that covered so much ground around here, it was actually the home of Alantakun, 'the Spider', who was one of Lagos' more infamous information brokers. The 'random' gangs of street kids with rusty AKs that covered the several surrounding streets were actually all on his payroll, and the suspicious glares cast at my back told me that if the man I'd come here to see hadn't already known I was coming then I'd already have been shaken down for any cash on me repeatedly. As is, even a veteran runner team could get themselves shot dead trying to get back out of this warren if things went hot, because for all that the opponents were unchipped, unskilled, and largely untrained there were still dozens of them and even the best team couldn't look, shoot, and duck in every direction simultaneously. But, I had certain advantages so unlike virtually anyone else in my position I'd come here alone anyway. I arrived at and drew up outside the half-covered buka, a local diner/shack, that was the office my target was working out of today, and waited.
  "Hey, oyibo. The boss will see you now." the dwarf bodyguard said to me contemptuously as he finally came out of the kitchen door behind the open-air diner's counter. He was speaking in Yoruba, one of the commonest dialects of West Africa, but of course I spoke fluent Yoruba. With my learning ability I spoke fluent lots of things.
  Oyibo. Literally translated, it meant 'skinless person'. Colloquially, it referred to white people - and not in a flattering context. I guess every non-Western culture on Earth had their own equivalent of 'gaijin' or other such quaint term by which to refer to Westerners. And I was definitely wayyyy too pale for this neighborhood. But I could still work with that.
  "You want my weapons?" I asked politely as I followed him into the kitchen and he stopped and turned to face me.
  "Does the jungle have trees?" the dwarf replied caustically, and I handed them over as the dwarf gestured to a large scarred man with clear Igbo tribal markings, who fell in behind me and crowded me into the back room. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the dwarf leave the weapons on a nearby table and resume his post at the door.
  "Take his money and throw him out." was the first words out of the old man's mouth as he heard our footsteps enter the back room, not even bothering to look up from the screen of his trid set where he was apparently watching a recording of a soccer match. The thinly growing smile on the old man's face at the sudden thump and brief flurry of violence from behind him was wiped away by the credstick - his own guard's credstick - landing squarely in his bowl of snack chips.
  "Odd request, but I suppose it's a local custom here." I said lightly as I sat down next to Alantakun as amiably as if he'd invited me to watch the game with him.
  Our eyes met and a long, nervous pause fell. "Is he dead?" he finally asked me. Off the trid screen I dimly saw the reflection of the dwarf I'd just walked past standing behind us in the doorway, but as his shotgun wasn't actually raised to fire yet I felt the conversation could continue.
  "He's barely even bruised." I replied cheerfully. "After all, who wants to be uncivilized?"
  "Hrmph." the Spider snorted, and then he raised one hand and waved it. The dwarf slung his weapon and bent down to start hauling away his unconscious comrade, leaving us to our conversation.
  "So, Iwoku said that you were selling information, not unarmed combat practice. Was Iwoku mistaken?" I asked calmly.
  "Oyibos are not very popular here." he deflected. "But yes, I sell. What do you think you can buy?"
  "The oil port." I said. "Someone is anticipating changes in the war. Someone might already have been laying groundwork there recently."
  "I do not sell the names of my customers." he replied.
  "But it is well known to all of Lagos that you do not like oyibos." I replied. "Just as it is equally well-known that your web gathers a great deal of knowledge. It is entirely possible that these greedy foreigners would have come to you seeking to buy intel about the oil port, and that you would have turned them away. Does your code prevent you from selling the names of those you thought unfit to be your customers?"
  "It does not." he nodded to me with a cunning grin. "So, how much?"
  A vigorous round of haggling finally bought me a name and a description of the man who a couple of weeks ago had been seeking to buy intel on "Port Master" Roger Iweke, the crime boss whose territory was the docks district. Since a good in-depth profile on the man would be exactly the sort of info that a new out-of-town player who was hoping to get the pipeline under their control would find helpful when negotiating with Iweke for 'docking rights' for their tankers, I considered this the best lead I had. However, that still didn't tell me what the asshole's real name was or anywhere in this town that he might be - but given that nobody would have fallen for Alantakun's ongoing 'rip off the white out-of-towners' scam but an out-of-towner, that certainly narrowed down the possible places that he could be staying.
  So ultimately it was a good thing that Picador had not sent a more native-appearing operative on this mission. My being Caucasian might be a social handicap anywhere else in Lagos, but that plus wearing the right suit in the Island districts was as good as a passport.
  The Island districts were literally that, an island. The last remaining island from the archipelago that had once filled Lagos bay, most of the old the islands nearer to shore had long since been reclaimed for lebensraum by the frantically overcrowding population. They'd gone to the extent of heaping dirt and landfill in-between the closer islands to turn them all back into a solid peninsula. But Lagos Island had been kept separate, because the divide between the haves and the have-nots was more extreme in Africa than it was perhaps anywhere else in the world and the richest and most powerful figures of this city felt that keeping a giant, polluted moat as far between them and the starving masses as possible was a good start.
  Separated into three city districts - Lagos Island proper, Victoria Island, and Ikoyi Island - only the rich and powerful and those who served them were allowed entrance. The local crimelords, the most successful and corrupt of the local officials - but I repeat myself - several of the kings of Nigeria who kept their the 'city palaces' here, and of course the megacorporate representatives, colonialists, and carpetbaggers who'd come to Lagos to dip their own hands into the abundantly amoral opportunities available here. They and all others of their ilk had all built their whitewashed mansions and condos and elegant restaurants and boutiques and support services and neatly-kept corporate enclaves here, as far removed from the stench and rot and pollution and sweatshops and slavery of Lagos proper as possible while still being close enough to be paid their cut. And somewhere on this island was the man I sought, and the link to those behind him.
  But more importantly, on this island was also the man's target. Because I was like hell going to stern-chase a ghost all around perhaps the deadliest sprawl north of Pretoria and south of Genoa when I could just head the man off by getting to his ultimate destination ahead of him.
  I'd gotten across the bridge and onto the island by the simple expedient of slipping a hundred to the guards, which was a polite way of saying 'the armed thugs of whichever crime boss or other major player happened to be shaking down the bridge traffic that day'. I was able to walk around the island simply by having the right looks, clothes, and attitude. After all, any building around here that needed guarding was taking care of its own security anyway and the people who had an interest in maintaining order in the streets only cared about you fitting in and not being obviously armed enough to look like trouble. It's not like anybody outside of a megacorporate enclave would even dream of running SIN checks in Lagos, even on the Islands.
  But getting alongside the 'Port Master'? Now that was a horse of an entirely different hue.
  I could have tried approaching him at his 'office' on the docks, but if my target was trying to gather information and make inroads into there then that could be stepping right into a kill zone that the enemy was already set up on. I could have scouted out where Iweke engaged in 'recreation' and try to engage him socially there - except that given what was commonly known about the man's tastes, there was no way I could do so. Simply knowing brothels full of underage and involuntary 'talent' existed in this city gave me enough anguish - if I actually entered one and had to look the problem in the face, I'd either have to selectively amputate a portion of my own soul or go completely berserk. As is...
  It's not as if similar things hadn't existed in the Third World of my original homeworld and I'd never thought about them there, but I'd grown less and less able recently to be able to block out just how fucked up things were in far too many places. Even for all the magic and high technology and glitz and glamour and meeting the woman I'd come to love here, I still did not like the dark cyberpunk future at all.
  Damn, caught myself brooding again. That was getting to be far too common. Focus on the job.
  All right. How exactly did one go about getting a face-to-face one of the most powerful crimelords in the most lawless city in an utterly corrupt failed African warlord state? When your total resources were you, yourself, and you, because your mission was being done totally 'black' with minimum support, and your allotted war chest for the op was nowhere near what your corporate opposition could be funding? When-
  Wait, what the fuck was that?
  The sudden sound of fucking fireworks involuntarily drew my eyes upward just like what I was certain was every other soul's on the Island, if not at least half of Lagos. Our eyes were met by the sight of a gods-be-damned aerial billboard fluttering and gleaming in the red sunset, being drawn behind a slow-moving drone at slightly less than one thousand feet. Speakers on the drone were playing some incredibly chirpy pop tune at just enough of a volume for the lyrics to be intelligible - something about fireflies - while still leaving you straining to hear more, and the video display built into the electronic smartcloth of the billboard was showing some Hollywood-gorgeous teenaged girl dancing on a stage while music video special effects sparkled in the background. Then the video faded out to text along with a professional announcer's voice reading out the blurb for the illiterate as the 'advertising' portion of the banner kicked in.
  Coming Soon! Christy Daee, the record-breaking five-time MTCA Award winner of 2066, along with Grim Aurora and other top acts! The We Are The World Concert Tour of 2067 is honored to bring the finest in music entertainment to Lagos, starting on May 17th at the Lagos Island Amphitheatre!
  Tickets available on the Matrix at any participating Pathfinder Multimedia node or at any one of these exciting local locations-
  I mostly ignored the list of local stores that were cooperating with the promotion - the vast majority of them in the Islands district only, of course, but part of my brain surprisedly noted that several locations in the Ikeja manufacturing district and even the Mushin marketplace were listed - as I tried to figure out what kind of absolute lunatic was going to bring platinum-award winning pop stars and rock bands to Lagos. I'm pretty sure that the banner drone alone was the first time that showbiz advertising like that was seen in Nigerian airspace since the Awakening! Jesus Christ, even if they never left the Islands district at all I still wouldn't want to be working security for that concert even with the entire 77th-
  Wait, what had that latest message been?
  Apply now for our promotional ticket giveaway, Tonight only at the Why Not? Nightclub in Victoria Island!
  (First come, first served. Armed patrons will be politely denied service. The club management reserves the right to deny admittance for purposes of avoiding overcrowding).
  Why Not? was the most banging music club in Lagos, and since it was on Victoria Island it was also a reasonably safe place to go. Although the stampede that this message would just start-
  I started running as fast as I possibly could towards Victoria Island.
  This promotion brought to you by Horizon Africa and Pathfinder Multimedia Entertainment.
  Well God bless Horizon then, because the littlest and most recent AAA that could had just given me a gold-plated opportunity right out of the blue.
  I arrived at the security cordon over 100 meters away from Why Not? to see that Horizon had actually anticipated the freaking riot that their little promotion would cause, and had both copious rented local muscle - Ahigbe gang colors, I noticed, meaning that they'd have at least some vague idea of restraint and fire discipline - and clean-cut looking corporate security out in force, making sure that nobody line jumped and nobody trampled each other. Because sure enough, half of everybody who could make it to the Islands district at all was trying to jam into one large nightclub. They'd set up the 'giveaway' stations outside in the street just to spare the poor owner the damages, although I was certain they were still going to make out like a bandit tonight on the rush of business from both lucky winners and unlucky losers.
  The giveaway booths seemed to be holding some kind of random-number lottery so that they could move as many people through as possible instead of having to make the entire crowd wait while they did a raffle or a talent show or something. Also, it was a lot harder to bribe a megacorporate computer than it was any metahuman contest proctor - this was Lagos, after all.
  I rapidly studied the entire scene, evaluated the perimeter for weaknesses, and made my plan.
  I was hardly the only person standing around outside the security perimeter waiting for a lucky ticket winner to come back out across it without having been smart enough to hire a short-term bodyguard to get the precious payload back to the hotel, and without owning a commlink and a SIN so that they could just have their ticket digitally credited to their account instead of being a physical chip that could be stolen. Fortunately for me, I was perhaps the only would-be vulture who had sufficient adept hearing and vision that I could pull a Kal-El and scan and listen to the entire crowd. Even for me concentrating like this was - well, not a headache, as I could arbitrarily scale mental capacity to need - but still tedious as hell, because being able to process and tolerate a sensory overload without the overload didn't stop it from being a shit ton of crap to wade through.
  At any rate, after somewhat less than an hour of waiting a lucky young man and his excited girlfriend - both of them Lagosian locals, and who judging from their clothes and relative cleanliness were servants employed at one of the richer white people mansions around here - came skipping out. Since lucky tickets were not being given away in pairs and they were both happy instead of arguing about it, that meant-
  Aaaaand, here comes a group of Area Boys right on schedule. Igbo tribal thugs the lot of them, and only walking around freely on the Islands because all the affiliated sub-sets of gangs underneath the 'Area Boys' umbrella were the closest Lagos had to an actual police force anywhere outside the Islands district. Indeed, one of the richest local residents of Victoria Island was Chidi Ene, a multimillionaire whose own pocket Xanadu of decadence and white marble mansion was as far removed from the squalor of the slums as could possibly be imagined - but who'd had every single nuyen of his millions paid for as his percentage of the 'taxes' and 'fees' that the Area Boys squeezed out of every unlucky person they could watch walking with too many naira burning a hole in their pockets as payment for the 'protection' they offered those very same streets.
  So with two unarmed people barely Cat's age facing six thugs with machetes and assault rifles, it was a foregone conclusion. They didn't even try to resist - and rightly so, as the Area Boys would have cut them down without a second thought for so much as being backtalked - even as they wept openly at seeing their one good stroke of fortune be taken away from them. The thugs laughed at the colossal naivete of the rich oyibos from out of town who had no idea of the reality of Lagos and what misery their 'giveaway' would be provoking at second-hand everywhere in the sprawl tonight-
  And then I arrived, and that fight was an equally foregone conclusion. Not a single one of them even got a shot off. Which was good, because this was the Islands and unlike other places in Lagos, gunfire actually stood out here.
  "Hey." I called out to the white-faced young couple as they turned to flee. "Don't run, this is yours!"
  "... you're giving it back?" the young man goggled as they came to a shocked halt, both of them as nonplussed as if I'd materialized a purple talking unicorn out of thin air in front of them. In fact, they'd probably have been less confused by the unicorn. Illusion magic was a thing Lagosians could understand, but charity and justice were far far rarer.
  "I noticed that you had only one ticket, but you both were still happy. Which means you weren't arguing over who got to use it, which means you were going to sell it and use the nest egg to build a new life together." I answered them.
  "What else would anyone possibly do with so valuable a thing?" the young woman berated me as if I were the stupidest man on Earth. "Of course we were going to sell it-"
  The young man interrupted her, having already seen where I was going. "You wish to buy it?"
  "It'd be only fair, don't you think?" I shrugged.
  "But why?" she asked me matter-of-factly. "You were strong enough to take it from the Area Boys, just as they were strong enough to take it from us. You don't need to pay us to keep it."
  How to explain fair trade and rule of law to people who'd grown up not even seeing such a concept on the trid, let alone in their lives-?
  "Let's just say I'm paying you for the privilege of not being disgusting pigs like them." I finally answered them.
  "Okay!" her young man agreed quickly. "So, would you pay five thousand?"
  "Sure." I agreed, pulling the certified credstick out of my pocket and slapping into his hand. "But I should probably walk you to your moneychanger, so you can not only cash that but you actually reach him still with it."
  "I meant naira, sir, not nuyen!" he said, aghast as he looked down at what I'd just handed him.
  "No takebacks!" I replied impishly. "We already shook on it!"
  "Crazy oyibo." I heard her mutter under her breath, but I was feeling too cheerful to really care.
  Because in addition to my having gotten a chance to actually do a good deed in Lagos, even if it was just a drop of pure water in a pollute ocean, there was also that I'd just majorly advanced my mission. Because if there was one thing a crimelord who had an inappropriate taste for young girls would like to trade me for, it would be a chance to ogle one of the most famous and beautiful teenagers in the world at her concert. Even if there would be a small army of corpsec to keep him from doing anything but a tastefully distant ogle. Especially if, in fact. Because otherwise I'd have sooner thrown this ticket in the ocean.
  But fortunately for me, the rest of the plan worked as scheduled. With concert ticket in hand, calling the "Port Master's" mansion and offering to scalp the ticket got me exactly what I wanted - a face-to-face with the man at a neutral site. We amiably did our business at the 'Diamond Traders' bar and I reasonably informed him that certain out-of-town interests were looking to psychologically manipulate him and try to hook him on the cheap instead of simply coming to him and offering to pay an honest price like men. The appeal to his ego worked - it's not like it was that hard - and Roger Iweke threw the full resources of his crime syndicate/portmaster's service (again, like there was any real difference in Lagos) to tracking down our out-of-town stranger. As he was a major local figure instead of a lone oyibo like me we'd had the guy run down by morning, and as per part of the agreed-upon fee for the ticket I got to interrogate the man alone. Iweke wasn't really interested in the who/what/where/why behind the guy, after all, he'd just wanted an assurance that the insulting greedy foreigner would be suitably dealt with.
  So, shortly before dawn my target and I had a quiet chat on a nice, private - if sadly oil-stained - beach overlooking the ocean.
  "Right. This is the part where I don't torture you." I opened with.
  "Isn't that a little backwards?" he sneered from where he was solidly tied hand and foot to an old rusty steel chair.
  "Wouldn't work." I said, kneeling down alongside him. "I mean, there's entirely circumstances where it would have a certain utilarian value... but this isn't one of them. I bend your body parts backwards until you squeal, you'll tell me what I want to hear and three or four other versions of it. Then I spend weeks trying to figure out which version is actually true, by which point the intel is stale enough bread I could grow penicillin on it. You're a sole source of information, not something I can cross-check against other sources to quickly eliminate false positives. So..."
  "All this effort for nothing, then?" he scoffed.
  "God, you're a stupid cunt." I said frustratedly. "But then again, only an idiot would have walked straight into the most famous newbie scam in Lagos. How much did the Spider clip you for?"
  "... I don't want to talk about it." he grumped.
  "Yeah, you're really not experienced at working the Lagos beat at all, are you?" I said. "That's probably why you haven't already figured out why you're going to cooperate with me fully."
  "Why would I ever do that?" he eye-rolled.
  "Do you seriously not understand that the Port Master thinks I paid him for the privilege of torturing you to death myself?" I patiently explained to him. "If you're seen walking around alive again in Lagos later today, then he'll deal with you. Probably while thinking that I'm an idiot fuck-up who let you escape, but like I care about that sleazebag's good opinion of me. And the previous guy who insulted Iweke the way you did was last seen being worked over with the same cutting torches they use to take apart those old shipwrecks for the scrap metal. They started at the feet you see, and worked up a couple inches at a time-"
  "You're lying!" he said desperately. "And I never insulted the man at all!"
  "Technically you didn't." I agreed. "But after I got through negotiating with him he certainly thinks you did. I'm already a professional killer, after all, so what's a little white lie or two?"
  "What's your game?" he asked me desperately.
  "I want to know who you work for, of course." I said.
  "I'm dead if I tell you!" he said heatedly.
  "You're very dead if you don't." I said simply. "So, would you like the high probability of your boss being extremely upset with you at a later date, or the absolute certainty that the only way you will live out the day is with my help?"
  "I-" he broke off.
  "Would you like a few minutes alone with your thoughts while you ponder that one? I'm not the person on a strict timetable." I offered, and then before he could answer I calmly walked away and down the beach. Far enough to see if he escaped and easily run him down, but just far enough he'd think I couldn't hear him calling.
  Sure enough, the minutes of stewing it over and feeling even more out of control of even the tiniest element of the situation made him decide to take his chances. I knew exactly how he felt, given that I'd once faced a similar choice in strapping on a parachute I'd never had any training in how to use because the alternative was maybe having to go off the roof without a parachute. Although by the end of the night I'd had to do the drop sans parachute anyway... okay, perhaps I didn't think that metaphor entirely through.
  At any rate, our sweating would-be corporate black op had finally reached the point where he'd give it up, and so I eagerly awaited what would hopefully spare me from having to spend another fucking day in Lagos doing a solo black op. Because honestly, this weekend had just been tedious enough as is.
  "All right, I admit it. The corporation I was hired to do legwork for also hired MET2000. He finally got fed up with the standoff and is putting his full power into breaking it. He wants the oil fields, the pipeline, the port, all of it. And he's going to get it, so whatever pitiful king or petty merc band you're working for might as well get smart and cut a deal before the cutting reaches their necks!" he boasted.
  "Do you get paid by the word?" I sighed. "Or do you just want to hear me belabor the incredibly obvious question? Okay, fine, consider it belabored. Who is 'he'?" I finished wearily.
  "Neil the Ork Barbarian!" he scoffed. "Who the hell do you think it is? Who's the richest and most powerful player in the petrochemical industry or any other? Who is-"
  I cleared my throat. Loudly.
  "Saeder-Krupp!" he finally burst out. "The Great Dragon Lofwyr! Who else could it possibly be?!?"
  Author's Notes: Dun dun dun! Cliffhanger!
  I was actually building up to a dramatic manhunt across Lagos when I realized my MC is too smart to do a stern chase when he already knows the endpoint of the run. Then I was building up to a massive Splinter Cell type run on the Port Master's mansion when I realized that I wanted to get Horizon and their unique approach to corporate expansion and marketing on-stage in some way because I have vague notions of using that later, and by applying a little English to the shot I could easily make it serve the current mission objective. And so, concert tickets.
  Because while it's not a real shadowrun until the Johnson's screwed you twice, it's not a real Shadowrun campaign until either the DM or the players have done something entirely gonzo and made it work anyway. *g*
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  "Lofwyr?" Cat gasped to me as we were catching up back in our quarters. You didn't often see someone literally drop their jaw in shock, but I just had.
  "I know, right?" I expostulated. "How unbelievable can bullshit get? Who was possibly expected to fall for his story?"
  "Him, obviously." she eye-rolled. "But yes, even though he was clearly intended to be eventually caught and pumped dry, they could at least have primed him with better disinformation. Then again, maybe he blew his lines. They'd obviously picked him for dumb, and I'm surprised he lasted long enough in Lagos for you to find him still alive at the end of the run."
  "Well, it helped that he mostly treated the experience as a free excuse to junket in the Islands district and enjoy the unique recreational opportunities of war-torn Africa." I said disgustedly. "So he mostly stayed fartsing around where all the rich oyibos don't get themselves casually murdered. Much."
  "Seem as if." she agreed. "But yes, it couldn't possibly be Lofwyr. Nobody at Saeder-Krupp Prime would last long in a covert operations job slot at that degree of incompetence, even if it was just poor judgment in hiring subcontractors." she analyzed. "Plus the even more basic flaw in that theory. Like we said, MET2000's entire campaign only works if Global Sandstorm is foolish enough to not strategically reposition the camp and run out the shot clock. And when did Lofwyr ever use a strategy that required the enemy's cooperation in helping script his dream engagement? That's literally a 'The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries' level failure!"
  "The thing is, if we weren't expected to believe it - and you're right, the Major and the command staff certainly don't - then who was?" I mused out loud.
  Cat blinked. "Oh, fuck." she swore anxiously. "Okay, this is a valid operational question and I am in intel section as well as comms, so please tell me. What is the Major going to do with him?"
  "Give him back to Saeder-Krupp, of course." I shrugged. "My suggestion, but she'd already gotten that far on her own. If he's somehow genuinely an S-K operative then we lose nothing by being polite and can possibly earn a few brownie points, and if he's a false flag then Saeder-Krupp will be far more motivated and able than we are to run down exactly who's playing games in their name. S-K Prime is having to fly in a representative from the Arabian Confederation for the pick-up due to not having a local office - or at least any they'll admit to having - so the hand-off isn't until tomorrow."
  Cat nodded and stood up, reaching for her uniform blouse and pants on the nearby hook and starting to button back up and get herself presentable enough for work. "Then I need to go to work on this right now, because I just had a horrible suspicion."
  "Anything you can tell me?" I said, sitting up.
  "The only reason anyone halfway competent picks an operative who can't keep his mouth shut to save his life is when they want his gossip all over town. So left to his own devices, eventually every info broker in Lagos should know that it was Saeder-Krupp who probably hired the Metalheads, even if there's no actual proof of it and even if the idiot himself was dead in a ditch by then. If the idiot hadn't spent so much time goofing off on his expense account and not really working, that would already have happened." she laid down.
  "Yes, but how does that work out for whoever hired him?" I asked her.
  Cat sighed. "Alex, who is the one possible player in the game who can guarantee Global Sandstorm's cooperation in helping set up their ideal scenario?"
  "... Global Sandstorm." I cursed, getting to my own feet and starting to square away my own uniform. "So it's entirely possible that we're being set up to fail by our own client."
  "I certainly hope not, but apparently Johnson Screws aren't just for shadowrunners." she sighed.
  After we spent almost an hour that morning in Netcat's cubicle frantically doing some data lookups, we dropped the text into the 77th's local subnet.
  (Netcat) Wild Man and I have time-sensitive analysis of URGENT priority for the Commanding Officer and the Intelligence Officer. Request face-to-face conference at earliest convenience.
  In less than a minute the reply text came in on both our commlinks.
  (Picador) Secure conference room in 15 minutes.
  After we'd finished our impromptu presentation, the Major turned to look at Captain Vandervoort.
  "I believe them." the 77th's S-2 said. "Everyone knows that Saeder-Krupp and Global Sandstorm have been knife fighting over the Arabian petroleum cartel ever since the Global Oil/Sandstorm Engineering merger of 2064 created the megacorporation in the first place. And their regional near-monopoly is one of the main things keeping Global Sandstorm rated as a AA megacorporation at all."
  "Didn't Global Sandstorm essentially lock in the Caliphate's support at their start, after Ibn Eisa's 'Islamic Unity Movement' collapsed when it was revealed he was actually possessed by a master shedim?' Picador asked him.
  "The Caliph doesn't have the juice right now to pick his own breakfast menu without CEO al-Shammar's permission, yes." the Captain nodded. "But that just means there's a lot of second-tier players in the Caliphate who are losing out because Global Sandstorm burst out onto the scene to hog all the pie, and that means they'd be potentially more willing to deal with a dragon despite Lofwyr's own historical unpopularity in the region."
  "So Global Sandstorm needs a major public embarrassment for Saeder-Krupp this year to shore up their new cartel dominance at home." Specialist Connors contributed smartly. "We did some quick data-mining before the meeting-" A few quick commands to her commlink put the charts and graphs up in everyone's personal HUDs.
  "It's just preliminary trends so far, but the marketing and poll data and investment chatter indicates that Global Sandstorm might genuinely lose several important secondary refining contracts to Saeder-Krupp this summer if they can't get ahead of the news cycle." the captain agreed. "I would not be surprised if the in-depth follow-up I'm going to have my people run on this question after the meeting confirms Specialist Connors' preliminary results. And the thing about a monopoly cartel is, once the dam starts cracking at all- especially with the size of the prybar that Lofwyr could jam into any real crack-"
  "Damn." Picador cursed. "Even with everything both us and MET2000 would cost, even if they somehow worst-cased it and lost the pipeline here entirely, the bath they'd take on all that still wouldn't hit their bottom line nearly as hard as if they stopped dominating the Arabian oil cartel as thoroughly as they do now. And while 'the Arabian Shogun' is smart enough to start working on defusing the resentment now that it's plain that it exists, he was clearly caught off guard while it was initially building. So he needs a big PR coup this season to keep his bubble from bursting in the short term until he can gradually ease the pressure over the long-term... no matter the cost."
  "He obviously couldn't prove Saeder-Krupp was guilty of war crimes, because in this presumed scenario they didn't genuinely hire MET2000. But if the contract was run through enough blinds and escrows, even the Metalheads wouldn't know who their client really was. And if there were enough innuendos and hints in the Lagos shadows that it was obviously Saeder-Krupp even if nobody could actually bring them up in front of a war crimes tribunal-" the captain noted.
  "MET2000 will think they can avoid the charges for what their client is demanding be done because if they stage-manage the atrocity right they can blame it on our incompetence. Global Sandstorm, who'd be the ones prosecuting the war crimes, can sandbag hard enough on the investigation to let that actually work. Saeder-Krupp escapes conviction because they were never genuinely here, but all the stage-managing leaves them looking guilty as hell in the court of public opinion. It's hardly as if Lofwyr has a nice reputation for how he does business, after all. And, of course, no local operator in the Middle East can even look like they're making a conciliatory gesture towards Saeder-Krupp for the next six to twelve months without massively blackening their own reps in the process and letting Global Sandstorm eat their lunches that way. Damned if they do, damned if they don't, and everybody walks away at least at status quo ante. Except for us, because we're the scapegoats." Picador sighed. "What a potential nightmare."
  "Potential." the captain agreed. "Because while it's certainly a horrific prospect, we don't have any proof yet."
  "We definitely have a new set of concerns we need to raise with Lofwyr's representative tomorrow, though." the Major nodded to both of us. "So well done the both of you at putting all this together and getting it in front of us before then. And now, it's time for the traditional reward for a job well done."
  "Another job." Cat and I both chorused.
  "Exactly." she agreed. "As of now you are both detached for a separate intel operation underneath Captain Vandervoort's overall coordination. Specifically, Operation 'Find Out How Fucked We Might Really Be And Fast'."
  "We have a chain of command problem there, Major." I diffidently pointed out.
  "We're a merc company, not the UCAS Army." she retorted. "The fraternization regs are here to help keep this lash-up functioning, not because I've got a spit-and-polish fetish. And as you two turned up this critical piece of analysis because of pillow talk, I'm hardly going to demand you both keep it in your pants now." she smirked at us. "Just don't let it get in the way of the work."
  "Yes ma'am." we both answered her.
  "Good." she sighed. "All right, dismissed. Captain, tell the Sergeant-Major I want an officer's call in the mess at 1100. But don't put the announcement out on the company subnet, word-of-mouth only. And especially do not invite the client rep."
  "Yes ma'am." he acknowledged, and we all got moving.
  Step one was to crack our Global Sandstorm liaison officer's commlink. The XO distracted him with a meeting, I slipped a data-key that 'Cat had preprepared into his commlink's slot with a bit of discreet pickpocketing in the outer office. Cat used the window of opportunity that the trojan had opened for her to wirelessly hack and pull a dump of every file on the man's commlink, then wipe all traces that she'd ever been in there. All I had to do was slip the key back out of the slot as the man departed, and voila. Not a footprint in the sand.
  Sadly, we did not benefit from the cliche of having all the documentation to neatly break open the conspiracy stored in the pocket of the first guy we searched. While all of his emails and progress reports would make interesting reading, the information of most immediate use was his access codes for the local Global Sandstorm Matrix host. I'd had a suspicion of what possible corroborating evidence we could find in there, and even though it took us well into the evening to crunch that much raw data we eventually found it.
  "Your hunch was right." Cat said. "Judging by all these HR reports and recent transfers, anybody who was of high value to the corporation was quietly pulled out ahead of time and replaced with marginal cases that they could more easily afford to lose. Oh, it's not just a dumping ground for the awkward squad - that would be too obvious - but several hundred employees all selected for a geographically remote and theoretically high-value post and not one of them is fast-tracker material? Even the new site supervisor has a track record that's basically undistinguished, and certainly has nothing in his experience base that would recommend him for a high-risk post in Africa."
  "Sacrificial lambs, and on the cheap." I nodded. "So, another one for the suspicions pile."
  "But still nothing solid. Because without hard proof in hand that the client is selling us out, we can't breach our contract." she sighed. "So, what's next?"
  "Going from the man's email traffic, our liaison agreed with the Major that pulling the camp out would be the best move but he was overruled from corporate HQ. So apparently none of the GS locals on the ground here are in on the scam, if it is a scam. Everyone's a mushroom, so we won't find any hard proof here." I analyzed.
  "We can't fly down to Riyadh to try cracking the GS central hosts there." she said. "Even if I was up to that level of hacker, which I'm not quite yet-"
  "Yeah, that would take someone like Pistons on a good day." I agreed. "And we don't have the budget for this op to hire her or anyone like her, because we have to keep our client from noticing and the client rep would certainly notice if we suddenly moved that kind of money into unvouchered funds." I shrugged. "That's a client rep's main job, after all, to provide accounting oversight to ensure that the PMC isn't soaking the client by playing games with the expense funding."
  "So what can we do?" she asked me.
  "Well, if you can't win head-on then you outflank." I shrugged. "If our theory is correct then MET2000 doesn't know who's hiring them. But no matter how blind they're working, they still have to know what bank account numbers their paychecks are coming from. And while of course they'll be using blind accounts and front companies, while the 77th doesn't have the juice to be able to unravel that kind of international money laundering setup in time Saeder-Krupp certainly does."
  "So we need the detailed financials from the local MET2000 force's own internal records." she nodded. "And assuming they don't immediately reveal that S-K actually did hire the Metalheads, then we can hand those off to Saeder-Krupp as potential leads for whoever's trying to frame them."
  "And then the big bad corporate dragon can go make life miserable for Global Sandstorm, which he already wants to do anyway, and help our asses out in the process." I said. "So..." I trailed off.
  "I know." she said quietly. "We'd actually have to put the hacker inside their close perimeter somehow to reach their internal subnet. And that means taking the hacker well and truly into the field. And there's only a few people in Signals who have the cracking expertise to do the hack at all and out of them all, I'm by far the best shot. And the only one who actually did more than minimally scrape by on the PT test or possesses even peripheral field experience."
  "Where was that?" I asked her, curiously. "Because I know you didn't get it with me."
  "Tarislar." she surprised me, naming the elven enclave in the Puyallup Barrens. "I was the only person in two generations of my family to go to college, and one of the only three people who graduated high school. And while I was hardly out there running with the Ancients when I was a girl, I at least learned how to keep an eye out for incoming fire and when to duck a bullet. Had to do that several times, and that's a lot closer than any of those other college kids have ever gotten to doing it."
  "No wonder you didn't want to go to Underworld 23." I remembered. "You'd already tasted Puyallup's local ambience, and didn't want to go back."
  "Oh, Tarislar's almost civilized now." she corrected me. "Certainly more than Puyallup average. Enough money's made it back into the neighborhood that they could actually hire Knight Errant for a local police contract and restore basic utilities. But yeah, back when I was knee-high to a devil rat it was at least as nasty as Touristville. So while that's hardly the same as actual combat experience-"
  "You at least did more than just minimally scrape by the 77th's combat training, and you've already lost your 'being shot at' virginity so we can be certain you won't freeze if taking incoming fire." I agreed. "Great. I'm pretty sure that when the Major gave us permission to ignore the fraternization regs while I was technically your squad NCO, she didn't mean while actively deployed on special operations!" I raged.
  "You know you'll have to ask her." Cat pointed out to me firmly. "And you have to take me out with the rest of the team. Needs must."
  "Needs must." I reluctantly agreed. "Well I hope you've haven't been skimping on your daily run recently, because extended behind-the-lines ops are just a wee bit strenuous."
  The Saeder-Krupp representative discreetly arrived - we did the hand-off in Lagos proper precisely to keep our client rep from noticing it - and politely heard out our concerns and left us a Matrix drop-box we could leave the bank info in if and when we ever obtained it. They then took our hapless would-be spy and flew away with him, and we got back to planning the upcoming recon strike on MET2000.
  Because the war had not been on hold while I'd been busy in Lagos or 'Cat and I had been busy with our detached operation.
  Now, MET2000 wasn't blitzing us quite as hard as they could have, but that was because the 77th had made every possible use of defensive and terrain advantage we could to turn the possible lines of approach into deadly tank traps while denying them the chance for a superior artillery duel as much as possible. They had enough firepower to blow through our minefields and anti-tank rocket teams and short-range gun drones by main force, but not without losing a goodly chunk of their shiny new armor in the process. And for a mercenary company, their troops and their heavy equipment were their capital. You didn't expend more of either than you had to, not even to get a rapid victory. Even the Metalheads didn't have endless money to burn and had to worry about less people wanting to sign up if the casualty rates for their predecessors got too high, so for as long as a war of attrition favored them then they'd readily stick with it even if it meant taking the scenic route.
  But that didn't mean that people weren't dying. Trench warfare versus a more heavily-armed opponent was no joke, and advantage of position could only do so much to make up for deficits in firepower. The 77th had already taken almost ten percent casualties among the line units, and even though many of those casualties would eventually recover enough to return to duty at least a few of them would only do so after the Major shelled out for new body parts. And eventually was still too long in the future to do anything for us right now.
  Several other companies would already have broken under our losses. Even the 77th was starting to feel the grim pinch pretty hard. But El Cuadrilla loved their CO, trusted their officers, and had their mission and their unit pride, and so we'd hold the line for as long as we could. Which wasn't going to be quite long enough, not if things continued as they were.
  While I could learn essentially anything I put my mind to at superhuman speed, I was not equally as gifted at teaching. Oh, my mysterious powers would amplify me at need to make a nigh-perfect instructor at anything I already knew how to do, but being superhumanly efficient at teaching still capped out at a definite point. I might be essentially flawless at perceiving the flaws in a person's development, understanding how to fix it, and conveying that understanding in a fashion useable by the student, but even 'no wasted time or effort at all' level teaching was still ultimately limited by the inherent potential of the student.
  So while my ongoing help with her general fitness and unarmed training had turned 'Cat into an extremely fit black-belt, and she'd already been a crack shot from years and years of ultrarealistic VR video gaming and had had both me and Master Sergeant Martinez to coach through the differences of translating virtual reality into real guns, she still wasn't a tithe on someone like Fatima or Pistons, let alone someone with my bullshit cheats. Experience counted, and so did total man-hours of time spent training and working out, and she simply hadn't had the time to gather as much of those as some other people had. There's also that while she was hardly unathletic neither was she exceptionally agile or strong, and some other people just were.
  Even so, while she wouldn't have qualified on her own merits for the spec-ops grade that Recon Platoon was expected to cut she was still entirely competent by the standards of normal line infantry. So as a necessary technical specialist doing a ride-along with the squad, and one who wasn't expected to bear the heavy burden of the fighting, she'd still be good enough to take along on the op. Especially given my frantic last-minute training in stealth skills, which while hardly making her a ninja still meant we should be able to avoid the action movie cliche of her being the one to step on a twig or cough at the wrong time.
  So, a rational person would still hate the risk of taking her along but be able to accept it and understand that it was not wholly unjustified. I was not anywhere near a rational person where Cat was involved, and it took amping myself up for literally superhuman amounts of self-control and repression to avoid blowing the whole deal at any one of several points.
  The paradox was that my ability to do this was one of the reasons I felt so close to Cat in the first place. Not that it was the only reason I did, or even my primary reason for doing so. And it would have been massively psychologically unhealthy for it to be the main or only reason. But the fact remained that my superhuman ability to scale up my mental or physical attributes as needed or strongly desired included scaling up my ability to put aside my own misgivings and commit to a single course of action... even potentially against my own good sense or conscience. And while normally I was actually more ethically straight-laced then Cat was - indeed, her growing up in Puyallup finally helped me understand where she'd picked up her definite tinge of gray-area 'flexibility' despite not being inclined to it by personality - I could possibly shift my mental gears over into being an ice-cold monster if I ever seriously tried, while the moral and emotional inclinations that Cat naturally possessed would only evolve and change within natural human limits.
  In short, she was my touchstone. If I ever started to seriously horrify or alienate her, then I could know that I'd somehow evolved too far off-center without my noticing. And yes, you didn't have to be a lover to do that for someone - friends would also suffice, and I was making those - but she was still my chief touchstone, as well as the person I trusted and cared for the most.
  So yeah, having to take her deep into the jungle for a behind-the-lines raid on an MET2000 camp? I hated it.
  "Drone. Down!" 'Fadeout', our CQB specialist, whispered just ahead of me as the faint whining of its rotors sounded in both her and my augmented ears, and we all hit the dirt and froze. Our infra-red diffusing ponchos would keep our silhouettes from showing up too distinctly on the overhead sensors, but nothing drew the eye of either an analysis program or a sensor operator like movement did. So us pretending to be animals would still be helped by our being stationary animals.
  "It's gone." Netcat eventually whispered, her passive sensors putting the display on the local HUD projected into her helmet visor.
  "Into the river." I said, rising back up to a crouch as our four-man team resumed movement. "We use the water from here on out."
  "Ugh, leeches." 'Long-Tom', our sharpshooter, muttered as we entered the filthy creek bed up to our thighs and started wading. Of course we were wearing sealed boots and leggings, because you'd have to be psychotic to soak yourself in Nigerian groundwater around here, and all had transgenic immunity treatments besides, but... yeah. Ugh, leeches.
  I cocked an eye at Cat to make sure she was all right, then turned back to keeping an eye and ear on everything else. Fadeout had point, I was second, Netcat was third, and Long-Tom had drag.
  "Distance check?" I asked after we'd spent the next ten minutes slowly and quietly advancing, as we took a breather underneath a low wooden bridge.
  "Approximately two klicks to go." Fadeout said as we all checked the map and GPS display for ourselves.
  "Time to window?" I asked Netcat.
  "Asgard clears the horizon in 19 minutes. We'll have 93 minutes after that until she's out of angle again." she replied coolly.
  "One and a half hours of eye in the sky." Long-Tom agreed. "That gets us in, but not all the way out."
  "Out we can take our time on." I said. "Or just run like the clappers. In is the tricky part, and that's why the Major authorized actually paying to rent reconsat time to let us spot and evade the patrols."
  "Tell grandma how to suck eggs." Fadeout said tolerantly, and we hunkered down to wait for the satellite. Cat started to nervously shift after a few minutes, but my hand on her shoulder calmed her down. She wasn't quite used to the sheer amount of 'hurry-up-and-wait' that long-range recon patrol behind the lines often involved.
  "All right, 'Cat, you're the one that does the plot. Call patterns and strays." I said as we synced our commlinks to the portable satellite feed that was part of her EW pack. The final approach to the camp would be done with the advantage of our being able to see all of MET2000's patrol vehicles and drones even more readily than their overhead cover could see us. Asgard was an megacorporate ELINT satellite turned freelance orbital data haven and reconsat-for-rent when Fuchi Industrial Electronics, one of the founding AAA megacorps of the Corporate Court, had 'lost' one of their most advanced spysats during their 2060 breakup. Picked up by some shadowy entrepreneurs, they'd gleefully turned it into a rather unique cash cow of the shadows. And while normally renting this much time on their recon platform would have been ridiculously expensive, we'd gotten a discounted bulk rate because it's not as if they normally got any business in this particular ass end of their satellite's low-earth-orbit window.
  "Time to make the donut holes." Long-Tom said cheerfully as we headed out.
  "Weapons tight." I reminded everyone dutifully. "We go waking the neighbors before we've pulled the data we need, we wasted the whole trip."
  What would have been a leisurely fifteen-minute jog for us was almost a nail-bitingly tense hour as we slowly and carefully did stop-and-go, duck-and-weave, and time-and-wait as we evaded more drones, a patrolling AFV, listening posts, and a nasty ground sensor grid a hundred meters out from their wire. Fadeout, who was also a qualified minefield-clearing specialist, did her thing by creeping close enough to get a hand on one of the sensor emplacements without quite tripping its threshold and then hotwiring it into test mode. MET2000 had actually surprised us by laying fiber instead of using wireless hookups on the perimeter grid, so Cat couldn't hack it.
  "Can you plug into this end and hit the host that way?" I asked as we drew up behind an irregular knot of ground to obscure LOS from the camp itself and Fadeout handed Netcat the stripped fiber end.
  "Let me try..." she said, and hooked it up and jacked in. About ten seconds later she popped her jack. "Nope. It's just a feeder, slaved to a dedicated grid. You want me to risk trying to kick the whole grid into blindspot mode?"
  "Yes." I said after thinking it over. "The ability to leave the camp in any direction other than the one we came in might be useful."
  "Two minutes." she replied, and after diving back into Matrix space we tensely waited until she reported all-clear. "Okay, everything all the way to the fence itself is now loopy. Understand, this starts a new mission clock for us, because if their duty tech on watch notices the looping-"
  "Risk of the job." I agreed. "All right, step two."
  Netcat left an auxiliary transceiver spliced to the fiber end in case she wanted to talk to the sensor grid again in the future and went back into her commlink's AR to look for open wireless points around camp. "Chatter... entertainment channels... ooo, DirectX simsense even, fancy. Maybe I should VR that." she finished cheekily.
  "Mind, gutter, out." I said amusedly, while the rest of us chuckled.
  "Philistines." she joked. "And... wow, somebody actually stayed awake in communications security school. Who'd expect that from the Metalheads? The camp subnet is all routine and housekeeping. Commander's records and other classified stuff? No indications of any nodes with that kind of protection."
  "Sealed VPN." I swore. "Damn. Suggestions?" I asked the resident expert.
  "I need to be inside the wire." Netcat replied. "And plug into either a terminal in one of the huts or the onboard comms in one of the combat vehicles, so I can reach MET2000's own private LTG."
  "Pull a full-spectrum overhead of the firebase from Asgard and put it on everyone's display." I sighed. "Let's look at options."
  Fadeout's cybernetics and my physad abilities could let us simply clear the outer fence in a high-jump. Long-Tom and Netcat didn't quite have the augs for that, but with one of us on each side we could simply toss the other two over if need be, like a circus act. So with the outer sensor grid down we were able to circle the camp and come up on a darkened section that didn't have anyone awake in the middle of the night except several lookouts, keeping an eye out to make sure nobody had stolen of the vehicles from this, one of MET2000's several forward operating firebases in this otherwise uninhabited section of rural Africa.
  "Shit, they're not moving." Long-Tom said as he looked at them through his scope. "Those aren't rovers, those are posted."
  "11 minutes until Asgard is down." Netcat chimed in.
  "I am not laying with my nose in the mud this close to their wire until the eye in the sky comes around again." I said. "Netcat, switch Asgard to ELINT mode. While we've got any window left let's listen instead of look. Are any of the posted guards actively transmitting?"
  "No." she said after running an analysis. "My own antenna hears nothing, neither does our orbital microwave snooper."
  "They don't have vital signs monitors or deadman switches." Long-Tom nodded. "I guess even the Metalheads only gold-plate their toilets, not platinum-plate 'em."
  "Well, it's just past the hour, meaning they won't call the guardroom for another hour if they're following SOP." I agreed, unlimbering my own rifle. "Netcat spots me, Fadeout spots Long-Tom."
  "One on the left." he agreed, settling into position.
  "One on the right." I acknowledged ."And tail-end Charlie looking out from the corner is for whoever finishes first. On my go... three... two... one..."
  Two silenced rifle shots went off as one, and Long-Tom's followed up an instant later to put down the third guard overlooking the vehicle park. What, I wasn't greedy. Our respective spotter girls called away the hits as confirmed, and we got ready to infiltrate.
  "Maintenance hut's too close to the outer fence. Sloppy. Fadeout, hit the roof there and I'll toss 'em up to you." I called.
  Her hydraulic legs sprang and she silently flew into the night to neatly land on the roof of the hut near the fence with barely a whisper. My own strength was more than enough to send Long-Tom up to her with no problem, let alone Cat. Long-Tom was acrobatic enough he barely needed Fadeout's assistance to land smoothly, and while this was the first time Netcat had done such a maneuver that's why I'd waited until there were two people ready to catch her and pull her up.
  We got off the roof as quickly as possible. While it was a new moon and thus relatively dark, far too many men in this camp had cybereyes and everyone had NVGs built into their helmet faceplates. Armed people walking around on the ground could be mistaken for one of their own roving patrols at a distance. Armed people crouching on the roof of one of the prefab huts? No.
  I put my ear to the wall of the maintenance hut, a long low one-story structure.
  "Nothing." I said. "Fadeout, crack that door."
  She got to work with her lockpicks while Netcat stayed down low and me and Long-Tom kept lookout in separate directions.
  "Got it." Fadeout reported.
  "Tom, stay on Cat." I said. "You and me, sweep the hut."
  Fadeout and I both ghosted in like ninjas, our suppressed pistols out and aimed. Swiftly and efficiently we verified that the vehicle maintenance bay and attached office was clear of any presence. Sadly, the cyberterminal in the office was just a low-priority logistics system and not part of the corporate PLTG we wanted to enter.
  "Don't tell me we have to go into the command building." Fadeout swore as we finished regrouping inside and Cat reported the latest disappointment. "That's manned 24/7!"
  "There's a Suslov parked outside." Netcat said. "The onboard computer will have a high-security BattleTac link. That's our way in."
  "So, grand theft tank?" Long-Tom smiled. "And here I thought tonight would be dull."
  "Still kinda exposed, but definitely beats the command center." Fadeout agreed.
  A flashing red icon in all our HUDs told us that we'd just lost line-of-sight to Asgard via the orbital rotation of the Earth. No more eye in the sky.
  "Long-Tom, get on the roof and ghillie up. You're now eyes up high." I ordered.
  "On it." he said, and left.
  "Let's take the princess out to meet her carriage." Fadeout quirked a grin at me and Netcat, and we headed for the vehicle park.
  "Jeep coming. Down!" Long-Tom called as we crossed the lot, full of parked trucks and other light hicles that wouldn't have secure BattleTac links, as we headed towards the nearest of the parked infantry support tanks that would.
  We waited in the defilade of one of the larger trucks until the jeep finished driving on by as it circuited the camp's inner perimeter road.
  "Clear." Long-Tom eventually called.
  "Move." I agreed, and we continued our stealthy approach to the tank. Netcat climbed up on the rear deck and jacked back into her commlink, trying to use near-range conductivity to hack into the hatch circuits. Fadeout and I left her to it and turned away, spreading out to watch the corners-
  The sudden glare of the tank's running lights kicking in behind us almost made me crap my pants.
  "What the fuck did you do, you idiot greenie-?!?" Long-Tom started to swear, to be cut off by Netcat's frantic call.
  "There's someone inside!" Netcat shouted into the comm as the Suslov's systems booted up from maintenance standby. "Tank is occupied, tank is occupied!"
  Fadeout and I frantically leapt away from where we were standing as fast we could, just barely ahead of the Suslov's anti-infantry belt kicking in. The claymores spaced evenly down the skirts of the tank, intended as last-ditch defenses versus being swarmed by hostiles in tight quarters such as city streets, blasted ball bearings all through the volume of space our augmented asses had just vacated. My heart leapt into my mouth as I prayed that Netcat's being on top of the tank would keep her from being shredded by the backblast.
  Of course, right now we had other problems. The Suslov's turret was moving and the engine was revving up to full speed, so apparently two people had unaccountably been in the goddamned tank at 1 in the morning. One for the driver and one for the gunner-
  The world slowed down in around me as I slooowly saw the turret finish dialing in on Fadeout. Whether they used the coaxial gun or had the main gun loaded with beehive, either way she'd be vapor as soon as the gunner finished lining up and pulling the trigger. I reached out and put a hand on the truck I'd frantically dodged behind, and its tires shifted a couple inches sideways through the dirt as I took a deep breath and got ready to throw the entire fucking thing at the tank and never mind I'd break cover-
  And then the tank stopped dead, and Fadeout gaped at it like a landed fish as she realized she wasn't dead and I likewise tried to catch up. And then both our eyes swiveled up to see Netcat, disheveled from the backblast but still up and fighting, standing over the open commander's hatch in the top of the turret with her own pistol still smoking from where she'd just emptied the clip into whoever was down in there.
  "Two down!" she called away with a quaver. "Tank secured!"
  "The whole camp's waking up!" Long-Tom called away from his overwatch position, his voice still incredulous at what had just happened. "Whatever you guys are gonna do, do it fast!"
  "Netcat, tell the outer sensor grid to register a major penetration on the southeast axis!" I ordered her. We were of course not on the southeast corner. "We can't stop them from going red alert, but let's at least have them confused as to where that fire came from!"
  "On it!" she said as she finished frantically searching for something on the ground nearby, apparently found it, and then jumped back up on the tank and ducked down inside the turret.
  "Everybody else, stack on the tank!" I called and we all frantically ran over. "We've still got a job to do!"
  We all piled in, doing our best to ignore the two corpses that Netcat had just left in the turret except to shove them out of our way so we could all crowd in. The fact that they were both naked told us exactly why two Metalheads had been out cooping in a tank where they weren't supposed to be past midnight. Talk about 'letting it get in the way of the work' indeed.
  "Tell me you can crack that VPN." I begged her.
  "I can try!" Netcat answered worriedly. "But first-" she said, hurriedly manipulating the tank's controls. "There, I just plugged us into BattleTac and acknowledged us as responding to the alert. MET2000 is too fancy to do routine acknowledgements and call-ins by having people actually talk to each other, so long as we don't need to do any unscheduled radio chatter they'll think we're just a tank crew who was really on the ball about jumping to the alert."
  "Fadeout, can you drive this thing?" I asked her, because I knew I or Long-Tom couldn't.
  "If you'll call what you're about to see 'driving!'" she acknowledged, clumsily putting it into gear and rolling it out as we 'responded' to the alert'. "Better jump on that hacking, Netcat!"
  "Yessir!" she agreed hurriedly, and dove back into the Matrix.
  "Sergeant, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for every unkind thought I ever had about your apparent violations of good order and discipline." Long-Tom said formally. "Because your girlfriend is fucking awesome and I clearly have no taste at all."
  I cheerfully gave him the bro-fist of acceptance that the man code demanded for such occasions, while Fadeout just rolled her eyes.
  "Got it!" Netcat called away after what felt like half a lifetime.
  "Upload the paydata to the secondary commsat and get it back home." I ordered her. "And clone the tank's BattleTac access to your commlink. If we don't have Asgard to plot our exfil with then that's fine, we'll just use MET2000's own overhead surveillance."
  "The entire firebase is running around like headless chickens." Fadeout said. "How the hell are we going to get out?"
  "Netcat, remember that story I told you about the IFF system that couldn't remember how to un-whitelist someone in Seattle?" I said, referring to the Pyramid hack.
  "On it." she said curtly as she got busy corrupting the camp's BattleTac grid so that they couldn't actually override their own anti-friendly-fire circuit to kill our tank once they realized it was no longer their tank. "And, done!"
  "Fadeout, take it straight at the wire and melt the turbine." I ordered her. "Until they can finish crashing and rebooting their whole BattleTac host, this tank is bulletproof."
  "Yoicks and away!" Fadeout caroled, all of us except Netcat flying very high on our adrenaline now as we tore off into the night.
  While we obviously of course could not ride our stolen tank all the way home, or even more than a few miles, before they finally got control of their networked battlesystems grid back and blew it to flaming chunks, we had of course unassed the tank and sent it rolling onwards on a hasty autopilot program before that point. Not that the logistics of exiting a rolling tank without slowing it down enough to make it obvious that's what you were doing weren't a bit challenging, but we managed. It's not as if a Suslov was exactly a racing vehicle on the best of days, anyway. And once we'd broken initial contact, our stealth tap into their own BattleTac networks and later on a renewed period of recon time on Asgard as it came around again let us see them without them seeing us for long enough to make it miles and miles away without being run down and caught, and then it was just another day of tedious hiking to make it back to our lines.
  We arrived to find the entire camp awash in joyous relief. Saeder-Krupp had indeed been able to run down the financial data we'd uploaded back to home base and strip through the layers of money laundering to reveal MET2000 had ultimately been paid by a known Global Sandstorm front company via an obscured slush fund. With hard proof that both sides of the contract had ultimately been hired by the same party without either company's knowledge and then deliberately set against each other, MET2000 had agreed to an immediate cease-fire. The Major and the local Metalhead commander had both jointly gone to a Mercenary Guild adjudicator within the hour, and both companies had had their contracts voided for cause due to client malfeasance with full payout to us and penalties demanded from Global Sandstorm. Our phase of the Seven Kings War was over, and the 77th was free and clear.
  And once we got back in quarters, we finally had a chance to talk in private.
  "Cat, are you okay?" I asked her. Because she'd been downcast, distracted, or both the entire trip back.
  "No." she said, as we both hugged tightly.
  "First kills?" I asked her. "Do you want to talk about it now?"
  "That too," she surprised me. "And we will talk that out. But no, it's-" she pulled away from me and started looking all around, as if trying to spot something I couldn't see. "Let me sweep first... okay." she finished.
  "Um, 'Cat, your link's over there." I pointed at it. "If you were bug-sweeping, that is."
  "That's why I'm so spooked." she said. "Because- did any of you see what I did right after I got the hatch open and took out the two inside?" she asked.
  "You jumped down and picked something up off the ground." I said. "That's all I saw, and Fadeout and Long-Tom didn't even see that much." I replayed that exact moment in my eidetic memory. "He was looking down into the center of the camp, and she was busy watching the road."
  "I was picking up my commlink." she said, white-faced. "Because when the backblast from the mine belt went off, I'd dropped it."
  "How did you hack that hatch without your link?!?" I asked, entirely confused.
  "That's what's got me so spooked." she said. "When the turret was about to fire, suddenly something clicked." she said. "I wasn't just receiving anymore, I was jacked in. Without my commlink or my trodes. I hacked the tank's systems with my mind. And after that- even when I was busy dealing with the BattleTac software or the MET2000 PLTG, I wasn't using my commlink. That was just for cosmetic purposes. I just... did it."
  "Jesus Christ." I said. "Can you still do that now?"
  In answer, her commlink gave the 'ding!' of a reboot from where it sat adjacent to us on the little end table without her even looking at it.
  "Alex, what's happening to me?" she asked me frightfully.
  "Nothing you'll ever have to deal with alone." I reassured her, drawing her back into a hug.
  Because whatever else I might be uncertain of at this moment, I could damn well at least be certain of that.
  Author's Note: And, we have Emergence! Netcat the technomancer is go!
  And okay, I'm not going to say I looped parts of the Modern Warfare 3 soundtrack continuously while writing this segment, but I'm not not going to say that. *g*
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  "Okay, there is one hundred percent definitely nothing magical going on here at all." Fatima said after we finished the latest round of trials.
  "I'd assensed her myself, repeatedly, but it's always nice to have a second opinion." I agreed with her. While physical adepts could not astrally project or cast spells like magicians could, I had learned the adept power of astral sight in the interim. "And yeah, you even put her inside an astral ward and had her tap into a commlink outside of it. Nothing magical can cast a spell through an astral barrier."
  "Well they technically can if you put enough oomph into it, but the breach would be immediately apparent to the person who'd cast the barrier in the first place." Fatima corrected me. "Pistons, did you get anything?"
  Pistons wiped away the multiple Augmented Reality windows she'd been studying intently and looked up at us. "Nothing different from the last few times. I can scan and intercept her transmissions just like I could those from anyone using a commlink, and routine analysis doesn't turn up anything that I wouldn't get from someone who was using a commlink. It's only when I use a packet sniffer to trap some code samples and then actually tear them apart almost down to the datalink level that the anomalies start showing. Which makes sense because that's the abstraction layer that actually translates the electrical impulses from the hardware into encoded network packets in the first place, and exactly what the hell Netcat's 'hardware' is and how it can possibly run is the whole mystery right now. But as to decoding the digital gibberish underlying this all at the root and comprehending the underlying scientific basis of the whole phenomenon here?" She shrugged eloquently. "I'm a little minus on Nobel Prizes to swing that kind of job."
  "So, I fall into the scientific category technically known as 'What the fuck is that?'" Netcat sighed.
  "Yup." Pistons nodded. "Shit, I wish Smiling Bandit wasn't such a paranoid hermit and we actually could send you to go meet him. This is exactly the sort of scientific mystery he'd love."
  "Smiling Bandit?" I asked her.
  "One of the old-schoolers on the circuit. Top tier decker, but decking is just his day job to buy the groceries. Guy must have like half a dozen PhDs but would rather live in a cave somewhere and do all sorts of freelance theorizing then go join a corp or an institute. He spends all of his spare time hacking into 'private' peer review boards and research facilities to pick ultra-high-level nerd fights with corporate scientists, and quite often wins." Fatima explained. "Smarter than anybody I've ever heard of except maybe Fastjack, but he is one weird dude. Nobody ever interacts with him except via the Matrix. Like Pistons said, paranoid hermit."
  "Well, you've got my permission to email all your data to this Smiling Bandit - provided you take my name off and just make it about 'Subject N' or something like that - and see if he has an opinion." Netcat said. "Because right now I'm about ready to take a professional consult from Lofwyr, if he were actually willing to give one. Not knowing what the heck your own brain is doing or how-" She shivered briefly. "You can imagine."
  "I actually do have his contact info so if you want then yeah, I'll read him in on this. Anonymously, even." Pistons reassured her. "Have you told anyone else about this?"
  "Hell no." I declared as 'Cat vigorously nodded in agreement. "The 77th are by and large good people, but three can keep a secret only if two are dead. Runners don't have a chain of command to keep in the loop or a legally accessible set of records to keep updated."
  "Gotta love the shadows." Pistons cheerfully agreed with me. "Unfortunately, while we are long on discretion here we're kinda short on advanced scientific research facilities. Or advanced scientific researchers, Bandit notwithstanding."
  Although we'd only seen them in the flesh on a couple of brief occasions since running away to join the private military circus, Netcat and Pistons had fallen into a close Matrix-pals correspondence - there was more than one reason that Pistons had offered her an opportunity to apprentice, the two ladies just 'clicked' personality-wise - and Fatima was still my number one trusted contact to the shadow scene. Which was a useful thing for a mercenary or a runner to have, in either direction. So we'd still done a bit of biz from time to time. Oh, not actual running, but trading things like information or referrals or (with the unit's permission, of course) the occasional box of rifles falling off the back of a truck. And that meant we were still close enough to look them up as our first stop in trying to figure out what was up with Netcat's new powers, as soon as we could take some leave from the 77th and get our asses back to Seattle.
  "So what's the current contract?" Fatima gossiped with me as we finished closing down the impromptu lab Pistons had set up in Fatima's garage and we all went out to get some dinner. Because there wasn't much more progress we could make here, so might as well push it aside for the night and relax with friends while we could.
