Remember where you are and who you’re pretending to be
This is easy. You can do this
“Welcome to Vendor Mammoth, my name is Ashley. How can I help you?” The stock greeting had all its usual false cheer and enthusiasm, but a perceptive customer, one who’s assessment of her didn't just begin and end at ‘cute Elf girl’ would have noticed an edge to it, one that was at odds with the attempt to greet the customer, create a friendly atmosphere and encourage them to spend their hard earned money on cheaply made, low-quality products.
Those perceptive individuals might have observed just a hint of resentment, a touch that suggested that the cheer was just as superficial as everything else in the store. They would have been able to tell that her feelings towards the customer wasn’t just the usual bland indifference born of a greeting that was spoken not out of any desire to show them kindness but a requirement of her continued employment.
No, under all that was a degree of quiet anger and resentment, one that was ever so slowly and gradually eating away at the facade of the happy little Wageslave before them. It was a slow burn, one that increased ever so slightly with every forced smile, every moment of faux cheer, every meaningless insincere greeting. This perceptive customer would have eventually reached the conclusion that Ashley, the cute Elf greeter who’s primary asset was that it cost the company less to employ her then it did to program a hack-proof ARO agent was in fact a bomb just waiting to go off.
Of course, nobody ever did. People who shopped at Vendor Mammoth didn’t pay alternation to the lives o the Wageslaves they had to interact with, even if in the most minimal and begrudging of ways. No, they got in, bought whatever cheap, crappy little comforts they felt they needed to make their bland lives a little bit less awful and got out again as fast as they could. And so Ashley stood there and did her little act, pretending that she was happy to see them while they pretended they cared. And so on, and so forth for all eternity.
All the while, Crimson was also there, yelling, screaming, fighting the urge to punch the next customer in the face and then set fire to the entire store.
“Welcome to Vendor Mammoth, my name is Ashley. How can I help you?”
Ashley Redmond was just like the store she worked in. Bland, superficial and functional, but not much more behind that. As fake SINs went, it was good enough to work, with data that said that she was indeed a green-eyed, red-haired Caucasian female Elf, but beyond that it didn’t have that much meat. But at the same time, it was convenient. Ashley Redmond didn’t have a past, didn’t have corporate ties, didn’t have parents who were wondering where she was and didn’t have a juvenile record for assault, vandalism, breaking and entering and arson. On the other hand, Ashley Redmond didn’t break the knees of obnoxious co-workers with a baseball bat (Isle five; today only we have a ten percent sale off sporting goods!) Or tell her boss where to shove his suggestion that she work overtime this weekend because he just happened to have one of the store’s cameras trained not on the door but on her pert rear.
(Or the horrible things she wanted to do to the night manager who she knew was banging Shawnee the Night Shift Greeter Girl on the side who was employed primarily because it meant Vendor Mammoth could say ‘hey, we respect diversity, and we put an Ork as our to represent our diverse corporate identity, never mind the fact that she's only the greeter on the midnight till dawn shift and as soon as she’s done she and the Night Manager go off to have a performance review’)
Ashley smiled and did her job and was thankful that she had it, and that because of it she could go home to live in a bland apartment and eat bland soy food regularly and not have to worry about devil rats, acid rain, murder hobos or whatever else.
(The sad part was that in her mind, Scarlett Krieger, her birth name, sounded so much more exotic and dangerous and alluring. But Scarlett Krieger also bought with her a whole host of problems, which meant that she had to stay silent and let the ever so bland and dependable Ashley do the talking)
And so Ashley kept doing what she had to, each day counting down the minutes until she could leave the store and turn into who she really was. Crimson, dangerous, deadly, sexy and alluring Shadowrunner, the woman who didn’t answer to anybody, wasn’t anybody’s wageslave and could do what she wanted when she wanted and nobody was going to stop her at all.
Crimson was awesome. Crimson was amazing. Crimson was everything that Ashely wasn’t, and everything Scarlett had hoped to be. She liked being Crimson. And one day soon, she would be Crimson; not just some nights, not just when it was convenient, but all the fragging time
That thought took some edge off her voice, put a little more into her smile and just the tiniest hint of sunshine into her day. “Welcome to Vendor Mammoth, my name is Ashley. How can I help you?”
“Hey Ash, you okay?”
Ashley suddenly sat bolt-upright, glancing around. She was in the lunchroom, her commlink and half-eaten misery sandwich in front of her, and Dennis in front of that. “Yeah,” she shot back as she eyed him, wondering if he’d somehow added another tacky tattoo or piercing since yesterday. “Why wouldn’t I be?” Her tone was hallway between tired and accusational, but Dennis seemed to miss all of it
“You looked like you were asleep, that’s all,” he replied factually.
She quickly glanced down at her commlink, noticing that it was on the page of text she'd been reading when she apparently dozed off. Today it was a treatise on sword fighting techniques that Slicer had sent her, one that was apparently aimed at improving her skills. Clearly she’d found it to be that exciting. “I guess I did, huh. Mustn’t have slept well.”
