Chapter 1: Fresh Ink
This was when they were most themselves, when they didn’t have to be anyone else. When they have taken off all the other titles or faces, when their job descriptions were clearest. Here and now, they weren’t decker and shaman. They didn’t have to be shadowrunners when they could just be Zee and Dietrich, resting in his (or was it their?) bed at the end of the day, the lights low, the world banished.
As usual, she was amusing herself by tracing his tattoos – swirling a fingertip around the turns of bisected circles and spelling ancient words in the runes on his shoulders. He smiled bemusedly. “I sure am glad I got all these so you could play with ‘em,” he said.
“That was very nice of you,” she replied, turning her attention to the anarchy symbol on the right side of his chest. He chuckled and closed his eyes.
Her fingers trailed down his right arm, where a knife emblazoned with the word MESSERKAMPF! down the blade occupied most of his forearm. It, along with the anarchy symbol, was one of his oldest, and the ink was faded. Or at least it looked faded in comparison to the three Chinese characters on the hilt, vivid and black. She blinked. “When did you get this?”
He glanced at the location of her hand. “’Bout a week ago.”
“How did I not notice you got a new tattoo?”
“It’s been a busy week.” A little smile pulled at his lips. “Konrad was all ‘You know what these mean, right? ‘Cuz I got a policy about Asian characters.’” He shifted a little, the better to look her in the eye. “Though…I guess I probably should have asked what you thought of it before I got it. You don’t mind, do you?”
Zee brushed her fingertips over the tattooed knife hilt. As usual, Konrad’s work was exceptional, capturing perfectly the beauty of the calligraphy, rendering the characters that spelled her name. “No. I don’t mind at all.”
Chapter 2: A Girl With Tusks
Alexander was fidgety, his hands restless, his eyes everywhere. Dietrich took a sip of his soykaf and raised an eyebrow at his nephew. “What’s up, kid?”
“Nothing,” he lied. “It’s…” He glanced at Dietrich’s politely disbelieving face and sighed, a flush crawling up his neck. “There’s this girl…”
Dietrich smiled broadly. “Is there now?”
“I have no idea if she’s even interested,” Alex muttered glumly. “I mean, how do you even know?”
Dietrich thought about that. In his experience, women tended to be pretty forthright, but then, he knew his experience was hardly universal. He said as much, and Alexander made a face.
“Yeah, no shit.” He stared dourly into his barely touched caramel soykaf, then asked, “Well, what about Zee? You weren’t fronting a band when you got together with her.”
The memory of a sudden, stunning kiss brought a smile to Dietrich’s face. “She wasn’t exactly coy either.” Alex heaved a miserable sigh, and his uncle took pity on him. “Who’s the girl?”
Alexander glanced about nervously, then said, voice low, “You know Silke Schröder, right?”
Dietrich had to fight to keep down an astonished laugh. He washed it down with some more soykaf and, with a poker face that would have done Zee proud, he said, “Yeah. Met her in Drogenkippe. Zee was the one who convinced her to come to Samuel’s to get clean, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.” Alexander sighed again, but this time it was the sigh of a would-be lover, ardent in the admiration of his lady love. Dietrich feigned a cough to keep the laugh where it belonged. “We’ve gotten to know each other, and… And she’s really great! She’s a really amazing person! She’s sweet, and she’s gentle, and she’s really, really strong! I mean, it’s HARD to kick cram, and she did it, cold turkey! I really like her a lot, and I’ve never kissed a girl with tusks before, but I wanna try!”
He subsided, surprised by the strength of his own outburst. Dietrich finally let the laugh go free, grinning and reaching across the table to clasp his nephew’s shoulder. “Seems to me maybe you ought to tell her what you just told me.”
“But what if-”
“What if doesn’t get you kissed, kid. And if you can’t even get that far, you’re in real trouble.”
Alexander sighed again, worried accession furrowing his forehead. He cut Dietrich a nervous look. “Have you ever kissed a girl with tusks?”
“What’s it like?”
“After the first couple seconds, you don’t even notice anymore.”
Chapter 3: Appropriate Uses of the Tech Cave
“We’ve talked about this, Blitz. No cybering your girlfriend in the tech cave!”
“Oh we have?! Who is this WE?”
Eiger looked up, wire brush in one hand, solvent bottle in the other. This should be good. Usually when Zee and Blitz argued about their holy of holies, it involved words that she recognized as being German, but for all the sense it made, they might as well be speaking Farsi. But this she understood. She pretended not to be eavesdropping as she resumed her field strip. She couldn’t help smirking a little, though.
“Yes, WE. As in, you and I have had this conversation before.”
“And seriously, what the FUCK, man? I do NOT need to walk in on that.”
Nor did anyone, Eiger thought. Ever. No matter their sins.
“I’m glad you and Emilie have…a system worked out while she’s having to lay low,” Zee continued, “but c’mon, Blitz!”
“May I point something out?” Blitz asked primly.
“I am not the only person who’s had sex in the tech cave.”
Point, Blitz, Eiger judged. Ever since the unmistakable (and enthusiastic) consummation of their relationship, Zee and Dietrich had tried, honestly and sincerely, to be conscientious of their teammates’ sensibilities. But they thought they were fooling anyone, they were sadly mistaken. Eiger had a feeling the only place in the safe house they hadn’t had sex was her own bed.
Zee’s silence was brittle. “Well,” she said finally, “at least I’m having sex in meatspace.”
Chapter 4: Words You Don’t Get to Use
Silke fussed with her skirt for the third time in five minutes. She’d gotten to Der Weinkeller WAY too early, but she told herself this way she could get a drink down to calm her nerves. This was totally a date, and she hadn’t been on a real date in…ever, possibly. Alexander Farber had oh-so-casually suggested that they should get a drink sometime, and she’d oh-so-casually named a time and place, and the way he’d grinned and the way she felt made it obvious this was totally a date. She knew some people at Samuel’s still didn’t trust Alex, but the way she saw it, he was just having to learn how not to make bad choices and have bad ideas, the same as she was.
Besides, he was really cute.
“Hey,” said a voice that was NOT Alex’s. “Looks like you need something a little stronger, girlie.”
She glanced up at the speaker, a burly human guy of indeterminate age with a row of poorly seated cyberports at the base of his neck. Her lip probably curled a little. “I’m good,” she said shortly. If there was one thing she had learned at Das Kesselhaus, it was that life was too short to put up with assholes who thought they were owed something.
He didn’t go away. Dammit, he was going to be one of those. “You look lonely, is all.”
“I’m waiting for someone.”
“Me, right?” He shot her an ugly grin.
The grin vanished. “Fine.” He snorted. “Fuckin’ trog bitch.”
She inhaled hard, but didn’t have time to respond, because the second the words left his mouth, a hand, gnarled and heavy-looking, landed on his shoulder.
“If I don’t hear an apology in the next five seconds, I’m washin’ your mouth out with soap. And since I don’t have any soap, I’ll have to use my boots.”
Silke peered around her harasser at the source of the intervention. It was Alex’s Uncle Dietrich, who was smiling. Sort of. It wasn’t a very nice smile.
The guy turned, glaring at Dietrich. “Who the hell are you?”
“Just a guy who doesn’t like men who won’t take no for an answer and people who say words they shouldn’t. Turns out you’re both. Now apologize to the young lady.”
“Fuck off, old man.”
Dietrich grinned nastily. “Ya know, I was kinda hopin’ you’d say that.”
What followed was a short, instructive bout of violence. Silke had witnessed more than her share of beatdowns in her time – you couldn’t live in a place like Drogenkippe and not. But this was a whole other level of asskicking. Dietrich had the guy on the floor in two punches, and then made good on his promise to use his boots. Only for a moment though; just long enough to make sure his point was made. “Get up,” he ordered, “and get out. You’re ruining the ambiance for the nice people here.” He turned his attention back to Silke. “You alright, love?”
