‘I am a monster’, Michiko said to herself for the thousandth time. And, in the eyes of everyone she knew, especially herself, she was a monster. She was no longer the pretty girl who had been at the Nekomi Institute of Technology, only a year ago. No, now she was an Oni, a red-skinned demon with white hair, wickedly pointed ears, horns and fangs. She didn’t feel like a demon. She did, however, feel like an outcast. Her mother had hysterically insisted that the oni had stolen her daughter, threw beans at her and asked a miko to battle the demon to get her daughter back. Michiko had gone along with it- after all, these days, who knew? It could work!
But it didn’t.
But, she wasn’t a monster alone among normal people anymore. Her family had taken her tuition money and bought her a ticket with a special service that would make sure that she got work. They said that the Protectorate in San Francisco, California needed people that they could trust. And, while she might not be a normal person anymore, she was still nihonjin. The service promised to fly her to San Francisco, find her some training and a job, and provide room and board while she managed to put her life together. They didn’t care that she was a demon. They did insist that she have at least 20,000 nuyen in a savings account, however. The family had taken out a loan and put 5,000 Y above the minimum in.
No, she was not a demon. She was an Oni, which was a branch of the subspecies of humanity called Homo Sapiens Robustus, more commonly called ‘Orks’. Demons had magical powers and could fly and call down storms and lightning. She could do none of that. But she was still a monster.
At least, she mused as she looked around the cramped cabin of the ferry, she wasn’t a monster alone among normal people. She was a monster among monsters. Well, you couldn’t call the five elegant elves clustered together monsters, really. They were tall, graceful, and well made. The three dwarves and six koboroku scattered here and they weren’t as ornamental as the elves, but they didn’t seem terribly monstrous, either. But the three orks and nine oni (other than her) were inarguably monsters. And the trolls! Six of them! Huge towering giants that loomed over the rest of them, even the females!
At least they didn’t act or dress like monsters. They were all dressed in the modest manner of Japanese who were travelling on business. While some of the trolls were letting their horns grow out, Michiko and the orks and other oni had had their horns discreetly trimmed down to nubbins. Some had had their ears bobbed; Michiko hadn’t had that done, as she’d heard that they grow back in a few years, so why spend the money? She had had the ‘tusks’ that had suddenly grown in her lower jaw pulled and had ‘plugs’ installed to keep them from growing back. But that was mostly because she simply couldn’t get used to the feel of them, and she kept mumbling when she talked. She’d been spared the thick flat nose and hulking figure that most oni seemed to get. And her eyes only bulged out when she got angry. Indeed, with her hair dyed a nice, normal black, she looked like a nice, normal- cute even!- college age Japanese girl. Well, that is, if you ignored the ruby-red eyes and dark red skin. Or the fact that she was a head taller and much more… physical… than she had been. And she wore contacts to hide the eyes. But there was nothing that she could do about the skin.
A couple of the dwarves and four of the elves weren’t dressed in the simple conservative style that that rest were. The elves and one of the dwarves were dressed like trendy college students, and the other dwarf was dressed in what might be called ‘Mechanic Chic’. He even had the inevitable tool belt with him.
While the elves were casually talking among themselves, the rest of the passengers were standing around in awkward silence. They were all strangers, and they didn’t have any context for conversation with each other. Their situation hadn’t helped anything. It had been one delay and foul-up after another. Their luggage had been lost. The Americans were acting up again, and taking the regular shuttle wasn’t safe, even to take it to the local light rail. So they’d been put onto one of the ferryboats that carried people across the bay that separated San Francisco from most of the rest of what was called ‘the San Francisco Bay Area’.
Then the boat stopped.
That finally broke the ice, and the passengers started asking questions among themselves. They were very general questions, but it was a lot more than they’d spoken to each other than the entire time from the airport in Tokyo.
Then a perky uniformed guide stepped into the passenger compartment. She apologized for the series of inconveniences, but explained that the ferry was having mechanical difficulties. Safety regulations required that they disembark the passengers at the nearest safe landing, and take the boat in to be repaired. They were approaching a safe dock, and they would have to leave the boat. Another ferry had already been alerted and was on its way to pick them up. It would take ten or twenty minutes, a half-hour at the most before the boat came to pick them up. There was a concession stand on the pier, where food, drinks and ‘rest stops’ would be available.
The boat started moving again, but much more slowly. After a few minutes, they pulled up to a wharf, and a gangway was lowered for them. The guide made sure that everyone got off in one piece, and repeated her assurances that the next boat would be along presently. She noted that the concession stand was closed, but assured them that the operator would be along in a few minutes.
‘If the next boat is going to be here in a few minutes, why would it be so important that a snack shop was open?’ Michiko wondered to herself.
The guide got back on the ferry and the boat puttered out into the fog. It was still early in the morning in San Francisco, and the sun was just beginning to rise over the tangled cityscape to the east- which struck Michiko as somehow wrong. There was a heavy fog over the water, and the lights over the wharf gave the scene an odd, surreal quality, a washed-out, damp, dreary dreamlike note. The sounds of the ferry puttering out, and then kicking into full gear and going off, faded into the distance.
There was a long tense awkward silence as they stood there for a few minutes. A few settled their carryon luggage on the pier and sat down to wait. Michiko had an odd feeling, and she turned to look at the end of the pier that opened onto the street. There was a streetlight that gave an impression of a few figures that she couldn’t make out. But there were two figures that stood a little more closely, that she could make out. It was a man and a dog. The man was an Amerikajin wearing a broad-brimmed fedora that shadowed his eyes, a black leather longcoat, and he was carrying a gnarled walking stick. He was looking at them intently but dispassionately. The dog was a large German Shepherd that was content to sit by his side. The man did nothing, but he added a distinct note to the eerie sense of discomfort that Michiko was getting about the entire situation.
Twenty minutes later there was still no sign of the boat come to pick them up. The concession stand operator still hadn’t shown up. Several people had tried the restrooms, but they were securely locked. That man and his dog were still there, carefully watching them. The sun was beginning to show itself in earnest, and some of the fog was starting to burn off. Michiko could begin to make out people standing by cars and trucks, waiting for something. The Japanese stood there, looking at each other, becoming worried. One man- Michiko thought that he might be an ork because he was so broad of face and shoulder, though he’d probably had his ears bobbed and his tusks removed- started talking, saying that it had only been ten minutes, and the boat would be there any time. He clutched one of the pieces of carryon luggage to him, as though holding onto a teddy bear. He looked out over the water for any sign of the boat. Then he repeated what he’d said about the ferry being there any moment. Michiko wasn’t sure whether he was saying it for the benefit of the others, for himself, or for the strangers loitering at the other end of the pier.
Then the man with the dog started walking in their direction. He walked slowly, as if he didn’t want to spook them. One of the trolls walked up and gave a curt bow, but the man ignored him and walked past. He walked up to two of the other trolls, one of the dwarves, two orks, and one of the elves in turn, speaking to them in American-accented but fluent Japanese, and handed them each a calling card in the proper respectful manner. Then he walked up to Michiko and asked, again in Japanese, “May I have a few moments of your time?” His card had ‘Shepard’ printed in English on one side and in Japanese and kanji on the other, with ‘Expediter and Mediator’ below that, with a web address below that.
As the Japanese read the card, the man himself said, “And, let me begin by saying, that Yes,” he addressed the elf, “you are quite right.”
The elf raised an eyebrow. “Right about what?” he asked, obviously refusing to rise to a simple mind-trick.
“That there was no ‘disturbance’ that kept the usual shuttle bus from the airport to your compound,” the man named Shepard said matter-of-factly. “There’s nothing wrong with BART. Well, at least nothing out of the ordinary. And that ferry shows up at this dock once a week, always on a Wednesday, right about now, with a boatload of Japanese metahumans who’ve just gotten off a very rough sub-orbital ride and are a little logy from lack of sleep.”
The elf’s face went hard and his mouth pursed with barely contained rage. Michiko felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as she realized what had been bothering her so much. The whole charade had been so polished, so smooth, so rehearsed. “There’s no job, is there?” The elf said with a strained voice.
“NO!” screamed the oni clutching the carryall against his chest. “I mean, of COURSE there’s a job! We’re guaranteed them! The boat’s going to come, any minute! It’s just a filthy Amero trick! He’s trying to trick us into leaving the dock before the boat gets here! If we leave, they’ll tear us apart!”
“There’s no job,” the elf continued. “The whole thing was a drekking swindle to get us to leave Nihon.” He pulled out a personal secretary and checked something. “My bank account! It’s gone! The bank says that account doesn’t exist! I had 50,000Y in there!”
“They’ll say that it never existed,” Shepard said calmly. “They’ll say that YOU don’t exist. At least, on the net, anyway. Your SIN- that’s what we call a System Identification Number here- has been removed and all records marked invalid.”
All the Japanese pulled out personal secretaries and hurriedly checked their bank balances. “Nnoooo…” moaned the oni, “It’s not true! It’s just a TRICK! Something about this pier blocks transmission to the secure wireless bands, so all we're really getting is a Denial of Service message that LOOKS like our accounts are empty!”
“Oh, be quiet, baka!” Michiko snapped. Her head reeled. There was no job for her here, no sponsored housing, no place for her. Her money was gone, except for the 500Y that she had on her. She was stranded here, all alone in the middle of vicious, violent Americans, who hated Japanese and Metahumans with the same acid passion. Her only assets were a bunch of strangers, some of whom probably despised her because she was Oni. “Wait, the agency couldn’t tap into our bank accounts without our permission.”
“HAI!” the holdout yelped, “That’s right! They couldn’t!”
“The agency didn’t seize your accounts,” Shepard said with the relaxed air of a man answering Frequently Asked Questions. “The Japanese ‘Protectorate’ government did. The Agency took your money and only provided a one-way ticket with nothing at the other end. The Occupation government seized your assets as soon as they were shifted, as per SOP, into a San Francisco branch of your bank. Those possessions that you were having delivered to you from Japan are being stopped and seized by the Imperial Marines. And your stored luggage is being ripped apart by someone at SFO. Everyone has a finger in the pie, so no one complains.” He gave a melodramatic pause. “At least, no one human. And Japanese, which to the Occupation government is pretty much the same thing.”
Michiko felt sick. It made too much sense. Metahumans, even pretty ones like Elves, made Nihonjin nervous. And even with the prosperity since the ascension of Kenichi to the Mikado and the return of the Imperial State, Japan didn’t have the resources or room to devote to those who didn’t fit in. She’d heard horrible rumors about ‘goblin reservations’ on some of the northern islands and in Manchuria. But why waste valuable land and resources housing monsters when you could simply dump them on the Americans? And make them pay for the ‘privilege’ of being left stranded and penniless? There was no Jingi in it, no respect for those who abide by lower status, but it made sense in the cold, honor-less mindset of some of the worse zaibatsu.
Michiko glared at the elf. “You knew about this?”
“I suspected it,” he admitted. “You learn how to read these things when you’re born this way.”
“Then why did you buy a ticket?”
“Being dumped in America is a lot better than being dumped on Yomi.”
“Yomi doesn’t exist.”
“It must be nice to believe that.”
Shepard cleared his throat melodramatically. “Now that we have that out of the way, why don’t we take things on a more optimistic tangent?”
“What do you want with us?” one of the trolls grated out.
“Quick and right to the point,” Shepard said in an approving tone. “You’ll do well in California. I propose a deal. I know people here in Emeryville-”
“Yes, Emeryville. You’ll find it on your maps on the eastern side of the Bay from San Francisco, between the Oakland and Berkeley on the shore. This pier happens to be in Emeryville. San Francisco is about a mile behind you, on the other side of the Bay.”
“Let me guess,” droned the dwarf. “They don’t allow metahumans in San Francisco.”
“You have a good grasp of the situation,” Shepard admitted. “But technically wrong. Metahumans who have jobs that keep them out of the eyes of the tourists and have special security coded passes can commute into The City. But only as long as they’re out of The City by curfew. There ARE services that do provide housing and jobs for the Metahumans they bring over here; just not the ones that you hired.” He waved that aside. “You are stranded. You have no job, little money, and no legal standing whatsoever. You have no place to stay and you don’t know anyone. Some of you know little, if any, English. I can help you. I know people in the area, and I can find you work. Both short-term work, and work that you’re actually trained at. I know a place where you can stay until you get your first paycheck, and cover the room and board. If you need special training, I can help with that. And if I can’t personally, I know people who should be able to.”
“And you’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart,” one of the orks said with a disbelieving tone.
“Of course not!” Shepard snapped. “Helltown bleeds do-gooders dry. Here’s the deal. You will pay back every cent that I spend supporting you, with a 100% profit for me. That 100% doesn’t get compounded, so you will be able to pay your way out, IF you get work and get off my dime quickly. While you’re on my dime, you work for me. I say ‘frog’, you jump. And, after you pay off your debt, you owe me a favor.”
