Jazz & Blues, Part 4

Mt. Rainier, Washington (Salish-Shidhe Council) – September, 23rd 2071

Sam deeply breathed in the cold, thin air. It was still summer, but at a height of almost 9,000 feet it was always chilly and she stood in the knee-deep snow of the North Mowich Glacier. The ice flow covered large parts of the northwestern flank of Mt. Rainier and Sam had a good view in the clear weather. She could see the lights of Seattle, only a few dozen miles away. It was getting dark and she could see the city lights in the distance as well as the dim, orange glow of constant lava flows coming from the flank of the volcano, lighting up Puyallup’s Hell’s Kitchen.
Crossing the Rocky Mountains on foot had been the hardest thing she had ever done, but now, after over 1,300 miles of travelling, her destination was finally in sight. The route had taken her through the Rockies and she had crossed through the entirety of Idaho, deliberately avoiding roads and cities. Approaching Boise, Sam had turned northwards to steer clear of the Tír Tairngire border and its notoriously effective patrols and took a longer way around, through the Cascades. The new orientation system had helped greatly with planning the routes and she thought that she had never made a better investment. With the integrated GPS she’d never had to guess where she was, so she was able to cover more ground, even when hunting for subsistence. As a result, Sam had only needed a bit more than three months to come to what she had decided to be her new home.

Seattle! If you believed the envious scuttlebutt of other, less prestigious shadow communities, the UCAS enclave was the shadowrunning capital of the world. The sprawl was deeply entrenched in the basically hostile Native American Nation of the Salish-Shidhe Council and Seattle was the only pacific harbor of the United Canadian and American States. Naturally, every megacorporation had at least one big office. The Aztechnology Pyramid and the former Renraku Arcology—now a dilapidated housing project for the poorest of the poor, who didn’t mind giving up their freedom—dominated the skyline of downtown, but the rest of the Big Ten were also present, as everyone knew. Additionally, the elven nation of Tír Tairngire was close and trade agreements, though less than during the time of the Tír being closed off, still meant a steady stream of traffic between Portland—or Cara’Sir in the allegedly ancient elven language Sperethiel—and the megaplex. Whoever could make a name for themselves in the ever shifting shadows of Seattle was rightly considered a pro worldwide. Sam grinned broadly. Making a name for herself was exactly what she planned to do.
The first thing on her list was getting in, though—and that wouldn’t be easy. Seattle was basically walled in, and SSC troops as well as Lone Star patrolled the borders in a constant battle against smugglers and other gatecrashers. Back in Denver, she had once overheard a T-Bird smuggler crew discussing how people usually snuck through. Sam didn’t have a flying tank or a helicopter, nor did she own a visa, but she remembered that the pilot, an elven rigger, had mentioned the Carnation-Seattle dairy ranch as a possible passage, although she didn’t know where that was. Sam decided to check her commlink, but even this high up she couldn’t get reception with it. She would have to get closer to the city to be in signal range.
She blew on her hands, protected by fingerless gloves, and chewed on a bit of dried meat, then started her descent down the side of the active volcano, ever getting closer to the wasted no man’s land that the eruption during the Great Ghost Dance of 2017 had created. Mount Rainier had erupted again in 2069, after the terrible earthquakes, now commonly known as the Twins, shook California and large parts of Los Angeles had sunken into the sea. Since then, the chasms periodically spew ash and fire down on the country around the mountain.

