It’s a slow day. Jensen doesn’t mind per se — he has enough broken electronics to tinker with to last him a lifetime, and his own thoughts tend to be conversation enough. But ever since the Mercenary Guild has been in chaos, Cougar’s income has dropped significantly, and bills still need to be paid.
Also, he really needs to get his hands on an M24, because their anniversary is coming up, and Jensen plans to go big this time.
Last year Cougar totally won the prize for best gift, with an old Tetris cartridge for an even older Gameboy Jake had dug up but had no games for. It had been the perfect gift, and Jensen cannot let that stand. His honor as a boyfriend is at stake. So he has to bring the big guns, pun totally intended.
Unfortunately, sniper guns are pretty rare, and thus pretty expensive, especially after the magic flare.
So the M24 is not going to happen if no customers show up today. He looks at the door, willing someone to appear, but alas, even with the magic up, that still doesn’t work.
Jensen sighs and goes back to his walkie-talkies. He’d had a major breakthrough last week, and finally found an enchantment that made communicating through them possibly even with the magic up. Unfortunately, the range was still a meager five yards, and even at a one-yard distance, they only worked half the time. With his latest attempt he’d fried the circuit board, so they worked while the magic was up, but not when tech was, so that had been the opposite of an improvement really. He wants walkie-talkies that'll work at all times, magic or tech. He’s pretty sure no-one else has managed something similar, so they’d sell well. Life is risky after all, and some long-range communication could make all the difference.
Still, the hardest part is done: he’d gotten them working once. Now it's just a matter of fine-tuning until they work all the time over a respectable distance. They just need more fiddling.
Jensen is imagining Cougars' face when he'll open the gun box for the first time, reverently putting it together, hands stroking the scope. He's getting a little hot under his collar just thinking about it, which won't do. The last time Jensen had been distracted while he was tinkering by fantasizing about Cougar wearing nothing but his hat, Jensen had caused a power short that put the entire block in the dark for two days.
So no more daydreaming about Cougar, or his hands, while working on tech.
He’s so caught up in his project he almost misses the bells chiming when a customer comes in. Luckily he knows himself well and has installed a little ward by the entrance. Nothing strong or intrusive, just a little signal on his screen when someone crosses it. And he always notices when something flickers on his screen.
The woman doesn’t take her time to look around the shop but makes her way straight to him. The way she moves reminds him of Cougar. Silent, quick on her feet, and confident. She has that whole smooth gait thing going on that fighters have, ready to strike or defend themselves at any point. There’s a sword tied to her back, and the look on her face says ‘Don’t mess with me’.
He ‘Don’t mess with me’s her right back.
The woman smiles.
Jensen arms the crossbow he has attached to the bottom of his worktable.
He has no time for trouble today.
“Mr. Jensen?” the woman says. “I’m Kate Daniels, I was told you are a technomage?” Her voice goes up at the last word, sounding kind of skeptic, and Jensen feels his hackles rise, this time out of annoyance.
“There’s no such thing as a technomage, or technologic magic for that matter,” he says, stressing his point by waving his hand at her.
“Whoever told you they were one was a crook trying to sell you something. Something that probably didn’t work. Magic and Technology are pretty much polar opposites, or if you want to be technical about it, pun totally intended, they work like magnetic fields. You know how those work?”
The woman nods but Jake explains anyway. “I’ll give you the short and sweet explanation. Magnets have a positive and a negative side. They’d like to be neutral, so they attract one another. Boom, love at first sight.” Jake shoves two bolts together and makes kissy noises. Visual aids are important in the field of education. Or so he has heard.
The woman, Kate, taps her foot impatiently, but Jensen is in the story zone now.
“So, you can never push the negative sides together, or the positive sides. Straight-out impossible. They’re afraid of the cooties. They drive each other away, you can actually move magnets by threatening them with other magnets. It’s awesome. Anyway, magic and tech are like that. Similar forcefields. You can’t do them both at once.”
He does a little bow after his little demonstration, but the woman doesn’t seem impressed. Jensen isn't afraid of a hard-ass audience though, he lives with Cougar after all.
“Thanks for the lecture,” she says, rather insincere. “I was told you could do anything tech-related.”
