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No Time for Second Chances

By Dr. Bender

Chapter 3

In one way, it was fortunate that I'd been injured on a Thursday. It meant that I arrived back at my drekhole apartment Saturday morning with the whole day ahead of me to hammer out how the frag I was going to survive. Placing the book on my tiny breakfast table, I used a not insignificant portion of my water ration to make myself a cup of soycaff, sat and brooded with the steaming mug in hand.

Part of me wanted to liquefy HFS, skip town, buy a new name and face to start over. Maybe start up a new holding company and joining the corporate rat race. Unfortunately that wasn't my style and I wasn't about to leave Chester holding the bag either. Or maybe I was starting to get some sort of sick thrill out of all the spy games, to be honest I didn't exactly know why I wasn't running for the hills.

My commlink buzzed twice in succession, once to inform me that I'd received Chester's message and a second time to let me know that my Agent had finished his task. With nothing left to loose, I jacked in to get to work.

Chester hadn't wasted words, his message contained nothing but names, commcodes and a short description of the services each could provide. In addition, he'd listed some street mages and magical groups that could test for awakened potential. Strangely, the last name on the list wasn't a commcode, just an address that my browse program informed me was a back alley somewhere in the western suburbs.

Having had enough weirdness for the day, I set my magical problems aside and opened the file my Agent had ready for me. The top hit was a doozy, a small sports piece stuck in the back pages about the Shiawase Ronin Urban Brawl team mourning the death of Dr. Yoshinobu Takaga, a long standing member of their support team. Another linked file led to the Ronin's public node which had a picture of the mechanics and admin staff posing with the team, Takaga was right there kneeling in the front row, smiling as he leant against the Outrunner's combat bike.

Tragically, I could believe that Takaga could have been killed for his involvement with Urban Brawl as much as his work for Shiawase Armaments. As a country, Australia is sports-mad, every corporation who wants to do business sponsors at least one team. The value in positive advertising alone makes up for the expense, not that teams like the Ronin weren't profitable on their own. The Urban Brawl connection was also something I could investigate while international spy games were out of my league.

Looking at Chester's list again, I selected the first name on the list and clicked on the commcode hyperlink. I was worried that the call was going to ring out for a moment before it connected. "Hello?" a male voice asked cryptically.

"Greetings, I was referred to this number by Chester, am I speaking to Foresight?"

"And you are?"

I smiled at the non-confirmation. "Naka-udo-san."

The voice at the other end snorted. "Very well, Mr. Naka-udo, how can I help you?"

"I'm in the market for a new commlink, or commlink parts, as well as programs. May I send you my design specifications?"

Getting his agreement, I mailed my wishlist to him. He whistled, obviously impressed. "This is some serious hardware, Naka-udo-san. I hope you have time and money."

"Money, yes, but I'm short on time. I'm willing to compromise depending on available parts. I have the facilities for assembly, so no labour required."

"I'll have to dig around, see what's about. I can get back to you this afternoon if that's acceptable?"

Agreeing, I disconnected. Getting up, I started to pack, the first thing going into my briefcase being my simsense collection followed by my favourite casual clothing. I quickly realized that shopping was going to be a high priority, I needed to get back to basics and reinvent myself. For the first time in my life, I also considered buying a gun, not that I knew how to use one. Uploading all the relevant data on my commlink to my MSP's (Matrix Service Provider) backup storage, I wiped anything incriminating off my 'link before shutting it down. On the way out of the building, I stopped at a vending machine to buy a cheap disposable commlink that I could work with for the time being before heading onto the street.

I was forced to take a cab to a local car dealership intending to buy something cheap and serviceable like a Volkswagen Elektro but drove away in a Eurocar Westwind 2000 sports car worth over ten times the price. Truthfully, the saleman had hardly pitched the car to me before I was in the driver's seat, eager to gun the engine and leave everyone in my dust.

The car put a smile on my face all the way to World Square, where I reluctantly handed it over to valet parking. A quick shopping spree got me some new clothes, with several sets of armoured clothes in different styles in particular along with some form-fitting body armour to wear underneath. While I sat in a more upscale restaurant than I was accustomed to for lunch, feeling much safer in my new bulletproof clothing, I called an acquaintance of mine in Shiawase Mediatech and scalped two tickets for the next Urban Brawl game featuring the Shaiawase Ronin, which as my luck went just happened to be tonight. A second call to Janet confirmed that she was available in the evening and that she was an Urban Brawl fan, which surprised me even though it shouldn't have in the 'enlightened' 2060s. Old habits die hard.

Down in the lower levels of the arcology, away from prying eyes, I visited a certain gunstore that I'd had dealings with on behalf of HFS. A few words to the clerk got me into the back room where he hooked me up with his black market connection. So it was that I was the proud new owner of a Predator III heavy pistol and a pair of smartlink enabled sunglasses to help with my crappy aim. The bulk of it under my arm made me feel much better once I was back in my Westwind and powering down the highway out of the CBD.

I'd known a day like this might come the moment I established HFS, which was why I'd registered another company on the same day under a fake SIN (System Identification Number) that had no assets other than a particular piece of property on the north shore, taking advantage of the crash of '64 to conceal all evidence of its existence while quietly refurbishing it. Other than a small apartment complex on the upper floors, the lower floor contained a simple surgery and technical workbench as well as long term storage for some of my pet projects for HFS. Most importantly, the building also had a large garage for me to park the Westwind in, keeping it off the streets and out of sight. While I waited for Farsight to call me back, I spent the time productively wiping all the RFID chips in my new purchases with a HERF gun, literally blasting the little buggers with electromagnetic pulses so they couldn't be used to track me down.

