Scene of the Crime
by Christine M. Thompson
So far the run had been frosty. Thorpe had stayed in the Golden Computing Systems facility's system long enough to send the security running the fences and cameras into a three-minute maintenance cycle, and that had given his team plenty of time to cut across the elegant, but now deeply shadowed, grounds. Sure, there were those two hellhounds, but not even they had been able to stand up to Angel's blinding speed and Thorpe's taser. The guard would wake up -- eventually -- having been the on the receiving end of one of Liz's stunbolts. He was lucky -- the Asian mage couldn't always be depended upon to pull her punches, but Angel had patiently explained to Liz again how much she detested unnecessary wetwork, and the mage had agreed to remember to watch it ... until she forgot, of course.
A swipe of an extremely expensive but well worth the nuyen passkey had opened a side door, and since then, they hadn't seen anybody. Not even any real security equipment, really, just a few cameras to avoid, and a series of sensors that Angel had tip-toed through with the grace of a prima ballerina, until she could get to the access panel and shut them down.
"That at least should have tipped someone off," Thorpe thought. It was odd -- the run was going almost as easily as they had been told, and that always made him nervous. Runs never went as they should. That's why people paid for shadowrunners, instead of merrily waltzing in and doing the job themselves.
Angel scanned down the hallway and sub-vocalized to a mike on her throat connected to headsets they all wore. "Nick? What's the deal? This place is dead."
Nick, their ork rigger, had been monitoring the team's progress from the van. "No alerts, chica. That info we got on the guards' weekly poker game must have been legit. Find a place to hunker down for three minutes, then move to the second floor. You'll slip past a shift change."
Angel scanned around, and silently pointed to an empty hallway leading to the executive dining room, partially shielded from prying eyes by a decorative frosted Plexiglas arch. At 2300 hours on a Saturday night, it was unlikely anyone was looking for a snack. They settled down to wait.
Thorpe had been with this team for more than three years now, an eternity in their business. They were a small group, and he liked it that way. Less people to frag something up, less people to split the pay with. Less people to worry about if something went wrong.
Thorpe had never started out to be a runner. In fact, if he had his way, he would be in some rundown private detective's office right now, feet up on the desk, hat over his face, taking a nap before he went to find some lost kid, or track down some chump's missing business partner. Just like in his movies. Real movies, mind you, not that trid drek from nowadays. Movies where men were secretive and the women were all nightclub singers, or ex-songbirds who'd married the wrong guy. But being a private eye, a real one, didn't pay in 2058, and no one had made a decent movie in 75 years. One thing had led to another, and after a stint in Knight Errant hadn't worked out he ended up in the shadows, expecting every day to get his hoop shot off. Hell, he'd even broken down and got some cyberware, eventually picked up a deck and learned to skate a little code. Not that he liked it, mind you, but it was useful. Couldn't complain.
Liz Kawaguchi was the team's mage. A tiny little thing, with delicate Asian features -- you expected her to be an executive, not a runner. "Hell," Thorpe thought, "she's the most dangerous thing we've got." Liz had started out doing research, inventing spells, and she could make an extraordinary good living at any corp doing just that. It wasn't cred or power that interested Liz, no, she'd dumped the corp life for shadowrunning 'cause she needed the rush. You never knew what she was going to do, but more than likely when she got going something was going to die.
Liz's spells were devastating, designed for maximum impact, and she'd sling them for kicks and worry about the drain later. It was a dangerous habit. Besides, she'd become an initiate more than two years ago, and that had just added to her power. That was about the same time she picked up her sword, a weapon focus taken from a rival mage who wouldn't be needing it anymore. When she brought the sword out, she meant business. And if that wasn't enough, she'd call "her boys." The boys were four decently high-powered elementals she just kept resummoning -- never let them run out of services. They'd been around so long they'd developed personalities, and Liz was protective of them. She wouldn't let them do anything where they could get seriously damaged.
The only problem was keeping Liz in check. She killed -- inadvertently or not -- far too often for Thorpe's liking, and Angel, who felt any unnecessary death personally, liked it even less. Liz said the spells were unpredictable, and maybe they were, but Thorpe was a man who almost never used a gun -- not when a taser would work just as well. He just had to teach Liz that stunning someone didn't mean blowing their brains out their ears.
Thorpe had to forgive her though -- being in love would do that. The first time he'd asked her out on a date it had been a joke, and she took it that way, but by the fifth time, or the fiftieth time, he'd really meant it. It wasn't until he was lying in an alley in the Barrens, shot half to hell by another team, that his persistence had paid off. Bleeding in a gutter, with Angel frantically working him over with a medkit to keep him on the mortal coil, he asked Liz out again -- for what he thought might be the last chance he'd get. They'd been together ever since.
Angel was more of a mystery. She lived up to her name, Thorpe thought, at least in the looks department. He glanced over at her, crouched down in the hallway's entrance, always on guard. A tall, sleek elf, she was Aztlan by birth, with honey smooth skin and flashing green eyes set in almost too perfect elven features. The black and dark grey leathers she was wearing were armored, to be sure, but even armor couldn't could hide the curves. He 'd never tell Liz, but man, if you didn't have at least a tiny little thing for Angel, you were dead.
Of course, as appealing as Angel might look, Thorpe knew that she was packed with enough cyberware to outfit an urban brawl team, made a cat look clumsy, was a master of half a dozen martial arts, and could pick up anything short of a troll and break him in half. He once saw her pick up a troll, too, but she didn't break him -- she threw him at somebody.