Which was partially true. She hadn’t gotten back from training with Slicer until the tiny hours of the morning, and by then the adrenalin high of their sparring had definitely worn off and she was crashing fast. That had only given her a couple of hours sleep before she’d work up for her latest stay in the purgatory that was Vendor Mammoth.
“Something wrong, Ash? You seem to be sleeping badly a lot of late.”
“I’m fine,” she half snapped in reply. It wasn't like she was about to tell this idiot that the reason why she was sleeping so badly was because she was off learning to fight from a veteran Shadowrunner at night. She’d come so far to risk everything by even making a flippant remark about it. And as much as she wanted to stick it to Dennis about how much cooler she was then him for it, she didn’t want to risk it either.
Which, of course, made her days at Vendor Mammoth that much more irritating. Training with Slicer gave her that rush, that thrill of excitement and that tiniest hint of freedom, and she wanted so much more of it. And what she got instead was more of the same bland grinding drudgery.
“Okay then,” Dennis replied, either missing her obvious irritation or not caring at all. “Hey Ash, want to go see that new Kaiju movie tonight after work?”
No, I don’t you moron. How many times do I have to say no to you before you get the dammed hint?
“Sorry Dennis, I’ve got something on tonight.”
“Oh,” he was clearly crestfallen, but didn’t let it go. “You seem to have something on a lot, huh?”
“I’m a busy woman,” She replied. “Got a lot on.”
“Well, okay then…” He seemed lost a moment, as if he was finding something to say, some way to steer this back in a way that would work for him. “So what is it you do, Ash? Just wondering, that's all, given that it seems to take up so much of your spare time”
Don’t say what you want to. Remember, Ashley is the bland one. Ashley doesn’t punch people in the middle of the lunch room.
“Oh gee, is that the time, Dennis?" She hastily replied before scarfing down the last of her sandwich. “Lunch break’s over. Gotta get back to work.”
By the time she’d left work, done some shopping of her own (Thankfully not at Vendor Mammoth) and gotten home to her apartment, Ashley was in a pretty filthy mood. The whole day had seemed to drag on forever, each second a yawning chasm of an eternity filled by repeating the same inane statement ad infinitum while answering the same few stupid customer enquiries (Yes, isle seven is between isle six and isle eight you retrograde moron) and pretending that she cared. If anything, it was the last part that was the most demanding.
And even then, her apartment was no real relief. Like everything else in Ashley’s life, it was functional and precious little else. Just large enough to be livable, with a bedroom, a general purpose living/kitchen area and something that could be generously described as a bathroom, it was an anonymous suite in an anonymous block in a passably decent part of Seattle. The furniture was comfortable enough, the water reliable, the electricity constant and the Matrix stable, so it was enough that a person could live there and not complain too much.
She hadn’t done much to make it her home either; when she’d moved in, her goal had always been for this to be temporary before she got something better off the bounty of her new life. This was just to tide her over until then. The result was that the apartment was as bland as possible; no real decoration beyond what was needed to make it livable; no personalization, no customization, nothing that really suggested its owner had any sort of life at all.
The sole exception was the wardrobe. Aside from a row of Vendor Mammoth uniforms, Ashley’s clothing was entirely mundane, even if a little focused on club ware. And as long as nobody found the one container she’d hidden in there and then opened it, the illusion of her as the boring little no-life wageslave would be maintained.
It was less that Ashley opened the door as she unlocked it and then kicked it the rest of the way. This opening aggression was followed by her storming into her apartment with her groceries in hand dumping them angrily in a pile on the single all-purpose table in the middle of the single all-purpose room. "Gaaaaahhhh..." She managed as she stood there in the middle of the room for a moment, hands clenched into fists, moth open in existential angst.
I want to hit something! She screamed to herself. Whatever it was, today's shift at Vendor Mammoth had been even more horrific and mind-numbing than usual, and it had definitely left its mark on her. I don't think I can last another day there, really. Every little bit of it was telling her how awful Ashely's life was, how bland and inane and soul-crushing it was, and how little it actually mattered.
And how much more amazing Crimson's life would be.
But to be Crimson, she needed to be Ashley for just a little bit longer. Focus. She rubbed her forehead, taking a deep breath as she tried to center herself. For a man who'd specialized in hitting hard and fast, making it less signature style as a way of life, Slicer had a surprising amount to say about the subject of focus and meditation and not just lashing out at the first convenient target.
That was something on her mind as she stomped into the small cubicle that was her bedroom. What was with all that anyway? She asked herself as she threw her jacket onto the bed, before loosening her horrible vomit-green Vendor Mammoth tie. First few training sessions were all meditating and sitting on my arse and contemplating stuff. Nothing about guns or swords or martial arts or anything.
