Sunday, 20 March 2016 12:52

No Time for Second Chances (Part 9)

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No Time for Second Chances

By Branwen

Chapter 9

A black Ford Americar sat cold and quiet in the darkness on the shoulder of New Showground Road, dwarfed by the high rise apartments that loomed over it on either side. Even in the Sydney metropolis, there were occasional stretches of deserted road in the early hours of the morning that seemed to be part of another planet, far away from life as we know it. Riding shotgun, Dark Shadow shifted uncomfortably in his seat, trying to adjust the katana strapped to his back so that the sheathe would stop digging into his spine. His AR mirror shades blackened everything beyond the glass but what was caught under the glow of the street lamps while helpfully projecting the time and date stamp in the lower right hand corner of his vision. It read '05:47, November 5th, 2067'.

"You can take the katana off, you know," Raven commented from the back seat.

Turning to look over his shoulder, he flashed a scowl in her general direction before turning back and scowling out at the road. "Where's the fraggin' truck? Shoulda been here a quarter hour ago."

>>>>> [The postal service is late, who'd 'a thunk?]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Dark Shadow gave Steel Machine's meat body, lying limp in the driver's seat where it was jacked into the car, an especially intense glare. Then he realized that his compatriots couldn't see him glaring behind his mirror shades, so he turned his attention back to the road, which he could barely see. Minutes ticked over like days as he squinted into the darkness.

"There it is!" Raven shouted in excitement from where she was peeking out the back window.

"Where?" Dark Shadow asked, unable to make anything out in the gloom through his tinted shades.

>>>>> [I've got it.]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

The Americar's ignition turned over, seemingly of its own accord. Unfortunately, the aging engine wasn't as sprightly as it once was, particularly in the bitter cold with dew forming on the grass outside. "Um, Nigel, it's coming pretty fast," Raven observed.

- Steel Machine

Raven harrumphed, unimpressed. "You know, they make a pill for ignition issues."

The car finally came to life just as the red GAZ Willys Nomad van with Sydney Post and Wuxing logos painted all over it powered by, spraying water across the windscreen. The Americar's wheels span as Steel Machine gunned the engine, pulling out onto the road and kicking it into high gear. Unfortunately, for all the smoke and noise, the Nomad continued to pull away from them.

"What the fragging drek?!? Put your foot down, dude!" Dark Shadow shouted at Steel Machine.

>>>>> [HEY! This isn't a Westwind, a'right? Pedal's to the metal!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

"It's ok! He's slowing down for a red light!" Raven pointed out.

>>>>> [Drek!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Pulling up beside the postal van in the right hand lane, Steel Machine came to a halt at the red light. "Um, dude? What the frag are you doing?" Dark Shadow inquired.

>>>>> [You want to pay for the ticket?]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

"Mate, the car's registered under a fake SIN!"

>>>>> [Oh... right, yeah, I knew that, I mean... um...]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

"I think he means he doesn't want the car linked to a traffic infringement moments before we commit a hijacking," Raven suggested.

>>>>> [YES! That's exactly what I meant! Fragging amateur.]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Dark Shadow glared at him. "Hey, unless you want me putting cigarettes out on your bare skin while you can't do jack shit, I suggest you shut the frag up!"

Raven pointed through the windscreen to get their attention. "Guys! Green light!"

Steel Machine put his foot down again, throwing Raven back into her seat. Luckily, the postal van opted for much slower acceleration, allowing them to pull in front of it. Picking up the remote control for the car's secret caltrop deployment system, Dark Shadow grinned evilly as he turned to watch his handiwork in action through the back windscreen. "Adios, motherfragger," he snarled as he pushed the button.

There was a loud clunk from the boot of the car. Other than that, nothing happened. Continuing to press the button repeatedly without any measurable result, Dark Shadow growled in frustration before he started thrashing about, kicking the floorboards and dash in impotent rage.

>>>>> [Don't do that!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Raven sighed. "I didn't expect ignition problems from you too, Shadow."

"I'M GOING TO RIP SPARKY'S TESTICLES OUT THROUGH HIS EYESOCKETS!" Dark Shadow swore, punching the side door. Whipping out his Colt Manhunter, he turned to Steel Machine's meat bod. "Get this fraggin' car alongside, I'll shoot out the fraggin' tires!"

>>>>> [Ok, ok, sheesh....]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Pulling back into the right hand lane, the Nomad put on the power and surged past them. Dark Shadow hit the electric window and waited for it to roll down before leaning out of the cabin so that he could rest his heavy pistol against the side view mirror in a right handed grip, his glowing purple Mohawk swaying in the wind. The gun went off, making a sound like a cannon in the quiet night, but the bullet didn't find its mark. Two more shots also failed to shred even one tyre.

"Drek, drek, drek, drek, drek, drek!" Dark Shadow swore profusely as he pulled back into the cabin. Reaching into his pocket, he took out a small wallet full of skillsofts. "Sorry, my bad, I forgot to load the firearms soft! Just gimme a second...."

- Steel Machine

"I know! I know! Chill, dude!" the street samurai said, trying to placate his friend as he ejected the martial arts skillsoft from the port in his skull and tried to find the one labelled 'firearms' at the same time.

"Maybe this is a bad idea," Raven suggested, "we should abort this clusterfrag."

>>>>> [FRAG THAT! BUCKLE UP!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

"Um, Nigel, I don't think that..."

>>>>> [DON'T CALL ME NIGEL!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

The Americar's engine whined like a whipped puppy as Steel Machine put his foot down again. The wheel span hard left as the car lurched forward, barely managing to tap the Nomad's rearmost wheel, bounding off the heavier vehicle and spinning out of control. Skillsofts sprayed in all directions as Dark Shadow lurched forward before being shoved back into the seat as the car screeched to a halt, the katana sending a wave of pain through his back as he landed on it hard. Dazed from the sudden jolt, Raven looked on in amazement as the Nomad slowly decelerated and pulled off safely on the side of the road with its warning lights on, showing only a small scratch on the chassis from the impact.

"Well," Raven observed groggily, her head still spinning, "we stopped it; somehow."

"Fraggin' aces," Dark Shadow growled, pain obvious in his voice as he kicked the passenger door open.

>>>>> [I said don't do that!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Trying to get out of the car, every movement sending shooting pain down his back, Dark Shadow was halfway there when he suddenly hit something and fell back into the seat. Trying again had the same effect. Reaching out, he probed the air in front of him with his hand. "Guys... I think there's a magic wall in front of me or something, it's stopping me from getting out of the car."

Raven groaned. "No, the hilt of the katana keeps hitting the roof of the car when you try to get out, moron!"