Once that was done, I routed my commlink connection remotely through several nodes before Foresight could call, just as a precaution. Rather than call me in person, however, I received an extended list of available parts along with projected times for delivery. Selecting what I wanted, I sent my order back with the standard 10% downpayment. It wasn't long before I got instructions for the pickup point, a nice, friendly, busy, Stuffer Shack conveniently located on the way to pick Janet up from her apartment.

With time to kill, I was tempted to slot Soaring Harpy for the next part of the story but ended up stuffing the bag of chips into my bedside drawer for later. Instead, I lay down on the bed and started flipping through the book the old man had given me.

"Welcome, O callow apprentice of the mystic arts," I read aloud, "to your first step on the path to ultimate power. Magic is nothing more or less than the ability to bend reality to your will and, as one of the Chosen, it is your right to shape the world as you see fit... jeeze, who wrote this drivel?"

It didn't come as much of a surprise that the book was unattributed. Flipping past the rhetoric, I got down to some actual useful instructions. "Magic is the shaping of Mana, the energy source that exists in the astral plane. By imposing your will on Mana, you can bring about effects in both worlds, known as spells, conjure spirits and much, much more. Before you start on any of these advanced techniques, the most basic and safest use of the talent is Astral Perception. Astral Perception allows the mage or shaman to see the Astral plane around their meat body without projecting their spirit and leaving themselves vulnerable. Try this now; unfocus your eyes and allow your attention to drift as it will, then exert your will to push your perceptions beyond the physical. Methods that alter perceptions of reality can help induce the correct state of being."

All of which sounded like complete gobbledegook to me, but I was willing to try anything once. Unfocusing my eyes and letting my attention wander was the easy part. I hade no idea what 'exerting my will' meant, which left me doing a lot of futile straining, like I was sitting constipated on the loo. Giving up, I tossed the book aside and unzipped my pants, determined to get some quality relaxation time in before my date. As I stroked myself, my mind wandered back to the feelings of Soaring Harpy's body, the electric tingle crawling across her skin, the hard eagerness of her nipples, the powerful building force of her climax the moment before she peaked...

It felt like a sudden surge of power flowing through my body, pushing and pulling in directions that weren't supposed to exist. I felt my flesh melt painlessly, shrinking inside my clothes, my moan rising in pitch as breasts rose from my chest and my manhood slipped from my grip. Hyperventilating, I jumped up off the bed in a panic, stumbling as my pants fell into a pool around my feet. Running drunkenly over to the bathroom door, I slammed it open to look into the mirror that hung over the sink.

Staring back at me, wide-eyed, was the splitting image of Soaring Harpy, my new shirt hanging from her svelte body. The first thing that struck me was that Soaring Harpy had the sort of body that could only exist thanks to biosculpting. Her D-cups looked out of place on an athletic body with a twenty inch waist. Clasping my hands over my mouth, I stifled a scream.

"You do have impeccable taste," a new, feminine, voice whispered from behind me.

Spinning around, I discovered that the room was empty. Then, turning back around, I came face to face with my own doppelganger, our noses mere inches away. Squealing in fright, I fell over, bouncing on my padded ass as I scrambled backwards until I hit the edge of the bed. Throwing back her head, she laughed, her voice rich, smooth and seductive.

"Wh-what the fuck are you?!?" I screeched, feeling around for my gun which was somewhere inside the longcoat lying on the bed.

"I am known by many names," she whispered, slinking towards me, "whore, honeypot, prostitute, mistress, lover, bitch, slut, cunt, dominatrix... to name but a few."

I was just about to reach the handle of the Predator III when something intangible hit me. The spell spread through my skin, making me lose control of my limbs as I shuddered with need. Heat blossomed in my abdomen, spreading down my womanly canal as a powerful need gripped my entire body. Grasping my sodden underwear with both hands, it was all I could do to curl up into a ball, rubbing frantically as my juices trickled down my thighs.

"Your kind calls that spell 'Control Emotions'," she informed me, circling my prone form like a great cat considering her prey, "used well, it can incite lust, lower inhibitions and inflame passions. Its counterpart is known as 'Orgasm'..."

Gasping as my burning need was replaced by sudden and complete fulfilment, I writhed on the ground at her feet as a continuous wave of pleasure washed over me.

"...abd has the effect you are experiencing now," she finished. When she released the spell, I collaped in a sweaty heap, breathing heavily as my body tried to reclaim its breath. Squatting beside me, she reached down to stroke my cheek tenderly. "You altered your form with a spell called 'Human Form'. It's very versatile. To return to your regular form, all you have to do is let go of the spell. Unfortunately it only works on the willing, mores the pity."

"What are you?" I gasped the question, my breathing ragged.

Stradling me, she grabbed my hands, entwining our fingers together as she pinned my arms above my head. Looking down into my eyes, she grinned mischievously. "I'm the one whispering to you that you've denied yourself for too long. I'm the one prodding you down the path of fulfilment. Through me, you will be everything you ever dreamed because you are mine and we are one. My gift to you is power."

"Power doesn't come without a price."

