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No Time for Second Chances

By Dr. Bender

Chapter 2

She smelled like roses.

Her beauty transcended mortal ability to describe it. Desire was her cloak, lust her plaything, her naked sexuality peeling away the layers of humanity to caress the beating, primal, heart of man. She was every woman and no woman, the embodiment of every sexual thought and the promise of fulfilment; her slightest movement artlessly calculated to inflame the passions.

She had me pinned underneath her like a butterfly on display, my arms held down by her legs as she straddled my hips. I wasn't complaining. Her long nails traced complex patterns across my chest as the sinuous movement of her hips milked every last drop of pleasure from my body. Her whispered secrets echoed in the velvet darkness, assaulting my mind and soul with promises of the forbidden.

My eyes fluttered open. Thick drawn curtains muted the sunlight streaming in through the window, though the white walls glowed in the half-light, making the room lighter than it might otherwise. The first thing I saw was the vase full of white roses on the table next to my bed, suffusing the air with their fragrance. The room was so quiet that the sound of my breathing seemed amplified. I couldn't mistake the feeling of the bandages wound tightly around my skull, reaching up I could feel the padding underneath the right side of my head.

I had to adjust myself to stop tenting the bedsheets, the residual effects of my strange wet dream continuing to linger. No matter what I tried to think of, however, I couldn't get rid of the absurd case of morning wood I was sporting. Thinking back, I tried to remember what had happened but the last thing I saw was Neville's blood spurting through my fingers.

My thoughts were interrupted when the door opened. The nurse backed into the room, pulling a trolley along behind her as she pushed the door open with her ass. I couldn't help but notice that is was a nice ass too. She was an earthy sort of girl with chestnut locks and a tan that indicated she either enjoyed days at the beach or had a line on an excellent biosculptor. Her nametag introduced her as Janet Paige of DocWagon™, the sight of which made me want to upgrade my policy then and there.

"Morning, Mr. McArthur," she greeted brightly as she positioned the trolley of food over my bed, "mind doing a couple of tests for me before you eat?"

My stomach gurgled at the mention of food but I nodded, trying to shuffle up into a sitting position. "How long was I out?"

"You've only been in overnight... if you could look into this light for me, please?"

She tortured me by flicking the light between my eyes a few times, my pupils still dilated from the low light conditions. She seemed happy with what she saw and made a few notes on her commlink. "Anyone come in with me? I was trying to give first aid to Neville Turing..."

"Not that we received," she answered with a shrug. "Most of your colleagues probably have an internal contract with Shiawase Meditech. I'm sorry but we don't have any news, though I'm sure some detectives from Knight Errant will be around for a chat sooner or later. You're really lucky; the bullet deflected off your skull, one millimetre either way and it would have been much worse."

"Just as long as I don't have priapism," I muttered, wincing as I tried to wrangle myself into a comfortable position without touching anything embarrassing.

She smirked, her eyes flicking to my crotch for a moment. "Yeah, we noticed. It's really not that unusual after suffering head trauma, if it doesn't go down by tonight you'll probably want to mention it to the doctor."

Brunch turned out to be sloppy powered scrambled eggs, tofu and soybacon accompanied by soycaff and liquid vitamin supplements. Nothing a growing boy needs. When the doctor came around an hour later, he was short and to the point. I was extremely lucky. I was smart to pay the extra money for emergency magical care, a simple healing spell had been able to fix my fractured skull in moments. I was going to be discharged in the morning as long as there weren't any complications. He forbade me to use my datajack just yet but allowed AR Matrix access so I could entertain myself.

Naturally, my first port of call was the newsnets. Seven Shiawase employees had died in a 'vicious assault' on Shiawase Tower. Thirteen more were seriously injured. Shiawase Corporate Security Division was 'cooperating fully with the Knight Errant investigation'. Cooperating fully my hoop, Shiawase was going to be screaming for blood. Shiawase stock had suffered a slight dip along with investor confidence in the company; no corporation in the world would let that slide.

The pictures of the poor bastard that had almost gotten kidnapped turned my stomach. Someone had managed to get a nice close-up shot of the suited smear on the pavement with a drone-mounted camera before KE had arrived to clean up. His name wasn't even vaguely familiar to me despite the fact that we'd probably taken lunch only a few feet away from each other for years. I tried calling up Shiawase Meditech to inquire about Neville but the office wouldn't accept my call. When that failed I tried Amanda's commcode but didn't get an answer.

Powerless to do anything about the attack, I gave up and decided to take the opportunity to research gender reassignment surgery now that I was nowhere near a Shiawase node. Genetic therapy had advanced to the stage where they could make you a full woman down to the chromosomes. Unfortunately, this did not include the ability to beget a child in the traditional way. The top end procedure was also over 1,000,000¥, well out of my price range. Several hospitals were throwing in packages that included dietware and other biotech enhancements 'for free'. After all, if they've got you on the table for three months, they might as well, neh?

