l...l


Chapter Thirty Three

August 17th, 2077

Night City, Northern California

Metro Stadium, Coast View

"It sounds like the party has started outside!" Panam dove to her right, narrowly avoiding a hail of bullets from a trio of Paladins.

"No shit!" V pulled out two Unity pistols and fired two bursts that landed on an isolated Paladin. He felt three rounds strike his torso before the final bullet shattered his visor and spattered his brain.

Their firefight had broken out almost immediately after the Mezzanine went up in a frenzy. Cyrus and his Bloodhounds were in the midst of a pitched battle with the Paladins and were momentarily off comms.

Panam's Copperhead cut in half two Paladins pushing ahead of the advance team while V sliced up three more in a symphony of violence. The remaining advance team retaliated by using flashbangs and suppressing fire, forcing V and Panam to retreat down the corridor.

Suddenly, a pair of Paladins broke from cover and charged V's position as she reloaded her weapons. During their ill-fated charge, Panam gunned down the nearest Merc and forced the survivor to take hardcover.

A contagion combat daemon poisoned the last surviving Paladin, corroding his nervous system, sending him tumbling to the ground. V disconnected her cyberware and ducked back into cover, narrowly avoiding a 7.62 to the forehead.

"Three left!" the Aldecaldo yelled upon bracing her Copperhead and unleashing a hail of bullets down the corpse-filled corridor. "V! Push the fuckers! I've got you covered."

Wordlessly, V activated the Zetatech Sandevistan installed into her operating system, and a surge of adrenaline rushed through her veins.

Time slowed to a noticeable crawl, and the sound of barking firearms and whistling bullets dragged out into an overwhelming sonata.

V phased through a flurry of ballistic projectiles as if it was nothing, maneuvering between them with clinical precision that few could ever master. Panam shot three 7.62 rounds into the skull of one Paladin while he was concentrating his fire on attacking the Merc.

The Merc appeared to dance in between each retaliatory burst, frustrating the Paladins into recklessly spending their limited ammunition.

V capitalized on the empty rifles, closing the distance and slashing her Mantis Blades into the Paladin's torso. With unrelenting savagery, she sliced through the armor, chipping away each layer of protection.

V's victim died within seconds of her attack, allowing her to focus her fury on one survivor.

He didn't last long.

Inevitably the Paladins that relied so heavily on coordination and superior firepower were outclassed by a Merc and a Nomad. The stench of degrading carcasses hung in the air as V scratched the blood off her Mantis Blades.

Panam gave her a once-over but ultimately decided to let V come down from her bloodthirsty high. A jolt of adrenaline directly into a user's nervous system coupled with the volatile emotions of combat left a mild effect on their psyche.

It was unwise to force them out of it unless you intended to be the next object of their wrath.

Panam walked amongst their dead adversaries kicking at a handful to see if life still clung to their bodies.

None ever gave off signs of life.

An exhale of relief fell from Panam's lips, and for once, she was thankful for the equipment Cyrus handed them, even if it was still exceedingly tight in some areas.

He didn't exactly get the measurements as right as they implied, but they needed some form of levity considering the circumstances.

After a few moments of observation, V returned from her compulsion, and both women sought to gain entrance to the Media Center that sheltered their target.

Today was not the day to test either of them, and Callum Shaw unwittingly made their frustrating nerves grow exponentially.

Shaw hacked the Metro Stadium's outdated security network and locked down the media center with a particularly difficult daemon that V had the unfortunate displeasure of breaking down.

Barks of gunfire and screams of dying mercenaries drew closer with each passing second. Cyrus sounded like he was having a field day out there with his Bloodhounds, and Panam wished she could join him.

But alas, her contributions would go no further than pulling Shaw out of the fire.

"How's it going, V?" Panam didn't fancy throwing down with a squad of Mercs in these narrow corridors. Fatal funnels went both ways, and if a Night Corps squad managed to get this far, they were both fucked.

"Thirty seconds." Megabytes of corrupted data flowed through V's interface plug, and the full extent of Shaw's was paranoia seemed to heighten with each passing second.

She couldn't blame him for his overwhelming sense of distrust and fear.

