9 May 2014

By the Numbers - Chapter 6

A Day in the Life

(Language warning in effect.)
Shadowrun © 2013 The Topps Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Shadowrun and Matrix are registered trademarks and/or trademarks of The Topps Company, Inc., in the United States and/or other countries. Catalyst Game Labs and the Catalyst Game Labs logo are trademarks of InMediaRes Productions, LLC.
Wednesday, April 15, 2071
0912 hours

    The boom of a jet taking off shattered Treehugger's sleep.  The young rigger rolled over, throwing her blankets off her.  She blinked, trying to place where she was.  Looking around, she saw several shelves holding a small library of books and optical chips and a desk that appeared to be made out of wood.  Treehugger rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.  Beside her, she saw a pile of folded blankets.  Another roar shook the building.  "Okay, okay, I'm up," she mumbled.

    Treehugger stood up and stretched, working out the kinks from sleeping on the floor.  She staggered out of the study.  The rigger heard low voices talking from down the hallway.  Padding on bare feet, she followed the voices to the kitchen.  She found Oswald and Numbers sitting on opposite sides of a dining table, sipping soykaf.  "Morning," Treehugger said.

    "Hi, TH," Numbers said.  "We didn't wake you, did we?"

    "Nah.  The low flying jet did that."  Treehugger sat beside Numbers.  "Where are the Johnsons?"

    "Tarkov's gone to get our IDs," Oswald answered.  "The kids are at school.  The wife has gone to work.  Charles should be on his way back from dropping her off, though he might check in on Tarkov on his way back."  He drained his coffee mug dry then stood up.  "Want a soykaf?  They've got a decent blend here."

    "Yes, please."  Treehugger glanced over at Numbers.  "Something wrong with your hair?"

    "Hmm?"  Numbers ran her fingers through her hair, now a translucent white.  "Oh, no, I just turned it off."

    Oswald set a steaming hot mug of soykaf in front of the rigger.  "Still fresh.  Sweetener on the counter, real cream in the fridge."  He sat back down across of Numbers.  "I'll start breakfast when you ladies are ready."

    "Since when do you cook?" Treehugger asked.

    "I learned the ignite spell so I could barbecue, no joke.  Beats using an autochef.  And the Johnsons have eggs.  Real eggs.  He invited us to use them."

    "Sounds wiz to me."

    "I'll pass," Numbers said.  She held up her coffee mug.  "This will keep me going until lunch."

    "Your loss."

    The front door opened.  Oswald stood up and readied to cast a spell.  "Who's there?" he called.

    "It's Charles."  The troll poked his head into the kitchen.  "Mira and the kids are safe.  How are things here?"

    "Quiet," Numbers said.

    "Except for the jets," Treehugger added.

    Charles disappeared back to the living room.  "Yeah, I saw," he called back.  "You should get out this afternoon, TH.  Great chance to see the new Eagles.  Johnson said they'll be doing flight tests all day."

    "So much for napping."  Treehugger sighed.  "You're looking better, Oz."

    Oswald rubbed his chest.  "I have a mass of bruises right here.  I had to sleep on my back to avoid the pain.  At least the guy who shot me got his.  Numbers, have you checked your news feeds to see if anything got reported?"

    "Let me look."  The hacker closed her eyes.  "Ah, found something.  KSAF has a report of a gang skirmish outside the Rubber Suit.  One confirmed dead, no identification, preliminary cause is severe burns."

    Treehugger raised an eyebrow.  "Burns?"

    "That's what happens when you don't get out of the way of a fire elemental."  Oswald sipped his coffee.  "Anything else?"

    "Knight Errant was on scene within seven minutes of the first call placed by a Panicbutton report from the fire door.  Gunshots were heard.  The Knights are still investigating.  Witnesses just say that they heard the shots after the alarm went off, but didn't see the fighting."  Numbers opened her eyes.  "Good news, we weren't seen."

    "Bad news, KE is involved."  Oswald rubbed his chin.  "If the Star still had the police contract, we'd be good by the weekend.  The Knights are still persistent."

    "They can't get us in here," Treehugger said.  "We're in FedBoeing-land.  The Knights don't have jurisdiction and we have an in with the head of the FB police."  She picked up her mug and sipped her soykaf straight.

    "I'd like to go home after this job's done," Numbers said.  "I don't need to watch over my shoulder any time a KE patrol drives by.

    "If witnesses saw us leave, they still don't have the right colour car.  They saw a red Commodore, we have a black one.  And Two-Tone will get it back once he's done patching my Westwind.  It's the best kind of problem, somebody else's."

    Oswald got up and brought his mug with him to the kitchen counter.  "Doesn't matter now.  I'm hungry.  Anyone else up for eggs?"  He raised his voice.  "Charles?  How do you like your eggs done?"

    "Over easy," the troll called back.  "Since when do we have eggs?"

    "Bonus from the Johnsons."  Oswald opened the fridge and got out the package of eggs.  "TH, what about you?"

    "It's been so long, I've almost forgotten.  Sunny-side up."

    "Numbers, are you sure you don't want any?  Doesn't take long."

    "I'm fine," the hacker said.  She got up from the table.  "I'll be in the living room watching the trid.  The financial news should be on."  Numbers passed Charles as she left the kitchen.  "Bon appetit.  Let me know how good Oswald is as a cook."

