Kailea shook her head and sighed.
She always knew that one day the bill would come due.
Sitting at her usual table in the smoky rear of O'Bannion's, she noted his entrance before he was completely through the door. His appearance awakened memories that rushed back like the Screamers blitzing a lone opposition brawler.
She'd never liked him. From the first, before even ascensing him, she'd understood on a primal level that he was more machine than man. Not just the chrome, though of course, there was way too much of that, but the coldness, the precision, the alien-ness, like the metal had replaced soul as well as flesh....
She was running with Isis back then. Isis and Kailea. Two girls having fun in a world that terrified the old fucks and spat out broken pieces of the young ones. Isis made magic in the matrix and Kailea made magic in the world. A hot enough ticket that the day dawned when Claudius called them for a sit down with the rest of the group he was assembling.
"The ta.. ta..ta.... team will be perfect," the fixer stuttered, "You two can ha...ha...handle the mana and ma...ma...matrix, Ghost Rider rigs, (he's the duh....duh....duh....duh.......Dwarf). Oh and Boh, well, of course, you can see by their size that they are the ma....ma....muscle. Oh is Japanese, I th...th....think Boh is Korean. The team leader is pa.......pa....pa........pa..... Pikeman."
"It had better pay well, Claudius." Isis replied, "There sure isn't much else here to interest a girl."
Kailea giggled but disagreed, "I don't know, honey. The bobsey twins might be your speed."
"Tweedle dum and Tweedle dumber? Puhlease! Even if those sides of beef are more muscle than fat, which I doubt, I'd have to be on top the whole time to keep from being crushed. Too much work, girl. Maybe Mr. Roboto" Isis said as she began working her hips like an automaton. Kailea started to laugh but Claudius urgently signaled her to stop.
"Don't ma....ma.....ma.....ma....make him mad. He's co...co...completely co...cold-blooded. A st....st...stone killer." Claudius warned seriously.
Knowing her partner would take the warning as a dare, Kailea quickly asked, "So what's the biz?"
"A run against Ares. 10 ka...ka....kay. Each. One night's work"
Seeing the eager light in Isis' eyes, Kailea quickly asked, "How dangerous? What kind of body count do you expect?"
"As many as it takes." Pikeman interrupted. The voice was the gravel of a rockslide in a dry streambed. The look was the dead black hunger of a shark. Isis shrunk a step back towards her partner while Kailea reached for the mana.
"Don't" was all the mercenary said.
Kailea used her centering skills to avoid reacting to the perceived threat. Isis shuddered. When Kailea was about to tell Claudius where to stick his biz, Isis whispered "We need the nuyen" and then the pretty blonde said aloud, "We're in."
The run had given her years of nightmares. Mostly it was the sounds that woke her screaming. The hollow flapping of the gargoyles' wings as they attacked from the dark before the team even reached the fence.... The roar of the piasma when it cornered Ghost Rider..... The dwarf's screech, high pitched and terrified, ending so abruptly when all his cherished toys could not stop the parabeast..... The whining rip of the sec drone's mini-gun as it turned Boh into bloody tatters..... the childlike sobs of Oh at the loss of his friend.... Her own gasp of horror when a decking Isis screamed "Kai!" and then the horrible gurgle when she ripped the plug from her friend's jack, and her partner's ears, nose and mouth fill with blood as her pretty blue eyes rolled back into her head. (It was only after she'd personally hunted down the sec decker who'd put poor Isis into a coma that that particular sound began to fade).... The whoosh of the flame elemental's attack and the crackle of her own left arm burning....
The most frightening sound by far, the one most deeply burned into her psyche was the rattle of Pikeman's pronouncement on poor unconscious Isis- "She's done. Leave her." Four words of unalterable finality delivered without an ounce of humanity or compassion. "She's done. Leave her." Partner, confidant, best friend, sister in spirit if not in blood- dismissed without a second thought. Kailea begged, pleaded, even threatened, but it was only when she screamed that she would do ANYTHING to save her friend that Pikeman reacted. She assumed that being nominally male the cyber soldier would demand something so obscene that he'd have trouble getting it on the street, but the merc had simply said "When I call, you come." It was a debt of honor that she agreed to in a heartbeat.
Now the bill had come due.
Pikeman had done his part, carrying the comatose decker and the paydata out of the Ares lab with Oh and Kailea hobbling along behind him. The cyber-merc had paid a price to protect Isis, too. He'd caught part of a long burst from a flying sec drone because he used his own body to shield the decker. When the mission was over he disappeared with most of the nuyen. Kailea had paid all she had to every specialist she could find for care and treatment of her partner, only to hear gentler variations of Pikeman's diagnosis. Isis was done. No brain wave. No higher function. When one patronizing medico had compared Isis to a plant, Kailea had "planted" him head first in the grass of the hospital terrace.
Seven years later and she still visited her friend every week, mostly because she believed that were their situations reversed it is what Isis would do. Now she knew she was going to have to pay for the privilege.