Looking up, Dark Shadow noted that she was right, the pommel stuck out over his head where it could catch on the curved lip of the roof. "Shut up," he growled, blushing profusely as he yanked the hilt to one side, finally getting out of the car and rising shakily to his feet. He couldn't see drek in the darkness but he managed to wander towards the Nomad's lights, his hands trembling as he inserted a new skillsoft into the port in the back of his head with one hand while pointing the Manhunter at the cabin door with the other. The red dot laser sight shone like a beacon off the polished bodywork, guiding him ahead. "Right, anyone in there, I'm giving you to the count of..."

"Good morning, citizen," a robotic voice interrupted him in greeting, coming from an external speaker built into the driver's side door, "we seem to have had a minor collision. Do you require medical assistance?"

"Shut up!" he ordered. "I'm giving you to the count of three or..."

"I'm sorry, I don't understand your request," the pleasantly reasonable voice interrupted again. "If you require medical assistance, can I recommend DocWagon™ emergency ambulance and health insurance services? Their quality and efficient staff are ready to serve all your emergency health care needs with a press of a panicbutton! Do you have an insurance number?"

"That's it, smart ass," Dark Shadow growled, aiming carefully for the door handle before putting thee bullets into the mechanism.

The electronic voice squeaked and squealed for a moment before continuing. "Unnecessary malicious damage to company property has been noted. A distress call is currently being placed to Knight Errant."

"Frag!" Dark Shadow swore again, grabbing at the ruined handle and yanking on the door to no avail. It was locked tight.

"Would you like to be included in the emergency call?" the voice asked politely.

Throwing his hands in the air, he looked up at the stars in askance before answering. "Sure, why not?"

The speakers made several beeping sounds as the call was transferred. "Thank you for calling Knight Errant, your emergency call is important to us, please hold the line," a pleasant, if tinny, female voice implored before switching to synthesized recording of 'Greensleeves'.

Dark Shadow just stood there and stared for several moments, dumbfounded.

"Allow me," Raven said when she finally arrived, pushing him to one side as she gave an exasperated sigh. Tapping a few commands into her AR keyboard, the door popped open in a matter of seconds with the music still playing in the background. Dark Shadow blinked when he saw that the cabin was empty. "Drek, did the driver get away?"

Rolling her eyes, Raven hopped up into the cabin. "Most of these delivery vans are run by remote control. The drone in the back unloads the gear, all we have to do is reprogram the route... and voila!" The speaker crackled before going silent and the back door of the van popped open.

"Ok, that's impressive," Dark Shadow complimented, holding his hand up to help her down.

Scowling, she slapped it aside. "Do I look like I need help?" she snapped, jumping out. Unfortunately, the road was slick and her sneakers didn't have quite enough grip, sliding out from under her. Her butt hit the ground with a small splash.

Shaking his head, Dark Shadow just walked away, intent on getting his share of the loot. "Whatever, flat chest."

"HEY! What happened to chivalry?"

"You just killed it," he snapped. "Come on; help me load the fraggin' car."

An hour later, the Americar rolled into a discreet garage down a back alley, the engine mewling under the strain as the doors bulged with packages. The boot had been tied into place, several items that were really too large for the cargo space jammed in by brute force. Sparky the mechanic stared at the damage in horror from where he stood near the stairway, absently rubbing grease stains onto his overalls. "What the hell did you do to my car?" he demanded, mashing the button to close the door far too hard.

The doors opened and smaller packages tumbled out, spilling across the floor like water. "What 'chu talkin' about your car?" Steel Machine argued as he pulled himself out of the cabin. "Co-owners, remember partner?"

Sparky just knelt next to the front left bumper which was hanging loosely from the chassis where a large dent in the bodywork had broken it loose. "Oh god, my poor baby, what did they do to you?"

Kicking several packages out of the way, Dark Shadow whooped, his attempt at jumping out of the cramped cabin blunted by agonizing back pain. He did manage to limp enthusiastically out of the car, however. "YES! Is anyone else here wired? I'm so totally wired right now! That was awesome!"

"Yeah, fraggin' wonderful," Raven grumbled as she crawled awkwardly out over the sea of packages onto the floor. Finally finding a clear space, she rolled over onto her back, pulled out a cigarette and searched her pockets for a lighter. Her red synthleather jacket and black jeans were still wet from falling into the puddle on the road. Her commlink was clipped securely to her belt; fingerless AR gloves and invisible AR contacts providing functionality since she didn't have a datajack. Fashion aside, Raven was a petite young woman with short curly red hair, freckles and an 'I don't give a frag' attitude.

"Well?" Dark Shadow looked down at her, grinning like a schoolboy. "Go on, call the buyer! We've got a meet to set up so we can unload all this drek! Payday, people!"

"Buyer?" Raven asked, looking at him strangely. "I don't have a buyer, I thought you had an inside man?"

Blinking, Dark Shadow stared at her. "What? I didn't have a buyer, I thought you..."

As realization dawned, they both turned to look at Steel Machine. "What?" he asked with a shrug. "Don't look at me, this was your idea."

Allowing her head to flop back onto the floor, Raven gave up her search for a lighter, stared up at the ceiling and allowed the cigarette to fall limply from her mouth. "Drek," she swore, summing up the entirety of her feelings in one word.

linebreak shadow

It was a perfect morning for sleeping in. The air was cool but I was warm snuggled under the covers. I luxuriated in the sensation of my own smooth, soft, skin against clean fabric as I drifted in and out of consciousness. But I wasn't alone, she was there with me in both worlds, nuzzling, kissing, caressing every inch of my body, driving me to the brink but never allowing me to slip over the edge.

My eyes finally fluttered open when the alarm roused me at 07:00, the insistent buzzing forcing me to wake. Moaning, it took several attempts at mashing the off button on the device to get the hellish clamour to stop. Ignoring the burning need in my loins and the tingling sensation that played across my skin, I swung my legs out of bed, miscalculated and accidently hit my heel hard on the floor. Cursing like a pirate, I took a moment to rub it until the pain subsided.

Apparently I was in 'that awkward phase', or so the 'adults' called it. Truth was I'd had another growth spurt, over the last year I'd grown four inches and most of that had gone into my legs. Being an adolescent clutz was just another of the curve balls life was throwing at me along with phantom muscle pain, 'girl problems' and sudden inescapable urges to hug cute things. Ok, the last one was a lie but there were days when I wished I had cramps just to give me an excuse to be bitchy.

Hauling my ass out of bed, I stretched before moving onto the exercise mat for my morning workout. Tai Chi improved my grace and balance while Yoga promoted fitness and flexibility. As a bonus, I found both helped with my growing pains and calmed my mood. With that done, I moved on to sit-ups, push-ups and lifting small weights in a variety of poses to work various muscle groups. It was working too, over the last year I'd gained a fair amount of muscle definition despite the adolescent process of 'filling out'. I was also glad for anything that distracted me from my hormone-driven cravings.

