Category Z is a bar in the Redmond Barrens, just outside the relative safety of Touristville (and the heavy protection fees of the Mafia and the Yakuza). It’s a bar, not a dance hall, not a nightclub; there are stools, pitted from use and wildly mismatched because they were sourced in every double-discount house and somewhat-clean trash pile in Redmond. And there are booths, made of creaking, smelly old dark vinyl that bears ancient stains of ketchup and hoisin sauce and God knows what else. And there is a bartender; he is not a friendly neighborhood guy, he does not hail-fellow-well-met anyone, he does not know any cool secrets of the street, and he does not care who you are. He is an hourly employee, not the owner, and tomorrow he might be a she or a troll or something.
The clientele are no more regular. Nobody knows your name – or anyone else’s, for that matter. People stop in for a quick one on their way to and from other places. The closest thing to familiar faces are the clockers and the sex workers on this particular block this particular week, and they are prone to sudden and unexplained recasting, like a sitcom pilot that keeps getting remade over and over.
But in the back corner of Category Z – since a few weeks ago, anyway, which makes him older than all of the customers and most of the furniture – is Byron, who doesn’t belong here at all. Byron is a dwarf, but a clean-shaven one, handsome, well-dressed in a succession of tastefully restrained suits with waistcoat and wingtips. His neat hair is a blinding blonde. His nails are trim, except for one pinky, which is purple with a single rhinestone in it. His fingers sport several expensive but largely tasteful rings. And in a bar that is singlemindedly devoted to minimizing the impedimenta standing between its clientele and the its stomach-rotting hooch, he takes his drinks in a martini glass with a swirly straw.
Byron doesn’t belong here, and he knows it, and he doesn’t care who else knows it either.
Tonight, a spring night in 2075, he is entertaining guests. People he hasn’t met before, but has managed to wangle or finesse their comlink numbers from someone.
Cole, the private detective, recently arrived from CalFree after some unpleasantness went down with some guys in SanFran.
Blixt, the pretty-boy elven mage, and the one person who, in his color-shifting jacket, looks even more out-of-place here than Byron.
Red, a quiet young Japanese shaman, dressed down in a cap and shapeless baggy jacket.
Bashurr, a big, heavily-augmented ork with a mohawk and a biker’s swagger.
Byron makes introductions, then launches into his pitch. “Believe it or not, you all have something in common: you’re all looking for work here in the Barrens. And you all have skills that complement one another. People like me – fixers – fundamentally, what we do is match talent to jobs. For fifteen percent of the take. If that seems like something you could do, I’ve got a little gig that just popped up tonight. It’s a rush job, hastier than I’d like, but simple, and the payout is pure cream for a night’s work.”
“So tell us about it already,” Bashurr rumbles.
“There’s a U-Stor-It storage facility here in the Barrens,” Byron flicks his wrist, and the runners with AR overlays see a disc-downloading icon as a dossier file is sent to them. “Mr. Johnson – that’s the client, and no, it’s not his real name – has a package in unit F-21 that he would like retrieved. The package is about two meters long by one meter wide. Security’s basic – three-meter fence, barbed wire on top, a few bargain-basement rentacops on patrol. The locker itself has a physical lock and a Matrix lock and both will need to be broken for it to open. Get in, pop the locks, get the thing, take it to the address in the dossier, get paid.”
This is met with shrugs. “Sounds easy,” Blixt says.
Cole frowns. “Always a catch,” he says, “but hell, I need the money.”
It is decided that they will take Cole’s Ford Americar to check out the site. It’s a short drive to another part of town, an industrial park, and they pull over in a cracked and pitted parking lot across from the U-Stor-It, which is heavily lit with floodlights. The facility itself is a series of low, one-story lockers in orderly rows with car-sized lanes between them; access is through an electronic gate situated behind a small office hutch and a bored-looking night clerk.
Blixt does some quick math in his head. “I could probably get the whole car levitated over the fence,” he says.
This has its appeal, but other ideas are batted around. Finally, a quiet approach is decided on.
Cole pulls out a dusty, little-used cyberdeck, sighs, and plugs the leads into his scalp. Within moments he is inside the facility’s system access node, and a short while later has managed to obtain the key code to the front gate.