“A favor?” the elf asked. “What sort of favor?”
“I don’t know yet. It hasn’t come up yet.” Shepard said. “But, when it does, I will come to you with a matter that I will think that you can handle. That’s it.” Shepard straightened himself. “That’s my offer. I help you out, get you a place to stay and find you a job. You pay me back 100%, and owe me a favor. OR, you can take your chances with the gentlemen who are waiting at the end of the pier.”
One of the trolls peered through the gloom. “Who are they?”
“Predators. Pimps. Gang bosses. ‘Fixers’. Recruiters. ‘Talent Agents’. Flash guys with slick proposals, who’ll tell you that saying No to me was the smartest thing you’ve ever done.”
The other Japanese had been listening in on their conversation, and two of them, a male and female elf had been whispering to each other intently. A male oni, whose red hair was bushy despite his best efforts and had been giving Michiko the eye ever since they boarded the sub-orbital, reached into the male elf’s tote and pulled out a bokto. The wooden sword is sometimes used for practice, but it has a history as a weapon in its own right. He used the bokto to give Shepard a sharp rap on the shoulder from behind. “You! Why are you making this offer only to THEM?”
Shepard didn’t blink an eye. “Because I can help them.”
“And you’re saying that we aren’t worth helping?”
“Some,” Shepard admitted. “And others don’t really need my help. For instance, YOU,” he pointed at the elf whose bokto the oni had taken, “have some serious martial arts skills, and you know how to watch your flank. I can’t really help you with anything, except maybe one thing: when you leave the pier, there are people waiting to talk to you. They’ll wait until I’ve made my pitch, and then come and try to recruit you for whatever purposes they have. One of them is a tall Anglo ork with ginger hair, in a very nice black Armani suit. He has a large blue gem set in his left ear and his right tusk has a gold filigree setting. His handle is Chicago Al, and he runs a mixed gang of leg-breakers.” Shepard handed him a card. “Tell him that I recommended you. He’ll offer 500Y a week. Ask for 2000Y, settle for 1000Y and the option to run games of your own. Oh, and one more thing.” He pointed to one of the trolls. “You. Would you please come here?” The troll lurched over uncertainly. “He’s had Security training. I think that you two will get along, if you give each other a chance. Tell Al that you’re a team, and the big guy here gets the same deal.” He turned back to the troll. “He isn’t just faster than you are, he’s sharper, and he has more of the hunter instinct. But he needs someone to watch his back. And he can’t count on her,” Shepard jerked a thumb at the sleek female elf, who gave an annoyed squeak. “Give him your best, and he’ll give you his best. Separately, you both have a shot at making it; together, you won’t just survive, you’ll thrive.”
“And what about ME?” the lady elf asked sharply.
Shepard gave her a baleful glare. “YOU stay the fuck OUT of my business and away from my people. I got your number. Oh. One more thing.” Shepard rummaged around in his pockets, found another card and handed it to the elf. “You’ve got the chops to become a physical adept. The sensei of this dojo is a dwarf, but he knows his stuff.”
“Don’t listen to him, he’s full of shit!” the oni-man snarled.
“Right!” yelped the holdout from where he was sitting.
“He’s just making a lot of noise about what an important man he is!” The oni continued. “I mean, how is he supposed to know all that about us?”
“I have my ways,” Shepard said quietly.
“Urusai, Kono Bakayaro!” the oni yelled.
Shepard’s dog started to growl, but Shepard murmured, “Hush, Pal.”
“See?” the oni said, interpreting Shepard’s comment to his dog as backing down, “This Inchiki Gaijin [Lying barbarian] doesn’t know anything! Go away, blunt-eared, round-eyed-” the oni cocked the bokto to strike at Shepard, but the wooden blade sudden burst into flame. The oni panicked and dropped the sword. The bokto burned for a second on the pier, and the flames grew higher, until they formed into a vague form of a cat that arched its back at the oni, yowled, and hissed in rage. The cat leapt at the oni and mauled at him with claws of fire. The oni screamed and scrambled away, but there was no escape from the firecat. The other Japanese were torn between helping him and avoiding the unnatural being that had suddenly appeared in their midst.
The firecat burned the oni several times before Shepard gave a sharp whistle. The ‘cat’ stopped as if shot, and then streaked over to Shepard, where it curled up in his arms, and all but purred. Shepard stroked the creature, which faded into nothingness.
As the oni clutched at his burns, Shepard pulled a very large chromed revolver from beneath his long coat, cocked the hammer and placed the barrel against the oni’s forehead. “You’ve had a long, hard night, and you’re looking at the beginning of a long, hard day,” Shepard growled. “So I’ll cut you a break. But if you EVER point anything more dangerous than a spoon at me again, and you’ll WISH that I just blew your brains out!” Shepard moved the barrel of the gun slightly, pulled the trigger, and blew the tip of the oni’s left ear off.
Shepard put the gun away and resumed his milder mien. He referred a couple of the trolls to a gang leader who might do well by them. He gave two of the dwarves, along with one of the orcs and one of the elves, a reference to a garage owner who might be willing to take them on, or at least point them in the right direction. Another dwarf and elf got recommendations to a shadowy individual that Shepard only referred as ‘Spiegel’, and didn’t elaborate any further. Three of the females, including the lady elf that Shepard had told to stay out of his business, were told that they were headed in that direction anyway, so it would probably be best if they went with the pimp known as ‘Sweet William’, and got decent terms for it.
As he did this, the holdout argued constantly that Shepard was a con man trying to take advantage of them, and they should just wait for the ferry. Shepard finished up, and returned to the group that he’d approached first. “Well?” he asked lightly. “The offer is still on the table. You don’t have to take it. You can just walk off the pier and take your chances. You might make it. But it’ll be a much harder haul than you’d have with me, and you probably wouldn’t walk away with all your parts.” He held out his hand. “So? Will you shake on it?”
It struck Michiko that simply shaking hands with a magician when striking a deal was probably binding in ways that a 50-page legal contract could never even approach.
Still, one of the trolls stuck out his hand and shook Shepard’s. One by one, the others of Shepard’s chosen group shook his hand as well. Finally, Michiko reluctantly shook his hand. She wasn’t sure how much she couldn’t really trust this strange man, but in the face of the grim cityscape that was beginning to be visible through the fog, he seemed like her best option.
Shepard nodded as Michiko shook his hand. He turned and addressed the rest of the Japanese on the pier. “As for the rest of you, all that I can offer you is this advice: keep your back to the wall, at least until you learn your way around. And even then, it’s a good idea. Think twice about everything that you’re told and hear, and assume the worst. Get a friend and stick by them, no matter what. Learn English- people on this side of the Bay don’t like the Japanese, and you really don’t need the aggravation. And get a gun. You’re going to need it.”
Then Shepard gestured at his ‘clients’ and led them off the pier. As they left, the holdout yelled that they were fools, and the ferry was going to show up any minute, and they’d be stranded on this side of the awful bay, and he’d be on his way to a nice, safe, warm dorm in San Francisco. He was clutching his carryall with a fierce grip, and his voice was strained with panic.
Michiko never saw him again.
As Shepard herded his ‘flock’ off the dock, there was a small crowd of men waiting by a strange mixture of cars. Shepard motioned for his people who stay there for a second. He walked up to a tall, dapper looking Asian elf in a well-designed dark red leather blazer with a hologram ‘rose’ on his lapel. “Sweet Willie,” he said, shifting to English “A word in your pointed ear?” ‘Sweet William’ raised a single eyebrow from behind his mirrored sunglasses. “A bit of warning. I’ve warmed up a couple of prospects for you, but there’s one… nice looking elf-girl, blue silk top, black trousers, long hair done up fancy? Nice package, but she’s got very sharp teeth. You watch yourself, hear?”
‘Sweet William’ silently pursed his lips in consideration, but nodded before he stood away from his car to amble down the pier to check out the morning’s catch.
Shepard lead them past the line of cars to a weathered off-white pickup truck that had a canvas ‘tent’ over the top. He reached into the back and pulled out a bunch of scarves. The scarves were striped in tan and brown, in shades that reminded Michiko of the markings on Shepard’s dog. He did an elaborate thing in tying them all together and then working them in some way. Then he started to tie them around their shoulders. “It will take you a bit to get to know your way around Helltown. These armbands will let people know that you’re under my protection. Now, that doesn’t mean that you’re safe, it just means that most people will think twice about messing with you. When you have to change, don’t untie them. Just slip them off. Only untie the knot if you find yourself in a real mess.”
As he finished tying the armband on the troll’s biceps, Shepard paused. “Okay, your name is Elmo.”
“No, sensei,” ‘Elmo’ started, “my name is-”
Shepard stopped him short. “Not anymore it isn’t. People, the first lesson that you’re going to have to learn, is that your old life is OVER. Period. Nothing that you or I or anyone can do about that. The person that you used to be has been erased by official decree. The sooner that you get used to that, the better it will be for everyone. I'm giving you a Californian name, so that you’ll get the idea, and start thinking of yourself as a Californian and acting like a Californian." He gave each of the others their new ‘Californian’ name in turn. When he got to Michiko, he told her, “Your name is Debbie.”
Debbie? Michiko thought to herself. ‘I’m Debbie?’ In her mind, ‘Debbie’ was indelibly linked with the image of the stock 'bubble-headed Amero cheerleader/ beach bunny/ bimbo’ from too many Tokyo sitcoms.
“Do I have to be ‘Debbie’?” she asked plaintively.
“Can you think of a better way to make sure that you remember it?” he replied.
Sheer necessity demanded that the trolls and orks ride in the back of the truck. Shepard indicated that the elf and the dwarf would ride in the cramped ‘cabin’ behind the front seat of the truck. “Why does she get to ride up front?” ‘Joe’, the dwarf, asked peevishly.
“Well,” Shepard drawled, “if this were your truck, and you had to choose her or me to ride beside you, which would you choose?” Joe opened his mouth to complain, looked Michiko up and down, saw Shepard’s point, nodded, and climbed into the cramped cabin.
Michiko, or, rather, ‘Debbie’, started to walk around to the rider’s side, but Shepard held open the driver’s door for her. “Drive,” he said. “I’ll give you directions as we go.” He climbed into the cabin on the other side, right after his dog, and immediately started talking on his personal secretary, making all sorts of calls to (from what she could tell) a wide variety of people. This close, she was finally able to get a better impression of the man. He was American, or what she thought of as American, what she vaguely remembered what they called an ‘Anglo’ now. A European ethnic, though probably well mixed with minor touches of African, American Indian, Semitic and maybe even Asian blood here and there. In the ‘Sixth World’, such details were not supposed to matter anymore, swept away by the metahumans; now humans were just humans. But Debbie was still Niihonji enough to doubt that. Under his broad brimmed hat, his dark brown hair was longish, and just beginning to show streaks of gray. The mustache under his hawkish nose was already salt-and-pepper, though there were fewer touches of gray in his close-cropped beard. His face was hard and weathered. She guessed that he was maybe in his early Fifties. But then, who could tell with a magician?
He managed to guide her onto a stretch of elevated highway, and from there through a maze of warehouse parks and rail yards. There was a fetid smell of salt marsh. He had her pull into one of them, and the reek of the salt marsh was overwhelmed by the smells of smoke, cooking food, tobacco and semi-washed meta-humanity.
The place had obviously once been a warehouse or freight exchange depot, which had been taken over by squatters. While, in the grand old tradition of squatters, they contrived living quarters out of pretty much everything and anything, and the L-shaped warehouse was filled with a hive of gomi [trash] that had been ‘re-purposed’, the clear favorite was old standard shipping containers. The rusting old metal boxes had been stacked up two, three and four-high, and arranged into a warren of sorts, with doors, windows, and access holes cut into them. Shepard indicated for Debbie to pull over to where a pair of old mobile homes had been parked next to a set of containers, with a wide plastic ‘tarp’ suspended over it all.
Shepard thumped on the side of the truck for the Japanese to get out. “Lady and gentlemen, welcome to Helltown. Hopefully, your stay here won’t be very long.”
‘Rob’, the elf got out and stretched the kinks out of his legs. He watched the raggedy people walking here and there, and the large troll hunched over a small engine block, delicately picking at the engine with a probe. “Are all the people here Nihonjin?”
“Not all, but the overwhelming majority are kodokujin,” Shepard said. “There are a few non-Japanese metahumans, but as far as I know, I’m the only short-ear welcome.”
‘Kodokujin?’ Michiko thought to herself. ‘The lonely people?’ She decided that the meaning probably implied the melodramatic sense, as a cast-aside lover might be ‘lonely’. They had been cast aside by the entire Japanese nation.
