“What happened?” Higashi-san said.
“I don’t remember,” I said. I coughed, bringing a handkerchief to my mouth just in time to catch a glob of whatever it was I inhaled. My vision still blurred from the drug I inhaled.
“You don’t remember,” Hagashi-san said through gritted teeth.
“I stood in the corner. Sakura watched the trid. There was a noise. I turned and I don’t remember anything after that.”
Hagashi-san ran his fingers through his hair as he walked from his desk to the window, then walked back. “You don’t remember.”
“Sumimasen,” I said, bowing deeply. It apparently wasn’t deep enough because Higashi-san swung at me. I didn’t even realize I’d acted until after he was on his back, my foot on his chest and my Hammerli pointed at his face. I could tell from the combination of fear and rage on his face he didn’t know the ammo in this gun was non-lethal. I could also tell that my services would no longer be required by Shiawase.
* * *
I stared into the bourbon on the antique stool in Club Penumbra. I wasn’t a shadowrunner. Not really. I just kind of fell into the crowd since Shiawase treated me that way. I’ve got a SIN. A legit one, I mean, that I was born with. My mother worked for CrashCart before she got transferred and I grew up in the corp. But not really. We were gaijin, so my mother was re-hired as an independent contractor. And that’s what I ended up as. A good worker bee corporate drone without all the hassle. My SIN says UCAS on it, not Shiawase. Probably for the best considering my situation.
I started in security as yet another drone. That’s when they noticed I had a talent for spotting trouble and diffusing it before it started. I jumped just a little bit faster than the rest of the guys and blended into the background better. Even people couldn’t tell me apart from others. That’s when I moved up.
My nickname of “Babysitter” stuck, no matter how many times I tried to get away from it. People used it as a weapon against me, trying to dismiss what I did as I looked after various executives and their family members as they went to business meetings, trade shows, or just out partying. After a while, I started to embrace the name. It meant I did my job well, because no one knew all the drek I dealt with. Eighteen foiled assassinations, forty-two failed extractions, and only six injuries from my clients in eight years.
My record got me hired by Ryouga Hagashi. Executive Vice President of Acquisitions for Shiawase Biotech UCAS, Hagashi-san made a career of making sure he got what he wanted, and he wanted me. His daughter Sakura just turned thirteen and started to enter her rebellious teenage years. Hagashi-san couldn’t oversee her, and his ex-wife still lived in California. So he hired someone he could trust to keep her safe without interfering in her life. Only stepping in when needed. A shadow hiding in plain sight.
I think he also wanted a project too, because that’s when I started getting upgraded. They pulled out the cheap boosters security put in me and gave me proper wires. Then it was a tailored muscle here, an attention chip there. They had a new version of the suprathyroid gland. I resisted getting it at first, but Hagashi-san insisted. I don’t know why I was worried. Every other guy I’d seen with the implant started bouncing off the walls like a six year old on a sugar high, but that never happened to me. I feel full of energy all the time, but I guess years of blending into the background and standing still for hours at a time overrode whatever caused Miho to constantly jiggle her leg or shift from foot to foot.
Miho didn’t do the same work I did. While we’re both licensed Personal Security Professionals, she was far more arm candy. That just so happened to be able to knock your ass flat if you tried anything. She actually works for Shiawase, but because she guards Hagashi-san and I guarded Sakura, we spent a lot of time together. Nothing ever happened, because if I ever touched either of the ladies, Hagashi-san would’ve ended me. But I considered Miho was of my closest friends, so I called her a few days after I got back to Seattle.
* * *
Miho sat down next to me at the bar. It was early afternoon, so she must have gotten someone to cover for her to be there.
“You alright, Kyle-kun?”
“Yeah,” I said, draining my glass. “Peachy.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said. I could hear the grinding of her dermal plates as she moved. I turned my ears down and motioned for another drink.
“Probably the last time I’ll be able to afford the real stuff,” I said.
“The chemical analysis came back.”
I sat the empty glass down on the counter and pushed it away with one finger.
“Are you going to tell me?”
“I wanted to make sure you would ask,” she said. A file transfer notification came up, and the analysis was in my optical display less than a second later.
It was gibberish. “Can you translate this from nerd?”
The bartender sat another glass in front of me. I stared at it without touching it.
“That doesn’t mean it was the elves,” I said.
Miho readjusted herself on her stool. “Doesn’t mean it wasn’t.”
“Hey,” I said, then paused. The bio of the bartender came up on my display. “Mark?”
“Chris,” he said.
“It happens. The node needs updating.”
“Do you have a tester under there?”
“I just poured that myself less than—“
“I just want to know if you have them.”
“Always. Safety first.”
“Thanks,” I said. I added an extra five to the tip as Chris walked away.
“What was that about?” Miho asked.
