The underground was surprisingly warm. Over the twenty four hours after being hugged by Beth the night before, Vallerie and I had spent the day running from one corner of Penrith to the other, summoning earth elementals to help with the clean up effort. I'd gone to bed totally exhausted, only to wake three hours later feeling fresh as a daisy with Vallerie snoozing beside me in her half-suit of form fitting body armour. All I had was a single sheet over me, which was all I really needed. I could hear the murmur of voices through the walls, the occasional clank of footsteps and the constant hum of electricity, though none of it was particularly alarming.
Feeling restless, I quietly slipped out of bed and hesitantly crept over to the mirror on the wall barefoot. Vallerie had loaned me a Neil the Ork Barbarian t-shit that hung on me like a dress, the neck wide enough that it slipped over one shoulder whenever I moved. Seeing my face in the mirror was less of a shock, the old saw about time healing all wounds turning out to be true.
Kumiko had been cute, I remembered that much from the photo of her that I'd come across during my legwork. While her body had been possessed, she hadn't been cute as much as scary. Seeing myself through her eyes, the sense of innocence about her was gone. It was like looking in the face of an impossibly perfect child soldier, far too knowing for her years but I was still cute. In fact, I was the sort of cute that made fathers lock their daughters away in high towers to await handsome princes, which made more sense of why the little girl might ask if I was a faerie. It made me wonder how much genetweaking Dr. Shinibata had put her unborn child through.
Bunching my hair up with my hands to get it out of the way of my pointed ears, I wondered how I'd look with shorter hair. Strange as it was, I found myself wanting to differentiate myself from Kumiko, no just for practical reasons but for the sake of my own sanity. As much as I knew that it wasn't my fault what the spirit did, I couldn't help but feel like a thief despite living in a dream come true. My only dissatisfaction was that Kumiko had been a bit on the scrawny side. I was ready to blame being stuck in a cell under inhuman conditions for a few years for that, however.
Curling up in one of Vallerie's chairs, I hugged my legs and considered what to do next. As the hours passed, all I could think about was the Bulldog step van loaded with guns that Cook and I had left behind in a lock-up in Kellyville on the other side of the wall. I'd left the book there too, which was the important thing. I cursed myself for leaving my commlink and the sustaining foci behind, I could really have used them right about now.
It must have been early morning when a noise just outside the door made Vallerie bolt upright, drawing a Colt Manhunter heavy pistol from under her pillow. She seemed to know exactly where I was despite being asleep, giving me a quick hand signal to hide behind a closet. Heeding her, I put my back to the wall and tried to breath as slowly and quietly as possible, though I couldn't help peeking out from around the corner.
Throwing the door open, Vallerie came face-to-barrel with an assault shotgun as the woman standing in the doorway found the heavy pistol jammed against the bridge of her nose. The newcomer was taller but thinner than Vallerie, her coffee-coloured skin and almond eyes showing both African and Asian lineage. A blue and black bandanna held her hair out of her face and she was wearing biker leathers of the same colours festooned with steel spikes, like post apocalyptic dominatrix. Her eyes held a thousand yard stare as she considered Vallerie, looking like something out of a street war sim come to life. After a tense moment, they both smirked and roughly clasped hands, lowering their guns.
"Good to see you, chica," Vallerie greeted. "Naomi, get out here. I want you to meet my Chapter Mistress, Diabolique of the Desolation Angels."
Trotting out awkwardly, I tried to resist the impulse to cover myself and bowed cordially. "Um, good to meet you," I said apprehensively as Diabolique looked down on me with those cold, calculating, orbs. They weren't emotionally dead in the way that cybereyes are, it was something else. I got the feeling that Diabolique could peel someone like a grape with a meaningless smile on her face. Her ethereal grace and poise while wearing high-heeled combat boots was also surprisingly intimidating; It wasn't just that she towered over me either. Vallerie might have been an ork and obviously as tough as they come but she exuded a motherly quality that inspired trust. Diabolique was a cold, ruthless, bitch and she let everyone around her know it with every movement.
Stepping past Vallerie, her heels clicking on the plastic and metal floor, Diabolique took my jaw gently but firmly in hand and raised my eyes up to look into hers. After staring at each other for a moment, my eyes seemed to slip out of focus. The world around us seemed to have the colour leached out of it, leaving everything but Diabolique and Vallerie cast in hues of luminescent grey. Vallerie glowed in muted shades of orange with tinges of yellow and red and a core of deep purple shot with pink. By contrast, Diabolique shone like a lantern at night, her purple and red aura barely contained within a shell of greens and blues crackling with deep black worms that seemed to writhe across her skin. For a moment, I saw a mask of energy overlayed on her features, companied by a buzzing sound but it passed so quickly I had to wonder if I'd just imagined it.
"She's a Mystic Adept," Diabolique informed us in the same tone that you'd use to describe the weather. "You know the charter, Valkyrie, we don't rush magicians."
"I'm not asking for that," Vallerie replied, stepping next to her superior but keeping her tone humble. "She's alone and she needs help. We can place her under our protection. I've seen her work, she's talented and she knows the score. She'll be a good friend to have on our side in a few years."
I was too busy trying to wrap my head around the first concept to pay full attention to the rest. "Wait, I'm a what?"
Diabolique turned her gaze back to me and removed her hand, stroking my hair back behind my ears inquisitively. "Little thing, a Mystic Adept is a cross between a Magician and a Physical Adept. You are able to cast spells and summon spirits and see the astral plane but you are unable to perform astral projection. In return for this limitation, you have some access to the powers of an Adept. Unfortunately, you will do neither to the same capacity without... significant effort and training. I also sense that you have a mentor spirit, I'm sure she's made herself known to you already."
