Joules sits with Zippy Toe-Tag and Putt-Dawg at a the Samsons noodle shop, waiting to hear the impostor’s voice. The rest of the runners have been in position for about an hour.  Drivey is running hot sim in his van, which is parked in front of the HQ. Sensors from the van’s exterior and his 3 drones give him a stereoscopic view of the HQ.  Eric da MAJ, Vendetta Violent, Devil Duck, and Belker along with Deadeyeare and Dirtnap are in the tunnel, ready to move.  Maverick, wearing a Knight Errant uniform,stands on the corner, eyeing the roads.  Echo Tree is wearing a stereotypical salaryman’s power suit.  He reads thru his forged electronic documents, making sure to memorize everything. Everyone is turned up to 11, waiting for the signal to go.

“Weclome to the”

Joules grins enthusiastically as she catches Putt-Dawg’s eye. “Showtime.”

She grabs Woofle’s leash and starts skipping toward the newly activated mag-locked door, whistling the tune of that creepy nursery rhyme.  Zippy and Putt-Dawg follow about three meters behind.

Joules hear’s Tomatoes’ voice over her headset. “Don’t Move, Joules.  You’re halfway through the barrier. It’s buckling. When Woofles hits it, the barrier should break.  Man, I wish you could see what this looks like on the astral.  I’ve never seen anything like it. Fucked Up Shit doesn’t do it justice.”

“Woofles, priority wreck,” commands Joules, pointing at the barrier.  The hellhound charges the strained barrier and the spell shatters on impact.

Tomatoes’ jubilant voice spreads the word “The barrier is destroyed!”

After hearing this, Zippy approaches the mag-lock and beings the process of overriding the security protocols.

Meanwhile underneath HQ, the rescue strike force pops the hatch and climbs to the basement of the building; Belker taking point while Devil Duck takes up the rear.  Deadeye lays against the wall, throws his consciousness into one of the skull shaped hoverdrones and pilots it up thru the hatch.  After everyone has entered the HQ, Dirtnap closes the hatch behind them.  He looks down at Deadeye’s body and scrunches up his face, thinking.  After a moment, he reaches into his ‘bag o’ tricks’ and pulls out a super fuzzy blanket and pillow.  Dirtnap places the pillow under Deadeye’s head and covers him with a blanket.  Not satisfied, he starts rooting around in his bag and pulls out a plush hamster.  He tucks the hamster under Deadeye’s arm, nods in satisfaction and pulls out his AK-97. “Dirtnap protect sleepy friend” the troll declares.

With the barrier down, Eric da MAJ, Vendetta Violent, and Belker start performing any type of magical recon that they can think of, and feed what they find to the rest of the team.

“They’re really dug in up there,” Eric says with a low whistle.  “7 of them.”

Belker frowns. “There’s no hearth spirits here. Makes sense, though. Ol’ Crow Boy was never one for bindings. There’s a few crow spirits, though.”

“I’ve found him! Opti’s locked up in his studio,” Vendetta Violent smiles.  “There’s two of them guarding the door and the rest of them are in the adjacent living room. We have to get by all of them to get to the studio.”

“Can’t we just get Rainbowsmite’s team to distract (or destroy) them, and we slip behind them,” asks Devil Duck. “They won’t be able to find us if they’re trying to dodge a sadistic elf and ork tag team.”

“Rainbowsmite, what’s your status?” asks Eric into his headset.  “There’s a lot of paid resistance outside broadcast booth.  Think you can distract them?”

“Why do think I had Zippy weaponize the Siracha?” giggles Joules over the comm.  “Zippy’s almost thru the Maglock.  How many are there?”

“There’s seven.” Vendetta reports, concentrating her astral sight upward. “From what I get from their astral signatures, four of them use magic.”

The sound of Putt-Dawg’s laughter drowns everyone out. “Frag, those meatsacks are stupid.  For someone who hates Opti so much, they did zero recon on his allies.” He lets out one last whoop as the sound maglock opening comes across the com.

“Open, says me! We’re in.” Zippy’s voice loses some of his bravado as the door opens. His eyes lock on a small electronic device installed in the doorjamb.”Shit! They trapped the door. Silent alarm. Company’s coming and we have no time to polish the silver.”

“Drivey, Echo Tree, Tomatoes, and Maverick, you’re on!” says Joules. “My team will head on up.”

Echo Tree and Maverick take their positions as the distant wail of sirens pierce the air.

Zippy, Putt-Dawg and Joules enter the building, re-engaging the mag-lock behind them. Trusting that their teammates outside can keep the proverbial (and possibly literal) wolves from the door.

In less than a minute a squad car displaying the Lone Star logo pulls up. Maverick lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Whew, that’s lucky. I’m not wearing their uniform.

Two officers exit the car and approach Maverick and Echo Tree.

“What’s all this then,” asks one of the officers.

“Standard pen test demonstration,” says Maverick.  “I was hired as a consultant to observe and give feedback as a security professional.”

Echo Tree swaggers up to the officers. “Excuse me officers.  What’s the problem? Whatever it is, can we take care of it quickly? I need to get back to the demo.  Time is money.”

“A silent alarm was tripped. We’re responding to a B & E.”

