Monday, June 26, 2017

Never work for a clown.


I was seventeen years old.

I'm not going to give you a date for this, honestly the people it involves are too scary to call any attention to this piece of ancient history.  Suffice it to say that I was seventeen and it happened in the summer.

A certain decker chummer of mine had been working steadily and building an ever bigger name for herself. 

I, however, was running through teams like Oakland.  Seriously, it was that bad. 

In all fairness it wasn't all my fault. 

I had a falling out with a certain troll when he decided to slam my favorite cranium into a wall.  The wall was softer than my cranium and I didn't die, but it hurt like all hell and I was bleeding.  Add to that the fact that there wasn't anything going on other than the team sitting and talking about how we were going to spend the next few days and how we could get in touch for work, and you can understand that I was not a happy magician.

It started with a stunbolt, (sometimes referred to as "good night chummer") that had that certain troll unconscious on the floor.  He woke up a couple of hours later, and I was fully prepared to be cordial. That certain troll woke up, sat up, and immediately became belligerent.  He reached for his hand cannon only to find it wasn't there.  That set off a string of curses and expletives I won't bother repeating. 

After several minutes of ranting, the big jerk finally seemed to calm down.  I gave him his gun back, and pointed to sack of weapons in the corner (previously rendered invisible) where the rest of his weapons were nicely stored for him.  He whipped the hand cannon up to my head and pulled the trigger.  It clicked on an empty cylinder (note this:  NEVER give a loaded weapon to someone you don't trust), and clicked on empty cylinders four more times.

I reached up and touched his wrist.  "Unprofessional, and dishonorable", was all I said.

Magic surged from my fingers into his body.  What little bit of real person, the meat part not the cyber part, died off as power coursed violently through his cells.  He jerked suddenly and blood started leaking out of the corners of his eyes, from his nose, and from under his fingertips.  He dropped to the floor of the abandoned day care center we were meeting in. He was actually dead before he hit the floor. Blood and other fluids leaked out of him in a stinky pool.  I say "leaked" because dead people leak, only the living 'bleed'. 

**************************************

The summer wasn't starting well.  After that certain troll hit the floor, the team fell apart.  I had no interest at that time in building relationships or team building.  I just wanted to score some cash to fuel my studies.  I had grand ideas about power and glory, wealth and women. 

Come on, I was seventeen.

I was getting work, and getting my jobs done.  I was actually doing pretty well, but it seemed like folks thought I was bad luck.  Runners kept getting killed on my jobs.  Not through fault of mine, but just their own plain carelessness.  

I was ready to take a little vacation somewhere not in the Seattle Metroplex, when my comm buzzed with yet more work from Sheila X.

***************************************

BrickYard, 2345 hours:

Mr. Johnson was an elf.  An elf with a painted face, white gloves, a tuxedo, and a beautiful sword at his belt.  He had an accent I couldn't identify and have never heard again.  He was flawlessly groomed, and spoke as if he were about to laugh at a joke.

The job was set to pay very well, and that made me a bit nervous. 

It would be real wiz if I cold tell you there was something about him that put me off, but there wasn't.  He was slick, but not oily, chill but not sub-zero, had style but not to much flash.  I listened to what he said, but I didn't quite catch what he meant in those "in between the lines" places.

So I took the job, with some shadow talent that all had solid reputations.  I had worked with one or two of them before and worked well enough.  No one seemed put out or overly stressed about the Johnson or the job. 

That should have worried me. 

I'm not going to go into details about the job itself. 

It was dangerous, there were shots and magic fired around, electrons were fighting other electrons in the matrix, a pizza delivery driver took a rocket meant for the car I was in (sorry about that chummer), and somehow a flower shop got burned to the ground before the job was over. 

What really makes the tale though, is the end. 

We shook the last of our pursuers, switched vehicles and incinerated the getaway car.  Runners were bleeding all over the place and I was making heavy use a spell to sanitize cellular samples.  Normally its used to disinfect but I use it to foil forensic evidence.  When I was certain the dump site for the getaway car was clean, I climbed into the passenger seat of the suv we were taking to the meet. 