I nodded. "If that's what I am, then what are you? You glow like a Christmas tree."
Her mouth twitched in amusement. "I'm a Physical Adept on the Warrior Path. I call my mentor Artemis the Huntress, the virgin goddess. My way will not be yours, however. You walk a different path. The Desolation Angels don't allow those who can summon spirits into our ranks because of the temptations of the Insect Spirits to whom we are sworn enemies. Speaking of which, Vallerie, you missed a fine fight."
Vallerie sighed. "Yeah, I got stuck here when the ghouls swarmed us; more than enough targets to go around. I'd take fire elemental backup again anyday though," she admitted, nodding at me in gratitude. "Do you think there's still a hive in Paramatta?"
"I think the infection runs deeper," Diabolique murmured. "I think the burrowers have moved their queens deep under the mountains where the storms can't reach. But this is a topic for a later time. I'm willing to extend my protection to this girl, will you explain what is expected of her?"
Vallerie nodded with a serious expression on her face.
When Diabolique turned to leave, I stepped forward. "Wait, one moment please!"
Diabolique pasued, looking at me over her shoulder. Bowing again in gratitude, I considered what I was going to say carefully. "Arigatou gozaimasu," I thanked her formally in Japanese. It was a safe bet, Japanese culture is so pervasive that everyone recognizes it. "I think I can already do something to repay your kindness, onee chan. I know of a place in Kellyville where a large cache of weapons has been stored. The former owners are... dead. If I could beg your indulgence, there is a book there that I need to return to its rightful owner, it is all that I ask for in return."
"How many guns are we talking about?" Vallerie asked pointedly.
"Enough to start a small war," I answered. "Or finish one."
After a long silence, Diabolique smirked again. "I like this morsel, Valkyrie. Good job," she congratulated before leaving. I took that as a good sign.
Vallerie put away her gun and slapped me playfully on the shoulder before telling me to get dressed. We'd picked up some more clothes for me along with a backpack to carry everything in, so I was able to change into some clean clothes after a visit to the communal showers. Strangely, they don't make as much armoured clothing for children off the rack as they do for adults. Being practical above all else in a nation known for practical people, the orks of Penrith made their own armoured clothing for their kids. Most of it was leather reinforced with composite ballistic plates scavenged from other articles of clothing, ingeniously recycled. I went with a thick leather jacket and tough cargo pants over knee-high boots. It felt strange to me to just wear a simple sleeveless shirt under the jacket, I kind of felt naked without my own form fitting armour underneath but they didn't make it in children's sizes. Vallerie added a blue and black scarf and wristband to my attire, showing my affiliation to the Desolation Angels.
"Do you think I need a haircut?" I asked Vallerie was we waited in line at the cafeteria. The food on sale was standard soy-based stuff but the cook had managed to make it smell divine somehow.
"Might not hurt to start looking more street chic," she acknowledged. "I'll take you over to see Reggie after breakfast."
I made a small squeaking noise when I was grabbed roughly from behind and hugged mercilessly. "Heyya!" Beth greeted enthusiastically. "You heading out today?"
"Elf... can't... breathe..." I managed to choke out. Beth immediately let go. "Woah, sorry about that," she apologized sheepishly. Vallerie snickered at us both.
"Um, yeah, last morning here," I answered her question once I got my breath back.
"Awesome! Do you think I could come with? Dad needs someone to fetch some parts from over the wall, does that scan, Vallerie?"
"Null sheen," Vallerie agreed, "we'll be riding out with the Angels."
Beth covered her mouth in alarm. "Oh my god! You're letting me ride out with the Desolation Angels?!?"
"Why not? You're almost old enough for the rush," Vallerie said with a smile. "Diabolique's leading the pack, show you've got what it takes and maybe she'll consider you."
Stunned into silence for a few moments, Beth gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, nearly goring me with her tusks, before running off. "What was that about?" I asked, clueless.
"Being a Desolation Angel is a big deal out here," Vallerie explained, dishing out soyegg and soybacon for us both. "For a lot of girls, it's the only chance to climb out of this drekhole. Don't get me wrong, I love Penrith and I'll always be a Penrith girl but everyone here calls it what it is. I've got another fifteen years on my bike if I'm lucky and I started riding when I was younger than Beth. It's either that or prostitution for most of the girls. Maybe tie yourself to some man, pump out babies and ignore it when he comes home drunk or high and slaps you around. Sorry to say but unless I sock enough money away to afford Leónization, you'll still look twenty when you're burying my wrinkly old hide. Living with that hanging over you... lota orks are willing to take the big risks."
Walking to an empty table, I considered how to respond. "I know I can't say I understand," I said seriously as I ate. "I grew up in a corp before... total opposite to this place. Safe and secure but everything's... scripted; like you're an actor in a sim. If I'd stayed there longer, I think I might have gone crazy. Maybe I'm already crazy."
Vallerie looked at me for a long while, taking a sip of her soykaf. "You know, you're the most mature little girl I've ever met. Hell, I've known less mature adults, elves included. What did they get you to study back in that cushy corp school?"
I smiled brightly, happy to have something familiar to talk about even if I was about to spin a tall tale. "Matrix theory and programming! I scored in the top percentile for the aptitude test."
Vallerie shook her head and chuckled. "An awakened elf matrix prodigy... maybe I'm getting too old for the Sixth World. If you were in a corp school, you've got a SIN, right?"
Sobering, I shook my head. "It got... deleted."
She stopped moving in the middle of chewing a particularly tough piece of soybacon. "Crash 2.0?"
"I'm sorry. What about your parents? You know where they are?"
