|Ghost Line I: It’s Who You Know
Author: Guede Mazaka
The guy was staring at John’s cigarette. It was rude and kind of wasting time, but hey, it was on his credit, so John didn’t interrupt. Anyway, the cigarette was a pretty damned good piece of biohacking, if he could say so himself. The outside was identical to the old-fashioned paper-rolled ones, but there wasn’t actually any lighting involved. All John did was stick in a fresh drug capsule, screw the halves together and a tiny electric pulse would volatilize the chemicals for easy inhale. It even could double as a mini shocker in a pinch.
Which he was actually contemplating as he stared at the third one in the room, who was sprawled out so wide on John’s mattress—the sole piece of furniture—that neither he nor Tseng could sit. Balthazar might twitch pretty when he was hooked in and busy hacking, but God, was he a space-hog. “You need anything? He’s in the middle of restocking the drug cabinet,” John said, waving at Balthazar.
Tseng shook his head. He removed his eyes from John’s cigarette and shifted them to a point on the bridge of John’s nose, slightly below John’s eyes. The effect was pseudo-deferential, since Tseng was the personal bodyguard of Rufus Shinra, and Rufus Shinra basically owned close to half of the city. Well, his father had—he’d only had it for a week now and the bookies were still trying to settle on odds for his survival.
“You’ve had ample time to look at the evidence. Have you arrived at a conclusion?” Tseng asked. His eyes were a rather plain brown now, probably because the dark shade helped hide the tell-tale glow of somebody hooked into a line. On the other end of it were two guys waiting outside and another one on the roof just in case Tseng didn’t like what John said. “We’ve advanced you a considerable sum of money.”
“Yeah. My credit account really appreciates that, by the way.” John finally just shoved Balthazar’s foot aside and sat down on the edge of the bed. Of course, Balthazar promptly let out an eerie whine and twisted around so his hand accidentally whapped John on the side. Fucker. “So I’ve looked everything over, and double-checked it.”
The only real glitch in John’s cigarette, which he just couldn’t get rid of no matter how much tinkering he did, was that it always spat more acidic at the very end. He made a face and took it out to swap the capsules, swallowing hard to clear the awful taste.
Eventually Tseng got over his polite face and spoke up. He was starting to sound a little impatient. “And?”
Right about then, somebody outside let out a muffled shout, and somebody else fell off the roof through a nice little set of wards that John had actually set up to keep the damn street kids from his windows, but hey. If it worked, it worked. “And remind your boss that maybe he’s Head of the House, but he doesn’t own the fucking yard. I’m a freelance consultant, not a fucking tube-pet.”
The slight green glow in Tseng’s eyes flickered. After a moment, he gave John an abbreviated bow. “My apologies. We did not wish to cause offense, but my employer is concerned—”
“Yeah, he should be. You’ve got a daimon worm. And while I’d love to charge you a horrendous fee for taking care of it, I’m all booked up,” John drawled. He leaned over and glanced into Balthazar’s eyes: still fully dilated and bright gold. Then he pushed himself back and flicked his hand so a datapad was projected onto the air between him and Tseng. “But I’m sympathetic, so I’ll give you a referral. They’re—”
Tseng coughed slightly and held up his hand. “‘Daimon worm’? That doesn’t exist. It’s a technological fairytale.”
“It does say ‘exorcist’ on the business listing.” John stuck his cigarette back between his lips and let the vapors passively filter into his lungs while he looked up the contact info. He kept one eye on Tseng, mostly because no matter how shitty his job got, this part never got old.
The other man looked incredulous. “I assumed that meant what it does on every other exorcist’s listing—you specialize in extreme debugging and hacking. What else is there?”
“Well, him, for example.” John flicked his cigarette at Balthazar, who finally seemed to be wrapping it up. He took in a drag so deep he could almost feel his skull implants clicking madly in an effort to keep up with all the neurotoxins. “I pulled him out of an obsolete banking system that somehow developed sentience.”
The other man thought this over. Then, like everyone else, he turned around and took a long second look at Balthazar. “He was a...rogue AI? So he’s fully cyborg?”
“No, the body’s organic. Pain in the ass to dig up, but cyborg all over’s too chilly to fuck.” Shrugging, John scribbled the contact numbers and specs on the screen, then gestured for it to swivel to face Tseng. “As for the mind? Let's say that even in this day and age, the spirits are still with us.”
Tseng opened his mouth, closed it, and then glanced at what John had written. His lips compressed.