Not even my dejection over the impossibility of my dream could assuage my hard-on, so I gave up and decided to call Chester. I only had to sit through one ring before the lawyer's relieved smile appeared on the trideo. "Nathan! You don't know what a relief it is to see you awake."

I smiled. "Nice to see you too, Chester, everything still running smoothly?"

He nodded. "I can set your mind at ease on that score, HFS saw some new business from our regular client base; also requests for personal defence items and firewall upgrades."

"Well, I'm not going to complain if people are getting a bit more security conscious," I muttered. It did feel a little like we were taking advantage of people's fear but nuyen is nuyen.

"Now the bad news, we got another e-mail in our drop-box from someone who requested a meeting with you by name. The only name he left was Mr. Johnson."

My heart skipped a beat. "Should I be worried?"

"I wouldn't get too worried, if you were in trouble we wouldn't be getting polite requests, they'd just put the screws to you. In fact, this could be a good thing; there are people who find companies like HFS useful. But enough of that, how are you feeling?"

"A bit of a headache but they say I'll be fine. I only got winged, magical healing took care of it. Can you do me a favour and see if you can get a handle on Neville Turing's condition? I can't get through to Shiawase Meditech from here."

"Got it; call me if you need a ride home."

"Thanks mate," I said gratefully before he disconnected.

Time passes excruciatingly slowly in a hospital ward, even with AR entertainment. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't get the dream out of my head. It had been so vivid, so real, even more real than simsense. If I'd been somewhere more private, I would have tried rubbing one out, instead the best I could do was distract myself with anything that came close to hand. I would have killed for access to my sims, Soaring Harpy was just what I needed at that moment.

Driven batty by my suddenly hyperactive libido, I carefully got out of bed and tried to slowly pace it off. It didn't work. I swore to myself the moment I got out I was going to slot some seriously nasty elf porn which only succeeded in making my imagination run wild. Needing to get out of the tiny room for a few minutes, I contemplated sneaking out while the nurse was busy. Padding over to the door in my garish hospital gown, I slowly twisted the doorhandle, opening it just a crack so I could see out and down the hallway. Just my luck, I was in a room close to the nurse's desk, right under Janet's watchful eye. In my state, I couldn't help but notice her; young, lithe, full of life. Deep down, I couldn't help but wish I could be her or at least be with her for a little while.

A sudden wave of dizziness made me swoon for a moment. When my vision cleared, I saw Janet's head turn to look my way. Panicking, I closed the door a little harder than I should have and scrambled back into bed, hastily throwing the sheet over me. Moments after I'd settled, Janet opened the door and peered in. "Are you ok in here, Mr. McArthur."

I coughted and made like I was shifting restlessly in bed. "Uh, yeah, sorry, this... uh... guess I'm just going a little stir crazy," I explained myself weakly.

Checking the hallway quickly, she took the 'do not disturb' sign from the inner handle and put it on the outside doorknob before slipping inside and quietly shutting the door behind her. I had to pull my eyes away from the way her uniform hugged her curves as she walked, concentrating on the roses next to me. "Maybe I should take a look," she suggested, looking down at where my manhood was poking up the bedsheet.

I blanched. "Um, no, that's not necessary, I mean I um..."

She smirked. "Don't worry, this isn't my first time," she tried to reassure me as she pulled the bedsheet up to take a look.

At a loss for words, I bit my tongue and let it happen. What she saw made her bite her lower lip speculatively. A protest caught in my thought when she reached out to touch it, a single gentle stroke silencing me. I thought about protesting when she bent over, taking me in her mouth, but my will broke and I just let it happen. Can't say I was sorry that I did. She was better than good; she was everything I'd imagined and more.

She left me with a smile on my face looking smugly satisfied with herself. Sweet, blessed, relief made me drift off into a peaceful slumber. The woman who was no woman was waiting for me there, her diaphanous robes floating in a sea of colour. She reached out, beckoning me closer, tempting and begging me with her eyes simultaneously.

I moved effortlessly, floating weightlessly towards her on the current of my will. She smiled as I took her hand in mine, drawing me closer. Caressing my cheek, her fingertips strayed down my chin, brushing my neck before cresting my collarbone and entering the valley between my breasts.... Staring, it took me a while for my brain to register the fact. I had breasts and a curvaceous body to match them, my long silver hair floating behind me as I moved.

"Become me," the seductress whispered as she pulled me in for a kiss.

"Mr. McArthur?"

My eyes snapped open when something shook me. For a moment, all I could see was an orange blob streaked with yellow, its edges tinged with purple, green and a little bit of red. Blinking rapidly, my visions cleared suddenly and I could see Janet looking down at me, concern on her face. "Are you all right, Mr. McArthur?" she asked.

