Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington Metroplex, Texas (Confederation of American States) – A winter night, late 2069
Sam enjoyed a shower, about the only luxury available in the dump she lived in with her roommate, Dot, while she thought about the last two years of her life.
When Larry had sent her away, she had followed his advice. After she ditched the camp, she picked up the equipment first. His stash comprised a hunting rifle and ammunition, warm clothing (Sam had no idea, why he never used it), a compass and maps, a survival kit and a fat credstick, surprisingly coded to her thumbprint. She hadn’t used the money to avoid a trail, something she hadn’t really understood back then, but Larry had been adamant in drilling that into her.
Instead, Sam had avoided the roads and trekked through the country on her own. It wasn’t all that difficult, she soon noticed. Her legs were strong, she enjoyed the fresh air and sometimes she could hunt for food.
It had taken her just over two months to get to Denver and she’d felt the changes in her life keenly. While Larry was irrevocably gone, grief and anger slowly gave way to fond remembrance and a new appreciation of her freedom. Sometimes she had just run for hours, to feel the wind on her face again, not thinking, just drifting.
For a single person on foot, skipping the NAN border hadn’t been very difficult. She’d only gotten into trouble when she approached Denver, the Mile High City and personal fiefdom of the great dragon Ghostwalker. The lizard didn’t approve of smugglers and held a firm grasp on his Front Range Free Zone. However, the city was used to a constant influx of changelings and Sam’s wild appearance after two months on the trek had helped her to convince the border guards and enter the UCAS sector. Giving up the hunting rifle had been a necessary sacrifice, but it hadn’t hurt her much. She had spent all the ammunition and didn’t need a weapon like this in an urban environment.
She had been able to contact Larry’s old army buddy, a veteran e-war specialist and had given him most of the money in exchange for some necessities, two fake IDs and a taser. It had felt very strange to her buying her own clothes in a normal store and interacting with normal metahumans again after being isolated for so long. Sam had started working as a courier and had stayed in the city for about six months, before leaving for the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington megaplex after receiving word from Dot, whom she had given a mailbox contact before fleeing the camp.
Sam still wasn’t quite sure, why she had left Denver behind and entered her home country again. The Confederated American States had never been a nice place for her, except in her early childhood. But it had been good to hear from the girl she’d helped in the camp and when they’d met up, they had formed a firm friendship, even if they were very different. Dot was almost two years older than Sam, over 18 now and she had just started working as a dancer when they had first met again in Arlington.
Now, Sam mused thoughtfully while washing her shoulder length hair, Dot had graduated from stripper to prostitute, a matter of ever more frequent debate. They had moved in together shortly after Sam had arrived in the ‚plex, to save on rent, but nowadays Dot was increasingly irritable. She didn’t like selling her body, but aggressively shouted down all of Sam’s suggestions to stop doing it. Additionally, Dot’s boyfriend and / or pimp Ralph was making things worse. He had wormed his way into their life, charming at first, but taking her money and sometimes beating her. Of course, Dot didn’t accept any criticism in this direction either.
Sam sighed. She was just over sixteen and this whole situation felt way too complicated for her. She rinsed the shampoo from her hair when a loud banging on the apartment door rudely woke her from her reverie. Cursing, she turned off the warm water and wrapped herself in a long towel while someone apparently tried to knock down the door. When she looked through the spy, she could see Ralph outside, shouting.
„Let me in, or I swear, I’ll kick in the door, baby! I know you’re in there!“ Sam rolled her eyes. She hated the man, a smooth looking norm, always freshly shaved and handsome, but he was a scumbag from head to toe. She pulled open the door and glared at him when he half stumbled in.