    Numbers stretched out on the couch and turned the trid on.  She let the unit flip through the channels as she searched for something to watch.  A newscast caught her eye.  Numbers stopped the trid from changing stations.  The computer generated talking head droned on about an explosion outside an Ares warehouse.  A spokesperson for the megacorporation tried to shift the blame to malcontents and outside agitators.  Numbers, however, saw something on the edge of the frame.  She used the trid unit's zoom to blow up the image, focusing on what caught her eye.  A piece of grafitti, bright, fresh, was caught in the camera's frame.  Numbers downloaded the image to her wrist commlink.

    Tarkov returned to his home.  He waved to Numbers before he took off his jacket.  "I've got your IDs set up.  I had to attach them to SINs, but they'll expire at twenty-three hundred on Sunday.  Your team has access to common areas, free access through all the gates leading on campus, and all buildings my family and I use.  I used your suggestions.  You're now Claudia Mueller from the temp pool assigned as my admin assistant.  The troll's Charles Pinelli, executive protection.  Oswald is Sean Oswald, also executive protection and registered magician.  Treehugger is now Fiona Guerrero from the motor pool.  She can go sign out a car for us to use over the weekend whenever she wants."

    "Thanks."  Numbers transferred her new ID to her wrist commlink.

    "There's also an account set up at the mall for when you want to get clothes and accessories."

    "What about weapons, at least for Charles and Oswald?  It'll help with the ruse if they have the same ones the rest of your men use."

    Tarkov nodded.  "I can arrange that through my department.  Does your rigger use drones?  I might have a few in stock that can disappear for the weekend without too many questions."

    "I'll check with TH.  I'm sure she can use them."  Numbers turned off the trid.  "Anything we should be aware of happening today?"

    "Not really.  I'll work from home today.  If you have questions, I'll be in the study."


1001 hours

    With breakfast over, Oswald walked into the living room.  He heard Charles and Treehugger busy cleaning up in the kitchen.  Numbers sprawled on the couch, her eyes closed but her fingers twitching within her AR gloves.  Oswald let the hacker remain within her own little world, no need to disturb her if she was busy.  He walked to the centre of the room and took a cleansing breath.  The apartment remained quiet except for the bustling in the kitchen.

    Oswald snapped his fingers.  An amorphous blob of a spirit appeared in front of him.  "Yeah, boss?" the being said.

    "See that door there?"  Oswald pointed at the main entrance.  "Watch it.  If that door opens before you dissipate, scream your fool head off.  Understand?"

    The blob nodded.  "Yeah, boss."

    "What are your instructions?"

    "Watch door.  Scream if it opens."

    Oswald smiled.  "Good."  Watcher weren't the brightest of spirits, but if he gave them simple instructions, they were better than electronics.  He stepped aside, focused again, then snapped his fingers.  A second blob appeared.  "See him?" he asked, pointing at the first watcher spirit.

    "Yeah, boss."

    "Watch him.  If he screams, come get me."

    "Yeah, boss."

    "What are your instructions?"

    "Watch that spirit.  Come get you if he screams."

    "Good work."

    "Yeah, boss."

    Oswald sat down on the cream coloured chair.  He turned on the trid, keeping the volume down.  Flipping through the channels, he found a replay of the previous night's combat bike game.  Oswald settled in to enjoy the match up.

    Five minutes into watching the game, a loud knock came from the door.  "Mr. Tarkov," a man's voice called.  "Mr. Tarkov, are you in there?"  More hammering followed.  "Mr. Tarkov, please open up."  Tarkov hurried out of his study and to the door.  Oswald was on his feet but too slow to stop his employer.  Tarkov unlocked and opened the door.

    An ear-piercing shriek filled the apartment and the hallway outside.  Numbers jerked her eyes opened and fell off the couch.  Oswald covered his ears.  In front of him, an almost child-shaped blob manifested.  "Boss, he's screaming.  Boss, he's screaming."  Treehugger and Charles emerged from the kitchen, hands over their ears as the looked for the disturbance.

    Two armoured security guards stormed into the apartment past Tarkov.  Both reached for their weapons but kept them holstered.  "What is going on?" Tarkov roared, trying to be heard over the shrieking watcher.

    "Unauthorized summoning," one of the guards said, using his helmet's built-in voice amplifier to be heard.

    "Boss, he's screaming."

    "Both of you shut up!" Oswald bellowed.  Both watcher spirits went quiet.

    No one spoke immediately.  The silence became as deafening as the watcher's shrieks.  Tarkov looked around at everyone.  "Okay, what the hell just happened?"  He turned to the security guards.  "You first."

    "One of the--"  The guard stopped and turned the voice amplification off.  "One of the security mages detected an unauthorized summoning.  We were sent to investigate and report back."

    "Tell them that the problem is under control."  Tarkov turned to Oswald.  "What did you summon?"

    "Two watcher spirits.  Not the brightest beings around, but as good as a watchdog."

    One of the spirits vibrated in agreement.  "Yeah, boss."

    Tarkov returned his attention to the corporate security men.  "All clear here.  Mr. Oswald forgot to go through proper procedure.  I'll make sure a reprimand is placed in his file."  He showed the guards back to the hallway.  "Ask Carter to come see me when he gets a moment.  Good day gentlemen and good work."  Tarkov closed the door.

    Oswald scratched the back of his head.  "I should have thought that one through a little more."

    "No shit."  Tarkov shook his head then returned to his study.

    Charles returned to the kitchen.  Treehugger walked over to the mage and slugged him in the arm.  "Dumbass."

    Numbers laid back out on the couch.  "Planning on setting of an air raid siren next, Oz?"

