No Time For Second Chances (Part 6)
No Time for Second Chances
By Dr. Bender
Richmond was nothing but a burned out shell. In 2011, it had been a small town on the outskirts of Sydney, not really part of the city but close enough to be considered so by many. The highway would be choc full of commuters every morning and night as the workers moved to and from the city. Now, the roads were choked with the debris and burned-out wrecks of a bygone era. Store windows were smashed, buildings gutted by decades of looting, scavenging, fire and exposure to the elements.
Buildings rushed by as we sped along at over a hundred, the elemental's form flowing smoothly over everything in its path. I tried not to think about falling as the wind whipped through my hair, in fact I tried not to think about anything at all. I just wanted to leave that hellish place far behind me, even if I had to endure the elemental's hard, grimy, touch. Worst part was the bugs; there are reasons cars have windscreens.
I caught the occasional flicker of movement in the buildings, always out of the corner of my eye. Relief washed over me as we left Richmond behind, I really didn't want to know who or what was crazy enough to live near the mana storm. The township gave way to a long road that ran parallel between the railroad tracks and what looked like an old airfield. Past the airfield, the road suddenly dipped and the elemental ground to a halt. After a moment, I saw why; the road plunged right down into dark water. Near opposite bank, I could see rooftops sticking out from the surface.
It hit me the moment I reached for my commlink, thinking that I could use my satellite uplink to connect to a GPS system and get a map of the area. In my haste, I'd left my commlink behind, along with the ring, probably buried under tons of concrete and steel. Even if my earth elemental could return and retrieve them, them was no way I was going anywhere near Richmond again, not to mention closer to the mana storm.
There was no point in turning north, with Richmond being in the northwest so close to the storm we'd either run into the Hawkesbury River or the northern edge of the mana storm, whichever came first. Travelling south, I had my doubts when the lake gave way to a river that twisted and turned on itself several times. It got worse when the grasslands gave way to bushland, the canopy overhead robbing me of landmarks to help me get my bearings. I thanked whatever spirits were listening when we found an ancient bridge that was dilapidated but still standing, allowing us to cross.
Not that it really helped. The road beyond the bridge was badly overgrown and most of the signs were either torn down or riddled with bullet holes, leaving little trace of where it might be going. I was completely turned around, for all I knew I could be headed right back to Richmond. Finally, we came across a road sign partially embedded in a tree, the poles attaching it to the ground bent as if from some sort of impact. It read 'Penrith' with an arrow pointing right down a branch off the main road.
I hesitated. Penrith was the last stop in Sydney before you hit the Blue Mountains, basically right on the edge of the mana storm. On the other hand, it was also on the highway that had once allowed travellers to cross the mountains to access the mainland or for mainlanders to drive right into the heart of the city. Of course, the wall now blocked the way into Sydney itself just outside Paramatta but at least I knew the highway wouldn't have been reclaimed by the bush and I wasn't going to be able to count on the earth elemental to protect me forever. The moment the sun rose over the horizon, the spirit would return home; when that happened I was determined not to be stranded in the middle of the wilderness.
I heard the thunder of the mana storm getting closer as we made our way down the road and I continued to pray, this time that we were getting closer to the storm rather than it getting closer to us. When we finally emerged from the trees, I received a shock. Past a series of lakes, the Blue Mountains loomed over us, all too close. Energy crackled inside the clouds overhead, making the water look like blood in the red light. At least, I hoped it was water. Turning left, presuming that the road was headed south, I clutched my arms around the elemental's neck and fought the urge to bury my head in its shoulder and weep in terror.
We came to a commercial area, passed several ancient car lots and the remains of what used to be 'superstores' that once sold pre-awakening electronics. I looked curiously at what remained of a huge signpost that held up the shattered remains of a set of yellow arches and wondered what sort of business it had advertised until the distant sound of gunfire caught my full attention.
The Museum of Fire was on fire, it was impossible to miss the irony. Licks of flame boiled out of the high windows of the enormous, barn-like, structure made mostly of corrugated steel. Curiously, there was a Roadmaster truck parked in the lot out front, crudely armoured with the simple method of welding bits of chassis stripped from other vehicles to the frame with nests of sharpened spikes sticking out of it like a giant echidna.
Ordering the elemental to slow down, I hopped out of its arms and crept forward as quietly as I could on the gravel road. Between sporadic bursts of gunfire, I could hear rough voices cursing from inside the burning building. I flinched when someone put a burst of fire through a high window, allowing smoke to pour out. On a hunch, I turned to the elemental and pointed at the wall right underneath the window. "Rip open that wall!" I commanded.
Thick stone fingers peeled the wall apart like the key on a tin of soyfish. Smoke billowed out around the elemental, obscuring it for a moment before it stepped back out of the way, panic fire bouncing harmlessly off its shoulder. Feral screams and blood-curdling battle cries issued from the smoke moments before a group of orks in tactical gear came charging out into the open, firing makeshift SMGs blindly over their shoulders. The first in line didn't even pause, I wasn't sure if he noticed me at all as he ran past. When I looked back, the second was baring down on me, yelling incoherently.
I gave off a piercing, high-pitched, scream when he scooped me up and slung me over his shoulder as he continued to run for dear life, his armoured shoulderplates digging painfully into my stomach. As such, I had a great view of the horde of feral ghouls that bounded after us. Some ran on two legs, many scuttled on all fours, all of them were whipped into a slavering frenzy, bloodlust clear in their mad red-rimmed eyes. The last ork out of the building was a little too slow, the mob of flesh-eaters dragged him down and swarmed over him like a pack of sharks.
"ELEMENTAL," I screeched, clutching my hands over my ears so I couldn't hear the screaming, "KILL THE GHOULS! KILL THE GHOULS!"
I didn't have to tell it twice. For a moment, I wondered if I'd used up my last service for the day as it disappeared underground but then the earth surged upward in a wave. Ghouls screamed as they were pulled up into the dirt before it crashed down on the crowd, engulfing bodies in a churning vortex of dirt and stone.