  "Concert security." Netcat said amusedly. "Not that the 77th needed the money urgently after the Guild made Global Sandstorm fork over plus penalties on pain of being blacklisted for every bonded company in the business, but Picador knows what happens when the troops have too much time to just sit around and clean the barracks."
  "Oh God yes, Knight Errant was the same way." Pistons emphatically agreed. "I remember this one slack season where our unit had unaccountably not gotten a single call in two months, and by the end of that period we were having guys - and I'm talking elite special forces guys - being written up for things as diverse as building giant obscene snowmen on the front plaza of the local Ares district HQ." She shook her head dazedly. "And then there was the experiment in shaving cream luge..." she trailed off.
  "Shaving cream luge?" I hesitantly questioned her.
  "You do not want to know." Fatima cut in.
  "So, what kind of concert requires an entire merc company for security-" Pistons started to ask before she interrupted herself. "Wait, the big Horizon We Are The World 2067 tour? That's you guys now?"
  "The very same one." Netcat confirmed. "It was actually hitting Lagos at the time we were there, and after the Global Sandstorm story broke the Pathfinder exec who was the tour manager drops in on the Major out of the blue and is all smiling 'I hear you're between jobs now, and we were looking to augment our security with a single dedicated force that could follow the tour instead of subcontracting local at every stop, so...'. And after spending half the morning working the sales pitch, she finally agrees with him."
  "You actually follow Christy Daee?" I asked Pistons, surprised that she even knew about the details of the tour and outright shocked at the idea that she'd be remotely near bubblegum pop without a gun to her head.
  "Fuck no." she snorted contemptuously. "But I was entirely into Grim Aurora before Grim Aurora was cool."
  "Of course, it helps when you had a fling with the lead singer." Fatima smirked. "Not that that's a rare distinction, given that Kat will happily bang anything that stands still long enough to have an identifiable gender."
  "Quit pretending you were offended at anything other than not being available to be invited along that weekend." Pistons teased her back. "And hey, Kat's impulse control might be kinda shit but she's still an ace runner when her pants aren't on the floor."
  "Kat o' Nine Tales, the lead singer of Grim Aurora and the MTCA Best New Artist of 2064, is a shadowrunner?" Netcat burst out incredulously.
  "You seriously need to spend more time catching the gossip in Seattle." Pistons teased her. "Yeah, she plays both sides of the line. Hell, the band was just her hobby before a talent scout tripped right over them and the next thing she knows, shazam, she can wander out of her bedroom at 3am asking for real organic strawberries and cream and somebody will be right there to hand some to her. It's not even a real secret, but as long as she doesn't actually get arrested and her record label doesn't care then it doesn't get in the way. Although she hardly needs the money anymore - the only reason she still runs when she can is because doing the celebrity thing full-time drives her nuts."
  "Damn, it really does take all kinds, doesn't it?" I shook my head in wonder.
  "So, concert tour security?" Fatima redirected.
  "Yeah." Netcat agreed. "Definitely not what you think of when you hear the term 'soldier of fortune'. Still, it's not like it's bad duty. It's certainly not a milk run, not with that many soft targets travelling through freaking Africa of all things."
  "But Horizon's willing to spend money to make money, and the client rep lets the Major set the security requirements instead of vice versa, so we've definitely had worse contracts." I continued. "Especially the one where the client was trying to kill us."
  "No foolin'. How did that one shake out again, anyway?" Pistons inquired.
  "Global Sandstorm managed to avoid losing the Arabian oil cartel at home, but they had to make some noteworthy internal concessions to the dissenting elements to make them decide that the dragon was still the greater of two evils. So the cartel is now an more of an oligarchy with a big brother, but not a monopoly. Definitely not their first choice of outcomes." Netcat explained. "But they managed to avoid losing their shirt and their AA status."
  "What did Global Sandstorm lose besides some regional dominance?" Fatima said. "Because there is no way Lofwyr just stops there."
  "Their operation in Nigeria." I exposited. "All of it. Between GS losing a good chunk of their local contracted security and all the rest walking out as soon as they could find an option clause in their contracts to exercise, they were wide open down there. So Lofwyr feinted hard at the Middle East, then pulled back and pivoted south as soon as Global Sandstorm committed to a retrenchment. It took S-K not even two weeks to roll up everything from the production fields to the tanker docks. And that was that for the Seven Kings War and the Nigerian oil conflict. The other players took one look at what was coming and how large of a beachhead Global's collapse had given the dragon to work from and decided it wasn't worth trying to argue over the rest. And of course Lofwyr had known the power vacuum was coming a jump ahead of everyone else, because he and the 77th had caused it-" I shrugged.
  "Yeah, that idiot patsy Alex picked up in Lagos?" Netcat snorted in laughter. "Ironically, his prediction came true. Lofwyr did take it all down there, at least if you're referring to the Nigerian oil fields and ancillary ops." She shrugged. "Still, maybe the killing over the pipeline will finally slow down a little, even if it's never really going to stop..." she trailed off wistfully.
  "I'm just irked that Lofwyr is going to make giganuyen off of what we did down there, and he didn't even offer the 77th a thank-you bonus - let alone a cut." I shrugged. "Not that he ever would but still, it annoys."
  "You just can't avoid getting caught up in prime level ops, can you?" Pistons snarked at me. "Even when you're trying to live a quiet life."
  Fatima laughed. "A certain rooftop comes rather emphatically to mind." Her brow furrowed as she continued. "Hey, did I ever tell you that you were a last-minute replacement on that one?"
  "I'd wondered how the hell I'd been offered that kind of opportunity so soon, awesome first impression or not." I said. Because yeah, I certainly had.
  "We'd originally had someone else intended for your slot, and then the dumb SOB got fried in his sleep when the Halloweeners tossed a grenade bouquet in through the window of his current squat at like 5 in the morning the day of the run. Just because he'd banged the wrong ganger's girl the week before." Fatima shook her head. "Johnny was a helluva shot, but he made Kat look like a nun. I always told him restless dick syndrome was gonna get him killed, and I was right."
  "Well I'll certainly testify my guy is vigorously horny, but at least he knows where it's safe to put it." Netcat teased. And I remembered yet again why being the only guy on a girls' night out could sometimes get a little embarrassing.
  "So the op had maybe twelve hours to find someone capable of slotting in as the second gun from scratch. Or else Frosty would have no choice to scrub the whole damn thing... and we were astrologically locked into the date, no second chances for at least a year. So she outright begged us to please tell if we knew anyone we thought had an outside chance of keeping up with the pace, even if it meant Ivan would have to do the majority of the heavy lifting." Pistons explained.
  "To be honest, you got picked primarily because you stayed entirely panic-free and quick-thinking even when shit went wrong in Auburn." Fatima said. "Which is what we needed above all else in an emergency substitute. I hadn't even expected you to be that kind of ace shot or pull off that kind of clutch play at the end, but you damn sure did."
  "And then there was the skydiving." Pistons quipped, and I quelled a wince at how even at this late a date we were only being honest with them about Netcat's superpowers, not mine.
  We all treated ourselves to some absolutely fabulous Italian in the sort of restaurant where you actually got more than one fork and a real ceramic plate, and then eventually headed back to the place that Fatima and Pistons lived together at in Tacoma to let it settle.
  "So, where are we overall?" Fatima said as we occupied the couches in her living room and started to split a six-pack of beer while we let the latest pay-per-view extravaganza blare in the background.
  "Well, according to my most recent physical with the 77th's surgeon there's no detectible physical change in me." Netcat said. "And since I'm 'in remission' from 'AIPs', so much as mentioning I might be starting symptoms again was enough to get them to break out the EEG. And I deliberately cycled my powers while I was under, and the readings didn't blip."
  "Bit of a risk there." Pistons said.
  "Not really, I've already got a medical history of seizures from 2064 so the surgeon wouldn't blink at any weird readings." Netcat said. "But the important thing is-"
  "-using your powers doesn't cause a detectible change in brain activity, at least not on the gross level of ordinary diagnostic equipment that isn't specifically looking for whatever it is that's going on here." I agreed.
  "Which is ridiculous, because the computational load it would take to run a commlink OS and a standard set of network protocols-" Pistons shook her head. "If your brain was turning into some sort of biological computer, it would have to actually process the CPU cycles for that, and that would be detectible activity! It's like we're pulling computational capacity out of nowhere!"
  "Which usually means magic, but we just ran that set of negative results. For the fourth time." Fatima chimed in.
  "What is consciousness?" I interjected into the subsequent conversational lull.
  "Nobody knows." Pistons scoffed, before facepalming. "Doh! How did I overlook something that basic?!?"
  "Forest for the trees." Netcat agreed. "Although what forest in particular are you thinking of?" she turned to me.
  "If you can decrypt Wireless Matrix traffic - which you obviously can - then your powers can emulate modern encryption algorithms. But ever since the Heinrich Maneuver, no encryption in the world has been worth a damn unless it incorporates quantum computing elements. That's why every commlink and host system in the world needs quantum-capable opchip cores." I pointed out.
  "And doh again!" Netcat joined Pistons. "Because you can't emulate q-dot computing with strictly biological mechanisms like neurons, or if you can then nobody has the slightest idea how it could be done."
  "Which ties into the long-standing theory of quantum consciousness, which holds that it's impossible for purely classical mechanics to explain the physical processes by which minds work." Fatima agreed.
  "So it is a theory - whatever mysterious quantum realm also holds all the RAM and firmware that Pistons-OS and Fatima-OS and Wild Man-OS run on is also running some sweet new hacking peripherals and apps for Netcat-OS that the rest of us don't get to share. Which again is not unprecedented, given that Fatima-OS has the full set of astral compatibility plugins and Wild Man-OS a partial set and ours don't." Pistons said.
  "So, not magic and not related to magic, but like magic in the sense that conventional science just goes 'Gee, I dunno!' and hands the problem off of philosophers and quantum physicists." I snarked.
  "The key difference being that quantum physics is even less intuitive." Netcat made the inevitable STEM major joke.
  "So it's a great theory, but what can we actually do with it? To either apply it or actually go deeper into solving the whys of it?" I asked the room.
  "With our resources? Really not much." Pistons said. "Oh, 'Cat will have a lot of fun mastering and expanding her new mind-hacking tricks as she goes on - by trial and error if need be - and I'd love to sit in on as much of that process as we can get together for, but as to actually getting to the root here?" She shrugged. "Fucked if I know. Unless Smiling Bandit somehow turns up something in all the readings we took that I didn't, it's stumperville."
  "Do we have to get to the root?" Fatima asked practically. "I mean, if it's not hurting her and not likely to, isn't that the minimum problem solved? It's even turning out to be really useful."
  "I would really like to, or at least know something more about it." Netcat said. "Because has it occurred to you guys yet that it is vanishingly unlikely I'm the only one? After all, it's not as if there isn't precedent for an entire substrain of people being able to emulate cyberdecks with unaugmented metahuman brain-meats."
  "Deus' otaku." Fatima swore, referring to the mysterious children who'd been able to strip the previous generation of Matrix infrastructure with their naked brains, even if unlike Netcat they'd still needed implanted datajacks and physically hardwired connections to plug in. "Yeah, I was trying not to think of that digital elephant in the room."
  "The otaku weren't all created by Deus." Pistons pointed out. "The folks at the Denver Nexus knew about them all the way back to at least 2050, before Renraku even booted up its first AI experiments. Deus just knew how to stimulate, or create, a particular substrain of crazy in the otaku. And the mad bad mega-AI is at present quite dead. They literally rebooted the entire Matrix on a completely different paradigm just to make damn sure of that."
  "Not to freak anyone out, but didn't Deus try resurrecting itself by seeding program fragments in thousands of the Arcology survivors before, and then doing a big reconstitution from all the separate code bits when they finally all jacked in for the Novatech IPO?" Fatima asked. "That's how we got a second Crash."
  "Yes, but he did that by actually stealth implanting them with hundreds of megapulses' worth of data storage chips in their skulls." Netcat pointed out. "Even Deus wasn't able to cheat the limit of actually needing physical digital storage media for hard drives, even if the otaku - and me - can mysteriously ignore that for whatever stores our 'OS' and 'RAM'. But for data storage? I might be able to emulate an entire Fairlight's worth of program capacity for my mental 'commlink' and 'utilities', but if I so much as want to pull a new tune off a digital music store then I need some kind of hardware storage module to download it onto. Just like you or anyone else would need." She exhaled heavily. "Which is quite a relief, let me tell you, or I'd have had that particular nightmare you just raised on continuous loop ever since I first hacked that tank."
  "Sorry." Fatima apologized. "It was just a thought."
  "And a self-evidently wrong one, thank God." I exhaled. "Although you actually did obliquely touch upon part of the 'why' we feel some urgency here. Because assuming that 'Cat is not the only girl like her in the world, then inevitably the phenomenon will eventually be around long enough and widely enough to make it into the public awareness. And then what?"
  "Drek." Fatima spat. "I mean, yes, there's all sorts of possible scenarios, but you're skipping straight to the worst-case one. And the worst-case scenario is exactly what you're implying - that the general public goes up in an absolute panic that people like Netcat really are AI Puppets Rebirth of Deus The Demon AI or some such bullshit, and the next thing we know anybody who can so much as think at a light switch is being rounded up for their own version of the Night of Rage."
  "Despite how mind meltingly stupid that would be." Pistons agreed. "Because in a world where Kenneth Brackhaven only missed being President of the UCAS by less than twenty Electoral College votes, it is a proven fact that there are millions of people who are indeed that stupid. And that much a bunch of hopeless suckers for xenophobic propaganda."
  "Hell, I still sometimes meet people who think my tusks are contagious." Fatima eye-rolled. "And not even Humanis has actually believed that one since almost before 'Cat was born."
  "So yeah, in the interests of not having to eventually kill my way through entire lynch mobs before running off with Netcat to live like a hunted animal in the even darker cyberpunk future, I would really like to try to find some kind of explanation for what's going on while the secret is still a secret. So that when it inevitably does come out-" I spread my hands. "People don't have to leap to their own conclusions."
  "You are talking about finding a long enough lever to move the world with there, Archimedes." Fatima said soberly. "And hey, I'm all for idealism, but on a good month it's all me and Pistons can do to maybe move a neighborhood in Seattle." She sighed wearily. "You want to be Robin Hood either in or out of the shadows, you have got to learn to accept when it's not possible to be. Or the heartbreak will kill you before anyone else's bullet can."
  "Yeah." Pistons agreed softly, and her and Fatima each grabbed another can of beer.
  I thought long and hard. "Netcat already knows, and you guys might have started to pick up, that I've not only never been entirely comfortable in the shadows but that over the past couple of years I've been growing more and more frustrated with..." I shrugged. "The general situation. I mean, let's look back at my last big triumph, shall we?" I shifted topic. "I pulled off a solo prime run, and then Netcat and I and two of the other Recon Platoon specialists did a CAS Navy SEALs worthy behind-the-lines covert raid, and even S-K Prime came in at the end, and for what?" I spread my hands. "The 77th bled in several directions and ended up happy to just get out of the mess we'd gotten into without bleeding even more. MET2000, who had originally come there as a subcontracted blind for war crimes, entirely skates on having been willing to do the crimes because it turns out they were being played by the paymaster the same way we were. And they pick up a sweet contract afterwards from S-K to seize the pipeline in a lightning coup as soon as we're clear and hold it until Lofwyr's folks can arrive in force to claim it themselves. We did everything right and above and beyond the call of duty, and..." I shrugged. "The rich got richer, the nasty stayed nastier, and nobody suffered any lasting consequences for anything. Except all the good people who died, to ultimately just return shit to a new status quo ante as brought to you by Saeder-Krupp Heavy Industries." I shook my head. "Whatever else 'Cat and I do, we've already decided we're not re-upping with the 77th when our two years' is up this August. I can't make myself believe that we're doing anything except just treading more bloody water there."
  "I still can't help seeing the two people in the tank." Netcat said. "Oh, not in the 'torn up by guilt' sense - it was war, and they were shooting at us first - but..." she shrugged eloquently. "It really sticks in the head, especially when you and your boyfriend were the naked couple screwing in an APC just the year before. There but for the grace of Whoever went us."
  "Sergeant Kendricks never actually proved it was us, but they still complained about the smell forever." I chimed in. "Lesson learned - never have sex in an enclosed space that's NBC sealed, because the ventilation really sucks."
  "Oh, I could've told you that." Pistons agreed meaningfully. "But back to the topic at hand - I entirely get what you're saying about not wanting to continue in the PMC life because however good the pay or comradely the unit, the actual accomplishing anything just feels lacking. But from the way you're talking, you're not coming back to the Seattle shadows either?"
  "Doubtful." Netcat agreed. "We're still trying to figure out exactly where do we go from here, but as much as we love you guys-"
  "Hey, I don't love Seattle's shadowy side either except during the hours that I'm being paid to, and I've literally never lived anywhere else." Fatima chimed in affectionately. "So yeah, I get it too."
  "Well, going megacorporate has certain obvious disadvantages." Pistons dropped into the silence after a while. "Been there, done that, burned my own SIN to get the fuck out of that."
  "That's Ares for you." Netcat agreed. "And we're certainly not going to walk in the door at Saeder-Krupp, recent not-unfavorable interaction with them or not."
  "Why even go megacorporate at all?" Fatima asked incredulously.
  "You referenced a famous saying earlier, but you left off the other part of the quote. Archimedes was not talking about just having a long enough lever, but also having a place to stand." I said. "And even if I have no clue what the fuck kind of lever could possibly exist...?" I shrugged. "Step one is still finding that place."
  "If you are seriously thinking of taking 'Cat anywhere near a corporate research lab, then you'd better avoid Evo like they were covered in radioactive VITAS-III." Fatima advised us quietly. "Oh yes, the AAA formerly known as Yamatetsu is legitimately all for metahuman rights and equality and everything on the consumer and marketing side, but on the life sciences research side? They're right down there with Universal Omnitech."
  "The same biotech corp who invented 'Scientific Values' as a guideline for metahuman research, which was neither scientific nor valued metahuman life at all?" Netcat asked, complete with aghast air-quoting.
  "The very same." Fatima swore. "So yeah, unless you want your conjectural future career in corporate research to be highly flexible about certain concepts such as 'informed consent' or 'non-invasive', Evo's out."
  "We're seriously discussing this?" Pistons asked incredulously. "Taking her to the corps?"
  "I take myself places." Netcat reminded her firmly. "I might be the youngest in the room, but I am still a grown woman. If push comes to shove then only Alex gets even an advisory vote."
  "Sorry." Pistons demurred.
  "She never stops playing jump rope with the line between 'good friend' and 'fussy maiden aunt'." Fatima teased. "You get used to it."
  "I am no maiden at all, or have I just been fucking a magical illusion of you all this time?" Pistons fired back immediately.
  "And they called us horny almost-teenagers." Netcat mutually eye-rolled with me.
  "Returning to the topic at hand, I would not contemplate any of the Japanacorps either. In addition to forbiddingly grim reputations all-around and outright paranoia about anything potentially Deus-related in Renraku's case, there's also that 'Cat's an elf." I concluded.
  "Ain't no anti-meta racist like a Japanese anti-meta racist." Fatima agreed viciously. "Even Brackhaven never tried to make it legal to ship us all to a fucking prison island, let alone succeeded."
  "And right there we've eliminated most of the AAA megacorps and the big biomedical researcher among the AAs." Pistons said. "And to add to the pile of 'nope!', let us recall that NeoNET's new head of R&D is the Great Dragon Celedyr. Who owned a whole chunk of Transys Neuronet before their big merger with Novatech to make NeoNET in the first place. And on top of the usual draconic sense of ruthlessness, there's the fact it was fucking Transys."
  "Remember when their mad science bled the Seattle streets in the early 50s?" Fatima groaned. "That whole thing with artificial personalities on BTL chips that they wanted to use to turn people into puppet sleeper agents, that went wrong when the psychotic meltdowns invariably kicked in after a few weeks? We buried at least half a dozen runners over how that debacle ended."
  "A bit before my time here." Pistons reminded her. "But yeah, UniOmni and Transys - six of one, half dozen of the other as to who had the worse mad scientists."
  "So... what does that leave?" Netcat trailed off.
  Author's Note: A shorter slice-of-live chapter this time, but at least we got to revisit some old friends and catch up to what our young couple is starting to do re: life planning.
  Kat o 'Nine Tales and Smiling Bandit are canon NPCs. Shadowrun used to have colorful NPCs indeed...
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  "You may kiss the bride." the 77th's unit chaplain told us, and I dipped 'Cat in front of the assembled crowd to a chorus of wild cheers and catcalls as I enthusiastically did just that.
  Although we'd given Picador our notice that we'd be leaving at the end of our initial two years' enlistment, even despite the signing bonuses and promotions she'd urgently waved at both of us, Carmen was ultimately good people and understood that a pair of young people in love might entirely want to leave a heavily armed and wandering lifestyle to put down roots and try and build a household together. Especially when they'd received an unexpected and highly desirable job opportunity in that civilian life. And we had kept our promise and invited her to the wedding, after all.
  We were both very short on our contracts, but the people we were closest to in El Cuadrilla if anything felt honored that we'd timed our wedding so we could do it while still in uniform and with them available to attend it, instead of saving it for after we'd re-entered civilian life and would barely know anybody there. Pistons and Fatima had gotten away from Seattle to attend as the 'father' who gave away the bride and the matron of honour - as a married woman, she was ineligible to be a bridesmaid - respectively.
  Netcat's actual father was long dead, and while it had marred the occasion that her birth mother had refused her own invitation I'd already known going into this that most of her family were 'We hate the filthy round-ears!' level Tir supremacist wannabes, which was not entirely unknown in Tarislar. There was more than one reason that 'Cat had neither talked about nor gone back to visit her home very much. Stupid old woman. How many times was her daughter going to get married, anyway? Besides, even in the dark cyberpunk future Lisbon was lovely during the summer. I of course had no family to attend my wedding at all, but this wasn't exactly considered an odd thing for a merc.
  "Congratulations, you two." Picador said, beaming at us both. "Even if I still hate you a little for tragically deserting us in our hour of need!" she caroled melodramatically, putting one hand to her forehead like a village matron in search of a fainting couch.
  "Ahhh, she just wants an excuse to get out before I finally kick her ass in deathmatch." Sergeant-Major Martinez faux-glowered. Ah yes, their age-old videogame grudge. Why did he even keep trying, he was never going to win.
  "Corporal." Captain Vandervoort came up, nodding approvingly at his soon-to-be ex-analyst. "Sergeant." he turned to me. "I just wanted to thank you both for those suggestions you drew up on a training program for in-the-field hacking specialists."
  "Ever since Wireless Matrix, combat hackers have been making one hell of a comeback." Pistons, still in the persona of a SIN-bearing ex-Knight Errant 'security consultant' that had let her attend here at all, professionally interjected. "So yeah, hiring college kids who just sit around the comm shack and do it all via the Matrix hardlines? Not cutting it anymore."
  "And Ares was already ahead on that curve, like they often are." the Major nodded back to her. "Well, at least we had these two to teach us the need for it even if they aren't sticking around to actually keep doing it."
  "Ix-nay on the op-shalk tay." 'Cat smiled at them both. "I only get one wedding."
  "Before we implement that particular comms blackout, I just have to ask." the Major asked. "Not that I didn't mind getting you the wedding presents that you asked for, but why on Earth would anyone want their service records to be 'adjusted' downwards? Up until now, all the dossier whitewashing I've ever seen in this business went the other way."
  "To keep them from taking one look at his qualifications and slotting Alex into the same 'special operator' slot that the 77th did." 'Cat pointed out unhesitatingly.
  "The Seventy-Seventh is an employer I'd trust to assign me those kinds of missions without asking me to do anything that would ask me to hock a piece of my soul." I agreed. "But that's not a level of trust I place in just anyone. So yeah, let's leave the new boss thinking I was just a sharpshooting infantryman of few other special talents instead of, well, me."
  "I'm just glad somebody finally listened to their old maiden aunt and actually took precautions." Pistons interjected.
  "You're not a maiden." 'Cat said cheekily, and Fatima barely stifled a laugh.
  "I never thought accepting that contract would lead to 'Cat getting headhunted by the corp behind the contract." Picador shook her head. "That's like some old last-century Hollywood story about the waitress being discovered and made a movie star."
  "Well, that's entirely on brand for who did it." I said cheerfully.
  "Hey, enough talking! When does the drinking start?" Long-Tom interrupted in, reaching out to try and drag me away towards the reception.
  "Remember kid, alcohol might boost desire but it kills performance." Fatima said cheekily. "So as a mercy to the not-so-blushing bride tonight, please go easy on saucing up the groom."
  "Some day you are going to go twenty-four consecutive hours without making a sex joke, and on that day President Dunkelzahn will probably rise from the grave." I sighed wearily.
  "Probably!" she cheerfully agreed, and everyone laughed.
  "Smile!" Fadeout startled us both, and then a camera flashed.
  Getting ourselves headhunted for our new jobs had actually gone substantially more easily than we'd allowed it for. The corporate rep had not only readily believed what we were showing him as soon as basic anti-scam precautions like scanning 'Cat for an implanted commlink had been taken care of, but was quickly able to reach someone far enough up the chain to know exactly what they were negotiating for. Even though we'd been cautious enough to not leap at the first offer, and had taken the odd precaution to clear an emergency line of retreat if necessary, we'd actually picked our prospective new employer for not being the same old biz assholes that all the prior ones had been. We'd had a chance to see some of their charity and outreach work firsthand, and it was actually genuinely charitable and doing genuine outreach. Oh, the sheer effusiveness of the sales pitch sometimes got a little overmuch, but the difference between propaganda and advertising wasn't the techniques but just the percentage of content that wasn't total bullshit, and so long as it was a non-trivial percentage we could live with less than one hundred percent.
  And we'd made it quite plain that we came as a package deal or no deal, even though only 'Cat had any unique abilities. (As far as they knew, at least.) That's one of the reasons we'd gotten married before making the pitch, so that we'd be extremely hard to legally separate. Even the most assholeish of AAA megacorps didn't actively try to ruin employee attempts at making a family, if only because the megacorporate system benefited greatly from employees helping to breed and raise the next generation of employees. So 'Cat had gotten the 'senior software developer' job that would actually be a cover for 'in-house study-the-whole-mind-hacking-thing project person' and I had a guaranteed tryout for the position I hoped to earn - a tryout only, but with my abilities there was no chance I wouldn't ace the competition so all I'd need would be a chance. And we earned modesty points for not asking for a guaranteed pick while I could still effectively guarantee myself, so we could have our cake and eat it too.
  But first, we had a honeymoon to finish. And so after the ceremony and the tossing of the bouquet and the reception and all - and let's not even discuss the bachelor and the hen party the night before - we were bundled off onto the next semiballistic intercontinental transport for Tir Tairngire.
  Tir Tairngire, formerly the state of Oregon prior to the breakup of the UCAS, had originally been one of the NAN and the claimed domain of the all-elven 'Sinseareach Tribe' before rapidly seceding from the NAN to become its own nation. An elf-dominated nation ruled by its 'High Prince', 'Council of Princes', and 'Star Chamber', it had basically been an extremely odd cross between some type of deliberately artificial Ruritania - to the point of inventing their own synthetic elven language, Sperethiel - and a ruthlessly efficient modern high-tech state with world-class universities, home-grown local tech and biotech corps on the bleeding edge of SOTA , and a first-line military for its size. Furthermore, the 'Council of Princes' had been some of the earliest adopters of magic as more than parlor tricks after the Awakening, having cleaned up the local environmental disjunctions by wide-area rituals that still weren't common knowledge and restoring old-growth forests and untouched plains that had thought to be lost.
  It had also been a ruthless oligarchy characterized by elven racial supremacist ideals - and we were talking the sorts of people who had refused to open their borders and left the original Tarislar refugees in Tarislar because they hadn't been quite hardcore enough elven supremacists. Plus other things like rigid social stratification bordering on an outright caste system, widespread intolerance, and towards the end of its several-decades run an economy suffering from all the detriments of excessive 'central planning' and starting to fail despite the Tir's natural resources, highly trained workforce, and modern infrastructure. And between those burgeoning cracks in the dam and the final impetus of the second Crash, it had all come tumbling down.
  But the Rinelle Revolution of 2064 had, despite the inability of its revolutionaries to agree on anything other than 'we hate the old regime', had still left behind a power vacuum which had managed to avoid collapsing into anarchy and chaos. Underneath the leadership of the new High Prince Larry Zincan - an ork of all things - the country had found a new spirit of optimism, if still nowhere near Utopia, and were all putting their shoulders to the wheel to start the rebuilding. Admittedly, the rising influence of the Horizon corporation and the Great Dragon Hestaby also had a lot to do with that, with perhaps the world's most subtle and pervasive PR/advertising multimedia complex helping with social manipulations on the one hand and the most magically powerful figure on the North American west coast throwing her own rather large hat into the ring with the other.
  Which is why the new government of Tir Tairngire was relevant, because it meant the country was open for tourism again. Tourism that someone with round ears, like me, could actually enjoy without having the waiters spit in my drink or anything. And the Tir did have some of the loveliest, most environmentally unspoiled country in the world.
  So as hilarious as the thought was to contemplate, two soon-to-be-former infantrymen actually were going on vacation by backpacking in the woods. Because what with the general environmental devastation of the world, a chance to actually breathe pure, acid-rain-free air while enjoying a real old-growth redwood forest was something I'd never thought I could do again.
  Besides, man does not live by four-star hotel suites alone and that had been what we'd done for the first week in "Cara'Sir", the city formerly known as Portland. Even if it was really nice to actually see a waterbed or a high-definition holovid screen or in-room DirectX simsense feed after two years' of living in barracks.
  "For all that saccharine tourist stuff Charisma Associates pumped out in their PR blitz... it really is kinda magical here, isn't it?" 'Cat said, leaning into my shoulder as we drew to a halt at the end of the day's hike.
  "Literally, really." I said, looking around with my astral 'eyes' open. "I can still assense the echoes of whatever the old Council used to clean the pollution out and restore the forests. It's a positive background count, not a nasty-aspected one like a burn site or a toxic dump." I breathed out. "I can't even remember the last time I saw one of those."
  "For all that the old regime was kinda shit to the people, they definitely took care of the earth." 'Cat agreed. "You know, I've been wondering... if my parents hadn't been turned away at the border by the Tir, if their whole 'let's be refugees from the CAS' idea had actually worked instead of leaving them trapped in a Seattle shantytown, then I'd have grown up here."
  "The road not taken." I agreed. "What do you think you'd have become?"
  "Well, the scholarship programs were better here, and I'd have been the right ethnicity to be on the plus side of the old systematic racism." she said. "So... Willamette University instead of U-Dub, then straight into Telestrian Industries as a science brain. Probably upgrade my social standing at least a rank in the old Rite of Progression, given how I always aced test scores. And then...?"
  "The economic part of it isn't what you're wondering about." I said knowingly. "The 'what sort of person would I have been' part is."
  "I'd have been a palette swap of the Humanis Policlub." she agreed ruefully. "I mean, God, my folks were racist enough about 'round-ears' when we were just living in a Seattle ghetto. If we'd actually made it to the 'Land of Promise'? Ew. I'd probably have been some insufferably smug elven 'nobility' who thought that 'Glerethiel Morkhan Shoam' was a wholesome family show instead of the worst kind of racist 'comedy'." She sighed. "So yeah, it would have been a lot less poverty here for me. But also a lot less..." she trailed off. "How to put it?"
  "What will it profit a man to gain the entire world and yet lose his soul?" I quoted the gospel of Matthew.
  "I believe the standard corporate answer would be 'Well he profits by one entire world, duh.'" she snarked.
  "But that's kinda what we're dreaming of changing, isn't it?" I agreed.
  "That it is." she nodded. "That's why I'm trying to make sure I don't forget that."
  "You won't." I said confidently, and we sat side-by-side on the log with our arms around each other.
  "Neither will you." she said, and sighed contentedly.
  "Okay, break's over." I said after a short while. "We're practically at the foot of the slope, and I want to be at least a few hundred feet up and in one of the mountainside camps before sunset."
  "Damn straight." she agreed as we both hopped to it. "No way I'm missing maybe my only chance to see a real sunrise in real non-polluted country air, and if that means we have to climb the entire damn mountain to actually see the light then we'll damn well climb it."
  "Always aim high." I agreed. "You might not hit the moon, but at least you won't drop it on your foot."
  She laughed. "How many pithy old sayings did the 20th century have?"
  "Well, without a Matrix you had to make your own fun." I joked, and we laughed even harder.
  We'd been hiking for a few minutes in companionable silence before I felt her hand reach out to grasp mine.
  "I love you, Alex. You know that, right?"
  "I love you too, 'Cat."
  "Before we get started, please let me extend my own heartfelt congratulations to you both on your recent wedding." Mr. Reyes greeted us warmly. Tam Reyes was the Vice-President of Singularity Software, the bleeding-edge Matrixware and systems corp that was the Matrix subdivision of the Horizon megacorporation, the public relations and multimedia giant that as of mid-2065 was the newest addition to the Corporate Court and the ranks of the AAA extraterritorial megacorporations. While it was by far the smallest of the 'Big Ten', being the smallest out of the ten mightiest political-economic entities on Earth still made you really fragging big in absolute terms.
  Yes, we'd finally chosen to 'sell out' to a megacorporation. Normally, a shadowrunner doing this essentially burned every bridge they'd ever made in the shadows. Indeed, quite a few of my old shadow contacts weren't speaking to me anymore or doing so far more guardedly - after all, as a megacorporate employee, my first loyalty from now on would have to be assumed to be to my employer. Pistons and Fatima knew the real score, of course, but our ShadowSEA street cred scores had taken a notable downgrade and neither of us were expecting an invite to that new 'JackPoint' online runner private club any time soon.
  Still, if 'Cat and I hadn't wanted to give up on our long-term goals then it's not as if we'd had much choice. I hadn't gone the PMC route just to get 'Cat a place to recover her health and a chance for us to not commit to either the shadows or the straight world while we worked on growing our relationship. I'd also done it because I'd wanted to look past the version of reality that the corps who controlled all the mainstream Matrix wanted to make the world see, and to get a chance to stare directly into what the world was really like.
  Sadly, I hadn't seen anything on our world tour that had remotely fulfilled my hopes. If anything, the corporate puppet theatre that was the mass-market media and the modern educational system was drawing an optimistic veil over the true state of affairs. Resource wars, rampant pollution, magically 'toxic zones' produced by causes ranging from industrial accidents to outright genocides and atrocities, and the spectre of the megacorps looming distantly over everything- no, my long-term geographical and cultural orientation in this new world I'd been transported to was just about done. I had of course not seen everything there was to be seen, or begun to learn everything there was to learn, but I'd seen enough.
  Barring some kind of outside context paradigm shift, the megacorps would never go away. Whether directly or via proxies they collectively controlled too much of the planet already - too many of the raw resources, too many of the means of processing and refining them, too much of the industrial production capacity, too much of the communications infrastructure, the ability to educate new generations, the skilled workforce, the everything. If you weren't megacorporate, you simply never had a chance to attain real wealth and power - the 'old money' and glitterati had many who were vastly wealthy in personal terms but without any real power, and the shadow world and the underworld contained many people who had sufficient power to make even corporate execs come to terms with them rather than crush them, but who did not actually control any significant wealth - any economic leverage - for all their ill-gotten gains. Unless you were a Great Dragon, you simply did not hope to shake even a single pillar of Heaven except from an executive suite.
  And for quite a while now, I'd wanted to start shaking. Because even though I hardly understood my powers completely, I'd known for quite a while now that there were many things I could potentially do that I was not doing. And 'Cat and I entirely understood why, of course - the risks of premature exposure, the backlash that would come if I appeared too threatening to the current paradigm of any contemporary Power That Be by being hasty or ill-considered, the simple fact that in a world where involuntary extraction, or the at-gunpoint press-ganging of exceptional 'intellectual assets' between differing megacorporations, was actually a common job category for shadowrunners - no, ever since 'Cat had demonstrated to me that I was potentially a living supercomputer and possibly the lead genius in the world if I ever truly wanted to be, I had known that unless I chose to hobble myself forever then one day I could not only become this world's Tony Stark or suchlike, I should - not unless I just wanted to sit and amuse myself while billions of people lived in misery.
  Still, the fact remained that I couldn't just leap out of a garage with a miraculous new invention and start changing the world. That would be a great way to get killed - unlike my homeworld, Earth-Shadowrun was a place where oil companies really would send corporate kill teams to disappear a guy who tried to invent a 100-mile-per-gallon carburetor. So any long-range 'fix the world' plans I might have would have to be very carefully considered at every step. Hence my bootstrapping myself from shadowrunner to legitimate private military contractor...and now, to megacorporate employee.
  And even though going megacorp had literally been my last choice for possible routes by which I could find a place to stand while I methodically crafted a lever long enough to help fix the world, I'd spent two years carefully studying world conditions from the best viewpoint I could find for that job looking for another route and hadn't seen any I liked the odds of well enough. So last choice or not, ultimately it was Hobson's choice, so we chose it. I was still more than a couple steps away from where I could safely start to really operate, but the important thing right now was that I was still one step closer. As President Johnson would have crudely put it, at least we were now inside the tent and pissing out instead of standing outside the tent and pissing in. And while 'Cat and I were still relatively low-ranking on that new totem pole we'd hoped to climb, at least neither of us were coming in as entry-level wageslaves.
  Not that I was risking my new wife's freedom and welfare in a possible Venus corporate flytrap solely for my own ambition. Entirely aside from the fact nobody risked 'Cat without her informed consent - least of all me - she'd been entirely supportive of my long-range plans at the same time I'd been entirely supportive of her own needs and concerns. Which is why we were here at Horizon instead of anywhere else we could have gone - because as near as we could evaluate all the options, this is where all the various circles on the Venn diagram for all the several things we hoped to accomplish all intersected.
  Our choice of Horizon had been motivated by things other than just the process of elimination, although that had certainly helped. Even as far back as the concert tour we'd noticed that Horizon's big splashy PR event for the Third World had contained elements of actual substance as well as just spin. Oh, they'd hardly waved a magic wand to fix the world, but the We Are The World 2067 tour hadn't just been another 'Get in, get the photo op, get out' thing like certain "aid" concerts I could remember from my prior life were. Horizon Africa had actually started to set up in Lagos - and not with more sweatshops or more attempts to steal the oil, but things like opening up a school and clinics that the people already suffering in other corps' sweatshops could come to. They were even distributing free commlinks to the children, commlinks that they'd gotten as part of their 'Turn In Your Old When You Get A New!' program in participating storefronts all across North America and Europe.
  Seeing any megacorp actually begin to act like they wanted do something socially responsible at all was like sighting a unicorn, and so it had certainly drawn our eye. And of course the wise person didn't immediately leap to a conclusion based on first impressions, but after spending the concert tour watching how they began to approach 'nation-building' work and charity in West and South Africa... well, it had seemed worth taking a chance. Even the impressions we were picking up of the work Horizon was doing to help stabilize and revitalize post-revolutionary Tir Tairngire were favorable. So we'd arrived to report for our new jobs and our new lives... and then walked into yet another a curve ball that we hadn't remotely expected.
  Because as it turned out, 'Cat was not the first mind-hacker - or "virtuakinetic" as Horizon had already named them - to show up at Horizon looking for employment. Not that they had very many of them - 'Cat was in fact only the second one to walk in their doors, and all the work and unique opportunities we'd had for her development meant she had at least as good a grasp on her powers as the first one had, as he'd had to deduce for himself what he really was while dealing with the dense chaos of an inner city's wireless flux all the while throughout like 'Cat had in Seattle.
  And it had certainly knocked our socks off to find out who the other 'virtuakinetic' at Horizon was, even if it had also been a tremendous reassurance that 'Cat would be far less likely to be destructively exploited at our new home.
  "Thank you, sir." 'Cat said respectfully. "I'm just flattered you took time out from your busy schedule-"
  "Pfft!" he interrupted her cheerfully, waving one hand. "Please, I'm Tam and you're Catherine - unless you prefer Cat? We don't stand on formality here, or get all caught up in a military-style chain of command. Creativity can't wear chains!" he slogan'ed. "And that's before we even begin to get into what you and I have in common."
  Because Singularity and Horizon were far less likely to be anti-virtuakinetic when their other on-staff VK was Vice-President of Matrix Technologies and CEO of Singularity Tam Reyes himself. And while one way it was certainly an astonishing coincidence, when looked at one way it wasn't a total coincidence - people heavily immersed in Matrix programming and technologies, like 'Cat had been and like MIT&M tech wunderkind Tam Reyes had also been, would logically be among the very first virtuakinetics to actually finish the process of comprehending what was going on with them and starting to self-teach themselves a systematic understanding of it.
  Even so, this had still been a tremendous stroke of luck for us.
  "It'll probably take a while for old habits to die hard, si- Tam." I deliberately fumbled it while wearing my best good-natured jock smile.
  "You'll catch on soon enough." he agreed cheerfully. "And as much as it's a slogan everywhere, here at Horizon it's also reality that we like to think of our associates as all being part of the Horizon family, even as they also treasure and make their own family. And I'm flattered you're interested enough in your wife's new job to help take the tour with her. I understand that despite your prior career track, you're also going out for an engineering degree yourself?"
  "I went infantry because I wasn't quite lucky enough to find a scholarship like Catherine did, even if she needed the 77th's education benefits as well to cover her last year." I agreed. "But I've still got some long-range ambitions of my own besides just shooting a gun."
  "Real learning never stops!" he sloganed while never losing his bright salesman's smile. "And Horizon certainly welcomes that kind of attitude, Alex. So while I understand you have to report for your own tryout later this afternoon, we can still show you both the best parts of our little operation here before we have to split your schedules. Shall we begin?"
  "There's no time like the present." Cat agreed. "So come on, honey. Let's go build us a future."
  Author's Note: And sometimes, when my MC is being so 'slow' to think of something before the audience is, he's actually just being patient. Because christ, Earth-Shadowrun is not a place you get a mulligan if you fuck it up the first time. And sure, he's nigh-impossible to kill, but being the immortal man does not change the part where if everyone is trying to either kill or cage your freak ass then you can't exactly do anything except fight and/or run. Which don't leave any time to do anything really constructive.
  Because this is why the MC was chafing so much at the state of the world. It isn't that he was powerless to change it. He knows at least vaguely of at least some of his potential for power. And there's only one thing that chafes more than being powerless, and that's knowing you could be doing something but you can't risk it quite yet.
  But every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...
  And since I unaccountably got two short chapters done today instead of one long chapter, I think I'll redo the bookmarks to make them a part 1 and 2. But hey, the muse flows when it flows, and never asks me first.
  Now I really will to start pacing myself, as after an upcoming interlude it will be time for 'Book Three' as it were, the Horizon arc. Which I don't even have as much down in my mental whiteboard as I had for 'Book Two, the PMC arc' as I did when I was reaching the end of the initial arc. But we'll see what happens.
  (10/26/21) - Got up the next morning, reread the chapter, and decided that some of the readers were right. The flow did kinda suffer. So while I couldn't exactly majorly prune the exposition - this is a setup and a transition - I could at least rework it some and try to add more linking text and character thoughts.
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  Private journal of shadowrunner/hacker/freelance scientific consultant 'The Smiling Bandit', 02/14/2068
  The phenomenon of 'virtuakinesis', or the ability of selected individuals to interact with and manipulate wireless-enabled equipment and the Wireless Matrix in ways similar in many respects to how the 'otaku' could perform such manipulations to the wired Matrix with suitable prosthetic assistance to sustain the neural hookup, continues to mystify me.
  Online searches by myself and several acquaintances in the shadows have turned up evidence that Catherine Kincaid is not only not unique, but that she is quite likely statistically part of a class perhaps as large as the 'otaku' themselves were or larger. Two additional virtuakinetics other than her known are confirmed as having been recruited by Horizon within the past year, in addition to Singularity's own CEO Tam Reyes, and those are just the ones we have a confirmed and reliable source for.
  Any credible estimate of how many other virtuakinetics may be in the field is nigh-impossible to make, both due to the unsystematic and fragmentary resources available for gathering data and indications of an organized, large-scale attempt to both suppress and delete any such sightings from the Matrix at large. There is already one confirmed case of a subject, Harlan Deveraux of Boston, having disappeared shortly after he had presented himself at Boston University School of Medicine asking for assistance in understanding "why I could talk to computers with my brain now". Within a week of that date he had quit his job, closed his bank account, and 'left to undertake new employment opportunities' despite none of his acquaintances being able to say with whom or where, while any and all official records him having ever visited BUSM was redacted from their records. Were it not for the fortunate happenstance of a partial mirror of their biomedical research data having been saved to the Nexus datahaven as part of an unrelated shadowrun, no reference at all would have existed for me to trace. Clearly he was both involuntarily extracted and then data-washed by an unknown megacorporation, but it has yet proven impossible to narrow down even a credible suspect for which one.
  Indeed, all of my attempts to follow up on this and more than a few other possible virtuakinetic sightings turned up a distinct lack of results, but in a fashion where the lack was itself disturbing. Too many of my usual contacts were non-committal or outright evasive to an atypical degree, especially considering the length and nature of our prior association. The last time I can recall such a widespread pattern of co-opted or intimidated silence occurring, the second Crash had almost immediately followed.
  So I grow more and more convinced that Pistons' initial hunch of last year was correct. The virtuakinetic phenomenon should not only be considered a highly significant phenomenon worthy of systematic study, but is also far too likely to become a matter of great concern to the shadow community in the near future. If 'runners can already be aware of as much of the phenomenon as we are, however fragmentary that knowledge is, then a nontrivial number of the megacorps must already be all too cognizant of the phenomenon as well. And yet save for Horizon none of them appear to be visibly reacting, and even Horizon's actions are nigh-invisible to public view and known to me only thanks to Pistons' personal link to one of their primary virtuakinetic research subjects and the measure of success I have already had at penetrating Singularity's databases.
  As Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective once trenchantly observed, sometimes the most curious thing about a guard dog is what it does not do in the night-time. And if the usual suspects among the megacorps are by all appearances remaining entirely oblivious to this sort of matter, then that by itself is very, very suspicious indeed.
  Fastjack still disagrees with me, but for all that his brilliance with Matrix technologies and systems intrusion exceeds even mine - a statement few others can boast - he still does not match my breadth and depth of study in other multiple and diverse scientific disciplines. For the foreseeable future, I intend to continue pursuing all possible leads into the 'virtuakinetic' phenomenon as the number one priority for my available research time.
  Excerpt from North American Broadcasting System's Sports!Now Premium Channel, 06/07/2068
  "... and for those just tuning in at the close of this historic match, we are entering the final third of the fourth quarter in this pulse-pounding broadcast of the 2068 Urban Brawl World Cup semi-finals, brought live and direct to your simsense/trideo feed by NABS and Ares Macrotechnology! Our two teams have been beating the outright hell out of each other for the past one hundred and thirteen minutes of play, and with the score tied at eleven to eleven it's all down to the last couple of plays to decide who will advance to the final round and who goes home weeping in defeat! Pity our own hometown Knightmares couldn't be here today though, eh Bret?"
  "It always is, Chet! But at least we can be good sports and cheer our distinguished competition the Los Angeles Bolts and their own corporate sponsor Horizon, can't we? And it's ISSV league regulations that World Cup matches must be played in Brawl Zones that are neutral to both teams, which is why Detroit is hosting the Cup this year!"
  "And we're certainly not holding a grudge over how Los Angeles upset Detroit in the North American Super Brawl, oh no Bret! At least the Bolts are still loud and proud from NA! And now re-entering the Brawl Zone after the their last time-out are the defending World Cup champions and this year's European League champions, Centurios Essen of Saeder-Krupp Heavy Industries! Look at them glare, Bret!
  "I think they might still be a bit upset over how starting team blaster Erik "Thunder" Magnusson had to be DocWagon'ed to the hospital after that last play, Chet! Not that reserve blaster Gunther Klautenbund isn't a fine hand with an LMG, but he's certainly not the man who regularly brought the Thunder to the field! This could just be the edge that the Bolts need to take it home!"
  "It's definitely been a battle of the plucky upstarts versus the grim Teutonic menace today, indeed, Bret! And maybe in this quarter we'll finally get to see the matchup that the fans have been eagerly awaiting for, as one of the highest-rated scouts in Urban Brawl and Centurios' new star player recently traded from Marseilles, the eye-catching Svetlana "Bounce" Jurjewa, goes head-to-head versus the North American league's heads-on fave for Rookie of the Year, the Bolts' Alex Kincaid! Especially considering that Alex's sharpshooting is what took Magnusson out of the game, in an absolutely unprecedented scout-versus-blaster takedown, so Centurios will definitely be gunning for him now! And as the fastest player and the only adept on their team, Bounce is about their only chance to run down and corner LA's hottest new physical adept!"
  "Yes, while normally any red-blooded man and many women would have positively leapt at the opportunity to go "head-to-head" with Bounce, Kincaid's been nothing but all-business all-the-time through the game! No heading out to showboat versus the opposing all-star, just hitting the pavement shooting and moving that ball downfield! But then again Alex didn't set a new marksmanship record at the Bolts' open tryout last year without knowing how to focus on the target, eh Chet?"
  "Not at all! And the referees are taking positions... both teams are setting up in their starting blocks... Centurios has Eisenfeldt as their starting ball carrier while the Bolts are going with Chavez... and there's the whistle!"
  "Wow, look at that! A double blitz! Both teams have basically put no one on defense and are going for an all-out rush to get their team's ball to the other team's goal! We're going to need multiple camera replays just to keep track of this all!"
  "First player down! First player down! The Bolts just lost their outrider to a lucky long-range burst right down main street from Klautenbund! A takedown in the first twenty seconds from almost all the way across the brawl zone! Even with advanced smartlinks, that's not easy!"
  "As casual fans might not know the team outrider is the only player on a Brawl team allowed to use a vehicle, and while his motorcycle can't be allowed to move the ball carrier it's still a vital mobility edge for fast repositioning of supporting players or the team medic - wow! Kincaid's already halfway across the map and just did his signature double-tap on one of the bangers Essen had sneaking down the north side, sending the other one falling back in a hurry! Now it's Essen with a big hole knocked out of their line-up! How did he even know they were moving a two-man element through that back alley-?"
  "Death From Above! Oh my God! Bounce just came down two stories of nowhere in the southern midfield and did her signature rooftop diving kick to take out the Bolts' medic! Is that even legal?"
  "The referees haven't called the penalty, so apparently they believe that she couldn't identify which player it was at that distance! And it's not like she could just stop halfway down, is it? Because yes, normally deliberately targeting the medic is an automatic ejection from the game!"
  "They should put a bigger red cross on his uniform then because now the medic needs a medic, and there's nobody to tend to him! And the Bolts don't have any time-outs left! He's going to have to lay there unconscious until the end of the play! Wow, Essen is not kidding around! They're deliberately going straight for the Bolts' most valuable support members!"
  "And it's turning into a chaotic midfield scrum as both ball carriers are pinned down by the other's side advancing offense, and any remaining playbook has been thrown right out the window while everyone freelances! Bolts are trying to move the ball- Tiegs and Kincaid are double-teaming Klautenbund to try and open a hole- Bounce is busy eating grudge fire from four of the Bolts and falling back a block before they blast her into a doily-"
  "Gel rounds, Bret! Live ammo hasn't been used in ISSV sanctioned Urban Brawl since 2052! But yes, when you're a light-armored scout like Bounce who wants all those bruises? Not to mention the occasional risk of a concussion if you take too many on the helmet!"
  "And, there's the whistle! Dead ball! Neither ball carrier was able to advance out of their block for thirty seconds, and it's back to status quo!"
  "But not quite, because the Bolts now have a limping outrider and don't even have a medic anymore! Because as the only player exempt from deliberate attack, most teams don't see the need to have reserves at that position! And now Centurios' strategy is clear - they played uglyball in this round so that in the final round, they'd be open for a savage drive against a weakened Bolts lineup right to the goal! And on top of their being so unsportsmanlike as to target a medic, they also got lucky with the outrider!"
  "Yes, even if the ref had called it against them trading Bounce for the opposing team's medic would still have been a net gain here! Ruthless, calculating, and cold, just like dragons!"
  "The Bolts' Cinderella story is about to turn into a pumpkin unless they can clutch a miracle! All right, they're in a huddle... team captain Sarah 'Fireball' McClain is whispering something intently to Kincaid... are they going to give their last chance at a goal to the rookie, Bret?"
  "If I were her right now, I'd give it to a devil rat if I thought the rat could run the ball, Chet!"
  "Kincaid is indeed the opening ball carrier for the play, the Bolts are forming up, Centurios likewise... go! All right, Essen's doing an offense/defense split with a possible fallback wing while the Bolts are... what is that formation, Bret?"
  "I've never seen it before, Chet! They're all scattering! No, they're going interior!"
  "Entering the buildings in a Brawl Zone is legal, but without a knowledge of the layout it's generally pointless! That's why Brawl Zones are picked at the last minute from sections of urban terrain right before they evacuate the residents!"
  "Essen's shaking off the surprise and cautiously advancing their ball- oooh! Madness becomes method as we see that the Bolts' light machine-gunner has a perfect vantage point on the entire north midfield from that window! Essen just lost their outrider in a perfect mirror to the last play! And if this game isn't going to go into overtime, then Centurios needs to get the ball to the other half of the midfield! Otherwise it's saturation fire across open ground, and we all know that the blaster brings ALL the ammo to the game!"
  "Klautenbund is now settling in for a machine-gun duel versus an opponent with a superior dug-in position and Essen's repositioning - they're going with their usual approach of using the bangers to move the ball while the heavies cover, and Bounce and her fellow scouts are spreading out to do what they do best-"
  "Two down! Two down! One of the Bolts' heavies just popped out of a doorway and caught that pair of scouts right in the open! Essen's got one key player pinned and three more out of play and they haven't even shot one of the Bolts yet!"
  "At this point Centurios' captain is just plain pissed off! Zugspitze is pulling a heavy knot of one heavy and three of his bangers, and they're heading out to force the line while their blaster and the rest do covering fire! Bounce and her wing-woman have vanished off the cameras and are presumably sneaking out to sow some chaos in the backfield-"
  "Holy SHIT! Kincaid just scored a triple play on Centurios' heavy team! Only one of the heavies is even still up, and he didn't even get a shot off! Our rookie just blitzed right out of that cross street and got six shots off to three helmets with barely even breaking stride! It was like something out of a Nathan Never sim! Does this man ever miss?"
  "Centurios has got to be sweating it now! They don't even know where the Bolts' ball is-"
  "And neither do we, because whoever Kincaid handed it off to has yet to come out of one of those buildings! How has the ball not been declared dead yet?"
  "Somehow they're still moving it from one block to another before the shot clock runs out!"
  "Half the lineup gone, the enemy ball carrier completely out of sight, and the enemy team still fresh- it's not good to be Centurios right now!"
  "There's the ball! Fireball was running it herself as a solo sneak play, but Serkin made the spot- a rare moment of glory for the Germans' number two scout-"
  "Ouch, they were so close! But Essen's ball carrier is still inching forward under heavy fire while the Bolts are now pinned and the shot clock is counting down... nineteen seconds... seventeen..."
  "It was a good try, and they've still got nothing to be- WHAT?!?"
  "Folks, the Bolts somehow found an underground steam tunnel in the Brawl Zone and used it to shift half their line-up from north to south without anybody knowing! They just piled out to all support their captain! Centurio didn't have a chance, they were all so focused on pinning Fireball down that they got taken right out!"
  "Essen is down to four players - Bounce, Serkin, Klautenbund, and Stavros still with their ball! Wait, Serkin's cornered- and there he goes, Bret!"
  "And Klautenbund's falling back! His saturation fire is the only hope Essen has left of keeping Fireball from bringing it home, so he's heading back to the goal, and that leaves Stavros entirely uncovered!"
  "Stavros is heading inside now, and praying to God he can find a lucky tunnel too- wait! He just threw the ball out of a back window right before they caught up to him, and Bounce caught it! The fastest player the dragon has is now the ball runner, and too many of the Bolts are busy on offense!
  "Kincaid's off like a shot, as they're both frantically sprinting for the Bolts' goal while the rest of Essen tries to Stalingrad it up and she's leaving the pursuing bangers in the dust! It's neck and neck as they're both coming in off the corners- she's emptying her pistol at him as she runs, he's snapping shots back-"
  "Bounce is going high again! She sure loves her rooftops!"
  "No, it's a feint! She went up and right back down, but Kincaid did not fall for it! He's coming around the corner of the building instead of heading for the other side, and now it's a stern chase!"
  "Back at the other goal, Klautenbund is now last man standing there! He's taken a page from the enemy playbook and dug himself into a machine-gun nest to try and hold off all of the Bolts by himself! What a heroic resolve! You'd better watch out, 'Thunder', he's gunning for your slot!"
  "Fireball is playing it conservative- Bounce is in the home stretch! Kincaid did his best but she just had too much of a head start, and now he's almost fifty meters behind! He isn't even trying to catch up anymore! Just a few more seconds and she'll have the tie-breaking goal-"
  "Bounce is down! Bounce is down! She is prone in the dirt less than fifty feet from the goal, and she's barely able to crawl! What even happened?!?
  "The analysts just ran back the replay and it looks like Kincaid did a sixty-three meter kneeling pistol shot to put one right in the back of her left knee at a dead run! What an unbelievable feat of marksmanship! Play Of The Game! Play Of The Season! We're gonna have to start calling him Crackshot Kincaid!"
  "And Bounce is definitely not going to walk that one off, and now he's just jogging over- oh damn, she even lost her pistol when she went sprawling, even if she managed to hang on to the ball! It's out of reach! She's got nothing left to throw at him except harsh language, and- yup, there goes her surrender switch! Her uniform's running lights are all blazing yellow and she is officially down!"
  "And Klautenbund just punched it too! Every Centurios player is out! WIPEOUUUUUUUUUUUUT!"
  "A wipeout! An honest-to-God wipeout! That hasn't been seen in the World Cup since 2060! Every single offensive player on a team taken out in the same play!"
  "And that means an automatic victory for the opposing team, Chet! It's all over with almost two minutes left on the clock, and we don't even need the final goal or an overtime! The Los Angeles Bolts have taken the match by a full wipeout, and they are going to the World Cup finals!"
  "If I were the league I'd just hand them the trophy right now, Bret! That final round is going to be an anticlimax after this!"
  "It's not going to be fun to be the Lucky Dragons, not at all Chet! And- wait, the celebratory rush is being interrupted by what sounds like some prime trash-talking down there. Focus in, guys!"
  "-spent four quarters running away from a real woman, and then you shot her in the back!"
  "Oooo, our bouncy little spitfire does not sound happy today!"
  "Brave words from a woman who pretends that she can't see a red cross. You know, back in my old job they'd have called that a war crime, not unsportsmanlike conduct."
  "That's right, Kincaid was a private military contractor before getting into Urban Brawl, wasn't he?"
  "Eat shit, you beardless boy! Everyone in the league wants a piece of me, but in a couple years you'll be gone like all the rest of the lucky scrubs! What are you, a eunuch?"
  "I'm almost curious as to the answer myself, given that he's not even glancing at those infamous twin peaks. Even the gay players in the league aren't quite that gay!"
  "No, I'm married. But I don't blame you for not recognizing the concept. Good luck with the knee, Svetlana."
  "It's Bounce, you miserable-"
  "Aaaand we've got a team captain faceoff between Fireball and Zugspitze! Switch to that!"
  "-with the tunnel at the end? And the interior layout, and the ambushes? How?"
  "My scouts had been running in and out of those buildings all game, and they'd taken notes every time. By the end of the third quarter we had a complete map. So we saved it for the end like a rabbit in a hat."
  "When the hell did they have time to take notes? Were you using body cams? I don't think those are permitted!"
  "No, they just have really good memories. Kincaid in particular."
  "So we lost because your scouts actually scouted. Damn! We will need to shift our training. Everyone will."
  "Yeah, it's not like it's a move we could actually keep secret for long. But the game never stops evolving, does it?"
  "Nein. And well done, all of you."
  "So, that's how the Bolts pulled it off! Talk about using your heads! And yes, it will be interesting to see how the old brawl game continues to adapt to new strategies in the coming years, isn't it?"
  "Absolutely! And on a more heartwarming note, I've just got to say that it's nice to see someone who can entirely blow off the most beautiful woman in the league because he's still that much in love with his wife, isn't it Chet?"
  "There's one man who certainly won't be sleeping on the couch tonight, Bret! And this has been NABS Sports!Now, as we bring the latest exciting round of World Cup Urban Brawl to a close! Make sure to tune in for the postgame press conference starting in just five minutes, after which we'll bring you our team of award-winning sports analysts for the replays and breakdown!
  Transcript of JackPoint IM chat, 7/3/2068
  Slamm-0! - Okay, I picked up the datapacket. Why couldn't you do this yourself, again? I'm not some secretary who can be sent out to fetch your voicemail!
  Pistons - Because I was committed to last-minute biz that weekend and couldn't make the pickup, and the time window was limited, and every other candidate for it I trusted even less. So thanks for doing me the favor, I owe you one. Well, one-half.
  Slamm-0! - The heck you mean 'half'? You owe me what we agreed upon, not a bit less.
  Pistons - Yes, but you agreed to not open the package too.
  Slamm-0! - I did not!
