Shadowrun@QUT - Finished

First Nations - Session 1 (GMs log)
I need you to watch a coupla guys for a while!

Scene 1 – The Hire

Tuesday 10th of March, 2071: It’s early afternoon, on a cold and wet Wednesday at the tail end of winter in Seattle. Our team, Dibs, Scian, and Hyde, have yet to meet. Each is an upcoming runner, skilled and capable, but new to the scene, without a solid reputation behind them. At the moment, all they have in common is a desire to make a name for themselves and a Fixer, Trace-E, who has taken them onboard.

The runners find a voice message waiting for them, letting them know that she has found a line of work. They’re to meet Ms Johnson at Tickler’s, a shady strip bar in Downtown Seattle at 8pm

The runners decide to head to the club and check it out. The bartender points them to the backrooms when they mention the name Johnson. Their room turns out to be a dressing room, and their Johnson a stripper, in the middle of getting dressed for the next show. Despite her appearance, she quickly gets down to business. She needs two men tracked, both lieutenants for the First Nations. A price of 5000¥ is negotiated per runner, and when this is agreed to, Ms Johnson provides images and various other details of the two targets, Alec Littletree and Xa Firebird.

First, they are to keep tabs on Alec, and then move on to Xa, before reporting back to Ms Johnson in a weeks time with details of their activities, their travels and who they’ve been meeting with.

Scene 2 – The Safehouse

After looking through the details provided by Ms Johnson, the runners track Alec down to a First Nations safe house in The Verge. Alec is using the house to distribute Tempo. The team scopes the building out, before stealing uniforms and infiltrating it dressed as First Nation members. After a few hours, they have hair samples, his commlink Access ID as well as having placed some tracking RFIDs on his person and his car.

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The Drone Run, pt 1
A tale of a (Dick)man and his drone

Rube glanced out of her window. Scian’s van was still parked by the kerb, the motionless form of the decker apparently napping in the front seat. Wonder how long it’ll take to find anything?

A day or two ago Trac-E had called them to a meeting in VR. “Something different”, she’d claimed, giving them the location their next Johnson had asked to meet at – a Stuff-R-Shack warehouse down near the bay. Upon arrival they’d been only slightly surprised to be greeted by two stocky goons. Much to Hyde’s annoyance the goons turned out to be only bodyguards for the Johnson and they’d been ushered in without so much as a punch thrown.

The Johnson was a smallish, snazzily dressed corper-type; shiny black shoes, mirrored glasses, sharp suit. The run he presented was simple: destroy some prototype drones manufactured by an Evo subsidiary called Triple Helix. Not snatch, not grab; just destroy. Hyde (unsurprisingly) had been extremely enthusiastic about the idea, to the point where he’d almost been willing to do the run for free. Scian… had been much less so. Fortunately for the group Scian had eventually been talked into accepting the run and Hyde had been convinced to take the pay.

The Johnson hadn’t been able to tell them too much. There were somewhere between five and ten of the drones currently built. Initially he’d portrayed them as modified MCT Fly-Spys but after a few pointed questions had admitted that they were Renraku arcology-based wasp drones – in other words, designed off insect spirits. After some negotiating they’d accepted five thousand nuyen as a base rate (three of that up front) as well as twenty-five hundred per drone. Now it was simply a matter of finding out how many drones there were, finding where they were kept and nuking them.

Rube’s fingers itched; the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. She’d spent the last few days studying combat spells with one of the older Wiz Kids and had perfected her fireball spell. As long as I can get at the drones before Ugly does…

Scian’s still-annoyed voice snapped her attention back to the present.
‘So, good news and bad news. The good news: there’s only eight drones. The facility’s in downtown Renton and it looks fairly small and simplistic; security shouldn’t be too difficult to deal with.’

Dybs’ voice broke over the commlink. ‘The bad news?’

‘The bad news is only seven are at the Renton facility. Number Eight was checked out by an executive for a presentation at Evo HQ on Monday. It’s being kept off-premises, location unknown.’

Rube frowned slightly. ‘So we have to get rid of these things before Monday.’

‘You guys have to. I’m not going anywhere near that lab.’

‘We have to get rid of the drones by Monday and you will be getting us through security,’ Dybs growled. ‘Wear a balaclava or hack the cameras or something. You’re coming.’

Before Scian could argue further, Rube butted in. ‘So we’ll take out the labs first, yeah?’

A brief pause. ‘No. The moment Triple Helix find out about the wrecked drones they’re going to give every last scrap of security they have to the executive. We wouldn’t be able to get near him.’

‘But if we grab the guy first and they hear about it they’ll ramp up security on the labs and we won’t be able to get near them. Getting to one guy in his house is much easier than breaking into a fully alert lab compound.’

‘Yeah, but—’

The ork sighed. ‘Compromise. We hit them one after the other. Grab the executive stealthily, get him to give up his drone and then hit the labs as soon as possible after the fact. Given it’s the weekend we should be able to make that before they hear about the disappearance. They shouldn’t have time to revoke his credentials either. Do you have his information?’

Scian grumbled, ‘Give me a second.’ After a minute of silence he suddenly burst into peals of laughter.

‘What is it?’

A stream of data popped up on her view. After a few seconds she snorted loudly and promptly dissolved into a giggling fit as well.

Dybs’ disgust was evident. ‘How old are you two?’

‘Come on, man; he’s a corporate executive named Sly Dickman. You –’ the elf dissolved into laughter again before collecting himself – ‘You can’t say that isn’t the perfect name for an excecutive.’

‘Hilarious, I’m sure. If you’re quite done sniggering like five-year-olds, where does he live?’

Rube wiped her eyes and looked back at the data. ‘Corporate suburb not too far out of Renton.’

‘So we’re not just going to be able to go in and beat Dickman—’

Both elves dissolved into laughter again, joined by a deep snort from Hyde.

A deep sigh echoed over the commlink. ‘As I was saying, we’re not just going to be able to interrogate him in his house. We’ll have to extract him and make him talk elsewhere.’

‘Get him to spit it out, if you will,’ Scian sniggered.

Deliberately ignoring the elf, Dybs continued, ‘I’m thinking we go tonight. We’ll scope the place out, head in, grab him – Rube can mind-control him for added security – and use him to get his drone. Once that’s done Rube can wipe his memory of us and we’ll dump him back with nobody the wiser. Easy.’ Before Scian could say anything more, he added, ‘As the decker, you’ll be coming to get us in his house in the first place. We’ll need the van for transport anyway.’

‘Fine. Time?’

‘Meet at the van at eight.’

‘Okay. I’ll be parked out the front of Rube’s place.’ The line shut off with a click before Rube could protest.

No, not like I have housemates who might object to a strange van parked outside or anything. She’d be surprised if Scian made it until eight without one of them trying to buy drugs off him. She glared out the window and was surprised to see he’d vanished from the driver’s seat. Immediately she dropped into Astral and strode out to the van to satisfy herself he was still there. To her relief she found his aura lying prone in the back of the van, propped up beside a solid cube of cold she assumed was the Doberman.

I don’t know how he could deal with having that much coldness around him. So much tech. At least his aura’s clear of it. She turned to head back but something in the back of her mind made her pause. Frowning slightly, she took another long look at his aura. It was definitely clear. Odd. Weren’t deckers meant to have decks, or datajacks at the very least? I’ll have to ask him tonight.

As she slid back into reality a thought occurred to her. After a few minutes of searching online she’d found what she was after and her frown deepened. Maybe Dybs’ paranoia wasn’t too far off the mark at all.

She relaxed back with a small, self-satisfied smile._ I know why you’re scared of Evo, Scian._ She’d have a little chat with him tonight. If he was cooperative then the team would have much more than a measly decker on hand – and perhaps he’d be less inclined to make jabs at Dybs so frequently. If he wasn’t and couldn’t be swayed… she tried not to think about it. Six or seven figures was a lot of money, true, but she couldn’t help recalling her father’s words when she’d told him about the drug-free ‘trips’ she’d been having: ‘People are willing to pay thousands for anything that gives them an edge over the next guy. You’re that edge. Just remember that you’re only useful while you can be controlled. The moment they feel they can’t control you… well, reverse-engineering humans isn’t particularly easy, but that won’t stop them from trying.’

She looked at the cramped, dirty room she was in and tried to ignore the queasy feeling in her stomach.
*
Dybs had arrived promptly at five to eight, Hyde trailing in ten minutes past. Not particularly keen on her housemates asking any more questions about the van, Rube had demanded they head off immediately despite it being too early to make any move on the house. Traffic was surprisingly light for a Friday evening and after doing a brief drive past the property, Scian settled for parking in the next suburb over.

In the back Hyde rested quietly against the van wall, his massive bulk packed in beside the Doberman. After stating that they’d move out at ten Dybs fell into a meditative silence on the other side of the van. Beside her in front Scian stared aimlessly out of the windscreen. She checked the time; eight-thirty, still a couple hours or so before they had to get serious. Plenty of time for a chat.

She pulled up a private channel with Scian. ‘I have a little question for you.’

He kept his eyes straight ahead, like the van was still moving. ‘Yes?’

‘Where’s your deck?’

‘Implanted. Head.’

‘Funny. I can’t see it from astral. Actually, I can’t see anything in you from astral. You’ve got no ware at all.’ A small cat darted across the road; she instinctively looked for its aura to confirm, not breaking line of sight until she was satisfied that it was only a tabby. ‘Bit odd for a decker.’

‘You’re looking wrong. You’re stoned most of the time. You’ve probably overlooked it.’

She continued as if she hadn’t heard him. ‘Actually, very odd for a decker. Not so odd for a –’

‘For a what?’ His tone was even, measured. Too measured. ‘Not so odd for a what? For a mage? I can assure you I’m no—’

‘Technomancer.’ The silence was delicious. She counted eight full seconds of silence, then—

‘If you sell me out I swear I’ll take all of you down with me.’