Bashurr is discreetly left in the parking lot to serve as a distraction for the night clerk. Cole and the rest of the team pull up to the gate in the Americar, nod curtly at the employee, and type in the code. The gate rumbles open, and they make a beeline for the F block. Finding it, they pile out of the car. “Now we just gotta work fast. We’re fine as long as the guards don’t see us forcing the locker,” Cole says.
“Oh, I’ve got that covered,” Red says, almost the first thing he’s said all night. “Watch this.” He raises his hands and the team become nearly invisible.
Working quickly, Cole pops the Matrix lock while Red demonstrates an unusual facility with traditional lockpicks. The gate slides open…
Meanwhile, Bashurr approaches the front gate, cursing and demanding to be let in. “My fuckin’…my ex-girlfriend locked my stuff in here, man! MY STUFF! I gotta…let me through this fragging gate!”
Every guard in the place is suddenly on their way up front to face down the angry, possibly violent ork. Blixt flips the locker’s light switch on. It is a bare, sad, ten-by-ten concrete room, empty aside from one thing: a long, black thing of glass and metal, two meters long and nearly a meter high. A stasis coffin. Cole rubs condensation away with a shirt cuff and sees a middle-aged Japanese man’s face beneath his hand. He shudders involuntarily.
Blixt levitates the coffin into the back of the Americar, getting it wedged in mostly securely. Meanwhile, up front, the argument is getting more heated.
“I can’t let you in, it’s company policy, you’ll have to come back during normal business -”
“SIR SIR SIR I NEED YOU TO STEP BACK AWAY FROM THE GATE SIR I NEED YOU TO STEP AWAY SLOWLY – "
Just then, rBashurr happens to glance above the buzzed haircuts of the security guards and above the rim of the barbed wire fence into the dull grey night sky; and he notices that one of the ubiquitous choppers that crisscross at a safe distance above the Barrens has suddenly, abruptly changed its course. It seems to be heading his way. It seems to be bearing down on the U-Stor-It.
“Uh…what? What, you just don’t like orks, isn’t it?” he shouts into his open comlink. “And now you’re calling a chopper on me?! A whole helicopter headed this way really fast for one unarmed ork who just wants his guitar? Man, that’s fucked up.”
The Americar pulls out of the front gate, causing guards and ork alike to make way. “Gentlemen,” Cole nods, trying to seem casual. He turns into the street, kills the lights, and pulls into the parking lot across the street. Bashurr backs down from the scene he’d made and dives into the now much more cramped sedan.
“What’s this about a helicop-” Blixt starts to say.
“Fucking punch it!” Bashurr shouts at Cole, who immediately begins driving evasively between the tall warehouses and office parks of the industrial district.
Red looks out the window. “They’re still lfollowing us!”
“It’s that goddamn coffin, it’s gotta be,” Cole shouts. “Red, take the wheel.” He awkwardly trades seats and pulls out the deck again.
“Let me see if I can buy us some time,” Red says. He murmurs to himself, channeling power…
A few hundred feet away, a giant fiery bat divebombs the chopper, raking at the windscreen with its claws. The helicopter wheels around, listing from side to side in visible confusion.
Cole plugs into the stasis coffin’s software and finds an active security profocol – an RFID theft alert. The storage shed’s dampers must have killed the signal, but when they took it out, it was like sending up a flare. He hurriedly shuts the process down, but not before noticing that the software operating system screams “Renraku.”
The firebat spirit can’t do any real damage, but the copter pilot has lost his bearings, and now they’ve lost their signal. The chopper peels away at high speed in the wrong direction, and the runners slip away into the shadows.
A while later, the Americar pulls into a sublevel parking garage, where a large unmarked black van and two suited, sunglassed corp types are waiting. A man and a woman, both with odd markings on their faces. Circuitry? Or tattoos?
“Well, med data says our man didn’t get him inside in time,” the woman says, glancing at a small black handheld readout. “He’s meat. What a clusterfrag.”
“Oh, I bet the necrotechs can pull something useful,” the man says, with a cold smile. “You haven’t seen them work. Hoi, runners. You just salvaged an operation months in the making, and a couple hours ahead ot schedule to boot. Load that coffin into the back, would you? Thanks. We’ll be sure to mention your efficiency to Mr. Johnson in our report.”