"They're dead," I lied. "My whole family lost their SINs and couldn't get them renewed. Dad had some sort of deal going but he... he just didn't come home one day. Mom lost it, got addicted to beetles, stopped eating or drinking. She tried to sell me to a bunch of men in suits when she got desperate but they took her too and sold her parts to organleggers. I was thrown in a cell... like a laboratory; I think they were studying something but I never saw anyone. Food was delivered through a slot in the wall but they gave me things to read and games. I'm not sure how long I was down there for, must have been a few weeks at least. Then the room started shaking and my door... broke. There were people rushing around outside, so I pulled the door open and just ran the way everyone else was going, then I slipped away before anyone noticed me. My... what did she call it, a mentor spirit? She told me how to summon an elemental. Next thing I know, I run right into Sarge and his team running from the ghouls."
"Crazy story," Vallerie commented, looking sad. "Crazy enough to be true; I'm sorry about your mom."
For a moment, I couldn't believe she'd bought it. I didn't feel any joy at the fact, however, just the opposite. Savagely wiping tears from my eyes before they could form, knowing that being on the verge of crying was just adding more authenticity to my act and hating myself for it, I shrugged. "It doesn't matter, she was dead long before they chopped her up."
Sighing, Vallerie gave my shoulder a comforting squeeze. "So these weapons, what's the story behind them?"
"There was a woman who worked with Dad for a while, I never knew her name. They had a deal going; Dad was using some old contacts of his to move guns around the city. He was good with mechanical stuff so he wanted to start a black market armoury, buy me a new SIN and get me back in school. They got a bunch of guns and a big truck so they could move it all at a moment's notice. Mom was already going down the drain, so Dad left me to look after her and showed me where he kept everything in case he didn't come back."
"And all the guns were still there after your Dad disappeared?" she asked suspiciously.
I nodded. "I thought... he might have skipped out on us. Mom was getting crazier and crazier, just couldn't handle life outside the enclave. But whenever I checked on the guns, they were still there. I hid the keys on Mom so she wouldn't try to trade off what we had for more drugs then she got mad and tried to sell me."
We finished the rest of the meal in silence before Vallerie led me to the hairdresser. Yes, even on the edge of civilization, style is important to people and street style was Reggie's business. The shop wasn't hard to find, it was the only store on the underground strip that had 'Reggie's Salon' painted in red and blue across the front with an armoured troll standing guard inside.
Reggie was a character, you could tell that the moment you stepped into the store. He was impossible to miss. He was a well built ork man and his black jumpsuit had the gold zipper undone down to just above his crotch with no shirt underneath. He still, however, wore a thin red tie loosely around his neck along with a few slender gold chains. His hair was peroxide blonde, worn shoulder length, combed straight down the centre of his scalp and curled at the ends, like he wanted to be the poster child for the Jack of Diamonds. The girl he was working on looked like she'd walked in and asked for her hair to look like someone had set a firecracker off in her brainpan. It was long and spiked, starting red at the roots but gradually turning iridescent yellow at the tips.
"Hey, Bob," Vellerie greeted the troll bodyguard on the way past, "how's Suzy?"
"Fine," he growled, his deep voice sounding like he had a larynx full of gravel and broken glass. "Needs a wheelbarrow to walk around but won't let anyone fuss over her. Stubborn woman... no offence."
"None taken," Vallerie answered with a chuckle.
"Needs a wheelbarrow?" I inquired.
"Bob's wife's an ork," Vallerie explained, "but their kids are gonna be trolls."
I blinked. "That can happen?"
Both Vallerie and Bob laughed. "I know, I know, we weren't expecting it ourselves," Bob explained, "not even just one, three at once! Little buggers kick like mules too, I'll tell you. But Suzy's got the constitution of a Megawombat. Doc says he's seen human girls in worse shape with just one smoothie kid... er, sorry, no offence."
"None taken," I said, echoing Vallerie.
"Ah! Vallerie the Valkyrie!" Reggie interrupted us with a boisterous, if slightly effeminate, greeting. He also affected a European accent, playing his role to the hilt. "What we have here, new canvas little girl? Oh dear, what have we been doing to our hair?!? Where I come from, you'd get ten to life doing that to a child."
I smiled as much because I had Reggie pegged as for his entertainment value. He looked like a bit of fluff but he was playing to a stereotype, trading off his natural charisma to sell his business. Why just cut people's hair and style them outrageously when you can do it with memorable flare? Playing my own part, I giggled, which delighted him no end.
"Looks like you've made another fan, Reggie," Vallerie observed with a smirk. "Figured she needed something to give her more street cred."
"Maybe something shorter?" I asked, plaintively blowing an errant strand out of my face. "This stuff gets in the way too much."
Reggie sighed. "Plenty of girls would fall on their knees for hair as long as yours. But so be it! I have just the thing in mind..."
An hour later, I walked out with my new 'look' as Reggie called it. Somehow, though I suspected the local smugglers and thieves, he'd managed to get his hands on programmable nanodye, nanites suspended in a gel that would adhere to strands of hair and change the colour of existing strands permanently. It'd go black at the roots when my hair started growing out but until then it'd be deep crimson with black streaks. He'd gone for a feathered, shaggy, look that exposed my ears and neck, which made me look slightly tomboyish but still feminine. I liked it a lot.
Beth obviously liked my haircut when we found her outside leaning against a Hyundai Offroader bike with sidecar. "Wow! That really suits you! Wish dad would let me see Reggie, I've gotta do my own hair," she complained, flicking the uneven green streaks in her own dark hair.
"Thanks... is that your bike?" I asked, impressed.