Echo Tree rolls his eyes, playing the role of corporate stooge perfectly. “Of course there’s a B & E!  This is a penetration test demonstration.” He heaves a frustrated sigh and pulls up a few AR files and sends them over to the officers.  “Here’s the permits and the contracts.  The alarm was supposed to be temporarily re-routed prior to the test. I apologize for the oversight.  Have your company send me the bill for time and resources spent.  Now if you’ll excuse me.”

“What’s that then?” The office points to Drivey’s van.  “That’s not standard issue.”

“It’s an armored urban mobile HQ prototype, sir.” says Maverick.  “I’m observing not only its efficacy but unobtrusiveness.”

“It’s hard to be unobtrusive with a panther cannon attached to the roof,” says one of the officers.

While the officers are talking with Echo Tree and Maverick, Tomatoes sneaks under the squad car and plants a few objects and slips back out.

“Well, everything seems to be in order. Good luck with the test.” One of the officers hands Echo Tree a business card. “Feel free to contact us for any security needs in the future.”

The officers climb into the car and drive off. Maverick and Echo Tree look at each other and simultaneously blurt “Holy shit that worked! I can’t believe they fell for it.”

Tomatoes pipes up, “Such a shame their rear axle is about to fail.  As soon as they hit a pothole, its gonna go. That’s gonna cause a small electrical discharge.  The damage is gonna destroy the incident record and GPS data.  What a pity.” He grins wryly and flicks his com on.  “Everything’s clear outside RS.  Go nuts!”

Joules turns to everyone and smiles “Sorry guys, I’m out of funny quips.  So, everybody up for a little payback?”

Putt-Dawg bounds up the stairs followed Joules then Zippy.  Belker holds his hand, staying the rescue team.  “Wait till we hear a yell of pain, then go.”  Vendetta Violent uses the time to cast a powerful invisibility spell. They then hear a bloodcurdling scream from upstairs.

“I think it’s safe to go up now,” smiles Eric da MAJ.

As they head up the stairs they see Putt-Dawg shooting at at a weaselly runner hiding under a table while grinding his boot on the neck of another runner.  “Try casting that again dipshit! I fucking dare ya!” he yells, voice dripping with rage. “Now stop struggling or you’re going to regret…”  The mage under Putt-Dawgs foot claws at the boot heel on his neck, opening the hidden compartment.  A scream of horror and agony reverberates off the walls as ultra concentrated Stuffer Shack Nova Hot Soysiracha spills over the mage’s face.  Putt-Dawg looks down at the mage now incapacitated by blinding pain and shrugs.  “Well, I tried to warn ya.  But you do deserve it.” He grinds his heel into the runner’s neck, breaking the skin and smearing the Stuffer Shack Nova Hot Soysiracha into the wound. “And I never said I was going to move my foot.”

Zippy Toe-Tag squares off with a chromed out human wielding an electrified katana.  Using wired reflexes, dodges the street samurai’s attacks with ease.  He keeps firing his Ares S-III Super Squirt at the street samurai, to visibly minimal effect.  Putt-Dawg looks at Zippy, slightly annoyed.  “Do you need a hand, Zippy?  Your shots are weak. They aren’t hurting him.”

“I’m not trying to hurt him,” responds Zippy, confusing Putt-Dawg.  “I’m trying to dose him.”

“With what?!” asks Putt-Dawg.

“Oh it’s a new drug combination I came up with last month.  I call it ‘W squared.’  I’ve been looking for a test subject.”

Putt-Dawg frowns.  “So what does it do?”

Zippy responds gleefully. “I have no idea.  Take notes!” He dodges another swing. “We should see something right about…” The street samurai starts screaming. “Now,” finishes Zippy, watching the runner intently.

The samurai drops his katana and starts running about randomly, swatting at the unseen, clawing his eyes, and screaming.

“What the hell was in that drug combo you used?” asks Putt-Dog, finally nailing the decker under the table with a perfectly aimed round to the head, dropping him instantly.

Zippy reloads his Ares S-III Super Squirt. “Woad and Warp.”

Belker, Vendetta Violent, Devil Duck and Eric da MAJ take advantage of the chaos and Vendetta’s invisibility spell and start maneuvering toward the door to the broadcasting room.  The last runner guarding the door runs forward to assist his teammates, giving the extraction team unobstructed access.  Unfortunately the door is magically sealed twice over and the door has been hastily welded to its frame.  Eric swears under his breath “Those seals are nasty work. It’ll take time to break it.”

Devil Duck pulls out small vial of the weaponized soysiracha and activates his laser axe. “I got the welding, you guys get the seals.”

Belker nods determinedly then turns to Eric and Vendetta. “I think I know how we can free Opti.  Eric, you handle the wards and Vendetta, you keep everyone away from Eric da MAJ and Devil Duck.  I’m going to call for some corvid backup.”

Vendetta Violent nods, turns around,  and drops the invisibility spell. She concentrates, calling on her own inner power and the power of her mentor spirit. “In the Dragonslayers name, fall!” she cries, unleashing her spell, targeting the two runners who haven’t quite yet entered the fracas.

The runners gasp and drop to the floor, their fingers bleeding as they dig them into the floorboards in abject terror. Vendetta nods satisfied. “Most runners say they’re afraid of nothing. How very true that is.”

Deadeye’s skull aerial drone flies into the room and locks onto an unseen figure hiding in the corner.  In an electronic voice akin to Nathan Explosion’s, it broadcasts “Weak invisibility spells don’t work on thermographic cameras, chombatta.”  The drone’s jaws open, the smell of ghost chili peppers and accelerant assault the hiding runner.

