There was a buzzing in the air; a buzzing which resembled that of a power transformer under heavy load. The noise increased in pitch and volume as the source of the buzzing approached, and then abruptly dropped off as the Doppler Effect stretched out the vibrations and went into a deeper pitch. Everyone on the ground instinctively crouched and sought cover until the noise faded into the distance. Some of them, even battle-hardened street sam and razorboys openly quaked with fear. It was just that kind of noise. No one wanted to think about it.
There were dark, oppressive clouds in the sky, and the sun hung low over the horizon in a pale farewell to the day. A light breeze blew in from over the harbor, which was typical for a day in the Windy City. After the Bug Invasion, glimpses of the sky were very rare, but Chicago was still Chicago. The Bugs were different.
The corner of Kedzie and 125th used to be sprawling with automobiles, motorcycles, limousines and Knight-Errant security vehicles. By the time Pike and his team reached it, the neighborhood was all but deserted. The bribe supplied by Ms. Johnson had gotten them through the Containment Zone walls into the city easily enough, but Pike wasn't going to forget the look of pure disbelief and pity on the guards' faces. The last time Pike had seen that, a Merc company had held a defensive position for their employers to pull back safely. As Pike recalled, the Twelfth Silver Eagle Mercenary Company had been forced to retire due to insufficient personnel. Read: they got fragged.
Pike chewed on his cigar angrily and signaled his Front-Liners to disperse in Gamma Pattern. That put Slick on point with his favorite weapon: an AK-98 with grenade launcher. He was backed up by Hawk and Wiz, both moving quietly and closely behind him in a tight, three-meter triangle. Pike glanced over his shoulder to make sure Trey was keeping up; the Mage had been acting squirrelly ever since they got within a klick of the Zone. It was times like this when Pike sorely missed Zag and his damned bots, but the Zone was a mess, and nobody was going to want to haul either Zag around when he was jacked or his damned machines when he wasn't. There was no way they could bring in Zag's van, or his hovercraft. He and Crash were forced to stay back and monitor as best they could, though how Crash was going to get into the Matrix within the Zone was anybody's guess. Crash said she could do it even if everyone thought she was crazy, but she was used to people thinking that about her.
That left himself, Slick, Hawk and Wiz. Trey was along for magickal backup, but his elven ears were twitching constantly, and his eyes had a faraway look in them that made Pike nervous. He didn't think Trey was going to be much good for this run. Nonetheless, he waited for Trey to catch up and move ahead of him before he continued in vanguard position. The others were good, and were showing their professionalism in their crisp, sharp movements and solid teamwork. The only one out of place among them was Trey, but nobody had time to stop and dress him down for it.
Pike noticed Wiz glancing overhead, tracing the path of the thing that had overflown their position a few minutes before. People were starting to come back on to the street, doing much the same as Wiz was doing. Some of them were starting to notice the Shadowrunners and their well-kept equipment, and this was not what Pike wanted to see. He gave a quick order, and the five picked up their pace, leaving the natives behind.
Slick ducked into the safety of a corner restaurant that had its windows blown out. The rest of the team joined him and automatically took up defensive positions. Trey began muttering something under his breath; but Pike didn't take the time to find out what.
"What is it, Slick?" he asked curtly. His fingers tightened around the grip of his HK-227, confirming that the safety was off and it was ready for a burst fire. He wasn't bothering with stun rounds for this run. He didn't think Bugs would care that he didn't particularly want to kill them.
"Somebody hidin' in the alley 'cross the street," Slick replied, slurring his words around his thick Troll tongue. "Usin' darkness ta cover 'em. Could be a gang ambush."
Hawk peeked around a wall to peer in the direction Slick was pointing. "I don't make them out," she said in her soft, sultry tones. Pike had always thought it an irony that such a heartless killer would have a voice that could set any teenager's hormones raging. Especially since there was more chrome than flesh to her body. One didn't associate elves with killing machines very often, but she was an exception to many rules.
Pike lifted his binoculars to his eyes and flipped the switch that would engage thermoptic vision. The world instantly resolved into ghostly images of thermal radiance. Much of the street was giving off a steady flux of heat as the last of the sunlight crawled up the sides of the buildings. The alleyway Slick had pointed out was mostly dark, except for an occasional flash of something moving quickly around the corners.
"Probably one of the gangs we were worried about. I think we're on the wrong side of town for the Fleshmongers or the Living Dead, but there's no reason to take chances." Pike caught a glimpse of something racing across the gap of the alley almost too fast to make out. Whoever was waiting in the alley was wired and ready to go. "Wiz, recon. Hawk, back him up. Slick, you and I are going to cover them from here. Trey…Trey! Get your head out of the drek!"
The Mage seemed to shake out of a reverie and blinked owlishly at Pike. "Uh, yeah?"
"Trey, I want you to hit Wiz with an invisibility spell. Is that going to cause a problem?"
"Invisibility, sure. No problem." Trey pushed his unruly hair out of his eyes and focused on the short human. He waved his ringed hand and muttered something under his breath, and Wiz abruptly vanished like a soap bubble that someone had just popped. Pike caught his breath; no matter how many times he saw it, it never failed to astonish him.
