Two more weeks fly by, during which Scott invites Crimson out to several dates, including a screening of the trid remake of the classic Street Fighter trilogy: Street Fighter, Son of Street Fighter and Sister of Street Fighter, strolls on the beach and watching the sunset from the top of Whitehill.
At first, Crimson is a little frustrated with the slow progress of the relationship, but then decides she rather likes the highschoolesque courtship and attention. Crimson never went to high school.
She is standing on front of her wardrobe, trying to decide on something to wear for the next date that is not too trashy but still gets her message across when her commlink goes.
It is Milo “Need you guys to discuss a job for the government. Meet at my office at eight.” That is all he says before hanging up.
Crimson swears. This does not bode well for her date, only a few days away. Runs always get in the way of life. Instead of trying on a halter top/ wraparound skirt combination she had been toying with, she retrieves her Actioneer business suit for this meeting. When the time comes, she calls a cab and travels across town to Milo’s office where the rest of the team are waiting for her.
“How do we do this?” she asks.
“We meet our clients at a secure location in the matrix” Jeff tells her with a smirk.
“The…? You’ve got to be shitting me. You know how well those go for me.”
“Yup” the orc replies happily and goes about setting the required networks up.
After a while, the team find themselves as replicas of themselves in the matrix. With the exception of Jeff who has donned his floating head avatar and Crimson, whose avatar software has malfunctioned and given her the likeness of a toilet.
That the other five are amused is an understatement. Once they are over the hilarity of the situation, Jeff opens up the node given to them by Milo’s contact where they find four likenesses of men so generic it is hard to tell one from the other. One of them gives Crimson a look.
“Yeah, you might want to get that looked at. Your avatar software is bust” she tells him testily.
“I will take it under advisement. I understand you are willing to take on this retrieval job?” he states rather than asks.
“I guess. What do you need?” the toilet asks.
He brings up a satellite picture of a public works facility with three domes used for storing grit. “This is our secure storage facility in the Teesside sprawl. Yesterday, a team in the same line of work as your good selves, entered the facility, overwhelmed security and absconded with important documents and a crate of great value to our interests. We require you to track down these individuals, retrieve our property and, if possible bring the perpetrators in. For this we will pay you 15,000 nuquid each and a further 5,000 if you manage to capture all of the team and bring them in for questioning. That is non-negotiable.” He looks around “Is that acceptable?”
“Mr Whatever-your-name-is, you have yourself a deal. I’d shake on it, but I’m a toilet and don’t have appendages.”
Milo nearly chokes with laughter and even the government man almost cracks a smile.
“Unless there is anything else you require, I would like you to start straight away. I will inform the facility staff that they should expect you.”
Nobody has any more questions and the men’s avatars vanish.
“I need to get out of here” toilet-Crimson says “Somebody pick me up in two hours” she leaves the virtual space and shortly after, Milo’s office to go home to pack a few things and let Scott know she’ll be out of town for a few days.
“Hope to be back in time, for Wednesday, though” she adds before disconnecting.
Shandor picks her up at the appointed time and they make the long journey to the Teesside sprawl.
Crimson catches some sleep on the way and is awoken by Shandor at the gates of the facility they saw from the satellite picture. A man wearing a suit underneath a high vis vest is waiting for them.
“I believe you’re expecting us” Koh tells him, striding up to the gate.
“Absolutely. I’ll still have to see your credentials, though.”
The team transmit the access IDs the generic man has provided.
“This seems in order. Follow me please, and let me know how we can help you in your investigation.”
“How’d they get in?” Arthur asks bluntly.
“A car bomb detonated in the car park. While our security forces were distracted, a team of armed individuals…”
“Humans, orcs, trolls?” Crimson interrupts.
“One dwarf (?), the rest of them humans, orcs or elves.”
“Five (?) in total, attacked with assault rifles and small arms and a few drones from the other side, while our security systems were hacked. A few of my men reported some strange mental interference, probably a mage.”
