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No Time for Second Chances

By Dr. Bender

Chapter 4

Waking up with Janet clinging to me was the greatest feeling I'd ever experienced, even if the sheets did need a bit of a clean and we both needed showers quite badly. Unable to extricate myself from under her, I picked up my commlink and inserted an earplug in order to catch the morning news. What I saw made me wish I hadn't.

My apartment was a smoking wreck, fire department drones spraying flame retardant foam into the scorched hole in the side of the block. My heart rate kicked up a notch and I almost panicked when, for a moment, I considered the idea that someone might know I'd been at the brawl with Janet last night. But I'd paid uncertified nuyen for the tickets, which weren't under my name, so the only person who could make me for sure was Shinji. The thought wasn't comforting but I wasn't dead, which meant whoever bombed my apartment still didn't know I might be here.

"Wha...?" Janet mumbled, stirring in reaction to my sudden nervousness.

Leaning over, I kissed her forehead. "Something's come up," I whispered, "I have to go."

Her eyes fluttered open as she clung to me tighter, looking up at me with her doe-like eyes. "No, stay with me."

"I'm sorry," I said, and it broke my heart, "my apartment was bombed."

She blinked several times before suddenly sitting up. "Your what?!?"

I switched on her trideo and flicked over to the news before extricating myself and sliding out of bed. Putting my clothes on one by one as she watched, I was about to walk out the door when she ran over and slammed her palm into the doorframe, barring my way. "No you tell me what the Frag this is about!" she demanded.

"I can't, it's better if you don't know anything," I admitted, shaking my head.

"Better for me or you?"

"Better for you!" I exclaimed, trying not to raise my voice. "Janet, the longer I stay here the more... the more I'm putting you in danger. If I thought this was going to happen, I wouldn't have invited you last night."

"Just tell me what the frag is going on!"

"I can't!"

We stood in stony silence for a moment as we glared at each other. Finally, she removed her hand and let me past. Pausing at the door, I looked over my shoulder at her back. "I'm sorry."

"Frag you," she snapped.

I felt like drek walking out to the car, telling myself I was doing the right thing over and over. Next thing I knew, I was parking the Westwind inside my safehouse, having driven over on autopilot as my brain tried to sort out the facts into a cohesive picture. The only thing I managed to ascertain, however, was that I still didn't have key pieces of the puzzle, and I wasn't going to get those without a new 'link.

Fortunately, the box in the trunk of my Westwind would take care of that. The pieces weren't hard to put together in the workshop, most of it was standard plug and play anyway. While the OS booted and my Agent loaded up my programs for me, I went and took a shower so that I was fresh and ready to go by the time the process was complete an hour later.

The Fairlight Masamune was to commlinks in '65 what the Firlight Excalibur had been to decks. Despite being a top of the line rig, I'd still decked it out with serious upgrades including a hot sim modified datajack connection. The OS I'd loaded was my own heavily modified version of a Mitsuhama product, enabling me to upgrade the response of the 'link as well as onboard hardening to protect it from programs that might burn the chips. Foresight had also provided the programs that I'd asked for, mostly cutting edge attack, mask and other hacker progs I didn't have time to come up with myself. I also used my own Data Search program, which was better than anything I knew currently on the market.

All of which was overkill for a dive into Shiawase's systems. Before I did that, however, I linked into my safehouse's security systems as a precaution and to keep an eye on my meatbod. I didn't use my own passcodes to access the Shiawase system but I knew enough about everyone else in the office to use all of theirs. So it was that, as far as the Shiawase systems were concerned, Ms. Nakatomi 'Horrible' Hoshi had logged on to do a spot of work after hours.

Masquerading as a manager got me deeper into the system than I was usually allowed. Accessing personnel records was not long a breeze, I discovered that the managers could see more information, including bathroom breaks and stationary useage. My first search for Hamada Ayano, however, turned up nothing. Not even a file on record. Outside searches for her enrolment into UNSW turned up nothing either, she was a ghost, never having existed except for that one night in the pits of the Shiawase Ronin.

My own personnel file came with a warning that I was supposed to be apprehended on sight. I chalked that up to the influence of Mr. Johnson and moved on to his personnel file. Haijime Saito was, apparently, nothing but a mild mannered middle manager for Shiawase Mediatech. Considering that his file was quite a bit larger than the short description I was seeing warranted, I discretely downloaded a copy to my 'link for cracking later. I did the same for Ms. Hitomi Shinibata, whose file was several megapulses too large. Her daughter, however, turned out to be another ghost. There wasn't even a birth record in Shiawase Meditech's system.

Leaving a back door for myself in the Shiawase system, I pulled out to start the decryption process on the files as well as a data search for Yotomori Toto, the probable Yakuza connection. With those progs running, I hacked into Chester's commlink and placed a call.

He picked up after the first ring. "Nathan, is that you?"

"You've seen the news?" I asked without identifying myself. I knew Chester would catch on.

"Yes, most dramatic. What did you stumble into?"

"I think someone's playing a game with the Yakuza but I don't know who or what. Look, I'm blown no matter how this pans out. Do you want to buy out my stake in HFS?"

