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The Fighter's Saga

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“If America is a lunatic asylum, then California is the violent ward.”

–Len Deighton

2052, six months since ‘Agency’

The Pacific Ocean was blue like a stone under the overcast sky, as the boat’s faint, stinking trail stretched out from Seattle. The old tub belched and puttered to the pier, and finally latched on. Within a quarter-minute, the lone passenger was heading down the concrete sea-road to the Embarcadero. His walk and his active eyes seemed half-tiger and half-wary old man, though he was visibly no older than twenty-three.

East of San Francisco, piers built in the gold rush extended from the Embarcadero sea wall, like arms from a starfish. The waterfront was littered with shipping containers, rope, and more unloading freighters than the Runner had expected. After independent Calfree had borne invasion from the Tir elves in the north, Pueblo and the Azzies from the south, the devastation of LA by earthquakes, and the occupation of San Francisco ‘for security’ by Imperial Japan...the historic Embarcadero was as unlikely a place for trade as it was for tourism. The Runner had heard that ‘Frisco was a bastion of order in a lawless wasteland. Glancing at the distant span of the bridge, he was prepared to determine the truth with his eyes.

Closer at hand, the sculpture of a bow and arrow had been set in the waterfront. Cupid’s Span had been covered, since then, with so much pornographic graffiti it might as well have been on fire. Welcome to the city of Eros. The Runner–Harry Fawkes–levelled a gaze again at the City, that was both searching and fixed.

Before the sculpture, flanked by two Japanese Razorboys in suits, was a woman in a black sleeveless jacket, mid-thirties, with the rainbow hair of a rocker and the eyes of a shark. Her bare body wouldn’t have shown so many scars as the Runner’s nakedness–he could see the thought in her smile–but both their eyes showed soul-breaking paths at their backs. And the unsettling, blood-tinged drives that still moved their flesh, like daylight vampires, as the woman waved her hand and the young veteran stepped towards her.

“Glad you’ve arrived in one piece.” Her voice was disconcertingly efficient, “I'm Kali. Welcome to Baghdad by the Bay.”

 

-0-

 

There was a brief parley over the work Harry had come to do. Then they set off for Eclipse, Kali’s new megaclub in San Francisco proper, in the back of her Ford Americar. A cheap, anonymous vehicle–Harry approved of the latter quality. There’d doubtless be a SK Bentley in Kali’s motorpool, for contacts where she needed to put on a show. Though how many debts in blood and nyuyen were covered by that gleaming show, he could well imagine. After the crashing failure of the music magnate’s Seattle megaclub, Antumbra, her mere survival, let alone revival, had been the acknowledged miracle of the year.

Kali seemed more occupied by assessing the young Runner than her own perennially precarious situation. There was a katana on his back, and a handgun on both hips. He had dressed for the heat, with breathable Kelvar pad-nanoweave street armour. A headband caught the sweat from flyaway, insouciant hair, and his face retained a heartbreaking, boyish purity. But she could see the hard jaw, under soft cheeks; the death-grip resolve and nightmares behind large brown eyes. A fallen, killing angel. Facing the light that could never touch the shadows in his heart.     

“Poor Billy Bonney, you’re only twenty-one...Pat Garrett’s got your name on every bullet in his gun…” She crooned, surprising herself with her musical whim.

“I go by Hotspur. No other names.”

“Oh. I suppose Warrior died in Hong Kong?” Harry didn’t answer that, “I know about fresh starts, Hotspur. We can’t change what we are, but we change what we do. Adapt or die, in fact. Our chivalrous mutual friends–” ‘Chivalrous Organisations’ meant Yakuza, “–informed me that you’re both fearless and reckless. I expect you to display the former and suppress the latter, for as long as our acquaintance lasts.”

“If you didn’t want a loose cannon, who might burn the city down but won't even die if he's killed–why hire me?”

“Perhaps…” Kali suddenly grinned, “…you appealed to my maternal instincts?”

She ran her fingers along Harry’s jawline. Felt him go ominously still, and drew her hand back.

