Written by Diane Piron-Gelman and Robert Cruz, based on stories by Jonathan Szeto
It started as a simple job. (How many times have you heard that in your life!) I should have known; few things in my life are ever simple, but that's what you get when you're a smuggler and sometime runner, making your living outsmarting the Powers That Be. I'd been hired by a Johnson to retrieve a certain package from an island that lay in Salish territory, which made sending a ground team a difficult proposition. Border crossings and fake datawork and all, you know—and it'd have to be good datawork, in case the Salish authorities decided to get picky about "interlopers" from the UCAS. Good, of course, meaning expensive. Even at my hefty fee, I was cheaper than the usual running team. The Johnson and her up-front cred checked out, so I took the job. A simple helicopter flight out to the island, a quick in-and-out, return trip and a hand-over—easy money, I thought.
I drove my favorite car to the place where I'd hidden my 'copter away. She was my pride and joy, that Airstar—a good sturdy workhorse of a vehicle, with plenty of nifty mods I'd made myself. Any decent rigger, in my opinion, also ought to be a halfway decent mechanic—especially a rigger like me, who couldn't always count on a talented and discreet mechanic turning up if a smuggling run went sour.
I waved hello to the maintenance crew, but didn't make much small talk. No time to chat when biz was waiting to be done. They gave me an all-systems-go report, which was all I needed to hear. I strode up to the Airstar, checked to make sure I had plenty of ammo for my gun, then climbed into the pilot's seat.
I jacked into the helicopter's rig and the virtual heads—up display blossomed before my eyes. Dizziness hit me for a split second; then my mind adjusted to the blizzard of input from the view screens, which were arrayed before me like the many facets of a cut diamond. The screens showed views from every angle, as well as numerous data displays. At the moment, the largest screen, positioned squarely in the center, displayed the status of the Airstar's system as it warmed up.
As I summoned the helicopter to life, I could feel the rumble of the Pratt & Whitney turbojet engines in my chest. The chopper's blades seemed to rotate in sync with the blood pulsing through my limbs. I shifted into forward visual mode; a small icon blinked in a corner of the main view screen, indicating that the hangar door had opened. I was cleared for takeoff.
I pulled my legs into a crouch. The rotating blades went from a whine to a roar in response. I leaped upward and the helicopter rose, slowly but surely soaring upward through the rooftop hangar door. Once I'd gotten several dozen meters above the roof of the warehouse, I set the chopper to hovering briefly as I scanned the Seattle sprawl far below. The low background levels of thermal and electromagnetic radiation emanating from the city showed up as a dull red and green glow in my display. I spotted no active radiation sources, which meant no one was watching right now.
I turned my attention to the navigational screen. It showed my target destination as a red dot, a tiny island of hot brightness in the deep, cool blue of the Pacific Ocean. With another flicker of thought I commanded the screen to display known sensor watch posts. They appeared as small radar-dish icons giving off white waves.
I swiftly plotted a course that eluded most of the lookout points, then stretched my arms over my head, twisted my body toward Puget Sound, and swept my arms down to my sides. The Airstar turned and sped toward the moonlight that glinted off the Sound.
This was going to be a cakewalk. Breeze on out to the target, pick up the package and come back home. I'd be back in time for happy hour at the Shack—and this time able to pay my tab, and just maybe buy a round or three for a certain pretty lady I'd had my eye on recently. Yep, this was just the kind of job I liked best...
Suddenly the chopper's warning klaxons started screaming. I turned my head and my visual display rotated until the rear view screen occupied my central window. On it I saw two dark flecks against the pink and gray pre-dawn sky. The Airstar's Identify Friend or Foe transponders identified the craft as two F-B Eagle interceptors from the UCASAF's Fifth Air Wing based at McChord.
Before I could make another move, bright spurts of thermographic orange blossomed under the wings of both interceptors and the helicopter's targeting alarm began to shriek. A warning message flashed on my heads-up display-both interceptors had locked on to the Airstar and fired air-to-air missiles.
Instinctively, I arched my body toward the coastline, a movement that turned the helicopter. At the same time I started kicking my legs furiously like an Olympic swimmer, sending the chopper screaming toward the land. But my evasive action didn't fool the missiles' targeting sensors. The deadly projectiles twisted and dove after me.
Time for Plan B, then. I focused my mind on the right control, and a giant red "PANIC" button materialized under my left hand. I slapped the button. Explosive charges planted at strategic points along the chopper's body detonated, destroying the brackets that held the Airstar's outer shell in place. As the shell fell away, it revealed a second skin coated with radarbane.