The orks didn't even look back, thick legs pumping as they climbed the slope and picked their way over the old railroad tracks before sliding down the other side. The last I saw of my elemental, more ghouls were swarming over it, ripping chunks of stone away in their frenzy with claws and teeth. When the chill of the night air hit me, I knew it was gone.
"Drek! Drek! Drek! Drek! Drek!" the ork directly behind us swore.
"Shut up and run, Wilkes!" the one carrying me ordered.
"I'm almost dry, sergeant," the one ahead called back.
"We're ALL almost dry, drekhead! Keep it together! Eyes front!"
We ran past some buildings and into a long car lot sandwiched between the main road that fed into an enormous parking garage on the right and the railroad tracks on the left. Someone had piled wrecked cars over the entrance to the parking garage and I saw piles of charred corpses still smoking nearby, like someone had poured burning oil down from the upper levels. As we approached, someone threw a rope ladder down for us.
"Dexter!" the sergeant shouted as the first one grabbed for the ladder, "cover us!"
"Frag you!" Dexter growled back, scrambling up the ladder as fast as he could.
Snarling, Sergeant skidded to a halt and handed me to Wilkes before turning to cover our backs. "Take her with you, get moving!"
Wilkes and I looked at each other as he held me in the air under my shoulders. "Why the frag did you pick up this smoothie slot?" he asked. Glaring at him, I tried kicking him in the leg but his armour was too thick.
"NO-ONE GETS LEFT BEHIND! NOW MOVE IT!"
The fourth ork in line ran past us and scrambled up the latter, prompting Wilkes to sling me over his shoulder and start hauling ass up behind him. When I looked back, I saw the ghouls bound over the railway tracks just before Sergeant opened fire in short bursts. More gunfire came from the levels above us as the locals joined in but bullets barely slowed the column that surged toward us like ants. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail over our heads that shattered halfway across the road, creating a wall of fire that might slow them down.
Seeing my chance, I focused on the patch of fire on the road, drawing on the mana around me and pushing it into the flames. The fire exploded, rising higher as a white-hot feminine figure rose from the heart of the flame. This time, I winced as the power crackled painfully across my skin. "KILL THE GHOULS!" I yelled again, fighting through the pain.
This time the ghouls knew fear, the forerunners skidding to a halt before trying to run back the way they came. Fire and heat spoke to the lizard brains of the poor infected souls, routing the entire swarm. It was no use, the elemental cut through them like a blowtorch, chasing them down until they all disappeared back over the railway tracks.
Wilkes dropped me on the first floor of the parking garage and I collapsed onto my hands and knees, coughing and hacking as spots of blood dripped from my mouth. The local orks aiming a motley assortment of guns over the concrete barrier were just kids. They looked like teenagers in ork years, which meant they were probably around Kumiko's age or a few years younger. Still, they obviously knew how to handle their guns, a fact of life out in the barrens.
Dexter lifted my chin to take a look at me. "Fuck," he swore, "underneath all that dirt this little slitch might be a looker. Probably get a few hundred for her."
He might have been scarier if I wasn't so damn tired. As it was, I just stared at him as he grinned down at me.
"Get your filthy fraggin' paws off her before I break it off and shove it where the sun don't shine," Sergeant growled as he hoisted his leg over the barricade, "and I'm not talking about your hand."
"Come on, sarge!" Dexter protested, grinning right up to the moment Sergeant punched him in the jaw with enough force to send him sprawling.
"Resupply and go find Morok," Sergeant snapped at Wilkes before pointing at Dexter, "and take that piece of drek with you."
The squad snapped to it, two of them dragging Dexter away while Wilkes took the lead. Sergeant knelt beside me and took a drag on his canteen before offering it to me. I had to take it in both hands to hold the weight, sniffing it before taking a drink. "I don't know where you came from, kid," he sighed, "but you saved our asses, that's for damn sure. Think you've got another summon in you?"
Considering for a moment, I nodded. He grinned happily, which was as frightening as Dexter's leer. "Good girl! You're with me." Slinging me over his shoulder again, he quickly checked his gun as he scanned the boys and girls staring at us. "Who threw that fire bomb?" he asked. One of the girls put her hand up. "Good one; good arm too. If we live through this, come see me."
I watched the others slap her on the shoulder in congratulations before they all returned to their posts. The girl was grinning like she'd just won an award.
Once we were inside the mall, I heard the sound of gunfire again. It was starting to become familiar. Layers of barricades made out of whatever had come to hand had been thrown down on both the lower floor and the upper balconies while armoured orks held off the ghouls that were trying to creep in from all sides, scuttling from storefront to storefront. Fields of broken glass and crude caltrops were intermixed with burning patches where more Molotov cocktails had been thrown to keep the infected at bay.
Sergeant put two in the chest of a ghoul that managed to get a few feet away from the nearest barricade while the ork behind it was reloading before hopping down the stairs to the lower floor two at a time. The defenders had piled crates of guns and ammo in the middle of the room, Sergeant didn't even bother reloading, he just picked up a new rifle and started shoving clips in his pockets.
"Sergeant!" an ork called for attention as he stormed over, one of his compatriots watching his back. "What the frag is that thing?" he asked accusatorially, pointing his finger at me.
I glared at him, not appreciating being called a thing.
"She's a mage, Morork," Sergeant explained, "and she can summon. Just point her in the right direction."
He looked me over quizzically. I must have looked a total mess, though at least the dirt was probably covering the bloodstains. "All right," he relented, taking Sergeant's word for it as he pointed down the way he'd come from. "Think you can take the pressure off? Be my guest."
Nodding, I patted Sergeant on the shoulder so that he'd let me down. Setting my feet firmly on the cold floor, I drew the mana into myself again, feeling the buzz creep painfully across my skin. Concentrating on another patch of fire, I called the spirit into being. This time it didn't hurt as much and watching Morork and the others flinch as the figure burst from the fire to tear ghouls apart and set them on fire, leaving burning body parts in its wake.
