The Man with the Plans
by Dave Barton
I have become invisible and intangible. Nobody sees me anymore. I do my job but nothing changes, nobody benefits. Not anymore.
But still I love the sea, the lift and tilt of the waves. Monty Crane gets land-sick, they joke down at the Bleached Whale, and they're right. Vancouver makes me sick to my stomach. I'm only happy when I'm on this old boat of mine and heading out of the bay.
I am invisible. I keep my eyes on the horizon, my hands on the wheel, my mouth shut, and outside the one-man cabin my passengers chat as if I wasn't here.
"I'm just saying: from what I've heard, Skunk won't take money," says the guy who thinks he's their leader. An ork with stud-covered skin. The rest of his body also infested with metal, no doubt. Hints of a Seattle accent, I think. I get a gut-load of déjà vu, then and there. But he's right: Skunk doesn't need money. Money's no good out in the Swamps. I know what Skunk will want, and I know it won't be pretty. This isn't déjà vu. I have been here before. Too many times. Maybe I should tell them.
"So we save a chunk of our own pay," grunts his human friend, the Amerind punk with the coat full of knives. "Suits me."
The elf girl's looking a little green. I like her but what can I do? The sea's choppy this morning, and anyway it'll be better out than in.
"And I'm just saying: there've got to be other ways to get the—" she drops her voice to a hoarse whisper, eyes darting in my direction "—blueprints for the place." She needn't have bothered. I could have filled in the blanks even if I didn't have an ear full of electronics. I know how it works with Arty Skunk. I've been there from the beginning.
A cloud of sea spray slaps the elf girl in the face. She retches and folds up onto the deck, cupping her mouth. But she'll be damned if she won't finish her point: "I don't like what I've heard about this Skunk fellow—" she pauses to swallow back the sickness "—and I don't like thinking about what he might ask us to do in exchange."
I smirk, safe in the knowledge that this raggedy old beard will hide it. A shadowrunner with a moral streak. Refreshing. Likeably naïve. But I'm guessing she's new to this way of life and she isn't going to go very far with that kind of baggage. More's the pity.
Up ahead their hacker perches cross-legged on the bow of the boat. He's sweeping his hands around in the air like one of those Tai Chi nuts in the park in Chinatown, only ten times the speed. Juggling little panels and streams of information that only he can see. I glance out at the landmarks and the little signs that only I can see. Behind us on the right, the fortress walls of the aerodrome are fading into the morning haze. The silt is merging with the sea. Time to turn hard to port and follow what's left of the coast. And any second now...
Sure enough, the hacker cries out "Fuck it!" and shakes his fists in the air. He stands up and stomps my way.
"No signal? Seriously?" he shouts through the window. I shake my head and shout back, trying to put some sympathy into the tone:
"Aye, and you won't get much in the Swamps either. A few patches here and there, but wireless relays aren't a high priority, I'm afraid."
He curses, and the others fumble with their commlinks to confirm what their friend has just pointed out. There will be moaning and bitching like spoiled children, you mark my words.
"Why are we heading so far out? We wanted to go south, not west!" the ork yells. A Wuxing cargo jet has chosen this moment to roar overhead, spiraling down toward the Vancouver aerodrome behind us. Odd that it isn't heading directly to their facility.
Young punk. Telling me my business? I sigh through gritted teeth.
"Safest way. Lots of Rangers and Border Patrol along the north edge of the Swamps. Watching for trouble and smugglers. Lucky we didn't get stopped already when we skirted it."
Luck, and ten years plying this old fishing boat. I've been stopped so many times they rarely bother me anymore as long as I stick to this route. They never have searched hard enough to find the smuggling bins under the hull, I'm happy to say, otherwise I guess it would be a different story.
They shut up for a while, taking in the view. I think the elf girl's about ready to cry when she first sees the Dyke. And the ork can hardly bring himself to look. All those heads on spikes, looking out to sea—kind of surprised-looking, some of them. I remember when the Dyke was still a symbol of hope. God forgive me. I might as well have put those heads up there myself.
