10. A Very Delicate Time
Kumiko swam through the Matrix as a fish, all chrome-tinted scales and serious drooping barbels. The depths of the Matrix is her sea, her tribe is her school. Together they swam toward the Resonance Well. For a nanosecond, one saucer-shaped fish eye fixed on a hooded woman with raven-wings, far above, looking for all the world like a piece of the scenery. It was a familiar icon, naggingly so. Like an angel carved on a cathedral, or something. Aimee and Kumiko had scanned a documentary on that once. Kumiko captured a still-image of the icon, and mailed it to one of her anonymous accounts. She'd run a search later.
Then Lucy came over to whisper something about Brian, and they had to switch to an encrypted comcall because Piotr was trying to listen in. They swam along, gossiping and giggling behind Ellery, the whole tribe to the Resonance Pool for the submersion.
9. Dissonance Pool
The fly-specked miasma of a dead pigeon in a rainbow-slick puddle, the piercing burst of static when an electrical source is plugged into a speaker, and the cold, impersonal touch of the street doc during an exam. It's different for everyone, but it has the same name.
The place stank of it, like it was clinging to the walls of the node. A slick-looking and imperturbable pool of ink sat center stage amidst the ruins of the Host. Kumiko watched Ellery. You could almost feel the rage. Ellery had protected them from all the things she'd suffered when she was younger, from the gangs that peddled BTLs and prostitution, the corps that wanted to poke and prod her and all of those other otaku, the ones who followed the Dissonance.
But Ellery was twenty-one. Soon she'd Fade. Kumiko knew it. Everyone did. There was nothing anyone could do for Ellery. But without anyone saying it, the whole tribe knew it was on. The Dissonants had gone too far.
“Syzygy,” Ellery said “was right, all along. She opposes anything that threatens the Resonance. I kept all of you from the crusade against the Dissonance because you're so young…but we're otaku. We grow up fast. It's time we did our part.”
Ellery said it all. It was war.
Kumiko had put on her “war face,” the poison spines and warning stripes of exotic fish replacing her standard icon. This would be her first real combat in the Matrix, outside the sparring that the older otaku insisted on, once a week. She traced a mental finger over the shapes of the Complex Forms in her head. Ellery had given a stern lecture about mentally preparing for battle, but what did she mean? Kumiko was still wondering as they accessed the node.
There were four of them inside, each shaped like one of the demons from Dawn of Atlantis, all squirming worm-things, muscles and scaly hides. Probably boys, then. Kumiko knew that some of the boys in her own tribe favored the game-sprite image too; they'd have to switch icons fast. The eyes turned on them were dull, stock malevolent glares, but the wave of Dissonance from them was palpable.
Ellery led the charge, bloody wasps pulling themselves from the tracts on her icon's arms and launching themselves at the nearest of the rogue otaku. It seemed so quick, so effortless to her. Kumiko wasn't nearly as smooth when the nearest Dissonant lashed at her with a gout of flame, bucking and twisting around the attack. She triggered one of her offensive forms, felt the way of it as it ran through her, a half-mnemonic whisper in the brain. The Dissonant even looked surprised as the fish-thing in front of him folded inside-out, flashes of raw meat visible for a nanosecond, and eight short tentacles like a great cuttlefish wrapped him about. Kumiko even heard the Dissonant let out a grown as her poison-spines, now pointing inward, pierced the scaly demon-skin and pumped in their subtle toxin. Parts of the demon appeared to freeze and lose resolution as it struggled, but Kumiko maintained a death-grip on the Dissonant until it was fully incapacitated.
The other Dissonants were finished quickly. Too quickly, for Ellery. Kumiko felt the gentle and affectionate pat as Ellery came up to the immobilized Dissonant. The older otaku took her time taking him apart.
7. Daily Life
It had been three days, and Ellery was still jacked in. Kumiko watched Aimee check the drip going into her vein, and the little stimpatches full of uppers lining Ellery's neck. Aimee looked so tired. She was sixteen, and the twins were in their Terrible Twos, getting into everything. Ellery joked that she had to give “the speech” about sex whenever any of the kids got old enough to recognize Matrix porn these days.
“Just to keep the number of unwed, underage otaku mothers down.” It was only half a joke. Ellery never let any of them out alone. Too many predators on the streets for kids: not just rapists and drug-dealers, but gang-recruiters, ghouls and organleggers too.
