Sunday, 20 March 2016 12:52

No Time for Second Chances (Part 8)

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No Time for Second Chances

By Branwen

Chapter 8

Clover's home sat conveniently above her store. First thing she did was show me where her safe room was, then the bathrooms and kitchen and finally my room. It was a guest room without any frills but it had a bed and a closet, which was all I really needed. "So, any questions?" she asked at the end of her spiel of ground rules.

"Yeah, do you have a gun cabinet?" I asked, unzipping the bag Diabolique had given me to show her the Walther and accompanying ammo.

She gave me a flat look. "12 year olds don't need guns."

"Hey, I agree, which is why I'm asking if there's a gun cabinet I can keep it in," I lied. Not having a gun was going to give me sleepless nights, I just knew it, which was why Mr. Katana would remain my little secret.

Sighing, she nodded. "In the safe room, I'll open it up for you."

After putting the Walther and ammo away, we had one of those awkward 'new people alone in the same house' moments that seemed to drag before one of the participants can think of something to say. This time, it was me. "Ever since I awakened, I've only had to sleep about three hours a day and only eat one meal a day."

She nodded again. "We'll have to talk to Marvin about that but I know there are some adepts who can subsist on much less than most other people. Notice anything else?"

"A couple of other things," I answered evasively, more because I was curious about something else than deliberately hiding anything. "Who's Marvin?"

"The physical adept friend I was telling you about. He's a free running and martial arts instructor."

Nodding, I did a quick matrix search for 'Marvin free running martial arts Sydney' that came back with no relevant hits. "I take it he's not private," I observed, following her into the kitchen.

"No, he's... less of an instructor, I guess, and more of a courier," she explained, taking a seat at the kitchen table next to her thesis. "He trains locals who ask, gives the ones that make the cut jobs in his courier service. The training includes free running, martial arts for self protection, rock climbing, push bikes, skateboards... basically any method of getting you around that doesn't involve an electric motor."

I stretched before rolling back my sleeve and poking at my nonexistent bicep. "Yep, just what I need. Be nice to get out and see the fragging sun every once in a while."

She raised an eyebrow at me. "Your parents let you curse like that?"

Sitting down, I shook my head. "They don't have much to say about it anymore. Sorry, I've been hanging out with Beth and company the last few days, I'll tone it down."

We shared another long, awkward, silence as the sun rapidly set blow the hills outside. This time I let it rest, waiting for Clover to make the next move. After a few minutes she seemed to make up her mind. "All right, how much do you know about magic?"

"Just the basics you can learn off the trid. I know that magic is the ability to gather and shape mana. I know you have to learn spells from formulae or by learning from a another magician or spirit. I definitely know that some mages have patron or mentor spirits..."

"What does yours identify itself as?" she asked, interrupting me.

"She hasn't formally introduced herself," I answered, blushing a little. "I can tell you she's quite... uh... sexualized."

Clover raised one eyebrow but didn't say anything for a time. Reaching out, she tapped her fingernails on the cover of her book. "You said you read some of my thesis, did you find it insightful?"

"It wasn't like anything I've read before," I said cautiously. "Or at least, I've never read anything that placed such an emphasis on taking what you want. Some of the core ideas appealed to me but they bring up a lot of unfortunate implications and, well, I think much of the philosophy is open to abuse."

She nodded slowly. "I can see where you're coming from. Out of curiosity, what part did you sympathize with?"

"Power as a means of achieving freedom," I answered immediately. "I grew up in a corporate apartment block, attended a corporate school, attended corporate-sponsored recreational activities and lived my life around a corporate schedule. When my life suddenly changed, I realized that it's not just the people on the lower rungs that are trapped. No matter how high you climb in an organization, you're never free to claim your own agency. Even with wealth, most of the things that wealth can claim for you will just sit idly by and eventually wither as you wait to find a use for them. What I want isn't something I can get by climbing the greasy pole or hording everything away like a dragon... I just can't put a name to what it is."

Suddenly standing the moment I'd finished, she beckoned to me over her shoulder as she walked away, carrying her thesis under one arm. Hopping to my feet, I had to run with my smaller legs to catch up to her. She led me downstairs again, past the shop and into the basement level. "Don't bother with that door," she ordered, pointing at a thick metal bulkhead as we walked past, "that's the storeroom. Don't think just because I know jack about computers doesn't mean the people I hire don't know their stuff."

