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Dead Man's Party
Jon Szeto

There was one distinctive characteristic about the post-lockdown Renraku Arcology that always unsettled Marcelles: the smell.

Having spent several years in the Arc before the lockdown - first as a wageslave, then later a shadowrunner - the elf gunman had grown accustomed to its climate-controlled atmosphere. To keep the middle managers and executives who lived inside happy, the Arcology added an air freshener to the recirculated air passing through the scrubbers. The aroma was so distinctive that Renraku's marketing department even trademarked it to sell as a designer brand elsewhere. Marcelles also suspected the freshener helped to mask a mood-dampening drug Renraku also piped into the air, to keep the hired help docile and to dull the edges of intruding malcontents.

Since the lockdown and the battle to reopen it, however, the air freshener was one of the first things to go. Now, instead of the trademark Arcology FragranceTM, Marcelles' nose caught the acrid stench of cordite, machine oil, and smoke. It wasn't a scent that the veteran runner had never smelled before, but to smell it while gazing on the Arc's interior hallways jarred like a dissonant screech on Marcelles ' memory.

As Marcelles waved to signal to his companions that the concourse was clear, the elf could detect other odors adding to the Arc's new aroma: a heavy coat of antiseptic, masking the lesser stench of blood, bile, and decomposition. They were close to their objective. Marcelles glanced down to see his hands nervously fidget with the safety of his weapon. Right now he wished Renraku was still pumping that sedative as he always claimed; it would at least help to calm his nerves.

"There," pointed out Marcelles to the man closing on his side, "that's the place, Reese. It used to be a cafeteria for middle managers, but the otaku converted it into a biotech lab. After the Red Samurai took this floor back, they used it as a makeshift morgue to dissect Banded troops they capped."

"Wonderful. Don't think I'll ever eat at a McHugh's again," muttered Reese as he hefted his submachinegun. The once cheery cafeteria, originally themed in shades of green and bright blue, now had splotches of red, yellow, and brown on the walls. Most of the original furniture was gone; in their stead lay cold steel examination tables bearing equally cold cadavers, attended by medical devices of chrome and plastic. They stood perched like vultures over the tables, gazing down with their blinking multicolored LEDs.

"Any signs of our samurai friends, Ivan?" Reese turned to ask the ork standing behind him. Black Ivan shook his head.

"Nyet. Hacksaw seems to be leading them on a merry chase with his drones," replied Black Ivan, in a thick Russian accent. He glanced down at the gaunt form of the rigger seated on the floor, hunched over the remote control deck before him. Hacksaw only barely registered the ork's presence, as the rigger was preoccupied with directing his drone network. Several hundred meters away, several of Hacksaw's drones, modified to look like Deus' mechanical monstrosities, were distracting the Renraku forces that would normally be guarding the morgue. Only the medical staff remained behind to look after the bodies inside.

"Good," nodded Reese. He figured he didn't have to bother the rigger, so instead he turned to Alexandra. "Anything on the astral?"

Alexandra's wavy tresses of strawberry blonde quivered as the street witch shook her head. "Just the normal background count left over from past fights. It's not pretty, though."

"Well, just as long as there aren't any surprises, that's all I'm worried about." Reese's brow furrowed. "Marcelles, you keep a watch over our rear. You and Hacksaw will stay here while the rest of us rush the clinic; we'll signal you both to move in. Northwood, you and Ivan take point."

"Check, Reese," drawled Northwood from underneath his Stetson. The adept's tan long coat rustled as he produced a shotgun from within its folds.

"Okay, let's do it." Making one last quick check, Northwood and Black Ivan darted out from the side corridor where the group was hiding. The Russian ork leapfrogged from cover to cover, first crouching behind the wreck of a burned-out spider drone, then a stand of now-withered stand of decorative trees, until he was backed up to the left of the cafeteria entrance.

Reese momentarily lost sight of Northwood. Every so often he could catch the gunslinger's duster out of the corner of his eye, but the adept otherwise moved with an unnatural stealthiness that almost bordered on invisibility. By the time Reese caught Northwood again, he was pressed up on the opposite side of the entrance from Ivan. Northwood nodded wordlessly and motioned with his hand. Reese and Alexandra broke out in a crouching run, until they arrived at the other side, crouching low beneath Black Ivan and Northwood.

