Julia was studying like a good hermetic when the door bell rang. The Ascension War had officially ended, but the Sixth World held no shortage of dangers, so she traced the symbols for scrying on her water glass. It was just Jacqueline on the threshold, though the youth looked anxious, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Julia hurried to answer.
Wondering about the cause, she vaulted over the bannister and leapt down to the ground floor. Gang trouble? Police? Humanis? Parents? Pushing the door open, Julia settled for, "Toilet's over there!"
"Thanks!" Jacqueline rushed into the bog, slamming the door behind her. Surprisingly, she didn't follow up her ta with a ta-ta once she'd relieved herself. Drying her hands on her artfully tattered top, she asked, "Can I talk with you?"
"Always. But I don't have any cash."
Jacqueline didn't laugh. "My chums met some shadowrunners."
Julia clenched her fists. Gangs wanted protection money, bodies and grovelling, giving time for help to arrive, but shadowrunners were too transitory for that, too hardened. Images of Logan and Freya lying in pools of blood swam before her. Bitterly ironic, given they, like every other squatter, dreamed of being shadowrunners, when they weren't imagining their band hitting it big. They'd been arctic kids. Bile rose, but she swallowed it down. If she felt like this, how much worse must it be for Jacqueline?
Julia hastily put a hand on her shoulder, trying to comfort. "I'm so sorry, there are no words. Cry, it often helps and there's never any shame in showing emotions!" She bit back asking if there was anything she could do to help, because there was something Jacqueline might want, but that she was unwilling to offer. "You can hide out here for a while, or I can escort you home. If their families need help with funeral expenses, I can see what-"
"They're not dead yet." Half a laugh, half a sob.
That changed things. No way Julia was going to risk her life for revenge, but for the living that was another matter. "What do I need to know?"
Jacqueline touched her ORC badge. "They've been hired to help on a run, but it stinks. You're a shadowrunner, so I need your advice."
"I think people need to make their own decisions. Didn't you dream of the power being a shadowrunner would give you?" Though even if that was equivalent to late teens for orks, they were like, twelve.
Jacqueline raised her fists to her chest. "Of course we fragging dreamed, but dreams aren't reality! They'll get themselves killed as pawns for some fragging corp!"
"Dreams can be closer to reality than you might think, but you're right about this. What are you hoping I'll do about it though? They must already know it's dangerous, even if they don't properly appreciate it." None of the perils of the Sixth World had yet deterred youngsters from their belief in immortality. They might even be right, depending one's stance on reincarnation.
"Hope? If we're going for that, maybe you could tag along and keep an eye on them."
"Hm." It would certainly improve their chances of survival, but it also massively increased the chances of her evening ending with a bullet in the brain. Did she really want to risk her life on a pointless, self-imposed exercise? Even if they were people she'd been hoping to use in forging a new society?
Jacqueline's shoulders slumped a little. "I wasn't expecting it, it would be great if you could give them some tips."
"Haven't the runners hiring your friends already done that?"
"Not much and really, they need all the help they can get."
"Then let me be honest with you. Asking me for shadowrunning advice is scraping the barrel. I've robbed the megacorps sure, but you've got to understand that Aztechnology owns Suffer Shack."
Jacqueline looked like she'd been kicked. "But you are a physical adept?"
"Would you believe me if I said I was just a fitness fanatic?"
Jacqueline bit her upper lip. After a long moment she said, "No, I'm sure you're awakened." The girl had a good instinct. Physical adepts were something totally different, but Flambeau was the most martial of the Houses of Hermes.
"Well, I am out of bed." Julia stretched.
That earned an eye roll. Then Jacqueline's face lit up. "You know, the shadowrunners who hired my chummers are English."
Julia snorted with laughter. "When you put it like that, how can I refuse?" she said, playing up her Glaswegian accent. "So where are these English shadowrunners?"
"We met them at your pub."