Morork snarled savagely, obviously pleased. "Right you dogs! Odd numbers up the stairs! We're pushing east! Take as much ammo as you can carry! Sergeant, the kid's with you."
Sighing in resignation as I was slung over Sergeant's shoulder again, I rested my chin on one hand as I watched my fire elemental scatter the ghouls, driving them back through the western entrance. Everyone grabbed more ammo but the ones who took the rear grabbed whole boxes to carry with them. When we reached an overpass that connected one part of the mall with another, allowing customers to walk over a road, I saw a Citymaster security vehicle similar to the Roadmaster outside the Museum of Fire drive past with ghouls clinging to the roof and sides. The front turret was firing down the road on full auto, cutting down the ghouls teeming in the streets before it like wheat to a thresher.
Everyone jumped when a ghoul leapt out of a storefront onto one of the men taking point, screaming bloody murder before sinking its teeth into his arm. The rest didn't hesitate, hosing them both down with lead. Morork even gave the ork a coup de graces with his Colt Manhunter as he passed by, just in case. It seemed extreme but even I knew how fast the ghoul strain of HMHVV could onset, it was more a mercy than anything else. The idea of turning feral, attacking and eating my friends made me shudder.
More orks were holding a line near what had once been a food court, the ghouls surging right up to the barricade through the eastern entrance. I looked away when one woman was plucked over the wall and torn apart just before we opened fire. Putting me down, Sergeant took another Molotov from a crate one of the men behind us was carrying, whipped a lighter out of his pocket and lit the cloth. "Ready, kid?"
Nodding, I took a deep breath and tried to ignore the new wave of weariness that hit me as he threw the cocktail. Summoning again brought me to my knees, my head spinning. I vaguely heard Sergeant tell me I'd done enough as he picked me up again. He didn't have to say it, my vision was so blurry that I would have passed out before I'd even tried. The gunfire seemed to fade into the distance, like someone had stuffed cotton wool into my ears, but I resisted going peacefully to sleep, afraid that I wouldn't ever open my eyes again.
When my vision returned and I could hear properly again, I found myself sitting against a wall wrapped in an emergency blanket with a blonde ork woman who out-massed most of the men I'd seen hovering over me. She was wearing a tactical vest and urban camo fatigues that had plenty of pockets for extra clips, most of them empty. Unusually, she had her hair tied back with a blue and black bandanna, which was soaked with sweat. Glancing at me between bursts of auto-fire, she smiled in a motherly way, which was still frightening thanks to the tusks. "You ok, honey?"
I nodded hesitantly. "Sergeant?" I croaked, my mouth dry.
She smirked. "Don't worry, he'll be back. Call me Vallerie."
Before I could say anything, I was interrupted by the loudest noise I'd ever heard, loud enough that it drowned out the woman's gun. There was a flicker as a shadow shot past the skylight above, bringing with it a noise like a jet engine. That racket was then punctuated by the staccato base of a rotary assault cannon that sent bits of asphalt from the road outside thirty feet into the air. The orks cheered while I covered my ears, wondering if my brain was about to leak out.
When the noise died down, everything seemed a little too quiet, except for the orks who continued to cheer and holler victoriously; even giving each other spontaneous hugs. After slapping a young, pale-faced, woman on the shoulder, Vallerie put down her gun and knelt beside me. Licking her finger, she tried to wipe away some of the grime on my face but she smirked when she realized it was a futile effort. "Damn, is there really a little girl under all that? What's your name, darlin'?"
Catching myself before I replied 'Nathan', I considered my answer for a moment. "N-Naomi," I finally stammered out, using the Japanese pronunciation.
"Pretty name," she complimented in the way adults do when they're trying to get children on side. "You know where your parents are, Naomi?"
Looking her in the eye, she seemed sincere but caution prevailed. "I don't know if I should trust you," I whispered in a small voice.
She smirked. "Good answer. Come on, let's get you cleaned up; just watch out for blood splatter, ok?"
Nodding, I kept the blanket around me as I let her lead me back into the old eatery. We drew the attention of a small crowd of ork kids as we passed by who peeked over the makeshift barricades made out of tables and chairs. They were obviously a last ditch effort, the ghouls I'd seen would have torn through them in seconds. The younger ones that could walk clung to the older kids while the older girls had their arms full with babies.
"Hey, Vallerie," an older boy with a light pistol called out, affecting a mucho swagger, "where'd you get the fraggin' smoothie slot?"
"Angelo!" Vallerie snapped. "What did I say about that fraggin' mouth? Shut your fucking trog pie-hole and keep your eyes out, capiche?"
Angelo looked thoroughly scolded, though Vallerie's profanity made the rest of the kids give off a weak twitter of laugher at his expense. After the tension, I guess everyone needed whatever relief they could find. Vallerie scanned the kids and selected another older girl who also had a pistol. "Beth, see if you can find some clothes for her." Nodding eagerly, Beth ran off.
She took me into the women's bathroom where a couple of other ork women were already using the communal showers, their gear piled along the bench opposite. They did, however, each keep a pistol hanging on a hook next to the showerhead where it'd stay dry. I blushed at one of the women's nakedness when she turned around and gave me a thumbs up. "Owe you one, kid," she said with a wink, "woulda been ghoul chow if you hadn't shown up with your pets."
Vallerie grinned at me as she set me up on a sink, grabbed a towel and soaked it under the tap. "See, kiddo? You're a local hero."
I squeaked meekly, purely by reflex. "Y-you shouldn't waste water," I said, trying to change the subject.
She chuckled. "I know, sweetie, but don't worry. Water and ghouls are about the only things we have more than enough of here." As if to make her point, the lights overhead flickered.