It was over ten years ago when Mother Earth hit the Richmond area with one mother of an earthquake. We were sure it wasn't natural. The aerodrome just to the north got away with a few cracks, and as you'd guess, the corps weren't slow to get it patched up and good as new. But Richmond, sitting on the sands between the two arms of the Fraser River, was a different story. Many of the buildings were reduced to rubble. A few years and another earthquake later and the land had taken more than it could bear. It subsided ten feet or more and let the sea rush in to embrace the remaining real estate.
After the first quake, most of the survivors fled to neighboring districts and the high and mighty managed to pack them all in eventually. The Cascade Crow governors dutifully danced in honor of the dead, then washed their hands and walked away. The place was empty, they said. Nothing more to see. But it wasn't true, especially around the edges of the district. Some couldn't afford to leave (Amerind insurance companies quibbled about "hand of God" clauses and sold their souls to the devil that day), some didn't want to leave, and some people in this world are drawn to suffering like flies to shit. On top of everything else, there were the Shedim zombies: a real nightmare at the center of the district. Not every victim of Richmond took death lying down.
Six years ago, not long before the Crash of '64, I was shipping another team of shadowrunners on this exact same route. In this exact same boat. I remember now: there was an ork pretending to be in charge of that lot too. Razor, I think his name was. Or the name he was giving me, anyway. I don't remember the others so well, but these were the people who gave Arty Skunk his big idea. This was the day that Skunk got a wicked glint in his eye.
Razor wasn't a native of Vancouver either, and although he was trying to pretend otherwise, I don't think he'd even been here very long. I had a feeling that none of them had. They were still buzzing from a trip to the Vancouver Ridge in downtown. Back then it had only been open for a year or two, though I don't think it's mellowed much with age, even after the Crash lost everyone so much money. Two miles of the most expensive shops, bars, restaurants, hotels, and casinos in the Salish-Shidhe Council. Swimming pools, an aquarium, an arboretum in the main concourse, massage and beauty parlors, art galleries, you name it, all of it under the same long roof. The Pacific Prosperity Group's big shiny statement that it could promote greed and glamour even in the tree-hugging SSC. And a shiny slap in the face for all those people trying to rebuild the Richmond Swamps not ten miles away.
I remember our approach to the Swamps that day. Their conversation faltering and the smiles dropping off their faces like iron anvils. Quite a contrast to the Ridge. As I turned inland at the southern end of the Dyke, they saw the sickly thin survivors wading through the water. A long chain of them, hounded by flies, blankly piling up bits of debris on top of rusting shells of cars on top of heaps of rotting branches. It was tempting to think that they shuffled like zombies, but out here it was a good idea to draw a clear line between the barely living and the wading dead.
"What are they doing?" I remember Razor asking.
"They're building the Dyke," I told him. "They think they can reclaim Richmond."
As we slipped on by, he and his friends watched the scene with sour looks on their faces. There were huge makeshift banners laid out along the Dyke, for the benefit of all those wealthy execs flying in toward the aerodrome. "If you won't do it, we will!" was one of them. Others were less polite. But those poor souls were hardly in a state to do anything. I remember Razor and his friends tensing as they spotted a man, a rusting assault rifle in his hands, standing on one of the tiled rooftops that peeked out of the foul water. A second armed man came up the roof behind him.
"Take it easy!" I told my passengers.
"Who are they?" asked one, a young lad with startling white hair.
"You're going to see Arty Skunk? Well those are his men and that there Dyke is his big idea. And there are any number of Gator Gangs that would happily prey on all these people if Arty's men weren't here. But we're all right. They know this boat, so don't rock it." Razor nodded with some sort of approval. Maybe once he'd been a bit of a community leader himself.
I was getting paid (and paid pretty well—they hadn't even haggled) to take this lot all the way to Arty's headquarters: the top floors of an old semi-submerged school just a little way in from the Dyke. The "Skunkworks," people called it. Arty's little community center.
I thought it best to go in with them, a familiar face to lead them up to Arty's "throne room" in the roof space and introduce them. I was almost more worried for Arty than I was for them. They carried themselves like cobras.
