Friday, June 22, 2018

Rise of the Machine (Part One)

"For among all things which a man will struggle for, none are as powerful as love.  A man devoted to peace will take up arms and destroy all, and even himself, gladly for the sake of love.  Beware the man who loves fiercely, for his wrath is surpassed only by God's." ~ attributed to various philosophers over the course of written human history....



February 14th, 2060

0800 hours

Aria was in the bathroom while Rose and I were fixing breakfast.  I was sore, aching from being shot by a chummer of mine.  Rose looked at me with curious eyes. I was brooding, sore, and had not slept well.  My dreams were plagued by Edgy Ed's emotionless face, his light blue cybereyes, and reliving the moment he shot me.

"I will miss Gitti," Rose said. "He liked you, I think."

I felt a wince of pain that had nothing to do with my new scars. "I think he did too, Rose.  I'll miss him."

"Why did Ed kill him?" Rose was asking a sensible question.  A question I didn't have an answer for.

"I don't know baby girl." I told her. "I doubt I'll ever know.  Maybe he was double crossing us for the money.  Maybe he had a grudge we didn't know about.  Maybe he went insane. I just don't know."

"Will we stop working for a time?"

I paused in my tracks at that jewel of a question.  I had a family to support, a marriage to pay for, and made my living as a professional criminal.  "It may be a good idea to lay low for while.  If Ed went over because of money, or the statue, I don't want to be waving my hands around asking for people to spot me."

Rose seemed to take that in for a moment.  Then said, "I can do the jobs.  I can make the money for the paying of the bills."

I felt a smile grow on my face in spite of my dour mood.  "I don't think I want that for you, Rose. Or for the twins for that matter. I think we'll only go out in pairs.  If I leave you here to watch the family, I'll take as many other spirits as I can."

Rose's response caught me off guard. "Then you should call forth more allies.  More powerful spirits like me.  There is room in the house, and I can help teach them the living skills."  She brought over a skillet filled with sizzling sausage links and began plating them.

"With two babies it would be wise to have more help.  Ed showed me that people cannot always be trusted. But you treat me well, and I know you will treat others well too." Rose, paused and looked up at me. "I can help with Aria, another to help with the babies would be wise.  You should also summon another powerful spirit to go to work with you and keep you safe.  Myself and the others would stay and help Aria; and if people, dark spirits, drones, or monsters of any sort come to harm the family, we will kill them."

There wasn't any malice in Rose's words.  She was stating something she considered a fact.

Aria came in, and we all sat for a nice breakfast.  I thought for a long time about Rose's suggestion.


1400 hours ~ Happy Valentines Day ~

Aria and I were enjoying a late lunch at the Gray Line.  We had a table on the lower floor, and were among only a handful of couples there.

"All the ambiance, none of the gun play this time?" Aria chided.

"That wasn't my fault." My feigned indignation brought a smile to her face.  Rose was close by in the astral plane, watching us for any signs of magical assault.  {I'm not paranoid, just cautious!}  Our table was near the glass and we could see divers in the water clearing the trash that had washed in too close to the restaurant.  We watched an otter swim over and swat at the bubbles floating up from one diver's mask.  It was incredibly fun to watch, and brought a smile to Aria's face.

"We need to get something for Rose too." Aria suggested.

"Good idea.  I think she'll like that."  I smiled and thought about what Rose had brought up earlier. "Which reminds me, Rose said something to me today.  I think you'll want to hear about this."

Aria sipped at her ice water. "Okay, but let me pee first." She stood and walked toward the ladies room.  She was four months into the pregnancy and her walk was changing toward the pregnancy 'waddle' I had read about.  I thought it was cute.  I sent a mental message to Rose to keep an out for trouble, and ordered another lemonade as the waiter passed by.

I was alone at the table when my pocket secretary beeped.  I didn't recognize the number.

"Not today." I said, and silenced the pestiferous little device.

Aria rejoined me after a few minutes, and our salads arrived a tic after that.  I wasn't pressed for time so I didn't bother bringing up other ally spirits. "a conversation for another day" I told myself.  The food was good and we ate and talked, enjoying our lunch date.  Aria had just told me a really funny (and very dirty) joke that had me laughing in my seat, when the waiter walked up to us.  "Sorry if I'm loud, the lady is quite entertaining." I said.

The waiter smiled, "Not at all Mr. Gun.  There is a call for you on the house unit, would you care to take it?"

My laughing stopped and I saw sparks dance at my fingertips.  I hadn't made reservations as 'Mr. Gun'.   Aria's hands quietly slipped beneath the table.

"I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage," I replied.  "Who is trying to reach me?"

"I wouldn't know sir."  the waiter responded.  He seemed suddenly very nervous at the sight of me. "Shall I forward the call or would you like to use the house unit?"

I looked to Aria, "I'll be right back."  To the air I said, "Rose, I need you please."

Rose shimmered into existence.  She was a beautiful dog, broad and strong looking.  She looked up at me expectantly. "Rose, protect Aria." I said.

The waiter started to say something, but I fixed him with my best glare. "She's not a real dog. She's the most powerful spirit you are ever likely to see."  With that I walked with the waiter to a wall panel behind a discreet divider.

A call was waiting for me.

*****

To be continued in part two ....

__________________________________________________________________________

Thank you for reading my fan fiction.  This story is broken in to smaller parts and will be told over the coming weeks.  I hope you'll enjoy the telling.

I want to thank all of you who supported my KickStarter campaign for The Steel Road.  Your support is very much appreciated.

I want to thank Russell Zimmerman for his kind words of encouragement and his support during the KickStarter campaign.  You can read his Shadowrun novels "Shaken" and "Neat" which are available on Amazon.  I think they are really great.










Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Blood and Tears

"There's a crack in the mirror and a blood stain on the bed..." Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde


There are times when I regret some of the things I've done.  There are times when I dream of things from my past and wish so fervently to do things differently.  The day Pepper died stands tall among these dreams, but it isn't the only one.  Sometimes people you care about die, and there isn't a damn thing you could do differently to make that change even if you could go back in time and try again.

This is one of those stories.

February 12th, 2060

Aria had found her appetite and the twins were finally letting her keep most of her meals down.  Life had been quiet since I got back Missoula.  Aria and I spent our time reading up on children, spending time with Rose, and making time for one another.  We were being people, and it was nice.

0715 hours

"Baby, I want ice cream." Aria told me. "It's seven in the morning and I want ice cream.  What is wrong with me?"

I smiled even though I should have known better. "Nothing wrong at all.  You've just got two little people growing inside you and they seem to really like the stuff."

"It's not funny, Tommy." Aria pouted. "I'm getting fat.  Not just, 'oh you're pregnant fat' but the 'oh she never says no to candy' kind of fat."

"You're not fat." I reassured her. "You're three people packed into one body and two of those people are trying to outrace each other to see who gets to be called the big sibling."

Aria continued to pout. "It sucks, and I still want the ice cream."

I rose from my space on the couch and walked into the kitchen.  I found the latest batch of frozen heaven Rose and Aria had made just the day before.  It was a peppermint ice cream with tiny chocolate chips.  It smelled good and looked fantastic.  Two scoops went into a bowl which I then presented to my sulking fiance.

"There you go honey," I told her. "Anything else I can get you?"

"No.  Just sit and keep me company."  she replied.

I sat down on the couch next to her, pulled her feet into my lap and started to massage her legs and feet.  She took a spoonful of ice cream in her mouth, savored it a moment, then put the bowl down.  "Let me go, I have to pee."

Aria stood and stormed off to the bathroom.  I shook my head and wondered how people ever managed to survive more than one pregnancy.  I was contemplating the idea of what the house would be like when the twins arrived when my pocket secretary buzzed, demanding my attention.  The call was from Sheila X.  The fact it was on my phone and not Aria's meant biz.

"Ms. X, good to hear from you." I said.

"Tommy," Sheila started.  "I would like to talk to you about a job opportunity I heard about.  Interested?"

"Always looking for ways to expand my career and build a better life." I said.  "When shall I meet you?"

"Tonight, twenty-one hundred hours, Brick Yard."  Sheila X was precise, crisp, and to the point, which told me this was serious business indeed.

"I'll be there." I replied.  Sheila X hung up without another word.

*****


Redmond Barrens, the Brick Yard

2100 Hours

The Brick Yard was busy that night.  All of the tables were occupied, the bar was crowded and the live band was nova-hot.  Sandy took one look at me and nodded toward the back.

I slid into Sheila X's usual booth right on time.

"Tommy, glad you could make it." Sheila said.  Her tone was flat, all biz, and for just a moment I forgot that she was my future mother-in-law.

"Always glad for work." I replied. "What's the action?"

"Theft." Sheila replied.  The curtain closed around the booth as she placed a holo-display on the table.  The image of a gold statuette appeared, floating in a cascade of light and dust motes. "I want this undamaged, brought to me, and a counterfeit left in its place."

"Who owns it?" I asked.

"It is presently held by REDACTED.  It is located in a thaumaturgic research and development facility located here in Seattle.  It's scheduled to be shipped back to the home office in twelve hours, so speed is key."  Sheila X looked at me, waiting.


I got straight to the point. "REDACTED, tough opposition there, what can you offer?"


"Five hundred thousand on completion." Sheila's reply was smooth and unemotional. "Meaning nothing up front. Get it done and get it to me and then you get paid. I'm not laying out money on 'maybe'."


I nodded my head at that.  As far as thefts go this one promised to be dangerous, the target was obviously very valuable, and leaving a counterfeit behind only added to the degree of difficulty.  I thought about it for a very long minute.  "What can you tell me about the target and its security, the transportation involved in its shipping, the fine details?  I'll look them over and make my decision.  Twelve hours doesn't leave much time for leg work or set up so I need to know what is involved."


Sheila X leaned forward and looked me in the eye. "If you don't want the job just say so."


"I want the money." I corrected her. "But I don't want to take on a job I can't pull off.  You once told me you liked that I was reliable.  I want to maintain that rep and part of that is knowing if I can do the job."


Sheila took out her pocket secretary and sent a file to mine.  I opened the file and looked over the available details.  My window of opportunity was slim indeed, but I thought I saw a hole I could exploit.  "You have the counterfeit item and the case?" I asked.


"It will be ready in two hours.  Are you in?" she asked.


"I'm in, but for six hundred thousand, I need to hire on some help." I replied.


Sheila X actually smiled at that.  "Okay, Tommy.  Make this happen.  I'm counting on you."


*****


Given that the job was against REDACTED, I'm withholding the names of the people I brought on.  We'll call the decker "Zoe", the rigger "Mario", and I'll admit that Edgy Ed and Gitti were with me.  I hadn't seen Ed since before the Thanksgiving holiday.  He moved more smoothly than I remembered and had new cyber eyes.  They were monochromatic in a pale shade of blue that I didn't like.


0800 hours local Seattle Metro-Plex time


It was cold that morning. 


Zoe unplugged the cable from her datajack and turned to me. "Null sheen chummer.  The helicopter is a fake, a decoy, they're sending the real thing by drone in fifteen minutes.  Something set off a network alarm so security is tightening up and looking for intrusion."  She shook her head at that. "Some wannabe deckmeister crawling in while I was working.  Not chill at all."


"Are they still launching?" I asked her. 


"Right in one.  They're taking it seriously though, even ordered up on-site security to run facial app on everyone in the facility.  That's going to eat up processing power but it will help to find faces that don't belong."  Zoe dug into her bag a moment, retrieving a micro-printer unit.  "I pulled the shipping file while I was there.  You're going to need to slap this on your package before you pull the switch."  Zoe printed out a series of shipping tags, handing them each to me in turn.  I stuck them onto my decoy package, carefully lining them up as she instructed.


"I've got movement on the roof." Mario's voice came over my earpiece.  "Escort helicopter just touched down.  Looks like a fueling team is heading to top it off before they go play cat and mouse."


"Any sign of our shipping drone?" I asked.


"Not yet," Mario replied.


"About ten more minutes," she chided. "Mario I'm sending you the route.  If you can keep me within a kilometer of it that would be great."


"Ed, I think you and I are just along for the ride.  We should have dressed like jockeys." Gitti joked.


"I think this will go well," Ed replied.  It was an emotionless, tired sound. 


I had heard that Ed had his cybernetic reflex enhancements corrected.  They had made him jittery the entire time I had known him. His hands used to shake whenever he wasn't moving.  At that moment though, he was perfectly still. 


"Damn right it will go well." Zoe interjected. "Five minutes."


I stepped out of the cargo van and called out to Rose.  She materialized in her pale shadowrunner persona and hugged me.


"Mom will not want you to get hurt this time." Rose told me. "She says I need to protect you."


I shook my head at that. "I need you to do what I ask, please.  Rose, I will be careful but part of this job is knowing what role you play on the team."  I brushed away a stray hair from her face. "Today is going to be a simple job. We're going to steal the thing, replace it with the copy then get out of there before anyone suspects anything."


"If you get hurt, I'm told I will not get ice cream." Rose said. Her face was plainly serious. 


"We get this done right and I'll make sure you have a whole liter of ice cream." I promised her.  I wove an invisibility spell around myself and opened my senses to the astral plane.  Before me, Rose wove her own spell then changed into her Pegasus form.  I climbed onto her back and checked the package. "Let's go."


Rose launched us into the sky, her wings beating lazily but she picked up speed quickly.  I called out to one of the spirits I had bound and tasked it to maintain the invisibility spell.  Then I pulled on my AR goggles and hit my mic.  "Talk to me Zoe, where is this thing at?"


"Just lifted off and will be crossing the north perimeter in less than a minute.  It's going to be at thirty meters above street level, heading toward Sea-Tac." Zoe was all biz, and her information was spot on.  Rose and I glided around to the north end of the complex just in time to see a small delivery drone soar off with a package cradled against its undercarriage.


"Rose get us under that thing.  Zoe, have you compromised the drone yet?"  Rose and I drew closer to the target.


"I've got control of it's package release systems, on-board memory, active sensors, and I'm spoofing the rigger who is flying it."  There was a note of pride in her voice as she added, "You paid for the best, you get the best."


I reached up and pulled the package free, then slipped my counterfeit package up and into the package cradle.  "I've got it.  Let's get to the van Rose."  Rose pulled us away from the drone, and we swept down toward the cargo van speeding along below. 


As the van stopped for a traffic light the back doors opened and I climbed in.  Rose vanished back into the astral plane.


"Smooth," Gitti said.


"Just drive casually Mario. Get me out to the Willows. Well done everyone."  I said.  I had Zoe scan the package.  She found an active on demand tracking device and disabled it in moments.  We pulled through the check point and into Redmond within an hour of the theft.  All was quiet, and no one seemed the wiser.  I had Rose close by in astral space, watching for signs of magical pursuit.


0945 hours


Mario pulled the van into the parking lot of a burned out Super Shopping Center.  "Okay we're here." he said. The van's doors swung open and I stepped out onto the crumbling plascrete.  Gitti joined me a tick later and I heard boots crunching on the far side of the van, telltale signs of Ed and Zoe climbing out. 


"Right, quick check of this thing first.  Zoe, give it another scan then Gitti go over it for any explosive surprises.  I've already checked it for magical hazards and got rid of the astral tag."  I stepped back as Zoe came around and went to work. 


Gitti was watching the street, as was Ed.  "This place has some bad memories.  Why come back here?" Gitti asked.


"I keep an eye on it. Make sure nothing weird is lurking around.  No one comes around, even the local squatters avoid it like it's cursed."  I replied.


"Yeah, well it's creepy, omae."  Gitti's comment was softly spoken.  The veteran runner was watching the street and cradling his smg.  "Next time pick someplace less open, or just go to the Brick Yard."


"I'm telling you, it's clean." Zoe reported.  "None of the electronic tags on this bundle are still active.  I did an ultrasound scan too.  Just a statue looking thing packed tight."


"Sub-zero.  Gitti, you're on." I said.


"Right." Gitti slung his smg, opened his rucksack and started pulling out tools. "If there is anything to make it go 'boom' I'll find it."


"I'm telling you, it's clean." Zoe sighed.


"Better safe than dead." I replied.  The area was eerily quiet.  It was like the whole world was holding its breathe.  I looked around, found nothing threatening, then sent out a mental call to Rose and my spirits "Keep an eye out for anything in the astral. Fan out for one hundred meters and let me know if anything comes that close."  Rose and the spirits set off, looking for any sign of astral threats. 