  Pistons - Uh-huh. Pull the other one, kid, it's got a boot on it. I know you did.
  Slamm-0! - Damn, I would have sworn on my mother's sniper rifle that I didn't trip anything! How'd you catch me out, and what would it take to get you to teach me that trick?
  Pistons - I'll teach it to you for free. It's called 'Knowing your audience'. You didn't trip any flags, but there's simply no chance you wouldn't pry into it because you're you. And you are still way too easy to bluff, kid.
  Slamm-0! - Well, shit!
  Pistons - Old Age And Treachery 1, Youth And Enthusiasm 0. *eg*
  Slamm-0! - So, I'm not saying I read your mysterious datapacket that was left behind in Dawn of Atlantis MMORPG servers as encrypted hidden data bombs attached to certain items being sold in the auction house under such stupid prices that nobody would ever buy them except someone who knew specifically to look for them, but I'm not not saying that. So who the heck is she and why is she choosing such a weird way to send you gossip from what looks like the inside of some megacorporate research lab? If there's a prime run about to go down in the Matrix that requires this kind of inside man spook biz then I'd love to bring my bat on over and play ball, you know what I mean?
  Pistons - She is a very nice friend of mine who I still talk to despite her having decided on a non-shadowy lifepath and having nasty corpsec types potentially read her email to make sure she's not still talking to nastier shadowrunner types like me, and the rest is none of your business.
  Slamm-0! - Is she asking you for an extraction from the corporate rat race? Sign me up in a heartbeat for that run, 'cause I'll gladly slide you a discount.
  Pistons - ... you looked at her enclosed photos too, didn't you?
  Slamm-0! - Yeah, and she is hot! Da-yum! And maybe she's got a corporate boyfriend now but if she's ditching the scene then she'll be single again, right?
  Pistons - That's not her boyfriend, that's her husband. And she's not ditching the scene.
  Slamm-0! - Why are the good ones always married?!?
  Pistons - And he's an Urban Brawl champion and could pick you up with one hand and stuff you into a soda can. And they are totally crazy about each other. Trust me, I was at their wedding.
  Slamm-0! - Wait, your friend's married to Crackshot Kincaid? I'd thought that was just a chance resemblance!
  Pistons - ... I'd forgotten what a sports nut you are. Damn! Well, chalk another one up as lesson learned as to how even the most minor disclosure can potentially blow someone's cover!
  Slamm-0! - If they're trying to stay in deep cover they shouldn't enclose family photos. But yeah, I'll keep it buried for you, no charge. I mean, anybody who kicks Centurios' ass the way he did is clearly a national treasure!
  Pistons - I'd thought Bounce was your favorite Urban Brawl star?
  Slamm-0! - Well she was, but honestly? This past season she's been starting to come across as kinda sleazy.
  Pistons - Why heavens to Murgatroyd, is our Slamm-0! finally starting to grow up?
  Slamm-0! - I certainly hope not!
  Horizon DAEDALUS-BLACK secure file archive
  Transcript of Business Conference of Horizon Working Group 'Milkweed'
  Starting 1012 PDT, July 4th, 2068
  Members Present:
  Gary Cline, CEO, Horizon
  Tam Reyes, VP of Matrix Systems, Horizon, and CEO, Singularity Software
  Sandra DeVries, Dawkins Group
  CLINE: I have to attend the holiday ceremonies this afternoon, so let's keep it brief. Sandra, you asked for this urgent meeting because...?
  DEVRIES: We've recently turned up a disturbing possible-
  REYES: At this point, I would like to emphasize "possible".
  DEVRIES: As I would like to emphasize 'disturbing'. To continue, the complication in question is Subject Milkweed-Two's family ties.
  CLINE: Mr. Kincaid? Outside of being our latest Urban Brawl star and a nicely rising media property, what's so disturbing about him?
  DEVRIES: Cutting to the chase? His background is as fake as a three-dollar bill.
  CLINE: ... I see.
  REYES: More specifically, it's growing more and more probable that his 'reconstructed' life history that was 'lost in the Crash 2.0' is actually constructed from whole cloth.
  CLINE: Well, he wouldn't be the first person to reinvent their life history when they had the chance. Or even the first trusted Horizon employee. So, have you turned up anything that dictates he is unreliable?
  DEVRIES: ... we have no positive indications of that at this time.
  CLINE: If not that, then what exactly did he lie about?
  REYES: Well, deep linguistic analysis reveals that he didn't lie about being from the UCAS Midwest, but he almost certainly wasn't a poor and honest orphan farmboy who enlisted in an independent private military corporation as his only hope for a college education because his attempt to the UCAS Army had been interrupted by the second Crash.
  DEVRIES: Confirmed lie number one is that he did not go straight from being involuntarily SINless to the 77th Independent Rangers, as his dossier indicated. Because this turned up in a routine datamine of a new employee's old MeFeed posts over a week ago, which is what touched off our recent investigation.
  CLINE: Hrm. And this young lady is...?
  DEVRIES: No one of import by herself. The relevant part is that this young lady graduated college and joined a Horizon subsidiary as an entry-level graphics designer last month, and our automated data-mining tools did a routine crawl of her social media history as part of her entrance screening and turned up that rather surprising hit of someone who's photo exactly matches our latest Urban Brawl star's... as she breathlessly details how she was saved from an attack by a pair of drugged-up razorboys on a trip into the Redmond Barrens 'Touristville' district by her 'physad shadowrunner bodyguard'. Who scored two headshots out of two fired in less than a second with zero chance to prepare. And given our 'Crackshot's' nigh-unique marksmanship, that's what takes this from 'everybody has a body double somewhere' to 'it's 99.9+% likely to be the same man'.
  CLINE: So he was almost certainly working as a SINless shadowrunner in Seattle in 2065. If I remember correctly from Mrs. Kincaid's dossier...?
  DEVRIES: We didn't just stop with one MeFeed post. Once we have a time and a place to focus on, we investigated. There is photographic evidence and other confirmed data that Alex Kincaid first met Catherine Connors and they developed their relationship while she was a student at the University of Washington Seattle campus, not when they met in the 77th Independent Rangers in Africa as their official bios indicate.
  CLINE: So, a coordinated effort between the two of them to conceal his background and smuggle him in. Tam? Are there any indications that either of them has been conducting espionage in your shop? I genuinely doubt anyone would go to this effort to spy on the Los Angeles Bolts, after all.
  REYES: We haven't had any non-trivial leaks from the project at all, Gary, except the ones traceable to 'Smiling Bandit's' datarip on us months ago. And that one was not an inside job - he was legitimately skilled enough to do it from a cold standing start, and it entirely fits his pattern that he'd attack our scientific hosts even not knowing what was inside out of pure curiosity.
  DEVRIES: Dawkins will concur on that much - Smiling Bandit's M.O. is long-standing and quite infamous in certain Matrix circles, and this was entirely compliant with his pattern. And before Mr. Reyes brings it up himself, I will concur that there are possible less than malevolent explanations for the Kincaids' initial deception.
  CLINE: Such as him simply wanting to get the hell out of the slums and be a rich and famous Urban Brawl star married to a beautiful young wife he's clearly madly in love with. Or her wanting to rehabilitate her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend rather than allow the inevitable gulf between the legitimate and the shadow life tear them apart. *chuckles* I literally starred in that simflick once, as you might recall.
  REYES: I work with her regularly and through her I meet him socially almost as often as his travel schedule permits. If they're faking how much they care for each other then they're better deep-cover spies than our Dawkins Group could even dream of being. I couldn't produce that level of intentional self-deception in anyone even with high-gain simsense conditioning.
  DEVRIES: Our own psychological profilers largely concur with the sincerity of their relationship. However, that is by itself a potential problem because it means that their first loyalty is to each other well ahead of any loyalty to external institutions. Such as Horizon corporation.
  CLINE: Isn't the entire basis of our human resources policy to make sure that our employees never start seeing it as 'them versus the corporation?' That a happy Horizon guarantees a happy life for them?
  DEVRIES: And so long as our intended long-term scenario regarding Emergence remains either Alpha or Bravo variants, then that will not be a problem. Indeed, his own media prominence and their both being highly photogenic people already possessing a great amount of sentimental and 'wholesome family values' appeal PR-wise even before any stage-managing on our part makes them ideal for Alpha. But-
  REYES: I reiterate yet again that the Alpha-Bravo spectrum of our long-term Emergence scenarios are the only sane or viable ones. Charlie is actively counter-productive, and Delta and Epsilon are simply unmentionable.
  CLINE: I agree... but never forget that Alpha and Bravo are the only sane and viable ones if the developing situation gives us a choice, Tam. And Sandra is entirely correct that we can't ignore the necessary contingency planning for if it doesn't.
  Author's Note: And so we leave behind act two to enter act three, the Horizon arc. Hopefully this was suitably foreboding and mysterious!
  I have yet to design the Horizon arc besides the vague outline of what I've set up here, so I'm going to wait for the creative squirrel to either shit a pile of nuts in the next day or two or go take a nap until lightning strikes. So, we'll see.
  BTW, the young lady and the headshots? Scroll back to chapter 2, she's mentioned there. The Matrix never forgets! And while I was not planning this exact scene that far ahead when that far back, I do like to scatter little bits of flavor semi-randomly as I go just in case they might come in handy later. The line between good foreshadowing and good improv is more of a guideline than a rule, after all. *g*
  By the way, Urban Brawl actually does have all the positions and an outline of the game rules and scoring all done for you in the 2e Shadowbeat supplement, just as with other fictional Shadowrun sports such as Combat Biker. So while I had to come up with that segment of the play-by-play, I didn't have to actually invent the game from whole cloth. And yes, it is played with two balls (one for each team) that each team has to try and advance to the other's goal zone while simultaneously defending their own, which might explain some of the commentary.
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  I ran a finger around inside the collar of my genuine silk suit, a Brilliance original (the Horizon house label, of course), and let 'Cat straighten my necktie. Dark gray with a bright silver tie, a not-so-subtle reference to the Bolts' team colors. Cat was in a slightly less expensive red-and-black one-shouldered dress, with a pearl choker around her neck. Both of us we wearing more nuyen worth of clothing than our entire wardrobe all put together two years ago would have cost.
  I graciously helped her out of the door of the limousine and we stood, arm-in-arm, as the hovering little camera-drones of the paparazzi took their shots. Smile, face thirty degrees left, hold pose three to five seconds while waving to the crowd, turn to thirty degrees right, hold and wave again, face front, resume walking. We finished the well-practiced drill as our limousine discreetly pulled away from the curb behind us and cleared the red carpet and headed inside, just in time for the next arrival to pull in where we'd been. I was hardly the only celebrity attending this gala premiere, after all, and even with the recent big game I was hardly the most prominent one either. Because even in the dark cyberpunk future and even after multiple earthquakes, the balkanization of the UCAS, the Pueblo takeover of LA and parts of central CalFree in 2061, the Crash 2.0 and the rise of Horizon and its revamping and takeover of the oligarchy that was LA showbiz, Mann's Chinese Theatre was still Mann's Chinese Theatre and the biggest blockbusters still did their premieres here if they possibly could.
  It was July 9th, 2068, and we'd been invited to the first public screening of Shooting Star: Battle For Pusan, a live-action adaptation of a popular Korean animated trid series about a teenaged girl with a nigh-unique talent who along with the rest of her squadron defended the city against the techno-drones of a sinister AI mastermind. One that mysteriously kinda resembled Deus, the real-life sinister AI mastermind that had gone Skynet on the Renraku Arcology in Seattle and had been the primary instigator of the second Crash before finally being destroyed.
  Reporter incoming my wife mentally sighed on my personal Augmented Reality display, complete with a helpful glowing arrow highlighting the approaching gentleman. I braced myself for the familiar media dance-
  "Catherine Kincaid!" he called out cheerfully as he came to a polite stop six feet away from us, camera-drone hovering over his shoulder.
  "Yes?" she answered brightly, both of us on mental autopilot as we caught up to the realization that he was trying to interview her as opposed to me. Well, that was a first, especially still less than a month after the Bolts had become the World Cup champions and I'd become NA's Rookie of the Year and the playoffs MVP!
  "Mike Meyerson, HBC Entertainment News! As one of Singularity's rising professionals in Matrix R&D and a former pro gamer, how do you feel about the announced format change that alters Hana Song from being uniquely talented to piloting a battlesuit due to having been an e-sports champion to instead being uniquely suited to fight the AI Archon in VR cybercombat due to being a unique mathematical savant enhanced by SURGE?" he asked smoothly without pausing for breath.
  "Spoilers!" she chided him cutely. "And my personal opinion is that while it might be a major adjustment for fans of the original series to make and also disappoint my own inner teenager, I can acknowledge the need for it."
  "But what about complying with canon?" he asked "Isn't loyalty to the original franchise and the original fans important, instead of changing everything just to pursue a new audience?"
  "The world is full of highly skilled riggers whose training came via more conventional formats, both drone and vehicle, but the animated series basically skipped over that fact in the interests of making Hana more relatable to the original intended audience." Catherine professed. "But the movie version isn't just a kids' show anymore and won't live up to its full potential if it only settles for still being one just with live actors and more FX, so the new premise should only enhance the franchise as it transitions."
  "What do you think about this, Alex?" he turned away to face me as I grinned inwardly. Yeah, 'Cat in full geek mode could sometimes be a little intimidating.
  "Hey, I shoot people, not movies." I deflected with my 'amiable jock' grin. "So don't ask me to second-guess a director like David Pitt... let alone my own wife!" I laughed briefly. "As long as it's entertaining and there's no big plot holes, I think it'll do fine."
  "Three Oscars certainly can't be all wrong!" he chuckled along with me. "Thanks for your time!" he finished up and made his exit.
  That was a bit odd. I thought back through my own 'trode set as she kept her grip tight on my hand. Not that we didn't have other reasons for hand-holding in public, but it also allowed her to use skin conductivity to jack her powers into my own commlink's Personal Area Network and thus allow us to have entirely private conversations even in public.
  Well, all that bio data about me is easily searchable on my corporate social media, and I suppose as both a onetime Paranormal Crisis champ and a Matrix researcher I'm a valid interview subject about the plot change. Especially since I'm also the wife of a celebrity. Still, I had no prep for that one at all.
  I almost wonder if- I began to reply, until a very familiar voice rapidly yanked our attention entirely back to meatspace.
  "Hey Alex! Catherine! How's it going?" Gary Cline's booming oratorical tones washed over us.
  "Glad to see you, Gary!' I automatically answered back. Because while we hardly were close friends with Horizon's CEO, we did both see him occasionally in passing as he came in for face-to-faces with either Catherine's boss at Singularity or the Bolts' management staff, in addition to all the media appearances surrounding our recent Super Brawl and World Cup victories. "It's been a great summer so far!"
  "Glad to hear it!" he charmed us back as we went through the inevitable glad-handing it was impossible to avoid in Gary Cline's presence, especially when he was in public mode. We spent another minute or so exchanging the inevitable small talk before he politely moved on to press the flesh elsewhere in his gala-night socializing, and both headed off to the concession stand for some sodas.
  It took another two-question interview with a reporter who worked the more conventional sports-beat with me, several other necessary 'Hi! How are you?' moments with two of my teammates and one of Singularity's execs, and fifteen minutes of celebrity chit-chat before we finally navigated through the big glitterati pile in the lobby and were able to make it to our seats, every minute of it potentially on-camera. Not only were the paparazzi there but virtually anyone with a Personal Area Network, either worn or implanted, was capable of being of being a one-person camera crew who could film their area and upload it to their MeFeed or GoTube without even taking their hands out of their pockets.
  Sometimes you really missed being able to just throw on a clean pair of pants and randomly head out to catch a matinee.
  When we'd roughed out our plan to use AAA megacorporate citizenship via Cat and my reinventing myself as a sports star, even with all the forethought and research we'd done we still hadn't really grasped just what our new lifestyles would entail.
  On the plus side, the perks were awesome.
  In some ways I'd been in for less of a culture shock there than Cat had, despite her being native to this world and time period. After all, I'd been from 2020s America where what we'd have called an outright horrid urban blight, as in "The Wire" level bad, is what Seattle would have called an only moderately rough neighborhood. And you didn't find outright Barrens-like conditions in my birth world anywhere short of a Third World failed state, but in Shadowrun you could see that crap from the top of the Space Needle. So living in a neighborhood where there was literally no litter, graffiti, unkempt lawns, etc., etc. within line-of-sight anywhere was not a new and wondrous experience to me, even if it was to her. Even the U-Dub campus couldn't escape graffiti. And while 95+% of the contemporary population lived off of things like sculpted and synthetically flavored soy protein (guaranteed to at least mostly have the taste and texture of real food, or you got to shrug and eat it anyway!), mycoprotein, krill flakes, and etc., even the poor people back where I was from got to routinely see real fresh food, as grown on actual farms or ranches.
  But that's hardly to say that I was any less appreciative of our new level of luxury than she was. We weren't even in the highest lifestyle tier possible - the sort that people like Gary Cline or Samantha Villiers would enjoy - but even being a tier below the ultra tier was still vastly higher than either of us had ever dreamed of being in our lives. 'Cat had been a merit-scholarship student straight out of the elven ghetto in Puyallup, I'd been a working-class dude from middle America who'd only ever worn a suit to his own high school graduation and his parents' funerals. So the hardwood furniture and floors, the top-of-the-line household drones for everything from dusting the ceilings to empty the trash cans, a central home node that did a Matrix-of-Things experience on all the appliances in the house so you could order freshly ground coffee to be waiting for you from the middle of your evening commute home, the in-home Direct-X simsense, and everything else you could fit into a 300-square-meter luxury condoplex that took up one entire corner...
  Oh, yes, we liked it. We liked it very much. It was more luxury than either of us had even thought we'd ever see in our lives, and was only improved an even quantum leap further by the fully-networked Augmented Reality technology the late 2060s were bringing to anyone with a commlink and the Personal Area Network capabilities it did... let alone what was possible for someone like 'Cat, who had a beyond-SOTA commlink and advanced wireless hub built into her head. And for all that I'd had selfless motives about improving the world, I was not going to pretend I was some type of ascetic monk. The new fruits of our labors were quite juicy indeed, and if we could continue to do well for ourselves by doing good then by all means.
  But that isn't to say that everything was a paradise. Even before I'd become "Crackshot" Kincaid, Rookie of the Year and Urban Brawl's latest young superstar, even as just another new player fresh off an open tryout I'd still in major league sports. Which meant I'd still been a celebrity of sorts, meaning that my life outside our home was still lived under media management rules - and so was Cat's virtually anywhere outside our home and her workplace, simply because she was married to me. So rules on what we could say, rules on what we couldn't say, media training sessions for us both - me especially - on how to say it, the whole nine yards. Even if you wanted to go to the wrong places while wearing the wrong clothes to do wrong things, as more than a couple of my teammates did, you still had unwritten rules on how you did it so as to keep it from showing up in the screamsheets later.
  Hell, I even had social media participation quotas, because even in the 2020s a celebrity's managed image had to start incorporating things like strategic Twitter posting and a keen appreciation of what the wrong digital cam in the wrong place could do in conjunction with Youtube. So in the 2060s? Especially under Horizon, who were busy re-charting the bleeding edge of media manipulation SOTA every month? Part of my job was actually keeping up with my MeFeed and liveblogging. I didn't get a script for most of it, just a memo of bullet points to avoid, but basic common sense was enough to tell me that my ratings and contract renegotiations would only largely depend on how well I played and would also depend to at least some extent on how interesting I could be to all the websurfers who had nothing better to do but see how well their fave stars could also be "spontaneous" content creators. There were actually some days where 'Cat and I felt more like we were role-playing a pair of happy newlyweds for the cameras than actually being a pair of happy newlyweds. It was hardly 'The Truman Show' levels of fake and wrong, but it was still just a little wearying sometimes.
  So yes, after I got into the lifestyle myself it was no longer a mystery to me why 'Bounce' stripped herself half-naked during games whenever she could get away with losing that much chest armor without eating a bullet and otherwise threw so many diva fits. It was probably the best thing she could think of for avoiding that worst of fates in mid-21st-century sports entertainment - being boring. Me personally, I'd fallen back on doing a two-person videogame streaming show with 'Cat. It was something she was an expert at, a hot elven gamer girl would totally boost anyone's ratings, and ever since she'd basically given up competitive Paranormal Crisis because she felt her powers gave her too much of a hidden advantage it at least let her still feel part of the worldwide gaming community in some way. Also, Dawn of Atlantis was really kinda cool. MMORPGs had been getting immersive and interesting enough when you saw them on a flat screen and played them with a keyboard and mouse, so try to imagine how immeasurably deeper it could get when you could play it in full-VR Matrix sensorium. World of Warcraft didn't have shit on this.
  Even so, my end goal of finding a place to stand and a lever large enough to help fix the world felt like I was chasing the horizon at this point - pun intended. As I advanced further and further, the goal kept receding in front of me so that despite all the ground I'd covered and all the lovely new scenery, it still seemed like I was as far away from my destination as ever.
  Well, that's what keeping the old nose to the grindstone was for. After all, the mirage of no progress was sometimes just a mirage.
  Find anything? Cat's voice echoed in my commlink. Two people each using their own datajacks and a direct-connect cable were already capable of entirely private VR/AR conversations as far back as the invention of datajacks, so if I had my 'trodes on and were jacked into my commlink - as most people in the new modern Augmented Reality-enabled routinely were all day - then we could 'speak' in private for as long as she was close enough to get an un-snoopable direct link to my personal electronics.
  Admittedly, Cat's powers let her be a living bug-sweeper, and we'd never found any trace of unauthorized listening devices in our home. The problem is that if you could tap into the Central Housekeeping Node you didn't need to creep in and install any unauthorized devices - all the audio-visual pickups you'd need to eavesdrop were already installed as part of the housekeeping drones and electronics, they had to be able to see where they were going and hear spoken user commands. It was basically like Amazon Alexa had been back in my old homeworld... only there was no 'non-Alexa' mode you could use. So even with 'Cat's powers and her ever-growing mastery of them, we could never be entirely certain of our privacy. Even the most detailed down-to-the-bits-and-bytes teardown looking for hidden logins into a Matrix node wouldn't reveal if the node's own admin was doing the logging in - the admin account always had access to everything, that's why it was the admin. And since we lived in a Horizon-owned condoplex, that meant Horizon was always potentially watching.
  And sure, this was a known and accepted part of megacorporate life going in, but it meant that even more than the other celebrities/employees in this town we had no real place we could live our private lives except inside our own heads. After all, Horizon mostly didn't care about what even its social media stars did when not on the clock... but most of the others didn't have a significant agenda of their own they still weren't sure they wanted to share with Horizon. Honestly, if 'Cat and I hadn't at least been able to use her powers to at least open up to each other in ARspace-
  No smoking gun today. I 'sighed' back. I'd allowed myself to be "persuaded" to shift my major from engineering to business as 'better career advice'. It had been the major I'd wanted all along, but I hadn't wanted to advertise that so much before I was hired. So, going on the theory that things that other people talked you into were things they didn't feel threatened by, I managed to indirectly steer my coach into pointing out to me that a player who'd aged out of the brawl game had much better odds of being hired in the business track than the STEM track, as corps much preferred to grow their researchers straight out of college.
  Which meant that I was able to finally start sidestepping the 'everybody knows' of world economic, business, and political conditions and start getting an in-depth look at them. Especially politics, because in the dark cyberpunk future, a business studies major was unavoidably adjacent to the political science track. Business was politics in far too many places, and politics certainly was a business.
  It's got to be out there somewhere, she reassured me.
  To be fair, I'm not exactly getting one hundred percent objective data here. Because, of course, the educational resources available via a corp-sponsored university were going to be only one of several possible points of view on the situation.
  The megacorp-approved point of view? Definitely not any kind of objective presentation. But for as long as businesses aren't going bankrupt en masse, the economic education available has got to be teaching at least largely true things. It's not as if the world financial system is a forgiving environment.
  Hah, not hardly. 'So, how was your day?' he said, changing the subject...
  Tam had a closed meeting to discuss long-range trends with me and the other technos. Nothing solid, but it's looking more and more like the public reveal of technomancers' will be only a couple years from now.
  That's what they've decided to go with as a name for it? 'Technomancy'?
  Eee-yup. The marketing psychs think that drawing an analogy between the 'Emergence', as they're calling it, and the Awakening is a way to help reassure people. After all, the arrival of magic was also at one time believed to be the end of science as we know it and composed of massively spooky phenomena that nobody understood how they worked, and now magic is both a prized industrial resource and a pop-culture extravaganza.
  And is still composed of spooky phenomena nobody really understands how it works.
  That too. And, well, I'm not a building full of sociologists and advanced statistical marketing people.
  At least that part of coming to Horizon looks to have been a good idea on our parts. I sighed.
  Your tone of voice implies that you're not thinking the rest of it was. she probed.
  Regarding Project Archimedes? Even with everything I've done to assimilate and correlate more data than most people can dream of crunching, I'm still not getting any real inspiration there. The AAA megacorps simply directly or indirectly own too much of the world's real wealth. And not just money or natural resources, but also intellectual property, means of production, even human and metahuman resources... and the infrastructure that raises, trains, and indoctrinates the following generations of them. Even with the field thrown upon to highly speculative wishing, it always turns into a case of 'To solve this problem you'd need to be able to solve that problem, which is made impossible by these factors, which can't be solved without one of those, which will never be allowed to exist by the source of the original problem.' I sighed yet again. Even with my game-breaking superpowers, it feels like this particular game isn't the one I'm able to break. It's like a Sicilian death-lock - all the cars are stuck nose-to-nose at the intersection because nobody is going to be first to back up and let another car turn. I don't know how you can outsmart that much stupid.
  And yet again with the 20th century metaphors you had to explain to me before I even got them, because that's certainly not been a thing ever since GridGuide technology existed. she thought back cheekily.
  I appreciate that you're trying to cheer me up from the ongoing lack of progress, but time-travel jokes are not going to work today. I sent back gently.
  I could always start pulling a 'Bounce' on you... she smirked, reaching one hand up to lightly tease her fingers over the collar of her blouse.
  Oh that would definitely work, but it would also make me far too late for tonight's mandatory social engagement. I smiled back.
  And don't I know it! And since it's about time you got up and got dressed for it, unass the couch already. And say 'hi' to Sarah for me, okay?
  I will. Love you.
  Love you too.
  I kissed my wife, then stood up and headed to the bedroom to get changed. My one-year rookie contract had expired at the end of the season - with first-year turnover as high in Urban Brawl as it was, the system was that all rookies got a standard one-year contract. There were no extensions. no options, just an agreed-upon league scale for rookies and the same media percentages and endorsements as the league collective bargaining agreement gave everyone else, and after the first year it was entirely the player's decision to stay in Brawl or not, just as it was entirely their team's decision to keep them on or dump them. If a player and his starting team couldn't agree on a new contract then they were a free agent, but his starting team entirely had right of first refusal before a player was released.
  The system had evolved because the attrition rate in the first year was huge. The sport was physically demanding enough a whole lot of people who thought they were tough enough for Urban Brawl - even ones with actual combat experience - rapidly found out that they weren't. It's not as if the sport was as deadly as real combat, and certainly wasn't as tactically challenging, but while we weren't all real soldiers by a long shot there was no one who could say that pro Urban Brawlers were not all world-class athletes.
  And given what my rookie year had entailed, the typical end-of-rookie-year renegotiations had gotten far more spirited - and far more generous - than average in my particular case. But it hadn't taken more than a few weeks for the process to be completed, because a team was normally willing to do quite a bit to hang on to a rookie who had clearly gone novastar. So we'd already gotten final ink on the contract by this afternoon. And as I'd been the last player on the Bolts to finish contract talks this summer, that meant tonight was the time for the traditional team post-summer-contract-sessions party.
  "CHUG! CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!" everyone chanted, as I dutifully drained the trophy cup. Mercifully they'd only filled it with beer, not hard liquor. The lesson of that year where the Cincinnati Lasers had almost lost their star heavy to alcohol poisoning because they'd been crazy enough to do the post-Super-Brawl celebration with a trophy full of vodka instead of beer, and had lost the subsequent World Cup because they'd had to play his position off the bench, had not been lost on the rest of the league.
  I burped and put it down, then sat right back down and waited for my stomach to settle. While the Urban Brawl World Cup could hold a full 12 cans of beer, they'd only slightly more than half-filled it so I hadn't had to do more than solo a six-pack. Normally I didn't drink at all, but avoiding "social" drinking on a major league athletics team was nigh-impossible, so I leaned into my own superpowers to shake it off like I could shake off everything else. But not too quickly, because that would attract notice.
  "Congratulations, m'man! Twenty-two million nuyen for the next three years! That is one helluva sweet-ass first deal!" Harry "Long-Fall" Ironhorse, our starting left heavy, backslapped me.
  "Definitely beat out my first contract." Vincent Torsten, our other heavy and Harry's partner, grunted.
  "Yeah, but you didn't score Rookie of the Year, playoffs MVP, and the game-winning play in the World Cup." Sarah "Fireball" McClain, our team captain, broke in good-naturedly. "Alex earned those numbers."
  "Said the thirty-million-nuyen woman." Vincent shot back. "But yeah, I gotta admit the ring's the thing, ain't it?" he demurred as he presented his ring finger and its proudly displayed World Championship ring. We were of course all wearing ours for the occasion as well.
  "It wasn't the game-winning play, it was just the semi-finals." Andrew 'Silver Streak' Koznowski, one of my fellow scouts, corrected her.
  "Oh please, the Hong Kong team went down like pop-up targets." Fireball snorted. "The real World Cup match was the semi, and the Germans took us to the wire." She paused just long enough to make it dramatic, and then grinned wickedly. "And still lost!"
  "We are the lightning!" went up a general chorus of the team slogan.
  "Yo! Another round of the good stuff for everyone, because the rookie's buying!" Fireball yelled at the waiter, and the servers who'd been discreetly staying out of range of the large table full of heavily-drinking professional athletes started bringing it out yet more to get drunk with.
  "So, Crackshot, there's another team tradition you might not be aware of..." Andrew leaned over to smirk at me after we'd finished the next round.
  "And that would be?" I sighed tolerantly. Because I was only going to put up with a certain amount of the hazing. This place felt enough like a college frat sometimes even without it.
  "Yeah, a purely LA one! Given the unique cultural environment around here... well, you've proven that can score in the Brawl Zone, but can you score?" he leered at me. "Some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood are in this club tonight, rookie! So go on, show us your real game!"
  "If it's all the same to you, I'm just gonna punch my surrender switch." I made a joke of it.
  "Dude, I admit your wife is one fine-" one of the bangers started to break in.
  "Phrasing, Larry!" Fireball immediately cut him off.
  "-but man does not live by matrimony alone!" Harry picked up the thread cheerfully. "Come on, live a little!"
  "I just got rich, Long-Fall. I don't want my first major celebrity purchase to be my divorce settlement." I spun him off.
  "You have to admit he's got a point there, m'man." Vincent chimed in, as he'd lost five million nuyen just a couple years ago learning the hard way to never get married in Tinseltown without a pre-nup.
  "What's the matter, 'Lackshot', no balls?" Andrew kept pushing.
  "Hey, Andy, how's about we make it a contest?" I smirked back after a moment's thought. "You go pull the most beautiful woman in this club that you possibly can, and then I'll go and sleep with a woman that's even more beautiful."
  "More beautiful as decided by who?" he said suspiciously.
  "Three votes. Me, you, and Sarah's." I said instantly. "Majority rules."
  "Hah! You're on, rookie! And prepare to eat my dust!" he boasted, and with an arrogant grace he stood up and headed out onto the dance floor. Since Andrew was an extremely good-looking guy - partly natural, and partly knowing the right surgeons - and his particular brand of alpha-bro was mysteriously attractive to a certain type of woman in Hollywood, especially after the third drink, it didn't take him long to land one of Brilliance's current supermodel stable. Especially since you didn't normally come to a club like Electron Skies unless you were trying to hook up,
  "Cherise, this is Crackshot. Crackshot, Cherise DeLeon. Super model." he introduced us. "Welp, that's mine down."
  "Technically you haven't actually slept with her yet, but I'll give you a bye on that because she's clearly interested and willing-" I conceded.
  "I sure am!" she giggled helplessly. Yes, somebody had certainly been into the good stuff tonight.
  "So, what do you think you can do?" Andrew smirked.
  I held up my commlink and, with the relevant Augmented Reality window set to allow everyone at the table to see it, pulled up and tapped the icon 'Club Services -> Call A Cab'. "I can go home and sleep with my wife. Who is, as far as I'm concerned, the most beautiful woman in the world."
  Everyone else at the table burst out in laughter.
  "Hey!" Andrew protested. "That doesn't count!"
  "I said you could find the most beautiful woman in this club that you could possibly land, and then I'd go and sleep with one even more beautiful. I didn't say she had to be in the club at the time." I pointed out calmly, lazily crossing my arms.
  "Crackshot's right, he never did!" Long-Fall chimed in. "I guess we know how he scored that sweet contract today, don't we team?" he kept laughing.
  "Yeah, well, I don't think-" Andrew started to say nastily.
  "Two out of three, remember?" I cut him off. "Sarah, it's up to you to break the tie."
  Sarah looked at me levelly, and then at Andrew, and let it draw out for a long, tense moment... that would have been far tenser if I hadn't seen her winking at me from the side Andrew couldn't spot. Because yeah, old 'Silver Streak' had always been a pushy asshole and as the captain she'd had to deal with more of that than most of us. There was no real chance she'd ever have picked his side... and even if she had, I still wouldn't have really lost anything except some jock pride I didn't really have. But this was why drunk people should never make bar bets with less drunk people, a lesson Andrew was learning yet again just tonight.
  "Cathy wins." Fireball finally said with a wicked grin of her own. "No offense, Cherise, but neon purple is just so not your color." she continued with obvious insincerity.
  I bought the happy couple the most expensive drink the house served on me - as a semi-apology to her and to rub it in to him - and left the club to go catch my cab ride home. As I stood waiting outside on the marquee waiting for it, I let the smile fall off my face and thought about what had just happened-
  I stepped to the side just in time to avoid being bumped into by a drunk Kit McClain, simsense star extraordinaire, as he lurched out down the red carpet past where I'd just been standing and blithely reclaimed his car keys from the just-arriving valet parker. Despite being visibly four sheets to the wind, nobody said a word to him as he got in and drove off. Not even me, because club security politely intercepted me when I looked like I might be about to step quickly towards him.
  As his sports car peeled out my eidetic memory replayed all the relevant information even though I didn't really want it to. The alcoholic simstar had been in rehab twice already, and the over-under on him going back for a third round was within two weeks after principal photography would wrap on his current project. God only knows how he'd be sober enough to work tomorrow, but then again, being plastered off his ass had never affected the quality of his acting before.
  It had, however, rather materially affected the quality of life of the last person he'd hit with his car while driving drunk. It had been considered a socially responsible and happy ending by Hollywood standards that he'd issued a public apology, had paid an extremely generous cash settlement, and had 'voluntarily' entered rehab and even managed to avoid falling off the wagon for almost a year afterwards. A substantial improvement over what would have happened under the old studio system that was Amalgamated or Boromaker, who'd simply have covered up the entire business by intimidating or even killing the family - they'd been poor nobodies who owned a coin-operated laundromat, after all - and not even interrupting their star's schedule with it. But Horizon had made him actually pay, and admit fault, and try to clean up his act at least a little.
  Of course even Horizon hadn't remotely contemplated actually allowing him to be prosecuted or charged with anything. Not when he had had four blockbuster releases that had broken the giganuyen mark and was currently the face of the forever-profitable Nathan Never franchise, Because him actually going to jail would have affected the filming schedules, and we couldn't have that. Not at that margin of profit.
  And yes, receiving three million nuyen tax-paid when you'd been lucky to see thirty thousand a year before that would indeed be considered a miracle from heaven by most poor families. Although they'd most likely have been much happier to not see a dime of that money... and still have a son.
  I sighed inwardly and nodded to myself as my cab arrived and I got in it to go home. Admittedly, similar shit had happened back in my birthworld's Hollywood as well, so I could hardly blame this particular bit on the dark cyberpunk future. But... yeah.
  And my teammates actually wondered why I normally didn't indulge.
  Author's Note: Still working out which one of the several possible forks of the Horizon arc I'm going with, so, still going a bit slow. But I can still get down the opening pieces of how our MCs are settling into their new lives and at least foreshadow some possible things they are thinking of. As well as showcase a bit more of Horizon being Horizon.
  By the way, do you know how much of a pain in the ass it is to come up with that many names and character outlines for people you're not going to make a load-bearing part of the narrative? How do RPG supplement designers do this full time?
  And yes, as if the in-text references weren't already explicit enough, the premise of that fictional in-story summer blockbuster was indeed totally based on D.Va's animated short for Overwatch. (Soundtrack available separately!)
  As per the question re: the Horizon Internal Persona/P2.0 advanced social media credit system, as the supplement that introduces that is set in 2071, I have room to say they haven't phased in yet. Pros of doing that: Shit is a lot simpler for me to write. Cons of doing that: It's actually an interesting and potentially useful setting element. So again, still thinking it over.
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  September came, and with it a new season of Urban Brawl. As the defending world champions we had an entirely new set of expectations put on us, but it was still ultimately the same old brawl game played the same old way. Really, the greatest challenge for me wasn't winning but in still being a star player without being too superhuman. Pretty much every possible statistic and metric was individually charted and computer-analyzed for us, after all, both in the game and in practice. I got a lot of practice in 'ramping up' my nervous system for superhuman performance just so I could continually run subliminal algorithms to allow me to stay consistent with the computerized player-performance model I wanted people to see instead of revealing that I was, well, whatever the hell kind of freak of nature I really was. Because we'd kinda had to put that particular investigative project on the wayside for a while given the new stage of our lives, not that we'd been making great process in figuring out the underneath beneath my underneath anyway.
  I'd honestly considered just missing that last shot versus Bounce in the playoffs, but we had a long-range script for what we hoped to achieve via Horizon and being just another Urban Brawl player in the crowd, or worse yet the 'choker' who'd be blamed forever for the Bolts' playoff loss, would simply not be part of the plan. Any pro athlete in any sport remembered the example of the infamous college basketball player 'Stoneball' Jackson, who'd had his entire athletics career derailed by one dropped pass at a key moment in the Final Four despite having been a stellar performer otherwise. To the point he'd been entirely passed over in the NBA draft and had ended up having to join the CAS Navy out of college. No, the strategy we had in mind required me to be successful and at least mostly famous, so I'd made the clutch play and accepted the instant stardom that came with it, for both good and ill.
  But even though the sportsball part of our mutual scheme was still entirely on schedule, it was still a time-consuming schedule. The playing season meant we spent a lot of time on the road, and while my accommodations and perks were much better this year than last year, it still meant sleeping alone. And while there was an entirely traditional solution for that, hell no. I came from a century and an upbringing where tomcatting around as a bachelor was fine, but marriage vows meant you stayed faithful to your wife even when on long deployments. I mean, hell, my dad had managed to hold to that standard through an entire goddamn war, I could certainly live up to the same while just playing pro sports. But even with arbitrary amounts of willpower available to me at need... well, being able to do things easily was not automatically the same as being able to do things and have fun in the process.
  Admittedly, a certain primitive part of my male brain still daydreamed of things like threesomes and harems, and 'Cat was just slightly kinky enough that the former was a theoretical possibility with the right person. It would not have been the first time she'd been in one, given some of the stories about her college days. But there were daydreams and then there was reality, and then there was not risking sleeping on the couch, so there you went.
  And while I got along well with most of the team, even despite my instantly flying up to a salary scale even many of them had yet to see, as Wesley Snipes had put it there was always some motherfucker who just had to try and ice skate uphill. So before we even reached October and the end of our first set of away games, the pot finally boiled over.
  "So, how's it feel to know you're only human?" Andrew sneered. Old 'Silver Streak' had really not liked being upstaged as the Bolts' #1 scout by the rookie, much less being upstaged in such a comprehensive fashion that he could never dream of lapping me. Going from nobody to Rookie of the Year, North American Playoffs MVP, World Cup MVP, and the clutch player everyone agreed had cemented the Bolts' first World Cup victory since 2048 was the kind of thing you saw only in the script of a Disney sports movie. Provided I managed to live through five more seasons' of Urban Brawl without irredeemably tripping on my own dick, I was basically a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. Already. And while Andrew was legitimately Hall of Fame himself - the man had not become the #1 scout of the Bolts before me by sucking at this game - the envy still just ate at him. "Because it looks like you couldn't clutch it this time, flash in the pan!"
  So of course he'd been on my ass ever since I'd lapped him like Severus Snape griefing on Harry Potter, and hadn't let up. And again, I had enough willpower to get through damn near anything without blinking if I wanted to, but it still didn't make it fun. So after our loss versus the Denver Storm - even when you were superhuman and on a good team, the other team still got a vote - his latest round of needling had me deciding that fuck it, just this once I was going to indulge myself. It had been a frustrating enough summer and early fall in some other ways, and Fireball had had enough of Andrew's shit recently that nothing short of rendering him unable to start in the next match would even get me spoken to, so instead of my usual urbane brush-off I rounded on him.
  "So you're saying that you're still worse than me, Andy?" I sneered back. "Because you just admitted you had a chance to clutch where I couldn't, but oh wait, Denver still won!"
  "Wow, somebody thinks one season and a few lucky shots makes him pretty tall!" he said, squaring up right in my face like he always tried to. Because he was actually an inch taller than I was at six-three, and we were both quite overlarge for the position of scout - they usually played women or shorter, more slightly built men at that position. Andrew and I both had a build that would usually be more appropriate to a banger or the lighter end of heavy, but as bigger men who were exceptionally fast for our size we were a known if uncommon deployment strategy in Urban Brawl.
  The tense moment stood, as the other players in the locker room suddenly realized that Sarah - who by this point would have inevitably spoken up to defuse an ongoing argument - was just standing there and silently watching the show along with everybody else. Andrew likewise tensed momentarily at the team captain that was not barking in the night-time, and then relaxed and grinned nastily.
  "Looks like everybody else is finally getting fed up with you too, Lackshot!" he laughed. "Looks like it's just you and me!"
  "Not in the stadium, Silver Leak. It ain't ours, and we don't want this kind of shit on another team's security cameras or they'll leak it on the nine o'clock news." I pointed out firmly.
  "Back at the hotel then." he acknowledged the wisdom of that. "Meet you on the roof... if you've got the guts."
  Soon enough we were both out on the hotel's helipad, around the corner where the security cameras couldn't get an angle on us. Plus, Long-Fall was busy slipping some nuyen to the operators to make sure we had privacy.
  "So, you gonna pussy out and ask for rules?" he said, balling his fists.
  "You know if we actually hurt each other to the point somebody misses game start at the next match, Fireball has to admit what happened." I said as we both put our DocWagon alert wristbands into standby mode, just as we were required to do during matches to keep the vital signs monitors from calling an ambulance on us when we didn't want one. "But that's four days from now, and the team physician can fix up almost anything short of a broken bone by then without having to say anything. It's not like you don't get bruises all over in this game anyway."
  "No bone breakers, no eye gougers." he offered in return. "Black-and-blue only."
  "And no boots in when the opponent's on the ground. And we keep going until someone hits the surrender switch or can't get back up after a ten count. No time-outs." I said.
  "Fair enough." he agreed, swinging his arms back and forth, in and out, to loosen up his shoulders. Andrew had top-end wired reflexes and enough bioware fast-twitch muscle enhancers to make him snap off the starting blocks like an elf on amphetamines, as well as the build of an NFL wide receiver. And for all that he'd gone straight into Urban Brawl out of college and never done anything else in his life, he'd still learned how to throw a mean punch both in dojos and less formally. So for pretty much anyone else, trying to fistfight him was a fast trip to the doctor's office.
  So of course, the stupid SOB had no chance against me at all.
  I let him have the first punch - a fast right-cross straight to my head, whether as a feint or going straight for the knockout I didn't know - then forearm-blocked it in mid-swing and stepped in and grabbed his belt buckle with my other hand. Using my blocking arm as a lever I redirected his own momentum to swing him up and over, body-slamming him straight into the rooftop gravel at my feet with a hard oof! Stepping back as soon as he was prone, I let him roll to his feet and get back up.
  "Always showing off." he said, cricking his neck. "No staying power!" he growled, and came back in. I met force with force this time, both our arms straining against each other, before powering right through with ease and breaking his nose with my forehead. A trip-and-shove while he was dazed, and he slammed face-first into the roof again. I stepped back...
  "Had enough?" I taunted him.
  "Even you aren't that stupid." he snarled back, and planted his feet and opened both hands. We stared at each other for a few seconds, and then I feinted a twitch. Then another one, and another. Nothing. Andrew was solidly rooted now and he was going to wait for me to come to him if he had to wait all night.
  I nodded in at least a little genuine respect, which was certainly more than I'd expected to be feeling for him at this moment. For all his abrasiveness he actually knew something about fighting for real, and could remember it even when pissed off.
  So I moved to the attack, not even holding back this time. I had a lot of frustration to work off and even within the limits of what we'd agreed upon, I was going to take this opportunity and do it.
  Several minutes later, I was actually starting to feel nauseated. For all that he was legitimately one hell of a tough customer and with top-tier cyberware, I'd been basically hitting him at will. I couldn't lose this fight unless I actively tried to. I'd wanted to beat the shit out of him, and I had indeed thoroughly beaten the shit out of him. But even though I'd willfully ignored that little voice of conscience telling me I was being an asshole here, I hadn't been able to entirely silence it even as I'd fought. And now it was just too loud to ignore any more.
  And no matter how much I'd pounded on Andy, right up to the threshold of what we'd agreed we could get away with doing before the sort of serious damage showed up that would require official physician's reports and write-ups, he'd just kept getting back up. It was reaching the point where if this had been a boxing match, the ref would have to throw in the towel to keep someone from risking critical injury.
  "Come on!" he said, staggering drunkenly from where he could barely plant his feet. "Come on! You ain't so bad! You got nothin'!" he gasped. "Nothin'!"
  I raised my blood-covered fist, then dropped it. My shoulders went limp.
  "I'm out." I sighed.
  "... the fuck?' he said semi-coherently.
  "I'm out!" I shouted back at him. "I surrender! You win, dammit! Now hold your dumb ass still while I check you for a concussion!" I finished, grabbing him by his shoulder while my other hand flashed a penlight in his eyes. Fortunately, they both dilated just as they were supposed to. And I was entirely qualified as a combat medic by this point even if that entirely wasn't on my official records, so I was able to determine that despite having looked like he'd lost an argument with an entire bar full of trolls he actually wasn't showing any alarming symptoms. We'd still obviously have to get the team physician to look at us later, him especially, but at least we wouldn't need an ambulance right now.
  I finished and let him go, turning away to stomp across the roof and sit down on the edge of the elevated helipad platform. Neither of us had wanted our fistfight to go over the side, so we'd both stayed well away from the edge while we'd been throwing hands.
  "Why?!?" I heard him ask confusedly, as he staggered over and sat down alongside me. "Why give up? You were kicking my ass! I never even slowed you down!"
  "No, I never slowed you down." I shot back. "No matter how much I beat the living shit out of you, you didn't even start to quit. You stupid dumb stubborn asshole!" I screamed. "Why the fuck wouldn't you just stop? You were such a goddamn meathead that it didn't matter how strong I was! It only mattered that you just wouldn't give it up unless I fucking beat you to death! And I can't do that!"
  "A-heh." he chuckled. "A-ha-AHAHHAHAHHAHAHAA!" he laughed drunkenly, hysterically, for a good long minute before finally wheezing to a stop.
  "Preach it, brother." I agreed wearily when silence finally fell. "Look at us. What a pair of stupid sons of bitches."
  "Yeah." he sighed. "Why the fuck do you gotta be so you?"
  "Why the hell do you have to be so you? You are legitimately good at the game and your career reflects it! So why fucking push everybody all the time? How the hell did you not get traded five times as often as you were?" I yelled at him.
  "I don't know!" he burst out. "I just-" he sighed. "I used to love this game! I still love this game! But I just can't stand the people anymore, you least of all!"
  "Is it the team?" I asked. "You only got traded to LA, what, three years ago? Do you miss your old team?"
  "Nah." he shook his head. "I mean the Knightmares were all right, and Detroit was a bangin' city to live in if you were a brawl star. Damien Knight loved to throw money and honey at his favorite toys. But I'm a local boy, born in the Central Valley right up the road in CalFree. So gettin' traded here was a thing I deliberately angled for when my last contract was up in Detroit. So I could visit the family more often, y'know?"
  And then my enhanced brain put the clues together. "Oh fuck me. It's transference. For both of us."
  "Transfer-what?" he asked me, still trying to get over the ringing in his ears.
  "You know when you're really pissed off at something that you can't even admit to yourself you're pissed off at, because actually being angry at it would get you killed? Like when some high-end suit just up and jumps in your shit for no reason, but if you so much as make the wrong expression at him your ass is shitcanned? So you bottle that all up, and then the next thing that crosses your path that even mildly pisses you off, bam. You unload." I explained.
  "Well fuck yeah, everybody does that. That's basic human nature. But what's that got to do with this?" Andrew asked me, honestly confused.
  "Something else in your life - something else about Urban Brawl - pisses you off, but you can't even admit to yourself that it's there." I shrugged. "So it all spills out on everything else that annoys you when you're suited up. Like a new rival at the position you play, or all the little shit in the locker room that a guy would normally shrug off."
  "So what pisses you off so much that my face was where you decided to dump it all?" Andrew asked me perceptively.
  "Since I only rattled your brain and didn't actually pull it out of your ear and dump it on the floor, you've probably noticed the part where the world is kinda shitty nowadays." I said sarcastically, sweeping my hand out to encompass our nighttime rooftop view of the Mile High City and environs.
  "Dude, if you actually angst about how shitty the whole world is you'll have a stroke in like a week." Andrew said matter-of-factly. "You gotta learn to tune that out and just take care of yourself and your own family." He shook his head ruefully. "I keep forgetting how young your ass is."
  "You aren't even forty yet, grandpa-" I started back, and then facepalmed. "Dumbass! I think I just figured out what's got you pissed off at life."
  "... yeah." he agreed softly. "I'm comin' up on it. I've known that since before I got to LA." He shook his head. "Fifteen years. That's a good long run in the brawl game, the kind anybody should be proud of."
  "A World Cup and an additional Super Brawl with the Knightmares. A World Cup before that with the Screamers." I acknowledged him. "You've got the biggest ring collection on the team, and a guaranteed reservation at the Hall of Fame as soon as you've been retired long enough to be eligible."
  "So why ain't that a comfort?" he threw back. "This is what I've done my whole life." he muttered. "It's the only thing I'm really good at. So what happens when I'm not good at it anymore? Sure, I got enough saved up for like ten retirements, but-" he spat. "The women, the parties, all that stuff, it's great for a break but a man needs to work, y'know? Look at the LA scene. All the goldenkids with trust funds, all the fancy people who get by just on bein' pretty and don't actually struggle for anything..."
  "They fall apart like rotten wood as soon as life gives 'em even the littlest shove." I agreed. "Because they've got nothing to live for except their next thrill. People need real goals."
  "Goals ain't just for winning brawl games." he agreed. "So, what's yours? Because you kinda gave away that just being a champion brawler ain't it."
  "You said you were raised in the Valley." I redirected. "I'm assuming your folks were well-off?"
  "Dad was like a district supervisor on the State Water Board so yeah, we were pretty set up." he nodded. "Why?"
  "So you got to see the poor farmers get run over or eaten up by the corporate agribusiness from a view in the box seats." I said. "In the Midwest? I'd have been one of the people seeing that train coming from down on the tracks. And I'm still the guy from the luxury seats compared to 'Cat, because she's from Tarislar."
  "Tarislar?" he asked, confused, before the reference finally caught up to him. "Wait, the elven place in Seattle? Puyallup Seattle?"
  "Yeah." I agreed.
  "That little daisy you married is from the Seattle Barrens?" he asked incredulously. "No wonder you don't even think of stepping out on her! You'd wake up with it cut off and shoved down your throat!" He broke off in a short laugh. "Damn, talk about judgin' from appearances."
  "So yeah, I grew up in some shit. And 'Cat grew up in some real shit. She busted her ass off to get a scholarship that she then lost when the suits were dicks about some health problems, I didn't even get to a college in the first place. We both had to sign up with mercs in goddamn Africa to actually get a solid wage, and then-" I shrugged. "Well, we got lucky and ended up here. Real lucky. But that's just two of us, out of how many millions and billions who don't?" I waved my hand at the skyline again, this time in the direction of Denver's own Z-zone, the Warrens, just visible as a dark blotch against the otherwise brightly lit city. "We go inside and downstairs right now, it's a marble hot tub and room service. And literally within line of sight of here, as in with binoculars - or my eyes - we could watch their faces off this rooftop, are kids shooting each other over a hundred nuyen worth of drugs' they want to sell to buy food." I sighed. "I didn't lose the ability to 'put it out of my mind' because I'm a kid, I lost it because once you've seen it close-up..."
  "Well you're definitely in the right corp if you hate that shit." he agreed. "I mean, all the charity stuff? The education programs? When I originally got here I couldn't believe the amount of dog and pony show they made us do, the whole weekly 'volunteer' sessions workin' with poor kids and all, but it actually started to grow on me a little. It damn sure ain't like Ares was."
  "I know, and that's why we're glad we're here instead of some other places we could be. But it's still so damn slow!" I burst out. "Going to El Infierno every week to help out the youth league just reminds me that El Infierno is still there every week! It feels like I'm trying to bail the ocean with a spoon!" I sighed again and decided to take the opportunity to vent some of my current frustrations, even if it was to someone who'd just think I was speaking in fanciful metaphor and had no clue what either of those words would mean anyway. "So yeah. As crazy as it sounds sometimes I feel like I've got this magic wand that I should be waving to fix the world, but I'm just too stupid to figure out how to point it."
  "Dude, if you actually had one of those magic wands for real then they'd kill you deader than shit." Andrew said soberly. "I mean, that's why they assassinated Dunkelzahn."
  "Excuse me?" I said, puzzled.
  "You know, the dragon who was President of the UCAS for like half an hour?" he said sarcastically. "Or were you too busy being born around then?"
  "Just unpack it, dude." I snapped.
  "So, the big D was like the last of the real good guys, everybody agrees on that. His will was this whole encyclopedia of just giving all his money to charity and asking all sorts of people to do better things in life and promising them bequests if they did. And his Presidential campaign was all about, well, okay, a lot of it was just politics but there was just this sincerity, y'know? If I'd been a UCAS citizen I'd have voted for him." he said earnestly. "So, if that's how he wanted everybody to think of him after he was dead then he can't have been a total asshole while he was alive, right? And he was richer than anybody except Lofwyr and secretly owned tons of shit, even twelve percent of Ares for fuck's sake. So you'd think if anybody could have done a whole bunch to fix the world, it was him."
  "But he didn't, really." I said, my thoughts racing.
  "But he didn't." Andrew agreed. "Sure maybe there was some secret stuff he was doing, what super rich guy isn't doing secret stuff, but on the record? For most of his life since the Awakening all he did was run his talk show and do mostly his own thing, even if it wasn't bad things. He didn't even seriously try to fix the world until he ran for President... and boom! Blown into vapor the very same day it looks like he's finally going to get a chance to move and shake for real! And how much of the stuff that was in his will has actually been finished yet by other people, and how much has just kinda faded out into yesterday's news?"
  "Fuck me, that's one depressing outlook you got there man." I exhaled.
  "Yeah, but you can't argue with a single bit of it, can you?" Andrew said. "The big dogs that really run the world today, they like the world just the way it is. Fucked up shit and Z-zones and starving kids and all, because all that either doesn't touch 'em or it somehow profits 'em. And if you look like you're about to seriously shake up the big picture, of how things work?" He waved his hands expressively. "Then they waste you too."
  "Like that crazy guy who accidentally helped crash the stock market in '64." I thought out loud. "The multibillionaire who'd taken over Gunderson Corporation and then went gunning for Novatech, supervillain island lair with megacorporate extraterritoriality and all."
  "The guy who caught the world's first no-bullshit Omega Order, unless you count that old rumor that the Azzies secretly got one back during Vera Cruz." Andrew agreed. "And if the big shots would literally drop an orbital nuke on one of their own kind just for doing shit to the stock market that pissed off too many other big shots, what would they do to a guy like you or me if we didn't stay in our lane and play ball?"
  "You sound like all the other older and wiser heads I've ever tried to talk this out with." I nodded, thinking back to Fatima and Pistons. "Is this an adjustment everyone makes after they grow out of the idealistic college kid phase?"
  "Ain't never met anyone with a halfway decent life who didn't." Andrew nodded vigorously before wincing at the sudden head motion.
  "Maybe that's the whole problem with the world." I sighed.
  "Honestly? Wouldn't disagree. But any dumbass can find a problem, it's fixing the sucker that's the challenge-" he began to expound.
  "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over? Did you guys call a time out or what?!?" Sarah's incredulous voice broke into our tete-a-tete.
  "Came up here to make sure one of us hadn't killed the other?" I asked her, turning around to see our team captain glaring at us with her hands on her hips
  "Yeah, you guys were running a little long and we were getting worried." she said, still staring at both of us wide-eyed. "So I come up here praying to God I won't have to call DocWagon and instead I catch you shooting the shit like you're old beer buddies? I mean, okay, you definitely look like you had the fight but who the hell won?"
  "He did." we both said as we simultaneously pointed at the other guy, before we realized what we'd done and started laughing like idiots.
  "... you're both going to need concussion protocols, aren't you?" she facepalmed with a moan.
  The room positively glittered with Old World glamour. As well as the more literal form of glamour, as lavish use of illusion magic enhanced the already luxurious and well-appointed fittings to subtly transform the venue from 'merely' being an exceptionally well-built and ingeniously designed palace to an impossible level of cleanliness and symmetry. One that implied without ever being so crass as to openly proclaim that here was the seat of beings beyond your ken, a nobler and purer lineage than that of the common man. A monument to aristocracy and myth. Seated at the top of what was still called 'Royal Hill' just outside Cara'Sir, the recently-renamed Portland, this palace was the home of the reigning High Prince of Tir Tairngire.
  "God, it's like the old Council never left." Cat muttered as we stepped into the ballroom.
  "New boss, old boss." I whispered back the age-old formula. "Still, at least the elections actually elect now."
  I was actually Cat's "plus one" for this particular gala appearance, not the usual vice versa. For all that most of the rest of the world was into it, Urban Brawl was about as popular in Tir Tairngire as World Cup soccer had been in 20th-century Texas. The 'homeland of the elves' was much more deeply into their own particular lacross-esque old Celtic sport of hurling. And also, oddly, deeply into Major League baseball. The team that still called themselves the "Portland Lords" even after their home city had renamed to be more 'authentically elven' had three World Series victories to prove it.
  However, even after the Rinelle revolution and the downfall of the old elven oligarchy, complete with the 'voluntary' exile of people like High Prince Lugh Surehand and Princes Aithne Oakforest, Sean Laverty, and Jenna ni'Fairra, even the new Tir Tairngire did not get rid of the old caste system overnight. You still had distinct social ranks ranging from 'Royal' to 'Gentry' (i.e., "commoner") with explicitly different privileges and treatment under law, you still had elves being by far the dominant ethnicity simply by sheer force of population and inertia, and despite all the social reconstruction you still had a lot of what had made the Tir the Tir. Still, at least the discrimination wasn't legally backed now, so, one step at a time...
  At any rate, we'd just barely managed to score an invitation to this function. Horizon had been significantly involved in the post-Rinelle reconstruction of the Tir ever since Charisma Associates had first gotten an emergency contract from the post-revolution provisional government in the early 2060s to help with a nationwide propaganda strategy to calm the immediate rioting and start reconstruction. That one went all the way back to the original Horizon Group thinktank cluster, prior to the Crash 2.0 and Horizon's lightning rise to AAA status. And while the Tir was anything but a pure Horizon playground even now, given all the other local and other factions all playing for a piece of the pie, Horizon still had major inroads with High Prince Zincan's new regime and several local business interests.
  Which meant that when Singularity Software had closed the latest deal for building and administering the country's public Matrix utilities, it was entirely apropos to invite suitable high corporate mucketymucks to the High Prince's palace for a celebratory dinner. Tam Reyes, Singularity's CEO, was of course leading Horizon's corporate delegation here, and as one of the principal assistants in Tam's own personal working group and one of the two with pointy ears of her own to help charm the natives, Cat had logically been included in Tam's entourage for this shindig. And since I'd 'just happened' to have this particular weekend free, I was tailgating along with her.
  "There she is." 'Cat said softly, nodding towards a woman 'holding court' slightly off one corner of the dance floor. Unlike the other members of the Council of Princes in this room she had no bodyguards discreetly disguised as personal staff or palace servants lurking nearby, even though she did have a personal aide - and a troll, not an elf - politely standing behind her and to the side as he waited patiently in case his mistress had an errand that needed running. She was at a height considered quite tall for human women, standing neck-and-neck with almost any of the elven women in the room although visibly not an elf herself. Her rich auburn hair and subtly curved profile drew the eye at the same time her facial features modestly deflected attention. Although she could have been the most beautiful woman in the room had she chosen to put effort into it, she'd settled for having the handsome yet not stunning features of a wholesome young matron rather than the supermodel-worthy beauty most female power brokers in this world used to attract and distract. She was also dressed in formalwear that had the understated, tasteful modesty that took vast amounts of money and the sort of tailor who had "By Royal Appointment" printed after their name to achieve.