"Gifts don't come with a price," she rebuked me. Leaning down, she nibbled my ear, sending a shiver down my spine. "All you have to do is let me in and everything you want will be yours."

Blinking, I found myself lying on the floor, alone, still wearing Soaring Harpy's body. Sitting up, I looked down at my tiny, manicured, hands and flexed the fingers, trying to reassure myself that everything was still real. My shirt was sticky with sweat and I was sitting in a wet spot. But then a smile spread across my face as a wicked idea occurred to me and before I knew it I was naked under the shower, learning more about a woman's body than I ever thought I'd know.

Oh, like you wouldn't in my place.

After drying myself off, it was hard letting the spell go. I watched my body expand, returning to its former decrepitude in the mirror. Ok, decrepitude was a bit strong but going from a smoking hot twenty-something elf in prime physical condition to a forty two year old man with self image issues was a bit jarring. Staring at myself in the mirror, however, I couldn't help but think my reflection's gaze was a little accusatory.

"Frag off," I told myself, starting to feel guilty, "this is what we wanted, right?"

Soaking a cloth in water, being careful to use as little as possible, I returned to the bedroom and scrubbed the wet spot for a while. As I was scrubbing, my elbow knocked the edge of the bed, making the book fall off and flip open to a random page. Curious, and willing to use anything as a distraction to rest so that my arm would stop aching, I picked up the book and read down the page.

"Guilt is the chain that binds the wageslave in the prison of society. By sloughing off our guilt over inconsequential matters, a metahuman can transcend to a higher level of existence, unburdened by the judgement of others..."

Intrigued, I continued reading.

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

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

>>>>> [Ping?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Pong!]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Jeeze, chummer, are you ever offline?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Not if I can help it, I like keeping my ear to the ground.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Mind if I bounce something off you? I had a run in with a nasty bunch of slots; some sort of initiatory group. At first I thought they were a joke because they were using get this a combination of classic Satanic and neo-pagan symbology. Next thing I know, I'm getting my ass kicked by this fragging demonic howling blood spirit that nearly burned me the fuck alive. You wouldn't happen to have a line on who these drekheads might be, would you?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [....]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [No, you did not just ellipsis me! Spill, you still owe me for Broken Hill.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [It's not that. Yes, I've heard of magic like that, rumours, but I can get a guy in here that knows more about this group than I do. Hold on.]<<<<<
- Original

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

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

>>>>> [Hello?]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>> [Thank you for coming....]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Magelight, where exactly did you run into these men and what were they doing?]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>> [Woah there! More than my life's worth, mate. Original said you knew more than he did. If what you have is worth it, I'm willing to trade paydata for paydata.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Acceptable. From what Original has relayed, I believe you've had an encounter with an outfit known as Druids, Inc.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>> [Druids? Sorry, I know druids; they weren't using the Tir Na nÓg tradition.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Not druids, Druids, Inc. I understand the confusion; I'm told the name predates the awakening. Let's start at the beginning. Are you aware that certain magical lodges existed prior to the Awakening?]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>> [Well, sure, there were plenty of surviving shamanic religions. But if you're referring specifically to western traditions, you're talking about a bunch of rich old farts building old boy's networks and dressing it up with ritualistic bulldrek to make themselves feel special, right?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Essentially, yes. Unfortunately, quite a few of these well juiced old farts woke up one morning to discover that the bulldrek they'd been lip syncing to all those years actually started to work. Most magical groups of the time were fairly benign but for those groups with darker intents, magic became a path to unbridled excess.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>> [He's talking about classic western Black Magic, chummer; the kind of people who take virgin sacrifices and Faustian bargains seriously.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [You're shitting me.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [I wish I was. Whatever they do, we know one thing: it works. If you don't know my rep, I make a living collecting bounties on paranormal threats. Bughunts, Shedim, toxics, rogue spirits, vampires and paranormal critters are all in a day's work for me. I've run into some nasty drek but if I see one of these guys hanging around, I know things are about to escalate. When I started running into them more frequently, I made it my job to keep tabs on them.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>> [I was on a run with Asymetrix when I first ran into them. Fraggers had broken open a corporate biolab under Ashfield. Sick bastards were infecting people with HMHVV then using the victims in sacrificial rituals, blood magic and possession by some of the most twisted spirits I've ever run across. The place got torched in the crossfire but the fuckers managed to escape.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Now, before we go on, something has to be made clear. Not every practitioner of the Black Magic tradition is like these 'twisted' mages. They're a bit egocentric and amoral but let's face it, we're shadowrunners, stones and glass houses and all that. Most members of the tradition still have lines they don't cross. The tradition emphasizes the acquisition of power and the fulfilment of desire but they're not psychopaths. In fact, I envy their outlook a little; at least they're honest and open, too many mages kid themselves about their motives.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>> [All right, let me pony up something. I'm pretty sure I only faced one of these guys but he was slinging some major mojo around without breaking a sweat. Now, I like to think I'm one of the best spellslingers in the Australian shadows but this guy was tossing spells that would have had me on my knees.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [That scans from what I've seen of them. I'm not sure how they do it but they've got some way to mitigate drain that doesn't involve blood sacrifice. The members of the tradition that I interviewed suggested it might be part of some sort of 'spirit pact'.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>> [And you buy that?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [At this point, I'm not discounting anything. If I told more stories about this group here on Netranger, I'd be labelled a crackpot. I know how this drek sounds, believe me, I wish I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>> [Try me, I pride myself on keeping an open mind.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Very well. Are you familiar with the Shadowland BBS?]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>> [I've had an account for over ten years.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [All right, you'll have to cast your memory back a bit to a post that hit in '57 about an organization called the Black Lod....]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

> ^>>>[LOG-N*#$NETRANGER;user(ame=Ж;passw{ [fn30g30j%$#@^;a5{\

>> SUPERUSER ACCESS GRANTED

%>z^>$[ƧӋГЗПҀЗ.}/<&"<
- Ж

>> 48u14*8t#0#{Bl*kHamme^*#!5n}z><+...