“Maybe your reputation from Hong Kong is exaggerated.” She tutted, “A few stories from Seattle, as well.”

Kali knew she was the one out of character. Her usual work, whether as Ms Johnson or with her nightclub and record label, was bold and unconventional but all business. Still, Warrior, or Hotspur, did have a reputation, and his face stirringly told Kali how he’d got it. Of course she’d mix business with a little fun, when this boy was rumoured to have defied the Yellow Lotus Triad for the sake of his girl they’d killed, and almost beat them. And when he’d taken an evening off from bedding half the young women in Hong Kong to romance a mysterious Prime Runner, who’d travelled from Seattle for one night with her love…after a lifetime in the music business, Kali knew star quality when she saw it. She also knew it was no defence from nameless death in a landfill or drug-den bathroom.

“It’s been over six months since I stopped caring about reputation,” Harry’s voice broke in on her thoughts, “There’s only one thing I care about, and we’d better get to it.” He drew his PDA, opened a video clip. Kali’s eyebrows rose. “You were her manager. Where is Susan Lei?”

The video was a live concert, four months ago, on the cavernous main stage and dance floor of Eclipse. Pillars of holographic light, gouts of fire. Rainbow neon under the crowd’s platform heels and over their crazy-spiked heads–Kali knew there was a time to go subtle and a time to most definitely go loud. This was the first international TriD appearance of SeeräuberJenny; the novahot Kung Fu shadowrunner-turned-singing-starlet who had inexplicably vanished two months later. Kali had sold so many downloads off the resultant furore, she’d almost forgiven Fighter for wrecking Antumbra’s opening night to launch her shadowrunning career, very nearly at the expense of Kali’s life.

It was indeed Fighter, Susan Lei, who spun onto the stage and leapt through carbonated fog. Came down in low stance. a panther in lipstick, as the crowd roared. Slashed jeans showed off her gloriously solid thighs; concealer hid scars on both bare arms. Her ponytail was a glittering, warlike high plait. Shining breasts virtually spilt from a top she had (in fact) taken an hour to steel herself to wear.

SeeräuberJenny moved like molten metal, with a master’s control and a hero’s heart in each step. Her bosom and stomach moved with her lungs, as she belted the songs. Her smiles were heart-bright and courageous, but fury, desire and sorrow blazed out what path she had taken to that stage. Her eyes were simply a woman who never stopped fighting and never stopped loving. Kali saw how Harry stared at the tiny image, like the bandit in hell and the spider’s glittering thread.

After some conventional chromatic thrash numbers, SeeräuberJenny launched into her signature piece. The arrangement had come some way since Brecht, or even Nina Simone, and the lyrics had been augmented with a plain verse about rape. But the crowd would remember how Susan Lei had ripped at her plait, until strands fell wild like Cassandra round her fervent eyes. She dropped to her knees, made her mouth a trumpet, and cried out all her doubt, despair and shame. And all her wrath, her power of will, her hope.

 

“All the night through, through the noise and to-do

You wonder who is that whore lives up there?

And you see me stepping out in the morning

Looking nice with a ribbon in my hair

And the ship

The Black Freighter

Runs a flag up its masthead

And a cheer rends the air!”

 

It did. Far as Fighter had come from Redmond, however, it wasn’t a song of triumph. It was the fantastical, hopeless longing of a million helpless women called victims. A furious plead for the dream of freedom and peace that Susan was still denied, when nightmares of her first shadowrun pinned her to her bed. She beat her fist against her heart, smiled very bravely at the watching crowd, and sang out her hope for the world to the end.

 

"And the ship, the Black Freighter

Disappears out to sea,

And on it is MEEEEEEEE!”

 

-0-

  

Kali was as unhelpful as she could get away with, regarding her errant singer’s disappearance. Fighter had walked into her office, only knocking her guards out this time, and put down 20, 000 nyuyen for Kali to start her off as a singer. Given their history, Kali had sent the Adept on a dangerously sensitive shadowrun to steal bio-engineered tissue from Shiawase, which she was fairly sure would get rid of her bad penny–her new operation in Calfree was as much Johnson and black-market work as music and entertainment. Fighter had delivered the goods, smiling guilelessly as a retriever, and Kali had given her a record contract.

