Firebase Seattle

A/N: Inspiration for this came from LordsFire's Dungeon Crawling in Chicago, et. al., and I thought I'd take a shot at it, if nothing else to get it to stop bothering me. I think everyone tries this kind of story, and also wants to share some of their gaming expreiences. Parts are autobiographical; it's up to you to figure out which. ;) No copyright infringement (if any) is intended. I'm just having fun here.

Chapter 1 – Restless Spirits

If I get out of this, I'll swear on a stack of GURPS books that I'll never read the Dungeon Master's Guide PDF right after visiting a fanfic site, both just before bed. Maybe that's why I'm here; I immunized myself against two of my favorites. Right. Who am I kidding? I don't have a freakin' clue. Right now I'm sitting on a dirt floor, looking at Daniel Howling Coyote and wondering how I got here.

Maybe I'd better back up and start over.

(((())))

I woke up with a knot in my back, wondering what I was sleeping on, then rolled over and removed the offending object. It was a rock the size of my fist. I looked at it blearily, wondering how it got there, when I noticed how quiet it was, followed by the damp, rocky smell I recognized from caves or mines I'd explored as a kid in Arizona. I sat up and wondered where I was, then how and why I was fully dressed. As I woke up more, I asked the only question available: "What the hell's going on?"

The answering voice was low and soft, but powerful, with an underlying current of distant menace: "You're in the Seattle area. I need a favor."

That's when I looked to see Daniel. It couldn't be anyone else. He looked exactly like the illustrations, right down to the freaky glowing eyes, body paint and headdress. The difference was I was seeing him in living, breathing color and I could feel his presence. As I took in what he'd said, I glanced out the mine's entrance to see the Space Needle just barely peeking over the tops of some arcologies. "You can't be serious," I said as sleep finally let go of me.

"Yes I can, Keith." That made me flinch. Only a few people knew that name, and they were in Orlando. That campaign was also over. I looked down and noticed my hands, which were thinner and finer than usual, my skin a dark tone in the half-light that I knew was close to obsidian; I'd written up Keith Dawson as a "Neo-Drow" Elf for flavor and to separate him from all the other "plain vanilla" Elves. I was wearing jeans, a t-shirt that displayed an animated image of a Great Dragon in flight, boots and a long coat. Everything Dawson wore, at least when not on a run.

I didn't know what was going on, but I had a dark suspicion. "Okay, Mister Coleman, you want to explain?" That earned me a scowl, which convinced me I wasn't dreaming, along with the sudden oppressive feel to the atmosphere. He stopped, then smiled ever so slightly.

"Fair enough," he said. "Things aren't going too well for Blackwolf and company. He's dead. I felt him get shot. If I understand a few things, nothing's supposed without you. Heinlein's World-As-Myth, and all that. Someone changed something, and it's not supposed to work that way."

"Speaking of dead," I pointed out.

"We're on the Borderlands, Todd. Anything can happen here, but it doesn't have any effect outside of this place. Not until you go out there and find out who's messing around with things they don't understand. You and your friends are the only ones who can make this world go, or so it should be. If they keep it up … well, things could get ugly," he said, nodding outside.

The fact he'd pointed out a few things I held as almost-truths made me think over what he'd said carefully, and take it seriously, and, well, we're all very possessive about our characters. Keith was one of my real successes; he'd not only survived everything thrown at him from the back-story the GM and I had worked out and the campaign, he'd gotten back what he'd lost, and I knew he'd never give it up again.

A brief aside: If they're honest, anyone will admit they put a lot of themselves into any characters they create, regardless of the genre. If you're really into them, losing one is like losing a piece of yourself. When they die, part of you dies. If that doesn't happen, as far as I'm concerned, you didn't really care about them; you're just another stats-on-paper Warcrack-type player who cares more about the pluses than the whole, and you're a waste of time. Don't like that? Deal with it. There are plenty more like me in gaming, and I go back to AD&D 1st Edition. Warts and all.

Anyway, I was still coming to terms with what Howling Coyote was telling me, and I realized I was upset, and getting pissed. Nobody does this to me, I thought, and I wasn't sure it was just me; I thought I heard an echo. I shook my head and thought, Fine. Someone wants to play. Let's let the Wolf out.

"Good," Daniel said. "I can see the fire. Let it burn." As he spoke, I saw glowing words off to the side of my vision: New Build or Restore? I understood, and concentrated on Restore. It flashed, then a list scrolled by almost too fast to see, but I recognized it all as Blackwolf, including the last things he'd picked up: Kung Fu and two maneuvers from Arsenal. Confirm? blinked in my vision, and I murmured "Confirmed."

It was painful. Keith had serious Alphaware augmentations, including bone lacing, muscle replacement, cybereyes and -ears, reaction enhancers, smartlink and hand spurs, and that's only half the finished list. The only thing that kept me from breaking down was the High Pain Tolerance Quality hit me first. It was bad. Imagine feeling yourself being unraveled and re-built in a little over ten minutes. I understood how Wolverine felt when they'd worked on him.

Build Restored flashed briefly, then another list topped by Resources passed. I recognized all of Blackwolf's weapons, gear, vehicles and the living space he'd converted over from an old shopping center across from MinuteMan Mechanics' Seattle (Redmond, actually) headquarters. I noted he'd finished the list I'd compiled, and felt a little better. At least I wasn't going into completely unknown territory.

That made me pause. Naomi, Jessica, Ms M and Hestaby. Any one of them might notice something, and I didn't know if I could carry off impersonating Blackwolf. There were still things that hadn't been resolved, and I didn't know if they were a factor. I looked at Howling Coyote, trying and failing to put it into words.

"If they notice, you owe them an explanation, but they will definitely notice you're back from the dead, Keith. It's been two weeks, and they just heard. You need to get there and claim what's yours, before the two-legged scavengers find what's left. Time to pick up your life and put it back together, omae."

"What about when I finish?" I knew from similar fanfics I'd read that I might get pushed on to something else. I was familiar with Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Moorcock's Eternal Champion: When he was finished, he moved on to another challenge. Well, pushed, in John's case. I didn't want that, but it was a possibility.

Daniel considered that, his eyes taking on an interesting opalescence as he thought. "I don't know. You might have to go on alone; you might have companions. I'm new to this hero stuff, too, if you think about it and it's not easy being a Messiah, either." I snorted at that one; a friend had taken that path to its logical extremes, by his own admission. "Now you know. I don't think you'll be pushed, but you won't have complete control. It's kind of a rule, but how can you be sure of anything?"

"Okay, I'm about as ready as I'm going to be," I said as I tested my cyberware interfaces and function. The spurs made me grin. Let's go, rookie! Daniel began to chant, and I felt the hair along the back of my neck and spine stand on end. Then there was a swirling at the mine entrance, and he said, "Go, Wolf. Time to hunt." I stepped forward...

(((())))

I stopped when gravel crunched under my boots, and I smelled the stench of rotting metahuman flesh. I looked to see an undamaged Thundercloud Contrail lying on its side near a barely-recognizable corpse, but I knew what he looked like. I'd web-searched for an image that fit the look I wanted, and ended up with Drizzt. I still don't know a lot about him, other than he's a real bad-ass, which was the look I wanted. Someone you wouldn't mess with when you saw him, unless you had back-up. If you want to be left alone in the Sixth World, you needed that edge, and more.

I stopped wool-gathering and walked over to the mess, shutting down the olfactory booster while boosting the hearing range. I took as close a look as I dared, but it was obvious what had happened. He took a large-caliber round to the body, apparently while answering his commlink. I looked around, noticed an impact crater, then gathered all the gear on the body. I stopped briefly when I removed the wedding ring, then put it on. I didn't really have much choice. I checked the 'link, and stared when it displayed the date: June 29, 2074. Shit, even Street Legends was old news here. I shook myself and continued. I'd figure it out later.

It didn't bother me as much as I thought it would. I guess the difference was instead of impersonating Keith, I had become Keith, and he was a hard dude. As I worked I was cataloging the scene in ways I'd never heard of. The funny thing was, Dawson wasn't Lone Star or Knight Errant, but Ares Corporate Security, specializing in Extraction, Security and Counter-Terrorism. I had to stop and think about that. According to other background, TerraFirst! had made more than a few threats at one point, and Ares had capitalized on that. I wonder if this time they'd actually done the job. Well, that was one thing I had to find out. After I finished with the body, I searched for and retrieved the assault cannon slug – Ares Vigorous, by the type – and quickly dug a shallow grave with my spurs; I could sharpen them later. I had to make it look as though Keith Dawson had pulled a Lazarus, but leave no evidence to prove it one way or another. I – and he – had to be a ghost that wouldn't be laid to rest. I smiled grimly at that. "Looks like I get to be the Ghost of Puyallup, too." I stood the bike up, started it and rode south, wondering what I'd find, and why Keith had gone out unarmed. Completely out of character.