“Hoi, Orville! Is Wilbur in?” Shepard called to the troll. The troll nodded without looking up from the engine and pointed inside the open end of one of the containers. Shepard walked over and banged on the side of the container. “HOI! Wilbur! Get your head out of that thing, you don’t know where it’s been!”
A rather dyspeptic looking Japanese dwarf with his hair in a buzz-cut, wearing a grease-smeared T-shirt poked his head out of the container. “Hunh. It’s you. Is it Wednesday again already?”
‘Wilbur’ and Shepard went back and forth in a way that Michiko immediately twigged was a laid-back form of haggling, disguised as complaint and gossip. Despite his pleas of poverty and lack of any use, the dwarf wound up taking one of the orks in as a helper. The ork would get a place to stay and three meals a day and he’d keep the money that he made as Wilbur’s assistant. It seemed like a skimpy deal to Michiko, but it also immediately struck her as a much better deal than he probably would have gotten on his own. As they walked away, Shepard said quietly, “I give them a week, before they’re all up to their eyebrows in the block-running engine from Hell.”
Shepard had Wilbur watch his truck, and the group- less ‘Ed’ the ork, who was already cleaning car engine parts- started into the tangle of shipping containers. Aside from the cryptic gang markings that overlapped each other here and there, the place was surprising clean. But then, the people were clean as well. Somehow, Michiko thought that they would have been filthy and grimy, as the Amero squatters that she’d seen on the trid always were. Still, there was the smell, and she had the immediate sense of being watched. Which, given how people were packed in there, was inevitable. Shepard made his way to one large arrangement of modules that was stacked about three high, banged on a jury-rigged sliding door, and then sort of glared up at a box that jutted out from the side of the ‘building’ about five feet above them. After a moment, the door slid open and Shepard waved them in.
The place was arranged in a rough square, with the containers forming a scabby courtyard of sorts in the center, with what looked like fire escapes that had been torn off of old buildings welded to the inner side of the containers to form stairs. The hole over the middle was covered with a blue plastic ‘tarp’. “Lady, Gentlemen, welcome to the Hades Hilton.”
He went up to counter manned by a grotesquely fat and ugly ork, and arranged sleeping space for them. “Put it out- anyone messes with them, crosses me.” The fat toad just grunted and entered some data into a terminal that was fixed to the wooden counter with thick metal straps.
Shepard turned and looked at them critically. “So, did anyone bring any clothing in their carry-on that DOESN’T look like you’re going to a job interview?” they all looked at each other and shook their heads. Shepard let out a disgusted sigh. “They never do. Well, come on, let’s get you some vines.” After telling them to hold onto their berth keys, Shepard took them right back out into the tangle of Helltown.
One part of the ‘jungle’ had sort of been set aside for a very crude sort of bazaar with tables and blankets and pegboards draped with various sorts of merchandise for sale. He gestured at one set of tables, where clean clothing was neatly folded in stacks. Shepard walked them up to a table that seemed to specialize in hardware. He rapped on the table for the attention of the orc female attending the counter. “Six,” he said brusquely.
The orc reached into a locker and pulled out six featureless cardboard boxes, just large enough to fit in one hand. Shepard opened one of the boxes like a matchbox and pulled out something wrapped in taupe termperfoam. He unwrapped something dark-gray with a metal clasp on the side, which fit in the palm of his hand. Pointedly pressing a button on the side, he gave it a flick and a short tanto blade slid out and clicked into place. “Gravity knife. My protection only goes so far, and you WILL eventually have to protect yourself. This is a piece of crap, but it is the best knife on the market- for the money. The blade is decent steel, and it has a Dikote™ mono-edge. Contrary to what you see on the Trid, it won’t cut through steel. But it WILL cut through bone very nicely." He took a knife from each box, checked it, and paid the orc in rather anachronistic paper money.
He turned to his newcomers. “While the differences in European and Japanese culture just go on and on, there are some telling similarities. In both, accepting arms from someone implies a certain…obligation… on both parties. Elmo!” he addressed the big troll, holding up one knife. “Do you accept this knife, and the obligation that it implies?”
“This is California. Speak English or Spanish, please.”
“Yes. I accept this weapon from your hand.”
“Well said.” Shepard pressed the grip of the knife into Elmo’s hand. He went to each of them, asking the ritual question and presenting them with the knife. When Shepard got to her, Michiko paused. He was offering her a knife. Thugs and hooligans carried knives. She prided herself on being a good, civilized citizen. Good, civilized citizens don’t carry knives that click open with a flick of the wrist!
But she wasn’t a good, civilized citizen.
Not any more.
Now, she was an Oni, a pathetic demon that thought that it was a girl named Michiko.
She’d had a good idea of what her life would be like: a few sweet, carefree years at Nekomi Tech. A few years working for one of the zaibatsu. Somewhere along the line, she’d meet a good-looking, disciplined, sweet-natured young man who would be attracted to her. They’d court and marry, which would be followed by dull but comfortable decades as a corporate wife.
The Nihonjin have a saying- ‘the nail that stands up is hammered down’. She couldn’t keep down anymore. Nature, Supernature, and Society wouldn’t let her. She was an Oni, a demon who preyed on helpless normal people. Yakuza prided themselves on ‘not being hammered down’. Michiko wasn’t one of those silly girls who fantasized about being a fierce ‘lady yakuza’. But only now did she realize how much she’d resented being hammered down. She realized that she hadn’t really been looking forward to that dull, comfortable life. No, she’d really just sort of accepted it as inevitable, and the foreseeable alternatives weren’t worth being hammered down.
Nihon wouldn’t let her be a good, civilized citizen. All that Nihon would let her be was an Oni.
Well then! She’d BE an Oni! On her own terms!
She looked at the knife in Shepard’s hand. He asked the question again. She could just keep rolling along, doing what people expected of her, take the knife and placidly do whatever Shepard told her to do. Or, she could take the knife, pay her debts to Shepard, and carve out a life for herself with the knife. Wordlessly, she took the knife from Shepard’s hand, fumbled with the catch and clumsily opened the blade. The knife was cheap and crude, but effective. There was a gleam along the cutting edge of the blade, where the dikote had been affixed. As millions before her had done, Michiko found a focus and clarity in the edge of a blade that brought the world into perspective. “I agree,” Michiko brusquely said, cutting off Shepard as he started to ask the question a third time.
Shepard nodded, taking her odd acceptance in stride. He gestured his followers over to the clothing tables. “There. Pick out something clean, that fits and isn’t in tatters. Check the linings. And don’t worry about whether it’s fashionable or not. That won’t be an issue for a while.”
As the men picked through the men’s tables, Michiko carefully went through the offerings on the women’s tables and was dismayed with what she saw there. It wasn’t the quality. There were Japanese and Chinese and Indian made clothes, with good material and stitching. It was the little cues that told her that they’d been packed for traveling. Shepard had said that someone was tearing through their luggage at the airport. These were the clothes that had been ‘lost’, and someone had sold to these people. ‘They’re selling us our own clothing back,’ she realized. ‘The only reason they don’t sell them to humans is that they’ve been worn by eta, untouchables’. Some day, possibly this month, her own clothing would turn up, if not in this market, then some other similar market on this side of the bay.
Still, the selection was suprisingly good. She found a couple of outfits that would mix and match rather well. She was wondering about the leather vest, and how it would go with the glove leather jeans, when she felt a tug at her sleeve.
Looking around, she saw no one, but heard a gasp from down below. Looking down, she saw a small human Japanese girl, somewhere between eight and ten years old, who was wearing good traveling clothes. “Please,” the girl whimpered in Tokyo-accented Japanese, “don’t eat me!”
“I won’t, I won’t!” Michiko assured her. “But what are YOU doing here?”
“My momma! My daddy!” the girl bleated, her huge brown eyes filling with tears.
“Your parents? Something’s happened to them?” Michiko asked. She started to look over to where Shepard was. He was helping the troll, Elmo, try on a long coat.
The girl grabbed Michiko by the sleeve and pulled. “Please! He’s hurt! Come! Please!” Michiko followed the girl through the crowd and into the maze of containers.
“How did you come to-” Michiko’s question was cut off when a thick arm came around from in back of her and wrapped around her neck, almost strangling her.
She was hauled off her feet and dragged into a dead-end ‘alley’ formed where three containers didn’t quite fit flush together. A small group of five kodokujin men- mostly orcs, though there was a troll as well- in leather jackets and ragged jeans and what looked like various street gang markings closed around her. A rangy blue-faced oni wearing a red sun hachimaki looked her up and down. “Very nice, fresh fish, right off the boat,” he murmured in Japanese. “Looks like we’re eating GOOD tonight, boys!” He leaned and snarled, “Here’s the way it’s going down, sweetheart- you belong to US now. No matter what that round-eyed wimp Sheppado tell you, WE run Helltown, you got that? We gonna sell you to a cathouse, and you ain’t gonna give no body no shit no how, hear? ‘Cause if you do, we mess you up BAD. And nobody gonna do shit to help you. Got that bitch?”
Michiko never thought that she’d do it, but she regretted having her tusks pulled. She wished that she could sink some teeth into this arm and really do some damage. She glared hot hatred at the orc for a moment, and then sighed and slumped in her captor’s arms.
She felt her captor’s arm slack a bit, and the second that she had the room, she pitched herself forward as fast and far as she could and then slammed her head back into the nose that she’d felt poking the back of her head. The troll (at least she thought that it was a troll) gave a grunt of pain and slacked his grip a tad, letting her slip a little. Remembering a mostly-forgotten self-defense course, Michiko back-kicked into his groin. The troll screamed and dropped her. Getting into the spirit of the fight, she grabbed the troll’s arm and used his reflexive curl to protect his crotch against him, throwing him into his gang.
However, the gangers were still between her and the open ‘street’. Michiko pulled out her knife and opened it as quickly as she could. She charged past the sprawling gangers for the open air, flailing wildly with her knife, more for effect than anything more martial. They still grabbed her, and she hacked at their hands with her knife, which only succeeded in getting her clothes bloody. Still, she did manage to get the leader right in the face with a wild swing. Michiko managed to get to the opening of the ‘alley’. Still, in the end they got her by the legs and pulled her down and more or less dog-piled on her.
When they hauled her to her feet, the leader put a hand to his face and looked at the blood. Livid, he screamed “Look at what you did to my FACE, you stupid SLUT!”
“What?” Michiko sneered, “You’re worried about losing your beauty?”
The oni backhanded her, and yelled, “Screw the money, I’m-” He never finished that statement. He was rushed by a snarling dog that jumped him and took him to the ground. The gangers immediately reacted to the threat, giving Michiko enough slack to pull free and dive for her knife.
One of the trolls had the dog by the scruff of the neck, and the other one produced a machete and raised it to strike at the dog. Then there was a sharp loud sound behind the troll with the machete and he suddenly pitched forward. Behind him, holding the large smoking revolver, was Shepard. “Why are you hurting my dog?” he said in English with a facetiously bland voice.
Shepard looked down at the troll on the ground, writhing in pain. “Oh, don’t be such a baby, Isamudai! I know that you’ve had your skull reinforced!” he added in a mutter, “Dog knows, you didn’t have the inside of it upgraded…”
Behind Shepard, the other five of his followers were standing, knives out and ready. They looked frightened, but willing to stand their ground. The gangers all (except Isamudai on the ground) quickly drew large guns from under their clothing. The leader oni pointed a large automatic at Shepard and sneered, “Isn’t there a saying in America, about bringing a knife to a gun fight?”
“Yes, there is,” Shepard allowed. Then there were the sounds of guns being chambered both to the left and the right of them. Michiko (and the gangers) quickly looked. There were groups of kodokujin wearing scarves with Shepard’s colors over their faces pointing very large assault rifles and shotguns at the orcs. “There’s another saying: ‘get there first-est with the most-est’. So, Haruto-” he lowered his pistol and aimed right at the leader’s face, “-feel like going out in a blaze of glory?” Haruto dropped his gun. At his urgings so did the others, and they kicked the guns over to where Shepard’s new men picked them up.
Michiko picked herself up. “Thank you very much, Shepard-sama,” she said breathlessly as she bowed frantically.
“You can thank me by not bobbing up and down like that,” he said gruffly. He took in the condition of Michiko’s clothes. “Look at you, you’re a mess.”
“I’m sorry, Shepard-sama.”
“Don’t say that, it’s not your fault.” Shepard shot a nasty look at Haruto, and snapped his fingers imperiously.
“You know what. Fork it over.”
“Fork what over?”
“Fork over at least 300Y to replace her suit that you ruined.”