The figure in the corner yelps and drops the spell and surrenders. “You guys are insane!  The job does NOT pay me enough to fight against this.”

Deadeye’s drone continues to hover at face height. “Don’t try anything stupid.  Or else I will melt your face, literally.”

Joules is fighting another runner, who seems to have a confused expression frozen on his face as his magically empowered strikes do next to nothing upon contact. The adept, getting frustrated pulls out a flash-pak and sets it off in Joules’ face, causing her to stumble and fall.  Woofles, acting on instinct to defend his master, bounds in from the stairwell and sinks his teeth into the runner’s leg.  The adept’s face contorts with rage as he kicks at the hellhound. His boot connects with Woofles’ body with a sickening wet crack. Woofles lets out a heartwrenching whine of pain as he falls. Joules eyes widen in shock as all colour drains from her hair. The doomed runner starts laughing and bragging as a malevolent hiss escapes from Joules’ lips. “Why is it talking? Corpses don’t talk,” asks Joules flatly, her Irish brogue fully manifesting.

“Oh shit, she’s lost it.” yells Zippy.  “If you like your body parts still attached, KEEP THE FRAG AWAY!”

As predicted, Joules grabs the runner’s face and squeezes, bones cracking under her fingers. He collapses to his knees in pain, whimpering.  Joules leans in close and whispers “Scream for me” in his ear as she slowly extends her cyberspur into his skull.  Pulling her spur from the runner’s corpse, she wheels around and grabs the head of another runner who had snuck up behind her, discharging all charges from her electro-orthoskin.  The runner falls to the ground, twitching erratically. Her eyes focus on the two runners gripping the floor and she slowly advances on them, blades dripping.

“Oh this is bad.”  says Zippy. “Does anyone have a dose of slab or any other knockout drug?”

Woofles, regaining consciousness,  starts limping after Joules, whimpering and keening.  The hellhound’s cries cause Joules to freeze and her arms dropping to her sides.  He fearlessly approaches his master and starts licking her hand, pushing his head under her hand. Coming back to her senses, Joules’ hair takes on a rich purple hue.  Retracting her cyberspurs she falls to her knees, embracing Woofles.

At that moment, there’s a bright flash at the door to the studio. “Wards are down!” exclaims Eric da MAJ. “And no magical backlash either!”

Belker turns to the two raven spirits he brought in from outside and points to the door. “Free Opti.”

“I’m still working here, guys,” says Devil Duck, hacking thru the solder, as the raven spirits fly into the studio.

Then, over the airwaves, a rich and familiar voice is head, drowning out the lies of Opti’s impostor, Doctor Fail.

“Welcome little crows, to the NEO ANARCHIST PODCAST and I AM OPTI!”

“Going by his prior schedule and recent intel, the impostor is going to go live again tomorrow. If we time this right, Opti can take back the Neo-Anarchist podcast live, in real time. So that’s the plan. Any questions?”  Joules looks around at the motley crew of assembled runners.

“Rainbowsmite forgot to mention this, again,” states an exasperated Zippy Toe-Tag. “If she goes down, don’t waste your mojo trying to get her up. You’ll fail and probably give yourself an aneurysm in the process. So, science only.”

“Oh yeah, good point.” Joules thinks a moment. “Yeah, also, if I can tag you,” she extends her arm and then for good measure extends her cyber spur, “your magic won’t work either. Sorry about that.”

“Wait, what?!” comes an angry yet melodious voice from the corner. “I don’t know if you’ve realized it, Sparklelord, but over half of those assembled here use magic of some sort.  What the frag is wrong with you? You’re going to get us all geeked.”

Joules lets out a frustrated sigh, as her hair shifts to a glimmering silver. “Vendetta, that’s not… Grrr…”  Joules takes a brief second to compose herself before speaking. “Pop quiz! What would happen to a magic barrier if someone like me and a dual natured puppy like Woofles here walked into it?”

“Usually it cracks or brea… Oh!” A dark smile crosses Vendetta Violent’s face. “Brutal.”

“Aww, thank you. I do try,” smiles Joules, hair shifting to a mix of pink and gold. “So, to sum up, my unique circle of influence is limited.  Just stay out of hugging range and you can fling all the manabolts ya want. Now, over to Eric for tonight’s special report.”

Eric da MAJ chuckles quietly before speaking.  “You all know this is Opti’s HQ, so let’s keep the collateral damage to a minimum, please?  No high explosives inside.” He looks deliberately at Dirtnap and Tomatoes. “Additionally, r00t is running coms for this op so let him know if you need anything specific. And lastly, Zippy and I were able weaponize some Stuffer Shack Nova Hot Soysiracha. I’d recommend using gloves and a respirator.  And I think that covers it. Good luck tomorrow.”

The group starts to disperse as the remaining streetlights flicker on.  Joules and Eric da MAJ wave Belker, Vendetta Violent, and Devil Duck over.

Joules face is uncharacteristically serious. “I need to show you the ingress point. You four are going for Opti, directly. Follow me.”  She leads them to a nondescript noodle shop, right next to Opti’s HQ. Entering the shop, she makes a beeline to a janitor’s closet.  “The access panel is right… about… here!” Joules pops a metal panel off the floor and lays it gently against the wall.  “Down we go.”