    "Funny, ladies.  Real funny."  Oswald focused on the watchers.  "Shoo!"  The two spirits dissipated.

    "I'm going to check on the limo," Treehugger said.  "Want me to bring anything back?  Earplugs?"  The rigger stuck her tongue out at Oswald.

    "If there's a StarKafé around, I'll have a medium Yucatan roast café au lait with extra nonfat steamed milk," Numbers requested.  "If they have them, a sticky bun, too, please."

    Treehugger added a note for the hacker's order on her commlink.  "Anything you want, Oz?"

    "I'm good."  The mage settled into the easy chair.  "Call if there's trouble."


1024 hours

    The rigger admitted to herself that the Federated-Boeing campus buses were useful.  The wait for one wasn't long, not even five minutes, and the route didn't meander between the apartment blocks and the main corporate facilities.  Treehugger was able to time her trip by accessing the bus's own GPS, which also helpfully let her know where the security motor pool was.  The young rigger suppressed a giggle.  Here she was being given a tour of a facility that would be a challenge for her and her team to break into.

    The clouds overhead broke a little.  Treehugger shielded her face from the sun.  She made a note to bring up the problem of day jobs with her teammates later.  It was never fun having her exposed skin feel like it was on fire.  Worse, the buses windows had no tinting.  Treehugger changed seats crossing the aisle to get into the meager shade the bus provided.

    The announcement came for Treehugger's stop.  She stepped off and darted into the shade of the garage's wall.  The movement caught the attention of the guard outside the motor pool's gate.  He turned and started walking towards her.  Treehugger waved to him and kept her arms out from her body.  "Sorry, man," she said when they met.  "I'm light sensitive.  It sucks to not enjoy a nice day like today."

    "Can I see your ID."  The guard held up his scanner.

    "Definitely."  She sent her cover's security code.  "I'm here to check out a car."

    The guard read over the data he received.  "Talk to the mechanics inside."  He walked with the young woman to the main entrance.  "There should be a medkit inside if you want something for your face."

    Treehugger sighed.  "It looks as bad is it feels, huh?"

    "I hope it clears up.  I take it you're new here?"

    "Yeah.  Just moved here from Boston."

    "Look, if you're feeling up to it, I can show you around later.  Show you where the entertainment is."

    Treehugger's commlink buzzed to let her know the guard's personal access code arrived.  "I'll let you know if my face will let me."  She smiled at man.  "Thanks."

    The guard stopped at his post.  "Call me even if you're not feeling up to a night out."  He returned her smile.  "I really like your ears."

    "Thanks."  Treehugger kept facing the guard as she walked backwards into the motor pool.  "I'll call."  She twirled around and skipped a few steps before entering the office.

    Inside, she blinked several times to adjust to the artificial light.  She walked over to the main desk.  An ork in stained coveralls looked up from his work.  "Yeah, you looking for something?"

    Treehugger leaned on the desk.  "I'm here to pick up a car.  I think there's some drones waiting for me, too."


    "Fiona Guerrero."  Treehugger beamed her ID to the ork.  "Main thing's the car right now."

    The ork took a second to search his records.  "Found you.  The drone request should be ready by tomorrow.  I've got your car, though.  Follow me."  He came around to join Treehugger then led her into the garage.  "The troll seating should be in by now.  Really short notice, though.  Next time, can you give us a least two weeks?  We're going to have people yelling at us the next couple of days."

    "Sorry, omae."  Treehugger tried to look apologetic.  "This was short notice for me.  I'll let my boss know for next time.  No guarantees, though."

    "I hear ya.  Fucking management.  No idea what we do, but they always want their shit as soon as they ask."  The ork stopped in front of an black Ares Humvee Civic.  "This is it."  He opened the front passenger door.  "And your troll is going to be happy."  The ork stepped aside to let Treehugger see the oversized seat.

    "Great!  And the beast is rigged?"

    "Full vehicle control rig and enough armour to drive through a gang war.  We even added run flat tires."  The ork walked to the back and opened the trunk.  "And plenty of space for a couple of drones."

    "Perfect.  When can I take it?"

    The ork brought up an AR form.  "Just need your electronic signature and it's yours.  Just keep in mind that any damage to the vehicle outside authorized Federated-Boeing endeavors is your responsibility and may have the cost of repairs, both parts and labour, be deducted from your salary."

    Treehugger transferred her cover identity's authorization code.  "So no taking it to the demolition derby.  Pity.  I'd win easily."  She closed the trunk.  "Thanks for the rush job.  I'll try to not make your job harder when I return it."


1045 hours

    Numbers looked out the peep hole to see who knocked on the door.  She mentally turned her hair back on, letting the pre-programmed light brunette flicker on.  In the hallway, a tall human wearing a satin Federated-Boeing jacket waited.  Numbers opened the door.  "Hello," she said, keeping her voice pleasant.  "May I help you?"

    "Is Peter Tarkov here?"  He moved to enter the apartment.

    Numbers stayed in the doorway.  "He is, but he's busy."

    "Cut the crap.  Where is he?"

    "Like I said, busy.  May I say who is calling?"

    The visitor scowled.  "You have a choice.  You can leave right now or I can have a security team remove you."

    "Charles, a little help here," Numbers called.  She folded her arms under her breasts.  "Mr. Tarkov is busy."

    "Look, lady, I know for a fact Tarkov is here.  Who are you and what are you doing in his apartment?"  The human took a step back as Charles lumbered into view.  "You have ten seconds to start explaining."