We pulled into the abandoned lot and I got out to take up a position to cover the meet.  As I was climbing up the fire escape, I ran right into an ork setting up with a sniper rifle.  He reached for his gun and I drew in my power and hit him with the best stun bolt I could throw back then.  He fell over like a sack of flour. 

I toggled my comm but couldn't get a signal. 

I shouldered the sniper rifle, and got a real good view of the meet as it went down.

Mr. Johnson, still wearing the face paint and tux, was handing off credsticks to my guys.

I couldn't hear what was said, but everything seemed chill.

Then I heard the soft whine of rotors and new something was going down.

Half a dozen rotor drones zipped in and started firing on the meeting. 

Mr. Johnson jumped, flipped and rolled behind his Mercedes, as rotor drones poured out death into the area.  Two of my team were cut to pieces by hundreds of rounds in those first seconds.

Spells are usually hard to use against drones.  But I had a sniper rifle, and even though I hadn't been trained to use one, it seemed fairly simple.  I sighted and squeezed the trigger... nothing happened.

FRAG!

I tried everything I could think of to get that rifle to fire, but nothing worked. 

For several seconds the rotor drones fired without pause, stitching rounds all over the place.  Then, suddenly, they were flying off into the night.

A quick bit of levitation brought me to the blood soaked, broken pavement. 

My decker friend was still in the vehicle.  A bullet had gone through her shoulder, but otherwise she was fine.  Everyone one else in the vehicle was dead. 

The two street samurai out on the kill zone were dead, and Mr. Johnson was laughing his fool head off. 

I walked out to grab the credsticks and watched as Mr. Johnson stood and walked around his Mercedes, still laughing his fool head off, shaking his head at the dents and dings in the armored luxury car. 

"Not my night, I suppose", he said as his laughter died down..

"Not their night, really", I said.  I was pointing to two bodies that had been chopped up by the light machine guns the rotor drones had loosed.   "Their night really sucked!"

"It is unfortunate, but it holds true, street meat rots in the street does it not?", the fragger was smiling as he said it. 

"To true," he continued, "well, good night young sir.  Don't let the locals bite!"  Then he climbed into his car and drove away, little sparks and smoke coming from the vehicle as he vanished into the night.

My decker buddy and I had to hoof it.  The vehicle we came in was shot to hell (literally). 

Mr. Johnson, clown make up and all, had an evil sense of humor.  "Don't let the locals bite!"
We were running from ghouls until we reached the water. 

The cred went a long way toward salving my wounded sensibilities, but I made a rule that night, and I've kept it ever sense: Never work for a clown.

Take my advice on that, you'll live longer.






Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Tommy's Story: more runs, fewer chummers



Starting over is never easy.

After Pepper died, I still had to live.  I know that makes all kinds of obvious sense, but when you've lost your best chummer, when you've lost that feeling of normalcy and of belonging, there doesn't feel like there is much left.

I had been a hot shot, wiz-kid shadowrunner for a little over a year.  In that time, I had worked with a handful of different teams but once I settled in with Pepper and Angel the rest had become pretty much fixed.

I hadn't really cared one way or the other about Zip, until he put an assault rifle in my face (in my experience that tends to change your opinion of someone pretty fast). When he died I didn't really care about the lose of him beyond how it affected the rest of us.

I had held a good bit of respect for Sapphire, and I may even have had a bit of a crush on her.  Her death was tragic, foolish, and a waste of a brilliant talent.

Grack and I never really got along.  He seemed like he was always either threatening to beat me into a bloody stump, or planning the act of beating me bloody.  We worked best together when we weren't actually together.  That said, he was hellishly dangerous with heavy and assault weapons, wasn't afraid to mix it up in a firefight, and had so much metal in him I once heard a bullet that hit him ricochet off this cyber.  Grack was a scary piece of stereotype reinforcing macho attitude, muscle, metal, and thinly veiled sociopath personality.

Angel. (file segment deleted.... play nice Tommy)

Then suddenly it was just me, knowing two reliable shadowrunners, broke as hell after burying my best chummer, and needing work.

Sheila X, didn't call me for a week.  It was probably best that she waited that long as I was in no fit mental state to do anything professionally.