Two nights later, Sam lay on her stomach, half a mile downwind of the Carnation ranch, using the night vision and magnification of her glasses to scan the surroundings of the farmland. It had taken her most of the other night to come down from the mountain and she’d had to use her respirator when the wind changed and the sulfuric smell of foul eggs had crept up her nose. Still, she’d made it, and shortly before the grey dawn, her commlink had gotten a spotty signal. Checking it, she had been able to log into the Emerald City grid and find some data on the ranch. As it turned out, she’d had to move another few miles up north and east, since Carnation was located at the border of southern Redmond. She remembered a factoid from the rigger about the owner’s daughter being married to a tribal chief or something similar, which gave the Seattle based business good connections to the Salish council.
‘Good for me, too,’ Sam thought, lying in the mud of Tolt River’s bank. It looked easy. She could hear the muted lowing of cattle and switching to thermographic, the warm bodies were easily visible. She switched back and took a closer look at the river gate. Most of the compound was walled in. It was an electrical fence, too, probably with sensors, and some cameras. The river gate however stood half open and it looked locked in that position, rusty and badly maintained. It wasn’t open, and the water level was high, but Sam wagered she could swim under it, and the current was on her side.
In the evening she had seen a few commuter helicopters taking scores of employees back into the city proper, but she would have to leave the ranch through the Redmond gate and then brave the barrens. The thought worried her a bit. If the Redmond barrens were anything like the Arlington slums back in Dallas-Fort Worth or the Aurora Warrens in Denver, it would be very dangerous. And this time, she didn’t have knowledge of the area on her side. But first things first: Before thinking about the barrens, Sam still had to break into the ranch, and there were patrols to consider. With shallow breath, she settled into the cold mud and started watching the guards.
After three hours of silent observation, Sam was reasonably sure that she could avoid them. There were two types; one patrol of soldiers outside the fence, and a few groups of guards inside. The SSC soldiers on the outside were the riskier opposition—they wore military camouflage suits, helmets and probably communication equipment and they were armed with mean looking assault rifles as well as pistols. If they caught sight of her, they’d probably shoot first and ask question later, if at all. On the plus side, there was only one group of three soldiers coming by once per hour or so. Unfortunately, they patrolled in irregular intervals. Inside, she had seen some regular folk, dressed in heavy jackets, cowboy hats and equipped with shotguns. One of those guards had talked into a hand-held radio, so it was reasonable to assume that in each patrol of two guards, one radio was present. In any case, shooting would probably alert a lot more sentries and she’d go either to prison or a shallow grave. At least it wasn’t a pig farm. Sam wasn’t worried overmuch, though. She was skilled in hiding and sneaking, her lightly armored jumpsuit was color-changing and currently a dark blue, and the backpack was in a dark green, similarly inconspicuous in the cloudy night. She didn’t have ammunition for her hunting rifle anymore, but Sam wouldn’t have shot at anyone either way.
Her plan was simple: She’d dive under the river gate and follow the stream, mostly submerged as long as she could. According to some outdated map data she had been able to download from the matrix, the river presumably went all the way through into Redmond and outside the compound, but maybe she’d have to leave it at some point. From there she would have to improvise. Once she’d entered the barrens, she would look for a spot to change out of the wet clothes into something suitable from the almost water tight backpack and carefully make her way through the dangerous area. Simple enough, right?

Sam completed a final check of her backpack’s straps a few minutes after the SSC patrol had left and then slid silently into the water. It was very cold, but not too bad. After the initial shivering subsided, she began swimming. Her hooves weren’t really helpful, but instead she used her tail to propel her. The river masked any sounds she made as she approached the half-lowered gate and she took a deep breath to dive under the surface. It was difficult to see in the muddy water, but the gate did indeed not reach the bottom. It was a close fit, though, so Sam grabbed the rusty iron and pulled herself down to slide below the grate sideways. It took too long, and she felt the desperate need for air as she pushed forward and upwards. Fear crept into her thoughts. She was too quick and would make too much noise surfacing, but if she didn’t, she’d be out of air soon. As black spots appeared before her eyes, she pushed the fear away with a conscious effort of will. She forced herself to rise more slowly and even as Sam felt like she’d drown, her face broke the water surface. She took a deep breath, consciously suppressing a loud gasp and then looked around while panting quietly.
She was inside, almost twenty meters from the gate. No one was around, but it was brighter here. A few flood lights on high poles illuminated parts of the ranch. Now, without the exertion, Sam could feel the cold seep into her bones and pressed her teeth together before they could start chattering. She’d have to get out of the water soon—and preferably into at least semi-dry clothes—or risk hypothermia but it was a long way to go yet. Sam cursed inwardly at herself. She had miscalculated because she hadn’t accounted for the low water temperature. Violently shivering, she pulled herself out of the water behind a small shed, but she decided against changing clothes right now. That would have to come later, after skipping the fence towards Redmond. She slid into the shadows and started her way towards the inner gate, attentive and evading a few workers on the way. Her wet clothes chafed and she was far from comfortable, but at least the movement made her feel warmer, if only a little bit. When she was able to see the road leading out into the barrens, Sam realized it. She hadn’t planned how to get out. ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid!’ she thought. The fence was electrified, the gate was closed, of course, and she didn’t have tools. She didn’t have nonconductive gloves either and even if she had, the soaked clothes would probably nullify the protection. The river wasn’t a possibility, too, as she could see. There was a drain, but a grille closed it off, and she was doubtful on whether she could even fit through there. Inwardly cursing at herself, she slunk back into the shadows of a shed and started looking for another way.

