Sunday, December 31, 2017

Tommy's Story Continues... My 18th Christmas

December 23rd, 2057

I had been running in the shadows for more than three years.  People who didn't know me well still called me 'kid'.

It's weird how life can harden you. I had seen a lot of other runners die in the time I had been slinging magic in the shadows.  Most of them I couldn't name now.  I remember Zip because he was the first runner I had known for more than a week that died right in front of me (of course he was also pointing an assault rifle at me, so that tends to make the memory very vivid).  Grack was such an asshole its literally difficult, or maybe even impossible, to forget him.  Pepper's memory is important to me and I'll hold onto it as long as I can.

Of my first real team, only 'Angel' and myself are still alive.  I still message her every so often to see how she's doing.  (Remainder of information removed... honestly, Tommy, too much information).

It was a couple of days before international mandatory gift giving day, the corporate perversion of the sacred holiday celebrating the birth of Christ, when I had a message ping on my new pocket secretary.  The number was recognized as belonging to Sheila (a number she had given to me the last time I saw her. She changes numbers every few days).

"Happy holidays, chummer.  Want to come to a Christmas party?", Sheila's voice was the same business neutral tone she usually called with.

"A Christmas party?  Sure. When and where?"

The "party" was at the Brick Yard in an hour.  This was something of a problem as I had  moved to a house in the Bitter Lake area.  I had bought the place nice and (mostly) legally, but it was a long way from the Brick Yard.  With only an hour to go I would have to be creative to get there.  The roads were icy, the snow was its usually ash grey, and I wasn't looking forward to the trip.  I checked the app on my phone for the car service and saw it would take me an estimated 143 minutes to arrive by car. A perfect start for the evening.

I had never been late for a meeting with Sheila. Word on the street was you didn't work if you were late and I believed it.  So I pulled on my form fitting body armor with the cold weather adaptation (it keeps you really comfortable if you have the head/face covering pulled on), climbed into my insulated combat boots, grabbed my kit bag and headed out to my back yard.  I took a quick look around to make sure my neighbors weren't watching, then remembered the surveillance cameras in the neighborhood, and walked around to my garage.  I toggled the door open, walked in, and pulled an invisibility spell around myself.  I then called out to a spirit of air I had bound months ago.

The spirit appeared in my driveway, a meter from the garage door, in a swirl of wind-borne snow.  I walked out, toggled the door to start cycling closed, and conveyed my wishes to the spirit.  I pulled the head/face covering on, fumbled into a pair of goggles I carry for storms, and was soon picked up and soaring at a swift pace over the houses of my neighborhood.  For the record, a powerful air spirit can get you across Seattle in just a few minutes.  It actually takes longer by helicopter due to the air traffic regulations they fly under.  I made it to the Brick Yard with thirty-five minutes to spare.

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

I landed in the parking lot, dropped the invisibility spell, and started walking toward the front entrance.  As usual, Little Ricki was at the door.  Nearly four meters tall of muscle and chrome, Ricki could move faster than a blink thanks to some really well done cybernetic enhancements.  Ricki saw me turn the corner from the parking lot and waved me on in. I felt an attack of politeness come over me as I got close to the huge man. I checked my slivergun inside and headed to the bar.  A raggae styled Christmas carol was playing in the kitchen area, and just a hint of it made it to my ears.  I smiled in spite of myself, and waited.

Sandy walked up, big tusky smile and all, and seemed as happy as always to be at work.  She was very pregnant, and would soon be delivering triplets.  I hadn't asked but she had volunteered that information a month ago, the last time I was in.

"Mr. Gun, what can I get for you tonight?" it made me smile. Sandy was maybe a year older than me but she always treated me with the simple professional courtesy of not talking down to me for my age. I always appreciated it.

"Sirloin platter, medium rare please, Sandy. Can I get a potato with sour cream, bacon bits, and some of that Amish cheese?", she nodded and I continued. "Cool. Hot rolls, a large hot cocoa with marshmellows, and the same for you and the kids, on me."

Sandy gave me an even bigger smile, "Thank you Mr. Gun"

"Oh, Sandy" I started.  "A triple rum for the cook.  It is Christmas after all."

Sandy nodded, still smiling and took my order back to the kitchen.

Unlike most bars, I can drink a cocoa in the Brick Yard and no one gives me any drek.  Most of the folks who come here are in the business and tend to stay out of other people's affairs. The only other people in the Brick Yard that night, were a trio of orc hard cases.  They were regulars and I never saw one of them without the other two.

I ate a brilliantly cooked steak, savoring every bite even though I knew I was pressed for time.  I was just spearing into the baked potato, when Sandy came by to tell me that Sheila would see me.  I picked up my plate and my cocoa and carried it with me back to the booth Sheila usually occupied in the back far corner.  The curtain was pulled closed, so I waited.