"You know it's not my pub, I just work there. If I owned it, I'd give your band another attempt at making a racket." Julia pulled on her shoes. "If you think they're still there, I'll pop over and take a look." She smeared on some face paint in one motion, to give surveillance cameras a hard time, then grabbed her bicycle helmet.
"They might be. If so, you can't miss them, they absolutely look like shadowrunners."
Actually, the four looked like people desperate to star in a film about shadowrunners, but hadn't grasped the need to fulfil ridiculous conventional beauty expectations to partake in such a hurricane of product placement. On the upside, they looked too grubby and punky to be disliked for hailing from England. Julia didn't actually mind random English people, who were not really much worse than anybody else. Her problem was more with the idea of Englishness and their collective mentality, which spewed forth horrors like Jacob Rees-Mogg.
After exchanging greetings with Siobhan, who had just started her duty at the bar, Julia swaggered up to the shadowrunners. "Planning a run, eh?"
The cybered-up man eyed her coldly. "What's it to you?"
"You hired some of my chummers to help you."
"And you want in on the action?" the guy in a trenchcoat with a katana strapped across his back asked.
Julia smiled. "Depends on what the action is."
"And here I thought you needed help carting the messages for senior citizens." Odd to think that she fitted into that category herself.
"We don't need people tattling to the police."
Julia leaned forward. "I'm not on speaking terms with the police."
The shadowrunners looked at each other, then the elf nodded. "We'll give you a gun now, and two thousand nuyen after the score. We'll text you with the details later. Interested?"
"The weans might have signed up for that, but my rates are rather higher." This was absolutely rotten. There was a difference between op-sec and blatantly screwing over subcontractors.
"If you think you're too good for shadowrunning, don't let us hold you off whatever thuggery you planned for this evening, but don't be surprised if your gang has higher ambitions." The elf knocked back his drink.
"I'm bartending here tonight actually, so I'd be more polite if you want swift service." Traditionally, the threat was to spit in the drinks, but that would improve half of them.
"We'll be in rather better places after tonight." Cyberguy got up. He stood a head shorter than Julia, but when he gave her a shove, she staggered two steps backwards.
Despite the temptation, she resisted the instinct to push right back. They were rather heavily armed, even if they probably didn't want to draw attention before their run. "I do hope you're nicer to my weans."
Cyberguy rolled his eyes, including his biomechanical one. "They're trogs."
"They're people!" On second thoughts, she would hold their Englishness against them, in addition to all the things that actually were their fault. Even if, by accent, the elf was probably from Tir.
Julia sped home to pack some drinks and link up with Jacqueline, then they headed off again. It took about half an hour to reach the dilapidated building where Jacqueline's gang hung out. Spotting a sign plastered to the wall, Julia squawked, "Your place is being demolished?!" It was a real pity about the graffiti murals, particularly the unicorn. She would have to spend tomorrow documenting them.
"Aye," Jacqueline wheezed, bending over to rest her hands on her knees. She'd done a good job trying to keep up with what was an easy jog for Julia, but seemed too knackered to elaborate on the outrage of their impending loss.
Letting her catch her breath, Julia read the notice carefully. Work would begin a week on Thursday, to make way for some newspeak project by a double A. Not the kind of people who were easy to dissuade. That explained why the gang were so eager to go on a shit shadowrun.
The two headed down to the basement room where the kids had established their hideout. "Um. The 'No Humans' sign doesn't apply to you," Jacqueline said, still panting.
"No worries. Will you knock?"
Jacqueline did. A second later Logan opened the door. He grinned wildly. "Polly, you came!"
Freya jumped off the sofa and hugged Jacqueline. "We were worried you'd chickened out, but you've brought along a shadowrunner!"
"My first advice is to carefully take those guns out of your trousers before you maim yourselves," Julia said. "And don't point them at anyone!"
They bashfully pulled out the guns and put them on the table next to some mismatched glasses and their phones.
"Are they loaded?" Julia asked.
The aspiring runners looked at each other, then Logan shrugged.
Julia groaned. She gingerly picked a gun up and opened the ammunition compartment. "Aye, it's loaded. You're lucky nothing's happened. I suggest going back to water pistols."
