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No Time for Second Chances

By Dr. Bender

Chapter 5

"You know, I just realized something," I whispered through the sub-vocal microphone as we waited together in the dark.

"What?" Cook asked in the same hushed tone.

"I've hardly eaten since I got out of hospital."

"So? Too late to be hungry now."

"That's just it, I'm not hungry; at all. I should be fraggin' starving by now."

She sighed impatiently. "We can work it out later. Time."

Conveniently, everyone knows that sometimes people and things get locked in shipping containers that shouldn't. To avoid lawsuits, corps had measures in place so that anyone trapped inside a shipping container could open it from the inside. Assuming there wasn't stuff piled in front of the door or some other impediment. We got lucky, I didn't even have to hack my way into the system, we just pressed the button and stepped out into the loading area of a secret underground research station that could have been the set for a simsense flick. Closing the crate back up, no-one would know that we were ever there.

We'd debated for hours on disguises. In the end, we'd agreed on computer maintenance techs, the sort of people nobody in Shiawase really looks hard at. The uniforms came from one of Cook's contacts in the shadow community through another alias of hers. Some thoughtful 'runner had even reinforced the clothes with armour in case things went south and we were wearing form fitting body armour underneath it just in case. Gloves concealed my ring, which was maintaining a Human Form spell that made me look like an older Japanese man while Cook used her natural form. One look at us and most Shiawase employees would assume there was a Simpai/Kohai (mentor/student) relationship between us and automatically talk to me; which was good, since I was the one who knew Shiawase etiquette and could speak Japanese if the occasion called for it.

The storage bay was an enormous, dull, concrete room filled with a maze of shipping crates. Steel beams reinforced the ceiling and there were several overhead walkways painted bright orange around the walls. Following one led us to the lone wageslave who watched the drones carry out all the work, a bored soul who obviously didn't get much exercise. While I distracted him pretending to look for a work order, Cook gave him a shot from her Narcojet pistol, putting him to sleep. It took both of us to ease him back into his chair before I got to work, jacking into the system.

Good IC is expensive unless you happen to be a company that builds IC as a core business, like Mitsuhama. Shiawase Australasia gets around the problem by strategically placing 'firewall nodes' between parts of their sensitive systems, making it very hard to crack in from outside but easier if you're on the inside already. In a trice, I had ID cards coded for us along with a vague map of the facility.

"Christ, this place is huge," Cook hissed under her breath.

"Those look like protein vats," I pointed out, "right near these labs here. Bioware R&D? Cloning? All of the above?"

"Thaumaturgy labs over the other side," Cook observed, "let's see if porky's commlink can tell us anything about what's being shipped where."

It was a good idea, wish I'd thought of it. 'Porky's' commlink had a record of expected shipments, deliveries and destinations. One entry stood out to me. "Know any good reason for a wizard to want a Catty Kleiner doll?" I asked.

"Bingo," she agreed, grinning at me.

"Yeah, unfortunately it was delivered there," I pointed to a room above us at the opposite end of the facility. "That's the high security wing. I can spoof a work order to get us in there but I don't see us walking around with a little girl without someone taking notice."

"We're not here for the girl, we need paydata," Cook replied grimly. "Spoof the work order, we can take this maintenance tunnel here most of the way. Come on."

The maintenance tunnels were dark and hot. Several hovering security drones scanned our IDs as we walked by but thankfully they held up under scrutiny. The facility was fairly austere, keeping with the concrete and stainless steel theme for the most part with thick bulkheads for doors at regular intervals. After climbing a latter to the upper floors, we finally emerged into an area that actually looked fit for human habitation. AR 'windows' showed picturesque countryside scenes at regular intervals in the corridor as various staff members in lab coats passed us by without a second glance. Security only gathered at checkpoints between areas, their armoured bulk and non-lethal weaponry providing the illusion of safety. Even the guards didn't accost us, content to allow the security system to interrogate IDs and let us walk on by.

