NEWS

Act II

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stanley

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« on: <10-01-14/0024:36> »
The major time drain on getting this act out the door has been converting my LaTeX into HTML as well as life in general taking a lot out of me.  Sorry for the delay.  Without further ado, here's a continuation of the earlier "Intro to a longer work."

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Interlude 5
The Wide World of Poetry

A solemn quest imbues the works of man
Of knowing their proper place, their purpose
All of history in a single span
Becomes the request: Please remember us.

Those who strive and fail will join with the dead
Too many to count, too many to count.
But those who find, still sleep in that last bed
Why should any man try any amount?

To be born with purpose– how fortunate!
To have been given such pure self knowledge!
To separate from the conglomerate, To be lifted above the assemblage.

And so I change my name to The Sonnet.
For I have purpose and will act on it.


The Sonnet, aka Haiku, aka Paladin, did not particularly care for that last couplet. The rhyme appeared contrived to it, not flowing through lyrical beauty while still capturing at least two or three meanings. This endeavor of humanity, this poetry, had occupied enough of its processor cycles by now that it began to feel itself identifying more and more with the creators of the realm it now occupied. For instance, after scouring copious volumes of poetry, The Sonnet had decided that it was, in fact, male, and so the male pronoun worked best for him. This decision came from a strong self-identification of the English Romantic poets, almost all particularly and sometimes excessively male by his estimation.

He had also seen how so much poetry appeared to be locked in a state of self-examination, an attempt to express oneself as a means of discovering one’s self along the way. The preponderance of these he could now safely label as ’bad’, not just for trite language and monosyllabic rhyming, but also because he realized that, by being unable to relate to this subgenre of the art, he could safely reject it as not relevant to his own existence. For instance, unlike many of the teenaged boys and girls who posted fragments of thought in poorly metered rhyme, he knew why he had been created, and he understood his place within the universe as a result. Thus, his education could pursue another aspect of poetry that had also eluded him: love. He also dimly suspected that a total lack of limbic system spared him from any dabbling in similarly trite nonsense himself, freeing him to enjoy more algorithmically pure lines.

Love featured very prominently throughout the history of this art form, regardless of language and culture. The Sonnet inferred from this abundance and from his own eavesdropping on the team guarding the Master’s Realspace Creation that love served as an amalgam of approval, lust, anger, hatred, desire, and many other Human emotions. The Sonnet’s lack of emotion allowed him to corral almost the entirety of love poetry into the same area it had placed self discovery– that is, he labeled these poems as ’bad’ and moved on.

The Sonnet did infer that since his namesake form so often served as a vehicle for expressing love meant that he felt confident that his own journey of self discovery would continue past this art form and on to others. He had chosen this stopping point because the preoccupation of the large portion of poets in the world appeared to concern themselves with both love and self analysis, and he wanted to be sure that his initial determination of what constituted ’bad’ poetry had not been overly hasty.

Thus, The Sonnet kept himself from one of the major pitfalls of artificially intelligent tactical planning software packages: he avoided the descent into manic paranoia as all inputs became increasingly categorized as deadly threats.

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Chapter 7
The Shopping List of a Company Man

Samson looked at the pair of golden credsticks nestled in his palm, momentarily dazzled as they reflected the midmorning sun. Not but two years ago, the sum he held in his hand would have fed his family for at least six months, and three years before that, would have hardly been worth mentioning. His father’s rise and fall had been meteoric in all respects: glorious on first appearance, cataclysmic on impact. Samson had grown up surrounded by corporate wealth and privilege, a rarity for an Ork, but his father’s knack for cybernetics had made him valuable beyond any racial barrier.

He closed his fist as he entered the store. His father’s collapse had cost them everything, and now Samson was preparing to embark on what amounted to self-imposed exile. He’d momentarily considered returning the second credstick, the downpayment for that exile, but rejected the thought almost immediately. This team had proven to be far more loyal to him than any of his former Ares friends and colleagues, and he owed them his expertise. Waiting for the inevitable would also be extremely taxing on his sanity; better to be working.

He idly flicked through the various suits on display, knowing exactly how to appear the same combination of disdain and impatience that would require that he be served. Each would have been beyond his monthly budget yesterday, and now he could afford at least half the rack. His cover ID as a company man, a legal assassin for Saeder-Krupp, required that he wear an armored suit and have another as a backup. Such a suit would have at least two compartments for hidden weapons. He happened to know that this particular chain of stores had, as a matter of course, a special weapons menu for customers such as himself. These guns would all be keyed to his current ID, but he felt confident that Ruby could wipe that ID requirement if and when the time came to ditch.

“Excuse me, can I help you?” The face of the man who approached him now battled between obsequiousness for a potentially wealthy client and disdain for the Ork dressed in street leathers.

“Perhaps. Do you have anything more... current? These are all a few months out of date.” He knew that the store’s system had already probed the ID in his commlink, so he wasn’t surprised when obsequiousness won out.

“Of course, right this way. Let me introduce you to Jerome, our tailor.” He led Samson to the back of the store and waved him through a doorway in the back corner.

Through that doorway sat a Dwarf sporting a perfectly manicured set of chrome nails and bald head. The Dwarf grunted and rose as Samson entered, and Samson stepped onto a measuring platform. A laser system detached from the wall and spun around the Ork, producing a hologram that floated next to the platform. As Samson stepped down, the hologram took his place, and suits of various cuts and colors replaced his current ratty clothes.

“That one,” he grunted at the first one that caught his eye. “Can you do something about the lapels?”

“Of course, sir. Wider?” Despite himself, Samson felt soothed by being afforded some courtesy.

“A slight bit, but not so much that it hinders certain... actions. And I require a double vent, and the shoes should have no laces.”

“I understand completely.” The Dwarf flicked his fingers, a completely superfluous gesture in the age of the Direct Neural Interface, and the suit morphed according to Samson’s specifications. “Sir?”

“Yes, this is good. I’ll need two, and three hours from now.”

“We’ll begin immediately. Will there be anything else?”

“While I wait, I understand that this establishment can also provide me with certain accessories.”

“Indeed we can, sir. Anything particular in mind?”

“A pair of Predator V’s, smartlinked, 3 full clips APDS for both. Oh, and a suitcase suitable for commercial aircraft travel.”

“And how will sir be paying for this?”

Samson flipped one of the credsticks at the Dwarf, who snagged it out of the air and slotted it in one smooth motion. “Very good, sir. Everything will be ready for you shortly.”

Samson held out his hand. The Dwarf looked down at the Ork’s massive hand and raised a questioning eyebrow.

“There is a balance of at least 15k on that credstick.”

“Rush jobs cost more.”

“You and I both know that the robot started making the suit the moment you slotted that credstick and will be finished by the time I walk through that doorway. You also know that these arms are not my originals. What you don’t know is what I do to people with them.”

The Dwarf handed over the credstick. Without taking his gaze off the diminutive would-be thief, Samson slotted it. The balance was 16.7k. Samson’s grin didn’t reach his eyes. “I will return in three hours. Please have my merchandise ready.” The Dwarf looked at the ground, probably too afraid to make eye contact.

Their flight left SeaTac in seven hours, but apart from the suits, Samson had no other physical baggage he would take. He did have to make one short trip before leaving, and hailed a cab once he reached the curb. He normally would have skipped the one that stopped as being too expensive, but he felt expansive today.

“Where to, sir?” The cab’s robot voice rolled over him, gently and soothingly.

“Sanctuary complex, Tacoma.” He settled back in his seat, considering how much money he would give his parents. The ride was long enough that he had time to set everything up by the time the cab arrived. They deserved more than the 10k, but with the next credstick arriving in at least four weeks if all went well, he didn’t want to spread himself too thin.

The elevator ride to the ninth floor apartment blurred past him. Their nondescript door still had the middle number missing, and his mom answered on the fifth knock.

“Come in, come in! Roger! Freddie’s home!” His mother shuffled away from the door after a quick kiss. She had become stooped in a permanent slouch, always staring at the floor now that she’d reached the ripe old age of 44. Her hair had become ratty, since showers had become too much of a bother for her.