“I actually offered her a contract two years ago, in Seattle, if she had seen fit to not wreck everything I’d built there and send me running from the Mafia. Your girl did teach me, or force me, to stand on my own. I have contacts, now, not backers; all that I’ve built here is mine. And I’m almost always…” She grimaced at Harry, shook her head, “…an excellent judge of talents. I wasn’t going to let an old grudge get in the way of business.”

“Wasn’t it your business to look for her?”

“Hardly. She’s a capable adult. As for business, the fans would’ve drifted to the next novahot starlet in another three months.”

Harry’s hand clenched into a fist. Kali was unmoved, however, and she was his boss.

“Can you at least tell me why she did this? Expose herself on TriD, to all the enemies from all her shadowruns, wearing that?”

Excuse me? The famous Hotspur doesn’t want his Madonna dressing like his whores?”

Harry driven fist almost split the car seat. Kali stayed very still.

“She would never want to dress like that. Unless you told her it was her job.”

“Well, it was. Give the fanboys what they want, you know? Its better than kidnap and murder.” Kali spoke rapidly, “Look, she told me that a chummer had told her, the Megacorps shape the world with money and media. Of course, she wanted the money–for some shelter in Seattle or something–but didn’t you hear her? She wanted to put out a message. Respect, freedom, redemption, that sort of drek. I suspected at times she was a little dumb, you know? Not the sharpest monosword in the armoury.”

“She beat you,” Harry fired back, “And you have to be dumb sometimes, to be a hero like her.”

Hostile silence descended, as the car swept across a bridge towards the city. Sun stained towers clustered ahead, windows gleaming like black metal, and rows of sickly palm trees swept past them. The route ahead passed through a checkpoint. Which meant–Harry deduced–there was a checkpoint on every open route into 'Frisco.

He studied the Japanese marines at the barrier. Squat, hard-faced men in black armour, inspecting passes with focused eyes. The ork driver of a cleaning van, clearly late for a job, snatched his pass back from a soldier who swiftly chopped him in the throat. The ork and his crew–all metahumans–were pulled from the van, and against a wall, by marines who screamed in their faces as they checked for bombs, guns or priors.

It wasn’t Lone Star’s idle brutality, but dedicated, professional hate. Harry had never seen anything quite like it. Cali, after two years in San Francisco, checked the time and hissed in annoyance at the delay.

The wide streets beyond the first checkpoint were far cleaner of trash, burnt out cars and bummers than Harry was used to. The stink of smog and diesel almost stunned him by its absence. There were houses with balconies he supposed were Spanish. Less poverty, more peace. Barely a single metahuman on the streets, and several passing patrols of marines.

“The Japanese like things clean as a Zen garden.” Kali broke the silence, “They banned cars in the centre, brought back the trams and moved the metas to Oakland. We call that drekhole ‘Orkland’. San Francisco's modern docks were there for years, but the Japancorps moved all the trade back to the Embarcadero. The marines certainly keep the peace, for the Japancorps, but they haven’t driven the Azzies out completely. There’s a lot of action in that quarter right now, just when they'd arrested some of my best Runners. Metas, so they won't be heard from again. That’s where you come in, Hotspur…”

Harry showed no interest. Kali sighed in frustration.

“You are here for a job, not to chase down a stray singer. Still...an elderly ork, name of Orion, has been asking after Susan Lei as well. The last few days. A chummer of yours, or hers?”

“Not mine. And no ork would ever be Susan's chummer.”

 

-0-

 

Conjured up from a derelict hotel with Shadow money, the Eclipse megaclub was an impressive beast. A grand stairway led up to the club proper. Wood-latticed screens along the entrance hall gave discretion for merchants flogging everything from medkits to machine guns. Other rooms were storage and safe hostels for transient Runners–some waiting for the soonest moment they could get out of 'Frisco, before Japan's hegemonic industrial-military complex caught them up in its titan gears. Runners and Johnsons got business done in the third floor barrooms. The ork, Orion, had been lingering there for days.

