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No Time for Second Chances

By Dr. Bender

Chapter 10

Believe it or not, there aren't many people lining up for sex with 13 year old girls. Oh, yeah, they exist all right but most of them are creepy types with curious odours and bad personal habits. You know, normal teenage boys. For starters, you have to remember that most guys like their girls tall and curvy, as much as the media might cry otherwise. The predators might be out there but I hadn't come across any. Truth is there's much easier ways to satisfy a kink in 2060.

Take, for example, the Dreamchip. Want sex? There's a chip for every age, colour, creed, ethnicity, style, scenario... you name it, it's on a chip somewhere. The vast majority of them are even legal. You don't even need a datajack, just slap on a set of trodes and you're ready for your hot date. Of course, physically doing it with a 'real' person is also a kink, weird as it is, which is why the Yaks have a thriving Bunraku parlour business. In Australia, they're even legal, making the service surprisingly affordable. Or you can just log onto the Matrix and hook up with a like minded person for whatever strikes your fancy in whatever form you choose to take.

My point is that I wasn't rolling in sex, much as you might think a follower of Seductress would be. As it turns out, sex isn't the only pleasurable pastime that we're attracted to. Some of us go for extreme sports, drugs, food and other luxuries; really we're the addictive personalities of the mystical subculture. I substituted skating and free running as my addictions of choice. My new body was at once glorious and frustrating; glorious in that I felt like I was who I was truly supposed to be and frustrating thanks to my second puberty. I had a talent for it, so after every class I took a trip over to rooftop skating park to practice. Despite my elation, I still had a nagging feeling that I'd stolen someone else's life but I tried to force my doubts down and enjoy it while it lasted.

Solomon grudgingly had homework to do, so he'd gone home from class like a good corporate drone. Ace had homework too but didn't care and, as it turns out, Erica gets around on a pair of blades, so she came with. I was doing grinds along a steel railing when I noticed a Nightsky limo pull up in the multilevel carpark next door, near the short ramp that allowed access to the park from Castle Towers shopping centre. I cursed under my breath as Ricky Hand got out of the car with a bunch of henchmen. Erica skidded to a halt beside me as I kicked up my board, following my eyeline as Ricky started walking towards me.

"Trouble?" she whispered, eyeing Ricky in disgust.

"Big trouble," I muttered back, "just keep your cool, I can handle this."

Grinning like an idiot, Ricky's eyes didn't rise above my neck as he approached. "Hey, chica, nice moves!"

Crossing my arms over my chest, I glared at him. "What do you want, Ricky?"

"Oooh," he winced, "guess I'm in the doghouse today."

I shook my head. "Clover's going to be pissed that you're even near me."

"Well, there are people in this world who don't give two dreks about Clover's overprotective BS," he muttered, taking a cigarette out of his jacket pocket. "One of them is my Lodge Master; he wants a word with you."

Glancing at the open door of the Nightsky, I shivered. "Oh, hell no."

"I'm not asking."

"She said no," Erica said, raising her voice. The kids around us started to take notice, slowly coming to a halt as they stared.

"Yeah, I heard her, thanks," Ricky retorted smugly. I tensed when he reached under his jacket again but all he produced was a severed cyberhand. Yanking the thumb made the lighter in the index finger flare to life as he lit his cigarette with it. Waving the hand to put it out, he noticed that Erica was staring at it and smiled. "Like it? Got it off a gillette during a brawl in Swansea," he bantered easily. Squeezing the palm, a four inch, razor sharp, chrome knife popped out of the side of the palm below the pinkie finger. "Fucker was full of surprises."

Erica jumped a little at that but I'd seen Ricky's act before and kept my cool. Then disaster struck when Ace decided to roll up beside me on his skateboard. "This guy bothering you, Naomi?"

My heart skipped a beat. "No, Ace, we're solid," I protested a little too fast, my fear for him giving my voice an edge. Despite what I said, Ace put himself between Ricky and I, glaring up at the older, tougher and way more ruthless man.

Ricky just continued to smirk. "Look, Naomi, none of us have a choice here. Please don't keep my Lodge Master waiting."

"Hey!" Ace snarled. "Don't ignore me!"

Looking down on Ace, Ricky's smirk broadened. "You're right, little man, pardon my rudeness."

