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Songbird: The Awakening chapter 1

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Shadowrun is a catch all term for illegal activity. Someone wants some private info off a corp computer? It’s a shadowrun. Need something stolen? Shadowrun. Want an assassination? It’s a shadowrun, though hopefully not one I’ll ever have to do.

A shadowrunner is, by definition, someone who completes shadowruns. That’s me, now. I swallowed. And this was my first shadowrun.

Our job was to plant a bug. Plant a bug, and either keep it on the down low or make it look like a robbery. The client would prefer it if there was no incident, but knew that wasn’t always possible, so they had offered an alternative.

In the van, I shifted nervously. My gear was the best money could buy. Smartgun pistol made of light, undetectable polymers? Check. Bulletproof vest? Check. Bulletproof helmet with trodes for matrix connection? Check. Goggles, with smartgun targeting, nightvision, heatvision, vision magnification, and vision enhancement? Check. Biomonitor, connected to a super platinum Docwagon contract? Check. Top of the line commlink? Check. Experience with this kind of drek? Uncheck. Nope. None.

Beside me, Jazz was, as usual, bopping to music only she could hear. The spikes of her purple hair bobbed as she nodded her head, and her purple sparkly nails flashed in the light as she waved her hands to the beat. Eyes closed, she silently sang along to the words. Key word, silently. No one wanted to actually hear her sing, not even Shark, her boyfriend.

While Jazz was human, like me, Shark was a troll. He had to crouch on the floor and hunch to fit in the back of the van, and, even then, his horns brushed the ceiling. He looked uncomfortable. I flashed him a sympathetic smile, and he flashed me one back. His tusks plus the dual rows of sharp teeth that gave him his name looked intimidating as all hell, but I had known him long enough to know he was a softie at heart.

He was our street samurai. One mechanical arm held a machine pistol. The other held a electrified katana. Top rated wired reflexes, plus some reaction enhancers, made him insanely fast. His muscle augmentation made him insanely strong. Muscle toning, insanely agile. Titanium bone lacing added to his natural troll toughness, as did his orthoskin. The shark like roughness of the orthoskin was the other source of his moniker. I wasn’t sure what else about him was modified, and I didn’t really care. Despite being more chrome than flesh at this point, he had a big heart in more than the literal sense.

The van stopped. Alpha, our genderfluid team leader, turned and gripped my shoulder. Tonight she was female, though small busted, with red hair in a waist length braid. She’d decided to add a tat to her tanned skin, a butterfly covering all of one cheek. As I watched, its wings fluttered slightly. “You ready, Song?” she asked me.

Jazz smirked nastily. “Yeah, Songbird, time to show us what you’re made of.”

Alpha gave her a dirty look. “Jazz, shut it. Remember, you were new once, too.”

“We all were,” rumbled Shark.

“Well, the rest of us were never pampered corporate-” Jazz stopped at the look on Alpha’s face. “Sorry, boss.”

“It doesn’t matter what we were,” Alpha said firmly. “All that matters is what we are now.” She turned to me. “Song, go.”

I closed my eyes and slid into the astral plane. Shark was the muscle. Jazz was the hacker. Alpha was the brains. I… I was the magic.

Everything always looks so different on the astral plane. Alpha’s aura shone the bright, martial colors of a powerful adept. Shark’s was dim, almost smothered by the chrome. Jazz’s was pretty normal, at least at first glance. It took some really deep assensing to see her true power.

Astral travel was fast. Slower if you were sneaking, but still fast. Within seconds I was inside the compound. Most places had security against exactly what I was trying, but I thought I could get around it. Provided it was a mana barrier or critter, that is. Spirits, I wasn’t so sure.

Something about my aura made me more visible to spirits of all sorts. It also made them like me more, but the added visibility was a big problem. When I’d been a kid, Dad’s ally spirit, Willow, could always find me, no matter where I tried to hide. Mom’s fettered spirit, Tenriu, could do the same. Now that I was a runner, my added visibility was more than just a nuisance, or a way for parents to track me. It was dangerous.