Beyond that door, she stopped in front of a blank wall. Waving her hand through the air, I blinked as I saw the wall fade before my eyes, revealing another bulkhead. "Wicked," I complimented, genuinely impressed.

Clover snorted. "Just an illusion, nothing to get excited about," she grunted. She had to use her maglock passkey and pass a full biometric scan before the door opened for her. Stepping to one side, she let me enter first.

The room beyond was magical, quite literally. There was an altar draped with red cloth upon which sat unlit candles, a chalice, a spotless ceremonial dagger, a bowl of water and a tall onyx statue of a naked woman who writhed sensuously while enveloped in demonic mist while carved snakes dripped from her skin like water droplets. On the wall to my right was an old tapestry depicting a fanged woman with many arms holding swords that stood triumphantly over the body of a blue man, surrounded by blood and eviscerated limbs; the style definitely Indian. To my left was an ivory statue of a tall, raven-haired, woman wearing a cloak of black feathers. The statue was stained with real dry blood with animal bones littered at her feet. Beyond the altar were various magical workstations that looked to have some use in alchemy and metalworking; the walls lined with bookshelves full of tomes, each probably worth a small fortune by themselves. I felt another of those electric buzzing sensations across my skin as I stepped inside.

"My lodge," Clover informed as she followed behind me, "this is where I meditate, study and work in both enchantment and ritual magic. It is my innermost sanctum, the place I retreat to in times of crisis. You see the three goddesses that I take as aspects of my spirit mentor to which I identify with the most: Morrigan, Lilith and Kali. Formal magical theory classifies her as the 'Dark Goddess', the embodiment of primal fertility that is both generative and destructive. In Australia, you can feel her hand in the forest fires that sweep the land, clearing the way for new growth. Most gaze upon her and only see the blood and darkness she revels in, not the guiding light of hope that she offers through the darkness. Those who stray from our path do so because they lose sight of the fact that it is the world around us that is dark, not our destination."

"Our path?" I asked, not knowing what to think.

"Black magic," she explained, "is a magical tradition like that of hermetic mages and shamanistic practices, though rarer. It emphasizes that the act of magic is a pure expression of the will of man imposed upon the world. It is a gift from the divine, the means of unlocking the ultimate freedom unrestrained by the will of others. This doesn't give us any 'inalienable rights', I personally don't believe anyone has a right to rulership though I accept the natural law of prudence in the face of the powerful. Hermetics look at magic and see a path to knowledge; shamans perceive magic as part of a natural order. Black magicians see magic as the fulfilment of their desires but there's no rule that says a black magician must desire evil. In fact, that way is a different, twisted, path."

"I guess I think it seems like it's a slippery slope," I countered. "What right do I have to fulfil my whims? At what point does exercising power become abuse of power?"

"I'm not advocating reckless use of power, far from it, every action's consequences must be considered and choices always have to be made. Consider this then, black magic is the only tradition that acknowledges the danger of power at all. Hermetics often do terrible things in the pursuit of their 'scientific method' and are responsible for unleashing cybermantic techniques on the world, the effects of which on the astral plane still aren't fully understood. Shamans seek strength in balance to uphold the natural order and yet in pursuing this goals they fall to toxic magic and blood magic. Power is dangerous to both the wielder and all those around them, no matter the source. We are all vulnerable to the darker parts of our psyche but eschewing power and denying the dangers is even more reckless. The black magician accepts the responsibility of power alongside the perks, if they don't they are no longer true members of the tradition."

She left me scratching my head in the silence that followed. "Ok, I honestly don't have a rebuttal to that. But you're saying I'm already on this 'path'? I don't remember signing up."

"A tradition isn't a magical group. It's more of a classification of like-minded practitioners, a loose collective that follow a similar philosophy. Sometimes information is shared or bartered and when we start to bunch together, we generally like to be around like-minded people just like everyone else. I'm not selling you 'life on black magic', I'm guiding you on the path you're already on. Feng could see it and now I can see it. You might not follow the Dark Goddess but you feel sympathy for what you see and hear, else you'd be running for the hills right about now. I'll admit, the décor is a bit spooky."