Ten minutes ticked by as Gitti went over every inch of the package.  At last he straightened and put away his tools.  "Nothing here.  It's as safe as a bag of trash."


BOOM  

I jumped at the unexpected roar of sound.  A bloody hole was punched through Gitti's chest, and a look of shock appeared on his face. 


Everything seemed to slow down.  I heard a second shot from my left and saw Zoe thrown to the pavement with a bullet hole blown through her.  I saw Edgy Ed bringing his Ares Predator around, its barrel still smoking from the shots that dropped Gitti and Zoe. 


I managed to cast my little sleep spell, my pointing fingers were scant centimeters from Ed's heavy pistol.  Maybe it was the shock of Ed's betrayal, maybe it was fear, or maybe Ed had a much stronger force of will than I had ever expected; but for whatever reason, my spell failed to take hold.  Edgy Ed shot me twice, from a distance of less than meter.


I remember looking up from the broken plascrete and seeing Ed fire two times into the van.  I felt numb and cold.  I saw Zoe feebly reach for her pistol, then watched as her head exploded when Ed put two rounds into her skull.


"Mutha' fraggin' hell Ed," I muttered.  I don't know why I was talking.  Playing dead would have been smarter.  "You killed us all."


"Not yet." he replied.  Ed slapped a fresh magazine home and chambered a round.


Gitti's smg barked out three rounds.  Two of the bullets caught Ed's gun arm and the heavy pistol hit the plascrete.  "Careless of you Ed." Gitti muttered.  His smg hit the pavement as blood foamed up from his lips. 


"Why?" I heard myself ask.


Ed ignored me and the horrific bullet wounds in his arm.  He reached down and picked up his pistol with his left hand. 


Rose materialized behind him.  She grabbed Ed's head as he began to straighten up, and twisted it completely around.  There was a loud CRACK sound, followed by the sound of Ed's pistol hitting the plascrete for a second time.  There was a flash of mana energy then Rose dropped Ed's smoldering corpse.  Mana burns crisscrossed every inch of exposed skin.


Rose was beside me in a flash.  Her healing spell took hold quickly.  It hurt like hell as two badly deformed bullets were pushed out of my body.  At point blank range they had cut through my armored vest, my form fitting armor and then taken me right off my feet. 


"This will take time." Rose said.


"Anything coming?" I asked.


"There are men heading this way.  They each carry much cyberware within them.  They are being careful to not be seen."  she replied.


"Drek."  I opened my senses to the astral and confirmed my fear. Gitti was dead.  "We're getting out of here.  Mario, are you alive?"


There was no answer.


I risked a bit of magic and felt the strain as the package floated over to me.  I clutched it to me and said, "Rose, we have to leave.  Keep the healing spell going until it takes, but I need to ask you to fly me away from here."


"Of course." she said.


I managed to weave a weak invisibility spell around us.  I had never had such a hard time with that spell as I did then.  Rose picked me up and we began to float away.  We were over the ruins of the Super Shopping Center when a dozen armed men swarmed over the van.  I held onto the package as tightly as I could while Rose flew us to the Brick Yard.


*****


It turned out that I had managed to grab the right statue.  Zoe knew her stuff, may she rest in peace.  Gitti saved my life one last time before he died.  I never forget that.


Sheila X paid up, like always.  I took half of the credsticks to Gitti's wife.  I told her Ed killed him, but she didn't believe me.


Rose and I stopped for ice cream before we went home. I bought her a liter of organic strawberry ice cream, then picked up two more liters for her and Aria to share later.


Aria was not happy about me getting shot up.  Fortunately for me, Rose's healing spell did a great job of minimizing the scarring.  The scars looked far better than they had any right to.  Whenever I shapechange to a new persona I think about getting rid of them, but then I remember Gitti, laying there on the broken plascrete, his smg still held tightly in his dead hand.  A couple of old scars are the least I can do to honor his last act.


I went back the next day.  Everything of value had been stolen.  The bodies were still there though.  I burned Zoe and Mario, but I brought Gitti back to his wife.  She hates me to this day.


Gitti was a professional.  He and I had fought ghouls, vampires, dark spirits that inhabited the dead, gangers, corp security teams, hell hounds, and more things than I care to admit to.  He was a steady hand, reliable, and I miss him to this day.

I don't know why Ed betrayed us.  I have some suspicions now, looking back at that day.  Hindsight being twenty-twenty doesn't help when you don't know all the facts.  I'll likely never know why, or why he shot Gitti first.  Every time I think about it I realize I should have noticed that he was acting a little off.  Nothing profound, just a little different, and I wonder why I didn't see it then.  The truth, of course, is that I did see it then but that it didn't seem so far out of character that I worried about it.  Edgy Ed killed three shadowrunners that day, one of whom he had been friendly with for years.  He also shot me twice and I had saved his life on a handful of occasions prior to that.  Whatever his reason, it cost him his life as well.  May he rot in a hell full of the blood of his chummers and the tears of Gitti's wife.

*****


From the author ~


Thank you for reading my fan fiction. I hope you have enjoyed this part of Tommy's story.  If you enjoyed this story, please do share it with others.


As always I have to clarify that I do not own Shadowrun and that these stories are fictionalized accounts based on game play. 


As you may have noticed, I recently cut back on the frequency with which I was releasing stories.  This is because I have been busy with fulfillment for the KickStarter for Tarot Adventures, Book Two: Comet over Echo Rock as well as formatting text and art for The Steel Road, which is coming to KickStarter in a few weeks.  If you are interested in seeing my other projects and what I have coming out, you can follow me on KickStarter.


I don't publish material for Shadowrun, but I do release material under the Open Game License for the 5th Edition game mechanic as allowed for in the SRD5.1 document published by Wizards of the Coast.  You can find those books on Drivethrurpg.com here: Sinopa Publishing LLC.  I am also developing my own role-playing game which I am hoping to release in 2019 (so keep a watchful eye open for that).


I hope you'll join me again next time, for more of Tommy's story.


W.S. Quinton











































Saturday, April 7, 2018

Rescue Op: Crank's job in Missoula


January 23rd, 2060
0115 hours, Bear Bull Street, Missoula, Salishe-Sidhe

"Damnit, Tommy!" Gitti screamed. Bullets streaked between us as the attack continued. "How did I let you talk me into this?!?!"

"Quit your bitching!" I said.  Gitti didn't need to scream, the mic picked him up just fine.  The volume control in my earbud prevented him from injuring my hearing.  "This was Crank's idea, not mine."

"Okay, I may have been mistaken." Crank answered. There was a note of sarcasm to his voice. "But look at it this way, we're here, they're here.  Let's just kill them and get it over with."

Gitti and Crank each threw a grenade into the street.  The responding gunfire blew more holes through the wall we were concealed behind.  "Drek!" I yelled as I flattened myself on the floor.  There was a single, horrifically loud explosion, then the building fell on me.

To understand what the hell was going on you need to know about a few things that happened in the days prior.  We tried to do the right thing, and that's when everything went to Hell.

*****

January 12th, 2060

I dove back into my studies of alchemy, enchantment, and talismongering with a great deal of enthusiasm.  The material was fascinating to me, and I began to see connections to my understandings of spell casting and summoning. 

Aria was fourteen weeks into the pregnancy with the twins.  Her baby bump had grown, and she was now wearing her yoga pants as daily wear.  She had steadfastly refused to go maternity wear shopping "until absolutely necessary".  I didn't argue.

Rose had learned to make homemade ice cream from Aria.  Which was incredibly fortunate as, according to Aria, the babies were demanding ice cream regularly.  The doctor said it was okay so long as she ate it in moderation and I was happy because she could eat it without vomiting.

1100 hours

I was studying a text Mike had recommended.  It went into great detail on the fourth dimensional modeling of power foci and was a fascinating, if difficult read. My pocket secretary buzzed.  I had a call coming in that had been forwarded from a number I gave out to only a handful of fellow shadowrunners.  I didn't recognize the number.  "Hello?" I answered.

"Tommy, it's Crank." a deep voice said.  It sounded like Crank, but you should always be cautious.

"I heard you've been playing that zombie cop shooter lately.  How do you like it?" I responded.

"You heard wrong, chummer.  I kill monsters." Crank replied.

"You've got my attention.  What's up?" I asked.

"I need a meeting.  I'm putting a team together and I need a magician I can trust." Crank was serious.  There was no obvious stress or emotion in his voice, just a firmly controlled baritone.

"You got it, omae.  Where and when?" I sat up and pulled out a sheet of actual paper and an old ink pen.

"Meet me at the Cedar Hills reclamation site, tonight at twenty-two hundred." He said.  "Tommy, pack for a trip.  If you're coming, we'll gone for a few days."

"Understood. Twenty-two hundred, and pack for a trip.  See you then." I hung up, bookmarked my page, and closed the book.  One the sheet of paper I wrote, "Do not touch", and laid it upon the book. I rose, walked out of my lab and locked the door behind me.

I found Aria in the kitchen with Rose.  They were making lunch and talking laughing about something.  Rose was in her young elf girl form. Her hair was braided and she had a pink ribbon tied around the braids.  I gave her a hug, then wrapped my arms around Aria and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

"Hey, now" she laughed. "I'm making lunch.  Don't get between a pregnant woman and food."

I reached over and grabbed a carrot stick from the cutting board. "Just wanted to give you some attention. Crank called, I'm going to meet him tonight.  Work stuff."

Aria's smile faded a bit. "Okay, but you be careful.  Don't go getting all shot up again. I don't like it when you come home bleeding."

For some reason I thought that was funny.  I laughed and told her, "Honey, I didn't much care for it either."  Her eyebrow arched in a menacing way.  I banished my laughter and put on a serious expression, "I'll be as cautious as possible.  You'll see, I'll be home as soon as whatever is done, and we'll go on like usual."

"You have not located the information Crank and Little Rickie requested," Rose interjected.  "Should you not address that before meeting Crank?"

"I know, Rose. I've found some references, but I don't yet understand it." I had been looking for information on creating a self-sustaining mana loop attached to another person.  Attaching it to your own self, your own aura was simple once you understood the technique.  Creating a geo-stationary mana loop, one fixed to a particular point on Earth was similarly easy to do.  The question became how to create a self-sustaining mana loop to another person.  I had been conducting research on this point after Crank and Little Rickie had asked about having spells placed upon them. It was an interesting line of thought that I was eagerly exploring.

"I've found mention of techniques to enchant tattoos, but so far I've not found anything concrete on how it's done." I told her.  "I may have to take this question to the meta-planes when I come back."

"Or you may need to broaden the scope of your studies in this matter." Rose replied. "You have divided your time between the family needs, your pursuit into matters of enchantment, and have dedicated only a fraction of time to this matter.  Perhaps a more focused approach could yield benefit more quickly."

"You are probably correct." I told her. "Just remember, I do have a lot to learn, so I do often have to divide my time."

"You are only human," Rose admitted.

"Okay, enough magic talk." Aria waggled her finger at me. "If you're going out tonight, when am I to expect you back?"

"Crank only said it may be a few days" I confessed. "That assumes I take the job, of course."

"You be careful." Aria ordered.  She kissed me again, this time with more passion. When she pulled away she added, "After lunch I'll remind you what you're coming home to."

*****

January 12th, 2060

2200 hours

I left Rose at home to protect Aria.  An air elemental I had summoned days before flew me to my meeting.

The Cedar Hills reclamation site is an old landfill.  It is supposedly off limits to all but department of sanitation personnel, but that isn't the reality at all.  The site is home to numerous squatters, scavengers, and is rumored to be home to a cabal of rat shamans.  Crank lived in the dump, in an old camper trailer that had somehow found its way there.  The area smelled of methane and other gases that escaped the decomposition processes that waged war on the detritus of the twentieth and early twenty-first century.  Like any landfill or dump, it reeked.

I landed near Crank's camper, my astral sight open to help forewarn me of any threats. The area was alive with films of molds and mildews, fungal growths and slime, all attacking the legacy of a wasteful civilization.  Rats and other, unidentifiable, things scampered among the trash.

"Crank, you said you wanted to meet." I said aloud.  It wouldn't do to yell and disrupt Crank's neighbors.

I heard a rustle from the camper and it shifted in the debris. The door opened, and a large, familiar face stuck out of the door. "Tommy, you elf faced asshole." Crank's smile was immense, and contagious. "Come on in and take a seat."  He edged away from the door and the camper shifted again.  I climbed over the threshold and into Crank's home.

The outside of the camper was stained and fit right in with the environment.  The interior, however, was a surprising contrast.  Electric lights came on when the door closed.  High density household batteries occupied the far-right hand wall.  A large camping toilet was situated in front of them, a tri-fold dressing panel providing a measure of privacy.  A small kitchen, possibly the original one for the camper, shone under the lighting. The left end of the camper was dominated by a long bed that easily fit the big man.  Wall outlets hosted ultrasonic insect repelling devices.  "Nice place, Crank." I told him.  I was being honest.  It was a lot nicer than some of the places I had lived in when I was still in Redmond. "How do you power up the batteries?"

Crank smiled with a note of pride, "I've got a solar panel on the roof and a methane capture generator mounted next to it.  It's quiet and low profile.  I let the rat shamans recharge their personal devices on the plug in the back and they keep people from stealing them."  Crank lifted a panel in the floor, exposing a refrigeration compartment. He grabbed a large bottle of water looked to me and asked, "Can I get you a water?"

"Sure, thanks." I replied.  Crank's aura was calm, bright, and devoid of cyberware. He handed a cold liter of water to me.  I drank and relaxed a bit.

"I have an opportunity that came my way by a certain Mr. Johnson." Crank began. "I did some digging and I figured you might want to take a stab at it."

"I'm listening, omae.  What's the action?" I asked.

"Rescue op, actually." he began.  "One you may be interested in.  A couple of kids have gone missing up north.  Local law enforcement is all over it, but there is a twist." Crank's aura flared with a mix of emotions, though he didn't let them show.  "Some graves have been robbed since their disappearance.  It sounds familiar, neh?"

I whistled, "You think it's those things we fought at Cooper's place and then up along the Clearwater?"

Crank nodded his head slowly, "Maybe, but maybe not.  If it is, I want you there."

I thought about that a moment.  "What is Johnson's angle on this?"

"His daughter is one of the missing kids.  I had Angel look into his story and it seems legit.  She's on board for this, so you know." Crank leaned back and looked me in the eye.  "Money isn't as much as you were paying me.  Johnson is a rancher up near Missoula, raises buffalo.  I can pay you five thousand, plus another ten thousand if it turns out to be the same monsters."

"Not a lot, considering what we'll be facing if you're right." I told him.

"I know." Crank responded.  "I'd appreciate it if you could come along though.  Team is going to be damn small.  Gitti is coming but Ed is still unavailable."

"So, you've got Angel, Gitti, and who else?" I asked him.

"So far, Angel, Gitti, and me.  You if you'll say 'yes'." Crank said.

"What's our transportation like?" I asked.

"I've got that lined up.  T-bird pilot I know is going to run us right up to the ranch.  He'll pick us up again five days later.  We go find the kids, pick them up, return them and then lay low until pick up." Crank explained.

"We're light on gun hands." I said.  "Any ideas on anyone else we can bring?"

Crank seemed to relax a bit, "I wouldn't mind having Goblin Mike around, but I don't see him doing it for so little. Hell, his ammunition costs would eat most of that payday. I would like to get Adam, but he's off somewhere with Shade."

"What about Alexia?" I said.

"Who the frag is Alexia?"  Crank replied.

"The new guy who survived the vampires down in the Willows." I said.  "She followed the plan, kept her eyes open, and didn't run away when things went south."

Crank seemed to think about it a moment. "That's an idea. This low of a payday might not be a big deal to her.  I know when I started out I would have jumped at this kind of money."

"I know I did." I responded. "I'll do it because you're a chummer and you've done it for me before.  But you didn't do it this cheap, so I'll trade you.  I'll do this at your terms, you do my next job on mine."

Crank scratched his horn and said. "Yeah, I can do that."

"When do we leave?" I asked.

"About two hours. You have all you need?" Crank stood, hunched over, in the small camper and walked back to his bed.  He lifted the mattress and started pulling out guns.

"I think I'm good." I showed him the small rucksack I was carrying.  "I'm not equipped for a long trip in the woods though.  I didn't bring any food.  But I suppose we can live off the land, if we have to."

"Nah, I'm bringing some mil-spec field rations.  Gitti turned me onto them and they are really very tasty." Crank pulled out the pink light machine gun I had given him as a gift. He turned and looked at me over his shoulder.  "This has been a really good gun.  Thank you."

