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“Don’t be a bakebrain, we can’t get over that.”
“Oh yeah, well you might not be able to—“
“Look, you might want to die of cement poisoning, but I’m not looking to catch deceleration trauma because your bakebrained ass wants to—“
I took another look at the massive stack of cars before us and had to agree that we weren’t getting over it. At least not without drawing the attention of whomever had built it in the first place. “I bet it’s filled with bugs.”
That got their attention. The arguing stopped as all of our eyes scanned the rusted and jagged looking mountain of cars before us. “Yeah, we’re going around.” Everyone simultaneously agreed.
Donegar led us off to the side and through the high scrub grass of the yard. The houses were dilapidated and ramshackle. For the most part they seemed pretty damned unlivable but when you’re on the run you’ll go just about anywhere. With the years since the bomb many edgerunners had made their way back to the CZ despite warnings of insects, ghouls and other foul nightmares.
“Keep your eyes peeled—“ the warning was lost in the growl of the dog that launched itself at Donegar. I didn’t hesitate, a gentle squeeze of the trigger and I downed it with a muffled pop.
“Huh, a rrrr-Rottweiler.” Wesley’s gruff stutter took note. I realized they were pretty much the first words I’d heard him say since we’d started this trek. For some reason this struck me as incredibly amusing and I fought the urge to chuckle as we carefully picked our way through the pitch black back yard and back to the street.
My laughter didn’t last long as up ahead the looming shadow of the old overpass bridge revealed a dark shadowy recess we’d have to get through. If it weren’t for the fingernails on chalkboard sound of its screech I’m pretty sure the ghoul would have gutted Wesley. At first I thought it was crying in excitement but as the second creature echoed its sound I realized it was alerting any others in the area of the prey that had entered their domain.
The firefight didn’t last long. Mostly because I was so intent on just staying alive that the details blurred by in a rapid blur. There was running, and panting for breath, and the secure safety of my trigger, the luxuriously satisfying buck of the gun as bullets rained forth. And then there was more running and stumbling, more shots and more soul searing minutes of certain death.
We were through the underpass and could see our target, The Salty Crab, up ahead. No one had gotten seriously injured but we were all suddenly much more aware of just what we’d gotten ourselves into. The arguing had stopped. Hell, all talking had stopped. We moved like a unit. Guns on a swivel. On high alert in a tight V.
Dad would have been proud.
With only hand motions, we sent our comms to text only and split the group. The mage and I were headed for a nearby building. We’d take care of the trolls patrolling the front as the other three took the rear advance.
One of our more recent runs had revealed to me the armored quality of a troll’s skin and I was actually looking forward to seeing how my beloved “Baby” was going to stack up against it. I looked forward to giving this a try like some women looked forward to trying out a new recipe or trying on new shoes.
The rotten shape of the houses surrounding the fenced in bar weren’t ideal and in the dark we chose the best one we could. Scaling it didn’t take much of an effort really, but one look at the roof and I motioned Stallion to hold. I examined the area through Baby’s scope and realized our options weren’t any better around us and my timeline was accelerating as I saw the three figures of Pirate, Shade and Donegar rounding the back.
“Frack it!” I darted across the roof on as light a step as I could manage, dropping to my knees and extending out flat as I laid Baby before me. Concentrating on setting the angle, I left Stallion to his own devices as I zeroed in on the Troll guard at the front. A notch here, a twist there, I wasn’t going to get a test shot but the wind around here was as dead as everything else and I hoped the staleness of the air would allow me to rush this job.
I tuned out the sounds of the elf making his way across the roof toward me and instead timed my shot with the arrival of our other companions. I went completely still, as I drew my finger gently ever inward, sucking in a sharp breath. When Baby jerked against my shoulder and made the familiar sound of her shot I released on a soft whispered exhale, as the tension poured from me.
The sight of the troll’s head snapping back drew a wicked quick grin and I was just about to turn my scope toward his partner when he stayed on his feet, his head coming back up to turn in my direction. My heart skipped painfully hard in my chest cavity. Quickly I rescanned my target, tightening my scope. I could clearly see the bullet hole in his forehead and with a glint of moonlight I could make out the metal of the bullet lodged there. “Frack!!”
I began refocusing for another shot, calculating the distance as he altered it with each angry step in our direction. From the peripheral I could see his friend also moving our way but I couldn’t take my attention from my target. With laser focus I latched onto that hint of metal and with one last adjustment to my scope I pulled. And Baby delivered. THUNK. Through the enhanced vision I watched as my second bullet landed with fierce velocity directly atop the previous shot and sunk it through the Troll’s thick skull and into his brain pan. His body shuddered to a stop as his head rocked back solidly. This time the entire body tumbled afterward, crashing to the ground with the suddenness of fatality. The sheer pleasure of such a shot had me tingling in excitement and it took everything in my power not to release a shout, instead I choked it back to a moan.
