It’s been a few days after his last run and Cole awakes to find Byron the fixer dinging his commlink. “Is this going to make me money?” he barks.
“I wouldn’t be calling if it weren’t,” answers the dwarf, matter-of-factly.
Cole cleans up, dresses, and heads to Category Z. Byron is in his usual booth, sporting a tiny waistcoat and fob watch, and seated with him is a tall, pale, visibly augmented man wearing a long black armored duster and blank, expressionless stare.
“Cole, meet…uh, Cage, wasn’t it?” Byron says. The man gives a barely-perceptible nod. “He comes to me recommended by a mutual acquaintance on the Matrix. And I think we’ll need him for tonight’s run…if you’re in.”
Cole grunts noncommittally.
“I’ll take that as a…ahhh, here she is,” Byron’s face lights up with something like genuine warmth and also an edge of nervousness. Framed in the doorway of the dive is a tall, well-muscled razorgirl in full spec-ops regalia. The only things on her that aren’t black are her impossibly pale skin and neon-green hair. “Byron,” she says, snagging a stool with her boot and dragging it over to the booth in one smooth motion. “We heard you’d fallen from grace, but what, you recruiting from the retirement home now?” She smirks, without real malice, at Cole’s seamed face and shock of white hair.
“Can we not talk history in front of the hired help?” Byron says with a peevish edge. “Boys, this is our prospective client. Amber Blaze, one of the hottest runners in the metroplex. She’s subcontracting.”
“Go on,” Cole says.
She clears her throat. “Look, I’m a runner like you, and I feel like us runners gotta have a code. So I’m not gonna bother with the Johnson routine and I’m going to give it to you straight, or as straight as my team has it, anyway. We’ve been tapped to bring in an Awakened that someone wants real bad back in CalFree, alive preferably but dead is okay too. He’s been holed up here in Redmond. Target’s name is Theo Cloutier, a French-Metis from old Canada, and our own legwork suggests he was involved with some terrorist shenanigans in California and that our Johnson is some flavor of Free State law.”
She waves a hand, and a floppy-disk icon appears in Cole and Cage’s AR vision as a file is shared to them, though only Cole knows what the icon is supposed to represent. “Our surveillance has placed him near the Rat’s Nest, in an old DuPont plant up by the riverbank. He’s hired a small band of Rust Stilettos as his guards. They’ve got some ghetto-ass security setup, too. The plan is simple: I want you two to make a lot of noise and really get the gangers’ attention from the landward side of the factory. Put on a real fireworks show, enough that our target will try to slip out the river side. We’ll be waiting there to scoop him up.”
“This sounds like some soldier drek,” Cole says. “What the hell you need a run-down private dick for?”
Byron coughs softly. “Mr. Cage is a gun specialist and will do most of the shooting, I imagine. And I, uh, couldn’t get Bashurr on the comlink.”
A text message pops up in Cole’s AR from Byron. “You can read people. Keep an eye on the new guy and tell me what you think of him. He’s got some weird kind of damage. If he’s gonna get your crew geeked, we should probably know now.”
Cole feigns resignation. “Whatever. Let’s talk fragging terms.”
Amber offers 5 g’s apiece; Cole tries to talk her up but no dice; she knows all his plays better than he does. She takes pity and gives them 3 up front apiece.
“The op’s at oh-one-hundred,” she says, walking out of Category Z. “It’s sixteen hundred now. We’ll be in touch at midnight.”
Cole and Cage slide into Cole’s Americar and begin picking their way through the slums toward the Snoqualmie River, keeping their guns prominently displayed.
Cole puffs an e-cigarette. “So what’s your story, chummer?”
“I don’t have a story,” Cage says. “I woke up on a slab a couple days ago. My memory’s locked up.” He taps the side of his temple.
“But you figure you’ll just start running, no questions asked. Fucking Byron,” Cole groans. “So not only do I not know what you can do, neither do you?”
“I know my way around guns. Infiltration. …Other things.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Cole says.
“Then pull over.”
Cole does so, bemused, as Cage gets out of the car and begins striding towards a pair of squatter gangers sitting on a ruined brick wall.
“Eyy, man,” one says, pulling a combat knife. "The fuck you think you’re going? You gotta pay the fragging toll – "
Cole scrambles out of the driver’s seat. “Hey, wait a minute, I didn’t mean for you to-”
In one effortless move, Cage leaps atop a dumpster, then from it to the top of a small burned-out gas station. One of the gangers whips his knife at Cage and it clatters against the wall. Cage’s thigh opens up and he swiftly withdraws an Ares Predator, which barks three times and leaves the hapless ganger a bloody ruin. The other ganger charges Cole with a tire iron, and the PI grimaces and halfheartedly fires his Ruger into the young man’s thigh. “Aw, jeez, I didn’t want this to….run, kid! Get the fuck out of here!”
The living ganger limps away, into a back alley. Cage leaps from the top of the station and walks calmly back to the car. “You asked for a demonstration.”
“Well, you definitely demonstrated something,” Cole spits.