"Null sheen, chummer." I replied. "Just keep it firing away from me."

I sent a message to Sheila X and had a contact number for Alexia within ten minutes.  I called her while Crank and I hiked out of the landfill.

"Who is this?" Alexia asked.

"I'm the guy from the job in the Willows.  My chummer Crank has a job going up right now.  If you are interested in work, meet us at the Stuffer Shack on Carmichael street in Maple Valley.  You've got one hour to get there, or we'll be gone." I told her.

"How do I know I can trust you," she asked.

"You don't." I replied.  "You shouldn't trust anyone in this biz.  But the fact I have your number should tell you something.  Figure out if you're going to be there.  You have fifty-eight minutes."  I hung up the phone.

Crank was looking down at me with an odd expression. "Hard on the FNG* aren't you?"

"They were late the first time.  We're leaving now, so she can't afford to be late." I replied. "Also, she's new, if she proves she's reliable we can't have her getting into bad habits."

"Okay, but I'm talking to her about the job. It is my contract after all." Crank set his pink scooter down on the street and cycled up its little electric engine.  "You want to ride on the back or what?"

I shook my head. "I'll fly."


2300 hours

Alexia road up to the Stuffer Shack on a black Harley.  The engine rumbled smoothly and steadily, like a great beast snoring away.  She killed the engine, dismounted and strode over to Crank.  Alexia wore a fierce expression and she was clearly expecting a fight.  I stood quietly, my invisibility spell hiding me from the eyes of normal people.  I listened and took a moment to assess the newcomer shadowrunner.

She was two meters tall, though the heavy boots she wore added a centimeter or more to her height.  She wore heavy denim jeans and an Ares Predator heavy pistol rode in a holster belted on her hip.  An armored vest adorned with "My eyes are up here" emblazoned across the front over a flanel shirt. A pump shotgun was slung on her back.  Alexia's eyes swept the area, seeming to be on the lookout for anything suspicious.

Crank sat atop his pink electric scooter, a broad smile on his face.  "Oi, chummer!  Got a minute?" he asked.

Alexia walked over and looked up into Crank's eyes, "Do you have work to talk about or are you wasting my time?" she demanded.

"I've got work." Crank replied.  "How do you feel about finding lost kids?"

Crank's negotiation with Alexia didn't take long.  Crank offered her three thousand and they eventually agreed on five.   I let my invisibility spell unravel once they had agreed, and Alexia spun, reaching for her gun, though she stopped short of pulling it from its holster.

"You need to watch out for that," she warned. "You'll get shot sneaking up on someone that way."

"I've been here since you got here." I replied.  "Good to have you on the job."

*****

January 13th, 2060

0100 Hours

Alexia, Angel, Crank, Gitti and I climbed into the t-bird.   It was my first time in one and I wondered what all the excitement was about.  The smuggler hauling us over the border was a handsome, bald, human with dark black skin and gold cyber eyes.  Crank called him 'Snow', though I never found out why.

Snow buttoned up the hatch we climbed in through, then a moment later, his voice came over the internal speaker. "Right, buckle up folks.  We're going to be moving low and quick until we hit the cascades, then it gets slow and curvy for a while.  Sleep if you can, don't throw up in my ride.  Crank, I'm holding you responsible if any of your chummers makes a mess."

Crank gave a thumbs-up, then my gut dropped suddenly as the t-bird lifted off the ground and shot forward.  I couldn't see where we were going so I had no warning or preparation for the turns, dips and sudden lifts in the trip.  I was soon very nauseous and felt my stomach threaten to despoil the interior.

"Try lying flat," Crank said.  "Put your head toward the front and lay down.  It'll help with the nausea."

"This really sucks," I complained. "Next time I'll fly on my own."

"Yeah, yeah." Crank waved his hand at me.  "Enjoy the ride, broaden your experiences, and quit complaining."

I lay down, tucked my rucksack under my head, and tried to sleep.  I didn't have much success.  The t-bird bucked and swerved for what seemed like an eternity.  My stomach churned with the erratic movement.

Crank was telling a joke about three gangers and a baby when I heard thunder roar inside the t-bird, then everything went black.

0215 hours

I woke up laying amid flaming debris.  Everything was blurry, I felt cold and wasn't certain where I was.

"Rose, help." I said.  She wasn't anywhere around. I focused on our telepathic link and tried to reach out to her. "Rose, I'm hurt.  Help me."

I saw a large shape stirring in the wreckage.  A cloud of oily smoke occluded my vision and I coughed as the toxins irritated my nose and caused a burning sensation in my eyes.

"I'm coming," Rose's voice whispered in my mind.

The large form rose from under warped armor plating and the shattered remains of the t-bird.  "Angel?" Crank's voice sounded strained.  "Tommy?  Alexia?  Snow?  Anyone still alive?"

"Crank, I'm here." I said.  My voice came out weakly.  "I'm here, chummer."

I heard the familiar sound of gun fire over the cackling of the flames.  Crank staggered, then tripped and fell over a twisted beam.  He landed with a crash of poly-ceramic plating and alloy beams colliding with hundreds of kilos of falling troll.

Crank didn't get back up. I lay there, my vision clouding over as something wet and sticky was spreading down my face.  I smelled blood, cordite, and the reek of burning plastics.  Three shadowy figures crept into view.  They had AK-97's shouldered and ready.  My eyes were getting heavy and I blinked.  When my eyes opened again, the three figures were among the wreckage.

"Oi, we got us a couple of females," one of the figures said. He slung his rifle and started moving wreckage.

"If she's pretty we can get some good money for her in 'Vegas," another voice said.  "Is the trog dead?"

"'Nah, he's still breathing." a third voice responded. 

"I am here," Rose said. "You are badly hurt."

"Rose, there are enemies nearby.  I need you to put them down. Don't let them kill anyone." I sent the message from my mind to Rose and heard her respond as consciousness slipped away from me again.

"I will do violence."

I woke up to Rose's hands on my face.  I felt the power of her healing spell pulsing through my body. "How bad?" I asked.

"You were badly hurt, but I believe I can restore you." Rose responded.

"Are there any other survivors?" I asked.

"Yes, they are also badly hurt.  The healing spell will be done in moments. You can help them after that." Rose said.  "Aria will not be pleased."

"She'll be fine." I replied. "I'll tell her I'm okay and that I'll be home in a few days. What happened to those three guys that were prowling around the wreckage?"

"I did violence. They are dead." Rose's voice didn't carry any malice.  To her it was just a statement of fact.

"Thank you Rose," I said.  Her healing spell finished its work and I was able to stand.  I felt tired, and sticky, but I was able to move among the wreckage.  I found Crank first.  The large troll had been shot and was bleeding.  I knelt and placed my hands on the big man's chest.  Rose lent her own power to reinforce my own.  I put everything I could muster into that healing spell.  Wounds began to close as bullets and fragments from the destroyed t-bird were forced from his body.  I held the spell in place, mana infusing Crank's torn body to prompt its natural abilities to regenerate.  He would have some scarring, but he would be fine.  It was tiring.

"Rose, find Gitti.  Heal him as best as you can.  I'll find Angel then we'll look for Alexia."  I opened my sight to the astral plan and headed to where the first figure had claimed to have found a woman.  My insight served me well.

Angel was unconscious.  Her face was swollen, bruised and bloody.  "I've found Angel, she's in bad shape." My telepathic link with Rose was proving useful once again.

"Gitti is badly wounded.  The machines in his body will make healing him difficult.  I will begin." Rose reported.   Rose is an incredibly powerful spirit.  Her spell casting skills equaled my own and she could cast potent spells while suffering far less fatigue and strain than a metahuman sorcerer ever would.  Gitti had extensive reflex enhancement implants that had destroyed much of his essence, weakening his very soul.  It would challenge even Rose's abilities to heal him with magic.

"I know you'll do your best Rose."  I looked around and found my rucksack.  I rummaged in it until I found the small flask I kept for emergencies.  I opened the flask, lay my right hand on Angel's forehead, and poured out a measure of water from the Blood Falls over her chest.  "Creo sanitatem," I muttered.  Over and over I uttered the incantation as I released the healing spell to flow over her. "creo sanitatem mutato hominum de ex mystio creo sanitatem" Her swelling subsided, bruises faded, and her breathing became stronger.

 {Thanks again for that ~ Angel
 {Welcome ~ T}

I held the spell and felt fatigue begin to creep up on me.  Angel's cyberware made the spell difficult to cast and to hold in place.  "Why are my boobs wet?" her question startled me.  I very nearly lost control of the spell.

"It's an expendable spell focus I utilize for healing spells.  Helps the spell work."  I replied.  I looked down and saw Angel relax a bit.

"Okay, so long as it isn't for a creepy reason." she gave a ghost of a smile.

"Quiet you, we're in deep drek." I whispered.  Angel closed her eyes, laying very still, her breathing calm.  I felt the spell reach its culmination as the mana energies began to dissipate through her. "There are some dead bad guys around here.  See if they have any gear you can pull information from."  I stood up and went looking for Alexia.

"On it," Angel said softly.

I found Alexia lying next to a dead man.  He had been a pale skinned, 'anglo', human.  His AK-97 was laying in the wreckage, and Alexia's Ares Predator was still held firmly in his left hand.  His head was turned at an angle impossible to achieve without a broken neck.  I could just sense the faint echo of absolute terror that had befallen him before he died.

Alexia was still breathing.  Her legs were pinned under wreckage.  I tried to move it but couldn't.  "Rose, how is it coming with Gitti?"

My spirit's response was immediate, "He is conscious and furious.  I have been able to heal the most life threatening of his injuries."

"Can he walk?" I asked.

"His mobility will not be hampered." Rose reported.

"Good, tell him I need him here ASAP." I looked around for anything I could use as a lever.

Two minutes later I heard Gitti curse. "Damnit, Tommy.  This is fragged up badly."

"How did it happen?" I asked him.

"Alarm went off signalling incoming fire.  We had maybe a second before it hit the t-bird."  Gitti climbed over a bit of the wreck and crept over to me. "Must have impacted under the VTOL engine because the t-bird flipped, and we hit the ground tumbling.  I blacked out sometime during the crash."

"We had three guys come up on the wreck.  They shot Crank and were talking about selling the women.  I think it was just a straight up heist. Help me with this, please." I gestured to the wreckage laying across Alexia's legs.

Gitti helped me lift it off her.  Her legs were shattered, and she began bleeding fiercely.  "I'll tourniquet the legs!  You get that mojo bullshit going or she is going to die!"

I poured out another measure from my flask and began the spell.  Gitti pulled his belt off, looped it around Alexia's left leg, stuck his sheathed knife under the belt and twisted it tightly.  The bleeding from that leg slowed to almost nothing.  My spell was taking hold and the bleeding from her right leg slowed dramatically.  Gitti jumped up and started looking around.

"I'm going to find the medkit.  I saw one when we boarded, and I had one in my gear.  I'll be right back."  Gitti slipped off into the night, his weak aura vibrant with worry that was being channeled by finely honed discipline.  Alexia's aura was weak but intact.  The wreckage had kept her from bleeding out, but when we had removed it she started losing a lot of blood.

"Tommy?" Crank uttered.  The big man was stirring.

"Over here. Sit tight, don't move until we can look you over, omae." I said. "Rose, where are you?"

"I am behind you," she replied.

"I need your help," I told her.  The healing spells were exhausting, and my recent injuries didn't make it any easier.  Rose laid her hand upon my shoulder a moment later, lending her power to mine once more.  The spell became easier to channel, and Alexia took a deep breath.

"Ah, drek that hurts" she declared.

"Quiet. Give me a minute for this to work." I said.

Gitti appeared with a medkit in hand.  "How is she doing?"

"She's awake and hurting.  Not sure if I can get her moving, but I'm trying.  Bandage up anything still bleeding."  Gitti was already working on her before I finished my sentence.  I shut out everything except the spell and waited for it to take hold.

It was a very long few minutes.

The pilots compartment was destroyed.  Snow was dead.

Angel recovered a few pieces of gear from the guys who tried to kill us.  We managed to find their campsite the next day.  We grabbed what gear we could use, and fled northeast, hoping to move away from the border patrol.  They had been lying in wait along a known t-bird route. Seemed they were hoping to score a kill on a smuggler then steal the cargo.  We had the misfortune to run right through their ambush.  Snow's t-bird took a missile hit in the port VTOL engines and that was all she wrote.  Angel was using a signal scanner we found at the camp to snoop in on the border patrol communications.  It kept us one step ahead of the patrols, but just barely.

*****

January 17th, 2060

We spent the days after the crash hiding from border patrol drones, troops, and hunters.  The snow was knee deep.  I couldn't see the snow** but that made it easier for us to avoid falling into drifts.  I sent Rose home right after we fled the crash site.  I told her to let Aria know I was fine and to tell her I would send messages back as often as I could. I didn't envy the reception Rose would receive from my pregnant fiance.

A storm was rolling in and the border patrol search parties were pulling out.  They would be back after the storm passed.  It gave us a narrow window to move in.  Crank and Gitti took shelter in a cave we had found.  I called out for Rose and she arrived minutes later.

Rose took on her pegasus form and Angel and Alexia climbed up on her back.  I send out a command to one of the air elementals I had bound, then the three of us flew out until nightfall.  Angel and Alexia set up camp, while Rose and I flew back through the storm and returned to the cave.

The storm was raging when I arrived.  Crank and Getti had built a small fire in the very back of the cave.  "Tommy, this is a bad idea.  It's colder than a dragon's heart outside." Gitti said. "I think it's smarter if we wait out the evening and go at dawn.  If the storm has lessened, we'll have an easier time of making the trip."

"Crank?" I asked.

Crank shook his head, "No, we go now.  Bundle up and let's do this and get it over with."

We snuffed out the fire, then made our way out of the cave.  The wind was blowing steadily, and I felt the sting of snow and ice hitting my face.  I climbed upon Rose's back, her wings spread wide, and we launched into the sky.  My air elementals lifted Crank and Gitti and we dashed across the night sky.

The thermal insulation of my form fitting body armor was all that protected me from frostbite.  Gitti and crank both wore heavily insulated winter wear, but the cold still bit deep on each of us.  We landed in the dark hours of early morning, the tents Angel and Alexia had put up had withstood the storm.  I walked over to one that had a dim glow coming from within, reached for the zippered entrance and said, "It's me, don't shoot."

I stepped into the tent.  The soft glow came from a glow stick hanging from the ceiling.  Gitti came in behind me, and Crank squeezed in behind him.

"Angel and Alexia in the other one?" Crank asked.

"I haven't checked yet.  Give me a minute and I'll find out."  I sent out a telepathic message to Rose, "Please check the other tent and make sure Angel and Alexia are there, please."

"Certainly," Rose replied.  A moment later she added, "They are sleeping. Shall I wake them?"

"No, thank you Rose.  That's not necessary.  Please go home and take care of Aria.  Let her know I'm okay and that I'll send her another message soon." I told her.

"Please do be careful.  Aria will be most displeased if you are not home soon." Rose replied.  Then she suddenly seemed very far away.


January 20th, 2060

0800 hours

The storm raged for two days.

Once the storm broke, we packed up and headed north.  We made it to the highway and managed to arrive at Missoula before nightfall.  Crank made contact with the fixer who arranged his job. He arranged for rooms for us in an old, run down hotel.

I entered my room and opened my astral sight.  The astral space had the usual lingering echoes of lust and loneliness. There weren't any spirits about.  I locked the door, lay down in the bathtub and projected my astral body over to Angel's room.  I found that her room was clear of any astral eavesdroppers, no spirits were present, and she was fiddling with the gray insubstantial box I assumed to be her cyber deck.  I floated along checking Alexia, Crank, and Gitti's rooms.  None appeared to be under astral surveillance.

"Good sign after a rough start." I told myself.  I slipped back into my meat body and stripped down for a shower.  I whispered out to the astral for my water elemental, it manifested in the shower.  I turned on the shower, as hot as I could get the water to reach, and had my spirit purify the water as it cascaded upon me.  A hot shower was fantastic after days in the cold and snow.

My commlink buzzed.  I reached out from the shower and fitted the earpiece.  "Hello,"

"Tommy," Angel's voice sounded in my ear. "I've checked and there isn't anything in the rooms I can't counter.  Someone has tapped the pin cameras on the trideo units to watch the rooms.  I've looped those feeds and subscribed the host to a number of evangelical podcasts, religious channels, and to a number of ultra conservative poli-clubs." I could almost hear the smile in her voice.  Angel likes her mischief.

