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No Time for Second Chances

By Dr. Bender

Chapter 1

Looking back over my shoulder, I tucked my shoulder-length crimson hair back behind my pointed ear to give me a clear view of the city far below. The air was filled with drones of all shapes and sizes going about their nightly business while the labyrinth of streets weaving their way between skyscrapers and arcologies was choked with traffic, nearly blotted out by the smog trapped in the lower atmosphere. The wind made sure my hair didn't stay in place for long, so I turned back to the ferrocrete wall in front of me and continued to climb.

The infiltration suit I was wearing hugged my body like a second skin, reducing my heat, sweat and other biological emissions close to zero. Gecko pads were built into the hands and soles, the so-called 'weak' electronic forces they utilized making me cling to the side of the building like a human spider straight out of a graphic novel. My magic made me invisible to regular sight, technological sensors, trideo cameras and even the watcher spirits that glided past patrolling the astral plane.

Above me loomed the giant corporate logo of Zaibatsu Consortium Inc., a AA corporation only one step away from taking a seat on the Corporate Council. Using the lower curve of the 'C' as a ledge, I knelt and uncoiled a few feet of woven monomolecular climbing rope from the spool on my belt, affixing the line to the building with a shot from the pneumatic, fast-drying, glue gun kept in a holster at my hip. Flicking down the opaque AR visor over my eyes, I made a quick commlink call via our hacker's secure channel.

"What does it look like, Surtur?" I asked, murmuring into the subvocal microphone taped to my throat.

A screen seemingly opened a foot in front of my face which was in fact an AR overlay provided by my goggles. It depicted the face of a god-like figure made of molten gold and fire, our hacker's personally programmed icon in the Matrix. Luckily for us, Surtur was as white-hot in the Matrix as his avatar suggested, making even our commlink calls virtually untraceable.

"All green," he informed me, "beginning the countdown now."

A green timer appeared in my view as I took my place on the edge of the precipice, my back on the outside world as I shut everything else out of my head but what I was about to do. Quickly checking my harness for the zillionth and final time, I breathed, feeling the pressure of the suit on my breast as it heaved, and centred myself. The moment the counter went red, I held my breath, spread my arms, and hopped into space.

The line stretched as the harness took my weight, controlling the dive as I rotated so that I was falling head first. Below me, I watched an entire strip of what looked to be just more opaque black glass open panel by panel, revealing an open, nearly empty, floor beyond. Building a skyscraper as tall as Zaibatsu Seattle Tower posed many challenges, not the least of which was the effects of high wind; by opening a gap between floors, the automated systems reduced the pressure on the building and thus structural stress as well. After all, it's hard to concentrate during a power meeting when the room is rolling like a ship at sea.

When the line suddenly locked, I tucked my torso up to my legs as the arrested momentum flung me through one of the gaps. Rolling with the impact for several feet, I finally came to a stop on my feet thanks again to the Gecko pads, the cord disintegrating into nothingness behind me as the panels shut, cutting off the wind and plunging me into darkness.

Unlike most people, the darkness was where I was happiest; it made me smile as I moved on using the untrasound image provided by my goggles to find the right maintenance hatch. Naturally, with strategically placed gaps between sets of floors, the environmental, safety and elevator systems were all tied to the four corners of the building. The hatch in question led to a ladder sandwiched between the inner wall and the frame of the express elevator shaft that led to the uppermost floors that ascended the entire tower in measured stages, allowing personnel a few moments of rest and reducing the chances of fatal accidents. A sign describing proper safety procedures was even attached to the inside of the hatch, giving me a warm, fuzzy, feeling about how much the corporation cared for even the lowliest of employees.

Not. I quickly noted that the space provided was hardly big enough for a grown human man, let alone an Ork. A Troll attempting to squeeze through would need rubber bones; but that was all part of the traditionalist pro-human Japanese corporation's sthick of keeping the minorities in the underclass. I was just grateful to be an Elven woman slender enough to climb through gracefully without effort, though the presence of the emergency staircase right next to the hatch, separated by foot-thick ferrocrete walls annoyed me just for the blatant exclusion of the professional and lower classes.

The next part was more fun than jumping off the building. Taking the glue gun, I unreeled some more line, hooked it onto the grapple attachment and loaded it into the barrel. As the express elevator shot past, I jumped out into space once again and fired the grapple upwards, where it adhered to the elevator and pulled me up with it. The brakes on the line spool measured my acceleration once again, preventing me from getting whiplash and pulling me up so that I could pry open the door to the floor underneath and slip through. Naturally, Surtur was in control of the elevator, so I arrived just where I was supposed to be: in a hallway, surrounded by dark, empty, offices, cubicles and Total Emersion Capsules for Matrix workers.

Even those who work in Total Emersion need bathroom breaks, however, so I slipped into a bathroom just in case one of the security guards decided he needed to go for a walk. Not that he could see me with my spell still up but there were a million little things that might give an invisible person away, like air movement, breathing or smell, no matter how feint. In a world where magic exists, security guards are trained to be more curious than common sense might suggest, particularly those employed by a notoriously paranoid organization like Zaibatsu.

My backpack was sealed with strips of material much like the Gecko pads on my suit, except the only thing they were good at sticking to was each other; similar to pre-awakening Velcro but silent. Inside was my formal commlink, a sleek chromed designer accessory with little armatures that threaded through my hair to sit neatly and unobtrusively behind my ears with small diamond chains that mimicked earrings. I turned the bag inside out to reveal the inner lining and transform it into a fashionable leather handbag, into which I deposited the more obvious burglary devices like the glue gun and the cable spooler. The goggles joined them, replaced with contact lenses with similar functions. A quick spell altered the infiltration suit into a pretty black backless evening dress and matching high heels; complete with modest gold and diamond jewellery and a flip hairstyle that showed off my commlink and covered the left half of my face with flowing red curls. The jewelled choker around my neck was mainly there to conceal the subvocal microphone since the dress I'd chosen to mimic had little up top to conceal anything, mainly so that most people would remember my cleavage rather than my face.