There was a long pause before the answer came. "No."

"Do you want to make me an embezzler?"

"I don't think you can afford to make more enemies right now. I've heard there's a ten thousand nuyen price on your head, which is enough to make every street rat keep one eye out for your face. I'm sorry, my friend, but it wouldn't be smart for me to buy out a dead man."

There's a saying on the streets 'never deal with a dragon'. Now, I'm not about to sell dragons short, they're insanely intelligent and immortal by all accounts. But in reality, they backstab just like any other exec. I wasn't expecting any less. "Just tell me straight up, Chester, are you gunning for me too?"

He snorted. "Ten grand wouldn't pay my rent and you're more valuable to me alive if you can manage it. For the sake of our friendship, you have nothing to fear from me."

Well, it was something. "Thank you," I said before closing the call.

Yotomori Toto had his name mentioned in some surprising corners of the Matrix. Screamsheet articles were expected but fundraising dinners for the Sydney Council and visits with school children and orphans seemed out of character until I remembered he was technically a high level executive of the Saiki Corporation. Even the most bold journalists fell short of naming him the Shategashira of the Sydney gumi (a branch of a Yakuza 'rengo'). He was the sort of person Knight Errant would dream of pinching while knowing that it was impossible.

A bleep informed me that Saito's file was finished processing, so I switched over. For a member of MFID, Saito's resume wasn't spectacular. The son of a Shiawase executive in Neo-Tokyo, exiled to Australia after bringing shame to his family by dating a metahuman of undisclosed species. His records read like a man desperate to prove something which fit with the character of the man I knew as well as his connection to the Yakuza. Vaguely, I wondered if Haijime Saito was now passing through a Megalodon's digestive tract. The thought was comforting.

Looking through his previous assignments with the MFID, I found a connection to Takaga. Four years ago in his first job with Shiawase Australasia, Saito had been assigned protection duty to the Shiawase Ronin. Mentally connecting the dots, I could see the makings of a small sabotage and match-fixing ring. Saito was the middle man, giving Takaga his marching orders while taking all the risk on behalf of his Yakuza handlers.

"But if Takaga's dead, they would have gotten someone else to sabotage the bike," I muttered to myself, "but that doesn't jibe with Saito's shock... unless they didn't."

If the Yakuza hadn't been able to find a replacement for Takaga, someone else had. That would explain Saito's shock and Toto's anger; he'd just lost a fat credstick thinking that the fix wasn't on when it still was. My chances of seeing Saito again were dropping rapidly, which was the first good news I'd had all day. But then, who the hell else would fix the match?

Leaving that question aside, I opened Ms. Shinibata's file only to be disappointed. Her work history contained a lot of references, codenames and hyperlinks that referenced would lead to other parts of the Shiawase systems. I was guessing those parts would be locked behind glaciers of IC, so I moved diving back into Shiawase's systems down my priority list to a last resort. I did manage to glean two facts: she was listed as having a daughter named Kumiko Shinibata and her current project was listed simply as 'Hakutou', the Japanese word for the White Peach.

Finding data on Kumiko was a pain, I had to discard automatic searches using my Agent and browse the 'trix personally. Even then, I only came up with two unhelpful references. The first was that there was a 'Shinibata Kumiko' listed with the names of dead Shiawase citizens in the shrine at Shiawase Tower. Secondly was a story in a local newspaper about a little girl who had simply dropped dead in the middle of magical fundamentals class in a Shiawase sponsored primary school. Staring out from the article at me, smiling like an angel in her Miko robes, was Shinibata Kumiko, age 11 when she died in 2063.

I was still staring at her when my vision started to fragment and static assaulted my ears. Quickly bringing up my security system, I swore as the picture to all my outside cameras suddenly went dark all at once. Flicking the security system onto automatic, I logged out of full simsense, ran an ECCM program to clean up my signal, took cover under my desk and drew my Predator III out of its holster, the smartlink connecting immediately to my HUD. The screech of tires from both the front and back door let me know exactly how much trouble I was in, even though I was blind to what was going on outside.

My two turreted drones armed with box-fed SMGs emerged from their housings attached to the ceiling and swivelled to face the two doors at either end of the warehouse. I'd placed my desk in the middle of the warehouse floor deliberately. On one side of the steel desk was my workshop and a single door to the back alleyway outside. The other side faced the street and had the garage door as well as a single door to the outside. My Westwind was parked directly in front of the door, giving me some cover from that angle. On my right as I faced the garage door was the stairs up to the apartment above. To the left were the palettes of miscellaneous product along with a loading drone that could move items onto a delivery truck. Taking control of the loading drone, I manoeuvred it through my workshop, raising the forklift up to chest height and pointing it at the back door. After that there wasn't much to do but sit and wait in dead silence and pray.

The sound of breaking glass heralded their first move as metal canisters bounced across the floor, spewing smoke into the air. I flicked through thermographic imaging on the drone's sensors into ultrasound but even that sensor was being blocked by white noise pitched too high for the human ear to detect. The only comforting thought I had was that they couldn't see me as much as I couldn't see them.