A few seconds passed and the curtain opened to reveal four hard looking people I had never seen before.  I squeezed in next to Sheila X (the first time I've ever done that, and the first time I had ever seen anyone do that) as there wasn't anywhere else to sit.  I put my plate in front of me and cut into the last bite of my steak.

"This is the asset I was telling you about.  He is one of the best local awakened talents, and has experience with the opposition."  Sheila's tone was a bit different than I was accustomed to. It sounded like she was selling me off to these jokers.  I know my worth, and I suppose Sheila did too, but it was a bit of a reminder that most people just saw me as a young person.  Stupid, but the reality of the situation.

"We asked you for a combat mage and you bring us a kid?", the human guy across the table from me said incredulously.

"How old are you, kid?" The lady elf in the corner of the booth asked.

I finished chewing my steak, glanced at Sheila who nodded at me slightly.

"I'm exactly none of your fragging business years old.  I've seen more combat, cast more mojo, in the last year than most Marine combat mages do during a full deployment. If Sheila says I've had experience with your opposition, then the fact that I'm alive should tell you I'm more qualified than you could have hoped for.  Now cut the drek, and tell me the job." I wasn't trying to sound like anything, wasn't trying to accomplish anything other than get to the heart of the job, and at that moment I knew I was going to ask for more money, because I was clearly worth it.

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

The job was right up my alley.

Breach security on a facility owned by my least favorite mega-corp, pick up a guy for his new employers and leave.  The target had been awaiting pick-up but managed to get himself thrown into the corporate holding cells while he was suddenly under investigation.  So the job was one-half jail break, one-half corp extraction.

When the hard cases pitched their offer to me I barely kept my face straight.  They offered me more than I had ever made on one job, and I knew right off this was going to be a helluva lot harder than I had expected.  I looked them over, staring each in the eye and demanded an additional twenty percent.  They relented almost immediately and I knew right then that I was on a job that was likely to get me killed.

Two days of intelligence gathering and research by the four runners came up with some useful information.  My least favorite corp was using in-house security at this facility that held "rogue" awakened subjects.  It was a corp jail that was usually used for awakened corp kids who got out of line. It was also rumored to be a place where awakened criminals were experimented upon to determine "humane" was of stripping them of their abilities.

One hour's worth of astral jaunt over to the facility revealed some hefty spirits on patrol, hardened wards, armed guards with hell hounds (why is it always hell hounds?), force grown ivy over the detention center, and watcher spirits that floated around like little balloons on the astral winds.  The place also carried with it a sense of suffering and fear.  Most jails are like that, but facilities for the awakened are usually more so.  I suspected that the wards and mystic barriers were containing some of the astral pollution, meaning it would be difficult to do any magic within the facility itself.

I had heard of this place.  Most runners with any mojo to them had heard of this place. It was a cautionary tale to those who might strike out at the corp.  I had been hitting them for years, but I had never taken on any of their really high security facilities.  I had certainly never hit this place before, but I saw some commonalities to their astral defenses I was sure I could exploit.

I'm not going to tell you how we got in.  I'm going to claim that as a "trade secret" and leave it at that.

We were in the detention center, decked out in uniforms we had acquired for this heist, using ID's we'd also acquired specifically for the job. The elf lady turned out to be a decker with almost as much on the ball as Angel {flattery will get you nowhere Tommy, but thank you~ Angel}.  She managed to schedule veterinary appointments for the hell hounds (they needed their shots you know), which took the doggies and their handlers out of the equation.

We got in and were making our way toward the target cell when I heard screaming coming from one of the interview rooms.  I put it out of my head for a moment, and made it down to the target cell.  We got the door open with no fuss and (thankfully) no alarms.  We gathered up the target and put him in the spare uniform we had brought along.

We were on our way back down the hall when I heard that screaming hit a new level of terror and pain.  Who ever was screaming sounded young. It bothered me deep down to my core.

I was bringing up the rear of our little six pack of unauthorized persons, when a woman stepped out from the interview room.  When I saw her, I suddenly I felt very small.  It had been most of a decade since I last saw that face, but there was no doubt about it.  The woman was the same teacher who had tried to cast a spell on me. The same person who banished, and destroyed, my best childhood friend Isabellix.  As the team moved down the hall, I saw the woman slip into the restroom.  I fell a step behind the team, then used my new ID card to badge my way into the interview room.

The interview room was something straight out of a bad dream.

A young woman was shackled to the floor.  She was sobbing uncontrollably, laying in the fetal position, and her head was covered in a black bag.  She was wearing a filthy, once-white prison jump suit.  A circle of blood was drawn around her, a dead cat cast into the corner seemed the likely source of the crimson stain.  Blood magic?  I took a chance and looked over the cat, saw a collar, then opened my astral sight.

