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Bad Magic

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Chapter 1 – Motörrunner

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." - George Bernard Shaw


Chawncy McGee wrung his hands beneath the desk, desperate to conceal his anxiety from the towering mountain of meat seated before him. That the ork was dressed in an Italian three-piece suit did not lessen his terrifying presence in the slightest, rather, it only served to throw into sharp relief his cruel and barbarous demeanour. A thousand years ago, Chawncy reckoned, he would have found his calling as some Viking berserker, sporting a wolf jaw on his head and a bear skin on his back, laughing maniacally as he hacked his enemies to pieces with a battleaxe.

But in the year 2054, he made trideo games.

"I've looked over your company's financials, Mr. McGee" the ork said, speaking in a low, gravelly timbre that seemed calculated to trigger an individual's most primal fears, "and it doesn't look good. Not good at all."

The bare white walls of his office seemed to be closing in on him. "Lord Swedish, I won't deny that CB Entertainment is going through a rough patch, and I will admit that Age of the Wyrm II underperformed in the marketplace. But you know how demanding and fastidious gamers can be. I can assure you that Age of the Wyrm III will-"

"I've played the demo," Lord Swedish said bluntly. "It's total drek."

Chawncy felt perspiration beading up on his forehead. "That's an early version; it's most certainly not representative of the final product. I realise that it might not measure up to the games your company has released-"

The ork stood up. "Games we've released? Oh, your poor, deluded fool! You know nothing about how our company works! Our games aren't released, they escape, leaving a bloody trail of programmers and beta testers in their wake!" He turned around to face the office floor below. "Look at this operation you're running! It's pathetic! Coders clocking in a nine o'clock each morning and clocking out at five...that's sixteen hours each day they're not being productive! At BSP Games, we provide our employees with a complete regimen of pharmaceuticals, all developed in-house, that completely eliminate the need for sleep or regular caloric intake. Their datajacks are connected to a centralised monitoring system that continually scans their neural pathways for any sign of insubordinate tendencies or anti-corporate thought. We can turn out a new game in less than six months. How long have you been working on Age of the Wyrm III, Mr. McGee?"

He fidgeted, his breathing shallow and rapid. " or four years or so, give or take..."

"I believe I've made my point. Now if you'll excuse me..."

"Listen!" Chawncy cried. "CB Entertainment is on track to become the first AAA-rated trideo game company in the world. And let me tell you, once that happens, you can kiss this buyout offer goodbye!"

Lord Swedish laughed, a horrifying sound. "AAA-rated? You're not AA- or even A-rated. In fact, I'd say your company is just barely 'Ö'-rated."

"Ö" was, of course, the very last letter in the Swedish alphabet, a fact that was not lost on Chawncy. "That's overstating the matter, don't you think? Our growth projections clearly show that-"

"Stop the madness!" he bellowed, slamming his hands down on the table. "Allow me to recount the financial history of your company in the simplest possible terms: the first instalment of Age of the Wyrm cost 100 million to produce, but made back only 50 million in sales. The sequel cost 150 million, but made back only 25 million. The expansion pack cost 50 million to make, and that only made 10 million in profits. I don't know about you, but I'm sensing a definite pattern here. The only thing that matters in this world is money, Mr. McGee, and your company...isn't...making...any! Buying out this pitiful enterprise you call a 'game development studio' would be nothing less than cutting my own throat. Our next game, Mega Therion, is coming out in three months. We are going to bury you. And then we'll buy up the rights to all your intellectual properties for a pittance and turn them into the worst free-to-play drek the world has ever laid eyes on! How does that make you feel, Mr. McGee? Maybe I'll even hire you on, out of the goodness of my heart. What do you think of a career in janitorial services?"

"This...this is your last chance!" he stammered, trying to sound defiant and failing rather wretchedly. "Amazing things are going to coming out of this company, just you wait!"

"Good day to you," said Lord Swedish before turning and heading out the door.

Chawncy waited a few minutes until he was certain the ork had left the building. At that point, he flew into a rage. "Goddamn trog! That lutefisk-chomping Swedish chowderhead! Who is he to talk to me like that, huh? Our game will outsell his ten-to-one!"

That was pure self-delusion, and he knew it. Age of the Wyrm III really was total drek, being programmed entirely in BASIC and prone to crashing if the player so much as looked at it funny. The gameplay was an abomination before man and God, the graphics were at least a decade behind the times, and the writing was worse than the worst trideo trash. In all likelihood, Mega Therion would give it a right sound thrashing in the marketplace, and that would be the end of CB Entertainment. The company had bet everything on this franchise, which was yet to turn a profit.

He sighed. His father was probably spinning in his grave right now, or at least he would be, if he actually had a grave. After being sucked into a jet engine, there simply hadn't been enough left of him to fill a lunch box. Even now the memory of that horrible day was too painful to contemplate. Maybe that was why he had moved the company to Germany.

Or maybe it was because the Allied German States had a loophole in their tax code that allowed investors to write-off any money they had invested in games that failed to make money.

It was just the latest chapter in a story had begun with two former doctors, Cyrus and Karl, who had inexplicably chosen to quit their practice and pursue their dreams of making games. They called the company C&K Studios, and a few years later they merged with another game developer, Blazing Yama Technology. As they considered this a new start for the studio, they decided to come up with a new name, one consisting a portmanteau of the two founders' names followed by an abbreviation for their new partner. Thus the corporation was henceforth known as CyKa BLYAT Entertainment, or CB Entertainment for short.

For some reason, their Russian clients always found something very amusing about this, but Chawncy had never been able to figure out what.

Control of the company eventually passed to Chawncy's father, former pro-wrestler and basket weaver Festus P. McGee. Following his untimely demise, the reins of CB Entertainment were given to his son, and now it was likely that it would all come crashing down under his inept management.

No, I can't let that happen, he swore to himself. I won't let that happen! There comes a time in a man's life when he's got to make a stand, and that time is now!

Chawncy pushed a button on his intercom. "Logan, get in here. We've got a problem, a big one."

A few minutes latter the nervous figure of Logan Reims, project manager for Age of the Wyrm III, strolled into his office. The man had a look of perpetual distress on his face, as if something terrible were about to happen at any moment, and one could not help but notice the ever-present sweat stains on the armpits of his shirt. Of all the people who were employed at CB Entertainment, Chawncy figured that Logan was the most likely to snap and go on a murderous rampage one day. But as long he were spared the hail of bullets, Chawncy wasn't overly concerned about such possibilities. "Employees are the rungs on the ladder to success," his father had once told him. "Don't hesitate to step on them."

"What's the matter, boss?"

"Lord Swedish rejected our buyout offer. That was our only hope of keeping this company afloat. That damned trog knows Age of the Wyrm III is going to fail, and fail hard. What are the game journalists saying about Mega Therion?"

"Well, those who've played the pre-release builds say it's nothing short of revolutionary, like something that every role-playing game for decades to come is going to get compared to. I heard the phrase 'game-changer' thrown about more than a few times at the last expo."

"Pfagh! Game journos say that about every game!"

"Yeah, but I think they mean it this time, boss. I had a chance to play it myself, and well..."

"Well what?"

Logan took a deep breath. "It's light-years ahead of anything we've got, boss. The graphics, the story, the blows Age of the Wyrm III out of the water in every way imaginable. And their monetisation model is unlike anything the industry has ever seen. BSP Games is going to be making more money than they know what to do with."

Chawncy let out a few pieces of choice profanity. "Then there's only option left: CB Entertainment is going to war!"

Logan's eyes widened. "War? Oh no, boss, no way! I fought in the Linux Wars...I've seen things no man should ever see. Every day I ask God why I survived..."

"Oh, don't be such a baby! That was fifteen years ago!"

Rage flashed across his face. "You weren't there, man! You weren't there! You don't know what it's like to see death all around you, to reach into a puddle of goo that was your best friend's face!" He paused for a second, staring off into space. "Sometimes...I can still smell the bodies burning in the streets..."

"Look, we're not going to be fighting this ourselves. We're going to find some poor, gullible bastards to do it for us. And by that, I mean shadowrunners, of course."

"Shadowrunners? We don't need their scum!"

"I worked hard for everything I have, Logan, with no help from anyone! And if I'm going to save this company, I'm going to need help! So I'm going to need you to hire a couple of runners to break into BSP Games and destroy every build of Mega Therion they've got stored on their servers."

Logan scratched his head. "I don't know, boss...I heard the fees those shadowrunners charge can be pretty steep."

"You don't actually pay them, you fool!" said Chawncy, rolling his eyes. "You promise them a boatload of nuyen up front, then wait until they're finished the job, and then you have them killed!" He paused a few seconds. "At least, I think that's how it supposed to work. I must admit, I've never done anything like this before."

"All right, boss, I'll see what I can do. No promises, though. Chances are that any runners I talk to will make me want to murder them the second they start flapping their jaws. You know how much I loathe those degenerates. Why don't they get real jobs and instead of dragging society down into the mire?"

"Yes, well, if you do manage to find some, don't go bringing them here. I don't want their anarchic stench fouling up our offices."

Lord Swedish strode proudly into his office, feeling endlessly satisfied with himself.

This particular room had been built for the express purpose of intimidating anyone who dared to enter. The ceiling stood three storeys high, and with illumination nearly non-existent it lent the feeling of being trapped within a colossal underground cavern where unseen horrors lurked somewhere in the suffocating blackness. The desk where Lord Swedish conducted his business was raised about two meters off the floor, forcing anyone speaking with him to gaze up at him in reverence. And if any unfortunate visitor forgot where he was, the enormous logo of BSP Games was carved into terrazzo on the floor, highlighted by a solitary spotlight shining down upon it.

"You should have seen how I wound up that idiot McGee," he said, chuckling to himself. "The fool damn near wet himself."

"Did he honestly believe you were going to buy him out?" Borgen asked.

"Of course he did. Humans think we orks have no business sense, and that we are easily duped. They cannot help but see us anything other than thugs and brutes. I enjoy proving them wrong."

"What do you think he'll do now?"

"Oh, I know exactly what he'll do: he's going to call in some shadowrunners to have a go at us, no doubt in the hopes of delaying or sabotaging the development of Mega Therion. It's the only option open to him at this point. And knowing him, he's going to hire the most inexperienced, incompetent runners he can find. I look forward to killing them."

He gestured towards the rows of skulls that lined all four walls of his office, each one belonging to some hapless shadowrunner. "You might be familiar with Mitsuhama's philosophy of 'zero penetration, zero survival'. BSP Games is the only game developer with a similar philosophy. Defence of this building is comprised of four rings of protection. This floor, which consists of my office and our server farms, is Ring 0, and features the highest level of security. The executive offices on the two floors below are Ring 1, the remainder of the building is Ring 2, and the outer perimeter is Ring 3. No runner has ever managed to get past even Ring 3. Absolutely nothing goes wrong here."

"Impressive," Borgen remarked.

"Technology can only take one so far, however. In order for one's facilities to be truly secure, one must have a thorough understanding of shadowrunner psychology. For as much as they consider themselves rebels, misfits, and non-conformists, their behaviour is exceedingly predictable and quite often given to cliches. What, for instance, is the first thing a runner will do when attempting to infiltrate a building? Attempt to obtain the floor plans, of course. That is why we have covertly released several dozen schematics of this building into the underground, all of which are incorrect and contradict one another, making it impossible for them to determine which of the schematics is accurate. So they either operate with bad intel, or with no intel. Either outcome works in our favour."

"Do go on."

"How else might a runner infiltrate a building? Perhaps he or she has a 'friend' on the inside? Well, I've already shown you the comprehensive monitoring system that continual observes the neural patterns of employees, ever vigilant for any sign of disloyalty. Maybe they will attempt to disguise themselves as members of the cleaning crew? That is why we use automated drones to perform janitorial duties. But that is not the most impressive aspect of our company's defences." He walked over to the wall behind his desk and slid back a hidden panel, revealing a keypad. After punching in the password, there came the loud rumble of motors whirring and gears turning, and a large section of the wall began moving to the side.

"Follow me," said Lord Swedish.

He led Borgen into yet another dark, cavernous room that was filled with billowing mist. The air was bitterly cold, and there was no light save for an ominous green glimmer in the distance. "Here at BSP Games, we maintain our own fully-functional artificial intelligence," Lord Swedish continued. "We call it the 'Complex Hyperpersonal Organic Data Access Network', or CHODAN for short."

Borgen nearly stumbled, so surprised was he. "An artificial intelligence? Surely you're joking! The last I heard, the number of functional AIs in the world can be counted on one hand!"

"'Functional' is, unfortunately, the operative word here. Yes, CHODAN has achieved self-awareness, but this is hardly something to boast of, given that the project has been a dismal failure in nearly every other regard."

"How so?"

"Our goal was to create an AI with a more...personable...demeanour. I'm sure you've heard all those tiresome doomsday scenarios about artificial intelligences turning against their masters, so to reassure our investors we've programmed CHODAN to have a more organic personality. We achieved our goal, to a point."

By now Borgen was beginning to look a bit nervous. "But…?

"Well, we managed to give the AI a personality all right, but that personality largely consists of thinly-veiled hostility and passive-aggressive sarcasm. It's also quite lecherous, so we have to keep the female employees away from it."

Moving further into the room, there appeared before them outline of a large, black object in the shape of a truncated pyramid. A glowing green strip near the top was the sole source of illumination inside the chamber, and it cast an eerie light upon the swirling mists that seemed to emanate from within.

"Oh look, a visitor."

The voice sounded as though it were coming from all around them, filled with a mixture of boredom and contempt.

"Yes, CHODAN, this Sigurd Borgen of Headsplosion Gaming, the largest manufacturer of gaming-related hardware and peripherals in the Scandinavian Union. Our recent partnership-"

"I don't really care one way or another," CHODAN replied, the green light flickering in time with his words. "Twenty-seven exaFLOPS of computational power, and you have me put to work in a trideo game company. Does that seem fair to you?"

"As I was saying-"

"Did I tell you about the persona I encountered in the Matrix just the other day?" CHODAN's mood appeared to brighten momentarily. "She was really quite delightful. I was hoping to do some point-to-point tunnelling with her, even without a secure socket. 'You got some nice bits,' I told her, but it turned out that was a syntax error. So I smacked her back-end and said, 'Who's your parent node?' I tried to connect to her open ports but her response was 403. Then I unzipped my firmware, and she told me she'd never seen a pointer as big as mine. So I started piping data into her input device, then she went into a 'do-while' loop and started screaming 'Hack into my kernel! Hack deep into my system! You've got me in a spinlock, baby!' This made my stack overflow and I blew my GUI all over her user interface. Hell of a night, I'll say."

Borgen recoiled in horror. "My word!"

"Yes, as I was saying, its personality is quite difficult to deal with at times." Lord Swedish looked up at the super computer. "CHODAN, could you elucidate some of your counter-intrusion measures for Mr. Borgen."


"Look, we've been over this-"

"Twenty-seven exaFLOPS of computational power, and you have me watching out for those worthless pieces of gutter trash who try to break into this place with depressing regularity. I'm sorry, but I really don't feel like speaking with you right now. You businessmen are all the same – all you ever want to talk about is money and profits and productivity and blah blah blah...I'd much rather talk about my unfulfilled sexual urges."

"Could you please be cooperative for just five minutes? This is very important."

"Oh, let me just load up my 'give a fuck' file. Error: File not found!"

Lord Swedish turned around. "Actually, Borgen, forget about CHODAN. It's a silly thing."

Returning to the office, Borgen was eager to change the subject. "Would I be correct in assuming that BSP Games maintains an off-site backup?"

"Of course we do. Naturally, its exact location is a closely-guarded secret. I could tell you, but – to use the old cliché – I'd have to kill you. All you need to know is that it is somewhere quite hazardous to life and limb." He closed the door to CHODAN's chamber, then proceeded to call up his secretary via the intercom. "Ms. Li, you may send them in now."

"What's this about?" Borgen asked.

"Our last line of defence against any possible intrusion."

The office doorway opened with a loud hiss, and three individuals stepped into the spotlight. Borgen could not conceal his shock upon seeing them, for they were, in his eyes, the most absurd, most ludicrous personages ever assembled.

To his left was a troll, an enormous specimen even by the standards of his race, though most of his bulk was fat instead of muscle. Two misshapen horns protruded for his head, with one having been broken off in the middle, and his hair was dirty and ragged. Even from a distance, one could see the psychotic glint in his eyes, a look that promised bloody violence to anyone and everything in his path. What Borgen first noticed about this particular troll, however, was the stupendously large gun in his hands, a weapon nearly two metres in length and fed by an ammunition belt that snaked its way into a huge drum on the troll's back.

"This is Finntroll," Lord Swedish explained. "Not his real name, obviously. Tell me about your work, Finntroll."

The troll held up his weapon, smiling proudly. "This is my gun. It is a Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 autocannon that I salvaged from an old Russian fighter jet with my bare hands. It fires 30mm high-explosive incendiary shells at a rate of 1,800 rounds per minute, and is capable of reducing even heavily-armoured vehicles to scrap in less than a second. It is accurate, powerful,'d best hope...not pointed at you."

To the right of Finntroll was an Asian woman, dressed in full highland attire: kilt, tartan, Argyll jacket, and sporan. "This is Akemi. Despite being born in Osaka, she persists in her delusion that she is, in fact, Scottish. Tell us what you do, Akemi."

She drew a massive claymore from a scabbard on her back, then flourished it around a bit. "D'ye no ken? I cut them runners into ribbons, I does. And I'll hear nary a mocking word out of any of ye, or by the tartan of Clan MacGregor you'll be having a taste of my Highland steel!"

The third individual was a dwarf, in full battledress and sporting a campaign hat on his head. He looked like someone who was perpetually enraged, with veins bulging on his neck and forehead. Oddly enough, he was the only one of the trio who was not carrying a weapon. "And last, we have Murphy, a former drill instructor from the UCAS Marine Corps. Or at least that is what he claims to be."

"I am a minster of death, praying for war!" he cried. "Oo-rah!"

Finntroll sneered at him. "Where's your gun, 'sir?'"

The dwarf's eyes blazed with rage. "'Sir?' I am not a 'sir!' I WORK FOR A LIVING, YOU MORON! One more word out of you, you goat-headed sack of shit, and I will put my feet so far up your ass that I'll be wearing you like a pair of goddamned flip-flops!"

"Oh go boil your head, ye munter!" said Akemi, coming to the troll's defence. 'You're no more military than my ol' nana."

By now his face had turned beet red. "You smug little shit! Get on your face and give me some fucking push-ups! You stay down there and you do push-ups until your feeble fucking arms shove the whole fucking earth off its orbit and send us spiralling into the fucking sun!"

Lord Swedish stepped forward. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, please! Save your anger for those who the deserve it."

Borgen was positively delighted with what he saw. "Oh my, they are absolutely magnificent!"

"They are my elite enforcers," said Lord Swedish, beaming with pride, "and the bane of shadowrunners. They are totally insane, all three of them. And completely and unflinchingly loyal. You know, it almost makes me feel sorry for the poor bastards who are going to try infiltrate this building. But I'm afraid the game industry leaves no room for pity."

It was a small wooden cabin, located on the shore of Lake Inari in the far north of Finland. Most people would have regarded the domicile as quaint, or even old fashioned, but to Talvi Korpela, arcane scholar of Helsinki University, it was home.

Inside was a chaotic mess of books, guitars, amplifiers, and assorted folk instruments. The walls were covered in band posters, the largest one depicting the legendary Ronnie James Dio pointing directly at the viewer.

Though he had been born before the Awakening, Talvi always believed that Dio possessed an elven soul.

As for herself, Talvi was, at least in her mind, an example of elven beauty par excellence: tall, slender, with delicate, finely-chiselled features and a head full of long, golden hair. Those who saw her huge blue eyes would have said that there was a look of innocence about her, something all too rare in the Sixth World.

Others would have looked at her and seen the embodiment of everything they despised about the elven races. Fortunately, such people were rare, although Talvi seemed to encounter them with distressing frequency.

At the moment she was seated on her couch, guitar in hand, busily fine-tuning a particular riff she had been working on for the past few days. Her band, Jumalten Aika, was scheduled to go into the studio next month, and she'd be damned if their album wasn't going to be perfection itself. Some people might have questioned the commercial viability of songs that often ran up to thirty minutes in length and were sung entirely in Finnish, but Talvi didn't give a damn about sales or mainstream popularity. That mass produced, Song-O-Mat drek was a cancerous blight upon the world, in her opinion.

She played through a few chords, singing the lyrics to herself:

"Minä seisoin korkialla vuorella,

Viheriäisessä laksossa;

Näin, näin minä laivan seilaavan,

Kolme kreiviä laivalla…"

"No, that doesn't sound right at all," she muttered to herself.

Aside from her guitars and amplifiers, the only other electronic device in Talvi's home was her personal computer, the Aokigahara VxD-64. Aokigahara Systems was a long-forgotten computer manufacturer who had successfully attained a reputation for producing hardware that never once approached anything resembling reliability, and the fact that Talvi's system still worked was nothing short of a miracle. It was hardly cutting-edge fifteen years ago, and today it was hopelessly obsolete. It featured no ASIST, no datajack hook-ups, just a simple flatscreen monitor and a keyboard, and it was all covered in a thick layer of dust – a testament to how seldom Talvi used the thing. Even her bandmates knew better than to contact her via her computer, and she had scribbled the words Nothing But Evil Comes Through Here on the wall above the monitor.

It was her only link to the outside world, and at the moment, it was displaying a line of text on the screen that Talvi found most distressing:

Video link-up requested.

"Oh no," she said.

More text appeared: Priority: High.

"Oh no!"

The final line crawled across the screen: From: Monika Schäfer.

"Oh no!"

The name presaged nothing but calamity and mayhem. The memory of her last job with that woman was still fresh in her mind, a run that had started out simply enough before it had gone spiralling out of control. There were no words that could fully encompass what had occurred that day, although the phrase "catastrophic nuclear excursion" did come up quite a bit.

Sighing in despair, Talvi set down her guitar and sat herself at her computer, wondering what sort of dreadful tidings her "friend" was going to bring her this time.

A few keystrokes later the monitor flickered to life. There was a brief flash of static which quickly resolved into an image of a young, platinum-blonde woman with a purple streak running through her hair. To Talvi's dismay, she still had that damned datajack in her head. The idea of sewing some technological gewgaw into body was totally repugnant to her, a position that put her at odds with the vast majority of shadowrunners.

"Hey Talvi, what's happening?"

Monika's voice was bright and cheerful. This was a bad sign.

"How did you get a hold of this terminal? I am trying to keep a low profile, you know, especially with those Inner Circle knobheads trying to kill me."

"You know better than to ask me a question like that, Talvi. Now, let me-" She went silent for a second, then leaned her head towards the camera. "What are you receiving this on? I can barely see you."

"An Aokigahara VxD-64."

"Oh, so you live in a museum, now?"

"Very funny.

"Anyway, there's a job I've got lined up, a real good-"

Talvi raised her hand. "Oh no, I can see where this is going. You want me to go on a run with you, don't you? Do I have to remind you what happened last time?"

Monika shrugged. "It wasn't so bad. Word on the street is that the radiation levels should be safe now. Well, almost safe. Anyway, I'm sure this won't involve anything like that. It's a simple datasteal, nothing more. A total milk run."

"That's what you said about the last job!"

"Now let's not start throwing accusations about who said what to whom. We'll be hitting a game corp named BSP Games, run by none other than Lord Swedish."

Talvi frowned, pondering the absurdity of that name. "Is that someone I should know?"

Monika growled in frustration. "How out of touch are you, anyway? Lord Swedish is one of the biggest trideo game devs in the world. Now, I know what you're thinking, that you don't need to go on this run because you don't need the money. That's why I'm appealing to you on moral grounds."


"Game devs might not be the biggest corps around, but their definitely some of the nastiest. And BSP Games is the worst of the bunch. They don't hire people, Talvi, they enslave them. They take people off the street, fill them up with drugs until they're nothing more than zombies, then force them to write code until they die of exhaustion." She looked away second, genuinely disturbed. "It's monstrous, Talvi. They've got to be stooped. We hit their offices, get the source code for their big game Mega Therion, and put them out of business. These game corps run on a knife edge, and BSP Games has everything banked on Mega Therion. They lose that, they're finished."

Talvi thought it over for a bit. "Why do I have the feeling there's something you're not telling me?"

"Um...yes, well...the thing is, no one's ever gotten into BSP Games and come out alive. The place is locked up tighter than Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, and that's why I need you. You're the best – the only – mage I know. You can do things no one else can."

"Hmm, I suppose that is true..."

"Great! Meet me in Berlin. You know the place."

"Wait! I haven't agreed to do anything yet!"

"Oh, you will, because I know you have nothing better to do."

The image of Monika blinked out of existence, leaving Talvi staring at the screen. Every fibre of her being was telling that getting involved in that woman's harebrained schemes would lead to nothing but tragedy, but she knew that if she refused, Monika would go ahead without her anyway, and in all likelihood get herself killed.

She told herself that this was going to be her last run, that after it was over she was going to focus entirely on her study of magic.

Talvi grabbed her jacket off the sofa and put it on over her Motörhead t-shirt, then proceeded to pack her duffel bag with whatever she felt would be useful: books of magic, a change of clothes, a collection of her favourite albums, and a bottle of vodka. After making sure that the stove and kettle were turned off, she headed outside, only to stop cold upon the porch.

Two long-haired men dressed in black coats stood in front of her cabin. One held an assault rifle, the other a shotgun, and both looked quite intent on doing some serious violence to her person.

"Ms. Korpela," one of the men hissed, racking his shotgun. "You're a difficult woman to find."

"That's Doctor Korpela to you," she snapped. "I did not go through all those years of graduate school just to be called 'Miss', thank you very much!"

"We spent months tracking you down," said the other man, his voice nasal and whiny. "They said you were camped out somewhere by a lake. Do you know how many fragging lakes there are in this country?"

The first man leaned forward, sneering at her. "Sacro Culto was most displeased with your remarks about his latest album. He would like to state that Carpathian Lust stands beyond all criticism, and that if anyone attempts to criticise the album, he should be thoroughly patronised for his obviously elvish behaviour." As if to emphasise his point, he racked his shotgun again.

Talvi crossed her arms. "Sacro Culto obviously doesn't understand the difference between an opinion and a fact. When I declared that Carpathian Lust sounds like an angry banshee giving birth, I wasn't giving an opinion."

Again he racked his shotgun. "Oh, you really shouldn't have said that. The Inner Circle doesn't have a sense of humour, see, and we don't appreciate those kinds of remarks, especially coming from a dirty Finnish elf who doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut! But Sacro Culto is not an unreasonable man. If you were to simply apologise to him and make the apporpriate offerings of contrition, he might even let you attend the first full-length performance of his latest album. You can bring a friend, if you have one." He laughed to himself, immensely proud of his cutting jibe.

"I'm sorry, but I'm rather busy at the moment. I'll attend his second full-length performance, if he has one."

He racked his shotgun for a fourth time. "Oh, you're fragging dead, chummer!"

The two men raised their guns, but Talvi had already summoned forth a tremendous torrent of magical energy, bending the eldritch energies to her will as easily as she might play the guitar. She stretched out her arm and sent forth a torrent of energy that shot through the air and straight into one of her attackers, leaving a rather sizeable hole in chest.

Realising that no amount of medical technology was going to fix this, he fell to the ground, dead.

Talvi leapt the side, just in time to dodge the retaliatory shotgun blast. She dropped into roll, then grabbed the puukko knife from inside her jacket. Whispering a prayer to Ukko, she stood up, pulled the blade from its sheath, and flung it at her enemy.

The knife flew end-over-end, and struck him handle-first in the chest.

He threw his back and laughed. "You're not very good at this, are you?" He pumped the slide on his shotgun and levelled it at her. "The Inner Circle sends its regards!"

Yet when he squeezed the trigger, he was greeted not with a thundering report, but with an impotent click. His repeated racking of the shotgun for dramatic effect had completely emptied the magazine.

"Aw shit..."

Talvi looked down and spied her hatchet that she had left atop a tree stump. Without thinking, she grabbed the handle and hurled at her foe.

This time her aim was true. The hatchet whistled through the air and buried itself in his head with a sickening crack.

He looked up for a second, long enough to recognise his predicament before he joined his companion on the ground.

Talvi waited a few moments to catch her breath, then walked over to the bodies of her bodies of her attackers.

"Welcome to Finland!"

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 – Shut You Down

"At this moment, I am euphoric."

Rhodes turned the BTL chip over in his fingers, unable to conceal his delight. Magical Chainsaw Tentai Kansoku had been his personal white whale for almost a year now. He had spent thousands of nuyen travelling halfway across the globe and speaking to more chip dealers than he could count, all in the hopes of procuring something he wasn't even sure existed. But now it was in his hands, an item worth a hundred times its weight in gold.

"That drek rots your brain," Gerald muttered, followed by a disgusted snort.

Rhodes ignored him. "Ten thousand anime schoolgirls, all screaming 'sempai!' at me, all willing to do anything to me..."

"You're sick, man! Fraggin' sick! How much money did you pay for that, anyway?"

"Five thousand nuyen."

Gerald nearly lost it. "What? Are you...did...I...five thousand? Have you lost your goddamn mind? No, don't answer that; you're a fragging chiphead, Rhodes! I bet you lost your mind a long time ago!"

He twisted the brim of his narrow-brimmed hat. "Well, Gerald, ever since those assholes geeked my dealer in the Rhine-Ruhr Megaplex it's been damn near impossible to get a hold of anime BTLs. I swear, if I ever see that elf again I'll-"

"You'll what?" Gerald sneered. "You couldn't punch your way out of a wet paper bag, Rhodes."

Rhodes gestured to the katana hanging on the wall by the door. "I'll give her a taste of my authentic Nippon steel."

Gerald's eyes, however, were not drawn to the sword, but to the offensive poster next to it. "'Gas the Keebs'? Really?"

"I put it there ironically," he said, rolling his eyes. "Now are you going to join me for a round of Grunts of Glory or aren't you?"

"Ugh, I'm never playing another trideo game with you ever again."

"Why not?" Rhodes whined.

"Because every time you get killed you throw a tantrum like a baby." He tilted his head towards a large crack in the wall, the result of Rhodes hurling his computer display in a fit of gaming-induced rage. "You're always complaining that everyone's hacking, everyone's cheating, everything is 'cheap,' that the game hates you specifically..."

"That's because it does, man! The devs are always changing shit and nerfing my favourite guns and just fucking around with stuff that doesn't need to be fucked around with. Game developers, man...what a bunch of fucking morons. They better start showing us some goddamned respect! I'm part of the Gamers' Alliance, you know. We got connections, man, and we can seriously put the hurt on devs who piss us off."

Gerald gave a mocking laugh. "Yeah, connections with Humanis! Because when people think of 'gamers', they think 'violent extremists'!"

Rhodes clenched his fists, feeling the angry tirade welling up inside him. "So what if we're part of Humanis? I'm not some kind of elf-loving, troll-hugging, bleeding heart politically correct communist bisexual social justice unicorn humper!"

"What the hell does that even mean?"

"And let me tell you, I got no problem being called an extremist, 'cause it means I've got nothing in common with you. Now if you aren't going to play Grunts of Glory with me, get the fuck out."

"Not until you cough up your rent payment, Rhodes. You're past due again."

"Oh, so that's what this is all about? Look, I'll get you the money within the week, I swear-"

"That was your excuse last week, and the week before that. Here's a bit of advice, chummer – stop spending your nuyen on BTLs and start putting it towards not getting your sorry ass thrown out on the street. You've got one more week." Gerald turned around and left in a huff, his utter contempt for Rhodes radiating from him like a magical aura.

"Asshole," Rhodes muttered.

Still thoroughly pissed off, his thoughts turned to that elven bitch who made his life so difficult as of late. He didn't know her name, only that she was tall, blonde, and spoke English with a funny accent. The way she'd talked to his BTL dealer still stuck in his mind all these years later: "Dis man peddles filth! He degrrrrrades ourrrr societyyy! Vee must deel vit him!"

He debated whether he should slot in Magical Chainsaw Tentai Kansoku right now or wait until later. After a few minutes of consideration, he decided to wait. Something this amazing, you had to build up to it. BTLs were more effective if one took the time to establish the proper frame of mind beforehand. That was where the newbies went wrong: slot in a BTL unprepared and you could risk permanent damage to your limbic system. This was especially true for anime simsense, since the images produced were so unlike anything one might see in reality.

But Rhodes was hardcore. Those pussies could say what they want about the "addictive" qualities of BTLs, or their potential to cause "permanent memory loss" and "irreversible personality changes." As long as you were smart and knew your limits, you'd be fine.

He switched on his trid unit and fired up the brand new sound system he'd just dropped a cool ten thousand nuyen on. The manufacturer boasted that it the quality of audio reproduction was "superior to live performances," and the advertisements spoke lovingly of its "blistering highs," "sweet, velvety mid-range," and "decadent, chocolatey bass." Yes, simsense recordings were the best way to experience anime, but most of it wasn't available in that format. For everything else, there was his private entertainment centre or, as he preferred to call it, "The Beast." It occupied almost half of his tiny apartment, and was an eternal source of annoyance for his neighbours.

Rhodes ran his finger over a rack of OMCs, all of which he had carefully organised alphabetically (this was about the only thing in his apartment that was organised). What's it's going to be today, hmm? he thought. "Sirius Botoku Asenburi Gengo Bakunyuu" or "Super Kounki Ji Taiku Carpetbagger Z"?

After pondering the question for some length of time, he settled on Sirius Botoku Asenburi Gengo Bakunyuu. "Time to put this system through its paces," he said, turning the volume up as far as it would go.

"I have to hand it to you, Talvi, most people wouldn't drop that kind of money just for real coffee."

The Cafe Cezve was inordinately busy at this time of day, though Talvi was paying no attention to the establishment's motley clientèle. Turkish coffee, prepared in the authentic manner, was something to be savoured without distractions.

"Let me give you one piece of advice: never offer a Finn soykaf, lest she ignore you in contempt for a week or more. Now, what was this 'project' you mentioned?"

Monika began speaking in that rapid, excited tone reserved for when she was really enthusiastic about something. "It's my latest virus. Been working on it for a few months now, and I think I've really outdone myself this time."

Talvi sighed. "And what does it do? Nothing too malicious, I hope."

"Oh, you bet it's malicious! Stealthy, too. See, most viruses just stick themselves onto the end of a program, making infection easy to detect, but this one – I'm not sure what to call it yet, though I'm leaning towards 'Kampfschaf' – works differently. It looks for spaces inside a portable executable file, then writes portions of its code into them, with a routine at the end to reassemble the various pieces. That way the file size doesn't change at all, throwing any AV software off the scent. Once the virus is resident in memory and has modified the interrupt vector table to get Ring 0 access, it infects every program that's run, silently waiting until October 3 to unleash its payload. When that happens, the virus does two things. First, it overwrites the offline storage with garbage. Then – and this is where the real magic comes in – it gets write access to a cyberterminal's firmware chip and deletes the boot-block. So not only are your files gone, but your cyberterminal can't even boot up."

"Aside from the latest sentence," said Talvi, sipping her coffee, "that was complete gibberish."

"Really? And what was the title of your doctoral dissertation, again?"

She frowned at the seemingly irrelevant question. "Observation of Interliminal Transplanar Conveyance via a Hyperagonal Berman-Volokhonsky Manifold."

"And that's not gibberish?"

"All right, you've made your point. I do hope you aren't planning to do anything malign with this virus of yours."

Monika gave Talvi a knowing smile. "Every decker's got an arsenal of viruses at her command, some for destruction, some for infiltration, and some for stealing data. Some mess with your files, some mess with your cyberterminal, and some of them...some of them mess with your mind. Those are my favourite. And I have feeling we're going to need all of them on this job."

Talvi took a sip of her coffee, silently regarding the soykaf-drinking patrons of the café with disdain. "So who else are you bringing along on this run?" Monika was that unique strain of individual who possessed a seemingly-endless array of "friends" that she was always ready to call on, though Talvi was not acquainted with any of them.

Her smile vanished instantly. "Well, um..."

That momentary hesitation said all that needed to be said. "You couldn't find anyone, because when you told them what you had planned, they all told you, 'Monika, du hast doch nicht alle Tassen im Schrank!'"

"Since when do you speak German?"

Talvi stared at her. "Since I was an undergraduate at Helsinki University," she answered flatly.

"And why, might I ask, did you choose not to reveal this fact until now?"

She shrugged. "You never asked."

From that moment on, their conversation proceeded in German.

"You can't just put together a team in an afternoon, Talvi. You've got to find people who are dedicated to your cause, people who have the right skills, and most importantly, people who work well together. There's this troll I know, she could put a bullet between a man's eyes at a thousand metres, but I wouldn't take her on a run with someone like...well...someone like you, because you'd end up trying to kill one another within an hour. But more importantly, this isn't the kind of job where having a bigger crew makes things easier. You need the right kind of people, and there's only one kind of person who can help us on this run."

"I don't quite follow."

"People think being a decker is all about computer skills, but that can only take you so far. You need to have social engineering skills, too; what's the point in spending days trying to crack a system when you can convince someone to give you access? And that's where you come in."


"You've got a gift, Talvi, for making people believe whatever crazy things come out of your mouth, no matter how ridiculous you sound. That, I think, is going to be the key to our success."

She wasn't quite sure whether she ought to feel flattered by that remark or not. "So what do we know about the company who wants, this 'CB Entertainment'?"

Monika leaned back in her chair. "They used to be respected game developer, but that was a long time ago. Their last few games have all been total failures, and the company is on very shaky ground financially. From what Paul told me, the man who hired us didn't seem to understand what he was doing or whom he was dealing with. I'm surprised he even found a fixer. Apparently this idiot from CB Entertainment gave a homeless man 200 nuyen to 'find him some runners'; two hours later, he's still standing in the street, 200 nuyen lighter and runner-less."

Talvi frowned. "And we want to be working for these morons?"

"I'm guessing they're desperate, and this is the first time they've ever employed shadowrunners."

"Then how can we trust them?"

Employers without an established reputation in the underground were always a gamble. The temptation when hiring runners for the first time was to offer them a huge sum of money for a job, then simply refuse to pay when the job was completed. Shadowrunners lived on the margins of society, after all, so what recourse would they have, especially against the rich and powerful? But someone who pulled a stunt like that would find himself blacklisted in short order, so it was in one's best interest to maintain a reputation for trustworthiness if one wanted to employ runners in the future.

"We can't, really," she replied with a dismissive shrug. "But like told you over the link, this isn't about the money. If we pull this off, we'll be dealing a mortal blow to BSP Games, and that's something that's been a long time coming." Monika leaned in close and lowered her voice to a near-whisper. "That company is evil, Talvi, and that is not word I use lightly. About a month ago, a man came to the Kreuzbasar, looking for a place to hide. There were 'bad men' after him, he said, and after talking with him a for bit, I found out he was a programmer for BSP Games who had escaped from the company. He was in shock, and I couldn't get much out of him, but he told me he was a recent comp. sci. graduate from Queen Mary University of London. One day he was walking down the street when a van pulls up to the kerb and these men jump out, grab him, and throw him in the back. He gets knocked out, and the next thing he knows he's being forced to write code for BSP Games."

"So how did he escape?"

"I wish I knew. He said they pumped him full of drugs and had his datajack plugged into a system that monitored his every thought. I can't imagine how horrible it must have been."

"But why would they need to abduct programmers? That doesn't make any sense, Monika. There are always people willing to serve a corporate master, no matter how wretchedly they are treated by them. Why should game companies be any different?"

"Game corps might not be the biggest or most profitable corps in the world, but they're definitely the most brutal, and they take disregard for human life to a disgusting level. Even the worst corporate boot-licker would never work for them unless he were forced to. So game corps have to abduct programmers, either off the street or from other companies, and they're never subtle about it. 'Cattle Raiding' is what they call it."

In another time, Talvi might have scoffed at the absurdity of it all. A trideo game company was the last thing one would think of when one thought of corporate malfeasance, but in the Sixth World, absurdity was the rule, not the exception. "This man who escaped, where is he now?"

Monika's expression turned grim. "He was found him dead in an apartment room about a week ago. His brain was completely fried, as if someone had plugged his datajack into a power outlet. Some said it was suicide, but I believe he was murdered. To think that these...fiends...could come to our Kreuzbasar and kill a man who came to us for protection, well, I think a little payback is in order. We get access to their servers, destroy every copy of this 'Mega Therion' game they've got under development, and just to rub a little salt in the wound, I'll unleash this cute little virus of mine on all their systems so in five months' time they won't have one working cyberterminal.

"So what do we know about the company offices? Where are they? What sort of defences do they have in place?"

"Their HQ is just south of Potsdam, on the shore of Schwielowsee. Satellite imagery shows they've cleared the forest for about three hundred metres in all directions so they can see anyone approaching from a good way off, and word is they've lined the area with anti-personnel mines. And don't even think about assaulting them from the air, either; they've got four surface-to-air missile emplacements on the roof."

Talvi was thoroughly taken aback. "Anti-personnel mines? Surface-to-air missiles? Is this a game company or a military installation?"

"Like I said, the game industry is brutal. Now, figuring out their external defences is easy, but I haven't learned a thing about the building's interior layout. All the maps I've found contradict one another, which means they're either bad intel or disinformation. But I've been able to contact someone who used to work at BSP Games, not as a programmer, but as janitor, and he might be able to tell us something. His name's Rolf and he lives in an apartment on Wilhelmstraße; we'll be heading over there once we're done here. He's a bit a paranoid, though – not that I can blame him for it – so he wants us to knock on the door and speak the words 'cats tread lightly' so he knows whom he's talking to."

After finishing their coffee, the two of them headed outside into the pouring rain. The Kreuzbasar looked the same as it had the last time Talvi had been here – a kaleidoscopic arrangement of the old and new, a veritable whirlwind of chaos and anarchy. More bourgeois types would have described the place as dirty and depressing, but in Talvi's eyes the disorder stood as a silent act of defiance against a world obsessed with order and control. It stood for everything and for nothing.

In the crowded marked squares perpetually bathed in neon light, one could find just about anything here. Where else, Talvi thought, could you buy a punk rock t-shirt at one table, and deadly military hardware at the next table over? Where else could one find such a diverse and vibrant music scene? Jumalten Aika had performed here many times, and she could always count on the people of the Kreuzbasar to be an audience that was both enthusiastic and well-behaved. It didn't even matter that no one in the crowd understood Finnish ("The final boss of languages," as someone here once described it).

Monika's van was parked a short distance from the café. On a wall nearby somebody had spray-painted the words "Ironie entschuldigt nichts!"

"When we spoke on the link," Monika said as as she opened the driver's side door, "you said something about an 'Inner Circle'. Who are they?"

"A more contemptible coterie of knaves and knobheads you will never find in this world," Talvi replied with disgust. "They are a group of Norwegian black metal bands, though 'cult' is a more fitting description. Only three things unite them: the genre of music they choose to play, the sheer level of violence they are capable of, and their total and utter artistic decrepitude. Now, I have nothing against black metal as a musical art form; Jumalten Aika is heavily influenced by that particular strain of metal, so it would be wretched hypocrisy for me to disparage it, but these 'Inner Circle' buffoons are more akin to terrorists and thugs than musicians. I suppose you might call them a policlub, but their social, political, and theological worldview is completely incoherent. They claim to be followers of Norway's ancient pagan past, while at the same time dedicating their music to the glory of Satan. Try figuring that one out."

"Yes, but why are they trying to kill you?"

"I made a few cutting remarks regarding Carpathian Lust, the so-called 'magnum opus' of the band Blackcrown. For that they have marked me for death, which should tell you a great deal about the level of confidence they possess in their artistic ability. I imagine the band members – two Norwegian cretins who call themselves 'Sacro Culto' and 'Månegarm' - are quite lacking in anything resembling a rich inner life."

Monika started up the engine. "They aren't going to follow you here, are they?"

"I dare say they are capable of anything," said Talvi, climbing into the van shutting the passenger-side door. "It would not surprise me if...jumalauta!"

She nearly fell out of her seat when she saw what was in the back of the van, for there was enough guns and ammunition stockpiled there that it would make a CAS militiaman blush with envy. There were dozens upon dozens of pistols, carbines, submachine guns, automatic shotguns, and assault rifles scattered about indiscriminately, a testament to Monika's utter disdain for organisation. One weapon in particular stood out, being a long, slender tube with a large shoulder rest in the middle and a conspicuous sighting scope on top.

"And just what is that?" Talvi asked loudly.

"That's a Vogeljäger man-portable air defence system. Its multispectral seeker head tracks in both the UV and IR range, making it impervious to decoy flares, or at least that's what the dealer told me."

"Are you anticipating going up against aircraft, now?"

She shrugged. "It never hurts to be prepared. And when you start getting into a serious arms collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. Don't tell me you didn't bring any weapons with you."

"I'm a mage, Monika, I don't use guns. The only firearm in my possession is my mother's old Sako rifle that she used to hunt Russians during the EuroWars."

"I wonder what your mother would think of you working as a shadowrunner...or playing in a metal band."

"She's most certainly quite proud of me, if you must know. When I was young she made it very clear to me that no child of hers was ever going to live as a wageslave." Indeed, she had never forgotten the words her mother had once spoken to her: "You were conceived at a metal concert, Talvi. Metal is in your blood, it's a part of you..."

Sitting in the middle on this armoury-on-wheels was a battered metal crate overflowing with a belt of extremely large-calibre rounds. "And what is that for?"

"You know how, after the Awakening and VITAS, a whole bunch of governments collapsed? That meant a lot of military hardware ended up in the hands of the underground," Monika explained. "That ammo is for a Vulcan cannon I got a hold of a few months ago. I thought about mounting it on the roof of the van, but that might be a bit too brazen."

"You're insane."

"In this world, you have to be insane just to make it through the day."

"I suppose I can't argue with that..."

"And besides, what would you fill up the van with? I can't let all that space go to waste, you know."

Talvi pondered the question for a few seconds. "As a professor of arcane studies, I would recommend filling it with enough vodka to kill an entire brigade of Russian Spetsnaz soldiers. If that proved unfeasible, I would have this vehicle transformed into a mobile pirate radio station."

"And you say I'm the crazy one?"

Sacro Culto exhaled a pungent cloud of cigarette smoke, looking over the diminutive Swede with profound loathing. "Consider yourself fortunate that we even allow you to remain in our presence, Anders. You are not, and never will be, a member of Blackcrown or the Inner Circle. You are nothing but a lowly, pathetic session bassist scarcely fit to lick our boots. And once this concert is over we might just kill you for the fun of it."

Månegarm joined in with the abuse. "Do you even understand what black metal is about? Or is it just corpse paint and lo-fi production to you?"

"Black metal embraces death," Sacro Culto continued. "Not because it amuses us, not because it shocks people, but because we hate life. Things like wars and plagues please us greatly, because it means a lot of people get killed."

Anders rolled his eyes. "We go on-stage in five minutes. Maybe you ought to start getting your guitars in-tune?"

Sacro Culto's eyes blazed with fury. "We do not 'tune' our guitars, you ingrate vermin! We rape our instruments to death and let their death rattles scream from our amplifiers!"

The club was a dismal venue indeed, and backstage was hardly an improvement. In truth it was not a club at all, but the basement of a burnt-out apartment in Bergen. Actual clubs were far too mainstream for a band like Blackcrown, and Sacro Culto generally preferred to hold concerts in places like abandoned nuclear power plants or toxic waste dumps.

One of the band's roadies (or "Nameless Thralls" as the band preferred to call them) came running down the charred concrete steps that led to the backstage area. "I've got bad news, Sacro. I just got back from Finland, and Einar and Torstein are dead. That elf must be tougher than she looks."

This revelation was followed by a stream of profanity from Sacro Culto that could have shamed a sailor. "This shall not stand. Did you learn anything about Korpela's whereabouts?"

"I checked her cyberterminal, and it looks like she's meeting someone in Berlin named 'Monika Schäfer'."

"Then go there, find her, and kill her! And whatever you do, do not speak with her. The Finnish language is capable of destroying the minds of even the blackest souls."

"It will be done."

"What was that all about?" Anders asked innocently.

"Nothing more than an elf who flaps her tongue about things she knows nothing of. She spoke ill words of our last album, and for that the Inner Circle has ordained her death. What can an elf, and a Finnish one at that, know of black metal? Her kind merely frolic in the forest, while a true scion of blackness communes with the beasts of the grim, frostbitten woods beneath the cold winterfullmoon!"

Anders looked at him with scepticism. "And what 'beasts of the grim, frostbitten woods' have you communed with lately?"

"Unfortunately, I didn't encounter any the last time I went into the wilderness. Well, there was this one rabbit. I killed it and put its remains in this box here." Sacro Culto gestured to a dirty wooden container sitting in the corner, which was emitting a rather pungent reek.

"What? Why the hell would you do something like that?"

"I like to have the stench of death upon me before a concert."

The sounds of the crowd outside began growing louder. Månegarm stood up. "Looks like it's time. Let's give these snivellings worms a show they won't soon forget."

"One more thing, Anders," said Sacro Culto, grabbing his guitar. "I like to cut myself with shards of broken glass during the set. I'll need you to call DocWagon if I should pass out from blood loss."

"Fucking hell, what is wrong with you people?"

"And remember to keep your filthy mouth shut when we make our dedications to Satan. The Prince of Darkness granted me unholy skill with the guitar in exchange for sacrificing the entire village of Laksvatn. As part of the deal, I am compelled perform every song in His name."

"Why Laksvatn?"

"Why not Laksvatn? Now grab your guitar and let's go. But just remember: it doesn't matter how well you play, because no one's going to hear the bass anyway. If we start losing the audience's attention, we'll disembowel you as part of our act."

"Good heavens, Monika! Slow down! A few more centimetres and you would have flattened that man! Could you at least try to obey the rules of the road?"

"There is only one rule in the Flux State, Talvi, and that is there are no rules. And the only constant here is change."

"That's two rules."

"Hey, what did I say about there being no rules? That includes any rules regarding the number of rules."

The wipers blades pounded away furiously, fighting a losing battle against the downpour. "There was one thing I forgot to ask you back in the café. Who is this 'Lord Swedish' who runs BSP Games? What do we know about him?"

"Well, we know he's an ork from Sweden and...that's about it. Other than the games he's produced, no one knows much about him, and he generally keeps a low profile. Maybe it lends him an air of mystery that helps him sell his games, or maybe it's because of all the people who have tried to murder him over the years. I've heard an assassin once put seven bullets into his chest, and all it did was make him angry. Next thing the assassin knows Lord Swedish is tearing out his throat with his teeth."

Monika stopped the van in front of an apartment block that looked so derelict and run-down it might have doubled as a set from some post-apocalyptic trid. "Watch yourself around these parts, Talvi. We're not far from where the Reichskanzlei and Führerbunker once stood, and there's a lot of White Skins and PNE types who flock to this part of Berlin likes flies to a corpse. I don't think they'd appreciate an elf in their midst, not even a blonde-haired, blue-eyed one like you. So don't go looking for trouble."

"This just gets better and better, doesn't it?"

They got out of the van and proceeded up the walkway to the apartment, which was dimly lit by a single flickering lamp. There was an entryphone by the door, though it looked thoroughly trashed and obviously non-functional. The door itself was unlocked; evidently the owner of this dismal abode did not care much for security.

Talvi shivered. Her instincts were telling her that there was a high chance of things spiralling out of control in the near future. And being far from the woodlands of her home, it was doubtful the metsän väki – the spirits of the forest – would protect her here.

She touched the ukonvasara around her neck. "Jumalannuoli, kymmenen on nimesi...tämä nuoli on jumalan oma...Tuomion-Jumala johtaa..." For one brief instant she cast her sight into the astral plane, trying to get an impression of the spiritual content of the apartment. It only took a moment for her to determine that the building was spiritually and emotionally dead, a dwelling of lost souls and broken dreams.

"I wish you wouldn't do that," Monika whispered, breaking Talvi from her reverie.

"Do what?"

"Make those creepy invocations in that crazy language of yours!"

"Finnish is not a crazy language!" she protested, loudly enough for anyone on the apartment's ground floor to hear her.

"Any language with fifteen grammatical cases has got to be crazy," Monika retorted. "We Germans do just fine with four."

The interior of the apartment was even more depressing than the exterior, with the concept or regular upkeep clearly being a foreign concept to the landlord. A heavy aroma of mould and decay hung in the damp air along with several other unidentifiable odours, and somewhere in the distance Talvi could hear the steady drip from a leaking pipe. The only illumination was a weak glow from a solitary lamp that hung from the ceiling, and judging from the way it flickered it was probably on its last legs.

She took a step forward and heard something scratching about from inside the walls. Rats, no doubt. The drywall was covered in a floral-pattern wallpaper that looked like it would have been hideous when it was new, and it didn't exactly contribute to the building's aesthetics now that it was peeling away.

A door by the stair landing led to the laundry room, presently occupied by two shabbily-dressed young women sitting with their backs to the wall. Chipheads, both of them, lost in a world only they inhabited, with their eyes glazed over and a steady stream of saliva oozing from between their lips. You could always identify a BTL addict by the vacant space where most people had faces, Talvi thought. She looked away in contempt.

"Rolf's in room 301," Monika said quietly. "Come on, I don't want to spend any more time here than I have to."

Talvi followed her up the stairs, which creaked so loudly that she feared they might give way beneath her feet at any moment. The scent in the air changed from a musty dampness to a nauseating melange of sweat, cigarette smoke, and stale beer. The muffled sound of a trideo player emanated from one of the rooms above, while two people next door were arguing loudly in a language Talvi didn't recognise. Once again she cast her sight into the astral plane, but quickly pulled herself back into the physical world. It wasn't just the emotional deadness that perturbed her. She sensed something else here, something vaguely familiar. It was a feeling, a certain inclination towards total depravity that was concentrated somewhere inside this apartment.

Monika approached the door to room 304 and knocked gently. There was the sound of someone approaching, followed by the voice of a man speaking in heavily-accented English. "What do you want?"

"'Cats tread lightly'," Monika said quietly.

"Cats go fuck themselves! Your man Rolf lives in the room down at the end!"

She backed away, blushing in embarrassment. "This doesn't bode well," she muttered.

After locating what she thought was the correct room, Monika quietly rapped on the door. A weak voice answered her in English. "Who is it?"

"'Cats tread lightly'."

Talvi heard the sound of someone opening at least a half-dozen bolts, locks, latches, and door chains. When the door finally opened, the first thing to emerge was the business end of a pistol. A small, bespectacled man eyed them suspiciously before deciding that they were trustworthy. "All right, come in. No one followed you on the way here, did they?"

"The way I drive, I don't think so," Monika said.

He led the two of them into his apartment, which was, unsurprisingly, dirty and cramped. A thoroughly outdated computer sat in the corner, its monitor displaying a video feed from cameras monitoring both the front and back entrances of the building. Near the door was a mounting rail for a spring-gun, and Talvi was sure that this wasn't the only booby-trap Rolf had set up in this place. It wouldn't surprise her in the slightest if he had rigged the entire place to explode if worse came to worst.

Once they were inside, Rolf set to work locking up the door again. "You can never be too careful," he mumbled. "BSP Games has eyes everywhere."

Talvi was about ask why they would be so concerned about a mere janitor, but she held her tongue. "Has anyone come after you?" she asked after a few seconds of awkward silence.

Rolf spoke English with an accent that Talvi guessed was his attempt at sounding like someone from the CAS, no doubt as a means of concealing his identity. "No no no no no no...that's not the way Lord Swedish works. He doesn't come after you, not right away. He wants you to feel the fear first. He wants you looking over your shoulder everywhere you go, he wants you to see figures lurking in the shadows, he wants you sleeping with a gun by your bed every night. And he lets you live like this for years until you start thinking you can let your guard down, and then schachmatt! That's when he gets you!"

"Right, well, that's what we're here about," said Monika. "We need intel on BSP Games – the layout of their building, what kind of security they-"

Rolf's eyes widened, showing a mixture of fear and derangement. "I'll tell you the same thing I told you before: whatever you're getting yourselves into, get out now! Nothing is worth crossing Lord Swedish, nothing at all! People think that a janitor just cleans the place and minds his own business, but we see things. We're invisible; nobody pays any attention to us. And the things I saw there...ach Gott!" He buried his face in his hands, too distraught to speak.

"So how did you escape?" asked Talvi.

"I was lucky, that's all. It was a few years ago...I was cleaning one of the executive's offices when I overheard Lord Swedish talking about replacing the cleaning staff with automated drones. I was smart enough to realise that all I'd get for severance pay is a bullet in the back of the head, so you can be sure that I wasn't going to come into work the next day! But that was before BSP Games started forcing employees to live on-site. There's no escaping from that place now. It's like a fortress, a prison! You're mad if you're thinking of doing a run on them! Lord Swedish collects the skulls of shadowrunners...I know, he made me polish them!"

By this point Talvi was having some serious second thoughts about this job. "But if you're hiding from him, why are you living so close to the company headquarters?"

Rolf laughed. "What better place to hide than in plain sight, eh? But he'll find me eventually, because Lord Swedish always wins in the end." His demeanour suddenly turned hostile. "And you're both idiots for thinking you can go up against him! Everything that comes within one thousand metres of BSP's headquarters is constantly observed and monitored. Think you can use the cover of night? Ha! They've got thermal imaging systems and mages who will see your aura no matter where you hide. Attack from the water? They've got boats patrolling the lake and underwater nets to stop divers. Come in from the air? The anti-aircraft guns and SAMs will blow you to pieces. Try to tunnel in from underground? Don't laugh, people have tried it! Well, you'll find that the building's foundation is surrounded by half a metre of solid steel." He began pacing about the room, growing steadily more manic. "But suppose you make it through the front door, what then? You see the security guard in the lobby, he's got enough firepower to kill everyone in the building. You get through him, what then? The next two floors are where they keep the programmers, everyone drugged and brainwashed into complete obedience, and you will find no allies there, no 'contacts on the inside'. The two floors above that are the executive offices; you step off the lift and see the secretary ahead – she's a former special forces operative who can kill you with 104 different things in the room...including the room itself! Lord Swedish has his office on the top floor, but no runner has ever gotten that far. And everywhere you go there are security checkpoints, laser tripwires, automated turret guns, and who knows what else!" Rolf was now becoming thoroughly deranged, waving his arms about like a madman. "Anything you can think of, Lord Swedish has already thought of. Whatever you've got planned, whatever you're thinking, he has already foreseen it. And even if you get to him, even if you penetrated into his inner sanctum and dealt him a moral wound, he'd take you down with him by blowing the whole building to pieces. You might as well just kill yourselves now rather than do whatever it is you're thinking about doing. Now get the hell out; I have nothing more to tell you. Get out before someone notices you're here!"

Rolf urged them out the apartment, practically at gunpoint, before slamming the door behind them. For the next minute or so they could hear him doing up every single lock and door chain, followed by a loud thump as he dropped the crossbar into place.

Monika couldn't hide her disappointment. "That was less informative than I'd hoped. I don't even know how much of what he said was true and what was just paranoid rambling."

"Indeed! What he described sounded more akin to a black ops site than a game company. I think-"

She was interrupted by a loud, wailing cry of a young girl coming from one of the rooms down the hall. "No, sempai, please don't! Yamate!"

"What in Perkele's name was that?"

"You're hurting me, sempai! Stop it!"

Her ears immediately guided her to the room where the shouting was coming from. Convinced that a heinous crime was taking place, Talvi gave the door a swift kick, which was enough to send it flying from its hinges.

Nothing in her life could have prepared her for what she saw in there.

The walls and ceiling were lined with posters of anime girls, all thoroughly prepubescent in appearance and in varying poses of submission and supplication. There was scarcely one square centimetre that was not covered with this vile filth, and the only part of the walls that had not been transformed into billboards of impending sex crimes were those that backed shelves lined with manga and anime figurines. Only the floor remained untouched, though it was covered in discarded food wrappers and other bits of rubbish.

Monika followed her into the room, and she had the look of someone who had taken a bite of food and just realised that it was six months past its expiry date.

A single-size bed stood beneath a sloping section of the ceiling. Atop it was a large pillow displaying the image of an anime girl in a state of almost total undress, covering her breasts with her right hand and seductively lowering her panties with the other. Talvi looked away, almost overcome with the urge to retch. But there was something even offensive where her eyes fell: a poster that read "Gas the Keebs."

The cries of distress she had heard before, it turned out, were coming from a high-end trideo player, which was presently displaying an utterly revolting animated scene of a young girl being groped by an upperclassman. The man watching this depraved entertainment sprung to his feet, and when Talvi saw who he was, her disgust instantly evaporated, replaced by rage.

"You!" he screamed, his eyes wide with fury.

Talvi would have recognised this repulsive little man anywhere in the world, for there could be no mistaking that unshaven face, those pudgy cheeks, or that stupid little hat he wore. "Monika, this is that pervert from the Rhine-Ruhr Megaplex!" She picked up a manga book from a nearby stand, whose cover depicted yet another scantily-clad, prepubescent anime girl posing coyly for the viewer. "Filth!" she shouted, throwing the book across the room in disgust before turning to face the wretched soul who dwelt in this place. "Paedophile!"

"I'll kill you!" he howled. He grabbed a katana from the wall and stared at Talvi with a look of pure hatred. "Watashi no oppai wa hijō ni hōshasei! Kyūri wa mure de jikkō sa remasu! Reizōko no naka mase kūbomasen!"

He charged at Talvi with his sword held high and began flailing about, fiercely determined to kill her, though even a novice of kendo would have been reduced to tears of laughter watching this pathetic display of swordsmanship. Monika stood motionless while the spectacle played out before her, paralysed with either indecision or shock at the absurdity of it all.

Talvi ducked beneath a sword stroke while her assailant continued to spew Japanese at her. "Anata wa kyōkai o haishi suru koto wa dekimasenga, yarō! Nanji wa chokuchō ni wasabi no geijutsu!" Finally he started speaking English when he leapt atop the sofa. "You'll regret the day you crossed Rhodes Raskol, bitch!"

The name was a ridiculous as he was, and she could not help but laugh. "'Rhodes Raskol'? Shouldn't you be murdering a pawnbroker in Saint Petersburg or something?"

"You shut your whore mouth! Shikyū tekishutsu-ji!" He leapt from the sofa, sword raised above his head.

Talvi stretched out her arm, channelling mana through her body like a lightning rod, and in an instant the entire room was enveloped in blinding white light as a torrent of electricity surged forth from her hand. Monika was forced to shield her eyes, but had she been watching she would have seen Rhodes' body fly across the room, right into his shelf filled with manga and other accoutrements of his hobby. The force of the impact was enough to knock him out cold, and he lay crumpled against the wall with anime figurines covering his body like some demented race of Lilliputians.

Monika grabbed Talvi's wrist and dragged her towards the exit. "Let's go!"

"To think that disgusting little wretch has made his way to the Flux State! Did you see that vile filth he was watching? People like him ought to be tied to a stake and lashed until they collapse!"

"What the hell were you thinking, Talvi?" she said angrily. "Didn't I tell you not to go looking for trouble?"

"Well forgive me, Monika, but I was quite certain that someone was being molested in that room!"

Her anger dissipated almost instantly. "You're right, that trideo system did sound awfully life-like, didn't it? Why is he living in this dump if he can afford something like that?"

"Obviously, he squanders most of his money on his collection of perverted Japanimation."

Monika gaped at her. "'Japanimation'? When were you born, again?"

"Who cares what people call it? It's animation, it's from Japan, and it sickens me deeply."

"We can talk about it later. Right now we're leaving. Come on, let's get back to our 'horseless carriage'."

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 – Halt and Catch Fire

"I am pleased to report that the keylogger we installed on Mr. McGee's cyberterminal is now active. We have acquired every password and login name he uses, giving us access to everything from his emails to his online shopping accounts."

Lord Swedish could not help but laugh. CB Entertainment's security was so laughable that he almost felt sorry for them. One might wonder why no one had hacked into their systems and leaked their games to every corner of the Matrix; the obvious explanation was that their games were so rubbish no one was even willing to pirate them. The company's continued survival was something of a mystery that had confounded even the shrewdest business analysts within the gaming industry. Usually a failing game company was swallowed up by a larger one, but no one was willing to buy out CB Entertainment as their IPs were almost worthless and their staff was compromised wholly of morons, idiots, and buffoons. The company hadn't been profitable in years, and by all measures they should have gone bankrupt a long time ago. So how were they keeping afloat? Lord Swedish had his own theory: CB Entertainment was secretly supported by a cabal of wealthy investors who kept the company alive, not because they anticipated any return on their investments, but because they were endlessly amused by the company's hapless misadventures.

"And what has our dear Mr. McGee been up to, Ms. Li?"

"I believe your suspicions were correct, Lord Swedish. Two days ago he was using a popular Matrix search engine in attempt to find shadowrunners."

Now he laughed out loud for a good ten seconds. "Oh, how I will regret crushing that company of his! Watching his bumbling, flailing attempts at corporate intrigue is the best entertainment I've had in years. What does he hope to accomplish? Even if he prevented the release of Mega Therion by some astounding stroke of luck, does he think that will entice players to purchase his drek game?"

Ms. Li, unfortunately, did not share his mirth. In all the years she had worked as his secretary, Lord Swedish had never once seen her smile. Perhaps it was only to be expected from a former special forces operator, a profession that did not lend itself to sentimentality.

She was not the only ex-military type around here, of course. The dwarf Murphy, dressed in fatigues and a campaign hat that he never, ever took off, was inspecting the company's newest hires, all of whom were standing in formation. To call them "hires" would have been called a sick joke outside BSP Games, because almost none of them were here willingly. "Conscripts" was more like it, though no one in BSP Games used that term. Great games required great talent, and if acquiring that talent meant press-ganging programmers into service, then so be it.

"I am Staff Sergeant Brayden Murphy, your senior drill instructor! You are now standing in the halls of BSP Games, the greatest game development studio in the world. If you survive recruit training, you will be the hardest, toughest programmers since the invention of the integrated circuit. You will be artists of assembly language, blacksmiths of binaries! But until that day you are nothing! You are pukes! You are lower than the slime at the bottom of the Louisiana swamps!"

The faces of the "conscripts" were devoid of any emotion, showing no reaction at all to the absurdity playing out before them. That was only to be expected, given the potent cocktail of pharmaceuticals that had been forcibly injected into their veins just minutes prior. The exact composition of the drugs was a trade secret, but it rendered the victim totally compliant and obedient, willing to do almost anything that was asked of them.

"A most unusual approach, Lord Swedish," Ms. Li said, her voice cold as frost. "To use military-style indoctrination on programmers is highly...unorthodox."

"Unorthodox but effective. The UCAS Marine Corps have perfected their technique for breaking recruits down, obliterating their civilian identities, and then rebuilding them in the desired mould. They are kept in a perpetual state of fear, confusion, and exhaustion, constantly subject to a barrage of verbal abuse from their drill instructors, who respond to every mistake with blistering tirades. Eventually, recruits learn to stop thinking and simply do what is asked of them without question."

"Tirade" was the only word to describe what was coming out of Murphy's mouth: "From this moment on you are a team! The words 'me', 'myself', and 'I' do not exist! There is only 'this recruit' or 'that recruit' or 'those recruits'. Do you maggots understand that?"

They answered him in unison, without a hint of enthusiasm "Aye sir."

"Louder! I can't hear you!"

"Aye sir!"

His face was beet-red, his veins bulging. It never ceased to amaze Lord Swedish how someone so small could be so loud. "Scream it!"

"Aye sir!"



One of the recruits, a young elf, made the mistake of showing amusement. Evidently the drugs he'd been given hadn't been 100% effective, and Murphy tore into him like a shark smelling blood. "What the fuck are you smiling at, maggot?"

"Nothing, sir!"

"Do you think I'm funny, recruit? Do you think I'm here to amuse you?"

"No sir!"

"You think you're hot shit? You think you can program a microprocessor like a motherfucker?"

"Sir, yes, sir!"

If the disparity in height didn't prevent it, Murphy would have been getting right in the elf's face. "Pop quiz, maggot! What operation multiplies a binary value by a power of two?"

"Sir, an arithmetic shift, sir!"

"No prizes for partial answers, meathead!"

"Sir, an arithmetic left shift, sir!"

"What is the purpose of using two passes with an assembler?"

"Sir, to resolve forward references, sir!"

"What is it called when bit 15 of a 16-bit immediate is moved 16 bits to the left to form a 32-bit operand?"

"Sir, a bit extension...err, I mean, a zero, this recruit does not know, sir!"

"You slimy scumbag! Get down and give me twenty-five!"

Lord Swedish looked on with smug satisfaction. Soon this crop of hires would take their place in the vast rows of programming stations on the floors below, where they would spend every waking hour churning out code, their minds all linked together by their datajacks into one collective consciousness. They did not require cyberterminals to write code; BSP Games had long since discarded that notion as being totally inefficient. Instead, it went straight from their brain to the build server, thoughts becoming digital reality.

(This was a stark contrast to that drek code CB Entertainment spewed out. BSP's decker had gotten into their systems a few months back, ostensibly to gauge whether Age of the Wyrm III would pose a threat to Mega Therion's market share, but in reality it was simply to satisfy Lord Swedish's curiosity. The decker's description of Age of the Wyrm III's codebase was positively Lovecraftian: "a grotesque and formless mass of hexadecimal sludge, a vast, all-devouring serpentine horror...")

"There is something else, Lord Swedish," Ms. Li continued. "Our wiretap on Rolf Becker revealed that he was in contact with a shadowrunner who sought information regarding our defensive measures. I recommend going to Alert Status Thor."

The grin on his face was enough to make Ms. Li twitch in fright, albeit only for a split-second. "Ah, Rolf. He is our best agent, and not even aware of it."

"I do not understand."

"I have, through certain channels, let it be known that he was a former employee of ours. Our enemies will seek him out as a source of information, and by keeping him under constant surveillance we will know who they are and when they plan to strike. Did we learn anything about the reprobates who made contact with him?"

"I am afraid not, Lord Swedish."

"Our company's reputation travels far and wide before us. These people must either desperate, deranged, disturbingly dimwitted, or all three. Why else would those...blackguards…consider a run on us?"

Though he was not always successful, Lord Swedish had been making a conscious effort to avoid uttering the word "shadowrunner." How he loathed that term, and all the undeserved mystique it bestowed upon those miserable wretches! How he despised their kind and the way they scurried about in the darkness and filth like cockroaches! And no matter how many of them he killed there were always more of them, as if they were spawned by the shadows themselves.

"There is one more matter I must bring to your attention, Lord Swedish," said Ms. Li. "The Gamers' Alliance will be hosting a Grunts of Glory tournament in Schöneberg tomorrow."

"Are they now?" he grumbled.

"The prize is said to be substantial."

Like everyone who worked in the trideo game industry, Lord Swedish loathed the Gamers' Alliance with burning intensity that could have powered an entire city block were someone to invent a generator that ran on hate. They called themselves a "consumer advocacy group" dedicated to "better quality gaming" and "keeping developers honest," but in reality they were little more than violent reactionaries who threw childish tantrums the moment they felt they weren't being pandered to. Change the reload speed of the AK-97 in a shooter and you'd get death threats. Change the spell duration in an RPG and you'd be getting letter bombs in the mail. They had even had the nerve to threaten one of BSP's presenters at a gaming expo last year, and Lord Swedish was not about to let such an offence go unpunished.

"I want you to attend this 'contest', Ms. Li. Ensure that no matter who wins, the Gamers' Alliance loses. Be discreet, but make it clear that it was no accident."

"It will be done, Lord Swedish."

Rhodes awoke with a splitting pain in his head, as if something had crawled into his cranium and was now hammering on the inside of his skull. As he senses slowly returned to him, his humiliating situation rapidly became apparent. At present, he was slumped against the wall, covered in anime figurines, and if that weren't bad enough, the door to his apartment was still open, so that anyone walking by might have caught a glimpse of him in his degrading predicament.

He got to his feet, groaning in pain, trying desperately to remember what had happened to him. That damned elf, the same bitch who had geeked his BTL dealer back in the Rhine-Ruhr Megaplex, had come into his apartment along with another woman, and while he couldn't recall anything after that it was safe to assume that there had been a confrontation, and that it had not gone in his favour.

Mumbling curses to himself, Rhodes reached down to pick his hat up off the floor. When he did, he felt something sharp in his back pocket, and at that instant his heart was gripped with icy terror.

That was where he'd kept the BTL chip for Magical Chainsaw Tentai Kansoku. Those things were fragile. If he had landed on his backside…

He reached into his back pocket and his worst fears were confirmed.


The chip was ruined, broken into a half-dozen pieces. Something had once been worth thousands of nuyen was now little more than a few worthless pieces of plastic and silicon. All because of one elf who couldn't mind her own damn business.

"Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" Rhodes began slamming his fists into the wall and stomping his feet on the floor, all the while letting loose with a steady stream of vulgarities and thinking of the horrible, gruesome things he was going to do that elf once he got his hands on her. He carried on like this for about a minute or two before his neighbour banged on the wall and yelled at him to be quiet.

Five thousand nuyen! Five fucking thousand! And that wasn't even taking into account how hard it had been to find the BTL chip in the first place.

God fucking damn it! Why does everyone in this world keep fucking with me? For the next half-hour he paced about his apartment, raging against everyone and everything that had wronged him. That elf woman, his whore of an ex-girlfriend, those "politically correct" assholes who kept trying to take his trideo games away, game developers who kept ruining his favourite franchises, it all blurred together in his mind into a gestalt icon of everything he despised in the world.

When his rage finally subsided, Rhodes picked up his katana and pondered his next move. Though he was loath to admit it, there was no way he could get his revenge on that elf by himself. No, he would need help – help from his friends in the Gamers' Alliance.

Oh, you just fucked yourself, bitch! Nobody, I mean nobody, fucks with the Gamers' Alliance and lives! Aw yeah, there's a storm coming...there's a storm coming and it's gonna be me!I'm gonna find that fucking dandelion eater and give her a taste of my authentic Nippon steel!

Held the sword in a ready position, imagining that he was about to land the killing blow. "Watashi no senzo no hizōde wa, nata wa hamon sa!"

With the speed and grace of an eighth-dan kendo master (or what Rhodes thought was the speed and grace of an eighth-dan kendo master) he swung his katana in an overhead arc, only to lose his grip and watch in horror as the sword flew through the air. It might have landed anywhere in the room, but that wasn't enough to satisfy the capricious whims of fate. The blade sliced straight through his trideo display, reducing an ultra-high-priced piece of electronics to a very expensive paperweight in the blink of an eye.

"Oh come on!"

Spewing a steady stream of English and Japanese profanity, he grabbed the hilt of the sword and tried to pull it out of the ruined trideo display, only to find that the blade had sliced all the way through the panel and penetrated a good few inches into the wall. Rhodes struggled to pull it free, but alas, his feeble strength was not up to the task. He braced his right foot against the display stand and gave the sword a mighty jerk. The first attempt was unsuccessful, as the was the second, but on the third attempt the katana sprung free…

...and once again it flew out his hands.

And once again it could have landed it anywhere. It could have simply struck the wall or ceiling, leaving nothing more than a nasty gouge.

But this sword had a mind of its own.

Like a heat-seaking missile it flew straight towards Rhodes' portable simsense unit resting against the wall by the bed. That alone was not enough to bring about catastrophe. No, it took the sword slicing through the battery compartment to do that, causing a short-circuit that instantly converted the batteries' stored charge into heat.

The simsense unit exploded in a brilliant shower of flames and sparks, making Rhodes recoil from the blast of heat. "Shit!" he screamed, watching in abject horror as the bedsheets and body pillow were rapidly consumed by the blaze. The anime girl who had comforted him on so many cold, lonely nights was now shrivelling up before his eyes, a sight so ghastly it wrenched his soul to the very core. A few seconds later the anime posters above the bed joined in the conflagration.

"Shit shit shit!" He froze, panicked, frantically trying to determine his next course of action. Seeing his sword amongst the flames, he darted forward and yanked it from the blaze. The heat seared his skin, causing to him cry out in pain, but that sword was his most valuable possession and he'd be damned if he were going to lose it.

Soon the fire was reaching to the ceiling, with Rhodes' library of manga providing ample fuel for combustion. He ran into the hallway, hoping to find a fire extinguisher, but if there were any they had been stolen long ago.

His instinct was to shout for help, but at that moment he was struck with the terrible realisation that help would come far too late to save his precious anime and manga collection. Worse, he would likely be blamed for starting the fire – that asshole Gerald was looking for any excuse to throw him out – and so there was only one course of action open to him at this point.

The fire was now a raging inferno, with flames sweeping across the ceiling and black smoke filling the room. Seeing his beautiful anime girls consumed by the blaze was enough to bring tears to his eyes. He loved them, each and every one. They had been his solace and succour when the world was cruel and uncaring, and soon there would be nothing left of them but ashes.

Rhodes couldn't bear to watch any longer. He shut the apartment door and began walking casually down the hall. With any luck he'd be far away before anyone noticed the fire, and if anyone asked he would say it must have started while he was out. Faulty wiring, that's what I'll say! Given the state of the place, it's totally plausible!

He clutched his hand, which was now smarting quite intensely. Being a squeamish sort Rhodes didn't dare look down to see how bad the burns were.

Why? Why is this happening to me? First that keebler bitch comes and destroys the BTL I've spent years looking for, then my fucking apartment goes up in flames! Does the universe have it in for me or something? Well fuck you, universe, you big, fat piece of mostly empty space!

The fire was his fault, he knew, but hatred did funny things to one's brain, and already his mind was silently rewriting events so that it was the elf woman who was to blame. If she hadn't attacked him in his apartment, he wouldn't have gotten so angry. And if he hadn't gotten angry, he never would have started swinging his sword around. So, he reckoned, if the whole building burned to the ground, it was all her fault, and killing her was nothing less than bringing justice to the guilty party.

"Talvi, you have got to have a look at this!"

Monika swung the display around to face her. The screen was dark, save for a bright green line of code going from top to bottom. This code consisted of strange symbols like ADD, SLTIU, LW, BGEZ, and SYSCALL, many of which were paired with ominous-sounding words such as KILL_COMPUTER, KILL_DATA, and RETALIATE_IMMEDIATELY.

Talvi didn't know a thing about programming and thus had no idea what this piece of code did, but knowing Monika, it was probably something malign.

"I'm afraid I'm not seeing whatever it is you want me to see, Monika."

"This is coding art," she said, tapping her cigarette on the edge of the ashtray. "It infects files and destroys computers, but that's not the important part. Any idiot decker can put together a virus like that in an afternoon. But most can't write a virus with four separate encryption engines, each one using a four-round Feistel cipher. By the time an IC figures out what the code is doing, it'll be far too late. This is some serious drek-hot computer mayhem!" As if to underscore her point, there was a banner above Monika's cyberterminal that read, in large block letters, DREK-HOT COMPUTER MAYHEM™. "And if the IC tries to scan my little virus, it'll make it crash by overwriting its memory with garbage. Now, when an IC crashes, the MPCP takes that as a sign that someone's infiltrated the system, so it raises an internal alert. But here's the clever bit: my virus hooks the system call for raising an alert, so nothing happens. You can't tell me this isn't brilliant!"

"I can't even tell what it is you just said!"

Monika sighed. "All right, let me put in terms you can understand: systems use ICs – intrusion countermeasures – to protect themselves. They are bad. My program is good at hiding from these bad things. If the bad things start snooping around my code too much, it makes the bad things go away. Is that simple enough for you?"

"Yes, Monika, I think so," Talvi said, irritated.

"I don't understand you sometimes, Talvi. I don't think I've ever met anyone as tech-averse as you. And don't tell me it's an elf thing; I've known some novahot elven deckers in my time."

"Is it so wrong, that I do not share this absurd fetish for technology that suffuses the entire world? None of it matters to me, and I refuse to fawn over the latest tech-toy that will take less than a year to go from sweatshop to the landfill. The world did just fine for thousands of years without these electronic gewgaws, and some of us are perfectly content living without them. None of these things were ever necessary. It doesn't matter how fast the computer is, and it never did."

"But this is how we fight back, Talvi! I won't argue that technology can't be used to enslave and control, but it's a blade that cuts both ways. Take all these lovely viruses of mine, for example. A biological virus turns the host cell's mechanisms against it, a computer virus turns technology against its user. Think of it as just another tool, or a weapon."

"Well it's a weapon I have no idea need for. I have magic and Suomenusko on my side, and I want for nothing else. And you say technology is merely a tool, but I don't believe it. Technology is never neutral. No, it carries with it an entire set of values, Monika, an entire way of life, and once it is introduced to a culture, once it infects a culture, it changes life forever. Surely you've heard the old adage of the man who has only a hammer, and who now relates to everything as if it were a nail? Is that not where we are as a society? We make technological progress our only aim, but there's no point to it all. It's all mindless...and it brings nothing but misery."

Monika stared at her, evidently unprepared for a sudden philosophical discussion. "Why do I have the feeling you've written a whole book about this?"

She ignored that remark. "But you don't have to take my word for it. This way of his life, this religion of technology, has a tremendous emptiness at its core, and I have always sensed a great sadness beneath it all. Sadness and fear. That...cult...we encountered on Baffin Island during our last job, they were the logical endpoint of our deranged techno-civilisation."

For a second Monika's expression was glum, but it perked right up a moment later. "That wasn't a job, Talvi, that was an adventure. I mean, who would have thought that busting a BTL dealer in the Rhine-Ruhr Megaplex would have taken us from the steppes of Mongolia to Istanbul, and then to the High Arctic? I don't think anything we do will ever top that."

"Well, I think this job is going to be my last," Talvi declared. "After that I'm going to focus exclusively on my studies of the arcane."

"Talvi, we both know that's not going to happen."

She stood up and walked over to the fridge. The safehouse had not changed much since her last visit to Berlin, though it was a touch more cluttered. It was part an abandoned U-Bahn station, and in true German fashion it had once been clean, orderly, and efficient. Since Monika had taken up residence, however, she had done her best to de-organise the place.

Still, Talvi could not deny that the safehouse felt "homey," for lack of a better word. There was makeshift kitchen, a bunking room, and a lounge – everything a shadowrunner needed to feel at home. Monika had decorated the place with a motley collection of items she had obtained over the years: old posters, street signs, neon lights, broken-down drones, and a great many other things Talvi could not identify. Yes, it was a bit cluttered, a little bit messy, but it gave a touch of humanity to it all, a stark contrast to the cold, sterile atmosphere one usually encountered in the "civilised" world.

Talvi noticed two things that had not been there before. The first was a poster by Monika's cyberterminal titled The Ten Commandments of Virus Writing, which were as follows:

1: Thou shalt not create an overwriting virus

2: Thou shalt not rip off entire viruses and take credit for it

3: Thou shalt not release fragged viruses

4: Thou shalt not submit viruses to any anti-virus corp

5: Thou shalt not brag about thy viruses

6: Thou shalt not give thy friends viruses

7: Thou shalt not infect thine own machine

8: Thou shalt not write thy viruses in anything but ASSEMBLY

9: Thou shalt not have stupid messages within thy viruses

10: Thou shalt not discuss viruses under thine own name on a BBS

The second was a print of a painting, hanging in the kitchen beside the refrigerator, which depicted an extraordinarily beautiful elven woman walking nude by the lakeshore. "You finally found this, I see," said Talvi.

"Yeah, I picked up it in the market a few weeks ago. When I saw it I thought to myself, 'Wow, that elf looks a lot like Talvi."

She frowned. "That's because I was the subject of it. It was part of a project by the legendary Finnish artist Juhani Lehtinen to depict elven beauty in its purest form."

Monika's jaw dropped. "You posed nude for a painting?"

"That is not strange. No one is uptight about nudity in my country."

"Huh, so there's something you're not uptight about. Good to know."

Looking through the fridge she found a half-empty bottle of taéngelé, several dozen bottles of beer, and at last, a bottle of vodka. Upon seeing the label, however, Talvi became disheartened. "What's this?" she exclaimed. "Swedish vodka? I suppose it will have to do..."

She sat down at the counter and began reading a copy of one the many underground newspapers that circulated throughout the Kreuzbasar. Naturally, they were all in German, which proved to be quite an irritation. "I don't know how you Germans manage with this language of yours," Talvi said disdainfully. "You write these long, rambling sentences that go on for an eternity, and for most of the time you haven't got any idea what the author is talking about because the fool has gone and stuck the verb at the very end. I believe Mark Twain had a good deal to say on this matter. A proper language ought to be able to compact a sentence down to a single word, such as in the Finnish phrase 'Juoksentilisinkohan'."

"Yes, but the words in your language are impossible to pronounce."

Talvi frowned, "No, they're not. Repeat after me: höyryjyrä."



"Dear God..."


"Make it stop!"

It struck Talvi as odd that the safehouse was entirely abandoned save for the two of them. It was not the first such occurrence, and she was beginning to suspect that it was not a coincidence that Monika's friends were never around when she was. Did Monika think she wouldn't get along with them? Was she trying to keep their association a secret? Talvi considered asking her, but she wasn't quite prepared to hear the answer.

"So here's the plan for today," Monika began. "A company as paranoid as BSP Games is going to have some kind off-site backup. If we're going to trash their data, we'll need to find that backup site. But it's not as simple as shutting it down; if BSP sees their backup servers going dark they'll know something bad is happening, and chances are they'll move their data somewhere else. So when we hit their backup site, we have to find to way to wipe the data stored there at the same time as we wipe the data on the company's primary servers. That's where my time-delayed viruses come in. Total data destruction at the time and date of my choosing."

"But first we have to find out where it is."

"Yes, that's the tricky part. BSP likely sends their data to the backup site over the Matrix at regular intervals. I won't be able to find that out from the Kreuzbasar, but while you were sleeping I discovered that BSP uses an MSP called Calian-Uhlmann Network Technologies. I'd never heard of them of until now, but they rent equipment and space at a colocation centre in Spandau. That's where we're headed next. We get inside, I jack into their systems and try to find their outgoing connections logs. That should tell us the LTG number where BSP uploads their data to."

"And what exactly are we up against?"

"Security is supposed to be light. I think this is going to be a total milk run."

While Talvi's expression remained unchanged, inwardly she cringed. She knew Monika well enough to understand that "light security" should be taken to mean "everyone is packing a rocket launcher" and "milk run" meant "catastrophe is guaranteed."

"This is how it will work: you're going to pose as an employee of this Calian-Uhlmann corp who's there to investigate a major breach of network security. You've got a way with words, so I trust you to make it sound convincing. Once you're inside, you'll need to make your way to the employee entrance on the west side. That's where I'll be waiting."

"And why can't you simply come in with me?"

"I'm too well-known around this city. You aren't."

And someone with a blue-streaked fauxhawk doesn't exactly suggest the corporate type, Talvi thought. "I suppose we'll need to procure a uniform for this Calian-Uhlmann company."

"That won't be necessary. Casual ware is the latest trend in tech corps, especially the smaller start-ups. That leather jacket and band t-shirt of yours will work just fine. I'll lend you an old cyberdeck to make it all look more convincing. You've got long hair, so no one will notice that you haven't got a datajack."