Unfortunately, my indecision cost me that advantage. Moments after the chaff grenades were in, the doors on both sides were ripped off their hinges by twin explosions. I didn't bother aiming, I just set the SMG pointing at the garage door to saturate area with autofire while the other made short burst through the back door. Kicking the loading drone into gear, it surged forward. I heard a scream and a sickening squealch right before it slammed into the doorframe and stuck there.

Return fire was light, gouging divots in the paint of the Westwind as the enemy fired blind from cover. I wanted to return fire but didn't want to give away my position, so I kept my head down and relied on the view from the drones as much as possible. In the view from the Loading drone, I could see a Japanese man in a tactical flak jacket and insect-like goggles wielding a Franchi SPAS-22 combat shotgun futilely trying to force the drone out of the doorway. He took a couple of shots at it but barely dented the chassis, proving that they build loading drones to last. Several loud 'thoonk' noises from the garage door area preceded a series of explosions that blew the defence drones into burning shrapnel, making me glad I was still hiding under my desk. Then some smart fragger threw a stun grenade through the door that put a dent in the hood of the Westwind before rolling to a halt next to my leg.

I kicked it away by pure reflex which was lucky but the bad angle meant it only slid a meter or two away before going off. The concussion hit me like a truck, the noise deafening me and the heat of the flash giving me a prickly sunburn-like feeling down my right side. Next thing I knew, my Predator was ripped out of my hand and I was on the floor, staring down the barrel of an Ares Alpha Combatgun with underslung grenade launcher, moments away from death.

She came through the skylight, dropping feet first through the glass trailing a rappelling line as she landed lightly on her feet right behind the Yakuza pointing his gun at me. The long blade in her right hand sliced cleanly through the man's throat so fast that I barely saw the blur as it passed through the air. The Ingram Smartgun in her other hand stuttered as she span in place, short bursts hitting the enemies closest to her with deadly precision.

One of the Yakuza still standing turned and fired his rifle at her on full auto over the hood of the Westwind. She didn't even flinch as the bullets flattened and bounced against her armour, though I was betting its effectiveness had been enhanced with magic. Her return fire was nearly contemptuous as she riddled him with bullets. While she was distracted, the last remaining Yakuza jumped out from his hiding place behind one of the palettes, screaming as he primed his underslung grenade launcher. Unfortunately for him, my Predator was lying on the floor still connected to my commlink and I could see his foot in full view of the smartlink. Triggering the gun remotely, I watched him topple as he foot disintegrated from the heavy pistol blast, the barrel of the grenade launcher dipping down at the floor moments before he pulled the trigger. There wasn't much left of him after that.

Only then did I get a chance to actually look at her. Her armour was composed of hardened plates painted in grey and blue urban camo pattern, definitely milspec, with a full face helmet that obviously included an AR enabled viewplate and rebreather. Her sword appeared to be a modern construction even though it was obviously enchanted, though I knew intellectually there wasn't any rule that said a modern sword couldn't be magical, it just didn't seem right somehow. Without a word, she hauled me up by my forearm like I weighed nothing, clinched me tight around the chest under my arms and triggered something on her belt. Motors whirred as we were yanked up into the air along the rope, through the skylight and into the cabin of a Hughes WK-2 Stallion helicopter.

"Wait, wait, wait," I protested, "my gun! My car!"

"Go back after them if you think they're worth taking a bullet!" she admonished as stepped over me and into the pilot's seat, her voice masked by a sound modulator.

"Ok," I said, hopping out of the chopper and running for the stairs down to my apartment.

"What the FRAG?!?" she shouted after me.

Jumping down the steps several at a time, I slammed into the wall at the bottom hard in my haste but ignored the pain as I burst into my bedroom. I didn't bother with anything other than the book, scooping it up and sprinting right back up the stairs. Diving back into the cabin, I yelled for her to go as I grabbed onto anything that came to hand for dear life. The helicopter lurched up into the air, the sound of bullets pelting the fuselage only worrying us for a moment before we were well out of range.

"You know, I thought about installing a self destruct device," I told her as I crawled into the passenger seat, "but I thought it would have been overly dramatic."

Not a second later, the building behind us exploded, sending a ball of fire rolling into the sky. The shockwave tossed the chopper around like a child's toy for a moment before we wobbled back on course. "That's ok, I brought my own," she snickered.

Staring wide eyed over my shoulder at the conflagration, I turned to her with the same expression on my face. "Who the frag are you anyway?"

Activating the chopper's autopilot, she reached up, unlocked the environmental seal of her armour and pulled the helmet over her head. Brown hair cascaded over her shoulders as Janet smiled at me. "Call me Cook," she said, leaning over to kiss me on the cheek.