I knew I wasn't out of trouble yet. I jackknifed my body toward the floor like a diver, and five small parachutes blossomed from the 'copter as it plunged into a power dive. Thermite flares swung from two of the chutes, bunched strips of aluminum chaff from two more. The last chute supported a small rocket, hardly large enough to dent a paper airplane, but containing a transponder and flare that mimicked the Airstar's thermal and electromagnetic signature. The chopper's radarbane skin would cloak it from the missile's targeting sensors, and the chaff and flares would temporarily confuse the two missiles, which would then lock on to the decoy rocket.
Scant seconds after I'd I punched the panic button I felt my virtual body convulse as the shock waves from two explosions rocked the helicopter. I twisted around, bringing the chopper face-to-face with my two attackers, and the direction—finding axes of the Airstar's targeting program appeared on the main view screen. I selected and armed two anti-radiation missiles, then cut them loose as soon as I heard the lock-on chirp twice. The ARMs appeared like two streaks against the sky as they homed in on the strong signals from the pursuing flyboys' jammers. A half-second later the 'copter's targeting alarm fell silent, which told me that the missiles had destroyed the F-Bs' targeting sensors. (Thank heaven for ARMs. They lock on to a target's emissions, so the stronger your opponent's sensors and jammers, the better the chance your ARMs will find their mark. The F-Bs' ECM suites would have spiked most of my weapons for sure if the flyboys'd had a chance to use them. But the ARMs homed in on the jammer signals and saved my hoop.)
Both pursuing planes wavered for a few seconds as small explosions erupted in their noses where their targeting sensors had been. Then the flyboys swung around and streaked past me, strafing the Airstar with miniguns. I kept the chopper diving toward the shoreline; I could feel my skin twitching as I pushed the Airstar beyond its limits and its body buckled under the strain.
Before the flyboys could swing around for a second pass, a green wave of Salish radar passed over my view screen. I'd entered Salish-Shidhe airspace—safe territory for me as far as my two hunters were concerned. (Though not exactly safe per se... ) The zoomies broke off pursuit, apparently unwilling to risk an international incident for one lone 'copter. After a few seconds I breathed a sigh of relief. I'd heard no warnings from Salish air-traffic control, which meant it hadn't detected me.
I swung the Airstar lower until it almost skimmed the treetops—best way to avoid future encounters—while a nagging question formed in the back of my mind. Why had the two zoomies tried to shoot me down with no warning? I'd had plenty of run-ins with Salish and UCAS jet jockeys during past smuggling runs, but they'd never opened fire without issuing some kind of warning or threat first. This geek-first-warn-later bulldrek—that was a Lone Star trick. Not the kind of thing I was used to getting from fellow flyers, even if they were the Law and I wasn't.
The glowing orange orb of the sun, just rising over the horizon ahead of me, was beginning to dispel the shadows on the land below. Too bad it could shed no light on my question. I'd eluded my flying foes for now, but I couldn't run forever. Sooner or later I had to go to ground, and then they'd find me.
Well, what the hell. Maybe I could still do what I'd been hired to do before the cavalry showed up.
I landed the Airstar right where the Johnson had told me to, then holstered my Ingram and set out to retrieve the package. I briefly wondered what was in it—something worth sending air jockeys after a lone 'copter, maybe? And how had they known who I was?—but swiftly dismissed such speculation as useless. Smugglers who live to spend their earnings learn not to ask unnecessary questions.
The McNeil Island Penitentiary Compound was looming dead ahead. It had been abandoned for years, but the Johnson had warned me that "unfriendly people" would likely be watching the place. I knew I'd have to make an unorthodox entrance, but I still wasn't looking forward to it. I reached the entry spot, took a deep breath, braced myself, and lowered myself down into the storm sewer that led to the compound's central building.
After wading through stinking raw sewage for what seemed like hours, I finally came to the manhole I was looking for. I shoved it to one side, pulled myself up out of the sewer and squeezed through the narrow aperture, cursing under my breath all the while. Then, squatting on the damp concrete floor under a heavy grating, I looked around as best I could in the dim light.
I'd fetched up in a maintenance trench under the ground floor of the main building. I could see the outlines of power cables and plumbing pipes; they smelled of rust and rot. Hulking overhead, toward the back of the trench, I spotted several giant shadows-turbines, which meant I must be under the plant's power room.
I was reaching up to lift the grating when a faint grinding noise froze me in place. Then I heard the telltale whine of a laboring combustion engine, growing gradually louder as it came my way. Twisting my head over my shoulder, I saw a dark shadow rumble over the grating. I withdrew my fingers as the thing rolled to a stop directly above me.
It was a patrol drone-an FMC Sentinel. Only slightly larger than a kid's wagon, it was equipped with tank treads to cover rough terrain, and it packed enough firepower to ruin any shadowrunner's day. If it detected me, it would certainly ruin mine.