“Freddie?” His father’s voice boomed from in front of the trideo. He could no longer walk since his legs had given out. “Who’s Freddie?” Not even the cybernetics he’d engineered could save his mind from degenerating, even if he hadn’t been too feeble to survive the installation. Ares had been so quick to ’retire’ him that Freddie Samson could see the writing on the wall for his own career plain as day– once the Ork Age catches up to you, off to the Barrens you go. A step above the Underground, for sure, but still nowhere near where a former scientific star should be retiring. Why slave for a corp when he could make his own way, and maybe, hopefully, die in a blaze of glory?

Roger had personally designed all of the cyber that had been installed in his son. His father had given him everything he had ever wanted to be: faster, stronger, smarter. Freddie now realized that his father had long known what was know commonly understood, that Orks age twice as rapidly as Humans. Orks matured physically generally by the age of 11, but most reached decrepitude by 40, and only rarely lived past 50 without some kind of extreme medical intervention. Since such intervention was almost never justified in the case of a mere Ork, Freddie did not expect to see his parents alive for more than a few more years. In Roger’s case, the senility had come earlier than expected, but he’d future-proofed his son the best he’d known how. Luckily, Samson’s mother still seemed to have her mind intact.

“Freddie, come in, come in. Say hello to your father. Roger! Say hello to your son!”

“Son? I have no son. Do I have a son? Who are you?” Roger’s milky eyes followed the sound of Freddie moving around the room, but clearly couldn’t see.

“Hi Dad. I brought you guys something.”

“Oh?” Samson’s mom leaned in, saw the golden credstick in her son’s hand, and gasped. “Frederick Roger Samson! You will definitely not give us this much money!”

“Mom, c’mon. You guys need it. Besides...”

“You will need it for your wife, if you ever get one.”

“I should be so lucky, mom. I just don’t have the time now.”

“The time? You talk to me about time? What’s so important?”

“That’s kind of why I’m here.” He sat in the chair nearest the trid and watched his father gazing at nothing for what felt like an eternity. Here sat the man who’d taught him how to walk, both the first time and after replacing is reflexes meant learning it all again. His mom waited, uncharacteristically for her. “I have a job now. Looks like a pretty good one.”

“A job? Running the shadows not working out for you? Be careful about the corps, they’ll use you like they used us.” The edge in her voice sounded overly bitter, even for her– Dad must’ve been harder than usual today.

“Probably. But this one’s regular, and I get to keep working with the same crew. It’s out of town, though, so I wanted to stop by, before I left.”

Her sadness etched every wrinkle indelibly in his memory. They looked at each other across the room for some minutes, neither sure of what to say.

His father’s milky eyes bored directly into his, his face stretched into a manic grin from having finally remembered who this stranger was in front of him. “Dr. Jones! Glad you made it. Listen, have you seen the results from these experiments? These numbers are off the charts! If these implants hold, they’ll provide unparalleled kinetic force coupled with the necessary dampening to preserve both the musculature and the remaining neural infrastructure. I really think it’s the breakthrough we need!”

Samson knew how to play this part. Jones had been the one who’d stabbed his father in the back, his father’s dearest friend and the first person to call for his retirement when the dementia first set in. “Well, Dr. Samson, let’s have a look then. And how’s your son doing?”

“My son? My son...” His father’s face collapsed in confusion, some drool sliding off of one of his tusks. “My... Janie? Janie? Where are you? Why can’t I see?”

“I’m here, Roger, I’m here.” She tottered over to his side and held his hand.

“Janie, I had a horrible dream. I dreamed we were old, Janie. We were old and I wasn’t working and.... Who’re you? Where’s Janie?”

“Mom...” The tears ran down her face.

“Where’s Janie? Who’re you? What’s going on?”

Freddie closed his mom’s hand around the credstick. That much should pay for the funeral. Dad had days left, at most.

His mom looked up at him, still crying silently. She put her hands over his cold, dead metallic fingers, and for the first time in years, Samson wished he’d kept his own hands.

“You be good, Freddie. We’ll be here when you get back.”

He kissed her on the forehead and nodded, not trusting himself to speak. They stood there for a few minutes until a timer went off in the kitchen. Samson kissed her on the forehead again, turned his back, and left. He had to get his suits before the flight.

stanley

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« Reply #1 on: <10-02-14/2322:41> »
Chapter 8
Caring for Mr. Hudson
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Ruby pushed Jinx's wheelchair down the street, the two of them making an incredibly archaic tableau that was drawing quite a few stares.  Anyone rich enough to have a personal servant push them along would also have enough money to have a car rather than be walking.  Beyond that, most wheelchairs are at least robotic, perhaps even driven by a neural interface; why bother with a servant when a robot would follow every command?  Jinx was already looking forward to leering as lecherously as possible if anyone actually asked the question.

Ruby, for her part, knew about Jinx' dirty old man plans, and thought they were hilarious.  To play the part, she had even dressed in scrubs.  She'd thought about dressing up as a nurse, but that would draw too much attention to them.  Besides, all of good versions of those costumes were made for long-legged women.

"Where too first, Mr. Hudson?"

"Casey, I think we'll need to get some more clothes for this trip.  You shall positively swoon when you see the meeting house!  It's been nigh unto two score years since I myself have seen the old place."

Ruby: Overdo it much?  You're old, but you're not the Liberty Bell.

"Casey, let an old man have his fun."  The way he said it draw some snickers from a crowd of three punked-out kids sitting on a low wall outside the mall.

"Yes, sir."

"That's better.  No, today, young lady, we shall acquire some new clothes!  I haven't traveled in some time, and I believe a wardrobe update is in order."

"Yes, sir.  Where should we go first, Mr. Hudson?"

"I think to the Ares Clothier, my dear child.  You can never be too careful, you know!"

"Yes, sir."

"And for you, Casey, you'll also need some new clothes as well.  Where would you like to shop?"

"Ah, you know, Mr. Hudson, I need to stay in my professional clothes while I'm at work."

"This trip will be at least a fortnight!  Come, let me buy you a suitable outfit for your time after hours."

"If you insist, Mr. Hudson.  Shall we visit the Clothiers first?"

"Please."

The slimy drip of a salesman could not stop rubbing his hands together when they entered the store.  "Is there anything in particular I can show you today?"

"Casey, please take me to that first aisle.  Young man, I am browsing.  I will let you know if and when I need assistance."

The man seemed to visibly deflate.  After that Ork, not but fifteen minutes ago, he'd figured that today he'd finally get enough business to justify his continued employment.

Jinx had Casey push him up and down the aisle, and then ultimately decided to leave the shop.

Ruby: Maria told us to get armored clothing.  Where else are we going to go?  We have six hours.  She'd adjusted her texts so that they went only to Jinx; no one else on the team, even if they were close enough, needed to hear their conversation.

Jinx: You and I both know that there are other places.  That man was an ass, and I don't want to give him my business.

Ruby: What do you mean?

Jinx: You've never heard of working on commission?  How did you grow up?

Ruby: In the Barrens, with an abusive father and an absent mother.

They walked along in silence, both virtual and real, for three minutes.

"How about you?  Where would you like to shop?"  I'm sorry, that was rude of me.

"I think there's a store over around the corner that will have what I need."  Don't worry about it.  How could you have known?

"Let's be about it then!" Still.  A bit clumsy of me.

Ruby laughed.  "Let's!"  Do you really want to know?

Jinx: I do, actually.  Why are you doing this?  It sounds like Seattle is the only home you know.

Ruby: The Matrix is the only home I know.  This is just a place in meatspace.

They entered the store, silently.  Ruby parked Jinx near a display and began flicking through the clothing on the rack.  The store tried to bombard them both with a copious amount of spam, but she blocked it almost unconsciously.

Jinx: I'm sorry to hear about your father.  Do you know why he was so abusive?

Ruby: Why him and not my mother?

Jinx: Because a parent that's not there can only be a partner in your mind-- a parent who is there and is terrible is far worse, in my experience.