She nodded mutely, eyes still a little wide.
“Good!” He stretched his shoulders, and shot her a broad, almost cheeky, smile. “Well, have a nice night.”
Silke watched him go, finally remembering to blink. She’d wondered from time to time what Zee saw in Dietrich, but now she felt like she understood. Alexander entered a moment later, scanning the room for her. Their eyes met, and his face lit up. She found herself watching him speculatively as he approached her table. Whatever ‘it’ was, she kind of hoped it ran in the family.
Chapter 5: Complete the Circuit
She tried to make a point to do this at least once a week.
Zee started from the safehouse door, Dante at her heels, her first stop Samuel’s, to check in on him and his people. If the sun was out, so was Laine, regardless of temperature, soaking in the daylight like a particularly cantankerous old cat. She always paused to shoot him a quick salute and get a mocking rebuke for it.
Kim was usually around, and looking better these days. She proudly reported she hadn’t been on a BTL trip in six weeks now, and it showed. Her eyes had lost that glazed, vacant look, and she’d put on a little much-needed weight. Zee had a feeling she wasn’t the only one making sure Kim took care of herself, though. She’d seen her around Ezkibel’s clinic from time and time. The Spaniard’s conscientiousness towards Kim seemed to be his one redeeming feature as a person, but Zee would take it.
Then there was Zaak, still pretending to be an elf, still pretending he had ‘magic’. The only magic he actually had was his seemingly never-ending supply of cut-rate trash drugs and an inexhaustible appetite for getting the brush off. It was impressive, in its own deeply stupid way.
This was her home, this close embrace of rundown buildings and rundown people, all rough at the edges and more than a little shopworn. Life was hard, and no one in the Kreuzbasar would disagree, but they would all do their damnedest to blunt the hardest parts. Zee knew she would. Consider it your very own manor, the Golden Wyrm had said. Back in the distant past, a baron and his people had a reciprocal relationship – the baron offered safety, and the people offered fealty. Well, she didn’t want anyone's fealty; she was no one’s ruler. She might take point in her crew, but her kiez could handle itself, so long as it felt stable enough to do so.
That was why she took these walks. To be visible, to remind her neighbors that she would make sure they didn’t get their legs kicked out from under them again. What Audran had done would never happen again. Ever.
There was a nod to Mettbach and his sons, and then the café, and a word with Altuğ, checking in on business, both the coffee and the criminal. A quarter hour or so talking shop with Maliit (maybe longer if she’d gotten in any really interesting inventory), and then up the side street. Back to the safehouse, where she could count on a warm smile and a pair of welcoming arms.
“Hey, Schatzi. Have a good day?”
“Yeah. Better now.”
Chapter 6: Flashback
September 28, 2054
Monika couldn't sleep.
The run had gone perfectly, excepting of course the fact that she'd taken a shot to the shoulder, through and through, in the course of making their escape, which had earned her yet another lecture on situational awareness from Eiger. She didn't take that personally; that was how Eiger said 'I love you'. And it wasn't as if she hadn't been shot before. Shadowrunning was not an occupation for those who couldn't stand a little blood. No, it was what Glory had said in the van on the way back, after treating the wound.
"You were lucky," she'd said, in her soft, unaffected voice. "Another millimeter or so and it would have severed your subclavian artery. You could have bled out."
Her shoulder only ached now, and in another day or so, she'd be back to full function. The wonders of modern medicine. And it wasn't as if she blinked at death before. So why did the thought keep her up? You were lucky. Well that was all it was, all it ever was. Just luck.
Paul had tried, in his gentle way, to get her to go to bed, and she'd smiled softly and lied and said she would, soon. An hour or so later, Dietrich poked his head into the common. "Still up? C'mon, Liebchen, you need your beauty sleep."
"Fuck you, old man," she'd retorted, without rancor. He grinned.
"You can't afford me, love." But he didn't press the issue.
Finally, some time before dawn, she'd slipped out of the safe house, leaving Dante asleep on the three-quarters of the couch he managed to take up when she let him on the furniture. She breathed in the cool autumn air, letting her stride lengthen on the familiar streets. Her feet could tell her the way, like the muscle memory of walking through a darkened room, until she reached the tree opposite Der Wienkellar. The fallen leaves crunched beneath her feet, the only sound in the still night. You were lucky.
Luck was what had brought her in the first place: She had needed work when she had come to Berlin, and a contact had put her in touch with Paul. Paul, who just so happened to fence and fix out of his shop in the Kreuzbasar. She’d been pulled into the heart of this place, and without even really thinking about it, she’d embraced it, just as it had embraced her. She was lucky.
What would happen if she was unlucky?
Her comm buzzed. Who the hell was calling her this late? Or early, depending on your point of view. She glared, then blinked as she recognized the originating number. How long had it been? Three years now? She accepted the call.
It was voice only, but in those two words, she could hear a world of exhaustion weighing on her old friend’s voice. Utter exhaustion, and something else.
“I…” A pause, a hitched breath, a sigh. “No. Nothing’s okay.” Another breath. “I fucked up bad, Mona. REALLY bad.”
Monika considered that. There were levels of fuck up. “You need backup?”
“I think I’m past that now.”
THAT level. Okay. “You need to get out of the ‘Plex.”
Zee’s voice was barely more than a whisper. “Yeah.”
“Okay,” Monika said briskly. “You’re gonna get on a train. First thing. I’ll meet you at the Hauptbahnhof.”
“You’ll like Berlin, Zee,” she continued, warming to the idea. “The F-State’s a big ole playground for runners. Good jobs, easy money.”
Zee laughed weakly. “You’re crazy. Just like that? Don’t you have a crew? Your own thing?”
“And you’ll fit right in.”
“You don’t even know what happened.”
“You can tell me about it when you get here.”
Zee was silent for a moment. Then she chuckled, and Monika could almost see her shaking her head. “Okay. I owe you.”
“Null sheen. We’ll figure it out, ace.”
She disengaged the call. The sun was starting to rise; Paul would probably be up soon, and she would need to tell him she’d just opened their home to an outsider. But Zee…she knew Zee, trusted her. They’d always had each other’s backs, since they were kids. If Zee needed help now, she’d get it, because she could always rely on her.
And when she explained it to Paul, she made sure to present it in just those terms. As he pulled off his glasses, uncertainty furrowing his brow, she said, “I could always count on Zee to come through in the clutch. She was my ace in the hole.”
Chapter 7: Words You Don’t Get to Use II
“You got that?” Zee’s sharp eyes bored a hole in Alexander’s forehead, and he couldn’t help but glare back a little.
“Sure, Tante, whatever.”
She blinked, affronted. “What did you just call me?”
“What? You’re sleeping with my uncle, I guess that makes you my aunt.”
“I am nobody’s aunt, you little drekhead!”
“Again – whatever. I’m not the one who thought it was a good idea to jam with somebody twenty years older than me.”
She glared at him. On the one hand, she was actually quite pleased and proud of the progress he’d met over the months since she’d met him. He’d come a long way already from the confused, lost kid they’d plucked from the grip of Humanis, showing real responsibility, resourcefulness, and a genuine ability to learn and grow. And he and Silke were adorable together.
On the other hand, he was being a real asshole right now. “You know, you’re really in no position to give anybody shit about their life choices. Or did you forget how we first met?”
He snorted, taking the jab in stride, then casually stood and picked up the tablet she’d set in front of him. “Anyway, don’t worry. I’ll get this taken care of.”