"Ace!" I warned a moment too late. Ricky moved inhumanly fast, grabbing Ace by the neck. Ace had been trained well, he reacted with cold efficiency, attempting to twist Ricky's wrist as he delivered several low kicks to the knees. He might as well have tried punching a steel girder; the sharp blows didn't even make Ricky flinch. Erica stepped up but a simple glare from him froze her in place. Turning to me, she smirked, the expression echoing Ricky's exactly. "I'm sure it's perfectly safe, Naomi," she told me confidently, "go and get in the car."

Ace's choked gargle made my decision for me. Picking up my board, I walked over to the Nightsky and slid into the leather seat, sinking comfortably into the plush cushioning. Across from me sat an overweight middle-age Chinese man in an immaculate grey suit that made him look like a character from an ancient flatvid gangster flatvid with his long hair tied in a ponytail. His thin moustache was even waxed. Ricky got into the car not long after and kept his eyes lowered as he sat next to me. "Master Yun," he introduced us as the limo pulled away from the curb, "this is the girl I told you about, Naomi."

"No second name?" Master Yun asked, resting both hands on the enormous pearl at the top of his wooden cane. The carved and lacquered red Eastern Dragon wrapped around it was embellished with golden claws. It was an exquisite piece, though a quick glance in the astral plane showed no sign of enchantment. But then, Master Yun had to be masking himself heavily to evade magical sight. That was one trick I hadn't picked up yet which would have to wait until my first initiation into the deeper mysteries of Black Magic.

"Not anymore," I answered with a shrug, trying to appear nonchalant. I don't know why I even bothered, the glassy-eyed look they were giving me told me they were assensing my own astral signature and reading my emotions. They probably knew what I was feeling better than I did.

Yun didn't seem happy with that answer, giving Ricky a meaningful look. "No parents?"

Looking back at him, I started getting curious. "Again, not anymore; look, what the heck is this about?"

Scowling, Yun snapped something at Ricky in Han that I barely understood. Ricky protested whatever Yun had said, which just made the argument worse. Next thing I know, they're both yelling at each other in another language, leaving me out in the cold. It wasn't until I picked up on one particular word that I interrupted. "Woah, woah, woah, did he say girlfriend?" I asked, pointing at Ricky. "Oh, hell no! Master Yun, I don't know what he's been telling you but I am not involved with him in any way."

"Naomi, can I please handle this?" Ricky asked in a strained voice.

"I'm pretty sure my guardian told you to go jump in a lake," I snarled at him. "Also, intimidating and thought controlling my friends? Not the way to make a good impression on a girl."

Yun considered me carefully in the silence that followed, his eyes boring holes into me. "You don't find Ricky suitable?" he finally inquired in a carefully toneless voice. I'll give him one thing; Yun has a great poker face.

I chose my next words very carefully. "Master Yun, courtship between myself and Ricky is unrealistic. First, my guardian disapproves. Second, I have no idea if I'm of Han descent or Mandarin on my mother's side, much less my father's. I was born and raised an Australian, in a school run by a Japanese corporation. I have no interest in being directly involved with any Triad, though I don't disapprove of any such organizations either. Lastly, my guardian pays her dues to the Green Gang Triad while you and Ricky are Red Dragon Triad and the last place I want to be is stuck between Triad politics, which I know nothing about. I understand that age difference isn't supposed to be such a big issue these days but even so, there's a decade between us. And finally no, I don't particularly like Ricky; his actions haven't endeared himself to me whatsoever."

Ricky looked like he was sucking on a lemon after that last point. As far as I was concerned, it served him right. After a few amused snickers, Master Yun, threw his head back and laughed. "You're right, my son, she is interesting," he observed; "a decade between you both, hmm? Yet so mature, your guardian must be very proud. Actually, Ricky's feelings for you are a mere distraction compared to the reason I asked for an introduction. I understand you were to receive a birthday present in the mail today. By any chance would you know the nature of the gift?"

"Clover was very secretive about it," I answered, shaking my head.

"But you're aware of the sender?"

"Vaguely," I lied, "Clover buys everything from him. From what I understand, everyone in the business does."

"But would Mr Ching have a reason to want you dead?"

I paused, not expecting that question at all. "Excuse me?"

His grip on the pearl pommel of his walking staff tightened. "During his investigation of the Australia Post van that had contained, amongst other things, your present, Ricky here assensed an unusual astral signature inside the van. It was feint, barely a slight trace of a spiritual miasma clinging to the space. Now, Ricky's not the best at astral work. Since your present is the only piece not itemised and described properly on the shipping manifest, I'm interested in what that old bastard Ching was sending you and if he planned to unleash a destructive spirit on my territory."

