Seattle, Washington (United Canadian and American States) – September, 27th 2071
Waking up was an ordeal. Dull, throbbing pain radiated from her shoulder, and her throat was parched. Sam’s mouth tasted like something had died in there—which wasn’t exactly far from the truth. She lay in a heap on the cheap Styrofoam mattress, her body awkwardly twisted. Disentangling herself from the sweaty towel, she groaned when she accidentally touched the spotty brown pad on her shoulder. Suddenly, Sam shivered. She was dizzy and her skin felt clammy, hot, and feverish. Her right arm still didn’t move right and she fought back the thought of what would happen if … No. She couldn’t deal with this right now. Sam carefully draped the arm over her stomach. Her fingertips tingled unpleasantly, but at least she had some feeling left. She looked around her, categorizing and mentally listing her assets and needs.
Sam only had a commlink, her smart glasses, and a few certified credsticks. Almost fifteen thousand Nuyen left, but that amount had to keep for a while, until she could work again and—more importantly—until she had built the connections to actually be able to work. Her possessions were seriously lacking in the department of clothing and basic medicinal equipment, and she had no food or water at all. Sam was acutely aware of her immediate needs. She had no idea yet, how much time had passed, but that was easily solved. The commlink display showed her, that she had been unconscious for almost thirty-six hours, but she didn’t feel rested at all. The wound was probably infected and she needed a change of bandages. Her dry throat also told her that she was on the verge of dehydration, but irritatingly she had a powerful urge to pee.
Systematically, she decided to first get another shower and then find someone who could point her in the general direction of a trustworthy street doc. She sincerely hoped that the filthy elf receptionist wasn’t working tonight. She couldn’t do much about it, so she started the long-winded process of putting on the dirty and decidedly flimsy oversized plastic flat overall that she had used to hide the blood on her clothing. The coffin was troll-sized, but that didn’t mean she could actually sit up. In the end, Sam didn’t even try putting her arm through the sleeve and pulled up the zipper. When she opened the door of her coffin and crawled outside, the bright neon lights temporarily blinded her. She felt lightheaded after getting up on her hooves, and steadied herself by gripping the rails. Going down to the communal washing room, she also felt very naked when two men passed her. They were an ork and a norm, with bare chests, and they grinned when they stared at her. Sam blushed and tried to avoid eye contact, which was easily accomplished considering where their leering stares were directed. After arriving, she relieved herself in a bathroom stall and drank small gulps of water directly from the tap. It tasted disgustingly rusty and chlorinated, but at least she was reasonably sure that she wouldn’t get sick from it. Right next to the vending machine for the towels she found one for flats, so she pulled a new set of clothing from it. Looking in the shower rooms, she decided to not do that right now, since two men and a woman were present. It reminded her of the camps, where there was no privacy either, but after all, here she could decide when to take a shower.
Instead, Sam just washed up a bit at the sinks and clambered back up to her coffin to gather her few belongings and put on another, cleaner layer of clothing before making her way down to the exit. She got lucky: the elven receptionist wasn’t on duty. She approached the middle-aged norm woman sitting behind the counter and was shocked how weak and raspy her voice sounded as she politely asked her “Excuse me? Do you know a doc around here? One where I can pay cash?”
The woman examined her suspiciously for a while before she answered. “Looks like you want one who doesn’t ask questions either, eh?” Sam tried not to blush for being so transparent and succeeded only because she’d suffered dangerous blood loss. She nodded, not trusting her voice anymore, and the woman smiled, kindly.
“Well, I don’t particularly know such types. But I know of one. What’s in it for me?” Sam suppressed a sigh and fumbled for a certified credstick.
“How does a hundred new yen sound?” she asked and the receptionist nodded satisfied.
“Sounds good. The guy goes by the name of Quack. It’s only a street name, for all I know he does decent work. He’s not cheap and rumor has it he’s a bit of an organ-legger, so you probably don’t want him to knock you out. But he works only a few blocks away from here, and you don’t look like you’ll make it really far, huh?”