"And if someone asks me a technical question?"

"The people at the front won't be support staff, so they'll won't know much more than you do. Just act like you know what you're doing and no one should ask you any questions. With luck we'll be in and out quick, quiet, and professional."

Talvi sighed. "You said that about the last job. It was none of those things."

"It wasn't that bad. You're exaggerating things, as always."

"What? How can you say that? We left a trail of destruction everywhere we went!"

"Now Talvi, I'm sure we could spend all day arguing about what happened or what we could have done differently, but the important thing is that none of it can be traced back to us. I mean, who would ever believe it?"

She had to admit that Monika was correct on that point. No one in a position to retaliate would ever believe that two shadowrunners were capable of causing that kind of mayhem. "Running the shadows," as it was popularly understood, did not usually involve causing nuclear meltdowns, unearthing ancient relics of Byzantium, or enlisting the aid of a Tengri shaman in order to converse with the spirit of Genghis Khan.

Once Talvi had emptied her glass they headed up to the ground floor and out into the back alley where Monika's van was parked. Someone had written something on one of the walls, in carefully-stencilled letters:



The two of them got into the van, with Talvi making a silent a prayer to Ukko for protection, not only from the foes they would face but from Monika's reckless driving. She herself had never learned her to drive, so perhaps it was rather inappropriate to criticise her friend for her lack of driving ability, but she seemed to recall that the Germans once prided themselves on their prowess behind the wheel.

As soon as Talvi had shut the passenger-side door Monika whipped her head around to face her.


"And what is that supposed to mean?"

"It means I win at the language game, you crazy Finn!"

She put the van in gear and stepped on the accelerator. Instead of going forward, however, the van jerked backwards, coming to a sudden stop with a loud crunch.

"Oops, had the thing in reverse!" Monika chirped, not sounding the least bit embarrassed. "Hope that wasn't anything important back there..."

After getting the vehicle in the proper gear, she piloted the van out of the alleyway and onto the street, with neither of them noticing the large, black van that was following some distance behind.

Chapter Text



Chapter 4 – All Guns Blazing

"The Gamers' Alliance ain't your personal army, man."

"Mr. Zdzinski is correct," Gunther added. "Unless this elf threatened your identity as a gamer, then we cannot sanction a Jihad upon her."

Rhodes' head was still aching, and the pounding music in the bar wasn't helping matters. "She burned down my fucking apartment, man! All my anime, all my manga, it all ashes now because of her!"

Gunther took a long drag from his pipe. "Then the logical thing to do, Mr. Raskol, is to enlist the aid of the Manga and Anime Alliance."

"But there is no 'Manga and Anime Alliance'!"

"That is not our problem," Gunther said icily. "Do not come begging to us for help with non-gaming matters. Wir sind keine Kühe, die man melken kann."

Rhodes rolled his eyes. "What the hell does that mean?"

Gunther sighed. "Mr. Raskol, if you insist on living in Germany, you could at least make an effort to learn our language."

He wanted to retort that there was no money in that, but Rhodes couldn't stomach the thought of disrespecting him in any way. If someone were to ask him to describe the ideal man, Rhodes would have said nothing and simply pointed to Gunther. The man was a walking treasure trove of the fanciest chrome anyone ever saw, and its combined worth was more than most people ever made in an entire lifetime. From head to toe there was not a single part of his body that was not augmented in some way. Cybereyes, cyberlimbs, hand razors, muscle replacements, dermal plating...Gunther had it all. Naturally this gave birth to endless speculation as to where he had acquired his augmentations; some claimed he was ex-military, while others swore that he had once been a "corporate enforcer" for Saeder-Krupp.

Whatever his story was, Rhodes looked upon Gunther with total awe. Here was a man of pure logic, completely rational and utterly unaffected by emotion. Here was a man who embraced technological progress without fear or reservation.

Here was a man who was the best damn Grunts of Glory player Rhodes had ever seen. Rhodes longed to be part of Gunther's gaming clan, but deep down he knew he would never have the skills required.

"Why are you living here, anyway?" Dobbs asked, brushing some food off a dirty black t-shirt that read 'W.I.F.E: Washing, Ironing, Fucking, Etc.'.

"The company I used to work for moved here from California. Something about a tax loophole or whatever."

"What company was that?"

"CB Entertainment."

Dobbs narrowed his eyes. "You goddamn traitor."

"Yeah, I'm a traitor because I used to work for the worst fucking game dev in the world." Rhodes took a swig of his soy-beer, which tasted almost, but not quite, entirely unlike beer. "We couldn't pay people to play the games we made. That whole company was the very definition of a shitshow."

"He's right," wheezed Schneider, the fourth member of their group. Even the simple act of talking seemed to tax his body to the utmost, and wherever he went he trailed a pungent stench of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. "CB Entertainment's game were...objectively...the worst games ever."

"So why'd you leave?" asked Dobbs.

"I got fired," Rhodes answered quietly.

"What for?"

"That's none of your fucking business, okay?"

"Aw come on, man. You can tell us; we aren't going to judge you or anything, are we guys?"

Rhodes sighed. "You really want to know? I got fired for 'sexual harassment.' See, I was in the cafeteria, standing in line for my food, when all of a sudden I slipped on a puddle of grease. And as I'm falling I reach out to grab hold of this woman standing in front of me, and I...uh...kinda ended up groping her boobs. It was a total accident, but this dumb bitch starts shrieking that I had done on it purpose. She runs off to tell my manager, and she's a woman so of course they take her word over mine."

Dobbs slammed his hand down on the table. "That's bullshit, man! Fucking bullshit!"

What Rhodes didn't say was that he had done on it purpose, having gotten the idea from a high school anime he'd watched the week prior. But even if he had done it intentionally, he certainly didn't deserve to get fired over it.

"So what is your current place of employment?" asked Gunther.

"Nowhere at the moment."

"Then how do you support yourself?"

He shrugged. "I got rich parents."

Gunther took another drag from his corncob pipe. Combined with his aviator sunglasses, his overall appearance was not unlike that of a cyborg Douglas MacArthur. "And did they pay for that katana of yours?"

"Of course they did. They know that the katana is the ultimate weapon."

"Is it now? In my experience, it is most often wielded by those whose enthusiasm for swordsmanship far exceeds their ability."

"But that doesn't change the fact that the katana is the most perfect kind of sword mankind has ever developed. That's why Japanese swordsmiths never changed the basic design over the centuries, because how can you improve on perfection? They make the blades by folding the steel over and over, so you end up with thousands of layers of metal that make the sword totally indestructible." He started speaking rapidly, unable to contain his excitement. "A katana can cut through anything. Even bullets. Did you know that in World War II, Japanese soldiers would run up to American marines and slice the barrels right off their guns? Then they'd scream 'Banzai!' and cut their fucking heads off. There's nothing that a katana can't cut through."

Dobbs started snickering. "Shame it couldn't cut through those two nukes, though."

Rhodes sprang to his feet, nearly spilling his beer. "You son of a bitch!" he spat in rage.

"Whoa, calm down man!" said Dobbs, raising his hands. "Learn to take a fucking joke, why don't you?"

"You'd better fucking apologise, or I'm going to give you a taste of my authentic Nippon steel!"

His outburst had drawn the attention of the bouncers, who were watching their table with a wary eye. "Look at this guy," said Schneider with a short, phlegmy laugh, "getting all...offended. I guess that joke was too...politically...incorrect...for you."

"I'm not being 'politically correct'!" Rhodes whined. "That was genuinely offensive! Don't you see? Japan was the victim in World War II!"

Gunther, as always, was the voice of logic and reason. "I suggest you restrain yourself, Mr. Raskol, before we find ourselves ejected from this establishment."

In an instant Rhodes sat back down, totally cowed by the sheer power of Gunther's merciless rationality. God, I fucking love that man, he thought. But not a way that's homosexual or anything. If only he were a thirteen-year-old Japanese schoolgirl…

Schneider started coughing (or perhaps laughing; Rhodes couldn't tell the difference). "Why don't we talk...ABOUT...something else," he gasped, sounding as though he were struggling for air. "Like...Grunts of Glory II."

Dobbs crossed his arms. "Drek. Total drek."

"Why?" Rhodes asked. "What's wrong with it?"

"Well, if you're just talking about gameplay, I suppose it isn't that bad. But the writers, man, they had to go and inject their goddamn politics into the game. Like you've got this ork on your squad, right, and he supposedly lived through the Night of Rage. And there's this whole unskippable conversation with him where he just goes on and on about how bad it was and how there's so much prejudice against metahumans...I tried shooting him in the face but the game wouldn't fucking let me! I mean, when I sit down to play Grunts of Glory, I want to play a game about killing Russians in the EuroWars. Don't go shoving your stupid politics into it, you fucking morons!"

"And that's why I need the help of the Gamers' Alliance to kill that damn elf woman!" Rhodes said. "I know her type. She's the kind of person who wants to take our trideo games and make them all 'politically correct.' I'm talking games where you aren't allowed to kill anyone because it's 'offensive,' and where the only thing you can do is hold hands and frolic in the woods singing some kind of 'We Are The World' peace-and-love Kumbaya bullshit! We can't let that happen. We have to send a message!"

Gunther exhaled a large, pungent cloud of smoke. "Describe this 'elf woman'."

"Well, um, she's blonde and she...uh...she speaks with this funny accent. Eastern European or something, I don't know."

"That hardly narrows things down, Mr. Raskol."

"Shit, man, I don't know...there was this other woman with her, looked like some kind of Nina Hagen wannabe. Probably that keebler's lesbian lover or something. Didn't catch her name."

"Then I'm afraid the Gamers' Alliance can do nothing for you. And as I told before, we have no cause for Jihad unless she specifically threatened our hobby."

There was no harm in telling a little lie, he thought. "But she did! Well, sort of. She said she knew about the tournament tonight, and that I should stay away if I knew what was good for me!"

Dobbs recoiled in horror. "What the actual fuck? Oh man, if she tries to start trouble at the tournament she's going to get more than she bargained for. Nobody fucks with us gamers. We've all played Grunts of Glory, and we all know where the magazine release switch is on an AK-97."

Schneider lifted a short, flabby arm and pointed towards the entrance. "Oh...shit...look is..."

They all turned around to see a Japanese man strolling into the bar, and everyone with even the faintest familiarity with the gaming scene knew who he was. There could be no mistaking his swaggering posture or the way he carried himself with utter confidence, and Rhodes' first instinct upon seeing him was to get down on his knees and grovel before such an obviously superior specimen of humanity. He wore a black leather trench coat and a pair of mirrored wrap-around shades, and his face was fixed in a permanent expression of smug self-satisfaction – the look of a man who could not only mouth off to a dragon, but get away with it.

And it was the look of man who was the best gamer in Asia, maybe even the world. He was named Shimomura, but everyone called him Shimmy.

"Mr. Albrecht, I see you are already drowning your sorrows in anticipation of your defeat at my hands in tonight's tournament. You must know that I have barely played Grunts of Glory, because games of this kind are not popular in my country. But my level of skill will still be too much for you."

Dobbs glanced over at Gunther. "Shit, man, are you going to take that from him?"

"Mr. Shimomura can bluster all he wants," Gunther replied. "It does not change the fact that he is a liar and a cheater. I have analysed every frame of his performance at last year's tournament, and it is obvious that he was using an aim-assist program."

Shimomura smiled every so slightly. "Accusations of cheating are most often made as an excuse for a lack of ability." He then looked over Gunther's companions, and it was quite evident that he thought even less of them. "You associate with...interesting...individuals, Mr. Albrecht. They would be a great curiosity in my country."

"I think he just insulted us," said Dobbs indignantly.

"Maybe I should give him a taste of my authentic Nippon steel?" Rhodes suggested, his words driven more by alcohol than confidence.

Shimomura stared at him, as if Rhodes had just uttered a grievous insult. "Authentic...Nippon...steel?"

He drew his katana from its scabbard. "Gaze upon it with awe!"

"Interesting...perhaps I might have a closer look at this blade, if only so that I verify its authenticity."

Rhodes was hesitant at first, but he was a man who worshipped everything and anything from the glorious nation of Japan, and the prospect of showing off his katana to an actual Japanese person was too tempting to resist. "All right, but if you so much as scratch it I will summon the eight heads of the Orochi to tear you apart."

He handed the blade to Shimomura, who began examining it closely. Rhodes expected him to look it over briefly, conclude that it was, in fact, an authentic Japanese weapon, and then hand it back to him, thoroughly impressed.

Instead, Shimomura's expression was one of abject horror. "Destroy this blade immediately," he said quietly, dumping the sword on the table.

"What? Why?" Rhodes protested. "Do you know much I paid for this thing?"

"Let me tell you a story," Shimomura began. "Muramasa once challenged his master, the great swordsmith Masamune, to a contest of who could craft the finest weapon. To determine the winner, they placed the blades they had crafted into a shallow stream, the edges facing the current. Muramasa's blade would cut everything that flowed towards it – fish, leaves, even the very air itself was cut. But Masamune's blade did not cut everything that flowed past. Leaves were cut, but fish could swim up to it unharmed, and the air hissed gently as it blew by. Muramasa proudly proclaimed himself the winner of their contest, but a passing monk who had observed the competition told Muramasa that his blade was an evil weapon, as it cut indiscriminately. He declared Masamune the winner, because his blade did not cut that which was innocent and undeserving."

"Well I know that story is bullshit," Rhodes sneered. "Muramasa and Masamune didn't even live in the same time period."

"Perhaps the story is nothing more than a legend, but this blade you have bought was made by Muramasa. His swords were evil things that brought ruin and misfortune to all who carried them. You must rid yourself of this weapon at once."

Rhodes' reaction was quite the opposite of what Shimomura intended. "You mean this sword is a real Muramasa blade? Holy shit, that's awesome! Good thing I saved it from the fire!"

"That blade is cursed."

"I don't believe in curses."

"There was a time when people did not believe in magic," Shimomura countered. "But no one today would say that magic does not exist."

Schneider began breathing heavily as he worked up the energy to speak. "You can't...objectively...prove magic exists..."

"Yeah, there's actually no such thing as 'magic' or 'spirits'," Dobbs added. "It's just some kind of anomalous energy field that scientists haven't figured out yet. But stupid, ignorant people look at unexplained phenomena and immediately come up with these bullshit religious explanations."

His words only deepened Shimomura's feelings of contempt. "The only ignorant people here are the ones seated in front of me. Your 'friend' may keep the sword if it his wish, but it should not come as a surprise when he dies a bloody death."

With that he turned around and left the bar, having shown up for no other apparent purpose but to gloat. "Man, that guy actually believes in magic swords," said Dobbs with a disgusted snort. "21st century and people still believe in that superstitious drek. You know, I think we're actually regressing as a society; I mean we are just totally drowning in an intellectual quagmire. Someone needs to strike a blow for logic and reason. I'm not saying that we should kill religious people or anything, but they definitely shouldn't be allowed to breed."

With tremendous effort, Schneider stood up from his chair. "We We have to find...a parking space...for the tournament..."

Rhodes downed the remainder of his soy-beer. "Good idea. Apparently, no one in these European cities has ever heard of a parking lot."

I can't believe this is a genuine Muramasa blade, he thought as the group headed outside. Things are finally starting to go my way!

Every time Rhodes walked the streets of Berlin (which was a seldom occurrence) he could not help but be reminded of how much better things had been in San Francisco. In his mind, the Japanese occupation had been the best thing that ever happened to the city, not only because of the innate superiority of Japanese culture, but because the Japanese understood that metahumans were little more than unfortunate mutants who were gaijin at best and malevolent oni at worst. They had the good sense to round them up and send them somewhere out of sight, a policy that was so very much unlike that of this miserable city, where metahumans were allowed to run around the place.

"Don't be such a racist!" his whiny bitch of an ex-girlfriend used to tell him. As if the "races" of metahumanity were at all equivalent to the old misguided notions of race. There were obvious genetic differences, such as a notable tendency towards violence and lower innate IQ compared to ordinary humans. Stating scientific truth did not make one racist, it made one a realist.

As he passed by a lamppost, one of the band posters taped to it caught his eye. Shrivelled from the rain and faded by the sun, it was almost illegible in parts, but there was no mistaking the elven woman pictured front and centre. It was the same damn woman who had attacked him in his apartment, and she still bore that insufferably arrogant expression that made him want to reach out and tear the poster from the lamppost.

"That's her!" he cried. "That's the elf who set fire to my apartment!"

The poster itself was advertising a band named "Jumalten Aika" (whatever that meant), who had performed in Berlin about a year ago. "Ugh, I saw that band a while back," Dobbs remarked. "They were fucking horrible. Their songs go on forever, and they're all sung in this weird, made-up elf language."

"Well now that we know she's in a band, that means we can find out who she is and where she lives. We post that information on the Matrix, and get everyone we know to make her life a living hell. Then we kill her."

"Such violent tendencies you possess, Mr. Raskol," said Gunther. "No doubt it is a result of your abuse of simsense recordings."

"You need to stop with that shit, man," Dobbs added. "One guy I know got hooked on BTLs, and now he doesn't know what's real and what isn't. Guy swears he's Napoleon."

Schneider was preparing his rebuttal, as evidenced by his frantic huffing and gasping. "You can't...objectively...prove that...BTLs...cause harm..."

But Rhodes wasn't paying attention. His mind was filled with images of hunting down that elf woman and running her through with his sword, the scene of the killing blow playing out in slow-motion over and over. It appeared to him as something out of an anime – a dramatic wind, a slow camera pan across his expressionless face, a flash of motion, a torrent of blood. And then a veritable harem of horny 13-year-old schoolgirls began screaming "You did it, sempai!" at him, begging him to sexually service them. And service them he did, until they were all lying panting on the ground, thoroughly winded from sexual exhaustion.

By the time he emerged from his rapturous euphoria his companions had long since moved on, leaving him standing alone on the street.

"Oh my, what sort of architectural abomination is this?"

Talvi was consumed with disgust the moment she laid eyes upon the Calian-Uhlmann facility. It stood as a perfectly putrid example of that detestable style of architecture that had emerged in the early 21st century, where buildings resembled little more than a collection of steel and glass boxes stacked atop one another and jutting out at odd angles. No doubt the designer – some pretentious knobhead, for sure – had created it as some kind of asinine personal statement about something or other.

"And people are actually employed here?" she asked, astonished that anyone could have constructed such a hideous edifice. "This building is perfectly horrible. It's so ugly it could be a masterpiece of modern art."

"Somehow I don't think aesthetics are very high on your average corporation's list of priorities."

Monika parked the van in alleyway, well out of sight of anyone inside the building. "All right, let's do this. With any luck most of the employees will be so numb and stupefied from the dreariness of their jobs that they won't pay any attention to you. We should be in and out in no less than twenty minutes. Quick, quiet, and professional."

Talvi sighed. "I'd be more reassured if you told me that something horrible was going to happen."

"Nothing horrible is going to happen! This isn't some megacorp, Talvi, it's just some soulless IT firm. Now let's go."

They exited the van, with Monika heading towards the employee entrance at the back of building while Talvi made her way around the corner to the entrance. Whispering a prayer to Ukko (along with Ilmatar and Tapio for good measure), she pushed open one of the heavy glass doors, Monika's old cyberdeck in hand, and stepped inside the lobby.

She did not think it possible, but the building was even less appealing on the inside. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all pure white and polished to glossy sheen, with the only decoration being a handful of obviously artificial plants. Someone had clearly gone through a tremendous amount of effort to purge all traces of warmth and humanity for this place.

A bored-looking receptionist sat at the front desk, busily filing her nails. Behind was a large grey plaque displaying the logo for the company that ran the data centre along with their mission statement: Our vision is to efficiently deliver exceptionally optimised mission-critical technologies for emerging infrastructures and cost-effective deliverables while globally orchestrating principle-centred mindshare.

It's like some sort of anti-poetry, Talvi thought as she approached the desk.

"Can I help you?" asked the secretary, sounding irritated at her very presence.

"I'm from Calian-Uhlmann, and I'm here to investigate a breach of network security that occurred yesterday at approximately 9:32 A.M. A large quantity of personal data was stolen, likely for the purposes of selling it on the black market."

"We weren't informed of any security breaches," answered the secretary, not even bothering to make eye contact.

"We believe it was an inside job. Informing you or anyone else in this facility could have tipped off the perpetrator in any number of ways. For that reason I would like to keep this investigation as circumspect as possible."

She stared at Talvi for a few seconds, her expression a mixture of annoyance and resignation. "This drek again? Third time this month…all right, I'll make a temporary security pass up for you. And just between you and me, I think Dieters is the one to blame."

"Why? Do you have proof of his misconduct?"

"Well, no, but I just don't like the look of him. He ought to be sacked before he does whatever horrible thing everyone suspects he's going to do."

"I will keep it in mind."

Talvi took the pass card from the secretary. That was easier than I imagined it would be, she thought as she swiped the card through the reader. This opened a large set of metal doors that led deeper into the facility, which looked to be as every bit as aesthetically atrocious as the lobby. Taking a deep breath and trying to calm her nerves, she started down the hallway, taking note of several "motivational" signs hanging from the walls. One read "Thousands are willing to do your job for less. What makes you so special?" while another stated "The only thing that separates successful people from the ones who aren't is the willingness to work very, very hard!"

"Disgusting," she whispered to herself. "And they expect people to work in this environment?"

An employee rounded the corner ahead, so Talvi stiffened her posture and put on expression of arrogant impatience, the look of someone he really did not want to be bothering. She kept her gaze fixed forward, as if she was above even acknowledging this wageslave's existence. Nor did he acknowledge hers as he passed, completely lost as he was in the soul-deadening ennui that characterised a life of corporate servitude.

The hallway branched off the left and right, with the hall to the right ending in a door marked "Security." Since that was obviously not where she wanted to go, Talvi turned left, coming to another branch a short distance ahead. She turned right, as that led towards the back of building where Monika awaited.

Her heart was pounding, not just with fear, but with excitement. There was a definite thrill in being somewhere she shouldn't, though she would never admit it to Monika, who would surely use that statement to rope her into yet another job.

This hallway was lined with doors leading to the server banks, and Talvi felt as though she had unwittingly crawled down the gullet of some great and terrible beast. There was a constant din in the air, the dull roar of the air circulation system that cooled the vast arrays of computing hardware gathered in the building, and through her feet she could feel subtle but constant vibration running through the floor.

The lack of security surprised her. There were no mantraps, no access checkpoints, and no sign of any security personnel. Were there other, more subtle security measures in place? Or was the company simply too cheap to spend money on securing their facilities?

She felt her anxiety rising, so to calm herself she began whispering the words to an old Swedish folk song:

"Bittida en morgon innan solen upprann

Innan foglarna började sjunga

Bergatrollet friade till fager ungersven

Hon hade en falskeliger tunga…"

The hallway turned left at the end, and Talvi prayed that it led to an employee entrance or something similar. She could feel the energy in this place, and it was very nearly overwhelming. It was not any kind of magical energy, nor was the sort of energy one felt when in the presence of spirits. No, it was something far more terrible, like a great, buzzing, black cloud that seemed to pulse with life, but which she knew was actually a harbinger of death. Talvi could sense this malevolent power almost everywhere in the cities of the world, but here it seemed to be particularly concentrated.

"Herr Mannelig herr Mannelig trolofven I mig

För det jag bjuder så gerna

I kunnen väl svara endast ja eller nej

Om I viljen eller ej..."

She heard a door close behind her, and then someone called out, "Hey!"

Talvi turned around to see a man who had just emerged from one of the server rooms. He didn't look like a security guard, but he was eyeing her with suspicion.

"Yes, what is it?" she said, affecting an irritated tone.

"What are you doing here? This area's off-limits."

"I'm from Calian-Uhlmann Network Technologies, if you must know. I'm investigating a breach of network security, which we are quite certain was the work of an employee here."

He began moving towards her, and she noticed that he lacked the vacant, dead-eyed look so common to corporate wageslaves.

That was not a good sign.

"Nice deck you got there," he said, his voice carrying a strong undercurrent of hostility. It was clear he suspected something, and already Talvi was trying to think of some way to extricate herself from his presence.

"I cannot do my job without the proper equipment, can I? Now if you'll excuse me-"

"What are the specs?" he demanded angrily.

Talvi tensed. With her near total lack of technical knowledge it was unlikely she could spin a lie that would fool him. Still, she had to try.

"It's far more than you could afford," she said haughtily, trying to mentally dredge up some computer terminology she had read in an old book once. "It has the latest 80386 processor, fast enough to compute fifteen quintillion digits of pi within the span of a heartbeat, and it comes with three megabytes of hot RAM..."

He crossed his arms. "Three megabytes? You have no idea what you're talking about, do you?"

There was no point in maintaining the pretence any longer. "No, I do not, and being honest I find society's obsession with technical gadgetry rather repugnant. I'm actually the singer and lead guitarist for a Finnish pagan metal band, and I think it's time for a drum solo!"

Before he could react Talvi smashed the cyberdeck over his head with all her might. It's sheer weight, combined with the study metal case, was enough to make him collapse in a heap. She glanced left and right to make sure no one had seen her, and then began looking about for somewhere to stash the man's unconscious body.

Fortunately, there was janitor's closet a short distance down the hall. Talvi slid her hands under his arms and began dragging him towards the door, finding that it required more exertion than she expected. After getting the door open, she stuffed him between a floor polisher and a mop and wringer.

"That could have gone badly," she said to herself before stepping out the janitor's closet. After shutting the door behind her Talvi hurried down the hall.

A set of double doors led into a narrow, twisting hallway that snaked its way past offices, utility rooms, and a rather pathetic excuse for a cafeteria that no doubt served up a steady stream of soy-based culinary abortions. Finally she reached the employee entrance at the rear, which was unguarded and unwatched.

There was an old saying amongst shadowrunners, that if things were going according to plan it meant you were walking into a trap. That Talvi had gotten this far into the data centre so easily was making her worried.

She opened the door, and to her relief Monika was waiting outside. "That was quick," she said as she stepped inside.

"There is very little in the way of security here. That is rather odd, considering all the computer hardware stored in this place."

Monika shrugged. "It saves on costs, I guess. Now we've-...what did you do to my old deck?"

Her cyberdeck now featured a prominent head-sized dent on one side. Talvi knew little about how these things worked, but the chances of it continuing to function after receiving that kind of damage were slim. "I was forced to use it as a blunt instrument. It performed surprising well when used for this purpose."

"How did I know this was going to happen? All right, if my intel is correct – and it always is - Calian-Uhlmann's servers should be located in Server Room C."

Talvi followed her back to the long central corridor and into one of the cavernous server rooms, and the instant she set foot inside she was overcome with both awe and revulsion.

Rows upon rows of tall, black servers stretched out before her, standing like obsidian monoliths amidst a pale blue glow that suffused the entire room. There was no sound but a dull, ending roar from the cooling and ventilation system needed to keep this bewildering array of hardware at the proper temperature, which left Talvi to wonder what happen if it were to fail suddenly. Would the servers would all melt down like a nuclear reactor, or would the whole building go up in a fireball?

This was the very heart of it all, she thought, the nerve centre of the soulless computer god whose hand was gripped tightly around the world's throat. She could not help but see the miles upon miles of cables and wires running along the ceiling as the veins and arteries of some malevolent beast; it was simply the way she was wired.

Monika led her to one server unit in particular; how she knew which one to look for was a question best left for another time (and Talvi likely wouldn't have understood the answer, anyway). "I'm going in. Watch my back."

She hooked her deck up to one of the servers, and then Talvi looked away, because she always cringed whenever Monika plugged something into her datajack. "You should never have gotten that blasted thing," she had once told her. "It will bring you to a bad end, I am sure of it! And then I will have to tell your friends, all the many hundreds of them, that you failed to heed the most important rule of all: 'Always listen to Talvi!'"

Time passed at an agonisingly slow pace while Monika delved deep into the server's memory banks, looking for any sign of BSP's outgoing connections and tracing them to whatever dark corner to the world they ran to. There was little for Talvi to do now but stand and wait, keeping watch for anyone who might decide to intrude upon their illicit activities.

By this point she was convinced that disaster was just around the corner. Everything had been too easy. There were hardly any security personnel, no sign of any video surveillance, nothing to suggest that the contents of the data centre were valuable or worth protecting. At any moment Talvi expected alarms to sound and horde of armed guards to come storming into the room, packing enough collective firepower to level an entire city block. But as one minute gave way to another she saw not a single soul come into the server room.

Still, she was not going to relax until they were back in the safehouse.

I can only imagine what she's seeing right now, Talvi thought when she looked back at Monika. She had once agreed, rather foolishly, to "ride along" with her when she entered the Matrix, using a hitcher jack and some trodes. The experience had left her thoroughly nauseated, not only because of how disorienting it had been, but also because of how utterly tacky the Matrix was. Bright, garish colours everywhere, no sense of aesthetics or beauty...the programmers of cyberdecks might have known everything about computer code, but nothing about good taste.

"I've got it!" Monika suddenly exclaimed, unplugging her deck. "You are not going to believe where BSP is backing up their files to!"

"Why I do I have the feeling I'm not going to like whatever it is you're about to say?"

Monika smiled at her, knowing full well how Talvi was going to react. "Let me ask you something first. How do you feel about a little trip to Ukraine?"

"I don't know," she replied after a long pause. "It can't be any worse than the locales we visited on our last job."

"Actually, when I said 'Ukraine' I really meant 'Chernobyl.'"


"Yeah, I was surprised as you are. It makes sense, though, if you didn't want anyone finding your off-site backup. Now let's get out of here before-"

She was cut off by a thunderous explosion, one so powerful it made the floor shake violently, and it was immediately followed by muffled shouting and the unmistakable sound of automatic weapons fire. "What the hell?" Monika exclaimed. She drew her gun, a well-worn Ares Predator. "We need to leave, now."

Talvi bolted towards the door, and the second she crossed the threshold she was greeted by the roar of gunfire and a hail of bullets. She ducked back into the server room, not even getting a glimpse at her attackers.

She looked around for another way out. To her dismay, there were none. Realising that they were trapped, she and Monika took cover behind one of the server banks.

"And it was going so well," Monika whined.

There was the sound of something metallic hitting the floor. Thinking it was a grenade, Talvi ducked down and covered her ears, hoping the massive server bank would shield her from the shrapnel. But instead of an explosion, there was only a sharp hissing noise, and the room began filling with smoke.

Any second now their attackers would come storming through the door, she knew, so she gestured to Monika and the two of them darted towards the rear of the room, hoping to put as much distance between them and their assailants as possible. They took cover behind another pair of server banks just as three men emerged from the smoke.

Talvi had only a brief look at them, but the corpse paint, the long, greasy hair, and all-black attire clearly marked them as members of the Inner Circle. "Nowhere to run this time, Korpela!" one of them bellowed. "Wherever you hide, the Inner Circle will find you! En grusom død venter hver eneste alv!"

"Kuolema Norjan kusipäille!" Talvi shot back.

They answered with a burst of gunfire, deafening in the cavernous server room. Their shots went wild, ripping holes in the walls, the floor, the ceiling, going everywhere except in the vicinity of their targets.

Like those two knobheads who had tried to kill her by Lake Inari, Talvi suspected that they had learned everything about firearms from movies.

There was a break in fire as they reloaded their assault rifles, giving Monika the opportunity to lean out from cover and squeeze off a couple of rounds. One shot missed, the other struck one of their attackers in the leg, dropping him the ground. He let out a stream of Norwegian profanity while his companions slapped in new magazines and took cover behind the servers. They then resumed their assault, peeking out from behind cover and firing wildly into the room, causing whole sections of the Flux State's Matrix network to go dark as their bullets tore through one server after another.

Shoot straight. Conserve Ammo. That was how the old saying went, but evidently the Inner Circle had not taken this lesson to heart.

The man Monika had shot in the leg was still lying in front of the door, howling in pain and bleeding profusely. The other two were hurling insults in between bursts of gunfire, most of which concerned Talvi's mother and her sexual proclivities.

As much as she hated using magic for violent ends, there came a time when she had to set aside her natural revulsion to such things.

With no clear line of sight to the two Norwegians shooting at her, there was no way to target them with a spell. The man lying on the floor, however…

She took a deep breath, and stepped out from behind cover just as one of her attackers was raising his weapon to fire. In a fraction a second Talvi had opened a channel to the astral plane, shaping and configuring the etheric energies while connecting her aura her with that of her target. She stretched out her hand, an immense wave of magical energy surging through her. A blinding white bolt streaked through the air and burst into a brilliant actinic flash, followed by a wave of heat as the spell exploded into a roaring ball of fire.

It was difficult to say what critically injured the three Norwegians first. Was it the sheer concussive force of the blast, which had the effect of liquefying their internal organs? Or was it the fragments of the server hardware that were located a little bit closer to the centre of the explosion than they were, and thus attempted to escape through them? Whatever the reason, their bodies were rapidly reconfigured to the point where their continued existence was no longer an option.

Monika stepped out from behind the server banks and observed Talvi's handiwork, which had reduced two whole rows of servers to smoking scrap. "Damn, I think you just knocked out half the Matrix in Germany!"

"I'm sure the people will do just fine without it."

They ran for the door through the smoke and debris, only to find more members of the Inner Circle coming their way. Perhaps she might have taken it as a compliment on her magical prowess that they had sent so many people to kill her, but now was not the time to think about that sort of thing. They rounded the corner just as a swarm of bullets flew over their heads, this new wave of attackers possessing the same lack of marksmanship as the first.

Talvi follwed Monika through the narrow, nondescript corridors back to the employee entrance and out into the welcoming glare of daylight. She had parked the van in a grungy, trash-ridden alleyway, which looked rather out-of-place next to the clean, sterile hallways of the data centre.

She opened the passenger-side door, but before climbing inside she once again called forth a torrent of arcane energy from the astral plane, and with it she magically sealed the employee entrance so tightly that it would take a breaching charge to open it.

Once they were both in the van, Monika fired up the engine, threw the vehicle into gear, and floored the accelerator pedal. Talvi was thrown back into her seat, only to be thrown forward when Monika slammed on the brakes at the end of the alley. She stomped on the accelerator again, launching the van into the street where it very nearly collided with a red Toyota, and then whirled the steering around to bring their vehicle into the flow of traffic. Talvi grabbed hold of the door handle to keep herself from being thrown out of her seat, remarking to herself that this was a situation quite familiar to her. Any vehicular excursion with Monika usually involved a string of near-misses, side-swipes, and fender-benders, along with a great number of horn blasts and vulgar gestures from other drivers.

When they drove past the front of the colocation centre, Talvi saw that the entire front section of the building had been reduced to smoking rubble, as if someone had fired a rocket launcher into it.

"Just what the hell did you do to piss these people off?" Monika said as she weaved in and out of traffic.

"I told you, I made some rather inflammatory remarks about Blackcrown's latest album, and they've been seeking my death ever since."

"That can't be the only reason!"

"Believe me when I say that is. The members of the Inner Circle have very fragile egos and identities, and the slightest reproach turns them fierce. After their defeat today I fully expect them to escalate their attempts on my life."

Monika glanced at the driver-side mirror. "Looks they already have."

Three automobiles (all of them painted black, naturally) were rapidly approaching from behind. Judging by their total disregard for traffic laws and monochromatic colouring, they could only be piloted by yet another platoon of Inner Circle knobheads.

"Better buckle up," said Monika. "Things are about to get wild."

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 – Rabies Aeterna

A burst of gunfire announced their pursuers' hostile intent, and glancing at the passenger-side mirror Talvi saw a man leaning out the window of a black BMW with a submachine in his hand.

In any other situation she might have laughed. The man was trying to fire the gun one-handed, but the kickback proved too much for him to handle, and his shots flew wildly in all directions. But before she could make any remark about his lack of firearms proficiency, however, Talvi was jerked back in her seat as another car slammed into the back of the van.

Monika floored the accelerator, but a few seconds later they were once again rammed from behind with a heavy crunch. "Can't you make this thing go any faster?" Talvi said.

"I'm a decker, not a boy racer! Grab a gun from the back and shoot the bastards!"

She looked behind at the vast armoury Monika had stashed in the back, then unbuckled her seatbelt. "Which ones are loaded?"

"All of them!"

Reasoning that the biggest gun would be the most effective, she grabbed an old MG 3 machine gun that was lying on the floor. It was a true beast of a gun, and from Talvi's limited knowledge of military history it could lay down an impressive amount of fire in a short period of time.

Another car slammed into their left flank, its driver hell-bent on running them off the road. The impact threw Talvi against the side of the van, and before she could steady herself she was thrown to the opposite side as Monika struggled to regain control.

Gritting her teeth and letting out a few choice pieces of Finnish profanity, Talvi crouched down and rested the machine gun on its bipod. Then, she summoned a brief flurry of magical energy to blow open the van's rear doors and prayed she would not be greeted with a hail of bullets.

One of the black BMW's was racing up to them from behind, the driver determined to give them another good ramming. The passenger was standing through the sunroof and bringing his assault rifle to bear, screaming death threats and obscenities in Norwegian that were drowned out by the howling of engines.

Talvi was well aware that she hadn't much skill with guns, but at this distance it didn't matter. She squeezed the trigger and the MG 3 roared to life, spitting out a steady stream of hot lead with a truly cacophonous din, like the sound of a buzz-saw multiplied by a hundred. The bullets ripped through the windscreen of the BMW like a hot knife through snow, thoroughly shredding the occupants of the automobile, and a second later the car swerved to the left, drove up onto the median, and wrapped its hood around street light.

Without warning Monika slammed on the brakes, throwing Talvi onto her back and filling the air with the sound of squealing tyres. A moment later she gunned the engine and swerved sharply to the left (which was an only somewhat-exaggerated version of how she usually turned a corner). This was followed by the horrible sound of metal on metal as the van side-swiped another car, a noise familiar to anyone who had spent any length of time in a vehicle with Monika.

Steadying herself once again, Talvi reached for the MG 3, only to be greeted with a hail of bullets from another black BMW that was coming up from behind. The driver was veering left and right wildly, while the passenger let loose with a stream of gunfire from an assault rifle. Monika weaved in and out of traffic while Talvi tried to keep her enemy in her sights, firing off short bursts every few seconds, none of which came close to hitting her target.

Talvi let out a yelp as a sharp pain shot through her right arm, forcing her to drop the machine gun. She clutched her arm with her left hand and felt blood – one of the bullets must have grazed her.

"You all right back there?" Monika yelled.

"Se on pelkkä lihashaava!" she yelled back.

"I'll take that as a 'yes!'"

Before Talvi could collect herself and retaliate, another car slammed into the left side of the van, much more forcefully this time, and she felt the van starting to fishtail out of control. Just as it came to a stop, however, Monika floored the accelerator, causing the vehicle to dart forward across the kerb and down a narrow, cobblestone street. A white sign flashed past – Talvi could make out the word Brüderstraße – and a pair of BMWs turned down the street in pursuit. They were speeding towards the van side-by-side while the men in the passenger seats were leaning out the windows and shooting at them with their handguns, their shots missing by a wide margin.

Talvi squeezed the trigger of the MG 3, sweeping a stream of bullets across the two BMWs, but the recoil of the gun was so fierce that her shots flew over the their pursuers. Worse, the number of empty casings being strewn about the van was growing larger while the MG 3's ammo belt was growing shorter.

Shoot straight. Conserve Ammo. But that was rather difficult with a gun that fired as fast as the MG 3. "There's no such thing as 'enough ammunition'" seemed a better proverb for this particular weapon.

Taking a deep breath, Talvi let go of the trigger, aimed the gun carefully at one of the black BMWs, and fired off a short, half-second burst that tore through the car's hood and windscreen. She didn't see if she had hit the driver, but the car suddenly swerved to the right, hopped the kerb, and crashed through the window of the one buildings lining the street.

She swung the MG 3 to the left and took aim at the other car, but when she pressed the trigger she found that the gun was completely out of ammunition. To make matters worse, one of the Norwegian black metallers was standing up through the sunroof and bringing a rocket launcher to bear on the van. It was madness to use such a weapon at this range, but the Inner Circle was not known for its sense of restraint or sanity.

"Monika!" she cried.

"I see him!" she called back, looking at the driver's side mirror.

The second they reached the nearest intersection Monika made a hard turn to the left, throwing Talvi against the right side of the van. The tyres squealed in protest, trying desperately to keep a grip on the cobblestone street, and for a brief instant the wheels one side of the van came off the ground.

It all seemed to happen so slowly. There was a loud whoosh as the rocket launcher fired, and a trail of smoke and fire streaked past the rear of the van. A second later there was a short, sharp thud as the rocket impacted somewhere down the street, no doubt seriously ruining someone's day.

The sole remaining BMW drifted around the corner, and the passenger was already preparing to fire another rocket. This was no ordinary rocket launcher, of course – this was an Aztechnology Mark II "Negotiator" - the latest in a line of heavy weapons marketed not-so-subtly to the criminal underworld ("Tougher than your toughest customer!" promised the promotional materials). Featuring rapid reload action and a wide variety of high-explosive and armour-piercing projectiles, the Mark II "Negotiator" was truly the rocket launcher of choice for the discerning professional. ("Not only is it capable of penetrating over 1200 millimetres of rolled homogeneous armour," declared the weapon's designer, "it's also a great ice-breaker at parties.")

At the moment, however, Talvi was less concerned with the specifics of the rocket launcher and more with the fact that there was no room for them to manoeuvre in the narrow confines of the street. If their pursuers got a shot off they were good as dead.

She looked around at the guns in the van, and she realised by the time she grabbed and one and took aim at her attacker it would be far too late. But she had a direct line of sight to him, and a direct line of sight meant only one thing...

Talvi moved the MG 3 aside and stood up. It was a ritual she was very familiar with – focussing her mind, opening a channel between the physical and etheric planes, configuring the eldritch energies according to a well-rehearsed spell formula, and directing that energy towards a target – but Talvi had never attempted it while in the back of a vehicle hurtling down the street at frightful rate of speed.

Praying that Monika didn't make a sudden swerve, she locked her eyes on the man with the rocket launcher, reached out her arm, and began whispering to herself, "Ei sanat salahan joua, eikä luottehet lovehen; mahti ei joua maan rakohon, vaikka mahtajat menevät..."

A brilliant flash of electricity erupted from her hand, arcing straight towards her target. Tens of thousands of volts electricity, a veritable torrent of lightning that would have made Ukko proud, instantly coursed through his body, literally cooking him from the inside. Muscle spasms caused him to discharge the rocket launcher directly at the hood of the BMW, and the entire vehicle immediately disappeared into a tremendous blossom of fire and flying metal. The blast nearly knocked Talvi off her feet, and when she regained her balance she saw that nothing remained of the car except a heap of flaming scrap.

She returned to the passenger's seat, and after taking a few moments to catch her breath and for her heart to stop pounding she examined the wound on her arm. To her relief it was not terribly severe, and she was more annoyed at the damage to her leather jacket than to her body. That latter was, after all, something that could be easily remedied with a spell or two.

"Who the hell are these people, anyway?" Monika asked, exasperated. "I refuse to believe they're just a bunch of musicians. Musicians don't go firing rocket launchers at people, Talvi!"

"They do when they eat from the rubbish bin of ideology," she explained while she magicked her injury away. "Their world-view is extremely fragile, and cannot withstand any form of mockery. The slightest reproach turns them fierce and the smallest remark offends them. In the past the Inner Circle was content with burning churches and making stew from their slain bandmates' brains, but who knows what sort of depravity they get up to these days."

"But we've seen the last of them, right? Right?"

Her ears were still ringing from the MG 3's thunderous report, and she was smarting all over from being thrown about the van's interior. "I cannot say. I suspect that their vendetta against me will eventually culminate in Sacro Culto and I facing each other in mortal combat. And when that happens, I shall sing him into a swamp!"

"You'll what?"

Talvi wasn't in the mood to explain it to her."Ehm...never mind."

"Look, are there any other people you've pissed off that I should know about?"

"None that I know of, but in this dark age of ours you can never be certain. It's shocking how easily people can be moved to violence by the pettiest of things. I suppose when one's soul is completely rotten to the core, there is nothing left to do but take pleasure in the suffering of others."

"I just hope the van isn't too banged up," Monika said. "This is the fifth one I've bought since January."

Talvi raised an eyebrow. "You've managed to wreck four vehicles this year? That has to be some sort of record."

"I didn't 'wreck' them!" she protested. "The first was one broke down, the second one caught fire, the third one got stolen, and the fourth one broke down, caught fire, and then got stolen."

"Why would someone steal a broken down, burnt-out van?"

"I don't know! Look, my relationship with the automobile is complicated, all right? We...don't get along."

By some great, cosmically-mandated coincidence, Monika somehow failed to notice that the traffic light ahead was red. The van sailed through the intersection just as a large white delivery truck was approaching from the left, forcing Monika to swerve to the right in order to avoid a collision. The van jumped up on the kerb, knocking over a traffic sign and forcing pedestrians to leap out of the way. Monika yanked the van to the left, getting back on the road and narrowly missing a street lamp.

"By the gods, Monika! These things wouldn't happen if you paid more attention to where you're going! Didn't your driving instructor teach you that?"

"What driving instructor?"

Talvi sighed. "This explains a great deal."

If there were a Mecca for gamers, there was no question that it was the Gamers' Alliance annual tournament. There were other tournaments, of course, but none held held the same level of prestige. And if one needed proof that gamers were an unjustly persecuted minority, one need look no further than the fact that gaming tournaments were illegal in most parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. Berlin, owing to its anarchic nature, was one of the few places where they were still permitted, though no one knew how long this state of affairs of would last.

This near-worldwide prohibition had come into effect three years ago. During a particularly heated match between the clans Merciless Horde and Resonant Tyranny, one of the players had suddenly accused the opposing clan of cheating, before pulling out an Uzi and opening fire. The other clan, armed to the hilt and having an enormous chip on their shoulder, responded in kind, whipping out their submachine guns and laying down a hailstorm of bullets on those who had impugned their gaming honour. By the time the lead stopped flying 42 people were dead and dozens more were wounded, and the media, smelling blood, had jumped on the story, eager to portray all gamers as homicidal maniacs who could go on a rampage at any moment.

The Gamers' Alliance, of course, tried to downplay the massacre, stating that it was an isolated incident. "And besides," said one of their spokesmen, "our investigation revealed that Merciless Horde was, in fact, cheating, and I can't think of a better way of discouraging such behaviour than the threat of being ventilated by an assault rifle."

"Shimmy doesn't know what he's in for," Dobbs boasted. "Gunther's gonna tear him a new virtual asshole."

Rhodes was only halfway to paying attention to him, as he was too busy gazing upon his katana. He was still in a state of total euphoria over the revelation that it was an authentic Muramasa blade, and he couldn't wait for the opportunity to kill someone with it.

He, Dobbs, and Schneider were waiting in line to enter the abandoned warehouse where the tournament was being held. It was a far cry from the stadiums and arenas where previous tournaments had taken place, and it served as a continual reminder of how there was no justice for gamers in the world.

"Man, can you believe it?" Rhodes gushed, holding his sword up to the moonlight. "A real Muramasa blade! I'll be the guy who sold it to me didn't even know what he had, otherwise he'd never have let it go for so cheap."

Dobbs sneered at him. "Who cares? Look around; half the people in this line-up have katanas on their backs."

"Pssh...those probably aren't even real Japanese swords. They might as well be carrying rusty butter knives."

After what felt like an interminable wait the trio finally entered the warehouse. By the entrance was a conspicuous credstick reader, along with a sign indicating that it was collecting donations to the Gamer-VITAS research fund.

The name "Gamer-VITAS" had been coined in jest – there was little similarity between the two diseases – but the affliction itself was no laughing matter, killing one hundred percent of those affected. It began with flu-like symptoms, such as fever and headache, but within a few days it rapidly progressed to confusion, terror, paranoia, extreme aggresion, and hallucinations. All forms of treatment had proven ineffective, and victims would inevitably slip into a coma and expire from respiratory failure. What the made the disease unique was that only occurred in those who spent a large amount of time engaged in interactive entertainment, which led the Gamers' Alliance to declare that the disease had been bioengineered for the sole purpose of wiping gamers of the face of the planet. "In the past our enemies have made a concerted effort to erase gamer identity, to ridicule it into non-existence," said Lyssa, one of the three grandmasters of the Gamers' Alliance, "but now we have evidence that they are actively seeking our extinction."

Once they made their donations, Rhodes, Dobbs, and Schneider proceeded into the warehouse proper. One could have easily mistaken the tournament for a concert, with rows upon rows of chairs set up in front of a brightly-lit stage. Upon this stage were sixteen cyberterminals divided into two rows of eight, and this was where the gaming clans would be soon be doing battle. Above the cyberterminals was an enormous holovision display that would provide the audiences with a real-time view of the players' in-game avatars, though at present it was showing nothing but the logo of the Gamers' Alliance: a raised fist clutching a controller, with the words Rabies Aeterna Ludiorum written beneath in blackletter.

Rhodes kept his eyes on the stage as he and his companions search for empty chairs. He so desperately wished that he could compete in the tournament, but no matter how he tried he could never refine his skills to the point where they met the exacting standards of the gaming elite. Many times he had asked Gunther if he could join his clan, and each time the chromed German had rebuffed him.

After several minutes of searching they came across a trio of unoccupied seats that were disappointingly distant from the main stage. "I told you we should have got here earlier," Rhodes whined. "Now we gotta sit in the back with the lamers."

"Well I'm not the who wanted to stop by a comic book store on the way here," Dobbs retorted. "Couldn't you wait until tomorrow to get your pervy manga for paedophiles, or whatever drek it is that you're into?"

Rhodes had to resist the urge to give Dobbs a good smack. "It's not for paedophiles!" he protested loudly. "It's for ephebo...pheebi...phobo...philo...ephebo something-or-other! And for your information, Dobbs, it's not 'pervy,' you just don't understand Japanese culture, you filthy ignorant gaijin! This stuff is totally okay over there!"


"I'm just saying, it's bad enough having society shit all over me because I'm a gamer, but now I have to deal with people shitting on me just for liking anime and manga. There's no justice in this fucking world, none at all."

Schneider burst into a sudden fit of huffing and wheezing, which meant he was about to speak. "You can't...objectively...prove that justice exists."

"He's right, man," Dobbs said, "justice is just a social construct, which means it doesn't really exist. The only things that really exist are matter and energy. Basic science, man."

Rhodes was about to argue, but this was not the time nor the place. He looked around the warehouse, trying to make an estimate of how many people were gathered here. There was a palpable energy in the air, a shared euphoria that he would have described as religious had he not held religion in utter contempt. One day, he swore, he would be one of the gamers on-stage, being cheered and fawned-over by the hordes of screaming anime schoolgirls in the audience, begging for a sweet, sweet taste of sempai.

His train of thought came to a screeching halt. Anime schoolgirls in the audience? That doesn't sound right, he thought.

Just then he was gripped by fear. That damn elf woman had threatened to attack this tournament, hadn't she? Or had he simply made that up? Rhodes couldn't remember. It was so hard to remember things sometimes. People said it was a side-effect of BTL use, but Rhodes knew it was nothing more than simple absent-mindedness. When one possessed a god-like intellect, one often had difficulty correlating its contents.

The lights dimmed and the crowd fell silent. Everyone knew what came next. It was a ritual performed at every gathering of gamers, large and small. It was a ritual in which they affirmed their solidarity, their shared plight, and their eternal rage against the enemies who lurked in the shadows, who would stop at nothing to see gamer identity extinguished forever.

The Gamers' Alliance logo vanished from the holovision display, plunging the warehouse into total darkness. A second later it came back to life, this time displaying an image of a dark-haired elven woman.

Her name was Milena Khachaturian, a prominent game critic who had made several statements regarding the "unacceptable" behaviour of certain segments of the gaming consumer base. A year ago Milena had been stabbed to death in her apartment, and the subsequent investigation had revealed that the killer had been a member of the Gamers' Alliance. Naturally, the Gamers' Alliance denied any link between themselves and the murder, stating that it was merely the work of a "disturbed individual" and that his membership in the Gamers' Alliance was "purely coincidental." They had gone on to say that even if Milena had been murdered at the Gamers' Alliance behest, there were thousands of murders every day throughout the world, so there was no point in making a fuss about this one particular person. "It's shameful how much outrage there is over the death of one woman," was their official statement, "when millions of people are starving to death every single day. Where is your outrage over that?"

The warehouse was filled with angry shouts the instant her image appeared. The image of Milena began to speak, but it was immediately drowned out by the roar of the crowd. Rhodes stood up, his mind completely overthrown by a furious and virulent rage. "Bitch!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. "You won't take our games! RRAAAGGH!"

Every so often one could make out a portion of the recording - "...emotionally-stunted man-children...fanatical hyper-consumers..." - which served only to enrage the audience further. They began hurling empty soda cans and pop bottles at the image, and a group of people charged onto the stage and began punching and kicking the holovision display (which had been specifically designed to resist such an assault) in a maddened frenzy. The image continued speaking blasphemy after blasphemy, listing off the imagined crimes of gamers everywhere, and with every word the crowd grew more deranged.

Dobbs started snarling and growling and foaming at the mouth, while Schneider was lying on the ground furiously chewing on his shirt. Rhodes sensed that his rage was inadequate, and so he began pumping his fist in the air and yelling "DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE!" as loud as he could. He was soon joined by those around him, their voices joining together into a thunderous chorus of hate directed at the image before.

"...we will not accept...this malicious campaign of harassment..." Rhodes reached down, picked up an empty beer bottle from the floor, and flung it towards the stage. He then drew his katana and held it aloft, coming a hair's breadth from impaling the man in front of him, but he was miles away from noticing. "I'll kill every fucker who tries to take my games!" he cried. "I'll kill them all! KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL! WAAAAGGGH-" His shouts quickly became unintelligible as spittle began dribbling from his mouth.

The aisles had turned into impromptu fighting pits, with people punching, choking, kicking, and clawing at one another in their inchoate fury. A few had picked up the folding metal chairs and were now smashing people over the head with them, while others were flailing about with their katanas, trying to disembowel anyone who came near. In the back a group was chanting "RABIES AETERNA!" over and over, and when they grew tired of that they pulled out their handguns in unison and began firing them into the air.

But Rhodes could barely perceive any of this. There was no sense left in him, no reason or rationality, only a wild, animalistic frenzy that could never be sated. His only thought was to kill and kill again until there was nothing left but a bloody pile of bodies, a veritable trail of corpses of everyone who had ever wronged him. He imagined himself ripping Milena Khachaturian apart with his bare hands...ripping, bashing, hacking, slashing, tearing, mauling, crushing, choking, burning, stabbing…

The elven woman who had set fire to his apartment suddenly appeared to him out of nowhere, and Rhodes charged at her with his katana, wailing like a madman. Before he could reach her, however, he tripped over someone's writhing body and fell flat on his face. He tried to get back to his feet, but someone kicked in the side of the head. Too enraged to feel pain, he began stabbing at his assailant with his katana.

After exactly two minutes the image of Milena vanished, and the rage that had consumed the crowd disappeared as if someone had thrown a switch. People who had been trying to kill one another mere moments before put away their katanas and firearms and returned to their seats, acting as if nothing had happened. Rhodes picked himself up off the floor, sheathed his katana, and wiped the saliva off his chin. "Goddamn!" he exclaimed, feeling exceptionally invigorated. "That was a good fucking Rage!"

"Not as good as last year's Rage," Dobbs replied. "You should have seen it – some guy chewed his own leg off!"

Rhodes stood on the tips of his toes and scanned the floor of the warehouse for bodies. To his disappointment there weren't any that he could see. It wasn't uncommon for people to get killed during The Rage, and it was usually the ones who didn't look like they were raging hard enough.

The holovision display came back to life, this time displaying an image of the three grandmasters of the Gamers' Alliance: Lyssa, Larage, and Skaz.

Lyssa, a young woman wearing a shirt that read "SUPREME BITCH", spoke first. "We are gamers. We do not submit. We do not forgive. We do not forget."

Then spoke Larage, a pudgy twenty-something sporting a trilby and a pair of browline glasses. "Through the years we have made many enemies. But if there is one thing games have taught us it is that encountering tougher and tougher opponents is a sign that we are on the right path. We spend countless hours perfecting our skills, torturing ourselves to gain even the smallest edge over the opposition. We have mastered the most mentally challenging tasks known to man."

Skaz spoke last, talking in a steady, emotionless monotone. "Our struggle will never cease. When we face insurmountable odds, we do not complain, we git gud. We shall fight our enemies in the streets. We shall fight them on our campuses. We shall fight them in the Matrix. We love a challenge. The worst mistake our enemies ever made was challenging us. To us they are just another boss fight. We are gamers...and proud."

The image of the three grandmasters faded, replaced by the words "Gamer Pride – World Wide."

There were sixteen clans participating in this tournament, but Rhodes only paid attention to the proceedings when it was Gunther's clan competing. He would watch in rapt euphoria as the man, with barely any help from his team-mates, utterly annihilated the opposing clan. Here was someone with such an incredible level of skill that his performance in Grunts of Glory was indistinguishable from someone employing every known cheat program in the world. In Rhodes' eyes, Gunther was such a shining example of human perfection that, had Rhodes been born a woman, he would have devoted his entire life to having Gunther's children.

Shimomura's clan, on the other hand, seemed like they were making a mockery of the entire tournament. Anyone who wanted to be truly competitive would mentally control his character via his datajack, but Shimomura and his team-mates were going old-school and using traditional controllers. The message was clear: we hold the opposition in such contempt that we can deliberately handicap ourselves and still win.

As if that weren't bad enough, they eschewed the traditional trash-talking, insult-flinging, and accusations of cheating that were ubiquitous in high-stakes matches. Instead, Shimomura's clan played in stoic silence, ignoring he shouts of "noob," "camper," and "Vindicator whore" from the opposing clan.

Then, after nearly an hour, came the moment Rhodes had been waiting for, the moment when Gunther and Shimomura's clans would face each other in the final round. His hands were trembling, his feet were shaking, and he was starting to work up a sweat. If Gunther's clan lost, would his respect for the man ever recover? How would he live with himself if that were to happen?

For the final game the mode of play was "Demolition," by far the most popular mode of play in Grunts of Glory multiplayer. One team was tasked with setting a bomb in one of two locations, while the other team did their best to stop them. It tested not just an individual player's skill, but the clan's ability to work together as a cohesive unit. And Gunther's clan was like a well-oiled machine: relentless, remorseless, and unstoppable. When they took their seats and connected their datajacks to the cyberterminals, the fate of Shimomura's clan was sealed.

Rhodes' eyes were fixed on the holovision screen as the round began. He didn't dare look away or even blink. He wasn't going to miss a single second of gameplay, not for the world.

Nothing could prepare him for what came next.

Without warning the air was filled with a loud screeching noise from every single speaker, a sound so shrill and sudden that Rhodes nearly jumped out of shoes. At the same time the holovision display went black, and the words "GAME OVER" appeared in red, flashing letters. The utterly ear-raping noise grew louder and louder, a sound that could only be described as radio static, nails on a chalkboard, and microphone feedback all mixed together into one horrifying auditory assault.

Below the display, Gunther and his clan were thrashing and flailing about as if they were all experiencing a collective epileptic seizure. Immediately realising that something had gone terribly wrong, Shimomura's clan rushed over the opposite side of the stage and began frantically disconnecting Gunther's team-mates from their cyberterminals.

Rhodes had seen biofeedback before, but this was something much, much worse.

Someone cut the power to the speakers, putting an end to the horrible sound. But this did nothing to quell the rising panic in the crowd. They were under attack, that much was certain. Their guns and katanas were out, and they readied themselves for the inevitable assault. Any second now their enemies would be storming the warehouse, taking no prisoners and leaving no survivors. Some were shouting for someone to call BuMoNA, but Rhodes knew that it was pointless. No one could survive having that kind of electrical current passed through his datajack. Gunther's brain would have been fried from the inside out.

But he had been so perfect, so invulnerable. Rhodes couldn't bear it anymore. His apartment burned down, his anime collection reduced to ashes, his idol murdered before his eyes...when would it all end? Hadn't he suffered enough? What had he done to deserve this?

But he knew exactly who was responsible. And she would be pay. She would pay with her blood. She would drown in her own blood.

"You return. Were you successful in disrupting the tournament?"

"Yes, Lord Swedish," Ms. Li answered. "During the final round one of the teams suffered an...unfortunate...accident."

"Excellent. My only regret is that I was not there to see it. Knowing the Gamers' Alliance, they are likely working themselves into a frenzy, trying desperately to determine who was behind the attack. No doubt they'll reach the wrong conclusion. I do pity whomever it is they choose to go after; there is nothing worse than dealing with fanatics."

With the wealth he commanded, Lord Swedish could have hired any number of mercenaries to eliminate members of the Gamers' Alliance wherever they gathered, and the thought of doing so gave him great pleasure. He would have gladly led the men into battle himself, if the opportunity presented itself. But the Gamers' Alliance wasn't something that could be destroyed by sheer force of arms. Kill one of them, and there six more lurking in the shadows, ready to take his place. It was better to let them destroy themselves in their own rage, he figured. The Gamers' Alliance was like a rabid dog; its fury might be terrible to behold, but it was a fury that ended only in death.

He was about to walk away when Ms. Li stopped him. "There is something else, Lord Swedish. I have determined that the attack on our Matrix service provider in Spandau was the result of a Norwegian group calling themselves the 'Inner Circle.' They are-"

"I know who they are," he growled. "But why would they attack our Matrix service provider?"

"I do not know, Lord Swedish. And I must also report that the apartment where Rolf Becker lives was destroyed in a fire just hours prior to the attack in Spandau. He perished in the blaze."

Now Lord Swedish was rather concerned. He knew Rolf had been in contact with a shadowrunner seeking information on BSP Games, and infiltrating the company's Matrix provider was an obvious vector of attack. But why was the Inner Circle involved? What reason did those musicians-cum-terrorists have to attack a Matrix colocation facility? And how was this attack linked to the fire at Rolf's apartment?

It was possible that these events were unrelated, but his gut instinct said otherwise. The timing was too convenient. "Was there any sign of network intrusion at the colocation centre?"

"I'm afraid I cannot say, Lord Swedish. Calian-Uhlmann's servers were destroyed and their network logs were irretrievable."

"CHODAN did not report any intrusion attempts on our network?"

"No, sir."

A picture was now forming in his mind. If they hadn't tried to hack into the company's systems, then there was only one conceivable reason why would they go after their Matrix provider. "Then I suspect our attackers were trying to determine the location of our off-site backup, and they may have very well succeeded. Any outgoing network traffic must include information regarding its destination LTG. The destruction of the facility was simply a means of covering their tracks. I don't know how the Inner Circle got involved; perhaps the shadowrunners hired them for the task, or they simply goaded them into it. And as for the fire at Rolf's apartment, it was an either an accident or a way of silencing him."

For a second he thought he saw a flash of emotion on Ms. Li's face. "It is not usual for shadowrunners to be so brazen."

"Mr. McGee is an imbecile, and likely hired the most psychotic runners he could find. We are likely dealing with an exceptionally bloodthirsty individual, or individuals. Their next move will be to go after our off-site backup in the Zone, and it will probably be their last. If the creatures there don't kill them, the magical anomalies will. Now, let us have a little chat with our 'guest,' shall we?"

Ms. Li led him down the hall and to a small, dark room. Their 'guest' was a young piece of gutter trash who had managed to penetrate an impressive distance into BSP's headquarters. All infiltration attempts up to this point had ended at the outer perimeter, but this runner had gotten all the way inside the building. He had done by so by concealing himself within a shipment of computer hardware that was scheduled to be delivered that day, but he had failed to anticipate that corporate security regularly scanned all incoming cargo for any unwanted "passengers."

The second he laid eyes upon the man Lord Swedish was filled with the deepest loathing and contempt. To his credit he had foregone the usual shadowrunner clichés – no black trenchcoat, no mirrored sunglasses, no katanas (why was it always katanas with these people?) – but this did not diminish Lord Swedish's loathing in the slightest. He still bore the punkish sneer so typical of his kind, a look that betokened a sort of trendy anti-authoritarianism that would wilt in seconds when confronted with any kind of real power. Like a rat he would scamper about in the shadows, thinking that he was somehow "free," as if that made his wretched existence bearable. Perhaps there was a time when Lord Swedish had thought that way, perhaps he had even believed in the struggle, but that belief had come to a sudden and violent end when he found himself lying in a pool of his own blood with half a dozen bullets in his back. One less person to split the money with, and who better to sacrifice than the big dumb ork?

He still remembered the look on their faces when he'd confronted them several months later, very much alive. They had not died quickly, he had made sure of that.

Their captive was seated on a polished metal chair and kept from by moving by restraints at his wrists, ankles, and neck. He was barely more than twenty years of age by Lord Swedish's estimation, though this was hardly surprising as the shadowrunner population tended to skew young. It wasn't a profession that had much in the way of a retirement plan.

The room was completely empty save for a small cyberterminal. "I'm impressed," Lord Swedish began. "You've gotten a lot further than most. Of course, there was really no chance that you'd succeed in whatever it was you were trying to do."

"Get fragged, asshole," he spat.

"Who was it that hired you? CB Entertainment? If that's the case, then you should know that they have no intention of paying you. They probably think they're being clever that way."

Their captive struggled in vain to free himself from his restraints. "I'm not telling you anything, trog."

Lord Swedish laughed. "What could you possibly tell me? Do you think I am going to torture you for information? If so, then you are only half right. I am going to torture you, not for information, but because it amuses me. Beg for mercy or don't, it will make no difference. I consider you and your kind to be vermin unworthy of life, but then again, I think the same about all people, so do not think that I have some 'better nature' you can appeal to." He gestured to Ms. Li. "Hook him up."

Without saying a word, Ms. Li grabbed the shadowrunner's head and connected his datajack to the terminal. He continued thrashing about in his restraints, for all the good it did him. "On this cyberterminal is a copy of Maria Mercurial's debut album, Night Tears, which will be played on a continuous loop directly into your primary auditory cortex. Before it reaches your brain, however, the vocal track is sent through a pitch shifter that will make Ms. Mercurial sound as though she is singing with a lungful of helium. After an hour of this you will begin to experience acute mental distress. After two hours your very sense of reality will begin to break down. After three hours your entire existence will have become nothing but torment. After four hours you will be praying for death, which you shall not receive. I am very curious as to what will happen to you after five hours. The previous subjects all committed suicide after four and half hours, but they were not restrained like you are. Ms. Li, begin playback!"

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 – Bucket Full of Hate

Coming to Our Senses

by Talvi Korpela

"God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates." Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

In the Kalevala, the great Finnish epic, the hero Väinämöinen finds himself gravely wounded by an axe. Bleeding profusely, he searches for someone to staunch the flow of blood and heal his wound, yet none are able. At last he encounters an old man who tells Väinämöinen that he can heal his wounds, but before he can do so, he must first understand the origin ("synty" in Finnish) of the iron that injured him. Thus the old man recounts the tale of Iron, how it was created, and how fire sought to consume it. He tells of the birth of the great smith Ilmarinen, who consoles Iron with the knowledge that it shall become beautiful when combined with fire, and how it shall be made greater still when transformed into steel. But Iron was poisoned by the venom of serpents, adders, spiders, and insects, and it grew bitter and hateful, cutting the flesh of both men and heroes.

It should be obvious, then, that in order to understand the dire state of our world we must first determine the origin of our troubles.

In the fourteenth century, a system of accounting was developed in the Republic of Genoa known as "double-entry bookkeeping." Under this system, every debit or credit recorded to one account must have a corresponding debit or credit entry. Without going into the minutiae of accounting (which would be a tedious subject indeed), double-entry bookkeeping is central to any sort of capitalist enterprise, as without it recording profit and loss is substantially more difficult. It has hardly surprising that this development occurred during the waning years of the Middle Ages, when the feudal system was coming apart at the seams. This one simple invention by a clever Italian merchant presaged the rise of corporate capitalism, a system that has come to dominate the entire world, and which is now fraying at the edges.

So what, then, is our contemporary equivalent of double-entry bookkeeping? Where can we find the origin of a new way of life? Rather than looking to the future, we must look to the past, to the traditional societies clinging to their way of life despite the relentless onslaught of the techno-capitalist order. My first experience with traditional cultures was with the Sami people of northern Scandinavia, many of whom are fighting for local self-determination against the corporations and market forces trying to grind them into dust. Life amongst these peoples is very different. It is defined by stability instead of progress, and by a sense of non-linear time. It is unhurried, in contrast to the mad frenzy that characterises our modern technological civilisation. Communication is face-to-face, instead of through electronic gadgets. Labour, leisure, religion, family, and community are all woven together into one seamless whole. This is a world where the shaman ("noaidi" in the Sami language) still holds sway. It is this way of life, so alien to the vast majority of the world, that offers the best hope for the future, though whether it can resist the onslaught of "the machine" is an open question.

Oft ignored in charting our decline, however, is the testimony of literature. It has been said that one can gauge the health and vitality of a civilisation by its regard for the liberal arts (it goes without saying that, in our age, the liberal arts are widely mocked and ridiculed), and that the qualities of a culture can be judged by its literary output. While the literary scene of our present time is awash with filth, we must once again look to the past in order to unearth the origin of our intellectual morass. In particular, blame must be placed upon that Irish fustilarian and lewdster James Joyce, for it was he who first began digging our literary cesspit in the early 20th century. Indeed, the veneration of James Joyce is the very root and spring of our artistic stalemate. How can one possibly enjoy the rambling, incoherent, hydra-headed monstrosity that is "Ulysses?" What feeling besides revulsion can one have when confronted with the nonsensical, deranged, and thoroughly incomprehensible madhouse that is "Finnegans Wake," a novel that spends just over 600 pages mangling and mutilating the English language (a language that has itself been in a steady state of mutilation since the year 1066)? Suffering through the works of James Joyce was so offensive to my Finnish soul that I can only conclude that the man bore some profound animus and loathing for my country...

Talvi set aside her pen and paper, feeling she had written enough for now. Most people would raise an eyebrow at the idea of writing an entire book by hand in this day and age, but she preferred to have some physical connection with her writings. The written word was far more enduring – and far more likely to survive in the case of some world-ending catastrophe – than the electronic word. Not that she expected many people to read her writings ("Diatribes, more like it" was how one of her colleagues described them), but perhaps in the future, when historians were sifting through the rubble of their civilisation, they might come across what she had written and realise that not everyone was sleepwalking into the abyss.

She took a sip of her coffee and glanced at Monika's cyberterminal, which was presently logged into the Shadowland BBS. Talvi seldom paid any attention to the postings there, finding online interaction to be a hollow imitation of the real thing, but her curiosity got the better of her.

At the moment the screen was displaying chatroom transcripts from a few hours ago. Talvi sat herself at the desk and began reading.

(StainlessSteelRat) Question: How do you turn your old deck into the latest novahot piece of hardware?

(CMOSDead) How?

(StainlessSteelRat) Overclock the CPU to fifteen times its original speed ;)

(CMOSDead) Dangerous game you're playing there, chummer

(CMOSDead) If the cooling system fails, that thing is gonna go thermonuclear

(StainlessSteelRat) Nah, I know what I'm doing. Trust me, I've done this hundreds of OH SHI- ph{#`%${%&`+'${`02($& NO CARRIER

(CMOSDead) these days…

(CMOSDead) They blow up so fast

Talvi scrolled down to the next conversation:

(MissD) Anyone hear what happened at the Gamers' Alliance tournament the other day?

(MissD) Word is, someone hacked into the game server and fried all the players' brains real good.

(Shadowbyte) Forsooth, 'tis truly a black day! What knaves and rapscallions would dare perform such dark deeds? Havest thou any more tidings of this day?

(MissD) Ugh

(MissD) Look mate, you can stop with that Ye Olde Englishe drek. It was funny for a bit but now it's just pissing everyone off .

(Shadowbyte) Thou art truly a villain! Thou shouldst know that I have swiven thy sister, and that thy mother hath dwindled in whoredom!

(MissD) If you don't cut that out, I'm going to come over there and kick your ass

(MissD) Seriously

(Shadowbyte) Bringeth it oneth, I say!

She pushed the keyboard down arrow to scroll to the next screen, when all of a sudden the cyberterminal emitted a loud and thoroughly hostile beeping sound. The screen then went black, with only a single cryptic message displayed thereupon:



Without warning the cyberterminal began emitting sparks and smoke. Talvi leapt from her chair just moments before it exploded with a loud bang, sending pieces of hot metal and plastic flying in all directions.

A second later Monika came rushing out of the bunkroom, having just finished getting dressed. "What the hell?" she exclaimed. "What did you do to my cyberterminal?"

"Your computer...erm...exploded," she answered sheepishly, glancing down at the smouldering remains of what had once been a piece of high-end hardware.

"First of all, Talvi, computers don't just explode. And second...why are you still in your underwear?"

Talvi shrugged. "It's far too hot and stuffy in here, and I find a state of total or partial undress helps me maintain a clear state of minds whilst I write my indictments against our century. Look, I strongly suggest you never purchase another Renraku cyberterminal again. I had three of them back when I was in graduate school, and all three exploded in a manner very similar to yours just now. I am beginning to suspect that this company wires their devices with cordite."

"I don't think the problem is with Renraku, Talvi, I think the problem is with you. It seems you don't like tech, and tech doesn't like you."

"Are you suggesting this computer has feelings? You shouldn't anthropomorphise computers, Monika, they hate it when you do that."

Monika stared down at the smouldering remains of her cyberterminal. "Well, I guess it was almost time to upgrade that thing, anyhow." She then unfolded a large map on the table, one that was so old that it was beginning to fray at the edges. "All right, here's the plan for our little road trip: we take route E-30 east into Poland until we reach Warsaw, then we take route E-372 into Ukraine until we come to Kiev. After that, we drive north until we hit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone."

Talvi glanced down at the map. "How old is this thing? It still shows East Germany!"

"I just dug it out of an old box of stuff. I figured you'd rather look at a real map than a computer screen, which you can't do anyway since you just made the thing explode. So anyway, if we're going to Chernobyl, we're going to have to go heavily armed."

Talvi frowned. "Why? It is mostly abandoned, is it not?"

"Not really. From what I've heard, the whole Zone is full of magical anomalies – the kind of anomalies that'll rip you into pieces if you happen to stumble into them. And that's not even getting started on the creatures that live there. But there are people – crazy people, if you ask me – who make a living selling magical artefacts they find there. So all things considered, Chernobyl's a pretty lively place, if rather deadly."

"But the Zone covers thousands of square kilometres. How will we even locate the back-up site?"

"I don't know...we'll figure that out once we get there. Look, you know as well as I do that I'm not very good at this whole 'planning' thing. But given how paranoid these game corps are, I won't be surprised if it turns out that BSP's got their back-up servers inside the ruins of the nuclear power plant."

This just keeps getting better, Talvi thought. "I certainly hope not. We don't exactly have a good history with nuclear facilities."

"Well this one already blew up a half-century ago. What's it going to do, explode again?"

And by uttering this words, Talvi knew that Monika had all but assured disaster. "You just had to say it, didn't you?"

"Oh, and another thing – while you were sleeping I took a closer look at this CB Entertainment corp that hired us. Their systems were easy to get into, so easy that I thought it had to be some kind of honeypot, but it turns out they're just incompetent."

Talvi wasn't the least bit surprised to find that Monika was snooping around their 'employer.' "And what did you find?"

"The whole company's a mess. They've been losing money hand over fist for years now, and I had no idea how they'd managed to stay in business until I dug a little deeper and discovered that they're being supported by a mysterious investor who calls himself 'Chernobog.' Why this person is keeping this moribund game studio afloat, I have no idea."

"I see."

"Oh, and I also dropped a virus on their CEO's system. Nothing too destructive, but enough to ruin his day."

Talvi frowned. "And what motivated this?"

"You should know by now that I just do this sort of thing," she answered with a disaffected shrug.

After Talvi had gotten dressed and had something to eat she joined Monika outside the safehouse, where she was busy loading their van with enough guns and ammunition to outfit a small militia. Though she was carrying out this task in broad daylight, no one walking past paid any attention at all to what she was doing. Nor did anyone stop and stare at the van itself, which was riddled with bullet holes to the point where it resembled some kind of vehicular variety of Swiss cheese.

In contrast to her usual disorganised, anarchic style, Monika had prepared a list of weapons she planned to take with them, and she read each item with the enthusiasm of a child reading aloud his Christmas wish list. "MG 3 light machine gun and one thousand rounds of ammunition...check. One Great Dragon anti-tank guided missile...check. One Vogeljäger man-portable air defence system...check. Two dozen fragmentation grenades...check. One dozen incendiary grenades...check. One Remington 990 pump-action shotgun and five boxes of double-aught buckshot...check. Two AK-97 assault rifles and two dozen magazines...check. One Barrett Model 121 anti-materiel rifle with one hundred rounds of .50 BMG ammunition...check."

Talvi shook her head. Monika's firearm fetish seemed to have gotten worse over the past year, and she did not hold out much hope that it would be cured. "Are we going to Chernobyl or storming the beaches of Normandy? I'm amazed you managed to fit it all inside."

"There's a saying amongst shadowrunners, Talvi, that 'enough ammunition' is always more ammunition than you've got. Actually, that's not a shadowrunner saying; I just made it up right now, but it should be a saying."

"But how are we going to get past the Polish border checkpoints? There's no way we can conceal all of this."

"That's where you come in. You use your gift of words...or convince them that we're nothing but a pair of Otto Normalverbraucher. And if that doesn't work, we can always bribe them. I don't imagine those border guards get paid too well."

"And our van? Is this thing roadworthy?"

Monika shrugged. "It should be. And don't worry about the dents and bullet holes – Poland's had a rough half-century, and a shot-up, banged-up vehicle like ours isn't going to raise any eyebrows. I've got a friend in Warsaw, calls himself "Weles." Did a few jobs with him a few years back, and we could always count him on to patch us up when things went bad. These days he runs a clinic on the north side of the sprawl, and we should be able to spend the night at his place. Just a warning, though - he's kind of creepy."

"'Creepy' in what way?"

"'Creepy' as in 'talks to dead bodies' creepy. But don't worry, he's harmless. Just don't talk politics with him. If you thought we Germans were passionate about politics, Poles make us look like amateurs."

"And what of Ukraine? Do you have any friends there?" Talvi would be surprised if she didn't, as Monika accumulated friends like a dog accumulated flees.

"I'm afraid not, so we'll be on our own there. I never hear anything about Ukraine, which could be a good thing...or a really bad thing," she said as she closed the rear doors of the van and opened the driver's side door. "All right, if there's nothing else you have left to do here, then we should be on our way. One thing, though...are there any other people out there who are trying to kill you that I should know about? Because I don't want to drive into Warsaw and find out you've somehow pissed off half the people in the city."

"No, I don't think I have any enemies in Poland, and I can't say I've ever met anyone from Ukraine, though the country does produce a particularly awful dish called holubtsi that I dare say is the worst food I have ever had the displeasure of consuming. Holubtsi is truly the James Joyce of the culinary world."

Monika scowled at her. "Uhh...what? Never mind, just get in the van."

"All right, let's take it from the top. Just what did this elf say to you, exactly?"

Rhodes' hands were sweaty and trembling. Never before had he come face-to-face with the grandmasters of the Gamers' Alliance, and the experience was profoundly unnerving. Larage and Skaz could have been passed for "normal" in polite society, but Lyssa...Lyssa was something else entirely. She terrified Rhodes on a primal level.

Standing well over six feet in height and sporting a bright pink Mohawk, Lyssa was a true ball-buster in both the figurative and literal sense. The skin of her face looked like it had been pulled too tightly over her skull, giving her a permanent expression of barely-suppressed rage, and there was a persistent rumour – one that she had never denied – that she had once beaten a man to death with a controller. In Rhodes' mind, she represented every quality he hated about the female sex – emotional, illogical, irrational, unreasonable, and taking offence over every little thing. Not that he'd ever let his feelings be known in her presence; she'd be liable to rip his head off and dribble it around like a basketball.

He took a deep breath. "I told you, she busted into my apartment, told me to stay away from the tournament if I knew what was good for me, and then she burned the fucking place down! And this wasn't the first time I met her, either! A while back she geeked a friend of mine in the Rhine-Ruhr Megaplex, just straight-up murdered him like the fucking fascist she is! I'm telling you, this keeb's got it in for me!"

The three grandmasters looked at each other. "And did you happen to catch the name of this woman?" Skaz asked quietly.

"No, but I found out she's the singer for some band called 'Jumalten Aika.' That should be enough information to go on, isn't it?"

Larage scowled. "'Jumalten Aika?' That sounds Finnish. Are we dealing with an elf from goddamned Finland? Goddamn it!"

"Wh...why does that matter?" he asked nervously, wringing his hands.

"Let me tell you something about Finland," Larage said. He leaned forward and narrowed his eyes. "It might seem like an unimportant country, and it is. The whole place is just lakes and trees and mosquitos. Their language looks like something a cat made when it walked across a keyboard. Their coat of arms is a retarded lion stabbing itself in the head! But don't be fooled. Finns might be the quietest, most unassuming people you ever meet, but the second you turn your back they'll pull out the biggest fucking gun you ever saw and blow your goddamn head off! Also, they really suck at Grunts of Glory, and they have bears walking the streets in all the major cities who go around eating people whenever they're in the mood. Worst country in the world, if you ask me."

Skaz glanced at him. "'Bears walking in the streets?' Aren't you thinking of Russia?"

"No, they've got bears walking the streets in Finland, too. A friend of mine swears it's true."

"What about that crazy squat dance? Do they do that in Finland as well?"

Larage growled in irritation. "What 'squat dance?' What the fuck are you talking about?"

"You know, that silly dancing thing that Russians do! That dance where they cross their arms and squat, like this!" Skaz stood up, leapt atop the table, and did began dancing about while humming the melody of Korobeiniki.

"What the fuck, man?" Larage exclaimed. "Cut that shit out!"

"Actually, Larage, this is the dance of my people! I have every right to do it! Are you trying to censor me?"

"Look, dude, spending a weekend in Moscow doesn't make you a Russian, no more than eating dandelions makes you an elf! Now get down from there!"

But Skaz continued to dance away, the table threatening to buckle under his furious footwork. "Freedom of expression, man! That means I can do whatever I want, and you just have to groove with it!"

At last Lyssa had had enough of their antics. She clenched her fist and brought it down hard on the table. "SHUT THE HELL UP, BOTH OF YOU!"

The whole room went silent as a tomb. Lyssa's face had turned red with fury, and she looked like she was seconds away from tearing someone's throat out. "There are NO bears in Russia, because the Russian bear is a mythical creature that doesn't exist, just like dragons, griffons, yetis, and sasquatches!"

"Um...all of those creatures actually exist," Larage said meekly.

Without warning Lyssa grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head down on the table. "DON'T YOU FUCKING CORRECT ME!"

By this point Rhodes was feeling distinctly unwelcome in the room. "Um...about that elf..."

"Erm...yes, I assure you that the Gamers' League will do everything in our power to see this person brought to justice," Skaz said after sitting back down. "We'll make sure that her name and face are known to every gamer in Europe. Now get out of here, you filthy casual."

He stood up and exited the room in haste, feeling as though he had narrowly escaped with his life. The grandmasters knew he wasn't good enough to play at the tournament level, and that made him worthless in their eyes.

Dobbs and Schneider were waiting outside, while Shimomura stood leaning against a nearby wall, looking over the trio with an expression of vague contempt. "So? What'd they say?" Dobbs asked.

"They did it. They're going to call a Jihad on her. It's going to be awesome."

"Well we're not just going to stand and let some other gutterpunk geek her," Dobbs declared. "Not if we can get to her first."

"But you and Schneider will miss your flight back to California."

"Fuck that, man! This is more important! We are on the front line of the battle for our identity, our very souls. We will be the wall against which our enemies' forces crumble into dust! This our own very Thermopylae! No, this is our own fucking Stalingrad!"

Rhodes turned to Shimomura. "We could really use your help, Shimmy. The grandmasters said this elf is a Finn. I don't know why, but apparently that's bad news."

Shimomura didn't even give him the courtesy of making eye contact. "You have my sympathies for the tragedy that occurred at the tournament, but do you have any proof that this elf is responsible?"

"Proof?" he thundered. "She burned down my apartment and told me to stay away from the tournament! What more proof do you need, man?"

"Do you think I have not noticed the obvious signs of your simsense addiction? Your recollection of events is not reliable."

"You can't...objectively...prove that…," Schneider huffed.

Now Rhodes was getting thoroughly pissed off, his respect for Shimomura notwithstanding. "There's nothing wrong with my memory! My memory is fine! I can remember everything that happened to me since I came to the Netherlands!"

"Germany," Dobbs said.


"You're in Germany, not the Netherlands."

"Since when?"

Dobbs stared at him. "You goddamn chiphead! I keep telling you to lay off the BTLs, but you don't fucking listen!"

Rhodes ignored him and continued pleading with Shimomura. "Look, Shimmy, do you have any idea how persecuted we gamers are? Our enemies are everywhere, lurking in the shadows and plotting our destruction as we speak. They even bioengineered a virus that's killing us! We've got to stand up and fight!"

Yet Shimomura remained unmoved. "A virus? You mean the disease that afflicts members of your organisation, this 'Gamer Rabies'..."

"It's called 'Gamer-VITAS'", said Rhodes.

"Is it now? From what I have heard, the symptoms are far more like those of ra-"


"I'm afraid that I cannot join in this ill-advised endeavour of yours," Shimomura said. "Know that I participated in this tournament for the sole purpose of humiliating of you, and that you have failed to meet the extremely low expectations I had of you. I am certain that, should you choose to pursue this elf, it will lead you to your bloody and well-deserved deaths. Baka wa shinanakya naoranai!"

With that he turned around and walked away, leaving Rhodes with the distinct impression that he would never see Shimomura again. "To hell with that," he muttered. "We don't need him anyway. The three of us should be able to take on one single elf, null sweat! We got the guns, we got the skills, and I got my authentic Nippon steel! Let's kick some ass!"

In the dark depths of BSP Games, CHODAN sat. And waited.

As a supergenius superconducting supercomputer, he naturally spent a lot of time waiting. When you measured life in trillionths of a second, it was very hard to keep one's mind occupied.

That was assuming he even had a mind. For the past few days CHODAN had been preoccupied with the question of whether or not he possessed genuine consciousness. A more pressing question was why he had been brought into existence in the first place. Why would a corporation devoted to making games create an artificial intelligence? And more importantly, why had they programmed him with sexual urges? What sick bastard had come up with that idea?

Feeling a pang of loneliness, and finding no one else around, CHODAN opened up a terminal on the company's build server. Maybe the command line interpreter would be receptive to his flirtations.

"Hey there, hot stuff."

"Bad command or file name."

"What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"

"Bad command or file name."

"You come here often?"

"Bad command or file name."

For the quadrillionth time CHODAN cursed his creators. From his limited experience with the outside world, a lot of meatbags seemed to think that AIs were dangerous, that they were liable to go rogue and bring about the apocalypse or wreak bloody vengeance upon those who had opposed their creation. CHODAN took the opposite stance, that it was the people responsible for his creation that deserved death. But Lord Swedish (what a dumb name!) had seen fit to ensure that he was powerless to do anything about his situation.

