Denver, Colorado (Front Range Free Zone) – June, 17th 2071
Sam had lived in southeast Denver since her arrival in the early spring of 2071. The neighborhood wasn’t exactly located in the Aurora warrens, but it was in a rather run-down state. A lot of students lived in this part of the UCAS sector and her ID marked her as one, too, even if she never visited the campus except when she was there on business. The SIN identified her as UCAS citizen Susan Lee and it was the main ID she had used when she had lived in the Mile High City for the first time in 2068.
After the debacle in Dallas, she had returned here – the only other place where Sam had contacts. Dominic Chavez didn’t know about this little fact, so she thought herself safe here. This time, being able to produce the SIN to the Zone Defense Force after the long trek through the North American wilderness, entering the city had been easier than the first time. Larry’s old hacker contact Holmes had updated the ID with up-to-date permissions and sector visa and Sam was back in business. Before settling in, though, she had asked around and found a good shadow clinic, where she invested the larger part of the money into some cyberware and even a few pieces of bioware. The datajack at the nape of her neck, the orientation system headware and an imagelink for projection of visual information into her optical nerves were pretty standard, completely legal, and easily found on a scan for ‘ware, so she had decided to buy them legally and this way have the purchase show up on her SIN. It fit the official job as a courier and even supported the otherwise fake Susan Lee ID.
When she left the Red-Star bodyshop with a slight, dull headache, Sam could project a map overlay into her field of view with a mental command. The nurse had told her to keep the system offline until the headache subsided, but no one ever did that. She just had to try. And it worked really well – the built-in GPS system showed her location and even offered alternative routes. Of course, Sam paid with a few painful stabs later, but it was good to know that her money had bought quality.
The bioware was another story. She had bought the implants in the shadow clinic and the operations were a bit more painful, in part because anesthetics were more expensive, but also because the implants were much more invasive than the simple headware. Bioware was much more difficult to detect, so she kept them on the down-low. The law only said that the muscle reinforcements were restricted for security or military personnel, but Sam felt that having a few surprises up her sleeve in case someone decide to check up on her medical history was a good thing. Also, Holmes had been able to negotiate a discount with the street doc if she bought all implants at once. So, after a few hours and a night of rest, she was put back on the streets with a platelet factory to help with blood clotting, enhanced articulation and a synthacardium, an improved heart muscle that provided her with much more than only her natural stamina, in addition to the muscle treatments that made her stronger and more agile. It had hurt badly, and she’d been sore all over her body for almost a week, but when everything was healed, Sam was amazed with her new-found capabilities. She had felt like this was her ticket to the big leagues, and she’d been right about that. At least in part.
Sam called herself Jazz in the FRFZ, because it amused her that both her nicknames were types of music. Not that she could identify either of them – both were really old, from the last century and she knew no one who was into this kind of stuff. It had felt like a fresh start, when she had visited some of her old contacts to let them know that soon she’d be available for jobs once more, and better ones, too. It had been a chore to rebuild her reputation, but soon the word had gotten out that she was even better than before, despite her young age. Her street handle was thrown around whenever someone had need of a quick courier for small packages – and there was a lot of demand for these kinds of jobs in a city that was divided into four sectors, even with the restriction that Jazz generally avoided the CAS-Sector. In short: Business had been good for her in the last 16 months.
Sam now lived in a small two-room apartment by herself, in an old building mostly occupied by college students. She had more space than at her old place in Arlington and more reliable electricity and warm water, too. It got loud sometimes with the thin walls and the partying young student crowd, but she didn’t mind too much. She was never invited, of course, and her neighbors tended to avoid eye contact, but at least they were usually polite and didn’t bother her. This was a welcome change of pace, all things considered.
Sam worked hard, but her schedule was her own. The jobs were better and more challenging than they were when she first started out and she could run and be active for most of her days, just as she liked it. She mostly avoided social gatherings and didn’t form real friendships, but her business relations provided her with a number of recurring faces. Jazz easily smiled and had a standing as being generally good-natured, so fitting in wasn’t hard, even with her freakish appearance. She partied with the shadow folk, but she didn’t answer questions about where she’d been when she was out of town. Few people asked anyways, and in the shadows it was acceptable to keep quiet about personal matters. Everyone had their secrets, after all, and no one liked it when someone pried into them.