Sam transferred the money to the woman’s account and didn’t answer her question. She thanked her politely and concentrated on the directions before leaving the coffin hotel.
The cold evening air felt pleasant on her face. She examined the building where the street doc was supposedly located. The entry was a cellar door, unmarked, but sturdy. One of those fire doors, she thought. She stepped down and knocked loudly. A few people were on the streets and Sam gathered some strange looks, but no one bothered her. No one opened the door and she thought she’d knock again, just before a noise came from inside. It sounded like chains being unlocked and a moment later the door opened and an ork in a bloody apron gave her a stink-eye.
“What is it? I’m busy!” Sam instinctively took a step back, before clearing her throat nervously.
“I need a bit of patching up. A chummer told me I could find a doc here. Someone called Quack?”
The ork stepped outside, so she could see him better. He wasn’t very tall for someone of his race, but had broad shoulders, so he looked almost hunched. His head was bald and one of his eyes had a nasty scar running across it. In fact, the eye was missing and a black hole was very clearly visible in its stead. He looked old, with big, yellow tusks jutting from his lower lip and a long gray goatee with the yellow tinge of a heavy smoker on his chin.
“Yeah, that’s me.” He examined her and gave a gruff noise. “Then you better come on in. What are you waiting for, girl?” His articulation sounded exceptionally well. Orks often lisped, or just sounded slow, mostly because of their tusks, but this man obviously had made an effort to overcome this limitation. He turned around and went back inside, obviously expecting Sam to follow him.
“Don’t mind the mess, my instruments are sterile, mostly. So … what ails you?” He looked at her expectantly after closing the door behind her.
Sam had no idea what his question meant, so she found herself dumbly asking “What?”
The ork rolled his single eye and bellowed loudly and very slowly “Where. Are. You. Hurt?” She felt stupid and stammered “Got shot. In the shoulder. Right shoulder, I mean. It went through.” Quack guffawed and grinned at her sarcastically.
“Well, well, it can talk. You’re in the right place. Strip and take a seat, so I can look at you.” He gestured at a couch and turned on some lights. The room looked less than confidence-inspiring, with medical equipment crammed in haphazardly into the cellar, side by side with some instruments that wouldn’t have been out of place in a slaughterhouse. A giant fridge dominated the room and there were a few cyberware parts that looked decidedly pre-owned lying around on a dinged up workbench. Sam could smell the acidic tang of disinfectant over a deeper aroma of old cigarette smoke as she made her way over to the couch and sat down. She indecisively looked around and saw a Petri dish on a silver tray next to her, overflowing to the rim with the butts of self-rolled nicsticks. The other items on the tray were even more disconcerting. One was a severed arm, the flesh greyish and laid open along the forearm. She could see metallic-looking bones and a bloody cleaver. The ork followed her glance and bared his teeth at her in a grin.
“I told you I was busy. Now, strip, or do you want to waste my time? I can’t look at your wound otherwise.” Sam shook her head and mumbled an apology, starting to undo the zipper on her plastic-and-paper clothes. She grimaced in pain as she carefully pulled the fabric down to expose her injured shoulder. Quack sighed when he came closer.
“Nothing I haven’t seen before, girl. Don’t need to be ashamed. It’s just anatomy.” He washed his hands at a sink, pulled on some latex gloves and loosened the adhesive pad with surprisingly nimble fingers before tossing it in a waste bin. He leaned forward and sniffed at the wound before removing the pad from her back as well.
“Looks nasty. Large caliber … Good thing you haven’t bled out.” He pulled a bright, flexible lamp over and looked again, then nodded.
“Alright. Here’s how this works: I will ask you a few questions. You need to answer them truthfully so I can give you a proper treatment. For example, If I ask you if you’re on drugs and you say no, and I give you some pills, they might kill you. You don’t want this, so don’t lie to me. Clear?” Sam nodded and Quack went on.