And it looked like my luck was in. Their version of magical security was hellhounds. The dogs patrolled with their handlers outside the building. I counted six. Ok, not good, but doable. Definitely doable.

Walls were no barrier to my astral form, so I melted through them, into the building. It was a research facility, full of labs and top notch security. The security tonight seemed to consist primarily of the hellhounds outside and a few patrolling guards. Well, the magical and living security, at least. The technological security was Jazz’s problem. I knew that, as I scouted the astral plane, she scouted the Matrix.

I decided to check the labs, just to be thorough. I poked my head through one of the lab doors.

Immediately, I jerked it out again. If I had a body, my heart would be pounding. As it was, it was a good thing there was nothing around that could look into the astral, because I had slipped abruptly into full visibility. Shaking, I slipped into astral sneak mode once more, and peered through the door again.

The wrongness about the lab that had shocked me before was still there. Four silent, vaguely humanoid forms were the source. I couldn’t tell what they were, but something about them was so very, very unnatural. I shuddered.

I tried to tell what the forms were, but something about them kept sliding my astral sight away from them, like my brain didn’t really want to believe they were there. After a few long minutes, I gave up, and headed back to my body. Alpha had to know about this.

“So what’s the scoop?” Alpha asked me as, back in my body, I opened my eyes.

“There’s something...” I realized I didn’t know how to explain what I’d seen. “There’s something horrible in one of the labs. Something… wrong.” I remembered what I’d seen, and I felt sick. “Excuse me…”

I opened the door of the van, leaned over, and puked onto the asphalt. Alpha placed a concerned hand on my shoulder. “Breathe, Sara. Just breathe.”

Behind me, I heard Jazz ask, “What the frag is up with Song?” Shark rumbled a quiet answer.

I sat up. Alpha handed me a water bottle and a packet of tissues. I swished some water, spat out the door, and took a big gulp. Then I wiped my mouth with a tissue. “I’m good,” I mumbled.

“Is the run off?” rumbled Shark.

Alpha looked thoughtful. “Can you tell me more about the… whatever it was you saw, Song?”

I shook my head. “It looked wrong!”

“So you said. Did it also look dangerous?” Alpha asked.

“No, but-” I began.

“Was it near the camera plant site?” Alpha asked.

“Well, no,” I admitted. “But, Alpha, I’ve never seen anything like it! It was-”

“Wrong. So you said.” Alpha chewed her lip thoughtfully. “Provided you don’t look at it in the astral again, it shouldn’t be a problem.” She looked to each of us. “The run is a go.”

I frowned, but didn’t object further.

After a brief discussion of Jazz’s recon, in addition to the other things I’d seen, the four of us filed out of the van. Alpha nodded to Jazz. “Lights out.”

Jazz closed her eyes for a few seconds, and, suddenly, the lights within the perimeter went out. In the distance, I heard swearing, and a dog howl.

“You’re certain the guards were all human?” Alpha asked me. I nodded. “And, Jazz, you took out their nightvision glasses?”

Jazz grinned. “The idiots slaved them to the same comm. Easy.”

Alpha nodded. “I’m on point. I want Songbird right behind me. Shark, you’ve got our six. Go.” With that, she vaulted the recently de-electrified fence. Shark boosted me up, and then Jazz. Then he hauled his own bulk over, making the fence groan under his weight.

“Who’s there?” A voice nearby called. “You’ve got 5 seconds to identify yourself, and then I sick the hound on you!”

Alpha drew her pistol and fired several silent shots. The dog yelped, and went down. Its handler swore, and punched a button on his comm. Nothing happened. Then Shark took him out with a fist to the head.

We were almost to the door when Jazz hissed. “Alpha! Their security spider is online!”

Alpha grimaced. “Hold them as long as you can, Jazz. Shark, stay with her. Song and I will-”

And then all hell broke loose.