>> %>[WARN=_US3R_OFF\/^3_Emergen&*#_Emergent 49-t jf4`+4494UT!!!

>>>>> [DISCONNECT:username=Asymetrix; UNSAFE TERMINATION.]<<<<<

>>>>> [METRIX!]<<<<<
- Original

>> %#_ 383= t30 8008)8$)$0110101010101010010101

>>>>> [FUCK! TRACE AND BURN! TRACE AND BU...]<<<<<
- Magelight

@^>^k>{ЩЗ ЩДЯПЗФ Ц.]\*"<#
- Ж

>>>>> [DISCONNECT:username=Magelight; UNSAFE TERMINATION.]<<<<<

>> ADMIN LOCK<<

>>>>> [DISCONNECT:username=Original; TERMINATED BY ADMIN.]<<<<<

>> INITIATE BUSHWACK CASCADE
>> DEPLOY: BLACKOUT
>> DEPLOY: JACKLOCK
>> DEPLOY: TRACE

>>>>> [DREK!]<<<<<
- Ж

>>>>> [This node 'aint big enough for both of us, pilgrim.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [DISCONNECT:username= Ж; ... Connection Term=^&#@0539!{+_
>> TERMINATION FAILED

>> USER UNRESPONSIVE, PLEASE CALL EMERGENCY SERVICES

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"Oh my god," Janet muttered nervously, covering her mouth with her hands when she saw my new Westwind with me standing next to it in my brand new armoured formalwear. I'd gone for comfortable rather than ultra-modern conservative and the look suited me well. Janet, on the other hand, was dressed for an Urban Brawl game, wearing a tight Shiawase Ronin branded dress under a thick crop-top jacket, fishnet stockings and thigh high synthleather boots. "Now I feel underdressed."

"Nonsense, you look stunning," I said, opening the door for her. If simsense dating has taught me one thing, it's that a little bit of ye olden daye courtesy goes a long way. Also, it doesn't hurt to be an ultra-rich hunk with a thirteen inch penis.

"Wow, new car?" Janet asked as we barrelled down the highway, running her hands over the synthleather seats.

"I bought it this morning. You know, I've had a garage for years sitting empty," I explained, "never thought it was the right time... guess nearly getting your head blown off brings things into perspective."

She chuckled. "You know, my mother warned me about men like you."

I raised one eyebrow. "Men like me what?"

"Smooth talking middle aged men who blow money on fast cars and buy tickets to take younger women out on dates. You've probably got a mistress locked away in a Yakuza brothel and a wife you keep barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen..."

"Ha! Closest I've ever come to that description is slotting a chip," I chuckled. "Besides, my mother warned me about naughty nurses that get their thrills hanging out with dirty old men."

"Wow, good thing neither of us listen to our mothers," she said, grinning.

"They do seem intent on taking all the fun out of life, don't they?"

We chatted all the way to the airfield where I was able to park in a spot reserved for Shiawase corporate employees and escorted Janet into one of the blimps waiting to take everyone to the field. Urban Brawl is played in the middle of a disused area of a city known as a Brawl Zone, each three blocks wide by four blocks long. Started in the early part of the century as a way for gangs to settle their differences in a semi-controlled environment to limit property damage, Urban Brawl became one of the biggest sports in the world, outgrossing other ball games by a wide margin. The addition of firearms along with the random nature of the battlefields meant that traditional stadiums were out of the question, leading to the creation of heavily armoured airships that could loiter with minimal power expenditure.

Each team is composed of thirteen 'brawlers': 4 Scouts, 4 Bangers, 2 Heavies, 1 Blaster, 1 Outrider and 1 Medico. Scouts are the lightly armed and armoured players who generally move faster and act as cannon fodder. More experienced Scouts eventually get slightly heavier armour and become Bangers (from the old label 'gang bangers'). Heavies wore the same armour as Bangers only with better guns while the Blaster wears Scout armour but carries a gyro-mounted LMG. The Outrider is unique in that he or she is basically a Banger that rides a bike and is allowed to carry another player on the back seat as long as that player isn't carrying the ball.

Unlike most sports, both teams carry a soccer-sized ball made of dense plastifoam and brightly glowing paint. The goal is to get your ball into the enemy team's goal, a circle four meters in diameter at either end of the zone; as long as the ball is in contact with a piece of an 'offensive' brawler (all except the Outrider and the Medico) when he or she enters the goal area, the team scores. If the ball is dropped for 10 seconds or grabbed by one of the other team's offensive brawlers, that ball is declared 'dead' for that play. If a brawler cannot continue because of wounds sustained or he or she surrenders, they are 'disabled' and must wait where they are until the next play begins.

If you think the game sounds barbaric and dangerous, that's because it is. Deliberately killing another player is technically illegal but it still happens all the time (they are shooting live ammo at each other after all). Offsetting the lethality of the game is the abundance of cyberware. Ork and troll players also thrive in Urban Brawl, making the game one of the few ways talented brawlers can work their way out of the slums.