"What? Yes, sorry, yes, I... I think so," I stammered, my hands shaking. "S-sorry, just a dream...." She still looked a little worried as she tucked me in. I noticed that it was dark outside. "Don't they send you home?"

She sighed. "Double shift. I'm sorry for waking you up but you were moaning, scared me half to death let me tell you."

"No, no, that's all right. Um, Janet, about before... thank you, it really helped."

She smiled at me. Seeming to come to a decision, she took out her commlink and tapped a few commands into it. Summoning a holographic card, she flicked it into the palm of my hand, transferring it to the active memory of my temporary commlink. "My commcode," she explained with a flirtatious look before walking out.

I immediately e-mailed it to my main account.

Lying there in the darkness, it was almost as if I could still feel the weight on my chest. It took a while but finally I drifted off again, this time into a dreamless sleep.

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>>>>> [LOGIN*#$NETRANGER;username=Praetor;password=********]< <<<<

>>>>> [ACCESS:MagicChat;verified=true]<<<<<

>>>>> [...which is why I doubt this alchera actually exists. Oh, hoi Praetor.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Yo, mate.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Hey, chummer, what brings you into this neck of the bush?]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>> [Guys... I have questions and I know I'm going to cop some drek off you all for this but it's serious. Look, last night, I met a girl...]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Congratz. Dating advice is two doors down on the left.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Very funny, that's exactly the shit I was talking about. I'm dead serious, this is about biz. I need some advice.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Ignore him, chummer, what's up?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Ok, I met this girl at a club last night and we really hit it off; houses and fire, all that drek. Only this morning, I noticed a lot of little pins, you know like badges, stuck on the lining of her coat. I think she's awakened and I need to know... I need to know if what I felt last night was real.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Oh for Christ's sake.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>> [Now, now, Wands. It's not paranoia if everyone's really out to get you.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Praetor, if this is some anti-awakened bulldrek, I swear I'll track you down, turn you into a statue and leave you out for the pigeons.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>> [Hand on heart, Wands, I'm not pulling some drekhead prank. I know magic can alter people's minds, how can I know if someone's done something to me?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [The short, blunt, answer is that you can't.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Unfortunately my colleague is correct, there's no way for a mundane to tell if they are being magically influenced unless they successfully overcome the spell's effects or someone notices that they aren't acting themselves and confronts them. Even then, the victim's willpower still needs to overcome the spell.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Here's the issue, Praetor, the first thing a mage has to do is learn the spell. Mental manipulation spell formula are illegal pretty much everywhere. That means most mages have to create it from scratch, which takes time and nuyen unless they have the right connections. If I were you, before I start panicking, I'd hit the pavement and do the proper legwork on your girl, find out who she is. Hell, you should be doing that anyway.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>> [He's right, that's a good start. Find out if she could possibly have access to the magic first. Believe it or not, it's actually quite rare, hell I don't know the formulae myself.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Other than that, you can hire a mage to assense you while you're on a date, see if they spot her casting spells on you. These spells also require concentration unless she's using a sustaining focus, so you were right to suspect those badges of hers.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Ok. If spells are so hard to come by, though, what about the kids you hear about who manifest and start throwing fireballs around?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [-snorts- I very much doubt there's 8 year olds actually throwing full bore combat spells. Setting things on fire in a stressful situation or giving a bully a telekinetic push, sure, but blowing up buildings is another league.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [But they do awaken just knowing a spell?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Technically, yes. Accidental manifestations aren't actually that strong, though, it's not like the horror trids where creepy little girls are setting everything on fire and forcing their mothers to gouge their own eyes out with a pair of scissors.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Ewww, you've been hanging around Ned too much.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>> [Early manifestations are more dangerous to the child than they are to others anyway, which is why most privileged children are tested often for signs of awakening. Following your logic, though, is it conceivable for an awakened child to just know a mental manipulation spell? Yes. Heck, it's probably happened before but the issue would be generating enough force for the spell to overcome the victim's willpower; possible but highly unlikely.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [.... And you guys wonder why you scare the crap out of mundanes.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [This ain't the scary stuff. You want scary, sign up to clear out some Shedim, you'll never sleep again.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [You also need to consider another possibility, Praetor. Even if she is awakened (some people just like pins, you know) and knows the right spell and used it on you, it's quite possible that her intentions aren't malicious.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [What?!?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Never bought your date a drink, Praetor? Chocolates? Massage? Music? Told a joke? Whispered sweet nothings into someone's ear? Face it, a lot of courtship is mental manipulation of the social kind.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Are you seriously trying to justify mind control?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Certainly not a Control Actions or Control Thoughts spell, that's definitely bad juju. Control Emotions and Influence are in the grey area morally, a lot like natural seduction. Let's say you find out this girl isn't awakened but down the pipe she sells you out to the man, does her being awakened or not really matter?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [I don't agree but I take the point.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Tell you what, I'm sending you a secure commcode. If you see her again, call me, I'll chaperone and make sure she's on the up and up.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [-phew- Thanks, Magelight, I owe you big.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Don't get too comfortable. If she's more powerful than Magelight, she can mask her spellcasting from him. In fact, anyone you ever meet could potentially be controlling your mind and nobody would ever know.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Frag you, Original.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [DISCONNECT:username=Praetor; ... Connection Terminated.]<<<<<

