Sean Eric Hunter stood on the roof of the Bainbridge High School gymnasium and wondered what it would feel like to fly.
It was the twilight at the edge of darkness, a cool early summer night dominated by an indigo sky and the far-off smell of the ocean. You could still see the stars out here—Bainbridge was far enough away from Hartford that the lights from the buildings and the cars and the planes didn’t interfere with the view. A beautiful evening, full of all sorts of possibilities.
Sean stood poised on the edge of the roof, his tall, lean body held in perfect balance. Without conscious thought he made tiny adjustments to his position to hold himself proudly upright, his eyes scanning the dark huddled forms of the town’s buildings below. They all looked pretty much alike from up here: most of them one or two stories, most at least a hundred years old but nicely restored in support of the little town’s reputation as ‘historic.’ The low-slung, aerodynamic forms of the silent cars that prowled the streets looked odd, as they always did, next to the wooden and brick structures that formed Bainbridge’s primary architectural styles.
It was just a bit chilly tonight, a little cooler than summer evenings normally were around here, but despite the fact that he wore only loose-fitting pants and a tank top that barely qualified as a shirt, Sean wasn’t cold. He felt exhilarated, as he always did when he took chances like this.
“Sean!” called a voice from down below. Althea’s voice. He crouched down, leaning slightly out over the edge of the gym, and grinned at her.
Some ten meters below, a slender, dark-haired girl stepped out from the shadows of the building and craned her neck to look upward. “Sean? Is that you up there?”
In one smooth motion, Sean swung himself forward, hanging onto the lip of the roofline, and clambered down one of the exterior support columns, his hands and bare feet finding purchase nearly on auto-pilot. He dropped silently down near Althea, swiped his white-blond hair back off his forehead, and grinned again. “Not anymore.”
The girl started, spinning around to face him, and then mirrored his grin. “Don’t do that,” she protested. She looked back up at where he had been. “Your parents would drek themselves if they knew where you were, you know.”
“Oh, probably,” he agreed cheerfully. “But they don’t have to know, do they? It’s better for them that way.”
Althea Ellis chuckled. She was shorter than Sean by a full head, with a slender build and pale skin that made her look very fragile. It was only when one got closer to her that it became clear that the pale complexion was makeup, not nature, and the slender form covered taut muscle. “Don’t look at me,” she said. “I didn’t see a thing. But you’d better get inside and get changed, or you’ll have to forfeit and Sensei’ll have you cleaning out the drekkers at the dojo for a week.”
Sean nodded. There was no doubt in his mind that his friend was right—SenseiWatanabe had certain codes he expected his students to follow, and promptness was one of them. Cleaning the dojo’s bathrooms was only one of the elf’s favorite punishments for transgression. “Okay, okay. Just lost track of time, that’s all. And anyway, you’d better stop worrying about me and get changed yourself. Your first match is before mine.”
Her only reply was to grin back over her shoulder at him and pick up her pace.
He followed Althea inside, under the glocloth banner reading “Tri-Counties Regional Martial Arts Championship Tournament, June 24, 2078, 20:30.” The gym’s entrance hall was filled with people milling around, talking and examining the holo-trophies in the alcoves along the walls. Althea veered off to the left toward the women’s locker room, while Sean turned right toward the men’s. “Good luck!” she called.
He grinned. “Don’t need it,” he called back. “And neither do you.”
The locker room was almost deserted—most of the tournament’s entrants had already changed into their gis and headed out to warm up. Sean shucked off his pants and tank top, tossed them on the bench, then slotted his idchip into his locker and pulled out his bag. He dressed leisurely in front of the mirror, not worried about the time. Despite his lackadaisical attitude, he was never late for anything.
As he shrugged on his black gi jacket, he examined his chest in the mirror, looking for any sign of his newest tattoo. He didn’t see any, but that didn’t surprise him—ultraviolet tats only showed up under certain kinds of light. He smiled to himself, remembering how the magnificent coiled Eastern dragon had glowed in the purple light of the artist’s shop. It had been a real, hand-rendered job, not one of the cheap ones done by machine. Cost him nearly two months’ wages from his after-school job at the rec center plus a good chunk of his high school graduation gift money, but it had been worth it. He’d been surprised his parents had been so accommodating about it—they hadn’t objected to any of his other, smaller tattoos or his piercings, but this one had been the biggest yet by far. He supposed they were just glad he hadn’t asked them for cybermods.