Scoffing, I smiled. "I think Mr. Ching would have much easier ways of bumping me off if he wanted to."

"Without losing Clover's business or betraying his deal to protect her household?"

"You'd need more concrete proof than vague allusions to a weak spiritual miasma in a postal van to convince me otherwise."

"Naomi," Ricky interrupted, "we're not joking. There was something very dangerous inside that van. Master Yun is offering you protection at my request."

"What sort of protection?"

"Membership in the Red Dragon Triad," Yun pressed.

I blinked, looking between both men as I waited for them to laugh or at least get to the punchline. Unfortunately, both of them were deadly serious. Collecting myself, it took a moment to process the idea of what they were offering. My composure failed me as questions started pouring out of my mouth. "Wait, I thought the Triads only recruit Han Chinese?"

Yun snorted. "Not 'only' Han, even though the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in this part of the world, even if we were in Hong Kong, you'd be amazed what allowances are made for awakened members. Besides, even the Triads must adapt to Sixth World."

Sitting back in the chair, I crossed my legs and folded my arms, dropping my VR glasses down over my eyes with a nod. "Not interested," I told them both, "even if I was, Clover would kill me. Besides, I don't practice your magical tradition."

Yun hissed, leaning forward on his cane. "You know there are a great many things we can do to you and Clover that won't anger the Green Gang."

"Master Yun, I have connections to the shadow community," I explained politely, "I know most of the people you'd send after me. Not that they wouldn't take the job, just keep in mind that I'm not worth starting a shadow war over. Please consider my denial my loss."

He smirked again, sinking back into his chair. "Oh, I do like you," he complimented. Ricky let out a slow breath next to me as the limo finally pulled up to the curb outside Clover's. "If you change your mind, just talk to Ricky here," Yun offered.

"I'll keep your gracious offer in mind," I responded before hopping out of the car, taking my skateboard with me. Watching the limo move off, I had butterflies in my stomach, not only from relief but in anxiety. What was Clover going to say? As a follower of the Dark Goddess, she might not be able to help poking the entire situation with a stick just to watch it explode. Should I even tell her? She'd be furious if she found out if I didn't.

I was thinking so hard that I wasn't paying attention to my surroundings. I did have the presence of mind to check for cars before crossing the road but I only absently registered the sound of the dilapidated Ford Americar's door opening beside me. Next thing I felt was a large hand wrapping around my face from behind before a sharp pain in my back brought the darkness.

linebreak shadow

"Jesus motherfraggin' Christ!" Shadow swore as he pulled the girl's body into the back seat with him. "Drek! Drek! Drek! My hand's fraggin' numb, man! Shit, that's my good hand! Fuck!"

"Gawd, man, don't be such a baby," Steel Machine snarled, reaching back to slam the door shut. "What the frag are you thinkin' anyway? What do we need the little slot for?"

"Hey, hey... hey," Shadow warned, trying to point with his hand which just flopped uselessly at the end of his arm. "She was walking right into that talismonger over there that we were going to hit up. I mean, ok, think about it, ransoming off Clover's merchandise is a good idea but it looks kinda desperate, like we hadn't planned it all along. A successful kidnapping, however...."

Machine smirked. "Yeah, ok, that works; good idea. Say, she's kinda hot."

Shadow slapped him across the cheek. "Hey! Eyes front, keep your mind on the fraggin' job, pervert."

"I'm not the one with my hand on her boob!" Machine growled.

Looking down, Shadow realized where his hand was and snatched it away, rubbing it against his jacket to get the imaginary dirt off. "Oh, Christ, I'm sorry," he told the unconscious body in his lap.

"Pussy," Machine snapped, shaking his head as he turned back to the wheel and pulled away from the curb. "All right, where do we stash her?"

"Back to Sparky's," Shadow ordered, "we can't move the rest of that crap anyway, might as well just throw the place away when we're done."

Machine winced. "Dude, that's Sparky's shop. He's gonna be pissed if we do that."

"You really give two dreks about that idiot?"

"Hey, he has an auto shop! Last I checked, that's more than the two of us have combined!"

"After we're through with this job, we won't need Sparky and his BS second-rate work," Shadow growled. "We're cutting him loose; with a bullet."