******************

April 1st, 2056

My pocket secretary was ringing.  I was ignoring it at first as my land lord had already called twice to remind me to pay my rent.  It was annoying as hell that I couldn't. I was picking up the hateful little device when I realized that the number was one Sheila used when she rang me up.

"Tommy?", Sheila sounded like she always did.  You would never know that anything horrible had happened just days before.

"Ms. X.  Nice of you to call me.  How can I help you today." I was trying to be upbeat.  In retrospect it was probably the dumbest way to approach such a call.

"If you want to work, come down for a meeting.  I know some people who need a specialist like you.  If you're done with what you needed to do come on down.  If you can't hold it together, don't bother."

"Ms. X, I'm chill as February. I'll be there in an hour." I was still going for upbeat.

Sheila X hung up on me and I went to grab my bag.

A little less than an hour later I was walking to the Brick House (I know, I sometimes call it the Brick Yard... too much time spent with folks calling it by two different names I guess).  Little Rickie was on the door, and I once again felt that attack of politeness coming over me.  Little Rickie waved me in.

I walked in and realized immediately that things were different.  The main room had maybe forty really hard looking folks wearing armor I hadn't seen outside of a trideo show until that point. Those armor sets were all done over in black and grey, digital imagery- hazing camouflage patterns.  They all had helmets and assault weapons, except for a handful of trolls who had honest-to-ghost assault cannons. They looked like a bad-ass bunch of mercenaries about to storm a target.

Sandy, the ork girl who seemed to always be behind the bar, waved me toward the back (where Sheila's usual booth was).  I walked around a few knots of heavily armed hard men and women, realizing that the whole place was strangely quite other than the occasional click or bump sound as someone checked a weapon.  Sheila was sitting in the booth with an elf woman across from her, standing next to the booth was an angel.

I'm not romanticizing it.  The angel was about seven feet tall, had three faces, carried a flaming sword and had wings.  (Ever since this meeting I've made a point to own a Bible.  My favorite is an Orthodox Christian Bible, some might say Eastern Orthodox, but take my advice and don't).  The angel was probably a spirit.  I told myself that the moment I saw it. As far as I know I may have been right.

You should listen closely to that last part.  After all I've done, all the magic I've wrought, all the places and metaplanes I've been to and I can't tell you positively it was a spirit.  A part of me believes it was an actual angel of God, big "G".

Anyway, I didn't realize I was staring at the angel until Sheila told me to sit down.

The job paid very well.  Well enough to keep my landlord off my case for few months, feed me well, and pay for some things I really wanted and thought I needed.  It was also dangerous as all Hell, big "H".

Ms. Johnson, the elf lady, needed a magician for a particular task.  The forty men and women with us in the bar were just her "good friends" who were out with her for a walk.

Yeah.  Right.

I was desperate for work, emotionally drained, magically capable, and available.  So I got the job.

It was basic astral recon with a side order of terror.  Go to place, check out place, poke astral whatsits in the eye, don't get killed, come back and get paid.

**********************

April 1st, 2056  2355 hours

I was in an old warehouse in Puyallup.  Seventeen year old me had just finished drawing out a circle in ritual materials particular to the astral jaunt I was about to undertake.

With ten of the "good friends" securing the area, the angel standing outside my circle and Ms. Johnson working a ritual in a circle of her own, I was ready to get the thing over with. Laying down in my circle, I let my astral form slip from my meat body.  It was a very freeing experience. Astral travel is quick, and in the blink of an eye I was in Bellevue, and encroaching on target.

I ran right into a ward. I remember it felt like I had rammed my head into concrete.  It really did hurt quite a lot. A few moments, and a bit of magic later, and the ward was nothing more than broken fragments of mana in the astral plane, bleeding out into nothingness.  I slipped through the building's wall and into a nightmare.

The wards had been containing the astral stench that the building hid.  Suffering and pain, the likes of which I have rarely experienced since, mixed with depraved hunger to pollute the astral in nightmarish whirls of sickening echoes. There were living people in the building and they were suffering in ways I can't explain to you.  There were also un-living people in the building.

No one had told me there would be vampires.

