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Shadows and Dust

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A ShadowRun™ Novel

Shadows and Dust

By E. E. Nalley


7 October 2003

This novel is dedicated to Tim, who was critical without criticizing, and probably won’t be famous any other way.
Thank You


Dramatis Personae:
VictoriaGhost Wolf” Laughing Crow:A Native American Raven Shaman of the Cheyenne Nation, currently a professional criminal living in Seattle.
Stefan “Stone Fist” Reynolds: A talented computer programmer and martial artist from Iowa. Victoria’s main love interest.
Jonathan “Streak” Stilman:An Elfin Hermetic Mage from Tir Tairngire. Considered by Victoria to be her ‘little brother’, though not of blood.
Maria “Monk” Constagri: Former solider of United Canadian and American States, now a gun for hire or ‘Street Samurai’ based out of Seattle. An Ork of Italian Catholic decent.
Brian “Booster” Gorden: Professional Wheel Man and Vehicle ‘Rigger’ who is friendly with Victoria. A Dwarf from Georgia.
Officer Frederick “Dutch” Raymond:Uniformed Patrol Officer with Lone Star Private Police Services.
Officer Amanda “Skittles” Suttles: ‘Dutch’s’ partner in Lone Star.
EverettProvan-Gordon:Executive Vice President of Ares Macro Technology, European Union Division. Hopeful for promotion to Senior Executive Vice President of the firm.
Elyssa Bryant:Professional ‘Ms. Johnson’, a middle woman between professional corporate spies, and the firms that employ them.
Jackson Iron Cloud: Victoria’s father and Vice President of Iron Prairie Computer Systems.
ElizabethLittle Hawk:Victoria’s mother and Jackson’s Executive Assistant.
Oliver Lange:Senior Executive Vice President hopeful of Ares Macro Technology and Everett’s rival for the position.
George Standing Tall:A Native American Spider Shaman and Victoria’s Mentor.
Geoffrey Black Bear:A Native American and President of Iron Prairie Computer Systems. Jackson’s boss.
The Green Russian’:Proprietor of the Green Russian’s Tea Room and a ‘fixer’ of problems in the Seattle Underworld.
Jason Saunders:A security guard at the West Tech Auburn Facility.
Raven:Victoria’s Totem Spirit. Known to the Cheyenne as Pathfinder, Trickster, Teller of Secrets and Transformer.
The Dweller on the Threshold:A Free Spirit who guards the Higher Planes of Reality in Astral Space. Conscience given voice and form.
Nipper”:A Coyote Shaman from Boston, Massachusetts, UCAS, living in Seattle. Victoria’s Partner in Practical Jokes at the Magical Order they both belong to.
Anastasia:A Tiger Shaman from the Ukraine of Old Russian Aristocracy. Head Shaman of the Magical Order Victoria belongs to.
Big Sam”:A would be bar owner and ‘fixer’ of problems in the Seattle Underworld. Friends with Victoria.

A man must be on constant vigilance, lest his morals be stripped away, and all that remain are Shadows And Dust.”- Marcus Arrileus, ‘Collected Thoughts on Manhood’

Chapter One:

I hate being covered in blood.

I try not to hate very much in life, but I’ve never been fond of blood. Not the deep red color of it, or the metallic taste, and especially not the smell. Blood on its own doesn’t smell nice, but blood soaked buck skin smells awful. I suppose I should get used to the sight and smell of blood, after all, with any luck, before the year was out I’d be dealing with my own blood once a month. But that happy day wasn’t here yet and this blood I was covered in wasn’t mine.

For that, I suppose, I should be thankful, but I was weary and filthy and could only muster up the thanks that I was home and relatively safe for the moment. I leaned against my front door and palmed the lock to ‘Do Not Disturb For Any Reason’ and breathed a small sigh of relief as I pondered how to get to my bath room while doing the least amount of damage to the area rug over my front room slash office slash foyer.

Exhaustion and the direct approach won out.

I crossed the small twelve by fourteen room that was cluttered with too much technology and too little furniture to the bathroom beyond it down the short hallway. As I went, I pulled off the genuine buckskin Secure Jacket and wondered absently if it would ever come clean without destroying the Kevlar body armor sewn into it or would I have to fork out 900¥ to replace it. I laid it over the tub rail and stripped off the black halter that was under it when the smell and the confined space worked their magic against me and I promptly emptied my already empty stomach into the toilet.

Being sick while wearing body armor is not and should never be high on anyone’s to-do list. The constriction, coupled with the contractions, made a miserable experience that much worse. As I wretched I grabbed at the Velcro strapping holding it to me and threw it out into the hall in frustration and wildly conflicting emotions.

“Fan on full!” I barked hoarsely to the speaker in the wall. The House Maid computer silently complied and soon the smell began to abate somewhat as I knelt before the porcelain alter. After a moment I was able to flush the remnants of my sickness away while I wiped at my mouth with some paper. My poor, overloaded senses were far too abused to protest as the bile was added to the cacophony assaulting my mind.

I stretched causing my back to pop, which thus far had been about the only thing to go right tonight. I worked my hands behind me to unclasp my bra, sending it to keep my bullet proof vest company. I felt a tear make its journey down my face and wiped furiously at it. No matter how much a good cry would make me feel, I knew deep down it was time I didn’t have.

The vibration I felt against my hip told me to work my cell phone from it’s keeper on my Futility Belt. I flipped the phone open, turned it on and barely heard my distant, “Yes?” The voice on the other end was crisp, even sounding clean with its slight English accent, making me feel that much dirtier.

“Is this line secure?”

“No,” I whispered once more, hoping that a lack of volume would conceal the emotion I was sure was clouding my voice.

“Do you have the item?”

“There’s been a complication, but yes.”

“When can I see you to discuss this complication?”

“Tomorrow at the same time and place,” I told the voice. The line clicked leaving me alone once more. This time I was able to master my rage and did not throw my phone to join my vest and bra. Instead I placed it back into its keeper while I woodenly removed the heavy belt from my waist, only slightly impeded by the tie down straps around both of my thighs; one for my bowie knife on my left, the other for the Ruger Super War Hawk on my right.

Most of the belt’s weight came from the heavy barreled revolver, but several other items shared the blame with the War Hawk. The phone, my PDA, handcuffs as well as a few other pouches whose contents were not so readily identifiable all made sure their contributions were known. I put the belt on top of the pile of armor and under wear then closed the bathroom door.

Next to go were my tactical boots and the probably ruined leather pants. Out of habit I closed the stopper in the sink to begin making a pile of jewelry beside it. Not that I wore a great deal of jewelry, but the raven’s feather I wore in my hair and it’s mate attached to an ear ring on my left ear wouldn’t survive the shower.

I met my own gaze in the mirror and realized what a horrid sight I was. Yesterday was my twenty fifth birthday, but the half woman that stared back at me looked so much older. My jet black hair was pulling from the braid I had it in down to the middle of my back. Wisps of strains began again to frame my round dusky face which was dominated by two weary looking dark eyes that were working over time to age me even further.

My bosom was fairly regular while being ample enough, if the nipple ring I wore in the left damaged some of the symmetry. I was getting more and more proud of my figure, but pride was an emotion I couldn’t hold on to and catching sight of my shame between my legs put a stop to further self admiration.

I moved the jacket with its leather fringe work sticking together with the drying blood to the toilet. I turned the shower on as hot as I felt as I could stand and did my best to wash my sins away. I’m not sure how long I stood in a daze being beaten on by scalding water, but it was starting to go cold when I finished scrubbing the drying blood away so only the filth below the skin was left.

I fumbled the water off, stood dripping for a moment, then practicality won out and I snatched a towel from the rack and began to rub myself clean none too gently. I padded into the land fill masquerading as my bedroom to find a pair of sweat pants and a shirt which didn’t match to cover myself with.

I may not love myself, but it was time to give some love to those things which kept me breathing. The vest I got from the floor, returned it to its hanger and back into the closet. The bra and halter got kicked to join their mates on the floor of the land fill. I hefted the Futility Belt to cock it over my shoulder while I retrieved the Secure Jacket and the pants and stuffed them into the auto cleaner by the kitchen. “Coffee,” I ordered the House Maid as I passed through to the kitchen table where I deposited the belt.

Next to it was quickly piled the cleaning supplies for the revolver, then I walked into the kitchen to start preparing for the coming coffee.

I cut a lot of corners and try to save money where ever I can, but coffee isn’t one of them. The soy based bilge the Save-A-Lot down the street passes off as coffee couldn’t pass for it on its best day and coffee’s worse I was brewed at the gas station twelve days ago. I may not be a native of Seattle, but the natives have taught me that one never skimps on coffee. After a short wait, I had a positive smell to soothe my overworked senses with. After adding Milk and sugar that first warm sip was doing it’s best to calm my raw throat I began to feel almost human. Almost.

My bare feet brought me back to the kitchen table where I removed the revolver from its holster to carefully empty it; the clatter of the bullets and three empty shell casings loud in my quiet suburban apartment. What would the neighbors think? I joked to myself. How many times had I chuckled, wondering what my oh so conservative neighbors would think if they knew the Native American girl down the hall wasn’t an up and coming secretary like I had told the land lord. Or a girl completely, come to that?

I noticed that the phone keeper was vibrating again so I removed it and turned it on once more. “Your nickel,” I told who ever was on the other end.

“Ghost where the hell have you been?” demanded the strident voice of Big Sam, would be bar tender and resident Fixer of jobs and deeds best spoken of in whispers and shadows.

“Shower,” I grunted, in no mood to be grilled over the colossal goat screw this night had been.

“Girl, you’re in it deep this time. It’s all over the news and the net. What the fuck happened?”

“Keep your shirt on, Sam; you’ll get your ten percent. I’ve already spoken with ‘Mr. Johnson’ to meet at your place tomorrow.”

He sighed and I’m sure picked up on the weariness in my voice. “Bad?” he asked.

“Put the word out that I’m looking for a new razor boy, would you? And Sam, don’t ever set me up with a rookie again. I’m not a trainer, and I don’t have time to teach.”

There was a pause. “It’s cool, Ghost Wolf. I appreciate the favor. Is Switchblade going to make it?”

Some times it doesn’t pay to have a conscience in this business. “He’s at Doc Wagon’s Valley Medical Center trauma unit on the edge of Renton and Fairwood. He’ll make it, Sam, but I don’t think he’s cut out for this kind of work. I paid off my account.”

“I’ll make it up to you, Ghost, I promise.”

“Score me some Jamaican Blue Mountain and we’ll call it even. I’m taking a couple of weeks off once I settle with Mr. Johnson; I’ll let you know when I’m available again.”

“I’ll be in touch,” he said before the line went dead.

For twenty minutes I was able to lose myself in the task of cleaning the revolver after dropping the spent casings into the incinerator. Then the War Hawk was cleaned, oiled, reloaded and returned to its safe then I was alone with myself again. To avoid thinking about what a horrible person I’d become, I cleaned the apartment, making sure I got all the blood drops and going back over it with Luminal to be certain. My second piece of good news was that I hadn’t dripped any blood on the geometric rug my great grandmother had woven that covered my front room.

I already can’t forgive myself, but if I’d had to destroy a family heirloom I’d most likely have to do something drastic. Not able to put it off any longer, I sank into my couch and clicked on the wall unit to the news service. The evening’s festivities were now reduced to a two minute blurb that was the sixth story from the top of the hour.

Oh well, that’s life in the big city.

Satisfied that what ever company had won the police contract for the Seattle Metroplex this month wouldn’t be kicking in my door tonight, I turned off the unit as I wearily made my way to bed, wondering what the morning had in store. I already knew what the rest of the night offered. It sucks having the same dream every night.

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I was ten the night my world came unraveled. My father and mother thought I was safely in bed when they had the conversation with George Standing Tall. When someone says Native American to you, I'd be willing to bet that George Standing Tall is the vision that appears in your mind. He was everything I wasn’t; tall, broad shouldered and barrel chested. His long black hair was going gray even then, and I’m all but certain even he wasn’t sure what his age was, but he was one of those men who never seem to age. George weathered well is perhaps the best description I can give of him. I remember how quietly envious I was of him with his thick arms that dripped sinew and a grace that was unnaturally easy for him. His totem was Spider and it was well suited to him for his patience was legendary, even with such a poor student as I was.

At that point of my life I’d been studying magic with George, our little hamlet on the Reservations resident Shaman and teacher of the Tradition, for a week or so over a year. I thought I was doing pretty well, but that day I had had the greatest single shock of my young life. That day George had shown me how to project my soul from my body, into Astral Space.

For the sake of those who have been living on a deserted island in the sunny south Pacific for the last fifty years or so, let me explain that the Wheel of Life had turned back in 2011 bringing magic roaring back into the world with a vengeance. It was a God Send to my people as we’d taken back a fair chuck of what used to be the Midwest United States that weren’t so united any more. So now, what used to be the States from Washington to North Dakota south to Oklahoma and New Mexico and west to Nevada and Oregon was now collectively known as the Native American Nations.

For my self, I hailed from the Sioux Nation which stretched from its quarter of Denver through Nebraska and north to what used to be Wyoming. I was born in Cheyenne General Hospital, which was rather poetic as I am a member of the Cheyenne Nation, even if we didn’t have enough people to form our own Geographic Nation.

Anyway, I was crouched quietly on the stairs leading up to my room looking between the banisters down into the kitchen trying to find out why everyone was so upset about my first trip into Astral Space, but, more importantly, was I going to be punished for it.

“There must be some mistake George,” my father Jackson Iron Cloud, was saying, something akin to panic in his normally steady voice. What he was being told was so far out side the world view of a computer executive it just wasn’t sinking in. That made two of us. “I’d be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand the Tradition, but I have a son, not a daughter.”

George sighed with the patience of a saint before starting again. “Jackson, your child has the physical body of a son, but the soul of a daughter. She went Astral with me today, so I know what I’m talking about. The further she goes in the Tradition the more trouble it’s going to cause her.”

“Stop calling him a her,” thundered my father. I remember being impressed; no one took that tone of voice with George.

“Denial is going to make this far more difficult than it needs to be,” fired back George. “Your son in body has the soul of a young woman. As she gets older this paradox could be the undoing of her mind. You must put your faith in me as I help her through this or you won’t have a child at all!”

“You want to make a girl of my boy, is that it?” shouted my father, his boundless rage once more obscuring the cool, reflective mind that had served him so well in business. “I’ll disown him first! Get out of my house, you old pervert!”

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I awoke once again in a cold sweat and sighed. Maybe now I could get some sleep as the nightly ritual was over. But the questions of today lingered like a bad odor, promising further stink in the morning.

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Chapter Two

The morning brought with it its usual bout of regret and self loathing as I crawled from my covers and struggled to jump start my mind. I stumbled through the land fill to dig about in my chest of drawers for some reasonably clean foundational garments so as to get ready for my day. I made do with a University of Seattle sweat shirt with a pair of comfortable jeans as I padded still bare foot into the kitchen to get the coffee going. As I drank in the wholesome smell, the very seldom used video phone in the front room began to beep. I brought the first cup with me as I sat down at the desk that dominated the room to be in turn dominated by the over flowing technology on in and around it.

The caller ID stated it was my mother, I should have realized I had to pay for my sin as I took the call. “Good morning mother,” I greeted as cheerfully as I could, my free hand booting up the scrambler to make the call secure.

“You look terrible,” was her greeting, her normally full mouth pulled into a frown of disapproval. I smiled as sweetly as I could while I wrapped my free hand around my left leg that I pulled up in a most unladylike manner.

“Thanks, you’re looking perfect as always.”

“Don’t sass me, Victoria. I’m not above driving out to Seattle to take you over my knee.”

“Sorry mom,” I mumbled around the coffee cup. The caffeine worked its magic and my mind started working again. “I’m guessing this isn’t a social call?” I prompted.

“I saw the news, was any of that you?”

I forced a long suffering sigh. The less my mother knew about the monster her only son come daughter had become, the less she’d have to needle me over. “Not every thing that happens in Seattle is my fault mother.”

“Oh?” she asked working up to a gold medal guilt trip. “Are there many Amerindian shamans that break into and out of corporate compounds in the middle of the night while half destroying the place with magic and bullets?”

“More than our share,” I quipped.

“I am glad to hear that no one was killed.”

“So am I.” I affirmed, and I actually was. To me, a perfect night at work is one that doesn’t involve alarms blaring followed by running gun battles over a mile and a half. The security guard I’d put two Armor Piercing Discarding Sabots into must be a tough son of a bitch to have lived through that. Good for him. Mother sighed with great long suffering.

“Your father won’t even watch the international news any more. It’s always about Seattle and usually about those people you call your friends. How much longer are you going to put us through this, Vicki?”

“They’re not my friends, mother, truth be told I really don’t have any friends. If they happen to be in my line of work, that’s not my fault, is it? And I’ll be putting you through this until I have the money I need. You and dad could have kept me out of this, but we both know dad’s feelings on this, don’t we?”

I wouldn’t have thought it possible for her mouth to get any smaller. “I might be able to accept the mutilation you decided to put yourself through, but expecting us to pay for it is quite another matter, young lady.”

“Then don’t give me grief on what I have to do to become who I am inside,” I fired back. “You think I enjoy this? You think this is one big thrill don’t you? Come walk a mile in my boots mother and you won’t ever complain about the corporate life style again. On your bad day, you don’t get a promotion: on mine people die.”

She humped in indignation, looked past the camera and then back. “I didn’t call to criticize you, Vicki. You father has a Strategy and Planning meeting in Seattle next week for work and he’s bringing me as a long over due vacation once the meeting is over. I wanted to know if you wanted to get together with us while we were there.”

I nearly spilled my very expensive, precious coffee. “You and dad want to meet me?” She looked past the camera again, but this time dad came into its range, looking very dapper in his starched and pressed executive uniform. This morning was dark charcoal and pin stripes with red geometric power tie that matched the handkerchief and doubtlessly the suspenders I was sure he was wearing as well.

“Good morning, Victoria,” he said very stiffly.

The leg I’d been holding in the chair I quickly set back on the floor and sat a little more straight. “Dad, you’re looking great today. Big meeting?”

Jackson Iron Cloud was the Senior Executive Vice President of Iron Prairie Computer Systems. Ok they weren’t the biggest computer company in the world, but they had the best tech and all the new bells and whistles coming out of U of Cheyenne. “Just some last minute details before the S&P meeting next week. We were planning to do some Christmas shopping, taking in the sights and, yes, we’d both like to spend some time with you.”

My mouth opened and closed several times before my brain could process what I’d just been told. For the first time in nearly six years my father was speaking in a civil tone to me and actually wanted to meet me in person and spend time with me. Finally my brain got with the program. “Of course I want to show you guys around. When do you get in? How are you coming?”

I saw his eyes flick down to the status display to make sure the line was secure. Give me some credit dad. “We’ll be arriving on Monday the Eleventh of October. We’ll be flying on the company’s Gulf Stream into Seattle-Tacoma International. That’s not far from where you’re living, is it?”

“Renton Municipal would be closer. They can handle a Gulf Stream, but I can go to SEA-TAC if you want.” He looked thoughtful for a moment; that gave me a few more seconds to process why my father was reversing the silent policy he’d held for nearly six years.

“Maybe it would be better to come into Renton. You’re living there? How difficult is it to go from there to our facility downtown?”

“The only difficulty is decided how you want to go, land, air or water?”

He nodded, still thoughtful. “Good, multiple accesses will be better. Will you be meeting us at the air port?” I nodded. “I expect we’ll be coming in about one, if that changes I’ll have your mother call you.”

“Ok, dad, it will be great to see you both again.”

His eyes bore lasers into me. “Did you mean what you told your mother, that this,” he paused as he always did when he talked about something he didn’t approve of, “lifestyle of yours is only until you can finish paying for…what you need?”

“Yes sir,” I responded, not sure where this was going.

“How much more do you need?”

“Umm, hang on and I’ll pull up my spread sheet.” A little alarm was going off in my mind as I brought up Excel Deck Pro Version and fed it the passwords it wanted to get at the books I tried not to look at without crying. “I have one more payment of five million nuyen to the research company. That will pay for the beta testing, then the cost of the surgery itself, which is twenty five thousand.”

His lip curled in distaste, but his tone stayed professional. “Does your agreement with the company allow for outside investment?” Again I nodded. “Iron Prairie Computer may be interested in investing to about that amount. Bring the research documents and the prospectus with you when you meet us. Ifthe company covers this, how long will the beta test be?”

“Six months.” He was surprised

“A six month test for a biowear this invasive?”

“Well, they’ve been developing this for five years. Most of the bugs are out.”

He nodded again. “Alright, once this is done, I’ve spoken with Geoffrey Black Bear about the serious lack of a Magical Security Director on the board. Is that a position you would consider?”

My jaw hit the floor and started crawling its way to the door. My father was putting his reputation with the CEO on the line to get this freak daughter a job with his company. Ten full seconds passed before I could catch my jaw and make it start working again. “Uh, sure, I mean of course I would! But, I thought…”

“Never mind the past; I would like to start over, Victoria. You’re our child, and as much as I may think you’ve made a colossal mistake, I am very proud of how you’ve handled yourself and gone after what you wanted. I need to get into the office, but we’ll talk more Monday. Good bye, Victoria.”

“Bye dad.”

I stared at the black screen for a minute longer as the conversation ran around in my mind and I still couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Finally I realized this wouldn’t make any sense until he’d read the prospectus and we’d talked for some time in person. My eyes wondered back to the spread sheet that had been my life for five years. On it was a detailed list of every crime I’d committed for hire to come up with fifty five million nuyen. As my eyes recalled my evils of selfish need, I began, again, to wonder if they had been worth their cost.

Was all of this worth being a real woman, able to menstruate and bear children?

I’m sure you’re a bit confused about all of this. After all, it’s 2060 and medical science has come so far with the ability to replace lost limbs that were hundreds of times better than the original. Cybernetics had already defeated blindness, deafness, quadriplegics along with a host of other ills. And yes, Gender Re-Assignment Surgery had ridden those coat tails too. Every candidate wouldn’t have to worry about their new vagina closing up, or lubricating properly or even being sexually satisfying. Hell, most OB-GYNs couldn’t tell the difference from a New Woman from a Genetic Woman without a Sonogram. But they weren’t complete women and they would never be mothers.

And I knew that for some perverse reason, Raven had put this unquenchable desire in me to be a mother.

Oh, I guess I should have said sooner, but if you haven’t pieced all this together yet, I am a Shaman, and Raven the Trickster is my totem. As such my life is one big, cosmic joke. As usual when I got in this mood, I flipped the spread sheet over to the five year profit and loss prospectus. In it’s columns I saw the orphanage I would build to help ease the burden of all the sin that had caused this, and the tears of joy of my sisters who could finally stop living a lie and start living. Of course the nice house and car it would also buy helped too.

Hey, I try to be altruistic, but I’m just as human as the next girl.

I closed the spread sheet with a somewhat trembling hand. I still had a job to finish up and the goat screw last night not with standing, something was rotten in Denmark. Mr. Johnson, as they always did, had played up what an easy job this was going to be for a simple research data steal.

Nobody guards research that heavy unless it’s more than a quote ‘a promising new prototype’ unquote. I got up to refill my coffee and got the data chip that was about an inch square that held my purloined copy of the research data. Coffee to my liking, I went back to the desk and fed the chip into the reader of my off line box to see what I could see.

What I saw I didn’t like.

Of course, like you, I’ve read about 401K bit encryption, but looking at in the flesh made my skin crawl. I may not be a hard core computer Decker, but I keep up with the trade enough to know this was suddenly way out of my league and well beyond what I’d been led to believe.

Both of which meant I was in so much Drek.

Another trip to the kitchen got my work phone and PDA. I retrieved the number I wanted to feed it into the phone. It picked up on the third ring. “Hey Vicki, what’s shaking?”

“Stef, can you secure the line on your end please?” There was a series of clicks before his voice came back.

“What’s up?”

It isn’t everyone you give your real name to in this line of work. Most of the people in my circle know me only as Ghost Wolf. But Stefan was different. I’ve always been pretty good on reading people, which made me good in this biz and I knew that Stefan was a genuinely decent human being. It didn’t hurt that he was a major hunk either, for an Anglo. “You got anything that will break 401K?”

His tone changed at once. “What the fuck do you have that has 401K on it?”

I chuckled. “I don’t know, it’s encrypted.”

“Wise ass. Ok, I might have some thing that can break it. How soon do you need it?”

“Mr. Johnson expects delivery tonight.”

“Don’t they always. Ok, I’m free now, come on over.”

“See ya in thirty.”

After hanging up, I scrambled back into the land fill to find some out fit that would send just the right mix of professional and take me now you stud muffin. Hey, a girl doesn’t want to send the wrong message…

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Exactly fifty four minutes later I was climbing off my tired, but well loved 2014 Edition Indian Chief. From the outside the five acre compound posed as a private mansion. As it was settled in miles like it within the very fashionable Hunts Point area of the Belleview Zone of the Seattle Metroplex it keep up that illusion rather well. What it actually was was the headquarters of the Children of the Naked Eye, the magical Initiate Order to which Stefan and I belonged. I would have preferred a dress, or at least a skirt, but neither was particularly suited for riding a motorcycle. With my current cash situation I couldn’t afford anything else. So I’d settled for a fairly tight pair of jeans with a peasant type blouse which had a lightly boned ‘corset’ attached to it for effect. And the effect it gave to my bosom was spectacular. This was topped off with boots and my helmet hadn’t totally destroyed the casual, wind blown look I was going for with my hair.

As I got my purse from my saddle bags, I heard the familiar nasal twang of a thick Boston accent I knew all too well. “Well, if it isn’t the Squaw riding the Chief.”

I did my best not to smile, but failed miserably. No matter how many times Nipper used that line, I still snickered at it. My purse over my shoulder, I turned to greet her, but I was surprised to find a frown on her face. Nipper was around my age; her pale face was framed in brilliant red hair I had always been envious of. I took a half step back from my fellow practical jokers ire. “What’s wrong, Jenn?” I asked in concern.

“Nice frame job you pulled on me,” she spat. “I just spent an hour getting my ass chewed by Annie over you dumping a bucket of water on her new fox fur coat!”

I chuckled as I rubbed her shoulders in consolation. I discreetly pointed out to her the other magicians of the Order who were giving us both a wide birth. “Look on the bright side, Jennifer,” I soothed her. “Your reputation is through the roof now. Every other mage and shaman here is living in fear of your long arm.” She considered this for a moment as I laid out the icing on this cake. “Besides, it wasn’t water; it was black light florescent dye.”

I left her to her guffaws as I walked briskly into the Manner, nodding a greeting to the other magicians I knew as I made my to Stefan’s apartment.

Technically, I had an apartment here too, but I’ve always been too much of a loner to be comfortable living with so many people. I kept some spare clothes and what nots here, having had to spend the night here more than once, but I still kept my place in Renton and did most of my living there. I hoped it gave me a mysterious, alluring air to Stefan.

Now, I’m not giving away any great secret by telling you that Magic doesn’t work the way you see it on the Trideo. If you’re blessed or cursed with the ‘Gift’ you’ll fall into one of three paths (that I know of anyway) which are Hermetic Mage, your classic English Merlin type. Or you might find yourself talking to an animal that talks back that nobody else can see, congratulations, Chummer, you’re a Shaman just like yours truly; or you’re schizophrenic, take your pick. Then there’s the third path that a number of people over look being the ‘quiet’ magic; the Physical Adept. You might have picked up one of those classic films at the Blockbuster one night when you’d already seen all the new stuff and were in the mood for something classic. If you had, you might have picked up something with Chow Yung Fat or Jackie Chan or Jet Li in it. It’s theorized that magic actually started coming back in the eighties and nineties of the last century and these men were some of the first Physical Adepts.

Of course, Magic doesn’t follow any kind of racial or historical lines, yes there are Hermetic Mages on the Res and Shamans running around Jolly Olde England and Stefan the White Boys White Boy was a Physical Adept. Stefan was thirty, about six four and had to have most of his clothes custom made. It’s not every clothing maker that builds around a physique that includes a forty eight inch chest over a thirty eight inch waist with thighs that are twenty eight inches around. Add to that incredible body a shaggy page boy hair cut the color of straw in late fall and the lantern jawed rugged good looks of a farm boy and, well, you can certainly understand my interest.

Stefan was a computer programmer or would be ‘Decker’ by trade, and had gotten a Data Jack installed in his head so he could mentally interface with his computer before his ‘Gift’ had manifested. All Magicians of every flavor must eschew the use of cybernetics and cyberwear for the interference it gives us in the flow of magic. But this was already said and done once he’d bloomed, thanks to the ‘Gift’, from a scrawny, lanky kid to major Stud-Ville. Some of the other masters in the Order wonder how much more powerful he would be if he hadn’t taken the Data Jack. Oh well. In addition to teaching and helping out, Stefan also ran the Order’s Internet Matrix Host and Info Pages.

Which brings us back nicely to the overt reason I was paying him a visit.

I’d made my way through the Neo-Classic Baroque monstrosity that was this building to his door on the third floor, just down the hall as it were from my rooms. I knocked and after a second the door opened. I had to calm down the butterflies in my stomach as Stefan’s smile could light Seattle for an hour. “You’re early,” he said in his deep baritone. This caused a bit of confusion.

“Actually, I’m late. Traffic on 405 was awful, the Hellhounds got into a rumble with the Leather Devils at the 405 and 90 intersection again.” As you might figure out, the 405 Hellhounds and the Leather Devils were both Motorcycle Gangs. They hate each other.

He chuckled. “It’s ok; I tend to add about thirty minutes to your time estimates, so I’m just teasing you. Come on in and excuse the mess.” Stefan and I are very compatible in our views of personal living. His rooms are an interesting collection of bleeding edge technology and two week old laundry. Of course his toys were much newer and far more whiz than mine were, but he wasn’t backing a multimillion nuyen research project either. “So, where were you that you got something with 401K encryption, or am I better off not knowing?”

“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies. Any idea how long it will take to break?”

“Probably about an hour, maybe two if they double layered the encryption, which if they had the money to toss one layer at it, they had it for two. You had lunch yet?”

“Bit early for lunch isn’t it?” I asked around a smile.

“Ok, how about brunch?”

“Sold. I skipped breakfast anyway. Here’s the chip,” I offered, handing him the difficult bit of plastic. He fed it into a reader sent whatever Rottweiler of a program he had after it, then pulled on a jacket.

“Your wheels or mine?” he asked as we stepped from his room, locking the door as we did so.

“Yours, unless you want to be stared at. Generally the chick rides behind the guy on a bike.” He chuckled and nodded, leading the way to the parking garage for his Chrysler-Nissan Jackrabbit. Despite the corny name, the little car was fairly aggressively styled and quite fast, in addition to being only a two seater which gave it a certain amount of style. My criminal mind admired the fact it was the best selling car in North America, so it blended in very well to the traffic and had little about it to stand out. Stefan played the gentleman and held my door for me, even if I couldn’t restrain myself from leaning over the faux leather seat to open his door for him.

A moment later, the ethanol engine whispered its way to life taking us to the main gate. “Where to?” he asked.

“I’m in the mood for something classically breakfast. How about the Denny’s?”

“As my lady commands.”

Chapter Three

Another half hour of a drive and waiting to be seated behind us, we did our best to get comfy in uncomfortable seats while I perused the menu. I settled for a coke to drink as Denny’s, despite the ads, doesn’t actually serve coffee. It’s black and hot, but it’s not coffee. This gave me a moment to settle an argument with my stomach to keep my order small so as to not pig out in front of my prospective beau.

The waitress was a tad more distant than what you might expect giving me a terror filled moment that I’d been ‘made’, but then realized it was probably just because I was Native. There’s still a lot of bad blood between us and the Anglos over the non-war by which we’d taken our country back. Chances were good her parents were a part of the refugees that flooded Seattle after the Treaty of Denver. So here they were, one huge sprawl of city that had quickly gobbled up what was left of the State of Washington after the treaty creating, for the first time in a millennium, a City/State. Such is the whim of history.

I was pulled from my musings of history by Stefan’s voice. “Life with you is never dull, Vicki. I had a fun filled day of link updating and bandwidth management planned and you plop something to make me feel like a computer geek again on my lap.”

“I do appreciate you dropping everything to help me out, Stef. If I can do something for you to return the favor I will.”

He waved off my protestations. “Naw, I’m actually glad for something of a change. I have noticed that I haven’t noticed you around the mansion of late. Been busy?”

“Work’s been crazy. But what can you do when you’re the best in the biz?”

“Anything of great interest you want to talk about?”

I shrugged in non-committal. “Same old, same old. Last night seemed pretty heavy on the muscle for a promising new prototype though.”

“Hang on; was that you out in Auburn last night?”

I met his deep blue eyes and pointedly said nothing. “Oh, right, you were helping me with the computer upgrade last night, where was my mind?” I smiled a smile that didn’t reach my eyes and took a drink from my coke to hopefully break the tension. “Yeah I heard about that this morning and was wondering if you had. Lone Star is really looking for those two who pulled that job. Funny thing is, all the video of the female involved is an old movie actress who’s been dead for about sixty years.”

“Imagine that,” I said and hoped that the bribes at Valley Medical in addition to only having a numbered Doc Wagon account would keep the boys in blue off my back. “So what’s the corp. saying was taken?”

“Nothing,” he said around a drink of his orange juice. “They say the intrusion was stopped before anything was taken.”

“Huh?” That didn’t sound right. Generally when a corp. gets popped for something they had guarded this heavy they’re really quick to start pointing fingers. Something was really rotten in Denmark. “They’re playing it awfully cool then,” I observed as my scrambled eggs and sausage arrived.

“Yeah, it doesn’t really add up now that you mention it, does it?”

“On a lighter note, I got a call from my dad this morning.”

His eyebrows ascended his face over the toast he was buttering. “This mysterious father who you’ve not spoken too since I’ve known you?”

“Yep, that’s the one. He wants me to come work for his boss as a Director of Magical Security.”

“Where?” he asked carefully, replacing his knife on the plate.

I shrugged around a mouthful and swallowed. “Dunno yet. Why? Or did you mean for what corporation?”

“I could give a wet fart about what corporation, I meant geographically. You thinking about leaving Seattle?”

Oh be still my beating heart. “I guess I hadn’t thought about it,” I said in what I hoped was a thoughtful tone. “It’s not like I have a lot of ties here, though I have enjoying being on my own and not having to deal with the politics back on the Res. I would miss getting to hang out with you though.”

A strange look crossed his face as he took a huge bite of toast and chewed. “You’re teasing me, aren’t you? Is this another one of your elaborate practical jokes?”

“I’ve never played a joke on you,” I protested, though I did have to admit there were several others in the Order who I’d gotten real good. That’s the way it is when your totem is a trickster.

“That’s what has me worried,” he said. “I’m certain you’re saving up a real zinger for me.”

If only you knew…

Further conversation was halted by the beeping of his PDA. He took it out to look at it. “I’ve got that file you accidentally erased back. You want to double check it?” he asked, handing me the PDA. I took it and looked at the screen. It was a simple Word Deck Pro document with a single sentence on it:

Kill her.

“What the fuck?” I demanded, etiquette right out of my mind.

“Yeah,” he said, taking the PDA back and turning it off. “That’s what I thought. I’ll double check it when we get back, but I think I’ll tag along with you when you go to meet with Mr. Johnson tonight, if that’s cool.”

“What if I say no?” I asked glumly as I worked off a bite of sausage and did my best to work through what I had gotten myself into.

“Then I’ll just have to take you over my knee until you see reason.”

“I seem to be collecting spanking threats today. I put up with it from my folks, why should I put up with it from you?”

He smiled a wolfish grin. “You’ll enjoy mine more.”

Ok, maybe today was shaping up to be better than last night.

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We forced our conversation to lighter topics for the remainder of the meal. My heart really wasn’t in it, though, as I had way too many thoughts competing for dominance in my mind. What exactly had I gotten into? Why this sudden interest from dad in having me back in his and mom’s life? And was Stefan really flirting with me or was it just over active wishful thinking? Maybe the thought that his time to make us something other than friends was running out.

Back in his jackrabbit we pulled out of the dinner and, as he habitually did, he tuned the radio to the News Talk station. Like most of his trade, he was a pretty serious information junkie; he liked to know what was going down when it was going down. But, for the first time since I’d ridden with him, something on it caught my ear. “Turn that up!” I commanded and he was quick to comply.

“Once again, Jason Saunders the security guard wounded in the raid of West Tech’s Auburn facility has died from complications of his wounds. More word on this story as it develops.”

The rest of the news hacks report was lost to me as the implications of it pierced my skull. I got out my PDA and called up the archive of the news service I subscribed to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind.

“What’s wrong?” asked Stefan, dividing his attention between his driving and me.

“I thought so,” I declared. “This is the initial report on that guard. Rushed to Valley Medical Center with serious wounds. Spokesmen from Doc Wagon expect a full recovery. And again from this morning. Mr. Saunders out of surgery in Good Condition with the possible need of a cybernetic left arm, no further difficulties expected. Now he’s dead, from what?”

“Someone is coming after you, Vicki, and they’re playing for keeps,” he said over the wind even as he closed the sun roof and brought the windows up so we could converse. He took a white noise box from his arm rest and set it on the dashboard. While it was highly unlikely that someone was listening in on us while we were driving, but if they were, now all they’d get was static. “You better give me the 411 on what went down last night and what you know.”

“If you know they might come after you,” I protested weakly.

“At this point, they’re probably already going to come after me, and they certainly will after I feed Mr. Johnson’s manhood to him if he tries anything at the pay off tonight, so spill it, girl.”

I did my best to order my thoughts to make sure I’d gotten everything correctly. “About three days ago I got word from Big Sam the Fixer that he had a Johnson looking for a Shaman with some computer knowledge to pull a Data Steal and he called me. Sam also had a razor boy who he owed a favor to and asked if he could tag along. I figured there might be some need for some muscle so I said sure. We met Mr. Johnson at Sam’s and it seemed pretty up and up. We had to get into the Auburn facility and pull a file named from their offline main frame.”

“Why did Mr. Johnson want a shaman specifically?” asked Stefan.

I shrugged again. “I figured there might be some magical defenses that had to be beaten, but there weren’t. Any way, the job was four thousand nuyen half up front and half tonight. Switchblade, that’s the razor boy, and I went in and got into their clean room with out a hitch. The only security they had on the main frame was a ten digit password my cracker got through in about twenty seconds. I pulled the file and hell broke loose. Some kind of S.W.A.T. unit comes out of nowhere shooting first and fuck the damn questions. Switchblade panics and I figure out I got saddled with a rookie on the Run from Hell. So we exercise the better part of valor and go through a mile and a half of running gun battle. Switchblade takes two in the chest and I have to get real creative on persuading the corp. boys to back off. I left him at Valley Medical and came home.”

“Did Sam give you anything that makes you think this Johnson was looking for you specifically or was this just random?”

“There aren’t a whole lot of computer literate shaman types running the shadows in Seattle, but it’s possible this was just some weird shot in the dark.”

Stefan thought for a moment as we pulled back onto 520 towards Hunts Park and the Manor. Finally he looked back at me and even on a good day I felt small next to him, I just wish I didn’t feel helpless on top of it. “I’m bringing in some friends of mine too. We’ll probably need some hardware of our own. I have a bad feeling this will quickly turn into a replay of last night. Anyone you recommend or do you want to leave it up to me?”

