Sean did keep his promise to Ms. Peck, but it wasn’t because he felt any particular compunctions against heading out a week early. No, he had to prepare.
He spent most of the week when he wasn’t working at Jay’s place, lounging in a chair in his friend’s cluttered bedroom while Jay lay stretched out on the bed plugged into his deck. Watching a decker work, he knew, was one of the most boring pastimes on the face of the earth, but he didn’t have anything else to do. His body longed to move, to run, to be outside under the sun, but his mind was more interested in finding out whatever information Jay was locating. So, he remained in the room viewing the information he’d downloaded about Seattle on his portable trid rig, surfing the Matrix turtle-style, and pacing.
Jay, of course, had been all too willing to help when Sean had asked him the morning after Ms. Peck had left. He’d taken all the information Sean had given him and set some of his automated processes to go off and search for more, then jacked in and went in pursuit of the rest of the data himself. “It’s old,” the dwarf warned Sean. “Don’t get your hopes up too high—do you know how much drek has accumulated on the Matrix in nearly eighteen years? This stuff’s probably buried so deep it’ll take ages to find it, if it hasn’t been archived somewhere offline. But I’ll give it my best shot.”
That was all Sean could ask him to do, and he was grateful for the help. He suspected that Jay was glad to have some real-world information to go after, instead of pursuing the educational but pointless hacking he’d done in the past with his decker friends. Jay had shown him some of the “improvements” he’d made to his deck using components these friends had helped him obtain, and it was clear even to a non-decker like Sean that this machine was set up to do quite a bit more than the standard rig owned by the standard high-schooler. For nothing more than keeping Jay well supplied with food and sodas he was getting the kind of help that he wasn’t sure he could find anywhere else.
The trouble was, Jay wasn’t finding much. On the eve of Sean’s eighteenth birthday, the dwarf pulled the deck’s plug out of his jack and tossed it on the bed with a disgusted sigh.
Sean leaned forward, putting aside his holo-goggles. “Nothing?”
“Not fraggin’ much.” The dwarf hadn’t given him anything yet, preferring to find as much as he could before delivering the goods.
“Well, tell me. Anything’s better than I have.”
Jay pushed himself up to a sitting position, took a long pull from a soda can on his nightstand, and then took a deep breath. “Okay. Let’s start with your parents. Your adopted parents, I mean.”
Sean’s eyes narrowed. “You checked them out? I didn’t ask you to do that.”
“I thought it might be relevant.” Jay shrugged. “You want the data or not?”
“Yeah...” Sean said with a sigh.
“Okay. Your lawyer-lady was right: they did come from upstate New York. White Plains, to be exact. Your dad used to work for a little corp that’s since gone out of business.”
Sean nodded. His parents never talked about their lives before Bainbridge; he wondered why he’d never noticed before. But then, despite their affection for each other, he and his parents hadn’t ever really discussed much. “So?”
“So, I did a little more checking. Hospital records. They show a Kristi Hunter checking in on May 15th, 2060.” He looked up. “These kinds of records are usually pretty hard to crack, but I guess ‘cause they’re so old they haven’t bothered to update the encryption. Anyway, she checked in then, and the record shows she was three months pregnant. She had a miscarriage.”
Sean’s eyes widened.
“Yeah,” Jay said, nodding sympathetically. “I guess something went pretty wrong, ‘cause the record says after that she wasn’t able to have kids anymore.”
“So...she...they adopted me because they couldn’t have a baby of their own?”
“Looks that way,” Jay said. “Also looks like they didn’t waste much time. If you were about three months old when they brought you home, that means they had to do the adoption between July and October of the same year.”
“Less than six months...” Sean whispered. “That’s fast, isn’t it?”
Jay shrugged. “How should I know? I haven’t ever adopted a baby. But it sure sounds fast to me. So whatever they did, they set it up quick.”
Sean mulled that over for a few moments. “Okay, so what about Juliana and Terry?”