Ruby: Oh?  And what's your experience?  She found a particularly cute blouse and folded it over her arm.

Jinx: As I said, I was a father once.  I wasn't very good.

Ruby: What do you mean?

Jinx: Let's just say...

Ruby looked up at him.  "Doing OK, Mr. Hudson?"

"Just fine, Casey.  We do only have a few hours left, though."

"Yes sir."

Jinx: Let's just say it took me a long time to admit how bad I was.

Ruby: Well, at least you're one up on my dad.  Last I saw of him, he'd crawled in to a BTL hole and hasn't crawled out.

Jinx: I'm very sorry to hear that.

Ruby: Yeah well, don't be.  He made his choice.

Jinx: He could come out of it.

"Yeah?  And what do you know about it?"  Ruby was staring at Jinx angrily, who seemed to droop just a bit.

"I know because I did."  He looked her right in the eye as he said it, regret an almost palpable cloud around him.

Fragging hell, Ruby thought to herself.  Why are you doing this now?  She was clenching and unclenching her fists, not paying attention to the other shoppers' stares.

Jinx: Because we nearly died.  He hung his head. 

She stormed up to the counter, "Can you get these in my size?"

She'd never seen a salesgirl move that fast before.  "Right away, miss.  Will you be needing anything else?"

"No, nothing else."  She handed over a credstick, the girl slotted it, and the transaction was complete.  Ruby felt Jinx' gaze on her back, but she wasn't ready to discuss this with him.  Not yet.  How were they supposed to be professionals if he brought up the past?

The girl brought Ruby's packages out, already sized to her frame from discrete detectors throughout the store.  She hung the bag on the back of Jinx' wheelchair and pushed him roughly out of the store. 

Ruby waited until she'd calmed down a bit, and then: If you don't want those clothes what do you want?

Jinx: We should just grab some form-fitting armor.

Ruby grinned in spite of herself.  I bet you want me to do that, you old perv.

Jinx: Let's go to the Armorer.  I'm sure they'll have something.

Ruby pushed in silence. 

Jinx: What do you know about me, Ruby?

Ruby was taken aback by the question.  What do you mean?

Jinx: I mean, when you ran a background check on me, what did you find?

Ruby: I never ran a background check on you.

Jinx: Why not?  You should, especially if we're going to be traveling together.

Ruby: You're on my team.  I figure everyone's got to have secrets, and they should stay secret.

Jinx: Until we're paid otherwise.  He chuckled a bit to himself.

Ruby: Well, yeah.  There's that I suppose.  So what is it you want me to find?

Jinx: You'll know it when you see it.

The salesman oozed as much as the one back at Ares had, practically dripping all over the merchandise.  "What can I do for you?"

"Young man, you may direct me to your fitting department, for I require two summer traveling suits."

"Of course, sir.  Um..."

"Yes?  What is it?"

"Will sir be requiring any... protection?"

"Why do you think I'm here, kid?  Of course I need protection!  These should be as armored as possible, while still allowing me to relax and breathe."

"Yes, sir.  Can you please step... er... come this way?"  The man directed them through an archway in the back. 

Ruby pushed Jinx into the room in the back, where there was a small platform and a sharply dressed mannequin.  The mannequin turned towards them as they entered, and its eyes glowed a bright blue as a synthvoice burbled cheerfully, "Welcome to my fitting area!  Would one or both of you like to be fitted today?"

"I would.  Casey, please be a dear and help me up on to the platform."  Jinx had pushed himself up to standing, and tottered forward, but couldn't seem to get himself up onto the platform.  Ruby stopped herself before rolling her eyes; she'd witness the man run around a block once in a run gone bad, but he never seemed to get tired of the old man routine.  She grabbed his arm and gently guided him up onto the dais. 

After the measuring laser was complete, Jinx indicated that he needed to be helped down.  While they were arranging to put him back into his wheelchair, a holographic version of Jinx appeared, complete with a summer suit.

"Perfect!" he shouted.  "That's exactly what I wanted.  Good thing we came in here, eh, Casey?"

"Yes, Mr. Hudson."  She almost succeeded in keeping the sullenness out of her voice.  He wasn't going to get off the hook this easily.

"Robot... may I call you robot?  Robot, I believe my lovely assistant will also be needing some protective attire.  What do you have in ladies wear?"

The mannequin cocked its head to the side, as if considering.  After pausing sufficiently long so as to appear Human, it snapped its fingers and raised five small holograms on the dais, each of an approximation of Ruby wearing different couture pieces.  "Do any of these meet sir's fancy?"

Ruby, despite her lingering irritation, could barely contain her laughter.  She'd never be caught dead in any of those outfits.

"I believe Casey will require two outfits, one that's slightly more formal, the other more professional for the day-to-day as my assistant."

"Ah!  In that case..." and a series of working outfits were displayed.  Ruby pointed to the one most like the scrubs she was wearing now.  Jinx nodded, and then a series of more formal women's dinner suits appeared.  Again, she picked one most like what she was wearing, at least in terms of color, but Jinx waved her off and chose a different one.  She felt her irritation rising back in full force at his presumption.

"And will sir be requiring anything else?"

"No, robot.  Please have our garments ready within the hour."

"Of course sir.  If sir could just remit payment..." And the robot held out an arm.  Jinx handed him one of the golden credsticks, and to Ruby's surprise, paid for hers as well.  She opened her mouth to protest when she saw his message flash at the bottom of her vision.

Jinx: You're my helper here, remember?  I have to pay for you.

Ruby: Tell you what.  I'll get an agent to run a background check on you.  Will that satisfy you?

Jinx: How long will you need?

Ruby: Fifteen minutes or so to put together a decent one.

Jinx: Do it then.  Out loud: "Robot, would you also be so kind as to provide us with some luggage to hold these clothes?  If you have any that could be attached to my chair..."

"Yes, sir, let me check for you.  Will you be waiting here for your suits?"

"We'll be at the cafe across the street."

"Very good, sir.  Shall I send you an email to inform you that the suits are complete?"  The store would have scanned their new IDs already, and had email addresses for both of them.

"Please do.  We'll be back shortly.  Casey?"

"Yes, Mr. Hudson."

She pushed him to a chair at the cafe, ordered a coffee, and set to work.  After fifteen minutes, she had a bot running through archival records and footage for anyone who looked remotely like Jinx or used any IDs she'd known him to use in the past, included age modification effects, and attempted any matches she could against his name.  She seriously doubted she'd get anything, so expanded her search to include anything she could from previous runs, including vehicle serial numbers and the like.  She sat back and started to sip her now-cold coffee and grinned at Jinx.  Soon, I'll know everything there is to know.

Ten minutes later, the agent returned, it's virtual appearance showing up in Ruby's Augmented Reality vision battered almost beyond recognition.  Ruby unconsciously sat up, mouth agape.  As the agent reached her, a massive hound appeared and neatly ripped off her little golem's head, grinned at her mischievously, and dissipated completely.

Ruby: Jinx, what the hell?

Jinx: Ah, I see you found Kerbie.  Good on you, most people never get that far.

Ruby: What was that... thing?

Jinx: That was a guardian sprite.  Ruby, I'm a technomancer.

Ruby: OK...

Jinx: There's also another thing.

Ruby: Oh?  There's another thing?  More than you being some freakish combination of magic and artificial intelligence?

Jinx: My real name is James Nathan Xavier.  Hence, Jinx.

Ruby: My dad's last name was Xavier.

Jinx: And my son's first name was Tim.

Ruby sat, stunned, and jacked out entirely of the matrix.  After a few seconds, she stuck her head between her knees and vomited.  She felt Jinx' hand on her back before she passed out.


stanley

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« Reply #2 on: <10-03-14/1913:01> »
Chapter 9
Flight
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"I can't get this kid to stop crying.  Make him stop crying!"  Pablo could feel the accusing stares of everyone else in business class as Stan's caterwauling kept rising in pitch.  Maria shrugged in her seat, so deeply exhausted her eyes could not stay open.  He bounced rhythmically, hoping that would help, with Stan's head on his shoulder while he patted his back.  The baby just kept screaming, no amount of formula or anything seemed to work. 