That stopped when we reached the maximum security checkpoint. Luckily, Cook had stashed her Narcojet pistol in her toolbox, which was filled with so much metal and plastic junk that its silhouette was indistinguishable when we passed through the x-ray scanner. After that we had to pause to let one of the guards scan us for cyberware but thankfully all we had between us was my datajack. Another guard gave Cook's toolbox a token search, which was a tense moment until I was sure he wasn't about to dig deeper and find the Narcojet. Handing the work over with a smile was also tense but I kept my cool and we were finally allowed past.

"They had some watcher spirits," Cook whispered after we turned a corner, "we were ok, I took care of it."

"How?" I asked, curious.

"Aura masking... you should look into it after you initiate."

Taking her word for it, I set my mind to walking briskly forward like I was going somewhere and tried not to think about spirits suddenly materializing and squashing us both like bugs.

But it wasn't spirits that materialized out of nowhere. I was about to turn a corner when my nose smacked straight into something's stomach. "Sumimasen!" I apologized, bowing reflexively as I rubbed my nose before looking up into a pair of familiar, cold, silver eyes.

Kosko looked down on me like I was a wad of dog dirt on his boot. "Get the frag out of my face, breather," he snarled, shoving me aside with a negligent wave of his hand as he pushed past us. Cook had her head down, mimicking my bow so that her cap concealed her face.

Turning the corner, we didn't have to pretend to be alarmed as an excuse to walk faster. "Did he get a look at you?" I asked over my shoulder.

"I don't know," Cook answered. "Drek, I don't think so. What the frag is that idiot..."

"Shiawase turned him," I interrupted, coming to the conclusion that she didn't want to. She didn't answer, she didn't have to.

I'd expected to arrive at some sort of residential area. Instead, what we found were observation cells with two-way mirrors allowing people in the hallways to observe the prisoners inside. The cells themselves were padded white rooms, like something you'd expect to find in an insane asylum. Each subject we passed was different, some seemed catatonic, others mumbled or sung to themselves while still more lay on beds, jacked into the matrix. I almost passed completely by one cell when I realized I recognized the occupant.

Hamada Ayano looked like she was sleeping peacefully, only her eyes moving rapidly under her eyelids. The datajack sticking out of her temple betrayed what was really going on. "Wait," I stopped Cook with one hand, "she's Takaga's replacement."

Without asking for more, Cook tapped the window to bring up Ayano's paperwork in an AR screen. "Patient file and name redacted. They're running her through a psych evaluation and rehabilitation program for... gender dysphoria? What the frag?"

"We need to find a jackpoint," I muttered, dark emotions rising as I turned on my heel and stalked away. Ayano's plight had hit me a little close to home. "I need to know what the frag is going on in this place."

"Stick to the plan, talk to the girl first," Cook insisted. Reluctantly, I nodded in agreement.

The final cell at the end of the hallway didn't have observation windows; it was a steel bulkhead that would have taken high explosives to rip through. Not that it would have been that easy anyway thanks to the cameras watching the entrance. Spoofing the cameras was easy, hacking through the maglock without setting off an alarm or getting myself geeked by black IC was harder. When the door finally opened, the scene inside was almost anticlimactic.

The hexagonal room looked like a child's bedroom, complete with a chest full of toys. No child's bedroom, however, had ever been this neat, nor had any child ever just stood perfectly still in the centre of the room, staring blankly off into space. There were several more AR windows giving the illusion that there was nothing but a pane of glass between us and a lush rainforest with leaves stirring in a gentle breeze. Kumiko was wearing a plain white patient's gown and just stared at us as we entered, her face nothing but a mask.

"You came," she observed dryly.

Closing the door behind me, I knelt in front of her and put my hand on her shoulder. "Yes, I'm here Kumiko. Now we're in trouble, lots and lots of trouble. Can you help us?"

"Mac," Cook interupted nervously, "that's not Kumiko Shinibata."

Glancing over my shoulder, I scowled at her. "You think I don't get that? We don't have a lot of options."

"Yes," Kumiko answered my original question, "I can help." Walking over to her bed, she reached under the mattress and removed a chip from her hiding place. Holding it out for me to take, she just waited impassively, just staring at me with her vivid green eyes.