Koh has been looking at a pockmarked wall and is digging a slug out of it. “Doubt we’ll get much use out of this but we can try” she pockets the bullet.
“Can I have a look at the car that blew up?” Arthur asks.
“Of course. This way.” Mr High-vis leads them to the car park.
On the way, Crimson spots a small blue speck behind a supporting strut and reaches up to pluck out a blue rose petal.
“What have we here? Some kind of calling card. What sort of idiot leaves calling cards at the scenes of crimes” she says with a meaningful look at Koh who does her best to ignore the comment.
In the car park, the man shows them a generic panel van, gutted inside. Arthur climbs in and inspects it for a while, the gets out, shaking his head “No use, just a petrol based bomb. Can’t even find anything resembling a detonator. Could have used a candle and some tissue paper.”
“Here’s something” Jeff, who has been poking around in the security systems for clues “I haven’t seen this for years.” He names the algorithm as if it is supposed to make sense to anyone else.
He sighs “It’s outdated but very complex. Can’t be too many people who can pull that off.”
“Nice one” Crimson compliments him “so we’re looking for five, probably six runners, of which we have one hacker, one mage, one rigger with a traditionalist bent to their hacking and a ridiculous flair for the dramatic, leaving calling cards” she sums up “I’ll call Garner. He might have contacts up here who can help.”
Garner picks up presently “Claire, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I am working a job and there is a rival team involved and was hoping very much that you might be able help me out. I’d be deeply indebted to you” she adds the last with her most suggestive smile.
“Really? An evening in your delightful company would be more than recompense. What area are you working in?”
“North East, the Teesside sprawl” she adds the details they have managed to uncover so far.
“A little out of my area, but I will see what I can do. I will contact you shortly.”
“Thank you so much” Crimson hangs up and goes back to where the others are quizzing the security crew. They are unable to shed much additional information. Before long, her ‘link tells her she has a message from Garner. Three names: Pink’s Group, Tees Barrage Crew and Valentine’s.
“Well that’s something to go on” she shares the information with the others. “How about we head to an establishment where we might find information on these crews and see who we’re dealing with.”
“Already on it” Jeff says “it’s a… a wine bar? Across town.”
“A wine bar? How civilised” Crimson remarks
Arthur and Milo look like they might be sick but the team go to the address Jeff dug up, which is, indeed, a trendy-looking wine bar.
“How about I introduce you as someone looking to hire some runners?” Koh suggests to Crimson.
“Worth a try” they enter the establishment and sit down at the bar to order drinks.
The wine is surprisingly drinkable and even Arthur and Milo stop griping when the barkeep draws out a special single malt that should probably have a biohazard sticker on it.
“What brings you to my place?” the man asks as he is serving up the drinks.
“The boss here” Koh nods at Crimson “is looking for some retrieval specialists and we were told this is the place to find them.”
“Sure is. Do you have anyone in mind?”
“We’ve heard good things about the crew who leaves blue rose petals behind on their job” Crimson tells him “adds a touch of class and a sense of romance. I like that.”
“Blue roses, ey? That’ll be Molnija and the Tees Barrage Crew. Haven’t heard from him in a few days.”
“Would you be so kind to contact this Molnija for me? I am sure I can make it worth his time.”
“I’ll give it a shot” the barman disappears into the backroom.
“Trace that call” Crimson hisses at Jeff but the orc is already on it.
“Got it. A warehouse across town” he hastily tucks his ‘link away as the barman comes back.
“No luck.” He informs them “But I left a message. Where will you be staying in case he gets back to me?”
“I don’t know. What is the best place in town?”
The man brings up a map of the sprawl and points “This one’s the best but a little pricy. Over here is cheaper but clean and in the centre here is cheap but still good.”
“The first one sounds fine to me. Thank you for your time.” Crimson finishes her wine and gets up to leave, followed by the other five runners.
Outside Koh asks “Are you honestly going to be staying in that fancy place?”
Crimson only looks at her.