Night Corps' reputation as the veritable boogeymen of Night City ensured that anyone who crossed them usually disappeared without a trace.

The run of the mill civilian took the megacorps model propaganda at face value, but if someone dug their hands deep enough, they would come out with a bloodied limb.

V sighed to herself in morbid and yet whimsical resignation. Being close to Cyrus had the adverse effect of exposing V and Panam to every skeleton in Night City's closet.

She should have known the last few weeks of peace and quiet was little more than a gathering storm.

*Click*

The Media centers lockdown protocols finally uplifted, and the padlock that burned a bright red beforehand now exhumed an emerald green light.

"We're in." V quietly drew her Unity and attached a pacifier module to its barrel. Cyrus was adamant that Shaw be brought in alive, but the possibility he'd shoot first and ask questions later was likely.

"Remember, we need Shaw alive. I don't want to be the one to explain to Cyrus why we're bringing in a warm body."

"I know the play," Panam insisted while adjusting the sight on her Copperhead. "Now, let's hurry up and grab this asshole. This fucking bodysuit is way too tight on my ass."

"I noticed." The Aldecaldo gave V a one-fingered salute as she braced against

"Fuck you, V." Panam didn't need to see the shit-eating grin on the Mercs face.

V lightly shrugged her shoulders and stacked up behind Panam to cover their rear while mentally calling up Cyrus on their comms network.

"Cyrus, we're breaking the media center. How's the firefight going out there?"

"These Paladins are well organized." V cringed back as a scream of pain followed by the snapping of bones echoed in the background. "But they break like everyone else, secure Shaw. We're almost finished up out here."

"Copy that," V hopped off the net and turned towards Panam. "Let's rock and roll."

The Nomad waved her hand in front of the doors motion tracker, receiving a green signal in response. As soon as the doors slid an inch open, a flurry of shotgun blasts burst through the steel structure, cutting the frame in half and forcing the pair to scramble back.

"Sonnuva Bitch!" Panam stood on her heels in a fury, sticking the barrel of her Copperhead into the doorway and firing off three bursts in retaliation. "Eat lead fucker!"

"Fuck you bitch!" A male voice replied with equal passion."You fuckers ain't taking me alive!"

"Panam!" V pulled the enraged Aldecaldo back into cover. "We need this guy alive, no stray shots."

"Fine, see if you can talk him down, but if he calls me a bitch again, I'm putting one in his fucking knee cap." Panam switched places with V and allowed the Merc to sneak a peek into the shaded media center.

Rows upon rows of cushioned chairs were pointed towards the stage, and taking cover behind the overturned press table was Callum Shaw. The only issues were the pair of auto-turrets on either side of him covering the doorway and the massive Carnage pointed in her direction.

"What can you see?" Panam inquired as V ducked back into cover.

"Our boy was ready to throw down with these fucks that's for sure."

"We talking him down or what?" V shot Panam a narrowed look before returning her attention to their paranoid target.

"Callum Shaw!" A trio of shotgun blasts responded in kind, blasting new holes in the already riddled far wall. "FOR FUCK'S SAKE, STOP SHOOTING!"

The usually calm and collected Merc had finally reached the end of her bullshit meter. Now, if only Panam had a camera on hand to record this moment because Cyrus would never believe her.

"Shit, I thought I was the emotional one." Panam's remark earned her another venomous look.

"What the fuck do you want!" Shaw opted to respond with words instead of bullets this time.

"To talk!" V responded.

"About what the fucking weather?! It's cloudy with a chance of sunshine. Now fuck off!" Panam couldn't help the snicker that fell from her lips. Despite his earlier words, the guy had a spunk to him that she could admire.

She still hated his guts though.

"We don't work for Night Corp. We're here on our own accord, and we want to get you out of here."

"Yeah, and I'm the fucking tooth fairy!" V's eyes narrowed at his sarcastic remark, and she was really starting to hate this guy. "Nice try, cupcake, but I didn't last this long just to be tricked by amateur hour."

"This guy is impossible," V murmured to an amused Panam.

"Try telling him your name." Panam earnestly supplied. "Look for that connection you always try to establish with random people you meet. Maybe that will work better for you."

