September 26, 2010

Billie's Journal

Seattle, day 1

My dreams are haunted by the image of a freckle-faced elf girl. She looks a bit like me, but not as pretty. But then, she hasn't had the plastic surgery yet. She is in a car crash. Tattooed asian men drag her from the car. She tries to get away from them, running, running, but there are too many of them. They stick wires in her head and do terrible things to her.

I wake in a sweat, my tongue thick with the taste of whiskey. Even the booze can't keep the nightmares away any more. For a moment, I don't know where I am, then remember that we are in the garage in Tacoma. I pull the sheets over my head and try to get back to sleep.

My meeting with the journalist, Kinkaid, had been a waste of time. He had looked at me like I was a crazy woman. I think maybe I am.

With no other leads to go on, I ask Zero to see what she can find on the Green Ronin. She seems a little peeved at first, asking why I don't use my 'other decker friend'. I explain again that I only used Aurora to keep the rest of the team out of trouble. She relents but I can see she is still mad at me for not going to her first. I feel bad and it's not just the hangover. Apart from Sheriff and Aurora, these are the only people in the world I feel I can trust. I don't want to lose them.

She gets back to me later in the day. A couple of hours in the matrix and a few caffeinated sugary drinks seeem to have improved her mood, while dark clouds still circle over my head. Seems our guy is a player, likes to hang out at the flash clubs like Dante's Inferno and Penumbra. Strangely, the decker community doesn't like him. Too much attitude plus his alleged ties with the yakuza. And he like blondes, preferably well-endowed ones, so at least that means I won't be the bait this time.

We don't know his schedule, so we take turns staking out the two clubs. I try to fit in, even wearing a skirt and drinking whisky sodas instead of straight shots. But my feeble attempts to converse with the few sararimen that try to hit on me fall flat and after a couple of days people just seem to ignore the crazy lady in the corner.

The padre has more luck, striking up conversations with the bar staff at Penumbra and getting to know a couple of them well enough to crack jokes and talk politics late into the night.

Zero and Finlay play a couple. Our plan is to identify the nights when the Green Ronin comes to the clubs then for the two of them to have a fight and hopefully our man will make his move on the 'dumped' Zero. When they leave we grab him and the padre uses his magic to get some answers out of him. Then I will kill him.

Seattle, day 10

Finally some luck. After hanging about the damn clubs for over a week, Finlay finally spots our man. On subsequent nights the padre and myself also make him and we can start watching him more closely to tie down his schedule and favourite spots. The fragger seems to be with a different woman every night and even when he runs into an old flame, they are still friendly to him. He's not that good looking, but definitely seems to have a way with the ladies.

Seattle, day 12
I missed a call from Kincaid last night. He wants to meet. Maybe he's changed his mind about me being crazy. We agree to meet at the coffee shop in a couple of days.

Seattle, day 14
Zero has got in contact with an old mage buddy of hers. He has a line on some Rohypnol, one of the date-rape drugs. As well as making it's victims more susceptible to suggestion, it has the nice side effect that they remember nothing of the time they are under it's influence. Maybe I won't have to kill the Green Ronin after all, although the fragger still deserves it if he's working with these scum.

I meet with Kincaid in the afternoon, with the padre providing backup. He's sitting in the cafe typing on an old fashioned laptop computer. He doesn't notice me coming in, until I slip in across from him. I offer him some of the contents of my flask and he shakes his head. I shrug and add a shot to my coffee.

I ask him why he called me back. He tells me he's done some digging and some of the info I gave him adds up. His contacts have heard rumors of these bunraku palaces, where the girls are programmed with fake personalities to become and do whatever the customer wants.

Also, he has turned up missing person's report posted with Lone Star by a Mr McCullough shortly after the girl that looks like me went missing from the hospital. He gives me a disk with the report and information on the people that could be, that are, my parents. I stare at the disk for a long moment, only looking up at him when he asks me a question. He wants to know what my stake is in this whole affair. Am I just after the money, out for revenge, or something else.