Taking the chip, I turned it over in my hand. It was black, no markings, and a little dusty. Blowing into the sockets to clear them out, I sat on the bed and slotted the chip into the simsense module.

"Woah, woah, woah," Cook interjected, "that's a bad idea."

"If this is what we need, we can get out of here," I explained myself. "But we need to know."

"Why the frag would she just hand us that?" Cook asked me, her glare intense. "There could be anything on that chip; it could fry your fraggin' brain, slothead!"

"I plan on being careful, don't worry," I reassured her, "just keep a lookout."

"What about her?" she asked, pointing at Kumiko.

"She wants to go home," I said with a shrug, "quid pro quo and all that, right?"

Without further ado, I jacked in. The world fell away, replaced by my commlink's internal VR structure, a simple black void filled with floating shapes that represented the internal systems. I hadn't had time to customize the interface at all or install a theme, though by using the default I saved some processing power for more important things. Before I ran the chip, I ran my analysis programs, checking for signs of IC or encryption. There wasn't any, so I took a deep breath and dived in.

I found myself standing in a laboratory surrounded by glass tubes filled with blobs of flesh hooked up to various tubes. It wasn't anything shocking, just developing organs and other bioware for mass distribution. Ms. Shinibata walked out from behind one of the tubes, smiling at me like I was an old friend come to visit.

"Konichiwa," she greeted warmly, with an ingratiating bow, "thank you for taking the time to review Project Hakutou, I'm sure you'll agree that this new line of research will be one of Shiawase's most promising explorations into the future. Please walk with me."

The camera followed her into the next room, an octagonal 'dome' that contained a gold cage attached to a generator. The floor and walls were inscribed with mystic runes rendered in luminescent paint. Inside the cage, floating just over the floor, was what I could only describe as a rip in reality. It reminded me of the pictures I'd seen of the Watergate Rift left in the wake of President Dunkelzahn's death, only smaller.

"The accident that ended Project Argonaut may still reap future benefits to Shiawase through the rogue spirit that entered out world so abruptly," Shinibata explained, her ingratiating demeanour never wavering. "As you can see, this Orihalcum Faraday Cage keeps the rift created contained by creating, in layman's terms, a duel-natured electric fence to keep other spirits from crossing into our world. Fortunately, no other spirits have even attempted to cross over, so we believe the precautions that we have taken will be more than a match for the task if this changes."

We continued walking and I noticed a 'cut' in the simsense recording as we stepped across the threshold. The new room was another magical laboratory, this time with two bodies on beds in the middle of the room. One was cut open, revealing more metal inside it than meat, while the other looked perfectly human. Between the two stood Kumiko wearing a plain white yukata, her eyes impassively following the camera with unnerving intensity.

"The free spirit we have managed to bind in the body of my daughter Kumiko has a number of extraordinary powers that I believe we may be able to emulate. On my right you can see and example of the current pinnacle of our competitor's cybernetic achievements: the magical art of Cybermancy. As you know, through magical rituals we can bind a person's spirit to their body, keeping them alive beyond the point where their loss of Essence would otherwise cause their death. Unfortunately, this ability comes at great cost to the subject and life expectancy plummets as a result. To solve this problem, I propose that we can leverage Shiawase Meditech's assets in the field of Bioware and Genetech. Rather than bind a spirit to a crude body of meat and chrome, we may be able to transfer one's spirit to an entirely new, perfect, form like the one to my right."

She moved around to put her hands on her daughter's shoulders, showing teeth as she smiled with painted lips. Kumiko just stood there, look for all the world like a doll in her mother's arms.

"The implications for Shiawase and the world are profound," Shinibata continued. "By extracting, reshaping and re-merging a metahuman spirit with a new meat body, we could be on the cusp of transcending illness and even death. In the short term, I'm sure you can imagine the applications of this research in the military as well as the field of espionage. We may even find a way to heal the loss of essence experienced by victims of HMHVV infected persons or those poor magicians and adepts suffering from burnout..."