Logan laughed, perhaps slightly nervously. "But you'll help us get through this, right?"
"I'll do my best-"
"Thanks a million! We've already picked our runner names by the way. I'm Godzilla and he's Badass." Freya turned to Jacqueline. "If you don't want to stick with Policlub, we've got a whole list of awesome names left!" Looking back at Julia, she asked, "Anyway, what's yours?"
"It's always just Julia actually." She did have a secret Enochian name, but that happened to be, well, secret, in addition to being nigh unpronounceable.
"I really wouldn't pick Badass as a street name," Jacqueline said. "You'll be the butt of every joke."
Logan looked crestfallen.
"I'm afraid she's right." Julia plonked herself down on the sofa and dug a bottle of liquid marketed as beer out of her rucksack. "Want some?"
"Is the pope a Catholic?"
As Julia poured, Freya said, "We'll repay you with better after our run."
"No pressure. Pissing in the glass would be better, so I'm not going to push."
"To our success!" Logan raised his glass to a toast. Julia responded along with the others. She definitely wished them something as vague as success.
Freya continued, still beaming after having taken a gulp, "We'll be rich!"
"Actually, I think you'll get the truly classic shadowrun experience where your Johnsons screw you over, as Johnsons are wont to do."
Freya shook her head. "They're runners, not slimy corpers."
Julia leaned back and sipped at her beer. It was terrible, but she'd had decades to get used to it. "They're one step removed from slimy corpers, doing dirty work for slimy corpers. Not exactly people I'd put faith in."
"A small step for a man, but a great leap for metahumankind," Freya said.
Julia couldn't help but smile. "Nicely quoted. But did they insult you to your faces as well, or only behind your backs?"
Logan looked at his feet and Freya blushed slightly. Then she snapped, "Some of the stuff they said was nasty, but that's just how people talk in the shadows! These are tough squishies, don't mince words and don't want people who get offended at every wee thing!"
"Some of the things were not such wee things," Jacqueline said, taking a draught.
Logan rolled his eyes. "Save the 'sensitive language use' lecture for your policlubs."
"Exactly!" Freya punched the air, spilling a bit of her drink. "Maybe they could have been nicer, but this is our chance!"
"Did the Sassenach shadowrunners bother explaining what that chance would entail?" Julia leaned forward and picked up one of the phones lying on the table and waved it around demonstratively. "Or will you just get a message?" It was useful for mages to also learn the magician's arts, and Julia was pretty sure she'd managed to palm the card undetected. Hopefully the files were backed up elsewhere too, but it would be useful for damage limitation.
"Message. And put down my fragging phone."
"Sure." Julia put it back down upon the other phone, sending an electronics frying current through both. Any student of Forces who had fought the Technocracy would be advised to know such rotes. "But the situation stands. No advance, only an offer of a quite decent sum in the future, but with no suggestion of where you'll pick it up?"
"First, they gave us these guns as an advance." Freya tapped the weapons. "And they said we'd meet tomorrow noon in Argyle Street station toilets for the money."
"I suspect the fifty pence it'll cost you to get in will be more than you'll find there." Jacqueline leaned back.
Logan stopped fidgeting with his hoodie cords. "You know, they might be right."
Freya snarled, curling back her lower lip, showing her tusks more prominently. "Fine! So maybe they won't be there! But they gave us guns and a chance! They depend on us and we'll be runners afterwards!"
"You'll likely be dead afterwards." Julia kept her voice even. "Look, if I'm being the sensible one, you know it's a bad idea. This is a hose job. I can get rid of the guns for you, they're bound to be linked to something nasty."
As Freya and Logan looked mutinous, Julia continued, "There will be other opportunities." She made a mental note to make more of an effort looking for them.
Freya shook her head. "Aye, that's all very well and good if you've already fragging made it! You own a bloody mansion and we'll be homeless within the week!"
"You can meet at my place if you like," Julia offered. Having more influence over them could be quite useful, if only to prevent them from participating in harebrained shadowruns.