In the next blink I was fighting for my life and soul.  A magician was in the astral, his aura strangely dark and marked with a shifting patina of small mouths filled with fangs that seemed to shift and twirl throughout his being. When his astral form slammed into mine I felt like I would vomit (no easy trick when you don't have your stomach).

The fight took too long.  I was good in an astral tangle but I was quickly aware that this bastard was better.  He tore at my soul, ripping into it and causing me the kind of pain you only really ever hear about but hopefully never experience. I was losing, so I cheated.

Casting spells in the astral is stupid for a variety of reasons.  One of the big reasons not to cast spells while astral projecting is that it puts an inordinate strain on your body and essence/soul.  As I was firmly convinced I was about to have a soul-shredding experience (literally), I gave it everything I had and pumped the nastiest mana spell I knew into the oncoming fiend.  It staggered as the spell ripped into it, and I managed to get a second spell off into it's astral form. My spells disrupted the magician, driving him out of astral space and back to his meat body (hopefully with tons on injury).

I was about to leave.  Honestly, I wanted to get out of there badly.  But from astral space I saw the dim auras of people who were trapped in that hell-hole. One of those people was very little.

I thought about Pepper's son.  I thought about what Pepper would do if he were there in the meat.  I thought about laying that family to rest and the laughter and happiness that had been quieted.  I was hurt, but I wasn't dead, and there were children, little children, in danger.

I went looking for the magician's meat body.

I found him two floors down.  He was already up and looked as healthy and dangerous as the first time he tackled me.  There was a newly dead woman, her essence shattered into fragments and fading away, laying on the floor.

The vampire's astral form surged out of his meat body (which collapsed on the floor next to the dead woman) and came after me.  In the astral he looked like a feral, monstrous being (and was), and he was coming to kill me.

I just managed to send out the call to the one spirit I had bound to me at the time, and it arrived at my side as the vamp ripped into me.

I screamed.  I screamed from the bottom of my soul as the vamp nearly tore me in half.  My fire elemental joined the fray and I was frantically fighting to save my own ass.  I couldn't risk another spell in the condition I was in, so it was just raw astral combat.

Then the vampire tore my fire elemental into little pieces.  I'm not exaggerating.  He literally grabbed the elemental and ripped it's essence in half, then in half again.  The elemental screamed as it was destroyed.

I thought I was going to die.  I couldn't outrun the juiced up vampire, my best spirit was destroyed, I was nearly dead, and the vampire didn't have a mark on him.  So I punched him in the nose.

Astral combat is largely figurative.  Your perception of your opponent and yourself is really how you interpret the interaction.  I am firmly convinced that how others perceive the combat is just as unique as your own perception.  The injury is real though.  I hit the vampire with my best shot, and staggered him.  I was winding up for another astral haymaker when the room we were fighting in lit up like the sun was shining in the astral and in the room itself in the meat world.

I turned and looked straight into the faces of an avenging angel, and everything went dark.

*******************

April 2nd, 2056  0013 hours

I came to in my magic circle in the warehouse.  Ms. Johnson was finishing her ritual, and I watched as a dark, bloodstained doll was burned over a candle adorned with the sign of the cross. In the back of my perceptions, I heard a scream that hit my battered senses and made a shiver run down my spine.  That happens to me whenever I hear the cries of the damned.

Ms. Johnson and her "good friends" didn't say much.  A radio squawked somewhere, then one of the hard cases said, "Kill confirmed with one collateral casualty. Father Mitchel is conducting rites for the victim now."

Ms. Johnson only said, "God forgive us."

I stood up shakily, and broke my magic circle.  Ms. Johnson, didn't say anything else, just waved at the guy who spoke.  He handed me a cred-stick with a tidy sum on it, and walked me to the door. There was a car waiting for me outside, courtesy of Sheila X, that took me back to the Brick Yard.


That run snapped me out of it.  I was harder after that, less carefree. I was also alive, so I paid my rent and bought a couple of things I needed, then took two weeks off.

I spent some time in the church of that priest who spoke at Pepper's and his family's funerals.  It helped me grieve.

*****

That was a long one.

Lets go get a coffee and watch the hipsters pass by.









Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Pepper

March 2056

I was seventeen years old.

2056 was busy for me.  I did a lot of business those first two months and I didn't pull a single job without Pepper.