"You're enjoying this." V heatedly retorted.

Yes, Panam was most certainly enjoying this exchange.

"Fuck yeah, I am." The Merc cursed to herself low enough for Panam not to pick it up and returned her attention to Shaw.

"My name is V!" She pressed herself against their hard cover and watched her choomba reinitiate a hopefully far more pleasant conversation.

V was in for a rude and humorous awakening.

"What were the first twenty-one letters taken in your fucking family?!" Panam nearly bowled over laughing as V recoiled back in barely restrained indignation.

"This guy's a fucking comedian." The Merc couldn't quite believe the ridiculousness of this conversation, and it was testing her patience.

"Deep breaths, girl, deep breaths." Panam's constant egging was not helping V's current mood.

"Fuck that. I'm one wisecrack away from knee-capping him myself." V let out a low growl in response, her grip around her Unity tightening. "Fuck it, switch with me. You have a crack at him. I'm going to raise Cyrus and update him on our less than cooperative HVI."

"Shaw!" The Aldecaldo yelled out. "Night Corp is going to burst in here any moment, and we're offering you a way out here with your head still screwed on, and you're arguing with us."

While Panam tried her luck at being the personable one for once, V sought to reestablish a comms link to Cyrus.

"Cypher, we're having a little…." V searched for the proper word to convey their situation. "….Trouble with acquiring Shaw, may need to go in hard to secure him, over."

"Understood." Gunfire and explosions continued to echo in the background. "Disciple and I are moping up the remaining Mercs, ETA three mikes. Are there any openings we can exploit?"

"He's got turrets covering the main entrance." V visually recited the Media center and all its faculties. "Nothing but a killzone trying to get in through the front. Side entrances are barricaded in, and there's no way to breach without alerting him."

"What about the roof?" She momentarily recalled the Media center's skylight covered by steel coverings.

"Only security is up top is the shutters sealed in place."

"Good thing we have a hyper-advanced AI at your beck in call now, isn't it." An infectious grin crossed the Mercs expression.

"Then I'll leave that problem to you. We'll try to talk him down in the meantime, out." V cut the connection and returned her attention to her clearly frustrated companion.

"How we doing?"

"Peachy," she answered. "Shaw doesn't like me, but apparently he likes you."

"How's that?"

"You haven't told him to fuck himself yet." V rolled her eyes in mild irritation, returning to the doorway and shooing Panam away.

"Shaw!" She could see some scattered movement behind the podium as their target readjusted his rifle.

"Aw, my favorite negotiator." Callum sarcastically drawled out. "If you want this conversation to go anywhere, don't let the other woman talk. She couldn't convince a virgin to sleep with her ass."

Panam bristled in indignation. Steam practically shot out of her ears as the Nomad regripped her Copperhead and prepared to storm the room. V intervened by shoving her right arm against her collarbone and keeping her in place.

"Stay put." She quietly admonished. "He's trying to rile you up, and right now, it's working. Go recheck our backs in case one of those Mercs sneak up on us."

Panam threw her arms out in exasperation, opting to blow off some steam by marching up and down the empty corridor. With her emotionally volatile companion redirected, V sought to once again reestablish a dialogue with Shaw.

"Not to worry, Shaw, you won't be hearing from her again." V holstered her Unity. "Now, how can I convince you to come with me peacefully."

"Tell me why you're here, and don't give me the runaround, Merc!" Before she could reply, a familiar voice echoed in her helmet.

"Disciple One, follow my signature. We're moving to the exposed entry point."

"On your six."

Cyrus wasn't keen on being patient tonight, and if V wanted to ensure that Shaw didn't walk away from this stadium without broken bones, she needed to put him at ease.

"A very influential choomba of mine wants to talk to you." V effortlessly confessed. "He thinks you might know where Dana Parker is."

"Parker?!" She could feel the concern leak into his voice. "Why the fuck would I know where she is? What happened to her?"

"Parker went missing earlier today, and my choomba would very much like to know where she is."

"How the fuck would I know that?!" Callum's snarled at the Merc. "Last time I talked to her was three days ago when she was supposed to be protected in that fortress of hers while looking into that fucking psychopath!"