“Well, Hotspur, welcome to my little casa,” Kali stood in the entrance hall with intense but quiet pride, “I believe there are only four operational establishments in the world where you can get a drink, a dance, a fake SIN and a cyberarm. Two of the others are in Tokyo. Speaking of a Californian SIN, before you go charging off–”

Harry was already striding hungrily towards the third floor.

The second floor was the nightclub. It was only seven in the evening, but there were no windows. In the hot-velvet, strobe-lit eternal night, the drunken, the desperate or the dedicated were already gyrating on the floor or knocking them back at a bar. Kali’s old chummer DJ Omphalous was spinning out the beats of the latest Glitch Punk, and the crowd roared back the booming hook-line as they danced. Later, when there was really a crowd, the place would go mad like California dreams.

Instinctively, as in any crowd on a club or street, Harry scanned for the high dark, pony tail of the girl he had dreamt with of being a shadowrunner, in the Redmond Barrens. Searched for her ready smile through the shadows. She wasn't there, of course–there would have been pain if she had been, after what he'd done. But there was fierce, unbearable torment while she was lost. Any distance of world away–being hurt, in any way…his love he'd never held, his girl. He could still protect her, would not see her hurt again, and after two fragging years he would not run.

For two months, such thoughts had surged in Harry like a fever. But as he searched through the strobe-lit crowd, one girl on the dancefloor drew his attention like a poultice.

Working slim arms above her red hair, and flushed cheeks, she was going for it. Moving her hips like a snake, shifting her rich, bare thighs. Sweat gleaming on naked shoulders, above a green halter top, which enclosed breasts as finely shaped as the Taj Mahal…

Harry hadn’t been with a woman for…a while. These were some of the less steamy thoughts that filled him for a quarter-minute, before the thoughts came that she wasn’t Susan, he was a sick fool…and he’d seen that girl somewhere before. Redhead, redhead, with eye-glasses…?

As Harry moved closer, the woman stumbled on her heels in an especially exuberant spin. He managed to catch her, she laughed ‘Willkommen to California!’ and then his penny dropped.

Wizard? Two years ago, the docks job, my last night in Seattle. You, me and Fighter!

“…Warrior?

Instantly sobered, she leapt from his embrace as if it were red hot.

It was none other than Ilsa Tresckow. Harry remembered her as so stiff and serious that he had almost overlooked her smoking hotness…but anyone could change in over two years. In any case, nothing mattered to him now but what she knew of Susan…before he could collect his thoughts, a greying dwarf trundled up to Ilsa with drinks.

“…love? Is everything okay?”

“Oh, entirely, liebling.” Ilsa quickly knelt to kiss the dwarf’s head and lay her arms round his neck, before speaking to Harry, “Allow me to introduce my boyfriend, Dr Henry Chambers, from the University.”

Harry didn’t think to ask which university, stunned by the third crowning wonder that this unpreproposing little fellow should have landed a beautiful human girl roughly half his age. He could only suppose that the attraction was intellectual.

This was not the view of a drunken Fuchi sarariman at the adjacent bar, who Harry heard complaining loudly to his buddy about metamonkeys seducing caucasian whores (The man was a blonde Anglo himself, but he was a quick learner).

At a nearby table, a dirty-blonde elf’s expression turned from sullen to furious; flanked by a hulking ork and another dwarf, he stomped towards the sarariman, looking for blood more than apology. At the bar’s other end, several Japanese (off-duty marines, from their bearing) straightened up, ready to keep the peace with fists.

Harry stepped in the path of the marines, and...his face burst into an earnest grin. His old-man eyes were suddenly bright as when he’d dreamt in Redmond.

Ohiyo, marino-san! Buy you all a drink?”

“White boy with a headband and a samurai sword.” The marine officer looked over said items, grimly, “Who are you to buy us drinks, Runner?”