  The auburn-haired Prince (not Princess, Tir Tairngire used only the one form of address for a royal of either gender) was also the reason we'd come here in the first place. Trying to get a moment alone with a personage on her level was not a trivial problem, and trying to do so while keeping your own megacorporate employers or all the interested eyes that normally followed someone like her from noticing anything unusual going on was a challenging task indeed. This particular reception had been the first time in months that her schedule and ours had potentially coincided under circumstances where our meeting would not be considered remarkable, and so we'd leapt at the opportunity while we had it at all.
  Cat rubbed her middle finger against the inside of my palm in the pre-arranged signal that the 'aide' in question was actually a technomancer like her. Which we hadn't necessarily counted on - we'd had alternate plans for discreetly getting the lady's attention if need be - but which we'd still evaluated as a definite possibility. It was mentioned fairly prominently in the lady's dossier on the Shadow Nexus that she'd sponsored an entire group of otaku as her personal Matrix op team pre-Crash 2.0, so it was not unexpected that she'd start recruiting in-house technomancers of her own as soon as she'd became aware of them. And Tam Reyes himself had made a great deal of headway in being able to be a discreet living ELINT receiver just by walking around at social functions, so bringing one of her on-staff technomancers here in the guise of a secretary was a logical move for someone in the lady's position to make.
  So it made things a lot easier when Cat could simply wirelessly 'talk' to her fellow technomancer and ask for a meeting that way, without even having to look at him and with virtually no chance of palace security or any of the other experts with commlinks in this room from hearing the 'whisper'. Tam Reyes was the main worry there, and we'd deliberately waited until he was busy sharing a photo-op with the High Prince before 'Cat sent the signal.
  After smiling and socializing our way through almost half an hour of uncertainty as to if we were even going to get a reply - and also camping the buffet table, because good God were these hors d'oeuvres positively exquisite - one of the liveried Palace servants expertly slipped a note into my palm under cover of taking my empty wineglass from me. The slip of paper had nothing visibly printed on it, but my enhanced adept senses allowed my fingertips to just barely make out a series of faint impressions on the card where someone had 'written' on it without actually using ink in the calligraphy pen. Very subtle - not only was there no trace of electronic or magical communication that anyone could possibly have intercepted, simply crumpling the note in my fist would be sufficient to ruin the message. In addition to the fact that it would have required access to at least the Bolts' secure records to know that I had enhanced senses, as while it was a power I was known to possess it was deliberately left out of all my public bios so as to better use as an 'edge' against opposing teams.
  The garden maze, at your earliest convenience.
  We strolled out into the balmy autumn air and headed into the palace gardens as we'd been bid. As we went deeper and deeper towards into the gardens a subtle sense of Please do not walk upon the path seemed to indirectly rise around us in the air. A quick peek at the astral revealed that the subliminal impression was more than just atmospheric - a summoned nature spirit was very subtly using its abilities to confuse and misdirect travelers in its domain to steer other strollers away from this particular corner of the gardens without being too obvious about it. Indeed, even I could only notice it because the spirit had been ordered to allow 'Cat and I free passage, meaning it wasn't bother to Mask its efforts against me either.
  So soon enough we arrived at a low garden table and chairs, set just discreetly enough inside the hedgerows to not be immediately visible from the rest of the grounds, and with a subtly shimmering astral barrier around it that spoke of magic set to stop eavesdroppers. The 'aide-de-camp' was also present, using his own technomancer abilities in the same manner 'Cat did when she wanted to both spot and jam any possible nearby bugs. The red-headed woman's own true magical aura and powers blazed brilliantly in my sight - she could have easily Masked them from me, of course, but was apparently sending a message that she intended a reasonably transparent negotiating session, Either that or she was being intimidating as hell, but that really wasn't her usual style.
  "We should be reasonably secure here for the nonce." she said graciously from where she was already seated in her own chair, barely raising an eyebrow at my regard. She waved us to take seats across the table from her with an unstuffy yet still regal dignity worthy of the Queen of England receiving a pair of friends for afternoon tea. "So, Ms. Kincaid, what does Mr. Reyes require that he sends such an oblique emissary to ask it of me? I had thought the arrangement between his corporation and our government was already signed and delivered, and without any significant complications." she finished with polite, if affected, boredom.
  Our request for a meeting had mentioned nothing about Singularity or Tam Reyes, even by implication, but by 'misunderstanding' our message she forced us to start immediately explaining our genuine purpose or else we'd deliberately be letting a mistaken impression stand... which would be lying by omission, and lying by anything to her would have been a really stupid idea and we knew it. And she knew we knew it. And we knew that she knew that we knew it. And...
  I sighed inwardly. I mean, you entirely expected this sort of slidetalk when speaking to people like her, but that still didn't make it fun.
  "We are not here on Singularity's behalf but our own, Orange Queen." Cat replied with a respectful bow that I matched. "My husband and I have interests deeper than merely athletics or software development, some of which we believe may also interest you. And so we would be honored if you indulged us with even a moment of your time."
  "Really?" she gushed charmingly, with an elegant eyebrow raise and an impish smile. "Oh I do so enjoy a pleasant surprise! Very well then, Mr. Kincaid. What interests might those be?" the Great Dragon Hestaby asked.
  Author's Note: Remember when I said Andrew would not get any more significant camera time? My muse certainly didn't, and then it went 'Let's pivot his character a bit without actually backtracking!'
  So I used him to get our protag's thought processes and struggles out a little more in the open, both literally and via metaphor. Let's hope it worked. But hey, at least somebody punched another guy.
  And yes, the 'Down Periscope' and 'Rocky III' references are deliberate. What, I'm not allowed to amuse myself?
  And until I had to think about it just now, I never considered what Dunkelzahn's assassination might look like to the man on the street, or at least some of them.
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  If you are reading this, then I am dead. Undoubtedly, my death has generated a media frenzy the likes of which the world has never seen-a media frenzy that will fade away just as quickly as it erupted. So while my fifteen minutes of fame last, I"d like to make the best use of my notoriety. I"d like to speak frankly about the future of metahumanity. I"d like to lay it on the line and say everything that I couldn"t while I lived. (And I"ll keep it short so that your attention doesn"t wander before I"m finished.) To paraphrase one of your own writers, you"re living in the best of times and the worst of times. On one hand, you"ve achieved a level of technological and intellectual development unequaled by any of the civilizations that have passed before you. At the same time, more people have been consigned to lives of malnutrition, hopelessness and fear than ever before. A privileged few enjoy the fruits of "progress," while the SINless and most metahumans-who make up the vast majority of the world"s population-struggle simply to feed and clothe themselves.
  As some of you may already suspect, the world is seriously out of balance. Megacorps continue to despoil the Earth in the name of profit. Nation fights nation, the mundane among you fear and loathe the magically talented, humans have turned on their metahuman brothers and vice versa. If things continue unchanged, it"s all going to come crashing down, probably sooner rather than later. And when it does, no one will escape unharmed. That"s right. Regardless of how much nuyen you have stashed away or how many street samurai you have at your beck and call-you"re not going to escape. From the most powerful corp exec to the lowliest gutterpunk, all of you are in the same boat-and if that boat starts to sink, you"ll all go down with it. Trust me on this, I"ve seen (meta)humanity come dangerously close to kicking the proverbial bucket before.
  The good news is that you have the power and the means to restore the balance of the world. As I"ve already said, you"ve achieved a level of technological and intellectual development that any of your predecessors would envy. Plus, you"re rapidly rediscovering the ancient art of magic-and magic is the key. For with the twin arts of science and magic at your control, you truly have the power to reshape the world in some fundamental ways. Of course, this power could just as easily be used to throw the world even further out of balance, but that"s less likely to happen because of the very nature of magic. Every good magician knows and respects his limits. He knows that his power comes from the universe around him, comes from working with the natural order of the universe rather than against it. And it"s that kind of wisdom that will help metahumanity turn things around.
  Quite simply, I"m telling you to GROW UP. In this age, you"ve got more power at your fingertips than your ancestors ever dreamed was possible. Continue to push the envelope of knowledge. Continue to dream the big dreams, by all means. But you must begin using your knowledge and power wisely, because thousands of years may pass before metahumanity regains the strength and tools needed to successfully weather the coming storms-and you may not get another chance.
  I wiped away the AR window that was displaying the preface to Dunkelzahn's last will and testament and leaned back on my couch in thought, as the sun shone brightly on the LA skyline outside my living room's panoramic display. While I'd obviously known who Dunkelzahn had been and how he'd died - that was impossible to miss from so much as a high-school level grasp of contemporary history, and I'd been at least GED-equivalent in my self-education since the first month I'd arrived in this world - I hadn't ever bothered to actually read his will until my recent conversation with Andy had piqued my curiosity about it. After all, Dunkelzahn had died a decade ago and I had quite a few other topics I could be cramming on. Since the full text of the document was still available as a free download from the Draco Foundation's Matrix host, as it had been from the day they'd first gone online, I had no problem obtaining a copy and assimilating the entire thing.
  And, just as I had the first time I'd read it, I walked away from a perusal of it feeling both awed and regretful. The detailed study of his life and works I'd embarked on after first perusing the will had confirmed my first impression - while any Great Dragon was vastly old, knowledgeable, and formidable by functional definition Dunkelzahn had by all accounts been a truly impressive scholar and philosopher even by the standards of Great Dragons. For all its apparent shallow pop-culture memeness at the time, Dunkelzahn's Wyrm Talk TV show had actually been a Horizon-worthy attempt at trying to subtly shift the cultural zeitgeist in what he'd felt was a better direction. What little was now known of his secret business interests, which had only come out after his death, showed that he'd indeed to nudge megacorps like Ares and Renraku into more environmentally-friendly and 'balanced' paths. While he'd had enemies and detractors, as any public figure - let alone a Presidential candidate! - inevitably would, the saying that you could judge a man's character by the enemies he'd made was entirely true and going by that standard "the Big D" had indeed been one of the better people in this world's 'movers and shakers' tier.
  Unfortunately, my hindsight analysis had also confirmed the impression Andy and quite a few other people had walked away from Dunkelzahn's assassination with - that if even a being of his vast power and influence couldn't try to shift the pillars of heaven without being smited from on high for his arrogance, then what chance did they have?
  Now that I'd been in the megacorporate lifestyle for somewhat over a year I could look back and realize that I'd been more than a bit naive about 'Project Archimedes', as I'd mentally labelled my long-term ambitions to somehow make a real difference on a world scale - in a benevolent direction, of course. While I was potentially a supergenius at need, my thoughts of how being a 'supergenius' would actually work had been informed by far too many comic books where the supergenius went into the lab, frantically waved his arms for a while chanting the magic word 'Eureka!', and presto-chango, a world-changing discovery popped out of the cauldron- errr, lab bench!
  In reality? It didn't matter how much of a gigabrain you hypothetically were or how fast your neurons could race, the universe still moved at the same speed. If I hypothetically wanted to do an experiment involving antibiotic culture, the mold would grow on the stale bread at the same speed it always did regardless of whether the greatest biochemist in the world was on the job or the stupidest bottle-washing intern in the lab was. If I wanted to work in advanced particle physics, I would soon enough reach the point where theory on a blackboard had to stop and wait for the test results to come in - which would require an advanced particle physics lab complete with giant cyclotron to smash the nuclei together with, and which would be limited to accumulating observational data and readings at the rate of one seconds' worth of experimenting per second. And then the theories would be refined... and you'd go back and test the next step, and the next, and the next, and the next.
  So if I hypothetically wanted to invent, oh, cold fusion, then that was not going to be remotely as easy as pulling a Tony Stark in the cave with the box of scraps. I would need something like the CERN physics lab to actually work with to do try that, because the universe was indifferent to the contents of any mind, however magnificent, until hands could actually turn the dreams of the mind into a cold reality. So while I might be able to come up with any number of mathematical hypotheticals that could be the key to cracking the Coulomb barrier without heating the plasma to 120 million Kelvin first, other physicists had been trying that for over a century. The trick was to find the particular mathematical possibility that the universe actually agreed with, and you couldn't do that without actually testing it. That's how the scientific method worked - you couldn't just hypothesize, you had to experimentally test your hypothesis and then do your best to draw accurate conclusions from the experiments to try and refine the hypothesis further, repeat step one until you'd finally painstakingly achieved a result that actually did something practical for you. And even then you still didn't know everything. Hell, something as basic as Newtonian mechanics ultimately relied on a fundamental force of the universe - gravity - that we still had no fucking clue what it even was, let alone the mechanism by which it worked. We could measure it and do the math on it all day, but...
  So being the next Tony Stark would have to go by the wayside until I actually was in a position to be an independent research institute that not only had the resources to rival a megacorporate or major university lab complex but also had sufficient power and security to survive playing at that tier, because Shadowrun was a world where industrial espionage started at Matrix-enabled data-rape, rapidly went up through 'Guns', and topped out at widespread human trafficking. The 'involuntary extraction', or one corp abducting another corp's researcher and forcing them into a lab-prison so they could live off the fruits of his labor, was not only one of the most profitable categories of work for shadowrunners as a whole but so common that people who went into full-time science careers wearily accepted that the price of being allowed to follow their passion would be having less than free choice about where they would work and who would profit from them. The same sort of weary, grey acceptance that this world tried to get everyone to feel about everything.
  Which meant I was talking more than just a couple years before I could even hope to get into that position, due to the other major concern we had going on. For as long as I wanted to stay at Horizon I had to remain in deep cover as the person Horizon thought I was, which meant not even looking like I was trying to bust out and become the next Johnny Spinrad. And while Horizon wasn't a strict necessity for me, I was not alone. Doing the best we could to help ensure the inevitable public revelation of technomancers in the next several years was a soft landing and not a nasty crash was at least as much of a moral imperative as Project Archimedes - more so, in fact, because Archimedes was a set of personal ambitions and a long-term goal, while an Emergence gone wrong was a genuine threat to innocent people all around the world. And one that was on a ticking clock that we couldn't just politely ask to wait until we were done with our own pet hobbyhorses first. And one that was vital to the safety and future happiness of my wife, dammit. So since we simply couldn't abandon the Horizon thread now, that meant accepting the limitations of the role with as little bitterness as possible.
  At least our idea of going with Horizon to try and help a better Emergence was turning out to have been the right one. Not only did Tam Reyes' and the board's plan for trying to gradually bring technomancers into the light in a positive way entirely jibe with our own ambitions, they'd been working on it since before we'd even met them and were doing quite a few things we'd have done anyway if we'd had the leverage. As the old joke went, the test of a truly intelligent man was how much he agreed with you, and going by that standard we were employed by some pretty sharp folks. Oh, I'm not saying it was a perfect match, and we certainly hadn't actually opened up to them about having had ambitions of our own all along as we played up to being humbly part of their larger project, but as Confucius had said it didn't matter if the cat was black or white. What mattered was if the cat caught the rat.
  We'd even found out that the 'spontaneous' interview at the premiere this summer had been nothing of the kind. Shooting Star had been rewritten from an anime mecha tale about a teenaged rigger with the standard implausible mecha pilot teenaged backstory into a tale about a thrilling battle in a wondrous Matrix realm versus evil AIs by a teenager with a unique talent for interfacing with the Matrix precisely as part of battlespace prep for technomancers being brought to public consciousness within the next five years. Look, the history of wartime propaganda didn't include things like Warner Brothers making a Bugs Bunny cartoon where he punched Hermann Goering just because it was funny. And that movie was only one of the multiple subtle little things Horizon was doing along those lines. One tiny little chip of ice might not even chill your drink, but getting enough of them all packed together tightly and moving in the same direction was called a glacier. And while glaciers weren't exactly sprint champions, they were also called nature's unstoppable force for a reason.
  So if people who had been teenagers now were young adults then, and had grown up with entertainment media that depicted strange semi-magical 'Matrix powers' as being not only contrasted against evil AIs like Deus but helping to have defeated him... well, true or not it still made a good narrative, and if you subtly dropped little bits like this into the narrative here, there, and everywhere, then that's why they called it mass media. And having Catherine Kincaid be cameo'ing in the movie's initial promotion work would be the sort of little cross-linked reference that the Matrix ran on. When she was eventually outed as a technomancer, that would be something that would put movies like Shooting Star up towards the top of search lists on the technomancer phenomenon, which would subtly shape the opinions of the majority of the public that approached social issues emotionally rather than logically. It was a Shadowrun version of gaming the Google analytics as one of a thousand little things being done to shape popular opinion in the future.
  Because Cat was indeed being subtly groomed over the long term to be one of the 'faces' of the technomancer phenomenon when it finally went public. A young beautiful elf with an interracial marriage, highly photogenic both from natural talent and corporate training, and coming prepackaged with a heartwarming Horatio Alger narrative and a wholesome 'family values' appeal? No wonder we'd gotten ourselves hired so easily - they must have positively salivated at such a dream candidate gift-wrapping herself and dropping through their front door's mail slot. Horizon's 'stroke of luck' at my becoming a sports celebrity on my own and thus making it exponentially easier to put Cat where she could do a 'I was there all along!' re: being in the public eye when the time came? It couldn't have worked out better for them if Horizon had grown us both in test tubes.
  Which of course we'd at least partly counted on when we originally set ourselves up like that, even if we'd anticipated having to do most if not all of the prepping her to be a future public face of technomancy by ourselves. And it would have been polite if Horizon had actually mentioned their own grooming efforts to 'Cat at any point instead of just indirectly doing it around us in the background. I mean, I could get high-end suits being secretive and manipulative by nature, and I could also get the only way to guarantee that her reactions wouldn't look planned in advance is if she was never actually invited to the advance planning, but still. It was still rude, guys. And also a reminder that even a relatively benevolent AAA megacorp was still a AAA megacorp.
  Not that we could complain excessively. There was no risk-free way to even attempt trying either Project Archimedes or the Emergence, so if you had to accept the risks then you accepted them. And this was still a really nice lifestyle when we actually had time to relax and enjoy it.
  Besides, continuing to play along and trust Horizon's manipulations to remain relatively benevolent and non-destructive to at least two of the tools they were using (i.e., us) was anything but the biggest risk we'd taken this year. It wasn't even a tithe on it.
  My commlink beeped and discreetly projected a reminder pop-up into the AR display on the inside of my cyber-Bluetoothed contact lenses. Time for my next appointment.
  "Good morning, Mr. Kincaid." said the tall, classically beautiful elven woman in smart businesswear. "I'm Jane Foster. Please, come in."
  I throttled down massive a sense of deja vu as I followed her into a business suite at the LA Doubletree Hotel. Not quite as ultra-luxurious as the flashy suites intended for glitterati and politicians, this suite was still discreetly yet tastefully appointed with everything a suitably wealthy guest could want, while also having an attached office and conference room to allow the busy exec to conduct high-end business and negotiations while on the road. While modern commlink and AR technology meant you could effectively carry your own cubicle and full suite of office electronics with you in your pocket, the face-to-face component of commerce still demanded the proper surroundings. And if you weren't in a city where your corporation maintained an branch office, well, then you could rent a temporary one without even having to leave your hotel!
  I entered the attached business office from the hotel hallway and the door closed behind us. We crossed the provided mini-reception room into the back room. She manipulated the controls on her commlink and turned to face to me.
  "All right, we're secure." Frosty said, her 'friendly junior executive' pose falling away to reveal her usual icy professionalism.
  "Not too secure, I hope." I said. "We want to deter routine surveillance, not give Horizon corpsec a red flag that we're obviously conspiring."
  "Give me some credit." she raised an eyebrow. "In addition to top-tier electronics I've also got a spell-locked illusion covering the whole room. Right now all that anyone will be seeing or hearing is me personally interviewing you to see if you fit our standards of personality and values enough to be a valid celebrity spokesman for Greenpeace. But I only pre-recorded twenty minutes of chitchat so we can't dawdle too much."
  "So, was that Hestaby's money paying for the Pyramid run?" I asked her as we both took a seat. "Because I certainly hadn't expected to see an old acquaintance from Seattle as the Orange Queen's emissary for this meet."
  "No." she said tightly, before her expression relaxed. "Sorry." she said more warmly. "This is almost as weird for me as it probably was for you."
  "So much for confidentiality." I glowered, realizing immediately what she was implying. "She was not supposed to tell anyone else without my and Cat's concurrence."
  "I've already known since the day we hit the Pyramid." Frosty shocked me speechless. "And I haven't told anyone else that I know, least of all the Orange Queen. Nobody else on the team had made it to the roof edge before you'd landed, but Ivan was still busy holding his corner at that moment and I sprint quite a bit faster than either Pistons or Fatima can. And Caveman was busy flying back to the helipad, so the chopper's nose was facing away from you. So yes, I was the only one on the team who saw you hit the ground... without your parachute. So try to imagine my shock when I saw you get up again right after you hit the tank!"
  "Fuck." I swore incredulously. "And you didn't do anything?"
  "Oh trust me, I couldn't have been more curious if I'd been told that you had the secret to eternal life!" Frosty admitted. "But you clearly didn't want to talk about it at the time, and I could hardly ask you about it in front of all the others. And then I had to stick with the package and help interrogate the blood mage and follow-up on the intel we'd squeezed out of him. And by the time that end of it was all done you'd vanished back into the Seattle shadows, and you weren't even listed on the ShadowSEA job postings because you were living on savings for the Pyramid run. The only people who knew had contact info for you were Pistons and Fatima, and I didn't have any excuse for trying to get in touch with you through them that wouldn't have made them excessively curious. It's not like they're friends of mine, after all - just runners I've hired several times before. So we trust each other professionally, but not much beyond than that." She paused briefly for thought. "Incidentally, do they know?"
  "Nope." I confirmed. "'Cat knows - she was the first person I told, which incidentally was right after I got back from the Pyramid that night - and we'd just recently agreed to tell Hestaby, and you just told me that you've known all along. Outside of that, to the best of my knowledge nobody else has a clue about me unless either you or her have been talking out of school."
  "I certainly haven't, but I agree that dragons quite often make their own rules at the expense of others. Still, I can understand why you risked it." Frosty agreed. "If something massively unprecedented was happening to me, something that neither science nor magic could explain, I'd be terrified to admit it as well... but eventually I'd have to ask someone if I didn't want to die never knowing. And who else in your even remotely possible sphere of extended contacts was simultaneously even halfway trustworthy and might possibly know something about something this beyond conventional experience except the Orange Queen?"
  "Yeah, that's the logic we followed as well. However reluctantly." I conceded.
  "And while I did know where your girlfriend was-" She shook her head. "I run the shadows, not the sewers. One glance at her is all I needed to know that she'd never willingly give you up. And while Control Thoughts is as useful for interrogating as it is for skyjacking, trying to get at you like that through your girlfriend would not only have really pissed you off, it would have been disgusting." she finished with a moue of distaste.
  "Thanks." I said softly.
  "So by the time I had a location on you again, you were hip-deep in Africa of all places. And yet again I had my own work to do most of the time, and you were yet again embedded within a group of people you clearly hadn't told and that I couldn't approach you through without risking their excessive curiosity. So I sat and waited for a break in the case, and you basically did nothing except ordinary merc work and shadowrunning until suddenly Horizon out of nowhere. And I certainly couldn't risk pissing on a AAA's electric fence without backup." She shrugged. "Because I didn't dare actually tap any more senior resources for you, so I was working my curiosity about you all by myself. Not that I don't trust my various patrons enough to work for them, but that doesn't mean I'd trust them to not get a little squirrelly if they found someone who apparently couldn't die." She paused again. "Trade you a secret for a secret?" she offered.
  "All right."
  "My father is Ehran the Scribe." she surprised me yet again. "So, yes, if I'd gone to him I could have much more easily found you and also had someone on hand who knew a lot about elder magics and other things himself, if not quite on the Great Dragon scale. But for all that he's my dad and I know that he'd never dream of hurting me?" She sighed regretfully. "Anybody who knows even the basics of Tir history knows that he's not unwilling to hurt other people to get something he really wants. It's why I don't work for him full-time."
  "In hindsight that explains your 'in' with the Draco Foundation despite not being of them." I analyzed. "Because when he left the Tir in 2057 shortly before the Rinelle started up, it was to accept Dunkelzahn's offer to become head of the Dunkelzahn Institute of Magical Research."
  "Yup." she agreed. "Anyway, Hestaby picked me to hire as a go-between because I was usefully placed already, I'm a relatively trusted figure in certain circles that her and my father have in common, and you and I were already personally acquainted. And then happy coincidence - for me, if not for her - of my already knowing the score about you as well. So, getting down to brass tacks..."
  "What's the latest?" I asked her.
  "With your schedule the earliest we can practicably hope to get you to Mount Shasta for any extended period of time - to test your powers, of course, even if I'm not supposed to know about that - is the off-season next summer. But she anticipates no problem in keeping Horizon uncurious about the invite, because the Orange Queen is one of Charisma Associates' older and more favored clients and is also Horizon's primary point of contact in the Tir government. So you wouldn't be the first Horizon employee who's gotten a social invitation for one reason for another, provided we start laying a trail ahead of time to explain why she cares you exist."
  "Hence, Greenpeace and being a celebrity spokesperson." I agreed. "She's one of the largest charity donors to environmental causes in general and them in particular."
  "She's also on Greenpeace's board of directors." Frosty pointed out. "And Greenpeace is hiring the front corporation my current SIN works at for advertising work, so I can openly meet you as often as business plausibly explains. So you do the TV spots this year and your name is on the guest list for invites this summer when she rewards most favored employees and associates by letting them visit the mountain spa. And you extend your stay because she 'randomly' likes the cut of your and Catherine's jib, because it's not as if she hasn't done that sort of thing before - dragons are just capricious sometimes, everyone knows that!"
  "So, now comes the fun part. Her quid pro quo." I sighed. Because few people did favors for free in this world, and dragons certainly didn't.
  "She hasn't brought that part up yet. That's probably for the agenda next summer." Frosty replied.
  "Ugh." I facepalmed. "If she's being that coy about it then she's probably going to want my immortal soul in a jar. How desperate was I again?"
  "Pretty desperate." Frosty agreed. "Still, she doesn't own me and she doesn't - and shouldn't - own you. And pissing someone off whose charted limits are terra incognita, and where the sole significant fact that is known about them is that they can entirely walk off something that could possibly kill a Great Dragon? I'm not a millennia-old supergenius, but I think I wouldn't make that my 'plan A' even if I was a Great Dragon."
  "That particular comforting logic is one of the few things that gave Cat and I the nerve to risk this at all." I agreed. "So, main message delivered. Any other biz before we run out of illusion time?"
  "Well, there's one thing I'd like to try on my own behalf. A little powers test we can do with your adept abilities. It might tell us something useful if you I tried to walk you through a magical technique that I happen to know." Frosty said.
  I thought it over, judged her expression as best I could, and eventually decided to trust her a bit. "All right."
  "Okay. This is going to be a far-strike technique. Very vaguely like a chi strike, only not limited to melee range. Pull up your astral sight... good. Now watch my hand. Follow my movements... again. Again. Got it! Right, now we'll do the movement only this time we'll add the... call it an 'astral charge'. Imagine it building up like static electricity as you swish your arm through the air. Imagine that you're collecting it. It's building up... focus it... watch my hand, see where the energy is glowing and how it channels... match what I'm doing... okay, now draw your arm back... and this time, when you push your palm forward, push inside your arm as well and force that energy out-"
  And as I did so, a glowing streak of energy leapt out of my hand and crossed the office to spatter against the wall.
  "Wait a minute, that was a-!" I broke off sputtering.
  "Beginner's mana bolt." Frosty smirked at me. "Alex - yer a wizard!"
  "You've read Harry Potter?" I blurted. "The last time those books were even printed was in 2012! They kinda went out of style right after the Awakening!"
  "Is that really the most important thing on your mind right now?" Frosty asked me seriously.
  "No." I swore, exhaling heavily. "So I was a mystic adept, not a physical adept."
  "No, you were only a physical adept... until just now." Frosty shocked me yet again. "I'd met you before you learned to Mask, remember? Your aura was entirely that of an ordinary physical adept, if a pretty damn strong one. But I walked you through the lessons for casting a basic mana bolt-"
  "In hindsight, you never actually said you were teaching me an adept technique, merely a 'magical technique that you happened to know'. A spell would entirely qualify for those exact words." I side-eyed at her.
  "Whose daughter am I again?" she kept smirking. "You really should have expected that kind of thing. But the most important takeaway is that you crossed the boundary from adept to full magician after you'd already had your initial Awakening, comfortably settled into your paradigm, and even initiated in it. And I know that the state change happened in you only just now instead of being latent in you all along, because I was literally looking at you the entire time. You started at one end of the spectrum and ended up at the other only minutes later without even knowing that you were doing it." She shook her head. "Thaumaturgically, that's at least as ridiculous as you walking off the terminal-velocity faceplant."
  "Jesus Christ." I said incredulously. "Are you saying that the only real thing holding me back was that I hadn't tried?"
  "I wouldn't even begin to speculate on what limits you might have or not - although you still must have some, simply because you haven't already broken local reality around you by flailing in ignorance. But yes, you've clearly not tapping even a plurality of your true potential yet, and you can also rapidly evolve magically in ways other people can't hope to. Tell me, have you ever actually hit a limit of something you truly couldn't do? Not didn't want to, and not didn't seriously try to, but it was something you really wanted to do, life or death, but still didn't have the oomph to make happen?"
  "... not really." I said softly, feeling frightened to my core.
  "Then you have a lot to think about." Frosty, equally as soberly. "Because while I really doubt you have unlimited power, you're clearly something well off the usual charts. And you are going to have to be as careful as possible about that, because higher-end magical backlash starts at 'catastrophic' and ends at 'you do not want to know'."
  "Fuck me, when Hestaby hears about this part she is going to go spare." I cursed. "And I'm already in too deep to pull out."
  "She won't hear about it." Frosty said without a moment's hesitation. "I'm being paid to be a go-between you and her, and accurately transmit her wishes to you and vice versa without omission or distortion. And I will do exactly what I'm paid to do. But my contract doesn't say a damn thing about sharing my results with her if I happen to research you myself, and it certainly didn't cover the case of me already being in the loop about what's really up with you because she had no clue that I was."
  "But you're still going way out on a limb if she even suspects that you're both in the loop and cutting her out of a piece of it." I said.
  "Yeah, but I owe you a big one from the Pyramid run." Frosty replied. "If you hadn't clutched the play there... well, we might still have gotten ourselves out alive, but we'd never have bagged the blood mage. And there were a whole lot of lives saved in a whole lot of places with the intel we extracted from him. That's why people were putting up two million nuyen plus in the first place." She exhaled. "So yeah. I'll keep your hole card in the hole. Especially from the Orange Queen." She shrugged. "After all, if she disappoints us and goes all 'never deal with a dragon' in the end, even as much as neither of us really wants or expects her to, then you might need one."
  "I can't even really practice magic where I am now, let alone use any." I said. "Like you said, going by the form card I should be entirely locked into the normal physad track by now and showing any spellcasting on top of that is a blaring neon sign to anyone with eyes to see, 'Laws of magic being totally bent if not broken over here!'."
  "You can't start actively training to be a full mage yet, not when you're deep in a role like this." Frosty agreed. "Once you've mastered a full range of spells then it's too easy to slip up and use them in a pinch. But there's still a few tricks you can do with just basic mana manipulation, and the entire point of a holdout weapon-" she trailed off.
  "Is not that it's your big gun, but that even though it's a little gun it's still deadly because it comes out when the enemy is least expecting it to shoot him in where he's the weakest." I finished.
  "Yup." she said. "And, we're coming up on time. So, let's say 'job interview done' and go tell your agent that you passed and I want to talk contracts."
  "And then dinner tonight? 'Cat and I have reservations at Diamantes." I offered.
  "Diamantes?" Frosty said eagerly. "I couldn't even hope to get in the door there on my own! I guess having a friend who went AAA is useful for something after all."
  Author's Note: No, our hero was not a dunce who just completely ignored his own powers the entire time. It's just, when one of the least potentially risky moves you can make in your position is 'Actually admit something of the truth about me to a freaking Great Dragon', then obviously you are not going to rush into anything.
  My MCs tend to all have patience as a virtue. Because I don't, so wish fulfillment. *g*
  The quoted section of Dunkelzahn's will is canon, taken word-for-word from the Shadowrun 2e sourcebook Dunkelzahn's Secrets. The Big D really did write that, and he really did mean it as sincerely as he sounded.
  And yes, the immortal elf is starting to explore the possibilities of playing her own game - because Hestaby went 'Perhaps my hired go-between should be someone he's already met, because of trust factor' and thus walked right into the door known as 'And your hired go-between also knows the whole scoop, which you did not plan on.'
  By the way, Frosty's several misdirections in her end of the conversation - such as pretending that she doesn't already have the secret to living forever - are deliberate. She might be the youngest immortal elf alive, but she's still circa twice her apparent age and has been to at least the first decade of immortal elf school. As she herself lampshades, she is Ehran's daughter (and Harlequin's apprentice, although notice how she steers the convo away from even implying that), so you really should expect things like this.
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  Diamantes was an ultra-chic private Hollywood restaurant that catered only to the cream of the glitterati. Even a visiting AAA megacorp's Vice-President of Being Very Important still didn't get a foot in the door except as the guest of a regular, and even then pretty much anyone short of Gary Cline still had to compete vigorously for a reservation. Invitations to regular-dom were solely at the whim of the mysterious owner known only as 'Ruby'. Even I hadn't had a hope in hell of getting on the list until after the Bolts had become LA's first hometown World Cup Champions in almost two decades and everyone on the team had been sent invitations in honor of the victory, and I'd still had to wait a couple of weeks for a reservation to be open.
  Cat and I had made this reservation well in advance because we'd intended to be as charming and hospitable as possible to whoever Hestaby's go-between for my case would be, and having it turn out to be an old acquaintance from the shadows who had her own reasons for wanting to be friendly was entirely a bonus.
  "Huh." Frosty said softly as we sat down to the first of several cordon bleu courses in our best getup. "That's unexpected." she continued with a discreet jerk of her chin towards the owner as she sat amusedly watching the crowd from her traditional table on the second-floor balcony.
  "Hrm?" I inquired politely.
  "Ruby. Her Masking's very good, but not quite good enough to keep me from spotting it. She's a free spirit, almost certainly a player." Frosty explained.
  The Awakening had brought the return of spirits to the world as a commonplace thing, ranging from the tiniest wisps of minimal astral consciousness known as 'watchers' all the way up to the mightiest and rarest Great Form spirits that could manifest in the material realm only with extreme difficulty but could contend on even terms with even many dragons while they were. They came in several different varieties, from the elementals that hermetic magicians could summon to the spirits of man and spirits of nature that shamans could, and other varieties vaguely conforming to historical Earth mythology that were summonable by followers of other magic traditions such as the wu jen of the far East or the voudoun practitioners of the Carib League.
  And then there were the malevolent spirits, such as the corpse-possessing shedim that had started plaguing the world since the recent great mana surge of 2061, the 'Year of the Comet' or the insect spirits whose insidious, possessing hives had almost pulled an 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' on far too many places in the world until their existence was revealed in the mid-2050s. Even then, the city of Chicago had been almost lost to the bugs entirely and even after the bugs had been largely eradicated, with weapons up to and including magic-specific biological warfare agents and in one case a tactical nuclear strike, was still a largely post-apocalyptic ruin all the way from the Loop to the airport. Hearing about that catastrophe had really been an adjustment when I'd first arrived, because in my old world I'd been born there!
  Indeed, it was now commonly accepted by archaeologists and anthropologists that many things from history that were previously believed to be primitive superstition or myth were actually dimly and incompletely understood manifestations of magic and spirits and paranormal animal and plant life, which still occasionally and desultorily appeared even pre-Awakening. After all, mana had still existed prior to the widespread return of magic, it had simply been far rarer and more unevenly distributed.
  But in addition to all of the spirits that could be summoned - for a limited time - compelled, and banished by practitioners of magic you also had the free spirits, unbound and with no summoner who could command them and with no time limit that they could remain in the material world. The phenomenon was still incompletely understood, not least because the spirits themselves refused to fully explain it, but it seemed to be a thing that occurred when a spirit had an unusual amount of self-will even by spirit standards, a compelling need or interest that kept them away from the spirit realms, and some X-factor that let them draw on enough mana and other energy to sustain themselves here without a summoner.
  Free spirits were commonly classified into one of several possible motivations. The 'anima' spirits identified strongly with metahumanity and seemed to want to help people in trouble and/or deeply study metahuman behavior, 'guardian' spirits were aloof defenders of various places from exploitation and environmental devastation, and 'players' were spirits who'd essentially gone native in the material realm. They not only identified strongly with metahumanity, inevitably preferring to take metahuman form, but also loved to immerse themselves in the powers, pleasures, and intrigue available in metahuman society. Perhaps the world's most famous player was the free spirit Buttercup, majority stockholder of the AAA megacorporation Evo. Ruby was apparently a player herself on a much more local scale, enjoying the role of a local influencer, social maven, and/or Hollywood star-watcher. It was an interesting reminder that magic was not just a minor factor in this world, but potentially had a presence and an influence even in places that appeared entirely mundane at first glance and that you'd never thought to look.
  "Well, she can watch all she wants - it's her restaurant." I urbanely agreed as we dug into the food. There were no little AR tags or automatic notifications total'ing up the check as we went along, as a restaurant would normally do. Diamantes entirely ran on the school of 'If you have to ask, you can't afford it.'
  "Entirely." Frosty agreed. "It just drew the eye for a bit."
  About a minute later, a wine steward pushed a cart up to our table and withdrew a chilled bottle from his bucket. My enhanced vision immediately noticed focused in on the label on the bottle - Armand de Brignac Gold 2035. Damn, that bottle cost more than everything else on our table put together!
  "With the compliments of the owner to Ms. Foster." the steward said in a perfect Standard Received accent, as he elegantly laid out champagne glasses for us all and then poured - Jane first, natch.
  "Please tell Madame Ruby that I am flattered by her regard." Frosty said with a friendly hauteur worthy of an elven princess.
  "As she was flattered by yours, madam. Do enjoy the rest of your meal." he finished and departed.
  "I guess she caught you peeking." Catherine observed cheekily as we raised our glasses and sipped our very expensive gift. Our eyebrows both raised at the taste- it was like nothing else we'd ever drank, or would expect to drink again in some time. A bubbly reminder that however high we'd climbed, we were anything but at the mountain's peak yet.
  "I wonder if that's part of the fun for her." I agreed.
  A subliminal sense of something changing in the air around us had me start assensing to match Frosty. I'd felt something almost like this once before, in the palace garden-
  "Something wrong?" Cat asked softly, noticing me tensing.
  "Just a spirit covering our table with a discreet... call it a notice-me-not." Frosty reassured. "Ruby's either handing out a minor door prize for being perceptive-"
  "-or she's curious as to what a magician of your caliber is doing in her place covered as a minor corporate exec and is hoping that if we think we've got a magical privacy shield then we'll actually talk out loud." I agreed, relaxing. "Because of course her spirit friend can still hear us, even if nobody else can."
  A loud chuckle from the owner's balcony answered my speculation, and we all raised our glasses to Ruby in a toast before we turned back to our meal.
  "Is it always like this?" Catherine asked Frosty. "When you're dealing with... upper-crust Awakened matters?"
  "Essentially." Frosty nodded commiseratingly. "My initial magic lessons were at least half head-games, half tutoring."
  Frosty startled in surprise as Catherine gently laid her on hand on hers - I could see her visibly fighting down a combat-trained reaction to lash out for an instant before her conscious thoughts caught up to her reflexes. The two beautiful elven heads - one white-haired and with sharp classical features, the other dark-haired with a round-faced 'girl next door' beauty, an aesthetic contrast to turn any artist's head - drew closer together for a bit, and then with an eyebrow raise on Frosty's part they broke away.
  This is odd. Frosty's text came up on my internal AR implants. Now that 'Cat had established a technomancer link to Frosty's own Personal Area Network, she could sync with our PANs and we could talk without anyone - even the free spirit up on the balcony - potentially overhearing us. Frosty's own spells of communication could possibly be sensed by Ruby, but not this.
  You get used to it. Cat's digital 'voice' echoed in our feeds. As her powers had expanded, more and more subtext came through in her communications. It was still anything but digital telepathy, but now emotion and tone of voice echoed in her 'voice' beyond a merely auditory reproduction. And it's quite useful for privacy, even in LA.
  So this is why you went to Horizon? Her virtuakinetic gifts? Frosty thought, while we did a wonderful impression of people too engrossed with our food to chat.
  Exactly. I said. And I see that the term is making it out to ShadowSEA.
  JackPoint as well. Frosty thought back. Let me guess - Pistons is getting her finger on the pulse re: 'technomancers' ultimately from you two?
  My own personal weirdness is just one of several big concerns we've got running concurrently right now. I agreed. And 'the Emergence', or the upcoming public revelation of weird Matrix people related to the old 'otaku' and with all the potential fears of Deus 2.0 that association brings- I 'shook' my head digitally. We had an opportunity to try and help head off a potential disaster there, so we took it. Even if taking it meant stepping into a gilded cage.
  And now on top of that you have to risk entering a dragon's lair next year. Frosty ruefully agreed. And I thought I lived a complicated life.
  I'm certain you still do. 'Cat 'said' cheekily.
  Speaking of 'complicated', I've been thinking over our tentative plans from this afternoon and in hindsight I have spotted a logical error both you and I made at the time. Probably because we were both still a little in shock from the whole 'yer a wizard' revelation. Frosty 'nodded' towards me.
  What err- oh. We can't conceal my latest mystic evolution from Hestaby because it'll be immediately obvious on my aura as soon as she and I are in the same room again, and I can't Mask versus the same person I'm wanting to help do a deep examination of me and try to figure out what's going on there. So no hole card and no holdout. I sighed.
  Exactly. And while it's still a good idea to not tell her about the evolution until you show up next summer - not least of all because I don't want to tell the Orange Queen that you and I were doing experiments on our own, and neither do you- Frosty acknowledged.
  That's a "hell to the no" from me as well. 'Cat chimed in.
  But you still could use a hole card if need be. So... Frosty stopped and 'sighed'. No, I shouldn't Ms. Johnson you about this. There's two reasons I want to try another experiment, and one of them is to test a faint yet horrible possibility I've only recently realized is possible.
  Horrible possibilities are a thing I'd like to be reassured against. I agreed.
  Yes, but... Frosty sighed audibly. All right, there's a certain category of malevolent spirit that's not commonly known and that I am not going to get into explaining to you. It's a closely held secret at the highest levels of Awakened practitioners. I will admit that the Pyramid run tied into this matter - we needed intel from the blood mage to help find out if a very dangerous experiment into dealing with those particular malevolent forces might be in play, and where we'd need to go to kill it with fire if it was. The rest is need-to-know, and you don't.
  But the part we do need to know...? Catherine asked wisely.
  Alex's powers are possibly explainable by his being a vessel that is being prepared and conditioned to eventually host a Great Form of one of those spirits. He obviously isn't possessed by one yet, because I know what to look for and have never seen a trace of it on him. And he certainly would never have left the Orange Queen's presence alive even if a spirit was good enough to Mask versus me. But I already know he breaks several of the rules about magic that are conventionally believed to be inviolate, so if -and I emphasize "if", along with "highly speculative" and "I am wild-ass guessing and admit it" - he's some kind of partial possession, where the spirit in question is just pumping power into him indirectly and has yet to actually try and move its own soul in to displace his... well, that might be something even a Great Dragon could miss unless they were deep-probing and specifically looking for it.
  There's actually a precedent for something like that - a spirit pact. I agreed. Like the one a free spirit can make with a non-Awakened metahuman to halt their aging and grant them regeneration powers, even borderline true immortality, if in turn the metahuman consents to the free spirit being potentially able to control or even bodyjack them.
  Which is why spirit pacts haven't become a popular life extension technology yet. Frosty agreed.
  You said you can test for this faint-yet-horrible possibility, right? Cat asked worriedly.
  Alex is a full magician now, not an adept, so he can astrally project. Frosty agreed. Furthermore he's an initiate, meaning he is capable of astrally projecting not just into the 'nearby' astral that any half-trained apprentice can reach but also into the deep metaplanes. He can visit at least some of the nearer spirit realms directly, just as I can. And in those deeper realms, it would not be possible for even the greatest spirit of the kind I am thinking of to conceal that they have direct-linked to Alex's soul, however subtly. The metaplanes of the spirits of man and nature are absolutely anathema to the... category... of beings I am thinking of.
  How soon can we do this, then? Cat blurted.
  On a practical level, we'd need to come up with an excuse for inviting me out with you somewhere we could spend several hours while Alex meditates under my supervision, throughout which he'd be comatose. Something that would not arouse any suspicion- Frosty began.
  Oh, that's easy. Cat replied quickly. You're an absolutely stunning woman and Alex already has a widespread reputation for liking to walk on the elven side and this is Hollywood, so being invited back to our place for a threesome with a man and his wife won't be even the thousandth most depraved thing this town has seen. This week.
  Wait what?!? Frosty's near-panicked incredulity crashed into the 'link. You meant just as a cover, right? You cannot possibly have been serious!
  I'm sorry, did I offend? Cat apologized hurriedly.
  Catherine, I'm a beautiful woman even by elven standards, just as you are. Unless I use maximum resting bitch face then being propositioned is somewhere between background radiation and atmospheric nitrogen as far as being a constant presence in my life. Frosty began.
  I do admittedly get hit on far less ever since I started regularly walking out with the six-foot-plus magically-augmented killing machine here, but I entirely know what it was like trying to cross the campus alone looking the way I do, yes. Cat cynically agreed. So why did I shock you so?
  I'm going to add myself to the 'shocked' list, dear. I finally untangled my tongue enough to speak. It's not a thing a married man expects to hear right out of the blue!
  Alex just answered your question for me. Frosty agreed. Your marriage is kinda celebrity famous for being a model of fidelity, so to hear that one just fly out there out of nowhere? Um, yeah!
  Oh. Cat said sheepishly. You're both right, I should have eased into that topic a little before just launching it onto the table. But to answer your question, Jane, I am both entirely able to appreciate what an ideal cover it would make and legitimately attracted to you. In the 'That is an absolutely lovely dress, and I would greatly enjoy helping my husband see how it looks on our bedroom floor' sense.
  Dear, I've known all along that your Kinsey number is two while mine was zero, but I had no idea you were looking for- I tried to find a diplomatic way to phrase it. Was I starting to get boring?
  It wasn't that at all! Catherine rushed to reassure me, while I grabbed her hand to reassure her that I wasn't mad - just terribly, terribly confused. It was- all right, I am well aware that you have at least noticed on occasion that I am not actually the only adult metahuman female in the world, but have never even remotely contemplated straying outside of marriage. And I've been likewise with both the pretty men and women I've noted in passing. It's just- okay, you know about that one creep I slept with who didn't say that he was married. But I actually did have a fling with another married man once that didn't go sour because his wife and him had agreed that their marriage was open, even if it was barely a weekend thing. So since you were here and obviously nothing either real or simulated would happen without your concurrence, then my own rules for romance would say that would be 'okay' so- Cat blushed. I had a transient glitch in my brain-to-mouth filter, and it just... came out.
  Awk-ward. Frosty agreed diffidently, and then a long silence fell over the table.
  Right, I guess it's up to me to cut the Gordian knot here despite the grave risk to my everything, including certain highly valued body parts. I tried to ease into it humorously. Jane- Frosty- I entirely share my wife's deep aesthetic appreciation of your appearance, because I'm not blind, but I also share her desire to not push your comfort threshold the tiniest bit if you don't want it to be. Cat, I have always known and accepted that you're sometimes a kinky little minx so I'd be a towering hypocrite to act shocked at it now, and I have never for a nanosecond contemplated not trusting your fidelity. As you accurately pointed out, anything we mutually agree upon is by definition not cheating. Sooooo... If we're both willing, then it's entirely Frosty's right to accept or decline.
  I think I'm crazy for even contemplating the notion. And professionally speaking we do not have time for any of this soap opera right now. Frosty paused and continued more softly. But... no, I'm not offended at the attention, or even at the request. It was just a... rather large surprise. She sighed deeply. However, the point is entirely moot because I can't. Not won't, but can't. Obviously I'll go along with the cover tonight because Cat's right, it will entirely work better than anything else we could possibly try, but actually accepting for real would be positively obscene given the circumstances.
  If sex isn't obscene, you're not doing it right. Cat teased.
  ... that's an entirely valid point, but I meant ethically obscene. Frosty replied soberly. You see, the part I didn't have a chance to tell you before the topic did a sudden jump? Frosty looked at us both with eyes far older than her body. The test I have in mind? The one about astrally questing to find at least a piece of the truth? If my horrible suspicion actually is true, if he actually is being primed as a vessel for one of these entities... then Alex won't survive.
  Oh. we both mutually thought into the silence.
  What's the worst-case scenario for if I am one of these... vessels... and it's not caught it in time? I eventually asked.
  Absolute worst case? Frosty stared at us both. It'd make the Crash 2.0 look like a slap fight.
  Cat's hand tightened on my own almost to the point of pain. She knew me better than I knew myself sometimes. And between my own look at her unguarded aura and the sincerity and fear that echoed through the technomantic link, neither of us believed that Frosty was being anything but entirely truthful about the stakes.
  Then I have to try. I sighed.
  Well if we're going to pretend that we're having a wild threesome tonight then we need to start turning some frowns upside down. Cat continued with ruthless practicality. Because right now we don't exactly communicate 'can't wait to get home and get naked' to the audience.
  The remainder of our meal was a cheerful and light-hearted discourse on several issues of small talk and matters of the day, punctuated by greater and greater longing glances, innuendo, and touching, until by the time we finally paid the check and hurried out to our car the staff had presumably been collecting bets on just who was getting lucky with whom.
  Even though it was all mostly as fake as a three-dollar bill, and we were heading out to what could just possibly be my own funeral.
  We'll need to do this in the hot tub. Cat said through the link as we all headed inside. There's nowhere in the apartment that the housekeeping systems can't pick up sound, but even megacorps can't get away with actually watching employees in the bathroom and calling it a 'convenience feature' or a 'security necessity'. It's the only camera-free room in the house, so for as long as there's a suitable soundtrack there won't be any video proving that we're not actually doing this.
  You're certain they didn't put any non-housekeeping cameras in there? Frosty asked professionally as we went through the motions of young horny people who'd finally gotten behind locked doors. Even when only pretending to use any tongue, she was still quite the exciting kisser.
  Technomancer. 'Cat reminded her. I'm certain.
  Handy talent. Frosty acknowledged, while I did most of the 'talking out loud' to keep any possible eavesdroppers distracted. And while I won't be able to sustain an illusion to handle the 'soundtrack' problem myself while I'm busy monitoring the process, Ruby isn't the only person who can summon a little spirit and ask it to hold a glamour. So that's covered.
  And there's few things as stereotypically Hollywood as hot tub sex. I agreed. So...
  Frosty snorted in rueful amusement as we entered the bathroom and let the door swing shut behind us, and unhesitatingly reached up to start unzipping her own dress. The tub was already filled, hot, and steaming because we'd sent that command to our apartment's housekeeping node before we'd even gotten out of the restaurant parking lot. For all that it sucked for privacy, Matrix-networked-living-everything did actually deliver on the convenience that it promised.
  Even despite the seriousness of the moment, I couldn't help but ogle the view and 'Cat was readily joining me in the ogling. Frosty's long braided hair was pure platinum-white, practically downright albino in coloration even if her skin tone was healthy Caucasian. At six-foot-one she was two inches taller than 'Cat and a bare inch shorter than me, and I couldn't help but do an itemized compare-and-contrast between her and my wife as they both stripped down. With her own fitness work from the 77th onward both Frosty and Cat had the muscle tone of fitness models, even if they both had better curves. Elven genetics meant that neither one needed bras or sagged even the slightest bit, but Frosty's slight cup-size advantage up top (a D versus Cat's C) was counterbalanced by Cat's heart-shaped ass being exquisitely rounder than Frosty's own slimmer supermodel hips. Still, either woman would have easily turned heads even on Sunset Boulevard, and seeing both of them together - especially with the color contrast of long-haired ice-blonde and pale versus short-haired brunette and California tan - was a sight that even Johnny Spinrad would have considered himself fortunate to see. And that guy had literally gone thirteen-for-thirteen with Maxim's cover models last year. Yup, both of the twins.
  I finished peeling off my own clothes, dutifully accepted an impressed eyebrow raise from Frosty and a brave smile from my wife as they ogled me in turn, and then we all got into the hot tub. I leaned back against the side with a beautiful woman on each arm and reflected on the irony of how history might possibly record the passing of sports star 'Crackshot' Kincaid as 'died of a heart attack in a hot tub while having sex with two nova-hot lady elves'. Andrew would probably piss himself laughing while he cried at my funeral,
  With the concealment power of her spirit to help provide a false soundtrack we could now speak freely as long as we didn't shout. Which was good, because 'Cat couldn't technomantically connect us unless we had our own commlinks and trodes on, which we obviously couldn't do while chest-deep in hot water.
  "So, what does he do?" Cat asked.
  "He goes astral - that's an easy process, I can walk him through it in a minute - and then I lead him away from the ordinary astral plane that magicians use to look at the world or float around invisibly and up into the deep metaplanes. Once we reach the Threshold, he has to continue alone. I'll stand astral overwatch to make sure that nothing interferes, and..." Frosty paused. "Cat, you do understand that he's not the only one in danger, right? If he's really linked to one of the Enemy that I'm afraid he is, it's just possible that it will try to escape back through him and to here if it's in imminent danger of death."
  "I thought the point of this exercise was to prevent that possibility?" I asked.
  "The existence of the Enemy and the danger they pose to the world is hard fact. Everything involving you is speculative." Frosty pointed out. "I'm wild-ass guessing here, we all are. So one of the things I'll be standing overwatch against is the possibility that something will try to move back down the link and into your body that isn't you. And if I think that's starting to happen..." She turned to Cat. "If I yell for you to run, then by God you RUN all right?" she pleaded. "Right that second, and don't look back! Because that will means that I and whatever 'it' is trying to breach through will be fighting to the death in here, and if you're anywhere near that then you'll be collateral'ed in a heartbeat." She lowered her head in shame. "And it also means... you shouldn't have to watch what I'll have to do to your husband's body." She ground to a halt, her eyes full of unshed tears.
  Cat and I clasped hands and she looked at me, searching my face, before nodding at what she saw and turning back to Frosty. She gently pulled the taller woman into a hug as Frosty froze in indecision.
  "Jane." 'Cat said gently. "I'm not a magic expert. You are, and Alex is at least halfway to being one. If you both agree that-" she broke off. "Ultimately it's Alex's life at stake here, and it's his right to risk that life if he thinks it's necessary and he's not being an idiot about how he risks it. He and I agreed on that from the first day I started dating a shadowrunner." She stared Frosty intently in the eyes at several inches of separation, her hands on the older woman's shoulders. "If needs must, then..." she broke off briefly. "Then needs must. And I would forgive you, because so would he."
  "I will." I backed her up. "I do."
  "God, I so hope I'm just being a paranoid bitch." Frosty agreed with us earnestly. "And... thank you both."
  "What's the fallback option for if you can't hold the line?" I thought out loud.
  "My spirit has orders to run for help the instant I tell it to, or if I'm in extreme distress. My father's astral projection can be here inside of a minute if that happens - if the shit's hit the fan, then secrecy has entirely stopped being a concern." she questioned me, and I agreed with a wordless nod. "If he can't contain the breach himself then he'll at least be able to call in everyone from the Orange Queen to- well, everyone." she finished professionally.
  "Sounds like you've got it covered as best you can." I agreed after we all let the moment pass. "So in the immortal words of America's first astronaut... let's light this candle."
  My first experience with astral projection was so similar to ordinary assensing that I only realized I'd left my body when I looked back and saw it leaning back against the railing of the tub with Frosty 'sleeping' next to me while Cat stared nervously down at us both. The view of her aura was an old comforting sight, just as it had always been, although seeing the love she glowed with equally intermixed with fear and regret was anything but. I closed my astral 'eyes' briefly as Frosty's own astral self 'stood' next to me.
  Her power as a mage was such that in the astral realm, and not shielded from me at all, she shone as brilliantly as a beacon. My own astral self blazed nearly as brightly, or perhaps as brightly in a different way. And while an un-Masked Hestaby had still outshone us both like a bank of stadium spotlights outshone a police car's spotlight, there was still that sense, that intuition I had, that both Frosty and I somehow stood entirely above the run of common metahumanity... well, we were both not only Initiates but multiple-time high-level initiates, advanced and well-practiced in our own particular disciplines, so I suppose that entirely made sense.
  "If it helps, you're almost certainly not what I'm afraid of." Frosty tried to reassure me. "The... attitudes.... of those things would be at least mildly bleeding through on some level in your behavior if you were, especially when contemplating imminent death. And they're not, your behavior is entirely decent. Almost chivalrous."
  "Like how Voldemort's horcrux could make Harry angry." I analogized.
  "Just like that." she nodded. "Still, even with that reassurance we still have to make sure." she sighed. "Follow me."
  I can't describe what it was like to transition from the near astral plane to the threshold of the metaplanes. It was like traveling in a direction that didn't exist, and yet was clearly distinct from any normal vector. A vague analogy would be like how old space opera writers had always tried to narrate when the hero was travelling in a fourth spatial dimension.
  "We're approaching the Dweller on the Threshold." Frosty told me, as the astral echo of the material world faded to be replaced by the Silver Void. "It stands between the near astral and the deep metaplanes. Every caster that I've ever even heard of must confront the Dweller to get past, even my father." She shrugged. "Rumor has it that the dragons don't, but the dragons were inherently born of magic on a level none of the Younger Races were. So until their big scaly butts deign to actually explain what's what there, fucked if we'll ever know." she swore nervously.
  "What does the Dweller do?" I asked.
  "It tests." she said. "Everyone sees something different. Groups of travelers can confront the Dweller together, but..." she chewed her astral lip nervously before continuing tonelessly. "The Dweller knows everything that the person facing it knows. Every secret, every crime, every hidden doubt or thought or fear. Nothing can shield against it and there's nothing about yourself that you can hide from it. It's like confronting your own mind, or your Jungian shadow. And the Dweller always taunts the quester with a secret about themselves. Which means you do not confront the Dweller as a group if there's anything about you that you don't want risk being exposed to the people with you."
  My blood chilled in terror at the thought of any one of my several secrets being revealed by this threshold guardian to Frosty, even though I was literally trusting her with my life right now. Frosty nodded wordlessly, seeing my fright upon my astral aura as clearly as I could... wait, she was that frightened too!
  "Yeah." she agreed. "Secrets. We've all got them. I'm oath-sworn to never reveal some of them. I literally cannot face the Dweller alongside you, or with anyone else who doesn't already know them, because of the risk of being forsworn if the Dweller chooses to blabbermouth about the big one. And breaking that oath has far too high a chance of straight-up killing me."
  "I don't even want to guess at what takes that kind of security." I said quickly.
  "No you don't." Frosty agreed emphatically. "And that's the other reason besides standing astral overwatch that you're going to have to finish the deep metaplanar part of this astral quest alone."
  "It's all right." I reassured her. "I've got some things I really don't want to reveal either. Pretty much anyone does."
  "So fair's fair then." Frosty sighed in relief. "All right. I've already given you the outlines of how a metaplanar quest runs, but you actually don't need to succeed in the entire quest to fulfill our purpose tonight. Simply reaching any of the Places on the way there would reveal whether or not you're linked to the Enemy to the guardians of those places, so you don't actually have to reach the Citadel. At this point it's largely just a matter of your getting past the Dweller."
  "Any advice on how I do that?" I asked.
  "Sometimes denying your greatest fear is the wrong answer. Sometimes yielding to it is. Sometimes something else is." Frosty shrugged. "It's like the old joke of the professor who never changed the questions on his final exam because he could always just change the answers. All I can say is that magicians all around the world have essayed the Dweller on astral quests regularly throughout their lives, and still passed on through. It's meant to be a tough experience but not a nigh-impossible gauntlet. The enlightenment and knowledge of the deep metaplanes ain't for Sunday drivers, but it's not 'heroes of myth and legend only' either."
  "All right then." I said. "Wish me luck."
  "Luck." she quirked her lip at me. "And... hope to see you soon."
  I nodded and concentrated inwardly. Frosty somehow began to recede into the unfathomable distance without even moving, and the Silver Void darkened around me and darkened...
  "Finally made it here, Lackshot?" Andrew sneered at me. Wait, the Dweller on the Threshold chose to confront me as him? He and I weren't even enemies anymore-
  "Yeah, you beat him until you cried and then he took pity on you after you pussied out." Andrew's voice sneered at me from his face. "Wanna try the same thing with me? You gonna give up when you're winning and think that makes you the better man, think not having any guts'll make me give you a trophy?"
  "I stopped beating him because I finally admitted that I shouldn't have started in the first place." I said. "It had nothing to do with guts."
  "It's got everything to do with guts!" Samson barked at me, his hands firmly on his hips. "And with not holding back! But that's all you ever do, isn't it punk?" he sneered at me. "You've got all the gifts, all the talents, all the everything that everybody else would sell a kidney for, all the while they're starving in the gutter and helpless to lift themselves out! But you've got the muscles to lift a ton of shit, but all you do is make excuses for never using it and then talk about how morally superior that makes you!"