Bouncing lightly to my feet, I checked to make sure nobody was in the hallway before creeping into the bathroom. Call me image conscious but sweat sodden pyjamas isn't exactly a good look. Besides, Clover was always crabby on Saturday mornings before she got her hot chocolate and the last thing I needed was my chores doubled because I was walking funny or some such excuse. My teacher was definitely old school when it came to both apprenticeships and raising 'children'. Part of the reason I was so crabby all the time was how infuriatingly amused everyone was when I insisted that I was grown up enough for things, no matter how much I did to prove it.

Closing the bathroom door behind me, I stripped out of my pyjamas before taking stock of myself in the mirror. Things were changing. My face had lost a little bit of the pre-teen cuteness factor, helped by the fact that during my last visit to Reggie he'd re-styled my hair to a more adult chin-length look, returning my hair to its natural black colour with a few red highlights. Even though I was in a strange lanky phase, it was obvious I was growing hips even as my cup size steadily increased. Best and worst of all, I was frighteningly hot for an elf girl my age; even I thought that my green almond eyes were killers. It occurred to me that I was the sort of girl that fathers lock away in high towers to await rescue by handsome princes. Lucky for me, Clover really didn't fit the evil stepmother archetype.

Shaking myself out of my introspective reverie, I started my morning routine by casting my Healthy Glow spell and watched as my sweat evaporated, my teeth brightened and the flush of good health otherwise spread throughout my body. The effect wasn't just cosmetic; one casting of Healthy Glow was like spending a week at a health resort. One casting a day meant that I was healthy as a body could be and at the very least, it was doing wonders for my skin.

Technically, I didn't need to shower after casting Healthy Glow, but I did have a quick one anyway. Partly for pleasure, partly to help me wake up, partly to get my hair wet to help brush it out but mostly to teach myself the things a young girl should know about hygiene and beauty products. It occasionally came up in conversation and I got weird looks from other girls when I gave them blank looks on the subject. The last thing I wanted to do was stand out even more than I already did. Not to mention fashion and beauty tips are kinda fun when you get into it.

Feeling much better when I returned to my bedroom, I dumped my pyjamas into a hamper of dirty laundry and set about getting ready for the day. I could have used magic to make the routine easier with a Makeover spell that would do my nails, style my hair and even apply make up but again, I felt that I needed to learn to do these things manually. Not that make up was actually part of my routine; in general I found that it just got in the way, particularly at the gym.

For clothes, I started with a stretchy dark grey 'second skin' bodysuit with short sleeves and legs. Designed as a woman's undergarment for sports, it held everything in place, provided protection in the form of armoured plates as well as in case of the aforementioned 'girl problems', helped with circulation by applying light pressure to my waistline, allowed my skin to breathe and even recycled my sweat into drinkable water, not that I was brave enough to take advantage of that feature. Last but not least, it flattered my figure, which is always important.

Over the second skin went a sleeveless black midriff armoured hoodie and a set of cargo red pants that were clinched at the ankles for ease of movement. A fresh pair of white socks went on underneath my red and black running shoes which in turn matched my fingerless athletic gloves. I hid my blue and black elastic bracelet underneath the strap of the right glove, buckled a second belt loosely around my hips as a purely cosmetic feature, combed my hair back and held it in place with the AR glasses resting on my forehead, shouldered on the sash bag that carried my commlink and draped a set of headphones around my neck where they'd be easily slipped on if needed.

All of that was done by nine o'clock, when I skipped lightly out my bedroom door and into the kitchen. There I found Clover nursing her morning hot chocolate, looking the worse for wear after spending the night out clubbing. She was wearing a fluffy white bathrobe with a towel around her head, obviously not long out of the shower. "Morning," I greeted pleasantly, flicking the stove on to start preparing breakfast for us both.

"Happy birthday," she grumbled, trying to whip up some enthusiasm.

What she said didn't register with my brain. "I'm sorry?"

"I said: happy birthday," she said louder and slower, like she was forcing her lips to move correctly. "I was going to give you a present but the post is late."

"Birthday?" I asked stupidly, staring at her.

"It's November fifth, dummy," she admonished, flicking my nose. "What, are you the only kid in the world who's not excited about her birthday?"

Squeaking in surprise, I grabbed my nose just when what she was saying finally penetrated. My birthday, or rather Kimiko's birthday, as was formerly written on the wall in the virtual Shiawase shrine was November fifth. I was officially thirteen, which meant....

My train of thought was cut off when Clover flashed a wicked grin at me. "Sweet thirteen," she teased, "now you can cut a swathe through all those boys panting over those pointy ears."

I blushed furiously. The age of consent in Australia was sixteen in most parts of the country. After Sydney seceded and threw their lot in with Shiawase, Renraku and several other Japanese corporations, the Corporate Advisory Board had advised several amendments to the law that made Sydney more of a home away from home to the Japanacorps. Thus, Sydney's age of consent matched Japan's at thirteen, technically. In practice, cultural mores don't change that much in a few decades; the drop in statutory rape cases accompanied an increase in violent assault as concerned fathers took matters into their own hands. However, it did simplify the legal system in certain areas where teenage pregnancy was more normal as well as mitigating the high death rate as the city struggled to cope with the mana storms and it's not like the corps give a shit about social problems as long as a steady stream of indentured labour marches into the factories.

"Great," I grumbled, throwing some bacon onto the grill, "now I have a bullseye painted on my chest as half the city calls hunting season."

"You know, for someone who follows Seductress, you're remarkably straight laced."

"No, I'm not," I denied. "I have no problem with sex, heck if I want some I have a Human Form spell and a fake SIN. It's not sex I have a problem with, it's being followed around by horny bastards looking to get their leg over."

"Try to look less like a living sex doll then," she quipped.

I rolled my eyes at her. "I wish... well, ok, not really. You going to open the shop today?"

She shook her head. "Already put the sign up. Our shipment hasn't arrived either, I'll probably be spending most of the day trying to find out what the hell's going on."

"Ugh," I commiserated, continuing to cook while I talked. "That's annoying... wait, you got me a present?"

"Yeah, it was strange, I started looking around and the next thing I know, Ching calls me out of the blue offering to do me a good deal on a piece. That guy even gives ME the creeps, y'know, and I practice animal sacrifice. Anyway, it was supposed to come in today with the shipment, so I've got two reasons to chew out these postal assholes."

Honestly, I was kind of flattered and didn't know what to say. Instead, I leant over the counter and gave her a kiss on the cheek, blushing profusely. "Um... thanks, Clover, for the thought."

She scowled at me. "You can thank me by finishing your homework on time."

Sighing, I rolled my eyes again. "Yes ma'am."