"Maybe... maybe I can help?"  He spun around to see a hunched middle-manager corp type.  Spare tire, slightly balding, clothes presentable but not stylish.

"Sure.  How?"

"First kid, hunh?  You and the missus not read too many books before he was born?"

"She did all the reading.  I guess the reality didn't really sink in..."

"I'm sure.  I was the same way.  May I?"  The man held out his hands.  Despite his fatigue, Pablo's adrenaline kicked in-- no way he'd hand over the package that quickly.  The man saw his hesitation and grinned, holding his hands up, palms facing out.  "OK, OK, I get it.  Try holding him like this, with his head here and his body here.  Do you have a swaddler, or a blanket?"

What's a swaddler?  Was he supposed to know that?  He shook his head, and quickly rearranged the baby like the man said.

"Good, good.  OK, keep swaying like you're doing.  Put his pacifier in his mouth.  Yes, he's going to yell around it, that's ok.  Hold it his mouth.  Good.  Now yell SSSSHHHHHH in his ear."

Two minutes later, the kid snored peacefully on Pablo's rapidly numbing arm.  "How... how can I thank you?  This kid has been driving us nuts for the last..."

"Ah, don't thank me.  Having kids is hard.  You visiting your folks?"

Shit, he was going to have to improvise a cover story.  He and Maria had just barely managed to get all of the equipment they'd need to make the trip, and hadn't had enough time to really work the details out.  The corp guy sensed his hesitation, and grinned again, "You're so exhausted, you can't even remember why you're on this plane, right?  How old is he?  Looks like he's about a month?  I'm guessing it's gotta be a family trip, to travel with a baby this young."

Pablo let the man's babbling wash over him, grunting his assent.

"Yeah, with our first kid, took use forever to get that kid to sleep.  About three months in, everything changed, and then three months after that, changed again-- that kid could not go to sleep on his own for years.  But now he can sit still and pretend he's civilized.  Look, there he is-- wave at the new dad, Trevor."  A sullen-looking teenager two seats back waved halfheartedly, then very conspicuously turned back to his commlink.

"Just wait till they get to that phase.  The sullen, pissed-off phase, like your parents can never do right and are total morons."  Come to think of it, thought Pablo, he wasn't sure he'd ever left that phase.  "Yeah, enjoy this time when they're babies while you can.  My name's Doug, by the way."  Doug held out his hand, and then punched Pablo on the shoulder since Pablo's arms were full.

"Juan.  Nice to meet you."

"Juan?  You at Aztech?"

Pablo grinned at this one.  "Not really allowed to tell you that, Doug.  You know how it is."

"Ahh, of course."  Doug held his thumb and forefinger together with a conspiratorial grin, a hand gesture from Slicers, a five year old trideo action-comedy sitcom about shadowrunners.  Frag, how little you know, Pablo wanted to blurt, but miraculously kept quiet.

"I can tell you this, though.  We definitely wouldn't have left the house if the corp hadn't made us." 

"Oh?  Something going on?"  Doug leaned in a bit closer.

"Nothing I can really say, of course," Pablo improvised wildly, "Let's just say my boss was insistent that I appear in person."

"Nice!  They definitely wouldn't send you across the continent to fire you.  That's got to be good, right?"

"That's what I'm thinking, anyway."

"But why bring the wife and kid?"

"We work together, actually, and don't have anyone we can trust to leave the baby with for a few days."

"Man, let me tell you, get a good babysitter, better if you have two.  Saved my marriage, no lie.  You gotta have a date night, man.  If you don't have date night, well, it may seem unromantic to have to schedule romance, but if you don't have it on the schedule now, it ain't happening,"  Doug opined with a sardonic half-grin on his face.

"I do have to say though," Doug coughed a bit apologetically, "It is kind of terrible for a boss to require a new family to appear in person, you know?  Your group... well, you may be better off in another outfit, you know?"

"I guess."

"I mean, you only get one shot at raising that kid, and after that, it's done.  Jobs come and go, but your kids..."

"Really, Doug?"

"I'm just saying, man, that I was once like you, doing everything for the corp.  I made a move years ago to a new outfit, though, and they seem to recognize that there's more to life than slaving away."

Pablo realized he had been incredibly thick not to see the recruiting angle.  Doug would make out with a signing bonus of 25\% of Pablo's first year salary if Doug could poach him away from whomever, maybe more if Doug had assensed Pablo's aura and seen his magical abilities.  The crying baby had just given the man an in.  I think your plan backfired, Pablo thought, as now I'm terrified that I'm going to be a father for the rest of my life rather than a bodyguard for two months.

"Anyway, I'll shoot you an email," Doug chucked Pablo on the shoulder again and went back to his seat.  Pablo just nodded and collapsed into his own chair.  Stan burbled a bit at the sudden movement, but then calmed down again.  Pablo tried to arrange himself so he could go to sleep but still hold Stan, and ended up laying the baby lengthwise down his chest while fully reclined.  In this position, he could drift asleep, or into the astral.

The world became tinged with silver dust and a faint directionless glow as he made the shift.  He didn't want to fully project-- he was still on a flight traveling in excess of the speed of sound, and projecting might mean that the plane left his soul behind-- but he desperately wanted to do some scouting.

He'd hoped to get a glimpse of Doug, but realized that he couldn't see past the scintillating cloud right in front of his vision.  Stan's aura radiated power in a way Pablo had never seen before, a shimmering, cascading rainbow that included colors that didn't exist outside of astral space.  That the baby was Awakened had been obvious from the fact that he was a Troll, that he could have been a mage would not have been out of the ordinary.  Even with that, though, the amount of raw magical force on top of him was more than Pablo had seen concentrated in a single individual before.

Pablo stared at the baby's aura, mesmerized.  The sheer beauty of this being captivated him more than any lover ever had.

He gradually came to realize two things.  First, he had badly neglected this mission by not having assensed the baby before, because clearly part of the child's value lay in his immense astral signature.  He could hear his abuela cursing him for his lax attention from her lair in front of the trideo, one of her well-aimed chanclas heading right for his head for not having done what he should have done in the first place.  Second, he had better figure out a way to mask that signature, or otherwise every magical and dual-natured being in a ten mile radius would covet the boy.  He knew that this kind of masking magic lay beyond his current skills, but he realized that, for all their sakes, he'd better learn.

stanley

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« Reply #3 on: <10-15-14/2246:30> »
Interlude 6
Exit Interview
---------------------

Enterich stood at the entrance to his master’s lair, allowing his body to shift into its native shape. The transformation, once so fluid, had become jerky, painful in its stages. None of Lofwyr’s servants, not even the True Drakes, were permitted to be disguised when approaching the master as he perched atop his main horde. In ages long past, the effect had been tremendous, a reminder of the vast, insurmountable difference between lord and slave. Current customs held that the display approached ostentation, driving his newer servants to remark amongst themselves about their master’s gauche display of wealth. “We all know he’s powerful,” they mused, “why does he feel the need to constantly bask in it?” Because that is his way, Enterich would have told them, if he’d ever felt the urge to explain.

“Entrelichamanessum. Your project proceeds apace, I assume?” The Great Dragon’s enormous head swiveled towards his vassal, voice resonant in Enterich’s mind alone. The Dragon used his Given Name as a means of reinforcing control over one of his most dangerous and trusted servants. At this point, after thousands of years of servitude, Enterich believed that the effect was more effective as a psychological control rather than a magical one, but then again, Dragons used magic in ways Metahumans didn’t understand.

“Yes, Lord Lofwyr. The child has been secured and removed from his parents’ care. They will no longer be of any concern to us. The strongest of the teams is now the ward of the child.” Enterich never liked facing his master when both had shed their mortal forms. When he was younger, during the Fourth World, his resentment that his master had been lucky enough to be born a Dragon and he a mere servant had kept him from realizing the awesomeness of his own true form. Now, in what he supposed were his waning years, he simply did not like to be reminded that his once-sharp talons had dulled, his eyes had become milky with cataracts, his joints wracked with pain.
He had served, and served well, for seven thousand years. The time for a replacement had come.