The pre-game commentary was already well underway as we stepped aboard. AR viewscreens gathered around us, showing the topology of the Brawl Zone, player profiles and equipment schematics while the commentators filled in time between advertisements. Declining the AR feeds for now, we made out way onto the observation deck and mingled with the crowd.

I hadn't gone five steps before my hand was clasped and shaken enthusiastically by a Japanese man with streaks of grey in his short hair wearing a formal Vashoon Island suit. "Nathan! I honestly didn't expect to see you here!"

"Nice to see you too, Shinji," I greeted with a warm smile that was only slightly forced. There are two types of Japanese working in Australia, those that acclimatize and will shake your hand in informal situations outside work and those that view their positions as a form of exile. The latter don't make it very far in the sales department where Shinji worked, Australian consumers don't take well to high-and-mighty attitudes at all. Heck, in certain circles, it'll get you geeked.

"And who would this gorgeous blossom on your arm be?" Shinji asked, trying to be smooth despite his relatively weak grasp of English. Still, he made her laugh.

"Shinji Nakamura, Janet Paige. Shinji here works for... Shiawase Nanotech this week, isn't it?"

"Ah!" he admitted with a grimace. "I get redeployed so often I swear I go through two pairs of shoes a week!"

"Janet here works for DocWagon."

I'll give Shinji credit, the only thing that gave away his surprise was a twitch of his eyebrows. "Oh, a doctor?"

"I wish," Janet chuckled, "I'm in nursing. I met Nathan on the job."

"Even better! I do wish we had some of your faces in our marketing division..."

"Now, now," I interrupted before Janet could say something that compromised her company, "we're not at work anymore, let's try to relax a little."

He grimaced. "As your companion said, I wish. I'm afraid this is what you Anglos would call a bussman's holiday for me."

"Oh? Big business going down?"

He gave me a sly wink before pointing out some gentlemen in tuxedos. "Guests from Genetique and Maramentos Murreta; our Mexican competitors."

I nodded, understanding his subtext. Mexico no longer existed, having been supplanted by Aztlan. Aztlan as a nation was basically a front for Aztechnology, one of the biggest AAA megas and a member of the corporate court.

Pointing at another group of Japanese businessmen who weren't wearing the Shiawase Vashoon Island uniform, Shinji lowered his voice to a whisper. "Pensodyne, subsidiary of the troubled Yametetsu corporation."

Another AAA megacorp; one going through a distinctly rough patch but still one of the world leaders in cybernetics, bioware, genetch and even the new field of nanotech.

He continued talking as he pointed out representatives in the crowd, one after the other. "Emerging Futures, from NeoNET; ADC, AIMR and Genecraft from Renraku; the two giving each other the evil eye are from Manadyne and Wuxing; and last but not least Cerebrotech AKA Ares Macrotechnology."

Janet looked impressed. "I didn't realize I'd been invited to a business meeting."

Shinji grinned. "It's not that bad but a lot of informal wheeling and dealing goes on. It's a bit of a détente where everyone can relax surrounded by completely neutral and heavily armed security forces."

"And they've got you holding the torch alone with all these heavies?" I asked incredulously.

"HA! Lord, no. No, tonight I'm Ms. Shinibata's personal assistant," he said, pointing out a striking elven woman. Her long hair was braided and held up in an elaborate circular weave. She was also wearing a red and white formal kimono patterned with orchids, reminiscent of the Miko from the Shinto shrine. Standing next to her was a little girl wearing a matching outfit that I guessed was her daughter from their similar features and pointed ears. Behind them stood a Japanese man who was shorter than Ms. Shinibata but held himself with the quiet confidence and unobtrusiveness of a professional bodyguard.

"Part Korean?" I asked, noting her height and slenderness, she was tall even for a Japanese elf.

"Chinese, Korean and Japanese," Shinji answered.

"So she's talented," I surmised.

"Great White Shark," Shinji said, clicking his teeth together.

Janet tightened her grip on my elbow meaningfully.

"Well, nice gossiping with you, Shinji," I said with a smile as I extracted us from the conversation, "maybe we'll be able to talk more during the game."

"I'll catch you around, I'm sure, nice meeting you Janet," Shinji called after us, waving forlornly as he was forced to get back to work.

"What was all that about her ancestry?" Janet asked incredulously.

I sighed. "The world is changing fast. Most of the executives at the home office would describe that fact as unfortunate."

She raised one eyebrow at me. "Seriously? This is the 60's..."

"I know, I know but you don't erase racial tensions that have lasted thousands of years in a few decades. It's much less of a thing here in Australia, thanks to the Shiawase policy of autonomy for their subdivisions, but the attitudes still trickle down from the top. Hate to admit it but the Japanese are only just starting to accept elves, she's very lucky to have been born here."

She muttered something about stupidity and racism that I agreed with wholeheartedly. Back in the last century, Australian had prided themselves on their acceptance of other ethnicities, even if that acceptance was occasionally tarnished. After the Awakening, that same attitude had transferred to metahumans and sapients of every variety. As long as you were willing to join Australian culture, we would welcome you with open arms.