Taking a deep breath, I centred myself, allowing mana to flow through my skin and bones. As a Mystical Adept, I not only had the ability to cast spells but channel mana to enhance my body. With training, I'd learnt to subtly alter my facial features as well as darken or lighten my natural skin tone, giving me the ability to create simple disguises quickly and effectively. Lightening my skin to a nice creamy Caucasian shade, I made a few alterations to my face, giving myself a more Eurasian appearance.

With that, I was ready to ascend the staircase and emerge onto light, warmth and music that suffused the uppermost two floors. Half the space was devoted to the luxury offices of the high and mighty, the other half was reserved for corporate functions and transportation. The open receiving area was filled with people in suits and formal wear from all over the globe, from traditional Kimonos to Vashoon Island power suits. I slipped into the crowd unnoticed and cautiously dropped the invisibility spell, becoming just another high class joygirl there to spice up the atmosphere.

"Boxcar sends his compliments," Surtur passed on the message from my boyfriend, who was probably patched into the surveillance feed via our Decker. Still, it gave me a warm glow to know that my boyfriend appreciated what he had.

"Paint the target," I whispered back, maintaining my professionalism.

An AR overlay projected onto my contacts highlighted one of the hosts, Dr. Shozumi Nika (Japanese last name first), head of the Magitech Research Department. Corporate brochures expounded that the division 'strived to combine magical and technological achievements to bring about a better world'. Better for who was the question, Zaibatsu Corporation Inc. was the answer. Not that I particularly cared why Mr. Johnson had hired us, just that there was a nice, fat, credstick waiting for my return which I intended to collect.

Looking at Dr. Shozumi made me wonder if she'd indulged her vanity and subjected herself to some genetic treatments. She was far too gorgeous to be entirely natural for a woman with a PhD, a body she showed off with a curve-hugging silver fish-scale dress that shimmered in the light, matching her grey eyes and bringing out her peach-tone skin and lustrous straight black hair. The diamond on her engagement ring sparkled alongside her wedding band, which struck me as ironic considering what I was about to do.

Making my way near to her, I loitered unobtrusively while I waited for her to extricate herself from the conversation she was involved in with some of her co-workers. Luckily, I managed to position myself so that she nearly bumped into me, giving me an excuse to grab the hand holding her drink, ostensibly to prevent it from spilling. "Oh, excuse me," I apologized with a smile and a slight bow, my Japanese etiquette lessons paying off.

I could see in her grey almond eyes widen as she immediately took an interest in me, her eyes flicking to where my hand was lingering before roaming down my body. My pale skin contrasted well with hers. She wore purple nail polish and lipstick while I favoured red. We contrasted and matched, which was the way I'd designed my outfit from the beginning. Her return smile came easily along with her polite bow. "No, forgive me, I didn't see you there. I'm not sure we've met before."

Removing my hand reluctantly, I used my commlink to exchange virtual business cards with hers. It was an old and very Japanese formality, updated for the modern age. In Neo-Tokyo, a real paper card would be expected but in Seattle the traditions were a little more lax. Of course, my card was a total fabrication but the omission of any business title spoke volumes to her about my function. Corporate sponsored 'escorts' of both genders don't use business titles, particularly in Japan, the profession is accepted and universal in their culture but also shunned in the time honoured 'treat it as if it doesn't exist' way, even while you're bonking your brains out. "Mr. Shozumi sends his regards," I added with a downcast look as the files transferred.

Our legwork had given us a clear picture of what the relationship between Mr. Shozumi and Dr. Shozumi was: entirely for professional convenience. Being traditionalist, Japanese corporations find it hard to accept any woman in a high level managerial position no matter how talented without a man to back her. On the other side of the coin, male businessmen aren't respected if they don't have a wife with kids and a stable of mistresses. As such, Dr. Shozumi's ambition outweighed her gender preference at some point when she agreed to marry a man and bare children through 'wimps', mindless wombs made of her DNA that would be recycled after birth. The peace between husband and wife was kept with little gifts, like sharing prostitutes.

Dr. Shozumi bit her lower lip subconsciously as the full import of what I was suggesting sank in. "If you don't mind me saying so, you are quite beautiful. Have you had work done at the clinic or..."

I shook my head and smiled again, glad to be able to partially tell the truth for once. "I'm fortunate to be naturally blessed for the most part. I was lucky enough to go through the Vivarace Awakened Training Program."

That was code for 'I'm a Physical Adept'. Magical abilities manifest in various ways, some people see the astral, cast spells and summon spirits while some channel mana through their bodies to do superhuman stunts and everything in between. The Vivarace training program was a European school that specialized in training Adepts whose abilities enhanced their social skills. On one hand, it wasn't a lie that I was perfectly natural without a shred of cybernetics, bioware or gene therapy to my name but I'm not a pure Physical Adept.

Naturally, my backstory was designed to pique her interest in me even more, which succeeded charmingly. "Caroline, a very lovely name, have you seen the executive offices here before?"

"I haven't had the pleasure," I answered, flirting casually.

She grinned. "Come on, let me show you around."

We knew where she'd take me. Each of the luxury offices comes with a secret adjoining apartment, ostensibly for use after late nights at the office. In reality, executives like the convenience of having their joyboys and girls delivered discretely by Yakuza affiliates, not to mention hosting the occasional visitor. All of which was perfectly legal thanks to corporate extraterritoriality, on Zaibatsu soil the CEO's word was law.

