By the time she got home, Crimson had been glad that she didn't need to work in the morning. She should have been filled with an air of elation and triumph over her first successful Shadowrun, making that key step to the lifestyle that she had dreamed of for so long.
Instead she was cold, sore, tired, filthy, drenched with sweat and had the stench of the decrepit apartment complex sticking to her and her clothes. She wanted to simply crawl into bed and die, but also needed to find the energy to shower first, lest the stink manage to permeate even further into everything she owned. And even as warm and inviting as the shower was, blasting the grime away from her, she still felt more dead than alive by the time she emerged.
Even then there was one last duty to perform, one that she reluctantly went through as she placed a call on her Commlink. "Hey Slicer, it's Crimson," she began, her voice leaden with exhaustion. "I don; know if you're awake or sober or what, but I'm back, I accomplished the objective and I'm alive." The yawn at the end of the sentence did seem to undercut that last one a little. "Arrange a meet with the Johnson so we can wrap this whole mess up, okay?"
Ending the call she simply crawled into her bed, curling up into a tight ball as she almost immediately fell asleep.
It wasn't until the early afternoon that Crimson woke, having slept far longer then she normally did. Even then, it was a slow and gradual emergence, rather than her usual snap awake and into action. She felt refreshed but not renewed, a heavy, clinging lethargy still drawing her down as she struggled to shrug off the last of the previous night's exertion, attempting to restore some sense of normality to her life.
You’re a runner now, she managed to assess. There is no normal.
As soon as she had enough awareness of her world, Crimson was checking her commlink for messages, driven by an urgent need to find out how this first run of hers had gone. In many ways, it represented her future, and she so very much wanted it to be declared a success, to know that she had a future in this very unique, very specialised line of work.
In many ways, all that she was working for had been balanced on what had happened last night, and the assessments of both Mister Johnson and Slicer were key to that. One of them was her employer, and she needed his approval in order to build her reputation and find more work. And she needed his payment to get to where she wanted to be.
At the same time, in many ways, Slicer's approval was more important. He was her mentor, the one who was teaching her the skills that she needed in order to make this all happen. If he didn't approve of her approach and chose to withdraw his support, then she was effectively finished. He’d out and told her that she still had a lot to learn, and that he would impart those skills as she needed them. This was doubly true of all the instruction he'd given her in various forms of combat; guns, blades, unarmed and so on. As much as he'd taught her now, she knew that once she was fired up with the augmentations she so craved, she’d need to effectively start over and re-learn how to move and respond with a body so far beyond human.
It was that one trait that had seen her introduced to him in the first place, after all.
And even beyond the combat training there was all the other things he provided. Contacts; information; equipment and so much more. She couldn't afford to lose all that, especially not now when she was so close.
There was one message on her commlink. With equal parts apprehension and eagerness she pressed the button, listening with baited breath.
"It's Slicer," the voicemail message began, the tone neutral. No disappointment, no anger, no wariness, nothing. "Johnson wants to meet. Same place, tonight, eight thirty."
She let ought the smallest sigh of relief. If nothing else, that was one hurdle passed, one less thing to worry about. Idiot, Crimson told herself as she clambered out of bed, heading again for the shower. You're probably worrying too much about nothing. The warm water was now far more refreshing then it had been last night, working with the rest she'd had to help clear her mind. Last night went great. You're just worried because you felt like drek once you got home.
Cleaned, refreshed and in a far better mood, she stepped out to dress, picking out something simple and straightforward that she could wear to the meet. Normally she would spend her one day off a week relaxing and enjoying herself, happy to be anything but Ashley the greeter girl and worlds’ most boring Elf. Today she was feeling driven and if anything even more determined than ever, and the more she thought about it, the more confident by the moment of the result of the previous night's run.
A quick scan of the newsfeeds over Breakfast/Lunch/Whatever didn't have anything that even came close to describing what had happened last night. Makes sense, she figured. Run down apartments in the Barrens don't rate as news. Even a quick check of the few Shadow sites that Slicer had introduced her to didn't really tell her anything. Probably too low a blip for anybody's radar, she added. I guess there's only one way to find out what had happened.
With most of the afternoon and some of the evening to spare before she was due at the met, Ashley hit the gym. Last night's Run had taught her a number of things, but one of the lessons had been about how much physical work she would be doing. Climbing, leaping, crawling and above all else, running for her life were likely to become common occurrences, and she needed to be ready for all of that. Augmentations can only carry you so far, after all, she considered. After I was done there, I was a mess. Good thing I didn't need to run after that last explosion. The thought of the Devil Dogs' collection of motorcycles, even as junky as they were, going up in flame did make her smile a little. Served that bunch of supremacist arseholes right.
Scarlett Krieger had been the star of her high school gymnastics team, and those skills had translated nicely to when she'd begun her training. In theory she also had a gym membership, bought explicitly to help her keep in shape and further hone her skills in the name of self-improvement and making her a better Runner (even in training). In practice, she'd rarely found the chance to use it, spending most of her waking hours at work, training with Slicer or, on those rare days off from both, going to a club and blowing off steam. Now she found it more useful than ever.