"You're a full combat mage now" Pikeman croaked when he made his way to her table. "Gotta good rep."
Kailea's silence forced the cyber-merc to drop his pretense of good fellowship. "Its time," he rasped.
"You gonna tell me about the job?" Kailea asked.
"Deal was - I call, you come. I'm calling."
"Haven't lost any of your charm, I see" the mage responded. "Oh, and you can save the look, chummer. You need me or you wouldn't be here, so let's all keep it in our pants. I'll do whatever the job is but I work MY way. And if you're looking for a scared teenager to treat you like you're nitroglycerin, I gotta tell you she grew up about seven years ago."
"Let's go" was all Pikeman said as he made his way towards the door.
Considering the cyber-merc's reticence, she was sure he was used to keeping all of the data on a run to himself. He'd tell the team members exactly what to do and when to do it and they'd follow his instructions to the letter. Kailea made it clear, however, that she couldn't and wouldn't work in the dark. She knew the best way to use her skills and abilities, so she would take an area of responsibility and decide what was necessary to accomplish the objective. Pikeman, having dealt with other pros before, was not really surprised by her stipulations and eventually gave the mage an overview of the job. Kailea immediately began wishing she had an "undo" spell so that she could go back in time and pay her debt without knowing what, exactly, she was doing.
It turned out that Pikeman provided protection for a group of "recruiters" who secured test subjects for corporate experiments overseas and that he needed Kailea on such short notice to replace a member of his regular team who'd unexpectedly developed some fatal bullet holes. Of course, Kailea had known, in the back of her mind, that such things went on, that when a corporation came out with a new drug or a radical change in personal tech, some (meta) human testing took place. One couldn't, after all, develop cyberware, bioware, drugs, food products or even the formulae for new combat spells without knowing how they would affect people. Like most of society, however, Kailea had been more occupied with the impact such products had on her life than with the details of how they were tested and developed. Now, unfortunately, she was not only going to witness the cost in human life of corporate "improvements", she was going to help make sure it was paid. The mage's years on the streets had hardened her enough for her to accept that the cost of her personal honor was going to be calculated in the lives of strangers. She wasn't hard enough to keep her from being sick at heart when she thought of how redeeming her debt would mean defeating any rescue attempts.
"Look sharp people, we got some foxes nosing around the hen house" <click> The comm unit whispered in her ear.
"How many, where?" Pikeman rasped back
"I've got three, make that four orks blundering down the pier. I'm surprised you can't hear them yourselves They're making enough noise......"
To distract you from checking the water Kailea thought with a small shake of her head. At that moment the comm voice said "URRK" and went silent. But it's not a mistake you'll repeat, you stupid slot.... At that precise second, warned by a flash of shadow, Kailea rolled away from her prone observation position on the ship's deck. Moving before even completing the thought, she avoided a line of holes that miraculously appeared in her previous location. The guardian drone, floating on near silent hoverjets, which had carved the holes with its sound suppressed sub gun was not as quick to deal with Kailea's response. With a gesture, the mage launched a bolt of power that smashed the drone into the freighter's superstructure. Before she could do much more than draw breath a rotodrone attempted to avenge the demise of its silent partner. It was no more successful than its predecessor as the whirring rotoblades prematurely announced its arrival and were immediately blasted by a burst from Kailea's Uzi III, causing the drone to take a wobbling swan dive into the water below. While scanning the sky for more flying threats, Kailea spotted the flash of a reflection in the lattice of steel girders of the dock's cargo crane. Realizing that it must be the rigger who had guided the drones, she quickly launched another spell before he could begin sniping with his long gun. A small smile of satisfaction touched her lips as the blindness spell struck and the rigger dropped his rifle to the pier below.
He's scared shitless, Kailea thought, but by the time his eyes are working again, this should all be over, and this way I don't have to geek him.
"C'MON BOYS!" Bellowed the orkish voice at the base of the covered gangway. "LETS GET UM!"
Aware of the fate of the comm voice, Kailea immediately checked the opposite side of the ship. Down in the water she saw a shaman in a rubber boat simultaneously attempting to chant to his totem while blasting at a collection of attacking aquatic and aerial drones with a stainless steel pump shotgun. Although fascinated by the magic user's split attention, Kailea knew she could ill afford to watch for a winner. Instead, she dashed across the deck and launched a spell down the steep gangway. As the conjured ice sheet sent the boarding party sliding back down to the dock, she heard several loud explosions from the stern of the ship.
That would be Pikeman, she thought while slamming a fresh clip into her Uzi III. I'd like to leave him to his fate, but I suppose I'd better see what Mr. Charm is up to.
Her heart sank as she moved towards the Pikeman's area and heard the music. The closer she got the clearer the strains of Wagnerian opera punctuated by gunfire became. As she recognized the thunderous "Ride of the Valkyries" she knew her worst fears were confirmed. There, buzzing the cyber-merc with guns blazing and opera blaring was Gnat. The legless dwarf was tucked into her modified rotodrone, darting through the air like some mad dragonfly. She was firing paired Ingram super mach 100s, cursing like a sailor between singing "Hi-Ah Ta-Ho-Ah" and moving so quickly that even Pikeman's tracking systems couldn't keep her in his sights.