Being unable to stop her, I let Vallerie wipe the layers of dirt off my exposed skin, starting with my face and working her way down to my feet. The cold cloth made me wince but I endured, figuring being clean was better. Once the worst of it was gone, she made me get out of my clothes and take a real shower, determined to get the twigs, leaves and mud out of my hair. I hadn't realized that I was that filthy. I kept my eyes closed as I washed and tried not to think about all the women staring at me or the feeling of my own, alien, flesh. It occurred to me that I was falling into twelve year old patterns of behaviour far too easily but it all happened so fast I had no time to control myself.
Beth walked in with a small pile of clothes about my size. I blushed when she appraised me, looking away while I dried myself. "You don't look so tough," she commented, "you're too... skinny."
She looked about my age, which meant she was four to six years younger. Orks grow really fast but only live into their 40's. In a year or two, she'd probably be ready for her first litter, if not earlier. Even so, her arms were about three times as thick as mine with muscle. I just shrugged and nodded, no knowing what to say.
"You don't need to be tough when you can sling mojo, Beth," Vallerie explained, "Naomi here bagged over two dozen kills according to Sergeant."
Beth looked impressed. It wasn't hard to keep a smile off my face, I dreaded having to look in the mirror and see the reality of my own reflection. I now knew why so many of the test subjects had gone mad, everything felt so wrong. I'd go to do something and it wouldn't feel right in a million different ways, it was like thinking you'd forgotten something as you left your house only you couldn't remember what and wondered if you were just being paranoid.
Vallerie brushed out my hair before selecting some clothes. Looking at Beth, she held up a bunch of bras with one eyebrow raised. "I didn't know what size!" Beth protested, embarrassed.
Looking down, I blinked. She was right, I had breasts; small ones but large enough to be called out as such. Vallerie slipped a training bra and a stretchy black singlet over my head while I stared, trying to cope with what I was seeing. Black cotton panties and socks came next, followed by a light grey set of overalls and a warm orange hoodie with a black dragon design down one side. The shoes they provided were surprisingly modern sports sneakers with velcro straps and a slightly raised heel. I have to admit, being in clean clothes again felt surprisingly good. Thanking Vallerie and Beth earned me some smiles.
Rather than leading me around by the hand, Vallerie let me follow her out of the bathroom with Beth close behind me, where we immediately ran into Sergeant waiting patiently beside the door. "Boss wants to talk," he grumbled enigmatically. "She say anything yet?"
"Her name's Naomi," Vallerie answered, taking my hand possessively. Sergeant noticed her attitude. "Don't get too attached," he sighed, "come on, you better leave her with the other kids."
Vallerie told me not to worry as she left me with the rest of the ork girls and ordered Beth to keep an eye on me before leaving with Sergeant. They talked in hushed whispers before disappearing around the corner so I didn't know what they were about but I knew the whole 'adults not talking about problems in front of the kids' routine. Even after thirty-something years, it can still piss you off.
So I found myself as the only elf, let alone 'smooth skinned' metahuman, standing in the middle of a bunch of ork kids. First thing I noted was the weird social dynamics of the group. The girls and older guys, and by old I mean they were around thirteen in human years, mixed easily but there was obviously some tension with the boys that looked around eleven, who stood off in their own clique. It may seem strange for sexual politics to come into play so young but ork's rapid maturation brought along a set of problems that humans don't have to deal with.
Growing up in the 30's, I remembered the growing pains of the education system as they tried to deal with ork and troll kids. The idea of segregation, thought buried way back in the last century, reared its head again as primary school teachers struggled to deal with issues they hadn't been trained to cope with. Like what to do when a misbehaving six year old troll child beats you to a pulp when you stop him from inappropriately touching another kid. Not that I'm implying all troll and ork kids are molesters, far from it, just that some kids are real bastards and going through puberty while the human, elf and dwarf kids around you are all still half as mature has got to be a real bitch. Which was how the education system fractured, some schools only open to certain metatypes in an effort to 'realign the educational paradigm'. Every kookie theorist and con artist with half a degree crawling out of the woodwork didn't help matters either.
Of course, I'd grown up in a Shiawase enclave stuck in a Shiawase corporate education centre. Note, I don't call it a school. School implies a certain relative freedom of choice. Corporate education centres didn't have problems coping with ork and troll children because their programs are all tailored to each child. Sounds wonderful, I hear you say. The catch is they make all the decisions, from when, what and who you eat with every lunch to deciding your curriculum based on constant aptitude tests and psych profiles. That's how I became a financial analyst; I'd shown an affinity for maths and puzzle solving as a kid. Ironically, it occurred to me that if I'd awakened at the usual age, I might have been in Shinibata's shoes. It was a sobering thought.
Reminds me of a joke: what's long and hard on a shadowrunner? Third Grade.
A tug on my overall brought me out of my reverie. Looking down, I discovered tiny ork girl yanking on my pocket for attention. She looked like she wanted to say something but didn't quite know how to go about it, so in typical kid fashion she just blurted out what was on her mind. "Are you a faerie?" she asked innocently. A few of the other kids chuckled, which made her blush in embarrassment.
I smiled. "No, I'm not a faerie. But let me, guess, you must be a princess." She giggled back at me with abandon.
One of the older boys, crossing his arms in an attempt to look mature, snorted in disgust. "There's no such thing as an ork princess."
"Why not?" I asked, turning everyone's attention to him.
"Yeah, I'd love to hear this one, Narc," Beth agreed, giving him a glare.
Narc stammered for a moment, not quite sure how to handle the sudden scrutiny. "I... well, I mean... it's like... you know... frag it, there aren't any ork princesses! A'right?"
"Doesn't mean there shouldn't be," I said with a shrug.
I'd pushed him a little too far. He glared at me, flexing his fingers. "I don't need some stinkin' dandelion eater..."
Beth stopped him in his tracks by stepping between us and giving him a shove. "Oh, an ork girl's not good enough to be a princess? You gone smoothie on the inside?"
Narc growled, reaching for her. "You take that back!"
Angelo chose that moment to grab Narc from behind, pulling him back. "Stow it, Narc, take a breather."