“Ruined?” Haruto gasped, “SHE ruined it with MY BLOOD! Look at my FACE!”
“Do I have to?” Shepard shot back lightly.
“Look at this scar! She should repay ME!” Haruto, of whom Michiko was getting the distinct impression that what he lacked in simple sense he more than made up for in bravado, yelled.
Shepard took a long look at the scar that she’d cut into Haruto’s face. <pssst!> “Wuss! You call that a scar?” Shepard suddenly pushed Haruto down to the ground, kneeled on his shoulders and pulled out a long heavy ‘Bowie’ style knife. He gouged out a long gash on Haruto’s cheek, one that showed the bone and teeth below the flesh. Then, as Haruto howled, Shepard touched the wound with his walking stick. A spark of – something- touched the wound, and it sealed as Shepard moved the gnarled knob down its length. When Spepard was done, Haruto’s face was healed, but there was an ugly, disfiguring scar that dominated that side of his face and lifted his lip in a permanent sneer. “Now THAT’S a Scar!”
As he squatted on him, Shepard rifled through Haruto’s pockets until he found something. He pulled out another large pistol. He turned to Michiko and said drolly, “And you thought that you weren’t getting anything out of this.” He tossed the pistol to her and resumed rummaging through Haruto’s pockets. He found Haruto’s billfold and cred stick, and checked the balance. “Dog’s teeth, but you are pathetic,” he said. Then he used the Bowie knife to carve a notch in Haruto’s ear, just below an existing notch. “Here. This is the second time that you’ve tried me. Try a third time-”
“And you cut off my ear,” Haruto said in a disgusted weary tone.
“NO,” Shepard corrected in a tone that said that he was annoyed at having to explain it, “I’ll cut a notch in your THROAT. Now GET, before you embarrass yourself anymore.”
Shepard got up and his crew let Haruto and his gang leave in one piece. “Hoi, Sheppado!” An elf among Shepard’s gang walked over, holding the frantically struggling little girl just off the ground by the collar of her shirt. “Look at what I found, trying to sneak away!”
“EIKO!” Shepard said brightly with the air of a man who’s had a gift dropped in his lap from out of the blue. “Well, this IS a come-down for you, isn’t it? Playing shakedown bait in Helltown? My, how the mighty have fallen.” His genial mien dropped completely, and he said in a cold, hard voice, “You remember what I told you, the last time we met?” He raised his walking stick again and the tip glowed with uncanny energy.
He pointed his stick at the girl, but Michiko tried to stop him. “NO! Please! She’s just a little girl, she-” then she caught the expression of the wizard’s backup crew, and the implications of what he’d said finally clicked. “Oh. Oh, so she’s not a little girl?” she said, embarrassed.
“She’s a thirty-six year old dwarf who had plastic surgery to make her look like a cute little girl,” one of the orcs wearing a bandana mask said. “She had a business servicing pedophiles over in San Francisco. And she’s the kind of whore who gives prostitution a bad name.”
“What you doin’ in THIS patch, Eiko?” a female oni among the bystanders heckled. “Last I saw of you, you was living high and sassy!” The mock child responded with a spate of profanity that put to rest any illusions of innocence.
“Okay, now that that’s settled…” Shepard placed the tip of his cane to Eiko’s head and inscribed a rune on her brow.
When he was done, the elf dropped her. Eiko looked up at Shepard and sneered, “Is THAT the best you can do, you old fraud?” She gave a derisive laugh, but then gasped as she seemed to feel something. She looked down at her leg, where a long bleeding scar suddenly appeared out of nowhere. A look of cold horror washed over her face, and she started looking around, seeing things that no one else could. Then a bite mark appeared on her cheek and bled down. She put her hand to the wound and looked at the blood. She let out a piercing shriek of abject horror and ran off as though all the devils in hell were on her heels.
And then, it was as if the show was over, and everyone went back to their own business. The bystanders went about their own affairs, Shepard’s men disappeared back into the tangle of containers, and it was as if it had never happened.
As far as Michiko could tell, the only signs that anything had happened at all was the gun in her hand and the blood on her clothes- and her knife. Then it hit her- she’d been in a fight. A real fight. One of her worst nightmares, being jumped by a bunch of inhuman thugs, had happened to her, and she’d stood her ground. No screaming, or begging or crying. She’d fought them all by herself and almost got away by herself. Not a glorious victory, but hardly anything to be ashamed of. She cleaned the blood off her knife, folded it and put it away. Feeling a lot better about herself and her prospects, she walked back to the clothing stalls.
She found the outfits that she’d picked out, re-folded (apparently the vendor hadn’t had a lot of faith in her coming back) but still available. She used a changing booth made from a refrigerator box to change into the glove-leather jeans and matching leather vest combination. She wore the vest without a shirt, leaving her arms bare and suggesting more cleavage than she was actually showing. She felt like a wild dangerous girl of the streets, so she should look like one.
Shepard suggested that she buy a black longcoat, as most of the others were wearing. The longcoat that Shepard suggested to her had been mended in a few places. She checked the inner lining, and noted the hard plastic mesh lining between the leather and the satin interior lining. The coat was armored. It struck her that Shepard knew exactly what he’d pointed her at.
Michiko was the last to be finished, something that the men of the group found too good to resist joking about. Shepard paid the orc- woman with more anachronistic paper money. Which made sense, since the woman couldn’t have a SIN, which meant that even using cred-sticks would be a chore for her.
That done, Shepard addressed them, “Debbie, I WAS going to have you stay here in Helltown for a few days. But after that, it might be just begging for trouble. Elmo, I can tell that you’ve had some security training- anyone show you how to handle a gun?”
“I took a hand-gunning course and studied aikido for a few years before this happened to me,” the troll indicated the horn curling from the side of his head.
“That’ll have to do. Elmo, take the boys here and show them how to handle those guns they just got.” He handed them a box of bullets. “There’s a vacant lot over in that direction. The locals use it for target practice, so no one should get very upset at the sound of gunfire. Besides, Haruto was kind enough to provide silencers with those things, wasn’t that thoughtful of him? If anyone wearing one of these-” he indicated the scarves that they wore, “-shows up and starts talking guns, don’t take it wrong, they’re just being friendly. And remember, they’re your backup here. Get to know them. If you see anyone give them shit, you back them up.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Nobody’s universally beloved,” Shepard grumbled back. “Especially not here in Helltown.” He turned back to Michiko. “Joe, Larry, Debbie- come with me. There’s someplace we need to go. Elmo, while I’m gone, you’re in charge. When you’re done shooting for the day, get them back to the hotel. I’ll be back tomorrow. In the meantime, just get to know the place. With luck, you won’t have to stay here very long. But there IS one good thing about Helltown: it’s a damn good place to run to, when things get sticky.”
Shepard led Michiko, the dwarf and one of the oni back to his pickup. ‘Joe’ did a little pro forma grumbling about getting in the not-so-cramped back of the cabin, while ‘Larry’ stoically wrapped himself up in the blankets on the pickup’s bed. As Shepard drove, Michiko asked, “Shepard-sama, what did you do to that dwarf-woman, Eiko?”
“Eiko crossed me a few years back,” he replied. “Let’s just say that it was nasty, and leave it at that. The only reason that I didn’t squash her like a bug back then was that she had protection. Even so, I warned her that if I ever managed to get hands on her on my own turf, she’d die screaming. She laughed then. She could afford to. She had protection. But the only reason that nasty little snob like Eiko would be in Helltown, acting as bait for a punk like Haruto, is if that protection had turned on her. It was very quiet, though. I wonder what happened?” He pulled a pocket secretary from his coat and made a note to check into it.
“No…” Debbie said uncertainly, “I meant… WHAT did you do to her? Not why. You are my patron. I must assume that you did what you did for reasons that you thought best. But what did you do?”
“Ah.” Shepard said in a tone of comprehension. “Well, what I did is called ‘laying a beacon’. It’s also called the Evil Eye, and ‘denouncing an anathema’. Debbie, there are spirits all around us, every moment. But their natural state is on the Astral Plane, which is rather like a magical version of the Net- a plane that intersects, but doesn’t quite merge with the physical plane. Spirits can look into the physical plane, but they can’t really DO anything. They have to be brought onto the physical plane for them to do anything here. And distinctions are hard to make, looking at the physical from the astral. Normally, spirits crowd around places on the astral that correspond with places on the physical, and they feed on things like anger, passion, pain, bloodshed, joy, curiosity, the mental energies of learning and so on. But they have to settle for the crumbs that we leave as we do various things that sort of ‘pass through the cracks’, as it were. Now, in places like Helltown, there are all sorts of the absolute WORST spirits hanging about at all times, feeding on the frustration, hate, despair and personal self-loathing that people stuck there generate. Now, what I did to Eiko was I created a sort of ‘hole’ in the veils between the planes. Not big enough for spirits to pass through, just large enough for them to reach through. And a complete and utter raving bitch like Eiko would draw the absolute worst sorts of spirits to her wake. After feeding on the crumbs that she’s been leaving behind, I knew that those spirits would be only too eager to finally get at the main course.”
Michiko shrank down into her seat as the implications of what Shepard just said registered in her mind.
“And NO, I can’t just pull that out of my hat,” Shepard continued. “It took me months to craft that beacon, and I made it especially for her. I’ve had that thing on me at all times for three years, just in case.” Michiko was only moderately mollified by that, and Joe made no noise whatsoever from the back.
On Shepard’s cue, Michiko pulled the pickup out, and went back out onto the highway. But she only went a few miles before Shepard had her pull onto the surface streets again. He drove her into a neighborhood that looked like it had be ‘repurposed’ several times; what it’s previous iterations had been, she had no idea. It was currently a high-density residential area, with stores selling (very) cheap wares packed cheek-and-jowl with seedy hotels and nameless apartment buildings and various enterprises that managed to carry out their trades in spaces a third too small for the purpose. The signs and other words were a jumble of English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Spanish, and the people walking and idling around were the same, only very heavily metahuman.
Shepard had Michiko pull into an alley and had them all get out. “This is where you’ll hang for a few days, while I get you all sorted out,” he jerked a thumb at a bar with a hologram sign advertising Sapporo© beer, Ozeki ® sake, and other Japanese brands. There were signs saying ‘Big Mama’s’ in English and ‘Midori’ in kanji. Shepard breezed into the bar, and they dutifully followed.
For a moment, Michiko thought that she’d somehow been magically transported back to Japan. Or, at least a working class bar in some industrial prefecture. There were booths and a bar, and everywhere there was something that spoke of simple everyday life in Japan, from the welcoming cat, to the brands that were behind the counter, to the lottery jar, to the big screen 3D TV that would almost certainly be used to watch basuboru, to pennants for the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers. “Hoi, Sheppado!” gushed a magnificently obese and garishly overly made-up troll woman behind the counter. “Is it Wednesday again already?” She came out from behind the counter with unlikely grace and gave Shepard a hug that would have crushed a normal person.
“Hoi, Mama Yama!” Shepard chuckled as he extracted himself from her enveloping embrace. “Yes, it’s Wednesday again, and yes, I have a few more strays for you. Don’t worry, I won’t stick them with you for very long, and they’re good hard workers, so they’ll work for what they eat. Anyway, this is Joe, and obviously as he’s a dwarf, he’s simply aces with technology. Just kidding, Joe. No, I have something special planned for Joe here, but it’ll take a few days to arrange. So, put him to work; it’ll keep him from brooding. Larry here’s in pretty much the same fix, but he actually IS good with technology. And this is Debbie; she’s one of my specials. Put her to work waiting on the tables, but I want her to run through Hogan’s alley at least two times a day. I don’t expect her scores to be very good the first couple of times around; I suspect that this is the first time she’s even held a gun, let alone fired one. If Joe or Larry want to take a run through the alley, fine, let them. But Debbie here has to practice at least twice a day.”
Hogan’s Alley turned out to be a maze of thin gypsum-board walls that was used as the physical context for a gun-training program. She wore a clunky virtual reality headset that superimposed a very nasty cityscape onto the flimsy walls, including a mix of threats and innocent bystanders. She had to pass through the maze and either shoot or not shoot the images as she encountered them with an airgun that had the same heft and recoil as a real gun; the headset provided the ‘bang’. The computer in the headset read the placement of the laser dot on the wall and decided whether she’d hit or not. According to Mama Yama, whether she hit or not wasn’t really the point. The point was that she would fire when threatened, and not fire when not threatened. As Shepard predicted, her first score was atrocious. And her second and third scores weren’t much better. But in the nihonjin tradition of ‘do your best’, she applied herself, and in a few days, she was merely pathetic.
