Cold. It took Rube a moment to work out where the thought had come from. Her back was pressed against what felt like cold metal; the world in front of her was dark and hazy. Her body felt as if someone had grated her skin off and tried to reattach the strips with a staple gun and rusty fishing hooks. Somewhere something twinged and she felt cold liquid shunted through her veins. Where… where am I? A mild groan escaped her. She tried to remember what had happened. The labs… the security team… the helicopter… the fireball…
Groaning, she forced open her eyes. Three blurry pairs of eyes stared back. She blinked once, twice; the first pair of eyes faded into view. Glitter. Red hair. Huge nose. Dwarf. Is… is that lipstick? Her vision spun and she closed her eyes again, turning her head to the other side. Hallucinating. Must be. She opened her eyes again and saw sticks, leaves, bloodshot eyes and matted tubes of hair. Hallucinating. Definitely.
‘Rube?’ She looked towards the source of the voice, towards her feet. Scian. A worried-looking Scian whose gaze never dropped below her chin. ‘Rube?’
A glitter-covered dwarf. An animated bush with dreadlocks. Scian. A breeze played across her legs and she realised dimly that she was entirely naked. This has to be a bad trip… She groaned and closed her eyes. ‘I swear I was sober this run…’
Scian’s voice piped up. ‘Yeah, she’s okay. You have our thanks.’ She heard a few soft murmurs and footsteps moving away from the table. Two new, heavier sets of footsteps came towards her.
‘All good?’ Dybs.
‘Yeah. She’s alive.’ Scian.
A deep, neutral grunt. Hyde.
She wet her lips and cracked her eyes open again, head still spinning. ‘Where am I?’’ Thankfully the dwarf and shaman were nowhere in sight. Worst of the trip over…?
‘In a clinic in the Barrens,’ Scian replied. He was still steadfastly looking at her face. ‘Hyde knew a doc.’
She paused for a moment before deciding that no, she didn’t particularly need to know if the doc was the dwarf or the stoner. Either option raised more questions than she wanted answers to. ‘Why?’
Scian glanced over at Dybs, who shrugged. ‘You got barbequed by an angry fire spirit. Remember?’
Rube furrowed her brow, thinking. The chopper. Hyde shooting down the chopper. The fire spirit materialising in the van. Trying to escape.
‘You were nearly dead,’ he added helpfully. ‘We got a trauma patch on you but the medkit failed, so we drove to Hyde’s doc and he got a shaman in to fix you up.’
A cold knot formed in her stomach. Not a hallucination.
‘Your gear’s toast though, everything you had on you is gone.’
She remembered her nakedness and closed her eyes, groaning. Fuck my life. Briefly she wished she had died. Thankfully, she supposed, any visible embarrassment would be camouflaged well by the red burns. Oh hell. The burns. In a panic she opened her eyes again and tried to prop herself up on her elbows, desperately hoping that whatever the shaman had done had left no scars. Before she could look a wave of nausea and dizziness washed over her and she slumped back on the table. Suddenly she didn’t particularly give a damn about being naked.
A cold hand put itself on her shoulder. If it’s Hyde, I’ll fireball him, doc or no doc. ‘Just stay there for a moment,’ Scian’s voice said. ‘You need some clothes.’ She considered fireballing him on principle but reminded herself that they had saved her life. To tell the truth she wasn’t entirely sure she could cast to begin with; her head felt like she’d just come off a week-long bender and every movement sent spikes of pain through her body. I guess I should be thankful they didn’t just throw me out of the van and head home.
A short muttered discussion ensued between Dybs and someone Scottish. By the time she felt well enough to open her eyes again the ork had torn down the sheet acting as a curtain and was busily stitching it together. Her drug-addled mind happily supplied an overlay of granny glasses, a blue perm and slippers. By the time she’d processed it enough to giggle, Scian was helping her sit up and handing her a grungy, stained pseudo-toga.
‘Your bill,’ the Scottish voice announced; she could now see it belonged to the dwarf.
Scian looked expectantly at her. Hazily she in turn looked at the small pile of rags that represented her commlink and credsticks. ‘Don’t look at me.’
Hyde shrugged, saying nothing. Dybs looked at Scian pointedly. ‘You already owe me a third of your paycheck.’
‘If you think you’re not contributing to the van’s repair bill, think again,’ Scian grumbled, but brought up the credit account linked to his fake SIN. ‘Transfer okay?’