I remember having a sense that things had changed between us since I gave him that sword.  I wasn't sure what Pepper was thinking, and I wasn't going to pry.  Work had been good to us.  I had more money than I had bills and I was able to grab some gear I had needed.

Shadowrunners are people too though.  Well, most of them are.  I was a seventeen year old wizard with a solid talent, and with enough sense to know that I still had a lot to learn. I was only human.

Pepper had a kid. Did I tell you that before?

Anyway, Pepper must have come to really trust me because I got an invite over to his doss for a bar-b-que.  So there I was, walking up to his place with a sack of stuffer chips and a bag of ice.  It was my first time going to his place and I wanted it to be chill.  Pepper's place was old, a bit run down, but it was clean.  A small house, with a tiny patch of grass (they call those a 'yard' for some reason), a porch and some space out back behind an old fence.  As I walked up, there was Pepper, sitting on the porch with his little boy sleeping in his arms.  It was weird.

I know people have kids.  I just never thought of Pepper as the type to reproduce. Think about my perspective: he had stabbed Zip in the brainpan when he had threatened me with a gun and decapitated a wannabe when the dude mouthed off.  Pepper was a quiet professional skilled in taking life.  It was really strange to see Pepper holding a baby on the porch.  In that entirely odd tableau the most normal thing I saw was an Ares predator pistol Pepper had sitting next to a baby bottle.

So I walked up and Pepper waved me in, and then he went and put his boy to bed.  The back of the house had about a dozen people shuffling in and out of the door to the back yard.  An honest-to-ghost grill was fired up in the back.  The smell was amazing!

I met a lot of people that were related or neighbors or neighboring relatives.  There were kids there, and wives, and Pepper was wearing an apron while he manned the grill.  I ate, talked up Pepper's cousin (a cute girl with curly black hair and green eyes), drank my very first beer (honest) and played a game that seemed to consist of throwing bags at a board with a hole in it.  The whole bar-b-que went on into the late evening.  Pepper's wife, the mother of his son, was really nice to me.  It was one of the best days of my life.  I still have an image file from that day.

So we were being people.  Which was nice.

We pulled another job a few days later.  Got away clean and got paid.

I remember on that run I ran right into a ward.  A strong one that took several minutes for me to bypass. I took note of that, and warded my own doss. Then I spoke with Pepper and offered to ward his place too. Pepper was agreeable and I set off to get the materials I would need.

It started in the baby's room and I put a lot of effort into those wards.  There was already some religious iconography in the baby's room, plus a strong emotional background presence (what some thaumaturgic scholars refer to as "background count").  It made it tough to work any magic, but once I got those wards up they held strongly.  I did the bathrooms next.  Wards on the mirrors (things can come out of mirrors folks... if you don't believe me, study the lore), walls, ceiling and floor.  I worked my way around every square inch of the place.  When it was done, I expended as much energy as I could, felt the wards lock into place, then I sat down on Pepper's couch and fell asleep.

************************

I woke up to gun fire.

Years of living in the Barrens had taught me to grab cover as best I could, so I did.  I was laying in the floor as bullets blew through the walls and stitched up the wall that blocked off the kitchen. 

I heard tires squealing outside over the sound of gunfire and bullets breaking everything they touched. 

Glasses shattered in the kitchen, water ran freely over the floor, pictures and all manner of family mementoes were destroyed. 

I heard the steady report of an Ares predator returning fire as tires peeled away outside.  I jumped up and was heading for the door when a cold fear hit me. 

I didn't hear the baby crying.
*************************

We buried Pepper's wife and son in a pricy boneyard owned by the church.  We paid extra for full rights and religious magic workings to protect the bodies (sometimes ghouls dig them up).

The priest had offered condolences, and said he would pray for Pepper and the souls of his wife and child.  I thought it was nice, but Pepper didn't take any comfort in it.  Someone had murdered his family.  If Pepper had been in the house, instead of practicing kata in the back yard, he would probably have been dead too. 

The folks who did it had put a lot of firepower on the east end of the house, which is where the bedrooms were. 