The lights snapped back on. Jazz collapsed with a scream, clutching her head. Someone shouted, “There they are!” and suddenly every hellhound was racing toward us. But the worst, the worst, was the thing that came through the door.

It looked like regular, augmented human, but there was way, way too much chrome. And the eyes… There was something incredibly wrong with its eyes…

It opened fire. Shark grabbed Jazz and looked around for cover, but there was none in sight. Alpha went down under the barrage, bleeding from several bullet holes. Three more of the things burst through the door. Shark shoved me and Jazz behind him, and opened fire on them. The hellhounds were getting closer.

I tried to attack the things with a manaball spell, but it just bounced off. I gaped. My manaballs weren’t the best, but they usually had some effect.

My dad’s mentor spirit had been the Firebringer, but I had no mentor. It would have been nice, right about now, to have something to pray to. We needed help.

Help… I looked at my hands. I had the training to summon spirits, but I didn’t do it very often. Spirits I summoned tended to act weird. Some hovered over me and fussed like hens with only one chick. Others got tense and angry, deliberately misinterpreting my commands as often as they could. Still others got nosy, trying to find out as much about me as they could. They asked lots of questions, and often seemed unsatisfied with the answers.

A force 12 spirit should be able to turn this fight around. I grimaced. Summoning a force 12 spirit would also likely take me out of the fight, not to mention probably hurt. However, my manaballs didn’t affect the things with the weird eyes, and Shark’s bullets didn’t seem to have much effect either.

It didn’t look like the things had much protection against heat. A fire spirit, them. I closed my eyes and began the summoning.

There was a crack as the spirit appeared, and I collapsed to the ground. I had only one service, but, with luck, that would be all I needed. I wet dried lips, and tried to speak.

The spirit, a man made of flame, looked at me. “Yes?”

One of the things threw a concussion grenade. As the shockwave rocked Shark and I, dizziness threatened to overwhelm me. I felt myself begin to lose consciousness. I managed to gasp out, “Help… me…” Then everything went black.

*

I awoke to the feeling of being watched. I opened my eyes, shrieked, and fell out of bed.

The man who had been staring at me from across the room narrowed his eyes. “What?”

I sat up. “Who… who are you?”

“I’m your fire spirit,” the man said, frowning.

I looked out the window at the bright, sunny day. “That’s… That’s not possible. I only had one service, and I used it. Also, summonings end at sunrise. It’s past sunrise. There is no possible way-”

Suddenly, the man was replaced by a familiar fiery shape. “Are you calling me a liar?”

I swallowed. “No. I just don’t know why you’re still here.”

The fiery form collapsed back into a man. “You don’t? Really?” He frowned.

“I take it you don’t know, either,” I surmised.

The spirit shook his head. “It feels like I’m become a free spirit. I’ve got so much new power, but I can’t… I can’t seem to leave you alone!” He huffed. “I should be back home, or able to go wherever I want on the astral plane, but I’m stuck with you instead!” His gazed softened, and he stepped toward me, knelt, and brushed my cheek with his hand. “And a part of me is not so certain that’s a bad thing.” He sighed. “You really have no idea what you’ve done to me?”
I shook my head. “If it was up to me, you’d be free to go. I don’t trap spirits.”

The spirit’s mouth quirked up at the corner. “Not on purpose, anyways.” He sighed. “You should rest. Here, let me help you.” He gripped my arm, and helped me back into bed. For a moment, his gaze was gentle. Loving, even. He cupped my cheek with his hand, and brushed my hair away from my face. Then his gaze hardened, and he jerked away. “Your name is Songbird, yes?”

I nodded. “These days.” I thought back to the parking lot, where Alpha had used my real name. “What can I call you?” I knew better than to ask for his name. Spirits were very secretive about their true names, and for good reason. A free spirit could be bound with their true name.

“Ember,” the spirit told me. “Call me Ember.”

Appropriate for a fire spirit. “What happened?” I asked.