“Japanese swords, comms, cars–what choice is there?” Harry lifted his chin and spread his hands, perfectly balancing assertion and humility, “As for me, I have only enough skill not to disgrace the sword I carry–but a mere Ronin must acknowledge the modern Shinsengumi.”

The Shinsengumi were a historic unit of samurai swordmasters, whose exploits had been internationally broadcast to Redmond in the New Year’s Taiga drama of ’48. Colonel Saito’s elite Marines very much emulated the Shinsengumi; the officer, Lieutenant Arai, was a tremendous fan (A couple of his men were heartily sick of them, but held their peace). When Harry joked that the metas could learn from Shinsengumi Rule Five: ‘Those who engage in private brawls must commit seppuku’, Arai thumped him on the back and bought him a drink.

“Watch yourself, Ronin,” Arai warned Harry, with the air of a generous big brother, “There was a suicide bombing in the city this week; two more such attempts that we, the marines, were able to foil. And the monsters are always restless. Ask for me, if you get into trouble–if you have time to do so, before you are shot. Aku Soku Zan!

‘Swift death to evil!’ was the motto of both the Shisengumi and Saito’s marines. Harry's smile vanished as he turned away, and his eyes changed. Like a visor going down, or a mask removed.

He noted that Dr Chambers had similarly headed off the metahumans belligerents, so all was well in the club. He modified his estimation of the academic and noted that Ilsa had hung back. As a human woman either party would have despised her. In Seattle, every goon had wanted to kill somebody, but San Fran seemed to be mired in a metaracial cold war, flaring to hot. Where any human or any meta was the enemy, for that alone. It was an unsettling prospect–but his job here was nothing but to find Susan Lei. Protect her. This time.

 

-0-

 

“Wizard. Do you know anything about Fighter, SeerauberJenny, where she is? Or this ork, Orion?”

“…Orion is here?” Ilsa’s eyes widened behind her glasses, “Bitte, listen–!”

“Hold that thought. Stay in the building.”

Impatient, Harry moved on to the third floor. Ilsa was a source, but the ork looking for Susan was a potential threat. He’d taken two months to get out of the drek he’d got into in Seattle, but that could not mean he was already too late. He ground his teeth as he took three stairs at a stride. 

The third floor was devoted to quiet drinks bars. Richly wallpapered and wood-fitted, like a wild west bordello, with soft piano music over hidden speakers and a fake dragon skull over the whiskey shelves. Several obvious Runners adorned with chrome or mystic tattoos glanced up from their biz. A cute brunette decker, in a bodysuit that showed her slim figure off, smiled at him demurely.

The wiry, white-haired ork was hunched at one end of the bar, with a headphone in one ear and a glass of water in hand. Harry carefully drew up a stool beside him.

Hoi, omae.” The artless smile, again, “Good job to stay hydrated in this heat. I’m guessing you’re a Phys-Adept?”

“Indeed.” The old ork’s voice was harsh, but quiet, “It is always gratifying to meet with another follower of the Way. I perceive the truth, however, that your purpose is neither purely social nor amiable.”

“…seems you can talk enough for us both, so I’ll get to the biz. You’ve been looking for SeeräuberJenny. You know her name.”

“Ah.” Orion’s beady eyes flicked towards Harry; he set down his glass, “Logically, I would not still be seeking that inimitable young Fighter, if I knew where she is. So, I suppose you wish to know why I am searching for her?”

“If you’d be so kind.” Harry’s thumb was on his sword-guard, and he wasn’t smiling.

“It may be…” Orion sighed, and raised his glass again, “…that I am seeking to kill her.”

Harry drew and struck in one swoop, fast as a hawk. Orion examined Harry’s glare of righteous fury, rather than the length of dikoted, razor-edge steel between his drink and his tusks.

 

-0-

 

“Your skill is sufficient…for you to perceive that you could never defeat me. You retain enough self-control that you did not attempt to strike home. And yet you struck…”

“–because I LOVE HER!” Harry’s voice held nothing back, “Susan Lei, my Fighter! Understand that, trog! You will not touch her again, if it takes my life!”