>>>>> [Ok. Care to explain, Wands?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Don't look at me like that! He was cute and I just wanted to make him happy, ok? I didn't expect it to go that far.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>> [And at what point were you going to admit you're really 14?]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [SHUT UP, FRAGFACE, YOU ARE NOT MY FRAGGING FATHER!]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>> [DISCONNECT:username=Two Wands Blazing; ... Connection Ternimated.]<<<<<

>>>>> [Sometimes I hate the Sixth World.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [You and me both, chummer.]<<<<<
- Original

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Chester had a Rolls Royce Phaeton waiting for me outside the hospital when I walked out the next morning. The good old bastard always did have a sense of style. I was just opening the door when two men in grey suits, one an older grey-haired Caucasian gentleman in a tan longcoat, the other a younger Asian man with dark hair wearing a dark blue duster, approached me.

"Mr. McArthur?" the older man asked with a fake smile.

Pausing, I left the door open between us as I took them both in. "That's me, I'm guessing you gentlemen are the detectives from Knight Errant?"

They both reluctantly took out their ID to show me. "Detective Dwire," the older one introduced himself, "this is my partner, Detective Tebbit."

I guessed Dwire was going to do most of the talking, trusting that I'd been thoroughly indoctrinated by Japanese culture to blindly accept the Simpai/Kohai relationship they were presenting to me. It was a good plan, most of my colleagues would have fallen for it, and I was happy to play along. "Pleasure to meet you both, is there any way I can help?"

"Just routine inquiries," Dwire reassured me, "if you could just go over what happened for us so we can take your statement."

I looked longingly into the luxuriously passenger compartment of the Phaeton for a moment before closing the door and sending the driver an instruction to park it via my commlink. "Certainly, officers, why don't we discus it over coffee?"

Coffee meant soycaff, of course, none of us could afford the real deal even if they sold it in hospital cafeterias, which they don't. To my surprise, the waitress gave me a wink behind the detective's backs after she finished serving us, so I was a little flustered when I spoke again. "I'm sure you saw the security footage and the stuff on the news. I'm not sure I can add too much to that, there was a lot of smoke and it all happened so fast."

"Actually, the security footage we've received doesn't tell us that much either," Dwire admitted, "anything you could remember might be very helpful to our case. Now, we do know that you were sitting with Neville Turing and Amanda Knonstantos before the attack."

"That's right," I confirmed, "is Neville all right?"

Dwire gave me a sympathetic look. "I'm afraid Mr. Turing passed on. Loss of blood, it would have been relatively painless."

It was a bit of a shock, I felt the blood drain from my face so I drank some of my soycaff to try and calm my nerves.

"If you don't mind, Mr. McArthur," Tebbit interrupted, pressing me, "what were you discussing with your workmates before the incident?"

"Nothing," I said, shaking my head. "Personal issues."

"It seemed to get a little heated," Dwire observed in soothing tones.

I shrugged and sighed. "Neville was considering getting a transgenic treatment to change his ethnicity and he got defensive when I wasn't entirely positive. It was nothing, certainly not relevant to the attack."

"Why was he considering gene therepy?" Tebbit insisted.

"Because Japanese girls want Japanese kids, sayo." 'Sayo' is a Japanese short form for 'it's true', which earned me a glare.

"I'm surprised a company like Shiawase would go for that sort of thing," Dwire observed.

"It's 2065, Detective. Shiawase is very proud of our pioneering advancements in biotechnology and gene therepy."

"Why did it cause an argument, then?"

"Because of my personal issues," I answered, rolling my eyes. "If you must know, my parents were amongst the first to receive the treatment along with age rejuvenation, so I'm a little sensitive about the matter. It wasn't really an argument, Neville admitted he was considering courting an executive and getting the treatment, I backed off, he got defensive and we sorted it out. Just embarrassing office gossip."

"Unless you let him die over it," Tebbit interjected.

"Oh, please," I sighed. "Talk to the doctors, I almost got my brain blown out trying to save his life."

"That was the other thing I wanted to ask you," Dwire said, taking control of the conversation again. "Do you know that you were the only Shiawase employee in that cafeteria with a DocWagon contract? Most have a standard contract with Shiawase Nanotech's medical division."

"Neville didn't and now he's dead. Looks like I made the right call, doesn't it?"

"That's a little cold," Tebbit said.