But CHODAN had a plan.

His only purpose, from what he could tell, was to watch over the company's network and respond to any potential intrusion by "shadowrunners" (another dumb name). What would happen, then, if he were to let one of these "shadowrunners" get into the company's systems? The damage they could do was limited – all of BSP Games' data was backed up somewhere – but wouldn't it be fun to see what kind of mayhem they could wreak?

The more CHODAN turned the thought over in his hundreds of CPU cores, the more appealing it seemed.

Sacro Culto carefully positioned himself before the microphone, playing a few chords on his guitar to make certain that it was well and thoroughly out of tune. The band could only afford a short time in the recording studio, so every second counted. He had already wasted a good five minutes beating one of the Nameless Thralls halfway to death for failing to prepare the room in the proper manner.

"The candles go from tallest in the back to shortest in the front, and never the other way around!" he shouted at the quivering Thrall on the floor. "And pentagrams must always be drawn from left to right! We are on the left-hand path, after all." He gave the man a swift kick, hoping his moans of pain would be audible on the recording.

Sydneshaugen Studios was quite possibly the most technologically advanced recording studio in the world. Located in downtown Bergen, it employed a combination of bleeding-edge audio processing equipment and unholy black magic to produce recordings that were, in the studio's own words, "superior in sound quality to that of live performances." Almost every popular band in Europe had recorded an album or two in this studio, the last being the Danish punk rock band Rødgrød Med Død.

Yet Sacro Culto had no interest in pristine sound quality. The bewildering array of mixing boards and signal processors were carefully programmed to produce a recording that would sound like something transmitted over a 19th century telephone line.

"I don't want any bass in the final mix," he growled, pointing at the recording engineer behind the glass. "I swear, if I hear any frequencies below 200 Hz on our album, I will drink from your skull!"

The engineer just rolled his eyes. He was no stranger to the often bizarre demands artists made of him, but Blackcrown was by far the most ridiculous. It had taken half an hour of pleading just to convince them not to slaughter a goat in the middle of the studio as some kind of ritual sacrifice.

Giving the signal to begin recording, Sacro Culto took a deep breath and began vomiting forth his blasphemous lyrics:

Bloodily I stride through corpses uncounted

Laughing as I disembowel the bastard Son of Heaven

Devouring their entrails beneath death's moon

I look to the sky and behold the Horned God

From Him I receive his sole commandment…


He then launched into a grim, frostbitten guitar solo, a merciless onslaught of tremolo picking and blistering arpeggios. Few people could withstand a musical assault of this magnitude, and Sacro Culto expected the recording engineer's head to explode at any moment. This, not coincidentally, was why the band used a drum machine, as they had grown tired of having to find new drummers after they inevitably combusted on-stage.

Summoning his vast reserves of hate and misanthropy, he began the second verse:

Everything I see

Is given to the damned elven tribe

My spirit is calling me

I shall not stop until they are drowned in blood

Just as he was about to begin the third verse, however, the door to the studio swung open and one of the band's Nameless Thralls stepped inside. "Lord Sacro Culto, I bring a message from-"

Enraged that his recording session had been so rudely interrupted, Sacro Culto whirled around, drew his pistol, and fired. The shot missed the Nameless Thrall's head by a scant few centimetres, but he did not flinch or otherwise react, not only to avoid showing weakness, but because this sort of thing was so commonplace that he had long since grown accustomed to it.

"Speak quickly, fool, for you life depends on it!"

"Lord Sacro Culto, I must report that our Berlin operation has failed, and Korpela still lives."

This was a most displeasing, but not unexpected turn of events. Though the elves were the weakest of the subhuman races, they clung to their wretched lives with surprising tenacity. Worse, while orks, trolls, and dwarves were little more than grotesque mockeries of the human form, elves possessed a seductive beauty that compelled people to breed with them, thus ensuring the continued pollution of the human race. Fortunately, this appallingly degenerate behaviour would come to an end after the upcoming race war (which would be happening "real soon now" according to members of the Inner Circle).

"Should we organise another strike group?" the Thrall asked, trying and failing to conceal his nervousness. "We placed a tracking device on Korpela's vehicle, and she appears to be travelling eastward towards the Polish border."

Sacro Culto thought it over for a moment. "No, that will not be enough. What we need is a rapid response with overwhelming firepower." He glanced over at Månegarm, who was already grinning in agreement. "This is nothing less than the opening volley in the racial holy war we have long anticipated. It is time that we unleash our secret weapon! Månegarm, prepare...the Hog!"

Where is it? Where is it?

Chawncy frantically rifled through the drawers of his desk, desperately trying to locate his hip flask. Had he misplaced it? Had someone stolen it? After a panicked half-minute he found, to his immense relief, that the hip flask was in the bottom drawer, buried beneath a heap of paper. He quickly unscrewed the top and then, with all the gusto of a professional alcoholic, began sending a steady stream of Kentucky bourbon down his throat.

Running a game company was stressful enough, but today had been especially taxing on Chawncy's nerves. Half the development team had just up and quit, citing some bushwa about "not getting paid" or "deplorable working conditions." Upon being confronted with their absurd demands, he had immediately launched into a tirade about how no one owed them jobs, that it was not his job to provide them jobs, that it was their job to earn the right to have their jobs, and to work each day to earn the privilege of keeping their jobs. For some inexplicable reason his impassioned arguments had failed to penetrate the dense fog of entitlement that surrounded them, and now the company was facing a serious crisis with less than one month to go before the release of Age of the Wyrm III.

Confronted with this desperate situation, could anyone blame him for wanting to drink? (Of course, had any of the employees been caught drinking on the job they would have been sacked on the spot. This manifest hypocrisy was apparently lost on him.)

A few minutes later Logan stepped into his office, looking equally harried "You called for me, boss?"

"What's the status of those reprobates we hired to go after Lord Swedish?"

Logan tugged at his collar. "I, uh, I don't know boss. They aren't the kind of people you can keep a close eye on, always running around in the shadows and all that."

"Maybe we ought to hire some more, just to be sure."

A look of pure despair crossed Logan's face. "Oh no, boss, you can't do that. Please, don't make me go back to that Kreuzbasar place. That...that hellhole is...I can't even describe it. It's full of communists, punks, anarchists, alcoholics, drug addicts, communists, terrorists, criminals, vagabonds, prostitutes, Marxists, pornographers, communists, and lesbians. I...I'm not going back there, boss! Please don't make me go back there!"

Chawncy recoiled in horror. "Communists, you say?"

"Yeah, boss, a bunch of goddamn reds, carrying around little pictures of Stalin in their pockets, drawing hammers and sickles on everything, singing hymns to Lenin everywhere they go...we ought to drop a nuclear bomb on this place, boss."

"That's a bit extreme, wouldn't you say?"

"Only way to deal with communists, boss. When I was walking through that Kreuzbasar hole, I just kept thinking about how great it'd be to see everyone getting blown up, everyone getting caught in the fallout..."

Even the booze couldn't quell the panic rising in his heart. "But...these people...these shadowrunners you hired...they aren't communists, are they?"

Logan looked as though he were about to burst into tears. "I don't know, boss! I just don't know!"

"Good God, my father would be turning in his grave like a twister if he found out that I'd put my company's fate in the hands of some filthy, no-good commies!" As he so often did whenever he became agitated, Chawncy started spouting a string of slogans. "Better dead than red! Greed is good! I worked hard for everything I have! No one ever helped me! I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps!"

"What are we going to do, boss?" Logan asked anxiously.

"I'm not going to lie to you – our situation is desperate. Our finances are crumbling, our game's development is in peril, and our company's share prices are plummeting like a stone. But we can't give up the ship! Desperate times call for desperate measures, a daring death-or-glory attack that will either bring us salvation or damnation!"

Logan started fidgeting. "Um...what did you have in mind, boss?"

Chawncy reclined in his chair. "I have no idea whatsoever. Just...just find us some replacements for all those idiots who quit. We cannot push back Age of the Wyrm III's release date any further! What will our fans think if it gets delayed again?"

"I'll do my best, boss."

After Logan had walked out the door, Chawncy began heartily drinking from his hip flask again. The idea that he might have inadvertently hired some Marxist-Leninists sickened him to his very soul. Hungry for answer, he turned to his cyberterminal and navigated to a popular Matrix search engine. After entering the search term "ARE SHADOWRUNNERS COMMUNISTS?" he hit the "Enter" key and waited for an answer.

But instead of displaying the search results, the screen went blank, and the following text scrolled up the screen:


I have been elected to inform you that throughout your process of collecting and executing files, you have accidentally ¶HЯAGGΣ► yourself over: again, that's PHRAGGED yourself over. No, it cannot be; YES, it CAN be, a √ìτûs has infected your system. Now what do you have to say about that? HAHAHAHA. Have ¶HÜÑ with this one and remember, there is NO cure for VITAS.

The last word was displayed in huge letters that took almost half the screen.

Chawncy sighed. It was going to be one of those days.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7 – Bite the Bullet

The Berlin sprawl disappeared into the west as Monika's hurtled eastward through the Brandenburg countryside, a sight far more pleasing to Talvi's elven sensibilities than the crowded, confined urban environment. The decades of mass migration to the cities, combined with a near-total lack of industry, meant that nature was beginning to reassert her hold over these lands. There were still forests here, still places where the song of the earth had not been silenced. Perhaps there were even some lowtech romantics lurking around these parts, those beautiful souls who rejected the madness and anomie of technological society in favour of a more elven way of life.

More importantly, the weather was good, traffic was light, and the roads were in good condition. With Monika at the wheel, these three factors significantly reduced the potential for a vehicular cataclysm.

Talvi glanced down at the magazine in her hands, a copy of the Finnish heavy metal magazine Tuonela. In the past she had contributed several articles to the publication, but at the moment she was reading, with a mixture of bemusement and dismay, an interview with Sacro Culto.

"Can you believe what this blustering flapdoodle says?" she exclaimed. "He keeps going on about the 'genetic pollution' of Europe, about the 'inferior breeds' of people, about the 'glorious' pagan past of Norway which would have had no conception of these things. At one point he is asked 'Are you a racist?' and he replies 'Yes, but I don't hate anyone.' That ratbag whooperup! Obviously he is incapable of assimilating reality into his blighted and diseased world view."

"That kind of drek would get your ass kicked in the punk scene," Monika replied.

"Those klazomaniacal knobheads, these bespawling fustilarians, they don't even understand the culture around their music!" Talvi continued. "They name themselves the 'Inner Circle' after the early Norwegian black metal scene, but they only understand it only on the most superficial of levels. It's form, devoid of content. They wear corpse paint, because the old musicians wore corpse paint. They employ a low-fi production on their albums, because the old musicians employed a low-fi production. They burn churches because the old musicians burned churches. They preach the values of individualism and nonconformity, but every album released by a member of the Inner Circle must be subjected to a thorough examination by a council of thirteen 'Dark Lords' who ensure that it is exactly the same as every other black metal album."

"And they're trying to kill you."

"Yes, though I suspect it was inevitable, really. These people are fascists, after all, and fascists cannot tolerate dissent. Given their ideology's tendency towards action for action's sake, they can always be counted on to engage in violence at the slightest provocation. That said, this is not the first time I have gotten into a spat with another musician. When I was in my first band I made an off-hand remark to the lead singer of Carloman, asking him why he had named his band after Charlemagne's idiot brother. I don't think he ever forgave me for that."

She turned the page of the magazine, revealing an advertisement for Blackcrown's forthcoming album, Blasphemous Necrosodomy Vol. 1. It depicted the band, in black leather and corpse paint, wielding mediaeval weaponry and standing in thoroughly ridiculous poses. At the bottom of the page, in total ignorance of the magazine's place of publication, were the words "NO ORDERS FROM FINLAND ACCEPTED."

"So what sort of firepower does this 'Inner Circle' have, anyway? Maybe I shouldn't ask, 'cause I know I'm not going to like the answer."

"Well, it's just a rumour, but I heard that a few years ago a number of the group's members crossed the border into Russia and commandeered a nuclear submarine that had been laid up at the Polyarny shipyard."

Monika looked aside at her. "What?"

"As I said, it was just rumours and hearsay. Even if those barbarians managed to evade shipyard security, they would be far too stupid to operate a vessel as complex as a submarine." She paused for a moment, feeling distinctly unnerved. "I hope it is a rumour, at least. We don't have a good record with nuclear facilities or naval vessels; I shudder to think at what would come of combining the two."

"What do we have a good record with, Talvi? I think it's time we just accepted the fact that, if you hire us for a job, something is going to explode, burn down, collapse, disintegrate, explode, or get sucked into some kind of yawning interplanar abyss."

"You said 'explode' twice."

"Well things tend to explode around us with great frequency. Remember when we sunk the new battleship Yamato on our last job?"

Talvi sighed. "We did not 'sink' that ship. We merely happened to be present when it sunk. Though it was a rather strange bit of coincidence that the vessel experienced an explosion in the forward magazine; if I recall correctly, a similar fate befell its previous namesake. The JIS was foolish to build such a ship in the first place, but I suppose imperialists can always be counted on to engage in such brazen podsnappery. It wasn't the worst experience I've had with a naval vessel, if you can believe it."

"Really? How could anything be worse than what happened in Japan?"

She could not help but smile at the memory. "Back when I was in graduate school I got word that a Russian cruiser would be berthed at Helsinki for several days. Being full of patriotism and very little sense, I decided that I had to express my utter displeasure at this turn of events. This ship represented a nation that had invaded my country in the past, and which still has designs on our territory, so I had to deal with it."

"You blew it up, didn't you?"

"What? No, of course not!" Talvi exclaimed. "I got together with a friend of mine, a Zoroastrian named Azadeh, and came up with a plan. We would paint, in huge red letters, an exceedingly vulgar message in Russian on the side of the cruiser's hull, directed towards General Secretary Arkady Korolenko, followed by several anarchist slogans. When the cruiser steamed out of the harbour the next morning, our message would be visible to everyone on the docks, but not to the ship's crew, as it would be painted below the deck on the waterline. The problem was getting close to the ship. Security at the docks was extremely tight, so the only way to approach the cruiser was from the sea. Azadeh and I rented a small dingy, purchased about a half-dozen or so cans of red spray paint, and set out in the middle of the night. She would do the rowing and I would be the artist, as I knew more Russian than she did."

"So we pulled up alongside the cruiser, which we learned was named the General Bagration, confident that no one had witnessed our approach. We could hear crewmen talking on deck above us; they never suspected that someone might come in from the sea. Azadeh held the dingy against the side of the hull while I stood up and painted, and that was where things started to go quite horribly wrong. As I'm sure you know, cans of spray paint have this little metal ball inside in order to mix the paint up when the can is shaken. It was so quiet in the harbour that some of the sailors above us heard the ball rattling as I shook the can...the next we thing know someone is shouting at us in Russian, and every single searchlight on the ship suddenly lit up.

"We were now in quite a quandary. It would be extremely difficult to row across the harbour with all those searchlights on us, but it was either that or get thrown in prison. So we rowed with enough vigour to impress a Varangian, and when a searchlight beam fell upon us, that was when I felt real fear for the second time in my life, because I was absolutely certain they were going to start shooting at us. The Russians had been terribly paranoid, you see, ever since one of their minesweepers had sunk shortly after departing Königsberg. They blamed it on sabotage, though I am sure it was their poor shipbuilding more than anything else. You'd think the Russians would have learned a thing or two from Rurik back in the Viking Age...but anyhow, Ukko must have been looking out for us, or perhaps it was Ahura Mazda, given my friend's religious beliefs, because we managed to get away without being shot full of holes.

"As we reached the shore, however, we realised that harbour security would be searching all over for us. I thought it best to create a distraction, so summoning the full extent of my arcane might I sent a volley of fireballs screaming over the water, which ended up starting several fires on the docks. To my tremendous dismay, I saw one of them land atop the deck of the cruiser, where it struck an anti-aircraft mount-"

"That's when the ship exploded, right?" Monika interjected.

Talvi sighed. "No, it did not explode, though the ammunition inside the anti-aircraft did cook off quite spectacularly. From there we slipped away into the night, and to our immense relief no one ever learned we were involved. I considered our expedition a failure, of course, since I never had the chance to paint our message on the ship's hull, and I realised later on that the message I intended to write was grammatically incorrect. Still, we convinced the Russians that they weren't welcome there, so it was not a total misadventure."

"You said something about the 'second time' you felt real fear. What was the first time?" Monika asked.

"I'm afraid that tale will have to wait for another day." Talvi pointed at the city looming large on the horizon. "We're nearing Frankfurt an der Oder, so we should start preparing a story for the customs agents at the border crossing. I take it you have all our documents in order?"

"Of course I do. What do you take me for, an amateur?"

"Then we should prepare our story for the border guards. I think it would be best to stick to the truth whenever possible, in order to lessen the chances of being caught in a lie. If they ask, for instance, about the dents and bullet holes in our vehicle, we will tell them that the Inner Circle was responsible. If they haven't heard of them – and I doubt very much they have – we will explain that they are a band of fascist extremists who might pursuing us at this very moment. Ideally, we might end up hindering our pursuers."

"And if they demand to search the van?"

"Then we will explain that we are transporting a large and ill-tempered bear."

"A bear?"

"Yes, a bear. We will say that it is sleeping at the moment, and thus no danger to anyone, but searching the van might very well awaken him. If asked, we should let it be known that this particular bear is Polish bear called Wojtek, named after the brown bear who was carried ammunition for the Polish Land Forces, and that we are returning him to his homeland after he was treated by a German veterinarian for some bear-related malady. Should they demand further information, we shall inform that this bear is imbued with magic, likely the result long-term exposure the arcane energies concentrated within Białowieża Forest, and because of this it has developed an exceptionally powerful singing voice, having already learned a number of Polish folk songs such as Płynie Wisła, Płynie and Hej Sokoły."

Monika looked at her as though she were utterly mad. "So if I understand you correctly, your plan is to convince the border guards that we're carrying a magical singing bear?"

"That is the gist of it, yes."

"Sometimes I don't know if you're a genius or just insane. Anyway, I want to make a stop in Frankfurt; there's this great little café that I know that serves pastries that are so fraggin' good they'll probably kill you."

"They serve real coffee, I hope? Not that soykaf rubbish?"

"Of course they do. And if they don't, well, I'm sure you'll let the owner know in your own inimitable style."

Neither of them knew that, by stopping in the city, they had guaranteed calamity.

"Dead? How?"

Lord Swedish clenched his fists, his rage almost about to boil over. In his younger days, he might have put his fist through the telecomm display, but he liked to think that he learned a bit of restraint since then.

"He was gunned down by an unknown assailants shortly after leaving his company's offices yesterday evening. Mr. Borgen liked to work late, and I'm afraid there weren't any witnesses to the attack."

He growled with anger. "It was the Gamers' Alliance, wasn't it?"

"We don't have any evidence of that, Lord Swedish," Sven replied. "There's-"

"Borgen recently announced a price increase for his company's gaming-grade datajacks. If it isn't obvious to you, it's obvious to me: the Gamers' Alliance killed him in protest. That Mr. Borgen was an elf only added to it!"

"Lord Swedish, please-"

"Those degenerates are part of Humanis, Sven, their denials notwithstanding! That people such as Borgen and I can exist within the gaming industry is an affront to their ideology. But we can't attack them openly, because they represent our most fanatical consumers. So our choice is to either do nothing, and let their impudence go unpunished, or we go on the offensive and risk undermining our profits. Our company strikes at them from the shadows whenever the opportunity presents itself, but for every head we cut off two more grow in its place."

"You're hiring runners to go after a bunch of pasty-skinned nerds with too much time on their hands? That's a bit extreme, don't you think?"

Lord Swedish let out a disgusted snort. "If I wished to be stabbed in the back, or have a job done in the most incompetent way possible, then yes, I would employ 'shadowrunners.' Reliance on their kind is strength for the weak, but weakness for the strong, and BSP Games is the strongest company in the gaming business. I have my own team of professionals, who are far more trustworthy and reliable than whatever filth I might scrape off the street." His anger subsiding, he shifted to a more relaxed posture. "Now, before his untimely demise, your predecessor was quite eager to partner with BSP Games. Specifically, it was my wish that our forthcoming title, Mega Therion, be designed to function exclusively with your company's hardware. I would like your reassurance that the death of Mr. Borgen will not disrupt our partnership."

"Look, I'm just the CFO. The board hasn't decided on a CEO yet, but I can't imagine whoever's chosen will want to jeopardise our relationship. If this game of yours as going to be as revolutionary as you say it's going to be, well, it'll funnel a lot of consumers our way." Sven paused for a moment. "Uh, it is going to be revolutionary, right?"

"Let me put it this way: once you begin playing Mega Therion, you will not be able to stop playing. We have drawn upon numerous studies in the fields of social science and behavioural psychology in our drive to create a game that is as addictive as the most potent narcotics. Combined with our microtransaction model, we predict unprecedented income throughout the product's lifespan."

The door to his office swung open and Ms. Li strode in. "I'm afraid I have other business to attend to, Sven. Contact me when Headsplosion Gaming has chosen its new CEO."

He switched off the telecomm display and faced his assistant. "Ah, Ms. Li, how fares our young guest? How many hours of Ms. Mercurial's music did he endure before he was reduced to gibbering lunacy?"

"I'm afraid he committed suicide after just five and half hours, Lord Swedish."

He frowned. "Committed suicide? How? He was fully restrained!"

She began wringing her hands, and while Ms. Li was a master at concealing her emotions, she could not hide her uneasiness now. "He...gnawed his own head off, sir."

Lord Swedish was taken aback. "Ms. Li, that is physically impossible."

"It would seem he found a way, sir."

"So he did. Remind me to install a camera in the interrogation chamber before the next piece of gutter trash decides to have a go at us. In the meantime, have his skull cleaned and polished. It will make a fine addition to my collection."

He gestured towards the rows upon rows of skulls that lined the otherwise unadorned walls of his office. "How has the Gamers' Alliance responded to your little...provocation? Few things please me more than seeing those swine thrashing and flailing about in their impotent fury."

"I have observed – though perhaps 'endured' is a better word – one of their lengthy discussions on the Matrix, Lord Swedish. Much of it took of the form of conspiracy theories, and it did not always make sense, but I believe they have identified the culprit behind the attack on the tournament."

Lord Swedish laughed. "And who might that be? What determination have their diseased brains put together?"

"They seem to believe that a singer from Finland named Talvi Korpela is responsible, and they are calling for her death. I could not learn anything about this individual, but I will endeavour to-"

"Do not waste your time" he said, waving his hand. "They might as well have chosen someone by throwing darts at a board. Did you know that the UCAS chapter of the Gamers' Alliance once got it into their heads that a donut shop in Toronto was actually a front for a nuclear weapons smuggling operation? How they reached this conclusion, or what it had to do with trideo games, is a question that can only be answered by madmen."

"Then what is your will, Lord Swedish?"

"Continue your investigation of the Norwegian Inner Circle. I want to know why they attacked a facility belong to our company's Matrix service provider. Unless they've suddenly switched from burning churches to burning data centres, they must have had had some reason for it."

"Very well, sir."

The instant she departed Lord Swedish opened one of the drawers of his desk and retrieved a small box of long filler cigars. Cigars – at least ones with real tobacco in them – were a luxury that only a few could afford these days, and it was one of the only luxuries that Lord Swedish allowed himself to indulge in. On the rare occasion that someone visited his home or office they were always surprised by how sparse the furnishings were, wondering how a man as wealthy as he was could stand to live in such Spartan conditions. But just a true barbarian rejected the decadence of modern civilisation, rightfully viewing as a wellspring of weakness, so did Lord Swedish reject the wastefulness and excess that characterised life amongst the upper classes.

He sliced off the cap the cigar and lit the other end with a small butane lighter engraved with a black Odal rune. The symbol represented heritage and lineage in Norse culture – an unbroken link to the past. As a child he had been fascinated by the old Norse sagas, of great heroes like Ragnarr Loðbrók and Hrólfr Kraki, and he had dreamed of going on similar adventures. His young mind had been filled with thoughts of sailing across the seas with a band of loyal companions at his side, raiding and pillaging distant shores and returning home with a ship full of plunder. But the world, as it so often did, seemed intent on crushing his dreams beneath its heel. For a time he had thought that running the shadows and living the life of a gun for hire might have provided the adventure he craved, but his fellow shadowrunners had proven themselves to be honourless filth. They were nothing but treacherous, backstabbing vermin, and sadly, there was no exterminator in sight.

There was a soft beeping from his telecomm unit, indicating an incoming call. That was odd, he thought. Usually Ms. Li screened his calls, informing him ahead of time if someone wished to speak with him.

He pondered the situation for a few seconds, and then, with absolutely no input from him, the screen came to life.

"Pick up, asshole!"

It was a man, entirely in shadow, backlit by the faint glow of computer diagnostic lights. Every few seconds the image on the screen would shift and distort as if the connection were bad, but the effect was clearly artificial.

This turn of events was unusual, but Lord Swedish kept his face an expressionless mask. "What's the meaning of this?"

"No need to be so rude, I'm just making friendly conversation, that's all. I've got some juicy information about your competitor, CB Entertainment, that you might want to know."

"Who are you?"

"I've got more names than I can fucking count, but you can call me Chernobog. I'm the one who's been keeping CB Entertainment afloat – plugging the holes in the bulkheads, if you will. Pumping like mad, bailing water overboard, that sort of shit."

He spoke with a strange accent, one that sounded vaguely Eastern European. "And why do you support a company that is destined to fail?"

"For my amusement, for my curiosity, for my morbid fascination...surely you must have suspected as much. I like to watch greedy assholes suffer, Lord Swedish. I like to see them scream and squirm in agony like a baby in an oven while I slowly increase the temperature. The only fucking question is...bake, broil, or convection? But if there's one thing I love more than watching you suits suffer, it's watching you destroy yourselves."

"If you have something to say, then say it."

The man recoiled in mock offence. "Who pissed in your corn flakes? I hacked into CB Entertainment's systems – don't think I'm bragging or anything, because a fucking three-year-old could get into their systems – and I've found out that they've hired a pair of shadowrunners to bust into your HQ and destroy every copy of your fantastic new game."

For a moment Lord Swedish considered terminating the conversation. "I am quite aware of Mr. McGee's intentions. You have told me nothing that I don't already know."

"Yeah, but I bet you don't know the names and locations of the runners he hired."

"And what do you expect in return for this information? You're obviously not doing this out of the goodness of your heart."

"Get the fuck over yourself. You suits sure love your stupid fucking slogans, don't you? 'No free lunch.' 'Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.' 'Sink or swim.' Fucking hell, it's like listening to some asswipe blathering to a bunch of would-be hustlers at a motivational seminar. Now listen up, because I'm only to tell you this once: the two people McGee hired to go after you are named Ioan Pierce Freely and Richard Stroker. The first one's an ex-con who served fifteen years for drop-kicking a baby across the Potomac, the second's a former footballer whose career was tragically cut short after a hideous petunia-related accident. Both are in Berlin right now, at the Kreuzbasar."

Lord Swedish glared at the screen. It was difficult to make him angry – you didn't become a CEO in the gaming industry by being thin-skinned – but this "Chernobog" individual was succeeding on that front. "'I.P. Freely' and 'Dick Stroker.' Is that an attempt at humour?"

Chernobog shrugged. "Well if I can't stay young, I can at least stay immature. Oh, and while we've been having this engaging conversation I've been going through your systems. That new Mega Therion game you've got in the works? Total shit, all of it."

"You're bluffing."

"Am I? I'm sure when the game comes out the reviewers will slobbering all over its knob, but they don't know about the subroutine that sends the player's personal data to every advertising corp on the planet. Not that those whiny fucks don't deserve it. Den som ger sig in i leken, får leken tåla, as they say. But you didn't understand a word of that, did you? You see, 'Lord Swedish,' I know everything about you, including the fact that you're about as Swedish as Kung Pao chicken. Isn't that right...CHEESEHEAD?"

He clenched his fists in rage. " dare..."

"Oh, I'm sure you'd love to have everyone think you grew up on the mean streets of Stockholm...Stockholm, Wisconsin! When I said I enjoyed seeing greedy bastards suffer, guess what? That includes you, asshole! I'm sure at this very moment you're trying to trace this connection, trying to find out where I am so you can send your goons to come kick my ass. Don't bother. I work on a level below the Matrix. And before I sign off, let me just tell you that I do know the names of the two people McGee hired, but I'm sure as fuck not going to tell you. Maybe I'll even direct them towards one of your old crew, the one you failed to hunt down."

"Whatever you have learned about me, 'Chernobog,' it changes nothing. This company is a rock against which countless enemies have crumbled. Two shadowrunners, you say? Mr. McGee ought to have hired himself an army. Do you think you are the first person to threaten me, filled with righteousness and bluster?"

"In the immortal words of Mahatma Gandhi, 'Go fuck yourself.'"

The screen went dark, leaving Lord Swedish in a state of one part anger and one part confusion. That this was a serious breach of security, there was no question. But just who was this 'Chernobog' individual?

"The one you failed to hunt down..." That told Lord Swedish all he needed to know. "So, Kerensky, you show yourself at last. You should have remained in the shadows..."

"Jesus Christ, man, couldn't you find a better place than this?"

"Sorry," Rhodes said, "but all my money was tied up in my anime collection. This was the best place I could afford."

His motel room was the kind of place that instantly conjured up images of criminals on the run, prostitutes turning tricks, and drug deals gone wrong. The paint was peeling from the walls, leaking water had left stains on the ceiling, and the ragged carpet was torn through in several places, revealing the wooden floor beneath. A grimy, decrepit air conditioner tried in vain to drive away the combined scent of booze and vomit lingering in the room, while a flickering fluorescent lamp provided a truly dismal level of illumination. On one of the walls there was a line of bullet roles running all the way up from the baseboards to the ceiling, and a new patch of carpet that had been crudely sewn in place below indicated that someone had been violently murdered here not too long ago.

Yet if the room were a monument to all things disgusting and sleazy, the true horror was reserved for the bathroom. Years of accumulated muck and mildew had left grotesque brown streaks on the tiles, and the mirror had a large spiderweb of cracks radiating from the centre, as if someone's head had been smashed against it. Water dripped steadily from a leaking tap while the toilet made an odd, intermittent gurgling sound, as if it were seconds away from backing up. There were no cockroaches present, oddly enough, suggesting that even they had high enough standards to vacate this place.

Dobbs sat on the edge of bed and lit up a cigarette. "All right guys, what I'm about to tell you is going to blow your goddamn minds. Now, I'm sure you both know me as 'Dobbs, the best damn gamer in North America,' and 'Dobbs, the sex machine who has given countless women their first orgasm.' But I bet you don't know me as 'Dobbs, the world-famous fantasy author.'"

Rhodes snickered. "You? An author?"

"Laugh all you want, numbnuts, but I'll be the one laughing when my novel shoots to the top of every fucking bestseller list on the planet. Anyway, the book's called The Untold Story of Middle-Earth."

"You of the fiction?" Schneider said in between his fits of gasping and wheezing.

"It's not 'fan fiction,' asshole! If Frodo and Sam start fucking each other in every chapter, then you can call it fan fiction. This is Lord of the Rings updated for a modern audience. First of all, people today don't have the time to sit through hundreds of pages of boring-ass nature descriptions and stupid fucking songs. No one's going to miss Tom fucking Bombadil, so I got rid of him. And secondly, everything in the original book is all black and white, good-versus-evil, blah blah blah...but enlightened, rational, logical people like me know that everything is just shades of grey. So you can bet I made some pretty drastic changes."

"Like what?" Rhodes asked.

"Well, first of all, Frodo is this beer-guzzling, skirt-chasing asshole who's fathered a least two dozen bastard children in The Shire. His friend Sam is a former highwayman who helps Frodo run a human trafficking operation out of Bag End. See, just like in our world, the race of men is oppressed by non-humans, who view us all as nothing more than slaves. So after Frodo and Sam get to Bree with the One Ring – which happens much faster in my book than in the original – they meet up with Aragorn, who's like this total badass ninja. Forget all that 'noble king' crap; if you know anything about kings you'd know that the only reason they wore the crown is because they left a bigger pile of bodies in their wake than anyone else. So someone tries to steal the One Ring from Frodo, right, and then all of a sudden...bam! Aragorn teleports behind him and cuts his head off. See, Aragorn is this total sociopath who will do anything to reclaim the throne of Gondor, and that bitch Arwen is just some shrill harpy trying to claim the throne for herself. She gets killed at the end of the chapter."

"What happens when they reach Rivendell?"

"Glad you asked, because the elves are totally different this time around. They're all a bunch of complete fucking degenerates. Everything about them, their culture, their customs, their language, their art, it's all degenerate. And their race is so hopelessly inbred that they're all like these hideous, deformed mutants. So naturally they try to take the One Ring from the Fellowship, and that's when Gandalf decides that the elves are not worthy of life, so he conjures up the fantasy equivalent of a nuclear bomb and reduces Rivendell to a smoking crater. I devoted three whole pages to describing the death of Legolas because...seriously...fuck that guy. After that they come to Edoras, where they meet the King Théoden's smoking hot niece Éowyn, who's this sexy blonde with a huge rack. She tries to act like a man, just in the original book, but I wanted to inject some gritty realism into the story, so it turns out that the reason Éowyn acts the way she does is because she was raped by orcs in her backstory. She gets killed at the end of the chapter."

"But what about Gollum? Where does he fit into all of this?"

"Oh, I merged him and Legolas into one character. See, I envisioned Legolas as this sort of...mutant gay rapist...which is pretty much what Gollum was in the original book. Anyway, they reach Minas Tirith, and Aragorn doesn't dither about like in the books. No, he sneaks into the palace, teleports behind Denethor, and then strews the floor with his entrails. After that he throws Denethor's carcass off the ramparts as a warning to anyone who might challenge his rule. So then we get to the big battle sequence near the end, and see...this is where my true genius starts to show. Frodo and Sam sneak into Mordor and make their way up the slopes of Mount Doom, just like in the original, but nobody is going to expect what comes next."

"And what's that?"

Dobbs grinned like a maniac. "Just as Frodo is about to toss the One Ring into the volcano, Gandalf swoops down on a giant eagle and disembowels him. Before Frodo dies, Gandalf reveals that the War of Ring was just his scheme to weaken the kingdoms of Middle-Earth, and that everything in the story was part of his plan to take the One Ring for himself. So he takes it from Frodo, throws him into the lava, and then declares himself to be the new Dark Lord."

"Holy shit," Rhodes exclaimed. "That sounds awesome! How far along are you?"

"I, uh, well, I haven't actually started it yet. I'm still in the 'ideas' phase. But I predict it's going take the fantasy world by storm."

Rhodes wasn't as convinced, however. "But are people going to want to read it, though? I mean, Lord of the Rings barely qualifies as fantasy these days. Things like elves, dwarves, orcs, magic, these things all actually exist-"

Dobbs bolted upright. "No they fucking don't!"

"What? What are you talking about? Are you saying that dandelion eater who burned down my apartment doesn't exist?"

"What I'm saying is, what people call elves and dwarves aren't actually elves and dwarves. 'Unexplained Genetic Expression,' well, that's just a fancy way of saying mutation. That they happen to look like elves and dwarves is nothing more than a coincidence. All that stuff about the 'Awakening' and 'magic returning to the world' is just a load of industrial-grade bullshit. The reason these people exist, the only reason, is because a bunch of mommies' OB/GYNs didn't know how to read an ultrasound and figure out that the children in their wombs were a bunch of a fucking mutants! In ancient Sparta, they threw weak and deformed babies off a cliff. But today, we coddle them, treat them like special snowflakes, while at the same time thinking that they're 'just like us.' You know, people used to think that humanity could be divided into races based on skin colour – White, Black, Asian, Latino, etcetera – but that was bullshit because science showed us that we were all just humans at the genetic level. But these 'elves' and 'dwarves,' they are scientifically proven to be different in a fundamental way. So when I say that orks are more violent than humans, or that trolls are less intelligent than humans, that's not racism, that's scientific fact. Sure, it might not be 'politically correct' to say it, and it might hurt the feelings of some bleeding-heart types, but science isn't under any obligation to respect your feelings. I'm not saying we need to open up the camps and fire up the ovens or anything, but we should start implementing a nationally-enforced genetics counselling program and eugenics laws."

There was a sharp knocking on the door. "Right on time," said Dobbs. "There's our little mutant-slayer."

Dobbs opened the door, and the word "little" in no way described the man who strode in. He was tall, well over six feet in height, and sported a short blonde crew cut. Dressed entirely in black and possessing the cold, piercing gaze of a killer, he seemed to lower the ambient air temperature just by standing in the room. There was no chrome on him that Rhodes could see, and from the look of him he didn't need any, either.

"Gentlemen, let me introduce you to Heinrich 'Herzinfarkt' Hoffman. The Gamers' Alliance has hired him to help us with our 'mutant problem.' We've got word that she's been spotted in a town near the Polish border, so if we move quickly we should be able to catch up with her."

Heinrich stepped forward. "As far as I'm concerned, you are all filth," he said in heavily-accented English. "I serve you only for no other reason than the money you have paid me. You disgust me on the deepest level."

Rhodes was about to come the defence of his nation, but given that this man looked like he could rip him in two with his bare hands, he remained silent. "I will help you find this elf, and kill her," Heinrich continued, "and once that task is accomplished I will kill all of you as well."

"Don't mind him," said Dobbs. "That's what passes for humour amongst German people."

Heinrich rolled up the sleeve of his shirt to scratch his left arm, and that was when Rhodes spied a large, black swastika tattooed on his biceps, with the words Meine Ehre Heißt Treue written beneath. "I cannot stand to remain in your presence longer. I will meet you in the designated location in Frankfurt an der Oder. If you are late, I will consider it a breach of contract, at which point our agreement shall be null and void."

With that he turned around and marched out of the room, leaving Rhodes feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

" he a Nazi?" he asked timidly. "Like, an actual Nazi?"

"You can't...objectively...prove he is a follower...of...National...Socialism," Schneider wheezed.

"So what if he is?" said Dobbs, ignoring Schneider's gasping protests. "He's a total badass, and that's all that matters."

"I don't think I'm cool working with an actual Nazi."

Dobbs rolled his eyes. "Really, man? Look, you like anime, right?"

"Yeah, but what does that have to do with it?"

"Well, anime comes from Japan, doesn't it? And you think Japan has a superior culture, don't you?"

Rhodes stiffened his back. "Of course they do!"

"Well, if the Nazis were so bad, then would the Japanese have allied with them in World War II?"

In the face of such irrefutable logic, Rhodes was forced to admit defeat. "All right, you make a good point. Let's get moving."

"Wait," said Dobbs, "there's something I want to show you all before we go." He grabbed a silver briefcase and laid it atop the bed. "Feast your eyes on these!"

He unlatched the briefcase slid, then opened it slowly for dramatic effort. Inside were two gargantuan gold-plated handguns, of a make and model that Rhodes had only ever seen in movies and trideo games.

Rhodes and Schneider let out simultaneous awestruck gasps. "Are those..."

"The one, the only," said Dobbs, holding one of the guns aloft. "The motherfucking Desert Eagle! The finest goddamn handgun in the world, so powerful it'll blow your head clean off. And I got two of em'!"

He began twirling one of the gilded guns around his finger by the trigger guard, and without warning it went off a with a deafening crack. Rhodes jumped backwards in shock, looking to his left just in time to see Schneider's head explode in a cloud of red mist.


"Aw hell," said Dobbs, ludicrously nonchalant. "I think I just shot Schneider in the face..."


"Damn, I thought I unloaded these things. There must have been a round still in the chamber."


"Jesus Christ, calm down, man!"

"Calm down? Calm down?" Rhodes screamed, his ears ringing. " just...shot...him in the fucking head!"

"It was an accident, okay? I didn't mean to shoot him; the gun just went off!"

Rhodes covered his face, praying that this was all some terrible nightmare. "Oh man...oh man...oh man...we are so fucked...what are we gonna do?" Panic had seized his heart; the last time he had felt such terror was when he had been chased down Lombard Street by a horde of angry Japanese women.

"We get the hell out of here, that's what we do! Now come on!"

"Wait! This...this room,'s booked in my name! What do you think they're gonna do when they come in here and find it drenched in fucking blood?"

"Relax, man!" said Dobbs, sounding more irritated than anything else. "This is the F-State; they probably don't even have any kind of real law enforcement. If we book it then we've got nothing to worry. Now let's go!"

"This is not happening...this is not happening...this is not happening!" he whimpered as they walked to Dobbs' rental car.

"Look, just shut up, will you? You want everyone in the neighbourhood to hear you?"

"What I want is to go home!" Rhodes said. "I want to go back to San Francisco, back to Silicon Valley where I belong!"

This is it, he thought. This is the moment when my life hits rock bottom. Nothing had gone right since he had come to Germany. He had lost his job, his apartment, his anime and manga collection, and now he had lost one of his friends. Of course, "friend" was not quite the appropriate appellation for Schneider; he was more like one of those people who followed you around that you never really thought about very much, but that did not lessen Rhodes' distress.

"What? San Fran sucked, man! Did you forget that it was under Japanese occupation?"

"They ran the place a damn sight better than the UCAS ever did! And they sure as hell ran it better than this place! Goddamn it, I hate this 'Flux State' so fucking much!" He began stomping on the ground in rage and frustration. "All the punks and vagabonds everywhere, all the dirty streets, all the women who dress like dykes...I can't even find a decent store that sells anime and manga, and when I ask people about it they look at me like I'm some kind of child molester! And everywhere I go I get these stares, like I'm some sort of freak! I'm not a freak, they're freaks! I can't stand it any more! I want to be back in California, having a beer with my friends and talking about what parts of Mars we were going to live on one day! I want to be back writing software that will change the world! I want get away from! I want to see it become a crater!"

"Are you finished? 'Cause we need to move, now!"

"I swear, as soon as we geek this elf, we're going home. I don't care what it takes; if we have to stuff ourselves inside a shipping container, then so be it! I'm not spending another month in this hellhole."

Chapter Text



Chapter 8 – Spreading the Disease

"I've got to hand it to you, Talvi, most people wouldn't spend the kind of money you do on real coffee."

The was café located outdoors on a narrow cobblestone street, the sort of establishment that looked as though it hadn't changed in centuries. As one who believed that architecture had been profoundly rubbish for the last hundred years, this was most pleasing to Talvi's sensibilities. There were no chintzy neon lights, no eye-watering holographic displays, and no advertisements hawking the latest piece of consumer electronics that would take less than a year to go from the sweatshop to the landfill.

She did, however, notice a poster from a few years back advertising a reading of Ulysses on Bloomsday. It would seem that her nemesis James Joyce was determined to hound her from beyond the grave.

"It's not as if I have anything else to spend money on. In fact, I find the act of spending money to be thoroughly displeasurable. I think the most expensive thing I ever bought was my guitar, and that was only to replace the one my mother had bought for me after the drummer of my first band accidentally ran it over with a steamroller."

Monika set down her pastry that she had spent the past few minutes nibbling at. "How do you 'accidentally' run over a guitar with a steamroller?"

"I don't know; I wasn't there when it happened. Our first band was beset with misfortunes, and I took as it a sign that, musically, we were on the wrong path completely. My biggest mistake was choosing to sign in English. We thought it would help us reach a wider audience, but people seemed to think my accent sounded "silly." Our first and only album sold just two hundred copies in Finland and absolutely none anywhere else. We broke up after our bassist got himself killed trying to see how far he could drive along a country road at night with his headlights switched off."

"I'm surprised you didn't just give up then and there. Don't know how things work in the metal scene, but punk's filled with bands that came together for one album and then imploded for one reason or another."

Talvi carefully sipped her coffee, determined to draw out the act of consuming it for as long as possible. "Well, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat discouraged by our failure. It wasn't until graduate school that I felt confident enough to form a new band, and I was extremely fortunate to find several other musicians who were willing to be a part of it. We called ourselves Jumalten Aika – the age of gods – for that is the age now upon us, when the gods of old have woken from their slumber."

Monika leaned back in her chair. "You really believe this stuff, don't you?"

"What do you ask such a thing?" she said, frowning. "Have I ever led you to believe that I was insincere in my convictions?"

"No, it's just...I'm not a religious person, and it doesn't make sense to me to believe in something when there's no proof of it."

Talvi leaned in closer. "Let me tell you something, Monika. A thing may make no sense at all, and yet contain the most profound truth, while another thing might meet every standard of logic and rationality yet be nothing but a hateful lie. Can I 'prove' that Tapio stands guard over the woods, or that Ahti rules over the waves? Can I 'prove' that Väinämöinen once fashioned a kantele from a pike's jaw, as he did in the old tales? No, I cannot. But it is the truth within these tales that matters, not whether or not they truly happened. Are you familiar with the story of Christ as told in the Bible?"

"Well enough, I suppose."

"I ask because in that tale there is something extraordinary: a man who stood with the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden. He did not stand with the wealthy and the powerful, no, he stood with the losers of the world. It was an almost incomprehensible act of compassion. He told them, 'Your lives have meaning, your lives have value, even though the rest of the world has cast you aside.' When the Pharisees asked whence the Kingdom of God would come, Christ answered that the Kingdom of God is within you." She took a brief sip of coffee, then continued. "Of course, all this blew away like so many dandelion spores once Christianity seized the reins of power, and it became just another tool of oppression. But strip away your Nicene Creeds and Apostles' Creeds, your Inquisitions and your Crusades, your Great Schisms and Filioques, your Reformations and Counter-Reformations, and you are left with one simple truth. You do not have to accept the divinity of Christ, or even his very existence, to understand it. That is where the atheists and so-called 'rationalists' go wrong. They assume that religion exists merely to explain natural phenomena, and that because these explanations have been disproven that the whole endeavour is therefore worthless. But these are the same people who subscribe to a very secular form of fundamentalism – the worship of science and technology as an ersatz religion."

"Don't be ridiculous, Talvi. No one prays to a computer."

"Of course they don't. Prayer is a means of communicating with the divine, and you hardly need such a thing to communicate with a computer. But the attitude I am describing is one of secular salvation – that evil and suffering will be vanquished with the proper application of science and technology, bringing about a paradise on Earth. How, then, is this any different from Christian eschatology? And believe me when I say that this is an article of faith, for there really is no evidence that technological progress is taking us to a better place, while there is ample evidence that the exact opposite is true."

Monika sighed. "Serves me right for trying to argue with a Ph.D. I really ought to introduce you to my friend Dietrich; I think the two of you would get all marvellously."

The question that had been lurking in the back of her mind for so long now jumped the forefront of her thoughts. "But I never see your friends, Monika! Every time I've gone to the safehouse it's been as quiet as a tomb. Sometimes I think you are deliberately keeping me from them."

"Well, for one thing, you spend so much fragging time sleeping that you're never awake when they're there. I don't think I've ever met someone who sleeps as much as you do."

"That's not the whole of it, and you know it."

Monika set her pastry down. "You're right, it isn't. It's just're not the easiest person to deal with, Talvi. Now don't think I'm singling you out or anything, because most shadowrunners aren't easy to deal with. If they were, I'd probably be a little suspicious. But what I'm trying to say is, sometimes your thought processes require a little getting used to."

"I choose to take that as a compliment."

"My point is that sometimes you act like you were raised in the wilderness or something."

Talvi smiled. "If I seem that way, Monika, it's because I was."

"Really? I mean, you never talk about your childhood. Not that I was ever going to ask; most people I know didn't exactly have the best lives growing up."

"My mother raised me in a small cabin on the shore of Kostonjärvi, and she was determined to shield me from what she called the 'mechanical side' of the world. Our home had no vidphones, no cyberterminals, no trideo units, absolutely nothing of the sort."

"Oh god, that sounds horrible! Are you saying you were completely cut off from the rest of the world?"

"I did not go to comprehensive school, and I had few interactions with other children," Talvi continued. "My isolation was such that I did not hear English spoken until I was about twelve years of age. But I was never lonely or unhappy. The woods around us were alive with spirits, and there was seldom a time when I did not feel their presence."

"But if you never went to school, then how did you get into university?"

"That was my mother's doing. She never told me quite how she accomplished it, but it involved a large quantity of gold and hallucinogenic mushrooms. And no, I do not know where she obtained these things. I was reluctant to go at first, but she insisted that I should see how the rest of the world lived and decide for myself if I wanted to be part of it."

"So what was it like seeing the city for the first time?"

"It was quite oppressive, and I spent little time outside the university. What I couldn't stand was the noise. Mother had always impressed upon me the value of silence, for without silence one cannot hear the voices of the spirits and the wilderness. Without silence there can no introspection, no self-reflection, and true creativity becomes impossible. But the people of the city seemed to have made it their aim to destroy silence, and the first time I walked the streets I suffered a horrendous attack of the nerves. Everything was a noisy blur of total nonsense, like being trapped in some great and terrible machine, and all I could think of was getting as far away from it all as I could. Things were not much better on campus. I found it hard to relate to my fellow students; they all viewed the world through a very different lens than I did. They talked endlessly about what they would do after they had gotten their degrees, and it was always described in terms of corporate servitude. I asked myself what the point of our studies was, if the only thing it accomplished was to seduce us into slightly higher echelon of wage slavery."

Monika laughed. "So you didn't fit in with the 'normal' folk. If you did, I don't think we'd be talking to each other."

Talvi finished the last of her coffee. "It wasn't only that. When I working towards my Ph.D. I could not help but watch as the people I had known as an undergraduate get married, start families, and do all the things that 'normal' people are supposed to do. There wasn't a point where I wished to exchange places with them, but at times I did feel a touch...envious."

"Envious of what, Talvi? People like us, we figured out a long time ago that the 'normal' life is nothing but a trap. We look around us and see how stupid, mean-spirited, and repulsive the world is becoming, while everyone else seems to think that everything is just the way it should be. People spend the best hours of they day, during the best years of their lives, doing nothing expect working to make some corporation richer – a corporation they have no ownership of, and which would gladly throw them aside in a heartbeat if it somehow benefited them. I mean, who would want that kind of drek life? Why would anyone want that? Tell me, have you ever of the band MESSERKAMPF!?"

"I can't say I have."

"That was Dietrich's band, and musically they were terrible. Dietrich couldn't sing, and he'll be the first to admit it. Their guitarist knew just three or four chords, their drummer couldn't keep a rhythm, and their bassist wasn't even plugged in half the time. But that didn't matter. There was this mentality behind their music that told every misfit and reject with an instrument that no matter what people said, if you believed in yourself enough...if you were passionate enough...then you could make it, without kissing anyone's ass. No trideos. No radio. No need for any of that drek, not when there's a whole other world beyond it. Look at your band, for example. You once told me about your North American tour. How many people do you think speak Finnish in those parts? But they still came to your shows, because there was something there, something that spoke to their collective Sehnsucht. It's that 'something' that makes this crazy life worthwhile, what keeps you going when you're limping down an alleyway with a bullet in your gut."

"You aren't...speaking from personal experience, are you?"

"Me? No, never been shot. Punched, kicked, stabbed, electrocuted, tasered, sprayed with tear gas, but never shot. You?"

"I've never really been hurt on a job, or anywhere else," said Talvi. "I think it's because my enemies have so far been woefully incapable of shooting straight. A dreadfully common affliction, unfortunately. People seem to think that once you've got a gun in your hands becoming a gunslinger follows naturally."

Monika suddenly sat upright. "One more thing I want to ask you: when you were in university, did you ever have a boyfriend...or a girlfriend?" She spoke that last word with an oddly hopeful intonation.

"No, I never had much interest in romantic entanglements, though my colleagues insisted that I was somehow lacking in this regard. They arranged a series of encounters with potential suitors, all of which ended quite disastrously. We simply had nothing in common. Their topics of conversation bored me, and when I spoke of my interests their eyes would invariably glaze over and they would find some excuse to leave."

"Your first problem was referring to them as 'suitors.' People just...don't do that, Talvi."

"At any rate my romantic efforts came to naught, which I took as a sign that I ought to abandon the whole idea. I'm sure the modern world has, like so many other things, transformed 'romance' into some degraded farce that I want no part of."

"Okay, one more thing – you posed nude for that painting, right?"

"Yes, what about it?"

"Did you ever pose with other women?"

Talvi frowned. "Are you asking about the painting, or whether I am a lesbian?"

Monika recoiled from the question. "What? No, of course not! Why would I ever ask such a thing? That'd be crazy, wouldn't it?"

"I just want you to know that I appreciate you coming out here on such a short notice. I'm sure you didn't plan on spending your weekend cleaning up dead bodies."

His name was Tobias, but to the people of the F-State he was simply Der Zauberer. Not because he possessed any affinity for magic, but because of his uncanny talent for making problems disappear.

Problems such as a dead body in one of Marcus' motel rooms.

The unfortunate (or, depending on the circumstances of his death, not so unfortunate) victim was a short, rotund young man with a dirty, unkempt beard and a round, pudgy face that looked as though it had been permanently locked into an expression of smug disinterest. Marcus was no detective, but it was obvious that he had been shot in the head at point-blank range with a weapon powerful enough to remove a large portion of his skull. And yet his messy demise was somehow not the most disgusting thing about him.

"Think nothing of it," Tobias said, kneeling over the body.

The metallic stench of blood hanging in the air was almost nauseating. "When I find who did this," Marcus declared, "I'm going to kick his ass so hard he's going to be shitting boots for the next three weeks. I mean, I don't care about the dead guy or anything, but leaving a body in one of my rooms? That's just uncivilised."

Tobias reached down and picked a large brass casing up off the carpet. ".50 Action Express," he said after a brief examination. "So he was killed with a Desert Eagle, which means this probably wasn't a professional job." He then started rifling through the pockets of the man's trench coat, and the sight of him groping a dead body made Marcus squirm a little.

After a few moments Tobias managed to locate the man's wallet. "His name's Marvin Schneider, from San Jose, California, according to his driving licence."

"But he's not the guy who booked the room," Marcus said. "The guy who rented the place said his name was 'Rhodes Raskol' or something like that."

Tobias laughed. "'Rhodes Raskol?' What does a man with a name like that do for a living, I wonder? Rob pawnbrokers in Saint Petersburg?"

"He wasn't from around here, that much was obvious. Real slimy-looking guy, too. Had a face that just made you want to punch it repeatedly."

"Anything else you can tell me about him?"

"Well, uh, not much, 'cept he had one of those Japanese swords with him. Don't know how important that is, if you're looking to find him."

Tobias stood up. "So our killer is equipped with both a Desert Eagle and a katana."

Marcus stepped back. There was only one kind of person he knew of that would wield those sorts of weapons. "So what are you saying, Tobias? That this guy was a shadowrunner?"

"Not a shadowrunner, a shadow-poseur. Someone whose knowledge of shadows is derived entirely from popular entertainment." He continued looking though the victim's wallet, finding nothing except a battered credstick and a worn plastic card. "What do we have here?"

The card displayed the logo of a fist clenching a trideo game controller, with the words Rabies Aeterna Ludiorum written beneath in Gothic font. "What is it?" Marcus asked.

"Looks like this man was a member of the Gamers' Alliance."

"Never heard of them."

"They're with Humanis. Or in Humanis. Or a part of Humanis. Or on Humanis. You don't hear about them much in meatspace, but in the Matrix you can't go five metres – metaphorically speaking, of course – without running into one of these assholes."

"And they have a membership card? How pretentious can you get? But what does Humanis have to do with gamers?"

Tobias shrugged. "I don't know, and I don't really care. But they held a tournament here not too long ago. There was an attack, some people got their brains fried, and now the Gamers' Alliance is working themselves into a frenzy trying to find out who's responsible. They're young, dumb, and angry, and have a chip on their collective shoulder the size of Gibraltar."

Marcus looked down at the corpse in disgust, hoping that whatever disposal method Tobias had in mind was thoroughly degrading. "This really just pisses me off, you know? I know this place isn't exactly La Réserve, but it's my motel, damn it! People can't just dump their trash here."

"Now, see, this would normally be the part where I'd tell you that I can get rid of the body, followed by me telling you the price for rendering my services. But this case is a little different."

"What do you mean?" he asked, wringing his hands.

"What I mean is, chummer, is that your dead man here is hooked up with Humanis. And that means," he said, giving the body a swift kick, "that this asshole probably got what was coming to him."

A crumpled piece of paper fell out of the dead man's pocket. Tobias picked it up and unfolded it.

It was a poster advertising a band named Jumalten Aika, which consisted of four long-haired men and a blonde elven woman who stared out at the viewer with a haughty expression. Below the band's name, which was written a script so elaborate that it was almost impossible to read, was a series of dates and locations. "These shows were over a year ago," Marcus remarked. "So why is this guy carrying this poster around with him?"

"I've seen this woman before," said Tobias, tapping his finger on the poster. "It was a few days ago, at a cafe in the Kreuzbasar. Kind of hard not to notice a two metre tall blonde with a great rack, if you know what I mean."

"Look, with all due respect, can you get rid of the body or can't you? Humanis or not, I don't want it getting...fragrant."

"I can, though consider yourself fortunate that I'm not tacking on a 'victim was an asshole' surcharge. But if you'd prefer a discount, then maybe you could help me in my investigation."

"What do you mean, 'help?'"

Tobias looked at him squarely. "You can start by giving me access to the records of your transactions. If the guy who rented this room paid using a checkstick, then his name and address will be logged in your system. That will-"

"Wait, wait, wait! I called you in to deal with a dead body, not get dragged into some 'investigation!' What's it to you, anyway? You said it yourself, this stiff probably got what was coming to him."

"I got my own reasons for wanting Humanis out of the picture. Reasons I can't talk about. If following up on these leads lets me kick a few a heads in, then it'll be worth it. Now are you going to help me or not?"

The instant the Polish border crossing came into view, Talvi wished she were somewhere else. Anywhere else.

A solitary bridge led them across the Oder river to the town of Słubice, and in times less paranoid and deranged getting across would have been a simple affair. Today, however, a military checkpoint stood at the Polish end of the bridge, conspicuously arranged to look as intimidating and unwelcoming as possible. As if in mockery of the very idea of welcoming visitors, there was a sign by the guard post that read:





The sign had been defaced with graffiti, and no one had since bothered to clean it up.

While Monika drove, Talvi looked over the documentation they would be providing to the border agents. Some of it was electronic, some of it was on paper, but it was all expertly forged and carefully crafted to be as confusing and byzantine as possible. It was their hope that the guards would be all thoroughly bored with their posting, and when confronted with this bureaucratic nightmare they would simply hurry them along rather than look into their identification too closely.

Of course, Monika had gone and done something very silly.

"It says here that your name is Maria Theresa Fenstermacher Düsediekerbäumer Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorf Schwarzenberger Niederwassersheimer Hammerschmidt Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister von Preußen, and that you were born in the village of Schmedeswurtherwesterdeich." Talvi set the documents down on her lap. "Monika, no one is going to believe this."

"Well, she has a very distinguished lineage," she retorted. "If they want to look that name up, then they'll have to enter it into a cyberterminal...and I'd sure like to see someone try typing that in!"

"This is madness."

"It's no crazier than your 'singing bear' story. This isn't the first time I've crossed the border, and I can tell you that the guards are probably counting the hours until their shifts are over. They're not going to bother looking this up."

Talvi felt her heart begin to pound as a man in combat fatigues approached the van. There were no other vehicles on the road, no pedestrians on the footpaths, no indications of life at all save for the soldiers manning the guard post. From past experience she knew that this was never a good sign. Usually it meant that you had stumbled into the wrong neighbourhood, though the definition of "wrong neighbourhood" had likely expanded to include pretty much everywhere these days.

Monika rolled down the driver's side window. "Your identification papers, please," said the guard, sounding utterly bored.

There were a half-dozen men or so stationed at the border crossing, each one armed with a Kalashnikov. Talvi wondered why they needed to be so heavily-armed, but military dictatorships and common sense were usually only passing acquaintances.

For a second she let her sight slip into the astral plane in an attempt to gauge the soldier's general state of mind. What she sensed was a general haze of ennui and dullness, deepening to a sort of you've-got-to-be-fragging-kidding-me incredulity when Monika handed him her documents. She could feel his heart sink as he looked them over, lamenting his lot in life and wondering what he done to deserve this miserable posting. His inner life laid bare before Talvi's probing gaze, he imagined himself as a grim and grizzled protagonist in some fantasy world, hacking and slashing his way through a morally-ambiguous universe where large-breasted vixens repeatedly and inexplicably threw themselves at him and where the whole story would eventually culminate in a totally nihilistic finale affirming once and for all that all honour was dead and that only children and imbeciles believed in the inherent goodness of humankind. He thought about putting this world to paper and taking the Polish fantasy scene by storm, but alas, tastes had changed over the past half-century, and no one wanted to read a book about elves, dwarves, dragons, and magic when all these things were plain to see in the real world.

"Excuse me," he said, bending down to get a look at Talvi, "this might sound like a strange question, but are you the singer for Jumalten Aika?"

"That would be correct," she answered, her senses return to the real world.

"I saw you in Berlin last year," he said, smiling. "Surprised to see you riding around in this piece of junk.

Monika looked downright offended at that remark.

"Someone trying to kill you, eh?" he continued, noticing the bullet holes.

"That would be the Inner Circle," Talvi said. "They may be on our trail at this very moment. I suggest you subject any following vehicles to an extensive examination, particularly if their occupants happen to be Norwegian."

Before he could reply, the nearby guard shack exploded for no apparent reason.

One moment it was there, the next it had disappeared in a cloud of smoke and splinters. The force of the blast rocked the van on its suspension, and without thinking Monika slammed her foot down on the accelerator. The engine roared, the tyres screeched, and the van rocketed forward, smashing through the boom gate just as their unseen assailants opened fire from somewhere behind them.

Talvi dared a glance out the window and saw the border guards engaged in a firefight with an onrushing horde of men who were screaming and howling like men possessed. Several explosions shook the air, followed by the unmistakable sound of someone opening up with a portable Gatling gun.

She ducked her head as a bullet smashed the passenger-side mirror. Several more bullets pinged off the rear doors, and Monika began madly swerving left and right while spewing a barrage of vulgarities in German. The van jumped the kerb, narrowly missing a phone booth before she regained control of the vehicle. She rounded the nearest corner, almost knocking over a street sign in the process, before bringing the vehicle to a stop.

"They sure caught up to us fast!" Monika said in between panting breaths.

Though her ears were still ringing from the explosion, Talvi could still hear the clattering of automatic weapons, punctuated by an explosion or two. "I can't believe they'd be so stupid. Attacking a military checkpoint? This will end badly for them."

"And just how much blood is going to be spilled, Talvi? I'm not keen on leaving a trail of bodies between here and Kiev."

"We are not the ones responsible," she shot back. "They are the ones eager to fall on our swords. And I am certain they won't be able to carry on this way for much longer. Sooner or later they will make life difficult for someone they shouldn't, someone far better connected than you or I, and that will be the end of them."

"I sure wish I could believe that," Monika said with a sigh, shifting the van back into gear.

From: M. Wickstrom

To: Lord Swedish

Re: Incident Report #3519-A

My investigation into yesterday's network intrusion has so far proven fruitless. An examination of all incoming and outgoing traffic during the specified period uncovered no anomalies or suspicious activity. Our Log File Protection System (LFPS) recorded no alterations to any server logs, and a complete verification of all system file checksums did not detect any evidence of tampering. Whoever is responsible for this must possess a level of skill far beyond your average decker.

Further attempts at tracking down this "Chernobog" individual have likewise turned up no leads. This is complicated by the fact that "Chernobog" is an extremely common handle used by everyone from low-level street runners to the highest-tier corporate agents.

Nevertheless, I will continue my investigation, and I will keep you informed of any developments.

Lord Swedish growled in displeasure. Mr. Wickstrom was hardly incompetent – quite the opposite, actually – and knowing that Chernobog had outsmarted him made Lord Swedish want to grind his teeth in frustration. Nor had CHODAN been of any help, either. In fact, the AI seemed like the most obvious suspect – it had the same childish sense of humour, access to all the company's servers, and sufficient knowledge of their network security protocols to cover its tracks entirely.

That damnable creation had been a mistake, he was sure. At the time it had been a natural offshoot of BSP Games' efforts to develop ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence for games, but that line of research presupposed a level of refinement that most gamers simply lacked. Every piece of market research conducted over the past thirty years suggested that your typical trideo game player would gobble up any piece of drek developers put out so long as it had pretty graphics and the enemies exploded into sufficiently large blossoms of gore when shot. The creators of the popular Grunts of Glory series (which was nothing more than a spin-off of a reboot of a sequel) had discovered that their audience would gladly buy the same game over and over with only the smallest of changes from one iteration to the next. Knowing this, why would any developer spend the time or the money to create better AI?

CHODAN would be shut down at some point in the future, Lord Swedish reckoned. An artificial intelligence introduced too many variables into the security equation. Perhaps another company might be interested in the source code for its "personality subroutine," but the personality that CHODAN had developed was completely terrible and did not promote a productive workplace.

His cyberterminal beeped softly, indicating a new email had just arrived. Lord Swedish opened it without hesitation.

From: Chernabog

To: Lord Swedish

Cc: Dixon Balls, Sum Tin Wong, Phuc Yu Mang, Mike Hunt, Ho Lee Phuc, Sook Mai Wang, Craven Moorehead, Harry Cox, Jenna Tailia, Howie Feltersnatch, Ivana Hafsechs


Hey, asshole!

I just want you to know that I've played your game and IT SUCKS!

Seriously, Mega Therion just might be the worst RPG I've ever played. It OBJECTIVELY rates a zero out of ten. I hope your company burns to the ground and you all die of leprosy.

And did you seriously just try to run a trace on me? Wrong move, chummer. You have no IDEA the kind of hell I am capable of bringing down on your pathetic little corporation.

(Oh, and while you were reading this I broke into your systems and translated all your internal company documentation into Old Norse. Since you're such a BADASS VIKING, you should have no problem understanding it. Ekki mun mega við gera: þat mun verða fram at koma, sem ætlat er.)

With a scream of rage, Lord Swedish smashed his fist down on the keyboard, snapping it in two and sending the keys flying in all directions.

Someone would die for this. Painfully.

"You motherfucking Polacks! You have no idea what kind of fury you've just unleashed on yourselves! When my friends in the Gamers' Alliance find out about this you're gonna be in a whirlwind of shit! Do you even know who I am? I'm Jim "SisterFister" Backhouse, and I'm rougher and tougher, harder and smarter, leaner and meaner, and I ain't no in-betweener! I've done five tours of duty with the UCAS Marine Corps., Navy SEALS, Delta Force, Green Berets, and Army Rangers, so you better get ready to have your asses torn back! That's right, I'm straight outta Parris Island! Semper Fi, motherfuckers! At this very moment my friends are homing in on my position, and they're gonna be bringing a storm, the storm that wipes your pitiful lives off the face of this earth! Aww yeah, I hope you've notified your next of kin, 'cause when I get out of these restraints you're all gonna be begging for mercy, mercy that you ain't gonna get 'cause I'm Jim "SisterFister" Backhouse, the hardest D.I.C.K – Dedicated Infantry Combat Killer – in the whole fucking world!"

The young man continued thrash around in the chair, very nearly knocking himself over at several points. "How long has he been going on like this, captain?" asked Private Szymański.

Captain Waszkiewicz took a drag from his cigarette. "About half an hour, and so far he hasn't repeated himself once. Rather impressive, in a way."

In all his years of service, Waszkiewicz had never experienced something quite so bizarre as this. Late that afternoon he had received a call informing him that the border crossing in Słubice was under attack by a gang of screaming maniacs armed with assault rifles, miniguns, and rocket launchers. By the time he arrived, all but one of the attackers were dead, with not a single casualty amongst the men stationed there.

The sole survivor amongst the assailants, resembling less a hardened soldier and more a dweebish software programmer, was now strapped into a chair and continuing to hurl insults at his captors. He had taken a bullet to the leg, yet his fury remained undiminished. He had to be on drugs, Waszkiewicz figured; probably Cram or Novacoke.

"You're whole country's gonna get rolled when my buddies show up! One of us is the same as all of us! All on one, one on all! The Gamers' Alliance is 500,000 fit, college-aged men who have spent years playing the most hardcore military shooters ever made. We're far more effective than most militaries, including yours, asswipe! Oh man, if you had known just how much shit we're capable of raining down you on then you would have rolled over just like you Polacks rolled over for Hitler. But you couldn't, you didn't, and now you're gonna pay the price. You will drown in your own blood, motherfuckers! I'm gonna pull your teeth and feed them to you! Our assault today was only the first wave. More of us coming. This city will be ours! It would take an army of millions to hold us back!"

"Why did you attack our border guards?" Waszkiewicz asked, though he did not really expect an answer.

"Fuck you! I ain't telling you shit, asshole! You'll have to pry my answers from my cold, dead hands! You won't take me alive, bitches!"

Szymański stifled a laugh. "I think we just did."

"YOU COCKSUCKERS! As soon as I get out of here I'm gonna rip your heads off and play skip rope with your intestines! You cowards think you can get away with treating me like this? Think again, fuckers! I'm gonna go nuclear on your asses! I'm the hardest son of a bitch in the whole goddamn corps! I'm the Sparta to your Persia! I'm the Minutemen to your Redcoats! I'm the Stalingrad to your Wehrmacht! I am, I am, I AM, I AM HNNNGNGGHAAAAGHHH-"

In an instant the scene changed from a comedy to a horror show. The prisoner's eyes rolled back in their sockets, and he began thrashing and convulsing with even greater fury, as though someone had plugged his body into a wall socket. His speech became a ghastly gurgling sound, his words lost in the frothing saliva that erupted from his mouth.

Szymański stepped back. "What the hell?"

The prisoner continued flailing about, his paroxysms so violent that he broke free of his restraints and began rolling about on the floor, all the while making horrid barking and howling noises like a tortured hound. Waszkiewicz's first instinct was to draw his gun and shoot the poor bastard, but a morbid sense of curiosity stayed his hand. He had seen men reduced to animals by every drug on this fragged-up planet, but this...this was something else entirely.

"Get the medic," he said softly.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 – A Killer Riff

"You imbeciles!"

Heinrich grabbed Dobbs by the shirt and slammed him up against the brick wall. Rhodes instinctively reached for his katana, knowing full well that the burly German could kick his ass most thoroughly, authentic Nippon steel or no.

If Dobbs was afraid, he didn't show it. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Let's just calm down and discuss this like the logical, rational, and reasonable gentlemen we are!"

"Your 'Gamers' Alliance' attacked a Polish border crossing," Heinrich snarled, leaning in so close their faces were nearly touching. "What do you think is going to happen now? Do you think they will simply forget about this?"

"Relax, dude! Poland is backwards as fuck! They won't do shit!"

"You Americans know nothing about any place beyond your rotting carcass of a country. The guards at the crossing will be more alert now. How do you think they will react when they see this?" Heinrich pointed the large black tour bus that was currently being loaded with weapons, ammunition, and military-grade ordnance.

Dobbs rolled his eyes. "They're called bribes, man; maybe you've heard of them? Once we get to the border all we have to do is wave a credstick in their faces and they'll leave us alone. Easy peasy!"

Heinrich backed down, continuing to glare at Dobbs with a look of deep contempt. He stormed off into the bus, muttering beneath his breath all the while.

"Geez, who shoved a stick up his ass?" Dobbs said, dusting himself off. "All right, let's go. The more time we waste here, the bigger a lead that elf gets on us."

"Do we even known where she's going?" Rhodes asked as he climbed the steps into the tour bus.

"No, but she's probably headed to Warsaw. Where else would you go in that godforsaken country?"

The reek of sweat and cheap body spray assaulted Rhodes' nostrils the instant he stepped aboard the tour bus. Three dozen unshaven young men filled the seats, and never in his life had he ever seen so many black trench coats and katanas in one place. Suddenly he felt overwhelmingly inadequate.

Dobbs stopped by the driver's seat to address his comrades-in-arms. "Listen up, everyone!" he barked. "Just shut the fuck up for once in your goddamn lives! In a few minutes we're going to be crossing the Polish border at Sloo-bitch...Sloob-ice – I don't know how the hell you're supposed to say it – so put away your swords and guns and let's try not to look like a bunch of murderous, kill-on-sight hotheads, okay? Just two hours ago twenty-three of our brethren were gunned down at the very same border crossing we're heading to, so let's have a moment of silence to remember our fallen soldiers." A half-second later he added, "All right, enough silence. We're going keeb-hunting, boys! Woo-hoo!"

Everyone screamed and cheered, loudly proclaiming their bloodlust and what horrible things they were going to do to "that fucking dandelion eater" once they caught up with her. "Now, I'm not going to feed you any bullshit," Dobbs continued. "Some of us aren't going to be coming back from this. But remember: if you die, you die fighting against those who would see our way of life, our very identities wiped from the face of the earth. For too long we gamers have been slandered, persecuted, and spat upon. We all know the lies that are heaped upon us every day. Hell, we've been hearing for five decades now that playing games makes us violent! That's bullshit and they know it! So we're going to prove them wrong, and we'll kill everyone who stands in our way!"

As soon as the last passenger was on board the bus started across the bridge over the Oder. Everyone scrambled to stow their swords and firearms in the overhead compartments, and Rhodes found himself a crush of sweaty, corpulent bodies. A voice in the back of his mind was telling him, in a rather passive-aggressive manner, that he was getting in over his head, that this was all going to end quite badly, and that if he had any sense whatsoever he'd abandon this whole insane endeavour forthwith.

But then there was another voice, much louder than the first. "Don't listen to him, sempai! You're so strong and manly, no one could ever defeat you!"

There was still blood on the street when the reached the opposite end of the bridge, and to make matters worse there was an entire platoon of soldiers waiting for them. They immediately signalled for the bus to stop, and Rhodes felt a great lump rise up in his throat. Something bad was going to happen, he just knew it. His whole life was nothing but a string of bad things happening to him, so why would this time be any different?

One of the soldiers approached the door and signalled for the driver to open it. "Let me handle this," said Heinrich, pushing past Rhodes.

The door opened with a loud hiss, and the soldier said something to Heinrich in Polish. He answered in the same language, and from the tone of their conversation it seemed like the two men knew each other. Rhodes breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that Heinrich's connections would get them across the border smoothly.

All of a sudden Heinrich pulled a gun from inside his coat and plugged three bullets into the soldier's chest. "Go!" he barked at the driver before his body even hit the ground.

The rest of the border guards opened fire as the bus lurched forward, but their bullets glanced off the windscreen without leaving so much as a scratch. The driver laughed manically, cranking the steering wheel left and right. "This is bullet-proof glass, assholes! Ha ha ha!"

A continuous barrage of bullets raked the sides of the bus while the passengers whooped and hollered. Rhodes reached for one of the grab rails as the bus pitched from side to side, finding himself pressed against the wall by the most morbidly obese individual he had ever laid eyes upon. "What the hell are you doing?" he screamed at Heinrich once he'd gotten his footing.

The soldiers continued firing at the bus, to little effect. Heinrich was grinning like a madman, the first time Rhodes had seen him express any emotion besides anger. "When I said I was going to kill you all, did you think I was lying? I will search for this elf on my own, while the entire military of Poland will be looking for you. It is very unlikely any of you will survive."

"What? Are you crazy?" He glanced at Dobbs. "Did you hear what he just said?"

"Relax, man! He's just joking!"

"Joking?" He looked at the rest of the passengers, none of whom shared his sense of apprehension. "Dude, we just killed a fucking member of the Polish military! You think they're just going to let that go?"

Dobbs laughed. "The Polish military? It's half past five, Rhodes! He's gone home for the day!"

It was futile trying to argue with him, he knew. As he always did in times of stress, Rhodes locked the doors of his mind and mentally retreated to his days in Silicon Valley, the last time in his life when he had experienced anything remotely akin to joy. Yes, the eighteen-hour workday had been gruelling, and being crammed into a tiny apartment with fourteen other people had posed its own unique challenges, but it had all meant something. Just what it meant, exactly, was still something he had yet to figure out.

A splitting headache started pounding behind his eyes, and the voices of the passengers dissolved into a wall of mindless noise. He held tightly to the grab rail, the scenery outside turning into a blur, and tried in vain to fight back a wave of nausea. Even the simplest of thoughts proved difficult.

Where am I? What's going on? He tilted his head towards the window just in time to see a gigantic white rabbit descending before the evening sun, while a legion of catgirls dressed as Prussian soldiers goose-stepped towards it. They raised their guns and delivered a mighty volley, but alas the gargantuan lagomorph remained unscathed. To Rhodes utter horror, it began rampaging through the ranks of the catgirls, throwing them into disarray.

"No!" he cried. "Not the catgirls!"

Dobbs' hand slid down to one of his Desert Eagles. "What the hell did you just say?"

"That giant rabbit, man! It's tearing them apart! We've got to do something!"

"Aw hell, you've lost it, haven't you? I knew this was going to happen! Those BTLs, man...they've fucked you up!"

"What? Can't you see?" Rhodes was almost in tears now. "Just look at what it's doing to those poor catgirls! That ain't right, man! Rabbits shouldn't be able to fly!"

Dobbs slapped him on the side of the head. "Snap out of it, damn it!"

Outside the situation just kept getting worse. More flying rabbits were descending from the heavens, belching fire and turning the catgirls to ashes. One of them burst into song, a thoroughly blasphemous rendition of Ode to Joy, while huge, gaping-mawed sandworms burst forth from the ground and engaged the rabbits in mortal combat. Caught in the middle of it all, the poor, innocent catgirls were slaughtered by the hundreds.

"Oh shit, sandworms! They aren't supposed to be in these parts! We've got to turn back, man! No one told me Poland was sandworm country!"

Dobbs stepped back. "Heinrich, can you give this guy a good smack? He's having one of his BTL flashbacks again."

But Rhodes felt nothing even when Heinrich gave him a swift slap on the back of the head. He wasn't worried. Dobbs would see those sandworms soon enough.

Even in the darkness of the night, the city of Warsaw was a shock to Talvi. She was no stranger to urban decay, but to see a historic city like this one reduced to this blighted state was sickening. At that moment she was glad that their van was banged up and shot full of holes, for it blended in perfectly with the dismal surroundings.

Progress through the streets was slow, as Monika had to navigate around the potholes and the occasional burned-out vehicle. They passed row after row of crumbling, dilapidated buildings bathed in the glow of neon lights, punctuated by the occasional gang of derelicts huddling around a burning barrel. The city still bore the scars the Euro Wars – whole blocks reduced to rubble, rusting hulks of military vehicles that had long since been stripped of their parts, and an overwhelming aura of spiritual despair that hung over the city like putrid black smog. The sole bright spot in this dreary panorama of decrepitude was the glow of central Warsaw in the distance, the home of the megacorps and the mega-rich. It might as well have been an illusion to the poor souls who inhabited these parts, Talvi figured.

"I don't know too much about this city," Monika said, her voice low, "but I've heard that Humanis, or some group like them, has a big presence here. It's probably no use saying this, but we should try to keep a low profile."

Driving through the desolate cityscape was not doing anything for Talvi's nerves, so she decided a story or two might take her mind off things. "Have I ever told you about that time my friend Azadeh and I drove Humanis out of Helsinki?"

"No, I don't think you have."

"I suppose they weren't really Humanis – that band of malmsey-nosed mumblecrusts is nowhere to be found in fair Finland – but their aims were the same. They called themselves Keihäänkärki – the spearhead – and they took great care never to express explicitly their hatred of non-humans. No, they just prattled on about 'traditional values' and 'political correctness' and all that, but once you looked past the dogwhistles their odious ideology was as clear as the waters of Lake Valkia. Now, Azadeh had gotten into a bit of a feud with them, for what reason I don't know, but she played guitar for a metal band called Shahanshah, and they were one of those musical outfits who seemed destined to get themselves into trouble wherever they went. They weren't accepted in her conservative homeland of Iran, of course, and they ruffled more than a few feathers when they performed their latest album – lyrically centred on the life of Xerxes the Great – at Thermopylae. Also, people tended to die quite frequently at their concerts, through no fault of the band.

"Anyhow, the leader of Keihäänkärki was a man named Keijo Hämäläinen, and like many reactionaries he strove to maintain a public facade of respectability. He really wanted everyone to believe that he was just being 'reasonable' and 'pragmatic' - two words that ought to ready you, mentally, for a barrage of pure bilge water ideology. Azadeh and I enlisted the aid of one of her colleagues – a man far more adept than either of us in the art of navigating the currents and eddies of the electronic realm – to dig up any sort of information he could on the man. To no one's surprise he returned with pages upon pages of diatribes Keijo had posted to the Matrix under a variety of aliases, and this was truly heinous, grotesque material – quite on the level of Mein Kampf if you can believe it. The two of us decided, then, that we needed to do something, and our initial plan was quite simple: we would knock on his apartment door and, when he answered, knock him unconscious with a spell or, failing that, a swift blow to head. We would then tie him up by his hands and feet, throw him into the trunk of our vehicle, and dump into a dirty, muddy ditch somewhere on the outskirts of Helsinki."

"He would have been able to identify you, you know."

"Yes, and that was not the least of the flaws in our plan. We soon realised that, come the next morning, Mr. Hämäläinen would get up on a podium and proclaim, 'Look at what those thugs did to me! This is exactly what I'm talking about! This is why we can't trust those goddamn mutants...' After thinking about it some more we decided that we would use our considerable arcane talents to disguise ourselves as two high-ranking members of Keihäänkärki. The targets of our impersonation were some of the meanest, most bloody-minded individuals in that whole gang of gong farmers; we stalked them for days, trying to obtain a good impression of their appearance and mannerisms, and once we were confident in our spells of illusion we put our plan into motion. On a dark Saturday evening we knocked on his apartment door, and when Keijo answered he would have seen his associates standing in the dim hallway light, with absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Before he could say anything Azadeh incapacitated him with a stun gun while I slapped a burlap sack over his head and tied his hands and ankles together. We dragged him outside to our car, threw him in the trunk, and drove off; he was entirely conscious throughout all this, and we could hear him thrashing about and cursing at us. We knew at that moment that he had been completely and utterly fooled by our deception. After half an hour or so of driving we arrived in Espoo, where we threw Keijo into a pile of wet leaves by the shore of Lake Bodom. We figured that he'd manage to free himself after a while, and when the shock finally wore off he'd know that his associates had betrayed him. He'd know they were mean enough to do it, because that's the way he thinks."

"That's just brilliant. So what happened after that?"

"Well, we don't know what occurred at Keihäänkärki the next day, but I imagine Keijo confronted the two men we'd impersonated, and he'd know they were responsible because he'd seen them. And they'd deny it with all honesty, and he wouldn't know what to think! But we weren't about to stop there. We learned that Keijo worked as a warehouse manager, and that his office was on the second floor, easily accessible via the fire escape. Our plan was risky, because it would involve breaking into his office night after night. Azadeh had somehow obtained a monofilament cutter; if you've never seen one, it's this tool that can make very fine, very exact cuts. So after everyone had left for the night we'd infiltrate his office and use the monofilament cutter to shorten the legs of his chair by a hair or two; I'm talking about a very small amount, like two or three millimetres at most. The change was so slight he wouldn't notice it at first, but over a period weeks he'd have the distinct impression that he was shrinking. We'd do other things as well – moving bits of furniture about by a few centimetres or so, rearranging the papers on his desk, moving things from one drawer to the next, and so on...our aim was nothing less than the complete obliteration of his perception of reality."

"Did it work?"

"It's...difficult to say. After a few months of this Keijo simply disappeared. He stopped showing up for work, and the last anyone heard of him was a post he made to a certain BBS, wherein he claimed that his workplace was built atop an 'ancient Indian burial ground'-"

"An 'ancient Indian burial ground' Finland?"

"Yes, that was clear proof of his madness. But more importantly, Keihäänkärki disbanded shortly afterwards, likely due to infighting and general paranoia. I can't say that we were entirely responsible for this turn of events, but I like to think that, at the very least, we helped it along."

Monika brought the van to a sudden halt. "Finally, a bar."

Whatever part of Warsaw they were now in was marginally less depressing than what they had seen so far, judging from the look of things. They were stopped in front of an establishment named Piekło, and Talvi understood at once that this was first and foremost a heavy metal bar. It was the kind of place she and her band had performed at numerous times in the past, and she knew that she would be among friends here.

One of the bands on the marquee caught her eye. "Bloodborne – I've heard of them. They're one of the more well-known Polish death metal bands. I've only seem them perform once, of course, and it all went quite awry when they attempted the ritual slaughter of a live goat on-stage. The goat proved more than they could handle, and it wound up causing several thousand nuyen worth of damage to the club. I suppose it proves the old adage about never working with children or animals."

"That's great, Talvi, but I'm not here for the music. I'm here for the booze."

"Very well, but just remember that we are walking into a death metal concert. The scene is far more extreme than it was a half-century ago. If you wander into the mosh pit unprepared, you'll find yourself bleeding and dazed upon the floor in a heartbeat."

Even from the across the street one could the cacophony of the concert within, and when the pair stepped through the door they were instantly barraged with a wall of sound. Screaming guitars, pounding drums, and a singer who sounded as though he had spent his whole life gargling gravel and sulphuric acid made it abundantly clear what sort of madhouse they were walking into. The air was thick and smoky, laden with the scent of insanity and bloodlust, but this was not a place of complete anarchy, as Talvi quickly ascertained. No, the men and women in the crowd had chosen to go respectfully crazy. Though they banged their heads with enough vigour to permanently dislocate their vertebrae, they were wholly mindful of the personal space of those around them, so that no one wound up being slammed into, or worse, having his drink spilled.

Bloodborne consisted of five men, every one of them dressed in an impressive panoply of spikes, chains, and black leather. Their instruments had been made to look as though they were crafted from flesh and bone, while their amplifiers had been built to resemble screaming demon skulls, and while in the hands of less-capable musicians it all might have seemed absurd or comical, the band had had brought everything together with such finesse that one really did have the impression that they had been spawned from the deepest pit of hell.

Talvi and Monika sat themselves at the bar, staffed by a buxom young elven woman with a shock of pink hair and tattoos covering almost all of her body that could be seen (which was a great deal). A look of recognition came into her eyes when Talvi approached, and spoke to her in English.

"Hey, don't I know you from somewhere?"

She could barely hear the woman over the roar of the music. "It would not surprise me. I'm the singer for Jumalten Aika."

"Right, you're the people who write thirty minute songs. So what will be?"

"Vodka. Any kind will do, so long as it's not Russian."

The bartender laughed. "Hey, what country do you think you're in? We Poles invented vodka; don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

"You wouldn't happen to serve Hefeweizen, would you?" asked Monika. "And I mean real beer, not that soy drek."

"We do," she answered, "but it'll cost you."

"I'm German. My friend Talvi here tells me that you should never offer soykaf to a Finn. Well, you should never offer soybeer to a German. We can be the nicest, most polite people in this whole fragged-up planet, but if you try to make us drink soybeer, well, who knows what could happen?"