He did up the black belt with its three gold embroidered stripes without even looking at it—he’d tied this belt or one of its lower-ranked predecessors almost every day of his life for the biggest part of his seventeen years, to the point where it was as much a part of his routine as putting on his shoes. Seventeen, almost eighteen, he reminded himself, grinning at his reflection in the mirror. His reflection—pale, ice-blue eyes, tanned handsome face, and the shock of white-blond hair he kept long and spiked on top and crewcut short in the back—looked back at him almost challengingly. Only a little less than a month. Eighteen—the magic number that meant adulthood and getting out of Bainbridge. He had a whole summer ahead of him before he had to head off for college, and he was planning to make the best of it. This would probably be his last tournament for awhile. He shoved his street clothes into the bag, the bag into the locker, and slammed it decisively shut.
Outside in the main gym, the quiet of the locker room gave way to the loud clamor of contestants, officials, and spectators all hurrying to their respective locations. The big chrono on the wall read 20:22. Sean made his way through the crowd without touching anyone, turning his body sideways to slide between openings like a snake. He didn’t like crowds, and he especially didn’t like to touch strangers (or them to touch him) inadvertently. It always made his skin crawl a little, though he didn’t know why. His eyes scanned the bleachers for his parents; he was a bit surprised when he didn’t see them, but then he lowered his gaze and spotted them coming toward him. He met them halfway, over near the bottom of the bleachers.
Kristi and Grant Hunter were smiling broadly as they hurried up to their son. An attractive, settled-looking couple in their early 50s, the elder Hunters were dressed in their usual corp-casual style. Kristi held a little portable holoviewer much like many of the other spectators had: the devices could be programmed to display a holo of one of the contestants, and Kristi’s of course showed a smaller image of Sean in mid-flying kick. She threw her arms around him. “I was hoping we’d get to see you before it starts! Good luck, honey. We’ll be watching!”
Sean returned the hug, smelling his mother’s familiar scents of lavender soap, hairspray, and just a hint of her favorite perfume, Metamorphosis. He’d always liked the way the perfume responded to the wearer’s body chemistry and adjusted the scent and intensity to match. “Thanks, Mom. I’ll do my best.”
His father nodded, clapping him on the shoulder. “We know you will, son. We’re proud of you.” He glanced at the glowing chrono as a voice boomed through the gym, directing the contestants to their places. “We’d better get back to our seats. See you after.”
“You got it, Dad. Thanks.” Sean gave his mother a quick kiss on the cheek and hurried off to join the others.
They were all there already, even Althea. Sensei Watanabe gave Sean a raised eyebrow and a glance at the wall-chrono as he hurried up, but said nothing else. As usual, Sean had managed to squeak in under the line.
Althea moved over next to him and squeezed his arm. He smiled at her. The black gi with its Watanabe School patch depicting a phoenix rising from a red mountain looked good on her—she always looked good in black. She only had one gold stripe on her belt—first dan to Sean’s third—but then she had only been studying since she was nine. He’d met her here all those years ago when she’d been a shy, skinny little girl with red hair and he’d been a brash, cheerful little boy who thought he had the world by the tail. They’d both changed a lot in those last few years but they both still found themselves gravitating to each other when they had things they wanted to discuss. There’d never been anything romantic between them—just the kind of friendship where you could tell the other person anything—or at least almost everything—and not fear rejection or ridicule. Sean thought everybody should have a friend like that. He wished he could open up completely to her, but in the past couple of years even the two of them had grown a little more distant. Not much—just to the point where there were things they kept to themselves now instead of talking them out on long walks or during breaks in classes. He supposed it was just a natural part of growing up: no matter how much you cared for someone, there were just some things you couldn’t share.
He smiled at her now. “You’re up first,” he said, helping her do up the back of her sparring gear. “Go out there and kick some butt for the school.”
“One butt-kicking, coming up,” she agreed, rising from the bench and moving out toward the padded competition area.
Sean grinned. He knew she wasn’t kidding.
