Charlie stalked into her dark and messy apartment, swaying a little from all the whiskey. Silk was behind her in the stairwell shouting drunken obscenities at the upstairs neighbor Larry, a crazed bug city survivor who liked to throw things at anyone he didn’t like, which currently included the blond elf.
The fridge rocked forward as she pulled hard on the handle, grinding it into the floor again. It was just a matter of time before it broke through the cheap linoleum. She grabbed a couple of beers and tossed one to Silk as he entered the doorway, still yelling over his shoulder. He turned and barely managed to catch it, the shock triggering his adrenal booster as he deflected it then snatched it up before it could hit the floor.
“Fuckin— Why is everyone throwin shit at me tonight?” he asked, looking at the beer then up at Charlie with somewhat pleading annoyance. “You coulda hit me in the head.”
“You mean the ‘Face,’ right? Don’t want a dent in your only redeeming quality,” Charlie grinned sloppily.
“Hey, that’s not my only redeeming quality!” Silk slid along the wall as he made his way to the couch. “Need I remind you who got knocked out in Montreal? Or in the UCAS building? AND I hear you got straight wrecked on some Prototype grab last month.”
“I also bitch-slapped a Shedim Master, infiltrated Aztlan solo, and tore apart a whole team of Red Samurai. And I got knocked out in the UCAS thing because I took down three special forces Jackboots with just my arm and the element of surprise”.
“You did not bitchslap a Shedim,” Silk replied, collapsing into a recliner they’d salvaged from a nearby building.
“Fuck yeah, I did! Princess perfume will confirm, she stuck a grenade in his chest cavity. It was fuckin bad-ass.”
“No way, not buyin it.”
Charlie popped open her beer and took a long swig before shrugging.
For a moment they sat in silence, their earlier conversation weighing heavily on their minds. Was this really a good idea? Would they live to regret it? Would they both survive?
“I’ve been thinking about settling for a while,” Charlie said, still trying to keep the subject light. “Taking a break, you know? Maybe with Julio Fernandez. Hell of a man.”
“Julio? Really? I’m not sure he’s the type.”
Charlie‘s grin was for a brief moment entirely predatory, her whole self resembling a powerful feline. "You’d be surprised what a good boy will do after you pin him to the bed. Besides, it’s not my first time or anything."
“When? Back in the Sprawl?” He was leaning forward, elbows on his knees.
Charlie shook her head. “Mostly with Hellbent, back in Montreal. After the op I stayed with him for almost a month. Dipped out when he started talking about the future, mentioned his dynasty and I was out so fast you wouldn’t believe.”
“Not ready for kids? I think you’d make a swell mommy.”
Charlie smiled at his mocking. “Fuck you. I didn’t want to get out of the game. I’m the best… or fucking close. No way I’m dropping out to be a fraggin queen of some stupid theme gang in Canada.”
Silk shrugged. “If I had that kind of an out, that kind of wealth offered to me… I’d—”
“Get knocked up by some medieval lord of Hell?”
“Shut up,” Silk responded defensively. “I just mean that I would have gone for more money… held onto some of that wealth. We all gotta have an escape plan, ya’know?”
“No. I don’t.” And they both knew she was serious. Charlie would get out the shadows in a body bag, not a moment sooner.
They sat in silence for another moment. Then Charlie stood and removed her armor jacket and t-shirt. “Lets do this, give me the multi-driver.”
Silk nodded and drew a toolkit from under his chair and placed it on the coffee table between them. “I’ll lock up the guns, you get the thing off.”
Charlie sat on the couch, focusing her drunken mind into the specifics of her cybernetic arm, popping catches and removing panels, releasing certain valves, and disconnecting cables until, with a grunt and a click, the powerful limb came free and fell onto the couch.
As he rolled the deepweed into the rolling paper, Silk spoke with the calm professionalism of someone who knew his trade. It was a large part of the reason Charlie was trusting him like this. “So, as I said at the bar, the Deepweed will connect you to the astral. You’ll connect with life-force and mana and all that weird drek. You might perceive, it’s supposed to only be mages but I’ve had a couple people do it who had never cast a spell in their lives. The addition of the Zen after about a minute will allow you to get into your own field and explore feelings and memories. Remember that some of it will be your perceptions and some will be subjective information. Might be hard to tell them apart. I’ll be here to talk you through it.” He handed her the joint.