“Damn little. That’s what I was looking for just now, and a few of my searches finally came back. I’ve found a couple of references to both of those names in Seattle, around that time and a little before, but nothing to go on. No addresses or anything.”
“So they were there, though,” Sean said.
“Yeah, looks like it. But who knows where they are now?”
Sean sat up straight, then stood. “That’s what I’m gonna find out. It’s a starting point. Thanks, Jay. I owe you big.”
The dwarf scrambled to jump off the bed, tossing his deck aside. “Wait just a minute, omae. Where you going?”
“Seattle.” He paused. “Is there anything else you found that I should know?”
Jay moved to block the door. “Hang on. You’re just gonna take off to Seattle? Just like that?”
“Yeah. After tomorrow nobody can stop me anymore. I’ll drive out in my car. Why?”
Jay looked up at him, his dark eyes serious. “Then I’m coming with you.”
Sean snorted. “Don’t be crazy, Canfield. I’m probably going on a wild goose chase out there. It’s already almost August, and you leave for MIT&T in September. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”
The dwarf crossed his short arms over his chest stubbornly. “You’re gonna need some backup, and besides, I know people in Seattle.” He indicated his deck with a head motion. “I can get us a place to stay, and once we get out there, I might be able to find some more data for you.”
Sean was staring at him like he’d gone crazy. “Jay—”
“No go, Hunter. You got yourself a co-pilot, so don’t argue.”
Truth be told, Sean was just as glad to have Jay along. The long drive alone wasn’t sounding appealing. But— “Okay, Jay, fine. You want to come, you can come. But why?”
Jay relaxed. “You really want to know?”
“Yeah, I want to know.”
He crossed the room and picked up his deck, which he packed away in its padded bag quickly but reverently. “It’s Seattle, Hunter. Where the action is.”
Sean looked puzzled. “Action?”
Jay leaned in conspiratorially. “Remember I told you before that I wasn’t going to end up as a good little corper?”
“Yeah...you said you could learn lots of things if you had the right teachers.”
“Well, Seattle’s where a lot of those teachers are. I’ve already hooked up with some of ‘em online, but I want to be in the middle of it. I want to learn the stuff they don’t teach you at school.”
Sean looked at him severely. “You telling me you might not be coming back to MIT&T?”
The dwarf shrugged. “Who knows? I’m keeping my options open, is all. So, we on?”
There was no point in arguing about it. “Yeah, we’re on. I’ll pick you up in the morning. I just hope you know what you’re getting into.”
“Maybe more than you do, chummer,” Jay said seriously.
Sean woke up at dawn the next morning after having spent most of the night tossing and turning in bed. He showered, wolfed down an energy bar and some juice from the kitchen, and threw the few things he wanted to take with him into a duffel bag. This he tossed into the entryway by the front door with his thermal sleeping bag. He toured the house one last time before he left; taking a final look around his bedroom, he wondered when (or if) he was going to see it again, then hurried down the hall. At the last moment he snatched a small holo of himself and his parents off the wall and slid that into a folder along with the papers he had found in the attic. He locked up the house, took a deep breath, and ran down to the car without a look back.
Althea was there waiting for him, leaning against the Westwind’s silver hood.
She looked slim and serious in her goth black and pale makeup, her dark eyes huge in the face of a somber pixie. “Hi,” she said softly.
Sean dropped his gear on the grass and approached her. “Hi.” It was very rare indeed for her to be up this early—usually she stayed up most of the night and slept until well past noon.
“You’re leaving, aren’t you?” Her face betrayed no emotion, positive or negative, to accompany the question.
“How did you know?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t. But I suspected. I was pretty sure Bainbridge wouldn’t hold you any longer than it could.” She gave him a faraway smile. “Happy birthday, Sean.”
With everything that had happened, he’d almost forgotten. His eighteenth birthday had become less a cause to celebrate and more simply a day that meant his liberation. “Thanks.” That sounded awkward, so he added, “Thanks for remembering.”