"We know!" V poured a reassuring tone into her voice. "But you're the only lead we have, so for the love of God, put the fucking shotgun down, and let's talk!"

Shaw sat behind his makeshift fortifications in silent contemplation, and V's enhanced eyes could see the indecision dancing between his eyes. In that moment of weakness, she knew that this was the moment for her to capitalize on him.

"Say I believe you," Callum called out suddenly. "You still haven't told me who you work for?!"

Shaw never noticed the skylight shutters creaking open, nor did he take note of a massive shimmering frame standing a mere few feet behind him.

"Me." Cyrus didn't give Callum a chance to even breathe, for a massive arm snaked around his neck and snatched the life out of the former Night Corp operative's lungs.

A quartet of other darkened bodies fell from the roof alongside Cyrus. The Merc had hoped to bring Callum in willingly, but he was not in the mood to appease anyone tonight.

Once Shaw's legs ceased their useless flailing, Cyrus let his unconscious form fall to the ground without a care. Eagle and one of the other Bloodhounds went about disabling the multitude of traps and turrets in the media center.

"Badger, restrain him and prepare for extraction," Cyrus ordered before turning towards his Bloodhounds. "Falcon, you're on security. Make sure they get to the Phantom. The rest of you are with me. We have a Night Corp Paladin to interrogate."

No further words were exchanged, and everyone went about their assigned duties. Cyrus disregarded V's concerned glance and Panam's agitated body language. The Spartan and his Bloodhounds vacated the Media center, leaving one of their number behind to guard their package.

"Think he's pissed?" Panam inquired while throwing one of Callum's arms over her shoulder.

V looked down the dark corridor in silence before wrinkling her nose. "No, I think we're way past pissed. Let's hope Shaw is in a talkative mood. He won't last long if he isn't."

"Whatever you say, V." Panam offered with a nonplussed shrug. "Now, are you gonna keep stand there or help me carry this asshole?"

V snorted in amusement and snatching Shaw's limp arm and grabbing his opposite hip as leverage. The duo began the long trek towards their extraction when they caught sight of a single Bloodhound patiently waiting at the entrance.

"You Falcon?"

The Bloodhound nodded in affirmation, his modular mask concealing his baritone voice. "Yes, Ma'am, follow me. I'll lead you to the Phantom."

It wasn't easy to differentiate between the four Bloodhounds since they all wore the same gear. A single glance would fool the average observer into thinking they were clones of one another, but their mannerisms differed in their personalities.

Falcon stood at attention with his rifle firmly crossed over his torso. His gaze diligently scanned their surroundings as they traversed the blood-soaked stadium. V could see the red marking that ran down the right side of his combat mask, which was a near-identical match to theirs.

Each of the Bloodhounds possessed a different color that separated them from their peers. Eagle's helmet was marked with a streak of blue, while Vulture and Sparrow had olive drab and white, respectively.

For a time, the trio walked the darkened path without conversation, and V was comfortable in letting the Bloodhound lead them in silence. She was pleasantly surprised when Falcon chose to initiate a conversation.

"Have you known Sensei long?"

"Who?" Panam asked quizically.

Falcon's gait momentarily paused. He'd forgotten that his companions were the only ones who operated under his leadership. As far as the two women called Badger were concerned, they didn't serve him like the Bloodhounds did.

"Cypher." He replied politely.

"Longer than most," V said. "Why do you ask?

"Our Sensei is an enigma amongst my peers," Falcon remembered the harsh lessons Cypher imparted on them and the brutal reminder of their inadequacy. "He is callous yet not without justification, charismatic but without emotion, he is the most dangerous man we have ever met, and that frightens us."

Leave it to Cyrus to scare the living shit out of some of the most dangerous killers in Night City. It didn't surprise either V or Panam in the slightest, but if these Bloodhounds were going to survive under his tutelage, then they required some meaningful advice.

"Do you have morals, Falcon?" The question caught him off guard as he leads them into the stadium courtyard, where their extraction quietly hovered.

"I do."

"Then stick to them," Panam emphasized, tossing Shaw haphazardly through the Phantom's cargo doors. "Never give him a reason to think you are a coward. Cypher hates cravens above all else."