Charlie nodded and lit the end, puffing experimentally before taking a long drag.
“Once we get into my head,” she said, her voice tight as she held the smoke in her lungs, “stay clear of the Sprawl days. Neither of us wants to go down that road, especially if I’m not lucid. Or sedated. Really both.”
Silk nodded and handed her an inhaler, already loaded with Zen. “Goin back to the old stuff. I can do that.”
Charlie hit the Zen and leveled her catlike eyes at Silk. “On my first run I went in a submarine so deep into the lake that no light reached us. I thought the sub was going to give out on us. Crushed by water. Not how I want to go.”
“You have a preferred way to die?”
“Violently. Fighting someone who’s as good as I am. Point is, I kinda feel like that now, going in without a way out.”
“It’s starting. I want you to think back to a time when you felt nothing. Go back to the lab. Think about Alpha, Bravo… Delta. The scientists.” Silk hit a button on his commlink and Charlie‘s ’cybernose’ began to feed her the scent of a clinic, sterile and filled with chemicals… a hint of blood and bile. Metal and wiring… a cyberclinic.
Charlie snarled. She could see faces, hard to define with so much light in her eyes. They were cutting her. She wanted to cut back. Her training wouldn’t work. Her limbs wouldn’t obey. Why had she been trained to fight if she couldn’t protect herself?
“What are you seeing?”
“The science teams that worked on me. I’m in surgery, they’re implanting things in me, putting in needles all over my body, into my bones. It hurts a lot but I can’t fight them.”
Silk’s voice was soothing but firm, “They paralyzed you, nothing to do about it now. Focus on their faces, their coats, any insignia. Anything unusual.”
Charlie gritted her teeth, trying to focus, forcing the vision to obey her, but like a dream the more she grasped the more it slipped away. “I’m losing it!”
“Relax, you gotta just-”
For a moment she returned to the apartment. “Don’t you fucking tell me to relax. I was getting torn apart on a slab in a tiny little lab. I couldn’t-”
Again her vision warped and twisted, coalescing this time with scents of sweat and blood, clean mats on the floor, polyfibre training uniforms, none of the metal of her arm. She was in an enclosed room, bigger then the last. Tthe door matched the wall and ceiling, invisible until opened. The floor was a little softer then the concrete and a ‘skylight’ with tinted glass overlooked the floor from above. Four people stood near her, one was a young scientist, another a martial artist of some kind, and the third a powerful looking young elf. Alpha.
The scientist was speaking to the window above, his accent was thick. “As you can see in my report, the female subject does not possess the desired qualities. However, with the use of magic to control her and endurance boosting bioware, she becomes a prime tool for training the other subjects.”
The martial artist gave a sign and Alpha attacked. He was strong and fast, more than she was. He moved with grace and precision, finding weaknesses in her defenses and leaving cuts and bruises. He quickly drove her back across the mat.
“Charlie! Hey, come back a little. You’re in the apartment, can you hear me?” Silk cut into her thoughts. For a moment he was both of them, Alpha and Silk, standing before her. Instinctively, she tried to swing at Alpha, but as he faded from her view she fell into the coffee table, overbalanced by the lack of a right arm. If she’d still had it, Silk would’ve been down right then.
Silk knelt next to her. “What did you see?”
“Training fights. They used me for the others to practice on.” Charlie tried to haul herself up, falling as she again forgot she had removed her arm. Maneuvering without it was difficult.
She returned to the couch with a little help and chugged her beer as the room swam and melted before her eyes. Silk went to the kitchen to get her another and she leaned her head back and relaxed in the cool air on her skin.
The tank had been safe. Nothing bad had happened when she was in the tank. It was when they took her out that things always ended up hurting. The surgeries and the fights, knowing that she was different. That nobody cared about her, they only wanted the others.