„Ralph. What the frag are you doing?“ She made a quick step to the side as it looked like he wanted to grab her towel, disguised as finding his balance, and snarled. That was enough to get him focused again. „I want to see Dorothy! Now!“ he demanded. Only he called her ‚Dorothy‘. Dot liked it, though. She thought of it as endearing. Sam pointedly looked around the small room. „She’s not here, as you can see. What do you want? And keep your fingers to yourself if you appreciate them.“ The guido ran his hand through his perfect blonde hair and looked at her. „She skipped on our date. I want to know, where she is. Tell me, Blues!“
Sam stepped in his way, when he tried to enter the apartment. „I don’t know where she is. Call her and leave me out of it. You know how a commlink works, right? Now frag off, I want to get dressed.“
He tried again. „Blues, tell her “ She interrupted him. „I won’t tell her anything. I’m not your friend and I’m not Dot’s voicemail. And I don’t like you, if you didn’t notice yet.“
Ralph pointed a finger in her direction breathing in to say something stupid and Sam bared her fangs, which made him reconsider. He couldn’t help himself, though and shot her a venomous glance over his shoulder. „Someday, you’ll pay for this, bitch.“
Without further comment, Sam slammed the door shut and tried to calm down. She wasn’t worried. Ralph sure could talk the talk, but he never followed up with his threats. He was useless in every aspect, except leeching money off people.
When she went back into the tiny bathroom to brush her hair, her comm rang. The ringtone was reserved for her fixer, Dom, so she sighed exasperatedly and made sure the camera was turned off before she answered it. Dom was alright, for a norm, but he was even more lecherous than Ralph. His ruddy, round face appeared on the display and he grinned broadly „Hey, Blues. How are you?“ It was impossible to keep straight and Sam found herself grinning back. Dom had that effect on people. He made them feel appreciated and at ease with his ‚Uncle Dominic‘ routine. It was a considerable asset in his job and he used it fully, but Sam knew that behind his cheerful façade, Dom also had a coldly calculating mind working. It was a known fact that despite all his pleasantness it was not a good idea to cross him in any way. Still, it didn’t hurt her to ease up a bit.
„I’m fine. What’s the occasion, Dom? You calling with a job for me?“ He smiled and clucked. „Tsk I don’t know if I like that about you or if I should be offended that you always come right down to business and skip the small talk. What should it be?“
Sam grinned. „Think of it as me not taking up your time. So, what is it?“ He wasn’t deterred completely, though. „Aww, girl. But I like flirting with you so much.“ That much was true. He ‚flirted‘ with everything that had two legs and a set of boobs. The bigger those were, the more he flirted. He flirted a lot with Sam. Then he sobered a bit. „Alright. Meet me at the usual place. In an hour. Can you make it?“ Sam nodded, then remembered that her camera wasn’t on. „Sure. Something I should bring, apart from the usual things?“ Dom shook his head. „No. Just a simple courier job. The kind you like. Everything else, we talk about when you’re here, wakarimasu-ka?“
„Yes. I’ll see you in an hour, Dom.“
Sam jogged down the cold, windy streets of Garland. It smelled of industrial smoke, but she didn’t put on her respirator yet. Her eyes were covered by smart glasses that superimposed the ringing number of Dot’s commlink into Sam’s field of view. She was protected from the cold by a black armored jumpsuit, covering her arms and her legs down to the calves and she had a taser in a hidden holster on the small of her back. The speakers on the glasses‘ earpieces crackled, when Dot answered and a small window popped open in the peripheral field of view.
„Hoi Sam. Can I call you back?“ Sam frowned. „Won’t take long. I just wanted to tell you that Ralph is looking for you. He seemed pissed, so you might want to calm him down. I’ll be working tonight, so I don’t know when I’ll come in. Everything alright with you? Haven’t seen you today.“ Dot nodded, rubbing her catlike nose. „Yes. I’m okay. I’m with a client tonight, so I don’t know when I’ll be home, either. Good luck with your job and be careful?“ Sam smiled warmly. „Always. You take care.“ Then she interrupted the connection and put on the respirator, before her lungs could protest too much.