“Lael’s the new GBH. Most of the clubs in town have testers for it they give out in case you’re worried you’ve been dosed.”
“Oh,” she said. “They’re still looking into it. Don’t worry.”
“Have there been any demands yet?”
Miho didn’t meet my eyes. “I’ve got to go back. If you ever need anything…”
She left without finishing her sentence. No demands was bad. It meant the kidnappers knew what they were doing and had an agenda in mind that didn’t involve money. I finished my drink.
* * *
The glass shattered. I heard Sakura’s scream after the canister was already in sailing back through the window. Whatever was in there, I’d taken a lung full of it. Didn’t matter, better me than her. It’s my job.
They came in through the broken window. Apparently shooting a gas can through a window and having it thrown back through isn’t the best for its structural integrity. They wore black with glowing red eyes, their forms shifting and merging. There were three of them. Then there were eight. Then four. I fired at them, but the shots went wild. I saw the burn marks on the wall as the shock rounds scorched the paint. But I couldn’t remember what they looked like.
But I could remember her scream.
I missed something. There’s always a warning if you’re sharp enough to see it and fast enough to react. There had to have been something, and I missed it. It was my job, my duty, to protect her.
And they had her.
* * *
I stopped the fire command a split second before I sent a round through the door. Wouldn’t have done anything since I had it reinforced and these were just regular ball rounds, but no sense in wasting ammo.
I was hyperventaling. I didn’t know why, until the dream came back to me. And reality came back after that. I was crouched behind the bar with my Predator aimed at the door, in my boxers and covered in a cold sweat. Why was I doing that?
The banging came back and I remembered. The first. Rent. Frag.
I kept my gun in my right hand as I opened the door. Security already confirmed it was Mrs. Lindberg, but you can never be too careful. The tech monkeys always told me that any system could be hacked.
“Your cred was rejected,” she slurred. Her right tusk always made her slur. I never understood why she didn’t have it filed down some.
“Gomen—“ I started. Needed coffee, I was so used to speaking Japanese. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Lindberg. I recently changed jobs and—“
“Where’s the rent!”
“One second,” I said, looking for my commlink. I made the connection finally and saw I’d gotten my final cred transfer from Shiawase. I ignored the red notification beacon and pushed the transfer through. Then pushed it through a second time when the first transfer failed due to a network error.
“That’s better,” the old ork said. “You’re a good kid, Kyle. I cut you a lot of slack when you done all those renovations. But you can’t be late on the rent!”
“I’m sorry. I just changed jobs and the transfer got delayed. It won’t happen again.”
“Fraggin’ right it won’t,” she said, giving me the eye as she walked away.
I closed the door. And then my vision went dark.
I had spells when I was a kid. No, not like magic. I mean something was wrong with my eyes, and that’s why they were the first thing that got replaced. But everything went white when that happened, not black. Didn’t matter, it sent me into the same panic it did then. It lasted for under a quarter of a second according to my time display, but my wires kicked in and it felt a lot longer. I started to pull up a search on my commlink, but I only got that red notification. I opened it. It was in Japanese.
“Thank you for your valued services to the Shaiwase Corporation. It has been requested that you return all corporate property, but you have yet to do so. Please report to the nearest Shiawase office to turn in your commlink and schedule an appointment for your surgery. Thank you!”
Surgery? What the fuck?
* * *
“I paid for these through salary deductions!”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I see no record of the payment for your Super Deluxe Vision Ultra Fours. You’ll need to pay the balance in full or—“
“I bought these eyes when I was fifteen fragging years old!”
“Sir, if you don’t watch your language, I will have to end this call.”
“I paid for these already! I’ve got two hundred thousand worth of chrome in my body, do you really think I would forget to pay the thirty grand for my fragging eyes?!”
“You have been warned about language. I will now terminate this call. Have a nice day!”
I started to throw the cheap StufferShackTMCommBuddy 300 against the wall, but caught myself. I couldn’t afford to trash even this cheap piece of drek commlink.
Which was ringing. Did anyone even have the code for this one?
“Hello?” I said to the staticy void.
“Penumbra. One hour.” The call ended.
* * *
The buses were in my favor and I was on my second double synthahol when a dwarf woman wearing the world’s worst wig and ugly oversized sunglasses sat across from me.
“May I help you?” I asked.
“Do you know what 2XS is?”
“No…” I started to do a quick search, then remembered my “new” commlink. A search would’ve taken half a minute on this thing. It seems like half my knowledge was outsourced to the Matrix these days, so I never bothered remembering facts. Then I remembered an old trid from when I was a kid. “Wait, wasn’t that a type of beetle?”
“More and less,” she said. She placed an envelope on the table.
“Couldn’t you just send me a file? I’m not—“
“I have to go,” she said, then walked out of the club.