Surprised, she looked over at him. His knuckles were white around the wheel and his eyes were locked firmly on the horizon; his voice was even, his aura terrified and furious in equal measure. ‘Sell you out?’

‘That’s what people do, isn’t it?’ A snarl was beginning to enter his voice. ‘Corps pay good money for people like me. They probe into our brains, take us apart at the seams trying to see what makes us tick, force us to perform mindless tasks endlessly while they analyse us…’

‘I hadn’t thought for a minute of selling you out,’ she said, and it was almost the truth.

He looked at her with reproach. ‘Sure, because money is clearly not important to you.’

‘I’m not going to sell you out. I don’t betray teammates.’ Unless there’s a damn good reason. ‘Besides, if I sell you out, I’m just as liable to end up a lab rat or corp prisoner myself. Or had you forgotten people like me are still a viable commodity for some?’

The first hint of a frown traced across Scian’s brow. ‘Then what’s it to you whether I’m a decker or – that?’

She shrugged nonchalantly. ‘I don’t like being lied to. Your charade was going to fall apart sooner or later, especially with Dybs watching your every move. If at least one of us knows the truth it’ll be a lot easier to smooth over should word get out to the team. Besides – if we know the truth you don’t then have to worry about limiting yourself in the name of keeping up appearances.’

‘And if word gets out beyond the team?’

‘If there’s no rumours, there’s no need for anyone to talk about it. You understand?’

He scowled. ‘Yeah, easy for you to say.’

‘At least you can masquerade as something legitimate,’ she growled, irritated. ‘Try passing off obvious magic as a lucky accident, or spirits as block-wide drug trips. Magic licences require registration with UCAS – having a SIN’s bad enough, never mind being tagged as Awakened. I’m in just the same bind as you are.’ A deep breath, then she continued: ‘Look. Here’s what I’m getting at. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Give me a hand and I’ll back you up if needed. You and I… we’re not so different.’

‘I beg to differ,’ he snorted. Then he paused. ‘Well, besides the whole elf thing. And the classical music.’

No shit, Sherlock. New tack. ‘What do you know about the Chaos tradition?’ When he looked at her blankly, she sighed. ‘Traditions are flavours of magic—styles, beliefs, if you will. Magi can follow any of a number of traditions.’

‘Can you give me an example?’

‘Blood’s probably one of the best known ones, if one of the least followed. Or Black—surely you’ve seen those gothic tryhards lounging about being miserable.’

His grip on the wheel relaxed slightly. ‘Yeah, okay. So it’s what kind of magician you are, got it. What’s that got to do with me?’

‘Chaos magicians…’ she found herself at a loss for words. She knew what she experienced, she knew what she saw. She hadn’t tried explaining it to someone since she first Awakened. ‘We do magic through manipulating the code behind the universe. When I cast a spell, it’s like when you script.’_ I think._ The most complex script she’d ever written involved two love triangles and a dead body. ‘You hack the matrix. I hack reality.’

At this, Scian’s eyes had lit up. ‘You’re saying the universe is code-based?’

‘For me.’ Another pause. ‘What’s it like for you?’

He slumped down a little and looked out at the street. ‘It’s just like being in VR 24/7. I can see WANs and PANs and icons everywhere, all the time. I can see the flow of data through the air, manipulate it as it passes. I don’t need a datajack to access anything; I can do it all remotely. Everything is connected. Only virtually, though. Can’t touch reality.’ Scian straightened up again and looked back to her. ‘So tell me. If we have no real overlap in skills, how exactly are we meant to scratch each other’s backs?’

‘We scratch each other’s backs because we have no real overlap in skills. Rather than doing our own little things, let’s…network more. I help you when hacking just won’t cut it; you help me when magic isn’t a viable solution.’ She quickly added: ‘For the good of the team.’

Scian contemplated her words. ‘I think I see what you mean.’

‘We have a lot to offer each other.’

‘I can’t see that I have that much to offer you.’ A small grin played across Scian’s face. ‘Though I think there’s plenty you have to offer me…’

Rube furrowed her brow. Plenty? Scian didn’t do drugs, at least not that she was aware of. Her spells were useless for hacking. Unless he meant… Rude bastard! ‘Excuse me?’

Now it was Scian’s turn to look confused. ‘What? What do you think I meant?’

Mentally preparing to fireball him, she raised an eyebrow and pulled a track from the matrix. Bom-chika-wow-wow, chika-wow-wow began to drift over the channel on a loop. Now it was Scian’s turn to raise an eyebrow. ‘What the hell kind of spells do you have?’

Oh. Spells. She briefly wondered if altering his memory was an acceptable option. ‘Plenty. What’s your interest?’

‘Not whatever the hell you thought,’ he snorted. He twisted around in the seat to face her straight on. ‘Mind control.’

Rube smirked, embarrassment quickly fading. ‘I was hoping you’d say as much.’

‘I saw you send that Yakuza to his death, and I saw you looking through Xa’s mind to confirm our information. You’re coming in tonight to mentally control Dickman for added security. I can control machines. I can control cameras. I can control vehicles, drones, guns, implants – but I can’t control minds.’ Yet. ‘That’s where you come in.’

‘Where I come in to what?’

‘I may have a job for you in the future, if you’d consider working with me. Less than legal, of course—’

She held up a hand. ‘You’re offering money?’

‘Plenty.’

‘Power?’

‘Of course.’

‘And the chance to use all of my favourite spells on a regular basis without interference?’

‘The job would rely on it.’ His smile grew. ‘I’m assuming you’re up for it?’

A grin split Rube’s face. Oho, am I up for it. ‘You’re offering me precisely the three things I started running for in the one place and on a grand scale. Of course.’

‘Excellent. It won’t be for a while—I’m hoping to bring all of you on board, though Trog Boy may prove difficult to sway.’ He twisted around to glance into the back of the van. Rube glanced back as well. It took her a moment to spot the darkly-clad ork settled against the wall; when she realized he was looking at the pair of them, she swung back around, a strange feeling of worry growing in the pit of her stomach.

‘What?’ Dyb’s voice floated from the back.

‘Nothing you need to worry about, trog,’ Scian replied evenly.

Dybs glared at him. ‘You’re awfully mouthy for a measly decker.’

Rube smiled; she’d been spot-on in guessing the ex-military operator had picked up on Scian’s paranoia and lack of visible deck. She waited with interest to see how Scian would react.

Scian held Dybs’ gaze and nodded slightly. ‘I suppose I am. Perhaps you’re owed a small apology.’

‘I doubt I’ll get it,’ the ork grunted, but returned to his commlink.

‘You weren’t wrong there,’ she said. ‘You were planning on swaying Hyde… how, exactly?’

‘Chance to disappear people on a regular basis and get paid for it. What we’re doing at the moment, really, just a bit more regular and with far more leeway. I’m sure the brute won’t have to think too hard.’

Rube glanced around again, this time at the brute in question. As always his expression was hidden under the mask but from the cracking of his knuckles she guessed he wasn’t happy. Well, he’s stuck in a van several sizes too small for him and he’s forbidden from damaging anything when we get there. ‘I’m not sure he could, to tell you the truth.’

Scian chuckled. ‘Probably. Well. Do we have a deal?’

‘It’s a deal.’ She smiled and stretched a little._ That went better than expected._ ‘There’s still an hour or so until we can move out. Any games you could recommend to kill the time?’
*
She didn’t know when she fell asleep – possibly somewhere around the fifty-eighth level of Angry Birds 6: Godzilla Space Odyssey 11: Farm Tower Saga 3 – but woke to a light tap on the shoulder from Dybs. ‘We’re moving into the area now. Astral?’

Rube yawned, nodded and stepped out into the astral plane. There wasn’t much to see in this area. All the fancy houses looked like the same dark prism, their occupants’ auras well masked; only the very occasional animal running about; not even a single idiot walking the street.

Something flashed a bit further up the street. It was heading towards her. Correction: at least one idiot walking the street. Cautiously she moved off the main road and off into a yard, unwilling to risk being spotted in the event the mysterious interloper was Awakened. As it turned out it was a good choice; the flashing light was a watcher spirit on patrol. She scouted the area carefully for more but found no trace. Estimating the patrol spirit’s route to take about fifteen minutes, she hurried back to her body.

‘A single watcher patrolling on a fifteen-minute circuit,’ she said. ‘It’ll pass his house shortly. We can hit him then.’

Dybs nodded and pulled on a mask. ‘Everyone catch that? Good. Scian, you’re staying in the van and taking out his security systems. Don’t take them offline. That will probably trigger an alarm of some kind. Just keep them off us. Hyde, Rube and myself will enter the premises where I will incapacitate Dickman. Rube will then place him under mind control for added security. Hyde will be there in case of an unexpected fight and will not cause any damage to the property or the target at all. Understood?’

Rube and Scian nodded. Hyde paused, shrugged his shoulders resignedly and grunted assent. Rube assumed it was assent, anyway. She carefully wrapped a bandanna around the lower half of her face and switched one of her contacts off in preparation for casting. ‘Give me a few seconds and I’ll be back when the watcher’s out of range.’

Leaving her limp body in the passenger seat, she quickly skimmed over to their target’s house. The watcher spirit was a few hundred metres up the road. Within thirty seconds it had passed Dickman’s house; in another ten it was around the corner and out of sight. She returned and straightened up, blinking. ‘We’re clear. Time to move.’

Scian brought the van up through the other end of the street, parking outside the small mansion and killing the ignition. ‘Give me a minute to get the external cameras.’

‘Internal would be good as well,’ Dybs said.