Her office was typical for the head of a research department, with artfully tasteful depictions of magical formula mixed with optical chip designs and Awakened plant life to show the harmonious application of magic, technology and nature. Her large polished black desk even sat before a small rock garden complete with a peaceful water feature. The room itself was a stark contrast, mixing dark grey tiles in working areas with lush pristine white carpets in the more comfortable areas where she could schmooze with VIPs. The walls were also mostly stark white except for the minibar, which was where the concealed door to the bedroom was located.

Much like her office, the bedroom was another stark contrast. The doctor certainly had a thing for purple and pink, the large bed in the middle of the room was festooned with royal purple sheets that depicted bright pink Sakura blossoms. Here the heated tile floor was like polished obsidian with lush red carpets for colour and light grey walls with indirect lighting making everything appear soft. One of the walls was composed of two-way glass, allowing those on the bed to look out over the Seattle skyline.

"Have some Champaign with me," she ordered, exchanging her class for a new one at the minibar before pouring it herself and stepping through the secret door to hand it to me. I took the glass with a bow of gratitude and let her watch me sip while the door closed automatically.

"You seem tense," I observed in a low voice between sips, making a show of savouring the taste. She took a short breath when I reached out and moved her bangs out of her face, the tips of my fingers stroking her silky skin.

"Remember, you need to maintain skin-to-skin contact with her for at least 7 minutes," Surtur reminded me needlessly. Nika's implanted headware memory could only be accessed via her special Skinlink system, which carried a signal across the surface of her skin. As long as we touched, Surtur could hack the doctor's headware to get the paydata we needed. It wasn't going to be a problem.

Taking a sip of the Champaign, I stepped forward and tilted her head back slightly, leaning over her as I used my tongue to dribble the liquid into her open mouth. She responded, her hands roaming as we began kissing, stealing tiny little licks from each other's mouths as we explored each other.

The doctor got bold quickly, undoing the knot behind my neck and allowing the top half of my dress to fall around my hips, exposing my naked breasts for her to fondle. In return, I pulled her slowly to the edge of the bed, letting her slip out of her shoes as we walked but keeping mine on. I had to peel her dress off down her body, mercilessly taking advantage of her trapped hands for a moment to tease her nipples with my lips, which made her giggle in delight. Then I got serious and began licking in earnest, stealing her breath away.

Gently laying her down on her back, I kissed and nibbled my way down her naked body, parting her legs to reveal that she shaved quite thoroughly. As bisexuality goes, I lean slightly on the heterosexual side, not that I'd ever been short of lesbian lovers. As such, my ministrations to her were well practiced, and from the sound of her moans I wasn't about to have any complaints.

I was in the middle of letting Nika bask in the afterglow of her third multiple orgasm when Surtur suddenly appeared in my view again. "Harpy! Guards at the door! Move!"

He was a moment too late, the secret door exploding in as the black-armoured Scorpion Guard made their own way into the room. I let the Fashion spell drop, my infiltration suit reverting to its actual form as I found the safest place to be the eye of the storm and roundhouse-kicked the first guard in the head with enough force to warp his helmet and shatter the visor. Grabbing his hand as he was spun around, I pulled the trigger, spraying bullets in the enemy's general direction and forcing them to either take cover or trust in their Kevlar. They took the former option, which was wise considering the guard's battle rifle chewed up what remained of the wall, one of the bullets even punching the fridge across the room. Moving at speeds that only my magic allowed me reach, I took the guard's sidearm and blew out the windows, only hearing Nika's screams just before I leapt out into the night, barely remembering to grab my handbag on the way out.

Flying drones buzzed past me as I fell, forcing me to dodge flying metal and rotor blades as the guards above me opened fire. Several drones were tagged, spinning out of control, ramming into other drones when the autopilot tried to avoid collision and even exploding around me. Pressing my arms and legs to my sides and holding my legs together, I activated my suit's glider mode, allowing the adhesive pads to unfurl the webbing between my limbs and body that would allow me to control my descent somewhat. This bought me time to produce the glue gun from my handbag, which I triggers by slamming the muzzle into a passing VTOL drone and pulling the trigger, adhering the gun itself to the chassis of the drone and providing me a handhold.

The drone didn't take the sudden addition of my momentum well as I dragged it down, nor did it respond well to the bullets the Scorpion Guard were still sending my way. It started beeping manically as black smoke boiled from the engines, forcing me to let go. It jerked upwards, sripping the rotor blades from another drone and sending both crashing into the Zaibatsu building. It had served my purpose, however, letting me aim properly for the slope of the nearby Renraku Arcology.

One of the great features of Ares Macrotechnology Gecko Gloves™ other than being perfect for base jumping and recreational climbing is the nifty feature that lets you turn the pad's adhesion off at any time with a quick commlink command; which was why I was able to slide down the steep slope of the arcology feet first rather than smash my face against the wall. The Scorpion Guard didn't give up so easy, however, as I looked over my shoulder to see combat drones crest the tip of the pyramid, twin linked Vindicator miniguns whirring a moment before opening fire. Hails of tracer bullets ripped furrows in the building around me, spraying glass and dust into the air. Shifting my weight, I weaved in a zig-zag pattern to put off their aim, my brain racing as I saw the edge of the roof coming closer and closer.

Hitting the edge of the building, I uncoiled my legs like taut springs, throwing myself across the gap in the streets. Fortunately, the side I'd landed on ended at an alleyway, beyond which I could see a the rooftops of a cluster of apartment buildings which were a maze of steel ventilation ducts, air conditioners, aerials, elevators, landing pads and drone refuelling points. Leaping over the gap, I rolled across the rain-slick tar and came to my feet running, flat out, my arms pumping madly as I kicked into overdrive.