The Tri-Counties tournament consisted of several classes: human unmodified, modified, and adept, along with various other classes as needed for metahumans and changelings. There weren’t too many metahumans participating except for elves—dwarfs didn’t tend to go in for martial arts around here for some reason, and the ork and troll contestants for the entire tri-county area could be counted on the fingers of two hands. Sean knew there were plenty of them—particularly orks—who studied martial arts, but they had their own schools and their own tournaments. Especially the trolls—the rules said they could only fight each other to avoid any grievous injuries, so they grouped together to form their own federation. As for the changelings, there were only two that Sean knew of in the whole area, and both of them were close enough to human that they didn’t need the special category.
Sean himself competed in the unmodified human category. The modified slot was for those who had gotten some kind of cybernetic, biological, or nanotech enhancements that could improve their skills—reflexes, muscle replacement or augmentation, bone lacing, or the like. Sean knew that even at high school level, many athletes had already gone under the laser; the procedures were expensive, but they were practically required for most professional sports. For the most promising, the colleges paid for all or part of the surgery as part of the athlete’s scholarship. Sean himself, who had already been courted by several colleges because of his football prowess as Bainbridge’s star quarterback and who’d been offered a scholarship to Notre Dame to play for them, had been presented with the same deal, but had refused. When they had brought it up, the thought of submitting himself to metal and plastic and electronics inside his body had filled him with a revulsion so strong he’d nearly been physically ill. Even the thought of bioware disturbed him. His refusal had doomed his chances at a football scholarship, but he wasn’t worried: his parents had amassed a substantial college fund for him, one that would allow him to attend just about any school he wanted. Let some kid who needed the money have the scholarship, he figured. He would show them what he could do when he got there. Who needed modifications?
His inability to compete in the adept category bothered him more. Ever since his early teen years when he had watched the students identified as physical adepts go through their practices, their limbs moving so fast normal human eyes couldn’t follow, their bodies under absolute control, he had felt a twinge of jealousy and regret. He’d been tested along with all the other children at age 12, and his results had come back 100% mundane. He had been crushed. All his life he’d been exceptionally good at sports, and he’d had a mastery of his body not matched by too many other kids his age. It had been his secret dream to be a physical adept, to take his training to levels he couldn’t reach as a normal human, and he had been convinced that his early prowess was an indicator of a nascent magical talent. He hadn’t let his parents see his disappointment when he’d been proven wrong, but he thought they’d probably known anyway. They’d never brought it up again after the test results came back, and he was grateful to them for that.
The tournament itself was almost anti-climactic after all the buildup. Sean won his matches with an ease that surprised even him. His opponents, all three of them, were worthy competitors and had obviously been well trained by their teachers, but there was something about them that Sean couldn’t identify—something ordinary. He had experienced the feeling many times before during matches: the sense of knowing what they were going to do before they did it, of their punches and kicks moving in slow motion even in full-contact bouts such as this. His second opponent, for example, tried to fake him out with a flurry of punches followed by what would have been a devastating spinning kick if Sean had been there for it to connect with. But as he watched the young man’s eyes, Sean could almost picture what he had in mind. When the kick came around, cat-quick, Sean simply stepped back and let it go harmlessly past him, using the advantage to get in two strikes of his own at his opponent’s unprotected side. The astonishment on the young man’s face was priceless: Sean knew he was a dangerous competitor and had been favored to win the tournament. That’s before he met me, Sean thought with no particular bravado. He didn’t have to be conceited about his talent—it was as much a part of him as breathing or sleeping, just something he did as second nature. He congratulated his opponent on a good fight and was pleased to see the look of grudging respect in the other boy’s eyes.
The second match was actually the hardest of the three. The third was against Ivar Gunderson, a boy who was both taller and heavier than Sean, a boy who was used to winning matches with a decent level of talent backed up by considerable strength. Ivar didn’t hit as often as some of the others, but when he did he took down his opponent in short order. Sean had fought him before and respected him: like himself, Ivar disdained cyberware and preferred to get by on his natural talent—or so he said where anybody was listening. Sean thought it might have something to do with the fact that his parents were poor and couldn’t afford the mods, but nobody ever said anything about that, least of all Sean. In his mind, anybody who worked hard enough to get as good as Ivar was without “cheating” was somebody worthy of his respect.
