by Sasori

The hours drag on when you're old. Gray clouds gather over Seattle as the last sunny day of the year comes to a close. Children act out episodes of their favorite action trids in the streets, waving plastic guns around and shouting out one-liners. A Lone Star patrol car comes around the corner as it starts to rain, a light drizzle at first. The children scatter to the curb as the car rolls by, making sure the neighborhood is safe on this pass. At least it's nice to know I live in a nice part of town, better than my old apartment when I was shadowrunning. Those were the days, when I was young and fast and life was too good to live slowly. When I was a runner my life was like the trids, but when I look back it seems like the concrete jungle before me; full of children playing games. That's all the business was, children playing games and guns.

I think of shadowrunning now, like I haven't thought of it in five years, because of the message I got this morning. It was from an old friend who wanted to settle a old score. He left a message on my telecom to bring my guns to a warehouse, then owned by Ares but now by Fuchi, and settle our problems. He put it poetically, but it meant one thing; both of us go into the warehouse, and one comes out alive. A fight to the death to finish what we started.

I may sound dramatic, typing this up hours before the showdown, but I truly feel I won't leave that warehouse alive. I feel too old to run and too old to fight, and too scared to go. My joints are starting to groan when I sit up, and streaks of gray are showing through my red hair. I'm forty-five and he wants me to fight like when I was twenty. It won't be much of a fight. For a moment the thought of running into the warehouse, guns blazing, crosses my mind and I laugh, turning it aside. What woulda few more bodies get me? I got out of the business five years ago, as I vowed to, and I have stayed out. I won't stoop to his level just to finish this. He's not going to make me kill him.

'He' is Jackson Briggs, a dwarf turned samurai. In the beginning, when I was young and he was younger, we were good friends. Best friends. But people change, and because of him my friends have bled and died. They were his friends too, but that didn't matter to Briggs. Nothing but profit mattered to Briggs. I can't say I blame him for what he is, but I blame him for what he did. Last I heard he was still a runner, performing high-level extractions and wetwork. I was never in to killing people, but nuyen was nuyen and when I was twenty I never thought of what I was doing, never thought I would know the consequences. And years later I receive a phone call and the consequences have caught up. There is no one for me to bring to this fight, or at least no one I would. I would never forgive myself if more people died pointlessly on my account.

Of course, that didn't matter to Karen. Karen told me she couldn't bear the thought of me going to my death without her and said she was coming no matter what. I tried to rationalize with my…girlfriend, I guess, but she won't listen. I may have to handcuff her to the bed to keep her behind. She said she'd bring Star with her and turn Briggs into a stain. I laughed and told her that was unnecessary. She didn't agree.

I've been seeing Karen for two years now, after I met her at Seattle University. One of the things I vowed to do when I was young was, at the age of forty, to go to collage and get my degree. A degree in what, I have no idea. But I wanted to educate myself before I died. And in my Computer Technologies class I met Karen Hayden for the first time. The teacher was giving a lecture on the legal aspects of Matrix use, and while I sat their listening to the things I could and couldn't do legally in the Matrix, I saw her for the first time. A stunning blonde with clear blue eyes. She looked up from what she was writing and smiled at me. The lecture faded away and before I knew it the bell rung. I had never gone to school before now, and the idea of bells and the lunchroom was very novel to me. Picking up my books and putting them in my pack, I saw Karen walk over to me. We talked, and then were off. We haven't been apart since. That was four years ago.

My companions now are quite different from what they were. My time is spent mostly with Karen and a decker named Star. I always call him Kid, because that's was we called our decker way back when. I took Kid under my wing when he was pulled out of our classroom, literally, when Ares security caught him trying to crack their ice. I wouldn't have thought much of it, but when I looked at Star I saw the look in his eyes that our Kid had years ago when Lone Star caught him and killed him in jail.

I want to cry when I remember the day Kid was killed. It was ten years ago, and he had just finished one of the smoothest government hacks in history. Kid was a legend in the Matrix, a ghost in the machine. There was no IC he couldn't cut, no defenses he couldn't sleaze. The government hack was tough, against some of the darkest Red nodes the UCAS had ever created. The only thing that got him was a trace utility, just as he was jacking out. But he was out of there and hidden with a fixer friend before you could say his name. The only reason they caught him was Briggs turned him in. There was a million nuyen reward on Kid's head for that hack, and Briggs jumped all over it. Kid and the fixer ended up dying because Briggs wanted some money. I wasn't going to let that happen again.

The day I rescued Star is still fresh in my mind, one of the most interesting twenty-four hours of my life. Me and Karen were listening to the professor lecture about computer safety and some of the dangers of the Matrix. I thought it all humourous; if I really wanted to, I could become one of the dangers of the Matrix. But I didn't want to use my money to steal. I wanted to use it to build. Build my little business out of the ground and into the sky. Compete with other corps, show them what an honest runner can do. It was a dream, but I could make it real.

Knight Errant security forces burst into the room from it's four large doors and came down to the floor. They gave the professor something; probably a warrant for someone's arrest. Then they grabbed Star, who was kicking and screaming his lungs out. I caught that look on his face and I was transported back a decade. I stood up and turned to Karen.