I laughed, needing to lighten the mood. "So... yeah... I... I guess what you're saying is making sense to me. I mean I totally grok that balance of responsibility and power angle but how does anyone trust themselves with this sort of power? I mean... people can die and not just from flinging a combat spell. Hell, I can make people feel emotions that aren't theirs. So far I've only used my powers on people who were trying to hurt me but... what happens when using a spell is just convenient?"

Sitting down at the base of her altar, Clover patted the step beside her in invitation. Accepting, I sat there and waited for what she was going to say next. "Nobody can tell you how or when to use your magic," she said, "and that's the point of the black magic tradition. Nobody SHOULD tell you what you can and can't do. Not me, not anyone else, not society at large, not the spirits; just YOU. And that's a good thing. I don't know about you but if I had a choice between relying on the morality of an organization over that of a single person, I'd bet on the single person nine times out of ten. Deep down, nearly everyone wants to be a better person and it's easier to let that out without the influence of others."

"Essentially, have some faith in yourself."

"Just so."

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>>>>> [Thank you all for coming.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Hoi.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>> [Honoured.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>> [emote=curious;What's this about?]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>> [As you're all aware, I do background checks on new members to make sure they're on the up and up. Alternately, if you're not aware, you are now. We have a mutual acquaintance that I've just given access under the name '9Tails'. Sources indicate IRL she goes by the name 'Naomi'.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Kid wants to be a runner? Cute but we really letting the door open to drekhead tweens now?]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>> [Come on, Morork, you know how finding Netranger works. I thought someone might have let her in but no, when I backtracked her code she hacked her way through fair and square. Now, I would have just done the cursory check I give most new members and let the chips fall after that but I noticed something that needs to be discussed. Her fingerprints reminded me of someone, so I played my hunch and it was on the money. She codes in a similar manner to Nathan McArthur. Are any of you aware of a connection between him and the tyke?]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [No.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>> [News to me.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>> [VV?]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Sorry, thinking. She never said she knew a Nathan McArthur, never gave names to the bits of her past she told me about. I think she told me enough of the truth and omitted a lot but that's just smart, I'd do the same thing in her shoes. She mentioned she helped her father in business dealing and that he disappeared 'a few weeks ago'. Could be Nathan had a lover nobody knew about.]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>> [If he taught her to code, that would explain why their fingerprints are so similar.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Except she's not half-Caucasian.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>> [Is that really a thing in this day and age? Couple hundred nuyen will give you a biological child of whatever colour you want in utero.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>> [McArthur was a Shiawase citizen all his life, you hear weirder crap about what non-Japanese employees do to themselves in that company.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [What do you expect from a Japanacorp?]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>> [Wait, why are you even asking us about this Ned? Can't you just trace her back to wherever she came from before she appeared at the Museum of Fire?]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>> [Interesting fact #1. 'Naomi' doesn't exist in any database and believe me, I searched thoroughly. She has no SIN, no records at all, not even a hit on image recognition software, which means she's never used public transport or even passed by a curious marketing drone. Essentially, she popped into existence in the middle of the wilderness just to save Sarge's ass. Normally I'd assume she was a free spirit of some kind, messing with us. Evidence says otherwise.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Such as?]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>> [Come on, Morork, you met her. Do spirits act like that?]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>> [I have no idea, do you? Nevermind, that was a rhetorical question. Free spirits do what they want and mess with who they want.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>> [But they don't leave traces of DNA. Not unless they're a merged spirit like the bugs, I checked this with Magelight already. Now, I think she's a bit world-wise for her age but hell, I was the same way. Every street kid is. Except she can't have grown up on the streets, unless...]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Unless someone's erased her past.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>> [Precisely, someone or something good enough not to leave any trace of itself in the process. I can also confirm that she's not biologically related to Nathan McArthur, not that I'm implying that they can't have a father/daughter relationship.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Why would anyone that talented want to wipe Naomi from the 'trix? She's just a kid. Heck, you must know most of the people who could do that, Ned.]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>> [I did ask around discretely, everyone on my list said no. That doesn't mean much, I don't have every drek hot decker in the world on speed dial and most of them would lie about it anyway. I'm not discounting the involvement of a pet AI either.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [emote=shudders;Please don't say that! I still have nightmares about Deus.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>> [When we picked her up she was covered in dirt and wearing nothing but a hospital gown. No little plastic bracelet like you'd expect if she was a patient somewhere though.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>> [She claimed to have been put in a cell somewhere and fed. If she was found and taken by Shiawase or the Yakuza as leverage over McArthur, it could explain his sudden death.]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>> [Not sure I'm completely buying the father/daughter connection, honestly. Why would a corp accountant stick his neck out for a little girl if they weren't blood?]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [.... Meet her in the flesh sometime, mate.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>> [Seconded.]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>> [I concur. Little bitch is going to tear men's hearts out of their chest and eat them when she grows up.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>> [Morork, you've been hanging around Ned for too long.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>> [Hardy har-har.]<<<<<
- Ned