For almost every time he'd seen Angel create havoc, though, Thorpe had caught a glimpse of her after the run, by herself, mourning the loss of another's life. She was a samurai who thought life was sacred, and just because some poor slot decided to spend his life working as a security guard to protect something she was after, Angel never thought for a second that gave her the right to end it.
That's why she didn't use a weapon most of the time. Angel was a weapon. Her skills and strength were enough to handle almost anything short of heavy armor. He knew that she was carrying a customized Ares Predator II with her now, and more than likely had a knife or two somewhere, and on rare occasions Thorpe had seen her pull out anything from a concussion grenade to a bow. If Angel saw she'd cause less harm by tossing a grenade, well, that's what she'd use. If her fists would do, she'd go with that.
However, as Thorpe sat watching her, he realized he didn't know that much about her. Angel kept to herself. She worked well with a team, was a strong tactical leader, and would put her hoop on the line in a microsecond to save yours. But when the run was over, don't expect Angel to be going out for pizza. It was almost like she didn't know how to socialize. Hell, for all Thorpe knew, that might be the truth. Angel wouldn't talk about her past -- she'd shut Thorpe down on more than one occasion when the topic even came up. He'd always wondered why.
Angel relaxed a bit around Nick, though. She had brought the ork in a year and a half ago when she saw that none of them could drive well enough to pull the maneuvers off they needed, and that the lack of droids was a distinct disadvantage. Fifteen years ago, Nick "Fury" Francis had been the hottest muscle on the street, and he hadn't needed cyberware to do it. Dressed to the nines and living well, he had ruled his part of the street.
But if three years in the shadows was an eternity, fifteen years was ancient fraggin' history, and Nick had seen the writing on the wall. He'd gotten wired, learned to drive and run droids, and now he stayed in the vehicle. There was no chance of getting back into the light -- with no SIN and friends and family to support, the shadows were all he had. But he treated Angel almost like she was his kid, and she warmed to the attention.
"You three taking a fraggin' nap? Get up those stairs!" Nick growled into their headsets. "Thirty seconds."
"On our way." Angel whispered. She moved out into the main hallway, then dropped low into the shadows. If Thorpe hadn't known where she was going, he would have lost sight of her all together. When Angel wanted to be, she was a fraggin' ghost.
Even though security seemed lax, they wouldn't take a chance on using the elevators. The team hot-footed up three flights of stairs, freezing once as a door opened a level below them. They all watched, adrenaline pumping, as a security guard stepped into the stairwell, glanced around, scratched, then walked down the stairs whistling, never looking up once. If he had, the guard would have seen Thorpe's taser aimed dead at his chest, ready to silence him before he could even move.
They were now on the fourth level, a residential area for programmers who chose to live and breathe their research, and, gods be praised, there wasn't even a lock on the stairwell door. Golden Computing Systems really didn't know what they had. Sometimes, Thorpe thought, the way the world worked was just amazing.
A programmer at Golden, Christopher Simpson, had made a breakthrough in what was supposed to be a graphical interface, used mostly for games and simsense. However, properly used, it could make sculpted systems that felt so real it would be difficult to tell where the meat world stopped and the Matrix began -- and make them economically feasible, which current high-level sculpted systems weren't. On the other hand, Thorpe thought, it would be possible to make IC that felt that real, too. Thorpe didn't want to think about that.
An agent for Ares, which held the contract for the worldwide distribution of Golden Computing's games, found out about this little revelation and it was decided that it was more advantageous to have Mr. Simpson, and his research, working for a company able to properly harness his talents. Their job was to boost Simpson from his Golden Computing Systems home, along a copy of all the files relating to the research, and deliver him to Ares. No sweat.
Angel took the lead after they exited the stairwell, picking up the pace as they moved down the hallway. The run had been smooth so far, and there was no reason to tempt fate now by taking it easy. The fourth door on the left was supposed to be Simpson's, but it, like all the others, had a small keypad attached to the lock. Their passkey wouldn't work.
Thorpe knelt and pulled a microelectronics kit out of a pouch on his belt. Popping the lock's faceplate off, he began to work.
"How long?" Angel said, dropping back against the opposite wall and watching the doors and hallway for movement.
"Probably a minute longer than it would take if you two didn't pester me."
"What?" Liz said. "You haven't opened that itty bitty lock yet? What good are you?"
Thorpe kept working on the lock, not even looking up. It was a little tougher than he would have expected. It looked like someone had been making their own mods on it. Maybe Simpson was a paranoid little bugger. He liked that. "Liz, haven't you finished that Open Any Lock spell?"
"Yeah, I'll work on that right after I make my Turn Worthless Runner to Ooze spell."
With a soft click and a electronic whirring noise, the lock opened. Thorpe stood, stuffing his tools back into his pouch. "Now, if that didn't send their system to at least a passive alert, we could invite the Elementals to play in their lobby. Let's get this over with."
With Angel back in the point position, and Thorpe watching their back, they eased into what looked like a small corp apartment. Thorpe closed the door behind them. A moderately comfortable, if impersonal living room dominated by a massive telecom and entertainment rig was in front of them, and to the left a cramped kitchenette. There weren't any windows, but a cheap knockoff fiber optic wall showing a scene of downtown Seattle was obviously an attempt to pretend the apartment had some connection to the outside world. A bathroom was visible through an open door by the kitchen. Two closed doors on the right led to what had to be the rest of the apartment. There were no pictures, no books, not even a chip case left open or a pair of dirty socks on the floor. Nothing gave any sign at all about the type of person that lived here.
"Corp cages," Angel muttered scornfully. "Let's bust this lab rat out and go."