Althea nodded. “I just wanted to give you this before you left.” She held out a small box, simply but exquisitely wrapped. “Just something to remember me by.”
Suddenly he felt strange. “I’m not dropping off the face of the earth, Althea,” he said in a vain attempt at teasing. “You have my number. You can call me whenever you want.”
“I know. Just—happy birthday.” She held the package closer.
He took it, touching for just a moment her small cold hand. She wasn’t acting like herself this morning. Feeling her eyes on him, he slipped the wrapping off the package and opened the small velvet box within. He stared at it, then at her. “Althea, I—”
“Just remember me, okay?” she asked, her voice soft.
Sean nodded slowly, taking the golden chain from the box. Suspended from it was a coiled Eastern dragon, its mouth open in a silent roar. The only spot of color on it was the tiny pale blue jewel of its eye, the same color as Sean’s own eyes. “I don’t know what to say—”
She closed her hand around his, squeezing the little dragon gently. “Don’t say anything. Just take care of yourself, wherever you’re going. And come back to visit sometime?”
“I promise,” he whispered. Bending, he kissed her on the forehead. “I don’t forget friends. You know that.”
“Yeah. I do.” She pulled back, letting his hand go. “Take care, Sean,” she said again, and then she turned and was gone, hurrying off down the street. From behind, with her black-dyed hair and her long black coat billowing around her slender frame, she looked like a tiny piece of the night that had broken free for one last dance under the sunshine. Sean watched her until she disappeared behind some trees, his hand clenched around the pendant she had given him. After she was gone he looked down at it for a moment, then clasped it around his neck, loaded up his car, and drove off.
Jay was hurrying out of the house before Sean could stop the car. He threw his bags in the trunk (except for his deck which remained on a strap over his shoulder) and glared at Sean. “You have second thoughts about going? I thought you’d be here half an hour ago.”
Sean shook his head. “Just get in and let’s go.”
The dwarf didn’t ask questions, but did as he was told and soon they were underway. “Anybody give you any trouble?” he asked as he watched the scenery. They were too far outside town for the grid, so Sean was driving manually.
“No. I called Ms. Peck last night and told her I was leaving. She didn’t like it, but she knew she couldn’t stop me so she didn’t say anything.”
“So you’ve got control of your bank accounts now?”
“Yeah...I don’t want to dip into ‘em more than necessary, though. That money’s got to last me through college.” He paused. “How ‘bout you? Any trouble with your parents?”
“Nah...half the time I don’t think they even know I’m home. I told Mom I was takin’ off and she just told me to make sure to clean up my room before I left so she could rent it out, and to be back in time to leave for school.”
“So, you clean your room?”
“Hell, no!” Jay grinned. “She’s kidding anyway. She probably won’t even go in there till I get back.” He rustled around in his bag, pulled out a music chip, and popped it into the Westwind’s stereo. The loud pounding beat of his current favorite band, Little Dead Things, poured out of the speakers. He settled back with a contented sigh.
The trip to Seattle took them six days, and it was only that long because Sean had to stop occasionally to sleep. The Westwind’s elderly autopilot wasn’t robust enough to trust it to a cross-country drive, and even now the Grid wasn’t everywhere. Jay slept in the car—he couldn’t share the driving because the Westwind wasn’t set up for his dwarf limbs, so he earned his keep by playing DJ, switching music chips in and out and playing them at top volume to keep Sean awake.
They didn’t talk much beyond what was necessary—the two of them had been friends long enough that they were comfortable in each other’s company and didn’t need a constant stream of patter to keep their interest. Sean drove fast but not too fast, as he had no desire to get picked up by the cops in some of the Native American lands they were crossing. He’d heard those guys had no sense of humor and he didn’t want to test the hypothesis.
As they got closer to Seattle, less than a day out, Sean asked Jay, “So—you said you’ve got us a place to stay?” He had originally figured they’d get a motel room somewhere, but he liked the dwarf’s idea better: for one thing it touched his savings less, but more importantly it was more interesting. His primary mission was firmly in mind, but if he got to meet some intriguing people in the process he wasn’t going to complain.