She focused her routine today on the more athletic and gymnastic options available; the climbing wall, ropes, balance and the like, followed by a long stint on the running machine, And while her ears were filled with her exercise mix piped directly from her commlik, Crimson's thoughts were still on the previous night’s run and all that had happened on it. Each exercise was in theory designed to hone her skills, indentifying what she would need to know more of and do more often based on what had happened before, building strength and endurance so that she wouldn't be caught short.
And yet, for all that, her mind kept swinging back to one singular point, Not the squalor that she had spent so long wading through, not the looks of desperation and fear she'd gotten from the residents she'd come in contact with, and not the all-pervading feeling of despair that had permeated the building. No, it was that one gang member who had come so close to killing her there and then. A two-bit Barrens rat with a used cyberarm and a junky machine pistol that was probably close to blowing up in his face.
That should not have happened, she kept telling herself. I am better then that.
Her chosen path meant that she would be in the line of fire once again. Next time would be different, however. I will not run. I will not be afraid. I will be ready. He and his kind will not beat me again.
By the time she was heading to the meeting, any traces of doubt had been swept from her mind, Crimson felt confident that her run had been a success, and that her concerns had merely been a by-product of the fear from her near brush with death. And as much as she was playing it casual as per Slicer's instructions; her hood up and her hands in her pockets as she walked into the seedy bar, in her head she was striding confidently, a triumphant warrior headed to her victory celebration.
Slicer was already there when she reached the booth, the older Elf nodding to her as she sat down next to him. Two glasses were on the table waiting for her; one with what appeared to be at least passably clear water by an empty seat, the other with a clearly thicker, amber liquor before him. "I got your message," he offered to her. "Glad to know you're alive." There was a certain small satisfaction to his voice, one that suggested just a hint of pride in her own success or, at least, survival.
Or maybe it's validating yourself, she mentally added. Because if I succeed, that means you succeed through me.
"Now let's see what mister Jonson has to say," Slicer continued before taking a sip from his glass. She eyed her own briefly, but decided against touching whatever was inside. "Now I'm not going to say that we are on shaky ground here. Johnsons like proof of deed, and from what you told me, that's going to be a bit slim on your end." She started to say something, but he raised his hand, cutting her off.
"Just go through what happened, explain the situation and be ready to back up your words however you can. And give it all the conviction in the world that what you're saying actually happened. If you believe it, then he's more likely to believe it too." Slicer took a large slug from his glass, emptying it. "No runner ever got paid for saying 'just because' and hoping everybody would be okay with it."
Crimson kept her mouth shut, simply nodding and accepting what he said. Me, I have all the confidence in the world, she considered, even though there was some
Slicer looked like he was about to add something else, but the arrival of the Johnson cut him off. The man seemed confident enough in his swagger; the three glasses he placed on the table along with a bottle of whiskey seemed to add to that air. Without saying a word, he poured out three measures, taking one of the glasses himself. "To the returning victor," He offered raising his glass.
Crimson blinked a moment, but a sideways glance at Slicer showed her that he was already taking his glass, so she just as quickly did the same, the three of them quickly tossing back. The liquor was strong, seemingly burning her throat as it went down, enough to cause her to splutter an instant.
"So then," Johnson continued. "You did the deed and got out alive. Tell me exactly what happened."
Crimson started off with how she had first seen the dealers working in the Entertainment District, and used them to backtrack to their headquarters. From there, she quickly moved on, explaining her recon and the assessment of the site and the preparations that the Devil Dogs had taken. As she continued her narrative, she did deviate ever so slightly but significantly from the truth, leaving Healy's involvement out of it before moving on to the final assault on the lab itself and her escape.
"And while I di not get a chance to verify the destruction of the lab, the larger secondary explosion would seem to indicate that it was indeed destroyed," She concluded. "Besides which, with the near complete lack of lighting, the best I would have gotten from my commlink would have been just as insubstantial." She glanced at Slicer a moment before she continued. "But I can offer you something else."
"And that is?" The Johnson asked.
She placed her commlink on the table, a single image clear on its screen. "The Devil Dogs' motorcycle rank after I let off a grenade underneath it," Crimson explained, more than a little confidence in her voice. "Consider it a target of opportunity, a way to further weaken them."
There was a long, tense silence as Mister Johnson was clearly considering all that she had said, as well as his own next move. "Well, you showed initiative. I like that," he finally spoke, Crimson hanging off each word. "And clearly you did hurt them. My people on the street tell me that the few who were out and about all suddenly up and vanished early this morning; in fact, about the same time that you were in there. Funny how that works."
He poured himself another glass before he continued. "Added to that, they say that here's been no signs of them on the streets since. Almost like they had just suffered a massive setback and lost something vital to them, and were trying to figure their next move." He took a swig form his glass
"Funny that," Crimson considered
"I'm also going to assume that there were no complications, given that you're here alive and from the looks of things in one piece."