Listen, I've got something I need to do. Don't wait up for me at home," I whispered to her, giving her a kiss on the lips. She half-smiled at me, giving me a worried look, but she knew enough of my past to not question what I was doing. If I was killed by anyone in this town a thousand contacts would use their thousand contacts to turn the city against the killers. Respect and friendship were a rare commodity that I commanded, and many fixers and Johnsons who are still alive can remember years worth of good jobs and millions of nuyen. The only person I was worried about was Star.

The Meeting

I immediately left class and caught up with the Ares guards, asking where they were taking him. "Ares detainment area," says the guard. I asked if I could come along, and the guard tells me to frag off. Where has politeness gone these days? I ask myself, getting in my Jackrabbit to follow them. On the phone I call my old fixer, Max, and tell him to transfer a hundred thousand nuyen from my large savings account to my current account. I told him I didn't care how he did it, as long as it was discreet and quick. He said sure and minutes later I was at some Errant Knight Security branch. I waited in the car for twenty minutes, check the bank and make sure the transfer was made, and step inside the office.

A step through the door and I'm overcome with nostalgia. Guards all over, toting guns and looking mean, cameras following my movements across the floor. The metal and chemical detectors on either side of the door, and three overworked secretaries of mixed races pounding away on their cyberterminals. I ask one of them where I can find current arrivals and she points to a featureless steel door to my right. I thank her and leave, entering the door. Looking at the current transfers, it seems that Kid had broken into Ares MailMaster programs and messed it up, sending unimportant, low-level e-mail across the sprawl. It pissed Ares off so bad that there was a thirty thousand-nuyen fine on him and a fifty thousand nuyen bail. I promptly paid it, went through the proper waiting and paperwork, and five hours later Kid was out of jail. He never asked me why I had let him free, not until dinner that evening. Then he said, "You're that guy from Computer class." A statement, not a question.

"Yes. You hungry, Kid?" I ask, pulling into a Stuffer Shack.

"Yeah," he says. One look at him tells me he's tired from his day in jail, a mix of confusion, frustration and worry hanging over his head. I know from experience that the thing he needs most now is food, whether or not he knows it.

We order their largest combo of fries and soyburgers, and sit down at a booth.

The first thing Kid does is sigh and run his slim fingers through his short, brown hair. He looks at me for a moment, as I chew absently on a burger, and questions begin to flood his mind.

"What are you doing?" he asks, not even touching his fries or burger.

"I'm feeding you. Eat. You're hungry, and we're not going to talk until I see that wrapper clear of it's burger," I say this with a fatherly attitude and a commanding voice, used to babysitting confused runners. Kid still looks at me like I'm crazy, then the realization that he's starving hits him. He rips the burger free from the wrapper and chows down. After the meal's done, he looks at me again and the questions come back. He probably wonders who I am, why I'm helping him, and a million other things. What takes me by surprise is his first question.

"Are you a decker?" he asks. The question takes me by total surprise, and for a moment I wonder why Kid is asking me if I deck. Then I remember the datajack at the side of my head and chuckle softly.

"I'm serious. Are you doing this, cuz, it's like a decker to decker thing? Y'know, helping a fellow decker out or something?" Kid continues, wondering perhaps if I'm some legendary ghost in the Matrix who goes to universities looking for talent and I'm choosing him. The thought makes me laugh a little louder, but that's not the answer he wants.

"No, I'm not helping you because I'm a decker. I own a modest business that came from years of hard work. I have never decked, and never will," I tell the truth because that's what it is, and what Kid needs.

The truth disappoints him terribly, because he slumps back in his chair, eyes down.

"I helped you out by paying a fifty-thousand nuyen bail…" he cut me off here, starting to get hysterical.

"Oh, is that it? Money? You want me to pay you back? Forget it, pal. I'd rather eat drek," Kid folds his arms and sits up straight, trying to give me the tough-guy routine. I smile and shake my head.

"You don't ever need to pay me back. I helped you out because the same thing happened to a decker friend of mine and we couldn't break him out of jail for a year after that. His name was Kid, and he had to spend a year in the most forsaken pit of evil, the infamous Ohio Decker's Trap. We broke him out by masquerading as reporters and whistling him away before the very eyes of the warden. It cost our mage Mr. Green a favor to a dragon, but it freed Kid. And that was all that mattered. And that was also the beginning of the end for my team," I said solemnly, sitting back in my seat. I suddenly wanted to go back to my apartment and lay down for a while, try to push the old memories down, but Kid was interested now and started asking me more questions. I didn't catch any of them until he said, "Are you a shadowrunner?" I smiled, leaned forward, and told Kid to get a pair of soykafs. He stood up and hurried over to the counter, dying to hear my account in the shadows. I looked at him again, probably sixteen years old, dress in the ugly fashion that kids dressed in today, with the datajack sitting at the side of his head like a metal devil. The trip to jail today was probably his first bad experience with reality, and the dark shadow of the megaplex. Probably thought he was novahot, messing with Ares' network like he did. I was about to teach him the meaning of good decking.

He sat back down with the drinks, shoving mine across the table, and looking at me expectantly. I sat up in my chair, slumped down and little and got comfortable, and told Kid the story of my life.

©1998, Sasori - used with permission