A dust cloud settled in Redmond, leaving behind a dense mound of shattered plascrete, ballistic glass, and twisted metal. The jagged wreckage was strewn with mangled bodies, soaked in glistening red, and coated in a rainbow of graffiti. Whines came from the grey cloud, then injured metahumans shambled out with hands over bleeding ears and deep lacerations. Car alarms blared, Sentinel security systems went off, dispersing gas and low level shocks at flakes of ruin, and the crowd's panicked screams turned into a white noise of wailing. Some people came in from the streets to take the hands of those shuffling out from the ruin, although it became quickly apparent that the majority of those in the six-story building weren't walking out of there. It didn't take long for small, roving bands of hellions to descend onto the site before the rubble was finished rolling down the mound, rifling through the pockets of the dead and picking at the remains. Organleggers were quick with their coolers and scalpels. A blacked out meat wagon was quick on the scene, faster than DocWagon anyway. A team of men in teal bunker gear with respirators leaped out, brandishing medic equipment and light pistols to ward off the looters. Across the street was a dwarf with an undercut ponytail and neatly groomed beard, clad in jeans and a black trenchcoat. He coughed the dust out of his lungs while pulling up his AR overlay through his datajack's DNI. It was choppy, half-missing, and lagged seconds behind his input, but it was enough for him to make a call.
"Mister Hampton?" The dwarf thought over the line. "We have a problem."
Hours later, beneath the nose rending smog of Tacoma, Ahote was loading up his duffel bags into the back of a battered 2072 step-van. Emaciated SINless lined the halls of the open corridors, dodging the influx of sleet and wind from the open stairwell bookends with a virtual reality escape. Twitching techies with nothing left but vendingwear that wouldn't keep them from freezing to death, living for frivolous, shallow social media interaction. Addicted to short lived dopamine hits from MeFeed notifications. It must be nice, he thought, to live entirely in a simulated digital paradise with nothing to worry about in meatspace. Or maybe, he wondered, if they were simply numbing their meat while their minds danced free and happy in the matrix. With every desire downloadable and every pleasure simulated, and when the lack of food and water hits, they just log off for good. Painless, like pulling a plug, when everything is overwritten by a sim-module. He envied being so carefree, and turned to board the van.
Ahote reached Hampton Holistic Healthcare in ten minutes, burning rubber through the pocked streets of Tacoma. The round-route was cleared, except for a pair of parked ambulances, and Ahote pulled in to park the van as close to the door as possible. He got out, his working gear left in the back. He was wrapped in vendingwear, his blue sleeveless trenchcoat, camo cargo pants, and boots to protect from the snow. The chill bit deep as soon as he exited the cabin, and when he rounded the back to make sure it was locked, he ran into a two-meter-tall, lean elvish man in brown boots, baggy jeans, and a white, puffy leather jacket with orange stripes across it, complete with 'LS' on both shoulders.
"Sir, you can't park the van here; you need to pull around to the parking lot," he said in a soft but deep voice. "This is for emergency vehicles only."
"It looks clear to me," Ahote responded while glancing side to side. "I just need to see Hampton."
"Sorry, but that doesn't change the boss' orders. Unless you're in an ambulance, you need to park over there," he said while pointing to the parking lot up the block.
Ahote couldn't believe this. Some pencil-neck keeb almost a meter shorter than he was was giving him orders? The guy was as pale as the driven snow, with steel blue eyes and long dirty-blonde hair with the bangs tied back. Wire-frame rectangle glasses didn't make him look any tougher, just more of a nerd who he could break over his knee. The idea that those two letters on his shoulder were enough to give this pissant power over him was as irritating as it got for him.
"Are you seriously gonna make a deal out of this?" Ahote sighed.
"I dunno," the keeb said while swaying onto a hip, resting a hand on the grip of his Yamaha Pulsar. "Are you?"
"Frag it," Ahote grunted.
He turned, moved the van, then glared at the keeb by the front door on his way inside. A collection of SINers in designer brand clothes, suits, and celebrity imitation threads turned from their faux indigenous tribal remedy prescriptions and reagent packs to the lumbering troll. Frag them and their stares, he had money to make. Ahote jandered on past the front desk into the hall leading to the nurse reception, the staff knew to let him through, at least to the lift. Glistening plastic tiles and wall paneling guided him to the door to Hampton's office. A dwarf with an undercut ponytail and well-groomed beard sat in an armchair in front of Hampton's desk. George himself sat in a cloud of blue smoke that poured from a long silver pen. He took a long drag from the glistening cylinder, and seemingly deflated into the seat.