The scavengers came back around dinner time to show off their treasures. Brian scrounged up thirty feet of optical cord around a makeshift spool, while Lucy had found a stack of used optical chips that could be wiped and reused. Piotr had the remains of an old cyber hand, bits of dessicated skin and slivers of old bone still attached to the stump, and began simultaneously picking his nose and dismantling the cyberhand on the kitchen table, patently the most disgusting use of ambidexterity Kumiko had ever seen. Everyone else was jacked in, huddled next to each other for warmth. They jacked out just as the heavily-armed pizza delivery car showed up.
Dinner was served.
The ambush had been simple and devastatingly effective. Right after dinner, when everyone jacked back in, they were hit. The Dissonant Ones had been there, waiting, the demon-shapes holding horrible black swords. A boy with silver hair pinned Ellery's arms to her sides, blood oozing down his hands, ignoring the bloody wasps that swam around his head. Kumiko was fighting to jack out as an ebon sword sheathed itself through chrome-tinted scales, impaling her.
Pain flashed through Kumiko as she was dumped. It was a hideously sudden shift, moving from the Matrix to the painful clarity of the meat world. Her first clear sight was Ellery's head, blood pouring from her nose and ears, eyes still closed. Dead. A crisping flesh smell filled the apartment, and Kumiko saw wisps of smoke rising from the ring of darkening flesh around Lucy's datajack. Biometric subroutines. Black IC. The Dissonant Ones had Complex Forms that mimicked Black IC. They were all going to die.
There wasn't time for subtleties. Kumiko grabbed the juryrigged junction box, the communual jackpoint they were plugged into, and pulled. She felt her muscles stretch and strain, she put all of her weight into it against the floor. Finally, it popped out, a frayed length of optical cord trailing from its guts.
The mewling groans of mutual dumpshock were like music to her. At least they were still alive.
5. Waste Not, Want Not.
Kumiko was the oldest now, at thirteen. She'd called the orks, the ones who took bodies to those who didn't ask questions. Just broke them down for spare parts. But there was something that had to be done before they got here. The bodies were laid out on the kitchen table, and Brian was there with the knife, looking sick. Piotr held the pliers. Kumiko jacked in the tutorial.
Sometime after she had removed Aimee's datajack and was rooting around with a finger on the bone where the headware memory should be, Piotr ran outside to puke. Brian left to look after him, grateful to be away.
Kumiko deposited the gory hardware in a bowl. They'd wash the bits of brain and hair off later.
4. Trace Successful
Piotr cracked the headware memory after the orks left. Aimee had completed a trace on three of the Dissonant Ones, and it was on screen. The little ork rubbed dust from his glasses. Kumiko glanced over at Piotr.
“What's it say?”
“They're all from the same place. Ten miles from here. In the Barrens.”
Ten miles in the Barrens. The others were staring at her, Brian was watching the twins. Kumiko took a moment to chew a nail, and then stopped herself. Aimee always smacked her hand when she did that.
Brian spoke first “We need to go get them.”
Kumiko shook her head “In the Matrix? We aren't strong enough.”
“We can get help. Outside help. Other otaku.”
“Do you know any? And if you do, do you know any we could trust? No, a Matrix assault is out.”
“The unexpected. A direct physical assault.”
“We're otaku! We can't fight in the meat! If they're bigger than us, they'll stomp us!”
“So we need muscle. Someone we can pay to help us out.”
“You mean gangers? None of 'em will deal with us, 'cause of Ellery.”
“Not gangers. Runners. Shadowrunners.”
“How are we supposed to pay them?”
Kumiko nodded at the bloody pile of cyberware on the kitchen table.
“We can pay.”
3. A Little Something Extra
Luckily, clubs in the Barrens don't give a damn about underage girls. Kumiko scanned the crowd, and picked out the cadaverous troll with the corroded datajack. She padded up behind him and tapped his elbow. He spun around quicker than she thought possible, looked confused for a moment, then glanced down.
“Wadda you want, breeder?” he snarled.
“You're Jackie Twobits. They say you do muscle work.”
His eyes widened when she used his decker handle.
“No idea what you're talkin' about, girl. Git.”
He started to turn back to his drink. She played her ace and handed him a crumpled piece of paper.
“Whatta frag's dis?” the troll said as he quickly scanned the scrap of print out.
“That's your record with Lonestar. You and your friends help me out, I can make that go away.”