“There’s a Street Samurai I’ve worked with a couple of times I’d like to ask along. She’s good and her chrome isn’t obvious.”

“Anyone I know?” he asked.

“She goes by Monk. I think you’ve met her once or twice.” He nodded as we pulled into the Manor.

“We’ll put in the call to her, and then I’m going with you over to your place to get what ever you need because you’re staying in the Manor until this blows over.”

Finally my ego had been bruised enough to speak up for myself. As he backed the car into his parking space I exploded, “Who, the hell, put you in charge of my life?”

Now, I’m quick, much faster than Joe Average and better than probably every pro athlete you could name, thanks to a spell I have locked on me, imbedded into my afore mentioned Nipple ring. I don’t run it all the time as it tends to make everything around me seem like it’s in slow motion. Even if I had had that spell up and running, Stefan is faster than me on my best day. Which is why I was caught so off guard when he put the car in park and before I knew it, his hand was behind my head and he was kissing me so hard it took my breath away.

As he pulled away, he said, “You did, when you made me fall in love with you.”

Well give me a hand full of cigars and stick me in front of a convenience store.

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I could think of nothing to say on the trip up to his room, and even when we got there a quick exam of the chip proved that it had been cracked and the document was the only thing on it. My heart, stomach and brain were in a battle over who was going to be in charge making me just a passenger in my own body as I fumbled out my PDA to get my address book program up and going. I couldn’t say anything to Stefan over our shared kiss, as much as I might have fantasized about it, I couldn’t even look him in the face the way I felt just then. So I struggled to get my game face on and dialed Monks number. Some was trying to kill me after all.

“Hey Ghost,” came her husky voice with its some what pronounced lisp.

“Monk, you doing anything tonight?” That’s great, my first sentence following my first kiss and it sounds like I’m trying to set up a date with someone else.

“No, you got something you need help on?”

“Kind of, sort of. I have a meet with a Johnson for a delivery. Problem is the delivery says Kill her.”

“That’s not very neighborly. Sure, where you want to meet up?”

“Green Russian still running her tea room out there in Touristville?”

“Yeah, when’s your meet with Mr. Johnson?”

“Nine at Big Sams.”

“Ok, I’ll be waiting for you at the tea room at six.” There was a click, and the line went dead. I turned off my phone and looked up at Stefan into his face causing my little mental battle to start all over again. I put my phone and PDA back into my purse to give my hands something to do.

“Monks in,” I said quietly.

“Have I offended you?” he asked getting that school boy fidget that he usually got when he was worried something was wrong. I shook my head but couldn’t make my voice work. Fortunately for me, his was working fine enough for both of us. “I didn’t want to tell you like that, but this all kind of piled up on top of me and well, I just wanted you to know how I felt. If you don’t feel the same, that’s cool. It won’t effect my helping you through this.”

“You really took me by surprise is all. I’m still trying to work through what to say to you.” He hung his head and my heart just melted.

“I’m sorry, I just felt it so strong and I wanted you to know too. Now I’ve blown my chances with you…” I got up as quick as I could and put my hand over his mouth to shut him up.

“It’s not anything like that. And before you leap to more wrong conclusions, I’m not married, engaged, hand fasted or seeing someone else. Yes, I’m phenomenally attracted to you, but there’s stuff about me you don’t know and I want to be able to tell you in the right way at the right time to give you and me the very best chance for something between us. Ok?” I took my hand away to give him a chance to talk, but then thought the better of it and kissed him back as hard as I could. That seemed so much better than any more talking we could have done.

Chapter Four

My head was still buzzing from not one but two kisses from the object of my desire, I took my leave from Stefan to make my way down the hall to the set of rooms the Order had given me after I’d joined and been promoted a grade or two. Officially, if you’re up on this sort of thing, I’m an Initiate of the Fourth Order, which means I get a nice apartment where I want it in the building and I can multiply my fees for services rendered by a factor of four. It’s also supposed to mean I’m this big, powerful Shaman with the major mojo, but it hasn’t helped me one whit with my personal problems, so how cool can magic really be?

And speaking of cool magic, there was a spell that needed casting before I took one more step out of this really heavily fortified Fort Knox want-to-be. My apartment I chose for two reasons, one was its strategic location, the other was it came in two floors. I opened the door into a legitimate foyer and tossed my purse on the calling card table as I passed. With a few more steps I was at the circular stair case up to the Green House on the roof which had been given over to me to build my Shamanic Lodge.

A Lodge is the Shamans version of a Hermetic Circle. You know, the pentagram on the floor with the funky symbols with books and candles everywhere, right? Well, as a Shaman, my Lodge was much more along the lines of my ancestry. Pentagrams are cool and all that, but they just don’t do it for me. It’s on the roof because my totem is Raven, and while my magic will work everywhere, it works best under the open sky.

I hit the button to open the roof and was thankful we where having a rare day in Seattle; the sun was out and the sky was a brilliant blue. I removed my drum from its place and took a bottle of dust from my native Wyoming with it. Then I stepped into the consecrated area and with the dust carefully inscribed the name of Jason Saunders in the center. Then I retrieved the drum and let it fall into a rhythm with my feet responding into the ancient steps of the dance passed down through my people from time out of mind. At the right moment I lifted my voice in my native Cheyenne beginning my chant; pulling the magic through me and out into the other planes of existence, calling for the owner of the name to come to me.

I danced and sang as I pulled on the lines of force through me until I finally felt one of them grab something. I began to pull, gently and coaxingly towards me and my circle. After another timeless twenty minutes the air in the center of my circle got hazy taking the shape of a twenty something young Anglo I had never seen before, or at least out of Security Armor. I finished my last circuit of the dance to stabilize the spirit, stopping in front of him. “Hello,” I said, putting down my drum to face him fully.

“Where am I?” asked the spirit. That was generally the first question.

“You’re back in Seattle, at least for a little while. Would you mind speaking with me for a few minutes?”

“I know you,” he said finally. “You’re the crazy bitch who shot me!”

“Well, you were shooting at me,” I replied, doing my best to keep my tone civil and level.

“What the fuck were you using live rounds for?” he demanded. “I could have been killed!”

I opened my mouth to reply, then closed it as the words sunk in. Why was I using live rounds? “What’s the last thing you remember?” I asked cautiously.

“I was in the hospital and this English doctor came in to give some antibiotics through my IV. Next thing I know I’m back on the farm I grew up on playing with Socks, my dog. But it’s weird because Socks died fifteen years ago. Then I’m standing here.”

“An English doctor?” I asked, wishing I had heard wrong.

“I guess, he had that funny accent like you see on the Trideo, you know?”

Oh shit. “So, Jason, tell me what happened last night?”

“Hang on, how did I get here?”

“It’s just the hangover from the Antibiotics. It’ll pass. Come on, son, what’s your take on last night?”

“I thought it was a complete cluster fuck. I mean, what’s the point of a security response test we know about? Then you start popping off live rounds and everything going crazy with crates exploding for no reason and fires starting with out a spark or anything. I mean, I knew we’d be reacting to a magic based incursion, it still spooked the shit out of me.”

I nodded sagely. “Yes, obviously the proper procedures weren’t followed. Anything else?”

He looked about the roof and my lodge and realization finally began to creep in. “I’m dead, aren’t I?” he asked in a very small voice.

I could see there was no use playing games with him so I took the direct approach. “I’m afraid so. But not by me. Sounds like this doctor slipped something into your IV. Can you tell me what you know about last night? How long ago did you learn about this test? And why were you using live rounds if this was just a security response test?”

“The box they gave me said rubber bullets on it,” he said in his small voice and I could see tears welling up in his eyes. I wish I could say that the pains of this world are gone in the next, but it just ain’t so Chummer. At least not according to every spirit I’ve ever spoken with, and I’ve spoken with quite a few. “I’m not ready to be dead yet!” he shouted. “I’ve got a life and a girl and car payments!”

“Not anymore you don’t, Jason. I’m sorry. I wish I could do something more than avenge you, but the creep that killed you is after me now and I really need this information.”

He started to pace and realized he couldn’t leave the boundary of the circle. He gave me an odd look to which I just shrugged. I’m not stupid. There was no way I was going to call up a spirit with out containing it. Jason finally sighed and began to talk quickly as if the words were tripping out of his mouth. “We got the heads up we’d be doing a response test about a month ago. We’ve been training for it ever since, and always based on the premise the target would be the Auburn facility. Most of the practices involved one intruder, but a couple of times they had as many as five. Until last night, all of our practices were against Second Team as the perps, so I was a little surprised when I saw you and the guy with the Cyber knives last night.”

“Did they tell you the perpetrator would be a magician?”

Again he shrugged. “Yeah, in all the practice runs who ever was playing the bad guy would just point and shout ‘Dead!’ Then who ever he pointed at had to fall down. I thought it was pretty lame, but hey, I’m not magic type so I really didn’t know what they could do.”

“Is there any message you’d like me to take to any one?” I asked softly. I figured it was the least I could do for the kid I’d basically killed.

“Can you call me back any time you want?” he asked somewhat hopefully.

“I can until you decide to move on. There are some spirits I have called that stop coming after a while. The others tell me they decide to move on and that’s the last they see of them. You want me to call you back with your girl here?” He nodded. “Alright, what’s her name? I’ll bring her here once all this is settled and I’m certain she won’t get wrapped up in this.”

“Thanks,” he said. He gave me her name and phone number which I dutifully transcribed into a slip of paper until I could put it into my PDA. Afterwards I thanked him for coming and he faded sadly away. It seemed like for every bit of info I got from this mess, it opened up five or six new questions. And I still wasn’t any closer to knowing if Mr. Johnson had a bone to pick with me personally or if he was just covering up loose ends from the luck of the draw.

I went back down stairs after closing up the roof again and putting my ceremonial instruments away. Pausing briefly to place certain information in my PDA, I lost the peasant blouse for my back up vest with a Secure Shirt over it in case things got ugly at my apartment. I was missing the comforting heft of my Super War Hawk along with my Work Clothes but there was nothing for it until I got home and got them. The only hard ware I had here was a .38 Lady Smith that I checked before tossing into my purse.

No sense putting things off any longer. I collected Stefan before we trotted out to his car for the trip out to my place in Renton.

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This was nothing like I had planned for the first time I had Stefan over to my place. We made the usual bullshit small talk on the drive over, interrupted from time to time with my giving directions. I filled him in on what I’d learned from Jason, but he didn’t get anything out of it that I had missed. I’d had so many fantasies about this trip but the reality was so much more depressing. I hoped desperately that this didn’t fore tell what the rest of our association would have in store.

I had him park in my spot then we cautiously took the steps up to my apartment on the top floor. Fortunately, all of my neighbors were at work, this being predominately a bedroom community for Seattle proper, so I was spared the usual stares from my comings and goings. I’m not sure I could keep my temper if anyone had made a pointed comment about my companion. We had a brief, quiet argument about who was going to go in first which I won by maintaining control of my keys. He took up a position on the other side of the door to rush the room if there was trouble while I reached inside of me and plucked loose the lines of force holding the spell in my nipple ring dormant.

I felt the spell wash through me causing everything around me except Stefan to slow down slightly. Then there were no prolonging things. I discreetly retrieved the Lady Smith from my purse and turned the key. The door opened silently allowing us to move quietly into my apartment.

I wasn’t sure wither to be happy or upset that it hadn’t been tossed. Everything was in its place as I shut the door as quietly as I could while I checked the touch pad of the House Maid by the door to make sure we were alone. According to it, we were. A brief walk through my small apartment confirmed the House Maid’s prognosis. We were, in fact, alone.

“Maybe he hasn’t figured out who you are,” said Stefan, his body still tense to jump in any direction necessary.

“Maybe,” I agreed as I went into the kitchen and moved the wall section to get at my gun safe. I gave it the combination, let it read my palm, then it dutifully clicked open. Inside was my Futility Belt and the Ruger like they should have been, just as I’d left them the night before. I put them on the kitchen table then went to the auto cleaner to see if my work clothes had survived the clean. For once, things seemed to be going my way. The blood had come out of both the pants and the jacket and the Kevlar wasn’t harmed. “Give me a second while I change,” I told him as took them and headed to the bathroom.

“You sure you want to do that here?” he asked, still a bit nervous I could tell from his voice.

“This armor is better than what I’ve got on, but maybe you’re right. Disconnect my Deck and pack it up, would you? I’ll pack a bag and just wear the jacket out.” He nodded, probably happy to be given a technological chore. I watched him begin to disconnect my Cyber Deck from the docking station for a moment, then headed back to the Land Fill for my things.

My Cyber Deck was about the size of a thick old fashioned key board and had more computing power than any three third world Nations you’d care to name combined. It was a laptop, main frame and ultimate hacker toy box all rolled into one very expensive package. Even if it was about two years out of date and wasn’t top of the line when I’d bought it. But, not being a hard core Decker, I didn’t need to stay on the bleeding edge, just current enough.

Back in the land fill, I collected an assortment of black halter tops that I rotated under the jacket for work and my small, but precious jewelry box. Also into the bag I tossed my primary vest, three different formal to casual dresses and skirts, just in case I’d need them with matching shoes and my tactical boots. With some effort I got the bag zipped up.

Then my PDA went off and I nearly pissed myself.

After a sigh, I realized it was just my pill reminder which brought me back to bathroom and the medicine cabinet. From there I took one each of my estrogen tablets and the testosterone blocker managing to get both of the horse pills down with out gagging. Then both of the bottles went into the bag along with my mediocre supply of cosmetics. I felt pretty sure I had what I needed and rejoined Stefan in the front room.

He was just finishing up with the Deck so I unplugged my Head Triodes from the desk top and tossed them to him then forwarded the video phone to my number at the Manner. There were many times I envied Stefan his data jack, but I didn’t have the money to waste on cyber wear and couldn’t spare the cost of the amount of magic I would loose if I did, so I had to settle for the much slower sub dermal Triodes when I used my Deck. Oh well.

I pulled on the Secure Jacket and felt my game face settle around me as I did so, then stared at Stefan to let him know I was ready. He zipped up the Deck carrier, put it on his shoulder, finally looking around. “Nice place,” he observed.

“It holds my hat up ok,” I agreed. “Shall we?”

He nodded, beating me to the door, determined to lead the way into danger at least once. Not that it mattered; no one was waiting for us out side. I pulled the door shut and locked it again. The rent and utilities were all pre-paid for three months, so no one would have a reason to legitimately be here for a while. I chanted softly in Cheyenne to put a ward on the door to be sure. If somebody forced their way in, I’d know it that instant.

“Lead on Mac Duff,” I said in a falsely chipper voice.

“Reynolds,” he corrected automatically. “Stefan Reynolds.” I sighed. No one was classically educated any more.

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Beyond that, there really wasn’t a whole lot of preparation we could do for tonight. The hours drug by slowly as I helped Stefan with the link checking while he went over the bandwidth usage logs. A few nasty memos got sent to various members of the Order over some less than appropriate sites they’d visited. Then it was finally time to get ready and head out to Redmond to meet Monk. It would figure that all of the so-called friends that Stefan had were busy tonight, but I was pretty sure Monk would be enough.

We took my bike and damn the stares as the maneuverability it would offer us in the Redmond Barrens made up for it. Now, once upon a time, Redmond was the center of technology development in Seattle and a really nice place to live. That was all before the Crash of ’29 when the entire Internet had come down and taken with it pretty much every computer technology company. Oh, Microsoft survived if they reorganized and changed their name to Microdeck, but a lot of other companies didn’t. Add to that the Treaty of Denver, a seemingly unending wave of refugees, a plane crash or two and a nuclear melt down at the Trojan-Satsop Nuclear Power Plant and you have about a thousand square miles of burned out sky scrappers, the vilest of the vile slums to go along with a general lack of Law and Order.

One doesn’t go into the Barrens with out some pretty serious armed escort. Most of the police sub-contractors for the Metroplex don’t go there at all. Thus, the poor souls who still have to call Redmond home are already pretty tough and if you manage to make friends with one, you have somebody you can always trust at your back. The one exception to all this is Touristville; the popular name for the City of Redmond Proper which was the one bastion of Law in the whole Barrens. Upper crust types with a penchant for slumming can come to Touristville and rub elbows with the scary natives with out worrying about the Panic Buttons working and Doc Wagon actually coming out to fetch them should the need arise.

The Green Russian’s Tea Room was off the main drag some what which led for people in my line of work to use it as a gathering spot under the proverbial nose of Lone Star and the other boys in blue. Russian liked having us in her place as it gave it a ‘dangerous’ air that added to the edge it already had from being in the Barrens in the first place. I parked the bike out front and we were able to get inside with out any further difficulty. Finding Monk wasn’t hard. Even in the Barrens an Ork stands out.

Monk was born well after Goblinization Day, when a third of the population of planet Earth suddenly transformed into the races that are currently known as Orks and Trolls. Thus, she’s always been the way she is, but growing up poor hadn’t given her a great deal of options. Even for the good Italian Catholic Girl she was supposed to be, she’d been running with a gang by nine or so. She had always been big, currently she was six eight and actually broader in the shoulder than Stefan was. I wondered sometimes which of them was actually stronger, but one might as well contemplate how many pebbles are on a beach. Her skin had a greenish tinge to it and her lisp was traceable to the pair of tusks that sprouted from her lower jaw, constantly exposed, the left being chipped from a long ago gang rumble.

She waved as we made our way to her table. I slid in first to the somewhat over sized booth followed by my beau. “Monk, you remember Stone Fist, don’t you?” I asked, indicating Stefan by the Nom de Plume he’d used in his brief career in my line of work. Monk nodded and gave the bar tender a wave to know to send someone over.

“Yeah, we met a couple of times. What’s going on with this meet? Anything new?” I shook my head.

“Nothing encouraging. I called a spirit up that Mr. Johnson freed from his mortal coil who fingered him and it sounds like he’s tying up loose ends.”

The Ork considered this for a moment. “How do you want to play this?” she asked finally.

“I want to try to make the drop, get paid and leave. If nothing happens, that’s cool. If not, I got no issue with carving Mr. Johnson into small pieces while demanding to hear his life story. I’d just like to get this over with while keeping as much of my reputation as a professional intact as possible.”

Monk nodded thoughtfully then turned to Stefan. “What are you in this for, pretty boy?”

“I’m here to keep her back intact.”

“Oh? You got a big interest in that back side?”

“More than passing,” growled Stefan.

“Can’t blame ya there, course I got my old lady so no worries. No offense, but I haven’t run with you and you’re out of the game anyway. Ghost, I’ve run with, and her shit is pretty much in one sock, so just keep your ego and your mouth in check and don’t pull anything unless I’ve slapped leather first, kay?” Stefan blushed furiously, from embarrassment or suppressed anger I didn’t know, but he nodded tersely and said nothing.

Further conversation was halted by the arrival of a waitress in a very weak impersonation of some kind a traditional Russian costume with whom I placed an order for an Earl Grey with heavy cream. Monk was still nursing a latte, while Stefan decided he wasn’t thirsty. Once my tea arrived and was too my liking, I quickly gave Monk the run down on our story so far.

After my recap and first sip, I took out my PDA so I could call up the blue print of Big Sam’s Bar courtesy of the Seattle Metroplex Building Authority’s Matrix host and laid it on the table. Big Sam’s was laid out along the lines of large capitol I. The main entrance was in the middle with the bar and main common room in it. At the two spokes was a stage for live music, the Restrooms, three private booths and opposite those three small private meeting rooms.

“I first met Mr. Johnson in room number three,” I told them, pointing it out. “I’ve already set up for the same time and place tonight, so we’re fairly locked in there. If trouble starts, there are emergency exits by room one, booth three, behind the bar here and by the stage here.”

“I’ve never been there,” said Monk. “How big are these rooms?”

“About thirteen by thirteen. With only one door in or out, and the door opens out into the main bar, not into the room,” I filled in.

Then Stefan got into the conversation, probably to assuage his manhood, God bless him. “This neighborhood is mostly brown stones around ten stories, so if this is a set up, the most likely spot for Snipers would be here, here and here.”

“I’m already planning to scout the area first before we go in,” I piped up and seeing the look on his face, quickly added, “Not that they’ll recognize me. I’ll be flying.”

Monk’s face did all her questioning for her, but Stefan was congratulatory. “You finally got that spell working?”

“Yep.” Turning to Monk I said, “I’ve been working on a fairly advanced shape changing spell that I finally got the kinks out of. It turns me into a slightly larger than average raven.”

“How long can you hold that for?” she asked, suitably impressed. Were I a member of some spell making clearing house, that little gem would probably be worth a bonus of three to four figures. On the street, it was priceless.

“About ten minutes before I just get too tired. But that should be plenty of time to scout out all the possible sniper nests and, if necessary encourage them to move along.”

“You can still cast in that form?” she asked, incredulous. I shook my head.

“No, I can’t speak either, but it only takes me a couple of seconds to go from one shape to the other. Faster than they’ll probably be able to react and I’ll certainly make sure I do it well out of ear shot and such. Their attention will be on the front door anyway.”

Stefan put his foot down. “You find someone, you come back to us and we’ll evaluate the situation again. I don’t want you mixing it up with someone where we can’t get to you quickly.”

“As chauvinistic as that sounds, it’s tactically sound,” said Monk as well. Who would figure a lesbian and a farm boy would ever see eye to eye on something?

Beyond what little bit of planning that we had done, we were as ready as we were going to be. Not knowing what we were heading into, there was just no way to plan for every contingency. So we finished up our drinks, which I let Stefan buy and we headed up town to Big Sam’s. Fortunately, the 405 Hellhounds had better things to be doing than harassing us and we got down 520 with out any trouble and across the floating bridge into Old Down Town.

Circumstances being different, I might have had time to think about how the sky line of Seattle had changed over the years, as high rise upon high rise piled up on top of each other, competing for the dubious honor of most gaudy. Which one wins is probably a hot topic of debate, but I had no time for such considerations. We linked up with Old Interstate 5 and turned north towards U of Washington across the Union River. Big Sam’s was off of 50thStreet and we arrived a bit over an hour early.

I like doing business this close to U of Washington as it’s not a particularly dangerous neighborhood, despite the low presence of Lone Star and the other boys in blue. Most of the passersby are kids enrolled in or dropped out from U of W and as they were all mostly around my age group I fit in rather nicely. Every so often I get hassled by a hard working representative of Law and Order, but my very expensive and very well forged fake IDs and permits for my hard ware get me off the hook when they do nose in. Batting a long eye lash or two and pleading about the dangers of being a single girl in the big city generally encourages them to mind their own business as well.

Tonight my luck seemed to be taking a turn for the better or else there were hot doughnuts at the Krispy Kreme. Either way, the streets were deserted from the watchful eyes of Big Brother. Monk and I parked our bikes about three blocks from Big Sam’s and we took residence in a darkened alley for me to take a little look around. Satisfied we were alone, I began to chant in Cheyenne as I reached into myself to work the energies through me once more.

My voice rose in pitch until I could not form words any further and my two comrades to my mind began to grow until they towered over me. “Holy Mother of God,” breathed Monk as she crossed herself. Now Monk is as hard as nails and she’s been running in the shadows long enough to have seen plenty of magic in action. The fact that I had scared her back to her Catholic roots was probably the highest compliment she could have paid me.

I half hopped, half flew up to Stefan’s outstretched arm, gave him a wink, then took off, flying free. It’s a real rush to fly. I don’t mean in a plane or even with magic, but just to fly under your own steam. I could see that if I ever put this spell on the market, there might be a whole new kind of addiction problem in the sprawl.

There was a lot of heat coming up off the city now that the sun was down and it made my task of staying air borne that much easier. I was able to cover the three blocks over to Big Sam’s and our prospective sniper nests in a few seconds. Nothing doing in any of them. I paused on a roof top, trying to decide to be relieved or upset there was not some big faceless goon with a rifle as big as he was waiting for me. Switching gears, I began to Astrally perceive the area, to see if the aforementioned goon was of the spirit or elemental variety. I saw the outlines of the spells that were held fast on myself, and the normal spirits that moved through urban areas, but nothing big or bad enough to be waiting for me.

Maybe this was all some kind of colossal coincidence and Mr. Johnson was on the up and up. Yeah, and maybe monkeys will fly out of my ass.

I took off again and broadened my search pattern over the fixed point of Big Sam’s looking for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing. I wanted to try more, but I was getting tired and I knew my time was running out. The last thing I wanted to have happen was to turn back to my oh so cute self at an altitude of ten stories. I winged back south to my awaiting partners in crime to release the knot of magical thread holding me in this form. In a few seconds I was standing before them once more, taking back my Futility Belt from Stefan. “Anything?” he asked. I shook my head.

“No muscle boys, no spirits, no elementals, no nothing. Looks like just another Tuesday night at Big Sam’s.”

Monk swallowed and got her game face back on. “Any chance you read this wrong?” I shrugged as I got the tie downs on my thighs to my liking.

“I thought of that the more I couldn’t find a trap. But I can’t see how I read this wrong going back over it in my head.” I looked up, ready. “Of course, we’re an hour early. It’s possible the muscle will be arriving with Mr. J.”

Monk considered this. “No, from what you’ve told me, Mr. Johnson comes across as way too professional to be pulling a set up on the last minute. I guess all we can do is head into Big Sam’s and wait for him.”

I nodded as we walked cautiously up the street to the courtyard at the front of our evenings setting. Big Sam’s was a weird cross between pizza place, coffee house, bar and live music venue. This being a Tuesday night, the music would be canned, and the crowd fairly light. The front door was at the back of the courtyard formed by the two spokes of the building and lit by standard incandescents on a wire. There were about thirty tables out here with maybe a dozen of the college crowd out here goofing off while working at getting sloppy drunk. We passed through them, my Ruger and Monk doing all of the persuading necessary to the kids to let us through.

Inside was darker, louder and had about twice the people out side. We made our way to the bar where Big Sam was pretending to clean glasses, having caught sight of us as we came in. On the bar was a bottle of MGD light for me. Like a fair number of Native Americans, I’m allergic to formaldehyde which most beer companies use to make the beer ferment faster. MGD light doesn’t, which makes it the one beer I can drink. Not that I’d be doing a lot of drinking, in point of fact, that one I would nurse all night and probably not finish, but you tend to stand out in bar if you aren’t drinking, or at least look like you’re drinking.

My little dangerous trio reached him and I slid a certified Credit Stick across the bar with his cut already programmed into it. Nodding my thanks as I took the beer, I gave it a quick look with astral sight to be certain it hadn’t been tampered with, then opened it. “Sam, what’s shaking?”

“Nothing worth writing home over, Ghost,” he replied in his deep voice. Sam was black, and like most of the men in my life, bigger than me by a fair bit. Now, not to give you the wrong idea, I’m not that short. I break the tape at 5’ 6” but most of the guys I hang with are well over six feet. Sam was of that variety. He shaved his head, exposing both his Data Jack in his temple and the Skill Chip Reader behind his left ear. His dark eyes flicked from Monk to Stefan. You could see him mentally put two and two together. “I don’t want any trouble in my place,” he said softly.

“I’m not here for trouble, Sam,” I said brightly, “But you can bet I plan to leave on my feet. Monk and Stone Fist here are just here as interested third parties to see to that.”

“Fair enough. What’ll you have?”

Both of them fell into a body guard frame of mind and declined. I took a pull from my beer while I tried to keep the pre-action jitters to a minimum. I still didn’t know what was going down. I didn’t want to jump to the wrong conclusion and do something I’d regret in the morning. Assuming I lived to the morning.

Sam jerked his head in the direction of room three. “She’s in there waiting for you.”

She?” I asked around my swallow of beer.

“Yep,” affirmed Sam. “I was just as surprised as you. But she said she was Ms. Johnson and had a meeting there with you. Mentioned you by name.”

Well, Game time was now. I nodded thanks to Sam and led the way back to private room three. I switched the beer to my left hand, leaving my gun hand free, knocked on the door and opened it. Then I got the single biggest surprise of my young life.

“Hello Ghost,” said the woman sitting on the far side of the table. She was around thirty to thirty five, and her power suit by Armani definitely made sure she wouldn’t blend in with the locals. But then, she didn’t have to. Her dark hair she wore in a short, upwardly mobile cut, but her face had the hard edges of a vicious woman. She gestured to the empty chairs on our side of the table, a tennis bracelet that would pay my rent and utilities for about a decade loose on her wrist as she did so. “Have a seat, Monk, and don’t worry young man, I don’t bite, too hard.”

I think what made it worse was that she was alone. Most Johnsons want a bit of muscle to even up the odds if a meet goes bad. That wasn’t Elyssa’s style. She was dangerous all by herself. We entered the room and Monk pulled the door shut behind her. I finally recovered my wits as I set the beer on the table, but declined to sit. “What gives, Elyssa? You’re Ms. Johnson now? What happened to your predecessor?”

“We’ll get to that. For the time being, I believe you have something for me?”

She slowly reached down and brought her purse up onto the table; Gucci and Loveland of course. From it she took a hand held data reader then held her hand out. With my left hand, I reached into one of the pockets of my jacket and took out the data chip and handed it to her. She stuck this into her reader and punched in a code, then nodded. Her smile had all the warmth of a New England January. “Yes, that’s what I was expecting. Here we are, two thousand nuyen as promised, as well as another ten for your inconvenience,” she said, sliding a certified Cred Stick across the table.

“Elyssa, what is going on?” I demanded.

Elyssa Bryant and I go all the way back to my first run in the shadows of the Seattle sprawl. To my knowledge, she was a Professional Johnson, a middle man between the criminal employee and the criminal employer. And, while we were as friendly as employee and boss could be, I knew she was every bit as lethal as I was. If she was involved, it was because of her reputation as a trouble shooter in runs gone wrong. I just wanted to be sure I wasn’t the trouble she shot.

“I’m afraid you’re somewhat in the middle of a Corporate Power Play, Ghost. Our employer sends their deepest apologies and appreciation for your dedicated work. In fact they would deeply grateful for your continued involvement to clear this unpleasant business up. The offer would be, of course, extended to your friends.”

“Power play?” I asked, picking up the Cred Stick, checking it for the correct sum and slipping it into another pocket. I’m understandably dubious whenever Elyssa is involved. Runs involving her were some of the most profitable I’d ever been on. They’d also been the most dangerous and had the highest lethality quotient. Of course, they’d also made my reputation in the Sprawl as a professional who got the job done.

Her cold smile didn’t fade and I wonder to this day wither Elyssa likes being the cleaning woman. Maybe it appeals to her doubtlessly sadistic nature. “Yes. The man you know as Mr. Johnson is actually Everett Provan-Gordon, currently Senior Vice President of Ares Macrotechnology, European Union Division. He, along with a gentleman by the name of Oliver Lange are competing for the job of Senior Executive Vice President of the firm. Your activities of the previous evening were Mr. Provan-Gordon’s attempt at sabotaging Mr. Lange’s bid for that position.”

“Ares?” I asked. “Perhaps we’re in the wrong room of surreal explanations. I was doing some shopping at WestTech last night.” She laughed her mirthless laugh.

“WestTech is a wholly owned subsidiary of Ares MT as of close of business, Monday last, mostly at the behest of Mr. Lange.”

“Ok, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I spoke with a spirit that Mr. Provan-Gordon off-ed personally who tells me that WestTech had been preparing for my little shopping trip for over a month.”

For once, I seemed to have caught Elyssa Bryant flat footed. This was a night to savor. “Really? I’m sure that bit of info will come in handy. In any event my employer would like very much for Mr. Provan-Gordon to have himself an accident. And they’re willing to pay very handsomely for such a safety expert.”

I frowned. “I don’t do wet work, Elyssa. You know that.”

“I’ve never known you to back off of self defense before, Ghost. You thinking of getting out of the business?”

“This isn’t self defense, and you know it, Elyssa, what gives?”

“Oh, it’s quite simple my dear. You and your large friends possess the knowledge of Mr. Provan-Gordon’s less than ethical activities. He’s already in the process of tying up loose ends. Your information can get him into all kinds of legal trouble and he’s not going to stop until you’re silenced. Since I know you’re not squeamish about self defense, I simply thought you won’t mind being paid for someone you’re going to have to kill any way. If you’re interested, their initial offer is of the six figure variety.”

I became cross at being looped back on my, admittedly, shaky ethics. “So why doesn’t your employer go to Lone Star? Or just fire his sorry ass? Or both for that fucking matter? What’s with the B Movie cloak and dagger?”

Elyssa took a new data chip from her reader and placed it on the table, along with three more certified Cred sticks so that their amount screens faced us. They were each for 600,000¥, more money than I’d ever held in my hand at one time. “Ares prefers to handle things in house as much as possible. As your target is already interested in you, it only makes sense to have you deal with it. Further, this is motivated self interest on their part, you’ve done quite a bit of quality work for Ares and they’re very anxious for that relationship to continue. That you remove a disruptive and potentially embarrassing situation is a small price to pay. As usual, that’s half up front, and half on delivery. Proof, or mortal remains there of. You have my number when this unpleasant business is settled.”

“You’ve got me painted in pretty good here. Was that part of the set up too? And just how much of an ass is Mr. Provan-Gordon going to be?”

She gave a very false look of pity. “Don’t look at it that way, Ghost. You’re a professional and in this business, these things happen. It’s how you deal with them that matters. And, Everett? There’s a complete file on him on the chip I’ve left you. But suffice to say he’s every bit as dangerous as I am. Good evening.” With that, she collected her purse, stood, then chuckled to herself as she made her way past us and out.

Son of a Bitch.

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Chapter Five

Needless to say, the three of us were more than a little dumb founded at this neat little turn of events. We collected up the Cred sticks, the chip and found other places to be, lest our good friend Mr. Johnson show up and decide the best way to deal with his problem was an RPG. For half an hour there was silence except for the rumble of our bikes as we made our way back to the Manner. This called for some serious thinking.

As was usual for this hour, the Manor was mostly quiet, although from Astral perception we could see the lighted lines of power from the Ritual Room that something fairly major was going down. I brought Monk and Stefan up to my rooms for our Pow Wow. As I shucked off my jacket, Monk was the first to break the silence. “Well, that was a stone cold bust.”

I handed the chip to Stefan and gestured to my deck on my desk. “Stone, could you get the 411 on this ass hole?”

“Sure,” he said, taking his Jack wire from one the many pockets of his cargo pants and booting up the deck. Then I turned back to Monk.

“I really appreciate you dropping everything to help me out. I’m certain Everett doesn’t know about your involvement, so if you want out, I certainly understand.” Monk didn’t even consider as she shook her massive head and sat down on my love seat, nearly filling it.

“Naw, girl friend. I took the cash, so I’m in for the duration. Besides, you look like you can use every friend you got right now. Speaking of that, maybe we ought to pull in some extra friends to get this done. If Mr. Gordon is any kind of pro, he’ll go after our friends to get to us. Better to have them in on it.”

“Who are you thinking about?” I asked.

“Well, off the top of my head, I’d say we’re gonna need a dedicated Decker, a Rigger and a Mage wouldn’t hurt. Any body you like in those lines of work?”

“Well, Streak is a Hermetic Mage and he belongs to this Order.”

“Good kid,” agreed Monk. “Little young, but seems to know his shit. Who else?”

“There’s Booster for the Rigger. I don’t like his mouth, but he’s a good wheel man and he does drone rigging too, so that might help us find and keep an eye on Mr. Gordon.”

“Our problems are growing,” said Stefan from the deck. I turned back over to him to see him sitting on the floor with my deck in his lap in the Lotus Position, its wires running from it, into his skull. His eyes were closed as he interacted with the virtual reality program of the Deck, reading the file we’d been given.

“What now?” I asked tiredly.

“Mr. Gordon is ex-SAS and his Brit Army records say he’s your basic killing machine bad ass mother fucker. Intel, Counter-Intel, Intrusion and counter, special weapons, unconventional warfare and he’s been in just about every “non incident” they’ve had from twenty years ago. For the last ten he’s been fast tracking up the Ares ladder and people who get in his way have a nasty habit of getting dead, caught stealing from the company or just disappearing. He’s a real pro.”

What else can go wrong today?

“He got any weaknesses? Family? Habits?”

Stefan shook his head without opening his eyes. “Nope. He’s an orphan with no known next of kin. Doesn’t drink, smoke legal or otherwise, and is even a health food nut. Works out three days a week and has a lengthy set of weapons permits from our good friends at City Hall, mostly Dealer and Manufacturer sample types. So if the Army wants it, chances are pretty good he’s got it.”

“What about chrome?” asked Monk from the love seat.

After a moment, Stefan said, “Both arms and legs are new, a set of really nice wired reflexes and an anti-toxin set up that would make Doc Wagon sick with envy. Cyber eyes with low light and thermal, some head ware memory, a phone and some knocks nix stuff.”

Monk thought for a bit, then asked, “How do you want to go after this guy? I’m thinking straight and upfront is probably the worst, but really our only option.” I opened my mouth to reply, and then slowly closed it again.

It occurred to me that I’d been doing nothing but reacting since the run last night. And since that colossal goat screw, reacting was doing nothing but get me deeper and deeper into the drek. But, here I was, reacting to the news that Elyssa handed out like it was the gospel handed down from on high. I prided my self about being a professional. It was high time I started acting like it. It was time to be proactive. “You know,” I said slowly, “The only thing we’ve got that Mr. Johnson is after me is Elyssa’s word for it and a dead spirit who fingered him.”

“There’s also the run gone wrong picture book,” put in Monk.

“Yeah, but every Johnson puts a spin on things. Most for the least, we’ve all run into that. But, come to it, we got nothing on Mr. J that would stand up against a five year olds questions.”

“I got the ubër file here,” protested Stefan weakly.

“Yeah, from Elyssa,” I countered. “We need some info that isn’t coming from her or who ever her ‘employer’ is. Stone, I want you to put out the Net call and get what ever Decker muscle you need. I want to know if Mr. J is Everett Provan-Gordon and if he is, I want to know his hat size, his shoe size, and every fucking thing in between.”

“You’re the boss, Ghost.”

“I don’t think there’s too much else we can accomplish tonight,” I said around a yawn. “Except maybe recruitment. I’ll give the spiel to Streak if you’ll chat up Booster, Monk.”

She chuckled mirthlessly. “You get the kid and I get the dwarf with the hard on bigger than he is? That shit ain’t right, Ghost.”

“Yeah, but I’m single and you’re, well, more intimidating than me.”

“Not to mention queer, right? Ok, I’ll talk up the little shit. See you beautiful people later. We having the big meet tomorrow?” I nodded, smiling. “Ok you know my number. Gimme the ring and let me know.” She stood and walked over to the door, then paused, as she turned back. “I’ll let you know if Booster is in or out, but you get to call him with the time and place, Ghost. Arrivederci.” Oh well, at least she got the tough job. Well, on second thought, maybe I did. It was now time to go find Streak and see if our Darling Young Man would be of assistance.

* * *

Now Streak is an elf, specifically, he’s a sub breed of elf called a Night One. There aren’t a whole lot of full blooded elves in the world, and Night Ones are especially rare. At the time, I’d guess that Streak was actually somewhere between 19 and 21, but being one of those ex-child prodigies, his social development was some what retarded making him come across as much younger. He was one of the few men in my life who didn’t tower over me, but he was taller, being 5’9” to my 5’6”, but my penchant for heels meant we generally saw eye to eye, physically if not intellectually. But, that’s the way things were, I was a shaman and him being a hermetic mage meant we had a fairly different view of magic.