As Black Ivan withdrew his pistol, Northwood reached into his long coat and fished out a grenade, pulled out the pin, and lobbed it between the double doors. A split second later, a loud boom thundered from within, while flashes of light escaped from the doors forcibly banged open. The concussion grenade was mostly flash and bang, thus keeping physical damage to a minimum. However, it would knock out anyone in the immediate vicinity, while surprising the rest long enough to gain the advantage.

Black Ivan and Northwood swung around and kicked the doors back inwards, weapons leveled in front. Ivan bellowed out, "DROP EVERYTHING AND MOVE TO THE BACK NOW!!! MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!"

An intern in scrubs standing a few meters away dropped in a dead faint. Black Ivan was big for an ork, and his synthetic muscle augmentations made him even bigger. With the added shock factor from the grenade blast, Ivan looked to the medical staff like he could wrestle a dragon - and win.

As if on cue, Northwood suddenly swung right and hard with the butt of his shotgun. The stock connected squarely with the jaw of a guard sneaking up from behind. The guard's gun clattered on the floor, followed by a heavy thud from the cold-cocked Red Samurai.

"Move it, people. Now, before I hurt someone!" growled Northwood, as Reese and Alexandra swung around to back up the two. Like cowed sheep, the half-dozen medtechs shuffled backwards away from the shadowrunners. Northwood and Black Ivan herded them into a custodial closet, which Black Ivan shut and barred with a chair under the doorknob.

As the others moved into a defensive position securing the cafeteria-cum-morgue, Reese retrieved a communicator from his jacket. "Marcelles, Hacksaw. Objective secured. Get in here ASAP so we can start looking for our dead friend. It's going to take a while to sort through all the stiffs here."

"Nope, that's not him either." As Marcelles double-checked the holopic Mr. Johnson had given them, Reese unceremoniously rolled the cadaver off one side of the examination table. The corpse rolled a short distance before it came to a rest besides the four others they had previously examined. "You sure they brought him back here?"

"Well, Hacksaw verified that the late Mr. Wendy wasn't taken to Renraku's Bellevue complex," answered Reese, "and the Arcology is the only other place in Seattle that has an onsite morgue."

"But why bring him back here?" asked Alexandra. "If Renraku thought he was one of Deus' sleeper agents, why bring him back to the Arcology?"

Marcelles shrugged. "Dunno, Alex. I think the cover's a sham, anyway. Most of the people I know in Renraku swear Rich Wendy couldn't have been a sleeper. He was just a buyer in purchasing, and not involved in anything classified or really important. Most of them were surprised when they heard the Red Samurai shot him trying to resist arrest."

The speculation came to an halt as Black Ivan emerged from the kitchen with a body bag slung over one shoulder. He dropped it onto the examination table Reese had just cleared. "This is the sixth one."

"Any more left in the freezer, Ivan?" asked Reese.

"Da, another eight more. But two are oversized for trolls, and two are small: either dwarfs or children. That leaves five more to check." Renraku was using the walk-in freezer in the cafeteria's kitchen to store the growing backlog of corpses they were examining.

"Drek. We're running out of time. I hope we get lucky pretty soon." Reese unzipped the body bag. Although the cold of the freezer had retarded decomposition somewhat, a fetid odor nevertheless emanated from the inside as its contents were exposed to air.

"Bingo! That's him. That's Rich Wendy." Marcelles raised his sleeve to cover his nose from the stench of decay.

"Finally! Okay, Ivan, let's cut it loose," directed Reese. As Reese held the corpse's head steady, Ivan unholstered a sickle from his belt. The hammer and sickle, former symbols of a former homeland, were Ivan's signature calling card. It established Ivan's reputation as the most feared Vory enforcer in Vladivostok, before circumstances forced him to flee across the Pacific to Seattle.

The sickle that Ivan raised was no ordinary farming tool, however. Forged from the same steel as most combat knives and further enhanced with a diamond-hard enamel of Dikote, it could slice wood without nicking the edge. A wet squish burst out as the blade connected right above the collarbone. Dark crimson spilled onto the floor underneath the table.