We  did a lot of leg work, looking for the bastards who did it, but were coming up dry.  Of all the things to turn things around, it was Angel.  She managed to pull a video clip from a Lone Star surveillance drone that had the car we were looking for being ditched by some punks with glow in the dark faux-hawks.

*********************

March 15th, 2056

I was seventeen years old and I wanted to kill.

Pepper was a chummer, a real top notch guy.  He was my friend.  He had welcomed me into his life, I had eaten in his kitchen, and played with his son. 

We had been more than just bits of tough street muscle and flashy magic.  We had been people. 
Then these faux-hawk wearing bits of trash took that away, and only raw, angry street meat and raging magical energy remained.

The wannabes were just what they looked like.  Two-bit punks trying to play hard.  One of them from the fertility clinic job had squawked about what Pepper looked liked and someone had sold the rest of them his name. 

We started there.

March 15th, 2056
    
2235: Pepper was up the street, about half a block, when I walked into the squalid old building where Mitch the Snitch was hiding.  Seems he had heard Pepper had survived, so Mitch was trying very hard to be invisible.  Hiding in an old burned out tenement building was what he had come up with, but it wasn't good enough.  I crawled in over a pile of rubble, making just enough noise to seem like I was trying to be sneaky but not quite pulling it off.

Mitch pulled a gun and fired at me.  The bullet passed straight through the space where my head was.  My illusion faltered as my attention to the spell was released.  My little sleep spell hit Mitch like a hammer and he fell in a heap.  Pepper came in quietly.

It took a long time for Mitch to die.

****************************

March 16th, 2016

Mitch had snitched to all sorts of things before he croaked, including who he sold out Pepper to, and where we could find them. 

0400:  saw Pepper checking the action on a familiar looking AK-97, and me pulling out some expendable foci I was saving for a special occasion. Neither Pepper or I said a word until we were both ready.  I remember Pepper looked at me, his eyes were red with rage or tears, I'm not sure which.

He just nodded to me and we walked across the street to the ruins of an old pawn shop.

There was no finesse, no subtlety, and no mercy.

Powerball is a beast to cast. It will tire you out quickly, but when you need to blow down a wall and don't have a missile or grenade launcher, it is the tool for the job. The fa├žade of the old place blew inward in a hail of shattered brick.

Pepper was already moving, his AK was barking fire in short, three round bursts. He was methodical and precise. I came in right behind Pepper. I saw a fluorescent blue faux-hawk picking himself off the ground. I remember lifting my little Ares Viper slivergun and blowing his brains across the rubble.

It went just like that, a constant, steady rain of gunfire in the ruined night.  The air was choked with brick dust, and the night smelled of cordite, shit, and blood.  Faux-hawks were screaming just in time for us to silence them.  One came out of the back with a shotgun, but died before he could pull the trigger.  When Pepper's AK ran dry, he snatched that shotgun and went right back to work.

0405:  Pepper and I walked out the back of the ruin.  Only dead people lay behind us, and a trio of living but soon to be dead faux-hawks were running like all hell itself was after them.  They were right.

The shotgun Pepper had snatched had run dry pretty quickly.  The stock was sticky with blood where he had beaten a faux-hawk to death with it.  He pulled his Predator as I was reloading my slivergun.

Pepper brought his Predator up and it roared twice.  Taking one of the faux-hawks in the back and killing him quickly.  I was just bringing up the Viper when faux-hawk number two squeezed off a pair of shots.

That bastard got lucky. One round took Pepper in the throat and the other in his right eye.

I was shooting before Pepper hit the ground. 

The next thing I knew I was standing over the last two bodies.  My viper was clicking on empty and the corpses looked like they had been shredded.

Pepper was dead.

All these years later it still hurts to say that.  Pepper was dead.

I was just able to raise enough money to bury Pepper next to his wife and son.

It was the most lonely I'd been since my folks had died.

I was the only one who survived that hit.  I made damn certain all those faux-hawk wearing assholes were very well dead before I left. The ones in prison seemed to have run afoul of some angry people and were beaten to death. Damn shame that.

Revenge didn't solve anything though.  Pepper and his family were gone.

Remember that.  Revenge doesn't give you anything, but it can certainly take everything away if you let it.

I'm not going to talk about this anymore. 

Lets go grab a bite to eat.