“And this team? What do they know?” Enterich knew that Lofwyr already knew the answers to these questions, but the old wyrm never seemed to tire of reminding Enterich of his place. He knew his master well; he just no longer particularly cared to play these games anymore.

“They do not. They have used the charm to disguise the baby’s physical and astral form, and have removed themselves from the Seattle metroplex. The charm’s astral signature remains strong and detectable by our best initiates. I have led the team to believe that they will chose their final destination without my knowledge. Given how competent they are, I doubt they will believe that story. But, since the charm is the only way for them to disguise the true nature of the child, they must use it until they can find an alternative.” At least long speeches
didn’t leave him winded. His own predecessor–what had his name been?– had been so crippled with age that his voice would give out after a few brief sentences, even when shapeshifted to his preferred form, a T’skrang warrior.

“Their lack of magical expertise is both a benefit and a detriment to us. What would you feel about augmenting their number with another of our agents, perhaps Ms. Jacquard?” Though Lofwyr asked the question, Enterich already knew that the wyrm was preparing to send her. He had never managed to keep his master from manipulating or destroying Enterich’s own agents at will, often to the detriment of Enterich’s network. The True Drake found that he just did not have the strength of will to care anymore.

“I believe that she should be powerful enough to help defend any magical threat to the child, but also not determine the true nature of the charm, nor the baby itself.”

“I believe as you do. Please ensure that Ms. Jacquard can be inserted into the team with minimal problems.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Entrelichamanessum?”

“Yes, my lord?”

“Do not believe that this is easy for me. It is only the vagaries of time that require our current actions. You have been a faithful and competent servant whose contributions will not be easily overshadowed.” Lofwyr returned his head to its original resting position on a mound of what appeared to be Spanish doubloons, dismissing Enterich entirely.

“Thank you, my lord.” Enterich bowed as fluidly as he could and turned on his heel, leaving the hoard chamber.

Enterich found this last bit extremely amusing. If he hadn’t been such a devoted slave, he would have been eaten long ago. The Sixth World’s corporate culture and excessive politeness must be affecting his master’s thoughts. Enterich only hoped, for the sake of the world, that these new traditions would not prevent the Great Dragon from doing what must be done when tide of magic rose, as it inevitably would, and the fabric between dimensions grew thin.

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Chapter 10
Small Town Hideaway
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The team found themselves at the luggage carousel at the same time, all waiting for their luggage to arrive.  Maria realized she had the perfect opportunity to ask a question that had been gnawing on her ever since the trip had begun.

Maria: So Jinx, where are we headed?

Jinx: Rural Pennsylvania.

Samson: Why?

Jinx: It's a few hours drive away, and that's the first thing-- we want to see them coming.  Second, it's economically depressed, so the locals will be glad to have us around as long as we're generous with credits.  Not bribery, you understand, but bringing business.  Third, there's a large Troll population there, and also Orks.

Samson: Really?  Why's that?

Jinx: They moved there after the Night of Rage, back in '39.  Figured the city was getting to be too rough for them.

Samson: And the country isn't?

Jinx: By the time that all happened, the towns were all pretty much dead.  There were maybe 50k people in a hundred square miles there on the night, down from about 140k from before the Awakening.  There were so many derelict buildings scattered about the region, the people who were left were pretty split about the influx.  Half of them were straight up rednecks, angry about the non-Humans, but the other half pointed out that the people coming in were bringing in money.  Not a lot of money by our standards, but certainly a lot of money by the area's standards.

Ruby: What happened?  There's not a lot from before the Crash I can find.

Jinx: Two things:  fracking and the Awakening.  Fracking was an environmental nightmare that polluted the groundwater to hell and back.  But once the Awakening hit, the place just started crawling with ghosts-- all the dead miners came back home from all the mines that had been around the place.  No one sane wanted to live there any more; everyone that's left either has deep roots or few brains, or both.  They'd pretty much given over most of the forests for lost to the ghosts.  Trolls and Orks came in with their street shamans, cleaned out lots of the population centers, such as they were, and a lot of the outskirts.  That got most of the old guard to liking the newcomers, and they apparently all get along.

Maria: So is that where we come in?  Ghost hunters?

Jinx: I'm thinking we're miners.

Samson: This ought to be good.  Go on.

Jinx: Well, with all the paranormal activity going on around the place, a lot of talismongers started showing up to do business, but it doesn't appear that there's a whole lot of talismongery to do; just a lot of pissed off ghosts of miners.  And as such, only crazy fools try to buy a mine there.  Especially since what's in the mine is pretty much worthless.

Ruby: So what's in the mine?

Jinx: A special kind of coal called 'anthracite.'  Supposed to be 'clean.'

Ruby: Lemme guess: the VUCRENE reactors shut that down.

Jinx: Got it in one.  Cheap nuclear power via reactors stored in vast underwater caverns filled with water for coolant-- fuels the world today, no smog.

Samson: What's smog?

Jinx: Look in a history textbook.

Ruby: Or just ask you.

Jinx: Yeah, yeah.  Listen.  No one wants the mines, except maybe a crazy codger.  That's me.

Ruby: OK, I'm the Lovely Assistant.

Samson: Bodyguard?

Jinx: Right on both.

Pablo elbowed her when the first of their luggage came off the belt after he'd put it at her feet.  She glared up at him, shaken out of the conversation.  "Might want to put your glasses on, babe.  The sunlight's pretty fierce in here."  The man caught the hint, and fished for his commlink display glasses from the baby bag. 

Maria: So what are we then?

Jinx: Well, I need a man to clear the ghosts.  That'll be Pablo.  And you're his wife, forced to bring the new baby across the country.

Maria: Ah!  So if the charm wears off, we'll be around Trolls, Trolls who all left cities from the Night of Rage, and so they won't mind.

Jinx: Exactly!

Pablo: One potential problem.

Jinx: What's that?

Pablo: This kid is an astral beacon; the ghosts might come out of the woodwork, literally, to get at him.

Jinx: Well, the town around Main Street is supposed to be clear.  Just don't go dryhumping gravestones, and you should be fine.

Samson: I like this plan.  We could be here for years; might as well have jobs on top of it.

Jinx: Exactly.  I have a van I've squirreled away in the city, but I figure you guys will have to rent cars, and then we meet up when we get there.

Maria: That's fine.  No one else needs to handle this kid's toxic farts.

Pablo: Yeah, no joke.  Speaking of which-- honey, you're turn to change the baby.

Ruby: D'awww

Maria: Oh, Ruby, you want a shot at it?

Ruby: No thanks, I've gotta drive Mr. Hudson to his van.  Toodles!

Jinx: Head to the diner at these coordinates.  Be there in five or so hours.

By this point, the team had gotten their luggage out of the clutches of the airline and began to head their own separate ways. 


stanley

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« Reply #4 on: <10-15-14/2247:58> »
Chapter 11
The Turnpike
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Once they had driven out of the city, Ruby set to scrubbing their old IDs from all of their new gear.  Everything they had purchased on their respective shopping expeditions was traceable to the identities supplied by Enterich, but rather than rely on potentially compromised information, the team preferred to work with their backups until new identities could be forged. 

The team traveled in a loose caravan on the turnpike.  Samson rode point with a car he'd rented from a lower-end agency with extremely questionable security on its vehicle registration nodes.  While Samson had no ability to drive himself, the car's dog-brain would be more than sufficient for a trip along a relatively straight road while Samson himself kept his eyes open for any possible interference.  Maria, Pablo, and Stan made a delightful new family in the minivan in the middle, this time from a slightly more upscale agency that allowed renters to purchase vehicles with the swipe of a certified credstick.  Not that Ruby couldn't hack that business, just that Maria had figured that two cars missing on the same day from the same airport would be too much of a coincidence for anyone trying to track them.  Jinx and Ruby took up the rear.