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Waking fresh in the wee hours of the morning after yet another three hour sleep cycle, I turned on the light and grabbed Clover's thesis from where I'd left it on the cupboard shelf, returning to snuggle under the covers with the book open across my crossed legs to read. The first few pages left me staring in blank astonishment, not because of the content but the speed at which I was able to read it. Three hundred and sixty pages and ten minutes later, I'd finished the whole tome with full comprehension. I even tested myself by checking out the small coffee stain on page two hundred and thirty one.

Wanting to test myself further, I grabbed my commlink and the baseball cap 'trodes and logged onto the matrix to look for some free books. I immediately discovered that I could not only read one book at frankly ludicrous speeds, I could partake of several books at the same time while retaining full comprehension. Frankly, it even scared me.

Not wanting to deal with the implications, I logged onto Netranger and found the newbie magic room. I'd spent an hour or so customizing my icon to look like an impossibly beautiful late-teens Japanese idoru with long white hair and nine glowing tails wearing a red yukata decorated with black orchids. The room itself looked like a cross between a cozy hobbit hole from Lord of the Rings, a viking lodge and a wizard's laboratory. I had to admire Ned's code too, the room was amazingly realistic, even the magical elements were believable enough to immerse yourself in the setting.

The same couldn't be said for the icon sitting at one of the glowing round tables of translucent purple force sipping a virtual soda. The 20-something feminine form was slightly blocky and suffered from the occasional texture tearing when she moved. I recognized the model from an old VRMMO that was popular in the late 40's and early 50's, re-skinned, of an archetypical impossibly buxom sorceress in a skimpy robe with a hood and a plethora of runes everywhere. She had several wands sheathed in leather holsters strapped to her thighs. A quick query told me that the user the icon represented called herself 'Two Wands Blazing', a surprisingly Amerindian alias for a non-shamanic icon.

"Hi," I greeted, sitting opposite her at the table while I sent an order for a virtual jasmine tea. The pot and cup popped into existence nearby and floated gently down onto the table.

Glowing yellow eyes glared at me from under her hood. "Nice icon," she complimented with a scowl.

"If you'd rather be alone, just say the word," I offered, putting my hands palm down on the table like I was ready to get up again.

Draining her soda in one gulp, she slammed it down on the table, where it immediately re-filled itself. "Are you a real girl? 'Cause right now, all I want to do is bitch about boys and if I find out you're a fraggin' wolf in sheep's clothing I swear I'll turn you inside out like an octopus!"

That made me wince, I had to stop myself from launching into a tirade about sex vs. gender. Luckily I didn't have to lie to her, even if what I had to say was a technical truth. "Hundred percent RL girl here, vent away."

And vent she did. You've heard the tirade before, you'll probably hear it again, so I'll spare you the details. Blah, blah, blah, all men are pigs, blah, blah, blah, I swear I'd be better off as a lesbian, blah, blah, blah, why don't they just listen, blah, blah, blah. I had Two Wands pegged as a teenager two minutes into the conversation. I listened patiently and waited for her to exhaust herself before saying anything.

"So, what did your boyfriend actually do?" I asked.

She pouted. "He wasn't my boyfriend, it wasn't like we'd dated more than once even. But I thought we might have something, y'know? We got along. But then he gets all freekin' moral on me! Neeeyar, you're too young for me to date, neeeyar, you should be looking for someone your own age, neeeyar!"

Translation: she got dumped hard by a guy who didn't know how young she was and was still old school enough to avoid any piece of tail under sixteen. "Was he a runner?"

She nodded. "Comes to these boards too, lucky he doesn't know my username. I don't know if it was Original or Magelight that tipped him of but I am going to rip whoever was responsible a new asshole when I find out!"

"Wow," I said, unwilling to take sides, "I didn't think a runner would give a crap between all the murdering, B&E, theft...."