The combat drones continued to fire as I slid beneath one cluster of pipes before vaulting over another, changing direction suddenly by grabbing one of the aerials as a handhold. My body was a trained instrument, honed to the cutting edge then pushed over it by magic. I ran up walls, hopped over obstacles and crashed through billboards trying to avoid the drone's targeting systems but I knew I was being herded. It wasn't until I saw the gap between this block and the next that I realized where they were trying to lead me.

I was still trying to think of a way out, another exit strategy, a few meter away from the edge when the black helicopters rose before me, Zaibatsu logos emblazoned on the sides as the Scorpion Guards levelled their guns at me, the beams of their laser sights illuminated clearly by the smog haze, connecting their guns with my chest as I skidded to a halt. I was blinded when their searchlights flared, forced to shield my eyes both them and the wind from the rotorblades.

"This is Lieutenant Yamato Kaneda of the Zaibatsu Conglomorate Special Security Forces," a voice said over a loud speaker, probably from a cushy office back in Zaibatsu HQ. "Intruder, you are hereby under corporate arrest under section 9 of UCAS law governing the extraterritoriality agreement of..."

The railgun shot came out of nowhere, the of the projectile's supersonic boom blowing me off my feet. The main impact turned the lead helicopter inside out and reduced anyone inside to dog food. After which, the shot cleaved through the cockpit of the second, killing the pilots instantly and spinning the tail around into the third, which careened out of control, tagging the side of the building before flipping upside down and falling out of sight. Moments later a fireball rose into the sky, bathing me in its heat. Someone on one of the helicopters must have been controlling the drones, which simply floated harmlessly in the air on autopilot without anyone giving them orders.

"WOOOOOOOOO! DID YOU SEE THAT? DID YOU SEE THAT?!?!?!??????" Crazy69, the team Rigger, shouted through my commlink loud enough that I wanted to rip the earpiece out. I could hear the distinctive electric 'voooooom' of his amazingly quiet GMC Banshee only just before is descended from the sky, the wingless flying tank held aloft though some unholy combination of ground effect, VTOL and aeronautical wizardry.

The side door of the aircraft opened to reveal Boxcar looking down on me in concern. He reached out and too my hand, hauling my light frame easily into the passenger compartment. I saw the world lurch outside as the Banshee took off again moments before the door closed, plunging us into eerie stillness.

"You all right?" Boxcar asked me, holding my face in his hands.

"I'm fine," I whispered, looking up into his deep blue eyes as I caressed his hand. I was breathing hard and it wasn't from running.

The Banshee jumped suddenly, like a car going over a speed bump, throwing me forward and pushing us both over, with me landing on top of Boxcar on the floor.

"Sorry," Crazy69 apologized through the commlink, "just hit a slipstream. Sailish airspace here we come!"

Boxcar's mama didn't raise a fool; he took advantage of that moment to kiss me. The infiltrator suit was thin enough that I could almost feel him against my skin, my every nerve begging for him. His manhood hardened as my hips ground against him even through the combat fatigues he was wearing under his armoured longcoat. "You know we've got an hour until we reach the safe house," I whispered into his ear before nibbling the lobe.

"Stop reading my mind," he teased affectionately as he started to remove my clothing. There wasn't much foreplay, we were both too eager, so I barely had time to admire how well endowed my lover was before my legs were wrapped around his waist as he took me. I was so ready that even his girth slid inside me easily, his thrusts quickly propelling me to heights of ecstasy as we moved in harmony. Our pulses synchronized as we moved faster and faster, the pleasure building towards a magnificent crescendo. He held me on the razor's edge for several moments, his wonderful cruelty prolonging my agony before...

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>>>>> [Session terminated automatically at 08:20 per user request. Have a nice day.]<<<<<

"FRAG ALL THE STEAMING PILES OF DREK!" I swore at the top of my lungs as I was dumped from the simsense movie moments before Soaring Harpy was about to climax. Believe me, if you think getting cock blocked is bad, try being brought close to orgasm as a woman but missing out, I almost threw my commlink across the room which would have been disastrous for innumerable reasons.

What was worse was that I'd done it to myself. After dragging myself out of bed in my 4 by 10 studio apartment, I'd thrown some soy-based cereal bricks into a bowl with soymilk for breakfast and showered in record time, leaving me with a spare 20 minutes. So I'd slotted my new simsense chip, Soaring Harpy: Retrograde 8 Newkama Uncut Edition, for a quick preview before I had to go to work. Little did I know that the timer I'd set so that I wouldn't miss the airbus for work would cut me off moments before the end of the second sex scene.

Getting up out of my chair, uttering a string of curses, I made sure my shirt was tucked in and my tie still straight before adjusting my pants to accommodate what I can only describe as a raging boner before putting the simsense chip back in its case and stashing it under my mattress. Not that it was illegal, not like BTL (Better Than Life) chips, just embarrassing and not only because it was porn.

I still didn't understand most of the title. Soaring Harpy was the name of the heroine, so that was obvious, but 'Retrograde' seemed like it was tacked on by the same marketing consultant who thought with the plethora of action sequels flooding the market, a new IP had to have some sort of number in it to compete. Uncut means the sex is there in full force where the theatrical release would stop at kissing. Newkama is the embarrassing part.

See, simsense has a lot of protocols that help a movie define itself to its target audience. Most simsense users will stick to characters of their own gender. If they get curious, they might try an opposite gender character for a cheap thrill but most ordinary playback modules don't translate the signal between genders very well, usually by design. Despite the gender and sexuality revolution, people were still skittish when it came to things that might threaten their own preconceptions. The label 'Newkama' comes from the 'Newkama Playback Protocol', which instructs compatible playback devices on appropriate sense translations between genders. This enables a man or woman to feel the sensations of a member of the opposite sex at close to 100% accuracy, the margin of error being the same as for simsense between the same genders.