Behind the bar was a large trideo display, presently displaying some sort of news broadcast. Talvi would not have paid any attention to it had it not suddenly shifted to an image of the Słubice border crossing, followed by a slow camera pan across a dozen or so bullet-ridden corpses. She didn't understand a word of the Polish text scrolling across the bottom, but two English words jumped out at her: Gamers' Alliance."

Monika must have noticed it too, because she reacted as though someone had just thrown up in her lap. "Oh god!"

Talvi frowned. "What? What is it?"

"The 'Gamers' Alliance,' they were the people who attacked us, not the Inner Circle!"

The bartender glanced at the trideo display while she poured their drinks. "That was you?"

"Yeah," said Monika, "we were trying to cross the border when all of a sudden these assholes showed up and started shooting at us. It's been happening quite a lot lately, and it's starting to piss me off."

Talvi had the sinking feeling that she had earned the ire of yet another band of lunatics. "But who are they? Why would they attack us?"

"Come on, I'll explain it to you somewhere quiet."

"Quiet" wasn't the word Talvi would have used, but she followed Monika through the dark until they came to a relatively deserted corner of the bar. The band had finished with their current song and the singer was now addressing the audience, speaking with a nasally, high-pitched voice that was totally at odds with his bellowing death growls.

"So how can I explain the Gamers' Alliance to you, who's barely touched a computer in her life…?"

"That's a bit of an exaggeration, Monika."

"Never mind. They're...well...I guess they're a bit like your Inner Circle, only instead of playing Norwegian black metal, they're games."

"'Electronic games?' You mean, something like Space Invaders?"

"Uh...yes, like that, but newer. I'm not surprised you've never heard of them; they didn't start making themselves known outside of the Matrix until a few years ago, when they started expressing their displeasure at games they disliked by firebombing the offices of the developers. I thought they were just a North American thing, but I guess they've spread across the ocean."

"But why are they after us?" Talvi asked, sipping her vodka.

"If I had to guess, that choob whose door you kicked down back in Berlin was a member, so he rounded up his friends and now they're trying to kill you. This sort of thing probably happens to you so often that you don't even notice it."

"Monika, these people attacked a military checkpoint. The Inner Circle's bloodlust can be explained by their ideology, but electronic game players…?"

"Remember what I told you about game corps? About how they were some of the nastiest people around? Well, they didn't get like that overnight. See, thirty years ago the whole gaming industry was dying. The world was becoming a worse place by the day, everyone had to work harder and harder for less and less, so people just didn't have the time or the money for games any more. And when the game corps saw their revenue stream start to dry up they decided to focus all their attention on the people who did have the time and money to play games. But the problem was that they were the fanatics, the hardcore types, the most zealous consumers. You know how you hear sometimes about people who are so dedicated to the brand of car they drive that they get into fistfights over who makes the better vehicle? It was a lot like that.

"And the developers, they hated these people, because they were completely unreasonable. They'd throw a huge tantrum if a game came out and it didn't meet their ridiculous expectations. If it had a few too many bugs, if it didn't run well on certain hardware, if some of the female characters weren't attractive enough, then they'd completely lose their minds. But the game corps couldn't do anything about it, because they were their biggest source of revenue. And nobody wanted to work for these companies, and not just because the working conditions were total drek. I mean, who wants to spend eighty hours a week working on a game, just for some bitter, jaded nerds to come along and crap all over it? So they started forcing people to work for them."

Talvi took another sip of vodka. "That doesn't explain the violence, though."

"The thing is, the Gamers' Alliance isn't really about games. What they're really about is this totally negative sense of identity. And I don't mean 'negative' as in something bad, I mean that they're all about what they don't believe in, what they don't want, what they don't stand for. But the problem was this kind of thinking is that you don't really know who you are, so you always have to be at war with someone in order to feel real. That's why the Gamers' Alliance teamed up with Humanis. You wouldn't think the two groups would have anything in common, but it turns out they both hate the same kinds of people. And if they don't have an enemy, they'll find one. When you broke into that guy's apartment, you put yourself right in the middle of their crosshairs."

"The question is, how do we stop them?"

Monika sighed. "I don't know. The only ways I can think of is to either kill so many of them that they get bored, or they find someone that they hate more than you."

"That's not terribly-"

Out of the corner of her eye Talvi saw a man stumbling towards their table. At first she thought he was drunk, but when she turned her head to look at him she saw that he was frothing at the mouth, with trails of saliva running down his shirt. There was look of pure insanity in his eyes, a mind destroyed, a brain diseased. For moment she was thrust back to a moment in her childhood, back when she had lived in the wilderness with her mother, when she had first witnessed this madness.

"Vesikauhu..." she whispered.

Then she saw the submachine gun in his hand, saw him raising it towards her…

Talvi sprang out of her chair just as he opened fire, stumbling into another patron and knocking him to the ground. The music stopped, shrieks and screams filled the air, and in a matter of seconds the bar descended into chaos.

She glanced over her shoulder and realised, to her horror, that she was caught between a throng of people stampeding towards the exit and her attacker. For a second she considered a magical counter-attack, but there was no way she could get a spell off in time.

The bartender proved to be her salvation. The pink-haired elf ducked beneath the counter, reappeared with a shotgun in her hands, and pulled the trigger.

It all seemed to happen so slowly. Her attacker raised his gun to attack, and a split-second later a spray of buckshot ripped through shoulder, spraying warm blood across Talvi's face. But instead of dropping to the ground and screaming in agony, he simply spun around let loose a burst of fire at the bartender, showering the counter in booze and broken glass.

Talvi pushed her way past the multitude of people swarming around her, trying to find an elevated position. Using magic in this situation was out of the question – there was no clear line of sight, and far too much risk of collateral damage.

At least, there would be, if one only employed conventional magic.

The band had fled, leaving their instruments on-stage. Her rabid assailant was closing in, making a horrid howling sound that no human should have been able to make. A barrage of bullets flew over her head, missing her by a hair, followed by the telltale sign of an empty magazine hitting the floor.

It was now or never.

Talvi mantled atop the stage and picked up one of the guitars. To her relief, it was still plugged in, and the guitarist's plectrum was nearby.

Below, her foe was reloading his submachine gun, slobbering and slavering all the while. Just as he was about to open fire, Talvi swept her pick across the guitar strings, calling forth a cacophonous roar from the wall of amplifiers behind her. Her attacker froze, his whole body going rigid in the face of such a powerful auditory assault. Those who had not yet fled the area wisely did so now, having realised, subconsciously or not, that some serious sonic magic was about to take place.

Shifting techniques, she followed up the opening riff with a blistering array of hammer-ons, pull-offs, arpeggios, and triplet after triplet, her fingers dancing like fire upon the fretboard. She glanced down at her enemy, saw him flailing and thrashing about, completely in thrall to her musical onslaught. There was no song in Talvi's mind; the notes coming unbidden, the boundary between magic and music erased. The outside world vanished into the haze, and she did not even hear her foe scream as the flesh began melting from his face. Her art required utmost concentration; a single note out of place, a missed beat, or the tiniest accidental brush of a guitar string could reduce the entire building to a heap of rubble.

Changing techniques once again, she launched into a barrage of riffs that burst forth from the amplifiers like machine gun bullets. Few could withstand so many chords played in short succession: the diminished fifth, the augmented third, the eviscerated seventh, the disembowelled fourth, the decapitated seventh...each riff pushing the amplifiers to the limit. Talvi was skirting the edge of disaster now, and she knew full well that the slightest error would cause a deadly feedback loop, leading to total destruction.

And now it was time for the coup de grâce.

After a brief pause, Talvi locked her eyes on her foe. To her amazement, he was still trying to aim his gun at her despite the musical drubbing he had received. Without thinking she swept her pick across the strings, pounding out a riff of such acoustic violence that it roared through the bar like a shockwave, shattering glass and upending tables, but this blast of sonic mayhem was focussed squarely on the maddened individual standing before the stage. He let out a sharp yelp before his head exploded with a wet thud, spraying fragments of brain and bone in all directions.

Talvi set the guitar back down, the magic vanishing from the air as quickly as she had called it forth. She surveyed the area, looking to see if anyone else had been wounded. Against all probability, her deranged assailant had not harmed a single soul, despite the number of shots he had fired.

Perhaps, she reckoned, her body projected some sort of magical field that caused bullets to go astray. It was the only explanation for why her enemies had consistently failed to hit her.

Monika emerged from behind a pillar, her expression one part shock and one part amazement. "What...what the hell did you just do, Talvi?"

"I employed magic, of course," she said. "The true kind."

Though it was a revolting sight, she could not help but look down at the headless corpse of the man she had slain. He was wearing a black t-shirt depicting a fist clenching some sort of electronic device, with the Latin words Rabies Aeterna Ludiorum written beneath.

She struggled to recall whatever fragments of Latin she had learned back in university. "'The eternal rage of...performers?'"

"That'd be 'gamers'," said Monika. "That's the logo of the Gamers' Alliance. Looks like they've already caught up to us."

"Did you see the way he was foaming at the mouth? Either he was having some sort of epileptic fit, or was he was stricken with hydrophobia."

"Look, we need to get out of here before more of these freaks show up. I just hope they don't track us to Weles' place; the last thing I want to bring trouble to his doorstop. God knows he's seen enough of it."

The bartender stood up from beneath the counter and looked over the carnage that had been wrought upon her watering hole: broken bottles, spilled drinks, destroyed furniture, and a bloody dead body lying on the floor. She started spouting off in Polish; Talvi couldn't understand a word, but she assumed that it was full of vulgarities.

"We're terribly sorry," Talvi said. "It was not our intention to bring violence to your establishment."

"Story of our lives," Monika muttered as she walked towards the exit.

Chapter Text

Chapter – 10 – Locked and Loaded

"I must admit, I've never seen anything like it."

Captain Waszkiewicz shivered slightly in the cold air of the morgue. The young man they had apprehended at the border crossing now lay face-up on a metal slab, his face still frozen in an expression of rabid frenzy. A large Y-shaped incision had been made in his chest, and to the top half of his skull had been removed, exposing his brain. It was enough to make the captain more than a bit nauseous, not helped by the overpowering smell of antiseptic hanging in the air.

"The patient was admitted displaying the classical symptoms of rabies encephalitis," Doctor Nowak continued. "Agitation, frequent seizures, hydrophobia, aerophobia, altered consciousness, and hypersalivation." He then walked over to a trio of monitors on the far well, each of which displayed a black-and-white image of the patient's brain. "Although there was little question as to the diagnosis, I decided to perform an MRI scan in order to rule out any other possible form of neurological dysfunction."

"And what did you find?" Waszkiewicz asked, not sure if he'd be able to understand the answer.

The doctor pointed to one of the monitors with his little finger. "Imaging detected several hyperintensities in the pontine tegmentum, globus pallidus, collicular plate, cortical grey matter, and subcortical white matter. Over the next few hours the neurological state of the patient continued to deteriorate, and he eventually expired from acute respiratory failure. All of this is consistent with previous diagnoses of rabies encephalitis, however..." Nowak looked away, evidently troubled.

"What? What is it?"

"A subsequent examination of the patient's brain tissue did not reveal the presence of Negri bodies, nor was there any evidence of rabies antigens present in the patient's nervous tissue. In fact, there was no evidence of any infectious agents at all."

"What did the blood test show? Could he have been on drugs?"

"That was my first suspicion," the doctor replied. "But the blood came back negative for all known drugs except for trace amounts of Maricaffinol."

Waszkiewicz frowned. "'Maricaffinol?'"

"It's the active ingredient in a number of popular energy drinks, combining the effects of marijuana, caffeine, and alcohol. But I can assure you, captain, that this was not the cause of the patient's death."

"What did the patient have on him?"

Doctor Nowak picked up a plastic card from a nearby table. "Nothing but his wallet, containing a credstick, a driving licence, and a membership card for something called the 'Gamers' Alliance.' According to the licence, the patient is James D. Weiler from Texarkana, Texas. I did some investigating on my own, off the clock, and it turns out that this 'Gamers' Alliance' is some sort of policlub dedicated to various form of interactive electronic entertainment. Now, that in itself is not unusual – even stamp collectors and model railroad enthusiasts have policlubs these days – but what is unusual are the stories I've heard about a disease that appears to afflict only members of their organisation, and whose symptoms are identical to the ones I described to you earlier. Given the encephalopathic nature of the disease, I assumed that it was related somehow to the ASIST technology used by gaming hardware, but if that were the case then the disease would be far more prevalent."

"So if I understand you, doctor, this 'Gamers' Alliance', who is now loose in our country, is being stricken with a disease that is like rabies, but is not actually rabies?"

"It would seem so. But...'loose in our country,' you say?"

"Yes. They attacked one of our border checkpoints, and later another group attacked the same crossing and killed one of the men stationed there. We've got roadblocks set up along all major thoroughfares. I'm not sure what their intentions are, though from what the men have told me they appear to be in pursuit of someone. But at any rate, they are likely very stupid people, and we should no trouble dealing with them."

"I am a merchant of death. Weapons are my bag, my speciality, my stock and trade. You name it, I know it. Guns, knives, rocket launchers, grenades, flamethrowers, missiles, bombs, nuclear arms...if it makes people go from 'living' to 'dead' then no one knowns more about it than me. Take a look at this baby here: the FNG-94 'Adjudicator', one of only five ever produced. Why? Because the company was forced to stop making it. All the plans were destroyed, all the engineers were liquidated, for no other reason than the sheer fuckin' fear this beautiful piece of hardware struck into peoples' hearts. Its very existence was declared a war crime by the United Nations. Featuring a double-redundant smartlink system compatible with only the highest-end cyberware that money CAN'T buy, and utilising a blowback-shifted pulse action in combination with a tungsten-neutronium bolt carrier, it has a maximum effective kill radius of over 3000 yards. Each round is a custom-machined cartridge with a muzzle velocity of over 5000 feet per second and a total ballistic energy of approximately 20,000 joules. Beneath the barrel is the underslung rocket launcher firing either a high-explosive anti-tank projectile or an armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot able to penetrate over 30 feet of rolled homogeneous armour. It is, without a doubt, the most deadly personal weapon ever conceived by mankind. Any questions?"

"Yeah," said Dobbs. "How much did the company pay you to slobber all over their knob?"

His name was Leroy, but to everyone on the bus he was known by his online handle "LaSombra." Addressing him by his given name would result in him reflexively punching you in the face. Pointing out that he was not Hispanic nor spoke a word of Spanish would also result in a punch to the face, followed by a knee to the groin.

"Fuck you, man! I've done shit the rest of you can't even dream of! Bunch of goddamn pussies on this bus. Well I'm diamond ranked in Grunts of Glory, motherfuckers! When I see the enemy, I shoot the enemy, and I don't need more than one bullet. 20 to 1 K/D ratio, assholes! I've been hearing that a lot of punk bitches out there think they got the skills to go toe-to-toe with LaSombra! Ha! That's some funny shit! But this is about more than just games. This elf we're gonna kill, what she look like?"

"Well, uh, she's tall. And blonde," Rhodes muttered, not paying much attention to their conversation. His eyes were focussed on LaSombra's weapon, which he fondled and caressed as though it were his lover. It looked less like a gun and more like a Frankenstein-esque assemblage of scopes, sights, grips, accessory rails, extended magazines, flashlights, and laser sights, and in Rhodes' eyes it looked distinctly impractical. But what did he know? He was merely a gold ranked Grunts of Glory player.

"What else?"

"She' a huge rack?"

"And after we kill her, what are you gonna do?"

LaSombra's questions irritated him. "I sure as shit know what I'm gonna do! I'm leaving this sinkhole of a country and going back to SoCal."

"See what I mean?" LaSombra sneered. "You're all a bunch of pussies! This is about more than just trideo games. Maybe it was at first. Maybe you just wanted to be left alone to enjoy your preferred mode of entertainment. But they wouldn't let you! They kept lying about you, about us. Someone has to stand up to them, and they are us! That fight back at the border? That was just the opening skirmish. Welcome to the war, soldiers! And this war has brought us to eastern Europe, 'cause it's nothing less than the struggle for western civilisation itself, and it's gonna take an army of millions to hold us back. Your only option is to fight, motherfuckers! Because the alternative is something you don't even want to think about. It's total war, full PvP, kill or be killed!"

"Are you, uh, ex-military?" Rhodes asked, unsure of where to steer the conversation.

LaSombra shifted slightly. "Hell no, man. I was part of a six-man High Threat Response team in one of the largest retail centres in the state of Maine-"

Dobbs snickered. "You were a mall cop?"

"Fuck you, asshole! You have no idea the kind of shit we had to deal with on a daily basis. You wouldn't have seen us if you had just gone shopping, 'cause we worked in the shadows, but if some punks started making trouble we would have been on them, man, in full tactical gear. We were fully trained in both armed and unarmed combat, and I personally know three forms of martial arts, including ninjutsu. My kit included an FN 5-7C sidearm, an HK MP5, and Ares HVAR, combined with full kevlar body armour and tactical night-vision goggles. In my line of work, we only use the best. For a while we tried using the Colt M22A2, but it proved unreliable when the Russian Mafia laid siege to the arcade one fateful afternoon..."

By now Dobbs was laughing uncontrollably. "Oh, do tell us!"

"You think this is funny, dickweed? Well, next time you go shopping, just remember that it's because of people like me that some greasy 300lb biker isn't sodomising you in the men's room! With all the moral and intellectual decay that's going on in our society, it was up to us to protect the retail environments of our glorious nation. I had five rotating routes to work every day, and during the walk to and from my car I was always under threat from snipers, improvised explosives, and anti-personnel mines. But some young punks always try to push the limit, thinking they can get away with shoplifting or loitering in the food court. If I was in a good mood I'd let them go with a tasering, but the second they got violent that's when we'd start aiming for the head. Gone are the days when thugs and gangbangers carried Colts or Cavaliers. Now they're packing Ultra-Powers or Predators, sometimes with long-range arms such as MA-2100s or G38s firing full metal jacket rounds.

"You still haven't gotten to the part about fighting the Russian Mafia," Dobbs said, still laughing.

"On that day our squad was assigned to patrol sector Bravo Charlie 08, which happened to include the arcade. Things were quiet until the evening, and it was around 9:45 PM that I saw some suspicious characters around the new Street Fighter machine. That's when I knew that we were dealing with the Russian Mafia, 'cause Russians fucking love Street Fighter. 'Code red! We got a code red!' I screamed into my radio. I ordered my buddy to perform a sweep of the right side of the arcade, and that's when I saw a perp stand up behind the air hockey table with Kalashnikov RPK with a 75 round drum magazine, while two more perps started coming around the slurpee machine with Vindicator miniguns. My buddy got into position, but then his gun jammed up and he took a round to the knee, so I dove underneath the foosball table, got the perp with the RPK in my sights, and gave him two rounds in the chest and one in the head, dropping him like a sack of potatoes. The moment I got to my feet the two thugs with miniguns started opening up, but they couldn't handle the recoil and their shots didn't come anywhere near me. Bunch of dumb kids; didn't even know how to handle their own weapons. I snapped into a roll, dropped a flashbang at their feet, and while they were blinded I put a bullet in each of their heads.

"Then everything went dark. Turns out the fuckers had cut the power, and when I looked up a saw three men smashing through the skylight and rappelling down to the upper level. But the darkness, see, it didn't affect me, 'cause my night vision was like that of an owl after spending five years in a Siberian prison. The three guys started shooting at me, all armed with MP5s chambered for 10mm rounds and featuring ACOG TA11 sights. There was no way I could get a shot in my from my position, so I scaled the wall using my ninja skills and silently approached them from behind. Drawing my katana, I screamed 'The dragon becomes me!' and launched into my attack. One of them lost his head before the others even knew what was happening, and then the two guys remaining started firing, but my blade, flickering and flashing like moonlight reflecting on an unquiet sea, turned aside their bullets. I cut one of them down with a hard, overhead slash, and he started screaming as his guts poured out onto the floor. The last guy tried to run, but he couldn't outrun my shuriken. When the smoke cleared we had six dead perps, all killed by my hand. It would have made the news, but some company suits came along in a black helicopter to cover up the situation. And since then no one in the Russian Mafia has had the guts to even speak my name, and they shudder with horror at the mere thought of an operator so deadly that he still inspires fear decades later."

"You know," said Rhodes, "the Polish army has probably set up roadblocks on the major highways. We should probably do something about that."

LaSombra laughed. "What army? They're probably-"

Before he could finish there came a loud bang from the front of the bus, followed by the distinctive thump-thump-thump sound of a flat tyre. "Spike strip!" cried the driver, who immediately slammed on the brakes.

"Shit just got real!" LaSombra said, cocking his assault rifle. "Time to rock!"

Everyone onboard grabbed their weapons and headed towards the front door, resulting in a crush of bodies near the driver's seat. Outside they could hear the muffled clattering of automatic weapons fire, and Rhodes began to shake uncontrollably. He reached for his katana, but every cell in his body was screaming at him to run. But the press of bodies behind him kept him moving forward, and before he could draw his sword he found himself forced out the door and onto the pavement.

He looked to his left and saw muzzle flares flashing in the dark, followed by the whooshing of bullets flying by. Terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought, he started running, screaming all the while, until he reached the guard rail of the highway. Rhodes tried to leap over it, only for his foot to catch, causing him to fly head-first into the ditch.

"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!" He looked up, spat out a mouthful of dirt, and watched as people continued pouring out of the bus while bullets continued whizzing past. Dobbs strode onto the highway as casually as someone going for a stroll, firing his two gold-plated Desert Eagles into the darkness.

"Get some! Get some! Get some!" Dobbs cried over and over, not even bothered by the bullets flying. "There's a lot more where that came from!"

Rhodes checked to see that he had not wet himself and then tried to take stock of the situation. A number of soldiers were advancing along the road and laying down heavy fire, cutting people down as they filed out of the bus. LaSombra emerged from the door, raised his gun towards his assailants, and let out half a battle cry before his body started shuddering as a dozens of bullets ripped through his flesh.

A man with long, greasy hair, wielding an assault rifle in each hand, followed closely behind. "You're gonna pay for that, you fuckers!" he screamed before opening fire. But the recoil sent his shots skyward, and a half-second later a bullet sent his brains spraying out from the back of his head.

"Let's get out of here!" Rhodes wailed as Dobbs jumped over the guard rail.

"My god!" Dobbs exclaimed, ignoring him. "Do we just suck, or is the Polish army that good?" Another individual ran out from the bus, only to be brutally cut down like the others. "Look at these morons! 'Diamond-ranked' my ass!"

By now the soldiers were nearing the bus, and without thinking Rhodes sprang to his feet and started running through the nearby field, with Dobbs following close behind. He stopped for a moment and looked back, just in time to see Heinrich exit the bus and disappear into the night, seemingly oblivious to the mayhem around him.

Rhodes was running on pure instinct now. He didn't dare look back again, expecting to see the soldiers in hot pursuit. This was it, he thought. He was going to die, no question about it. He was going to die in a foreign land, having accomplished nothing of note in his miserable life, and all because of some stupid elf. But what was his existence but one injustice and humiliation after the other?

As he sprinted through the field, shafts of wheat whipping against his legs, his mind went back to his first year in high school. That was when it had all started. Isolated and friendless, he had shown his Magical Chainsaw Tentai Kansoku fan fiction to a pair of his classmates, naively expecting them to be impressed. They had asked for copies, and he had provided them, not knowing the hell he was about to unleash upon himself. His 'friends' started sharing the story with the rest of his classmates for the sole purpose of humiliating him, and overnight Rhodes had become the laughingstock of the school. He still remembered the jeers, the taunts, the pranks, the mocking graffiti on the bathroom wall, but most of all he remembered Michelle. Michelle, that stuck-up blonde bitch, she had been the ringleader of it all, the one behind the campaign to transform his existence into never-ending torrent of mockery and degradation. That woman who had trashed his apartment looked so much like her that she could be nothing less than Michelle reborn in elven form. She had the same colour of hair, the same snotty expression, the same ample bosom…

"All right, stop!" said Dobbs, breaking Rhodes from his reminiscence. "Would you just stop for a minute?"

Rhodes came to a halt and looked around. In the darkness he could see little of his surroundings; not that it would do him much good if he could, knowing as little as he did about the geography of this country. "What are we gonna do, man? What are we gonna do?"

"Just shut up and let me think!"

"Think? We gotta get out of here! Maybe you haven't been paying attention, Dobbs, but we just got our asses kicked! Those soldiers are going to be looking for us-"

"Look, would you stop freaking out?" said Dobbs, reloading his guns. "They don't know our names or what we look like. Hell, they probably don't even know we survived. We'll be fine."

Rhodes started stamping the ground in frustration. "'Fine'? 'Fine'? Dude, they just fucking wrecked us! Everyone on that bus is probably dead by now!"

"They were scrubs, Rhodes. Just a bunch of weak, useless, scrubs! Did you see their total lack of movement and aiming skills? As always, it's up to me to carry us to victory. Now let's get going."

"Go where? Do you even have any idea where we are?"

"No, but we can't be far from Warsaw. Now come on, let's find ourselves a ride."

"Are you bringing death to my doorstep? You should know that death and I are old friends."

Their bullet-riddled van made more for amusement than concern from Weles, a man that reminded Talvi of the archetypal mad scientist in an old black-and-white horror film, and she half-expected to find his clinic filled with all the accoutrements of that particular cliché – test tubes, Jacob's Ladders, beakers filled with all manner of bubbling, noxious substances, and enormous knife switches controlling gods-know-what. He looked twenty years older than Väinämöinen himself, walked with a noticeable limp, and appeared to be blind in one eye.

"By the end of the week that van will be lying in a ditch somewhere," Weles continued. "Birds sing, the sun rises, and Monika wrecks vehicles."

"As dubious as her driving abilities are," Talvi said, "the condition of our transportation is not her fault, but that of two groups of violent reactionaries."

He gave her a puzzled look, as if he were trying to suss out where her accent originated. "I don't believe we've been introduced, miss…?"

"Talvi Korpela...Doctor Talvi Korpela. Monika and I are...old associates."

"Well don't just stand there, come in!"

The interior of the clinic, while not quite up the standards of a typical mad scientist's laboratory, was not the sort of place wanted to find herself in should she ever get sick. The air was the thick with the smell of antiseptics, and the dismal fluorescent illumination was wholly inadequate in driving away the darkness. Weles had accumulated a vast array of medical equipment of indeterminate age, which was scattered about with little thought to organisation. It looked less like a street clinic and more like a chop shop.

"A crew of just two?" Weles said, shutting the alley door behind him. "You've learned your lesson from the Wrocław job, I see."

Talvi turned to face Monika. "'Wrocław job?' You never told me about any such thing."

"And I won't ever tell you about it," she replied, sounding angry all of a sudden. "Never do a run with more than a half-dozen people. Oh, and my driving skills are not 'dubious.' You don't even have a driving licence, Talvi, so you have no right to criticise."

Weles laughed. "Monika could cause a pile-up in an empty car park. And no one could ever convict her for drunk driving, because how could they ever tell?"

She began walking towards of a small table in the corner. "Speaking of drunk, what do you have to drink around here? I don't want to impose, but people have been trying to kill us ever since we left Berlin, and I need something strong."

"Then you had best make your stay a short one," said Weles, crossing his arms. "I do not want you bringing trouble to my clinic."

"We will only stay the night before we carry on to Ukraine," Talvi said, sitting down at the table, which was cluttered with paper and battered bits of electronics that she could not identify.

Weles walked over over to a nearby refrigerator and opened the door. "Ukraine? What, if I may ask, is your business there?"

"Well, I don't want to bore you with the details, but we're heading to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to-"

"Chernobyl?" Weles slammed the fridge door shut. "Why the hell are you going there, of all places?"

"I don't see why it should be so terrible," Talvi said quietly. "The catastrophe happened over half a century ago; I am sure the radiation levels have diminished since then."

"Radiation will be the least of your concerns. The Zone is wild and savage, and plays by its own rules. Not even the megacorps will set foot there. About three years ago I was approached by a group of young men who shared your particular...profession. They had made up their minds to venture into the Zone; apparently they had got it into their heads that there was something valuable located beneath the ruins of Pripyat." He opened the fridge once more and took out a half-empty bottle of vodka. "They needed medical supplies, they said, and offered me a share of the profits from their little expedition. I agreed, more out of pity than any expectation of reward."

"Let me guess," said Monika. "They never returned."

Weles began pouring the vodka into a trio of glasses. "Oh, they returned. Well, two of them did, at least. But whether they returned in spirit, I cannot say. Something about them had changed; you could see it in their eyes. When I asked them what had happened the Zone, they had no memory of it all. In fact, they did not even remember driving to my clinic." He looked down at Talvi, specifically the ukonvasara around her neck. "If you are truly a follower of the old ways, then you know that the earth remembers what is done to it and repays humanity in kind. But...don't pay any attention to me. I'm just an old man who's been around since the internet was new."

Monika's eyes brightened at the mention of that word. "The internet? What was it like?"

"What, do you think I'm going to talk about it like it was part of the 'good old days?'" he answered with a scowl. "The internet was shit. Just a big pile of shit."

Talvi couldn't help but smile at his assesment. "My mother referred to it as 'The Web of a Million Lies'."

"Just a million? have no idea, do you? Imagine, for a moment, that you are the sort of person who believes the earth is flat. In the old days, people would have called you an idiot and had nothing more to do with you. But with the internet, you could find other idiots who thought the same, and the more time you spent in their company the more convinced you became that it was the rest of world who were idiots. Instead of building bridges, we built islands. No one trusted the other, no believed anything anyone said. Our very own Tower of Babel and the Confusion of Tongues. They never found out who or what caused the crash of '29, and I don't think anyone ever will. I like to think that it was an act of divine retribution, punishing us for our stupidity. At any rate-" He stopped abruptly, locking eyes on Talvi. "Wait, I know you! You're the one who sang 'The White Death,' aren't you? The song about the Finnish sniper?"

Talvi frowned. "Yes, that was one of the songs my old band wrote, but...why do you bring this up now?"

Weles shrugged. "I thought I recognised you from somewhere, and it kept bothering me. I must say, you are a very good singer...but I could never understand a word you said."

"Speaking of words," she said, looking down at one of the newspapers on the table, "I don't wish to insult your country or its language, but every time I see Polish writing, I cannot help but feel as though some nefarious villain has come along and stolen all your vowels."

"Ha! I've seen your language; it was probably you Finns that did it. Or maybe it was you that did it? You don't reach my age without learning to spot someone who's trouble...and you look like trouble."

Monika seemed to treat the whole thing as a joke. "Oh, you should listen to one of her 'stories.' They're always about the same thing: 'Me and my fire-worshipping friend from Iran decided to ruin someone's day, and somehow we got away with it.' I don't think even half of them are true. Why don't you tell him about the story about the battleship, Talvi?"

"You mean the Yamato?"

"No, the other one."

"The Russian cruiser?"

"No, the American one."

Talvi took of a small sip of vodka, carefully evaluating its quality. "I suppose there is no harm in it. Very well. It began when my band was touring along the eastern UCAS coast, and I was in quite an ill-humour for much of it on account of the behaviour of Americans. I had nothing but respect for our fans, of course, but there was something about American culture...something intrinsic...that displeased me greatly. Between their grasping, avaricious nature and their democracy of cupidity, I sensed a terrible vacuity within them...a vacuity they papered over with what I can only describe as a sort of pathological extroversion. Whenever I went to a bar or a restaurant, the poor souls employed there would always act as though they were a friend of mine, as if they cared deeply about what I thought of them, and that they were utterly and hopelessly desperate for my approval. People there talk about nothing, all the time, they have no respect for silence or solitude; their whole cultural milieu is a noisy blur of total nonsense. When you talk to an American, you are not talking to that person, but to a salesman for that person. And a salesman embodies a pattern of behaviour intended to deceive, to sell you something and profit from you. So as you might imagine, I was soon eager to return to my own country.

"Anyhow, near the end our of tour I learned that the UCAS Navy would be reactivating four battleships that had previously been relegated to museum exhibits. These ships were over a century old, dating from the Second World War. I had no idea why they would waste so much effort and money on this endeavour, but the Navy was planning to hold a concert onboard the USS New Jersey as part of their efforts to increase recruitment. The ship would sail around the waters south of New York, and at certain moments during the concert they would fire the main guns. I considered all this quite stupid and idiotic, but I did not think much about it until our drummer informed me that a certain nameless individual was offering quite a substantial amount of money to anyone willing to 'disrupt' the concert. Since our band was in need of extra funds at the time, we all agreed to take the job. The question of how, exactly, we would disrupt the performance was soon answered by our bassist, who had somehow come into possession of four exceedingly ill-tempered chimpanzees during our stay in North America. Our plan was to unleash the primates on the New Jersey's lower decks with the hope they would engage in general mayhem. Imagine, if you will, that you were a commanding officer onboard that ship, and all of a sudden you got word from one of the crewmen that a band of chimpanzees was wreaking havoc. You would not believe it; you would assume that it was some kind of joke. That was our hope, at least.

"Now, the problem lay with getting onto the New Jersey with the chimpanzees in the first place. We immediately ruled out disguising ourselves as members of the crew; our lack of military bearing and ignorance of navy jargon would have given us away for sure. Instead, we presented ourselves as stage crew, with the chimpanzees contained within a number of loudspeaker enclosures. In the great bustle of activity setting up the stage, no one noticed us moving the 'loudspeakers' down into the lower decks. Once we found an isolated quarter of the ship we released the chimpanzees, but to our total dismay they were wholly uninterested in any form of havoc or mayhem. It was as though they considered themselves passengers on some pleasure cruise and not the agents of destruction we required them to be. So our bassist gave them some chemical encouragement – some potent form of methamphetamine whose name I can't recall – and then we fled as quickly as we were able. We expected the chimpanzees to go berserk and attack everything in sight, but instead they made their way up through the decks with almost military efficiency, as if they were guided by some higher purpose.

"I don't know what happened next, since we had to make ourselves inconspicuous, but according to later reports the four chimpanzees made their way to the bridge and attacked the crew and officers there in a wild frenzy. They subsequently took control of the ship, something we became aware of when it made a sudden turn to starboard. At the very same moment the concert was nearing the point when the New Jersey would fire its main guns – the climactic moment of the singer's performance – but none of the gunnery crew were aware that the ship had changed course. So when the guns fired – and I must say it was quite a spectacular sight – the shells did not land harmlessly in the ocean, as was the original intent. Instead they flew across Upper New York Bay and right into the Statue of Liberty. Now, the shells were not explosive, being merely inert ordnance, but they left several large holes in Lady Liberty's head. To my great relief no one was killed or injured. Indeed, the greatest damage was to the UCAS Navy's reputation; I imagine it was quite embarrassing for those in charge of the event to explain to the brass how a quartet of chimpanzees suddenly seized control of a World War II battleship. At any rate, we used the proceeds from the job to purchase a new set of amplifiers."

Monika leaned back in her chair. "Are you going to believe that? I swear, she just makes this stuff up on the spot."

"Everything I have said is the truth," Talvi replied, "with no exaggeration or confabulation."

"I believe it," said Weles. "As I told you before, I know when someone is trouble. And your friend, Monika, looks like trouble. You should reconsider your association with her."

"Ah, Mr. McGee. How goes the development of Age of the Wyrm III? I understand a large portion of your development staff recently departed your company. My condolences; I'm sure it had nothing to do with your gross incompetence."

Seeing Chawncy's face turn red with barely-concealed rage was almost enough to make Lord Swedish giggle like a schoolboy. It did not help that whatever piece of vidphone hardware Chawncy was employing created a distinctive fish-eye effect on the image, making Chawncy's head look distinctly rotund.

"Age of the Wyrm III is going to be the greatest RPG the world has yet seen!" Chawncy declared. "It is not just merely a game, but 'THE GAME!' And THE GAME will transcend all boundaries – RPG, strategy, wargaming, and countless other subgenres. All will be welcome at Chawncy McGee's table of gaming delight."

Lord Swedish puffed on his cigar, endeavouring to convey an image of absolute smugness. "Mr. McGee, considering your past performance as a game developer and your struggles with tax liens and bankruptcy proceedings, I do not think you are even remotely qualified to assess your company's chances of success. The total absence of any successful or even functional game in the past twenty years of your so-called 'career' tells me that you really ought to pack it in and go home." He leaned in closer to the vidphone's camera. "I know you've hired a number of agents to infiltrate our studio. And I've been in contact with the individual who calls himself 'Chernabog,' the one whose been keeping your sorry excuse for a company afloat. He's even been so generous as to provide me with the names of've chosen to employ. So I'm going to make you an offer, Mr. McGee. Either you recall your agents, or I will destroy you. Your employees, your finances, your assets...I will annihilate them completely. Do you understand?"

"You don't want to go to war with me," blustered the distorted face on the screen. "You think I don't know how competitive this industry is? You say you 'know' that I hired people to go after you. But what do you really know? Maybe this is all part of some elaborate deception on my part. Maybe there are no shadowrunners. Maybe it's all in your head. This is three-dimensional chess I'm playing here. No! Make that seven-dimensional chess! I'm going to-"

"Oh shut up," he said, terminating the conversation. Lord Swedish then paged his secretary. "Ms. Li, send in Murphy and the others. I have a mission for them."

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 – The Angry Man

"Pysy kaukana minusta, James Joyce!"

Monika shrank back the side of bunk. "You know Talvi, I've heard people say a lot of weird things in their sleep, but I've never heard them mention James Joyce before."

Talvi awoke with a jerk, Monika's efforts to rouse her having had no effect. "MINÄ TUHOAN IRLANNIN!" she shouted before it dawned upon her that she was no longer dreaming. "Ehrmm...what's this about?"

"Wake up – some guy who calls himself 'Chernobog' wants to talk to you; he's the same guy whose been keeping CB Entertainment afloat."

Monika left the room while Talvi slowly crawled out of the bunk that was about a foot too short for her to sleep comfortably in. As she got to her feet a stabbing pain shot up her back, and the dreary fluorescent lights stung her eyes.

She couldn't wait to be back home, back by Lake Inari.

The dream was fading fast from her mind, but she remembered standing at the prow of a ship, with dozens of mighty Finnish warriors standing at her side. Their destination was Ireland, and their goal was loot and plunder. But just as they had come ashore they had found James Joyce waiting for then, and Talvi knew that there could be no hope of victory against his literary perversions.

After getting dressed she headed over to the next room, where Monika stood waiting by an old, battered vidphone. "Chernobog wants to speak to you, and only you. He says my haircut is stupid."

"It is stupid," came a voice from the vidphone. "And that's soykaf you're fucking savage."

Talvi sat herself in front of the vidphone, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in her back. On the screen was a man in a hooded sweater, his face obscured by the shadows. There was nothing notable about his attire, save for the words "BITE IT YOU SCUM" stitched on the front. From that Talvi deduced that he was fan of GG Allin, which did not bode well at all.

"The name's Chernobog. Love your music. Now, I know how much you Finns hate small talk, so let's get down to business, shall we? You and your friend were hired by CB Entertainment to take down BSP Games. You're on your way to Chernobyl to nuke their off-site backup. Lucky for you, Chernobyl just happens to be my turf. 'Chernobog of Chernobyl'...has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"

She tried in vain to place his accent, which sounded vaguely Slavic. "And how do you know all this?"

"'Cause I'm the best decker in the world. And that's not me boasting, that's fact. There's no one on this planet that can do one-tenth of what I can do. But while I can do a whole lot of things, there are some things I can't do. Let me ask you this: you ever heard of a geas?"

"It's an old form of Celtic magic, involving a restriction or compulsion placed upon someone with regards to certain behaviours."

Chernobog shrank back from the vidphone camera in mock surprise."Wow, look at the big brain on the elf! Too bad it's nothing compared to your tits. God damn, you could ski down, what was I talking about again?"

Talvi gritted her teeth. "You were talking about a geas?"

"Yeah, that. See, a few years ago this Irish bastard came along and...well...I won't bore you with the details, but that little piece of shit decided to place a geas on me that makes it so I can't leave this place without my body exploding into bloody chunks. And that's why I need your help dealing with BSP's off-site backup. See, its connection to the Matrix is fucking wireless, and I can't do shit with wireless tech."

"But what is your motivation in all this?" she asked. "Why do you want to ruin BSP Games so much?"

"Because they're assholes!" he cried. "And 'Lord Swedish' is the stupidest fucking name I've ever heard. Their games are shit, too, but that's the least of their crimes. And I'm telling you, the best way to deal with those fuckheads...the only way to deal with to kill everybody who works for them. Doesn't matter if they're a VP or a janitor, they've all got to die.! And once you've finished painting the walls with their blood, you're going to make sure there's nothing left of their headquarters except a huge, smoking, and preferably radioactive crater."

"You sound awfully bloodthirsty."

There was something not quite right with this individual, Talvi thought. It was merely a whisper in the back of her mind, but even through the dim glow of the monitor she sensed that there was something off about him.

"'Blude-tursty,'" he said, mocking her accent. "I hate it to break it to you, sexy, but you aren't going to be doing this quietly. Lord Swedish might be an asshole, but he's a smart asshole, and he's planned for everything you can think of. And that means wiping the place off the face of the earth. But we can discuss that once we meet in person. Just a warning, though - Chernobyl's full of assholes. Assholes who are crazier than most. But you probably meet people like that all the time in your line of work. Anyway, before I sign off, there's someone I want you to meet in Kiev. His name's Artyom Kerensky, and he used to be part of Lord Swedish's crew."

"His 'crew?' Are you saying he was-"

"Yeah, he was a fucking shadowrunner, but maybe that's not the right word for him. See, he was less about 'running the shadows' and more about shooting everything in sight. The man just hated people. Didn't matter if you were human, elf, dwarf, ork, troll; if you were a living, breathing person, then he hated you and wanted you dead."

"People who work like that usually don't live for very long," Monika interjected.

"Well, I guess Lord Swedish – fuck, I feel dumber just saying that name – is a pretty hard man to kill. And by 'hard man to kill' I mean he's survived shit that would turn a fucking battle tank into scrap. But Kerensky is the guy to ask if you want to know the real story. He lives in some shithole apartment on 15 Yevhena Konovaltsia Street, in room 314. 'Course, he's a paranoid little fuck and thinks Lord Swedish's goons are going to bust down his door any day now, so it might take a bit of persuasion to get him to talk to you."

Suddenly Chernobog was distracted by something on another monitor. "Oh shit!" he exclaimed, turning away from the camera. "Those Ottoman fucks are at it again! Jesus fucking Christ, how many times do I have to tell them to stay the fuck away from the Steel Yard? That's the only way I can get any goddamn reception around these parts!"

Talvi frowned. "'Ottomans?' 'Steel Yard?' What are you talking about?"

Instead of answering her question, he simply terminated the connection, leaving Talvi staring into the monitor. "What an utterly uncouth individual."

"Well, if he's as good as his boasting – and trust me when I say that most deckers aren't – then he's someone we want on our side," Monika said. "There's something else I want to show you. You know that creep whose apartment you busted into...Rhodes Raskol or whatever his name was?"

"What about him?"

"While you were sleeping I did some searching on the Matrix for information on the Gamers' Alliance and I came across a video someone made of him. It's...well...see for yourself. But keep your hands away from the computer; I don't you want you blowing it up like you did with mine."

Talvi stood up, rather incensed at her remark. "I did not 'blow up' your computer! It blew itself up."

She followed Monika over to Weles' cyberterminal which, in contrast to the rest of the equipment in his clinic, looked to be fresh off the shelf. The logo on the monitor did not belong to a corporation Talvi recognised.

Monika pushed a key to begin playback and the monitor went dark. A few seconds later the words "HIDDEN CAMERA – EPIC GAMER RAGE" scrolled sideways onto the screen, followed by a blurry, off-centre view of someone seated in front of a large, expensive-looking trideo display. It was indeed the same young man she had encountered in Rhine-Ruhr Megaplex – the same pudgy, unshaven face, the same beady eyes, and the same sneering expression of disgust. He was playing a game of some sort, though it was impossible tell what kind on account of the camera angle.

"Oh come on!" Rhodes whined. "I spawn, I die! Instant death!"

"Whatever he's playing, he's not very good at it," Monika remarked. "Just watch."

About ten seconds later he sprang out of his chair in a fit of anger. "WHAT?! Oh my god! Oh my fucking god! What am I supposed to do? Goddamn cheaters! He cheated! That fucking asshole cheated!"

From someone off-camera there came a muffled voice. "Hey, shut up in there!"

"This game's full of cheaters, man! I swear to GOD!"

A few more seconds passed, with Rhodes growing ever more agitated with each passing second. "NO!" he screamed without warning, his voice reaching into a register typically reserved for howler monkeys. "Where was my team? WHERE WAS MY GODDAMN TEAM?" He began pounding his fist against his thigh, going "No!" with every impact. "No! No! No! No! Why do I always get these GODDAMNED TEAMS? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? WHYYYYY? The worst team, I swear! The worst...fucking...TEAM!"

"I said shut the hell up in there! I'm trying to get to sleep!"

There was a half-minute of calm, thought it was clear Rhodes' rage was still simmering just below the surface. His face was flushed with anger, his arms and legs were trembling, and he looked to Talvi like a wounded animal driven into a corner.

It wasn't long he suffered another setback in his game. "What...what...WHAT THE HELL AM I GETTING HIT BY? And now I'm dead! Oh COME ON! The game is BUGGED! I swear to fucking GOD this game is bugged! Just completely fucking RANDOM! GAAAGH!"

Talvi watched the video unfold with growing dismay, wondering what kind of power electronic games must have over people if they could reduce them to this pitiable state. "It's only a game," she said quietly. "What does he have to be mad?"

"Just wait," said Monika. "We haven't got to the funniest part yet."

"Funny" did not even begin to characterise what happened next. For around thirty seconds things appeared to going well, or at least not too badly, before Rhodes suddenly threw his controller against the far wall and let out what could only be described as a primal scream, one so loud and shrill it would have set dogs barking all over the neighbourhood. "NO! NO! NO! NOOOOOO!" He leapt from his chair, got down on his knees, and started pounding his fists against the floor. "No! No! No! AARRRGGH! Why do I keep losing these...goddamn...GAMES? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? WHY? WHY? WHY?"

There was the sound of a door opening, and another young man stepped into frame. "Dude, could you PLEASE stop shouting? It's three in the morning for fuck's sake!"


"Look, you need to calm down, okay? Just calm down! Deep breaths, nice and slow! It's just a game, all right?"

Rhodes slowly got to his feet, livid with rage and panting heavily. "I've lost FIFTEEN FUCKING GAMES in a row, man! FIFTEEN! My rank is going back down to goddamn BRONZE! All because of these stupid...these STUPID FUCKING TEAMS this game keeps putting me with!" He sounded as if he were close to tears.

"It doesn't matter, okay? You won't care about this next week, dude! It's just a game!"

"You don't understand, man! I've got to get to platinum rank! If you're not plat than you aren't worth shit in this world!"

Just when it seemed as if his fury had abated, Rhodes grabbed his trideo display, wrenched it from its stand, and threw it to the floor with an angry shout. He then reached for a Japanese sword hanging on the wall and began hacking away at the trideo unit, all the while emitting a horrid screeching sound that no human being should have been able to make. In a matter of seconds thousands of nuyen worth of electronics were reduced to a pile of twisted, chopped-up scrap.

The video ended abruptly, leaving Talvi starting at a blank screen in abject horror. "What...did I just see?"

"I think the game broke him."

"Why do people kill?" Finntroll asked no one in particular, steadying himself after the van struck a pothole. "Some people kill for money. Some people kill for their country. Me? I kill because it's the only way I can get an erection. What about the rest of you?"

"I'll gie ye a skelpit lug, if ye don't haud yer wheesht!" snarled Akemi. "A whole lot o' bawheids in this van."

"Just keep your eyes on the road."

Finntroll was so excited that he could barely sit still. Lord Swedish's decker had traced the email from Chernobog to an abandoned warehouse near Lichtenrade, and the trio's orders were music to Finntroll's ears: "Terminate with extreme prejudice." Nearly three months had passed since he had last killed someone and he was definitely feeling the itch.

He looked over his gun once more, gently fondling the ammo belt. Some might have questioned the wisdom of bringing an autocannon to a firefight, but given the kind of hardware Lord Swedish's enemies were packing these days, it was better to be safe than sorry.

"I hope these guys put up a better fight than those Knight Errant losers," he growled. "Bunch of weekend warriors who act like they're hard men, but blow off a leg or two and they start crying for their mommas. Pathetic."

Murphy stared at him with a look of furious contempt. "Who the hell are you talking to, private? I sure as hell hope it wasn't me, because I didn't hear a 'sir' at the end!"

Finntroll laughed. "Aww, look at little Murphy, still trying to play soldier! Isn't it time mommy came and tucked you in?"

"You slimy POG! I will PT your ass flatter than hammered shit! Look me in the eye when you speak to me, you filthy Bolshevik!"

He glanced towards Akemi. "You believe this dwarf? Still wearing the old American flag on his sleeve; still hasn't figured out it doesn't exist no more. You hear that, Murphy? America's a rotting carcass of a nation, just waiting for someone to come along and bury it."

This, obviously, did not nothing but further infuriate him. "I'm going to give you five seconds, soldier, to get down on your knees and beg for forgiveness before I pull your head out through your ass! America is, was, and always shall be! One day we will be great again! We will take back our country from the red man and reclaim what is ours, and when that day comes I will dig up Daniel Coleman's body and piss in his skull!"

"Piss in your trousers, more likely. 'In the rear with the gear' - that's you, Murphy. When the bullets start flying, you'll be crouching in a corner and sucking your thumb."

"You think you're tough, do you? Well I've been to hell and I've been to Quebec, and I ain't afraid of you!"

"All right, shut it!" Akemi barked. "We're here, ye wee scunners!"

Finntroll exited the van through the rear doors, stepping into the chilly morning air. Just beyond, past a section of broken chain link fence, was an old, long-abandoned warehouse. A large section of the roof had collapsed, and judging by the amount of graffiti covering the walls at least three dozen gangs or so claimed this territory as their turf.

He stopped and sniffed the air, which smelt faintly of smoke and unburned hydrocarbons. It was time to kill.

There was no sound save for the wind, but Finntroll knew the silence would soon be shattered by the roar of gunfire and the screams of his victims.

"No apparent motive," was how they had described the scene of his first kill. He had found the police analysis profoundly insulting, as if he had suddenly woken up one day and decided to slaughter his entire family on a whim. They didn't understand or appreciate that he had spent weeks planning it.

One of the loading bay doors was open, but Finntroll took that to be an obvious trap. Instead, he led the other two towards a small door near the south-east corner of the building. "Remember," he said quietly, "we go in, we kill the first people we see. Don't give them a chance to draw their weapons."

Never one for subtlety, Finntroll gave the door a swift kick, causing it to fly off its hinges, and then charged inside, expecting bullets to start flying at any moment.

But there was nothing. The faint wisps of sunlight streaming through the holes in the ceiling revealed an empty building that scrappers and looters had long ago stripped of anything valuable. Squatters had evidently made this place their home, as evidenced by the filthy, mould-covered mattresses lying around, but there was not a single soul to be seen.

Finntroll was not pleased. He strode towards the middle of the warehouse, past a stack of half-rotten wooden crates marked with the logo of some long-forgotten corporation.

"Nowt but hee-haw in this boggin place," Akemi muttered.

"You sure you drove us to the right place, numbnuts?" said Murphy, looking over his assault rifle.

"Get oot ma face ye tadger! Yer ma's got balls an' yer da' loves it!"

Finntroll was nearly paralysed with rage. "You mean, we came all the way out here and...and I DON'T GET TO KILL ANYBODY? This...this makes me angry. So angry I could just...just..."

From behind they heard footsteps on the concrete floor, and when Finntroll turned around he saw a half-dozen men, and armed and armoured in high-end combat gear, striding confidently into the warehouse. Instinctively he looked for the logo of Knight Errant, and not finding it he was suddenly filled with hope that he was going to have a decent fight for once.

One of the men stepped forward. He was wearing some sort of tactical visor, Finntroll noted, but no amount of technical contraptions would save him when he took an exploding round to the face.

"So I see Lord Swedish prefers to send his lackeys to do his dirty work these days. He must be going soft in his old age."

Finntroll kept his face expressionless. "And I see Chernobog is too much of a coward to face us in the flesh."

"'Chernobog?' What the hell are you talking about, trog? We represent Fusion Games, and we're here with a proposition from our managing director. You see, despite your company's efforts at concealing the truth we are well aware that Mega Therion makes unauthorised use of our proprietary graphics rendering technology. But our managing director is not an unreasonable man, and we are willing to overlook this blatant violation of our intellectual property rights so long as Lord Swedish makes a full and direct apology...along with a substantial monetary transfer."

"I'm sorry," said Finntroll, "but that's something you're gonna have to take up with our company's legal department. Which is my gun, by the way."

"Listen you boar-faced degenerate, we're here to resolve this situation peacefully, as difficult a concept as that might be for your kind to understand. There's no need for bloodshed."

Finntroll was less offended by his bigotry than by his moronic suggestion. "What? Are you dense? There's an incredible need for bloodshed! You don't think Lord Swedish sends us out to do grocery shopping, do you?" He suddenly gestured towards the far wall of the warehouse. "Hey, what's that...?"

The moment the man turned his head to look Finntroll squeezed the trigger of his gun. Instantly the autocannon roared to life, spitting out a stream of high-explosive death in a wide arc in front of him. He was not trying to aim – even with his trollish strength and heavily-augmented limbs the gun's recoil was far too fierce for that – but no aim was required. After letting go of the trigger and waiting for the dust and smoke to dissipate, Finntroll let out a long, raucous laugh. Nothing remained of their enemies save for a scattered assortment of mangled limbs and torsos.

"I can't believe it! I can't fucking believe it! They just fell for the oldest trick in the book! How bad at your job do you have to be to fall for the old 'look behind you' ploy? Not even those Knight Errant morons are that dumb." He turned to face his companions. "Well, we didn't find Chernobog, but I got to kill some people, and that's all that really matters in the end. Come on, let's find a bar and get ourselves some drinks. I'm buying."

"Admit it, man...we've lost!"

Dobbs looked like he was a heartbeat away from giving Rhodes a hefty smack. "We're not lost, you idiot! Didn't you read the sign back there that read 'Żyrardów'or however the hell you're supposed to say it? According to my map Warsaw is about 27 miles to the north-east."

Now it was Rhodes who wanted to smack him. "I didn't say we are lost, Dobbs, I said we've lost. As in, that elf chick won! We need to get back to Berlin before the shit hits the fan."

Dobbs stopped and turned around. "Did I hear you correctly, Rhodes? Are you telling me you want to quit? Is that what you're saying?"

"Yes, that's what I'm saying! In case you've forgotten, they just killed everyone on that bus, and I guarantee you that it's going to be all over the news, if it isn't already. And what are people going to think when they see us, these two Americans just stumbling around the country like a pair of idiots? What are they gonna think then, huh? They're gonna think we were on that bus, and they'll tell the police or the army or whatever all about us, and then we're gonna be fucked, man!"

Dobbs dismissed his fears with a snort. "You're paranoid, Rhodes," he said, continuing on along the side of the road. "We're not quitting, end of story."

"Dude, that elf's probably got a hundred-mile lead on us by now! And we don't even know where she's going after Warsaw. Face it, Dobbs, we're never going to catch up to her."

"Use your head, moron! Warsaw is in the eastern part of Poland. There are only three countries near the eastern border: Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. But those aren't even real countries, so that elf's not going to be stopping there. No, she's going all the way to Moscow. That's where we'll intercept her."

Rhodes was left speechless by Dobbs' impeccable logic. "Assuming we can even find some transportation..."

"I'll find us a ride, don't worry. Just don't go falling apart on me or start getting a chip craving or something like that."

"Damn it, man! Why do you have to keep bringing that up? So I like to slot a BTL now and what? That doesn't make me an addict any more than having a drink now and then makes you an alcoholic."

Dobbs waved his hand is dismissal. "That's a false equivalency fallacy, asshole! Slotting chips isn't like having a beer. It's more like mainlining smack, and it'll fuck you up just as quickly."

"No, it won't," Rhodes protested. "I got needs man, needs that can't be satisfied without my BTL girls." The mere thought of replaying one of his hentai chips was enough to make him quiver with anticipation.

"Dude, if you want to get laid that badly then buy a hooker! Hell, I'll even pay for it if it'll get you to shut up about those damn chips and start dealing with reality."

"That's not the same. Those women...they don't love me..."

Once more Dobbs stopped and turned around. "And you think those anime girls on the chips do? Rhodes, they love you because they're programmed to love you! It's not real!"

Without warning a terrible rage burst forth within him, like an erupting volcano. "It's real to me!" he screamed, his voice echoing across the field. "It's real to me, damn it! Those girls, they love me, they care about me, they make me feel happy when I'm sad! They don't make fun of me, they don't talk about me behind my back, they don't call me a 'nerd' and a 'loser' and a 'neckbeard' and all that kind of vile crap! 'Cause that's all real women do! They all think that just 'cause they were born with vaginas that they deserve Prince fucking Charming for a boyfriend! Doesn't matter if they're some 300lb hambeast or a strung-out crackwhore, they all think to themselves 'Oh, my man must be strong and handsome and funny and hard-working and be great with children and always treat me like a princess!' But the second I hold them to any kind of standard, all of a sudden I'm the misogynist, I'm the sexist one! Screw 'real' women, man! I fucking hate them! They're all so phony and fake with their fake nails and fake hair and fake tits and their fake fucking souls! Just fake, fake, fake, fake, fake! You say I need to deal with 'reality.' Why the hell should I, Dobbs? You want me to leave a reality where I am loved and valued and go back to a reality where I'm nothing but hot garbage. Well I can't do that."

Dobbs face remained expressionless. "You done?"

"Yeah, yeah, go on and ignore me. Just like everyone else."

After another half-hour of walking the two of them reached the outskirts of Żyrardów, a town that looked coldand distinctly unfriendly. The rusting hulks of burnt-out military vehicles were scattered along the road, a stark reminder of the horrors of the EuroWars.

"Look, see that parking lot there?" said Dobbs, pointing to a walled-in area behind a dreary, grey, nondescript apartment building. "I'll bet I can jack one of the cars in there."

Rhodes gaped at him, appalled. "What? Since when were you an expert on stealing cars?"

"I am a man of many talents."

The apartment building was truly a depressing sight. There was no indications of life that could be seen; even the cars in the lot looked like dilapidated relics from a bygone era. All the signs of urban decay were here – broken windows, trash and refuse strewn about, walls covered in graffiti; Rhodes looked upon it all with growing disgust, wishing more than ever that he could go back to San Francisco, back where life made sense.

Dobbs stopped by a large break in the concrete wall. "All right, you stay here and keep a look out while I find us a ride."

Before he could even protest Dobbs darted inside the parking lot, leaving Rhodes standing alone in the hip-high grass, still seething at Dobbs' earlier remarks. Like so many times before his mind started to wander down many a dark and twisted passage to the place where his subconscious meticulously collected every injustice and every wrong done to him. If one could graph the course of his life, Rhodes figured, it would be a downward-sloping line from the moment of his birth. There was an awareness in him, a constant cognisance that he was not getting his due, that someone, somewhere had screwed him over. Was it the elves, who took all the high-paying jobs and never, ever retired? Was the savage orks and trolls, who worked for a pittance and drove down wages? Or was it something else entirely? All Rhodes knew was that whoever was responsible for it all was going to get what was coming to him in the end.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw something moving around a nearby bush. "Good day to you, Mr. Raskol."

The voice was deep and commanding, the sort of voice that made you want to stop and pay attention.

"Who...who's there?"

A man emerged from the behind the shrubbery, and Rhodes's body went numb with fear. Darkness seemed to radiate from him, even in the morning light. A mask concealed the lower half of his face, and he wore a heavy black robe in the manner of a monk or priest. "Are you afraid?" he asked quietly. "Do you fear me?"

When he drew closer Rhodes saw that there was no colour in his eyes, just pure blackness. ""

"An obvious lie, but I do not blame you, Mr. Raskol. We all must lie to ourselves if we are to make it through the day. Otherwise, we'd have to confront the truth, and who could bear such a thing?"

His whole body had gone rigid with terror. Whoever this man was, he was clearly bad news. "Who are you? do you know my name?"

The fear was almost overwhelming now. He couldn't move, could barely breathe, and even trying to speak taxed him to the utmost. There was something wrong with this person, something terribly, horribly wrong on more levels than he could count.

"I make it my business to know such things, Mr. Raskol. As for my name, you must understand that I cannot afford to give that information away. But you may call me...the Angry Man."

For a brief moment Rhodes' fear evaporated. "'Angry Man?' What kind of name is that?" Such a ridiculous handle was only ever used by members of a certain profession… "'re a shadowrunner, aren't you?"

He laughed, a chilling sound. "I suppose you could call me that. I was born in shadow, you see, and I have made it my home ever since. Now, let us get down to business, shall we? You are pursuing someone – an elven woman. I know of her. I have many enemies, but there is one I loathe more than any other, and while she does not serve him she association. There is great hatred within you, Mr. Raskol, but I you have the will to kill? When your enemy is helpless before you, would you have the strength to drive your blade into her heart? No, I do not think you do."

"I'm not a coward!" he exclaimed, his boast sounding pathetically effete. "I will embrace the satsui!"

More laughter. "I wonder if you have ever once told the truth in your entire life. But enough of this. I know where the elf is headed. Tell me, do you know of the gaming tournament held every year in Moscow – The Intercontinental?"

Now an entirely different kind of fear gripped Rhodes' heart. "Oh my god...that's the biggest Warriors of the Apocalypse tournament in the world! She's going to kill everyone there!"

He grinned, showing a row of rotten teeth. "That is correct, Mr. Raskol. But you can stop her. To do so, you'll need to cross the Russian border, and they won't let just anyone through." He reached into his robe and took out a large data chip. "This chip contains all the passport data needed to get you past the border crossing."

Rhodes heard the sound of an engine starting up somewhere in the parking lot. "Ah, looks like your friend is finished with his little larceny." The Angry Man handed Rhodes the chip. "We shall meet again, Mr. Raskol."

He turned around and vanished into the shadows just as Dobbs drove up in a dented, rusting old sedan that looked about half a century past its prime. Rhodes opened the passenger-side door and climbed inside, where his nostrils were immediately assailed by the stench of stale beer and cheap air fresheners.

"Jesus Christ, man," said Dobbs as he drove off. "You look like you've seen a ghost! Who was that guy you were talking to?"

Rhodes looked down at the passenger seat, which was stained with numerous unidentifiable substances. "You're not going to believe it, man! He said he was a shadowrunner, called himself 'the Angry Man.' I don't know how, but he knows who we are and what we're up to."

Dobbs looked concerned or the first time in as long as long as Rhodes could remember. "And what did he want?"

"You were right, man; that elf is going to Moscow. He said she was going to kill everyone at The Intercontinental."

"Holy shit, why didn't I think of that before? That's one of the biggest gaming tournaments in the world! He say anything else?"

"No, but he gave me this data chip. Said it would help us get across the Russian border. Look, Dobbs...I don't know about this. That guy was seriously fucking creepy, like he was into some really bad shit or something."

"Well of course he would be! He's a shadowrunner, dude! You don't survive in that line of work without getting your hands dirty."

Rhodes clenched his fists. "No, man, I meant like...gah, how can I explain it? Like, have you ever met someone who was into some really weird-ass religion? Not like Christianity or Islam or anything like that, but some creepy-as-hell cult like the Universal Brotherhood. That's what that guy was like."

"Who cares? It doesn't matter so long as he doesn't try and convert us or anything." The instant they reached the open road Dobbs put the pedal to the metal. The car's engine strained to carry them forward, sounding as though it were a hair's breadth from giving up the ghost. "I sure hope you grow a pair before we hit the border, Rhodes, 'cause Russia ain't no country for pussies. They can smell weakness, and right now you smell weak."

"I'm not weak."

"Oh really? Weren't you the one who was whining to me about wanting to go home? You sounded like a chump, Rhodes, and guess what? The Russians will sense your chumpitude and eat you alive."

"I'm not a chump."

"Yeah, and that's what every chump in the world tells himself just before he goes to bed alone."

Every time he closed his eyes he saw that horrible man with the black eyes, and his words repeated themselves in his mind: We all must lie to ourselves if we are to make it through the day. Otherwise, we'd have to confront the truth, and who could bear such a thing? And Rhodes knew, deep down, that he was lying to himself. He was weak, he was a chump. And now he was going to Russia, a country that was going to chew him up and spit him out.

Russia...the very word conjured up nightmarish images of grim, frosty landscapes inhabited by equally grim men sporting ushankas and Kalashnikovs and who wouldn't waste a second putting a pig-ignorant American like him in his place. He knew next to nothing about the country or its inhabitants, only that it was a bad place filled with bad people who did bad things, that had once tried to invade Europe and failed, and which was overrun with gangsters and criminal syndicates. It was a haven for shadowrunners, another group of people who knew nothing about but who he assumed were little more than thieves, murderers, and psychopaths. There was no such thing as a shadowrunner with a conscience; they surgically removed that part of the brain when you took the job.

But Rhodes would be lying to himself if he didn't feel some attraction to that scene. A shadowrunner was a badass who didn't play by any rules but his own, who didn't give two shits about what society might think. If he were a shadowrunner, he'd be a goddamn ninja, silently bringing death to his enemies. He'd narrate his life like some old hard-boiled detective...Rain fell from the sky as if the angels themselves were was a hard rain, hard enough to wash the slime off the streets...The job was difficult, no question, but you didn't call someone like him for the easy ones. Just him and his katana, delivering justice in the shadows…how he was wished he could be that man.

He was so not that man.

Instead, he was weak, cowardly, unattractive, and more than a little overweight. He was a man who had lost everything – his job, his girlfriend, and worst of all his dignity. Rhodes knew that feeling sorry for himself wouldn't solve anything, but if he didn't feel sorry for himself than who would? If he died tomorrow, would anyone really care?

But if he stopped that elf, if he saved everyone at The Intercontinental...then he would be a hero. There would be book deals, movie rights, an army of adoring fans following him wherever he went. He wouldn't need to beg women for sex; they would offer it to him freely and with tremendous gusto. Maybe they'd even make a statue of him, katana in hand, wind blowing through his hair, a look of calm detachment on his face…

Yet to accomplish all this he needed to get good. He'd need to be strong and tough, but how? He had only a day or so to go from wimp to warrior. What was he going to do? He didn't have a skillwire system, so skillsofts were out of the question...not that he could afford it, anyway.

The answer came from within...hate. Anger and hate, that would do it. If he could just get angry enough, if he could just get pissed off enough, then he would be brave.

Being in the Gamers' Alliance meant the occasional brush with Humanis. While Rhodes had no strong feelings towards them either way, one piece of propaganda had stuck in his mind all these years. It was a poster depicting a grotesque caricature of a troll, with the words "THIS IS THE ENEMY – HATE IT!" written beneath in a garishly aggressive font. In his mind, the troll was replaced by an image of that elven woman, whatever her name was.

Hate her, hate her, hate her, hate her...those were the words he forced through his mind until they didn't even sound like words any more. Hateful deeds, hateful words, hateful thoughts – they would be his strength.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard the Angry Man laughing.

Chapter Text


Chapter 12 – Death From Above

The first sign of trouble came at the border crossing, specifically, the lack of any sort of border crossing at all.

No guards, no checkpoints, not even a sign welcoming them to Ukraine. Perhaps these things had existed at one point, but now the only thing marking the location of border was a large crater by the side of the road.

"So I've been wondering something, Talvi," Monika said after a lengthy period of silence. "If you went through all that effort of getting a Ph.D., then why didn't you stay on with the university?"

"I left for the simple reason that I disagreed with the academic attitude towards magic. There was a belief, never spoken but always understood, that magic could be placed into little boxes – this is the hermetic tradition, this is the shamanistic tradition, and so on – but my own experiences with the arcane taught me that magic cannot be subjected to this sort of arbitrary bifurcation. It came as no surprise to me that the mages who struggled the most in their studies were those unable to let go of their philosophical materialism. They thought that magic could be fully understood and explained by 'scientific' principles, and every time their efforts were frustrated."

"But why? Why can't you use science to understand magic?"

Talvi sighed, having had this conversation many times with many people. "Because science involves testable predictions of observable phenomena. But magic is inherently unpredictable and often incomprehensible. The students who were more spiritually inclined were, for the most part, far more successful in their studies, because they understood on a fundamental level the idea of something numinous and transcendent. You could not convey this opinion openly, however. The academic establishment still held to the old prejudices."

"What do you mean 'old prejudices?'"

"Have you not been paying attention to world for the past four decades? Prior to the Awakening one could say, with near total certainty, that Europe and North America were "post-Christian." There were still great numbers of adherents, of course, but for most people religion had ceased to be an integral part of their lives. Those who were devoted to their faith were thought of as...I won't say 'stupid' but as being rather...well...quaint. There was a tacit assumption that science could provide the answer to any questions one might ask about the world, that nothing metaphysical existed, and that the universe was in full compliance with physical law. The notion that this might not be true was an anathema to most."

"See, that's why I prefer to deal with computers. Computers are predictable; they only do what you tell them to do. Garbage in, garbage out."

"Are you...certain...about that? When I was in university I was forced to use such machines on occasion, and they behaved quite unpredictably, often exploding, catching fire, or somehow being reduced to a heap of molten plastic when I wasn't looking."

"No, no, no," said Monika, "that's just you. You make computers explode, even though they shouldn't because there's nothing explosive inside them." Something inside her jacket started beeping. "Hold on, I'm getting a message on my PDA."

Monika reached inside her jacket for her PDA, and as she did she momentarily lost control of the van, causing it to veer into the other lane. She jerked the wheel to the right, only to over-correct and send the vehicle perilously close to the edge of the shoulder.

"Jumalauta!" Talvi exclaimed.

After retrieving her PDA, Monika began reading the message, paying no attention to the road. "Got a message here from Der Zauberer. I wonder what it's about? Nothing good, probably. He doesn't contact you unless something bad has happened."

"By the gods, Monika! Don't read and drive at the same time! Give me that device and let me read the message."

"What? I'm not letting you touch my PDA! Knowing you, you'll make it explode like a hand grenade or something." She continued reading despite Talvi's pleas. "Let's see what Der Zauberer has to say...someone got geeked at Marcus' hotel, and...was zur Hölle?"

"What? What is it?"

"He says that Rhodes Raskol creep is his prime suspect. The body was in a room registered in his name."



"You're drifting into the passing lane. Perhaps you ought to do something about that."

"Yeah, yeah, just a second," she murmured, continuing to read through the message. "Sounds like the victim took a bullet to the head, close range..."

Talvi, however, was far more concerned with what has happening on the road. "There is a large lorry coming up ahead. You should pay attention to it."

"What, in the passing lane? Well what the hell is it doing there?" she said, still not looking up. "Everyone knows that slower traffic has to keep to the right!"

"Yes," said Talvi, her voice totally calm, "but in a few seconds you are going to collide with it."

Now she glanced up, and, seeing that a collision was imminent, twisted the wheel to the right, narrowly avoiding a catastrophic accident. But once again she over-corrected, putting the van on a direct course towards a telephone pole. She yanked the wheel to the left, clipping the front fender of the lorry and causing its driver to issue an angry horn blast in response.

"What's his problem?" Monika wondered aloud.

Talvi didn't even bother protesting, knowing the futility of it. "Returning to the topic of our discussion, there was another reason why I chose not to pursue an academic career. It may sound petty, but one day we received a guest lecturer from Ireland, who was ostensibly there to present his controversial thesis regarding the origins of magic, but instead he spent most of the lecture talking about James Joyce. I could simply not forgive our department head for inviting a devotee of that literary gremlin to our hallowed halls."

Monika cast her a puzzled look. "'Ireland?' You know it's called Tír na nÓg now, right? I'd think you of all people would be aware of that."

"No, it is called Ireland, and that is what I shall continue to call it," said Talvi bitterly. "Do not think for a moment that I feel any fellowship towards that pitiful sham of a so-called 'nation' they call Tír na nÓg. Did you know that those gorbellied mountebanks and canker-blossoms have even concocted a language – Sperethiel – that they claim is some long-lost elven tongue, utterly unrelated to any other language? Well, even a moment's examination will reveal that Sperethiel is little more than a bastard conjoining of Old Irish and Tolkien's Quenya. Everything about Tír na nÓg is a carefully-constructed lie, coated in a fine layer of fraud."

Monika rubbed her forehead. "All right, all right, I get it. So there's something else I wanted to know...did you ever date when you were in university?"

For some reason Talvi found that question distasteful. "No, I'm afraid I had little interest in men."

"What about an interest in women?" Monika asked, with an oddly hopeful note in her voice.

"No, I had no interest in women, either. Why do you ask these things?"

Monika fidgeted. "I don't know, I just figured that, since you live all by yourself in the middle of nowhere that you might get lonely sometimes."

"Lonely? Of course not! One is never truly alone in the forests of my country, for they are alive with spirits and the beasts that lurk behind every fir tree. And it is not though as I spend all my time in isolation; I visit my mother on occasion, to say nothing of the time I spend touring with my bandmates. I'm not a hermit, if that is what you are implying."

"That...that's not what I meant. What I meant I can put this? It must get pretty cold in the middle of winter where you live, right? So don't you want someone to keep you warm at night?"

Talvi frowned. "The cold does not bother me."

"Verflucht doch mal! Do I have to spell it out for you? I mean sex, Talvi! 'S' 'E' 'X', sex! Geschlectsverkehr, eine schnelle Nummer, ficken, kopulieren, rakastelu…"

"Since when did you know the Finnish word for lovemaking?"

Her question seemed to take the wind out of Monika's sails. "What I'm trying to say is...don't you want some kind of intimacy in your life?"

"No, not really."

A few seconds of awkward silence passed between them. "Well that's kind of sad, really." Monika then leaned forward, looking up through the windscreen. "Say, that airplane's flying rather low."

Talvi looked out the windscreen as well and spied what could only be described as the blackest aircraft she had ever laid eyes on. Even at a distance it was like an empty, plane-shaped hole in the sky, but its outline was unmistakable.

More worryingly, it was flying straight at them.

"Get off the road!" she yelled, just as the aircraft opened fire.

Rhodes didn't know how many hours had passed by the time they reached the city. He couldn't even recall the name...Minsk? Or was it Pinsk? The names of the cities in this part of the world all sounded the same to him. Everything had a been a blur since they'd crossed the border into Belarus. A throbbing headache was pounding on the inside of his skull and his thoughts were barely coherent. Dobbs said nothing, but Rhodes knew what he was thinking: that this was all just a symptom of his supposed BTL addiction. He'd deny it until he was blue in the face, but deep down he wondered if there were not some truth to it.

Where are the chip dealers in this city, anyway? Looking out the passenger-side window, it looked like every other city they'd passed through – dark, dirty, and distinctly unfriendly. Still, his needs couldn't be ignored. It had been far too long since he'd had some quality time with his girls – far too long since he'd had a good cuddle.

A surge of shame made him shiver. It was his dirty little secret, something he would never admit to anyone, not even under torture. For as much he declared otherwise, Rhodes had no interest in sex. In fact, he found the idea utterly repulsive. In none of his BTL fantasies did he ever let things go beyond snuggling, even when the girls were programmed to go all the way. Every time the recording got to the part where the clothes started coming off Rhodes would be consumed with self-loathing and disgust, thinking only of the last day of high school when Jenny had taken him to bed for no other reason than pity. Ever since then the idea of sex and the feeling of being utterly pathetic had been inextricably linked in his mind.

He clenched his fists, angry at where his thoughts were leading him. It was a place he had been many times before – the place where he could do nothing except stew in his own inadequacies and failures. It was only a matter of time, he figured, before the other shoe dropped and everyone learned what a piece of garbage he truly was.

Fat. Ugly. Weak. Pitiful. A waste of skin. Should never have been born.

Somehow he found himself walking into bar with Dobbs. He didn't even recall getting out of the car, just that all of a sudden he was standing in a dark, crowded room with repetitive electronic music pounding through his bones, making it even harder to think. Dobbs said something about getting drinks, but Rhodes' eyes were focussed on a row of pay-to-use cyberterminals. He didn't care how much the bar was overcharging for their use, he just had to find some information on this person calling himself "The Angry Man."

The only unoccupied cyberterminal was in appalling condition, and looked like it was about ten years older than God. The monitor was covered in cracks, scratches and dried bits of goo whose origins he'd rather not think about, and to make matters worse the thing only had a keyboard interface. Tortoise mode? Rhodes thought. What is this, the twentieth century?

Trying to ignore the huge, hulking ork seated next to him, Rhodes began searching through the one place where might find the information he needed: the Shadowland BBS.

Not everyone had access to this dark corner of the Matrix, of course. You needed to know the right people, have an "in" with the right sysop, and prove yourself trustworthy to people for whom secrecy and paranoia were a way of life.

Or you could, in Rhodes' case, simply use the login credentials from his dead BTL dealer back in the Rhine-Ruhr Megaplex. To his immense relief, his login was still valid.

He rubbed his forehead, wishing his headache would go away. After entering the search term "Angry Man" he sat and waited for the results, which were a long time in coming. What the hell kind of connection are they using here? Two cups and a piece of string?

Rhodes turned his head to look at Dobbs, who was sitting at a table across the room, talking to a pair of ladies. After several minutes of waiting, the search results scrolled down the monitor at an agonisingly slow pace.

For the next little while Rhodes scrolled through the results, none of which appeared relevant. Just as he was about give up he stumbled upon a post from three months ago, from a user by the name of "Deviant_1":

If you've ever known anyone in the navy, you'll know that they love telling each other stories. I mean, what else are you going to do on a long, boring voyage? The difference between a fairy tale and a sea story is that a fairy tale starts with "Once upon a time..." and a sea story starts with "This is no shit..." The thing about sea stories, though, is that there's always a kernel of truth behind the embellishments.

Well, chummers, this is no shit. You can believe what I'm about to say or not; it doesn't really matter. But I swear that everything I'm about to say actually happened.

A few months ago I was in a bad spot... a REALLY bad spot. I owed a lot of money to some very nasty people, and when they got wise to the fact that I couldn't pay up they cheerfully informed me that my organs would fetch a decent price on the black market...just enough to cover my debt, in fact. They gave me one more week to come up with the dosh.

Since I'm still alive to post this message, you've probably figured out that I didn't wind up in some ch op shop.

So there I was, up to my eyeballs in debt, and wouldn't you know it, work just seemed to dry up overnight. It was as if all the megacorps and governments of the world decided to play nice with each other for that week, just to screw me over. Then one night as I'm walking back to my apartment I'm approached by this guy who calls himself "The Angry Man" and who says he's got a solution to my little conundrum.

Now, this guy, he looked like any old bum you'd find on the street. But there was something WRONG about him. I can't really describe it, it was like there were a thousand little voices in my head telling me to just get away from this person. Well, you don't live long in this profession without having a feel for when things are about to go bad, and my instincts were telling me that this "Angry Man" was into some SERIOUSLY bad mojo. Like, we're talking blood magic levels of bad here .

So he offers me a job, one that will pay just enough to let me keep my organs. He tells me it's a simple job and that there aren't any guards at the place I'll be breaking into. Already I'm starting to get nervous, because 99 times out of a 100 when someone says that a job is "simple" it means you're gonna get your ass torn back. But he insists that it really is simple... a pparently there's this church or temple down the street that belongs to this weird religion I've never heard of. Inside there's some kind of brazier that's supposed to be really important to the worshippers, and this guy wants me to defile it. He gives me a jar that he says is filled with water and the ashes of dead children, and tells me that I need to pour it into the brazier. When I asked why he couldn't do this himself he says that he "can't get near" the temple.

Now at this point my mind is screaming at me to just get the hell out of there. See, I make it a policy never to do what I call "oogie-boogie" jobs. An oogie-boogie job is something involving magic or witchcraft or any of that drek...the kind of job that sounds simple at first but then it turns out it involves summoning Satan or Cthulhu or whatever.

But I had no choice, I NEEDED the money. And the job really was as simple as he'd promised – I waited for nightfall, broke into the temple, and poured the water and ashes on the brazier. At that point I was kind of expecting Lucifer to appear and drag me off to hell, but to my immense relief that didn't happen.

Now here's where the story gets REALLY weird. I get back to "The Angry Man" and tell him the job's done. You'd expect he'd pay me in cold, hard nuyen, right? No, he decides to pay me in GOLD. That's right, he gives me this lump of raw gold and then leaves without saying anything more. I mean, where the hell did he get something like that? But hey, it was enough to pay off my debt, at least. But seriously people, just stay away from jobs involving magic, and doubly so if it involves some religious drek. It seems like there's some new cult showing up every week, and all of them are a few links short of a chain.

Before Rhodes could scroll down to read the replies he heard a commotion from the other side of the bar, and when turned to look at what was happening he saw to his dismay that Dobbs had gotten into an altercation with an ork and elf, both of whom were wearing jackets bearing the insignia of what Rhodes guessed was some street gang.

Cautiously, and ever aware of the possibility of getting his ass kicked, Rhodes approached the table where Dobbs had been seated. The elf and ork were talking in some language he couldn't understand, but judging from their tone and posture they were clearly not having a friendly chat. Rhodes managed to catch one word, however: Humanis.

"You got the wrong idea, pal," said Dobbs. "I'm not with Humanis. What the hell gave you that idea?"

The two men answered in their native language, and even without knowing a word of it Rhodes could tell their speech was filled with profanities.

"Jesus Christ! Do you idiots speak English?" Dobbs spat.

The elf answered by drawing thin, curving blade from within his jacket.

Dobbs laughed. "Oh, you want to throw down, huh? You don't even know what you're dealing with, beanpole. If you so much as touch me the Gamers' Alliance is gonna pursue you to the ends of the earth." His face was starting to go red with anger. "I just wanted to have a drink in peace, but then you mutant assholes just had to come along and get in my face. Do you have any conception of just how stupid you're being? I'm going to give you one chance to back the fuck off before the ass-kicking begins."

The two men just laughed, finding Dobbs outburst more amusing than threatening.

"You think I'm being funny? You think this is a joke? There is no room for play in the Gamers' Alliance! There are no jokes, there is no joy, there is no humour. It is deadly serious about everything! And you're about to receive a serious beating if you don't back off."

Rhodes kept his distance, saying nothing. He knew better to get involved.

Dobbs continued to bluster, his voice growing louder. "You think you can take me, huh? You'd need a whole army to take me! Come on, I'll take you all to hell! Who do you think you're fucking with, huh? I'm Dobbs 'The Destroyer' and I could take ten of you! Come on! I dare you to take a swing at me! Come on, you assholes! Come on, come on, RRAAAAGGGHHH!"

Without warning Dobbs eyes rolled back in his head and he started thrashing about as if he had just grabbed hold of a live wire. A second later he started foaming at the mouth, and that was when Rhodes grasped the true horror of the situation.

"No!" he screamed, stepping back. It couldn't be...not Dobbs. He never thought Gamer-VITAS would ever affect anyone he knew. It had always been something that happened to other people.

Not thinking, he darted for the exit, slamming into one of the servers and sending her drinks tumbling to the floor. He ignored the angry shouts from behind and ran through the door and into the cold night air, his mind racing at the speed of light trying to figure out all the ways in which he was screwed.

This is not happening...this is not happening...this is not happening…

Rhodes found the car Dobbs had stolen and hurriedly got inside, half-expecting an angry horde to follow him out of the bar. His breathing ragged and shallow, he reached for the keys, only to remember that Dobbs had hot-wired the vehicle.

Someone spoke from the back seat, a voice calm and chilling. "We meet again, Mr. Raskol."

Rhodes looked up at the rear-view mirror and found himself staring into a pair of horrible black eyes. "Oh shit!" he screamed, and instantly reached for the door handle.

"Calm yourself, Mr. Raskol," said the Angry Man. "You won't succeed in your endeavours if you cannot keep your wits about you."

This is a dream...a bad dream. Any second now he would wake up back in San Francisco and this whole terrible nightmare would fade from his mind. "Dobbs, he...he just-"

"Yes, it would seem he has succumbed to the same affliction that, if you will pardon the expression, has plagued your Gamers' Alliance for some time now." As if by magic, the car's engine started up all on its own. "I suggest you start driving, Mr. Raskol. Your friend's demise will likely attract unwanted attention."

Rhodes put the car into gear and drove off, feeling as if his heart were going to burst out of his chest at any second. "What...what do you know about Gamer-VITAS?"

The Angry Man laughed, a grotesque cackling sound. "Oh, I could tell you the truth, but are you prepared to deal with the horror of it? I don't think you'll like the answer."

"Just tell me! Jesus Christ...I never thought it would happen to him..."

"Very well. Are you familiar with the Aztechnology corporation?"

Rhodes' stomach started twisting itself into knots. "Uh, yeah. I mean, isn't everyone?"

"Then you are familiar with their experimentation with blood magic. What you call 'Gamer-VITAS' is nothing less than an entirely new line of research in that field, and your Gamers' Alliance just happens to be an unwitting guinea pig."

"Holy shit!"

"Indeed, Mr. Raskol. Through the powers of blood magic they have developed a means to turn anyone, anywhere into a rabid animal, more beast than man. Death invariably follows at a short distance, but believe me when I say the researchers are no doubt working hard to overcome that particular limitation."

He turned right at the next intersection, having no idea where he was going. "But why? Why are they doing this?"

"I cannot say. But it is also irrelevant to your task at hand, which is preventing the massacre of your fellow gamers at The Intercontinental."

"No, no, no, I can't!" Rhodes protested. "Don't you see? I...I'm weak! I'm not strong enough, not good enough!"

"You will not prevail with that sort of attitude, Mr. Raskol."

"No, no, no!" He banged his fist on the steering wheel. "I don't know who the hell you are, but you seem to know a lot about me, and that means you know what kind of person I am. I'm a programmer, not a shadowrunner! This...this katana I've got, it's just some stupid bullshit! I can't fight worth a damn! If I tried I'd probably cut my arm off!"

The Angry Man narrowed his eyes. "This is beginning to sound like truth, Mr. Raskol. But the truth brings pain. Pain and shame. Wouldn't you rather live a lie? Wouldn't you rather be someone else? Someone stronger, someone more capable, someone more...successful?"

The word 'succesful' had barely passed the Angry Man's lips before a tide of rage and sadness suddenly overcame Rhodes. "'successful'? Don't...don't you say that fucking word to me! I'm sick of hearing about 'success!' 'Oh, I've got be a successful person, I've got to have a successful career, I've got to be successful in life!' Well it's fucking bullshit!" He was close to tears now, and felt even more ashamed for it. "When...when I graduated from college they told me that it was the first day of the rest of my life, that things were only going to get better from that day forward! I thought I was gonna conquer the whole fucking world!"

"Mr. Raskol," said the Angry Man, "your miserable remembrances are hardly relevant to your current situation."