He completed the payment as Rube finished dressing and rose unsteadily to her feet. He chivalrously took her arm and helped her stumble out to the passenger seat. Once she was settled he couldn’t help but snigger; between the toga and her total baldness, she could have passed for an Egyptian pharaoh. A bright red, charcoal-dusted pharaoh. ‘How’s it hanging, Cleopatra?’
Rube glared at him dizzily and pulled a length of the toga to sit on her head as a mock headscarf.
Dybs climbed into the driver’s seat, sighing heavily. ‘I’ve just had a chat to the Johnson. He’s agreed to meet us a little later in the day at the same place we met him last time; fortunate since we can’t exactly drive into Seattle looking like this. Ms. J, will you be fine to be dropped off near the Redmond mall? It’s the closest we can get you to the city.’
The troll nodded silently.
‘Good. We’ll get rid of our… guest… at the same time.’ He shot a glance at Scian and Hyde, who were both staring daggers at the prisoner. ‘Okay. Let’s move out.’
Thankfully – most likely due it being seven a.m. on a Sunday morning – the Redmond mall carpark was all but deserted and Dybs was able to pull in near the park area unmolested. With a polite nod, Ms. J climbed out of the van and made her way over to the public transport terminals.
Dybs watched her go before turning to the rest of the team. ‘Hyde, put down the club; we’re letting him go.’ If it was possible for a ballistic mask to show emotion Dybs would have sworn that the mask looked devastated, like he’d just kicked a puppy. Actually, given that it was Hyde’s mask, a kicked puppy was probably the wrong expression to use. ‘Don’t give me that look. We said we’d let him go if he behaved. He was very helpful and well-behaved, so we’re letting him go. He saw nothing and can’t help anyone to find us.’
‘Bullshit he saw nothing! He’s been lying there listening the whole time!’ Scian said. Father cannot know about this. I’ll die if he finds out. ‘Hyde’s right, he has to go.’
‘He’s been bound, gagged and had industrial-strength earplugs in the whole trip. He saw, heard and did nothing except help us. Besides, he could be useful in the future. And –’ he pointed to the commlink in Scian’s pocket – ‘we have something that could look awfully like an attempt to sell out to a rival corp. He won’t rat us out. We kill him, they try to find us. We don’t kill him, they have a ready-made scapegoat.’
Scian glowered at the ork.
Dybs called out to the front, ‘Rube? What say you?’
A muffled slur: ‘Let him go.’
Dybs looked at Scian triumphantly. ‘The two non-bloodthirsty parties are in agreement.’
‘If he rats us out –’
‘He won’t,’ Rube groaned. ‘Let him go so we can go.’
Scian frowned at Dybs one last time. When the ork’s expression remained steady, he sighed and folded his arms. ‘Fine. You explain it to him then.’ He clambered over into the front, making sure his face couldn’t be seen. That trog is far too soft.
Pleased at the quick resolution, Dybs quickly masked himself before releasing Dickman’s bindings. ‘Right, mate, here’s the deal. We know where you live. We have records that could be viewed as being an attempt to sell out to a rival corporation. We have a hotline to your bosses. If nobody comes looking for us, nobody will come looking for you. Capice?’ When the man nodded meekly, he added, ‘If someone does come looking for us, we’re going to let our masked friend here come pick you up solo. Is anyone going to come looking for us?’
Dickman grew several shades paler and shook his head frantically.
Dybs roughly pulled the duct tape covering the man’s mouth off and shoved him out the back doors. The man stumbled across the tarmac, made it to a tree on the edge of the park and promptly collapsed. Pleased, Dybs shut the door and swapped places with Scian. ‘Right. Do we want to get some food before we meet up with the Johnson, or—’
‘Food,’ Hyde said.
Dybs blinked. ‘Okay, so Hyde says—’
Dybs sighed. ‘Yes, Hyde; does anyone else—’
Rube groaned. ‘Fucking fine. Food.’
Scian leant forwards. ‘You’re probably best off staying in the van. You’re a little… conspicuous at the moment.’
She glowered at him. ‘Soycaff. Black. Please.’
One quick trip to a nearby Stuff-r-Shack later and Scian and Hyde clambered back into the van, arms laden with cheap foodstuffs. As Hyde began messily chowing down his mustard-laden soydogs and Dybs politely sipped on his tea, Scian passed a black soycaff through to Rube before pausing. He fished Dickman’s commlink out of his pocket. With a few quick thoughts the contents were wiped from the device. He booted it back into standard operating mode, copied in the team’s contact details and passed it to Rube. ‘You might want this.’