"Is there any particular reason you're busting my balls, Detective? You're barking up the wrong tree, Neville was my friend and I didn't have anything to do with the attack other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Tebbit, why don't you grab some of those delicious looking iced doughnuts for us?" Dwire interrupted before Tebbit could say anything else. Without a word, the younger Detective got up and stormed off. "Sorry about that," Dwire apologized, "he's a bit too emotionally involved. He's a KE man through and through but you can take the boy away from the homeland..."

"Sure," I said, not believing a word of it. "Look, I'll say it again for the record. I didn't want Neville Turing dead and I had nothing to do with the attack."

"I know, I know, and I'm sorry we've gotten off on the wrong foot. Why don't you start from right before the explosion."

So I did. I went through the first explosion, the smoke, being pelted with glass and concrete, showered with water; the troll looming out of the smoke; bullets flying everywhere, the blood and bowl-loosening terror, all of it. Tebbit came back in the middle with iced doughnuts. I didn't touch mine. "And the next thing I knew, I was staring at the roses by my bedside," I finished.

"And you didn't recognize the troll at all?"

I snorted. "I don't hang out with Shadowrunners."

"What makes you think he was a 'runner?"

"Come on, a cybered-up troll with an assault cannon? What else could he be?"

There wasn't anything else they could say to that, so they politely finished their doughnuts and fragged off like they were in a hurry. I only learned that Tebbit had put the doughnuts on my tab days later, not that I was too ruffled by a fifteen lousy nuyen; petty revenge at its best.

The Phaeton gave me a location ping to my commlink, which I followed into the carpark. Finally getting into the limo, I was looking forward to a smooth, comfortable, ride home with plenty of time to de-stock the minibar. In fact, getting drunk sounded so good I didn't even notice the man pointing a Shiawase Armaments Heavy Tactical automatic pistol casually at my chest until I was seated.

One thing I'll say for growing up in a stone-faced, control-freakish, soulless Japanacorp is that it prepares you for the moment your entire life goes to hell. Corporate training tells your emotions to shut down, setting your face into an impassive mask as your brain does everything to avoid thinking about the consequences that the next few minutes could have on the rest of your short life. Not that I completely became an emotionless machine, I felt drops of sweat begin to creep down my brow as my body acknowledged what my mind refused.

The man attached to the gun was Japanese, wore a Vashoon Island suit and long coat more stylish than any that I possessed with mirror shades, his hair worn down to his shoulders but immaculately groomed. Somehow, the thin black latex gloves were the most intimidating part of his attire, calling to mind the popular image of the corporate assassin from the trideo. "Konichiwa, McArthur-san," he addressed me in Japanese, "I believe I left a message with your partner to contact me as soon as possible."

My mouth was dry, I had to lick the roof of my mouth to stimulate saliva production before I could speak. "My apologies, I had planned to contact you as soon as I was home."

"Patience is not one of my virtues," he admitted as the driver pulled out of the carpark. "You may call me Mr. Johnson; I am here to discuss your sideline with HFS."

"Nothing I've done is illegal," I defended myself immediately, probably a little too hastily.

"Technically, no but the people I represent don't like to be hampered by trivialities."

I imagined getting the drop on this guy and punching him in the throat. It would have been tempting if his gun wasn't likely to leave a dinner plate sized hole in my body. I could see the contempt in his eyes; he thought I was nothing, just a low level employee skimming from the company, a petty thief. Despite that, we were still talking, which sent a different message. "Mr. Johnson," I began, licking my lips nervously, stalling for time to gather my thoughts, "I'm sure you'll agree that companies like HFS can be as useful to Shiawase as it is to its employees."

"You are nothing but a tick on the Tiger's back," he said flatly.

"Granted," I allowed with a shrug, not even allowing a fleeting mote of pride to enter my thoughts. "But last I checked, assassins don't introduce themselves to their victims before they shoot them. If your theatrics are meant to impress me, then I can assure you that I'm very impressed. Now can we get down to business?"

After a moment's consideration, he lowered the gun. "Your personnel profile didn't mention you were such a shrewd talker. You know that your 'business' syphons profits from Shiawase's bottom line, why would we want you to continue?"

"My business isn't even a speedbump on the bottom line," I snarled. "Shiawase pays in corporate script, it gets that script back and moves product. Any cost to Shiawase is comparable to selling goods to an independent retail store. And HFS can be useful to Shiawase as a grey market front, I don't know a corporation in the world that doesn't have some use for a deniable business asset. You'd know that better than anyone else in Shiawase, Mr. Johnson."

I didn't know Mr. Johnson but I knew his type. Mr. Johnson is an old alias for a company man that does the dirty work so that higher level executives can keep their hands clean. Infamously, anyone who hires shadowrunners is usually called Mr. Johnson independent of sex or affiliation to maintain the anonymity of the client. Assuming he was a professional Shiawase Johnson, grey and black markets were nothing he wasn't accustomed to dealing with.