Turns out, Jinx had an old garage he maintained in Philly, and in that garage, he had a late-model van.  By 'late-model', Ruby wondered if the thing had been made before or after President Dunkelzahn had been assassinated.  The thing certainly didn't need its ID scrubbed, as it was manufactured from before the Crash and so didn't respond to any kind of protocol she had on hand.  She figured that if she couldn't get to it, neither could anyone else. 

She had given herself the scrubbing task because she couldn't really trust herself to talk to Jinx yet.  She had been fascinated at first with the rolling countryside, having grown up and spent the vast majority of her life in the worse parts of urban sprawl.  After ten miles of unchanging pastoral wonderland, she turned away from the view, completely bored.  She could just make an agent to do it, but this gave her her excuse.

Jinx cleared his throat.  Maybe if she just continued as if she hadn't heard...

He cleared it again, this time more meaningfully.  Frag.

"Yes?"

"I thought we could talk.  For a bit.  If you want to."  Ruby had never seen him so uncomfortable.

"About?"

He let out a long sigh.  "I suppose I deserve that.  About where I've been all your life.  About why and how you met me a few years back."

Despite herself, she felt her curiosity piquing.  "Someone has to scrub these IDs..."

"Oh, let me do it.  Give me a bit."  His eyes rolled into the back of his head for a few seconds while the car's dogbrain took over.  Shortly, one of the most complex pieces of code Ruby had ever seen sprang into existence in her Augmented Reality display.  The code had manifested as an old janitor with a mop and bucket.  Within moments, the janitor was scrubbing all traces of identification from all the devices in the car.

"You know, if you can do all of this stuff, why do you need me?"

"You could have done that too, if you wanted to.  I've seen you write agents."

"Yeah, but they take me minutes to write.  I can't just conjure them out of thin air, or whatever it is you do."

"What I do is pull them out of the Resonance.  It's an odd thing; before I got this gift, I thought that the world was passing me by, and I desperately wanted to let it.  Do you know how many times I attempted suicide?"

This admission startled Ruby.  "You?  Suicide?  You don't seem the type."

"Well, thank you.  And now, that's true.  But it wasn't always that way.  Your father, as I'm sure you know, was born on March 3rd, 2023.  He turned 27 when you were born, by startling coincidence, also on March 3rd, 2050.  Unfortunately, it seems he took after me when it came to being a dad."

Ruby was finding it hard to talk.  She remembered her dad.  He'd always seemed so huge, so distant, so violent.  Nothing she did seemed to work, nothing she did was right. 

"I left him and his mother when he was five.  He was a stubborn child, never doing what he was told, always getting into trouble.  Nothing I or his mother did seemed to have any affect on his behavior.  God help me, I even tried beating him, but that just made things worse.  You see, your father was a Dwarf.  Now, it's not uncommon for Dwarf children to be born, but back then, he was a freak, a mutant.  Everything he did was scrutinized, and everything your grandmother and I tried was scrutinized, and we were always found wanting.  I lost my job, she lost hers.  The ship was sinking."

Jinx stared straight ahead.  The words flowed from him in the well-practiced monotone of a man who practiced this speech constantly in the distant hope that one day he could say it out loud.

"Then one day, the day after I beat him with a belt, he did the same thing to a boy in his kindergarden class.  The teachers and the principle expelled him and wanted to bring him up on criminal charges.  Other boys might have gotten some reprieve, but Tim... Tim was a Dwarf, and very strong.  He broke that poor boy's jaw.  And I taught him how to do it by doing it to him."

Now Jinx' voice cracked.  He stopped for a bit.  The van whipped through a forest of vividly green trees and emerged into a deforested region just beyond it before he spoke again.

"When the police came, they saw the marks on Tim's body, and the figured out pretty quickly what was going on, the real cause of the problem.  Me.  So I ran.  I left your grandmother and your father.  I saw what I had become in that cop's accusing stare, and I couldn't face it.  I ran.  I didn't want to go to jail, and I didn't want the reminder of my own failure through child support.  I ran to another country entirely, hoping to forget."

Ruby had turned in her seat to face him, her knees drawn up to her chin, rapt.

"Years later, during the Night of Rage, I realized I hadn't spoken to either of them in over a decade, and I had no idea if either of them had survived.  I had become a freelancer, a jack of all trades in Southeast Asia.  I guess now I'd be a Fixer or a Johnson.  Whatever I was, I wasn't very good at it, and I was as drunk as I could constantly be."

"By this point, I had some connections, and I used them.  I found out that your grandmother had died on the Night of Rage, protecting Tim from a mob while he ran.  You know the worst part about that for me?"

Ruby cleared her throat.  "What?"

"I can't remember her face.  I'd pledged to love this woman forever, and stick with her through bad and through good, but I cannot remember her face for the life of me.  And I'm not sure I'd want to if I could."

They drove on in silence.

Ruby stared at him, this man who claimed to be her grandfather, and, for the first time, wondered if he was lying.  A fantastic liar.  Ruby had never ever given her grandparents much thought, since she'd been spending her time trying to get away from her father.  This story had so many corroborating details, though, Ruby felt sure that Jinx wanted her to fact-check him.  She certainly couldn't do that while in the car, though; that janitor might have other functions, and she wasn't up to a Matrix brawl at the moment.

He cleared his throat.  "I moved back to the UCAS then.  I stayed on the east coast, and decided to clean up my act.  I also started to track down Tim, to make amends for my abysmal behavior.  Trouble was, Tim had gone off into the shadows by then.  I think he was in a gang or something for a while, until he met your mother.  What do you know about your mother, Ruby?"

"I know that she was a stripper for an all-Dwarf bar in Seattle.  I know that my father talked a good game, as she said it, but she always said that, when push came to shove, he was the first one out the door.  She... I was put into foster care when I was ten, after my dad had beaten me really hard one time while she was blitzed out of her mind on some drug."

"And then they took you away, and put him in jail."

"The foster family was nice at first, but I didn't know how to be nice back."

"I found him in jail after that.  He didn't want to speak with me.  I thought he'd come around, that he wouldn't have anyone to talk to and would need someone to talk to, but no.  Our wounds are too great for me to use just words."

"Is he... is he still there?"

"I thought you knew?  You said he was a BTL junkie."

"I have no idea what he's doing.  Him or my mother.  I wrote them off once I realized that families don't have to be all terrible."

"How many homes were you put in?"

"Five.  I went to five different homes."

"Do you remember what was different about the fifth?"

"Yeah," she said with a slight grin, "they told me that they wouldn't put up with any of my drek, and that I was gonna learn stuff.  The dad-- my dad, I guess, Patrick-- got me my first deck.  He taught me a lot of shit."

"What kind of deck was it?"

"A Fuchi-7, with Cybranous persona chips and a bunch of programs from all over.  I didn't know how Patrick could afford it...."  Ruby slowed down, and then, in a small voice,  "That was you?"

"I couldn't come forward as your grandfather.  I didn't want to screw up with you like I had with Tim.  I couldn't face that again.  So I watched you.  When the fourth family sent you back, I told Patrick that he owed me, and that he was going to do this.  Patrick resisted at first, of course, but he came around when I gave him matching cyberdecks, only string attached be that he show you the ropes."

"How did you... how did... how?"  That Patrick had a matching deck had been one of the facts she'd held back; she'd learned to spot liars.

"The Crash, 2.0.  I became a technomancer.  Up until that point, I had basically given up on life.  My son was in jail for the exact crime I had run from, once again showing me how badly I had screwed up.  My wife had been dead for so long that her loss had become a dull ache, and my granddaughter was so close and yet so far.  How could I show up and do the same thing to you I had done to him?  I didn't want to repeat myself, to destroy another life."

"So you let me... you let them do that to me, and you saw, and you did nothing?"  Ruby surprised herself by not being angry.  She had moved past that, but to what exactly, she did not know.

"I didn't think I would have been better.  For about two weeks in a row, right after you went into the system and Tim refused to see me in jail, I sat every night with a gun in my mouth in a piece of drek apartment surrounded with roaches and crawling with fleas."