John sighed and reached over to pull Balthazar, now blinking his way into regular awareness, up and across his lap. He pinned down the bastard’s initial blow and ducked in to nip at Balthazar’s nape, just beneath the first spine-socket. “Don’t ki—”
Balthazar arched, made a soft noise and Tseng promptly jumped back into a fighting crouch as a scavenger demon materialized out of thin air. Almost as quickly, Tseng straightened up—apparently he thought John was just really good at visual effects. He soon knew better. A second later, he was hooking his bitten hand up to a portable med-kit, and the scavenger had fallen apart into a bunch of beetles that were quickly vaporized by John’s cleaning system.
“I said not to try and kill him, damn it. He’s still a client,” John snapped at Balthazar. Not that it did any good; Balthazar just smirked and flopped over to play the dumb, purring pretty thing. “Anyway, Tseng—try to believe me when I say that wasn’t just a really bad fuck-up in a gengineering lab, all right? And look those guys up if you want your problem fixed.”
“They’re…experienced?” It was funny to see a stoic guy like Tseng try and fail to ignore the sulfur smell now pervading the room. He still didn’t look like a convert, but he wasn’t doubting so much now—the smell usually was the best convincing factor. All the advances science had to offer and people still hadn’t come up with anything nearly like it.
John nodded and flicked away the screen. He dropped his hand to Balthazar’s head and threaded it through the other man’s hair. “Yeah, they know how things go.”
Balthazar managed to keep himself from being too much of a prick till Tseng and his men were out of sensing range. Then he rolled over and rubbed his cheek along John’s thigh. “Of course you didn’t mention you’ve never actually met them. Or that they don’t know you’re sending this their way.”
“And here I thought you were in favor of taking a nice, long vacation—” John tightened his grip on Balthazar’s hair and pushed him down so he couldn’t talk “—instead of getting trashed by someone else’s mess. I put a hell of a lot of work into making sure I got to sit this one out—”
“Oh, spare me the diatribe. I actually agree with you this time,” Balthazar snorted, nuzzling back up John’s stomach. He stiffened, then moaned when John’s hand sneaked beneath to tweak at a nipple. “Do wish I could see their faces, though…”
Typical. “Shinra’s? Or—”
* * *
Sam and Dean Winchester? Please exit the premises in an orderly fashion. Keep your hands visible at all times. Your cooperation is necessary in order to prevent injury to others.
Sam paused, then slowly put down the drink he’d just ordered. He looked at Dean.
Dean made his eyes wide and round and offended. “What? I was within the speed limit—in the air and on the ground. And I didn’t clip anybody’s mirrors or undercarriage. Even that ass-dragging—”
I repeat, Sam and Dean Winchester. Please exit the premises. We will give you till the count of ten, and then we will be forced to come in after you.
“Maybe you did it. Ever think of that?” Dean went on. He pointedly took a big swig of his drink and flicked at the trace of green bubbles clinging to the rim. Then he sighed and took his feet down from the table. His hand went under the table. “Well, better get it over with. I want to make Sector Three by dinner.”
“Wait a second…” There was something funny about…Sam switched off the music and replayed the voice pattern of the speaker outside. After a second, he clicked his right eye implant to sound analysis and did a quick pattern search. “Those aren’t traffic cops.”
Dean rolled his eyes and pulled up his hand a little bit. Instead of holding the fake ID chips that Sam had been expecting, it was wrapped around one of their retro-fitted antique shotguns. “Of course not. Sam, have you taken a look around this neighborhood? I bet they pick their teeth with cop data-pads. Last time a cop came in here to arrest anyone, it was probably the Riots of ‘Triple-Six.”
“Okay…guess you’re right. I don’t think cops actually go through with the count-down, even in those old movies you binge on.” Sam clicked back to regular vision and ducked beneath the table to rummage around in his own bag. He pulled up one of the real guns first and threw it back in. The last thing they needed was to get into an actual firefight; a better idea was throwing up a big distraction so they could sneak out the kitchen.
Of course, obsolete weapons like pellet-loading shotguns were great for that, but if at all possible, he wanted to avoid leaving behind any damage, period. It was a pretty tough-looking neighborhood; none of the other people in the café had even paused at the blare of the speaker outside, and he had some really eardrum-pinching harmonics going. They hadn’t looked nastily at Sam and Dean yet, but Sam suspected that was because Dean had cheerfully introduced himself to the waitress as Tate Recevon, lonely traveler looking for better company than his “he’s a bit slow” younger brother. The locals were bristling with muscle and illegal weapon implants, but apparently they weren’t that bright.
“I’m always right. Do we have any of those green ones left?” Dean asked. He kept the shotgun mostly beneath the table level, pressing it across his knees so it angled towards the main door. His feet were doing a funny little tap-dance on the floor.