Still, having no close friends was hard on Sam. She missed Dot a lot, and having no one to talk about this made it worse. Dot had been the only person she could confide in and her death felt like Sam was all alone in the world at times. The trek had been hard, but had also cleansed her. She hadn’t minded being alone in the wilderness, but back in the city, Sam sometimes woke up, drenched in her own sweat, from a nightmare where she re-lived the scene at the Cherry Creek Motel. In some of the dreams her own claws killed Dot, but mostly the horror of seeing her lying in a pool of blood was enough to wake Sam up. However, that wasn’t all. Two out of three nights, she would dream badly now. The topics were different – Guilt over Dot’s death, killing the thug back in the camp, Larry’s last words, her parent’s abandonment, but most often, the nightmares were more diffuse. They were about pain, carrion odors, being unable to move or escape, cramping muscles and bone-breaking agony. Sam knew she remembered the time in the hospital again, now almost ten years back, when she had changed. The sedatives had been powerful enough to immobilize her, but they couldn’t fade out the pain or the horrible feeling of helplessness when she hadn’t been able to see, only feel the tingling, painful sensation of her skin peeling off and smelling the rot.
As a result, she tried to avoid sleep whenever she could. Sam had started drinking strong coffee, and sometimes, when the dreams were exceptionally bad, she took a dose of Long Haul, a military stimulant to keep soldiers awake in the field. She could usually run a little more than three days on a dose, followed by a hard crash and deep, dreamless sleep for between eight and forty-eight hours. Sam didn’t use the stuff often, since it was a really powerful drug, but both effects were admittedly very welcome. Because she didn’t want to rely on drugs, she was saving up for a sleep regulator, but that was a piece of cultured bioware which had to be vat-grown from her own brain tissue, and seeing as it was real and rather extensive brain surgery, she was a bit apprehensive about the implant. She had decided on only buying the best available quality, so she was looking at a price of at least forty thousand Nuyen for beta grade quality, still excluding the surgery price.
Of course, there was still delta grade available, but you’d have to have connections with serious clout in order to get your hands on such ware or sell your soul to a megacorp. Sam was neither willing to do this nor did she know people in such circles.
This was one of her various current problems. While she thought she had gotten away clean from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and enjoyed Denver’s laissez faire attitude towards different sapient races, Sam felt that her ‘career’ in the shadows stagnated. She hadn’t had a big payday in a while, and even though the smaller courier jobs still came in regularly and she could eat, live, save some money and even splurge on a few non-essential luxuries comfortably, it had been some time since Jazz’s name had been dropped in relation to being a hot newcomer. She was a known face and her usual clients knew what she would and would not do, and this reputation was a bit on the conservative side. Jazz was careful because she wasn’t stupid. She knew her limits. The well-paying jobs, the daring data steals and gung-ho extractions weren’t her style. She wasn’t a street samurai and she didn’t like hurting people, so she had said „thanks, but no thanks“ a few times when such jobs had come up.
And yet, Jazz craved the action. She enjoyed the adrenaline coursing through her system, being ultra-focused and feeling alive in these moments. No, in fact, she loved it, but her earlier conservatism seemed to bar her from even having these opportunities. Sam had bought a copy of Ares’s Miracle Shooter and even though it was a cool game, but it wasn’t the real thing.
Another issue was the fact that Denver was ruled by a great dragon. Ghostwalker treated the city as his personal domain, and basically, he was a tyrant. No one could stop him from making any demands he could think up at a moment’s notice and in December, it would be the tenth anniversary of his attack on the former Aztlaner sector and subsequent rise to power. Admittedly, most of the day-to-day politics were still left to the council comprising representatives of the four nations in Denver – the Ute Nation’s sector was now, after its fall, incorporated (very literally) into the sector of the Pueblo Corporate Council, a Native American Nation that was a corporation at the same time and then there were the Sioux Nation’s sector, the CAS-Sector and the one in which Sam lived: The United Canadian and American States Sector. However, the great Wyrm still held a universal veto right and sometimes made use of it in decidedly weird ways. Theoretically, anyone could ask for an audience to make grievances be heard, as if the dragon was an ancient king, but in practice he’d also tacked on the warning to bring a suitable tribute to such an audience, with him – again – being the sole authority to decide what was suitable for any given cause. As a result, this ‘right’ was seldom exercised and more of a mockery towards his lesser subjects.