“Yeah. We’ll have to rent a place for the night ‘cause the guy wants to meet us in the meat before he takes us there, but don’t worry, we’re in.”
Sean nodded. He knew from past experience that the words ‘don’t worry’ coming from Jay were about as trustworthy as a shark saying c’mon in the water...I won’t eat you... but that was okay. Nothing in life was certain, after all.
The arrived at the edge of the Seattle plex early that evening. It was already dark, and the towering forms of the buildings that made up the city’s skyline blazed in the inky blackness. They could pick out the Renraku Arcology, the Aztechnology Pyramid, and the Space Needle without difficulty. As the traffic increased Sean switched the Westwind to autopilot and let the grid take over the steering, directing the car to take them toward Downtown.
“Now what?” Sean asked an hour later. They were back off the grid again and he was guiding the car down rainslicked streets lined with tall buildings a few blocks away from Downtown. The neon from the buildings’ signs flashed eerie colors into the puddles, changing them from red to blue to green and then back again. The ads were everywhere, nearly blotting out the streetlights. They’d have blotted out the moon and the stars too, if they’d been visible in the first place. The overcast, cloud-choked sky formed a weird backdrop to the lurid manmade excesses that surrounded them.
Jay was plugged into his deck, consulting the map that displayed on his cybereyes. “Anywhere around here’s fine. Just find us a place for the night with a jackpoint and I’ll get in touch with Crank.”
Sean found a motel not too far away that showed a vacancy, so he pulled the Westwind quickly into the small parking lot. The place was flanked on one side by a squat building advertising XXX NUDE GIRLS - HUMAN/META/CHANGELING XXX and on the other side by a well-patronized liquor store. Nobody gave Sean and Jay a second look as they got their gear out of the car and arranged for a room. The ork behind the counter shoved two magkeys across the counter without looking up from whatever was playing on his unseen screen. “You sure the jack in there works?” Jay asked, looking dubiously around the tattered lobby.
“What?” The ork looked up, annoyed. “Oh. Yeah, yeah. Works fine.” Without waiting for an answer he returned to his screen.
Jay muttered something under his breath and followed Sean out.
The room was in better shape than might have been indicated by the lobby: it was plain and unremarkable, but at least it was clean. Sean tossed his bag on one of the two beds and lowered himself down after it while Jay got his deck out and hunted for the jackpoint. “I’m gonna be here awhile,” he told Sean. “You might want to go get some dinner or somethin’. Bring me back somethin’, kay?”
“Yeah, okay.” As Jay located the jackpoint, snugged the deck’s plug into it, and settled back on the other bed, Sean dug out some fresh clothes, showered, and dressed. As an afterthought, he slipped on his jacket. Oddly, the simple action comforted him. The jacket itself had been a gift from his parents a couple of years ago: real leather, its rich brown folds butter-soft and distressed (both artificially by the maker and naturally by Sean himself). Over the past two years Althea, a talented artist, had painted various designs on it: dragons, Japanese and Chinese characters, the Watanabe school’s rising-phoenix logo. It made him think of home, but in a good way. Like he had a home to go back to, if he wanted. He slipped out of the room, locking the door behind him. Jay didn’t even look up.
Outside, the street was teeming with life. Sean had seen a McHugh’s a few doors down when they were driving in, so he headed for that. It wouldn’t have been his first choice for dinner, but it was close and Jay had a taste for junk food. He walked quickly but confidently, his eyes always moving.
“Hey, cutie,” called a voice from his left. Two troll women dressed in short skirts and glittering jackets lounged in a doorway, grinning in a rather unwholesome way. Their tusks were polished to match their jackets. “Want a little action?”
“Not tonight, ladies,” Sean said cheerfully without stopping.
“Too bad. We could show a nice boy like you a real good time. You come by if you do, ‘kay?”
