As Stealth made his way out of the sordid soykaf shop his nostrils were filled with the dingy night air. It was cold and enough to shock him out of his indignant mood. The majority of the people on the streets of the kreuzbasar paid little attention to him, but the young girls with pink hair, a servant of one of the most influential information brokers in Kiez was rapt at attention, so much so that she barely caught herself staring. Her eyes shifted from him to her PDA. Calmly she ran one hand through her multicolored locks and smiled as the dim light from her device illuminated her face. It was a good trick. It might have worked on another runner. Probably Blitz, but the elf rigger knew that the jig was up and by this time tomorrow all of the players looking to hire him would know. He was pissed. If it wasn’t for the heated conversation that he had had with Luca Derr had probably alerted every patron within the establishment of his displeasure. People had died in a well put together run and a well-known person of interest was caught in a heated conversation with another person of intrigue. Rumors would start soon, but Stealth didn’t care about that anymore. Calmly he smoothed out the finer edges of the dark blue ballistic cloth suit he had purchased during the run and fixed his demeanor. The mask of anger that had consumed the elves face was replaced by another. One of disinterest. Something he’d learned during his training in Ares and hadn’t really gotten rid of until this very day. In much the same way the informant had tried to hide her motives, Stealth did the same. One hand slid through his long brown hair and turned his control rig on. In mere seconds his vision doubled. The drone that hovered none too far from him became another set of eyes.
The process was always jarring. His consciousness had split, but that mask of disinterest didn’t crack. He had the machine hold a flight pattern, similar to how it usually does. The key difference was that every so often it angled itself so it’s cameras could catch errant reflections as he began his lonely trip back to the place the team called home. He appeared as a normal man walking amongst the others, hardly aware of the tens of eyes that glanced at him as he passed. The young woman from before had followed him for ways. The Strato drone had angled itself just enough to catch her reflection in the very soykaf shop she no doubt would scurry back into to relay her findings. Others paid attention but didn’t go to the lengths of tailing him like the human waif who attempted to stay just out of sight. Stealth took stock of their expressions. Some seemed to regard him with respect as others had a slight drek eating grin on their faces. No doubt knowing that whatever mission he had taken he’d received no pay. The situation around the deal didn’t matter, but soon word would be out that he was emotional. That was what bothered him. Monika got emotional and look where it got her. Not that he’d missed out on a substantial sum and guaranteed jobs, but the circumstances around it. Luca said that he and Stealth were just the hands and eyes of a larger collective. That had the greater good in mind. It was a bunch of Bull Drek. The same shit Ares told you after a security guard got smeared against a wall following one of their actions. The same thing that they said when an asset was killed due to their possible treachery. Same shit different people. No matter where you are you’ll be used, the only question is whether you’re fine with it. The mega corps made the rules and if you chose to do anything contrary to their plans, you were as disposable as a soykaf filter. The elf chuckled for a second.
Standing there in the middle of the street, dressed as impeccably as he was, the man drew quite a bit of attention. The strato showed the faces of those around him. The girl stood eyed him from Malit’s shop, politely browsing the wares, but sneaking up a few glances towards the rigger. Others just glared, some seemed to want to approach him, but all of them stayed far away from the chuckling shadowrunner. With a heavy sigh, he continued on his way back to Amsel’s curio shop. At some point, his stalker disappeared down an alleyway most likely not wanting to get caught on whatever security system Paul had installed. Just before he entered the building the strato drone caught his reflection in the window of his home and the image gave him pause. That mask that he had thought he’d covered had reared its ugly face yet again. His eyes had narrowed. His lips were locked in a deep frown, and everything else about his posture seemed to express a man on the edge. With considerably more effort than last time, he forced his anger and resentment down until his face was in its normal state. Neither happy nor sad, impassive and entered the establishment.
As soon as his boots hit the fake wood floors his nostrils were filled with another scent. As opposed to the pungent scent of soykaf that filled him with disgust, or the smell of the kiez that had sharpened his senses, this smell was warm. Even comforting. It was a mix of the cigarettes that Blitz chain smoked as he tapped away on his deck. It was the smell of synthol, that told him that the punk rock shaman had been partying a bit. And the smell of gunpowder that reminded him of the former special ops soldier who slept here. With control, Stealth walked past Blitz who stopped his coding slash smoking binge to call out to him.
“Hey Stealth”, he shouted in that annoying voice of his that sounded far too comforting to the rigger at this point and time. “When’s the next job? Hope you haven’t been running solo without us!”
And just like that, the idiot had stumbled his way onto a nerve that almost elicited a passionate response from his leader. Calmly the rigger replied not even bothering to turn around.
“Great Boss. You know the situation.”
With that, he resumed his activities. If Blitz was that hard to get past, the elf dreaded his other teammates. Paul sat at his computer typing away as Glory lounged on the couch. Glory looked up at him and silently nodded. While Paul politely welcomed the runner back.