I rode up the lane, passing half-familiar buildings before I reached the two that mattered most: 3M HQ, Seattle, and … home. I wasn't looking forward to this. I knew how to act, but Naomi wasn't as clear to me as Keith. I'd done a good background, but never played her; she'd been under GM control, so I didn't have a real feel for her, and there wasn't as much emotional attachment. The same for Jessica, who until the real introduction, I'd only known as Shizuke, and that had been barely a month before. It all came together at once, when I found out Jessica-Shizuke was "Mrs J", one of our Johnsons. Nice twist, eh? One of the GM's better ones.

I stopped in front of the roll-up door and keyed it with my commlink. It opened as it should have, but I'll bet it sent up a red flag or three. I rode in, closed the door and hit the lights, looking around as I checked the security status with a single screen-swipe. These commlinks were ridiculously easy to use. They made an iPhone seem crippled, like DOS on an Intel 8086 versus Unix on a Motorola 68000. I shrugged that off. The argument was long since dead in this here and now, and I had other things to worry about.

A place feels empty when it is; it feels different when someone lives there, but is out. This one had the latter. I wondered if Naomi was staying with Jessica, or was only out for the evening. I didn't bother to think about it. I walked over to the weapons locker and looked at it speculatively. Keith always carried two Predators, regardless of the situation, unless no guns was specified. One reason for the Alphaware augmentations. Can't remove bone lacing easily, chummer.

I took the Preds down and slipped into the shoulder holsters, then pocketed the Yamaha Pulsar as usual. Shock gloves in the opposite pocket. 'Link in the left upper inside coat pocket. I decided to take the Alpha this time; I might need the heavy punch. As I activated the smartgun links, I noticed something else: Unspent Karma: 20 hung to my right. It made sense. That last run must was serious, but it was assumed we'd collect when the next started. It hadn't to date. And so I improved a few skills.

Let's see, Languages are fine. Heavy Weapons needed improvement, so I bought Rating 2 there. Sixteen points remaining. I really wanted to improve a few Skill Groups, but there was just no way. The cost was outrageous. So I bought Etiquette and Intimidation at Rating 1, increased Climbing and Gymnastics to Rating 2, and that was it. As always, 2 Karma = 1 Build Point, and even four hundred BP can seem like too little. As always, you agonize over what you'd like against what you need, and then stop crying like a baby and get on with it. No, I'm not kidding. Every build session seems to go that way. Anyway, improvements were done. Now for the fun part. I had to see if anyone was at 3M, and if they had a good-sized Willpower dice pool.

I let myself out the people door and crossed the street, as always sweeping the shadows for watchers who didn't belong. I wasn't worried. My improvements brought my Gymnastics and Climbing to 10, including the Balance Augmenter. My combat skills were still good, solid tens and twelves, not including specializations. I was in top condition, and Blackwolf was no push-over. He was, if I do say so myself, an urban predator. Maybe not the fastest, strongest or toughest, but no character of mine backs off unless death is the alternative. Like John, when I fight (at least in gaming), it's all or nothing. To hell with Fate, I make my own luck. So far I'm averaging slightly above a seventy percent survival rate; I guess I'm getting smarter. If not, my new social skills (yeah, right) should let me talk down or bluff any slots that decided to give me trouble.

I walked across to the L-shaped building, glanced up and down the street again, and knocked. Well, what really happened was the door was yanked open from inside, and I saw the very unfriendly-looking business end of a half-dozen gun barrels. I wasn't really surprised. Henry was paranoid, and that's actually a good trait for a hacker. He'd have been watching after Blackwolf vanished. I looked up slightly to see Ian Dalton and Hugo Alejo looking at me suspiciously over paired Savalette Guardians. Flanking them were Zelda D'Moffiti and Sophia Norris – each holding a Predator – while Rydia Kallenberg – yet another of Damien Knight's illegitimate children – looked at me with the oddest expression.

I wondered why Sophia was here. Last I knew, she'd returned to Mars. Whatever brought her back had to be important. I felt a twinge at not seeing Daphne, our resident half-mad Immortal Elf. She was loopy, but you could always count on her. Of course, if I didn't want to join her in the Great Beyond, I had to focus on the really horrible Dodge chance I had right now. Guardians are Burst-fire weapons, and I'm pretty sure the Adepts hadn't stopped practicing just because we were "retired".

I put up my hands and said, "Now this is a warn welcome. Not." The guys blinked as though they'd expected me to half-groan Braaaaaaiiinns; Sophia giggled in spite of herself, while Zelda – always the Media-type – started recording. I looked at Rydia, and she still seemed to be unsure of what she was looking at. Considering she was blind and had other senses to use, I guess that was a common thing for her. Sophia looked at me intently, and I knew what that meant. Our Changeling Technomancer was taking a good look at my cyberware and comparing it to what she remembered.

Meantime, Henry was rolled out from a back room by a pair of 3M operatives; he was in VR, I think. He laid still on the gurney for a few more seconds, then reached up and pulled off the dark shades as he sat up. He looked at me, then glanced at an AR window, then shrugged. "If it's not him, it's a very good copy," he said.

"He's still mostly dead," Hugo added. I rolled my eyes at the tired old joke.

Sophia walked within arms' reach, then smiled. "It's him. I'd remember that PAN anywhere." Rydia stopped at her side and added, "I'd recognize that aura – what there is of it – anywhere, too."

Ian and Hugo lowered their weapons. "What the hell? We just heard you'd been killed. Naomi and Jessica went out to check."

A thought hit and I keyed my commlink. The perfect way to get Naomi would be just like that. When she answered I only said, "Back to the barn, Cat. I'll explain." She looked at my image, then said a tentative "Okay." I keyed off and sat down. "Where's the Dragon Lady?" I asked.

"Ms M's not here. She's still in Boston," Sophia answered before hugging me tightly. "I'm glad you're all right, Blackwolf."

"But I'm not. That's what I've got to tell Naomi and a few other people," I replied. I handed her my guns, and their eyes went wide. I understood why. It was completely out of character.

(((())))

We waited until Naomi and Jessica returned, and I was immediately swarmed by them. I took a few minutes to soothe them, then looked up as the rest of Majestic came in. I was surprised to see Joseph Fox. I thought he was gone for good after leaving due to a personal moral crisis. It was strange seeing Danny standing next to him; both were the same guy behind the scenes. Gillian was there, too. "Super Joe" was thankfully absent.

Ian and Hugo finally stopped looking at me like I had two heads, and Dalton said, "Well, what gives?"

"You're gonna have a hard time wrapping your heads around this," I said, then launched into the explanation of how I was here. That needed more background, too. Most of them sat in the chairs at the conference table with dazed, confused and disbelieving expressions, but Rydia and Gillian nodded every now and then. I finally wrapped up and fell silent, trying to think. Something was bothering me, and I couldn't nail it down.

"Well, you're dead twice over," Hugo said. "Did you see anyone we know?"

"No, and you're asking the wrong guy. Like I said, the last thing I remember before waking up with a rock in my back was drifting off as Stealer's Wheel was playing." I sighed. "You'd better believe I wish Snowfire, Galileo and Daphne were here. We might need them."

Rydia was looking at me intently, then said, "That's what's missing. Where's Spiritkiller?"

Spiritkiller was a magical dagger I'd inherited from Dunkelzahn back in late '69. I didn't know how to use it properly until Galileo showed me, but I'd learned it was able to harm spirits when other weapons couldn't. It was a good weapon, and had saved my hoop when we ended up in Colonial America. I still don't really believe that happened, even now.

"I don't know. It wasn't at the scene, and wasn't in the locker." I thought a moment, then remembered Spiritkiller was the one weapon Keith never let out of his sight, once he – I had figured it out.

"Someone killed you just for that?" Naomi said, finally. She'd stayed quiet during the discussion. "Why?"

"It's a potent weapon," Rydia answered. "Anything that affects spirits is rare, and valuable. It would make one hell of a weapon focus."

"The problem with that is only a few people knew about it," Ian said. "Us, Ms M, and Hestaby, right?" I nodded. "So who else knew?"

"Aina Dupree, if I remember correctly, but she's dead," Henry replied. "Perhaps more in the Draco Foundation, but I can't see them going against Dunkelzahn's wishes. Some people still think he's alive, somewhere."