The all jump down and Joules starts heading down the tunnel.

“Hang on a sec, would you, Rainbowsmite?  Gimmie a sec to get a flashlight. I can’t see a fragging thing.” calls Devil Duck.

Joules freezes. “Whoops! I’m sorry, Devil Duck. I forgot,” she says sheepishly.

A high powered flashlight flicks on. “There we go. Lead on, Rainbowsmite.”

As the group heads down the tunnel, they being to hear the faint sound of power tools and electrical sparks; a faint light starts to fill the tunnel.

“It’s just a bit further” Joules says, walking a bit faster. “We’re almost there.”

As they reach the source of the noise, Joules calls out. “Drivey, Deadeye, how’s it going?”

“Evening, Rainbowsmite.” says Drivey. “We’re just about finished.  Deadeye’s almost done connecting it to the mainline.”  Deadeye doesn’t look up but nods from behind a gruesome skull shaped welding mask.

Belker, Vendetta Violent and Devil Duck survey the area.  “What’s all this, then?” asks Belker.

Eric looks up from inspecting Drivey and Deadeye’s work.  “It’s a portable battery power supply. The mag-lock on the front door is dead. This can power the mag-lock for about 15 minutes.” A smile crosses his face. “We originally thought about just blowing the wall, but decided against it since we’re not sure where they’re keeping Opti.  That and we settled on keeping collateral damage to a minimum.”

Joules points to a hatch on the ceiling. “That’s the entrance to the Crow’s nest.  As soon as the barrier drops, get to Opti. The rest of the crew will keep the rest of the runners occupied and the surrounding area on lock down.”

Belker raises an eye, skeptical. “How do you plan to coordinate all this?  Lots of this seems to rely on timing.”

Deadeye looks up from welding and points to a transceiver on the power supply. “It’s been rigged so that when impostor starts running his mouth, it turns on. Seems to be a decent, if annoying, go signal. That slotface is nothing if not predictable. It’ll work if all preparations are complete and we’re in place about an hour before he starts talking. Beats all that ‘synchronize our watches’ drek.”

Joules looks at Eric da MAJ and laughs brightly “I gotta agree.  Much better than the watch thing.”

Eric nods. “Works for me.”  He looks up at the hatch.  “Lets get back.  We need to track down a ladder.”

The rainy Chicago pre-dawn gives way to a morning that is bright and crisp.  The smells of soykaf and various breakfast foods drift in on the wind.  After spending the night going over schematics, intel, and building plans, Joules decides to spend the morning getting to know everyone.  The elven street samurai grabs a 8 cups of soykaf , Woofles, her pet hellhound, and heads over to the staging area that Eric da MAJ and S. Ragnar F. have set up.  She loops Woofles’ leash around the doorknob, gives the command to stay, and heads upstairs. Some of the runners, like the decker r00t, are occupied with security and surveillance so she keeps the exchange to a polite introduction and a cup of hot soykaf. Joules’ morning cheeriness grates on Putt-Dawg’s nerves, but after sharing a few glasses of hurlg and swapping some horribly graphic war stories, the ork street samurai’s animosity wanes.

“I had no idea that a flame thrower would still work while shoved down someone’s gullet. That’s funny!” giggles Joules, finishing off her drink. “I gotta remember that one.”

“Most weapons will,” responds Putt-Dawg after draining his glass. “But ya gotta be sure that you clean ’em off while they’re still wet or you’ll be spending all the nuyen ya just made on a new one. Gets expensive.”

Joules smiles. “So-ka!  After we get Opti out, you gotta tell me the one with the go-ganger wannabe and the pressure washer.”

“Only if you’re buying,” replies Putt-Dawg, waving the empty hurlg bottle.

She nods and heads downstairs, where Drivey and Deadeye have set up a temporary shop.  Carefully moving to the outer wall, Joules’ gets Deadeye’s attention, pointing to a cup holder with cups of hot soykaf.  A flying drone in the shape of a skull whizzes over and deftly grabs a cup and brings it back to the workbench.  Deadeye waves a brief thank you before getting back to work.  Drivey on the other hand, put down his tools and walks over, wiping his hands on a rag tied to his toolbelt.

“Thanks. I appreciate it,” grumbles the dwarf, reaching for a cup.  “This isn’t pumpkin flavoured is it?  ‘Round this time everything is pumpkin flavoured.  I hate that drek.”

“Ew. Ew. No,” replies Joules, grimacing. “I have a little more tact than trying to sicken my teammates with that fake pumpkin drek.  Even I can’t stomach that swill and I eat dandelions.”

A chuckle is heard from Deadeye’s workbench.

“Well, thanks for the pick-me up RS,” says Drivey, taking a quick drink. “I gotta get back to work.”  He grabs a wrench, heads over to a tricked out step-van and slides under it.

Smiling broadly, she casts a quick glance at Opti’s HQ a few blocks down the road before grabbing Woofles’ leash and heading across the street to rendezvous with Eric the MAJ and Zippy Toe-Tag, who are sitting at an old concrete picnic area.  Seeing Joules, Eric stops looking at the astral and then sends a file over to her com-link.

“Wiz, Eric! You’ve only been in Chi-town, what, about 12 hours and you already have a dossier on every runner that’s shown up.” says Joules, reading Eric’s file.  “You’ve got everyone organized into scouting, training/equipment, and rest shifts. Hell, you’ve even got Dirtnap clearing out the sewers around the HQ. Taskmaster’s got nothin’ on you!”