Thorpe carefully eased the door on the left open. It was an empty bedroom, as tastefully bland as the rest of the apartment, but there was a computer terminal. Thorpe slid inside, sat down at the desk and plugged his deck in. "I'll get the files," he said. "Our boy must be in the other room."
Angel moved to the second door, and put an ear to it, straining to hear anything on the other side. There was no light shining from underneath, and for a split second she had a sinking feeling. What if the pickup wasn't home? The slot could have gone to a fraggin trid, be getting home late, and their gig would be blown. Then she picked up the faint sound of breathing.
Nodding to Liz, Angel silently opened the door. The room was dark, but Angel 's elven eyes saw it was another bedroom. This one was more lived-in -- empty noodle cartons next to the computer, a framed poster of Honey Brighton above the bed, dirty clothes kicked into one corner. Angel breathed a slight sigh of relief as she saw what had to be their target, asleep in the bed.
Angel glided to the head of the bed, Liz stopping at the foot. Angel leaned over Simpson, her long black braid flopping over one shoulder, and delicately placed a hand over the sleeping man's mouth. Liz stood ready with a spell to silence him.
"Mr Simpson," Liz said quietly, reaching over to shake his foot. "Mr. Simpppsssonn," she sing-songed.
The man stirred sleepily, He started to rise, and Angel's strong fingers tightened across his mouth, telling him for certain that this was not a dream, and that it was in his very best interests not to scream. He looked for the voice, seeing Liz, mage sword at her side, one arm pointing towards him, heavy orichalcum-laced bracelets on both wrists. His eyes followed the hands holding him, met Angel's cold emerald eyes, and suddenly, Simpson was very afraid.
"Are you Mr. Simpson?" Angel always used her best corp manners in situations like this. It made the targets more comfortable, and then they were less likely to do something stupid, something that would get them killed.
Simpson nodded, eyes wide. The two she-demons hadn't killed him yet. That must mean something. He began to relax. Angel loosened her grip on his jaw.
"Have you been briefed?" she asked. "Do you know why we're here?"
"Mr. Simpson," Angel said patiently, "Do you know why we're here?"
"Drek! Here's the deal," Liz broke in. "We've been contracted to ..."
"Save the stories," Thorpe said from the doorway. "I've got the files, and we're three and a half minutes behind." Thorpe was more accurate than the Doomsday clock. The Math SPU in his head was clicking down the seconds before the guards were scheduled to check this hallway, and there wasn't much time left.
Angel hated boosting an unaware target, but the situation made that unavoidable. Still holding on to Simpson with one hand, she reached for a tranq patch with the other, and slapped it on his neck. He slumped as the drugs entered his system.
Liz had already pulled a dull grey cloth square out of her pack, and tossed it to Angel. The color of the blanket would help camouflage and cover the package, and the Kevlar woven into the fabric would provide him with some protection if bullets started flying. Unfortunately for Mr.Simpson, he wouldn't be taking anything from his home at Golden Computing Systems but a pair of underwear.
Angel tossed the sleeping Simpson easily over one shoulder, and they headed for the door, closing up the apartment as if nothing was wrong. Hopefully no one would notice his absence for several hours.
The team hustled down the hallway, heading for the stairs. "Nick, you there?" Angel said into her headset. "We've got the merchandise. Pickup in three minutes."
"Not a problem. You got any resistance yet?"
"All's quiet on the western front," Thorpe said. "Let's hope it stays that way for a few minutes longer."
They hurried back down the stairs they way they had come, keeping an eye out for security. When they hit the main floor, Thorpe's cyber-enhanced hearing picked up the sounds of movement, of scraping chairs and a disgusted groan. It sounded like someone was quitting the poker game. "Move, move!" he subvocalized.
Angel led the way to the end of a hallway, opening the door to what the plans Thorpe had boosted said was a maintenance closet. They were in luck! Sets of light blue coveralls were neatly stacked on the top shelf.
Yanking on her coveralls, Angel tucked her braid inside a nondescript baseball cap and dropped the sleeping Mr. Simpson into a large trash can with wheels. "Now," Thorpe thought, "all we have to do is hope the slot doesn't snore."
Thorpe finished zipping up the coveralls, and grabbed a mop out of the closet. "For you, my love," he said, handing Liz a dingy, soap-scum covered bucket.
"This has got to be the nicest thing you've ever given me. Much better than that shrunken human head last Christmas."
They made their way down the last hallway leisurely. Angel even stopped twice to empty trashcans, dumping the papers and empty (she hoped) caf cups on Simpson. Where two hallways met, they passed a guard. He rubbed his eyes sleepily, and glanced at them. Angel and Liz dropped their heads, Liz's fingers itching to throw a spell and settle the matter. She didn't have the patience for these games. Thorpe raised a hand and smiled at the guard. "Hoi," he said. "Quiet night, isn't it."
The guard perked up a bit. "Yeah, but not a good one. Frazier took me for 200 nuyen. Damned shark."
"Too bad." Thorpe did his best to look sympathetic.
"There's a hot pot of caf in the canteen, if you want it." The guard was already walking down the hallway.
"Thanks." Thorpe started walking again. Angel and Liz moved with him. When the guard had disappeared around a corner, he playfully smacked Liz in the side.
"You two could have helped!"
"I would have," Liz said, "but you told me not to kill anyone."
"We didn't need to kill him, just sleaze him!"
"You're the biggest sleaze I know." Liz smiled.
"Why you little ..."
"You two can fight later," Angel said. "Here's our way out." She had stopped in front of a door marked "Recycling Services." This is where they had come in.