I look up at the ceiling, thinking before I reply. What do I want? He catches the eye of a waitress and orders two more coffees. I add a shot to mine and we drink for a minute in silence before I reply.

I tell him that when I started looking into my past, I had the idea that I could just pick up my old life where I had left off. But I am not that girl, not anymore. I think I would still like to meet my family, but I wonder how they would react to me. Can I go back to being Wilhemina McCullough? I doubt it. Will they accept Billie back into their family? I don't know.

What about the yakuza he asks. I tell him straight that if a few of them end up dead, I won't lose sleep over it. But that's not what I really care about. I don't particularly care if they die or go to prison. But there are seventeen other girls out there, possibly even more and possibly including the senator's daughter, that might still alive and in one of these places. Aurora and Sheriff got me out. I can't leave them behind.

He gives me a smile at that and his shoulders relax a bit. He tells me that as an investigative reporter, his job is to expose these sort of things but that he needs more information. He offers to talk to the senator about the reward for his daughter; he is still in touch with him. He also mentions a contact in the agency. I don't ask him which one, but I do tell him that I've done things that any agency wouldn't approve of. But if his agency contact can accept that, then he's just another Johnson to me and I'm willing to at least talk to him.

He tells me he'll talk to him and get back to me. I explain that he can contact me at any time, but that if I am 'working' I might not answer. He nods and shakes my hand. Call me 'Danny' he says. Billie I reply without thinking. After all, that's who I am.

Seattle, day 16
Tonight's the night. Zero has the drugs from her contact and is dressed to the nines. Finlay is also dressed up and the two head into Penumbra, with the padre following shortly after. I stay in the van. Zero is transmitting a live feed from her goggles to a screen in the back in case anything goes wrong.

Around midnight, Zero is dancing with a plain-looking asian sarariman. She pulls on his tie and grinds against him. I close one eye and look away from the video. Then Finlay is there. He looks angry but I can't hear him over the music. A troll separates the two of them and I watch him being led towards the exit. Zero has a few words with the man she was dancing with and head's to the bar and orders a drink, gulping it down.

Finaly comes back to the van and suits up in his armor. He also stashes his spear in his duster and attaches the sling of his new P90 SMG to the harness of his armor jacket. On the screen Zero watches as the Green Ronin approaches her with a drink. Soon the two are in conversation. Finlay reminds her to keep her mind on the job and she responds by looking the mark up and down. We both groan in unison.

The two of them get a lot friendlier over the next couple of hours, but with nothing much happening I drift off with my hat over my eyes. Finlay nudges me awake around 3:20 am and I can see from the monitor they are on the move.

They climb into a small sports car and after some kissing the car moves off. The kissing continues as the car drives itself into the night. The padre climbs into the back taking up Finlay's seat as the ork has moved up front to drive. We aim to intercept them before they get back to Green Ronin's appartment, but the little sports car is fast and we are struggling to catch up in the van.

As we head down I-90 towards Bellevue, disaster strikes. Zero has moved from the passenger seat and is sitting astride the decker unbuttoning his shirt. Astounded I relate what's going on to Finlay. We are almost on them, when out of nowhere a Lone Star cruiser pulls up behind us and flashes his lights. I can hear Finlay cursing as he pulls over to the hard shoulder.

The cop comes up to the driver side. Finlay opens the window halfway, trying to conceal the fact he is wearing armor and carrying weapons while the padre and I duck down out of sight in the back. It's a shakedown. The cop tells Finlay one of the van's side lights are out and when Finlay says they were fine when he last checked the bent cop smashes the driver's side light with his baton. I can hear the steering wheel groan under Finlay's grip as he works to stay calm. Zero will be pissed at the damage to the van.

Finaly pays off the cop with 100 yen in cash and they let us go with just a warning. Fraggers! Once they head off, Finlay drives like a maniac to catch up to the sport's car. We catch up just as they take the off-ramp to Bellevue. We're ready to take them at the next light when another cop car, KE this time, pulls out from behind a sign and flags us down. As the sport's car pulls away, Finlay quickly hands his weapons into the back.