The kitty was definitely the source of the blood, and a source of much of the sorrow in the young woman.  She was definitely awakened, but there was damage to her aura that I hadn't seen before.  Her talent had been worn or ripped and parts of her were no longer carrying the brilliant aura of an awakened person.

The door beeped and I readied myself.

You learn some things being a magician in the shadows.  Magicians like to think their biggest threats are awakened opponents, but then when they run into common street violence they find themselves struggling to shield against bullets.  I had seen a lot of street level violence and magical mayhem in my few years.  So as that door opened and the woman who had taken Isabellix from me walked in, I acted with a cold determination born of years of running the shadows.

She was turning toward me, a quizzical expression on her face, as my gun hand came up.  I let off the three round burst from my silvergun directly into her head, splattering her brains across the wall behind her.  She dropped to the floor like a limp doll and I put three more rounds into her heart just to be certain.

I smudged the circle containing the young woman, unlocked her shackles with an app on the dead woman's phone and toggled the mic to the rest of the team.

"I'm held up, get out according to plan.  I'll meet you at rendezvous"

"What?", the elf lady.

Ghost save me from newbies, "I'll rendezvous in thirty, out"

I managed to escape the detention center through the judicious use of invisibility and the good grace of all the hell hounds being gone.  The young woman came with me, though she insisted on getting the cat's collar.  Which was weird to me, but okay.

*****

I made the rendezvous with the rest of the team just in time.  We made the meet, handed off the target, got paid, and got out without a shot fired or an eyebrow raised.  It was a smooth end to a job that almost went exactly as planned.

I had stashed the young woman at a safe house I had set up a couple of weeks prior.  I picked up some clothes for her, some food (I hadn't stocked the safe house yet), and when I got back I found her asleep on my faded couch.  I spent the night keeping an eye open for a corp hit team that never came.  I was tired and drinking my second pot of soycaf when she woke up.  We had a breakfast of real ham and eggs (I had become partial to real food by this time).

For this discussion we'll call the young woman 'Sue'. Turned out she was only a little older than me.  Sue had been in the magician's training program but wasn't really getting along with the way the corp was using her talent.  Sue had recognized the lady who was torturing her as well.  She had been a teacher when Sue first started the training program.  Sue made a point of telling me a story of a young boy who had brought a spirit with him to class the first day, and the teacher had banished the thing as the boy ran away.

I kept my face impassive as I heard my own story being told by Sue.  I found myself badly missing Isabellix, but I kept my own part in her tale to myself.  We spent the rest of Christmas, talking and watching old Christmas specials.

I'm not going into what happened after Sue was around.  Not tonight anyway, though you might ask Angel if you can find her.  In the meantime, lets go down to Redmond for the best sirloin in town, shall we?




Thursday, December 21, 2017

The shadows are no place for a boy and his dog

Like many people, I spent my eighteenth birthday in a running firefight.

In today's world a lot of people in the lower income areas of every metroplex spend days like that.  Maybe its a sad commentary on what my life had been like up to that point, but this wasn't anything new to me.

The corp goon's submachinegun was spraying rounds at me as I moved from cover to cover.  He hit me.  Actually, he hit me several times.  My spell hardened armor wasn't impressed.  Flattened and fractured bullets littered the street in a path to my final hidey-hole.  I could see the whole lot of corp-men as I stuck my head around the corner.

"Good night, goat-fraggers", I sneered.  

My sleep spell hit them with a force no one would expect to come from a teenage spell-slinger.  All six of them fell limply to the ground.  They were going to feel that in the morning, but at least they were alive.  Killing people who were just doing their job wasn't my style.  

I had a particular contempt for corp goons.  I picked my way among them, grabbing guns and gear I could fence for quick nuyen. I spent less than a minute going over them, then pulled an invisibility spell tightly around myself and ran like hell itself was after me.

An hour later I was sweating from the effort of sustaining the spell for such a long time.  I was long gone from the site of the dust up, so I dropped the spell and strode into a burger joint I had meant to check out.  

I had just placed my order and paid the kiosk for my snack, when three Lone Star patrol vehicles pulled up with their lights spinning.  The Star came out of their cars with guns out and heading toward the door.  

I pulled the same invisibility spell around myself and started moving away from the kiosk.

Three Lone Star patrol officers came in with a lot of attitude and guns up and panning through the area.  I ducked behind the third one, stepped out onto the street, and started walking as smoothly and quickly as I could.  

Two blocks and ten minutes later, I came under fire.

It was a rotor-drone and it opened up on me while I was fully invisible.  Rounds pounded on my spell hardened armor and knocked me back against the wall of the building behind me .  

I was well and truly surprised, and returned fire with perhaps a bit too much prejudice.  My power bolt spell winded me, but blasted the rotor-drone into pieces that came crashing down onto the street in flames.

I didn't wait around.

I ran down the next alleyway, checked myself for new holes and, finding none, began running the frag away.