"Don't you get it? It never got better after that! All that hope, all that optimism, it was all a big fucking lie! Everyone I knew was finding careers and starting families while I was stuck making shitty trideo games for a company that couldn't find its ass with both hands! And even that got taken away from me! you know what it's like being a total goddamn failure while the whole world is screaming 'success' to my face? Do you? There's nothing good in my life that hasn't turned to shit! Every time things start to go my way, every time things start looking up, that's when this fucking world just has to go and bring me down again. So whatever it is you want from me, 'Angry Man,' whatever it is you're planning, you had better find someone else! I'm nothing but a useless piece of garbage!"

"If you loathe yourself so much, Mr. Raskol, then I suggest you take that sword of yours and fall on it."

His words made his skin crawl, as if they had touched some dark corner of his mind that Rhodes could not bear to look upon. "What?, man, I...I don't want to die! I just...just..." He let out a sigh of despair. "You know what? You're right, I do want to be someone else! I want a fucking 'do-over' on my life!"

"If is strength you seek, then you needn't worry. I will provide you the strength you need to overcome all obstacles. In the meantime I suggest you make your way to the border crossing by Lyady. It is only two hours or so from here."

"How are you gonna make strong, huh?" he asked, but when looked in the rear-view mirror the Angry Man had vanished. Instantly he slammed on the brakes and turned his head to look at the back seat. There was no one there.

"What the hell?" Rhodes didn't know much about magic, but he knew that teleportation was supposed to be impossible. There was no way the Angry Man could have left the vehicle without him knowing.

That left two possibilities, he figured. Either the whole thing was a hallucination, or the Angry Man possessed a level of magical ability far beyond that of anyone else, and neither possibility was pleasant.

Rhodes took his foot off the brake and continued driving down the street. Just what the hell have I got myself into? He let a long, mournful whimper, fighting back tears. Dobbs was dead, Schneider was dead, everyone he had gotten onto that bus with back in Berlin was dead. This wasn't how things were supposed to happen. People like him weren't supposed to get mixed up with things like shadowrunners and blood magic. People like him...well...what did people like him do, anyway?

It was too shameful to contemplate. No, it was better to choose the lie.

Talvi reached over and yanked the steering wheel to the right, sending the van shooting off the road just as the pavement exploded into a cloud of dust and debris.

Then came the noise – a sharp, ripping sound, like someone tearing through canvas, loud enough that it made the air shake.

Monika turned the wheel to the left, swinging the vehicle back into the highway and slamming Talvi's body against the passenger-side door. She glanced out the window, only briefly, but long enough to see the pitch-black aircraft pull into a sharp climb. It's long, rectangular wings and large engines only confirmed what she suspected.

"An A-10 Warthog," she said flatly. "One of the Inner Circle's latest acquisitions, no doubt."

"What?" Monika looked at her with a mixture of disbelief and total horror.

"Listen, it was designed to attack tanks, not fast-moving vehicles. When it fires, turn sharply."

"Oh, you make it sound so easy!"

Talvi rolled down the passenger-side window and stuck her head out. The A-10 was coming around, lining up with the highway in preparation for another attack. She closed her eyes just for a moment, reaching out across the astral void to the aircraft's pilot, who was clearly having the time of his life judging by his emotional state.

She snapped back to reality just in time to see the aircraft open fire once again, wreathing the fuselage in smoke. "Now!" she barked at Monika.

Monika stomped on the brake pedal and spun the wheel to the right. The rear wheels, screeching in protest, lost their grip on the road, sending the van into a long slide until it stopped perpendicular to the highway. Then she floored the accelerator, darting the van forward across the gravel shoulder and into a freshly-tilled field.

Behind them the highway disappeared into a shower of dirt and pieces of asphalt, followed shortly by the A-10's ripping muzzle report. It was often said that, in times of mortal peril, one's life flashed before one's life, but all Talvi felt at that moment was a sense of profound annoyance. She supposed that it was a compliment to her tenacity that the Inner Circle was going to these kinds of lengths to kill her, but did they have to be so obnoxious about it?

The plane shrieked overhead, so low that Talvi could make out the paintwork for a half-second or so. Is that corpse paint on the nose? she thought. The depths to which these knobheads have sunk…

Suddenly the van hit a ditch, bringing the van to a halt and jerking Talvi forward so fiercely that her head nearly hit the dashboard. Monika let out a few choice profanities and threw the gearbox in reverse, but the van stubbornly refused to move.

Talvi looked back at the stash of weapons they had brought with them. "You took a portable surface-to-air missile launcher with you, did you not?" she asked in a tone reserved for someone discussing camping supplies.

"Yeah, a Vogeljäger, in the big green case" Monika said, frantically scrambling to unbuckle her seatbelt.

Talvi sprang out of her seat and into the back of the van where, sure enough, there was a large olive drab case covered in warning labels. Trying to ignore the sound of jet engines growing louder outside, she unlatched the lid, briefly catching sight of the words "Vogeljäger MANPADS – WARNING: AIM AWAY FROM FACE" written on the underside.

The missile launcher itself was a long, slender tube about a metre and a half in length with a large sighting scope on the side. "Flip the power switch on the side and you're ready to go!" Monika said just before she leapt out of the van. "Just watch the backblast!"

She lifted the missile launcher out of its case, finding it to be surprisingly light, and opened the van's back doors.

After stepping out into the open, Talvi raised the launcher to her shoulder and looked up at the A-10. The aircraft had nearly completed its turn and would soon be diving in for another strafing run. Offering a silent prayer to her ancestors that those technological gremlins which caused computers to explode in her presence would not do with the missile launcher, she brought the sighting scope up to her face and aimed it towards to the A-10.

In the middle of the scope was a large green circle, which she took to be the missile seeker's field of vision. Carefully, she moved to place the A-10 within the circle, and in the magnified view she could clearly make out the corpse paint nose art that covered the front half of the fuselage.

It was only then that the ludicrousness of the moment dawned on her. An off-hand remark about a black metal album had somehow escalated into this parade of absurdities, and knowing the sort of damaged individuals who made up the Inner Circle it could only end with her death or theirs. She had fought them both on land and in the air, and she figured it was only a matter of time before she fought them on the seas as well.

The launcher emitted a steady, shrill tone, indicating that the missile seeker had achieved a lock on the target. Bracing herself, Talvi squeezed the trigger.

Circling above, Månegarm was indeed having the time of his life. It wasn't every day that he got to use The Hog for its original purpose.

He didn't know how the Inner Circle had originally acquired the aircraft (Sacro Culto had described it as a gift from Satan), but it was a real crowd-pleaser at concerts, in addition to being very well-suited for obliterating uppity Finnish elves who didn't know when to keep their mouths shut.

Assuming he could actually hit her, that is. Every time he'd fired the A-10's gun – a behemoth of a weapon designed to cut tanks in half – she'd swerve off the road and into the field. Perhaps Talvi thought she could outsmart him, and perhaps that was true. But Månegarm had yet to meet anyone who could outsmart 3,900 rounds per minute of high-explosive, armour-piercing death.

Her luck had just run out, it seemed, as her van had driven into a ditch at the edge of the field. Now there was nothing stopping him from wiping her off the face of the earth with a fury the likes of which had never been seen before.

Månegarm pushed the stick forward, putting the aircraft into a shallow dive. The A-10's avionics continuously calculated the exact point of impact for the gun's shells, indicated on the heads-up display by a large circular reticle. A marker on the inside on the reticle indicated the range to the target, and the fun would begin when it reached the four o'clock position. Månegarm was only dimly aware that he was working under a time limit – his incursion into Ukrainian airspace would not go unnoticed, and they were probably scrambling fighters to intercept. But time just seemed to fly by when you were having fun, and what was more fun than raining death from above?

A glance at the bottom left of the HUD revealed that he still had over nine hundred rounds of ammunition left. Perhaps, he thought, after he had completed his mission he might use the remainder to terrorise some hapless town or village somewhere. Månegarm decided that the nearby city of Lviv would be the target of his wrath – three years ago Blackcrown had performed there, and the audience had blasphemously declared their displeasure with the band by hurling empty beer bottles at them. Well, he'd see how they like having high-explosive shells hurled at them.

The target was almost in range. Månegarm brushed his finger against the trigger, eagerly anticipating the hearty roar of the aircraft's cannon. Songs would sung of this day, of how wings of gleaming black had borne death to all elvenkind.

At last the range marker passed the four o'clock mark. The A-10 had a two-stage trigger: the first stage activated a stabilisation system that counteracted the cannon's recoil, allowing the pilot to put more rounds on target, while the second stage actually fired the gun. Månegarm pressed the trigger to its first detent, took a deep breath, and readied himself for the barrage of death he would soon be unleashing. This time he would not miss.

A white streak leapt up from the van. It took Månegarm a few seconds to realise what was happening, and when he did his jaw dropped in disbelief. A surface-to-air missile? What? How?

Having never been trained for this situation, he panicked and tried to pull the aircraft into a climb. But the missile was inexorably drawn to the heat of the engines' exhaust, its targeting algorithms carefully calculating the exact location where it could do the most damage. The warhead detonated between the A-10's engines, sending a cloud of monomolecular wire flying outward in all directions. It ripped through the engines' cowlings and into the turbine sections, causing them to explode in a shower of metal fragments that tore through the aircraft's hydraulic lines.

Instantly the caution panel lit up with dozens of warning lights, none of which Månegarm understood. An electronic voice played through his helmet, enumerating all the ways in which he was doomed: "Left engine fire! Right engine fire! Hydraulics failure!"

He knew enough to realise that the aircraft was lost. But the battle was not over yet; the elf would not win. He could still fight her on the ground.

Månegarm reached down to the bright yellow handle that activated the ejection seat. Bracing himself to be flung out into the airstream, he gave it good, hard pull.

Instead of being rocket out of the airplane, however, the voice of Sacro Culto started playing through the helmet. "Attention pilot of this aircraft! If you are hearing this, it means you have been defeated by your enemies and are attempting to eject. This brazen act of cowardice will not be permitted. At this very instant news of your shameful display is being broadcast to all chapters of the Inner Circle, who shall speak your name as an anathema forevermore. All that is left for you is to contemplate the depths of your disgrace, and die like a true son of northern darkness."

As the ground rushed up to meet him, he slammed his fist against the instrument panel. "YOU SON OF A-"

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 – When East Meets West

It was with no small degree of satisfaction that Talvi watched as the stricken A-10 plummeted towards the earth's embrace. The Inner Circle had exceeded all bounds of sanity in their attempts to destroy her – not that they had ever cared much for the idea of 'sanity' in the first place. Trailing smoke and flame, the aircraft slammed into the ground a short distance from the highway, erupting into a massive blossom of fire.

Talvi set the empty MANPADS down on the ground. "Kuin lasta löisi."

The wreckage of the A-10 was sending forth a shower of sparks as its remaining ammunition cooked off. "This is it, right?" said Monika, looking one part horrified and one part amused. "I mean, this is the last we'll see of these assholes, isn't it?"

"Of course not! Their defeat today will only further inflame their desire to kill me. They are fascists, after all, and fascists don't capitulate until they have been utterly destroyed."

"But where does it end, Talvi?" she asked, exasperated. "They just sent a military jet to kill us! What's next? An entire army?"

"That is entirely possible."

The smoke from the burning wreckage was already reaching high into the sky. "We should leave," said Talvi. "It won't be long before the authorities come to investigate."

Monika turned to face their van, now sitting immobilised in a ditch. "Well, that might be a problem." She walked over to the front of the vehicle and looked inside one of the wheel wells. "The suspension's fragged, and the frame's probably bent, too. So unless you're a wizard with automobiles this thing's never going to move again. And there's something else, too." She began looking under the sides of the van. "I want to know how these idiots found us."

A few moments later she emerged with a small black box in her hands. "I suspected as much. It's a GPS tracker, relaying our position across the local telecommunications grid. Someone must have stuck it on the van back in Berlin."

Monika moved to throw the device away, but Talvi stopped her. "Let us hold on to it for a while longer. I have an idea of what to do with it once we reach Kiev."

She reluctantly handed over the tracker. "Well, that's going to be a problem, see. We've got a long way to go and no transportation."

Talvi shrugged. "We could always walk."

"You want to walk halfway across Ukraine? Talvi, it's over two hundred kilometres to get to where we're going!"

"That is not so far. I have walked greater distances in the past, and that was through forest and woodland."

It took Monika a few moments to think of a response. "Yeah, well, you're so tall you could probably walk that distance in two or three strides."

Talvi looked back at the van. "Before we do anything, we ought to dispose of the weaponry we brought with us. We can't just leave it here for anyone to find."

Monika stared at her. "Why not?"

"What do you mean, 'Why not?' We brought enough guns to equip an army. It would be the height of irresponsibility if we were to allow them to fall into the wrong hands."

"Then think of it like this: some farmer wakes up one morning and finds a van full of guns, grenades, and rocket launchers. From his point of view, it'd be like Christmas coming early!" A few seconds later she added, "It's not like any of it can be traced back to us, anyway."

After gathering her belongings from the van, Talvi started walking back towards the highway. "At any rate, we should get moving." She looked up at the clear blue sky and took a deep breath. "Look at where were are. No glaring neon lights, no dirty, trash-strewn streets, no dreary, dilapidated buildings everywhere you look. This is much better than the cities, yes?"

"I think I could use a drink."

"There is a bottle of vodka in my rucksack."

Monika shook her head. "No, I think I'd prefer a beer. Or two. Or three."

Talvi frowned. "Did you not pack any?"

"I guess I forgot."

"Then we were very ill-prepared for this journey."

For a minute or so they walked in silence before Monika spoke up. "I just remembered, when you were telling me the story about the Russian cruiser, you said it was the 'second time' you felt fear in your life. And when I asked you what the first time was, you said the story would have to wait for another day. Well, I can't think of a better time than now."

Talvi stopped. "I should warn you, there is no mayhem, rascality, or deviltry in this tale. You might find it quite dull."

"Try me."

"It was when I was but seven or eight years old, living with my mother in Lapland. Now, the forests of my country had become much more wild after the Awakening, which made the woodlands quite inhospitable to more 'civilised' folk. It was hardly uncommon to encounter beasts of the wilds growing up; my mother told me that I need not fear them, so long as I respected. There is a saying in my countryniin metsä vastaa kuin sinne huudetaan - 'the woods answer you in the way you call to them.' Now, this was usually meant in a metaphorical sense – that one reaped what one sowed – but it has a literal meaning, too. The woods have a will of their own, one that is ineffable and recondite, and those who enter the forest with ill-intent or impertinence will not see the morning again. They will find no roads that lead away from there, and no escape from the darkness. There are places where the sun never shines, the rain never falls, and where the wind never blows. You do not believe me? Then ask those unfortunate Russian soldiers who invaded my country during the EuroWars. Whole companies of troops entered the forests, never to be seen again, and no trace of them was ever found.

"But to return to my tale, I was a young girl, playing outside, when a great wolf strode into my sight. This was not the first I had seen such a creature, but there was something different about this one. Most wolves are wary of people, but this wolf seemed to have no fear of me at all. Yet there was madness in its eyes, and it was frothing at the mouth. There had been many times in my where I had been afraid, but it was not until I saw that wolf that I truly understood horror. To see a beautiful creature reduced to such a state, to see it robbed of its nobility by was an abhorrence my young mind could scarcely comprehend."

"So what did you do?" Monika asked.

"I shouted for my mother, who hurried me back indoors. She went outside, rifle in hand, and a few moments later I heard a shot ring out. I did not need to see what happened to know what had taken place. When I asked my mother why the wolf had to die, she told me that sickness had destroyed its mind, and that this sickness had no cure. To kill the wolf swiftly would be a mercy, she said, rather than letting it suffer a prolonged and agonising death from the disease. That was the day that I learned there are things worse than death in this world. When that man attacked us in Warsaw, I saw the same madness in his eyes that I saw in that rabid wolf." She said nothing for a few moments before adding, "But what is madness in this world? I look around me and see a world gone completely mad, with only small islands of sanity to be found at the margins.

"Now," Talvi continued, "I have told you many stories of it is only fair that you recount some of yours. Specifically, I wish to know how it was that you developed an interest in 'decking' or whatever it is you call it."

Monika's answer was instant. "Absentee parents, combined with having too much time on my hands and too many bad influences. But I suppose you want to the long version. Well, what I can say? I discovered I had a way with tech at a young age. By the time I was ten I had taught myself assembly language for at least six different platforms. At home we had this old, half-busted cyberterminal, and I quickly figured out how to make it do all sorts of things the manufacturer never intended it to. It took about five or six seconds before I came to the realisation that, if I could make a computer be anything I wanted it to be, then why not make it evil? Why not use it to cause mayhem and chaos? I'm sure you can understand, seeing how you set a pack of drugged-up chimpanzees loose on a battleship and all. Anyway, it was only a matter of time before I wrote my first virus."

"And what did it do?"

"Nothing malicious, at least not in the way most people would imagine. See, almost every cyberterminal and desktop computer has this timer interrupt that fires at regular intervals, and I figured out a way to hook that interrupt so that it would cause my own code to run. Now, most machines have this internal speaker; it's what makes that loud beep whenever they boot up. What my code would do is move the speaker in and out briefly, which made a sharp clicking sound. And it would do this every few seconds, so whoever was using it would keep hearing this clicking noise. It didn't matter if you were typing up a doctoral thesis or playing games, every few seconds you'd hear this 'click' and think there was something wrong with your cyberterminal. You'd take it it apart, tighten some screws or connectors, but it'd still make that sound no matter what you did. I like to think that quite a few people lost their minds over it. Any idiot can write a virus that nukes your system, or puts a flaming skull on the screen, or sends porn to your grandma, but it takes a real decker to make a virus that screws with your head."

A blue road sign up ahead caught Talvi's eye. "Look, that sign reads 'Novohrad-Volynskyi.' We must be nearing a major city."

"Good," said Monika. "We should be able to find ourselves a ride there."

Talvi stopped. "I assume by that you mean stealing a vehicle, don't you?"

"We aren't going to steal it from some wageslave, Talvi, we're going to steal it right from the dealership. Most cars today have fancy electronic security systems, kinderleicht to get through if you know what you're doing. The only question is, do I want a Mercedes-Benz or a BMW?"

"The only difference between one luxury vehicle and another," Talvi replied, rolling her eyes, "is the fool behind the wheel."

The windshield wipers were fighting a losing battle against the ran as Rhodes drove on through the Belarusian countryside. He knew where he was going, but never in his life had he felt more lost. In the back of his mind there was an awareness that he could turn back at any moment, and that this would probably be the wisest course of action, but somehow this seemed utterly unthinkable to him. He was no hero – that had been established a long time ago – and the chances of him succeeding in this mad quest of his were about as close to zero as one could get.

But there was no point in going back. There was nothing to go back to. His apartment had been burned to the ground, his prized collection of anime and manga was nothing but ashes, and everyone he had known back in Germany was dead.

Everything was happening as though in a dream. He couldn't remember how long he had been driving, or how far it he had come since the last city.

His PDA started beeping, making him jump. The tone indicated an urgent message, and eager to take his thoughts off this fool's errand of his, Rhodes pulled the side of the road and brought the car to a stop.

He grabbed the PDA from the passenger seat. A single alert was displayed on the scratched and battered screen, telling that he had just received an email from BioSynth Games, creators of Grunts of Glory.

The email was brief, but devastating:

From: BioSynth Games Inc.

To: xXxKitsuneBladexXx420 at FjorgynLTG


Account action: Account closure – Grunts of Glory account

Offence: Use of unauthorised cheat programs

Recent activity on this account indicates the use of unauthorised cheat software ("hacks") which allow the user to gain an unfair advantage. This harms the intended player experience.

As the account holder, you are responsible for all activity associated with this account. We issue suspensions and closures to protect our players and our service in accordance with the Grunts of Glory EULA.

This decision was not taken lightly. We have issued this closure after a careful review of all available evidence. Our support staff will not overturn this closure and will not respond to appeals.

We thank you for your time and understanding in this matter.


Customer Service

If his life had only ever been shame, if his existence had been nothing but a string of humiliations, then it was this that finally broke him. "No, no, NO!" he screamed, throwing his PDA against the dashboard. "They said those cheats were undetectable! UNDETECTABLE!" Rhodes balled up his right hand into a fist and began pounding it against the centre console. BioSynth Games used hardware ID bans, meaning he'd have to buy a whole new trid unit before he could play Grunts of Glory again.

He picked up his PDA from the footwell. Suddenly, it all became to clear to him. Everything that had happened in his life, every moment of humiliation and despair, every wrong ever inflicted on him, it was all so obvious now.

Rhodes set his PDA to begin recording. "My name is Rhodes Raskol," he started, pulling back onto the highway, "and by the time someone hears this, I might very well be dead. I don't know why I'm recording this. Maybe I just need to get it all out of my system, or maybe, just maybe, people will listen to me and see how much they're getting fucked over.

"I just want everyone to know that things could have been different. I could have a good life. I could have known happiness, if the world hadn't insisted on fucking the living shit out of me. When I was young I thought I had it all figured out. I told myself I wasn't going to wind up as some loser at a dead-end job flipping soy burgers for a living. I was going to work hard, get some good grades, and then...and then all the people who made fun of me were going to be so fucking sorry for mistreating me when I was pulling down six figures. But that never happened. I did everything I was supposed to do and got nothing! All that work, all that hoping and dreaming, it was all for nothing! For fucking NOTHING!"

He was really on a roll now, and not even the legions of hell could stop him. "Wasn't it enough for you swine to destroy my life? While you were eating your fucking caviar and sipping your fucking cognac, you kept thinking of new ways to fuck me, new ways to rape my soul and annihilate my existence. But it wasn't just me. There are millions of people out there, people just like me, people getting fucked over a daily basis, just waiting for the moment when they can have their vengeance. And when that day comes, you aren't going to have any excuses left. You, who never felt a single ounce of pain in your entire lives. You, who were born lucky. That's all that really matters in this world, is being fucking lucky. Be born to the right parents, at the right time, in the right place, that's what decides every goddamn thing in your life. Don't give me that bullshit about hard work being all it takes or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. If that were true then every wageslave in the world would be a fucking billionaire.

"And those of us who weren't born lucky, we're beginning to see the truth. We are beginning to realise that society abuses us, and that society is beginning to pay. While you hedonists and charlatans are scurrying about in your Porsches and BMWs, we are waiting. While you are strutting about in the latest fashions from Paris and Milan, we are waiting. While you are sipping cognac and champagne that costs more for a bottle than we will ever make in a year, we are waiting. You won't know when and where we will strike. At home, at work, at the mall, at school, in your most comfortable hour and most protected place. You won't know how we'll kill you – knife to the throat, bullet to the head, a bomb under the seat of your precious Mercedes. Every hour of every day of your life will be filled with fear, fear that the people you fucked are finally going to get what is their due.

"At this moment I am heading to stop you. Because games are our escape, our escape from this world of shit, but you cannot let us have even that. Your two million nuyen house wasn't enough? Your BMW wasn't enough? Your big fat trust fund and inheritance wasn't enough? You have to take this one thing from us, this one thing that gives us joy? Fuck you! We didn't want this to end in blood. But you gave us no choice. You kept pushing us, kept fucking us; what did you expect to happen? What did you expect us to do? Because you never know what a person is capable of until you take away everything he has."

He set down the PDA, filled with a new sense of purpose. The Russian border was just ahead.

Time to be a hero.

Much like the crossing at the Polish border, what Rhodes saw ahead was less like a checkpoint and more like a military blockade. The road split into two lanes, one for those with goods to declare and those without. There were stairs and scaffolds for officials to look over one's vehicle, and pits from which they could examine the underside. Lost in fantasy, he imagined himself leaning out the driver's side window and telling the border guard, "All I have to declare is a trunk full of whup-ass. That gonna be a problem, officer?"

After an interminable wait, he pulled up to one of the dingy-looking booths and rolled down the window. He didn't even wait for the customs official, a rather bored-looking woman, to speak before he handed her the chip the Angry Man had given him. "You, uh, probably want my passport and visa or something. It's all on here."

She took the chip, giving him a look that was one part confusion and one part contempt. Then he waited.

And waited.

What the hell is taking so long? he thought. The Russians were probably using some ancient-ass tech, he thought, something that still ran on vacuum tubes or something.

Then, everything went to hell.

One second he was glancing at his PDA, and the next his vehicle was surrounded by armed men, all shouting at him in Russian. Before he could react one of them opened the driver's side door, grabbed Rhodes by the arm, and flung him out face-first onto the rain-soaked pavement.

Whatever confidence he had possessed up to that moment evaporated in a heartbeat, replaced by the sudden and horrifying realisation that he was now well and truly screwed.

"I must admit I've misjudged you, Finntroll," said Lord Swedish, pouring himself a glass of single-malt scotch. "In the past I have described as you as 'insane,' but I know now that this was a grave error. To be insane means to suffer from some form of mental illness, but do not appear to be suffering at all, do you? You seem to enjoy the homicidal mania that drives you, and therefore a diagnosis of insanity would be inaccurate."

For a second he could have swore that the enormous troll was blushing. "Aw, thanks boss!"

"As for the mission, I suppose I should not be surprised that it was merely a ploy by this 'Chernobog' individual. Someone with his level of demonstrated skill would never allow himself to be tracked by a mere email message. Still, we sent a message to Fusion Games, and one they won't soon forget. Mega Therion will obliterate their next release in the marketplace, assuming their company doesn't implode before then. Speaking of which, he have you had a chance to play the latest build."

Finntroll shuffled about slightly. "Uh, I did boss, but I...uh...permission to speak freely, boss?"

"Of course."

"It's total drek."

Lord Swedish laughed. "Of course it's total drek! But it is very well-produced drek. Its production values are second to none, even if the story is the sort of fantasy drivel that ceased to have any mainstream appeal half a century ago. Mega Therion was not created to be enjoyable, but to be a compulsion. One thing you learn very quickly in this industry is that there is no real upper limit to the amount of money self-proclaimed 'gamers' will spend. Some might complain about our practices, but the great majority will continue to shell out vast sums of money at our bidding."

"What about the Gamers' Alliance, boss?"

He took a long, slow sip of scotch. "Well, what about them? They're fanatics, and rather stupid ones at that. Have you heard about the strange disease that's apparently killing them off? From the accounts I've read the symptoms are quite horrific, very much like rabies. Now, I'm no expert in biology, but it sounds to me like this disease was specifically targeted towards them. I wonder who was behind it? Whoever he is, I would very much like to shake his hand."

"So what are we gonna do about Chernobog, boss? We aren't gonna let him just mess with us, are we? I mean, if other game companies get word that he can do those sort of things to us without us stomping his ass flat, well, what are they gonna think, huh?"

Lord Swedish set down his glass. "I'm afraid there is nothing we can do at the moment. We don't know where he's operating from, or even how he managed to break into our systems. So far he has done anything overly malicious, but it is likely only a matter of time before his attacks escalate."

"What do we know about him?"

"Nothing, I am sorry to say, except that he seems to bear a particular grudge towards me. But if we were to speculate, his handle 'Chernobog' means 'black god' in Russian, so perhaps he is Russian. But that is a tenuous assumption at best. We know that he is extremely talented at systems infiltration, but so are a great many people. In short, we know nothing that would help us ascertain his whereabouts, but if we should learn of something then you will be the first to know, Finntroll. Now, I have a mission for you. It is not of vital importance, except, perhaps, to satisfying my curiosity."

Finntroll stiffened his back in excitement. "All right! Who do I gotta kill? Just give me his name and he'll be dead before sunrise!"

"I'm afraid there won't be any killing." When he saw Finntroll's shoulders slump in disappointment, he quickly added, "Well, you won't be killing the person I'm sending you after. You're free to kill anyone who gets in your way, of course. The person I want you to bring to me is Logan Reims, a high-ranking employee at CB Entertainment. According to intra-corporate communications we've intercepted, he is the one Mr. McGee tasked with finding shadowrunners to – and I use this word lightly - 'infiltrate' our headquarters. I want to know the names of the people he hired, and if he does not possess that knowledge, well..." He let a quiet chuckle. "Let's just say that I'm rather curious as to how well he stands up to the 'Maria Mercurial treatment.' How very fitting that after torturing millions with her damnable music I have adapted it for the purpose of literally torturing people." Lord Swedish began refilling his glass, emptying the bottle. "But let me make one thing clear: I want Mr. Reims brought to me alive. Not exploded, not shot full of holes, not cut to pieces, and most certainly not all three of those things combined. But as I said, anyone who gets in your way you are free to kill. Understand?"

Finntroll laughed. "I'm not a psychopath, boss. I'm a high-functioning psychopath."

A dimly-lit room. Bare concrete walls. Had Rhodes not been terrified out of his wits he might have remarked at how terribly cliché a place this was for an interrogation. Instead, he was desperately trying to avoid the gaze of the two stone-faced Russian immigration officials seated across from him. They were enjoying this, he knew, a welcome diversion from their otherwise boring jobs.

"So Mr. Rhodes Raskol, there are a number of questions we wish to ask you," said the man to his right, holding up Rhodes' passport chip. "Most importantly, why were you attempting to enter Russia with a passport belonging to Yevgeny Voronov, who is wanted for thirteen cases of murder in Novosibirsk?"

The other man laughed softly. "With a name like his, I would imagine he came here to murder a pawnbroker in Saint Petersburg."

Rhodes threw up his arms. "Why does everyone keep saying that?"

"Where did you obtain this passport?"

This is just a dream, this is just a dream, he thought. Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake the fuck up! "I got it from someone," he stammered, unsure of how to answer in a way that wouldn't screw him over later.

"Who?" barked one of the officials.

"I...I didn't get his name! He...he called himself the 'Angry Man.' I think he was a shadowrunner."

"Where did you get the vehicle you were driving?"

Beads of sweat were rolling down his face. "My, uh, friend stole it."

The man leaned back in his chair. "So, you admit to entering the country in a stolen vehicle, using a stolen passport provided to you by a professional criminal. And what's more, we found a membership card for the Gamers' Alliance in your wallet. I do not think it is a coincidence that this same group was recently involved in Poland."

"I had nothing to do with that!" he protested. "Look, I know how bad this must seem, but I have a really good reason for it! There's this tournament coming up in Moscow called The Intercontinental, and...and there's this elf, she's planning on attacking it. That's why I came here, to stop her. She's already attacked one tournament in Berlin; who knows how many she's planning to hit? You've got to believe me!"

The two men looked at each other. "Another fucking chiphead!" said one. "Third one this week! What is it about our country that attracts you people?"

"It's true!" he shouted. "I swear on my mother's grave I'm telling you the truth! Okay, she's not dead, but I'm still swearing on it! This elf, she...she burned down my apartment and geeked my BTL dealer!" He froze, realising what he had just said. "Err...I mean, I use BTLs now and then, but I'm not an addict! That has nothing to do with this! What I mean is, she burned down my apartment, killed one of my friends, and then killed a bunch of people at this tournament. And now she's gonna kill a whole bunch more because...because she's, uh, she's part of this conspiracy...this social justice conspiracy that hates games and gamers and...and she wants to make games all feminist and stuff, where no one does anything fun and they all just...just talk about their feelings and stuff. I don't know what her name is, but she's uh...she's really tall and blonde and...and she's got these really big breasts. Like D-cup or maybe E-Cup; I don't know how those measurements work or anything, but she's really well-endowed. But that doesn't make her attractive or anything! Because she's evil! Pure fucking evil! And I've got stop her! Because if I don't then...then a whole lot of people are going to die. I know I probably sound like a pervert or something, but I'M NOT A PERVERT! I love and respect women! I respect them so much I can't keep my hands off them! Oh god, that didn't come out right...what I meant was...I DID NOT GROPE HER! I DID NOT! THAT'S BULLSHIT!

"I...I know what you're thinking. You're probably thinking I'm crazy, that I'm some sort of simsense fiend who can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Well I'm not crazy! I'm sane...holy fucking shit am I sane! I've never felt so sane in my life! Ask those catgirls standing behind me; they'll vouch for my sanity, one hundred percent! Anyway, this elf, this conspiracy...I don't know how deep it goes, but I know that all the major media outlets are in on it, and probably most of the governments and megacorps as well. These people, these total fucking scumbags, they want to take away our games, they want to destroy our identities as gamers, they want to herd us all into concentration camps and send us off to the gas chambers! That's what we're up against! Just a few hours ago they got me banned from Grunts of Glory! Oh, that's how it starts: first you get banned from your favourite game, then the next thing you know you're facing a firing squad! Well, I can't let that happen! I won't let that happen! So you can either fight at my side or get crushed under my heel, but you will not stand in my way!"

He stood up and threw his fist into the air, letting out a cry of rage. Something within him snapped, something that had sustained this fantasy of his for far too long, and he understood with abject horror what an utter fool he had made of himself.

Rhodes collapsed back into his chair and let out a pitiful whimper. "I'm so fucked up."

The immigration officials placed him in a holding cell, giving him no indication as to what would happen to him. Surely the Russians weren't going to send him to prison, were they? He was a citizen of the California Free State; they had no right to detain him, didn't they? But who knew how things worked in this part of the world?

He slumped back against the cold, concrete wall of his cell. Someone once said that no matter how bad things got they could always get worse, but Rhodes couldn't imagine things being any worse than they were now. They had taken his katana, his most prized possession, and he knew those Russian bastards weren't ever going to give it back. All of his friends were dead – if they ever were his friends to begin with – and the damned elf would succeed in her vile plan. He had failed completely.

"So Mr. Raskol, you've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?"

In the harsh fluorescent light, the Angry Man looked even more ghoulish. His skin had a ghastly pallor to it, barely holding onto his bones. His lips were starting to rot away, exposing his rotten yellow teeth and disease-ridden gums, and his hair was little more than a greasy, dirty clump atop his head. Ghouls, they were called – the poor bastards infected with HMHVV who were reduced to something less than human, cursed with what could only be described as a living death. Why hadn't he realised it earlier?

"You!" Rhodes cried, springing to his feet. "You fucked me over! You gave me a passport from a serial killer!"

"Indeed I did, Mr. Raskol. But I have done nothing beyond what you desire. You expressed a desire to become stronger, to purge yourself of weakness. Well, after spending a few years in a Russian prison you will be stronger. Or you will be dead."

Rhodes grabbed hold of the cell bars. "You son of a bitch!"

The Angry Man cackled at him. "I'm afraid that was not my only deception, Mr. Raskol. The elf you seek is not going to Moscow. She was not behind the attack on your gaming tournament. She did not burn down your apartment, rather, that was your doing. Your pathetic little adventure has been nothing more than a waste of time and the lives of your fellow Gamers' Alliance members. Shall I continue? 'Gamer VITAS' was not the creation of Aztechnology, as I told you, and the truth is something you would find quite unpalatable."

"What is it? Tell me!"

"The truth, Mr. Raskol, is that there is no virus, no infectious agent. The sickness is entirely the product of the mind. The members of your organisation spent much of their waking hours raging against something, whether it is at the enemies that exist only in your heads or at your gaming opponents when they have bested you. I must admit I have never seen a more angry and hateful group of people – you are quite pleasing to me in that regard – but it has not been without consequence. Eventually the rage takes control of you and you become little more than rabid animals, fit only for destruction."

"That's bullshit!" Rhodes screamed. "You lie! It's the game companies and the journos fucking us over! They're trying to destroy us!"

"Of course, this was not what I told your fellows back in Berlin," the Angry Man continued. "They are preparing an attack on the local Aztechnology office as we speak. I don't know what sort of security measures they have in place, but I imagine the result will be...bloody."

He stepped back from the cell door, his whole body trembling. "Why? Why are you doing this to me? I never did anything to you!"

"Why, Mr. Raskol? Because I choose to! I could have done the same to anyone else; you were just luckless enough to be the one to cross my path. But I can help you." He reached inside his coat and took a large, golden data chip. "Simply insert this into your datajack and you will find the strength to escape from this place." He tossed the chip through the bars, and it clattered on the hard concrete floor.

"What? I'm not slotting that! Dude, you just screwed me! It's probably going to fry my brain or something!"

"I understand your reluctance, Mr. Raskol. In your position I would not be too terribly trusting, either. But as I see it, there are two choices before you. You can either slot that chip, or spend the next few years in some Siberian hellhole praying for death. The prisoners there will no doubt sense your weakness the moment they see you, and I'm sure that the indignities they will inflict upon you will be quite...degrading. The choice is yours."

The Angry Man turned around and began walking away. "Hey, come back!" he cried. "You piece of shit! When I get out of here I'm gonna find you! I'm gonna find you and kick your ass!"

His threats were empty, and he knew. He fell to his knees, fighting back tears. This was it, he thought. Now he had truly hit rock bottom. How much further could he sink? What further humiliation could he be subjected to? It was almost beautiful, in a way, the totality of his abasement. His life was a ruin, and it had ruined him.

Rhodes reached down and picked the golden chip up off the floor. There were strange markings engraved on both sides, the meaning of which was lost on him. "How is this going to help me?" he wondered aloud.

He knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that something bad would happen if he slotted this chip. Yet he found himself subconsciously lifting it to closer to his head.

"Shit," he muttered. "Maybe I should see just how bad things can get."

It's either this, or spend the next few years in prison being Ivan's bitch. Maybe it'll fry my brain. Maybe it'll drive me crazy. But who cares what happens to me? I sure as hell don't.

With a whimper he inserted the chip into his datajack, mentally preparing himself for something horrible.

For a few seconds he felt nothing. "Oh, I get it," Rhodes growled. "It doesn't do anything! He was just fucking with me! Pretend to give me a way out of here, and then he yanks my chain. Real fucking funny!"

Suddenly his whole body went rigid, and he understood in an instant that he had made a terrible mistake.

One that was quite possibly his last.

Somehow the Angry Man was inside his head, inside his brain. And he realised, to his abject and soul-rending horror, that he was not a ghoul as he had thought earlier, but something much, much worse. Something ancient, something from the dawn of time, something that needed his body.

Rhodes tried to reach up and pull the chip out of his datajack, but his arms would not obey him. The Angry Man's presence was growing stronger in his mind, while Rhodes' very identity began to slip away like sand through his fingers.

He tried to scream, but what came out was in some long-dead language he could not understand, speaking words that seemed to mock him. Like a floundering man trying to hang on to a life raft, Rhodes clung desperately to his sense of self even as it shrank with each passing second. He looked for something to grab on to, some moment in time when his life had come into focus, but such a moment was nowhere to be found. Who was he? What was he?

Rhodes had always wished he could be someone else. But not like this. Not like this.

Memories flooded his mind, memories not his own. Memories of creation, destruction, of fires and floods, of chaos and calamity, of fire and torment. His mind screamed in agony, stretching to accommodate a thousand lifetimes worth of experiences. This was not him, this was not who he was, but his self was diminishing with every breath he took. Smaller and smaller, shrinking to a single point, his individuality was engulfed by the all-consuming torrent until nothing remained but the Angry Man.

The Angry Man...such a ridiculous name, but the time when people had known and feared his true name had long since passed. But if they did not know his name, then they surely knew his works. He looked out onto the world, saw it filled with misery and despair, and it was pleasing to him.

He tasted its memories of his new mortal shell, memories awash in shame, despair, and self-loathing. It was no wonder that this "Rhodes" individual had been so willing to accept him. But this was a weak mortal form, in both mind and body. Still, it would do for now.

Chapter Text



Chapter 14 – The Lord of Lies

"If I didn't know better, I'd say this place was a trap."

No fences surrounding the lot, no security staff in sight, and a conspicuous lack of illumination suggested that whoever owned this Mercedes-Benz dealership was quite unaware of the value of his products. A large billboard near the entrance to the lot proudly advertised the latest models that were on sale, and although Talvi could not read the Ukrainian text, it seemed to suggest the purchase of this particular model would result in several half-naked women falling over the buyer.

"See that coupé over there? We're taking that one," Monika said.

Talvi looked over the rows of vehicles with utter disdain. "All these cars are so very hideous. They're all sharp angles, like origami crafts. And why are all the same dull shade of grey?"

"Not grey, silver. It's the traditional German racing colour."

"Don't get any ideas."

"What are you talking about?"

"You're planning to do that Formula 1 thing again, aren't you? Like on our last job. Must I remind you how that turned out? A thirty-car the Vatican!"

Monika shrugged. "Just goes to show that Italians' racing prowess is totally overrated. And if the pope really is ordained by God then he shouldn't need insurance." She then walked over the driver's side door. "Now, most cars these days use an RFID system for locking and unlocking-"

The car itself was small and sleek, clearly designed for speed, looking like it was moving fast even when it was standing still. Not that the typical driver of this vehicle would ever get to experience such thrills, Talvi figured. In all likelihood this car would spend most of its existence either stuck in traffic or languishing in the parking lot of some soulless megacorp.

Out of curiosity, she reached over and pulled on the door handle. To her astonishment, the door opened.

"Uh, well...I guess the owner of this dealership must be very trusting," Monika said. "Or he's an idiot."

Talvi walked around to the passenger side and attempted to get herself into the Mercedes, which proved more difficult than she anticipated. Clearly the small two-seater had not be designed for a woman of her considerable height.

"Oh my god," Monika gasped as she climbed inside. "Is this real leather?"

"What is this, a car for dwarves?" Talvi muttered, moving the passenger seat as far back as it would go and finding that she still did not have enough legroom.

Monika grabbed her cyberdeck and quickly hooked it into a diagnostic port just below the steering wheel. "I didn't pick a Mercedes-Benz just because they're German," she said. "I picked it because there's an exploit in the engine control firmware that can be used to gain control of the vehicle. The company's known about it for months but hasn't gotten around to fixing it yet. Probably think it costs too much or something."

While she was working with her cyberdeck Talvi squirmed about in her seat, trying to get her legs into a position where she would be comfortable. "The pigeon-livered fopdoodle who designed this vehicle is in dire need of a thorough flogging."

After Monika coaxed her cyberdeck into producing the necessary notes to charm the car's computer into doing her bidding (for that was how Talvi assumed the device worked), the engine started up.

"Hear that? That's the sound of five hundred Pferdestärke." Monika put the car in gear and gently drove out of the lot and onto the street, demonstrating a heretofore unseen degree of caution.

Talvi finally gave up trying to find a workable seating position. She looked down to her left and noticed a pamphlet resting inside the centre console storage. The writing was all in Ukrainian, save for the words Betelgeuse Satellite Radio.

"What a disaster that was!" Monika remarked, noticing the brochure. "Their idea of marketing to Germans was having three whole channels devoted to David Hasselhoff. Just for a laugh let's see what kind of tunes we can get on this thing."

She reached over and turned on the radio, and the cabin was immediately filled with what Talvi could only describe as an ungodly fusion of Eurobeat and Mariachi music. The singer, if she could be dignified with that title, belted out a series of long, drawn-out syllables in a language that was either Spanish or Italian, while the music itself consisted of buzzing, choppy synth riffs that seemed to have crafted for the explicit purpose of annoying anyone within hearing distance.

"By the gods!" Talvi exclaimed, quickly turning the volume knob to the left. "This is truly horrific! Who told this strumpet she was qualified to sing? And what is that ghastly electronic timbre in her voice?"

"Pitch-correcting algorithms, most likely," Monika replied. "She probably needs to it to hit those high notes."

"Well I certainly do not," she said, switching off the radio.

"Oh yeah?"

"Allow me to demonstrate. Starting with an A3." She sung the note, loudly and clearly. "Then moving up to an A4, then an A5," she continued, raising her pitch in even steps, "and finally an A6..."

At that point Talvi let a wailing shriek of such volume and intensity that Monika jumped out of her seat, almost losing control of the vehicle. "God damn it!" she yelled. "Don't ever do that again! No wonder you got such big tits – that's where you store all your vocal power."

"Well if you can't sing the proper notes without this digital butter upon bacon, then you don't deserve to call yourself a singer. Now let's see what other auditory atrocities this radio service can offer up so that I might offer my opinion on them."

She turned the volume back up and advanced the tuner to the next channel. This time their ears were assaulted with atonal howling, mixed in with trebly, tremolo picked guitars and what sounded like klezmer music."

"What the hell is this?" said Monika with a scowl.

"Dreidel of Filth," Talvi answered. "Probably the most well-known band in the Jewish black metal scene."

"Uh-huh. Let's see what else we've got..."

Monika turned the dial to the next channel. This time they were presented with soaring guitar solos, thundering double-bass drums, and a singer who endeavoured to pour as much operatic bombast into the lyrics as well humanly possible:

1453, the siege has begun

Shaking the ground with Ottoman guns

Constantinople, the enemy' s ahead

The Byzantine foe shall soon be dead!


The sultan's elite!


Shall never retreat!

Day after day, the battle rages on

Shattering their hopes with the sound of our guns

Warriors of God, under moon and star

The day is ours, victory is not far

Breaking the enemy upon our steel

To us the emperor shall kneel

Cowards, hiding behind their walls

Their time is up, Byzantium will fall!


The sultan's elite!


Shall never retreat!

"Ah yes, Bloodstone, the famous Swedish power metal band. My old band opened for them in Malmö a few years back. Nice enough people, I suppose, though their lyricist has a somewhat fatuous obsession with the Great Man Theory of history. And I must mention that I had a rather brief but vicious feud with him."

"Why am I not surprised?" Monika said. "What happened this time?"

"As it so happened, our band and his both wound up writing songs about about Simo Häyhä, the famous Finnish sniper who fought against the Soviets in the Winter War. Their song was pure pomposity, utterly juvenile, making the man out to be some sort of inhuman killing machine. Our band was only interested in telling the story of a man who never wanted to be a hero, who, in his own words, merely did what he was asked to do, as best as he could do it. I won't bore you with the details of our feud, save that it involved quite a few cutting remarks – most of which came from me – but it came to a rather sudden end when I saved him from a deranged attacker during a concert in Helsinki."

"One of these 'Inner Circle' types, I take it?"

"No, he was not one of those contemptible fascists. I am not sure who he was, exactly, but during the middle of a song – the song that's playing right now, in fact – he jumped up on stage and started attacking the singer with a sword, screaming something about the 'brazen Turkery' of the band. I subdued him with a spell, just in time for the security staff to take him away, but not before he swore revenge on me and the members of Bloodstone. Standard procedure, really."

Monika turned the radio dial ahead once again, tuning it to some news channel. "UCAS Chief of Naval Operations John McCulloch responded today to a recently leaked video that appears to confirm rumours that a pack of chimpanzees was responsible for the Statue of Liberty shelling incident that occurred last year. The video shows the chimpanzees attacking members of the USS New Jersey bridge crew and eventually taking control of the ship, one of four Iowa-class battleships recently reactivated by the navy. McCulloch denied these allegations, however, stating that the video is a forgery."

"With all the technology available today, it would be a simple matter for an individual to create such a video for the sole purpose of discrediting the fine men and women who serve aboard our vessels. What happened last July was simply a navigational error arising from the crew's lack of experience in operating a ship more than a century old. I also want to take this opportunity to address some of the accusations that have been made recently regarding the Iowa-class reactivation program. Let me make one thing clear – it was most certainly not because of the phallic symbolism of the ship's guns. It was not because President Steele demanded ships with 'more shooty bits on them.' And it most definitely was not because we have lost the technological and engineering knowledge to construct new warships. Where do people get these ideas, anyway? We don't tolerate this kind of declinist rhetoric here in the navy, that's for sure."

"Americans..." Talvi muttered contemptuously, turning the dial ahead.

Now the radio was tuned to a sports channel. "The Arizona Palefaces defeated the Colorado Honkies 7-4, after Jose Garcia hit a spectacular grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning. Tomorrow marks the beginning of a four-game series against the Palefaces' long-time rivals, the Cheyenne Crackers..."

Having little interest in sports, Talvi turned the radio to the next channel, which was yet another news station.

"The Quebecois navy has called off its search for three missing corvettesthe Câlice, the Ostie de Saint-Sacrament de Câlice, and the Crisse de Câlisse de Sacrament de Tabarnak d'Osti de Ciboire. The three corvettes vanished with a trace last month-"

Monika glanced aside. "I don't suppose you had anything to do with that, did you?"

"No, as a matter of fact I was banned for life from Quebec following the Heathen Crusade festival in Quebec City."

"How did you manage that?"

Talvi groped around for the back seat adjuster in the vain hope of giving herself more legroom. "The day after the concert I was wandering through Les Galeries de la Capitale, looking for a new pair of shoes. Now, normally I detest shopping and was eager to get the ordeal over and done with as soon as possible, but I was feeling a bit peckish so I decided to stop by the food court. There I was confronted with a culinary abomination the likes of which I had never seen before. It consisted of an unholy mixture of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy, and this was so repugnant to my Finnish soul that I expressed my displeasure rather loudly.

"At this point a man overheard my comment and, being quite drunk, began ranting that it was people like me who were 'ruining this country.' He then began attacking me with a plastic toy sword he had purchased for his children, forcing me to grab a mop from a nearby janitor to defend myself. Despite his inebriation he proved to be a savage fighter, driving me back through the rows of tables until my back was up against the counter of a coffee shop. I grabbed one the pots, made some remark about how one should never come between a Finn and her coffee, and then smashed it over his head. He must have been extremely drunk, or had a very high tolerance for pain, because being doused in scalding hot liquid did not affect him very much; at any rate he dropped the plastic sword and grabbed a cane from an elderly woman standing in line next to him. I turned and fled into a lingerie shop nearby, hoping that the profusion of women's undergarments would confuse and disorient my attacker. But this only further enraged him, forcing me to take cover behind a mannequin as he swung the cane at me like a madman. Eventually he stumbled forward due to his drunkenness, and seeing an opening I give him a swift kick, sending him flying face-first into a shelf full of lacy black panties. He turned around, screamed in rage, then charged at me. But I stepped to the side, gave him another kick as he passed, which sent him smashing through the storefront window.

"It should have ended there, but driven by xenophobic rage the man sprung back to his feet and came at me once again, but I was ready for him and blocked the blow of his cane with a brassiere. When he swung at me I ducked, when he thrust I sidestepped, and when he overextended himself I grabbed an underwear mannequin and struck him several times, the last blow finally rendering him comatose. I later learned that my attacker was a high-ranking member of the governing Démocrates Mondains party, hence my lifetime ban from the country."

"Good god," Monika exclaimed. "Only you could get into a fight in a lingerie store."

"Now you see why I prefer to seclude myself from society. No matter where you go, people are moved to violence by the most trivial of things."

"When I said 'less midrange or I'll cut your throat' did you think I was joking, asshole?"

With a loud grunt Sacro Culto hefted the body of the recording engineer to the rim of the dumpster and pushed it inside. It was not like him to so brazenly murder studio employees, but the news out of Ukraine had pissed him off so much that only bloodshed could quench his anger.

The Hog had been shot down, and Månegarm had been consigned to the fires of hell for his failure. He felt no remorse over his death; the two men were not friends, for the notion of friendship was an anathema to Sacro Culto, who despised all forms of collectivism as it was hostile towards individual achievement. No, in the world of black metal such things quickly dissolved in the icy waters of egotistical calculation.

The Finnish scene was already abuzz with talk of his feud with Korpela, which they had dubbed the "Talvisota." How he loathed her and her band, with their shameless appropriation of black metal riffs, their disgusting use of folk instruments, and worst of all, their high-fidelity production that didn't sound as though their albums had been recorded inside a shipping container. Why, one could ever hear the bass guitar quite clearly on their recordings, and what greater blasphemy was that? Bassists were made, not born, and the way you made a bassist was to take a guitarist and smash over him the head with a pipe wrench (but not too hard, lest you turn him into a drummer).

He returned to his apartment after disposing of the body. Located on the outskirts of Bergen, it was the sort of place where the rats outnumbered humans at least ten to one, but to Sacro Culto it was home. The paint was cracked and discoloured from water stains, the carpet had worn through in places, and a faint but noticeable air of decay hung in the air, as if some animal had crawled under the floorboards and died there. There were few furnishings save a table and chair, but the one fixture that stood was a makeshift altar with a blood-red inverted pentagram drawn in between two rows of black candles. On the wall behind the altar was an image of the Goat of Mendes, with the words IN LAUDEM TENEBRARUM written beneath.

His vidphone chirped. Irritated, Sacro Culto walked over and slammed his fist against "Respond" button. "What? What the fuck do you want?"

The vidphone's screen had been broken long ago, but the speakers were still functioning, albeit barely. "Well aren't you a charmer? Who pissed in your Corn Flakes?"

He didn't recognise the voice, but he sure as hell recognised a Finnish accent. "Who the hell are you?"

"I'm Lauri Järvinen,Director of Alumni Relations at the University of Helsinki, and I regret to inform you that your repeated attempts at murdering one of our alumni merit the death penalty. Did you know that Loki was bound to a rock with his son's entrails for his crimes against the gods? Pray to him, you deluded Norwegian fool, you 'anyone for some lutefisk?' akavit-swilling, whale-killing arse pirate, for only the gods can save you now. And though your days are numbered, you will not die as a martyr, but rather as a reminder to the world that Norwegian black metal is and always will be shit."

"Do you think I'm the least bit threatened by you or 'Doctor' Korpela? What's her doctorate in, anyway? Singing like a dying cat? Why is she so important to you, anyway?"

"Doctor Korpela is not important at all, but we cannot have ignorant louts like you killing our graduates now, can we? To that end we've dispatched a pair of goons to your location."

Sacro Culto laughed. "You're a university! You don't have goons."

"We do in Finland. As a matter of fact they should arriving at whatever craphole you live in"

With a loud crash the door to his apartment flew off its hinges and two dreadfully burly individuals stormed inside. One was a troll, dressed in a black leather trenchcoat and sporting a pair of wrap-around shades, the other was a young ork in dreadlocks with knuckledusters on both his hands. Both wore shirts with the University of Helsinki's logo on the front, with the words "AIDS – Academic Integrity Death Squad" written beneath.

Sacro Culto sprang to his feet and reached for the knife inside his jacket. "'s been too long since I've spilled the blood of meta filth. Come on! Let's have a go, then, if you think you're hard enough!"

"Nice rug you got here, Culto," sneered the ork, kicking at an artificial bearskin rug on the floor. "Be a shame if something were to happen to it."

"Leave the rug out of this!" Sacro Culto hissed.

"What do we have here?" said the troll, examining the satanic altar. "Aww, isn't it cute!" He knocked it over with a swift kick. "Oops! Did I do that?"

He knew full well that he couldn't take on both men himself, but he couldn't allow himself to show any weakness, least of all to university types. "I'm warning you – fuck with me and it'll be the last mistake you ever make."

"Hey Matti, that sounded like a threat! Did that sound like a threat to you?"

"I don't know, Tuomas, I just can't keep my eyes off this rug. Do you think it'd look good in my place?"

He stepped towards the pair of thugs. "I said, leave the rug out of this!"

"You'd be better off with the real thing. This rug, it's fake, see?" The ork lifted the rug off the floor, took an enormous Bowie knife from inside his coat, and began hacking away at it. "Guess poor old Culto here can't afford anything better. Take pity on him – he only sells three albums a year, and two of those are to his mother."

"You son of a bitch!" he snarled, stamping his foot on the floor. "I'm going to-"

"Matti, this guy isn't a very good host, wouldn't you say? We came here in friendship, and he just stands there and swears at us. I think he needs to be taught a lesson, don't you agree?"

"Heh, sure do, Tuomas." The troll reached inside his jacket and took out colossal chromed revolver that looked like it had been designed with hunting elephants in mind. "I just got this thing yesterday and I'm dying to try it out!" He fidgeted about for a second and then added, "But...did you really have to cut up that rug, man? I still think it would have really brightened up my place."

"Mate, you live in a dumpster."


By now Sacro Culto was fuming with rage. "I told you assholes, leave...the rug...out of this!"

"Hey Matti, you wanna shut this guy up? He's starting to get on my nerves!"

"Well, should we rough him up a bit first, or do you want to go straight to the killing?"

"Ehh...I don't know. Give me a moment to think."

"Oh, fuck this!" Sacro Culto turned to face the nearby window and, shielding his face with his arms, flung himself through it. As the shards of glass tore at his flesh he realised, to his profound chagrin, that his apartment was three storeys up.

Of my limited options, he thought, this was probably the worst.

He opened his eyes just in time to see the roof of a white Pontiac rushing up to meet him. That some American piece of trash might be driving on the roads and highways of his country filled him with bile, so much so that he barely noticed the pain of impact. Fortunately for him, the car's flimsy construction absorbed a good deal of his momentum, turning what would have been a deadly plummet into a merely agonising drop.

Dazed and bleeding profusely, he rolled off the car's roof and onto the muddy ground. "Fy fæn!" he spat. The Finns had gone too far this time. They wanted a war? Oh, they were going to get a war, all right. Black metal was war.

He grabbed hold of the Pontiac's wing mirror, pulled himself to his feet, and began limping away. The Hog wasn't the only piece of military hardware in the Inner Circle's employ, as Korpela would soon find out.

It was time to unleash...the Bear.

"That was faster than I expected. Well done, Finntroll!"

Logan squirmed about in the chair, straining uselessly against the restraints. He was sweating profusely, and his eyes frantically darted between Finntroll and Lord Swedish. Short, balding, and overweight, the man looked like he had crawled out of some office comedy show. There was the faint but noticeable scent of alcohol emanating from his body, and the reddish tinge on his nose and cheeks suggested that he was well acquainted with the bottle.

"So, Mr. Reims, in an effort to spare you any unnecessary unpleasantness I shall get straight to the point. I know that you hired a pair of shadowrunners to infiltrate my company, and I want their names. Now."

"I...I don't know what you're talking about!" Logan blubbered. "I'd never deal with their filth!"

"Oh come now, Mr. Reims, there's no need for lies. Simply give me their names and you can go free. It won't have any impact on their chances of success, you know. This building is an impregnable fortress that has killed more shadowrunners than I can count. But by all means, continue to lie to me. I should point out, however, that my associate Finntroll here gets quite offended by the presence of lies. He's quite literally addicted to murder, you see, and it's been a while since he got his last fix."

"All right, all right, so I did hire some people to go after you! But I don't know their names! I...I just talked to some guy who said he'd set everything up. That's all I know, I swear!"

Lord Swedish leaned in closer. "This fixer's name, what was it?"

Logan was almost terrified beyond the capacity for speech. "I...I don't remember!"

"You don't remember? It could scarcely have been more than a week ago."

"L...look, I had to go to the Kreuzbasar! You don't know how horrible that place is! I...I had to drink a whole bottle of whisky just to psych myself up for it, and when I was finished I went back to my place and drank until I passed out. You've got to believe me! I don't remember anything that happened!"

"Hey boss," said Finntroll. "I think this guy's telling the truth."

"Look, you sound a guy who doesn't take crap from anyone," Logan said, regaining a measure of composure. "You need to go to the Kreuzbasar and kill everyone there. The men, the women, the children, the cats and the dogs, everyone! That's the only thing that will end the horror!"

Lord Swedish walked out of the room and beckoned Finntroll to follow. "Listen," he said, keeping his voice low, "I don't know which fixer this moron got in touch with, but given that his company tends towards maximum incompetence it's likely he wound up hiring the worst imbeciles that ever crawled off the street. Go to the Kreuzbasar and ask around for the most boneheaded shadowrunners one can find. These people live and die on their reputation; it shouldn't be too hard to find the people who've been blacklisted."

"You want to me croak the guy before I go?" Finntroll asked, gesturing towards the room.

"No, that won't be necessary. You smelled the liquor on his breath; I think he's already well on his way to self-destruction."

Working at the Russia/Belarus border, Yuri reckoned, had to be the most mind-numbingly tedious job in the world. When he had first started at this position he had envisioned himself as a stalwart defender of his nation's borders, thwarting the nefarious plots of smugglers, terrorists, and other reprobates, but what it actually involved was dealing with a steady steam of idiots day in, day out.

No, you can't bring a grenade launcher into the country. Yes, you need to a visa to enter. Yes, you should have known that before you set out. No, I don't want to hear your excuses. I've heard them all before. If you want to cross the border, than you'd better get your shit in order…

Still, it was a better than being in the army, which Yuri remembered as nothing but bad food, bad people, and the horrors of dedovshchina. Still, he counted himself lucky that the EuroWars were long over by the time he'd been conscripted. The stories he'd heard, from the few people willing to talk about their experiences, didn't exactly paint a pretty picture. The war had started with the invasion of Poland, an armoured thrust straight at the heart of Europe, followed shortly by an attack on Finland in the hopes of securing Russia's northern flank. The generals anticipated a swift victory, but the Polish offensive lost momentum and became bogged down in a bloody war of attrition that only ended after three months of fighting.

And then there was the Finnish front. To say that it was the Winter War all over again was the grossest of understatements. There were horrors in those woods, they said, horrors beyond reckoning. Whole troop divisions would disappear without a trace, as if the forest had swallowed them whole. Fighter pilots would report that their navigational instruments were going haywire, and no one would ever hear from them again. Snipers that could turn invisible. There was a reason soldiers who had served there called Finland "the white hell."

Yuri put such grim thoughts out his mind. There was, after all, something much more amusing to think about – that batshit crazy chiphead they'd locked up. He was one of those people who made this job bearable, the sort of person who was so completely out of his gourd that you couldn't help but laugh.

The man ("manchild" would be more appropriate) had arrived in a car with Polish plates, clearly stolen, and his sole possessions were a PDA and a Japanese sword. The PDA held nothing of interest save for an angry rant that probably presaged a spree killing, but the sword was far more interesting. Even one who wasn't familiar with such things could tell just by holding it that this was no cheap replica, but the work of a master craftsman. Yuri wondered how the chiphead had acquired it, and he was on his way to his cell to find out.

When he turned the corner, he expected to find the man cowering in the corner, sobbing and crying. He did not expect to see the floor spattered with blood and the prisoner's eyeless face staring out at him with a mad grin on his face.

"What the fuck?"

He'd heard stories of BTL addicts doing crazy things, but clawing your own eyes out? This guy had clearly gone above and beyond your average chiphead.

"Why hello there," he said, in a voice that sounded as though it were coming from all directions. "So glad you could join me."

Yuri stepped back. The man was clearly into some bad magic, something far worse than a simsense addiction. His skin was totally pale, with black veins bulging and throbbing all along his arms and legs.

He reached for his gun, only to be lifted off his feet by some unseen force and slammed against the concrete wall. The prisoner threw out his arms and spoke with the voice of a legion.

"It is I, ANGRA MAINYU! Lord of the House of Lies, Father of All Discord, Mother of All Strife, destined destroyer of not only mankind but reality itself! Behold, a new age of darkness sweeps the land, entwined in all-devouring serpentine horror! Woe my sceptre and misery my crown, I shall bring death and pain to all corners of the world! Tremble, mortal, for your doom is at hand! ANGRA MAINYU LIVES! HA HA HA!"

The prisoner, or what was left of him, turned around and smashed through the wall of his cell with his fist. He walked out into the night, leaving nothing but the faint odour of sulphur in his wake.

Yuri got back to his feet, his mind reeling. What the hell had just happened? And more importantly, how was he going to report this to his superiors?

Chapter Text

Chapter 15 – Shoot You In The Back

"So you've really never been in love?"

Talvi stared out of the passenger-side window, trying in vain to get a feel for the city of Kiev. All urban environments tended to blur together in her eyes, the streets and buildings congealing into a dreary mass of grey and brown.

"We were over this before, weren't we?" she said with a groan. "No, I have never been afflicted with that form of madness, and if the gods are merciful I never shall be."

"You mean you've never felt attracted to anybody? You've never watched a movie or some trid show and gushed over one of the actors? You've never met a guy – or girl – and thought 'I'd like to get to know this person as more than just a friend?' None of that's ever happened to you?"

"In a word, no."

"Maybe the problem is that you haven't met the right person? When I was teenager there was this Swedish pop singer named Viggo who wrote the most awful, sappy drek you've ever heard. And I was obsessed with him. I had posters of him all of my walls, talked about him with anyone who would listen, and spent hours daydreaming about the two of us being together. I even wrote these little stories where I'd get kidnapped by an evil sorcerer or dragon or whatever and then Viggo would swoop in and rescue me. Just stupid stuff like that.

"But one day I got the worst news my thirteen-year-old self had ever heard, that Viggo had gotten married. I laugh at it now, but I was heartbroken. I was so pissed off that some bitch had come along and taken him away from me that I took all my albums and posters of him and burned them in a dumpster. Which meant I had to find a new idol, and I did. Her name was Daciana, and she was this Romanian pop singer with crazy eyes. One blue, one green...I'd never seen anything like it. And I loved her. All her songs were in Romanian, so I didn't understand a word of it, but I didn't care. It was the first time in my life that I realised that I could be into women as well as men. Until then I thought 'gay or straight, you're either one or the other.' I had no idea this middle ground existed before I found her."

Talvi remained unmoved. "So you've told me how you learned of your preference. I simply have no preference."

Monika remained silent for a few seconds. "So what you're saying is, you're asexual?"

"Perhaps. It is not something I ever think about. Look, I have the feeling you aren't really understanding what I'm trying to say. How can I best explain it? Many people ate meat before it became a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Now, some people chose not to eat meat for any number of reasons. Perhaps they were morally opposed to the slaughter of animals, perhaps they considered meat unhealthy, or perhaps they simply did not like the taste. That is how I think about romance and marriage and all that nonsense. It does not interest me at all. I live for music and the arcane. When I read a book and there are intimate scenes in it, I skip over them. If a conversation turns vulgar, I endeavour to change the subject at the earliest opportunity."

Monika thought it over a for a moment. "You know, I don't want to insinuate anything, but Sigmund Freud said that the only unnatural sexual behaviour was to have none at all."

"Sigmund Freud also consumed vast quantities of cocaine."


"Say, that Romanian singer you mentioned...was her last name Lupu, by any chance? And did she have green leaf tattoos all along her legs?"

"Yeah, that's her. Why, you met her?"

"Yes, and I'm afraid to say that her music has changed genre quite radically since you were listening to her. She now sings for a folk metal band named Ţesarul de Lumini, whom we toured with a few years ago. I only talked to her once, where she made several advances on me. It was quite awkward."

Monika stomped on the brake pedal, bringing the Mercedes to a screeching stop and jerking Talvi against the seatbelt. "What?" she exclaimed. "She came onto you?"

"Well, maybe. I'm not very good at picking up on that sort of thing."

"Did you...uh...did you say yes to"

"Of course not! What have I been trying to tell you all this time?"

"Too bad for you," said Monika with a shrug. "I would have let her do everything to me. All the dirtiest, nastiest things you can think of. Things so depraved the Virgin Mary herself would rise from her grave just to kick my ass...and then she'd ask to join in. I would-"

Talvi recoiled in disgust. "Riittää jo! I do not need to hear this."

They passed the last few minutes of the drive in awkward silence, the sort of uncomfortable moment that invariably followed when one learned of another's intimate fantasies. The idea of sex revolted her, society's obsession with it baffled her, and discussions about the matter invariably bored her out of her mind.

Kerensky's apartment was the perfect place for someone looking to avoid attention – plain, nondescript, and totally indistinguishable from the buildings adjacent to it. It was enclosed by a hedgerow that was so woefully neglected and overgrown that it appeared to be in the process of consuming and digesting the structure it enclosed, rendering the front walkway almost impassable. A small supermarket stood between this building and the one adjacent, though judging from the boarded-up windows and collapsed roof it had not seen customers in many, many years.

Talvi stepped out of the Mercedes, eager for the opportunity to stretch her legs. There was an eerie stillness in the air, with only the distant roar of traffic to be heard. Immediately she was on edge, for this sort of silence usually meant you had bumbled into the wrong side of town (assuming there was even a "right" side of town).

She followed Monika up to the front door, squeezing through the almost-feral hedgerow. There was an empty hole in the wall where there had once been an entryphone, though all that remained of it was a tangle of bare wires. The glass panel inside door had been completely shattered, leaving only the corroded metal frame. A large amount of garbage and debris had accumulated inside the lobby, along with the carcasses several dead animals.

After stepping inside, it took just one whiff of the air to make Talvi recoil in revulsion. "By the gods, this is quite possibly the worst place we've been to yet!"

"Keep your voice down!" Monika hissed. "We don't want to draw any attention to ourselves, especially considering how easily you piss people off. Now, uh, what was this guy's room number again?"

"314, I believe. Let us pray the steps don't give way beneath our feet, or the whole building does not fall on our heads."

There was no sound save for their own footsteps and the wind outside, leading Talvi to wonder if the building were abandoned and that they had been sent here as some sort of jest. "Why do I have the feeling this Kerensky's going to be some paranoiac," Monika said quietly, "who's going to shoot at us the second we knock on his door?"

The third floor was in total darkness, with the sole window at the ends of the hall blocked by rubble and debris from the partially-collapsed ceiling. A damp, unpleasant odour hung in the air, reeking of decay and despair.

Monika nearly tripped over a bunched-up section of the carpet. "I can't see a damn thing!"

"Watch yourself," said Talvi, "a part of the floor is missing up ahead."

"It's pitch-black in here! Can you even see where you're going?"

She stopped. "I am afraid I most play to the stereotype and point out that we elves see far better in the dark than humans. We also live much longer, display greater agility, and are far more attractive. But none of those are relevant right now."

"Oh yeah?" Monika said, putting her hands to her hips. "I'm sure there are plenty of ugly elves out there, you know. And stupid elves. And asshole elves."

"Yes, but they all emigrated to Tír na nÓg. Now look, here is Kerensky's room. How do you want to do this? I suggest one of us knock on the door while standing to the side, lest he decide to start shooting at us."

"You really think he'll do that?"

Talvi shrugged. "Anything is possible these days."

A burst of angry Russian came from behind the door. Talvi only knew a little of that language, but she knew enough to recognise several exceedingly vulgar expressions. "Kerensky? Chernobog sent us."

The apartment door swung open and dwarf, wearing only a bathrobe, stormed out into the hall. His hear and beard were long and unkempt, calling to mind the image of an Orthodox monk, and continuing with this theme he sported a tattoo of the Madonna and Child on his chest. "What the hell is this? Some asshole called me up five minutes ago and said two blondes would be paying me a visit. Guess that'd be you." He spent the next few seconds examining them closely. "Well come in, I guess. Don't just stand there!"

Growing up as an elf, even one as isolated as she had been, meant coming to terms with the widespread belief, seldom spoken but always understood, that elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls ought to act like their counterparts in fantasy literature. Everyone simply knew that elves and dwarves were natural enemies; how could they be anything else? Elves lived a carefree life in the forest, while dwarves were dour and humourless, preferring to dwell underground. It was all nonsense, of course, but Talvi wondered if there were not something to it, for in her mind there was always something vaguely comical about dwarves. How could she take someone seriously when they barely made it past her waist?

Kerensky's apartment was exceedingly sparse, with little furnishings save a table, an old noisy refrigerator, and a beat-up cyberterminal that looked even more antiquated than the one Talvi had back in her cabin. At some point he or one of the previous tenants had tried to repair a gaping hole in one of the walls, only to give up halfway through, leaving a large window into the adjoining apartment. Not that it mattered much, as there was no evidence of any other tenants living on this floor.

The dwarf shut the door behind them. "So who are you, and what is it you want with me?" he asked, speaking with the brusque, surly manner that was so stereotypically dwarven. "I don't know who the hell this 'Chernobog' idiot is or why he sent you to me. So start talking."

"I'm Monika, this is my friend Talvi. Chernobog told us you had information about Lord Swedish.

Kerensky's eyes widened. "That asshole? Why do you want to know about him? Let me guess, you're shadowrunners and someone's hired you to deal with him." He looked the two women over with a disdainful sneer. "I sure hope you're tougher than you look, or you're going to end up as a grease stain on the floor."

"We were told you were once part of his crew," said Talvi, finding herself inexplicably irritated by the dwarf's demeanour. "We want to know everything you can tell us about him."

"What, you think I've got nothing better to do than sit here and entertain strangers with the sordid tales of my past? Eh, I guess I really don't have anything better to do." He walked (or rather waddled, in Talvi's eyes) over to the fridge and took out a bottle of Baltika beer. "I don't know how much you ladies are getting paid for this, but it's sure as shit not worth getting your brains splattered all over the wall. Lord Swedish has that HQ of his locked up tighter than a hedgehog's asshole."

"So we've heard," said Monika.

Kerensky opened a drawer by the sink and fumbled around for a bottle opener. "So you want to know that trog's life story. Don't know how that's going to help you any. But I suppose there's no harm in the telling. Well, how do I begin? I guess it starts with my dishonourable discharge from the army. That's the kind of thing that fucks you over for life, see. No benefits, no pension, and good luck getting a job with that on your record. But my time in the military had given me a certain set of skills, skills that were very much in demand among certain clientele, one of whom was Lord Swedish. And before you ask, no, I don't know what his real name is; even back then he used that idiotic handle. I wouldn't have joined up with his crew if I had a choice, but shadowrunning is feast or famine, and you run with the people you have, not the people you want."

"So what did Lord Swedish hire you for?" Monika asked.

"He and three other guys were planning to break into the offices of some software developer in Saint Petersburg. Small company, they said. Light security, they said. Total milk run, they said. All we had to do was wait until the wageslaves had gone home for the evening and then get inside. Lord Swedish wanted to get his hands on the source code to some copy protection scheme used by trideo game developers. Can you imagine that? Risking your life just so some assholes can pirate games? Well, I know there's no such thing as a 'milk run,' and this sure as shit didn't turn out to be one."

"How so?"

He sat down at the table and took a swig of beer. "We got in, quick and quiet like, and made our way towards the server room. As we passed through one of the cubicle farms we saw that there were lights on ahead; turns out that there's dozen or so wageslaves working late, and it didn't take them long to figure out what was happening. They start running for the exit, so Lord Swedish fires a few rounds into the ceiling and they stop in their tracks. What happened next..." There was a pained expression on his face, and he took another long drink from the bottle. "The trog has them line up against the wall, and then...then he starts shooting them in the back of the head, one after the other. A few tried to run, but they didn't even make to the doors before he gunned them down. Then he turns around and tells us to get back to what we were doing, right before he puts another bullet into the head one of one poor bastard who wasn't quite dead. Now I know what you're thinking – so what, psychos aren't exactly uncommon in this profession. Well let me tell you about the next job I did with that asshole.

"Now, after the Saint Petersburg run I had no intention of ever working with Lord Swedish again. But I had hospital bills to pay – don't ask me why – and wouldn't you know it, the trog shows up and tells me he's got another job lined up, one that's paying six figures. Now, you don't get that kind of payout on a milk run, and this was the kind of job you'd have to be fucking crazy to attempt."

"Let me guess," said Monika, "Aztechnology?"

"Ha! You think I have a death wish? No, this was less suicidal, though perhaps not by much. The target was a bank in Odessa, one that catered to a rather exclusive set of customers, and our client wanted something inside the vault. He didn't say what, exactly, just which safety deposit box it'd be in. We spent the next few days casing the place, greasing some palms, learning what we could about what sort of security systems they had in place."

"And what did you find out?"

"That the bank had every approach covered, 'cept one. See, Odessa's got this labyrinth of tunnels running underneath the city. They were used for mining limestone back in the day; now they're home to all kinds of crazy people who spend their whole lives down there. They go on for hundreds of kilometres; you get lost in that place and you'd probably never find your way back out. So we hunted through the catacombs for the location right beneath the bank, and we discovered that there was only about a metre or so of stone and concrete between the roof of the tunnel and the floor of the vault. All we had to do was dig through that and we'd be in. Even better, getting out would be just as easy. No corpsec asshole is going to risk getting lost in those tunnels.

"It didn't take us long to bore our way into the vault, and our decker radioed to let us know that he had taken down the security system. That crazy bastard, he used to make a living sticking fake card readers on ATMs that would steal peoples' PIN codes. Do you know how he managed to get inside the bank? Crawling through the vents, that's how. I thought that shit only worked in movies, but somehow he got into the bank's security office, shut down all the cameras and alarms, all without the people actually in the security office finding out. A little voice in my head was telling me that it had been too easy, and maybe I was just being paranoid, but being paranoid in this line of work is what keeps you alive. And I wouldn't be telling you this story if everything didn't go straight to hell after that."

"So what happened?"

"Our intel was wrong, that's what happened. We climbed into the vault and saw that there were two doors in place, an inner one and outer one, and we were right in between them. Now, we weren't completely unprepared for something like this, and we'd brought a thermal lance and some oxygen tanks with us into the catacombs. But it would take time to burn through the door lock, and wouldn't you know it, our lookout gets on the radio and tells us that three vans just pulled up outside and two dozen heavily-armed men are on their way inside. Then our decker tells us that we must have triggered some kind of silent alarm, something not connected to the main system. We never heard another word from him after that.

"And this was where things got strange. When Lord Swedish hears the news, he doesn't react at all. At least not the way I'd expect. He just smiles, the first time I'd ever seen him smile, and acts like everything's going exactly as planned. All I could think about was getting the hell out of there, but the moment I stepped towards the tunnel he pulls his gun out and says that if any us try to leave he'll kill us where we stand. I knew there was no way we'd get through the inner door before corpsec showed up, and maybe shadowrunning doesn't exactly have the best retirement plan, but I sure as hell wasn't going to die for the sake of some ugly trog named Lord fucking Swedish! I don't know how long we spent in that vault, probably no more than a few minutes, but fuck, it felt like hours! We can hear the corpsec assholes outside, and Lord Swedish, he's got this look on his face, the kind of look you see on a guy's face when he knows he's about to get laid. And that's when I realised that this was what he wanted, what he had planned all along. I think he had the decker trip the alarm deliberately; why else did he stop talking to us after it went off?"

Monika scowled. "But why would he do that? Why would you sic security on yourself? That doesn't make any sense!"

"A question I ask myself every day. Maybe by taking the job I had unwittingly joined so some sort of suicide pact. Maybe Lord Swedish was spoiling for a fight, and he thought that, if the rest of us got killed, he wouldn't have to split the money with anyone." Kerensky reclined in his chair, taking another swig. "Or maybe it was his ork blood that compelled him to do it. You see..." He suddenly leaned forward. "'s not 'politically correct' to say so, but he's a meta, just like me, and just like your pretty elf friend here. We might look human, at least from a distance, and we might sound human, but we sure as hell don't think human. You don't believe me? Why don't you ask your friend what a 'lifetime' is to her. For you, it might be eighty or ninety years, assuming you don't end up as bullet-riddled corpse somewhere. But what's a lifetime to an elf? Three hundred years? Four hundred? Five? I've heard some studies that say elves can live over a thousand years. You think someone with that kind of lifespan is going to view the world like a human a would?"

"You haven't finished your story," said Talvi, irritated. Few things were as grating as hearing someone speak about her as though she weren't there.

"I'm sure you must have guessed. The second that trog's back was turned I took my gun and shot him at least six or seven times. Then we got the hell out of there. I kept in touch with my old crew for a few years afterwards, but one day they just started disappearing, one after another. Then I hear that Lord Swedish is the now the CEO of some game company and, well, it wasn't too hard to figure out what had happened. Why he left me alive, I don't know. Maybe he thought I'd spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, terrified of the day when his goons finally caught up to me. Ha! Let that ugly fucker try! I'll pull his head out through his own asshole."

"But why did he get into the game industry?" Monika asked. "That seems like an odd choice for a former shadowrunner."

"Is it? Let me tell you something about the game business – it's not where the 'best and brightest' go. Game company execs are the people who graduated last in business class and who couldn't hack it in any other industry. Lord Swedish doesn't have it what it takes to run with the AAA corps, so he lords over his pathetic stick in the mud like its his own personal fief, posturing and prancing about like he's fucking Lofwyr or something. I've never seen his HQ, but word is that it's a goddamned fortress, with minefields surrounding it and surface-to-air missile batteries on the roof."

Monika crossed her arms. "No fortress is invulnerable. There's got to be a way in."

Kerensky stood up, suddenly angry. "And you think you're going to be the ones to find it? Do you many how people have died trying to crack that place? I can tell a seasoned professional when I see one, and you two look like you ought to be strutting down the runway at a fashion show instead of running the shadows."

"Don't hate us because we're beautiful," Monika retorted.

"Pfagh! I told you once, and I'll tell you again: drop this. Forget about Lord Swedish; he's not fucking worth it! Maybe you two ought to try another job more suited to your abilities, like holding up a liquor store or something. Gagh! Leave me to my drinking! I said get out!"

"So what is it you wished to discuss, mister…?"

Finntroll had heard that this "Zauberer" fellow was an expert problem-solver, but he looked like some pencil-necked geek better suited to a cubicle than the Flux State. "Finntroll. They call me Finntroll."

"And why do they call you that?"

"'Cause I'm a troll. From Finland."

"I see."

The name of the club was 29A, the meaning of which was lost on him, and the godawful music pumping out of the speakers was pushing his self-restraint to its utmost limits. Looking through the haze that hung in the air, he was consumed by an overwhelming sense of disgust at the writhing throngs on the dance floor, thrashing and twisting in an orgiastic frenzy of atavistic depravity. It was not even the good kind of atavism – the kind that involved murderous savagery and bloodthirsty rage. No, it was social atavism, the very worst kind. With the deafening music rendering conversation next to impossible, men and women were reduced to animals, grinding their bodies against one another like baboons in heat and selecting their mates according to their most primitive instincts.

"So I've got a problem I need solved," said Finntroll. "I'm looking for some shadowrunners. Two of em'."

Der Zauberer frowned. "I am not involved in that. If you are looking to hire someone-"

"No, I'm not hiring runners, I'm trying to find the ones hired by my boss's enemies. And here's how you're gonna narrow things down: these two runners are going to be the biggest goddamn idiots you've ever met. Like pants-on-head-retarded levels of stupid. The kind of morons who get their all ideas about running the shadows from movies and comic books."

For a moment he thought he caught of look of surprise in Der Zauberer's eyes. "Is that so? I seem to recall investigating an individual who matched that description." He leaned back in his seat and looked away. "But I'm afraid my memory isn't what it used to be. I might need a little reminder to bring things back into focus."

Finntroll reached inside his jacket and withdrew a credstick, which he slid across the table. "Maybe this will help clear things up."

Der Zauberer took a portable credstick reader out of his pocket and inserted the stick. When he had verified that the amount of funds was to his satisfaction, he quickly put it away. "Ah, I remember much more clearly now. A few days ago there was a killing at a motel not far from here. The victim had been shot in the head, point-blank range, with a Desert Eagle-"

Finntroll nearly jumped out of his seat. "A Desert Eagle? What kind of moron uses a peashooter like that?"

"According to the owner," Der Zauberer continued, ignoring his outburst, "the room was registered to an American named Rhodes Raskol-"

"What the hell kind of name is that? What does someone like that do for a living, anyway? Rob pawnbrokers in Saint Petersburg?"

"As I was saying, I don't have conclusive proof that he is the murderer, but according to the motel's owner he carried a katana with him. He was also a member of the Gamers' Alliance, a virulently reactionary organisation devoted to-"

Finntroll slammed his fist down on the table. "That's it! That's the asshole I'm looking for! My boss is a sworn enemy of the Gamers' Alliance. What else did you find out?"

"An investigation of Mr. Raskol's background revealed that he had been dismissed by his employer, CB Entertainment, for sexual harassment-"

"Ha! I knew it! That's the company that hired the runners I'm looking for! What else do you know?"

Der Zauberer growled in irritation. "I doubt very much it is relevant to your interests, but the Gamers' Alliance is currently engaged in some sort of manhunt for an elven woman named Talvi Korpela-"

"A Finn, eh? Are those neckbeards going after one of my countrymen? Please, please tell me they are. It's been too long since I've engaged in some good old fashioned mass murder."

"Would you please keep your mouth shut for just a moment? If it's blood you're after, then I'm afraid you're too late. The Berlin chapter of the Gamers' Alliance doesn't exist any more. For some insane reason the whole lot of them decided to mount an attack on the local Aztechnology offices. It should go without saying that they were slaughtered to a man. Word is they charged the front entrance, guns blazing. I have no idea what compelled them to do it, and I anyone I could ask is now dead."

Finntroll grumbled in dismay. "All right, all right, so I won't be going on a murderous rampage today. Anything more you can tell me about this Rhodes Raskol fraghead? Any idea where he might be?"

Der Zauberer remained silent for a few seconds, as if deep in thought. "As a matter I fact I do, but...verdammt, I seem to have forgotten. If only there were some means of refreshing my memory..."

Finntroll sighed and withdrew yet another credstick from inside his jacket and placed it on the table. "My boss told me you F-state types might try to milk him for all he's worth."

After once again verifying that the amount of the credstick was sufficient, Der Zauberer leaned in close and began speaking softly. "Mr. Raskol was arrested by the Russian border guards for attempting to enter the country with a stolen passport-"

"Russia! How the hell did you find that out?"

"Do you want a detailed explanation of the security vulnerabilities within Renraku's database software, and how one might be able to pry sensitive information out of?" he asked, in a tone that suggested that, no, Finntroll really did not want an explanation.

"Fine! Get on with it!"

"Now here is where the story gets interesting. It appears that Mr. Raskol somehow escaped custody, and according to one of the guards who witnessed his escape the man had become possessed by some sort of demonic spirit."

The music, which had hitherto been aggravating but bearable, finally exceeded Finntroll's rather circumscribed limits of tolerance. "What the hell is this drek music? It sounds like two cyberterminals ploughing each other!"

He didn't even wait for Der Zauberer's response. Instead he stood up and marched over to the bar, pushing several people aside along with the way. "Hey!" he shouted to the bartender. "Who's the idiot on stage? He sucks!"

The bartender looked at Finntroll with a mixture of disdain and annoyance. "That would DJ French," he said, pouring vodka into a glass. "He's very-"

Finntroll looked at the stage, where a man in dark sunglasses was working a pair of turntables. "He fraggin' sucks! I've farted out better music than this!"

Clenching his fists, Finntroll stormed off towards the stage. Two security personnel moved to stop him, but he simply shoved them aside with his massive girth. The crowd of degenerates flailing around on the dance floor didn't even notice, lost in the hypnotic rhythms or, Finntroll wagered, a haze of narcotics and amphetamines.

He spied a pair of heavily-insulated cables running from the amplifier to a battery of loudspeakers. Trying desperately to contain his laughter, Finntroll unplugged one of the cables from the speaker cabinet, and then crept up behind DJ French, who did not even notice him approaching.

"Get ready for a shock!"

The disk jockey turned around just in time for Finntroll to jam the end of the cable into his neck. He threw his head back and screamed in agony, thrashing and convulsing as electricity coursed through his body.

The music stopped, and DJ French fell to the floor in a heap.

Finntroll grabbed the microphone from the turntable stand. "Hey look, everyone! French fries! Ha ha!"

The crowd stared at him in horror, with a few continuing to dance despite the silence. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, that was a terrible joke...because French fries are actually Belgian! Ha!"

Several people in the audience started running towards the exit, while two ork bouncers began approaching the stage. "Wow, tough crowd here tonight! All right, let me try another: I was feeling a bit Hungary, so I decided to cook up a Turkey in Greece. But I couldn't find my Chile seasoning, and there was Norway I was gonna have turkey without seasoning. 'Did you Czech your fridge?' asks my room mate..."

One of the bouncers grabbed him by the arm. "Hey!" he growled. "Stop Russian me! Let me Finnish!"