Slowly nodding, Machine smiled. "Yeah, I can dig it chummer. We're stone cold 'runners, yo!" A fist bump later, he gunned the engine to make the Americar grind a little less slowly down the street.

linebreak shadow

Detective Bill Kull scanned down the list of e-mails on the AR display that hovered over his desk when one in particular caught his eye. Opening it, he read the single line of text once before activating a trace program to try and track the source. "Hey, Katherine," he called his partner over, "check this out."

Walking over from her desk, she leant over his shoulder to read the e-mail out loud. "Three armed male Shadowrunners have the goods from the Sydney Post robbery at Sparky's Automechanics. Well, that's short and to the point."

Kull slammed his fist on the desk when his trace program crashed. "Son of a bitch! When was the last time you felt like you were being used?"

"I don't know, I haven't had a date in forever," Katherine quipped, summoning her commlink's address book. "I've got a friend in SWAT that can get us some backup."

Kull smirked. "You don't think we should call the Narcs?"

"Just slow us down," Katherine smirked back as she placed the call.

"Come on," Kull said, getting up and grabbing his jacket, "you can call on the way while I get some drones in there. And for god's sake, don't mention it's possible Shadowrunners, or the media will start the fun without us."

linebreak shadow

Tom Sai Luk restaurant was busy but they always had a private booth open for Master Yun. Ricky the Hand ate silently with the rest of the apprentices while Master Yun picked carefully at his lunch. The babble of the regular customers was muted by the heavy red curtain across the alcove's entrance made of satin, woven Kevlar and scales of hard ballistic plating. The astral defences were much more impressive, between the various barriers and guardian spirits that glowed like Christmas trees on the astral plane.

Ricky bowed in apology to his Master when his commlink pinged, signalling that he had an urgent message. Excusing himself from the table, he slipped through the curtain and into the kitchen to find some anonymity, if not privacy. The e-mail was short and to the point: 'Three armed male Shadowrunners have the goods from the Sydney Post robbery at Sparky's Automechanics'. Sniffing, Ricky flicked that window to one side and dialled the number for his second in command.

There was going to be a reckoning.

linebreak shadow

"Sparky?" Shadow called out, the girl slung over his shoulder as he shook his hand to try and get feeling back into it. The autoshop was empty apart from the goods and tools scattered about. "Yo, Sparky! Give us a hand here, pal?"

Closing the door of the Americar behind him, he turned to where Steel Machine was clambering out through the window. "Was Sparky going somewhere today?"

"Retard never goes anywhere," Machine grumbled.

Shrugging, Shadow hauled the girl over to a chair and set her limp body down gently. For a moment, looking down at her, he wondered if this was all just part of some dreamchip he was slotting. She was far too good looking to be a real 13 year old, even for an elf. "I'll see if Sparky's ok," he said, "see if you can find something to tie her up with and maybe a sack to put over her head."

"Got some cable ties somewhere 'round here," Machine grumbled as he got to work.

Checking the workshop, Shadow found nothing peculiar or out of place. Or, rather, everything was just as messy as it always was. Sparky wasn't ever the kind of mechanic that obsessively kept everything in place, he was too dumb to organize himself like that. Walking around the counter, he poked his head into the office out back, again finding nothing but mess, a half-eaten pizza and the noisy fridge in the corner. Madeline and Raven had their own digs but Shadow, Machine and Sparky had been dossing here for the last few months. Scanning the debris almost made him nostalgic. Picking his way through the clean path to the hallway beyond, Shadow paused when he saw the storm shelter door open.

"Yo! Sparks?" Shadow called out, hearing nothing in return but a feint tinny echo of his own voice. A chill ran down his spine along with droplets of cold sweat. Shadow didn't consider himself magical in any way, or particularly smart, but he had hunches and premonitions on occasion. Drawing his gun out of its holster at his back, he thumbed the safety off as he approached the hatch, looking down the bare concrete stairs beyond that led down into darkness. "Sparks, quit messing around down there!"

He was so keyed up that when Machine stumbled into the hallway behind him, Shadow whirled around, taking aim purely by reflex. "Woah!" Machine, gasped, suddenly finding himself nose to barrel with the old Ares Predator, holding his hands up. "Relax, it's me!"

Slowly releasing his breath, Shadow flipped the safety back on and lowered the weapon. "God damn it, slothead!"

"I'm sorry," Machine apologized with uncharacteristic contriteness. "The girl's trussed up for thanksgiving, where do we stash her?"