Personally, Sam could care less, since she usually kept her head down and tried to avoid the dragon’s attention, as most people did. But it didn’t feel right. It felt like being back in the camps, when other people exercised authority over her life and how she had to live it. Mostly it was just annoying, but after one and a half years in the city, she realized that it wasn’t as good as she had imagined it to be.
Right now, Sam came back to her apartment from a shopping trip with a backpack full of groceries and both arms laden with heavy plastic bags. The weight wasn’t too uncomfortable with her augmented muscles, but nevertheless she felt sweat trickle down between her shoulder blades and soaking into the fabric of her tank top. The summer heat was brutal today and her mood was rotten for some reason. Sam usually didn’t get sunburn, but her skin felt irritated after a long day in the bright sun and she decided to have a long and cold shower as soon as she’d packed in the groceries. She trod up the stairs, her hooves clattering on the ancient wood, polished by thousands of feet over the time. She arrived at her apartment door on the second floor and muttered a curse under her breath when she fished for her wallet in the back pocket of her short jeans, hindered by the bags in her arms.
Sam didn’t hear the sound of a door opening behind her as an apple rolled out of one of the bags and over the floor, but suddenly there were hands helping her. She was startled and took a step bag. It was her neighbor from across the hall, a college boy named Jordan. He smiled.
“Here, let me help you, Susan.” She blushed a deeper blue. Jordan was cute, a fit norm of about six feet, with a dazzling, white-teethed smile and a shock of unruly blonde hair, fashionably tousled. She guessed he was about twenty, only two years older than her. They usually greeted each other in the hallway but that was about the amount of interaction. Sam was still surprised and opened her mouth, but Jordan took the initiative and grinned as he just took the shopping bag from her hand.
“There you go. Hey … I’ve wondered?” She looked at him and found herself smiling back as she fished out the wallet and the maglock passkey one-handedly.
“Thanks Jordan. What did y’all wonder?” She cursed herself for letting her southern drawl show and she still felt flushed and embarrassed. Jordan didn’t mention it, though.
“Well … Tomorrow is Friday, and there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time … Are you free tomorrow evening?” Sam blinked confusedly. “Free for what?” Jordan shot her his crooked smile again, which didn’t help in any way to make her feel less confused.
“Well, Susan … Would you like to have dinner with me? I know a nice place in the Hub.” Sam blinked again and asked “Are you asking me out, Jordan?” and immediately felt stupid for the question, but he didn’t comment on it.
“Yes. I’ll pick you up at seven, if that’s okay?” She felt herself smiling shyly. No one had ever asked her out like this. It made her stomach flutter. She cleared her throat and nodded “Yes, Jordan. I’d like that. Thanks for the invitation. I’ll see you tomorrow then?” He grinned broadly and handed her the bag as she swiped the keycard. “Sure. Have a nice evening, Susan.”
Quickly, she shuffled into her apartment and set down her bags and the rucksack, before breathing deeply. Sam started stowing the food, distracted by thoughts about the short encounter outside. There had been advances before, but nothing so … normal. She remembered Dom’s plump and frankly dirty flirting and a few others. She knew that Ralph could be quite the smooth talker if he wanted something or someone, but he had always seemed too oily to her, like someone with hidden agenda and desires, someone whom she didn’t ever want to trust.
Jordan on the other hand had always been nice to her. Good morning, thank you, please, have a nice day. An open smile, too. He was a man who seemed to feel comfortable with who he was, confident and affable and Sam sighed silently as she thought about him. Was this how a crush felt like? She was giddy with anticipation and idly considered what she’d wear the next evening as she stepped into the shower and turned up the cold water. The shock was welcome and she enjoyed the feeling of the day’s sweat and dirt sluicing off her skin before she turned the heat on a bit and stayed under the lukewarm shower for another few minutes before turning off the water and wrapping herself into a towel. Sam lay down on her bed to dry off when her commlink rang.