Physically, the kid was covered in body hair that actually came across as fur that was a deep purple that was almost a black. The hair on his head was quite long, to his waist in fact and shockingly silver. Once you got past that, you had a pretty ordinary looking kid with delicate features, pointy ears wearing a rotating collection of heavy metal and industrial band tour t-shirts, jeans, along with the ever present, these days anyways, leather jacket and combat boots.

Oh, that ex-child prodigy bit? Yeah, magic. The kid was starting to cast almost from the time he could talk. And he’s just been getting better since. There are a couple of magic tricks I’ve got the upper hand on him over, but mostly due to the fact I made them up and he hadn’t seen them yet.

My Astral Sight told me what ever the wing ding in the Ritual Room was about was over so I made my way down a couple of flights of steps to his room. The door to it was always easy to spot. It’s the only one covered in posters, stolen street signs, Police Crime Scene tape and the other various appointments of youth. Wow I’m coming across as an Old Maid. This business is really starting to get to me.

When I got to his door I pressed the button beside it. You couldn’t hear it from this side, thanks to more than one spell and some state of the art sound proofing, but on the other side of the door chances were that a stereo was blasting at just shy of the threshold of pain. The button triggered a strobe light to get Streak’s attention. Otherwise I could pound all night in vain.

After a second the door opened into the Crash Zone revealing Streaks thin build in only jeans and boots. “Oh, hi Vicki,” he said in his shockingly soft voice. “What’s going on?”

Yep, he knows too. But, that’s the deal when you join a Magical Order. No secrets between the members. Well, almost none… “Hey John. You busy?”

He shook his head, silver hair whipping around behind him nearly hypnotically. “Sorry, Ghost, I didn’t notice you were dressed for work.” He looked behind me to see if I was alone or if he’d just seriously screwed me. He’s such a sweetie that way.

“Don’t sweat it, I’m alone. Can I bend your pointy ears for a minute?”

Mi casa es su casa,” he said, stepping to one side. Now, you might have gotten the idea that I’m something of a slob based on my bedroom as I’ve described it to you. And you’d be right. However Streak puts me to shame. From the detritus around the room, you’d think it was held up by magic. There were only a couple of paths through it and no floor to be seen. His electronics were still in new from the box condition, but every other horizontal surface was littered in drink bottles, candy wrappers, half eaten cups of Soy Raman noodles, dirty and clean clothes in indiscriminate piles around the nest that served as his bed.

I’m not sure why the whole room didn’t stink like an open garbage heap, but it didn’t so I was thankful for small mercies. I picked a spot in more or less the center between the four walls, then turned back to face him as he shut the door, pulled out a chair, dumping what was in it on the floor so he could sit down. “What’s up?” he asked, sitting in the chair backwards, facing me.

“I’m putting together a team for a job,” I said with out preamble. “Pay is forty thousand, half up front and half on delivery.”

“The whole job?” he asked.

“No, your share.”

His bushy eyebrows ascended his face in surprise. Even in this line of work, that was serious money. “What’s the job?”

“Wet work.”

The eyebrows came back down in a frown. “I didn’t think you did that,” he said softly as if he’d just found out his favorite ball player was going into rehab with a problem.

“It’s kind of a self defense thing. He might be after me.”

“This sounds like a long story.”

“It is, give me a second and I’ll explain. You interested?”

“Depends on the story. I’m not an assassin, but I help my friends when assassins come after them.”

I sighed and like him, was very disappointed in myself for getting boxed in like this. Don’t get the wrong idea or any flowery visions about me; I’m not a nice person and I know it. I’m a professional criminal. But, until this point I wasn’t a hit man and if I could work some leverage back on who was doing the boxing, I wasn’t about to become one. “I pulled a data steal in Auburn last night that went to hell in a hand basket at Mach 5. Security had been practicing for a month for my raid and knew they’d be up against someone magically active. The data was an encrypted file which was a Word doc that just said Kill her. On the way out, I put two into a guard who got taken to Valley Medical where he later died. I called up his spirit and he fingers a guy who generally fits the description of Mr. Johnson.”

“Ok,” said Streak, neither committing nor backing out of the offer.

“That’s not all. The meet with Mr. Johnson was earlier tonight, but he doesn’t show. In his place is a Professional J I’ve run for a couple times in the past. She tells me all of this is part of a power play between two executives looking for the top dog spot at Ares Macro. She hooks me up with a file that says Mr. J is your basic professional killer and his rival, or Ares Senior Management or both want him dead. Normally, I say no to this, but Ms. Johnson says this asshole isn’t going to stop coming after me until I kill him, or he kills me. So I might as well get paid for it. That’s the story. You still want in?”

“Do we have any straight info on this Johnson?”

I shook my head. “I’ve got Stefan trying to dig some up. We’ve got a name, but we don’t know if it’s really him or not. That’s what we’re trying to find out now. If it is him, I’m thinking about just pulling an extraction and handing him over to Lone Star in front of Ms. Johnson and letting them sort it out.”

“What if this guy starts telling stories about your night life to cut a deal with the DA?”

“I’m going to hand him over to a Lone Star Cop I’m friendly with. I’m fairly sure if I do it that way, Dutch will persuade our misbehaving Mr. Johnson to keep his stories confined to the improprieties of Ares or get tossed in with some really rough repeat customers of the King County Adult Detention Center to brush up on his manners.”

Streak thought that over for a few minutes then finally nodded. “Ok, I’m in. Just one question, though, if we can’t extract him, you going to pull off and try again or put a bullet in him and go home?”

I shook my head. “I honestly don’t know.”

“Fair enough. Who else is on the team?”

“Stefan, me, an Ork Street Samurai named Monk who I think you know.” He nodded. “I’m also trying to get Booster for our transportation and surveillance needs, and Stefan is recruiting at least one more Decker as well, I think.”

“Yeah, that sounds pretty rounded out. I’m surprised you’re willing to work with Booster again after last time.” I winced at the memory. It was an extraction run of a corporate researcher with a burning desire to change companies. We’d gotten the pencil neck without too much difficulty. We were just in the process of persuading his escort to go get a cold one and chalk the night up as a loss.

I was hanging half in and half out of the window of Boosters Ford Canadian Bison, which is your basic semi tractor on steroids, casting a fireball I had meant to hit the pavement just in front of the bodyguards Ford Americar. It was that moment that Booster had reached over and goosed me for all he was worth. For such a short shit, he’s got really big hands. My spell went wide and impacted to an Aviation Fuel Depot along one side of SEA-TAC. The explosion damn near put the Bison on its side and did flip the Americar.

For my part, I’d gotten back in completely to the Bison and promptly slapped the shit out of Booster. That was four months ago and it still wasn’t a happy memory. To Streak, I shrugged and said, “Best I could do on short notice.”

He laughed at my non-intentional pun, waving off further explanation. “Ok, seems to me like the first order of business is to get the straight shit on Mr. Johnson. I’m reasonably certain Stefan will have that for us some time tomorrow. You having the team meet tomorrow with what ever info Stefan pulls up?” I nodded. “Ok, my schedule is pretty clear as it is, so just give me a ring and I’ll either come up to your place, or where ever else the meet is.”

“Thanks, Streak, I appreciate it.”

“Anything for a damsel in distress. Anything else?”

“No, I’ve got to head up stairs and get some shut eye. You probably should too, there’s gonna be some long nights ahead if my gut is anything to go by.”

“No worries,” he said, getting up and leading the way to his room’s door. Before he opened it, he paused and said, “Oh, by the way, that was a great prank you pulled on Anastasia.”

I kept my face as carefully neutral as I could. I had a lot of practice at it so I was pretty good. “I heard that Nipper, the Coyote shaman got her.”

“Yeah, it sure looked that way, didn’t it? But, to my mind, only somebody who was really into old movies, like you for instance, would have thought to pull the old full bucket on the half open door gag.”

“I could see where you’d think that,” I said carefully. Anastasia was the Head Shaman of the order and her Totem was Tiger. She was rich, old Russian aristocracy, drop dead gorgeous and I had basically hated her on sight. She had become my favorite target of the pranks and jokes my totem compelled me to play. Her violent temper had assured that she never saw the humor of getting a bucket of florescent under black light dye dumped on her new 50,000¥ fox fur coat.

“Tough luck for Nipper, huh?” he asked as he opened the door.

“Well, she might be the dog house for a bit, but she did think it was hysterical. That and her rep has the added bonus of the whole order living in fear of her. I think that’s more than a fair exchange.”

I took my leave before the kid could needle me any more. Though, below the at arms length posturing, I saw John for what he was, a scared kid who desperately wanted to be close to someone. Hero worship was good enough for that purpose.

From there my feet took me back to my rooms which I found empty. I read Stefan’s note that he was in his rooms doing the research and to knock if I needed him. Then I shucked off my work clothes and crawled into bed. Tomorrow was going to be a long day, I was sure, and the rest of the week wasn’t shaping up to be any better.

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Chapter Six

“You want to make a girl of my boy, is that it?” shouted my father, his boundless rage once more obscuring the cool and reflective mind that had served him so well in business. “I’ll disown him first! Get out of my house, you old pervert!”

George stood slowly and shook his head sadly. “You just don’t understand Jackson. It’s the way of things. It’s not something you can change no matter how hard you try or want to. You can ignore this if you want to, but it won’t change how this is going to play out.”

“Get out!” thundered my father again.

“I’m going. I’ll expect Victor at the lodge at nine as usual.”

“Over my dead body!”

“Jackson, calm down, you’ll wake him.” Good old mom, always thinking that if she thought about doing something, the desired outcome was a foregone conclusion. As if I could have slept knowing this discussion was coming, let alone stayed asleep over dad’s rage. It was odd though, generally I woke up before now.

“Don’t make me involve the Tribal Police, Jackson,” warned George in that dangerously quiet voice that I knew from a year of experience meant I was just this side of serious trouble. That was sufficient to give dad a moment of pause. It brought his voice down as well.

“You wouldn’t dare,” he hissed, his teeth tightly clenched.

“You know the law. Victor is Awakened. She must be trained in the Tradition. Our Nation needs every shaman we produce. If I have to, I’ll invoke my right as the Village Shaman to take custody from you. Victor must be trained and she will be. The only question left is wither you will still be her father or not.”

It was at this point at history I had run to my room, tears streaming, wondering what was going on and what did the future hold. In my dreams eye I saw myself do that, and then felt the presence I’d grown used to as an Adult before that cackling voice filled my mind. “You so love melodrama. It’s one of the things I admire most about you, Victoria.”

“I’m asleep,” I said as the picture of the dining room of the house where I’d grown up melted away into an endless darkness.

“Of course you are, but that doesn’t change the fact of our conversation,” cackled the raspy voice of my Totem. I sighed before I turned to face the enormous figure of Raven, as large as I was a foot or so behind me.

“No, I suppose not. What do you want now?” I asked resignedly. There had been plenty of times my Totem had chosen to speak directly to me. Generally, like now, it was through my dreams. Whenever he did, it was a sign something horrifically bad was about to happen, so I braced myself for the worst. The monstrous bird laughed his mirthless laugh and cocked his head to stare at me one eyed.

“Since when is this about me?” he asked. “The first few minutes of our talks are usually all about you. What a horrible time you’ve had of it, what a horrible person you’ve become, what a terrible fate that I have forced on you. I’m impressed, you’re growing.”

“If growing is learning not to beat your head against a brick wall, then yes, I guess so,” I agreed quietly. He clucked his beak in distress.

“Oh, now we are depressed, aren’t we? What could it be this time? Hmm, we’ve decided that Raven the teller of secrets and the pathfinder of new paths isn’t the target. Who could it be? Who could be the cause of all of Victoria’s problems?”

“You don’t have to rub it in, I know I’m the cause of my problems,” I shot back angrily, then took a few deep imaginary breaths to calm down. Losing ones temper with ones Totem wasn’t generally a wise course of action. But Raven just laughed.

“Oh, you’re always so hard on yourself, Victoria. You’re not completely to blame. You did choose to leave the Sioux Nation and become a criminal. And you did choose to become a criminal to pay for a piece of technological magic that was so much better than that garden variety magic that I gave you. Yes, you choose a lot of that, and you choose to become Victor, against my advice I might add.”

“Excuse me?” I asked. Normally Raven was never so straight forward, but I wasn’t expecting this particular type of barb. Maybe I could trick the old bastard into letting slip something really important. “I choose to become Victor?”

Raven became very interested in something caught between his talons and worked to get it out while speaking to me in his off hand manner. “Oh yes. Begged me as a matter of fact. Just a little matter of your death from your last life you couldn’t get over. Wanted to be a big strong man to protect yourself. I granted your wish and what thanks do I get for it? Fifteen years of malice and abuse because I did what you asked for.

A cold stabbing dread poured into my heart and began to fill it. “What do you mean? I don’t have any memory of this…”

“You won’t, and no, I won’t say any more than I have. Can’t actually. The fact that you know about a Past Life you may or may not have had is really more than I should tell you. But I can’t help myself. I’ve always liked you. You bring out my giving nature.” He looked up from his talons and stared at me one eyed again. I couldn’t for the life of me decide wither to laugh in his face about the notion of him being generous or be deathly afraid he was telling the truth.

“I’m sorry I doubted your judgment, if in fact that is what I did,” I said carefully. “And I mean you no offense for what I’ve had researched. I just needed to be outside what I was inside.”

“Not for me to pass judgment on you for what you do to your body. But, since we’re having this little metaphysical chat, answer me this. How important is the outside to you? Did you know that the made up name you’ve taken for yourself is your True Name now?”

I gasped softly at that admission. It was thought to be completely and utterly impossible to change your True Name; that which binds your Astral and Physical selves. I had been born Victor Raven Feather and assumed that would always be my True Name.

“Oooh, we have her full attention, don’t we?” cackled Raven. “But we still haven’t answered the Big Question. What difference does the outside make?”

“Everything!” I countered. “The mundane can’t see my soul! They can’t know me unless I tell them and they choose to believe me. The outside makes the inside real.”

He hopped forward and pressed his beak long ways against me, staring at me with both eyes. Had I been awake, I probably would have soiled myself. Hell, I’ll probably wake up to sheets I’m going to have to change. “Let’s haggle then. According to you, if you don’t go through with this, you won’t be real, am I right? Ok, what’s it worth to you to be real? Money? Life? Existence? Magic?”

“Magic?” I whispered, becoming more frightened than I thought possible. Sweet Jesus why can’t I wake up?

“Oh yes. I thought you’d catch that one. I made you the way you are. That was my gift to you, my special favorite and you throw it back in my face. You do this and I take away my other gifts. How do you like that? Still worth it?”

In a blur, my past and my possible futures roared through my head. For most of my life I had been able to shape reality the way I wanted. Losing my ability to shape magic would be like suddenly going deaf or blind. It would also unhinge possibly the only road to reconciliation with my father and the job he was dangling in front of me. It would also take away my ability as a professional criminal to make a dishonest living. I began to sob as I slid down his beak to my knees. “Why do you make me choose like this? What have I done to so offend you?”

“I thought we went over that,” he said harshly.

“You were right, and I was wrong!” I shouted. “I’m just trying to show you how right you were! This isn’t out of hate but love!” I was babbling and pretty sure I wasn’t making sense. How could I make him understand?

“I’m always right,” he said softly. “It’s time you learned that.”

I was reduced to sobs that wracked my body, unable to speak. I’m not sure how long I cried like that, his gigantic beak the only thing holding me upright. Finally the tears wouldn’t come anymore. This was the joke, the biggest and worst of them all. Everything I’d done, every life I’d taken, every dishonest deed I’d committed for money; it was all for nothing.

Finally, still bursting with tears but having none left to cry, my voice started working again and I asked in a whisper, “What do you want me to do?”

“Tell me what it’s worth to you.”

“The point to which it doesn’t offend you and no further,” I choked out and trembled, sobbing without tears left.

“Ah, so the old Bastard actually matters, does he?” I nodded into his beak “Won’t doubt me again, will you, Victoria? It’s just as well that you are my favorite otherwise I’d just take my gifts and ignore you. It’s what you deserve, isn’t it? You’ve all but ignored me for fifteen years, only pulling me out when you needed something.”

“I never meant it that way.”

“Yes you did. You’ve said so. It’s only tonight that Raven hasn’t tortured you and made a joke of your life. Fine, we see eye to eye now, don’t we? You have a choice coming, and you had best be thinking about me when you make it. Else you won’t have me to lean on again like you are now. It is I who hold you from the brink of madness of your own doing. You want to earn my favor?” I nodded into his beak. “You want my blessing for your great hope for which fifteen lives have been paid?”

“Fourteen,” I said softly.

“Fifteen!” he countered, angry again. “Or have we so quickly forgotten Jason Saunders?”

“I didn’t kill him,” I protested meekly. I felt him staring at me, then nodded once more. “Fifteen.”

“Then I place this into your mind and you will quest through the metaplanes for it. When you have it, you will bring it to me and then, only then will I give you my blessing and let you keep my gifts however you choose to live your life.”

In my mind, a spell appeared, more complete and formed than I’d ever experienced. It was the answer to the spell I’d been tinkering with off and on for over a year, since I’d meet Stefan. It was here, complete and I knew the moment I awoke I would remember it in its entirety.

“There’s a man trying to kill me,” I said softly. For the first time I heard humor in his laugh.

“Currently, there are six men and two women trying to kill you. But I know which one you’re talking about. So what?”

“How soon do you want this done? I have an…” I trailed off, about to have said obligation I looked up into those terrible eyes and promptly shut up, feeling more than a tad foolish.

“I want it done by sun down on the day in which you awake,” he said slowly and I knew how angry I’d made him. “Further, with the spell I’ve given you, you will take each one of them with you.”

My eyes flew wide open in terror. “But, the Dweller! My secret!”

“I offer my blessing from your intense insult and all I ask is for you to feel a little shame and still you haggle with me?”

“I will, I will, please don’t be angry!” I begged, throwing my arms around the beak and sought with in me in vain for some new tears to cry.

For the first time since I’d been face to face with my Totem, his voice softened to almost fatherly tones. “Awake my favorite, and know that this little pin prick is nothing to the prize that awaits you.”

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I sat bolt up right in bed, still feeling Raven’s breath on my cheek and shuddered. This just wasn’t my week.

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Chapter Seven

There really wasn’t much use lying in bed; having woken from that, I was done sleeping for the night. So I rose from sheets that I was surprised I didn’t need to change and got dressed in my discarded clothing from the previous day. My work clothes would help me get into the right frame of mind for what was coming. I did forgo the body armor, knowing I most likely wouldn’t need it here in the Manor. All of my guests, I was all but certain, weren’t any of the people Raven had mentioned. If they were, I was about to hand them the perfect opportunity.

So in my black halter and buckskin pants I made my way over to my floor to ceiling windows to open the blinds to let the early morning sun in. I fought a little war within myself about being in these clothes in the daylight; it was a rare thing and as always, made me feel strange. By the time the sun went down, I was sure, I’d be feeling other emotions besides strangeness. Today would be the last day I would have friends.

The Dweller on the Threshold would see to that.

This was the ultimate piece of ammunition to use against someone and I had no doubt whatsoever that my confused gender would be a dinner table conversation topic among the circle of my former friends by sundown. Oh well, I’d been alone most of my life and it was pure foolishness to think I’d ever change that. Hope you laugh at your joke, Stef.

Thinking about my would be boyfriend gave me a moment of pause as my lips remembered our kisses of but twenty four hours previous. There were so many hopes and dreams wrapped up in those two embraces that now were gone for ever.

“I am such a stupid bitch,” I told myself as I turned from the magnificent view of near by Lake Washington back into the rooms which by the week was out probably wouldn’t be mine. My eyes saw the red light of a pending message on my phone and I crossed the room to check it. The Caller ID fingered Monk as the caller. I called the voice mail and listened to her voice telling me Booster was in and that she’d be available by ten.

I used the text message on the phone to tell her to be here at 10:30. Then I got my PDA and called Booster. Expecting to leave a voice mail, I was surprised to get his voice still thick with sleep. “Booster’s Hauling and Repair, Booster speaking.”

“Morning, Booster, it’s Ghost.”

“Like I could ever not recognize that voice, even when it’s not prancing around in my dreams,” came his thick voice. Ordinarily, I would have been enraged, but I was floating in an emotional vacuum, as if I had had all of my feelings drained out of me by the mother of all crying jags. Which, in a way, I had. “What’s shaking, beautiful?”

“You got the 411 from Monk, right?”

There was a brief pause, then his voice came back, much clearer than before. “You know,” he said slowly, “I’ll do this for just favors. Sexual of course.”

“We’re getting together at the Manor at ten thirty,” I said, trying to ignore his crass innuendo.

“Ok, now I know something is wrong,” he said, all trace of his suggestiveness gone from his voice. “Ghost, what are you into? Are you safe?”

“I’m at the Manor and you need to be here by ten thirty,” I said, actually touched by his concern, even if he was a little creep. For the first time since I could remember, I felt a smile pull at the corners of mouth. I struggled to keep my voice in its listless, defeated tone as I said, “And Booster?”

“Yeah, Ghost?”

“Hell will freeze, pigs fly, politicians become honest and the Humanis Poly-Club donate their entire treasury to Orks First before you get paid in sexual favors from me for anything. Kay?”

He chuckled for a moment in my ear, and I was thankful there was some unknown number of miles and technology between his mouth and my ear. “That’s my girl. See ya soon.”

“Be still my beating heart,” I said dryly as I hung up on him before he could think of some new and inventive way to proposition me. I looked at the display and couldn’t stop a yawn from my lips as my phone told me it was just barely seven.

I put the phone down and sighed. The others would abandon me or not, based on how they reacted to the Dweller. No amount of leading up to, or belated honesty would stop that. But I had this awful longing in my breast that somehow, if I was finally honest with Stefan I just might have a shot at something with him. Either way, it was way past time to be honest with him. If nothing else he deserved it, wither or not he never wanted to speak to me again. This, I was fairly certain, would be the way of it.

No longer able to put off the inevitable, I summoned what frighteningly small reservoir of courage I had and let my feet take me to his room. I’m not sure how long I stood outside of it, staring at his door, before I worked up the nerve to bring my hand up to let it fall against the wood. After a moment the door opened, revealing my Adonis wearing only a pair of Joe Cool boxers and an ‘A’ style undershirt. His hair was disheveled, his eyes encrusted with sand and his voice thick from sleep. I don’t think he’d ever looked more gorgeous. “Vicki? What’s wrong?”

“Can I come in?” I asked softly. It took him a second, but he jerked himself to one side and was visibly become more awake as I watched, stepping into his room. “Thanks,” I told him. “I know it’s early. I’m sorry, but I need to talk with you and it really couldn’t wait. Can I get you some coffee or something?”

“Ah, I’ve got some Red Bull in the cooler there,” he said, pointing to the dorm sized refrigerator beside his desk. I turned, bent to open it, removed the can and turned back. Then I realized why he had to wear boxers and did my best not to stare as I handed him the can. After a tremendous gulp, he realized what I had noticed and blushed from head to toe. Mumbling something about being, ‘presentable’ he struggled into a pair of Gi pants one handed and I had to struggle not to laugh. “Sorry, I’ll be awake here in a second.”

“It’s ok, take your time,” I managed around a smile. He made short work of the can and crushed it, tossing it into a recycle bin before he closed his eyes for a second. My Astral Sight saw him pick up his physical processes to help himself wake up, with the noticeable exception of one area which he was trying in vain to put back asleep. I felt bad, but it wasn’t like I knew he had some kind of ass in buckskin fetish. Of course, I had bent at the waist too, but that was accidental.

That was the root of my problem here; I was far too comfortable around him.

After a moment, his eyes opened letting me see he was awake and alert. “What’s the problem?” he asked.

“Raven paid me a dream land visit last night. We have to perform an Astral Quest today.”

“Ok. I guess I’ll call Monk and Booster and tell them to come by later. I’ll be enough to watch over you and Streak.”

I shook my head, my heart pounding as the dreadful moment grew closer. “No, you’ll be going along. So will Monk and Booster. I’ll get Nipper to watch over us, but we should be fine here.”

He laughed. “Earth to Vicki, Physical Adepts and non-Awakened beings can’t go on Astral Quests.”

“They can now,” I said, and brought to mind the spell just at the back of my consciousness. Normally, even for fairly simple spells, I have to chant in my native Cheyenne. Not from a magical rules thing, but because it orders my mind around the magic I’m weaving while making it easier. Truth be told, I didn’t have to make a sound to cast a spell. Just in front of him a doorway into nothing appeared, seven feet tall, shaped as a tall oval that was made more ominous by the fact it wasn’t crackling with energy or magic or whatever. It was just a hole in reality.

“What the fuck!” he exclaimed, taken completely by surprise.

“It’s called Astral Portal. It’s a spell I’ve been working on for the better part of a year. You step through it, your meat body falls unconscious and out the other side. Your Astral body is split off in the Astral Plane. Works on anybody.”

He looked at me around the hole I’d made and I think I saw real fear in his eyes. This was a spell so far beyond the pale of anything anybody had been able to do with magic as to be mind boggling. Tough luck, Streak, here’s one you won’t ever top.

With a wave, the portal closed leaving only air between us again. I took a mental inventory as I realized I felt no strain at all from casting the spell. Then I got scared, it was like I hadn’t cast anything at all.

“Wow,” he said softly. After a moment of basic terrified awestruck, what kind of chick do I have a hard on for self questioning, he asked, “What are we seeking?”

“I’ll fill everyone in at once. That’s not what I needed to talk with you about.”

It took him a second to switch mental gears. I was throwing him a lot of curve balls and bless him for so valiantly trying to keep up. “Oh, ok. Shoot, what’s on your mind?”

“The Dweller on the Threshold.”

“Umm, the spirit that guards the access to the higher planes from the Astral, right?” I nodded. “So what?”

“The Dweller challenges everyone seeking past him to turn back. He will sometimes just attack you, but generally he throws your past mistakes, misjudgments, or just your past against you to make you doubt yourself.”

“And there’s something in your past you’re worried about making me think differently about you?” Again I nodded.

“This isn’t exactly what I was talking about yesterday when I said the right time and place to tell you, but Raven put a hard time limit on this. To be honest, you disserve to know before we go any further or the Dweller throws it in your face.”

“Vicky, nothing a spirit can tell me will change how I feel about you.”

Heh. “You say that now, but you don’t know what I’m about to say.”

He clicked his teeth. “You’re being melodramatic. I know you’re a shadow runner, I don’t care. I know you’ve committed lots of crimes and probably killed some people. So have I, still don’t care.”

I sighed, struggling to keep calm and not let my emotions get away from me. “Stefan, I suffer from a disease. I have since I’ve known you and actually, about fourteen years before that.” Immediately his tone changed.

“Is it serious? Can the Order do something to help?” he asked at once, rising and crossing the room to sweep me into his arms. “You’re trembling,” he noticed, pulling out a chair and easing me down into it. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? You’re killing yourself with this lifestyle and the hours you put into it.”

“Stop!” I barked and had to work to get control of myself as my command was met with instant and, if possible, sincere silence. “Sorry. It’s not life threatening, or contagious. Truth be told, it’s a mental disorder called Gender Disphoria. I’ve been in psychiatric care since I got to Seattle.”

“Lord, Vicki, you about stopped my heart,” he admonished. “God, we all have to be a little crazy to be in this business. And you think that the fact you’re in therapy will put me off? Hell, can you recommend your doctor? Maybe I should pay him a visit.”

I sighed, struggling with his dogged determination to not be crushed by my news. “Gender Disphoria has nothing to do with Shadow Running. Stefan, when…if you go Astral with me and the others you’ll see my Soul. I’ve done my best to make the illusion before you match it, but I have to tell you that, currently I don’t really have a gender. I was born a…” my throat closed over the words and I was forced to swallow a few times to open it again. “I was born a man and I’m in the process of becoming a woman to match my soul.”

He opened and closed his mouth, rolled his eyes then laughed. “That? Jesus, Vicki you were determined to put me through the wringer over this, weren’t you?”

“I didn’t want to hurt you,” I whispered, then my brain caught up with my ears. “That? You…you knew?”

“Victor Raven Feather, Cheyenne, yeah, all of it. You think we let just anyone into this Order? Damn, who ever you paid for those fake records is good. Took me almost five months to crack through all that shit.”

I leapt to my feet, stunned and talking with out thinking. “You knew and you let me worry you were going to slap me around or throw me out or…or…!”

He swept me into his arms for the second time that morning and kissed me, hard. Pulling away, he chuckled and said, “Jokes on you, trickster. I told you I loved you. I don’t care how you’re packaged Vicki, I love you, innie, outie or in between.”

It hit me then I was completely and utterly wrong. This was the best week of my life.

We talked for a number of hours following that, and he asked all the usual questions with a remarkable command of my condition, its risks and the likely stresses I was going through. He did ask the question and being honest with him, I held nothing back. Our conversation left his room, taking us down stairs to the kitchen where he insisted on making us both breakfast. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was deliriously happy with how this was going, or if, honestly I wasn’t fantasizing about this being a newly wed morning.

Over coffee I told him about my plans and my investments as it were. For the second time that morning his mouth had fallen open in shock. I was pleased that I could step out of the mold he’d cast me in and surprise him. It seemed like our conversation was cut short by my PDA buzzing on my hip, but as I removed it I saw that it was twenty after ten. The buzzing was the gate signaling me that I had a visitor wanting to be buzzed in.

I did so while Stefan and I made our way to the front door to watch Booster’s rig come up the turn out and park with a great hiss of releasing air from the brakes and the final coughs of the dieing diesel engine. The passenger door opened to reveal Monk who climbed down, dressed in Army Fatigues, her own work clothes, a matched pair of Colt Manhunters concealed under her shoulders peeking out as she did so. From the other side of the great purple tractor came Booster.

Booster enjoys the singular position of being the one associate of mine, shorter than I am, and perhaps his enormous ego was a compensation for everyone looking down on him. He went in for the biker/trucker look and today’s attire wasn’t going to land him a gig on the cover of GQ. His beard was coal black and largely unkempt, gathered with a rubber band, echoing its match holding his ponytail in place. Around the hair, one could see his considerable girth was encased in a Harley Davidson t-shirt whose last good day was probably about ten years ago. Boots and jeans who probably shared that last good day completed the ensemble save for his accessories, which in this case was a watch that normal people could use as a wrist brace and the ever present chain upon which his wallet was attached. “Hey doll, brought the loser to let him down easy?”

“You’re the resident expert on losers and let downs, Booster,” I fired back, then nodded a greeting to Monk.

“I love it when you’re feisty,” drawled the dwarf. He caught sight of Stefan’s glare and didn’t back down. “What are you looking at, Chummer?”

Before I could break up the testosterone junkies, Stefan smirked and said, “I didn’t know Wilson made a talking football.”

“Knock it off, boys,” I was able to interject before the two of them got to hammer and tongs, but I do have to say there was a part of me that Booster would never ever know about that was thrilled. It’s fun to be fought over. Nevertheless, my team mates got back to a more professional frame of mind and followed me back up to my apartments. On the way I called John and he was waiting for us when we arrived.

Once the touch pad let us in and everyone was settled I figured it was time to do away with the preliminaries. “First, let me thank you all for coming. There’s been a tiny change of plans for our festivities this afternoon. I had a visit from Raven in my dreams last night.”

“Oh, swell,” muttered John.

“Yeah, it gets better. We’re, that is to say, I and who ever will come with me, will be going on an Astral Quest for him. From there, we’ll be dealing with Mr. Johnson.”

Monk chuckled. “For this, I could have slept in. Ok, I’ll watch the meat, how long do you think you’ll be?”

I shook my head. “Actually, Monk, you, Booster and Stone Fist here get to make a little history today, if you’re up to it.”

“How so?” asked Booster slowly. Making history generally had a low survivability quotient to it.

“Umm, how does being the first, second and third non-awakened people to undertake an Astral Quest strike you?” I asked. I noticed John’s already pointed ears immediately perk up, but Monk and Booster were a little slower on the uptake.

“Come again?” drawled Booster.

“Not on a bet. You heard right, I have a spell that will allow you all to accompany Streak and I.”

“Uh, I have a lot of chrome,” said Monk slowly. “What will that spell do to that, or for that matter, will my Astral body have my old bits, or the new, or nothing?” I shrugged.

“Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t have any, so I can’t tell you what happens when you go astral if you have cyberwear. My best guess is since you paid for it with a bit of your soul, your soul remembers it and you’ll get something that looks and acts like it, but isn’t really.”

“This is all still highly theoretical,” said Streak from his perch slowly. “And we’ve yet to see this super spell that will do what nobody else has been able to do.”

“Oh, no worries,” I said and concentrated, the portal dutifully opening once more, a few feet away, just in front of the couch.

“Damnation, but smart chicks are hot,” whispered Booster. “No shit, huh? You step through that and wham you’re in astral?”

“No shit,” I affirmed. “Straight from the Big Bird himself.”

“What are the odds he’s playing a prank on you?” asked Monk softly.

“Pretty much nil,” I said. “I don’t need the portal, it’s only for you guys. Raven may trick his flock mates, but he knows the opportunities are better with the flock. He wouldn’t give me something that would harm you.”

“Well,” said Booster, getting heavily to his feet. “Seems to me like we’re gonna need some trust. You give me a lot of grief, Ghost, but I trust you. So, here goes.” With out another word he walked across the room and through the portal. I felt a tug like I’d just cast a particularly difficult spell as Booster fell over onto the couch, still breathing out the other side of the portal.

“Streak,” I said as he sat down quickly.

“Gone,” was his reply as he slid over sideways. I used my Astral Sight and saw Streak calming down Booster. I was fascinated looking at his Astral Form. There were portions of him that seemed mechanical; the left arm he’d lost after totaling out his first truck as well as the glowing black lines through out him which I assumed was his Vehicular Control Rig.

“It works,” I said, turning towards Monk. “And it looks like he has weird approximations of the chrome that his soul paid for. I can’t explain it better than that I’m afraid. He’s got his arm, and it works, but it looks way more mechanical there. Seriously, though, Monk, no pressure. If you don’t want to go, it’s all good.”

She looked cross as she stood. “Friends don’t insult friends by trying to let them back out of helping,” she said as she walked over and effortlessly moved Boosters unconscious form slightly to one side to make room. Then she backed through the portal so as to fall in a seated position on the couch.

I then fought to stay conscious while looking for the asshole with the baseball bat. Her passage through the portal had struck me with the force of a Sammy Sosa the third hanging fast ball on its way to the back parking lot. The room went sideways for a second and I only just felt Stefan catch me to keep me from falling. I heard the couch groan with Monks impact and still having my Astral Sight up and active I saw a creature, half heartbreakingly beautiful, and half mechanical nightmare. Her ‘human’ portions were clouded by dark lines of her wired reflexes and the relays of her cyberwear and I had no idea Monk had so much chrome.

Finally my Earthly senses overrode my Astral ones and I heard Stefan as though from a great distance. “Ghost Wolf! Are you all right?”

After a while I was able to get my other arm to work to stop him shaking me. “I’m ok, that just hit me like a freight train,” I mumbled. I managed a weak smile and tried to assure him I was ok. “Your turn, Stone, and be gentle, Kay? I’m a little sore, but it’s what you get waiting for sloppy seconds.”

He smiled his lopsided smile and lowered me down to the rug. I was able at that point to sit up on my own as I watched him with great dexterity work his way between Monk and the portal, then sat down, moving away from her towards me landing on the floor. I barely felt a whisper as he passed through, managing to land in the lotus position.

Breathing slowly, I began to recover my wits a bit better as I whispered in Cheyenne, calling for a spirit of nature to come to me. The air before me shimmered and a little dust devil the size of a large cup came into being on my knee. “What can I do for you, mistress?” said the little tornado in its whispery voice.

“Down stairs in this building is a shaman who looks to Coyote. Can you see her?”


“She answers to the name of Nipper. Go to her with the message that Ghost Wolf needs to see her in Ghost Wolf’s apartment as soon as she can get here, please. Then your service to me is done.”

The whispery voice sounded happy to have such a small task handed to it and whisked off on its task. After a few more minutes of rest I was feeling almost like I only sick as a dog and not worked over with a bat when there was a knock at the door. “In,” I called.

It opened, revealing the Irish red headed form of Nipper. I liked Jennifer a lot, she and I saw eye to eye on a lot of things, and we both had more temper than a Lone Star Drunk Tank on a Saturday night. But, even though we about as different as night and day, we’d always hit it off. We were close enough to the same size that we shared clothes. There was a lot that I envied her pale beauty set off by her flashing green eyes and brilliant red hair. Of course, when I’d admitted it to her, she’d told me how jealous of my dusky mystery she was, so it reinforced the universal truth, no woman is ever happy with what she’s got.

“Got your message,” she said in her slightly nasal Boston accent. “You ok?”

“Fine, I need you to watch some meat for me if you could.”

“Yah, sure, whoa, what’s wrong with them?”

“They’re the meat. They’re Astral and waiting for me.”

Her green eyes went as wide as dinner plates as she recognized who some of the people piled around my couch were and the hole in reality that was between them. “Holy shit,” she breathed. “Yeah, sure, I’ll watch. What ever you need.”

“Be back as soon as I can,” I said gratefully and slipped out of my own body to the Astral realm. Now the real drek was going to hit the fan.

Chapter Eight

It’s hard to explain to somebody who hasn’t done it what being in the Astral Realm is like. Overtly, we were all still in my apartments in the Manner. The colors were both sharper and more life like of the natural things, but also duller and misty looking when one gazed at the bits of technology around the room. The guardian spirits I had watching the apartment nodded a greeting to me as I joined my companions, then went back to their constant vigilance.

Of course it was odd also that there was two of everyone in the room as well.

As usual, everyone was dressed as their meat bodies were, but the emotions associated with the clothes were apparent on them. Monk’s army fatigues and Colt Manhunters radiated feelings of duty and courage which made me make a mental note to find out if Monk had ever served in the Army as the name tape normally worn over the left breast was, wisely, missing on her meat body, but a tangle of emotions spelled out Constageri on her Astral. Monk was still obviously an Ork, but in a way a kind of idealized, beauty pageant Ork, if you can imagine that. Both of her legs were black with wires and with burnished stainless steel that flexed like muscle and skin. As were the blood vessel like lines of her wired reflexes and a host over other artificial enhancements I could only guess at.

Booster was looking up at me by Streak, his Harley shirt and jeans now seemed clean and shown with feelings of comfort and, oddly security. Reassurance was wrapped like a blanket around an Ares Predator II heavy pistol tucked in the small of his back I’d never noticed before. Glowing under the Harley shirt was a silver pentagram that was muddled with panoply of emotions, ranging from wonder to regret.

Next to him, by comparison, Streak seemed the least changed of all of us. As in the other times he and I had journeyed in the Astral, his Johnny and the Trogs shirt and jeans seemed to not belong on him some how. That they were covered with feelings of fear and evasion I always wondered about, but had the etiquette, in this biz anyway, never to ask about. His sliver hair was enclosed in a wire of gold with a turquoise or emerald circlet I’d never seen him wear in the flesh but was always on him Astrally.

I turned to my right where Stefan had been crouching over my body, waiting for me and was struck once more by the contrast of physical beauty and the dark lines of technology. Being as withdrawn as he was, I was finding it odd that his own emotions danced on his sleeve as it were. The martial arts Gi he wore must have been fairly new as none of his emotions seemed to have clung to it yet, or else his own where too loud and overpowered them.