I paused the recording and exited, switching to the second file on the chip. In the blink of an eye, I was back in the same lab with the two benches, only this time there were two people strapped to the benches. Kumiko was just standing between their feet staring straight ahead as Shinibata and other mages in labcoats looked on, their gaze glassy and distant. All the while, the two figures on the beds convulsed, screaming. Finally the one on the left flatlined, falling limp while the other fell unconscious.

Opening the next file, I winced as I saw the man from the last video futilely trying to kick through the reinforced plexiglass door of his cell, obviously raging even though nobody on our side of the glass could hear what he was saying. Shinibata stood close to the camera as she spoke to the viewer. "Subject 1b showing signs of severe mental trauma," she explained with a weary sigh. "I had hoped that providing 1a with a similar body to his old one would reduce this issue. However, I have discovered that the former inhabitant of 1b was obtained from a high security facility... maybe 1a has inherited his new body's brain chemistry? We really should have started tests with clone bodies like I said, tell Dr. Ablehamst where he can stick it, Raymond."

The next file automatically ran when that one ended. Shinibata was sitting behind a desk, addressing the camera as she worked. "We managed to trace back Subject 1b's biological records to his point of origin. Medication based on his old medical records has been effective, though his mental state has deteriorated to the point where he has asked repeatedly to self-terminate. We are currently attempting to treat him for depression but I'm afraid the trauma of the transference has damaged his spirit. Recommend that we put the next one asleep before we try it again."

Closing that file before it could open the next one, I skipped several recordings. She looked much happier in the new one, looking in on a young woman through a two-way mirror who was busily getting dressed. "Raymond, it was all worth it. Subject 9b has just woken and seems completely oblivious to the procedure. Look at her, she doesn't know a thing! I recommend moving on to phase 2."

Pausing the recording, I noticed Subject 9b looking at her hand strangely, like she'd just noticed something. Then I recognized her as 'Hamada Ayano'. Going back to the list of files, I noticed that some of them were marked with small notes. One of them caught my eye near the bottom of the list. The note simply read 'Takaga'. I played it.

"I want it to be noted that this procedure was highly irregular and I performed it under protest," Shinibata grumbled at the camera while 'Hamada Ayano' struggled in the room behind her as several large men tried to insert a plug into her datajack. "However, I have to admit that Kumiko performed beyond my expectations. Subject 34b has demonstrated that she retains her memories and skills, which puts us far ahead of schedule. Of course, she's unwilling to go along with this little stunt, Ray, I know you think you need to put on a show for the board but I want to be on record saying that this is only going to bring us more trouble in the long run. Psychotropic conditioning should begin in five... make that ten minutes, I'll see you tomorrow morning when we have a result. Oh and get off my back about Wuxing already, we need that telesma and they're the only ones that can get their hands on it."

I let the next file play. Shinibata was sitting alone again, looking tired. "Well, Ray's little performance worked. Takaga or Ayano or whoever the frag she is now is undergoing extended conditioning. I just wish she wasn't our first big success, it's not like we can show her off to the world now. Probably for the best, at least until we can take Kumiko out of the equation entirely. Kosko is proving his usefulness already, if I had my way he'd be in charge of security around here. The test subjects are certainly quieter when he's around."

Feeling sick, I logged out. Opening my eyes, I found Cook looking down at me. Kumiko still stood where she had been in the middle of the room, still staring blankly. "Well?" Cook pressed.

"Paydata," I croaked, my throat not working right for a moment as I sat up. "We have to get the frag out of here and we need to get Kumiko home."

Standing up, I felt nothing but white-hot fury for the first time in my life as I stormed towards the door, leaving Cook with a confused look on her face. Kumiko reached out for my hand as I passed by but I pulled it out of her grasp. "No," I told her firmly, "I don't want what you can give me, not that way."

She nodded, seemingly oblivious to the angry tone of my voice. "I can still help."

Walking on without answering her, I punched the button to open the door, Cook close behind. For a moment, my brain didn't even register that Kosko was standing there, grinning at us with his tusk-filled maw. It wasn't until an enormous paw backhanded me, battering the left half of my face, that the adrenaline hit. I didn't even have a chance to think 'oh drek' until after my back slammed into the wall, spots blooming in my vision.

