~ When ten to the enemy’s one, surround him
~ When five times his strength, attack him
~ If double his strength, divide him
~ If equally matched you may engage him
~ If weaker numerically, be capable of withdrawing
~ And if in all respects unequal, be capable of eluding him... for a small force is but booty for one more powerful.”
– Sun Tzu, the Art of War
January 13th, 2061
0745 hours, Seattle Metroplex local time
Samantha Goode was less than thrilled that I had taken three days of my allotted leave time. "There are potential missions being evaluated. I trust you are fit for duty?" Her voice was cold and aloof.
"I'm fine." I replied. "Mr. Johnson seemed rather interested in the metaplane he called 'The Place of Gates'. You wouldn't happen to know if any knowledge of that place held any interest, would you?"
Samantha's eyebrows arched. "You didn't."
She was a frighteningly powerful magician, but I managed to look her in the eye anyway. "I did, though admittedly by accident. That's not all though. I managed to bring a few things back with me."
I opened the buckle on my rucksack and spilled out the meager contents. The credstick, pocket secretary and enchanted tiepin of a dead man slid out on the table. A plastic bag holding a single chipped piece of stone, no larger than a golf ball, got hung on my pack's heavy stitching and forced me to upend the bag to dump it out.
Samantha didn't move, but under my astral sight I saw her open herself and awaken her astral perception. The dead man's things were lifeless, gray silhouettes resting on the table. The tiepin held a soft aura, its power inert as it wasn't bound to a living being.
Across from me the astral echo of Flick's suicide clung tenaciously to the wall. I usually made an effort to sit with my back to it so I wouldn't be confronted with the image of Flick's terrified soul vanishing into nothingness. There had been attempts to cleanse it from the room, but it always reappeared. Flick's terror haunted the room and always would. Samantha ignored it, as she always had.
"You don't mean to tell me you found mundane items in a metaplane." Her eyes lingered on the tiepin then on the stone. "Unless," she paused "... you accessed the plane via a spirit gate. Did you? Did you find a spirit to open the way?"
"No. Nothing like that actually." I replied. "Sit down, this is going to take a while." I began the tale with my trip down into my basement, and carried all the way through my return. Samantha watched me intently, her astral gaze heavy upon me. She wasn't concealing her power from me and under my astral sight she was a blazing fountain of magical power. Trying to lie to her was an idea I considered too stupid to entertain.
"I did some matrix searching and turned up a missing person report, with an image file that matched the dead guy." I concluded. "Now I'm bringing his stuff to you, figured Mr. Johnson might want it looked at."
"That's rather thoughtful." Samantha replied. "What of the focus and the stone?"
"The focus isn't mine. It belonged to the dead guy. As far as I'm concerned you can analyze that too." I paused and picked up the small plastic bag holding the stone. "This is mine though. I'm sorry but I'm keeping this. I brought it because I thought you may want to see something."
Samantha's expression didn't change, her aura betrayed a slight curiosity before she reigned in her control. I opened the bag and dropped the stone onto my open palm. Light exploded from chipped stone the moment it touched my skin. "I think it likes me." I said.
I watched as Samantha's aura changed from one of unrestrained power to one of a perfectly normal mundane woman. She stood and collected the dead man's possessions from the table. "You're right. It is yours." With that she walked stiffly from the briefing room, leaving me alone with the astral imprint of Flick's dying moments.
I raised my right hand, the small stone blazing away in my left, and put an effort of will and magic into a prayer I aimed at the wall. "Rest in peace, Flick." The mana left me and wiped the astral stain of pain and fear from the room. It would return in a few days, it always did, but for the moment I felt as if I had given her some measure of relief.
January 15th, 2061
0900 hours, Seattle Metroplex local time
Jazz was still in a coma. Creep was under sedation. Fey was pissing me off.
"I'm telling you Machine," she insisted. "you're too picky. Just grab some wiz-kid, make her an offer she can't refuse and BOOM! New magician!"
"Fey, you don't know what you're talking about." I replied. "Magicians aren't all the same. We're not AK-97s you can just buy off the back of a truck. I was a wiz-kid once and there is no way in Creep's personal Hell I would have been able to cut it in the situations we end up in."