"I'll remember that." Falcon eased V and Panam into the Phantom with all the grace of a gentleman. "I look forward to our future conversations.|

"V." Falcon quirked a brow as his ears perked up at the Merc's sudden statement.

"What."

"Call me V.," The Merc said, motioning over to her companion. "She's Panam, usually more talkative, but tonight has been a strain on all of us."

The Aldecaldo chose not to say anything in her defense. V wasn't wrong, the night's events had taken a toll on everyone's psyche.

Instinctively, Falcon crossed his right arm over his chest, an old salute from the days as Tyger Claws that Cyrus allowed them to keep. "Tsutsumi Shiko, it was a pleasure to speak to you. Semper Vigiles."

V stopped the sliding doors from closing on Falcon, leaning forward and asking a question that had plagued her curious mind for weeks. "I was wondering, those words, what do they mean?"

"It's Latin for 'Always Vigilant.'"

The sliding doors came to a close, and V felt the familiar jolt of the Phantom's turbines kicking in. After what felt like the longest day of her life, V was finally able to let her nerves wind down as the distance between the transport and the stadium grew with every passing second.

"Always Vigilant." V snorted to herself in amusement, a notion that Panam easily mimicked. "Sounds like Cyrus, doesn't it."

The Aldecaldo didn't answer, snatching her helmet and tossing it into the corner. Her usually lively personality became unnervingly muted, and V had to remind herself that Panam was as much a creature of emotion as any human being.

Panam stared at her choomba out the corner of her eye, wondering just how clearly she could see the exhaustion in her facial expression in the absence of light. Resolutely, she kicked her feet up and leaned against her cushioned seat, determined to sleep the rest of the night away.

V almost wished she could do the same.


Falcon returned to the Mezzanine, coming across an unnerving scene as the Bloodhounds circled a terrified Paladin like a pack of lions. The Night Corps Merc survived their assault only through the direction of their leader, who desired a conversation with their leader.

Eagle stood off to Cypher's right, arms crossed and gaze firmly set onto the Paladin Captain, while Vulture stood behind the man with his katana drawn and Sparrow sharpened her blade to his immediate right.

As Falcon closed the distance, the sound of his footsteps drew Eagle and Sparrow's attention. Both of his comrades gave him a sharp nod before returning their steely gaze on their prisoner.

Cypher crouched forward, settling his weight on his front foot and coming face to face with the Paladin's shattered visor. Falcon was unaware of the thoughts crossing their leader's mind, but he had a feeling this interrogation would be short-lived.

"Sit him up." Vulture snatched the Paladin's shoulder guard and forced him on his knees.

"Name." Cypher's tone was made of pure steel, and Falcon winced as the Paladin spat on his boots.

"Fuck yourself." It didn't surprise Falcon that Cypher didn't show the fool his own spine. Their Sensei was far more composed than any Tyger Claw Captain could be.

"Take one of his fingers." Vulture kicked the man on his stomach, pinning him against the blood-soaked floor. Sparrow fell to her knees and gripped the Paladin's right hand, singling out his ring finger and slicing through the bone with a series of grueling slashes.

There was little surprise when the Paladin's composure broke, and he let out a scream of pure anguish. "ARGHHHHHH!"

"Name," Cypher voiced as if the man screaming was an inconvenience to him. Witnessing a violent interrogation firsthand was familiar to the Bloodhounds during their time as Tyger Claw operatives. They were used to seeing an interrogator who reveled in inflicting pain, but their Sensei was different.

He watched from behind a faceless helmet that betrayed no emotion to any observers, and yet no Bloodhound doubted that his expression mirrored his visor. Not even when the Paladin roared in pain-filled defiance.

"Fuck you! My guys will be here any minute, and you're all fucking dead men."

"Another." Sparrow detached the Paladin's middle finger, taking special care to inflict as much pain as possible with slow, grueling cuts.

When the cruel deed was finished, Sparrow tossed the severed limb into the darkness, leaving the Paladin to deal with the viciousness of her ministrations. Cypher allowed him a few moments of peace, whether out of mercy or cruelty, none would ever know, but once it passed, the same question reverberated from his helmet.