You expect a stonking great Troll to be a slow, lumbering, thing. Kosko was anything but. He already had a Ruger Superwarhawk heavy pistol in his right hand, raising it level with Cook's head before she could even blink. I watched him pull the trigger. I saw Cook's head disintegrate, spraying blood and fragments across the room. Some of it hit Kumiko's, spattering her gown. She didn't even blink. The bullet hit the opposite wall, breaking the AR projector and making the holographic windows flicker spasmodically.

I tried to move but Kosko just swung the gun around to point at me, the huge bore of the pistol looking like the long tunnel people talk about after near death experiences. "Stay the fuck down, breather. I've got five more friends waiting to blow your little mind."

My vision was red. You hear about it in books and you see it stylized on the trid or in simsense but the experience of that blind, naked, hatred can't be completely conveyed by art. In that moment, Kosko appeared to me as a manifestation of all the ills in the world, a physical form that I could vent my anger at without petty conscience getting in the way. In Shiawase, you learn the Japanese concept of 'nakama' at an early age. Your nakama are the people you work with, those who are not family but remain as close as family, people you rely on for support and prosperity. It's a concept that goes beyond friendship, espousing loyalty at all costs. After all, what are you without your nakama? Without the people who are there to pick you up when you fall?

The spell just flowed through me, riding my rage as I glared over the barrel into the troll's blank silver eyes. I watched them widen as he doubled over, the gun falling from his trembling fingers as he grasped his crotch, experiencing a single, constant, orgasm that made him fall to his knees. My focus could have cut through steel, the entirety of my will sustaining the spell as I pulled my broken body up the wall to my feet. My ribs hurt like a motherfucker as I limped towards the gun, blood running down my chin from my nose as I felt the skin around my eye puff up, throbbing.

Picking up the gun with both hands, I pressed the barrel against Kosko's face between his nose and the tusk that extended from his lower jaw. I'm sure he didn't even know that I'd pulled the trigger, the kick nearly knocking me off my feet. I kept firing, emptying the rest of the bullets into his chest and head, missing twice. The two bullets that hit turned everything between his shoulders into a mess of blood, gore and chrome, however, so the job was done.

My wrists hurt when I dropped the gun. Moments later, I turned towards the door to find a squad of security guards aiming rifles in my general direction. "PLACE YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD! NOW!" The one in front ordered, his voice electronically masked by his helmet. I complied, turning to face them, moving slowly and making no sudden moves.

They were just as surprised as I was when Kumiko stepped past me, interposing herself between us without saying a word.

"Uh... little girl," one of the guards said haltingly, unsure of himself, "you need to get out of the way while we take care of the bad man, ok?"

Her reply made her intentions clear. The first guard in line shuddered in place for a moment before he was ripped in half like a wishbone by an invisible force. I screamed, the guards screamed, only Kumiko remained utterly silent. In panic, the guns went off. Barely managing to fall to one side, I saw the bullets flatten against' Kumiko's skin like they were nothing but light rain. The second guard was wrung out like a wet rag doll. The next had all his extremities pulled from his torso like a giant child experimenting with a doll. The rest tried to flee but one didn't escape, his blood boiling out through the seams of his armour as he writhed in agony. Kumiko stepped forward over the pieces, tracking blood across the floor with her feet without concern. Looking over her shoulder at me, she simply beckoned before continuing on down the hallway.

Picking myself up gingerly, I was honestly afraid not to comply. Taking one of the guard's weapons, I discovered that it was biometrically locks, so immediately discarded it before limping down the hallway. The guards weren't the only ones to suffer Kumiko's wrath, if indeed the spirit possessing her was even angry at its treatment. In every cell I passed, the prisoners lay dead, just lying on the floor like puppets with their strings cut. Unzipping the front of my coveralls, I let the Human Form spell go, reverting to my normal self. The coveralls were too small but the elastic stretched and I loosened the velcro straps on my boots to help accommodate my larger feet.