Scian shot him a glare. ‘Well, no shit, but let’s start with the ones that might be able to see the van first, hmm?’ Muttering darkly to himself, he slipped fully into hot sim and began looking at the house’s network. Blech. Definintely a corper. It wasn’t the most secure of networks but it certainly wasn’t too far off it.

He poked at the mainframe experimentally before shaking his head and deciding to try going in through one of the cameras instead. Cameras rarely had the same type of security the mainframe did and provided one of his most frequently used entries into secure systems. Dickman’s system was no exception. With a few quick scripts the camera was his, followed by the security systems. He eyed the locked-down personal data storage areas wistfully and thought about formatting the server on the way out – Not tonight. If their plan was to work there could be nothing indicating that the team had been there at all. He satisfied himself with rearranging the cameras to give the team a clear run to the bedroom where their target was sleeping. ‘You’re good. Be quick.’

Dybs activated his chameleon suit and silently slipped out of the back door, followed not-so-silently by Rube and Hyde. He reached tentatively for the door handle – locked. ‘Mind letting us in?’ A sharp click sounded a few seconds later. ‘Thanks.’

The three stepped into an opulently decorated hallway. Well, perhaps not that opulent; certainly the decorations were pricey, shiny and no doubt valuable but they were sparsely spread out. Instead of photo frames, two or three mirrors sat on the wall instead. Hyde’s mask fixated on a large Asian-style vase and he sighed wistfully.

‘Where to?’ Dybs asked.

‘Follow the hallway. Second arch on the right, through the living room. His bedroom’s on the far side,’ Scian’s voice said. ‘Don’t stray from the straight line between the couch and TV; the cameras are faced to the sides of the room.’

‘Affirmative.’ He moved silently down the centre of the hallway, turning sharply at the second arch. The living room was decorated in a similar fashion to the hallway; a hard-looking couch sat on the back wall, opposite a full-wall black screen. ‘Where’s this line, Scian?’

A bright green track appeared on his AR overlay about a metre in front of the couch. ‘Couch is visible on the camera. No closer than that. Careful when you go in the next room – he’s asleep. Cameras are on the ceiling there, so you have room.’

The ork began treading lightly along the path, thankful that the man slept with his bedroom door open. As with the living room, the bedroom was sparsely furnished. Most of the floorspace was taken up by the king-sized mattress in the centre of the room. Their target sprawled unconscious in the centre of the bed, snoring softly.

Dybs looked back to Rube. ‘I’ll nervestrike him and bind him, then you’re up.’ She nodded. ‘Hyde… just don’t damage anything.’

Hyde nodded, fingering the spray-can of paint on his belt.

Dybs turned back to the sleeping man. He raised his right hand. With a sharp spark he struck the man’s neck. Dickman’s eyes shot open and for a terrifying moment Dybs thought he’d missed the mark but the man did nothing beyond blink furiously. He let out his breath in a stream. Done. Quickly the ork pulled out rope and tape and bound the paralysed man for security, making sure to plug his ears and cover his eyes and mouth. Satisfied with his work he waved Rube over. She didn’t bother to touch the man; a few seconds later she nodded as well. ‘It’s done.’

Dybs turned to Hyde, intending to ask him to carry the paralysed form out to the van.

A metre-high grinning skull in a top hat (complete with a bow tie made from the letters ‘H’, ‘Y’, ‘D’ and ‘E’) stared back at him from the rear wall.

Hyde slipped the spray-can back onto his belt and looked at Dybs. ‘It’s only paint. It’s not damaged!’

Dybs groaned audibly. “Go shadowrunning”, he said. “They’ll be professionals too”, he said. Motherfucking liar.

‘Got him?’

‘Affirmative,’ the ork growled, glaring at Hyde’s tag in the hopes it would melt off under his gaze. ‘We just need to clean up –’

‘Good, because you’ve only got another two or three minutes before that spirit’s back. We need to move it.’

Dybs sighed. Perhaps Rube could add in a false memory when she wiped the other ones. Surely a corper’s bedroom wall was the ideal place for some popular noveau street art. ‘Hyde, grab him. We’re leaving.’

They made their way outside without incident, Hyde depositing Dickman roughly in the back of the van. With one last furtive glance at the mainframe, Scian jacked out, resetting his connection to be sure he wouldn’t draw any attention. The engine sputtered into the life and they began driving towards a less populated area of the town.

Dybs adjusted his mask before sitting Dickman to lean against the wall, removing his commlink as he did so and passing it up to Scian. ‘Have a poke around that when we stop. See what you can dig up. We’ll need to wait for the paralysis to wear off before we can do much.’

Scian eventually parked the van in a quite area of Redmond and began fossicking with the commlink. ‘Doesn’t look like much. Business emails, personal emails – an email to Ares about a year old, looks very suggestive of an offer to sell out – bills – nope. Nothing here but generic blackmail fodder.’

‘Okay. Rube, that means you’re up. Get him talking?’

She frowned and shook her head. ‘Doesn’t work like that. I can’t make him talk about stuff I don’t know about. Get him thinking about the drone first and I can probe his mind for information. If you can get him talking outright, so much the better.’

A low chuckle rose from Hyde.

Dybs sighed. ‘Right then. Masks up or look away.’ He turned back to Dickman and with one fluid motion ripped the tape covering the man’s eyes off before carefully removing the earplugs. ‘So, Sly, we need to have a little chat. You’ve got something we want. It’s small, looks like a bug and you’ve got a presentation for it Monday. Know what I’m talking about?’

The man’s eyes widened a little and a sheen of sweat began to form on his brow.

‘Now, we’re reasonable people. We don’t want to cause unnecessary trouble.’ He pointed over to the corner where Hyde sat, idly swinging his mace the way a teenager would swing a baseball bat. ‘That being said, my colleague there is much less reasonable.’

Hyde swung the mace into his palm with a loud smack.

‘So here’s how things are going to work. You are going to cooperate with us. In exchange, we will not hurt you. In fact, we’ll even return you to your house as soon as the job’s done with the memory of this whole debacle removed. However, that hinges entirely on your good behaviour.’ He paused to let his words sink in. ‘We’re after that drone of yours. The one you’re planning to show off to the big fish on Monday.’

Dickman’s eyes widened further and he shook his head weakly, murmurs coming from behind the tape across his mouth.

‘You’re worried about Triple Helix interrogating you? Oh, don’t be. I’m sure you realised that our mage had you under mind control earlier; you won’t be responsible for any of your actions during this. Just cooperate with us and everything will be just fine.’

He seemed to consider this, then bowed his head. Dybs nodded to Rube. ‘All yours.’

Rube began to probe inside the man’s now-open mind, wincing as a sharp pain spread across her forehead. She suddenly felt tired. Shaking her head to push the feeling away she forged deeper into the swirling thoughts, looking for – ‘Found it.’ A small, waspish drone. With a poke it exploded out into a three-dimensional diagram. Only mildly interested, she glanced at the contents. A few seconds later she was very interested. ‘So. Do you want the interesting news, the really interesting news or the bad news?’

‘Interesting news,’ Dybs said.

‘It’s not even remotely close to a Fly-Spy. It’s nanite-based. If his memories are to be trusted, it’s capable of exerting short-term emotional control over nearby targets, with the particular feelings and emotions entirely controllable by the owner. Wireless reprogramming’s still in development though.’

Scian pricked his ears up at ‘emotional control’. ‘Very convenient for the Johnson that the diagrams didn’t show that. What’s it worth, does he know?’

‘That’s the really interesting news. This meeting on Monday isn’t just a sales presentation – there’s too many big movers and shakers lined up for it. Evo CEO’s there, looks like half the controlling board is too. If the range he’s been given is accurate we could split the profit from a sale four ways and still be making almost as much each as the Johnson’s paying us for this whole run.’

Dybs gave a low whistle. ‘Well. Looks like we’ll need to have a bit of a chat with him; I think we’re owed a bit more than we first thought. Where’s he keeping it?’

She winced. ‘That’s the bad news. It’s in a bank safe-deposit box.’

Dybs frowned. This complicated things. ‘One of the big ones?’

‘Surprisingly not. It’s just a local. Seattle Prime, down on Eighth and Main.’ A pause. ‘It’s biometrically locked and filled with cameras, if his memories are to be trusted. Can’t see anything astral because he’s not a mage but they’ll likely have wards over the withdrawal areas. Probably no wards anywhere else in the building; they’re not a big enough place to warrant it. I don’t think they’ll have much in the way of spirits or on-site mages either, especially at this time of night.’

‘Can you confirm any of that?’

‘Not until we’re there.’

‘Then how do you know?’

‘I do study magical security,’ she said, affronted. ‘Banks that size can’t afford the full load-out of the big names. They’ll cover the critical areas with magic but rely on pure mundane security for the rest.’

Dybs turned back to the motionless man. ‘Right. When we get there, you’re going to head in. Two of us will accompany you as bodyguards. You will be under mind control for the duration and your commlink will be monitored at all times. Any attempt to call for help or escape and the rest of your very short life will be spent as a piñata for –’ he gestured again to Hyde – ‘this fine gentleman. Are we clear?’

He nodded mutely.

Dybs replaced the tape as Rube craned her neck over the seats. ‘Not to be too much of a stick-in-the-mud but I can’t help noticing he’s in his pyjamas. I know it’s nearly midnight and all but I think the bank might be a little bit suspicious if he makes a withdrawal dressed like that.’

The ork paused. Heading back to the man’s house for a suit would be time-consuming and risky; attempting to buy a suit at this time of night would be foolhardy.

‘I have a spare suit in the van,’ Scian offered. ‘It’ll need some alteration though.’