“Well, they weren’t wrong. I am awesome at a lot of technology if I say so myself, and pretty decent at some kinds of magic. I’m just not a technomage. Since, as I’ve explained, those don’t exist. But I’m sure I can help.”
He doesn’t hear Cougar move, but the legs suddenly appearing from the mezzanine aren’t entirely unexpected. Cougar tends to make an appearance when the customer is potentially troublesome. It’s a sign that Jensen should take the customer serious, that Cougar doesn’t consider them harmless.
Jensen knew that. No one would look at that woman and think her harmless. Also, Jensen can totally take care of himself, but he kind of likes Cougars' protective side, so he doesn't comment on it. He pats Cougar legs in comfort, and calculates their odds in any case. They’ll probably eke a win out of it, but there’ll be a lot of damage, both to them and the shop. Which isn’t worth it in any case. No decent shopowner starts fights with their customers, bad for business and all that.
The woman looks up and smiles her scary smile again.
“Cougar,” she says, and relaxes her stand somewhat.
“Kate,” Cougar grunts.
If he knows her she's probably Guild, which is great because that way Cougar can make sure she pays up. One the other hand, it’s bad because Guildmembers tend to be cheapskates, and Jensen really wanted to get rid of some of his little automatons. Alas.
“Jensen,” Jensen says. “So, why do you need my expertiiiiiiise?” He lets the i run, he has loads of it after all, it’s important to stress that, and also, it’s one of his favorite words. Cougar hits hit shoulder with the heel of his foot in reproach. He either likes her or is impressed by her, if he wants Jensen to be seriously serious. Since Cougar likes very little people and respects even fewer, Jensen supposes he can try and behave. Somewhat.
Kate rolls her eyes, but rummages in her bag and shows him a drive. A USB-drive from the looks of it. No outside damage, so that’s already half of the work done.
“Someone wanted this enough they killed two people for it,” she says, and sure, that’s all Jensen needs, a bunch of killers led straight to his shop. He doesn’t need to look up to know that Cougar is glaring from under his head.
This better be worth the pay. He’s getting that sniper-gun out of this.
“I need to know what’s on this,” she says.
“I can do that,” he says while sliding the contract papers over the counter. He points at all the important bits, suddenly eager to be done with this. “Starting fee. Bonus if you want it printed. Additional fees in case of encryption, depending on the time I need to hack it. Sign here.”
Kate nods, takes a minute to read over the document. She looks at Cougar for a moment, but then signs on the line and gives him the drive. Jensen plugs it in, but before he can start it up, Kate steps nearer to look over his shoulder. The screen flickers.
He looks her over once more, double checks the sword, and looks at his screen again. It’s flickering badly enough he can’t really see anything anymore.
“Just how magic are you?” he asks. “Like, on a scale of a total nill to let’s say, the Philosopher’s Stone, how much magic do you give off? Because that,” he points at the screen, “is the face of a computer who does not like you.”
“It’s probably just your equipment that’s faulty,” Kate says, moving closer still. The screen goes black.
“Great, now I’ll have to reboot. And lady, you did not just insult my equipment. Cougar here can attest that everything is a-ok with my equipment. Right, Cougs?”
Cougar remains silent, the traitor. Maybe Jake should buy him a toy sniper gun instead of a real one. See who has the faulty equipment then.
“Look, lady. You need to go stand over there. You’re obviously magic enough to mess with stuff even during tech, so if you want the data, you’ll have to play nice.”
Jake crosses his arms and does his best to look menacing. Kate looks like she’s never played nice in her life, but she looks at Cougar again, and Jensen sees Cougar shrug and nodd in the reflection on one of his showcase cabinets.
Kate mutters something under her breath, but steps back. Jensen boots up his computer. When the screen lights up, he pets his monitor gently.
“There, there, baby. No harm done. The evil lady won’t get so close anymore,” he tells her. When the familiar welcoming message pops up, he smiles. “Good to have you back, baby. Missed you too. Let’s get to it.”
He plugs in the drive again, and starts typing.
“It has a pretty extensive encryption code,” he says, and doesn’t even have to look at her face to know she has no idea what that means. “The data is written in code, it’ll take me a moment to figure it out. Oh boy. This encryption is pretty advanced. And you have no idea what might — Oh.”
Jensens stops talking, and frantically types some trial code to triple check.
“What oh,” Kate says, and steps closer.