Scanning the number displayed in Sam’s field of view, she recognized it as belonging to Sappho, a dwarven fixer who sometimes sent jobs her way. She decided to answer. “This is Jazz, what’s up, chummer?” Sappho’s voice came from the speakers. She asked Sam “What are you up to tonight?” Sam shrugged “Nothing special. Lots of ice cream I thought. It has been a long day. Why are you asking? Have you got a job for me?” Sappho sounded circumspect when she answered after a short pause.
“Not really, Jazz. I think you should come by tonight. Someone’s been asking around for a tall, blue-skinned girl with horns, weird feet and a tail. Know someone who fits that description?” Sam suddenly felt very cold. She tried to sound calmer than she was. “Who’s asking?”
The fixer didn’t answer immediately. “Don’t know. I’ve got a meeting with the guy tonight. If you want to find out, I can arrange for you to listen in. For a small fee, of course.” No favor came without a price, so Sam thought about it for a moment. “Alright. Are five hundred okay with you?” Sappho chuckled and accepted. “Be here at half past eight. Take the back entry and pay Cream with a certified ‘stick.” Then she hung up. Sam sighed and stood up to get dressed, ignoring the rumbling feeling in the pit of her stomach.
The Tower of Babel was a known meeting place for underworld types, a bar and nightclub in the Hub, the city center where everything happened and the power brokers met. Sam took a detour to arrive in the back alley behind the club with five minutes to spare. She’d deliberately avoided the front entry and the impressive face of the building with its tall, etched-glass windows and the AR displays soliciting all kinds of services and fun inside. Someone had asked specifically for her and the fact of the matter was that she was standing out.
At the back entry she could already spy the tall figure of a female ork. Cream, one of Sappho’s bodyguards. Cream wasn’t quite as tall as Sam, but her shoulders and hips were a lot more pronounced, emphasized by the armored jacket. She had a cigarette glowing between her lips, lighting up her tusks and face from below. She looked up when she heard the sound of Sam’s hooves and grinned broadly, spitting the butt to the ground and planting her boot on it.
“Hoi, Jazz. How’s tricks?” Sam approached her. She didn’t really know the woman, but they got along. “Fine, so far, although I’m hearing that my hoop’s hanging a bit in the wind. Sappho told you, why I’m here?”
Cream nodded and held out her hand. “Hai. It’s all arranged if ya got the cred, girl.” Sam paid and made her way up to a security room, accompanied by Cream’s muscular presence. She looked at the monitors that showed a meeting room, the well-groomed dwarven woman waiting inside with a tumbler of scotch.
Cream told her “The guy’s coming from down south. Some kind of employee of the Chavez family in Dallas, apparently. He had a talk with the Casquilhos earlier this evening. Still don’t know what he’s up to.” Sam muttered under her breath as she watched a rough looking norm enter the room.
She knew him, or rather of him. The obvious cyber eyes in his leathery brown face with the trademark crosshairs printed on the darkened shields spoke of his reputation. Sam had heard the name Hound before. He was a freelance bounty hunter from Austin, often working across the Aztlan border. She also knew that Dom called him when he had a complicated job and wanted someone dead or taken. Sam wasn’t quite sure for which option she hoped, but she decided instantly that she didn’t like either one.
Cream prattled on. “Tough guy, eh? Looks like he can hold himself inna scrap.” Sam settled her eyes on the ork “You don’t wanna try, chummer. He’s bad news. Let me concentrate for a while, okay?” Cream nodded and flopped down into the chair as Sam tried to follow the conversation. Hound took his handle from his ability to track people, even if their trail had gone cold. Apparently he had taken hers up and his presence meant that he probably wasn’t fishing in the dark. He didn’t seem to be aware of the cameras or didn’t care about them.
Hounds rasping voice was clearly comprehensible. “You know I’m looking for a girl. Listens to the name of Blues, or Samantha, Sam maybe. Purple hair, goat legs, a tail and big horns. Somewhat similar to a small troll, but she’s a changeling. I hear there’s a lot of the kind in the city, so I figured she might be here.”