He was almost to the door by the time he replied. “Null sheen. Tante Zee.”
Chapter 8: What They Don't Want You to Know
Dietrich had to laugh to himself as he entered Cafe Cezve that afternoon. He really was getting old. These days he did his drinking at home and went out for coffee. The crowd was light; just a few dedicated caffeine fiends, and the back of a familiar platinum white head. He didn't recognize the guy she was talking to, though. For the briefest of seconds, the man glanced past Zee, and Dietrich’s eyes met his.
An icy prickle, like the tip of a very fine, very cold needle, pressed between his eyebrows. Dietrich stiffened. This guy was Awakened, and he did not like the sense of power he was getting off him. Zee hadn't mentioned anything about a new client. Did she know who she was dealing with?
He approached the bar, determined to look casual. The thin crowd meant all the stools were empty, save one. A black ribbon was draped over the one at the end – Jan Goldschmidt’s old seat, reserved in perpetuity.
“Your usual, honored friend?” Altuğ asked.
“You know the drill,” Dietrich replied. A large black soykaf, four sugars. As Altuğ poured his drink, he jerked his head towards Zee and the mystery man. “You land us that fish?” he asked lightly.
Altuğ’s lips thinned. “No.” He lowered his voice, and dropped The Accent. “He has been here four hours, and purchased one small soykaf. And he is putting off the other customers. I do not like him.”
“What do you know about him?” Dietrich paid for his soykaf.
“Not as much as I would like. His name is Luca Duerr. This is not the first time he has been here. He has been very keen to speak with Zee, and only Zee.” Dietrich nodded, uneasiness prodding at his gut. “I asked around about him after the first time,” Altuğ continued. “All I heard in return was a single word – Lodge.”
The prod turned into a punch. Dietrich swallowed. “Oh yeah?”
“Yes. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Maybe. Later, Altuğ.”
He waited until he was back at the safehouse to call Faida. It took her a moment to accept the call, and when she did, he could see a smear of flour on her cheek. “Dietrich!” Her smile faded. “What’s wrong?”
“Have you heard anything about the Black Lodge being active in Berlin?”
“I-” Her lips pursed, a worried line creasing her brow. “No. But the fact you’re asking the question gives me pause.”
“Yeah. I know. Have you?”
“I have not, but you know they’re very good at covering their tracks. What have you heard, dear?”
“Nothin’ concrete. Just...got a feelin’. I’ll let you know if I find anything else out.”
“All right. Thank you, Dietrich. We’ll talk later.”
He disengaged the call, and sprawled on the couch, or at least the corner he was currently allowed by Dante. The big dog huffed softly, and rested his chin on Dietrich’s leg. “You said it, big guy.” His soykaf was getting cold, and honestly, it wasn’t really very inviting anymore.
He sat, lost in thought, until Zee appeared. She cocked her head at the sight of the takeaway cup in his hand. “You were at the café? I didn’t even see you.”
“Yeah, saw you were with somebody. Um, Zee, love...can we talk?”
She sighed. “He was a potential client, Dietrich.”
“I know that, but...what did he want?”
She sat on the edge of the couch, near Dante’s head, absently stroking his ears. “It was weird. He wanted me –and just me –to do some run he didn’t want to give me ANY details on. He kept saying it would be an ‘audition’, for his people to decide if they wanted to keep working with me or not, which was honestly kind of insulting.”
“Did he say who his people were?”
“No. That bothered me.” She snagged the cup out of his hand, took a sip, and shuddered. “I don’t know how you can drink it like this.”
“Just because you put a shit ton of creamer in yours...” They shared a small smile, which made him feel a little better. “I saw you with him, and asked Altuğ about him. He said he’d heard this Duerr guy was part of a ‘Lodge’, and that...has me worried. Because if it’s the Lodge I’m thinkin’ of, you do NOT want to get mixed up with this.”
“What are you thinking of?”
“All through history, there have been people – groups – pullin' the strings. At least that’s the story, right?”
“Yeah, conspiracy crap.” She gave him a skeptical look. “I didn’t think you’d be into that.”
“I’m not, but in magical circles, the whisper is that all those string pullers were just a front for the real thing. And they call themselves the Black Lodge. They’ve existed for centuries, and I’ve even heard it said they practiced magic before the Awakening.”
“How is that possible?”
“Blood magic.” Her face paled. He hated to mention it, remembering her one, terrifying encounter with blood magic. But maybe that would help her understand the severity of the situation. “Blood magic has always worked, even when there wasn’t a lot of mana around.”
She swallowed, and scratched at the crown of Dante’s head, her eyes distant with thought. “So you think Duerr may be a part of this Black Lodge?”
“It’s a thin rope, but I can’t shake the feeling.”
She nodded. “And the Black Lodge is a real, strings tying together the wall of crazy conspiracy.” Her hand stilled. “So what do they want with me?”
“You’re kind of a big deal, boss.” She dismissed the statement with a roll of her eyes.
“Yeah, so we’ve got a rep these days. They must know something.” She nodded again, to herself. “Maybe I should do it.”
He bolted upright, dislodging Dante, which almost cost Zee her seat. The dog whined unhappily at the disruption, and she, scrambling to grab the arm of the couch, scowled at him.
“Hear me out!”
“Do NOT take their money!”
“I don’t want to! But I do want to know what these people want!”
“There’s got to be a better way to do that!”
“And if I think of something, I’ll let you know!”
They both sank back, not looking at each other. Dietrich broke the silence. “Zee…you’re the smartest person I know, but I don’t know that even you can do an end run around people who’ve been pulling this shit for centuries.”
“I know I can’t. But if they’re gonna try to handle me, I need to know what that looks like. At the very least, I need to let them know that I know.”
He shook his head with rueful affection. “Just be careful, okay, Schatz?”
“Always.” She shot him a half-smile. “You know, it’s kinda weird hearing you, of all people, tell me not to tangle with some big, powerful org. Thought that’d be right in your wheelhouse.”
He shook his head again, somber once more. “The Black Lodge ain’t a dragon, Zee. It’s a spider, sittin’ in its web, lookin’ to snare you.”
Zee glanced down at her lap, at her turned wrist and the hornet tattooed there. It was a different kind of danger, certainly, but if she was already on the Lodge’s radar, there was no getting off it easily. And just maybe, she’d be able to set that web ablaze.
Chapter 9: Herr Lofwyr Sends His Regards
Zee stood against the wall, watching the spring rain pour in a sheet off the eaves, occasionally taking a slow drag off her cigarette as she waited for her contact. She hoped the taste of the smoke would distract her from the sourness in her mouth, the aftermath of Luca Duerr’s ‘audition’ playing on repeat in her head.
She hoped Jana and the elf had gotten away alright. Poor Jana. In her innocent ignorance, she’d honestly thought that the run would get her clean with the Lodge, never suspecting she’d been set up to take the fall for the whole thing. Zee may not have known a lot about centuries-old shadowy string pullers specifically, but there was a reason the trope of the screw-you-over Johnson persisted in shadowrunning circles. She’d seen everything she needed in the midst of that trainwreck of a run, and she’d told Duerr as much, right to his eminently punchable face.
Poor Jana. With her normal life and her little apartment and her nice boyfriend and her cute cat. Poor kid.
Zee took a final hit of her cig, stubbing it out on the wall behind her. She really did hope Jana and the elf had made their escape. For their sake at least, she told herself, she needed to play this card. If her contact would hurry up.
He appeared a few minutes later, a tall black man with close cropped hair and silver cyber eyes. “Baroness,” he said. She sighed, and managed to suppress her eye roll of irritation.