“Who are those guys?” asked Booster, eyeing the spirits warily in their places.

“Spirits I’ve bound to my rooms to defend them,” I told him. “Which brings us to rule number one in the Astral Realm. Everybody you’re going to meet here will be one of three types, spirits, elementals, or other magicians. Some of us know real names and I have to tell you right now do not use someone’s real name here. Got that? I can’t tell you how important that is.”

“True name, right?” asked Monk. “Kind of a ritual sorcery thing, isn’t it?”

Streak nodded and answered. “Yes, kind of. These spirits are bound to Ghost and thus, friendly with her. Part of the ritual she invoked when she bound them was to keep them from acting on, or telling another spirit any names they might over hear here. But, if a spirit gets your name, you could be in a world of trouble. It could take it to a Magician who controls it to barter out of that service, or a Free Spirit can get power over you with your True Name, like we have power over spirits.”

“So,” drawled Booster, “say Raven could whistle me up here if he found out what my True Name was?”

Streak shook his head. “No, but he could destroy your spirit and possess your meat body.”


“Ok, that’s Rule Number One,” I finished. “Second, we’re going into the higher planes on an Astral Quest. To get there, we’re going to have to get by the Dweller on the Threshold. He’s a Free Spirit who seems to know everything about you. He’ll either just attack us…”

“Which is the easy way for us,” interjected Streak.

“…Or he’ll throw every misdeed, cruel fucked up thing you’ve ever done in your face and ours.”

“Which is the way it usually happens,” finished Streak.

I nodded and continued, “I can tell you now, you’re going to find out things about me you didn’t know and honestly I wish you’d never know. Maybe you will too, but I’m stuck with it, my Totem sent me, so I have to go. If any of you have any dire secrets you’d rather die than have revealed, then just concentrate on opening your eyes and you’ll be back in the real world with no hard feelings.”

They looked about one at one another, but nobody faded away so after a moment I nodded, not sure wither to be relieved or fearful. Stefan spoke first. “So, what is we’re after?”

“Is that really important?” cackled a chillingly familiar voice. The others turned in surprise to watch Raven land on my window sill and walk through the misty glass without breaking it.

Booster and Monk took a step backward, both half reaching for their weapons before I could wave them off and get between them and my Totem. “We’re just leaving, sir,” I told him, trailing off to silence as he stared at me one eyed again. He walked further into the room, stopping to nuzzle me with his beak to let me know he wasn’t angry. “Uh, guys, meet Raven, my Totem. Raven, this is Stone Fist, Streak, Booster and Monk.”

The gigantic bird dipped his head ever so slightly as I named off my soon to be ex-friends. “It’s a pleasure to meet all of you,” he purred in a silky tone that made my spine tingle. Turning to Stefan he continued, “Is what I’ve sent my shaman for that important to you? It seems to me that the important thing is the depth of friendship you’ve all shown her in accompanying her.”

“Come to that,” said Streak carefully. “Why do we have to go with her? Me, I’d have gone pretty much wither she asked me to or not. But why the guided tour for the mundanes?”

Raven’s laugh was low and, as always, terrifying. This was an extremely rare thing, for a Totem to just show up to meet and greet before an Astral Quest didn’t bode well. If I weren’t more terrified of Raven’s anger, my superstitious nature would have put the kibosh on the whole thing right there. There are shamans who live their entire lives never meeting their Totem outside of visions and dreams. “Victoria is having a bit of a lesson over a transgression, Streak. Your presence is mostly for outside witnesses of that lesson. However, being a kindly being, I want you all to feel free to help her or not to your heart’s content.”

Booster sighed and said just loud enough to be heard, “Victoria is such a lovely name.”

I kept my rage on a very short leash. “Use that once out side this room and I’ll work a hurt on you that will make the worst case of dump shock you’ve ever had seem like losing your virginity, if in fact you ever have you little troll.”

Booster took a half step back from the force of my anger and put his hands up in supplication. “Ok, ok, sheesh, can’t you take a joke?”

That struck Raven as funny and he cackled once more. “I like you, Booster.”

“Is that a good thing?” asked the dwarf slowly.

“Ask Victoria after you’ve met the Dweller on the Threshold,” was the Raven’s ominous reply. “And speaking of him, that brings us to the reason of my visit.” I felt my self go tense and wished my War Hawk manifested with my Astral Body the way the others got their guns. “I’m known to the People as many things, trickster, transformer, but my favorite is Pathfinder.” He tossed his head and out the window was no longer the serene beauty of Lake Washington but a gigantic archway that I knew as the Threshold to the Higher Planes. “Just thought I’d save you a bit of a trip. Good luck.”

Then, his laughter floating in the air, Raven was gone and I could see the others were just as shaken up as I was. “Does that happen every trip?” asked Monk quietly.

“No.” answered Streak. “I can count on one hand the number of shamans in this Order who’ve meet their totem face to face in the Astral.”

“Swell,” muttered Booster. “Things I go through for friendship.” He looked up and drew the Predator from the small of his back. “This thing work here like it does there?” I must say it looked more than a bit comical the dwarf holding the world’s largest handgun. It was nearly as big as he was.

I shrugged, gesturing to my lack of my Futility Belt. “Wouldn’t know. I guess we’ll find out when we need to. You got something besides that?”

He flexed his left hand and a brace of cyber spurs snapped out, the stainless steel looking more wicked and sinister here, then they popped back. I nodded and said resignedly, “Last chance to bail. Anybody? Ok, follow me.”

I led them through the glass, feeling the slight tug as the echo of the real world was violated as we started walking. After a moment, I saw the twenty foot tall bloated figure of the Dweller, rolls of obscene fat upon fat hung on him like a shirt far too large for someone to wear. But, before the kindly Buddha-like image settles in your mind, let me direct your attention to the demonic visage, horns that should break the neck they were attached to, a mouth full of razor sharp teeth and fingers that ended in claws that were more like swords than fingernails. I brought my motley little group to a halt about forty feet away from it, tense for what was coming.

The Dweller grinned his fearsome grin and stood from his perch in the center of the Arch. “Welcome back, Victoria,” he growled in his nails on chalkboard voice. “I see you brought some friends. Replacements for George?”

“No,” I said softly between clenched teeth. In a twinkling, the bloated demon was gone and my mentor stood before me once more.

“Yes, bad accident wasn’t it?” said the George Standing Tall shaped Dweller in a terrifying mix of George’s and his voice. “But we’ll get to that. I can see how built up you think you are for me. Let’s talk about your friends for a bit and we’ll see if that resolve slips some.”

The image of George shortened, grew a beard and became an older, more care worn version of Booster. Turning laser eyes on the rigger, the doppelganger said, “Brian, I always knew you were a worthless piece of shit, but I thought I beat some respect for the Law into you.”

“You’re not my father,” growled Booster doggedly.

“Is that what this tramp told you?” demanded the Dweller, indicating me with a stubby fist. “Don’t even know her real name and you’re prancing around out of your body, thinking with the wrong head again, aren’t you, boy?”

Booster started to say something, then shook his head and started again, more determinedly. “My father is dead.”

“Think I don’t know that? You killed me! Always knew you were a lazy fuck, but I didn’t think you’d just leave me on the side of the road.”

“Shut up!” shouted Booster.

“Least you could have done was give me a mercy round. I raised you didn’t I? Wasn’t I worth a bullet, you waste of skin? Do you know how long it took me to die?”

“Shut up!”

“Nine hours! Nine long, agonizing hours! Not that you care, do you? Too busy trying to stick your dick in this tramp to give a shit about me or your family! Well, I guess I should look on the bright side, your mothers just about drunk herself to death over it, I’ll have a little company here in a bit.”

The report of the Predator II about deafened me and took us all by surprise. The bullets impacted the dwarf, tearing one arm off completely and spinning the Dweller around. He landed on his back, but looked for all the world more like some one who had been run over by a tractor than a gunshot wound victim. “Help me, son!” he gurgled. “Oh, God, help me! I forgive you!”

“Dad!” screamed Booster as he sank to his knees and began to sob. The gurgles from the Dweller turned to laughter. “Oh, I love first timers. You remember your first time, don’t you, John?”

Streak stiffened beside me. “Let’s get this over with, we’ve got better things to be doing,” he said, trying and almost succeeding to sound disinterested. The dwarf chuckled as he picked himself up and changed to a matronly looking female Ork whose over abundance of endowment left no room for doubt as to who she was.

“We’re getting there. Wait your turn.” Now I knew where Monk got her figure from as the Dweller turned to our Street Samurai, her face pulling into a frown of disapproval. “Just can’t seem to stay out of the gangs, can you Maria?”

Monk actually laughed. “Can’t you come up with something more original than that?” she asked, crossing her arms under her own ample bosom, affecting the pose the Dweller wore.

For its part, the Dweller simply flipped over to a male Ork wearing a crisp and pressed UCAS Army uniform. I wasn’t up on what all the bits meant on the uniform, but he certainly looked important. “How’s this then?” he asked in a carefully cultured tone that minimized the ever present lisp of Orks and Trolls. “I could understand why you and I couldn’t work out, Maria but another girl? A Japanese girl at that? When did you become a dyke?”

“When I found love you self centered piece of shit,” countered Monk hotly.

“You know that I loved you, I still do.”

“You love stealing and using people. That’s what you did, then pined it on me and let me get bounced out for it.”

“I didn’t break into the Armory. I didn’t load the truck or drive it off the post.”

“You just took the money and let me take the fall. And if you think I’m going to waist a second more of my life on this crap you’re woefully mistaken. I’m over it, you and that life. I like who I am and I don’t give a shit what you or any body else thinks about me.”

“Well, that’s the trouble with dark secrets; you never know how somebody will react when faced with them. But you might want to know what became of all that ordinance you stole.”

Monk snorted. “Do I look like I care? Did some idiot blow up an orphanage? Well that sucks. Is it my fault what they did with it? Probably, but you are not my God so I don’t have to give a flying fuck what you think.”

“You know, you Catholics think as long as you go through the motions your ticket is punched. That’s not the way of it.”

I was taken completely aback by Monk’s low laugh. “You just don’t get it, do you? This isn’t about me or God or Justice or anything else. You’re just some idiot with a suck job. Guess what, so am I. My suck job is putting up with you being an ass for however long I have to, then I go with the Indian right past your fat ass while she plays fetch and carry for another asshole she thinks she’s got to impress. It’s a job. And I’m really good at doing jobs. So, have fun with what ever else you want to trot out of my less than respectable past, just don’t get upset when I continue to not give a fuck.”

The Dweller resumed his old shape and shook his head. “Wow, am I glad most of the mages that come through here aren’t as big of a bitch as you are.”

“Let’s leave weight out of it, tubby, you ain’t making Play Girl any time soon either.”

In all of my time as a mage, I’d never seen the Dweller talked into submission. Damn but I wish I had a Trideo of this. The Dweller changed again and I stared at myself of fourteen years ago. “Perhaps I’m going about this the wrong way,” I heard my old voice say.

Monk’s voice sounded again from my left as I felt her massive hand on my shoulder. “I didn’t know you had a little brother, Ghost, but don’t let this asshole fuck with you.”

I sighed. “I don’t have a little brother and I never did, Monk. That’s me, age ten.”

I turned and looked up into her square face that was painted with concern. “Those real or did you just take on the mother of all Shadow Running disguises?”

“What…?” asked Booster, looking up from his stupor and trying to piece together what was going on.

“They’re real,” I said. “If you want the peep show I don’t care, but this is my soul and that was my body, but we’re kind of in a state of flux here.”

Monk chuckled. “Hey, I’ve always liked a good peep show, but it’s not necessary. No need to give Booster a coronary looking at what he can’t have. This what Raven was all steamed about?”

I nodded. “Yeah, female soul, male body and my bit of redecorating.” Her bushy eyebrows ascended her face.

“Damn but you are full of surprises. Spells nobody else can do, and I bet you bake your own cookies too. Where do you find the time?”

“Ghost is a guy?” asked Booster softly.

“Was, short shit, was,” was Monk’s laughing reply. “It’s cool girl, your man know?”

“Yeah,” said Stefan, piping up for the first time. “And I’ve already said I don’t give a shit either.”

“You’d best take care of her, pretty boy. I hear otherwise, you and I are going fifteen rounds.”

Stefan laughed. “No worries, Monk.”

“Excuse me,” came the voice of the Dweller. We turned and regarded him again. “Can I get a word of guilt in edge wise here?”

“Damn, I forgot about you,” said Monk. “Are we done yet, or do you have more time of ours to waste?”

“Well, I could trot out Stefan’s mother having an apoplectic fit about her son the fag…” he said wistfully. “Or John’s Royal Family coming looking for him.” Monk clicked her tongue against her tusks.

“Hey, it’s a job, do what you think you got to do, but I think I can speak for everybody by saying, we don’t give a shit.”

“Aw, fuck it, get the hell on,” growled the Dweller as he stepped to one side and opened the arch. “This just isn’t my day, I guess. Maybe I’ll have better luck with the wage mage at two. It’s his first Astral Quest and his somewhat irregular accounting practices are sure to piss off the supervisor taking him on this trip.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” said Monk as she led us through the Arch. As reality swirled around us, taking us to one of the metaplanes, I thanked whoever was happy with me for friends like these. Now we just had to go through hell, get Raven’s goodie and figure out who was trying to kill me.

Nothing to it, really.

linebreak shadow

Chapter Nine

“Oh, Victoria, just one more thing,” came the nails on the chalkboard voice as I floated in the darkness waiting for which ever of the metaplanes would be the first we’d land in. I sighed, but tried to keep calm. I had known that we’d gotten past him far too easily, but it’s in my nature to hope for the best.

“Yes?” I asked hesitantly

“Nothing much, really, just a Union rules kind of thing, you know? Like your friend said, it’s a job. I thought you’d like a little guided tour of your friends’ pasts. I figure it’s only fair as they got the first class treatment of yours.”

“I appreciate that, really, but it’s not any of my business.”

“Naw, but it is mine. I’m on the clock here, you understand. Hey, let’s start with the future husband, how’s that sound?” Even as the words echoed in my ears I saw a room begin to form around me. The Dweller on the Threshold took form beside me, looking like a Johnson; he took the form of a fit and dapper man in his late forties or early fifties. Short graying hair was tastefully arranged so as to compliment the 50,000¥ power suit with off set, but subdued yellow power tie.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m on a dead line, here.”

“Oh, it’s worse than that,” he said in a cultured, fairly pleasant voice. The very picture of the senior executive. “You’re not on a deadline, you’re dead.” That shocked me into silence as the room became real and solid around me. It was a nursery in what looked like a nice home. A peek out the window revealed a manicured lawn with all the trimmings, right down to the white picket fence. The room was done in a Cheyenne motif, the pictures cartoon like representations of our oral traditions, mostly those involving Raven. “Welcome to the future. Three years from now to be exact, take a good look, you died five months ago.”

“Oh, how is that? GSW? Domestic violence?”

The handsome, but evil man shook his head slowly. “Child birth. Hey, look on the bright side, you made it, and you got to hold your son for five minutes before you bled out.”

I felt a pit open up inside of me as I was washed by a wave of numbness. “It’s not so bad,” the Dweller continued. “You get two years and a bit of being Mrs. Reynolds. It all works out like you planned it, too. The new job bought this house, got Stefan citizenship, mom and dad are proud, yep the whole smash.”

“I suppose you’re going to tell me how miserable it all was and that death was a relief, right?” I asked, trying to muster up some bravado to use against him. Again his face didn’t change and he just shook his head.

“Nope, just your basic, picture book marital bliss. He loves you, you love him, his mom is a bit spastic, but she gets won over when she learns she gets to be a grandmother after all. Speaking of which, you might want to take a look at your son while you can.” Fighting every step, I was drawn inexorably to the crib and looked down into the eyes of my son. He had his fathers’ eyes, but my dusky skin tones. I would have picked out other features between the two of us, but his face scrunched up and he began to squall. My heart melted as I tried to pick him up, but my hands passed through him. “Look, don’t touch,” said the Dweller softly.

I was about to scream at him in rage, but another scream of rage cut me off. It was Stefan’s voice, not like I’d ever heard it. He came storming into the room, his eyes blood shot and wild. I shrank back from him in terror, but he stepped through me and snatched up our child like he would a sack of bricks he’d stubbed his toe on. “What?” he shouted. “What could you want now? Haven’t you taken everything?”

Over come with maternal instinct, I called out, “Stefan, be careful with him!” Then, impossible as it sounds, over our combined screaming I heard a sickly wet crunch and the baby went silent as if electric and the switch had been thrown.

“Thus ends the short life of Stefan Laughing Crow Reynolds, age five months and six days,” said the Dweller sadly.

“You son of a bitch!” I screamed, not sure who the comment was directed at. For his part Stefan went into a panic and tried artificial respiration, but no amount of air can cure a broken neck.

He carefully laid our dead son back into the crib, sank to his knees and began to weep. “Oh God, Vicki, I’m so sorry.”

I tried to shut out his grief and stormed back over to the Dweller. “You goddamn asshole! Who do you think you are fucking with me like this?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said softly.

“You’re damn right it doesn’t! I’ve had it with your tricks.”

“It’s not a trick,” he said with an awful finality. “This is your future. And it doesn’t matter. Even if the doctors could have stopped your bleeding, you’d still be gone and in the hospital right now. You have breast cancer. Congratulations, you’re as real a woman as you can get.”

He met my enraged gaze and shook his head. “Don’t take my word for it, go and have a screening when you get back. It’s already begun to spread to your lymphatic system. I’d guess you have about three years to live.” I heard Stefan flee the room as I tried to work through in my mind some way to deny what I was seeing. Before I could, the house echoed with the report of a powerful handgun whose serial number I was pretty sure I could guess. “Yep, your War Hawk. Oddly fitting, isn’t it?” he asked, apparently reading my mind.

“But, despite my propensity for doing you a favor, I can see the future doesn’t agree with you. Fair enough, let’s look at the past.” The nursery of death swirled away from my vision to be replaced with the front lawn of a complex of small, squat buildings that were obviously not of sufficient size for human use. They were in a Greek Revival style, and that, along with the heat and the mugginess of the air, combined with the wisteria hanging in the trees told me I was somewhere down South in the Confederated American States.

“Welcome to Georgia,” drawled the Dweller once more. “I thought you might be worried about that little scene I played out for Booster. It was all from his side of things and it gets a little hazy that way. So, here’s how things really went down.”

I watched Booster and his father explode from the house, in the midst of a rather heated argument. For some reason while it was obvious both men were angry, Boosters father didn’t come across nearly as such a hard ass as he had played out from the Riggers perspective. I could see real concern for his son in his tone. From the debate I gathered that Booster had just informed his family of his intent to go to Seattle.

“You know, there are doctors who can help you with your sick voyeurism,” I told the Dweller as I tried to ignore the argument Booster and his father were raging in behind me.

“You’re probably right,” agreed the Dweller, intent on the scene behind us. “After all, modern psychotherapy has done so much for you.” I sighed raggedly and turned back so as to ignore him to watch the two dwarves get into a shoving match. Booster won, shoving his father around the nose of the truck and to the ground, then climb into the cab to start the engine. I could tell from this angle that Booster couldn’t see that his father had caught his foot in a drainage hole, nor hear his cries for help or the beating he was giving the nose of the truck.

Hell, from the look of it, the father was barely five feet tall, and the nose of the tractor was probably closer to six feet. I watched Booster try to dry his eyes of tears and look around. I could see him think that his father had given up and gone back inside. I turned away when I heard the truck slip into gear and begin to roll forward.

I’d be the first to admit I’ve heard more than my fair share of people be mortally wounded, but that sound will probably haunt my dreams for years. The truck rumbled down the driveway, then screeched to a halt as Booster saw what he’d done in his rear view mirror and locked the breaks up. I shut my ears to the frantic apologies, the agony from Boosters father and focused my gaze and attention with laser focus on the Dweller. I flowed all of my anger and hate into that gaze. If there was any justice in the world, the Dweller would have been incinerated on the spot.

But there isn’t and he wasn’t.

He just shook his head sadly and said, “See, Booster’s not such an asshole, is he? Of course, the law doesn’t think so and Vehicular Homicide, Family Violence is a death penalty offense down here.”

“You are pure evil,” I hissed, trying in vane not to shake with my anger.

“I’m just pure information; how you take it is entirely your problem, Victoria. I’m guessing you don’t care about Monks theft of explosives for profit from Fort Dix, do you?” He paused for a moment while I stared at him shaking, some small part of me wondering if I cast every spell that could hurt someone at him what would it do. “I guess not,” he said sadly. “Then you won’t care about Streak being of Royal Blood in Tir Tangier and that you hanging around him might get you dead before your three years as there’s three different strike teams looking for him.” He paused again as spell formula ran through my mind faster and faster as I sought the most painful way magically I could kill him.

His face smiled an evil smile. “I know what you’re just dieing to know, pardon the pun,” he said and Georgia faded away. Around behind him I saw the foot hills of the Rocky Mountains form and I knew I was somewhere in Wyoming once more. “This goes out side the bounds of what I can tell you, technically, but since Raven already told you about it, that gets me off the hook. Take a look at your soul’s past Vicki.”

That shocked me out of my recitation of magic. Suddenly I was alone and very afraid. I looked around, feeling my hair being blown by the dry Wyoming air and saw that I was inside a compound fenced in by ten foot chain link topped by rolls of razor wire. I knew then instantly not only where, but when I was. I’d been here as a small child in grade school, every child on the NAN comes here. Lest we forget the outrages of our nationhood we’re brought to America’s old concentration camps, which are still on our land, which are kept as historical monuments. This was Camp Custer for the Sioux, Cheyenne and Algonquin. Twenty thousand families crammed into rattletrap buildings meant to house about a third that number. For almost ten years the People had been kept here after some Native extremists had seized control of a US Nuclear Missile Silo, demanding independence.

The army had stormed the bunker, then, somehow the missile had launched. From there, nobody knows what happened. It didn’t explode over Moscow which was its primary target, it didn’t crash and it wasn’t shot down en-route. It just vanished. That didn’t stop the rest of America from launching into a full fledged witch hunt over it. Then, if you were Native, you were a prisoner. Even Anglos not even born on the Res got thrown in with us, down to a sixty fourth of Native American blood. If you crossed the fence line, you were shot.

This was where we stayed for ten years until magic returned and we gave back some of the hatred we’d been handed. I wondered through the camp, looking at the dull, lifeless faces, and the poor, ostracized Anglos with Native blood that didn’t fit in anywhere. I caught sight of Sam Proud Eagle, the Shaman who had organized the break out of Camp Custer and realized that this couldn’t be long before the Return.

Then I heard a scream no one else seemed to hear. I was pulled towards it, towards the Recreation Center where the poor detainees had been force fed ‘patriotic’ movies and ‘education’ about how the Great White Father was just doing this for our own good. I passed through the clap board wall as I felt my stomach roll. Six guards had a Native girl of about sixteen and were in the process of cutting her clothing off her with bayonets.

And I knew the girl was me.

I closed my eyes against the scene, but it didn’t obscure a bit of it. Then they started taking turns with her. I tried to turn but no matter which way I did, the scene stayed in front of me. I tried to flee to my meat body and damn the consequences, but for the first time in all of my trips to Astral space, I couldn’t move. They kept on and on and her screams became more and more frantic until I heard her howl out a fire ball spell. The Recreation Center exploded outward and her tormentors began to flail in agony, on fire.

Then one of them fell across her and had the presence of mind to cut her throat with one of the bayonets they’d been cutting her with. I felt my own throat cut and screamed a silent scream, drowning in my own blood as blackness descended.

linebreak shadow

Chapter Ten

“Ghost? Ghost are you ok?”

I heard the voice calling my name and I felt the arms holding me, but how could I speak with my throat cut? I was awash in darkness and lost, until I realized I was holding my eyes closed as tightly as I could. I shook with the violence of an epileptic seizure. Slowly I came to recognize the voice as belonging to Stefan. If I was hearing Stefan’s voice that meant I probably wasn’t in Camp Custer watching my own gang rape any more. I cautiously opened my eyes, ready to slam them shut once more, but saw only Stefan’s face pale and worn with terror mixed with concern.

I tried to calm my own shaking, but realized the floor itself was also vibrating. I looked around to see the others in various stages of shock and denial. We were apparently inside Booster’s truck past the passenger compartment he’d modified as a mobile command post to control his drones and allow a Decker a place to jack in while protected as needed. I was against the bed in the back of the cab where Booster slept. I was struck once more by how neat and tidy everything was.

Streak was curled into a fetal ball off to my left and to my right, Monk, the ever solid and unflappable was weeping openly, holding herself while rocking back and forth while I felt what little bit of resolve I could muster slip away. Monk, my rock, had shattered. The only emotions I’d ever seen her display were humor and annoyance. To see her reduced to tears made me question if it were even possible for us to complete this quest.

In the front of the cab, in his drivers couch, was Booster, struggling to check on his beloved truck, but every now and then his shoulders shook and his breathing became ragged as he suppressed a sob. As I turned back to Stefan, I could see even he was shattered by what ever the Dweller had shown him, but I was what was giving him a hold on reality. I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him with all my might. “I’m ok, love, I’m ok,” I assured him, trying to drown out the feelings echoing in my mind of the violation of organs I didn’t have yet.

“Now I know why you don’t do that very often,” he said, his weak attempt at humor sounding hollow in my ears. I nodded into his muscular shoulder, then took several deep breaths to force the awful memory deep away from consciousness.

“Welcome to my world, lover,” I said and withdrew slightly from him in preparation of standing up. As he helped me to my feet I asked him with my eyes to check on Streak. I went over to Monk, struggling for something to say, then realized anything I did would be trite, so I just wrapped my arms around her as far as they would go. She melted into me, wracked by sobs holding onto me as if a drowning man clutching a life preserver. After a few moments of the embrace I felt her get control of her emotions, but continued to hold her until she kissed my cheek and pulled slowly away.

“You ever want to walk the wild side, you let me know,” she said softly. She tried to make a joke of it, but a massive sniff spoiled her effect somewhat.

“I’ll keep that in mind, once I’m able to again,” I said softly. She patted my shoulder before she went to help Stefan with Streak while I continued further forward to squeeze Booster’s shoulder. “It wasn’t true,” I told him softly.

“Take your hand off me!” he thundered, causing me to jump backward as if struck. He turned in the couch, his face a twisted mask of rage and grief. “You…you bitch!” he stuttered. “You lied and took me here and…”

He trailed off into another crying jag as I walked up to him, batting aside his flailing arms and did the only thing I could to comfort him. As I had with Monk, I wrapped my arms around him and held him as his emotions spun down from the manipulations he’d been put through. “It’s ok, Brian, I’m sorry, but it’s ok.”

“I didn’t mean to…” he started, choking on his sobs.

“I know.”

“I couldn’t help him…”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t face telling you.” He finally hugged me back, then withdrew, removing the ever present red rag he kept in his pocket to violently blew his nose with. He stuffed it back as he looked at me.

“I didn’t mean anything by all that, Ghost, and I’m sorry if I offended you with all my wise cracks.”

I grinned a lop sided grin. “Still think Raven liking you is a good thing?” The dwarf paled visibly at the mention of my totem as well as some private memory of the journey of my life that had been shown him. He shook his head slowly. “No hard feelings, Booster, about anything?” I offered my hand which he took, engulfing mine with his huge one.

“You need me, you call, girl. You’re with out a doubt, the toughest chick I know. I’ll run with you any time.”

“Just keep your hands to yourself and we’ll get along,” I told him around a grin.

“No promises, doll. Everybody else ok? Did we fail? Are we back in Kansas or what?”

I heard Streaks voice weakly from the back. “I’m ok, and no, if we’d failed we’d be in Ghost’s apartment. This must be one of the metaplanes.”

“How many of them are there?” asked Monk. She looked down at her hands before she said, “It looks like we’re back.”

“The Astral Realm is the buffer between it and other planes of reality. This place is just as real as Earth. We’re not, however. It’s like Raven coming to the Astral. We don’t belong here and we can’t stay very long. We have to make our way to the Citadel, the mystic fortress where the object of our Quest will be held.” I told them turning back into the cab to face most of them. “If we get into a fight here, it will hurt just as much, but you can’t die. If you would have died, you’re just shunted back to your body.”

“So everything feels the same here?” came Boosters voice from behind me. I answered without turning.

“Yes. So be careful. As far as how many metaplanes there are? Nobody really knows for sure. Hey!” I was cut off by the feeling of one of Boosters meaty hands goose me again. I turned around to glare at him. “What the fuck?”

He just shrugged and grinned. “I told you no promises. You’re right, it does feel the same.”

I bit down on my rage, but slapped him sharply across the mouth just the same. “Did that feel just the same you troll?”

He held his face where I’d slapped it, but only laughed as Monk’s voice said, “Hey, leave the racial slurs out of this.” It was going to be a long quest, I was sure.

“This is so weird, my head ware memory is working again,” put in Stefan as a way to smooth over the rough spot in our little Sunday drive. “Booster, your VCR working again?”

“One sec,” said the dwarf, still rubbing his face as he climbed back in to diminutive driver’s seat. “Sheesh, but she packs a wallop.” He took the jack wire from its place and stuck it in his skull. “Yeah, it is. My GPS says we’re on old I70 just out side of Denver.”

“Generally the metaplanes are a bit more abstract than this,” muttered Streak as he came forward to look out the window.

“Not always…” I said slowly, filling with fear. Further musing was cut off by a massive explosion a few dozen yards behind us and to our left that shook the truck on its suspension.

“Shit!” yelled Streak. “We’re on the Plane of War! Booster go! We’re right in the middle of the Battle of Denver!” Without Booster moving, the levers of his truck began to work themselves causing the ten drive wheels under us spun for a moment, squealing as we lurched down the mountainous Wolf Creek Pass.

As I struggled to stay upright as the truck barreled down a nearly forty percent grade far faster than the posted speed limit, I pondered taking a trip back to Cheyenne to slap Mr. Kicking Bird my history teacher who called this a ‘non-war’. In actually, lots of bullets had been fired and a couple of stand up drag out battles had been fought. If memory served, the column of tanks behind us was the 7thArmor Division advancing on a fairly bold plan to re-take Denver from its most dangerous approach.

It was most dangerous not only due to the brilliance of carving a freeway out of the side of mountain that was going almost straight up and down but 7thArmor was also doing it in the depths of winter. The road before us was only a pair of light snow tracks that ran down deeper, whiter snow all around us.

I could tell it was taking every trick Booster had to keep us on the side of the mountain as opposed to the wet, sticky alternative. I held onto the over head rail he’d installed as I slapped the release on his pop up turret trying not to lose my nerve as I was hit by the bitterly cold wind. The turret dutifully rose with a whine of hydraulics so I clawed my way up the ladder and up into the saddle so I could see the tanks behind us.

That is a magical rule. If you can’t see what you’re casting at with your own eyes, you can’t spell it. Which was why Booster had installed this particular add on after our last little adventure in night life. It would figure that the storm would pick up; reducing visibility to next to nothing once I got situated. Of course the tanks behind us wouldn’t care. Between the starlight gadgets and thermographics, I was pretty sure they could see us for a long, long ways.

Switching gears, I lifted my voice to the spirits of the storm itself to lesson their fury at us and increase it to those tanks. To the spirit of the mountain, I begged for him to shrug off the road way chaining him just behind us. The Bison slid on a patch of ice around a corner, fortunately moving around a fold of the mountain so we ground against the stone but didn’t stop or go over the side.

I held on and kept up my song to the dissimilar spirits who vented their rage on our pursuers. With a great groan, a great section of the road slid away behind us, down the mountain it went to the valley far below. The howl of the wind took up hurricane levels blowing past us and behind. Suddenly we were enclosed in a long tunnel making the noise of the wind and the echo of the engine through the tunnel too much for me to keep up my song.

I rotated the turret forward to get the view I was expecting of Denver laid out below us, but when we roared clear of the tunnel, the temperature soared and I was blinded momentarily by bright sunlight. Booster locked up the trucks brakes, flinging the rapidly melting snow off the front. The smell of burning rubber mixed with diesel exhaust filled my nose.

“What the fuck?” came Boosters loud voice.

“We beat the plane and moved to the next,” Streak answered him. “Good job, Ghost,” he called up to me.

“So, where are we now?” came Monk’s voice. “And why do we still have the truck?”

As I lowered the turret into the relative coolness of the cab, I explained, “They’re weird, but there are physics here. We’re moving, so even though we left one plane for another, there must be a reason for that movement. So long as we stay together in the truck, it’s conceivable it will stay with us all the way to the Citadel.”

“So, the question becomes what plane is this?” asked Stefan.

“I got no signal on my GPS,” added Booster.

“Each metaplane has its own set of rules, timelines and technology. The plane of War we just left shifts from battle to battle to battle, always about some kind of warfare. We just happened to land in a fairly advanced battle so we got GPS,’ said Streak. “There’s nothing to say that what ever plane this is, isn’t currently showing us the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance or the Dawn of Man for that matter.”

“So not only do we not know where or when we are, but what the focus of this plane is, right?” asked Monk.

I nodded, and climbed out of the turret saddle. “Pretty much. We should be able to figure out the theme of this plane pretty quick. Looks like a great desert out there. Maybe famine?” I suggested to Streak.

“Could be that, or some new plane that’s all about sand,” he shot back, chuckling.

“How much gas do we have, Booster?” asked Stefan.

“Fuel,” corrected Booster from habit. “And three quarters of a tank, that’s about 1300 to 1500 miles on hard roads for this.”

“I’m not seeing any roads,” was Monk’s observation. “What’s this about what the plane is about?”

“Pick a direction and drive,” I instructed Booster. “Alright, class, time for metaplanes 101. Professor Streak and I are gonna tell you everything you never wanted to know about the metaplanes.”

“That’s as much as I want to know,” quipped Booster while I shushed him so as to address the rest of the group.

“The known metaplanes are focused around some trait. War, for example behind us. The other known ones deal with strength, intelligence, agility, magic, charisma and will power. There are reports of other planes like War, which deal with states of the human condition that have strong emotions tied into them. But we don’t encounter them on a regular basis.”

“Thus, famine generates a metaplane,” piped in Streak, “Along with a handful of other, non-repeatable places that are known about anecdotally, but can’t be reached on a regular basis. Some of the others are Destiny, Past and Future.”

“So, is there a plane of Blowjobs?” asked Booster’s voice around a chuckle.

I slapped him playfully across the back of the head. “Drive, short shit, and don’t get your hopes up. But, yes, there is a plane of both Love and Sex, which are different.”

“Love is more flowery and idealized?” asked Monk.

“Sort of,” answered Streak. “Love isn’t just about sex. On the plane of love you could meet a relative, or some other loved one. Sex, on the other hand, is also an idealized version of it. Everyone is beautiful, no diseases, no impotence, that kind of thing.”

“And, each plane is generally different in appearance each time you visit it,” I finished. “Questions, class?”

“Just one,” said Stefan. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t get past this. What is it that Raven wants from the Citadel?”

I shrugged. “I know what it is, I know it will be waiting for us in the Citadel, but I can’t really describe it. It’s like I’ve got some kind of weird mind block. I can’t think how to tell you what it is.” Stefan rolled his eyes.

“Great. Well, maybe we’ll get some kind of break and hit some nice, easy planes since evidently, we’re just here to watch you get humiliated.”

“Sorry,” I started, then he silenced me quickly.

“I’m not put out, or ticked at you. I could wish this weren’t so enigmatic, but I’ll deal. Don’t feel bad about it.”

“There’s a forest up ahead,” said Booster. We crowded around the two front seats to look out, and I for one wasn’t put at ease by what I saw. Yes the trees soared high over head, straight, tall and healthy, but you never lower your guard on the metaplanes. Booster caught sight of something like a nature friendly road that wove around the trees and didn’t seem to harm the grass, but was level and still fairly straight. “Hang on, I’ll take a look see about,” he said again. I heard a hydraulic whine then a buzz as his rotor drone zipped by ahead of us.

I took a seat at the workstation and called up the Trideo screen of the camera on the drone. There was a building complex up head that looked like something out of a movie. The trees looked like they’d been encouraged to grow into building shapes. “This is too weird,” I commented, showing the others the screen. “Booster, park us right before the steps up to the dais there, would you?”

“Wilco,” was his response.

The Bison rolled to a stop with a great hiss of escaping air. We all saw the tall woman wearing a flowing white gown waiting for us, but as the doors opened I was overwhelmed with the rich, living smell of the place, I couldn’t muster anything, but a feeling of warm safety that I couldn’t remember feeling for years. Streak lead the way up the steps to the feet of the beautiful woman and dropped to one knee, greeting her in a language I didn’t speak, but assumed was Sperethiel, the language of the Elven People.

She returned his greeting in a rich, lilting voice that re-enforced the safe and warm feeling that was already overwhelming my senses, then placed her left hand on his bowed head. Streak got to his feet as the Lady over looked us and switched to English. “Welcome to the Temple of the Oracle, travelers.”

Destiny, I thought to myself.

“Thank you, madam,” I heard Stefan say to her. I realized that everyone else was basically speechless. Boosters’ mouth hung open, while Monk’s face was covered in an emotion that was a kinder, gentler form of naked lust. “We don’t mean to intrude; we’re on our way to the Citadel. Can you direct us to the quickest route?”

The Lady smiled a kind smile framed by her long blonde hair that lit up her endless blue eyes. “Alas, Stefan, your route is at the whim of the Powers. Once you have faced my challenge, I shall grant you safe passage to the edge of my domain. From thence your way must be a mystery to you.”

“What challenge of yours must we face?” he asked respectfully. “With respect, madam, can you tell us on which plane we reside currently?”

“You stand before the Temple of the Oracle, in what those learned among you call the Plane of Destiny. As for my challenge, you must see the various paths Destiny places before you and choose one, laying the others behind you,” she said in her heartbreaking voice.

“Have we not already faced such a trial by the Dweller on the Threshold?” asked Stefan.

She laughed as I began to struggle to find my voice, still in wonderment how only Streak and Stefan had escaped whatever spell she had cast over the rest of us. “Yes, and no. The Dweller can only show you the destiny that you make for yourself out of your own fears and hatreds. In my mirror, you shall doubtless see that which the Dweller has shown you, but also every other choice that is yours to make. Choose wisely, travelers, for few who walk the planes find themselves here to know what their destiny holds for them.”

“Must we face them alone?” I asked softly, finally finding my voice.

“Not if you desire your comrades to join you. That is your and their choice. Come, the Dweller has shown you that which you fear, let me show you what the full spectrum of the Powers have in store for you.”

She turned and walked deeper into the living building trusting that we would follow her blindly. Which we all did. The trees formed a courtyard around a pool of water that so perfectly reflected the sky overhead that it was impossible to judge how deep it was.

There are times I regret my infatuation with Hollywood’s history and this was certainly one of them. I could almost feel the weight of a ring on a chain about my neck as I worked to clear my mind for what I was about to be shown. “Here, you must choose,” the Lady said. “If you wish to stand with your friends, advance and you will all face the challenge together. Otherwise, hold back and one at the time step forward to gaze into the mirror.”

At last the spell was broken and we could look at each other once more. A rough consensus formed. In a clutch, we walked forward and looked at our reflections which then became cloudy and I was overcome with a wave of dizziness.