“Welcome back Stealth I’ve met with another party who is interested in procuring our services. A full transcript is available on your computer.”
“Thank You Paul” was the response. For a second the savvy fixer noticed something but quickly returned his to his work. Dietrich was the next person to great Stealth. He had a bottle of synthol in one hand a plate of something in the other. Nachos Maybe?
“Hey Boss”, He smiled still evidently celebrating his nephew’s rescue from Humanis.
“Thanks again for Alex, he’s a good kid just…” for a second his features darkened. “He’s had a rough life and got thrown in with the wrong crowd. Woulda has been better if he’d fallen in with the rock scene, hell even neo jazz. At least we’d have something in common. But, humanis. That. That’s something I didn’t know how to handle. I just knew I had to get him out of there. Thanks again boss. If there’s anything I can do just tell me.”
Stealth pointed to the bottle that Dietrich clasped within his tattooed fingers and held out his hand. For A second the Shaman just looked confused, but then he understood. Without a word he passed his boss the bottle and went to rest on the couch next to Glory. The doors in front of Stealth opened and he was regarded by the figure that had given him so much peace of mind as he came back home, but now he regarded her with dread. The easily eight-foot tall troll covered in the latest in frag bullets gear was standing right in front of him. She looked down at him and before she could even speak, Stealth held up his free hand telling her wordlessly to shut up.
“I’m going to need the room for a few alone. It won’t take long I just need to work on a few things alone.”
She looked down at the elf. He wasn’t as physically imposing, but the look in his eyes was different from the last time the two were in this position. It was just after Monika had died and he was full of doubt. His eyes were determined and the drone that had carefully made its way behind her hadn’t given her time to think. Whatever it was it had to be important, and she’d seen what he could do with that drone. So, she wordlessly left the room and joined Dietrich and Glory tilting the couch slightly to her side. As the door closed behind him and the locks engaged. Stealth unscrewed the top of the Synthol bottle and took a swig. The smell of synthol burned his nostrils as it burned his throat, but that’s in part what he wanted.
“Fuck!” he yelled after taking another swig that seemed to go on for ever. On the opposite side of the door. Even Glory perked up at the sound of hearing their leader scream. The team exchanged glances as the string of profanities hit their ears. Blitz ran into the room submachine gun in hand and deck slung over his shoulder.
“We under attack?” The frenzied decker managed to ask before another word could audibly be heard from the other room. Dumbfounded Blitz raised an eyebrow quizzically.
“Boss bring a chick home?”
“No Blitz”, Paul managed to say without sounding condescending. “I think the stress of his new position has finally gotten to Mr. Stealth.”
With a sigh, the decker calmed down. He rested his smg on on top of the table next to the small television in the common room and snagged a nacho or two off of Dietrich’s plate as he lounged on the couch across from the rest of his team.
“You know”, the words somehow made it out between crunches. “If he needed to get rid of stress there’s this new novahot sim I” He trailed off as he looked around the room, obviously a tad bit embarrassed. The only face in the room that showed any sign of knowing where the man was going with this was Dietrich, whose grin was widening by the millisecond. “A friend could take care of that for him.”
The former punk rocker couldn’t contain his mirth anymore and started laughing. Paul just sighed and went back to his work paying no attention to the no longer audible sounds of Stealth or the growing fracas concerning their team leaders “stress”.
On the other side, the elf had nearly finished off the bottle when he spotted the mission computer. It was a ramshackle monstrosity. Parts and pieces obviously ripped off of machines that were not factory compatible with each other, but that never mattered to Monika. She always used to say that she didn’t care if her deck looked shit, as long as it had the power she needed. Like a moth to a flame, the man found himself sitting in front of the giant contraption. Long, dexterous fingers found themselves tapping away at the keys. First, bringng up the previous logs of Monika, she talked about him and the rest of the team as Stealth finished off the rest of the synthol. If it had helped Monika to talk about this maybe it’d help him he thought after watching her last recording. It was meant to be her message from the grave, and it had served to guide him however oddly.
Those long fingers typed away again, not quite achieving the speed at which Monika had blazed the keys and not even close to the unskilled banging of the team’s newest decker, but there was still a mad fanaticism to them that made every stroke echo in the riggers mind. Soon his reflection played out on the main monitor and Stealth could barely stomach it. It was him. Although it looked like he’d been on a week long binge. Alcohol. Drugs. Chips. Something like that. His hair was mussed and his eyes were red. Had he shed tears? With the same measure, he had had on the streets. The man was put back on again. His hair was moved back into place and he adopted a posture the exact opposite of the sad state that he’d been in for the last twenty minutes.