“Herr Brackhaus,” she replied. Not the Herr Brackhaus, of course, but if you were a shadowrunner and dealt with Saeder-Krupp, you spoke to Hans Brackhaus. “And how is Herr Lofwyr? Eaten anyone interesting lately?”
“Likely.” He turned to stand beside her, looking for all the world as if they were simply two strangers sharing a dryish spot. “We were somewhat surprised that you reached out.”
“Honestly, I was too, a little bit. But it needed to be done.” Herr Brackhaus lifted an eyebrow. “I’m sure your boss is familiar with the Black Lodge?”
“They are…known to us.”
“And is it known that they tried to recruit me a few days ago?”
Brackhaus’s pause spoke volumes, even before he finally spoke. “No.”
“Now it is. I figured Herr Lofwyr might be interested in that.”
“Indeed. The timing is most interesting.”
He said that last more quietly, almost to himself. Zee filed it away, keeping her expression causal.
“So there you go. The Black Lodge trying to flex their muscle in Berlin. That probably bears watching.”
“That is does. Thank you, Baroness. You have been most helpful.”
“Yeah, I’m great like that.”
Brackhaus dipped his head, then turned and vanished back into the rain. Zee lit another cigarette. Better that Lofwyr think her his creature instead of his enemy, and better to let the dragon take aim at the spider web than she. She knew her weight class, and this wasn’t it.
Chapter 10: Fresh Ink II
The first customer of the day was a surprise – Dietrich’s lady friend Zee was waiting outside before Konrad had even gotten to the shop, leaning against the brick with deceptive calm. “Well, this is a pleasure,” he said, unlocking the door. “What can I do for you?”
“Too early for you?” she asked.
“Never,” he replied, smiling easily. “You got something really specific in mind, though, I can tell.”
“Nobody shows up at a tattoo parlor at ten in the morning for a rose with ‘Mom’ over it.”
She chuckled. “Good point.” He grinned at her.
“Lemme get some paper.”
She did know exactly what she wanted, in such precise detail that he was able to produce a sketch that met her specifications in three starts. “Where d’you want it?” he asked.
“Here.” She pressed her palm flat to her sternum, directly below her collarbone.
“Why does everyone feel like they need to tell me that?” she huffed. He shrugged and started to prep his guns.
“Over bone always hurts worse. You ready?”
She peeled off her tee shirt and lifted her chin. “Ready.”
It wasn’t a huge piece, but bigger than her last, and required a lot of careful detailing. He was aware of Erich arriving, of the other artists and customers trickling in as the hours passed, but he was busy, so he didn’t spare them much attention. He handed Zee a mirror when it was done, and she nodded slowly, her expression almost, but not quite readable. There was pleasure in her smile, the pleasure of someone who sees the thing they wanted made manifest as they had hoped. But there was a defiant pride in her eyes too, and a flicker of something that almost looked like sadness.
Later, he filed the sketch in his big loose bound book. It meant something to her, something deeply felt, though he couldn’t guess at its meaning. He scratched his chin before he closed the book on the image of a full moon with a dragon silhouetted across its face, wings wide.
Chapter 11: You and I
None of this was supposed to have happened. But then, what as the old saying? “Man plans, and God laughs”? There was definitely at least a little bit of a laugh being had at her expense, and for a while, that had bothered her. These days, though, Zee found she didn’t mind so much.
She definitely wasn’t supposed to be sitting on a rooftop in Berlin, her head on the shoulder of a man who’d started his first band before she was even born. She knew other people didn’t get it. Blitz liked to razz her over the age difference whenever he ran out of other insults; though the last time he’d tried it, she’d retorted that it wasn’t the model year and mileage that mattered, but the handling and performance. That had shut him up, at least for a little while.
It wasn’t just the sex, though, which was strangest part. She hadn’t always thought like this – friends were friends, family was family, and sex was sex, and there’d never been much overlap. But then she’d met a man who offered all three, without even meaning to. Because she knew he'd had plenty of friends with a lot of benefits over the years. And yet, there they were, somewhere in the middle of a Venn diagram neither of them had ever thought about drawing before. Friends, family, lovers. No plan. It was just the way things had worked out. The way things were.
It hadn’t been until the third time she’d pounced him after a clandestine viewing of the bootleg concert vid Blitz had dug up that she had finally copped to its existence. He’d angled himself up on his elbows, nearly displacing from her position straddling his thighs, raising an eyebrow. “So this was because you saw a vid of a MESSERKAMPF! show from 20 years ago?”
“Hey, how many guys can say something they did 20 years ago is still getting them laid?” He’d chuckled, and she leaned close with a teasing smile. “Gotta admit, I finally get why groupies do what they do.”
“You’re no groupie,” he’d said quietly, surprising her with the tenderness in his eyes. “If somehow I coulda had this, had you, back then… well, I probably would have fucked it up because I was a dumbass kid, but if I could have… It would have been you every night.”
Every night. She’d never really been the every night type. Never been part of a ‘you and I’. But there she was, and the funniest, strangest, craziest part of it all was how little it bothered her.
She wondered if he knew, if he realized the effect he had on her. He knew he was charismatic, that people listened and responded to him, that he could walk into a room and own it in five minutes. But did he understand how he’d drawn her to him? Probably not. For all his confidence and charm, he was impossibly humble, the hardest won lesson of his years in the spotlight. He refused to take anything for granted, especially her, which was really damn sweet.
She wasn’t sentimental by nature, and definitely not romantic. But somehow, leaving her old life in the RuhrPlex had landed her in the middle of a bullseye marked ‘Home’, a set of concentric circles comprising Berlin, the Kruezbasar, and Dietrich. And they could sit here like this - silent, comfortable, at ease together. Which was easily the best part of all.
He turned his head slightly, angling a kiss at whatever portion of her face presented itself. “You’re thinkin’ awful hard. Anything good?”
“Yeah. You and me.”
He laughed. “You sure it’s good?”
“Of course it is.”
“Even when I piss you off?”
“Even when you piss me off.”
“Well damn, I’ll have to try harder.” She made a face at him, which only made his smile bigger, as usual. He stood, and offered her a hand to help her up. For a moment, they stood together, hands clasped, her forehead against his cheek. Like they’d always been like this. Like they’d always been here.
Then the ground shook.
To the north, a light like a falling star described a perfect arc through the night sky, and the ground shook again. And then there was another. And another, close enough now to hear the missile before it struck. “It’s started,” Zee murmured.
“Yeah,” Dietrich said. He sighed. “We should get inside, love.”
She nodded, and they did, as the sky fell on the Flux State.
Faida wasn't surprised when she got the call. But after the last forty-eight hours, she wasn’t sure if anything could surprise her. She would have to examine that later, when and if she got the time.
"Prep for extraction," Eiger said without preamble. "We'll be there in half an hour."
"Do you really think that's necessary?" Faida asked.
"This is not a fucking debate, Faida!" Dietrich cut in sharply from somewhere behind Eiger's shoulder.
"Yes," Eiger said, ignoring the interruption. "It is. We’ve had ears on K-E, and we’ve been hearing chatter about Templehof. It’s not safe, and we’re pulling you out. Be ready to go when we get there. Eiger out.”
Well, that was that. She had suspected it would come to this since the assault on Berlin had begun. Over the last two days, she’d lost contact with associates in Spandau, watched with a sinking heart as whole swathes of her network in Mitte and Charlottenburg went dark. She knew it wasn’t just sentiment that inspired Paul Amsel’s old crew to reach out. It was a strategic move, getting her out of the reach of the corporate forces. She could argue that she had a SIN and clean ID; she could live in the lawful world if she had to. But there was a reason she’d stayed in Berlin all these years. In return for the magic of the Great Mother, magic that allowed her to heal and defend, the bargain was that she would give of herself, no matter what. The world could rarely understand that. It would try to set up boundaries for her, limits, walls. It would clip her and put her in a cage, constrain her to only the acceptable and appropriate, and then what good would she be to anyone? No, better to keep her lot with the criminals. She wasn’t sure why they seemed to think their kiez would be safer than anywhere else, but now was not the time for questions.