Soundlessly I unlatched the magazine in my Ingram, then reached into my cargo pocket and withdrew a 30-round clip of armor-piercing, silicone-coated depleted-uranium shells. As quietly as I could, I loaded the clip, then flipped the fire-mode selector switch to AUTO and poked the barrel between the chinks in the grating.
For the first time that night I was glad to be skulking in a sewer. If I'd run into the Sentinel above ground, I wouldn't have stood a chance of destroying it before it spotted me. But like most drones designed for security work and perimeter detail, the Sentinel's underbelly was fitted with light armor. After all, no one expects a security drone to run into anti-tank mines. Sparks flew as I cut loose with the Ingram and punched several rounds through the Sentinel's steel skin. The bullets ripping into its innards touched off electrical fires inside the drone, making it sputter and pop. A loud explosion knocked me backward as a stray round burst through the fuel tank. I scurried away as burning fuel began raining down into the trench.
Within minutes the place was crawling with drones. I had to expend the rest of my APDU and one thermite grenade before I found a ventilation duct to hide in. Crawling through the network of ventilation shafts up to the top floor took me about two hours. When I finally squirmed out of the narrow shaft, I landed clumsily in a darkened hallway. To my right was a security door, with an electronic keypad directly above the knob. Assuming I'd kept the map in my head straight through all the twists and turns of the ventilator shafts, the package should be inside.
I loaded another magazine, emptied the Ingram into the lock and kicked the door open. A quick reload later, I cautiously surveyed the room. It had been some grunt's office once, indistinguishable from a hundred others. A computer terminal sat on top of a cheap plaswood desk, both of them covered with dust.
I walked over to the terminal. A chip was loaded in one of its drive slots. I opened the desk's top drawer—just as I'd hoped, there were a few thumbtacks still rolling around in it. I took out a thumbtack, stuck its pointy end in the slot and wiggled it around until the chip popped out. Package retrieved.
I'd hardly turned around when alarm klaxons started blaring all around me. The sound of running feet came from the corridor outside; no exit that way. I turned wildly toward the office's sole window, only to see a curtain of thin steel plates ripple down to cover it. The sharp thud of the door hitting the wall made me spin back around, Ingram raised, to confront my new enemy—four armored security guards whose uniform patches I didn't recognize. All of their guns were pointed straight at me.
For about five seconds, nobody moved. Then I heard a familiar voice from the hallway.
"Thank you, gentlemen," said my Johnson as she sauntered into the room. "You can put the guns away now."
As the sec-boys lowered their weapons, the Johnson gave me a brilliant smile. "Congratulations, Roy," she said. "You passed."
I eased my grip on the Ingram a fraction... but only a fraction. "This was a test? Just a test?"
"I needed to find out if you were worth your reputation," she answered. "And it seems you are. You've been quite resourceful. I can't afford anything less—not for the job I have in mind."
"And the chip?" Curiosity was fighting with anger now. I decided it couldn't hurt me to let curiosity win. "Is it something, or just worthless drek?"
"Oh, it's something, all right." The Johnson laughed softly. "Consider it your payment for today's work, should you decide you'd rather not be part of the real mission." She gave me a measuring look, then continued. "Would you care to hear about it?"
"You'd really let me leave now? Just like that?"
"Just like that. I need willing participants, Roy, not just hired guns who might decide to cut and run when things get more dangerous than they bargained for. From what I learned about you before setting up this little excursion, I'd say you might be a willing participant—once you know everything. But for the moment... " She gave me another sizing-up look. "What are your feelings about the Draco Foundation?"
I nearly dropped the Ingram in surprise. "Can't say I have any, one way or the other," I managed to say after a moment. "Why? Are you working for them or against them?"
"For." Another soft laugh. "Oh, definitely for. Which I'll prove to your satisfaction, if you want to hear about the job. Over dinner. You choose the restaurant—though I will say, I'm partial to Thai."
I holstered the Ingram. "I know a place in Tacoma. Roong Petch. Hole in the wall, but it serves the best yellow curry in town."
"You can still back out after dinner," she said. "I'll tell you enough to let you know what you're likely in for, not so much that you'll be a danger to us if you refuse. As I said, I need more than just hired guns."
I nodded toward the door. "Time's wasting, ma'am—and I'm getting hungry."
She smiled at that—a warm smile that lit up her blue eyes. I had a nagging feeling that I'd seen her somewhere before—and not on this job, either—but dismissed it as smuggler's paranoia. As I followed her and the sec-boys out of the room, I wondered just what kind of drek-pile I might be getting myself into. You know the old saying—never deal with a dragon, or with a dragon's employees...