"Now, Alexandra," nodded Reese. The street witch placed her hands on both temples of the decorporated head, closed her eyes, and chanted softly under her breath. The blood dripping from the carotid artery slowed to a trickle, and the flesh on the head appeared to become rosier, as Alexandra's spell of stasis arrested the onset of decay. Reaching with one hand into her battered carpet bag, she withdrew a small bronze scarab and placed it on the corpse's forehead. Marcelles almost thought he saw the legs of the metal beetle withdraw slightly and dig into the flesh. Releasing both scarab and head, Alexandra opened her eyes and withdrew.

"It's done. The focus is set and will sustain the preservation spell until we can put the head on ice," confirmed Alexandra. Reese opened up a waterproof bag and placed the head inside, tying it shut afterwards.

"Reese," Hacksaw's low voice interrupted the almost ceremonious proceedings, as the rigger unjacked from his remote control deck. "The Red Samurai have broken contact with my drones and are returning to this location. We don't have much time."

"Damn. This is cutting it close." Reese keyed his radio. "Northwood, it's Reese. The Red Samurai are falling back. Report when you see them and get back here."

"I see 'em already, I'm gone!" The gunslinger was keeping watch a hundred or so meters around the corner, and he could see another hundred meters further down. They had a little time, but not much.

"Okay, people, you heard the man. Let's get mo-" Reese was cut off in mid-sentence as a large juggernaut of a drone burst through the wall behind them. One of the drone's weapon mounts boomed in discharge, and a spray of red erupted from one side of Reese's head. The runner collapsed where he stood, falling to rest with the other lifeless bodies on the floor.

Black Ivan howled something unintelligible in Russian and launched himself at the drone, hammer and sickle in hand, turning in midair to avoid a strike by on of the drone's legs. The leg struck one of the examination machines, causing chunks of machinery to go flying. One piece struck Hacksaw in the forearm and the rigger fell cursing in pain behind an examination table.

"Alex, see if you can slow that machine down!" shouted Marcelles as he ducked under cover. He had never seen this type of drone before, so he could only guess at how to disable it. Once on the floor, he looked around wildly for his knapsack before he spotted it lying a meter away in the open. Taking one last peek at the mechanical monstrosity, Marcelles launched himself at the ruck, scooped it into his chest as he slid forward, and then somersaulted behind another table while automatic gunfire tore up the floor behind him.

"Earth, to my aid!" yelled Alexandra as she dropped to the ground. The floor in front of her buckled, and a giant humanoid form of rock and dirt rose out of the tiling, using its body to block Alexandra from the drone's gunfire. Alexandra simply pointed at the drone, and the elemental began making a slow ponderous march towards the drone. The elemental grabbed two of its legs in its stony grips and began wrestling the drone to the ground. Meanwhile Ivan systematically slashed and struck at its legs, which combined with the elemental's grappling practically pinned the drone in place.

"Ivan! Place this under the sensor dome!" Marcelles withdrew a magnetic demolitions charge from inside his knapsack and tossed it to Black Ivan. The ork dropped his hammer to make a one-handed catch in midair. Using his sickle as a grappling hook, Ivan swung up onto the drone's dorsal plating, using his knees to check himself from getting bucked off the drone's back. With his other hand the ork reached around the front of the drone, trying to position it under the oblong dome housing the sensor elements. Once his hand was in the correct place, the magnet grabbed hold of the drone's hull with a soft snikt. Ivan went limp and slid off one side, rolling away to safety. Once Marcelles saw that Black Ivan was clear, he pulled out a remote detonator and jammed his thumb on the button.

The explosion was deafening, even causing the walls to shiver ever so slightly. The two heaviest occupants, the drone and the elemental, absorbed the brunt of the blast, so the more organic members were only badly shaken. However, the elemental seemed to take the greater share, as light shone through many gaping holes in its rocky form. The drone lurched forward and rolled over the elemental, trampling it underfoot and shattering its body into tiny rubble.