"Well, that really sucks," Sophia said. "What can we do?"

"I don't know, but I can find out," Kallenberg replied.

While that was going on, I had my commlink out and was viewing the last messages. I didn't see anything, and I wonder if someone had erased them via the Matrix. It was theoretically possible. I handed it over to Henry. "Check it over. Public stuff only, or I'll show you my version of hacking." I deployed one spur for emphasis.

"Who's going to tell the dragons?" Fox asked. "They'll want to know."

Everyone looked at me, and I said, "Jessica can tell Ms M. I'm sure you have channels nobody can snoop into." My daughter grinned evilly and her eyes went blank. She was already in the Matrix. "I'll tell Hestaby, if she doesn't hear on her own. I don't think she'll talk to anyone else, if she's taking this the way I think she is."

"I thought it wasn't that kind of relationship," Naomi said.

"Even teachers take it hard when they lose students," I answered. "I still blame myself for Johnson, Barrett and Danvers."

"That's ancient history," Hugo replied with a grin, which he dropped when I looked at him. "Okay, sorry. We can't do anything until we learn more, and I don't think we have any idea where to start." He pointed at the spent assault cannon round. "Those aren't everywhere, but even Super Joe has one. No way to trace, right?"

"Probably not," Zelda said. "I'm willing to bet the RFID's fried, if there is one. It's not hard to do."

I nodded. Even though I'd come out of sleep, I was tired. I guess I'd adjusted to the Sixth World, and it was making itself felt. "I'm gonna crash. I'm tired, and I don't know why, and we'll make more sense out of this after we get some rest." Jessica came out of VR, and I said, "Tell me tomorrow. One disaster at a time, scan?"

Jessica nodded and hugged me. "Good to have you back, dad, whoever you might be." She looked at me steadily, then said, "I can't tell the difference. I guess it doesn't matter." She didn't see her mother glance my way as she stood up. "I'll see you tomorrow." She walked upstairs. I guess someone finally converted part of the offices into living space, and it made sense for Jessica to stay here.

Everyone began to leave, except for Fox, Cheney and Gillian. HQ had crash space, which had been used when we first came in and took the area over four years ago. After a while, Naomi and I were alone. "Are you okay?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said, hugging herself. "Too much, too soon and all at once." She looked at me and added, "I don't know what to think, about anything." She sighed and stood up. "We can continue this at home."

I nodded and stood up, slinging my rifle as I did. "I won't push you, koishii. If you want, I'll stay away."

"No, I want you with me. I'm not taking my eyes off you if I can help it. I don't want to lose you again."

I leaned down and kissed her. "Neither do I. I went through too much. We went through too much. Just tell me if you're uncomfortable or weirded-out, okay?"

She smiled. "Deal."

(((())))

I woke up the next morning feeling much better. Being in a bed and not on a cave floor had a lot to do with it, but having Naomi beside me was most of it. I looked at her as she slept, wondering – as Keith had – how I could be so lucky to have her with me. I could have ended up who knows where in Seattle, and much worse off. So I just slid up against the headboard and watched her for a while.

A rumble of thunder made me look up, and Naomi woke with a start, then saw me, smiled and relaxed. "Good morning."

"What time is it?" she asked. She was cybered for decking, but she had a smartlink as well. Neither had a time display, and I mentally keyed mine active.

"Just before dawn. Nobody's awake, if they have any sense," I replied with a grin. Naomi looked at me with mischief in her eyes, the kind I recognized. "Are you sure?" She licked her lips meaningfully. "Well, who am I to say no?"

No, I'm not going to tell you anything. You should be able to figure it out.

(((())))

A few hours later, I was making breakfast as Naomi checked her commlink, then dove into the Matrix. Even though I knew what went on in there, I still shivered. Two Crashes had made me wary, especially after the stories that came out both times.

More background. Keith was born in Tacoma in 1997, and this Timeline was different, as the GM had made up his own. It closely paralleled the canon version, but he'd added his own twists. The key events – other than the Awakening coming in 2012 – were still where and what they really were, but some side issues were different.

What that means is Ares formed Union Colony on Mars, instead of Yamatetsu/Evo. That's where Sophia was born. She was a Changeling, resembling an anime cat-girl. Good and bad. She was a sweet kid, but you opened a can of whoop-ass on yourself if you gave her grief around us. We'd rescued her on our very first run, and never regretted it. I think she was the reason Snowfire stayed with us. Ghost knows we're not going to win Miss Congeniality.

Snowfire was young a white dragon who had been captured and worked-over by a black Ares CalFree cyberlab. I still don't know how they managed to get the 'ware to take. I'd pulled him out of a storage tube in a hidden Ares lab not too far from Glow City, and talked him into joining Majestic. I can't get the image out of my head of him and the girls playing strip poker, with Rydia winning. Again. I still can't believe he bought it at the end of that last run. It wasn't fraggin' fair.

While Naomi was busy, I set her breakfast at her elbow, and she smiled and reached for it, and ate while she did her work. She'd been a hot programmer and decker when we met, and she'd only gotten better with time. She stayed in, and I moved out into the work space, looking it over and making sure of what was there. Weapons, electronics and vehicle shops where I'd placed them, on paper. Shooting line at one end of the building, targets at the other. Open space that wasn't yet filled, and would be used once I developed the skills. The best part was I did some of the work on 3M vehicles and weapons, so we didn't have to worry about problems if and when someone found out who did our work. Some people didn't like us, mostly because we kept order by giving the local gangers something to worry about besides each other. It worked well, and the area had started to come back a little, but not enough for the 'Plex honchos to notice. It was fairly safe, relatively quiet, and people left you to your biz, mostly. Not too bad a place to live, given the alternatives.

I spent a few minutes straightening up, then started practicing unarmed combat. This is still Seattle in 2074, and nothing stays still. Weird things keep happening, the Megas keep scheming, and there are still the dragons. I paused half-way through my work-out when the door sensor chimed. I couldn't check it – Henry still had my 'link – but Naomi could. She keyed the door, and speak of the devil, there was Camberlane, looking around with interest. He spotted me and held up my link, and said, "Did you know this place doesn't show much on the Matrix?"

"That's one reason I picked it," I answered as I reached into the refrigerator I kept in the main area and took out two beers, trading him one for my 'link. "What did you find?"

"Thank someone the Matrix never forgets," he said as he took a sip. He was never much of a drinker, and most hackers preferred to stay sharp. "I was able to trace and recover all but one message. Whoever sent that one is good," he said, which had my attention. Henry and Naomi are on par, but she's got time and experience on her side, while Henry has pure raw talent and "mad skillz" on his. If we ever had them both after some one … well, I wouldn't want to be them. "No trace past the final mesh node, and that was a fraggin' toaster," he said with disdain.

"Hey, you cover Matrix dead zones any way you can," I replied. "Any rumors about Spiritkiller? Something like that can't stay out of sight. Someone will ask, or someone is selling."

"That's if whoever wanted it wasn't the one who had you shot." He looked at me frankly. "Are you really okay? I mean, when you told us about being blown up, that was shocking. Now you got killed again. That can't be good."

I grinned, and the fact my cybereyes look just like my old ones – a freaky milky-blue – didn't help as I said, "Not planning to go fuck-nuts just yet." Camberlane flinched, and I chuckled, then sobered. "I don't know. Just like the last time, I don't really remember it. I'm not going to let it bother me," I said as I used my 'link to re-trace the cannon shell's originating point. Based on the angle and trajectory, someone had made a difficult shot at extreme range, which is over a kilometer for an assault cannon. I'd been taken out by someone better than me, and I didn't know why, a situation I really don't like. If someone shoots at me, I'd like to have some idea why he's pissed-off.

Henry glanced around, then asked, "Do you remember about Sophia?"

"What we learned from Chang, sure. Anything beyond that, no. Like I told you, I'm the guy who pulled the strings from off-stage."

Camberlane gave me a look, then said, "She was on her way to Mars and didn't find out until after she got there her mother had been transferred back to Earth. She came back as soon as she could – "

"Lemme guess: Mom was back on Mars, or on her way there," I cut in. He nodded and I shook my head. "Figures. Some slot's playing with us. Seems they've been playing with us from day one. Is Spencer still locked up?"

"Oh, yeah, he's got life with no parole, and he's not where Ares can touch him. That doesn't mean someone in his little group isn't out fraggin' us over," Henry replied sourly.