Then Trey faltered, and Hawk caught him in a flash before he could stumble over the remains of a broken table. "What happened?" she asked him with concern in her voice. The team gossip vine said Hawk was sweet on Trey, but Pike thought it was just one elf watching out for another.
"It…I was caught off-guard. I read Night Walker's report on the effects of the Cermak Blast, but I wasn't prepared for . . ." Trey paused to catch his breath, and the rest of the team immediately checked their rad counters.
Pike released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. His radiation detector will still green, which meant he hadn't picked up any contamination. The tactical nuke that took out the corner of Cermak and Racine hadn't released enough radiation to cook all of Chicago, only part of it. Nobody knew who dropped the thing, but most fingers were pointed toward the UCAS. All anyone knew for sure was that it had stopped the Bugs, just not the way everyone hoped. Many of the Bugs were in torpor, and they weren't trying to push their invasion beyond the current boundaries of the Containment Zone. Pike wasn't sure if this was a good thing or not.
"Hey!" called a disembodied voice. "Am I gonna be okay or not?"
Pike looked up sharply, and realized that Wiz was ready to go. "Hawk, take the north flank. Wiz will take the south, and the two of you meet in the middle. If there's any trouble at all, back away and Slick and I will give them the hard rain."
That meant that Pike would fire grenades from the AK-98 while the Troll threw grenades with his uncanny accuracy. Two or three of the explosives would likely bring the two walls of the alley down, and Gods help whatever was underneath.
Hawk nodded once and slipped through the door silently. Pike didn't know if Wiz was still there or not, which didn't worry him. You didn't know if Wiz was there if he didn't want you to. He and Slick took up positions on either side of the window, watching Hawk's progress. He allowed himself the luxury of a wave of pride over his Front-Line team, but only for a moment. This was biz.
The seconds crawled by with agonizing slowness. Hawk took careful position at the north end of the alley, and when she was satisfied, drew her Ares Predator and nodded to the air.
At that moment, a female voice sounded behind Pike. "Mister? Mister, what's going on?"
Pike whirled and felt his finger tightening on the trigger of the grenade launcher instinctively. He forced himself to dump the feedback from his neural implants and release his grip on the trigger. He was now pointing the barrel of the rifle toward a young woman dressed in rags and smeared with dirt. Her long, dark hair was wild and ragged as the rest of her, and she was obviously malnourished. In his mind's eye, Pike could see the beautiful woman she could be if given the chance. He was glad he had held his fire. The way she held herself and the curves not-quite hidden by the thin rags she wore…but this was no time for hot flashes.
"Get down!" he hissed. "Gangbangers in that alley, and if they rush us the drek's gonna hit the fan!"
The woman looked over toward the alley and saw Hawk with her gun drawn, and reacted faster than Pike could have expected. From a standing start, she leapt through the open window and raced toward the alley screaming, "Noooo! Stop! Wait!"
For the second time in as many minutes, Pike was forced to hold back his instinctive reaction to send a half dozen rounds into her body. Instead, he pulled up the barrel and cursed under his breath. Hawk reacted as he expected: she leveled her gun at the girl, assessed her as no serious threat and backed away from the alley. Slick grunted. "Mebbe we shoulda fragged 'er?"
Pike raised the gun and handed it to Slick. "Maybe. Cover me, chummer."
He stepped out into the open with his weapons holstered. Hawk gave him a look that distinctly said she thought he was certifiably insane, then took up position behind a derelict limo to cover him. Pike walked toward the alley cautiously with his hands in a neutral position. The woman had disappeared in the darkness, but he caught occasional flashes of movement, too rapid to follow. The sun had completely disappeared over the horizon, draping the city in twilight. City lights were reflecting off the clouds overhead, giving surfaces an unreal quality to them. Pike glanced up at the cloud-covered sky and supposed that somewhere behind them the moon was shining; it had been almost full when he left San Diego. He thought about the woman he'd left back in their run-down flat off Sixth, and wondered if this was going to be his last chance to think about her. Then he resolutely pushed all those thoughts out of his head and stepped up to the mouth of the alley.
"Hey, in there! We don't want any trouble, so come out and let's talk!" He waited for a moment, and heard soft noises of someone moving about. Then, just as he was about to give up, the young woman stepped out of the darkness and gave him a wry grin. "We didn't know you had spotted us."
"Us? Who is 'us?'" Pike demanded. He strained to keep his voice neutral, but his nerves were jumping like a claustrophobic cockatrice. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Hawk shifting her position slightly for a better angle. Sometimes he wondered if she would consider him expendable when the chips came down.
"The Nasty Grrrls," the woman trilled with a bright smile. "We heard the Blue Boyz were around, so we're watching for them."
Pike shot her a wary glance. This neighborhood was supposed to be outside the territories of both the Grrrls and the Boyz, but "supposed to" was the best anyone could do within the Zone. The Johnson's information was only as good as the runners who could smuggle it out.