“They only wanted the others!” She sat up so fast she almost fell off the couch again.
Then she was back in the room. This time, there were two of them. Faster, stronger, merciless. The Master instructed them. He pointed out moves, her soft spots, how they could hurt her more and faster. His voice was strange, different words for the same thing. Then they were gone, it was just her and the Master. His grin was predatory as he moved towards her.
She withdrew her hand, her vision cut into pieces as she looked around for another beer. “Think I had a thing with the martial arts teacher. Always was into powerful men. Hell, maybe he started it.”
“Ok, so, can we push on? I mean— uh…”
Charlie ignored his awkward mumbling. She nodded and promptly zoned out, staring at the smog-filtered moonlight pouring like waves through the blankets she’d set up as curtains. As he continued, she pulled the curtain down and the room was filled with light, washing in slow motion across everything. It was as though some primal force had entered her apartment, touching everything. She needed to be closer to it.
“…you got all that?” asked Silk.
“No. We’re going to the roof,” she replied, turning and making for the door.
“What?! No, that’s not a good idea. You’re safer here.” Despite his words, he got up and followed her.
“Nobody is ever safe. Bring the rest of the beer.” Charlie opened the door and took in the hallway. It swam and pulsed with life. She could smell rats in the walls, the other tenants drinking or smoking or eating dinner. Someone on the first floor was engaged in rigorous activity, maybe working out… or having sex. Smelled like sex.
The world slowed as she half-consciously tripped her new wired reflexes. They weren’t the most advanced set, but Tate’s work was good, less invasive and high quality. It had still sucked getting them put it, way more then the pain editor, but as the twisting cracks in her vision seemed to slow she was glad she’d gotten them.
“Chharliee, Waiit.” Silk had the plastic bin full of beer and looked thoroughly unhappy as he followed her up the switchback stairs towards the roof. “We shouuld stay insside, thiis is- MOTHER FUCKER!”
Charlie turned to see Silk, with a bloody cut on his forehead, throwing one of the beers at Larry, who appeared to be holding chunks of concrete the size fists. The beer missed him narrowly, smashing against the wall and splashing beer all over the landing. As Larry prepared to return fire with another rock, Charlie stepped lightly up the twenty steps between them and grabbed his arm.
“Quit it Lar, he’s not a bug.”
“Yes he is, dammit!” responded Larry in his CAS drawl.
“Don’t give me that, these are grenades!”
“In the stairwell?! Are you crazy?”
“I gotta protect this place! He’s in league with them devil worshipers, them toxic fraggers, and Houdini witchdoctors. It’s all a conspiracy. And I ain’t crazy!” He adjusted his tinfoil hat, scratched some week old food from his beard and adjusted his hubcap covered poncho before calling Silk a fascist and retreating to his apartment.
Silk joined her on the landing, his bug-like features receding. “I fuckin hate that guy. C’mon, we’ve come this far.” He led the rest of the way to the roof.
They made it without any further difficulty. Popping open more beers, they sat in the moonlight, watching the clouds drift and form shapes against the full moon. To Charlie, each shape was important, essential to her understanding of the world. A dragon shifted into a horse into a bullet into turtles into a women into— she lost track as her mind wondered back. The scent of smog filled her mind and she was in the swamp.
Somewhere, very close by, was a wendigo they called the Foul One. Charlie had been hunting it ever since she had encountered it while working for Lothan. She’d had it dead to rights but she hadn’t known to go for the head. So now she was in the swamp, ghillied up, rifle trained on the hole where she was pretty sure it was hiding. Sure enough to bet money, but maybe not her life.
“Where did you go?” asked Silk.
“The swamp, hunting the wendigo.”
“Did you get it?”
“So, do you want to try and get back again? See if we can figure out who made you?”
“I made me,” corrected Charlie, for once devoid of aggression. “They just put me together.”
“I think we should try and get to your time in the tank, you were talking like it was pretty relaxed, maybe it’ll be easier to stay in something that isn’t painful. I know I try to avoid pain.”
“I don’t, but we can try. It didn’t have much of a scent when I was in it, just try some solvents or something.”