Logan said, "That's nice, but we need privacy too."
"Then you can house sit one of my boltholes."
Freya closed her eyes. "We promised, on our runners' honour."
Julia grinned. "That's fine then, you don't have any yet."
Logan coughed with his beer down his throat. Freya crossed her arms. "We do. You're probably just a coward anyway. All tough talk, but when it comes down to it, a million excuses. I bet you never ran and slept your way to your house."
That kind of goading would have probably got her when she was seven or so, but well, she was seventy now. And the conversation was already in England, so trying to explain the sexism in that statement would probably be pointless. "I appreciate that you have such a high opinion of my prowess, but I must disappoint. First, it's worse than you claim, because I inherited the house. Also, after experimentation, I've determined that I'm asexual. The p-value is less than point zero five."
Freya was unimpressed. "If you won't run with us, get out."
"Ah well." Julia stood up and dug another bottle of beer from her bag. She handed it to Logan. "No hard feelings, but I fear this is farewell." Not waiting for an answer, she walked out. Jacqueline followed her after a moment.
Once they'd left the building, Julia said, "That didn't go quite how I'd have liked it."
Jacqueline just shrugged. A few steps later, she sat down on the kerb and buried her head in her hands.
With a sigh, Julia sat down next to her."It might not be as bad as you fear. Their phones are dead as dodos. The beer was so they won't notice too quickly. We could still lock them in, I guess, but they'll wait a long time for the runners to contact them. Do they know where your hangout is?"
"We're not that daft, unlikely as it may seem." Jacqueline laughed. "What did you do to the phones?"
"A bit of magick." Julia took care to pronounce the "k". "Don't expect me to spellotape them into working again though. They're fried."
"You're a mage."
"That does explain things."
"Surprised that mages wear football kits? If it makes you feel better, I have some robes back home."
"No, I just thought mages had class, but I guess they might settle for being weird."
"Hey, I like so too have class!" Julia grinned. "Fancy seeing my library and laboratory?"
"I'd love to."
"The real mystery is why not more mages are muscly," Julia said, hefting "Secrets of Structure". The folio was just over one and a half thousand pages long. She passed it to Jacqueline. "What do you think?"
Jacqueline ran her fingers across the embossed cover, then gingerly opened it. The first few pages were dense text but she soon hit on an illustration depicting the Spheres. Her brow furrowed as she inspected it at it. Eventually, she looked up smiling bashfully. "It's beautiful, but all Greek to me."
Julia laughed. "Actually, you'd have to learn Latin. When the Order of Hermes was founded, that was the common language and we're nothing if not traditionalists."
"Wait, they spoke Latin in the Fourth World?"
"Not that I'd know of. But while the Order has some roots going that far back, it was really founded in the early middle ages."
"But there wasn't any real magic then?" Questioning was good. The little tour of her arcane space had ulterior motives as well. Having an apprentice would look good when Julia took her exam to be recognised as an adepta majora, but it was not a responsibility to take on lightly, quite possibly requiring ten years or more of attention, so she wanted to be sure that Jacqueline was right for it.
"That's just what they wanted you to think," Julia said in a stage whisper.
"And who precisely are 'they'?"
"Oh, the Technocracy. A group of bampot mages who wanted no one to believe in magic, themselves included. They claimed it was more fun for everyone that way."
"Sounds rather implausible." Jacqueline gave her a hard look before continuing, "Was it more fun?"
Julia guessed that she'd guessed that she'd been alive before the Sixth World. "Magic is wonderful and the Technocracy collapsed with its return, as far as we know. I would say I preferred the Fifth World though, but that's because we're all living in a cyberpunk dystopia." It was already heading that way before the Awakening though. Julia blamed Regan and Thatcher.
An hour of discussion later, the phone Julia had put the stolen card into beeped. "12 past 8. Find good cover, then shoot at the windows of king George 8 street number 14. Hold position for at least 15 min."
"Message received," Julia texted back. She didn't want the shadowrunners looking for the kids.