I lost sight of Kumiko a few times but finding her again was always easy, all I had to do was follow the trail of destruction. Anything that got in her way was shredded: doors, gun emplacements, guards, people, anything. The security consoles that I passed were all blinking red, with AR screens exhorting everyone to follow evacuation procedures. She led me through the hallways until we got to the octagonal room, which lay down a long passageway that led away from the rest of the facility. It was just as I'd seen it in VR, a golden cage around an open, bleeding, wound in the metaplanes. Between Kumiko and the cage stood her mother, glaring down at what used to be her daughter sternly.

"Who the fuck are you?" she snapped at me when I walked through the door, unflappable. After all, I knew I must look like a walking corpse and Kumiko looked like she'd stepped right out of a Japanese horror flick.

I looked at her, wondering if she was serious. "Who the fuck am I?" I gasped, my broken ribs making the act of talking hurt. "You ask yourself that question when you look in the mirror every fragging morning?" She glared at me, seeming somehow offended that I wasn't licking the dirt off her 900¥ shoes. Before she could say anything, I held up my hand to cut her off. "Rhetorical question, I don't give two shits how you justify what you did here. All this is ending right here, right now."

Staggering forward, I brushed past her, surmising what Kumiko wanted me to do without her having to tell me. Not trusting my fragile brain to dive into VR, I logged into the cage's generator manually and started the process of cracking the code.

"NO!" Shinibata cried out, trying to lash out at me with a spell that took the form of a glowing energy bolt. Kumiko squashed it negligently, like swatting a fly out of the air. "Get out of my way! I command you, stupid spirit!"

Kumiko cocked her head to one side, like she'd done something amusing. "I was never bound to you. You seem to be confusing co-operation with service."

Shinibata's eyes widened and I could help but smirk. "I... I... why?" she finally asked when her wits returned.

"It was interesting watching you for a while," Kuimiko admitted, "but I've learned all I can here."

I watched Shinibata's composure slowly break down, the mask peeling away like the layers of an onion until she was on her knees, weeping in front of what used to be her child. Suddenly reaching out, she grasped Kumiko by her shoulders, tears running down her cheeks as she shook her. "Just... just give me back my daughter you fucking monster! Giver her back!"

Sneering, Kumiko slapped her, knocking Shinibata several feet across the floor. "Your daughter is dead," she snarled before turning back towards me, her glare leaving me no doubt to my fate if I failed her.

"Hold your horses..." I told her, trying to concentrate through the pain. Moments later, the codes clicked and I was in. The hum of the generators died slowly as they wound down, the soft glow from the cage dying away. A wave of energy seemed to burst from the portal, crackling through the magical runes and making my hair stand on end. The ground itself shook and shuddered as the earth itself seemed to recoil.

"Come," Kumiko ordered, grabbing my wrist and half-dragging me along behind her, heedless of my injuries. I managed to hop along but the jarring gait took the last of my strength and I fell to the floor at her feet, gasping as I held onto consciousness. The shaking seemed to get worse as she knelt beside me. Metal groaned as the supporting struts of the room warped, rivets popping out of the walls to bounce across the floor.

"Quid pro quo," she whispered, mimicking me as she placed her hand on my chest.

Agony. If you've ever slotted an action chip in your life, you know a little about pain. Truth is, even in the most balls-to-the-wall ultra-real flick, they'll dull the pain of things like gunshots and stab wounds. After the pain of having my soul wrenched from my body, for the rest of my life, nothing else could compare. Magicians say that when they astrally project, it's like nothing at all. They just step out of their bodies for a while, like leaving a comfortable coat behind. I almost can't believe it anymore.

Next thing I knew, I was staring into the face of the spirit possessing Kumiko, standing in a world that glowed brightly from the energy pulsing from the portal. Its face bubbled like boiling water, heads forming and bursting like bubbles in the foam. Millions of tiny faces looked back at me, each wearing a different expression, showing a range of thoughts and emotions. Some seemed curious, others quizzical or doubtful. A few seemed angry while most were pleased or even excited. Before I knew it, the thing was all around me, engulfing me in its mass and I was lost in the plethora of sensation as my soul splintered into a thousand shards.