Yes, the rest of my secret stash are also Newkama editions.

In 2065, they say that being transgendered isn't a big deal, much like they say that ethnicity is no longer a big deal having been superseded by metavariation. Why worry about the black guy sitting next to you on the bus when the guy behind you is an 8-foot tall Troll that can break both of you with one hand and take an anti-tank round to the chest? And that's not counting Elves, Orks, Dwarves, Vampires, Ghouls, Dragons, Pixies or the hundreds of other metasapient critters wandering the Sixth World after the Awakening of 2011.

Don't you fragging believe what they say. Genetech might be poised to make becoming a full woman quicker, easier and cheaper than ever before, heck if you want to be a Swedish cowgirl (the kind with udders) the newest cutting edge tech can do that too for a price, but people who knew you before are still going to at least look at you funny. If you happen to work for a Japanese megacorporation like I do, you might as well commit hari-kari rather than endure the pain and degradation of being kicked out onto the street. People might be more 'enlightened and open' than ever before in human history but considering how bigoted and prejudiced they used to be, that's not saying much.

So it was that I walked out into the hallway of my apartment block feeling like drek on a stick and fell in with the rest of the crowd moving towards the landing platform. Shiawase corporate policy says that an employee must wear a suit at all times while on duty or moving to and from work. I hate wearing my Shiawase Vashoon Island brand suits; they fit like straightjackets and cost a fortnight's pay from the corporate store, putting a serious dent into my savings every time I had to visit the tailor.

It wasn't just the Awakening that had done a number on the world, reducing governments to a shell of their former selves and forcing corporations to take a greater role. The Crash of '29 had wiped most of the records of what pre-Awakened society had been like, eliminating great swathes of human knowledge in a single blow. Since then, the world had come close to being taken over by body-snatching bug spirits, blown up by insane mages, warped by a twisted AI and more. Crash 2.0 was a fresh memory, leaving millions of dead in its wake. I'd survived by a stroke of luck, having slept through to wake up to an eerie silence as the information hub of the world was simply gone. The new wireless Matrix was up within months but it had been a tense time for everyone.

Of all the countries in the world, Australia wasn't the worst off but it was low down the totem pole. When magic came back in 2011, the Outback changed. My father said before then, the Outback had been dangerous for the unwary and stupid. Then nature itself rose against us, driving the survivors into walled enclaves or close to the major cities. Paranormal animals and hostile free spirits are bad enough but then the unnatural mana storms engulfed large parts of the land, including laying siege to Sydney. I could see the mana storm raging over the blue mountains from the landing pad as I boarded the VTOL airbus bound for the Shiawase Tower in the CBD. I took my assigned seat, the same one I'd occupied for the last fifteen years on the commute to and from work without variation. HR didn't like it when you altered your routine, doing so would always end up with a man coming around to your cubicle to ask embarrassing questions.

Nobody talked, not even the guy I'd been sitting next to for years. Nobody ever talked; we all worked in separate divisions and led separate lives. Most started their work day on board the airbus, checking e-mails, typing documents or reading reports they needed to start the day. Jacking into the Matrix was prohibited on board the airbus in case of emergency, though I suspected they didn't want anyone trying to hijack the controls out of boredom either. Similarly, simsense was out of the question, so I ended up running my favourite AR game, 'Urban Combat Biker 2064', as the airbus weaved through the jungle of skyscrapers.

With Sydney hemmed in by the mana storms, there were only two places the city could expand: out to sea and up. High rise buildings dominated the landscape, most interconnected by skyways. Landing pads had become a necessity to get around the city in any reasonable length of time, the streets far below dangerous, choked with debris, traffic and often infested with critters and criminals. Sydney Harbour Bridge was a good example, overrun with squatter's shacks built by the SINless. The sea was only slightly safer, with the occasional Megadon cruising north, though managing to earn a place on a Proteus Arkoblock was the dream of many workers, out of reach for the vast majority.

I found myself thinking about the start of Soaring Harpy. It was good in that cheesy B-grade action flick sort of way. Complete bulldrek, of course, Harpy should have caught a few hundred bullets just for starters and Skinlink doesn't work though skin to skin contact (though it was a nice excuse for the lesbian sex scene) just for starters. The only bits that annoyed me was the Zaibatsu Conglomerate obviously being a Shiawase expy and the stupid Gecko Glove product placement in the middle of the action scene. I was definitely looking forward to restarting the second sex scene from the beginning, the actress playing Soaring Harpy was good. Though, considering the guy playing Boxcar's raw masculinity, she probably hadn't had to act much. I know I wouldn't have.

The airbus had to circle the Shiawase tower once before landing on pad #4. Everyone hustled to get off and get to work early, vying for brownie points. I was still feeling sour as I walked past the AR billboards that surrounded the main entrance, advertising everything from Shiawase soycaf brands to Shiawase life insurance. Naturally, the prices were all in Shiawase corporate script.

Let me break down this bulldrek economics for you. Shiawase is a triple-A megacorporation with a seat on the Corporate Council. As such, they have their own internal currency, Shiawase corporate script, which is different from the nuyen everyone else in the world uses (except other corps with their own corporate script). Corporate script has two exchange rates: preferred client and outside trader. Preferred clients get to exchange script at the full exchange rate, outside traders use a greatly reduced exchange rate. Employees are paid entirely in corporate script and NONE of us are preferred clients. Of course, only Shiawase stores accept Shiawase script... are you getting the picture?