  "You can't just fix the world by punching it!" I shouted at him. "It's not that easy! You have to keep shit in balance, you have to avoid backlash, you have to-"
  "Spare me the speeches, Alex." Gary Cline grinned at me. "I write much better ones. Still, you're on the right track." he continued. "Keep talking about social concerns, keep talking about balance, keep talking about having to navigate complex political factors, but above all else, just keep talking! As long as you can be glib enough, it doesn't matter that nothing's actually being done! Hope is the best product to sell in town because it's so easy to manufacture! So light and convenient to package! So popular on the market!" He smirked. "And hey, when you don't actually make your promised delivery dates on the rest of the package you promised, such as the actual qualify-of-life improvements? No worries! Just keep 'em so invested in the dream that they just keep hoping!" he laughed boisterously. "And you'll be on top of the world!"
  "I thought you were supposed to know my innermost secrets?" I confronted the Dweller contemptuously. "Because that bullshit that just left your mouth was never in my head."
  "Meaning that the rest of it was at one point or another?" Fatima said to me wisely. "You've really been sandbagging that much, rookie? You damn sure weren't being entirely truthful with your friends, I know that much?"
  "Are we even your friends?" Pistons asked. "Or are we just means to an end? Friends trust, right? But Frosty had to see your secret, you never told her."
  "You goddamn sure didn't tell us." Fatima chimed in.
  "I doubt that you'd even have told Catherine if you weren't still punchy from the landing." Picador glared at me sternly. "You certainly didn't properly notify your chain of command!"
  "Quit slidetalking." I ground out. "You think I'm not noticing that you always start out with actual doubts and fears I've had to get me worked up, then start moving the goalpost into things I maybe could think later while I'm hopefully too agitated to notice the difference? You're not trying to reveal my true self to me, you're trying to spook me into thinking I'm worse than I am. You're nothing but a cosmic Matrix troll."
  "Ouch!" Cat said to me, as I drew back in shock. "So cruel!" she sighed faux-melodramatically, one hand raised to her forehead. "But don't worry honey, I still love you." she smiled avariciously. "I mean, what's not to love? You're rich, you're handsome, you do what you're told, and you can fuck me in every hole until I can't walk and make me still beg for more - what more could a girl ask for? We're out of the gutter and living like princes, and if you keep working hard and polish the old apple we'll one day live like kings!" she grinned eagerly. "I never dreamed of finding an opportunity like you when I was in the gutter, but I'll be damned if I ever give up on something this good. So stop all this silly angsting and just go home where I'm waiting for you, all right? You don't need to carry the weight of the world. And you'll fail all the people really important to you if you try to." she said, her eyes positively shining with a disgusting, gloating greed. It was as if Cat had suddenly decided to cosplay as Nabiki Tendo. On a bad day.
  "Oh you just fucked up big, asshole!" I raged, and then shrank back in terror as I realized how I'd clenched my fist. Even though it would only have been an astral illusion of her, I'd still almost raised a hand - a killing hand - to my own wife, without even thinking about it-
  "That didn't take long." my own face sighed disappointedly at me. My doppelganger ostentatiously checked a watch - an old-fashioned digital watch from my original Earth - and raised a sardonic eyebrow. "Not even five entire minutes, and you were ready to kill the woman you supposedly love above all others. You, my dear friend, have issues."
  "She wasn't-" I stopped. "She wasn't my wife. And I don't mean 'it was just an illusion'. I mean that that was not the woman I married. That one-dimensional gold digger was Cat from the mirror dimension. Seriously, you entirely forgot the goatee!" I defended myself.
  "Beside the point." I told myself. "The point is that you are a deeply, deeply flawed man. And to think that you were trusted with such power."
  "We're all flawed." I took solace in religion. "We're all sinners. But that's no excuse for not trying to be better."
  "Ah yes, the final refuge of people without principles that can withstand actual logic. 'God wills it! Deus Vult!'" I sneered at myself. "If you truly wanted to find a responsible role model for how to handle your power, the Crusaders certainly weren't it."
  "Slidetalking again." I rebutted. "Tell you what, smart guy. If you think you know so much, how's about you have the floor?"
  'I' raised a mildly respectful eyebrow at that. "Could it be that you actually might want to learn something? Color me surprised!"
  I waited silently.
  "Very well then. Your problem is that you refuse to accept the truth of the universe. Which I can purely and simply sum up in one sentence."
  I raised an expressionless eyebrow.
  "The universe is indifferent."
  "That's Don Draper from 'Mad Men'." I snorted. "He's your universal truth?"
  "No, what that quote represents is." my doppelganger replied. "There is no morality. There is no right, there is no wrong. There is no good, there is no evil. You can grind every universe, every realm both material and spiritual, down to its fundamental indivisible particles and then divide those particles even further anyway, and you will never find the tiniest mass of either. All of your concerns about 'should I do this' or 'what about those people' or 'but that would break this while I was doing that' blah blah blah blah blah, all so stupid. If you don't escape the trap you've caught yourself in then you will never do anything truly purposeful with your life. You'll just forever be a little puppet on the little strings - governments, religions, corporations, dragons, spirits, all of them. I stand here on the Threshold and I see everything, you know. Everyone comes to me, and I know all their secrets."
  "So you're allegedly omniscient and omnipresent?" I cracked sarcastically. "At least two-thirds of the way to the Abrahamic God, and yet all you do is guard a doorway? Congratulations, you are hands down the single greatest underachiever in all of existence."
  "Hah!" my doppelganger laughed. "Not even the clown was ever that trenchant with a comeback! Congratulations on your meaningless victory! Here's your equally meaningless prize!" it finished, holding up a 'package' of empty air like some demented mime.
  "So, you were busy redicovering moral relativism." I prompted him.
  "And you were busy still wallowing in pathetic denial." he sneered. "But yes. You cling to outdated sophistries created by others, you subordinate yourself to those weaker than you, and you seize at every excuse possible for not living up to your full potential because for as long as you can self-stroke your own ego button with a claimed moral superiority, you can turn a blind eye to your patheticness in reality. WAKE UP, ALEX! Wake up, and smell the opportunities! Entire worlds potentially lay at your feet, and yet you just play house with your little waifu in your little pretend laifu!"
  "No matter what speed I can potentially move at, the world still turns in its own orbit. And I, or any other single man, can only push so far and so fast before I upset the world's entire balance and ruin everything I hope to help. Eventually I need to lead, but that means people need to follow."
  "So get them moving, then! It's a pretty crappy leader who doesn't know how to motivate people!" my doppelganger raged.
  "The most archetypical corporate management failure is to think that flogging the cubicles harder will magically move the deadline up." I said. "Yet again, logic and reason are only gaslighting tools for you. Every time the argument is about to find a useful truth, you change it." I said. "But that only makes sense, right? You're not here to help enlighten anyone. Enlightenment lies in the Citadel, at the end of all the quest paths. And you're all the way here at the other end, as far from enlightenment as it's possible to get."
  "And yet the shadow can still reveal the shape of the truth, for isn't that a shadow's job?" my doppelganger nodded back evenly. "So yes, bandying words with me is ultimately pointless. Congratulations for getting that far. But no matter how far you travel, how far you go, the fact remains that the river of truth may end at the Citadel but it starts with me. I am the headwaters of that river. I am ultimately the source."
  "But not the destination." I said. "You've done your job, now let me do mine."
  "You're refusing to do yours." the Dweller said to me. "You came here to learn, yet you deny everything that you're told! You call that being open-minded?" it scoffed. "Accept that my perspective is far less limited than yours! Accept that if you do not abandon your flawed postulates and try to comprehend the truth, then you will never be able to seek knowledge in the metaplanes! Abandon your fears and your hesitation, and contemplate how to actually be strong! If you cannot accept, then you shall not pass! What sort of disgusting, mind-boggling arrogance allows a man to even consider not changing his ways when a whole world, a whole cosmos, shouts out with one voice that they believe him to be wrong?!?"
  "Thank you for putting it into such a simple perspective." I said evenly as a great peace fell over me. "Because that is the entire problem I've been having, really. The whole rap you've been trying to push? Life being a zero-sum game, that there is no right or wrong, only power and those too weak to seek it. All the other famous villain quotes? The world of Shadowrun does basically believe that. Every voice of the powerful or influential chants nothing but, and everybody else does precisely what you advised them to do - listen to so many voices telling them that they're wrong to believe, and decide that the common wisdom must know something they don't."
  "So you finally see the true question." the Dweller agreed. "And so what is your answer to the world? Will you finally allow the truth to begin to move your heart, instead of clinging so desperately to your lies?"
  "My answer to the world is the same as my answer to you." I smiled back. "No. You move."
  "Alex?" Cat's voice echoed faintly in my ears. "Alex?"
  My eyes opened to reveal my wife's desperate face right in front of me. "Cat?"
  "You're here!' she cried, and then did her best to suck my lungs out through my throat. "You made it!"
  "He did." Frosty's relieved face came into view over Cat's shoulder. "He visited the metaplanes and returned, and he's entirely intact. The possibility I was afraid of-" Frosty straightened up and then took a seat opposite from us in the hot tub, while Cat sat down next to me and we snuggled side-by-side. "Well, it's official, I'm a stupid paranoid bitch, and damn glad to be one!" she gasped in relief.
  "Yeah, but you're our stupid paranoid bitch." Cat said, crossing the tub to give Frosty a hug. "Thank you."
  "It was just a thing I had to check out." Frosty demurred. "I mean, searching for signs of... those spirits... and helping deal with them is a duty I'm sworn to. So..."
  "You're still being thanked." I said, slumping as the tension of the entire crazy night oozed out of me into the water, and I looked at both girls across from me. "Although..." I rubbed my chin. "There is one thing we're possibly leaving unfinished."
  "What's that?" Frosty asked me professionally.
  "Well," I said lightly. "Earlier tonight there was something else we'd agreed we couldn't risk doing because of some serious potential ethical concerns." I smiled at Cat as her eyes lit up in realization. "That stopped applying to us about... a minute and a half ago?"
  "Hey, you're not saying-" Frosty's eyebrows began to raise incredulously.
  "He's saying the offer's still open, you silly goose!" Cat remonstrated with her. "Which hell yeah it is!"
  "I'm not sure-" Frosty began nervously, suddenly looking younger than Cat in a way. "I mean-" She paused. "Really?" she finished in a small voice.
  I reached out and grabbed both of Frosty's hands with mine, and gently pulled her onto my lap. Her bottom landed discreetly off a certain portion of my anatomy.
  "If you don't want this, feel free to wave off and Cat and I will just politely take it into our bedroom." I said to her as sincerely as I could. "But we're both very much hoping you do."
  Frosty paused like an ice sculpture of herself for several heartbeats that felt like years... before she deliberately shifted her rump just so to rub up against that part of me.
  "But I'm not quite sure you're up to this level of prime running, Wild Man." she whispered huskily into my ear in a parody of her 'Ms. Johnson' voice. "You're still going to need to audition."
  "Incoming!" Cat yelled cheerfully as she cannoned across the tub to land adjacent to where she could get an arm around us both, and then we all began to show each other exactly how glad we were to be alive.
  Author's Note: Yes, the ending of the confrontation with the Dweller is entirely the famous Captain America quote. Look, you're just lucky you didn't get the Hogfather speech, I'm just sayin'. *g*
  And yay, I finally get firmly... well, lemon-adjacent at least! It seems that the key to unlock that part of my writing is to have strong and sincere emotions built up around the scene beyond just being horny.
  The Kinsey Scale is a numerical spectrum for measuring sexual orientation that runs from zero (exclusively hetero) to six (exclusively gay). Three is, of course, bisexual with zero preference either way. As a two Cat has a clear preference for male partners, but is entirely okay with women as well. Canonically Cat's sexual orientation at least includes the male gender because she's common-law married a dude and had kids, but outside of that it could be anything. So I went with what was convenient for me. Look, if a loving wife who's more interested in inviting in other girls than her husband is good enough for "Beware of Chicken", I will gladly swipe shit from the shoulders of giants.
  Not that Frosty's going to move in right that night and become Second Wife or anything - so far it's literally just one night of sex with some emotional closeness newly forged 'under fire' - but yes, barriers were lowered and ice was broken. So whether she becomes closer or just stays friends-with-benefits or whatnot, well, hey, that will evolve as spontaneously as this did.
  And yes, keeping his adept nature from Hestaby was a logic error and kudos to readers who pointed it out. So hey, I course corrected. And yes, Frosty is going to check at some point if Horror bullshit is involved here because despite the fact even she acknowledges that the possibility is so faint as to be measurable in imaginary numbers, you still check anyway. Fighting the Horrors is not a job for people who take chances.
  The big secret of hers that Frosty was afraid the Dweller would spill is, of course, that she is an immortal elf. And by 'breaking this oath will kill me' she doesn't so much mean 'there's magical geasa and stuff' but a much more simple 'my relatives tend to punish this level of Masquerade breach harshly'. Hence our MC having to go on alone, despite astral questing in groups normally being possible.
  No, you don't get to see what if anything our hero found out in the deep metaplanes. I haven't even written that part yet. One of the things you do when winging your writing is learn to leave yourself wiggle room for later.
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  Threadmarks: Interlude - Hestaby (Shadowrun)
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  Two brilliant reptilian eyes opened as the large bronze wyrm stretched luxuriously upon the heated stone shelf in her lair.
  Hestaby's mind, like that of any Great Dragon's, was not only superhumanly intelligent but capable of extreme multitasking. The average Great Dragon could simultaneously cast and sustain a spell, debate a high-end subject matter expert on a highly complicated technical matter, simultaneously assimilate multiple data displays each one of which was scrolling in a different language, and thoroughly ponder the consequences and implications of their own recent actions as well as the deeds of others. Gold-Master - a workaholic even by draconic standards - could and did single-handedly micro-manage a far larger percentage of the day-to-day operations of Saeder-Krupp than any metahuman being would believe possible, even if that percentage was still barely a tithe of the whole. The Orange Queen preferred a significantly more relaxed approach to life, but was still simultaneously juggling enough projects, schemes, and long-term researches in a day to have made a full-time career for multiple beings of the Younger Races.
  Today she had just returned from a brief reconnaissance in her astral form upon a member of the rarest metatype among those races, the 'immortal elves'. The result of an ancient renegade Great Dragon's attempt to create a powerful race of servants who were long-lived enough to be not only properly trained but not require laboriously re-training a new set of servants every mortal generation or three, the immortal elves had soon rebelled against their erstwhile masters and the ancient world had rocked to its very core at the scope of the war between dragon and elf, each with their several races' worth of short-lived pawns. The fact that the immortal elves were distantly kin to dragons, their immortality having ultimately derived from the renegade's introduction of traces of dragon blood into their essences, if anything had only made the struggle worse. But that old war was an ancient wound of the old world, and despite all the renewed if subtle conflicts that had echoed down the magically-depleted interregnum the new world had brought a compact between the two factions of immortals. One that, even if it had not removed bad memories or current resentment, had still sufficed to prevent war.
  However, the pact was still sufficient that nowadays a dragon and an elf could have dealings with each other and have those dealings largely remain each their own private concern. Which is how Hestaby had been able to hire the services of Jane 'Frosty' Foster, who despite being the very youngest of the immortal elves was not only the daughter of the vastly powerful elven patriarch Ehran the Scribe but also apprentice of the vastly powerful and even more eccentric rogue elf Caimbuel, or 'Harlequin' as he preferred to be publicly named in this era. The young Jane had only recently begun to learn the truth behind his offer to become her teacher in magic and introduce her to the secrets of the immortal elves, and that it had been in large part motivated by his age-old vendetta against her father, his desire to continue still one-upping her father even after the elven traditions had brought that vendetta to an official conclusion, and his desire to offer Jane recompense for how his initial reckless disregard of her as merely a vendetta pawn against her father had led to her being severely wounded.
  Not that Caimbuel had ever admitted his fault there, choosing instead to let Frosty continue to believe that her father had callously used her as a conduit for ritual magic to try and strike at his enemy through instead of admitting that his own magical defenses had unintentionally backlashed Ehran's counter-attack back into his own daughter while he had been the one to fire the first salvo down the mystic link between Ehran and his own child. Ehran had not understood the depths or the cause of his daughter's alienation for some time, but had eventually seen the necessity of making her understand his side of the story. Young Jane was still struggling to come to terms with that and other revelations, hence her current time of journeying away from both of her elders...
  Hestaby snorted in mild distaste as a sub-thread of her expanded mind yet again automatically reviewed the pertinent facts as she brought young Jane Foster to mind. Caimbuel was what contemporary humanity would call a 'Byronic anti-hero', a figure who sincerely strove to do good in the world but was also brooding, erratic, obsessed with old loves and older regrets, still intensely wracked with guilt over past sins and covering that over with a facade of irreverence, and self-centered even by the standards of the elven dragon-kin... Hestaby sighed inwardly as she yet again sped through a mental review of why despite the several common goals and potential reasons for alliance that her and the erratic archmage had, she still preferred to deal with him as little as possible.
  Personal dramas aside, once freed of his immediate entanglements with Tir politics and ensconced among the magical institute endowed in Far-Scholar's will Ehran had finally begun to make amends for his never having been a part of his illegitimate daughter's life or even admitting their relationship during her youth. Which along with Caimbuel's rather sloppy idea of mentorship had allowed Jane to slowly begin her education in more than a single point of view, and to start the tentative beginnings of choosing her own role and path to follow among the immortals. Currently she was embedding herself in the shadowrunner community as both an arena in which to test and hone her skills and an operational theater of the ongoing shadow war versus the cultists of the Horrors, both of which were entirely respectable and useful fields of endeavor for a girl of that age to devote herself to.
  Ehran's abandonment of his daughter still puzzled the Orange Queen whenever she thought about it. The Scribe had obviously cared about his child even from infancy - that magical tracking link that had allowed him to monitor her health and safety from afar before Caimbuel had burned it out using it as an attack vector against Ehran for ritual magic had not implanted itself, after all. But even after millenia of observing, sympathizing with, and aiding the Younger Races when she could the fine details of their motivations, hearts, and feelings were still sometimes a mystery to her. Oh, the vast majority of metahumanity were relatively easy to understand and predict (or manipulate) - when you'd literally seen it all for more generations of the Younger Races than they would live years, basic pattern recognition would soon enough do the job for you.
  But even with all that there were still always the more puzzling edge cases, and the complexity of mind and sheer weight of emotional entanglements that enough centuries of life inevitably brought in their wake quite often made fellow immortals the edgiest cases indeed. And that was before factoring in that the instinctive urge to defend mate and family possessed by most mammals was as alien to the draconic experience as shoes on a snake. Even Hestaby, widely regarded as the most maternal and nurturing of her peers and a long-favored choice by younger dragons to act in a Great's traditional role of egg-guardian and teacher of hatchlings, was still often shocked at the extremes that both love of family and love's denial could drive mortals to do. Had Ehran thought he was acting in his daughter's greater good by leaving her alone to essay her youngling struggles and strivings without coddling or patronage, and by doing so allow her to rise up stronger? That would be almost as sensible as a dragon if so but also quite uncharacteristic for one of the Younger Races, even among the dragon-kin. The puzzle of Jane Foster's upbringing and what exactly had motivated it was one that even the Orange Queen had yet to fully unriddle. Not that it was anywhere near vital to solve that particular mystery, but a dragon did like to know things.
  And that thought about families, paralleled with several other thought-streams currently running, yet again brought the most recent young family that had come to the Orange Queen's notice to the forefront of her mind. For the Kincaids - particularly the husband - were definitely a work in progress.
  When they'd originally approached her with their petition, she'd only felt a faint amusement. By far the most common motive for mortals who'd overcome their timidity sufficient to approach a dragon at all was because they sought some form of unearned largesse. But the degree of subtlety with which they'd communicated their desires and their even more obvious fear of their own employer noticing their efforts had drawn enough of her curiosity to make it worth expending a few minutes of her time to indulge it. A chance to observe one of Horizon's own technomancers close-up was always useful, and it had been a rather tedious party anyway.
  And then that young man had entirely violated everything that she'd thought she'd known about magic right in front of her, without even knowing that he'd done it! It was flatly impossible for him to have penetrated her Masking to see her true aura and shape against her will. While the comparison was as inexact as the scale of measurement in question itself was, in metahuman terms Hestaby would have counted as the rough equivalent of having initiated several dozen times at the absolute minimum. Even Ehran or Caimbuel or the Blood Queen would have found the task of penetrating her veils of illusion a significant challenge, and to the best of anyone's knowledge they were the three single greatest mages currently walking the world on two legs. But Alex Kincaid had assensed her true aura as easily as she could have the simplest of watcher spirits, and yet it had been as plain as day in both his own aura and his surface thoughts that he not only was entirely oblivious to the true scope of what he was achieving but that he'd only believed he'd succeeded because Hestaby had chosen to allow him to.
  Fortunately, one did not survive several ages of the world without acquiring an excellent poker face. So she'd entirely leaned into his welcome misapprehension and he'd never caught on.
  The subsequent revelations that the young man in question might well be physically immortal, that he was capable of physical, mental, and magical growth on an absurdly rapid scale and in a fashion that sidestepped multiple heretofore thought inviolate hard and soft caps on personal development, and that he didn't have the slightest clue as to how or why and was slightly desperate to find an answer to his questions was only icing on the cake, really. And she did entirely sympathize with his drives - existential crises were never fun no matter how powerful you were, and by the time Alexander had been driven to approach her he'd accumulated a sufficient body of evidence to have legitimate reason to doubt if he was even fully human. For that matter, the Orange Queen herself wasn't prepared to lay down a definite 'yea' or 'nea' on that question until after some extensive laboratory testing.
  Of course, it wouldn't have been prudent to simply offer him an immediate extraction to the safety of her lair. For one thing, both he and his wife had ongoing megacorporate entanglements and while such things were hardly insurmountable, they were still not a factor that one blithely ignored. Much more importantly, of course, was the simple fact that so eagerly and rapidly trying to snatch the prize would send up a flare-lit tip-off to all of her peers that Something Valuable Was Here, in addition to the part where the 'prize' was a sapient being with desires and fears of their own and an understandable prudence about immediately leaping into the heart of a Great Dragon's power. The Orange Queen was well aware that only her thorough and ongoing efforts to convey the 'nicest' possible impression to the Younger Races at all times had given the Kincaids sufficient encouragement to risk approaching her at all.
  Because on the Venn diagram of 'the set of people that could conceivably have the vast and deep lore to comprehend this phenomenon at all', 'the set of people who our own social space of contact could hope to discreetly intersect with theirs at any point', and 'the set of people we could even halfway trust to not simply take what they wished, potentially from our quivering corpses', it was that last circle that had done the vast majority of pruning the list of those that the Kincaids would be willing to risk contacting on this matter down to only one name. And to think that Gold-Master had always sneered at her and Far-Scholar for being too 'soft' and going to considerable lengths to publicly appear harmless instead of intimidating. How could one possibly become the wealthiest megacorporate operator in the world with such a poor understanding of the term "walk-in business"?
  No, the simplest way to overcome the Kincaids' entirely sensible hesitation would be to just allow the young people to talk themselves into it. Which was readily enough accomplished by giving them time to gradually grow more and more emotionally invested in the cause of action that they had already intellectually accepted. In addition to the simple fact that waiting for the next off-season of Urban Brawl was the easiest way to sidestep at least several of those megacorporate entanglements. And even the hastiest and rashest of her kind could still wait decades for an opportune moment to act if need be, let alone mere months.
  But ah, emotional investment! That was precisely why she'd brought 'Frosty' into the matter instead of any one of the many other people she could have tasked with the job. The Shasta Shamans, her many followers both overt and covert among Northern CalFree's gypsy clans, shadow-people of multiple varieties, even one of her several own in-house 'technomancers' to approach Catherine Kincaid through... no, bringing in Ehran's young dragon-kin of a daughter was hardly a vital necessity. At least, not from the standpoint of reassuring and eventually enticing the Kincaids.
  After all, it was entirely proper that a single action be used to pursue multiple goals, and for all the historical separation between them the fact remained that virtually no type of servant was as potentially valuable to a Great Dragon as one of the elven dragon-kin. Far-Scholar's own most valued lieutenant in the modern era had been 'Nadja Daviar', and even Gold-Master had finally unbent enough to hire 'Claudia Romanov' as one of his senior assistants. And it's not as if 'Frosty' had been having her potential value as a student being given the full attention that it deserved by Caimbuel of all people, and she was still well short of being willing to accept a full-time position underneath her father. So if the Orange Queen could take advantage of a chance to simultaneously bring in that unique young man where he could be properly studied and simultaneously draw a charming young dragon-kin into her orbit, why wouldn't she?
  It had been amusing to realize that her plans to somehow leak the true nature of Alexander Kincaid to Jane Foster without actually violating her promise to keep his secrets confidential were entirely unnecessary. Young Jane had known at least a portion of the truth the entire time and had been prudent enough to keep it entirely to herself rather than carelessly drop such a valuable pearl of knowledge where any of her elders could snatch it from her. Yes, quite the promising young woman indeed.
  So the Orange Queen had cheerfully arranged to put both 'Wild Man' and 'Frosty' back into each other's acquaintance, only with the knowledge of his principal secret now a shared thing between them, and sit back to watch the nigh-inevitable occur. Kincaid would be gently reassured and eventually drawn into her orbit, and on top of his own vast - indeed, as yet uncalculated and at least partly incalculable - value there was also that the nigh-inevitable growing ties of the heart between the two would pull Foster along after him. And all in a fashion that neither party would suspect or rebel against, for they had done it to themselves the entire time. Young Jane in particular would be almost inconceivably unlikely to ever rebel against the impulse.
  After all, Alexander was the sort of man that was very charming to young women even before factoring in that he was a thoroughly capable, stable and dedicated provider-figure as a potential mate. And Jane's immortality forever drew an invisible veil between her and the vast majority of metahumanity, just as her being the youngest of the immortals - indeed, to the best of the Orange Queen's knowledge Jane Foster was the only immortal of her generation, having been born only in 2031 - drew a similarly vast gulf between her and all the potential lovers or spouses she could have found even among her fellow dragon-kin. So how could young Jane possibly resist the temptation of meeting a new potential immortal less than two decades younger than her? Someone that she would be neither child nor elder to, and that she would neither be doomed to outlive?
  Obviously she couldn't. And in practice, she certainly hadn't. Even Hestaby had been surprised that her and Alexander had each fallen so eagerly into the other's arms literally on the first night of their renewed acquaintance. You'd think that that would have been a development that would require at least a little time to build up to. Then again, Kincaid's wife had not only not been an obstacle, or even just a willing participant, but had in fact been the most eager instigator of the entire thing. But there was literally nothing less comprehensible about the Younger Races to most dragons than the mammalian sex drive in action, for all that they could still use it as a tool of manipulation at need, and that truism certainly had proved itself once more.
  And to be honest, the simple fact that this little manipulation would head off the all-too-likely prospect of loneliness and desperation eventually driving young Jane into Caimbuel's bed would have made this project worth doing all on its own. Really, did that man have no shame at all?
  Author's Note: Yes, I have opinions on the whole Harlequin thing. And please note that I have vigorously defended him in fan arguments elsewhere as one of the genuinely heroic figures of the Sixth World who has at least one 'save the world' legitimately credited to his tally sheet. All of that is true.
  But this does not change the fact that the man is a deeply flawed individual who is quite often an absolutely mind-boggling jackass. So I indulged myself in the chance to snark on him a bit from the POV of a setting character who would legitimately hold those opinions even if I didn't. In fact, the Orange Queen doesn't entirely speak to my own personal feelings on the matter, but then again, remembering when the character is talking versus when the author is talking is a useful skill for any reader and doubly useful when reading my stuff because I lean into that one quite a bit.
  I hadn't originally planned on doing an interlude again this soon. Excessive use of them had been one of the things I looked back on as a mistake in 'A Ghost of a Chance'. But this is spaced out at the same interval as the prior interludes, so even despite the fact that it's not a major arc transition - we're still well in the middle of the Horizon segment - I've got room to put it in.
  Also, hopefully doing this short interlude will finally clarify exactly where everyone's head was during the Hestaby thing, most of all Hestaby's. Not to mention actually get the scoop about immortal elves into the story itself and not just author's commentaries. That's a needful thing, so, finally got around to finding a way to do it. Right. Exposition taken care of in a classic scene of 'manipulator figure quietly musing on their own cleverness while they sit in their office'.
  Hopefully that'll be enough, so now we go back to staring at the drawing board while I wait for my muse to catch its breath. As pointed out earlier this morning I did just finish writing an entire feature-length novel in two weeks, so time to spend a day or several at the beach and wait for the next wave of inspiration to come in.
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  Frosty was back to being slightly stand-offish again the next morning. But while she had snuck out of our cuddle pile before Cat got up, she had also still stayed for breakfast. Of course I'd known the instant she'd begun to sneak out of bed in the early AM, but I'd politely pretended not to notice anything and she'd politely accepted that. If our sudden outburst of intimacy was a thing that she wanted a little time to mentally catch up to then of course I'd give it to her.
  Neither I nor Cat had missed that Frosty - Jane - was a very lonely woman. That was a big part of why Cat had been so kindly disposed towards her, given Cat's own prior history of struggling with feeling isolated from the general run of metahumanity during her 'AIPS' period. And while Cat would still have been quite attracted to Frosty on a physical level even without that sympathy factor, she wouldn't have been feeling enough of a pull to actually blurt it out across the dinner table. I knew my wife more than well enough to know that one.
  But I was also just starting to get to know Jane. And even at this early stage of acquaintance I could see that she was someone who really didn't deal well if she felt out of control, whether of herself or her immediate surroundings. Hence her hesitation last night and her feeling slightly out of sorts and needing to reorient herself this morning. But Jane was also a surprisingly warm and generous person, in the emotional sense and not merely the prurient, once you got past her outer shell. So once we'd worked off the initial hormonal frenzy last night then things had actually gotten more than a little tender towards the end.
  But possible affairs of the heart or not, Jane was still a busy woman with more than a few of her own irons in the fire. So after we'd had breakfast together we'd talked a little and made sure that she entirely understood that she was welcome back at any time she felt like dropping by, but if not then it had still been very nice to have been with her. And then both Cat and I kissed her goodbye, and Jane got back to work and so did we.
  I wasn't quite in the class of full-time stalkerazzi target that the Hollywood megastars around here were, but the fact that we'd been playing to an audience at Ruby's meant it didn't take long anyway for word to get around that the legendarily monogamous Kincaids had finally started to branch out a bit. While it didn't make it as far as my public image - something this relatively mild and discreet wasn't even in the top fiftieth of things the team's PR staff had been able to successfully downplay - it still drew all kinds of attention on a more private level. When your wife invited another lady home for a threesome then that was a legitimate reason for the local playboys and playgirls to assume that either I, or her, or both of us at once, were now 'on the market'.
  But that's also part of how we knew that it had been some kind of genuine feeling for Jane, because none of them even remotely tempted. Cat and I soon came up with a point-scoring system between us for who'd collected the most obnoxious proposition and who'd gotten to deliver the most stinging zinger in return. The team joshed me about it good-naturedly, but like any of them had any room to throw stones. Besides, at least they weren't assholes about it. Even Andrew and I were cool now, to the misery of opposing teams that now had to face perhaps the most devastating pair of scouts in the league.
  We hadn't christened the new house - I'd received quite a generous advance on my new contract, after all, and so it was time to trade up out of the apartment - with Jane, however. That honor had gone to someone entirely unexpected
  Granted, it hadn't exactly been the sort of encounter you regretted in the morning. When Grim Aurora had hit town to play, Kat o' Nine Tales had somehow ended up flirting with us at our table and she'd just had this sheer relentless aura of fun that made Cat and I decide what the hell, we'd give it a try. And while the rock star sex had indeed lived up to all that rock star sex reputation... well, we'd spent an invigorating night in several of our new house's rooms, let Kat say goodbye in the morning, and then we all got on with our lives. She hadn't even stayed for breakfast, she'd had an early morning recording session.
  But not that we'd been occupied only, or even primarily, with just our sex lives.
  On Cat's end of the equation, she'd been busy for over a month intensely studying a recent breakthrough in the technomancer phenomenon re: the creation of 'sprites'. Sprites were semi-autonomous digital entities that had just recently started appearing around technomancers in the Matrix. By all appearances they were spontaneously generated from either emergent processes related to the unique 'Resonance' that researchers were using as a label for whatever mysterious phenomenon was at the root of technomancer powers, or subconsciously compiled by the background mental processes of technomancers... or more likely both acting in concert, plus X-factor. And since sprites were at least convincing emulations of sentience, like the semi-autonomous knowbots or 'SKs' pioneered by Renraku in the early 2050s that were the precursor to true AIs such as Deus, this had obviously sponsored a new crash project on Horizon's part to, well, see if there was any risk of rogue AI behavior such as Deus. Cat had had to pull so many back-to-back all-nighters at the lab that on several occasions I'd gone over a week without seeing her once, especially given my own schedule when the team played away games.
  But after weeks of effort and multiple rounds of repeated tests and deep Matrix immersion, the preliminary conclusions were finally starting to firm up. By all appearances sprites were indeed more akin to the SK end of the AI spectrum than the Deus end - they could only be sustained for any lengthy period of time by a semi-permanent commitment of mental resources on the technomancer's part, and they could not conduct extended operations in Matrix nodes away from their 'parent' technomancer. And they definitely were not capable of self-replication, thus averting fears of a third Crash via yet another self-replicating AI-equivalent polymorphic doomsday worm program. Admittedly, the scattered indicators that 'wild' sprites, sprites not the result of any known technomancer, might also exist deep in the Matrix was still a matter of some concern. But it's hardly as if Horizon knew the names and addresses of every technomancer in the world, and any sighting of a 'wild' sprite was likely just the sighting of a sprite that had been remote-tasked by an unknown technomancer.
  Still, the fact remained that technomancy was still a mysterious phenomenon in many aspects, not least of which being 'what was its source and how exactly did it work'? So if technomancers actually had turned out to be some plot of Deus or something akin to it... well, thank every god and their twin brother that they hadn't.
  And this latest reminder of how the world of Shadowrun far too often had hidden depths and potential existential threats atypical even for the dark cyberpunk future helped me reaffirm several things to myself. Because while on my end of the equation I hadn't really had anything remotely challenging or new for me at my day job - still just the same old Brawl game - I'd had a lot of thinking to do on more serious topics ever since the Dweller on the Threshold. Because for all that I still had no clue when that damn thing had been telling the truth and when it had been gaslighting me, the entire process of having suffered through that conversation had still left me with a moment of clarity either way.
  Because I genuinely had been on the verge of falling into the same mental cage that all the movers and shakers were doing their best to lock everyone into so as to better maintain the current megacorporate domination of the world.
  The attitude that Andrew had so succinctly summarized for me, that even rebels like Fatima and Pistons still yielded to, and that was nigh-ubiquitous among everyone I'd met whether they be megacorporate or SINless, cop or shadowrunners, glitterati or working joe. The realization that everyone on virtually every level of existence was unavoidably hemmed in by threats and incentives to keep their heads down and not buck the system, and that vast and terrible forces existed to smite down anyone who bucked too hard even up to and including Great Dragons, so therefore the only rational thing to do would be to accept that truth and not torment yourself excessively with vain dreams of freedom.
  Which was, of course, entirely wrong. Oh, granted, everything between "The realization that" and "so therefore the only rational thing" in the sentence before last had been an entirely true and factual statement. In this world that was, any prudent person did need to take into account that their actions must be carefully calculated and even more carefully paced so as to avoid the smiting problem.
  But the gulf between 'This is a threat that must be evaded, even if that means waiting to take action later because no immediate route through is available at the moment' and 'This is something that must just be accepted' might have been subtle yet was still incredibly vast. Nick Fury had once cautioned Captain America that SHIELD needed to take the world as it was, not as they'd like it to be. But for all that Steve had been up against literally planet-killing odds with a handful of rag-tag misfits and would have gotten himself splattered like a bug if he'd been even a particle more naive or hasty, the entire point of the movie had been that Fury was ultimately wrong.
  Or to invoke a more literary example, the choice that I had faced at the Threshold was the difference between the outlook that had let Edmond Dantes and Faria keep digging that impossible escape tunnel one laborious handful of dirt at a time, and the decision of every other prisoner in the Chateau D'If to simply serve out their sentences and eventually die. And even though their tunnel had ultimately proved fruitless in its original purpose, if Dantes still hadn't started digging he'd never have met Faria, and thus never been able to eventually seize the opportunity that he did have to escape with the old priest's death. Definitely a lesson to be learned there.
  In short, the difference between patience and despair was at least as important as the difference between confidence and recklessness. The first thing any successful abuser did was condition a sense of learned helplessness in their victim(s). That was what the dark cyberpunk future did to so many people. That refusal to truly hope for change, to abandon the capacity to still believe in it, was ultimately the root of all other problems that would need to be somehow cracked before the world could improve.
  And yes. Even with all this I still didn't have much if any idea how I was going to do that yet. I wasn't even sure if I was able to do all that yet. For all that I was effectively an isekai protag I still didn't have a script dictating that I would inevitably be the main character who would inevitably get the Main Quest on which the fate of the world intended. But at least the concept of actually doing something was solidly back on the damn agenda now, instead of being something I was starting to only pay lip service to.
  And that led me back to the ongoing concern that there were now larger concerns at stake than merely my or my wife's safety or happiness, or the Emergence, or even Project Archimedes. Not that any of those things were any less of a priority than they'd been before, but on top of all those things something new had entered the equation. Notably, the part where I'd recently learned that the Horrors were real.
  Given all the other divergences I'd noted since coming here between the Shadowrun computer games I'd played and the actual setting - the fact that no 'shadowrunner club' called the Seamstresses Guild had ever existed in Touristville, the lack of any recorded APB by the Hong Kong Police in 2056 for a man called 'Raymond Black' or his two children, and most especially the lack of any mention of a scientist named Dr. Adrian Vauclair in connection with the German military's defeat of the Great Dragon Feuerschwinge in the earliest days of the Awakening. And this despite Vauclair's having been a legendary public figure at the time, at least in the gameworld. So it had all added up to a conclusion of 'the Shadowrun computer games were apparently an alternate timeline of the Shadowrun that I'd landed in'.
  Yet the Horrors were only briefly mentioned in Dragonfall and only in the epilogue of the Bad Ending, and had been no part of the plot at any other time. Even Qian Ya, The Queen With A Thousand Teeth and the main villain from SR: Hong Kong, had still fit solidly into what was already known in this world's shadowrunner community about the ancient evil spirits called 'the Yama Kings'. So I'd concluded that the whole 'if the dragons all die than the world ends when things from Beyond The Outer Gates come to end all life on Earth' thing was just something they'd shoehorned into the optional epilogue to make it absolutely plain that picking the ending where you helped Vauclair kill all the dragons with his super magic biowarfare actually was the bad ending. After all, sometimes a videogame franchise had to drop a pretty big anvil on gamers to get the point across.
  And then Jane had said everything that she'd said the night I'd confronted the Dweller. The Horrors were not only real, but people like her and her father and the Great Dragons and who the hell else had a whole secret war going on underneath even the regular shadow community to stop their efforts. The attitude with which she'd approached even the faintest possibility that I might manifest as a vessel for one of those things, and the precautions she'd taken just in case of the event of, were worthy of any Slayer in the Buffyverse confronting a potential 'the Hellmouth might open right now' scenario on short notice.
  Yes, this was all definitely something for a man to keep firmly in mind. Depending on how close that particular doomsday clock was to midnight, I might need to do a shifting of my whole priority list. And I'd first have to figure out a way to bring the topic up with Jane at all, seeing as how I didn't quite want to try and explain the whole 'I'm an isekai protagonist from a place this world was part of a fictional franchise' thing yet and I'd have no other way of explaining how I knew at all. And she'd already told me it was a secret she was literally oath-sworn to protect and that she risked death for ever breaching, so, not just something I want to toss out onto the dinner table like it was just an invitation to a threesome.
  Still, at least there was a silver lining even in this particular doom cloud. If Project Stop The Horrors was really such an important thing among all the super secret magic players around here, then maybe Hestaby would be willing to assign me to helping out with that project instead of sticking me wherever the hell else use she was going to try and make of me after the poking and prodding had finished.
  Because of course she had a potential use for me somewhere in her own wish lists, she wouldn't have been helping me otherwise. Dragons had a definite reputation for that, even relatively benevolent and self-restrained ones like the Orange Queen. The best I'd been hoping for all along was that it wouldn't be a morally repugnant use or one that treated me as expendable... or, at absolute minimum, one that I could escape from. But until I knew at least something of what I could truly do and how I could do it, then I would forever remain handicapped in my ability to plan for the long term. And hence the necessity of consulting with a dragon. Still, at least the Horrors were a thing I could rest assured were not an immediate crisis, because Jane would very likely have come and gotten my help if it was. And while Hestaby was still a potential long-term worry, things were proceeding on schedule there and with no new cause for alarm. And Project Archimedes I'd already covered.
  Which left the Emergence as our most immediate worry, because the optimism of this summer was starting to slide into an uneasy autumn.
  "'Horizon Internal Persona?' Really?" I said incredulously as we both looked at the orientation packet on our AR displays. October had come, and with it the start of the new fiscal year. And this year it had also brought a new Horizon-wide policy initiative.
  "A comprehensive, real-time networked reputation system that will allow members of the Horizon family to better interconnect with and freely encourage more amiable interpersonal relations at all levels of contact." Cat recited straight from the manual. "How exactly is giving every Horizon employee you so much as pass in the hallway a chance to either boost or ding a reputation score attached to your public profile 'encouraging more amiable interpersonal relations?'".
  "I suppose they're expecting people who are consistently assholes in the workplace to get dinged down to zero and kept there, and thus let social pressure motivate people to change in ways that a direct mandate from on high wouldn't." I said. "Because each individual person can only move your score a tiny bit - and it doesn't scale for rank, so getting dinged by a janitor counts as much as getting dinged by Gary Cline - but how many people do you pass by in a day? No more just sucking up to the boss anymore, you have to actually lose the 'tude full-time."
  "Total strangers count for as much as co-workers or close friends? Wouldn't that mean that rep scores would hardly move at all unless people started paying attention to everyone in the crowd around them, down to knowing names and faces?" Cat analyzed.
  "Well, Augmented Reality and the legal requirement to broadcast your SIN in all public areas already makes identifying people easy." I pointed out. "But yes, in some ways this is kind of mid-80s adjacent." I euphemized the reference to1984. After all, even if you were having a picnic on the balcony out of easy earshot of the housekeeping systems you still couldn't be too blatant about criticism. And if we'd stuck exclusively to the technomantic link and never actually talked out loud in the house, then people would wonder.
  "I suppose now I can at least have some petty revenge on a certain individual in the lab who always takes the last jelly donut." Cat sighed. "But now everyone will have to start managing their public behavior as if they're always 'on-stage', not just the Beautiful People." Or those of us on self-imposed deep-cover missions, the silent implication hung in the air after her words.
  "I certainly hope that they budgeted extra for employee stress counseling this fiscal period." I agreed. "I mean, it's not as if we didn't know that Horizon is always trying to find the magic social engineering bullet that will encourage the general run of people to act like better people, but I'm not sure this is an experiment that's going to have happy results."
  "That's why they call them experiments." Cat said primly. "But it's not as if they asked us for a vote is it? This is an employee requirement now and we're employees, so there you have it."
  "Do our best, and hope it all works out for the best." I agreed - publicly, at least. "And to pivot to a happier topic..."
  "Jane's back in town day after tomorrow." Cat smiled. "And she's already texted to ask me if she can come over for dinner after you finish shooting your advertising spot."
  "Tell her that she can come over and be dinner." I leered hammily, and we both giggled.
  "I'd certainly love to, but we both know she'd take off like a startled cat if I actually said that!" my wife agreed.
  "But nothing startles you, dear, particularly not sexually." I teased her, and we both giggled again. "More seriously, we don't know yet if she'll even want it to be more than a one-time thing. Still, that she's wanting to dine in instead of keeping things purely on a business level is certainly a hopeful sign."
  The first couple of days at work with the HIP system running were the rough adjustment period that anyone with the slightest amount of sense would expect to be. Reputation notification pop-ups were crowding everyone's AR display like it was an outright spam zone, people were still entirely uncertain what to mark for or even if things should be marked at all. Since the same person could only rep the same other person up or down once per 60-minute period, the more obvious strategies for rep farming or harassing people were already obviated. And there were other, more subtle safeguard in play. Even so, there wasn't a system yet that human beings wouldn't try to game whenever possible and I cynically looked foreward to seeing what kind of new social manipulations and favor-trading games would evolve out of nowhere to match this new, nigh-unique social stimuli.
  Perhaps that was the entire point of Horizon having started this at all. Because I just knew the social engineering people already had their notepads out to watch the fallout with interest.
  Jane, in her cover persona as the advertising exec working the Greenpeace account I was one of this season's celebrity spokespeople for, was all business as we went through the process of rehearsing and then recording the several TV spots and the puff piece interview. Not that this was unexpected, because we were in the workplace and on the clock. At the end of the day I graciously invited her home for dinner, she graciously accepted, and on the way home her magic ensured our privacy while we talked about our other business.
  "So, it's set up?" I asked her.
  "Yes." she agreed. "In case you need to bug out before next summer, you'll have the safe house to lay low in while you wait for me to come and extract you. If the primary safe house is a no-go, there's two other drop boxes where you can at least pick up fake IDs and bugout bags to help get out of LA on your own."
  "While you are a prime candidate to lead an emergency extraction team, I'm surprised that she's willing to pay your going fees for courier work on this level." I obliquely probed.
  "So am I." Jane agreed. "I accepted largely because it gave me a chance to actually meet you again and satisfy my own curiosity. Normally I'd have turned the assignment down, because good money for a milk run or not..." she shrugged.
  "Hrm." I wondered. "Almost makes me wonder if she knew that you already knew."
  "... I've wondered that too." Jane nodded. "Still, it wouldn't necessarily be a cause for alarm even if it was true. Security 101 is, if you've got something that you really want to keep secret then don't expand the need-to-know pool even one person beyond what you have to."
  "And my observer/handler/whatever really should already know at least the basics of why I matter to Hestaby so they know what to watch for, which in light of that makes it a mildly suspicious omission she didn't brief you. Or if her promise of confidentiality mattered, to at least send a request along with your first set of messages to me that I brief you."
  "Dragons." Jane sighed. "If they've got something important to say then why can't they just say it straight out?"
  "... well, that's not a problem exclusive to dragons." I risked taking the opening.
  Jane turned away from looking out the car window to give me a stare I could palpably feel. "And what did that mean, exactly?"
  "We were going to let you bring it up at your own pace, but just now it occurred to me that you might welcome a chance to talk before we got home and Cat joined the discussion. Just in case you found her enthusiasm... more of a social pressure than an expression of approval?"
  "Ah." Jane relaxed. "And..." she sighed. "God, look at me, awkward as a high-schooler. No, it's actually worse. I was the bad girl in high school, but now...?"
  "Never let Cat hear you say that unless you want to spend the next hour trading war stories from St. Trinian's with her." I diverted. "Honestly, sometimes she curls my hair with her tales of youthful hijinx."
  "St. Trinian's?" Jane asked me.
  "Late 20th-century comedy flatvid about a girls' school for delinquents." I said. "No, not that kind of flatvid."
  "Ah." Jane nodded. "And..." she looked at herself in the passenger-side mirror, then back at me. "You won't hurt my feelings if you just tell me, you know. That seduction... was any of it business? You know, keep your friends close and your contacts closer?" she asked briskly.
  "Now I'm definitely glad I had this conversation in the car." I told her. "Because if you'd asked that question with Cat in the room she'd have been deeply hurt." And also spitting mad at the implication I finished silently to myself. "You know that she grew up in Tarislar, right?"
  "Of course I do. But what does that have to do with anything?" Jane retorted.
  "And from that question alone I can surmise that you did not grow up in that rough a place." I volleyed back.
  "I'm from Ohio." she surprised me.
  "And your father was Ehran the Scribe?" I asked incredulously.
  "Let's just say that he wasn't actually married to my mother and you can fill in the blanks on your own." Jane said. "Now please explain what Tarislar has to do with this?"
  "Jane, one of the very first non-business related things you ever said to my wife was that she was an extraordinarily good-looking woman." I pointed out. "And she grew up dirt-poor in the slums and willing to bust a gut trying to find a way out. So you can probably fill in those blanks on your own."
  "But I wouldn't ever judge her for having done that!" Jane said earnestly. "In this day and age, a lot of people have to do things that aren't nice just to survive. That's essentially our whole careers, Wild Man."
  "You wouldn't have had to judge Cat for that because she didn't do that." I corrected her. "For all that Cat was pretty free with her affections back in the day, she was precisely that. Free with them. She never sold them, not even indirectly. I mean, prior to taking marriage vows Cat would gladly put out on the first date if she thought it might be fun. Hell, I could have gotten sex on our first date instead of our third if I hadn't deliberately slowed the roll. But-" I trailed off meaningfully.
  "She is a bit of a handful sometimes, isn't she?" Jane blushed slightly at the memories.
  "It's a good thing I have superhuman endurance, I'm just saying." I agreed humorously. "But more seriously, Cat won't so much as smile sexily to get an edge in a job interview, let alone-" I broke off. "She was smart enough when growing up to look around and see what happened to some other girls who thought that they could trade on their bodies without risking their spirits eventually being lost in the transaction as well. And so she committed to the other path as hard as she could. So yes, if you'd even implied to Cat that you thought her capable of seducing you for a business advantage-" I nodded at her. "Well, it wouldn't have made her hate you but it would have really stung."
  "Oh." Jane said shamefacedly. "I'm sorry, I just-" she shook her head. "I can't understand why you two are both putting so much effort into this."
  "Neither do we." I surprised Jane. "It's emotions, and feelings, and what attracts one heart to another. If I could flowchart and measure those things like an exact science I wouldn't be playing Urban Brawl, I'd be replacing Gary Cline. I'd certainly be the holy grail of the social engineering labs."
  "So what, we experiment and find out?" Jane retorted.
  "If you're willing." I agreed. "And... okay, you might have heard something about the lead singer of Grim Aurora?"
  "Along with several million of her fans." Jane said cynically. "It was on her MeFeed page. And speaking of, is there anyone else I'll be kissing by proxy tonight?" she probed.
  "That question implies that we'll be getting kissed tonight." I teased her gently, to receive an arched eyebrow but also a quirk of her lip in return. "And no. Now, I will admit that there have been more than a few offers, and some of them from people I've actually met-" I drawled.
  Jane snorted. "Not surprised to hear that, Crackshot."
  "Kat was..." I curled my lip. "Part of it was that we actually had friends in common with her, it helped break the ice. Part of it was that she was more than willing plus happening in the right place at the right time. But while we certainly hadn't planned it, we'd accepted it at least partly because we were experimenting."
  "Experimenting with...?" Jane asked knowingly.
  "In finding out if it really was just hormones and adrenaline with us that night," I shook my head. "And, no. It wasn't. The rock star sex certainly had hormones and adrenaline to spare, even without the 'thank God we're alive!' factor, but nothing beyond that. To steal from an even older 20th-century rock song, there were no kicks above the waistline." I reached over and put my hand on the divider between the car seats, to let her hand eventually come up to rest on top of it. "Neither I nor Cat are any more certain of exactly what emotions were going on that night than you were, Jane, but there definitely were some."
  "Oh." Jane said softly, squeezing my fingers. "Well..." she trailed off, and then looked up and out the windshield. "Oh, is this your new house? It's gorgeous!" And yes, it certainly was. We hadn't gone crazy and bought something like Winona Flying Horse's absurd marble 'palace' complete with two-acre lawn - not least because even I didn't have that much money - but it was still a large two-story villa and attached lot that was fit for a simstar. That's how we'd gotten it, in fact, because Valerie Dreams had had to dump it fast after her bankruptcy hearing. We'd then paid back almost half of what we'd saved on the house price for a fast internal remodeling and all-new furniture and fittings because she'd been living proof that tons of nuyen still couldn't buy good taste. The work still wasn't done in the basement, but even among the rich and famous and even in the dark cyberpunk future home contractors were still lousy with deadlines.
  I mentally 'poked' at my AR display to tell GridGuide's auto-drive exactly what spot of the carpark to stop on, and squeezed Jane's hand back. "Cat promised me that she wouldn't glomp you as soon as you made it through the door, but it might still be safer to let me take point." I teased her again.
  "But do I have to?" Jane teased me back after a moment, and I leaned over and we played a brief game of tonsil hockey before popping the doors and getting out of the car.
  Shockingly, however, when we actually made it indoors we found that Cat wasn't eager to talk about sex at all.
  "You saw the Dweller on the Threshold? In the Matrix?" Jane sputtered to her almost incoherently. "That's- hold on, I'm going to have a look on the astral here!"
  I opened my own astral 'eyes' and assensed Cat as hard as I could as Jane did the same.
  "I don't see anything." I said shortly. "Her aura's still entirely mundane."
  "Same here." Jane agreed. "So what the hell? I'm used to you breaking formerly inviolate laws of magic, Alex, but how can Cat be doing that now?"
  "If it helps, I'm not entirely certain it was the Dweller that I saw." Cat said, still white-faced. "The lead theory is that the experience I had was half-hallucination, half self-created VR simulation, and based on things from my own subconscious."
  "Well, I'd certainly told you enough about my own encounter with the Dweller that you could imagine an encounter with him. And it being created by your own mind would also explain the 'knowing all your secrets' the Dweller is infamous for." I thought out loud.
  "Yes, but I also felt it as well as saw and heard it. And they haven't yet been able to accurately record and playback Resonance impressions with simsense technology." Cat pointed out. "I'd have had to be hallucinating the entire experience myself, but-" She shook her head. "The EEGs didn't show any indications of that."
  "Neither did my scan just now." Jane nodded. "Hallucinations that vivid and detailed out of nowhere require either direct simsense assistance or a neurological, not merely psychological, problem. And that kind of organic brain malfunction... well, assensing is hardly as precise as an EEG but I'd still see some kind of flutter if you were having serious problems up there." She poked Cat's forehead affectionately with one finger. "But no, you're the picture of health."
  "And here we see the difference between talent and experience." I said. "I didn't know you could see half that stuff in someone's astral aura."
  "It's a bit of an advanced technique." Jane nodded to me. "But more pertinent to the immediate situation... Cat, I'm guessing from your tone of voice that you don't believe the 'it was all in your head' theory?"
  "No." Cat said pensively. "For one, this isn't the first time something odd's been happening in the Matrix with me lately. It's just the first time that Singularity actually knew about it."
  According to Cat, for the past several days she'd had this growing, subliminal impression that something was shifting in the Matrix, both in the lab's enclosed testing environments and the greater Matrix in general. This morning, while engaged in a routine extended VR session to yet again chart the limits of a skilled technomancer to improvise, or "thread", new program-equivalents on the fly, she'd suddenly felt involuntarily pulled deeper into the Matrix by what she could best describe as a 'surge of the Resonance'. And then she'd spent what according to the lab techs was four hours and eleven minutes comatose in a VR trance that they couldn't wake her up from. Even crashing the laboratory host and moving her to a wireless-shielded room hadn't snapped her out of it, she'd still remained 'jacked in' via her own technomancer abilities to... wherever she'd been jacked into. Meanwhile, on her end of the encounter she'd not only seen the Dweller but had an entire mystic experience afterwards, a trip to something that Cat could only describe as a 'Resonance realm' and otherwise didn't quite know how to translate into English.
  "All right, if this kept going on even inside a Faraday cage then I can certainly see why Singularity is leaning so hard into the 'It was just you hallucinating'." Jane said.
  "I certainly don't." I said flatly. "And I wonder if Horizon really believes it, either."
  "Why?" Jane asked me.
  "Jane, I'm her husband." I pointed out. "And Cat just told us that for a several hour period this morning, she was not only comatose and unresponsive under alarming conditions but that at least towards the end of it they had no idea if she'd ever wake up before she surprised them by doing so."
  "Shit, you're right!" Cat said, wide-eyed. "They should have called you as soon as it went beyond a 'emergency first responder' level and I wasn't awake to make decisions about my own medical care!"
  "It's not as if I was on the road or down on the practice field." I agreed. "I was right over in Studio City all morning for the promo shoot and rehearsals, all they'd have had to do is ping my commlink. Typical corporate high-handedness." I snorted angrily.
  "Oh, entirely. But what I'm stuck on is how was she possibly connected to anything external if she was inside an electromagnetically grounded signal trap?" Jane wondered out loud. "Whatever the exact mechanism of technomancer abilities in the brain are, their ability to link remotely to devices is still based on electromagnetic transmissions that are entirely understood physics."
  "Under normal circumstances." I pointed out. "Ask Smiling Bandit about their theory of quantum consciousness as it relates to technomancer abilities sometimes. And we already know that a technomancer's 'living persona' can emulate at least some q-bit hardware functions, as they have to do that every time they encrypt or decrypt commercial quantum encryption algorithms."
  "So you're thinking Cat somehow... was temporarily sustaining a quantum-entangled communicator link to something deep in the Matrix somewhere?" Jane said. "Isn't that highly speculative to say the least?"
  "And the whys and wherefores of our own proven ability to send our minds to another plane of existence isn't?" I countered.
  "Valid." Jane nodded. "And yes, I've skimmed Bandit's thesis that he posted on the Nexus. Which, now that you point it out, has at least some correspondence to other theories I've studied about magical Initiation in practitioners. You saw at least some of the common elements from Cat's story yourself, of course."
  "The gradually growing sense of feeling a deeper and deeper connection to the mysterious world-spanning overfield that is the source of their abilities? The sudden lapse from an ordinary meditative state into a deep-dive into the heart of that realm while their body is unresponsive and unrousable? The confrontation of their own worst fears and self-delusions in the form of a threshold guardian straight out of Jungian archetype theory? The mystic revelation at the heart of it all?" I itemized. "No, that entirely doesn't sound like a classic case of spontaneous self-Initiation in a practitioner." I finished ironically.
  "So that's another one for Pistons and Fatima's own theory." Cat said. "Magic and the Resonance are two entirely separate things, but they both interface with the human consciousness in roughly identical ways. That's why the common elements of perception and symbolism exist between the two, because the human brain is built to accept a particular set of inputs and triggers."
  "Initiation is widely believed to take the forms and imagery that it commonly does because it involves a rewiring of the deep neural structures of the human brain. Which is a capability of brains. Witness the case of people who lose an entire section of gray matter but eventually retrain other entirely different sections of their brain to do new jobs to compensate." Jane said.
  "Or even that old psych experiment of people who constantly wear the mirror glasses that turn things upside down and their minds eventually adjusting to see normally again, only to have to learn how to flip the view again when they finally take the glasses off." I said.
  "And the portion of the human brain and psyche that led primitive tribesmen to see the faces of the gods in burning trees - at least when spirits weren't actually involved - is a useful place for such brain-rewiring phenomenon, whether from the deep Astral or the deep Resonance, to plug into. Because normally such deep structural rewiring isn't possible, but..." Jane shrugged. "At this point we go well further into theoretical neurobiology than I ever studied, but you pick the basics up in advanced magical theory class. At least if you had my weird professor." She shook her head. "Practical value right now; the odds closely approach unity as a limit that you're not crazy, and neither did you meet Deus' secret remnant in the hidden Matrix to get EvilOS 2.0 uploaded into your brain."
  "Because that would be something like being involuntarily implanted with a personafix chip, which is another thing that shows up to an experienced astral observer the same way as severe MPD would." I chimed in.
  "... thank you." Cat said, relaxing for the first time since she'd gotten home to wait for us. "So... what do we do?"
  "Well, if we're wild-ass guessing that what happened to you was the technomancer equivalent of Initiation... what would the term for that be, anyway?" I thought out loud.
  "Call it 'submersion'." Cat suggested. "Because when I originally pulled/dove into the deep Matrix, it felt like drowning in a digital ocean."
  "Submersion." Jane said. "And let me guess, you're going to ask Cat if she has any new Matrix tricks? Because, yes, the first time you initiate you quite often pick up the beginning of your first meta-magical technique, even instinctively."
  Cat ran herself through a basic drill of common Matrix operations - Analyze, Data Search, Command, Edit, Encrypt/Decrypt, Scan, and so forth - and soon enough discovered that her abilities with data search and analysis had undergone a distinct shift.
  "It's as if... okay, using the Resonance as compared to normal neural interface gear always had this sense of depth, this subliminal layer of extra contextualization. But this is like that squared and cubed." Cat explained wonderingly. "It's as if there's invisible metadata and cross-links tagging every piece of data I turn up in a Matrix search operation, as if there's analytical algorithms whispering just out of earshot... as if I just piled together enough facts on a topic, however scattershot, on a topic then after I achieved a critical mass of data then a revelation would just..." she trailed off.
  "Well, it's not as if you don't already have one of those large databases." I said. "Your ongoing media clip file collection about possibly technomancer-related news, that we use to check the public pulse re: how likely they are to be receptive to a public Emergence scenario. How's about I go get your datachips and you see what happens when you review that?"
  "No need, I can reach my commlink from here." Cat said, and closed her eyes. "Give me a little while to meditate on this..."