"Groovy, so we won't use the trideo then.  Better let Gitti know or he'll be watching war porn soon." I said.

"What is that noise?" Angel asked.

"I'm in the shower." I replied.

"Yeah, I'm heading that way myself. Crank says we're meeting in thirty minutes." she broke transmission.  I finished my shower, rinsed and dried my formfitting body armor, and got dressed.

2120 hours

"Angel, no one seems to have made any progress on finding the kids.  Dig deep and see what you can find out.  Gitti you and Tommy go check out the cemetery where the grave robbing was reported.  I want to know if we're dealing with those monsters again.  Alexia, you stay close to Angel and keep her safe."  Crank was calm and precise.  "I'm going to talk to some old chummers locally and see if I can find anything out.  Angel, while you're at it, look into Mr. Johnson again.  Let's see what he's been up to while we were getting here."

"Can do," Angel said.

"I'd like to hold off until after the sun is up to check out the graves.  Less chance of running into ghouls.  No reason to raise any suspicion by getting into extra conflicts." I offered.

Crank nodded at that. "Good thinking.  You two look after each other and stay in contact." Crank turned back to Angel. "Are we going to have any communication problems?"

"No, we're fine.  I've run us through the local networks.  We're good anywhere in Missoula itself, but out near the ranches it'll be hit and miss." she said.

Our meeting broke up and I went back to my room.  I sent a telepathic message to Rose, who relayed a communication between Aria and I for a few minutes.  Aria wasn't happy that I had been gone so long, but she was well.  The babies had her craving weird foods and she was eating a bowl of chili and planned to follow that with banana pudding.  My stomach churned a bit at that, but Rose told me Aria was looking forward to it.

I set my alarm and drifted into a restless sleep.

*****

January 21st, 2060

0940 hours

Gitti and I made it to the scene of the reputed grave robbing.  The affected graves had been filled back in.  I took several minutes to examine the scene and didn't find any trace of magical or spiritual efforts that looked out of place.  The site carried an aura similar to those I had seen at other sacred sites.

"I got nothing here, Gitti." I told him. "Let's get back before someone asks who we're looking for."

"Glad to hear it," Gitti replied. "I watched the feed from Peck.  I saw it and I still can't believe you and Crank got out of there alive."

"I hope those things are gone for good." I confessed.

We rode back toward our hotel, stopping to have an early lunch at an old, and well-reviewed, restaurant called The Notorious P.I.G. BBQ  Gitti and I both had the pastrami sandwich which was very nearly a religious experience.  Take it from a wizard, it's a magical sandwich!  I paid in cash (take it from me, leave as small an electronic footprint as you can) and we hoofed it a few blocks to our hotel.

1600 hours

We had another meeting in Crank's room.

"Nothing at the graves indicated the presence of our monsters." I reported.  "I think we're dealing with something else."

"Great ghost smiles on us then," Crank said.  "Angel did you find anything out?"

Angel shifted a bit in her seat, "Yeah, we've got problems.  I found Mr. Johnson's daughter on a few social media accounts.  She's keeping a low profile, but she's been accessing messages and playing a few of her favorite games.  She's ignored messages from her father.  I think we're looking at a runaway."

"So, we go bag her for daddy and drop her in his lap, get paid and go home." Alexia offered.

"Yes," Crank said.

"I pulled some of her messages," Angel hit a few keys on her cyberdeck and my AR goggles made a 'ping' noise. "Take a look for yourselves."

I read through the data Angel had dug up.  It made my stomach knot and I felt a flush of anger.  Mr. Johnson had been abusing his child.  She had enough and left with a friend.  He was trying to cover his own ass and had several people out looking for her.  We were one of a handful of teams looking for her.

I handed my AR goggles to Alexia. "Take a look."  She slipped on the goggles and paged through the content.

"Drek," Crank muttered.  "This puts things in a different light."

"How do you want to play this?" I asked.

Crank thought about it for a few minutes, "We find the girl and see if she wants to go home.  If so, then we'll escort her back. If not, then we tell Mr. Johnson to go frag himself and hold this evidence to make sure he pays up."

"So long as I'm getting paid," Alexia interjected. "I didn't hike through storms and snow for nothing chummers."

"Got to agree with the FNG," Gitti said.

"Something about his reeks," Angel said. "I'm not good with turning the kid over to Johnson.  If you're going to hand her over, I'm out."

"Let's find the kid, and ask her.  If this data is good, we use the data to get paid, and the kid walks." I was thinking out loud. I smiled broadly.  "Yeah, I like this plan Crank. Let's do that."

"Find the kid." Crank said. "We've got competition with a head start on us.  Local wannabe tough guys, those are no problem really.  There is a private investigator on the case though, and she's a problem.  My contacts say she is top notch local talent."

"If she's so good why hasn't she found her yet?" Gitti asked.

"Seems she is having a problem getting people to talk to her.  Girls friends are saying they don't know anything." Crank replied.  "There is something there though.  Angel, can you find out who she may be in touch with?  Sooner or later someone is going to spill her data and then we'll be racing to get to her."

"Didn't you say there were other missing kids?" I asked.

"Yeah, seems they came home before the storm came in.  Police interviewed them, but none of them seemed to know about her location." Angel responded.

"Wait, she's still on her social media and playing a couple of games," the realization hit me. "She's here in town or else somewhere with good signal."

Angel looked at me, "You've been paying attention.  Yes, I tagged her account.  I'll get a hit when she logs back in."

"Even better then," Crank said.  "Let's play this softly.  We'll lay low and see if we can't pick her up from her gaming habit.  If we don't have a lead in the next twenty-four hours, we hit the pavement and see if we can flush her out."

We didn't have to wait long.

January 22nd, 2060

0200 hours

She logged in to her mmorpg account for what amounted to some late-night questing.  Angel's bots rang our comms, waking me from a terrible dream. The message simply read, "Contact".  I jumped into my clothes and padded down the corridor to Angel's room. Gitti and Alexia were already knocking on her door. Crank opened the door and we all crowded into her room.

Angel was jacked into her cyberdeck.  Her voice came over a small display running from her 'deck. "She doesn't seem aware that we've tagged her. She's just playing her game.  I'll have her GPS in about two minutes."


0215 hours

We crammed into a SUV Crank had summoned from a local car service.  We rode over to the east end of town.  According to the data that was streaming to her mmorpg account, she was in an old church on the east side.

"Seems a bit too easy," Alexia said.

"Easy newbie," Gitti replied. "We may have gotten lucky."

0228 hours

We pulled to a stop, just a block from the old church.  We squeezed our way out of the SUV and onto the street.  We had just crept up into the church's old parking lot when the doors flung wide and two men came out.  The girl was being carried between them. She was gagged, and her hands were cuffed behind her.

Crank's voice whispered over the com, sounding clearly in my ear. "Tommy, put them down."

I stretched out my hand in a familiar gesture.  My sleep spell found the minds of the three people and squeezed hard.  They fell, dumping the girl to her knees between them.  Crank gestured to Gitti, who raised his SMG and advanced on the church.  Crank drew his heavy pistol and took aim at the church's door.  Gitti picked the girl up, slung her limp form over his shoulder, then loped back to us.

"Time to go," Crank snapped.

"That was fast," Alexia muttered.

"Stow it, we're leaving." Gitti replied.  I opened the back hatch on the Suv and Gitti dumped the girl in the back.

We pulled away and headed to a safe house Crank's fixer friend had set up for us.

*****

January 22nd, 2060

1400 hours

I woke up on the dingy couch.  The old house smelled of mildew, dust, and rot.  It was cold, with no power or heat. Alexia was slumped in the corner and appeared to be asleep.  Angel was sitting on the floor, about a meter away from me, facing the front door.  I couldn't see Crank or Gitti.

I rose from the couch as quietly as I could.  Alexia raised her head and watched me, while Angel turned to look at me then went back to watching the door. I walked back into wrecked kitchen, the floor creaking underfoot.

"She's awake," Gitti said.

The girl was fourteen.  She had shaved her head and was wearing baggy clothes that hid her build.  Crank had cut the handcuffs off her when we brought her in.  Crank had taken the gag off and put it in his pocket.  Right then she was staring daggers at Gitti. I opened my astral sight and examined her aura.

She was afraid and angry.  Her aura was bright, colored with her tightly constrained emotions, and rippling with potential. She stared back at me, but she wasn't seeing into the astral plane.  It seemed she may not have fully awakened her talent, or even know of it. She turned to face me, fear flashing across her aura.  I watched as she managed her emotions, turning fear into fuel for her anger and reinforcing her courage.  She was a brave kid.

"What are you looking at drek-head!" she snapped.

"Your father wants us to bring you back," I said.  I kept my voice calm and low. I saw fear flood her aura.  She clenched her fists.  "You can't fight us and win.  But you can talk to us. We went through your messages.  We know what you've told your friends and we know why they haven't been telling people where you are."

Her aura bloomed with fresh fear and shame.  "Oh. Then you're going to sell me back to my dad and tell him who helped me, so he can take it out on them too, right?  No, frag off and die."

"You're loyal to your chummers.  I can respect that."  I turned to Gitti.  "Where's Crank?"

The back door opened, and Crank came walking in. "Right here, what's up?"

"We need to talk, omae." I told him.

Crank nodded toward the door and we walked out into the yard.

"What do you think?" Crank asked.

I shrugged. "She's more afraid of her father than she is of us.  Doesn't mean that the things she told her friends is true, but I think it likely is.  It's enough that, for me, I'm out if we're delivering her to Johnson.  Nothing personal omae, but I can't be a part of that."

"Tommy, this job has been one raging drek-fest after another.  I'm bleeding nuyen on this one." Crank replied.  "I get where you're coming from, but at the end of the day I've got to get paid, we all do."

"She's awakened Crank." I looked up at him.  "If we turn her over to him she might not ever develop her power. Or, she might, and it may be twisted and tainted from what he's done.  Then again, from the fear I saw in her, he may just kill her to her quiet."

"Drek!  Tommy I am NOT a social worker!"  Crank's voice was low and harsh. "I don't want to put a kid through that, but I'm up against a wall on the money."

"The job was a rescue op.  We're not rescuing the kid if we hand her over to Mr. Johnson.  I know the money is fragged up, omae.  Believe me, I've been away from home a while on this trip with you.  If it weren't for you, Gitti, and Angel I would have flown home when the t-bird blew." I took a breath and reached out and thumped Crank on the arm. "We fight monsters, we don't sell children back to people who abuse them."

Crank scratched at his horn, his face growing flush, "Got any ideas?"

"Yeah, we take her back to Seattle and have Sheila X introduce her to a magician that can teach her.  She does into the Shadows and you've got another magician chummer, one who owes you a favor, once she's trained up." I paced a few steps, then turned back to face Crank. "We tell Mr. Johnson that she's gone and get the hell out of here and back to the 'plex.  If Mr. Johnson doesn't like it, he can go frag himself."

"I'll have to return the up-front money," Crank shook his head. "This job is going to set me back a good bit, Tommy."

"I'm sure I can find another one to help make up for it.  Besides, you don't really want to piss Angel off at you, do you?" Crank was a chummer, a hard core shadowrunner, a professional criminal, and a man well versed in the arts of violence and mayhem.  I watched as his conscious fought against his pride and dread.  Crank would fight monsters, but at the end of the day he wasn't a monster himself.

"I like this 'Mr. Johnson can go frag himself' plan.  Let's do that." Crank's smile faltered a bit. "I can't pay you though.  Are we going to have a problem?"

"Crank, if it was a problem you wouldn't want to work with me anyway," I told him.

"Good point. I'll go see my fixer, return the up-front money and do damage control on my rep a bit.  You guys get out of here, head back to the hotel and I'll meet you guys there.  Can you fly us out of here?"

"Yeah, I think so.  We'll have to send the Angel and Alexia first, but I think we can make it work."  I told him.  Crank went to see his fixer and I went inside to break the news to the rest of the team.


1830 Hours

Rose bore the girl and Angel on her back.  "I will take them, then come back for you.  It will take time." she assured me.

"Keep them safe, baby-girl." I looked at the girl and Angel. "She'll take you to a person I know.  Angel, keep her at the Brick Yard until I get there.  You'll be safe from your father in Seattle."

"I'll give Sheila X your message," Angel told me. "Get your asses out of here as soon as you can."

Crank handed Alexia a credstick.  She put it in her pocket then looked at me and said, "Are we going to do this or what?"

The air elemental lifted Alexia, and Rose took off carrying the girl and Angel.  They vanished from sight, heading west over the mountains.

Crank looked at me and sighed. "Want to join me and Gitti for a beer?"

"Sure chummer." I replied. "Sorry about the job going pear-shaped."

"Sub-zero.  Frag him.  It's like you said, we fight monsters we don't sell children to people who abuse them."  Crank looked down at me. "We're lousy criminals, omae."

I laughed at that. "Crank, we're fraggin' super villains.  Special powers, wicked skills, and mercenary sensibilities.  We just have our own codes, and it doesn't include this drek."

"Are you going to actually drink a beer, or do we have to find you some apple juice or something?" Crank thumped my shoulder, it hurt.

2000 hours

I was on my second beer.  Crank and Gitti had put a few down each.  We were eating nachos and wings, drinking and talking about urban brawl, women, and other nonsense we each knew very little about.  Crank's pocket secretary buzzed, and he checked the message he was receiving. His face became stern very suddenly.

"Chummers, we need to go. Now." He slotted his credstick, paid our bill, then rose.  Gitti and I mirrored his actions and followed him out.

"What's up?" Gitti asked.

"Not here." Crank replied. "Keep your eyes up, we've got trouble."

We made it back to the hotel and collected our gear.  Crank came out of his room with his dufflebag, Gitti and I came out with our rucksacks.  "We need to find a place to lay low until we leave." Crank told us as we took the stairs down. "My fixer had some people show up with a video file from the church when we grabbed the girl.  We're made."

"Drek." Gitti said.  "Wonder how Angel missed it."

"No idea yet," Crank said.  "Not important though. Some well-armed people want to talk to us."

We made it to the street level.  I wrapped an invisibility spell around us and we walked down the street.  Crank led us for several blocks before we found a boarded-up strip mall.  We went around the back of the building and broke in.

"How long before we can leave?" Crank asked.

"Hours. Sunrise would be best though." I told him.

"That's not good news.  We'll just have to lay low and hope we can fade away before anyone figures out where we are." Crank said.

Gitti cut a peep hole in one of the boards covering a front window.  He assembled his SMG and kept an eye out.  Crank hung rigged a flash/bang grenade to the back door to foil anyone trying to follow us in.  We each checked our weapons and prepared for the worst.

While we were hiding in the ruined old strip mall, the people hunting us were getting closer.


January 23rd, 2060

0110 Hours

They ghosted up on us in the dark.

"I've got people creeping up this way." Gitti whispered.  "They're sneaky, but thermal doesn't lie."

"How many?" Crank asked.

"More than ten on foot.  A few more heat signatures in an old van that rolled up."  Gitti responded.

"I'll take a look from the astral.  Be right back." I lay my head on my rucksack and let my astral form slip free of my body.  I rose and came face to face with another magician.

"Well, well anglo.  Want to give up now?" he asked.  His astral form was brilliant, and he had wolfish features.

"Funny, I was just about to ask you the same thing."  I said.

He circled around me and was soon joined by beastly wolf spirit. "I don't think you get it anglo.  You're in my hunting ground.  You'll either be gone, or you'll be dead.  I want the girl.  Tell me where she is, we'll get her, then we'll let you walk out of town.  You ever come back I'll skin you alive."

I sent out the call and was soon joined by a trio of elemental spirits.  "Chummer, I don't think you want to fight.  I think you want to get lost and forgot you ever saw us."

He surged forward, a weapon focus in the shape of a knife suddenly appearing in his hand.  I stepped aside from his first attack and sent the order to the elementals.  The three spirits leaped upon the wolf-spirit with a savage fury.  The magician swiped at me with his weapon again and I barely managed to avoid the blow.

"Last chance, anglo." he snarled. "Give up or die!"

I threw a bolt of mana at him.  He batted it aside and streaked toward me.  His weapon grazed my arm and I felt the fiery burn of the weapons enchantment as it cut a groove through me.  I hardened my will and hit him with everything I had.  I felt the impact and saw his astral form waver and crack under the impact.  He brought his weapon focus up and screamed "Die anglo!"  Behind him, his beast spirit was torn asunder.