Drek! DREK! DREK! Kailea thought, This is exactly what I was afraid of. I agreed to help Pikeman, but how the hell do I do that if it means fighting a friend?
Before Kailea could dwell on her problem it became more complex as a lithe figure vaulted over the edge of the deck, completed a series of backflips and in a single fluid motion drew and fired his longbow into Pikeman's torso. As rapidly as Pikeman spun to address this new threat, the elf bowman flipped and tumbled behind cover, while Gnat continued blasting away at her distracted target.
Perfect! Just Fucking perfect! Now I'll have to fight Red Will and Gnat to pay up what I owe. THIS SUCKS!
Taking a deep centering breath, Kailea called upon her years in the shadows for a plan. When she came up with one, she acted immediately, throwing three powerful spells in a few seconds.
The first spell, Clout, caught Red Will in mid-backflip. Instead of being perfectly positioned on the guard rail to fire another missile at Pikeman, the phys ad was shoved out over the stern of the ship with nothing to land on but air. The arrow he fired came nowhere near Pikeman.
The second spell, Chaos, petrified Pikeman. The portions of his brain that had not been replaced by technology relayed one set of commands while his technological augmentations relayed another. As his brain warred with itself over the reality of the input it was receiving, his body remained frozen. The Cyber-merc was a helpless, stationary target.
Finally, the stunbolt that Kailea threw at Gnat performed exactly as the mage hoped. Having run the shadows with Gnat before, Kailea knew the "Flying Samurai" had programmed her chariot to "get the hell outta dodge" if its driver ever lost consciousness. When the stunbolt hit, Gnat's rotodrone flew her away from the boat, thwarting her mission but preserving her life.
Two other things happened in the next instant. Kailea dropped to her knees as the drain affect of the spells hit her and almost immediately Red Will's arrow, the one that had missed Pikeman, ripped through her thigh. The shock of the pain, added to her already shaky condition, robbed Kailea of awareness.
Consciousness returned slowly.
".....Fuck you, Pikeman. You're fucking right I ran. Goddamn Injun called up some fuckin spirit thing, ripped up 3 of my droids. You were off the air, Andy was off the air, Tachi keeps screamin he's gutshot, your spell slinger caught a fuckin arrow and damn near bled out......what?....... yeah, yeah I got her, but listen. On top a fightin some water monster and having absolutely zero fucking backup, there were like, I dunno, half a dozen fuckin tuskers come up the gangway and the bastards were armed to the teeth. What's up with that? You never mentioned we were looking at a fuckin war! You said we were just supposed ta guard the fuckin boat........... Growl all you want, Pikeman. No wonder you got no regular team, you son of a bitch. You suckered us! You may be a fucking walking tank, pal, but I got friends, Andy HAD friends and Tachi was connected. I'm putting the word out on you, motherfucker! Everybody's gonna know how you do fuckin biz..........Yeah? Well, FUCK YOU!"
Kailea moaned as the van hit a pothole.
"Hey, you awake?" the voice asked with surprising gentleness.
"....where...." Kailea groggily inquired.
"You're in my van. I'm Gloria, you remember? I'm the rigger."
Kailea opened her eyes to see a young elf woman with a cable attached to her head smiling down at her. "Drink this" the rigger said as she offered a plastic bottle of some green fluid. Seeing Kailea's hesitation, Gloria took a deep swig and then offered again saying "It's Action-aid. Flavored water with electrolytes, vitamins, etc. Tastes like piss, but you need to do lots of fluids 'cause you lost a shitload of blood."
"Got me, sister. I was rigging from up in the wheelhouse. Lost a fight with some fuckin shaman in a dingy and when nobody answered my call for help, I went looking. Found you unconscious with a big fucking arrow in your thigh. Did a little first aid, got you and my surviving droids into a lifeboat, popped off a bunch of smoke grens and launched in the confusion. I have no idea how that fucker Pikeman got away but whatever was on that ship, the other side got it."
Lost in thought for a moment, Kailea sipped the sports bottle and then cast a healing spell on her thigh. She considered that suffering a potentially fatal wound while answering his "call" cleared her debt with Pikeman. In fact, her spells and bullets had removed 2 drones, a rigger, a phys ad and a flying samurai, which made her the most effective of the ship's defenders. That and the wound meant that nobody reasonable would disagree that she was out from under with the cyber-merc. She had also managed not to kill any of her friends, and the "good guys" had actually won as the human cargo of the ship had been liberated.
Kailea smiled as she thought about how well things had turned out. She caught the rigger's eye and sincerely said, "Uhm..Thanks. Thanks for pulling me out. Keeping me from bleeding to death. You... you saved my life."
"Null perspiration, chummer." Gloria responded offhandedly, "You owe me one."
Kailea shook her head and sighed.
(c) 2000 (pseudonym). Used with permission.