“Yeah, you wanna play, Bridge Dweller?” I talked shit into the cradle of Baby as I turned the scope toward his friend. He was seriously armed and I could just start to make out the rocket launcher on his massive shoulder. Time to take care of that.
Just as I drew in my breath for another trigger pull, I heard the crack of the roof behind me and jerked my head around in horror to see Stallion drop through the soggy structure, catching himself with his elbows. His wide eyes met mine and I half sat up to offer him a hand when clearly something yanked him downward.
A glance back over my shoulder revealed that I’d given the Rocket Troll too much time. Hugging Baby to myself I rolled for the edge of the roof, no way was I going to be able to protect myself from damage. I just hoped my warning was heard by Shane, “INCOMING!”
My feet found the ground and I bent at the knees, bouncing forward on a hopping run meant to keep me from having to roll with the force of my landing. I was already disengaging the straps in case the terrain forced me into such a spin, I could hear my dad’s gruff voice in my head, “Rennie, it takes some serious bioware to repair a snapped neck cuz some poor fragged orcbait forgot to unsnap his rig.”
A glance overhead revealed the shadowy descent of my crewmates. I was actually surprised to count out all of them. As Donegar hit the dirt near me in a perfectly executed military move, knee planted, gun raised, small target ready to engage, I admitted to myself that I didn’t expect the rest of them to follow. Him, sure. He had the soul-sucked look of a man who was better off not remembering the things his mind had locked away. I had met many like him in that military psych-ward.
I shook my head away from those dark memories to find a bit of amusement in watching the teenagers hit the ground. Shade did alright, considering. His movements mimicked a surfer’s and with a chuckle I realized he was quite literally trying to skateboard out of the sky. Funny how muscle memory worked. Donegar’s mind might not be willing to remember but his body certainly did. Much like the street kid trying to make his way into the unknown by skating. Beside him, Stallion stumbled gracefully, unused to the way the parachute dragged at you, still tethered to the winds. His eyes darted about wildly in the darkness and I bet a platinum cred stick that I didn’t want to be able to see what he could. I hoped he was smart enough to stay away from the magic here where everything was tainted by insect juice.
I’d missed Wesley’s landing. One minute I was watching the rest of the guys and the next the dwarf was beside me. Not good. I really needed to be more aware of my surroundings. Especially here.
With that thought, I dropped to a secured crouch and flipped on my low light vision with a rapid series of blinks meant to code it up in my cybered eyes. And what I saw was…
Pieces of me flinging outward in every direction. I felt my connection to my sanity come unraveled as if someone had taken my mind and thrown it like a ball of yarn down a set of stairs. I shut down hard. Fast. Willed everything around me to go still and silent.
We were in a playground.
We’d landed in a fragging playground. The rusted swing set beside me mocked the searing agony in my chest. I felt hollowed out. Shrapnel laced with memories.
Had Axel stopped here with AJ? Was this where they were on that day that he’d gotten the message that they were quarantined? I could see his white blonde head ducked over the small figure of our toddler. I could picture his kind eyes as he pushed our son in the swing.
I’d been fragging pissed. Hot holy hell had I been angry when he’d called. His face appearing on my Comms, as he had explained, “there were people in need. It was supposed to be a quick stop. I was just delivering supplies and blessings.” He’d put AJ’s little face in the picture to advert the attention from my simmering resentment. His church commitments always came first.
I’d been cold. Dismissive: “I guess I’ll just eat dinner by myself then. Again. Get him out of there before he catches something.”
He’d caught something. They’d all caught something. An infestation that had wiped out this entire region. My son had died here. My husband had died here. And I’d refused to say I love you when I ended the call.
“Rennie?” The way it was asked I could tell it was not the first time they’d said my name. In fact, as I pulled myself from the dark tumult of my mind I realized that the entire group was looking at me. “you good?”
“Right.” I nodded sharply and acted like I hadn’t just been caught staring into the darkness like a madwoman. “Donegar take the lead. Let’s get in and get out. We’re on a timeline people.”
They were not pleased at my briskness. Stallion and Shade shared a look that clearly said what they were thinking. It wasn’t like we weren’t all aware of the pressure of that deadline. They didn’t need me to tell them. If we didn’t get the package and get it back to the chopper there would be no ride out of this hellish place. Part of me wondered if that would be such a bad ending? To die where they had. To go out stomping bugs with my last breath.