"You first," I replied.  I gave the order to my spirits and they fell upon him like rain in a storm.  He fought desperately, growling and howling in rage and pain.  I sent another bolt of mana into his tattered astral form and watched as he shattered, his astral form dissipating with an angry howl.  I floated out into the street and saw several people moving on the street.  Their auras were bright with anticipation, anger, and the fear that comes from imminent combat.  I returned to my body and opened my eyes.

I sat up just in time for the first shots to blow through the wall.  "I count eighteen.  We're hosed.  I took out one magician, and I haven't seen any others."

From out in the street, the familiar sound of AK-97s firing erupted.  The boards over the windows disintegrated as huge holes were blown through them.  Holes appeared in the walls as they poured fire into the front of the building.  "Stay down and hold fire until I say," Crank called over his mic.

The firing went on for more than a minute. There was a sudden pause in the firing and Crank pushed himself up and lay his light machine gun over the shattered window sill "Now!" he cried.  His pink light machine gun, with the multi-colored flower stickers poured fiery death out into the street.  Gitti brought his sub-machine gun up and fired a long burst out into the street.  I threw a fireball out into the street at the van I had seen people hiding behind.

The fight raged for minutes. Which brings us to where this story began ~

0115 hours, Bear Bull Street, Missoula, Salishe-Sidhe

"Damnit, Tommy!" Gitti screamed. Bullets streaked between us as the attack continued. "How did I let you talk me into this?!?!"

"Quit your bitching!" I said.  Gitti didn't need to scream, the mic picked him up just fine.  The volume control in my earbud prevented him from injuring my hearing.  "This was Crank's idea, not mine."

"Okay, I may have been mistaken." Crank answered. There was a note of sarcasm to his voice. "But look at it this way, we're here, they're here.  Lets just kill them and get it over with."

Gitti and Crank each threw a grenade into the street.  The responding gunfire blew more holes through the wall we were concealed behind.  "Drek!" I yelled as I flattened myself on the floor.  There was a single, horrifically loud explosion, then the building fell on me.

0120 hours

Crank lifted ducts and timbers that had pinned me in the wreckage.  I heard Gitti's weapon firing even as Crank asked, "Tommy, you still alive chummer?"

"I'm good Crank.  Let's get the frag out of here." I said.

"We're in the thick of it, omae." Crank replied.  I heard police sirens in the distance.

"Got it," I said.  "Let's go Gitti!"

I wrapped an invisibility spell around us and we climbed over the rubble.  "Hold up one," I told them.  I sent out the call into astral space and my fire elemental cheerfully responded.  It manifested as a five-meter-tall column of fire and rolled along the old strip mall.  "Burn it down.  Burn it all down." I commanded.   To my chummers I said, "Let's go"

We slipped past the watchful eyes of law enforcement and got out of there before reinforcements could show up.  Some of the people who had been shooting at us made the mistake of mixing it up with the police, which gave us some extra time to get out.  At 0125 there was a tremendous explosion that lit up the night sky.  I looked back and saw the blazing ruin sending flames ten meters into the sky.  My fire elemental was dancing gleefully within the conflagration.

We spent two hours sneaking through Missoula.  We made it to the river and hid under the Russell street bridge.

"For the record, this sucked." Gitti said.

"I don't know, Gitti.  I'm feeling pretty good about this job." I smiled at Crank.  "What about you chummer?"

"I fought monsters." Crank nodded, a smile creeping onto his face.

"Good for us." Gitti moaned. "Next time either of you call me for work I need to make some serious nuyen.  I'm getting to old for this drek."

We escaped Missoula by following the river.  It was cold as Hell, but no one was out on the ice.  We followed the river until dawn.  After the sun came up, I called out to Rose and the air elementals.  We flew as fast as the spirits could carry us, buzzing treetops as we swerved between mountains.  We made it to the Brick Yard at 1638 hours.  Little Rickie was waiting for us at the door.

*****

Afterword:

Crank took it on the chin for this run.  He paid Gitti and Alexia, but Angel and I didn't press him for money.  Sheila X introduced the girl to a street shaman.  He took her on as an apprentice and I didn't see her again for a few years.

Aria was incredibly unhappy with me for being gone so long. We had a long talk about what happened. She understood and was proud that we hadn't taken the girl back.  I kissed her, tousled Rose's hair, and took a long hot shower.

That night, Aria and I were lying in bed, Rose was laying at our feet.  Aria was telling me about names she had thought of for the twins when she suddenly stopped and grabbed my hands.  "Now!  Feel this!"  She placed my hands on her swelling stomach and I felt something move.

"Wow." I felt fluttery movement against my hand. "Does it hurt?"

"Nope. Not at all." Aria said. Her eyes were shining, and she was stroking her stomach with her hands.  "I felt them move while you were away.  I think they wanted me to know they were there.  It was a stressful few days."

"I'm sorry baby," I told her.  I placed my ear on her stomach and felt something small press against my face.  It was an amazing moment that I hope I never forget.  "Thanks for taking care of you mom, you two."

*****

From the author:

Thank you for reading my fan fiction. I hope you have enjoyed it and will share it with others. 

I also write role-playing game material for other games (not Shadowrun, unfortunately). I use crowdfunding through KickStarter to pay fair rates to the artists I commission art from, and to pay for printing costs and backer reward production.

I will be launching a new KickStarter campaign for my coming book, The Steel Road, in a few weeks.  Presently I am expecting to launch that campaign in May of 2018.  I hope you'll check it out.  Below is an illustration from that book, done by artist Zachary Viola.  Enjoy!



You can learn more about The Steel Road on my other blog, using the link HERE


*(Fraggin' New Gal/Guy:  twen-cen slang term)
** (Ghosts of Puget Sound)

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Fear the Reapers

"I want you to understand, precisely, what it is I'm ordering you to do.  This man is the most important human being on the planet to you.  If anyone tries to lay a hand on this man, you cut that hand off." Chief Commander Brady McBride (1993)


January 7th, 2060

I was 20 years old.

My pocket secretary started buzzing. I recognized the number as one Sheila X, my long time fixer and future mother-in-law, used.  I dried my hands and hit the speaker phone button. "Hello Ms. X, how are you today?" I asked.

"I'm fine, thank you.  Are you feeling up to working?" She asked.

"I'm sore but I'll live." I responded.

"Come sit in a meeting.  Crank will be here tonight at 2000 hours," she said.

"I'll be there." Sheila X hung up before I could say anything else.

I climbed out of the bathtub, toweled off, threw on my bathrobe, and walked into the kitchen.  Aria was there with Rose, the two of them were making homemade ice cream.  I tousled Rose's hair, and kissed Aria on the cheek.

"Did I hear your phone ring?" Aria asked.

"Yes, your mother called. She wants me to sit in on something tonight. Sounds like work." I said.

Aria turned and put my face in her hands. "Are you sure you're feeling up to that?"

"I'm fine honey." I said. "Don't worry about me."

Aria kissed me.  She held me there for a long moment, her body pressing into mine.  I returned her kiss and felt my body responding to her. She must have noticed because she gently pushed me away and said, "Later.  Right now the babies want ice cream."

I nodded and kissed her once more, then said "I'm going to get dressed.  I've got a good while before I have to be there so I'll catch a nap, then head out."

"Will I be going too?" Rose asked.

I shook my head, "No baby-girl, I need you here.  Look after the house and help Aria, please."

Rose nodded at me, "Of course.  I would like some ice cream anyway."

I went back to my bedroom and got dressed for my evening.  I pulled on my new suit of form fitting body armor.  It had top-grade thermal insulation, a Faraday pocket hidden on the right hip, and a set of matching gloves that sealed onto the forearms.  I climbed into a good pair of heavy denim jeans and felt a twinge of pain around the scarred gunshot wound in my abdomen as I laced and tied my combat boots.   A grey neoprene running shirt that was resistant to acid rain completed the ensemble.  I looked remarkably casual.  I thought about that a moment, realized I would probably stand out without obvious armor and decided to gear up a bit.

I slipped into my shoulder rig and holstered my sliver gun. I shrugged into my armor lined trench coat, and unpacked the newest addition to my equipment, a ballistic mask styled to resemble an Edo period menpo mask.  It looked much different than Pepper's had, but I had decided to pick it up to honor his memory, to help hide my features, and to give me an added level of protection.  The mask was black with silver tracings across the cheeks. I stuffed it into my coat pocket. "Might as well go all out." I told myself.

I grabbed another piece of new equipment from the lock box in my closet.  I checked the action on the Colt L36 and found it worked nicely.  I sat down on the bed and started loading the two magazines I owned for the small handgun.  In the first magazine I loaded wood pulp rounds and in the second I loaded silver rounds.  I prayed I wouldn't have a need for either.

The Colt L36 went into its concealable holster, which I clipped into the large right-hand pocket of my armored trench coat.  I had loaded the wood pulp clip to be prepared for the worst case scenario.  My knife went into my pocket.  I looked in the mirror Aria had installed in the bedroom.  "Dressed for the office," I told my reflection. "most people take notes and a data pad to meetings. I take two guns, a knife, and a squad of spirits."

I set my alarm and lay down on the bed to grab a nap before I went to the Brick Yard.  You never know when you'll sleep on a shadowrun.  Best to get sleep while you can.

*****
January 7th, 2060

1835 hours

I was flying over Redmond when I suddenly felt a presence at the edge of my awareness.  A hungry, alien sensation that carried with it a wrongness I had experienced far too often, vampires. There was definitely more than one nearby.  They were moving swiftly, getting closer, but staying low to the ground.  I reached for my viper sliver gun on instinct, then remembered the Colt L36 in my pocket. 

I pulled the small gun from its holster, thumbed the safety and chambered the first round.  The weapon was smaller than the viper, but I had fired it at the range before buying it. I knew it well enough to use it to good effect.  I focused on the presences I felt as the vampires rushed closer.  They were approaching from my left. I turned and saw the headlamps of motorcycles rushing along the pockmarked road. 

From thirty meters in the air I had a good vantage point, but I was also a great target.  Invisibility isn't any good against ghouls and I couldn't imagine it would be of any use against vampires.  I let the invisibility unravel, and soared backwards to put a ruined building between me and the oncoming horde. I placed my back to the crumbling brick and held my breath.

The motorcycles passed in a chorus of motor noise.  I watched, horrified, as I saw motes of light winking around the riders as they passed close enough for my detection spell to reveal them to me.  I counted the vampires as they passed, a cold knot of fear growing in my gut.  It took less than a minute for thirty-one vampires to pass.  Their motorcycles were a varied collection of styles but their jackets all bore the same stylized image of the Grim Reaper. 

"Vampire gangers," I whispered to myself.  "Glad I moved out of Redmond."  I waited until they passed out of the range of my detection spell, then hurried on to the Brick Yard.

My air elemental set me down in the parking lot.  I hurried into view of Little Rickie.  "Oi, you're good to go in." the large troll said.  He reached for the door but I held up my hand.  We were alone but I looked around anyway, my astral sight searching for any who might overhear.

"Rickie, there is trouble in the Barrens omae. I saw a pack of vampires on motorcycles on the way here." I looked up at the big man. "Rickie, I counted thirty-one vampires.  That's a LOT of trouble."

Little Rickie's brow furrowed as he looked into the darkness. "Any of them around?"

"Not within four hundred meters or so. I can sense them if they are that close." I told him.

"That's a useful thing to be able to do." Rickie nodded and continued to look around. "Anyway I could learn to do that?"

"Not something you can learn, but I may be able to fix the same spell to you.  Let me research it a bit and I'll let you know. I thought you should know about them.  They were flying the Grim Reaper as their colors if that tells you anything." He frowned at that bit of news.

"Redmond Reapers.  Two-bit gangers got knocked down a peg by the 'Nukes.  Been a while since I heard anything on them." Rickie scratched at his left horn for a moment. "Yeah, okay, I'll keep my eyes open.  Let me know if you hear them coming."

"Will do, and Rickie," I urged him "if you see one don't hesitate.  Blow the fanged fragger's head off."

Little Rickie nodded and opened the door for me.  I walked in, but kept my guns on me.  I wanted them close with vampires around.

There were several people in the Brick Yard that evening. I made my way to the bar and took a seat next to a burly orc.  Sandy paced over to me, "Lemonade?"

"Yes, thank you Sandy." I had time to eat, and ordered my usual sirloin platter, added orders for Sandy and her kids as well as the traditional rum for Solomon.  If Crank could work it out others might too. But if I broke pattern, it would draw attention. I decided it's better to be damned for being myself than for acting against my own nature.

"What's your story?" the orc asked. 

"I fight monsters," I smiled at him over my lemonade. I'm sure Crank would have been proud of me. "What's yours?"

"I train hellhounds. Take care of the little puppies, put out the fires until they learn to control themselves." he took a long pull of his beer.

"Chill!" I answered. "I wondered how people kept them from burning down their houses.  Care to talk about it? I'll buy you a round."

The orc arched his eyebrow but replied, "Sure thing chummer. They're really just dogs that happen to spit out fire." His name was Frank. He talked for twenty minutes about hell hounds and the difficulties in raising them as puppies.  I bought two beers for him, and finished my sirloin platter while he talked. It really was pretty interesting stuff, though to Frank it was just his job.

Sandy collected my plate and I excused myself then walked back to Sheila's booth. I found some familiar faces sitting there. Angel was sitting next to Sheila while Crank and Gitti sat across from her.  I squeezed next to Gitti. "Hope I'm not late," I offered.

"No, you're right on time" Sheila said. The curtain pulled closed with a whisper of fabric.

"A lot of work going around right now." Sheila X started.  "People trying to crack Renraku, or break out their chummers who tried to.  Lockdown happened and everyone lost their fraggin' minds." Sheila shook her head at that. 

"Some of the news agencies are offering nuyen for reliable intelligence from around or inside the arc'" Angel offered. "A lot of chatter and speculation about what happened floating around Shadowland, but not a lot of hard data. I haven't found anyone who can verify they've been inside."

"I was there the last week of November," Gitti offered. "Did some shopping.  Security was 'bout the same as always. Nothing stands out."

"I've never been inside," Crank responded.

Sheila X looked at me.

"I was there when the lock down happened," I said. "Barely got out, got shot somewhere along the way."  Everyone was looking at me.  "First thing I noticed that was out of the ordinary was that there were more security personnel than normal.  I wasn't too worried about that, but they started massing up at the exits and I thought I may have been recognized."

It was harder to talk about than I thought it would be.  I took a drink of my lemonade and continued. "I started walking toward this security check point and saw two sec-guards tranq another.  I thought that was some weird drek, so I started walking toward the food court.  I get a few meters away and the sec-guards call for me to stop.

"I turn and make the nice talk but two of them got right up in my space. I stepped back and told them they were too close and they told me something about how 'maybe you witnessed a crime, we want to talk about it'.  I told them to go ahead and ask their questions and we could talk about it right there.  Then some guy got dragged down by sec-guards over at the entrance. I looked to see what was up and these two fraggers try to nail me with stun batons."  I took another sip of lemonade.

"I set two of my spirits on them, and that goes well.  But all hell was breaking loose." I closed my eyes and focused on the memory.  "Security gates came down over the store entrances.  Security was moving along shooting people with these glowing gel rounds.  They had drone support too.  Small, sleek, hi-tech looking roto-drones. Security on those upper levels fired on people without a moment's thought."

I took a deep breath and opened my eyes and stared straight into Sheila X's face. "I was down on the causeway entry level, southern end of the Arc'. I finished with the two sec-guards, put them down but not dead, and four more showed up.  They had a pair of those sleek drones with them and they weren't playing around.  They had riot guns and they didn't look too concerned about using them.  I had a spirit knock out the drones and I broke the sec-guards with a powerball spell.  They went down and weren't getting back up."

Gitti interrupted, "Anything about the sec guards you remember?"

I turned to face Gitti, "The first two were damn fast.  Not as fast as Adam, but just about as fast as I am.  It was tough to stay out of reach and not get clobbered. The next four didn't get a chance to act. I hit them before they could kill me."

I looked back to Sheila and said, "The guards I dropped with that spell lost their helmets.  They all looked like they had new cybereyes.  They were green and looked creepy as hell."

"You weren't able to get anyone else out?"  Crank asked.