The little girl took that moment to stalk over to him, her jaw set (which is quite impressive on an ork thanks to the tusks). Hefting her home-stiched rag doll (also with ork tusks) she whapped him on the knee with it before stalking away in a huff.
Narc threw up his arms in surrender, shrugging off Angelo. "Girls," he spat, swaggering off in the other direction.
After a short chuckle, everyone went silent again. For a moment I thought I'd made some sort of unforgivable breach of etiquette until I noticed they were looking at something behind me. I turned to find a smiling ork man approaching us, still wearing his dirty combat fatigues, along with a yellow and orange bandanna tied around his forearm. A heavy pistol was holstered at his hip. "Hey, kids," he said jovially, "Morork's asked me to pick up the elf girl here. He wants to see her."
I read him like an open book. Tusks don't cover a fake smile. "Then he'll have told you my name," I replied, not moving an inch.
His smile faded. Picking up the bad vibes he was putting out; the other kids started getting nervous, those that were armed reaching for their guns. "Woah, hey now kids," he said sternly, holding up his hands, "I was just told to pick up the girl, ok?"
Angelo stepped up to him and glared, even though the other ork was a couple of feet taller. "Then run back to Morork and ask him to tell you her name," he suggested, pulling the hammer back on his gun to make the point.
The ork's smile turned into a dangerous smirk in a heartbeat. There was no time to warn Angelo as the newcomer grabbed his gun arm and twisted it behind his back, adult strength and reflexes quickly overpowering the boy. Angelo gasped in pain as gun bounced across the floor. "Stupid drekking kids, just hand over the fraggin' dandelion eater," the newcomer snarled, drawing his pistol.
The anger that I'd felt killing Kosko came back with a vengeance. Locking my eyes on his, narrowed to hate-filled slits, I felt the mana flow through me once again as I shaped the spell, whispers of the Seductress filling my ears as she encouraged me to use my power. Striding forward, I unleashed the spell, willing him to know terror in its purest form.
His sneer was wiped off his face, eyes widening a moment before he screamed like I was a Great Dragon baring down on him with crushing inevitability. The gun fell from his trembling hands as he scuttled backwards, tripping over his own feet in his haste to escape. I didn't have to chase him far as he scrambled away on all fours, wailing like a baby as he fled.
When I turned back to the kids, Angelo shrank back from me reflexively. "Uh, oh drek, you do know magic."
Reaching down, I picked up the heavy pistol and checked that the safety was on. The thing was way too heavy for me, so I flipped it over and offered the handle to Angelo. "If you're gonna face down grown-ups, you'll need a bigger gun," I told him, smiling.
Taking it, he checked it himself, stuffing it in his wasteband and grabbing his own gun. "Yeah, thanks," he muttered, his pride hurt. Most of the other kids shook their heads or rolled their eyes in disgust.
Beth chided him with a cuff on the shoulder. "We have to hide her."
He winced. "Come on, Beth, cut me a break here!"
"You know those meatheads 'ain't gonna leave this alone," she argued, "he'll be back, with a crew."
Angelo groaned. "Damn it; shoulda just let 'im take her."
"Angelo!" Beth shouted, cuffing him over the head this time. "She just saved your warty arse!"
"He's right," one of the other girls argued. "I'm sorry but we've got no reason to stick our necks out for some smoothie slot. No offense."
Before I could do or say anything, one of the other girls leapt to my defence. Then the wannabe boyfriends got involved and it all devolved into a full blown argument. I would have stayed just to observe the group's social dynamics but it was best for both me and them if I wasn't around when the gangers came back. They were all too busy arguing to notice me sneak away.
Ducking into the one of the storefronts, I used Human Form to take the appearance of an ork girl before continuing on, walking down the hallway in the same direction as Sarge and Vallerie. I didn't make eye contact with anyone and moved like I knew where I was going and whoever was there needed me urgently. Despite attracting some odd looks, nobody stopped me until I found Morork's headquarters, which wasn't that hard since all I had to do was follow the trail of wireless signal repeaters that patched the militia into their network.
The Wireless Matrix was still brand new and electronic warfare protocols were trying to evolve rapidly to the change. A single broadcast point with a large footprint was the cheap solution but came with the drawback of being a single point of failure, not to mention that a commlink would need to generate an equally powerful signal to communicate back to the nexus. Current thought was that repeaters spread throughout an area provided more reliable coverage while enabling the designer to concentrate IC in the nexus itself. All of which just made me miss my commlink even more.
When I found the armed guards flanking the entrance of a department store, I knew I'd found it. Unfortunately, the guards were challenging everyone who wanted in, subjecting them to a search and confiscating weapons. Composing my story in my head, I slowly moved faster until I broke into a dead run. Moving myself to tears wasn't hard, all I had to do was remember Cook's face right before Kosko pulled the trigger.
"WOAH, slow down little girl," one of the guards said, grabbing me before I could sprint through the doors. "What's wrong?"
I took a moment to make out like I was trying to talk through the sniffles. "I-I need to tell Vallerie... someone's kidnapped the elf girl..."
"Ok, it's gonna be ok kid, take a deep breath," he said soothingly while the other guard mumbled through his commlink. After a few moments, he listened to something someone was saying through his earpiece. "It's all right, you can go on through. Just tell Morork exactly what happened, ok?"
Nodding, I rubbed my eyes a bit as I stepped across the threshold, feeling some sort of strange electric buzz across my skin as I passed. Ignoring the weird sensation, I walked around a few plasticrete walls that had been erected to block clear line of sight into the HQ itself towards the sound of shouting. I found myself in a room that was a strange mix of post-apocalyptic feudalism and a military command bunker. The structure had been reinforced with both modern materials and scavenged parts. The matrix nexus sat in the middle of the room, complete with a trideo display of Penrith and the surrounding countryside, including what looked to be a pipeline leading to something that had been built underneath the mall.