"Sort of," Crimson admitted. 'See, it turns out that the Devil Dogs also are a bunch of nasty Human supremacists. It was the sort of thing that me, as an Elf should have known before I went in there."
Johnson nodded. "Call it an intelligence failure. It'll happen time to time in your line of work, and you need to be able to run with them. But the secret is that you worked with it and still came out ahead, which means that you're clearly smart enough not to let it stop you," He nodded and smiled. "So I’m going to call this a job well done," Johnson finished, placing a Credstick on the table. "And hopefully, this is the start of a profitable working relationship." He stood, nodding to the pair of them as he left.
Crimson took the credstick, looking over it with a strange feeling of satisfaction. It was real, here and in her hand, the payment for her first ever Shadowrun. This is my life now, she realized. And while it's not everything I ever wanted, it's a start along the way.
She turned to Slicer, who's neutral expression suddenly exploded into a fantastic grin. "Congratulations, Crimson," He began, a level of enthusiasm and excitement in his voice that she didn't think she had ever heard before. "You did it. You're a Runner."
"Technically, yeah, I guess I am," she managed, her hands excitedly fumbling with the end of her ponytail, her voice filled with an almost girlish glee. "I mean, I still have a lot more to learn and I want to get all those augments which I'll need to do more work to earn the money for and all but..." She wanted to shout it out, which probably wouldn't go well with the dour, sullen air of the bar. "Yeah. I'm in all right."
"So then," Slicer continued, filling up fresh shots for both of them. "What are you going to do now that you're a proper Shadowrunner?" He raised his glass, leaning a little closer to them as he did.
"Well..." She grinned and then raised a finger. "Immediately? I'm going to blow this joint and find a good club in a good part of town and party till dawn. This is my moment, Slicer. I'm going to make the most of it," She stood, the smile on her face impossible to hide. "See you tomorrow night, Slicer..." She turned to leave then stopped. "Actually, make it the one after that. I'm going to be totally blasted by the time I'm done"
"Sure, um, okay. See you then," Slicer managed, speaking mostly to the retreating back of her head. And then, once she was gone, he visibly slumped a little before swigging the shot he'd poured for her.
Even though she was operating on only a few hours of sleep, Ashley was bright and alert for her day at Vendor Mammoth. The club she'd been to had been fantastic, and a great way to cap off the last few days; blowing off steam, having a great time, unwinding and, as the most dramatic change from her run, letting herself be seen rather than having to hide in the shadows and stay out of sight.
And so she'd reveled in it, enjoying the feeling of freedom that came with this new life that she was now committed to. She'd danced, she'd drunken overpriced cocktails and she'd flirted with a couple of cute Elf guys (which, even if spending the night with them wasn't logistically viable was still a fun thing to do) and even more intriguingly, she would have sworn that there were some people at the back of the club who were discreetly talking with a suit.
Or in other words, Shadowrunners meeting their Johnson.
That in and of itself had made her night that much more exciting, her knowing what they were doing and that she had, in effect, done it too. She could see herself in their place, meting the Johnson before heading off for a dangerous, exciting, action-filled run against some Corp target. It was an image she loved, one that was in many ways even more exciting that the tattooed, mohawked guy she was currently dancing with.
She’d crawled home, collapsed into bed and gotten a couple of hours in before waking for work. Supplementing her breakfast with a few cans of energy drink, she'd rushed out the door to hit the floor on time and filled with a level of fake enthusiasm that she hadn't had in ages. With each hollow, meaningless greeting that Ashely gave out, Crimson was also there behind it, knowing full well that her day was here, and it was her life she was living.
As she sat in the lunchroom, she was still high on the buzz from last night, happily humming to herself as she read over the latest batch of information from Slicer. In this case, it was on augmentations, those modifications and enchantments that she so badly craved in order to make her Shadowrunner dream complete. And whereas in past she'd be looking at the prices and fretting, this time round she was seeing Opportunities, things that were within her grasp.
"Hey Ash, what are you looking at?"
She glanced back to see Dennis lurking behind her as he always did, that same 'hopeful idiot' look on his face that he allways wore.
She sighed. "Bleeding edge cyberware designed to turn even the most ordinary of people into an unstoppable killing machine"
"Ha, that's a good one, Ash," He smiled. "Say, I was wondering if you wanted to-"
"No, Dennis, I don’t want to see a movie with you, not now, not ever," she simply replied without even taking eyes off her commlink screen. "And do me a favour and never ask me again, or else I'll tell the shift manager about how you snap pictures of the fat-bottomed Milfs shopping here and then trade them with your buddies."
There was an awkward silence. "Well... Okay. See you around... Sometime... Then. I'll go... Stuff."
"Yeah, you do that," She finished, listening for the sounds of him leaving. All the while, she had the most amazingly self-satisfied smirk on her face.
And inside, Crimson was cheering in triumph.