"The Boyz are looking to expand their territory?" he asked her quickly. She returned his wary glance, then shrugged without commenting.
Pike raised his hand and made a fist. The Front-Liners assembled around him, Slick dragging Trey by the collar. Trey was looking around nervously, and acting extremely oddly. Pike realized he was going to have to make the time to talk to him, no matter how tight their schedule was for this run. After a moment, he noticed Wiz's absence.
"Trey, where's Wiz?" he asked.
Trey pointed absently at a patch of air. He seemed to be muttering something under his breath, not paying attention to what was going on. Pike crossed his arms and gave Trey an impatient look. Slick chuckled and nudged Trey with his elbow. Trey blinked, then waved his hand in the direction he had pointed before. Wiz blinked back into sight three feet from where Pike stood. He had his Uzi in a deceptively comfortable position cradled in the crook of his arm; at a second's notice he could be pointing it in any direction filling the air with hot metal.
The woman gave a small shriek when Wiz appeared, then cleared her throat and smiled at him shyly. Wiz had his drek-eating grin that said he was damned pleased with himself. Trey just kept mumbling under his breath as if the whole thing were inconsequential. Pike started to get cold chills running down his spine. "Look, we really don't want any trouble, so we'll just move along. That okay with everybody?" By everybody he was referring to the Grrrls, and the waifish-looking female nodded happily to him. She acted remarkably naïve and innocent, which meant he didn't trust it, in spite of his instinctual attraction to her. He kept seeing her with bright red lipstick and a come-hither smile, but he angrily forced that train of thought out of his head. He was on the run of his life, and he was thinking about sex? What was wrong with him?
Pike held up his hand in the signal for the team to gather. Then he held up two fingers and pointed east, made a fist and circled it. It meant they'd form up in Alpha pattern, two-by-two with him on point. He lead them down several blocks until they hit Western. The whole time he was looking over his shoulder and up in the air as if he was expecting some sort of tail or ambush, which he was. The darkening sky remained cold and empty, and the city grew darker and darker since most street lights had failed months ago. Finally, he hung a sharp left and flattened himself against the side of the building. The rest of the team immediately followed suit, and Hawk peered around the corner. "Quiet as a graveyard," she reported.
"Ya hadda say dat," Slick muttered. Pike wasn't the only one with the jitters.
Hawk favored him with a withering glance. "Perhaps you'd be more comfortable if I phrased it that it's as peaceful as a mortuary?"
"Uh…" Slick paused a moment to mull this over. "Mebbe."
Pike suppressed a laugh. "Come on. We head one klick north, then we hole up for the night. Nothing wooden, we need plasticrete or something non-organic if we can get it."
"I don't think we can afford to be choosey about five-star hotels right now," Wiz quipped. He snapped the bolt on his Uzi to check the action and the round in the chamber. It was the only hint he gave that anything was less than "wiz" with him.
"Cute," Pike replied without heat. "Move out."
They moved cautiously for the next half hour, making sure of their cover and position. Pike occasionally brought his binoculars up for a quick sweep not so much for their range but the thermoptics. Everything nearby was cold, though they picked up a trace of heat farther north and to the east. He suspected that to be the site of the Cermak blast.
They hadn't gone quite the full distance when Hawk tapped on Pike's shoulder and pointed to a building to the west. He looked, scoped it out with the binoculars, and nodded. She had spotted an excellent modern structure to use as base camp for the night. His scan showed no spots of heat to give away living beings either in or near the building. He signaled for the team to spread out and recon the area before converging on the front lobby. He checked out the back himself, searching for signs of infestation, either human or bug. When he satisfied himself there were none, he met the others around front.
She was tall and slim without a single blond hair out of place. In a more casual setting Pike might have found her quite attractive, but here everything about her screamed corporate toadie. Even her smile was a tight, prim, professional thing reserved for an employer dictating terms to an employee.
"I'm so glad you could make it, Mr. Pike," she began with practiced formality.
"The pleasure is mine, Ms. Johnson," he replied with an equal amount of formality. Two could play the corporate shark game, though he wasn't issuing a challenge. Merely a playful jab, like his next statement. "When an Ares Corp. executive calls, I always have time to listen."
He expected to catch her off-guard, but he was disappointed. The only reaction she gave was to raise a perfectly-trimmed eyebrow. "I presume my Section ring gave me away?"
"That, and your stance," he admitted. "Damon Knight follows strict protocols with his Knight-Errant security force, and your parade-rest screams Company Commander. I wouldn't be surprised if you had met the man himself face to face."
She allowed herself to look pleased. "I see your reputation is deserved, Mr. Pike. Not many runners are quite so familiar with Knight-Errant training. May I ask how you came by this knowledge?"
Pike chewed at the cold cigar in his mouth while he considered his answer. Tell her about his former team-mate who bought it last year, or snow her? He decided a compromise was in order.
"I worked with a...er...retired member of the force. I consider it a professional habit to study the players I might be working with."
"Or against," she said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. The cold, corporate veneer was starting to fade, and she became more like a real person to him. He nodded to her slightly, conceding the point.