She squared her shoulders, tugging absently at the folds of her hijab and glancing around her living room. It would be a shame to leave – she was quite fond of her little house. But one must always be ready to set things aside. “Travel light,” her father had said, and they had, fleeing their home to find another in a chilly land that had not always been as welcoming as it had wanted to be. She’d been just a child then; she’d had no frame of reference for the upheavals of the Awakening or the horrors of VITAS, which had taken her mother and older brothers. So they’d travelled light, as survivors do, arriving in Germany just months after the Dragonfall.
Half an hour. She packed some clothes, her prayer rug, a few mementos. She pulled a full backup of her home computer terminal to a memory chip and then scorched the physical drive with a small, carefully contained blast of pure heat. Let the corps try to recover anything from the slag. She opened all the cabinets; others could have whatever they found here now. They probably needed it more than she.
The street outside was quiet, but Berlin itself was not. Sirens and alarms wailed, rotocraft and drones cutting through air acrid with smoke. To her north and west, she could hear the telltale sounds of a firefight. House to house fighting, likely Knight-Errant security forces, pushing their way through, block by block. And suddenly, another sound – the squeal of tires on protesting pavement. A battered, mostly white van hurtled around the corner, its side door sliding open before the brakes were even fully applied. “Get in!” Dietrich ordered.
Once, she could have launched herself and her bags into the van in a matter of seconds. These days, it was a slightly more involved process, but she still flattered herself that she hadn’t held them up long. Dietrich slammed the door behind her, and set himself to stowing her things as Eiger sent the van roaring back into motion. “Sorry about the swearin’ earlier,” he said, and Faida smiled forgivingly. Profanity came as naturally to Dietrich as breathing, and as always, she was charmed by his efforts, unnecessary as they were. “We got here just in time,” he added. “K-E’s setting up checkpoints on all the main streets. They’ll have the whole Bezirk locked down in a few hours at the rate they’re going.”
“So they’ve finally come for the F-State,” Faida mused. “Government too?”
“Yeah.” Dietrich’s lip twisted. “It’s quite the collaborative effort.”
“Have we got an open door?” Eiger asked, addressing neither of them. A response came in the form of a voice Faida had only heard echoed in Dietrich’s aura.
“For now,” Zee replied. “But you won't be able to come back via AlbionStrasse. Looks like you've been cut off.”
Eiger ground her teeth in silence for a moment, then said, “Understood. The return trip will take us a little longer. Eiger out.”
They shot through an intersection, heedless of right of way. “If you're listening in on Knight-Errant, what else do you know, dear?” Faida asked Dietrich quietly.
He shot her a wry look. “Never can put one past you,” he said. “I’ll just say that we know more than most, but not a lot. Enough to know you've got the kind of rep that makes you a target.” She nodded, gripping the seat to compensate as Eiger tore around a corner. As she had suspected.
Ahead of them, through the windscreen, she could see the lowering sky, stained sullen orange by the light of countless fires. It looked like the end of the world. But not the world, she thought; just a world. The world of the Flux State, born in fire on the Night of Rage. Of course it would end the same way. This had always been in the back of people’s minds – that sooner or later the Federal Republic would want the old capital back, that the corps would not abide the free-wheeling, nose-thumbing Flux State forever. But one can know a thing is possible, probable even, and never truly expect to see it happen. It was happening, though, right now, all around them, and the F-State had not been even remotely prepared. Faida was no anarchist herself, but it still seemed to her to be a shame, to see the great experiment fail so completely.
Eiger hissed and slammed the brake; Dietrich and Faida leaned hard into the sudden stop. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Barricade,” she grunted, reaching for her shotgun. “Let me handle this.”
“Like hell,” he retorted. Faida nodded her agreement. Eiger rolled her eyes and they disembarked.
There were perhaps ten of them, a nervous, feral, strung-out looking clutch of metahumans. An orc woman with a shock of bright purple hair stepped forward, eyeing them and the van hungrily. Faida had seen that look before. It was so terribly familiar. The desperate and violent, seizing a wild moment to prey on the desperate and defenseless. She’d seen it before, but this time she wasn’t defenseless. A feeling, like a warm hand on the shoulder, like a gentle kiss on the brow, washed through her, the power of the Great Mother, agreeing and approving. You will be safe, the feeling said.
Eiger raised her shotgun. “Now’s a really bad time for playing highwayman.”
“Perfect time, if you ask me,” the orc responded. She twitched her chin, and her fellows levelled their weapons in return.
“You don’t have to do this,” Faida said, holding up her hands, palms forward. “You can just let us pass.”
“How are you gonna stop us?” the leader replied. “I only see one gun.”
“I’m the only one who needs one,” Eiger said calmly.
That obviously wasn’t quite the response the head woman had expected; she swallowed, and her face hardened. “Last chance before things get ugly.”
“They already are,” Dietrich said. His hands, held loosely at his sides, began to glow faintly. The ganger growled and aimed her gun, her cohorts following suit. Just as the first trigger was pulled, Faida lifted her spread hands over her head, the night air filling with a shimmer of energy, and the hail of bullets that would have riddled their bodies bounced harmlessly to the pavement. She wasn’t defenseless.
“I told you you didn’t have to do this!” She hadn’t intended to raise her voice, but in the stunned silence, it carried.
Intense, trigonometric calculation crossed the gangers’ faces. These three weren’t going to be the easy pickings they’d hoped for. One of them leaned close to the leader, taking to the balls of his feet to whisper something in her ear. Dietrich flexed his fists, sparks dancing. The orc woman swallowed.
She jerked her head, and the gangers nervously dispersed, lugging enough of their barricade aside to allow the van passage. Eiger watched coolly, her shotgun still at the ready. “You should probably clear out of here,” she said, as Dietrich and Faida got back in the van. “Knight-Errant and the army aren’t going stop for barricades. They’re not going stop for you.” As if summoned by her words, an explosion rocked the ground, a new plume of smoke rising from just a block west to join the pall hanging over Berlin. The gangers fled.
The rest of the trip was largely uneventful. They pulled into the low entrance of a disused U-Bahn maintenance tunnel, then down, following a stretch of broken track for about twenty meters. Eiger took Faida’s bags, casually one-handing her way up the ladder in front of them. Dietrich and Faida shared a look, and he grinned. “Youth’s wasted on the young.”
At the top of the ladder, Faida found herself drawn even with an enormous, heavy-jawed canine face. Something told her she should open her third eye, so she met the dogs gaze in the astral.
Fire rested on its head like a crown, and its eyes were lit with a fierce intelligence. This is my place, it seemed to say. My people.
“I know,” she said softly. “Thank you for allowing me in.”
Eiger, hand extended to help her out of the tunnel, scowled briefly in confusion. “Shaman thing?” Faida smiled.
“Yes.” She patted the dog’s head. “Good boy.”
A figure entered the common room, drawn by the sound of their voices. Though Dietrich’s conception of her was obviously going to be idealized, Zee really was a lovely young woman, though at the moment her dark eyes were heavy with exhaustion. She held out a hand. “Nice to finally meet you in person, Faida,” she said.
“And you as well, Zee. Thank you.”
Zee shrugged. “Needed to be done. And just in time, too; we were maybe 25 minutes ahead of K-E. They were not happy to find your place empty.”