Shadow looked down into the storm shelter. Every building in Sydney had at least one by council law. When the Mana Storm overtakes the whole city, you're either safe behind the best mana barriers money can buy or scrabbling to hide as deep down as you possibly can under the living Earth. Even shadow spirits and wild magic can't breach a few layers of topsoil. The stairs led to an open bulkhead, strong enough that maybe even a manifested spirit couldn't rip through it when sealed. They kept proper supplies down there, of course, tinned food enough to last ten people a few days. Motioning for Machine to follow, Shadow headed down the stairs first.

He was disappointed. The shelter was mostly as they'd left it except that Sparky seemed to have moved some of the talismonger pap down on his own initiative; most of it was piled in the corner next to a round table with a deck of cards lying atop it. Most of the food was kept on a shelf in plain sight, perishables loaded into an old industrial freezer from the turn of the century that gave off a constant buzz. It reminded Shadow that he'd been meaning to buy a can opener. Otherwise, the shelter was empty. Grabbing one of the chairs, Shadow gestured for Machine to dump the girl on it.

Depositing her with some relief, Machine wiped his brow. "Think she's got any juice of her own?"

"Doesn't matter if she's bagged and gagged," Shadow muttered, holstering his piece. "Mages need line of sight to target you with a spell without special equipment." He didn't mention that he heard that slotting Minotaur: Operation Delta. Not a bad action dreamchip.

Both of them went for their guns when the fridge at the back of the room gave off a hellacious squeal, the ancient compressor in the guts of the machine struggling to circulate refrigerant through the heat-exchanging pipes. Scowling, Machine spat on the dusty floor, settling his gun back in its holster. "Goddamn fraggin' P.O.S.! I told Sparky to fix that stupid thing a hundred fraggin' times! I'm going up, it stinks down here."

Watching his partner trudge back up the stairs in his steel-capped boots, Shadow sniffed at the air and winced. It reeked. "Jesus Christ, did you crap your pants or something man?"

"Hell no!" Machine called back. "Probably dead rats in the ventilation system, don't worry, it's Sparky's 'shop let him clean up that shit!"

Nodding absently, Shadow wrinkled his nose as he took one last look around before heading back up himself. A few minutes later, he had a banana sandwich in his mouth procured from the kitchen as he paced and fiddled with his commlink, nervously racking his brains as he considered how to properly deliver their ransom demand. That was when someone buzzed the door.

Machine growled, smashing his fist down on the intercom button from the slashed couch he was lounging on, a half-finished beer in his other hand. "Frag off, we're closed!" He didn't even wait for a reply before cutting off the comm.

"Shit, man, this is Sparky's business," Shadow scolded, "what if that was a fraggin' customer?"

"If Sparky wants customers, he should be here during fraggin' work hours," Machine snapped. "I'm not squatting in his joint to be his goddamn secretary."

The intercom buzzed again. Shadow grabbed Machine's forearm before he could smash the intercom again. "Why don't you let me take this?" When Machine shrugged, Shadow gently pressed the intercom button. "I'm sorry for that outburst, my compatriot is under a lot of stress, how may I help you?"

"Open the door so we can talk," a man's voice with a Chinese accent answered. Shadow glanced at Machine, who shrugged, taking another pull on his beer.

"I'm sorry, who is this?" Shadow asked politely.

"Do either of you have a cyberarm?"

Machine gave Shadow a questioning look, quietly mouthing 'what the fuck?' under his breath.

"You see, I collect cyberarms," the voice continued. "Well, actually, just the hands. It's amazing what someone's hands will tell you about them. Then hand is the way humanity enacts their will on the world around them. The greatest of men who can order the death of another human being from across the globe can have the softest, most beautiful, hands. A common man who slaved to feed his family and build an empire has rough, calloused hands. A soldier can never quite get rid of the powder burns that stain them. Listing to your voices, I have the feeling the only thing I'll find is trace amounts of semen."

It took a moment for Shadow's brain to process the fact that he'd just been insulted. "What?"

"Let me spell it out for you two fools. I'm going to open this door like a tin can. Then I'm going to cut off your hands. After that, I don't really have a plan, so I think we'll play it by ear."

Laughing, Machine leant over the intercom. "Look, slothead, I don't know who the frag you are...."

Before Machine could finish, the front door of Sparky's Autoshop caved in, hinges squealing and snapping as the twisted remains fell inward with a deafening clang. Shadow had his gun out and shooting before Machine was even up off the couch, blasting away in the general direction of the man who stepped through the door. The self-styled street samurai barely registered the smile on the short, young, Chinese boy's face before he was blinded by the report of his heavy pistol. When the gun finally clicked empty, the Chinese boy was still standing there unmarked, bullet holes peppering the surrounding brickwork.