"Crank, I had my hands full, I managed to get me and Aria out.  I was out shopping.  I didn't have a gun or any foci on me. I did what I could to get out alive.  I was flying toward the exit and a mage burnout started throwing spells at me. Then the security doors were closing, and I was just trying to escape."  I took a breath, took a moment to collect myself then continued.  "It was a drek storm.  Drones and automated guns were gunning people down left and right. I left as soon as I could and almost bled to death from the gunshot wound I earned along the way."

"That's the kind of information people are paying for, first hand observations.  If you take any runs against the arcology grab video, take notes, collect evidence and make it pay." Sheila glanced around at us.  "You aren't the only runners around but you're among the most reliable. If you pick up information on the arcology, I'm interested in those first-hand accounts."

"One other thing," I said. "My electronics were fried by the time I got home.  Everything was dead, my DocWagon band, my pocket secretary, all of it.  Same with the Aria.  Her phone, DocWagon band, even the image unit in her locket, they were all bricked."

Angel whistled, "That's pretty damn thorough."

"We didn't even notice until I got home." I said.

Crank shifted a bit in his seat, "I was having a friendly chat with a rat shaman I know under the Alaskan Way Bridge when the lockdown went up.  I heard the gun fire all the way out there.  The guy I was with scampered over that way but he never came back.  He hasn't been answering his phone."

"Crank, if he wasn't invisible then he would have had a problem.  It was like a war zone around there." I shook my head as I told him.  "If I had been on the ground, instead of flying around, I'd be dead without the guns even trying.  They chopped up the area pretty thoroughly."

"UCAS troops on the ground aren't just your regular forces." Getti interjected. "I saw insignia's for the First Special Forces out of Fort Lewis.  Those guys don't go anywhere to just stand around.  If they're on the ground then they are ready for operations.  Expect their drone support to include the kind of ordinance that knocks out armored vehicles, not to mention what they can call in from Navy assets or local artillery.

"As far as small arms, they are a tough bunch.  We're not talking about your average grunt out for a drink and trouble.  These guys control their lanes of fire, work together as a unit, and their load outs will fit the job and then some." Gitti paused a moment his face tense. "These are not guys your average street samurai can tangle with.  Those with reflex enhancement are going to be as fast as I am or better."

"Local wireless is pretty much useless." Angel said. "Forget trying to remote in, you need to clamp onto a hard line or all you'll get is static.  I tried the other day and the line went nowhere.  May have better luck inside, but the lines into the building seem to all be dead fiber."

For thirty minutes we bounced around data we had gleamed from our own observations. Sheila passed out a certified credstick to each of us.  The amount wasn't huge, but was certainly worth the time I spent getting there and sitting in on the meet. "When any of you have more data, just remember I'm in the market.  If I buy it I expect it to be exclusive too, so don't try sprinkling it around."

I put the credstick in the interior pocket of my lined coat.  "Always a pleasure doing biz with you." I told Sheila.  I was taking a drink of lemonade when I felt the wrongness, the hungry presence of vampires.  There were many of them and they were very quickly getting closer.  I choked on my lemonade for a moment.

Gitti pounded my back for a moment, "Don't die on us omae," he laughed.

I took a deep breath and realized the vampires were now less than two hundred meters away.  "Vampires.  Sheila, we've got vampires getting closer."

Sheila X didn't flinch. "You told Rickie about some vampires earlier. Same bunch?"

I thought about that a moment, "I don't know, but I hope so.  I would hate to think there were more than one large group of vampires in Redmond.  They're about a hundred and fifty meters away now."  The curtains parted quickly and I slid out of the booth.

I started walking toward the door, "Fifty meters, Sheila" I called out.  I saw Creep come running out of the men's room.

"You feel that too?" He looked nervous. "They're getting close."

"Yeah, I know.  Put your game face on Creep or we'll have a lot of dead people around."  I pushed through the doors and stepped outside.  Little Rickie's gun went off twice before I made it to his side.  Motes of light danced around gangers on motorcycles.  I opened my astral sight and saw that a handful of motorcycles had corpses strapped to them or draped over the handlebars. Half of the vampires pulled into the parking area while the other half came to a stop in the street in front of the entrance. A vampire was picking himself up from the street, his motorcycle still skidding down the pockmarked plascrete.  He had two huge holes in his chest that were closing as I watched. 

"I always heard you wuz fast," the vampire made a show of dusting himself off. "I'm gonna' rip your fraggin' head off and drink you like Ice Cola."  The vampire blurred across the ten meter distance between him and Rickie.  Rickie's boot met him firmly in the crotch and threw the vampire five meters into the air.

"Ya' not welcome here." the big man said. 

I pulled the Colt from my pocket and realized that Creep was nowhere to be seen. "That slimy fragger."

The vampire hit the street, about five meters away, his hands on his crotch.  A riot of laughter went up from his chummers.  I sent out a call into astral space and felt the trio of spirits I had bound respond. 

"I 'tink he got da' bes' of ya' Romeo!" A burley orc stepped off his motorcycle laughing.  "Ya' lucky ya' don' want any squeelers."  The vampire stepped up to his fallen comrade and looked over to us. "Rickie, ol boy.  Long time.  T'ings change omae but you still 'ere."

"Tank, not glad to see you. You and yours aren't welcome here." Rickie answered. 

"Who 'dat wearing the elf suit?" the vampire responded.  "Some elf wannabe? True words omae, ya' never would 'ave let this poseur in back in the day. 'Ya gone soft Rickie?"

Little Rickie shot the vampire in the blink of an eye.  A hole, larger than my fist, appeared just to the right of the vampire's sternum.  The monster fell to lay next to the first vampire. "Doesn't seem so Tank"

Vampires climbed off their rides in front of us. I couldn't see the vampires in the parking lot. To my astral sight the vampires before me looked essence hungry.  Their auras were faint and spotted with the same dark, tiny fanged mouths I had always seen on vampires. They were ravenous for the essence, the very souls, of some hapless victim.  Little Rickie and I were the only two people dumb enough to be outside to meet them.

The vampire named Tank laughed.  He and Romeo stood back up and faced us.  "Rick 'ol boy that was not chill. Now I' gonna' have to kill you and your elf wannabe too." Tank nodded at Romeo and the vampire took a lazy step toward me.

"I'm gonna pull those ears off you before you die.  You look like a tasty morsel though, so I'll make sure you live long enough for me to eat you up right." The vampire smiled at me as he took another step.

I aimed the Colt at him.

Romeo laughed at me, "You think that little thing is gonna' stop me." He slapped his hands together then spread his arms wide. "Take your best shot you slitch."

You can't ask for a better straight line than that.  I sighted down the short barrel, exhaled and squeezed the trigger. The little gun made a 'pop' sound and Romeo hit the pavement.  The small motes of light around his body winking out as dark blood welled up from the hole in his chest, just over his heart. "How's that?"

The door to the Brick Yard burst open.  The thunderous roar of gunfire announced that Crank and Gitti had left the building. 

The vampires in the street screamed out in a chorus of curses and anger so loudly I could hear it over the cacophony of Little Rickie's hand cannon, Crank's 'good luck charm', and Gitti's sub-machine gun. Tank sprang up and flashed across the distance to Rickie, punching the large man in the stomach and sending him crashing into the doorway.  Metal screeched as the doors tore free and Little Rickie tumbled inside. 

I shot Tank in the temple.  He didn't drop right over and die. He staggered for a moment, fangs bared for all to see, a confused look on his face. His lips moved as if to say something as he began to tumble over and the motes of light around him began winking out.

Essence starved vampires rushed towards us.

"We can't take you anywhere!" Gitti yelled at me.

Crank and Gitti kept firing but the vampires weren't impressed.  They rushed through the barrage ignoring the wounds they received.  Three of them were knocked off their feet but even they didn't seem bothered.  They were only a couple of meters from us, arms reaching for us and fangs exposed in the dim light.

A spell erupted in front of us.  My whole world went white as the mana flashed across my astral sight.  I smelled brimstone and old tacos.

Creep yelled out, "Did you start this drek?"

"Where the frag were you?"  I yelled back.  I squeezed my astral sight closed with a painful effort.

"Had to get my stick. They made me check it at the door." He waved a weird looking wand around, it had bits of string and what looked like bits of bone, dangling from it.  I looked over and saw the vampires picking themselves up off the street. 

Little Rickie erupted from the doorway and snatched his hand cannon off the street.  "THATS IT!" he yelled. He brought his weapon up and blew the head off a vampire that was pushing itself up from the plascrete. 

Gitti dropped the magazine from his SMG calling out "Reloading!" 

"Stay down!" Crank shouted as he decapitated a vampire with the roar of his shotgun. 

Six fire spirits, each with horns, cloven hooves, and naked feminine forms materialized in front of us. "Ladies, if you would please." Creep's voice had an oily, perverse tone.  Each of the spirits blew him a kiss, then leaped upon a vampire. 

One vampire, out in the street and at the rear of the pack, jumped on his motorcycle and cycled up the engine.  "Oh hell no!" I yelled.  I pointed at him and yelled "INGIS MAGICAE!"  A white hot ribbon of fire streaked from my finger like the tail of a comet, burning through the vampire and catching his clothes on fire. The vampire panicked and began swatting at the flames. 

Gitti brought his SMG up, it burped out three rounds, and the flaming vampire's head exploded.

Vampires screamed in pain and terror while demonic flame spirits laughed with girlish glee.  The air was rank with the stench of burning flesh and bubbling plascrete.   I swept my gaze about and didn't see any other vampires.  Creep's spirits tore the weakened vampires apart in seconds.  I looked around, my small Colt at the ready, but didn't see any other threats.  The spell I had woven to my senses all those months ago assured me there were no other vampires around {See "Bloody Business"}

I walked to the corner of the building, opened my astral sight, and looked into the parking lot. 

There was a human magician standing in the lot.  I recognized him from Brick Yard but didn't know his name.  Adam was standing next to him, his fists glowing with mana energy.  An orc, a dwarf and a troll stood in front of them shotguns lowered to the ground.  Ashes lay on fallen motorcycles.  The smell of burnt hair fighting against the odor wafting from the front of the building.  Three shotguns spun my way and I ducked around the corner on instinct. 

"Not a vampire!" I yelled. I backpedaled from the corner and turned to see Little Rickie looking down at the vampire he had called 'Tank'.  I walked over to the big man and looked up at him. 

"Been a while since I seen him" Rickie said.  "Sonuvaslitch would have eaten me."

I looked down at the corpse.  There were no motes of light, no eye sockets full of blood. "He's good and dead now.  He won't be eating anyone else."  I sent out a command to my air spirit, and it began laying out vampire bodies along the fractured sidewalk across the street.

Little Rickie nodded and holstered his weapon. "Figure out if you can do that thing so I know when these fraggers are about.  Let me know.  They rode up like they wuz anyone else." Little Rickie looked down at me. "I wouldn't have know'd they wuz vampires if you hadn't told me."

"Null sheen, Rick. I'll try to figure it out." I replied.

I counted out the bikes and realized, with a sense of dread, that we only had twenty-four of them and a corresponding number of dead vampires.  Creep and I went through their pockets, careful to avoid contamination, and removed their commlinks and an assortment of handguns.  I used my sterilization spell over the salvaged gear as an added precaution.  After we had both looked over the items from the astral plane, we pronounced them free of contagion and packed them up.

"Thought you were dead," Creep said.

We were alone, across the street from anyone who could have heard him. "That's a secret Creep. Is there going to be a problem?"

"Nah, its chill Tommy.  Just remember that any magician who knows you is going to see you." Creep made my skin crawl on the best of days.  At that moment, as we collected gear from the corpses of dead vampires, I gave serious thought to committing murder.

"Yeah," I said. "Good thing there aren't too many magicians around who know me."

"That's lucky," Creep said.  I looked and saw him smiling at me.

"You smell like tacos." I told him.

Creep laughed at that, "I work at a Taco Haus during the day.  Have to meet normal people somehow."

I didn't know what to make of that, but as we collected the last of the electronic gear I noticed his odd wand.  It looked to made from real wood. What I had thought was string was actually bits of braided hair.  There were teeth braided into locks.  I felt a cold chill that had nothing to do with the weather.

The magician in the parking lot was known as 'Shade'. I had heard of him but hadn't worked with him before.  Sheila X paid Adam, Crank, Gitti, Shade and his crew for putting down the vampires.  She tried to pay me too, but I told her, "Consider it a wedding gift." Sheila nodded at that, and not another word was ever said about it.


2000 hours

The crowd at the Brick Yard had thinned out after the fight with the vampires.  I spoke with Sheila X and pointed out that there were still vampires from the Reapers that weren't accounted for.  She made an offer for the gear Creep and I lifted from the vampires and Creep jumped at the opportunity.  I nodded my head in agreement.  We handed the loot over to Sheila. I imagined that she would soon be farming interesting data from the commlinks.

Creep left the Brick Yard around 2015.  He said something about having a girl he needed to see.  I felt sorry for her, whoever she was.  Creep wrapped an invisibility spell around himself and simply vanished from sight.  To my astral sight he was clearly visible, wrapped in a layer of magic, and surround by demonic looking fire elementals.

"I don't like him."  The voice surprised me.  I turned as I jumped away and saw Shade staring at me.

"Damn, chummer!  You nearly made me piss myself." I said.

"I don't like him," Shade repeated. "He shows several classic signs of a sociopath.  His magic seems tainted as well."

"I don't know anyone who likes Creep." I responded. "But if you need some magical mayhem, he's a good choice."  I could see that Shade was watching astral space too.  He looked at me for a long moment.

"You're not an elf." he said it flatly.  It sounded like an observation, like saying 'the car is red'.

"You are not wrong," I replied.  "That's a handy trick you pulled earlier.  How did you do it?"

"Sunburst spell.  I invented it during my last year at the University.  I was hoping to make some money from the licensing rights, but they ruled it was work product from my time there, and the university kept the rights to it.  I never made a dime.  Not really a big loss though, I don't think it's as profitable as I originally imagined."  Shade paused a tick, still watching Creep as he walked away. "It creates a violent burst of actual sunlight.  Great against vampires and anything else with an allergy to sunlight."

"Any chance you would be willing to teach it to me?" I asked.

"Don't really have time to teach right now. I'm busy for the next couple of months with some enchantments.  I can sell a spell formula for it though. I also created a formula for a focus object to help cast it, but it will be about three months before I can take the time to create one."  He took a deep breath then added.  "I'm going home.  Don't get killed.  Just tell Sheila what you want and she'll arrange the meeting for me to bring you the formula."

Shade turned back and hitched his thumb in the direction Creep was taking. "I'd watch out for that guy, if I were you.  Something about him is just not right."

I raised a thumb in agreement. "Good work on the vampires, Shade.  I'll keep you in mind if I need another magical asset in the future." Shade gave me small nod, turned and walk out of the Brick Yard.

I walked back to Sheila X's booth and sat down across from her.  She raised an eyebrow at me.

"Do you have ten minutes?" I asked.

"Yes."

*****

January 7th, 2060   Redmond Barrens, the Brick Yard

2115 hours 

Sheila X put out a call to a few people possessing talents I had an immediate demand for.  I made a deal with Angel, and she set to work on a handful of the commlinks Sheila had bought from Creep and I.

I grabbed Crank and Gitti for a quick talk about the importance of finding the remaining vampires and putting them down.  I appealed to their metahumanity and compassion for others.  Pointed out that the surviving vampires would beget more vampires and we'd soon be locked in a battle for our lives every night if left unchecked.

When that failed to convince them I offered them each ten thousand nuyen to help me kill them.  Crank argued the price and we settled on twenty thousand, each.

"You're robbing me blind Crank." I protested.

"You're trying to get us killed." Crank replied.  "Besides, I told you after the last time you took me monster hunting it was going to cost more."  Crank gave me a broad smile that showed bright, well-polished teeth and tusks.

"I've had bad experiences hunting vampires before." Gitti interjected. "I can't believe I'm doing this again."

"I've learned a few things about vampires," I said.  "I have a plan, but first we have to find them.  I've got a spell that will help, but I am waiting on a little digital wizardry to peg them down."

"Don't underestimate vampires," Gitti warned. "The ones tonight must have been new.  They weren't as fast as others I've seen."

"They were starving.  They didn't have the essence to fully fuel their vampire powers.  It slowed them down."  I told him.  I looked to Gitti and Crank and explained. "The vampire feeds on life essence.  The soul of a metahuman.  The vampiric virus destroys their own essence and consumes what essence they steal from their victims.  The vampire lives on it, so they get hungry for more as they run out of essence."