The thought of corporate mercenaries breaking down her door with the lion-head doorknocker, tramping through her living room, tossing her bedroom… She swallowed, and sighed. They'd wanted her, and hadn’t found her. That was what mattered.
“Where's Blitz?” Eiger asked.
“Resting. Maliit’s on drone duty for the next few hours.”
“That's not a bad idea,” Dietrich said gently. Zee shrugged again.
“Somebody has to keep an eye on things, Dietrich.”
“Who says that has to be you?”
“I do! What are you gonna do, magick me again?”
“Do I need to?”
They glared hotly at each other, the battlelines of a wordless war drawn as clearly as a map. How dare you, they snarled silently, each to an audience of one. How dare you make me care so much.
Faida wanted to smile at their affectionate outrage – she never thought she’d see Dietrich meet his match, and yet there she was – but the lateness of the hour and the night’s unexpected drama was catching up with her, and she yawned instead. Eiger noticed, and said, “They'll be at this for a while. Let me show me where you'll be staying.”
She led her through a door, and down a short hall, into a storage area filled with stacked crates of various sizes. “Someday we’ll figure out what to do with this stuff,” Eiger said vaguely. In the corner there was a recessed door, which opened to a narrow staircase, which led to a small studio flat - a bed tucked behind a half wall, a little kitchette and sitting area, a tiny bathroom. And like a breath of fragrance on an old love letter, like the faint heat of stirred embers, Faida knew. “This was Paul’s,” she murmured.
“Yeah,” Eiger said quietly. “You don’t mind?”
“Not at all. Thank you again, Eiger.”
Eiger nodded, dropping the bags she’d seemed to have forgotten she was carrying beside the door. Wordlessly, she took her leave.
There was a window on the opposite wall, and through the stiff, utilitarian curtains, Faida could see down into the street below. It was lit not merely with streetlamps and neon, but with droneborne lighting rigs. A group of young metahumans, mostly male, were hauling construction materials past her vantage point. Another barricade, it seemed, and one of much sturdier stuff than the one they had encountered early. She let herself watch for a moment, taking in a sense of the place. There was fear in the air, yes, but it was a fear being channeled like an irrigation stream. The Kreuzbasar hummed quietly with uncertainty and defiance. She wasn’t sure they really believed they were safer here, but they were putting on a brave face nonetheless.
She let the curtain drop, opened her bag, withdrew her prayer rug, positioned it just so. Taking off her shoes, she sank down upon it, closing her eyes. What a change the past few hours had wrought for her, but she liked to think she wasn’t yet too old to adapt. “Travel light,” her father had said, “and you’ll always land on your feet.”
Faida first appears here: https://archiveofourown.org/works/14659986
Chapter 13: The Baroness's Court
Everything had gone perfectly. The joint operation of the Federal Republic of Germany and their corporate allies had easily cracked the laughable defenses of the Flux State. Berlin was wide open, and it would only be a matter of time before the city was back where it belonged – under the control of the rational. Colonel Hans Krampbauer looked over the maps before him with pleasure; it had only been two weeks, and already their gains had been impressive. The green zones were getting bigger every day, including most of his old stomping grounds in Kreuzberg.
He was Berlin born and bred, though his family had fled the madness of the Night of Rage and its aftermath, and him with only a few months left before his Abitur. It felt right to come back like this, wrenching the city of his and his father’s youth back from the anarchist scum who’d turned it into a lawless hellhole for the better part of two decades. Yes, all that green, pushing against the yellow and red, was good.
And then there was the spot of blue.
It marked out a small kiez on the eastern end of Kreuzberg, tagged with the words “Kreuzbasar Autonomous Zone”. What the hell did that mean? No one seemed to know; he’d gotten the brush off from his superiors and vague shrugs from his peers. “I think it’s an S-K thing,” was the most useful insight he’d gotten thus far. But S-K had made it quite clear their primary interest was with Templehof. What could the corp want with this tiny slice of Kreuzberg?
He shouldn’t ask. One should never ask, especially not when it involved Saeder-Krupp. Not if one had hopes of dying a natural death. Though someone with a very dark sense of humor might make the case that being eaten by a dragon was actually extremely natural. Still, the more they gained, the more that little blue spot irritated him. Autonomous? What made it autonomous? WHO made it autonomous? He had to know.
So he’d go find out. Quietly, of course, taking only a few of his most discreet aides.
They wove through the wrecked streets, Krampbauer noting with displeasure that most of the damage seemed to pre-date the current hostilities. “Freedom,” he snorted quietly. “Freedom to let everything go to shit.” The sergeant driving the Enok shrugged, her eyes fixed on some point in the middle distance, the rigged link between her brain and the vehicle doing most of the work.
A ragged mob of gangers tried to overtake them about a half kilometer from their destination; the sergeant dispatched them calmly with the side-mounted minigun. It was the third time on the way that had happened, and Krampbauer sneered. The mighty Flux State, it seemed, was nothing more than an endless turf war. They should have done this years ago.
Then, something different. The street narrowed up ahead, deadending into a surprisingly well-constructed barricade. Krampbauer and two of his officers disembarked, taking in the strange sight carefully. Past the fortification, they could see streets curiously free of garbage piles; nearly all of the street lamps appeared to be in working order. At the gate in the barricade’s center stood a trio of armed young men, two humans and an orc. These were no lean and wild-eyed gangers, though they certainly carried themselves like they knew what to do with those guns. “State your business,” said one.
“Who’s in charge here?” Krampbauer demanded.
“Nobody,” grunted the orc. The taller human shot him a quelling look.
“You probably want to speak to the Baroness,” he said. “She said we’d be getting visitors like you. Give us a moment.” He took a step away, and spoke into his comm, then resumed his spot. “She’ll be here shortly.”
Krampbauer wanted to sputter his confusion and injured pride, but held his tongue. The guards, having summoned their ‘Baroness’, gave them as much attention as they did the blown food wrappers at their feet. “She still get pissed off when you call her Auntie?” the other, darker human asked. The first grinned.
“Oh yeah. It’s hilarious. And it cracks Uncle D up, which just makes it better.”
“You guys wanna get a drink after this?” the orc asked.
“Nah," said the first. "Silke and I got plans.”
“Silke and I got plans,” he echoed mockingly. “Shoulda known.”
“Hey, you know what? Blow me.”
“Why?” teased the other human. “You’ve got a ~girlfriend~ for that.” The first one made an affronted face, which seemed to please the others. “I’m still single. And I could use a drink after being stuck here with Loverboy. I’ll go with you, Peter.”
There was movement up the street; someone was approaching in the rapid pace of the irritated. Whatever old Teutonic images the term ‘Baroness’ had brought to Krampbauer’s mind, they did not match this woman in the slightest. She was short, maybe 160 centimeters at most, the single eyelids of her dark eyes marking her as…Chinese? Yes, definitely Han Chinese. Her hair was bleached platinum white, fading to lavender at the ends, and shaved away from the datajack on her right temple. She wore plain dark jeans and a faded black tank top, its neckline scooped low enough to reveal a striking tattoo. Her retinue was no more traditional – a huge brown dog whose shoulders came to her waist and a towering troll woman toting a milspec shotgun.
“What is it, Alex?” she snapped. She may not have looked German, but she sounded it.
“Company,” he said, jerking his head towards Krampbauer and his flanking lieutenants. She crossed her arms over her chest, sizing him up coolly.
“Colonel, right?” She waved a hand vaguely towards the rank insignia on his sleeve.
“What can I do for you, Herr Colonel?”
He mimicked her stance, folding his arms, taking her measure through narrowed eyes. Undeniably not a ganger. And Baroness? No self-respecting anarchist would go around calling themselves that. Which meant… His lip curled. Shadowrunners were supposed to remember their place, as the quiet, disposable tools of those who needed them.