The bar was silent. The young decker hid her face; the veteran Runners kept hands near their guns. Like the desperadoes who had merrily blasted each other into oblivion for a notable portion of California’s history, Orion and Harry watched each other’s eyes.

“I am sorry,” Orion finally whispered, “For what you both endured. I was Susan’s teacher and comrade for the best part of a year. I believe that she missed you every day of it, and I perceive that her choice to wait for you was not without reason. Although I will break your sword between two fingers, if the word ‘trog’ passes your lips again.”

You were her chummer? Why geek her?” Harry had almost wept at Orion’s words, but his sword was still up, “Business? Revenge? She killed ork gangers in Seattle, but they were going after her–!”

The lights in the bar suddenly flickered. Harry saw Orion wince away from his earpiece–his sensitive hearing was evidently being assailed by a rant from the unseen decker who had his back–and the barman had finally remembered about calling security. Harry sheathed his sword, placated the barman, then turned determined eyes back to the ork.

“Undoubtedly, your appearance on the scene stems from SeeräuberJenny’s disappearance, after that striking broadcast?” Nod, “I, also, was drawn to Calfree by a certain video.”

Orion placed his PDA on the bar. It was jerky footage from a Comm camera, shot by a bystander during a incident in San Francisco’s Mission District, two months ago.

It was the City’s oldest district, and the clearances had met less success. More wrecked cars, more street art, more metahumans; and it seemed like most of them were heading down Liberty Hill. Trolls and elves, orks and dwarfs together, shouting Our Home, Our Streets. The newsfeeds had called it a gang-led riot (Orion told Harry, afterwards), but Harry saw few visible gangers and fewer weapons. Apart from the compact, sleek H&Ks held by the black line of approaching marines.

And Susan Lei was between them. Stunning in the makeup and glittery top of a starlet. Beautiful, beyond Harry’s dreams, in her motions, words and courage. She was shouting to the marines, like a sergeant in high-heels, or a teacher with errant children. There was no clear or imminent threat. They were miles outside their operating procedures and terms of engagement. They needed to wait for orders and backup, let the metas blow off steam. Act like soldiers, not frag it all up.

She could speak Security; Harry didn’t know where she’d learned it. Two years ago in Redmond, on their first shadowrun, he'd watched trog gangers throw her down and almost rape her in front of him…but Orion, the ork, said he’d been her chummer. It sank into Harry that he had lost over two years of life with the woman he loved. Who he’d longed for without even knowing her real glory. Tears rolled down his cheeks, as he grinned to see her. Orion’s eyes were ominously dark, but they didn’t exist for him.

On the video, the squad of marines was wavering. The officer screamed incoherently at first Susan, then his men; but the marines knew SeeräuberJenny had been Fighter, the shadowrunner. Most of them had downloaded her song. The shameless ferocity of beauty and courage stopped them, as she pressed a hand between her breasts and cried out. Moreover, they were outnumbered by the swelling crowd of monsters behind her. Several of the older and cannier marines, as well as the younger starstruck ones, had already stepped back, when Susan turned to the metas. She pleaded with them to disperse and go home, before a company of marines rolled up and killed them all. This wasn’t a fight they could win.

A number of metas slipped away into alleys. But the body of demonstrators were outraged at a squishy woman, dolled up like a princess, telling them when or how they should demand their freedom. As Susan shouted at a big ork in the lead to go home to his family, with her arms spread–he shoved her down, in the gravel, and told her to get out or get trampled.

It had been two years that felt like ten since the beating and assault. Harry couldn't understand what he saw next, until Ilsa told him that serious trauma was like addiction. Months of victory, then a trigger, a firm push...then the tiny, undying tension you had almost learnt to ignore blew everything to drek.

He couldn’t see Susan’s face, as the crowd loomed above her. He saw her body twist, and a high-heeled foot come round. He knew the ork it struck in the neck would not get up. A troll in gang colours swung at Fighter; she flicked the blow aside and hit back. Harry still couldn’t see her eyes, but knew the nightmare that had been fixed before them. She kept striking, as the marines started to fire into the crowd.