SHADOWRUN: Spells and Chrome

Trade Secrets

Jason M. Hardy

Renowned as a womanizer on par with Don Juan and Casanova, Jason M. Hardy is alleged to have coded his seduction secrets in his works of fiction. If read properly, books like The Scorpion Jar, Drops of Corruption, and The Last Charge could help you avoid ever being lonely again. A similar code has been found in his short stories published on and other places, but sadly, those works were found to conceal nothing more than casserole recipes.

Information was being transmitted by a hundred PANs, and all of it was fake.

At least, that's what Vitriol figured. Broadcasting your real identity-or whatever passed for the actual identity of the people here who didn't have anything that could be called a real name-was like showing up to a masquerade in a t-shirt and jeans. It displayed a tacky lack of imagination.

Visually, the room was a mishmash. Not only did everyone have their own distinct AR augmentation, but many of them were showing off by altering the club's AR overlay. The Clean Heart sported Roman bath decor that was almost entirely virtual-any poor sap without augmented vision would see nothing more than a big, concrete-walled room with a plywood bar over in one corner and benches that looked like they were made from broken chalkboards. With augmented vision, though, the full glory of an ancient bath came to view. Steam rose from a pile of heated rocks across from the bar, benches made of light-colored granite were scattered here and there, and a bartender in a fluffy white robe slid back and forth and served drinks in glasses that sweated condensation.

But here and there, the theme altered. Around Agares, the steam drifting through the room turned to smoke rising above the hellfire that circled his feet. After every step that MidKnight took, black poppies grew, bloomed, and died in the footprints he left behind. And the corner of the room where Blood Sister sat didn't look like a Roman bath at all, but rather like the shadowy corner of a medieval cathedral.

Vitriol thought most of it was pointless. It's not as if their alteration of the AR overlay did them any good. They weren't breaking into any forbidden nodes, they weren't accessing secret information, they were just playing around with a graphics program to show they could. Vitriol didn't bother with any of that nonsense. Sure, he'd disguised his PAN, but all he did was erase it, so anyone who looked for identifier tags on him would see a void, like trying to look into a black hole. He was there, his tags weren't. Effective, subtle, and not work intensive. Vitriol, unlike a lot of hackers, never felt like putting much time or effort into showing off. Blood Sister was pretty much his opposite, always walking around with her own private show like a goddamned performance artist. She was annoying as hell-but she was also one of the best, which was why she got away with it.

Vitriol wandered around the room like a man without a plan. Other people were playing the room like a piano, going from person to person in a particular order dictated by music only they could hear. It looked like a lot of work, the way they did things. All these coded conversations, subtle insinuations, sly gestures. All so much bullshit. Get in, do what you need to do, get out. That's how you deal with systems, and that's how Vitriol planned to handle this gathering. The way he figured it, the less time he spent playing everyone else's game, the less likely he was to be played.

He knew that he was about the only one in the room who looked impatient. Most of the people at these sphinx parties spent a lot of effort to look cool and unhurried, like they didn't need to be there, which was even more bullshit because if they didn't need to be there, then why were they there? For fun? Sphinx parties weren't fun. Everyone was too busy trying to find out what everyone else knew to actually enjoy themselves.

That was the trick of sphinx parties. No one knew how the invitations came out, but you didn't get one-or so the story went-unless you had some juicy piece of info that most people didn't know, but lots of people could use. So everyone here was hungry, everyone wanted what everyone else had, but they weren't about to show it. They kept their faces cool and impassive, and kept the real meat of the evening, the information everyone wanted, electronically coded and out of sight.

Vitriol didn't want to play their game. He wanted to do what he came to do, say what he came to say, and get the hell out. He'd be direct, blunt, straightforward. At a place like this, that was enough to make him a legend. Or at least notorious.

He started walking toward Blood Sister, pressing through the group of people that was always around her without actually being near her. They'd look at the architecture of her AR overlay, they'd admire the textures and the shadows and the way she managed to incorporate the light sources around her into the lighting of her overlay, but they'd keep their distance from the woman herself. With her black cowl and face that was blank, chalky white except for a pair of dark eyes that continually wept blood, Blood Sister had a way of discouraging contact.

He tried pushing one of Blood Sister's fangirls out of his way, but when he reached out to shove the little ivy- covered woman out of his way, his hand went right through her. She was all AR. He had been ready to give her a good shove, so when he didn't contact anything he lost his balance and stumbled, moving away from Blood Sister.

Even worse, he stepped near a dwarf who was sitting at the bar, tossing shot after shot of bourbon down his throat and then tossing shot glass after shot glass over his shoulder, keeping the cleaning staff busy (most of the decor was virtual, but no respectable club, no matter how high tech, ever settled for serving virtual booze). Vitriol tried to dodge out of the dwarf's line of sight, but he was too slow. The dwarf saw him and nodded, looking far too enthusiastic.

'Gemmel,' Vitriol said flatly.

'V!' the dwarf said, in a voice far too high and nasal to suit his rough, black-bearded face. The shiny, silver woman sitting next to Gemmel saw her chance to escape and slipped away. 'Been too long, too long, way too long. Where the hell have you been, omae, what have you been up to? I haven't heard anything about you, which must be good, because when you're doing it right people aren't talking about it, you know what I'm saying? So you're doing it right, right?'

'I'm trying to,' Vitriol said, then gritted his teeth and made himself ask Gemmel a rejoinder. 'You?'

'Oh, things are great, great, great, you know? I just finished a job, it was a good job, a nice little smash and grab, you know? I mean, I like the undercover sneaking around shit as much as the next guy, but sometimes it's really refreshing to just go in and do what you want to do and not give a shit who sees you do it, am I right?'

Vitriol could just give Gemmel a slight nod and the dwarf would keep talking, keeping him here when he didn't want to be. He stuck his hands in his pockets and hoped his body language looked impatient. But if Gemmel noticed, he didn't care.

The dwarf talked and talked while Vitriol scanned the room, and he saw that the crowd around Blood Sister had thinned. He had a chance, but he might lose it if he took time to politely disengage from Gemmel. But why bother being polite to someone he didn't care about?

He walked away while the dwarf was in mid-sentence.

He strode up to Blood Sister, wondering how long it would take her to see him. She'd recognize him, of course-his hair was now stubbly instead of the bald-scalp look he'd had since he last saw her, but he didn't think that made him look much different. He didn't stand out in this group, however, so it might take some time for her to find him among the freaks.

As it turned out, it didn't take long. He was about five meters away from her when her dark eyes narrowed, squeezing out extra-large drops of blood that ran slowly down her white cheeks.

'Hi,' Vitriol said.

The cathedral arch above Blood Sister shook, trembling like an earthquake had just hit the place. Vitriol looked up and instinctively raised his hands over his head, even though he wasn't in any danger.

The archway fell apart quickly, stone crumbling and falling onto and through Vitriol. The first chunks hit the club floor and stayed there, then more chunks came down, then more and more, far more than had been in Blood Sister's display, until Vitriol was completely surrounded by chunks of AR stone.

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