of the private corp ones, something he'd considered when younger, much younger; but hearing Black Jim's stories when Jim came home to the neighborhood on leave from the feds, Kham knew that the regimented life was not for him. He'd thought about it long and hard, and the only conclusion he could reach was that if you can't make your nuyen legally, you gotta do it illegally.

Once he'd reached that conclusion, he hadn't wasted time. He'd started to put the gang to decent use and done a few small jobs, smart stuff that was practically built into the system, like looting the corp trucks running along 412, and only taking what couldn't be traced. After they'd made a couple of hits, his fixer had realized that Kham wasn't just another stupid ork kid out to break some heads, and so he'd turned him on to Sally Tsung's ring. Lady Tsung introduced Kham to the lucrative life of shadowrunning, and one payoff was all it took for him to see the light; corp snitching just couldn't compare. He'd dropped the gangs and signed on with Lady Tsung.

His hard-built alliance had crumbled while he attended to other matters, but he hadn't cried. He'd worked to build the gang, using it to his advantage while still the boss, but he didn't need it anymore. Nothing wrong with that. That was the way the world worked. You grabbed what you could, held on as long as you needed it, and when something better came along, you grabbed that instead. Had to keep the nuyen flowing in. Had to look out for yourself.

Shadowrunning offered almost everything the gangs had. There was action, excitement, and firepower- lots of firepower on the right run. The only thing miss ing was the pbwer and the respect, the chance to make a difference on your turf, and all the chummers looking up to you. Then again, maybe running the shadows did offer those things, but in a different way. A runner could make a difference, but it was subtler, excepting of course the differences to your cred balance. Those differences were truly truly sig-at least when the nu-yen was rolling in. And the respect was there too. The scuzboys and streetrats like those Ironmongers gave wide berth to Kham now that word was about that he played in the big leagues. It was the personal stuff that wasn't there. Sure, he had his guys, and they were some of the best rocking orks ever to pack big guns, but they were runners like him and mostly loyal to the biggest buck. They weren't his the way the gang had been.

Drek! He was supposed to be thinking about the future, not the past. Only old guys found the past brighter than the future and Kham was not an old guy yet!

Kham heaved himself up, ready to be on his way, when some old fool plowed into him. Kham swung a hard backhand, then realized halfway through the swipe that the idiot wouldn't have gotten close enough to collide if Kham hadn't already dismissed him as a threat. Kham pulled his punch, but he stiil bounced the guy into the wall. Catching him on the rebound off the brick, Kham recognized the slag, and his condition.

'You're blasted, Kittle George.' 'Huh?' The gray-haired ork frowned as he tried to bring his vision into focus. 'Kha-'

Kham heaved him upright in time to avoid getting splashed when Kittle George started to vomit. Kham watched in disgust. This was how old orks ended up.

Kittle George swayed erect and staggered on down the street. Too drunk to walk a straight line, he caromed off the street folk he passed as he stumbled along the sidewalk. Kham caught up with him in a few strides, grabbed an arm, and hauled him erect.

'Ya oughta go home, Georgie.'

'Am goin' home,' Kittle George slurred.

'Yer home's da odder way.'

Kittle George looked around confusedly, then squinted at Kham. 'I knew tha'.'

Kham shook his head sadly. 'Ya want me ta walk ya dere?' He didn't really want to, but he thought he should offer. Kittle George was ork, too, and orks had to stick together. Besides, walking Georgie home would mean putting off going home himself for a bit longer, i

They strolled along the streets, Kham keeping his pace to something Kittle George could manage. Taking the offered bottle, Kham took the swig required of friendship, then managed to drop the bottle. Accidentally, of course. Then he had to drop it again before the brittle plastic would shatter. Georgie cried over the loss, embarrassing Kham, but fortunately he didn't recognize anyone in the crowds that flooded around them. He got Kittle George underway again.

The old ork started mumbling a long list of complaints. Life hadn't been treating him very well. But that was no surprise. He was ork. What did life have for orks besides trouble anyway?

They had reached Kittle George's place, a condemned tenement just like the others lining the streets. The Seattle metroplex government had condemned it, then left it; lacking the money to trash it, they certainly did not have enough to replace it. People still lived there because it offered a roof and walls. The rent was cheap, too. Kittle George had prime space in the basement, the warmest spot in an unheated building during the winter. Kittle George had company then; but it was still autumn and the neighbors hadn't moved in yet.

'Ya gonna be okay, Georgie?'

'Yeah. Gonna get some sleep. Wish I had a bottle, though.'

'Sleep's good, Georgie.' Hoping the old guy would forget about the bottle, Kham pointed him toward the stairs and made sure the drunk had a grip on the rail before urging him down into the darkness. 'Just get some sleep,'

The old man mumbled something as he went down the stairs, but Kharn didn't understand a word of it. Booze and age, the bane of an ork's life-if despair and drugs didn't get him first.

As Kittle George disappeared, a shadow fell over Kham. He turned slowly, careful to avoid sudden moves. The big troll he found grinning at him was familiar. Grabber worked as a bouncer at Shaver's Bar; he also was a small-time fixer. The troll's operational area ran about five blocks north and south of Kittle George's, along Cullen, and out west all the way to the wall that marked the Salish-Shidhe boundary with the plex. The troll was rumbling with a deep chuckling.

'Hoi, Grabber. Whuzzappenin' down at Shaver's?'

'Hoi, Kham,' the troll boomed. 'Bodyguarding these days, chummer?'

Kham shrugged.

For a troll, Grabber was moderately bright; the troll picked up on the fact that Kham didn't find any humor in his poor joke, and so tried some more innocuous small talk. 'Been quiet at the club. Just the usual. No sweat 'cepting Saturday night.'

Kham had heard about the riot. 'Local scuzboys giving ya trouble?'

'Nan.' Grabber cracked his knuckles, and smiled. 'Just a workout. Ain't seen you lately.'

Kham shrugged again. He hadn't worked Grabber's turf in a while-and after what had happened the last time, he hoped he wouldn't be anytime soon, either. Who could say, though? Things had been pretty slow lately. 'Been busy.'

'Not what Lissa says. Says you been hanging home a lot. Things slow?'

Did everybody know? He stifled a sharp retort. Gotta stay chill, he told himself. If you say you ain't doing biz, you don't do no biz. Nobody wanted a washed-out runner. For the third time, Kham shrugged, but this time he added a raised eyebrow to let Grabber know he'd listen.

The troll made an elaborate affair of checking the now sparse street crowd to see if anyone was close enough to hear. 'Jack Darke's running. Looking for muscle, I hear.'

'Solo, or he need a whole gang?'


'Personal interest on Darke's part, or will any ork do?'

'Must be personal, chummer. Otherwise I'd be running it instead of shopping it to you.'

Kham hesitated. Once he would have jumped at the chance. Drek, maybe he should jump at it. He could convince himself that he needed the work, couldn't he? That the other guys didn't matter. But he didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the offer. 'Ain't interested,' he said sourly. 'Ain't no room in da run for my guys, ain't no room for me. When ya got a crew ta worry about, ya got responsibilities.'

'Responsibilities tie a man down, chummer.'

'What would ya know about dat, Grabber?'

It was Grabber's turn to shrug. 'I hear things.'

Kham was annoyed by the turn of the conversation. 'Well, ya ain't hearin' yes from me. Darke'll have ta find his muscle somewhere else.'

Grabber squinted his larger eye almost shut, and leaned down. His voice was modulated to a conspiratorial

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