“Who the hell are you?”
“You can call me Zee. And to answer your next question, yes, this is my kiez.”
“And how do you make that claim? The Flux State is failing. Possession doesn’t equal ownership anymore.”
“It was given to me as payment for services rendered.”
An incredulous laugh threatened in his throat. “Rendered to whom?”
The laugh made good. “Do you expect me to believe that?” he snorted mirthlessly. He almost had to respect the balls it took to say that with a straight face.
And her face remained completely straight. She shrugged. “You don’t have to. This is my manor, to be administered in the manner of my choosing. And I chose to let it run itself. This place is officially none of your business, so if I were you, I’d get in your vehicle and go back to where you’re wanted.” The troll woman shifted her shoulders casually, and the dog woofed softly. It almost looked like a puff of smoke escaped its big jaws.
He stared at them, disbelieving. Of all the possible explanations for the spot of blue on his maps, this was perhaps the farthest from his comprehension. Was she telling the truth? Was she really in the orbit of the Golden Wyrm? If that was the case, asking too many questions really could end in a very natural death. He swallowed.
“You’re still here, Colonel.”
Not for long. He turned sharply and strode back to the Enok, his nervous aides behind him. He knew his superiors wouldn’t like it, but this bore watching. No questions, just observation. A woman like that could be dangerous, and dangerous things couldn’t be ignored.
Chapter 14: R&R
It started with Eiger cornering Dietrich in the kitchen. “We need to talk,” she said. Translation, said the thinness of her lips: I’m going to talk and you’re going to listen. Never one to stir the pot needlessly (needfully was an entirely different matter, of course), Dietrich let her.
“Zee’s a mess,” Eiger said frankly.
“The past couple weeks have been rough,” he agreed.
“She’s stretched too thin.”
For all her protestations of not being in charge of anything, Zee hadn’t been able to help herself. The joint government/corporate force had easily swept through most of the western half of the city, and even though the Kreuzbasar’s boundaries had been tested, they had held. But people were scared. Zee had been working overtime with Altuğ, Samuel, and the Mettbach boys to keep food and supplies moving. And as other parts of the city fell, refugees had trickled in, mostly friends and family of Kreuzbasar residents. But if/when news of the Kreuzbasar’s special status spread, that trickle might become a flood, and then they’d all have to make some hard choices.
“She needs some R&R, Dietrich. She’s trying to do all this organizing here in the kiez AND still keep us in business. And she’s going to burn out. So for the good of the crew, for our overall morale, for our effectiveness on the job... I need you to take her someplace nice, show her a good time and then screw her brains out."
Dietrich considered that. "Thought for a second you were gonna ask me to do something unpleasant."
“I don’t care how you go about it, and I definitely don’t need an after-action report, but that’s all I’ve got at this point.”
He wanted to snicker at ‘after-action’, but refrained. Eiger was right – Zee desperately needed some down time, and somebody was going to have force her to take it. “She’s only going to go for it if she feels sure things are square on this end,” he pointed out.
“Leave that to me. You’ve got your job and I’ve got mine.”
This would require strategy, Dietrich realized. So he reflected on the problem, considered his options, developed a game plan, made a few calls, and cashed in a couple of favors. By the time he had worked out the logistics, he was fairly pleased with himself. Three days later, he packed a few necessities in a messenger bag, and waylaid Zee as she bustled through the common, headed for the tech cave.
“Hold up, love,” he said, catching her arm.
“I’m sorry, Dietrich, I don’t really have time-”
“Actually, you do.”
Her eyebrows lifted.
“Now, you can consider what’s about to happen a romantic gesture, a practical attempt to help out the team, or a kidnapping. It’s up to you.”
“Dietrich,” she said slowly, twisting her arm to free herself from his grasp, “what are you talking about?”
“Whatever you think you absolutely have to do tonight, you don’t. You’re coming with me.”
“Dietrich! I can’t-”
“Yes, you can. You need a break, love, and I’m going to make sure you take one. So come on.” He started to herd her back towards the store front and the exit.
“Where are we even going?"
Her eyes said irritation, her mouth said displeasure, and her shoulders said suspicion, but she herself said nothing as he bundled her onto the U-Bahn. Fortunately, there would be no checkpoints between them and their first destination, and even if there were, that would prove only a brief inconvenience. From the station and around the corner, halfway down the block, they entered a little hole in the wall club Konrad had tipped him off to. The opening act was already midway through their set.
Zee shot him a skeptical look. “A punk show? This is your romantic gesture slash team building slash kidnapping?”
“There’s a method to my madness, Schatz."
“It’s just very you, that’s all.”
“Thank you. Want a drink?”
It was very him, and he knew it, but there was a reason he’d brought her here. The main act, a group who called themselves Der Riss, was on in a few minutes. He’d met their bassist and front man at Konrad’s. They were the real deal, and he had a feeling Zee needed what they had to offer.
Midway through the first song, her head was already unconsciously bobbing along with the music. By the third, she’d rushed the stage.
Dietrich leaned against the back wall, smiling and nursing a beer. He personally was getting a little old for such physical exuberance, but he didn’t need to be in the thick of it anymore to understand it. He could see it; he’d always been able to, ever since he was a kid. People needed to feel free, especially now, they needed to shout and scream and surrender themselves. They needed to hear words that reminded them they were alive. They needed to give voice to their hope and their anger, their joy and their fury. And they needed to do it together.
The air throbbed with the music, the individual auras of everyone in the packed space blending and pulsing like a heartbeat. Konrad hadn’t been kidding; these guys were really good. He could feel a warm counterpoint setting up in his chest, a rumble of approval that was not entirely his own. The Dragonslayer liked what He heard too.
He could tell He also liked what they were looking at – Zee, near the stage, her eyes bright and her fists raised. He closed his eyes, then opened them, and opened them again, gazing at her in the astral. He knew she glowed in his perception because of how he felt about her, but it wasn’t just that. She glowed because she had power, even if she didn’t entirely know it yet. Her strength of will, her force of character, her brilliant mind all shone around her like a corona. And near her heart, he could see what looked like a spring, slowly unwinding. After weeks of tensions ratcheting her ever tighter, she’d needed this. Even if punk wasn’t necessarily her first choice in musical genre (she did love her shitty synthwave), Dietrich couldn’t think of anyone whose day wouldn’t be at least marginally improved by some guitar rage. Besides, Der Riss’s lead was a way better singer than Dietrich could ever claim to be. The kid could actually carry a tune. It was impressive.
“Okay, okay,” Zee said, weaving her way back to him when the band took a break. She swiped the bottle from his hand and drained it in a single pull. “You win this round. They’re pretty fantastic."
“I’d heard good things,” he said. “You ready to bounce?”
“Where are we going now?”
“That’d ruin the surprise, wouldn’t it?”
This time, they headed for the heart of the city, toward the U-Hausvogteiplatz. Zee looked at the station map with a raised eyebrow. “Right under the corps’ noses, huh?”
“Where else would you rather be?”
“Hey, I don’t mind dodging K-E if you don’t.”
They didn’t have to – the corps had always had their tightest grip in the city center, and for all the upheaval in the rest of Berlin, the powers that be that gone to a great deal of trouble to keep it at arm’s length from themselves. Dietrich had a feeling they wouldn't be able to forever, but for now he could turn their enforced tranquility to his advantage.
Rising before them like an alter to luxury, the Sofitel Hotel glittered amongst the neon and glass. Dietrich took Zee’s hand. “Act natural.”