Sam blinked, gave himself a shake, and dug deeper in the bag. “You mean the nerve-block rounds?”
“Whatever. Do we?” A hand impatiently shoved in Sam’s face and curled in the universal give-me gesture.
“No, Dean, we don’t. You used those up on the gremlin in the reactor. Here, use these.” When they were done running off from whoever this was, they really needed to restock. The only choices Sam had were light-pulse and monoxide, which was like bringing a needle to a sword-fight.
He gave Dean the light-pulse rounds, then slid off the seat and completely beneath the table to search his own bag. His fingers touched on the edge of his shock-rod just as the person outside got to “Two” and all hell broke loose.
But since it happened on the other side of the room, Sam stayed under the table and frantically untangled the shock-rod from the web of…Dean’s socks? What the hell were they doing in his bag?
A bang and a flash of light went off, and even though Sam wasn’t looking out into the room, he still was partially blinded by the brilliance. His sight telescoped down so it was like he had to stare out through tubes only about two inches wide. So naturally, he switched to infrared, and everything was perfectly okay as long as he remembered only heat-emitters were going to show up clearly. He hoped he didn’t trip over too much cold metal furniture.
“Time to go, Sammy.” Dean’s head popped back beneath the table just long enough for Dean to scoop up his bag. Then he was out and rapidly threading his way towards the back door.
Sam quick-sealed his bag and followed, trying to keep his head down and to stay as far away from everyone else as possible. Light-pulses were great, but only for about two seconds. After that, everyone had switched to some kind of alternative sight and they generally were pretty pissed off about having to do that. “You know, you’re supposed to wait till they’re inside before you do that? Then the walls—”
Threw angry men with EM pulse generators in their knuckles at Sam. The guy came out of nowhere, so just about all Sam could do was jump sideways and try to get the shock-rod up in time. That didn’t work so well, since the smudgy black, presumably empty space besides Sam turned out to be a drug-line station. Which was being cooled and thus didn’t show up on infrared.
Sam nearly lost his hold on the rod as he went over it and then painfully slid off the other side. The pulse the other man whipped at him skimmed over Sam’s back, leaving just a tingle behind instead of lighting up Sam’s insides, so that was good. Less good was Sam’s attempt to regain his balance, which ended up with him accidentally shocking somebody else before finally staggering up and shoving the end of the rod against the first guy’s neck. He dropped and the second one came after him.
“—walls aren’t set on reflective,” Dean grunted, dragging Sam out of the way. He dropped hold of Sam’s arm almost immediately so he could jump onto tables and hop them. “Wouldn’t have mattered. What’s wrong with shooting it out the front door?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe that the air’s level nine today and that means the smog probably absorbed all the flash on their end?” A long blue streak vividly veined in red suddenly thrust itself at Sam’s face. He dodged the arm, bumped up against somebody that almost got him down, and finally leaped up after Dean.
His table wobbled like crazy and he barely made the hop to the next one, but after that it was only one more table to the end of the room. That was a good thing, since right about then, the ruckus at the front end suddenly started to sound regimented: thwacks, groans, and electric sizzling at regular intervals. Sam twisted under a glowing blob—a heating vent, he vaguely remembered—and ran after Dean for the back door.
They slid out into the alley and Dean kicked the door shut just as somebody shot through it, melting a perfectly circular hole in it and in the wall across the way. The holes fluoresced white, and even when Sam switched back to regular vision, the holes’ edges were still glowing. Dean’s eyebrows went up. “Didn’t know we rated that kind of attention.”
“Try to take it as a compliment,” said a gigantic wall of really sharp-edged steel that suddenly planted itself before them. A second later, a man slid out from behind it, his arm up so he could hold onto the…it was a sword. A sword big enough that even the Impala’s trunk might have a hard time swallowing. “Zack, with Shinra. We’ve got a job offer for you.”
He was nice enough to pivot his sword so it blocked any other shots coming from inside—and a couple did rattle against the metal. He was also giving Dean a slow once-over, which temporarily threw Dean.
“And is inside what happens if we say no?” Sam asked. A burst of noise at the end of the alley behind him made him glance over his shoulder. Some kind of scuffle was going on there between people in darkish robes and people that looked like the neighborhood: sullen and heavily scarred. The locals were losing, and as Sam watched, one of the robes broke free to point in his direction and shout.
“Oh, no, those are just Kisaragi punks. You know how it goes—you want something, so they want to get it first. You want somebody, they want them first.” Zack still was giving Dean the eye.
Dean blinked hard, and Sam briefly wondered whether his brother realized he’d swung the shotgun around to point at Zack. “So…we probably should move this discussion.”