As Donegar took the lead and we fell in behind with weapons at the ready I realized the selfishness of my thoughts. My crew hadn’t come here to die. They’d come here to complete a mission. A mission that I had led us into with the negotiations with “Fifi.” As soon as she’d mentioned the CZ I’d upped the price to a ridiculous number, demanded transportation and even weaponry hoping to make the trip too costly for her. She’d not balked. Hell, she hadn’t even really blinked. Frack, there was no way we could back out of this, not without losing a serious amount of reputation cred that we’d just finished establishing. At least that was the argument I’d given when we accepted the job. It’s what I told them.
But was it the truth? Had I taken the job because there’d been no choice or because I was on a suicide mission?
I glanced around at my crew and realized if I had then I had murdered them all just as clearly as if I’d leveled my sniper rifle at their heads and popped them like cherries.
And that made me a monster worse than the damn insects.
At this point I would pay to trade places with Donegar. Like no hesitation. All the cred I could acquire would be a worthy expense.
He sat across from me on the chopper, his face an impassive statue. Cut from stone he wasn’t apparently bothered by the buffeting winds, the nervous crackle of energy from our raw group of companions, or most importantly—our intended destination.
Somewhere beneath me, right now, unfolding like the spilling crimson of blood leaking from a gaping gash, the CZ was unfurling. I felt panic claw inside me, a rabid creature tearing through my insides, boiling up into my throat in a scream that I didn’t dare release because I might never stop screaming.
The irony was not lost on me. Over a decade ago I would have given anything to be here.
In fact, I had given everything. Every cred I owned and then some.
I had burned every bridge I had, cashed in every chip, took to the streets and threw myself into dark dirty holes to try and find an Ace who would take me into the CZ. No one would go near this place then, so soon after the Quarantine. Not the church friends who prayed for my husband and son and looked upon me as if I were their special burden to bear. Not his war buddies, soldiers both retired and still active, who all spoke of what a great man he was and wanted to play memory lane with me. As if he were already gone.
I had a vision of me screaming, pleading, begging—leaping across the desk of the sergeant and burying my nails in the face of his former CO. They had carried me out of there. Sedated me. Packaged me back home in our sweet little two bedroom house just around the corner of the church. I’d spent so many tears in that place that I always pictured it underwater now, a forgotten submerged Atlantis.
I’d packed my guitar case. Took my Fichetta and its concealable holster and went in search of runners. It was on the streets that I truly had discovered the futility of my actions. Not even the most die-hard danger seeker was willing to go near that place overrun with insects and a graveyard for anybody stupid enough to have been caught within it. There wasn’t enough cred in the world.
And then…they dropped the bomb.
I can’t tell you where I went. I can’t tell you who I became. I can’t tell you because I don’t remember. I lost a couple of years locked somewhere deep inside my mind in an illusion of happy home life.
The Colonel finally found me. Had me committed. I worked my way back to some semblance of sanity. Enough to paint the picture of civility over myself. I returned to my Church, but the current that ran inside me seethed with hate and rage.
I went through the motions. Much like any other role I had inhabited in my childhood. I acted the part of the widowed parson’s wife. But it never felt real. It was a theater scene.
I hadn’t felt alive again until that meeting with Payne in the Typhoon Lounge. When the grizzled old man had approached me about running I had scoffed. Laughed at the ludicrousness of it. Here I was, a church going waitress, struggling to pay the rent on my apartment and volunteering every waking hour so that I didn’t have to ever be alone.
What did I know about running? Those scary dark denizens of the underworld who would do anything for cred: both the money and the reputation kind.
Those trolls, samurais, mages, A-boys and Aces who had all been too afraid to take the job to enter the CZ.
“We’re here.” The Pilot announced, “Remember in and out. I won’t hold even an extra minute. If you’re not at the pick up zone I’m leaving you.”
His words left a pall over the group. A sickening fear permeated the air. A fear that had kept grizzled veterans from the streets and from the fields unwilling to enter this place years ago.
I’d gotten here. Finally. Down there my son and husband had died. And no one had been willing to help me save them. They’d all been too afraid: “There’s not enough cred in the world for that you crazy bitch!”
Without a look at any of my crew, I stood up and walked right out the door of the chopper, gripping the straps of my chute. As the wind caught me and the sensation of free-falling took over I let go of everything. Axel. AJ. Church-going Renata.
I was a runner now. I was Sateen. I was willing to take on any job.
For the right amount of cred.