We were in the middle of devouring breakfast when the doorbell rang. Being the apprentice, and fully dressed, I was the one who had to interrupt my feast to answer it. There were two access points to the house over Clover's shop, through the shop itself and a stairway that ran up the side for visitors. I swear, our 'front door' was more secure than the vault downstairs. There were three locks on the steel reinforced inner door, which opened up so you could get to the security door with the clear bulletproof screen that was so thick you needed an intercom to talk to the person on the other side. Usually I found it annoying but today I was glad it was there when I found Ricky Hand grinning at me through the glass.

Ricky Hand was an admirer of mine turned creepy stalker, which might have been less scary if he wasn't a Red Pole in the Red Dragon triad. I'd met him on a trip to the mall, he'd noticed me shopping and made a point of introducing himself, even bragging about what he referred to as his accomplishments. That's how I knew that Hand wasn't his real second name. I didn't need the people on Netranger to warn me he wasn't just spinning tails, he'd actually showed me one of his hands. They were just cybernetic but he wore them on a belt underneath his jacket at all times, torn from the arms of razorboys and gillettes that had crossed him.

Physically, he didn't look like much. I was only as tall as his shoulders and I had a lot of growing still to do but he was stocky and broad shouldered. Like a lot of triads, particularly Red Dragon, he was Han Chinese and proud enough that he refused to lose his Hong Kong accent which didn't earn him many Australian friends. If you really want to piss Australians off, try holding yourself above us, that'll do it right quick. Ricky was arrogant enough that he didn't give a drek. He was also handsome and considered himself a ladies man, though I imagined he earned his companionship more through fear than he did affection. Today he was dressed in thick leather with a heavy jacket composed mainly of straps and rivets with heavy steel-toed boots. Hints of the tattoos on his body could be seen peeking up through his neckline.

I flicked on the intercom and folded my arms across my chest. "Ricky, what the frag are you doing here?" I demanded in fluent Han, learned through a night course over the last year. I knew a bit of Mandarin too but I was still studying.

"Hoi, babe," he greeted cheerfully with a drek-eating grin as his eyes roamed down my body. "Yo, happy birthday! Why don't I take you out to party tonight to celebrate; take a ride on my special rocket?"

My flat expression didn't change. I was proud of myself, after the dreams last night I was actually tempted. Something about big muscles and the whole bad boy thing made him easy on the eyes, he could probably get twice as much pussy if he could keep his mouth shut. "No. How the frag did you know it's my birthday anyway?"

"Word gets around... well, that and shipping manifests. Speaking of which, get Clover's ass over here, we need to talk. Believe it or not, I'm here to kiss it... honestly, I'm sort of looking forward to it."

Ignoring his leer, I backed away a few steps before turning to stick my head into the kitchen. "Clover? Ricky Hand's here to kiss your ass, apparently."

Clover's hooves clicked on the tiled floor as she stormed up to the door, scowling. "What?" she demanded curtly. She was actually a bit taller than him and managed to be scary even in a bathrobe. Looking like a demon helps, I guess; having a reputation as an 'evil black mage' probably does too.

"Uh, hi Clover," he greeted, suddenly losing the attitude. "I'm sorry but today's shipment's been stolen. Uncle Yi sends his deepest apologies and wants you to rest assured that we're looking into it."

"WHAT?" she shouted, punching the glass hard enough to make it reverberate for a few seconds. Both Ricky and I jumped and edged away, even though Ricky was safe enough behind the security door. "I went with Sydney Post so that people like you would insure me against drek like this!"

He hung his head in apology. "I know, as I said we are working towards a speedy solution. If luck favours us, your goods will be returned to you along with Naomi's present."

She glared at him. "Get the frag off my doorstep."

Kowtowing once, he turned to leave.

"Oh and Ricky?" she called after him in Han, making him pause mid-step. "Stay the fuck away from Naomi!"

Turning on his heel, he smirked at her before hopping down the stairs.

"Frag," Clover swore after slamming the door shut and resetting the locks. "You're going to have to watch out for that bastard now."

"Mr. Obsessed Creepy Stalker Triad Rapist?" I asked innocently. "Who'd have thought?"

"I'm not joking, not even a little bit," she snapped, grabbing my arm and locking her gaze on mine, "you scan?"

"Me and him?" I asked incredulously, letting my horror at the thought show on my face. "Maybe if he took me ice skating in hell."

She let go and nodded, convinced. "Good, just watch yourself. Followers of Seductress have a tendency to... get carried away with the moment. The spirits don't see things like humans do, they're more primal and don't care for our notions of what's proper and what's not. You'd be wise to remember that."

"What about the Dark Goddess?" I asked as we returned to our breakfast. "You know, baiting Ricky Hand wasn't the smartest thing."

"I can handle him," she insisted, spearing her eggs like she was digging the fork into his head. "If the Red Dragon frags with me, the Green Gang will come for blood and it'll be war between the triads. They don't want that, particularly with the Grass Sandals and the Yakuza waiting for someone to slip up. Anyway, don't you worry about that, you better finish up and get that bony ass of yours over to Marvin's."

My hands strayed to my butt self-consciously but I didn't make a big deal out of it. After saying my goodbyes, I grabbed my skateboard from the lobby and slipped out through the back of the store just in case Ricky was waiting in ambush out front. I breathed a sigh of relief when I got a block away without spotting him, which was a good indicator that he wasn't around. He wasn't exactly skilled when it came to shadowing, just persistent and stubborn beyond all reason.

Marvin's was only a few streets away. The gym complex took up half the block, including indoor and outdoor pools. There was also a sauna, a health spa, acupuncture, rock climbing, obstacle courses and even a Zen garden on the roof. Locals lapped up Marvin's mind, body and soul approach to fitness, even though half of it was pure bulldrek. Much like Clover, Ill Ching and every other talismonger in the business that sold charms and trinkets to gullible mundanes, Marvin traded off his reputation as a physical adept to gull the average citizen into believing he knew the secrets to health and fitness. Not that I begrudged him his fortune, along the way he actually helped people get fit and healthy and gave jobs back to the community. Street Legal Couriers was as much advertising for the gym as it was a courier company; the sight of freerunners dashing about Castle Hill was enough to draw in curious clientele.

Kicking up the skateboard and grabbing it in one move without breaking stride, I went through the front doors, waved to the receptionist on the way past and stepped into the girl's locker room to stash my skateboard before heading to class. The indoor obstacle course was a sight to behold in itself, composed mostly of large concrete blocks with a variety of surface textures, hand rails, pipes and common street obstacles designed to simulate the outside world. The most challenging obstacle was the twenty meter high glass wall that mimicked the front of a modern building. Only and handful of Marvin's couriers could even attempt it, much less get to the ledge at the top and back down. Down was supposedly much harder.