"Would it be really wrong if we just called it 'soul food'," Crank asked.

I looked at Crank, not sure how to respond.

Gitti moaned, "That's not funny chummer."

"Anyway, the vampire virus spreads to the victims of this essence loss.  The people the vampire eats become vampires unless something happens to prevent it." I continued.

"Like blowing the corpse's brains out?" Gitti asked.

"Exactly." I responded.

"I always wondered about that," Gitti muttered.

I took that in for a moment.  Crank looked at me with a question in his eyes.  I gave my head a shake.  Gitti was a chummer but he had contacts with the mob.  I was guilty of forgetting that he didn't know I was his old chummer he had fought vampires with before.  I liked Gitti, but the mob has a way of working information out of people.  I couldn't let him know I was the same friend he once knew.

"So, we do this smart. I've got some more muscle coming.  We're going to find these fanged fraggers and burn their doss down after the sun comes up.  We'll force them out into the light to maximize our advantage, and hopefully keep any of us from being killed."  I felt a momentary twinge of guilt about Joe, John, and Jim, as well as for the injuries Suzi sustained that eventually took her life.  I wasn't up for making that mistake again.

"I like the 'keep any of us from being killed' part of this plan," Crank said.  The large troll nodded thoughtfully. "But if we're just going to burn them out and into the sunlight, why get more people?"

"In case we aren't enough," I replied.

"It's your nuyen," Crank replied.

"Hey, I just want to make sure we all get to spend the money.  I don't know about you two, but most of my money comes from jobs I take through Sheila.  I'm certainly not going to waltz down here for biz if the place is a vampire buffet."  I stared at them both, two rock-solid street samurai who I'd come to respect, and rely upon.  "I don't want these fraggers getting away.  If even one of them escapes we'll have this problem again in few weeks and maybe worse.  Who knows how many people they'll eat and infect in the meantime."

Gitti nodded thoughtfully, "I've agreed to do this, and I will.  But don't you think you should come clean to Crank and Angel at least?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," I replied.

Gitti looked at me, frustration building in his face.  He turned to Crank, "Oi, chummer, think about it. Anything about our friend here remind you of anyone?  Orders lemonade?  Spends a lot of time with Aria?"  Gitti turned to me and pointed a finger at me. "I know it's you Tommy. I'm not stupid."

Drek.

"Gitti, I know you have biz with the mob.  I didn't want anything to come down on Aria and I didn't want you sent after me."  I looked him in the eye.  "I'm sorry I lied to you."

"If the mob figures out you're alive there won't be a rock on this planet you can hide under Tommy."  Gitti shook his head at me.  "I'm the last thing you should have worried about.  I'm sure Crank would have figured it out soon too.  If you're going to hide, change towns and your routine.  You're a creature of habit and it's going to get you killed."

"I'll work on it," I said.

"Work harder." Gitti pointed at my boots.  "Same brand.  I get that they protect your feet.  I understand that from way too many klicks on the march."  He pointed at my viper sliver gun, "Same brand of gun.  It's not common for magicians to carry guns unless you're looking at combat mages.  If you're going to pack a pistol get a different one.  The Colt was a surprise to me, but you need to pack the viper up, melt it down, or put it in the ground.  Change yourself up a bit, don't be stupid."

I looked around to see if anyone else was listening and found no one nearby.  "This is the only life I know Gitti.  I've been doing this since I was sixteen. I get what you're telling me and I'll make the changes." I looked to Crank.  "Hell, I should have changed some things when Crank punched me in the jaw after he figured it out."

Gitti looked to Crank, who smiled back at him, "I'm a lot smarter than you Gitti.  Don't take it personally."

Gitti may have laughed a bit.  Then turned back to me, "Reminds me, that little colt.  Is it magical?  You put down two vampires with two shots.  What gives?"

I pulled the magazine from the Colt, ejected the round from the chamber and caught it before it got away.  I put the bullet on the table.  "Wood pulp rounds.  I picked up some of these and some silver ammo for special problems.  I had the wood pulp loaded as a 'worst case scenario' and figured for anything else I could just the viper or magic."

Gitti picked up the bullet and looked it over. "Hand loaded?"

"Yeah, I know a guy." I responded.

Gitti passed the bullet to Crank, who examined it as well.  "After this is over, I'd appreciate it if you could introduce me.  What else does he do?"

"I got his information from Creep, of all people." Crank handed the small bullet back to me and I loaded it back into the magazine. "He built that assault rifle Creep carries around.  He does some custom work on firearms.  He did the grips on my viper for me."

"Actual gunsmith then, if he's building custom assault rifles.  Creep is a slimy little fragger but his weapon is a work of art." Gitti admitted. "Yeah, what's this guy's name?"

"I just know him as 'Roy'."  I said.

"Okay then, after we kills all of these vampires, let's get an introduction. In the meantime, we've got vampires to find and a little arson to plan." Crank interrupted.

"Who do you have coming in on this?" Gitti asked.

"Angel is working on the communications to see if she can narrow down where the remaining Reapers may be. I've got a call out to Ratchet, he should be here in a bit.  Adam went to get his spear so he should be back in an hour or so.  Sheila put me onto a merc who does some shadow work, mostly heavy weapon stuff.  I'm told he goes by the name 'Goblin Mike'.  I've also got a handful of FNG street samurai trying to break into the biz. Sheila says they have potential, but I suppose we'll see what they're made of."

"So we're going to war against how many vampires?" Crank asked.

"I counted more than thirty when I first saw them on my way here.  We put down a total of twenty-four so my math says there are likely to be at least seven more.  If they've fed, they'll be fast, strong and dangerous."  I put it bluntly.  We had each seen first-hand the difference between a hungry vampire and one that had fed.

"You gonna call Ed?" Gitti asked.

"I tried, but he didn't answer." I shook my head. "Sometimes Ed just disappears for a few days."

"He's probably at the clinic," Gitti replied.

"Is he sick or something?"  I looked to the two street samurai.  Crank was biting his lip as if to hold something back.

"Nah, he took the money from the last job and had a new testicle grown.  You know he lost one the last time you took us vampire hunting." Gitti was able to say it without a hint of sarcasm.

Crank couldn't hold it back anymore and laughed.


2300 hours

Sheila X had some contractors come out and repair the door.  I don't know how she convinced them to come out to the Redmond Barrens in the dead of night to fix it, but they came.

Angel narrowed down some common contacts from the captured commlinks and phones.  She excluded the devices we had, which left her with eleven contacts common to all of them.

"More than I expected," I said.

Angel nodded her head and smiled. "It's not as bad as you think.  I've pulled the communications, and one of these numbers is for a joy girl who is very popular with a handful of these losers.  Another is a chip dealer, which is weird because a couple of them called him before they came out here.  There is a pizza place they all have in their directories, but none of them have called there in a few days.  Then the rest seem to be fellow gang members or hangers-on.  I'm compiling an org chart of people so we can see who goes with whom, and all that.  I've accessed the comms from the remaining members and I've managed to pull their access logs.  Give me another hour, maybe two, and I'll be able to tell you where they spend most of their time."

"You've got the phones tagged from the remaining members?" I was shocked.  Angel had always been a top notch decker but this was amazing, even for her.  {You're welcome ~ Angel}

"Yeah, GPS is offline but they still ping off the cell networks.  I've lifted some selfies and videos these fraggers have taken tonight."  Angel's smile disappeared. "I can show them to you, but it's pretty bad. Seems they are 'recruiting' while they are on the hunt.  Mostly women too, seems these fraggers may be lonely."

"Long time until sunrise." I felt horrible sitting there, knowing that out there in the streets people were dying to feed an unnatural hunger. "We have to do this smart, or a lot more people are going to die."

"You should know that one of those numbers keeps trying to reach the dead ones. I've been putting out a connection error message.  Hopefully, it will keep the vampires satisfied until you can go down there and kill them."  Angel plugged herself into her cyberdeck and went to work.

Goblin Mike came down in a roadmaster with Ratchet.  Adam arrived shortly thereafter.  Each agreed to take the job.  Sheila provided a hundred rounds of ammunition for Crank's 'good luck charm', two hundred rounds for Gitti's sub-machine gun, four fragmentation grenades, and an incendiary device, (yes, it was a bomb but 'device' sound more professional), which we secured to a small roto-blimp drone. She provided a belt of ammunition for the heavy browning machinegun Goblin Mike brought with him, and a case of belted ammo for Ratchet. Crank carried the case out to the roadmaster for Ratchet.  The two of them came back moments later.

"Angel has a lead on where they fanged fraggers are.  Once she has it narrowed down further I'll do a quick astral recon before we leave, to verify location and see what we're up against.  We'll roll from here so we arrive on target at dawn or shortly after.  I don't want to fight these things in the dark." I said.

"That is because fighting vampires at night is stupid," Goblin Mike interjected.

I couldn't argue that point. "Right, so we'll roll on target in time to put us there at or after sunrise.  I'll know more after the astral recon.  Newbies should be here soon.  Everyone be professional and let's get this job done.  Grab a meal.  Skip the alcohol, I'll need you to be sharp.  We'll rest up here, Sheila has already okay'd it."


January 8th, 2060

0022 hours 

I was twenty-one years old.

My pocket secretary buzzed with a message from Aria, "Happy Birthday. Be safe and call me when you can."

"Hey honey," I whispered.  "Thanks for the birthday wishes."

"It's okay baby. Any idea when you're coming home?" Aria asked.

"Sometime in the afternoon, I suspect.  You take care of yourself and the babies.  I'll be fine here." I was smiling and trying to be reassuring. "I can't wait to come home and take a shower though."

Aria laughed, "Well, if you're really good, I'll come visit you in the shower."

That brought several interesting images to mind.  "You're the best honey.  I've got to go so I can get this done.  I love you."

"I love you too." Aria's voice was a wonderful contrast to my night.

The newbies walked in at 0035.  They were late, which didn't bode well for them.  Five well-muscled humans, four young men and a young woman, came over to my table after being direct by Sandy.  The shortest, stockiest of the men spoke up. "You the guy?"

"I suppose so," I responded.  "Sheila says you folks have potential.  I've got a tough job going off in a few hours. I need some extra gun hands."

"What you killin'," he asked.

I took a slow breath and leaned forward, opening my astral sight so I could gauge his response more clearly. "Vampires. Are you guys up for it?"

"Drek, dude! We kill vampires every day." he lied.

He was desperate, hungry, and throwing all caution to the wind.  It was all bluff and bravado.  Inside he was scared.  Which meant he wasn't as dumb as he looked. I looked to his chummers, each maybe a year or two younger than I was.  Was I ever that young?  Was I ever that clueless?  The answer, of course, was 'yes'.

None of the newbies had any cyberware.  They were raw street muscle.  "Sit down, all of you, let's have a word." I said.  They grabbed chairs, and pulled them up.  I waved Crank and Gitti over.  "These are my associates, Crank and Gitti." I indicated each in turn.  "We've seen a lot of drek together.  If you take this job, you listen to us and you do what we tell you.  You'll live longer.  We know what we're doing."

"Sheila didn't say how much we were getting paid for this," the stocky one interrupted. "Before you go on assuming we're in, why don't you spill how much we're talking about."

I took a page from the scariest Mr. Johnson I had ever met. "Thirty thousand.  This is not a negotiation."  I stared calmly at the younger man.  His aura flashed in shock at the figure. His muscles tensed and relaxed.  I had his attention.

"You get paid when we're done, tomorrow afternoon. We're finding the targets now and we'll roll from here in time to make it to the target by dawn."  I waved at Sandy and she hustled over.

"Sandy, is the kitchen still open?" I asked.

"Yes it is.  We're keeping it open longer tonight," she replied.  She had a worried look on her face.

"Chill, I'm hungry again.  Can I get the boneless wings and a lemonade?" I turned to the street samurai. "What do you guys want?"

They stared at me.

"I've got weapons to clean before we do this," Gitti said.  "I'll grab some sleep after that."

"Same," Crank interjected.  The two of them walked toward the back of the Brick Yard and claimed a booth.

"Okay then, Sandy can you get a sirloin platter for each of my new chummers here please. Another rum for Solomon since he's working late, and can I get a peanut butter pie when were done.  The whole pie here, and one for you to take home as well."  Sandy nodded, gave me a weak smile and hurried to the kitchen.

"We ain't kids," the young woman growled. "We can order our own."

"Yeah, but I don't have time to wait.  I need an answer and I can at least feed you while you decide." I responded.

One of the young men looked to the stocky one and said, "Angelo, thirty thousand split five ways is six grand each, omae."

I could hear the urging in the young man's voice.  I focused on the stocky street samurai and waited.

After they ate, they agreed to take the job.

I found a booth in the back, set the alarm on my pocket secretary, and took a nap.

*****

January 8th, 2060

0625 hours

The alarm on my pocket secretary buzzed away, lifting me from a dreamless sleep.  The Brick Yard  was dark. I heard a rumbling snore, and the metal on metal sound of a magazine sliding home.  I crept to the bathroom and cleaned up.

When I came out, Crank was pulling on his armored vest, Gitti was snoring away, Goblin Mike was laying on a sleeping bag, and the five newbies were still asleep at a booth in the corner.  Sheila X was behind the bar.

I walked over and sat across from her.  She pulled out a clean coffee mug, then looked at me and asked, "You want a cup?"

"Yeah, thanks, and good morning." I yawned.  "A quick cup before I go take a look at what we're facing."

Sheila poured me a cup and said, "Aria sent me a message.  Asked how you were doing.  I told her that was between the two of you."  Sheila X shrugged and poured herself a cup. "Not my place to report on what you're doing.  If she knew, she'd be worried though.  It's a tough time for her."

"I know. Which is why I didn't tell her what was happening." I blew on my coffee and took a sip. It was terrible.  "Tastes just like the coffee I make."

"Yeah, I never got the hang of the settings on the coffee maker." Sheila replied. "Aria used to make mine for me.  I suppose I'll have to wait until I get here, hire a personal chef, or let the damn robots take over my kitchen too."

"Rose makes a good cup of coffee.  I could ask her to pop over to your place and make a pot, but I'd have to know when." I said.

"No.  Rose might be okay for you and Aria, but I don't want her just appearing in my house.  I'm glad you have her to help out, but it's just a bit too creepy for me."  Sheila X seemed to shiver for a moment, then took a drink of her own coffee.  "Yep, it's terrible, just like always."

"I'll have Crank and Gitti keep an eye on me. Angel says the Reapers are down in the Willows." I saw Sheila X give me a questioning look. "I don't know why.  I think it's just a coincidence, but there may be something down there.  I'll do some research once this is done."

"Rickie wants to know about getting that spell attached so he can see vampires too. I think they shook him up a bit last night."  Sheila X looked at her new door.  "He knew Tank years ago.  They used to be friends.  Amazing what that curse can do to you."

"Vampiric virus, yeah it makes you into a monster." I replied.

"I meant friendship," Sheila replied. "If it were just a vampire it wouldn't bother him.  But Tank used to be a friend.  Granted, a friend he hasn't seen or spoken to since they had a falling out years ago, but they were tight once.  I think this will bother Rickie for a while."

I didn't know what to say to that.  So I stuck to the biz I did know something about. "I should only be gone for a few minutes.  If I'm not back and walking around within an hour or so, get another magician to check on me."  I looked around to make certain no one was in earshot. "If anything happens to me, I've got Aria set up in my will.  Rose knows who to talk to."

Sheila nodded and leaned in close to me. "Tommy if you die and leave my pregnant daughter mourning your miserable ass, I'll have Creep torment you in Hell."

I did not piss myself, but only because I had already been to the restroom.

0655 hours

The sun was coming up soon.

Crank and Gitti had cleared a spot on the floor for me.  I stretched out, closed my eyes, and let my astral-self slip free of my body.  I floated out of the Brick Yard and into the street.  There were lingering echoes of the screaming vampires mixed with the perverse joy of giggling demonic fire spirits.  I shuddered and hoped those would fade away soon.  Angel had tracked the commlinks that belonged to the Reapers down to the Willows.  I knew the area she described pretty well, and set off at the speed of thought.

I made it to the Willows in less time than it takes me to tell it.   The building I was looking for was an old Super Shopping Center of the kind that was popular before drone delivery killed most brick and mortar stores.  It was a place I had seen in passing, several times, but I had never explored it.  Now I was drifting around it checking for wards.  I didn't find any on the walls or on the roof.  I picked a spot on the northeast corner, where the roof had partially collapsed, and drifted into darkness.