“After you summoned Ember,” Alpha said, appearing in the doorway, “He held off the hellhounds and the… things while Shark brought me around. Then, I carried you, Shark carried Jazz, Ember opened up a hole, and we ran for it.” She scowled. “We never completed the mission.” Her gaze softened. “I’m sorry, Song, we should have listened to you when you said something hinky was going on. I should have called off the mission until we figured out what you saw.”

“You saved us all,” rumbled Shark from behind Alpha. “Thank you.”

I frowned. “Is Jazz ok?”

“She’ll wake up in another day or so,” Shark rumbled. “She took a lot of damage from whatever hit her in the matrix. We won’t know what exactly happened until she wakes up.”

Jazz was our only hacker, so no one had eyes on her in the matrix. Since she was a technomancer and manipulated the matrix directly, she took damage directly instead of to whatever device she was using. Most hackers used things called cyberdecks, or decks for short. They were called deckers, for obvious reasons. Technomancers like Jazz were rare, and extremely useful since you didn’t have to worry about someone shooting their deck.

I looked at Alpha. “Do you have any idea of what those things were?”

It was Ember who answered. “Abominations,” he growled. “Prisons for spirits.”

I blinked, remembering the things. The look in their eyes. It was someone staring out at me, begging for help.

Alpha frowned. “You didn’t tell me that.”

Ember looked at her, eyes hard. “I had no reason to tell you.”

“You have no reason to tell Song, either,” Alpha pointed out.

Ember looked at me. “She’s different.” He turned back to Alpha, eyes hardening further. “I will tolerate the rest of you, and even help you, because you help her. Do not expect anything more, and do not presume you can tell me what to do.”

Alpha looked at him thoughtfully. “Alright, then.”

She turned to me. “Why don’t you use spirits more often? You could have had half a dozen bound last night, and then we never would have been in danger.”

I shook my head. “My father was against the binding of spirits. He said it was cruel.”

Alpha raised an eyebrow. “When you signed on, you said you would do your best to help the team. Not summoning spirits when you are a powerful summoner does not look like your best to me.”

I blinked. “Ummmm…”

“Just think about it, Song,” Alpha told me. “That’s all I ask. For now.” She stepped forward and patted my arm. “Get some rest. There will be food waiting for you in the kitchen when you wake up. We'll discuss what to do next then.”

*

When I woke up the second time, Ember was still staring at me. I yawned. “Don’t you have something better to do?”

Ember shook his head, his expression mulish.

I yawned again. “Fine. Do what you want.” I realized I needed to pee. “Just please don’t follow me into the bathroom.”

Ember nodded, eyes softening. “As you wish.”

As I stumped off to the bathroom, I considered the situation. My relationship with spirits had apparently reached new levels of weird. Ember should have no compulsion to stick around, or to listen to me at all. And yet, there he was, watching me from my bedroom door.

The bathroom was empty, which was not a given when four people shared a restroom. I emptied my bladder, and then turned on the shower. Hot water would, hopefully, make me feel human again, instead of like a drowsy, sweaty lump.

I dropped my clothing on the floor. It was the stuff I’d worn on the run, so it was dirty with grime, sweat, and the blood from my nosebleed, a side effect of taking a lot of Drain, or damage from using magic, in one go. Nothing caused Drain like summoning a powerful spirit.

When the water was warm enough, I stepped into the shower. Then I just stood there, letting the hot water pound my weary form. God, that felt good. I could feel it washing away the blood and grime from the failed run, and, with it, all my worries and doubts. They would be back, of course, those worries and doubts, but, for right now, I was free.

I considered what Alpha had said. My father had said binding spirits was cruel, but the spirits Mom bound didn’t seem to mind that much. They didn’t act like prisoners. More like slightly overworked employees. Even Tenriu, not only bound, but fettered, hadn’t seemed too unhappy with his lot. I would never fetter a spirit, binding it to me for life, but the more usual, temporary binding, just once per spirit, shouldn’t be too bad. Especially not if I asked the spirit first if it minded. Some of the spirits I summoned seemed to like being around me. Surely one of those wouldn’t mind being bound for a bit.