I didn't think it was going to end but it did. Oblivion didn't come, just sweet peace and blessed silence. It didn't last. The crash of something large and heavy into the floor made my eyes bolt open and I found myself staring into an unfamiliar, bloody, face. It took me a moment to realize that I'd seen that face in the mirror for forty two years, or at least a version that didn't have a bruise instead of a face and a broken nose.

Lurching up, I looked down to find myself wearing a bloody hospital gown. It was like the room had grown too, looking cavernous around me. My small, pale, feet and thin legs were freezing and when I saw my tiny hands with slender fingers, I gasped. I didn't need a mirror to know that I was in Kumiko's body, the high sound of my own rapid breathing more than confirmed it. Hearing another bang, I whipped my head towards the door to see Shinibata staggering backwards down the hall away from me, staring at me wide-eyed. "Mommy," I begged, reaching out for her without knowing why I'd used that word, "help me!"

She stood frozen in horror for a moment before turning on her heel and sprinting down the corridor. Another tremor shook the room and dislodged the beam over the doorway, the weight of the concrete block overhead finally overcoming the strength if its supports and falling between us. Tears leaked down my cheeks as I was forced to shut my eyes from the dirt that fell into the room behind it, leaving a cloud of particles in the air.

With a final burst of energy, the portal sealed over but the earth continued to shake like a leaf in the wind. Barely able to get to my feet, an idea came to me. I didn't know where it came from but it was the only hope I could cling to. Summoning up the mana was surprisingly easy, pulling it into a ball as I shaped it with my mind. I imagined a creature, made of rock and dirt, and sent the power into the pile before me. "Show yourself!" I commanded, spitting immediately after to get the taste of dirt out of my mouth.

To my surprise, it did, coalescing from the rock and dirt into a large, humanoid, form with glowing yellow eyes just like I'd imagined. I also knew that I could tell it to do things, though I wasn't sure exactly how many orders I could give it before it would go back home. "Take me safely to the surface," I ordered.

For a moment, I wondered if I'd miscast the summons when it engulfed me but then I found myself in a bubble of air inside its body as it travelled up through hole in the roof. Dirt and rock parted before us like water as we fled, I estimated that we were travelling at least a hundred kph though it was hard to tell without a point of reference. I felt a few changes in direction as the earth elemental dodged a few man-made structures before parting tall grass away and depositing me in the middle of what looked like a park that hadn't been remotely cared for since the Awakening. Hearing the rumble of thunder, however, I knew that the mana storm had to be uncomfortably close, the sound sending chills down my spine.

The elemental simply stood there as I picked myself up and dusted off. The grass was nearly as tall as I was and it was night-time, the only light around being the glow from my elemental's eyes. It was also freezing. Remembering the schematics of the underground railway, I reckoned I had to be at least near Richmond, which meant the Blue Mountains and the mana storm itself was only a stone's throw away due west.

"Can you make me warm?" I asked the elemental. It nodded, grimly silent. "Keep me warm, then, and carry me safely to the nearest road."

Nodding again, I felt the flush of warmth roll over me before it gently picked me up in its arms. I held on as it stomped through the grass, pushing away all thoughts and fears for later as we moved on.

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>>>>> [Congratz, kiddies, you've just lived through 4.8 on the Richter scale, 0.8 shy of the Newcastle Earthquake of '89. Now's the time to beg help and curry favours as Sydneysiders scrabble to pick up the pieces, or break the nearest shop window and loot whatever you want, heh-heh!]<<<<<
- Surfer

>>>>> [FRAG YOU, DREKFACE! Anyone out there with a shred of conscience, the Penrith Barrens need your help! The ghouls are going fragging wild and the walls are down! We've got women and children here in the old shopping centre; ammo, supplies and anyone who knows how to shoot, help us!]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>> [KE's out in force south of the river and I think I saw SWAT hightailing it towards Lucas Heights. God, please let the reactor be ok...]<<<<<
- Foxhole

>>>>> [Relax, Lucas Heights was decommissioned decades ago. Shiawase pumps in all our power in from the undersea reactor, don't worry your little head.]<<<<<
- Stainless Rat