The two continue their drive to the rusting hulk of the old 20th-century DuPont chemical plant. It matches the description Amber Blaze gave them; a pitted old parking lot provides minimal cover for fifty yards on all sides. The Rust Stilettos have set up a small encampment, and there seem to be four of them: a thickly-built troll woman in leather and a halter top, a gangly, stringy-haired ork man in black denim, a squat ork with a vacant stare, sitting motionless in a lawn chair, and in a makeshift tent that seems to be the command center, a huge, hulking shape under a canvas tarpaulin. Cole also spots three home-made turrets – heavy-caliber rifles mounted on tripods – concealed amidst a few burned-out cars and random junk piles.
“Those cars won’t make good cover from the turrets,” Cage says. “We need heavier weaponry.”
Cole agrees, and they make the drive back to Touristville, Cole calling one of his contacts in Lone Star.
The contact, a fat ork named Kowalski in a polyester uniform, turns up half an hour later in the Category Z parking lot. He produces a trunk full of “slightly-used” weapons, some with the last owner’s blood still caked on the magazine, a set of dented bulletproof vests, and so forth. The fruits of the Lone Star low-priority evidence lockup. “Since Knight Errant got the Seattle contract, nobody really cares if a few pieces go missing,” he says by way of explanation, then launches into a lavish, passionate description of the calibers, ranges, and stopping power of each piece in between slightly fawning questions of the shadowrunners. He’s clearly the Sixth’s World’s answer to the mall ninja.
Cage buys a fully-automatic rifle and Cole buys a clutch of grenades. The two then head back in the direction of the chemical plant.
“I think we could use some backup,” Cole says. “Or at least some info. Could be those squatters in the Rat’s Nest know something.”
The North Seattle Refuse and Reclamation Facility, called the Rat’s Nest owing to the small group of rat shamans who call it home, is a mile upriver from the plant. THe evening shadows are lengthening as Cole and Cage pull in, and a young black girl standing lookout hollers their arrival to the squat. “Mrs. Mateo! Mrs. Mateo! Two drekheads with guns in a car!”
A large, middle-aged Filipino woman comes out of a corrugated shed, her faded dress not entirely covering a set of bulky augmentations. “You’re not here to shoot up the place,” she says levelly, “so you want something. Tell me.”
“We’re here about the Rust Stilettos,” Cole says, and her lips quirk. “Specifically, to deal with them.”
“Well, then,” Mrs. Mateo says. “I might be able to help. Girl, run and get Carlo and Mandy.”
A little while later, after a bit of very successful negotiation, Cole has secured the services of Carlo and Mandy, a pair of hot-to-trot teens who act as guards for the squatters, to serve as backup for the attack on the plant for a couple hundred nuyen apiece. Sub-subcontracting. The squatters also tell him about the Rust Stilettos – the leader of the small band is a giant, heavily-aug’ed troll named Thrash, who was kicked out of his last band of Stilettos for being too unpredictably violent.
“They say his reflexes are permanently wired,” Mandy says with a shiver.
The troll girl is Sapphire, and the thin boy is New Logan, who was brought in recently to replace the late Old Logan. “Logan’s not even New Logan’s name,” Carlo adds, “but nobody’s gonna contradict Thrash.”
The fourth member, the ork in the lawn chair, is Burny. “Not Bernie like Bernard, Burny like he got burned,” Mandy says. “He just sits in that chair all day and sometimes they pour glop down his throat.”
The crew begin formulating a plan. Cage will vault the fence out of sight of the turrets and climb the two stories to the ceiling of the building, then take out Burny first, who they reckon is probably controlling the turrets. “I’d hack them, but I don’t have a deck,” Cage explains. Then Cole will ram the car through the far gate, shoot a lot in the general direction of the Rust Stilettos, and peel out again, luring them away from the factory so the primary team can nab their guy in peace.
Amber calls at midnight to make sure they’re ready. She patches in the two other members of her team: Tex Talos, a dwarf rigger from the CAS with huge mutton chops and a down-home accent, and Grunfeld, a pensive-looking elven magician with a German accent. Pleasantries are exchanged, then Cole lights one of the incredibly precious real tobacco cigarettes (Red Apple brand, of course) that he keeps around to smoke before missions where death is a real possibility.
An hour later the plan begins. Cage slips onto the roof with ease. He withdraws his rifle, takes a long moment to aim, and perforates Burny’s skull. Directionless, the three turrets begin spinning wildly on their gimbals. Cole smashes the Americar through the rusted fence and he, Mandy, and Carlo spray fire in the general direction of the giant. Thrash – a truly huge troll, and seemingly half made of metal, begins charging the Americar with terrifying speed, bullets pinging uselessly off his hide. Cole fishtails the car and surreptitiously drops a live grenade in the car’s wake as he speeds back out the gate.
New Logan throws a grenade at the building roof. Cage hits the deck, avoiding the brunt of the blast, but is lightly tagged by some shrapnel. Sapphire fires a burst from her machine pistol but only succeeds in pulverizing a bit of masonry.
“We see him!” Amber Blaze’s voice echoes over Cole and Cage’s comlinks. “We’re making our play!” From the other side of the factory, the river side, a day-bright flare shoots up into the sky, and they hear the sound of a vehicle-mounted gun spitting lead.