“Next, I’ll give you a price. If you try to haggle, I kick your ass out on the street again. You’re quite frankly not in a position to negotiate here. Instead, you’ll pay it to my account after we’ve decided on a treatment. Then, and only then will I stitch you back together. If I tell you something, you take it as gospel, and I don’t repeat myself. If you fuck it up and die, it’s not my fault.” She nodded again, and swallowed a bit. Placated, the doc began asking his questions.
“First question: You’ve got a clotter, don’t you?” She wasn’t sure what that was and asked.
“Platelet factories. Improved blood clotting factors, this kind of thing. You probably would have died from that wound if you didn’t have that. It may also be a thing due to your SURGE?”
“Yeah, I have those things. The ‚ware.” He nodded and made a note on an old-fashioned clipboard.
“And are you on drugs?” Sam shook her head.
“No. I don’t even have painkillers.” The ork looked at her and pointed a light into one of her eyes.
“Huh. No pupils. Well, seems like I have to believe you. Now, apart from the obvious pain and having a hole in your shoulder that a troll could use to … “ He stopped himself, but the message was clear. “Any difficulties?”
“Yes”, she said. “I can’t really move the arm and my fingertips tingle. It doesn’t hurt a lot, more like pinpricks.” Quack noted it down.
“Okay. Well, you have some options. I don’t really have the equipment here to test for nerve damage, but I suspect there might be some there. The easiest way would be to take the arm off at the shoulder and replace it with cyber. It’s less expensive than growing one from your own tissue, but I can’t do that here anyways.” Sam interrupted him.
“I don’t want that. I don’t want my arm sawn off.” He shrugged.
“Well, alright. I’ll need to cut some stuff away, and it will hurt. Here’s where you can choose. Basic treatment is five hundred Nuyen. You can have a local anesthetic for another hundred. I can’t guarantee that it’ll heal clean, and if you have nerve damage, you probably won’t be able to use the arm properly in the future. But we’ll cross that bridge then. It’s not as if a cyberarm wouldn’t be available later on. When I’m finished cutting, I’ll fill up the wound with synthflesh and fix the arm in place with a sling so you don’t make it worse when you move around. I’d also recommend some antibiotics and painkillers. You can have a box each for another hundred. The wound is infected. Could be that you’ll make it either way, but if you take the antibiotics, you need to take them all. No saving some. This isn’t a trick to make more money off of you. Your infection will just lapse back if you don’t do that. Understood?” Sam had a few difficulties to follow all the explanations, but she nodded anyways.
“I think I got the gist. I’ll take the full monty. Ah … Can you sell me a medkit? I’d pay you another five hundred for a good model with full supplies.” Bartering gave her back a bit of self-consciousness and the street doc nodded, half in approval, half as an answer, expecting a good deal of money in his immediate future.
“Very well. I have an older one here, but it’s reliable. You make a good offer. Pay up and I’ll get to work.”
She smiled weakly. “I’d prefer it if you gave me the shot now and then let me take a look at the medkit before I pay you in full. That alright with you?” He bared his tusks in an orkish grin.
“Alright, girl. Let’s get to work, then.”
Sam still felt a bit light-headed almost a week after her visit at Quack’s place. At least her pain was dulled and her fever had gone down. She could even move her arm again, but tried to use it only sparsely until it was fully healed. She hadn’t relocated from the coffin hotel yet, since the woman who had helped her out had proven rather useful in exchange for small sums of money. She had pointed Sam in the direction of a few shops in the vicinity and now she owned underwear again, as well as a new armored jumpsuit, complete with a color-changing option, chemical protection against Redmond’s acid rain and an outer layer of nonconductive material. She had also bought another few necessities like a toothbrush, some more civilian clothing, and a surplus army backpack to store it all in.
Until now, Sam had subsisted on the cheap StufferShack soy and mycoprotein food but she longed to change that fact, along with her current choice of lodging. For that reason, she now set hoof out on the bleak, dreary Redmond streets, with a plan half-formed in her mind. She needed to get to greener pastures, to where the real action happened. She needed connections, and Sam thought she knew where to establish ties with some important people. During the time in Avondale, she had heard a few people dropping some names.