“If I do, I will.” He grinned back over his shoulder at them, and their expressions softened somewhat. They weren’t much different from Mamie, the troll joygirl who worked the East Side area back in Farwell. He’d never taken Mamie up on that particular offer either, but she did make great oatmeal cookies.
He passed several more people on his way to McHugh’s: two more joygirls (a human and a blue-furred changeling), a hurrying corp-type who had the look of a john leaving an illicit tryst, and three young humans in jackets with matching markings who watched him through hooded eyes as he passed. Sean kept his pace the same but stepped up his awareness; he’d seen enough gangs to recognize these three as gangers, even though he didn’t know the particulars. They simply watched him and did not move.
McHugh’s itself was packed with customers of all metatypes, so it took nearly twenty minutes for Sean to get his order and get out. He spent the time people-watching, more than a little amazed at the sight of so many people of so many different types together. The restaurant’s high security gave it a reputation as a safe place, so its customers ran the gamut from frail-looking human bag ladies to huge, tough young troll males in studded leather and everything in between. Sean was already beginning to realize just how insular his upbringing in Bainbridge had been, despite his numerous forays into the neighboring towns to get tastes of how other people lived. He decided he’d better be on his guard even more than usual until he got more of a feel for the place.
When he got back to the room Jay was still zoned out. He grabbed the dwarf’s sock-clad foot and shook it vigorously. “Dinner’s served,” he called. “Your favorite—glop on a bun.”
“Ah...you found a McHugh’s,” Jay muttered. His eyes glazed over for a second as he finished up what he was doing and pulled the plug out of his datajack. He grabbed the bag and started spreading out the food on his bedspread. “Any trouble?”
Sean shook his head. “Got us a place yet?”
“Yeah. We got a meet in two hours. Place called the Mouse House. Crank likes us, we got a place to crash for awhile.”
“You didn’t ask him about what we’re looking for, did you?”
“Not yet.” Jay bit into a McHugh burger and chewed contentedly, mopping up the runnel of grease that meandered down his chin and got stuck in his goatee. “Once we’re in, I’ll ask.”
Sean dropped down into the chair next to the bed and regarded the food. He decided he wasn’t hungry yet. “So this Crank—how much do you know about him?”
Jay shrugged. “Not much—been talking to him for a couple of months.”
“So how do you know he’s not gonna roll us for our credchips?” Sean didn’t sound like he was terribly worried about the prospect, but just making conversation.
“I don’t,” Jay said cheerfully, taking another massive bite. “But I think I’ve learned a thing or two, and you’re not exactly the thickest plank on the boat yourself. We’ll do okay.”
Sean nodded. Leaning down, he reached into his bag and pulled out the birth certficate. “Can you make copies of these pictures, so we don’t have to show the whole thing to anybody?”
“Sure. Was figurin’ on doing that anyway, after I finish eating. I’ll put it on a chip for ya.”
Sean nodded, examining the tiny faces again. By now he’d committed them to memory. He wondered if the blond woman and the man with the cat-cybereyes were still in Seattle—if they were even still alive. She would be fifty-one now, and he forty-eight. Lots of people didn’t live that long, especially if they were outside the law. He stared into the direct green gaze of the woman who was his real mother and wondered what she was like. He wondered if the man would be proud of what his son had become, or if he had, as many guys did, just taken off and long forgotten about this particular misstep in his life.
Sean was startled from his thoughts by Jay’s voice. It didn’t sound like the first time he’d called. “What?”
“You were sure in your own world there...Listen, I’m done here. You gonna eat anything?”
He shook his head. “Not really hungry. I’ll grab something later.”
“What say I make those picture chips for you and then we head over to the Mouse House? You know—scope the place out a little. Before they show up.” Jay swung his legs over the edge of the bed, dropped to the floor, and began pulling on his boots.
“You don’t trust ‘em either, do you?” Sean was pleased that his friend hadn’t fully succumbed to the lure of finally getting to meet face to face with a “real” decker.
The dwarf shrugged. “Better safe than sorry, right?”
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.