Mama Yama put Debbie to work behind the counter and waiting on the tables. Debbie was pleasantly surprised by her work. She’d expected something more… sleazy, and grim. It wasn’t a kiddie show or anything, but Mama Yama’s bar turned out to be a ‘local waterhole’ for the more prosperouskodokujin, and for the most part, it was comparatively friendly and wholesome. Debbie got the impression that there was some illegal dealing going on in some of the booths, but it lacked the nasty edge that she associated with the bars that catered to such business (at least as far as she knew from the TV shows she watched that featured such places). There was a local joke about ‘where everybody knows your name’ that Debbie simply didn’t get.
While Mama Yama was very intimidating in a ‘big friendly dog’ way, Debbie didn’t really understand how the bar could stay such a pleasant place, given some of the truly barbaric looking gangs that strolled around the streets. Two nights after she arrived, she learned how. It was almost midnight, and the After-work and Early Evening crowds had been and mostly gone, and the Late Night crowd were coming and going, as they tend to. There were quiet deals going on in a few of the booths, and then one of those deals suddenly wasn’t that quiet anymore. A huge nihonjin-looking Troll was yelling something in a mish-mash of languages that Debbie couldn’t follow, and reached under his leather motorcycle jacket. Suddenly a machine gun dropped out of a niche over the bar, strategically placed so that it covered every inch of the bar, turned and aimed at the troll, and let off a burst of shots that slammed into him, putting him down.
The bar emptied like air out of a burst balloon. Mama Yama trudged over to the booth and grunted in annoyance. Then she yelled for Larry and Joe, and Herman and Slim, two orcs who had already been working there when Debbie arrived, to get him out of there. Then she gruffly told Debbie to clean up the booth, and that the customers would be back in an hour or so. Debbie asked, “How did you know he was wearing body armor?”
“He was wearing body armor?”
Debbie was sure that there was going to be trouble. Everybody knew that gangers got very angry when someone killed, or worse, embarrassed one of their members. The gang chieftain would have to strike back, maybe even burn the bar down, or risk losing face! But Shepard quickly showed up and made a few phone calls. There was a fast meeting with the gang chieftain with a couple of his gang at his back, and Shepard and Mama Yama both by themselves. But instead of Mama Yama apologizing to the gang leader and giving him a bribe, HE apologized to HER. By Two o’clock, the regulars were back, and you’d never have known that a shooting had happened. The Police didn’t even drive BY.
The next day, Shepard showed up and took Joe the Dwarf away, and Debbie didn’t see him for a while. She heard from Herman that Shepard had gotten Joe a berth working in a ‘black clinic’ which was apparently like a normal hospital, only they didn’t report the injuries they treated, and they provided services that were normally strictly illegal, like implanting unregistered cyberwear. Two days after that, Shepard came for Larry, and when he showed up the next day, it was as a customer, and he told her that he was working, but he couldn’t say what he was doing.
Wondering exactly what she’d gotten herself into, Debbie threw herself into what she saw as her work. She waited on tables, and did her best to improve her English and her negligible Spanish, and she tried to pick up the bizarre tangle of languages and slang that was called ‘Cityspeak’.
Wednesday rolled around, and Shepard showed up with two morekodokujin‘strays’ from the Emeryville pier dumping ground, a rather formidable and intense oni with dark blue skin, black hair and obvious horns that Shepard had named ‘Marco’, and a distracted elf rechristened ‘Dawson’. Dawson quickly bowed before Mama Yama respectfully, but Marco just stood, unbent, taking in the bar with a certain hard disregard. He paused when taking in Debbie, looked her up and down, and then moved on. He sneered slightly at Mama Yama. Shepard slapped Marco upside the head and said, “Show respect. She’s your boss for the next few days.” Marco glowered at Shepard, but bowed.
“Oh. One of those,” Mama Yama grunted with annoyance.
Unlike Joe and Larry, Shepard insisted that Marco and Dawson train on Hogan’s Alley. Dawson’s initial score was slightly better than Debbie’s had been, but Marco’s was actually respectable. Also, Marco seemed to regard the Alley as a game, rather than a drill. Indeed, while Dawson was a very nice young man (quite friendly, not at like the snide, arrogant elves that she saw on TV), there was something about Marco that unnerved Debbie. There was something feral and predatory about the way that he looked at her, like he was a wolf, sizing up a lamb that had strayed from the flock. And he seemed to have an absolute genius for being in the hallway when she walked in only her bathrobe from the shower to her cramped little room after washing.
Mama Yama put Dawson and Marco to work, as she had with Larry and Joe, and life at ‘Midori’ went on. Then Shepard showed up very early during the Sunday morning scrub-down with another pair of kodokujin, a tall and impressive-looking ork with a bushy head of flaming red hair and a powerful physique, and a troll who barely fit through the front door, which had been enlarged just to let trolls enter. “Sheppado!” Mama yelped, “Already? We barely got started! It’s still dark out!”
“I’m sorry, Momma, but for a change, we’re working early, not late. Marco, Dawson, Debbie- go and change, and dress for running around in the woods.” The Woods? Weren’t there Indians out in the woods in America?
Debbie dressed in jeans, a light denim shirt and a leather blazer, with the sturdy ‘Doc Marten’ shoes that were coming back into style again, slipped her gravity tanto into a breast pocket and tucked the big automatic pistol into the small of her back. When she was finished, she joined them downstairs, where Shepard led them out into the alley, where a large pickup was parked. This wasn’t the pickup that he’d had when she’d driven him from the wharf to Helltown; it was much larger, with a larger engine, bigger tires, a full back seat, a longer bed, a strut frame, and a pair of high posts at the very back of the truck bed. Shepard had Marco drive this time and Debbie sat between Dawson and the new ork, while the troll, who wouldn’t have fit in the cabin of the truck anyway, rode in the back with Shepard’s dog. “It’s too soon for explanations or introductions,” Shepard said. “We’ve a good bit of driving to do, and I don’t want you over-thinking what we’re about to do. Suffice it to say that this is going to be the first of many jobs that you’re going to do for me. I can’t train you as I’d like, but this should be a good introduction into your new profession.”
Profession? Debbie puzzled that over as the pickup drove north out of Oakland, through Berkeley and Richmond. Then they turned onto a bridge that crossed over the bay. “We’re heading into Marin County,” Shepard explained. “That’s the county just north of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate. Back in the late 20th Century, it got really suburban, but since Independence- not to mention the wars with the Tir- it’s de-urbanized a lot, and there’s been a fair bit of going back to nature.” They drove for a while, and the sun was beginning to peek over the horizon. They drove through a fair bit of very nice suburban development, which promptly got more and more ramshackle has they headed north, until most of the houses that they passed where tumbledown ruins choked with weeds. The countryside became hilly, and then Shepard told Marco to pull over. Shepard told them to get out; it was time for introductions and explanations.
First, there were introductions. The new ork was named ‘Kent’ and the troll was named ‘Ben’. “I didn’t recruit you all off the pier in Emeryville purely out of the goodness of my heart,” Shepard said tersely. “I have plans for you five. Not to worry, I’m not planning to sacrifice you to some unnamable fiend. I want to form the five of you into small, but hopefully effective team of covert operations mercenaries; what the lurid media calls ‘Shadow-runners’.” ‘Shadowrunners’? Media-spawned images of sleek, hideously competent, and heavily armed (if absurdly underdressed) corporate commandos, passing through corporate security like modern-day ninjas, ran through Debbie’s mind. There was no way that she could be a shadow-runner! Shadowrunners SHOT people! Shadowrunners got shot AT by people!
Shepard must have read their expressions. “NO, I’m not going to shove some guns into your hands and expect you to break into the Renraku offices. No, that’s why we’re here at this undogly hour of the morning. You’re going to get a little practical experience before you do anything really dangerous. My plan is for you five to form a sentai, an action team. No, don’t give me that look; I know, the sentai concept is a trite and tired anime concept, but it still works, and it works quite nicely. Kent, you will be the ‘Handsome Leader’- that’s what we call it in California; I don’t know what the term for it is in Japan. I am counting on you to get these people moving, and moving in the right direction.
“Marco, you will be what we call the ‘Lancer’, the tough hotshot who kicks ass, gets the job done and keeps the Handsome Leader from getting too tracked. Yes, I can tell that you’re looking forward to it.
“Debbie, you will be the ‘Beautiful Girl’.” Debbie wondered if her complexion let her blushes show. “Yes, I know, you already ARE a beautiful girl, bear with me. Your job will be to keep this team working together. Keep Kent and Marco from locking horns too badly. Keep Ben and Dawson from getting discouraged. Keep them talking to each other, and make sure they understand each other. You’ll also handle the communications gear. You have some medical training, right?”
“Hai, I took a Paramedics course, along with-”
“Excellent, you’re also the team Medic, as well as what we call a ‘utility’- that is, you’ll back up anyone who needs help with a task: driving, mapping, putting up structures, research, whatever. The rest of you remember, one of the first rules of survival is: Always Protect Your Medic; she’s gonna be the one patching you bozos up.
“Dawson, you will be the ‘Brain’ of the outfit. Yes, Kent is still in charge, but he’ll have his hands full making decisions and keeping track of what’s going on. He’s going to need you to figure things out, know obscure facts, research things, go on the Net, and work the high tech. Your job will be to know the things that they’ll need to know, even if they don’t know that they need to know it.
“Ben, you’re the ‘Big Guy’. You’ve seen the anime; you know what I’m talking about. You’ll be doing the heavy lifting and like that; I’m sure that you’re used to it by now. But you have a far more important role to play in this group. Your emotional strength will be just as important as your physical strength. You’ll have to be the one that keeps all of them grounded. You’re the one who’ll have to stop one or maybe even all of them when they get so wrapped up in whatever they’re doing that they lose sight of common sense. We in the West have a saying: ‘Keep both feet on the ground’; that’s your real job.”
Ben nodded and rumbled out “Hai.”
“Now, before you complain that I’m expecting you all to be cartoon characters, let me warn you: I have Arts to take a person’s measure and gauge their potentials. I can tell more about a person with a passing glance than a PhD psychologist can with a battery of tests. I know a person’s strengths; even, or should I say, especially those they don’t know they have. Those arts have served me very well in the past fifteen years, and they’re the reason why I have my privileged position at the Emeryville pier. I picked you five from all the people who showed up at the pier in the past month or so, because you fit those niches. And, better, you’ll grow within those niches, and discover things about yourself that you had no idea of. You may not know it now, but you five FIT together.” He finished by lacing the outstretched fingers of both his hands together, like the teeth of two cogs.
“Aren’t all Shadowrun teams supposed to have a magician?” Marco said snidely, idly scratching one tusk.
“I’ll fill that niche for the moment,” Shepard said equitably, “Don’t worry, I have a plan to fill that berth, but it’ll take some doing. In the mean time I’ll handle all that, while you all get used to the idea and each other.”
Shepard was about to say more, but just then an official-looking car drove up, one with a star in a circle on the door, which if Debbie’s memory served her right, meant that it was a police car of some sort. Two human men got out, one an Anglo, the other Black, although she’d picked up that you weren’t supposed to call them that, though why should it matter now? They were wearing khaki and had star-shaped badges on their chests, so she guessed that they were policemen, or at least a Contract Police Service. Their hands on their gunbelts, but not their guns they walked up cautiously. “You folks need some assistance?” one of them asked in a way that suggested to Debbie that what they were really asking was, ‘What are you doing here?’
But Shepard wasn’t intimidated in the least. “As a matter of fact, yes, you can be of great assistance!” he said in a cheery unconcerned manner. “We’re going hunting for feral pigs and like that. I’ve got my hunting license and papers, but I’m afraid that the paperwork for my companions hasn’t caught up with them yet. Maybe you could expedite that, so we can get to hunting without any problems?”
The black policeman looked suspiciously at the truck. “So, what are you shooting?” Gesturing for Debbie and the others to step away from the truck, Shepard produced gun cases that contained two high-powered hunting rifles, a VERY large shotgun, and two smaller shotguns. Then the policeman nodded and asked to see Shepard’s hunting license. As he produced the card, Debbie noticed a small wad of papers folded under the card. The policemen looked at the card and ran it through their computer. Apparently Shepard’s hunting license came up clean, as the two policemen’s attitudes were far friendlier. One of them brought out a camera and another produced some sort of printer. Shepard draped a tarpaulin over the frame on the truck to provide a neutral backdrop, and they took the groups’ pictures, one at a time. Debbie flinched when Shepard told the policemen that her last name was ‘DeVille’. She was Debbie DeVille. How precious.
Then the policeman handed her a second card. It was a California driver’s license, with her picture and name and an address that she didn’t recognize. That baffled her for a moment, until the connection clicked: she had a SIN! A System Identification Number! She was in the system! She could buy and sell and have a bank account! Admittedly, she was in the system as ‘Debbie DeVille’, not Takashima Michiko, but she was in the system! Kent and the others were looking at their new IDs with looks of bewilderment. Debbie decided not to impugn the officers’ face by explaining it to her comrades in front of them.