"Name." This time the effects of their interrogation broke down the Paladin's defiance, and with an angered shout, he answered Cypher's query with another.

"You have no idea who you are fucking with." Anyone else would have paused at the man's reverence, but Cypher was no fool.

"I disagree," The Headhunter leaned forward, mere inches away from the Paladin. "I know exactly who you work for, and there is not a force in the world that will stop me from tearing them down their ivory towers. Name."

"Captain Alec Prichard, 2nd Paladin Detachment." The Night Corps officer spat out with poison in his words, but Cypher allowed him this meager victory.

"What were you doing here?"

Prichard's defiance renewed under the Headhunter's words, but Cypher was unwilling to let him stall for time. Even if the Paladin had no idea that his superiors wouldn't know of his fate until hours later.

"Again." Sparrow removed the Captain's thumb, cutting deep into the bone and severing it in a single slice.

"ARGHHHHHH! We were-motherfucker-!" Prichard kicked his feet out as the anguish overwhelmed his senses, but Vulture did not give him room to maneuver. "We were sent here to kill Callum Shaw the fucking asshole's been giving us the runaround, and Night Corp doesn't like loose ends!"

Progress, Cyrus mused to himself. The Night Corps were good, but the lengths of their training didn't seem to extend to enduring brutal interrogation.

"Why such a heavy response?" Cypher began. "Callum Shaw was a high-level operative, but sending this many men seems overkill, doesn't it."

"Shaw stuck his nose where it didn't belong, and the board wanted to keep the shit he got into quiet. When he found out, he fragged our servers and made off with the data."

That much Cyrus knew, what he didn't know was the exact kind of data Shaw had run off with. If Night Corp was determined to send a full strike team after him, then its importance was critical.

"What were they covering up?" A suffocating cry fell from Prichard's lips as Sparrow dug her blade into his forehand.

"I…" Even under the anguish, he was subjected to, the Paladin hesitated. His fear of the Night Corps board momentarily outweighed the dread Cyrus instilled into him.

Momentarily.

"Again." Sparrow turned her blade, ready to sever his entire hand.

"Wait, wait!' Prichard cried out, collecting his breath. "Look, Shaw got insider information on two of their projects. One was Night Corps AI development project; the other was an adjacent program running off the project's algorithms."

That peaked Chamber's interest and her mind began to scour Night City's telecommunications network searching for this AI. Cyrus shared a quick glance with his AI companion before returning his full attention to their prisoner.

"What algorithms?"

"I don't fucking know, ok! They never told me the goddamn details!" The anxiety in his voice settled Cyrus's doubts of the man's authenticity. He didn't really expect the Paladin to know every detail of this project, but it didn't hurt to ask.

Well, it didn't hurt Cyrus.

"Would Callum Shaw know?" The inquiry came from Eagle, but Cyrus allowed it anyway, stepping away from the Paladin.

"Course he does." Prichard watched the Headhunter turn his back and allow the Bloodhound to take his place. "The last time he breached our data servers, the idiot unknowingly ended up finishing what he started, and that's got the board all up in arms. I swear that's all I fucking know."

Eagle searched for any deceit in the man's words, scrutinizing his features and staring into the tear-filled orbs. When he found nothing, he glanced towards Cypher, and a wordless conversation took place that ended with a sharp nod towards Prichard.

Iwasaki let out a breath through his nose and slowly reached for the Lexington hanging off his waist. He firmly wrapped his fingers around the pistol's smooth handle and racking the slide.

Cypher stepped forward, snatching Prichard's attention as his eyes begged for salvation.

A salvation that he was denied.

"I believe you, Eagle."

"WAIT-PLEASE!"

*BANG!*

The Paladin's body fell backward like a puppet with its string cut, but no one cared in the slightest for appeasing the dead. Cyrus was running out of time, and he needed to pry open Callum Shaw's mouth, forcefully if he had to.

"Chamber, I need a Phantom out of here." Cyrus switched to his helmet's external speakers. "Eagle, start planting your charges and leave no trace behind. We were never here."

"As you command."

Captain Alec Prichard and over three dozen Night Corps Paladin's would be listed as missing in action after the Headhunter buried their corpses under tons of shattered steel and metal.