"Thank Ghost you're here," he let out with an accompanying cloud of blue. "Norton, this is Ahote. Ahote, Norton, he's another helping hand of mine."
Ahote nodded to the dwarf, Norton did the same back. He pulled out the second armchair, considered taking a seat, although realized he would shatter the seat under his weight and simply pushed it back in, then folded his hands.
"What's the deal, boss?" Ahote began.
"Deal? Big fraggin' deal," George chuckled quietly, like a madman at his own joke. "The 'deal' is a VIP is coming to town. A meeting here to check out Hodag's new medical subsidiary."
"So you need security?" Ahote asked.
"Yeah you got it," George replied, then took another puff.
"The Fratelli family's been targeting Mr. Hampton's operations," Norton chimed in. "Just last night, a Hampton Outreach Office for SINless workers was bombed."
"And you think they know about this?" Ahote asked.
"I'm sure they do. The Fratelli's got people like Norton here getting them info on just about everything; I bet you that Don Fratelli knows the color and consistency of this morning's drek. Lone Star will be overseeing security, but I want you two there too in case something...unofficial, needs to be done."
"Alright, what are the details?"
"Six-thousand for each of you, Oliver is your guy inside. He's LS, but he'll be on your level during the meeting, got it?"
Ahote looked around the room.
"The doorman. I received a report from him about your parking violation in our ambulance lane."
Ahote's eyes widened at that statement.
"That's slitch? We gotta work with him?"
"Guy's professional, can keep you two from getting in trouble, and is kind of uh...a guy inside, I guess. Lets me know what LS is up to, and helps in cases like this."
"Guy's a candyass."
"Guy could turn you inside out and onfire with his mind before you could pull your gun," George said with a wry smile. "And he can also make your presence at the party legitimate, so deal with him."
Ahote sighed and looked to Norton, who didn't seem to care either way about the exchange.
"Great. Talk to him about the details."
Ahote grumbled to himself as he returned down the halls and lift to the lobby with Norton by his side. The dwarf wasn't much of a talker, Ahote didn't mind since it gave him time and quiet to grumble in. Half a dozen doctors and nurses recoiled as they passed, a few exchanged comments in Sperethial, and the front door seemed to open faster than usual as if wanting them to leave. Out there in the fog and sleet, swaying side to side and turning his head on a swivel, was that damn keebler lawman.
"Oliver," Norton called.
He turned, brow raised, and saw Norton standing there stiff and Ahote crossing his arms.
"Hey, you talk to the boss?" he responded.
"Yeah," Ahote said. "Says you're a boy tonight?"
"That's right. Officially, you're my assistants on lookout tonight, but as the boss probably already told you, some things might be going on off the record."
"We got it," Ahote nodded. "Just tell us what to do."
Lone Star had security set up around the event the next night, moving like clockwork with orange and white uniforms, complete with concealed Ares Predator Vs. The ambulance-way was taken up by limousines, much to Ahote's annoyance, and portable chain-link fences were deployed around the surrounding horseshoe parking lot to section off guest parking zones, a security lot, and a red-carpet path into the redone lobby. Crowds of young boys and girls wearing suits a size too big were crowding the fence line, asking questions and snapping pictures, held back by Lone Star security. Norton sat in a mesh of wires, portable matrix repeater towers, and daisy-chained cyberterminals hooked up to a central deck which sat spread across his lap, with a cable running up to his data-jack on his temple. He traced connections between Fly-Spies, quadcopter Roto-Drones, and other forms of overhead news bots that he had to warn off, then hack and reroute to source if they didn't comply; they were lucky Norton didn't just brick them and let the hunk of metal and plastic fall to the ground. Ahote, wearing his usual working clothes since there wasn't time to fetch him a proper Lone Star uniform in Ingentis sizes, stood at the mouth of the VIP entrance fence, where a red-carpet ran into the first class parking. People left their limos in the ambulance path to be seen, then sauntered around to the actual VIP entrance. A few people had the restraint to just park there and walk in like normal people. Wide eyes, clutched pearls, side glances, and shielded purses met him in rapid succession, often made worse when he had to scan people up and down before and during a manual pat down. Not to mention how many people assumed their VIP status without having a VIP invitation, and the shouting thrown at him before he pushed them out of the line.