"We've heard you've acquired blueprints for the Vitus Grand Hotel," said Razor.
So that was it. The VG was one of the most expensive hotels in the world. The final extravagant flourish at the end of the Vancouver Ridge. The kind of place that didn't do rooms; if you couldn't afford a suite then they weren't interested in your custom. If these guys were planning to hit the VG then they really were playing in the big league. But Arty wasn't going to be intimidated. He was his usual clipped and charmless self.
"We'd considered staging a protest there. What's it to you?"
I wondered what sort of protest he'd contemplated. The VG already attracted all kinds of jealous slurs, jokes, and graffiti: bloggers calling it the "VITAS Grand," and so on. But the VG was too rich and classy to care about a little plague joke. And much too secure for Arty's minions to tackle. I was surprised that he'd managed to get the blueprints in the first place. Vancouver's wealthy Cascade Crow landowners tended to pay well to keep the details of their property away from public eyes. But there were still a few well-connected Amerinds with some sympathy for the plight of the Swamps dwellers. And Arty was the kind of man who could capitalize on bourgeois guilt.
The shadowrunners shifted uneasily. Razor took the lead again.
"We'll pay well for them."
I remember Arty looking at the antiquated datapad in his hands. That's when I saw that glint.
"Money's not much use to me out here," he barked. "But... decent guns and people who know how to use them... those I can use."
I doubted Arty was the only source for the information they wanted. But this would be clean: no risk of alerting the target. I could read the same thought on Razor's face.
"Go on," he said quietly.
"There is a gang that has been terrorizing my people." (My people? The ego of the man!) "They call themselves the Crocs. King Croc is a troll. And there are his two lieutenants, one of them a shaman. They've got a nest not too far away. You bring me... their heads... and then you can have your blueprints for free."
Arty's minions smiled at each other and nodded approvingly. The shadowrunners looked at each other, and asked for a moment to discuss the offer. I stood at the back of the room, hardly daring to breathe. Nobody would be sorry to see the Crocs get their comeuppance. I'd heard all about them many times. The abductions. The drugs. Abuse. Destruction. Black magic. Worse. The Crocs were a menace, but these guys looked up to the task. Yes, I remember thinking I'd be very glad to see my passengers take this deal. From the animation of their huddled discussion, I got the sense that they were not too sure. They asked a whole lot of questions about the gang and its crimes, asked for a glimpse of the blueprint file to confirm it was what they were after, and in the end Razor came back.
"Deal," he said.
I wasn't about to put my boat in danger, but Skunk was more than happy to put one of his at their disposal. I figured I'd hang around. If they came back alive then they'd paid for a two-way trip. At any rate, I could hardly leave without seeing how it all turned out.
After they'd shipped out , Arty Skunk walked straight past me and out onto the adjoining roof. "Monty," and a curt nod were all the acknowledgements he could muster. But then he stopped and turned back. "You think they'll manage it?" he asked me, without looking me in the eyes.
I shrugged. "I reckon they've faced worse."
They must have because they were back within half an hour, with barely a scratch on them. A large head and some other bodies were heaped together on the prow. But they hadn't just brought back gangers. There was also a traumatized huddle of six victims, and the dead body of a seventh—a little girl. I couldn't comprehend how long those people must have been swimming in their own filth in a cage under King Croc's nest, nor the kind of abuse they must have endured whenever they were actually let out. At that point I would have done just about any favor for Razor and his friends, but they seemed satisfied with just a ride back to Granville Island with their precious blueprints. As I was leading them back to my boat, I glanced up at the roof. King Croc's fat head, still dripping blood from its flabby severed neck, glowered down at me from its new home, and Arty Skunk, teeth clenched in a sick grin, was hard at work sawing the head off the foul-smelling shaman.
He's had six years to lead Richmond back into the 21st century! I'm lost in memory and gripped by anger, so the boat hits a big wave sideways on and Elf Girl finally gives up her breakfast over the side.
It didn't take Skunk long to realize he was on to something. And somehow it didn't take him much longer to make himself the go-to guy for Vancouver blueprints. Then the Crash ruined a whole lot of people and destroyed a whole lot of records, and Skunk's stock hit a new high on the black market.
