Into the Cage, Chummer
The Curious Case of Inspector Gadget, I
In the old days before the Divorce and back when James O’Malley would still check his suitcase for a missing tie that might have gotten lost in the unpacking process, you could go up to Ceyda and ask after her old lady and she’d ask “Which one?” The right answer was always, “The Russian one,” and she’d smile and tell you something about her Russian old lady that would scandalize you if you were thinking too hard after a specific one of one them. The joke stopped being funny in ‘47, of course. The younger ones who didn’t realize there could be anything nefarious in a simple question about an old lady who happened to be close to a certain troll were met with a snarl and an eye stinkier than Rat City, until most everyone stopped and Ceyda started feeling more comfortable keeping company with the idea that she only had one old lady to answer for now. It never sat right with me, but I couldn’t just listen to OB and smuggle her in a new Russian bride, and it seemed like it’d take the hand of God or a good shove from the shadows to get the faintest taste of that sweet, intoxicating punch your aunt only ever made for family reunions on the back of your tongue.
Like tsunamis and earthquakes and avalanches, this primal, landscape-changing shove reached back long before its rough, bruising palm could be felt on our runners’ backs. That shove had its hand in ‘49 and a wrist in ‘46 and an elbow in ‘29 and a bicep and shoulder and back that reached back even farther, maybe even back when we were all primordial ooze, indistinguishable from atom. And its fingers, long and bony and piercing, had the ability to unfurl with countless joints into the future as far as its reach would take it.
Their first awareness of pressure came from a call at 4:30 on the dot, the afternoon before New Year’s Eve, 2049. It was King James, offering Ceyda her very first job for a real fixer other than BanShee since the Divorce. He said he knew of her work history and it would be accommodated for, but that he couldn’t tell her much more about the details besides that the job was a data steal of sorts until she met with him. Pepsi-Cola, who of course had gone back to Americana which she’d used in the old country, got the same treatment with a more lecherous veneer, but also got the details on who she’d be working with. Both of them had heard of King James a bit—that he had a reputation for giving people work that suited them, and if he wasn’t on the level, he was smart enough to not have people talking about it—but Ceyda hadn’t been solicited for work in years and the King had a slight rivalry with Peps’s old man, so they called their main fixers to make sure things were kosher or halal or just otherwise okay for consumption without guilt or fear of damnation.
Both BanShee and Scruff assured their respective runners that King James was properly vouched for—Bansh added the news of KJ’s relationship with the O’Malleys and Scruff waxed poetic and other things about what he’d do if the King tried to let any loose cannons of the troll variety or otherwise do any harm to his Lolita. When King James called Ceyda back to ask her to pick up her running mate—one Americana who’d be found Downtown at the Melted Piper—BanShee caved and admitted that she knew Pepsi-Cola had started going by Americana, though whether BanShee was wrong about the when and why or just fibbing for Ceyda’s sake is nigh on inscrutable, even with Route 66 at the wheel of truth. Despite Ceyda’s protestations that the other woman would never work with her, she pointed her old SUV south and ended up heading toward Redmond with a cranky blonde elf riding shotgun.
Rusty’s was a pretty classic deep Barrens bar, decorated with stolen furniture and an angry kind of regular. They waited next to the meeting room until the appointed time, then waited a little longer inside it until King James finally appeared before his court flanked by two goons and sporting a nervous kind of verbal gait. He told them the deets of the mission, should they choose to accept it, which of course they did or I wouldn’t have much of a story to tell, ne? There was a team of baby runners who would meet their Johnson—well, Ivanovna—at midnight under the only working streetlight in the parking lot of an abandoned hospital. The problem was King James wasn’t that Johnson, but luckily for him, the Ivanovna was going to be…delayed, allowing Americana to step in and exchange an old optical disk for a credstick loaded with twenty-five thousand nuyen—and a 5k bonus that would be awarded to either the kids or our two reconciling heroes depending on who played the meet the best.
The muffled sound of a shotgun blast got its way into the room as King James stood up, timed like some stage director dropping a plot-fated fly on a web, sending the tiny vibrations from center to edge where they grew big enough to pull puppet strings unable to be seen in the boxed-in meeting room. After checking with his guards, he went suddenly nostalgic, and waxed major Beatnik poetic about the roots of the Barrens and the folks who lived here who had let themselves fall into the grasp of Moloch—let themselves get in far too deep to ever see the light again.
On that enlightening note, he dismissed his deniable assets back into the bar, where the door guard mentioned taking care of some dumb slot who wanted Ceyda’s ride. The newest entry to the dead book lay in the parking lot, blood seeping into the rootless, ruthless dirt, arm outstretched as if for the door handle. Ceyda dragged him out of the way of her boots and wheels and left him for any scavenging kids to pick clean.