That didn’t mean he gave the guy an easy time of it, though. He had to smile a little when the match was announced and Ivar’s face fell—he knew that he was one of the few competitors here today who could consistently beat the big blond powerhouse. And beat him he did, after a relatively short fight that mostly involved Ivar trying to land one of his devastating strikes and Sean flitting around like a little fish annoying a whale until he’d nickel-and-dimed the larger boy to a victory. He realized he was making it look easy and hoped that anybody watching didn’t make the mistake of underestimating Ivar: the guy was good. It was just that Sean was better. As the applause of the crowd thundered over him following his victory, Sean offered Ivar his hand. “Nice one,” he said.
Ivar grunted good-naturedly, using the back of his hand to swipe sweat out of his eyes. “Yeah, right. One of these days, Hunter, you’re gonna make a mistake and pow!” He punctuated it by slamming one gloved hand into the other one.
“Yeah, but not in this lifetime.” Sean grinned and smacked Ivar playfully in the side of his padded headgear. He knew it was probably the last time he’d see him, as the two of them attended different schools both for academics and martial arts, and now that finals were over and the tournament was at an end, they’d be going their separate ways. The thought made him feel a little sad. He didn’t have long to do it, though, as the other students from Watanabe’s were hurrying over to congratulate him on his win. “See you, Gunderson,” he said. “Take care of yourself, you big ox, okay?”
“Pow,” Ivar said again, grinning, and then Sean was surrounded.
His parents were coming down from the stands. His mother threw her arms around him, heedless of the sweat still soaking his uniform. “I’m so proud of you!” she cried. “I knew you could do it!”
Sean hugged her, only a little self-conscious. His mother had always been demonstrative—it was just something he’d had to get used to, and he had to admit he kind of liked the attention. His father, though more reserved, was glowing with pride at his son’s accomplishment.
“You’ll be off to your party now, won’t you?” his mother asked, stepping back to get a good look at him.
He nodded. “Yeah. It’s at Nicky’s place.” Nicky was one of the other students Watanabe’s school and a fellow recent Bainbridge High grad; his parents had a big house up in the hills.
“Well, don’t stay out too late,” his mother said, her eyes twinkling as she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. Then her expression turned a bit more serious. “No trouble, all right?”
Sean grinned. “No trouble. I promise.” He knew he’d likely be out most of the night at the party, but he knew the kind of “trouble” Mom referred to—the kind his daredevil nature always seemed to be getting him into. Not tonight, though. Tonight he just wanted to relax, celebrate his and his friends’ victories, and enjoy the summer night.
His father put a hand on his shoulder. “All right, then. We’ll be heading out. Our plane leaves in an hour. We’ll be back by morning. You have the number, right?”
“Got it, Dad. Don’t worry. Go have fun. I’ll be fine.”
His mother gave him a last hug, ruffled his hair, and they were gone, bound for their own party, which was being given by Dad’s boss up in Hartford. They’d be taking a commuter flight because they hadn’t wanted to miss Sean’s tournament. He watched them go, still flush with pleasure over his wins tonight.
“Hunter! Get a move on! You’re driving!” called one of his friends, jolting Sean from his thoughts. He hurried off to change. Tonight was going to be fun.
Nicky’s house was up in Bear Heights, about half an hour out of town. By the time Sean and the rest of his carload of friends arrived, the party was in full swing. Driving synth-pop flavored with Native American and troll beats filled the air around the big house, and partygoers, mostly high school students but some older, spilled out into the front yard. Sean knew from experience that the neighbors, close enough that their houses were visible but far enough away for privacy, would leave them alone until around 2 a.m., so they had at least three hours to enjoy themselves.
Inside it was even louder. Sean hooked his leather jacket on a finger and slung it over his shoulder and moved through the crowd, greeting people as he went. There weren’t too many of the Bainbridge crowd that he didn’t know at least casually, although barring a couple of exceptions he had few close friends. He would have been lying to himself, though, if he hadn’t admitted that he enjoyed the attention he got from the girls as he went by—that was part of why he’d worn the tank top, which showed off his slim, ripped frame to maximum advantage. The fact that his build was natural and the product of hard work and exercise made him a bit of an oddity—many of the other guys and some of the girls in his circles sported equally impressive frames, but most of them had gotten theirs through bod-mod shops. Beauty could be had by anybody with enough nuyen these days, so it didn’t really impress Sean; however, if his own impressed the right girls, that was okay with him. It was just as well that he didn’t need artificial help anyway, because he knew his parents would never have gone for it. They were a little old-fashioned that way. Sean thought it was amusing. He was convinced that they put up with his taste for tattoos and piercings because he’d shown no desire for anything more drastic than that.