Twenty minutes later, she arrived at the hole in the wall called ‚First Amendment‘. It was a dive, but Sam wasn’t here for the ambience or the drinks. She looked around until she saw Dom at his usual table and went over, turning a chair around before she sat down unasked. „Hoi Dom.“
He looked up and grinned, tapping his glass. It contained a clear liquid and he asked her „Hello, beautiful. Do you want a drink?“ Sam shook her head. „I don’t drink, and you know it. Not legal and all that.“ She smiled wickedly, showing him her pointed teeth and giving the words a double meaning.
Dom laughed „Very commendable, Blues. Now, how do two kay sound for a simple delivery? Five hundred up front.“
She looked straight at him, letting her glowing eyes work for her, but he didn’t seem fazed. „I’ll tell you when you’ve given me more than bait dangling in front of me, Dom.“
Dom grinned insolently. „I want to dangle something else in front of you, sweetheart. Unfortunately, business must come first.“ Sam blushed a bit while he went on. She hadn’t had a boyfriend yet and Dom talking like that made her vaguely uncomfortable. „There’s a motel, on the outskirts of the city. A few of my men will exchange something there with a few other men. I want you to pick up the package and bring it back to me here.“
Sam cleared her throat and asked „Why me? Why don’t you want your men to bring it back here?“
He nodded and folded his hands over the glass after drinking a mouthful. „Good questions. One: I like your style. You ask a good price and you deliver solid results. You haven’t lost a package yet and you avoid the Star. In short: Even if you are rather striking, you are good at keeping inconspicuous.“
That wasn’t entirely true. She had lost a package once while fleeing from LoneStar. She’d had to stash it so they wouldn’t put her behind bars and when she came back the package had been gone. She had copped to her failure though, and the Japanese client had kept quiet about it in exchange for a few favors and cost-free runs for him. In the end they had parted amiably, but she wasn’t about to tell Dom that story.
He continued „Second: My associates are somewhat known to the Star. If they transport the package it’s entirely possible that they’ll be held up just on principle. So I want someone deniable. That is you.“
Sam nodded again, satisfied. „Alright. So I take it the contents of the package are illegal. Two-Five, with five hundred up front. When do you need it?“ Dom shrugged „An hour after the meeting. It’s not very time sensitive, though, so you can bring it by anytime until tomorrow morning, say five AM.“
Sam held Dom’s gaze, more at ease now that they were talking shop. „I’m asking because it might be possible that I need to stash it for later retrieval if the Star shows up. That okay with you?“ Dom pursed his lips. „Sounds reasonable. But I’ll dock your pay by five hundred if you’re late.“
Sam didn’t like it, but it was usual so she didn’t complain. In any case, two thousand were a lot of dough for one night’s work. „What’s inside? Is it dangerous?“ Dom shook his head slowly. „I won’t tell you and you don’t need to know. Just get it here. It’s only dangerous for you if you lose it or the cops get you. It’s small, too. Weighs about a pound.“
Sam thought about it for a moment, but it didn’t seem too dangerous and rather straight forward. „You have a deal, Dom“, she told him with a grin. „Tell me the rest of the details.“
After he’d given her the address of the motel, Sam stood up. Dom grinned again. „Hey, Blues?“
She turned around and looked at him „Yes?“ The fixer smiled thinly, immensely enjoying himself. „Can you do stuff with that tail of yours?“ She was startled. „My tail? Stuff? Err No, I can’t. It’s just for balance, I think.“ Dom seemed to be a bit disappointed. „Too bad. Could have been kinky, you know? Off you go, I love to see it wag when you walk.“
Sam laughed, a bit nervously. She turned around again before he could see her blush and walked out, shaking her head. She had lied, though, even if the question had caught her unaware. The tail was completely prehensile and she was able to pick up things with it, even hang from it. But that was her secret. No one needed to know what exactly she could do, especially not a perverted monkey like Dom.
It was almost eleven when Sam turned into the parking lot of the Cherry Creek Motel. The neon sign was brightly lit, but damaged. It had begun to rain, a constant, cold drizzle. Her hair was plastered to her head and the rain ran down the back of her neck. Sam felt very uncomfortable, even more so when she looked at the few cars on the parking lot. It was a dive, probably renting rooms by the hour, but there were two expensive limos parked outside, as well as a few motorcycles. They looked armored.
