A Kinder, Gentler Shadowrun

by Lonnie McDowell

Willard Constantopolis grew up in Portland. When the NAN decreed that Portland was their homeland, along with almost everything else in a 2000 mile radius, he did the only thing he could: he moved to Seattle with the rest of his friends and associates. He'd never really wanted to go back east, and Seattle was close enough to "normal" weather that he felt almost at home. Of course, his house in Portland sold for next to nothing, and there was no way he could afford a house in the shrinking market of Seattle, so he did what his grandfather before him did: he took menial jobs that paid for board and room and not much else. For the first several months his post-graduate degree in genetics took up space in his closet while he and thousands of other relocated eggheads from all over the west coast flooded the market with curriculum vitiae: then the demand began to swell to meet the market as the corporations converged to accommodate (read: exploit) this new resource: cheap, highly-skilled labor. Eventually he wound up as a gene tech for a corporate subsidiary, splitting and splicing molecules no one could see, but everyone believed in.

Gene tech was like magic, when you thought about it. Magical phenomena was documented, repeatable, and reputable. You could see the effects, but the actual process was somewhat vague and mysterious to those who weren't familiar enough to follow what was happening. It was esoteric. Of course it wasn't something everybody could do; just like rolling your tongue or seeing the whole color spectrum, some people could do it and others couldn't. He'd read trade journals that attempted to link magical abilities to specific genetic combinations, but no real consensus had been reached: theories were set up one year, and abolished the next. Gene tech was the same way. New ways of doing old things, that's all; or in some cases, old ways of doing new things. For example...

When Willard first started working for... now who was the first corporate owner? The actual, fungible company was named Recumbent Development Systems (RDS), but the corporate owners (and by default, the source of the facility's funding on a project by project basis) changed repeatedly as the world of corporate mergers transferred the facility from corporation to corporation. Willard really didn't have time to keep up with who owned the facility from day to day, so long as the lab stayed in the same place and the funding kept coming. He had been assigned to the botanical division at first, that much he remembered. He didn't mind too much: plants didn't shriek, squawk, or howl at you, didn't transform into bizzare creatures overnight (he wished he could say the same for his lab assistants), and weren't subject to eco-raids from TerraFirst or other "animal liberation organizations." Somehow nobody seemed to care that plants were being held hostage against their wills. He'd spent several happy years there, developing a strain of decorative bonsai trees that were not only resistant to most insects, fungi, and plant diseases, but could photosythesize flourescent light almost as efficiently as full spectrum sunlight. This ability made the trees ideal for indoor corporate offices looking to boost their Feng Shui ratings, and made the company quite a tidy profit. Old ways, new applications.

As is traditional with any large corporation, the decision was made to take him from an area he was obviously sucessful at and put him to work on a wholly unrelated project: he was transferred to an "in-house" corporate facility. Although he still wasn't allowed to talk about it, he occassionally found himself remembering the long months spent working with salamanders, newts, and magicians. Frankly, he preferred the salamanders and the newts. The work never did produce satisfactory results, and was terminated abruptly after the disasterous escape of a number of test subjects from one of the labs in Europe. The project's remaining funding was exhausted by the subsequent cover-up.

From that project he was transferred to one of the corporate facilities in Asia, mostly to keep him quiet. The parent corporation was splitting RDS into several smaller facilities, located across three continents, and he was reassimilated into the company's facility in Toyko. While in Japan, the corporation "requested" that he undergo surgery to implant a relatively new technology: his first datajack. The corporate heads were traditionalists, and were very firm believers in uniformity. If the CEO got a datajack to manage the ever-growing stream of data crossing his desk, everybody (well, everybody with rank, i.e. paygrade IV employees or above) got a datajack. Another example of old ways inspiring new advances: soon the company had a major scientific edge on most of the other corporate scientific research teams, who scrambled to implant similar technology and close the gap.

Willard arranged a transfer back to another RDS facility in the UCAS shortly before the corporate heads in Asia expanded the mandate to include datajacks for the magicians on staff: the resulting setbacks to the magicians' wellbeing sent the corporation into a financial spiral which crippled the entire Asian division. Old ways are not always synonymous with good ideas. RDS's ownership was transferred yet again.

Two decades, two more datajacks, one cortical coprocessor, and six corporate takeovers later, he again found himself in Seattle. He was chosen to head a team of researchers who were trying to develop a clone bank of universal donors. The rights to the unfinshed research had been purchased by one of DocWagon's holding companies. He dutifully rejected the offer to transfer to DocWagon along with with the research, because he would have lost the tenure he had worked so hard to get: by this time, he had been involved in RDS's genetics division for over three decades. He was instructed by the RDS execs to oversee the transfer, which wouldn't take for another three weeks due to the delicate nature of the cloned material. Once the bank was stabilized for transfer, DocWagon would take possession of the actual materials the lab had developed so far, as well as the research data.