    "Problem?" Charles asked.

    "I hope not."  Numbers kept her eye on the visitor.  "May I say who is calling?"

    "Owen Carter."

    Numbers stepped aside.  "Please come in.  Would you like a soykaf?"

    Carter shook his head.  "What the fuck is with you?"

    "Mr. Tarkov will explain."  Numbers turned her attention to her teammate.  "Charles, can you let Mr. Tarkov know his guest has arrived?"  The troll nodded and walked down the hallway to the study.

    Carter strode to the middle of the family room.  "If you're holding Tarkov hostage--"

    "Mr. Tarkov will explain everything.  In the meantime, can I get you something?"

    Tarkov emerged from the study.  "Owen!  Glad you could make it."

    "Peter."  Carter glanced at Numbers.  "Who is this?"

    "Better sit, Owen."  Tarkov walked to the bar.  "Scotch?"

    Carter sat down on the couch.  He looked over to Oswald.  "Yeah, make it a double."

    Tarkov poured the drink.  "Remember all the anomalies that popped up a month back?"

    "The ones around the crews in the test labs and the hangar?"

    "Yeah, those."  Tarkov passed a glass of amber liquid to Carter.  "We weren't the only one hit.  I saw a request on a security social network about background oddities, same thing we were seeing.  Started exchanging info.  Security breach, but that let me find a few more companies having the same problem."

    Carter swallowed his scotch.  "What does it have to do with these clowns."

    "Protection."  Tarkov sighed.  "I'm meeting with my contacts face to face.  Don't know where yet.  Could be a trap.  Could be a good time to eliminate everyone who noticed the anomalies."

    "Peter, you've got an entire department to protect you.  Hell, you've got me."

    "And I want you keeping my family safe."

    "Still doesn't explain who the hell these guys are."

    Tarkov grimaced.  "Shadowrunners."

    "Runners."  Carter downed the rest of his liquor.  "The same people you try to keep off corporate territory.  The same people you've called 'scum for hire'."

    Numbers picked up the empty shot glass.  "I think we get the point, Mr. Carter.  No need to insult us.  Another drink?"

    "Sure."  Carter shook his head in disbelief.  "Peter, isn't this . . .."  His voice trailed off as he tried to find the right word.

    "Paranoid?" Tarkov suggested.  "Definitely.  Absolutely.  Except."  He poured a second scotch for Carter and one for himself.  "Except that there was an attempt on me last night."

    Carter shifted on the couch.  "What happened?"

    Tarkov shrugged.  "Not completely sure.  I saw these men at the club, watching me instead of the trid.  I called the runners, they got me out."

    "They could have set you up, Peter."

    "We didn't know who Mr. Tarkov was yet," Charles said.  "We had only just met him Monday."

    "Plenty of time for you to run a search and figure out where he was," Carter pointed out.

    "At a monster trid marathon?" Numbers asked.  She brought the shot glass to Carter.  "I didn't know the Rubber Suit showed that sort of thing.  It's not something the average person would even expect."

    "Owen, you're one of the few people outside my family who knows about my collection.  And you know how careful I am about routing payments, especially for shit that's part of a pattern.  It'd take a forensic accountant some time to figure out where I was."

    "Several months at least," Numbers said.  "It would be far easier to just follow you."

    Carter shot a look at Tarkov who only shrugged.  "This is Numbers," Tarkov said.  "She knows corporate procedures.  The big guy is Charles.  The guy sleeping in the chair is Oswald."  Tarkov turned to face Numbers.  "Why is he sleeping?"

    "I think he's gone astral," Charles said.  "He's our magical support."

    "This is it?" Carter asked.

    "There's a fourth, Treehugger.  She's gone to get the SUV I'm using this weekend."

    "That explains all the requests you've been making."

    "Does anyone else know?"

    Carter shook his head.  "I put my name on it.  Some of what you want can come out of the unofficial supplies.  Anything you need?"

    "Yeah.  Keep an eye on my family."


1540 hours

    Carter was long gone by the time Tarkov's son returned home.  Charles met the boy at the door, letting him in.  "Hoi.  Your sister not with you?"

    "Hi, Charles."  Holden shook his head.  "She had to stay late.  Are Mom and Dad here?"

    "Your dad's in the study."

    Holden set his book bag down.  "Can I ask you some questions?"

    "Sure.  I just need to make a call."  The troll pulled up Treehugger's comm code.  He heard the rigger pick up.  "Hoi, Treehugger.  You mobile?  I need you to check in on the girl."

    Over the commlink's speaker, Treehugger said, "Yeah, I'm mobile.  Where was she last?"

    "The school.  Her brother just arrived."

    "I'm on it.  I'll call once I've checked out the school.  Ja!"  The rigger broke the connection.

    Charles returned his attention to the young boy.  "There.  So, you had questions?"

    Holden nodded.  "I've never met a real shadowrunner before.  Is it like on the trid?  You know, with shooting and betrayals and explosions?"

    "There can be shooting and betrayals and explosions."  Charles grinned.  "Not all the time.  Getting shot hurts, even for me."

    "But don't you have cyberware?  On the trid, only the mages don't have cybernetics."

    "I have some.  Nothing that stops a bullet."  Charles tapped a dermal ridge on his arm.  "All I have is this, all natural.  What I do have makes me a bit stronger and helps me aim better."

    Holden frowned a bit.  "So you're can't take on a cyberninja?"

    "I've never run into a cyberninja.  He'd probably break his hand on me."  Charles sat on the couch, taking up most of the space on it.  The couch creaked with his mass.  "What shows have you been watching?"