“Hell, if you say so. I wouldn’t mind a go at them, but…” Zack grimaced slightly and cocked his head, as if listening to someone invisible. Or, say, somebody ordering him around on a network line. “Hang on a second.”
Zack’s oversized butcher knife of a sword had to weigh at least fifty pounds, but he pulled it up out of the ground and whirled it over his head like it was nothing. The shockwave of its impact on the pavement literally rippled the ground, which then fell back into gigantic cracks. At the other end of the alley, the fighting suddenly vanished as everyone toppled over or leaped for the roofs.
“Okay—” Zack started.
“What—you—damn it, my car’s parked near there!” Dean snapped. He barely stopped himself from lunging at Zack. “If you got one scratch on it—”
“Stop worrying. It might not look like it, but I’ve got a delicate touch.” Grinning, Zack patted an incredulous Dean on the cheek and in the same moment, stepped back. Good for him, since Dean looked like he was about to clock the man, sword or no sword. “Besides, I’ve really been looking forward to seeing what this car of yours looks like. Is it really twentieth-century, or is it a modern rebuild?”
A weird grating sound was coming from Dean. After a moment, Sam realized it was Dean grinding his teeth.
“It’s the real thing. Been doing your research on us, huh?” Dean stiffly said. He reluctantly stepped forward, but quickly sped up to overtake Zack, who was securing his sword to his back. And he kept going till he was a good ten yards ahead of them.
“Hey, I wasn’t going to touch it! Not without your permission!” Zack called after him. With an amused expression, Zack dropped back to glance at Sam. “Your brother always this touchy?”
Sam had been having a hard time not laughing, but it was pretty easy to get serious when looking at the other man. Yeah, Dean’s little hypocrisies could be funny, but that didn’t mean Sam was going to gang up with some weirdo against his own brother. Especially this one. “When you say you’re ‘Zack, with Shinra’…that means you’re—”
“The Head has a problem that’s in your line of work, and he’s been recommended you by a trusted source so he’d like to set up a meeting,” Zack said. He sobered up surprisingly fast, given his initial impression. Then again, he didn’t seem nearly as interested in Sam—fortunately—so he didn’t have any distractions.
He still wasn’t what Sam had been expecting for a captain of one of the city’s three great Houses. Maybe his reputation had him being slightly more human than, say, Sephiroth, but he still helped carry out assassinations and street wars in the name of his House, and mothers still invoked his name to scare their children into coming inside early at night.
For that kind of guy, he was really young—the translucency of his skin said he was maybe a year older than Dean, and he didn’t have any odd opaque spots that’d indicate erased scars. His hair was plain black, but spiked up street-fashion into a kind of crest. His eyes were green, but they were glowing so he was in some kind of artificial sight and his real eye-color could be anything. He didn’t have too many visible implants, and the muscle moving around beneath his clothes had the easy shift of naturally-earned strength instead of the stiffness of artificial enhancement. He was good-looking, and in a deceptively open, good-old-boy sort of way.
“Really,” Sam finally said. He glanced up and around, but the Kisaragi that’d been around earlier had all fled as far as he could tell. A flurry of motion caught his eye and he turned his head further to see that all down the street, blast-shutters were going up and windows were being opaqued. “Just so we’re clear, your Head knows that what we do is on the weird side, right?”
“We think it’s a daimon worm. It’s in our servers.” Zack’s voice had flattened out. He wasn’t looking up or anything, but somehow Sam still had the impression that the other man was keeping close watch on the neighborhood’s reaction. “That answer your question?”
Sam supposed it did since daimon worms were definitely in the category of mythical beings, and if Shinra believed in those, then Sam and Dean could skip the intro stuff. On the other hand, knowing that didn’t really clear things up. Actually, it just added more worries to cloud the water. “Then you also know this kind of stuff never comes with guarantees.”
“It’d better. Rufus expects results for whatever outlay he puts into a project,” Zack said. He stretched his arms over his head till his shoulders cracked, making the sword bounce slightly against his back. “He’s looking forward to hearing your proposal.”
“I’m sure. Since he’s going through all this trouble to get us.” Maybe Dean had been walking far ahead, but he’d been keeping tabs on the conversation. He’d gotten to the car and tossed his bag into the trunk, and now was walking around to the driver’s side. “He want anything else while he’s at it? Ghosts exorcised from his software? Angels hogging his lines?”
Sam froze, hopefully with his eyes set on ‘are you even thinking, Dean?’ The House of Shinra wasn’t just the usual run-of-the-mill local authoritative idiots. They weren’t people to be messed with. At least, not unless you were a good galaxy away first.