Matchstick’s, Underworld 93, Dante’s Inferno and Club Penumbra apparently were some nightclubs where the magic happened. Matchstick’s and the Inferno were rather high-class in their clientele, and Sam didn’t think she’d be able to get inside, much less fit in there. Underworld 93 was down in the south, in Puyallup. That left her with Club Penumbra, in Downtown. It was a risk. Her SIN still wasn’t updated for lack of a talented forger, and the law required people to broadcast a SIN in most parts of Downtown. Sam would likely pass a cursory inspection, but should she be stopped and scanned more thoroughly it would be blatantly obvious that her Jessica Reyes ID had never entered the UCAS enclave of Seattle officially.
Still, it was a risk, she’d have to take: without connections, she’d never find a hacker able to tailor the ID and it would be useless anyway. A valid SIN also meant access to other equipment without such a hassle. For example, she wanted to get some form-fitting body armor to wear below the jumpsuit. A similar model hadn’t protected her well enough from that bullet and she had decided to sink some money into better protection. Getting such armor on the street was possible, but difficult, and required—again—better connections than the people she already knew.
This was why she was now on her way to downtown, to check out a name on a list Sam had compiled in her head. It was a rather short list, admittedly. Ruling out some legends of the business like Cog or Kestrel—since she had no idea how to contact them—left her with basically two fixers.
The first one was an old ork called Bull. Rumors had it that he had just returned to Seattle and established himself as a fixer, operating out of the Underworld 93. He seemed promising, but Sam aimed at someone else first. A human named Cathy often worked in Club Penumbra. She was more entrenched in the Emerald City’s shadows than Bull and had been in the business for some sixteen years now. She enjoyed some local fame and people said that she often offered jobs to a stable of runners and that she was able to get almost any piece of hardware, including some milspec gear. It wouldn’t hurt to start there, Sam thought. She liked working with women better in either case and maybe she could impress Cathy. Having access to such a source of equipment would be a powerful help.
It was around nine in the evening when she stashed her backpack in a bus station’s locker near Yesler Way, in the long shadow of the former Renraku arcology. It was now called ACHE, in another painful acronym that stood rather prosaically for Arcology Commercial and Housing Enclave. The shorthand fit its history of pain and suffering much better, all things considered. After a disaster with an out-of-control management computer system (or at least that’s what the news said; the shadows spoke of an insane AI) had killed tens of thousands of Renraku corporate drone people—in a painfully ironic twist with actual drones—the titanic building had been taken by former general, and now president Angela Colloton and her troops to utilize the fusion reactors in the lower levels. Since the former owner Renraku Computer Systems hadn’t been able—or more likely, willing—to pay the recompense for the lives, property damage and the cost for the military operation, they had been kicked out of the almost kilometer tall arcology.
Now, with all the blood and terror washed away, the ACHE was open to the public again, or at least its five ground floors were—a giant mall, a temple to consumerism. The rest of the almost three hundred floors were mostly used as cheap living space for the SINless and homeless people. About one hundred and fifty thousand undesirables lived inside, often less than voluntarily. They weren’t allowed to leave, but they were what the government called “provided for”. Sam knew about such provisions from her own government. She wouldn’t have been surprised by the circumstances inside.
But the ACHE wasn’t her target tonight; it was merely across the street from Club Penumbra. She used the station’s public restroom to freshen up a bit after the long walk and put on some dark lipstick. A few fixes to her hair made her look a bit older and some adjustment to the jumpsuit’s straps concealed the awkward angle of her injured right arm. Feeling prepared, she crossed over to the nightclub’s entry and got in line there.