It took an hour, before Sam found a way to get over the fence. Initially, she had looked for a damaged portion or some point where she could get through, but the fence was well maintained. Probably better in this area, she thought to herself. But now she had located a barn, with a ramshackle lean-to close to the fence. If she could climb its roof, she could probably jump over without hurting herself. At least Sam hoped so. During her search, she’d had to avoid the guards, but so far, everything had gone smoothly. The only problem now was that there was an open area to cross between her and the barn. It was well lit, since a few spotlights pointed in the general direction, but at the moment no one appeared to be around or paying attention. She quickly looked around her, listened intently and then, after she couldn’t make out any presence, Sam darted across the open ground. The packed, but damp mud ground yielded under her long strides, muffling the sound of her hooves and it only took a few seconds to arrive in the shadows at the barn’s side wall. Slowly, she crept around the corner to get to the lean-to when it happened.
Sam sneezed loudly, first once, then a second time. When she opened her eyes again, mortified, she squarely stared at a surprised looking, middle-aged man with receding hairline, a shaggy, red beard and a shotgun loosely in one hand. He opened his mouth, and before either of them could say anything, Sam realized that he brought the gun to bear. Without thinking, she stepped forward and inside his reach, slapped the barrel to the side with one hand and swung her elbow at the man’s temple. It connected with a thudding noise and he sagged down on one knee, a pained noise escaping his lips. Someone behind Sam spoke up, accompanied by heavy steps.
“Hey, Jerry, was that … Holy frag!” She turned and saw another man, an Amerindian in a checkered flannel shirt. Before she could act again, he had drawn a mean looking revolver with a long barrel and fired at her. The muzzle flash blinded her and somehow she felt herself being whirled around.
Half a moment later Sam realized that something had kicked her in the right shoulder with the power of an automated freight truck. It pressed the breath from her lungs and her arm flailed around, uselessly. She noticed something warm spatter on the side of her face and neck. A cold feeling spread towards her chest, as she blinked away the tears rushing to her eyes and slapped the guy’s wrist with her tail, not thinking, only reacting. The Ruger Super Warhawk clattered loudly against the wall, and another shot rang out that drowned his surprised outcry. Still running on autopilot, Sam made two running steps towards the wall, reached out with her left hand and pulled herself up the shack’s roof. Her right arm didn’t obey, but she didn’t pause for a moment and with one smooth step, she launched herself over the electrified fence. On the other side, she crashed down hard and cried out in pain as she rolled into a ditch.