Chapter Eleven

As the dizziness faded away, I found myself leaning on an arm and shoulder. Before me was the altar of a church that held a kindly looking Anglo dressed in flowing white robes standing next to a Native man wearing the ceremonial garb of a Cheyenne Shaman. It was hard to see as I realized I was wearing a veil of white lace that obscured my view. I could make out Stefan’s muscular form in a tuxedo that was obviously not a rental and an honor feather of coal black hung in his hair.

Across the way from him stood Monk in a tasteful gown of traditional buckskin and beadwork that looked veryexpensive that complimented her ample figure well. I felt the arm I was leaning on pull slightly at me as I heard my father’s voice whisper, “Stay calm, Vicki. Just one step at a time.”

I looked up at him as I fell back in step and felt myself awash in conflicting emotions from the smile of pride he wore to his reassuring pat of my hand that he was holding with his right. I felt my breath coming in short, quick gasps, and yet I couldn’t seem to connect with my emotions. Suddenly I was watching myself walk down the aisle with my father from a different pair of eyes. You wouldn’t think that old lace and bead covered buckskin would go together, but they do. I could see I was short, giving me a feeling I was somehow in Booster’s mind. I could feel Stefan, Monk and Streak in here with me, watching through his eyes my marriage. The eyes looked down on the Predator II that was held in his stubby fist and I felt myself fill with horror and shame that wasn’t my own.

No, a voice said in my head. If I’ve lost, fair enough. There’s no way.

Then the voice and the vision of my wedding faded away as I did my best to offer feelings of comfort and forgiveness to the sensation of Booster. I figured he was just being smarmy for the fun of the rises he’d get out of me. I had no idea it went any deeper than that.

Then I was back in my own body again to find my arm was extended holding up a heavy weight I knew from memory. My War Hawk was in my hand and extended to a few inches from the face of a man whose face was obscured by a balaclava. In my face was a Colt Manhunter whose barrel seemed huge. Somehow I’d landed in the midst of a Mexican stand off. “Stay cool!” I heard Streak’s voice shout. “We can talk about this!”

Careful not to take my eyes off the man in front of me, I expanded my senses out to find Stefan who had another of the SWAT members in what looked like an extremely painful hammerlock. Monk was off to my right, covering two others, one with each gun, while yet another two where in mid-grapple with her and it looked like a third was about to be on the receiving end of one of her nose breaking head butts. To my left was a man who had Streak in a half nelson with a wicked looking knife that was dripping blood that apparently came from Booster who had a nasty gash down his left side.

“Your Highness is coming with us,” said the man who had him in a half nelson. “If it pleases your Highness to grant mercy to your highness’s captors, they must lower their weapons now!

“They’re not my captors you moron! They’re my friends and if one more of them is hurt I’ll have everyone of you killed in the slowest and most painful way I can think of!” screamed Streak.

“Put it down and you get to keep living, sunshine,” I heard myself tell the man in front of me.

“God Damn it, put the guns down!” screamed Streak and I knew whatever was going to happen was about to go down now. I thought furiously for some non-violent way out of this, but, truth be told non-violence isn’t really my gig. Then I felt an inspiration hit me of a spell I’d done as a gag more than anything else, but it just might get us out of this jam.

I reached within me for the lines of power and wove them as fast as I could. It was hard having to do it silently, not to mention the fact that I’d never tried to cast it over such a huge area. I felt my vision go into a tunnel and knew I was close to blacking out, but as I struggled to keep conscious I heard the man in front of me, in the most incredulous voice as if he couldn’t believe what he was doing, start to sing.

“A British Tar is a soaring soul, as free as a mountain bird…!”

His gun came down out of my face as his friends began to release my friends and join him in the song, even beginning to dance. “His energetic fist should be ready to resist, a dictatorial word…” answered the man who a second before had been holding Streak in a surprisingly strong tenor.

In frank amazement, Stefan released the one he had in a hammerlock as he too burst into song and dance with the others. “His nose should pant!”

“And his lip should curl,” chimed in the leader.

“His cheek should flame and his brow should furl,” answered the one in front of me. Then the whole team was washed into the effect of the spell to join the chorus.

“His bosom should heave and his heart should glow and his fist be ever ready for a knock down blow!”

“What the furry fuck?” demanded Streak, rubbing his throat.

“Thank God for Gilbert and Sullivan,” I gasped, clinging to the edge of consciousness. “Let’s get the fuck out of here before I pass out or they come to their senses.”

I felt Stefan scoop me up with out noticeable effort and we beat a hasty retreat listening to the strike team launch into the second verse as the dizziness once more swept over us.

“His eyes should flash with an inborn fire, His brow with scorn be wrung; He never should bow down to a domineering frown, Or the tang of a tyrant tongue…”

I was in my body still, but when the dizziness of the change passed my mind was clear, with out the ‘hangover’ effect casting a spell that far out of my experimenting should have left me with. Around me a board room took shape, paneled in wood and appointed with leather. A dream catcher hung on one wall opposite a massive set of floor to ceiling windows that looked out on the skyline of Cheyenne, capital of the Sioux Nation. Under the logo of Iron Prairie Computers sat Geoffrey Black Bear, the company’s CEO. It was apparent that Geoffrey was a few years older than when I’d last seen him at the Company picnic before I left as well as a bit more care worn. He still held the hard, rugged physique of a man in his fifties who worked out with a fanatic’s energy. The suit he wore hung on him like a rack. He sat at the head of the long table for the board while I stood off to his right.

I realized as I met his gaze I was wearing a very expensive, but tasteful business skirt suit. Around me where Stefan, Booster and Monk, similarly dressed in business attire that were well tailored while still subdued. Noticeable by his absence was Streak. “You know, Victoria, after the heart ache you’ve put your father through, I have serious reservations about you joining the firm.”

“While I deeply regret the sorrow my decision may have caused my father, and whatever, if any, effect that had on his ability to carry out his duties to the firm, sir, I cannot apologize for an action I felt critical to my well being as a human being. If you are worried about my commitment to the company, or my dependability, I can assure you Iron Prairie will receive the same dogged commitment I gave to making myself into what you see before you.”

“No, I believe that you will succeed in whatever you set your mind to. That has certainly been well demonstrated to my satisfaction. Your resume certainly proves your qualification to the position. Your team, however, is more than a bit, irregular. Sell me on why I should recommend them to the board.”

“Mr. Reynolds is an accomplished physical adept who can assist me in the recruitment and training of our physical security details. In addition, he is a degreed programmer with advanced intrusion capabilities. He was able to breech the NAN master document library host to uncover my past as well as the new records I had had changed to settle into my new identity.”

Geoffrey’s face showed how impressed he was with that feat. Cracking NAN is one of those hacks that can make your reputation in certain circles, if you get away with it, and live to show the proof of the hack.

I turned to Monk, who was obviously uncomfortable in her suit, because she was moving slowly for fear of bursting a seam. “Miss Constageri is also an expert in physical security, from a weapons and tactical stand point. She will serve as the Head of Physical Security as well as my personal body guard.”

“She also has no college degree not to mention a dishonorable discharge from the UCAS Army as well as warrants for her arrest in the UCAS,” observed Geoffrey.

“If you’re worried about any of those items before the board, sir, I’d be happy to have Mr. Reynolds see to it they cease to be an issue,” I replied smoothly. “Mr. Gorden is an accomplished CDL driver and mechanic. He will assist Miss Constageri with physical security. Also, he would be in charge of the Building and Vehicular Rigging Security department.”

Geoffrey sighed and shook his head. “An Anglo, an Ork and a Dwarf will not play well with the Board, Victoria, despite their qualifications and your recommendations. Will you be willing to accept the position without your first choice of team?” I felt the others stiffen as I did as well. Was this in fact my destiny to choose between them and the life I’d hoped for?

Before I could answer a pair of guards hauled in a figure wearing a Mage Hood. Because magic depends on line of sight and being free of distraction, the only way to safely incarcerate a Magician was this sound proofed, opaque hood. It does, after all, take more than a pair of hand cuffs to bring in somebody who can kill you with a spell, then get free with another. “We caught him trying to sneak in the loading dock, sir. He says he’s friends with Miss Laughing Crow,” said the guard.

Geoffrey sighed as he turned to me. “That would be the one you called, Streak, wasn’t it? I thought I was very firm about no Elves what so ever.” Finished with me, he turned back to the guards. “Take him out back and get rid of him.”

“Monk,” I said as I locked eyes with my father’s boss. In a twinkling, Monk’s matched pair of Manhunters were in her fists, one hand covering the two guards, the other pointed at Geoffrey. “As you can see, Mr. Black Bear, Miss Constageri is an asset to this firm as she has already worked out defeats to both the weapons screening procedure and cyber wear discovery screenings. However, if my team is not satisfactory to you, or the homogenous view of humanity the board seems to care for, we’ll take our leave with our thanks for your time. If you will kindly instruct your security personnel to release Streak, he will accompany us and we’ll wish you a pleasant afternoon.”

“I don’t deal very well with threats or guns in my face, Miss Laughing Crow,” was Black Bears response.

“I’m very sorry sir, I don’t deal well with people I trust with my life being ordered killed or judged as less than worthy for anything they set their minds to. I certainly hope for a peaceful resolution to this situation, but, Mr. Black Bear, please don’t think for a moment that I have any compunctions what so ever with smearing your brains across that window behind you.”

“That certainly puts a significant amount of strain on the trust I have for your father that you are willing to shoot your way out of this building over honest criticism of your associates.”

“Mr. Black Bear please do not make the mistake of coming after me through my family. I would hate to come to the decision that I will have fewer problems with you dead other than alive. As far as honest criticism, you’re certainly welcome to your opinion and to tell me it to my face. Our difficulty solely lies on the fact that Streak is in your custody. We are both businesspeople. This is a fairly simple transaction that I’m offering. If you can’t see the value my team and I bring to your company, fair enough, we’ll depart. All of us.”

Geoffrey sighed as he slowly steepled his fingers on the table before him. “I know something of the hard life you have led to your presence here, Miss Laughing Crow. I wasn’t aware that cold blooded murder was a bullet on your resume.”

I felt my temper almost get away from me, but caught it and kept it in check. “I’ve killed fifteen people myself, Mr. Black Bear. I honestly can’t say how many Miss Constageri has killed, but I know it’s more than me. I’m not an assassin per se, but I have no trouble whatsoever telling Miss Constageri to drop the hammer on you. Further, I won’t loose a minute of sleep over it.”

“Come to that,” put in Monk, “I got no grief dropping that hammer on you, sport. There’s plenty of room for another notch on these pistols.”

After a long moment of silence, Geoffrey chuckled then casually snapped his fingers. The guards immediately removed the hood as they un-handcuffed Streak. “Alright, Miss Laughing Crow, if you can demonstrate that level of loyalty to this company as you do to your team, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble convincing the board of the fitness of both you and your team. Welcome to Iron Prairie Computers.”

I felt the dizziness return once more as I shook the hand Geoffrey Black Bear offered. I wondered if it were possible for my life to go this right, or if I was about to be fucked with on a cosmic scale.

Chapter Twelve

Once more the dizziness passed and reality took shape around me. In front of me rose a tower of impossible heights that rose, monolithic, before the violent thunderstorm that raged around it without raining. I was back in my comfortable buckskins down to my Futility Belt and War Hawk. The portcullis was open before me, but was very much less than inviting. I looked about to find myself alone in the cacophony of thunderclaps.

God, I hate being right.

The one thing that always stays the same in an Astral Quest was the Citadel. Here it was, here I was and, I wondered where everyone else was. I couldn’t help but think that the mother of all humiliations lay before me and my captive audience was no where to be seen. Hoping they were ok, I sighed, drew the War Hawk as I walked cautiously inside the tower.

A thousand thoughts go through your mind when you’re this close to the completion of an Astral Quest. Even though no one I’ve ever heard about got jumped in the Citadel, you are always tense, trying to look every where at once. You just can’t shake the feeling that you’re about to be the first one for that place in the history books.

As it always does, when I crossed the threshold of the gate, the portcullis noisily cranked down. I stopped to watch it slam shut before I forced my nerves to calm down with little success. I took a few deep breaths before turning and continuing deeper into the Citadel. The hall broadened into a large circular room whose ceiling was lost to the darkness above. But, unlike my other trips here, the room had no interest whatsoever for me. In the center of the room stood Raven flanked with two glowing balls of light which cast him along with the rest of the room in sinister shadows.

I felt his eyes on me so I holstered the pistol and approached him. “Hello, sir,” I greeted, wondering if I sounded as hokey to him as I did to myself.

“No, you don’t sound hokey, Vicki,” he responded in his cackling voice, reading my mind. “For a change, you sound sincere and that makes me very happy.”

“I don’t know what happened to the others,” I told him. “We were facing the Plane of Destiny and then I was here.”

“They’re safe, never fear,” he told me, stepping forward in his bobbing step to nuzzle me with his beak. I let my arms encircle it so I could hug him back, feeling safe and loved for the first time I could ever remember before my totem. I realized that I had been carrying a huge amount of anger and fear of this spirit who had bestowed on me such mind boggling gifts and powers.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to him and for the first time in my life, I knew I meant it.

“I’ve waiting a long time to hear that from you, but it has certainly been worth it,” he chuckled and with drew slightly leading me to the two balls of light floating off the floor ever so slightly. “Do you know why you’re here now?”

“I’ve been very selfish and evil to you. But, I want you to know, I never meant to hurt you with what I’ve done. I didn’t understand what I’d gone through.”

“No one understands that, Victoria. It’s against the rules.”


He chuckled again. “We spirits have rules, just like the Dweller told you. We have Powers that we answer to. I wouldn’t know myself, but I think even the Powers have a boss.”

I swallowed before I reached out to stroke his glossy feather covered shoulder. “The Dweller showed me. Is that what really happened…?”

His dark eye rolled back to face me and was filled with kindness. “On some level. The Dweller can’t lie to you, but nothing says that it did happen that way, only that it could have.”

I felt fear flutter in my breast. “Do I have cancer?” I asked in a small voice.

“What do you think?” he asked sadly. “You’re the one playing with your hormone system twice a day.”

“Oh, God,” I whispered. I could feel the terror sweep through my body, but I was detached from it, as though Raven let me know what I was feeling, but kept the hard edge of the emotion from clouding my mind. I still felt safe and timeless here, but terrified at the same time.

“Come,” he said, “It’s time to make your choice.”

“But I have so many questions,” I protested.

“I know,” he told me. “For millennia I have come to the People, trying to answer them all. But time is my enemy just as it is yours. I was hard with you in your dream, but now you know why. This is your choice to make.” I looked at the two balls of light, trying to stretch my mind to understand what he was showing me. “The ball on the left is your life as you have lived it. With all of the heart ache and misery, real and imagined that you have lived through to this moment. I won’t make you relive it as I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about.”

And I did. In my mind I could see my childhood, and the terror filled moment of first meeting Raven. Once more I felt my anger reach out from my body to change the world around me. I saw again the second degree burns I’d given my mother after a spanking I’d received as my first fire ball spell had left me and struck her. I squeezed my eyes shut against the frantic night at the hospital to be followed with the meeting with George Standing Tall the next day. “I have only hurt everyone around me,” I whispered.

“Stop reliving your mistakes,” he told me and once more I was in the Citadel letting my fingers play through his soft, glossy feathers. “You have done a great deal of good with the magic I have given you. You make yourself keep track of the lives you’ve taken, but you never thought to keep a count of the lives you’ve saved, did you? Do you know how many I speak of?”

I shook my head, struggling to think of even one I had saved. In a twinkling a parade of faces filled my mind, children struck in accidents that I had been passing by on. Dutch, the Lone Star cop who had stumbled across a robbery in progress at a convenience store he frequented on his beat. They didn’t subscribe to Lone Star, but he made sure to check on them, just because he was a decent human being. My healing spell had been the difference between life and death for him. Beyond that the faces and instances blurred until I couldn’t call up individual instances.

“Not counting multiple times on the same person, you have saved four hundred and twenty two lives,” Raven told me softly. “You are my favorite, Victoria, for a host of reasons that I cannot tell you while you cling to life. But suffice to say of all my shamans, you give of yourself the most to the People and to humanity. That you do it with a sense of humor makes it only that much sweeter. And because you are my favorite, I give you this choice. Touch the ball on the right.”

“Does that make the choice?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, it only shows you the fullness of what I offer you. After a moment, you’ll find yourself here again, and then you will choose.”

I was trembling as I let go of him and walked up to the ball of light. I turned back to face him once more and he nodded. His eyes seemed sad in some way I couldn’t put my finger on. But he seemed certain about wanting me to touch the ball so with some reluctance I turned back to it, reached out and brushed it with my fingertips.

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I first became aware of the wind teasing its way through my hair. Then I felt a hard metal chair supporting me with a book I was holding in one hand and a cigarette in the other. My vision cleared and I realized I was looking at a text book; specifically Icon Based Programming in Microdeck VIC+. I hooked my thumb into the spine of the book to look up and around. I was sitting at a wrought iron patio table and chairs in a courtyard on the campus of University of Washington, Seattle. I was back in college.

It was here that I had made the decision to transition from what I was to what I hoped to be. I looked down to see I was wearing a denim skirt and blouse that I don’t remember owning. Around me, I saw other students studying between classes or socializing, always keeping a bit of distance from the scary Indian girl. Then I realized two things almost at the same second. I couldn’t feel the flow of magic within me and that I was a girl.

I was a girl!

I put the book down half way on the edge of the table so I wouldn’t lose my place and took a drag from the cigarette to calm my nerves. It was something of a concession to what ever Raven was trying to show me. I’d experimented with smoking in High School and College, but trying to keep up with being a full time student and a full time professional criminal hadn’t left a great deal of time for habits. I’d quit just before graduation and hadn’t picked them up again in three years.

I can’t feel magic! I’m mundane!

My thoughts crowded through my head, my own panic of loosing magic and a flood of memories I hadn’t had before. Of course I was a girl; I’d always been a girl. I could remember girl scouts and Prom and getting my first kiss from Jason Red Dog in the summer between sophomore and junior years.

Then I remembered my high school graduation present from dad. I remembered waking up in the hospital after the installation of my data jack. I felt my free hand slowly move up from my knee and hesitantly touch the jack hole in my temple.

“Hi,” said a voice I would know anywhere. “I’m not disturbing you am I?”

I looked up and saw Stefan appearing to be about the age I should be, which meant I was about twenty again. Then I remembered he was doing graduate work here as well as being the student instructor for my Icon Based Programming class. “No,” I said quickly, gesturing to one of the three empty chairs at the table. “Please, make yourself at home, Stefan.”

He smiled his brilliant smile as he pulled out the chair and sat down. “Victoria, right?” he asked. “You’re in my IBP class.”

“Right, and call me Vicki. My dad calls me Victoria when I’ve pissed him off.”

Stefan laughed and nodded. “Yeah, my mom gives me the same. I go by Stef to my friends.”

“Are we friends yet?” I asked coyly.

“Well, we can go through the formalities if you want, but me, I’d rather skip to the we’re chummers part.” I chuckled.

“I don’t know. I’m not that fast of a girl. If we’re going to be chummers, I think the Marquis of Queensbury rules should be followed.” He took a PDA from a keeper on his belt.

“Sounds official, maybe I should write this down.” He got his To Do List program up and going. “Ok, fire away.”

“Well,” I said around another drag of my cigarette, relishing the mild buzz once more. “For starters, there needs to be at least two coffee non-dates, then at least a dozen movie and dinner actual dates, then depending on how good of a kisser you are, will determine wither we get to the Chummer phase of things.”

“Non-dates, then twelve movie and dinner dates. Got it,” he said, scribbling away. “So, that sounds like a pretty formal process. It’s likely to take a while. Might as well get to it. Coffee?”

“Thought you’d never ask,” I shot back, gathering my things and throwing them into my book bag. As I did, I saw Monk walking purposefully towards the Military Science building wearing an ROTC uniform. She smiled and waved as she passed which I returned, wondering if by choosing this rosy colored alternate of my life all of the people I cared about in it would have it better off.

Which, in it self, was a sobering thought. Was I the cause of the dissimilar whims of fate that led us all down the same path? “Vicki!” a panting, out of breath voice called. I turned to see Streak come running up, looking even younger than normal and scared.

“Hey John. This is Stefan, my SI for programming. What’s going on?”

“I just got a call from my mom; my dad is in the hospital. Somebody shot him.”

I knew then that John was something of a crown prince in the Tir, though not of the whole nation. He was here on a magical scholarship. I hung with him being a fellow outcast as it must be rough being sixteen and in college. “You need a ride to Tir?” I asked immediately. He shook his head.

“I want out of that political bull shit. I don’t want to be a prince. I just need help doing it and I’m afraid they’re going to pull me back. This might be my last chance to have a normal life.”

“It’s cool, John. We’ll figure it out.” I turned back to Stefan. “Sorry, Stef, can I get a rain check on that coffee?”

“What, you can’t drink coffee and figure out at the same time?” he asked around a smile. “John, it’s good to meet you. Come on, I got my car over there. Let’s hit Starbucks and look at our options.”

“Options just ran out,” I said as I caught sight of some faceless clones in brown suits and sun glasses walking purposefully towards us with a clutch of Campus Cops.

John turned back to us, his eyes filled with fear. “Don’t try anything, Vicki. I don’t want you hurt.”

“Friends make us who we are,” I told him as I flicked the cigarette away as I dropped my book bag. “I don’t ever turn my back on my friends,” I said and realized that my choice was made. Of all of the great friends throughout my life, Raven had been the one first and foremost looking out for me and I’d handed him the dirtiest of the deals.

Through the cloud of programming and false memories I cried out silently to Raven to forgive me while, at the same time, worked to bring the formula for a fire ball spell to my mind. I felt myself Awaken once more as the U of W campus swirled away and I was back in the Citadel once more with my Totem.

I stood before him, feeling the rush of conflicting emotion and the restoration of lines of power through out me. I walked over to him and worked to encircle my arms around him. “I choose you. My life isn’t perfect, but it’s mine and I want you in it.”

He dropped his beak to hug me back. “Extra bits and all?” he asked, chuckling.

“I’d be lying if I told you I don’t want to go through The Operation, Raven. But if you want me this way, I’ll stay this way. Having you as a part of me is more important than how my plumbing is. Besides, Stefan says he doesn’t care.”

“Who said I wanted you this way? I just want to know that you realize I am a part of you that you can’t cut out with a scalpel.”

I hugged him tighter. “I don’t want you cut out.”

“Now, take your prize, and brace yourself, my love. You choose the hard road and it gets harder from here.” I pulled away slightly, one of his feathers still in my hand that had come away with me. As I felt the ball of light on the left move forward to envelop me, I locked eyes with my Totem and told him,

“You and I can travel any road.”

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I opened my eyes feeling warm and happy as I saw the ceiling of my apartments in the Manner. I heard the others begin to stir and knew they were all alright. In my left hand I felt the feather Raven had given me. I brought it up to my eyes, looking at the lines of power flowing through it, already thinking how I would carefully incorporate the relic as jewelry I would wear for the rest of my life. My eyes caught the ring I wore on my middle finger of the Order which showed my status. My silver ring was gone and in its place was a gold band with the ruby gemstone of an Initiate of the Fifth Circle.

Beyond the feather I saw Jennifer’s freckled face lean over me, a smirk on her lips. “Are we having fun yet?” she asked.

“That was, with out a doubt, the most fantastic experience of my life,” I told her.

“So, when do I write up the thesis that gets you the Nobel Prize for Magic Miss I take Mundanes on Astral Quests?”

I laughed. “Have your people call my people to do lunch. Right now, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Thanks for the watch, Nipper.”

“Any time, girl friend. I call dibs on that formula.”

Despite how well this had gone, I knew I still a long hill to climb. Wow, I wish working out a spell formula was the biggest problem I had.

Chapter Thirteen

Despite the hours or perhaps even days the quest felt like it had taken, in actuality, only three hours had passed. It was approaching one as we stood and collected our wits. More than one stomach rolled and the general consensus was that lunch was in order. Booster’s Bison got us all to the Denny’s of what seemed like weeks ago. On the way, I stopped at a convenience store and bought a pack of smokes for the hell of it. The waitress gave us a dirty look as we took over the back most booth, but the restaurant was empty except for us and, further, nobody tells a group as dangerous looking as us where we can and can’t smoke.

There was not a great deal of conversation as we stuffed our neglected bodies, but once we’d caught up on what it meant to be alive again, and the plates were collected, I got my cigarette going, and to my amazement, Booster produced a set of cigars that got passed around the table. While I declined with Streak, Monk and Stefan did take him up on it. Streak bummed off me and it was time once more to get our game face on.

“Ok,” said, Stefan around his first toke. “Despite our slight detour of this morning, I have the report on our beloved Mr. Johnson.”

“Thanks again, everybody,” I piped up. I relished the buzz once more, while turning back to Stefan. “By the way, what happened to you guys? After the scene in the board room I was at the Citadel.”

“We were back at the Temple of Destiny, watching you through the mirror,” said Streak softly.

“Did you see everything?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Monk. “That was a rough choice you had to make.”

“I’m sorry if I screwed up anybodies hopes on that. I couldn’t let Streak take the fall for me.”

“No skin off my nose,” drawled Booster around a smoke ring. “Looks like this is the only way I get to hang with you fun folks, so I’m cool. I gotta say you don’t look right with a hole in your head, girl.”

I shrugged. I had always wanted a data jack, but actually having it, felt so strange and unnatural I realized I had no idea how good I had it. Monk piped up again, “Naw, I know you’re talking about me and I for one am glad. I’m done with the fragging UCAS Army. Don’t sweat it.”

“Did any of you guys get anything for the trip?” I asked, flicking my ash into the bowl we’d turned into a de facto ash tray. “I hit Fifth Circle Initiate, so I was wondering.” Streak held up his left hand which had a gold ring that matched mine as he flashed a wolfish grin.

“Raven might make me nervous, but he sure does come through on the goodies.”

“I think both Booster and I got something,” said Monk slowly, “I’m just not sure what. I feel, I dunno, more alive?” My astral sight flicked letting me see the two metahumans’ auras were both stronger; as if they did not have as much cyber wear as they did. On the plus side, that would make casting spells on either of them much easier. I turned back to Stefan who had been silent on the reward parade.

He smiled and laughed lowly. “Well, information has always been my thing so that’s what I got and I’m cool with it. Let’s just leave it at that. We done with the quest recap? Ready for the spiel on Mr. J?”

Our deadly little coffee clutch nodded their agreement around the table so Stefan took a drag on the cigar to order his thoughts, then went into his findings. “We can’t seem to catch a break here. It seems our Mr. Gordon has been living two lives and they both have the same name. On the one hand, there’s Mr. Gordon, VP of Ares Macro EU who has been a good little wage slave, crawling up the corporate ladder, not exactly by the book, but nothing terribly nasty either. Was born into the company from a dad who worked as a Supervisor for Physical Security and a mom who was a researcher. One of those water cooler romances. Then there’s Mr. Gordon, killing machine and ruthless asshole.”

Monk sighed slowly. “So, will the real Mr. Gordon please stand up? Let me guess, the real Mr. Gordon is Mr. Nice Nice, right?”

Stefan shrugged. “Don’t know, but it was damn hard cracking Ares Personnel that deep to get that info. So, either we got the straight arrow doc from Ms. Johnson the other night, or,”

“We’re in a royal bucket of shit right up to our noses,” I growled. “So, this info you got from Ares, it fairly deep on the details?”

“Hell, I got his full personnel file. Everything from his doss to each and every less than ethical screw he’s turned to get where he is.”

“How less than ethical?” asked Streak slowly.

“Anything we can toss him over to the Star over?” I asked.

“He’s skimmed the books about half a mil, but nothing heavy. He’s made the corp. twenty or thirty times that. He’s got a pretty good eye for good additions to the company to gobble up. Hasn’t stepped very far out of line to do it. He is fond of tossing runners at Ares as security drills though. He’s been reprimanded twice for getting guards killed in them.”

“Hang on,” I interrupted. “Why would a guy who’s been busted twice for getting guards killed eighty six one?”

“That’s where it gets interesting,” said Stefan darkly. “Our Mr. J was at Ares HQ until nineteen hundred Monday night, then he spent two hours at the bar in the in open area in the Ares building, then he went back to his doss and stayed there all night. I triple checked the time stamps and tamper logs. There were seven tamper logs over these files; one I almost didn’t find. That’s straight up, Mr. J didn’t off that guard.”

“Then who the hell did?” I demanded, rubbing out my cigarette and trying to think.

“Hang on,” said Monk. “Who did Elyssa say he was competing with for that top job slot at Ares?” Stefan got out his PDA so he could call up his notes from the meet.

“Oliver Lange,” he said. “I’ve got his file too.”

“Where is he from?” demanded the Ork.

“Lankford shire, England,” was the response.

Power play indeed, I thought to myself. “Ok,” I said, working my work phone from its keeper and opening it. “Maybe it’s time to take the fight back to the enemy. Booster, you still got that satellite bounce program running on the relay phone in your rig?”

The dwarf was silent for a moment, then nodded. Ah, the joys of wireless networking. I called the relay phone, then fed it Mr. Gordon’s number. After a moment the line was answered as once more I heard that same voice with its clean accent. “You missed your meeting,” it said.

“It’s ok,” I told him. “I met with your replacement.”

There was a slight pause then I heard the click of a trace routine try and fail to latch onto the circuit. “Don’t bother, Mr. Gordon,” I told him. “You’re not going to trace this call. You can either listen to what I have to say, or face the consequences.”

“I’m listening,” was the response.

“Your buddy, Mr. Lange has decided to up the level of competition for the top slot you two are quarreling over. He’s decided it’s just so much easier if you have yourself an accident.”

“Obviously, I’ve underestimated you, Miss Wolf,” said the calm voice. I’ll give him credit, he stayed cool under stress. “Despite your reputation, my apologies for my slight.”

“No skin off my nose, Mr. Gordon. And Ghost will do. But, here’s the deal, your rival wants your accident in a pretty bad way, and he’s offering serious nuyen to make that accident come true.”

“Are you blackmailing me?”

“No, I’m just not a hired gun. Lucky for you. I’m happy to take the retainer and forget about this wet work. But there are lots of people in my line of work who are just as good as I am with out my ethics.”

“I see your point. What do you suggest? Since you’ve made it clear my attempt at hiring you for the reverse of your current work order is not high on your list of things to do.”

“You’re on the inside. If I were you, I’d find some info that gets Mr. Lange the pink slip, maybe even a set of Orange Jumpers while you’re at it.”

“You have certainly demonstrated an outstanding capability of finding information, Ghost. What are the chances I could subscribe your employment once more to such an end?”

“Depends on wither or not you’re going to have me walk into an ambush again. You’re not exactly high on my favorite people list just now, Mr. Gordon.” Booster caught my eye and flashed five fingers, letting me know the program had finally successfully locked onto to his reroute.

“Had you not had the reputation of being one of the best deniable assets in the Sprawl, I would not have hired you in the first place, Ghost.”

“Flattery will not get you a thing, Mr. Gordon. Last chance. Talk fast.”

“Alright, Big Sam’s at nine tonight.”

“No. Green Russians Tea Room, at six,” I told him and hung up.

Monk laughed softly. “Never a dull moment with you, Ghost.”

linebreak shadow

That bit of power lunch behind us, our merry band split up to make our individual preparations for the coming meet. Booster, Monk and Streak headed to the Green Russian’s to start the stake out. Booster’s Rotor-Drone was already quietly orbiting Ares Macro’s headquarters, awaiting our favorite executive’s departure. From there it would follow him from Downtown all the way out to Touristville. If there was the slightest bit of hanky panky, it was understood by all of us that our previous customer’s bid was going to be accepted. Monk and Streak were heading down ahead of time with Booster to make sure Mr. J didn’t reach out and touch some muscle to set up shop ahead of time. As for me, I had an appointment I needed to make with my Doctor. And hearing where I was going, Stef made sure that I knew the Devil himself couldn’t keep him from coming along.

It wasn’t worth the argument it would have cost me, besides the point that, frankly I was happy to have some one to lean on. Getting diagnosed with cancer is not something you want to do alone. So we made our way back to the Manor where I changed out of my work clothes. It wouldn’t do to go see my OB-GYN in body armor and leather. I settled on a fairly professional skirt suit in dark blue. The Lady Smith went into my handbag, wither it matched or not.

Then it was a short drive over to the doctor that the Order had a relationship with. I signed in to wait another anxious twenty minutes with Stefan holding my hand. “Miss Laughing Crow?” called the nurse.

I squeezed his hand before I made my way behind the nurse to an exam room. There are plenty of good things to say about Dr. Hallack, but foremost in them must be the great lengths he goes through to make his patients comfortable. All of the areas of his offices were furnished and decorated to look the least like a doctor’s office as possible. In addition, he kept the temperature slightly higher than most would consider room temperature. I flipped through a Seattle Scene for a few more minutes until there was knock and the door opened.

Robert Hallack, MD, PhD was in his early fifties, balding and fairly portly. He looked like a young Santa Claus down to the half glasses he kept constantly perched on his nose. On top of being my OB-GYN, he was also the psychologist I had to see every week per the Benjamin Standards of Care for Transgendered Persons. “Ah, Victoria, how are you?”

“I’ve been better, Doc,” I told him. “I need to get a breast cancer screen please.”

“Yes, so I see from your sheet. Did you find a lump?” he asked sitting on the stool and meeting my gaze.

“Not exactly. I’m just back from and Astral Quest. I learned there from a spirit that can’t lie, as well as my Totem.”

“Ah, I see. So, it won’t matter to you that spirits aren’t admitted to the AMA, will it?” I shook my head with a smile. He chuckled at his own humor. “Yes, well, we can certainly do a screen. This is something you should get into the habit of in any event. Would you remove your blouse and bra please?”

I tried to keep my self consciousness to a minimum as he kindly helped me with the suit jacket then turned around as if he wasn’t about to just stare at and feel up both my breasts. I wasn’t comfortable with very many people, but Doc Hallack was one of them. Once I was naked from the waist up, I cleared my throat softly as I sat back down on the table.

He took his hands from his pockets where he’d been clutching a pair of chemical hand warmers and pulled on a pair of exam gloves. He got seated once more, keeping eye contact with me. “I’m glad you haven’t started collecting piercings, however have you given any thought to my recommendation of letting this one close?”

“I need that one, it is a spell focus,” I told him as I felt his hands begin their slow, methodical pressing on my breasts. I tried to keep my breathing slow and regular and keep my mind elsewhere, but it’s very difficult. I have to carry around an enormous load of sexual frustration. Between the hormones and my admitted revulsion of my plumbing, it had been three years since I’d been able to masturbate. That made this exam extremely intimate.

“Try to relax,” he said. I nodded and redoubled my efforts.

“If I do have breast cancer, what are my options?” I asked, trying to take my mind off the task at hand.

“It depends entirely on how far along the cancer, if any, is. You’re very young. It’s highly unlikely that you in fact have breast cancer,” he told me.

“I trust this source. I’m told it’s already begun to spread to my lymphatic system,” I said, and the conversation was working. The icy dread of facing the scourge of womanhood took even the slightest bit of eroticism from the moment.

“Well, if in fact that’s the case, we have a number of options that won’t interfere with your ability to work magic. The first step I would recommend we undertake is a concentrated nanomachine solution you would take orally. I can program the nanobots with a pair of skin samples that are painless to acquire. They’ll seek out the cancer cells and attack them exclusively. From there, you’ll pass them out in a week or so in your urine.” He switched to my right breast as he finished his lecture and I tried to count the flowers in the wallpaper on the far wall.

“What if that isn’t sufficient?” I asked.

“Well, from there we can advance to more aggressive measures, however they each represent a greater risk to your magical abilities. They would be selective and then radical chemotherapy followed by irradiation and as a last resort mastectomy.” He said, before we sat in a moment of uncomfortable silence as he finished with my right breast. Finally he sighed while turning around once more and removing the gloves. “I’m not finding anything out of the ordinary, Victoria. Would you like me to continue with a mammogram?”

“Yes, please,” I said. He nodded and removed a hand held unit that looked like half a bra. He plugged the unit into the desktop screen and then fitted it over my right breast. There was warm sensation and the interior of my breast was promptly displayed on the screen.

“You’ll need to remove the nipple ring,” he said. I worked the clasp loose and slid it free with a gasp of sensation, making sure not to drop the ring. If the ring got free of my aura it would loose the spell locked inside it. I clutched it tightly in my fist as the procedure was repeated. “Alright, you can get dressed while I fetch your companion. Is he aware of your other condition?”

“Yes, you can speak freely in front of him,” I told him, touched by his concern.

“Alright, I’ll be right back.” I worked the ring back into its home and got dressed once more, fascinated by the interior of my breasts on the screen. They were in full color and three D of course, but I was still struck by the complexity of the systems. I’d been finished dressing for perhaps a minute when there was a second knock on the door and Dr. Hallack returned with Stefan. “Let’s see what this gizmo found, shall we?” said the doctor as he sat heavily on the stool once more.

He worked the screens for a moment in silence for a few moments, faster than I could follow what he was doing. Finally he sighed, removed his glasses and turned to face me again. “First off, it’s extremely small, about four microns…” he started as I felt my world collapsed around me.

I felt Stefan’s arms around me and worked hard to keep my composure. Finally Doctor Hallack got my attention from my downward spiral. “Victoria!” he said sharply.

I looked up and did my best to focus on him. “Do not panic,” he said slowly. “These cells are smaller than the machines I’m going to give you to get rid of them. If I were a betting man, my bookie would refuse odds on this being treatable by the nanomachines. It’s a sure thing. In fact, I’m going to have to write a paper about this. This is probably the earliest detection on record.”

Stefan squeezed my shoulders as Doctor Hallack looked me square in the eyes. “You are going to be fine, young lady. Now, I want you to wait here for a few minutes while I mix up this concoction. Do you have a flavor preference?”

“Chocolate,” I mumbled trying to stay focused on the positive.

“Why do I bother asking?” chuckled the portly physician as he stood. “I’ll be right back. Now, I want you to cheer up. By our visit next week, this will be gone.”

“Ok,” I said and forced a smile. I laid my head on Stefan’s shoulder and drank in some of his strength silently as we waited. Finally Doctor Hallack returned with a plastic glass that looked like something out of an old fashioned malt shop except for the Cross Biomedical logos all over it. I took the glass, nodding my thanks as I took a hesitant sip. It was frozen and tasted like the milk shake it appeared to be. I ran my tongue over the inside of my mouth for a moment in a futile attempt to feel the machines I was eating until I realized how foolish I was being. “It’s good,” I said.

“Nano-soup for the soul,” quipped Doctor Hallack. “I think this will count as our visit for this week, Victoria. I’ll follow up with you next week at our regular time.”

I shook my head while I worked to empty my mouth. “My parents are flying in next week. I think they’ll be here all week. I was hoping we could skip next week.”

“Is there any chance they would accompany you to our visit? We’ve discussed quite a bit about them. I’d like to talk briefly with them to get a slightly different perspective from our talks.”

“I haven’t spoken with or met my father since I left for college,” I said. “I don’t want to risk this chance to reconcile with him. Once he’s warmed up a bit, I’ll be happy to pass along your number to have him call you.”