"I know, right? Stupid drekbrain, it's not like it was my first time even."

"I take it you liked this guy?" I surmised.

The grumpy look she gave me told me I'd hit too close to the mark. "No, I hate him! He's infuriating!"

Just then, the door opened and a tall, bearded, wizard icon cribbed from several 'Gandalf' style wizard icons stepped into the room. He at least looked realistic, though his incidental animations weren't up to snuff. Upon seeing him, Two Wands immediately lost it, jumping up from the table and drawing one of her wands. "YOU!" she yelled, pointing her wand as it sparked dangerously.

I reacted, partly because I liked Two Wands enough that I didn't want Ned to have to take matters into his own hands and partly because I wasn't sure if she really was going to fire. Luckily, my link had come with a non-lethal 'slowdown' attack program that would essentially lock her icon into immobility, so I blindsided her with it, hitting her icon with a blast of icy wind that covered her in a layer of icicles. As it turns out, she had less of a firewall and more of a fireopengate with welcome mat. Frozen solid, the VR physics engone took over as her icon overbalanced and toppled over, hitting the ground with a 'clink'.

"Um, thanks," the icon, which my query told me was 'Magelight', thanked warily. "You know what that was about?"

"Something about someone telling someone else that she was younger than she said," I explained.

He winced, looking down at the stiff form of Two Wands' icon. "Ouch, wasn't me. Sorry, Wands, that really sucks."

Naturally, Ned beamed in a moment later like he had his own teleportation device. His icon was ultra realistic, depicting a black armoured form that looked like someone had cut a clean hole in reality, except where there should have been eyes peeking out from the visor slot you could actually see the background behind him. Before he could say a word, I put my hands up. "Self defence! Or, rather, I defended Magelight here, Two Wands was about to hit him with something. She was a bit distraught."

"I vouch for that, Ned," Magelight said, stepping up to bat for me.

Grunting, Ned thawed Two Wands out with a flick of his finger. She glared at me as she picked herself up off the floor. If her icon could blush, it probably would have been. "Sorry, Ned," she apologized sheepishly.

Ned shook his empty helmet. "Wands, what am I going to do with you?" he asked in a metallic voice like he was speaking through a tin can telephone.

Her icon was capable of giving him the goo-goo eyes, as it turns out. "Let me off with a warning if I promise to be a good girl?" she asked hopefully.

"Nice try. Actually, I've got some pro-bono work on my desk at the moment that would be right up your alley..."

"WHAT?!?" she exclaimed. "I don't work for free, old man!"

"You're about to break your rule," he said sternly. It's amazing how intimidating an empty 2D helmet can be in the hands of a skilled animator. "I'm sending you the details via PM, you've got 48 hours or we take this to the next level." Reaching out, he held out what looked like an old school coach ticket from the 18th century. Growling, she snatched it out of his hands. "Good choice," Ned congratulated before turning to me. "Thanks for heading this one off at the pass, 9Tails, just don't make a habit of doing my job for me."

I beamed. Praise from Caesar. He teleported away again without another word, leaving me to confront Two Wands' accusatory glare alone. "See if I have your back, sister," she grumbled at me.

"I DID," I insisted. "If you'd hit Magelight with whatever you were about to do, Ned would have seriously fragged you up."

"She's right, kid," Magelight agreed with a patient sigh. "She just saved your narrow ass. Besides, you would have had egg all over your face when it came out I had nothing to fragging do with Praetor finding out how old you really are. I doubt Original did either, it's not like either of us give two dreks about your love life. You want to figure out who fragged you, look at people closer to home."

Slumping in her chair, she crossed her legs and propped her chin up with the heel of her palm. "I don't want to think about that. I trust all those people."

"And that's your first mistake," he quipped cynically. Turning to me, he looked my icon over. "Nice icon," he complimented.

I curtseyed. "Thanks. Most of the work was done for me but I was able to do a bit of customization yesterday. I know it's not terribly original but sometimes the classics are the best, y'know?"

He nodded. "Well, I owe you one. I'm Magelight, one of the resident experts and the welcome wagon for new awakened visitors. I handle the hermetic/western side of the magical divide, you'll see a user called Original about who handles the native/shamanic side. Lemme guess, you're Clover's new apprentice."

That surprised me. "How'd you know that?"