Once inside, Thorpe shook the trash off of Simpson, hoisting him up with a decent amount of effort and dumping him into a large bin marked "Plastic." Grunting, he tried to pick up the bin, then thought better of it and left it for Angel. She was the one with the vat-grown muscle. Not that she couldn't drek kick his hoop without it.
Angel checked to make sure the hellhound corpses were safely stashed in a bin pushed to the back of the bottom shelf. The unconscious guard was hidden under a tarp in the corner. Liz knelt and gave him an injection that should keep him under for several more hours.
A buzzer sounding in the quiet room made them all freeze. Thorpe, hand on his taser, held his breath as he scanned the room, looking for any sign of danger.
"Keep your pants, on, kids, it's just me." It was a relief to hear Nick's voice.
Thorpe raised the sliding door that opened onto the loading dock. Nick relaxed in the driver's seat of his black GMC Bulldog, grinning when he realized he'd spooked them. Thorpe saw that Nick had slapped a large magnetic sign reading "Good Earth Recycling" on the side of the van. It was a nice touch.
Angel was already loading Simpson into the back of the van, and added four extra bins to make it look realistic. The team piled in, Thorpe riding shotgun. He pulled a clipboard with faked order papers and an invoice out of the glove box, and the van started toward the entrance.
The guard at the gate barely glanced at the papers, and didn't even look in the back of the van. Thorpe had wasted two hours making them. "Man," Thorpe thought. "With security this bad, this place deserves to get taken. Maybe it will wake them up." Little companies like this either learned to protect their assets, or they didn't keep them. It was the way of the world.
Nick steered the van down the almost deserted Seattle streets, heading to their meet location in Tacoma. The team stripped off the coveralls they had boosted, and Thorpe, feeling a little sorry for the skivvy-clad Simpson, dressed him in a set. He wouldn't want to wake up in a strange place in nothing but a pair of briefs.
Bud's Fishing Supply was deserted. Of course, Bud's was always deserted, and Thorpe didn't know anyone in their right mind who would fish in the waters around Seattle. If the critters didn't kill you, the squatters ekeing out a living on the docks or the toxic chemicals in the water would. Bud, a one-horned troll who always dressed in battered khakis and a floppy hat covered in fishing lures, wouldn't be there. When Bud wasn't selling information or fencing stolen goods, he made his nuyen renting out this space as a safe meeting location.
Right on cue, a Toyota Elite pulled into the parking area, lights off, privacy screen covering the windows. The driver slid the sleek black limo into the spot next to the van and waited. A guard who had been sitting in the passenger seat got, making the Uzi III he carried more than obvious. Angel chuckled. If he was trying to intimidate her, it wasn't working. Besides, she had no reason to kill the Johnson, and this kid couldn't stop her if she did.
Angel stepped out of the van, looking as sleek and lethal as the Elite in her dark leathers. She'd loosened the braid in the van, and now her long black hair blew back in the breeze. The guard glared at her, and she met his gaze evenly, then spread her hands to let him know she wasn't holding a weapon. He turned his back to her as he opened the car door. It was a stupid mistake.
The Johnson stepped out of the car, straightening his tie. Looking through the van's window, Thorpe took in his Shimmer black shirt, his Sleet gray Armante suit, and the Elan shades he wore in the dark night. Corporate Mafia chic must be in this month.
"Got the goods?" This Johnson didn't mess with small talk. Angel tossed him an optical chip. Johnson slid it into a reader, checked the chip's contents, and actually cracked a slight smile. Thorpe was impressed. The data must be as good as it had looked.
Thorpe opened the van door and pushed Simpson onto his back. The programmer' s bright red hair almost glowed in the darkened lot. The Johnson looked him over.
"What the frag is this?" Johnson's smile had vanished.
"Mr. Simpson, as requested." Angel said smoothly. That nervous feeling she had in Simpson's apartment was starting to come back.
Johnson's guard had moved to look at Simpson's face more closely. "You fraggin' slitch," he growled, "what kind of drek are you trying to pull?" All he had time to take was one step toward Angel before he was knocked off his feet. In less than a second, Angel had swept a leg under his feet, kicking him up in the air, then slammed an elbow into his chest. She drove the guard into the pavement, cracking the aged asphalt with the force of the blow. Half a second more and the guard's Uzi was gone, swept across the lot, landing far from his reach. Thorpe was already out of the van covering the limo driver, and Liz had a clear line of sight on both the guard and Mr. Johnson.
"My assistant was hasty in his actions. Please, let us come to an equitable agreement." The Johnson knew how good this team was, he had hired them. He now knew how pathetically inadequate his assigned protection team was.
"The data is good," Johnson continued, "In fact, it will fill our needs most adequately. However, that is not Christopher Simpson. It's Carl Simpson, his brother. He's also a programmer at Golden, and frankly, were not interested."
"You still want Christopher?" Thorpe thought saw a way to salvage this fiasco.
"Not really. Like I said, the data is more than adequate. However, I would be willing to pay you ... say 50 percent of the original price?" The Johnson was actually fairly pleased with this turn of events. The data was complete enough his company wouldn't need the programmer to fill in the gaps, and projections had shown Christopher Simpson wasn't likely to produce work like this again. Now the company wouldn't be stuck with an employee whose greatest potential was already past.
"Ninety percent. You said yourself the data was the most useful part." Thorpe was in his element.
"Done." Johnson reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bundle of certified credsticks. He removed three from the top and tossed the rest to Thorpe.
"Nice doing business with you." Thorpe put the credsticks in his pocket. Never count the cash in front of the Johnson.