It was shortly after the DocWagon transfer offer that the trouble began.

The day had started out as any other: he went throught his morning hygiene routine, heated himself a steaming soy-caf and a croissant, and plugged the telecom remote into his secondary datajack to catch up on his preprogrammed topics: weather, traffic, and Human Interest. His cortical implant was set to filter out all the advertisements as well as any news stories that he'd already heard. As far as he was concerned, that feature alone made the implant worth the money the corp had paid for it, although that wasn't why the corp had agreed to its installation. The coprocessor contained a simple but necessary hexadecimal code that allowed him to upload data from whatever project he was working on into the corporation's proprietary database systems. It also encoded the data before it ever left his head into a form only the corporate systems could read (or so he'd been told).

He couldn't help but chuckle as the implant's gatekeeper subroutine reviewed and forwarded a story of a love-stricken new boar that had trapped a busload of tourists at what used to be Bamff National Park west of Calgary. It seemed that one of the tourists was wearing a perfume that the news commentators identified only as a recently testmarketed "species-nonspecific phermone based fragrance," and the beast apparently got a whiff too exciting to ignore. The news commentator noted that the tourist was human, but her ears and eyes had been "cosmetically enhanced." Ah, the perils of being an elf-poser. Willard also took note that the toxic rain rating was up; the constant cloud cover of the last few days had trapped most of Seattle's industrial exhaust and was sending it right back down.

He decided to leave his car in the condominium complex's garage and take the metro, rather than leave his car exposed to the weather on the uncovered parking lot at the research facility. (He and several of his colleages had lobbied several times for a parking garage, but to no avail: such a garage offered no tangible benefit to the corporation, and "worker dissatisfaction" could be remedied in ways less expensive than building the garage. Besides, most of the workers lived in the corporate Arcology, and transportation to and from work was provided by the corporate shuttle or the luxury car fleet, depending on one's status: those who owned cars were in the minority.) He probably would have moved into the Arcology himself, but the corporate housing placement had deemed it "inappropriate" for him the fraternize with those under him or above him, and his "project head"status put him awkwardly in between strata. He was placed in a complex owned by (surprise) a subsidiary holding company of the corporate conglomerate.

Willard unplugged the telecom remote jack and left the condo: all six locks clicked into place as he closed the door. When he reached the metro stop he unspooled a cable and slotted his pocket secretary into his tertiary dataport, mostly just because it gave him and his fellow commuters the illusion of privacy. Ordinarily he didn't use the metro system, but he'd used up all his corporate taxi vouchers, and hadn't gotten around to getting more logged onto his credstick, and getting them in hardcopy scrip was just so annoying... He really couldn't work during the commute, even if he had the privacy of a taxi: for security reasons, his data was stored exclusively on the company system, and he had to plug in through his primary datajack before he could really start to earn his pay. He spent several minutes composing another anonymous memo about the parking garage.

He felt the hairs on the back of his neck start to rise as three young orks boarded and worked their way towards the back where he sat. The problem with public transportation, thought Willard suddenly, was that anyone could use it, and unless they caused enough trouble to make the driver hit the Panicbutton, not much could be done about it until it was too late. The orks were dressed in quasi-military fatigues, but he suspected they were actually gang uniforms. He should have driven, he should have taken a taxi... Maybe there was still time to get off the bus before something happened. Yes, getting off at the next stop, that's the ticket. Need to get out of here as soon as possible. Look at them, they were probably psyching themselves up right now for something, you could see it in their piggish little eyes, better get out now while he could...

Willard suddenly noticed that the bus was speeding through an otherwise deserted intersection. He was a little puzzled: he'd never thought of himself as a bigot or prone to panic, and he had no reason to think the three orks were going to cause trouble. He looked around and saw that most of the passengers were suddenly letting out their breaths, and more than a few surreptitiously removed their hands from their purses, coats, and pockets. Even the ork kids looked relieved; one had very nearly pulled his handstrap out of the roof of the bus. The bus driver was murmuring into the comm set into the dash, and slowly dropping the bus back to normal speed. The comm crackled in response, and after a short dialog, the driver announced that Lone Star had a high threat response team at the scene, and "whatever it was" it would be taken care of.