Sam had been told that she’d be expected, in Room 107. She looked around, then saw the stair leading up to the gallery. After observing a bit more she was satisfied that everything seemed quiet and went straight up. She didn’t make an effort to hide herself, as it was bright enough to immediately spot her if anyone wanted, but she did move quietly. She noticed that it was really quiet around here. Most of the rooms were unlit, and only the rain spattered on the black asphalt.
Then she saw the door to 107 in front of her. It was ajar. Her stomach convulsed and she tasted bitter bile at the back of her throat. Something was really wrong here and everything screamed at her to run away and not look back.
Sam didn’t run away. She fought back the knot of fear and carefully opened the door to look into the big motel room. It was a mess. She could see about a dozen bodies strewn on the ground but her eyes were drawn to the only one not clothed in a black suit. It was a girl, her white dress wrapped tightly around her body, revealing a lot of pale skin in the harsh neon light, soaking up the red puddle underneath her.
Sam felt sick. It smelled atrocious as a mixture of blood, gunpowder and excrement crept up her nostrils even through the respirator’s filters. Sam tried not to look at the details while she gingerly stepped over to the girl’s body. When she saw one frayed ear her suspicions became a lot worse. Carefully, she touched a bare shoulder, covered in soft, short fur. It felt cold under her fingertips as she brushed away a drop of blood, then turned the girl over and her suspicions were confirmed. The pale skin was actually white fur, apart from one black spot over an open cat’s eye. Sam tried to fight down a sob, but couldn’t prevent the small noise from escaping her lips. It sounded very distant to her ears. The yellow eyes stared at her, broken and wet and Sam’s fingers shook uncontrollably. It took her a few minutes before she was able to close Dot’s eyes and roll her on her back. One of her breasts was bare and Sam carefully rearranged the tattered dress to give her back a semblance of decency.
She could imagine how it must have gone in her mind’s eye. Dot knew Dominic and probably his goons as well. They had arranged a party to throw after the business was done and Dot was to be part of it. Then something had to have gone wrong during the meeting.
Sam looked around, saw one dead man who seemed to have died while crawling towards the door. He had even succeeded in opening it, she thought as she recognized a blood smear on the handle. Everyone here was dead. For a while, even. She wondered if anyone had called the cops. LoneStar were notoriously sloppy to reply to calls from this part of town, but there were a few automatic weapons lying around, so if someone had bothered to make a call they had to arrive soon.
Frantically, Sam wiped her bloody hands on an overturned couch, with little success. Her eyes darted around the room. She recognized five of Dom’s men, but didn’t know the other five Mexicans. These must have been the sellers, probably part of a cartel, most likely Mara Salvatrucha. Those people were proud not to be calling themselves Aztlaner, and were very vengeful.
Finally she found what she was looking for. An ork held the package between bloody fingers, but it was ripped open and chips spilled out. Some were trampled and broken, others were covered in blood. There must have been at least a hundred of the chips lying around. Where they weren’t destroyed, they looked high quality. Sam swallowed as she estimated the worth of the Beetles at more than a hundred grand. Her fear came back now. If someone had seen her or a camera had caught her on file? She’d be in deep, deep trouble. The camps were gone now, but she didn’t want to try out federal prison.
Sam looked at the Mexicans, almost panicking. One of them surely She patted them down, quickly. Found commlinks, ammunition, assorted sweets and some condoms, then her fingers felt it, in a hidden purse of a large, pockmarked man. She pulled the credstick from its sheath. Certified, by the looks of it. Then she felt bad, as her look fell on Dot’s corpse again. Sam felt as if she was betraying her, but even as she started to think about what she could do to make it better, she heard sirens. She could feel her blood turn to ice and then she did, what she did best. She ran.
Sam spent the night huddled and shivering under a highway bridge in a canal duct. She just couldn’t stop trembling. She had seen dead people before. Even murdered people.