We watched the lit-up Brawl Zone get bigger and bigger in the middle of the South Sydney Barrens as the blimp approached. The cloud of camera drones that hung in the air made the zone appear to glitter in the night, surrounded by darkened, crumbling, blocks that only housed the SINless and the desperate. After the Awakening, the city had been forced to abandon large portions of the city, leaving a strip of 'no man's land' between the city and the mana storm that stretched from the south coast and curved all the way up to the area where Sydney was boxed in by the Blue Mountains to the west. The bleak landscape of the barrens was dotted here and there with corporate facilities and military outposts but for the most part, the residents were on their own.

Curious, I selected the AR feed for the Ronin's home base, a prefab compound surrounded by heavily armed mercenaries. The team members were all still in the locker room awaiting the big start but the garage held some interest as the mechanics and armourers busied themselves getting the gear ready. Focusing on the Outrunner's bike, a heavily modified Suzuki that barely resembled anything in their main product line, I spotted an unfamiliar face. Focusing on her, I brought up her company profile.

Hamada Ayano, a moderately pretty Japanese woman in her early 20's, was a graduate of UNSW currently working on a doctorate in engineering. Apparently something of a child prodigy, I had to wonder how much of her beauty was natural and how much came from a surgeon's knife. With her hair kept out of her face with various clips and filling out her overalls the way she did, she was the model of a geek goddess as she lay on the ground tuning the engine block.

"Something catch your eye?" Janet asked, noticing what I was looking at.

"Just amazed, they've replaced Takaga already," I mumbled grimly.

She grimaced. "Oh, right, the guy that was killed, sorry. Wow, the Ronin lucked out; there aren't too many mechanics worthy enough to work on a high spec rig like that."

I was impressed. "You know your bikes?"

"Much to my mother's despair," she laughed. "Combat Biker's my sport of choice. Got a taste for it after I enlisted."

That made me raise my eyebrows. "ANZAC?"

"SY-MG," she replied, using the acronym for the Sydney Metropolitan Guard, "they put me through medical school. I was a field medic, had my own bike and everything. After I finished my four year tour, my qualifications got me a job with DocWagon."

"As a nurse? Surprised you're not a paramedic or a doctor..."

"We're rotated in and out," she grumbled. "It's a high risk, high pay, job. Very stressful, a lot of work goes into maintaining an employee's mental health and combat rediness."

"But you still do it for the thrill," I observed with a smirk.

She frowned at me. "You think I'm that easy to read, smarty-pants?"

"I wouldn't presume," I protested with mock-honesty that earned me an amused 'I've got you right where I want you' smirk.

Everyone started to settle down as the build-up to the start of the brawl began in earnest as the colour commentators were piped through our personal AR streams. Janet and I took our seats and ordered some drinks through the AR interface. I had to smile when she literally squealed with excitement. It took a moment for us to configure our AR settings the way we wanted them, though I kept changes minimal by filtering out the loud speaker's noise and transferring the commentary to a low whisper through my headset.

>>>>> [Welcome, welcome, welcome to URBAN BRAWL™, I'm Hank Ringo...]<<<<<
- Hank

>>>>> [... and I'm Asim Mizar...]<<<<<
- Asim

>>>>> [...and the Australian National Urban Brawl League is proud to present for your viewing pleasure game 12 of the season, Shiawase Ronin vs. The Redfern Sharks.]<<<<<
- Hank

>>>>> [That's right, Hank. Now, I don't know about you but I think all of us know the Ronin's reputation on the circuit as fearless contenders for the international league but I don't think I'm familiar with the Shark's rep.]<<<<<
- Asim

>>>>> [I'm not surprised, mate. The Sharks are newcomers to the national league with only three matches under their belts in this division. I'm told, however, that their reputation on the streets of Sydney is something else again having remained undefeated on the intercity circuit for their last thirteen games!]<<<<<
- Hank

>>>>> [Well, they better be bringing their A game tonight, Hank, the international league is a whole new level to what they may have experienced in the minors.]<<<<<
- Asim

>>>>> [Too right. But I've got to tell you that I'm liking these challengers. They might not have the Ronin's deep pockets but their line-up includes six trolls and seven orks and to be honest with you I can't wait to see these mighty gladiators pit raw meat and metahuman moxy against the chrome kings.]<<<<<
- Hank

>>>>> [You know me, I'll always put my faith good 'ol reliable chrome over fallible flesh any day, particularly after the Ronin's crushing defeat of Lofwyr's Lions last Saturday... and I think I see the representatives from Seader-Krupp squirming in their seats! HA-HA! Just kidding, Lofwyr, please don't hurt me.]<<<<<
- Asim

>>>>> [Speaking of tempting fate, if you'll direct your attention to camera 639, it seems one of the locals is trying to sneak past the outer perimeter to get into the Brawl Zone. I gotta say, Asim, not a smart move.]<<<<<
- Hank

>>>>> [Not at all, Hank, our boys on the ground aren't the types to laugh off these little jokes. Hopefully, however, they'll be able to subdue the offender with non-lethal for... OH! OH! OH THE METAHUMANITY! Was that really necessary?!? I can't believe the Australian Urban Brawl National League would condone such... such... wait, is that his spleen? Can we see that again in slow motion?]<<<<<
- Asim

Looking away from the slow motion replay of the man exploding from the waist up after being hit by an assault cannon round (while the colour commentators argued over exactly what the aerial organ in question was), I discretely scanned the Shiawase contingent. Shinibata was talking to the representative from Wuxing casually across the isle between their seats, though they were keeping their voices low. Shinji was in the seat directly behind her, his eyes downcast but ready to supply his mistress with anything she might require.