Johnson opened the Elite's door. "I apologize again for my assistant's actions. I'll take care of him myself, but, may I have him back, please?" Angel raised her knee, which had been resting on the guard's solar plexus, and shoved him against the limo. He growled and reached for a knife. It was time to teach this street trash a lesson. He lunged at her.
Angel kicked him again, this time under the chin, and drew her own knife as he flew back toward the Elite. Spinning to throw the knife, she buried it up to the hilt in the car door beside his ear, and advanced on the guard. The guard, who still hadn't learned his lesson, took another swipe at Angel with his blade. She easily sidestepped the awkward lunge, grabbed the guard's wrist, and, twisting his arm up and behind him, bent him over the Elite's trunk and held him there.
"Coleman! That's enough! Continue in this behavior and I'll let our associate here finish you off!" The Johnson was visibly annoyed. He could see the runner was doing her absolute best to avoid harming this pathetic brute he'd been stuck with, but that her patience was rapidly dwindling. This was the last time he'd work with Coleman -- in fact, it was the last time Coleman would be working. Maybe he should offer the elf a the soon-to-be-open position.
"If you would, please," Johnson said to Angel, gesturing towards the Elite's front passenger door. Angel nodded, picked Coleman completely off his feet and carried him easily to the front of the car, dumping him through the now open door. Coleman half raised out of the seat to grab for her, but Johnson just raised a hand. The guard slumped into his seat.
Thorpe broke in. "So, what do you want done with Carl, here?" He gestured to the programmer lying in the back of the van.
"Not my problem. That's your frag up. Put a bullet in him, for all I care." Johnson opened the Elite's door and climbed in, his hand brushing the knife hilt stuck in the door. Not only did he need a better team, he was definitely requesting an armored vehicle.
The Elite pulled away into the night, leaving the van alone in the dark lot.
"Well this is a royal frag," Nick said, leaning back in his seat and lighting a cigar. "What do you want to do with the poor stiff?"
"We've got our money," Liz said. "Dump him."
"Dump him?" Thorpe looked at the mage incredulously. "And then what, invite the devil rats over for dinner? Why don't you just give him to the Spike Wheels, let them carve him up, make little corp-ka-bobs, and then they can dump the scraps? How about we just sell him for parts? We leave him out here, he's dead for sure."
Thorpe ran his fingers through his dark hair, mussing it up even more than normal. "We just can't, that's all!" He didn't know why dumping Simpson just wasn't possible, wasn't right. But it wasn't. Thorpe liked to think shadowrunning had its good qualities, gave him a chance once in a while to do the right thing, even if it wasn't profitable. He hated to be proven wrong. "Drek, oh drek, oh drek." A twinge of panic was starting to pull at the edges of Thorpe's gut. The full impact of how deep they were in hit him. Thorpe slumped back in the van's bucket seat.
"Sell him to another corp," Liz suggested. "He might know something about what Golden is doing. Maybe what the next hot game is going to be."
"What are we going to do, wake him up and say 'Hey Simpson, now that we took you away from your job, your life and everything you knew, how'd ya like to spill your guts and then spend the rest of your life slaving away for some corporate assholes who will never trust you because you jumped ship once already? Oh, by the way, your life's completely fragged -- hope you had a nice weekend!' " Thorpe shook his head. "We don't sell anyone out like that -- not even someone we don't like, and I've got nothin' against this poor skivvy-wearing bastard."
"So we don't dump him," the ork said, calmly. "We take him someplace nice, someplace safe, ring up his corp, and let them pick him up. Null perspiration."
"We can't," Angel said, leaning against the side of the van. "He'll be just as dead."
"Why? He's goin' home, ain't he?"
"Sure, for a few hours," Angel said, turning to face the others. "The run was clean -- Golden probably hasn't even figured out we were there, yet. Won 't until that guard doesn't check in for too long, or someone goes looking for this poor stiff. We leave him out in the open, call his corp to pick him up, and he's going to be connected to that stolen data. They'll more than likely figure he was in on it, if not think he was behind the whole deal. If he's lucky, they'll fire him. If he's not, he'll disappear. Even if he's lucky, he's a corp kid out on his own, with a suspected theft of corporate research on his record. No one's going to hire him, and then he's just as dead."
"We all survived out here," Nick said, "Why can't he?"
"Angel's right. We may have survived in the shadows," Thorpe said, "but you know better than to think everyone can. He'll be lost, and he'll be an easy target. Besides, we got no right to ruin his life just because he happened to be sleeping in the wrong bed."
"Everyone ends up in the wrong bed sometime," Liz said, pushing Simpson out of the way and climbing back into her seat. "This guy's already more trouble than he's worth. I don't care what you do with him. All I know is that I'm tired, I've got my money, and I'm ready to hit the sack."
Thorpe smiled at the idea of Liz hitting the sack. She didn't smile back, He knew he was in some deep drek when they got home.
"So, back to my original question," Nick said. "What do you want to do?"
"Only one thing to do," Angel smiled. "Take him back."
It took Angel and Thorpe more than a half hour of arguing before they got Nick and the mage to agree to their plan. It was 0330 on a Sunday morning. No one would be looking for Simpson yet. If he was discovered missing, the gig was up -- there was no way he was ever going to get his life back -- and Angel and Thorpe refused to let this happen. If he was found in his apartment after the theft was discovered, well, then he was just another victim of those evil runners. The heat would be off. Simpson had to go back, and he had to go back tonight.
Less than three hours after the Bulldog van had left Golden Computing Systems, it was back, this time parked out of sight from the main building. The recycling gig wouldn't work again -- it was too late for that -- so the insertion had to be direct.