“Think we’ll bed down in the second best one” Arthur says “yours doesn’t sound like my kinda place.”
“Fine. Just drop me off on the way.”
They do just that and leave Crimson to stroll into the ostentatious lobby. On her way to reception she notices several discreet wireless cameras in addition to the official hotel security ones.
“Jeff” she says into her subvocal mike as she signs in “get back here please. I’m being watched and would like to know by whom.”
“Be right there” comes the reply.
Only minutes later, Jeff walks in, makes a show of looking for someone before settling down in one of the armchairs and gets to work.
It takes him a short time before saying “Room 526, one Regina Scarlet. Sounds like a hacker’s alias if ever I heard one. I’ll head out and see what I can dig up. See you tomorrow” He checks his watch, looks around once more then leaves the hotel.
Crimson makes her way to her floor, where she kicks off her shoes, lies down on the bed and calls Scott. She gets a busy message and remembers that he is on duty, so leaves a message saying how she misses him. Then she turns the ‘link off, considering there is a professional hacker only down the corridor, has a shower and goes to the hotel bar where she talks small talk with a few other guests, before turning in early to meet her team in the morning to discuss their next move.
Crimson wakes up, showers and heads downstairs for her breakfast. She has just finished and is relaxing in the sunshine coming through the hotel’s windows, when an annoyed-looking Koh sits down uninvited opposite her.
“Will you switch on your damn ‘link already” she demands angrily.
Crimson had forgotten it was even off and casually draws it out of her handbag. “This? Oh look, it is off. Silly me. Turning my commlink off when there’s a professional hacker not three doors from my room. How stupid of me” she says innocently, none of which improves Koh’s mood.
“Well I’ve had a busy morning, looking at abandoned fire stations and such, while you’ve been living it up.”
Crimson plants her elbows on the table and props her chin on her hands “One of these days, you might discover that there’s more to life than work all the time. Just because we have a job doesn’t mean I can’t relax a little” she decides not to push it further than that “Tell me about this fire station of yours, then.”
Koh relaxes a bit “Pretty sure it’s their safehouse. They’ve got a rotodrone on the training tower, Milo had a look inside and they have a big truck and a small tank drone in the garage but the main building is warded. Jeff reckons the blimp drone flying around is communicating with them inside, so we’re pretty sure they’re in there. Apart from the hacker. Calls herself Alice by the way.”
Crimson resists the urge to pat her cousin on the head and tell her ‘well done’.
“What’s our move then? Grab this Alice and get further info out of her?”
“But then they’ll know we’re coming…” Koh starts to object.
“OK. We’ll sit on our hands then and do nothing. We need to know if they are actually there and Alice will know. We’ve got that jammer so she can’t call for help.”
“If her system goes off they’ll know something’s up.”
“If we do it without, they’ll definitely know.” Crimson switches on her ‘link “Jeff, I need you to open Ms. Scarlett’s door, if she is indeed in there…”
“I reckon so. The logger on her door matches with her coming in yesterday afternoon. Nothing since then.” The orc comes back.
“Yeah, she’s in there” Milo puts in “Had a nose in the astral.”
“Superb” Crimson says “once the door’s open, switch on the jammer and I’ll subdue her.” She gets up and walks in the direction of the elevator. “Coming?” She asks Koh over her shoulder.
With Koh in tow, she pushes the button for fifth when Milo squeezes in between the closing doors.
“Might need my help. Also there’s a minibar I don’t have to pay for.” He adds with a wink. Crimson can still smell last night’s alcohol on his breath.
“How long did the drinking contest with Arthur last?” she asks him.
He shrugs “Dunno. Sorta lost some after midnight” he says casually.
On the fifth floor they silently approach room 526 “Lock’s open” Jeff tells them.
“Hit the jammer, I’m going in” Crimson opens the door carefully.
Inside, a woman in her late twenties in a purple dress is busy packing things into a bag. Her heavily-styled hair matches her dress. As Crimson runs at her she has time for a “Oh shit” and turns to the window.