    "The Fall of Night.  Have you seen it?"

    Charles shook his head.  "It's probably on while I'm working.  We shadowrunners tend to work at night."

    Holden thought over the statement.  "Yeah, you're probably right.  Do you watch any trid?"

    "Mostly sports.  Baseball, combat biker, urban brawl."

    "You ever play any?"

    Charles shrugged.  "Pick up games with friends.  Kinda hard to find someone willing to play full contact football with me."

    "I can see that."  Holden joined the troll on the couch.  "Ever kill anyone?"

    Charles cocked an eyebrow.  "That's a little personal, don't you think?"

    "It happens on the trid.  The good shadowrunners, the bad ones, the cops, even corporate security."

    "I see.  Well, Holden, I've had to shoot people.  Some bad, some good, some just doing their jobs.  It's not something for me to be proud of."

    "Are you a good shadowrunner?"

    "What do you think?"

    Holden stared at the floor for a moment.  "I think you are.  You're helping Dad and you're nice."

    Charles smiled.  "Could be that I'm just being nice because I'm being paid to be."

    "Nah, you can't be nice on command all the time."

    Tarkov walked into the family room.  "Hey, boyo."  He held his arms out so Holden could run into a hug.  "How was school?"

    "It was okay, I guess.  Skye's going to be late."

    "Go start your homework.  I'll let you know when supper's ready."  Tarkov hugged his son one more time before sending him to the study.  One the boy was out of sight, he turned to the troll.  "Did you know my daughter was still at school?"

    "Your son told me," Charles said.  "I've called Treehugger and asked her to check it out."

    "I don't like this."

    "Neither do I.  However, we're on top of it.  Treehugger's off to look."

    Tarkov took in the living room.  "Where are the other two?"

    "Getting clothes and equipment and doing some scouting at the same time.  I'll call them in once Treehugger reports back and if we need them.  For all we know right now, your daughter is just staying behind to hang out with her chummers or has a detention or is getting extra help in a class."

    "Skye should have called us."

    "She's a teenager.  I did far dumber shit at her age."  Charles got up off the couch.  "If there's a problem, we're on it.  No use panicking before we know what's happening."

    "Do you want me to call her?" Tarkov asked.

    "Email her.  If she needs to be reminded, the email should be enough."

    Tarkov sat in the easy chair.  "And I hope Holden wasn't too much of a problem.  He's excited over what's happening."

    "No, no problem.  Though I want to see this show he's been watching."

    "It's not the best out there.  I'm not sure why he watches it."


1558 hours

    Treehugger brought the black Humvee to a screeching halt in front of the William E. Boeing middle school.  She jumped out of the SUV and marched to the school's main doors.  The uniformed guard stepped in front of her.  Treehugger transmitted her cover's security access.  "I'm looking for a kid."

    "Is this one of yours?" the guard asked.

    Treehugger glared at the man.  "My boss's kid.  She didn't come home.  He's worried, that means I'm worried.  Want to join the worrying?  There's lots to share."

    "What's her name?  The kid, not your boss."

    "Tarkov.  Skye Tarkov.  Fourteen, has a neon blue streak in her hair.  Acts like a teenager."

    The guard called up an AR display.  "Let's see if she left yet."  He scrolled through the logs.  "She arrived this morning."

    "Did she leave?"

    The guard reached the last entry in the log file.  "According to this, no, she hasn't left."

    Treehugger let out a held breath.  "Can I go in and see her?"

    The guard checked his AR display.  "You're not on the list of authorized personnel."

    "You're joking."  Treehugger brought up her security clearance code on her commlink.  "What does this tell you?"

    "I'm sorry, ma'am.  The school has its own security separate from the factory and offices.  I would love to let you in, but it'd cost me my job."

    "Do you have clearance to go in?"

    The guard blinked.  "I'm sorry?"

    "Do you have clearance to go in?" Treehugger repeated, letting her frustration show in her tone.  "Are you allowed to go into the school?  Or are you stuck out here all day no matter how your bladder feels?"

    "Yes, yes, I can go in."

    "There, problem solved.  Go."

    "I really shouldn't do this."

    "Do you want to explain to Mr. Tarkov why his daughter isn't safely on her way home?  I can call him if you want."

    "No, no."  The guard looked around.  "Can you cover for me out here until I get back?"

    Treehugger nodded.  "Sure.  No need to let anyone know that you had to leave your post."  She watched the guard dart into the school.  After a few moments, she began pacing, trying to keep her face shielded from the sun trying to peek back out from behind clouds.  Light traffic passed by, mainly family vans with the occasional subcompact.

    The guard returned five minutes later, the Tarkov girl following sullenly.  Skye glared at the rigger.  "I was coming."

    "So is Christmas.  Let's go."  Treehugger opened the Humvee's doors remotely.

    "I don't have to come home right away.  Holden can take care of himself for an hour."

    "In the truck.  Now."  Treehugger herded the girl to the SUV.  "You've got us worried."

    Skye rolled her eyes as she climbed into the Humvee.  "I do this all the time.  God!"

    "And your father has bodyguards living in his home all the time, too?"  Treehugger closed Skye's door.  "We're supposed to keep you safe."

    "Well, I was, until you came."  Skye crossed her arms in front of her.  "Do you know how embarrassing it was to have the fucking guard come get me?"

    Treehugger slipped in behind the steering wheel and closed her door.  "Buckle up."