Machine's gun shook visibly as he pointed it at the mage. "Who the fuck are you?"

"They call me Ricky Hand," he introduced himself, stepping forward and dusting off his clean-cut Chinese-style suit. Behind him, more Chinese men entered. They wore a motley assortment of armoured synthleather and carried a mixture of submachine guns, heavy pistols and assault rifles, most modified with smartlinks. Their predominant colour was red, each ganger having at least one red item in prominent display, some going with fully red outfits. "I'm here on behalf of the Red Dragon Triad."

Gulping, Shadow popped the clip in his pistol and jammed in a fresh magazine while Ricky watched with a wry smile of amusement. "You want trouble, huh? Ok, which one of you assholes is going to be first? Do you know who the frag you're messing with?"

There was a long, drawn out pause during which nothing could be heard but the rattle of Machine's gun shaking in his hand. Then Ricky's mouth broke into a smirk as the Triads started to laugh.

"What?" Shadow asked, confused, right before an unseen force gripped his gun hand like a vice. Watching in horror, Shadow's arm trembled, fighting against the inexorable force that slowly turned the muzzle of the gun to point at his face.

"Sh-shadow? What the fuck?" Machine stuttered, eyes bulging as his friend tried to grapple with his own traitorous limb.

"It's not me!" Shadow shouted, panicking as the barrel mashed itself into his cheek, his trigger finger starting to squeeze.

"Put your gun down or I'll spray paint the wall grey," Ricky threatened.

Machine looked at his friend, eyes wild as sweat streamed down his face. Shakily, he opened his hand, allowing the gun to fall to the floor before collapsing to his knees. "Oh God, Jesus fucking Christ."

Ricky sighed, stepping forward to pick up and examine the gun. "Second hand street shop work," he snarled in disgust, popping the clip and ejecting the round from the chamber. "Exactly how did you think a couple of amateurs like you would...."

Pausing, Ricky held is hand up for silence. There was another noise growing louder in the background. A heavy thump-thump-thump-thump-thump like the sound of rotorblades. Exactly like the sound of rotorblades.

"Please don't kill me!" Machine begged desperately, tears streaming down his cheek as he grasped Ricky's leg desperately. "I-I've got alimony payments! My wife and kids will starve! I'll do anything you say!"

Growling, Ricky pulled one of the torn-off cyberhands off his belt and shoved the grasping member under Machine's chin. As programmed, the troll-sized extremity clutched machine's neck, slowly crushing his windpipe, leaving Machine to writhe on the floor, struggling to pull it off. "You can shut the frag up," Ricky snarled before ordering his men in Han Chinese. "Check the windows. Two of you watch the back door, find out what that fucking noise is."

Then a small canister arced through the open doorway, bouncing once on the concrete floor before rolling into Ricky's foot. "PIGS!" someone shouted before the flash-bang grenade turned the world white.

linebreak shadow

My shoulder ached like someone had clubbed me with a stun baton. Which, of course, they had. My first coherent thought was pure rage. I was going to find the prick that clubbed me and shove that stun baton up his ass. Then I tried to move and discovered that my wrists and ankles were bound with what felt like cable ties around a chair, at which point my only thought was 'well, frag.'

From the feeling on my back I probably had a burn that needed to be treated. It hurt like hell. When I opened my eyes I found myself peering at small blobs of light filtering through thick synthetic cloth of some type that smelled like motor oil. I had to fight down the sudden surge of panic that flooded through me, adrenaline hammering my heart. Struggling experimentally, I gave up trying to slip my bonds after a few moments as the tight plastic cords cut into my skin.

Practicing some breathing techniques Clover had taught me, I managed to centre myself and think. Luckily they hadn't taken away my jacket and, I hoped, hadn't searched me very well. As it turns out they hadn't, shifting my arm I could feel the weight of my multitool in the inside top pocket. Fortunately they'd secured me to the chair by looping the cable tie around one of struts on the chair's back, which meant I could twist around and slowly massage the tool out of my pocket with one arm. When it fell on the floor, I stood, lifting the chair up with me, and knelt, lowering myself gently onto my side so I could pick it up. From there, unfolding the saw blade and freeing myself with one hand was a simple matter.