She grinnded. "Oh, yeah! Well, kinda, it's my dad's, but he lets me take it out on errands and to practice driving. No guns and he won't take the sidecar off for me yet, guess it's kinda like training wheels, but I take it out every chance I get."
"Isn't that dangerous out here?"
She chuckled, pointing at the Browning Ultra Power strapped to her hip. "Very, which is why we learn to shoot before we learn to ride. Besides I go around with some of the older kids. Last drekbrain that tried to mess with us got what was coming to him."
It was yet another reminder that I was in the middle of a dog-eat-dog world. Kids with guns, riding bikes, their only hope in life to join a gang... you can watch the trideo, slot a sim, but seeing it in real life is something else.
Vallerie nodded sagely. "I wouldn't let Beth ride with us otherwise. Why don't you get in her sidecar, it'll be a lot more comfortable than the back of my Scorpion."
I was about to agree when we were interrupted by the sound of an engine gunning down the street. Another biker, one of the Desolation Angels from her colours, pulled up next to us. Her face was painted white with dark purple lipstick and eyeshadow with a beauty spot that had a curly-cue underneath on her left cheek. Wavy salt-and-pepper hair was gelled back in wild strips that made it look like the wind was blowing through her hair even when she was standing still and dangly silver earrings. She wore a dark blue longcoat over tight black leathers with shiny fire-red heeled boots with a bunch of straps. Her bike was a Suzuki Aurora painted blue with a stream of fiery black skulls painted down the sides. Twin SMGs were mounted over the handelbars with triggers on the handles themselves and she carried multiple combat blades under her longcoat and she had a bunch of guns strapped to the sides of the bike. Underneath all the warpaint, I could tell she was human but when she smiled, I saw that her canines had been replaced with bright silver fangs.
"Bringing some snacks along, Valkyrie?" she asked, looking straight at me as she licked her lips like I was a juicy steak on a plate. "Mmmmm, such a tasty morsel."
"Frag off, Perv," Vallerie grumbled, rolling her eyes, "she's too young, even for you."
"No such thing as too young, you know how much I like a little lamb," she said, throwing her head back to laugh, long and loud. She stopped when a red dot appeared on her chest, looking down at it then up to where Beth was aiming down the sight of her Ultra-Power, chewing on a stick of bubble gum. Turning slightly, she aimed to one side before pulling the trigger, splattering a devil rat across the pavement. "Sorry about that," Beth apologized ingenuously.
Perv stared at her for a moment before breaking into another grin. "You I like. See you around, little lamb," she said before gunning the engine again and driving off.
Blinking stupidly, I looked up at Vallerie. "What the frag was that?"
The older ork sighed. "That was Perv."
"Perv? You mean that's her NAME? Perv?"
"Short for Pervert, yeah, crazy as a cut snake and even more twisted. Stay away from her, she's big trouble and she's got your scent now."
I shook my head, trying to understand. "Got my scent? What?"
Vallerie tapped her nose. "Olfactory boosters; she's chipped to the gills, boasts that she doesn't have a soul to lose to the cyber; goes in for genetweaking, nanoware, geneware, bioware... a real freak for augmentation. Hell, when I first met her, she was Hispanic. With horns. And udders. These days, she's a bit more conservative. Hell on wheels with those blades, though."
Not wanting to know any more about Pervert, I put on the helmet that Beth handed to me and got in the sidecar, throwing my bag into the luggage compartment behind the seat. Beth drove like she'd been born in the seat, following Vallerie to where she'd left her Scorpion and then on to the cavalcade of the Desolation Angels where Diabolique was rounding up some older ork girls with their own bikes. Pervert noticed us and blew me a kiss from near the front of the pack.
Leaning over so she could talk to me, Vallerie scowled. "Don't worry; Diabolique will frag her up if she so much as touches you while you're under our flag. She's just pushing our buttons."
We drove next to Vallerie near the rear of the pack but in front of the new bloods when we rolled out with Diabolique in the lead. There were ten or so full members between us, a mixture of orks, trolls, elves, humans, one dwarf and a changeling of wildly varying ethnicities. The only common denominators were that they were all women, all wore some element of blue and black and they all looked harder than a coffin nail. There wasn't any uniformity to their bikes either aside from the colour of the paint jobs.
The southside barrens look empty but they're not. Everyone knows that there are plenty of people living over the wall, SINless and destitute. That's how the ghouls and the insect spirits get by, preying on the weak and helpless in the herd. The only utilities in the barrens are those that people provide for themselves or steal from the corporations. Seeing it up close, I remembered the Urban Brawl game I'd watched from high above a little patch of hell just like the one we were driving past only a few days ago. Someone just like the people around me trying to sneak past the fence only to be splattered by an assault cannon the way Beth had shot the devil rat. No, scratch that, the devil rat had died with more dignity. They were hard, callous, people but at least they knew who they were and wore their colours openly.
We didn't see anyone until we reached the Paramatta gates. Diabolique said a few words to one of the heavily armed and armoured KE guards, passed off a credstick and we were in like Flynn. The contrast between inside the barrens and inside the wall was remarkably small. People walked in the streets, warrens of apartment blocks dominated the landscape, security drones hovered overhead but no-one so much as said boo to us as we rode past. Paramatta itself looked like a war zone, or maybe more of a war zone than usual. I swear I saw claw marks in plasticrete walls and pavement. We weren't the only civilians visibly armed either, it was like driving through the Wild West in a modern day setting.
"Diabolique wants to know where this cache of yours is," Vallerie said through my helmet's earphones. I gave her an address in return. It was too late now, if they were going to frag me over there wasn't anything I could do to stop them.