I made it about half-way down the alley when a white Ford Americar pulled across the end of the alley and someone in the back opened up with an assault rifle.  The gunman was spraying rounds down the alley collateral damage be damned.  A round slammed into my left shoulder and spun me straight to the ground.  My armor held but the impact hurt like hell.  I whistled up to an elemental I had tagging along in the astral and sicced it on the car.  Five meters of earth and stone manifested at the end of the alley and collapsed upon the car, engulfing the vehicle and its occupants.  

I got to my feet and sprinted to the mound of earth and stone.  I took a right on the street, and headed to the transit stop another block down.  

I didn't see the second drone approach. I realized it was there when a burst of automatic weapon fire hit me square in the back.  It knocked me sprawling and I had just a moment to appreciate that this was at least the fourth time my enchantments had saved my hide.  

Rounds kept coming.

The drone was a larger version of the first.  Twin rotors, a light machinegun mounted on articulated firing points, and a hell of a lot of rounds pounding right down on me.  

I let the invisibility spell slip out of surprise.  Rolled over and got kept getting hammered by the drone.  I managed to get a good look at the thing, then called up another power bolt and blasted the damn thing out of the sky.  

Clawing my way to my feet, I emptied my pockets of those items I had lifted from the corp goons.  I then started running west.  I wove another invisibility spell around myself, and hoped against hope it would hold.  

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

I had definitely pissed someone off.

I had just crossed into Renton, when I heard a dog howl.  Now normally I like dogs.  I really do, but this sent a chill up spine.  I looked back and saw a huge mastiff, jet black, with fire blazing up between its jaws.   A hell hound was bounding after me and fifty yards behind the doggie, its handler was bringing an assault rifle to bear.

Hell-doggie wasn't fooled by my little invisibility trick.  A gout of flame hit me straight on and my armor caught fire. (I later found that I had first degree burns on my hands, forearms, face and my neck).   I realized a moment later that the dog's handler was sighting on me and I knew I was in trouble.  

The handler got his shots off as the dog closed distance.  I once again dropped my invisibility spell as I was suddenly too distracted to hold it in place and was hit dead center of my chest and thrown to the ground.  I was only dimly aware of the sound of the handler's weapon going off.  The hell-doggie bit down on my right ankle and I felt his fangs burn into my skin through my boots. I instinctively kicked at the hell hound and watched as the handler came running closer.  

"Get him" I called out.  My water elemental manifested around the hell-hound, soaking my leg and sending the dog into a panic.  That earned me a three round burst in the abdomen, and I saw a piece of the spell hardened armor weave get blown off (too much abuse, I suppose).  

The wind was knocked out of me and I knew I was done.

If I had known more about human nature back then, I wouldn't have been as surprised by what came next.

The handler brought his weapon up toward the elemental and then froze.  I know, now, that he must have been worried about hitting his dog, but back then I just thought he froze up.  

The hell hound was well and truly outclassed by the towering column of water that held it fast.  The dog was drowning, its fire was out, and it was thrashing against forces it couldn't hope to outmatch.  The dog's handler charged forward and screamed "GET OFF MY DOG DAMN YOU!" and butt-stroked the elemental.

You have to understand that fighting spirits in hand to hand combat is really a contest of willpower. That man was one of the angriest human beings I've ever seen.  He yelled and cursed, swung and battered at the column of water that was my elemental spirit servant; and he was hurting it.

I managed to get myself propped up on one elbow, and hit him with the best stun bolt spell I could muster and he staggered.  He lost his grip on the rifle, slipped on the wet plasticrete, then fell hard on his ass.  He pushed himself to a seated position, almost instantly, and pulled his knife.  

In the heart of the water elemental, the hell hound had ceased its struggles and the spirit flung the seemingly lifeless dog to the ground.  I felt a little sick.  The dog's handler dropped his knife and scampered over to the still form.  He made loud sorrowful sounds, and he ran his hands over his dog, while he cried loudly.  "Wake up, Jet.  Wake up!"

I drew in my power and put another sleep spell on him.  He fell over his animal.

Normally I like dogs.  I didn't like this hell hound, not one bit, but I'm not a monster (tell that to yourself everyday runners... it helps).  I was battered to hell and gone, but I pulled together the best healing spell I could manage.  The dog shuddered and whimpered a bit, but he lay there under his handler making small sounds and licking the man's face.

It was a touching and heartbreaking sight. 

I made it through the rest of the afternoon hiding in a sewer on the north end of Renton.  It stunk to high hell, I had to kill a dozen devil rats to keep from being eaten alive, and I was tired, bruised and battered.   

I figure the guys in the car were probably dead, the cops were fine, two drones wouldn't fly again, my armor needed to be replaced, I had lost a lot of money on the job, and saved the life of a dog I almost killed in the heat of the moment.  

Happy birthday to me.