Angel pulled on a pair of thick rubber gloves. There wouldn't be time to cut the fence's power, and these might absorb some of the shock. The faster they got over the fence, however, the less chance there was of becoming lightly grilled by it.
She wrapped Simpson in the ballistic cloth blanket, tossed him over her shoulder, and skittered up the fence like a monkey, sparks flying when she touched the metal links. Angel flew over the top of the six-meter tall fence. Halfway down the other side, she jumped, wrapping both arms around Simpson to cushion him from the impact.
Thorpe was next. The fence sent darts of pain through his hands, and when his leg brushed the link when he reached the top, it felt like fire shooting through it. He was beginning to see the drawbacks to this plan.
Dropping low as he hit the ground, Thorpe looked around. On the far side of the trees he saw lights, like a flashlight moving around in the darkness. Drek! It looked like someone was looking for the missing hellhounds. He ran forward in a low crouch, hoping that the guard wouldn't spot him before he got in range to take a shot.
A noise behind him made him glance over his shoulder at where he'd left the other runners. Frag! Liz, who often said how much she hated to climb fences, had decided to levitate her hoop over it, instead of risking her precious little hands on the electrified wires. The bad news was that she was floating at least a meter above the top of the fence, and if that guard didn 't see her, he was fragging blind.
"Freeze!" Nope, Golden's guards were not blind.
Liz moved toward the ground. Unless she dropped the spell and fell the rest of the way, she couldn't move that quickly. The guard raised a small machine pistol and aimed. Thorpe raced toward the guard, but the darkness that had concealed him also wrapped the guard in a dim cloak, and prevented Thorpe from getting a decent shot.
The guard's HK-227 bucked in his hand as he fired at the mage. The muzzle flash was all Thorpe needed as he returned fire, feeling the thrill of satisfaction when the electric current from his taser pumped into the guard, dropping him like a stone.
Liz landed on the ground with a thump. The bullets had ricocheted off a golden shield that appeared before her, easily deflecting them. That spell-locked bullet barrier had saved her life more than once. All wasn't chill, though, because Liz knew the guard had hit her clean, and the bullets had punched through much of the shield's protection. She couldn't take many more hits like that.
Speed was more essential than stealth, and the three runners raced across the shrouded grounds to the building. Another swipe of the passkey opened the door, and soon they were hurrying down the halls to the back stairs.
They turned, right, then left, then right again, and were heading into the last hallway when the guard Thorpe had spoken to earlier came out a door suddenly, raising his gun to face the intruders.
Angel didn't even give him time to react. Moving in a side kick almost too fast for Thorpe to see, her foot flashed toward the guard, kicking his gun out of the way and arching upward to drive his head backwards, bouncing off the nearby wall. Angel moved with the momentum, driving a fist into the guard's gut. The guard fell awkwardly, and Thorpe heard something snap when he landed. He lay on the floor, barely conscious, his arm twisted under his body at an impossible angle. The guard would live, but he'd be wearing a cast for the next several weeks.
Angel carried the security guard into the room he'd come from, reaching into her coat pocket for a patch. The sedative she slapped on his neck would keep him from calling for backup, and the pain medication would ease his wounds until he was found. She felt guilt settle like a cold lump in her throat, but she knew his injuries couldn't have been helped. He'd be OK.
Simpson, who Angel had dumped in a heap on the floor when she moved to battle the guard, stirred and moaned. The tranquilizer was beginning to wear off. Angel scooped him back up and set down the hallway at a faster pace. They would have to hurry.
Thorpe ran up the stairs at a breakneck pace, hoping to get to Simpson's room that much quicker. He was at the top of the stairs when his cyber-enhanced hearing detected a door below them opening, and the sound of booted feet echoing on the stairs. The runners ducked out of the stairwell just before they were discovered.
Thorpe knew the most dangerous part of the game lie just ahead. If they were discovered breaking into Simpson's apartment with Simpson still with them, the whole run was for nothing. The programmer had to be found inside his home, not with the runners. He attacked the keypad outside Simpson's door, popping the faceplate off and diving into the mass of circuitry to bypass the lock.
His anxiety made him hurry, and his fingers slipped to the wrong wire. An electric shock surged up his fingers, making his teeth rattle. His vision blurred from the pain, and his fingers felt as thick as sausages. The tiny wires, impossible to manipulate, swam before his eyes. He dropped the delicate pliers from his microelectronics kit and bent to retrieve them, spending a few precious seconds reeling from the shock.
"Come on, will you?" Liz snapped. "They've got to be onto us."
The blue wire! Thorpe knew that was the one that would open the door. Gingerly holding the pliers, he held it straight and cut it, holding his breath and bracing for another jolt of electricity.
With a soft clicking noise, the lock opened.
"There, milady. Next time you get fried by the security, and I'll sit on my hoop and watch." Thorpe gestured for Angel and Liz to enter first.
Angel laid Simpson back on his bed, holding him down with one arm as he began to struggle sleepily. Thorpe pulled a pair of plastic restraints out of his pocket and tossed them to her, bending over to bind his ankles with a second pair. If they tied him up, it would appear that he had been helpless to prevent the data steal or to alert security of his plight.
"You covered your tracks in the Matrix?" Angel asked. "They won't be able to figure out we actually stole the data three hours ago?"
"If they do, they'll think this run is a decoy. If you gave him as much sleepy juice in that first patch as I think you did, Golden checks close enough, they'll find the residue. Simpson couldn't have done drek to stop us."
Thorpe turned to get one last look at Simpson, making sure he'd made it back in one piece, and saw Liz pick a pair of dirty underwear off the pile in the corner of the bedroom and stuff them in Simpson's mouth
"What'd you do that for?" Thorpe was incredulous.