Something narrowly misses Crimson in the narrow corridor and wraps itself around Alice’s feet. The purple-haired decker teeters for a few seconds before crashing to the floor, Koh’s bolas firmly tied around her ankles.
Crimson turns angrily to her cousin “Are you nuts? Throwing that past me in a confined space. Fuck it. Maybe I should just go home now, as you’ve got this all in hand.” She composes herself, turns back to Alice before Koh can reply and hauls the woman on to a chair.
“Hi” she says cheerily “how are you?”
“Suddenly a lot worse” Alice comes back. “Are you here about the crate?”
“That’s right. How did you know that?”
“Once we knew what was inside, we figured someone would come after us.”
“And come after you we did. We also need the files you nicked.”
Alice nods at a dataslug in the side of her commlink. Jeff who has wandered into the room with the other three picks it up “Heavily encrypted” he says after looking at it for a bit.
“Give it here” Milo says and plugs it into the secure government commlink he got from a ‘man in a black suit’. “There you go” he says, handing it over to Jeff “Lots of gibberish but looks like it’s a ritual to summon the avatar of the dragonslayer or something.”
“Means nothing to me” Crimson admits.”
“The dragonslayer is a metaphor for great accomplishments and triumph of good over evil. Also something here about making Britain great again.”
“Tir. They’re going after Tir” Crimson guesses “Can’t blame them. Bloody fascist elves giving the rest of us a bad name. I mean we’re obviously superior, but they take it too far” she adds with a wink and a smile.
She addresses Alice again “So we need the rest of your guys. We know you’ve got a caster, a rigger and someone who leaves rose petals about the place. Anyone else? They all holed up in the fire station?”
“You know about that? Should have guessed. Yeah they’re all there. We also got a sniper and Shadow. He’s an adept and sort of in charge.”
“Excellent. Anything else we need to know?” she asks the room in general.
Silence all round and Koh steps in with her neurostun hypodermic. Alice slumps forward in her chair.
Jeff switches off the jammer. Immediately, Alice’s ‘link goes. The readout says ‘Safehouse’. Koh answers in Alice’s voice “Yeah, I’m kind of busy.”
A man’s voice says “Drop the act. Who are you and what have you done with Alice?”
Crimson takes the ‘link from Koh who looks irritated at having her bluff called “She’s fine. Who am I talking to?”
“Shadow. You after the crate, right?”
“We’ll trade the crate for Alice. How’s that sound?”
“I’ll have to think it over. Call you back.” She disconnects.
“You heard the man” she addresses her team “what do we think? We could go for it and not collect the 5,000 for bringing them in.”
“Or we could double-cross them and take them out when we make the switch” Koh says “I’ll find the sniper and take him out.”
“I think you should do that in any case. I hate snipers” Crimson tells her “Third option: You take the sniper out and we present them with the fact that we get extra to bring them in and offer them the option of buying that clause out.”
“Good thinking lass” Arthur approves “if they say no we can still take them out.”
“Just give me a headstart to find the sniper” Koh says and leaves the room.
A few minutes later Crimson calls the safehouse “You’ve got yourself a deal” she tells Shadow “Where do you want to make the switch?”
“At our safehouse.”
“Your safehouse?” Crimson feigns ignorance.
“Don’t play games with me, I’m pretty sure you know where I mean.”
“Oh right. That safehouse. We’ll be there in 30” she kills the connection.
Somehow they manage to manhandle the unconscious Alice into Shandor’s cruiser without attracting attention. Milo makes clinking noises as all the bottles from the minibar bulge in the pockets of his coat.
Arriving at the fire station the PI astrally projects. “Can’t find ‘em anywhere” he reports “figure they’ve got spirits concealing them.”
Crimson swears “Keep looking. Any luck on the sniper?” she asks Koh.
“Nothing. Making my way inside. There’s a balcony inside that looks promising.”