Sam must have blacked out for a moment. When she opened her eyes and the waves of pain radiating from her shoulder hit her, she had to bite her tongue to avoid crying out again. She could taste blood and the tangy, metallic smell crept up her nose. She could hear voices in the dark, but they were a few meters away.
“What was that?” one of the men asked.
“Dunno. It hit us pretty hard, but I think I at least winged it. You okay, Jerry?”
An annoyed grunt answered. “Yuh. I’ll have a fine bruise there. Looked summat like a girl. Have ya seen how quick she was?”
The other man chuckled under his breath “Better’n you. Well. We better give notice what happened. Wherever she’s now, the hounds’ll prolly get’er.”
The voices dispersed as their owners slowly walked away and Sam was left with the burning pain in her shoulder and a twisted knee from her fall. She had never been shot before and she didn’t care one bit about it. Sure, people had shot at her, but they’d never hit until today. She suppressed a sob and slowly got up. Her rifle was missing, but she couldn’t see it anywhere in the darkness. And what had that man meant with the remark about hounds? Whatever it was, for now she needed to get out of the farm’s vicinity and find a place to look at the wound. Sam was shivering violently and each shudder sent a new circle of agony through her entire body. She could feel blood running freely down her chest and back, but it would start clotting soon, thanks to the platelet factories. By now she was really scared and didn’t dare to touch the wound. Her jumpsuit was lightly armored, but at such a close range the high powered revolver round had punched clean through the Kevlar and her shoulder. She might as well have been naked for all the good it did her. Sam clutched her forearm and pressed it against her body while she tried not to think about the fact that she was most likely in quite a severe shock. Dazed, she consulted her orientation system, but the display flickered in her contacts, or maybe she couldn’t focus her eyes right. She chose a direction at random, away from the fence, and towards the city lights, still miles away. She set one hoof in front of the other and started limping.

Sam felt dizzy as she stumbled through the broken streets of former suburban neighborhoods. The land values in Redmond had been falling steadily after the meltdown of the Trojan-Satsop nuclear plant in 2013, and the formerly wealthy area’s computer industry went down the drain during the first crash in ’29. Since then, citizens left the stricken community, resulting in the barrens that were now all around her. Further destruction from Mount Rainier’s last eruption hadn’t helped with the scenery at all.
After half an hour of walking, she had reached an area where everything seemed even worse. It had started to rain; a constant, annoying drizzle, but she had thought she was past caring. Everything hurt, and even though the flow of blood from the wound had mostly stopped by now, Sam knew that she couldn’t stay upright much longer. She had to find shelter. When the drops of water mixed with the grey ash that seemed to be everywhere, producing a black sludge that soon covered her whole legs, she was very close to just collapsing in the middle of the street. Just five minutes before, she had avoided a group of people, maybe half a dozen gangers from the looks of it: young Amerindians in blue gang colors. At first Sam had been relieved and her first impulse was to ask for help, but then she’d remembered where she was and circled back around.
Now something else invaded the back of her mind. She leaned into the broken entryway of a ruined apartment building and forced herself to look around. There it was again! Thinking back, she realized that she must have been followed for at least twenty minutes. Scratching noises, and black, moving shadows. She hadn’t noticed then, being too preoccupied with the pain, but now she saw the signs. Whatever was following her wasn’t a metahuman. It kept its distance, for now, and she couldn’t identify it clearly, but Sam thought that she could make out at least three distinct, big, shaggy quadruped forms. The situation unnerved her. It was a new experience to be prey, and the creatures had stalked her very patiently, indicating a worrying level of cunning.
Sam weighed her options. She was in no condition to run, and had no idea what the predators were capable of, so climbing something was out for now. Going on the offensive wasn’t looking too good either. Her weapon was missing and even if she’d still had it, there wasn’t any ammunition left. If she were in better condition, she might have thought about using her claws, but for now she shelved that idea as well. It was difficult enough to stand upright, and she could only use her off-hand, so this was only a last resort. That only left her with the option of moving on, being careful and expecting ambushes. Maybe she could evade the animals until she found a safe place to stay. She doubted that they’d follow her into more populated areas. She’d have to appear as if she weren’t tired, or they would strike. That would be the most difficult part of the plan, since Sam desired nothing more right now than a shower followed by about three weeks of solid sleep. Suppressing an exhausted sigh, she straightened her back and started walking again.
But it was too late. As soon as she stepped out into the desolate street, a giant dog placed itself in her way, a few meters off. It was black, with one red eye, the other a puckering scar, and its head was at a height with her chest. Its fur was shaggy and patchy, obviously the result of a lifetime full of abuse and battles. The reason why she was able to observe the monster in such detail was that it was lit eerily from below, its maw emitting a faint red glow, illuminating the strands of slaver dribbling down.
‘So that’s what he meant’ she thought. ‘Hell hounds.’