  About ten minutes later her eyes opened and we saw her aura shift from a woman in a trance to fully conscious again. "Wow." she breathed. "Yeah, something definitely happened there. It's like the answer just appeared out of nowhere once I piled together enough random data tokens."
  "What answer?" I said.
  "It's shifting downwards." Cat said worriedly. "On the surface... the news, the pop culture, the Matrix rumors, it all seems cheerful and everything's on schedule. But that's just things up top, headline entertainment and the slant of the news. Further down? Matrix jokes, subculture talk, little oblique references, even memes?" She shook her head. "It's like everything Shooting Star and other such indirect propaganda efforts was trying to do, but backwards."
  "Sounds like a new megacorp just entered the Emergence game." Jane frowned. "And is beginning to undercut Horizon's own social engineering efforts to tilt things to the sunny side before the big reveal, possibly without even knowing Horizon's even trying to. Any idea who it might be?"
  "I've got this hunch that if I follow the invisible breadcrumbs far enough and long enough through the Matrix, I might be led to the answer." Cat said. "But I can't explain how or why, and I'm not up for such a potentially lengthy session tonight. And certainly not from our own home node."
  "Well, this certainly sounds like the Resonance equivalent of a meta-magical technique to me." I agreed. "Some kind of divination talent. What would we even call it?"
  "Sortilege." Jane suggested. "In the pre-Awakening history of occultism it was an archaic term for divination by drawing forth cards or tiles from a large random collection of them and having your draws spell out the answer. Which sounds vaguely like what Cat just described here, about how the conclusion spontaneously emerged for her from a large enough pile of semi-random data all loosely assembled around the central topic of inquiry."
  "So, Matrix sortilege. No, info sortilege." Cat nodded. "I like it!"
  "Spontaneous initiation- submergence." I snapped my fingers. "One of the triggers for it in a practitioner is when they're simultaneously prepared for it in mind and spirit and dealing with an ongoing need for a solution to a problem they cannot solve. Their initial metamagical technique is usually something that would help them resolve their dilemma."
  "And what's been keeping you guys stuck on planning a next move for your various goals is lack of knowledge, so after months of pushing her technomancer abilities to the limit and training them in multiple aspects, that plus the prolonged focus and her urgent need for answers... boom, breakthrough!" Jane nodded. "That's what I'd have called it in a heartbeat if she'd been a magician doing the same thing astrally, at least."
  "I'm just glad both of you have any kind of theory for this at all besides 'It's AI puppet theater' or 'She's crazy'." Cat hugged us both in relief. "Thank you."
  "How long does your spirit have before its task expires and it stops guaranteeing our privacy?" I asked Jane.
  "I summoned it after sunset so it'll keep going until sunrise, of course." Jane explained. "Have you not been studying those basic theory texts I left you?"
  "In his defense, we've had kinda a busy month with setting up the new house." Cat said.
  "Why'd you even buy it, anyway?" Jane asked. "I mean, yes, you did just get that five million nuyen advance on your contract, but it's just possible you won't be living here past next summer. Depends on how the Shasta trip falls out."
  "Precisely because we might not be living here next summer." I pointed out. "The one thing above all we're trying to keep Horizon from noticing is that I'm pursuing independent interests with a new patron, and how better to do that?"
  "Doh! I'm sorry Mr. Forest, I couldn't see you there with all these trees in the way." Jane snarked at herself, and we all cuddled on the couch and caught a brief rest from the recent thinktanking.
  "You know what's a good cure for momentary embarrassment?" Cat said into the silence after a short while.
  "Let me guess... could it be 'getting naked'?" Jane replied amusedly.
  "Well actually I was going to say 'a good laugh'. But if you absolutely insist on having wild monkey sex right here on the couch then I suppose as a good hostess I should make an effort to try and accommodate you, even despite my legendarily inviolate propriety and general lack of interest in such matters..." Cat teased us before we both finally ratcheted our jaws back in place and started hitting her with the couch cushions.
  Jane's schedule had let her spend the weekend this time, and outside of one or two brief instants of awkwardness - as with any new relationship, we were still feeling out the exact boundaries of sensitive topics and how best to raise them - it had been as much of a nice 'being together' as it had been good sweaty fun. It was still early days, and we were still definitely a married couple and their lover as opposed to being any kind of triad, but... well, we were still working out exactly what we were, as opposed to what we weren't. But either way, we were entirely enjoying the process and felt no major anxiety at either rushing it or dawdling it. Taking things at their own pace was working just fine for us for now, and so we'd keep doing that at least until next summer. It certainly helped that keeping in regular yet occasional-appearing contact with us and also being potentially available on short notice in emergencies was Frosty's job as Hestaby's field handler for Asset Me anyway.
  Cat spent slightly less than a week after her 'submersion dive' on medical leave due to what Singularity had officially recorded as a transient incident with an experimental neural interface technology, interspersed with two sessions of tests at the hospital. The procedure as regarding keeping her next of kin and holder of her medical power-of-attorney, notably me, entirely in the loop and notified of significant developments was scrupulously followed to the letter. So either that first day at the lab and the suspicious lack of calling me had just been Tam and the lab geeks getting so caught up in studying the what that they'd forgotten the why, or...
  Well, it's not as if we hadn't been operating on 'provisionally trust only' ever since we'd gotten here.
  At any rate, Cat was soon enough given an entirely clean bill of health and went back to work. Both of us were slightly compulsive about regular commlink calls and texts at work, but this was not considered unusual behavior in a young married couple one of whom had just experienced a moderately alarming workplace accident. Meanwhile, she'd been making tentative uses of her new info sortilege - hours of uninterrupted Matrix time complete with extensive data searches on potentially sensitive topics was an easy enough commodity for a shadowrunner to find, but harder to arrange living in the heart of corpland - to try and turn up any clues as to what was causing the subtle shift in the zeitgeist away from a favorable Emergence scenario to a more fraught one. But even techno-magic divination powers didn't just hand you even limited omniscience on a plate for free, so it was a project and not just a task.
  And then, one night early in November as we'd just finished a game versus the Lakota Arrows in the Sioux Nation's capital of Cheyenne, there was a knock on my hotel room door.
  "Alex?" Sarah's voice said tightly. "Are you there?" my team captain continued asking.
  "It's open." I said, sending a command from my commlink to unlock the door. "What's wrong?" I continued, rolling off the coach to see her standing- my face immediately fell as I saw her standing there, white-faced with worry and sorrow... and Tam Reyes, CEO of Singularity Software, standing next to her looking equally worried and sorrowful in his best suit.
  "What's happened?" I asked desperately.
  They both stepped inside and let the door swing shut behind them. Part of my brain multitasked to note that Sarah was tense as if she was expecting a fight, and also the subtle bulges of both a Narcoject pistol and a shock baton beneath her windbreaker.
  My expanding mind inexorably put the clues together one by one, logically and remorselessly, as the rest of me shouted at myself to please stop. My wife's boss having flown out here on zero notice to inform me of something personally when he could have just Matrix-called me with a thought. My team captain also being here, but prepared to act like Tam's bodyguard as if she were expecting me to attack him for some reason, but the absence of a corporate security detail that would normally accompany him into a potentially violent situation.
  "I think you'll need to sit down, Alex." Sarah said softly. "It's not good news."
  "Alex. I'm so, so sorry." Tam began quietly and as compassionately as he could. "But Catherine-" he ground to a halt, his eyes glittering, and forced himself to continue. "Something terrible has happened."
  Author's Note: Yes, I am an evil and sadistic bastard in the extreme. Why are you all looking so shocked now?
  No, I'm not even going to hint at this cliffhanger. I'm just going to say that by now I should have at least some trust banked up with my readers, and today I'm gonna draw on that account some.
  Unrelated to evil cliffhangers, 'submersion' is indeed the technomancer analogy to magical initiation, and Info Sortilege is entirely a canon 'echo' (or technomancer equivalent of a metamagical technique) from 4e's Unwired supplement.
  Horizon Internal Persona is likewise canon, from 4e's Corporate Guide. It's linked to Persona 2.0, from Corporate Enclaves, also by Horizon. I'm typing up an info post that will get more into it because I'm aware there will be curiosity, even if it's not majorly relevant to the plot. (It was good for atmosphere, though.)
  And I would like to thank those readers who wrote analyses of Alex's encounter with the Dweller. Several of you phrased some of the things I was working towards in that encounter even better than I originally had in my head, and dialogue was revised accordingly.
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  She'd been kidnapped.
  According to Tam, Cat had simply not shown up at work this morning. After she'd been half an hour late, his office had paged her commlink asking about the delay and there'd been no answer. After two missed calls, Tam had been concerned enough to run a Matrix trace himself and when she'd turned up as 'off the grid' he'd called Horizon corpsec. The unit sent to our house had determined that she'd left for work at the normal time, and about twenty minutes after that a GridGuide cross-check and searching LAPD Inc. units found what was left of Cat's sedan parked underneath an overpass in a deserted section of one of the old LA canals. The car itself had been completely fragged with an old shadowrunner's trick. First it had been doused in a slurry of tissue scraps and other biomedical waste harvested from a street doc's to completely bury any possible DNA traces among dozens of false positives, and then it had been fed a thermite and napalm sandwich to leave only a burnt-out ruin and fragmentary traces to work with even after all that.
  GridGuide logs showed that Cat had simply pulled off the road during her drive in to stop in the alley behind a Stuffer Shack, then had pulled back out and departed from her route to instead drive directly to the old canal after a brief pause. Between the lack of an external security camera that had had a view of that portion of the alley and the tinted windows on her car, it had been impossible to determine if she'd been driving the car on the second leg. The current theory is that as she'd pulled up towards the intersection near the Stuffer Shack she'd been targeted by a mage who'd used a Control Thoughts spell to force her to pull over out of sight and open the car door, at which point either he or a confederate had subdued her and driven her to the extraction point. And it's not as if I hadn't seen mind control magic and its potential usefulness for vehicle hijackings before, after all. I personally knew the caster from the last time I'd seen that one pulled off. Biblically, in fact.
  At this point Cat had of course escalated to a missing persons case of the highest priority. The Bolts' management had vetoed Singularity's wish to notify me until after tonight's game had completed because otherwise I'd have been pulled from the starting lineup. Singularity had chosen to not fight this for the first few hours, in the hope that Cat could be found and recovered before having to tell me at all, but after that had fallen through Tam had chosen to fly out personally as a courtesy. While LAPD Inc. and Horizon's own corpsec division had of course escalated this case to the highest level and done an all-points search of every possible lead as quickly as they could, the fact that they hadn't caught up to the kidnappers inside the first twelve hours raised the probability that they'd escaped the city - with Cat - to a virtual certainty. That's how it worked in such cases.
  It was a classic involuntary extraction scenario, straight out of the nonexistent shadowrunners' manual. Megacorps kidnapped each other's 'wet assets' all the time - quite often the best way to steal another megacorp's intellectual property was to just carry off the skull it was contained in. And that's leaving aside the fact that Cat was not merely a technomancer, but one who'd had the full benefit of Horizon's technomancer research and training opportunities almost from the beginning. If taken and shaken out she could do a great deal to tell any other megacorp all about some of the best ways to train and hone the powers of their own technomancers. Or to counter them.
  I allowed Tam to commiserate with me and show me his summaries of all the actions that had been taken so far and the ongoing results of the investigation. I let Sarah and my friends on the team try to rally around me likewise. She'd apologized for the gun and the zap stick, which had been her own hasty idea as she'd accompanied Tam up because of the slight yet definite possibility that I might have just freaked the fuck out on hearing the news. It wouldn't have been the first time a hyped up Urban Brawl player had flown off the handle and punched the wrong dude after shit had knocked him hard off balance, especially when stlil coming down off the adrenaline from a match. I got assured that I could take as much leave of absence as I felt necessary to get my head together - of course, that wasn't as generous as it sounded as pro athletes routinely worked on a "no play, no pay" system - and that I would be regularly updated on the progress of the case and that everything possible would be done.
  And then I went home and crawled into a bottle.
  "Alex, this isn't helping." Sarah said.
  "Go away." I mumbled drunkenly.
  "You know I was Lone Star before I got into the game, right? You're not the first family of the victim I've seen." she said firmly. "This is not a good pattern. Even if it feels like you're just going through the motions, it still helps to move."
  "Is this the same script you used on all the other families or are you ad libbing?" I sneered.
  She walked that one off like a champ and just shook her head sadly. "If you've given up hope on seeing her again, then you need to start a healthy grieving process. If you haven't, then you need to still be the man she married so she'll be able to come back to him. Either way, you need to stop doing this."
  I just stared down into the open whiskey bottle and ignored her.
  "You know that I'm going to keep coming back here until your head is finally out of your ass." she glared at me.
  "Please, you've got more than a week of away games coming up." I sneered up at her. "So get back to earning your salary, and feel free to indulge your hobby of pretending to give a shit only when they allow you to have an off day."
  Sarah sighed and turned to head back up the basement stairs and out. "Just... don't do anything even stupider until I get back, all right?"
  I ostentatiously ignored her to open an AR window and start desultorily scrolling through the same old photos and messages from my now-missing wife.
  There were several other visits, from teammates or co-workers of Cat's. One from Tam Reyes, even. I lurched from moping in my still-not-fully-refurbished basement, bare joists and all, to making an ass of myself in public. Drunkenness, public disturbance, even punching a guy - hushed up, of course - and all. The Bolts were hardly willing to bounce me after only a week, but the tone of communications from team management - as well as the surrounding PR - was already starting to slide from 'sympathy' to 'damage control'. Unless I changed course, I was on track to being a sports tragedy; the young star whose epically promising career burned out when he was shattered by a tragic loss. Somewhere in Pathfinder Multimedia, some junior writer was probably already roughing out an outline for a fictional dramatization to be used in the future event of.
  I'd messaged Jane almost as soon as it happened, of course, but she didn't come to the house at all. And only one of the visits I did receive was noteworthy as being outside the expected pattern.
  I was back in the basement, brooding alone in the dark as usual, when I heard Andrew's footsteps coming down the stairs. Someone in the Bolts management was clearly supplying people with passkeys to my house to 'check on my welfare'. If I'd cared to look I'd probably have found the exact fine print in my contract that made this legal, but it didn't really matter at this point.
  Andrew didn't even talk to me at first, or raise an eyebrow at the Ares Predator laying next to the whiskey bottle on the low table alongside my chair. He just paced around the unfinished man-cave, looking at the partially bare walls and smelling the rank atmosphere caused by my not having showered in days. And also occasionally glancing at his AR display.
  And then he surprised me by walking over and holding his commlink up so I could see the backup touch-screen that virtually nobody used ever since Augmented Reality contacts and either trodes or haptic interface gear let people work the projected touchscreens without having to actually use the buttons or the manual scroll wheel.
  If we can talk, tell me to go fuck myself.
  "Go fuck yourself, Andy." I drunkenly mumbled at him.
  "So you're hidin' down here because the microphones ain't in yet." he nodded. "That's smart. What're you plannin'?"
  "Ain't plannin' shit." I said.
  "Plausible deniability too? Uh-huh." he said evenly.
  "The fuck makes you think I'm plannin' anything, asshole? Who do I look like, Nathan Never?" I said belligerently.
  "I'm the asshole who was on that rooftop with you, you dumb fuck." he said tolerantly. "Even Sarah don't know why you gave up, just that we made up and were friends after we did the male bonding thing like a pair of angry gorillas. You do remember that night, right?"
  "Why, you want a rematch? Maybe you could actually win this time if I chug another bottle of this shit first."
  "Everybody else who knows you is tryin' to figure out why the fuck you quit, which is the last thing anyone would expect you to do. But me?" He shrugged. "I don't know what the reason is either. But I think I know why the reason."
  "What you are even talking about, Sherlock?" I slurred.
  "You gave up on that rooftop because you thought givin' up was the morally right thing to do." Andrew pointed out sagely. "That's the only thing that ever makes you give up. So while I'm fucked if you think quitting when Cat's out there in trouble somewhere is the right thing to do..." He sighed. "Help me out here, buddy. Tell me what I'm missing."
  I angrily pushed away the commlink he was still holding up in front of me with one finger. Andrew looked down to see exactly where my finger was resting... on the Horizon logo embossed on the case.
  "... shit." he swore. "So, like they sometimes did it in Detroit?"
  "Like they used to do it in Detroit." I agreed despairingly.
  "... is there anything I can do?" Andrew asked me softly.
  "Snitch on me to the team doctor?" I said as sarcastically as I could. "That's the logical next step, ain't it?"
  "If you want, then I will." Andrew agreed compassionately. "I still don't understand exactly where your head is right now, but I will."
  "Thanks." I whispered.
  "Don't mention it." he agreed. "And... good luck."
  I went back to erratically scrolling through all the vast and varied tapestry of social media that Horizon generously provided to enrich the lives of its employees. I sent a couple of drunk tweets, flipped through the MeFeeds of several glitterati, and nodded to myself at these brief, meaningless glimpses of the ocean of humanity.
  I hadn't expected Andrew to make the observations or the offer that he just had, but I knew what the effect would be. It would have come soon enough anyway, but it helped to know the exact timing.
  The corner of my eye saw the latest item my Matrix search terms had brought me - a tweet of someone complaining that someone else had just cancelled on coming to their party tonight and how could they possibly have been snubbed like that?
  Tonight, then. It would be tonight.
  "Alex, we need to talk." Gary Cline's voice eventually came from the top of the cellar stairs.
  "Tell your entourage of ass-kissers to stop tracking shit on my carpets." I drunkenly yelled up at him.
  "This is a personal visit, friend to friend." he said reassuringly as he came down the steps and let the spring-loaded door swing shut behind him. "I came alone."
  "Well, I can hardly throw you out." I grumbled. "Go ahead, make your damn speech."
  And Gary did, for several minutes. It was one of his usual rhetorical masterpieces, all full of reassurances and encouragements and motivational gambits. He even came as close to blatantly saying out loud as he could dare to saying that Horizon would turn a blind eye even if I charged off on a shadowrun to rescue Cat myself. Gary Cline could legitimately charm the ass off an angry rattlesnake, and if I hadn't been assensing him the entire time I'd have sworn he was a high-level social adept from how he could use not only words but inflection and kinesics to nudge people in the direction he wanted to go.
  Of course, since he wasn't saying a damn thing I hadn't already predicted he would I only noted and mentally jotted down his words with a fraction of my attention. I even closed my eyes to pretend that I was trying to obnoxiously ignore him to cover my doing a brief astral jaunt to check out the rest of my house. All right, he really did come alone.
  My internal clock told me that Gary was just reaching four minutes when he started to wind down from his opening remarks and start the phase of the intervention where he'd hit me for reactions and draw me out into an exchange.
  "... so you see, Alex, booze simply isn't the answer."
  Well, I was hardly going to pass up that perfect a straight line.
  "You're right, Gary." I said, with a loose, drunken smile as I got to my feet. "Alcohol wasn't the answer. Alcohol was the question."
  And then I reached out in a lightning-fast movement, grabbed his outstretched hand, and effortlessly wrestled him onto his knees and started choking him out.
  "And the answer was, "It's a trap.'" I hissed icily into his ears before my sleeper hold finally did its job.
  "Wake up." I said, stone-cold sober and pissed as hell, as I threw a cup of ice water in Gary's face.
  I'd searched him for weapons or other inconvenient gizmos, shut off his commlink, and even used a cyberware scanner to make sure he didn't have any inconvenient headware recorders. He still had his implanted simrig from back when he'd been a simsense star himself, but those didn't actually record the storage in an onboard unit but instead transmitted it in real-time to the studio's systems. So for as long as I had his commlink shut off and he didn't have implanted headware storage, there would be no unwanted record of this. And while I'd been kind enough to give him a chair, I also had his arms manacled to a ceiling post. Those manacles were rated to hold a struggling troll, so I had no fear of him breaking loose. And the padded lining would keep any suspicious ligature marks from showing up.
  Look, if you're actually wondering who the heck sells troll-rated manacles with padded comfort linings and why, then clearly you've never been in LA. Even Cat thought some of those sex shops were tacky.
  "Alex, what are you doing?" Gary asked me reasonably, as he earnestly tried to regain control of the conversation.
  "You've done action sims all the way from Dog Soldiers to Money Lane and you can't recognize the scene?" I bared my teeth at him without smiling. "It's the basement interrogation trope, of course. So, which version of this old classic is your favorite? Sledgehammer to the knee? Pliers to the fingers? Or should I just beat you with the gun butt?" I said, twirling the Predator in my hand.
  "I understand it's been a traumatic time for you, and that you're not entirely sober right now-" he began.
  "I only sipped enough to make my breath smell, you idiot." I glared at him. "Stage-managing and props. An unshaven man holding a half-empty whisky bottle and with booze breath is obviously a hopeless drunk, no need to actually check. You're CEO of the greatest PR and media manipulation machine in the world, I need to give you a clinic?"
  "You set all this up from the beginning?" Gary replied. "Just to get me here?"
  "I just said that." I agreed matter-of-factly.
  "But... it doesn't make sense." he said. "If you rationally planned this - I'm the CEO of a AAA megacorporation, for God's sake! Kidnapping me is worth an Omega Order!"
  "And what was kidnapping Cat worth?" I retorted. "Clearly much less."
  "That was one of our rivals!" Gary said. "Look, part of what I was bringing you tonight was that we may have had a break in the case-"
  "I was 'overlooking' the prior clues and visibly ready to abandon trying at all, so you were going to last-ditch prod me with whatever latest set of breadcrumbs your image team could synthesize, right?" I said. "Because in the category of 'obvious stage cues', I was clearly being primed to go off on a rampage of revenge towards whatever corp you were willing to hang Cat's kidnapping on. The onetime man of action trying to leave behind his life of violence, the beautiful young wife he doted upon, the tragic separation, the dramatic lock-and-load montage as he goes back to the life of violence and crime he'd originally fled from to save his loved one? Just from your own personal filmography alone, that particular action sim's been done at least three times."
  "What even makes you entertain such an absurd notion?" Gary said. "Catherine was-"
  "Taken out by Horizon shortly after she showed up for work that morning, and everything with the car and the 'extraction' was a Potemkin village for me to wander through." I said flatly.
  "I don't know who's been filling your head with lies, but-"
  "Horizon Internal Persona." I cut him off.
  "I don't follow." Gary replied soberly, his face going taut.
  I smiled at him. "Cat and I had our commlinks set up so that we each had access to the other's HIP activity logs, did you know that? It was a thing we joked about, some of the silly crap that would get you upvoted or downvoted as you walked through a normal workday. And for everything else that your data team so assiduously faked up around the event - although you slipped up on a few details there, too, which is part of what put me onto you in the first place - you didn't think to tap the Internal Persona system. Probably because it was such a new program that people were still getting used to all the implications." I smiled coldly. "Such as the fact that if you can access someone's HIP notifications, you know everyone else who bothered to note their presence and when." Without access to his own AR devices I had to hold up my commlink's physical screen for Gary to see. "And look right there. The day she got 'extracted', 0754 hours. 1 upvote for 'Brightening the workplace' from Daniel Sykes. You know who he is?"
  "Not without my commlink." Gary said.
  "The receptionist at the Singularity office where Catherine worked." I said. "He upvotes her every morning, just like several other people do,.. I helpfully highlighted their names and times on the list as well, see right there? It's what your statistical trackers on the HIP project have probably already nicknamed 'the sexy elf effect', where good-looking people get upvoted by casual passers-by in the hallway just for being hot. You'll probably need to patch that out in the next version. So we know as a fact, from Horizon's own records, that Cat not only made it to work that morning but that her progress through the building can be roughly tracked right from the front desk to this last entry here. That's Tam's appointments secretary. 1 upvote for Cat, 0911 hours, 'Swapped some fun gossip'. And then boom, nothing. From the moment she walked into her boss' office, my wife drops right off the grid."
  "Shit." Gary swore.
  "But that wasn't your only mistake." I said. "The first one I spotted before Tam was even done talking in my hotel room. It wasn't your only one, but it was the big one. Whatever team of scriptwriters put together your kidnap scenario clearly hadn't involved a mage, because you can't cast a spell on someone through a tinted windshield. You need a clear line of sight-" I stopped and looked closer at Gary's subliminal kinesics. "That wasn't a mistake, was it? That was a deliberate plot hole you were going to 'discover' later, when Horizon 'found out' that what they'd thought was a kidnapping was actually a defection, wasn't it? That she'd allegedly voluntarily self-extracted, sold you out to a new corp?" I sighed. "No wonder you wanted me to charge off and try to 'rescue' her so badly. I wouldn't be the action hero, I'd be the victim. The poor tragic sap who gotten himself trying to save a wife who had unknown to anyone until it was too late had betrayed him all along. And Horizon Corporation, of course."
  "Oh, we were going to piss on your grave a little too." Gary said matter-of-factly. "Admittedly the first draft might have been what you said, but that Jane side-piece had already shown up by then so our script needed to allow for her presence. So your wife would have been driven to her treason by your infidelity, a sad case of a misguided woman driven bitter by the stresses of a celebrity marriage and a husband who'd traded his passion for glory. But that was just to explain Jane's intrusion into our narrative. You're the one who ruined your chance to be the tragically fallen paladin." Gary shook his head snidely. "Should've kept it in your pants, Crackshot."
  "For the record, you do know that nothing happened with Jane that Cat not only participated in but enthusiastically instigated, right?" I corrected him.
  "Of course we do, but what do the facts ever have to do with the messaging?" Gary said. "You do remember what city we live in, right?"
  "But what I don't get is why." I replied. "Why set this up? We just worked out the script for your latest drama, but who's the audience? And what's the messaging trying to push?"
  "In the category of classic dialogue, here's one - why should I tell you?" he threw back.
  "Gary, you're a smart enough man to realize that I would not have risked manhandling you like this if I had thought of any other way to guarantee that I'd get my answers. I mean, I could have tried for Tam, or one of your senior staff, or maybe someone else... but I'd only get one shot at this, and they might not have had the answers I wanted. Compartmentalization, and all. You're the one person in Horizon guaranteed to know the big picture, so, here you are." I waggled the gun.
  "You did hear 'Omega Order' earlier, yes?" Gary replied invincibly.
  "Gary, have you forgotten that your entire scenario was intended to head-fake me into charging off and trying to take on some megacorp single-handed and to nigh-inevitably get splatted like a bug in the process? That the entire point of your gaslighting was to spin me up into a state of mind where the self-preservation lobe of my brain was having a really shaky grip on things?" I smiled at him. "Congratulations, you've won! Enjoy your victory, because here's your prize!" I said, bringing the sights up to line on his left kneecap.
  "Wait!" he cried. "I'm not going to babble all my plans to you like some children's cartoon villain, but you do raise the valid point that I want to actually leave this basement. Can we negotiate?"
  "Uh, stalling won't work either." I said. "Or are you not aware that you entered an electromagnetic dead zone the instant the door closed behind you? One of the things I've been doing to keep busy the past few days is DIY home improvements. You know that RF-blocking paint they use in high-security zones to keep unauthorized commlinks from being able to transmit outside secure buildings?" I looked up and around. "Walls, floor, and ceiling. But since your litle manipulation run tonight would have to be off the books, the odds were that you'd go dark even to your own security detail. I'm sure they're waiting outside to give you a ride home, but you didn't want any of them even possibly overhearing this conversation, did you? So even if I missed an alert transmitter on you somewhere, it won't matter. They'll be waiting out there for hours if need be, just as I'm certain you ordered them to do." I smiled. "That's why I let you have a few minutes to bore me when you first got here. I was waiting to see if you had an active transmitter or not. If you had, I'd have had to go for a much more hectic plan B." I nodded. "But when the fast-reaction team wasn't booting my door shortly after you'd entered the dead zone, I knew I didn't need it."
  "If you premeditated that much, then you're not in a berserk enough mood to be undeterred by an Omega Order." Gary said.
  "Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano's edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man." I quoted from 'Firefly'. "How's the lava looking, Gary? Can you feel the heat on your cheek?" I bared my teeth again. "I mean, what you just said is a logical conclusion, but are you certain enough of your logic to bet your life on it and it alone? Do remember that you've already conspicuously failed to guess which way the frog will jump at least once, because that's why you're chained to a post right now."
  "You're offering to let me go if I explain myself? Alex my boy, the sales pitch has to be plausible." Gary said. "No, I'm a dead man and I know it. So, I might as well die frustrating my murderer a little more."
  "But you don't know it." I said. "Oh, you're thinking it, yes. And you're definitely not happy about it. The prospect positively fills your mind right now, I'm sure." I grinned cruelly. "But are you telling me that you don't have any faith in your ability to talk your way out of this, Gary? Not even the tiniest bit? It took me only this short a time to reduce you to learned helplessness?" I shook my head in an elaborate display of puzzlement. "More than any other product, Horizon sells hope. You've made an entire AAA conglomerate out of it. You can pull it out of nowhere, spin it up and package it pretty, and keep people waiting for that pie in the sky better than even the Big A could ever dream of doing. So you're really going to tell me that I could bring you down to having no hope for yourself? So quickly and so easily?"
  "You're a very surprising man, Alex." Gary tried flattering me. "I've entirely underestimated your potential value to the corporation if you've been able to put together that many pieces on your own."
  "That's why you did it!" I burst out, legitimately shocked for the first time since this confrontation you started. "Pieces! Cat's info sortilege!" I swore viciously. "I couldn't get past the question of why the hell you'd risk this whole elaborate mindgame with us, even if you're a cocky SOB who thinks he can never lose a mindgame. Even if you wanted to cut her brain apart a thin slice at a time - even if she was already dead, and don't forget that dispelling that horrible possibility for me will be an absolute necessity if you want to leave this basement alive tonight-" I hissed at him in a voice from the grave before switching back to a more normal tone. "it's not as if she's the only technomancer you potentially had access to. Much easier to set up and vanish some poor SOB who'd just walked in the door." I slumped my shoulders. "But it was Cat's unique new talent for information analysis, wasn't it? She was trying to follow the trail of bread crumbs back to whichever new player had entered the PR game, the one that was trying to sour the future Emergence instead of sweetening it."
  "God damn it." Gary Cline swore softly, passionately.
  "And that trail led right back to you, didn't it Gary." I didn't ask him. "And this is why you burned her and tried to set me to burn myself, with an entire big-budget blockbuster drama in real life all hyped up around it. Your dirtiest secret was about to leak, and so you needed to drown out the truth with the biggest Hollywood lie you could think of."
  "So you've figured it all out." Gary spat venomously. "Congratulations on your victory, so what's your prize?"
  "You confirm my suspicions, and then you explain whatever plot you had running that Cat was about to uncover, of course." I said. "And before you ask the obvious question, we both know that my having gotten this far means I'm a dead man walking the instant Horizon knows. If I let you leave this basement alive, you'll order me obliterated from the face of the Earth the instant you reach a working commlink. If I bury you here, your security detail notices you missing and the resulting Omega Order does it for you." I analyzed. "And even if I walked right out of here and into a TV studio, who would believe me? I've got no proof, and I'm a crazy grieving drunken meathead of an Urban Brawl player up against the greatest PR machine in existence. I wouldn't make it as high up the believability charts as a conspiracy theorist on public access broadcasting at 3am." I sighed. "Indulge your complacency for once, Gary. Just get out that good, old-fashioned villain speech. When are you ever going to have another chance of so thoroughly gloating? It's no fun talking about it just to the other people who were part of the planning team." I sat down and leaned back in a folding chair facing his own. "Have fun, G-Man!"
  "You know what? Why not? Why shouldn't I?" Gary laughed happily, his body relaxing as he saw finally the humor of the situation. "If you're going to let me live then I get to really enjoy myself. And if you're going to kill me, then I'd definitely want the best death scene I could get!"
  "It's an actor's dream." I agreed. "The stage is yours, Gary. Knock 'em dead."
  And so I sat and patiently listened to Gary explain the background of the whole thing. How my deductions of what Cat had found and what emergency action Horizon had taken in response were indeed accurate. How their script had been for me to die heroically trying to shadowrun my wife away from EvilMcKidnapCorp, and then for it to be tragically revealed afterwards that she'd been a corporate traitor and that I'd died for nothing. People would sympathize with me, revile her, and then not be curious afterwards. I'd be a name on a wall at the Bolts' stadium and perhaps the inspiration for a charity memorial fund for something or other, she'd be a corporate unperson, and nobody would ever know that she'd started to uncover Horizon's greatest treachery about the Emergence.
  When technomancers had originally become known to Horizon corp shortly after the Crash 2.0, their highest-end team of social engineers and planners had soon enough worked out a series of possibilities, ranging from best case to worst case.
  Alpha had been those future scenarios where the public reveal of technomancers could be handled in such a way that they were not regarded as figures of fear or division at all. To where technomancy would be no more remarkable than any other form of specialized genius, whether intellectual or artistic. It was of course by far the most unrealistically best-case set of conditions, but that's why it was part of a spectrum.
  Bravo had been the more realistic yet still relatively cheerful set of scenarios where technomancers would receive no more hatred, fear, or discrimination than the common metatypes or Awakened practitioners already did. So even if people on the level of Humanis would still be shits about it, technomancers could still live freely without any great fear of official discrimination or widespread ostracization.
  Charlie is where things started to take a turn for the depressing. Those were scenarios where technomancers would face nontrivial social and legal handicaps simply for being what they are. The registration and licensing laws for Awakened practitioners were already borderline obnoxious in the harsher jurisdictions, but in the Charlie scenarios they'd be the best that technomancers could hope for. Being free to live their own lives, go their own way, would be an effective impossibility - technomancers would need government or corporate protection, with the obligations and limits that brought, to live any real life at all.
  Delta was where the dystopian nightmares really got started. That was 'technomancers are unpeople' territory, where they lost all legal rights and were at best treated like the SINless. Or worse, like SINless of significant exploitable economic value. Starvation at best, outright slavery more likely. A Yomi Island for technomancers, covering the world.
  Epsilon was of course the absolute worst-case scenario. Genocide.
  Originally Horizon had been committed to Beta with a 'It would be nice if we could get it, but it would also be nice if we had a magic wish-granting pony' attitude towards Alpha. That was their original intention when Cat and I had first showed up and signed on, and what Horizon had been gradually working towards with a projected public Emergence date somewhere in mid-2070. And Cat and I would have been entirely glad to be a part of that effort. It was everything that we'd been hoping for when we went to Horizon in the first place.
  But the problem had come when Submersion had started to be discovered. Cat wasn't the first technomancer known to Horizon to have submerged, but she'd still been one of the earlier ones. That was incidentally why Singularity hadn't originally called me when Cat had gone under - Tam Reyes had known what was really going on, so he'd been confident that she'd wake up by that afternoon. But even before Cat's own talent of info sortilege had been discovered, other advanced technomancer talents were already starting to be charted. And several of them, the technique known as 'the Archive' in particular, had changed the entire strategic picture as far as Horizon was concerned.
  The Submersion technique that they had labelled 'The Archive' let a technomancer dive incredibly deep into the 'Resonance Realms' and eventually come back out with essentially any piece of data that had ever been recorded in the Matrix at one time, whether the original storage media still physically existed or not. It was arduous and not at all certain of success - the nearest analogy was a magical initiate's deep metaplanar quest to find the true name of a spirit or some other ancient lost piece of lore at the heart of the Citadel - but assuming sufficient will, skill, and opportunity to try, as well as at least some knowledge of what you sought in the first place, then it was entirely possible literally no secret that the Matrix had ever held was beyond the reach of a technomancer. They were still hardly certain of that even yet, but just the possibility alone had caused Horizon to re-evaluate the entire technomancer picture.
  Because in a world where The Archive was potentially accessible and a world where each megacorporation had essentially equal access to technomancers - Alpha or Bravo - then Horizon was screwed. As the smallest of the megas, a level playing field in this new world of 'we might not be able to keep any deep secrets' meant that Horizon lost, for their entire social engineering long game - their entire edge that let them compete against the remainder of the Big Ten at all - required that nobody publicly know their true objective and the secret methods by which they were trying to achieve it.
  Horizon Corporation had been founded by the Horizon Group thinktank of social engineers and media experts in the early 2060s simply to try and find a way to clean up Los Angeles. A quirk of applied social statistical engineering, a vague and partial version of what Isaac Asimov would have called 'psychohistory', had been discovered by them as they'd conducted their initial researches. Oh, it wouldn't do Asimov's dream of letting you predict and manipulate the futures of empires over centuries (spoiler alert, Dr. Asimov - chaos theory, it's a thing), but it was vastly more efficient than all prior known techniques at accurately gauging the attitudes of large populations and why they held them in the short term. For all the billions of nuyen that statisticians and social scientists had poured into refining the art almost since the first widespread customer survey that had accurately predicted the 1916 Presidential Election, polling was still as much art as science. It was like trying to read the future in a fogged-up mirror. But Horizon had discovered a method by which they could wipe at least some of the fog off the glass. Right now the advanced cybernetics teams were trying to refine their super-polling statistical sampling methods into an active mega-database, a hoped-for electronic 'Consensus' that could give Horizon a finger not just on the one pulse they were measuring but on many simultaneous pulses at once and how they all interacted with each other in near-real time, but that trailed off into realms of higher mathematics Gary couldn't begin to understand himself so he just summarized the layman's version his people had given him.
  But the Consensus, the statistical methods, had the same limitation any other psychological testing did - if the test subjects knew what you were testing and how, the results were corrupted. And so once the Archive and other technomancer talents existed, Horizon abandoned all hope for Alpha and Bravo and chose their greater good over everyone else's.
  Horizon was currently building up to a modified case Charlie, one where technomancers would face serious pressures simply for existing without it actually going to Delta or Epsilon levels. Not that it wasn't a measure of how callous and cold-blooded this 'Dawkins Group' thinktank within Horizon had been, that ultimately their commendation to go for Charlie wasn't based on morality but on the pragmatic calculations that a Delta or Epsilon Emergence would require sufficient social changes as to seriously crimp the bottom line elsewhere. Outright pogroms and concentration camps just ruined the whole economic picture and regional stability for everyone - a brief look at the history leading up to the Great Ghost Dance or the Euro Wars told anyone that.
  The modified case Charlie they were aiming at was one where the more ruthless megacorps would be lured into the deeper, blacker end of technomancer research - vivisection, tests to destruction, the usual - and eventually be publicly exposed as such. The public Emergence would occur under conditions of fear and panic against technomancers that Horizon would then publicly act to try and dispel, after having deliberately held back enough to let it build up momentum in the first place. Ultimately they would either succeed in stopping the immediate panic or they would not.
  If they succeeded, the state of affairs would be a Charlie scenario where Horizon looked like the only megacorp willing to go out on a limb for technomancers, while the others were either indifferent or outright monstrous. Horizon would thus receive the disproportionate share of technomancer recruitment, giving them the best chance to sustain the viability of their Consensus and related techniques in a world full of technomancers. And if they failed to quell it? Then the world would be in a Delta scenario, which would make it even easier for Horizon to 'win' the technomancer recruitment game simply by offering any alternative marginally superior to all the others. Heads Horizon won, and tails technomancers lost. And all the while Horizon would look like the good guys, because no one would ever know that they'd had a chance to head things off before they even started - and deliberately tanked on it for their own long-term benefit.
  Which is why Cat had had to be vanished, and I had to be set up before I could do anything that would publicly cast doubt on that vanishing. Because she'd discovered that the 'new player' in the Emergence came had also been Horizon, undercutting its own more obvious efforts towards Bravo with more subtle yet pervasive undercurrents building towards Charlie precisely to set up the 'It looked like Horizon tried their best but didn't quite pull it off, but they're still your best hope of safety'. Like some demented X-Men What If? where it was revealed that Professor Xavier had secretly found a genuine chance of birthing a mutant/human peace in the 70s but had passed on it because it meant mutants would never need his school to be safe, and thus he'd never have his private army. Not that I think they ever actually wrote that comic, but I'm sure somebody had made it a fanfic somewhere...
  "And that is your assurance that she's still alive. After all, she was being groomed to be one of our chief public faces of technomancers for the original Bravo scenario." Gary explained. "So we couldn't kill her ourselves, because her body has to be found. Just vanishing her leaves the suspicion stuck to us, at least in the minds of those conspiracy theorists who are precisely the people we're trying to set up to believe the modified Charlie and indirectly fix it in the minds of the general community for us."
  "So you sold her to MCT while making them believe it was an internal betrayal instead of officially sanctioned at the highest levels of Horizon." I replied icily. "And so after MCT finishes using her up as a lab specimen, the later dramatic revelations of their crimes against humanity simply adds her to the casualty list."
  "While our spinning it as her self-extracting leaves us off the hook entirely." Gary agreed. "After all, we don't want future technomancers asking questions like 'Why should we seek sanctuary at Horizon if they can't protect us?', but a scenario where she trusted MCT to give her a better deal and they rammed needles into her brain instead only sells our desired message even harder."
  "Does MCT have the slightest idea that you're setting them up?" I probed.
  "Are you kidding?" Gary scoffed ."It's MCT, they've always substituted 'brutal and methodical' for 'genuinely intelligent'. This is why we didn't pick NeoNET for the patsy, despite them having gone in the hardest for the worst sort of mad science experimentation. Richard Villiers is an outright legend at corporate intrigue, and Celedyr is a Great Dragon. But the executive suites at Mitsuhama are far less famous for subtlety."
  "Do you think they've killed her yet?" I asked softly.
  "Doubtful." Gary answered calmly. "She's an advanced, Submerged technomancer who has over a year of Horizon's research into the best training and development techniques for technomancy in her head. They won't carve her up until they've finished draining her of everything she knows first. As I said, brutal and methodical."
  "Okay, I think we've covered just about everything." I said. "The one thing I still don't understand is how the hell you think this way at all."
  "What way?" Gary replied.
  "You say you're trying to just make the world a better place. You are trying to make the world a better place. If Horizon was just playing the 'mo' money' game like the other nine are, you'd have done a lot of shit differently underneath even if you kept playing to the same surface image. And you're not." I shook my head. "So how do you have so little damn empathy for how you go about it? Do you not understand that a decent world to live in is built out of basic human decency?"
  "But that's precisely what we're trying to maximize!" Gary said. "Our personal systems, our indirect behavioral modification techs, our statistical modeling and memetic influencing, it's all to encourage things like cooperation, charity, and kindness-" Gary stopped, and blinked. "And then we-" he trailed off again, his head starting to shake from side to side. "What the hell did I just tell you?"
  "My first answer would be, 'a lot'." I mocked him mercilessly.
  "But... the Consensus! The long-range plan! The primary goal!" he raged. "What the hell was I thinking?"
  "It finally wore off, then?" I looked up and spoke to the person who'd been standing out of Gary's view in the corner directly behind him since just before he'd woken up.
  "Even my endurance has limits, Alex." Jane said, pacing forward like a lithe tigress.
  "What the hell?" Gary said, turning to look at her in shock.
  "Hi Gary!" she mocked him in a sarcastic falsetto. "I'm the 'side-piece'!" Her voice lowered as she continued in a voice that could have raised frostbite on a fire elemental. "And tonight's lesson has been 'How the use of mind-control magic in clandestine operations really works.'."
  "Complacency." I followed right on the beat, as Gary's head swiveled like a spectator at a table-tennis match to come back to me. "And the Control Emotions spell. I got you spun up with good old-fashioned talk no jutsu, and then she massively reinforced your feeling of being the one really in control of the situation and held it there at the opportune moment. And so you sang about Horizon's deepest secrets like a canary, because during the relevant moment you couldn't remember all the reasons - all the fearful, suspicious reasons - that you shouldn't have."
  "You're both dead." Gary spat. "You haven't won, you've only doubled down on nothing! A minor advertising exec, or a mage, or whoever the hell she is - she's no more useful for going up against our PR machine than you are! And that's assuming you even live to cross the street, whether you kill me right now or not!"
  "Oh we'll be fine, Gary." I said. "You're going to stay the night, and tomorrow morning you're going to tell everyone that everything's fine. So no one will be coming after us, because no one knows anything ever went wrong tonight."
  "Why would I possibly help you hide any of this?" Gary said.
  "Did you know that my father was once a rather influential figure in Tir Tairngire, Mr. Cline?" Jane said icily. "Because he was. I'm not really a fan of the place myself, but I still have connections there." With an arrogant flourish she reached into her pocket and smoothly drew a small ampoule filled with a clear golden liquid. "Connections who can get me things like this."
  "Laes." Gary breathed. "That drug the elves came up with-"
  "-to neuralyze border-crossers who saw the wrong thing but they couldn't afford to just execute." I said. "Selectively targets the hippocampus to inhibit the transition from short-term to long-term memory in a way that even a hardcore alcohol bender can't manage. We put this in your arm and you don't remember anything that's happened for the last several hours. Not even a magical mind probe could get it out of you later, because the long-term memories will have never biochemically 'fixed' in your brain cells in the first place. And then we just pour some booze down your throat-"
  "Well, not exactly down your throat." Jane corrected me with a nasty smirk. "But it will get to the same place in the end."
  "And you leave here tomorrow morning with not the slightest idea this interrogation ever happened, or that she was ever here. You just remember that you and I ended up drinking into the wee hours of the morning while you slowly and laboriously talked me into it. And then you walk away cursing your hangover but resting assured that it was entirely worth it. No more of your pawn going off-script and wallowing in depression, no more risk of suicide... no, I'm going to finally do what I'm supposed to do. Go charge off after the bread crumbs you laid for me, the ones I was supposed to follow to my death."
  "You'll never get away with this." Gary said, shocked. "You'll be noticed- traced-"
  "Even you don't get a blood test every day." I said. "And you would not believe how fast traces of this stuff decays in the bloodstream."
  "The Tir Peace Force and Telestrian Industries spent a great deal of money refining the initial research." Jane said. "Would you roll up his sleeve, please?" she smiled triumphantly at me.
  "I would be honored to, my lady." I smiled back at her, and did so while she deftly swabbed his arm, loaded the airhypo, and jabbed it lightly into his biceps.
  "There we go." she cooed at him nastily. "Now just a few tiny dabs of magic, and there won't be a detectible trace on you even in the astral when you leave here tomorrow. But there will still be more than enough post-hypnotic suggestions that all you'll know in the morning is the script Alex already outlined for you."
  "We-" Gary slurred as the drug started to take hold. "We only wanted- what was- the best... for..." he trailed off as the laes took effect and he fell unconscious.
  Jane's brow furrowed with sweat as she started casting more spells, to both check on the progress of the memory erasure and reinforce the suggestions.
  "Are you all right?" I asked her, noticing her start to strain.
  "Drain." she acknowledged. "I did a lot of sustained casting tonight. But it's just a headache, I'll be fine after a nap."
  "I just..." I said softly, appalled down to the bottom of my shoes. "He honestly thought it was okay to betray and murder his own trusted employees just because it served a 'Greater Good'." I spat. "He didn't even begin to see the contradiction!"
  "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." Jane quoted. "C.S. Lewis."
  "Horizon's like some goddamn demented cargo cult of 'goodness'." I agreed vehemently. "Like the crazy-ass HIP system on a global scale. If we use Skinner Box type crap to make everybody act nice, then the world will really be nice! But that's not how it works!" I said. "You can't just copy the outward forms of decent behavior and expect that to magically make the world a better place on the inside! That's like the Pacific jungle tribesmen believing that if they built enough idols imitating World War II airstrips, then the airplanes would come back!"
  "I know." Jane put a comforting hand on my shoulder. "I-" she sighed. "It would have been nice if one of the megacorps had actually realized they needed to genuinely try and be better people. Instead, we find out that while they might have honestly believed that's what they were doing..." she trailed off, at a loss for words.
  "... they were just the blind trying to morally uplift the blind." I said. "And so they fell for the most horrible belief of them all - the delusion that you could make people better." I said passionately, rolling fully into the 'Firefly' quotes for the second time tonight. "And I do not hold to that. So no more holding back." I finished resolutely. "I aim to misbehave."
  Author's Note: And this, my friends, is how you abduct and interrogate the CEO of a AAA megacorporation and get away with it scott-free.
  And you just wanted Alex to rampage and kill people in a righteous John Wick fury. Which, sure, that's always fun, and I do believe we're just about to get around to doing that. But first, I wanted to try something new.
  BTW, the dark secret of Horizon plot that I just laid down here? This shit is like... at least 75% canon, and the other 25% is me filling in blank spots and interpolating, not actually changing any canon. The Consensus really did go that far off-course eventually, as mentioned by commenters earlier in thread, and the 'Twilight Horizon' arc really did reveal that Horizon had deliberately punted on trying to use its PR to ensure genuine equal rights for technomancers, instead preferring 'we did a good try but failed' to make other places suck hard and Horizon extraterritorial turf one of the very few nations where technomancers got a fair deal... with the express goal of trying to hog the lion's share of technomancers by manipulating them to self-select for Horizon.
  As for all the Firefly quotes, there are some temptations a man just cannot resist. And won't even try to. *g*
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  Content Warning: Mentions of World War II history. The bad parts.
  As Awakened practitioners, neither Jane or I could have even the lightest cyberware implantation without seriously inconveniencing our magic at best. But the latest generation of 'trode headbands were slim, lightweight, and almost as easy to slide on and off as a pair of sunglasses. They'd really overcome all that cumbersome fitting around and getting it stuck exactly on your head and calibrations and all in the past several years. Give it another few years and they'd probably make them little discs you could just glue to your temples and sync to your PAN like Bluetooth earbuds used to.
  Which is how both of us were able to enter full-VR Matrix space for the meeting. The 'JackPoint' VPN had been founded and was still administered by Fastjack, one of the very first deckers to enter the shadows and still a street legend to this day to this very day. It had started out as just a private chat forum for him and some friends and acquaintances after he'd left the old Shadowland network following the death in the Crash 2.0 of his old friend Captain Chaos, the chief sysop of Shadowland Seattle and one of the founders of Shadowland. And over the next several years JackPoint had expanded from there to perhaps the most select and exclusive of the various online runner havens.
  Now it wasn't necessarily true that everybody who was anybody was here. There were top-tier runners who were peers to most JackPointers who'd never gotten in the door simply because they didn't know any other members, or had no interest, or had been refused membership for conspicuous assholery. But if you got an invite to JackPoint then that meant you had already been acknowledged by several of the very top shadowrunners in the world as having at least the potential to make a prime runner one day with the right seasoning. Even the relative newbies on the forum were still people with a respectable track record in the biz and a great deal of talent, and the more senior members one and all prime runners whose names were known from Seattle to the South Indian Ocean. Pistons and Fatima were considered two of the very top shadowrunners in Seattle and with damn good street rep in several other hotspots as well, and by JackPoint standards they were merely one of the gang.
  But they were both JackPoint members, as was Frosty, and when that many regulars agreed you had something important to share then they were allowed to invite a guest. Which is how I'd ended up here, 'wearing' a generic off-the-rack piece of digital avatar clip art that was the closest in appearance to my old runner persona and attending a virtualspace meeting with them and several other people I didn't know in one of the Point's secure Matrix meeting rooms.
  "And that's their master plan." I finished my presentation, dismissing the tri-D display I'd been using to display supporting evidence. "Straight from the horse's ass's mouth."
  The anime-gorgeous figure in stylized steampunk power armor that was Pistons' digital avatar ratcheted her jaw back into place and stared at me as if I'd grown a second head. "You two kidnapped the CEO of Horizon, then wrung him dry like a used bar rag, and picked up a drekload of "kill yourself before reading" level Ultra material that could potentially destroy his own corp if it ever went public... and all without leaving a single scratch on him? He doesn't even remember it happened, and Horizon is still entirely clueless?" She sputtered almost like a leaky hose for several seconds before regaining human speech. "Seriously, did that just happen, guys? I'm not chipping a bad action sim right now?"
  Fatima's 'basic ork street sam' avatar - it was obvious to tell that she didn't go full-VR in the Matrix much, it was a generic off-the-rack like mine and not a custom sculpt - affectionately dope-slapped her wife on the back of her helmet. "That's your only outrage? Instead of sharing my own vast personal anguish that we weren't invited? Come on, Wild Man, I thought we were friends!" she whined.
  Frosty's 'I am basically cosplaying as myself' sculpted avatar facepalmed. "Not that I don't love a good ego massage as much as the next woman, but if we could get back on topic...?"
  Smiling Bandit's cartoonishly grinning, bandanna'ed, and serape'd Old West bandito of an avatar turned away from where he'd been raptly staring at the data display. "Cases 'Alpha' through 'Epsilon'. Even by megacorporate standards, that is still... appallingly clinical." he ground out distastefully.
  "Horizon and their own well-deserved reckoning is a topic we will revisit, but you'll understand that my own concerns are more immediate right now." I answered stoically.
  "You are correct, and I apologize." Bandit said compassionately. "A true respect for all life is achieved by first respecting individual lives. What progress have you made on that front?"
  "You know that I started trying to trace Netcat by ritual magic as soon as I'd found out she'd been kidnapped and could get a material link off of her hairbrush, even before we'd managed to put the arm on Cline." Frosty replied. "The problem is that while I'm getting just enough of a response to confirm that she's still alive-"
  "Thank God." Pistons exhaled heavily.
  "But I can't complete the trace. Astral barriers and wards don't necessarily stop a ritual link, but they do make it harder. But the real problem is that she's not only behind a fairly hefty set of them but also that wherever she is, it's got a nasty astral background count, and all of that put together kicks it over the threshold I can penetrate." Frosty finished. "You all know I'm good-"
  "You're the single most powerful magician on JackPoint except for that Harlequin lunatic." Fatima said flatly.
  "Who is out of contact right now, and who would not give a damn even if we did somehow contact him." Frosty enunciated icily, every word coming out like she was slicing chunks off an iron rod. Okay, definitely something personal there but it's not my business unless Jane wants to share. "So we're not getting any further that way."
  "I know magic doesn't work the same way like a Trace program, but you said you get so far and then are blocked before you reach the end, right?" Sounder the smuggler/rigger asked, using another generic avatar like most of the non-deckers in here were. "So did you at least narrow down a region to search?"
  "Astral geography only corresponds one-to-one to meatspace geography if you're in the near - the border zone - of the astral plane." Frosty shook her head in frustration. "Ritual magic links hop up into the deeper astral and then back down to the near astral at the other end, just like a semiballistic goes up to bounce off the ionosphere before coming back down to land. Only in the deep astral it's completely irrational geometry, not a ballistic curve you can plot mathematically. All I can tell you is that she's not dead because the material link is still mystically connected to something. But as far as magic knows 'Cat could be anywhere on Earth."
  "Which is why we hit the streets. Once Gary confirmed that 'Cat had been internally taken and sold by her own corp, and which corp she'd really been sold to, we had enough to start on the other end." I explained. "Because if MCT was buying 'Cat without knowing that her old corp was willingly selling her, then the first obvious question is 'Who was the middleman?'"
  "Exactly. MCT thinks that they bought her in a standard 'involuntary extraction' scenario. But you usually commission those, and unless Horizon somehow has a mole in place as a senior MCT Johnson then they actually didn't. Which means...?" Pistons.
  "Open bounty." Hard Exit, one of the best extraction specialists in the biz and ex-CAS Marine Corps spec-ops and an ex-SWAT hostage rescue team leader, agreed. "'Word on the street is we'll pay hot nuyen for anyone from this lab!'. Which means fixers would know."
  "So we found out which fixer in town had been offering an open bounty for a Singularity researcher from 'Cat's lab, and lo and behold, it's a guy known for doing steady business with MCT. And who had recently closed that bounty."
  "It's sometimes a bit tricky to make a fixer sell out his client." Pistons sighed. "I hope you didn't need to get rough."
  "It was handed over practically gift-wrapped, because the runner who did the job went behind his fixer's back after the pickup and dealt directly with the client. Total rip-off." I snorted.
  "You're joking." Fatima said, aghast. "What was this, the second coming of Green Dreams?"
  "Sometimes even a veteran runner is just a short-sighted greedy shitbag." I eye-rolled. "It was a hobgoblin named Clockwork. A thoroughly sociopathic piece of trash that would have made you ashamed to be an ork." I replied.
  "Drek, I know him." Sounder moaned. "Yeah, he's so twisted that he meets himself coming around corners. I'm not a saint, but if you pay your money then you'll get your ride with no strings attached and no comebacks. And at least my human cargo rides with me willingly."
  "Knew him." I corrected her. "And yeah, he was so greedy and short-sighted he not only burned his fixer and got ratted out in ten seconds thereby, but also didn't spot that the 'co-worker who wanted her out of the way for a promotion' who was delivering 'Cat to him practically gift-wrapped was actually Horizon itself setting MCT up through him. Although I doubt he'd have cared even if he had noticed. But to cut a long story short, we got Clockwork to tell us where and how he'd made the hand-off to MCT and now he's feeding the fish off of Coast Town."
  "I'll turn over a glass for him." Sounder snarked back. "After first emptying it in celebration. So, you're paying my consultant fee because you know the starting point of MCT's pickup team and I know the best routes for moving anything up or down the West Coast?"
  "Exactly." I said. "They made the pickup at this dock in the Port of Los Angeles." I said, opening a new window and highlighting the spot on the map. "Which leaves us with a lot of the Pacific to potentially cover. so I'm hoping you have contacts-"
  "Yeah, good thing that you called in an expert." Sounder interrupted. "'Because I can tell you right now the dock's almost certainly a blind. That pier is part of the dedicated freight terminal where the car carriers pull in to drop off the latest load of imports, and they never handle any other traffic. And while Nissan Explorer and her sister ships all do get back to Japan on the return leg, they are all the literal slow boat to Japan and really not set up for guest quarters. So if I were an MCT high-end op squad then why would I want to spend a week living practically in the bilge when I could just load her on a private jet and be back home eating gourmet sushi after a few hours in a leather bucket seat? There's at least five places within an hours' drive of LA where I could land and fuel a Gulfstream for a trans-Pacific hop where the Customs people wouldn't slow me down at all, especially not with an MCT logo on my tail. And sure, they might have just used the wrong pier to avoid Clockwork knowing what ship, but even a luxury cruise liner would still run into the 'why aren't you just taking a plane? Do you literally have all week to dawdle around?' factor."
  "Fuck." I swore. "So we've got nothing."
  "Maybe not." Sounder continued. "Because Port of LA means Clockwork had to drive across most of the town to get her there and get through all the port security and the Customs barriers to get to that pier, and he wouldn't know that Horizon corpsec was deliberately turning a blind eye to his entire run. There is no way he wouldn't have bitched and moaned with everything he had in him for the client to move the drop point to somewhere safer for him - and I'd actually agree with him there, because who puts up with idiot Johnson ideas unless you absolutely have to."
  "So since he obviously did absolutely have to, then why did MCT insist so much on it being there specifically?" Hard Exit followed along. "You've got an idea?"
  "The thing that everyone forgets about seaports is that the part that touches the water is only half of the operation." Sounder lectured. "The Port of Los Angeles sees over one million metric tons of cargo move through it per day. So once you've gotten that much crap off of the ships, then how do you move it all inland?" He raised a finger and wiggled it, and the virtual display zoomed the map out and swiveled it over. "We'll leave out the wheeled vehicles for right now because MCT wouldn't know the fix was in either. So they wouldn't have risked dragging Clockwork across the city and into the port complex either, not just to do a handoff that could as easily have been done behind any random truck stop. So that means we're looking for a method of transportation that has a fixed terminus at the port, but which isn't a ship. And that means we're looking at..."
  The display came to a halt.
  "The rail yard." I agreed, legitimately impressed by Sounder's feat of deduction. "Perhaps the largest on the Pacific coast, and an endpoint of most of the major trans-continental rail lines. They shipped her out by train."
  "So we're looking for an MCT black site at or near a rail stop you could eventually reach from the Port of LA rail terminus, that's far enough away it's a better idea to take the train than to drive but not so far away that you'd want a plane." Frosty agreed. "Considering that we started from 'anywhere on Earth' to narrow it down this far, that's still major progress. Thank you, Sounder."
  "All part of the service." she accepted amiably.
  "It's still a lot of territory, though." Smiling Bandit said. "Any ideas on narrowing it down further?"
  "I have one." Fatima contributed. "Okay, if this had occurred prior to late summer 2068 then the obvious no-brainer answer for where MCT would have taken Netcat is...?"
  "San Francisco." we all chorused.
  "Home of 'General' Saito's rogue 'Protectorate State' that he and his Japanacorp puppet masters set up after the official Imperial Japanese occupation of the Bay Area ended in 2062." Fatima agreed. "Their own private police state where you could get away with crap that even the people who originally thought up Yomi Island would think was too much. And remember, we're already presuming that MCT has an ongoing Mengele-style project involving technomancers."
  "It's not a presumption." Smiling Bandit corrected her mildly. "We have evidence."
  "At least enough for probable cause, if not enough to convict." Hard Exit contributed.
  "My point is, they lost that city when Saito finally fell just a couple months ago and the Metahuman People's Army and the People's University and the October 25 Alliance-" Fatima continued passionately.
  "And Ares, and NeoNET, and..." Pistons put in mildly.
  "-finally kicked Saito's renegade army back to Japan and put his ass in front of a war crimes tribunal." Fatima continued stolidly.
  "Which means they either had to abandon their whole local operation - and we know it's still in Western North America from the rail yard clue - and are busy working in a hasty-built new setup somewhere, or they saw Saito's fall coming and moved their lab earlier that summer." Sounder analyzed. "You want me to start shaking the trees in San Fran for any rush 'black' shipments that would involve a lot of high-end researchers and imprisoned 'research subjects' then?"