Something I have to point out: During play, none one used Sprawl slang or lingo. It never occurred to us. Another thing is every one of Majestic had been fragged over by Ares in some way. Nobody was sure if it was all the same slot, or several. We never found out, and at the end, it didn't seem to matter, because Spencer was the obvious choice. Now I wasn't so sure about that. I still hope Joan Clark is roasting in some fresh hell made just for her. She'd known who'd done for us, but wouldn't tell. Now we might never know. Yeah, I know, welcome to the Sixth World, chummer. Something was different, and I wondered if someone hadn't found something and was playing it his way. Maybe that explained the high Karma award. I'd find out, one way or another.

After Henry finished and sipped his beer, Naomi came out of VR and said, "We're going to have company. Ms M will be here tonight, straight in from Boston."

"Great. What else?" I groused.

"Hestaby called, and I gave her some of the story. I think she's on her way now; she cut off suddenly."

"I still can't get over how you know her," Henry said. "Most people would be boasting, but you kept quiet. Why?"

"Who'd have believed it, Henry? Hell, sometimes I don't. It's nobody's biz but mine and hers. She preferred it that way."

"Well, you might want to get ready for the questions you know are going to be coming," Naomi said. "I picked up something from the Draco Foundation digging into Majestic, too. Why?"

"It's no secret to them about us," Henry said. "We were in the will. I don't know what else, unless..." he trailed off, thinking.

"It's no real news that Nadja's back," I said. "I didn't think she could be caught if she survived the New Revolution fiasco. She's probably the most powerful and wealthy woman in the world, right now, thanks to Dunkelzahn's will. She'd be interested, but I can't think of anything past that. We're not that big shakes. There are other runners out there who've been out there longer, and have bigger reps. We've kept ourselves mostly off the radar. How, I don't know."

"Considering Super Joe and Snowfire, I'd have to agree," Henry said. "That makes it harder to figure." His 'link chirped, and he said, "Gotta go. Mrs J has me checking a few things. Later."

"Slot and run," I replied as he let himself out. I stood there, looking at the floor, trying to sort everything out, but not doing very well. Like before, there was too much going on.

"What's going on in there?"Naomi asked.

"Not much. I'm just trying to get a grip on it all, and there's just too much," I replied. "It's like – oh, I don't know – trying to listen to something in the middle of a thunderstorm, unaugmented."

Naomi took my arm and leaned against me. "Is it ever going to stop?"

"I don't know. Maybe, but not forever. It's still the Sixth world."

(((())))

The next big surprise came when Hestaby arrived. First there was a loud Thud! as she landed on the roof, then scrabbling as she moved into the alley. I'll have to look into that roof hatch, I guess. Then the door chirped, and the display showed a hand-print with a completely wrong heat signature, along with a human face that wasn't completely right, either. I ok'd her access, and she stumbled through the door, dripping wet and panting. "What the hell, Hest?" I asked, just before she about threw herself on me. I was in a hug I couldn't break, and was still coming to terms with all that as I heard her crying. She bawled into my shoulder like anyone else, and that was totally unlike her, or any dragon. I was wondering if I hadn't gone crazy a few hours ago.

"I'm so glad you're okay," she said haltingly between sobs and sniffles.

Naomi watched, wide-eyed, then said, "I suppose this means your relationship has changed?"

Hestaby smiled, then let go and composed herself. "Sorry, but we're not all as stand-offish as you think. I guess it reminded me of when Dunkelzahn was killed, and I was a wreck after that. I just about adored him." She took a deep breath, and was suddenly dry. "I never said, but when Hamato and I had you re-built, I guess it got to me and I never knew it. All I know right now is I don't want to lose you."

I couldn't help it. "What am I, a dog?" My smile defused the words a little, but she got my point. I could see her trying to figure it out herself and try to put it into words.

Someone once pointed out that Big D and other dragons might be concerned about metahumans, and maybe even like us, but they weren't anything like us. They might as well have been from another planet, for all they had in common with us. I didn't quite buy that, and that comes from what I remembered, as well as what we'd been through. Of all the dragons – including the Greats – Hestaby had been the most approachable and personable, at least until All-Wings semi-revealed herself nearly four years ago. We never knew until that day Ms M was a Great Dragon. And now Hestaby was acting like the human woman she appeared to be in public. I couldn't help myself again: "So this is how it feels to go mad."

Feminine giggling broke the spell. "Okay, I'm better." Hestaby looked at me for a long moment, then said, "Who are you? I see Keith, but the thoughts aren't his, or not exactly." I explained, and she looked at me for a long, quiet time. "I can just see it. Howling Coyote brought you here? I don't see how. He's dead."

"Weren't you listening?"

"I was, but I can't accept that. Metahumans leave this plane when they die, except as E-ghosts, and I'm not going there. So do we."

"Then explain Lethe," I said. Hestaby looked at me for another long moment. "Look, I know it sounds like I'm hosed, but come on. Sometimes I talk about things only Keith's grandfather could have known about like I was there, and I was, in some cases. The problem is, this timeline's different from 'real life', and from what's supposedly correct. In gaming, we interpret to suit ourselves. It's the only theory I've got, and it sounds crazy, but I think I'm stuck in someone's game, and have to follow their rules. All I can do is play it by ear." Hestaby smiled, and I replied, "Yeah, I'm a Elf, I can't do anything else."

Naomi brought Hestaby some coffee – still real food, as none of us could stand soy – and sat her at the table. She sat beside the dragon and looked into the distance. "Even if it's all true, that doesn't change anything. Someone's playing rough, and we have to find out who and why. You've got Henry checking where he can, and I'll connect with some old contacts from my Fuchi days, but what about you? I thought you had a few when we met, but you never talked to them that I saw."

"They thought I was dead, and if I do, I might get them killed," I answered. "Well, I can think of three, but they're not happy with me. You're one reason, Naomi. My old team, what's left of it." I stopped and flipped through the directory on my 'link and found the names, then set up a text message and sent it: "We need to talk." I looked at the table, then dropped into AR as I accessed and logged into JackPoint. "This may take a while," I said as the opening screen appeared. I turned my ears' sensitivity down and paid attention.

I got FastJack in nothing flat. He looked at me as though he was seeing things, but only said, "What the hell, 'Wolf? Word is you're dead, but here you are. What the frag?"

I explained again, then said, "You might boil that down into something better and check with the Awakened, 'Jack. All I know is what I went through, and no one I've told seems to believe it. Oh, yeah, what was the final count? Who'd we lose after the ACHE mess?"

"No word from Turbo Bunny since then, but that doesn't mean anything. We thought she was dead after she got hooked on BTLs, but she re-appeared a few months later, and she was clean. NetCat and Slamm-O! are gone, but they're raising a kid and promised they'd be back. The only ones we haven't heard from – other than Fatima – are Blackrazor and MirrorSoul."

"Those last two I don't know. What happened to Fatima, 'Jack? All I know is what Pistons hinted at, and it wasn't much. I must have missed that."

"It's not for me to tell." FastJack's icon rezzed-out briefly, then he asked, "What do you want?" I told him about Spiritkiller disappearing on me, and added, "Mika and Ma'fan might have heard something, but it's only been two weeks." I looked at the log-on status indicator. "I think Elijah and Frosty should know. They hear things along those lines. Maybe a general notice for everyone."

"They won't tell you or bring it back for free," he reminded me needlessly.

"Frag that. I've still got most of a million nuyen. If I have to buy it back, I will. If someone's got it, I'm going to take back what's mine. Big D didn't leave it to them, scan?"

'Jack nodded. "I can do that. Want me to put out a few feelers? See what's on?"

"No, what's going is fine. I want whoever it was to know they missed, and they've got one pissed Wolf on their hoop, if they're not careful. Never mind they shot me, I want what's mine."

I watched as 'Jack looked at me for a while. "I guess it's true. You don't talk like Blackwolf, not really. What do I tell the others?"

"Someone tried to geek me, and they missed. That's the official buzz, 'Jack. I want them to worry while I close in, and I will. I take being killed personally," I finished with a feral grin.

"I bet you do," 'Jack replied ironically. "Okay, chummer, you got it. Word's going out … now, and I'll ask for you."

"Thanks, 'Jack." I forwarded him three hundred nuyen for his trouble. "Catch you later. Got to see a man about a gun." I logged out as he nodded, and I came out of AR to see Naomi and Hestaby watching. "I need another way to get on," I said as I rubbed my chin.

"No way, unless you get wired for it," Naomi replied. "And you used to have nightmares about Crash 2.0, Keith. I don't see that happening."

"It doesn't matter. I'm going to find where I was shot from, and maybe we can find a trace. Magic or mundane, they don't always get it all. I'm going to find who fired the shot, make him sing, then go from there. If this is the past coming at us again, I'm going to stop it. No fraggin' more."