The moment I stepped into the small courtyard in the middle of the course, two familiar boys immediately skipped up to me, one grinning uncontrollably while the other frowned far too seriously.

"Hey, Naomi!" Ace greeted with his trademark cheerful enthusiasm, practically bouncing off the walls. His tousled sandy hair, which he didn't wash often enough, still managed to emphasize the bounce in his step. He wore a yellow jumpsuit with red and black lightning bolts down the arms and legs with white running shoes and blue gloves, showing a lack of concern for colour coordination. AR sunglasses hung on a slender plastic chain around his neck, he had an issue with things touching his pointy elven ears. He also had lovely bright blue eyes that were probably going to slay the girls when he grew up a bit more.

Ace contrasted well with his constant friend and companion, Solomon. Human, chestnut haired, brown-eyed, possibly a hint of Asian or African in his ancestry, Solomon was taller and lankier than both of us. He wore thick-rimmed black glasses that were prescription as well as AR enabled, kept his hair high and tight and dressed conservatively in an armoured blue tracksuit with extra padding in the elbows and knees. He kept his peace, giving me a short nod and a wave.

Walking behind them, the last of the trio was the perpetually sour and cynical Erica, who merely took the time to glare at me like I'd caused her a personal affront. She was the sort of girl who they coined the term 'fiery redhead' for. She put a lot of work into straightening out her hair and hiding her freckles under an overly thick layer of make up. She wore a blue-black leotard with orange neon lines running in 'technocratic' patterns with urban digital camo style capris with orange sneakers, shin pads and gloves. Instead of glasses, she opted for AR contacts with little skulls where her pupils should be, showing off her cybergoth tendencies. While the boys kept their comlinks discretely tucked away in a pocket, her outfit (like most female clothes) lacked pockets. Instead, she opted for a commlink styled into a bracer that fit over her left forearm complete with gratuitous blinking lights and purely aesthetic AR readouts. She was also the sort of girl that exercise made stockier and broad shouldered, which she compensated for by wearing her hair in a shoulder length feminine bob.

The others were milling about either in small groups or by themselves. Kelly Quist, a cheerful, tanned, seventeen year old brunette in a white jumpsuit, stood off to one side, stretching her legs by placing her heel against a wall high over her head and bending her torso forward. Neil, an ork that appeared to be the same age as Kelly (meaning he was about half her age in real years) stared at her discretely as he half paid attention to a conversation between Elmo Soze and Oded and Amanda Penn. Elmo was our resident elder, one of those guys who was still fighting trim at 52. Oded and Amanda had met at the gym and ended up married. Diligence, our teacher and a dwarf, was busy lecturing Vivian, the troll and his young son Thomas, probably giving them pointers for the class ahead. Diligence was his street name, of course, one well earned and nearly legendary in the local dwarf community but his real name, Uther Blake, was just as awesome at least in my opinion.

"Hoi, chummers," I greeted in return, kicking my heels against the floor to make sure my shoes were on tight. "Ready for a workout?"

"Are YOU ready?" Erica asked huffily, folding her arms over her chest as she glared at me in challenge.

"I think so," I answered with a pleasant smile, ignoring her tone along with the daggers those icy blue eyes were casting in my direction. Internally, I hoped she'd get sodomized with a broken bottle.

Diligence didn't mess about when he called for everyone's attention. From a standing start, he jumped up to a platform six feet above his starting position like he had springs in his heels, stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled like a drill sergeant. "Right, I hope you're all warmed up for this," he barked, rubbing his hands together in sadistic glee. "I think you're all ready to kick it up a notch. The game is tag only this time we've got a twist. Scattered throughout the course are padded blue sticks of different sizes. You can only tag each other with those padded sticks. When someone is tagged, they get a ten second time out... oh and your AR goggles will show you where everyone else is at any time, so don't count on a stealthy approach. Get running, game starts in 5... 4... 3..."

We scattered like ants caught in the rain. As it happened, Erica and I jumped for the closest wall at the same time, trying to gain higher ground. To give her credit, she was a better jumper and had more upper body strength than I did, though she was slower to get on her feet and running again than I was. Spotting one of the padded blue sticks ahead, I didn't hesitate, hopping over a railing onto a balance beam, hardly slowing down as I traversed the gap. Most of the others had me licked when it came to main strength, even 10 year old Thomas thanks to his dwarven metagenes, but none of them could match my sense of balance and sureness of footing.

Grabbing the stick off the ground on the high platform, I whirled about to take stock of where everyone else was on the course, particularly Erica. Pausing almost got me tagged when Erica thrust a long staff up at me from below. Fast reflexes saved me as I battered the weapon aside with my own sword-length stick and leapt the four foot gap to the next platform, giving myself some space to break into a run. I didn't have to look back to know that Erica was in pursuit, there was no way she was going to let this shot at taking me down a peg get away from her. All I had to do was figure some way to turn her to my advantage.

Vaulting a waist high concrete barrier on the raised pathway I was on, I spotted Thomas across the other side of the course ambushing Vivian from above. Smart kid had gotten a hold of another polearm like Erica's and was doing run-by attacks on the taller classmates from the upper levels. The Penns had teamed up to defend against Kelly and Elmo, who were trying to take any opportunity to get at someone's back. Luckily, I'd wound up running away from the chaos, too far for any of the older students to take advantage.

Pure intuition made me duck and roll when Erica jumped up, kicked off a wall and rebounded up onto my platform, swinging her staff where my chest would have been. I felt the wake of its passage ruffle my hair before coming to my feet and blocking her backhanded blow with both hands firmly on the hilt of the practice sword. Even through the padding, the strength of the blow numbed my hands. Spinning with the momentum, I forced her to dodge a swing of my own that would have hit her chin if she hadn't swayed backwards just in time. This gave me some distance, which was good and bad. Good in that it gave me another moment to form a plan and bad because she had the reach advantage.

Losing patience, Erica charged, thrusting forward with the staff held wide in an attempt to overbear and simple bull her way through me. Bending back, I planted both hands on the platform and performed a backflip, kicking her weapon up into the air and nearly out of her grip. Her momentum carried her forward as I landed on my feet, allowing my knees to buckle as I fell into a crouch. From there, my kendo training kicked in and I executed two swift horizontal strikes to her abdomen. In AR vision, she flashed red, indicating she was in a time out.

"For frag's sake!" Erica growled in frustration.

"Erica!" Diligence snapped from across the room. "Watch the language!"

"Yes, sir," she acknowledged sullenly as she stalked away.