"Creep is drek-headed lunatic and we're better off without him." Fey fired back. "That chummer is out of his mind and just as dangerous to the team as anything else I've seen in the brief time I'm been on this crazy job."
"He's a lunatic, but he's OUR lunatic. He's also out of the picture for the foreseeable future. I'll find the magician we need, not one that we have to worry about. In the meantime, you put the weapon specialists through their paces, get all the FNGs* up to speed on our communications, and get that requisition in for more incendiary weapons. We got lucky to get out alive, Creep lost his mind helping us escape and Jazz may not survive at all." I pulled out the guest seat in front of my desk and gestured to it, then seated myself in my own chair.
"How fraggin' crazy are we expecting things to get?" Fey asked tersely. "We've got most of a damn platoon assembled now. What the Hell are you expecting?"
"Fey," I said firmly. "You've not seen the worst of things, yet. Before you came on I saw things that were, individually, far more dangerous than those creatures in the ruins. There are things out there that don't have names because the metahuman mind can't wrap itself around the existence of them. Creatures which are so alien to our existence that our minds are strained just to look upon them."
Her face flushed as her temper rose.
"I'm not feeding you bull-drek here. The weapon specialists are there to handle the things we can kill with bullets and fire and explosives. The magicians are there for the things that don't die that way." Her aura flickered at that as realization hit her. She was still angry but she was fighting to reign it in. "You're damn good, Fey. I wouldn't let you stand in Jazz's spot if you weren't. Don't mistake this though. I'm not in command because I'm a magician. I'm in command because I get the job done, because Jazz didn't want command and because everyone else who could have been in this job is dead. Keep asking questions, but do it in here so we can talk it out."
"What are we going to do next?" she asked.
"Same thing we do every time." A smile crept across my face. "We kill monsters."
1358 hours, Seattle Metroplex local time
The panel on my desk lit up with a call. Samantha Goode's face blinked in the contact panel. I activated the answer button.
"Machine, can you come up to my office please?" The question was a politely veiled order.
"Certainly. Now, or did you have a time in mind?"
"Come on up." Samantha replied, then the call ended.
"Drek." I swore. I locked the drawers on my desk and grabbed my rucksack before I leaving my office. I passed a handful of FNGs* who were dressed for 'the office' and discussing the virtues of the latest assault rifle as they walked toward the break area. I took the elevator up and was met by Samantha's personal assistant (I never did learn that woman's name), who escorted me to Samantha's office.
"Enter", Samantha's voice carried nicely through a concealed speaker on the door.
I walked into her office and discovered that Samantha Goode wasn't alone.
"Machine, it is good to see you." Mr. Johnson's voice reached my mind but not my ears. "You've been wandering about in strange places."
He sat in Samantha's chair, his hands folded on the desk in front of him. His eyes were the same storm of blue and grey. Under my astral sight he looked every bit the normal, perfectly mundane mortal. I was convinced it was all a lie. To his right, Samantha Goode stood with an unreadable expression upon her face.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Johnson." I replied. "I wasn't expecting to see you today."
"You should hone your intuition then." He smiled back at me, his lips parted to reveal a perfectly radiant smile while his thought voice flowed over my mind. "After all, you did practically demand this meeting."
"I'm afraid I don't understand." I said.
"Come now!" I winced as my skull echoed with his unspoken words. "You come into the office with evidence of a metaplanar incursion, plant the possessions of another operative on the conference room table, display your claim to the Place of Gates, and then claim that you don't understand?!?!"
It felt like I was being accused of something. "I didn't kill him. He was dead when I found him."
The smile vanished from Mr. Johnson's face. The blue vanished from his eyes leaving only stormy grey. To my astral sight I caught just a glimpse of the power in the man as mana flashed behind his eyes. A thin wisp of smoke flowed from his nose carrying with it a scent I didn't recognize. "You can't believe this has anything to do with one dead man."
The truth of my situation hit me suddenly: 'claim to the Place of Gates'.
With magic, there is a lot of significance to associations. A drawing or mock-up of a thing can be used to affect that thing. Bits of your clothing, hair, fingernails, blood or other body parts, can hold power over you. The same is often true of objects. You can affect a building by using scrapes of paint you scratched off its surface or spy into a building by holding a light bulb stolen from its bathroom. A piece of stone broken from the foundation of a metaplane may very well hold a degree of power over the place itself.