Rube glanced down at the commlink. ‘Thanks,’ she said, sincerely. She clipped it over her ear and winced as it grazed up against the burns. For a few seconds she attempted to arrange her hair to cover it before she remembered that hair wasn’t a thing she had at present.
Dybs started up the van again and the four started on the slow drive to the docks. It was close to ten by the time he managed to find a secluded parking spot for the vehicle. After he’d satisfied himself that nobody was in the area they made their way over to the warehouse, Scian supporting Rube on his arm again.
As they entered the dingy old office the suited man raised an eyebrow at her.
Rube wiped a line through the charcoal dust roughly where her eyebrow had been and raised it back. ‘What’re you looking at?’
Once they’d all filed in the Johnson swivelled his gaze back to the group. ‘So I was watching the news this morning and I couldn’t help but be particularly interested in a rather interesting clip they were showing. A _ver_y interesting clip indeed. What was it again? Oh, yes – HELICOPTER SHOT DOWN IN THE DOWNTOWN.’
The clip in question began to play, projected in front of the man. Some news team had obviously been up bright and early; they’d caught the chopper raking the van with bullets before being fireballed and shot out of the sky, the van taking off across the city. As it turned out several news teams had apparently been up bright and early and the Johnson took great delight in playing all of the variations that had been splashed across the morning news.
Eventually he muted the feeds. ‘Suspected runners nuke a chopper in downtown Seattle, suspiciously close to Triple Helix’s Renton facility. This morning I get a call from Mr. Dybbuk saying the job’s been completed and you’re ready to meet with me. Now, I pride myself on not jumping to conclusions but in this case I didn’t even need to call Ms. J to be pretty fucking sure that those suspected runners were the goons I hired for a stealthy run.’ He paused, looking at the holographic flaming wreckage. ‘Correct me if I’m mistaken, of course, but this does not in any way resemble the accepted definition of stealth. I believe this warrants a reduction in the agreed fee.’
Scian spoke up. ‘Sir, I don’t think that’s warranted at all. We completely destroyed the drones and the high-threat team fired first; Ms. J can confirm.’
‘She did, on both counts. She also told me that the lummox in the corner was halfway out the door with an SMG pointed straight at them.’
Hyde grunted. ‘But not shooting.’
He pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Look, I’m just saying, it wasn’t exactly stealthy and—’
Rube groaned audibly and straightened up, snarling: ‘Look, buddy, you had two choices. One was what we did. The other was waiting for Dickhead to take the drone to Evo HQ through Monday morning traffic. Do you really think that a high-speed armed chase through weekday gridlock would be so much more stealthy than what we actually did?’
Scian snickered under his breath. ‘Someone’s a little snarky…’
Rube turned to glare at him. ‘Goddammit, in the last five hours I have been barbequed by an angry fire spirit and nearly killed. I woke up naked in a room with you lot, a talking bush and a glittery dwarf standing over me. I’m wearing a fucking sheet and had to draw my fucking eyebrows on. I am in a shitload of pain. I want to go the fuck home. This –’ she pointed at the Johnson – ‘_charming_ man is drawing things out and trying to keep my bill money and godmotherfuckingdammit I am having none of it and I am fully entitled to be a bit damn snarky!’
Dybs stifled a snort with the back of his hand.
Looking slightly indignant, the man relaxed back into his chair. ‘Fine then. If the… lady… insists.’ Rube glared at him again and he turned to face Dybs instead. ‘I’ll transfer the money to your provided accounts now. I believe at the agreed rate per drone the final total is twenty thousand each?’
Dybs nodded his assent and made a short bow. ‘A pleasure working with you. Apologies for the slightly raised profile.’
The man waved his hand dismissively. He seemed resigned to trying to forget he’d ever seen them. ‘Likewise. I suppose the job was done. See yourselves out.’
On the way back to the van, Dybs glanced over at Scian, who sighed and nodded. ‘Yes, Dybs. One third exactly. Minus repairs, of course. And the split hospital bill.’
Dybs appeared to think about it for a second before shrugging. ‘Fine by me. Lesson learned, I presume?’
The elf glowered. ‘Of course.’ Tweet: Apparently it’s my fault I’m not a walking talking lie detector! #dybssucks #stupidtrogs. ‘If you don’t mind, I think it’s quite my turn to drive. You’ve caused enough damage already.’
As Scian walked the still-grumpy Rube to the passenger door, Dybs closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Oy vey. Then he exhaled, slowly opened his eyes and allowed himself to relax his shoulders briefly. The run was over. He was still alive. His bank balance was looking mighty healthy. And a solid few days in meditation at the synagogue sounded _fan_tastic.