Given the time on the screen, she turned to Jacqueline, "I'm afraid I need to get to work. I can't conjure money – not yet anyway." And while her attempts at growing food in abandoned parking lots was going well enough with magickal aid, it wasn't harvest time yet. And from the last crop, she'd discovered that farming was pretty tricky.
Handing Jacqueline an elementary book with lots of intriguing pictures and a Latin dictionary to take home, Julia dashed off towards the Scintillant Albatross.
"I'm here!" Julia announced as she bolted through the door.
"Just in time too." Siobhan pointed with a plate she'd just picked up. "Someone is waiting for you."
Freya was sitting at a table, nursing a half empty glass of ginger and looking like she could win a competition for the world's most furious scowl. Tusks definitely helped.
Julia's next three hours were spent serving the customers who were not motivated to leave by the fact that Freya was following her at aggressively close quarters, giving a spirited lecture on the contemporary usage of swear words. To be fair, Freya did grant her a toilet break.
The problem arose when late that night, Freya's twenty-seventh repeat of "they gave us a fragging chance" was interrupted by the runners coming back, announcing their arrival by kicking down the door. Only the elf and cyberguy were left, looking bruised, bloody and murderous. After a second, cyberguy levelled his drawn gun at Julia and Freya.
"Fuck," Julia breathed as the patrons started to scream. The bar offered some cover, but then what? But they hadn't been shot yet, so there was hope. Julia slowly raised her hands, "I can grant an exception to the 'no money back for drek drinks' policy."
"Do you also offer back our chummers' lives?" The elf bared his teeth, revealing that he had fewer than in the afternoon.
"I'm sorry for your loss?"
"Not as sorry as you will be!" Cyberguy's gun shook in his hand.
"Can't we talk about this?"
The elf's broken grin was feral. "Oh, we will. Though you'll mostly be screaming."
Julia took a step backwards. Her hands brushed against the bottles lined up against the wall behind the bar. Freya was standing next to her, transfixed like a deer in the headlights. The other patrons had fled. She needed a distraction, but she could do this. Julia grabbed a bottle, aimed high, threw. She flung herself to the ground, pushing Freya down with her. The difference between a cocktail and a Molotov cocktail was just a word.
A blast. Gunfire. Broken glass and a wave of alcoholic beverages rained down upon them as Julia scrambled over Freya, beginning to cast the rote. Reaching the end of the counter, she saw that cyberguy had walked up to the bar. Julia leapt to her feet and lunged.
Grabbing his right wrist, she wrested his gun towards the ceiling. He chopped at her restraining arm with the edge of his free hand. There was nothing acted about her scream, but the symbol of a lightening bolt her fingers brushed against him as her arm fell was deliberate.
He tried to smash his gun into her face, but convulsed and fell instead. She kicked his gun away. Her arm burned, metaphorically.
Julia turned to face the elf and then things around her were literally on fire. The key word was around though, as the elf mage's fireball had been easily deflected by her Parma Magica. House Flambeau's specialisation was setting things and people aflame, she was not going to be burned by some already half dead upstart. Really, she ought to treat him to a proper Pilum of Fire, but that would not be very sporting.
Julia took a quick breath so she could yell as she rushed him. Grabbing his collar with her good hand, Julia slammed him against the wall with her full weight. Whimpering, he collapsed at her feet.
Julia looked around. Her palms and knees stung. Her arm was broken and hurt like hell. Cyberguy lay on the ground, in the grip of wild spasms. Freya could be hurt. The fire wasn't too dangerous right now, though it could easily spread. But the most immediate danger was dealt with and adrenaline was coursing. This could be fun.
Even with so much to do, the elf mage's tradition was unknown, making him too dangerous to leave conscious. He was very much on the edge of it though, a nudge ought to be enough to put him under. Having cut herself on the glass, Julia had her own blood to draw the three-fold symbol for sleep on his forehead while saying the fitting words. His already unfocused eyes closed and his head slumped against his chest.
Not proven bystanders next. Julia knelt down next to Freya. "Everything will be alright."