“The logistics for bug city are a pain in the ass.  But, this isn’t my first rodeo,” replies Eric with a hit of pride in his voice. He takes a sip of soykaf and continues. “Echo Tree volunteered for the risky task of being the chi-town contact and gatekeeper for all who show up, claiming to want to help Opti. So he’ll be arriving a bit later.”  Eric da MAJ puts his cup down as his tone grows stern and focused. “Still, we won’t be able to keep everyone focused very long. Nor keep a group this size unobtrusive.  As it stands now, focus, food and crash space will hold out about two days, maybe three.”  A frustrated look crosses his face. “And we’re already seeing some antisocial and possibly dangerous behaviour.” He bends down and whispers in Joules’ ear.

“Dia ár sábháil! What do you mean someone was trying to eat a kitten?” roars Joules, her hair flaring orange. She takes a couple of slow, deep breaths, shaking her head.  “Whoa! Sorry about that. Everything just went red and murdery for a moment. Can you point out the bualadh craicinn weenie who was…” She slaps both hands over her mouth as she looses control over her accent.

“Acting boorish,” finishes Zippy offhandedly, barely looking up from his batch of blank skin patches and small collection of vials.

“I’m not going to pretend I understood half of what you just said. But I get it.” Eric gestures to a figure leaning against a derelict building. “He’s on watch duty right now. The troll with the chromed right horn. But watch yourself, Joules.” Eric’s eyes narrow. “Don’t risk the op.”

“It’ll be a teaching moment, I promise. I’ll be right back.”  Joules gently tugs on Woofles’ leash and heads down the street past an unassuming noodle shop near the HQ and hollers down an open manhole. “Oi Dirtnap, can you come with me a second?  Bring a squeaky puppy with you.  You can get back to playing with all the squeaky puppies later.” If any are still alive.

“Ok funny hair stabby lady. All puppies tired anyways,” comes a deep, rumbling voice from the sewer.  A few seconds later a huge troll emerges from the sewer, holding a wriggling devil rat in his hands. “Where Dirtnap going?”

“Just follow me, luv.”  Joules says sweetly.  Man I hate doing this.  It’s mean, but necessary. We can’t risk the rescue for any reason. 

Joules and Dirtnap approach the chromed out troll, while Eric and a bunch of the other runners look on.  Train wreck rubberneck. I’d better make this look good. “Hoi Chummer,” calls out Joules, grinning and waving. “D’ya have a second?”

The troll turns towards them with an arrogant grin, faltering only for a second when he looks up at the wall of troll that is Dirtnap.

“Hello Sweetie,” says Joules, standing about half a meter from him. “I don’t think I’ve met ya yet.  I’m Rainbowsmite. This is my chummer, Dirtnap and my puppy, Woofles.” She extends her hand, smiling.

“Hello shiny horn,” says Dirtnap while petting the squirming devil rat.

“Whatchoo want, grass eater?” says the troll, sneering down at Joules.  Joules’ hair turns aqua as both her arm and jaw drop. Before she can get a word out, Dirtnap steps up, getting right in the the troll’s face.

“No be mean to stabby lady!” snarls Dirtnap, shaking with barely controlled anger.  “You say sorry, RIGHT NOW!”  Joules touches Dirtnap’s arm and gently pulls hims back, her face soft and her voice kind.

“It’s OK Dirtnap.  I heard this gent didn’t know the right way to play with animals, so I came to show him.”  She smiles up at Dirtnap. “Don’t worry, sweetie. I’m a very good teacher.”

“Ohh,” muses Dirtnap, nodding. “Ok. You take puppy, then. Dirtnap go show Tomatoes Dirtnap’s new bag of tricks.”

An image Tomatoes the gnome and Dirtnap the troll hucking grenades at each other flashes in Joules’ mind and she giggles.  “Have fun then. But remember, Tomatoes makes the rules for playing, OK?” she calls after him as Dirtnap lumbers off.

“Now then, back to business,” says Joules, her face cold and her voice taking on a keen edge.  “I don’t know what you’re playing at and quite frankly, I don’t fragging care. Everyone is under orders not to do anything that draws attention or jeopardizes the op. Scan me?”

“You don’t make the rules, keebler,” says the troll, oozing contempt. “I don’t know why everyone’s spooked by this bitch.” he mutters to himself in Or’Zet, looking down at Joules. “She’s just a pansy elf playing at being a killer.

Joules activates her move by wire system and before the troll can blink, she sweeps his leg. As he hits the ground, stunned, she kneels on his chest, placing a cyberspur at his neck. “I’m really good at killing,” she says in Or’Zet, smiling. “You might say it’s my specialty. That and ballroom dancing. But guess which one I can actually make a living at.” Joules does a kip up off the troll’s chest and waits as he gets on his feet.  Deactivating her cybernetics, Joules switches back to English. “So, until we’ve rescued Opti, play nice.”   She brings the squirming devil rat up in front of the troll’s face and casually snaps its neck. “Or else,”  She tosses the devil rat’s body in front of Woofles. “Dev Null.”