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>>>>> [Well, sheee-it! The Knight is going ape out there! I just caught some comms chatter about a building going up on the North Shore, anyone scan?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Yeah, I saw the fireball clear across the river.]<<<<<
- Thornbird

>>>>> [It gets worse. I just saw an FRT VTOL streak past with the air traffic parting before it like Moses was onboard.]<<<<<
- AxE.om

>>>>> [From what I can hear, a couple of patrol cops responded to reports of gunfire, now they're in a running battle with a bunch of 'heavily armed Asian males'.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [You think that's bad, check this. Shiawase corpsec just raided a Bunraku parlour in Chatswood alongside a KE SWAT team. The drek has officially hit the fan between Shiawase and the Saiki-rengo.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>> [Lover's tiff.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [Looks like KE knows which side of its bread is buttered after all.]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>> [You crazy? KE is Ares, they don't owe Shiawase drek.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Not so fast, Shiawase is on the Sydney Corporate Advisory Board. They still have pull on KE every time that municipal policing contract comes around.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [So, Yaks frag with Shiawase, McArthur frags with Yaks, Yaks frag with McArthur and now Shiawase frags with Yaks... is McArthur a bigger noise than anyone guessed or what? WTF is going on here?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [If this is all even linked to McArthur. Everyone 'knows' that the Yaks rigged the Ronin's match last night and now Shiawase could be drawing links between the Yaks and the Takaga hit. Not that it matters if there is a clear connection, one thing both sides understand it's that retribution needs to be swift and merciless, guilt and innocence is secondary to the message of swiftly delivered punishment.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>> [So where does McArthur even fit in all that mess?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Um, guys, you might want to check the job listings over at OzShadow BBS. <drool>]<<<<<
- Executioner

>>>>> [Oh yeah; Merry Christmas.]<<<<<
- Larikin

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The Stallion landed on the back of a flatbed truck parked in an empty industrial area, guided in by one of Cook's rigger friends who was waiting for us when we hopped out of the chopper. He was an older dwarf with a close cropped beard that smoked a cheroot the size of a chair leg and wore army surplus fatigues complete with dog tags. "What the frag did you do to my bird?" he demanded the moment Cook's feet touched concrete, eyeing the dents and scratches in the armour from the hail of bullets.

"Mac, meet Stumpy," Cook introduced us. I barely managed to keep my expression neutral. "Morning," I greeted emotionlessly.

He looked up at me, squinting like he was looking straight through me. "Wow, not a peep, princess? Snow White here tell you I just got out of the mines with my six brothers or do you think I just ran away from the circus? Think my mom was cruel to name me Gimli?"

"Nice to meet you, sir," I responded, determined not to get dragged into his game, "I owe you and Cook here my life."

After taking a long drag on his cigar, he waved his left hand through the air, probably hitting some sort of AR control. The Stallion's rotorblades retracted and a shipping container folded itself around the chopper, expertly concealing it. "Spare it, mate, my only interest in your ass is the nuyen. Now fuck off, both of yer."

"Come on," Cook said, pulling me away insistently. "You pissed him off," she muttered."

"Catch 22," I sneered, "one way he plays me for human guilt, the other way I'm a racist."

"Yeah and you didn't let him have his fun."

"Frag him, then."

She pushed me into a Bulldog stepvan, one of the largest and toughest of the breed. Inside, I found myself staring at what amounted to a small arsenal. "Fight any wars lately?"

"In the middle of one right now," she growled, pulling the door shut behind her before flopping into the passenger seat and crossing her legs. "So, I'm guessing you have questions?"

Beyond feeling like an abused idiot, I threw my anger into the abyss along with my pride. "Probably not the ones you think. Who are you working for?"

She blinked at me for a moment or two before chuckling. "He called himself Mr. Johnson."

"Sure but you did background checks, pounded the pavement, put your ear to the ground..."

"And came up with nothing because I had nothing to go on," she explained. "The deal was organized through one of my fixers, nuyen was placed in an escrow account and my brief was laughably simple. Keep an eye on you and make sure you stay alive. As long as you live to see sunset tomorrow, I get paid. You want to know who hired me, try thinking up all the people who want to keep you alive. Should be a lot easier than counting the number of people who want you dead"

Sure, it was a list with one name on it: Chester. "And letting me seduce you was the best way to stay close to me," I concluded, feeling nothing. Really, it was my fault for letting my dick do my thinking for me.

She smirked. "Don't sell yourself short, you certainly know how to show a girl a good time. Maybe you can teach me that orgasm spell."

Shrugging, I set that line of questioning aside. "So your only stake in this is the money?"

The moment her lips pursed, I knew it wasn't. "I have a team..."

"Shadowrunners," I interrupted.

"Yes, shadowrunners. Actually I should say a few days ago, I had a team. Thursday morning, I woke up after a late night party to find out that the rest of my team had cut me out of a deal. I believe you met Kosko, tall, well built, chrome spikes..."

"We never got a chance to formally introduce ourselves," I retorted snidely.

"I wasn't that hurt, honestly, biz is biz. Of course, Wordworm bought it hacking the Shiawase Tower air defence grid and Kosko remains missing along with Ringer, our rigger. Maybe if I'd been in on it things might not have gone south. Still, my companion's lack of judgement aside, I hope you don't hold what happened against us."