Freya blinked hard. "I wish I'd brought my gun."
"Eh, it's for the best you didn't. Are you hurt?" She didn't look too bad, but one never knew.
She considered the question for a moment before answering. "Yes. Starting with my phone and my feelings."
Julia pulled her phone out of her pocket, bleeding on the screen, and shoved it at Freya. "Take mine and call the ambulance. Then see if you can stand. Yell if you can't." In hindsight, she should have demanded whether the runners had a DocWagon contact before knocking out the elf, but it couldn't be helped.
Julia rushed over to cyberguy. He'd stopped convulsing and was now gasping for breath, his face turning increasingly purple, his eyes unseeing. Her spell had more of an effect than intended. "And if you've done all that, use the fire extinguisher!" she shouted at Freya before getting down to the business of resuscitation.
For all her strength, the guy's chrome was too rigid to compress one handed at anything near the frequency required, so she used her knee instead. She felt like giving him a kicking anyway. Thirty compressions, two rescue breaths, then back to the compressions. More mastery of Life magick would be handy, but while she knew some impressive alchemical rituals to burn away the body's impurities and heal, she currently only had sufficient grasp of life's patterns to affect herself and simple lifeforms. Which would be fine if he were a pumpkin or something, but he wasn't and that was before the chrome complicated things. More breaths, more compressions. Another shock every so often.
The fire extinguisher clattered down next to her. "I'm done," Freya said.
"Brill!" Julia gasped, "Fancy helping me with this arsehole – I mean your shadowrunning chummer?"
"Didn't they try to kill us five minutes ago?"
"Glad you noticed."
"I'd let him die then." The squeak of a chair being pulled out. "But if you're not down for that, I think I'll just watch you work. With all the destruction, do you think they'd miss another drink?"
"Happen to be my employer." She was too preoccupied for better banter.
"I'll risk it. I need one. Or several."
Half an hour passed and exhaustion was setting in when she could finally hear approaching sirens. Twenty seconds later, a crackling loudspeaker announcement rang out, "Police! Get down on the floor!"
Not what the doctor ordered. Julia swallowed. There were probably too many to fight her way free, not injured and with Freya in tow. This section of the floor looked moderately free of broken glass, which seemed downright appealing next to bullet holes.
She lay down just in time for the police to march in. Might they shoot everyone to make sure? They could then always blame the shadowrunners for any fatalities, in the unlikely event anyone inquired. Lying face down made assessing the situation tricky, but there were at least eight of them, judging by boots.
Julia gasped as one of them kicked her, then forced herself to lie still when they twisted her broken arm behind her back to fasten handcuffs. They then handcuffed Freya, the mage, and the chrome corpse as well for good measure, before roughly throwing all four of them into the back of the police van.
Julia liked to vary her routes, both for security and to keep things interesting, but this was excessive.
In the end, everything turned out about as well as one could hope.
Julia convinced the police that she worked in the pub, Freya was just a punter and neither had anything to do with anything. It only took a small bribe. They were released after adding their latest haircuts to the mugshot collection, not even charged with resisting arrest. After all, the police just heroically captured two real and highly wanted shadowrunners. Small time bampots only complicated the picture.
Cyberguy died, making him the seventh person Julia had geeked and the fifth one she would rather have avoided killing. Of course, he hadn't so much asked for as aggressively demanded it.
The Scintillant Albatross did not burn down, but Julia was fired anyway. The owner had her suspicions.
Freya and Logan were pissed, though Freya was slightly disillusioned by her near shadowrunning experience and Jacqueline agreed that Logan was also secretly relieved. While they refused to get rid of the guns, after a staring contest, Julia got them to agree that there would be other opportunities and while what happened to their phones was unfortunate, they really ought to go easy on her. After all, she would let them use one of her safe houses and help them move too.
The latter was proving a bit of an issue. A ritual had restored Julia's broken wrist to a merely sprained one and the gashes to grazes, but getting a sofa up six flights of stairs still wasn't easy.