The bus driver didn't say anything further, but two of the people on the bench across from him were trying to convince a third that it was clearly the work of a wraith. The third (a female ork; not that there was anything wrong with that, he told himself) was equally convinced that wraiths only came out at night, and all lived in Europe. Two seats over, an old man was emphatically insisting it was a stray Aztechnology broadcast using ultra high electromagnetic frequencies to stimulate particular portions of the brain. Willard fiddled with his pocket secretary and set a reminder to do a follow-up search of tonight's news to find out what had happened, or at least what the story would be. Some official explanation was always better than none.

The bus finally reached the corner nearest the RDS facility, and Willard disembarked and checked himself in past the two security guards in the lobby, into the card-key activated elevator, and through the "identity booth" where his eye, hand, voice, and aura confirmed to the computer and the bound watcher spirit that he was still himself. He picked up the adjunct datajack transmitter from his "out" box. One of the perks of his supervisory position was that he wasn't tied to a desk with a 1.3 meter cord like most wageslaves. No sir, he was a free-to-roam wageslave, able to look over the shoulder of any of the other workers and encourage or caution them, as appropriate. Just so long as he didn't try to leave the facility with the transmitter: the one time he'd forgotten and left it in, he'd barely entered the elevator before a burst of static flashed across his synapses that left his eyes watering and his fingers numb. He was informed later that the static was a byproduct of the alarm pulse which had alerted security and locked down the elevator. It sounded more like black ice to him, but no matter what it was, he didn't care to repeat the experience.

The morning was otherwise uneventful, and his afternoon was filled mostly with electronic paperwork: an oxymoron if ever he'd heard one. He spent his free time deciding what equipment needed to go to DocWagon to keep the clone bank viable. He also took time to refill the taxi vouchers on his cred-stick. It was only after he noticed that the lab was mostly empty that he realized how late it was. The cleaning crew was already coming in: they usually didn't come in until after he left. Funny, he didn't recognize any of them... You'd think those two trolls would be memorable, at least, even if the other three weren't. And why did they all have trash carts? There wasn't that much garbage in the whole lab. He shrugged as they continued on past his office into the main section of the lab. Not his business.

Fifteen minutes later his door opened, and he heard two soft -phut- sounds followed by a sharp stinging sensation in his shoulder and his chest. He looked up at the large figure in the doorway, but his vision was blurring and suddenly all the lights seemed to go dim, as his head slumped to his chest.

When he awoke, he was disoriented: his adjunct transmitter was missing, and his brain didn't seem to want to wake up. His cortical processor was in a quandry because no logout procedures had been initiated before his transmitter was yanked. His head was throbbing and his mouth tasted bitter. He was also very uncomfortable, he realized, because his body was wadded up into what he finally realized was a trash cart. His knees were pressed against his chest, with his hands bound together behind his back. His next realization was that he was in a moving vehicle. A tired voice behind him announced "he's awake."

"Heh. Almost got scragged, eh omae? Remy was running some hot narco loads, and he didn't compensate. You went into defib before we could get you out; Cueball saved your hoop."

He was only understanding about one word in three: he suspected the drugs they had used to knock him out were still fogging his brain. He didn't see who was talking, but it was a different voice than the one who had announced that he was awake.

Willard tried to come up with a response, but couldn't. He tilted his head back, then wished he hadn't, as the thunder in his head became an earthquake. He squinted at the sillouette peering down at him. The voice continued. "That's ok, you can thank us later. Right now, we've got some questions for you. Does the qwetrs skem liftonan?" Willard started to shake his head, then froze as the earthquake inside his skull increased. "Huh?" he gasped. "I said, does the niterm buad nikelby restion?" The voice was much more insisitent. "Unghhh..." groaned Willard.

"It's no use." announced a third voice. "I can't bypass the coprocessor security protocols from outside. He's only hearing gibberish. Try something else." The voice came from his left, and he realized there was a cable plugged into his tertiary port that ran over the edge of the cart in that direction. It was disconcerting to have his mind read, even if they were only reading the output from the coprocessor. He'd been trained not to discuss the lab or its security, of course, that was standard procedure, but he didn't realize he'd been interrogation-proofed. He wondered what else was in his head that he didn't know about, and which corporation had put it there. The sound of the insistent voice brought him back to the present.

"O.K. I'm going to tell you a story, chummer. Once upon a time, there was a little old man with a head full of data. He was a nice old man with many friends, and a steady job. One day, several enterprising individuals were hired to get certain information from a place where the little old man went to work every day. Only problem was, they couldn't get everything they needed, so they brought the old man along to help. Now the interesting thing about this story is that it has two endings. One ending is happily ever after, and the other is a tragedy. The good news is that you get to choose which ending you want. Comprende, omae?"