"Biz is biz, like you said," I answered bitterly, "and it was a Shiawase bullet that nearly killed me. Do you have any idea who might have hired Kosko and the others to kill Takaga?"

"What makes you think he's really dead?" she asked, leaning forward in her chair. "You know, I've planned and executed dozens of corporate extraction jobs. My team was in on quite a few of them. In my experience, extractions come from an outside entity about fifty percent of the time, from the subject themselves a quarter of the time with the remainder generally leading to their current employer as a sort of confidence scam. Sometimes it's just plain old interdepartmental rivalry or 'aggressive headhunting'. What I've never seen, however, is any runner stupid enough to extract a man from the middle of a warzone, guns blazing."

"So your theory is that someone wanted everyone to think Takaga was dead for some reason?"

"Who else would be able to benefit from the sabotage of the Ronin's Outrider last night? There wasn't any time for anyone else to organize another fix."

"Then all that the Yaks have to do is trace the betting back to a big winner."

"Uh, yeah," she said, her face falling, "that's where my theory falls apart, there weren't any big winners. Seems like Takaga's death shattered confidence in the Ronin's ability to take the win."

I sighed, genuinely disappointed that someone else wasn't about to hand me the solution on a platter. "Ok, then I have a question for you. What connects you to Shinibata Kumiko?"

She blinked at me, looking for all the world like she didn't know who I was talking about for a moment. "Shinibata? Shinji's boss?"

"Close," I answered, reaching into my pocket, "I'm talking about her daughter."

Her brow furrowed. "None that I know of; never even knew she existed until last night."

"Well, she asked me to give you these," I said, pulling out the paper crane and the bag of hair and holding them out for her. "She was waiting for me outside the men's room."

Looking perplexed, she took the items from me and examined them. "Do we know if this is her hair?"

I shook my head. "What do you make of the crane?"

"Doesn't mean anything to me," she said, examining it every which way before unfolding it. "But it is a Shiawase document. Think you can tell if it's fake?"

"Easy," I said, taking it from her. One of gizmos I'd added to my commlink was an RFID scanner. Running it over the paper got me several beeps along with a readout of the info stored on the microscopic chips. "Ok, this paper definitely comes from Shiawase. You could get arrested walking through the door of a Shiawase affiliated building holding this thing. As for what it says, I don't have a fragging clue."

Holding it up for her to see, I showed Cook what looked like a thumaturgical formula; just a bunch of weird symbols, lines and scribbles without any context. "Looks to me like part of a ritual," she said with a shrug, "could be anything. I'd suggest showing it to an expert but we can't risk leaking paydata." Holding up the hair, she smiled. "But this is interesting. Lots of things can be done with a sympathetic link like this but something tells me your girl wants us to find whoever this lock of hair belongs to. I can do that. Question is, do we trust it?"

"Wouldn't it be easier to lock me in a safehouse somewhere until tomorrow night?"

She snorted. "Sorry, sweetcheeks, but it's only a matter of time for either the Yakuza or Shiawase to find us. People know my team was involved, so they'll be gunning for me too. I took this job because I need to get the heat off my back as much as you do. To do that, we'll need leverage, money and a ticket out of town."

"So, we follow up on the lead?"

"You got another one?"

I shook my head.

"Then I guess we don't have much choice." Rising gracefully to her feet, she wrapped her arms around my neck and leant forward, pinning me against a steel cabinet door. Stiffening like a board, I barely reacted to her, so she gave me a pout. "I'm sorry for lying to you," she apologized, "but that doesn't mean we can't still be friends."

The way she said friends left no doubt what she really meant. "Sure, but I have something to confess first."

"Oh, now you're keeping secrets from me?" she asked, cooing like she was talking to a puppy that was trying to impress her.

"I'm transgendered," I said bluntly.

She smirked, tapping me on the nose with her finger. "That's ok, sweetness, I'm bisexual."

Leaving me staring into space as my brain dealt with that bombshell, she jumped into the driver's seat and started the engine. A few minutes later, we were cruising through the city, heading south towards the tunnel. We emerged from under the river in the midst of the giant traffic jam that was the CBD. When I found myself in the World Square arcology for a second time in a week, I was expecting Cook to lead me to one of the dingy apartments on the lower levels. Instead, I found myself waiting outside one of the upper level suites wishing I'd combed my hair more thoroughly.

"Going to tell me why we're here?" I asked in a low voice.

"A friend of mine," she answered cryptically. We'd both changed in the back of the Bulldog before we'd come up. Now she was wearing a simple t-shirt and skinny jeans with an armoured leather jacket. Even in more practical casual clothes, she managed to look smart, which made me jealous. I thought she was going to say more when the door opened, interrupting her.

The man that opened the door, grinning broadly, had hair that was in a worse state than mine was, which made me feel more comfortable. He made up for it by wearing his boxers without pants and a bathrobe with no shirt, showing off his carpet of chest hair. He was also scrawny, hadn't shaved, obviously hadn't bathed yet today and wore fluffy pink bunny slippers on his feet. To top it off, he was carrying a multicoloured cocktail in his right hand and wore sunglasses despite the fact we were indoors.