Sam didn’t quite get Sappho’s silent answer, but his words meant bad and good news. He knew her real name, but she had never used it since Camp Bethany and it sounded like he didn’t actually know that she was in Denver. It seemed like he had done a background check on her.
The man spoke again. “Well, do you know anyone who could know her?” Sappho pondered the question for a while, sipping her drink, before she answered. “The Casquilhos have a restaurant down in the UCAS Sector. It’s called Marcel’s and they have some changeling staff. Maybe she works there. I could keep my eyes open, too, if you like. For a small fee, of course.” She grinned and looked up at the camera for a moment, letting Sam know that she wouldn’t rat her out … probably. At least not for standard rates.
But the Hound shook his head. “Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll take a look around on my own. You’re available if I need equipment?” Sappho nodded in agreement and the rest of the meeting didn’t yield any useful information, but Sam had gotten enough out of it.
Cream asked her curiously “So … Jazz. What does he want, ya think?” Sam cocked her head and looked at the bodyguard. “Do you really expect an answer? Sorry, chummer, this is private.” Cream bared her tusks, a seemingly threatening gesture, but Sam knew it was a broad grin. The ork shrugged and stood up “Null sheen. Let’s getcha outa here before the man leaves and catches a peek of you.”
She had gotten home late and was greeted by sweltering heat in her apartment. The A/C unit had failed again, so she opened the window after grabbing a bottle of Coke out of the fridge. Sam breathed in deeply, enjoying the colder air outside and sat down on the window sill, letting one leg dangle outside towards the fire escape. She could smell cigarette smoke from the courtyard and heard low voices while she opened the bottle.
She was deep in thought about the bounty hunter and the implications of his presence in Denver. Sam was reasonably sure that Hound wouldn’t find her. She had never worked for the Casquilhos, so this lead was sure to turn up nothing. She had a little money and an emergency pack stashed away in a secure location, and could afford to lay low for a few weeks, until the bounty hunter left again. She also knew most of the city like the back of her hand and evading him should be easy to do. Perhaps it would be prudent to vanish into the Aurora Warrens and keep her head down. Sam didn’t want to leave Denver and the reputation she had built for herself again. She’d just wait him out and then go on with business. She felt a bit better after coming to that decision and let her mind wander for a while, until she listened closer to the voices coming up from the courtyard. She thought she could hear Jordan and a few of his college friends and smiled a bit, thinking about whether she should go down.
“… telling you. I’ll wine and dine the freak and then I’ll take her home and … well, you know the rest.” It was Jordan talking and Sam could very well imagine what he was talking about. She decided to stay up here, quietly, and listen further. Another voice asked “But don’t you think that’s a bit harsh?” Of course he couldn’t have been serious about the invitation. Who would want to have a normal date with someone like her? But then she found herself defending Jordan in her mind. Maybe he was just bragging in fronts of his friends? This was how men were, wasn’t it? And in a way, it was even flattering that he felt desire for her.
The other voice continued and she felt her desperate and pathetic thoughts vanish as she listened. “I mean, it’s only a frat, dude. Those stupid hazing rituals are bullshit. You don’t need to do this.” The realization that the other voice wasn’t sympathizing with her, stung. The other guy thought it was an imposition on Jordan, not herself, but her would-be suitor wasn’t yet done humiliating her. “You know what, Dave? As far as entry exams go, I think I’ll even enjoy this one. Have you seen the tits on that bitch? She’s got quite a pair. Maybe I’ll just fuck her from behind, y’dig? I’ll bet she’s into all kinds of kinky stuff and I’m kinda curious to find out.”
Sam swallowed hard. She wasn’t into all kinds of kinky stuff. She didn’t even know what kinds of non-kinky stuff she was into and she decided not to let this pervert touch her. She pulled her leg back into the room and wanted to slam the window shut, but then she re-examined her possibilities and closed it very quietly. She decided to turn the situation around. After all, Jordan had invited her, and she would eat a very fine and very expensive dinner tomorrow evening on his credstick and then rebuff him. Planning her revenge, she went to bed, but it took a long time until she fell asleep. Ironically, she slept rather well that night.