One of the KE guys is grilling Finlay about what he is doing in Bellevue this time of night, while his buddy pokes around the van. Cop two asks what's in the back just as Finlay replies he is here to pick up a friend who went home with some guy who turned out to be a jerk and called him for a lift. As the padre and I prepare to take out the KE guys, they decide he's on the level and let us go. With big sighs of relief we move on. The cops follow us a couple of blocks then turn off. Finlay pushes the speed limit as much as he can but we arrive too late and Zero and Green Ronin are already in the lift on the way up to his appartment.

After what seems like forever, Zero finally gets her mind on the job and suggests that she invite her friend over for a threesome. The decker is a bit hesitant at first, claiming he is feeling the drink - or more likely the drugs, but after some more kissing and fondling, he finally agrees.

We feed her the van's current licence number and my new name. Even I have to think for a second. I switch places with Finlay and with the two boys invisible in the back, we pull up at the entrance some fifteen minutes later.

The guard just rolls his eyes when I tell him who I am coming to see and lets us in. We take the lift up and buzz his door. I'm surprised when Zero opens the door wearing just a sheet and a grin. Her cheeks are flushed and her hair messed up. Finlay and the padre nearly knock us down as they push past me and into the flat.

It's pretty swish place, even nicer than the one we had downtown. In the bedroom, the Ronin is lying on the bed, naked and half asleep. I lean over to check on him and he mumbles something and tries to kiss me. I react before I realise what I'm doing. The new arm responds fast, snapping back and smashing into his face. Lucky the safety limiters were on, but he still slumps back unconscious. Shit.

September 8, 2010

Karnak the Killer

Chapter 3 - The Tower of the Magi

Karnak was disappointed. They had been escorted quickly through the tower with barely a chance to see anything beyond brief glimpses of the building’s impressive architecture and into this non-descript room with a single window. He stood, squeezed between Aardaal and Carrick, in one corner of the small room. Juniper dressed in her Elementalist’s robes, with her staff held in one hand stood before them on one side of a small plain table.

On the other side sat three old men, all mages. Although of which exact discipline, Karnak could not tell. They were explaining the rules of the initiation to Juniper. She would have one full day to complete the task. She could take as many companions with her as she wanted, although they would face the same dangers as she did and would need to sign a waiver that they accepted these risks of their own free will.

With the paperwork out of the way they were led down narrow twisting steps to a dusty cellar under the Tower. With a few formal words, a young apprentice presented Juniper with a necklace containing four different coloured gemstones, then pulled a lever and a section of the wall slid back. The four entered cautiously and the panel slid back into place behind them.

The hallway ahead of them was dimly lit with fading light quartzes. The walls and floor were bare stone and the passage was just wide and high enough for Carrick to pass through. The only feature was a large rune on the floor halfway along the corridor. As they approached the rune, one of the gems on the necklace flared into life, giving off a faint red glow.

“This is the symbol for fire” explained Juniper to the others.

As they approached the end of the corridor, they could see another fire rune on the wall, which slid aside revealing a four-way junction. At the centre of the junction was another rune. As they entered, the door with the fire rune slid silently back into place behind them.

“This one is water.” confirmed Juniper as the blue gem on her necklace flared into life. The walls of the other passages also showed runes and Juniper pointed them out for the others.

“Fire behind us, water to the left, air straight ahead and earth to the right.”

“Only fire and water are glowing on the necklace” said Karnak, thinking out loud. “We came through fire, so I guess that means we go through water.”

Juniper approached the door with the water rune and indeed it slid back into the wall. Ahead lay another corridor similar to the first. The rune in the middle of this one was the symbol for earth.

“Mayhap, we simply need to activate all four gemstones to complete the trial”, suggested Aardaal.

“I hope it is as simple as that”, muttered Juniper with a frown. “But I fear it may be more complex. And more dangerous.”