When we veered off towards Kellyville, I closed my eyes and prayed that the van was still there. Kellyville as a suburb was on the wrong side of the wall when it went up. A second wall on the other side segregated it from the barrens, however. When the corps had moved in after the Awakening and it had become obvious that expending towards the mana storm was folly, instead they flattened the newer suburb of Kellyville northwest of Paramatta to put up low-cost apartments for the lowest rung of wageslaves. In employment terms, they call these workers 'disposable labour', grunts that don't require any cyber to do their job or are forced to pay for their own upgrades out of their own pockets. If North Sydney and the Arkoblocks were civilized and lawful while the Barrens are uncivilized and unlawful then Paramatta was lawful but uncivilized while Kellyville was unlawful but civilized. It's a strange mixture, Paramatta is safe because everyone's armed and nobody wants to risk starting a fight but Kellyville is safe because the will to fight has been sucked out of the residents by sixty-hour work weeks and the vices that occupy what little free time they have left.
We drove past a girl who must have been no more than thirteen or fourteen watering a tiny patch of vegetables inside a greenhouse, heavily pregnant and wearing nothing but a bikini top and ripped board shorts. A sign out the front read 'Fresh Tomartoes 10¥ea' scratched into a stolen road sign. If I'd had a commlink I would have taken a picture, the image encapsulated everything that was wrong with western Sydney.
Cook and I had left the Bulldog in an abandoned lock-up on the southwestern end of the suburb right next to the second wall. The realty bubble had broken before construction was completed, leaving the block abandoned. Even the squatters had better places to stay in Kellyville, so the lot remained abandoned except for Cook's makeshift safehouse. We'd buried the keys just outside, so I was able to dig them up with ease and let everyone inside. To my relief, the Bulldog was still there.
Leading Diabolique inside, I turned on the lights. She whistled when she saw the racks full of guns and ammo. "You weren't kidding when you said this was an arsenal, kid." Nodding, I was quiet as I found the book alongside a pile of my old clothes. It was hard to believe they were ever mine. Picking up the book, I threw her the keys and walked out, leaving the Angels to take whatever they wanted.
"You ok?" Beth asked, giving me a worried look.
I nodded again. "Yeah, just... some places have ghosts, you know? Not real ghosts, I mean, but...."
Beth nodded back at me. "I know what you mean."
I didn't think she really did but I let it slide. Sitting on the edge of her bike, I absently ran my free hand over the sleek curve of the chassis while the other clutched the book to my chest. The book had a fresh, comforting, scent even though it wasn't made of real paper. As much as I love virtual books, there's still something comforting about the feel of a hardcopy tome in your arms.
Feeling Beth's hand on my shoulder, I turned to look her in the eye. Worry was written all over her face. "You ok?" she asked seriously. "Valler... Valkyrie told me this used to be your parent's place."
"They're long gone," I answered emotionlessly. "I'll be fine. Right now I'm more worried about where I'm gonna doss tonight."
"I've got an idea or two on that score," Vallerie said from where she was keeping lookout by her Scorpion. "I got a safehouse inside the wall, worse comes to worst."
Rule number #1 for living in Sydney: have a place to crash. Preferably a place that can be locked up tight, with a basement or safe room; somewhere you can huddle up with layers of biofibre or living earth between you and the sky. Because when the mana storms come, that's where you want to be.
"Do you mind if I take a look at that book?" Vallerie asked, startling me. I hadn't even realized she'd walked up behind me. Nodding, I handed it to her. She flipped through the pages for a moment before snapping it shut. "Where'd you get this?"
Considering the look on her face, I decided to tell the truth. "A talismonger downtown loaned it to me."
"I see, does this talismonger have a name?"
"Not that I caught," I answered with an embarrassed shrug, "the sign out front was in Chinese... I don't know that much Chinese."
Vallerie held the book in front of my face, pointing one corner at me. "I know this book," she told me gravely. She was about to say more but she was interrupted when the Bulldog's engine finally roared to life. A moment later, Diabolique hopped down into the plasticrete floor of the lock-up carrying a bag that looked like it was stuffed full of goodies. "Anwen!" she shouted over the noise, pointing at a troll woman who was hovering nearby. "Load up Squeak's bike, we're moving out." Turning her attention to us, the Chapter Mistress stalked up to us and practically threw the bag into my arms, nearly winding me. "You did us a real favour today, kid," she congratulated with a pat on the head, "consider this your finder's fee. You come across anything the DA can use or move, remember to call us, alright?"
I part bowed, part nodded, unable to get the sunken feeling out of my stomach that something about the book was going to screw up everything. Diabolique noticed. She looked at Vallerie, down at the book in her hand then back to me before completing the circuit by look back at Vallerie. "Something wrong?"
"I know this book," Valkyrie answered. "It was stolen from Clover's shop three or four months ago. She says she got it from a talismonger downtown. He didn't give his name and the store signs were only written in Chinese."
Diabolique turned her thousand-yard stare down on me. "Describe him."
"Old Chinese guy," I replied, "fiddles with little stones in an octagonal bowl all the time. Has a freaky assistant that appears out of nowhere wearing ancient scholar's robes and a huge Fu Manchu."
"Ill motherfragging Ching," Diabolique spat. In a flash, her arm snaked out, grabbing the pointed tip of my left ear and twisting painfully. I cried out, the intense pain making tears well up in my eyes. "You part of the 105's?"
I tried to shake my head and regretted it immediately. "No! Never heard of 'em!"
"Boss, I believe her," Vallerie vouched for me. "Knowing Ill Ching, he's playing us somehow but Naomi's nothing but a pawn in this. We'll return the book to Clover, she can deal with Ching through the talismonger network."
Diabolique let me go. "Your responsibility," she told Valkyrie in no uncertain terms. Looking back at me, the cold look in her eyes was gone. "Enjoy the spoils, kid. Hope you live long enough to use 'em."