‘Give it here then,’ Dybs grunted. Thankfully Dickman was only slightly pudgier than Scian and he set to work altering the suit with gusto as Scian – well, the autopilot drive program, anyway – drove them towards the downtown area.

Scian watched him stitching up the folded material in the interior feed, frowning at the soon-to-be useless suit. ‘You’re a surprisingly good seamstress.’

Dybs grunted noncommittally.

Scian rolled his eyes and returned to watching the road ahead. Tweet: Apparently the British Army is a great place to learn to sew #orksandcrafts #dybsdoesntsuckforonce

In short order, a tape-free Dickman was wriggling into the suit under the watchful eye of Hyde. As he buttoned up the shirt she spoke into her sub-vocal mic, ‘You know he’s going to be out of my control once he goes past the ward, right?’

‘He may not necessarily know that,’ Dybs replied. ‘Just get it up again the moment he’s back in range. We won’t let him stay long.’

‘Who’s “we”?’

Dybs looked at his three teammates and tried to picture any of them as professional bodyguards. It was a depressing activity. ‘Scian and I.’

‘Why do I have to come in?’ the elf complained, pulling into a side-street around the corner from the bank. ‘I can’t do anything in there.’

‘Because you’re dressed for it and guys like him don’t make withdrawals with only one bodyguard,’ Dybs growled. He quickly shifted his chameleon suit to resemble something a bit more legal-looking, matching Scian’s dark slacks and clean shirt. A wave of déjà vu washed over him; it had been a good number of years since he’d done bodyguard work. Well, fake bodyguard work. ‘Besides, you need to be near him to keep a close eye on his commlink traffic, don’t you?’

‘Give me a moment to check out the astral,’ Rube said. Her body went limp quickly and she trotted over to the imposing building, keeping a sharp eye out for spirits. As she’d expected there were none present; the only ward she could spot covered the entrance to the deposit box area. She returned. ‘As I thought, no spirits and only one ward over the safe-deposit boxes. Keep an eye on him.’ She refreshed the control link and settled into the seat. ‘I’ll stay here. Don’t want to be more visible astrally than I need to be.’

‘You stay here to make sure Hyde doesn’t decide to practice his painting skills,’ Scian grumbled, ignoring Dybs. He unbuckled his seat belt and slid out the front door. A wave of butterflies went through his stomach; he’d have to be extremely cautious of cameras in the lobby. ‘Shall we?’

Dickman stepped out of the van, brushing down the suit automatically. He quickly trotted forward to take his place at the front of the pack; Scian and Dybs fell in behind him. They walked around the corner and out of sight.

Rube frowned. She hadn’t thought of that corner; she wouldn’t be able to re-establish her control until the man came back into sight. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Dybs and Scian are with him; he won’t try anything. She brought up Dybs’ optical feed, watching as the small group entered the building.

‘No undue activity on the commlink,’ Scian said. ‘He’s behaving.’

‘Of course he is. His head’s still mine,’ she replied.

The group were greeted by a suited man who listened politely as Dickman requested to withdraw his ‘deposit’ and passed across his account information. The man nodded and motioned for the group to follow him to the back of the building. When they reached the door to the safe-deposit room, he turned to look at Dybs and Scian. ‘I’m afraid only the account holder may enter the room.’

‘It’s wireless protected. I can’t monitor him while he’s in the room,’ Scian said.

‘Then he’ll just have to be quick about it,’ Dybs said. ‘Check it once he gets back out.’

Rube’s stomach turned. With a sternly-worded instruction to not try anything stupid, she dropped her control and watched as Dickman entered the small room, leaving Dybs and Scian behind with the teller. Fifteen agonizing seconds passed, then twenty, then –

He walked back out, a small box in hand. ‘Thank-you.’ Even through the second-hand feed Rube could hear the dismissive tone in the voice. Good; he looked for all the world like a normal arrogant corper.

‘Any sign of trouble?’ Dybs asked.

Scian tilted his head side to side. ‘None. No undue traffic at all. We’re clear. Got him again, Rube?’

‘I need natural line of sight. Get him back around the corner as soon as you can.’

A half-minute later the group rounded the corner and she reached out for his mind again. As her control settled into place another spike of pain went through her head, this time strong enough to make her grit her teeth and audibly groan. Another wave of exhaustion washed over her.

‘You okay?’ Scian asked, climbing back into the driver’s seat.

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Just in need of a good rest.’

Dybs climbed into the back, re-binding the unprotesting prisoner before stashing the box near the front of the van. ‘We’ll take a break before we hit the labs; we need to take a good look at this drone. If you can find an empty warehouse or something similar towards the Barrens we’ll rest there for a few hours and prepare.’

‘M’brothers can keep watch,’ Hyde grumbled.

Dybs considered the idea of a team of tiny Hydes running about and shuddered involuntarily. ‘Sounds like a good idea. Know of anything suitable in your gang’s territory?’

Hyde nodded and passed an address to Scian, who satisfied himself that Hyde hadn’t tagged anything before starting the van. Hyde’s directions led them to an abandoned building at the edge of the barrens; an old concrete warehouse covered in graffiti and rubbish. The roller door at the front was open. Scian pulled in, parked to one side of the main area and was careful to set his Doberman to guard it before locking it.

Rube yawned, releasing her control on Dickman with a stretch. ‘I’m going to nap in one of the side rooms. Wake me if you need me earlier.’

Scian nodded, an odd look crossing his face. Concern? Bad smell? She couldn’t quite tell. ‘Rest up.’

She found a small office that was still in relatively good nick and dragged a couple of cardboard boxes to form a rudimentary bed. She lay down begrudgingly. I’m not going to get any rest on this shit.

Within a few minutes she was sound asleep, blissfully unaware of the rats skittering through the walls.
*
Something clattered in the distance and Rube cracked her eyes open. It was still dark. Yawning, she checked her commlink; surprisingly she’d been asleep for almost six hours. Should I be pleased or concerned that nobody came to wake me? With a shrug and a stretch she made her way back to the main room. Dybs sat against the left wall, apparently meditating; three gangers milled around silently near Hyde at the back of the room. Scian was seated on the right, staring off into space. What appeared to be a crudely constructed Faraday cage containing a motionless wasplike something sat near him.

The elf blinked, turning his head to look at Rube. ‘Oh, good. You’re awake.’

Hyde shifted imperceptibly and an unexpected chill went down Rube’s spine. She took a few more steps into the room, struck by the tense atmosphere. Scian motioned her towards him. She’d taken four or five steps in his direction when he turned to look at Hyde and made a slight nod.

Suddenly and without warning the man raised his gun, followed instantly by the three hangers-on. Rube took an involuntary step back and half-raised her arms, stomach turning over and heart racing, before realising that the weapons weren’t pointed at her.

They were pointed at Dybs.

Unperturbed, Scian rose to his feet and turned to glare at the shocked ork. ‘We need to talk.’

View
The Drone Run, pt 2
Getting into the spirit of things

Rube twisted to face the now fully alert ork. ‘What’s going on?’

Scian waved a hand flippantly, not taking his glare off Dybs. ‘A few hours ago I took a call from our employer. It seems he received a call from a concerned third party who had it on good authority that a certain trog was planning to betray us.’

Dybs made to rise to his feet but Hyde took a step forward, gun trained on his forehead and he sunk back down. ‘Look, clearly they were –’

‘Mistaken? I think not. They had a name. It was yours.’

One of the gangers pulled back the slide of his gun to cock it. The heavy noise made Rube’s stomach turn again. Her head was racing; between the confusion and adrenaline she felt almost nauseous. Betray us?

Dybs let out his breath in a hiss. ‘Fucking Tanaka.’

‘Your accomplice?’

‘If you’re willing to call someone who’s been trying to kill me for the last few years an accomplice, certainly.’ He rubbed a hand across his forehead. ‘Look, clearly I’m being set up here.’

‘Funny, that’s exactly what the source said you’d say.’

‘Well I’m not about to just turn around and admit to something that I haven’t been doing, am I?’ the ork spat, returning Scian’s glare.

‘Given what’s at stake this run I’m sure you can understand why I’m not willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.’ He looked over at Rube. ‘Can you confirm if he’s lying?’

Before she could even nod her head Dybs snarled: ‘I’m not lying and she’s not coming anywhere near my head.’

‘That choice isn’t yours to make.’

‘I’ll die before I let her read my mind. Can’t she analyse what I say instead? I’ve seen that done before.’

Scian considered it for a moment. ‘If it’s accurate, it’s acceptable. Rube can you –’

‘Stop.’ She raised a hand, palm to the centre of the room. ‘Just stop. Back up.’ She rubbed her eyes with her other hand and then looked to Scian. ‘You want me to do what?’

‘Analyse his words to tell if he’s lying or not.’

‘Without going into his mind.’

‘Yes.’

She wet her lips. ‘I can’t do that.’

‘What do you mean, you can’t do it? You can read his mind but you can’t tell if he’s lying or not?’

‘I can tell you if he’s lying or not, sure. I need to be in his mind to do it.’ She looked at Dybs.

He crossed his arms. ‘I’m not letting you in my head.’

Scian frowned. ‘She said she can’t do it without getting in there. So either you let her in or we’re going to have to assume you’re lying.’

Dybs looked at Rube plaintively. ‘Surely you know somebody who could verify without being intrusive?’

Rube thought for a moment. True, she did know another mage but this wasn’t his style. Jit was combative and sneaky; playing detective wasn’t his thing. ‘Not personally. I can see if he knows someone, though.’

‘Please, do.’ He looked back to Scian. ‘If that’s acceptable, of course.’

Scian shrugged. ‘It’s acceptable. Hyde, don’t take your gun off him for a second.’