Marcelles saw that he had miscalculated the placement of the charge. While he was right to guess that the sensor dome was the weakest point, the point he told Ivan to place the charge was too low. The frontal armor had deflected most of the blast upwards and outwards, into the primary ocular array, leaving the central processing unit behind it mostly undamaged. Already now secondary sensors were compensating, and the drone lurched towards Marcelles. Unlike the mythical Polyphemus, this cyclopean monstrosity was far from blind. Marcelles feared that he wouldn't learn from this mistake.

As the drone loomed over Marcelles, the doors flew open behind them. Without missing a step, Northwood strode in, and the muzzle of his shotgun rose up, roaring in fury. Northwood's preternatural aim shot true, and the slug sailed squarely through the gaping hole into the central processor. A jet of molten plasma erupted on impact, slagging the processor into nothingness. Northwood was packing MicroHEAT rounds in his shotgun, microsized antivehicle rounds designed especially for taking down drones. The drone seized up momentarily, and then fell backwards, its appendages flailing harmlessly .

Marcelles started to breathe again. "Thanks, Northwood. You got here just in time. Talk about a lucky shot."

"Good runners make their own luck," deadpanned Northwood. Despite the solitary opposing combatant, the carnage in the room nevertheless beggared description. Most of the equipment was in ruins, and black smoke was rising from the now motionless hulk of drone. Although most of them didn't result from the ensuing fracas, multiple bodies covered in crimson ichor littered the floor.

The sound of boots scurrying in the distance snapped the runners out of their macabre reverie. "We better get moving," said Marcelles finally, as he snapped back to the real world. "Somebody retrieve the head."

"I'll get it." Alexandra got up from where she was knocked down and crawled over to Reese's body, still clutching the waterproof bag holding their prize.

"Look out!" Northwood yanked Alexandra back as she reached down. A pair of bloody hands swiped the air where Alexandra's throat otherwise would have been. Were it not for the gunslinger's supernatural instincts, they would have snapped the street witch's neck like a twig.

Reese picked himself up off the ground awkwardly, a gurgling noise coming from his ruined face. His own blood soaked through most of his clothes, and bits of gray matter fell on his right shoulder like a gory dandruff.

"Oh, drek! Shedim!" Alexandra grabbed the ankh hanging from her waist and held it aloft with her right hand, chanting in arcane phrases. The undead construct that was once Reese stopped in its tracks, locking gaze with its one remaining eye against Alexandra's two. Sweat began to bead on her creased brow as her chanting increased in tempo and volume, the angry injunction accenting in the inflections of Alexandra's timbre. The gurgling in Reese's throat grew louder in rise to the challenge, but Alexandra would not back down. Grasping the ankh with both hands, Alexandra took a step towards the shedim. Her eyes glinted with the occult fire that danced behind them.

Shouting the final word of abjuration, Alexandra thrust the ankh into Reese's chest, right over the heart. A loud sizzle hissed from his body, and the smell of burning flesh filled the air. What was left of Reese's head cocked backwards, and the remnants of his jaw gaped open. A flash of light spilled up from inside out the various holes in his head, and a pale vapor escaped out of his mouth. The light faded, and Reese's once more inanimate body collapsed to the ground.

Alexandra dropped her arms and head, and she collapsed into Northwood's arms. The Drain from the banishing took a lot out of her. Marcelles reached down and scooped up the bag with the head at Reese's feet. Black Ivan slung one of Hacksaw's arms over his shoulder to support the rigger and collected his remote control deck with his free arm.

The trampling of boots in the distance grew louder. To make it worse, some of the other cadavers on the ground began to stir. Where there was one shedim, others were sure to follow.

"This way. Out the hole in the wall the drone made," directed Marcelles, as he led the others around the stirring corpses and towards the back. "The shedim should keep the Red Samurai preoccupied while they free the medtechs. That should give us enough time to slip away."

"I think I see him," noted Alexandra. "Ahead and to the left."

Propping himself up from where he was lying, Marcelles didn't turn his head, but let his eyes wander in that direction behind his sunglasses. It was an unusually warm and bright Sunday, and many of the wageslave families were taking advantage of that to enjoy a day at Golden Gardens Park. Laying out in the grass on a picnic blanket, Marcelles and Alexandra - both attired in tees, shorts, flip-flops, and sunglasses - attracted no more attention than the other young couples out today. No one had any reason to suspect th at the bright red cooler next to Marcelles held a decorporated head packed in ice inside.