Touching my ear hurt, so I just left it alone, though I could feel the throb of blood to the tip. "Sorry, kid," Vallerie apologized, "I wasn't going to be that direct."
"Not a problem," I accepted the apology reluctantly, patting around my ear to make sure I wasn't bleeding, "she needed to be sure about me. I owe you one. Who the frag are the 105's?"
"Downtown go-gang," Beth answered for her, "Triad affiliated. Rumour is, Ill Ching's the Incense Master for the Green Gang triad. Green Gang's got a lock on talismongers and any awakened drek that passes through the black and grey markets. Even the wagemages have to deal with them."
Wincing when I accidently brushed the sore part of my ear, I tried to brush my hair out of the way of the tip. "No drek? I knew something was up with that fragger."
"How do you mean?" Vallerie probed.
"The car I was in broke down right outside his shop," I explained, "then while I was waiting for the car to be fixed, I felt an urge to go inside and take a look around. I didn't think anything of it at the time but in hindsight, with you knowing the book? At first I thought the crusty old bastard was playing up the tourist angle but he knew drek nobody could have known, not even Ned."
Sighing, Vallerie shook her head. "No offence, but I hate dealing with mages. Get that bag stowed and saddled up, we have to go see Clover. Mind if I hand onto the book?"
I shook my head and dropped the heavy bag into the luggage compartment of the sidecar before getting in and putting my helmet on. "Um, are we gonna have time for me to grab those parts for my Dad?" Beth inquired as she mounted up.
"Don't worry, I'll escort you back home after we get this done, ok?" Vallerie answered. Beth acquiesced and a minute later we were back on the road, the rest of the Angels heading in the opposite direction just after we left swarming around the Bulldog.
Clover's was a storefront in the more affluent Castle Hill district. Where Ill Ching's had that mysterious ancient fortune-cookie/Hong Kong action flick vibe, Clover's was ultramodern through and through. There wasn't any windows and I wished I had some AR goggles or contacts so I could see what Beth was ooohing and ahing over as we stepped through the front door. While the shop was rather plain from the outside without AR, inside was spectacular enough without it. It was like walking into a gun store with everything locked behind glass cases except that the items were held on display individually. It wasn't a large place, about the size of a convenience store or stuffer shack, there was just enough room for a few people to mill about and browse through the AR catalogues. What made the store different was the illusion that rather than walls, the display cases were sitting on the edge of a beach, complete with the sound of wind rustling leaves and rumble of small waves on the shore. Trying to de-focus my eyes, I managed to switch over to astral sight consciously for the first time. The illusion didn't extend there but the view was just as spectacular. Several floating eyeballs swam through the air, following the customers and peeking over their shoulder whenever they stopped to look at something. High above near the ceiling, a crackling blue storm cloud hovered ominously. For a moment, glowing blue eyes glared back at me from the midst of the vapour, startling me and snapping me back to the physical world.
"Hoi, Clover," Vallerie greeted the changeling woman leaning against the counter, staring as us with her eyes narrowed.
"Better not be here on business, Val," Clover warned. As far as changelings go, she'd come through SURGE well. Her skin was red and slightly shiny, small horns grew out of her head and a long tail swished behind her as her snarl showed small fangs. Stepping out around the counter, we got a good look at her digitigrade legs complete with hooves. She was wearing a heavy denim skirt and an alligator skin jacket that I knew had to be armoured but no visible fetishes or foci. Underneath the short sleeves of the jacket, she'd rolled up the sleeves of her blouse to just below the elbow. Her hair was combed back away from her long pointed ears and tied loosely near the end with a black and yellow patterned scarf with a gold pin sticking through it to keep it in place; very Australian neo-tribal chic, nothing but name brands. The one piece of jewellery I noticed was the pendant around her neck, a silver chain attached to a silver pentacle amulet.
"Not DA business, yours," Vallerie said, keeping her tone deliberately light as she held up the book. "You lost this, we came across it. Figured you'd want it back."
Snatching the book, Clover flipped through the pages, her eyes widening. "Holy frag! I thought it was gone, what rock did you kick over to pick this up?"
"Think we can go out back?"
Taking the hint, Clover nodded and led us through what looked like a curtain of vines into an ordinary-looking back room. If you've ever peeked through the back door of a supermarket, you know what the back rooms of a store look like, nothing but bare concrete, fluorescent lighting, kitchenettes and coffee machines. I had to give Clover props for one thing, though, her furniture was clean and comfortable.
"Aren't you worried about watching the store?" Beth asked.
Clover snorted. "No talismonger keeps the real stock out front, kid."
"And if anyone tries knocking this place off, they'll have to deal with the air elemental," I added, catching her attention.
"DA don't rush spellslingers," Clover observed, "physical adept?"
"Diabolique said I was something called a mystic adept," I explained sheepishly, "I'm not a ganger, Valkyrie's just watching out for me."
"Naomi saved our asses down at Penrith," Val explained, "we could have used you, though."
Clover shuddered. "Spirits, no! Ghouls and bugs and toxics? Ewww, I have enough to deal with on my own patch thank-you-very-much. Enough bulldrek, what's the scan?"
Val kindly left it to me to spin the entire tale from the beginning. I covered my visit to Ill Ching's without explaining where I'd been going or coming from then skipped ahead to finding myself fighting ghouls in Penrith and helping out the Devestation Angels in exchange for protection. When I was done, Clover stared at me for a few moments, pulled out her commlink and tapped something into an AR keyboard that I couldn't see. After a few moments, her trideo unit flickered as the phone rang. It rang out several times before finally connecting. My heart skipped a beat when the old Chinese man's face flickered into view.