Morork sat on what could only be described as a throne; a throne of welded metal and leather upholstery but a throne none the less. Vallerie was staring down Dexter, who'd changed out of fatigues and into orange armoured biker leathers with gold trim. Behind him was a reedy ork with greasy hair and scaly skin wearing a white suit like he was ready for a dinner party. Sarge looked angry but stood to one side, his arms folded across his chest, looking like he was calculating his chances of getting away with murder before he did anything rash. There were also others watching from the sidelines. I recognized Stumpy immediately, looking intimidating wearing milspec armour. The handsome sandy-haired guy sitting next to him was wearing armoured street gear, though a gash in his right arm revealed the glint of chrome under the skin. A third human male wearing a clean suit fidgeted impatiently behind Morork, looking annoyed that he was being forced to wait for the drama to blow over.
"You, kid, over here," Morork commanded. "Tell us exactly what happened."
It didn't take much to try to act scared as I scuttled over, placing myself next to Sarge. "Well, um, sir... this guy wearing an orange bandanna tried to grab Naomi. Angelo got in his way but was overpowered, so the elf girl drove him off with a spell."
"Drove him off," the scaly-skinned ork repeated, "what do you mean, drove him off? I thought she was kidnapped?"
Wiping my eyes, I dropped the Human Form spell. "Well, really I snuck off before he could come back with friends but technically I kidnapped myself. Everything else is entirely true, though."
Dexter's jaw dropped and I caught scaly-skin taking the effort to quash his anger. Vallerie, however, just got angrier, thankfully not at me. "Wearing ORANGE, you say? Congratz, Dexter, you and your lads have just managed to piss off all the female clans."
"You want to start something?" Dexter queried threateningly. "Bring it on, joygirl."
"BOTH OF YOU SHUT UP!" Morork bellowed. "If the Lidless Eyes and the Desolation Angels have a beef, they can take it outside Penrith. And you can all stay there as far as I'm concerned. Anyone not helping rebuild can frag off as far as I'm concerned. And you can take the smoothie slot with you." After a moment's pause as he calmed down, he reconsidered what he just said, glancing at the human in the clean suit behind him. "Apologies, Doc. What I mean to say is, I've got no time for anyone or anything that's draining the community's resources and isn't giving back. If you're going to make more trouble than you solve, you can take a walk. That goes for everyone, including the smart-ass girl and you too, Zilch."
The scaly ork scowled. "The people I represent..."
"Don't give two frags and a cola for your ass," Morork interrupted. "That's what I love about guys like you. I could have Sarge cap your ass and someone just like you would be knocking on my door tomorrow morning asking to take your place. You'd do well to remember that next time you try to pull a fast one."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Zilch denied, "but even if I did, the facts remain. I have contacts that will pay handsomely for the girl. She'll get a nice SIN with nice foster parents and be set for life as a corporate mage. Hell, the moment I put the word out there'll be a bidding war. All I'm asking for is a ten percent finder's fee. A couple hundred K could put the community in the red for a long time to come."
There were guys like Zilch in every corporate boardroom I'd ever seen. Guys who thought they were smart, who thought everyone around them were fools who couldn't read them like open books, guys who were too clever for their own good. In corporations, those guys got stuck in middle management where they could do the boss's dirty work and take all the blame when schemes fail. They usually last until their antics annoy the people using them but somehow they never see the bullet coming until it's too late.
Sarge spat on the floor. "Zilch, the one reason alota the people out there bleed for this place is that they know Morork's not about to sell them into slavery, pimp out our kids or cut them up for the organleggers and ghouls. Or worse, wake up in some corp test lab one morning. Using your contacts to move drek like that through our turf is one thing, selling someone who saved our asses is another. Penrith Orks take care of their friends."
"I'm thinking of this girl as much as you are!" Zilch lied; if he was a cartoon character his pupils would have been Y-shaped. "How many of us would give our right arms for one of our kids to awaken and get a cushy corporate scholarship? We make a heap of nuyen and get the girl out of this drekhole. Everyone wins!"
Audibly rapping his fingers on the arm of his throne, Morork scratched his chin as he considered the issue. "I don't have any more time for this. Dexter, what would you feel to be appropriate recompense for the girl?"
It took him a while to consider. "I'd want the protection contract for the southwest tenement, a new bike from the garage and a tune-up and resupply for all my men on the house."
"Trade in your old bike for your pick from the garage, a free service coupon for you and each of your men and a night at Mandy's on the house for every member of the Lidless Eyes," Morork countered.
"Done," Dexter agreed, nodding.
"Good. Vallerie, the girl is yours on two conditions. First, she'll repay us for the clothes, water, food and medical supplies by summoning elementals to help with the reconstruction effort. Second, the day after tomorrow, I want her out of Penrith. I don't care where you take her or what you do with her but the Penrith Orks are NOT going to take responsibility for her. Sarge, you green?"
"Emerald green, sir," Sarge answered.
"What about me?" Zilch whined.
Morork drew a Predator III out of nowhere, lining up a shot right between Zilch's eyes. "The Lidless Eyes are as convenient for me as they are for you, so they stay. I trust Valkyrie and Sarge to have my back in a firefight, so I need them. You live because I don't feel like trading apologies with the Fu Shan Chu. Scan me?"
Zilch slowly nodded, his eyes not leaving the barrel of the gun. I'd underestimated him, we was smart enough to back down in the face of obvious peril.
Morork put the gun away. "Right, now all of you frag off, I've got real business to sort out sometime today. Valkyrie, get the kid down to the pits, they can use a hand."
Nodding, Vallerie led me away. Dexter followed us, waiting until we were outside before he grabbed my escort's shoulder. "Hey, Valkyrie, no hard feelings, kay? Just biz."
Valkyrie turned and grabbed his crotch so hard stears started streaming down his face. "I can think of two things you don't need to hold a gun," she told him evenly, "by all accounts, nobody would miss them either. If your boys so much as look at our kids funny again, you be sitting to pee for the rest of your life."