“Hello”, he addressed the camera. “I’m Stealth A Shadowrunner, who is between a rock and a proverbial hard place. I don’t know if this will reach Eiger or Dietrich, hell if this all goes to drek Blitz might be leading the team. If it’s Paul. I vote for Eiger to take lead on the team. She’s calculating and efficient, but she still has some emotions. It means she still has some morals.” He paused trying to collect himself. A lump began forming in his throat as the images of tonight’s events blended in with the horrors of working security at Ares. All those years ago he had been a puppet, that was as disposable as A soykaf filter. Undertaking the now gargantuan task of keeping all of his emotions in check, the Elf forced down whatever had tried to bubble up and continue.
On the other side of the door, a heated conversation had sparked up between Blitz and Dietrich.
“So you think he’s into robots”, Dietrich roared in laughter as Blitz stumbled trying to find the right words.
“Look, man, I’m just saying I haven’t seen him check out any chicks on our runs.”
Dietrich arched an eyebrow slightly distorting the tattoos on his forehead. “So you think he’s gay.”
“Or just a professional.” Eiger chimed in from across the room, lightly blowing on a fresh cup of tea, that looked like it was a child’s toy in her hands.
Dietrich just threw his hands up in annoyance. “I’m just saying I’ve never seen him check out anyone maybe he’s into bots.”
Dietrich just laughed and the troll sat down on the couch with him trying not to spill her drink.
“Remember Silky. He seemed to like her.”
Glory came into the conversation from out of nowhere despite her position next to Blitz on another coach. During the deep discussion about their team leader’s sexuality, she seemed aloof. But she had apparently been paying attention the entire time.
The three sat dumbfounded by the team medic’s words.
“I think it prudent to divulge the reasons that pertain to my message. Today I participated in A Shadowrun that upon completion would have resulted in A series of lucrative opportunities to our team. I trust that I need not explain to you the gravity of our current situation there is a dragon known for ruthlessly incinerating her enemies, some insipid program within the matrix that was capable of killing multiple highly skilled deckers, and a security contingent of unknown size that may worship said dragon.” There was a deep audible sigh that filled the room. With another exhale fingers became interlocked.
“We would be fragged if it weren’t for the hope of finding Dr. Vauclair, the dragonslayer. But, that is not the focus of this message. Whether you are a shadowrunner or apparently an electrician, you will have to make certain inevitable choices compounded by the cold hard realities of life. Time is of the essence and with an opportunity to make more than our standard endeavors, I let myself be used. This Black Lodge hired me, threw me into the fire with a team of runners unsuited to delivering a package, let alone to conduct a complicated infiltration mission. I got it done, just like I’ve done for other less than reputable organizations. But, there was always an air of professional courtesy between us. Make no mistake I’m a murderer, A Thief, and A fairly deplorable person. But, I am not a mindless drone!” For a brief second then came facade disappeared and the true anger that Stealth had come out again. This time it didn’t go back down.
“Back at Ares I disposable and I knew it! I was something that would receive a certain amount of pay and in return give the corporation myself in exchange. It’s for the best of the company. They say. It’s for the best! Just like Luca said in the shop. We are expected to allow the Lodge to exploit us for a fee. Never to question the higher ups, because they knew what they were doing. If they really gave a damn, why would they put a bigot on the team, knowing my race and that of the other members? For the same purpose, they included a man who couldn’t speak German. They didn’t care. Only that their task was accomplished. The collateral damage, pain, and loss of talent would be considered a net gain, not a loss. But, then again the test was more than that. It was to ensure my docility. To make sure that I would always follow their rules. I was desperate and they used that. Monika was a heavy proponent of the flux state and that was used against her. Monika once told me that freedom was having choice. And in this line of work you have the choice to accept a job or to not. Once you give up that option, once you lie down for the money or some hypothetical greater good. You’ll lose that choice and just become another drone in the shadows.”
At that Stealth hastily ended his recording and left the room. The file was left in a folder that was labeled “in case I die”. As soon as the door that separated him from the rest of the team opened with a pneumatic hiss, his nostrils were filled with the smell of soy cheese and herbal tea. Not wholly unpleasant, but the looks on the faces of his allies were slightly disconcerting. All of the people in the room save from Paul regarded him with wild looks. Even Glory was slightly off. She was blushing slightly. They hastily excused themselves from the room each, in turn, measuring him with their eyes. Blitz handed him a note when he passed. As the room cleared Stealth finally felt like he could relax. The weight of the world was on his shoulders, but he felt refreshed. Until he opened Blitz note. There were several dubious sites that offered hot elf on ork action. Silky number and contact information, the burned out girl from the club. Also, A list of sims that included said elf on ork action with an offer to alter the sim to resemble Silky.
For the first time in what felt like years, the elf laughed. It wasn’t a chuckle but a full on gut busting laugh.
“Paul”, he asked. “What the hell went on out here?”
“I’d rather not say”, was the response.