After the officers left, Marco looked at Shepard sourly and asked, “So ka, now that the fuzz has left, what are we really doing out here?”
“Just as I said,” Shepard replied equitably. “We’re here to hunt feral pigs. This is what we Californos would call a ‘getting your feet wet’ mission. Something that’s real work, and requires you all to work together, but there’s no chance of you getting arrested or shot. Feral pigs have been a problem for years now. And, to make things worse, in the 18th century, some idiot imported some Siberian boars to hunt, and couldn’t manage to bag all of them. They’ve been breeding with the feral pigs, producing some spectacularly nasty hybrids. And that was before the Awakening. Anyway, those hybrids have worked their way west- don’t ask me how they crossed the Mississippi- and they’ve shown up here in CalFree. They’ve been classified as ‘Vermin’, which means that there’s no charge for the hunting license, and we can bag as many as we can shoot. And since boar meat goes for three times what regular pork does, we should do nicely. I have four restaurants in San Francisco who are willing to bid competitively for fresh wild boar pork.”
Shepard doled out the guns, giving the hunting rifles to Kent and Marco, one of the shotguns to Dawson and the big shotgun to Ben. After doling out olive drab bucket hats and bright orange hunters’ vests (it seemed that wild pigs were color-blind, but hunters <theoretically at least> weren’t, so these would keep them from accidentally shooting at each other), Shepard explained to Debbie and Dawson, “No gun for you on this job, Debbie. Your part on this job is to be the medic,” he produced a harness with many pockets and several attached satchels in ‘safety orange’ with red crosses on white circles on each. “Another part of your job is to hang back keep your eyes open for things that the others might miss; a classic problem with hunters is that they get wrapped up in looking, not seeing.”
“Are these pigs really so dangerous that I might have to use these?”
“As a matter of fact, YES. Besides being hybrids with Siberian boars, the local feral pigs are the product of natural selection on fast forward. Besides meta/human hunters, they have to cope with squatters, nomads, both domestic and feral dogs and cats, raccoons, security drones, traffic, and cougars- cougars, you may know them better as ‘mountain lions’. And since the Awakening, there are things out in the woods that make cougars look like fuzzy little kittens. In order to survive, the feral pigs have to be smart, fast, and MEAN, with hair-trigger responses. So, Yes, those things ARE dangerous; that’s part of the whole reason that I brought you out here, to face a real threat that I’m reasonably sure you can handle.”
“But what if this wild pig comes charging at ME?” Debbie quailed.
“Good point. The final part of your job is that you carry THIS,” Shepard handed her something that looked like a speargun with twin tines at the end, and attached several gelatin-pack batteries to her harness. “This is an Ares ‘Silent Thunder©’ electric prod. It delivers a 250,000 volt charge; that’s enough to bring down a charging RHINO.” Shepard touched a button on the side of the grip, and the shaft of the prod shot forward by about two feet. “If you can, hit it on its nose; pigs’ noses are very sensitive; they were used for years in France to sniff out truffles. And for the rest of us, we’ll be carrying these around.” He pulled five stout spears with long tapering points from the bed of the pickup truck. “These are boar spears. They were developed in Germany hundreds of years ago, when hunting was still an important part of getting meat on the table.”
Marco made a rude noise, but Shepard said, “NO, this is NOT a joke. Boars aren’t just pigs, they’re smegging dangerous, and you’ll need these to keep from getting ripped apart. See these wings?” he pointed at parts of the head that jutted out from the spear like wings. “Those are to keep the boar from working its way up the shaft when you stick it, and goring you. And YES, they will do that. Don’t try to kill it with these, just get it hooked on the spear. If the boar charges, don’t try to shoot it; it’ll be traveling too fast to get a bead on. Just put the spear between it and you, and try to get it to impale itself. They do that. If one of you snags it, the others get in there with your spears and try to nail the little booger to the forest floor before he wriggles his way loose. THEN we put it down.”
As Debbie familiarized herself with the contents of her Medic’s harness, Ben and Marco helped Dawson assemble three small rotorblade reconnaissance drones. The new ork, ‘Kent’ came over, rifle raised up so that it pointed safely up into the sky, and the targeting visor pushed up on his forehead. Without a word, he watched Debbie check through the rows of sprays and sheaves of slap-patches, and checked the field diagnostic sensor. After a bit of that, Debbie asked, “Yes?”
“Where did you study?” he asked in Japanese.
“I studied for two years at the Nekomi Institute of Technology,” she replied in the same language.
“You studied Medicine? Nursing?”
“I studied a lot of things,” Debbie said defensively. “I got EMT-1A certificate and was studying for an EMT-2, along with many other courses I was taking.”
“In other words, you were trolling for a rich husband, maybe a doctor.”
“I was looking for something that I’m good at!” Debbie snapped, as she directed her attention to the harness with a bit too much zeal.
“Did you find anything?”
“THIS happened,” Debbie touched one of the nubbins of her horns.
Kent considered this for a bit and said, “My name is Etsuo. My real name.”
A quip about the irony of his name (‘Etsuo’ means ‘Joyous Life’) formed on Debbie’s lips, but she reined it in. Just because he was rude, was no reason to sink to his level. “Michiko,” she said curtly.
There were a few more attempts at conversation, but they died cold, lonely, embittered deaths.
One after the other, Dawson sent the drones into the sky with a soft electric whirr, keeping track of them with a VR control unit built into the harness he wore. Watching them go up, Kent asked, “Isn’t that rather unsporting?”
“If we were hunting for sport, Yes;” Shepard said as he set the anti-theft blocks on the pickup’s tires, “but we’re hunting for food, practice and possibly money, so the kid gloves are off. Kent, ‘playing fair’ is for card games and bar brawls. In a real fight, there’s no such thing as an ‘unsporting advantage’. “
However, the rotor-drones didn’t give them enough of an advantage. They spent the entire morning tramping around the woods, and aside from some deer, a couple of raccoons, and more squirrels than she wanted to think about, they didn’t see anything. Debbie was taking a chance on eating some blackberries (at least she thought they were blackberries), when Shepard called a lunch break. Debbie boiled some water for tea and ‘Instant Banquet©’ meals. After bolting down two of them (Ben had four), Marco asked Shepard, “So, any chance that you can magic up those pigs you promised us?” he finished by twiddling his fingers at Shepard.
Shepard gave Marco a disapproving glower. “Don’t look to magic to solve all your problems. BUT, from the way things are going, you do have a point. Stand back, I have some work to do.” Shepard reached under his leather longcoat and produced a leather satchel. He took out a horn, unplugged it and poured colored sand in a careful circle. He then called to Ben, who threw him a can of Sterno, which Shepard lit, and threw some dust into, which caused the small flame to jump higher and smoke. Then Shepard stuck a few wooden pegs with crude faces carved on them at places around the circle. Then he pulled a long wooden flute out from the recesses of his coat, sat down in a tailor’s squat, and started playing the flute. After about a half-hour, Marco got bored, and wandered over to the edge of the circle. He leaned to the edge of the circle and was clearly about to make a snide comment, when Shepard casually lashed out with the flute, rapping Marco on the top of the head with it, *thwok!*
Shepard resumed playing as though nothing had happened. A few minutes later, Debbie had a sense of something gathering and collecting itself together inside the circle. The sense became a blur, which became a haze, which resolved into a wispy vision of a female with brown bark for skin and a long fall of deciduous leaves for hair. What do you want, chaser after sticks? The apparition asked in a voice like rustling leaves (with a dismissive note). From there, Shepard started verbally fencing with the spirit, which struck Debbie as more like haggling over a used car than a spiritual exchange. Every so often, Shepard threw something into the fire, and the negotiation went on for about a half-hour. Then the spirit nodded and faded, and suddenly the negotiations were over.
Shepard put out the sterno, gathered up the pegs and scuffed out the sand circle with his foot. “Lock and load, Kiddies. Our guide says that our target is just over a klick and a klack in that direction. Don’t worry about getting your feet sore, our guide will make the trip quick and cover both our noise and our smell.”
As they gathered up their gear and dispersed their camp in a way respectful of the wood spirit, Debbie asked, “Sheppado-sensei, why would a nature spirit help us find a creature of nature?”
“Because I paid it off,” Shepard said with a snicker. “’Mother Nature’ isn’t the sweet, nurturing grandmotherly type that the Media would have you believe. In Nature, it’s ‘eat before you are eaten’, and spirits aren’t above that primal law. Besides, pigs aren’t native to North America. The Europeans brought them, and to be honest, they’ve never really fit in very well. They have no instinct for how much is enough, so they just keep eating as much as they can whenever they can, tear up everything that gets in their way, and leave a shambles behind them without a second thought. They’re almost as bad as humans. Believe me, Whispering-Voice-of-the-Sundappled-Glade is only too glad to be rid of those pigs. She wouldn’t mind being rid of us, the people in the nearest house, and the farm a couple of miles from here, but she’ll settle for being rid of the pigs.”
As they marched, Debbie noticed that they weren’t moving in the normal way. They were walking, but they were somehow gliding through the forest in a smooth, effortless way, as you do in dreams. Shepard led the at a comfortable ‘leading the boy scouts’ pace, his dog keeping up easily with an unhurried pace; yet she had the sense of great distance being crossed, as though she was walking down the aisle of a moving train. Then the surreal feeling faded, and they came to rest in some manner in a patch of leafy woods. “Spread out, look for any signs that the plants have been disturbed: rooted up shrubs, marked-up bark on trees, spoor, like that. But stay in sight of each other. Keep an eye out for each other. That’s crucial, kids.”
Debbie did as she was told, and casually glanced around. Then she noticed something flapping several yards away. Curious, she slowly advanced. It was… a hole? In the forest? No, it was a big ragged hole tore in the camouflage of a fence. Curious, she cautiously stepped toward it. Yes, the camouflage was very good, but now she could see the links in the chain link fence. Peering between the strips of constantly shifting photo-reactive cloth, she saw a small clearing dominated by a tall blinding white multi-sided pylon with characters something very much like kanji (but not) painted in red along the sides, with a stylized eye painted at the very top. “Hoi, Sheppado…” she called out in a low but carrying note, “Come see this…”
Shepard and the others came to see what she’d found, in a sadly unprofessional mob. Shepard examined the fence and then looked through the gap. “What the SMEG?”
The scene was shattered by a sound like sheet metal being torn, with a touch of the primordial rage of an infant’s scream. Something burst out of cover, moved with blinding speed and clipped Ben in the small of the back as it passed. Ben went down with a yip of pain, and Debbie hurried to his side, pulling a trauma patch from her harness as she ran. She slavered some topical anesthetic/antibiotic cream on the wound, stapled it shut and slapped on the trauma patch, which was the best that she could do at the moment. Then she had the reflex to look up from her work at what had done this to Ben.
It had stopped and turned, and paused for the briefest moment. Debbie got the briefest glimpse of something piggish but not like any pig that Debbie had ever seen, even the inushishi that were such pests back in Nihon! It was taller than Ben at the shoulder, and it had not two but six long curving saber-like tusks! What wasn’t covered by thick rhinoceros-like thick skin was covered by bony plates, including a mask-like carapace for the face and serrated plates sticking up along down the spine. The nightmare hog gave another rending metal shriek and came charging right at Debbie!
Ben spotted it and managed to scramble out of its path, but Debbie was frozen to the spot in sheer horror. Ben scrambled back and just managed to pull Debbie out of the demon-boar’s charge. The boar continued another good twenty feet before skidding to an awkward stop and reversing itself. Kent and Marco put their hunting rifles to their shoulders and started firing at it. Kent hit with two shots and Marco got in a good shot, but all they did was chip some of the bony plate off the beast. Ben pulled himself together and got his shotgun up to fire off a few rounds, but the pellets simply flattened on the bony plates and didn’t hurt the bakebuta any.
“BEN! Don’t bother with the buckshot!” Shepard yelled as he fired a rapid succession of shells into the boar’s face, “Use the bear slugs! Those are the shells strapped to the side of your shotgun!” Debbie wondered why he would tell Ben that, when he was busy firing buckshot rounds; then he started hurriedly loading shells into his shotgun, and became glaringly obvious that he was emptying his own shotgun quickly in a way that gave Ben breathing room.