Rube quickly pulled up Jit’s number, crossing her fingers that he’d still be going strong from the night before. It rang once, twice – ‘_Hey, this is Jit! If you’re a homie leave your name; if you’re a honey leave a number; if you’re neither of the above, you can fuck right off!_’ A raised middle finger danced across the screen as a beep sounded. She groaned but left a message. ‘Jit, man, this is Rube. Gimme a callback ASAP, got a bit of a situation. Peace.’

She killed the line and took a deep breath. ‘He’ll call back soon.’ I hope.

Fifteen silent and uncomfortable minutes later, a buzz sounded through Rube’s commlink and three heads turned to focus on her intently. She checked the caller ID and answered, sighing in relief. ‘Hey man, what’s up?’

‘Not much, homie, jus’ chillaxing out at the old house. You said you gotta situation?’

‘Yeah dude. Listen, you know anyone who’d be up for acting as a lie detector?’

‘Lie detector? Can’t just break his brain like you normally do?’

She winced. ‘Wouldn’t be bugging you if I could. It’s a… delicate situation.’

Jit paused. She could hear the crackle of a burning cigarette on the line. ‘I think I know a guy. Where you at?’

‘Edge of the Barrens, in a warehouse.’ She looked towards Hyde, trying to remember if she’d caught the name of his gang. She hadn’t. ‘It’s in whatsajigger territory. Y’know the skull and top hat dudes?’

‘Oh, yeah, I know the place. The Brotherhood might not like ‘im wandering about though.’

‘Tell ‘em to say he’s helping out a dude called Hyde, that’s H-Y-D-E. Should be all the clearance he needs.’

‘Awright. Need him now?’

‘Yeah, fast as possible. Thanks man; I’ll sling you something on the side next shipment.’

‘Radical. Shouldn’t be too long. Catch ya round, Rubes.’

She looked over to Scian, who had one eyebrow raised and a smirk forming on his face. ‘Someone’s coming. Won’t be long.’

He shrugged. ‘If you say so, dude.

After another thirty minutes of awkward silence a knock sounded on the warehouse door. Hyde jerked his head towards the noise; one of his underlings lowered his weapon and stalked over to open it. A short, skinny elf swaggered in, dressed in grubby gangwear and several kilos of bling. He surveyed the scene in front of him with mild apprehension before shrugging and looking to Rube. ‘You Rube?’

Rube groaned inwardly. Fucking teenagers. ‘Yeah.’

‘Jit says you got a job for me?’

‘If you’re right to play lie detector, you bet I do.’ She nodded towards Dybs. ‘He’s gonna tell us a little story and you’re gonna tell us if he’s being honest about it or not. Got it?’

‘Course I do,’ he said confidently.

Suppressing the urge to mind control the smirk off his face, Rube looked over at Scian. ‘Well?’

He looked to Dybs. ‘Start talking.’

With a heavy sigh, Dybs looked up and dully recited: ‘I am not planning to betray you. I am being set up. I probably know the person who called but I am not working with them or for them.’ He stopped and looked at the Wiz Kid. ‘Good enough?’

‘Dude’s all G.’ He looked expectantly at Rube. ‘That all?’

‘Yeah, that’s all. Hit up Jit in a couple weeks; I’ll send a sixer your way through him.’

Only mildly disappointed, the teenager shrugged. ‘Sounds sweet. Catch ya later, homie.’ He raised a fist in anticipation.

Mentally cringing, Rube bumped her fist to his and gave him a nod. ‘Thanks. See you round.’ When she could no longer hear his footsteps outside she looked over at Scian. ‘Yeah, Dybs is good. You can probably call off the firing squad.’

Scian looked like someone had slapped him.

Hyde lowered his gun, followed quickly by his cohort. He shrugged at Dybs in a ‘sorry, had to do it’ motion; Dybs inclined his head ever so slightly in acceptance before glaring at Scian. ‘Well. Now you’ve established that I was right the whole time, I believe an apology is in order.’

‘I apologise for valuing my skin enough to not trust you on your word.’ When Dybs rose to his feet, he sighed and raised a hand. ‘Look. I’m sorry. Precautions were necessary. How does a third of my pay sound?’

Dybs considered it, shrugged and nodded. ‘Acceptable. Kindly talk to me before you point guns next time.’

‘I’ll keep it in mind.’ He pulled up a number on his commlink. ‘Right. We need to talk to the Johnson before we can do much else. I didn’t get the chance to negotiate a pay rise earlier and I need to tell him that you’re not a filthy traitorous trog. Hello? Mr. Johnson?’

Rube wandered over to the wall, rubbing her neck and willfully ignoring the conversation between Scian and their current boss. Talk about a hell of a way to wake up. She brought up a virtual notepad and added two names to a list, followed by a nine and a six respectively, then quickly decided against it and changed the nine to another six. Profit was profit after all.

Deciding against joining in with Scian and Dybs she pulled up the game she’d been playing before the kidnapping and resumed progress, only half-listening to the conversation behind her. The phrase ‘ten thousand per drone’ piqued her interest; the Johnson sounded bored and frustrated in equal measure. Multicoloured critters exploded across her screen as she nailed a chain reaction and satisfied with the progress of negotiations, she returned to the level.

A few minutes later she realised that the voices in the background had become louder and more aggressive. She paused the game and looked up.

‘We just agreed to a raised rate, why on earth would we then sell the damn things?’

‘I don’t know; why would you decide to contact me and ask for a raised rate before going after the rest of them?’

‘Probably because oh, I don’t know, they’re worth paying us a lot more for?’

‘Exactly my point. How do I know you’re not going to say you’ve done your job, take your payment and then sell them off to someone else?’

‘I don’t know what else you want me to say!’ Scian said, exasperated. ‘We’re not interested in selling the drones, we’re interested in doing the job you’re paying us to do and destroy them!’

‘I’m sure you understand that it’s a little difficult to trust your team now,’ the Johnson replied. ‘I’m sorry but I need reassurance you’re not just going to grab them and sell them to the highest bidder.’

The conversation continued in the same vein for another four or five minutes before Rube couldn’t take it anymore. Oh, for fuck’s sake. She rolled her eyes and stood up, not particularly caring if her interruption looked rude. ‘Look, Mr. Johnson, if we were going to take the drones and run, don’t you think we already would have? If a quick buck is all we were after why would we bother risking our necks to break into a well-guarded lab for another seven when we could split, sell this one and still double what you’re paying us?’

The voice paused, turning over her words. ‘Hmm. I suppose so. Still –’

She groaned. ‘Hyde, do us a favour and wreck that drone.’

A few scant seconds later, nothing remained of the cage or the drone except a few scattered shards of metal. Scian stared at the mess. ‘So, you saw that? Satisfied?’

‘I suppose.’ A sigh. ‘Still, considering we already agreed to raise the rate per drone, I’d feel more comfortable if I could send an associate to accompany you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Just a friend who’s expressed interest in seeing how things work on the other side. She’ll act as my eyes and confirm you actually did your job properly.’

‘We’re not running a babysitting service.’

‘I wouldn’t ask you to. They’re entirely capable of taking care of themselves. They won’t be there to help or hinder you; just to assure me you’ve done the job right.’ A pause. ‘Do we have a deal?’

Scian sighed heavily. ‘Yes. It’s a deal.’

‘Excellent. She’ll be there in half an hour.’ The line went dead.

He blew a stream of air between his lips. ‘Well. That went well.’

Rube sat back down. ‘So we’ve got at least another half-hour to kill, if not more. It’s probably a worthwhile idea to plan out our next move. Do you think you could pull the floor plans from his commlink?’

Scian shrugged and got to work in silence. Hyde returned to milling about with his gang buddies; Dybs returned to his meditative stance, albeit with clenched fists. Rube sighed and pulled up the game again, idly wondering exactly who their mystery female guest would be. Hope for her sake she’s not one of those prissy business twats.

Almost exactly thirty minutes later a loud rapping sounded on the door. This time Hyde got up and ambled over to open it. He quickly backed up. ‘Uh. Hi.’

‘Hello,’ a voice boomed.

Rube looked up just in time to see something several feet taller than Hyde squeezing through the doorway. Welp. Definintely not prissy. Their new guest – a ten-foot troll in a skirted business suit – politely introduced herself as Ms. J before falling silent.

Rube got to her feet, suddenly feeling very small. ‘Pleasure to meet you. May I ask what you do?’

She shrugged. ‘Corporate mergers. Asset redistribution. That kind of thing.’

‘You should feel right at home, then,’ Dybs said. ‘I take it our mutual associate has explained to you the purpose of this run?’

‘Vaguely. I’m just here to report on your actions. I was told you’d provide the specifics.’

‘In short, we’re out to find and, ah, redistribute new toys a bit less than legally. Redistribute in this case being on the molecular level.’ Dybs looked over to Scian, who shrugged. ‘We’re still working out the finer details but won’t be too much longer. Do you have… more appropriate clothing?’

She flashed a toothy grin. ‘I can be back in forty-five minutes or so.’

The ork nodded. ‘If you could, please. We’ll meet you here. You won’t need a vehicle.’

With another round of polite nods, she folded herself back out of the door.

‘Business trolls. What will they think of next?’ Scian sighed.

Dybs shook his head. ‘Got the floor plans?’

‘Yeah.’ He pulled up a file in AR and expanded it into a three-dimensional model. ‘The location they’re holding the drones at is pretty small, only five levels of offices. There’s an underground car park one level below the ground floor; the labs are underneath the car park.’ The model zoomed in to focus on the back of the car park. ‘The labs are only accessible from this lift. There’s another set of lifts near the front of the building on the ground floor but only this one goes down to the labs. The security office is on the third floor –’ the focus quickly shot up three levels to a wide room near the lift shaft – ‘but they’ll probably have a few men downstairs.’

