Chapter 2

Seattle, 30 October 20xx, 20:45

“Are you nervous, Marika?”

Fang,” the young woman whispered to the troll sitting next to her at the table.

“Sorry,” he said. “But are you nervous?”

“Of course I’m nervous,” she said, smiling in what she hoped was an encouraging manner at him. “But Mr...uh...Johnson said it would be okay. Everything will be fine. But we have to stop acting like we’re nervous.” She regarded the troll appraisingly; he never looked nervous, even when he was. As long as he let her do most of the talking, they’d be fine. Her brother was very comforting to have around when things were dangerous or scary, but he tended to get a little tongue-tied when he wasn’t sure of things in a social situation.

They were early. The meet wasn’t scheduled to start for another fifteen minutes, and already the two of them were inside, sitting at one end of the table and looking around at their surroundings. The bar was a little run-down, but Johnson had assured them that it was a prime meeting place for high-powered shadowrun deals. A lot of runners got uncomfortable in too-posh surroundings, he’d told them. That was fine with Marika Cardenas and her brother Paul. They were dressed in what they hoped was appropriate style: She wore jeans, a brown fringed suede jacket, and sensible leather high-topped hiking boots; Paul (or Striker, as she’d have to get used to calling him) wore a heavy black leather jacket studded in various places with shiny steel points, faded blue jeans, and thick, clumpy engineer boots. His black hair was cut short on top and left long in the back, done into a small ponytail that hung down his back. He was not a huge troll, but he nonetheless dwarfed not only his small, delicate human sister, but also the table at which they now sat waiting. Marika leaned back next to him, closing her eyes and mouthing a silent plea to Dog to give her the strength to carry this through. She fingered the dog’s-head amulet she wore around her neck, taking comfort from her totem’s ever-present love and acceptance.

A back door opened, and Johnson came in, accompanied by a tall woman dressed in tasteful leathers. The two sat down at the table with nods to Marika and Paul, but said nothing. Johnson was middle-aged, light-haired, dressed in a conservative corp-style suit. He carried an expensive-looking briefcase. The woman sat protectively at Johnson’s right, obviously a bodyguard of some sort.

Marika watched the other door, the one that the other runners should be coming through. The room was not large, but large enough to accommodate the big table and several chairs, leaving of plenty of walking space all the way around the room. In the center of the table was an electronic device: she recognized it as a white-noise generator, to hide the conversation from prying surveillance devices, should there be any. The only two doors were the one from which Johnson had just entered, and the one leading out into the bar.

At five minutes to nine, that second door opened. Marika watched as a man entered, and surreptitiously took him in: mid-thirties, tall, muscular, alert. He stopped just inside the door and seemed to unapologetically be scanning the room, though Marika wasn’t sure what he was scanning for. He had long, dark-blond hair pulled back into a ponytail; dark sunglasses covered his eyes. His well-built form was clad in a T-shirt covered by a short, dark burgundy jacket, snug-fitting black pants that seemed to have some kind of pattern to them when they caught the light just right, and high leather boots with soft rubber soles. Appearing satisfied that nothing was amiss with the room, he moved silently, with catlike grace, over to the table and took a seat where he could see the door, acknowledging the room’s other occupants only with a glance.

Johnson nodded to him. “Good, we’re almost all here. We’ll just wait a few more minutes, then we can begin.” He sipped at a drink and returned his attention to some papers he’d pulled from a briefcase.

Marika glanced over at Paul. He too was trying to get a good look at the newcomer without appearing obvious about it. Neither of them knew who the others were that Johnson had hired for his job; he wouldn’t tell them. All he’d said is that they were top talent who were experts at what they did. Marika wondered what this vaguely scary-looking man did that he was so good at, and wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

It was now five minutes after nine. Johnson hadn’t appeared to notice. Paul and Marika looked at each other, but said nothing. The man with the ponytail looked down at his chrono and annoyance crossed his face, but he remained silent. Finally Marika got up her courage. “How many more are we waiting for?” she asked with what she hoped sounded like authority.