The sight of Larry’s torn neck came to her mind unbidden and she bit her lip until she could taste blood. Logically, she should be able to cope, Sam thought. But she couldn’t. The only thing she could think of were Dot’s eyes, her dead stare. It took a few hours before the tears came.
It was late morning and she was still shivering before Sam got the idea to start up her commlink. She had heard sirens all night, but she was certain that she was safe here. If someone would have to describe Arlington, it would probably be called a disaster zone. It was overcrowded, didn’t have infrastructure worth mentioning and it was a cesspool of disease, poverty and crime. The Star didn’t wander here, except with heavy military gear. Still, Sam seemed to be in luck as someone had apparently set up a Wi-fi node nearby and she had a smidge of reception. Enough to check her mailbox, at least.
Of course, she had a call from Dominic. It was from 3:42 AM, and there was no picture. His voice sounded tired. „Blues. Where are you? The cops are looking for you everywhere. They were here, even. You need to come in so we can talk about what happened. I’ll protect you, girl. Call me as soon as you get this message.“
There was something in his voice that made her sigh, relieved. Sam had the credstick. She could make this right, at least she could give him back his money. And he didn’t even sound angry. Desperately, she started to scroll up his contact, then paused. First things first. She needed to check the stick. As she did so, a weight seemed to lift from her back. It was certified for 150.000 Nuyen. Untraceable money. Dom would be able to salvage this.
But as she pocketed the chip again she noticed a red light blinking in the corner of her smart glasses. Her viral scanner alarmed her of an intrusion into her firewall. When she opened the message she could see that it was something from her commlink calling out. She could feel sweat breaking out, even with the cold. A tracer virus? Where did this come from? Sam wasted no time. She tried to turn the ‚link off, but the button wouldn’t react. Normal people almost never turned their commlinks off anymore so something like this would probably go unnoticed, but in this case it made her even more paranoid. She threw the device on the ground where the display shattered. Then she trampled all over it for a while, until her smart glasses went dark.
Sam wasn’t sure if the trace had gone through. The patchy reception here could have saved her, but there was no way to know it except wait for who might turn up. Her gut told her it would be someone she knew.
Maybe Marita, one of the psychotic gillettes on Dom’s freelancer list. Sam could almost picture the tiny woman with the two obvious cyber arms, covered in jagged edges and spikes from her gory Sangre y Acero career being sent to bring her in. She had a reputation for being messy and Dom used her, when he wanted to make a point. There would be no broad grins, no easy smiles, no flirty banter. If Marita left enough of her alive to twitch, maybe there would be some of the things Dom tried to get Sam to consent to all the time. Without her consent.
Sam started to walk while she thought the situation through. Maybe she was being paranoid? Why would Dom insert a tracer virus in his message? He didn’t trust her, that much was obvious and even natural in the shadows. Maybe it would all be okay if she gave him back the money and this was only a reassurance on his side?
There were a lot of things a girl like her could do with 150 large. Sam gasped. The thought had come to her mind almost like a thief in the night. But once it was there, she couldn’t shake it anymore. She pictured how she lived now. How someone like her could earn this kind of money legitimately. The answer was, of course, never. She had gigs like this once per month, sometimes once every three months and there was never enough money to pay all the bills and eat. This could be her big break.
Implants, Bioware even? It was in reach now. And with the right implants she could work a lot better paying jobs, maybe even live in some luxury. Sam tried to convince herself to contact Dominic, but somehow the only things on her mind were arguments against it.
She couldn’t risk it. He would rat her out to the Star. The Mexicans. And Dot had died for this money, as an innocent bystander. Somehow this was Dom’s fault, Sam knew suddenly. She bit down hard, and her steps became surer, firmer, as she tried to decide on a course of action.
It was risky. Dom had a lot of connections. She’d have to leave town, maybe even the country again. Keep her head down. But she wasn’t without connections of her own. She had a stash of necessities in case things went south. Another thing she’d learned from Larry.
She thought of Dom again. Thought of doing the right thing. Not making it worse. But then, her decision was made: She’d take the money and run.
After all, the thing she did best was running.