A small drone emerges from the fire station “Step out of the car and bring Alice” it demands through its speaker.
“You come out and bring the crate” Crimson says and puts her fist through the drone.
They wait for a little while before the metal rolling shutter doors open and reveal what looks to be the entire team; a houngan, dwarf, cyber sam, a man with a sniper rifle and a muscular-looking elf.
“Is that sniper real? Can you see if that’s an illusion” Crimson asks her mages.
“He’s a fake” Milo says shortly.
“Sniper’s still out there” she updates Koh and gets out of the car slowly. Shandor and Milo retrieve Alice from the boot.
“Here she is” Crimson tells the elf, who she guesses is Shadow “let’s have the box.”
Shadow and the cyber sam, Molnija lift the crate and carry it most of the way to the cruiser.
“There you go” Shadow says “don’t think we could have shifted it anyway.”
“What? Hang on, are you telling me that you knocked over a government facility on the off-chance of stealing something good?” Crimson can not believe they are common thieves and tries to keep them talking until Koh can take out the sniper.
Shoadow shrugs “Times are hard and we’ve had some success doing this kind of thing before.”
“Maybe you should stop leaving calling cards everywhere” she raises her voice for the last bit, ensuring Koh definitely hears “we had three leads and chances are you’d have got away while we were chasing a dead end. What sort of idiot leaves calling cards at crime scenes anyway?”
Molnija, who has been looking at her with open hostility looks like he is about to draw a weapon.
Shadow, on the other hand, casts a sidelong look at his teammate “I know, right? I think we’ll need to have a word about that at some point. Can we have Alice now please?”
At that point the message comes through form Koh “Sniper’s down.”
“Of course” Crimson turns as if to fetch her, pauses and turns back “One more thing though. We are set to receive a bonus on bringing you all in.”
She sees the other team tense “However” she carries on “I don’t really feel like fighting you right now and seeing how you are already two team members down” she nods at where the sniper was “I feel it would be a little unfair on you. So I would like to give you the option of buying out that particular clause in our contract.”
Shadow studies her for a while then draws the others into a huddle.
“Arthur, a lightning bolt… Arthur?” she spots the dwarf coming out of the fire station wheeling a sackcart laden with alcoholic drinks.
“Arthur, dear” she says sweetly “would you mind readying a lightning bolt at that tank drone, in case they try anything, please?”
“Anything for you lass” he replies happily.
“I’ve got the roto drone” Shandor says.
A few tense minutes go by when Shadow breaks from the group and approaches Crimson “30 grand and we’ll all walk away from here.”
Koh meanwhile is lowering the sniper’s unconscious from the balcony and Crimson is sure she can spot her slip something into the man’s clothes.
Shadow follows his team to the truck. “If you need any help with a job, I’m sure you’ll find a card somewhere telling you where to contact us” Crimson calls after him.
The elf laughs. “I’m sure we will. I’d step back from the building, by the way. We won’t be coming back here.” He guns the truck and pulls away.
Crimson rejoins the others “What’s in the box?” she says leaning over Arthur to have a look in the inspection window. Inside is an ovoid shape, almost a metre long, covered in small greenish scales.
“Is that what I think it is?” she asks nobody in particular.
“Yup. That’s a dragon egg.” Shandor says.
“Let’s get this back to the compound quick then” Crimson suggests.
They call ahead and make their way to the Highways Agency compound. On the way, Milo’s government commlink pulses. He answers a man in a military uniform “I understand you have retrieved government data.”
“Maybe” Crimson says guardedly.
“We are willing to compensate you handsomely for a copy of this data.”
Crimson throws a quick glance around the group “Sorry, sir, but that would represent a breach of our contract. We have never done so and would like to continue this record.”
“I understand.” The military man says.
“If you require our services we will of course extend the same discretion to you” Koh adds before the man hangs up.
The exchange of the data and the egg is brief and the runners are on their way home to the PoBoMet.
Crimson notes with satisfaction that she will even be back in time for her date with Scott.