>>>>> [Check your history, Rat. HIFAR was shut down in 2007 but ANSTO replaced it with the OPAL reactor. ANSTO was bought out by Shiawase in the 30's or 40's, so now we have no fragging idea what they're doing with it.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>> [Whatever they're doing has to be better than what the toxics have planned for it. Fraggers have been eyeballing the facility for decades.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>> [Every Shiawase wagemage in town is being airlifted over there now and KE's rushing the council into session asking for the Storm Warden militia to be placed under their command. If you're willing to take a risk, it might be worth seeing your friendly neighbourhood corp contacts for a little mercenary work.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>> [Screw takin' on fraggin' toxics! I've got nuyen to make.]<<<<<
- Surfer

>>>>> [Hope that blood money spends well.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Fuck you, old man.]<<<<<
- Surfer

>>>>> [Any of Surfer's chummers who would like to help him out, you can find him and his truck slowly sinking in Port Jackson. I'm not sure if he's actually going to abandon all the stolen gear in the back before it drags him down with it.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Christ, Ned.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>> [Good news from the 'burbs, the wageslaves in the skyscrapers and apartments got a little shook up but none of them have suffered serious structural damage. Should have suspected the Japanacorps would know how to build 'quake-proof towers, neh?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>> [If anyone is actually interested in private security and/or personal protection jobs, it's a seller's market. Slide your resume on over, plenty to go around.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>> [Anyone with a discreet yet heavily armed air vehicle, I need a pickup from Lilyfield to Hornsby. Send prices and estimated ETAs, will give details on acceptance of contract.]<<<<<
- Suspiciously Delicious

>>>>> [All runners anywhere near the Paramatta/Harris Park area, we've got insect spirits popping up all over the fraggin' place all the way down to Cabramatta! They're tearing the strip apart, we need backup! NOW!]<<<<<
- Thornbird

>>>>> [iMakeSushi, Shiawase stock just took a 1% dip on the Melbourne exchange. What the fuck is happening over there?]<<<<<
- The Accountant

>>>>> [Sushi?]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>> [Drek, he just went offline.]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>> [Proteus just raised all the bridges to the Arcoblocks. How humanitarian.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>> [Hey! I resemble that remark!]<<<<<
- GurlGhul2Cul4Skul

>>>>> [.... Nevermind, I'm getting too old for this drek.]<<<<<
- Ned

linebreak shadow

Dr. Shinibata Hitomi stumbled as she stepped out of the surface entrance and onto the tarmac, the broken heel of her right shoe folding up under her foot. The extraction team ran to meet her, two operatives covering her back with silenced rifles from Shiawase Armaments. A third lent her a hand for support to help her walk. "Dr. Shinibata," he greeted, yelling over the noise of the Hughes Aerospace Airstar helicopter idling on the landing pad. "We're here to take you to safety."

Nodding impatiently, she wished she could tell him to stick his head in a propeller but as much as it galled her she needed his hand to help her walk. Halfway there, she heard a strange 'thwip' sound that buzzed past, audible even over the roar of the chopper. Looking around, she was caught off guard when the guard helping her walk toppled, leaving her struggling to keep her balance. He flopped bonelessly to the ground without a word.

They literally appeared out of nowhere, popping into existence as their invisibility spell was dropped. Short, matt black, swords did quick, efficient, work as the black clad soldiers precisely slashed windpipes and arteries. Shinibata screamed when she saw them, falling as she scrambled to get away but they had her hemmed in on all sides. When she looked back at the helicopter, she saw two neat bulletholes in the windscreen, the pilots slumped in their seats.

Two more men ran towards her from the sidelines, carrying a long bag between them. Dropping it in front of her, they unzipped the bag and dumped a body in front of her. The face on the body was hers, an entry wound placed neatly on the temple. Grabbing her, the men locked her hands in mage cuffs then stuffed her into the bag before toting her away, struggling in the dark. As the rest of the nameless soldiers faded into the wilderness, the Airstar exploded in a ball of fire.