The astral space there was tainted with the murky presence of fear and hunger.  I floated along the insubstantial grey walls lit by the aura of mildew and molds growing with unchecked abandon.  I stayed near the ceiling, hoping to keep out of reach of any vampires I might find.

I found the first body in a bathroom.  She was dead, but there were dark swirls of energy playing at her corpse.  The corpse twitched and I backed away from it.  She was dead and the vampiric virus was resurrecting her into the monster she would become.  She was still only present in the meat and bone world, not yet astral active, so there really wasn't much I could do without warning every vampire in the place that I was there.

I slipped through walls, and hid behind vents, peeking about to avoid detection.  I found dozens of bodies tainted with the dark swirling energy of the vampiric virus. I found the Reapers in an old walk in freezer unit. I stuck my head through the top of the old unit and saw several vampires.  I pulled back quickly, frantically trying to avoid detection, and soared out of the ruined building and into the sky.

I hurried back to my body.


0735 hours

The sun was just cresting the mountains and spilling a pale glow through the morning cloud cover.

"Crank, you and Gitti take Goblin Mike and cover that back loading bay.  If the vampire's make a run for it, gun them down.  Hell for that matter if anyone comes out that isn't one of us, put bullets in them.  There were corpses in there. I don't know how many, but they were turning.  Kill everyone other than us."  I looked at the three men.  None of them had any comments, just stone faces and ready weapons.

"Angelo, which of you is best in close quarters fighting?" I asked.

"Me and Alexia hand to hand, knives, or what not.  Alexia with handguns, by far.  The rest of us are shotgun kind of guys." Angelo responded with an easy confidence that he faked beautifully.

"Okay, then Adam and Alexia are with me.  The rest of you stick with the Ratchet and cover him and Angel.  Ratchet and Angel are on drones and comms, they know their jobs so if they tell you to do something, do it."

"I've got the micro drone inside." Ratchet interrupted over my earpiece.  "You were right, a LOT of dead people. I've zeroed the freezer you spotted and I've got a pair of wasp drones checking for any other way out they may have."

"Chill," I replied. I looked to Angelo and his chummers. "Use the comm only for important drek and then don't hesitate.  We're burning this whole place down then mopping up.  Don't try to be hero, do your part and you'll be fine."

Angelo bristled, "Hey we know what we're..."

Crank interrupted him with a tap on the top of Angelo's head. "Hey, new guy, he's done this before.  Shut up and listen.  People die doing this drek even when things go right.  He's trying to make sure you can make it home to frag up another day."

0745 hours

Ratchet had parked the roadmaster two blocks from the old ruin.  Crank, Gitti, and Goblin Mike followed the plan beautifully and slipped off to the north end.  Goblin Mike moved swiftly, quietly, and sent me a quick "Locked and loaded," once he had his machine gun in place.

"Ready on this end," Crank whispered over his mic.

"Launching roto-drone one." Ratchet's voice came over the channel calmly.

Adam, Alexia and I were making our way to the front of the old super center.  Its facade had faded as the decades of acid rain had worn at it.  It was a hollow eyed skeleton of its former self.  Once, decades ago, people had come here to shop for things they needed.  It would have been lively, full of voices and people.  Now it was an empty shell full of corpses and monsters.

I saw the first roto-drone soar over the building and take up a position over the east end of the structure.

"Launching number two," Ratchet sounded off in my ear again.

Adam was in the lead and pointed to the face of the old building. "If Goblin Mike opens fire from the end we'll be down range. We need to stay on the west end of the building, so we aren't in his line of fire."

"Okay, good point." I replied.

Alexia was silent.  She carried her Ares Predator in her hands and kept her eyes moving.  She stayed slightly behind me and to my left, well out of my natural firing arc.  I pulled my Colt L36 from its concealed holster, thumbed the safety, and chambered a round.

"I'm zeroing the signals on their comms.  I've got one that isn't in the freezer.  Ratchet is sending a micro drone to check the signal source." Angel whispered.  "I've also got movement in the street a block south of your position.  Looks like some squatters."

"Copy that, keep me informed." I replied.

Seconds ticked by.

"I've got the source on that last commlink, put your AR on I'll patch through video to you." Ratchet reported.  He had an odd tone in his voice. "I'm not sure what I'm seeing."

I pulled on my AR goggles and watched as the feed came through.  It was dark inside but the little micro drone's low light cast everything in a dim luminescence.  There was a dark space, simply a black blob that occupied a space a few meters across, like a giant dark bubble.  I had never seen anything like it before.  I pulled the AR goggles off and handed them to Adam, "mean anything to you?" I asked.

"No fraggin' idea," he said.

I looked to Alexia and handed her the goggles, "Look familiar?"

She held the goggles over her eyes for a moment then shook her head.  "Never seen nothin' like that," she handed me the goggles.  I powered them off and stuck them back in my pocket.

"Ratchet, I don't know.  Task the drone to keep an eye on it.  If it becomes an issue we'll figure it out.  First thing though, let's fry these fraggers.  Angel you're up, Crank, Adam get ready with the grenades." I whispered the command over my mic, and watched as the little roto-blimp floated down and drifted in through one of the empty windows.

"We're approaching on target," Angel whispered. "Ready in thirty seconds. Are we go or no?"

"We are go," I responded.

It was a long thirty seconds before the bomb went off.  A plume of fire belched ten meters above the building's rooftop.  On cue, Adam sprinted forward and pitched an incendiary grenade into the entrance.  It exploded in white and red plumes that ignited everything they touched.  I heard the second grenade go off a tick later.  I sent out the mental call and my fire elemental manifested.  "Burn that building down," I commanded it. The pillar of flame gave a slight bowing motion, then sped across the parking lot, leaving bubbling plascrete in its wake.  It leaped upon the building and began scorching and burning at the aged structure.

I saw flashes of tracer rounds stitch through the building to the east, a fraction of a second before I heard the report of Goblin Mike's heavy machine gun.

"Contact!" Gitti yelled. "We've got contact coming out the back!"

Rachet's voice was echoing the sentiment, "I've got contact on both sides.  Multiple targets!"

"Weapons free." I said.

Light machine guns from the roto-drones opened up on vampires running to escape the fire that threatened to engulf them.  Goblin Mike's heavy machine gun roared as he poured rounds through the the vampires trying to flee out the loading docks.  I couldn't hear Gitti's sub-machine gun over the noise but I was certain he would be firing away.  Crank's 'good luck charm' boomed in a steady pace.

"Sunlight is doing its job," Angel called out.

"Confirmed!" Gitti yelled, "they're burning up really good over here"

"Adam, put that second grenade in there." I called out.

Adam nodded, primed the small explosive and pitched it past the conflagration roaring in the entrance.  I advanced, with Alexia close by, to stand next to Adam.  Twenty meters away the entrance to the old store was ablaze.

"Not too bad," Adam said.

"It's not over until it's gone. We've got to be thorough." I reminded him.

"I see something moving," Alexia said.

I followed the direction her gun was pointing.  I saw a dark figure moving among the flames. Motes of light winked about like a small cloud of stars.

"Open fire!" I yelled.

Alexia didn't wait.  She snapped two shots into the dark shape. It raised it's right hand and I raised my left in a warding gesture.

Fire exploded all around us.  It scorched the plascrete, melting it into bubbling goo just a meter from my outstretched hand.  I smelled burning hair as my eyebrows singed, and saw Adam slapping at the his armored vest as it caught fire.

The spell fire disappeared a moment later, leaving us standing on a circle surrounded by molten plascrete.  Alexia fired two more shots, but I couldn't see the dark shape from the flames in the entranceway.

"Adam, you okay?" I shouted.

"A little cooked but fine," he replied.

"I've lost her," Alexia shouted.

"Her?"

"Definitely a woman," Alexia called back.

"Ratchet, anything on that drone feed?" I asked.

"Negative, micro drone is non-responsive.  Bomb must have knocked it out." he replied.

"Targets are down on north side," Gitti called out.

"Make sure they stay down," Angel responded.

Adam jumped over the three meter span of bubbling, molten plascrete.  "Come on, it's getting too hot and you don't want to be stuck there if it comes back."

I couldn't leap that distance with a short step and Alexia didn't seem confident of doing so either.  I called out and my air elemental manifested and lifted us up and set us down twenty meters further away from the building.

The old super center was ablaze.  Dark smoke was spilling out the roof and through the empty entrance.  I raised my hands, and called out 'IGNIS MAGICAE'.  My own fireball exploded deep in the old store.

"Think you got her?" Alexia asked.

"No. I don't." I replied.  "Stay close, she's up to something."

"She can't just let the whole place burn down on her.  She'll have to come out." Adam said.

"Yeah, but she doesn't have to come out here."  I had a sudden realization and keyed my mic.

"Ratchet.  If you see an area of darkness come out I need to know about it." I said.

"Good timing then," he responded.  "One just came out the west side emergency exit. It's heading this way."

"Open fire on that area.  Put everything you can on it, I'm on my way." I told him as I took off running.  Adam and Alexia kept pace with me.

I heard shotguns firing as I made it to the street on the west side of the inferno.   Angelo was leading the other newbies toward what looked like a half-globe of darkness that was moving toward them at a walking pace.  The four street samurai were firing blindly into the darkness.

"Fall back, maintain suppression fire!" I yelled.  "Angelo!  Fall back!"

"Frag off! I've got this!" Angelo snapped back.

The darkness surged forward, engulfing the street samurai, and their guns suddenly fell silent.

I opened my astral sight and saw Angelo and the other three samurai falling to the ground, their bodies empty, their auras shattered. Standing in their midst was a monster that had once been a woman.  She was brilliant with the stolen life essence of her victims, and wrapped in spells that were protecting her from the daylight and hiding her from our eyes.

She started walking toward the roadmaster as she cast Angelo's lifeless body to the ground.  She made another twenty meters when she came under fire from Ratchet's roto-drones and Goblin Mike's heavy machinegun.  Most the bullets missed her completely, while the few that hit her failed to even knock her down.

She boldly strode from our kill zone, seeming intent on the roadmaster.  I threw a bolt of sizzling mana energy into her.  It hit her and she stumbled.  Bullets hailed down on her but she ignored them. Turning to face me and my two companions who were blissfully blind to the monster.  She moved, closing the hundred meters between us in a flash and kicking me in my abdomen.  Every atom of air I had in my lungs was forced out and I tumbled down the street for ten meters or more.

Adam and Alexia jumped away as the roto-drones continued to rain fire down the dark orb.  I had a moment of panic as I couldn't catch my breath, and saw the enraged vampire raise her arms toward me. I raised my hand in a familiar warding gesture, continued to gasp for air, and mentally screamed out to my fire elemental.

The vampire's spell shattered on my defenses but drove me back down to the street.  My fire elemental erupted in the darkness, engulfing the vampire, and doing its best to devour her.  I lay there, while bullets rained down, my elemental began to scream, and winced as the sun hit my eyes.  I had a crazy idea hit me, and I rode the insanity for all it was worth.

I slipped from my body and into the astral plane.  I charged forward, screaming like a madman and battered at the spell the vampire had woven to protect it from the sun.  I beat at it even as the monster who created it fought and tore at my fire elemental.  The elemental screamed again as the vampire tore it apart. Then the vampire turned to me as the darkness spell collapsed.

It had once been a woman.  Now the vampire was exposed before the morning sun as it struggled to pierce the Seattle sky.  She erupted in flames, flailing about and screaming in rage.  Then Ratchet's drones opened fire on her with horrific precision.

Ratchet claims he shot the last vampire eighty-five times before she fell.  From the mess he made of the corpse, I believe him.

I flew over the area, and for blocks every direction, and didn't detect any more vampires.  Still, we had to be thorough, so we watched as the old building collapsed from the flames.  As the fires died down early in the afternoon, I took to the astral plane once more, drifting among the wreckage and searching for any surviving vampires.  There were none.

I paid the team, thankful that Sheila X was footing most of the bill.  I sent a text to Sheila that read, "Mission successful, four fatalities, no other injuries.  I'm going home."

Sheila responded, "Get some rest, see you tomorrow."

I had no idea what she was referring to.

Alexia didn't cry over her dead friends.  I imagine she was holding it in for when no one was around to judge.  Shadowrunners are harsh like that sometimes.  We incinerated the corpses, leaving their gear to Alexia. I gave her a credstick with thirty thousand nuyen on it, and she took it without a word.

"If you want more work, I can always use a good gun hand." I offered.

"Maybe," she responded.

I said my goodbyes, wrapped an invisibility spell around myself, and flew home.

*****

I landed in my backyard.  I checked the security panel and found it read normal.

I sent out a mental message, "Rose, is everything okay?"

"Everything is fine.  Aria is worried for you, though I told her you would be well." Rose responded.  "She says the babies will make her emotional. Is that true?"

"I'm afraid so, Rose.  So don't take anything too personally.  If she seems upset it may just be the pregnancy hormones." I felt a profound sense of relief and I walked in.

"Aria, I'm home honey!" I called out.

"Tommy!" Aria yelled from the back of the house.  She came out in yoga pants and a sports bra.  She was sweaty and had just a bit of a baby bump.  She strode over to me and threw her arms around my neck. "You smell like smoke baby. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine.  Just a little fire." I brushed a stray lock of hair from in front of her eyes.

"Mom wouldn't tell me what you were up to." she protested.  "I know you don't want me to worry, but I do."  She pulled out a chair and pointed me to it. "Sit. I want to know what happened."

I sat down, still smelling of smoke and fear-sweat, and told her the whole story.  She got very worried when I told her about the Reapers at the Brick Yard and Little Rickie getting knocked through the door.  I had to assure her that he was okay and that her mother wasn't hurt.  I told her about the dead bodies and the energies coursing through them, changing them into monsters.  I told her about the fire, and the dead runners.  I told her about it all.

"Then I saw you and I knew everything was going to be just fine." I kissed her.  "I need a shower, and you look like you've been hitting the yoga.  Want to join me?"

Aria looked at me, a tear had formed in her eye at some point. "I'm just glad you're home. Yes, come one I'll help you get clean. You stink, Tommy Gun."

Rose piped up and said, "I will stay in the kitchen while the sexing happens.  I will make dinner."

Aria blushed and we did, eventually, manage to get clean.

*****

From the author:

Thank you for reading my fan fiction.

You've all been a wonderful audience and I appreciate your comments.

I hope that if you have enjoyed this story and that you will share it with others.

As always, I want to clarify that I do not own Shadowrun.  These stories are derived from game play, and have been fictionalized to make them fun to read.  I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing it for you.

I do write role-playing game materials, for other games (not Shadowrun), which you can find on drivethrurpg.com 

I use KickStarter to fund costs associated with producing those books, and I hope you'll check out my projects there.  You can follow me on KickStarter, as well as on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook (Sinopa Publishing LLC).

I have a project coming soon to KickStarter (targeting May of 2018 for this campaign) for a book of exotic weapons from around the world.  This source book, titled "The Steel Road", includes fifty weapons and an example of an enchanted, 'legendary' version of each.  Each weapon and it's enchanted counterpart is fully illustrated by Zachary Viola!

After fulfillment of "The Steel Road", I'll be launching a Kickstarter for my second rpg source book, titled "Whispers of Persephone" a role-playing resource for necromancers containing new spells and a new arcane wizard tradition for the 5th edition game mechanic. "Whispers of Persephone" will be illustrated by none other than Christian Martinez!

This summer I'll also be crowdfunding my first comic book, "47 Furious Tails" which is illustrated by the very talented Alexia Veldhuisen!!!!


This year will also see the release of "Luther's Revenge", the sequel to the much loved adventure "Tale of the Wizard's Eye" which was the first adventure I published.  Art for Luther's Revenge will include work by Lotus Blair as she makes her art debut as a contributing freelancer in this bloody adventure.


Tarot Adventures, Book Three: Death comes to Glenfallow is also slated for 2018 crowdfunding and release with art from one of our foremost contributing freelancers.  So look for plenty of RPG books coming out in 2018 as I work to bring the best materials I can to your gaming table.

W.S. "Sam" Quinton


P.S. :  If you are a comic book fan, check out this cool KickStarter campaign!




{Note:  All "Tarot Adventures" are trademark of Sinopa Publishing LLC and copyright of W.S. Quinton; "The Steel Road" is copyright 2018 by W.S. Quinton, "Luther's Revenge" is copyright 2017 by W.S. Quinton, "47 Furious Tails" is copyright 2017 by W.S. Quinton}