    "You're joking, right?  Look at this seat.  It's fucking huge."

    "Fine, don't.  Don't cry to me if I have to brake hard."  Treehugger started the engine.  "And you should have at least emailed your father to let him know you weren't on your way home."

    "So I forgot.  Sue me.  Oh, wait, you need to legally exist to do that."

    Treehugger ignored the jibe.  "What was so important that you couldn't even call?"

    "I don't have to answer to you."

    "No, you don't.  But, better me than your parents.  I can't ground you, and I really don't see the need."

    Skye peered at the rigger from the corner of her eyes.  "Why do you want to know?"

    "So me and my team can plan around you tomorrow."  Treehugger sighed.  "Look, I know it's a pain to have your routine completely thrown off.  Charles, the big troll, has done more jobs like this than I can count on both hands.  He knows how to keep the disruption to a minimum.  But we need to know why.  We, my team.  Your parents don't.  They're not paying for that sort of info."

    Skye sat still for several blocks as Treehugger maneuvered the oversized truck through the residential streets.  "Okay, there's this guy on the basketball team."

    "Is he cute?"

    The teenager blushed.  "But because I had to go home, some bitchy cheerleader is going to get her claws into him and he'll never notice me."

    "Have you talked to him?"

    "A few times, in class."

    Treehugger shrugged.  "If you can get through this weekend, invite him for a soykaf or something after school."

    "I can't do that!"

    "Why not?  Bring along your friend, what's her name?"


    "Yeah, Greer."  Treehugger smirked.  "You're not asking him on a date.  You're just going out with friends.  Greer know about you and him?"

    Skye nodded.  "Sort of, yeah."

    "Let her run interference.  Give him time to know you and make his move.  Haven't you heard of letting him chase you until you catch him?"

    "Did that work for your boyfriend?"

    Treehugger's smile faded.  "Well, it did at the time."

    "You guys aren't together."  Skye turned away from the rigger and watched the houses go by.  "And I'm listening to you why?"

    "It beats listening to your parents give you advice.  Skye, me and my guy, we weren't compatible.  We had discover that, though.  And the discovery was the fun part."  Treehugger glanced at her passenger.  "Maybe we should strike that.  I don't think your parents want to think about you being ready for sex."

    Skye blushed.  "Yeah, let's not mention that to them.  Especially Dad.  He'd go ballistic."

    "He won't hear it from me."  Treehugger pulled into the apartment complex and parked the Humvee Civic beside her loaner Commodore.  "Here we go."

    "So what are you going to tell my parents?"

    "That you were getting extra help and forgot to call.  Can you keep to that story?"

    Skye nodded.  "Sure."


1612 hours

    "Okay, this is officially weird."  Oswald rubbed the fabric of the Hawaiian shirt.  "I thought these fell out of style ages ago."

    Numbers laughed.  "They never were in style."  She pulled up her shopping list on her wrist commlink.  "Can we stay on mission?"

    "Oh, come on, Numbers."  Oswald swept out his arms.  "Look at the selection here.  Everything you ever wanted, provided you wanted to be FedBoeing."

    "I just want to get our clothes and leave.  We've been wearing these outfits for over a day."

    Oswald chuckled.  "Did I ever tell you the time I wore the same dirty rags for two weeks?"


    "Good.  It wasn't a good story.  Give me Charles's list and measurements.  I can get through the men's wear section while you deal with TH's stuff and yours.  I'll meet you at the checkout."

    Numbers grabbed her teammate's elbow.  "Oh, no, you're not getting out of this.  We need to make sure your colours don't clash."  The hacker pulled him along.  "At least help me with carrying the stuff."

    "Okay, okay."  Oswald let himself be dragged along.  "I'm going to check in with the others, see if anything came up."

    Numbers let go of the mage as he stepped away and approached an AR catalogue.  She flipped through the catalog, looking at the available clothes, making notes on her headware commlink of fashion changes aimed at Federated-Boeing's executives.  On a hunch, she checked the catalog's file headers.  Numbers found no protection on the file itself to prevent downloading a copy.  She directed the copy to her wrist commlink for future perusal.

    Oswald returned to her side.  "Minor scare, all handled and dealt with."  He peered over Numbers's shoulder.  "See anything you like?"

    "A few things."  Numbers kept scrolling through the catalog.  "Nice.  The store even provides bra fittings.  Do you know how long it's been since I had one?"

    "Do you need one?"  Oswald glanced at the hacker's chest.  "I mean, can't you adjust those to fit the bra?"

    "It's not the same.  Really not the same."  Numbers sighed.  "Do you ever miss a little luxury that you used to take for granted?"

    "There are few things, yeah.  Little things like real food instead of reconstituted krill with pseudo-soy flavouring."

    Numbers scowled.  "Okay, I get it.  I'm whining."

    "No, you're not."  Oswald rubbed his teammate's shoulder.  "I understand.  Really, I do.  There is a lot of things the people here take for granted.  Clean clothes.  Hot food.  Roof over their head, even if there are strings attached.  I've thought about signing on somewhere legit a few times."

    Numbers looked up at the mage.  "Yeah?"

    "Yeah.  And then I remembered why I'm in the shadows.  I don't like the datawork and I don't like dealing with management without a position of strength.  My old supervisor always told me that I was too headstrong.  It was one of the few things we agreed on."

    "That's why you left your old job?"

    "There were other problems, but that was the core that got me moving."

    Numbers sighed.  "Thanks.  My reasons for leaving weren't quite the same."