Willard thought long and hard for a second. His head was clearing, although still painful. The face peering at him over the edge of the cart was waiting patiently. "What do you want?" Willard asked.

The face grinned. "I can't tell you. Literally. If I try, you'll just hear nonsense. If you cooperate, we may be able to deal, but we'll have to be abstract. You're a scientist, neh? This should be null perspiration for you."

Willard tried to shift his position. He'd never negotiated from the bottom of a trash cart, and hoped never to do it again. "Could you free my hands?" he asked. He was losing circulation at the wrists.

"Need an answer first, chummer. Are you willing to help?"

"Let's just dig out the computer brain." said a gravelly fourth voice. "I can open up his skull and get anything we need. Maybe Wade can reprogram it once it's out." The face above Willard stopped smiling, and looked to Willard's left questioningly. Then he looked back down. "Listen," said the voice Willard had decided was the leader. "We really have to get a decision from you. You can help us, or we can... pursue other options. I think the decision's pretty clear, don't you? Whadda you say?" He wasn't quite pleading.

Willard spoke slowly and as clearly as he could. His mouth was very dry. "I'm an old man. I've survived two VITAS plagues, the great computer crash of 2029, and one bad marriage. I'll tell you what you want to know, but my hands are numb, and I don't know what you want."

The face above him smiled again, and said "Hold on." The cart tipped on its side, and Willard was unceremoniously dragged out and propped back up against the side of the cart. "Remy, use that surgical instrument of yours to cut him loose, will you?" He heard movement behind him, and his hands were freed. He looked around. To his left, a young woman was holding a cyberdeck on her lap which was attached to the cable plugged into his temple. Another cable ran from the deck to her temple. Her cybereyes were solid grey, and very disconcerting. Next to her, towards the front of the truck, was a very large troll (is there any other kind?) who was hefting a bowie knife as wide and long as Willard's leg from the knee down. Directly between Willard and the back door was the leader, a human with short black hair and a very large gun slung across his chest, with a pistol tucked into his waistband. A fair haired elf was sitting against the opposite wall to his right with her eyes closed and a sword that looked just like Sally Tsung's (weeknights at 11:00 on Channel 163, don't miss the next exciting episode) unsheathed across her lap.

"O.K. Here's what we need you to do." The leader looked over at Computer Girl. "Tell me what happens when you go to work each morning." Willard started to describe it, but Computer Girl shook her head. "No, try picturing it without forming words." He did so. She shook her head again. "No good. the processor filters cognitive images too."

"Oh." said Willard. Then after a moment's thought, which took more than a moment because of the cobwebs he could feel blocking every other synapse, he said "Humph." Then, helpfully, "What if I turned it off?" Leader, Computer Girl, and the troll who must be Remy all looked at him, and he resisted the urge to turn around and see if the elf had opened her eyes. "Sometimes I like to watch the commercials." he confessed, while they all continued to stare. Finally the leader shook his head. "Yeah. Um, go ahead and turn it off, then." "I need my pocket secretary." said Willard as he reached into his pocket. Remy's arm stretched out and rested the bowie knife on Willard's shoulder with the edge next to his neck. "S'long as you come out with the pocket secretary, everything's frosty." He rasped.

Slowly and with shaking hands Willard took out the small keyboard unit. "I also need to use my tertiary datajack." he said apologetically. The leader looked to Computer Girl, who nodded. Willard asked for, and got, the connecting cable between her deck and his jack. He unplugged the cable from his tertiary and reconnected it to his secondary datajack, then plugged the other end into an i/o port on his pocket secretary. He unspooled the secretary's internally stored cable and plugged into his secondary datajack, and typed a series of commands. Then he said "What do you want to know?"

Leader looked to Computer Girl and back. "How did you do that?" "It's not actually off, it's just max-resourced compiling and processing a genome analysis." Willard said apologetically. "On a pocket secretary?" said Computer Girl. "Yeah: it takes a while, though." said Willard. "About two years, so far, but I'm more than halfway done. It's something I do in my spare time. The co-processor stays pretty tied up when I'm at work."

Leader blinked, then shook his head again. "What security do you have to go through to get into the lab?" he asked. Willard told him what he suspected they already knew: two guards, a card key, and an eye-hand-voice-aura scan. "What are you presently working on?" Willard started to explain about the clone bank, but leader cut him off. "No, I mean the lab. What is the lab working on at the moment?" Willard again tried to explain. "No." Leader cut him off. "What other projects are you doing?" Willard thought, but as far as he knew, the lab only had one project, and he said so. "What about the bioware research?" Willard thought hard for a moment. "I don't think we're doing any. I mean, once we got DocWagon interested in the clone bank, funding shifted to that and everything else kind of went on a low priority tasking level, from what I understand."