Still sounded better than that fourth family.  Well, maybe not.  But there definitely had been roaches, fleas, and guns.

"I put the gun down every night, but I couldn't really explain why.  I started to think that I was just being melodramatic, that even this was play acting and that I didn't even deserve this much dignity in death.  I wanted to go get help, but in reality, I was waiting to die and didn't have the courage to do it myself.  And I stayed in that apartment with those bugs for four years, waiting."

"And then?"

"Then the crash.  And my eyes were opened, and I was given a tremendous gift.  Once I started to get the hang of it, I realized I was very, very good at it, better than I had been at anything in my entire life.  I could see the Matrix without any equipment, understand it in ways that no one else around me seemed to be able to do.  After a year, I had learned how to become one with the Resonance, visiting the far Resonance Realms and communing with the spirit of the Matrix there.  I was... I am very good.  And that's when I realized I could finally make a difference."

"I was sent to Patrick when I was fifteen..."

"I rigged it.  I saw how terrible those foster parents were being to you, and how they were using the system to get paychecks off of you and eight other kids at once.  I remember finding a video one of them recorded, maybe on accident, of making all of you take a shower in a barn, and making sure to only give you a few drops of shampoo.  One kid, not you, got beaten for 'wasting' the shampoo.  I spread that video to the news outlets, and engineered your transfer to Patrick, who owed me a few favors.  I ran with a team and stole those decks, and gave them to him, but he couldn't tell you where he'd gotten them from.  I watched your first Matrix runs, Ruby,"

"Ye... yes?"  Frag, she had forgotten the barn and the shampoo.

"I'm incredibly proud of you.  You've grown up from a novice code monkey to a slicer, a spectacularly good decker who can take down IC like no one else I've ever seen before."

Ruby realized she was crying.  No one had ever been proud of her. 

"I'm just glad to have helped you in some way, but you know what I've realized?"

Ruby couldn't really speak.  Jinx looked over at her briefly, and continued.

"I've realized that, by now, Tim is a grown man.  If he doesn't want anything to do with me, I can't stop that.  I've just... I've been wanting to fix what I broke for so long.... I just hope you'll give me a chance."

"You mean, more of one?  One where I know who's doing things for me?"

"Yeah, that's my plan."

"What do you want me to say to that?  How do you want me to react?  Are you supposed to be my guardian angel or something, and I'm supposed to gush with thanks and forgiveness?  You were gone from our lives since before I was born!  We're.... we could have been a family!"

Jinx just nodded slowly, and turned away from the rolling scenery to look her in the eyes.  "We could have been.  And I know it's my fault.  I've been thinking of ways of breaking the ice to you, but then we were involved in that drone fight..."

Ruby knew exactly what he meant.  The two of them had thrown every trick in the book against that other team, but everything they did was countered, and so many people had died because they hadn't been able to bring down those drones in time. 

"By myself, I would have been overwhelmed, and probably killed.  But the two of us together held them off long enough that we managed to escape.  And I don't know who that other team was, but they were damn good."

"Yeah, you're right about that."

"And I couldn't face them again without telling you this, because now, I think we've met more than our match, at least in the Matrix.  Of course, we had help."

"Help?"

"You noticed that the Tacnet software started texting during the fight, right?  Did you ever figure that out?"

"No..."

"Sidewinder was a technomancer too.  He made a sprite, but unlike my cleaner, he made a guardian for little Stan.  And a powerful one, too.  The sprite was-- or, I should say, is-- powerful enough to resist decompilation once his master died.  That guardian compromised Maria's Tacnet program and is now hitching a ride in her commlink."

"What... what do we do about that?"

"For the time being, nothing.  He's proven to be a valuable ally.  At some point, though, I'd like the two of us to make contact. He's a free sprite and he may have evolved into something more, and as such, can be very dangerous, even to me.  That is, if you'll still run with me."

Ruby rolled her eyes.  "Of course I'll run with you, Jinx.  Just because you're my deadbeat grandfather doesn't mean you aren't the best rigger I've ever seen.  And now that I know we can pair through the Matrix... our runs may have just gotten a lot easier."

"Good.  Best I can ask for."

"And all you can get, for now.  I'll let you know about the other stuff once I've had time to think it over."


stanley

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« Reply #5 on: <10-18-14/1455:43> »
Chapter 12
Welcome to the Neighborhood!
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The remaining occupied buildings of the town they'd chosen centered around the brewery, the primary source of employment for a good twenty mile radius.  As the region had fallen on harder times economically, more and more people had turned to alcohol to help with their troubles, and in turn, the brewery's operations had grown to support a nontrivial number of employees.  The owners of the brewery had moved to Terrence Street, where they could walk to work and oversee the operations themselves.  They had originally dabbled in increasing the automated systems remaining from around the turn of the century with more advanced methods, but quickly realized that Human labor cost far less than state-of-the-art robotics.  In turn, they could advertise their higher-end product as 'artisanal', getting a higher price from the congnescenti in the distant metroplexes.

After digging through several Matrix nodes that looked like they'd been designed by a stoned high school student, Maria had managed to rent two houses while Pablo had made sure the minivan's dogbrain didn't run them off the road.  The twin houses she rented sat on Charles Street, one block up from Lafayette, one of the the town's two main thoroughfares.  In one she put Ruby, Jinx, and Samson, as the old man with his servant and his bodyguard, and in the neighboring house she put the two of them and Stan.  She briefly considered actually buying the properties as the asking price was well within the amount that they had left over from their impromptu shopping expeditions, but figured that that much money dropped into a depressed economy would bring more attention than they wanted.

Maria shut off her commlink to watch the scenery as they drove into town.  After a time, she noticed that what had once been vibrant summer countryside had begun turning into a wasteland with trees more dead than alive.  She turned to comment to Pablo when she noticed his whiteknuckle grip on the steering wheel and the sweat on his forehead.  The sign said the town was five miles away by that point, and she hoped they were a fast five miles.  She saw no birds overhead in the suddenly darkening sky.  In the back seat, Stan started thrashing in his sleep, then screamed so loudly both Maria and Pablo jumped in their seats.

"Just a few more miles," Pablo said through clenched teeth while Stan continued to wail.

The sudden appearance of live grass on the ground came as welcome relief.  Once they passed the obvious border to the town, the sky opened and Maria felt the release of a subtly coiling tension in her chest.  Pablo's grip on the steering wheel relaxed and Stan fell back to sleep.  Maria shot a questioning glance at a grinning Pablo.

"I think we just passed the outer circle of the wards around the town.  They weren't kidding; this place is definitely haunted."  She could hear the relief in his voice as the tension drained from his body as well.

"Yeah, I think you're right.  Do you think this was a good idea?"

"Well, Stan will be hard to find with this kind of high astral background.  At least, I hope so.  I still don't know how to mask him, or even if it's possible."

Maria transmitted the coordinates of their new homes into the car's navicomputer.  "Well, hopefully we're also hidden from more mundane searches as well."

The drive down Lafayette Avenue showed a lot of houses had been condemned, boarded up and sealed away from interlopers with wooden slats.  The look and feel for the first couple of blocks reminded Maria very much of the Tacoma Barrens, and she hoped that they wouldn't be dealing with a similarly ruthless and conniving population.  As they got further into town, though, the houses got noticeably better.  Several looked like they had been built recently, and some even sported Troll-sized entryways.

The car executed a neat K-turn and parallel parked right in front of their new house.  Outside stood a pleasantly plump Ork woman dressed in a skirtsuit sized for someone much smaller, hair pulled up into a ponytail that emphasized her pointed ears, each with little golden hoop earrings.  Maria felt a twinge of homesickness at seeing someone so hopelessly lacking in any sense of style.  As she got out of the car, the woman lumbered up to her, extending a brutally calloused hand that engulfed Maria's.

"Josephine Walters!"  Josephine's vocal enthusiasm matched her crushing grip.  Maria bet this woman had no idea just how much strength she had.  "Boy, we don't get a lot of people wanting to rent around here.  What brings you to our great city?  Gonna work at the brewery?"  Her face had split into a manic grin.  Or maybe the tusks just made her look manic.