Finally getting the oily sack off my head, I took a deep breath. I found myself in a run-down storm shelter. There was an ancient fridge in the corner next to a shelf full of canned food and a poker table sitting in the opposite corner. Against the wall was a pile of merchandising that I recognized immediately as Colver's stolen stock. The chair I'd been strapped to match the rest around the table. There was a rank smell in the air like something had died and unleashed the contents of its bowls upon the world during its last moments. Blinking, I shifted my sight into the astral plane to take a measure of my surroundings. What I saw made me gag. A sickening miasma permeated astral space, even worse than the physical odour.

Sniffing the air, I tried to find the source of the smell by following my nose. It led me to the icebox. At first I thought something had died in the gap between it and the wall but there was nothing there other than piles of dust. Curious, I opened the door and immediately clapped both hands over my mouth to stop from screaming.

Someone had stuffed a wiry man in stained mechanic's overalls inside without regard to the way his limbs were supposed to twist. The body was bent at unnatural angles like a human pretzel, bloody ice clinging to his lifeless, staring, face. One hand gripped a thin leather strap from which hung a piece of green jade that had been carved vaguely in the shape of a '9', or maybe half of a Yin-Yang symbol, with the strap laced through the eye.

It took me a moment to get over the shock. Coming to my senses, I looked over to where the door leading to the stairs up was standing open. I heard the feint sound of a trideo playing somewhere in the building but nothing else and breathed a sigh of relief. Looking back to the necklace hanging from the dead man's hand, I hesitated. The leather cord was hanging freely from his limp index finger, held out like he was offering it to the first person who opened the door. Without quite knowing why, I reached out and slipped it out of his hand, closing my fist around the jewel.

I felt a strange tingling sensation like pins and needles shoot up my arm. It was a familiar feeling; I'd handled enough enchanted objects to know when I was holding onto something with power. Giving into temptation, I stuffed it into my pocket before creeping over to the door, peering up the stairs keeping my pointed ears cocked for any noise. Just above the sound of the trideo, I heard unintelligible voices, like someone shouting on the opposite side of a wall.

The first loud bang made me flinch and stumble back off the stairway. The second made me fall on my ass as I was half blinded by what looked like a flash of lightning. Then the gunfire started. Half of me wanted to curl up in a ball in the corner and wait it out but the other half of me was screaming that I needed to run. I was SINless, you could murder me and no-one would care. Technically, kidnapping me wasn't even a crime. And, frankly, I was just as petrified by the thought of being discovered by Knight Errant as I was by the men who kidnapped me. What if my body still had Shiawase citizenship? It wasn't a chance I could take.

So I crawled up the stairs, lying as low as possible while hot lead tore apart the walls and ceiling. What I saw when I poked my head over the lip of the floor just enough to see what was going on was pure chaos. Triad gangers stumbled about firing blindly, their ears bleeding profusely. Several SWAT team members lay in pools of their own blood on the floor, their compatriots returning fire over their still bodies. Someone had hit an oil canister, which had spread fire all over the autoshop. A dark-haired man wearing a black leather longcoat was crawling across the floor, literally dragging another man in a leather jacket who was weeping openly and seemed to want nothing more than to curl up into a foetal ball and die.

That was when I saw it. A shadow flickered between the shooters and where it touched chaos followed. I watched a SWAT member trip over his bootlace and shoot himself in the leg. Two Triad gangers mistook each other for enemies and unloaded into each other with submachine guns. An overhead beam spontaneously weakened, crashing to the floor between the combatants and spraying flaming oil everywhere. Tactics and training had gone out the window, what I was witnessing was a brawl.

I made my decision. I was getting the frag out of this nightmare.

Ducking back down, I tried to block out the noise and concentrate, reaching out into the ether to lure a spirit to my aid. Ask three different magicians where spirits come from and you'll get three different answers. Some say spirits are created as avatars of a magician's will. Others say that they are intelligences from the astral place bound to service. Personally, I lure allies to my side with the promise of physicality, empowering them with the ability to affect our world in return for their service. This time I was reaching as far as I could to find the most powerful spirit I could summon but something had changed. It takes more effort to pull a powerful spirit to my side, in fact I knew if I overreached the drain could knock me out or even kill me. Now I was reaching farther and deeper into the astral plane than I ever had before.