And despite weeks of rescue efforts by Night City's finest, there would be nothing left but dust and echoes.

A finality that many in the city would suffer under the Spartan's wrath.


Night City, Northern California

Bloodhound Sanctuary, Northside

"Ugh fuck." Callum Shaw endured splitting headaches all the time, but most of the time they were caused by a drunken stupor, not by a rear-naked chokehold. "Where the hell am I!?"

Heaven, you ungrateful prick!" A recently familiar voice answered his irritated yell, but he didn't exactly hold high regard for its owner. The sight of such beautiful machines was hampered by the pair of women staring menacingly at his laying form.

"Shit," he exclaimed. "I like the bedside manner better back home, so let me go back. Somehow, I think hell would be a better place for me if people like you were around."

"No can do, cupcake," said the red-haired woman he assumed to be V. "We need you to answer a couple questions for us."

"Yeah, and who's asking them?"

"Callum Shaw." Standing not feet from him was a quartet of tricked-out and scary-looking bastards that made Night Corps Paladins look like a pep squad.

However, they were nothing compared to the freakishly tall robot-looking bastard that towered over him. Shaw didn't need to be a psychic to figure out who the fuck this guy was.

"Oh fuck, I swear I eat all my vegetables." The statement bewildered the Bloodhounds as they strode towards their bunks. Cypher was sure that Shaw would gladly help them find Dana, and if he didn't, then the Headhunter could pry open his head.

"I'm sorry my mouth goes unfiltered when I'm nervous," Shaw replied in a tone full of embarrassment. He swallowed hard and looked over his surroundings, where the reality of his situation began to pool into his stomach.

"You have nothing to fear." Cyrus coolly placed a hand on Shaw's shoulder, doing the exact opposite of calming him down. "The only thing I need is your assistance in finding Dana Parker."

"Your choomba told me she's missing. I'm sorry to hear that."

Shaw wondered briefly whether or not he fell into the category of necessary casualty considering the lethality of the man in front of him. Usually, he would haggle his way to victory, but tonight he doubted he could convince the Headhunter that the sky was blue on a cloudless night.

"So am I." Cyrus's hand slipped from his shoulder. "Why did she need your assistance in the first place."

"Dana was obsessed with the Meatman and their identity. She practically dragged me out of hiding to help her. I didn't want to, but I owed her too much to say no." Far too much by Shaw's standards, and even with Night Corps hot on his ass, he probably still owed Dana more than he could ever hope to settle.

Shaw continued. "….She gave me some data to look into. There was something inside the murders that Dana was sure contained a pattern that we could latch onto, but she didn't have the technical knowledge to find it. So I got called in.

"What did you find?" V turned slowly, slipping her hands into her bolero jacket and striding next to Cyrus. She grinned widely and let out an amused, rich chuckle as he glanced at her from the corner of his eye before huffing in annoyance.

Shaw watched the interplay closely but chose to refocus his attention on the current subject.

" I found a connection between the Meatman's victims and a specific data point that pings off the city cell towers like clockwork. These data points ended up at nearly a dozen safe houses that the Meatman has been using."

"How long did it take you to find that out?" V inquired with a frown.

"A few weeks," Shaw supplied with a sour expression. "The cell towers are owned by Ziggurat, and I didn't want to light a signal fire for Night Corp to follow for all the good that did me."

"Do you still have the data?" Cypher's voice cut in with a sharpness that set everyone on edge. Panam and V exchanged a wary glance, the Aldecaldo was content to watch the show from the sidelines hoping that the end of this long journey was well in sight.

It wasn't.

"….Yeah." Shaw hesitated, unsure of the sudden change in the Headhunter's tone. "I have it saved to my Microcyber, along with everything else."

"Plug in." Cyrus motioned to the massive workstation that was utilized mainly by Sparrow. The Bloodhound pushed off her desk and disconnected her interface plug, allowing Shaw to settle in the chair and connect to the interface.

"What am I looking for?" Shaw asked as he looked over his shoulder towards the looming Headhunter.

"Nothing," Cyrus countered. "Pull up the data for the AI program Night Corp is running."

Shaw snorted in amusement. "One of the Paladins talked, didn't they?