"I see illumination of the fact has finally reached you." Mr. Johnson's voice broke the silence in the room. He was speaking, for which my skull was very thankful. "You have made a claim on the Place of Gates. You have held the very foundation of that world in your hand and yet, I doubt you understand the significance."
"The building that manifested, the other gates, the whirlpools; all of them are incursions into that metaplane. The plane is being invaded by other worlds, other realities." It was a staggering thought.
Mr. Johnson's face hardened.
"This level of knowledge of the metaplanes is rarely seen in university educated magicians." Samantha interjected, "It is understandable that he may not fully realize the severity of his actions."
"Irrelevant." Mr. Johnson, snapped. He held his hand out to me and said, "Give it to me."
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Samantha's face was expressionless, utterly unreadable. I felt the very real need to urinate but managed to maintain my composure and the sanctity of my clothing. I looked at Mr. Johnson, the 'man' I most feared in all the world and, for a moment, I was going to hand over the little chip of stone. I reached into my rucksack, fishing for the plastic bag and my hand bumped my menpo-style ballistic mask.
I looked down into the bag and saw the small bit of stone resting in its bag, lying in the eye of the mask. Something burned in the back of my mind, fighting against the fear of the man. 'Give' he had said. There was something to that.
I put my hand on the mask and looked back to Mr. Johnson, his insistence was etched across his features. Samantha Goode was motionless beside him. The room seemed suddenly warmer and sweat broke out on my brow.
'Give it to me' he had said. When Mr. Johnson had ever wanted something from me he had always offered something to me in return, its how I ended up working for him in the first place. Now he was demanding my small stone, a token from a metaplanar day trip, and he wanted it badly. 'Give'? It was out of character.
"I'm afraid I have to decline." I replied. "It's mine, after all."
Smoke spiraled out of Mr. Johnson's nose. That dreadful suspicion I had been harboring crept back into my mind. "What?" His voice was low and laced with menace.
"I'm saying, 'no'. I'm not going to give it to you." I replied. "I was off work, at home and off the clock. I recovered this stone on my own. This is beyond our contractual relationship and I'm afraid I cannot give it to you."
"You're refusing me?" Mr. Johnson asked.
"I am." I gulped. I couldn't help it, I was scared.
"You work for me." He hissed.
"I was off duty. This is personal property." saying it out loud reinforced my failing courage.
"GIVE. IT. TO. ME." He stood, his hand thrust out to me.
I walked over to him and looked him his stormy eyes. The same strange scent hit me as smoke continued to stream from his nose. To my astral sight his eyes blazed like acetylene torches. Blinding if I were using my physical eyes to see them. I was finally catching a glimpse of the true power of this 'man' I had been working for and it was terrifying.
I thought about Aria. I thought about Pepper. I thought about my twins and my powerful spirit daughters. We stood there for a long two minutes while I stared into the crack in Mr. Johnson's façade. Finally, I answered: "No."
My flesh and blood eyes saw Mr. Johnson's pupils elongate as his eyes changed. His hair grew longer and thicker. Scales the color of molten copper appeared on his skin as he suddenly grew larger, his neck elongating as his head changed shape and his body adopted wholly inhuman proportions and shredded his perfectly tailored suit. A long tail erupted behind him and his bulk knocked the desk over, forcing me to jump away to avoid being pinned under his weight.
Where once the most formidable man I had ever met had stood making demands of me, now stood a dragon. Its bulk tearing at the wall behind him and scattering the furniture. Its eyes locked with mine and I heard Mr. Johnson's thought-voice ring painfully in my skull. "I. SAID. GIVE. IT. TO. ME!"
There is an old saying in the Shadows, 'Never make a deal with a dragon'. It's one of the first things you ever hear in the biz, and if you're really lucky its one of those things you'll never have a chance to test.
I'm not very lucky.
(Continued in ~ The Art of War, Part Four)
Thank you for reading my fan fiction!
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I also write and publish role playing game material, though not for Shadowrun (unfortunately). If there is ever an open game license for them though....
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Until Part Four, I hope you enjoyed this entry and I look forward to your comments either here, below or on social media.