Ahote sighed as people in identical high-end suits and varied exotic dresses still poured in an hour later in a battle to see who could be the most fashionably late to someone else's event and steal the show. All of the posturing and peacocking drew increasing levels of contempt from him with each faux-glamour model strolling up in tightly wrapped curves and enough glop on their face to obscure their true features. Amidst the seemingly endless string of human and elf socialites and business tycoons, Ahote entered a sort of zen state inside his own mind while he mechanically executed his set task. He chimed into the local security chat to see that Hampton was meeting with various backers, sponsors, shareholders, and Ghost-knows-who-else. It seemed this blonde German elf chick was the guest of honor, although he couldn't pay attention to what they were saying without slipping up in his job. His zen state was broken by the surprising addition of a dwarven man in the line of guests. The dwarf wore another tux, as did his pair of ork bodyguards with extensive cybernetics and the licenses to go with them. Three women appeared to be members of his entourage, an elf in a glistening red dress, and two human women in sequin dresses.
"Hm...sir, they all with you?" Ahote asked while putting up a hand for them to stop.
The dwarf nodded.
"My wife, her girlfriends, and my security; they left their boomsticks in the limo."
"Right. Still, gotta check you all," he said while initiating the scan and holding out a hand for their VIP invitation.
"Hm? Oh, yes. Ahem," he said while holding out a hand up and out to the elven woman.
The woman smiled and handed him a pass, then seemed to regard Ahote with a smirk.
"Here you go, sir," he handed over the pass, then submit to a frisk.
Ahote found nothing on him, no guns or 'ware, and let him through. Next was the elf woman in red, again no weapons or 'ware, and she kept that smirk on her face as he ran his hands up and down her sides. He wondered if she was enjoying it. Nothing came up wrong, she went through. The next one up was one of the elf's 'girlfriends', an oriental woman in a black sequin dress with a cut side and fishnet stockings. She smiled, although not like the elf did, hers was more of a genuine smile, as if she was happy to be here. Or, if she was enjoying Ahote patting her down, she seemed more cute than lascivious about it. When he was about to pass her through, he realized something: he recognized that smile. The deep brown eyes, the burgundy lips, the slender, sensual build, the short, wavy black hair, it came to him then that he was patting down a familiar actress.
"Hey...Shui Wu? That you?" he asked, his brows shooting upwards.
"Yeah, figured my sister and I would join our friend here," she said while shooting a thumb over to the identical human woman in a blue sequin dress of the same style as hers. "That's Gum Wu."
"Oh, wow," he mumbled like an idiot as his eyes went between the two of them. "I uh...didn't know this was that big of deal meetin'. I uh, I liked your role in Neil the Ork Barbarian. The Red Sorceress is great."
He couldn't believe he was babbling like a fanboy, but it's not everyday some nobody like him got to meet one of his favorite actresses. He wasn't as hot on Gum Wu's music, but it wasn't bad either. Punk rock is punk rock, and he'd take Gum Wu's stuff over the drek Orxploitation rap endlessly marketed towards him. He wished he could get his hands on the twenty-ninth season of Neil the Ork Barbarian and get her autograph.
"Aw, thanks," she replied with a smile warm enough to melt his chrome. "Always nice to meet a fan."
Shui looked at the dwarf host and pat him on the shoulder.
"Hey, why don't you guys go in ahead of us? Gum and I will be right behind you."
The dwarf nodded and sauntered in with his elvish wife and ork guards. Shui and Gum stayed with Ahote, hands on their hips.
"My sister and I don't really care for parties like this. We were just here for the free champagne, and there's plenty of that in the limo; why don't you join us? I like spending time with my fans."
Oliver strolled around the interior halls of the hospital's first floor, glancing over the guests with his third eye. The lobby made him sick, greed and violence emanating from them in angry oranges and reds, all masked beneath a yellow blanket of fear and envy. A shallow cloud of hot pink came from one of the unisex restrooms, although the two inside weren't a threat. The only other awakened he spotted came in the form of another Lone Star astral specialist several floors above him, overseeing the meeting between Hampton and the German elf. Oliver kept a hand on a guide-basilisk while his vision was in the astral, although he switched back and held Murray still when confronted by a drunken guest asking for directions. Murray hissed, although scratching the bottom of his neck helped calm him down. Then, as Oliver was about to switch back to astral vision, Murray's gaze snapped towards the reception desk. A shift back into the astral revealed two figures of red and a golden orb going beyond the designated guest area.