Woofles wags his tail happily as a gout of orange red flame erupts from his mouth, incinerating the devil rat corpse.  Joules locks eyes with the troll and whispers “You do anything to that puts this crew or this op at risk and I’ll tell Dirtnap that you stole his puppy. We shiny?”  The troll nods wordlessly, eyes wide.  Joules, satisfied she got the point across, kneels down and gives Woofles a treat plus well deserved head scritch and tummy rub.

As she stands up, Joules hears a smattering of laughter combined with a few claps.  Confused, she turns and sees three figures walking toward the improvised staging grounds.  Woofles yips happily and without warning, takes off running toward them.

“Oh drek! Get back here Woofles! What’s gotten in to you?” calls Joules, running after her hellhound.

Woofles heads straight for the middle figure, a dwarf in a Baltimore Orioles cap with a baseball bat slung over his shoulder.  Joules calls out a warning but then stops, mid-exclamation, utterly confused.  Woofles jumps, putting his paws of the dwarf’s shoulders, and starts licking his face.  The dwarf laughs and scratches Woofles on the head.  Enjoying the attention, Woofles hops down and rolls over, expecting tummy rubs.  “You’re a good dog, aren’t ya?” says the Dwarf, bending down and rubbing the hellhound’s soft belly.

“Well that’s new,” says Joules, completely confused and slightly relieved. “He’s never done that before.”  She walks up to the trio, apologizing profusely, her hair turning a rich Tardis blue. “I am so sorry folks.  He’s never done that, ever.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got a way with dogs.  I think this fella likes me,” says the Dwarf, picking up Woofles’ leash. “The name’s Belker. Dog (with a capital D) told me that Crow Boy’s got himself in some serious drek. I’m here to help get him out.  I met these two fine chummers on the way over here.”

Joules sighs in relief and cracks a smile, her hair slowly turning back to her signature bubblegum pink. “It’s awesome to finally put a face to the legend, Belker.  I’m Rainbowsmite.”  She steps forward to shake Belker’s hand and take back Woofles’ leash.

A dignified elf, standing to Belker’s right grins widely and steps forward. “I’m Maverick.  Like from the really old James Garner trids.  Similar skill set as well.”

The human to Belker’s left shifts slightly, moving the deactivated laser axe on his back to a more comfortable position and waves. “Call me Devil Duck. I beat shit with my axe until it stops moving.”

Joules starts giggling. “I am the terror that flaps in the night, I am the low ratings that cancel your program.”

“Something like that,” replies Devil Duck, grinning.

“Oh, drek, I almost forgot,” Belker exclaims, interrupting the introductions. “I’m passing on a message from Vendetta Violent that she’s en route and’ll be here tonight.”

“The lead vocalist from Riot Blue?  You’re kidding!” Joules’ eyes widen with surprise. She frantically messages Eric about the new arrivals.

“The very same and no I’m not,” Belker smiles.  “So now that the music’s locked in, when is this party starting anyways?”

Joules thinks for a bit, sends a message to Eric, reads his response, and smiles. “Tomorrow night.”

The 3 runners arrive at a cluster of warehouses along a dead end street a few miles away from Opti’s HQ.  Zippy turns the car off and turns to the 2 runners sitting in the back seat.

“This isn’t the Ritz-Carlton, but it’s secure.  Well, as secure as you can get in bug city.”

“What do you mean ‘secure as you can get’?” asks Erik da MAJ, grabbing his duffle bag.

“Well, in the spirit of ‘La Costa Nostra,’ discretion is the first line of defense.  Usually achieved by secrecy or intimidation.  And here in Chi-Town, it’s always both and in that order,” Zippy replies, an impish gleam in his eye.

Zippy reaches into a pocket at waist level and pulls out a clear cube about the size of a lego with something embedded in it.  He exits the car, being careful not to slam the door, and gestures for Joules and Eric to follow.

“Grab all your gear and follow me, please. Be careful not to slam your door. We do have a schedule to keep but there’s no need to be reckless.”

Zippy walks to the end of street and turns right, heading down a narrow alley between two warehouses.  When Joules and Eric catch up with him, he’s pressing the cube against a sensor on the right warehouse’s security panel.

Zippy turns and puckishly addresses the runners . “Now, which way would you assume we went? Would you think we entered through this door, or the fire escape on the warehouse behind me.” He gestures to the door next to the security panel and cocks his head toward the warehouse behind him.

Joules points to the door and Eric gestures to the fire escape. Zippy smirks.

“Wrong again.” he says, giving his best Jeff Goldblum affectation. “The best tricks in history have always had an element of misdirection.”  He bends down and speaks into a small sphere embedded in the security panel,  “To the warrior who flays his skin, to find the golden self within.”

When he finishes speaking, a green light appears above the door next to the security panel.  Stroking his tusk thoughtfully, Zippy turns and walks away from the panel, toward the graffitied plastricrete wall at the end of the alley.

“Wait, what about…” begins Rainbowsmite, confused.

Zippy then puts both hands on the wall and pushes. A 6 meter by 6 meter section of the wall swings in shallowly, revealing a dimly lit hallway.  He nods his head toward the hallway, grinning.

“Come on. Don’t waste your time with the fake door. The security on it is very real.”

As he turns and beings walking down the hallway, Zippy calls out behind him.  “Eric, can you please check to see if the ward is still intact?  I haven’t been here in a while and I don’t have glo-wand on me.”

“Wiz setup you have here.” Eric says, catching up to Zippy “And to answer your question, your ward’s still solid.”

The trio continues down the hallway as door behind them scrapes shut.