To buy Soaring Harpy: Retrograde 8, if I didn't want to take a big hit on my paycheck, I had a few options. First, I could download a pirate copy, if I wanted to risk being traced and fined or exposing my brain or commlink to viruses, it's an option. Call me sappy but I prefer paying a reasonable price for services rendered anyway. Next option, pay the outside trader a boatload of my money to exchange my rightful earnings into nuyen. Over my dead body. No way in hell was I going to get preferred client access either. For anyone else, that left one alternative: dealing with a fixer who could trade Shiawase corporate script for goods that could be unloaded for nuyen who would give a better exchange rate to encourage business; still a hit on the paycheck but nowhere near as bad as long as you don't mind dealing with the grey market.

Finally, there was my way. The thing about being 44 and still single is that you don't have a lot of crap to waste your money on. 2 years ago, I invested some of that money in my own business, creating a small time banking company and investment brokerage that also dabbled in escrow services, owned and operated by me, myself and I with a bit of help from my lawyer, Chester. Essentially, I became my own financial fixer through Heterodyne Financial Solutions Ltd., converting corporate scrip to goods, goods to stock portfolios and stocks to nuyen. I kept my client list small, automated as much of the processes as possible using smart programs and expert systems and kept my hand on the rudder at all times.

I wasn't exactly making a killing but the figures were promising. I'd spread the word discreetly to selected Shiawase employees about the services HFS was providing and now I even had managers using the brokerage, which gave me leverage if anyone tried to shut me down internally. Until the men in black suits knocked on my door, however, I was going to assume that I was too small time for anyone important to worry about. Fortunately, I had Chester in my corner as well; he'd made a career out of punching above his weight.

We had to wait ten minutes for an empty elevator and by the time it arrived, there were enough of us that we had to pack into it like sardines. I'd wound up in the middle of the press, so I had to squeeze my way out when we got to level 101. Luckily I arrived at my full immersion pod on time, avoiding the scrutiny of HR for another day. Stepping into the capsule, I inserted my commlink into the hardline connection port, lay down on the soft cushions as the pod reclined into sitting position and inserted the plug from my commlink into the datajack located behind my ear, connecting my brain directly into the Matrix.

The real world gave way to a blandly mundane unreal world. The accounting division's virtual office looked like an endless room packed with grey cubicles. E-mails and other transactions were represented by letters that fluttered through the air just below the ceiling. The architecture was good but minimalist. The textures looked and felt real but most of the assets were re-used. Every cubicle was the same, copy-pasted nearly infinitely. Even our working avatars were the same; androgynous, featureless, suited workers with prominent nametags pinned to our chests. The managers that roamed between cubicles, making sure everyone was behaving, actually had faces and wore better-looked, more comfortable, suits. Of course, all the managers were Japanese, so they were universally short and dark-haired anyway.

Yes, some suits are more comfortable than others even in the Matrix where your clothing (and everything else) is limited only by your imagination. Shiawase could have programmed standard avatars with comfortable suits but people in uncomfortable clothes are statistically more productive.

Sitting down in my cubicle, there was nothing to do but get to work. Each cubicle is like a bubble, job lists come in through my in tray, completed forms go out through my out tray. All other ingoing and outgoing traffic was carefully monitored and logged, my use of time recorded for later analysis. Any drop below peak efficiency levels would incur a visit from management or HR. Drop below a certain threshold and I'd be assigned a Corporate Rehabilitation Therepist to re-indoctrinate me into the Shiawase corporate spirit and culture.

My job was mind numbingly simple. Read industry reports, highlight possible opportunities and threats, speculate on financial trends, make recommendations and otherwise eliminate and process the sea of useless data that clogged the Matrix into a coherent picture of the world. Higher level managers would theoretically read my reports along with those from my fellow analysts and base their decisions on that information. They never did and I kept a running total in my head of how much nuyen Shaiwase had lost because of managerial arrogance over the last 15 years. It was now in nine figures.

We all emerged from the immersion pods 2 hours later on out scheduled exercise break but there still wasn't time to talk. Our Health and Welfare Officer, an annoyingly perky and upbeat petite blonde, made us jog around the room for exactly five minutes before making sure everyone got back to work. Another 2 hours later, we all emerged again desperate for the relief of our well deserved half hour lunch break.

Of course, the Shiawase cafeteria doesn't provide food for free; you have to pay for it with Shiawase corporate script like every other Shiawase employee store. At least the prices were reasonable and the food slightly more acceptable than the usual soy-junk you'd find at your local Stuffer Shack. The cafeteria also had a nice view of the Sydney skyline, several potted plastic plants and a peaceful Japanese rock garden for zen contemplation.

"God," Amanda complained, stretching her back and shoulders as I brought my tray over to our regular table. "I don't know what my body's doing while I'm jacked in but it's twisting itself into knots lately."

"Your meatbod can't move while you're jacked in," Neville answered absently, distracted by an annoying AR ad that looked like a cartoon bumblebee with a wide grin and a sign that said 'Buy Honeybee Honey now for that rich sweet golden taste!' He was trying to swat it with an anti-spam filter but the program had some seriously slick evasion algorithms. "The carrier signal supersedes motor control functions; that's why nobody ever hurts themselves when they're jacked in."

Amanda gave him a 'do you think I'm an idiot' look. "I know that!"

It wasn't precisely true, you could move your meat body in a very inelegant way with some effort, like thrashing your leg or arm, but it took concentration. "Sorry, am I interrupting a lover's tiff?" I asked as I sat down, making both of them blush. I still wasn't sure if Amanda and Neville were perfect for each other or too much alike. Both were slightly on the pudgy side, both were around 30, both wore glasses and both were accountants that worked in the same office. She was a honey blonde, he was a brunette and that's where their differences ended.