Ben did likewise and thumbed the huge bear slugs into his shotgun. He put three in and started shooting. The first slug was a clean miss, the second slug hit the boar in the nose but only gouged out a bigger hole in the carapace around one nostril, and the third one went in one of the pig’s forequarters. The bear slug was designed to put down a brown bear; it only managed to make the boar even more angry. It let out another ear-ripping squeal and charged again. Dawson dropped one of the rotor-drones in the boar’s path. The boar crashed into it without a scratch, but it did stop the monster in its tracks. Kent dropped his rifle and picked up his boar spear. With a blood-chilling battle cry, he charged at the pig and set his spear into its thick hide. Marco looked at Kent as though he’d gone barking mad, but quickly picked up on Kent’s idea (such as it was) and charged as well. He set his spear close to Kent’s and joined him in trying to tip the boar over. Ben dropped his shotgun and grabbed the pig by the tusks and added his strength to theirs. He saved Kent and Marco from being thrown, but even all together, they were barely able to keep the boar from thrashing its way free. They were in a fierce battle, and it was clear that if they didn’t get the bakebuta under control, it would rip into them with its tusks.
Debbie realized that the only weapon that they had that could really hurt the boar was Ben’s big shotgun, and neither Shepard nor Dawson or she could reasonably handle the small cannon. And the only weapon that she had was-
-the shock prod!
It was supposed to be defensive, but if she could shock the pig, then Ben and Kent and Marco would be able to handle it! She rushed forward and shot out the prod, but her shocks couldn’t penetrate the pig’s thick, rhinocerine hide. She looked around for a weak spot. The underside was a classic bit, and she thought about jabbing at its corkscrew penis, but it was thrashing about with its legs too violently to get a clear shot. She checked higher, and every spot on the thing was either covered with the thick skin or by the bony plates.
Except for the conical ears that waggled around high on the pig’s head. The ears were thin and full of blood. They were shy on nerve endings, but she didn’t really have a lot of options at the moment. She paused, reached up and gave the pig a zotz on the ear.
The boar let out a pained yelp and shook its head. Ben took advantage of this, and threw the boar off its pins. But the boar managed to get back to its feet before Kent and Marco could get their spears set into it, and it started to make a run for it. But Shepard stepped in front of it, and waved his hand into its face. A shower of sparkles appeared from his hand and into the pig’s snout. The boar stopped with a squeal of surprise that changed into a bleat of disgust and it stopped dead in its tracks. It backpedalled, and then frantically started rubbing its snout in the dirt. With a flash, Debbie understood that Shepard had cast a spell that created a horrendous stink in the boar’s nose. And as Shepard had said, pigs had very sensitive noses.
Sensitive noses. She saw that one of Ben’s bear slug rounds had opened up the narrow slit in the bony carapace protecting the boar’s eyes and nostrils, allowing easy access to the pig’s nose.
Ben, Kent and Marco tried to tip the boar over again, and as the boar thrashed at them with his tusks, Debbie took her shot. She rushed in and shoved the prod directly through the ragged hole into its nose and pulled the button.
The boar gave out an agonized yelp of pain and shrugged Ben, Kent and Marco off of it with a convulsive shudder. But it didn’t try to escape. Rather, it sat down on its haunches and just looked forward in a stupid daze. Ben pushed it over onto its side without a struggle, but Debbie, seeing an opening and not trusting the boar to not recover what passed for its wits quickly, took the opportunity to deliver another shock, this time to the beast’s crotch.
The glade echoed with the high-pitched squeal of pain.
The bakebuta slumped over, but instead of leaping on it to bind it, Ben, Kent and Marco- and Shepard and Dawson as well- were just standing there hunched over, their faces scrunched up, as though in agony. “What?” Debbie asked.
“Very good, Debbie,” Shepard groaned, straightening up. “Just… don’t do that again.” Then he started barking out orders, telling Dawson to remotely pilot the pickup to the spot, Debbie to take a loop of rope from Ben’s harness and throw it over the limb of a nearby tree, and for Kent and Marco to bind the pig’s trotters with the rolls of duct tape that he tossed to them. As they did that, he stuck tennis balls on the points of the pig’s tusks and duct-taped its mouth shut. That done, the four men dragged the massive beast over to where Debbie had draped the rope over the branch, arranged for a crude but effective block and tackle, securely tied the huge pig’s hind trotters with the rope and hoisted it halfway off the ground, so that it was resting with its back on the ground.
Once the bakebuta was squarely secured, Marco turned to Shepard and snarled, pointing an accusing finger at the pig, “What is THAT?” in Japanese, and then after he’d collected himself a bit, he repeated the question in English.
“That is an Erymanthean Boar,” Shepard said, as though that explained everything. “The Erymanthean Boar is named after the monster that the goddess Artemis set to punish the king of Erymanthea, far back in history. It took Herakles, the greatest hero of antiquity- or, at least antiquity west of the Urals- to kill the beast as one of his classic Twelve Labors.” All five of the Nihonjin greeted this with varying looks of incomprehension. Shepard sighed and muttered something about ‘the Classics’. “It’s the Awakened form of various pig hybrids of various strains: Berkshire, Razorback, Siberian Boar, Wart hog; we’re not entirely sure what, we’d have to do a gene scan, and I’m not really that interested. Basically, it’s the pig version of a Troll.”
“You brought us out here to fight THAT?” Marco demaned.
“NO,” Shepard said in a pained, slightly offended way, “I didn’t know that this thing was out here! If I had, I would have come out here with twenty guys armed with Panther Assault Cannons, not shotguns! Okay, there have been a few rumors of some damage to some farms and houses out in this direction, but I didn’t think that we’d run into anything nastier than a New Boar, or maybe a pack of barguest at the very worst, and they only hunt at night. Ben, spin this bad boy around so his head is right-side up. You brave hunters are going to have your picture taken with your prize.”
“Because, I’m going to e-mail the picture to five different four-to-five-star restaurants in San Francisco.”
“You’re going to sell it to a restaurant, so people can eat it?” Debbie demanded, “But it’s CURSED MEAT!”
“No, it’s Magical Meat!” Shepard corrected her with a grin. “The fact that it’s from a Paranimal will only kick up the price by a factor of twenty! I’m going to start an online auction, starting at 100 Y a pound…”
“but… but…” Debbie sputtered, “but LOOK at it! It’s hideous! It’s disgusting!”
“So is Namako [Namako: Japanese name for Sea Cucumber, widely regarded as a delicacy in most East Asian cuisines],” Ben pointed out, “and it’s delicious!”
“And that’s only the tip of it,” Shepard said. “These things are incredibly magical. The tusks, the bristles, the blood, the eyes, the hide, the heart… they all have magical properties, if collected properly. Okay, it’s not Golden Boar, but what IS? And while I wasn’t expecting this, I do have some gear in the pickup that should do in a pinch.”
“It isn’t endangered, is it?” Debbie asked. It was huge, it was dangerous, it was disgusting, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t environmental fanatics who wouldn’t try to get such an abomination put on the International Endangered Species list. “We’re not going to get into trouble for killing it, are we?”
“Endangered?” Shepard barked a laugh, “PLEASE! It’s an awakened PIG! The only reason that these things are rare is that they’re so fragging obnoxious that people kill the things whenever they show their ugly mugs! Otherwise, they’d smeggin’ overrun the place! Not only won’t we get in trouble, as I recall, in keeping with the Harmful Paranimals Act, there’s a standing reward for these things.” Shepard pulled out a phone and checked. “Hmm… I was thinking that the things are rated as Class C, that’s ‘Large Paranimals’, which fetch 2,000 nuyen per pelt or head, but it’s not.”
“Well, that would be expecting a bit much,” Kent muttered mournfully.
“It’s rated as a Class A, that’s ‘Very Large Paranimal’,” Shepard said clinically, “and it fetches twenty thousand ¥ per head or pelt.”
“Apparently, they decided that it was both a little big for the ‘Large Paranimal’ bracket, and it was argued that it was more dangerous on a social scale than the other critters in the Class C bracket because it gives birth in litters, and it damages both wildlife and private property.” Shepard paused and took a look at his phone. “woo… someone’s been a naughty piggy! There are three independent rewards for the kills of this boar, from an Agri-Corp, a supermarket chain and a local brewery.”
“A brewery?” Debbie hooted, her mind boggling at the thought of the damage that a drunken bakebuta could do.
“Twenty thousand?” Marco repeated, the light of greed in his eyes.
“And that’s just for the Paranimal bounty,” Shepard pointed out. “The other bounties will probably be a lot harder to prove; they usually are, after the fact; accountants are like that.”
They asked Shepard a few more questions about the distribution of the rewards, and Shepard assured them that they were going to get paid for the day’s work, until the pickup that Dawson was remotely piloting showed up. Shepard had them drag a plastic tarpaulin over and get it under the hog, and had Dawson crank up a cooling blanket. As they were arranging that, he dug around in the cluttered back of the pickup and uncovered a large dark wooden chest that was shut with three mechanical locks. He opened the chest and rummaged around in it and found a leather pouch, which he filled with various odds and ends. Then he checked his cell phone again, made a variety of calculations, took a few bits out of the pouch, put a few new things in, and then he walked over to the boar and yanked a handful of bristles out. He tucked the bristles into the bag and sealed the bag.
Then Shepard had Debbie dress in a smock and rubber apron. “Why?” she asked as she tied her hair back in a kerchief.
Shepard went back into his chest and pulled out a shallow wooden case that he opened and presented to her. “Because I don’t want you getting too badly bloodied.”
“Bloodied? Why would I get bloodied?”
Shepard opened the case; set into a niche of green felt was a long European style knife- knife! It was more like a short sword!- made of a dull yellow metal, worked with strange markings. “Because, you’re going to shove this right into its heart, and you tend to get bloody when that happens.”
“What?” Debbie yipped. “You want me to do what? You want me to perform a blood sacrifice?”
“Blood magic is morally neutral,” Shepard said with careful dignity. “It’s just that it’s so powerful that it’s easily abused. Paranormal creatures with as much power and blood as Porky here are rare, so unethical practitioners sacrifice meta/humans, which is why it’s gained such a bad reputation. We’re not killing a sentient being, we’re killing a pernicious pest that we were going to kill anyway; we’re simply putting the blood and magic that this beast’s death will create to good use. And I’m not going to summon a demon or anything, I’m going to use the blood to enchant this medicine bag,” he held up the leather sack, “as to create a Healing Focus. Actually, given the nature of this boar, I could have gone for a Combat Focus or a Detection Focus, but this is Blood Magic we’re talking about, so it’s best to stay well within ethical boundaries.”
Debbie started to complain, but Ben interrupted her, rumbling, “Debbie-chan, I agree; I’m not comfortable with this. But, as he says, we came out here to kill pigs that were tearing up the forest. Is a knife that different from a bullet? Yes, it’s magic. But we must either trust Sheppado or not. He asks a lot of us, but then, we knew he would, didn’t we?”
Debbie worried her lower lip until Shepard said, “Debbie, I won’t ask you to do it if you really don’t want to. But the working would go significantly more smoothly if YOU stuck the knife in.”
“It probably needs a virgin to work right,” Marco jeered.
“Then, definitely, YOU should do it!” Debbie snapped. Stung by Marco’s crack, Debbie turned to Shepard and said, “I’ll do it!” opening her slide-tanto open with a flick of her wrist.
“It would go better with this,” Shepard said, holding up the case with the long dagger in it.
“Give me the knife!”
Shepard held up the case and said, “Take it.” Debbie snatched the blade and stalked over to the hog. Shepard followed her, and pausing to pick up a few blades of grass and a handful of acorns that he quickly stashed into the pouch, he stuffed the bag into the pig-thing’s mouth and taped it shut with the cord of the pouch dangling out. Debbie paused and wondered where she was supposed to stick the dagger in. Shepard told her that there was a (relatively) thinly covered spot just below the clavicle of the rib cage, and she should insert the blade there, and press down towards the heart. She approached the boar from up front, but its size and thrashing head made that problematic. So, she climbed up on the bakebuta’s belly, straddling it with her legs for stability and set the point of the dagger in the niche of the clavicle. Shepard began a low gutter chanting, and started beating a shallow drum. She could feel the boar breathing and the thundering beating of his heart. Gritting her teeth, she tried to stab into the belly of the beast, but only scratched it. She pulled the knife out and tried again, but only hurt the pig, making it thrash even more.
“Stop playing around!” Kent snapped, “Just DO it!” Debbie put both hands on the butt of the handle of the dagger and pushed down with all her weight and strength. She felt a crisp crunch as the blade sank in, and the slide as the edge penetrated under the ribs. She felt the beating of his heart in the blade, and the powerful muscles of that heart pushed the blade back. With a snarl, she gave the knife a mighty push, and she knew that the point was in the heart. With strength that came from somewhere, she wasn’t sure, she gave the dagger that last necessary push and felt the heart seize up like a fist.
The dying scream of the monster hog filled the glade, and its heart’s blood gushed out in a geyser that sprayed all over her, smock or no smock. Shepard rattled the drum in a climax and shouted the final words of his chant.