  "The problem there is that the bulk of my time in recent months has been devoted to gathering all of the information I possibly can on megacorporate research in this field, both licit and illicit." Smiling Bandit said. "And while my knowledge is obviously neither complete nor conclusive, I have nothing that even hints at such an evacuation rush by MCT - at least not for a project like this - in the relevant time period."
  "Occam's Razor; despite the obvious convenience of that location during the Saito era, their secret technomancer 'research facility' was still never in San Francisco to begin with." I said. "And yeah, we don't rush out and marry that conclusion right now, but we do brainstorm it. Does it seem likely to anyone?"
  "Oh, it's very likely to me." Fatima agreed. "Because- okay, you all know why I'm deeper into the history of the San Francisco occupation and the Orkland resistance more than the rest of you-"
  "It was all I could do to keep you from running down there to enlist full time." Pistons groaned. "And I didn't mind going down there all those times with you to temp, but we were kinda needed where we were too!"
  "My point is, what isn't common knowledge - unless you were there at the time - is that however draconian Saito's anti-metahuman policies were throughout the Protectorate era, at the very beginning they'd been even worse." Fatima said.
  "Um, what exactly is 'worse' than full apartheid, 24-hour internal passports, and getting beaten half to death in the streets for walking while tusked?" Frosty asked with morbid curiosity.
  "The Final Solution." Fatima chilled the room with her observation. "In the earliest months of the occupation Saito was laying the groundwork for full-on concentration and extermination camps. Ship all the 'undesirables' out of his 'Protectorate' and work the useable ones until they weren't useable, then throw them in the ovens alongside all the ones who were too weak for the labor camps at the getgo. Links! Recht! Links! Recht!" she called the horrible cadence.
  "Don't be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party." I groaned. "But wait, are you saying Saito actually started to build his camps? It wasn't just a wish list?"
  "Built them? He'd actually started to fill at least one of them before his megacorporate masters yanked his leash up tight. Oh, not because of any ethical concerns, but because it would have been a giant waste of money." Fatima sighed. "Much cheaper to just fence all us tusked people out and make us live across the bay where we're still exploitable, but have to pay for our own food and housing and own commute to work. But three guesses who the main dissenting vote was in that discussion, and who had actually been contracted to build the camps?"
  "MCT." Sounder spat. "The same people who were the worst corp during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, especially on Yomi Island."
  "And then the rest of the Japanacorp block takes Saito's toys away from him, and MCT is left with at least one if not several concentration camps that they have no further use for..." I snapped my fingers.
  "Where were these camps?" Sounder asked. "Because if they did the same as the Nazis did and used trains to ship the victims out to them-"
  "The western Mojave, vaguely in the vicinity of Barstow." Fatima answered her. "Nice empty desert, lots of privacy, and has a history of being somewhere that most of the AAAs liked to put remote sites."
  "And in addition to being largely a megacorp town whose main business is logistics, Barstow is also one of the historical junction points on the old Union Pacific railway all the way back to the days of the original trans-continental railroad." Sounder agreed. "It adds up."
  "Ideally placed." Fatima agreed. "And so after the plug was pulled on Endlosung West, and MCT had finished emptying out the now-defunct camps, then what would they do with the real estate? Because megacorps are very much 'waste not, want not'. type people." Fatima glowered. "I don't know, but 'repurpose them as research black sites' is one of the first guesses I'd make."
  "Wait, they massacred the inmates they already had instead of letting them go?" Frosty asked quickly.
  "Nobody ever saw any of them again." Fatima agreed sadly, before her eyes opened in realization. "Of course! The background count!"
  "Massacres, epically concentrated or prolonged metahuman suffering, other atrocities of that scale... they permanently taint the local astral plane." Frosty agreed. "There's a reason that no one even remotely sane tries to assense or project while standing at the old site of Auschwitz or any of the other Nazi death camps. The astral there is so warped that the average mage would be lucky if their brains didn't liquefy and run out their ears from that kind of extreme metaphysical trauma."
  "And you said that wherever Netcat was being kept, it was in an area of a high background count." I followed along.
  "Exactly. Oh, not full-on Auschwitz level, or I'd have heard the echoes of the fallen screaming even through that faint a link." Frosty agreed. "But an old death camp that had massacred its first load of inmates before being closed-out and buried would be just the thing to produce the kind of background count that I caught a whiff of."
  "It's still all speculative, but now that Pistons and I have a small, discrete number of locations to examine it should be relatively short work to confirm whether or not any of those sites is still being used. Especially if transport data turns up any railroad activity to those camps during the relevant time period, as while Barstow and the trans-continental line itself would of course be heavily trafficked I cannot imagine the local spur lines being similar." Smiling Bandit thought out loud.
  "I doubt they'd be either," Sounder agreed.
  "I can't do much to help you plan the op in detail until I know exactly what terrain I'm planning for." Hard Exit chimed in. "But if it actually is one of these places, then I can already tell you that we are in for one cast-iron bitch of an op. It's the middle of a desert, you're wide open all the way to the horizon! It's only in the sims that you get a convenient sandstorm at just the right time to sneak you up to the wire, and even then none of those hack writers have ever actually fought in a sandstorm!" she swore.
  "I have." I moaned with certain mercenary memories. "And it fucking sucks. Given a choice, I'd sooner fight in a basement."
  "With grenade launchers." Hard Exit agreed readily. "So, we can already discuss a general concern for anywhere we'd hit but which would be particularly nasty if it's one of these old camps." She curled her lip. "How do we keep them from killing the hostages before we can secure them? Places like this, they'll have a prearranged plan to flush the site as soon as it looks like they're going to be 'compromised beyond retrieval'." she finished tonelessly.
  "Automated or manual?" I thought out loud.
  "MCT loves automated." Hard Exit agreed. "But even if the automation fails, the guards can still just go down the row of cells and shoot 'em in the head."
  "The encouraging news is that we're not up against full-on zero-zone level security." Pistons said encouragingly. "Because that shit would be practically visible from space, so we'd already know where our site was. Which means we can go for an inside-outside play. We infiltrate and secure the command center before the big guns show themselves on the horizon, then hold that down while they break open the containment area and start loading the evac transport."
  "That play only works if the only destruct switch is in the command center." Hard Exit said. "I've hit these kinds of black labs before. There'll be one in the command center, yes. But there'll at least one more in local cell block control. And if they're really fucking paranoid, then the middle-rank researchers or guards are allowed to decide on their own initiative if it's time to do an 'emergency close-out' instead of waiting for a commander to pull a switch and they've all still got their gunbelts."
  Smiling Bandit sighed. "Even in the reasonable presumption that our decking team can obtain control of the local host systems very early in the operation, if they are sufficiently decentralized then-" he trailed off. "Options are limited."
  Hard Exit sighed. "You know the old joke about walking uphill to school both ways? Hostage situations are the absolute worst, because they're the one tactical situation where it's downhill both ways. They start out poor and exponentially decay from there, because the longer a stand-off drags out the less chance the hostage-takers have of ever escaping alive. And they know it, which is why the hostages have less and less chance of escaping either."
  "We have to try." Frosty said before I could say anything.
  "I agree." Hard Exit nodded. "You don't leave your own behind, not ever. But..." she sighed. "Maybe we can find an exploit once we have a specific site to plan for, not just a set of general observations. But right now, we're waiting on finding the site."
  "Bandit and I will get to work on it right away." Pistons agreed. "And when the results are in, then we'll meet up back here. Until then, everybody get some rest."
  "Everybody who's being paid, your retainers will include the upcoming on-call period. Everyone please be ready to move on short notice and don't get tangled up in any other business." I said professionally, standing up.
  "We'll get her back, Wild Man." Fatima said compassionately.
  "We did the impossible run once before." Pistons backed her up. "And we'll do it again."
  "Oh, this story I just have to hear sometime." Hard Exit tried to distract me. "All right, everyone, Pistons already called the pro play. Except for the deckers, we all pop our plugs and go take care of meatspace maintenance. And we'll all be ready to saddle up when we have the next step."
  With a general chorus of agreement, the meeting adjourned.
  "Fuck!" I sobbed helplessly into Jane's side as she cradled me in her arms. We were both sitting side-by-side on one of the futons in the safehouse. I'd barely been able to keep it together long enough to log off after hearing Hard Exit's cold professional appraisal of exactly how unlikely a successful rescue was from a corporate black site with those kinds of paranoid prisoner-destruct rigs.
  "Alex." she said softly, her chin tucked on top of my head. "We'll get her back."
  "It's my fault she's gone in the first place." I cursed. "Me and my brilliant idea to sell out to Horizon!"
  She didn't bother trying to argue the flaws in that logic, but just let me sob in silence for a minute or two. "My father is one of the most ancient and powerful mages in the world. And he's not an easy man to get to know, to put it mildly. I didn't even meet him until I was in my mid-twenties, and I didn't even know he was my father until several years after that."
  I wasn't so lost in grief that I couldn't still realize that Frosty was needing to make a great effort to actually talk about her past at all, and that she wouldn't be doing so unless she'd felt a gravely compelling need. So I choked back the obvious stupid things I could say and simply pulled away far enough to listen attentively instead of wallow.
  She met my silent nod to continue with a thankful nod of her own, and did. "My power focus was a gift from an old friend of my father's when I was a young woman." she began, holding up her right hand to display the elaborate orichalcum ring shaped like a twisting dragon prominent on her finger. "I'd only met him that one time. I'd been too ignorant, too cynically all-knowing in the way only an overgrown adolescent could be, to even understand what he was trying to offer or to realize understand that trusting him would have been one of the wiser decisions I could have made. No, I was barely into college and I thought I knew everything, so I told him to go take a flying leap. I didn't need anyone, and I could make my own way in life. So he respected my wishes and left, and I never saw him again. And when I was finally old enough to realize who he'd been and the sheer enormity of what I'd been offered..." Frosty wiped away a tear of her own. "By the time we had any chance to reconnect at all he'd been murdered, and I never had the chance to apologize to him. They never even found his killers."
  I squeezed her hand in silent reassurance, and waited for her to continue at her own pace.
  "But by the time he'd been killed, I'd already received a second chance." She chuckled sadly. "And it started with me being 'involuntarily extracted', would you believe? I'd been a girl in an orphanage who'd struggled to pay her own way through college, and had gotten a job as a secretary with a minor local corporation. In-between my hanging out with a local gang." She rolled her eyes. "Go ahead and laugh, I certainly did in hindsight."
  "Your second chance was...?" I rescued her dignity with the question.
  "At developing my true potential." she said. "Because I hadn't even known I was a mage until my mentor showed up."
  "Wait, your father's old friend had given you a power focus without even telling you were a mage? Without explaining what it was or what he was really offering you a chance to learn? Talk about pulling a Dumbledore!" I said, confused.
  She laughed briefly, then wiped away a tear. "Oh God, if I'd only had a chance to make that joke to him! He'd have laughed until the windows blew out." She sighed. "It was elven politics. The person who gave me this ring was... well, he and my father respected and admired each other very much, but they weren't allies. They'd been enemies in the past - politically, not personally. Approaching me and trying to offer me his mentorship was... well, he was sincere in thinking I'd make a good student. He wasn't the type to be insincere. But he was also good at serving multiple goals with a single course of action, so-"
  "He was trying to signal a wish for an alliance with your father, by doing a kindness to you." I analyzed.
  "In a very tense political situation, in a culture - well, subculture - where the proper gestures and etiquette had to be followed just so. So he wasn't allowed to even begin to look like he was trying to intimidate or manipulate me into it. Which is why when I told him to go take a flying leap without even giving him a chance to fully explain himself, he wasn't allowed to ignore my clearly expressed wishes and stick around to explain." She lowered her head shamefully. "Sometimes I still wonder if I hadn't inadvertently ruined the entire effort by being such a brat... would it have worked? Would my father and him have realized they had at least some common cause versus a common threat in time, instead of being unable to reconnect due to damn stupid elven politics?" She sighed. "If he'd had just one more key ally when he most needed one, then would he have not died?" She looked up at me, sober as a Corporate Court judge. "And please believe me, it was truly a great tragedy that he did."
  "The key word is 'inadvertently'." I reassured her. "You had no way of knowing that such a choice would echo with such hidden significance lat-" and then I ground to a halt. "You snuck right up on me with that one."
  "I did." Jane admitted freely. "I still regret his death, but I finally - after far too long - was able to grow up enough to accept that even if I'd made a wrong decision, even if I'd been a stupid petulant child, that didn't mean I owned every mistake that was ever made. I didn't kill him, or conspire with his enemies to do so, or even arrange the entire deep background of elven politics that put the whole thing into a position where the ignorant whims of a college girl could even potentially affect anything significant. Does any of this sound familiar?"
  "Jane, I intellectually know that I had valid reasons for - and yes, Catherine had a vote as well, and made it alongside of me - our original plan to try and help the Emergence. And that at the time, with what we could possibly have known, that trusting Horizon to the limited extent that we did wasn't crazy. Hell, Cline told us that we'd been right at the time and only retroactively been made wrong when they shifted to case Charlie in mid-stream. But that still doesn't mean my heart knows what my head knows."
  "Your head didn't know it either until just now, so I still helped there." Jane said compassionately. "And I know - oh God, how I know - that it takes time for the heart to catch up to the head. I'm just saying, please don't take as intolerably long as I did, all right?" She drew me back into a gentle hug. "You don't have to do this alone."
  "Not like you did." I said, hearing what she wasn't saying and feeling her tense. "I'm sorry that happened."
  "That wasn't the worst-" she blurted, and broke off. I said nothing, but just hugged her a little tighter.
  "You don't have to tell me anything, of course." I eventually said as we resumed our places. "But... it helped me to listen to you just now. If it would help you, I can certainly keep listening."
  "I'm not-" she began, before nodding. "No. It's actually relevant in a way. You deserve to know what you and Catherine mean to me, that I'm as willing to commit to this op as you are-"
  "You don't need to prove your commitment to this op." I cut her off. "I'll take it on faith. I do take it on faith."
  "I may not need to." she conceded slowly, reluctantly. "But... I want to."
  "Then I'm sorry I interrupted." I apologized.
  "I mentioned that I was involuntarily extracted." she began tightly. "The man who arranged for his team of runners to kidnap me was the same man who was my first teacher in magic." She held up a hand to cut me off. "Trust me, I know how that sounds." She sighed. "Of course, that's not why he originally had me extracted. He told me that unknown to me, I was ritually linked to a man who was his enemy, a man who could conceivably threaten me at any time through the mystic link. And that he was sorry for the kidnapping, but he had reason to believe that this man was on the move and that danger was imminent. So he had me brought in and offered me a solution - my aid to him in helping deal with this man, and in the process I'd help myself by breaking the mystic link."
  "You said you weren't even aware you were a mage then, so your only value to this mentor at that time would have been as a material link for ritual sorcery." I said. "And I'm guessing the other man, the one you were linked to, was your father? But simple blood relationship doesn't work like that in magic."
  "It was my father." she agreed. "And no, it doesn't. The link was something else, I'll explain later. But to bring it back to where I'd left off - yes, it sounded dangerous and risky. As well as the fact that I'd been dragged there. But there'd been a second team of runners that my mentor's team had fought off when they'd extracted me - my father's men, of course - so I was certainly willing to believe at the time that I was under threat from someone. And the man who would become my mentor was right there ,and he was incredibly charming and persuasive and..." Jane shook her head. "Oh, he could talk the birds down out of the trees when he really tried, that man! And not with magic, either."
  "So you cooperated with him in the ritual." I said.
  "I did. He swore he'd do his best to keep me from coming to any harm, and that it was the only way to break the link, and be an opportunity for him to track his elusive foe..." She firmed up her lip and continued painfully. "And by the time it was over, I'd almost lost my leg and would spend the next year in hospitals and physical therapy." She shook her head. "The best magical healing available in the world, the best of modern medical care, and months of grueling effort, and I still came that close to being a cripple for life. My left femur had exploded, for God's sake!"
  "The femoral artery runs right down there!" I cried in shock. "How the hell are you not dead?"
  She held up her thumb and forefinger, each touching the other. "It was that close." she agreed. "My mentor was- oh, let's name names, the euphemisms are getting intolerably cumbersome." She spat. "It was Harlequin. You heard his name mentioned earlier tonight."
  "So he saved your life." I said. "The obvious question begs - what had threatened it?"
  "Well, at the time I believed that my father had detected Harlequin's effort at breaking the link - which was a specially enchanted spell lock of a kind well beyond the normal capacities of one that had been surgically implanted in my thigh bone as a small child, to clear that up - and had immediately tried to attack him back through it, not caring that he'd cripple or kill me in the process. Meanwhile, Harlequin had saved my life and my leg at considerable effort and great expense of his own."
  "And then he told you 'Jane, yer a wizard!' and took you off to Hogwarts." I tried to lighten the mood.
  "I only wish it had been Hogwarts." she muttered. "But yes, he did. And of course I'd thought he hung the moon. Ordinary little Jane Foster, a no-account girl from a no-account town, was actually a powerful wizard herself and learning from a magical legend - however publicly unknown or 'eccentric' he might have been at the time?" She sighed. "Dreams come true."
  "From your tone of voice earlier tonight, I'm guessing that eventually there was difficulty." I probed diplomatically.
  "The miserable lying goat-felching son of a bitch had blown off my leg in the first place!" she exploded furiously.
  "... I'm gonna need a picture of this guy so I know who to punch in the dick if he shows up." I eventually managed to get out.
  "Bad idea. Even you aren't that unkillable." she immediately shot back. "... I think. Anyway, yes. He hadn't even told me the man at the other end of the link was my father, or what the whole drama had really been about. It had all been half-truths and pretty distractions. The real story was, the two of them had been in a vendetta for ages over something so petty even my father couldn't explain to me later without making it sound stupid. But neither one would back down, because old, proud elves."
  I kept quiet and let her take it at her own pace. She squeezed my hand again in thanks.
  "I'm not saying he deliberately blew it off, mind. But it had been entirely his fault. His 'breaking the link' story was true, but the main thing he'd been trying to do was score points off my father. An intimidating gesture of 'I could have killed you with ritual magic through this link, but look, just a harmless near-miss! I win, now back off!'." She thumped her free hand angrily on the futon. "He didn't even consider the possibility that my father might react like it actually was a deadly attack, because how could he know Harlequin would pull his shot at the last second? If you fired a bullet right over someone's head to 'scare' them, would you have the gall to act surprised if they drew and fired back because they thought you were aiming at their head?"
  "Of course not." I agreed. "So, your father did hit your leg, but Harlequin was to blame for provoking the shot?" I tried to understand.
  "Not even that much." she surprised me. "My father of course knew where exactly the other end of the link was. He'd originally implanted it in me the first place, after all. So his counterattack had been specifically tuned to ignore the person the link was bonded with and instead hit only Harlequin, who my father had recognized as the attacker and knew the astral signature of intimately. I would have been completely unharmed."
  "Would have." I echoed. "So what went wrong?"
  "On the list of things 'Harlequin failed to consider beforehand' we also had that his own defensive spells had been set to automatically reflect any attacks my father made on him back to my father. So my father's counterattack went back down the link, ignored me just as it was intended to, leapt out to Harlequin... and his own defensive spells reflected it back. But, of course, my father wasn't actually there."
  "So the reflected spell went back only as far as it could reach - back to the material link - and fried your leg in the process." I said. "And Harlequin never told you what really happened."
  "No." she spat. "He let me believe that my father had had no concern for my life at all, that he'd even callously tried to maim me as means to an end, for years. Even his later dramatic revelation that the man at the other end of the link had been my father had been-" she said. "Of course my father later on tried to contact me and explain his end of things. And of course I told him to fuck off."
  "This Harlequin-" I trailed off, afraid that the only words I could find at the moment would be so angry as to spook Jane into not continuing.
  "Yes." she agreed anyway. "And the real hell of it is that I don't even think it was entirely intended as manipulation. Oh, it at least partly was. That man can't take a crap without the process of wiping his ass being at least partially aimed at some kind of intrigue." she swore. "And my father has the same character flaw, but at least he-" she trailed off. "It's complicated."
  I silently gestured at her to please help make sense of what she'd just said.
  "Eventually my father managed to sit the stubborn little girl down and get his side of the story out - and by this point I'd been taught enough advanced magical theory that when he laid out the exact dynamics of the ritual and the shield involved, I could independently verify what he was telling me. And just how depressing is that, that the situation was so screwy I literally couldn't take the word of my own father that he hadn't intended to hurt me without checking his math first." she facepalmed. "At any rate, I finally knew the truth."
  "Why had he implanted you with some weird mystic link in the first place?" I asked her. Because that part had been nagging at me since she'd first said it.
  "To keep track of me, of course." he said. "All my life, when I thought I'd been alone and abandoned, he'd always been aware of me through the link. Oh, not in the surveillance way - he'd have had to do a full ritual to just trace my location, as with any other material link. But it always kept us bonded on a subliminal level. For as long as I carried it he'd always know if I was still alive, and if my life was in any great peril or not." She shook her head. "Harlequin had let me believe that the mysterious mage who'd put the link in me was some type of threat that i needed guarding from until he could remove it, and all the while the truth had been that the only reason I was carrying it was so that the father I never knew had a constant reassurance of my safety."
  "So Harlequin never directly lied to you, but he let you misguide yourself right down the wrong trail of assumptions over and over again without ever trying to correct you." I shook my head. "Call me Captain Obvious, but that's the exact opposite of being a good teacher!"
  "No, really?" she joked weakly before forcing herself onward. "I'd never met my father before then, of course. He'd left my mother before I'd been born. But my mother was still able to contact him, and when she knew she was pregnant she'd told him. According to what he said, he'd even made it into town to attend my mother during the birth. That's when he put his magical tracking tag in me, shortly after I was born."
  "Did he tell you why he didn't stay?" I asked. "Or come back to take you with him when your mother passed?"
  "I never got her version of the story, remember. I didn't even know who she was until my father finally had a chance to tell me, she'd died when I was that young. All I ever knew was the orphanage. But according to my father's version of events, my mother and him had been from two different worlds. That hadn't stopped them from being with each other, but it certainly stopped him from marrying her. The founder of Tir Tairngire, the legendary Prince who was the perhaps world's richest and most powerful elven supremacist nation-builder... and some obscure human from Columbus, Ohio?" She shook her head. "That doesn't exactly spell 'politically viable marriage', now does it?"
  "I have a reflexive reaction to say 'That's disgusting', but also memories of Cat and I initially angsting over the 'SINless/college girl' divide separating us until we made the point moot by both running off to join the 77th." I said. "So as imperfect as that sounds, I can't say I don't understand how it happens."
  "I actually agree with you there." she shook her head. "My mother might not have died of VITAS-III if she'd moved to Tir Tairngire to be with my father - as a discreet mistress, even, if not a wife - but she might well have died even sooner from a fatal overdose of Tir politics." She sighed. "It was a poisonous, poisonous place in many ways, the old Council regime. Especially at the top."
  "Is that why he didn't want to raise you there after your mother died?" I wondered. "Because even being a poor orphan in the UCAS would have been better for you than growing up in that type of atmosphere?" I trailed off.
  "That is a question he wouldn't answer." Jane replied. "Although to give him credit he didn't deflect or dance or demur like someone else would have, he just politely said that he didn't want to talk about it."
  "Respectful at least, if not informative." I conceded.
  "So yes. That's when I found out that my mentor had been-" she shook her head. "But of course it wasn't as simple as that. Recruited under false pretenses or not, I'd still agreed to be his apprentice. I was obligated, and that obligation didn't expire simply because I'd found out he was a manipulative weasel who'd been too cowardly to own up to his own mistake before I committed myself to him."
  "You'd think it would." I said.
  "Oh, it would - if the would-be apprentice had known to put stipulations into her agreement of service before committing to it such as 'You pull this kind of drek and I am out of here'. Which of course I didn't, because again, didn't know a damn thing and also thought he'd hung the moon."
  "What exactly are you obligated to do for him?" I asked gently. "Are there any limits?"
  "He could in theory do exactly what you're surmising, because in my total ignorance and vulnerability I'd committed to no limits at all." she said, and my blood chilled. "In practical terms, however, there's a certain absolute limit of the abuse he could inflict on me before my father just said 'Fuck this' and went on the rampage. Which is something Harlequin's legitimately trying to avoid, because their being evenly matched means he doesn't know who the winner would be." She sighed. "And then there's the fact that while my father certainly loves me, and he's stopped being so immediately involved in Tir politics and is working with the Dunkelzahn Institute now, he still has a lot of beliefs and a willingness to be ruthless that I just don't share and am not sure I want to." She held up her hand and waggled it back and forth. "So here I am, caught betwixt and between."
  "What's your plan?" I asked, knowing full well Jane would not appreciate the usual male impulse to try and fix a problem of hers as soon as she told anyone about it.
  "To serve out my time as his apprentice - it is a finite term of service, at least - without getting sucked any deeper into his ocean of self-inflicted drama than I absolutely have to." Jane agreed. "There's a reason I volunteer for so many important missions fighting - those certain types of spirits - that coincidentally require me to spend lots of time journeying to far-away places far away from my "mentor", who is a scatterbrained enough type of teacher he appreciates the increased free time anyway. Plus doing favors for other powerful friends, such as the Orange Queen."
  "I see." I said. "But you mentioned why you're committed, and this doesn't quite relate...?"
  "I loved him." Jane said sadly. "He wasn't the first man I'd slept with, but the first one I'd given myself to for any reason other than just a friendly hook-up. As I told you, there was a period of time when I'd all but worshipped him."
  "He slept with you... when you were that ignorant of the true everything about the situation, and that emotionally vulnerable, and under such false pretenses such as not telling you the truth about your leg, your father, your everything-" I broke off, furious to the tips of my toes. "I don't care if he's Dumbledore, Gandalf, and Doctor Strange all put together, if he ever shows up near me I will beat his ass until he needs a year of rehab to put his skeleton back together." I spat.
  "Remember when I said that I honestly wouldn't have minded if you and Catherine had just seduced me for business reasons?" Jane said sadly. "I meant it. Because even a cold-blooded business transaction would still have been far more honest about it than he'd been." She trailed off, tearing up. "And far more kind."
  "You come here." I said, pulling her into a hug and letting her sob softly onto my shoulder briefly.
  "But that wasn't what you were doing." she eventually continued. "You and Catherine - whatever you were feeling, I was feeling, we were feeling, it was just... feelings. No agenda, no purpose..." She looked deeply into my eyes. "No secrets, and no lies. Just this." she laid her hand on my heart.
  "Jane-" I began, not even sure of what I'd say.
  "This isn't the anguished declaration of love, Alex." Jane smiled slightly, but without any anger. "You and Catherine were right that none of us even know what this is yet. I'm just acknowledging that whatever this is, you meant every bit of it without the slightest trace of deception. And that by itself is such a precious gift-" She said. "You are a good man, Alexander Kincaid. And Catherine's a good woman. You do not deserve the treachery that's been done to you, or the suffering you are both undergoing. It's not fair, it's not right, and it's not-" She stopped and caught her breath. "And it's not going to happen. Not on my watch- on our watch. So we are going to cry it out tonight, and then we are going to put on our war faces and go out there and get her back if we have to fight our way through the entire goddamn world together. You copy me, Wild Man?!?"
  "Five by five, Frosty." I replied firmly.
  "Good." she softened, and we each sat in the other's arms.
  Soon enough, the mood began to shift, and Jane hesitantly asked "Do you want me to stay?"
  "Very, very much." I agreed, equally as softly... before letting her go and pulling away, praying to God that she wouldn't misunderstand. "Which is probably why you'd better go."
  She leaned over and kissed me on my forehead. "Hearts versus heads yet again, it seems. But you're right, we shouldn't."
  "I'll see you in the morning." I agreed as she stood up and went to go to her own futon in the next room. "Sleep well."
  "You too." she smiled lovingly, and then she was gone.
  I laid down and rolled back onto my futon, staring up at the ceiling until my eyelids grew heavy and I could finally rest.
  For the first time since Catherine had been taken, there were no nightmares.
  Author's Note: Well, we see our heroes on the trail and starting to gather allies. Also, people talk about feelings.
  BTW, yes, that final exchange is ripped straight off from the film version of the John Grisham novel "A Time To Kill". So if I ever plagiarize you that blatantly, you'll at least get a credit. *g*
  My interpretation of the canon surrounding the events of Frosty's origin arc are not necessarily canon, but they do not actually contradict canon at any point that I know of. I'm just filling in a lot of blanks.
  Speaking of canon - Sounder and Hard Exit are both canon sig NPCs. Smiling Bandit as well, although since characterization info on him is so sparse (even if bio data is not) I'm having to roll his own dialogue as compared to having fairly adequate voices already for the two ladis. And so you get the sort of eccentric supergenius techno-hippie who'd pass up a guaranteed shot at the highest tiers of megacorporate research and a probable Nobel prize solely because he disagrees with their scientific ethics, hence 'all life matters'.
  The MCT/Saito concentration camps in the Mojave are not canon. They are, however, from the truly awesome fanmade campaign "CalFree In Chains", for the Shadowrun: Hong Kong video game by Harebrained Studios. I wrote a review of it on Spacebattles. Trust me, it is the good shit. I have paid for CRPGS I enjoyed less.
  Oh, and since it's already an open secret to anyone who has any edition of Jane's character write-up, the mysterious figure who gave Jane her power focus? Dunkelzahn.
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  "Did you find it?" I asked the angry white-haired teenager desperately.
  We'd rented time on Asgard for a fast scan of all the suspect camp sites, and when one of them showed the IR signatures of a large population in residence as opposed to just maintenance crews they'd focused their attention on it. Some more fast hacking had turned up a single train taking the spur line in over the past week for supplies. The timing wasn't quite right for it to have been Netcat, but it bumped the camp up to being a probable enough site that it was now worth hacking Mitsuhama's freight depot in nearby Barstow. Knowing the time of Netcat's arrival at Port of LA meant we knew her probable departure window, and a simple computer search narrowed down the only train on the LA-to-Barstow run in that window and its exact time of arrival at the Barstow depot.
  Of course MCT had gone to the precautions of blanking out the freight yard's security cameras for the moment when they'd offloaded their 'special cargo'. But that's precisely what Bandit and Pistons had looked for, a suspicious gap or a loop of reused footage in the logs. It was only a freight depot, not a high-security black site, so pulling a dump from their site security host was not at all challenging for hackers of their caliber. Sure enough, they'd found the blank spot... and then a peek at traffic and other publicly accessible cameras on the road outside marked the departure of two armored SUVs from the freight depot immediately after the suspicious blank spot, and put those SUVs solidly on the road out of Barstow and down to the same camp we'd already marked.
  So we now had a target. And armed with the knowledge I'd brought him just now, Smiling Bandit had had an idea. His own shadow-researches into the phenomenon over the past year had eventually drawn several other technomancers, SINless ones living off the grid and surviving as shadowrunners, to get in tentative contact with him and work with him towards trying to understand their nature and better handle their powers.
  And the most talented of those outlaw technomancers, a kid barely past high school age who called himself "Puck", had already found the key to Submergence on his own, just as 'Cat had. So once we'd primed him with the knowledge that the particular technique was possible at all, he embarked his first trip into the resonance realm we now knew was properly called 'The Endless Archive'. And he'd just returned from it, and now we were all back in the JackPoint conference room we'd originally used and frantic to start the next step of planning the op.
  "Yeah." he said. "But it's weird. Getting past the Threshold was the same rough go it always was, but the Endless Archive..." he whistled in awe. "Endless bookshelves that weren't bookshelves, a weight on your mind that echoed like infinity but didn't press..." his voice turned sour. "Infinity squared worth of datafiles and cross-linked references, and no index. I'd thought I was going to have to stay in there until my meatbod died of dehydration to find anything, but as soon as I start looking for data on the camp suddenly this sprite jumps out of nowhere and literally shoves this datafile into my hands."
  "So open it already!" Jane cried.
  "I can't." Puck said challengingly, before semi-apologizing. "It's code-locked, and the encryption was done by another technomancer. I could try to hack it, but I'd only get one chance before it wiped and it won't let me copy it either."
  "This is unprecedented. The symbolic archetype of the Endless Archive might require a great search for knowledge before yielding it, but the knowledge should by clear ontological-" Bandit began.
  "He means it should be in a readable format." Pistons translated from ascended high Matrix nerd. "Because the Archive intends that it should be read. The puzzle has to be possible of solution, so, put it up."
  "Right." Puck agreed, glad to pass the buck. The password prompt displayed in a virtual window.
  "A date?" Hard Exit asked. "Nineteen-something seven... 1997, maybe? What happened in 1997?"
  "The Seretech decision." Fatima answered. "Because I can't imagine it's asking for 1897 or any earlier."
  "The Seretech decision was 1999." Pistons corrected her. "So I don't know... hey, Wild Man? Are you okay?" she said, finally noticing that I'd been bluescreening and staring at the prompt the entire time.
  "I..." I began. "I know what date it wants." I said softly. "I just don't know how."
  "Careful!" Jane said. "If we crash this-"
  I ignored her as I began to type. One by one the numbers filled in.
  October 14th,1997. The date Alex Kincaid had been born, on an Earth that had never known megacorporations or magic. A date that only one person ever born in this world had known.
  And everybody else's jaw except mine dropped in shock as the file packet descrypted to start playing a video message.
  "Alex. I know you'll have found out about the Archive by now. Because you would have never stopped until you knew who had taken me and why."
  "Cat?" Pistons sputtered incoherently.
  "My first Submergence involved my connection to the Deep Resonance still being sustained despite my having been kept inside a sealed Faraday cage at the time. It wasn't until several days after I got here that I realized that meant I could hope to Submerge again, even from inside this confinement. It... it wasn't easy, but I did it." Cat's image smiled tremulously.
  "Since before time and space were, the Tao is. It is beyond is and is not." Smiling Bandit murmured in awe.
  "I'm in a secure black site, the kind where no data about its innermost contents is even allowed to exist unless kept wholly offline from the Matrix. And Picador taught us both that fighting a battle without a good map was like hiking through the desert without any water. So if you wanted to find the schematics for this site, then you would have needed to seek them in the Archive. And when I finally realized that libraries exist to check books in as well as out, I knew where I could leave this message for you."
  "Clever girl." Sounder whistled respectfully.
  "My sprite had orders to share this datapacket to anyone who entered the Archive searching for information about this site, for as long it had anything left in its allotted quota of tasks. If the person who sought that information was helping you rescue me then they would obviously have to bring it to you. And you and I are the only two people who could unlock it."
  Jane shook her head wonderingly from side to side, squeezing my hand as tightly as she could.
  "Enclosed in this file is as much data on the complex as I had time to find in the Archive. Including the full schematics for the surface complex and the hidden sublevel. But most importantly, this file also contains all the details of their 'emergency specimen purge' systems and procedures."
  "That could be the exploit we need!" Hard Exit cried eagerly. "Pull it up, pull it up!"
  "There are seven 'test subjects' in addition to me here. Their names, photos, and biometrics are in this file so you'll know who to rescue. Starting from immediate proximity to us 'research subjects' and working outwards, your first obstacle is that we have our own implanted destruct systems. But because we're all technomancers they couldn't implant us with cortex bombs or put us in remote detonation collars. Instead they used 'dead-man' toxin carcerands."
  "Bandit-?" I asked alarmedly, but he'd already hit 'pause' and was already pulling up and scrolling through the data on his own sub-display.
  "I recognize them." he said calmly. "It's a standard Mitsuhama product they use to help prevent escapes from high-security prisons. The carcerands are small organic molecules shaped like hollow spheres that naturally decay from exposure to blood proteins, and which can carry a chemical micro-payload inside the sphere. MCT loaded them with neurotoxin and used a 72-hour decay cycle, but one which can be inhibited and the organic 'shell' renewed by exposure to the right immuno-booster." He looked up. "Don't get your corporate-provided shots every day, you die in less than half a week. A lethal biochemical leash that guarantees that even if a prisoner escapes or is rescued, they still won't get very far. But-" he held up a finger to cut off our inevitable reactions. "They'd be of limited utility if you couldn't remove them from someone's system entirely, because some prisoners do need to be eventually released. So there's also provision for a permanent neutralizing agent, RNA-keyed to each individual batch of carcerands." He smiled at us. "And Netcat's just given me the key. I can prep a batch of antidote in less than an hour, and all of the rescue team can carry injectors. We'll have up to two days after releasing them to cure them, but there's no reason not to do it as soon as we get their cell doors open."
  "Um, how are you going to get the antidote to us from your lab?" Pistons asked. "I'm pretty sure that your fortress of solitude doesn't have a handy Wuxing Worldwide Shipping dropbox."
  "I'll meet you at the assembly point, of course." Bandit said matter-of-factly before smiling slightly at the reactions. "Yes, we all know my usual desire for privacy but this is literally a matter of life-and-death. So I look forward to seeing you in person for the first time."
  "... don't shave first, okay?" Fatima asked him dazedly. "I've had a bet with Pistons for years that you do the full mountain-man routine and I wouldn't want you to accidentally destroy the evidence."
  "No spoilers." he quirked his lip, and we resumed playback.
  "Our nextmost immediate danger is our immediate handlers and guards. Their orders are to shoot us as soon as the command is given by either voice or Matrix code. If rescue teams look to be about to breach the inner containment zone, then they are supposed to purge us immediately even without orders."
  "Not unexpected, but definitely tricky." Hard Exit said, starting to study the floor plans and patrol routes Netcat had provided.
  "Last are the sublevel's old fire suppression systems." Netcat continued. "Which also do double duty now as an execution system. The secure lab sections are of course sealed and airlocked, that's standard for any high-level bio-research facility, and the emergency firefighting system started out as the standard Halon flood for compartment fires. But in this case, they replaced the inert Halon gas with carbon dioxide."
  "Shit." I swore, pre-empting Bandit's own incoming biochemistry lecture. "Everybody thinks CO2 is harmless, but in an airtight sealed compartment an overdose of it can be as lethal as nerve gas. A high level of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream is the body's natural trigger for the respiratory reflex. So you can't hold your breath in a pure CO2 atmosphere, not even for a second."
  "And when your bloodstream is hypersaturated with it, it actively displaces already-bound oxygen from your red blood cells." Bandit agreed. "Immediate unconsciousness followed by death from hypoxia within sixty seconds. Unless you are already wearing an oxygen mask before the CO2 flood is triggered, you've had it. And according to this file the guards and staff go masked in the sealed compartments, but the prisoners don't even have loose masks available to grab."
  "MCT." Jane snarled venomously. "They can't spell subtlety with a dictionary, but they are relentlessly thorough."
  "Uh, how do they not lose all their test subjects every time somebody tosses a cigarette butt in the wrong wastebasket?" Sounder asked.
  "Good question, and the answer is 'Each cell is also individually airtight and pressurized.'" Hard Exit answered. "And yeah, we can use that."
  "The extinguishing systems can be triggered for each containment cell by a button outside the cell door. To trigger them anywhere else in the sealed complex requires you to be either in the security station on the confinement floor or the complex's central command center." Cat's image smiled. "But, since they repurposed a pre-existing firefighting system as their execution system, it still uses the original hard lines. Which were designed for damage control, not paranoia."
  "With what Netcat just gave us... if we can jack the underground complex's central host, we can lock down the entire purge system!" Pistons said. "That just means we need the host and the guards! It is set up for the inside-outside play!"
  "It would have to be one hell of an 'inside'." Hard Exit said. "Because yeah... the surface complex, the hardened and secured elevator shaft, the sentry guns, the small army of corpsec goons, the containment barriers, the paranoia bunker sub-level... it all adds up to one giant stack of shit, but nothing we haven't all run before. Especially with how many guns are riding on this one. But even if we somehow lockdown the entire host before they even see us - and let's not forget that the basement levels are isolated from the Matrix, so we'll somehow have to get a relay in there physically - there's just no way we can get down to the bottom level fast enough to beat the guards just doing it with their bare hands, even if none of their purge systems work."
  "Then our insider has to already be inside the cell block when we open the dance." I said.
  "... Wild Man, I once went into the Azzie pyramid in Denver with six shooters, and came out with two of them but also with the people we'd gone in to rescue. And then we had to walk across the entire Aztlan sector in Denver to reach a border checkpoint on foot. That's how I got my name, it was the hardest exit and exfil anyone had even heard of." Hard Exit said. "And even if I started at the bottom of that hole with my full combat loadout, I would not get halfway to the objective before I was toast-"
  "I can do it." I said calmly.
  "You might be the greatest marksman around, Crackshot, but you are not bulletpr-" Hard Exit remonstrated.
  "I can do it." I shut her down hard, and then sighed. "Frosty? Tell them."
  "... about that?" she said incredulously.
  "About that." I nodded. "Starting from the cell block inside-out is the only way we can pull this off. So..."
  "Drek." she swore passionately. "Okay, folks, speaking of Azzie pyramids, you guys should already know about the Northwest Complex run in '65 even if the team that did it never came forward. Well, confession time. I was the Johnson on that run and I also went in with the team. Our first gun was Sergeant Ivan. Some of you might have known him before he passed away last year."
  "Of natural causes, in his sleep... in the Seattle shadows." Pistons said reverently. "They should've given the old bastard a statue for pulling that one off."
  "Our rigger was Caveman." Frosty continued.
  "Good guy, and an ace pilot." Sounder agreed. "But you run the routes long enough and the law of averages is gonna average." she sighed. "And I'd always wondered if he'd been the extraction for that run, but he kept the confidentiality."
  "But the rest of that team is in this room right now. Fatima was second mage, Pistons was the hacker, and Wild Man was the second gun."
  "Huh, common ground." Hard Exit raised an eyebrow to me. "But no offense, my pyramid was still rougher."
  "Not this part." Frosty said. "You guys remember the ending, right?" she said to Pistons and Fatima.
  "Hell yeah." Fatima nodded vigorously. "The Azzie blood mage had jacked our extraction chopper and was making off in it, and Wild Man's the only one who caught up before it left the pad. He'd zapped the mage and snapped Caveman out of the Control Thoughts, but the mage blew him right out the chopper door with his last move. If Ivan hadn't made us all get set up for a possible BASE jump as the backup extraction route, he''d have lawn-darted from a thousand feet." Fatima explained for the benefit of the others.
  "You two might remember that I'm the only one who made it to the edge of the roof in time to actually see him land." Frosty continued. "So here's the part I never told you. His parachute didn't open."
  "... the fuck?" Pistons almost disconnected herself the Matrix with the sheer force of her mental BSOD.
  "I saw, with my own two eyes, this man do a terminal-velocity faceplant onto a tank and walk it off." Frosty explained passionately. "Somehow he takes the physical adept armor-skin power beyond any known limit. I don't even know how. Weird-ass SURGE mutation is the least crazy theory, but again, no clue. The point is, he's literally bulletproof."
  "You have an open invitation to my laboratory at any time you wish." Smiling Bandit begged me. "No invasive procedures, full informed consent at every step, just please let me gather some data."
  "... honestly, I'm thinking I'll take you up on that." I reassured him. "And yeah, folks, even I didn't know I could do anything like that until after it happened. And afterwards... I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings by not coming clean, but who the hell do you even tell about this kind of shit? I'm still amazed Frosty didn't convince herself she'd just seen some swamp gas, and she didn't even admit to me that she knew until earlier this year."
  "... that's why you ditched the shadows right after the Complex run to end up in Urban Brawl as soon as you could rehab a SIN for yourself?" Fatima asked me wonderingly. "Because you thought it wasn't fair to shoot people who couldn't hope to shoot you back for real?"
  "That wasn't even the primary reason." I corrected her. "But yeah, it was a reason that was there. But that was then, this is now, and I don't want to fight MCT fairly at all." I said.
  "I would call this puree of bullshit except- no, wait, I do call this puree of bullshit." Sounder broke in. "Dude, your money's been good and you have some seriously high-rep people vouching for you, but that just does not stretch to believing this kind of crazy. Even Plan 9 wouldn't believe this one and honestly I'm amazed Bandit did. No offense." she turned aside to him.
  "None taken." he replied politely.
  "Well, the simplest way to stop the skepticism is I just let Hard Exit try to pop me one when we rally up in meatspace." I headed off the gathering sentiment. "At which point I've either proven my bona fides, or I'm officially a crazy man and its time to take your advance and abort."
  "I was actually trying to figure out a way to ask politely." Hard Exit admitted embarrassedly. "Any preferences on where you want your easily-fixable flesh wound?"
  "Dealer's choice, it won't matter anyway." I said amusedly.
  The sound of Puck's voice was shocking, as we'd honestly gotten so caught up that we'd temporarily forgotten he was there, and he'd been sitting way back in the corner watching all of us like a wary animal. "You're different too?" he asked me.
  "Yeah." I agreed.
  "That's why you helped her? Why you spent that much time trying to help all of us?" he continued.
  "I helped her because she was the woman I'd fallen in love with. Remember, Cat didn't know she was a technomancer until we'd been together for years." I corrected him, and watched his body language micrometrically relax as if I'd passed a test. "But yeah. I joined the 77th because it was a place I didn't mind waiting for 'Cat to get healthy and find her footing. I joined Horizon because it was a place her and I thought could help the Emergence." I shrugged and metaphorically pointed at the datafile icons in our virtual room's 'whiteboard' representing what I'd gotten out of Gary Cline. "And if not remotely in the way that we expected, we kinda did."
  "Yeah, you did." Puck agreed even more nervously.
  "What's wrong, Puck?" Smiling Bandit asked him worriedly.
  "His plan won't work." Puck said.
  "I could've told you that." Sounder scoffed.
  "No, he's telling the truth." Puck rounded on her. "Or at least his biometrics indicate that he is. I meant that the inside-outside play is only half of the equation. There's also that someone has to open up the offline systems from the inside of the sublevel before you hackers can actually do anything. And in addition to the purge systems, there's all the automated security and containment barriers that need neutralizing before the people coming down from the surface can hope to secure the site."
  "I was waiting to hear Wild Man's idea on that." Pistons admitted.
  "I was still trying to think of an idea." I confessed. "I mean, I'm not a meathead, but I can't punch my way through the place and sit around in VRspace trying to open up a hard line from the inside out simultaneously."
  "Which means someone else has to go in with Wild Man to do the inside component of the hack that he can't." Puck agreed, white-faced. "Someone with the Resonance, because Pistons or Bandit wouldn't be able to take in their gear. I have to go in."
  "Puck, you've already been in a place like that." Smiling Bandit said, aghast. "You barely escaped the Renraku Arcology alive! Willingly serving yourself up to a Mitsuhuma 'destructive research' lab ...?"
  "I know." he whispered. "I'm-" he broke off. "I don't want to do it. But I have to do it. If I don't then I'm leaving eight innocent people to die. Die the same way I almost died, for an even worse reason."
  "I'll be with you every step of the way." I assured him. "You know who I'm fighting for and why. You'll count towards that just as much as she would, as any of them would."
  "I know." he agreed. "But it's okay if-" he sighed. "When Deus had me, I did bad things." he whispered. "I helped him."
  "He made you help him." Smiling Bandit urged him. "It wasn't your fault."
  "I'll help you do it." Puck ignored him, talking to me. "We'll get them out, and it's okay if I die doing it." He waved off Bandit's reaction. "I don't want to, I'm not trying to, but-" he shrugged. "If I did then it would only be fair. So I go last, do you understand me?" he begged me. "Get her out first, get them all out first. Then come back for me."
  "This is what you want?" I asked him.
  "It's what I deserve." Puck replied stolidly.
  "That is not the question he asked you, Puck." Jane remonstrated with him.
  "... I'm just hoping we win." Puck evaded and then crossed his arms and stared at us mulishly.
  "Puck-"I began.
  "Her message wasn't finished." Puck interrupted us before we could press further, and the playback resumed.
  "Alex- Jane- whoever else answered the call, whoever else will come. If I don't get a chance to later, then let me thank you all now from the bottom of my heart." Cat finished. "It's been rough, I won't deny that. The interrogation's been what you'd expect." She smiled. "But they underestimated me. I remembered the POW training and it helped. I only gave them what I wanted them to hear. It's not like we care about keeping Horizon's trade secrets anymore, do we?" Cat snorted. "They have no clue who's coming for them. They don't know about Netcat or Wild Man or Frosty, just about Catherine Kincaid and her husband Alex and their lover Jane."
  "Oh just tell everyone why don't you?" Jane muttered, her palm not covering enough of her face to hide the incandescent blush.
  "If this will be the last time we can talk then please understand. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't change a single thing. It was all worth it, every moment. I'll treasure them forever. And if the worst occurs, then I know you'll grieve... but I pray that your grief will pass in time, and you can one day learn to be happy again."
  I took Jane's hand in mine, not even caring who saw now.
  "Jane, please take care of him for me, all right?" Cat asked. "And you let her take care of you, you lovable stubborn ox. You promise me!"
  "I will." I murmured.
  "Now get to work, and I hope to see you soon. I love you."
  "We love you too." I alone heard Jane whisper.
  "Okay, people." I said as I stepped forward and grabbed the reins. "You all heard the lady. Let's get to work."
  Many of the pieces we would need had already been moving, even before we had a final location. The rest were summoned and would be on station in time. It took slightly over a day after the receipt of Netcat's message to finish putting everything in place, and those of us with savings to spend had needed to spend a good chunk of them on hiring even more support than the core team we'd assembled. Still, this op would not only save multiple innocent people - and the woman I loved - but on a larger scale, it would hopefully become a key part of the Emergence. And not only any corp's schedule, but on ours. This time the shadows would set the pace for the rest of the world and not vice versa, and the prospect of that alone brought more runners to our banner than we'd imagined possible.
  To reduce the chances that MCT would take us to another facility than the one we wanted them to take us to as far as we could, we'd chosen San Francisco for the handoff. Fatima had an extensive network of friends and contacts there and it was the work of only several hours for them to run down one of the very discreet fixers and bagmen that was actually the local point of contact for MCT's hush-hush technomancer bounties, and hand him the windfall of his career. One confirmed young technomancer and one probable older one, both at once!
  So the black SUVs arrived, picked me and Puck up from the 'bounty hunters' Fatima had recruited from the Orkland sprawl, scanned us, scoped us, and drove us to the nearest rail yard to load us on the train. Oh, there had been refinements added to the process, such as our dropping almost twenty thousand nuyen alone on two hastily-obtained canisters of the most highly-rated nanopaste disguise possible. It wasn't just the part where my real face was on posters worldwide, after all. Puck didn't want to be leaving his real face behind in any MCT records either, even though we'd do our absolute best to leave none.
  Puck had 'charged up' the tiny amount of computer memory available on an injectable RFID tag with one of his sprites - the tiniest weakest one he could make, and it still barely fit - so that a hasty scan would at least register something vaguely akin to a Resonance effect about me, like that of a 'wild' technomancer who had yet to become aware of their powers. It wouldn't remotely fool an actual probe, but the science of detecting technomancers was still incredibly crude and haphazard this early in the game.
  As it turned out MCT liked to use the train because a megacorporate train car, with the logo clearly displayed, satisfied the Business Recognition Accords' requirements for megacorporate extraterritoriality. It was a continuous and contiguous bounded space with an intuitive separation between it and its surroundings, it was clearly posted as megacorporate territory, and there was ownership paperwork on it. The fact that it was a mobile structure didn't matter, the inside of the train car was MCT extraterritorial turf and not subject to any jurisdictional system. Which meant no customs searches and no inspections of any kind. The cargo couldn't even be looked at without MCT permission, even if any cargo actually being offloaded from the car would be treated like it had just left a Customs bonded warehouse. Just the thing for smuggling your unwilling human cargo across the state on its way to your ultra-secure "crimes against humanity" research black site.
  Of course, as the other end of the train ride was done in the MCT-owned freight depot in Barstow there was no risk of search while being offloaded there either. And while automobile traffic wasn't extraterritorial like the contents of sealed train cars, this far out in the Mojave - and in a town as heavily corporate-dominated as Barstow - it was a null risk. MCT had worked out a system for transporting experimental subjects to their black site that covered all the known bases coldly and methodically, and then they stuck with it through thick and thin.
  We didn't exactly have a window seat from our position in the back of an armored SUV with blacked-out windows, while wearing manacles and wireless-opaque bags over our heads, but as the car drew to a stop we knew that we were arriving at our destination. Whatever security system this facility had set up at the gate did its job, the guards gave the proper countersigns and responses, and we heard the gate open through our hoods as the SUV got into motion again. After a minute or two of driving, and another halt while we waited for a garage door to open and then close behind us, we pulled to a halt inside a garage.
  "All right, freaks, from now your powers won't help you. You're inside an RF-sealed enclosure and none of us are carrying anything you can hack. So the hoods come off so we don't have to lead you by the hand, but-"
  The other guards matched deeds to words as Puck and I were manhandled outside the SUV and the bags were roughly yanked off our heads.
  "-if you act up, you get this." The talkative guard said, holding up a shock prod and deliberately hitting the switch to let the tip arc and spit sparks.... before ramming it into Puck's gut.
  "AGGGGGHGHH!" he screamed, going to his knees. "I didn't do anyth-"
  The guard hit him again. "No talking!"
  Puck clenched his jaw and stared up at the guard with bared teeth. The guard nodded, then turned to me and gave me the baton. I suitably cried, clenched, and fell. The armored helmet and visor hid the guard's face, but his body language screamed just routine. I was reminded of Lois Bujold's comment that there was nothing worse than a bored killer in a uniform, because it meant that somewhere above him in the chain of command were the sort of people who turned other persons into unfeeling weapons. Eventually, Zappy the guard got even more bored and finished up, and they waited for us to painfully stagger back to our feet.
  "Move." the guard said curtly, and we moved.
  The interior loading dock we were crossing was a large empty space not remotely being used at capacity. The ample parking space for large trucks or busses and the multiple lines on the floor, along with the complete lack of cargo-handling equipment or any empty holes in the concrete floor where it could have been mounted, told me that this loading dock had originally been built to handle the sort of 'cargo' that moved itself. The old and faded but still legible wording painted on the floor or stenciled on the walls and ceiling only underlined that impression.
  * Physically resist in any fashion.
  * Passively resist in any fashion.
  * Refuse to move when ordered.
  * Refuse to stay in place when ordered.
  * Speak to each other without permission.
  * Speak to a guard without invitation to speak.
  * Cry out, engage in public demonstration, or otherwise disrupt an orderly in-processing experience.
  * Fail to comply with other necessary instructions in a prompt and respectful fashion.
  So this was the first fumbling steps that Saito had taken towards buliding his dream world. God Almighty, it was seven years later and MCT still hadn't so much as painted over the fucking signs.
  Once past the welcome wagon we were immediately hustled through the ground-floor building - an empty, dusty complex that had once seen hundreds of metahumans moving through at a time on their way to their last stop - and taken through a nasty set of checkpoints and recently-remodeled narrow, switchback corridors to end up at an armored security barrier backed up by rigger-controlled fixed-mount minigun turrets that crouched at the top of a gleaming black freight elevator. The guards stopped well short of the thirty-foot section of open floor in front of the miniguns that was marked in brilliant yellow-and-red cross-hatched paint. This paint looked relatively fresh and new, as did the warning signs.
  Real subtle there, MCT.
  Another group of guards, more heavily-armored and in airtight pressure helmets instead of just ordinary SWAT gear, stood waiting for us at the top of the elevator.
  "Halt." the electronically-distorted voice of the chief guard on the elevator detail said. "Okay, deactivate the turrets."
  The red warning lights on the sentry turrets went green.
  "Now you move." they said to us, and we shuffled across the death zone and towards the elevator. Once we were off the marked section and behind the arc of the turrets the chief guard muttered into his radio and the lights on the turrets went red again. Wow, they really didn't want anyone to escape. Presumably the Welcome Wagon guns were directly controlled by fiber-optic hardline, with no wireless for an escaping technomancer to even dream of hacking. But yes, even if a lab subject somehow got loose, and somehow got all the way through the sealed sub-level to the main shaft and up, he'd be immediately immolated trying to cross the death zone around the shaft head. Even most of MCT's own guards weren't allowed to approach the elevator and go down, unless they were specifically part of the secure lab detail. To stop shadowrunners from taking out a surface patrol and using their uniforms and RFID tags to get down the hole, presumably. Brutal but thorough indeed.
  We were almost eighty feet deep into the Earth by the time the elevator stopped. The doors opened and we were greeted by our new home; the subterranean black site itself.
  According to the files Netcat and Puck had turned up from the Archive, the black site complex was younger than the camp above. Only several years old, its initial construction having started shortly before the Crash 2.0. Originally intended for secret research into and manufacture of Level 5 bioweapons, the lab had never been used for its intended purpose. The Crash had halted construction for a while, and by the time it had renewed the megacorps had already been slowly, dimly, awakening to the existence of the technomancers. Apparently the frantic 'reflash watch' programs they'd had scouring the Matrix for any anomalies that might signal the possible return of Deus had instead started catching other, unrelated 'anomalies'. Metahuman ones.
  A self-contained buried sublevel separated into the main section and the sealed black-site lab itself, the guards and scientists and support personnel lived down here. Like nuclear missile submarine crews of old, they rotated long periods 'downside' with long breaks upside. The absolute minimum of metahuman traffic moved in and out - no shift changes, no daily commutes. The MCT staff had their own quarters, break rooms, recreational and dining facilities, etc, etc. down here. They even had their own clinic.
  And then, in the separate and airlocked section of labs and cells and cubicles that was the old hot labs, we had the eight captive 'test subjects'. Which number would go up to ten as soon as we were in-processed and shown to our own airtight cells, where we could be suffocated with a button push either individually or collectively.
  The MCT scientists stripped us, cavity-searched us, and scanned us in every orifice. We were fortunate they didn't detect our nanopaste disguises, but then again even MCT was not quite paranoid enough to imagine a scenario where someone deliberately got themselves abducted into a black-site "bio-research" lab as a naked and helpless prisoner. Plus, the stuff wouldn't have been good for covert ops if you could so easily pick it up with even the good scanning equipment, given the usual run of places that users of this stuff would normally be infiltrating.
  One of the scientists who'd finished giving us our preliminary examinations explained to us the meaning of the injections we'd just had - the toxin carcerands, of course - and outlining how escape was impossible and this was the rest of our lives and we should be proud to contribute to the cause of human advancement blah blah blah. But eventually the ordeal ended and we were dressed in prisoner coveralls and straightjackets, stood up, and marched out of the examination room and down the hall.
  "You two will start out in Lab Alpha, undergoing basic evaluations. Depending on what the results are, you'll be moved to one of the other labs if need be. It all depends on what kind of work needs doing and which lines of research are progressing how quickly." the junior scientist escorting us to our cells - well, the guards were doing the escorting, he was just supervising - explained. "Some sections simply require you to lie there while we examine your neurology in detail. Others require participation in various drills." He stopped and adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses. "Failure to participate will result in heightened compliance measures. It is recommended that you not be recalcitrant."
  "Was anyone else recalcitrant?" I couldn't resist asking, and the nearest guard's reflexive move to club me one was stopped by the scientist's upraised hand.
  "No, that was a valid question. And the answer is, yes, some subjects are." He smiled thinly. "At first. But soon enough, they learn why they should stop."
  "And if they don't?" Puck said quietly.
  "Then they stop anyway. If you understand my meaning." he chuckled. "No further questions."
  "Subject Nine, enter the cell indicated." one of the guards said as we reached the row of sealed compartment doors down the one side of Lab Alpha. One of the doors unsealed simultaneously with the guard speaking so. There were five of them - only one had an occupancy tag on the outside, a laminated picture of one of the eight technomancers we were here to rescue. Not Cat. Apparently the sealed labs used throwback equipment, physical interfaces and no Augmented Reality or wireless equipment. Which made sense if you were imprisoning angry technomancers. I really hoped Puck would have something to work with...
  Puck locked eyes with me. I was sure he'd been repressing flashbacks and PTSD the entire trip down here, given how I'd been told he was a survivor of the Deus AI's mad science empire in the Renraku Arcology. And now he had to willingly enter a sealed, armored box where he could be killed at the push of a button-
  We'd discussed this part before we'd ever gotten this far. If I could draw the guards heat to me as 'resisting prisoner', as opposed to making them think 'rescue attempt', then they wouldn't be using the purge systems. As Sounder had brought to light, one of the reasons prisoners were kept in individually-sealed killing jars as much as possible is so that they wouldn't die if an actual fire required the extinguishers in one of the lab areas or connecting corridors and support spaces to be used. So for as long as nobody was motivated to activate the purge in Puck's cell, being inside the small pressurized armored room was paradoxically the safest place for him. No risk of catching a stray round, for one thing.
  The moment passed and Puck stepped back into his own private hell, and the door sealed behind him.
  "Subject Ten, enter the cell indicated."
  I ignored the guard and took a deep breath. I deliberately began to release the iron control that I'd been clamping down on my thoughts, my actions...
  "Subject Ten! Comply immediately!"
  I thought of Cat being walked or dragged into this place. Her growing despair at seeing the sheer layers and layers and layers of cold, mechanized death that were wrapping further and further around her...
  I thought of her in an interrogation chamber, being worked over by MCT 'specialists'. Rape was vanishingly unlikely, as were things like mutilation - that would have been sadism, and recreational sadism at that. No room for private self-indulgence in Mitsuhama's cold, methodical machine. But that still left a lot of room for things like sleep deprivation... waterboarding... scientific beatings... neurochemicals... electric shocks...