I didn't wait around to watch her altercation with sensei, I was off and running before the first word even came out of her mouth. Dropping down to the lower level, and theoretically out of sight, I followed the AR markers on my HUD to see if I could take someone unawares. Turning a corner just in time to see Vivian barrelling down a long corridor towards me, our eyes widened when we both realized that we were on a collision course. While their was no stopping the momentum, I dropped into a slide, hoping to pass between the troll's legs. Vivian caught on immediately and jumped, lifting both legs high into the air. My practice sword met his short, thick, padded club as both of us took the opportunity to take a swipe on our way past but the blows cancelled each other out. Continuing to run in opposite directions, we shared a quick grin with each other over our shoulders as a kind of salute.

Solomon came out of nowhere a moment later, leaping out from a side corridor, slashing with a practice sword similar to mine once before kicking off the wall opposite to deliver a second slash at my head. I barely parried the first blow and was forced to narrowly duck the second. "Christ, Sol," I swore, taking a petulant and ineffective swipe at him in return, "you could've taken my head off!"

"Go on a date with me and I'll let you score a touch," he offered.

Solomon had been practicing Kendo and other martial arts a lot longer than I had, ever since he was eight in fact. Five years experience versus one showed as we traded blows. With every slash, he gained a step forward while I was forced back the way I'd come. He was relentless, coming at me from every direction, handling the sword with nonchalant ease. Unlike his usual serious expression, he was grinning at me knowingly, thinking he was about to use my pride to bait me into a concession.

"Well, gee, let me think," I said, pretending to consider his proposal seriously for a moment before suddenly dropping onto all fours.

Erica had a lot going for her. Unfortunately, sneaking wasn't one of her fortes. Screaming as she came around the corner, running up the wall to help change direction, her wild swing at me smacked directly into Solomon's chest. She ran straight into him a moment later and the two of them landed together in a heap.

"Gotcha!" Ace shouted as he leapt down from the platform above. That was his big mistake. I rapped him on the wrist with the practice sword hard enough that his dagger-sized implement fell from his numb hand. "OW!" he protested, hopping about as he flashed red in AR.

Erica screamed in fury as she sprung to her feet, brandishing her staff. "Right! You and me, bitch, one on one! This is a formal challenge, I'm going to kick your bony ass here and no...." She stopped in mid sentence when the tip of my sword tapped her on the breastbone, making her immediately flash red. I watched her face turn red with anger until it boiled over. "I WASN'T DONE TALKING!!!"

"If you're going to hit someone, hit them," I snapped, "don't stand there talking about it!" To prove the point, I tapped Solomon on the ankle the moment he stopped flashing red before he even had a chance to take a swipe at me.

Still flashing red, Erica screamed again and let fly, sweeping the staff up in a sudden savage blow. I dodged away from it by reflex, rolling across the floor, but the padded pole flew over my head and struck Ace directly on the chin, knocking him flat. Realizing what she'd done before he'd even hit the ground, Erica dropped her weapon and managed to catch him before he hit his head on the concrete. "Oh my god! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

Ace just groaned, his bell still ringing as his eyes rolled around in their sockets. A sharp whistle pierced the air and all sound ceased. Diligence landed on his feet right next to Erica, kneeling to check on Ace. After a moment, he shook his head. "It'll bruise but he'll be fine. Solomon, get off your ass and find Vivan or Elmo to help you get him to the infirmary, ok? Erica, Naomi, put your weapons back on the rack and follow me."

"Yes, sensei," I muttered, weathering Erica's glare as we walked over to put our practice weapons back in place. Diligence led us away from the obstacle course, up a set of stairs to one of the lower terraces that had been converted into a Zen garden with a small dojo off to one side. It wasn't as grand as the upper garden but it was private and relaxing, even if the serene pool of water was only an AR construct rather than real liquid.

"Sit," sensei ordered, dropping into full lotus as easily as other people might cross their legs. "Erica... what? Just what?"

Erica pointed a finger at me. "She hit me in the middle of my challenge! It wasn't fair!"

Diligence sat in silence for a moment, as if he expected me to add something. When I didn't, Erica seemed to falter a little, unsure whether she should say more or keep her mouth shut. "Was it a legal hit?" he finally asked her.

Her jaw clenched and unclenched for several moments before she flopped back onto her heels, arms falling limply into her lap. "Yes, sensei," she admitted.

"This isn't some stupid Kung Fu sim, kid," he told her evenly, scratching his short beard, "you don't get to give soliloquies before facing off with your nemesis. Now Ace has to pay for your lack of control. Do you have anything to say to that?"

Shame-faced, Erica looked at the ground and shook her head.

"Well, you might want to start with an apology to Ace. But before that, we need to resolve this thing between the both of you. Naomi, what's your problem with Erica?"

I shrugged. "I don't have a problem with her," I answered honestly. "She's a strong fighter, she's more experienced than I am and I respect her enough not to hold back. My only issue with her is that she often behaves like a brat."

"BRAT?!?" Erica shouted, scowling.

"Erica, remain silent and breathe," Diligence ordered sternly. "When you think you can talk without being angry, what's your problem with Naomi?"

"She's... infuriating," she said after a few moments, her pause editing out the swear word she wanted to use. "She hasn't been here a year but she prances about like she owns the course and everyone falls over themselves to be on her side. It's not fair! I worked hard to get here!"

"Yes, you did," Diligence acknowledged in soothing tones. "Naomi, which of the two of you would describe as the better woman in the arena?"

"Simpai Erica," I answered. It hurt my pride to admit it but it was the simple truth. If anything, Erica was even more shocked. "She's more skilled than I am."

"Bulldrek!" Erica snapped, forgetting herself. "You made monkeys out of all of us, don't be so smugly superior and pretending to be all humble in front of him!"

"Erica," I sighed, "all I've got is talent. When it comes to technique, I suck. Solomon and Ace got caught out acting like idiots because... well, they were behaving like idiots. Vivian let me go because he knew I was good bait, I can't take him on if he corners me but we created one heck of a distraction, he probably would have jumped Solomon and Ace if he'd had a chance. I had to run to keep you off balance because sword to staff, I know I haven't got a snowball's chance in hell going toe to toe with you. Yes, I was deliberately baiting you, so really Ace getting hit is as much my fault as it was yours."

"I wouldn't go quite that far," Diligence sighed. "I also wouldn't say your technique 'sucks' but you do have a long way to go. I want you both to consider something else too. Erica, you are a physical adept, Naomi here is a mystic adept. Not only that but those adept powers Naomi has mastered are all of the mind and the heart rather than the body. Despite your massive advantages against her, Erica, you still lost. Naomi acknowledges her weaknesses because she's matured much faster than any girl I've ever met. What weakness do you have that let her win?"

"She's sneakier," Erica growled.

"True observation," Diligence admitted, "but that wasn't my question. This isn't about her, it's about you. I watched you that whole time, you were out for Naomi's blood. That made you careless. Now, I think all three of us know that you're jealous of Naomi. Can you admit that?"