"They always talk," The severity in Cyrus's voice lightened for but a moment. " Now plug in."

Shaw connected his interface cable, and data streams began to bombard his optics as he fully integrated into their telecommunications network. Chamber carefully observed the former Night Corps Operatives' movements, but he was a good boy and stayed in his lane.

"Alright, I'm in," Shaw announced. "I gotta warn you, though, the data for the program is incomplete. All I have here is an empty shell without the parameters I, unfortunately, didn't nab on my way out of Night Corps."

"You already have the missing parameter." Shaw furrowed his brows in confusion at Cyrus's statement.

"What do you mean?" Cyrus turned to fully face Shaw, his blackened visor reflecting the operative's bewildered visage.

"Tell me, Shaw, wouldn't your former employees know that you were missing a key piece to the puzzle." The Bloodhounds began to slowly gather around the workstation with intrigue. Panam and V were little more than spectators as Spartan and Hacker conversed with one another.

"Yes."

"Than that makes you a loose end but not one with enough evidence to become a problem. You were a point of interest for Night Corp, but not a priority on their list that needed to be handled immediately. That was until after you breached the Ziggurat network."

Cyrus paused as he watched realization began to dawn not only on Shaw's face but the expressions of everyone in the safehouse. He connected his MJOLNIR to the mainframe, adding more processing power for Shaw's program, and wordlessly directed Chamber to project an overhead view of Night City on the main screen.

Dozens of crimson dots littered the Metropolis, with a heavy concentration centered around the Watson and Westbrook districts.

Panam's attention fell away from the main districts to several isolated pockets out in the Badlands. Her eyes dangerously narrowed when one of the serial killer's havens was a stone's throw away from the Aldecaldo encampment.

Eagle stood motionless with his Bloodhounds. Even the deviant factions of Night City heard about the Meatman, but in much the same way as his victims. The Tyger Claws were not safe from the sociopath's gaze.

Meatman's reign of terror saw several well-known captains murdered in their offices, leaving their security personnel incredibly perplexed as to how the killer evaded their protection measures.

According to official records, the Tyger Claw captains were killed in a regular turf war. Unofficially, the Meatman randomly selected these victims for slaughter.

Iwasaki wasn't sure if that was still true.

"You were searching for pieces of completely different puzzles, Shaw." Cyrus said. "It didn't occur to you that they both go together."

"Holy shit." V's stunned expression mirrored that of Panam and Shaw. No one could believe what they were seeing unfold before their eyes.

"Mr. Shaw, you have stumbled your way across the most prominent conspiracy in Night City. The Meatman isn't a serial killer with a random agenda. They are a Night Corp assassin meant to influence the political and social landscape of this metropolis."

Thi hellhole was known for disturbing the hearts of all its inhabitants for its shadows concealed horrors that none could dream of in their nightmares. Those stubborn few who have ventured into the dark in search of salvation or treasures never returned to the light.

Cyrus had Chamber compare the underground schematics she had stolen from the Ziggurat servers to the safehouses as his companions and subordinates stared in stunned silence.

The results left a bitter taste in his mouth.

Most of Meatman's havens were located near underground passageways, but one stood out above the rest.

Within a kilometer of Camp August, the Spartan could see a solid red dot taunting him with it's very existence.

Although the Meatmen's motives for targeting Dana were obvious, kidnapping her was out of character. Cyrus' only explanation was that the serial killer was interrogating her, and the safehouse was the only place that could accommodate such an event.

"Fuck." Cyrus cursed to himself, turning on his heel and dashing out of the warehouse.

His sudden movement roused V from her stupor, and she ran as fast as her legs could take her, but a Spartan has no equal in a foot race.

"Cyrus!" V tried in vain to grab his attention, but he was lost in a haze of emotion. "WAIT!"

There was no patience left in his veins.

Cyrus was not willing to toil in hesitation any longer.

Dana's life depended on it.


Busy week for me despite being out of school. Work apparently decided to up my schedule which helps me financially but doesn't leave me a ton of time to write. I will respond to reviews next chapter.


Next Chapter: July 20th, switching to Tuesdays because that's the only day I have off for the coming weeks.