As I said that, I saw +4 Karma appear to the side. I guess I'd done good; it was only two days at most, and a lot of talking, but I reminded myself getting the plot moving counted, at least according to the rules. I let that go. I stood up and moved to the weapons locker, thinking as I looked at what was available. I'd have to get more ammunition if I was going to start hunting, plain and simple. I keyed my 'link again and our usual Fixer/supplier Daniel answered. "Yeah, the buzz is I'm dead. Not true, dude," I said as he looked at me in surprise.

"Ooo-kay. I was wondering what to do with the desktop forge you asked for. I've got a large one, and five hundred kilos of clean feedstock just like you asked, and that wasn't easy to get. You still want it?"

"Bet your hoop I do," I replied. Making modifications without parts isn't easy, but the forge would be a big help. "What's it gonna cost me?" I asked as I called up my balance. I still had over eight hundred fifty thousand nuyen left. I guess Keith's really careful with money.

"All together, three-ninety kay. You still got the truck?" I nodded. "Great. Come in, and we'll go from there." He cut off so abruptly I wondered if he was in on it, but I didn't really believe it. Probably didn't want to be on too long, which made sense after Judith was killed. I looked at the truck, then turned away and began loading magazines for the HVAR, Alpha and Barrett. I didn't think I'd need them, but I never thought I'd be taken out so easily. I thought about loading the MAG-5 Gatlin, but passed. That thing's for fire support and suppression, mostly. I wondered what I was thinking.

Naomi watched, and I knew she didn't like what she was seeing, but also that she understood. I felt like a heel, because I didn't want her to know those messages Henry had recovered came from one of my former team, and I wanted to know why I was set up. Swallow had said they were all working for Spencer, and I didn't think his fall had hurt them very much. Either way, I wanted to know what they knew, or if they were even involved. One nasty truth about the Sixth World is you can never really tell who you're dealing with, even face-to-face. It made for some really paranoid people, and I was rapidly becoming one of them.

Hestaby sat there, watching me, then I heard her real speech, What's happening?

I sub-vocalized, "Wolf's going hunting, H. I've got to do something, or I'll go stir-crazy, and I might as well start looking. If I find anything, I'll tell Henry, and have him tell you."

That's not all of it. I let the accusation hang there. Can I help?

"This is my problem, but you can ask the Foundation if they've heard anything. Just don't be too specific, okay? I don't know Nadja other than by reputation, and she won't bother you with questions. She'll just start digging."

She seemed satisfied with that, and returned to her coffee as the rain began to slacken. I finished my work and said, "I'll be back in a few hours. I'm gonna need Rydia's help."

Naomi stood and intercepted me. "You be careful. I want you back."

"Don't worry. I'm just going to check a few locations and pick up the equipment. If anyone starts anything, we're more than capable of dishing it right back out." She nodded, hugged me and went into the living area. I sighed. "Just once, y'know? I'd like to go a year without being dragged into something." I was remembering Keith's past few years, and they'd been eventful.

"Don't worry about it, or not too much," Hestaby said. "Get going. I'll talk with All-Wings if she gets here first." She paused. "Any ideas who might benefit from this? I can think of a few, but I don't see how they'd pull it off without someone noticing."

"Not a clue. That's what makes this so fraggin' fun," I replied with a twisted smile. She rolled her eyes as I put the assault rifles in the cab. "Leave a light on, willya?" She nodded as I left and crossed the street, turning my collar up against the wind. The area was clear, and I jogged across.

The door opened as I got there, and Sophia said, "I'm going with you, Blackwolf. You need my help, and you know it."

"Did Rydia put you up to this?" I asked as Kallenberg joined us, adjusting her coat as she walked.

"As a matter of fact, I did. I'm getting a feel for you, and I don't know what that means. You want to check out the firing nest, right?"

"That wasn't too hard to figure out," Norris replied. "You said your 'link had a message before the shot. I might be able to find a trace while Rydia does her mystical thing."

I smiled. "Yeah, you've got me figured out. Don't do it again. You both ready?" They nodded. "Okay. I'll be stopping at Daniel's to pick something up on the way, and see what he's heard." I opened the door. "Let's go."

We crossed he street quickly and entered the house, and I put the Barrett in the bed under a tarp, just in case. You never know when you might have to break something a kilometer a way. Hestaby grinned knowingly, and I said, "Y'know, this is getting really old, H. Stop it. You're acting like one of us, and that's kinda freaky."

"What, like a metahuman?"

"No, one of us. I think – no, I know we're a bad influence."

She smiled nastily and said, "Consider this revenge for getting in the way at my vault."

"How were we supposed to know?" She nodded, conceding, and sent back to her 'link as we got into the truck. After I started it, I asked the girls, "How are you armed?"

"The usual," Rydia said. I nodded, opened the door and drove out.

(((())))

Daniel's new digs were better in lots of ways: Nondescript and secure, yet still easy-access. The cameras were obvious, and there were others that weren't. I guess after nearly being blown up in '70 he was getting cautious. I keyed my 'link, and the roll-up door opened. I drove in and waited until the lights came on, then drove on in when the second door opened. I don't blame Daniel for doing it this way. Seattle's not as bad as other places, but it's still dangerous in general. Knight Errant was doing a better job than Lone Star, but outside Downtown it got iffy, and progressively darker from there.

As we got out, Daniel walked in from his office. "Hey, Rydia, Sophia. What's going on?"

"You heard about me being shot." He nodded. "We're going to check the area. Someone might have been a little careless."

Daniel nodded again. "Well, here it is," he said, pulling a tarp off the forge and feedstock. I took a good look at it, and liked what I saw. A desktop forge let anyone manufacture parts without having to leave a data trail, provided they weren't too ambitious. The regular feedstock had stealth RFID chips in it. Use enough and they'd identify "unauthorized" parts. I wasn't planning anything big, but I didn't want to be traced at all. Someone tried to kill me back in '57, and damn near succeeded; this time they had, and I didn't want them to get the hat-trick.

I had to stop and think about that. It was getting harder to separate myself from Keith, but I didn't mind that much. I had to be Blackwolf if I was going to survive, plain and simple. Maybe he'd come back, if this worked out. I couldn't see Howling Coyote doing anything half-way, not after the Ghost Dance.

I nodded approvingly and said, "Looks good. I need some ammo, about five hundred rounds for the Preds, HVAR and Alpha, and a thousand for the MAG-5. A hundred Barrett, too."

"Grenades?" I nodded, and he thought for a minute. "I'll throw 'em in. This helps me out, too. Someone gets Majestic, they'll probably come after me next. It's like they're going after all of you."

"What?" I asked. "What have you heard?"

"Super Joe was killed a week before you were shot. Something about an ambush near the Free Zone. It was drek. They found his body there, but he wasn't killed there, according to my contact. I tried to contact you, but you never answered."

"Did he have that funky-looking belt on him?" Rydia asked intently.

"No, he didn't." He looked at me and put it together. "They got Spiritkiller?"

"I think the Artifact game has finally reached us," Kallenberg said. "It's a good thing Fox, Henry, Ian and Hugo are here. At least we can cover each other."

I tilted my head to one side and thought about that. It made sense. We still didn't know much about the items we got from Big D's will, other than what they did. The obvious question was who'd want them bad enough to kill for them.

"Who'd want them so bad?" Sophia asked, echoing my thoughts.

It hit me, and I said, "Dragons. Remember how pissed they were? I wouldn't put it past Lofwyr. Maybe even Ghostwalker. He was the loudest." The words + 10 Karma appeared right after. Oh, boy, this must be an epic campaign, I thought.

Daniel stared at me, his eyes wide. "Oh, you are so hosed, omae."

"Let's get this loaded and hit it. Things could get nasty, and fast," I said as I grabbed a cart.

(((())))

The drive north was quiet. I was concentrating on the road while Rydia was trying to poke any holes in my theory. So far, she had nothing. Sophia was in VR, talking to Henry while she checked ShadowSEA for rumors, then uploaded a message from me to JackPoint about what the dragons might be up to, especially the Greats. I had to include Hestaby. Even after today, I still couldn't shake the feeling she might be behind this, though I couldn't think of why. She'd revered Dunkelzahn, and I didn't think she'd go against his wishes, even after he was dead. I wondered if her latest run of stunts wasn't part of his plans; it made sense if you went with the idea that he had other plans that went past 2064, when the publicly-known stuff ended.

The road wasn't bad, and the rain mostly rolled off; the highway into Puyallup was strangely resistant to the weather, and I wondered why, then let it go. That was something for another time. The site came into view, and I noticed the shallow grave was mostly sunken-in. Good. I didn't want them to see it. Let them believe Keith Dawson was really back and driving them around, instead of his doppelgänger.