After a moment or two, I realized that Shinibata's daughter was staring right back at me, her large vividly green eyes unblinking. For a fleeting moment, she reminded me of a doll more than a little girl, her face an emotionless mask as she simply watched me. As far as I could tell, she wasn't even analysing or judging me in any way, she simply stared back at me.

"Look up," a familiar feminine voice said, coming from nowhere and seemingly only audible to me.

Doing as instructed, my gaze fell on two more men several rows behind Shinibata. One was unfamiliar but striking in a bad way. He was Japanese and definitely from the Empire by the way he held himself, sitting stiffly as he stared straight ahead. I placed him in his 50's and never a handsome man, though a scar that ran from his cheekbone down past his mouth on the right side wasn't doing him any favours. He also had a finger missing from his left hand that hadn't been replaced with cyberwear. Sitting next to him was an all too familiar face that made me turn back around before he saw me looking.

Mr. Johnson was trying to hide his nervousness in the moment that I glimpsed him. Luckily he'd been talking to the man next to him, facing partly away from me, or he might have noticed me. 'Sweating bullets' was an apt description for his posture and expression; it warmed my heart to know that I wasn't the only person being leaned on. Thought I had to wonder if he, and myself by proxy, were now working for Shiawase or the Yakuza.

Switching my AR view to the room's seating plan, the system cheerfully informed me that Mr. Johnson was in fact 'Haijime Saito', a 'marketing consultant' for Shiawase Mediatech. His companion was Yotomori Toto, head of the Agricultural department of Saiki Corporation's Sydney branch. He might as well have listed 'Shategashira' (the title of a regional Yakuza lieutenant) on his business card. The Saiki-rengo was naturally on Shiawase's radar as one of the major organized crime syndicates in Australia and maybe the only real competition nationally with the Triads.

Turning back to my AR screen, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. My instincts said that I'd stumbled into something far more dangerous than a simple extraction gone bad and my logical mind agreed. It didn't take an expert to put Mr. Johnson, the Yakuza, Takaga and Urban Brawl together and come up with match fixing. Problem was, if Mr. Johnson was in bed with the Yakuza, why did he need me to investigate Takaga's death? All together it made me wish I hadn't had to hand my Predator over to security.

The game started with great fanfare as both teams came running out of the gate to take the best fire positions early. I barely noticed, caught up in my thoughts and formulating ill-conceived theories. Despite that, I put on a good show of enjoying myself for Janet's sake and occupied her by asking questions about the game. My date more than enjoyed herself which made up for my lack of attention but my efforts at coming up with any logical scenario that fit the facts at my disposal were fruitless.

Two hours into the action, my bladder decided it had had enough and forced me to make my excuses as I got out of the chair. Careful to keep my face hidden from Mr. Johnson, I moved up the aisle and followed the signs to the men's toilet and found myself pleasantly alone in peace and quiet with my thoughts as I sought relief. Stepping out again, my newfound serenity was shattered when I found little Ms. Shinibata standing before me, staring up at me with an utterly blank expression on her face. For several long seconds, I didn't know what to do or say, so we stared at each other. The hallway was strangely empty, the sound of cheers somehow distant despite the source only being a few meters and a corner away.

Kneeling, I put on a friendly smile. Despite only being around twelve, I was struck by the perfect symmetry of her features. There was no doubt in my mind that this girl was going to break hearts in a few years. "Hey, little girl, are you lost?" I asked, feeling like a cross between a lame old man and a dirty one.

Holding out her hand, she opened it to show me several small objects. The first was an origami crane, expertly folded out of what looks to be some sort of corporate document. The second was a sealed plastic clip-lock bag containing a lock of black hair. Last of all was what looked to be a gold ring etched with strange symbols that I didn't recognize. "I can give you what you want," she said seriously, her tone of voice unlike any little girl I'd ever met before. "Take the ring as a token of sincerity. Find Cook, he will know what to do."

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," I said, blinking in confusion.

"Take it!" she snapped, her mouth sneering in a very adult manner while a hint of desperation crept into her eyes. "We can help each other. If you get me home, I can give you what you want..."

"Ok," I said in a soft, soothing, voice, taking the objects from her small hand and putting them in my pocket. "I'll help but can't your mother help you get home?"

The emotion she'd shown faded from her face and she just stared at me blankly again, like she didn't understand what I was asking. A moment later, the Shinibata's bodyguard came around the corner, moving with intense purpose. "Ms. Shinibata," he said sternly, "please come with me, your mother is very worried."

Rising to my feet, I couldn't see the bodyguard's eyes thanks to his opaque glasses but I could feel his gaze on me as the little girl turned and walked past him. "I just asked if she was lost," I lied, feeling like I should say something. After a moment or two, the bodyguard simply turned and walked back the way he came.

Returning to my seat with more questions than answers, I had to resist the temptation to examine the objects burning a hole in my pocket. Instead, I focused on paying attention to Janet and blending into the crowd as much as possible.

It happened in the second last quarter of the game. The left half of the Brawl Zone was dominated by a wide six-lane road filled with abandoned cars and debris that was, none the less, the clearest pathway between goal zones. The Ronin's Outrider was barrelling up the laneway at insane speeds, weaving over, under and through the obstacles thanks to the cybernetically enhanced skills of the rigger driving it. The Heavy was riding along, laying down suppressing fire as they blazed a path for the ball carrier.