There was a long pause as Erica considered the question. "Yes, sensei," she answered curtly. I found myself letting out a nervous breath that I didn't know I was holding in.

Diligence beamed. "Excellent! Congratulations, Erica, it's a rare person that can admit that to themselves, let alone in front of others. However, I can't have you girls disrupting class like that, so this rivalry has to be placed into perspective so here's what we're going to do. I'm going to leave you both here to sort out your differences for the rest of the morning. When I come back, you'll either be ready to work with each other or I'm dropping you from the class."

Erica's eyes bugged out of her head. I couldn't help but wince. "B-b-b-b-b..." Erica stammered, unable to compose a proper sentence.

"Well, if that's all, I'll leave you girls to it," he said with a grin, hopping lightly to his feet and strolling nonchalantly back through the door. The moment he was gone, Erica jumped to her feet and started to pace, glaring at me out of the corner of her eye. "I just want to get one thing straight between us: I don't like you. You put on airs and prance around like a goddamn queen, like you're so much better than the rest of us! The boy may fall over themselves for you, just don't expect me to put up with your drek!"

Sighing, I stood up. "Look, I'm not trying to put on airs..."

"Oh, shut the hell up!"

"...when you try to provoke me, I ignore you because it's not worth the time and stress of getting into an argument. I'm not sure how I can say it any plainer than I already have: you're the better fighter than me! It'd be stupid to mix it up with you, you're stronger and I've only been at this a year!"

"Bulldrek," she accused, poking me in the collarbone and getting in my face, "you took on me and Solmon and Ace and came out on top. I had reach, you say I have strength and sure you got me on a sucker play but if I was that much better than you I should still have been able to block it. The only thing that disgusts me more than a cocky bitch is a cocky bitch that plays the victim."

I knew what I had to do and what I had to say but internally the idea made me grimace. "You need me to prove to you that you're better? Fine, straight up fight, here and now, first knockdown takes it all. No tricks."

She glared at me. "You'll throw the match."

I scowled in exasperation. "I don't know HOW to throw a match! Look, you want to make extra special sure? Handicap yourself. Turn around, close your eyes and... hell, don't use your hands or something."

"If this is a trick..."

"If this is a trick, I'll match downstairs and quit.

After glaring at me for a while longer, she slowly closed her eyes, turned around and folded her arms across her chest.

Bracing myself, I considered my options. I really wasn't brave enough to get in close to her. Heck, I wasn't brave enough to take her on without a weapon in the first place. Steeling myself for the inevitable pain that would follow, I set myself and executed a perfect and silent back spin kick aimed for her kidneys.

Next think I knew, I was kissing the pavement. Erica had her legs wrapped around my shin in a scissor lock and probably could have broken my knee if she wanted to. As it was, I just writhed and bashed the ground with my palm, desperately tapping for a timeout. "Uncle! Uncle! Uncle! You win, you can stop now!"

She looked a little stunned but finally got the message and let go, allowing me to flop loose and roll onto my back. Reaching down, I rubbed my knee where she'd twisted it, probing it to see if it needed a healing spell. "You ok?" Erica asked me tentatively.

"I'll live," I sighed. Grabbing her forearm, I held it up next to mine to make a point. I'd grown stronger over the last year and developed some muscle but next to hers, my arm looked like a twig. "See? You're way stronger than me. I'm a bit better with a sword but not that much, if I hadn't taken a cheap shot there's no way I would have hit you, senpai."

She blinked at my use of the honorific. Rolling over and springing to her feet, she leant over and offered her hand to help me up. Wordlessly, I took it and let her pull me to my feet. For a frozen moment, we stood, holding hands, staring at each other, a sudden gust of wind tugging our hair. Blinking again, Erica let go of my hand and smiled at me. "If you want, I could show you some moves?" she asked tentatively.

I smiled back. "I'd like that."

linebreak shadow

The fire red Honda-GM 3220 ZX Turbo rolled to a halt outside the garage, the engine's deep rumble sputtering as it died. The driver's door opened and a pair of long, luscious, legs swung out of the cabin, carefully placing two light blue-grey high heels down between a puddle of unnameable liquid and a small pile of refuse. A curvaceous body with an almost impossibly thin waistline followed, clad in a Zoe one piece skirt suit that matched her shoes. Shaking out her golden locks, she cringed at the repugnant smell that filled he air before remembering to hold her rebreather over her delicate nose and large, pouty, lips. Slamming the door behind her, she stalked over to the side door and bashed the only part of it that wasn't covered in rust.

Raven opened the door for her immediately, smiling as she reached out to embrace the taller woman. "Hey, Madeline," she greeted, all but batting her eyelashes as she fished for a kiss.

Madeline put her free hand in the way, blocking her. "Ewww, Raven. You're covered in dry mud and... god knows what else."

Raven looked down at herself and blushed. "Oh, uh, yeah, I fell in a puddle. It's a long story, come on in."

Stepping inside, Madeline deigned to lean far over so Raven could give her a kiss on the cheek before she continued on. What she saw made her stop and stare. Dark Shadow and Steel Machine sat in the remains of shipping boxes, open letters and what had once been the contents. Shadow was holding something in his hand that was hard to describe but it seemed to be made of green plastic and springs. Steel Machine was holding what looked like a doll, still in its box. Sparky was wiping his oily hands on an oilier rag as he considered a dented bumper bar sitting on his workbench, though he spared Madeline a shy glance.

Not caring about the smell anymore, Madeline lowered her mask and shook her head. "What the frag is all this?"

"We hit Sydney Post," Dark Shadow explained proudly, holding up the thing in his hand. "Look at this drek! I have NO idea what it is! It's probably some... secret corporate experiment! Yeah, must be."

"What are you, nine?" Raven asked with a scowl, slamming the door shut and throwing the bolt. "It's just some stupid garden ornament or toy or something."

He snorted in disbelief. "Come on, who'd want something this ugly on their lawn?"

"QUIET!" Madeline shouted, shocking everyone into stillness. The air itself seemed to get heavy with tension as the blonde made an effort to calm herself. "All right," she said with forced evenness, "one of you please explain to me why you hijacked the post. Please?"

"Uh... well last night," Dark Shadow began slowly, "after work... we went to the pub. Nigel and I had some drinks..."

"Machine! My name is Steel Machine, damn it!"

"...but it was only one or two, I swear! Anyway, the pub's just across from the post office and I said to Machine here, didn't I? I said there must be a bunch of stuff worth something in those vans if someone's willing to pay for it to be moved from A to B. The more we thought about it, the better the idea sounded...."

"I thought you were insane," Raven interrupted.

"YOU were the one that said you knew a fence!"

"I bloody well did not you cheeky bugger!"