"Yes, Clover, what do you want?" he demanded, definitely not in the best of moods.
"This kid here says you gave her a book; one of MY books in fact. It was stolen from MY store. Know anything about that?"
Absently, I wondered how far I'd get if I tried to run. I doubted that I'd slip past Val but I really wasn't going to outrun an air elemental. I had the distinct feeling my goose was cooked.
"Only that the perpetrator won't be a problem and I give the book to someone who'd return it to you," Ching answered vaguely.
"HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF A FRAGGING COURIER SERVICE?!? This is my first fragging thesis we're talking about!"
"And I knew it would find its way back to you along with something else of value," Ching explained calmly. "Take it up with Feng next time you see him, it was his plot anyway."
Clover facepalmed. "Can't you keep your ally on a leash?"
"Do I LOOK like a Dog shaman? Feng says you and the girl are made for each other, by the way, at least give her a shot."
With that, he cut the connection and flickered out. For a moment, I thought Clover was going to rip the book apart. "Miserable... insufferable..."
"Drekhead?" Beth offered.
"YES! That, thank-you! You!" Clover pointed right at me. "What was your name again?"
"Naomi," I mumbled.
"Do you have a SIN? Parents? Anything?"
I shook my head nervously. "Just what I've got in the trunk of Beth's sidecar outside," I said.
"Any skills? Studied magic theory at school?"
"Only thing I know about magic I read in your book," I mumbled, "plus stuff I know reading books and watching the trid... also there's... a woman, or something. She whispers to me sometimes and tells me how to do things. I know that sounds crazy. Other than that, I was studying advanced courses on programming and the Matrix and I used to help my Dad run his business after Crash 2.0."
"You don't sound crazy," she told me, her voice softening. "I've got a spare room out back and I could use a hand in the shop. As long as you agree to work and study, I've got a place for you here."
I blinked. "You're offering me an apprenticeship? You don't even know me!"
"No but I know Feng, the tall guy with the Fu Manchu you told me about, has a habit of appearing out of nowhere? That's Feng. He's not just Cheng's Ally, he's a fregging Great Form Spirit of Guidance. Ergo, if Feng says we're a good fit, I'm inclined to believe him. You read my thesis? Did it help?"
"Yes," I answered, nodding enthusiastically, "I didn't know anything about magic but your book... it was like it gave me the edge pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and assembled the frame for me. I've still got huge chinks of the puzzle to fill in but I knew where to start."
"See, we're following the same tradition. Feng knows his stuff."
I gave Vallerie a questioning look. "Stay here," she said, certain of herself, "Clover's a friend, she won't frag you over. Be prepared to work, though."
"Not just at the store and as my apprentice either," Clover added. "You might not have a SIN but I'll be damned if I let a little girl go without a proper education. Also, I'm a magician, I know squat about adepts, so you're going to have to train with someone else too. Lucky for you, I know people that'll take you on."
It was spur of the moment but I trusted Vallerie and I had a good vibe from Clover. The offer was too good to refuse. "Deal," I agreed, "just let me get my bags and say goodbye."
Outside, Beth gave me a hug and her commcode. I promised to e-mail her as soon as I got a commlink. Val hugged me too and told me she'd get my info off Beth so she could link me up to the DA's network. They waited for me to go back inside with my bags before they drove off. Dropping the bags in the back room, Clover was already waiting for me with my first job.
"Back here," she said, punching open a door to reveal an office. At least, it kind of looked like an office under the mounds of plastipaper that were piled on every horizontal surface in the room. "Your first job is to get this lot into some sort of order. And, if you can, scan what I don't have into the tortoise and get that organized. THEN we can get my taxes in order."
I stared at the mess, feeling part of my brain breaking. "You actually use HARDCOPY for this?!?" Looking around, I saw her 'tortoise'. See, before commlinks, there were decks, which were still being phased out now that Matrix 2.0 was well up and running. Decks were expensive, much more so than commlinks, so the average homeowner or wageslave would use a tortoise, an immobile desktop computer. They'd been outmoded back in the 50's but Clover still had one and was obviously using it for her accounts. In hardware years, it was an antique.
"Hey, I get shipments from between Timbucktoo and the middle of nowhere," Clover growled in annoyance. "Places where things like matrix access ain't as important to people as, oh, I don't know, making fire. Be glad they're not handwritten notes on the backs of napkins. You've got four hours 'till closing and you can start again tomorrow, get what you can done, I'll bring you some lunch."
With that, she left me surrounded by paperwork. Some of the piles were taller than I was, which made me afraid to touch anything in case it fell over and buried me. Rather than start on the work right away, I pulled the bag Diabolique had given me next to the coffee table in the kitchen area and unzipped it, wanting to make sure there were no nasty surprises waiting for me.
I was surprised, all right, several times. Fortunately, all of them were good surprises. She'd obviously just thrown a bunch of stuff into the bag and padded it out with Cook's clothes but what was inside made my eyes bug out at the generosity on display. On top of everything was a hardcase for a Walther PB-120 light pistol with a box of ammo and three empty 10-shot clips. Jammed diagonally into the bag was the katana that Cook had used in the fight against the Yakuza thugs in my warehouse. Moving a layer of armoured clothing, I discovered a box full of jewellery. A quick glance into the astral conformed my assumption, both the katana and the jewelry were all magical. As crude as it sounds, particularly considering the age of my current body, I swear I almost creamed myself at the sight of the last item. It was an old, worn, custom commlink sitting in a set of trodes disguised as a baseball cap alongside some AR glasses and a box of chips that didn't have any labels.