"Cookie!" he greeted enthusiastically, giving her a fierce hug. She gave me a look over his shoulder that warned me not to ask.

"Good to see you, Glaive," she said without managing quite as much enthusiasm before extricating herself. Wrinkling her nose, she shook her head at him. "You really need to bathe more, you know."

"Bah! Haven't you heard? There's a water shortage; I'm just doing my bit for the great land of Oz. Well, hello, who's your friend."

My eyes narrowed at his tone but Cook found it amusing. "Glaive, meet Honeypot, my new decker. Honey, please be nice to Glaive here, he's an old chummer of mine."

I'd slotted enough 'day in the life' sims to know what it was like being a woman but Glaive's roaming eyes still made me want to punch him in the throat. After much soul-searching on the way in the car, I'd finally given in and shown Cook the ring Kumiko gave me. She identified it as a 'sustaining focus' and showed me how to bond to it. Now, I could cast my Human Form spell and keep it up indefinitely without having to worry about maintaining it myself.

The clothes were borrowed from Cook, so we had a similar build. I was about an inch or two taller and an A-cup to Cook's C so that my need for a bra was greatly reduced. I also think Cook was worried I wouldn't be able to handle having anything larger, or maybe she worried that I'd want to handle them too much. Becoming a light-skinned Caucasian blonde, I'd kept my hair fairly short so that I could go for the punk look with the application of some hair gel from Cook's bag of emergency fashion goodies. Even though I knew it was necessary for the look, uncombed hair still annoyed me; a fact that I blamed that on decades of corporate indoctrination.

For clothes, I was borrowing a tight, torn, sleeveless, quilted midriff shirt under an even more shredded fishnet shirt. The quilted shirt was black with a crimson anarchy symbol emblazoned on the front while the fishnet was a vibrant dark blue. Low-slung, pre-faded, brown synthleather biker pants tucked into low-heeled knee-high black boots showed off a significant portion of my midriff. The ripped green camo jacket I'd borrowed was obviously armoured but worked with the look and fell under the armour restriction laws. Since I wasn't carrying a gun, it was simply a non-issue to the law.

When Cook had gotten herself involved in dressing me up (possibly fulfilling some little girl doll fantasies), she'd started throwing accessories at me. My lack of tattoos didn't help make me look convincing, particularly on my bare arms, so she'd made me wear some velcro and spandex straps down my left arm with a non-lethal shock glove that could give an enemy an electric jolt with a punch or a touch. The right arm got some jewellery including a stainless steel band on my upper arm, a thick synthleather band around my wrist that matched my belt and some chains. Naturally, my ring went with all that on my right hand. Light blue lipstick, nail polish and dark eyeliner with some clip-on 'urban tribe' earrings completed the look.

The idea was that nobody in their right mind would ever equate me with Nathan McArthur. In that respect, I think we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The way Glaive leered at me, it was certainly working on him. When Cook called me Honeypot, I immediately wished she'd talked about codenames before she had a chance to extemporize. Keeping my expression neutral, if a little bored, I just let him look not wanting to cramp Cook's style.

"Well, come on in, ladies," he invited breathily, "there's always room for more in case-de-glaive."

Cook gave him a reprimand in the form of a light slap in the chest as she pushed past him into the apartment. I kept one eye on him as I sauntered past, not trusting him to keep his hands to himself. Once I'd gotten some distance, I turned my attention to the apartment and immediately wondered what I'd been doing with the last 42 years of my life. Glaive lived in opulence. The living room had a giant bay window that took up both floors of the two-story apartment, complete with a garden and a small swimming pool/spa arrangement. Several rooms led off from the main area along with stairs to the upper balcony. The polished wooden floorboards looked real, the rug underneath his coffee table was the skin of a griffin and the ancient stone tablets that decorated the walls looked genuine.

To top it all off, he had Nadja Daviar in his spa. Obviously not the real Nadja Daviar, head of the Draco Foundation and chosen heir to Dunkelzahn's legacy, but there were plenty of joygirls who made good money impersonating celebrities. "You didn't tell me this was a party, Mr. Glaive," Nadja scolded him imperiously without getting up. "My fee doubles for group work."

"Calm your skanky ass down," Glaive rebuffed, pointing the pink umbrella in his drink at her, "they're unexpected visitors."

"Glaive, I need to use your lodge," Cook said with a broad smile, reminding me of an alligator.

He laughed weakly, like she'd made a bad joke. "Nice one, Cookie. You know nobody uses my lodge. You girls like a drink? I got Tequila or New Coronas in the fridge..."

"Come on, be a sport chummer," Cook wheedled. "Come on, you can play with Honey while I'm busy."

My eyebrows could have raised the roof. Glaive looked between me and Cook, caught between a rock and a particular hard place that was tenting his boxers. Looking over at Nadja, who gave me a salacious wink, I decided not to protest.

Cook decided to play dirty, giving him a coy, promising, look as she straightened hi robe. "And I will owe you and extra special favour."

He gulped. "Keys are on the kitchen counter."