Letting go, she put her hand on my back and pushed me past the guards, who were too busy snickering at Dexter to pay attention to me. We left Dexter doubled over on the floor behind us, wheezing.
Vallerie led me south out of the mall into an area that had been constructed over a road and around the frames of several gutted buildings. The ground had also been dug out for the installation of several landing pads that could be raised through the roof, which could open and close, and down to a level underground. Some of the old concrete buildings, along with several newer plasticrete supports, had collapsed and fallen across the landing pads. The pit crews were using everything at their disposal to try and move the debris as fast as they could, from forklifts and drones to some of the big converted Roadmasters like the one I'd seen outside the Museum of Fire while others tried to cut the plasticrete into smaller chunks.
"I'm surprised you don't have your own wizards helping," I commented to Vallerie as we walked over to where the engineers were pouring over a simulation program. They seemed to be trying every way they could to come up with a better method of shifting the plasticrete.
"Grandma's laid out in the clinic," Vallerie informed me. "Slung one spell too many fighting off King Brown... I'll explain later."
Clearing my throat as we talked up to their table, I nodded to the group in greeting. "Hi, Morork said you might have use for an elemental?"
They looked at me for a few moments before the eldest, a wiry grey-haired ork, nodded. "Sure, kid, why not? Can your spirit magically lift ten tons?"
I frowned. "Honestly, I don't know. My earth elemental seemed pretty strong but ten tons might be a bit much."
"Kid, not that we don't appreciate all the help we can get but we've got a team of trolls that can't lift that fraggin' pillar."
Looking over at the pillar, I considered the problem. "You think you've got anything that can lift it a little? Jacks or forklifts or something?"
"Tried it," one of the others sighed, taking off his glasses to rub his eyes. "we can lift one end but we've got nothing that'll roll to jam underneath and take the weight."
"An earth elemental might not be able to lift it but it's made out of dirt," I explained, "it should be able to take the weight and roll along under the column. As long as your men can push it along."
They stared at me for a few moments before standing up in unison. "Jonsey," the eldest one shouted to one of his crew, "get the forklifts up the front, we've got an idea!"
The plan worked. It wasn't as fast as I'd envisioned but we got there. Outside, I summoned the earth elemental from a pile of sand. It was slow going because I had to translate the engineer's instructions to the elemental step by step. When we'd finally gotten the elemental under the column and ready to roll, it turned out we still needed two Roadmasters and all the forklifts and drones in the shop to push the thing along. Once it was outside, we moved it to one side and I ordered the elemental to slowly come out from under the column, which lowered it gently to the ground.
With that large piece done, the rest was relatively easy to shift with manpower. My elemental swept up all the loose debris and dropped it in a neat pile outside while the trolls and orks handled the heavier pieces with the help of their forklifts and a crane. At the end of it all, the entire crew cheered as the Jade Dragon finally came in for landing.
It wasn't an actual dragon, of course. As far as I could tell, the Jade Dragon was a customized Banshee LAV, or 'thunderbird' class vehicle. LAVs are a kind of ground effect vehicle that move, as far as I can tell, based on a combination of ground effect, VTOL thrusters and whatever the scientific version of black magic is. The end result is a tank that can fly like a fighter jet and hover like a helicopter at low altitudes. Seeing one land up close is impressive, the air displacement alone causing near gale force winds. The Dragon itself was painted in mottled blue and green camouflage, scored and scratched in places showing the dull silver of the composite ceramic armour underneath. The main gun on the turret was a Vigilant Rotary Assault Cannon, the minigun version of the Panther Assault Cannon like Kosko had used in Shiawase Tower.
When the hatch opened, I had to blink a few times as the pilots stepped down the ramp the pit crew rolled up to the side for them. One was a 9' tall, curvaceous, troll woman with short red hair. The other was a 5' 4" tall, rail thin, blonde elf with A-cups. Both were wearing flight suits that looked like opaque black second skins. The elf had three datajacks implanted in her temple, which was shaved on that side while the rest of her hair was left to grow long. She also had a jagged tribal tattoo that extended from just under her right eye down to the nape of her neck. The troll accessorized her second skin with a vest that was festooned with broaches, rings and pockets which probably contained more of the same.
"Storm Riders," Vallerie whispered in my ear, answering the question before I'd had a chance to even ask.
"What, like a gang?" I asked, perplexed.
Vallerie smirked. "Sort of, though they wouldn't call themselves that. The Storm Riders are a magical initiatory group dedicated to running the Blue Labyrinth, cutting straight through the mana storm. They are the overland smugglers in Sydney; nobody else is crazy enough to even try."
My eyes bugged out. "They fly straight through the mana storm? How nuts are they?"
"Crazy, not deaf," the elf called out as she and her companion turned towards us, grinning from ear to ear. "Hey, Valkyrie, you started taking babysitting jobs now?"
Vallerie grinned back and hugged the elf before clasping hands with the troll in a warm greeting. "Naomi, meet my drinking buddies. The elf with the big mouth that never shuts up is Rocket; the other one that barely ever speaks is Rolling Stone."
"I speak," Stone grumbled, "it's just hard getting a word in edgeways."
I looked between the two of them incredulously. "Rock and Roll?"
"I know, isn't is awesome!" Rocket enthused. "We really didn't do it on purpose, I was using the callsign 'Rocket' when I was younger than you were playing video games. Stone ran with a thrill gang in her youth, got the name from falling off her bike all the time and just picking herself up for another go. Toughest bitch in Australia, no joke."
Sone rolled her eyes.
"Do you really fly through the mana storm?" I asked, not really believing it. When the mana storm decides to sweep over town, most Sydneysiders run for the nearest warded bunker and pray to whatever they believe in that the wraiths won't find them.
If anything, Rocket's grin got wider. I worried that if she smiled any harder, she my decapitate herself. "YEP! We're Storm Riders, the few and the proud. Your average flight jock hasn't got a snowball's chance in hell running the Wollondilly but we've got the magical edge. Don't let the 'jacks fool you; I'm an Adept that specializes in flying bad boys like the Jade Dragon. Stone here is a badass mage, I've yet to see her pass out from drain. I do the flying; she shields us from all the mojo flying about out there."