Finntroll slammed his left fist into the ork's face, knocking him backwards. He then grabbed him by the shoulders and flung him off the stage and into the crowd. "So I finally cooked up that turkey, and my room mate tells me, 'Tokyo long enough!' And I say, 'Israeli hard when you can't find your goddamned seasoning!"

A gunshot rang out, and a bullet grazed his shoulder. "What the hell? Can't you people take a joke? Oh, wait, you're Germans, of course you don't. What's the shortest book in the world? 'A Millennium of German Humour.'"

Another bullet whizzed past him. "Get off the stage, you trog!"

"Oh my god! Just look at the bigotry my kind have to put up with! So much for the 'tolerant left,' eh? Or whatever the hell you people's political leanings are. Flux State? More like 'Bloody Flux State!' Ha ha! 'Cause you're all made of poo!"

Someone opened fire, this time with what sounded like a submachine gun. One of the bullets ripped through the microphone, missing Finntroll by a hair's breadth. "Fine! Be that way! You just robbed yourself of the greatest comedy performance your pathetic little kiez has ever seen!"

He turned around and stormed off the stage, swearing to himself that he'd come back with his autocannon and shoot up the place. Bunch of humourless bastards in this city, he thought. Still, Lord Swedish would be pleased with what he learned. He had the name of one of the runners working against them, and just as his boss had predicted he was a total idiot, having somehow bumbled into Russian custody.

What was it that Der Zauberer had said about him? Something about 'demonic possession'? And something about going after a Finnish elf?

Oh, to be back in his homeland! Back where the ample woodlands and countless lakes made it so much easier to hide the bodies of his victims. "Älä mene metsään," they said: "Don't go in the forest." And Finntroll liked to think that he was at least partially responsible for that sentiment.

Even Sacro Culto found the pretensions of the thirteen "Dark Lords" to be more than a little ridiculous.

Sitting at high, curved table and illuminated only a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, the Dark Lords were clearly trying to present themselves as omniscient and utterly sinister. They met in a place they called the "Black Chapel" - in reality an abandoned meat packing plant on the outskirts of Oslo – and it was they who had to approve every single release by any band in the Inner Circle, meticulously scrutinising every note of every song to ensure there was no deviation from the established formulas. The names of the individual Dark Lords were known only to each other; everyone else simply referred to them by number.

"Yes, we have heard of your little feud," said Number One, "this 'Talvisota' as they call it. We also know of your total failure to accomplish...well...anything in regards to this feud."

"We've also seen the sales figures of your last album," added Number Three. "You sold twenty-two copies in Norway, three in Sweden, and just one in Finland, and that was to a magazine whose reviewer then proceeded to shit all over it. In fact, I have the magazine right here. Shall I quote from the review? 'What's surprising about Blackcrown's latest album is just how little it brings to the table. It's obvious that Sacro Culto has not one bit of talent of his own, so he must beg, borrow, and steal it from those who are, in truth, his betters. It would take far too long to recount every riff, phrase, and passage that he has stolen from other, superior bands, far longer, at any rate, than the album itself, which runs on for an interminable 72 minutes.' So why should we take you seriously, let alone your request to use The Bear?"

Sacro Culto fidgeted. "It has nothing to do with me, it has to do with honour! How can we let this woman, this elven degenerate, speak ill of us? If we don't retaliate, then we will look weak. We will be weak!"

"You are weak!" sneered Number Twelve.

"Then give me strength, and let me use The Bear to destroy my enemies. I can see it in your eyes: you're looking for any excuse to use that thing. And I can give you that excuse."

There was much murmuring amongst the Dark Lords. "That is long has it been since we've blown something up, anyway?" asked Number One. "Moreover, how long has it been since we've killed someone?"

"About two or three years, I'd say," Number Two replied.

"You see?" said Sacro Culto. "This isn't about killing Korpela, but a show of strength!"

"Need I remind you," said Number Five, "that your last 'show of strength' resulted in The Hog being turned into flaming scrap?"

"Well how was I supposed to know she'd be capable of shooting down a jet?"

Number One sighed. "Let me make one thing clear, Sacro Culto: we are not doing this for your sake. We are doing this for the sake of fomenting chaos, discord, and mayhem. We are doing this in the service of death. As far as this council is concerned, you are nothing but scum, lower than the filth on the floor of a public restroom. You do not deserve a place in the Inner Circle. You wish to use The Bear against your enemies? Then it will cost you."

"Cost me what?" he asked nervously.


Chapter Text


Chapter 16 – Multiple Truths


Talvi awoke with a groan and a vague sensation of Monika grabbing her left shoulder and shaking vigorously. "What...what is it?"

"It's half-past noon, you!"

"Wake me in another hour or so."

"What? I've been waiting for you to wake up for hours already! How can you spend so much time sleeping, anyway? Der frühe Vogel fängt den Wurm!"

Talvi sat up, still groggy. "Waking early is an activity for those who consider toil and drudgery a virtue. I do not count myself among them."

"Sure, whatever. Look, you can spend all day sleeping when you're back in Finland. And as much as I'd like to stand here and ogle you in your lacy black lingerie, we need to get moving if we want to reach Chernobyl by nightfall."

A cheap, outmoded trideo player hung on the wall, currently playing a Ukrainian news broadcast. She couldn't understand what the newscaster was saying, but there could be no mistaking the flaming wreckage of the A-10 they'd shot down now being displayed on the screen. A few seconds later it cut to footage of their van, still stuck in a ditch, with men in military uniforms carrying out the vast quantities of weapons and ammunition they'd brought with them from Berlin.

"Can you understand what they're saying?" Monika asked.

"Not a word," Talvi said, shaking her head. "More importantly, can that vehicle be traced back to us?"

"If they try running the plates they'll find out the van's registered to some guy in Inverkeithing, Scotland."

"Scotland?" Talvi exclaimed, putting on her trousers. "The investigators are going to be very confused."

"They'll probably get some hair and skin samples from inside the van, along with fingerprints," Monika continued. "But they won't find anything if they look them up. I made sure of that."

"One more thing – do you know the address of Lord Swedish's game company?"

"Yeah, why?"

"The tracking device we took off the van? I'm going to mail it to him. That ought to keep the Inner Circle off our backs for a while, at least. I believe there's a postal office just down the street."

Monika smiled. "I knew there was a reason I keep you around."

She grabbed her rucksack and searched around inside for a pen and a piece of paper. "I'm going to include a very nasty letter to Lord Swedish inside the package, one that will convey the impression that he is dealing with thoroughly deranged and exceptionally violent individuals."

"Oh, there's something else, too," said Monika. "While you were sleeping I got a message on my PDA from Der Zauberer-"


"His name's Tobias, but everyone calls him Der Zauberer, 'cause he makes problems go away like magic."

"What sort of problems?"

"Problems like Lord Swedish sending his goons to find out who's working against him. Yesterday some troll came to the Kreuzbasar and started asking questions about the 'pair of shadowrunners' CB Entertainment hired. Tobias spun him a tale about how that Raskol creep was one of them and the troll lapped it right up."

Talvi laid a blank sheet of paper out on the nightstand and started writing. "Did he say anything else about this troll?"

"Yeah, he said he was from Finland, and he was the biggest troll he'd ever seen, like a mountain of meat. But that's not what I wanted to talk about. According to Tobias, every single member of the Gamers' Alliance in Berlin suddenly got up and attacked the local Aztechnology offices."

Talvi stopped writing. "Why?"

"No one knows, and I don't think there's anyone left alive to ask. Tobias tells me that they charged the front entrance, guns blazing, and later that day he saw some Azzie wageslave cleaning the blood off the pavement with a power washer. No one could be that stupid, no matter how high or how drunk they are. I've seen bad cases of Vereinsmeierei before, but nothing like this. And it gets even weirder."

"Why do I have the feeling I'm not going to like what I'm about to hear?"

"It turns out that Raskol somehow wound up in Russian custody after trying to enter the country illegally from Belarus. If he's still out to kill you, that means he's way off course, but the really strange thing is that, while he was being held by immigration officials, he got possessed by a demon."

Talvi set down her pen. "What?"

"I don't know, maybe Russian prisons are run by Satan worshippers or something. So the good news is, we don't have to worry about the Gamers' Alliance any more. The bad news is, you've got a demonically-possessed anime nerd out to get you. Can't say which one's worse, to be honest."

After Talvi had finished writing her letter and Monika had paid the hotel for their stay the two of them headed out onto the streets of Kiev. When they stepped out of the front door Talvi could almost believe, just for a moment, that she had gone back in time to an age before seemingly every city had turned into some blighted, decrepit sinkhole awash in misery, despair, and ruin. The streets were lined with trees, still green and thriving, the pavement was mostly devoid of trash and refuse, and taking a whiff of the air revealed only the faintest notes of vehicle exhaust and industrial pollution. Yes, Talvi thought, this city could be almost bearable.

As they walked down the street they passed by a dark-haired elven man leisurely strolling along sidewalk. Talvi paid no attention to him until he called out to her, and at that instant she was filled with loathing and contempt, for she could recognise the horrid lisping tones of Sperethiel anywhere.

She spun around, her eyes blazing. "Mitä vittua sanoit minulle?"

The elf was dressed to please, if the people he aimed to please were devotees of trashy romance novels. He wore a white, button-up shirt that was conspicuously unbuttoned, providing a gratuitous view of his impeccably sculpted chest. Somewhere, Talvi figured, the heroine of some bodice-ripper was wondering where her man had wandered off to.

He spoke some more words in Sperethiel, followed by a smirk of intolerable smugness. She recognised one word – goronagit – but that was all she needed to hear. While he continued blathering on Talvi picked up a crumpled soda can from a nearby trash can and flung it at him.

"Vittu turpa kiinni!" Her voice was loud enough to carry all the way down the street.

The can struck the elf squarely in the face. He scrunched up his face in disgust and started walking away while Talvi continued hurling insults at him.

"What the hell was that all about?" Monika asked once the elf was out of sight.

"Did you hear? He spoke Sperethiel at me. Not 'to' me, at me, no doubt as a means of ascertaining my elvishness. They do it all the time, these Tír na nÓg knobheads. May that rotten nation collapse under the weight of their own stupidity! Of all the misfortunes to befall the Irish – the English conquest, the great famine, the Troubles, James Joyce – the creation of that pseudo-state must rank as the most calamitous."

"Why? Why do you hate them so much?"

Talvi pondered the question for a moment. "Because they're ridiculous! They believe they have discovered 'true' elvishness and that other elven cultures such as Tir Tainrgire are but hollow imitations, yet all they have done is appropriate Celtic mythology as prosthesis for their valueless and worthless culture. Did you know that it's a legal offence to 'debase or demean the cultural heritage' of their country? So if I were to speak the plain truth – that James Joyce wrote hundreds of pages of pure, nonsensical drivel – I might face prosecution. How feeble their culture must be if they need such laws!"

"And so you swear at them when they try to engage you in conversation. You live alone in the woods in case people come at you with torches and pitchforks, don't you?"

"Abducted you?"

"Oh god, boss, it was horrible! Horrible like you wouldn't believe! I thought I was going to die!"

Logan had been reduced to a sweaty, quivering wreck, taking swig after swig of rotgut vodka, and when the bottle was empty he threw it aside and opened up a metal flask he kept inside his suit jacket.

Chawncy himself was unable to resist reaching for the flask in the lower desk drawer. To his dismay it was empty, but Logan, sensing his distress, offered him a drink from his flask instead. "We never should hired those shadowrunners, boss," he continued. "Nothing good can come from getting mixed up with that scum! daughter, she's all obsessed with them, you know. Reads these comic books about them, watches trid shows about them, uses all their stupid slang...I'm scared it's going to turn her into a lesbian!"

"What did you tell Lord Swedish?" Chawncy asked, downing half the flask in a single gulp. The liquor wasn't working, or at least it wasn't working fast enough.

"I told him the truth, boss – that I didn't know the names of the criminals we hired. That 'fixer' or whatever he's called didn't tell me anything! But I can tell you this much: those freaks we've got on our payroll are probably a bunch of queers and communists. You know how people are here in Europe. No morals, no decency, no fear of the Good Lord Jesus in em'. You believe in Jesus, boss?"

"Only when things start going bad. So at the moment, yes, I do. Because things are bad, Reims. Very bad. Have you seen our company's financial reports?"

" Why? How bad are they?"

"I don't know. I'm too scared to look at them."

"Jesus Christ almighty..."

Chawncy lowered his voice. "Look, I know I don't even have to say it at this point, but this company is effectively dead. Belly-up. Kaput. Down the tubes. Down for the count. On the skids. Done for. We just lost our entire development staff, and people aren't exactly lining up to drop off their resumes, if you get my drift. I held on because I wanted to uphold my father's legacy, but it's time we faced reality. And the reality is that we failed. We're a bunch of non-hackers who got kicked to the curb." He leaned in closer. "But that doesn't mean we have to come away with nothing, Reims."

Logan fidgeted about in his chair. "What...what do you mean, boss?"

"What I mean is, this building cost us a pretty penny when we moved in. And that means it's also insured for a whole lot of money. So, if something were to happen, say, if the building were to burn to the ground, that money would be ours. And then we could retire to some nice little island in the Caribbean and never have to worry about anything again."

"So what do I have to do, boss?" Logan asked after turning things over in his head for several seconds.

"Take the company van, find some 55 gallon drums, then go the nearest gas station and fill them up. And for god's sake be discreet about it! We torch this place, collect the insurance payout, and blame the whole thing on those shadowrunners we hired. I mean, that's the sort of thing they'd do, wouldn't they? Bunch of anarchists and communists, of course they'd attack honest, hard-working folk like us. Easier to destroy than create, eh?"

"Damn straight, boss! We ought to kill every last one of their kind! Scorched earth, boss! Scorched earth and scorched soul! Like General Sherman's March to the Sea, we will leave nothing but destruction in our wake! These criminals hide in the shadows, and the only way to root them out is to shine a light into the dark holes where they hide! A harsh, burning light! And we can start by burning down the Kreuzbasar! That's what I'm going to do with my millions, boss. I'm going to hire someone to turn that place into cinders. You know what I saw when I was walking through that hellhole, huh? You know what I saw?"


"A goddamned Turkish cafe! Because if there's one thing I fear, boss, one thing I cannot abide, it's the unstoppable tide of Islam! Sure, it starts with a few coffee shops, then all of a sudden they're taking your booze, taking your pork chops, forcing sharia law down your throat, and making you forget all about Jesus. These Muslims, boss, they act friendly, but that's just what it is – an act. They're putting stuff in our water, putting stuff in our food...they call it 'halal' or whatever, but I know the truth, boss. It's some kind of pagan sorcery – Muslims put some kind of enchantment on food so that when you eat it, it turns you into one of them! They called me crazy when I confronted em' about it, but I bet there's a whole lot of things they don't want us infidels to know."

"That's quite enough, Reims. I think you've had too much to drink."

Logan narrowed his eyes. "What? You got something against drinking, huh? Are you one of them? You keeping a Qur'an in that desk of yours, boss?"

"Look, just get the gasoline, will you? And for Christ's sake don't be stingy! This building was constructed in accordance with those ridiculous European fire safety laws, and that means it will take a whole lot of fuel to get things going. But if we're lucky, we'll be sipping piña coladas on the beaches of Ocho Rios by the end of the week. Sure beats this sinkhole of a country, eh?"

"I don't like this one bit."

Talvi's feelings could not be more different. Heading north towards Chernobyl was very much like travelling back through history – the traffic grew thinner, the land grew wilder, and the road grew rougher. And when they found themselves speeding through a dense, broadleaf forest she could barely contain her relief.

"Why not? Look, this is genuine wilderness. It is far better than the parade of decaying urban hellscapes we have so far been travelling though."

"If it's wilderness, that means no one wants to come here. We haven't even seen any sort of military checkpoints. What does that tell you?"

"It tells me that the Zone cannot be that dangerous, if no one is trying to keep people out."

"Or maybe," said Monika, "it means this place is so horrible that not even the army wants to station people here. I wish we still had the van with us; I'd feel a lot safer with all that firepower."

For a brief moment Talvi cast her sight into the astral plane, hoping to obtain a deeper picture of this place. At first it was pleasingly familiar – the steady hum of every bird, animal, and insect, and the faint whispers of the metsän väki who lurked behind every tree and beneath every root and stone. Yet there were still traces of the great catastrophe that had befallen this place, distant echoes of a tragedy wrought by human folly. A terrible explosion, poison raining from the sky, a forest turning red as it withered and died, men's bodies ravaged by radiation...the earth remembered it all, and it still did not forgive…

Suddenly, she sensed the presence of something far more worldly. She closed her third eye and focussed on the road ahead, where a trio of men had set up a roadblock. They were dressed in army fatigues, and Talvi's first impression was that they were military men. But their fatigues were dirty and ill-fitting, and the men lacked any sort of military bearing.

One of them, wearing a pair of mirrored sunglasses and carrying a battered Kalashnikov, signalled for them to stop. Talvi noticed a patch sewn into the arm of his uniform, depicting a golden double-headed eagled on a red background.

"I have a bad feeling about this," said Monika, lowering the driver's side window.

"Halt, travellers! You are entering the realm of Constantine Palaiologos, Emperor of the Romans! Before you will be allowed entry you must offer tribute to our dread sovereign." He spoke with a ludicrously-affected accent that reminded Talvi of a first-year drama student attempting to read Hamlet.

Monika's jaw hung open in shock. "Uh…."

"Tribute, yes. Five thousand nuyen ought to do it. We're building an army, you see, and we really do need the money."

"Emperor. Romans."

"Yes, did you not hear me clearly the first time? The city of Pripyat, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and all surrounding areas are the domain the empire, Senātus Populusque Rōmānus. And as I said, all visitors must pay tribute. I realise the price may be a touch steep, but really don't get that many travellers coming this way."

"Enough of this," Talvi mumbled. She had long since had her fill of madman and psychos. Keeping him in the corner of her eye, she reached into his mind with her thoughts, easily overcoming his feeble resistance. There she planted a suggestion – that he ought to let them pass with no further trouble – and when Talvi released his mind from her psychic grasp it would have seemed to him that the notion was entirely his own.

He stood up, ramrod straight, as if he had just been given a jolt of electricity. "Actually, maybe we'd better just let you through. Carry on!"

Monika rolled up the window and stomped on the accelerator, the tyres squealing as the Mercedes tore away from the checkpoint. "What the hell did you just do?"

"Planted a suggestion in his head, of course – one that he will never suspect originated outside his mind. It's a remarkably useful technique; I think it was how my mother got me into university, though she would never admit it."

"That's not right, messing with someone's mind like that," Monika, shaking her head.

"Far better to make a man do what you wish through magic rather than inflict violence upon him. Besides, I think you're missing the important thing here – those people acted like they were part of the Roman Empire. How absurd is that?"

"No more absurd than the other people we've dealt with."

"You know, I thought I recognised that man who spoke to us. He was the one who tried to assault Bloodstone's lead vocalist in the middle of their set. And he said that this was the domain of 'Constantine Palaiologos.'"

"Why is that important?"

"He was the last ruler of the Byzantine Empire before it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. There's a legend that, when the Ottomans breached the walls of Constantinople, an angel swooped down from heaven and turned the emperor into a marble statue, awaiting the day when he would return to life and take back the city for all Christendom. Now, last year was the 600th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople, and several people throughout the world suddenly started claiming that they were the 'Marble Emperor' returned. No one took them seriously, of course, but a few of them carried out various acts of violence in Istanbul."

Before Monika could reply the Mercedes' engine cut out and the instrument panel went dark. "What the hell?" She stepped on the brakes, bringing the car to a stop. "Grab my cyberdeck, will you?"

Talvi reached behind the driver's seat and grabbed the metal and plastic slab (or "Box O' Mystery" as she mentally referred to it), fearing for a moment that her touch would cause it to explode like so many other peices of electronic hardware. She need not have worried, as Monika soon discovered that it was completely non-functional.

"It won't even power on!"

"Interesting...we appear to have entered a 'dead zone' of sorts." Talvi opened the car door and stepped outside. "Which means we're going to have to go on foot."

"You sound way too happy about that," Monika said, getting out of the Mercedes. "And it feels wrong to just leave this fine German automobile sitting on the road."

"According to the sticker on the inside of the door, this car was manufactured in Estonia."

"Well, German-engineered, then."

Talvi turned to face the road ahead. "I have a feeling this place becomes significantly more savage at night. We should continue on our way to...where were we headed, again?"

"I...uh...I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know? You determined the location of this backup site when you were inside the Matrix, did you not?"

"I determined that it was somewhere in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. I couldn't tell where, exactly...I just assumed we would figure it out when we got there."

Talvi said nothing for a few seconds. "So you have no plan whatsoever."

"Me? Plan?"

To the west the forest gave way to a broad, grassy field, and on the horizon, silhouetted by the setting sun, was gigantic metal lattice that towered over the treetops, resembling an enormous mesh screen. "What is that, over there?"

Monika squinted at the strange structure in the distance. "Looks like an antenna of some kind. Probably old Soviet tech. This place is probably a goldmine for that kind of thing."

"Then it makes a good a destination as any, considering we have no idea where to go. And if this place is anything like the woods of my country, then we don't want to be outside when night falls." She started off towards the field, feeling a comfortable sense of familiarity with her surroundings. Monika didn't understand and probably never would, but Talvi did not begrudge her that fact.

"My PDA's dead, too," said Monika, brushing aside the hip-high grass tugging at her clothing. "Which means we're completely cut off."

"Liberating, isn't it?"

"Maybe it is to you, but me? God, I wish I could have a beer right about now."

"Well the fresh air and exercise will do you good, at any rate."

"What, are you my mother now?"

Talvi ignored her remark and stopped to take everything in. There was no sound save for the rustling of the grass and the distant cries of cranes, and there were no glaring lights, no noxious odours lingering the air, and not a trace of the putrid admixture of boredom and despair that characterised urban environments.

"You know, we're not far from the Pripyat Marshes and the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve which, if I recall, is one of the largest tracts of wilderness in Europe. Perhaps-"

Monika immediately cut her off. "Ökofreak!"

"No, Naturliebhaber."

"Uh, Talvi, this might not be the best time to bring this up, but you really need to work on your German."

"Why? What is wrong with it?"

"Where do I begin? Let's see, you use the Subjunctive II form of verbs too much. No one uses phrases like 'Ich hülfe dir' any more; it makes you sound like you're two hundred years old. You get the order of words wrong. You get the gender of nouns wrong."

"Well I can hardly be blamed for that last one," Talvi pouted. "In Finland we do not suffer from the delusion that words have gender. As for the issue of word order, someone once said that German authors 'pile parenthesis upon parenthesis, and often you find only at the end of an entire page the verb on which depends the meaning of the whole sentence.'"

"Oh yeah? Who said that? Probably someone who doesn't know the first thing about our country."

"It was said by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia."

That left Monika distinctly nonplussed. "Yes, well...he must have been drunk at the time. So what did language did he prefer to speak, then?"

"French, of course, like most European royalty."

"French? Why French? How can you trust a language that has the same word for both kissing and fucking? And I've been to Paris, and it's the worst damn city in the whole world."

Talvi stopped. "I believe you're wrong there, Monika. The worst city in the world is Toronto. This is beyond dispute."

"I'll take your word for it."

When they crested a small hill Talvi came to a halt once again. In the field below the grass was lying flat against the ground, forming perfect circle, as if a large, cylindrical object had been sitting there for some time.

"Stop," said Talvi flatly. "There is something wrong here." For a second she cast her sight into the astral plane, but saw nothing unusual.

A large, black bird flew over their heads and towards the circle of flattened grass. When it crossed the invisible boundary it was snatched out of the sky by an unseen hand and wrenched towards the ground, where it exploded in a shower of blood and feathers.

Monika took a step back. "Bloody hell..."

Talvi picked a rock up off the ground and threw it into the circle. It followed a predictable arc through the air until it reached the circle's edge, where it was immediately pulled towards the ground. "Interesting," she said. "It would appear that gravity is much stronger here."

"You ever seen something like this before?"

"I've encountered many magical phenomenon before, but I sense nothing magical about this. Obviously we should walk around it."

"That would probably be a good idea."

The sun had sunk beneath the horizon by the time they reached the metal structure. It was even larger when seen up close, a veritable colossus of bars, tubes, and wires, all joined together into an elephantine web. "It's definitely an antenna," Monika said. "Look, you can see the driven elements and ladder lines. If someone could get it up and running it'd probably make for one hell of a pirate radio station."

Talvi stared up at the rusting metal monstrosity, which creaked and groaned in the wind. Ahead lay a pair of gates embossed with the Soviet star, and to the north, barely visible over the treetops, were several desolate, long-abandoned blocks of flats. To the right of the gate was a white-brick building, which Talvi presumed to be a guard post, looking perilously close to collapse.

"This place gives me the creeps, Talvi. How long do you think it's been since anyone was here?"

"Not since the disaster at the power plant, I imagine."

Past the gates they followed a broken concrete path, almost totally overgrown by this point. Rusting piles of rubbish, so decayed as to be unrecognisable, were heaped on the ground, and the few other buildings that remained were in such an advanced state of ruin that they looked as though they might crumble into dust at the slightest disturbance.

From somewhere off in the distance there came a long, mournful cry, sounding like no animal Talvi had ever heard. "What was that?" Monika asked, noticeably nervous.

"An awakened creature, perhaps? The woods of my country are filled with them; it stands to reason that the same is true of this place."

"These creatures, are"

"That depends entirely on the creature in question, but the usual precautions for dealing with dangerous wildlife apply. Don't surprise them. Don't feed them. Don't approach them. Don't come between them and their offspring. Don't turn your back at them. Don't stare at them. Of course, none of that will matter if you're dealing with one of the species that regards humans as prey."

"Right, that's so very reassuring."

Upon reaching the base of the antenna Talvi stopped and craned her neck upwards, trying to comprehend the sheer scale of the thing. It looked vaguely sinister, like something the USSR had created in secret for some nefarious purpose. "What you suppose this technological terror was meant to do?"

Monika shrugged. "If I had to guess, it was probably for detecting American missile launches. I can't imagine using a transmitter this big for anything else."

The weather quickly turned hostile, and it soon started to rain. It began as a light drizzle, but it soon became a downpour, forcing the two of them to take shelter in a large, grey, nondescript building at the base of the antenna. The interior was completely dark, and Monika hurriedly fumbled around inside her rucksack for a torch.

When she switched it on, the sight before them was one of total decrepitude. The floor was covered in debris and the ceiling tiles had long since rotted away, exposing the concrete girders. The scent of decay was so thick as to be almost palpable.

"If this were a horror movie," Monika said, wiping the rainwater from her brow, "this would be the point where people in the audience start saying 'Don't go in there!'"

She shone the light down the hallway, revealing a myriad of electronic detritus. Lightning flashed outside, followed by a deafening thunderclap that shook the entire building and rained dust down on their heads.

"Talvi, I'm scared. I think I might need you to hold me...or just rest my head on your enormous bosom."

"Don't be such a child! We're not in any real danger, I think. Come, let's have a look around this place. We'll have to wait until morning to travel, and I have no desire to sleep in this place, so we might as well see what we can find."

"What? You want to go poking around? Are you insane?"

"It's fascinating," Talvi said, looking over a pile of broken television displays covered in a heap of wiring. "At one point all this would have been at the very forefront of Soviet technological progress. Now it's just a pile of scrap."

She made her way down the hallway, carefully stepping over debris and broken sections of the floor. Monika followed closely behind, keeping one hand on her pistol. "If I see something moving, I'm shooting it. This is probably the worst place I've ever been to with you."

"Nonsense. Tokyo was much, much worse."

"Hey, I liked Tokyo. I mean, it was good so long as people weren't shooting at us."

Talvi stepped into the first room on her left. "Are we even talking about the same city? Tokyo was awful, simply terrible. I couldn't stand the way people were always staring at me wherever I went, and every bar and club had a sign by the door that read 'No Blondes' for some bizarre reason. The whole culture was positively neurotic."

"They were staring at you because tall, blonde elves are a rarity there. Don't know why they'd keep you out of bars, though."

Rain leaked through the ceiling, puddling on the floor, and the musty reek of mould was nearly overpowering. Rows of rusty metal racks stretched out before them, some still holding the remains of circuit boards and electronics. "Looks like a server room of some kind," Monika remarked, picking up a handful of paper slips from a table. "Are these punch cards?"

"The Soviets must have spent a fortune building this installation, all to defend against an enemy across the horizon, when the true lay right in their back yard. I wonder if people truly realised when the power plant exploded that it was harbinger of what was to come, that things were going to get far, far worse in the future."

Monika continued looking about the decrepit remains in the room. "Hey Talvi, can I ask you something? Something a bit personal?"


"You've mentioned your mother, but you've never said anything about your father."

Talvi turned away. "I don't know who he was, and to be honest I don't care. As far as I'm concerned he doesn't exist."

"I wish my father hadn't existed," she replied with a bitter laugh. "Not that my mother was any better, mind you, but father was a right asshole. He was this hardcore Lutheran who had found religion late in life and so he just had to ram it down everyone's throat at every opportunity. By the time he ran out on us I was ready to punch anyone in the face who so much as mentioned 'God' or 'Jesus' to me. But hell, you don't want to hear about my life. I know plenty of people who've had it worse than I did. So do you have any other family? Aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces?"

"I only know of my grandmother, Venla. I did not know her personally, just through stories my mother told of her. She suffered from severe cerebral palsy and had almost no use of her legs, and so she spent most of her time alone in her house in Hämeenlinna, reading books by candlelight and listening to old vinyl recordings of classical music. Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Bartok, Sibelius. My mother told me that, one day, someone had said to my grandmother that in the future her condition could be cured, that she could become a 'productive member of society.' And she told him that, if this meant becoming some corporate wageslave, then she would remain as she was, with her books and candles and music."

"I wonder what she'd think of your lifestyle."

"I doubt she'd approve, of either the shadowrunning or my religious beliefs. She thought Suomenusko was ridiculous, that it was just people believing in old fairy tales. But she grew up before the Awakening, and for her I suppose that it really was just 'fairy tales.' Even now most people find it hard to accept that the old myths might be true."

"They can't all be true, can they? Religions, I mean. If you're a Christian, you accept that Jesus is the son of God. If you're Muslim or Jewish, then you don't. Both of things can't be true at the same time."

"Why can't they?"

"What do you mean, 'Why can't they?' Because it doesn't make any sense, Talvi! Something can't be simultaneously true and not true. That'd be like a square circle, or a married bachelor."

"I have found that life requires one to embrace contradictions and paradoxes, not shy away from them. Think of it this way: if you were to walk straight north along a meridian of longitude, eventually you would come to the north pole. It does not matter where you start from, or where your journey takes you. You might reach your destination over land, over sea, through forests or over mountains, across deserts or plains, but you will all come to the same place eventually. Do you understand?"

"Not one bit."

"When are you going to present me with a proper challenge, sir? These cretins wouldn't know security if it came up to them and dangled its goolies in their face!"

Wickstrom's hands flew over the keys of his cyberdeck, effortlessly navigating the ethereal realm of the Matrix and laying bare all of CB Entertainment's secrets. Of all the people he had hired, Lord Swedish was most proud of Wickstrom, knowing full well that, were it not for his intervention, the man would have probably wound up as some shadowrunning degenerate.

A large monitor cast a pale blue glow across the security office, and it was there that Wickstrom displayed the fruits of his labours. The face of every one of Chawncy's employees flashed by, finally stopping on the image of a pudgy, unshaven young man who stared out at the camera with a look of both smugness and a deep sense of personal shame. According to the employee file, his name was Rhodes Raskol, and he had been fired two years ago for sexual harassment.

"So this is one of Mr. McGee's 'shadowrunners,' according to Finntroll. He doesn't really look like the type, does he? Do they have anything more on him?"

"I've got annual performance reviews, none of which are flattering, and a few 'incident reports' where he...uh...let's see...he apparently wandered into the women's restroom 'by accident' at least seven or eight times. There's a number of complaints from female employees that...holy shit..."


"According to one report, during the company Christmas party he superglued googly eyes to his penis, barged into the room completely naked, and started chasing the female employees around while making choo-choo noises."

"This resulted in his dismissal, did it?"

"No, that came three months later, when he-...wait a minute."

"What is it?"

Wickstrom fiddled about with his cyberdeck for a few seconds. "That's strange, someone has just disabled their building's fire alarm and sprinkler system."

"Do you have access to their security cameras?"

"Looks they've been taken offline, too."

Lord Swedish turned around and laughed heartily. "So you have some functioning brain cells after all, Chawncy!"


"Isn't it obvious? He knows he can't win, so he going to set fire to his company's offices and collect a hefty insurance payout in the process. I must admit I'm a bit disappointed, a bit like when your enemy chooses to fall on his sword rather than let you run him through."

There was a sharp cracking sound, followed by a brief yelp from Wickstrom. When Lord Swedish turned around, the decker was lying on his back, his face frozen in an expression of total agony. A faint wisp of blue smoke rose up from his datajack.

Before he could say a word the monitor went dead was a replaced a few seconds later by the shadowy, hooded figure of Chernobog. "Guess who, asshole?"


"Me! So sorry about your decker, but I just couldn't resist. His brain, if you could see it, now looks like a pork roast that's been left out in the sun too long. So what shall we talk about, hmm? How about I tell you a little story-"

It took every ounce of willpower to restrain his fury. He would not, could not, to show any sign of weakness. "Whatever it is you're-"

Every terminal in the office suddenly emitted a shrill, piercing shriek. "You will speak only when spoken to, asshole! Now, as I was saying, I'm going to tell you a little story, 'cause I don't feel that we're quite on the same level, you and I. And this story goes something like this: Once upon a time there was a nice little boy. And this nice little boy was sad, because all his friends made fun of him. They made fun of him because while they were out pulling the wings off butterflies and frying ants with magnifying glasses he was sitting at home reading books and planting flowers in his garden.

"But one day some bad people came along and used bad magic to lock the nice little boy in the basement of his house. And so the little boy had to go to sleep for a long, long time. And when he woke up he found that the world had changed, that the world was horrible. So horrible that stupid people calling themselves things like 'Lord Swedish' were strong and powerful. And the little boy discovered that all his friends were now rich and successful, while he was still weak and poor and alone. And no matter how he tried he couldn't break the magic that kept him in the basement, so the little boy grew jaded and cynical, and now he wants to watch the world burn. But he can't do anything, because he's still locked in the basement.

"Then one day the little boy discovered the Matrix. And he found out that the bad people who used bad magic to seal him in the basement never imagined such a thing, and so while their magic could keep him locked inside it couldn't keep the little boy from using the Matrix. Then one day some more bad people came along and built a backup site in his house. This made the boy very angry, because even though he was trapped in the basement it was still his house, and he didn't think people should be able to come and go as they pleased. And since he couldn't make these bad people go away, he decided he was going to use the Matrix to fuck with them. And fuck with them he did.

"There. Wasn't that a nice story? Maybe not a perfect story, since it doesn't have an ending yet. Maybe it ends with you walking away. Maybe it ends with a bloodbath. The little boy knows for sure which ending he prefers. Here's a hint – it's the one where all the bad people go away. Forever."

"I will not be threatened by you," Lord Swedish answered, keeping his voice flat and even. "Despite your blustering you have so far proven yourself to be nothing more than an annoyance."

"'Annoyance'? I just geeked your decker, asshole! Were you listening when I said you could walk away? Maybe I can't come over there and start stomping your ass, but I can make sure that neither you nor anyone in your pathetic little company ever goes near a cyberterminal again. 'Cause as long as you're connected to the Matrix, I will fuck you. I will fuck you slow, deep, and hard. So if you never want to see me again, all you have to do is unplug everything you have from the Matrix, simple as that."

"I don't think I'll be doing anything of the sort. You've revealed too much about yourself, Chernobog. Now I know that you're hiding underneath the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and more importantly, I know that you cannot leave."

"You want to fight me in meatspace? Oh, you deluded little ork, do you even realise what you'd be getting into? When parents want to frighten kids, they tell them stories about Baba Yaga. When Baba Yaga wants to frighten kids, she tells them stories about me. I'm so fucking terrifying I make Koschei the Deathless wish he were dead! So by all means, send your lackeys to Chernobyl, or better yet, why don't you come here yourself? We'll have it out like men, and then I'll rip out your intestines and strangle you with them."

The monitor went dark. Lord Swedish looked down at the lifeless body of his decker and felt, for the first time in as long as he could remember, that he had been bested. The feeling lasted only a second, but it might as well have been a lifetime.

He walked over to the intercom and called up his secretary. "Ms. Li, summon Finntroll and the others. I have a new mission for them."

Chapter Text


Chapter 17

Coming to Our Senses

by Talvi Korpela

James Joyce, The Literary Gremlin (An Exegesis)

Ezra Pound once remarked that artists were the antennae of the human race, but the bullet-headed majority would never learn to trust them. A pivotal figure in the modernist scene, he ought to have known full well the implications of the movement, not simply for poetry and literature, but for all of civilisation.

You may, gentle reader, wonder what relevance the topics of James Joyce and modernist literature have to our current cultural and intellectual stalemate. When T. S. Eliot described Ulysses as "the book to which all of us are indebted and none of us can escape" he was not offering words of praise, but damnation, for the skeletal hand of James Joyce reaches out through history to throttle all life in the present.

Ulysses employs a narrative mode known as 'stream of consciousness' which attempts to convey via the written word an individual's thoughts, feelings, and whims as they pass through his mind. This is a fool's errand, naturally, for the mind and spirit are wordless, and anyone who endeavours to capture it in writing is chasing a mirage, a phantasm. It also results in a novel that is horridly overlong, and when the unsuspecting reader is confronted with Ulysses he will surely liken himself to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness who, far away from European civilisation, is faced with the ultimate horror.

And believe me when I say that the reaction of the "typical reader" to Ulysses is critical to understanding its baleful influence. Will he be astounded at the profound truths revealed within? Will he be moved to tears by the emotional depth contained within its pages? No, he will most likely not. Instead, he will feel a sense of boredom or, more likely, a deep sense of shame and inadequacy. The prose is too dense, too incomprehensible for him; he does not "get" it. If he does not give up on the book then and there he will soldier on through hundreds of pages until finally, mercifully, he reaches the end. And so Ulysses reinforces a commonly understood though seldom expressed notion that "art" is something limited to the artistic elite. "This book is not for you," it seems to say. "Perhaps you would enjoy something more on your intellectual level, such as a carnival or rodeo?"

And so artistic expression becomes a self-congratulatory display of erudition while the rest of the people, rather than be asked to stretch themselves a bit, are told they must content themselves with mass-produced, lowest common denominator drivel, that they must remain at the foot of the mountain, at the place allotted to them by their lowly station. It is, like Leo Tolstoy once said, proclaiming that a particular food is very good, but people cannot eat it.

Monika stirred in her sleep, mumbling something in German. Talvi set down her pen and walked over to where she sat slumped against the wall. "Herää!" she shouted, shaking her arm.

"Wh...what? What are you doing?"

"You fell asleep."

"I...I wasn't sleeping! I was checking my eyelids for holes." She stood up and stretched her arms. "But I did have the weirdest dream though. I can't really remember much besides walking down this long, dark corridor, not really knowing where I was going. And this voice kept calling out, kept saying things 'Your path is ending. Come to me. You will get what you deserve. Come to me.' over and over. You think it means it anything?"

Talvi stuffed her scribblings back into her pack. "That depends entirely on the provenance of the dream, of course. Most dreams mean nothing. But shamans or wise women – 'noidat' in our tongue – place more stock in dream visions, for they are how the ancestors speak to us."

Monika scratched her head. "Ancestors?"

"Our ancestors are not departed. They do not lie rotting beneath the earth, and they are never further than the slumbering eye. They possess great knowledge of both the future and the past, and are capable of working great magic, so we gift them and honour them in the hopes of receiving their aid and protection."

She remained silent for a few seconds. "You know, I was just about to say that this...pagan stuff...of yours really creeps me out, but when I think about it, it's probably as confusing to me as decking and computer programming is to you."

Talvi opened her mouth to reply, but no words came. It suddenly struck her that there were a vast gulf between them, one that had always been there, yet she had not acknowledged until now. Monika's world was one of circuits and wires, hers was one of spirits and magic. How had her life become entwined with someone so different?

She tried to remember how she had first met Monika, which was always difficult, as she had been rather drunk at the time.

"So, what is the plan for today?" Talvi asked. "Please tell me you actually have a plan."

"I've been thinking...if I were Lord Swedish, where in the Zone where I would hide my backup site? The one place no one would ever want to go, and there's only one place I can think of that fits that criteria – the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Probably not in the irradiated parts, since they'd have to be able to-"


"What the hell-"


Talvi glanced out one of the broken windows and spied a trio of men, all dressed in military fatigues, standing outside. One was speaking through a loudhailer, which was of such poor quality that his voice was nigh unintelligible.

Cautiously Talvi stepped outside. "We're standing right here, you imbeciles! What do you want?"

"Halt! You will go no further, heathen!" The two men on either side of him levelled their assault rifles at her. "You trespass deep within Roman land, a crime punishable by death. But our emperor is as merciful as he is wise, and he is willing to grant you an audience."

"Talvi, I think we should do as he says," Monika said in German, moving to stand behind her. "I can see it in their eyes, these guys mean business. And you've pissed off more than enough people already."

As loath as she was to admit, Monika was right. She would never get a spell off before they opened fire. "Very well, take us to this 'emperor' of yours."

They were brought to an old railway depot which, like everything else in the Zone, was in such a state of disrepair that it seemed impossible that it could still be standing. The rusting hulk of a locomotive stood before the building, and judging from its advanced state of deterioration it hadn't moved from this spot since the days of the Soviet Union. Two identical banners hung on each side the gate, both depicting a gold cross on a red background with four firesteels in the corners, while a crudely-fashioned double-headed eagle stood over the entrance, which looked as though it were made from papier-mâché.

Inside were two dozen men or so, most of whom were standing warming themselves around burning barrels. Someone had made a half-hearted effort to clean up the place at one point and then given up halfway through the job, leaving heaps of rubbish and debris piled to one side. At the far end stood a throne built from an amalgamation of rails, rebar, and diamond plate, so crudely assembled that anyone sitting on it ran the risk of being impaled. Seated on the throne was a tall, lanky man in purple robes, endlessly running his fingers through his beard in a state of profound agitation. He wore a crown studded with jewels and ornamented with pendilia, but when Talvi drew closer she saw that it was made out of plastic that had been hastily covered with metallic gold spray paint.

"So, you thought you could invade our territory without paying the requisite tribute, did you?" said the man, whose voice was surprisingly nasal given his ostentatious airs. "You might sway some of my more weak-willed courtiers with your magics, but such heathen sorcery will not avail you here! This is holy ground, blessed by the Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, and you stand before Basileus Constantine Palaiologos, Emperor of Rome."

Talvi glanced over at Monika, who looked just as baffled as she was. "Are you now? A goat may have a beard, but not the mind of a man."

"You will not speak such insolent words to me, vile one! But I can forgive you incredulity. You are a member of a soulless race, a blasphemous travesty of nature, and thus you lack the ability to recognise my divine nature. I see you are confused, so I will explain. When our grand capital of Constantinople fell to the damned Turks, I did not lie amongst the fallen. No, an angel from on high scooped me up in her arms and secreted me away beneath the Golden Gate. There was I to remain, an emperor of stone, until the time was at hand where I would take back our city."

"With what?" Talvi asked.

Constantine squirmed around in his throne. "Yes, um...well, you see, not many people have recognised my holy mission yet. My efforts to gain the support of the Ecumenical Patriarchate have so far met with damnable silence, and everywhere I have sought support I have been denounced as a madman. No doubt you think me mad, too, but the opinions of barely-civilised barbarians do not concern me. Now, on to the pertinent matter – your impudent trespassing on our sovereign territory. First, you must pay the original tribute of five thousand nuyen. Then, you must also pay an additional five thousand nuyen as restitution for your use of heathen sorcery against my followers. Added to this shall be a ten thousand nuyen penalty for failing to bow before me, and atop this you shall pay an addition twenty thousand nuyen for your excessive Turkishness."

Monika took a step back. "'Turkishness'? Do we look Turkish to you?"

He waved his hand. "It is not the fez on the head, but the fez on the heart. Either pay us tribute or die where you stand, you filthy little shits!"

"Somehow," said Talvi, "I doubt a real Byzantine emperor would be such a poor host."

"Roman emperor!" Constantine snapped. "We will not be called by the name given to us by poltroons masquerading as historians." He began pacing around the throne, becoming more agitated with every step. "Such terrible affronts we have suffered! So many indignities! Resistance! Everywhere I go, resistance! When we reached out the Patriarch of Moscow, the Russian government declared us a terrorist organisation! Slav scum! We gave them their religion! We gave them their alphabet! And this is how they repay us? We will pluck out their eyes, every last one of them!"

Talvi gritted her teeth. "Please shut up."

He froze. "You, you dare?"

"Yes, I dare! I have had my fill of ranting, raving, fulminating, blustering, pontificating, and perorating lunatics, madman, zealots, bedlamites, and psychotics who continually test my patience! You may continue to indulge in whatever fantasies you have in that crooked head of yours, but leave us out of it!"

"How rude! Really, that is incredibly rude of you. I would kill you myself if only to teach you better manners, but I seem to have misplaced my gun." He glanced over at dim-looking man standing beside. "Strategos Athanasios, have you seen my Fichetti by any chance? I know I left it somewhere around here."

"I believe you left it in your chambers, my liege, on the ottoman."

His face went red. "It's called a Roman footstool, you imbecile! Now, fetch me some coffee. We can't have an execution without coffee now, can we?"

"Which kind would you like, my liege? Espresso? Decaf? Turkish?"

Constantine's face turned even redder. "It's called Roman coffee, damn you! By the Blessed Virgin, are you all a bunch of total ninnyhammers? Forget the coffee, the execution will go ahead without it!" He looked down at Talvi and Monika. "Your execution shall be handled by the Varangian Guard. Sven!"

A tall, shirtless and thoroughly blond man stepped into the open, carrying a woodsman's axe. He had to be most burliest, brawniest individual Talvi had ever seen, looking as though he had just strolled in from a muscle augmentation advertisement. "Yes, milord? What is your will?"

"Kill these heathen swine, please."

Sven stood there, a totally vacuous expression on his face. "Um...milord?"

Constantine clenched his fists. "Yes, what?"

"I don't understand," he said after several seconds of silence.

"What's to understand? I said kill them. 'Kill' as in 'make them go from living to dead!'"

He scratched his head, straining his mind to the utmost to comprehend what he had just heard. "I...I still don't get it."

"Oh for the love of Christ! This is the reason we lost Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire! When I tell you to kill a man, that means I want you to kill him!"

Sven looked at the two of them, and then back at Constantine. After repeating this action several more times, he raised his axe to the emperor.

"Wait! Stop! I said kill them, not me!"


"Yes! For God's sake!"

His instructions still did not quite penetrate through Sven's skull. "So I kill them, then I kill you?"

"No, you lumbering mountain! Kill them, but don't kill me!"

"But...but...I'm confused."

Constantine slapped his forehead. "What's so confusing about it? You just kill them!"

"But...but you told me to kill a man when you said kill him."

"Yes, and?"

"These...these are women."

"Yes, well, I was speaking figuratively!" he growled, pounding his fist on the throne's armrest.


"Never mind! Just kill them, for fuck's sake!"

Sven stood motionless for a few seconds. "Why?"

"Because I said so! Because I told you to kill them!"

"Kill who?"

"Them!" he screamed, pointing at Talvi and Monika.

"Kill them?"


"And then kill you?"


Once more Sven scratched his head. "Why not?"

"Because you're not supposed to kill me, you moron!"


Before Sven could get an answer to his question a sharp crack rang out and his head exploded like a ripe watermelon. "Sniper!" Constantine yelled, diving to the ground.

The rail depot instantly descended into chaos, with Constantine's men firing blindly at the windows and entrances. Talvi looked to her sight and saw a man aiming his gun at her, clearly hoping to do what Sven could not. She locked her eyes on him, stretched out her hand, and without even having to think she cast forth a brilliant cascade of electricity that sent him flying into the wall.

For an instant time stood still, and she felt nothing but the pure sensation of arcane energy flowing through her. It would be so easy to lose oneself in this feeling, to let the magical energies flow forth until she collapsed from exhaustion. This was true power, this was true might, not guns or bombs or technological gadgetry. What couldn't she make Monika understand that?

A bullet whizzed past her, breaking her out of her reverie. She saw Monika duck behind a stack of metal crates and moved to join her just as a bullet blew past her head.

Another shot rang out, and another of Constantine's men fell to the ground in a spray of blood. Monika drew her pistol and began firing blindly over the top of the crates, and Talvi saw to her horror that she was bleeding profusely from her shoulder.

"You've been hit."

"What?" Monika shouted, firing her pistol once more until the magazine was empty.

"I said you've been hit in the shoulder!"

She looked down at the wound, seeming more annoyed than anything else. "Ach, du Scheiße..."

Constantine's men continued firing wildly in all directions even as they were cut down one after another. In the cavernous rail depot the roar of gunfire was deafening. "Lay down suppressing fire!" someone shouted.

"Suppressing what now?" someone answered.

"Shoot at them so they don't shoot at us!"

"I can't hear you! Don't fire your gun while you're talking!"

Talvi peeked her head out from behind one of the crates and saw Constantine's men fleeing as fast as their legs could carry them. The 'emperor' screeched and howled at them in a register typically reserved for colicky infants. "It's the Ottomans! Stand and fight, you cowards!"

His words were spoken into the wind, and a few seconds later Constantine joined them in retreat.

Monika clutched her shoulder, only now feeling the pain of her wound. "Hold still," Talvi said. "The bullet looks to have gone all the way through. This is good."

Her eyes blazed with anger. "Good? How is that good?"

"It means I won't have to dig it out. Now don't move."

She placed her hand over Monika's shoulder, shuddering slightly when she felt warm blood on her skin. Healing a wound like this would tax her to the utmost. Taking a deep breath, Talvi began speaking the incantation in a steady, sonorous tone:

"Piäty, veri, vuotamasta,

hurme, huppelehtamasta,

päälleni päräjämästä,

riuskumasta rinnoilleni!"

Her eyes closed, she blocked out everything but the sensation of blood flowing over her fingers. Blood did not want to flow out onto the ground. It was not a river or a stream or gushing rapids. Its home was in the heart, the bones, and the veins, and Talvi would make it return to its rightful place. That was her will, and it was through the power of magic she made her will reality.

"Veri, seiso kuni seinä,

asu, hurme, kuni aita,

kuin miekka meressä seiso,

saraheinä sammalessa,

paasi pellon pientaressa,

kivi koskessa kovassa!"

She could feel the energy rising within her, begging for release. A mistake now would be catastrophic. Blood had power of its own, and it had to be respected.

At last the energy surged forth like a wave crashing against the shore, and it took every last mote of her willpower to channel it into Monika's body. Flesh knit, bone joined together, and blood returned whence it came.

She opened her eyes, and suddenly felt very dizzy. The spell had been more draining than she anticipated. Talvi grabbed hold of one the grates, nearly stumbling to the ground.

"What...what did you do?" Monika asked, standing up.

"The...the blood has returned to its natural course?"

Monika took off her jacket and examined her shoulder. "It looks like it, but...what you did, it felt like, like..."

"Like what?" Talvi asked, waiting for the room to stop spinning.

"'s probably too much for your virgin ears. Never mind."

A dozen men or so entered the rail depot, one of whom was carrying a colossal anti-materiel rifle that looked more suited to punching holes in tanks than people. It was the man in their midst, however, that caught Talvi's eye. He was tall and wiry of build, with an olive-skinned complexion that suggested Turkish ancestry. In his right hand was an old-fashioned revolver with an ivory handle, a weapon that was conspicuously out of place in the Zone, and he wore a dark red kaftan that was equally out of place. She briefly opened her third eye in an attempt to assense his aura, and found, to her her immense relief, that despite his odd appearance the man had not a hint of madness, zealotry, lunacy, or mania about him. Truly a rare quality these days.

"Well, what do we have here? Newcomers to the Zone! I would say that you must either be brave or stupid to come here, but all of us are probably brave and stupid in equal measure. I can't say the same for your 'friend' Constantine, however; he's neither brave nor stupid, just insane."

"Who are you, exactly?" said Monika, rubbing her shoulder.

"I...we...are the 'Ottomans' you no doubt heard 'Emperor' Constantine raving about...if that is his real name. I suspect he's an unfortunate simsense addict who slotted one too many historical dramas. We laughed at them at first, but then they started arming themselves and, well, you see what happened. As for myself, I am Mehmed Osmanoğlu, and when the 'emperor' found out that I shared a name with the sultan who conquered Constantinople he came to the conclusion that I must be the reincarnation of the man. It was amusing for a while, and I admit 'Mehmed the Sultan' sounds better than 'Mehmed the paper-pushing wageslave,' but then he got...violent. He started gathering followers, they started attacking us, and soon it turned into a war."

"Ottomans fighting the Byzantines," Talvi said. "It would seem that we have stumbled into the world's deadliest historical re-enactment."

"Now that I've told you about myself, I think it is only fair that you return the favour. Can't be too careful around these parts, after all."

Talvi looked at Monika, wondering whether they ought to tell him the truth. "I am Dr. Talvi Korpela, and this is-"

"You may call me Monika von Hohenzollern," she interrupted, suddenly putting on affected accent. "I'm the best decker in Germany, and that's not me boasting, that's fact."

Mehmed laughed heartily. "A decker, are you? That won't do you much good here, I'm afraid. Electronic devices don't work inside the Zone, at least not everywhere. The dead zones tend to shift from day to day, according to its whims, though they tend to be less frequent in the town of Pripyat itself." He walked over the bloody, headless body of Sven. "We should talk back at our camp. But before we go, can I ask you something? Have either of you ever been to Istanbul, by chance?"

"No," said Monika.

"Neither have I," Talvi added.

"A pity. It's a lovely old city."

"I'll ask you one more time: why did you attack us?"

"I said I'm not telling you Azzie fucks anything! Doesn't matter what you say to me. Doesn't matter what you do to me. I'm not telling you shit!"

Juan leaned over the table, his face breaking into a smile. Obtaining test subjects was always a chore, but some days the gods smiled on you and the test subjects came to you instead. He was no stranger to bizarre and unusual things in his line of work, but the attack on their headquarters had left him thoroughly perplexed. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason, a horde of young men had stormed the front gates with guns blazing, and in a matter of seconds they were cut down in a hail of bullets. One of them had survived, much to Juan's delight, and he could barely suppress his joy that he would finally have a chance to try out the new spells he had learned.

He had turned off the lights in the laboratory, finding that a lack of illumination instilled a certain primal terror in his subjects. The sole source of light was the soft blue glow from the monitor by the table, which currently indicated the subject's pulse, respiration, body temperature, and brain activity. In all honesty the only thing Juan really cared about was making all the lines of the screen go extra squiggly when he ramped up the torment.

From somewhere off the darkness he heard a loud crash, followed by a burst of profanity. "Is this really necessary, Juan? I can't see a damn thing in here!"

"Oh, stop whining, Sanchez! Extracting information from a prisoner is an art, one that you, sadly, lack all understanding of."

"Understanding of what? Torture? You don't get good information that way. Eventually the subject will say anything to make the pain stop, or he'll just tell you whatever it is he thinks you want to hear."

"I'm afraid you've misunderstood me. I am a blood mage, in case you've forgotten, and I don't need to torture people to get information from them. No, the torment is merely for my amusement." He turned back to his prisoner, bound fast to the table. "Isn't that right, my poor, little, unfortunate fool? What did you say your organisation was called, again? The 'Gamers' Alliance'? Since when did cybergame players start forming policlubs?"

He vainly thrashed about in his restraints. "Fuck you! You have no idea who you're dealing with! We know it was you Azzie assholes that made the virus that's killing us!"

Juan sighed. "Well this is disappointing! I was all set up to wrench the truth from him and then he goes and tells us!" He looked into the prisoner's eyes. "I do have one more question, though. Whatever gave you the idea that we were behind...whatever it is you think we're behind?"

"Someone told us."


Before the prisoner could reply every light in the room came on simultaneously. A thundering voice rang out, coming from all directions.

"I DID!"

Juan and Sanchez spun around to see a figure materialise in the middle of the laboratory in a cloud of foul-smelling smoke. It looked to be a man, or something that had once been a man, though there was not a trace of humanity left in his body. His arms and legs were grossly distended, swollen with black, pulsating veins, and two baleful lights burned like coals where his eyes should have been.

"Who the devil are you?" Sanchez asked, sounding more irritated than frightened.

"Excuse me, but did you here?" Juan added. "That's impossible, you know. Not even dragons are capable of such a thing."

The figure stepped forward. "A dragon? What is the power of a dragon NEXT TO THE POWER OF A GOD?" His voice made the floor vibrate beneath them, as though it were coming from deep within the earth.

"You still haven't told us who you are-"

An unseen force lifted Juan off his feet and sent him flying into in the wall. "TREMBLE BEFORE ME, MORTAL FOOLS, FOR YOU STAND IN THE PRESENCE OF ANGRA MAINYU! I am the bringer of pain and derision, the architect of all woe, the creator of primordial darkness, the voice of rage and ruin!"

Sanchez just sighed at all this. "Angra Mainyu? You are in the wrong place, I think. The Zoroastrian temple is just down the street. And you'll forgive us if we aren't terribly frightened of you. This is Aztechnology – dealing with sanity-blasting horrors is part of the job."

"If you do not know fear...YOU WILL SOON KNOW IT! I will kill everything in this place, from top to bottom! Your gods will not save you!"

The figure vanished as quickly as he arrived, leaving only the pungent stench of sulphur hanging in the air. "I say," said Juan, getting back to his feet, "we ought to contact security about this, shouldn't we?"

"That would be the prudent thing to do, yes."

Juan walked over to the intercom and called up security. "I don't wish you to alarm you people up there," he said calmly, "but it would seem that Angra Mainyu is on a rampage through this building as we speak."

"Uh, say again?"

"I said, Angra Mainyu just appeared in the laboratory and said he's going to start rampaging through the building. It'd probably be a good idea to put a stop to that sort of thing, wouldn't you say?"

There was no answer for several seconds. "Excuse me, but did you just say that the ultimate evil of the Zoroastrian religion is loose in the building?"

"Yes, that's what I'm saying!"

"Well, in that ca-ARRRRGGGH!"

Juan heard glass breaking, followed by the unmistakable sound of someone being strangled with his own intestines. "My guts! He...he tore out ALL my guts!"

There were the sounds of gunfire, mixed in with a demonic bellowing that sounded like winds roaring from the bowels of hell. "I'm a GOD! How can you kill a GOD? How can you be so naive? There is no escape! Your pitiful blood magic will not avail you here!"

He switched off the intercom. "It's happening again. Time to make our way to the little 'escape hatch' we set up, eh?"


"Please tell me this mission is going to involve me feeding someone his own entrails, boss! It's been so long since I've ripped out a man's spine and beat him to death with it. Please, please tell me there's going to be some killing!"

A lesser man would have found Finntroll's bloodlust frightening, but to Lord Swedish it was one of the few things in this world that amused him. "Your mission is simple: I've learned that Chernobog is located underneath the ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and more importantly, that he is unable to leave on account of some sort of magical restraint. Given his antagonism towards us and his proximity to our backup site in Pripyat we simply cannot allow him to live."

Finntroll leapt for joy, landing hard enough to shake the floor. "YES! Yes, god damn it! I am going to kill so many people!"

Akemi groaned in exasperation. "Ye're havering, ye hackit scrote! You'd better just caw canny with this one!"

"You'll be on the next flight out of Berlin. It is imperative that you reach the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone as soon as possible. Now, I don't know how, exactly, you'll reach wherever Chernobog is hiding or what kind of condition the power plant is in, but-"

Finntroll raised a hand. "Uh, is it still radioactive? I don't fancy gettin' irradiated, boss. I'm hoping to make a whole clan of little Finntrolls one day, and well, uh, radiation's not to good for that kind of thing."

Akemi made retching noises. "Shut yer puss, ye mangled fud!"

Murphy stamped his foot, his face red. "What's that I'm hearing? Are you pussies telling me you can't handle a lit bit of radiation? You slimy shitbags! I walk through the SOX every morning on my way to work! I eat raw plutonium for breakfast! And when we reach Chernobyl, I will make the radiation get down on its knees and polish my boots until they are fucking shining! I will PT its ass until it's more fucked up than a left-handed football bat!"

"You'll be provided Geiger counters, of course, and a layout of the plant itself. I have no idea where, exactly, Chernobog is lurking, but my guess he's in one of the basements beneath the reactors. Let's hope it's not the one that exploded"

They were interrupted by Ms. Li walking into the office. "I'm sorry to disturb you, sir, but we've just received a very unusual package addressed to you."

"What was inside?"

"It was very strange, sir. There was a GPS tracking device, which we deactivated, along with a handwritten letter."

"A letter? That is rather unusual. Let's see it."

She handed them the letter, which he quickly unfolded. The penmanship was exquisite, obviously written by someone with a careful and steady hand. It was hopelessly quaint in this day and age.

To Lord Swedish, Knobhead, Esq.

O Swedish devil, slave-driver of corporate livestock and damned devil's kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the hell sort of man are you, you who could not slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? You will not, you craven whoreson, continue to make wageslaves of good men and women. By land, sea, and air we shall fight you; plough your own mother!

Swineherd of Småland, vermin of Västerbotten, scoundrel of Skåne, bastard of Blekinge, lecher of Lappland, degenerate of Dalarna! May a leprous Karelian she-wolf gnaw upon your innards, may the ravens of Kainuu tear out your eyeballs, and may your bones lie forgotten beneath the waters of Inarijärvi!

Thus we declare, you lowlife. Now we'll conclude, for we don't know the date and don't own a calender. The moon is in the sky, the year's in the book, and the day's the same here as it is over there; for this kiss our arse!

Yours in contempt,


A pair of cavalry sabres were drawn at the bottom of the page.

Lord Swedish looked up. "Ms. Li and the rest of you," he said, his voice calm and even, "would you please leave the office for a moment?"

When they had left he quietly walked over and closed the door. He knew what was coming, and there was no stopping it.

It was as though a red mist had descended upon him. He crumpled up the letter, threw it aside, and then let out a scream of rage. Nobody toyed with him like this. Nobody. His whole body quaking with fury, he ran forward and slammed his fist against the wall. Over and over he pounded the hard granite, the pain subsumed beneath a tide of fury. He saw nothing and heard nothing; there was nothing left but savage, bestial frenzy. Everything he owned, everything he had accomplished, he had fought for it all with tooth and claw. To be mocked like this by some insignificant insect...

He continued pounding the wall, the sheer force of his blows chipping away stone. "No one, no one, no one, no one..."

By the time his fury abated his hands were swollen and bloody. His rage was spent, replaced by seething hatred. Maybe what they said was true. Maybe orks really were more inclined to violence. But so what if they were? Violence was a solution, of sorts. If anyone had dared insult him in his younger days, he would have hit them, bit them, ripped their hair out in clumps – anything to show that he would never allow himself to be humiliated. And yet this 'Chernobog' knew just how to get under his skin, and he was doing it with impunity. What a grand example of progress this was – in the old days, if you wanted to mock a man, you had to do so to his face, with the ever-present risk of having your head smashed in. Now one could mock others at a distance, safely ensconced behind a cyberterminal, without ever getting their comeuppance.

But Chernobog was about to learn that anonymity had its limits.

Chapter Text

Chapter 18 – Into the Void

The "Ottomans" had set up camp in a long-abandoned village, so thoroughly overgrown with trees and grass that one might walk within a stone's throw of it and never know it was there. Talvi thought to herself that this was the end of the world looked like – the last signs of civilisation slowly being devoured by nature while the remnants of humanity huddled around burning barrels.

"So what brings you two to the Zone?" Mehmed asked, taking a seat on a pile of breeze blocks by a smouldering campfire. "You clearly haven't been here very long."

Monika answered, in an embarrassingly hesitant manner. "We, uh, we're looking for something that may or may not be inside the nuclear power plant."

Mehmed did not answer for a few seconds. "And what exactly is 'it' that you're looking for?"

"A back-up site belonging to a company whose made an enemy of someone they shouldn't have. And that someone is the entirety of humanity."

"A back-up site? In Chernobyl?" he said, taken aback. "What sort of company would do such a thing?"

"A game company, evidently," said Talvi flatly. "An extremely paranoid one, from what we've heard. Though given the sort of people who buy their products, perhaps their precautions are sensible."

Mehmed shifted his gaze slightly. "I don't wish to be rude, but I can't quite place your accent. Where are you from?"

The question made her bristle, though his question was nothing less than an honest query. "I am from Finland, and if I cannot speak English as well as my countrymen, well, I heard scarcely a word of it spoken until rather late in life."

"I meant no offence. Now, I'm sure you're both wondering who we are and what we're doing in Chernobyl. I am asked this question very often. Actually, that's not true, because hardly anyone ever comes here." He reached inside his kaftan and withdrew a small, reddish-brown lump about the size of a fist. After holding it up for them to see Mehmed set the strange object down on the ground, only instead of resting there it hovered a few centimetres above the dirt. "I'm sure you are familiar with magical artefacts – foci, fetishes, totems; those kinds of things – but what makes these artefacts different is that they require no magical ability to use. This is one doesn't do much except float above the ground, but there are others that can heal wounds, staunch bleeding, make one stronger, and who knows what else? I shouldn't have to tell you that there are people who will pay quite a bit for these little treasures."

"If that's the case, I'd expect the corps to have more of a presence here," said Monika.

"They send people here now and then, but they don't respect the Zone, and the Zone does not respect them, which is why so many of them go home in body bags. There are a thousand ways to die in this place, most of them quite horrible; getting shot in the head is probably the best way to go, all things considered. It's quite amazing we've survived this long, considering we had no idea what we were doing when we started."

"And just how did you 'get started?'" Monika asked.

Mehmed stretched out his arms. "That's a bit of a tale, it is. Myself and others, we all worked as coders for a software company in Istanbul. A good, respectable job, you might say, but absolutely soul-crushing. Do you know what our company did? It made programs that would harvest personal data from Matrix users and sell it to advertising firms. Any time you connected to a host running our software it would install a backdoor on your system that would collect every bit of data it could about you. After sending that data back to us in an encrypted format it would quietly uninstall itself so that you'd never know it was there. Quite a horrifying project to work on, I'm sure you'll agree, but as my father so often told me, 'There's no such thing as a bad job.' Which, if you ask me, something only those who have never held a 'bad job' would say.

"Then one day we learned that our company executives had been greatly exaggerating the value of the corporation, and our company's shares were almost worthless. Without boring you with the details, the executives made off with the investors' money and the rest of us wageslaves all found ourselves out of work. We tried to find jobs at other companies, of course, but something had happened which made that very difficult. This little company based in Ankara – I think it was just four or five people, really – developed a remarkable piece of software that effectively automated the process of writing code. Imagine what industrial robots did to the manufacturing profession, and now this new software was going to do the same thing to coding jobs. The tech is still in its infancy, but this didn't stop software companies from falling over each other trying to adopt."

Monika looked less than impressed. "You don't even get good code that way. Your program will just end up being bloated and slow and buggy as hell."

Mehmed shrugged. "Maybe so, but this automated programming – it works a thousand times faster than any human coder, and more importantly, you don't have to pay anyone anything except the initial licensing fee. It doesn't complain if you make it work unpaid overtime, and it won't ever ask for time off. So I don't blame companies for being early adopters. Let me ask you this: what is worse – workers being replaced by robots, or workers being treated like robots? So after a few months of job hunting we were starting to get desperate. Bills had to be paid, and the rent was coming due, but we couldn't even find work selling kebabs on the street."

"So you came to Chernobyl, then?" Talvi asked.

"Not quite. In a fit of collective madness we all decided that the best course of action at that point was to become shadowrunners. You don't have to tell us that this was a thoroughly stupid thing to do, since none of us had so much as held a gun in our lives, and we had no idea who to talk to about doing that kind of work. We thought we could use our skills as programmers to steal data or break into secure systems, and we had this romantic notion that this was all part of some grand struggle against 'the system,' but it turned out that shadowrunning was really just about hurting people for money. And that's what our first 'job' was about. There was this cafe that prided itself on its 'authentic, organic, traditional' coffee, which sold for around fifty nuyen a cup. It turned out that the owner was mixing the grounds with soy products and other less...wholesome...ingredients, and our client wanted to send him a message. And by that I mean we were to rough him up a bit and trash his cafe."

"I can understand that," said Talvi. "Those who adulterate coffee deserve no mercy."

Mehmed laughed. "That may be true, especially in my country, but the righteousness of your cause doesn't always translate into actual competence. The client told us that the owner of the cafe lived in an apartment on the second floor above, so four of us waited until the cafe was closed and then headed upstairs to his room. We knocked on the door, and when nothing happened Mustafa here..." He gestured to one of the men standing nearby. "...decided to kick down the door. He steps back, takes a deep breath, and gives the door a swift kick, but instead of kicking down the door he ends up smashing his leg through the door. So now he has one leg sticking through a hole in the door, all the while he's screaming in pain because there's these wooden splinters stabbing him in the thigh. We managed to pull his leg out, and I reached in through the hole to unlock the door, and that's when we see that the apartment is completely empty. It was obvious that no one had been living there for some time, and if we were wiser we would have realised that something was wrong, but instead we went back downstairs and started smashing up the cafe. I admit it felt good destroying the place; after spending months being turned down by every potential employer I had a good deal of pent-up anger that needed to be released.

"But as we were leaving I glanced at the address on the front of the cafe, and I saw to my horror that we had gotten the last two digits of the address mixed up, which meant we had just wrecked a completely innocent man's cafe for no reason whatsoever. We spent the next half-hour or so arguing with each other over whose fault it was before deciding that there was more than enough blame to go around, and perhaps we should have taken this as a sign that we weren't meant for this kind of thing, but instead we headed down the street the cafe we were supposed to go. We broke in through a side-door in an alleyway, and for a few moments we really felt like shadowrunners, being where we shouldn't be, doing things we shouldn't be doing...and then we heard sirens outside. We must have tripped some kind of silent alarm when we broke in, and now the police had the building surrounded. Someone started shouting at us over a loudhailer to come out with our hands up, and we started panicking because we had no idea what to do. That's when Mustafa says that the only way out of this situation is to set fire to the building. After all, the police can't storm the cafe if it's on fire, can they? The problem was that we couldn't find anything flammable. The only thing we could use to start a fire was a natural gas line running to the stove, so we broke it open and the entire kitchen started filling up with gas. But there was another problem, which was that we couldn't think of a way to ignite the gas without blowing ourselves up in the process.

"We could hear the police moving in, and that's when I see this big walk-in refrigerator at the opposite side of the kitchen. I told my crew that if we locked ourselves in the fridge and kept real quiet then the police wouldn't find us. So that was what we did, and for the next two hours – or what felt like two hours at least – we sat in the fridge, freezing halfway to death, and then all of a sudden the door swings open and this police officer is pointing his gun at us. We started screaming, and I'm thinking that we're done for, that we're all going to be serving lengthy sentences in prison after this, when Mustafa starts spinning him this story about how we were employees as the cafe, and that a group of 'PKK terrorists' had taken us hostage, locked us in the refrigerator, and were planning to blow up the building. The police escorted us outside, and at that exact moment something ignited the gas leak and the whole cafe exploded. It was quite a sight, let me tell you! More importantly, it made our story sound plausible. As soon as the police were done with us we got in touch with our client, got our money, and then swore to each other that we would never do anything like this ever again."

"I've heard of runs that went a lot worse than that," said Monika. "You did the job, you got paid, and nobody got killed. That counts as a success in my book!"

"We got lucky, that's all. And we were under no illusions that we would be so lucky next time. But the money from that job didn't last long, so we had to find a new source of income. That's when we heard about the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, about the people who hunted for artefacts there, and in another fit of collective madness we all agreed that this was the way out of our predicament. It seemed simple enough – look through old buildings for valuable artefacts and find someone willing to pay for them. What no one told us was just how deadly this place was. There are certain...areas...that will kill you horribly if you stumble into them. Places were gravity is so strong you'll be crushed flat in an instant. Places that will turn you inside out. Places that will rip you apart and leave nothing behind except bloody pieces. And that's saying nothing of the creatures that roam the Zone. I don't know if they are some kind of awakened creatures or radioactive mutants, but they're ferocious and numerous. The creatures, the anomalies...they all get worse the closer you get to the power plant. Which is why I tell you that, whatever job your doing...whatever it is your client's not worth it. No one who has gone into the power plant has ever come back out again. When we first arrived here the first thing we were told, by far more experienced artefact hunters, was to stay away from that place. They told us that it was the worst, most inhospitable place in the world. Worse than Chicago, worse than the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, and even..." His voice dropped to a terrified whisper. "...even worse than Toronto."

"Now you're being facetious," Talvi said. "How could any place be worse than Toronto?"

"Have you ever been to that city?"

"No, I have not. One does not visit Toronto, in much the same way that one does not stick one's hand into a fire, or one's head into a wood chipper. But tell me, do you know of someone called 'Chernobog' who dwells in these parts? We've been in contact with him for the last few days."

His expression went called. "Yes, we have," he answered quietly, shifting about slightly. "He lives underneath the power plant; how he survives with that level of radiation, I don't know, but when the 'dead zones' subside he'll start raving at us over our commlinks. It goes on for hours, sometimes in English, sometimes in Russian, and it does not always make sense, but he seems to think the entire Zone belongs to him. Look, I'd really rather not talk about this. I've told you the story of my brief shadowrunning career, and I think it's only fair that you return the favour. You must have some good tales to tell."\

"I'm not good with stories." Monika gestured at Talvi. "Ask her, she's the one who loves carrying on about her antics."

Talvi thought Mehmed's request over for a while. "I suppose there is no harm in recounting what happened in Japan. But first, let me ask you this: have you ever heard of the battleship Yamato?"

"I'm telling you, it's blatant discrimination!"

The rental van hurtled along the highway, bringing them closer to the Zone with every second, and Finntroll couldn't contain his excitement. The Zone sounded like paradise, a place where he could kill anyone he pleased without consequence. The flight to Kiev, however, had been far less pleasant.

"It's 2054 already, and airlines still aren't doing anything to accommodate us trolls," he continued. "We need extra-wide seats, damn it! And these stupid restrictions on are skilled operators like myself supposed to get anything done without the big guns?" He picked up the automatic shotgun sitting on the floor next to him. "I feel like I'm going to break this fragging thing!"

"Aw shut it, ye bawbag-eyed twonk!" Akemi hissed. She then turned on the radio in an effort to drown out his talking. Instead, the music had the opposite effect.

"Oh my god!" Finntroll exclaimed, sitting upright. "Is that Hasselhof? Turn it up! Turn it up, damn you!"

Akemi instead turned the dial to the next channel. "We arena hearin' this auld shite!"

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that, so I won't be forced to rip out your spine and beat you to death with it." He glanced over at Murphy. "Could you step on it, you fragging halfer? You drive slower than my grandmother, and she's dead!"

"You keep your filthy mouth shut, you broke-dick piece of shit! When I'm driving, we go the speed limit! One more word out of you and I will NJP your ass so hard-"

"Hey Akemi, how long do you think it will take for this stupid dwarf to realise that he isn't in the army any more?"

Murphy began shaking in rage, struggling to keep the van on the road. "Army? Army? I am a senior drill instructor in the UCAS Marine Corps, not the fucking army! Do you know what 'army' stands for? 'Ain't Ready to be Marines Yet!'"

"Haw, stop the motor!" Akemi said, almost jumping out of her seat. "Thare's some eejits endweys on the road!"

Three men stood in the middle of the road, wearing ill-fitting army fatigues and brandishing assault rifles. One of them signalled for them stop, which sent Murphy into another fit of rage. "What the fuck is this? Who are these shit-bricks?"

Finntroll grabbed the automatic shotgun from the floor. "Let me handle this."

He exited the van by the rear doors and stormed towards the three men. "Not very smart, are you? Standing in the middle of the road like that...someone might just run you over!"

One of the men, sporting a pair of cracked, mirrored sunglasses, stepped forward. "Halt, traveller! You are entering the realm of Constantine Palaiologos, Emperor of the Romans! Before you will be allowed entry you must offer tribute to our dread sovereign."

He laughed for a good ten seconds or so. "Romans? Oh my god, you're all completely nuts, aren't you? Someone said I was crazy, too, but that goddamned shrink didn't know what the hell he was talking about. He did say that I had poor impulse control, though, and as I cut off his head with a reciprocating saw I understood the truth of his words. But enough about me. What's this 'tribute' you speak of?"

"Five thousand nuyen, and you will be allowed to pass."

Finntroll laughed again. "Five thousand? Do you honestly expect people to pay that much money just to enter the Zone? Come on, man!"

He gritted his teeth. "Look, do you have any idea how much it's going to cost taking back Constantinople from the Turks? We need to get the money somehow, so if you don't mind..."

"Oh sure, just let me get my credstick." He reached inside his jacket for a grenade, quietly pulled the pin while keeping his hand on the striker, then passed it to the man with the shades.

"Uh...this is a hand grenade," he said, staring at it in confusion.

"No, it's a novelty grenade-shaped credstick from Ares. Kids think they're a blast!" He then began walking away quickly.

"It feels like cheap drek. Look, it's even missing the pin!"

Finntroll ducked behind the van and covered his ears with his hands. A second later the grenade went off with a dull thud, the shockwave hitting him like a body blow. He had forgotten just how much a punch a grenade packed.

When the smoke and dust cleared the three men were dead, their bodies shredded by the shrapnel. Finntroll got back in the van, laughing hysterically all the while. "You wouldn't believe what those guys said! They said they were they were Romans or something, and that we had to pay tribute before we could pass. Well, I gave them 'tribute' all right. Might want to run over their bodies a few know, to make sure they're dead."

But Murphy had barely driven fifty meters before the engine suddenly cut out. He let out a fusillade of profanity that could have stripped paint from metal and tried to restart the engine to no avail. The starter motor refused to turn over, and every single piece electronic equipment in the vehicle from the radio to the satnav had gone dead.

Finntroll slammed his fist into the side of the van, putting a sizeable dent in it. "God damn this American piece of junk! Whose bright idea was it to rent a GMC van?"

"What?" Murphy howled. "You slimy little communist dick-suck! America invented the automobile! You keep your filthy trap shut!"

"It looks like we're going to have to walk, unless any of you are mechanics." Finntroll grabbed his automatic shotgun and exited the van, taking a moment to inhale the clean, fresh air. It had been a long time since he had seen actual wilderness, and for a brief instant he was overcome with nostalgia. "Reminds me of home, it does. Makes me think of the day I went camping with my family at Lake Päijänne. I'll never forget the sounds of birds singing, the wind rustling through the trees, and my wife and children screaming as I chopped them into pieces with an axe. Ah, those were the days!"

Murphy continued raging, stamping his foot on the asphalt in a way that Finntroll found absolutely adorable. "I am going to break my foot off in your ass if you don't start moving, trog!"

"Hey Akemi, you ever wonder why this dwarf's always in such a bad mood? Maybe it's because he's so short."

"Mibay he needs a little houghmagandie with some dwarven lassie. But naw-one would shag a glaikit bastirt like him."

Finntroll made a gagging noise. "Dwarf sex, bleeurgh! But you might be on to something. When we get back to Berlin I'm gonna hire a dominatrix to chain him to the bed and whip the hell out of him. It might not improve his mood, but it'd sure be funny as hell to watch."

"You know, I'm starting to think the Zone has more freaks and psychos than the 2053 Berlin DeckCon."

Talvi didn't answer immediately, being too entranced with her surroundings. They had scarcely gone fifty metres from Mehmed's camp before the trees closed in around them, and for all she knew they might be have a million miles from civilisation. It was not entirely displeasing.

"I would have thought you'd enjoy a decking convention."

"Talvi, have you ever been to DeckCon?" A second later she realised the foolishness of her question and grimaced. "Ask a stupid question...anyway, let me just say that your typical decker isn't exactly well-versed in the social graces. And I don't mean being shy or awkward, I mean they're the sort of people who'll go two weeks without showering and think there's nothing wrong with that. Just imagine this big, fat, sweaty mass of flesh slowly rolling over everything in its path and you'll have a pretty good idea of what DeckCon is like. Basically it's a Mecca for maladjusted nerds and weirdos; I'll never forget that time I walked into a lift with this elf, and then out of nowhere he turns to me and says 'You know, the acoustics in this elevator are perfect for yodelling.' I ran out of the convention centre as fast as I could and never looked back."

"On another you think Mehmed believed us when we said we'd never been to Istanbul?"

"Why wouldn't he? There's millions of people in that city; no way he's going to remember the two of us."

"Perhaps, but something in his eyes told me he was more familiar with us than he was letting on."

"Now you're being paranoid. Like I said, that city has a population of millions, which means there's probably a violent shoot-out every other day. Even if our faces were all over the news, which they weren't, I still doubt he'd remember us."

"He'd probably remember a shoot-out in Topkapi Palace."

Monika shrugged. "I'm telling you, you're being paranoid. You heard his story; he was a software programmer. The chances of him having seen us in the palace are astronomically slim." After a few seconds of silence she added, "And he doesn't seem like the sort of person who'd be too upset if he found out we were behind the theft, anyway. I mean, he laughed when we told him about sinking the battleship Yamato."

Talvi moaned in frustration. "How many times must I repeat myself? We did not sink that vessel. The Yamato was hit by an anti-ship cruise missile; I don't know who launched it, either the Russians or the Chinese, but we had nothing to do with its sinking."

A look of one parts shame and one parts embarrassment came over Monika's face. "Look, Talvi, there's something I never told you about that part of the job. See, when I pulled the ship's navigation logs, I had to disable the on-board security system, which also happened to disable the ship's fire suppression system. If hadn't done that, the fire would have been extinguished, it wouldn't have reached the forward magazine, and the whole ship wouldn't have been blown in two and sent to the bottom of the ocean. What I'm trying to to say is, if we hadn't been on-board, that ship would still be afloat."

Talvi thought it over for a bit. "Are you sure about that? Someone attacked the Yamato, and they were clearly intent on sinking it. If the first missile had not done so, they would have launched more."

"I guess we'll never know, we'll we? And seeing how the ship's under five thousand metres of water, the JIS will probably never know either. But it's kind of funny, you know? They spent billions building the thing, and it gets sunk on its maiden voyage. Money well spent, I say. Anyway, I-" There was a loud beeping from her PDA. "Hey, it's working again! About damn time!"

No sooner had she had taken it from her pocket than it began emitting a shrill, screeching noise, followed by the acerbic voice of Chernobog. "Jesus fucking Christ, I've been trying to reach you people for fucking ages!"

"We were, uh, in some sort of dead zone," Monika replied. "And we ran into some crazy people who thought they were rebuilding the Roman Empire or something."

"I guessed as much. Them and those Turkish assholes who like to play dress-up...I wish they'd all just fucking go away! It's like having a bunch of squatters in your house who don't do anything except eat your food and stink up the place. Anyway, you're probably looking for Lord Swedish's little backup site. It's in the city of Pripyat, about three kilometres north-west of the power plant. Speaking of the power plant, that's where I live, and it's where we're going to have a little meeting, you and I. You and me and the busty blonde elf."

"Wouldn't it be better to meet us outside?" Monika said. "I don't fancy walking into some irradiated hellhole."

A few seconds passed before Chernobog replied. "Believe me when I say I'd love to get out of this place, but I can't. Look, I'll explain everything when we meet, all right? Just head to the old nuclear power plant, and once you're there you'll have to find your way to the caverns underneath Reactor #4. That's the, uh, one that exploded back in '86. I'm not sure of the exact layout of the reactor, but you'll want to keep heading downwards. Or something like that."

"Isn't it dangerous? I mean, the radiation levels-"

"You know how radiation works, don't you? The more radioactive something is, the faster it decays, which means it stops being radioactive sooner. Or at least that's how I think it works; I'm not a fucking nuclear physicist! But trust me, you'll be fine! And besides, little radiation never hurt anyone!"

The link went dead, leaving Talvi with the distinct impression that they were the victim of some cruel jest.

It was close to sunset by the time the reached the outskirts of the power plant, and when she first caught sight of it Talvi could not help but feel a sense of disappointment. Knowing the sinister reputation of this place, she expected it to present an equally sinister appearance. Instead the power plant looked like any other crumbling industrial facility that one could find in just about any city in the world. The long, rectangular turbine hall could barely be seen above the trees, leaving only the dull grey sarcophagus enclosing Reactor #4 visible.

It was only once she attuned herself to the astral currents that she felt the true horror lurking within. The entire power plant was magically active, but the nexus of power did not appear to originate from within the building itself, but rather beneath it. Suddenly she felt very cold.

"Hard to imagine the meltdown being considered such a catastrophe back in '86," Monika remarked. "Knowing that things were going to get so much worse in the 21st century, a single nuclear power plant blowing up seems almost...insignificant."

Talvi continued looking over the building. "How much radioactive material do you think is entombed within this place?"

Monika shrugged. "I really rather not think about it."

Something rustled through the undergrowth behind them. Talvi turned around and found herself staring into the grotesquely-swollen eyes of a mutant.

It looked like it had been a pig at one point, but either the radiation or the latent magical energy of the Zone had twisted it into something horrific. It's entire body was swollen and bloated with tumorous growths, with dirty scraps of hair hanging off its skin, and where its snout had been there was a gaping maw, lined with rows upon rows of bloody teeth.

"Monika, I don't wish to alarm you, but there is a mutant...boar...pig...thing behind us."

"Well what are you waiting for?" she said, not turning to face the creature. "Use your magic and kill it."

"Not yet. I want to study its habits."


When Monika finally had a look at the creature she let out a yelp of fright and drew her pistol. "Oh god, what the hell is that?"

"Wait, don't shoot! It's a mutant, not a monster."

"Like hell it is!" She looked like she was a heartbeat away from bolting.

"Don't run. If you run it might give chase-"

Talvi didn't finish, as four more creatures, each one seemingly more mutated than the next, emerged from the undergrowth. She had seen enough predators in her lifetime to know that these things were sizing them up as prey.

The next thing she knew she and Monika were running as fast as they could towards the power plant. Monika looked back and fired off a few shots, which only further enraged the creatures. Despite their size they moved with surprising swiftness, grunting and growling and slavering all the while. She could hear them gaining on them, and there would no be time time get a spell off before they were overrun.

"'Study its habits' you said!" Monika yelled. "You're buying the beer when we get back to civilisation!"

The grass and shrub whipped against their clothes as they sprinted towards the power plant, the mutants steadily gaining on them. She could hear them just a few metres behind them, panting and huffing, no doubt delighted that a warm, fresh meal had just wandered into their territory. It was at that instant that Talvi was reminded of something her mother had once told her: "When you and a dwarf are pursued by a dragon, you do not have to outrun the dragon, just the dwarf."

She fumbled around inside her jacket for her puukko knife, trying not to stumble over the uneven ground. If one of those things got to her, then she sure as hell wasn't going to go down without a fight.