I picked up my drink and the envelope and headed to the bar. I signaled Chris for a refill as I opened it. It held the complete report from Shiawase’s internal security on the kidnapping. Still no ransom demands or any other contact after two weeks. No body found. No blood at the scene. Only biological evidence came from dandruff at the scene and a chip that fell out of a pocket.
“The chip,” I said. “Autorecord. Anderson!”
* * *
The next few hours blurred for me, whether it was from the cheap well synthahol working out of my system or the anticipation, I don’t know. I remember a lot of autocabs, an unhelpful receptionist who took my Shiawase-issued commlink, some talk about needing my eyes back, and cursing that would make Slamm-O! blush. At the end of it, I sat with my discount bin commlink in Dr. Anderson’s office.
I didn’t believe for a moment that Anderson was his real name, but I met him when I got the upgrade to my ears done for balance. He interned with Shiawase before ditching them and going black market. I kept in touch over the years for some reason, but it was paying off as I sat in his waiting room.
“Oi, Rogers! Get yer ass in here!”
People didn’t go to Dr. Anderson for his bedside manner. Short for a troll, Dr. Anderson stood only a few centimeters taller than me. His broad build still required him to wear troll-sized clothes, though, so dark stains rimmed the bottom of his lab coat as it dragged on the ground. His height was obvious because I was standing next to him seconds after he called for me from the other side of the office.
“Did I do yer wires?”
“Nope, that was Calamek,” I said.
“Damn fine work, but you don’t turn ‘em off I’m gonna tranq you. Whatchoo want?”
“I should have thirty minutes of memory recorded and I want to see it.”
“Then just call it up!”
“They took the commlink when I left Shiawase.”
“When you got shitcanned you mean?” He chuckled at the look on my face. “Word travels fast, omae. Whatchoo want me to do?”
“Can’t you go into my eyes and ears and get the files?”
“I autorecord. Thirty minutes. If I get knocked out, the files immediately get saved and logged. Assholes wouldn’t let me look, but I want to see.”
Dr. Anderson looked at me. “What you carrying?”
“Huh?” I followed his eyes. “Oh, sorry. Predator. Kind of a security blanket.”
“Can I see?”
I drew the gun and handed it to him. It had been a gift from Miho. Chrome finish with a blood red stripe down the middle, skull and crossbones etched into the slide, and a screaming skull etched into the barrel so it looked like the bullets came out of its mouth. I thought it was kind of silly, but Miho thought it was hilarious. I was so bland and normal looking, she said I needed something to stand out. First time I drew it on some gutterpunk who tried to roll me in Puyallup, he left a brown stain on the pavement when he ran. So I guess she had a point.
Dr. Anderson simply plugged a cable into the gun. “Did you know yer gun has memory?”
“No,” I said.
“Damn near everything does. Whoever wrote yer program done good. Didn’t just save to the comm, it saved a copy everywhere. Yer gun been lagging?”
“So you have the files?”
“Sit down!” Dr. Anderson bellowed.
I hadn’t realized I’d stood up, let alone crossed the room and taken my gun from his hand. I handed the gun back. “Sorry.”
“So ka,” Dr. Anderson said. “I pulled the files, but they corrupted sitting there so long. This thing’s meant to save gun data, not vid files. Gonna need someone to clean ‘em up. That means yer needing a hacker.”
I pulled up my account. Then my commlink crashed. I rebooted and pulled my account up again. Then I groaned.
* * *
I worked for Shiawase, I ended up on the books as an “independent contractor”. They never treated me like one of their own. They treated me like every other runner they hired as a disposable asset. It doesn’t matter how much chrome or vat-grown tissue they put in my body. I paid for that with every boring night I spent watching others have fun in a ballroom through a sniper scope. I earned it with every bullet wound and knife scar I have. They treated me like a runner, excluded me from their social circles so I hung out with runners. So that’s what they made.
I found a hacker. I got a fate ID so my actions can’t be traced to my real SIN. I got all the same permits and licenses. So Kyle Rogers will fade away, and Sam Skyy will be born from his ashes.
But every few nights, I wake up and I still hear her screams. I don’t know if the encryption on this cheap commlink’s worth a damn, but there’s a file there. And it’s slowly gathering information. The hacker’s holding my file until I can pay him for the file recovery work, ten thousand. And Shiawase keeps sending me bills for my eyes, saying I still owe twenty thousand. But I’ve still got my guns, my armor, and my edge. I’ve got a home it’d take an expert to crack into that may not be in the best neighborhood, but it’s mine. As long as I make rent on time (or Mrs. Lindberg’s in a good mood).
I’ve got some leads. I met a guy on ShadowSEA who posted about 2XS. I’ve found evidence of The Ancients smuggling Lael into Seattle, and hope to find who bought enough to use in an aerosol grenade that way.
I’m going to find her. Because maybe if I do, I can sleep at night.
And maybe then, Hagashi-san will stop trying to kill me.