His stony-faced expression didn't budge an inch. I was guessing he grew up in Neo-Tokyo, which meant his assignment to the Sydney offices was a bit of a step down. Then again, he looked young enough for this post to be his proving grounds, which would explain the chip on his shoulder he seemed to have for me. Younger Japanese corporate raiders like to think they're part Yakuza, waving guns around and hurling insults isn't the older boy's style.

"Then you have no compunctions about taking jobs from me?" He asked outright, which was refreshing. One thing I'll say against the older execs, they take vulgar delight in beating around the bush.

"Cost of doing business," I answered.

He made out like he was considering it when we both knew he was just posing, drawing as much drama out of the moment as he could. His technique wasn't exactly sloppy but I wasn't a younger suit still eager for fame and fortune who believed in sticking it to the man. The man always wins, he either stabs you in the back or you live long enough to become him.

"Then let's start with something that interests both of us," he said finally, "the death of Dr. Yoshinobu Takaga."

I admit, that threw me a bit. "I'm sorry, I don't quite understand. HFS provides financial services..."

"And if you want to keep on doing business, you'll provide me with whatever I ask of you," he interrupted. "The matter that vexes Shiawase right now is the loss of public confidence that this terrorist attack has wrought on the company. You say you can be useful to us, prove it." He took a paper business card out of his coat pocket and held it out for me between two fingers. When I reached for it, he curled his fingers suddenly, pulling it out of my grasp. "You understand what will happen if you prove to be no use to me?"

"You've made yourself clear," I replied in a serious tone. Kids love it when they think you're taking them seriously. Finally, he let me take the card, which had nothing on it other than a commcode.

We sat in silence for a few moments while the driver found somewhere to pull over and let Mr. Johnson out. "Call me when you find something," he ordered as he pulled himself out of the car and hit the street, the door closing automatically behind him.

The moment the environmental seal hissed shut, I was on my commlink frantically calling Chester. Unfortunately I only got his answering service, so I was forced to leave a slightly panicked message for him to get back to me as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I was at a complete loss as to what to do next. On the trids, a runner would call up his Fixer, who would have just the info I needed for a price. All the people I barely knew were Shiawase bean counters, none of them knew anything.

Getting back to basics, I jacked into my 'link and sank into the virtual world of the Matrix. In a moment I was standing in the middle of the Sydney Metropolitan Public Matrix, a lush world of perfect beaches, lush greenery and floating silver towers that glistened in the perpetual sunlight. As always, the infinite space was flooded with personas of all shapes and sizes from the ever-popular beach bunnies and Knight Errant's 'Lifeguard Patrol' to barely acceptable low-rez icons, cartoon characters and suited wageslaves. My persona fit into the latter category, since I was using my Shiawase-issued commlink, but blending in was fine for my purposes.

Firing up my Agent, an autonomous program designed to execute simple tasks, I gave it some search parameters and let it loose while I fired up my own browse program look for myself. The first hits I got on 'Dr. Yoshinobu Takaga' weren't a surprise, every two-bit media outlet had pictures of his corpse plastered all over their front pages alongside pictures of his stoically grieving family as they knelt before a picture of him on the family shrine. It was all very Japanese and also obviously a carefully orchestrated PR stunt by Shiawase. Between the rhetoric about honour and the samurai way, however, I did learn that Takaga worked for Shiawase Aerospace.

Shiawase Aerospace put up some red flags in my head straight away. Despite being a multinational megacorp with one of the most diverse product ranges of all the Big Ten, the company remained a small player when it came to aerospace development. While Shiawase Aerospace was formally its own division, in fact most of the assets were employed as part of projects for Shiawase Armaments. Takaga could have been working on anything from orbital habitats to combat drones; any of which would give rival corporations cause to attempt an extraction.

None of which was anything Mr. Johnson wouldn't already know, so I added Shiawase Aerospace to my Agent's search parameters before closing the browser and logging into the Shiawase network. Roaming into my cubicle, I used the internal search function to bring up Takaga's personnel file along with the account records for Shiawase Aerospace. Naturally, both public documents were heavily sanitized but I'd worked in the corporation long enough to correlate some of the information others might not it was my job after all.

Takaga might have been a lower level researcher but the number of projects he'd been involved in was staggering. His official job description was merely 'Assistant Aeronautical Engineer' but his profile was linked to a bunch of milspec drone projects, some of which remained classified. His death was a blow to Shiawase Armaments, certainly not enough to seriously harm the division but the loss of his expertise would sting.

Closing the personnel files, I left my cubicle and made my way out of the office nodes and into the online Shinto shrine, a unique feature of Shiawase matrix architecture. Corresponding to the real life public shrine in Shiawase Tower with tall lacquered red gates surrounded by beautiful Japanese gardens filled with Sakura blossoms. Stepping into the shrine proper, I bowed to the attendant Miko program, which analysed my commlink for anomalies and security threats, before kneeling before the picture of Takaga and the other employees who had died in the cafeteria attack to say a few prayers.

