San Francisco, 28 October 20xx, 15:00
It was three o’clock in the afternoon, and Ocelot was bored.
He sat on the worn wooden bench, listening to the silence, trying to decide what he should do next. Around him, the old dojo smelled of sweat and leather and the mustiness that only comes with age. The place was about a hundred and fifty years old, situated on the ground floor of a rundown building halfway up one of the city’s ubiquitous steep hills. From the street, you could only see top half of a window; the lower half of the dojo was below street level, so one had to walk down a short flight of steps to get to the door. There was no sign on the window: those who needed to know about the place could find it, and those who didn’t had no business being here anyway.
Ocelot glanced around the dojo from his vantage point at the end of the bench, taking in the wide workout area covered with mats, the practice weapons hanging on the walls, the mirrors, the heavy punching bags hanging from reinforced beams in the ceiling. Just a few minutes ago, the place had been the site of intense activity as he had completed a most satisfying instructional session with a wired-up ork samurai in need of a touchup on his fighting skills. The guy had been coming along well--he was almost at the point where there would be nothing more Ocelot could teach him, and he’d have to move on to an even more accomplished instructor. If he could find one. That didn’t worry Ocelot, though, since there was no shortage of willing students for the art he taught.
Getting up, Ocelot wandered slowly around the big room, pulling a wooden sword off the wall and taking it with him as he continued his progress. He swung it around slowly in a graceful pattern, oblivious to the effort it took to do so. Even after the long and grueling workout with the ork samurai, his muscles felt fluid, strong, his reflexes ready to snap him into action at a moment’s notice. Oh, he was in good shape, there was no question about that. Maybe the best shape he’d been in in his life. Since staying in shape was pretty much what he did with his life these days, he wouldn’t have expected anything else.
This was the third dojo he had rented since giving up shadowrunning two years ago. All of them had been in San Francisco, but in three completely separate parts of town. He always felt better when he moved around every once in awhile; it made him nervous to stay in the same place too long. Somebody might catch up with him. A day did not pass when he did not consider the possibility that one or more of the team’s old enemies might have tracked him down and be preparing something nasty for him. Made it hard to sleep sometimes. So far, though, nothing of the sort had happened. Even when he had consented to do a few small jobs for some trusted people, nobody had come after him. He kept himself in shape mostly out of habit anymore--he didn’t know what else to do. And he knew that the moment he let his guard down, that was when they would come. That was, after all, why he had taken most of his share of the last run’s lucrative payoff and had all his cybersystems upgraded to the latest tech. It had left him nearly broke, but he was now faster and stronger than he’d ever been as a runner, thanks to the march of technology and advances in medical science. And what was he using all this hundreds of thousands of nuyens’ worth of body alterations for? Teaching the next generation of shadowkids how to fight so they might get out of this alive too. The irony of this wasn’t lost on Ocelot. He just ignored it most of the time. To do otherwise would have made him more depressed than usual.
A small sound on the stairway leading up to the apartments above the dojo immediately caused him to look up toward the source. A woman stood there, dressed in practice gi. She smiled at him. “Are you ready for our session?”
Ocelot stood. “Yes, Sensei.” She was Japanese, several years older than he was, and delicately built for an ork woman. Her face had a serenity to it that one couldn’t quite call beauty, but that made those in her presence feel at ease. Her shimmering black hair, shot through with gray, was pulled back into a tight braid. She was Ocelot’s teacher.
“You forgot, didn’t you?” she asked, her eyes twinkling.
He shook his head. “The last one went a little over, that’s all.”
“Want some time to clean up before I have my way with you?”
He laughed. “What good would that do? Then I’d have to clean up twice.”
Sensei smiled back at him. “Logical as always. Just give me a few minutes to warm up--I’m not as young as I used to be, you know.” Moving across the room near the window, she settled herself on the mat and began her warmup routine.