The third gem, an emerald began to glow with an green light as they passed the symbol for earth. With three gemstones glowing they had high hopes of finishing the trial quickly. But the next junction contained the symbol for water and as they entered it, the light faded from the blue gem.

Over the next hour, the four explored several corridors and junctions, often backtracking to activate one or more of the gems. They made slow progress through the maze until they realised they were in danger of having no gems active.

“What happens if they all go out?” asked Karnak.

“I suppose we fail the trial.” rumbled Carrick.

“You mean we will be stuck here forever? Won‘t they let us out?” demanded Aardaal.

Juniper gulped as the true danger of the trial became apparent, “I-I don’t think so.”

With their lives on the line, the party took a moment to consider their options. Karnak had picked up some fish pies on the way to the tower that morning and offered the still warm pastries around. Carrick had mapped out the maze on a piece of parchment and they studied it carefully, while they munched on the pies.

“There must be a solution,” muttered Juniper, her brow furrowed in concentration.

Karnak picked at his tusks, deep in thought. He looked carefully up and down the bare corridor.

“Maybe we missed something” he grunted as his eye caught what looked like the outline of a doorway on the opposite wall.

“A hidden passage”, declared Aardaal. “Carrick help me open it.”

The obsidiman pushed at the wall where Aardaal indicated and a section of the wall twisted open.

Aardaal slipped through the opening. Beyond was a large dimly-lit room. He could hear water lapping against stone and a damp, musty smell assailed his nostrils. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could see a narrow strip of stone leading across the room to the far wall, black water on either side.

However, more worrying was the hunched figure in the middle of stone walkway. Its head cocked up as he entered, sniffing at the air like some beast. Studying the figure, Aardaal could now see that’s the creatures eyes were sewn shut and it’s arms ended not in hands but short, broad blades.

Back at the entrance, Carrick gulped. He was more concerned by the dark water on either side of the narrow walkway, than the creature on it. Obsidimen could not swim.

Aardaal edged cautiously out along the walkway towards the creature. As he got closer, he could see that it was tethered to the middle of the walkway by a chain. The creature hissed and lunged at him, only to be pulled up short.

Aardaal dropped into a crouch and edged closer. When the creature lunged again, he waited until the chain pulled it to a halt then slashed at it with his father’s sword. The beast howled in rage. It thrashed against it’s tether and to the shock of the four adventurers, ripped the chain clean from the floor. It immediately charged at Aardaal in a blind rage, but the sword master kept his cool. As it reached him, he twisted to the side and gave it a gentle push that took it off the side of the walkway and into the dark water with a loud splash.

The water settled and of the creature there was no sign. The four edged carefully across the walkway to the other side, the obsidiman on his hands and knees. With some pushing at the wall they managed to open another concealed doorway that took them back into one of the corridors they had previously traversed. This gave them some additional possibilities for changing which gems were lit. While Carrick waited, for he was not keen to cross the walkway more than necessary, the rest of the party moved back and forth between the passages and corridors until they had the right combination of gems activated to move deeper into the maze.

They returned to water room and called out for Carrick to join them. As the obsidiman stepped onto the walkway, Aardaal‘s keen eyes spotted a movement. The creature they had thought dead, was climbing out of the water and up the wall at the obsidiman’s feet.

“Carrick, ware! The creature is still alive.”

Carrick backed out of the room, setting his shield and drawing his heavy spiked mace. Dripping with water, the pale cadaver crawled onto the walkway. It sniffed at the air and turned towards Aardaal at the other end of the walkway. Spotting his chance, Carrick smacked it on the head with a bone crushing blow. The creature roared as the obsidiman’s blow crushed the back of its skull, then turned and lashed at him with a frenzy of blows.

‘Too fast’ were Carrick’s last thoughts as the beast’s blows stung his flesh. A normal man would have been flayed alive, but his training allowed him to parry some of the blows and his thick skin absorbed the worst of the others. Still the pain and shock were overwhelming and he sank to his knees and toppled sideways.