"You don't want him to scream, do you?" Liz did her best to look innocent. She couldn't believe they were going through all this drek for this slot. The thought of having to get out of Golden without getting shot annoyed her even more. If she couldn't kill the little drekhead for causing so much trouble, she'd at least have some fun. Liz bounded out of the bedroom, her look daring Thorpe to help Simpson out or follow her. Thorpe sighed. He was going to pay for this frag-up, he could see that. He'd be kissing hoop and buying flowers for the next month.
Besides, he knew what they had to do next, and he knew Liz would like it even less. No matter how this turned out, Thorpe was in deep drek, one way or another.
"Fine, we're done," Liz said. "Let's blow."
"Not yet," Thorpe said, cautiously. "We've got one more thing to do."
"What? Tuck him in bed and live a mint on his pillow?"
"Nope. We've got to get caught."
Angel normally ignored Liz and Thorpe's bickering, but this had her attention. She pulled her Predator and took a bead on the front door, but dropped back enough that she could keep listening.
"Well, not caught, exactly. But we gotta get seen."
"What do you mean, the guards we've left in our wake haven't been enough?"
"Not enough to clear Simpson completely. To get him off the hook, we've gotta be seen on the way out."
"Of course," Angel said, "we get seen, we get shot at. Got a way to get around that?"
"Ummmm, run faster?" Liz punched him in the arm, hard. Thorpe guessed she hadn't liked his joke.
"If we're going to play this little game, let's get to it," Angel said, holstering the gun. "Our ride's waiting outside."
"Yeah, and he thinks you're all fraggin' nuts!" Nick had been monitoring their conversation. "Get goin' -- ready to receive."
Angel led the way out of Simpson's apartment. She moved low, cautiously, scanning both sides of the hallway before she stepped into it. Liz followed her, cursing under her breath, and Thorpe took the rear.
He heard the sound of feet on the stairs again as soon as they hit the stairwell door. The guards were on at least passive alert, and they were looking for something. Looking for us, Thorpe thought. He would prefer to get out of the stairwell before making his presence known. The limited space would make fighting difficult. He flattened himself against the wall to avoid being seen, then risked a peek over the stairwell to the levels below.
There they were, three levels down. There were five guards, and they were working their way ... up the stairs. Thorpe's throat tightened. He was going to have a fight a lot sooner than he wanted.
"There's five of them," he subvocalized. "Maybe we can hide next level up, let 'em pass." Main floor will be a better chance for us."
Liz was already moving before he had a chance to finish. Stepping completely into view on the stairs, she whistled. The guards looked up, swinging Uzi's into position. The stunball hit them before they had time to fire, rocking them backwards. One fell back down the stairs, landing with his head at an impossible angle, his neck broken. Two others slumped to the floor, unconscious. The last two remained standing, shakily. They were heavily drained, and Thorpe could tell they could barely lift their machine pistols, much less aim them worth a damn.
He aimed his taser at the one on the left and fired. The electricity coursing through the guard put him down quickly. His Uzi fell to the floor with a clatter, and he followed it, tumbling down a flight of stairs to rest near his dead companion.
Angel moved to finish the last guard, but Liz's spell was faster. The stunbolt rocked the guard back and he tipped to the left awkwardly, falling over the banister and dropping in the hole between the stairs, falling three full flights before he landed heavily. Thorpe winced as he heard the guard's back snap.
He looked down. The guard he had shot was probably the lucky one -- he was still breathing. The two unconscious guards had been in the stunball's range, and blood was trickling from their ears. Of the five guards in the stairwell, four wouldn't be getting up again.
Angel looked up at Liz, shocked at the loss of life. Liz seemed nonplused. "They were supposed to fall down," she said, bounding down the stairs to catch up with her companions. "I can't help it if they can't handle a few little stunballs."
There were times when Thorpe just didn't understand her, and this time, he didn't want to ask.
As Thorpe passed two of the fallen guards, he heard one of their radios sputter to life. "Unit Two, over. Unit Two, what's your situation?" He knew no one wanted to know.
The main hallway was quiet. Angel stepped into the gloom, then looked back at Thorpe. "You still want to be seen?" she asked.
"OK. Nick, we'll be coming out the front, repeat, we're taking the front door."
"Roger that, chica."
Angel moved down the hallway with a purpose, her long legs eating up the ground. Thorpe raced to keep up. She hit the area of motion sensors she had danced through earlier, now shut down and harmless. To the left of the sensors was the way to Recycling Services and the way they had come, to the right, an elegant lobby with a coursing waterfall and a transparent Plexiglas front wall, offering an expansive view of the manicured grounds. As she approached, she hit the access panel, flipping the sensors back on.
"What did you do that for," Liz asked, incredulously. She still couldn't believe they were going to follow through on this silly being seen idea. Wasn't the point of a good run not to be seen?
Angel reached deep into the pocket of her armored great coat, pulling out a mask with a small tube attached. Thorpe knew the tube ran to an air canister at the small of her back, where it would provide ten minutes or so of breathable air. She fit the mask over her face, concealing most of it. Thorpe took advantage of the spare seconds to slap another charge into his taser.
"I'd put on my mask, if I were you," she said, the breather mask distorting her words.
"Why," Thorpe asked, digging for his own. "You wanna hide your face?"
"No," she said, pointing upward. "I see gas ports up there. Could just be knockout juice. Could be something nastier. I don't want to find out."
Angel looked back to make sure Thorpe and Liz had heeded her advice, then stepped squarely in the path of a motion sensor, making sure she tripped it.