"Chummer, don't start that matchmaking drek again," Neville told me off with a scowl, transferring his annoyance at the bumblebee onto me.

"Just don't wait like I did and end up a dried old fossil at the bottom of the gene pool."

Amanda snorted. "Maybe you should get that Da Fang treatment and ask me out instead," she teased, referring to Shiawase's Age Rejuvenation procedure.

I gave her an overly theatrical sigh of longing. "Alas, Amanda, I'm afraid you're too good for me."

"More like you're too big a control freak to let anyone else into your life," she groused.

"Hey, I resemble that remark!"

"Actually, my Omiai's organized a date for me tonight," Neville admitted reluctantly.

Being a traditionalist Japanese company, Shiawase called the professional matchmakers in HR 'Omiais' after the ancient Japanese practice. In reality, the business had less to do with finding compatible partners as it did genetic profiling with the goal of producing a superior crop of future employees. I'd never been a fan thanks to my streak of hopeless romanticism combined with my gender issues. "Anyone we know?" I asked with feigned indifference. After a morning of boredom, I was ready to hook my claws into any piece of juicy office gossip, no matter how trivial.

"Ms. Nakatomi Hoshi."

I was taking a drink at the time and almost swallowed the wrong way. "Horrible Hoshi?" I asked between coughs. "I didn't think they let managers mix with us hoi-paloi."

"Um, I've been looking into ethnic reconstruction," he admitted, not looking either of us in the eye.

Ethnic reconstruction was another genetech advancement. Not happy being Asian? They can make you a Caucasian blonde; or vice versa. In Shiawase, one way to earn brownie points with management if you're anything other than Japanese is to get the treatment to become Japanese. It is unusual for a Japanacorp to endorse such things so readily but Shiawase was originally a biotech firm and a lot more open than outfits like Mitsuhama. The news killed my mood, so I turned my eyes down to my food and concentrated on eating. "Oh," I replied sullenly.

Neville glared at me. "Don't get sanctimonious on me, it's not like phenotypic alteration's a big deal these days..."

"No, you're right, it isn't," I interrupted his tirade, sighing deeply. "Ignore me; I respect your personal choice."

Scowling, he took a big bite out of his soyburger. "All right, what's your problem then?"

Rolling my eyes, I knew neither of them were going to let it go, so I tapped some commands into my commlink and showed them a 3D holographic picture. There was a young Japanese couple in the photograph with the mother holding a little baby girl. They looked to be in their early 20's, grinning happily at each other. "My parents, along with my new little sister," I explained. "They're living in Neo-Tokyo now."

"Holy Drek," Amanda hissed under her breath, fascinated by the image. Her eyes flicked from the photo to my pale Caucasian visage and back again. "How old are they?"

"In actuality you mean? Dad's 76, Mom's a year younger. They used to have problems conceiving, another issue solved by the genetic surgery."

"They look really happy," Neville defended them like I was somehow attacking their choice.

"When they made their decision to become Japanese, they asked me to do it at the same time. Keep the family together and all that, even bigger brownie points for all of us. I had my own reasons to refuse; we had an argument... let's just say that photo is the only contact I've had from them since. Dad got promoted, Mom left work to be a housewife and she's pregnant again, apparently. My issue isn't genetic surgery or selling out for a promotion or anything like that, it's my fragged up relationship with my family."

"Wow," Amanda commented, staring at the picture, "do you have a pic of them from before?"

"No, I don't," I grumbled. We ate in silence after that.

We finished eating well before our half hour was up but we still didn't speak. I didn't know what Amanda and Neville were thinking but my mind kept wandering back to my family. Too many regrets, too many things said and left unsaid. In the end, I just hoped they were happy. Sometimes I thought it felt like they'd died, though only intellectually; feelings aren't always rational.

I was getting up from my seat when my whole body was hammered by a sudden blast wave that I didn't hear until a few moments later. It wasn't strong enough to throw me off my feet but I stumbled over my chair and fell flat on my chest, the tray flying out of my hands. The entire room filled with thick grey smoke as I lay there clutching my ears, trying to make the loud ringing noise go away. The sprinkler system burst immediately, making every visible surface treacherously slick.

Neville dragged Amanda under the table and hugged her tight, shielding her with his own body. Glass and pieces of concrete sprayed everywhere moments later, forcing me to close my eyes and shield my face. There were too many people left in the cafeteria but those that were either dived to the floor or tried to make a run for it. I let out a scream that I didn't hear when a woman running for the door stepped on my leg. Not five feet later, she spun to the floor, blood splattering everywhere as she was nearly torn in half. My ears might have been ringing but I'd watched enough Desert Wars footage to recognize the sort of damage a HVMG (Hypervelocity Machinegun) can do to a meatbod. If I'd been able to hear, I would have known for sure, the noise is quite distinctive.

Wind scatted the smoke, which continued to boil out of the remains of the trashcan. The ringing in my ears faded and I thought I was deaf for a moment until I heard the hiss of the sprinklers overhead and the occasional whimper of fear. I looked up when I heard the crunch of glass under a heavy boot. The troll emerged from the fog like a living nightmare of flesh and chrome. Now, I'm no racist but I'd challenge anyone to look up at this motherfragger and not drek their pants. The average troll is 2.5 meters tall; this guy was nearly 4. He was wearing a tactical vest loaded with ammo and grenades over a heavy flak jacket that left his arms bare, the lower half clad in ripped urban cammo combat fatigues. Most trolls have fleshy protrusions and bone spikes protruding from knotted muscles; what was left of this guy's right arm above the elbow was gnarled with scars and tattoos, the rest had been replaced with cybernetics. His left arm had been completely replaced, though it was covered with synthetic skin the spikes sticking through the flesh were chrome. He was wearing half-face mask tied below the horns that arced above his head but his eyes were pure silver, blank and emotionless.