A moment later, the bike exploded. The crowd was on its feet, some cheering while others gasped in dismay as the burning bodies of the two Ronin rolled across the tarmac. Glancing over my shoulder, I found the reactions of the key players quite telling. Mr. Johnson stared, shocked to his core. His companion's expression had darkened, his frown alone promising that someone would pay for whatever slight had offended him in that moment. By contrast, Ms. Shinibata had a viciously victorious smile on her face while her Wuxing counterpart looked very pleased with himself as he typed something into an invisible (to everyone but him) AR keyboard. Little Ms. Shinibata was still staring at me, which was even more unnerving than the first time.

Janet was shocked, so I held her hand reassuringly while switching my AR view to the pits where the support team was staring at their monitors in despair. A time out was called so that the paramedics could retrieve the bodies. Scanning the faces of the support staff, it didn't take me long to realize that Hamada Ayano was missing. Then when I attempted to call up her profile, I received nothing but a 'no such user exists' message.

The rest of the match was a foregone conclusion as the Sharks stomped the Ronin into the dirt. Without fire support or the Outrider's mobility, the Ronin were forced into defensive positions where the Sharks could flank them with impunity. In the end, it didn't even come down to scoring goals, the Sharks disabled the entire Ronin team and the match of forfeit. Previous damage to the bike that hadn't been properly fixed by the pit crew was blamed and that was that, the blimp turned around to wander back to the airfield while the post-game analysis dissected every play.

We were both smiling when I pulled the Westwind up to the curb outside Janet's apartment. For a few seconds we sat in silence as Janet seemed to consider something. I considered saying something too but I was afraid to come across as pushy.

"She wants to invite you in," a feminine voice whispered in my ear, "but she's afraid. Overcome her fear as I've shown you."

A million arguments against what I was doing formed in my head as I shaped the spell. I was too old, she was too young, we were from different companies, she deserved someone better, I had no right... but all those reasons were overcome. Janet was the most wonderful woman I'd ever met and if wanting to be with her was wrong then I didn't want to be right. Leaning over the handbreak, I released the spell with a stroke of her cheek.

We kissed, passionately, the way you think only happens in the movies and bad romance novels. We didn't waste our time with words for the rest of the night.

linebreak shadow

>>>>> [Check the newsfeeds, kiddies, we've got our second hit on Shiawase in three days! Somethin' going on? Cook, you out there at all?]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>> [Who bombs an apartment block in this day and age? <tisk-tisk> Sloppy work.]<<<<<
- Executioner

>>>>> [So I checked the building's records. The apartment belonged to one Nathan McArthur, a researcher in Shiawase Finance. Anyone got a tip on why someone might want to take out a poor 'ol wageslave counting days to retirement?]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [I've done business with him before. He runs a grey market exchange that specializes in converting Shiawase Scrip into Nuyen; useful guy to know if your street doc doesn't have a line on cutting edge Shiawase 'ware.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>> [Mr. McArthur, or should I say Dr. McArthur, isn't your average wageslave. I've sold him some items in the past and naturally I got curious so I did some legwork. 42 years old, lifetime Shiawase corporate citizen, scored highly in his aptitude tests in high school and did his Bachelor of Accounting at UNSW. Moving from their into Shiawase Finance, he worked for 10 years before attending UNSW again to get his doctorate in Computer Sciences. During his second stint at UNSW he met the infamous Chester of Chester, Fielding and Luger. After completing his doctorate, Shiawase stuck him right back into a data research and management position in Shiawase Finance, possibly a point of contention between him and the company.

My insiders tell me that he's one of their best legal snoops, his analysis is highly prized by upper level management, so much so that he'll never rise through the ranks. There are police records of him being involved in some heated domestic disputes with his family a few years ago, after which his family was moved to Neo-Tokyo. It was only after that that he got involved with the grey market.

One thing I will say about him from personal experience, he knows his 'links.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>> [Dawww, so nice to see a wageslave flower into a beautiful hacker. I think I'm gonna cry.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [Woah, Chester? Chester the freekin' dragon lawyer Chester?!?]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>> [Yes, it seems that even dragons need a degree to practice law, laughable as that sounds. Dr. McArthur doesn't just know him, however, they're business partners.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>> [Holeeee Drek. Well, he's certainly got more balls than brains, wonder how deep in dragon drek he's landed himself.]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>> [It 'aint dragons out for his blood, chummer. Someone just put the word out there's ten large on McArthur's head.]<<<<<
- Executioner

>>>>> [Thinking of collecting?]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>> [Pffft, I don't feel like working for the Yakuza pro bono.]<<<<<
- Executioner

>>>>> [Wait, it's Yak money? The Yaks were on the warpath last night shaking down every bookie in town for info on who rigged the match with the Ronin last night. Now the Triads are beating their chests and making growling noises in their general direction.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>> [News just in from my inside man, McArthur got winged the day Kosko crashed the Shiawase cafeteria. He spent a day in a DocWagon clinic.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>> [The plot thickens.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [I can't see McArthur attempting to rig an Urban Brawl game. Everyone knows the syndicates control that action and McArthur's a smart man who knows the score.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>> [Thinking of proposing?]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [Ok, I'm back for a bit, what did I miss?]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Just another night in the shadows, chummer.]<<<<<
- Larikin