A fanged smile and a well-placed bribe to the well-dressed dwarf bouncer later she was inside, taking in the new surroundings. Club Penumbra was as legendary as it was venerable. After some famous live concerts by Concrete Dreams in the thirties and forties, everyone who was someone flocked to the doors. However, Concrete Dreams had given their last concert in 2044, and the Penumbra had been on a slow decline ever since, only to be interrupted by short spurs of renewed interest. Nowadays it attracted a mixed crowd of dangerous-looking wannabes, corporate brats wanting to rub shoulders with dangerous people and shadow folk with an old-school vibe. Walking through the airlock-like entrance, the weapon scanner didn’t find anything, so she passed the wardrobe by.
Once inside, Sam noted the famous moonscape. The interior design hadn’t changed in the last forty years, but the sound and light system were still only one step behind state of the art. The floor was uneven, pockmarked by simulated micrometeorite impacts as she made her way to the bar area on her right, stepping on some metal grating. The music was loud, industrial noise, swallowing the sound of her hooves on the metal. The artificial fog was crisscrossed by colored lasers moving to the music’s thumping pulse, creating holographic ghosts that vanished just as quickly as they appeared.
Sam squeezed into a tight space at the bar and soon had some more. She waited a while until the barkeeper came in her direction and ordered herself a ginger ale. When the sunken-eyed, pale elf brought the glass over and took the payment and a generous tip with a gracious smile, she asked him “I’m looking for Cathy. Would you know where to find her?” With narrowed eyes, he eyed her up and down, before rubbing his chin. Sam noticed that he focused on her, no quick eye movement betraying who or where Cathy might be. He obviously wasn’t stupid.
“Depends on who you are, Sugar”, he told her in a charming tone of voice. He even appeared sincere in using the endearment, but Sam wasn’t fooled. This was a game and the barkeeper was much better at it than she was. Drek, he probably played it as long as she lived. Still, she had nothing to lose and decided to play. In the worst case, she wouldn’t get the info and still have learned something from it. So she smiled and gave him a good look at her sharp canines, without looking overly threatening.
“I’m Jazz. I’m kinda new in the ‘plex and I’ve heard that here could be a good place to start looking for a job. Not the kind where I serve drinks, in case you’re wondering.” The elf grinned and brushed one long-fingered hand through his thin, blonde hair.
“Well, Jazz, you’ll have to make a good first impression. I guess you can look out for yourself.” She didn’t quite know what he meant with that, but he beckoned her closer. “See these alcoves in the back there? The third one from here is Cathy’s booth. You’ll need some chuzpe. Good luck.”
She nodded toward him, took her drink and moved through the fog to her destination, only to be stopped short by a massive ork getting up from the booth. He wasn’t as tall as she was, but easily twice as wide. No fat, only large slabs of muscle on his chest, shoulders and arms. He had very dark skin, and long dreadlocks pulled back and bound together by a leather strap. His tusks were capped in silver and he was dressed in an armored leather jacket, fitting pants and combat boots. The ork’s fists looked like they were as big as Sam’s face and he glared at her. His voice was gravelly and gruff, as he bellowed “Back off, slot”, loud enough to be easily understood above the music’s beat.
It took a conscious effort to not take a step back, but she stood her ground and looked him in the eye. After a short examination she was reasonably sure that he didn’t have any hidden weapons with him, but he still seemed threatening. His whole posture was aggressive and intimidating, but Sam now realized what the barkeeper had meant with his comment and took it as what it was. Of course, someone like Cathy would have some security. The ork had to be the person filling this role. She didn’t back down and put up her hand in a placating gesture.
“Cool, chummer. I’m here to see Cathy. My name is Jazz. I’m no trouble.” The ork wasn’t particularly impressed, but at least he didn’t take a swing at her.
“Cathy don’ see people she dunno”, he declared.
Sam grinned and asked “How do you know she doesn’t know me? Maybe I’m an old acquaintance?” The bodyguard only shook his head and evidently didn’t buy the bluff. She decided to change her approach.
“So, how do I get to know Cathy if she doesn’t talk to people she doesn’t know? Do I get a referral? Is there some secret password? Do I beat you in single combat?” She grinned at him and was a bit surprised, since it seemed to work. The ork laughed, not derisively, but in a good-natured way that was at odds with his mannerisms so far.