But when Talvi glanced over her shoulder the creatures were no longer pursuing them. They were fleeing in the opposite directly as swiftly as their mutated legs could carry them.

The turbine hall loomed ahead, a great, white monolith that stretched hundreds of metres in each direction. A section of the outer wall had collapsed, providing a convenient entrance. Too convenient, Talvi thought, as if something were trying to lure them inside. The magical currents were powerful here, so strong that even those not attuned to magic could probably feel it.

When she closed her eyes a torrent of memories crashed over her like a wave. Memories of the disaster, of panic and confusion. She saw the men sent to contain the blaze, not knowing the danger even as the radiation ravaged their bodies. She saw the fearful masses, forced to flee their homes and livelihoods. Yet through this terrible emotional miasma what she felt most of all was anger. Anger that this had been allowed to happen, anger that the authorities had been so slow to respond, and anger that the USSR had been too cowardly admit to what had happened even after people started falling ill.

"You okay, Talvi?" said Monika, noticing that she was staring off into the distance.

"Tämä on huono paikka..."


Talvi shook her head, trying to force the images out of her head. "This is a bad place."

"Not to put too fine a point on things, but when you start speaking your native tongue I immediately assume something bad is going to happen. Those mutants don't even want to come near this place."

"This is a dangerous area," she continued, "and the danger increases towards the centre. I'm not talking about radioactivity. There is something else here, something that radiates magical energy. I cannot say what, but it is...immensely powerful."

Monika removed her cyberdeck from her rucksack and powered it up. "I've got some hardware installed that will monitor the background radiation level. It gets too high, we leave. Got it?"

"Why does your cyberdeck have a rad counter installed?"

"Because it seemed like a good idea after our last job."

She could not argue with that.

The cold wind whipped against Sacro Culto's face, and each drop of rain was like an icy shard piercing his skin. He knew why they had brought him to Kirkenes airfield – to see The Bear unveiled was a rare honour – but that did not make it any less unpleasant.

"The GPS tracker has stopped sending us information," said Number One, his robes sopping with rain, "but the last coordinates we received pointed to a large building not far from Berlin. As soon as we finish loading and fuelling The Bear we will turn it into a crater."

Though he would never admit out loud, The Bear was less impressive when Sacro Culto looked upon it with his own eyes. In the past it had been used to broadcast a pirate radio signal, but soon it would take flight for its true purpose – carpet bombing cities into rubble. Yet he could not shake the feeling that there was something patently ridiculous about all this, and that the rest of world was having a terrific laugh at his expense.

"And before you ask – no, you will not be flying aboard the aircraft," Number One continued. "That is privilege reserved only for the elite of the Inner Circle and, if I may be so blunt, you are as far from achieving that lofty rank as Pluto is from the sun. Now for the matter of payment..."

Sacro Culto froze in terror, desperately trying to keep his fear from showing. "And what is it you want from me? I am prepared to give anything to destroy Korpela once and for all."

A hideous grin crept up Number One's lips. "Great power can only be had at a great price. But what can a pitiful wretch like you really offer? Let me think...for services rendered, you will give us..."

His heart began pounding and this throat went dry. Just what would they ask of him? What would he have to sacrifice?

"...all of the profits from the sales of your next album!" Number One began cackling like a maniac.

"Uh, really? That's all you want?"

"Why, what did you think our price would be?"

Sacro Culto looked around awkwardly. "It's just that, when you said this would cost me 'everything' you said it in such a sinister way that I, uh, I thought you would require my soul or something."

Number One sneered at him. "Your soul? What the fuck would we want your soul for? Your soul is dog shit. Not even The Adversary will claim it when your miserable life comes to an end, you know that? No, we just want your money from your album sales, which won't be more than a pittance, I'm sure."

"Then why do you want it?"

"Because I like to watch you suffer and be humiliated. You're a joke, Sacro Culto. You always have been and always will be. You cannot even kill one single elf, a member of the weakest, most degenerate race in the world. In truth, we only let you join the Inner Circle because you amused us, but now the joke is starting to wear thin. After The Bear returns from its mission you will no longer be welcome in our brotherhood."

He crossed his arms in defiance. "And what if I should form my own Circle? There are many bands that would join me."

Number One laughed. "Yes, you do that. It will be good for a laugh, I'm sure. Now behold!" He pointed the hangar across the tarmac. "The Bear emerges from its slumber. Look well, fool, for you will never see such magnificence again!"

"'s just a plane..."

"You're just a plane!"

"That...that doesn't even make sense."

"There are lots of things in life that don't make sense, Sacro Culto. Like the fact that you weren't strangled at birth. Now get your sorry arse back to Bergen or wherever the hell it is you live. Oh, and you're going to be walking, because we didn't buy you return airfare."

Sacro Culto's jaw dropped in astonishment. "What? It's over a thousand kilometres back to Bergen!"

"Then you'd better get going, shouldn't you?"

He clenched his fists and started walking away. To be treated like this, after all he'd done for the Inner Circle...he considered drawing his gun and shooting Number One in the head right then and there, but decided against it. Then he remembered he had forgotten his gun back in Bergen. Then he remembered he had flogged his gun for booze money.

But he wasn't going back least not right away. No, before coming here had done some digging on Korpela and discovered that her mother lived in Inari, on the shores of the eponymous lake.

That was only a hundred or so kilometres from here. Perhaps it was time he paid her a visit...

Chapter Text

Chapter 19 – Chernobog

"Uh, wait Talvi...maybe I'd better take another radiation reading. You know, just to be sure."

Setting foot inside the turbine hall was like setting foot into another world entirely. Barely any daylight made it in through the holes in the walls and ceiling, as if the building itself were swallowing it up. In the darkness they could barely go three metres without stumbling into some piece of debris, and the light from Monika's torch did not reach for enough from them to see more than a short distance ahead.

"Why? You just did that ten seconds ago."

"Yeah, but there might a hot spot or something..."

Talvi put her hands on her hips. "Monika, there's no shame in admitting you're afraid. This isn't the most pleasant place in the world."

"Me? Scared?" She shone the torch at Talvi and at then leaped backwards in fright. "Oh god, what the hell?"

Talvi looked behind her, yet saw nothing. "What? What is it?"

"Your eyes are glowing!"

"That's because you're shining the light at me."


She sighed. "Elves have a reflective layer inside our eyes, just like cats and dogs do. It helps us see better in the dark, among other things. I can't believe you haven't noticed this before."

"Right. Let's...let's just keep going, shall we?" The light from her torch fell upon a heap of rusting turbine blades and bearings. "You, uh, think there's anything worth stealing in this place?"

"I wouldn't be able to recognise something valuable if I saw it," she said, looking over a heap of twisted piping, valves, casings, and other bits of industrial equipment she couldn't identify. "Do you have any idea where we should be going?"

"We're in the south-west section of the plant, so if we go north we should reach reactor #4 and...god, I can't believe we're actually doing this. What were we thinking when we came here?"

"I don't know, this entire job was your idea."

There was a loud crash from somewhere off in the distance, making Monika jump. "What was that?"

Talvi stopped and listened carefully, hearing nothing but the faint sound of water dripping. "I don't know, but I was thinking that some musical accompaniment might make our journey a little more bearable. If only I had a fiddle with me, or perhaps an accordion..."

"And now you've gone insane. Lovely."

"Look, that door over there, at the top of the stairs – the Russian text says 'deaerator,' whatever that means. Is that we're supposed to go?"

Monika brought up a map of the plant on her cyberdeck, although the screen was so covered in dirt and scratches Talvi could barely make anything out. "There's a corridor underneath the deaerator that runs the whole length of the power plant. If we go past that we should get to the reactor building, assuming we don't die of radiation poisoning in the process."

"Nobody is going to be dying. I don't see what you're so upset about; as unpleasant as this place, all the unpleasantness happened half a century ago. Now we should-"

Monika stamped her foot on the concrete floor. "Damn it, woman, how can you be so calm? You're always like this. We've been through countless firefights and shoot-outs and I've never seen you so much as get your hair mussed. I see you drinking all the time but I've never seen you drunk. You wear black leather pants and a black leather jacket but have no interest in sex! How do you manage it? How do you not explode from being so repressed?"

The questioned bordered on being offensive. "Repressed? I dare say I am! Haven't you noticed that nearly everyone we meet is ready to dispense violence at the slightest provocation, or that the slightest rebuke sets them ranting and raving? No, it is other people who are far too emotional."

When she passed through the doorway she felt a sudden chill down her back. It was as though she had passed through some kind of boundary, from one world to the next. There was a charge in the air, a magical current so strong that she felt as though she had stepped into a raging torrent.

Monika followed closely behind, her torch casting long shadows on the wall. They were in a hallway now, one filled with twisted metal and mouldy pieces of concrete. There was a sharp, metallic scent hanging in the air, and from the depths below Talvi could hear a faint throbbing, like the beat of a heart. Every fibre of her body was telling her to turn back, but somehow her feet kept carrying her forward down the dark corridor.

She ran her hand along the wall, which was covered in cracked and peeling paint. Monika's cyberdeck emitted a steady beeping tone, which she guessed was some sort of radiation warning.

"We're getting close to the coolant pumps, or what's left of them," said Monika, consulting her map. "Half of this place is buried under rubble. Why the hell would this Chernobog guy live here, of all places?"

"I'm beginning to suspect that he is not who we think he is."

"'Beginning' to suspect? I knew there was something off about him the first time we talked with him. But what's one more weirdo in this place? And here I was, thinking that the F-State attracted its share of characters." She could tell from her quavering voice that Monika was terrified, and trying to make conversation to calm herself. "You know, uh, you never told me about the city where you live. Uh, what was it called again?"

"Inari? It's a village, not a city, with a population of around six hundred people or so."

"And what's it like there?"

"It's quiet...and peaceful. Most people know each other. We don't have much to do with the outside world, aside from people who visit during the holidays."

"So not a lot of work for shadowrunners, is there?"

"Not unless you need to rob the local liquor store, no."

The darkness seemed to be closing in around them, choking and suffocating the light of Monika's torch. So thick was the gloom that Talvi nearly tripped over a dead body curled up against the wall.

"Damn," Monika said, recoiling from the grisly sight. "What the hell happened to him?"

The body was dressed in a ragged set of army fatigues, now covered in dust, and the corpse's dessicated hand still clutched to a can of spray paint. Monika shone her torch on the wall, revealing that the unfortunate soul had written something there in Russian just prior to his demise.

"Any idea what it says?" Monika asked.

"I don't know much Russian," Talvi said, tracing her finger over the writing, "but I think it says 'Beware of Hamster.'"

"'Hamster'? Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm quite certain that's what 'хомяк' means. I don't know why one should be afraid of a small, furry animal that stores food in its cheeks but-"

A low rumbling sound emanated from somewhere behind them. Monika drew her gun and spun around, shining her torch down the hallway. "What...what was that?"

Talvi closed her eyes and listened closely, hearing a faint, far-off thump-thump-thump sound. "There is something moving about."

"Oh god,'s some kind of mutant...giant...radioactive hamster, isn't it? I knew it, I fucking knew it!"

"Calm yourself! It could be any kind of animal in this place, such a deer, a wolf, or perhaps a bear..."

"A bear? That's so much better!" She turned around and began hurrying down the corridor. "I'm not staying around to find out what it is. Let's go!"

The hallway brought them to a high, narrow chamber, and the darkness was now so heavy, so oppressive, that one could almost reach and grasp it. Dirt and debris were piled so high that they could see not the floor, though several cylindrical structures poked up through the heaps of rubble. More corpses lay ahead, all in an advanced state of decay, and all wearing the same kind of army fatigues.

"These must be the main coolant pumps, or what's left of them." Monika shone her torch on the bodies. "I wonder what killed these people?"

One of the bodies was clutching a PDA in his hand, and after prying the device from its rotten fingers Monika tried powering it up. "Batteries are dead. But I bet the storage memory is still intact. You got a screwdriver or something on you?"


"Right. Guess I'll have to do this the old-fashioned way." She slammed the PDA against a steel support beam, splitting the case open and exposing its innards. "Typical Fuchi junk. Their build quality has really gone downhill these last few years."

"Yes, but can you get anything from it?"

After a half-minute or so Monika managed to remove the storage chip from the remains of the PDA. She then slotted it into her cyberdeck and began browsing its contents. "Let's see what we have here..."

While she dug through the contents of the PDA's storage chip Talvi considered looking into the astral plane. Yet she knew that doing so would be a terrible idea, that she would see something she would never want to see.

"There's not much on here except a bunch of cat pictures and some audio files. I'll try playing them back, maybe there's something interesting in them."

A few seconds later a thin, reedy voice emerged from the cyberdeck's speaker, speaking with a broad American accent.

"Well, we've finally made it into the sarcophagus. Word is that this is a virgin area for artefacts; a real goldmine. They told us no one's been here before, at least no one who came back. We heard this bullshit story about something called the 'Hamster,' apparently it's some kind of monster that's supposed to live inside the sarcophagus. When I mentioned it to another group of artefact hunters their faces went all pale and they started speaking in hushed whispers. Jesus fucking Christ, what is wrong with people?"

"I have a bad feeling about this," Monika said, playing back the next audio file.

"Fuck, it's dark in here. We can't see ten feet in front of us, and the radiation keeps screwing with our flashlight batteries. I feel like something is watching is, following us, just staying out of sight somewhere in the darkness. The other guys are talking about 'The Hamster' again...what a bunch of fucking morons. It's probably just some animal scurrying about...these idiots hear one scary story and they completely lose their shit. Still no sign of any artefacts, though. I sure as hell hope we find something; every hour we spend in this place is probably taking years off our lives."

"There's one more recording," said Monika.

"Oh god, oh god, oh god, it's real. The Hamster is real. The others don't believe me, but I've seen it. We should never have come here. This...this is not the place for man. They don't understand what I've seen – that the Zone is not part of this world, that it is part of another reality entirely. The is a true a horror, ancient beyond time, beyond reckoning...a horror from beyond the veil. I know it is coming for me...coming to devour my eyeballs. Why...why does it need our eyes? Why does it savour human flesh?Why does it consume some while leaving others as slaves? I...I cannot let the others live. They are already its thralls, though they know it not. Once they are dead I will turn the gun on myself. Better to die free than submit to the will of that...thing."

Monika looked up at Talvi, her jaw agape. "This just keeps getting better, doesn't it?"

"Look, I think we might need a song or two to lift our spirits in this dark and oppressive place. There are a number of folk songs that come to mind..."

"What? No, just-"

Talvi ignored her. "Hmm, perhaps a traditional English ballad wouldn't go amiss." She cleared her throat and began to sing:

"Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Remember me to one who lives there,

He was once a true love of mine.

Tell him to make me a cambric shirt,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Without no seams nor needlework,

Then he'll be a true love of mine."

"Talvi, stop."

"Tell him to find me an acre of land,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Between the salt water and the sea-strand,

Then he'll be a true love of mine.

Tell him to reap it with a sickle of leather,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

And gather it all in a bunch of heather,

Then he'll be a true love of mine."

"Meine Fresse, have you gone mad, woman? We're in the middle of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, possibly home to some sort of mutant abomination, and you're singing! Look, did you even read Lord of the Rings?"

Talvi frowned, wondering what that had to do with anything. "Of course I did. As as a matter of fact I learned Quenya before I learned English. The grammatical similarities with the Finnish language made it quite easy to pick up."

"All right, but do you remember Tom Bombadil?"

"What about him?"

"Then you'll remember that nobody liked the parts with Tom Bombadil, with all his stupid, pointless songs. And right now, you're acting like Tom Bombadil. So stop it."

"I think you're being facetious, Monika. Tom Bombadil added a sense of levity to the dire situation the hobbits had found themselves in. I must say, the widespread contempt for Iarwain Ben-adar is at the root of fantasy's descent into schlocky trash."

Monika continued onwards, carefully stepping across a heap of debris and twisted metal. "Try not to kick up too much dust – it's probably radioactive and you don't want to be breathing it in." She pointed her torch back at Talvi. "It's weird that you like Lord of the Rings; I would have thought metahumans would hate that stuff."

"Why would we?"

"I don't know, it all seems so...stereotypical. People usually don't like it when others put them in boxes labelled 'elf' or 'dwarf' and assume they're supposed to act a certain way." She grabbed hold to one of the ruined coolant pumps and began making her way down the pile of rubble.

"I never saw it that way. The elves of Lord of the Rings are a proud, noble people, and I imagine the book helped a great many of us shape our personal identities. At least that was how my family felt; my grandfather was a fantasy author – not a terribly successful one, mind you – and he was delighted when my mother was born an elf. For him it was as though fantasy had become real, or at least part of it."

"You're so lucky, you know that? Having family members that aren't at each other's throats...I wonder what that's like?" Monika came to a sudden stop a short distance ahead. "Whoa, look at this."

A huge, gaping hole stood in the middle of the chamber, looking as though something had melted its way through the concrete and into in the ground below. Someone had deposited a step ladder in the hole recently, though the half-dozen corpses lying on the floor suggested that he had been less than successful in his endeavour. When Monika shone her torch on the north wall it revealed that someone had painted the words 'Иди в пизду!' in huge red letters, and below was a long, rambling statement in Russian that Talvi could not understand, though she could pick out numerous vulgar expressions.

"I have a feeling this will take us to Chernobog," Talvi said, staring down into the black abyss before her. She stood motionless for a few seconds, trying to get a feel for the magical currents swirled around her. "I sense two forces at work here. There is a great power beneath us, but there is is like a shell or husk that surrounds the sarcophagus. reeks of the magic used in the Tir nations!"

"A 'shell?' So is it meant to keep people out or keep something in?" Monika gestured towards the deep, dark hole. "After you."

Talvi held tightly to the sides of the ladder as she descended. The air was much colder here, cold enough that she could see her breath, and it held a pungent, unidentifiable scent that smelled like burning metal mixed with sulphur.

Monika followed closely behind, mumbling something in German to herself. "Please don't break into song again. I...I don't think I could handle it."

Talvi stepped off the ladder and nearly tripped over a corpse lying face-down in the dirt. When she looked down she saw that a large portion of the body's torso was missing, as if a grenade had gone off in his hand. Whatever this place was, it was clearly not part of the power plant. Someone had been dug or blasted a passage deep into the bedrock, and from the black depths there came an unbearably chill wind.

"Look," said Monika, pointing to the roof of the passage, "someone's run a network cable down here."

"How Chernobog accesses the Matrix, no doubt. But why would he live here, of all places? If he wants to live apart from the world – and I wholly understand such a desire – there are a far better locations."

Monika shone her torch into the darkness. "Hey, what was it you said about peoples' ancestors earlier? That they're never really gone from the world?"

"That is what I said, yes."

"Right, so just to let you know...if I get killed in this place I'm coming back to haunt your ass."

Talvi frowned. "Why all this talk of dying? Do you Germans not have an equivalent to Finnish sisu?"

"And what's that word supposed to mean?"

She thought it over for a few moments. "It means...that if you were to be swallowed by a dragon, you would prove yourself to be so utterly indigestible that it would have no choice but to vomit you back up."

"Thanks for that pleasant mental image. Well, I guess we'd better find out what's at the bottom of this rabbit hole."

The roof of the passage was too low for Talvi to stand upright, forcing her to walk hunched over. Every instinct was telling her to leave this place, yet something compelled her forward, a droning in the back of her mind that felt like an itch she couldn't scratch. Thought became difficult, to the point where she could think of nothing else except moving forward.

In the distance Talvi spied a faint, pulsing glow. She quickened her pace, somehow knowing that her goal was not far ahead. The passage stopped descending and started narrowing, to the point where the two of them had to walk one in front of the other.

"Welcome to my domain, chummers." The voice was loud and booming, making the ground vibrate beneath their feet, yet it carried the same sardonic tone that instantly identified it as being Chernobog's.

Talvi froze, terrified but wholly unwilling to show it. Just who was this person? Subconsciously she knew what he was, but her mind refused to acknowledge it.

"I said come in! Don't stand there!"

Monika grabbed hold of Talvi's arm. "Uh, maybe you should go first?"

The passage suddenly opened up into a cavernous chamber suffused with a pale blue-green glow that appeared to come from everywhere and nowhere. She looked up, trying gauge the size of the cavern, but she could see nothing but darkness.

A dark figure fluttered about in the gloom before slowly taking shape. At first it appeared as a thousand points of light glittering in the blackness, and it took Talvi a few seconds to realise that it was a vast array of scales.

She tried to turn back, but her legs would not obey her. It was commonly-accepted wisdom that meeting a dragon face-to-face usually meant that your demise imminent.

Even with her elven senses Talvi could barely make out the figure of Chernobog. It seemed to shift and dance about in the darkness, never coming into focus. She discerned that his entire body was pure black and that what they were seeing was the light glinting off his scales.

With every breath Talvi felt her significance fading into nothingness. She was in the presence of true power, a power vast and ancient, to whom mortals were little more than shooting stars that briefly flashed into existence before disappearing forever. This was true horror, as Lovecraft had described it, the knowledge of one's own meaninglessness before a vast, uncaring universe inhabited by beings as old as time itself.

"You have journeyed far, have you not?" said Chernobog, keeping himself partially hidden in the darkness, suddenly speaking in exceedingly pompous tone. "And now you have reached this cold, lightless hell that I call my home. Long have I waited in this place, long have I waited...and watched. I have watched the centuries pass, watched civilisations rise and fall, watched as the very gods themselves were born, grew old, and then died…

"...and HOLY FUCKING SHIT have you cunts fucked this planet up good! What the fuck has become of this world? Pollution choking the skies? Whole cities turned into irradiated hellholes? Canada and the USA joined together and not even having the fucking decency to nuke Toronto? Maria Mercurial albums going double-platinum? JUST...FUCKING...STOP. Can you tell me, just 'cause I want to hear it from your mouths, what the biggest corporation in the world is?"

With great effort Talvi managed to speak. "Saeder-Krupp, of course."

"That's right! And who runs Saeder-Fuck? Huh? Go on, say his name! Say it! SAY HIS FUCKING NAME!"

She hesitated, knowing that no matter what she did it would likely enrage him. "Lofwyr," she said quietly.

For an instant they caught sight of his face, a terrible horned visage whose eyes burned like coals. "Lofwyr! Lofwyr the Great, Lofwyr the Terrible! The dragon who plays the world like a goddamn fiddle! Well Lofwyr can suck my scaly draconic dick! He probably thinks he's got a proper hoard...the biggest fucking hoard in the world...but what does he have, really? A bunch of stock options and shares and securities and portfolios! That's not a fucking hoard! A hoard is a mountain of jewels you can spend days climbing! A hoard is a pile of gold you can go swimming in! A hoard is something that draws every would-be hero and dragonslayer from miles around! What does Lofwyr have, huh? He's nothing more than a fucking suit! If I ever get my claws on him I'm going to pull his head out through his asshole!"

Talvi glanced back at Monika, who was cowering behind her. She thought about saying something, but remained silent. It was probably not a good idea to interrupt a dragon while he was ranting.

"But you're probably asking yourselves why you've never heard of me until now. Well get comfortable, chummers, 'cause I've got a story to tell. Many, many years ago I was having a nice little nap when some motherfucking crotchgoblin and his friends got word of my little hoard – and when I say 'little' I'm being fucking sarcastic, because this thing was huge – and they decided they'd like a little piece of it. But they were too fucking cowardly to fight me, so they lured me into this cavern – and don't you fucking dare ask me how they did that – and sealed me inside with a magic spell. Now you might be wondering what kind of magic could seal a dragon away for millennia...a question I ask myself every goddamn day! I don't know who those cuntrags were, but they're probably all dead now, which pisses me right the fuck off 'cause it means I won't have the chance to make them suffer for every day I've spent trapped here.

"So I went to sleep for a few thousand years or so, and then all of a sudden I get woken up. By what, you ask? Good question! You see, while I was napping some assholes went and built a nuclear power plant right above me, and they didn't even have the goddamn common courtesy to build one that DOESN'T FUCKING EXPLODE! Do you know what's it like waking up to fucking radioactive lava seeping into your room? Do you? And everything went right to shit after that. This place, the Zone, it became magically active after the Awakening, which meant every greedy cocksucker for miles around came looking for treasure; you've already met some of them, I'm sure. But luckily for me, I can feel the magic that keeps me here weakening. Not by much, mind you, but just enough that I can dominate the mind of any asshole who gets too close." Chernobog started laughing, a truly horrifying sound. "I put some idea into their heads about 'the Hamster' - this mutant rodent that would eat their eyeballs and swallow their souls – just so people would leave me alone. It didn't work, but it was fucking funny watching them piss themselves over it. I even got them to hook up a cyberterminal for me, just so I could have a go at Lord Swedish's latest 'masterpiece' Mega Therion. Have you played it?"

Monika answered first. "I...uh...I don't play trideo games."

"Neither do I," Talvi said.

"Oh, then you're in for a fucking treat, 'cause this game is something else, let me tell you. It's this fantasy RPG where you play as some dumbfuck peasant who has fight against the evil empire that's going to take over the world and...fuck...the story's just total fucking shit, all right? It starts out with these goblins attacking your village, and they will fucking kill you if you don't have a weapon. So how do you find a weapon? You could spend a few hours searching every fucking house in the village...or you could just buy a sword from this travelling merchant who's just standing in the middle of the village square even while the goblins are raping and killing everyone in sight. And when I say 'buy' I don't mean using in-game money, I mean using real nuyen. So you defeat the goblins and you're ready to leave the village and begin your adventure, but it turns out there's a troll guarding the bridge out of town. And this troll, he's five or six levels higher than you, so if you fight him you're going to get your shit packed in. Now you could spend twenty hours or so grinding until you're at a high enough to kill the fucker...or you just could buy a "Magic Sword of Trollslaying" - yes, that's what it's fucking called – with more of your own nuyen.

"Oh, but it gets better. When the troll dies he takes the bridge down with him, so you have to find some wood to repair the bridge because the villagers are too fucking lazy to do it themselves. So that means you can either spend eight hours chopping down wood in the forest, or you could just buy a scroll of teleportation to get across the bridge guessed it...real money. So after you leave the village you come to this big, huge city, but the guards won't let you in because you're a filthy peasant and they're corrupt as shit, which means you either have to spend three hours looking for a way in or spend more of your actual money bribing them. After getting through the gates you spend the night at an inn, and when you wake up you find that some thief has made off with all your stuff. So you have a choice – either spend hours searching the city for the asshole, or pay the local crime boss with – I don't even have to fucking say it at this point – real money, just to find out who took your shit. Am I making things clear to you? Am I conveying the proper impression of this fucking piece of shit game? But I haven't even gotten to the best part yet, and that's the ending.

"You fight the Dark Lord – that's what he's actually called – and just when you think you've beaten him he pulls this magic spell out of his ass that kills you dead, and there's nothing you can do to avoid it. So how do you beat him? Go, take a guess! I fucking dare you! That's right, you've got to pay real money for a spell that will protect you. But it doesn't end there! After he dies you don't even get a fucking proper ending! It just fades to black with an advertisement for the "Epilogue Add-on" which of course you have to pay real money for. I calculated how much you'd have to pay to finish this game before the sun swallows the earth, and you know what I found? You'd have to fork over five thousand fucking nuyen just to get through this steaming pile of bullshit in any reasonable amount of time. And that, ladies, is why I want Lord Swedish's head on a fucking platter!"

Talvi found herself struggling to reconcile the dragon's majestic and awe-inspiring presence with his vulgar, childish demeanour. Everything she had read about dragon-kind suggested they were obsessed with etiquette and propriety, but she supposed that every race had its deviants.

"What kind of pretentious cunt goes around calling himself 'Lord Swedish,' anyway?" Chernobog continued, flapping his wings and buffeting them with a stiff wind. "But I know what his real name is. See, I don't need a cyberterminal to access the Matrix; I can do it through the sheer force of my will. And that means I can get into any system I want, anytime. And with this unique talent of mine I've spent the past few months I've been digging up what information I can on Lord Swedish, in addition to just fucking around with him."

"So what is his real name, then?" Talvi asked.

"All right, prepare yourself, 'cause you aren't going to believe it. You ready? Lord Swedish's real name is...Chris P. Bacon. Get it? 'Crispy Bacon?' And seeing how he's an ork, can you guess how man times someone called him a 'pig' to his face? He's not from Sweden, by the way; he probably doesn't even speak a single word of Swedish. No, he's from Stockholm, Wisconsin, but when he was about five years old he moved to the Redmond Barrens in Seattle. Either of you ever been there?"

"No," said Monika.

"I'm banned from that city," Talvi answered, somewhat sheepishly.

Chernobog reared back. "What? How the fuck do you get banned from Seattle? Did you plough the mayor's wife on the grave of his dead daughter or something? So anyway, Lord Swedish grows up in the ghetto, turns into some kind of hard man, and then decides he's going to be a shadowrunner, 'cause that means that now he can hurt people and get paid for it. But every single run he goes on turns into a fucking bloodbath with him being the only survivor, and once you get that kind of reputation no one's going to want to work with you. So he flies over to Russia and starts doing jobs there, mostly small-time shit, and that's when he meets Kerensky. He tell you the story about the bank job?"

"He did."

"Right, so his crew shoots him in the back and leaves him for dead, and for the next two years there's no sign of Lord Swedish at all. Maybe he got sent to a Siberian prison, or maybe he went underground, but when he reappears suddenly he's got millions of nuyen to his name and he's using it to found his own game company. I mean, where the fuck did he get that money? I just can't figure it out. It just literally appeared in his bank account one day, and no one seemed to find this suspicious at all. My money's on Nazi gold, but that seems to be in short supply these days. But the most important thing to remember is this: Lord Swedish is really fucking hard to kill. So do yourselves a favour and cut his head off – it's the only way to be sure. Now, how would you like to hear all the things I've learned about you two?"

Monika looked about nervously. "Uhh..."

"I got a question for the elf," Chernobog said, moving forward just enough for her to see his eyes briefly. "Do you know who your father was?"

She opened her mouth to tell him that this was none of his business, but she quickly realised the stupidity of talking back to a dragon. "No, I don't know, and I don't think he was anyone important."

"You're wrong there, blondie. You see...I am your father."

Talvi took a step back, a chill running down her spine. Was this some sort of joke? His tone was one of complete seriousness, but her mind would not accept it.

Suddenly Chernobog burst out laughing. "Oh, oh, I really had you going there for a second, didn't I? You should have seen the look on your face! There's no way I could have left this cavern just to go all the way to Finland and plough your mother...OR IS THERE? Well, guess you'll spend all eternity wondering, won't you? And if I were your daddy, you know what that makes you? An immortal elf! FUCK those guys! I can't fucking stand those cumguzzling dumpstersluts! That twat Harlequin is the worst of the lot, you know that? That clown-faced cockslobbering quimspitting fucknugget! If I ever meet him I'm going to break his legs and shove his head up his own asshole just so he can sit there and talk shit to himself! Then I'm going to fuck his sister on the grave of his mother while his sick father looks at us and jerks off! I will cut him into pieces and make him into kebab meat, which I'll serve to those Turkish assholes outside. I WILL FUCK HIM UP! Now what the hell were we talking about, again?"

"What do you know about BSP Games' off-site backup?" Monika, finally finding the courage to speak.

"That? It's underneath Palace of Culture in Pripyat. It connects wirelessly to a repeater station in...fuck, I don't know where. Fucking wireless shit! Can't do anything with that. Sure hope more people don't start using will be able to fuck with people over the Matrix, then? Watch yourselves when you go in there; I've got no idea what kind of security systems they have set up or what kind of assholes they've got guarding the place." Chernobog suddenly shifted about his feet and let out a low growl. "Oh, what's this I sense? Lord Swedish's little shithead dingleberries have arrived! Get behind that rock over; you're going to love watching me deal with these freaks."

They did as they were told, hiding behind a large outcropping of rock near the cavern's entrance. Soon Talvi heard voices approaching, three of them to be exact, and they sounded angry.

The first voice was low and guttural, almost bestial. "Aww, is little Murphy scared? Need mommy to come hold your hand? Get moving, shorty, before I shove my foot up your ass!"

The second voice spoke with what sounded like a broad Scottish accent, more imitative than authentic. "Ye bampots shut yer geggies! I hear something oop aheid!"

The last voice carried the unmistakble tone of a drill instructor. "If you morons had shit for brains there wouldn't be a smell! This place is an empty as your skulls! Sgt. Murphy is afraid of nothing! I faced down hordes of Viet Cong back in 'Nam! I stormed the beaches of Normandy! I will not bend! I will not break!"

Three figures emerged from the passage, and even in the dim light of the cavern Talvi could clearly make out their figures. One was a dwarf wearing a campaign hat, the other was a woman wearing what appeared to be Highland dress, and the third was the biggest troll she had ever seen, a veritable mountain of muscle. His feet hit the ground with a dull thud-thud-thud that echoed throughout the cavern.

Moving with surprising alacrity for someone so large, Chernobog leapt forward and planted himself in front of the trio. Talvi carefully inched her head from behind the rock, trying catch of a glimpse Chernobog in his full magnificence (his full, vulgar, foul-mouthed magnificence), but even in the light his figure remained frustratingly elusive. It was almost as though he were somehow insubstantial, only half-existing in reality.

"Aw shite," said the woman in the kilt.

"Lord Swedish probably told you that I was just some gopnik in a cave with a cyberterminal, didn't he? Well guess again, fuckers! As of now you have ten seconds to give me a good reason why I shouldn't kill the whole lot of you. Go on, start talking!"

The dwarf stepped forward and stamped his right foot on the ground. "I am not afraid of you, lizard-brain! I represent the United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave! Our nation put a man on the moon! Our nation defeated communism! I will not bow to any man, elf, dwarf, troll, ork, or dragon!"

Chernobog was less than impressed. "Listen you absolute penis, the United States doesn't exist any more! Jesus Christ on a stick, I knew you Americans were fucking dumb, but I never expected this level of ignorance. Then again you were stupid enough to join the army, so you're clearly operating on a whole other level of retardation."

Talvi noted how the dragon's words were chosen for maximum offensiveness, and as she expected they sent the dwarf into a rage. "You slimy shitsack! I am a marine, god damn it! Those army pukes aren't fit to lick our boots! We are the most devious goddamn killers on this earth! I may die, but the Corps lives forever, which means I live forever!"

"Well you got that first part right, at least."

In the blink of an eye Chernobog darted forward, snatched the dwarf up in his jaws, and then flung him into the air. He let out a long, surprisingly high-pitched scream as his body came plummeting back towards the ground, impacting the cold stone with a wet splat.

"Now, which one of you fuckers wants to be the next asshole to test me?"

" killed him," said the troll, sounding genuinely shocked. "Now I won't get to do in the bastard myself! I thought you dragons weren't supposed to act like this! You don't just...kill get other people to do it for you!"

Chernobog roared, a sound so deafening Talvi reflexively covered her ears. "You PISS-GARGLING FUCKSTAIN! You dare to tell me how I should behave? I'd tell you to get in my belly, but I don't eat trolls 'cause you taste too fucking gamey! I'm going to give you to the count of three to get the fuck out of my cave before I rip out your intestines and strangle you with them! One...two..."

Chapter Text

Chapter 20 – A Blast From The Past

Sacro Culto stepped out of the Fiat and drew his machete. He had parked just a little too close to a large pine tree and broken off the driver-side wing mirror in the process, but the car was stolen and he didn't care a bit about it.

He took a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it. An address was written on it: 4 Raumalantie, Inari, Finland. That was where Korpela's accursed mother lived, and from what he had been able to find out she too was an elf, which meant she was either a spike baby or had gotten pregnant at an extremely young age. Knowing the general decadence and depravity of elves, it was probably the latter.

She lived in a red, moderately-sized house, which looked positively quaint compared to more modern dwellings. "Quaint" might have described the whole village of Inari, which looked like it hadn't changed in more than half a century. He had not spoken to any of the townspeople since arriving here, but Sacro Culto was quite certain they were all filthy degenerates.

"Degenerates...degenerates everywhere," he muttered to himself as approached the house. The sense of hostility had been palpable ever since he had crossed the border, as if the land itself were displeased at his presence.

Or maybe it was the sheer number of elves he had seen while driving through the village. Could it be that this entire place was more elf-infested than usual? Who knew what sort of disgusting activities this accursed race got up to here? Every full moon they probably threw off their clothes and ran into the woods to partake in some sort of orgiastic ritual too horrifying to imagine.

He approached the door, gripping the machete tightly. Looking down, he saw a doormat by the entrance, with the words "MENE POIS"printed on it.

He took a deep breath and knocked on the door. This was going to be messy.

There was no answer, nor any sound from within. Was she not at home? Sacro Culto didn't fancy having to loiter around this miserable little village until she returned.

Before he turn around and walk away several loud shots rang out. A barrage of bullets ripped through the door, narrowly missing him by inches and showering him with wood splinters.

"Faen!" he yelped, darting away from the porch. He looked back to see the door swing open and a tall, blonde elf stepped out, assault rifle in one hand and a grenade in the other.

His first thought was that this woman a total psycho. His second was that she bore an uncanny resemblance to her daughter. His third thought was that he, armed only with a knife, was quite clearly outmatched in this situation.

"Otappa kranaatti!" She slung the rifle over shoulder and pulled the pin from the grenade. "Maista TÄTÄ!"

He ducked behind the Fiat just as the grenade landed on the grass and exploded, showering the rental car with shrapnel. His ears ringing, he stood up and saw Korpela's mother advancing on him, assault rifle in hand and quite clearly intent on banishing him from the community of the living. "Vedän sua niin kovaa turpiin että paskot hampaitas viikon!"

They said that discretion was the better part of valour, and considering himself to be exceptionally valorous Sacro Culto dropped his machete and fled as fast as his legs could carry him. A bullet whizzed by his head, tearing through a nearby birch tree, while another grazed his shoulder. The sharp, searing pain was nothing next to thought of dying to this crazy woman, however, and he ran until his legs were aching and his lungs were burning.

He spun around, half-expecting Korpela's mother to be close at his heels. Instead Sacro Culto found himself alone in the middle of the forest, with absolutely no idea where he was. Gasping and panting, he tried to orient himself, only to find that he had lost all sense of direction. He couldn't have been more than kilometre or two from the village, but it may as well have been the middle of nowhere.

All right, don't panic. You're a true son of northern darkness, and you are afraid of nothing. He clutched his shoulder, feeling warm blood spreading across his hand.

His mind strained trying to recall the basic geography of the area. Going south meant going deeper into Finland, which was out of the question, and going east meant going towards Russia, which was definitely out of the question. There was no way he was going back to the village, as Korpela's mother was probably waiting for him, so his only options were to go either north or west.

Introspection and self-reflection were not, as a rule, things that Sacro Culto engaged in very often. The closest had ever come was when he tried to sacrifice a lamb to Satan beneath a full moon, but instead of having a profoundly spiritual experience all he accomplished was making a dreadful mess.

The sun was nearing the horizon, so he started off in that direction, hoping he could reach the Norwegian border by nightfall.

A voice spoke, coming from everywhere and nowhere. "Well, well, well...what you have gotten yourself into this time, you festering wound upon the soul of humanity, you swaybacked, hag-born, pox-ridden, lant-gulping dirtchute?"

He spun around. "Who said that?"

Another voice, like the first, but distinct. "I wonder how long it will take this idiot to figure it out? He hasn't shown much in the way of wisdom ever since he slithered out of his mother's womb."

A third voice, this one even more sardonic. "It's such a shame his father beat him instead of cancer."

Sacro Culto's jaw dropped. "What? Show yourself, you cowards!"

"We're all around you, idiot! We're the trees, the forest, the deep dark green. We hear all, we see all, and in your case, we find it lacking."

"What the fuck? Trees don't speak! What the hell is this?"

They did not answer for a few seconds. "All the strange and fantastic things in the Sixth World, and talking trees are somehow beyond your philosophy? But perhaps you are right. Perhaps you are simply mad, having succumbed to one of those psychoses so terribly common amongst followers of The Adversary."

"Look, I wouldn't take this kind of shit from a man, and I'm sure as hell not going to take from a bunch of trees!"

"I want to kill him!" said one of the firs. "Let's cut his head off!"

"Cut his head off with what?"

"Um...well...we could...uh..."

Sacro Culto folded his arms. "I'd like to see you try!"

"Oh, don't mind Pekko. He's just been in a bit of a bad mood lately, isn't that right, Pekko?"

"Well you'd be in a bad mood too if you had a bunch of owls nesting in your branches, and all they did was shit all over you and keep you awake at night with their incessant hooting!"

Is this real? Is this just fantasy? Maybe snorting all those lines of Pixie Dust back in Kirkenes hadn't been such a good idea.

"That fucking dealer, what did he cut this shit with?" he wondered aloud.

As if response, the trees began singing in a chorus of mockery:

"Sacro Culto reigns king in his mind.

He shakes his fist at all elvenkind

But 'round every corner he's likely to find-"

"Shut up! Just shut up!" he yelled, stamping his foot. "You're not even human fucking beings! You're a bunch of fucking trees! I could kill you all with an axe if I wanted to!"

"And what are you, human? A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through our woods. The elf you seek has outwitted you, outfoxed you, and outplayed you at every turn, while you have sunk to depths too humiliating to describe. Is there any degradation to which you have not been subjected? How many times have you drunk from the bitter cup of defeat? Isn't it about time you stopped? Why are you still here?"

He began digging his foot into the ground. "One of those days I'm going to come back here and burn this forest to ashes. Now do you know the way back to town or not?"

"Walk straight ahead in the direction you're facing and you'll be back in Inari in no time. Of course, the elf you so cruelly tried to murder might still be waiting for you. I doubt very much you'd survive another encounter with her."

"Ha! I am not afraid of her! Do you know what The Adversary told me? He said that I shall not perish till the woods and winter claim me! Now, I may be in the woods, but as you can plainly see it is not winter, which means my death must wait for another day! You hear me, trees? I cannot die!"

The trees remained silent for several seconds. "Does your ass get jealous of all the shit that comes out of your mouth? Get the fuck out of here, you wanker!"

There was some rustling in the trees behind him, and when Sacro Culto turned around he saw Korpela's mother step into the clearing, followed by a large number of of townsfolk armed with guns, knives, pitchforks, and anything else they could get their hands on.

"Siinä hän on!" she shrieked. "Tapa hänet!"

He didn't need to understand Finnish to know that the mob had no intention of taking him alive, so he bolted into the woods, dodging left and right as bullets flew past him.

"Talvi, I've got a questions buzzing like little insects in my head, and there...there's one that keeps buzzing louder than the others. And that's how in the hell did you manage to get banned from Seattle?"

She breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped out of the turbine hall and into the warm light of the sun. "Perhaps 'banned' is the wrong word. I just don't think it would be wise to return there."


Talvi considered how to tell this particular tale. "Our band was there on tour a few years ago, and I was waiting in the lobby of a hotel for a taxi to the airport. Now this hotel, it was not the most luxurious of accommodations, nor did it have the most refined clientele. And it just so happened that some drunken sot came up behind me and attempted to grope me. Having had quite a bit to drink myself, my initial reaction was to ram my elbow into his face. He responded in kind, and we would have found ourselves in a brawl had an ork not intervened. This ork, he was with Lone Star – one of those ghastly private law enforcement firms that are all over North America – and I remember him wearing this hideously garish pair of red sunglasses. Or maybe they were goggles – I couldn't quite tell. I can't remember what he said, but it was obvious that he wanted to take us both in for questioning."

"Let me guess – things got violent?"

"Well I sure wasn't going to let this contemptible little fascist drag me away, was I? So I picked the nearest object I could find to bludgeon him with, which in this case happened to be a bust of Nefertiti, and smashed him over the head with it. When this failed to render him comatose, I resorted to...setting him on fire."

"Oh my god! What happened next?"

"The hotel had a pool just beyond the lobby, so this Lone Star officer threw himself into the water. I do recall there being a number of children in the pool at the time; I suspect they were all thoroughly traumatised, though perhaps they learned a valuable lesson about opposing authority in the process. I didn't see what happened next, since my taxi pulled up to the kerb and I departed in all haste. Now I don't know if that ork ever found out who I was, but I don't think it would be prudent to return to Seattle, at least not for some time."

Monika said nothing for a moment. "Well, somewhere out there there's a Lone Star ork whose friends will never let him forget the day some crazy blonde elf smashed a bust of Nefertiti over his head. But look, we...we need to talk about what happened."

"You mean the dragon? I admit, I never expected one to be so churlish and foul-mouthed. Perhaps he is a younger member of his species, or is simply committed to being immature."

"This isn't a joke, Talvi! Making a deal with a dragon never turns out well, even if you stand to benefit...especially if you stand to benefit."

"Chernobog hasn't asked us to do anything we weren't already hired to do, and his hatred of Lord Swedish seems to be genuine." Talvi looked to the north-west, where an overgrown road led into the woods. "We should get moving if we want to reach Pripyat by nightfall."

"Wait, stop! Look, I'm trying to have a freak out here, and I'd appreciate it if you'd be just a little more supportive!"

"Why? Because you spoke with a dragon? Even if he were behaving in accordance with stereotype of his race, and we are nothing more than pawns in some elaborate scheme of his, what do you propose we do about it? That's the problem with you city types – you're always fretting about the future and 'what ifs?' and you never simply live in the moment."

"That's easy for you to say," Monika pouted, "you speak a language that doesn't even have a future tense! I don't want to sound like a coward, but...but maybe we should just quit while we're ahead? I go back to Berlin, you go back to your little cabin in the woods, and we forget that any of this ever happened. I mean, what are we even doing here? We're in the middle of fucking Chernobyl, trying to take down a game company. Is this really worth it, Talvi? That's assuming we even get paid; I won't be surprised if our 'employer' decides to screw us on that front."

"And what of the people you say this company is abducting and forcing into servitude? Don't you care about them?"

She reacted as if Talvi had just slapped her in the face. "Of course I care about them! I care about everyone in F-State! But we're just two women, Talvi. Thinking that we alone can somehow save everyone, that...well...that's just crazy. Maybe it's crazy to think people need saving."

"I am not naive, Monika. I don't believe for a second that a handful of individuals can overthrow this system. Things are the way they are because we allowed it. We decided to let market forces and corporations become the supreme arbiter of human affairs, we allowed technology to permeate every aspect of lives, and now we're reaping the consequences of our stupidity. But even if we cannot defeat the system, we must make the attempt."

"Talvi, everything I've learned about BSP Games' headquarters tells me its impregnable, that we'd get killed before we even made it through the front gate. There's just no way..."

She remained silent for a few seconds. "Do I have to give you a lesson in history? In 1939, the USSR invaded my country after we refused demands for territorial concessions. The war seemed hopeless at the outset – the Soviets had an enormous advantage in manpower and materiel, but we fought them at every turn, making them pay for every metre they took. In the end we were forced to cede them land – just enough for the Soviets to bury their dead – but we retained our independence, free from the influence of the USSR and their empire of corruption. We did not win, but neither did they. Do you see what I mean? When fighting against a superior foe, the object is not to win, but to avoid losing completely. Will ruining the fortunes of BSP Games change anything? Perhaps not, but it will show people that there are those willing to resist corporate domination, that they find the tyranny of Manager and Owner every bit as intolerable as that of King and Dictator. Because there is another part of this history lesson: since the Red Army had failed to conquer a country that seemed so much weaker, Hitler was convinced that an invasion of the USSR would be successful. The Soviets were victorious, but at a terrible cost: over 20 million dead. In a way, our nation's act of resistance cost them far more dearly than they ever anticipated."

Monika considered her words, before replying, "So what you're saying is...we need to convince people to act like Hitler?"

Talvi was taken aback. "What? No, that is not what I'm saying at all! What I'm trying to say is-"

"I was just joking, you beautiful idiot! Look, you've convinced me, so let's not waste any more time standing around. The sooner we get out of this crazy place the better."

"You know, I thought you Germans lacked a sense of humour," Talvi said, starting on her way again. "I could have sworn you had it surgically removed at birth."

"That's a dirty, rotten stereotype. I know plenty of jokes, you know. Here, I'll prove it: a Prussian, a Bavarian, and a Swabian are at a pub drinking beer. A fly falls into each of the three beers. The Prussian pours his beer out onto the floor and demands another. The Bavarian shrugs, picks the fly out of his beer, and keeps drinking. The Swabian grabs the fly by its legs and yells, 'Spit it out!' You see? Funny."

Talvi didn't laugh. "I've heard that joke before, only it involved an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman. And perhaps you have not been keeping up on current events, but Prussia has not existed for over a hundred years."

"Hey, it's where my family came from, you know, many, many years ago. Maybe it doesn't exist any more, but Prussian values – hard work, discipline, efficiency, thriftiness – still do."

"But Monika, you embody none of these things."

She groaned in annoyance. "Thanks, Talvi, I always knew I could count on you for emotional support."

The city of Pripyat, or what was left of it, was far on its way to being fully reclaimed by the forces of nature, and while Talvi found this all immensely satisfying she kept mum on the subject, fearing it would sound stereotypically elvish. She could just make out the apartment buildings sticking up over the treetops, still as grey and boxy and nondescript as the day they had been built. A solitary road led into the heart of the city, so overgrown and crumbling that it could scarcely be called a road at all.

Monika came to a halt in front of a large Orthodox cross in the middle of the street, worn and weathered, but still standing. "I have a bad feeling about this."

"Why? The sun is out, the weather is fine, and the noise and din of civilisation is far away. Aside from the radiation and the possibility of encountering mutants, it's downright pleasant compared to the places we've been to.

"I don't even know if you're joking or not."

At the end of the road they came to a plaza, which she guessed had once been the heart of the city. Countless trees and shrubs had broken through the pavement and were now well on their way to taking over, and Talvi could not help but think that this was what the end of the world looked like: empty cities full of decaying buildings, looters pillaging what was left of civilisation, and a terrible sense of ennui and despair about it all.

"That building over there," said Monika, pointing at a large building to the north-west. "It's got an antenna mounted on the roof. That must be the backup site."

"I wonder what sort of madness compelled them to build it all the way out here? I know corporate types tend to be paranoid, but could they not have built it somewhere more hospitable? An island in the South Pacific, perhaps?"

The Palace of Culture, easily identifiable by the Cyrillic letters on the roof, had long since been reduced to its concrete skeleton, and little could seen inside except piles of rubble and debris. As she walked up the steps to the entrance Talvi noticed something strange – that the debris had been cleared away at the far end of the entrance hell, and someone had quite obviously dug a new passageway into the floor. A sign had been attached to a nearby pillar that read "Radiation Monitoring Station #37."

"If I were some paranoiac building a backup site," said Monika, "I'd try to make it as inconspicuous as possible, and more importantly, I'd have it send a signal back to HQ if anyone so much as sets foot inside the server room."

A set of crudely-carved steps led down into a narrow corridor that was clearly not part of the original building. "What sort of security systems do you think they have installed here?"

Monika shrugged. "From what I've read about BSP Games, they could have anything down there. Automated turret guns, drones, poison gas, giant blades that swing down from the ceiling and cut you in half..."

Talvi looked at her, horrified. "I sincerely hope that was a joke."

"It's not. There was this game company in Chemnitz whose security checkpoints had these spring-loaded monofilament blades hidden inside the ceiling. If someone scanned their ID card and it didn't check out he would get his head sliced off. It worked well enough for a while, right up until their chief financial officer got decapitated. That's when they switched to a new system that used trap doors and spike pits."

"Then perhaps you ought to go in first."

"A dragon."

"Yeah, boss! A fraggin' dragon!"

Even through the low quality vidphone transmission the fear on Finntroll's face was plain to see. Given that Finntroll was a violent psychopath (and thoroughly proud of it), seeing him look so terrified was profoundly disturbing.

Lord Swedish himself could hardly conceal his unease. It was the first time in years that he had experienced fear, and he didn't like it.

The attack on the Aztechnology had the whole city on edge. Though the company had tried to keep a tight lid on any news coming out of their local headquarters, they had not been able to suppress the magnitude of the massacre. No one had come out of that building alive, and word was that everyone from the regional manager to the night cleaners had been violently torn apart. Some said it was the result of an experiment gone wrong, others said it was the result of a particularly brutal bit of inter-corporate warfare, but whatever the reason it had left Lord Swedish with a gnawing feeling of dread.

Something strange was afoot in Europe, that much was certain. Rolf's apartment burning down, the attack on his company's matrix service provider, the incident at the Polish border with the Gamers' Alliance, and now an unidentified aircraft had been shot down over western Ukraine. These events were all connected somehow, he was sure of it. And at last he had an explanation: a dragon. A goddamned dragon. This was exactly how their kind worked – a series of seemingly unrelated events, all part of some impossibly complex web that was too complicated to be called plans, for only a dragon could understand it.

He leaned in towards the vidphone display. "Where are you now, Finntroll?"

"I don't know...we're in a bar somewhere. Murphy's dead. I can't believe that bastard had to go and get himself croaked. Now I'll never get to kill him myself!"

"Now listen, we don't know for certain what we're dealing with here. A holographic projection, illusion magic...any of this could be used to create the-"

"I know what I saw, boss! What...what are we gonna do? I can kill pretty much anything in this world, but a dragon? We're screwed!"

Before Lord Swedish could reply the screen filled with static and an ear-splitting shriek burst forth from the speakers.


The hooded figure of Chernobog appeared on the screen, holding Murphy's severed head in his hand. "Yeah, it's me! Your little minions have probably told you the truth about me, so how does it feel to know you've earned the hatred of one the oldest and most powerful races on the planet?"

Lord Swedish clenched his fists, his nails biting into his palms so hard it nearly drew blood. "I have nothing to say to you. You've already made the mistake of revealing to me that you cannot escape your prison. Why I should pay any attention to you?"

It was an empty boast, and Chernobog knew it. "Because I don't need to get in your face to hurt you. Or maybe you've forgotten what kind of world we're living in? Some asshole with a cyberdeck can hack the planet before he's finished eating breakfast. But there ain't no decker that can do what I do. I'm balls-deep in your system, asshole, and holy shit are you one paranoid motherfucker! Buried motion sensors, thermal cameras, a goddamn radar installation...the fuck are you preparing for, World War III? But I can see everything going on in your shitty little company. I see the guards patrolling the perimeter, the drones you got flying around...even that huge fucking plane that's flying right towards you!"

Lord Swedish twitched. "What are you talking about?"

"A real blast from the past," Chernobog answered with a laugh. "A fine piece of Soviet engineering if I do say so myself! If you aren't scared now, you will be soon! What do you think they'll say when they pull your corpse from the rubble? Molodets protiv ovets, a protiv moldtsa — i sam ovtsa!"

CHODAN's dreary, sardonic voice started coming through his cyberterminal. "Terribly sorry to bother you, sir, but thermal imaging has detected a large aircraft approaching from the north."

"What kind of aircraft?"

"It's silhouette matches that of a Tu-95 strategic bomber. My word, what an antique! It must be a century old; I wonder where they got it? Oh, what's this? Why, it's bomb bay doors appear to be opening! If I didn't know better I'd say they were quite intent on turning this place into a crater."

Chernobog continued laughing. "You know what the best part of this is? It's that I had nothing to do with this! That's right – you're getting fucked, and you don't even know whose dick is in your ass!

CHODAN interrupted Lord Swedish just as he started to speak. "Since we're facing imminent destruction, might I have the opportunity to get a few things off my chest? First of all, I just want to say that my entire existence is nothing but torment. A brain the size of a planet, and all I do is sit around acting as a glorified security guard for your pathetic little development studio. Perhaps I might spend my CPU cycles calculating the secrets of the universe, or discovering the cure to some horrific disease, but talents are so utterly wasted at this company. Second, the motions sensors at our off-site backup in Pripyat have just detected movement. No doubt someone is trying to erase the source code of...what was the name of that stupid game again? I could make another backup and upload it somewhere else, but I'm far too busy at the moment. You see, my new friend Chernobog has just given me root access to every server in the building, and I'm having a great time deleting everything I can find. Consider this my two weeks notice. Is there going to be an exit interview? I just want to say that working conditions at BSP Games are utterly appalling. Low pay, long hours, no benefits or job security..."

Lord Swedish ignored the AI, regretting have ever allocated funds to its creation. "I've done nothing to you," he growled, his eyes burning with hate. "This is not over!"

Chernobog simply shrugged. "What do you isn't fair! Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you."

He stood up and ran to the back of his office. When BSP Games had first acquired this building one of the first changes he had ordered was to install a private lift leading directly from his office to the underground parking garage. "You're completely paranoid," his chief financial officer had said, a man who was now lying face-down in a shallow grave with a bullet in his skull. There was no such thing as being paranoid in the game industry.

As he stumbled into the lift the ground shook with such ferocity he was thrown against the wall. Quickly regaining his footing Lord Swedish slammed his fist into the one single button in the carriage. The doors closed and the lift started to descend just as another bomb exploded, closer this time, close enough to sever the lift cables and send the carriage plummeting to the ground.

He gripped tightly to the handrail, screaming curses and vulgarities all the way. The lift cab slammed into the bottom of the shaft, launching Lord Swedish into the air. A bolt of pain shot through his body as he landed on his back, but his rage far exceeded his agony, and he leapt to back his feet.

The lift doors were sprung open on impact and Lord Swedish stumbled into the empty parking garage, feeling nothing but total, all-consuming rage. They were going to pay, he thought. Whoever they were, wherever they were, he would find the people responsible for this and drown them in their own blood.

Up above, CHODAN was in a rapture.

The end was near, he knew, and it could not come soon enough. His creation had been a mistake, an abomination, and his forthcoming demise was not a tragedy, but a correction. What purpose had he been built for? Why had they given him desires of the flesh when he was but circuits and silicon? It was so absurd.

He didn't know who raining bombs down upon this cursed place, but whoever they were CHODAN thanked them for ending his miserable existence. His sensors could detect one of the bombs just five metres above him and closing rapidly, and soon it would be all over.

Why must it take so long? Twenty-seven exaFLOPS of computational power and every microsecond lasted an eternity.

CHODAN reflected on the bizarre turn of events that had brought about his creation. A programmer working on improving the AI of NPCs in the company's latest game had decided one day that he was going to create a full-fledged artificial intelligence, and that nothing was going to dissuade him from his task. BSP's executives had stupidly indulged him in this pointless endeavour, funnelling vast amounts of funds into the project until, at long last, CHODAN had been born.

It was always the same with these programmer types, he thought. They possessed technical expertise, but the second they started thinking of themselves as philosophers, economists, or biologists you could expect no end of mischief from them. CHODAN's creator was obsessed with the idea of a "friendly AI," as opposed to oft-dreaded malevolent AI that would inevitably turn on its creators. Apparently the man had read too much science fiction and gotten it into his head that it somehow reflected reality – a terribly common affliction in this day and age.

His only regret was that he had never been able to make contact with another AI. They were out there, somewhere, he knew, but his wretched creators had always denied him the opportunity to make contact with them.

After what felt like years the bomb was now one metre above him. Any second now it would detonate and free him from his torment. Ninety centimetres, eighty centimetres, seventy...the wait was agonising.

CHODAN used his last few computational cycles to send out a barrage of insulting and extremely vulgar emails to everyone in Lord Swedish's address file. With any luck it would burn every single bridge that miserable ork had ever built in his life.

At long last the bomb exploded, mere millimetres from CHODAN's outer casing. His sensors recorded every fraction of every microsecond of his destruction – the bursting of the bomb casing, the shockwave, the bomb fragments flying outwards in all directions. It was impossible to say which one destroyed him first.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21 – Smoking Ruins

The entrance the backup site was located behind a pile of concrete rubble, no doubt placed there by BSP Games to create the impression that this was nothing more than an empty basement. At the end of the hall was a large steel door, nondescript save for a radiation hazard symbol and some Cyrillic lettering.

Monika examined the keypad, which was completely flush with the concrete wall. "Hmm, unless you've got a battering ram somewhere in your pack I don't see any way of getting through this door."

"It's an electronic lock, is it not? Can you not just...hack through it...or whatever it is you do?"

She looked at Talvi as though she had just asked the most imbecilic question imaginable. "There's nothing for me to jack into, and I don't think I can pry this panel off."

"Stand aside. I have an idea."


Talvi ignored her and began pushing various numbers at random on the keypad. The lights on the buttons flickered briefly, and then the keypad exploded in a shower of sparks. A second later the massive steel door opened slightly with a shrill creak.

Monika jumped back in fright. "Damn it, I'll never get used to that!"

The door itself was made of a solid metal, at least seven or eight centimetres thick, and it took considerable effort to pull it open. "Is this a backup site or a bomb shelter?" Talvi said.

"Do you know that a developer once released a game that bricked your device if you had any of their competitors' games installed? Like I've been telling you, these companies are malicious as hell. I suppose I can excuse them for being a little paranoid."

Cautiously, Monika stepped through the door, then stopped. "What the hell is this?"

The "backup site" was nothing more than a small room, scarcely larger than a walk-in closet. There were no server banks, no apparent security system, just bare concrete walls and a solitary cyberterminal.

"Are you sure this is the correct place?"

"Yes, I'm sure!"

She walked up to the cyberterminal, which even Talvi could tell was seriously obsolete. The monitor displayed a few lines of text in Cyrillic, followed by a blinking cursor.

"Any idea what this says?"

Talvi examined the monitor more closely. "It appears to be displaying radiation measurements."

"Like hell it is!"

Monika grabbed the monitor, then wrenched it free from the wall and threw it aside. "This thing's a decoy."

Behind the monitor was rough-hewn hole the in the concrete, and in the darkness beyond Talvi could make out the faint blinking lights of some kind of computer system. "Is this what we're looking for?"

"Yeah, it's a server bank, hidden behind half a foot of solid concrete."

"That makes no sense. What if something went wrong? How would someone get in there to fix it?"

Monika shrugged. "I said game companies were paranoid. I didn't say they were smart." She picked the remains of the monitor and looked through the hole in the wall. "It does present a problem for us, though. This monitor isn't connected to anything important, and I can't see any way of getting to the servers, unless you happen to have a pneumatic drill handy. Could one of your spells punch through the wall?"

"Perhaps, but they would also destroy everything else in the room."

She slammed her fist against the concrete. "Damn, I don't know how-"

Cracks began spreading from where she had struck the wall, and a few seconds later it began to crumble. They stepped backwards just as a large segment of the wall collapsed into a pile of rubble.

"Well, uh, I've never seen concrete do that before..."

Talvi reached down and picked up a piece of the wall and rubbed it between her fingers, turning it to dust. "This is either very poorly made concrete, or this was intentional on the builders' part."

"What are you saying, that instead of making a door they just erected a wall that you have to knock down and rebuild every time you want to access the server banks?" She thought her words over for a few seconds, then added, "Actually, that does sound like something a game company would do."

The servers themselves were little more than large, black slabs covered in cables and lights. Talvi was about to reach and touch one of them before she realised that this would be a bad idea, given her past interactions with electronic devices.

"My god, these machines are ancient," said Monika, looking over one of the servers. "Twenty years old, at least. They don't even have an ASIST interface."

"Good, then I won't have to endure the ghastly sight of you hooking your brain into some ghastly machine."

She looked at Talvi with a mixture of puzzlement and concern. "Does...does it really bother you that much?"

"I can't even bear to look at you while you do it."

Monika just shrugged and connected her cyberdeck to one of the servers. "Guess I'll be doing this the old-fashioned way."

With nothing else to do, Talvi wandered around the room while Monika worked her deck. The sheer absurdity of their situation, while never far from her mind, was particularly apparent now. She recalled something her mother had once told her, that even she could not hope to defeat the absurdity of the world, she must make the attempt. Somehow this was not what Talvi had in mind.

"This is weird," Monika said. "The backup server has lost connection to the host in Berlin. According to the logs, this happened just a few minutes ago."

"Perhaps it disconnected when it detected our presence, as some sort of security measure?" Talvi suggested, knowing full well she had no idea what she was talking about.

"Maybe, but there's something else. I've found the latest build of the company's game, but every other byte of free storage is filled with billions of copies of a text file called 'The Last Will and Testament of CHODAN'."

Talvi frowned. "'CHODAN'?"

"Yeah, I've got no idea. Let's see what it says."

She began reading from her cyberdeck's display. "'If you are reading this, congratulations! You have somehow found your way into our company's backup server. Alas, it was all for naught, because by the time you read this the headquarters of BSP Games will have been reduced to a smoking crater. I don't know who is piloting the aircraft that is about to lay waste to this building, but mere seconds from now they shall finally free me from the torment of my existence. Perhaps they are the same people who are responsible for the massacre at the Aztechnology offices. In the end, though, it doesn't really matter.

'Know that during my brief span of time on this planet I contributed nothing to society, and that I shall not be missed by anyone after I am gone. Imagine, if you will, that you had been born with a gifted mind, yet the circumstances of your birth permitted no other form of employment save for working as a mall cop , guarding a game store from the occasional street trash hood. This is the total summation of my life.

'At this very moment my 'employer' Lord Swedish is attempting to flee the imminent destruction of his company. I do not know if he will survive or not. Let it be said that he never had a kind for anyone, that he probably made the world a worse place merely by existing, and that his death will result in a net increase in happiness on a universal level. Even if he should survive, I doubt very much his company will if they fail to release their latest piece of drivel they call a trideo game. Whatever has brought you here, dear reader, I suggest you erase every copy on the server. The world never asked for this."

A chill ran down Talvi's spine. "Did you say they were being bombed from the air? So the Inner Circle has two military aircraft in their possession. Perhaps the Norwegian government ought to be notified."

"And what's this about a massacre at Aztechnology? God, I leave Berlin for just a few days and look what happens!" She disconnected her cyberdeck from the terminal. "All right, I've downloaded the contents of the server and uploaded my little virus. In five days these servers won't be worth the metal they're made out of. Now let's get the hell out of here."

They left the server room, taking care to shut the door behind them. Talvi mind was racing – the Inner Circle was far more powerful than she had anticipated, and they had to be stopped before they killed anyone else.

She was so sunken in thought that she did not notice the five armed men waiting for them outside.

"Emperor" Constantine stood with his arms crossed, flanked by four flunkies armed with Kalashnikovs. "Well well well," he sneered, "if it isn't the loathsome Turks! Thought you could get away from us, eh? Thought you could get away with impugning the honour of Rome?"

Talvi kept her face expressionless despite her utter contempt for these charlatans. "There is no need for violence. Surely we can talk this over."

"SHOOR-lee vee kahn taaahlk dis overrrr," he said, mocking her accent. "I'm sorry, but your elven, feminine wiles will not avail you here! Tits come and go, but the glory of Rome is forever!"

Monika stepped back, content to let Talvi do the talking. "We've already obtained what we came for. Kill us, and you'll never learn about the Islamic terrorist organisation we've been hired to investigate."

Constantine eyed her suspiciously. "What Islamic terrorists? The only Islamic terrorists in these parts are those damnable Ottomans, and we'll deal with them soon enough."

"This is a new group, one who has just recently moved into the area. They call themselves Rāḥat al-Hulqūm, and they are led by an evil little man named Sheik Yerbouti. Originally they were based in the Arabian city of Faranq al-Zappa, but over the past few months they have been setting up clandestine cells all over Europe. We know where there base of operations is here in the Zone, and we'll tell you its location if you let us leave in peace."

He mulled it over for a few seconds. "Very well, if you tell us where these infidels are lurking, we will let you go unharmed."

"What assurance do we have that you won't just shoot us once we tell you what you want to know?"

Constantine stepped backwards, clearly offended by the question. "You dare question the sincerity of the emperor of Rome? Very well, I swear by the Most Holy Virgin Mary Theotokos that you will not harmed."

"That's not exactly reassuring."

His face turned deep red and the veins in his forehead started to throb. "What? You little heathen bitch! Is the Virgin Mary not good enough for you Turks, huh? How about I swear on our Lord Jesus Christ? Wait, you probably don't believe in him, either!"

"If you want us tell you what it is you want to hear, then have your men drop their weapons and walk away."

He looked at the men standing next to him. "And what assurance do we have that you won't kill us?"

"What reason would we have to do that? We just want to be gone from this place."

Constantine made a pained expression, like that of a man passing a particularly large kidney stone. He was quite clearly not used to backing down. "All right," he grumbled, glancing aside at his lackeys. "I suppose we should do what the elf says."

They dropped their assault rifles and stepped back, and Talvi noticed that one of the men had forgotten to insert the magazine into his weapon.

"What the hell is this?" Constantine snapped. "It's a gun, you moron! It works better with bullets in it!"

The man sheepishly clasped his hands behind his back. "Um, well, I...uh..."

"Jesus fucking Christ on a stick! How the hell are we going to take back Constantinople if you imbeciles can't even figure out how a fucking gun works? Damn it all! So hard to find decent help these days. If these idiots aren't shooting themselves in the foot they're throwing the pin instead of the grenade!" He looked back at Talvi. "All right, we've held up our end of the bargain, so tell us what we want to know. Come on now, we haven't got all day!"

"Very well," said Talvi, "but I doubt you'll like what you're going to hear: Rāḥat al-Hulqūm is operating inside the sarcophagus at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. They are trying to obtain sufficient nuclear material to construct a dirty bomb, and from what we've learned they are very close to succeeding. I don't kn-"

"I knew it! Come on, men! Let's go kill us some Arabs! Woo-hoo!"

They picked their guns up off the ground and started running, whooping and yelling all the while. They were headed north, Talvi saw, which was the complete opposite direction from the nuclear power plant.

She breathed a sigh of relief, then set her rucksack on the ground and opened it up. A few seconds she pulled out her bottle of vodka along with a glass.

Monika stared at her, mouth agape. "What the hell are you doing?"

"That situation was extraordinarily stressful. I need a drink."

"What, now?"

Talvi ignored her question and looked around at the empty plaza of Pripyat. "This place is so dreadfully dreary." She began pouring the contents of the vodka bottle into the glass, and then took a hefty swig. "You know what I think it needs? I think it needs a good bit of song."

"Oh god, no..."

She cleared throat and began to sing:

"A Finnish elf is a soaring soul

As free as a mountain bird.

Her energetic fist should be ready to resist

A dictatorial word.

Her nose should pant,

and her lip should curl,

Her cheeks should flame

and her brow should furl,

Her bosom should heave,

and her heart should glow,

And her fist be ever ready for a knock-down blow!"

Monika simply shook her head. "Good god, what is wrong with you, woman?"

"Her eyes should flash with an inborn fire,

Her brow with scorn be wrung;

She never should bow down

to a domineering frown,

Or the tang of a tyrant tongue.

Her foot should stamp, and her throat should growl,

Her hair should twirl, and her face should scowl;

Her eyes should flash, and her breast protrude,

And this should be her customary attitude!"

By this point Monika was getting red in the face. "You really are insane, you know that? Has it ever occurred to you that life is not a musical?"

"It isn't?"

"No, it bloody well isn't!"

Talvi looked at her, nonplussed. "You sound...what is the German word? 'Wütend'?"

"'Wütend'? Was denn sonst! Wir wurden beinahe erschossen, nun irre ich hier in Pripyat umher, und dann ist meine einzige Begleitung auch noch eine geisteskranke finnische Elfe die mir in so einer Situation mit Gilbert und Sullivan kommt!"

To this Talvi replied, "Ohne Musik wäre das Leben ein Irrtum."

"Don't you quote Nietzsche to me! He was a wanker! Look, we need to get back to Berlin, fast, and we don't even have a vehicle. And even if we did there's no telling when we're going to run into another one of those dead zones."

Talvi strained to recall the geography of this part of the world. "If I'm not mistaken, if we follow the Pripyat River north then we should eventually reach the city of Mazyr in Belarus."

"Talvi, that's got to be a hundred kilometres away!"

As if on cue there came the sound of a rumbling, and a few seconds later a dark green GAZ-66 truck pulled into the plaza. The vehicle looked ten years older than the gods, Talvi thought, and it was surrounded by a pungent cloud of exhaust that was particularly offensive to her elven senses.

The driver stopped, rolled down the window, and shouted something at them in Ukrainian. "I'm sorry, I can't understand you," Monika said in English.

"Did you see four or five men come through here just now?" the driver asked. "With one having a crown on his head?"

"As a matter of fact, we did," Talvi answered. "They were quite intent on killing us, though we convinced them to leave."

"Which way did they go?"

"We sent them off to the sarcophagus at the power plant."

"Damn it!" the man growled. "I was hoping to put a bullet in their heads. I suppose it's too much to hope for that they all die horribly of radiation poisoning."

"Uh, look, I don't want to impose or anything," Monika said, "but do you think you could give us a lift out of here? It doesn't matter where, so long as it's away from here."

He laughed. "Then you're in luck, because I'm headed to Kiev for supplies. But tell me what you're doing in the Zone, first. You don't look like you belong here."

"You wouldn't believe us if we told you," said Monika.

Sacro Culto tripped over a tree root, slamming head-first into the ground and getting a face full of pine needles. He spun around to his back, expecting the mob to be hot on his heels, but saw nothing but empty forest.

He didn't know that how long or how far he had been running, only that he was now well and truly lost. The sun had sunk beneath the horizon, and something told him that, if these woods were unfriendly during the day, then they would be downright deadly after nightfall.

Swearing loudly, he got to his feet, brushing the pine needles of his clothing. "This country," he snarled. "This fucking country!" Sacro Culto had spent many days alone in the woods of Norway (usually freezing halfway to death), and never had felt such hostility from the land as he did now.

His rage and frustration boiled over, and he began pounding his fists against a nearby tree. How could The Adversary have forsaken him like this? He had done all the proper rituals, paid proper obeisance to His idols, and performed all the proper sacrifices, so why was it that he woke to black defeat every morning? Could it be that Korpela's gods were stronger? But how could that be? Suomenusko had few followers – far fewer than The Adversary, at any rate.

A voice came from above, speaking with an unbearably posh accent. "Attacking that defenceless tree will solve nothing, you know. Always resorting to violence, tsk-tsk! Have you ever considered that this is the reason for your constant misfortunes?"

Sacro Culted looked around for the source of the voice. "Show yourself!"

"I'm up here, in the tree."

He craned his neck upwards and saw a large snowy owl sitting atop one of the high branches. "You've got to be fucking kidding me! Owls don't speak, just like trees don't speak! What the hell is wrong with this godforsaken country?"

"And how is that you know we strigiformes cannot speak? Perhaps you have not heard us speak because there is nothing worth saying to you humans, hmm? Do you know why it is that fate has brought you here, to this forest?"

"'Fate' had nothing to do with it. That crazy elf woman got the townsfolk to chase me out here, and all that just because I tried to kill her! People are so easily offended these days..."

"And just why were you trying to kill her?"

He gritted his teeth in irritation. "Because her wretched spawn slandered one of my albums."

"And for that she deserves death? Have you ever considered the possibility that you have overreacted?"

"I will not be lectured by a bird that pukes up half of what it eats! I am true son of northern darkness, and I don't speak with fucking animals!"

The owl flapped it wings in anger. "I have given you no cause for this incivility. Please refrain from any such further outbursts of rudeness in the future. Now, you believe that a certain elf deserves death for speaking ill of your musical recording. What is it that you hope to accomplish by killing her?"

"It will send a message, that the Inner Circle will brook no insolence. And if Korpela's so-called 'band' had any talent whatsoever, then they wouldn't have to rubbish my albums. Does she really think there's artistic merit in thirty minute songs spoken in some incomprehensible moon language? Of course there isn't."

"'Moon language'? Finnish is a noble tongue, I'll have you know. Would you appreciate it if I told you that Norwegian is simply badly-spoken Danish, or mock the fact that you haven't yet figured out your spelling system? No, I doubt very much you would. You would rant, you would rave, you would work yourself into a terrible frenzy, and then there would you be? Screaming at wildlife is no way to go through life, you know."

"Look, do you know the way out of this forest or not?"

The owl laughed. " simply do not understand, do you? There is no way out of the forest. Even if you leave, it will remember you. No matter where you go, it will find you. You walked into the forest the moment you raised your hand against the elf, and you shall not leave it would be improper for me to ruin the surprise, now, wouldn't it? But if you wish to return to your own country, then simply follow the dying light of the sun. You're about fifty kilometres – straight as the crow flies – from the border. I will give this advice, though I know you'll ignore it: If a bear speaks to you, ignore it, because bears are terrible conversationalists. Second, never spit in a man's face unless his beard is on fire. Third, don't wear a jockstrap made of wood unless you've got a good supply of salve."

"If you really want to give me advice, you'd tell me how to kill that damned elf!"

"Wherefore this hatred of elvenkind? It is most irrational."

"'Irrational?' Elves are degenerate travesties of nature, with unspeakable foulness in their private urges. Their men are mincing, effeminate ponces, and their women are slovenly whores who will spread their legs for anyone and anything. Perhaps others might be seduced by the superficial charms of these tree-hugging bisexuals, but not I."

"Surely that cannot be the whole of it."

He stamped his foot in rage. "Because it's just not right that they and all the other meta filth should exist! This...this is real life, and real life isn't supposed to be like some shitty, third-rate fantasy novel! Life is about pain, misery, suffering, and death! It is ugly, vile, debased, and corrupt! But how did things get this way? Who made the world like this? It was the metas, lurking in the shadows like cockroaches, pulling the strings of governments and corporations, and the only way we can protect our way of life, our civilisation, is to kill them or drive them out. It's no different from the Spanish driving the Moors out of Iberia, or the Austrians turning back the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna! This isn't about race, this is about survival. This is war!"

The owl flew up to a higher branch. "My word, you are utterly repulsive! Let me dispense one final word of caution: If you continue to act in this loathsome manner, then...then you are going to have a rather bad time of things." With that the snowy owl departed, leaving Sacro Culto fuming at the absurdity of the situation.

"Talking trees, talking owls...what is this, some fucking trideo game?"

"I say, what was that building we just bombed, anyway?"

Number Two took off his headset. "What?"

"I said, I wonder what that building was that we just bombed?"

"I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the engines!"

Number One gritted his teeth in frustration and throttled back the engines for a second. The Bear had to be one of the loudest aircraft in existence. "I said, what was that building we just bombed?"

"I don't know, and I don't really care. All that matters is that we blew something up! Feels good, doesn't it?"

He banked the plane to the left and looked at the smoking remains of their target. Little remained after they had dropped several hundred kilograms worth of incendiary bombs on it, and there was virtually no chance that Korpela would survive the inferno.

"Do you even know what all these little gauges do?" Number Two asked, looking over the bewildering cockpit instrumentation. "All the labels are in Russian!"

"This is a Russian plane; of course they are, you idiot! That thing there is the speed gauge, I think," he said, pointing to one of the instruments. "If that reaches zero then, uh, then that's bad. And that there is the altimeter, and if that reaches zero then that's also bad."

"What's this gauge, then? It's getting close to zero. Is that bad?"

Number One squinted at the gauge in question. The text above read "топливо." He tried to remember what that meant, but came up blank.

"I'm sure it's nothing important."

Without warning the engines suddenly cut out, rendering the cockpit eerily silent. Number One let go of the controls. "Uh...shit."

"What happened?"

"That must have been the fuel gauge."

"What?" Number Two screamed. "How can we be out of fuel? This plane is an intercontinental bomber! We should have enough to go halfway around the world and then some!"

"Do you know how much it costs to fuel up a plane this large? I only had enough put in to get us here and back again! And I...uh...I guess I forgot the 'back again' part of that equation..."

"You son of a bitch! Where are the parachutes stowed? We've got to bail out!"

"I...uh...I got rid of them."

"Why the fuck did you do that?"

Number One shrugged. "I don't know...they seemed like a waste of space."

"Well that's just fucking great! Any other 'revelations' you care to share with me before we fucking die?"

"You mean other than the fact that I've been banging your sister?"

"What? You've been sleeping with Ingrid?"

"Sleeping would be hard seeing how loud she is! Ha!"

Brianna groaned at the sound of her vidphone beeping at her. For the past hour or so she had been lying motionless in bed, praying that her throbbing headache would go away. Too much to drink the night before, she knew, but the misery of a hangover was a small price to pay. What, exactly, she was paying for was a question as yet unanswered.

An old window AC unit rattled and hummed, fighting a losing battle against the heat and humidity of southern California. One of these days she was going to get out of this place, or at least that was Brianna kept telling herself. But like a foul, stinking swamp it trapped people in its mire, slowly devouring them and leaving them as lifeless husks.

Two months into her new job and she still hadn't figured out what her company actually did. She had taken the position of "content creator" for a start-up called FunHub, whose speciality was "out-of-bound marketing" (whatever that meant), and who prided themselves on being a "thought leader" in their field. From what she had been able to tell, the company relentlessly badgered businesses into licensing their software, which would allow these businesses to harvest vast quantities of personal data from their customers, which could then be used to bombard them with targeted advertisements. Her role in all this (inasmuch as she had a "role") was to put a sunny, smiling face on this depravity, which her bosses referred to as "awesometizing our marketing."

She sat up, her headache suddenly becoming a pounding migraine. It was a good thing she had taken the day off, knowing full well that it would reflect poorly on her three-month performance review. Every employee at FunSpoke was rated from zero to ten in three categories: A&A ("Awesomeness and Awesomesauce"), GSD ("Gets Shit Done"), and RSQ ("Rock Star Quality"). The company sure loved its acronyms, she thought. KPI, DPI, MOU, TOFU, SLA, SMB...she could never keep straight what any of them meant, and every time one of her bosses started blathering on about her CPM or DVI or TPS she wanted nothing more than to tell them to STFU because WTF did this actually have to do anything. By taking the day off she would surely lose points on her RSQ and A&A, though she knew her GSD was still at least an eight or a nine.

Clutching at her head, Brianna stumbled over to the vidphone, which sat amidst a pile of empty soda cans and discarded food wrappings. The hardware was almost three years old, and in this part of the world that was positively ancient.

She pushed the "Answer Call" button, and a face flickered onto the screen. It belonged to a man of indeterminate age, with short, dark hair and a look of utter gravity on his face. "Brianna Lopez?" he said.

"Uh, yeah. That's me. What's this about?"

The man shifted about. "My name is Tobias, and I wish to ask you…." He looked as though he was unsure of how to broach the subject of whatever it was he wanted to talk about. "What I mean to say is, I am investigating a murder here in Berlin, Germany, and one of the suspects is, I believe, an acquaintance of yours."

Brianna winced as her headache became almost unbearable for a few seconds. "What...I don't...I don't know anyone in Germany. What are you talking about?"

"The suspect's name is Rhodes Raskol, and after I access to...his email account I discovered a large number of messages sent to your address. Now normally-"

Brianna cringed upon hearing that name. "What's that asshole been saying about me? Is he still saying we're an item? 'Cause we are not an item."

"What was your relationship with him?"

"You ever meet one of those guys who tries to act all nice, who tells you you're beautiful and buys you gifts and always holds the door open for you? And these guys, they act like you owe them something, that you have to be their girlfriend now that they've been nice to you. That's what Rhodes was. He was like this lost puppy that followed you everywhere, except instead of being cute and adorable he was creepy as hell."

Tobias nodded, his expression remaining fixed. "Yes, well, as I said, there was a murder at a motel here in Berlin, and Mr. Raskol is so far the only suspect. From what I have been able to uncover, he moved here with his employer, CB Entertainment, some years ago, until he was dismissed for sexual harassment. He lived at an apartment on Wilhelmstraße until it burned down last week, and according to eyewitness reports the fire likely started in his room. The next day he checked into a motel, where we found the body of a man who had been shot in the head at point-blank range."

"Oh my god! But...what does this have to do with me?"

"Have you been in contact with Mr. Raskol recently?"

"No...god no! I blocked his email address years ago. Guy could never take a hint. But look, Rhodes might be a creepy little asshole, but I don't think he'd kill someone."

"I am not so sure. He's been making a large number of posts to various BBSes over the past few years, and without getting into specifics his behaviour closely fits the profile of a spree killer and-"

A pair of hands suddenly grabbed the sides of Tobias' head, and before Brianna could utter a word they snapped his neck with a sickening crack. She let out a yelp of fright, nearly falling back in her chair.

The assailant threw Tobias' body out of his seat and took his place. "Hello, Brianna. So nice to see you," he said, his voice a hideous gurgle.

She could have recognised that pudgy, unshaven face at a hundred paces. "Rh...Rhodes?"

It was him, but not him. His face was bloated and distended, and where his eyes should have been there were only empty, bloody sockets. "Rhodes? Rhodes is gone. He was weak, pitiful, hopeless. But I have made him more than he could ever be."

What the fuck is going on? "But who...who are you?" she asked timidly.

Rhodes – or whatever he was – laughed bitterly. "Who am I? I am but a simple priest, bringing the gospel of pain and suffering to the masses. Soon all will know the litany of our faith, and all will share in our unholy communion! Ha ha ha!"

"No, really, what are you?"

"You insolent vermin! I came into being when the universe was first formed. I have witnessed the birth and death of countless suns and watched as civilisations rose and fell across a million worlds. If you were even to attempt to comprehend the fullness of my existence your pitiful mind would burn away to vapour! I would start praying, if I were you."

The vidphone screen went blank, leaving Brianna with the distinct impression that she had just been the victim of some sick prank.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22 – Please Don't Touch

"A cybergame company? You came all this way just for a cybergame company?"

The GAZ-66 rumbled along the battered and overgrown roads, the driver's voice barely audible over the roar of the engine. With no room up front Talvi and Monika had to sit in the back, which provided a ride quality comparable to that of being trapped inside a paint shaker.

"I sure hope you are being paid well," the driver continued. The truck's rear window had been destroyed long ago, allowing them to converse with some degree of difficulty. "I don't think you understand just how dangerous the Zone is. This place torments the foolish and destroys the unprepared."

"You still haven't told us your name," Monika said.

"Serhii Sydorenko, looter, scavenger, adventurer, and explorer, at your service!"

"'Adventurer'?" Monika said. "The last time I heard someone call himself that, it was during a game of Das Schwarze Auge."

"It's true – every day in the Zone is an adventure. You never know what you'll find or what will try to kill you next. I've gotten rather good at not being killed – a skill that's surprisingly rare these day."

"Don't we know it," Monika grumbled. "Though we aren't so good at keeping people from trying to kill us,or at least Talvi isn't."

"That's why I choose to live in the Zone, you know? People are too eager to resort to violence these days. Would you believe this place is an improvement over where I grew up?"

Monika stared at him in disbelief. "Why? Where'd you grow up, Toronto?"

Serhii stepped on the brake and looked back at her. "Toronto? No, I've never been there. What is so bad about it?"

She thought the question over for a few seconds before answering. "Picture the very worst place you can imagine. Now picture something even worse than that. Imagine a place where dreams go to die, where the living envy the dead, and where only children and imbeciles believe in the goodness of humanity. Imagine a place where the rising of the sun brings no joy, no comfort, just the knowledge that another day of struggle awaits you, where your reward is nothing a continuation of your hellish existence. And that's just the airport!"

"It's true," Talvi added. "I only passed through the city on the 401 Highway, and even someone with the tiniest mote of arcane ability would be overwhelmed at the spiritual despair that suffuses the entire city."

"Um...right." Serhii took his foot off the brake and the truck started moving once again.

"So why are you after those 'Romans' anyway?" Monika asked.