Ashley pulled down the blinds over the postage-stamp sized window, blocking out some of the blaring neon lights that accounted for her minimal bedroom window view. Maybe he was just too drunk those days and didn’t want to do anything too abrupt, she mentally added as she opened the cupboard, quickly looking over what was inside, trying to figure what she wanted to wear that would be less awful then just sitting around in her ill-fitting, cheap uniform for the evening
Eyes briefly falling on that one hidden container at the bottom of the wardrobe... Later, she told herself. When the time is right.
Training under Slicer had been an interesting exercise in both learning and frustration. Even before she'd met him face to face, it was clear that he was just the sort of person she was after. It wasn't just that he was an experienced Shadowrunner who had been active since the 2050s and it wasn't just that he used cyberware extensively much like what she intended for herself to do, but rather the approach he took.
The first part of that was that he was an openly declared Street Samurai, that augmented warrior driven by a certain code of conduct and professionalism. That in and of itself held a lot of appeal for her, the ideal that she drove herself towards becoming. However, it was also the how of what he did that had caught her attention.
She'd seen footage of him, read details about him, poured over recounts of those fights he'd bene in and the runs he’d been on and loved every moment of it. He was fast, blindingly such. As near as she could tell, he was already naturally quick and agile before his augmentations. By all accounts, he was a gifted natural athlete who probably could have gone a long way legitimately if the circumstances were different.
That was just perfect for what she wanted. After all, Scarlett Krieger had been the star of her school’s athletic and gymnastics teams from a young age. It had also been about the only thing at school she had been any good at.
Slicer had boosted his reflexes and agility through various augmentations to an insane level. This made him blindingly fast, moving at a level that no metahuman could ever hope to match. It was an approach that played to her own strengths and her way of thinking; act fist, take out the other guy and don’t give them a chance to catch up with you. Live for the moment turned up to eleven, then turned up again though the miracles of technology.
And she loved it. Even accounting for age, injuries and the ravages of obsolete Cyberware, he was still amazingly fast, his motions incredibly fluid (or at least, most of the time). She'd learned so much from him so fast across a board range of disciplines. It wasn’t just weapons and combat training either; he'd drilled her on tactics, on technologies and a trillion other aspects of the Shadowrunner world, passing his experiences on to her while making her into what she wanted to be.
Held also provided her with datafiles to review, which she usually did at work during her lunch breaks. So whole everyone else was talking about last night's shows or what they did with their one day of weekend or making clumsy passes on each other, she was pouring over weapons specs or Cyberware or the best approaches for dealing with awakened opponents ("Geek the mage first," was what Slicer said. She'd smiled at the thought; after all, she'd be able to do it before the mage even knew what was going on)
Of course, that was the good days. The bad days were the ones where they did nothing but meditate or focus on all sorts of other stupid exercises that, to her mind, had nothing to do with anything. Or there were those days where he was just plain drunk. Those ones were the worst, which often resulted in her becoming even more angry and frustrated and likely to lash out at the first thing to catch her displeasure.
She flopped back on her bed, kicking off her shoes while not caring at all where they landed. Like every other part of her Vendor Mammoth uniform, they were cheap and uncomfortable, a means to an end and nothing else. And as frustrating as training with Slicer can be, she considered, it's so much better then working retail.
Ashely lay there for a second, glaring angrily at the ceiling as if it was somehow responsible for all her problems. "Screw it," she told herself. "Let's blow off some steam. Go to a club. Chase cute guys. That sort of stuff." Ashely sat up just a little bit, and then flopped back onto her bad. Okay, in a moment, she mentally added as she began to realize just how much that last frustrating day of pretending to be the world's mos boring Elf had taken out of her. Just a minute to relax and...
The buzzing of her commlink woke her up, Ashley sitting bolt-upright as she glanced around looking for it, only to find the thing lying on her bed next to her where she'd left it. Pickling it up, she quickly noticed two things. The first was that it was now half past eleven, and that her minute's nap had been anything but. The second, and probably more important, was that this wasn't the commlink that was buzzing.
It's the other one, she told herself with an almost childish glee, pouncing on her jacket and fishing the buzzing device from its pocket. This one was every bit as cheap and tacky as the one that Ashley used every day. The difference was who had it’s number.
“It’s me,” Slicer’s unmistakable voice began. “I have a job for you. Meet me at my place at the usual time tomorrow.” And that was it, him ending the call as soon as he’d told her all she needed to know.
“Yessssss!” Her response, on the other hand, was one of almost girlish glee. In her mind, that told her everything she needed to know; he’d decided that she was ready, and that it was time to put her talents to use.
She dashed back to the bedroom, pulling things out of the wardrobe in order to find that one box concealed within it. That was her secret, the small stash of clothing, weapons and other materials that she used for her second life. The one lived in the Shadows.
Tomorrow might be another day of misery for Ashley, but tomorrow night would be all Crimson’s.