  "Reaction force to Lab Alpha, Subject Ten is erratic!"
  I thought of Cat alone in the dark, undergoing sensory deprivation, of being unable to escape her own nightmares whether waking or asleep. Hemmed in by multiple layers of RF-sealed walls and doors, cut off from the Resonance that had over the past months become as integral a part of her sensorium as her sight or hearing.
  I thought of her clinging to her faith that I would come for her, that we could come for her, but her faithful heart also being at war with her logical head, telling her that I had an entire world to search for her and for all my impossible strength might very well never find her at all , that MCT could and would kill her the instant the complex was in serious danger of being breached, of all the weight of an entire monolith poised to crush her life out in an instant.
  I thought of a brave, intelligent, woman who could find an impossible way out of this trap anyway. Who refused to despair even when poised on the lip of a fearful abyss that made the Dweller on the Threshold look like an unlocked screen door. Who even when entirely cut off from the electromagnetic spectrum, when deprived of anything remotely resembling an electronic system accessible to hacking, let alone a 'Resonance well' as the technomancers termed places in the Matrix particularly friendly to Submersion, had still sought within herself and found a path to the Endless Archive. And had then done what no technomancer before her had done, and used the connection to give knowledge as well as receive it, to leave an impossible message in a bottle in an impossible place beyond the material universe that had been the only thing giving us this chance to save her and everyone else.
  I thought of a woman who, even when betrayed by one megacorporation and subjected to unimaginable brutality by another, naked and helpless in a soulless blighted pit of a death camp where she could literally die at any random instant, still had the kind heart to urge her husband and lover to find happiness where they could. To go on without her if need be, with all her blessings.
  I thought of a woman whose very last words on this Earth might turn out to be "I love you."
  "Subject Ten! You will comply immediately or we will fire!"
  I raised my head, opened my eyes, and turned to look the shouting guard square in the eye.
  "Go to hell."
  And I tore my straightjacket into ribbons like it had been wet tissue paper, raised my fist, and effortlessly put it square through his helmet's faceplate and out the back of his skull.
  Author's Note: Now you can finally start to play the Doom music, guys. I know it was a long wait, and we're still not going to immediately leap into headbutting entire planets into Utopia or shit like that... but ordinary, even very high-level street legend 'ordinary', shadowrunning is about to start falling into the rearview mirror.
  My biggest obstacle in scripting this arc was figuring out how to make Netcat not a princess waiting in another castle while simultaneously not leaning too hard into 'Why didn't you just wait? She'd have broken herself out at the rate she was going' Mary Sue territory. It was a rather difficult Scylla-and-Charybdis thing to navigate. It wasn't until I finally had some inspiration there that I could write the rest of this.
  And yes, in this timeline Puck is going into the depths of a black site with a team of runners to save Netcat, not the reverse. You know how I love irony. :)
  I would like to thank Daemonflayer for his post about Puck earlier in the thread, which led me to take a look at his character with new eyes. I still maintain that Puck did some heinous shit, shit I won't forgive him for, in 4th edition. But that was well after 2070, and it's still late 2068 right now. I hadn't stopped to consider that prior to the canon Emergence, prior to all the shit around that after that, he was still a struggling young man who'd been horribly used and misled. Oh, he's still got some noteworthy sins on his balance sheet, but... well, this time around our heroes started the shadows looking for technomancers earlier, which had people like Smiling Bandit searching earlier, which gave people like Puck a chance to actually not be alone with their struggles.
  And so, new world, new Puck. Because sometimes I just do an act of grace, even to a character whose canon self I would condemn.
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  Blam. Blam. Blam. Blam.
  The shotguns of the guards sounded faintly in my ears, as if it were but distant thunder rumbling over the horizon. The flechettes spattered against my skin like raindrops.
  That very first fight just as I'd first arrived. Those two razorguys who'd blitzed the girl I'd been bodyguarding, the one who later liveblogged it. The Aztechnology Pyramid in Seattle. When that damned tank had almost killed us in Africa. Even the game-winning shot during the World Cup. On those and several other occasions I'd been dimly aware of something more, something greater than merely a physical adept who somehow sidestepped the usual power caps.
  I hadn't known what I'd been subliminally sensing at the time. I'd barely been aware that I was sensing anything unusual at the time, and I'd never pondered it afterwards. The press of events surrounding those moments had entirely drowned out any need for advanced introspection. And for that matter, I still didn't know exactly what I was feeling now. But it certainly wasn't a subliminal awareness anymore.
  My ability to expand my awareness, to enhance my intelligence and overall mental capacity, was also the one ability that I had been most reluctant above all to experiment with. Despite their own significant potential for abuse my other abilities were still entirely within my control. No matter what my strength, I could still choose to not be a bully. No matter how handsome or charming, I could still choose to not seduce under false pretenses. No matter how stealthy, I could still choose to not murder or thieve. But all of that depended on my retaining the sanity to make proper choices, to have the judgement and self-awareness to know right from wrong and the self-control to effectively act upon the difference.
  And any genre fan had already read countless tales of people imbued with mysterious powers to rapidly and easily augment themselves mentally who had then overindulged and entirely lost their sanity in the process. Who'd crippled their ability to exercise rational judgment before they'd even realized it was at risk, and who had no hope of realizing what they were becoming or reversing course in time without it. Who'd turned themselves into inhuman monsters without even intending to because the mentalities of gods had never been intended to be channeled so rapidly, so forcefully, through fragile human neurons and psyches. Gary Mitchell, Divis Mal, Tetsuo, Coin, Jean Grey, Dr. Manhattan, Willow Rosenberg... The list went on and on. There were so many cautionary tales of what could happen when fallible human minds started overclocking themselves too far and too fast.
  So I'd chosen to let myself mentally evolve at a natural pace as best as I could, and not to force it. To merely educate myself into a highly skilled polymath when I could have raced ahead to become a peerless supergenius. To value the individuals around me and to foster connections, to not even dream of walking the path of the Lonely God. To treasure the touchstones that kept me grounded. But now the very dearest of those touchstones was in mortal peril, and I could not save her if I refused to fly.
  And thus I imagined the mysterious force within me asking for permission to answer my deepest need as opposed to merely my desire, and my entire heart and soul joined as one to tell it... yes.
  Everything around me became crystal clear. Every possible detail of my environment simultaneously impinged upon my awareness. Microscopic patterns of wear on web gear and armor joints stood out as if they were holographic highlights. Infinitesimal subtleties of posture and movement cried out clearly even through heavy armor. That guard's place in the formation forced him to shoot to his weak side, but his partner was left-handed. That guard was overconfident. That one was confused. The fastest draw. The best shot. The most skilled melee combatant. The one who hadn't fired yet because he was on the radio to the guardroom, and the one who'd be quickest to attack, and the one most likely to panic...
  Netcat's files had given us the full layout of the sub-level and a personnel roster up to date as of the moment she'd uploaded it.. I knew every room and corridor in the sealed inner section where they held the technomancers. Barring last-minute roster changes in the past several days, I knew exactly how many people would be on shift. I knew the places SOP would have them stationed, and their initial response plans.
  My expanded might thought so swiftly, calculated in so many parallels, that the first volley of fire was still flattening against my skin as I finished computing the tactical tree for the upcoming engagement in my mind, noting the likely shatterpoints and branches, and outlining several possible contingencies. I even had a corner of my mind free to marvel at how everything was so clear, so centered, so focused. Where was the berserker fury? Where was the elemental outpouring of destruction, to crush all that stood in my way?
  But then it became clear to me. The common lexicon drew very little distinction between 'rage' and 'wrath'. After all, weren't they both just words for being really, really angry? But no, there was entirely a difference.
  Rage was fire and fury. Rage was an explosion that leapt out to indiscriminately spend itself down the nearest and most immediate channels. But wrath was entirely different. Wrath did not lash out blindly, it chose its targets with a singular, undying will. Wrath was commitment and focus. Rage could be terrible, but wrath was inevitable.
  And at this moment, so I was I.
  The man I'd just decapitated with a punch was still only beginning to slump to the floor when I opened my clenched fist and casually flicked my hand with impossible precision to splatter his blood and brains off of my fingers and across the faceplates of three of the five guards still standing. In a single continuous motion from my turn I sidestepped further to that guard's weak side, his second shotgun blast failing to follow my movements and instead rippling the air immediately behind me. The fifth man's line of fire was blocked by the fourth man for just an instant, and that gave me enough time to plant my lead foot and kick. My blow simultaneously tore the shotgun loose from the hands of the man who'd just missed me and sent him stumbling back hard into the fifth man, leaving them both falling back onto one of the lab benches.
  Just as I had with the knife of the ork in the alley, I effortlessly reached out and caught the weapon of the man I'd just disarmed before it could fall. While normally a megacorporate facility like this would have had all weapons code-locked to individual users, whether by biometrics or implanted RFID tags, the unique security concerns of technomancers meant that all equipment in here was as non-wirelessly-networked as possible. So these men were armed with simple non-smart-linked, non-safety-locked laser-sighted weapons no more advanced than the ones of a generation ago. Still more than serviceable for killing, particularly when used by heavily-armored men against unarmed prisoners at short range, but also still unsophisticated enough they could be turned against their wielders as simply as grabbing one.
  Admittedly, the fact that these men were in heavy security armor and using weapons optimized for non armor-piercing, as an extra precaution against a prisoner seizing a weapon, was a bit of a complication. But even the best armor didn't do much for you when the muzzle of the weapon was directly up under your chin, and so died one of the blinded guards before he could even begin to re-orient. I brought my borrowed weapon up in a flashing swing to knock aside another man's weapon, leaving him expending his follow-up shot into the ceiling, and then stepped into the third for another point-blank execution. The two men I'd sent dogpiling onto the lab bench were just starting to gain their feet when I slowed them up for another second by throwing my 'borrowed' shotgun at the topmost man's helmet hard enough to momentarily rattle him, and then I grabbed the second man as he was trying to frantically wipe his smeared faceplate clear enough to see and spun him around as a human shield while my free hand yanked his pistol out of his holster. Two quick shots found the tiny gaps in the armor joints of the men by the workbench with even more impossible precision, and then the man in my grip went with a clean neck-break.
  I looked around for the sneering little scientist who'd been giving us the speech and saw him slumped against the wall by Puck's cell door, already dying from a stray shot from one of the guards. That would be inconvenient, as our plan had been to extract as many of the researchers alive as possible. Still, he wasn't dead yet and that meant his thumbprint would still work on the lock for the cell, at least for the next couple of minutes. Saved me from having to rip it open. A few more quick shots from my pistol destroyed the security cams in the lab - not that they were normally that obvious to sight, but in my current state of heightened awareness they might well have been.
  Puck's wide eyes met mine as the door swung wide. I nodded to him and then quickly turned and bent down to draw 'random' blood smears on the helmet of the man I'd killed with the neck-breaker. "Can you connect from here?"
  "No immediate links available." Puck answered, still looking around at the carnage in either awe or shock. "Maybe I can do something with the lab terminal-"
  "I left this one's armor intact for you to use. Put it on and if you can't work from here, then head for the security station once I've cleared the corridors enough. You should have a direct hardline connection to the central systems from there, even if nowhere else."
  "Got it." Puck nodded. "Good luck."
  I smiled at him, finished swiping the few most immediately useful things from the dead, and then ran for the door. Whiie the lab director or his security chief would be reluctant to enact the purge prematurely - they had a lot invested in this research, after all. But we still had a narrow time window before the lab director or his security chief finished running around their decision loops for long enough to decide that the situation was beyond salvage anyway.
  The six men I'd just killed had been the two guards originally escorting us and a four-man reaction team they'd called as soon as I started signs of resistance. The explosion of violence I'd just enacted would have the men in the security station putting the entire lab section on alert. So right now all of the other labs were sealing up tight to keep the active shooter from reaching them, while everybody else on guard shift and not already in the labs would be forming up into teams and converging on my location through the hallways.
  I set off at a dead run direct for the main airlock leading out of the sealed section to the staff living quarters of the sub-level, where the elevator to the surface was already located. Let them think I was a berserking prisoner making a blind run for it. They'd already have a pre-established drill for that, methodically calculated with precision and set up to take optimum advantage of their home field as best as they could. Which was just what I wanted. After all, there were far fewer correct answers to any given question than incorrect ones, which meant under the right circumstances it was easier to predict competent opponents than stupid ones.
  As I was heading away from Lab Alpha and back towards the airlock, a pair of guards blocked the hallway ahead of me almost exactly on schedule. Ignoring them for the moment I converted my headlong run into a diving forward flip, used my infinitesimal instant of being upside down in mid-air to snap two quick shots through the gaps in the armored neck joints of the pair of men coming up behind me, then smoothly tucked into a roll beneath the volley from the men in front to kill them with two more pistol shots to the same weakness in their armor. Having barely broken stride in the process, I resumed my run, only to suddenly break into a baseball slide just as I reached the corner.
  With the sudden change of my profile from 'standing' to 'prone', the rigger-controlled turret covering that hallway junction put the burst of minigun fire just over my head instead of into it. Not that I would actually be injured if it hit me, but on the off chance of any security logs actually surviving this run I'd prefer it if the video evidence of my rampage 'merely' had me displaying entirely implausible levels of skill and cinematic toughness as opposed to explicitly advertising that I was an Outside Context Problem come visiting. And so I let the minigun fire narrowly miss me while I tossed a 'borrowed' frag grenade with preternatural accuracy right into the exposed turret mount, and let the immediately following detonation blow it into a sparking, shuddering wreck right before it could finish adjusting its arc of fire.
  A burst of pure mana erupted around and within me. One of MCT's security mages had arrived, and he'd gone straight for the kill. The mana spells were the most elementary and yet often the most effective class of offensive magic - they channeled destructive magical power directly into the aura, ignoring all things of the material universe as if they weren't there and harming only living or magical targets. The weakest mana bolt cast by the rawest apprentice could penetrate any arbitrary thickness of laminate armor - provided it was transparent, as line-of-sight was still a requirement - to kill a target on the other side as if they'd been firing through so much air. They still had to overcome the resistance posed by a target's willpower or magical defenses, but they were still a logical first choice to use on a man who'd recently demonstrated that he could ignore gunfire.
  I ignored the mage as readily as I'd ignored his spell to concentrate on the man next to him. The arriving six-man specialist team who'd rushed right to take up a final defensive line around the airlock had included a mage, a heavy weapons trooper, and four elite shooters, straight out of the manual. Although the APDS-loaded assault rifles on the shooters was entirely per SOP, I'd been expecting a Vindicator minigun or perhaps an assault cannon on the heavy weapons trooper as opposed to what he was carrying. Which was a Mitsuhama knockoff of the Ares MP Laser man-portable energy weapons system.
  I had no real fear that my invulnerability could be compromised even by a cut-down version of the anti-vehicle laser cannons they mounted on AFVs, even one that required a substantial and bulky battery pack just to hold twenty shots' worth of juice. But I still didn't want to get hit by one of those things on-camera if I could readily avoid it, so my first shot went into the gunner's eye socket via the targeting scope of his laser cannon than into the mage. Which gave the mage a chance for his follow-up attack, a powerball charged with everything he possibly had, to erupt around me. A physical instead of a mana-class spell, the area-effect attack managed to blow my remaining clothes into scattered rags and wreck every weapon I had on me even though it didn't touch me.
  Which was of course the cue for the riflemen to volley fire. My superhuman speed of reaction put me prone on the deck to evade the first shot, but it would have been the work of a moment for them to simply adjust fire downward. So both my hands reached down with fingers outstretched to claw through the armored floor plates, and with a heave of my forearms I tore up an entire square section of the armorplast and then crouch-walked forward as I brought it to the vertical like an improvised wall. My shield bought me sufficient time against the incoming hail of fire to resume standing, but I could already feel a third spell - a powerbolt - crack it down the middle even as the APDS rifle ammunition began to chip it.
  So I let go, and then with impossible balance and poise had my foot snap out in a crossover sidekick for my heel to land micrometrically above the exact center of gravity of the floor plate. It rocketed sideways down the corridor, the center of gravity staying precisely on the arc I'd calculated for it as the rest of the plate slowly revolved around it, and after going through a full 270 degrees of spin the plate slammed edge-first directly into the faceplates of all five men. After all, what formation allows five men in a hallway to all have a clear shot at the same target? A side-by-side phalanx, of course. So while the impact didn't quite tear their heads loose from their necks, the almost two hundred pounds of armorplast traveling at a speed more appropriate to a major league fastball slamming directly into their foreheads did certainly cause enough whiplash to snap five sets of cervical vertebrae as easily as breadsticks.
  I darted forward to open the inner airlock door and noted with a touch of admiration that somebody on the other side had been thinking very fast. According to the indicator the outer door had already been opened, and was being kept open so that the purely mechanical safety interlock would still make it impossible to open the inner door even if all the lock control systems were otherwise hacked. Not only would this keep me penned in the sealed lab, it would make it impossible for me to barricade the airlock door from my side by leaving the inner door wedged open. Point to MCT.
  So I wedged the inner door shut instead, by using the laser cannon's reinforced chrome-iridium barrel as a giant armored door bar and wedged it in to where the dogs of the hatch couldn't turn. I had enough to do with hunting down and killing all the rats already in the innermost section of this trap, the rest of the base could simply wait their turn.
  I calculated furiously even as my hands finished barring the door. The guards in the inner lab section have just seen their preset script collapse and are going to have to start freelancing. Headcount of men I've already killed. Exact subtleties of timing and approach. Distant echoes subliminally perceived cries for help, shouted commands... patrol routes... time-and-motion calculations...
  I headed for the chief researcher's office, hefting my new hypervelocity assault rifle. Loaded with armor-piercing-discarding-sabot ammunition, this was just the thing for chewing directly through the heavy body armor on the guards. I killed another two-man team on my way there, hearing their approaching footsteps before they'd even rounded the corner and catching each of them with a neat burst to the head the instant they'd come into line of sight. Stepping over their bodies literally without breaking stride, I sneered at the sealed office door - a simple interior door, this one, not an armored airtight hatch - and booted it. The rifle left my hands in a lazy toss the instant the broken door cleared my line of sight enough to see where my target was standing, slammed sideways off the head of the man hard enough to daze him, and neatly bounced right back into my hand as I stepped into the office and caught the crumpling man by the collar with my other hand. The pistol he'd been holding in his shaking hands to try and defend himself with fell to the floor, unfired.
  "I know you can hear me, assholes, so back off!" I shouted. "Unless you want this fucker's brains to be paint!"
  "How are you doing this?" Dr. Charlton - it was on the nameplate on his desk - gasped. "These powers are entirely unprecedented for virtuakinetics-"
  "I'm a physical adept, you drekhead." I growled in a coarse, lower-class accent. "Your idiot bounty hunters grabbed me when I was out with one of them and just thought we both were. Didn't they say something about 'possible only' and 'verify once I was here?'"
  "Ah-ah-" he babbled in terror as I manhandled him back down the hallway. "If- if you're not really a valid research subject than we can, ah, ah, possibly negotiate a release-"
  "That's what I want." I agreed. "Of course, it ain't like I'm gonna trust you fucks so the first step towards you not getting wasted is we go to the chief screw in this madhouse and talk to him." I stopped at the first junction coming back from his office. "Where the fuck is he?"
  Dr. Charlton frantically pointed towards the security station - I knew it where was already, of course, but this was a role-play - and off we went. Soon enough I was confronting the chief guard of the sealed section and his surviving men - all eleven of them - through the window of the enclosed station. My enhanced hearing could dimly pick up the talk from inside.
  "Arakashi-san, he has our chief researcher!"
  "The priority is immediate containment! Researchers can be replaced."
  "We do not have to actually yield to his demands, nor should we! Simply pretend to allow him to escape and then confine and destroy him in the elevator shaft!"
  "We will take this under advisement. For now, you have your orders."
  "Let me in!" I said, the pistol barrel directly underneath Dr. Charlton's chin.
  "I cannot-" the chief guard began.
  "Motherfucker, did you think I did not notice all your guys were wearing sealed helmets? I am not waiting around for you to say 'fuck it' and pump in the Seven-7. We continue these negotiations in the only room in this place I am sure the gas vents don't go into. Yours."
  "That will not be-"
  "As soon as I think I'm dead anyway, what happens? Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven!"
  "WAIT!" he cried. "Let me move some of these people out so you can come in first!"
  My enhanced hearing picked up the footsteps of men moving out the rear entrance to the room... and some suspiciously muffled noises even closer. The guards I could see continued holding their corners to each side of me down the corridor.
  "Oh thank God!" Dr. Charlton breathed in relief.
  "Okay! Go around to the right, the door will be unlocked!" the chief guard called.
  I deliberately didn't look up at a certain pair of ceiling corners in the little alcove-hallway that led to the security booth's front door. I'll give MCT an 'A' for effort here, the advanced ruthenium-polymer chameleon jumpsuits on those cyber-ninjas was doing a wonderful job of cloaking them on both visible light and IR frequencies... but to astral sight? They were literally Day-Glo silhouettes against a black background.
  So I obligingly walked into the trap, less obligingly shoved Dr. Charlton in through the open security room door as I leaned to the side just enough for the one cyber-ninja's mono-edged katana to go over my left ear instead of thrust through my skull as the other one's slash at my spine fell just an inch too short, and crushed the first ninja's skull with an elbow strike while I reached up and elegantly redirected his dying slash with a deft butterfly tap to his wrist so that his sword cut his partner's head off instead.
  To be fair, both of those guys had been implanted with some of the most advanced move-by-wire central nervous system augmentation around - the stuff that had been real popular in the early 2060s but had started falling out of favor when it turned out there was no real way around the 'you almost inevitably end up a severe Parkinson's case inside twenty years from the destructive overclocking'. But you still occasionally ran into people who'd gotten those mods back before they'd fully appreciated the side effects, and when they worked they let people move with a swiftness, dexterity, and superhuman speed of reaction not even the highest-grade deltaware wired reflexes could match and even most physical adepts couldn't dream of seeing.
  I went through this latest pair of tackling dummies without any real effort and curled a lip with sardonic amusement as I took up my latest addition to the weapon collection. Really, they handed me an advanced composite katana with an advanced monofilament inlay edge designed for slicing right through modern body armor just like that? Were they trying to bore me to death? Well, now that a weapon positively optimized for allowing a superhuman melee specialist to kill as many men as quickly as possible at short range had literally just fallen right into my lap, I might as well finish up on that chore.
  The chief guard shrugged off his frozen panic just in time for me to cut his first bullet out of the air - no, of course the katana didn't shatter, you could literally split a soft-nosed pistol bullet with a butter knife if you hit it edge-on - and then split his head. I slammed the still-prone Dr. Charlton to the floor as I used him as a springboard to come up-and-over and kill one man with a slash, rebound my extended foot off the wall and cut down another man en passant, then spin and thrust up under my elbow and behind me to catch a third man in the heart. I pulled the pins on two flashbangs from a dead guard's web gear and didn't even bother to remove the grenades as I just tossed his entire corpse back out the door, and used that momentary distraction to get back out in the hall, with the katana in one hand and an ADPS-loaded SMG in the other, to deal with the remaining men.
  By the time Puck arrived in his borrowed armor I'd put Dr. Charlton in a chair in the corner - one of the very few not coated in blood - where he remained huddled in near-catatonic terror while I methodically worked the keyboard. Yes, actual manual input, how very anti-technomancer retro. The security displays obligingly told me what I wanted to know. Five remaining labs besides the one we were in, all the 'research subjects' confined back in their cell-capsules as per lockdown protocols, fourteen remaining research staff... and, yup, clean sweep of all the guards on this side of the airlock.
  "All right, I'm in." Puck said as he appropriated the now-deceased security rigger's couch and closed his eyes as he mentally connected to the systems. "Okay, now."
  I reached out and physically ripped loose the right junction box in the maintenance space just off the security booth. Since the CO2 purge systems were piggybacked on the original fire extinguisher systems, the cable runs for them ran right through here. I hadn't dared to physically tear out the hard lines until Puck was on station to block any last-second button pushes from the main facility control center outside the sealed lab - they'd obviously do that as soon as they realized what our true objective was, of course - but now that he was here, it was time to make absolutely sure that danger would be spiked.
  "Status?" I asked Puck.
  "The researchers don't know what to do, and nobody's told them it's more than just a loose subject so they're not even thinking of purging on their own." Puck reassured me. "I already let the other one in Lab Alpha out and put him in a safe place, so we can use that room."
  "And use it we will." I agreed. "After you cut the sealed section's PA systems out of circuit from the main, then use the chief guard's voice to announce that the intruder has been killed and the lockdown is over. Then order all the remaining researchers to secure their research subjects intact, and report to Lab Alpha for a headcount. And lock 'em all in there in as soon as they're all present."
  "On it." Puck nodded, and smiled for the first time since this had started. "I'll start working on the main computer as soon as they're all locked in. Your wife is in Lab Bravo-Two, and-"
  I was already halfway down the hall before he could finish the sentence.
  Although while I was certainly frantically rushing off, I was not frantically rushing off to immediately fling myself into the arms of my beloved. For one thing, I was not only buck-ass nude but also literally soaked from head to toe in the blood and dried brains of my enemies. So despite my haste I would still have to at least stop long enough to take a quick shower, and then find some clothes to wear. Plus I'd have to make sure that our ruse had actually worked and I didn't have to actually go roust out any stragglers or have any last-minute hostage stand-offs over the life of one of the research subjects.
  But it only took a few minutes to handle those necessary chores, and with my heart beating a mile a minute I finally approached the lab Puck had designated. My jaw clenched and my stomach fell as I saw that she was comatose and lying on a diagnostic hospital bed with literal electrodes on her head-
  Forcing myself to stay calm and check out the status displays and her attached chart was the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life. Subject Eight, the cold and merciless documentation said. Subjected to four days of 'augmented interrogation' after in-processing - a small corner of my mind noted that at least I'd guessed right about the lack of rape or permanent injury, even if the chemicals and waterboarding had gotten pretty harsh - then they'd started the neurological studies. Anomalous coma and unresponsive for days 5 and 6 - that must have been when she hacked the Archives - and then...
  I finished going through her chart, noted her diagnostics, and let my paramedical training walk me through the necessary procedures. A nearby medical supply locker gave me the proper injection, and I slotted it into her IV and waited.
  Her eyes opened, and after far too long a moment they focused on me. The sheer coruscating hatred that she radiated back up at me sent me into a screaming panic. Oh my God, somehow they've wiped her mind-!
  ... and then I realized that I was still wearing a fake face and a 'borrowed' MCT lab uniform.
  "Uh... you want to just log off and go hang out or something?" I facepalmed while experimentally verifying that my immortality did in fact also extend to not dying of embarrassment.
  Cat's eyes widened like a squirrel's at not only hearing my voice but also hearing me repeat the first pickup line that I'd ever used on her, and then she began laughing so hard that she almost set off the medical monitors.
  "Where are we?" I asked Puck as I re-entered the booth. Cat was in good shape - relatively speaking - because even though the first round of interrogations had finished she'd still been earmarked for eventual follow-up interrogations about Horizon's research at length. So her records had been flagged for 'no destructive procedures'. It had still been no picnic, and I was already hoping Smiling Bandit or someone else on JackPoint knew a good psychologist for a post-trauma checkout and if necessary counseling, but she was alive, she would recover, she was still here-
  "The main server is crushed." Puck grinned nastily. "It was tricky getting an outside line open, but their security deckers didn't have much experience at dealing with sprites. They were so busy suppressing me that they ignored what my sprite was doing to re-enable the external hardline until it was too late. And once the JackPointers could come in-"
  "Any risk they can cut it off again manually from this end?" I said. "Or just crash the host? Even Bandit and Pistons were not entirely confident of the odds of working through such a narrow external connection."
  "There was a last-minute change of plan." Puck said. "While you and I were out of contact on the way here-" he shook his head wonderingly. "We'd kept the full scope of the operation as discreet as possible from the second wave of volunteers before the final kickoff, but this guy called Slamm-0 had put together enough of the pieces to figure it out anyway. Apparently he was a fan of Cat's Matrix research or something, so he'd already known-" Puck shrugged. "At any rate, he knew what we were going to do before Frosty did the final briefing. So he did what Bandit and Pistons didn't do, because he was too clueless to know that Bandit had already written off asking him to roll on this one due to his blowing Bandit off about the Emergence project some months ago."
  "Fastjack deployed on this one?" I asked incredulously, knowing exactly who Bandit had complained about being unable to reach before. "No wonder they crushed the main host as soon as you got the door ajar!"
  "And all because this guy barely older than me in Seattle was smart enough to figure it out and dumb enough to not know not to leak it." Puck agreed ruefully. "This whole op has been nothing but non-stop weird."
  "The story of this guy's life." Cat joked from where she was still in her wheelchair. "But it grows on you after a while."
  "What are the rest of the sub-level guards doing?" I asked, switching back to professional mode.
  The main display in the security booth switched to a picture of the scene on the outside of the airlock. Wait, that was a demolitions team!
  "You think you might have called me?" I asked Puck.
  "I would have if they were ready to go, but they're still trying to figure out a way to breach a level 5 security barrier they engineered to not be vulnerable to a hostile team of sappers." Puck explained. "So it'd be at least ten more minutes before they got enough explosives ready, if not twenty. Especially given that they're distracted by none of their automated security working anymore and-"
  The display switched and split to show multiple camera views of most of the rest of the guards stacked up on the bottom of the elevator shaft, ranging from the immediate defensive line ready to enfilade the elevator in multiple overlapping fields of fire to the secondary and tertiary lines behind them in the corridors leading away from the shaft bottom.
  "-they're about ready to deal with that."
  "The topside teams got through?" I said relievedly.
  "Got through?" Puck said proudly. "Here's some playback."
  The vision block switched to security recordings of the recent action topside that Puck now had access to from the thoroughly compromised central computer, some of it even from the overhead patrol drones circling the camp. The images switched one to another in a hurried montage-
  The sudden panic on the faces of guards as Fastjack, Smiling Bandit, Pistons, and all the other deckers who'd volunteered crushed all the camp's systems and jacked the rest. Which meant that their own drones were starting to shoot down at them, and all their air-defense artillery and most of their fixed gun emplacements were offline-
  The main gate of the camp being blown open from half a mile away by a 125mm railgun, a weapon normally used as the primary armament on first-line main battle tanks, except this one had been retrofitted onto a heavily-customized vectored-thrust Banshee LAV. One whose chameleon paint was currently set in an entirely non-military bright red-and-yellow pattern and with nose art proudly proclaiming it to be The Screaming Rat Frag II, which was leading a small convoy of other vehicles of every size and description right down the entrance road and towards the wire-
  Sounder's helicopter swooping in low to let a team led by Hard Exit fast-rope right onto the roof of the camp command center, before moving off to start delivering close air support with the nose guns-
  Pandemonium erupting among the hastily-forming MCT defensive lines as heavy sapper charges detonated in the background, as men I recognized as being from "Rifleman" McCord's Bravo Company, a specialized unit of mercenary commandos led by an old friend of Picador's, leapt out from where they'd infiltrated the camp immediately before the battle and started their particular brand of chaos-
  Pistons and Fatima leading more runners I didn't recognize across the same concentration camp loading dock I'd crossed only - God, had that been less than an hour ago? - as they fought their way in towards the top of the main elevator shaft-
  The camera views switched back to the men stacked up at the bottom of the shaft. "They're about to breach." Puck said.
  "Can you use the sentry guns on them? Clear the entry team's path?" I asked.
  "They manually blew their own gun turrets as soon as they realized they weren't getting control of the guns or the electrical power distribution back." Puck said.
  "Shit! And if I open the door to go out and help them, I risk all the helpless people in here-" I agonized in indecision. "Fuck it, our turrets still work. I'll-"
  And then the elevator doors began to crack open and the decision was taken entirely out of my hands.
  At least fifteen men were already dialed in on that door, with everything from hypervelocity assault rifles like the one I'd recently used to assault cannons, grenade launchers, sec-mages, and even two more laser troopers. Sergeant Ivan on the best day of his life couldn't have hoped to survive a tenth of that fire, and that old troll had been so tough he'd been almost as unkillable as me. I winced inside as I realized that I was too late to stop friends of mine from dying-
  And then the elevator doors stopped after they'd opened only a bare couple inches, and before the guards could catch up to what had just happened the biggest damn fireball that I had ever even heard of erupted in the center of that room. As an indirect area spell the casting mage had only needed line-of-sight to the center of effect, and the blast wave would erupt out and hit them from there. Every guard within radius of the effect was taken completely out of action, literally sent flying from the force of the blast as they were cooked at least halfway to death inside their armor.
  The doors resumed opening to reveal Frosty standing dead center in the formation, literally crackling with power like an angry goddess. Flanking her as she stepped out and started burning down every MCT guard she could see with mana bolts were Hard Exit and Rifleman, both of whom immediately dashed on her left wing and right wing with literally eye-blurring speed. Breaking Hard Exit's own rule about not fighting in a basement with grenade launchers, they each pumped a thermobaric from their underbarrels into the two nearest clumps of the secondary defensive line outside the room and then started serving APDS headshots with a cybernetically-augmented or adept-augmented speed and murderous accuracy almost rivaling me.
  A round dozen of other JackPointers piled out from behind them and made sure the dying guards on the floor were actually dead before peeling off behind the point team to go join the fun. By the time that was done the elevator finished coming back down with another load of shooters underneath the command of Bravo Company's XO, who peeled off to go make sure the staff quarters were secured while the first team hurried to join Frosty's ongoing one-elf rampage of destruction towards the airlock. I was going to have to talk to her about that later... well, maybe not.
  I stepped back to lean down and let Cat get an arm around me to hug and be hugged, as we both teared up in relief. The plan had worked. The inside team of me and Puck had secured the sealed lab and removed all immediate threats, then we'd opened up the hardline so the hackers could take the central computer for the sub-level to match the job they'd already done topside. Meanwhile, everybody we'd assembled for the assault left their prepared positions nearby in the Mojave and ran for the wire as soon as MCT was restricted to small arms and the few combat vehicles they'd been able to get into action - which had mostly been dealt with by their own hijacked close-air support drones.
  Almost two dozen JackPointers ranging from old friends to total strangers whose names I still didn't have had joined the Bravo Company detachments we'd hired as force augmenters for the assault. As soon as Fastjack's team up top knew the kickoff had started, they'd moved in. A killing jar worked as well to keep people out as well as in, so all we'd had to do was bar the airlock from the inside and wait for the siege to be relieved-
  "There you are!" Frosty's shout interrupted us as she burst into the room and immediately moved to kneel down in front of me and Cat while she frantically started casting diagnostic spells. "Are you all right? Did Wild Man already get the ones who tortured you or are there any left for me? Do you know how worried we've been? Answer me, dammit!" Jane begged before looking up at me. "Why isn't she talking? Did they-?"
  I put my hand over Jane's mouth.
  "I was just waiting for a chance to get a word in edgewise." Cat said gently.
  Jane glared heatedly at us both. "Did you plan this? Just to get me to embarass myse-" and then she stopped herself and shook her head, breaking out into helpless laughter as her eyes started to tear up. "Hey you." she said softly to Cat.
  "Hey you too." Cat leaned forward out of her wheelchair to hug her and Jane hugged back. "It's okay, Jane. I'm all right. I'm here."
  "Yeah." Jane exhaled, before making a valiant effort to get her war face back on. "So. The chair?"
  "Just a precaution." I said. "As soon as Bandit clears her, she can walk with us right out of here."
  "Speaking of that," Smiling Bandit broke in, "Puck already has his, but you're both going to need your antidote injections." He leaned over and expertly gave one to Cat, then to me. "There you go. I'll want you to get a blood test tomorrow to make sure it took, but you've got at least 48 hours until the earliest possible danger period can start and I just doublechecked in the lab computer that the RNA keys you got to me are still current."
  "Good." Cat exhaled in relief.
  "Make a hole!" Pistons cried loudly as her and Fatima finally forced their way past the crush and joined the tears and hugging parade.
  "Not to be a bastard, but clock's ticking." Rifleman broke in.
  "Major McCord?" Cat greeted him puzzledly. "Not that I'm not happy to see you, but I was expecting the 77th to deploy on this op if anyone did."
  "Corporal Connors." he greeted her with a wicked grin. "As to that, Carmen sends her warmest regards and you'll see her soon. But right now she's got a different tasking."
  "Yeah, her job is to take him into custody." Hard Exit grinned amiably.
  "What?" Cat asked confusedly.
  "It's a Kansas City shuffle." Pistons explained to her. "Officially, concerned parties of an unspecified nature hired Bravo Company to search and destroy a particularly nasty biowarfare lab that they'd just gotten intel that MCT was running. And so Rifleman's troops came in and did their usual superlative job... all by themselves."
  "But lo and behold, when we get here we don't just find a hot bio-lab, we find 'crimes against humanity' level research involving experimenting on innocent metahumans!" Rifleman grinned. "So since we don't have the capacity to secure and medevac that sort of humanitarian crisis all by ourselves, we're forced to break stealth and call for assistance."
  "Enter the 77th Independent Rangers, 'coincidentally' nearby on a training mission in the old Mojave maneuver grounds and old friends of Rifleman here." Fatima chimed in. "Who will, precisely as the Mercenary Guild canons require, coordinate with local authorities to legally resolve the situation and take all suspect parties into custody."
  "Especially us nasty non-Guild, half-merc/half-runner PMC covert tactical teams." Rifleman said amusedly. "So there we are, suffering the horrors of being 'detained' by some of my best friends. Who are also a large enough independent mercenary force that the MCT reinforcements currently trying to rush here from Barstow are having problems getting past a rather large and insistent roadblock and won't get to 'detain' us themselves."
  "So everybody's back in CalFree territory by the time the reinforcements can get unstuck, not MCT extraterritorial turf, meaning that MCT loses the jurisdiction fight there. And by that time, all the runners who were never here in the first place, along with any of the rescue victims who don't want to be officially rescued, will be smoke in the wind." I explained.
  "But doesn't that leave you stuck in a rather large crack, sir?" Cat asked Rifleman.
  "The odds of California Free State deciding to extradite us to MCT are negative point zip." he snorted. "Leaving aside the current political situation and the number of people who owe other people involved in this op some favors-"
  "Plus the part where the fix is in, given that the local CalFree official who'd be the only one who could extradite the trespassers before it escalated to the governor is currently enjoying the brand new Mitsubishi Nightsky someone bought him for an early Christmas present." Frosty chuckled.
  "And as soon as it gets to the governor's mansion then it's... wait, the corp with the most influence there right now is Horizon!" Cat said, before catching on. "But they want other corps to be revealed as being awful to technomancers, as part of Case Charlie! So even if they curse that the Emergence is kicking off early, they'll roll with the punch because they've got no other choice-"
  "MCT bad, heroic rescuers good, slaps on the wrist all around and please don't do it again." Rifleman nodded. "Damn sure beats the last time I got caught on the wrong side of a border after pissing in one of the big boys' coffee mugs. And yes, MCT's going to put me on their shit list. They suck anyway, and I've already way up on the Azzies' shit list so they can just take a number and wait." he finished arrogantly.
  "And it's not like anybody's going to tell them that you were one of the technomancers detained here."I agreed. "So right now they're wondering where I got lost to, but that's hardly conclusive enough to stop them from doing what they need to do to roll right into the play here."
  Hard Exit tapped her headset. "Okay, they're getting close. We've got fifteen minutes at best, so time to start rolling. Bandit, is everyone who said they're leaving with us cleared to move?"
  "Yes." he said. "Butch should have no problem treating them on her end. In my persona as the 'biohazard consultant' the Major hired, I have to stay here and play along." He smiled. "Which coincidentally leaves me able to officially testify on everything I saw in this lab, in sufficient expert detail that MCT's usual spin brigade will not find it so convenient to slip away, as well as ensuring that any lab records that would prove problematic to the desired scenario are... de-emphasized?"
  "Plus we took the chief researcher and most of his staff alive, and some of them are going to CalFree and some others are leaving with us to be dropped off with various other alphabet agencies in the UCAS." Fatima explained.
  "I didn't take all those CIA contracts just to lose the phone numbers when they could be useful." Rifleman nodded.
  "How did you set all this up in barely eleven days?" she asked me in wonder.
  "It wasn't easy!" I cracked, before continuing more soberly with a nod to Jane and all the rest. "And I had a lot of help. Some friends, some friends of friends-"
  "And a lot more enemies of Mitsuhama." Fatima joked.
  "We need to start moving, people, it's getting close up there." Hard Exit nudged us gently.
  Jane helped me get Cat to her feet as we prepared to leave. "You heard the lady, time to go."
  "Go where?" she asked. "It's certainly not like Horizon's a valid option." she sneered in their general direction.
  "For right now, back to the shadows." Jane and I nodded to each other. "In the long run? ... not gonna lie, I wasn't making any big plans for past today." I looked at Cat soberly. "Not until I knew who I'd be planning for."
  "So you're saying that after burning down pretty much everything we'd built up to date, your only plan for beyond that point was 'wing it'?" Cat replied, but with the beaming smile on her face entirely belying her words.
  "Worked out for us so far, hasn't it?" I smiled back. "Let's roll."
  Author's Note: Jesus fucking Christ, this chapter is maybe the hardest one I've ever done. For any story, not just this story. I am still terrified it's not gonna entirely work out after that much build-up. And I actually ran out of ways to creatively describe killing people towards the end, hence, y'know, not. Let me tell you, action movie fight choreographers ain't paid enough.
  As to the lack of a smoking crater and Omni-Man level splattering, note that the long game they're setting up (some of which you just heard) requires a certain level of plausible deniability re: the forensic evidence left behind - and even then Bandit's gonna have to do some serious crime scene cleanup, one of the reasons he's staying behind. Also, even though Wild Man is unleashing the thunder more now he's still not going to waste effort. They're dead, he won, he moves on. Making a splatter art project out of it is not his style. And we still got into the seriously bullshit range with some of those moves, like, come on. *g*
  I didn't name all the JackPointer cameos for the same reason the 77th is not actually on-stage, conservation of detail. Also to let you imagine that maybe your fave boy was there, even if he wasn't mentioned. Word bloat kills momentum, and this chapter was all about momentum, climax, and then denouement. But even the cool-off has to be paced.
  Furthermore, you finally get the reason he was so reluctant to ramp up his IQ so superhumanly. Anything else he ramps up, he can still be sure he can ramp down. He starts pushing the 'mutate brain' button on his powers with an incomplete understanding of what his power does... well. It's the same logic that makes you not chart the limits of your invulnerability by shooting yourself in the head. What if you misunderestimated? What if? Seriously, check out that list of names, and marvel at how incomplete it is.
  For those who think Bravo Company is way too convenient - they are canon, what they do is canon, who owes them favors is canon, and Rifleman and Picador being best buds is canon. So while it certainly was convenient for me, I didn't hack them up just to make it easy for myself. They were already there in the SR toolkit.
  Lastly, I have minor outpatient surgery coming up in a couple of days - nothing huge, just a little procedure - so there will be a short writing break after this chapter or the next.
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  Threadmarks: Interlude - Gary Cline (Shadowrun)
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  "It's good to see you, Gary." Sarah McClain shook my hand. I didn't need my AR display and facial recognition/real-time database lookup algorithms to remind me that 'Fireball's' social relevance was the team captain of LA's - which really meant 'Horizon's', of course - Urban Brawl franchise. Nor to remind me of all the pending action items linked to the Bolts, especially not the most vexing of them all-
  "I wasn't aware you were a fan of the opera." I answered her amiably. Because I wasn't, there were no indicators of a prior interest in the field at all. No prior purchases of tickets, no streaming downloads of opera-related media-
  "Well, it's never too late to try new things." she answered me, before continuing more soberly. "Oh, and along that line I have a heads-up. He hasn't set a date on the announcement yet but Andrew - you know, Silver Streak? - just decided to retire."
  "Damn." I said passionately. "With one of the team's best scouts already missing, we're soon to lose the other one?" I observed the obvious, and raised an inward eyebrow at McClain's momentary wince. "I'm sorry, I know that sounded insensitive."
  "No, no, it was the obvious thought." she replied. "Pity about what happened."
  "A great pity." I answered with my best commiserating smile. "But-" I allowed my expression to appear downcast. "I think I can understand why."
  "Sir?" she asked me anxiously.
  "Our investigators have concluded that it was almost certainly MCT who'd involuntarily extracted Catherine, but-" I sighed lugubriously. "You of course saw the breaking news about the 'technomancer' research lab of MCT's that was publicly exposed several days ago?"
  "No sir, I was entirely unaware of the lead worldwide breaking news event of the past seventy-two hours." she snorted mildly.
  "What you are almost certainly genuinely unaware of is that Catherine also had those abilities. Tam's people had been working in secret to try and find better ways to safely develop them-" I waved my hand dismissively. "The point is, by now our intelligence section is almost certain that MCT was the corporation that had involuntarily extracted her."
  "But... she wasn't one of the five people those mercenaries recovered from the lab." Sarah said soberly. "Which means she's-" Her expression fell. "That's horrible."
  "It entirely is." I nodded. "And of course, wherever he might be right now Alex will also have seen that news." I sighed and shook my head. "I don't think he's going to be coming back, Sarah."
  "Neither do I, Gary." she said, staring me levelly in the eye. "I just hope that wherever he ends up, it's a better place."
  "I entirely agree." I reassured her, while thinking into my trodes to send a private text.
  "Sir?" Sandra DeVries, the Dawkins Group assistant VP tasked to the Emergence project who was currently in her public persona as an anonymous mid-ranking senior executive assistant of some type, quietly came up alongside me as she responded to my message. "If I might have a moment?"
  "Of course. Excuse me, Sarah, I have to take this." I said, and left with him on my way to head up to my opera box. Ah, the good old 'I'm being paged' excuse, a time-honored favorite for escaping unwanted conversations.
  "You're late." Tam Reyes greeted me nervously as I joined him in the box. "Wasn't the whole point of this appearance to show how confident and life-goes-on and everything we were, even in the middle of something as huge as the Emergence?"
  "Just because it wasn't entirely on our schedule doesn't mean it's not working, Tam." I turned to the third member of our entourage, blandly anonymous as always. "Sandra?" I asked her.
  While we were clearly visible to the crowd in my private opera box, the transparent armor-glass barrier intended to minimize the risk of snipers also did a wonderful job at keeping private conversations private from the crowd. There was even a subtle holographic distortion effect that kept us looking entirely au naturale while still making lip-reading and other such reconstruction impossible. We certainly wouldn't have talked about such matters in public if we weren't private, and just because the demands of public imaging required me and Tam to take time out of our schedules tonight to appear unconcerned and confident to the world that didn't mean we'd waste any valuable brainstorming time.
  "Dawkins concurs." she reassured us both. "Even though the public revelation of technomancers in the Barstow Incident was entirely a black swan event, it had the good fortune to line up with two of the primary meme complexes we wanted to advance for Charlie. 'Technomancers are not monsters', which a good victim scenario as a first impression is always nice for selling. And 'Technomancers are under threat', which MCT couldn't have done a better job of showcasing if we'd written them a script. The initial revelations already started those processes, all our post-incident response needed to do was keep pushing it. Which we have."
  "There was a third primary meme-complex to Charlie." Tam reminded us forcefully. "'Technomancers should come to Horizon, we will guarantee your freedom'. And how's that one selling?"
  "It's a work in progress, Tam." I remonstrated with him. "But we've certainly got a fertile field to start planting those seeds."
  "I wish we knew just who the hell paid for that strike on MCT's lab." Tam fretted. "I know everyone else thinks it was us, and I even know why we're letting everyone else keep thinking that, but that still doesn't mean we don't have a need to know."
  "Right now it's almost certainly looking like the UCAS government." I told him. "McCord's 'independent' contractors might as well just be a deniable sub-compartment of the CIA anyway, they've been Deputy Director Cole's pets ever since Campeche."
  "If a major national government became aware of technomancers, their analysts should be able to at least partially compute the broad cases of a public Emergence as well as we could." Tam conceded. "And depending on exactly who won the argument inside the Beltway they could be aiming at anything from Bravo to Delta, any of which would fit the MCT strike. And all five of the research subjects recovered alive were UCAS citizens."
  "I will disagree with Gary only to the point that while the UCAS government is certainly the most likely suspect we have for who was backing Bravo Company, we still have no real evidence in that regard." She shrugged. "Not that that's surprising, given that the only proof would exist in McCord's head and we haven't had a chance to talk to him at all."
  "I would say that the unusually rapid speed at which the CalFree state government extradited the detained Bravo Company operatives - including Major McCord - back to UCAS jurisdiction is at least some indirect evidence that the fix was in." I observed. "It's not as if we haven't known that there's more than a few people in Sacramento who believe in keeping the old motherland sweet towards CalFree."
  "Valid." Sandra concluded.
  "Any word on the Kincaids?" Tam inquired. "Especially Catherine? Because we really can't afford-"
  "Mrs. Kincaid is the worrisome one." Sandra agreed. "You know I argued at the time for just executing her ourselves, regardless of scenario benefits or future risks. Once we knew she'd started to put the pieces together, we should have made absolutely certain she was dead. Ourselves."
  "You know why I veto'ed that." I said. "And it wasn't just because I loved a good script. We'd simply put too much work into building a public awareness of her, even low-key, as part of the original Bravo script and her intended role as its poster girl. Still, we know she didn't turn up among the lab's survivors. All five of them are still in the protective custody of the state, busily testifying against their kidnappers. So either Catherine's in another MCT facility somewhere slowly dying, or this one already killed her. Either way, we win, and 'Crackshot' can just crawl off and die in any gutter that will accept him." I shrugged. "It's annoying to not be able to start running our pre-prepared scripts there until he does us the courtesy of popping up again - alive or dead - to let us know which one to use, but-"
  "I know, I know." Tam said. "I helped set up her capture in the first place, you might recall?"
  "Of course you did, Tam." I said. "You did good work. You always do good work." I nodded and looked out at the crowd waiting for the opera to start.
  "I'm not as sanguine as you are about Mr. Kincaid, sir." Sandra said worriedly. "According to the profile we reconstructed for him, the man was a highly competent shadowrunner and mercenary. He should have done something by now, and yet-" she shrugged. "It's quiet. Too quiet."
  "Famous movie quotes are my shtick, Sandra." I said tolerantly. "Relax. I'm sure everything will be-"
  And then the commlinks of everyone in the opera house began beeping a particular shrill pattern that was never heard in normal operation, as AR displays and backup audio speakers both began playing an override broadcast.
  "This is the Emergency Broadcasting System with an alert override for all citizens of Los Angeles, Orange, and Brown counties. All citizens are requested to tune into public-access AR as soon as possible. This is not a test. Repeat, this is not a test."
  "There was nothing on the threat board!" Sandra said immediately. "What's going on?"
  "I'm in AR, but the alert message is just looping. There's no flash." Tam said.
  "Sir!" my security chief said as the door opened behind us. "We don't know what this is yet-"
  "No one does." I interrupted him curtly. "I'm not evacuating until we have some idea of what's going on."
  "Sir, right now I want you at least out of the room and into the opera house's basement shelter." he insisted. "Security override protocols, we are moving now."
  Sandra got up and waved to us. "He's right, we're too exposed here. And this might be an earthquake warning, at which point we'd damn well want to be in a seismic-rated shelter instead of the second floor."
  That certainly made sense. We all got to our feet and left the opera box as my bodyguards linked up with the on-site reaction team and bubbled up around us as we headed towards the stairwell.
  "Let's go let's go let's go!" my security chief spoke urgently into his commlink. "Simstar and Hotspot plus one are moving, clear stairwell five all the way to the basement!"
  "The actual alert broadcast's starting to play." Tam said as we headed down. "I'll send it to your PANs- wait, what the hell is this?" he sputtered.
  "Citizens of Los Angeles and Horizon, the following QR text-string will, if inputted into the pay-per-view download of this afternoon's 'Los Angeles Bolts vs. New York Slashers' Urban Brawl match, unlock a hidden set of files inserted via steganography into the recorded simsense track from star scout Andrew 'Silver Streak' Koznowski. Those files will mirror the content about to be streamed right now." a woman's voice, electronically distorted yet still damnably familiar, spoke as a blackened silhouette appeared on the visual feed.
  "A pirate broadcast?" Tam sputtered. "Into the EBS? How the hell- okay, our security spiders should already be on this but you've got to get me somewhere I can dive into VR and start tracing this!"
  "We're almost at the shelter." I said grimly. Because the last time anyone had successfully hacked the Emergency Broadcasting System had been in goddamn 2035, and even if that had been the newly-founded nation of Tir Tairngire doing it to the entire nationwide grid instead of merely a local one this was still very very bad-
  And then the woman continued speaking in an entirely recognizable voice as the electronic distortion cleared to reveal:
  "My name is Catherine Kincaid." her image spoke upon the screen. "Some of you might already know of me. A great many more of you already know of my husband."
  The camera view expanded to reveal the iconic features that we'd made famous worldwide, looking insufferably sober and professional and grave.
  "And I am Alex Kincaid. Up until recently we were both citizens and employees of Horizon Corporation, as an Urban Brawl starting player and a senior Matrix researcher respectively. For the past two weeks we have technically been on leave of absence. But as of this moment, we both officially tender our resignations."
  "Horizon has been very much in the press over the past several days, both about the Barstow Incident and the 'technomancer' phenomenon that this incident has brought to the public's awareness." Catherine continued speaking. "But at least some if not all of the AAA megacorporations have already secretly been aware of technomancers for years. And I can say of my own certain knowledge that Horizon was one of them, because I myself am a technomancer. And I never concealed my gifts from them- indeed, I'd sought employment with Horizon seeking their help in understanding what was happening to me, and in further developing my abilities in a safe and humane manner. Just as they'd originally consented to hire me for a chance to obtain another technomancer to study, in a safe and humane manner. And for many months, both they and I each stuck to their side of the bargain." She smiled sweetly. "My husband wasn't part of that bargain, by the way. He's just legitimately that good at shooting people."
  "How? HOW?" I said numbly as the security people finished ushering us into a shelter and we sat down. Sandra and I traded equally shellshocked looks as Tam closed his eyes and went fully into the Matrix.
  "We knew that Horizon was grooming Catherine to eventually become a public 'face' of technomancers when they decided it was finally time to reveal the truth to the public." Alex's image picked up. "The fact that I was already becoming a famous public figure on my own only made their decision that much easier. As my lovely wife said, it was a bargain. We'd receive their help and security, they'd receive loyal employees who could help further their corporation's image and interests. The same deal that anyone expects when hiring on to a corporation, and that most of them get."
  "Until Horizon betrayed us." Catherine said grimly. "And so we're 'borrowing' a little time on the EBS system for the LA grids - courtesy of our ex-friends at Horizon - to make sure as many people as possible hear the truth."
  "And remember, even if this broadcast is interrupted the advance copy of it is already in the hands of the over forty million customers who have already purchased and downloaded/streamed their copies of this afternoon's Brawl game." Alex cut in. "And the opening moments of this broadcast gave virtually everyone in LA the key to unlock the hidden copy embedded in that game. I encourage anyone who feels the urge to share that key on their social media." Alex explained.
  "Find that broadcast source." I snarled venomously.
  "Sir, the advance copy scheme means even if we kill this broadcast, it's still too late-" Sandra began.
  "I know that!" I rounded on her. "But if we can find where they inserted the EBS tap we still have a hope of catching them! Even if that broadcast is pre-recorded, they still have to be hacking it in and they have to be doing that right now-"
  "It's Catherine." Tam muttered from where he was on the couch. "She's doing the hack herself. I can sense her Resonance impression on the grid."
  "Find her!" I screamed. "Where she is, he'll be there too! And getting at least one of them alive and forcing them to issue a retraction is the only hope we have of-"
  "Good God." Tam interrupted me. "Sir, the EBS override... it's coming from your house."
  I felt a hand reach into my chest and squeeze. "What did you say?"
  "From your own house! Specifically, from the Matrix command terminal for in your house's panic bunker!" Tam babbled. "Right, I'm going in!" The EBS broadcast suddenly greyed out into static as he closed his eyes and went on the attack. Our security hackers were apparently not getting much done versus a technomancer of Catherine's abilities, but Tam was a technomancer himself and more experienced-
  "That's part of our secure command-and-control grid!" I realized. "No wonder they can hack the regional EBS from there!"
  "Shit!" Sandra swore. "I thought McClain's kinesics were off!" She turned to me. "The advance copy inserted into one of the Bolts' simsense feeds, their team captain here at a place she'd normally never attend - they were in on this! McClain's job was to make sure you were here tonight, instead of being held up at the last minute, so they'd know your home was clear to raid!"
  "She's fired." I cursed. "They all are. I don't care if we'll never have any proof, they're fucking gon-"
  "AIIIIIIIIIIII!" Tam suddenly screamed and jerked, and then fell limp. One of my security people ran over and took his pulse, then pried open his eyelid to look at his pupil dilation.
  "He's alive, sir." the man said. "Looks like non-lethal black IC of some kind. We'll call a medical team for him, but he'll be out for at least an hour."
  The glitched-out broadcast resumed. Sandra and I watched helplessly as Catherine and Alex resumed talking.
  "Sorry folks." Catherine said winsomely. "My former boss and I were having a vigorous debate over who exactly had Matrix right-of-way tonight." She smiled wickedly. "He lost. And we now resume our regular broadcast."
  "They are live-monitoring the hack then." Sandra agreed. "They'll still be there."
  "Status on my house?" I asked my security chief.
  "Fast-response teams will be there in just a couple of minutes, but-" he shrugged. "Sir, your house was designed to withstand a dedicated assault force. Especially the panic bunker. Even assuming that they haven't compromised any of the automated defenses for themselves, which given the level of hacking capability they've displayed so far is a vastly optimistic assumption-" He sighed. "The passive barriers alone will require extreme effort to blast through in a hurry. And worse yet, we designed your bunker to have multiple possible escape routes."
  "You won't be able to stop them from at least mostly completing this broadcast." I snarled. "Even so, they are not getting away! You have global unrestricted authorization! Surround the entire neighborhood with an army if you have to, just get them!"
  "Even with her abilities and his apparent covert operations skills, how did they get in?" Sandra wondered out loud. "You had top-end magical security as well, including bound elemental spirits on patrol."
  "We'd just paid him five million nuyen as a signing bonus." I snorted. "Apparently he spent some of it hiring help."
  "Horizon originally had the best of intentions." Alex's recording spoke. "But all too soon it went sour. They betrayed me and my wife. No, they betrayed us all." He sighed. "But for something this significant, for an accusation this grave, you deserve more evidence than merely my word against Horizon's. Which is why we will bring you this recording of Horizon CEO Gary Cline himself speaking in confidence. For reasons that will shortly become obvious any details that would allow viewers to positively identify where or when this event took place will be blanked out of the recording - not even digitally distorted, but outright erased. But the recording itself is genuine, and any level of data analysis that anyone cares to apply will verify that this was indeed Gary himself saying precisely what the recording claims he says, with no forgery or synthesis whatsoever."
  And then the bottom outright fell out of my world as the camera view switched to a recording of me in a chair, with my hands manacled over my head in a pair of padded troll-strength manacles straight out of a BDSM shop, cheerfully babbling away about everything. About the plan to sell Catherine to MCT and then set Alex up to die pursuing her, all for the sake of our script and to cover up our guilty secret. About those guilty secrets - cases Alpha through Epsilon, our pivot from Bravo to the modified Charlie, our desire to try and monopolize technomancers as much as we could and why. About the Submergence, and the Resonance Realms, and the simple possibility that technomancers might be a unique Matrix resources counterable only by other technomancers driving us to such lengths to bias an Emergence scenario in our favor.
  "This has to be a forgery." Sandra said. "You were never out of contact- there was no missing time- you wouldn't ever say any of this! 'You' aren't even showing hesitation or fear kinesics, there's no coercion here at all!"
  "And that is your assurance that she's still alive. After all, she was being groomed to be one of our chief public faces of technomancers for the original Bravo scenario." 'I' explained. "So we couldn't kill her ourselves, because her body has to be found. Just vanishing her leaves the suspicion stuck to us, at least in the minds of those conspiracy theorists who are precisely the people we're trying to set up to believe the modified Charlie and indirectly fix it in the minds of the general community for us."
  And then the horrible recording cut off and finally switched back to the broadcast. There had been no hint of anyone else talking, no questions from an interrogator. Just me giving that damnable monologue from front to back, with the camera focus so tight upon my chair that all anyone could see was me, the support pillar I'd been chained to, and glimpses of a concrete floor such as could be found in any utility room or basement.
  "That suit." I whispered. "I was wearing that suit the night I-" I gulped. "The night I went to Kincaid's house. I remember those scuffs on my shoes, the ones that made me have to throw away that pair-"
  "Sir?" Sandra said, staring at me.
  "I spent the whole night there, talking him into it." I muttered to myself as if in a trance. "And drinking with him, to help sell it. I had such a hangover the next day-" I turned to look at her. "Enough to leave all my memories of that night... patchy."
  "Laes." she swore incredulously. "It must have been! So he lured you in, somehow got you to talk willingly with social abilities he's not even on record as having, and then dosed you- and covered it all up as a drunken bender! So even the memory blackout wasn't remotely suspicious, because that's what happens when you get that dr-" Her jaw dropped. "We'd assessed him as a competent operative, but this goes vastly beyond 'competent'! Not even Dawk