“C’mon, Hunter—got some people I want you to meet!” Nicky took his arm, handed him a beer, and dragged him into a crowd of people, and he allowed himself to get jolted from his own thoughts and lost in the music and the camaraderie.
He lost track of time after that. He let himself go as he rarely did, dancing and having a little too much to drink and trading flirtatious banter with a few girls he had his eye on—he didn’t have a steady girlfriend, but had had his share of casual relationships over the past couple of years. He had managed to convince one of them, a dark-haired young woman named Jen, to get into the hot tub with him, and was sitting there with her discussing the latest Sylvia Nightstar simsense when Nicky approached. “Hunter...that you?”
Sean leaned his head back so he was looking at his friend upside down. “What do you want, Nicky? I’m busy here.” Next to him Jen moved in a little closer to him and glared at Nicky as if to say Go away. You’re interrupting us.
Nicky, usually self-possessed, looked uncomfortable. “Sean...there are some guys here to see you. Star. I think you’d better talk to them.”
Sean frowned. Star? What would they want with him? He hadn’t done anything illegal—at least not illegal enough to warrant a personal visit to a party on a Friday night. “Did they say what they wanted?”
Nicky paused. “Sean...just go talk to them, okay?” His voice sounded very odd.
Sean looked hard into his friend’s eyes. Nicky knew something, but he wasn’t saying what it was. He sighed. “Okay, but this better be good.” He stood, gathered his towel, and unselfconsciously began drying off and dressing. He turned back to Jen. “I’ll be back, okay? Keep my spot warm.”
“You got it,” she agreed, settling back into the steaming water. “Don’t take too long, though...”
Dressed, Sean followed Nicky back through the house. “They’re not here to break up the party, are they?” It sure didn’t look like it—the music was loud as ever, and all around he could still see underage kids doing the things underage kids did at every unsupervised party.
“They’re in the kitchen,” Nicky said. He clapped Sean on the shoulder, then quickly headed off into the crowd.
Sean was perplexed. This was getting stranger and stranger. He racked his brain as he made his way through to the kitchen, trying to figure out what he might have done to arouse the ire of Lone Star. Could someone have seen him on the roof of the gym? But that was minor compared to some of the things he’d done—
He pushed the door open and found himself faced with two stern, somber-looking Lone Star cops. They still wore their leather jackets but had taken off their mirrorshades. Both were standing, and both looked uncomfortable. Despite the fact that they stood still, they gave the impression that they’d been pacing. “You guys were looking for me?” Sean asked.
The taller of the two cops nodded. “Sean Hunter?”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
The shorter cop, a little older and stockier, took a deep breath. He didn’t meet Sean’s gaze. “Sean—I’m very sorry to have to bring you this news, but—there’s been an accident.”
Sean froze. “An—accident?”
“A plane crash,” the other cop said softly.
Sean could only stare dumbly at them for several seconds, his brain seizing up, refusing to process the information he’d just been given. “A—plane crash? But—my parents—”
The younger cop put a hand on his arm. “There was an engine failure, shortly after takeoff. There were—no survivors. I’m sorry, Sean...”
He pulled away from the officer’s hand, his heart thumping so hard in his chest that he was sure both cops must have heard it. “No—this can’t be right—They—they were just going to Hartford for a party—” he took a deep breath. “Are you sure? Could they be wrong? Could it—”
“I’m sorry,” the cop repeated, his voice gentle. He looked like he’d rather be just about anywhere than where he was.
Sean stared at them, wide-eyed, first at one and then the other. Their hard stone faces showed compassion, the looks of men who had had to deliver similar messages far too many times in their careers. He blinked, feeling his whole body growing hot, growing shaky. Then he did the only thing he could think of to do—he ran.
Copyright ©2001, 2002 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of Wizkids.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.