‘What’s the security in the labs like?’

Scian moved the focus to the lowest level of the model, indicating the long hallway surrounded by smaller square areas on both sides. ‘Ridiculously high for something in Renton. It requires biometric access to get into the main lab area and dual-swipe access to get into each of the individual labs.’

‘I’m going to assume you’re able to override that.’

‘Main lab area, no problem. The individual labs could be time-consuming. In both cases I’m going to need to be on-site to get access to the mainframe data banks.’

Dybs sighed. ‘We’ll deal with that when we get there. Right. So we need to get into the car park, get access to the lift and then get access to the labs. We hit the drones and then get out of there.’ He paused. ‘Can you hack the cameras in the car park at all?’

‘Of course. The guards up in the office will probably notice if they’re out for an extended period though.’

‘You can’t loop the footage at all?’

‘Not unless I break into the databanks of their security contractor, steal the relevant footage and then feed it on livestream through the camera.’

‘How about taking it offline briefly to let us get to the lift?’

Scian consulted the plans again. ‘Yes; I’m going to need to access to the lift physically to get us down, though. Both it and the labs are on separate networks. That’s going to take another few minutes though.’

‘I’m thinking disguises.’

Scian grinned. ‘I like that idea. Right. So we go in, park the disguised van, I get us access to the lift and take out the camera. We head down, hit the drones, get the lift back out and get the hell out of Dodge. Piece of cake.’

‘Hopefully,’ Dybs muttered. ‘Right. Go find whatever you’re planning to use to disguise yourself. Rube, Hyde, if you need anything, now’s the time to get it. We’ll meet back here in half an hour or so.’
*
Dybs supposed that he really shouldn’t have been surprised but it didn’t stop him from groaning. ‘How on earth did you manage that in half an hour at 5am on a Sunday?’

Scian stood beaming in front of the van, wearing a pair of oversize blue overalls with several rags dangling from the pockets and a matching blue cap. The van itself was now white and blue with a large sign on the side reading ‘Johnny Clean Janitor Services!’ in an obnoxiously colourful cartoonish font. ‘I have a large wardrobe and I like costume parties?’

He took a deep breath and counted to three before releasing it. Thankfully Ms. J had understood the aim of the mission and returned in a black operator’s suit, sporting a gigantic machine pistol in a hip halter. Neither Hyde nor Rube had bothered to alter anything; the only thing Hyde had done was paid and dismissed the hangers-on. Dickman had been left in the van. They’d considered leaving him in the warehouse but decided it wasn’t worth it; besides, his employee details would make it much easier to gain a stealthy entry. Hopefully.

Shaking his head, he climbed into the back of the van. It was a bit of a tight fit. Scian was the only one who could be seen in the front so the remainder of the team had crammed into the back, minus Rube. She’d decided sustaining an invisibility spell was well worth it in exchange for getting to use the passenger seat. Between the bulk of Hyde, the larger bulk of Ms. J and the floor space required by Dickman and Scian’s Doberman, Dybs was sorely pressed for room. He’d had to cram himself up behind the front seats with his chameleon suit on. When the back doors slammed shut, he tapped on the back of the chair. ‘Let’s go.’

Thankfully Renton was still quite quiet for the time of morning and Scian made it to the carpark unmolested. Dickman’s credentials were accepted without question and he parked the van a row or two away from the back lift.

Rube spoke up. ‘Give me a moment to check out the astral.’ Being mindful not to let her invisibility drop, she slipped out of her body and carefully poked her head out of the van. There were no spirits or wards in sight. Rather than try to go down the lift shaft she decided to drop straight through the ground. She made it about twenty metres down before a white light filled her vision and she was forced to screech to a halt. Fuck. It’s warded. A generic block of offices in Renton, my ass.

Experimentally she placed her palm on the barrier. It was a fairly strong ward; not so strong that she couldn’t break through but strong enough that she wasn’t particularly keen on trying. Besides, the moment she broke it the mage who cast it would know someone was making a move on the labs. She began moving parallel alongside it towards the direction she thought the lift might be; after a few seconds she popped out of solid ground into an empty lift shaft. The ward hadn’t been extended to the shaft itself, rather it started in line with the outside doors. She frowned. This would make life difficult for her.

In a few seconds she was hopping back into her body. ‘No spirits that I can see but there’s a ward covering the entire lab area, starting from just outside the lift doors.’

‘And that means…?’ Scian asked.

‘It means I can’t see or cast through it.’

‘Can you break it?’

‘If you want the entire facility to know that someone’s breaking in, sure. I’ll be fine once we get in but for now there’s nothing I can really do.’ She fiddled with her ouroboros pendant, deactivating her focus in preparation for going through the ward.

Dybs shrugged. ‘There’ll be a camera feed or something. It’s not a problem.’ A muffled hissing sound came from behind him and he glanced over his shoulder in time to spot Hyde exhaling, shoving a small cylindrical object back into his pocket.

His mouth was suddenly dry. He unconsciously reached for the small bag that had been half-heartedly stashed with his weapons. Don’t do it, soldier! You’re on the job! He jerked his hand away a little faster than intended, earning a questioning glance from Scian. Dybs was surprised to find that his heart was racing. ‘Yes?’

A narrow glare. ‘Nothing. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to move out.’ The elf opened the door, whistling something that was probably intended to be a blue-collar jaunt but bore an unmistakable likeness to an orchestral movement.

Hyde began to clench and relax his fists in a quick, repeated cycle, every so often rolling his neck and shrugging his shoulders. Dybs groaned silently. Anything but Kamikaze or Nitro…

After a few minutes of surreptitious hacking under the cover of intensely polishing the lift doors, Scian straightened up, wiping his brow. ‘Okay. There’s two guards downstairs, five in the office on the third level. I’m going to move the cameras to create a temporary clear path from the van to the lift between here and here –’ two flashing green lines appeared in AR – ‘so on my mark, get out of the van as quickly as you can and get into the lift. Bring the Doberman.’ He paused for a few seconds. ‘Mark.’

A near to silently as possible the team exited the van and made their way to the now-open lift doors. Rube crammed herself into the rear right corner. Scian settled opposite her on the left, the Doberman trundling in to sit between them. Ms J squeezed herself into the front left corner. Dybs made his way into the front right corner and Hyde stood in the centre of the lift, facing back towards the doors. The doors slid shut with a soft hiss and Scian visibly relaxed. ‘Okay. We’re heading down.’

As the lift descended, Hyde spoke up. ‘You all got flash comp, right?’

Dybs raised an eyebrow. ‘Why do you ask?’

A deep laugh came from behind the mask.

Before Dybs could ask what was so amusing, three things happened in quick succession. The lift shuddered to a halt; the doors started to slide open; and Hyde reached over his shoulder, pulling out a minigrenade launcher.

Dybs opened his mouth to yell at Hyde to drop it but the doors slid open and Hyde pulled the trigger with a gleeful yell, the shrieks of his other teammates in the background. A bright flash went off with a muffled bang.

At least his aim was good, Dybs thought stupidly. Hyde’s grenade had been right on target, landing at the feet of the two guards about twenty metres down the corridor. They’d obviously stood and turned when they heard the lift doors opening but it hadn’t been enough. As he watched one of the two collapsed to his knees, clutching his head. The other appeared not to notice the blinding light. He mechanically grabbed the table behind him and flipped it onto its side for cover, throwing his body behind it before his teammate had even hit the ground.

Dybs automatically shoved the barrel of his pistol around the corner of the doors and fired off a short burst, the shot scattering wide in the haze. Something flew past him from behind. He caught sight of a flash of red hair and a panicked expression before Rube dove past him, landing on her stomach on the ground and instantly vanishing. The wheels of the Doberman began to grind as it started turning to face its gun to the door; Dybs groaned. Good job, Scian.

Ms. J quite wisely stood motionless in the corner, hiding a surprisingly amount of her bulk behind the protruding lift door.

With a yell Hyde threw his grenade launcher back over his shoulder and sprinted down the corridor, drawing his mace. Did he see Rube? Dybs hoped he hadn’t crushed the invisible mage. In a few seconds Hyde had reached the far end of the corridor. He swung the mace, catching the kneeling guard under the chin. A smear of red splattered across the ceiling.
The remaining guard, far too close to his now-headless teammate for his liking, shoved himself towards the far side of the corridor while firing frantically at Hyde. Dybs took advantage of his distraction to fire a long burst down the hallway. For a terrible moment he thought he’d missed again. Then the guard’s head jerked to the side and his arm dropped, body sliding to a crumpled stop against the wall.

Hyde glanced at the motionless body before turning back to the first guard and delivering a series of vicious kicks.

As Rube faded back into view and the team hurried out of the elevator, Dybs’ vision began to go red. ‘Hyde, what the fuck made you think that grenades were an acceptable option for a stealth attack?’

‘I only used flashbangs,’ he grunted, wiping his mace on the guard’s jacket with far too much care. ‘They’re not lethal and don’t explode. They’re stealthy.’

Dybs opened and closed his mouth four times before his brain could process the statement. ‘You – what –’

With a hiss, the lift vanished and Scian swore. ‘Fuck, they’ve isolated the lift.’

‘They saw us?’

‘No, they heard those guys screaming over their commlinks.’ He reached down to grab the second guard’s non-bloodied commlink but recoiled a few seconds later, rebuffed by the security programs. He snarled as a small black mark appeared in the corner of his view. Fuck. ‘Give me a second.’ He reached for the other, messier commlink and was rewarded with a birds-eye view of the security office. Two guards stood by a cupboard, unhurriedly passing out weapons and body armour; another two sat by the lift, one threading an optic cable over the edge and the other holding a gun. The last guard sat in front of the console, terminating a call. Scian grabbed for the outgoing records. The name he saw made his blood run cold. ‘Shit, guys, they’ve called in a high-threat response team. We need to move it.’