Sam didn’t know much about paracritters, but she knew that hell hounds supposedly breathed fire and that they could magically induce fear. She didn’t know if either of these claims was true, but the glowing muzzle and sulfuric stench seemed to imply it, even if she couldn’t say whether the cold knot of fear in her stomach was natural or magical. Usually, a pack of dogs wouldn’t attack a metahuman, but there were a few things that meant she was in trouble. The hell hound didn’t look like it was particularly well-adjusted. It obviously wasn’t careful or frightened of her at all. It was an apex predator and it knew it, and while she normally would have posed a challenge, Sam was hurt, exhausted, and frightened and the smell of fresh blood hung around her. In other words: she was easy prey. Pre-chewed, almost. She heard sounds, behind her, but couldn’t see anything with a quick glance, and she didn’t dare taking her eyes off the alpha for fear of having him at her throat. She forced herself upright and stared at the hound with glowing, blue eyes, giving her best to look a lot less like a wet, bloody ragdoll and a lot more like someone willing to put up a fight.
It didn’t work, natch. The scarred hell hound bellowed loudly, and belched a six meter long gout of flame at her. Sam desperately tried to dodge and threw herself to one side, but the heat wave hit her like a sledgehammer. She managed to turn around, but the smell of singed hair and burning plastic told her that it hadn’t been enough. The lack of roaring agony however was a good sign. She looked over her shoulder and hastily hit the quick release to get rid of her burning backpack, but as soon as it hit the ground with a thump, over two hundred pounds of dog slammed square into her chest. Instinctively she brought up her good arm, gripping the shaggy fur behind one ear and—with adrenaline coursing through her veins—holding the sharp teeth away from her throat. Blunt claws scraped over her shoulders, causing old pain to flare up, as she fought to stay standing; hot saliva and the stench of burning carrion flew in her face, making her gag. The hell hound easily weighed as much as she did, probably even more, but she didn’t give ground. Her tail flailed wildly and she kept her balance. Her enhanced muscles strained, and inch by inch, she pulled the snarling animal away from her face. The jaws opened again and the dim glow deep down there became brighter. It was a split-second decision, barely even conscious. Sam snarled and bared her fangs, then sunk them deep into the exposed neck. She must have hit the carotid, because hot blood filled her mouth and splashed all over her face. The hell hound stopped struggling after a second and became limp. She let the body crash to the ground, tasting—and for a moment even savoring—the monster’s blood.
Sam felt elated, but it didn’t last long. Looking around, she saw three more hell hounds around her, albeit at a distance. They seemed to consider if she was worth the trouble. She took a step back and placed one hoof firmly on the still spurting carcass. It didn’t do the trick, but when she growled very low, the animals decided to look for an easier target.