“Jesus,” Cole bellows as he spins the Americar laterally. “Everyone bail out, take cover, and focus on the big guy!” They pile out and spray the charging troll with suppressive fire, which, along with the primed grenade finally detonating nearby, forces him to take a knee in a deep pothole in the ruined parking lot.
New Logan makes a break for Burny’s cyberdeck, trying to reactivate the turrets, but Cage is faster, riddling him from the rooftop and sending the ork to the ground, not quite dead. Logan crawls to the console and presses a button, laughing as the turrets switch to computer control, seeking the intruders. Sapphire takes another shot at Cage but misses again.
Thrash raises an enormous shotgun and fires a spray of lead at Cole, who’s tagged in the shoulder. The windows of the sedan shatter. Cole grits his teeth and fires back, scoring a lucky hit, causing the troll to bellow and leak machine fluid everywhere. Mandy and Carlo keep pouring it on, their shots mostly pinging off the chrome but occasionally striking home.
The chaos from the other side of the factory intensifies. From his perch, Cage sees a green ball of toxicity narrowly miss a hovering drone. Cloutier is a toxic shaman, apparently.
Before the turrets can lock on, Cage decides to take drastic action and leaps down from the roof – his gymnastics skill and hydraulic legs mitigating all falling damage, he races to the blood-stained cyberdeck and quickly tries to change the guns’ targeting protocols. Lying there three feet away, New Logan takes a point blank shot at Cage but can’t hold the gun steadily enough to hit. Sapphire pulls a wicked-looking knife and charges Cage with a scream, but it’s too late. The guns are now on the runners’ side. One of the three unceremoniously drops her to the ground without a head. The other nearby turret riddles Logan as he writhes on the ground. The third begins spraying Thrash.
Under the onslaught of Cole, Mandy, Carlo, and the turret, even Thrash’s inhuman toughness has to give out eventually, and the big troll jerks spasmodically as electric arcs fire off from his shattered machine parts.
Just then, a scream comes over the team’s comlink, and there’s an explosion from the other side of the factory, followed by a long, impossibly loud, inhuman bellow of rage. Something sludge-green and four meters tall stands atop the river waters, a single hole in its dripping, fetid mouth.
“DIVERSION TEAM!” Amber’s voice cries over the com. “WE’VE GOT A FREE TOX SPIRIT! WE NEED EVAC NOW!”
“Come get these turrets!” Cage orders, and Cole, Mandy, and Carlo dive back into the car and race across the parking lot, picking up the tripod guns as they go.
“Can you meet us at the bridge a hundred meters downstream?” Cole radios.
“I think so,” Amber replies.
“Take the wheel,” Cole tells Cage. “i’m better at hacking, anyway.” He grabs the deck and hurriedly begins writing new automation for the guns. Cage speeds over the broken rubble of the street to the bridge downstream. The green sludge creature is firing gobs of caustic fluid at anything that moves, barely missing the car. Mandy and Carlo and Cole get out and set the turret guns along the bridge, and, fully automated and with a huge target, they begin pumping hundreds of rounds into the toxic spirit, which seems unharmed but stymied, holding up its unrefined, dripping “limbs” to shield itself from the onslaught. The noise is deafening.
Amber staggers up the embankment, leading Grunfeld by the hand and carrying Tex’s limp body over her shoulder. “We’ve gotta get out of -” she pants.
“N..no,” Grunfeld says. “We can’t leave this unfinished. The creature is…” he grimaces in pain, “distracted. I have to try…”
He grits his teeth and pronounces a spell of banishment. A blue bolt of pure mana strikes the toxic spirit, taking it completely by surprise. A huge volume of its torso is converted back into pure mana, falling away as glittering blue snowflakes, before the entire creature just deliquesces, its substance crashing into the river like water from a burst balloon. Grunfeld flops to the ground.
Mandy and Carlo drag the other runners into the car – it’s a cramped fit but do-able – and Cole makes a beeline for the nearest street clinic.
A little while later, Cole is standing with Amber, peering into a decontamination room where Tex and Grunfeld are being treated. Satisfied that they are no longer in imminent danger, she leans against a wall and exhales a long, shuddering breath.
Cage stands in the waiting room dispassionately, looking as if he could stand there in that exact pose for a decade or more.
“They didn’t tell us he was a tox shaman,” Amber says to Cole. “Fucking sicko didn’t even care that we’d geeked him. He thought he’d let his slime monster out to play just out of spite.” She rubs the bridge of her nose. “That’ll be leverage, when we next speak to the Johnson. He’ll cough up something extra. He’d better.” Her voice has a dangerous edge. “And I think you and tall, dark and creepy over there earned your pay tonight, and more besides. Gimme your credsticks.” She slots them into her PDA and tacks on a couple of extra g’s.
“Thanks,” Cole offers.
“Looks like Byron’s maybe got his nose for talent back,” she says. “If he moves back Downtown and takes you with him, I wouldn’t mind running with you again.”
“Yeah, well, count me out of any toxic shaman drek,” Cole says with finality.
She attempts a smile. “Can’t blame you there,” she says. “See you in the shadows, runner.”