"PLEASE?" Madleine interjected, stopping the argument before it could make her headache worse. "So you get a bright idea. Hijack a postal van bring everything back here and then what?"

"Hey, it wasn't easy," Shadow protested," we were waiting for one of those vans to roll past all bloody night! SOMEONE... that shall remain nameless... said they knew a fence. We don't quite know who. But as it turns out, nobody knows a fence. So we thought we'd see what we were dealing with, I mean someone out there has to want some of this crap, right?"

Steel Machine held up the doll in the clear plastic box he was holding. "Who the hell stocks, much less buys, a 'My First Voodoo Doll' set? It even says it's a fucking educational toy, right here! 'Start your pre-awakened child on the path of the Loa and teach them the basics of sympathetic magic today!' There's a whole box of these drekky things!"

"Talismongers, duh," Raven said, rolling her eyes. "There's boxes and boxes of the same sort of tourist crap. Hell, there's even some of those 'finding the elven soul' chips in all this lot. Wonder if they ever get anyone off the street asking for books on finding the orkish soul?"

"We can just thank all our lucky stars none of you idiots knew a fence," Madeline snarled. "This crap, and I mean ALL this crap, is totally fucking worthless."

"Awww, come on, don't be like that," Shadow whined. "You're in retail, right Mad? You must have contacts, you've gotta get your goods from somewhere!"

Madeline raised her eyebrow at him. "Yeah, I get my goods from somewhere: fragging corporate suppliers! The LEGAL kind! The only kind you can sell at retail because the contracts say nothing goes out the door without a fragging RFID tag. Ok, ok, I'm sure there are some dodgy retailers but FYI no, I don't know a fence, I can't move this drek for us and even if I could, I wouldn't."

Shadow looked confused. "Huh? Why not? Sparky's got a HERF gun out back, Raven and reprogram the RFIDs..."

"You stole from Sydney Post," Madeline interrupted. "Nobody frags with Sydney Post! It's a fragging death sentence!"

Machine scoffed. "What're they gonna do? Go postal on us?"

Everyone glared at him.

"Pop quiz," Madeline said, changing tack. "Who runs all the smuggling in and out of Sydney?"

Sparky raised his hand like he was a kid in primary school. "Oooh! I know that one! The Triads!"

"Thank you, Sparky. See, even the group retard knows that one," Madeline bitched, making Sparky hang his head and shy away. "Now, why do the Triads have a lock on smuggling?"

Raven sighed, replying in a bored monotone. "Because they're in bed with Wuxing and Wuxing has all the shipping contracts and owns or part-owns every mail and courier service in the city."

"No way," Machine denied, shaking his head. "KE would have their balls for breakfast if they tried that drek."

"The Knight couldn't find their own balls with an entire forensic team," Madeline rebuked. "Besides, there's this little thing called extraterritoriality? You might have heard of it, it was kinda a big deal fifty years ago. Wuxing ships the ill-gotten goods, the Triads sell it off... are you starting to see the picture? The only way to sell all this drek would be by smuggling it out of the country... which we can't do because all the smuggling is controlled by the Triads, even if it was worth it. What you have hijacked, ladies and gentlemen, is a bunch of completely worthless crap whose only real use is getting us all skinned alive!"

To punctuate her point, Madeline threw the doll onto the floor. Machine winced, absently rubbing his hip when he saw the doll's side had split open. "There has to be some way to move it," Shadow insisted stubbornly, "we've just got to think out of the box and get creative."

Sighing, Madeline put her hands on her hips. "Fine, the talismonger crap is worthless, might as well destroy it. There might be something valuable somewhere that's worth the risk of getting it out of Australia, like telesma or jewellery. If you're smart, though, you'll just burn it all and forget it ever happened. Come on, Raven, we're late."

Shadow looked up as Raven went to throw the deadbolt again. "What, you're just gonna leave us holding the bag like this?"

"I'm going to see the biosculpter," Raven informed, sounding exasperated. "Madeline and I made the appointment six fraggin' months ago, remember?"

Shadow blinked. "Why the frag you going to see a hacksaw?"

"This particular 'hacksaw' is a world renowned bio-cosmetic enhancement artist," Madeline enunciated prissily. "Jean Phillip gave me the body of my dreams, now he's going to do the same for Raven."

With that, the girls flounced out of the room, slamming the door behind them. Machine spat on the floor with a snarl. "Fraggin' bitch," he swore, shaking his head and rubbing his arm in sync. "Why do we put up with that corp whore, man? What are these Triads fraggin' psychic or somethin'?"

Shadow shrugged. "Or something. Sure, that whole line about the Triads controlling every smuggling operation and postal service in the whole city is total bulldrek but let's face it, you're not exactly unbiased when it comes to KE."

"Hey, last I checked KE was Ares and Ares is the only corp out there actually taking the fight to the bugs and the shedim and all the other monsters out there that wants to suck out our souls! I know the truth; I saw it on the trid!"

Shadow shook his head. The tragedy was, Machine was serious. "Whatever you say, chummer. Either way, I know there has to be somebody out there who will pay for this stuff if only...." Trailing off, Dark Shadow was suddenly struck by an idea. It was an idea so elegant in its simplicity that he wasn't surprised it had gone over everyone else's heads. Shooting to his feet, he whooped triumphantly, punching the air in enthusiasm. "I've got it! It's so fragging simple! Machine, stay sitting right there, I'm about to blow your mind!"

"Oh-kay," Machine replied skeptically.

"No, no, no, I mean it. It'll be like atomic fusion only inside your skull when you hear this. There IS someone out there who wanted all this drek! The people it was being sent to! All we have to do is ransom it back to them! We even have their addresses and everything right here!"

Machine stared at him, slack-jawed. "Dude, that's... that's..."

"Retarded?" Sparky suggested.

"...BRILLIENT!" he finished, jumping to his feet. "There must be thousands of nuyen worth of merchandise here! And they'll be desperate for their goods so they'll pony up at least a percentage!"

"Exactly! Better a little bit of profit than nothing at all, that goes for both us and them," Shadow pontificated, beaming proudly. "Sparky! Get your ass into gear and get that car roadworthy, it's payday!"

linebreak shadow

>>>>> [Just a quick announcement, Bruces and Bruce-ettes. Our local underworld historian, The Other Bruce, will be online to give a lecture on the history of the Triads in Australia. In particular, he will be speaking on the topic of Triad links to Wuxing and how together they've managed to acquire and hold a monopoly in the city's smuggling operations for the last thirty years. Stay tuned, the lecture begins at 22:00 but you can download the reading materials from the bulletin board to get a jump start. The lecture itself is 100¥ a head, tea and biscuits will be served at 21:30. Spots are limited so get in early.]<<<<<
- Ned

Read 6124 times Last modified on Sunday, 15 August 2021 04:41

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