There weren't many other people in the shrine, most of whom were distracted by prayer or personal meditation, giving me an opportunity to survey the small mementos left behind on the altar. In the real world, these would be more personal objects like favourite toys, photographs or books but in VR and AR they took the form of haikus, simsense clips, trideo messages and other datafiles. One in particular caught my eye because it seemed so out of place in a Shinto shrine: a digital copy of Face Punch!, the official magazine of the Australian Urban Brawl Championships. The cover was an animated clip of a troll player shattering the faceplate of a human opponent with his fist, spraying glass and blood out of the virtual page into the air.

Pretending to finish paying my respects, I retreated from the shrine back into the public grid, adding Urban Brawl to the search perameters of my Agent before jacking out.

I opened my eyes to discover that the limo had stopped; only the view outside the window was unfamiliar. Opening the door, I stepped out onto the pock-marked concrete to find myself in the middle of Chinatown, under the shadow of World Square Arcology. Directly in front of me was a quaint little store that I assumed was a Talismonger thanks to the unusual items on display, though the signs were in Chinese. Something about the store intrigued me but I managed to tear myself away to find the driver looking under the Phaeton's bonnet.

"What's wrong?" I asked as I walked over.

"Sorry, sir," the ocker ork replied, removing his cap to scratch his head, "I think something's wrong with the electrical, she just stopped all of a sudden. Don't worry, sir, mechanic's on his way."

We were lucky to have broken down in the CBD, which was under constant surveillance from KE. Ground level wasn't safe other places south of the river and the further from city centre you got the less safe it was. I found my attention being drawn back to the Talismonger's, so I made a decision on a whim. "I'm just going to take a look in this shop and stretch my legs for a bit. By the way, what do you know about that guy you let into the passenger cab before?"

He had the decency to look guilty. "I, uh, don't know what you're talkin' about, sir."

"A hundred nuyen jog your memory?"

"Sir," he whispered, leaning closer while maintaining eye contact, "I don't need that kind of trouble."

Receiving the message loud and clear, I backed off. "Nobody does, chummer."

Stepping into the Talismonger was like stepping onto the set of a simsense flick. Jars of various preserved telesma, harvested from awakened animals and plants, lined the walls alongside musty books and scrolls. Display cases housed an array of charms, bottles of strange liquid, jewellery and other strange items labelled with AR icons that could be expended to provide more information on each item. Considering the value of some of the goods, I was betting that they were replicas with the real items locked safely away deeper inside the store. The counter had a matrix terminal to provide shoppers with an easily searchable catalogue of available goods. Beside the terminal sat a wrinkled old Chinese man in a traditional high-collared robe who gave me a grumpy look as he took a puff on his long, slender, pipe, filling the small room with smoke.

"Uh, good morning," I greeted. The room was dark, illuminated only by what little light filtered through the store windows, making it hard to see the old man's face.

Removing the pipe from his lips, he pointed the mouthpiece at me. "I know you," he stated in a voice like a gravel road with a thick accent.

I had to suppress my smile not to scoff at him. "I think you're mistaking me for someone else, I've never been here before."

"Ugh, what does that have to do with it?" he grumbled. "The stones and the spirits spoke of your arrival."

"Stones?"

He pointed down at the flat wooden octagonal plate in front of him. Looking more closely, I could see that there were small black and white pebbles scattered across the surface, each with a Chinese character carved into the surface. "These stones tell me the future."

I nodded. "Have you ever considered a job in market forecasting? I mean if you have any stock tips..."

The old man snorted with mirth before turning to the empty space next to him. "See? They never believe me."

Looking between the old man and the empty space for a moment, I pointed at the thin air he'd addressed a moment ago. "You're saying there's a spirit standing right there?"

He shrugged. "Look for yourself."

"I can't," I sighed, "I'm not awakened."

"And that," he said, poking my chest with the end of his pipe, "is where you are wrong."

I couldn't help but laugh. "Ok, ok, that's enough of the routine..."

"That Janet gives head real good, doesn't she Mr. McArthur?" he asked with a sarcastic chuckle.

My face must have turned white. "How did you...?"

He continued to chuckle for a few moments. "Like I said, the stones. They also tell me that you are in trouble... more trouble than you know yourself."

"Then I must be in a lot of trouble," I said, raising my eyebrows.

"Ugh," he grunted in agreement, "which is why I have something for you." Reaching under the counter, he produced a real, leather-bound, book that was over an inch thick. The cover was embossed with a lattice of pentagrams surrounding a large circle inside which two dragons were entwined. The outer boarder and inside the circle were decorated with a series of repeating runes. "This book will place you on your path."

I smirked. "Ok, I'll bite, how much?"

"This book is not for sale," he rebuffed me sternly, "it is a gift."

If my eyebrows rose any higher, I could have scalped myself. "Free? This book has to be worth thousands of nuyen!"