Near the hospital, a chiphead by the name of Flea gave an idea of what our two heroines would find on the fifth—and top—floor of the hospital where only a single, centered window was missing its glass. Neither of them could honestly say they were surprised by the sniper rifle waiting on the desk like a desperate housewife, whose stock acted as a paper weight for a scrap of paper with a list of four names, both street and legal, and descriptions to help track down any survivors who might try to run away through the darkened root-filled Barrens. Thinking back to the conversation with King James and his abrupt spiel into the heavy Beatnik stuff and just in general the sloppy, ham-fisted way with which he tried to force the whole Moloch conceit—that Moloch whose blind eyes were windows, that Moloch whose utterance was punctuated by a muffled gunshot and the death of a young white kid outside the very secure door of her partner’s Nomad—got Americana feeling like it was their Johnson who’d set this up rather than the delayed Ivanovna. She was kind of getting this feeling along her scalp and the soles of her feet that King James’s over-the-top end to their meet hadn’t been a strange faux-pas putting a black mark on his reputation for being a Cool Dude™. That he maybe wasn’t the kind of beat poet he was trying to pass himself off as—the kind who was really into poor community kids and the disfranchised—but rather the kind who was actually pretty rich and didn’t have any investment in the communities he was destroying with crime in one hand and gentrification in the other.
She was a bit miffed—both because he’d done such an awkward job with what could have been a very literary set-piece and because she usually didn’t get out of bed for wetwork that didn’t pay at least 10k a head and he wanted a datasteal on top of it—but she told Ceyda the change of plans. Neither believed their fixers would set them up, and Americana still trusted Ceyda to aim a sniper rifle near her face despite her earlier Mage-slaying comments, so they waited out the next hour and a half getting ready to gun down some green-eared kids and watching the sign across the street flicker between SELF-STORAGE and ELF-STORAGE, an omen, perhaps, that Ceyda would have a place to stuff her twiggy companion if their working relationship crumbled again.
Midnight fell over the Barrens with no sign of the other half of tonight’s tango. The runners were late. It wasn’t until Ceyda’s retinal display rolled over to 0017 that her sound filter picked up the distant roar of a truck, pocked with bullet holes and with an engine straining to carry itself and its load through dangerous turns and speedbump jumps. No one seemed to be chasing them, and the babies’ Gopher and our heroines’ Nomad idled in the parking lot for a moment while the fate of the night hung in the balance of the night air along with the car fumes and the small sounds of the muscle called Delta working futilely on a bloodied and non-responsive body of Havok in the truck bed.
After a still moment thrown in as if waiting for an action trid adaptation, Americana and the driver, Flare, exited their vehicles and made their way to the sole working streetlight in the parking lot. The rifle’s grocery list had described Flare as a street sam who liked to fight with anger and an assault cannon, but he came to the light empty of expression and hands. His Russian Linguasoft made his voice extra stiff and non-angry sounding as he apologized for the delay, and his expressions were as manufactured as his tongue as he told her that they’d run into Halloweeners on the way and had had to leave behind the dead decker in the process to spare being even later. He produced the disk, but not even his sterile expressions and voice could hide that it was a fake and that he was as scared and thrown off as Delta, just trying to cope in a different way. If he’d’ve known his Ivanovna better, he would have tried to follow Delta’s example, but as it was, his arrogance in trying to con the much more experienced Americana—along with his greed for the credstick and lack of thought toward his fallen team—only made her flash white teeth to his face and snap a fang-filled Make him hurt, Daddy into her subvocal mic as the dumb fuck sauntered back to the truck and still-freaking Delta.
Ceyda hadn’t played with ex-ex rounds in a while and still felt the morbid thrill of it as she sent Flare and Delta off to the dead book. She packed up the Ranger and decided to take it with her, and by the time she’d made her way down four flights of stairs to the parking lot below, Americana had checked Flare to find no disk and had almost finished venting her anger—which originated more from the issue of Lacey Heels than this razor boy, truth be told—through repeatedly introducing her boot into the body’s side. They found no sign of the disk, no sign of the panther assault cannon, or much else of note besides that the baby mage had probably died of drain. They packed up the weapons on the bodies and decided to go hunt down the Halloweeners to see if they could buy the girl, get the disk, and hopefully get some of their money back flipping the meat to some ghouls.
The Halloweeners weren’t hard to find. No one had been exactly hush hush about their fledgling interest in making inroads in the Barrens to carve out a holding around their favorite Redmond bar, maybe for a place to kick back and relax when they didn’t feel like looking at the Arcology and the Downtown wageslaves they hated so much, or maybe just so they could live the comic-book-villain lives they wanted without dealing with Lone Star or rich eccentric billionaires who knew martial arts. They’d taken a few blocks from the Red Hot Nukes—which was only a sane idea if they wanted the land and neighbors back, all things considered. Our runners parked on the edge of Nukes turf to lower their chances of issues, brought Ceyda’s Ingram Valiant to keep everyone frosty or at least aware of MAD, and walked until they found the barricade and signs of a fight in front of a tenement where a couple of Halloweeners were busy spray-painting what was undoubtedly a masterpiece in the middle of the road. Their orange and black host went by the name Yung Gun, and maybe the paint fumes or the crazy went to his head, but he took their request for bodies and weird junk and gave it to the ‘Weener leader as a promise to buy the box and the girl, alive or dead after the show. He said they’d gotten a wired gizmo and finally had someone to test it out on—they’d caught a deckhead girl with just the datajack they needed to fire it up. He said the Spit—the liege apparent of the Redmond colony—was excited to play with the gift a new friend had given him for nabbing the doss on RHN territory.