Juniper’s earth dart hit the creature in the back and it spun towards the others. Aardaal and Karnak were already edging out onto the walkway. Aardaal had his sword at the ready and Karnak followed banging his sword on his shield and shouting, “Hey, blind and ugly. Over here.”

The creature charged again. Aardaal set his footing and drove his blade hard into it’s chest as it reached him. There was a squirt of liquid from a pouch sewn into it’s chest and it stopped with a croak, then tumbled slowly into the water. They rushed to the other side and checked on the fallen obsidiman.

“Still breathing,” sighed Juniper. “His wounds are not deep. He will live.”

While Juniper patched him up, the two men watched the water for signs of movement. This time the creature did not resurface. They rested for what seemed like hours, but could not tell for sure. Then, with a soft moan, Carrick’s eyes flickered open.

“Welcome back my friend,” grinned Karnak. They helped the obsidiman back to his feet and proceeded slowly onwards.

However, they had no sooner gone past the next junction when they realised that they could again go no further without being trapped. While Juniper and Carrick studied the obsidiman’s map, Karnak and Aardaal checked the walls for concealed doors.

“Here” announced Aardaal and Carrick pushed at the wall where he indicated. A cold mist billowed from the hidden room as the door swung open. Karnak and Aardaal slipped inside. The room seemed to soak up the light from quartzes in the hall, so even with their sensitive eyes, they could only see a few paces into the room.

“I like this not” uttered Karnak. They edged across the room, but could see no doorway in the opposite wall. Then Karnak shivered at a cold touch on his shoulder. Spinning around he could see nothing. “There is something in here.”

The two hurried back to the door and Carrick pushed it closed behind them.

“No way out that way,” wheezed Karnak, his heart pounding more from fright than exertion.

The group huddled together in silence, while Juniper studied Carrick's map. Quite some time later, she finally looked up. “I believe I have the solution." She explained the sequence of corridors and junctions they needed to follow to activate the gems to get them through the next door.

“The only problem is that once we go through it, we will be unable to return.”

The group was silent for a moment. Aardaal stood statue-still, Carrick seemed lost in thought and Karnak picked nervously at his tusks.

“Well, we can sit here and die or go on. I vote we go on.” he offered at last. One by one, the others nodded.

Juniper walked the planned route and came back to them with the required gems lit. They stepped into the junction and the ruby dulled, leaving only the sapphire representing air lit. She approached the door with the air symbol and it slid aside revealing a set of stairs leading upwards. Behind her, the three men breathed out a collective sigh of relief.

At the top of the stairs, the same young novice who had let them into the maze was sitting at small reading desk. He looked up from the heavy book he was poring over and raised an eyebrow.

“We were on the verge of giving up on you. Initiates normally complete it within the first couple of hours or not at all.”

“And what happens to those who don’t make it in the allotted time,” questioned Karnak.

The novice shrugged and nodded towards the injured Carrick. “Looks like you already found out.”

Closing his book, the novice stood up from the desk and escorted them back to the room where they had first met the Tower’s mages.

They waited for about an hour before the mages assembled. Karnak yawned realising that it was approaching dawn and that the novice was probably rousing the mages from their beds. Once they finally arrived, they sat conversing in hushed whispers amongst themselves for a few minutes before the eldest turned to them and addressed Juniper.

“Juniper Elderberry”, he intoned. “You have successfully completed the trial of elements. We welcome you as a novice of the Tower.

Nodding towards the necklace she still wore, he continued, “Your token of completion will allow you access to the tower at any time. You may freely use the library, but for now the rest of the tower is off limits. For your own safety, of course.”

Juniper nodded. She was glowing with pride and could barely contain her excitement. When the old mages finally shuffled out of the room, she jumped up and hugged first Carrick then Aardaal and finally Karnak.

“Thank you,” she gushed. “This means everything to me.”

“Carrick deserves most of the credit”, laughed Karnak. “He took on that creature on his own and has the bumps to show for it.”

Carrick nodded, rubbing at his bandaged arm.