I stopped the truck, grabbed the Alpha and stepped out. I flicked my 'link's screen, and the trajectory I'd worked out appeared, with the possible firing point highlighted. I looked to the west and saw a collection of pre-Crash apartment buildings in the distance. "Okay, that looks like it. Keep your eyes open when we get there."

"Keith?" I looked at Sophia. "I'm getting a signal. It's weak, but gets stronger in that direction." She was looking at the same buildings.

"You can tell?"

"Oh, yeah, easy. It's like you listening to a particular sound. Even a couple feet makes a difference."

I looked at Rydia, who was scanning the horizon, probably Assensing. When she looked up, she said, "There's something in that direction, but I can't tell what it is, yet."

"When will you know?"

"Within a quarter mile. It's not hard to feel, but it's something different. Kinda like a rift, but not quite."

"I don't like that, but when did I like anything? Okay, let's go, and keep your guns handy."

"I don't need a gun," Rydia countered with an evil grin. "I've gotten better in the past couple years." When I smiled, she said crossly, "Do guys ever grow up?"

"Do you really want an answer?" I led the way back to the truck, and we were off.

We reached the apartment block about a half-hour later. The rain was really coming down, and the road wasn't too good. I wasn't in that big a hurry, either. "Whatever it is, it's a lot stronger," Rydia said as we got out. "Definitely like a rift, but not exactly. Something came in and left the same way, maybe."

"The signal's coming from there," Sophia said as she pointed to the eastern block. "It's not the Matrix, though. More like a commlink. Gimme a second." Her face went blank after she sat on the step. I wondered how she dealt with the cold and wet; she still wore the short skirt and loose top. She came out fast. "There's a camera watching us."

I nodded, took out the Alpha and slung the HVAR after switching to EX-Explosive rounds and loading gel into the Preds. "Okay, so someone knows we're here. Is anyone else here?" Rydia shook her head. "Then that's it. Let's go."

We walked up to the entrance, and I had a feeling of dejà vu. It reminded me of the Ares lab where we found Snowfire, and I think Rydia, too. The doors were unlocked and some of them hung crazily, the glass smashed. The interior was dark, and seemed darker under the leaden sky. I carefully picked my way in, and didn't need to tell them to walk where I did. This sort of thing was becoming old hat.

Something moved to the right, and I activated the light intensifiers and thermograph. Okay, it was just a scrawny, feral house cat. I kept my ears tuned to listen for it, though. Nothing was ever what it seemed any more.

Our footsteps echoed in the empty atrium as we moved inside. A glance told us the elevators wouldn't help, even if they had power; they were wide open, and the interiors had been stripped of anything useful. I looked for the stairs and nodded that way, taking point. Rydia took Sophia's hand, which made me think she was looking on the Astral on the walk. She confirmed that by saying, "Astral's clear. Some trace, but it's very faint. I've got it, though. I might be able to locate them, if we have to."

I murmured a soft, "Okay", and took the first flight of stairs, moving with my almost-signature cat-like grace. I was briefly surprised when "Team chat" came up, then realized Sophia could do that, too. "Signal's still there," her voice said in my ear. "No change." I sub-vocalized a quick "Roger".

We climbed, moving as silently as ghosts, pausing long enough for me to take a quick look and listen at each floor entrance. It looked like we were the only ones here. No signs anyone squatted here, no sign anyone had ever been here, and I wondered why. Like Redmond, Puyallup had been a thriving community even after part of Redmond became Glow City, and before the first Crash. Even so, there should have been hundreds, if not a few thousand squatters trying to eke out a living in the abandoned buildings. This apartment complex would have been perfect, but it looked and sounded empty, so far. No people at all meant something was wrong, and I had the feeling what happened to me was just a part of that.

Rydia had kept quiet, but every now and then she looked at – possibly through – a wall with a look of consternation. As she did that at the third floor I asked through chat, "What's wrong? You don't look really happy."

"No people. None at all within a half-mile of this place. The road in was in too good of shape, too. The Astral looks weird – well, weirder than usual, but it's clear inside that half-mile. It's centered here, but I can't see anything."

I thought about that, then remembered I'd researched Seattle's ley-lines. "Are we on a ley-line? They do strange things, sometimes."

She nodded as I checked the fourth floor. "That could be, but it doesn't explain why this area's empty. Most people never notice them, unless they're looking, and know what to look for. This is something else."

Sophia didn't have anything to say, other than, "The signal's still there. Getting stronger as we get closer, but that's it."

"Transmitting, or receiving?" I asked. That was important, and I should have asked when she mentioned the camera feed.

"Transmitting, but I don't know where to." She shivered as she hugged herself. "This is creeping me out. I think we should have brought more."

"I'm beginning to think you're right. There's way too much going on for just hitting me," I replied, then stopped with a hand up for silence. I thought I heard voices below; I definitely heard footsteps. "Ah, drek, I think we've got company." I concentrated on the sounds. Definite footsteps and voices, now. Four people, by the voices. My eyes opened and I snarled. "Frag, we were set up. I recognize three of those voices," I said tightly.

"We don't have much cover," Rydia said. She'd seen what I'd seen, somehow. The floors were all open space without anything to hide behind, except the support columns. "Congratulations on leading us into a trap."

Sophia was concentrating on something else. "Okay, the signal changed. Transmitting and receiving. Who's the hacker?"

"Brian Gleason. I'm surprised he's still around and working. He's gotta be closing in on fifty." I thought a moment. "Okay, it makes sense. Whoever wanted to get me would look for them."

"Who else?" Rydia asked. "Any magic?"

"When our team came together there wasn't much to speak of. Mages stayed put as magical security, never in the field. That might have changed, but I don't think so. The other two are Dave Barrows and Jason Grey Cloud. Brian's the hacker-rigger, Dave's the face and leader and Jason's the other infiltrator. Out of them, he's the dangerous one, and he's unaugmented, or he was last I knew."

"Okay, I don't sense anything. Firepower?"

"No idea. Sophia can probably learn that when they get closer, but we need to get moving," I said as I by-passed the next floor and sped up slightly. "The roof might have cover. Move it, but keep it down."

We managed to move fairly quickly and stay quiet, and I heard the voices fade as we left them behind. I barely checked when I heard "Face" Barrows call, "We know you're here, Blackwolf. Don't make this any harder than it has to be." I kept quiet and kept moving, grinding my teeth in anger at myself. I knew there might be a set-up, but I wasn't expecting this.

Rydia paused, picked up a handful of concrete dust, held it in front of her face while murmuring something, then blew it out into the stairwell behind us. The cloud grew as it moved down, obscuring everything. I heard "Sleaze" Gleason swear and smiled. "Good idea," I said, and she smiled. "We get out of this, I owe you dinner."

"You could end up owing both of us, and a lot more than that," she said. I looked at her, but she only smiled.

"I think Hugo might object."

"What he doesn't know won't hurt anyone."

"Before you start making plans, I saw him first," Sophia countered. "And let's get out of here alive, okay?" She took something out of her backpack and held it up on her palm. It was some kind of custom mini-drone, and it lifted off as she said, "Go find me something, baby." It flew up and out into the eighth floor area as we passed. "Gotta see what we can see."

I'd known the gals were good, but it took them taking out Blockbuster to show us guys just how good. I took to privately calling them the Gall Force after that, and I could see they hadn't stood still since we "retired" back in July '70. I was glad I'd never patronized them, even being near eighty-five. Like age matters to Elves.

We reached the roof access, and there was plenty of cover; the air conditioning structures wouldn't stop bullets, but they wouldn't see us right away. I took out a flash-bang, primed it and set it on top of the door. Pushing it open would make it fall and detonate, and it would give us a chance to catch them flat-footed. Provided "Cochise" wasn't on top of his game, of course.

Sophia found the signal source, and was studying it. I stopped nearby and took a look as Rydia readied what looked like foci and fetishes. I chuckled evilly as I thought, What's a girl who doesn't have a fetish or two? Boring. She looked at me as though she'd heard, but only smiled. "Mind out of the gutter," she said. Damn, she was learning, but it wasn't that hard to figure out.

The device looked like a half-dozen daisy-chained commlinks powered by a satchel-type peak-discharge battery pack, which shouldn't have worked, and I didn't think "Sleaze" had the know-how for it. Lasers and Thunderstruck cannons weren't that common, even now, and none of them were cheap. Neither were the packs. It made sense, though, because this arrangement could stay operating for months, perhaps years. If it didn't short out when being built. "What have you got?" I asked.