Leader didn't look happy. "Look, chummer: just because you're not plugged in to Wade's scanner program anymore doesn't mean you can jerk us around. You're the project manager, right? So you decide which projects get chosen, which means you review the data on each one before it gets stored in the central core, right?" "Um, no." Said Willard timidly. "I'm the project manager, which means that when I got here two months ago I was put in charge of the current project. I didn't review anything other than the clone bank data." "And you've never heard of Project Archangel?" Leader looked positively dangerous. "Um, no." said Willard in a desperate voice as he tried to inch away from the bowie knife. The knife followed him.

"Cueball." Leader's voice was flat. "What's he telling us?" "Chiptruth." said the elf.

"Wade?" Leader's voice was still flat. "Where did our data come from?" Computer Girl started to speak, then stopped as Leader held up a hand. "Later. Omae, remember the story I told you? The one with two endings?" Willard nodded. "You may have rewritten it. I'm not sure I like that." Willard started to protest, but Leader kept talking as if he hadn't heard. "I have a couple of choices. Remy, how long does it take to walk down from Dead Man's Peak?" "About 6 hours if you follow the trail. Why?" "Not long enough." said Leader.

"Ask him." said Cueball suddenly, as she jerked her chin towards Willard.

Leader looked at him. "O.k. here's the thing, Omae. If we narco you again, you could die. I'd like to avoid that, but I need you to be completely offline, totally incommunicado, for a couple of days. Scan?" "Uh-huh." said Willard. "Frosty. How can I assure that?" Leader asked.

"Ummm, can you take my word for it?" Willard's mouth was dry again.

"Need a better answer than that, chummer." The troll waggled the knife against Willard's throat. Willard thought harder. "What if I take your word?" he asked. At this point, he didn't have anything to lose. "Keep talking." said Leader. "Well, what if I check into an automated coffin motel and pay the minimum fee, then stay inside when my time runs out? If you promise to let somebody know where I am when you've done whatever you need to do, I can probably wait inside that long."

Cueball spoke up. "No, that won't work. He can make enough noise that sombody'll complain, or call Lone Star to pull him out. Plus, there's no bathroom inside." The elf seemed embarrassed to have a working knowledge of coffin motels, but at least she was concerned about keeping Willard regular.

Willard thought some more. "What about chaining me to a tree and leaving me with his knife?" he asked, nodding toward the troll. "Far enough away from a trail that no one could hear me, but not deep enough inside the forest that I'd get eaten by anything." He'd seen it in a trid once: Captain Vengence had been handcuffed to a tree limb, and had to to chop off his own hand to escape before the napalm strike. He had replaced it with a cyberclaw, which he used to avenge himself on the bad guys. Somehow Willard didn't see himself as quite that motivated, but he could chop down a tree, given enough time and the right tools.

"He's not getting my knife." said the Troll.

"Can you do some sort of spell on me?" asked Willard. Cueball shook her head. "No." she said shortly. "Nothing that would leave you intact." Willard shuddered as he considered the ramifications of that statement.

"Wait a minute." Leader reached for his gear bundled under his seat. He sorted through until he found what he was looking for. "How about a trade?"

And so it was that Willard found himself four hours later with a thick chain pinching his waist between his ribcage and his pelvis (Remy had seen the same trid, and had Remy been one of the aforementioned bad guys, Captain Vengence would have been Captain Toast). He also had a collapsable wire ring saw, courtesy of Leader's survival kit, and two containers of water. The chain was locked behind his back and gave him a precise 1.3 meter tether. He reflected on the irony for several hours after the team of runners left. He had cut two thirds of the way through the tree when the search party found him two and a half days later: the mosquitoes had found him much earlier, but he was otherwise unharmed.

He was breifly interviewed by corporate security, but the investigation was cursory: they said they'd call him if his pocket secretary showed up, but it wasn't likely. Apparently they had a much larger problem that demanded most of their attention. Several hours earlier, someone or several someones had hacked the central core, bypassed the corporation's security processor in some unknown way, and pulled out a large amount of data. Willard didn't dare ask, but he was willing to bet that the secret project Archangel was no longer a secret.

The bed in the condo never felt better, he reflected.

©1999, Lonnie McDowell - used with permission