Confused, I reached into my pocket and grasped the amulet. Then I understood, the jade stone was a some sort of power focus and a powerful one at that. But it was impossible that it was lending me its power so quickly, I hadn't even performed an attuning ritual to tap its power and yet there it was, expanding my abilities exponentially. The smart move would be to reject the power but I wasn't in a position to make the smart move. I was desperate and I think, somehow, the power behind the jewel knew it was making an offer I couldn't refuse.

The air spirit formed like a miniature hurricane on the stairs in front of me, growing bigger and bigger until it filled the small room above. I heard shouts of panic, Triads and police running for their lives as lightning arced from the spirit's howling form. "Knock down the back wall!" I ordered, pointing authoritatively. I swear, it bowed to me before turning to hammer the wall with its fists.

Usually, I'd say knocking down walls was the sort of job that earth spirits excelled at. That was before I saw the kind of damage a cyclone can inflict first hand. The wall didn't so much collapse as erode away, rotting before my eyes as the winds whipped away the remaining sand until there was nothing but a smooth, circular hole in the wall left. Peeking back up out of the stairwell again, it was hard to hear anything over the howl of the winds but the gunfire seemed to have died down, or at least become more sporadic and distant. Wherever the fight had moved to, it wasn't inside the autoshop. Paramedics had taken the opportunity to start dragging the wounded outside for treatment, away from the fire that several drones were trying to put out with built-in extinguishers. Some of them looked at the air spirit nervously, obviously weighing the danger it presented versus how long they had to save a life.

I was about to turn and order the spirit to whisk me away when someone grabbed my ankle. Looking down, I found the street samurai in the leather longcoat, his face covered in grime except for twin streaks where his tears had washed the dirt away. He was still dragging his whimpering friend under one arm. "Please," he begged, his voice rough, "please take us with you. I'm sorry...."

Hesitating, I looked down at his pathetic face then back at the hole. I didn't know what role these two had played in my kidnapping but chances were one of them was the bastard that had hit me with the stun baton. On the other hand, I didn't know if they were working with or for the Triads or not. In fact, I didn't know anything. And yet I really wanted to leave them there for Knight Errant. Sighing deeply, I made my decision. "Air spirit," I ordered, "fly the three of us into the air invisibly, I'll give you directions where to take us in transit."

Nodding, I felt the spirit's winds envelop me, the two idiots on the floor screaming as we were lifted into the air, fading from sight.

linebreak shadow

Detective Bill Kull swore as he shoved his Ruger Superwarhawk heavy pistol into his shoulder holster, surveying the cluster frag that had become of his operation. His partner was sitting in the back of a DocWagon ambulance, trying to hold still while the paramedics patched a glancing blow to her forehead before she lost more blood. Others were being rushed to the ICU. His ribs ached from the hits he'd taken to his flak jacket, though mercifully he'd come away from the fight with nothing more major than scrapes and bruises.

The Triads had given as good as they'd taken, an equal number of their wounded lying on the ground as the SWAT team thanks to their wizard, who'd somehow managed to escape in the confusion. Sitting on the hood of a patrol car, he held his face in his hands for a few moments, trying to piece together what had gone wrong. He remembered the SWAT team's mage going down first and then... chaos. Friend and foe seemed to blur together until there was nothing left but kill or be killed. Had he shot some of his own men? He couldn't remember.

"Detective Kull!" a high-pitched voice yelled shrilly at him. Opening his eyes, he found Detective Yolanda Rain storming up to him, her partner rushing to follow behind. "I thought we were clear this was going to be a joint operation!"

"You should thank me for keeping you out of this clusterfuck," he growled, too tired to get to his feet, "besides, we got a tip and couldn't wait for you to catch up."

Kull barely saw Rain's fist before it slammed into his cheek. What looked like soft flesh was in fact the cold and unyielding chrome of a cyberam, the blow knocking him off the hood onto his hands and knees. Corvin grabbed her partner around the waist and pulled her back, kicking and screaming as Kull lurched to his feet, seeing red. He took a cheap shot to Rain's stomach and didn't care, doubling her over gasping as she rolled across the asphalt.

"I don't have time for this drek!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs. "If we find any BTLs or narcotics in there, I'll be happy to hand over everything we have to you. Until then, get off my fragging back!"

He was about to turn around and storm off when Corvin called out to him. "We know the mage who was leading the Triads!"

That stopped him. Snarling, he vented the rest of his anger by denting the hood of the squad car with his boot, whirling back around to face Corvin. "All right, you and your partner get your shit together. We'll talk back at the station. You can have the pleasure of hearing the Captain chew me out, that should brighten your partner's day."