Johnson looked up from his papers. “Just one,” he said. “If he doesn’t get here in a few minutes, we’ll start without him.”

At that moment, the door opened again and another man entered. Marika and Paul both stared at him, not bothering to be surreptitious this time. You didn’t walk into a runner bar looking like that if you didn’t want people to stare at you. The man came into the room without looking left or right, as if unconcerned that someone might be waiting to jump him from inside the door. He was a little older than the first man, tall and thin, with a handsome, sharp-featured face and short dark hair striped once on each side with shocking white. Dressed in a fine suit of dark blue, he carried an immaculate charcoal gray wool overcoat draped casually over one arm, an umbrella in his hand. “Sorry I’m late,” he said briskly, his British-accented voice sounding odd in this Seattle bar. Tossing his overcoat over the back of the remaining empty chair, he caught sight of the scary-looking man across the table from Marika and stopped.

As she and Paul watched, the Brit’s eyes widened, and he smiled. “Well,” he murmured to the scary man, “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

The other man’s face had shown recognition as well. He nodded to the Brit. “We’ll talk about it later,” he said quietly, indicating Paul and Marika with a quick head gesture that Marika, at least, didn’t miss.

The newcomer shrugged and didn’t pursue it. He sat down after carefully rearranging his coat, and looked across the table at Johnson. Marika noticed that his eyes were a striking, but unnatural, shade of electric blue. As with the first man, she wondered what this dapper Englishman’s specialty was. She noted that both men looked confident, unworried, as if this was just another conversation for them.

Johnson smiled at them all. “We’re all here. Good. I hope you all had good trips.” He looked around the table, his eyes lighting on each of them for a moment before moving on. When he looked at Marika, she thought she caught encouragement in them. “Let’s get the introductions out of the way first, and then we can get on with it. I think some of you already know each other.” To Paul, who was sitting closest to him, he said, “Why don’t you start?”

Paul drew himself up and tried to look imposing. “I’m Striker,” he said, his deep bass voice reverberating around the room impressively.

Marika, too, sat up a little straighter. “I’m Fang,” she said, thinking then that it really was kind of a silly street name, but it would have to do for now. She’d been trying to think of something that invoked her connection to Dog; that was the best she could do on such short notice.

The Brit didn’t bother to sit up. He was slouched casually into the corner of his chair, arms crossed, looking somewhat amused by the whole business. “Winterhawk.”

Finally, the scary-looking man, who was still scanning the room occasionally, but who seemed to have relaxed at least a bit when Winterhawk had arrived: “Ocelot.”

“Okay,” Johnson said. He didn’t introduce his bodyguard. “Let’s get started. As you know, I chose you for this team because of your reputations--I’ve heard good things about you, and I wanted the best. The job is deceptively simple, but I think you’ll see after I’ve explained it that there’s more than meets the eye.”

Marika looked around the table. The two newcomers, Winterhawk and Ocelot, hadn’t shifted position. Paul had settled back a bit more comfortably in his chair. The bodyguard looked bored, but she was hiding it well.

Johnson reached into his briefcase and withdrew a photo, which he shoved across the table so the four could see it. “This is the headquarters of Garst Corporation. They’re a competitor of ours.” He paused, waiting. Paul and Marika leaned forward to look at the photo. The other two remained where they were.

Johnson continued, “Our scientists have recently discovered a substance that Garst’s people are very interested in. They’re working along the same path, but our sources tell us that they aren’t nearly as far along as we are.” Again, he paused. Again, no one said anything. “Recently, Garst’s people were able to infiltrate our installation and steal a prototype item made with this substance. They are apparently at this moment attempting to reverse-engineer our processes and figure out what composes the substance, something that we cannot allow them to do. That is why I assembled this team: the assignment is to get into Garst’s headquarters and get the prototype back before they can get anywhere with it.”

Ocelot pulled off his sunglasses and leaned forward. His eyes were pale blue with no whites, and pupils like a cat’s. “Just a minute,” he said. “You said you needed talent. What kind of talent do you need? Sounds like a simple snatch-and-grab to me.”