Ocelot sat back down on the wooden bench, staring over her head out to the window without seeing it. He knew from experience that it would be at least fifteen minutes before she was ready to start, and he had already completed his warmups before the last session. He was, as always, amused by her comments about being old: she may have him by quite a few years, but nowhere had he ever seen anyone so accomplished in hand-to-hand combat. Even after all these years, he had not yet reached her level of competence, though lately he was getting close. The new implants had made him fast enough and strong enough that he could compensate for his slight relative deficiency in technique, making them roughly equal in skill. He enjoyed their nearly-daily practice sessions because she was one of the few people who could still teach him something. Out of respect, he never called her anything but “Sensei.” He knew her real name, but did not use it.
Together, they shared the dojo, teaching their respective students. Ocelot was renting the place himself; since she had even fewer students than he had, she paid him for the time she used the dojo and he paid for the rest. He lived in one of the apartments upstairs, and she in another. He didn’t know what she did with her free time; she didn’t know what he did with his. She had moved with him from one dojo to the next.
“I’m ready,” Sensei said, rising gracefully from her position on the floor. Ocelot got up and went to her. She was almost, but not quite, as tall as he was.
He bowed to her, and she bowed back, and then there were no more smiles and twinkling eyes. She was on him.
The session lasted an hour, as always, and as always, Ocelot finished up feeling like his entire body was on fire. Sensei was particularly rough on him today, perhaps in response to the fact that his intensity level was not as high as she would have liked. She never gave him any kind of a break, believing as he did that the giving of breaks had no place in personal combat. At some point, your life may depend on your ability to overcome your body’s protests; at Ocelot’s level of expertise, that meant that every workout made him feel like he’d been hit by a train. All the kicks and punches he had landed on his ork student earlier in the day now came back to haunt him, delivered by a small woman with hands and feet as fast as thought.
As they sat on the floor after the workout, he nursing his bruised muscles and she demurely re-tying her ponytail, Ocelot mused about the fact that other men might feel that being bested by a woman would be a slight to their manhood. He never understood that attitude: she was a better fighter than he was. So what if she was a woman? It didn’t matter. He’d known guys in the past who had gotten their asses kicked because they’d underestimated the power of a female samurai or a pissed-off lady troll. He’d never make that mistake. Maybe when he was a cocky teenager, but never now. Pulling a towel down from the bench, he mopped at the sweat on the back of his neck, puffing.
“I thought I was getting old,” Sensei teased. “Listen to you over there. You sound like a freight train.”
“Hey, it was a long day,” he said. He considered tossing his towel at her, but changed his mind. Tossing a towel at someone was not a sign of respect. “Tomorrow I don’t have anybody to train. I’ll get you then.” It was an old joke between them. Sometimes, lately, he actually did get her. But not often, even now.
“We’ll see,” she said, smiling, wiping her face with her own towel. “We’ll--” She cut off as the phone jangled at them from the wall across the room.
The two of them looked at each other. The phone hardly ever rang around here. Maybe it was a new student. Ocelot shrugged, jumping up and hurrying across the room to pick it up. “Yeah?”
There was no vidscreen on this phone (on purpose), so Ocelot only heard the voice: “Yeah. This Ocelot?”
The man sounded familiar, but without an image to go with the voice, Ocelot couldn’t quite place him. “Who wants to know?”
“Harry. That’s you, ain’t it?”
Harry? Why the hell was Harry calling him here? Ocelot hadn’t heard from Harry since the fixer had contacted him to let him know Wraith had bought it. “Just a minute,” he said curtly. Putting the phone on hold, he turned to Sensei. In a much more gentle tone, he said, “Can you excuse me awhile, Sensei? I need to take this one in private.”
The woman nodded gravely. “Of course.” Gathering her things, she moved on noiseless fee across the training floor and up the steps toward the apartments.
Ocelot tapped the button again. “What do you want, Harry? Didn’t I tell you I quit?”
“Yeah. You did. But I got a proposition for you.”
“Don’t want to hear it.” Ocelot leaned back against the wall, swiped a hand over his forehead, and sighed. “Whatever it is, the answer’s no.”
Harry, however, was nothing if not persuasive, and in short order he had made his pitch to Ocelot, who listened with growing mixed emotions.