    "Everyone has different reasons, Numbers.  We all experience things differently, even if it's the same event.  Whatever your reason for joining the shadows was, you still had a life before.  It's natural to miss things, even human."  Oswald pulled the tiny hacker into an embrace.  "What do you say that you and me and the others if you want just go to a spa after this job is done and just get pampered.  We've had a busy month.  We deserve it."

    "That sounds good.  A chance to not be anyone else for a change."

    Oswald pointed at the AR catalog.  "Let's get this done.  Why stay here longer than we need to?"


1810 hours

    Mira held her fork in the air.  "How much longer will we have all four of you here?"

    "Honey," Tarkov started.

    "No, it's a fair question," Treehugger said.  "We should be running in shifts.  We just didn't get a chance to work out a plan before coming here."

    "Is there a spare apartment in the building?" Oswald asked.

    "I'd have to check.  Nothing that I know of."  Tarkov looked over to his wife.  "Have you heard anything?"

    "The Lancasters are transferring to Boston at the end of the month."  Mira finally ate the morsel on her fork.

    "Greer said that the Nguyens went out of town last week," Skye said.

    "We're not using their home without letting them know."  Tarkov sipped his red wine.  "After dinner, I'll check the building records."

    "Thank you, Mr. Tarkov," Numbers said.  "We don't mean to be in everyone's--"  The hacker's voice trailed away.  "Sir, I need you and your family to take cover."

    Charles got up from the table.  "What's the approach?"

    "Northwest corner."  Numbers closed her eyes.  "Heading east."

    Tarkov stood up.  "Let's go, kids.  Mira."  He looked over to Numbers.  "How did you get access to security?"

    Oswald took Holden's hand into his.  "She's a hacker.  It's part of the job description."

    "I didn't break security.  I programmed agents to watch security sweeps.  One saw something outside parameters."  Numbers shifted to sitting on the floor.  She leaned up against the wall and closed her eyes.

    Charles guided Mira and Skye out of the dining room and into the small kitchen area.  "Keep your heads down until we give the all clear."

    "I'll let Carter know," Tarkov said.  "Holden, over here."  The boy ran from Oswald to join the rest of his family in the kitchen.

    "Contact!" Treehugger called.  "The Hummer just spotted multiple forms.  The Commodore confirms.  Downloading the images now."

    Charles crossed through the dining room in several strides.  "I could use my gun."

    "They're in the study," Tarkov said.  "In the desk, bottom left drawer.  You'll need these."  He dug his keys from his pocket.

    "Over here."  Oswald caught the tossed key chain.  "I'll get the guns.  Yell if you need me back."  He dashed out of the room.

    "System's on active alert," Numbers reported.  "No intrusion yet, but something set the alarm off."

    Treehugger sat down beside the hacker.  "Need help in there?"

    "No.  No one's in the node besides me."

    A shadow passed over the dining room window.  Treehugger cocked her head.  "I'm picking up a signal."  Her eyes widened.  "Oh, fuck!  Everyone down!"

    A low droning sound approached the window.  A burst of gunfire rang out.  The window shattered, spraying tempered glass on the floor.  The Rotodrone outside fired again, a long burst.  Bullets poked holes through the walls.  "Oswald!" Charles bellowed.  "We need the guns now!"

    "Heads up!"  Oswald held out a hand as he guided his spell.  Two weapons, Charles's huge Deputy and Treehugger's Predator, floated into the dining room.

    Charles grabbed his gun as it levitated by.  He fired without taking aim.  The report of the revolver rang.  The Rotodrone shifted its aim.  It fired another burst.  Charles tried to duck but felt a line of white-hot heat along his shoulder.  Treehugger's Predator fell into her lap.  She picked the pistol up, her smartlink system meshing with its.  A targeting reticule appeared in her vision, tracking her pistol's aim.  The cross-hair lit up as it passed over the drone.  Treehugger squeezed the Predator's trigger.  The drone's armour sparked briefly.  "Numbers, I need that drone!" the rigger called.

    "Busy here," Numbers said, her voice a monotone.  "Two system intruders."

    "Great."  Treehugger closed her eyes.  "Someone make sure I'm safe!"

    "On it!"  Charles squeezed his revolver's trigger twice.  The first shot ricocheted off the Rotodrone's armour.  The second punched through.  Sparks showered out.

    Gunfire erupted in the living room.  "Incoming!" Oswald shouted.

    "Do you have the drone, TH?"

    "Not yet."  Treehugger gritted her teeth.  "Go!"

    Charles assessed the Rotodrone.  "Going."  He kept low as he darted to the entryway to the living room.  The main door was still closed but had several bullet holes in it.  Charles sighted down his Deputy's barrel at the entrance, waiting.  In the back hall, Oswald crouched down, also aiming.

    A shotgun boomed in the corridor.  The doorknob blew off.  The door burst open.  A grey-clad human rolled through the opening.  He brought his AK-97 to bear.  Charles shot first.  The intruder fell back, two wounds in his chest.  Oswald shifted his aim slightly, targetting the intruder with the shotgun.  The mage fired twice, missing with both shots.  The shotgun-wielding tough leveled the weapon at Charles.  A splotch of holes and powder appeared in the wall beside the troll's head.  Charles ducked out of instinct.

    Oswald tried to correct his aim.  With the tough still moving, his shots were wide.  The shotgun boomed again, leaving a hole in the living room wall.  Charles reappeared around the corner.  He shot the last two rounds in the revolver, hitting the tough in the leg.  The human fell over screaming.  Another man, elf lean, entered the apartment.  He opened up with his AK-97, spraying the room.  Both Charles and Oswald fell back.