I've shipped in a lot of shadowrunners since Razor and his friends. I've overheard a fair few arguments. But in the end, almost all of them have paid Skunk's asking price. Sure, he could sell for cash—he always could have done that, I guess—but he gets a much better deal this way. Arty Skunk no longer runs the southwest corner of the Swamps—he runs the whole place, near enough, and everybody's terrified of him. But there are still Gator Gangs in the Swamps. There are still drugs and crime, disease and tormented spirits. The Dyke was never finished, and now it's nothing more than a decaying trophy shelf for the self-styled Man with the Plans.
The boat plows on through the conflicted sea. The wind is changing, and the haze is lifting. Gulls shriek and squabble over my wake. My eyes keep getting drawn to Elf Girl, draped wretchedly over the railing, staring at the distant fingers of wreckage.
Only once in my life did I ever take on a business partner: a shrewd young ork woman who loved the sea as much as I did and called herself Sounder. It didn't work out. She was too talkative for my tastes, and I wasn't ambitious enough for hers. We agreed to part ways without any ill feeling, and it was on our last trip together, as she lounged against the side of my boat— just where Elf Girl is slumped at this very moment—that Sounder asked me, out of the blue:
"What do you want out of life, Monty?"
I told her: "I'm saving up for a little bar on a hot beach a long way from here."
Quick as a flash she came back: "How much is something like that worth?"
Sounder loved to lace her questions with double meanings like that. And somehow that one question keeps coming back to me.
I drop the throttle and leave the boat lurching to a halt on the tide.
"Hey, what's going on?" hisses the hacker. "You going to try some funny business, old man?" He pulls out a heavy pistol.
I come out of my cabin, waving my shaking hands to try and calm everyone down. "I think there's something you need to know about Arty Skunk."
"And what's that?" says Elf Girl, perking up.
"Arty Skunk is a shit. And he's got to where he is today by getting folks like you to kill his enemies for a few measly files. He could have fixed all this by now. But he hasn't. And he never will."
Elf Girl looks at her comrades with piercing eyes, but stops short of saying, "See?"
"Start up the boat again, old man," says the ork menacingly.
"Just listen to me. Do what you have to do. Get your blueprints. But when we're leaving the Skunkworks, I want you to do a job for me."
They laugh and look around the battered old fishing boat.
I know what they're thinking. "I've saved up a fair bit of money over the years. Twenty thousand nuyen, more or less."
"Small-time smuggler, eh?" the Amerind punk sneers. "Hide your treasure in a cave through the Crash?"
"It's yours if you take out Arty Skunk when you're leaving."
There. It's out. The deal is on the table. My heart feels that much lighter already. Just for having made it.
"Naughty naughty, old man," the hacker sniggers. "What will Mister Skunk think of you, eh?"
I feel a chill in my spine. Damned fool. They're going to take your money anyway. Kill you, or threaten to tell Skunk what you've said.
"Hey, hang on a minute!" pipes Elf Girl. Beautiful Elf Girl. Make me believe in people again.
"That's a lot of money, old man. More than we're being paid for our current job, in fact," she says looking around the others. They nod slightly, conceding the point. "Are you serious? His death is worth that much to you?"
She has the most bewitching eyes. I start to feel like she's playing with my mind, plucking my emotions and listening to what notes they produce. It makes me squirm inside, but the truth is that I want someone to know what I've been feeling, what I've been hiding under this beard.
"It's worth that much to them." I nod toward the coast.
"We don't care about them," says the ork. But I've been watching him on and off through this whole trip and I don't buy it. Maybe he's playing it tough for the hacker and the Amerind punk? I hang my hopes on that, and try to make it easy for him:
"So care about the money. Let me care about them."
It seems I'm not so invisible now. The runners exchange glances for a long time without saying anything. At first I think they're arguing their cases by facial expression alone, but then I remember the newfangled Linked Area Network that all the runner teams have these days. Zeroes and ones are deciding my fate.
Eventually, all eyes turn to the ork. I guess he really is in charge after all.
"Deal," he says.