Alarm klaxons rang through the complex at an ear-shattering level, making them all wince at the noise. Thorpe struggled to trigger the volume control on his cyberears down, his head ringing from the noise. The lobby was fillin g with a bilious green, choking smoke. It made his eyes sting, and the water filling them clouded his vision. They needed to get out -- fast.
The runners dove into the smoke, depending on their masks to protect them from its worst effects. Thorpe could barely find the door through the clouds, but he managed to stumble towards it and try to open it. It was locked. He fumbled for his passkey, almost dropping it in the smoke, and swiped it. It worked -- Thorpe would take time to thank the gods later.
Angel dove out the front door in a roll, coming up in an attack position. Thorpe followed her, pulling his taser, although he didn't know if his vision would clear enough for him to use it. He heard an explosion behind him, felt the blast of mana tear at his back, and he knew Liz had sent another spell down the hallway at anyone who was following them.
Out of the smoke, his eyes cleared, and Thorpe looked up to see at least fifteen guards, five of which were wearing heavy armor. He wished he hadn't seen that.
Adrenaline surging along with his boosted reflexes, Thorpe fired on a guard, who rocked back from the shock, but kept coming. Angel bounced one guard off of a wall, kicking back at the same time to plant her boot in a second guard 's gut. She grabbed the first guard by his armored jacket, rolling with his back towards his five heavily armored companions. The bullets from their Uzis shook the guard violently, as he took the shots intended for the elf.
Thorpe dove to the side to avoid a hail of bullets, firing again at the guard who was close enough that Thorpe felt his hot breath on the back of his neck. The second shot took him down.
Liz still had her back to the melee, guarding the way they had came. She never saw the shots coming, but Angel did. The elf flew across the lawn, dropping the guard and diving across the field of fire. Angel raised her arm to protect her face, and felt a barrage of bullets thump into her armor, shaking her to the core with the impact. Her armor took most of the hits, but one bullet ripped through the ballistic cloth of her sleeve, penetrating a second layer of form-fitting armor underneath her clothes, and sinking deep into the flesh of her arm.
The white-hot pain rocketed through her, and flashes of light snapped in front of her eyes. Angel landed heavily, jarring the wound again. She knew the aluminum lacing her bones was the only thing that had kept her arm from shattering from the bullet's impact. Rolling to her feet, she let the pain transform to rage, dive-rolling across the lawn to direct a furious array of punches and kicks at the heavily-armored guard who had shot her. He fell back under the onslaught.
Liz fired another stunball, driving back a group of guards who had tried to come in behind the group. Thorpe took down another guard with his taser, punching one who got too close. Five guards were down, now, and Angel was taking on two of the heavily armored guards now, but Thorpe knew they were fighting a losing battle. A burst of Uzi fire bouncing off his armored coat made it even more clear.
The guards were so involved with the three runners they never saw the drone coming. Zipping across the dark grounds, the two barrels mounted on the front flashed, sending a shower of bullets toward the guard's backs.
Three fell immediately under the onslaught, heavily wounded, and another slumped at Angel's feet. Thorpe knew an opportunity when he saw it.
He raced to the van that was now parked in Golden's drive. Thorpe saw flames licking up from the shattered windows of the guardhouse at the entrance, and saw the grenade launcher was popped out of the top of the Bulldog. Nick had decided not to play around. He'd probably saved their lives.
Angel started to run toward the van, but had to double back to pull Liz away. She hated to leave a fight. She could hear sirens in the distance.
The women piled into the van right after Thorpe, and Liz slammed the door shut as another burst of bullets bounced off the Bulldog's armored body. The drone fired one last barrage at the guards, then zoomed upwards, getting lost in the black night. Nick sent it a command to set down ten blocks away. He would pick it up later.
He threw the van into drive, leaving a thick layer of rubber in the driveway as he sped away. The van flew through Tacoma's deserted streets, heading away from the sirens, twisting and turning in any number of dark alleys, as Nick did his best to lose their pursuers.
Thorpe watched the lights and sirens subside in the distance, and sighed. They'd made it out of this one -- barely. No run was simple, nothing was easy. And Angel had the bullet wound to prove it. Now he knew why all those old movies said never return to the scene of the crime.
Angel finished wrapping her heavily bleeding arm with a bandage, and leaned back in her seat. She didn't look like she wanted to talk. Thorpe knew how many people had died tonight, and he was sure she did too.
"So, anything else you guys want to do tonight? Maybe go insult a go-gang, pick a fight in the Ork Underground?" Nick tried to fill the silence.
"Nope," Thorpe smiled. "Liz, you'd said something earlier about hitting the sack? Can I join you?"
"Not tonight, loverboy."
"Aww, come on, don't I always show you a fun evening?"
"Does it always involve gunfire?" Nick snorted.
"Usually," Liz said.
"Hey, I took you out to dinner last week and no one got shot."
"You sound as if that's unusual," Nick said.
"Well, maybe it is -- anything wrong with that?" Thorpe answered.
"Not necessarily," Liz said, "but it doesn't mean your hoop's going to be parked anywhere but on a couch tonight."
"You want me to sleep all alone?"
"You could have gone back and slept with Simpson," Liz teased.
Thorpe smiled. Liz was starting to sound less annoyed. Simpson was back home, everyone was in one piece, and they'd made a few thousand cred for a night's work. Thorpe pulled one of the Johnson's credsticks out of his pocket and slotted in a reader, watching the zeros total up. The flower shop down the street from his apartment opened in a few hours, and this might even cover his bill.
©1998, Christine M. Thompson - used with permission