As Silk fiddled with his commlink to find the right smells, the clouds became a massive face. A lion, or maybe a bear, its teeth bared and the smog giving it a jade green hue. Then the smells hit and she was whipped back through her mind.
First she was on another run, the scent of clinics blending so many searches and most recently a battle with the Shedim in Seattle. Her mind drifted to the fight with the Master, a pitched conflict and a hell of a finish. Then she whipped through time again, living in the Sprawl, always something leaking fluid, always a pipe to be fixed. Then again, this time she was thrown into a nasty brawl. She fought alone against a dozen gangers and their leader. He was the source of the smell.
She dodged and twisted against their attacks as they came at her with swords and clubs. She crushed throats, shattered knees, and sent them spinning away yet still the others came on until only the tall fellow, who’d watch the whole thing, remained able to fight.
“COME ON!” She shouted, eager for more bloodshed. The man raised a hand and even as Charlie moved to launch herself into him a wave of acid exploded forth, knocking her to the ground. She struggled up quickly but he caught her right hand and shoulder as she swung at him.
“You were never meant to get out of the lab little bitch.” His tone was almost affectionate, the accent familiar, from the south… far to the south. “Now that you’ve been contaminated, we have no further use for you.” With that he summoned acid into his hands and dissolved her shoulder, burning her back. The last thing she saw, or would ever see with her own eyes, was a sword slashing towards her face.
She spun in darkness, creatures attacking her. She was torn apart by beast and put back together by monsters only to be torn apart again. She was nothing. Her life was meaningless and she would die badly. She—
There was a smell… the scent of a flower. The scent of jasmine.
“I think she’s coming around.” The voice was feminine, with a slight Middle Eastern accent.
“Charlie, I’m sorry, I didn’t know who else to call.” That was Silk.
She opened her eyes to see Silk and Jazz kneeling on either side of her. She could taste blood, her own she suspected, and her whole body hurt. From the smell of sweat, she would have guessed she’d run a marathon.
“What happened?” she asked, her vision clearing.
Silk responded slowly as Jazz stood and moved a few steps back. “You were having some kind of fit, tearing at everything, screaming and… I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t get near you, I had to hide or you’d hit me. You did a couple times but… What did you see?”
Charlie dropped her head back and stared at the moon for a moment as things clicked into place. Hispanic accents, illegal research, not cyber-focused, advanced AAA, a toxic shaman in the cleanup crew. The jade lion head.
“Aztechnology.” She said quietly, struggling to sit up.
“Might want to put these on,” she said, a hint of judgement slipping out. Charlie looked down, she was totally naked, pieces of her pants and shirt were strewn across the roof. She did as she was bid and threw on the pants and shirt, the set almost comically large on her.
“You trying to say something about my weight?” Charlie sneered, her inner bitch stirring at the presence of her top competitor for work in Chicago.
“Silk picked them out,” the tawny elf responded evenly, arms crossed.
Charlie turned to him, knowing on some level that her dark look was muted slightly by black sweatpants and a Matt Wrath Hoodie. He threw up his hands, a half-hearted defense.
She returned her attention to Jazz, “You listened to him? Very clever. Clearly they are perfect.”
“You can take them off if you don’t want them.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you.”
“No.” The elf’s eyes rolled slightly, almost imperceptibly, the only disturbance in her carefully maintained composure. “Believe it or not, seeing your tits isn’t the high point of my evening. Neither is getting called at 4am by a frantic, drunken… co-worker… to come subdue a rampaging maniac before she starts killing everything in the CZ.”
Jazz sucked her teeth, then turned to leave.
“Wait,” Charlie said. She felt bad and ashamed and more then a little pissed that her worthy rival had seen her like this, but Jazz had come to help and if she hadn’t been wearing that stupid perfume, it was likely as not that Charlie would still be losing her shit all over the building. Still, for all of that, she couldn’t manage an apology
Instead, she asked, “Do you want a beer?” It sounded less lame then she felt.
“Got anything stronger?” the other women replied.
“Yeah,” added Silk, “cause we need it after this.”