The sky in her back already took on a bruised cobalt color when she finally reached something at least akin to civilization. The buildings slowly became more neglected and less dilapidated, and sometimes she even saw people. Well, squatters, really. Brain-dead bums, high on whatever electronic or chemical drug they had available. She avoided one, who was up and about, shuffling mindlessly in a circle, in the middle of the street. It took her a while to clean up the blood, at least a little bit. She pulled an opaque plastic overall from a vending machine, available in two sizes: too big or too small. Sam decided on too big and pulled it awkwardly with one hand over the remains of her armored jumpsuit. She now owned—quite literally—only the clothes on her back, and even those weren’t in the best of conditions after making the acquaintance of a river, a bullet, ashy sludge; and fire. She had only been able to salvage a few medical supplies from the automated medkit in her backpack. The rest of her meager possessions had burned and were fused together. Fortunately, she still had her commlink, the smart-glasses and a few certified credsticks, as well as some IDs on chips. She’d need to update those to use them in Seattle, but at least she had money to do so. For now, the most pressing thing was shelter, though, and that’s why she trotted over to a square, stocky building decorated by the remains of a neon sign, announcing “O F I N T E L” to the mainly illiterate population of Avondale. The only slightly less crude AR sign on the former warehouse helpfully informed her about what she had already gathered: that it was a coffin hotel, with no questions asked and that was exactly what she needed right now.
She pushed open the door and the glasses darkened to reduce the bright, clinical neon light in the lobby to a somewhat more accommodating level. Behind the counter, a scruffy-looking elf lazily looked up as she approached him. He didn’t even try to hide the trid-porn running on a monitor small enough that Sam idly wondered how he could enjoy the show at all.
“Yeah? What’cha wan’?” he slurred at her.
She tried to keep her voice from breaking and almost managed it. “A coffin, troll-sized, for five days.”
The elf looked at her and lit a nic-stick. “Twenny per die-em, chick.” He tried to sound sophisticated and failed miserably. “We dun’ ask queshions, but if’n ya bring yer biznis here, yer paying a tenner more for dat night. Wakarimasu-ka?”
Sam bristled at the implication. “I’m not a …“ She sighed and decided she didn’t even care anymore. “Desu-ka.” She transferred a hundred nuyen to the waiting cash register and the elf nodded, while apparently coughing up a part of his lung.
“2-20.” He turned back to his porn and Sam went in to climb the crude steel grating stairs up to the second floor. When she opened coffin twenty, a foul stench hit her and she took a step back. Apparently the auto-cleaner in this booth was out of order, and someone had decided not to bother going down to the communal toilets before checking out. Tired, she went back to the receptionist. He didn’t even look up this time, not even when she started talking at him.
“2-20 is fragged. Smells like someone died in there, and the cleaners are out.” Bored, the elf flicked the burning nic-stick in her general direction.
“And?”
Sam frowned. “And I’d like another coffin, please.” He nodded, pressed a button on his console and asked “Fer how long?”
She grew irritated. “For five days.”
Now, the man grinned at her, showing the brown teeth of a Betel-addict. “That’ll be a neat hundred.” Out of patience, Sam narrowed her eyes, but before she could protest, he smugly added “Or ya can look elsewhere. How’zat?”

She paid, and this time she had to climb up to the seventh rickety story. This time the coffin smelled of disinfectant, but that was better than before. She dumped her overall and the few bandages she had been able to rescue and climbed back down to the communal showers. A troll was lying in a puddle of water, passed out and snoring loudly. Sam found that she was too weary to care. Communal showers had never been her favorite thing in the world. They reminded her of the camps, but at least no one was around at this early hour. She turned up the water after paying wirelessly, and stood fully clothed under the stream of lukewarm water, until it stopped after two minutes. It was enough to perfunctorily clean her, and the result was a grey-red stream running from around her hooves toward the drain. It hurt a bit, but the feeling was well worth it.
Then came the hard part. She opened the zipper and carefully wiggled out of the jumpsuit, pulling it gingerly from her injured shoulder and stripping down to the waist. She looked down, and saw a mess of wet scab, clothing caught in the open wound. Her bra was ruined anyways, the strap located somewhere inside the wound, so she cut it off with her sharp claws. After pulling the sleeve from her arm, she paid for water again and clenched her teeth as the water hit her again. She cleaned the wound as good as she could with only one hand and no supplies, and when the water stopped, she stepped out of the jumpsuit and kicked it away, paying for another two minutes of bliss, and almost enjoying herself showering in her boxers, next to a troll smelling of puke.
Sam put the ruined suit into an overflowing trash can and bought a one-use towel to wrap herself in. She looked at herself in the dinged-up mirror and smiled morbidly when she could see light through the wound in her shoulder. It didn’t even faze her anymore. She was just so tired. She climbed the stairs again and crawled awkwardly into the coffin. She barely managed to lock the door and put some adhesive pads on the wound before she finally lost consciousness.

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