Murray led Oliver down the halls to the off-limits treatment area as he kept his perception affixed to the astral. As he got closer, he began to notice splotches of grey on the red, marks of extensive cybernetics. He focused on the gold orb, roughly at chest level, on what appeared to be a mundane aura. That was when he realized something: she might appear normal, but she forgot to hide a focus. The color, pattern, and sensation he felt when staring at it let him know it was an amulet that granted the wearing magician enhanced illusory abilities. Given their proximity to the west entrance, he began to worry about Ahote.
Oliver rounded the corner to the operating area they were in and closed his astral eye. He saw there an elvish woman in red, wearing the focus amulet around her neck, two orks in suits with shifting hunks of metal in their hands that were transforming into shotguns or rifles of some description, and a dwarf that seemed to be fiddling with a commlink. They turned to look at him, the elf opened her mouth, Oliver let Murray run, and he chucked out a manaball far ahead of his basilisk at the four while sending an alert to the local security chat. The four recoiled with the blast of ghostly energy striking them, the dwarf keeled over and began vomiting blood before collapsing, one of the two ork's chest popped and blood, as well as shredded organ tissue, began pooling up around him on the floor. The second ork fell against a gurney but seemed to suffer only a nosebleed, the elf hurled a bolt of flame at Oliver before Murray pounced her. A second expelling of ghostly mana erupted from Oliver's hand shortly after the first, although this one was focused, targeting the ork alone. A grunt of pain and clutching of his chest heralded the ork sliding down the wall onto his hoop, and falling over onto his side. Murray turned the screaming elf woman into a chew toy as Oliver suddenly leaned against the wall, slowly easing himself onto his knees as a sudden depressurization hit behind his eyeballs. He felt dizzy, cold, his vision lost color, like giving too much blood at a drive, and struggled to regulate his breathing. The sector was locked down quietly, and LS agents rushed in to detain the woman and get Oliver away.
Ahote sunk into the leather of the limo's wraparound seat, half asleep from the combined efforts of the Wu sisters and three bottles of pathetically weak champagne. Shui slept under his arm, head on his chest, and Gum laid across the seat with her head on his thigh. Empty glasses, bottles, and their clothes laid in a pile on the floor of the limo. Gum Wu's punk music played low through the surrounding network of speakers; Ahote couldn't understand a word of Cantonese, but he enjoyed the tune. His head fell back onto the leather support, and he closed his eyes, then a freezing rush of wind and snow assaulted him from the right. He recoiled, as did the two women, from the sudden influx of light and chill from beside them. Ahote blinked his eyes to clarity and saw Oliver leaning in, shaking his head.
"Damnit, Ahote...we've been looking for you for three hours."
Ahote's eyes took a while to adjust, and he reached down for the dresses to help the ladies preserve their dignity.
"Whoa, three hours? What the...I haven't been here that long."
"Ahote, it's almost one in the morning. We had an incident. I thought you got geeked."
Ahote rubbed his eyes while feeling around for his vendingwear trousers, then pulled them on haphazardly in the relatively cramped interior of the limo.
"Ah, drek...please tell me nothin' bad happened."
"No, it's fine. I detained the people inside, Norton traced an attempted hacker a few blocks from here, and we rounded them all up. What the hell have you been doing?"
"Uh...I uh...well, Shui Wu here and I...um…"
Oliver raised a brow and looked in at the two women getting dressed, an emaciated black woman and a ginger ork, both looking like they worked corners around Renton. Then he smiled.
"I see. Well, it's not everyday you get to bang Shui Wu and...who's the other one? I don't know my celebrities very well."
"Gum, her sister. They uh...look, Oli, George can't know about this, alright? I don't want him thinking-"
Oliver put up a hand.
"Don't worry, Ahote," he chuckled. "I'll just tell the boss you got tangled up by a spell. One of the intruders was awakened."
"Oh, thanks man," he grunted while stepping out into the cold, hoping to shock himself awake as he pulled on the rest of his clothes. "Is...the party over?"
"Yeah, we're just cleaning house with Fratelli's hired hitmen. Let us do our job, and you'll get your pay tomorrow...er...later today."