"A dirt-cheap, jury-rigged re-trans setup," she replied as she accessed the rig. "Hmm, some storage, but not a lot. It's meant to pass things on, obviously."

"Satellite?"

She nodded at a small dish a few meters away. "Yeah, and that makes sense. No way to trace it past here." She did something and the whole mess powered-down. "There. I'll look at it later." She looked at me. "Your place? You're set up for explosions. I'm not."

"Naomi's gonna be a little pissed at me, maybe, but okay. I've got some electronics gear." I listened at the door, and said, "Here they come. Take cover, and don't shoot until and unless I do. I'm just here for information, not a fight. Not that I'll turn one down, in my mood."

Sophia picked up the units, then scurried behind a large vent stack. Rydia waved a hand as we hid, and the rainwater wiped our footprints away. I took the rainwater processing system for cover; it was close to the door, and had places to aim and fire through, if it came to it. Rydia stood behind another vent stack, took out her Predator and waited.

I watched and listened, then said, "Here we go" as the door opened, with "Face" in the lead. The grenade fell, rolled a meter out and detonated. Barrows caught the worst of it, but I could tell Jason, Gleason and the woman weren't much better off. I let them hear the Alpha cycle as I stepped out and said, "Move and you're gonna wish you were dead." I recognized her, and added, "What's going on, Raven?"

Raven was from the Salish territory on the Olympic Peninsula, and we'd been more than just friends for two years before Hestaby brought the letter from the Foundation. I never said I'd be back, and she'd been the one to say, "I'll see you when I see you."

Grey Cloud looked at me angrily. "You have no right to be here, Keith. You should be dead."

"Which time, Cochise? Ares, or two weeks ago?" He didn't flinch, but I knew I'd cut him. "Okay, I get it. Who wanted Spiritkiller, and who told you I had it?"

"We can't tell you that. We'll die," Raven answered.

"I know it's a dragon. I want to know which one," I replied. "I think I can make a few guesses. All you have to do is shake your heads yes or no." I pointed to where the re-trans had been. "We'll figure it out, but this your chance to even things out. You set me up, and that's twice." I was talking to the guys, but Raven flinched. "Oh, I get it. They always knew where I was, didn't they?"

"I was there at Hamato's request," Raven said. "He'd gotten word you were going to die, and prepared for it. Hestaby made the collection herself. I was supposed to just watch you, not get more involved."

"Will you stop? You're gonna get us killed." Barrows snapped irritably.

Time hadn't been kind to him; he reminded me of one of those pathetic former disco kings who was trying to retain his glory, and failing. Gleason looked like your average older, gone-to-seed nerd, but that didn't really hurt him. Grey Cloud didn't look much different from before, while Raven looked about the same as I remembered. "Aren't you three a little old to be doing this?" I asked, and I wasn't being facetious. Most people in our former line of work retire long before they reach fifty-five. It was sometimes that rough.

"We got an offer we couldn't refuse," Brian said. "We're not hurting, but that wasn't it."

"Which one of you set me up?" +5 Karma appeared, and I found myself grumbling. Can I go without being paranoid for more than a few minutes? The guys looked at Raven, and I couldn't say I was really surprised. I had barely known her while on the Kitsap peninsula. I'd been more or less happy to have someone besides Hestaby to talk to. I also remembered they never met, and were never in the same place at the same time. I wondered if I was being set up from then. The fact she didn't protest didn't help. "Why?" I asked. "It can't be because I never came back."

"Ghostwalker heard about a few things, and wanted to keep an eye on you. He wasn't happy when the Foundation's invitation came. He knew Dunkelzahn had more than he'd listed, and wanted something from the hoard, but he wouldn't say what. I guess now you know."

"You three get out of here, and if I ever see you again, you're dead meat," I snarled at the guys. "You're just hired guns, right?" I could see that stung them worse than anything else I could have done, but I didn't care. They were just mooks. Jason gave me a bad look, and I added, "Age is catching up with you guys, while I can laugh in its face. Do the math, and live to enjoy your retirement. Tell whoever contacted you he can deal with me. If it's Ghostwalker, he can deal with Hestaby."

"Bad mistake, Blackwolf," Grey Cloud said. "Ghostwalker doesn't take no for an answer."

"He's just one dragon. I've got two in my corner, and he's poaching. Leaving Super Joe's body near Denver is just sloppy work, and he's supposed to be better than that. Doesn't matter. He's not getting his way, and he's acting like he's pissed because he didn't get what he wanted from his bro for Christmas. It's not up to him, and Big D seemed to have rubbed that in his face," I said. It made an odd kind of sense. Probably too much. +10 Karma. Frag, I hate being pessimistic … and right. I also hate Conspiracy campaigns, 'cause I tend to be right way too often.

Raven turned and said, "Leave. Your part's done." As they left, she turned back and said, "Is Hestaby next?" I was suspicious, and it showed. "I'm supposed to be the weapon against her," she added as Rydia and Sophia walked out of their hiding places, with Kallenberg looking at Raven carefully. "Who's the other dragon?"

I ignored her question – like hell I'd give that up – as I wondered Lofwyr and Ghostwalker are allies? The Pointers had speculated along those lines, as both needed allies, and apparently had H as a common opponent. "So, what does Lofwyr have to offer?" +10 Karma. Okay, this was getting ridiculous, but I suppose I was going to need the Karma.

She stiffened, then relaxed. "Yeah, they're allied, and they're after her. She's the one impediment to their essentially dividing the continent between them." She smiled, and I recoiled. I never saw such outright ego in anyone. I though I knew her, but I've been wrong before. Gaming and real life. So far, real life hasn't killed me.

"They're in for a real surprise," Rydia said as she carefully searched Raven. She knew how, and Raven's reactions said so. Sophia looked at the re-trans, then at me.

"Save it for later," I said as Rydia put the collection of foci and fetishes away, and Mage-cuffed Raven. I wondered when she'd got those, but it made sense. "Is she magically tagged? I don't want to give those two anything, never mind where we're based."

"It doesn't matter. You're not leaving here," Raven said as Rydia spun around. I looked to see a rift or portal opening, and something coming through. It was big, ugly, had way too many pointed appendages and the biggest teeth I'd ever seen. "We'll all go together."

I swung the Alpha into my hands as Rydia cast something. I noticed it was focused on her, and snapped, "Toss that junk!" She looked startled, then pitched the small bag over the parapet. The thing looked as it fell, then focused on me. Well, we can't all be winners. I selected full-auto through the link and fired a full burst. I hit, and the rounds did their job, but not as much as they should have. Frag, I was going to have to empty the weapon, or use grenades, and that could get a little juicy. I back-pedaled as it lunged my way, then dive-rolled away from the gals. Even Raven. I wanted her alive for Hestaby.

Rydia hit it with a fireball, and that did more. It was either susceptible to magic, or fire. Screw it, I couldn't buy a weapon for every contingency, never mind use them all. When it turned, Sophia double-tapped it, and I was surprised when it staggered. She must have critted. I retreated more as I back-shot it, and it lumbered my way. I waited as long as I could, then popped an HE in its face, hoping everyone else was outside the blast radius. It detonated, and I went flying. I tried to roll with it, and partly succeeded, but I landed hard and slammed into the parapet behind me. I figured if I'd waited too long, I'd have air-swum all the way to the ground. That would have hurt.

The explosion had me reeling from the concussion, but the round did its job. The thing wasn't dead, but it wasn't in any condition to fight. It laid there, struggling to get what was left of its front legs under it, greenish-yellow ichor steaming out onto the roof as the rain washed it away. Rydia took out a large, oddly-made revolver, loaded one cartridge, took careful aim and fired. The critter stiffened, then collapsed as though pole-axed while Rydia picked herself up after the recoil put her on her ass. What a shame, it was a nice ass, too.

I stood up and leaned against the parapet until my head stopped spinning, then checked for injuries. Wow, nothing except a few bruises. The gymnastics paid off. +25 Karma appeared, and I had to stop and look at the thing again. 75 Karma total for that? What the hell was it? Never mind, we'd find out soon enough.

Raven looked at us with her mouth hanging open in surprise. Apparently, no one had beaten one of these before, and I had to wonder if it wasn't a Horror. I barely knew about them (from the Shadowrun wikis), but they were tough, going by the implications. I looked at Rydia. "Spike zone?" She looked, and shook her head. "Okay, someone's playing for keeps. Let's go before they try again." +10 Karma. Damn it, enough.