“Beat me? No, not really. But you made me laff, so I won’t wipe the floor wit’ you, as a start.” He bared his teeth at her in what she knew was an orkish grin. He seemed a bit disappointed that she showed no fear at the sight.
“How about you tell me your name and we settle that argument some other time? For now, I’d really like to talk with Cathy. I’m good, and I think she could use me.” He furrowed his brow and thought for a while.
“You c’n call me Jono. But I told …” A clear voice from the booth interrupted him.
“It’s alright. Let her through, I’m done with this customer. I’ll talk to her.”
Sam tried to see in the darkness of the alcove, but could only make out a slender figure holding a bottled beer between long, agile fingers. Jono stepped aside and Sam approached the booth, sitting down in the leather couch opposite of her host.
“Thanks, I …” she started, but Cathy interrupted her.
“Nope. For now, I talk. You listen. Maybe, afterwards you can talk for a bit.” She leaned forward and Sam could see a pretty face, framed by brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. Cathy was a norm in her mid-thirties, with the slight hint of a frown around the corners of her mouth. She, too, wore biker leathers, the jacket open and revealing a simple tank top that left her midriff bare. She was obviously fit and the jacket was equally as obvious armored. No cyberware was apparent, but that didn’t have to mean anything.
“I’m usually not in the habit of taking in newbies fresh from the street. Additionally, you look like you recently took a beating”, the fixer continued. “That being said, you’re lucky that I’ve just wrapped up something and I have about five minutes for you. Make it worth my while and tell me a bit about yourself, especially why I would want to pay you for anything. I’m not interested in chatting.” Sam nodded and tried to think of what to say, but this was a situation she had been in and she had enough routine to just let it flow.
“I’m a courier”, she started. “I’m good enough to beat bikes in a ‘plex, once I’ve gotten around a bit and learned the lay of the land. I’m also a good sneak and I have some ‘ware. I respect the package and I don’t ask stupid questions, but I will ask the important ones. I can look out for myself pretty well, but I’m not a killer. This means I’ll defend myself but I don’t do wetwork. I’ve grown up on the streets and I’ve been in the biz for a good four years now.” She looked at Cathy, who scrutinized her interestedly.
“Well, you certainly know how to sell yourself. Faster than a bike, huh?” Sam nodded and casually stretched a long leg. The other woman continued. “Well, I’ve got a package I need picked up and delivered back here. It’s a simple job. You’ll get five hundred Nuyen for it. Deal?” Sam shook her head. She knew it was a test.
“No deal, Cathy. Before I accept that, I’ll need to know a bit more. First: How big is it?” The fixer indicated the dimensions with her hands and fingers, so it didn’t seem too big. “Second: How much does it weigh? Will it inconvenience me when I’m running? Third: Is it dangerous? That means: Will it explode if I shake it? Is it hot and will cops be on my tail? Is it magical or something differently exotic?” Cathy smiled.
“Good, at least you know what questions to ask. It weighs a few pounds, but it is not dangerous in usual circumstances. If someone shoots it, I’d try not to breathe it in, but that’s it. It’s controlled, but not hot. If you’re picked up, the cops will bust your ass for it, but it’s not as if it is apparent if you have it in a pocket or a backpack. Is that everything you need to know?” Sam returned the smile.
“No, it’s not. I also need to know how quick it needs to be delivered, but the most important question is: Why me? I get that you want to give me a chance, but you would probably take a lesser one when you had one of your regulars do the job, wouldn’t you?” Cathy took a sip from her beer before looking at Sam thoughtfully.
“Good question, Jazz. Simply put, I could call up some regulars. On the other hand, people know who often works for me. I want it on the down low a bit, and you guessed correctly that you’re kind of a boon to me in that regard. Now, I need it picked up in less than an hour and it’s located in Puyallup. I want it here in three hours. Are you able to do that?” Sam grinned broadly.
“For a thousand Nuyen, I am”, she said, and the haggling began.