"Josephine, nice to meet you!  I'm Mary Tanner, and this is my husband, Paul."

"Hey!" Pablo called out from inside the car where he was busy extracting Stan from his baby seat.

"Awww, you have a little one!  Such a cute baby!  Used to be, folks came back here to raise their kids, but that's just so rare nowadays."  Josephine waddled over to Pablo's side of the minivan, blatantly ignoring any chance of getting hit by a car.  Because there aren't any cars to hit her, Maria belatedly realized. 

"We're here because our boss wanted to do some... exploration.  He's in the neighboring house, but I can grab the keys."  Maria had a sudden inspiration.

"Honey, could you hand me Stan for a second?"  Pablo looked at her oddly, but handed the baby over.

"Josephine, I can't tell you how glad we are to be here... you see..." and she pulled Stan's pacifier off his little outfit.

The baby transformed instantaneously, growing to twice his length and girth, ripping his clothes until he was wearing only scraps.  His bright blue eyes twinkled at Josephine as he gurgled.

"Well, now he's just so much cuter!  Lookit you!  Lookit you, you cute little guy!  Those are some great horns!  Yes they are!  Yes they are!"  Maria grinned at Pablo over Josephine's huddled back.  "Are either of you... also?"

"No, my husband and I aren't, but we just couldn't take living in the city any more... you know how it is..."

"Oh, yah, I definitely do!  We moved here from Pittsburgh, same reason!  You're gonna fit in here just fine!  Lemme get the keys."  Josephine bustled away to a package she'd left on the front stoop.

About half an hour later, they'd moved all of their meager possessions into the unfurnished house and set up Stan's crib, the only piece of furniture they owned.  Stan lay in his traveling crib swaddled in his blanket, asleep.  Maria just had time to wonder how Pablo had learned to calm the baby down before the doorbell rang.  She and Pablo again shared a look, and he went to answer the door.

Outside stooped two Trolls grinning from ear to ear.  "Welcome to the neighborhood!" they yelled in unison as he opened the door.

The smallest carried a plate full of cookies.  "I'm Alice, and this is my husband Eddie.  We're the across-the-street neighbors.  We're just so glad you guys're here!  Here, have some cookies."  Maria stifled a giggle as she watched the cookies being thrust at her now-husband.  He took them on instinct, too stunned to do anything else.

Eddie grinned.  "You guys must be tired from all the traveling to get here, and from everything that came before!  Josephine told us all about your baby, and can I just say, we think you made the right choice.  Why raise a kid in all that noise, right?"

Pablo could only stand there, obviously trying to figure out their angle.  Maria came up from behind him and held her hand out.  "Hiya!  I'm Mary, and this is Paul.  Sorry, it's been a long time since anyone was actually nice to us, I think Paul's forgotten what it's like."

"Yes... sorry, sorry.  Thank you for the cookies," Pablo mumbled, looking slightly abashed.

"Aww, don't mention it."  Alice waved away the favor, barely missing smashing the porch light by about an inch.

Maria made a face.  "I'd invite you guys in, but we have no furniture."

Alice held up her hands. "Nonsense!  You just got here; we wouldn't impose.  Besides," she giggled, a weird noise coming from such a mountain of a woman, "we won't fit through your door."

"Anyway, we just wanted to welcome you to our block.  You guys got dinner plans?  Cuz if not, we'd love to have you over.  Alice makes a mean meatloaf."  Eddie beamed from ear to ear, clearly proud of his wife.

"Eddie, thank you so much!  We'd love to come.  What time should we head over?  And which house is yours?"  Maria couldn't help but feel like she was overdoing it.

"How about at five?  That'll give you guys some time to go downtown and get some furniture.  Our house is that one there,"  Alice pointed at the middle of three new Troll-sized dwellings across the street.

"Great, see you at five!  What should we bring?"

"How about you bring the beer?" Eddie said with a wink.  "They sell it next to the furniture store, you can't miss it."

"Perfect!  Honey, could you please grab the baby?  I want to look at this furniture!"  Pablo grinned ruefully and went into the house to get the baby.

"See you soon!"  Alice and Eddie walked across the street, again not looking for cars.  Eddie called out over his shoulder, "Oh, before I forget!  Paul, did you make that pacifier?"  He came hustling back, leaving Alice standing in the middle of the road.

Pablo hadn't gotten that far into the house, and came back to lean on the door. "Pacifier?  For Stan?  I had a friend do it.  Why?"  In Seattle, they'd often heard that people who lived in towns and rural areas didn't really like magicians, and neither Pablo nor Maria wanted to make an enemy this quickly.

"Well, let's just say you're not the only one who can do a few tricks," Eddie said with another wink. "There's a group of us that help to maintain the wards around the city, and we could always use another hand if you get the time."

"I gotta check with my boss when he gets in, but I can't imagine he'd say no.  May even teach you guys a thing or two."  Maria thought she covered her surprise well-- as far as she knew, Pablo knew nothing about warding.

"Great!  We meet on Sunday mornings, so it doesn't get in the way of work.  I'll let you know more about it tonight.  See ya!"  Eddie then joined his wife and the two of them went into their house.

She went back inside to find Pablo adjusting the chest carrier on the baby.  "So, trap?" she said as casually as she could.

He laughed.  "I sincerely doubt it.  I will say this though... these cookies are delicious.  I think they used real chocolate!"

"Whoa!  Lemme try!"  They had definitely used real chocolate.  Maria could get used to this.

------------------
Interlude 7
Another player in the game
-------------------

Alamais had a problem. 

Nothing immediate-- he and his brood had clear dominion over GeMiTo.  The triangular region in the north of what had once been Italy formed by Genoa, Milan, and Turin had proven to be ripe for conquering after years of riots and civil unrest.  The entire population of the area had learned of their proper place, subjects and herd animals to their most gracious Dragon lords, after only a few tens of thousands had been arbitrarily eaten.  Humans were both nutritious and delicious, and Alamais could not allow such a violation of natural law as to allow defenseless morsels to roam free.

No, his problem was not with securing his own holdings, but with the rest of the Dragons.  His agents had informed him that his brother Lofwyr had decided to make a move against him.  Alamais found that prospect highly amusing; Lofwyr had always been a shrewd calculator, playing the long game very well, even against other immortals.  His brother wouldn't make a move unless he felt he'd already won the game, but sometimes, Lofwyr overcompartmentalized his schemes, and he would neglect the big picture.

Take now, for instance.  He had rapidly discerned, as had his underlings, that Saeder-Krupp had targeted Alamais' various business concerns with a variety of sanctions, hostile stock actions, and outright embargoes through a number of wholly owned subsidiaries.  Once the economic stranglehold tightened, Lowfyr would attack.  Nachtmeister thought he was striking before the noose had tightened, but he had been dramatically wrong.  The gruesome death of that Great Dragon over the skies of Berlin had been an object lesson in the pure superiority Lofwyr projected over the rest of his kind and the world.

But Alamais knew better.  His brother, after all, could be killed, as could any of their number.  Removing so powerful a player, however, would result in some extreme instabilities on the board, more so than any of them could predict.  The time had come to widen the game beyond Europe so the spotlight did not rest solely on Alamais and his supposed transgressions. 

To defeat his brother, he had to defeat the noose-tightening strategy he could tell was already in effect.  Distracting the hangman offers some interesting possibilities.  He knew of a number of plots his brother had going, but one in particular was proving to be most intriguing.  Why concoct an elaborate series of battles between multiple shadowrunning teams, only to have all the contestants disappear?  What could they possibly be doing?

The situation presented an opportunity.  One young Dragon had decided she would swear fealty to Alamais.  The first task he would give this Damerat would be to destroy this offshoot of Lofwyr's efforts in any manner she saw fit.  As she had yet to be accepted into the brood, any failure on her part would be part of plausible deniability, while any success at bloodying his brother's ego would be trumpeted from the rooftops of GeMiTo and beyond.