Thanking him, Cook grabbed the keys and headed into one of the adjoining rooms, leaving me alone with both the horny bastard and the prostitute giving me the eye. Glaive sauntered over to me like he thought he was Casanova, putting his drink down on the coffee table as he passed. "Say, Honey, why don't we jump in the pool so the three of us can get to know each other better."

Folding my arms over my chest, I looked over at Nadja. "Got your certificate?" I asked. In moments, I had her credentials in my e-mail. One of the great things about Australia is that legalized prostitution's been the norm for a hundred years or more. A requirement for being a working girl was a weekly check-up, with most girls only working with clients that could provide the same.

I was about to give Glaive the evil eye when he turned over the lapel of his bathrobe, showing off a gold broach pinned to it. "Resistance to Disease," he explained, "haven't taken it off since I was nine."

One benefit of knowing your way around a hacking program or two is falsifying documents. Thankfully, I had my own paperwork on hand (Shiawase company policy that had become an ingrained habit) so I just transposed a few details from Nadja's into mine and sent her that. She bought it. I might have felt guilty if I wasn't clean.

There's a reason Nadja Daviar's one of the most popular subjects for celebrity lookalike prostitutes. She's one of the few high-rolling women who could have made her fortune modelling instead of running a AA corp. If her lookalike was anything to go by, she was also one of the few women who looked just as good naked. Glaive sat on the seat a foot under water while I rode him with the spa's jet churning the water around us; still wearing his bathrobe trailed across the floor behind him where it wouldn't get wet with his arms resting on the lip of the pool. My arms rested on his shoulders or wrapped around his neck while Nadja pressed against my back, squeezing my breast as her fingers stroked down my stomach to manipulate my clitoris. Fortunately, Nadja had also provided Glaive with a double-walled 'real feel' watertight condom that added a little bit of length and girth to an otherwise disappointing member.

When I came it was like a thunderclap. My vision went white like I was staring into the sun. When my vision cleared, I was standing in the middle of a field, surrounded by white roses. The sun was pleasantly warm on my skin and the air caressed my body softly, like being wrapped in a blanket. When HER hands slid around me, what little doubt about what I was sensing left me. I moaned in pleasure as she whispered secrets to me in a tongue I somehow understood only on a subconscious level. For a moment, it felt like we merged and my spirit sang in religious ecstasy as I finally, truly, understood who SHE was and what I am.

When the vision passed, I found myself lying on a towel that had been laid out across the floor with my butt resting on the lip of the pool and Nadja's head between my thighs. Glaive was busy pounding her from behind, though he came off less like a jackhammer and more like a woodpecker. Again, Nadja more than made up for it. When I came, my juice shot into her face which set Glaive off like a rocket. After that, he sat back to rest and watch while the two of us had our own fun.

"Call me!" Nadja shouted after me as I left with Cook, re-dressed and feeling fresh.

"You didn't put the whammy on the poor girl, did you?" Cook asked with a knowing chuckle.

I shook my head. "I've slotted a lot of porn in my time. So, what did you get?"

"Not much, wherever she's being held is warded. But I know where."

She flicked me a file from her commlink that contained a map with the co-ordinates as we entered the elevator before pressing the button for our level in the garage. "That can't be right," I mumbled, thinking aloud, "nobody lives that close to the Blue Mountains."

"It's perfectly safe... if you're a hundred meters or so underground."

"A secret facility? I don't think I want to know why they keep a little girl locked up underground like that."

"Assuming it's Kimiko's hair, which I find likely. The Sixth World is full of some sick drek, believe me. Say, you seem... different. And I'm not talking about that cute post-coital glow you've got either."

Stepping a little closer to her, I smirked. "Maybe I'm finding that tits suit me."

She smiled up at me. "I think you might be right," she whispered before I cut her off with a kiss.

I knew she was playing me but that was ok. Now I was playing her back.

The afternoon was spent in hours of long, tedious, legwork. Cook called in every favour she could think of while I snuck as deeply into the Shiawase system as I dared. As the sun set, we stood on top of an apartment building, looking out over Blacktown Railway Station, a sprawling complex that combined the old and new between the commuters coming to and from work and the disused tracks that stretched to the west and northwest.

"My dad told me his parents used to take him on trips up to Katoomba to see the mountains," Cook said, using her binoculars to focus on the mana storms that hovered in the distance. "Told me back then he'd been bored out of his mind but now he wished he could take me there."

"Lota people were trapped up there when the storms hit," I murmured, remembering the 'survivors documentaries' that had been shown on the trideo when I was a kid. "Most of the people in Katoomba fled west, though, it was worse down in Wollongong and the towns up north. Tens of thousands of people, only one highway. If the storms didn't get you, chances are the wraiths did. Hornsby and Waterfall stations terminate the north and south lines respectively and officially Blacktown now terminates the western line; everything beyond here is nothing but barrens filled with SINless, ghouls and paracritters."

"Tell me something I don't know."