    Charles dropped his empty revolver.  He extended his cyberspur.  "Oswald, cover me!"

    "Go!"  Oswald opened fire, shooting twice at no particular target.

    The troll charged into the living room bellowing a wordless shout.  The AK-97 wielder backpedaled.  He brought the assault rifle in line with Charles.  As the gun went off, Charles slashed down.  The first round buried itself into the troll's side.  The remainder stitched through the rug.  Charles followed up with a hard jab.  The spur pierced the intruder's armour vest, continued through unyielding flesh.  The intruder gasped, jerked, fell to his knees.  Charles retracted the cyberspur back into his arm.  Out in the hall, running footsteps retreated.

    "Numbers, TH," Oswald called.  "Status?"

    "Drone's down," the rigger reported.  She paused as she read a message off her commlink.  "Numbers reports security spider has arrived and the viral payload has been destroyed before it could activate."

    "Anyone hurt in there?" Charles asked.

    A chorus of "No" answered his question.  "Security team ETA is two minutes," Tarkov added.  "Situation out front?"

    "Attackers in retreat," Oswald said.  "Three of them were left behind."  He trained his gun on the tough with the wounded leg.  "One should be talkative."


1947 hours

    "Peter, I don't like this," Mira said.  She set her suitcase down.  "I will not be run out of my own home!"

    "I don't like it, either."  Tarkov set down his son's bag.  "I also don't like the idea of my family being attacked."

    "Mira," Owen Carter said, "company policy and security procedures require anyone who has been the target of a physical or virtual attack be moved to a safe, securable location until the immediate danger has passed."

    Mira folded her arms.  "How long will that be?  A day?  Two?  A month?  The rest of our fucking lives?"

    Tarkov shrugged.  "Until Owen figures out how the men got inside.  At least through the weekend."

    "The weekend?  Peter, I have plans.  The children have plans.  We can't become hermits."

    "What do you think we should do, Mira?  Would you prefer being a target?  Would you prefer that I just let whoever was behind tonight's attack get to you and the kids and pressure me into doing what they want?"

    "I want a normal life, Peter."  Mira sighed.  "I want you and the kids safe and sound and with me."

    "It's just until Monday."  Tarkov hugged his wife.  "I'll keep in contact somehow, even if I have to route messages through Owen."  He kissed Mira on the forehead.  "I just need to know that you are going to be safe until I get back.  I trust Owen completely."

    "What about the kids?  What do I tell them?"

    Treehugger walked into the living room.  "Tell them you love them, that they're going to be safe.  That you have good people protecting them and experts protecting their father."

    "Experts."  Mira snorted with derision.

    "Your family is alive.  That's something many people can't say."

    "Mira, let me worry about security.  That's my job description.  You keep the kids going, no matter what."  Tarkov kissed his wife again.  "I need to know you and Holden and Skye are safe so I can get through the weekend.  That's all I'm asking for."

    Mira sighed.  "Okay.  Okay, I'll go."

    "Pete, I really can't let you know where I'm taking them," Carter said.  "Last thing I want is a trace of any messages passing back and forth.  Sorry, Mira."

    "No, I understand, Owen.  We can pass messages through you, though, right?"

    "Sure.  Outside procedure, but I can do it."

    "Any word on the weapons?" Tarkov asked.

    Treehugger shook her head.  "You probably won't find anything on the AKs.  They're dirt cheap on the streets because they're so common."

    "She's right, boss," Carter confirmed.  "I'm working on the drone, though.  I'll keep you updated."


    "Mr. Johnson, we should get going," Treehugger said.  "The location is ready and the Hummer's packed."

    "I'll go say my goodbyes to the kids."  Tarkov made his way to the study.  Skye stood in the corner, hugging herself.  Holden sat on the office chair, spinning himself back and forth.  Tarkov knelt down, his arms out.  "Hey, guys."

    "Hey, Dad."  Holden spun to face his father.

    "Dad."  Skye forced a smile that lasted for two seconds.  "You're leaving?"

    "Yeah.  I'll keep in touch."

    Holden ran into his father's arms.  "I don't want you to go!"

    "I know."  Tarkov embraced his son.  "I know, Holden.  But we don't have a choice anymore."

    "What's going on?" Skye asked.  "What were those men after?"

    "There's something happening that I don't fully know yet.  I wish I did, so I could stay with you two and Mom."

    "It's that serious?"

    Tarkov gave a wan smile.  "It's that serious."

    "Were the men shadowrunners, Dad?" Holden asked.

    Skye rolled her eyes.  "Holden, who cares?"

    "It's a good question, Skye," Tarkov chided.  "We don't know yet.  Mr. Carter is investigating.  He'll let me know what he finds out."

    "Does that make Charles a good shadowrunner?"

    Tarkov thought for a moment.  "Life isn't that clear cut, Holden.  But, yeah, right now, he's one of the good ones."  He ruffled his son's sandy hair.  "I'll see you soon.  Listen to your mom while I'm gone, okay, kiddo?"

    "Okay, Dad."

    Standing up, Tarkov reached out to Skye.  "Same goes for you.  I'll work on getting extensions for your assignments and I'll ask Numbers if she can spend a day with you for your accounting later."

    "Thanks, Dad."  Skye hugged her father.  "Just make sure you come home."

    "I will, Skye."  Tarkov blinked away a tear.  "I will."

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