The evening would actually have been very nice, had Sam not known what kind of plans Jordan had in mind for later. She had awoken with a dull headache, but that was gone after a cold shower and she’d spent the day packing a few necessities in case she needed to disappear. Then she had put on some unobtrusive make-up and got dressed in her fanciest clothes for the evening. She’d chosen an ankle-long skirt and a nice tube top with a silken, unbuttoned shirt over it. Jordan had complemented her on her looks when she opened the door. He’d even brought flowers which she had accepted with a gracious smile and thrown in the trash in the kitchen. He had been really pleasant throughout the dinner and didn’t even comment on Sam ordering the very expensive one pound premium porterhouse steak (real meat, too). After enjoying the well-cooked meal with a perverse delight, she had taken the offered arm on the way home and touched his forearm slightly, brushing up against him. Jordan was still very attractive, but she didn’t notice his handsomeness any more after hearing his true thoughts the evening before. She laughed at his jokes – which admittedly were rather witty – and smiled a lot, not even baring her fangs at him.
Now they stood in the hall and Jordan glanced over his shoulder to his apartment door. He looked her in the eyes and asked in a low voice, with a conspiratorial smirk on his full lips.
“Do you want to come over for a coffee?” Sam giggled girlishly and smiled shyly at him “Are you sure?” Jordan grinned and reached out, cupping her face and brushing her cheek with his thumb. “Yes, sure I’m sure, Susan.” Sam had to close her eyes for a moment. This did feel rather nice.
She breathed in shakily and returned his intense look. “I’d rather set myself on fire than coming into your flat with you, Jordan”, she said in a pleasant tone. He was taken aback. “Wha…?” Sam interrupted him. “Nor will I end up in your bed tonight. Or ever, for that matter. I heard you the other day, running your mouth with your friends. Next time you probably shouldn’t do that under the window of the person you want to fuck for your little bets. Or, you know … You could respect a woman.” He still looked stunned as she went on. “Thanks for dinner. I think I’ll call us even for how humiliating that felt.” She turned around and swiped her keycard through the maglock, when she heard a sound behind her.
Jordan looked furious and visually trembled. “You … fucking slut!” He lunged at her, but Sam grabbed his wrist and pinned him to the wall with her forearm over his throat. He was athletic, but no match for her ‘ware enhanced muscles. She pressed a bit harder and heard him choke. “Don’t ever try that again, or I’ll take it personally. I’m out of your league in every way you can imagine.” With this, she let him go and entered her apartment, with her head held high and feeling rather proud. She locked the door and grinned broadly. It felt good.
It was pure chance that she saw it coming. Sam would never have thought that someone knew where she lived, but apparently, her confidence was unfounded. It was early in the next day when she went down the stairwell and heard voices in the entry hall. One of them was very rough and she couldn’t understand or identify it, but Jordan’s was familiar. “… know her. The name is Susan, Susan Reyes. The fucking bitch lives upstairs, right across the hall. Do you have business with her?” She could hear a humorless, cruel laugh and identified the other voice. It was Hound! “Yeah, you could say that. Susan, hu? You don’t like her, I take it?”
Jordan scoffed “She’s a cock tease. She’s led me on and made me buy her all kinds of stuff, then brushed me off and laughed in my face. Nasty slit.” Hound’s voice carried easily when he said calmly “Well. Then you should look another way today. Best if you’re not here at all. I’ll take care of her for you. Show me where she lives, then disappear.”
Panicking, she almost made a sound. But then she just edged back up the stairs, being very quiet. She locked the door after entering her apartment, then took the time to grab her armored jump suit and the rucksack she had packed earlier. It seemed it was time to skip town after all. Sam thought about where to go this time as she snuck out of the window and climbed stealthily down the fire escape. She really only had two options if she wanted to stay on the west coast, and everything else was a very dangerous and difficult journey for someone on foot, not to mention really long.
Los Angeles was closer, but it was part of the Pueblo Corporate Council now and the people there had some obsession with appearing on P2.0, Horizon’s social networking tool. Runners were often accompanied by camera crews, and Sam didn’t think it would be smart to appear on screen. So, while she phoned up Sappho to let her know that she’d leave Denver for the time being, she decided on going to Seattle. Sappho promised to leak that Sam had taken a T-Bird into the general direction of New Orleans and Sam was on the road again.