Johnson looked at him approvingly. “Good question. I’m glad you asked. You see,” he added, addressing the group as a whole again, “Garst has been experimenting with some rather--well--unconventional security methods. The problem is, we really don’t know what you should expect when you go in there. Normally, when I hire a team, I like to let them in on what they’re in for. In this case, though, I can’t do that. I wanted the best because I wanted a group who could deal with any contingency, and preferably be subtle about it in the process. We need to get that prototype back, and soon.”

“Where is this Garst Corporation?” Ocelot asked.

“Chicago,” Johnson said. “If you agree to take the job, we’ll provide the transportation. We have a private jet ready to take off.”

“Let’s discuss the bottom line,” Winterhawk said in a low tone, still slouching. His blue eyes followed Johnson, but the rest of him didn’t move.

“Oh, yes. Of course.” Johnson consulted a small computer from his briefcase. “I’m authorized to offer you 7,500 nuyen a day each, plus another 50,000 upon completion. That’s in addition to expenses, of course. We’ll want the prototype back in our hands in no more than 72 hours.”

Marika looked at Paul, unable to keep her expression neutral. This was unreal! That was more money than they’d ever seen in their lives! That was--

But the Brit was laughing, a cold, sharp sound. “You brought me all the way over here from London on a first-class flight to insult me?” he asked, contempt dripping from his tone. He started to rise.

“Wait,” Johnson said hastily. “Please, sit down. As I said, we’re willing to pay well for your assistance in this matter. What--?”

“Ten thousand a day. A quarter million on completion. Each,” Ocelot cut him off from his side of the table. Winterhawk glanced over at him, raised an eyebrow, and sat back down. Both of them watched Johnson. Marika and Paul watched them, hardly daring to breathe.

For a moment, Johnson looked uncomfortable. He consulted his computer again, tapped in a few figures, and then looked back up at the assembled group. “All right,” he said. “Agreed.” He glanced at Winterhawk, who shrugged and nodded once, looking bored, and then at Paul and Marika, who nodded several times each, hardly containing their excitement. Reaching in his briefcase, he pulled out four credsticks, twiddled with them for a moment, and then passed them across, one to each of the four individually. Marika picked hers up: the display read 30000. “That’s an advance,” Johnson said. “Now, here’s what we have on Garst.” He pulled out a diagram of a multi-story building, pointing out various points of interest. “We don’t know the complete layout of the building, so again, some of this might be a surprise. You should study this before you try to go in.” Then he slid out another photo, this one of a featureless gray cube. “This is what you’re after--a cube about twenty centimeters on a side, made of the substance. All you need to do is get in there, find the cube, and bring it back here to us. Any questions?”

“What kind of substance?” Striker spoke up.

“I can’t say,” Johnson said. “It’s a highly secret material. That’s why we need to get it back so badly. It’s the only one of its kind. I can assure you, though, that there’s nothing harmful about the material.”

“You don’t know anything about the security?” Winterhawk asked, looking as if he was having a hard time believing that.

“As I told you before, they’re experimenting with various types. They’ve been known to use magical security, as well as various automated defenses and security personnel. They change their methods often, though, and they’ve even been trying out some new technology that our sources haven’t identified yet. I can’t give you more of an answer than that, unfortunately.”

“When does the plane leave?” Ocelot asked.

Johnson gathered all the information on the table together into a small envelope. He looked around at the group, then passed the envelope across to Winterhawk. “Midnight, from Sea-Tac. Hangar 83.”

Winterhawk stood, stowing the envelope in an inner pocket of his suit jacket. “All right then,” he said, and gathered up his overcoat from the chair. “I’ll see you at the airport. Gentlemen--ladies--” he bowed his head jauntily in farewell to the assembled group and then disappeared out the door.

Marika watched after him for a moment, dumbfounded, then turned to Ocelot. He was preparing to leave too. Finally, she looked at Paul. Their eyes met, and he shrugged minimally. She was fairly certain that he, too, was wondering what they’d gotten themselves signed up for.

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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.