Lifting the commlink out of the bag, I held it in awe. The link's casing was armoured, which was a good thing considering the obvious rough use it had seen. Putting on the glasses, I turned it on, hacked the password using an OS exploit I knew about and ran a system diagnostics scan. The specs and components that came back made me giggle in pure delight. Taking the baseball cap out of the bag and putting it on backwards, I zipped the bag back up, dropped my jacket on top, and stormed back into the office to get to work with a vicious grin on my face.
>>>>> [LOGIN*#$NETRANGER;username=9Tails;password=**************** *******;ICON=Kitsune Custom 15.6781]<<<<<
>> Welcome, 9Tails, to Netranger. Our records show that you are a new user. Our SysOp will be along shortly to confirm your membership, while you're waiting please read the following rules:
1. Please remain polite and cordial to your fellow users at all times. We're all here for biz, take your personal matters elsewhere.
2. Anyone loading spyware or malware onto the system will be severely punished.
3. Use of attack programs except in self defence will be punished severely.
4. Any user attempting to trace another user's physical location from Netranger will be severely punished.
5. Do not frag with Ned.
>>>>> [9Tails, huh? Fan of old flatvids?]<<<<<
>>>>> [Er, I like flatvids but I don't think I know the one you're talking about.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Ancient BBC TV series called New Tricks, look it up. One of the episodes had a hacker that went by 'Kitsune' or 'Nine Tails'.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Well, that makes me blush, I wasn't even aware of it.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Don't worry, I'm probably the only person in Oz that remembers the show. So, you've read the rules, correct?]<<<<<
>>>>> [Yes, sir. No intention of fragging with you.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Don't make promises you won't keep, kid.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Yeah, kid. If I don't know you, nobody else knows you either. That makes you a newbie, ergo a 'kid' 'round these parts. If that's going to be a problem, don't forget your hat on the way out.]<<<<<
>>>>> [No problem, sir.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Don't call me sir, dagnabbit, I don't work for a living!]<<<<<
>>>>> [Sorry, Ned.]<<<<<
>>>>> [That'll do. So, you managed to scam someone into giving you this commcode and diagnostics says you breezed through the firewall. This is good; it tells me you know what you're doing at least. What I need to know is why you want to be here.]<<<<<
>>>>> [I'm just another SINless kid with skills and a link. Netranger is a place to talk biz, therefore it's a place I want to be.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Good answer. What's the most important rule?]<<<<<
>>>>> [Do not frag with Ned.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Bingo! We have a winner. Ok, here's the breakdown, kid. I'm giving you a probationary membership. That means I have one eye on you at all times. One infringement, you get dumped. Yes, it only takes one. No, I don't give a frag if it's unfair. Netranger moves periodically, so if you log in and find out that it's missing, you'll have to find it again. No, I don't send out notifications to anyone.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Of course not.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Good, I hope you keep that attitude. You only get one account; if you try to get multiple accounts I will have you blacklisted. If you have any problems with any of the other users over rules violations, you PM me. If you have any systems issues, bugs, see any ghosts in the machine, you PM Captain Thunderbolt.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Roger that.]<<<<<
>>>>> [Speaking of which, no porn either. Welcome to Netranger, kid.]<<<<<
Feeling a tap on my shoulder in my meat body, I logged out and let the physical world come into focus once again. I found myself staring up at Clover, who was holding two garbage bags full of paper in her hands with a pile of them in the corner. The office was practically spotless now, every horizontal space cleared. "What's the meaning of THIS? I told you to organize it, not put it all in the trash!"
"It is all organized," I told her, moving an AR window to where she could take it. "I digitized all the documents, collated them and organized the contents into cross-referenced spreadsheets. While I was at it, I put it all into an accounting program that will basically do your taxes for you. So now you're not going to have to keep any hardcopy around, I can show you how to scan documents in with your commlink... wait, does your commlink have a document scanner?"
Clover crossed her arms over her chest defensively. "I... don't know. Look, how do I know what you've done is kosher?"
"Easy, I'll make a bet with you. Hire an accountant to look over what I've done. If he says I'm dodgy, I'll pay his fee."
"With what money?" Clover asked, raising one eyebrow.
"Mine," I said flatly. "It's not much, hiring the accountant would probably wipe my account. I kept all the paperwork, it's even organized in those bags since I knew you'd want to keep them at least for long enough to check my work."
"And you did all that in two hours?"
"One hour," I corrected, "the rest of the time was spent getting myself a new MSP and contacting some old friends and business aquaintances."
"You're SINless, you can't get yourself a commcode."
I had the decency to look sheepish. "Ok, you caught me. What I meant was, I spoofed my own matrix access."
"So is secretly importing awakened reagents from Amazonia," I rebutted with a smile.
Clover's jaw dropped. "How did you...?"
"If you don't want people to know your business, don't let them look at your books!" I admonished. "Don't worry, I buried the transaction and misfiled a few invoices... in the round folder, if you know what I'm saying. For future reference, don't sign for deliveries of that sort of thing yourself, it leaves a datatrail like an incontinent skunk."
"If this is some sort of blackmail...."
I put my hands up. "Woah, no way! Look, I know I've got a sweet deal; I'm just trying to sweeten the deal for you. You have problems keeping your books in order, I solved that problem. Heck, I think I just earned you back around 20K nuyen come tax time. We're both very slightly dodgy. Heck, I'm probably dodgier than you; at least I know I am on paper. I don't give a drek about some crushed butterflies; I hope you'll overlook a little free matrix service on my part."
Clover snorted, blowing a strand of hair out of her face. "All right but there's one thing I want you to be clear about. While you stay with me, you stay clean. KE comes knocking you'll be on your own."
"I expected no less."