They were brought up to the second floor—not the highest in the building, though the rest of the stairs had been collapsed sometime in the turf war, likely—and into an old utility closet that’d seen everything but the bare overhead lightbulb and a shelf ripped out to make room for the Spit, a supplicant Yung Gun, a couple of guards, the red-headed Gadget, and a box like some Fifth World VCR Ms. Tati’d sell in her shop. The ‘Weeners had wasted no time punishing Gadget for coming through the territory, and she stared up at them, bloodied, bruised, and frightened like a trapped animal.
The Spit liked that. He liked getting to show off his exclusive toy, liked dragging out the start of the show for Gadget—almost like one of those punkass kids who’d gotten ahold of a pretty little tabby who understood what the firecracker deliberately sticking out of his pocket could do. He and Americana haggled while he racheted up Gadget’s fear for the inevitable and Americana tried to stall that out ‘cause this whole wetwork job was starting to lose its charm as the anger at Flare’s stupidity became more and more distant and all she was left with was romping through the Barrens for her main man’s lame rival and watching some fuckass sadist stroke himself off to his petty ganger drek that made her regret the lapse of professionalism with Flare’s corpse only because it put her one micro-rung closer to this pathetic Joker-wannabe. When he wouldn’t let them buy Gadget undamaged without a 10k down payment on the brain box and a requirement for them to bring another live one with a datajack to play with, Americana offered a stim-patch for a ten minute tussle with the pretty redhead to get the ‘Weeners out the door.
While Ceyda asked BanShee to get the power cut to the building, Americana searched for the disk on Gadget—who said she’d stashed it in the alley and asked if Flare had sent them. The hope in the decker’s voice made her say yes, and her Oscar-winning performance when Americana said how she needed to act when the ‘Weeners came back made her actually like the girl. The act, though, combined with her knowledge of the brain-box, started putting doubts in her and the Johnson and list that had described her as being a green little kid who’d never run with the others who also didn’t quite fit their descriptions. As time started ticking down and our runners fussed over what they’d do about the box and the Spit’s grasp of the economy, the little decker reminded them that they were in a Red Hot Nukes house, and the thought of getting to blow up some Halloweeners on Nukes’ dime was another feather in her cap to Americana.
Undoubtedly thinking to herself that for a first effort this felt pretty last-ditch, Pepsi made her way up the intentionally-dilapidated stairs and found herself on the third floor of hastily-abandoned rooms with a metal door at the end of the hall that screamed “Here There Be Bombs” if she could only get it open. Downstairs, Gadget started probing Ceyda in an un-alien-like fashion, calling bullshit on Americana’s yes to the Flare question. Ceyda felt similarly to her teammate about being sick of how this job was going but had the benefit of not feeling like a runner and definitely not having the worthwhile rep of one to stop her from indulging in her sympathies for baby deckers. She made no efforts to stop the conversation from going wherever the now-feisty Gadget wanted and was more than happy to pull up her hood to keep a bullet out of the decker’s brain when they’d already gone through so much trouble to keep that psychotropic IC in the brain box out of there. Only stipulation was to not tell Peps until they no longer needed the gun-bunny to not be tweaking out about her reputation.
About that time, Ceyda’s earbud squawked with Americana saying she’d set some C4 and had found a big toy to take along with them. Ceyda tried to cancel the already-late power cut, but BanShee said the kid only talked through a tortoise, but they could get a discount on his services if they’d give him a ride out. With Gadget freed and armed with whatever she wanted to take from the back of her fallen team’s loot, Ceyda helped Americana down and they moved to the hall window to start their escape.
The problem was that the Spit was mighty excited for his new toy and wasn’t going to give them an extra second over the ten minutes that were elapsing in Ceyda’s retinal clock. Ceyda turned and sprayed the hallway with lead from her Ingram, and the fragging idiots ran into it, Yung Gun with his rusted little sword. The smaller cuties jumped down and took care of the three on the street in the explosion of color from a shot spraycan held between Americana’s Savalette and the artiste’s face. A short jog later and the Barrens saw a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead meeting next to Ceyda’s electrified car with a sixty-pound milspec container holding an RPG very unlike the kind BanShee plays and a recently un-stashed disk. Before they could start to open the car, Gadget slid under Ceyda’s side and pulled out a carbomb—too sterile to be from the Nukes—right about the place where a dead ganger kid had been reaching toward when the runners had come out of Rusty’s.
Racecar pauses and holds up her empty glass to get the bartender’s attention. “Hang on, chummer—rattling my bone-box is thirsty work.”