The troll grunted. “Take more'n that, kiddo. How'd you get this?”
“I hacked it out of Lone Star's database.” She said with as much verve as she could muster.
Kumiko desperate tried not to think about how much she had to pee right about then. With her free hand, she squeezed a fat roll of nuyen from her front pocket. The grubby plastic Tir Tairngire bills the street doc gave her.
“I can pay for muscle. Can we deal?”
Jackie scratched a scarred cheek. “You got some cojones, kid. Okay, let's talk.”
Kumiko nodded, reminding herself to look up what 'cojones' meant later on WordNet. She watched Jackie drag out a tattered cell phone, carefully pressing the buttons with a pinky. It took three hours for the rest of his team to get there, while Jackie drank and Kumiko practiced the story over in her head. When they finally got there, the meet seemed to take forever. Haggling over prices, pushing for details. Kumiko even had to leave once to use the restroom.
Eventually, they made a deal.
2. Final Assault
The Dissonant Ones came out of their apartment at Jackie's order, forming a ragged line opposite Kumiko's own tribe.
Jackie lowered the shotgun he'd just blown the door with and turned to Kumiko.
“You said you needed muscle to take out rival a gang, the Dissonants.”
“Tribe. Rival tribe. The others follow the Dissonance.”
“So, what, where are the older ones? Who're we supposed to shoot?”
Kumio pointed. “There are no older ones. Shoot them.”
“Whatta ya mean, 'shoot 'em'?”
“You've got the guns. We need you to do it. That's why we hired you.”
The troll stared down at her, mouth agape, eyes disbelieving.
“They're fraggin' kids! The oldest one's a dwarf who can't even shave yet!”
“I don't fraggin' care! I ain't shootin' no damn kids, otaku or not!”
“We had a deal!”
“Stuff it, breeder girl.”
Jackie and his friends turned to leave. A shaggy dwarf whose matted beard was a mass of dreads called something in Spanish to the dwarf boy Jackie had mentioned. The Dissonant One shook his head, the dwarf shrugged and left.
The otaku stood staring at one another, eyeing each other warily. Kumiko could just scream at the retreating runners. What was she supposed to do now? This wasn't the Matrix, they didn't have any Complex Forms to attack each other with here.
Then someone threw a rock.
1. Blood in the Barrens
Brian was there first, with a length of pipe, and smashed it into the oncoming face of a malnourished ork no more than six years old and half again his size. Lucy was crying and screaming as one of the rival otaku hit her with a lump of rock. Two boys both named Derek, one from each tribe, were clawing and biting one another with their bare hands, rolling around on the ground while the runners looked on in shock. Kumiko watched as one of them succeeded in gouging out an eye with a thumb.
She lay still, watching the carnage as the blood around her face formed a scab with the pavement. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. They should have been in the Matrix. It was…was it any less real in the Matrix? People still died. Not like a video game where the icon derezzes and you win. Everyone was lying still now, except for Piotr and the dwarf boy. Piotr was crying and lifting up a Saturday Night Special, some shoddy piece of junk he'd scavenged ages ago.
The gun exploded in Piotr's hand, taking most of his fingers with it. Kumiko caught a flash of blood as the dwarf collapsed. Piotr moaned for a little while, curled around his maimed and bleeding hand. Someone else cried. One of the Dereks screamed now and again.
Minutes passed, then hours. It grew quiet. The devil rats came out of the corners, began working on the edge of the pile of bodies. Kumiko picked at the scab until she could pull free without too much pain, and sat up. The hard point of the little optical chip in her pocket felt like a thorn in her leg. She pulled the knife from the waistband of her jeans, and jacked in the tutorial chip.
The little girl went forward to harvest the dead.
0. Mourning Visitations
When Kumiko came back, blood staining her cloths and dried into horrible little gobs in her hair, with her morbid lode of gear, she found another. It was a woman, at least twenty, holding one of the twins to her and rocking it to sleep. A younger boy with spiked silver hair sat in Aimee's chair, the other twin asleep on his lap. Absently, Kumiko noted the circuit tattoos around his hands and up his arms. The type done with a ballpoint pen, you'd see in some parts of the Barrens. The woman turned to Kumiko and smiled. There was something wrong with her eyes. She spoke with a soft Southron drawl.
“Hello Kumiko. I see you've been very busy. That's good.”
The eyes were white. Pure white.