Thankfully, Zack did not vaporize them into little itty-bitty pieces. He just sauntered around to the backseat, spared about two seconds to figure out how the door-handle worked, and casually got inside without asking. Dean’s irises flickered to dark bruise-red, then back to their regular green.
“Yes, we’re awful people, and yes, you and your brother will be killed if you don’t come and play nicely,” Zack said. His cheerful tone was starting to get a bit of an edge. “But you know, we are going to pay you well and we do have a…supernatural problem, so maybe you’d like to come hear about the job before you decide on suicide with honor?”
“Are you sure it’s a daimon worm?” Sam asked. He deliberately emphasized the word so that Dean would focus on the job and not so much the situation, which did suck but which they currently couldn’t do anything about. “They’re kind of…”
“…rare.” Dean drummed his fingers once against the top of the car, then abruptly ducked down and in. By the time Sam had gotten into his seat, his brother had already started the engine and was backing out into the street. That sounded easier than it really was: all the rich people used air-vehicles, so the ground roads were more like ground zero of a recent nuke strike. “Hope you can keep your big knife from poking holes in my car. We charge extra for maintenance.”
Zack laughed and raised his arms to show that the sword was gone. It probably was an implant materialization; Sam checked the man’s right hand and just as he’d expected, the whole palm was studded with bits of metal and silica. “Relax. I know how to handle it. Speaking of, are you sure this car can manage the highway? I can get a carrier down in—”
“It can handle it,” Dean irritably muttered. He didn’t give Sam so much as a warning look before he jerked the stick-shift all the way down to air-gear.
Sam was too busy peeling himself out of the dashboard to hear whatever Zack had said next, but it must have been something spectacular because Dean was flushing redder than an incinerator core.
“Sorry, but that’s not one of our offered services. Maybe you’d like to try one of the exotic VR lines?” The sarcasm in Dean’s voice dripped acid.
“All right, all right. You could’ve just said you’re one of those monosexuals. I never really got that about limiting your options, but hey, to each their own.” Of course, Zack could do sarcasm, too. His grated more since he sounded so nonchalant about it, like it wasn’t any big loss to him.
The unfortunate part was that that was probably true, and Dean realized it. Maybe Dean wasn’t bi like the other ninety-five percent of the world, but he was all about the ego-upkeep. “Well, pardon me for assuming that anyone working for Shinra would have basic observational skills,” he muttered.
Sam decided it was time to change the subject. “Where are we going?”
“Not to Shinra Tower, if that was what you were hoping for,” Zack said. He leaned forward and a glowing blue map popped up on the windshield. With his index finger, he traced out the route, and a green line mirroring the movement of his hand obligingly appeared. “Keeping in mind that you might find our way of approaching you a little rude, the Head’s decided it’d be better if we skipped the face-to-face and you just got right to work. We’re going to where the worm first showed up—pardon me, where the thing first showed up. Nothing’s been disturbed, so you can take a look and tell us whether our first opinion was a bunch of bullshit. Sound good?”
“Not really, but then, it doesn’t really matter.” Dean sighed and leaned his head back against the seat-rest just as his arm slipped down to the stick-shift. Then his hand tipped over, like he was just fidgeting, and fell onto the smaller gear-shift beside the regular one. “You don’t get motion-sick, do you? Because maintenance on this baby is expensive--oh, but then, you’re footing the bill. Never mind.”
Before Zack could answer—and before Sam could get himself properly braced, for that matter—Dean had them airborne and accelerating like hell. He had good reasons for doing that: traffic usually went from higher to lower, and drivers didn’t expect cars trying to merge from below so speeding up was the only way to grab a space. Good reasons, but they didn’t make the dashboard any softer.
Sam caught himself on it with his arms just before his skull would’ve cracked open. He flailed behind himself, hooked the belt and hung on as hard as he could. “Dean.”
“Sorry, Sam. I’m a little preoccupied. Getting threatened does that to me,” Dean acidly said, which had better be for Zack’s benefit because blood or no blood, Sam didn’t see anything wrong with cold-cocking some tact into Dean’s head.
“You’re a real peach, you know.” For all that, it hadn’t worked: Zack just looked more amused. “But damn, this is a nice ride. I don’t suppose I could—”
Dean glared over his shoulder. “I don’t care who you are, but you touch the wheel and the world ends. All right?”
“Okay, okay. Sheesh.” Zack put up his hands and backed off. “Hang a right and incline up about forty degrees.”
Sam slammed his heels into the floor just as Dean obliged Zack at near-warp speed. He hoped it was a short ride, because in a couple more minutes, he was going to be the one messing up the antique seats.