‘Which lab are the drones in?’ Dybs asked.

‘That one.’ He jabbed a finger towards the first block on their left, a small room with bulletproof glass windows and a solid metal cabinet on the back wall. Before he could attempt to override the door a large black padlock appeared in AR. Glancing down the hallway he saw identical padlocks appearing on all the other doors. ‘Fuck. They’ve locked them down. We’re going to have to break in.’

Dybs rapped on the windows. ‘That’s going to take far too long. Rube, can you do anything?’

‘Of course.’ Within a few seconds the hallway began to heat up as a small fireball appeared about a metre off the ground. It quickly enlarged, forming a head and two arms out of flames, stopping once it completely filled the space between the ceiling and the floor. Rube took a step away from the heat, giving a short, respectful bow. ‘Go into that room and destroy everything in that cabinet.’

The spirit vanished for a moment before reappearing on the far side of the door. It looked at the cabinet closely. For a second it appeared as if it couldn’t touch it. Then, much to their relief, it began feeding flames through the side vents and the cracks in the doors. Metallic sludge began to ooze out of the bottom of the door. Apparently satisfied, it vanished.

Dybs turned to Ms. J. ‘Satisfied?’

She grinned toothily. ‘Absolutely.’

He looked back to Scian. ‘You said they isolated the lift. Can you get it back?’

‘Not a chance. It’s gone down under the labs and they’ve shut down its network.’

‘Are they watching –’

‘Us? No, I took the cameras offline. They’ve got two guys watching the shaft.’ He linked the feeds to the rest of the team.

Hyde looked at the new video feeds, happily feeding grenades into the launcher. That shot had been perfect. Even better, now that there was no need to do that stupid stealthy stuff Dybs wanted, he could load up the launcher with real grenades. He glanced around the labs, wondering if he could somehow get a grenade into one without turning the team into chunky salsa.

Behind him he heard Dybs grumble and say something about climbing up the lift to let Rube cast something. He frowned slightly. Climbing up the shaft sounded like a slow and – more importantly – very boring plan. A thought came to him and a wide grin split his face. He started walking towards the still-open doors.

Having confirmed the plan to climb the shaft and give Rube enough cover to cast, Dybs turned to the lift doors just in time to see Hyde shove his grenade launcher into the shaft and pull the trigger. ‘HYDE!’

On the feed, Rube saw the guards by the lift shout a split-second before a white-hot flash filled the screen. It vanished as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the two men by the lift dead and the one by the console severely injured. Fuck it, this will do! She sprinted to the lift, skidding to a halt on the far side of the ward and quickly summoned another fire spirit. ‘Get up to that office on the third floor and torch the fuck out of everything in it!’

As the spirit vanished up the shaft, she turned back to the team. ‘Let’s go. I don’t know how long that’ll last.’

Glaring at Hyde, Dybs strode over to the lift doors. ‘Right. Everyone good to climb back to the carpark?’

Scian looked at him like he’d lost his mind. ‘Uh, definitely not. Can’t say Dobermans are known for their climbing ability either.’

Rube shook her head. ‘Count me out.’

Fucking elves. ‘Right. Hyde, take Scian. Ms. J, take the Doberman. Rube, you’re with me.’ He quickly pulled out several lengths of rope and began tying the two elves and the drone to their respective carriers. ‘How’s things up there?’

Rube glanced at the feed. The spirit had successfully killed the guard by the console and was gleefully setting as much of the surrounding area on fire as it could; the two remaining guards had retreated to the main hallway and were having a frantic discussion. ‘Toasty. We’ve got a clear run. I might head up to get it to finish the job; probably easier for you if I’m unconscious while you’re climbing anyway.’

He tightened the last of the knots. ‘Sounds good. Be quick.’

Closing her eyes and slipping into astral, Rube quickly made her way up the shaft to the third-floor office. The room danced with flames; she couldn’t deny that the spirit had followed her instructions well. Good job. New job. She pointed to the two guards standing in the corridor. Kill them, please. Any way you wish.

The black voids she assumed were the spirit’s eyes lit up gleefully and it spun around. The auras of the two men immediately turned fearful and Rube couldn’t help chuckling; they had a wall behind them, a wall on their right, a narrow corridor perfect for channeling flamethrower shots to their left and a living firestorm advancing on them from the front. Sorry, guys; you fucked with the wrong team.

The two guards began sprinting forwards, angling past the spirit and parallel with the right-hand wall towards the lift. Something dark left the lead guard’s hand, bouncing down the open shaft. A surge of cold fear shot through Rube; Fuck. Should I go back? Then she shook her head. I’m tied to Dybs’ back. What good would it do?

She spun back to watch the carnage, biting her lip.

At the bottom of the shaft Hyde was preparing to climb up after Dybs, barely noticing the elf tied to his back, when something high above him flashed through the smoke. It took him only a second before he recognized the familiar shape. ‘Grenade!’ Acting on instinct, he yanked his revolver from its holster and fired off a round. A burst of pride shot through him as the bullet flew true, putting a neat hole through the middle of the cylinder, but it didn’t explode. Crap. He sprinted back into the labs area, nearly running over Ms. J.

Halfway up the shaft, Dybs heard Hyde’s warning and the revolver shot. If I survive this I swear I’m replacing every weapon that thing owns with tazers, he thought grimly. He shook his head. He needed to get out of the shaft. Calling on his magic he sprang up and out, reaching for the edge of the car park level opening. One glove landed true, gecko grip engaging. The other smacked against the lip of the opening and bounced off, sending him swinging wildly.

Nonononono! He gritted his teeth and scrabbled madly, pulling himself and the unconscious mage up and out of the shaft to lie panting heavily on the floor. Not a second later something whistled past the doorway and –

Clunk.

A wild yell echoed up from below and a video feed popped up from Hyde of a metal cylinder with a neat hole through its centre. ‘I GOTTIT!’

The ork shook his head. Okay, maybe just the grenades.

Rube’s body twitched on his back and he quickly rolled onto his side, reaching to untie the knots. ‘A warning might have been nice.’

‘Oh, so it was a grenade?’ She paused, looking at Hyde’s feed. ‘Looks like it wasn’t a problem.’

He resisted the urge to drop her back down the shaft. ‘I trust the guards were dealt with?’

‘Both dead and halfway to ashes.’ She decided not to mention that the leading guard had managed to rappel halfway down the shaft before the spirit caught him.

Threat gone, Ms. J and Hyde made short work of the climb. Hyde untied Scian and deposited him roughly on the floor. ‘Guards?’

‘Dead.’

He scowled under the mask, good mood swinging to annoyance. Stupid spirits.

‘Let’s move it before the HTR team get here,’ Dybs said. He glanced over at the garage door; it was unsurprisingly locked. ‘Scian, go open that and we’ll pick you up.’

Scian made a beeline for the door as the rest of them piled back into the van, Rube taking the passenger seat and Dybs behind the wheel. By the time the van had made it to the door Scian had forced it to open. He vaulted through the rear doors. ‘Move it!’

Rube’s body went limp for about thirty seconds before she straightened up again, shaking her head. ‘Guys, there’s a chopper heading our way.’

‘Which direction?’

‘How far away?’

‘South. Maybe five minutes, if we’re lucky.’

Scian swore. ‘That’s nowhere near enough time to get out of the city.’

Dybs spun the wheel and began heading for the Barrens. ‘They’re professionals. They’re not about to start a firefight in the downtown. We’ll lure them out to the Barrens and take them down there.’

Rube rolled her window down and stuck her head out the window. A few seconds later she swore. ‘Heads up, there’s a fire spirit tracking us too, same size as mine.’

‘Is it going to attack?’

She paused. ‘Don’t think so. It’s about fifty metres up, couple hundred behind us. I think it’s just watching us.’

‘Good. Let me know if it does anything funny.’ He checked the rear vision feed; in the far distance he could make out something black moving towards them in the sky. ‘Damnit Rube, I thought you said five minutes!’

‘It looked slower in astral!’

As Rube and Dybs bickered in the front, Scian clenched his fists in the back, anxiety through the roof. When he’d agreed to this job it had been with the unspoken expectation that their contact with Evo would be minimal._ A high threat response team is not minimal!_ Visions of labs and pain danced before his eyes. He snarled._ What can I do?_ With Dybs driving the van (doing a measly five clicks over the limit and looking both ways before crossing intersections, he noted with irritation) and no real weapons to speak of, he felt useless. ‘Forget the damn spirit. Can’t you go any faster, Trog Boy?’

As he slowed down for the amber light ahead, Dybs’ stare swung to the rear camera feed, checking if the chopper had gotten any closer. It had. ‘If you’d like to get Lone Star on our case as well, certainly.’

‘Well, you’re useful.’

‘Why don’t you be useful and change those lights for us, then?’

Grumbling, Scian quickly started working his way into the local grid system. Tweet: Why did we give the trog the wheel? #dybssucks #moveitgrampa. He considered brute-forcing for speed but checked himself before he could; attention from the G-men was the last thing he needed now. Instead he hopped onto the PAN of a nearby light, using it as a backdoor into the larger local system.

The light ahead stayed red for a scant few seconds before flashing back to green and Dybs accelerated. ‘Thanks.’

Scian nodded dismissively, switching set after set to green until he was happy they’d have a clear run to Redmond. Better cover that up. A few simple scripts later and several nearby sets of lights began turning green as well. His task complete, his attention turned back to the helicopter and its payload. If only there were traffic lights for choppers.

Suddenly a light went on in his brain. Why not just take control of the damn thing myself?

Brilliant hacker you are, boss, his paladin sprite piped up.