“You’re sayin’ they asked for me personally?” he finally asked when the fixer had finished.
“Yeah. By name.”
“That makes me nervous, you know,” Ocelot said, shifting his weight from foot to foot and glancing nervously toward the door to the dojo. “I’m trying to be forgotten, remember?”
“Yeah, I know. But they’re lookin’ for the best. They remembered you from the old days, and got ahold of me to track you down. Like I said, it’s all in your ballpark. You can walk any time you want to. No strings. And they’re payin’ damn good.”
“You said three others. Who?”
“Can’t tell you,” Harry said. “Part of the deal. Sorry. You can find out at the meet.”
Ocelot leaned back against the wall and thought about that. Here was some Johnson looking for a team of hot talent, not afraid to go into the ranks of the retired to pick ‘em out. Who else could he be getting? Couldn’t be the old team--Wraith was presumed dead, ‘Hawk had gone legit, and Joe was who knows where, probably back on in the NAN lands. Moto? Vrool? The faces of long-past team members floated across his mind. Would they go back that far? Probably not. Most likely, the others were people he’d never heard of, hotshots on today’s scene instead of blasts from the past like him and his old friends. “Harry, I don’t like this. The whole thing makes me nervous. And besides, I’m tryin’ to keep a low profile. I turn up again and who knows who might decide I’m worth comin’ after?”
“I knew you wouldn’t like it,” Harry said. “So I checked this guy out good. He’s clean. And he’s willing to pay. He’s just got this thing about wantin’ the best.”
Again, Ocelot considered. Harry was trustworthy; if he said somebody was okay, they were okay. He didn’t really need the money, but it couldn’t hurt, either. And whoever these other guys were, if they were as good as he was, he didn’t have anything to worry about. After all, he was better than he’d been before. His cyberware was newer, his reflexes were faster, and his muscles were stronger. He was still just as good with a gun and better in a melee fight. What was he afraid of?
He sighed. Maybe he was just tired of running away, of hiding, of keeping out of sight. What could happen? He could die. So what? What was he living for now? Was he really ready to hang it up at the ripe old age of thirty-two?
Harry mistook his musings for reluctance. “Listen,” he said. “I told him you might be antsy about it. He assures me that the money will be to your liking. And remember, you just have to show up at the meet. You can hear what he says and if you don’t like it, you can go. No strings attached. I promise.”
One last token protest: “What’s in this for you, Harry? Why are you pushin’ this so hard?”
“Money,” Harry said, unashamed. “He’s payin’ the big bucks for me to find you.” His voice changed a little, became more earnest. “But you know I wouldn’t screw you, kid. I hope you know that, after all these years. If I thought this was fishy, I never woulda called you.”
Unfortunately for Ocelot’s decision to turn Harry down, he did know this. Never in their years of association had Harry knowingly screwed them out of anything. He’d done it unknowingly a few times, but he’d always made it up to them. He didn’t like getting fooled any more than they did. He sighed again. “Where?”
“Seattle. Day after tomorrow,” Harry said instantly. “They’re payin’ transportation. I’ll send you the details. So it’s a go?”
Wearily, Ocelot nodded, but Harry couldn’t hear that. “Yeah. At least I’ll hear ‘em out. No promises, though. And I’ll find my own transportation. Just fax me the info.” He gave Harry the number of a fax machine a couple blocks over at a copy shop; he occasionally used it when he didn’t want to reveal his location. “Send it in about ten minutes.” His voice hardened. “This better be good, Harry.” And then he hung up.
What the hell have I just gotten myself into? he wondered, staring at the phone on the wall, at the numerous phone numbers scratched by former occupants into the wood next to it. Two years of trying to stay low, and one call from Harry makes me toss it all out the window.
Shaking his head, he hurried toward the tiny locker area in the back of the dojo. If he was going to make it to the copy shop in time to pick up the fax, he'd have to get going. Sensei would rib him unmercifully about this, but then, he probably deserved it.
Copyright ©1996 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.