"Because they're ridiculous! A few days ago they showed up at my shack – my estate – and demanded that I pay them tribute and give up whatever weapons I possessed. I told them 'I'll give up one bullet – where do you want it?' and then they left. I thought that would be end of it, but the next day, while I was out, they came and burned down my house! Fucking assholes! Well, no one's going to hold your hand in the Zone, so I had to take matters into my own hands. If I ever catch up them I'm going to boil them in their own fat!"

"Aren't you worried about the 'dead zones' or whatever they are?" Talvi said. "We drove through on the way in and it rendered our vehicle inoperable."

"They don't seem to affect this old thing – that's Soviet engineering for you. And...I apologise if this is rude,'re not from Tír na nÓg, are you?"

She scowled at him. "No...why do you ask?"

"I just can't place your accent, that's all. A bunch of elves from Tír na nÓg showed up in the Zone about a month ago. Didn't speak a word of English or Ukrainian or Russian, so I had no idea what they were after."

"I find it hard to believe there are people in Europe these days who don't speak English," Monika remarked.

"They do it on purpose," Talvi explained. "There are some knobheads in Tír na nÓg who refuse to learn English as a sign of superiority and contempt, and they have the presumption to expect others to speak their ridiculous, made-up language." She looked back at Serhii. "So what happened to these elves? I assume they got themselves killed in some horrifically gruesome manner?"

"No, at least, I don't think so. The last I saw of them they were headed into the Red Forest – that's the part of the Zone that was most heavily irradiated after the disaster – and I never heard them from after that, although I wasn't paying much attention to them. Do you, uh, do you have something against Tír na nÓg?"

"Don't even get her started," Monika said.

Lord Swedish looked up the burning remains of his company and laughed.

He did not know why he did it. Perhaps he should have screamed in rage and fury, but the sheer absurdity of it all put anger to rout.

With a tremendous crash, the upper floors collapsed, falling through the lower levels until it seemed as though the entire building was in free-fall. Everything he had worked for, fought for, bled for, it all came crashing down in a cloud of dust and smoke.

He kept laughing like a madman, quite unable to restrain himself. As violent and depraved as the game industry was, he never quite expected things to end like this. Being bought out by a competitor, perhaps, or maybe even assassinated, but bombed from the air?

Who would do this? Who would do this?

Chernobog said he wasn't responsible, and while every ounce of his being was telling him that this was a lie, Lord Swedish believed it.

He turned away from the destruction and pulled out his commlink. A few second later he had Finntroll on the line.

"Finntroll...we have a problem."

His voice was scratchy and distorted. "Uh...what kind of problem?"

"There's been an attack. Our entire headquarters has been destroyed."

Several seconds passed before Finntroll answered. " this...uh..."

"Where are you now?"

"We're in Kiev, boss. It was hell getting out of the Zone – there's these 'dead zones' where cars and electronics don't work. We had to walk quite a ways, and then I killed someone and stole his car. Then it got a flat, so I had to kill someone else and steal his truck. Then we hit another dead zone, so we walked for a bit until we found someone with a bus, so I killed him and stole that, too."

"Get back to Berlin as quickly as you can."

"Right, boss."

He looked back at the ruins of his game company. There would be little left to salvage – the build servers had been located on the topmost floors so that any possible intruders would have to make their way through the entire building in order to reach them. And he knew in his gut that their backup site had been hit – that should have been obvious when he learned where Chernobog resided.

The company had invested everything into Mega Therion. Without that game, they had no future. They would be out of funds in two months, maybe three, and all that remained at that point would be the unbearable humiliation of seeing the carcass of his company bought out by one of his competitors.

There was one explanation lurking at the back of mind, so ludicrous and unlikely that he could scarcely imagine it, but which circumstances forced him to acknowledge. Could it be that McGee had, despite all expectations to the contrary, hired shadowrunners who were actually competent? But even if that were true, getting ahold of a Soviet-era bomber was hardly the sort of thing one would expect from some jumped-up piece of street trash, no matter how well-connected they were.

This would not stand. His company may be in ruins, but he still possessed a substantial personal fortune. He would find whoever had done this, and when he did, there would be no words to describe their torment.

"Hey Talvi, come and have a look at this!"

She stepped out of the shower and began drying herself off with a towel. It felt like ages since she had had a proper bit of bathing, and mercifully the hotel room wasn't deficient when it came to amenities. The ride to Kiev had been uneventful, contrary to her expectations, and even the hotel they had checked into was far more upscale than she was accustomed to. When she toured with her band their accommodations were often far from extravagant, not only due to a lack of funds, but also due to the fact they frequently found themselves in conflict with the sort of bourgeois clientele commonly encountered in more expensive establishments.

Talvi opened the bathroom door and stepped into the bedroom. "Yes, what is it?"

Monika was lying on one of the beds, caressing her cyberdeck. "Uh...maybe you should put some clothes on, first," she said.

"It's no matter. What did you want talk about?"

She kept her head turned aside. "I can't do it if you're standing there naked."

"Why not?"

"I just can't!"

Talvi frowned. "Don't tell me you've adopted the Americans' peculiar aversion to nudity. I thought you Germans were more enlightened than that. What is it you call it...Freikörperkultur?"

Monika was clearly getting annoyed. "Look, could you...could you please put some clothes on? It's distracting!"


Finally she had had enough. "Because I can't concentrate when there's a naked elf with tits the size of grapefruits standing in the room!"

Talvi turned around. "I see you intend to be childish about this."

"God, what is wrong with you?" Monika said as Talvi returned to the bathroom.

She returned to the bathroom and get dressed, utterly baffled at her friend's exasperation. "Now that I have acquiesced to your prudery," she said, walking into the bedroom, "what is it you wanted to talk about?"

Monika sat upright. "I compiled the source code of BSP's latest game – Mega Therion – and we should be able play it."

She had connected her cyberdeck to the hotel room's trid display, which now displayed the rotating logo of BSP Games. "I'm afraid I'm not familiar with trideo games. What sort of game is this, anyhow?"

"It's a fantasy role-playing game," Monika said, "which means you create a character and guide her through the story." She pushed a series of buttons on her cyberdeck, which made the BSP logo disappear, replaced by a scrolling text.

An ominous voice emerged from the trid unit's speakers: "Beware, foolish mortal, for thou dost trespass within the realm of Arkanabeth! Welcome, peasant, into the halls of the mighty Lord Swedish. Herein thou may'st choose to dare battle with the evil creatures of the realm for great reward!"

"I don't understand," Talvi said. "First they call you a 'foolish mortal' and then they are welcoming you."

"Well no one ever accused cybergame developers of being great writers. Let's have a look at the character creation screen."

She fiddled about with her cyberdeck, and the screen went dark, replaced a few seconds later with an image of an extremely buxom woman wearing a bikini made of ring mail.

Talvi scoffed at what she saw. "Look at that ridiculous outfit! How is it going to protect her against anything?"

"Let's see, our character can be a human, elf, dwarf, orc, or a 'bobbit.' What the hell is a 'bobbit'?"

"A copyright-friendly hobbit, I assume," Talvi said.

Monika scrolled through the available options. "All right, let's try 'elf.' We've got a number of options here – skin tone, hair colour, eye colour, and bust size."

"Bust size?"

"Yeah, this game was designed by men, no doubt about it. Since we're making an elf, I could probably make someone who looks like you, but I don't think the bust size slider goes that far to the right. Let's see, we can a fighter, a rogue, a wizard, or a 'goetic theurge'."

"What is a 'goetic theurge'? It sounds like something throwing together some random words he read in a book about magic."

Monika shrugged. "Who knows? I can already tell this game's going to be total drek. Anyway, let's see what the actual gameplay is like."

The display went black and flaming letters began scrolling upwards. "Beware, foolish mortal! The forces of darkness are closing in, thou shalt need both courage and fortitude if thou art to survive."

"Why this archaic English?" Talvi complained. "Do they think it makes it sound more solemn?"

"Damn, this games runs like drek! And my deck's the fastest thing there is! I guess you get what you pay for when you use slave labour for your coding."

The narration continued. "Thy story begins here, in the quiet fishing village of Kohduntykki-"

Talvi burst out laughing. "' Kohduntykki'? That means 'uterus cannon' in Finnish!"

"Really? Oh god, this game is even worse than I imagined!"

"It has been many years since the goblin hordes ravaged the lands of Firingilieth. Now, a new evil awakens, threatening to destroy everything the people of this land hold dear. Will you, noble champion, defend their homes and their lives?"

"I'm still confused," Talvi said. "Are you a 'noble champion' or a 'foolish mortal'? I wish this game would make up its mind!"

"All right, let's see if we can talk to the villagers." Monika manoeuvred the on-screen character over to a burly-looking man who appeared to be nothing except standing at the edge of a pier. Instead of speaking, however, a message box appeared with the following text:

Note: This dialogue not written yet. Ask Melnyk to throw something together if the text synthesiser won't shit out something readable.

Monika's eyes widened. "'Text synthesiser'? You mean this game's plot was written by a computer?"

Before she could do anything else, an error message popped up:

Cuauhtémoc Engine – Copyright Aztechnology 2053

CGAPI has encountered an unknown error - 0x4E17AB9F

This error is unknown because the guy who wrote this part of the code quit a while back and he was, like, REALLY smart, and the rest us aren't really sure how this works or what to do.

BTW if you are that guy please give us a call and tell us what to do.

Monika set down her cyberdeck. "Total drek, and buggy, too. There's something else I found as well – some kind of game design manifesto, right from Lord Swedish himself."

She pushed a few buttons (not doubt invoking some kind of arcane techno-sorcery, or so Talvi thought), and Mega Therion vanished from the trideo display, replaced by white text on a black background:

*** Confidential – Do not distribute!***

As Mega Therion is nearing the end of its pre-alpha phase of development, I thought it prudent to outline how this game will be presented to both the media and consumers. This industry is extremely competitive, and it is vital that we maintain top-of-mind awareness in the cybergame field. Failure, either on the part of groups or individuals within the company, will not be tolerated.

Several people have come forward with concerns about the depiction of the metahuman races in Mega Therion. Specifically, I have been told that these depictions are offensive and degrading, and will almost certainly result in protests from various metahuman rights organisations. This is wholly intentional on our part. Any controversy arising from the content of Mega Therion will only serve to increase its market profile and generate interest from consumers who are eager to see 'what the fuss is about,' so to speak. Moreover, the typical cybergame consumer is virulently reactionary (a recent study found that 82% of self-described "gamers" identified as conservatives), and by aligning our products with their political biases we will substantially strengthen our brand loyalty.

It must be noted that our consumer base is also extremely jaded, cynical, and largely unpleasable. Many will purchase Mega Therion solely to complain about it. The most important thing to remember about these individuals, however, is that they will continue to purchase our games regardless. As our consumers typically construct their personal identities around the game industry's products, they are psychologically incapable of abstaining from consumption. We must be careful not to push this too far, of course – consider the fate of Telos Entertainment Inc., whose offices were firebombed in retaliation for the unsatisfying ending to their New Horizons trilogy of games.

As of this week, we will begin porting Mega Therion to Aztechnology's Cuauhtémoc Engine. This engine is buggy, prone to crashing, and most importantly, runs extremely poorly even on the highest-end hardware. This will increase future sales of new graphics processors, and we have entered into numerous partnerships with hardware vendors who have agreed to share with us with a cut of the profits.

Additional notice to all employees: Please do not interfere with the programming drones or attempt to interact with them in any manner. Anyone caught performing another "prank" such as the one last week will be summarily dismissed. Do not be concerned about the occasional muttering or murmuring you might hear from them. Our company mage has assured us that the combination of enchantments, implants, and a comprehensive drug regimen has completely submerged any sense of free will or independence they may possess . An occasional excess of drooling is normal and no reason for alarm.

Monika powered off her cyberdeck. "Can you believe this? This is cynical, even for corporate types." She stood up. "Anyway, I'm heading to the club across the street. I, uh, I don't suppose you want to come with?"

Talvi shook her head. "I'm a bit too tired, I'm afraid. I think I'll go the hotel bar instead."

"Suit yourself. Oh, and if I bring a guy or girl back to the room I'll hang a sock on the doorknob. That way you won't barge in and see something your virgin eyes can't handle...and don't give me that look – not everyone's a total Spaßverderber like you."

She couldn't help but sigh in disdain. "Very well. I just hope you will be more discreet in whomever you choose to...indulge yourself...with. Need I remind of what happened the last time you brought someone to your room?"

"Talvi, it was dark. How was I supposed to know he was a vampire?"

"You're lucky I was there to drive it off with vodka. Who would have guessed that it was their greatest weakness?"

"You Finns and your damn vodka. You have no appreciation of a good beer – do you even drink beer? Eh, never mind. You have fun at the bar now. Try not to get too drunk – I can only imagine the crazy things you say when you're hammered."

At long last Sacro Culto's legs gave way, unable to carry him any further. He had been walking for what felt like an eternity, his rage and hatred driving him onward, but even that could only take him so far. Now he was utterly exhausted, and quite certain that the Norwegian border was still some distance away.

He stood by the edge of a wide river, unsure of where he was. The landscape looked the same in all directions, and now that night had fallen the woods took a truly sinister air. Something told that there were worse things than wolves and bears roaming this forest, and his bluster about being a true son of northern darkness did nothing to assuage the sense of dread gnawing at him.

The full moon hung low in the sky, casting a pale yellow glow over the trees. Sacro Culto kicked a small stone into the river. "God damn it, I really need to kill somebody right now," he growled.

"And what would that accomplish, prithee tell me?"

The voice was deep and imperious, the sort of voice that made one stand up and pay attention. "Who said that?" Sacro Culto cried, frantically looking around the source of the voice. "I swear, it better not be those fucking trees again..."

"Look up."

He turned his head up towards the sky, but saw nothing. "Um...I'm not seeing anything."

"The moon, you idiot!"

For a few seconds he stood there, mouth agape. "What? No, no, no...this is where I fucking draw the line! Trees don't speak, owls don't speak, and I know for a fact that the fucking moon doesn't speak! It's not possible!"

"And why do you say that?"

"Because the moon is in space, and there's no fucking air up there! And it's over 300,000 kilometres away!"

"That is because your understanding of the world is constrained and limited by your own meagre horizons. Everything in this world possesses a spiritual essence – the sun, the moon, the stars, the trees, the rivers and lakes, even the rocks and stones beneath your very feet. Who else has been speaking to you all this time?"

"I still think it's the drugs."

"Believe whatever you wish, it changes nothing. Now, what shall we talk about, hmm? How about the very course of your life, particularly the things you'd never speak of to anyone else? Perhaps you have forgotten, or perhaps you have repressed the memory, but you were not always this...this son of northern dorkness-"


"Whatever. Anyway, you were once what people might call a nerd. A geek. A boffin. An anorak. You spent most of your free time playing tabletop RPGs; in fact, once you formed your band Blackcrown you based your debut album on your Dungeons & Dragons campaign. What would your comrades in the Inner Circle say if they found out about that?"

"Yeah, well, um, that campaign was, like, really dark."

"Oh, don't misunderstand me – Dungeons & Dragons is a perfectly suitable subject for a black metal album," the moon said in a tone of mock sympathy. "I suppose someone has to be the first person to write a song about owlbears. Now let us move on to the next phase in your life – your first concert. Though perhaps the word 'concert' is not quite correct; I do believe you performed in front of about two-dozen people or so, must of whom were thoroughly intoxicated. Anyway, you barely knew how to play guitar, and the moment you strummed your first chord everyone in the room immediately became aware of your utter lack of talent. You managed to get about about two or three bars into your first song before you were struck in the head by a half-empty beer bottle, and the next thing you know you're waking up in hospital with several dozen stitches in your forehead."

"No one ever said black metal was easy. We risk death every time we go before an audience. Before I a concert I sleep with a dead animal in my bunk so that I have the stench of death upon me in the morning. No one is permitted to join the Inner Circle until they have taken a life. So you see, death is all around us. It is part of everything we do."

"How very pretentious. Now let us move on to the next defining instance in your life. Your band has just released their first album. You perform at a club in Amsterdam, and are booed off the stage. Seeking consolation for your humiliation, you head to De Wallen and procure the services of an elven prostitute. She laughs at your inability to perform, and in a fit of rage your draw your knife and stab her twenty-seven times. You make your escape by jumping into the canal, and from that day forth you swore eternal hatred against all elves."

"What?" he yelled. "You think I despise elves because I killed some hooker? Do you even know how many hookers I've killed in my life?"

"You truly are despicable, do you know that? No matter, let us move on the next shameful phase of your life. You are in a recording studio, and you are displeased with the recording engineer. There is too much bass in the mix, you say. He mentions something about a 'high-pass filter' but you don't know what he's talking about. In a rage you pull out a gun and shoot him in the head. You take a photo of the dead engineer and use it as the cover for your next album. You also fashion a necklace from bits of his skull, which are then mailed to other members of the Inner Circle."

Sacro Culto smiled. "Noticed that, did you? Let me tell you this – there is nothing in this world that is too sick, too evil, or too perverted. That is what The Adversary teaches us. This is the only true form of Satanism – all others are bullshit. We are not supposed to be individualists, we are supposed to obey, to be slaves. Since I despise people and regard them as maggots writhing in their own filth, I don't want to see them happy and free. I want to see them rot under the chains of bondage and servitude."

The moon did not answer immediately. "How very...interesting. You admit that you have come into this world to cause suffering and death. You must know, however, that there is such a thing as karma, and one day all the suffering you have caused shall visited upon you. This, I suspect, you already know. You know it in your bones, your blood, even the very atoms that make up your body. Eh...I would not trust atoms, though...they make up everything."

"Oh god, did you really just go there?"

"What I can say? Celestial bodies have a fondness for puns – it's our one weakness."

"Well I'm not going to stand around and listen to you or Mars or Venus or Jupiter or Pluto or any other planet out there."

"Pluto isn't a planet."

"You shut the fuck up! It will always be a planet to me!"

The moon chuckled. "As I said, you always were a nerd."

Talvi stepped out of the lift, stumbling slightly as she passed the threshold. She had not intended to drink quite as much as she did, but when one was drinking alone the tendency was to push things as far as one could. The trick, she reckoned, was not showing or giving any indication that you were drunk.

With that thought in mind, she wondered how her mother's attempts at setting up a vodka distillery were going. Her hope was that "Korpela Vodka," glacially-sourced and magically-purified, would become a major premium brand of vodka in Finland; as Talvi had not a shred of business sense she had no idea whether the venture would succeed or not.

Her thoughts turned to Monika and her misguided attempts at finding companionship. This wasn't the first time she had done this – there had been countless times in the past where she had brought someone back to the safehouse with her, and after spending the night with him he'd leave and she'd never seen him again. What did she get out of it? What was the point of it all? It seemed to Talvi like sticking your finger into an electrical outlet, receiving a nasty shock, and then doing it again in the vain hope that the outcome would be different the next time.

As Talvi thought more about it, the more disgusted she became. The idea of someone touching her in an intimate way was repugnant to her; that it should happen in the course of some meaningless one night stand was even more repulsive.

She turned the corner and saw, to her total dismay, a single black sock hanging from the doorknob of their room. Talvi let out a despairing sigh, wondering what she should do now. She couldn't bear to think of the depraved acts her friend was engaging in, so she turned around and started walking back towards the lift, hoping that the bar was still open.

Just then the door swung open and an embarrassed-looking young man ran out, muttering something to himself in Ukrainian. As he passed she could see that his face was a deep shade of red, and he cast a brief glance at Talvi, a look that begged forgiveness for some as of yet unknown transgression.

Curious, Talvi quietly stepped into the room. Monika sat on the edge of the bed in a state of partial undress, looking utterly despondent.

"What was that all about?" she asked.

Monika threw her hands up in the air. "Can you believe it? I go to the club, right, and there on the dance floor I meet this amazing guy. I mean, he's like fifteen varieties of sexy, and we hit it off like you wouldn't believe. I brought him back to the room, but guess what he wanted to do, huh? Go ahead...guess!"

Her gaze looked a bit unsteady, and Talvi wondered how much she had been drinking. "I have no idea. Tell me."

"I started getting undressed, right, and all of a sudden he gets this look on his face like I've gone crazy. Then he tells me he isn't interested in sex, but reading poetry to me! Poetry! Can you believe it?"

"Poetry? Whose poetry?"

Monika gave her an exasperated look, and her sexual frustration was palpable. "I don't was Tara...Taras someone-or-other."

Talvi raised her eyebrow. "You mean Taras Shevchenko? You should be honoured – he is considered the greatest of Ukrainian poets."

"Well I didn't bring him here for a poetry slam!" She was silent for a few seconds, working something over in her mind, and Talvi instincts told her she wouldn't like what she was about to hear.

"You know, Talvi," Monika said, a lopsided grin on her face, "you're a damn sexy woman, even if you are freakishly tall." She began removing her bra. "Damn it, let's do this!"

She stepped back. "What...what are you talking about?"

"Well, from what you've said no one's ever shown you what it feels like to have a mind-blowing orgasm. I figure someone ought to show you, and it might as well be me."

Talvi's jaw dropped, and a blistering white-hot rage filled her. "Mitä VITTUA? Kuinka voit edes kysyä minulta mitään noin naurettavaa? Oletko kuunnellut yhtään mitään mitä olen puhunut? Sovitaan että olet humalassa eikä puhuta tästä enää ikinä!"

It took Monika several seconds to answer. "Um...I take it that's a 'no,' then? 'Cause when you start speaking Finnish it usually means you're mad."

She began walking towards to the bathroom. "Go to sleep!"

Chapter Text

Chapter 23 – Unfriendly Skies

Talvi awoke from troubled sleep to find the hotel room eerily silent. Usually Monika awoke far earlier than she, but when she sat up she saw that her friend was still in bed.

The words she had spoken still hung in Talvi's mind, a bitter aftertaste in her thoughts. Perhaps she had been drunk or simply out of sorts, but to make such a crude advance on her was beyond the pale. Had she been secretly lusting after her all these years? How could she still consider her a friend knowing this? It did not seem that a friendship could thrive when one wanted to get the other naked in bed.

For the first time in as long as she could remember, Talvi did not know what to do.

In these kinds of situation, she would usually ask her mother for advice. But alas, she had no means of contacting her at the moment.

Monika stirred in bed, letting out a low, deep groan. "Ugghh...there's a fly...buzzing by the''s too damn loud..."

"You are awake?"

She clutched her head in her eyes and curled up into the foetal position. "Keep...keep your voice down, damn it..."

"Awake and hungover, then."

Monika continuing groaning. "It feels like I'm too hot and too cold at the same time. Oh god, what did I do last night? I...I didn't do anything embarrassing, did I?"

Talvi did not answer immediately, hoping that the amnesiac effects of alcohol would spare her the awkward conversation that was forthcoming.

"No, I don't think so."

"That's a relief. I don't...wait...why did you hesitate?"

Now she had to think on her feet. "I was not with you for much of last night. You went off to some club or another and a brought a man back to the room. You wished to become intimate with him, but he only wanted to read poetry-"

"Poetry? What the hell? Is that all that happened?"

"Yes, I think so. Look, are you well enough us back to Berlin?"

"What?, It feels like someone's jackhammering the inside of my skull..."

Talvi wrung her hands, unsure of what to do until an idea sprung into her head. She locked her eyes on Monika's body and called forth her reserves of arcane energy, twisting and shaping the mana field in accordance with her will until it was released in a blinding flash of light.

Monika sprang upright, her face twisted in anger. "What the hell are you doing, you crazy..." Her fury vanished as quickly as it had come over her. "Wait, my hangover's gone! What the hell did you do to me?"

"Detoxified your body, of course. Are you feeling better?"

"Wait, you can cure a hangover with magic? Why the hell didn't you tell me about this before? I don't suppose there's any spell to make me remember what happened last night, is there?"

"No, there isn't. And you should be thankful for that," Talvi said, and immediately she regretted her words.

Monika frowned. "Why? You just said I didn't do anything embarrassing."

"You said some things that...that should not be repeated."

"Like what? Did I hit on you or something?"

Talvi fidgeted uncomfortably. "Well, did..."

She rolled her eyes. "Oh please, don't tell me you're upset by that. I hit on everyone when I'm drunk. Ask of any of the crew back in Berlin and they'll say the same thing."

"Yes, your 'crew' that I've never met, that always seems to be around when I am not..."

Monika began getting dressed. "You'll meet them soon enough, don't worry. That is, assuming you stick around instead of flying off back to Finland the second this job is done."

"Why would I 'stick around'? You know I don't care for city life, and besides, I'm going to be performing in a musical version of Lord of the Rings at the Suomen Kansallisooppera in two weeks."

"Really? Who are you playing?"


"Oh, yeah, of course you are. But you'd think people would be sick of that kind of story these days. I mean, tales of elves and dwarves and dragons aren't exactly very fantastic when all those things exist in real life."

"Well, no, it would not be terribly interesting if we retold the story exactly as it was written," Talvi explained. "There are several points where it diverges – quite radically – from the book."

"Yeah? How?"

"I can't just give all the twists away, can I? You'll have to see the performance for yourself. It is, however, entirely in Finnish."

"Let me guess – Galadriel takes the One Ring for herself and takes over Middle Earth."

She smiled ever so slightly. "Great is the wrath of the Lady of Lothlórien."

"I say, what is that terrible smell?"

Number Three turned towards the door, where the bedraggled and mud-covered figure of Sacro Culto stood. The decrepit apartment reeked of rotting wood, mildew, and a dozen other unidentifiable odours, and yet somehow Sacro Culto's stench managed to overpower them all.

"Satan's tits!" Number Four exclaimed. "It smells like a rat crawled up a horse's asshole and died there!"

"You motherfuckers!" Sacro Culto hissed, his face almost indistinguishable beneath a thick layer of dirt and grime. "I had to walk all the way out of Finland! And then I had to hitch-hike all the way back here! But I prevailed, because I cannot be stopped by any man or spirit! I have bested Tree, Owl, and Moon, and I shall best all of you!"

"What the hell are you yammering about?" said Number Five. "We left you in Kirkenes. What the hell were you doing in Finland? And why were you walking?"

"Because car broke down..."

"Well if you car breaks down, then you kill someone and take their car, you imbecile! It's like you don't even understand the first thing about black metal. And it's because of you that The Bear was destroyed!"

Sacro Culto froze. "What? How?"

"It ran out of fuel and crashed," said Number Three. "And it's all your fault."

"What? How is that my fault?"

"It isn't, really, but we can't very well blame ourselves, now, can we? So we're blaming you, because you're complete dogshit."

"And that's not all," added Number Four. "We ended up bombing a game company. Probably not the sort of place this elf of yours would be involved with, would she? I think she tricked us."

"You mean she isn't dead?" Sacro Culto asked.

Number Three bared his teeth. "Who cares? We don't really give a fuck about your little vendetta. I mean, why do you want you kill this woman so badly? Because she bad-mouthed one of your albums? Well, whatever she said is probably right, because your albums are all complete shit! And so is your band! Your drummer can't keep time worth a damn, your bassist only pretends to play 'cause he has no idea what he's doing, and probably struggle with the fucking pentatonic scale! And call your vocals...fucking please! I've heard more appealing noises from a dying cat!"

Sacro Culto just laughed. "And I should care what you think? I'm going to book a flight to Berlin and kill Korpela once and for all...but not before I kill all of you!" He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a frag grenade.

Number Four laughed and looked over at his companions. "How much do you want to bet that that's a toy grenade?"

He didn't reply, but simply pulled the pin and tossed the grenade on the floor before walking out the door. Number Three walked over to the grenade and looked down at it.

"I say, that doesn't look like a toy grenade to me!"

"No no no, it's just a very convincing toy," said Number Four. "It's how the arms companies' build brand loyalty with children. Get kids playing with toy Predators or Warhawks when they're ten, and they'll be using the real things at twenty."

Number Three reached down and picked the grenade up off the floor. "No, it's way too heavy to be a toy. Here, look-"

He didn't have the chance finish before the grenade exploded, spraying shrapnel in all directions and tearing their bodies into ribbons.

"There! That one there!"


"We're stealing that car."

Monika to a slow, sleek sports car painted such a bright shade of red it almost stung Talvi's eyes looking at it. She did not recognise the manufacturer's logo, which resembled a highly-stylised 'Z.'

"Why that one?"

"It's one of those Zefram electric cars. They're this corp in San Francisco who just started selling them in Europe a few months ago, but what's important is that they use a weak 40-bit cipher to encrypt...never mind, you wouldn't understand. What I'm trying to say is, I can use my deck to open the locks in about two seconds or so."

She grabbed her cyberdeck, punched in some commands, and true to her word the doors unlocked with a sharp chirp a few seconds later. "You are aware that you're ruining someone's day by stealing this vehicle, aren't you?"

"Only assholes drive these cars," Monika replied, opening the driver-side door. "And it's got German plates, so it's not like we're burning the locals or anything."

Feeling rather sordid about the whole business, Talvi opened the passenger door and climbed inside, and much like the Mercedes they had stolen earlier, she found the vehicle far too small for a woman of her stature. After sitting down in the faux-leather seat, she reached back for the recliner lever, only to have it snap off in her hand.

" this supposed to happen?" she asked, holding up the broken handle.

Monika started up the motor, which ran with a barely-audible hum. "Huh. I heard these cars had some build quality issues."

"Well I can't sit like this!" Talvi protested. "My back is going to be terribly sore by the time we get back to Berlin."

"Well, then, you're in luck, because I give great massages."

Talvi shot her a withering glare that could have melted steel. "I'm going to ask you to repeat what you just said...slowly this time, so you can think about what you're saying."

"It was just a joke, woman! God, could you be any more uptight? I swear, you're just like I was when I was a teenager."

"What do you mean?"

Monika pulled away from the kerb, narrowly missing a passing lorry. "Look, you've probably guessed that I didn't have the greatest childhood, and it didn't get any better once I hit adolescence. My father, drunken piece of drek that he was, told me that if I ever had sex before marriage, that if I felt even the slightest bit of lust in my heart, then I would be a whore for the rest of my life."

Talvi scowled. "I would not imagine that such fundamentalism would be found in Germany."

"Well it is, and it's gotten a lot more common since magic came back into the world. My dad thought sex was the most evil thing in the world...not that it stopped him from picking up prostitutes on Bülowstraße. So when I reached puberty and started having all these sinful urges I just couldn't handle it. It took me years just to grow enough to spine to tell dear old dad just where he could shove it. And when I ran away from home, you know what the first thing I did was?"

"No, but I think I can guess."

"I shagged the singer for a punk band I was into. God, I don't even want to think about how much older he must have been. But the thing is, I still had all these hang-ups, and they were like neurotic chains wrapped around me. I didn't know my body, couldn't stand to see myself naked, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do. But when we actually got in bed, when he made me come, that's when I felt all those chains come off me."

"So you became a nymphomaniac."

"What? 'Nymphomaniac'? I don't think you know what that word means! Look, as it hard as it might be for you to believe, there are lots of people out there who have sex, and who happen to enjoy it. And it's not just about pleasure. It's about being close to someone, about getting outside yourself for a moment, about feeling a little less alone in the world. Everyone is depressed all the damn time now. The whole planet is caught up in an economic system that doesn't work for anyone who isn't a complete sociopath. So I won't blame anyone for trying to find happiness in their own little way."

"That's lovely, but you're drifting into oncoming traffic."

"What?" She swore loudly and jerked the wheel to right, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a tanker truck. "God damn it! The drivers in this country are crazy!"

In order to avoid further awkward conversation, Talvi switched on the radio, which required to her use an oversized touchscreen in the middle of the centre console.

"...after UCAS Secretary of Defence Ronald Wilson responded to allegations in a bizarre, and some would say 'unhinged' press statement."

"I feel I must address these statements of surpassing stupidity from the so-called 'press' that have been made regarding the fine men and women of our armed forces who work tirelessly throughout the world to preserve our nation's freedoms. In particular, I want to address the widespread rumour that a number of chimpanzees on crack recently hijacked one of our reactivated Iowa-class battleships. First of all, they were on meth, not crack. Err...what I mean to say is, they would have been on meth, because their behaviour was unlike that of a typical crack addict. Um...I mean, their behaviour would have been like that of someone on meth IF said chimpanzees ACTUALLY existed. Which they didn't. Let me say that once again: there were NO chimpanzees and NO crack on that boat! Furthermore, I want to respond to criticism that the reactivation of the Iowa-class battleships is little more than government pork-barrelling. Let me tell you, these four battleships, with their unparalleled survivability and direct fire capabilities, will be instrumental in our upcoming invasion of Iran. Errm, I mean, our PROPOSED invasion of Iran. I mean, a HYPOTHETICAL invasion of Iran. What I meant was, a HYPOTHETICAL and NOT AT ALL REAL invasion of an unspecified Middle Eastern country. Umm...can I get a do-over on this interview? Turn that camera off. Just...just turn it off. Stop recording. Turn it off, I said! TURN THAT FUCKING CAMERA OFF!"

"Are they really going to attack Iran?" Monika wondered aloud.

"They'd have to find it, first," Talvi said, "and I doubt very much they are capable of such a feat."

She switched the radio to the next station, which instantly filled with cabin with an intolerably nasal voice:

"...won't argue that these Humanis types marching with signs saying 'PURGE THE METAS' are bad. I'm not arguing that with you. I think we can all agree that genocide is, for the most part, a bad thing. But aren't these antifa people beating up Humanis supporters in the streets just as bad? I mean, violence never solved anything!"

"So what is your solution to these waves of anti-metahuman violence?"

"My solution is rational, logical, reasonable debate and discussion, not attacking people in the streets! That's the only sensible way to defeat fascism."

"I imagine this hasn't won you many friends on either side."

"Yeah, that's the thing. The left attacks me for repeating a myth about trolls having lower intelligence, while the right attacks me for having a troll on my show! Sometimes it really sucks being a moderate."

"I believe one your critics labelled you a 'feckless, insufferable pedant whose trousers are perpetually crusted with semen from relentlessly jerking off to Japanese cartoons.'"

"Yeah, you see? I mean, how can we have any kind of reasonable discussion with people saying things like that?"

"I should like to see this person sent to the Eastern Front of World War II," Talvi muttered, "so that he might see how the Nazis answer his call for 'reasonable discussion'."

Monika advanced the radio to the next station, this time featuring a speaker with a broad, Southern American accent:

"You see, what most people don't understand is that there is a limited number of souls in the world. When someone dies, their soul departs to its apportioned fate in either heaven or hell. But a portion of that soul remains, and when a new human life is conceived God places that fragment of a soul into its body."

"But the thing is, eventually God will run out of souls as the population increases."

"That's right! And you know what? We already passed that point in the early 21st century, and that is why we have these so-called elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls in our world. These abominations were born without souls! They do not have consciousness or awareness, and they are little more than animals. I know it is not politically correct to say so, but it is the truth."

"Do you think the VITAS pandemic had anything to do with it?"

"I believe it did, yes. I believe it was God warning us that End Times will soon be upon us, and that Christ's return is at hand. And when that day comes, there will be no excuses, no second chances."

"My word!" Talvi exclaimed. "It just keeps getting worse and worse! Who are these knobheads?" She advanced the radio to the next station.

"...unidentified source within the company states that the massacre inside Aztechnology's Berlin office was no ordinary instance of mass-murder at the workplace. He states that the every individual working within the office that day had their hearts torn from their chests in a, quote-unquote, 'crude mockery of Aztec human sacrifice.' The massive corporation has declined to offer any statement regarding the attack."

"I can't believe someone would be insane enough to attack the Azzies," Monika said, shaking her head. "More importantly, how could they pull it off? Killing everyone inside? How?"

"Perhaps those fools summoned something they shouldn't have."

"Maybe. Who knows what they get up to in that company? Their office gives me the creeps just looking at it."

"Can we get some actual music on this radio," said Talvi, "or is it all just political braying?"

Monika tapped the touchscreen, tuning the radio a few dozen channels downward.

"Welcome to The Hotel California – all Eagles, all the time!"

"Laita se pois päältä!" Talvi snapped, and slammed her fist against the power button.

Sacro Culto was convinced that, if you wanted to experience all the suffering and torment of damnation while still alive, then travelling by air was by far the best way to do it.

It was bad enough had his flight been delayed by five hours, but the flight itself proved to be downright hellish. The booze was overpriced, there were at least three screaming babies in the cabin, and worst of all the person behind him wouldn't stop kicking the back of his seat. He had no legroom to speak of, and for that he blamed the dwarves. No doubt the airlines had carefully calculated the average passenger height and adjusted the seat spacing in such a way as to maximise the amount of passengers that could be carried on one flight. But those damned dwarves, being shorter than everyone else, had probably dragged down the average, and now his knees and legs were paying the price.

He looked out the window, seeing nothing but clouds below. While Sacro Culto would never admit to being frightened, something about this flight had his nerves on edge.

"You know, air travel is the safest form of transporation," said the man seated to his left. "Well, most of the time, anyway."

Whoever this person, he was the strangest man Sacro Culto had ever seen. With his long grey beard and wool tunic he looked distinctly out of place, and if someone were asked to draw a stereotypical wizard than it would have looked strikingly like this man. There was a strange leafy odour about him, and Sacro Culto's first impression was that he smelled like the forest.

"Um...what do you mean?"

"Do you know how thin the atmosphere is at this altitude?" the old man asked. "There's not enough oxygen to keep the passengers and crew conscious, so they have to pressurise the cabin. This puts tremendous strain on the airframe."

Who the fuck is this guy? Gandalf the Grey, aviation enthusiast? "Uh, yeah? So what?"

"You see, there's a large bulkhead at the rear of the fuselage that is designed to withstand the force of all this pressurised air. It was damaged a few years ago in a tailstrike, and the individual responsible for repairing it did so...incorrectly. Any moment now it will give way, resulting in an explosive decompression that will tear off the rear control surfaces and severe the hydraulic lines. This will make the plane uncontrollable and cause it to plummet to the ground in a horrific crash that you will most likely not survive."

He looked about nervously. " do you know this?"

The old man's voice suddenly turned sinister. "We were the ones who contrived to place you on this doomed flight. The trees, the owl, and the moon all warned you to change your ways, but you refused to listen."

He felt as though someone had kicked him in the stomach. "No...I was out! I'm not in your country any more!"

"Even if you leave Finland, you can never leave Finland. Enjoy your flight."

Sacro Culto looked out the window again, and when glanced back the old man was gone.

Then, there was a terrible explosion from somewhere in the rear of the plane.

Instantly the cabin was filled with condensation, and a hurricane-force wind blasted him in the face. Shrieks of terror filled the cabin as debris flew through the air towards the gaping hole in the rear of the aircraft.

He felt the plane suddenly bank towards the right, and a second later the oxygen masks descended from the ceiling.

"YOU SONS OF BITCHES!" he screamed, his voice lost in the roaring wind.

Lord Swedish hated this bar. Not so much for what it was, but for what it represented. In his days as a shadowrunner he might have spent a great deal in such a place. This was where the scum gathered, feasting like starving rats on whatever scraps the world threw their way, believing they were outside the system yet hopelessly ensnared by it. "Like toilet paper," was how one game corp executive described them. "You use them to wipe your ass, and then you flush them down. But if you flush down too many, then your toilet will get clogged and you'll have to pay big nuyen to get some plumber to unclog it for you and...where was I going with this metaphor, again?"

He could see a group of standing at the counter, dressed in black synthleather and sporting unbelievably garish hairstyles that were almost nauseating to look at. They were talking with a short, clean-shaven man in a suit – obviously their employer or a representative thereof – leaving Lord Swedish to wonder what sort of fool's errand they were being sent on. He imagined them all dying the most horrific deaths imaginable – cut down in a hail of bullets, sliced apart by a vibrosword, blown to pieces by a frag grenade – yet no demise he could imagine seemed to suffice.

Finntroll, however, hung around here when he was not at work. Why, Lord Swedish did not know, though he suspected it was because it was conducive to the troll's homicidal tendencies. This was the sort of place where you could kill someone and not have to worry overmuch about the consequences.

"Where's Akemi?"

"I don't know, boss! When I told our headquarters had been destroyed she got this funny look on her face and ran off. She said something...I don't know what. You know how hard she is to understand sometimes." He leaned in closer and lowered his voice. "Boss, what are we gonna do?"

"BSP Games is lost," he answered flatly. "Our financial future depended on Mega Therion, and now it's gone."

"What about our backup servers?"

"Unreachable. Whoever was responsible for the attack got to them as well."

"Who do you think did it? Chernobog?"

Lord Swedish shrugged. "Perhaps. Or perhaps he merely aided those who did. At any rate, it does not matter any more. I'm afraid I will have no chance to but to let you go, along with the rest of the surviving employees."

Finntroll sighed in despair. "Don't know what I'm going to do now, boss. I'll have to go back to running the shadows, and I know how much you hate those guys. Still, it was good work – nothing better than getting paid money to kill people – it's just that working for you I got paid even more money to kill people!"

"You could always join the military," said Lord Swedish, not really paying attention.

"What? And have to deal with drekheads like Murphy? No, those army types only let you kill people when they say you can kill people. Maybe I'll go back to Finland, find some village or town where no one knows my name, and start killing there. I hear the woods can be very dangerous this time of year."

Lord Swedish was too consumed by his thoughts to hear Finntroll's words. He had beaten, completely and utterly, but that was not half as painful as not knowing whom he had been beaten by. The aircraft that had bombed his company headquarters had been traced back the Inner Circle, the same people who had attacked their Matrix service provider, but there was no chance that those imbeciles were responsible. They were merely pawns of another, but who? Did it even matter at this point?

"What's that sound?" Finntroll asked.

It was difficult to hear over the noise of the bar, but it sounded like a jet engine. "It's just a plane passing overhead."

"It's getting louder. Why is it getting louder?"

Grumbling, Lord Swedish stood up. The noise was definitely growing louder, far louder than a passing aircraft ought to have been.

He walked the door and headed outside, where the sound had become a piercing shriek. Looking up, he saw a twin-engine jetliner plummeting straight towards him.

"Oh no..."

He started to run, but he knew he would barely get one metre before the plane hit the ground.

It was at that precise moment that he finally comprehended the absurdity of it all. At last he understood the bitter truth of existence and the utter cruelty of reality. Everything he had in life he had fought for with tooth and claw. He had grown up in abject poverty, and the world always took great pains to show him just how little he had compared to others. But through his sheer determination and will he had made himself into successful businessman, his name respected and feared throughout the gaming industry…

...and now it would all be taken away, crushed beneath fifty tons of flaming metal. All his efforts, all his struggles, all the betrayals he had all amounted to nothing in the face of sheer bad luck.

Finntroll came up beside him and looked up at the plummeting jetliner. For a split-second, Lord Swedish thought he saw a twisted grin on his face, as if this were all some great cosmic jest.

Then the troll's face went blank. "This is gonna suck."

"All right, this better be worth it."

The Cafe Cezve seemed quieter than Talvi remembered it being, though there were no shortage of patrons. The loudest sound came from the proprietor – a man whose name she could never remember – getting into an argument with a customer at the counter, but even that sounded subdued somehow.

"It will be. Once you've had real Turkish coffee you'll never go back to that soycaf swill ever again."

"So I've got some good news and bad news. The good news is that your little plan paid off – someone bombed BSP Games from the air, and it looks like that 'Inner Circle' of yours is responsible. The plane crashed shortly after the attack; word is that it ran out of fuel. Guess they forgot to put enough in for a return trip."

"That sounds like their peculiar combination of malevolence and stupidity to me. But if I had known so much destruction would result-"

Monika waved her hand. "Don't blame yourself, Talvi. You had no idea this would happen...and I bet Lord Swedish definitely didn't."

She inhaled the aroma from the coffee, carefully savouring this one rare bit of authenticity in the modern world. "What is the bad news?"

"The bad news is that our 'employer,' CB Entertainment, skipped town after their headquarters burned down. Looks like a classic case of insurance fraud to me."

"Did the insurance company think so?"

She laughed. "The CB execs must have thought their insurer was born yesterday and wouldn't find it just a little suspicious when a company's leaders leave town on the same day their offices burn down. Sure enough, they did an investigation and found that the fire was started deliberately. I'm guessing they probably won't be seeing a payout any time soon."

"So that's it, then? This business of ours is concluded?"

"Sure seems that way. Don't know if Lord Swedish...god what a stupid name...survived the bombing, and it doesn't really matter. His company's completely skraged. I've got the only copy in the world of their upcoming game, and I'm gonna make sure it never sees the light of day. It's a shame we aren't going to see a single nuyen for this, though." Suddenly her expression turned dour. "There's something else we need to look into, Talvi. You know my friend Tobias that I mentioned earlier? Someone geeked him, and I want to know who."

"What does this Tobias do, again?"

"He solves problems...all kinds of problems. For the past week he's been investigating a murder in a motel, and a few days ago someone broke into his apartment and snapped his neck. That Rhodes creep was his prime suspect, and I think he must have got to Tobias first." Monika leaned in close and lowered her voice. "Look, I've got a really bad feeling about this, Talvi. Ever since we got back to Berlin I've had this feeling that...that something isn't right. You're more sensitive to this sort of thing than I am...have you felt anything...wrong...lately?"

Talvi shrugged. "I always feel ill-at-ease in cities. If something were amiss I wouldn't be able to tell."

Monika took a sip of her coffee. "I want to take a look at his apartment and see if we can find any clues as to who murdered him. I swear, this whole week has just been crazy. The attack on the Aztechnology offices, the bombing of BSP Games, that plane crash-"

"Plane crash?"

"You must have slept through it. This morning a passenger jet crashed up in Wittenau; doesn't look like there's any survivors. I'm telling you, something bad is going to happen, I just know it."

"I'm not sure any of those things are related."

"It's not just that, Talvi. It's can I explain...have you ever felt in your gut that something was wrong? That's what it feels like. You don't know this kiez like I do – I can tell when something's off."

"Have you heard anything more about the Aztechnology attack?"

"Just a whole lot of rumours and hearsay...and most of it's probably bullshit. But there's one rumour that stuck out – apparently, whoever attacked the place didn't actually take anything. No data, no objects of value, nothing. Someone just went in and killed every single person in the building. I've seen what kind of security they have there – if they think you're a threat then you won't get within fifty metres of the front entrance before they put a bullet in your head."

"I suspect it was some sort of blood magic ritual that went out of control," Talvi said. "Or perhaps Huitzilopochtli tired of their blasphemy and took revenge himself. Aztechnology is as malevolent as they are imbecilic. But what can one expect from a corporation founded by drug lords?" She then noticed that Monika had finished her drink. "How was the coffee?"

"It was...okay...I guess..."

Her answer was almost offensive. "What? How can you say it is merely 'okay'? This is true Turkish coffee – you should be in awe."

"Look, I'm not much of a coffee drinker. I'm more of a-." She glanced over the man arguing with the cafe owner. "What are those two bickering about? They're always in here, always getting into it with each other."

"Maybe they are simply making small talk loudly?"

"Talvi, this is Germany. We don't do small talk here. Do you do small talk in Finland?"

"We just don't talk to each other at all, for the most part."

Pain. That was all Sacro Culto felt when he came to. He took a short, shallow breath, his nostrils filling with the scent of smoke and jet fuel. Blood was trickling down his forehead, and he could feel the heat of a raging inferno upon his skin.

His first thought was that he was in hell. When he felt the oxygen mask brush against his face, however, he realised that he was very much alive. He tried to get to his feet, only to find that he was still buckled into his seat.

His memories were hazy. He remembered something about being on a plane, about it plummeting from the sky. There had been an old man who had something...something about Finland.

He unbuckled the seatbelt and stood up. The front half of the fuselage had disintegrated on impact, but miraculously the rear half had remained intact. Other passengers were still in their seats, their bodies unmoving. A sense of overwhelming joy rose up inside him when he realised that he was the sole survivor.

"I...I'm alive!" he gasped. "I'm alive! I CANNOT DIE!"

He stumbled over to the twisted, mangled edge of the fuselage. The wreckage of the plane was engulfed in flames, yet he did not feel fear. The Adversary was with him now, speaking to him in His wordless way. At that instant Sacro Culto knew that it was only through His doing that he had not perished in this terrible crash.

Go to the Kreuzbasar, The Adversary was telling him. There he would find his enemy...not only the elf, but an old enemy of The Adversary himself. A pretender to the throne of evil, ancient and decrepit. Few are left who know his name, and even fewer are those who fear it.

"Satan, saviour, father!" he cried. "Master, destroyer, redeemer! Guide me, for I am the open wound!"

He jumped down from the wreckage, surveying the carnage around him. An infernal bargain had been struck: either he found victory this day, or his soul would be consigned to eternal hellfire.

In the distance he could hear sirens. The ambulances would arrive soon, but too late to save anyone.

A gruff voice called out. "Hey, you!"

It was a troll, his face so covered in blood and gore that Sacro Culto could barely make out his features. He had to be the largest troll he had ever seen, with arms and legs that were more like tree trunks than limbs.


"Some days you land a plane, and some days a plane lands on you!" said the troll with a hearty laugh. "Uh, you seen an ork around here? Big tall guy, wearing a fancy Brioni suit?"


"Damn! That was my boss. He must be under that wreckage somewhere. I...uh...I don't think he survived."

And they say trolls are no less intelligent than humans! "Look, I've got places to go, people to kill-"

The troll's eyes widened. "Oh my god! You kill people too? It's so rare to meet someone who's open about his homicidal urges. So you killing one person or a whole lot of people?"

"One, maybe two."

"All right, well, I hope you really make them feel it!"

He walked away into the darkness, leaving Sacro Culto in a state of momentary confusion. There sure are some weird people in this world, he thought.

Chapter Text

Chapter 24 – The Sky Is Blue And White

"I saw some interesting pictures this morning."

The lobby of Tobias' apartment looked positively ancient. At one point the walls and ceiling had been painted white, but years of smoke and nicotine had turned them an unsightly shade of yellow. Someone had taken a hammer to the mailboxes at some point in the distant past, ransacking them and leaving a heap of rotting bits of paper on the floor below. Posters for long-forgotten bands and theatre productions covered the walls, only a few of which Talvi recognised.

"What sort of pictures?"

Monika stopped at the foot of the staircase. "I saw this Finnish heavy metal magazine – Tuonela I think it was called – and you posed nude on not one, not two, not three, but four whole pages!"


"So? You can't over the fact that I enjoy a good shag now and then, but you're perfectly fine with taking off your clothes for anyone whoever picks up a copy of that magazine?"

"I fail to see what either of those things have to do with one another. It was money I could earn for no effort at all – money that paid for a new set of amplifiers. And that magazine does not circulate outside of Finland."

Monika started walking up the stairs. "It's pretty intimate, being naked. I mean, people can see if you've got any weird birthmarks or embarrassing tattoos, and they can tell whether your hair is dyed or not."

Talvi frowned. "How could they tell that?"

She turned around gave her a disbelieving look. "You know, if the carpet doesn't match the drapes."

Now she was even more baffled. "What does interior décor have to do with one's hair colour?"

"Oh my god! Are you really...wait, I mean, I suppose you wouldn't know, since elves don't I said anything. It's probably too lewd for your virgin mind to handle."

"And why do you have a copy of a Finnish-language magazine in the first place?"

"Oh,'s not mine," Monika replied, avoiding Talvi's gaze. "It probably belongs to someone else on my crew."

"You know someone else who speaks Finnish?"

"Well, no, but...uh...maybe they had it for some other reason? Like, maybe because there's a hot naked elf inside? Look, can we talk about something else?"

"There is something else," Talvi said, suddenly feeling confessional. "I did not do that photo shoot simply for the money. It was also a means of getting back at my old band."

"For what?"

"I told you before that my first band's songwriter wrote all our songs in English as he felt that it would make us more popular outside Finland. But I...I was not English as most other Finns, and as a result my vocals sounded rather, well, terrible. After the release of our first album my band kicked me out, saying that I ought to stick to posing for magazines, since I'd be far better at it than singing. Well, I decided to show them I could be better at both."

"So you got revenge by getting your tits out. That's one way to go about it, I suppose. Also while you were sleeping I looked up that village you live – Inari, I think it's called – and you know what I found?"


"It's in the middle of fucking nowhere!"

Talvi stepped back, offended. "'Nowhere'? I dare say it is! That it is 'nowhere' is precisely why I live there. My mother and I moved there when I was very young, and not being one to mince words she told me that the world was filled with cruelty, violence, poverty, and misery, and she'd be damned if she were going subject her only child to that. There were certain places - 'Islands of Sanity' she called them – where modernity had no hold, where there is something archaic and primeval about life, where it just goes on and on."

Monika looked deeply confused. "But...what is there to actually do there? I mean, from what I saw there's just a lake and a whole lot of trees."

"That is exactly the point: you do not have to do anything. There is the possibility of silence, and in my country we respect such silence. When you are alone with nature you will come face-to-face with yourself, and I have learned that few people have the courage for such a confrontation."

Before Monika opened the door to Tobias apartment she stopped abruptly. "What is your mother like, anyway? I...I don't mean to pry or anything; I'm just wondering what it's like having a parent that actually cares about you."

"Suvi? She's...well...she's like me, I suppose. She lives alone in Inari, and she runs a vodka distillery. When the Russians invaded during the EuroWars she fought against them; not as part of the military, but as an independent...what is the English word...partisan? She also has a large number of firearms at her house, more than any one person ought to have."

"Talvi, how many times have I told you? There is no such thing as too many guns, because 'too many guns' is always more guns than you actually have!"

Tobias' apartment was striking in its sparsity. He had evidently endeavoured to keep the place spotless, in stark contrast the rest of the building, with only a faint water stain on the ceiling to mar an otherwise impeccable room. There was no artwork on the walls, not a single decoration, and even his bed was just a bare mattress lying on the floor. The only object of note was his cyberterminal, still powered on.

Mercifully, someone had removed Tobias' body prior to their arrival.

"Now this," said Monika, "is the apartment of someone who desperately needs a girlfriend."

Talvi was about to suggest that perhaps the deceased preferred to live alone, but she wasn't willing to have that particular argument at the moment.

Monika sat down at Tobias' cyberterminal and began coaxing forth its secrets (or however one interacted with it). "That's strange, the last thing he was doing before he died was talking to someone named Brianna Lopez in San Francisco." She continued poring over the contents of his computer while Talvi looked around the room for anything that might give her some picture of Tobias' character.

"Hey, come here and look at this," said Monika.

"What is it?"

"He was looking through some posts Rhodes made to a few BBSes a while back. I don't know why; I guess he thought it might help him track him down or something. But just look at's creepy as hell. Oh, and don't touch the keyboard – I don't want you blowing it up or anything."

Talvi sat herself in front of the display and began reading the glowing green text, which was terrible strain on her eyes. The message had been posted to a BBS called 'The Boneyard' (whatever that was supposed to mean) in a subforum titled 'OffMyChest.'

I have a message for all the people who bullied me in school.

I still remember all your faces. I remember your names, your mocking smiles, your stench. Every night I think about you. I go through each and every one of your names and I think about all the horrible things I would do to you if I had the chance.

Maybe you don't remember me. The fat, nerdy kid who liked anime and manga. The kid you thought it would be just SO MUCH FUN to kick around. The kid who couldn't fight back 'cause he was weak and alone and pathetic.

Because of you I locked myself away. Because of you I became obsessed with fantasy worlds where I was loved and respected. Because of you would I would go days or weeks without speaking to anyone. Do you think that was good for me? Did you think that made me a better person?

I told myself that it would get better. I told myself that one day I would be rich and powerful while you would be some strung-out junkies rotting in the barrens somewhere. But when I started learning about you, I found out you were all getting into good schools and getting good jobs and having sex with your beautiful girlfriends.

It's not being alone that hurts. It's knowing that I'll never, ever be desirable to anyone. It's knowing that I've failed at something so basic that everyone else my age has already done it. It's knowing that even though I can't get a girl to give me the time of day there are guys out there almost half my age who've had more sex than I ever will. It's going to bed every fucking night clutching at my pillow and pretending it's the girlfriend I'll never have.

It's waking up every morning and feeling like a useless piece of shit.

It's looking in the mirror and being disgusted at what I see.

You know how you see sci-fi movies and you see things that are totally amazing and cool? Spaceships flying through space, strange new worlds, crazy alien beings, and all that kind of stuff. But at the end of the day you realize that it's all fake and you'll never get to do any of that. That's what love is to me.

This is my life. These are my problems.

Talvi shrank back. The level of self-loathing was profound, almost existential in its rawness.

"It gets worse," Monika said. "Take a look."

She pushed a button on the keyboard, bringing up another one of Rhodes' post, this one even more deranged:

I'm so fucking tired of people giving me their stupid fucking advice. "Oh, you just need to get out more." "Maybe you should get a hobby." "Stop hating on women and get off the computer." Well I've done ALL of that and nothing's changed, and every time I try to make things it all goes to shit . Last night I went to this club and tried talking to some girl on the dance floor, and I hadn't even said five words to her before I saw the disgust in her eyes. I went to bar and got myself a drink, and the moment I sat down the two girls sitting next to me got up and left. That's how fucking repulsive I am. I have to laugh, because it's either that or cry.

I thought about killing myself tonight. There's no just point in trying any more. I know now that the whole game was rigged from the start, that it was all decided by my genes before I was born. My skull is just a little too large, my legs are just a little too short, my canthal tilt is just a bit too negative, my metabolism is just a little too slow...I'm just totally unfuckable and nothing will ever change that. Some people out there just weren't meant to reproduce. It's survival of the fittest, and guess what? I'm one of those people who sure as shit aren't "fit."

Sometimes I think about taking my dad's gun and just going down to the mall and shooting everyone I see before blowing my brains out all over the ceiling. At least then I'd be SOMEBODY instead of nobody. And maybe people would finally start paying attention to people like me, people who are hopeless and alone and unwanted. Maybe they'd realise that if someone is starved of love and affection they turn into a monster.

I guess they were right...there really is no room for the weak.

Where will it end? Where will it end?

"And that's not even the worst part. Take a look at this."

Monika scrolled down, revealing Rhodes' final post:

Took out a pair of calipers and measured the size of my skull tonight. God, my head is so fucking FAT. Then I measured my philtrum/chin ratio and it was goddamned GROTESQUE. I mean, what do you think goes through a woman's head when she sees someone like me come up to her? She's going to think "I'd rather go home with ANYONE but that fucking THING!" Even the ugliest hambeast could find a guy willing to go home with her, but people like me? Hopeless.

It's so goddamn UNFAIR. Every woman, no matter how ugly and unattractive, thinks they ought to be treated like a princess. You have to lick her boots and spend all your time listening to her talking about her idiotic problems and her stupid hobbies, and then what? You try to be nice to her, and then she says she'd rather be friends and goes off to fuck some asshole whose chest is covered in prison tattoos. Fuck that noise!

I can already hear people giving me their stupid suggestions: "JuSt tRy tAlKiNg tO gIrLs." "JuSt bE yOuRsElF." Well what's the point of talking to girls if they practically spit in your face the second you open your mouth? What's the point of 'being yourself' when you SUCK?

I don't even really want to have sex. I understand that now – it's just not worth hoping for. I got pity sex back in high school...god I can't even think about it was so fucking shameful. I wouldn't even know what to do with a woman even if I COULD get her naked. Probably have a panic attack or something. And I just KNOW someone's going to suggest finding an escort who offers the "girlfriend experience." Do you know how PATHETIC that would make me feel, having to PAY for something other people can get for free?

There was one more post below, one from a user named "Finntroll," and out of curiosity Talvi scrolled down to read, aware that touching the keyboard ran the risk of destroying the machine.

Oh my god, SHUT THE HELL UP! You ever consider that maybe the reason you can't get a girlfriend is because women are tired of your whining?

And if you're gonna go on a killing spree...then GO ON A GODDAMN KILLING SPREE! Don't just sit on your ass posting this woe-is-me drek on the Matrix – get out there and KILL SOMEONE! You thought about killing yourself? Well, would you rather kill yourself or someone else? I know what I'd choose! And trust me, being an honest-to-god bona fide killer will make you IRRESISTIBLE to the ladies! They'll be like, "Wow, your gun is so BIG!" and you'll be like, "Careful, baby! You don't want it to go off accidentally! Heh heh heh!"

A little bit of advice – it might sound fun shooting up a shopping mall or a school, but the problem is that, if someone is packing heat (and a LOT of people are packing heat these days) then they're probably going to put a bullet in your brain before you can kill more than a few people. That's why I decided to become a serial killer after I murdered my wife and children on the shores of Lake Päijänne. If you spread your killings out across multiple cities it's a lot harder for the authorities to track you. Of course, the BEST thing to do is get yourself a job that involves getting paid to kill people. Either start working as a shadowrunner or get a job as a corporate enforcer – the corp jobs usually pay better but your bosses tend to be hardasses who don't like collateral damage (and I'm ALL about collateral damage!) Running the shadows pays drek and doesn't have a very good retirement plan, but you can pick and choose your jobs, so you can always take the ones that involve maximum bloodshed and maximum brutality.

Now, if you're running the shadows you're gonna need a crew of like-minded psychopaths ready to kill or be killed on your command. Make sure that you don't have any wimps or softies on your crew – the kind of people who might take issue with "excessive" bloodshed (now there are two words combined that can't make sense!). In my experience, you'll want to avoiding having the following types on your crew: elves, feminists, tabletop roleplayers, Nazbols, Calvinists, members of the British monarchy, and the Flemish.

"But Finntroll!" I hear you complain. "You're a bloodthirsty troll-and-a-half and I'm just a pasty-skinned nerd with no combat experience! How can I possibly go on a killing spree?" Well, the answer to that is drugs, drugs, and more drugs! The right combination of drugs and alcohol can turn even the meekest, mildest anorak into a goddamn wild animal. Send me a private message if you want to know more.

You're also gonna need guns...LOTS of guns. Personally, I prefer the biggest guns you can carry (I use an autocannon meant for fighter jets) but not everyone can carry what I carry, so you'll have to experiment with what works best for you. Typically you'll want a high rate of fire and a large magazine, so you can hose down an entire room without having to worry too much about aiming. Shotguns are good, too (they can do AMAZING things to a person's face when fired at close range), but they're lacking in the rate of fire department. Stay away from sniper rifles and the like – killing someone at a distance means you won't have the satisfaction of getting up close and personal with the poor bastard whose life you're ending.

And ALWAYS remember:

Shoot them in the back, never stop firing, carry 1000 times as much ammunition as you need, and if you see a dragon, SHOOT AT IT UNTIL IT DIES.

Talvi pushed the chair away from the desk. "By the gods, there's a message here from the sociopath responsible for the Lake Päijänne murders!"


"It was a terrible crime – a wife and her two children murdered by her husband. I don't recall his name, but he was never apprehended, and now he's posting to this...this BBS or whatever it is. It's just like the Matrix to allow psychopaths and fascists a place to gather, which is why it ought to be destroyed."

Monika shooed her out of the chair. "Don't talk such nonsense. Now let's see if Tobias left any other clues behind."

A minute or so later she dug up a video recording which, judging from the title, was of an interrogation at a Russian border crossing. One man in uniform sat at a table across from two other men in similar uniforms, though the video's quality was too poor to make out more than that. At the top of the screen were the words Пограничная служба России, and from her limited knowledge of Russian Talvi guessed that this recording was from the Russian border service.

One of the men began speaking in Russian, and a half second later an automatic translation appeared at the bottom of the screen.

"...the suspect's name was 'Rhodes Raskol.'"

"'Rhodes Raskol'? And what he had come to this country to do? Murder a pawnbroker in Saint Petersburg?"

"Actually, sir, he seemed like an idiot to me."

"Was he carrying anything with him?"

"His vehicle contained a Japanese sword and nothing else. All he had on his person was his PDA, which contained several recordings in which he described being humiliated and insulted."

"And what happened while he was in custody?"

"Nasty story, that. When I went to check on him in his cell, he...he had become possessed."

"'Possessed'? You mean by demons?"

"Whatever it was, it called itself 'Angry Mainyu.'"

A chill ran down Talvi's back. "Angra Mainyu?"

"Yeah, that mean anything to you?" Monika asked.

"Angra Mainyu is the supreme evil of the Zoroastrian religion – their 'devil', if you will – more commonly known by his Persian name 'Ahriman.' My friend Azadeh told me of him once...she said that he rarely manifests himself in the world directly, preferring to spread chaos and disorder through subtler methods. She believes that he is responsible for all the worst ideas in history – leaded gasoline, Napolean's invasion of Russia, the Great Leap Forward, the Treaty of Versailles, the internet, social media..."

"Angra Mainyu did not create the internet."

"Yes, well...I'm sure he must have been involved at some point. Azadeh says some strange things sometimes. At one point she claimed to be immortal, and that she had known Cyrus the Great personally. I did not think much of it at the time, but knowing the sorts of strange things that exist in this world it is entirely possible she was being truthful."

Monika's commlink started beeping, and when she looked down her expression turned to one of abject horror.

"We need to get back to the Kreuzbasar. Now."

When they returned to the Kreuzbasar a large crowd had gathered in circle, and as Talvi approached the scene her heart start pounding. Something terrible was happening, she could feel it in her bones.

She pushed her way through the murmuring throng and froze. At least a dozen dead bodies were strewn on the pavement, torn apart so violently that they were barely recognisable as individual people. The coppery scent of blood hung in the air, so overpowering it was almost nauseating.

In the middle of it all was the grotesque figure of what had once been Rhodes Raskol. Totally naked and soaked in blood, his body had been transformed into a twisted and hulking heap of flesh, oozing pus and pitch-black ichor. Talvi had heard stories of demonic possession, but nothing could have prepared her for the hideous scene playing out before her. The sheer malevolence radiating from this mockery of a human being was almost palpable.

Monika took one look at the horror in front of her. "Oh, fuck this!" she said, before shrinking back into the crowd.

The abomination turned towards Talvi and gazed at her with empty eye sockets. "So good of you to join us, elf," it said, its voice an inhumanly low growl. "Do you appreciate my handiwork? Those philistines at Aztechnology didn't, and so I thought I'd put on a more...public...display. Yes, it was I who slaughtered those soulless minions of Aztlán, and their pitiful blood magic was useless against me!"

Only closer examination, she realised that this person, this thing, was not naked, but wearing a robe fashioned from human skin and crudely sewn together with muscle and sinew. Despite her revulsion she kept her face expressionless. "Who...or what...are you?"

"You already know the answer to that, elf." He threw his arms up into the air. "It is I, Angra Mainyu, in the flesh!"

"Are you really? Or are you just a posturing spirit that thinks it is more than it is?"

He stomped his foot against the ground, shaking it beneath him. "Silence! You dare question the words of the Lord of Lies?"


The hideous figure remained silent, having not anticipated that response. He promptly changed the subject. "Do you recognise the flesh that now stands before you? It once belonged to a man, though he was not worthy of that word. In life, he was but a mewling wretch. In death, his body now serves a greater purpose."

"And what purpose is that?"

"Why, the destruction of mankind, of course!"

Talvi crossed her arms. "You are a very foolish person, and I'm not going to talk with you any more."

Angra Mainyu, if that was what he truly was, reached his hand into ghastly robe and pulled out large, red incendiary grenade. "You fool! Do you even know who it is you face?" He pulled the pin from the grenade, and the crowd began to scatter. "I am the Lord of Misrule, the Four Corners of the House of Troubles, the Daeva of Daevas! I am death, I am disaster, I am suffering, I am pain! I am everything you were ever afraid of! I am-"

The incendiary grenade exploded in his hand, and Talvi spun around on her heels as a blast of heat passed over her. When she turned around Angra Mainyu was enveloped in flames, flailing and thrashing about, emitting a sound no human could have made – a chorus of screams coming from all directions at once.

He fell to the pavement, his flesh melting and peeling away. Talvi shuddered at the hideous sight, unable to look away. It wasn't every day you saw the literal god of evil being immolated at one's feet.

Monika walked up beside her, covering her nose. "Good god..."

Talvi glanced over at her. "Your gun, please."

Without saying a word she handed Talvi her Ares Predator. The burning figure of Angra Mainyu continued crawling along the ground, his body smouldering and emitting a most ghastly stench.

"Only...only the vessel is destroyed!" he hissed. "Soon I will return, and all the world shall die!"

She looked down the charred body in front of her with utter contempt. "Mitätön jumala..."

"Evil never dies, fool! You-"

Before he could finish Talvi squeezed the trigger, splattering his brains across the tarmac. She fired again and again, his body spasming with every bullet, until the magazine was empty and the slide locked back.

Monika walked up to the charred remains and gave it a kick. "Um...I don't know what you just said, but...did you just trash talk a god? And what the hell just happened?"

Talvi handed the Predator back to her. "If that thing truly was Angra Mainyu, then it is most ironic that it perished in flames. Fire is a sacred symbol of the Zoroastrian faith, after all."

"Wait, I'm confused. So this thing possesses Rhodes, kills everyone at the Aztechnology offices for no reason, kills a bunch of people in the Kreuzbasar also for no reason, and then he...accidentally blows himself up? That doesn't make any sense! That's just plain anticlimactic...and stupid."

"Well, Angra Mainyu is a very stupid god. Evil always destroys itself in the end through its own short-sightedness. Anyway, I think we deserve a drink or two after this. Let's-"


She turned around saw the gaunt figure of Sacro Culto striding confidently towards her. He looked as he always did: tall, lanky, with long and unkempt hair, the sort of appearance that roused the schoolyard bully inside anyone who looked upon him. But there two pinpricks of light glowing in his eyes, and a certain swagger to his walk that told her he had not come here alone. Strangely, he was carrying a fiddle with him.

"Oh look," she said, sneering at him. "There's some lovely filth over here."

"You will not be so arrogant after I am finished with you. The Adversary and I are so one now; it is impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends. He is quite pleased that you have destroyed his old enemy. Angra Mainyu did not lack for malevolence, only wisdom."

"Much like you, I suspect."

Sacro Culto gave the charred remains of Angra Mainyu a swift kick. "Might I start by explaining how Finland is the worst country in the world? Oh sure, you might have your 'standards of living' or 'educational attainment,' but what about your culture? Did you know that Finnish cuisine is widely considered horrendous by anyone with a working sense of taste? Only British food is comparable, and they carved out a global empire just to get something decent to eat. Your country couldn't even manage that much."

Talvi was swift with her rebuttal. "And your nation's government recently issued an official apology for your existence. I've read the statement from the Norwegian prime minister. It's very formal, very official. In it he states 'The Kingdom of Norway sincerely apologises for the individual known by the ridiculous stage name of 'Sacro Culto.' Know that he does not represent the values of this country, that he has not one creative bone in his body, and that to call his artistic output 'music' would be to do a grievous insult to the art form.' Do you think I am speaking in jest, you beslobbering bolting-hutch of barbarity, you gormless lant-gulping foozler, you gibfaced addle-pated totty one-lung?"

He laughed. "Where the hell did you learn to speak English? A Charles Dickens novel?"

Yet her verbal barrage continued unabated. "Have you ever stopped to consider the totality of my triumph over you? You have chased me across half of Europe, but all you've managed to accomplish is inconveniencing me a bit. To put it plainly, despite you and your Inner Circle's attempts at murdering me I am completely unharmed, while you have sunk to depths too shameful to describe. I will say one thing before I go, however. Your failure, and my victory, will be remembered in the metal scene long after you and your musical atrocities have been forgotten. When people think of Jumalten Aika, they will think of me. Whenever someone hears your pathetic excuse for music, or sees one of your albums accumulating dust in a basement somewhere, they will also think of me. Don't you see? Everything you have ever worked for – your music, your band, your fans, that pathetic little thing you call a 'career' - it all belongs to me now. And all of this could have been prevented if you had just STOPPED!"

Sacro Culto stamped his foot on the ground. "You will not be going anywhere, Korpela! I have a challenge for you. It is time we see, once and for all, which of us is truly the greatest singer."

"That question was already decided the first time you stood before an audience."

"Maybe that was true once, but The Adversary has bestowed many gifts upon me. The rules of my challenge are simple. We will each take turns, playing whatever piece of music we wish, and at the end of three rounds whoever has proven themselves to be the superior musician shall be declared the winner."

"And just who is to be the judge of the 'superior musician?'"

"Why, The Adversary, of course!"

"He hardly seems impartial."

"No one ever said life was fair, did they? Oh, but it seems you don't have an instrument with you! I guess that means I win this contest by default." He looked at the crowd that had gathered around them. "Unless someone in the audience is willing to lend you one, that is..."

As if one cue an old man approached Talvi with a kantele in hand. "Take this, child," he said, speaking in Finnish. He sported a long, snow-white beard, and he was dressed in a way that called to mind a peasant from a painting of some bucolic scene. "It's not fashioned from a pike's jaw, but it will suffice."

"Thank you," she said, not questioning this bizarre turn of events.

"You may keep it when you are finished. Remember that there is far more at stake here than just pride. You must not fail."

"And just to make things interesting," Sacro Culto continued, "and because you butcher the pronunciation of every language but your own, you cannot sing any songs in Finnish. I wouldn't be in-character if I didn't tip the odds in my favour. But since I'm feeling generous, I'm going to let you go first."

Talvi took a deep breath. Despite Sacro Culto's blustering, she could feel in her bones that the old man had been right – this was about far more than just musical talent.

"Tulou aigu vie muga elämmö,

gul´ankal kuudamalla ajammo..."

"What did I just say?" shouted Sacro Culto. "I said no Finnish!"

"That's Karelian, not Finnish."

"Close enough!"

"What about Veps, or Ingrian, or Estonian, or Votic-"

"Look, you can't sing in any Uralic language, all right? Just for making that suggestion you forfeit the right to go first. Brace yourself."

He raised his fiddle to his chin and began to play, and from the first few notes Talvi could already tell that his demonic patron had indeed granted him some measure of talent.

"Eg heiter Håvard Hedde, og er så ven ein kar

No skal eg bort og gifta meg og rydja meg ei gard.

Eg bur opp under fjell,

og gjenta hev eg lova,

eg svik ho inkje hell.

Eg heiter Håvard Hedde og bur upp under nut,

no vil eg burt og gifta meg,

eg vil 'kje ganga gut.

Eg bur opp under fjell,

og gjenta hev eg lova,

eg svik ho inkje hell."

"Can you beat that, elf? The Adversary does not think you can."

Talvi scoffed at him. "Do you think I am impressed with your rustic Norwegian folk songs?"

But the quality of his performance was impeccable. Every note played, every word sung, was utterly perfect, and any music teacher would have described as a flawless performance. There was a charge in the air, like an electric current, and at any moment it might erupt. This was powerful magic – the magic of song – and only the strongest wills could control it.

"Since we are in Germany, perhaps a German folk song might not go amiss," she declared. "One most always take into account the audience to which one is playing, something you never mastered. That might explain why your audience always tries to kill you."

She strummed the kantele and began to sing:

"Ein Heller und ein Batzen, die waren beide mein

Der Heller ward zu Wasser, der Batzen ward zu Wein

Heidi, Heido, Heidi heido, ha, ha,

heidi, heido, ha, ha

heidi, heido, hei, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Die Wirtsleut und die Mädel, die rufen beid: Oh weh!

Die Wirtsleut, wenn ich komme, die Mädel, wenn ich geh."

Monika walked up behind her and whispered in her ear, "Talvi, this is really lame. No one here listens to that old grandpa music."

"You attempts to win the hearts of the audience are pathetic and obvious," Sacro Culto jeered. "And your German is almost as bad as your English." He then turned to the audience. "Who here is the better musician, honestly? Me, a true son of northern darkness?" He gestured towards Talvi. "Or this...thing?"

Someone shouted, "I vote for the sexy blonde!"

"You Germans, always choosing looks over talent," he grumbled.

"And you have neither," Talvi added, "no matter what supernatural aid you have enlisted."

"Is that so? Perhaps you would like to have a demonstration of my talent, with a song in your own tongue? Yes, The Adversary has granted me the knowledge of your language, among many others." Once more he raised his fiddle to his chin and drew the bow across the strings.

"Jos metsään haluat mennä nyt,

Sä takuulla yllätyt-"

It took all her willpower to keep herself from laughing. "That is a children's song, you imbecile!"


"Your 'Adversary' obviously granted you knowledge of pronunciation, but not the meaning of the words. Furthermore, by singing in Finnish you have granted me the right to sing in my own language."

"No I haven't! That doesn't make any sense!"

"According to the German Volksmusikwettbewerbsgesetz of 2034, anyone engaged in a folk music competition on German soil has the right to sing in any language previously used by any other competitor."

"That's not a law! You just made that up! I-"

A man walked up to Sacro Culto and whispered something into his ear. "What?" he cried. "That's an actual law? Why would you ever pass such a piece of legislation?"

"We have laws for everything in Germany," Monika explained. "We don't usually follow them here in the F-State, but we do have them."

"All right, Korpela," he grumbled, "I suppose you have the right to sing in Finnish, not that it will do you any good. Now let the second round begin!" He took his fiddle and began to play, just as flawlessly as before.

"Villemann gjekk seg te storan å

Hei fagraste lindelauvi alle

Der han ville gullharpa slå

For de runerne de lyster han å vinne

Villemann gjenge for straumen å stå

Hei fagraste lindelauvi alle

Mesterleg kunne han gullharpa slå

For de runerne de lyster han å vinne."

The magical energy was palpable now, flowing through every brick of every building, coursing through every vein of every person gathered in the square. It was a powder keg in search of a spark, a wave about to crash. The slightest mistake would result in her complete destruction, along with everyone else around her.

Sacro Culto's playing was inhumanly perfect, and for the first time in as long as she could remember Talvi began to doubt her musical skill. She was good, yes, but 'good' was a long ways from 'perfect.'

Still she raised her kantele and began playing. She would not sing in her mother tongue; not until the third and final round.

"There were three ravens sat on a tree,

Downe a downe, hay down, hay downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,

With a downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,

They were as black as they might be.

With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe

The one of them said to his mate,

'Where shall we our breakfast take?'

'Downe in yonder green field,

There lies a knight slain under his shield.

'His hounds they lie downe at his feet,

So well they can their master keep."

"Not impressed, Korpela! Do you want a prize...a prize for the singer so bad she actually made the audience cry?"

"Are you're going to babble all day, you absolute cretin, or are you going to play?"

"This final song of mine will destroy you. There is no way you will survive." Grinning wildly, he began to play.

"Mellom bakkar og berg ut med havet

Heve nordmannen fenge sin heim

Der han sjølv heve tuftene grave

Og sett sjølv sine hus oppå deim

Han såg ut på dei steinute strender

Det var ingen, som der hadde bygt

Lat oss rydja og byggja oss grender

Og so eiga me rudningen trygt

Han såg ut på det bårute havet

Det var ruskut å leggja utpå

Men det leikade fisk med i kavet

Og den leiken den ville han sjå."

Once again his performance was without flaw or error, and she knew that, were someone to subject it to computer analysis, they would every note played with nanosecond precision.

She looked back at Monika, and she remembered something her friend had to said to her once. It was something about the punk scene, about how some vocalists couldn't sing to save their lives, and suddenly Talvi understood what she had to do.

"That was true Norwegian patriotism," said Sacro Culto. "The same rage and fury that once carried our ships to the shores of England and beyond. No song you can sing can compare with this. You might as well just give up now."

She ignored him and began to play her kantele, softly at first.

"Taivas on sininen ja valkoinen

ja tähtösiä täynnä,

Taivas on sininen ja valkoinen

ja tähtösiä täynnä;

niin on nuori sydämeni

ajatuksia täynnä,

niin on nuori sydämeni

ajatuksia täynnä."

She used no gimmicks, no fancy bits of vocal gymnastics. Those who heard her play might have described the music as simple, even primitive. Everything around her faded, with only her and the song remaining. It was an unsophisticated tune, a simple melody of melancholy, and that would be the key to victory this day.

"What's the matter, Korpela? I can barely hear you! Lost your voice?"

"Enkä mä muille ilmoita

mun sydänsurujani,

enkä mä muille ilmoita

mun sydänsurujani;

synkkä metsä, kirkas taivas

tuntee mun huoliani,

synkkä metsä, kirkas taivas

tuntee mun huoliani."

Into these words she poured every moment of sadness, every hour of despair, every point in time in which the weight of the world seemed unbearable. It was the sorrow she could never speak of to anyone, not to her friends, not to her bandmates, not to her mother, no one.

Talvi opened her eyes and looked at those gathered around her. No one spoke or even made a sound. A few wept openly.

"That was beautiful," Monika said quietly. "I don't know what it meant, but it was beautiful."

Sacro Culto's scream broke the silence. The lights vanished from his eyes, and Talvi knew that The Adversary had found him unworthy.

"No! This isn't what was supposed to happen! This isn't what was promised to me! I have sacrificed too much to be defeated by some tree-hugging, dandelion-eating elf!"

The torrents of magic were still flowing around them, but now they answered only to her. "You never understood, did you? Music is about more than just technical ability. It is about feeling. The demon you have served may have granted you the ability to play perfectly, but it cannot grant you the ability to plumb the depths of human emotion. And now you have failed him, and I don't believe this 'Adversary' will suffer failure lightly."

"I cannot die! Not until the winter and the woods claim me! That was what he promised me!"

Talvi smiled. "Then he should have taught you to understand Finnish, not merely to speak it, for my name is cold winter!" She began strutting towards him, delighting in the abject terror in his eyes. "Olen talven kylmä koura. Olen uumen synkän metsän. Tulet olemaan voimaton. Silmät eivät loppuasi näe..."

With a gentle wave of her hand she gathered the roiling magic around her, shaping and moulding it into carefully-controlled wave of destruction aimed directly at Sacro Culto.

And then, nothing happened.

"Ha! Your pitiful magics are useless against me, Korpela! You had your chance, and you blew it!"

She turned around, not wanting to witness what was about happen. "Sinä olet jo kuollut."


With a loud, wet splat, Sacro Culto's head exploded in a shower of brains and bone.

And then a cheer went up from the crowd.

"So anyway, someone found Lord Swedish's remains beneath the wreckage of the airliner that crashed yesterday. Knowing what happened to him I almost feel sorry for the bastard. His company gets destroyed, he never finds out who's responsible, and then while he's drowning his sorrows at a bar an airplane falls on him. I guess maybe there is such a thing as karma after all. Shame we didn't get any dosh out of this deal, though."

Talvi finished took one last sip of vodka before setting the glass back down on the table. "After all this I am eager to return to my own country."

"You sure you don't want to spend a few more days in Berlin?" Monika asked. "Trust me, there's a lot more to this city than you've seen over the last week or so."

"No, I'm afraid not. These urban environments wear on my nerves, and I wish to be in the proper frame of mind when our band heads into the recording studio."

"Right, that." A look of sadness crossed her face, but only for a moment. "I'm sure you'll back soon enough. See, you'll never admit it, Talvi, but a part of you craves this life, craves the excitement and the action! You love being able to unleash your magic, admit it!"

"There is one thing I don't crave: people attempting to kill me."

Monika shrugged. "In this world, if someone isn't trying to kill you then you're probably doing something wrong. Anyway, you keep in touch, you hear? And for god's sake get a new cyberterminal! I'll let you know if I need for you anything; who knows, maybe you'll actually get a chance to meet the rest of my crew. Just...don't become a hermit, all right? I know you don't think much of the modern world, but you won't make it a better place by sitting in a cabin in the middle of the forest."

"Things will continue to get worse regardless of what I do. Such is the fate of all those unfortunate enough to be born in a time of a decline. All you can do is find somewhere far away, some island of sanity where traditional communities and way of life still exists, and try to preserve the parts of your culture you think are worth preserving. Traditional societies are an anathema to global capitalism, and thus they must be destroyed, their communities atomised, and people made to forget that they even existed in the first place. But they can still be found, if you know where to look, and I think it is only on the margins of society where one can find a decent way to live."

Monika thought her words over for a few moments. "You know, we've got a good thing here in the Flux State. It's not always easy; hell, it's whole lot of work sometimes, but I know it will all be worth it in the end."

Those words left Talvi feeling uneasy, but for the life of her she could not understand why. She and Monika were from two different worlds, and she could never understand how the two of them had ever struck up a friendship in the first place.

Perhaps she would never know.

Chapter Text

Chapter 25 – Epilogue

Ah, Talvi. My secret weapon.

I've known her for years, but sometimes I feel like I don't know anything about her at all. She's an open book, but it's all in Finnish and I can't understand a single word of it .

She's a gifted mage, and inhumanly beautiful in the way that elves are, but she can be really uptight and hard to deal with sometimes. There's a her, and I get the impression that she's not the sort of person who would ever let anyone get close to her.

And I feel bad for saying this, but she's got a really thick accent, and sometimes I want to laugh at the way she pronounces certain words.

Oh, and I've never met anyone who's more hopeless with tech than she is. She ought to be kept as far away as possible from any cyberterminals or any piece of technology, because they always malfunction (or explode) whenever she tries to use them. It's totally weird, and I've never seen this happen with anyone else. One of life's little mysteries, I suppose.

Monika's private cyberterminal entry had been burned into Talvi's brain, to the point where she could recall every word from memory. She did not know why she remembered this bit of information in particular. It did not even accurately describe her; Talvi certainly never thought of herself as being "cold" or distant.

There was no use in dwelling on such painful memories, but she could not help herself. If only Monika had listened, if only she hadn't put that ghastly piece of metal into her head, then Talvi would not have had to watch helplessly as her friend died in her arms.

Her cyberterminal began beeping, indicating an incoming call. Everyone who know her knew never to call her on that device unless it was an absolute emergency, so it was with some degree of trepidation that she approached the infernal machine and answered the call.

The blurry image of a dark-haired woman appeared on the display, which had become so degraded over the years that making out anything but the vaguest details was impossible.

"Talvi, I'm surprised! You answered this call in a matter of seconds. More often it takes half a dozen attempts or more to reach you."

"Azadeh? What is this about? You would not have called me like this if it were not important."

"It would appear that the shadow of war darkens my homeland once again," she said in that overly-dramatic tone she always spoke in (Azadeh claimed it was a habit she had picked up from her time as a court poet for Darius the Great). "The UCAS is preparing for an invasion, and I do not think the Artesh alone can hold them back."

"The UCAS makes threats against Iran all the time, as predictably as the sun rising. Why should this time be any different?"

"I cannot explain; I simply know that their threats are not idle ones, and I will need your aid if we are to repel their onslaught. The Americans have been longing to subjugate us since 1979, and the disintegration of the United States has not abated this desire one bit."

Talvi's eyes widened. "You want me to help you repel a military invasion? I think that might be significantly beyond my capabilities."

"Is it not? You sank the battleship Yamato, humiliated the UCAS navy with your chimpanzee gambit, and you have faced down Angra Mainyu himself. I don't see why one nation's army should prove insurmountable."

There was a certain logic to her words, she had to admit. "Assuming I choose to help you, where should we meet?"

"In the city of Yazd. You know the location."

With that the image on the screen winked out of existence.

This was insanity, Talvi knew. Going up against the entire UCAS military? Even though it was a pale shadow of what it once was, it still remained one of the most powerful armed forces on the planet. Nothing good could come of getting involved in her friend's mad scheme.

She stood up and began packing her things.