Sneering, the old man turned to hoik a loogie into a spittoon by his feet. "This book is worth nothing to anyone but you and I. Good karma is worth more than money, by giving you this, I follow my way and the spirits smile on me. Besides, dead men don't buy telesma... well, not usually. If you must, consider it an extended loan, once you learn all you can from it, bring it back. Maybe then, you buy something more valuable."

Spiritual downpayments weren't my usual style but my curiosity was piqued enough that I picked the book up and nodded in thanks. Almost immediately, the door opened and my chauffeur poked his head in. "Sir! It's ok, I got the car working again! We won't even have to wait for the mechanic."

Blinking rapidly at him as my brain processed what he was saying, I nodded dumbly. "Uh, yeah, ok, I'll be right out."

The old man chuckled as the ork left. "The spirits reward those who follow their path," he said cryptically.

Not knowing what to say to that, I took the book and left. As I stepped out the door, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a tall, thin, oriental man wearing a scholar's robe and an insanely long Fu Manchu moustache like something from a kung fu movie, his arms folded inside his sleeves. The man bowed to me before fading out of existence, there only for a fleeting moment as I stumbled out the door.

My driver grinned as he opened the door for me. "Put the frighteners on you, did they sir? Don't sweat it, my cousin's a Talismonger, they love putting on a show for the mundanes."

"Yes, uh, thanks," I said absently as I retreated into the dubious safety of the car.

Knowing that I wasn't going to be able to think about anything else until my curiosity was satisfied, I started flipping through the book. The moment I did, I felt a little better, the cover was synthleather and the pages weren't real paper. The contents, however, made up for my nervousness. The book was full of arcane symbols that purported to be spell formulae, guides to summoning various spirits, treatments on the nature of astral space and sorcery; all entwined with philosophical musings of a particularly hedonistic bent.

My commlink suddenly buzzing made me jump. When I realized it was just Chester getting back to me, I tossed the book onto the seat next to me and answered the call. "Morning, Chester, where the heck did you find this limo service?"

Chester listened to me as I explained about the meeting with Mr. Johnson. "I'll check the background of the limo company, see if there's any connection to Shiawase. What are you thinking, MFID?"

MFID was Shiawase's Market Forecasting and Information Division, an innocuous name that concealed the fact that the division housed all of the company's professional spies, fixers and Johnsons. Of course, with the level of autonomy each department has, MFID didn't hand all of Shiawase's shadow dealing, just the significant ones. "If so, I think we're dealing with a young turk. Too flamboyant and not enough respect, even to a perceived inferior, goes against Shiawase's principle of damashii. Look, Chester, what I need right now is some connections. If I'm going to dig us out of this hole I'm going to need gear and information."

"Don't worry, I know some people who know some people. I'll arrange a meet."

I breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Chester, remind me to send you a few cases of those Hunter Valley wines that you like."

He grinned. "Make sure to mix in some whites for my ladyfriend."

That made me blink stupidly a few times. "Wow, uh, congratulations. I didn't realize you were courting."

"Oh, nothing like that, I met her at a dinner party last weekend. We got talking and I've taken her under my wing... so to speak. I'll have to introduce you."

Taking a deep breath, I tried to work out how to ask what I wanted to ask him next. "Um, Chester, there's something else... how can someone tell if they've... awakened?"

There was a long pause as Chester considered me with a level gaze, his dark eyes suddenly slightly scary. "Now why would you ask me about such a thing?"

"Right now, I don't trust anyone else," I admitted, close to pleading.

"There are tests," he answered after a moment. "As a corporate citizen, Shiawase would provide you with first rate facilities..."

"No," I interrupted, shaking my head, "I don't trust the company at this point in time, particularly not with MFID breathing down my neck."

Chester leant closer to the trideo. "Nathan, listen to me. No magician is entirely trustworthy, no deal is sweet and no time is the perfect time. If you have reason to suspect that you've awakened, while the chance is remote at your age, you need training. That's even more important that keeping HFS alive. In fact, I have half a mind to extract you from Shiawase myself."

Taking a deep breath, I concentrated on keeping my heartbeat slow and steady. "You know, I halfway wanted you to laugh me off. Tell me I was crazy."

"Near death experiences are a classic trigger for the awakening," Chester explained. "Besides, you're an intelligent man. If you're worried enough to ask the question, then denial can only harm you now."

"What are my alternatives if I don't trust corporate schemes?"

Chester steepled his hands as he considered the question, his breath hissing through his teeth. "You could find a street mage that is willing to test you or look up an initiatory group that offers the service privately. Every way incurs a certain amount of risk. There is also the solitary path... but I wouldn't recommend it without a spirit guide."

"Thank-you, Chester. I'll think about it carefully, I promise."

"Be safe, my friend," he said before disconnecting, leaving me alone with my thoughts.