Doctor Hallack nodded as he finished the scribbling on his clip board. “Alright, in two weeks then. Now, there are no physical restrictions from this procedure. If you’d like a release from work on psychological hardship I can write you one.”

“I’m sort of self employed,” I said sheepishly.

“Ah, then take off as much time as you think you need. And don’t worry! The machines will do the trick. Of that I’m absolutely certain.”

I finished off the drink then tried not to wince at the bill. As I handed the nurse out front my Cred stick I chuckled realizing that this had been the single most expensive milk shake I’d ever had.

linebreak shadow

“He’s parked,” came Booster’s voice in my ear. “Plain Jane Ford Americar, got the plates. Looks like an Ares fleet car. He’s got one with him, a Troll.”

“I see him,” I whispered, knowing I didn’t need any louder of a volume for Booster and the others to hear me. “Show time boys and girls. Any followers other than the troll?”

“Astral is clear, no elementals or spirits,” came Streak’s voice.

“No drones, nobody close enough to be a meat tail,” came Booster’s voice. I smiled a greeting across the light dinner crowd to Mr. Gordon and his tall friend. The troll was big, somewhere around ten feet and had to duck his head to get in the door. The muscle wore an off the rack suit from Walmart and my astral sight told me about half of him wasn’t factory equipment. The large caliber pistol he wore under his left armpit was really spoiling the already cheap cut of the suit.

For his part, Mr. Gordon looked even more dapper than the last time I’d seen him, pressed and starched. If he was at all disheartened by this turn of events he didn’t show it. His smile was easy, unforced and his hand dryly cool as I shook it. “Mr. Johnson,” I greeted casually. “Who’s your friend?”

“Just an associate whose one concern is my continued well being. I don’t believe I’ve met your associate,” he drawled, taking a seat and indicating Stefan who stood behind me.

“No, nor have you met the other three watching our little conversation.”

“I appreciate a woman who can be discreet while being tactical. My compliments.” I smiled a fake smile and waved off the waitress who was working up the nerve to come over. “So, how do I rate such tender mercy from the legendary Ghost Wolf?”

“If half the crap said about me in the sprawl was true, you’d be a sticky spot on 405 by now. You’re alive because I don’t do wet work. Now, did you follow my advice or are you just here to get your friends ass kicked?”

Very slowly, Mr. Johnson reached into his jacket and removed a data chip which he then placed it on the table. “Yes, indeed, in fact, another associate of mine was able to uncover a series of ledgers showing our friend taking a number of liberties with company funds. There are some other files as well along that same line. If they were to be discovered after a post incident audit of one of our corporate facilities, well, let’s simply say that our friend would find himself unemployed at the very least.”

“Is that a fact?” I asked, both eyes locked on Mr. Johnson. I had plenty of other eyes on his big friend, so I could afford to not divide my attention. “That sounds like a very expensive proposition we’re talking about.”

“Oh without a doubt. Especially since the added security as our Auburn Facility was breeched just last Monday.”

“So, what kind of price do you put on being able to sleep at night?” I asked.

Again, slowly he reached into a different jacket pocket and withdrew a Cred stick which he set beside the chip, it’s read out facing me. A one and six zeros stared me in the face. Not a bad opening offer. “That’s quite a sum.”

“My sleep is very important to me. I believe one of your Presidents espoused the virtues of both an early bed and rise times.” I chuckled.

“Ben Franklin was never a President, and in any event, the only thing he espoused about my people was movement away from him. However, since you’re quite right about the need for a good night’s sleep, you might want to ponder the competition’s offer,” I said, slowly placing one of the Cred sticks we’d gotten from Elyssa on the table and sliding it over to him. “That’s one of three, half up front and another three on delivery.”

His eyebrows rose as he nodded, impressed. “I’m flattered. I had no idea I so vexed our friend. Fair enough.” He returned my Cred stick then slowly took out two more whose readers were identical to the first. “I think this should be sufficient to guarantee pleasant dreams for the rest of my life. What do you say?”

“Rotate your mattress every six months just to make sure. Otherwise, I don’t think you have a thing to worry about, Mr. Johnson.”

“I’m so glad to hear that. Mrs. Johnson has enough to worry about. I trust this matter is resolved?”

“I’ll certainly make sure these documents reach the right hands to be acted on,” I assured him. “Oh, and Mr. Johnson,” I said he stood cautiously. He straightened his suit before he looked down on me. “Lose my number. You and I are done. I’d best not hear about you contracting ‘independent’ security response tests like the one you sprung on me. Otherwise, this will get very personal.”

“I think my employers best interests are served by restricting our employment opportunities along those lines to licensed and insured contractors from now on, never fear.”

“A clean lifestyle and powerful friends assure my complete lack of it,” I told him evenly. “You have a safe drive back to Lavilla,” I said, causally dropping the city where his house was located. That gave him a moment of pause. For the first time I’d seen him, a fine bead of sweat collected on his upper lip. The troll picked up on his boss’s apprehension and moved a bit too quickly for Stefan’s liking. Faster than even I could follow, Stefan was around behind him bending his gun hand back around in a direction it wasn’t meant to bend. The troll grunted in pain but otherwise said nothing.

“Stay cool and you’ll walk out of here,” I said slowly, my eyes never leaving his. “Tell your big friend to calm down or I won’t be responsible for his medical bills.”

“James, you’re embarrassing me,” he said softly.

The troll grunted in pain, then finally managed a coherent sentence. “Sorry Mr. Johnson.”

I nodded to Stefan who let the troll go. His wrist popped loudly back into place, but the dinner crowd was pointedly not seeing anything. “Dive safely,” I told him by way of dismissal. He nodded, jerking his head sharply for the troll to precede him out of the Tea Room. I breathed a sigh of relief to try to wind down.

“They’re in the car,” came Booster’s voice again. “Rolling. We’re clear.”

“Let’s get, the fuck, out of here,” said Stefan. I couldn’t agree more as I stood and we left in a clutch. We were half way home now.

Back in Booster’s rig, I sat down at the workstation to make a copy of the chip. I left in the reader the original, the copy I slipped into a pocket of my Secure Jacket. I had plans for that chip and the insurance it was going to buy me. Then I called up the documents on the original. I looked over the Excel Deck Pro spread sheets, struggling to remember the over view to accounting I’d gotten in college. Things seemed on the up and up there, if even my only slightly trained eye wasn’t lying to me.

Wither these documents were true or not didn’t matter, what mattered was that by them it was obvious Mr. Lange was into Ares Macro for something like 50,000,000¥. One entry did catch my eye that I made a mental note of, then made a second copy of the chip onto the workstation’s hard drive. On Tuesday last, Mr. Lange had authorized 1.8 million nuyen withdrawn from the companies discretionary funds on three Cred Sticks of 600,000¥ each, along with an extra hundred thousand to be picked up from central accounting by one Elyssa Bryant.

Son of a bitch.

The other spread sheets merely tracked Mr. Lange’s fiscal improprieties back fifteen years to his joining Ares, straight out of the UK Army. That little fact made me nervous. It began to seem like the killing machine out of SAS was my current mark for intense defamation of character. The other file on the chip was an MP12 file. I brought it up and began to watch a security Trideo footage of a semi-private room in what looked like a Doc Wagon facility. Then I realized I recognized the Anglo on the bed. His name was Jason Saunders and I was watching the last few minutes of his young life.

A moment later a short, slightly pudgy man came in wearing a lab coat. He was soft around the edges, but I could tell by how he walked he was a seriously dangerous man. “Stef, that Lange?” I asked.

“Yep,” came his voice behind me.

The killer had an almost pleasant conversation with his victim, then injected something that would take his life into his IV. Jason Saunders closed his eyes for the last time. Lange causally made sure his mark was dead before opening the door and rousing the alarm. The son of a bitch even worked the paddles.

My work phone made its way to my hand and I hit the only number in it I had on speed dial. After a few seconds a smooth, cultured voice which, despite the number of times I’d heard it, never seemed to match up to the Drill Sergeant scary body it emanated from. “Hello, this is Dutch.”

“Hey Dutch, it’s Ghost Wolf.”

“You calling me to turn yourself in?”

“You got a case that will stick to me yet?” I teased him.

“It’s coming along,” he said around a chuckle. “I’m certain you’re just about to add to that pile. How’s my favorite Cheyenne hardened criminal?”

“What part of me is hard?” I asked.

“Ask Jason Saunders,” he responded evenly.

“I’m not the trigger woman there, Dutch. But, tell me, what is the bonus for Murder One solve going for these days?”

“Depends on the media attention on the victim and profile of the perp, why?”

“Let’s say Mr. Saunders since you brought him up.”

“Saunders? He’s a 5A crime. That’s standing at three quarters of a mill for the solve. Again, why?”

“Let’s just say I’ve got security Trideo of your perp in the actof doing to Saunders in the vein. While we’re at it, let’s say this same perp is into Ares Macro for over 50 million nuyen in five finger discount and I just happen to have the ledgers proving it? That worth a get out of jail card so I can meet with you with out you trying to fit me for bracelets?”

“How straight are these documents?” he asked slowly.

“Just got them from an interested third party who’s a VP at Ares…”

“Where and when?” I smiled into my phone as I set up the meet, breaking the First Rule of Shadow Running. The Law was now involved.

As Booster altered the Bison’s course into the Zone of the Sprawl Dutch was working tonight, I shucked off the Futility Belt and double checked the chip in my jacket.

“What’s your exit plan if this cop decides it easier just to haul you in?” asked Stefan softly. I shrugged as I handed him the belt.

“You bail me out.”

“There’s no way I’m going to let you get cuffed.”

I looked him squarely in the eyes and held my temper tightly. “This goes south you walk away. Promise me, Stef. If I go downtown, I go downtown. I don’t mix it up with the Star and I won’t let you either.”

“This is a damn stupid risk,” he protested.

“It’s a risk,” I agreed, “But it’s not stupid. This cop owes me his life. Between the Star’s bonus and the reward Ares will match him with, I seriously doubt Dutch is going to play hard with me. But even if he does, you walk away.

“What if I play knight errant?” he asked softly

“You know how I feel about you,” I said and cupped his lantern jaw, then worked my thumb around to the other side and squeezed. Not that I had anything like the amount of strength I’d need for anything serious with him, but it did get his attention. “But if you mix it up with Dutch playing knight errant I’ll play dragon and roast you. You know I can and you better know I will. The law gets a free pass. Say it Stone Fist.”

He wasn’t happy with me, that much I could tell. I knew I’d have to make it up to him some how, but this wasn’t something I could risk. He nodded tersely and sullenly said, “The law gets a free pass.”

We finished the ride in silence to the spot where I had Booster stop the rig. As I opened the back door of the truck I paused and locked eyes with Stefan. I could see the emotions dancing behind his normally calm eyes. I couldn’t take my eyes from him as I addressed the group. “Booster, stay here. Anything goes down, stay out of it and get away.”

“You’re the boss,” came his rough voice.

It sounded so trite and hokey in my head. I didn’t want it to be this way the first time, and yet there wasn’t anything else for it. Nothing else I could say or do would carry the same feeling or calm that dance behind his eyes. In my mind I plucked loose the thread of force holding my quickening spell dormant making the world slow down. I could feel how much easier the spell was to release once more, thanks to the feather of Raven I had tied to my existing feather in my hair temporarily until a more permanent mounting could be made. While I was weaving the power I went ahead and silently cast the shape changing spell. My world started to grow as I took the shape of my totem, but through it all I kept my eyes on his. At the last moment before I knew I wouldn’t be able to speak again I said,

“I love you.”

Then I turned out the open back door and answered the call of the sky. I couldn’t look back when I heard him clamor to the back door. Over the din of the early evening traffic I heard what could only be Monk come between him and the door. His ragged voice shouted after me, “Be careful you stubborn Bitch! I love you!”

The warm air of the city bore me quickly aloft and dried the tears as they leaked from my eyes. I looped around to come by the front of the rig. As I passed I saw Booster’s Rotor Drone take flight and begin to follow me. Alright, I guess I could live with that as a compromise.

A minute or so of the absolute thrill of flight brought me to the Stuffer Shack where I’d set up the meet with Dutch. I was early, but, as I thought he would be, he was too. The Stuffer Shack is a combination of gas/ethanol station, convenience store and soy masquerading as fast food peddler. Dutch’s cruiser was parked backwards in front of the store, while he and his partner, Skittles were catching a smoke break behind the concrete posts that ran the length of the front of the store.

Dutch was somewhere between 35 and 45 and I was never sure where. If he needed to look younger to be good looking, he did, if he needed to look older to have authority, he did. He wore his hair, what there was of it, in a high and tight. He didn’t need the body armor of the Lone Star Uniform to look in shape and tough. He wore this pencil thin mustache that I teased him over as it reminded me of Errol Flynn. He was one of the few people in the sprawl I could talk movies with and get a run for my money.

Skittles had been his partner since they both joined up. She was cute in that country girl, I like guns just as much as you do kind of way. Her sense of humor tended to pranks and mischief which endeared her to me. She wore her jet black hair just long enough to short pony tail and I liked the fact I was slightly taller than her as it gave me just a bit of psychological leverage. I called her Skittles as a joke on her last name being very similar to the candy in question and the fact she fretted, needlessly to my eye, about her weight.

I landed on the back push bar of the slightly out of date Ford Americar that the Star used as a cruiser to regard them for a moment. Skittles caught sight of me first and pointed me out to Dutch, “Check out the crow,” she said.

“It’s not a crow,” corrected Dutch around a pull of his Lucky Strike. “It’s a raven.”

“What’s the difference?” demanded Skittles after a jocular poke in the ribs.

“Crows are bad luck and Ravens are harbingers of news,” continued Professor Dutch.

I hopped off the push bar and glided to a few feet in front of them. “I think it knows were talking about it,” said Skittles.

“Keep your guard up. If I know Ghost, she’ll be here early.” I couldn’t keep a cackle from escaping my beak as I released the complex knot of magic holding me in this form. Skittles jaw hit the floor as I returned to normal, but I was certain to note that her amazement didn’t keep her hand from getting her gun out.

For his part, I don’t think anything can phase Dutch. He just stepped in between me and Skittles before he said, “Right on time. Nice spell, been working on that a while?”

I nodded as I kept my hands as casually as I could at my sides. “Thanks, but yeah, it was a real pain. Hiya, Skittles,” I greeted. She glowered at me, but returned the pistol to its holster.

“You packing?” she demanded, trying to make up for her knee jerk reaction. I shook my head.

“No, but if I were, I’ve got permits.”

“We’re not here to discuss weapons possession charges,” said Dutch, all business. “Tell me I why I shouldn’t start reading you your rights, Ghost.”

I smirked and slowly dug into my jacket to retrieve my pack of smokes and the chip. “I got no rights, Dutch. Gotta have a SIN to have rights.”

“Somewhere there is a System Identification Number for you, Ghost, and you can bet I’ll find it,” was Dutch’s even response, even as he got his Zippo out to light my smoke, always the gentleman. I caught sight of the wedding band he wore and hoped who ever had nabbed him was treating him right. I wouldn’t know of course, Cops and Crooks don’t really talk family very often.

“NAN doesn’t share SIN, you know that Dutch,” I chided him around my first drag. I’d managed to carefully slip him the chip as he lit the cigarette. There were appearances and I wouldn’t want anyone to be able to think Dutch was on the take. Truth be told, he was the straightest straight arrow I knew. “As for the info, you can always say a little bird told you.”

“There’s still the little matter of Jason Saunders,” he said as the lighter and the chip were stashed in his pocket. “My over paid detective bosses may not have figured out that Maureen O’Hara is dead, despite the Trideo of her pulling the mother of jobs gone wrong in Auburn last Monday, but I do know one Shaman who would certainly know not only who she was, but what she looked like in The Quiet Man and certainly has the magical juice to cook up a spell to make her look like her on tape. Say, Ghost, where were you Monday night?”

“Monday? Hmm, let’s see, oh yeah, I was assisting a friend with a server upgrade.”

“All that magic and computers too?” asked Skittles around a knowing smirk. “Where do you find the time?”

“Actually, I have a degree in Computer Science and Programming,” I teased her. “If you’d like to speak with my friend, I’m sure I could have him email you a disposition with a whole slew of user and keystroke logs. If you’re a really good boy, I’d bet he’d throw in some Trideo too.”

“I’m a married man,” he snorted. “But from you, I’m sure I could make a couple of nuyen selling it to some Matrix porn server.”

“You?” I demanded in mock indignation. “You’re so old fashioned you can’t even spell Matrix, let alone find a porn server buying Trideo of me.” And that much was probably true. While I liked Dutch, if he were ever to get out of the Law and Order biz I’d run with him in a heart beat, but like I said, he’s the straightest straight arrow I know. As far as he knew I was some clever Native criminal who just happened to be female. That’s as far as he’d ever know about my confused gender.

“I passed third grade,” was his defense. “That’s all they needed for this job. Speaking of jobs, I still haven’t heard anything to keep me from fitting you for new jewelry.”

“How’s this, then? Jason Saunders was murdered by Oliver Lange, VP of Ares Macro. There’s Trideo from Doc Wagon of him in the act, as well as a set of ledgers showing his finger stains from Ares’ corporate bakery.”

“Jason was wounded in that job gone wrong you mentioned. Lange is competing with one Everett Provan-Gordon for the top VP slot at Ares. Mr. Gordon likes to hire, shall we say, independent contractors to check security at Ares facilities. A friend of mine conducted that test you mentioned and Jason got mixed up in the wrong way. Mr. Gordon has been reprimanded twice by Ares big wigs for getting guards killed in his favorite past time. My guess is Lange was hoping third time was the charm so he gets to be top dog at Ares.”

“And Gordon told you all this?” asked Skittles.

“Most of it,” I responded. “The rest fell off the back of Ares’ Matrix Mainframe.”

“So, what is Ares going to do about all this?” asked Dutch.

I shrugged. “I don’t think the big big boys know what’s going down. I know my friend got the nod from a Johnson working for Lange that he’s offering serious nuyen for Mr. Gordon to have a bad accident.”

“So, this friend of yours,” drawled Skittles. “Why doesn’t she just cap Gordon?”

I frowned, but kept my temper. “Because she isn’t a hired killer for one. For two, if Lange will off one of his own employees to make Gordon look bad, what do you think he’d do to somebody who can finger him for Murder for Hire?”

“This friend of yours willing to testify to all this?” asked Dutch.

I snorted. “Dutch, this isn’t a movie. We both know this isn’t going to a trial. If the Star doesn’t cap him for ‘resisting arrest’ then Ares will to keep the bad PR to a minimum. Besides, from what I’ve read from my friend, Mr. Lange is a seriously bad man.”

“So what do you get out of all this?” was Skittles question.

“Me? I’m just a civic minded citizen, doing her part for a safer sprawl.”

Dutch had the grace not to laugh. “Ares know about this?”

“Not yet,” was my response, with just enough emphasis to let him know that particular clock was ticking. Dutch considered this then nodded, stripping what was left of cigarette into small pieces. “We done?” I asked.

He nodded slowly. “Yeah. And Ghost, tell your friend to watch her ass and take a vacation. A long one.”

“No worries, Dutch. My friend can take care of herself.” I worked the threads again and was once more the shape of my totem. With a wink to Seattle’s Finest I flew away.

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Chapter Fourteen

From the Stuffer Shack downtown, it was a fairly simple matter to get back to the Manner. The group broke up for the night to get psyched up for the run that coming tomorrow evening. Streak set up one of the guest rooms for Monk and, as usual, Booster slept in his truck. I seriously wondered if Booster even had a place to crash out side of it. But, it took all kinds to fill the freeways. Stef and I had endured a silent ride back while I think we both struggled for something to say. I wanted to have this long, drawn out heart felt conversation about who we were and where we’d go with the rest of our lives, but I couldn’t think of how to start it.

I hoped in a quiet way that Stef was going through the same thing I was.

If he was, however, he didn’t show it. I followed him to his rooms because it seemed like the thing to do. He let me in without comment as he began to get his Deck ready for his Matrix reconnoiter. We had to get the inside scoop and a low security Ares facility we could get into to plant the goods and get out. All without a repeat of Monday last. Stef had built himself a short time frame back door into Ares to score some blue prints and layouts of such a nest egg. He’d planted a tape worm which was chugging away looking for it.

As he busied himself with his preparations, I walked up behind him and got my arms as far around him as I could while laying my face on his back. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“For what?” he chuckled without humor. “Being you? Honey, that’s why I fell for you.”

I snorted. “Are we into pet names now?”

He shrugged his massive shoulders. “Does it matter what we call each other, or even what we call ourselves? I told you I loved you. I don’t say things I don’t mean.” I squeezed him with all my puny might and was content to stay silent, holding him. He brought up his email program and saw that the tapeworm had done its job, six facilities had been earmarked and every pertinent detail about them the worm could find was in his inbox. I listened to the keys fall under his fingers as he typed out a complicated reply phrase that would erase the tapeworm and all traces it had been there.

“Neither do I,” I said finally, just above a whisper. This was such a huge step and I was terrified of being hurt. But I think a large portion of it was silly. If Stef meant to hurt me, he had more than ample ability and opportunity, yet hadn’t. In fact, in no small measure, my new found peace with Raven was his doing. By turning a blind eye to my tangled past in his report to the Order, he had made my future so bright.

“I waited a long time to hear you say that. If I’m a little off, it’s not your fault. I had this mad crush on you since I met you and I could never figure why. The more I found out about you, the worse it got.”

“The Dweller said a lot of nasty things about you and I’m sorry for it.”

“I was happy to help you, that meant more to me than anything he could shove at me. He is right about my mother though.” I sighed and felt a tinge of worry. In a small and quiet voice I asked him,

“Are you gay?”

I felt a chuckle rumble in his breast. “A year ago that question would have started a fight. Now, hell, I don’t know what I am. God’s truth be told, I’m not a whole lot sexually. I was the super skinny kid growing up. I didn’t even lose my virginity until college. I started working out and getting into Martial Arts to try to conquer the demon on my back about my size. When I Awoke, it really took on a life of its own. But, inside, I’m still the skinny kid who would watch the kids play with one team short rather than pick him.”

“I’m still a virgin,” I whispered.

He turned in my arms and hugged me back. “I figured as much. Now that I know why you so instantly grabbed me by the belt, I feel weird about it.”

I looked up into his face. He wasn’t looking at me, but off at his wall, struggling to put his thoughts into words. “I know I’m a freak,” I started and instantly he looked down, troubled.

“That’s not what I meant at all. It’s not you, Vicki. It’s…” he trailed off again and frowned. “Damnation.”

“What?” I asked. “Your religion tells you to love me? Or loving me is wrong?”

He shook his head. “I…I can’t tell you. Physically, I can’t tell you. I want to, but I can’t make the words come.” I was puzzled and that expression played on my face.

“Like when I couldn’t tell you what Raven was having me seek?” I asked and he nodded violently as if not sure his muscles would respond. His neck popped with the force of it. “What I got wasn’t it, by the way. I’m not even sure now what it was. It’s like trying to recall a dream a day or two after. It just slips away through my fingers.”

Again he nodded, slower and more thoughtful. “It’s nothing bad, it’s just now I understand and it’s strange for me to see something so clearly. It makes me very afraid of losing you.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” I assured him. “I am sorry I’m going to strain your relationship with your folks. We could not tell them about my, ahem, past.”

“I wasn’t going to,” he said frankly. “The Dweller twisted things and I’m certain that’s how my mother would react if she knew, but you being Native will be trouble enough.”

“Oh,” I said softly. “Sorry, haven’t researched any biowear to cover that.”

“And I wouldn’t have you if you could,” he said firmly. “I understand a lot of the anger you have over my people. Hell, we got the shaft from England, but didn’t learn a damn thing from it.”

“This is all about people who aren’t us and are mostly dead,” I told him. “We all get the shaft at some point. It ought to be about what I feel about you and you feel about me. So I’m Cheyenne, so what? That doesn’t change the person I am. You’re an Anglo and my parents aren’t going to like that either, but it doesn’t change how I feel about you. But, there’s more to that than just the fact you’re White.”

“There’s too much anger floating around and we’re all missing the point. Yes, Vicki, I love you and yes, our folks are only going to see eye to eye about them hating our choice of life partner. I’m sorry I can’t give you that family you’ve always seemed to be looking for. But I swear I’ll do my best to make that family with you.”

I smiled and rubbed my face against his sculpted chest, feeling the ridges of the hard muscle. A thought struck me which I vocalized before I could think about it. “What did Raven tell you?”

“I can’t tell you.”

I sighed. “Was it why you fell for me?” His silence was my answer and I fought the conflicting emotions that rose in from that revelation by omission. I’d come too far in the past forty eight hours with my totem to doubt the trust I felt for him now. “I don’t care if he made you fall for me. He probably did the same for me with you. I just know I’m happy with you.”

I felt him chuckle again as he reached down and effortlessly lifted me from my feet. “He didn’t make me fall for you, you did that.” I smiled up at him as I arched an eyebrow.

“My nefarious plot has been discovered. Do you know I fretted over every outfit I ever wore when I thought you even might see me?”

“Hell, all I ever wanted to see you in was your birthday suit.”

I shivered as I wrapped my arms around his neck. “That’s the outfit of mine I like the least.”

“It’s not about the outside, Vicki,” he said, throwing my own objections back at me. “And, as far as that virgin thing? There are treatments for that.”

“I…oh…wow,” I stuttered.

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I awoke from the best night’s sleep I could remember having to a buzz saw just above my head. Slowly, I lifted my head and looked up into Stefan’s unconscious face. It seemed so pleasant until he took a breath to let out a snore that rattled the windows along with all the pictures on the wall. It would figure there’d be something that would finally break that perfect mental picture of him. However, if I had to put up with the king of all snorers in exchange for a night of sleep with out nightmares, chummer, that was chump change.

This was indeed a red letter day.

For the first time since I was ten I had slept an entire night, and if the clock by the bed was true, most of a day without having had to suffer through the dream. Add to that the fact of getting my cherry picked and this was shaping up to be a great day.

I slowly disentangled myself from his massive arms without waking him. I stood by the bed looking down on him as another snore rocked the room causing me to smile as I re-lived some of the previous night. Then I bent to collect my clothes as quickly and quietly as I could to pull them on hastily. Unlike my rooms, Stefan shared a bath with the others on this floor. I’d paid to put a bathroom in my apartment due to certain strategic needs, and I desperatelyneeded a restroom.

Looking, I’m sure, the very picture of the names the Dweller had called me I got enough clothes on to be both decent and discreet. Though my hair was doubtlessly in a wild mess around my head and my underwear in my hand, I opened the door.

And walked straight into Anastasia.

We disentangled ourselves, but my foundational garments hit the floor in the exchange. She looked down, then back up at me, pulling that hard Nordic face of hers into a smirk. “I see someone had a pleasant night,” she drawled out.

I smiled a sweet smile as I bent down so as to retrieve my bra and panties. “Yeah, thanks, Annie, you should try it some time.”

She frowned as I used the hated nick name I had tagged her with and brought our war of words to viciousness. “I didn’t think you’d lay an egg for nine months,” she jabbed back.

Hotamematse’e,” I said around a smile, “I am truly sorry. I have been evil to you.”

This change in tactic took her completely by surprise. She took a half step back as if I’d struck her and stammered, unable to put a sentence together. Seizing on this, I stepped up to grasp her by her shoulders, one piece of underwear in each hand. “I have been, but I have had an epiphany of late. Please, Hotamematse’e, please accept my humble apology.”

“I, uh, of course,” she stammered with as much grace as she could muster. “What, was, is that you called me?”

I cast my eyes down in what I hoped looked like shame. “It is a custom among my people, that when one has seriously wronged someone not of the people, to apologize by bestowing the honor of a name in Tsitsistas.”

“Tee-sit-sis-tas?” she stammered.

I nodded, still keeping my eyes down. “Yes, that is what my people call ourselves. What you know as Cheyenne, which is actually a Lakota word and their name for us.” It was only with great difficulty that I kept my voice even and low, despite the screaming my bladder was giving the back of my mind. This was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

“I’m deeply honored, Victoria. How do you say it again?”

“Hoe-TA-mem-at-se-E,” I said slowly and carefully. I coached her through three repetitions until I was certain what she had it right.

“I, I don’t know what to say,” she said, a touched smile on her face. “I hope this is a new day of friendship and understanding between us.” I forced a smile as I looked her in the eye.

“I’m sure it will be, Hotamematse’e.

She frowned in a thoughtful manner. “What does it mean?”

My eyes went wide as I shook my head vigorously. “No! You must never ask the one who names you such a thing!” I said with deep conviction. “To do so would take power from the name.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, you have no way of knowing our customs. But, please, I must go and, ah, freshen up.” She smiled the first smile I could remember gracing her face without malice.

“Please, and come by my office later. I have been meaning to discuss the rituals you will need to go through for you to achieve the Fifth Circle.” I flashed my ring.

“I’ll come by, but I’ve got it covered, thanks.” I left her stammering in confusion of how I had somehow furthered my Initiation Grade without having to stomach all her crap and darted back to my rooms. As I was waiting for the lock to cycle, I noticed that Nipper had watched the whole exchange from the stairs.

“What was that all about?” she demanded. The door opened.

“Come in if you want,” I told her. “Explanation will wait I must pee!” She chuckled as she followed me in, waiting in the foyer as sweet relief was mine. My work clothes I threw into the auto cleaner I’d also had installed. From it I swapped out the pair of jeans and tee-shirt I’d left in there from my last over night here. I noted with some pride the jeans were a bit loose as I dragged a brush quickly through my hair and deemed myself presentable for friendly company.

As I walked back out into the main room, she looked up and grinned. “Spill it, I know you just pulled a fast one. You’ve got that canary eating grin on your face.”

“Oh, it’s nothing. I apologized to Annie for all the grief I’ve given her and bestowed on her the honor of a name in Cheyenne.”

“Uh huh,” she said with a knowing grin. “And what was that?”

“How is your study of Tsitsistas coming?” I asked sweetly.

“I can ask for directions to a library full of books I can’t read and get back directions I won’t understand,” was her response. I nodded thoughtfully.

“I named her Hotamematse’e, with great humility and sorrow for my vicious pranks.” Jennifer frowned as she dredged through her mind the translation. “Of course,” I went on, “I could not tell her the translation as that would take power from the name.”

“Help me out here, Vicki, I picked up on the ‘e on the end meaning woman.”

I grinned. “Well, the literal translation of Hotamematse is Dog Chip.”

Her eyes puzzled out the reference, then went wide as she brought it into modern usage. “You just named the Head Shaman of our Order Anastasia Shitty Bitch?”

I nodded around a guffaw until I was able to gasp out, “Yes! And I’ll bet she introduces herself that way to every Native she meets until somebody clues her in!” We shared a moment in Trickster bliss until Jennifer wiped the laugh tears from her eyes.

“I’ve been seeing you in your work clothes a lot lately, and I can’t remember the last time you stayed four days in a row here. Is something up?”

I shook my head still enjoying my own amusement. “Nothing to worry about. It’s almost done with anyways. Just one more loose end to wrap up. Why?”

She held up an Overnight envelope that I just noticed she was holding. “This came for you this morning. I signed for it. Just wondering if maybe it was bad news and you needed somebody to be with you when you opened it. I came by, but you didn’t answer the door.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t sleeping here last night…” I said without thinking, reaching for the envelope. She snatched it back from my grasp and I realized I’d just let a major slip in front of a Coyote Shaman.

“Do tell,” she purred. “And where were we sleeping last night?”

I blushed from forehead to toes, very glad that I was already red skinned. “Oh, it’s nothing, I was helping Stefan on a Matrix probe and we fell asleep over there, that’s all.”

“And where did we fall asleep?” she pressed. “Seeing as Mr. Reynolds isn’t big on furniture that doesn’t support technology. Last time I saw the inside of his cave there was only a bed, a desk and clutch of server racks in there. You don’t look like you just spent the night sleeping on the floor…”

“What do you want, Jenn?” I demanded, holding out my hand for the letter. “Positions? Blow by blows, pardon the pun? I got laid, so what?”

She chuckled an evil laugh. “What? That’s the Order Gossip of the Century! The Indian Princess and the Computer Geek Poster Boy? That’s a story with legs!”

“Oh, cut me some slack, Jennifer,” I pleaded, trying to not get cross as she brought up the nick name that Annie had tagged me with in revenge for me tagging her Annie. “Did I spread it around that you sent a spirit poking around Streaks’ rooms trying to give you the full story before you decided if you wanted to ask him out or not?”

“Leave my Elf Fetish out of this. You are the worm on the hook and you’re not squirming out that easy,” she teased without real venom.

“You’re the one playing hard ball here, or do you want the rest of the Order knowing about your cradle robbing tendencies?”

“Kid’s gotta learn sometime,” she fired back, but she did hand me the envelope with a flourish. “By the by,” she continued as I checked who it was from and opened it. “I did get that story. Watching the meat does have its advantages,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes.

“You didn’t!” I gasped. She nodded, biting her lip around a grin.

“So, is he seeing anyone?”

“How the hell should I know?” I asked, shaking my head in what I hoped looked like disgust, but was doubtlessly spoiled by my doing it in a fit of giggles. The letter was the updated prospectus I’d requested from my friends at Pacific Rim Biomedical, the company doing the research on my biowear. In it was a touchingly personal letter from the CEO, but you learn to expect things like that when you’re the single largest stock holder in a company. Beyond the flowery thanks and assurances that my hard earned nuyen were being spent frugally was a copy of a letter that made my hands shake.

“What?” she asked, all hint of teasing gone from her voice. “Vicki? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I said as quickly as I could. “One of my investments is just doing really well and I wasn’t ready to be this surprised is all.”

“Oh? Hot stock tip?” she asked trying to come around to read over my shoulder. I quickly brought the documents up to my chest to keep them from her eyes. “Hey!” she protested. “I wasn’t really going to nark on you!”

“It’s not that, Jenn, this is just confidential stuff. I’m bound by a nondisclosure. But, yeah, it’s a hot stock tip alright. You might want to get some shares of Pacific Rim Biomedical.” Her eyebrows furrowed.

“You’re into biowear?” I shook my head.

“Not yet anyway, but this one is really about to take off. That’s all I can say.” She nodded then gave me a hug and whispered congratulations on her way out the door. If I knew her at all, she was on her way to a phone to call her broker. I continued into the room and sat slowly on my couch as I re-read both Rupert Alistair, the CEO’s, letter again as well as the copy he’d enclosed to make sure I hadn’t misread it.

Miss Laughing Crow:

Please find enclosed both the updated prospectus you requested as well as copy of the approval we recently received from the UCAS FDA approving our project for human testing.

I’m sure you share my excitement as we near the entry to the market of this revolutionary development. Your vision and faith in us have brought us to the brink of a completely new era of Biotechnology and made sure that PRB will be on the fore front of that revolution.

This prospectus replaces the previous reports you should have received three months ago. Now that we’re entering the final stage of testing, a more accurate financial out look is available. Currently, Mr. Jenkins, our Comptroller, is projecting nearly seven Billion Nuyen of profit in the first fiscal year of release. Such a first year profit statement will doubtless effect our stock price. Best estimates at this time place the value of your shares somewhere in the neighborhood of one half to three quarters of a billion nuyen within a week of our Profit and Loss statement issuance.

Unfortunately, I must remind you of the strict insider trading and nondisclosure clauses of our agreements, but wish you the best of luck with your potential investor. If I can be of any assistance whatsoever, from a simple meeting lunch to a complete tour of our facility to your investor, please do not hesitate to call me either here at the office or on my cell.

Again, my heartfelt congratulations on our FDA approval and provisional market license, pending the results of human trial.


Rupert Alistair

Rupert Alistair, CEO

Pacific Rim Biomedical Group, LLC

One half to three quarters of a billion nuyen, I thought to myself, trying to keep my heart from exploding out of my chest. That’s quite a neighborhood. All this time I had been so completely wrapped up in just getting the biowear for myself. Sure, I knew if all of this took off my financial worries would be over, but to try to wrap your mind around a number that big was nearly impossible.

Me, the freak hardened criminal, was on the cusp of being one of the world’s richest people. In one week. I tried and failed to try to remember what Dunkelzahn the Great Western Dragon and assassinated President of the United Canadian and American States had been worth when his will had been read. More than this? Surely, but this was certainly up into numbers even he would take seriously.

I thought about the blood still on my hands that had bought that letter in my hands, but also about the four hundred and twenty two lives I’d saved just because it was the right thing to do. I swore to myself to make sure that blood would be honored by adding as many as I could to the second number.

With trembling hands, I put the letters and prospectus back into the overnight envelope. I took it over to my file cabinet and placed it reverently in with the rest of my correspondence from PRB. I realized I couldn’t think about this right now with so much more competing for my attention. I worked my feet into a pair of sandals and padded back to Stefan’s rooms.

It was high time Mr. Reynolds got up to face the day. I wasn’t willing for him to awaken alone, lest he get the wrong thought on the morning after. But, more to the point, I was hungry and breakfast was not a meal to miss just now.

The palm reader on Stefan’s door let me into his room where I moved slowly and as quietly as I could while I closed the door before I crept back over to the bed. He was sleeping on his side now, facing me on the edge of the bed, a smile on his lips. I knelt down to lightly kiss him, suppressing a chuckle about Sleeping Beauty waking up Prince Charming.

He awoke much faster than he had yesterday morning, mumbling a ”Good morning,” around a huge yawn. He sat up and stretched with a grace and range of motion that I was instantly jealous of punctuated by the sharp pops of his joints as he did so. “You’re up early,” he said mid-stretch. I chuckled, gesturing to the clock by his bed. Today was at a complete polar opposite to yesterday to judge by his total lack of self consciousness at being naked in front of me. It was hard to keep my eyes from roaming.

“Actually, we’re both up very late. It’s almost six and that’s PM.”

“Really?” he asked with a glance at the clock as he cracked his knuckles, finishing his morning ritual. “That would explain why I’m so hungry. Breakfast?”

“I think I’m owed a cheese omelet and promise to be called,” I said around a smile.

“Omelets it is,” was his reply as he reached out and effortlessly pulled me into his lap. “As far as the call goes, how about I just nudge you when I’ve got something to say?”

“Honey, I love you,” I told him. “But I’m not spending another night crammed and cramped on a twin mattress trying to share with the Incredible Hulk. You want nudging? We sleep on my bed.”

“Fair enough. Your rooms are bigger than mine anyway. Hey, I can go ahead and get that RAID cluster I’ve been wanting now! They’ll fit nicely in there and…” he trailed off as I bored holes in him with my eyes. “Or I could just get rid of my bed and use this for a server room and not even think about using your lovely rooms to house technology,” he said meekly.

“Good boy.”

“Are you ok?” he asked softly. “I wasn’t too rough or anything, was I?”

“I thought you were going to explode trying to go as slowly as you did. And when did you pick up that bottle anyway?”

He grinned a sheepish grin. “Well, a thoughtful man plans ahead. It wasn’t like I was going to need any contraception, but I figured I should be a gentleman and make sure things went, ah, as smoothly as possible for you.”

“You’re avoiding my question, Mr. Reynolds,” I told him.

“Well, I picked up that bottle about a week ago, but I’m afraid I must confess it’s the fourth or fifth bottle that’s been there since I met you.” I frowned.

“Fourth or fifth? Exactly how many people have you been entertaining in here?” I demanded.

“You would be the first for my poor overloaded little twin here. But, while I was waiting for you to make up your mind about me, let’s just say the other bottles helped me sleep.”