Blinking stupidly, it took a moment for me to process her rapid-fire way of speaking. "Wait, what's a Wollondilly?"
She pulled out her commlink like she was prepared for the question and brought up a holographic map of what I assumed was the Blue Mountains. "See this river? That's the Wollondilly. Penrith is up here, just north of the Warragamba Dam, which is why we stop here this side of the Labyrinth. We run southwest over the dam, down the Wollondilly then turn up towards Katoomba and exit out of the storm through the Megalong Valley. And then we come back the same way. As long as you're good enough to dodge government patrols in the Megalong and can resist the mana storm for a few hours, you're golden."
You think you're never going to meet any real life action heroes, then suddenly life surprises you by throwing them all at you at once. "That's... awesome but crazy! What about the Storm Wraiths?"
"Pffft, sloooow moooovers," Rocket drawled, pantomiming someone moving in slow motion. "We crank the Dragon up to max speed, they don't even know we're coming until we've already gone. T-birds are about the only thing fast enough and tough enough to do it. Try and roll up the highway in a tank, the storm will probably drive you all crazy after your mage dies trying to handle the spells and wraiths. Take a jet and the wild physical spells will rip the bird apart in three seconds. Of course, the illusions and such would probably stop you in your tracks long before that, which is why you need a pilot that can cognitively process multiple visual sensory inputs, like me!"
Stone sighed. "What that jargon means is that she can look out the front viewport while rigging. That way, she can see astral space as well as physical space, so she knows what's real and what isn't."
Looking between the two of them, I couldn't believe my ears. "And you just tell anyone you meet all your secrets like that?!?"
Both of them broke out laughing.
"The problem is, Naomi, that everyone knows how to get through the mana storm, theoretically," Vallerie explained, "it's just too expensive for anyone else to want to. These two trained together for years before they were even allowed to make their first attempt. Now add to the cost of training all the foci they're wearing, anchored spells, the Jade Dragon itself which is ten million nuyen before customization... about the only way these two can even make a profit is by smuggling. On top of that, your investment could just disappear in the blink of an eye."
"Not to mention watching all your money drain away with the cost of fuel, repairs and ammo," Rocket groaned.
"Or your partner's bar tab," Stone grumbled.
"Hey!" Rocket protested, putting her hands on her hips indignantly.
Stone put her arm around her partner's shoulders. "Come on, I'll buy you a beer or two. Nice meeting you, Naomi."
Watching them walk away with their arms around each other, I knew I shouldn't be shocked but I was. "Are they..."
"Lovers?" Vallerie finished for me. "Absolutely; aren't they cute together?"
A million questions ran through my mind, all of which I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer to. Then I was ashamed that I'd even thought for a moment that the answer to every one of those questions wasn't 'the same as everyone else'. Homosexuality wasn't a big deal outside of uptight 'family' corporations like Shiawase these days but an Elf/Troll lesbian relationship? It was like discovering that the Loch Ness Monster really does exist.
The engineers thanked me for my help before I sent the earth elemental home and Vallerie took me to get some food. She led me downstairs into the underground, which had once been merely a single level parking garage. They'd dug out a lot more levels in fifty odd years with corridors branching off in all directions. The biggest feature we passed was a water purification system, fed by a pipe that Vallerie informed me was connected to Penrith Lakes, the other reason why Penrith was the perfect place for an ork colony despite the mana storms being so close.
She let me into her apartment, a welded-together shack that clung to the side of a deep pit down which the residents could ride elevators to the lower levels. Inside was sparsely furnished, she didn't even have a trideo just two chairs, a table, a single bed, a cupboard and a strong footlocker. Kitchens and bathrooms were a communal deal. She took something packaged in foil out of the cupboard and handed it to me.
"What's this?" I asked, turning it over in my hands.
"Dinner," she replied with a snicker. "They're called MREs; military rations. They taste like cardboard but they're nutritious and they have a half life rather than an expiry date."
I couldn't open it, in the end I was forced to ask for scissors. Instead, Vallerie opened it for me, which I found embarrassing even if she didn't mind. Saying it tasted like cardboard was generous and on top of that it had the consistency of tofu but I ate it grudgingly. Thinking as we ate, an idea occurred to me. "Um, Vallerie, could you get me back over the wall?"
"Over the wall? You got family there?"
"No," I answered with a shake of my head. "There's something I need to get. The trip would be worth your time."
She looked at me for a few moments. "You're talking biz?"
"Yes. There's a Bulldog step van full of guns over the wall. It also has a book I need to get back still inside it. You and whoever we need can have the van, the guns and whatever else as long as I can keep the book."
"You don't have a key for a van," she said positively.
"No, you'd have to crack the lock and hotwire it."
"And where did this van come from?"
"Someone who can't miss it anymore," I answered, trying not to think about Cook and failing.
"Ok. How many guns are we talking about?"
She believed me after I described the contents of the van that I could remember in detail. The closest I could get to her agreement, however, was a promise that she'd think about it. As we were finishing our MREs, there was a knock on the door. Vallerie drew her pistol before checking who was outside through a secret camera in the doorframe. When she opened the door, Beth walked in and glared down at me.
"You! You scared me half to death disappearing on us like that!" she scolded.
Sighing, I bowed reflexively in apology. "Sumimasen."
She looked confused. "Suma-what?"
"Sumimasen," Vallerie explained for me. "It's Japanese for 'sorry'."
"Well... good!" Beth finally said, not knowing what else to say. A moment later, I was almost crushed by a friendly ork hug. It took me a moment to be comfortable enough to awkwardly put my arms around her back.
At that precise moment, I noticed that Vallerie had a mirror on the wall. For the first time, I saw Kumiko's face in the mirror, staring back at me, tears leaking down her cheeks.