His steel-toed combat boots crushed glass to powder as he walked past me, looking down the barrel of what was unmistakably a Panther Assault Cannon. The kind of gun gun you'd use to hunt dragons or tanks. He scanned the room, his cybereyes obviously able to see through the smoke. I breathes a sigh of relief when he stepped past, just thankful I wasn't who he was looking for. A few meters away, he did find his target, a man I recognized as one of the manager from the Aeronautics division two floors down. The troll pinned him down and cuffed him before he could scurry away before throwing the man kicking and screaming over his shoulder like he was manhandling a child. Nobody protested, nobody moved to help, nobody even said a goddamn thing. Neither did I, I'm not stupid.

What happened next did make me doubt the security division's intelligence, however. The main door was blown off its hinges on one side of the room while a hole was blasted straight through the ferrocrete wall at the other. Moments later, black-armoured security personnel tried to storm into the room from both sides. I said tried; their rapid bursts of fire were returned by both the troll's assault cannon and the HVMGs on the drone that was hovering outside, both heavy weapons blowing chunks out of the building all around us.

Bullets continued to whizz overhead and I tried screaming at Neville to get Amanda down on the floor but I was too late. A bullet speared straight through his shoulder, nearly taking Amanda's head off, blood gushing out of the wound as he collapsed in shock. Crawling on my belly like a snake, I dragged myself over to him, looking into Neville's blankly staring eyes as Amanda wailed, curled into a foetal ball. Taking my jacket off, I wadded it up and shoved it under his shoulder, placing pressure on the exit wound with both hands to try and staunch the bleeding.

"Neville!" I shouted into his face, trying to get through to him over the sound of gunfire and explosions. "Listen to me! Nod your head if you can hear me! Nod your fragging he..."

They're right about one thing. You don't hear the one that hits you.

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>>>>> [LOGIN*#$NETRANGER;username=Thornbird;password=************] <<<<<
Connecting... ... ... ...
>>>>> [Password Accepted. Welcome, Thornbird, you have 13 new messages.]<<<<<

>>>>> [Holy hand grenades, mates! Have you seen the footage hitting the screamsheets from the Shiawase tower hit this morning? Someone started up a small fragging war right in my backyard! What gives?]<<<<<
- Thornbird

>>>>> [Is that Kosko?!?!?!]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>> [You know another twelve foot troll with cyberarms and chrome eyes?]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Bite me.]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>> [Sweet fragging hell, who's supplying Cook's beetles these days? Chummer, I think that 'Armed to the Teeth' sim you slotted was bad.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [Um... Cook?]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [Hello?]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [Cook hasn't logged in for over forty eight hours. Considering the shitstorm gunning for his team's heads, I wouldn't expect him to surface for a while.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Word on the street is that this job was contracted in great haste but Cook's crew executed the run within the Johnson's parameters. I don't know what they had on Cook to make him accept such an insane job but there we go.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>> [Nice try Foresight but everyone knows you're Cook's fixer. Who the frag made you sell out your boy?]<<<<<
- Suspiciously Delicious

>>>>> [I can neither confirm nor deny that I was involved.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>> [Forget that noise, chummers. The real question is who benefits from Shiawase's loss of face in Sydney? Drek, anyone got a line on the poor bastard that got snatched?]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>> [Dr. Yoshinobu Takaga, a low level researcher for Shiawase Aerospace. Usually, I'd scan what there is on his personnel file and conclude that something in his personal life got him geeked but here's the trick. My guy on the inside says that the go order for the fast response team only came after the security system tagged Takaga as the runner's target. The moment that happened, the sec boys got the kill order and switched to live ammo.]<<<<<
- The Executioner

>>>>> [Bulldrek. Sorry, omae, as cynical as I am even I don't scan that. For one, even AAA corps don't wantonly slaughter their own employees during a hostage crisis, it's bad for business and bad for the corporate image. They might not give two dreks if one of their wageslaves dies but they do care about the effect that has on the bottom line.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [Wait a minute. Takaga was geeked?]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>> [Splattered all over the CBD. Looks like Kosko lost his grip.]<<<<<
- The Executioner

>>>>> [Please tell me I'm not the only one smelling a rat here?]<<<<<
- Suspiciously Delicious

>>>>> [You're not the only one. An accident like that isn't in Kosko's character. Between that and the kill order given to the sec team, I'd lay money that the real goal of this op was smearing the good doctor's brain across pavement.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Anyone ever tell you you've got a morbid turn of phrase, Ned?]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [But that would mean it was Shiawase that wanted him geeked. Why make a big production out of it when you could quietly bump him off in a million other ways with no-one the wiser?]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [I'd bet dog biscuits that Takaga wasn't killed for what he knew but who he knew. This is a very public statement to someone out there but they're the only ones who are going to get the full import of the message. Now, if I was the type to speculate wildly, I'd suspect that this incident will give Shiawase an excuse to go on the warpath. And I hate to say it but the use of a metahuman crew for this job makes too much damn sense if you look at the inside job angle. Cook and co, be safe chummers.]<<<<<
- The Executioner

>>>>> [On the other hand, it could be a double blind setting up Shiawase too look like the perpetrator of the crime against itself to divert suspicion from all the usual suspects.]<<<<<
- Foresight
>>>>> [Chummer, do you know something or are you just throwing up static?]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>> [Like anyone would actually answer that question. Welcome to the shadows, chummer.]<<<<<
- Original