(((())))

The drive back was quiet. Sophia was between Rydia and the door, studying the re-trans. Raven was between me and Rydia, where we could both reach her. Nobody seemed to want to talk (I sure didn't), and we were cold, wet and crowded. I'd thought briefly of stuffing Raven under the tarp with the other stuff, but she might have gotten loose and jumped. She shivered every now and then, and I didn't think it was from the cold. She knew Hestaby would be asking questions, and she didn't know about All-Wings. I'd thought, from what I'd read about in Wikipedia about Earthdawn, that she was dead. Of course, our GM had other ideas, and let us know at the end. That was the topper of that campaign, for sure.

Rydia looked at Raven every few minutes, and I couldn't read her expression. That wasn't unusual, but this was more than that. Being able to read someone's eyes was a lot of figuring out what they were thinking, and that was out. She was as poker-faced as anyone I'd ever met, and that was a little spooky. I couldn't tell if it was because of me, or something else, given what she'd said earlier. I put that out of my mind. There were other things to worry about.

Soon, we arrived at home, and instead of dropping the gals off, I drove straight into the house. As soon as the truck stopped, Sophia got out, headed straight for my little electronics shop and started poking at the re-trans setup. It was wet, but nothing was damaged. Rydia took Raven firmly by the arm and led her to the table as Naomi and Hestaby came out of the living area. Raven went pale as Hestaby scowled, and I thought this wasn't going to be fun for anyone.

I got out and carefully unloaded the truck, making sure the forge was dry. After that came the feedstock, followed by the Barrett, which went back into the locker with the HVAR. I set the Alpha in the weapons shop area and set a cleaning kit near it as Naomi grabbed and hugged me, ignoring the water. "I told you I'd be back," I said in Japanese as I kissed her. "I try to keep my promises."

Raven tried uselessly to run, but the place was closed up tight, and there wasn't anywhere to run, anyway. Out-run a dragon? You could breathe underwater a hell of a lot easier. "Give up," Hestaby said as Rydia dragged her back. "I can see what they can't, and do you really think I'm afraid of Lofwyr or Ghostwalker? You can save yourself by coming clean, Raven. Even though you betrayed me, I can see you had no real choice. At first, that is."

"H, I need to show you something," I said. She walked over as I down-loaded images from my cybereyes. "What the hell is this?"

She took one look and went pale. "Where did you see this?" I showed her the location, told her what little I knew and explained what Rydia had told me. She grew thoughtful, then said, "Okay, that could be. But why would those two want to do that? The Horrors went after every living thing, even dragons. The worst enjoyed making anyone they could suffer. That's why the Blood Wood came into being." When I looked at her questioningly, she told me, and explained about Aina. As I shuddered, she said, "That's right. As the magic level rises, they'll be able to come through from the Metaplanes without help. However, you saw they can be killed, so maybe this time they'll be destroyed, or convinced to go somewhere else for their fun."

"I should have stayed in bed. Both times. Okay, I've got a few things to do, and Sophia's gonna be busy." I nodded in Raven's direction. "She's all yours."

"No, I'll wait until Ms M gets here. We'll do this right." Hestaby's smile looked Draconic even in human form, and that made me shiver. I'd never seen it before, and it said a lot of things, all bad. "Oh, don't worry, I'll let her live if she cooperates. Not sure about letting her go, but I'm sure you and Naomi could use a slave." I looked at her with a WTF? expression, and she said, "Well, think about it. We can't let her go just yet, and she needs a lesson in why you don't ally yourself with the wrong people. She's gonna earn it, Keith."

I just stood there staring, and she patted my cheek. "Sorry. You didn't know, because you haven't seen it before. Everyone's right when they say you haven't seen anything until you see it in a dragon. Ask Frosty. She can tell you." She smiled sadly and walked away, leaving me to re-evaluate … everything. A little voice in the back of my head said, I told you not to make that deal, didn't I?

I shook it off, and started spending Karma. I took a breath and brought Strength and Body to Rating 4 each. I blinked when I saw they only cost 12 each, then figured I was under SR4 rules, not SR4A. This would help. Not only doing more, I got another condition box. I improved my Martial Arts Quality, gaining +1 to Dodge in melee, then took two Maneuvers, Ground Fighting (always useful) and Set-Up. I still needed to see my sensei, but that wasn't a problem. I had to think about Skill Groups, now. I'd need them. The question was which one did I need most? I did as much up-close, in-your-face fighting as I did shooting. I had other skills to improve, too. Decisions, decisions...

I finally chose the Stealth group, mostly because I generally did well in combat, but didn't always in that area. I hadn't used it much because of that, but now I could. I'd probably do better being sneaky than tough, if I paid attention, and I remembered some guards had been real rocks. So, next I had to go after individual skills. I pushed Perception up to 3, for an effective 9 with the augmentations; Escape Artist up to 2, effectively 10 with High Pain Tolerance. I had to think again, because HPT made wounds feel less severe, keeping them from slowing me down as fast, as well as helping Escape Artist. I improved it. It had saved my hoop a few times.

Okay, now I had to be choosy. Street gang knowledge was a little thin, so that went up. I finally pushed my skill at Sperethiel and Japanese up, because I'd rather talk privately to Naomi in those, and we could go fast, hopefully leaving anyone else in the dust. Hey, what's private is private, damn it. There were things I'd tell her long before the others, even Hestaby, and they didn't need to know. Not really.

That was it; all done. I was wishing I had more Karma, but I knew there'd be more, faster than I'd like to think. In two days I'd accumulated 84 Karma, with only one serious fight, mostly by being paranoid. I had to wonder what I was getting into, and how deep. And that was what I'd gotten; I had to wonder about the others. In fact, I'd spent a fair chunk of nuyen, and been smart about it, so maybe being smart helped. I'd see soon enough.

I turned my attention back to Hestaby and Raven, and noticed Rydia wasn't in sight. My one-time lover was looking down at the table, hiding her face behind her hair, as though in shame. I didn't recall hearing any voices, but I knew how unnerving Hestaby's gaze could be. There are people who can do that, just look at you and you start squirming, then asking them to stop. It doesn't work that well on me, but I can see how someone with a lesser will could crack. Now ramp it up to three or four times worse. That's Hest. Oh, she doesn't mind the nick-name or calling her "H". That was settled fifteen years ago, when we met, and it keeps her name out of things. Hell, Majestic didn't know who she was until we did a run for her. All they'd heard was H, who they assumed was another Johnson. Sometimes I get things right.

Naomi walked in from the living area with food, and she said, "Stop that, please. I know you're pissed, but it's rude, Hestaby. Rydia! Lunch!"

"I'll be right out," Kallenberg's voice replied from the bathroom.

"All right, but only because you asked," H replied. "Well, okay, I'm hungry, too," she added with a smile.

Naomi walked to Raven's side and said, "I'll have those taken off if you give your word you won't try anything. Don't think for one second Keith won't choose me over you, Raven. That decision was made before you were born." That wasn't quite true, but I kept silent as Rydia emerged and joined them. She was right, Raven came in a distant second. I'd loved Naomi from the first, and never stopped. She might not be worth killing for, but she was worth dying for.

Raven only nodded, and the cuffs fell off. I wondered until I saw what appeared to be a simsense link on them, and that made sense. No way to open them except by authorized personnel. I had to wonder whose idea that was, and it was even money on Naomi, Rydia or Sophia. I walked over and joined them when Naomi looked expectantly in my direction. I looked to the shop area and said, "Come and eat, Sophia. You don't waste real food."

She stopped and looked at me. "No squirrel on a stick?" she asked, then broke up into giggles when I rolled my eyes. "Okay, sorry." She stretched – just like a cat, unsurprisingly – and joined us, sparing Raven a nasty glare. "I think I've got it figured out. I'll need a few more minutes." She rolled her eyes in pleasure as she took a bite of Namoi's sukiyaki. "Mmmm, wow. This is real food? It's almost as good as nutrisoy."

I face-palmed as Hestaby chuckled. "Behave, or that spank account I threatened a while back opens right now."

Sophia leaned on her elbows, put her chin atop her bridged hands and purred, "Ooohhh, tell me more."

Rydia laughed as I dropped my fork theatrically and said, "I give up. I can't civilize these kids." +10 Karma.

(((())))

Acknowledgments: Some references to Stargate SG-1, as well as other shows. SR4 and SR4A do have that Karma cost difference; I don't know if it's errata, but our GM used it anyway.

A/N: I'll reveal more about this particular version of the Shadowrun timeline as we go. Just take it as an Alternate Universe, like anything in gaming. Some things the characters say is directly from the campaign. Other than that, I'm just winging it.