The pair's ostensibly disaffected yet vigilant eyes surreptitiously watched as a dark-skinned man with dreadlocks approached, lawn chair in one hand, and a red cooler just like Marcelles' in the other. He too was as casually dressed as Marcelles and Alexandra, though the golden lion-headed figure hanging from the silver chain around his neck was more jewelry than they wore. Setting up his lawn chair next to Marcelles, he placed his cooler directly behind Marcelles' own and sat down.

For a long time neither side spoke, as all three took in the warmth of the afternoon sun while surreptitiously eying each other behind their darkened sunglasses. Then the dark-skinned man opened up the conversation.

"It was rather unfortunate to hear about Reese." There was an unusual Gaelic-like lilt to his voice, something that seemed out of place with his dark and distinctively African physique.

"Such is our way of life," replied Marcelles, without looking at his companion. "He will be missed, though. A lot better than most of the scum we work with."

"C'est la morte."

"Yeah, something like that."

The conversation abated momentarily as a small family strolled by in front of them.

"It was quite unusual, the extenuating circumstances behind the incident," observed the swarthy man.

"That's an understatement," retorted Marcelles.

"The public accounts are rather confusing at best. It seems doubtful that anyone will fully understand what had happened for some time." The dark-skinned man allowed himself a slight smile. "My client is pleased."

"It's all about customer satisfaction," said Marcelles.

"Indeed," said the man. He got up, folded his lawn chair, and picked up the cooler in front, the one with the head inside. "Indeed it is."

Neither Marcelles nor Alexandra watched as the dark-skinned man left the way he came. Long after he had left, Marcelles reached over to open the cooler. As he reached inside to grab a drink for himself and Alexandra, he noted the plastic cup in the middle holding six certified credsticks, one for each member, along with Reese's share as well. Marcelles had no idea how they were going to divide that up.

"Did you notice the symbol around his neck?" asked Alexandra as Marcelles handed her a drink.

The elf shook his head. "No, why?"

"It was the image of Apedemak, the Nubian god of war," answered Alexandra. Her mentor incorporated many ancient Egyptian heka rites, so she picked up a good grounding in Nile mythology. "Our employer is no ordinary corporate Johnson."

"A Nubian? Not many of those around," observed Marcelles. "I may have to look them up on Shadowland tonight."

Several kilometers away, Hacksaw sat in an unmarked van, listening in on the conversation v ia surveillance drone hovering high overhead. Hacksaw was to provide overwatch in case things turned badly, but with business concluded right now he was engaging in some extracurricular activity. Capturing the entire conversation on chip, he unjacked from his deck and withdrew a cyberdeck stashed away. Plugging the deck into a second datajack, Hacksaw dialed into an unlisted node and uploaded the conversation.

"A Knight of Rage?" A faint rustling could be heard as the icon of the Scarecrow furrowed his brow.

"Affirmative. One of our Banded reacquired the group's contact at SeaTac Airport, boarding a flight to Heathrow. A cross-check of passenger logs shows he transferred from there to another flight for Cardiff." The woman in the classical white dress con tinued to arrange flowers in a vase as she continued her report. Not that it was necessary, though; the subprocessors maintaining the ultraviolet node where she and her two companions met, attended to every last detail of the sculpted system and its ancient Nubian trappings. The mistress of the node was tending the floral arrangement to mask her own concern.

"This is troubling," said Puck. "The dragon could seriously threaten the Compilation."

"Celedyr may not necessarily be taking direct action against us," suggested the Scarecrow. "The dragon is known to keep abreast of Matrix developments. He may simply be curious. Wendy was only a contested node; it may have been coincidence that the dragon went after him."

"The infiltrator that arranged for the transfer of his body back to the Arcology is still reporting in regularly," observed the woman. "No one knows that we intercepted the body from the Red Samurai."

"Nevertheless he knows about the Network," countered Puck. "He knew how to find a node, and how to get it. Were he to act on that knowledge it would spell disaster."

"We shall prepare for that contingency," replied the Scarecrow. "Losing the Wendy node will delay progress, but we are not hindered. The Compilation still continues, and Deus shall be free."

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