“Stay back!” Jensen shouts, and Cougar jumps down from the mezzanine to bar the way. Kate looks like she wants to fight about it, but the screen is flickering like it’s possessed again, and nothing Jensen tries helps.
“Kate, stay back,” Cougar orders her quietly, which seems to work, as she finally steps back.
“You’ve got some serious mojo,” Jensen huffs, but the monitor is acting normal again, so he’ll forgive her. He should probably charge her extra, though. All this magic can’t be good for his baby.
“What was the oh,” Kate repeats, sounding impatient.
“Uhm, this drive has a bunch of data, most of it about someone or something called Roland. But that's not the Oh-part, the Oh-part are the hidden links leading to the Darknet. Which was the secret, hidden, criminal part of the internet before the first Magic wave hit, only later it turned out a lot of those criminals also had some magic, and not the nice kind. So it was all hidden and impossible to reach, but still parts of it got archived with the Alexandria Project.”
“So we need to access the Alexandria Project to see what the links lead to.” Kate says, and while Jensen is glad she has enough basic knowledge that he doesn’t need to explain that, she also makes it sound way too easy.
“It’s illegal to access the Darknet in any way or form, even if it’s technically no longer active.”
Kate doesn’t look like she cares about that, and Jensen wonders who the people were who were killed for the drive. Then again, illegal had become somewhat of an empty word of late. Too many factions with too many rules between them resulted in lawlessness in a whole lot of places.
“While the Darknet was archived by the Alexandria Project, that happened mostly by accident, so you still need to hack into it to access the information. It’s why they, whoever they are, needed the drive. There’s three places in Atlanta where you can access the Alexandria Project.”
Kate arches her brow, and Jensen can’t help but preen a bit. It’s always great when people realize he actually, really knows his stuff.
“There’s the city Library, which is guarded by the Witches. Can’t go there because they always seem to know when you try and access the Darknet, and they aren’t nice about it.”
“I could probably convince them it’s worth it,” Kate says, but Jensen shakes his head.
“Nope. I’m not allowed a 100 ft. within reach of the Library. Witches don’t like it when you try to break in, once they’ve thrown you out twice before for trying to access the Darknet,” he explains.
Cougar grunts and punches Jensen in the shoulder, which he doesn’t deserve, but it’s Cougar, so Jensen lets him, and okay, he probably deserves it anyway. Those witches had been pretty angry. Cougar disabling two of them with his bow, and a third with a strong hex hadn't really helped. Jensen really lucked out in the boyfriend department, protective streak included.
“So,” Jensen continues, “the Library isn’t an option. Second we’ve got Saiman’s Alexandria Vault, which isn't as secret and hidden as he thinks it is. It can be tricky to break into, but so far I’ve never been caught and —“
“Saiman has his own copy of the Alexandria Project?” Kate interrupts him. If she knows the guy, they might not even have to break in. Today is looking up, and Jensen can almost smell his victory in the best gift competition.
“Well, yes, the dude deals in information as far as I can tell, so the Alexandria Project should be worth his trouble. Plus, it’s pretty rare, and having unrestricted access to it must be worth something.”
Kate is nodding, but then shakes her head. “Saiman is not an option. You’re burned with the witches, I’m burned with Saiman. What’s the third option?”
Jensen kind of wants to ask after the story for that, but now is probably not the time.
“Third option is Egon Lan. He’s filthy rich, some kind of businessman, lots of it pretty shady, and he’s got a floor dedicated to his copy of the Alexandria Project. There was an exposé about it in some magazines. Which is bonkers, because the Project isn’t supposed to be in private hands. The fact that he gets away with it is super suspicious.”
Kate nods decisively.
“If those are the only three places where they could access the Darknet, odds are pretty great that Lan is involved anyway. We should take a look around.”
Jensen sighs. He'd really prefer to stay out of trouble. But access to the Darknet would be pretty awesome, and if he doesn't help Kate with this, she'll probably go to some hack. Jensen can't let data like this fall into the wrong hands.
"We'll go tomorrow night, if the tech is up," Cougar says, and taps his hat. "I'll have your six."
Fuck. Jensen really loves him.
He slides Kate another contract. “These are our Data Retrieval fees,” Jensen says. "Sign on the dot, half of the payment upfront."
He’s getting Cougar that M24.