Scian frowned._ Shut up and give me a hand with this. We need the rigger driving the thing out and staying out._

Data Spike ‘im! it cheered, waving its digital sword towards the chopper. Knock ‘im offline and out!

Suppressing the desire to summon a hammer to flatten the excitable sprite, Scian began scripting frantically. Hope that bastard’s not hotsimming. Several cruise missile-styled weapons started to manifest in his VR feed. He forced himself to wait for a few seconds, then a few more, before launching his digital payload at the helicopter’s matrix icon with a smirk. The ‘missiles’ left no trail and exploded in grand fashion against the icon – Fuck!
The digital chopper didn’t even wobble.

What felt like something heavy smacked into his stomach, driving the wind out of him.
His sprite began giggling, filling his ears with an irritating bell-like sound. Brilliant hacker you are, boss!

‘Fucking useless paladin sprites,’ he muttered under his breath. Now what?
*
As Scian attempted his attack, Rube glared out of the window at the hovering spirit, trying to decide whether to attempt to banish it or not. On the one hand it wasn’t doing anything particularly devastating at that moment; on the other, once they stopped it would no doubt be a nightmare to deal with. Probably bound, too, she thought gloomily. Banishing spirits was one thing. Banishing bound spirits was another matter altogether, especially if the controlling mage was nearby.

She paused for a moment, brows furrowed. She could send her own spirit to fight it. While effectively removing the enemy spirit from the subsequent fight, two living fireballs duking it out over downtown Seattle was neither stealthy nor a guaranteed result for her. No. This particular situation called for something stealthier. Something they wouldn’t be prepared for. Something… stylish.

Like a living fireball manifesting on top of the chopper’s pilot and engulfing them.

With a gleam in her eyes she began giving her spirit orders, never letting her gaze drop from the elemental hovering behind them. After a scant few seconds it left the van and sped towards the chopper. Surprisingly the enemy fire elemental made no movement to intercept it, watching silently as Rube’s spirit made its way towards the chopper before turning to face the van again.

Gotta love overly obedient spirits, she thought gleefully. A few seconds later something cold washed over her as the link with her own spirit was severed; she shook her head reflexively and frowned. Damnit. Guess the mage was a bit better prepared than I thought. Consoling herself with the fact that the rigger would at a minimum be severely burned and more than likely relying on the autopilot to control the chopper, she shrugged and decided to summon up a water elemental instead. Get ready to say hello to my little friend…
*
High above them, the rigger piloting the chopper noticed two things in quick succession. Firstly someone was attempting to eject him from the matrix. A pathetic attempt, true, but still an attempt. Secondly it was starting to get rather warm. Most likely due to the swirling firestorm that had suddenly and surprisingly appeared in his cockpit.

A few manabolts, some impromptu screaming and a blast from the inbuilt fire extinguisher later, the firestorm was gone and the digital attack repelled, leaving him singed, covered in foam and more than a little grumpy. Whoever was down there was clearly not in the mood to let them land.

Joke’s on you, fuckers; I don’t need to land.

Under the nose of the chopper, the inbuilt machinegun started to whir into life.
*
Back in the van, Hyde was getting jittery. He’d been having such a good day. He’d managed to fire his grenade launcher twice, messily killed some thug with his club and shot a falling grenade to disarm it. Now they were being chased by a helicopter containing a high-threat response team, all of whom would need to be removed from the picture. His Cram was still holding up too. Yes; it was a good day to be Hyde.

In front of him on the floor sat his prized possession: a submachine gun, stuffed to the brim with APDS rounds, almost fully assembled and ready to fill bodies with lead. He could all but see the bodies of the HTR team being torn apart in a hail of bullets…

His attention swung back to the present as Rube’s voice trailed over the commlink. ‘…I’m going to summon a water elemental to get rid of it.’

He frowned slightly, the expression hidden by his ever-present mask. Get rid of it? The mage had already stopped him duking it out with the rest of the in-house team with her last stupid spirit. Was she hoping to kill this team with a new spirit before they could get close enough for him to fight? He might not even get to fire his gun! A surge of anger rose in his chest.

Fuck no.

He clicked the last of the gun’s components into place and clambered to his feet, unconsciously delivering a hard kick the trussed-up form of Dickman as he did so. With a few steps he was at the back door of the van. Grinning widely he threw open one of the doors and braced himself against the van’s frame, moving both hands to the gun.

It was time for fun.
*
Despite Hyde’s amazing display of understanding and appreciation for the concept of stealth, despite having a grenade thrown at him while climbing up an elevator shaft with an unconscious mage on his back and despite being followed by a high-threat response team through downtown Seattle in a helicopter, Dybs was feeling pretty good about things. We might actually get a stealthy resolution this time! Visions of an efficient, quiet demise for the helicopter and its crew danced before his eyes. They had a clear run out of the city. Rube was sober. Scian was too busy muttering about paladin sprites to be whining at him. Hyde was… what was Hyde doing? Something most un-Hydelike, judging by how quiet things were. Such a nice change.

Beside him, Rube shook her head. ‘No point in keeping my fire spirit around while theirs is following us. I’m going to summon a water elemental to get rid of it.’

‘Not worth keeping it for when we get them on the ground?’

‘Not unless you’re volunteering to go orko-a-mano¬ with the bastard twin of the one that melted the drones. I can only do one at the moment.’

Dybs considered it, then shook his head. ‘Fine. Just keep an eye on it.’

Rube nodded again. Something large and wet-looking began to materialise just outside the corner of his vision. He tried not to look at it too much.

Suddenly a loud bang sounded from the back of the van. What the hell? He glanced at the rear camera feed, or rather tried to; something large and black kept blocking the lower half of his vision. It almost looked like a door. Just as he opened his mouth to yell for someone to fix it the van began shaking as if being punched by a thousand tiny hands. An awful series of shrill screams and thunks began to sound and a second later a dozen large holes appeared in the windshield, the dashboard and the seat around him.

Dybs watched in horror as his stealthy escape – and the van’s windshield – shattered before his eyes. ‘HYDE, WHAT DID YOU DO?’

Oddly enough, neither of the elves saw any reason to correct him.

Stealthy resolution forgotten, Dybs floored it and started trying to drive evasively. This proved harder than he expected thanks to the van’s new aerodynamics and he only nearly missed barreling into several buildings. Scian clung onto the back of the seats for dear life and started calling up more digital missiles, hoping against hope that they’d do something more damaging this time – despite his sprite firing its own salvo as well, not a single scratch appeared on the virtual chopper.

Forgoing her neutrality, Ms. J stepped over to the door and let loose a short burst from her troll-sized machine pistol. The rounds pinged harmlessly off the armoured underbelly of the chopper and she flung herself back behind the door in the hope it would provide enough cover to save her from the next hail of bullets. Dickman, still bound, gagged and blinded, could only be flung around the floor of the van helplessly, wondering where he’d gone so wrong.

Ignoring her newly-summoned spirit in favour of removing the more immediate threat, Rube leaned her whole upper torso out the window and took a deep breath. A microsecond later the chopper disappeared into a swirling ball of fire and black smoke and she began to grin. Her good mood was soon cut short when the vehicle reappeared, smoking and shaking, gun still tracking their every move. Cursing, she started to call up another fireball, hoping against hope that she could cast before the guns had found their target again. In her heart she knew she wouldn’t be fast enough. With horror in her eyes she watched as the smoking barrels begin to spin up to speed—

Suddenly a stream of bullets tore through the gun, the gun mount, the underbelly of the chopper and the cockpit, shattering the windscreen and sending chunks of metal flying from the vehicle. A booming laugh echoed from the rear of the van as flames spouted from the rotor housing and the blades began to slow.

Rube laughed in relief and pulled herself back into the van, watching Hyde’s feed of the helicopter plunging towards the ground. Thank the planes for Ugly and his guns. Then she frowned as something yellow flashed past her in astral. Something unbearably hot began to materialize in the console between her and Dybs.

Dybs’ head jerked to the side and his eyes grew to the size of platters. ‘Oh, shit!’

A very large and angry-looking fire spirit turned to glare at Rube. In her mind’s eye, she saw the charred carcasses of the heavily-armoured guards her spirit had engulfed a few minutes ago and remembered she was wearing nothing more than a long jacket and her street clothes. ‘Oh, SHIT!’

The van started to screech to a halt as Dybs slammed on the brakes. Hyde twisted around and grabbed the top of the door frame, preparing to leap out once the vehicle stopped and riddle it with the remains of his magazine. Scian desperately grabbed at the taser he’d stashed in his pocket, hoping that it would do something, anything against the angry fireball. As he pulled it out to fire he felt his grip slip and in horror watched the weapon go flying out of his hands. It passed straight through the spirit and hit the dashboard as a melted lump of plastic.

Water elemental completely driven from her mind by the inferno raging beside her, Rube released her own seatbelt and scrabbled for the open window, not caring that the van was still careening down the street at close to sixty kilometers an hour. I’ll take the fucking gravel rash over being torched ali—

Her thoughts stopped as a burning white heat began to envelop her from the legs up.
Before she could even scream the searing heat had reached her chest, superheated oxygen burning her lungs as she gulped for air. She tried to open her eyes but couldn’t, tried to scream but her mouth wouldn’t open; dimly she realized that they had been fused together and a chilling realization came over her: without magic, her teammates wouldn’t be able to fix the damage in time.

I’m dead.

The last thing she was remembered was a smell like burned pork and trying to scream one last time through a melting mouth.

View
The Drone Run, pt 3
We brought BBQ!

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—’

‘_Food._’

Dybs sighed. ‘Yes, Hyde; does anyone else—’

‘FOOD.’

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.’

Dybs winced.

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.

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