The idea of having 6 spirits bound, all available at a moment’s notice if I needed help, was soothing. Ember had really made a difference last night. What would it be like to have so much potential backup? To be able to keep myself and my friends safe, no matter what?

Mother would want me to do my best to keep myself safe, but would Dad have understood? Would he have agreed that keeping the people I cared about safe was worth a bit of compromise? And Handel… What would Handel want me to do?

I wasn’t use to considering Handel in such musings. Up until my Mother had died, Handel was just her secretary. He was damned good at his job, but easy to forget. I wasn’t even sure if Handel was his first or last name. Often, he was the one who picked me up from my father’s home. Sometimes he was the closest I got to my mother during my entire visit to her.

After Dad died, Handel was the one who often showed up at school functions, standing in for my mother, or so I’d thought. Now I wasn’t so sure that was his primary motivation.

I let go of my musings, letting the water wash them away with the grime. Humming, I reached for the shampoo, squirted some out, and began to lather my hair. I began to sing. “Un bel dì, vedremo…” I dug my fingers deep into my black locks. I use to have cotton blond hair, but now I kept it dyed, and used a solution that made it curl. I also cut it much shorter. Where before it had cascaded down to my waist in a gorgeous pale golden waterfall, now it tumbled barely to my shoulders in tight black curls.

That wasn’t the only thing that was different about me. Now my pale blue eyes were frequently obscured by goggles, and Alpha was discretely working on getting me a supply of brown contacts. My skin was kept tan with a cream. Now, when I looked in the mirror, I saw my father’s daughter, a child of the Sioux, albeit one with a white man’s curls. It was strange when, for most of my life, I’d looked in the mirror and seen my mother’s striking coloration. Strange, but not unpleasant. If I’d realized that looking like a real Amerindian was this simple, I’d have dyed my hair and colored my skin a long time ago.

“Vedi? È venuto! Io non gli…” I stepped back into the falling water and let it rinse the lather from my hair, closing my eyes so a not to get soap in them.

I heard a strange hiss, like water hitting something hot. Then a warm hand touched my cheek. I gasped, going stiff all over, afraid to open my eyes. Then I heard Ember’s voice. “Please,” he whispered, running his hands through my hair. “Please, keep singing.”

As a general rule, naked bodies meant nothing to spirits, and few really understood metahuman nudity taboos. Some didn’t realize such taboos existed until they’d upset someone. Ember was not here to oogle me, and would likely not understand if I accused him of doing so.

“Please,” Ember begged, his voice so soft I could barely hear it. “Please, I’ll do anything you want. Just keep singing.”

I opened my eyes. Ember stood before me, fully clothed, and, despite the shower’s spray, completely dry. Any water that hit him hissed away into steam. His red hair had been replaced by flickering flames, and his brown eyes were opened wide is awe and desperation.

I took a deep breath. “Mi metto…”

Ember closed his eyes, a look of absolute bliss on his face. I saw his lips form the word “Beautiful.”

I continued to sing, all shyness forgotten in the face of such platonic admiration. I had a good voice, and my mother had paid for expensive singing lessons to train me to use it. She had considered it an exercise in discipline and self control, and had been upset, to say the least, when I’d expressed desire to become a professional singer. After that, I’d been forbidden to perform in public. Now she was dead, but my career as a singer was still denied to me. Drawing that much attention to myself wouldn’t be safe.

When I finished Madame Butterfly’s aria, Ember sighed. “That was beautiful.”

I smiled. “Thank you. I’ve got a good voice. Now, would you mind getting out of the shower so I can finish washing?”

Ember shook his head. “There was more to that than a good voice! You have power.”

I looked down, embarrassed by his praise. “It’s just good singing, Ember. I mean, it’s certainly very pretty, but-”

“It was not just pretty,” Ember interrupted me. “It was magic.”

I blushed. “Thanks. Please let me finish my shower.”

Ember opened his mouth, closed it, sighed in frustration, and left. I finished cleaning myself in silence.