“Oh drek.  Sorry Eric,” mutters Zippy. “I only have the bioluminesent floor lights.”

“Null Sweat. Don’t worry about it,” responds Eric.  “How much further, anyways?”

“Just down the stairs up ahead and we’ll be there.”

————————————————————————————————————————————–

The room seems to come to life as the three enter.  LED strings installed around the perimeter of the room switch on, bathing everything in a harsh and sterile light.  In spite of the location and size, he hideout feels well organized and clean.  Labeled boxes of various patches and chems neatly row the walls.  Medical and surgical instruments, placed just so on various trays and tables, gleam.

“Well, make yourselves comfortable.  Let me grab you some synthahol.  We have” Zippy inspects each bottle, taking a brief whif from each. “We have mild green stuff and strong purple stuff.”

Eric drops his gear and stretches.  “Hey, Zippy.  Do you have a node or hard line?  I need to get a sitrep. And…”  He gestures to Joules, who is gleefully inspecting all the interesting medical equipment.  “Rainbowsmite needs to start organizing.”

Zippy laughs as Joules freezes in place and her hair turns jet black.  “There’s a hard line in the corner over there.  It leads to a node a couple of blocks away.”  He pours about 3 fingers of the green stuff into two glasses, looks at Joules’ terrified expression and grabs the bottle of the purple stuff.

Eric plugs in his comlink and begins reading.  His eyes widen as the big picture logistics sink in.  “Holy… That’s a lot of em,” he mutters.

Joules, paler than usual, takes the bottle from Zippy. “Thank ye.”  She opens it, takes a large drink and looks over at Eric. “Well, what’s the word?”

Eric unplugs from the hard line, grinning from ear to ear.  “We’ve got a fragging army, Joules.”

Zippy’s smiles mischievously. “Really? How delightful.”

Joules eyes narrow and her voice takes on a steel edge.  “Eric, I’m going to trust in your experience to organize everyone and get them ready.  Zippy, hit up UGEPlex.  He’s a data broker and the best around for information chaff.  Our actions will disappear in an information flood.  Tell him that Rainbowsmite is cashing in all her chits for this.”

She stands up, smiling as her hair turns back to bubblegum pink. “Time ta play!”

Eric da MAJ pulls a crow feather out of his camo jacket and tucks it in the corner of a park bench, the shaft pointing to the Stuffer Shack across the street.  After making sure that the feather is secure he lets out a tired and slightly nervous sigh. Pulling down his cap, he heads toward the Stuffer Shack.  The smell of processed food and petrichor permeates the area.  He moves to a habitual position, positioning his back against the wall of the Stuffer Shack. The old soldier now has a clear view of the park and the street, all the while protecting his back.  He reaches into his coat and pulls out a brushed metal flask bearing the emblem of the now defunct United States army and takes a brief swig. The burn of the alcohol helps steel his body against the unfamiliar bite of the wind.

Well the breadcrumbs have been set. I hope she is as clever as Opti lets on. If she follows my directions, she should be here in 30 minutes.

Eric pulls out his comlink and puts on a stylish pair of Augmented Reality glasses.  After running the encryption and spoofing program that one of his decker chummers gave him, he logs into the local matrix node.  Pulling up the most recent “Neo-Anarchist” podcast he lets out a low whistle and shakes his head, surprised.  Seems that Opti has a lot of allies and boy are they pissed off.  Impressive that one man can inspire so many to action.  S.Ragnar F. even hacked his buddy’s security account to send all the data he gleaned and possible theories.   

He spends his downtime reading thru all the conversations.  Eric da MAJ  agrees with consensus that Opti has either been incapacitated or his feed has been jacked. A wry grin crosses his face as he keeps reading, specifically noting the immense amount of rage and hate aimed at the imposter.  The various threats range from horrifically violent to humorously sadistic. I’m probably going to have to coordinate a lot more than I originally though.  Won’t be the first time though. He absentmindedly rubs his neck, running his fingers over old war scars.

After a catching up on the virtual situation, Eric puts away the comlink and glasses away.  He pulls an old metallic cigarette holder out of his coat pocket, snaps it open and pulls out a cheap cigarette. Putting the case away, he looks around.  As he surveys the park, he’s surprised to see an ork dressed in a three piece suit, sitting on the park bench, grinning widely.  The ork catches his gaze and winks.

What the drek?  That’s disturbing.

Eric puts the cigarette in his mouth and instinctively mutters an incantation. As his left index finger ignites, he hears an cheerful but icy, whistled tune being carried on the wind.  As the whistling gets louder his flame starts to sputter and choke.  I think that’s the cue.

He turns and sees a pink haired elf dressed in a leather jacket coming around the corner of the Stuffer Shack, smiling and whistling.  Her face lights up when she sees Eric she and walks up to him, arm extended.  When she is close enough to shake his hand, the fame dancing on his finger sputters and goes out.

“Hoi, I take it you’re Eric da MAJ?” asks the pink haired elf.

Eric looks at his fingers and then back at the smiling elf.

“That’d be me.” He grasps her hand in a firm shake. “Rainbowsmite I presume?

She laughs lightly and her hair shimmers golden for a brief moment before turning back to pink.

“Bingo.”

Eric relaxes a little bit and smiles. “Shall we get going, then? There’s a lot to go over.”