“You’ll make yourself go blind like that,” I teased him.

“They make cyber wear for that,” he fired back. “I already shave my palms, so what? Hungry?”

“Not any more!” I said, rolling my eyes. He chuckled and stood still holding me before he set me down on my feet. From the pile of clothes on the floor he selected a pair of cargo pants and a Compute Naked! Tee shirt that both passed the nose test to be pulled on. A pair of Birkenstocks were shoved on his feet as he opened the door for me.

“You’ll get hungry on the way. You want to take the others? Or just a solo breakfast and we’ll link up later?” I shook my head.

“Much as I’d rather just spend time with you on our morning after as it were, we’ve got business tonight and no time to waste.” He frowned slightly but nodded. “Got the new stuff on your PDA?” Again he nodded. I took my phone out as I walked past him out the door and started calling around.

In short order I discovered that we were actually the last to rise today. But everyone was ready to go as we assembled in the parking lot by Boosters Rig. “Morning, Sunshine,” greeted Monk. “Did we have a long night?”

I paused to judge the looks on their faces. “Yeah, we got the potentials and we were going to go over them over a meal. You guys hungry?”

“Doubtlessly not as much as you two are,” she said again, sweetly. I frowned.

“What’s up with you tonight?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she protested brightly, grinning around her tusks. I excused myself from the clutch, collected a handful of Army fatigues and led her a few dozen yards off by it.

“What gives?” I demanded.

She chortled as she slowly shook her head. “Girl, you might be the worlds greatest actress in other places, by I can see ‘you got lucky last night’ written all over you. It’s cool, I’m just teasing you.” I blushed from head to toe and set my hands on my hips.

“And what exactly makes you think that?” I demanded.

“Well, for starters, you’ve got just barely repaired bed head from hell.” I frowned, but my hands jerked up and worked a quick braid into my hair as she clicked over the other tell tales. “Second, while you’ve always been obsessed with Stef there, you looked at him six times in the space of two sentences. He’s obviously just from the bed as well, and he was tight as drum last night. This morning, however, he’s all but oozing over there.”

“Just keep your game face on, would ya?” I protested as I got the braid settled. She grinned her wolfish grin and patted me on the top of the head.

“My little girl is all grown up and getting laid. I’m so proud.” I sighed raggedly, but led the way back over to the truck.

As we got there, Stef looked up and said, “The general consensus was Doc’s out in Kirkland. They’re pretty close, Biz friendly and they make the best cheese omelets in the sprawl.” I blushed from head to toe once more, hoping that Monk was the only one who had picked up on my new state of being as it were.

“Ok, been a while since I went to Doc’s,” I acquiesced. So into the tractor we piled and were soon rumbling on our way. On impulse, I turned to Streak so I could ask as nonchalantly as I could, “So, John, are you seeing anyone?”

The look of confusion on his face was priceless.

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Chapter Fifteen

I crouched behind a row of hedges while I listened to the argument Booster was having with the guard at the main gate, a few dozen yards off to my right. I can’t say where he’d gotten the fifty three foot trailer that was currently attached to his Bison, but I have to get the little guy credit, he knew how to lay it on thick. He just about had the gate guard convinced his entry list was wrong and to let Booster in.

“Astral space is clear,” came Streak’s voice in through the tinny speaker in the ear piece I was wearing. I turned to Stone Fist and Monk who were crouched beside me as well, Stone in a black Ninja outfit that covered his face. Monk’s only bit at camouflaging her identity was an olive drab balaclava. For myself, a brace of spells were humming away on me, speeding me up, slowing the world down and making sure any Trideo footage of me would actually be of a dead actress. We shared a look before we silently nodded and made our way along the ivy covered wall between the hedges.

Our choice of shopping this evening was the lowest security facility Ares had in the sprawl, a Matrix order processing facility and routing office. Here, good little wage slaves turned icon based online orders into paper, paper invoices and directed shipping while generating the various forms Uncle UCAS needed for buying everything from Bicycles to Bombs online. A single Fuji server could have done all of this, but Ares was an old school Detroit Union Shop. Machines weren’t going to take a single additional job some dues paying Union slob could take.

Doubtless, there was more than a little hanky panky going on here, but fifty nuyen at the King County Probate Court gets any chummer the complete blueprint. And there was almost nothing as far a security here.

Between us and a server closet with a direct frame relay link to the Ares HQ server farm were a couple of locked doors, an insultingly simple electronic security system and three armed guards on rotating patrol.

Over breakfast earlier this evening we had argued the various merits and flaws of this target verses the other five. Two were cyber wear research facilities that were strictly nine to five operations, but were the most likely to have undeclared security options. One a branch personnel and human resources office; sensitive data to be sure, but it was located in the same tower as branch offices of a number of the other fairly heavy hitters in the sprawl, the biggest of which was the Draco Foundation. Definitely not a building to go snooping in. The fourth and fifth were distribution warehouses for local Matrix order deliver points. Security would be a bit tight as Ares makes everything, including weapons, but it had no computer access to the Private Local Telephone Grid of Ares due to the aforementioned paper invoices Ares generated.

That brings us back to the crouching between hedges and wall. We reached the corner of the wall that was closest to the building and paused. Monk re-holstered her pistols then made a cup with her hands. I stepped into it allowing her to boost me over the wall. The process was repeated with Stef making the cup, letting Monk join me in my crouch against the wall, then he vaulted over it in a standing leap.

“In,” I whispered. I heard Booster blast his air horn twice and begin to laboriously back up, taking his time with it while yelling obscenities at the three guards who were all clustered at the gate now.

A short sprint brought us to a side door that a spell of mine opened for us. My criminal companions followed my lead as I kept the layout of the simple building in my mind.

This door had been chosen as it was closest to the server closet. The server closet door was the only door in the building on an alarm circuit. The door was opened by a four digit code that was punched into a key pad by the door. The only reason for this that we could fathom was the ongoing computer woes that Ares suffered from requiring so many contractors coming and going in the closet that a palm reader was impractical.

We reached the door, me covering deeper into the building with Monk covering the rear so that we framed Stef. He took a lead from his deck and attached it to the wire coming out of pad to the lock with a snap on induction contact. A rather simple program I’d written for him forced the logic chip in the box into a test mode while his cracker began throwing numbers at it. Due to the test mode we’d forced the pad into, the multi-try fail safe was shut off. In a second the door clicked and slid open.

Stef darted in and attached his Deck into the server.

Monk and I tried in vain to look everywhere at once as this was the most dangerous part of the run. “In position,” came Booster’s voice, letting us know he was at the pre-arranged pick up point.

“Knocking,” I whispered.

“Astral still clear,” was Streak’s addition. “Friends having a smoke break at the main gate. Why did you ask if I was seeing someone?” he asked suddenly. “Is someone at the Order interested?”

“Cut the chatter,” Monk hissed.

“In,” came Stef’s voice. “Planted. Out.”

I heard him disconnect, then silence before a hand on my shoulder told me he was out of the server closet. Switching my War Hawk to my left hand I removed a can of spray paint and scrawled obscenities on the wall along with the gang sign of the 405 Hell Hounds on every vertical service I passed on our way back to the door. “Match,” I whispered as I watched Streak and Monk sprint to the corner where we’d clear the wall again.

“Astral clear, friends smoking.”

“Ready,” said Stefan once he’d gotten Monk over the wall and made a cup of his hands a few dozen feet away.

“Fire,” I said, then reached up and tripped the fire alarm. Chaos broke loose with lights and sirens in the building. The three guards about pissed themselves as they rushed towards the front door while I sprinted away from them. I planted my foot in Stef’s hands then flew, as he heaved me over the wall without effort.

It’s an odd feeling to purposefully trip the alarm on a run, let me tell you.

Stef landed a few feet away from me as we walked as briskly and nonchalantly as we dared to the pickup point. Booster had already dropped the trailer and a chemical reaction from marker pin had returned his truck to its original purple from the corporate colors of Ares it had been in a few moments before. We clamored aboard and rumbled off into the night, another night on the job behind us, for once, it had gone down to plan.

Or so I thought.

linebreak shadow

Monday, the Eleventh of October arrived with out fan fare or the heavy foreboding such a momentous day should have. It was, in fact, a mostly cloudy day which was unseasonably warm. As I leaned against the rented Chrysler-Nissan Cirrus on the tarmac of Renton Municipal Airport, I smoked too much and fretted every decision of the morning.

I was alone though I had desperately wanted Stef’s support. He was right, however, it was better to meet mom and dad alone to let them get more used to the new me before they had to go through meeting the boyfriend. My wardrobe had taken almost an hour to decide on. Something casual and fairly gender neutral had a great set of merits attached to it especially for a first strained meeting. However, this was the corporate jet; it was entirely possible that dad wasn’t traveling alone. If Geoffrey Black Bear and the other members of the board were traveling with him, meeting the daughter dad was trying to get hired in jeans would be a disastrous first impression.

Which was why I was currently smoking too much.

I had settled on a leather patchwork skirt that fell to mid calf under a brown cashmere turtle necked sweater and knee boots of a moderate heel. The natural fabrics were expensive enough to be corporate wear while also being conservative enough for a good first impression, but still casual enough if mom and dad were in fact alone and wanted a quiet day of lunch and settling into the hotel before the big meeting. Either way, I was pretty confident that I was covered. At least that’s what I kept telling myself.

I had the radio on the Cirrus tuned to Stefan’s News/Talk station. Over the weekend we had monitored events fairly closely. The big news Saturday had been a major corporate faux pas that had been uncovered in Ares senior management. Jason Saunders’ death had been reclassified as Malice Murder and the reporters’ sources were telling him that someone at Ares had killed one of their own employees.

As an afterthought, Ares new Senior Executive Vice President, Everett Provan-Gordon had issued a statement assuring everyone that a through investigation was on going and the guilty party would be brought to justice. What I was waiting for was an announcement on the arrest or shot while resisting arrest of Oliver Lange. That I wasn’t hearing it yet was causing me a bit of concern. I had called Dutch Sunday. He did confirm that my Shadow Running friend was in the clear on Saunders’ murder, and that a warrant had been issued for Lange.

They just hadn’t been able to find him yet.

So my final fashion accessories were my Lady Smith loaded with APDS rounds in a concealed holster in my left boot and my best Kevlar vest. I hated the flattening it did to my figure, but until I heard that announcement, there was no way I was going anywhere without it.

As I saw the Gulf Stream touch down, I took a final drag on my cigarette and flicked it away. It was show time. It seemed to take a geologic age for the plane to taxi over to it’s place, a few dozen yards away, then another before the hatch un-dogged and lowered into place as a stair way. I stood up a bit straighter while I tried to be calm.

Mom was the first in the doorway; as she waved, smiling, the butterflies went into over drive as I returned it. She was dressed in a casual skirt and blouse, actually fairly similarly to me. As I brought my hand down I checked the French Braid Monk had helped me put my hair into. Everything felt like it was in place.

Mom walked down the stair and looked like she was in great shape, but it was tough being a corporate trophy wife. Unlike a fair number of the other wives she hob knobbed with Mom actually had a degree and was sharp as a tack. It wasn’t her fault that Dad had fallen for her while she was working her way up the ladder. Now she was his Girl Friday; Dad would probably be at a complete loss without her. For all the crap I’d gotten from them both they were actually deeply in love with each other.

As she reached the bottom of the ladder, Dad appeared, and he too waved despite his struggles with the luggage. He was dressed casually in Dockers and Polo shirt. Mom was walking briskly over, trusting he would figure out the luggage.

“Vicki, you’re looking lovely!” she said, sweeping me into a hug. Her hands found the vest I was wearing which caused her to give me an odd look as she pulled back. “I thought you looked a bit, compressed,” she said slowly. “Is everything all right?”

“It should be,” I assured her. “Just a force of habit, mom, sorry. How was your flight?”

Her smile returned. “Good, it’s been so long since we’ve gotten out and I’m looking forward to it. Did you remember to bring the documents your father asked for?” I reached into the Cirrus then handed her the overnight envelop. “This is a nice car, I’m glad to see you’re still not throwing money away on that bike that George gave you. It should have been scrapped years ago.”

“It’s a rental, mom.”

“Oh,” was her reply. She had the prospectus out and was going over it. “Now, help me, Victoria, what does this biowear actually do?”

“It’s a cultured vat grown organ, in the same class as New Heart and the other replacement organs. It’s just reproductive in nature. It’s a uterus and ovaries developed from McKimpson skin samples with the chromosome pair altered from XY to XX.”

“You’ll be fertile?” she asked.

“Yes, and as you can see, the FDA has already given the approval for Human Testing.”

“How is that going?”

“It hasn’t started yet,” I replied. Her eyes asked her question. “Well, I’m here picking you guys up.”

You’re the human test?” she demanded. I nodded. “Are you mad?”

“Hello, Vicki,” gasped Dad as he struggled up with the bags. I zapped the trunk open with the remote. The great thing I’ll say about the Cirrus, it’s got a lot of trunk space. Like three bodies worth.

“Hi dad, have a good flight?” I asked as I took a couple of the bags and helped him load the trunk. Once clothing stores’ worth of luggage was in the trunk he stood up, sighed and actually hugged me as well.

“It was alright, I suppose,” he said, pointedly saying nothing about my vest. “We cleared customs before we left so that will be one less difficulty. You’re looking well. His eyes caught sight of my gift from Raven. “You’re wearing a new feather?”

“I went on an Astral Quest last week and achieved Fifth Circle Initiation. That feather is from Raven.”

“Well, that is impressive. I think I’d like to have a long talk with this bird that’s so affected my family life.”

“I can arrange that,” I said softly. Again his eyes questioned me. “I’ve developed a spell that allows non-Awakened persons to Astrally Project.” His jaw fell open and that even got Mom out of the prospectus. “I’ll tell you about it later,” I said, moderately pleased that I had so shocked my normally unflappable Dad. “You guys hungry?”

I got them settled in the car, Dad in the front seat where he could critique my driving of course, and we rolled to the main gate. On the way, I answered Mom’s fiscal questions and Dad’s science ones. “I just can’t help but think these numbers are woefully inflated,” she insisted. “They’re forecasting seven Billion in release plus one year? This seems like such a specialized product so as to limit it’s applicability to Mass Market.”

“There are something like one hundred million trans- and confused gendered persons in North America alone, Mom,” I told her. “The product also has applicability as a cure for bilateral hermaphroditism, which are not included in that number. In addition, over seas sales will put the North American numbers to shame. Thailand, for example, has a cultural acceptance for transexualism.”

“What about safety?” asked Dad. “Is what your mother said true? You intend to be the Human trial?”
“Yes,” I said as I paid the attendant for a parking space I didn’t use. I pulled out onto Airport Avenue and turned the car toward State Route 900. “All of the research is based on my tissue samples. I suppose in actuality it will be safest for me as there’s five years of research in making sure the organ will work as intended without any side effects or rejection. Besides, if for some reason the FDA revokes the market license after the human trial, I’ll still have mine.”

“So, this was never about money to you, was it?” asked Mom.

I shook my head. “No, and I’m very sorry for all the heart ache I’ve put you both through over the years. Dad, don’t blame Raven, the fault is mine. I should have been born a woman and it was my choice not to be. It was selfish and stupid. I deeply regret the pain it’s caused you.”

“How did you decide what sex you were going to be born before you were born?” he asked.

“It’s a really long story, but I’m fairly satisfied it’s true. I just wanted to apologize for it.”

Dad considered this for a moment, then said. “I am quite impressed with you, Victoria. You’ve grown up. More to the point, you’ve become a beautiful woman I’m proud to call my daughter.”

I was filled with a warm feeling that I couldn’t respond to. Before I could, the driver side front tire exploded. As the car went into a skid, I snatched the magic of my speed spells loose and franticly turned into the skid. The Cirrus struck the guard rail on the passenger side and ground to a halt along it. There goes my security deposit.

Before I could even ask if everyone was alright, or my father could dig me for blowing a tire, my window shattered and something struck me sharply across the mouth. My world went hazy as I clung to the edge of consciousness. I felt men roughly drag me from the car and fling me on my back on the side of the road. I heard my mother screaming and my father struggling with someone, but as I tried to get up, my shoulder exploded in agony and I was thrown back down, screaming in pain of my own.

The Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot bullet I’d been shot with had destroyed my sweater and passed, almost without slowing down, through my best vest to lodge somewhere around my collarbone. I tried to summon up an anti-bullet barrier spell, but I was in far too much pain to concentrate sufficiently to work magic. My mother’s screams and my father’s voice cut off like a switch when I heard a vans’ sliding door close.

I felt a boot dig into my right shoulder and force me back onto my back. In my hazy agony, I was able to recognize the face leering over me and its clipped English accent. “Thought you were being quite clever, weren’t you?” demanded Lange. “I don’t appreciate being betrayed, strumpet.”

I focused as much of my mind as I could, but knew I couldn’t get a spell off. “You’re making a big mistake, Lange,” I hissed in agony.

“It will take more than drag queen for me to be worried, Strumpet. Cheers,” he taunted and shot me again, this time in the stomach.

“You just made this personal,” I whispered as I felt my consciousness slipping away.

“Top of the morning,” he waved, clamoring into the van. It squealed out and roared past my line of vision. I tried with the last of my strength, to get my right hand over to my left wrist. There was bracelet I always wore there, and its Panic Button would bring a Doc Wagon emergency unit by air. I just couldn’t make my arm work. I heard the bracelet squeal which meant my heart had stopped.

“Doc Wagon, a unit is on the way,” came the voice from the speaker.

“I’m shot,” I tried to shout.

“Ma’am? Can you hear me? Hold on, we’re on the way.”

I heard a siren approaching as a warm feeling of numbness settled over me. The voice from the speaker sounded so handsome, I thought. Tires squealed to a stop just out of my peripheral vision and I heard doors open. That was fast. Then the last face I wanted to see just then appeared.

“Shit, it’s Ghost,” Dutch told Skittles.

“Hello?” said the voice from the speaker.

“This is Officer Raymond with Lone Star, you have a multiple gunshot wound victim.”

“I have an air unit in route, but I’m reading flat line here.”

“No pulse,” said Dutch as he pressed my neck and ripped what was left of my sweater open. As he worked on getting my vest off he said, “Shit, she’s been shot with APDS. Beginning compressions,” he told the bracelet as he started CPR. It’s funny, I didn’t think being dead would be like this.

I became terrified that it would stay like this and I’d stare at the inside of a dark casket for eternity. Each time Dutch shoved on my chest I felt it a little less. I tried to speak but knew I couldn’t. I lost track of time as this went on and I began to get angry in a very detached way with Doc Wagon. But, as if summoned by the thought, I heard the whine of a helicopter a few feet away.

It was an odd feeling kissing Skittles as she forced air into my lungs. Her lips were really soft. “Two gunshot wounds, shoulder and stomach, CPR since call, magically active!” shouted Dutch as he shoved on my chest.

“One hundred CC Adrenaline slap,” some one ordered. Something warm and sticky was pushed onto my neck. “Clear!” Something cold touched my chest and agony ripped through me.

“Flat,” came another voice.

“Clear!” Once more the agony coursed through me and I heard a weak little beep to my left. “Weak pulse. Damn she’s lost a lot of blood.”

“She’s been out for three minutes, I didn’t think we’d get her back,” someone else said. “Let’s get her to Valley ICU.”

“Mind if I tag along?” I heard Dutch say as finally the darkness descended.

linebreak shadow

Chapter Sixteen

I came awake to a monotonous tone keeping time to my heart. As my sense of hearing returned, my sense of pain was hard on its heels. My shoulder and belly were having a screaming match about who was going to hurt more. My mouth was adding its two cents worth, but it was out of the running. My vision was blurry, but I was able to get my eyes open; focus would come later. I didn’t need it to realize I wasn’t alone or to make out the figure in the Lone Star Uniform sitting in the chair across the room, smoking.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Smoking in a hospital? Well, for what I pay for medical services, they pretty much let you do whatever you want. And there are few who want to argue with the Star.

“Hi Dutch,” I said hoarsely.

“Victoria,” he drawled around a drag. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Shit. “Yeah, likewise. So, how much trouble am I in?”

“Two gunshot wounds with restricted ammo. Your piece had the same in it. Of course there’s failure to maintain control of your vehicle and damage to Metroplex property, but I’m not so worried about moving violations just now.”

“Thank you officer, I promise never to speed again,” I muttered.

“Remember, your safety is important to us,” he said using his trademark dismissal phrase. “You want to tell me what happened?”

“Am I going to live?” I tried to sit up, nearly coughed up a lung, then wisely decided against another try. He nodded, rubbing out his Lucky Strike in the ash tray that was probably going to cost me 100¥ if I knew Doc Wagon. “Where am I?”

“Valley Medical Center, and yes in reverse order.”

I sighed as I hit the button on the bed to raise it. It whined me up into a sitting position and I used that to focus my attention on remaining calm. A nurse poked her head in, saw that I was awake, then withdrew. “Lange must have found out who I was and hit me in revenge for getting ousted from Ares,” I told him. “Is there something to drink?” I added, hearing the croak in my throat. He stood and poured me a glass of water from a pitcher they’d provided then brought it over.

“How do you know it was Lange?” he asked.

“He was there,” I told him after I took a swallow. “I didn’t see who shot me in the shoulder, but Lange pulled the trigger into my belly.”

“I’ve got a couple of witnesses who say the perps left in a blue van after taking two people from your Cirrus.” I nodded.

“They’re Jackson Iron Cloud and Elizabeth Little Hawk, both citizens from Sioux Nation, legally in Seattle on business.”

“You know them?”

“They’re my parents.”

The door opened and a doctor entered with the nurse from earlier. The nurse had a trey with a hypodermic needle and syringe on it. “Officer, my patient isn’t ready for any kind of questioning just now.” Before Dutch could respond, I demanded,

“What is that?”

“Something to make you sleep…” he started.

“NO! Out!”


“I am a Platinum Member!” I shouted at him. “OUT!”

“Alright,” he said evenly and withdrew, taking the nurse with him. I sighed, trying to order my thoughts better. Dutch chuckled as he worked out a new Lucky and offered me one which I took before he lit us both.

“Remind me never to piss you off,” he said. My head was quickly buzzing from my first non-filtered cigarette, but it took the edge from the pain as I exhaled the smoke and realized in short order I’d be able to cast again.

“You? You couldn’t piss me off. I like you too much,” I told him. I noticed my left hand, which also held my IV, was handcuffed to the bed rail. I looked at him. “Am I under arrest?”

“Call it protective custody,” he said amiably. “Just procedure until we sort out what’s going on with a GSW.”

“So much for the extra ten grand a year I pay Doc Wagon for anonymous service.”

“Don’t blame them,” he said. “We were actually dispatched as you were getting hit. I was working this zone today and I got there before Doc Wagon landed. You can certainly understand my tagging along, can’t you?”

I sighed. “Yes, I’ve piqued your curiosity enough. Thanks, I remember you and Skittles giving me CPR. Congratulations, by the way. I didn’t honestly think you’d ever get the goods on me.”

“Don’t worry about it. And I did advise you to take a vacation.”

“I was about to go on it when Mr. Asshole showed up. If your company had put the collar on him this weekend I wouldn’t be lying in this bed!”

“The Wheels of Justice may turn slowly, but they do turn,” he admonished. I took another drag and exhaled. ”So, what really went down last week?” he asked.

“I may be a Computer Science graduate, but I did take the course on Law Overview. You’re not going to nail me for spontaneous utterance.”

“As you said,” he replied carefully, “You have to have a SIN to have rights. Victoria Laughing Crow is a foreign national in the UCAS on a student visa that expired three years ago. So, you going to tell me what really happened?”

“What if I ask for my Tribal Advocate?” I asked softly.

He sighed. “Then I let you finish your smoke, then I handcuff your other hand and put in the call for the Advocate while I request the forms for deportation faxed over. Then you get deported and God knows what happens to your parents. I’m not trying to fuck you here, Victoria, but I can’t help you if you won’t let me.”

I exhaled the drag forcefully, but kept a hold on my temper. I took the energy being angry gave me to silently and slowly began working magic to heal myself as I told him the story, making sure he knew only what was pertinent. I left the Order and real names out of it. By the time I was finished, my shoulder was as good as new while my stomach was down to a bad ache that I imagined was something like a menstrual cramp.

Lange, you’re in for it now.

“Ok, that’s complete enough for this. Can you get a hold of these friends of yours for testimony?”

“Yes, but I doubt they’re going to. That’s not the way a Professional behaves.”

“You’re just planning to waltz out of here and go work a little justice of your own?” he asked, apparently reading my mind.

“That asshole took my family, Dutch. You’ve got a wife! You got kids?”

“Three,” he said, understanding in his eyes.

“This isn’t business anymore, now it’s personal,” I said darkly.

“Either make sure he isn’t found, or bring him to me alive,” he said as he left the ash tray by the bed and walked towards the door. “I need to go use the john,” he announced, ignoring the private restroom I had in here. “I expect you’ll be here when I get back, after all, you’re handcuffed. I hope nothing happens to them, they’re expensive.” Then he was gone. You know, all it takes is one good cop on the thin blue line to make you think the world just might be ok.

I took a final drag then stubbed out the smoke. A silent glance at the handcuff caused it to fall open. I carefully took out the IV needle, amazed at the size of it, then cast an extremely flimsy ward at the door. A couple of serious shoves would get it open, but it would still give me enough time. I snatched off the patient monitors and stood slowly.

The machines began to scream as I got my bearings once more. I heard a nurse bounce off my ward with a surprised yelp of pain. I was a little dizzy, but that only made me angrier. The windows didn’t open, but a whisper in Cheyenne opened them for me. I was twenty stories up, which was good. It would give me a little glide time to get my bearings.

My ward strained as some one struck it with a bit more authority. I didn’t have much time. I worked the spell and was in the shape of my Totem once more. I stood on the window for a moment, regretting the loss of my Lady Smith. The vest was gone and would have to be replaced anyway. The APDS rounds I had more of, but they were expensive.

And that skirt was one of my favorites, damn it.

The ward collapsed as the door burst open, Dutch leading the way. I winked at him and flew out the window, gliding away north.

The sky was perfect to fly in and I exalted in it. I didn’t think I had the juice to hold the shape this long, but I felt so good I just couldn’t seem to be tired. In twenty minutes I was at the Manner, a bit winded, but feeling darkly vengeful. I landed on the roof, changed again, and then let myself into my rooms through the green house. The hospital gown went into the incinerator and in short order my work clothes were creaking softly on my body.

I whistled and a set of spirits appeared. “Go to Stefan Reynolds, Maria Constageri, Brian Gorden and Jonathan Stilmore,” I instructed them. “Tell them Ghost Wolf needs them now in her apartments in the Manner. Once you’ve delivered that message I command you to forget the names I just gave you. Then you’re all done.”

The spirits streaked off at the speed of thought.

I crossed to the gun safe and took out my Futility Belt. The War Hawk was still clean and oiled, but empty. I took the very expensive box from the safe and loaded it as well as both my speed loaders. The remaining shells I put into another pouch on the belt loose.

Next from the safe was small clay jar which was full of red ocher. I took off the lid, dipped my fingers in and smeared the paint in broad, angry lines across my cheeks and another line from my bottom lip to my chin. I heard the door open as I recapped the jar and placed it back in the safe. I turned to look eye to eye with Stefan and Streak who were the first to respond.

“Oh shit,” breathed Stef as he saw the War Paint on my face.

Stef had done some study on my people and knew what the red ochre meant. Where I was going, those I faced would die. I snarled at him, “Lange has my parents.”

“He is a dead man,” said Streak softly. “The others coming?”

I nodded, simmering in anger.

“I’ll be right back,” he said and darted off.

“Same,” said Stef as he took off as well.

I paced, my anger forcing movement. I got out my work phone and sent Elyssa a text message that read ‘Big Sam’s tonight one hour.’ I heard then the blast of an air horn and walked to the window to look out. Booster’s rig was idling there, Monk waving from the passenger side. I passed her a quick set of hand signals to stay there before I walked back to door of my apartment.

The boys were back, Stef once more in his Ninja tongs, the mask down around his shoulders. Streak was wearing an all black number with extra chains hanging on his jacket and a pair of swords on his belt. They fell in behind me as I stormed downstairs, the other magicians of the Order shrinking away as I passed. The crazy raven shaman who cracked all the jokes had turned into one scary bitch.

We climbed into the tractor and I snapped to Booster, “Drive, Big Sam’s.”

“What’s going down?” asked Monk. Streak answered.

“Lange has Ghost’s parents. Haven’t gotten much else yet.”

“The son of a bitch ran me off the road and put two into me while snatching my folks,” I hissed as the truck lurched into gear and sped towards our destination. “I woke up in Valley Medical and Dutch was there. He knows who I am now.” I forced myself to calm down a bit and finally said, “Nobody has to come…”

“Shut, the fuck, up,” said Monk in an off hand manner. “Yeah, we know the spiel by now, Ghost. We don’t gotta go, yada, yada. I still took the money. We tried the soft way. He wants to play hard, ok we can do the hard option.”

“This isn’t about money any more,” I hissed, but on a small measure was touched by her sincerity. Yeah, I knew I was racking up the favor count with these guys, but, damn, all one of them had to do was call and heaven and earth better stand by to be moved.

“I figured that from your makeup job,” said Monk slowly. “So, he’s at Big Sam’s?” I shook my head.

“No, but in an hour, Elyssa will be and she better cough up the info if she wants to keep breathing,” I said darkly. Monk nodded, then gestured me over. I crossed the short space in the cab to look at her. I didn’t have my speed spells going, but cyber wear is alwayson. Before I could react she collected a large handful of my secure jacket and pulled me down almost nose to nose with her.

“Ghost, sweetie, I love you to death. I’ll go all the way to make sure you get your folks back in one piece. But honey, if you don’t calm down and put your professional face on, I’m going to beat the shit out of you. We’re gonna do this the hard way, and I’ll hold Lange down while you cut him into small bits if that’s what will make you happy. But I won’t catch a bullet ‘cause you’re panties are in too much of a wad to think straight, Capisca?”

Of my entire little clique, Monk was the one I wanted to go ten rounds with the least. I had a feeling come to that, she wouldn’t need ten rounds, but she’d doubtless use them all anyway. I swallowed, got my rage under control, and nodded. She smiled her toothy smile as she patted my check. “That’s my girl. Now, do we have something like a plan for this?”

She let me go so I could stand up straight once more. “No,” I said weakly. “I was going to press Elyssa for where Lange might be…”

“Then you were going to drive us over there and destroy the place, right?” she finished. “Let’s re-think that, shall we?” Again I nodded.

“Stone, you got Lange’s personnel file from Ares, right? How deep is that?”

“I’ve got his address and most of his financials.”

“Let’s start there. Kill the money tap. And see if we can find out where the hell he might have my folks in the bag.” He crossed to the rigs workstation and jacked in, using the sat. phone to uplink to the Matrix. I paced as the truck rumbled along 520. “It’s still possible that Elyssa might know something about where Lange is or why he tried to kill me, but kept my parents.”

“Does he know who your parents are?” asked Booster.

“He seemed to know all about me, but I don’t know.”

“How did he find out who you were, or when your folks where coming, or where?” asked Streak.

“That’s a damn good question,” I said angrily.

“How much does Elyssa know about you?” asked Monk.

“She hooked me up with Pacific Rim Biomedical,” I thought out loud. The others save for Stef gave me a blank look. “Pacific Rim Biomedical is researching a custom biowear for me. An artificial womb and ovaries.”

“Sweet Mother of God,” whispered Monk. “They can do that now?”

“Human trial starts next week,” I said glumly.

“What do they know about you?” was Booster’s question.

“Everything,” I said. “All the research was done under my real name, due to UCAS regulation. In addition, once it became clear they probably would be able to pull it off, I started buying stock in the company. I’m the single largest shareholder now.”

“That wasn’t very smart,” said Streak thoughtfully. I sighed.

“It wasn’t my real name when it started.” That brought another round of stares. “My birth name is Victor Raven Feather. Victoria Laughing Crow was a person made up by a Decker friend I went to college with. But Raven tells me that’s my true name now.”

“Holy Shit,” breathed Streak. “What can’t you do?” he demanded.

“Protect my parents, evidently,” I said raggedly. My rage was slipping away under my tight control of it, and I felt overwhelmed. I could feel a crying jag trying to worm its way to the surface and fought it. Fortunately for me, the monitors on the work station started coming up with spread sheets followed by Stefs’ voice from his trancelike form.

“I’ve isolated all of Lange’s personal accounts, except for his Swiss account on the Zurich Orbital Bank. But I’ve gotten an INTERPOL flash on them so they’re frozen as there’s no place on Earth just now he can get at the money. Lange personally owns or has controlling interest in shell corps that own twenty four properties around the sprawl. Lone Star has stake outs already on sixteen of them, but they’re all houses, rental property or office space.”

“Scratch those from the list,” I said. “What about the others?”

“The rest are warehouses owned by shells, owned by subsidiaries scattered around the city. Two in Down Town on the docks, one in Normandy Park by SEA-TAC, two in the Belleview Business District by Lake Washington, two in Tacoma on Brown’s Point and the last is deep in Puyallup just outside Tarislar, by Hart’s Lake.”

“How, the hell, did a non-Elf get land near Tarislar?” demanded Streak. Tarislar is Sperethiel for Remembrance. The community, such as it was in the Puyallup Barrens, was formed by Elves after the Night of Rage. On February 7th, 2036, in a single night, nearly every Metahuman in Seattle was rounded up and taken to the Tacoma Docks on the orders of then Governor, Vic “The Quick” Allenson, by what was left of the Washington State National Guard. The detainees were told they were to be processed and then deported to San Francisco to ‘improve racial harmony’. Most of them were Orks and Trolls, but a fair number were Elves and Dwarves. There was some kind of a scuffle, then shots, then the warehouse caught fire.

It could have been worse, but hundreds died. Vic The Quick got dead over it, and the surviving Elves moved south to try to Immigrate to Tir Tairngire, except the Salish Council lands were in between them and the Tir. And the Salish said no when they asked to cross. So they ended up founding Tarislar in the Puyallup Barrens. And, yes, before you ask, the Puyallup Barrens put Redmond to shame. The Star will occasionally go into Redmond if you piss them off enough. Puyallup they just bomb in retaliation.

If there was any place that would give me pause about going to, it was Tarislar.

Anglos might not like me over history, but the Elves of Tarislar will kill me over it. It won’t matter to them I’m not Salish either. That had to be where he’d hide out. What was curious, though, was how he was getting away with being there.

“Anybody want to take odds that is where he is?” I asked glumly.

“I bet I can find out,” said Streak as he got his phone out. I looked at him in confusion as he shook his head and dialed. When the line picked up he spoke rapidly in Sperethiel. His tone was friendly at first, but gradually became more commanding. By the end of it, I could almost hear whoever was on the other end snapping off ‘Yes sirs!’ I didn’t think my adoptive little brother had it in him. “I’ll know for sure after the meet,” Streak said, once more, hanging up the phone.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“Just some, ah, acquaintances, that owe me.”

“Anyone you want to tell us about?” asked Monk slowly.

“No one I’m at liberty to,” was his answer.

“There’s a chance he won’t go to ground someplace that can be tied to him,” I said finally, after a long look at the young Elf. “Booster, how quick can your Rotor-Drone check the others?” I heard a hydraulic whine and a rapidly fading buzz.

“On it,” was his answer. “We’re here,” he announced, the truck coming to a stop with a great hiss from the air breaks. I put the sub-vocal transmitter in my ear.

“Alright, we’re going in. Keep an ear out and idling.”

“Go word for the Doberman is my name,” he told me. I looked to the back of the truck where the wicked little wheeled drone sat. The Doberman was about the size of a nice, executive chair. Except executive chairs aren’t equipped with a matched pair of Valiant light machine guns or a multi-barreled Vindicator Mini-gun in the center. I wasn’t sure where he’d gotten them, and I wasn’t about to ask.

All I knew was that all I had to do was say the riggers name, and about twenty seconds later the thing would roll in and kill everyone Booster didn’t like. “Let’s go,” I said. We climbed out of the truck and I checked my watch. Elyssa was due in something like fifteen minutes. Or else I started looking for her and she really wouldn’t like that.

My spells hummed away as we strolled once more into Big Sam’s. Nobody made the mistake of getting in our way. I took out a spare Cred stick and touched it to my Master to transfer ten grand onto it. As I reached the bar, Sam’s eyes took in me and my companions. “MGD light in the bottle,” I told him, sliding the Cred stick across the bar.

“Nice make up job,” he said slowly, bending to get the beer. He set it back on the bar with in my reach, picked up the stick, read it, and slipped it in a pocket.

“Works for me,” I replied. “I’m meeting Ms. Johnson here tonight, Sam. She here yet?”

He shook his big head. “No. When she gets here, she gonna walk out?”

“Depends on what she tells me,” I responded.

“You know the rules, Ghost,” he said slowly.

“Do I look like I care about the rules, just now, Sam? Somebody has my family. This isn’t business, it’s personal.”

He considered that for a moment. “Sucks for Ms. Johnson. Don’t do her in my place. I don’t want to clean up the mess.” I cracked open the beer and nodded. Silently, Streak and I shared a glance then he got his own sub-vocal in his ear and sat down at the bar. The rest, I led back to the room I was beginning to hate.

I sat down at the chair that had occupied Elyssa a few short days ago, took out my War Hawk and placed it on the table. Stefan took up his usual spot just behind me while Monk stayed by the door. She took out one of her pistols and held it loosely in her left hand. Not that it particularly mattered what hand she used, I was more than certain that Smart Gun Links were on the laundry list of machines inside her.

Once I was comfortable, I began to chant in Cheyenne softly, building in power until the Spirit of Man took form on the table in front of me. He was about two feet tall and translucent, appearing to be a thug out of a bad gangster movie in a black and white pin striped Zut Suit with a white fedora pulled low over his Neanderthal eyebrows. A black shirt and a white tie completed the image. “Whatcha need, boss?” he asked in a thick, but blurred Chicago accent.

“How many services do you owe me?” I asked him.

“Six, boss.”

“Somewhere in this city are two people, their blood runs through my veins. Their names are Jackson Iron Cloud and Elizabeth Little Hawk. Can you see their blood in me?” The spirit nodded. “Search this city until you find them, discover their exact location and health then return to me, making note of the way. Your next task will be to guide me to them.”

“Ok, boss. You want me to off anybody around ‘em?”

I laughed a laugh completely devoid of humor. “That comes later. Off you go.”

“Gone,” he said, and he was.

“Three sedans out front,” came Booster’s voice. Got plates on all of ‘em. Lot of muscle here boys and girls. You want to bail?”

“What are they doing?” I demanded.

“Gordon is here. Along with a female shark in a suit. They’re coming inside with a pair of trolls.”

“Got them,” interrupted Streak. “It’s Elyssa.”

“What is the rest of the muscle doing Booster?” I demanded.

“They’re taking up a guard of the cars.”

“Show time,” hissed Streak.

The door opened, revealing Elyssa and Gordon. Elyssa entered first, followed by the new Senior Executive Vice President. Before anyone could do anything, there was a flash of magical power, one of the trolls fell in the door and off to one side. The other made to charge in, his gun half out, but he stopped when he realized Monk’s Manhunter was against his temple. “Come in,” she said, all smiles. The troll slowly complied, after gingerly handing her his piece. Streak followed, his hands still glowing slightly from the Mana Ball he’d cast.