"As the city grew between the influx of refugees from the outlying towns and corporate interests looking for a foothold on the continent it became obvious that the city needed to grow, fast. Apartment blocks went up in record time despite mana storms and meganuyen was eventually thrown into the maglev rail system, all at the behest of the Japanacorps including Shiawase. They just didn't tell the public about the underground network they were building to try and reconnect the freight routes with the mainland."

Cook blinked. "But the point of setting up shop in Sydney was to force succession..."

"Eventually, yeah, but not back when they started; Australia became a cornucopia of magical phenomenon overnight and everyone wanted a piece of the pie. You know the sort of money they make for Australian Telesma on overseas markets, I'm sure. This was also right after the Megas forced through extraterritoriality, I can only suspect that the idea of shattering the Australian government and turning the whole nation into a corporate paradise crossed someone's mind at some point."

"But you're talking about miles and miles of tunnels."

"Which was why the project was eventually scrapped but instead of just abandoning the tunnels, they repurposed them to support underground research facilities. After all, where's a better place to study the mana storms from but..."

"Underground!" Cook exclaimed, smacking herself on the side of the head. "Of course, even Storm Wraiths can't tunnel through the fragging Earth!"

"So theoretically all we have to do is catch a train," I said with a shrug. "How hard can it be?"

Cook groaned. "Never, ever, say that again. Besides, it's not enough to get in there, we have to get out again with whatever leverage we can manage."

"Well, good thing one of us happens to be a drek-hot decker," I said, grinning broadly as I brought up a hologram of the rail network. "Shiawase doesn't protect its supply lines quite as well as it does its paydata, unfortunately. Well, fortunately, I guess now. All I have to do is spoof a shipment of telesma to our facility, we sneak into one of the crates with some oxygen and supplies and wait out the two hour journey. We do what needs to be done, get in another outbound crate and get shipped back out with no-one the wiser."

"You can guarantee we won't get packed in some storeroom with no way out?"

"Yes. And if something goes wrong and the crate we're in is misplaced, Shiawase uses drones for grunt work like that. I can hack the system and get the drones to dig us out."

"Better idea than digging our way through with an industrial drill or earth elemental, I guess," she shrugged.

"Wouldn't work, they'll have seismographs looking for that sort of thing. Walking down the tunnel isn't an option either; even if you could travel that fast, sensors would detect your passage and you'd run right into the big guys with guns."

"Where the frag did you learn to plan a 'run?" she asked, incredulous.

"I'm an analyst. What do you think Shiawase gets me to analyse? Sure, there are stock reports and a bunch of other drek but the fun stuff is what they call 'emergency planning and situation management' or sometimes 'product repositioning'. What is the effect or potential effect of rapid changes in the marketplace?"

"So you're telling me that when a runner gets a job from a Shiawase Johnson, somewhere down the line it's because of you?"

"Way, way, WAY down the line, and not necessarily me but likely someone like me. Executives spend ninety percent of their time on the politics, they don't have time to keep tabs on everything that goes on. The MFID is busy protecting assets from people like you... er, us I mean, so someone has to do the grunt work that an Agent can't do. That's what wageslaves are for."

Cook nodded sagely as she stared at the holographic map of the railway. "So, what will we find when we get down there?"

I sighed, "Not a bloomin' clue."

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>>>>> [Well, chummers and chuminskis, let us have a moment of silence for poor McArthur-san, shot dead at the age of 42.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>> [Damn, I was starting to root for that guy.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [FRAG! I owe Original 50¥.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>> [KE found his body in an apartment block in Hurstville, decapitated execution style. Dental and DNA records confirm it's him.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>> [Bugger. Looks like the Yaks finally got 'im.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Buddy of mine in Chinatown says he saw some Shiawase suits lunching with Toto at the Fong Gai Yuk Restaurant. Guess they kissed and made up.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>> [That was quick. Maybe Mac was behind the Takaga sabotage scam after all. Wouldn't be the first time a wageslave bit the hand that fed him.]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>> [You'd know all about that, wouldn't you?]<<<<<
- AxE.om

>>>>> [Mac wouldn't be the first sacrificial lamb used to smooth over a wrinkle, he won't be the last. Still, I wonder how his friend Chester is taking the news.]<<<<<
- Thornbird

>>>>> [Darn skippy, considering he just got handed Heterodyne Financial Solutions on a silver platter. What, you think a Dragon's going to get caught up in sentiment against the second biggest crime syndicate in Oz and one of the biggest Megas in the world? Please.]<<<<<
- The Accountant

>>>>> [Hey, I'm a lizard and even I think that's cold.]<<<<<
- Ophidion

>>>>> [Has ANYONE heard from Cook's and company? I'm getting worried Mac's not going to be the last to catch the fallout on this.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [Even if someone had heard from Cook, Wordworm, Kosko or Ringer, they wouldn't say drek on a public board. Not even Netranger, no offence Ned.]<<<<<
- Stumpy

>>>>> [None taken. While we're mourning the dead, you might want to pause for a moment of silence for Asymetrix. He was taken off life support at 18:00. Anyone itching for payback should contact either Magelight or Original on these boards.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Bring your A game, chummers, this one's gonna get wet.]<<<<<
- Magelight