He laughed. "News travels fast, the running community in Sydney is small and rather insular. Newbies get noticed, particularly when they ride into Castle Hill with one of the Desolation Angels after fending off a ghoul army with fire elementals. Most of us were either at Lucas Heights or Paramatta at the time."

The mention of Lucas Heights was even more of a shock, I hadn't even thought about it. "The reactor? Oh, spirits, did it get hit by the earthquake?"

He shook his head. "I'll give the Japanacorps this, they can build to fraggin' last. The QVB took some minor structural damage the heritage organizations are chucking a fit over but everything that went up post-awakening is intact. Nah, a group of toxics made a play to take over the facility, just about every spellslinger in town showed up to deal. I take it if you're apprenticing to Clover, you're practicing black magic? Don't get me wrong, I don't give a drek, but you're not going to win friends and influence people around here like that."

I shrugged. "As long as I get the job done, who gives a frag?"

"You'd be surprised," he sighed, taking a seat and motioning for me to sit back down as well, which I did. "Just look at Praetor and Two Wands here. The Sydney Council lowered the age of consent to thirteen at the behest of the Japanacorps anyway, not that half the population west of Paramatta ever gave a crap about it anyway. Not that I'm interested."

Two Wands snorted. "In your dreams."

He sighed and rolled his eyes theatrically. "It's always the pretty boys like Praetor who ruin life for the rest of us. Back on topic, I've met assassins who would gladly put two in your chest while eating take-away and wouldn't lose a lick of sleep over it who turn around and balk at the strangest things. I knew a razorboy once that peeled a corpsec good like a grape without a second thought then balled his eyes out busting a cap in some flesh form insect spirits. People are fragging insane."

"Mind if we talk biz for a moment?" I asked politely.

He raised his eyebrow at me. "Biz?"

Reaching into the sleeves of my yukata, I pulled out a couple of business card style icons that represented datapackets containing my commcode and e-mail address. "My contact details, it's a secure, encrypted, LTG drop box so feel free. Before I awakened, I was studying advanced matrix courses, so I can offer some hacking services and matrix consulting at more than reasonable rates. I'm also a mystic adept, apparently, but I know I wouldn't trust me with those sorts of jobs yet."

We all traded e-cards and bulldreked about ourselves for a bit before I was able to get down to what I really wanted. "Either of you know where I can score some free spell formulae?" I inquired. "I just need something that's not going to get me arrested practicing with it."

"Oh, I've got something!" Two Wands said, clicking her fingers so that the virtual representation of a book made out of gold appeared in her hands. "Open source beauty and fashion spells. Nothing major but good for practice. Healthy Glow, Fashion, Fix, Glue, Makeover and Reinforce."

"Reinforce?" Magelight asked with some surprise. "What's a spell like Reinforce doing in there?"

She rolled her eyes. "Men! Do you have any idea how easy it is to put a hole in gauze? Or snap a high heel kicking a pervert in the balls?"

"Trade you," I offered, plopping a glowing red cube on the table. "Open source firewall, better than the one you currently have installed. WAY better."

Her eyes narrowed. "Yeah and probably full of back doors and viruses," she said, suspicious.

Rolling my eyes, I opened a command console using the runes at the edge of the table and asked the system's automated processes to scan and evaluate my offering. After a few moments, a tag appeared on the firewall icon with a picture of Ned giving a thumbs up next to the words 'Ned Approved'. We traded copies and I scanned her file with my own anti-virus software before stuffing it into the impossibly copious space in my sleeves. "I'm also on the lookout for invisibility and illusion spells if either of you can swing it."

Magelight chuckled cynically. "You'll have to ante up real nuyen for that stuff, sweetie. What I can do is introduce you to a talislegger that can get what you want for the right price, no questions asked."

"Talislegger? Like a talismonger?"

"Talisleggers are black market magical goods dealers," he explained, "talismongers are legit, or act like it."

"What's the catch?"

"Smart kid. Giving you a commcode's no skin off my nose but I reckon I'm doing you a bit of a favour passing it along. Favour for a favour, scan?"

"What do you want me to do?"

"Nothing yet. But if I need your help with something, I'll call in the chip. Deal?"

"Deal," I agreed, holding my hand out to accept his e-card.

We socialized for a while before I noticed the time at 06:00, said my excuses and logged out. Grabbing Clover's thesis and throwing on a pair of track pants, I emerged from my room to find her in the kitchen wearing a fluffy white bathrobe and her hair up in a towel. "Morning," she greeted, "sleep well?"