“Yeah, lets move.  Zippy knows of a place we can talk.”  She waves the ork sitting on the park bench over and introduces the two.  The trio then starts walking toward the alley.  As she walks Rainbowstarts singing the same tune she was whistling earlier.

“Girls and boys, come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,
And come with your playfellows into the street.”

Eric looks at Zippy. “She’s a little odd, isn’t she.”

Zippy flashes a charming grin. “You have no idea.”

“What kind of coordinates are these?” muttered Sashka, re-arranging her AR topographical map. “I swear that Prizrak’s paranoia is getting worse and worse with each meeting. I didn’t even know there was a node way out here.”

The ork decker brushes her left tusk habitually and re-orients herself with her map.  He distinctly said I would see a key once I got here. But I don’t see anything resembling a key anywhere.  She turns off her AR overlay and rubs her hands over her face, groaning in frustration.

“Frag it Prizrak, how am I supposed to see bloody anything at 11:30 at night, in the rain, in the middle of an abandoned windfarm!”

Sashka, seething in frustration, runs up to the nearest decrepit wind turbine and plants an armored boot solidly into its tower.  The heavily oxidized metal bends and groans under her strike, shedding off layers of rust and debris.  She pulls her leg back and lands another solid kick. Turning to leave, Sashka hears a dull metallic tink and soft fump behind her. Chort Vozmi, what did I just break? She turns and sees a metal panel on the ground, partially covered in rust and grime.

What the… Sashka bends down and picks up the panel, brushing off the detritus. There’s something stamped. Drek it’s worn…I can’t make it out. She actives her cybereye’s magnification function and feeds the image to her deck.  I am so glad I took that NASA image processing agent as payment for that Ares job. She shudders at the memory. Run topographical and contrast enhancement and stitching protocol and send the results to my HUD.

Layer by layer the image builds in her HUD.  Sashka overlays the agent’s image over the worn panel, manually correcting image errors caused by the downpour or grime. She then feeds the updated image back to the agent and continues the process.  After a few minutes, a readable image is produced.

“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” growls Sashka. “This is why I wish Prizrak would stop using that stupid computer synthesized voice. Less confusion.”

She stares angrily at the completed image.

ACKIE – 48.

Shit!  I guess I need to go and look for number 01. This had better be worth it.

“Enjoy your freedom. And if you can’t, call ol’ Opti for an extraction.”

Opti ends the broadcast with a grin that would make the Cheshire cat envious and begins tidying up the broadcast nest. As he ties up the bag of refuse, a perturbed Mr Pink comes in, carrying a small package and an colour changing envelope.

“Opti, I know she helped you out with Cassidy, DeForest and Gowan, but this weird, even for her,” gripes Mr Pink. “I mean honestly pen and paper? Don’t worry I had both items scanned and analyzed so they’re safe. But still, omae, that girl is…” He struggles for an accurate word, fails and decides to continue. “She pulled a few strings to make sure you got it.  I’m going to spend my cut on some Taéngelé.”

Mr Pink leaves the small package and envelope on the table and leaves the room, shaking his head.

Opti sets down the bag and opens the envelope, pulling out a few sheets of paper. He sits down and starts reading.

Dear Opti,
With Ares scanning every bit on the matrix searching for your name, I thought this would be the safest way to send you my report.  That and I rarely have a chance to use my Power Puff Girls stationary set.  🙂 So here’s the quick summary from those of us at the safehouse.  Cassidy, Gowan and DeForest made it out safe and sound.  My last contact with them had them landing safely and your predetermined location.  So that’s the good news.  Everyone made it out alive and safe.  Three cheers for team anarchy!
We have some unexpected news too. I think the boy has the spark. I’m guessing an adept. (I’ve gone toe to toe with enough X-Men to recognize a few things.)
Here’s what happened.  Ares sicced some kind of freaky insect human hybrid on us.  After frying the monster’s brain, 2 insect spirits came out of the body.  I’m not magically inclined so I don’t know how or why that happened. And it was incredibly gross!  Luckily the insect spirits were weak. One kind of de-rezed instantly as soon as it was within hugging distance. I’m used to that. You know, with me there’s two types of spirits, ‘LEG IT!’ and ‘Tag! You’re out’  However the second spirit targeted Cassidy and the kids. Gowan acted out of instinct, to defend his ma.  He was not only able to touch the spirit, but he bitchsmacked it with a force I’ve only seen in Hellboy comics. Now, I’ve heard of desperate people attempting to do the same thing, and succeeding. No magic required. But this seemed, I don’t know, not that?   So, do magic users have a sorting hat, gom-jabar, or some magical third thing to check what in the name of Freakazoid happened?
The extraction point was pretty secluded and I had the camera neutralizer on. But that has a limited range and I don’t know if there’s magical tracks that need to be covered.  Would me running around the area like a ferret on a double soykaff burning incense hide anything? I’m guessing probably not.
Seems that the Ares run caused a rise in imminent violence.  I wonder how that’s going to affect future biz?
Ah well, to quote a wise kung fu turtle from a long time ago “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” So I’ve included a present for you in the box, since we seem to be living in very interesting times, my friend.

Tips, Tricks and Extra Clips,
Joules “Rainbowsmite” Watts

Opti puts down the letter and opens the box.
Inside is a small bottle of Connemara Irish synth-whiskey and two spare clips. Each clip bears a sticker with a sledgehammer trailing a rainbow.