“You look like a professional,” Monk told the troll. “Act that way and you’ll walk out of here, sport.”

Gordon sighed, but kept his composure. As he straightened his suit he actually smiled. “It’s so hard to get good help these days. What is your secret Ghost?”

“I didn’t call you,” I said evenly. His eyes fell on my War Hawk and I saw worry flash in them. I turned to Elyssa. “You, I did call. I’ll bet you can guess my first question.”

“I had nothing to do with your parents being taken, Ghost,” she said slowly.

“Her parents?” demanded Gordon.

“Mr. Gordon, I’m only going to ask you once to be quiet,” I said softly. Gordon wisely shut up. “Exactly how did Mr. Lange figure out who I was, Elyssa?”

“I’m insulted,” she sniffed.

“Be insulted,” I affirmed. “Just be vocal. Or be dead. Choice is yours. I’m not in the mood for games, Elyssa.”

“Lange has access to the file Ares has on you,” she said quickly. “I’m sure he put some one on it once he got wind of his,” she pointed to Gordon, “heavy handed attempts to ruin his bid on Senior Exec.”

“Ares has a file on me?” I asked, turning my eyes to Gordon. The executive nervously cleared his throat.

“Ares keeps records on every deniable asset we employ more than four times,” he said. “There may be more than one set of books, but they still have to be balanced. DA has to justify their budget just like every other department.”

“How touching,” I said. “I feel like an employee. Is there a 401K?”

“There are bonuses and even legal intervention at certain levels for successful DA’s. Actually, you were slated for an offer of permanent employment next month.” Stefan laughed at that.

“What is in it?” I demanded, my eyes narrowing.

“Dates and places of every meet, every job you’ve done for us, the target, what was to be taken or destroyed or whatever, who authorized the job, what you were paid that kind of thing.”

“Anything else?”

“Well, yes, everything that we found out about you, from various sources. Her for one,” he said as the finger pointing continued. “You were one of our best assets, it’s only good business sense to keep track of you, to tailor jobs you’re most suited for as well as our own protection.”

I let my anger creep into my voice, but kept my temper under tight control. “Then why the goat screw Monday last?” Gordon’s eyebrows ascended his face.

“What about it? It went exactly as I thought it would.”

“You got a man killed and very nearly a second!” I hissed. “My life is coming apart at the seams because of a God Damn drill?”

Gordon nearly became angry himself, but kept himself composed. I saw some of his confidence returning as he worked out ways to leave the room alive. “You were chosen because of your reputation for using the least amount of force necessary. The Auburn Facility had just under gone a two million Nuyen over haul of security. It was supposed to be impregnable.”

“And Switchblade?” I demanded.

“It hasn’t been proven, but I suspect that Lange saw to it the guards were issued live ammo in place of the Simunition I specifically ordered. You paid for his initial treatment, but Ares has actually taken up the rest of his bill and arraigned some cyber wear he wanted as a way, we hoped, of getting back into your good graces.”

“Why the muscle then?”

“You may use the least amount of force necessary, but that doesn’t mean you won’t use lethal force,” he said casually as if discussing the weather. “Your view to the contrary, I’m not stupid. Once Ms. Bryant contacted me and told me Lange had hit you, I realized I should accompany her to offer the assistance of Ares Macro Technology. Had I known that family had been involved, I would have come alone. We are not the enemy, Miss Laughing Crow,” he said and I jerked as if slapped.

“What else is in that file?” I hissed.

He cleared his throat softly. “Ahem, once we learned that, ah, discreet trideo surveillance measures were ineffective, we resorted to composite sketch artists. Our account level with the Metroplex allows Knight Errant access to the DMV records. It was a simple matter of cross referencing the sketch to the DMV database.”

My eyes narrowed. “Exactly how many Runs have I done for Ares?”

“Um, I’m not certain of the exact number just now, but well over two hundred.”

“I’ll take that to mean that you owe me some favors.” He nodded vigorously. “Where is Lange?”

“Mr. Lange is no longer an employee of Ares. There are warrants for his arrest and Knight Errant is actively pursuing his capture. Assuming we get to him first, I’d be happy to arrange for him to be turned over to you. As far as his current whereabouts, I have no idea.” My eyes slid over to Elyssa.

“If I knew where he was, I would have called you first,” she swore.

“Alright, why does he have my parents?”

“Most likely he’s looking for a new job,” said Gordon. “He pulled a similar stunt to get hired by Ares in the first place.”

“Bullshit,” I said. “There’s no way a father is going to hire the man who killed his daughter in front of him. Try again.”

“It could be any number of things,” offered Elyssa. “Everything from blackmail to revenge. I’m all but certain he knows you’re alive. For all I know he planned it this way. Surely if anyone in the sprawl is capable of killing someone the first time, it’s Lange.”

“You hear from him, I know about it that minute,” I told Elyssa. She continued to pinch her face in its false pained expression, but I was gracious enough to not comment on it. I picked up the War Hawk and re-holstered it. “Mr. Gordon, as a way of balancing our collective books, I want your word Ares’ files on myself, and my associates will mysteriously go missing as soon as you return to the headquarters, tonight.

“I’ll see to it myself,” he affirmed. “If Ares can do or supply anything to assist you in the recovery of your family, please don’t hesitate to call me. Family is one of the highest values we have.”

“Being a nice Family owned business,” I agreed with him. He simply smirked and said nothing. “If I need something, I’ll let you know. I trust you’ll both accept my apology for my being out of sorts.”

“No apology necessary,” said Gordon quickly.

“Perhaps not for you,” sniffed Elyssa. “I’ll accept it, however, Ghost. I hope you get your parents safely back. If not, call me once you get Lange. I have some associates who delight in things you could never dream of. I can arrange either in person or Trideo of their, ah, expert handling of Mr. Lange.”

“I’ll let you know,” I said, trying to keep my distaste out of my voice. I knew that Elyssa went in for some distinctly deviant things, but being friendly with professional torturers went beyond my wildest imaginings. “Good evening.” I said as I stood and we made our way to the door. Once it was closed, them still inside, I put another Ward on it, a good bit stronger than my hospital effort. The troll was in for a workout to get his boss out of there.

We left as discreetly as we could, linking back up with Booster and rumbling off into the night.

linebreak shadow

Chapter Seventeen

The ride in the truck was anything, but pleasant. My growing anger at my narrowing list of options made me less than enjoyable company. As I sat, bounced and glowered at everyone I became increasingly annoyed with myself. I knew at some level Elyssa was a dead end, but I couldn’t get over my growing feeling helplessness. That Gordon was so eager to make nice was a plus, but it didn’t get my parents back, or Lange in a body bag.

One by one, Booster’s rotor-drone was coming up negative on Lange’s other properties. My spirit had yet to return, but a city the size of Seattle isn’t searched quickly. It was beginning to look like Tarislar was our best shot. If he wasn’t there, it was entirely likely that I was about to become an orphan.

Followed in short order by a cold blooded killer.

While I simmered in my helplessness, Streak’s phone rang. He answered it, quickly switching to Sperethiel and talking rapidly. Finally he hung up then told Booster, “Head to Puyallup. My contact confirms there’s a clutch of Anglos one matching Lange’s description at that warehouse.”

“Did they say anything about Natives?” I asked quickly. Streak sadly shook his head.

“But, that’s probably a good thing. My control over Sting is tenuous at best.”

“Sting?” demanded Monk. “The crazy bitch that runs the Ancients?”

I could never be sure, but I was pretty certain Streak was blushing. “Ah, yeah. Is that important?”

Monk pulled up her left sleeve to show a tattoo on her shoulder of a heart being squeezed by a fist. “I ran with Crimson Crush back in the day. We mixed it up with the Spikes once or twice when they looked to expanding into our ‘hood. Right in the middle of one of our donnybrooks rolls this crazy elf on a bike with a lot of friends. The Spikes found other places to be. How do you know her?” she asked.

“Let’s just say she’s friends with my father,” mumbled Streak.

“Your dad, the king?” asked Monk pointedly. “We opening up a huge can of worms here?”

“Prince,” corrected Streak by habit. “Look, it’s cool, I just can’t go into it, k?”

“Not especially,” said Monk coolly. “How much of what the Dweller said was true? This bitch gonna call down a Strike Team?”

“Monk, back off,” I said lowly. We locked eyes for a moment. “If Streak’s friend was going to have an issue we’d need to know about, Streak would tell us. We’ve all got our dirty little secrets. Leave the kid alone.”

“Nothing personal,” said Monk to Streak without taking her eyes off me.

“None taken,” the elf assured her. We continued our little staring match until my spirit popped into being in the truck, giving me an excuse to break the eye contact.

“Got ‘em boss,” said the translucent little gangster.

“How are they?” I asked. “Where?”

“They’re south of here. Lots of elves. The man’s been roughed up some, but the broad is ok.” My vision went red with rage.

“Booster,” I hissed.

“Drone’ll be on station in two minutes. We’ll get there as soon after as I can, doll.”

I nodded and turned back to Stefan. “Can you get back online? Does that building have some kind of closed circuit or something we can tap?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, jacking back in.

“What’s our strategy?” asked Monk pointedly.

“He’s obviously counting on Tarislar being outside the reach of the Star and probably to hide from me as well,” I said, taking a few deep breaths to keep my anger from spiraling out of control. I turned back to my spirit. “How many men were with him?”

“Ten, most of them like her,” the spirit told me, pointing at Monk. I drew the War Hawk.

“Lots of these?”

“Nothing that small,” was the spirit’s response. “But, yeah, lots. Way more than them.” That brought a look of confusion to my face.

“How many is way more?”

The spirit shrugged. “More than ten. I didn’t look at the boxes that much, you just said to look at the man and the broad.”


“Yeah, the big guns were in boxes. The building is full of them.”

Oh shit. “Booster, hand me your piece,” I said. The dwarf didn’t look at me, but fished out the Predator and handed it back. I showed the spirit the Ares logo stamped onto the receiver of the pistol. “Did the boxes have this on them?” The spirit nodded as I handed Booster his gun back.

“What the fuck does he have in there?” asked Streak.

Monk shrugged. “On a guess, crates of Panthers. He strikes me as a fall back plan kind of a guy. He must have figured you’d have a friend who’d freeze up his cash. I’ll bet he can make a killing selling those Panthers.”

I shivered. The Panther Assault Cannon, the magic gun, the holy grail of the street. It fired a forty millimeter explosive shell out to something like a mile and a half. Generally, they were box or drum fed, but you could modify one to accept a belt. Imagine a Coke can of explosive armor piercing shell coming at you at five times the speed of sound. It didn’t particularly matter if it hit you or not. Close counted. So long as it hit something near you, you were dead. Of course, the guns were useless without the ammo…

Before my pessimistic nature could pull me down into a funk, the screens on the console came alive in front of Stef once more. This time they showed the interior of a rectangle shaped warehouse. On one were three figures tied to chairs with hoods covering their faces. Two were mom and dad, but I couldn’t tell who the third man was. Lange was at a table with his goons, playing cards it looked like.

It was hard to get a feel for how big the warehouse was exactly, but the spirit was right. There were way more guns than people.

“Who the hell is that?” I asked.

“Dunno,” was Stef’s response. “I’m trying to see if I can get audio as well. The building has a pretty elaborate exterior security grid, motion detectors, perimeter laser fence not to mention a ten foot brick wall topped with razor wire. Inside is fairly simple, just an alarm circuit on the doors and windows.”

“Is there a roof access?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s rated for a helicopter, actually. There aren’t motion sensors there, just the alarm circuit on the door.” I felt a grin pull at my mouth.

“What?” asked Monk. “I know that look, girl. You just got a plan. Spill it.”

“One second,” I temporized as I got my work phone out and hit the speed dial.

“Hello, this is Dutch,” came the voice on the other end of the line.

“How would you like to make Sergeant tonight?” I asked without preamble.

“Don’t particularly want the hassle or the paperwork, why, Ghost?” was his response.

“You got a buddy in the Air Unit at the Star? Somebody who can get a chopper and meet us at say, the parking lot at the Tourist Info Center on the old Puyallup Res?”

“Yes, but again I ask you, why?”

“I know where Lange is and he has my folks there. In a warehouse full of stolen Panther Cannons that he evidently thought was his parting gift from Ares. I need a helicopter to get in and you need that A3 reward for Saunders, right?”

“That will certainly make the misses happy with our household bottom line. You know if I’m involved, we have to do it my way.”

“I’ve thought about that actually. If he’s dead, his suffering ends. They put murderers in with some bad, bad men at the Lone Star Penitentiary, don’t they?”

“I started in the Jail,” was his answer. “I still have friends there that can make sure Mr. Lange does hard time.” A ferial smile curled my lips.

“Done. Just slip me some trideo every now and then. Can you get there in thirty minutes?”

“Sure. How many friends you bringing?”

“Um, two. They can both take care of themselves and they’ll do it your way.”

“Which two?” he pressed. I looked up at the others and they all nodded.

“Monk and Streak. Monk is ex-UCAS army and Streak is a Hermetic Mage.” There was a brief pause as I heard Dutch and Skittles converse, then I heard the burp of the siren as they went through an intersection against a light. I smiled. Dutch so loved pulling my chain.

“Alright, the info center in twenty. Make sure you’re set and your info is on the money, Ghost. I’m calling in favors on this.”

“Why, Officer Raymond, don’t you trust me?”

I heard him chuckle as the line clicked and went dead. As I put the phone away, immediately, still from his trance, Stef asked, “Why not me?”. He hadn’t backed out of the system.

I rubbed his head, not knowing if he could feel it. “I need you working that system, love.” He nodded, but said nothing. I turned back to Monk and Streak. “We’ve got a ride, but we have to do it legal,” I told them. “I know this was real short notice, what do I owe you guys?”

Monk snorted, but Streak just shook his head. “Don’t insult me while I’m saving your hoop, sis,” he said, confirming that he felt the same way about me that I felt about him. Then a gleam lit his eyes and he said, “However, you can tell me why you asked if I was seeing anyone. The answer is no by the way.”

I laughed. “You might want to consider asking Nipper out.” He frowned, obviously not expecting that answer. Monk just guffawed loudly.

Slowly, he asked, “Nipper?”

“Yes, the red headed Coyote shaman. Let’s just say she’s more than interested. You got a problem with older women?”

“Hell no,” he said. “They’re better in bed.” I smiled, deciding to let his chauvinistic comment slide. From the front of the cab, Booster said,

“We’re here. What do you want me to do, Ghost?”

I looked out the windows to see the squat, burned out building in the headlights of the Bison. “Booster, I want you to high tail it to that warehouse. Set up shop near by and keep us updated on the comm. When I give the signal, send in the Doberman to get their attention. I’ll pay to have it replaced if they trash it, ok?”

“No worries.” He handed me a palm top trideo player that looked like it had been intensely modified. “Here, you can pick up the rotor’s Trideo feed on this. I’ll be on the normal channel. Dunno if I can beat a chopper down there, but I’ll give it my best shot.”

Monk opened the door and they clamored out. I leaned down to kiss the dwarf on his fuzzy cheek. “I owe you, short shit.”

“Damn it, doll, get the hell on. You know how tough it is to drive with a hard on?” I laughed and climbed out of the truck which sped off. I had no idea the truck looked like it was being driven so recklessly on the outside. Inside it was smooth as silk.

I turned on the palm top to see the exterior of the warehouse floating ghostly in three dimensions just above the screen. The view zoomed through a window to a slightly pixilated close up of three people tied to chairs along with the edge of a table with men sitting around it. I lit up a smoke to wait while Monk and Streak bummed off me. That was the end of that pack. The angle on the camera changed so I got my first good look at what we were up against.

Lange was there, dressed in a black BDU style outfit without patches or insignia. With him, similarly dressed were three Anglo men, four Orks and two Trolls. I had to give the asshole credit, he didn’t skimp on the muscle. It was hard, but I could tell everybody in the room were dangerous mother fuckers.

I heard the distant wail of a siren that was so out of place here in the Barrens. I looked up and we watched Dutch’s squad car come barreling around the ruined road, sailing over the smaller pot holes in the road and swerving around the ones it wouldn’t clear. It came to a stop near us with Dutch and Skittles climbing out.

I had no idea Skittles was that good a driver.

Dutch did a double take as he walked up to us. “Maria?” he asked.

Monk sighed. “Hey, Sarge,” she said softly.

I blinked. “You two know each other?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Dutch was my Drill Instructor in boot.” Well, I guess it is a small world after all.

“When did you fall in with this reprobate?” he asked.

“Hey!” I protested.

“She saved my hoop about three years ago on a job that went south. Been running with her pretty much ever since. When did you get out of the soldier biz?” He shrugged, taking out his pack of Luckies.

“I guess about four years after you graduated Basic. Got tired of the crap from Uncle. It cost me my first marriage as well as the best years of my life. So, I figured I’d give Law Enforcement a shot.”

“Isn’t that trading one high stress job for another?” asked Streak quietly. I made the introductions and Dutch actually shook hands.

“I suppose. But, the Star isn’t going to transfer me to Korea coming off one hardship tour.” He took a drag, then looked down at his watch. “Goober should be here in a couple of minutes.”

“Goober?” I asked pointedly. “The helicopter pilot is named Goober?”

Dutch chuckled darkly. “You’ll understand when you see him. Now, everybody raise your right hands. Do you swear to not get me in too deep of a pile of shit with the higher ups? Ok, by the powers vested in me by the Metroplex I dub you temporary officers of Lone Star.” I chuckled.

“How official.”

“Yeah, and by the way, Doc Wagon says they won’t press charges on criminal damage to property if you pay for the window you broke.” I sighed and nodded.

“It’s on my to do list.”

“Ok, what’s the set up?” Skittles asked around a drag of her own smoke. I held up the palm top. As I finished giving them the spiel and my take on how to deal with the evenings festivities, we heard the approach of the helicopter. Dutch went to the back of the cruiser where he popped the trunk. From it he took a pair of Enfield AS-7 combat shot guns and began fitting big drums of shells to them. He passed one to Skittles, then came two riot vests that looked fairly uncomfortable that were quickly strapped into place.

My shadowy compatriots and I felt a bit under prepared as Dutch made ready to go to war. The chopper, a Hughes WK-2 Stallion, was in a personnel configuration with canvas seats in the back area behind the pilot, with a pair of Vindicator mini-guns behind the seating area. It was covered in Lone Star logos and stamped POLICE letters. There was no way anyone could mistake it for anything other than what it was.

The Stallion settled for a moment, giving us a chance to clamor aboard, then took off once more. Not surprisingly, Dutch took one of the door gunner positions and inserted the dangling comm. wire into a jack in his head that must be an external pickup for his headwear radio.

He and the pilot carried on a silent conversation as we flew, me giving directions every so often from my spirit. And, Dutch was right, I did get the name. The pilot was the spitting image of the late Jim Neighbors from his early days on the Andy Griffith Show. As we started getting closer, the radio in my ear squawked with Booster’s voice.

“We’re on station. Have you in visual.”

“What’s our ETA?” I hollered up to Goober. He held up a single gloved finger. “One minute,” I told Booster and hoped he was up on his Shakespeare. “Havoc in thirty.”

“Roger.” I guess classical education isn’t dead.

“Distraction in thirty seconds!” I shouted. Goober gave me a thumbs up. Then his hand went up to a switch marked Master Engine and moved it to the off position. I fought a bit of panic as the whine of the twin turbine engines behind me stopped leaving the only sound the rotor blades moving though the air. As we glided towards the roof of our target, I saw the Vindicator on the Doberman make a hole for the little drone in the wall. Red lights and sirens lit up the night causing the two Trolls to came out of the front door.

Their Predators spoke against the Doberman, but its Vindicator persuaded them to go back inside. Then the building was between us and the little war below. Goober somehow managed to slow our decent and we landed surprisingly softly on the roof. “Door!” I shouted into the microphone as I led the clamor out of the chopper.

The roof access door silently opened for us as we reached it, revealing a stair way which we began to descend. “The door in front of you is not alarmed,” came Stef’s voice in my ear as we reached the bottom. I shifted the War Hawk to my other hand, and cautiously opened the door. There was a muffled explosion from outside that I took to be the end of Booster’s Doberman.

The room was laid out before me as I’d seen in the cameras. The three prisoners were about thirty feet away to my left. To my right was Lange and most of his goons. There was an Ork over by the prisoners with a Colt Manhunter in his fist. “What, the fuck, was that?” came Lange’s angry voice.

“Some kind of drone,” was the answer. “Maybe from those bikers we chased off earlier.”

“Bikers?” Lange demanded.

“Yeah. There’s a couple of go gangs around here. We have to chase them off every now and then.”

“You idiot!” Lange shouted. “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” I turned back to Dutch to gave a series of hand signals. Then I turned back to the crack in the door and whispered in Cheyenne. The room exploded in brilliant flashes of light and thunderclaps as my Flash/Bang spell went off. Then we poured through the door.

“Lone Star!” Shouted Dutch. “Get on the ground! Now! On the ground!”

The Ork by my folks evidently had some Cyber wear that included sound and light compensation. He made the mistake of turning towards me as I charged him then I heard the report of a shot gun blast behind me. His chest opened up as he was flung backwards to gasp out the last of his life.

I reached the chairs and flung myself sideways into all three of them, over turning them, landing on the heap of bodies I’d made.

Looking up I saw Skittles turning from the shot she’d saved my bacon with. She was turning back to the fracas by the table. Monk’s Manhunters spoke rapidly causing the three Anglos to all go down, clutching knees, legs and arms.

I couldn’t make out their shouts of agony over the gun fire and the other shouting. The remaining Orks and Trolls, one of them already seriously injured, probably from the Vindicator, were getting painfully to the ground. Lange was doing his best to grab the Moon and pull himself through the roof by it.

“I said on the ground!” shouted Dutch, punctuating his order with a vicious butt stroke of the shotgun to Lange’s left cheek. I saw a tooth fly out of his mouth as he spun around and landed face first on the ground. The shot gun was buried into the back of his neck. “Clear!” shouted Dutch.

“Clear!” answered Skittles and me.

I saw one of the Orks make a motion for a gun in the small of his back, but an unseen magical force snatched him up and hurled him against the door behind him. He groaned, then slid down, unconscious. “Clear,” said Streak quite calmly.

“Give me an excuse, big boy,” taunted Monk to the Troll she was covering.

I got off the pile I’d made and whispered in Cheyenne, as ropes untied themselves. I snatched the hoods off, apologies spilling from my lips as I helped my parents back up. Dad had a fine black eye and his lower lip was split, but was otherwise ok. Mom was just shaken, but seemed unhurt. That was very good for Mr. Lange, promise or no.

“Dad, I’m so sorry,” I kept chanting as I hugged him. He fiercely hugged me back, then spun me around in his joy.

“Thank God you’re alright.” He set me back on my feet and I was crushed between him and mom as she hugged me from behind. “That’s all that matters,” he told me.

“Well, not exactly all,” said a familiar voice behind me. I turned to watch Geoffrey Black Bear remove the hood over his head and run his hands through his disheveled hair. My compatriots and I were stunned into silence as Skittles gave voice to the question on her and Dutch’s mind.

“Who’s that?”

“Geoffrey Black Bear, CEO of Iron Prairie Computer Systems,” he told her. “Elizabeth, are you alright?” he asked cautiously. My parents and I disentangled ourselves while Mom nodded silently. Geoffrey nodded and walked back over to Dutch and Lange. “Mr. Lange, due to your actions, I must declare our contract null and void. Officer, I would like to press charges against this man for kidnapping and attempted murder.”

“What the fuck is going on!” I shouted, crossing the room, snatching my arm from the loose grip dad had gotten on me to keep me by him as I did so. Geoffrey was unconcerned as he met my fierce gaze.

“Just a small matter of violation of contract, Victoria,” he told me.

What contract?” I demanded in a dangerous tone. Geoffrey made a note that the War Hawk was still in my hand, let alone the cacophony of magic running through my mind. He slowly raised his hands in a calming gesture.

“We can discuss this over dinner, Victoria. And these officers have work to do with this criminal scum. Who’s hungry?” he asked brightly. Dutch obviously looked as confused over this turn of events as I was. He got Lange cuffed and stuck a cyber inhibitor patch across the back of his neck before he stood up.

Monk helped Skittles similarly cuff the others as he said, “Pardon me if I seem a bit confused by all of this, but I do believe the lady asked you a question. Quite frankly, I’m just as curious as to what the fuck is going on here. I’ve already got the mother of all reports to write, so I might as well have the whole story to fill it with. So, let’s hear it Mr. Black Bear, or do I cut my paperwork in half, turn this ‘criminal scum’ as you put it loose and call it a night?”

Geoffrey almost went white at that. His lips unlocked and began to spill forth the most twisted tale I think I’ve ever heard. Even now I’m not sure I believe it.

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Chapter Eighteen

I let go of Stefan’s arm to make a final check of my make up as the elevator hummed efficiently upwards. Satisfied my look was as good as it was going to get, I returned my compact to the clutch purse I held then made minor adjustments to the green silk Viachi evening gown I was wearing. If I was a bit paranoid about my appearance, you can forgive me. It isn’t every day one dines at the Eye of the Needle. The gown played up my cleavage while coming to a point around mid calf front and back, but sweeping up to just over my knees on the sides.

Monk had settled on a powder blue number that was made to both diminish and show off her size to great effect. She looked striking in it, though more than a bit uncomfortable, but I never would have pegged her for a pastel gal. Speaking of uncomfortable, the men folk were looking decidedly that way as they squirmed in their tuxedos, each customized slightly to the wearer. Stefan’s had an almost martial art gi look about it, while Booster had gone old school with a white jacket over a red tie and cummerbund.

Streak wore a vaguely Renaissance long tunic with puffed sleeves and a high collar that ended at his knees over tights along with some comfortable looking sandals, all in a royal blue. Finally he wore that head piece I’d always seen on his Astral Form; let me tell you, the reality of it was far more incredible than the Astral echo. It would have easily paid for my research all by itself. It was hard to describe, but he looked more out of place in this than he did in his normal jeans and shirts.

Dutch along with his lovely wife, Allison, who I was surprised to learn was Seminole, were both going for a retro-forties Bogart and Bacall number that worked for them. The kiddies were at home with a sitter whose references had been quadruple checked, courtesy of yours truly. The elevator came to a stop and the doors opened to a soft tone. The Maitre D stepped forward, all smiles.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Might I trouble you to check your personal safety devices to your left please.”

That’s an interesting way to say hand over your guns, I thought to myself. Dutch flashed his ID and the Maitre D stepped to one side, murmuring compliments to Allison. I took my Lady Smith, courtesy of the Dutchman, from my clutch purse to present to the girl at the Gun Check counter. I thumbed the pad, then stepped aside. Streak’s swords came from a neat little hidey hole in his belt so that they wrapped around his waist in the belt. To the pile were quickly added Booster’s Predator as well as Monk’s Manhunters. You don’t want to know where she had them concealed. We linked back up with Dutch and Allie to be led further into the restaurant to one of the oh-so-expensive private rooms.

Mom and Dad were already there, along with Geoffrey Black Bear, whom I still wasn’t sure I ever wanted to see again. The two men stood as we entered, Geoffrey playing host with the meet and greet. “Welcome, everyone,” he said, wearing an off the rack smile. He paused a moment, the smile fading slightly. “And where is Officer Suttles?”

Dutch answered. “She had a drill this weekend. That’s the way it is when you’re in the Reserves.” The smile returned.

“Too bad. Please, make yourselves at home.” He returned to the head of the table and sat. I let Stefan hold my chair for me as I did so as well. Booster played the gentleman for Monk, and it was a fairly comical sight to say the least.

“Now, remind me again,” drawled Dutch once he had his wife seated. “Why are we having anything to do with you?”

This time the smile didn’t fade. “Now, now, Officer, let’s not bring unpleasantness to the table. That minuet lapse in judgment is behind us. This is an evening to celebrate.”

“Your minuet lapse in judgment got a man killed,” responded Dutch, all smiles himself. “Not to mention the stirring up of the rest of the city. It never ceases to amaze me how you corporate types can so easily wash your hands of the messes you cause.”

“That is life in the big city,” responded Geoffrey, refusing to rise to Dutch’s baiting. “I have assured Governor Lindstrom that there will be no repeat performances of the past few days and that is certainly good enough for him. I understand you and your partner received quite a promotion for your rather capable assistance in bringing this matter to a close?” The threat was a subtle one. Play nice, you got your toys, now shut up about it.

“That doesn’t entirely solve the matter from my perspective,” I said softly around a sip of an excellent white wine a steward was filling the glasses with. “How do you justify all of this simply to test me as a good candidate for employment with your firm?”

Black Bear smiled a paternal smile and patted my left hand. “There are far reaching advantages above and beyond testing your capabilities, Victoria. Mr. Gordon now owes his position to you, and by extension Iron Prairie Computer. In the short term, IPC has already won the bid to be the hardware supplier to Ares’ next generation of Smart Gun technologies. It also doesn’t hurt that the man who could arguably be the next President of Ares owes us favors. That you were able to so capably undo Mr. Lange’s treachery was simply an added bonus.”

“Of course,” I continued, “If Lange ever gets out of prison I have a serious problem on my hands.”

“Not so long as you work for IPC,” responded Geoffrey, all smiles. “Speaking of that, have you considered our offer?”

“Yes, deeply. And the answer is no.”

His wine glass stopped mid travel to his lips. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said no. I couldn’t, in conscience accept an offer of employment from someone who considers murder an acceptable way to advance his corporate agenda. I had a great deal of respect for you, Mr. Black Bear, but that has all been done away with. God’s truth be told, if Oliver Lange kicked in that door right now, I’d probably help him do you. There’s no way I would ever work for you.”

The wine glass continued its travel and he took a sip, shaking his head. “That’s a pity. Still, if you change your mind, the offer will still be there. I’m certain your father would be happy to work with you.”

“Oh, I will be,” said dad for the first time. He took an envelop from his jacket to set it down by Geoffrey’s left hand.

“What’s this?” the executive asked.

“My letter of resignation. You used me to lure Victoria into an altercation that could have gotten us all killed. You and I are done, Geoffrey.”

Black Bear sighed. “Jackson, you’re being rash. Where will you work? How will you keep Elizabeth in the lifestyle to which she is accustomed?”

“I’ve already accepted a position with Pacific Rim Biomedical,” dad said with a smile. “The pay is on par with what I’m making now. And, if their new product line kicks off they way I’m informed it might, well, let’s just say I won’t be worried about paying bills. Most importantly, I don’t have to worry about my family being used to further the corporate agenda.”

Well, that wasn’t exactly true, but close enough, I thought around a smile and a great rush of love for Dad. “You know?” I said, standing after Stefan had leaped to his feet to hold my chair for me. “I’m not sure I really like this place. What do you say we clear out of here and have dinner somewhere that’s a bit more traditional Seattle?” I suggested.

“Where did you have in mind?” asked Dad as he stood with the others, holding Mom’s chair. Geoffrey sat, gaping and sputtering.

“How about Doc’s over in Kirkland? He make’s the best omelets in the Sprawl. Good evening Mr. Black Bear,” I said, turning back to him. “Have a wonderful life.” On that note, I led my family and dearest friends from the room, forever closing the door on one of the worst times of my life.

But, also in a way, one of the best.

linebreak shadow

A week later I awoke in a hospital bed, disoriented, groggy and doing my best to get a hold of the asshole using my gut as a punching bag. In my panic, I reached out to see if I still felt the flow of magic. There was a flash of light that got the attention of a shape across the room. “Take it easy,” he told me, rising and holding a glass of water to my lips. I drank gratefully as my mouth felt like I would never have spit again.

I felt the flow resume in me, undiminished and I relaxed. “Hey,” I said weakly, distressed at the croak of my voice. Stefan smiled as he wiped my sweaty forehead and put the empty glass on the tray to refill it from the pitcher.

“How are you feeling?” he asked, concern in his voice.

“Who keeps hitting me in the stomach?” I growled, my tone promising mayhem to the guilty party. He chuckled.

“The surgeon said you’d feel some discomfort after the surgery. Everything went great they said. There were a couple of things you should watch out for though. You awake enough to hear it?” He brought the blessed glass back and I drained it again.

“Yes,” I croaked, though my voice was starting to return to its normal timbers. The respirator in my nose was beginning to annoy me, but I barely had the strength to move. I’m a true woman now, I thought to myself and felt a warm feeling of satisfaction settle in my breast to spread throughout my whole body.

“If you feel the need to urinate, just go. You have a catheter in now. That’s a big part of the pain you’re feeling. Also, they inserted a retro-virus after the implantation to continue reworking your chromosome pairs. You’re going to go through another puberty over the next year. There might be some mood swings as well as you start to menstruate. They tell me that probably won’t start for a few months.”

“Great,” I sighed. “Just what I needed, another puberty.”

“That’s not so bad,” he assured me, filling the glass again. “There, ah, may be some physical changes as well.” Something in his tone caught my ear. As he filled the glass for a third time I looked at him.

“Like what?” I demanded.

“Well, they say it’s remote as developed as your breasts already are, but they might increase in size.” I rolled my eyes.

“I’m already a C,” I said, curious. “How much are they thinking?”

He blushed under his farm boy tan. “A cup size, maybe two.”

“A cup size or two?” I demanded. “Great, I’m sure you’re loving that.”

He brought the cup to my lips once more, cutting off my sarcasm. “Hey, I already told you I loved you. If there’s more to love, that’s just gravy.” I laughed at him with my eyes, trying to call up a mental picture of myself that big.

“You won’t have to carry them around,” I told him once my mouth was clear. I sighed and doing my best to relax in my hazy pain. “What else?”

“Um, they did say they wanted you not to heal yourself with magic, or let anyone else magically active heal you. They need to document the healing stages for the trial.” I nodded, knowing it was necessary, but not liking it. I wasn’t that much of a woman to not regret being unable to cut my pain short. I don’t deal well with pain yet, though I had a whole lifetime to get used to it. “Also, there’s some more blood work they’re going to need. Speaking of which.” He said, pressing the nurse call button.

“More blood work?” I demanded. I’d already been on the receiving end of about a dozen various needle based injections and extractions. You already know how I feel about blood. The nurse came in, carrying a tray with the afore mentioned needles and vials. I sighed. “What now? Didn’t you vampires get enough out of me?”

The nurse smiled as she set the tray down. “Now, don’t be that way,” she scolded me. “I’ll start with him if you’d like.”

“Him?” I demanded. “What do you need his blood for?”

“Sweetheart,” she said as Stef rolled his sleeve up and she started swiping the inside of his elbow with an alcohol pad. “You have to have a blood test from both parties for a marriage license.”

“Marriage license?” I asked, astounded. Stefan chuckled as he pointed to the table by the bed where I lay. My eyes followed his finger to fall on a jewelry box that sat there open. Inside was the most beautiful solitary diamond ring I’d ever seen. I gasped and the nurse chuckled, obviously in on the gag.

“So?” she asked, standing before me with the needle and the prep pad in her hands. I wasn’t sure how long I’d stared at the ring before I could tear my eyes from it back up to her. “What’s your answer?” She was already done with Stefan and waiting on me.

“Yes,” I whispered and shivered as the pad rubbed on my arm. I smiled through my blush at Stefan’s wolf grin. I felt the pin prick from a distance and couldn’t be bothered to watch her affix the collection tube to the needle.

You know, blood isn’t so bad after all.

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Doctor Hallack sat for several moments finishing up the notes he was scribbling, even though our conversation was being recorded as always. The fact that he took notes made me feel more important to him. I played with the hem of my leather patchwork skirt that had also been recovered from Doc Wagon while I waited for him, admiring the way the light caught in the diamond on my left hand.

Finally he set the pen down before looking up at me. “Sounds like you’ve had an interesting month, Victoria,” he said. I nodded as I took a sip of my now cold coffee, though it wetted my throat nicely, I winced. I’d been telling him this story for almost two hours and my throat was tired.

He noticed my discomfort, immediately rose and warmed it from the urn at his wet bar. I got the cream and sugar right once again as he fixed his own and sat back down. “It was, but a great month, Doc.”

He smiled as he looked over the tops of his half glasses at me. “How do you feel now that you’ve transitioned?”

I took a warm sip, sighed and shrugged. “I don’t really know. Normal? My life has so radically changed, I’m not sure how to put it into words.”

“Do you feel like you’re ready to get married so quickly?”

“Oh, I’ve been obsessed with Stefan for over a year. I don’t think it’s a crush or anything like that.” He shook his head.

“That’s not exactly what I meant. Your life is entering a completely new phase. You have a major surgery you’re still recovering from, you’ve just come out of a life threatening situation and you’re now a cancer survivor. Are you sure you want to throw the stress of planning a wedding on top of that?”

I chuckled instantly regretting it. Even three weeks later, I was still very sore and tender down there. “We haven’t set a date yet. When we do I’m certain it will be a fair ways off. I still have the human trial to go through. I do know not to heap too much stress on my frail little ego.”

He snorted. “Your ego is many things, Victoria, but it’s not frail.” I laughed and winced, scolding him,

“Don’t make me laugh, it hurts.”

“A Shaman of a trickster totem is telling someone else not to make a joke?” he asked, highly amused.

“Now you’re taking advantage of me,” I pouted.

“No, that’s when the bill comes next month,” he corrected. “Seriously though, do you think you’re ready for this new step in your life?” I nodded thoughtfully.

“I’m as ready as I can be. I mean, who can really say they’re ready for what ever life has to throw at them? I’m as prepared as the next girl, I think. If I’m wrong, well, I have you to fall back on, don’t I?” He nodded with a chuckle while making a notation. “So,” I asked. “Am I cured? Sane? Whatever?”

“I think you’ve successfully transitioned,” he said cautiously. “I’ve always thought you were sane. I don’t believe your Gender Disphoria will continue to be a problem now. We’ll have to continue this for another five months of course, but it will be mostly pro forma.”

“The bill won’t be,” I said around a smile. He chuckled his Santa Claus chuckle.

“No, the bill won’t be. Congratulations, Victoria. I’m very happy for you. Have you decided what you’re going to do with your life now?”

“Wow,” I breathed. “No. I’ve been so focused on getting here, with the right plumbing and the right letter on my Drivers’ License under Gender, honestly no. I know I have to finish the Human Trial, and get married at some point, but beyond that, I have no idea.”

“Do you think you’ll continue being a, what is the term?” he asked.

“Shadow Runner,” I supplied automatically. “And I don’t honestly know. I thought this job with IPC would be my ticket to a so called normal life. Now, I’m not sure if I’m cut out to be a wage slave. I having a standing offer from Dutch to work in his new Division in Lone Star, but I don’t know if I’m cut out to be a cop either. I’ve been a criminal for so long, it’s just about all I know.”

“No one who has taken her life so forcefully into her own control is unable to change, Victoria. If you continue to be a Shadow Runner, be honest with yourself. It will be because you want to and no other reason.”

I considered his strikingly wise advice and nodded. Finally I smiled and said, “Who really knows what the future holds?”


* finis *
Read 4344 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 November 2023 08:41
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1 month ago
I am so glad to see that you were able to post this outstanding tale. I have not read it since sapphire's closed down. It has all the elements needed or wanted to turn out a superior piece of literature. Thank you!
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3 weeks ago
Whenever I see an E. E. Nalley story I know I am in for a great ride. Love your work as always!
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