"Well enough," I answered, putting the book down on the table. "I finished this, by the way."

Her eyebrows shot up. "You finished the whole thing in one night?"

"I definitely need more background on the metaphysical stuff," I told her. "I went hunting for some books on it but the good stuff is expensive. I didn't really get the bit about transitional mana phases and planar interactions in astral shallows. Aura interactions and astral sight was quite enlightening though, explained a lot to me."

"Another adept ability?"

"That'd be my guess," I answered, surmising correctly that her question was directed towards my suddenly amazing ability to speed read.

"Well, Marvin's dropping by this morning to take a look at you. I'm a little concerned that your abilities are more social and mental rather than physical, however."

"No, it's cool, I need and exercise and diet plan," I insisted, not about to let my new body go to waste for one moment. "By the say, do you think you could show me how to read spell formulae? I managed to get a good trade on a few open source utility spells."

And that's what we spent out time doing over breakfast. After finishing up, I went and had a shower and got dressed in some more casual attire. It was fairly warm so I put on a t-shirt, some armoured red cargo pants that clenched around my ankles and a light grey sleeveless armoured jacket with a high collar along with my sneakers, just in case Marvin wanted to put me to the test. The pants also came with a nice belt I could clip my commlink to, so I accessorized with the baseball cap trodes and perched the AR glasses on my forehead. Walking out again, I heard voices downstairs so I hopped down the staircase into the store.

Marvin was hard to miss from Clover's description of his profession. He was wearing an orange and white Urban Explorer jumpsuit with a red company logo that read 'Street Legal courier services' under a stylized shoeprint, from which I assumed that Street Legal was the name of his company. He was around five foot ten, black hair, with a lantern jaw and a lean, well toned, body. Smiling at me, he waved. "Hi, you must be Naomi," he greeted in that tone adults get when they're talking to children.

"And you would be Marvin," I replied in the same tone, "say hello to Marvin, everybody!"

He winced. "Ok, ouch, you as quick on your feet as you are with your tongue?"

"I doubt it," I answered with a shrug. "I can't remember the last time I was able to exercise properly." It was the truth, I couldn't actually ever remember exercising when I was Nathan. Poor self image does that.

"Well, maybe we can fix that," he said with a serious nod. "Clover here tells me you're a mystic adept, mostly mental tricks, speed reading, that sort of thing?"

I nodded. "And I don't need very much food or sleep, at least so far."

"Cool," he said, not trying to sound hip or speak down to me at all. He just seemed to be one of those guys who throws in words like 'cool' and 'awesome' to keep them alive. "Here's my deal. Street Legal runs a training gym just down the street from here that's free for under sixteens with the talent. If you make the cut, there's work available in being a courier, even if you're SINless. We offer courses in rock climbing, martial arts, gymnastics, swimming and a lot of other things but you'll be working alongside paying customers and adults, they have priority. You'll still be charged for food and drink, especially water."

Snorting, I shook my head. "So my next question is: at what point are you going to start expecting me carry contraband for you? Or is the courier service a cover and you just pimp us out?"

He blinked. "Wow, you ARE blunt, aren't you? Naomi, I'm not running a racket here, I don't need to. There's big money in personal training all across North Sydney and my gym's well in the black. But you want to know where the biggest money is in training? Adepts. Anyone with a lick of talent, SINless or SINner, can walk into my dojo and get the same deal. When they finish the course, if they want, I can put them in contact with a corp recruiter and earn a finder's fee. Or, I've got plenty of other contacts that need skilled adepts as well as my own employment roster. Now, I'll admit, some of the locals who train at my gym are members of gangs but they pay nuyen and they know to leave their drek outside the door. Any of my couriers get arrested with contraband and they know what they're carrying, I cut them loose."

Considering his pitch, he seemed sincere but I was catching an undertone of something hinky he wasn't telling me about. Much like Clover ran a legit talismonger... but, oh, there was that little matter of importing illegal reagents once or twice. Please ignore the man behind the curtain.

"Well, ok, I'm willing to put you on probation, see if we're a good fit. Shake on it," I said, offering my hand ingenuously. His eyes and delighted smile told me he thought I was being cute as he shook my hand.


Read 6021 times Last modified on Sunday, 15 August 2021 04:41

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