Debbie felt the pig die.
And, in a rather bathetic insight, she realized that she was more upset about the blood getting on her clothes, than she was about killing another living being. She was even more upset about not being upset about killing another living being that she was about killing it. What sort of monster was she?
The blood stopped gushing, and Ben helped Debbie off the hog. “Good Job, Debbie,” Shepard said as he slashed open the tape binding the pig’s mouth. He smiled as he pulled the disgusting slobber and blood-soaked leather bag from the pig’s mouth, and examined it. “Ah, with all the planning and preparation, it always comes down to you roll the dice and takes your chances. Still, it’s good when you don’t crap out.”
“Preparation?” Marco asked. Then a sly look came over his dark blue face. “So Ka… You just happened to have all this stuff in the truck when we caught that pig, neh?”
Shepard shot Marco a glower of annoyance. “IF I’d known about this thing,” he snarled at Marco, “I’d have arranged for a livestock transport van, a place to hold the damned thing for a couple of months until the first full moon after the Autumnal Equinox, I’d have done the ritual on a spot I know about on Mount Tam, I’d have the proper rituals, I’d have three colleagues in the Craft helping me, and I’d have had her perform a ritual cleansing first!”
Marco was (slightly) mollified by that, and Shepard showed the men how to field dress the boar- that is, to remove its internal organs, for some reason. Thank the kami, Shepard left her out of this part of the process, and let her wash off what she could of the blood. She looked like an ax murderer.
Or a blood-drinking demon.
When it was all done, all the innards packed away in nice, neat plastic bags, including IV bags for the blood, Shepard scooped up all the remaining blood on the tarp held the bagged tarp forth and began a chant as he poured the blood onto the roots of an oak tree. “Gentle Whispering-Voice-of-the-Sundappled-Glade, I offer you this token of thanks for your gracious assistance in the hunt,” he finished in English.
The Forest Spirit melted into being before them and asked in a voice like the wind through the branches, then you’re not going to hunt the other one?
“’Other One’?” Shepard bleated, “There’s Another One?”
The forest spirit moved them all to another part of the forest in the same strange ‘traveling montage’ manner. When the strange dreamlike movement stopped, Shepard kept the spirit from departing. “Whispering Voice, this hunt will be trickier than the first. We’re injured and tired, and we stink of blood and gunpowder. We need you to conceal us from the other pig’s sharp nose while we set up our attack.” Debbie was appalled and dismayed as the dialogue with this spiritual being nose-dived into the worst sort of haggling, apparently motivated by little more than the urge to get even a morsel more of concession from the shaman.
And, even with the spirit’s assistance, when the other pig showed itself, it seemed to sense that something was wrong. It was snuffling about for food, but at the same time, it was also sniffing in the air. And there was something about it that was different from the other one. It only had one set of those extravagant tusks, the bristles were longer and covered more of the shoulder, and the shoulders were lower. It flickered its ears around, as though it was making out that there was something wrong.
Then Marco lost his patience and charged at the pig with his spear with a yell. He tried to set the spear into the pig’s throat, but he missed the (comparatively) thin skin at the folds, and the point skidded off the bony plate of the shoulder. The pig tried to gore him, but Marco managed to duck the tusk, if not the massive head. The butt sent him and his spear flying, but Dawson quickly let off a slug into the pig’s face. The slug only chipped the bony plate, but, again, as with the first hog, the idea was to slow the beast down, to keep it from moving at the blinding speeds that it could get up to. The tusks were dangerous; the charges were deadly.
Ben started to move to grapple the monster hog’s tusks, but Shepard said, “NO! We need to keep it from running away! Everyone! Surround it with the spears! Debbie! When you can get a decent shot, zap it on the ear, like you did with the last one! When she zotzes it, Ben, THEN you go for the grab, and hold it down so she can get a good shot in!”
But the boar didn’t seem to be interested in running away. Instead, it used their encirclement against them, spinning around in circles, slashing at them and wriggling out of their attempts to set the spears into it. It caught Kent in the shoulder, tearing the body armor underneath and opening the shoulder up. Debbie bustled up to Kent, prepping a trauma patch and a shoulder binder. But the bakebuta, for some reason, quite possibly that it scented blood- especially pig blood- which was strongest on Debbie, jerked its head back and slashed her with its tusk, opening a gash in Debbie’s side. Debbie reeled, clutching her hand to the bleeding wound in her side.
Ben surged forth, shouting, “Debbie-chan!” That was a mistake, as the hog reacted by mule-kicking him with its hind hooves, sending him tumbling head-over-heels. Dawson and Marco tried to get their spears into its flanks, but it thrashed and bucked around, almost trampling Debbie in the process.
Shepard was gathering up his rather tattered reserves of magical power, when Kent let out a fierce war cry, kipped up to his feet, and smashed a flat-palm strike against the pig’s snout. Despite the boney armor that protected the snout, the hog reacted as though it had taken a punch right in the nose and reared back surprised. With a loud ‘Kiai!’, Kent grabbed the pig’s tusks, fought with it for control for a moment, and then used the pig’s own efforts to twist it onto its back. As the pig thrashed its legs in the air, Kent whipped out his gravity blade, opened it with an elegant flick and slashed the hog on both sides of its neck. The pig started to bleed profusely, but it still managed to scramble back to its feet. It staggered around, trying to fight, but it was dazed and weak now, and its movements were slow and laggard. When Dawson cautiously put the barrel of his pistol to gap in the carapace that protected the pig’s eye, there was a note of mercy, of finishing the hunt to it.
The pig went down in a heap, and Kent let out a victorious cry that rattled through the glade. He did a brisk dance in place, waving his knife around him and then started jumping around the clearing like a grasshopper. Literally, he was jumping at least five meters in a bound, and clearing at least two and a half meters with each jump. He landed and performed a flurry of atami [atami: fist strikes] in the air with a roar, a look of triumphant glee on his face. “Rrrraaawwrrr!!”
“Enough of that,” Shepard said, giving Kent a rebuking rap on the head with his walking stick. *thwok!* “You’ll burn yourself out.”
“What IS this?” Kent asked, his face alight with wonder, holding up his hands, which still glowed slightly.
“Congratulations, Kent,” Shepard said indulgently, “You’ve awakened. You show every sign of being a Kidoka, or what we here in California would call ‘a Physical Adept’. You can apply magic to affect what you Japanese would call ‘ki’ to accomplish all those neat-o, gosharootie ‘combat aura’ tricks that you see on TV.”
Kent’s eyes went as wide as saucers and he let out a delighted whimper. He was just about to ask a question, when Ben called out from where he was tending to Debbie’s wounds, “Sheppado-sensei! Debbie-chan has been hurt!”
Shepard hurried over and pulled that leather pouch out. “Didn’t think that I’d have to break this thing in so soon.” Holding the pouch in one hand, he touched Debbie’s wound with his walking stick as he chanted in a soft mutter. Debbie felt her flesh draw together and the ripping pain in her side dulled to a dull ache. “There! Take two pain killers and a protein drink, and take it easy. You need to replace some of that blood you’ve lost. Y’did good, kid.”
“What? But I got hurt, and Kent killed the bakemono.”
“You took the hit trying to help Kent when that porker tagged him, and you hung around, instead of running away crying. Which puts you two steps ahead some of the macho types that I’ve had to put up with over the years. And speaking of Kent. Kent, stop bouncing around, you’re still bleeding; come over here and let me take a look at that. Dawson, get the truck here. The rest of you, take five… that means take a rest; I’ll get around to you and give you a quick-fix.”
By the time that Dawson got the truck to them, Shepard had patched and healed them up credibly, and they were kicking back, recovering. Shepard let them each have a celebratory beer, and when they finished those, he put them to work field dressing the hog.
As they went to it, he leaned against the truck and pulled out his commlink. “Who are you calling?” Debbie asked.
“First, I’m going to start another round of bidding. Hoi! Guys! Hold up the head and point out the tusks. I want them to see that we’ve bagged another boar, and that it’s not the same one.” He snapped a picture and told them to get back to work. “Then, I’m going to do a little web-surfing. Those pigs were acting rather odd. New Boar are notoriously stupid, and will charge anything, but Erymanthean Boars are a lot smarter. Those two have managed to avoid serious pursuit for months; they’ve kept on the move and stayed away from human habitation for the most part. So, why have they been hanging around Marin? And why are there two of them? Normal feral pigs will travel in sounders, but Erymanthean Boars are just too flippin’ BIG; they’d just compete for food. So, why are they sharing a feeding ground?”
“Hoi, Sheppado, I think I know why,” Debbie said. She walked over to the pig and pointed out the dugs along the belly. “It’s not a boar- it’s a sow.”
“Erymanthean Boars form breeding couples?” Shepard asked the air in a bemused tone. “Who knew? You learn something new every day… wait a minute… breeding couples?” Shepard came closer, and examined the dugs. “PAL!” his dog came to his side. “Scent! We need to find its nest.” The dog started sniffing around and after a bit, found a scent.
“Pigs make nests?” Apparently, they did. Pal led the party to what looked like a low crude long hut dug into the ground and topped with sticks and grass. Shepard bowed down and walked cautiously into the barrow. A few minutes later, there was a sound like someone being murdered.
The kudokujin chambered their guns and made ready to rescue their sensei, but just as they were about to enter, Shepard came bustling out of the barrow. “JACKPOT!” he shouted, his face beaming with victory. In his hands, he was holding a furiously struggling and even more furiously squealing pig upside down by the hind legs. It looked to be a shade under 50 kilos, there were bristles all over its shoulder, and there were fawn-like brown and tan stripes in the bristly fur covering its side. “No WONDER that sow didn’t run! She was protecting her piglets!”
“That’s a piglet?”
“It’s a Erymanthean Boar piglet!” Shepard gleamed. “Look! Aside from the needle teeth, its teeth aren’t even in yet! It must only be a week or so old! Here!” he shoved the pig into Debbie’s hands, and pulled out his commlink.
As she struggled to get the wriggling thing in an appropriate hold, Debbie asked, “What are you doing?”
Shepard took a shot of her holding the pig. “Show the side, I want them to see that it’s a piglet, not just a regular pig. I’m setting up another online auction. Boys, there are five more in there; go and get ‘em. We’ll auction off four of them; between the restaurants and the talismongers, we should do quite nicely. Don’t let the big sad piglet eyes get to you.”
“Not a problem,” Debbie grimaced as the bristles scratched her face.
“What are we going to do with the other two?” Dawson asked.
“We’ll give one to Mama Yama, as a special for the grill.”
“And the other one?”
“What do you think we’re going to do with it? We’re going to EAT it! This is Suckling Pig! This is as good as it gets! The only bad thing you can say about suckling pig is that it’s not Kosher!”
And, indeed, as they enjoyed their private repast of grilled Erymanthean Boar piglet, Debbie had to admit that it was very tender and very sweet. And there was an unidentifiable something extra about the meat that was particularly satisfying.
But, that was two days in the future, as Mama Yama’s cook, Junichi, insisted on a slow roasting technique.
In the mean time, as the pork was loaded into Mama Yama’s cold storage, and Mama herself was trying to figure out how to take care of the piglets until they were sold, Shepard addressed his protégés. “Well, Crew, we did very well today. We got lucky, but you were able to jump on the luck and ride it for all it was worth. And knowing how to make the most of a lucky break is half of being lucky. But don’t expect all your scores to be this easy or this lucrative.”
“This was easy?”
But one of them kept his eyes on the prize. “This was lucrative?”
“Yes, Marco,” Shepard sighed, and passed around cred sticks. They pretty much had the same reaction: ‘Twenty thousand nuyen? For a morning’s work?’ “You did good, Kids. We bagged not one, but two Erymanthean boars and their piglets. The adults were worth twenty grand each, and the piggies were worth a grand each. And then there are the private rewards, which will take a little longer to collect. And Debbie, those shots of you with the pig went ever-so-slightly viral, so I’m getting fifteen grand each from the restaurants. AND, there’s the money from the talismongers. So, YEAH, this was lucrative. It would have been more lucrative, if someone hadn’t trashed an expensive drone that I have to replace, BUT it was in the heat of battle, so it’s a fair cop. But money melts in your hands like snow; knowing that you can trust the people who have your back? That’s worth really having. Debbie, Kent, you both got a five thousand nuyen bonus for your star turns in taking out one of the adults. Everybody held up their end, everybody took one for the team, but you two both went above and beyond. But enough of that. Now for the most important part of any run.”
“The party to celebrate a good run, of course! Tonight, rest up and heal up a little. Tomorrow, head out, buy yourself some party vines, and meet me here at 8! We’re going to make the rounds!”