This was the part of the plan he had slightly less confidence in, mainly because this was the part of the plan he had trusted to Blitz. But he comforted himself that Blitz knew the consequences for letting him down. He and Zee marched through the lobby, past the dumbfounded and confused eyes of the staff, who obviously knew in their officious hearts that the rumpled, heavily tattooed bald guy and the in-no-way corporate decker probably did not belong here. In fact, there was no way they could belong there. But they could not quite figure out how to say so. At the bank of elevators along the rear of the lobby, Dietrich reached into his pocket, and withdrew a key card. The moment of truth.
The reader pinged pleasantly, and the elevator doors opened. Good boy, Blitz, he thought.
“How did you-”
“Blitz did something you don't need to know about, and this was the price of my silence.”
“I see.” She looked like she wanted to pursue that, but didn't, choosing instead to lean against the wall. There were questions in her eyes, but she apparently given up on getting any straight answers out of him.
The elevator stopped at the top floor, and Dietrich led her down the hall to a door the key card opened. The lights in the main room of the suite clicked on as the door opened, casting everything in a warm, welcoming amber glow. Zee looked around, taking in the luxe furnishings. Her eyebrows lifted in a silent question. “Turns out there's a VP of Accounting at Shiawase who didn't do a very good job securing the account he was depositing his embezzlements into. So he’s paying for this.” He crossed to the kitchenette, opening a cabinet with a flourish. “Including the booze.”
Zee grinned. “So this was the rest of your surprise?"
“Part of it. Make yourself at home, love.”
And now for the final piece. He left her pouring herself a glass of wine, gazing out the wide windows onto the magnificent view of Berlin below, and opened the bedroom door, dropping off the messenger bag by the generously sized bed. The only other fixture of note was the thing he’d come for, the enormous garden-style bathtub. It was easily two and a half meters across, made of black marble, and ringed with real wax candles. He lit them with a tiny burst of flame and began to fill the tub. It had a quick fill/drain system, so it was already more than halfway there when Zee, drawn by the sound of running water, entered the room just as he dropped a couple of bath fizzies in the rising water. The scent of vanilla and lavender filled the air. “Oh wow,” she said softly.
“I remember you sayin’ something about how it's a shame we don't a bathtub back at the safehouse. Hope this’ll do.”
“Oh wow,” she repeated, eyes fixed on the water. She absently set down her wine glass and pulled her shirt over her head, still staring. She stripped in the vague manner of one completely absorbed by something else, and slipped into the water.
She leaned her head back with a sigh, the kind if sigh any right-minded person wants to hear their lover make. Dietrich smiled. He topped off her wine glass and handed it to her. She took a sip, her pleasure evident, then looked up at him from her tiptilt angle. “You gonna join me or what?” He grinned.
“So you're willing to share?”
“Got a lot of room here. Wouldn't want to waste it.”
“Can't have that.”
He undressed, and eased into the tub beside her. The water was perfect, just hot enough for optimal relaxation without being blistering. But considering how much the suite was costing their friend at Shiawase, it had better be perfect. Zee shifted to settle herself between his legs, her back to his chest. “Watch where you’re sittin’, Schatz,” he murmured.
“Watch where you put that thing,” she retorted.
“Now that's something I don't hear from you often.”
She laughed, resting her head against his and taking another drink of wine. “This is nice, Dietrich.”
“That was the idea.”
They soaked in comfortable silence, the candles slowly burning down. Her breathing was deep and regular, and he was fairly sure her eyes were closed. He kissed her temple. “You waterlogged yet?”
“Shall we see what that bed’s about, then?”
She let him dry her off with one of the massive fluffy towels, and slid between the crisp sheets with a dreamy expression on her face. He lay beside her, and she rolled against his chest, settling her face into the hollow of his throat. He stroked her damp hair, luxuriating in the feeling of her skin against his.
"I’ve got bad news,” she slurred softly.
“If you were hoping you’d get some action tonight, I'm not sure that's gonna happen.”
He smiled. “That's okay, love.”
“Okay,” she breathed. He kissed her hair gently.
"Good night, Xiuzhen.”
He woke up a few hours later as the sun was rising, hit the automated blinds and rolled back over. Zee still slept, and continued to, even after he finally got up. He threw on one of the ridiculously soft robes (they would need to steal those later), ordered room service, and kicked back to read the book he’d stashed in his bag. It was an old 20th century spy story, about the first time Berlin had been divided. He was on page 170 when he finally heard movement in the bedroom.
“Oh God, how long have I been asleep?” Zee asked, stretching.
He consulted the bedside clock. “Bout…twelve hours.”
“Shit.” She scrubbed her eyes. “Guess I needed it, huh?”
“Yeah, you did.”
“So that’s what this was all about?”
“Basically. Eiger told me I needed to get you some R&R. Her exact words were to take you somewhere nice, show you a good time, and screw your brains out.”
“You didn’t do any of that. Except for this place. This is better than nice.” Her brow knit with confused disappointment. “Wait, so does that mean you’re not going to screw my brains out?”
He grinned, sliding back under the covers. “I just wanted to make sure you were well rested.”
Chapter 15: The Red-Haired Disaster
“It’s not fair, chief!” Blitz protested. Zee simply looked at him, in thoughtful, disquieting silence. “What?”
“Well, if you were still thinking life is fair after all this time, I didn’t want to be the one to disabuse you of that.”
“Ha ha.” He crossed his arms glumly. “Seriously though. He wouldn’t even know you if not for me!”
“I’m not sure that’s the ringing endorsement you think it is, Blitz.”
He glared, casting a baleful eye on her terminal screen, and the message that had roused his ire, still displayed on it.
I know that you and I had most sincerely wished to never have any sort of contact ever again, but I find myself in need of your services. After the termination of my business relationship with Herr Meat Grinder, I gained tertiary access to certain accounts that I had hoped to hold in trust for my grandchildren. However, given the current state of affairs here in Berlin, I believe it prudent to make that access more direct. To accomplish that, I will require the services of a competent decker. Contact me via direct reply to this message if you are interested; I can offer you a 7% finder’s fee on all monies successfully transferred.
P.S. Do not involve the Red-Haired Disaster in this if at all possible.
“The Red-Haired Disaster? Seriously? We’re still going with that? If it wasn’t for me, he’d have been double crossed by Meat Grinder and wouldn’t even have all this money to steal for his grandkids!”
“Blitz,” Zee said, summoning patience from somewhere (she wasn’t sure where), “try to look at it from his perspective: Yes, you uncovered Grinder’s double cross…but you also nearly got him and me killed. That tends to stick better in the memory sometimes.”
“Which also is not fair!” He looked at her beseechingly. “You don’t think I’m a disaster, do you?”
“You’re not a disaster, Blitz,” she replied. He looked vindicated for a moment; then she continued. “I mean, you’re a good decker, but as a person? You’re a fucking catastrophe on two legs.”
He opened his mouth to object, then closed it. “You think I’m a good decker?”
Of course that had been the part he caught. She sighed. “Yes. Blitz, I do. You think you’d still have a place in this crew if you weren’t?”
He preened slightly, brushing some lint off his chest. “Maybe you keep me around for my devastating good looks and fashion sense.”
“We both know that’s not true.”
“Still, uh…” He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “It’s nice to know…I mean, it means a lot to hear that from you.”
She crossed her arms, her eyebrows elevated suspiciously. “Are we gonna hug now?” He made a face at her.
“Not if you’re gonna be like that.”
She let herself smile. “So I guess that means you think I’m a good decker too?”
“Good? Chief, you’re amazing. There’s nova-hot, and then there’s you.” He shrugged. “You’re good enough you don’t even have to brag.” He cast a sidelong glance at the screen, and Hasenkamp’s message. “So, you gonna tell him you’ll keep me far, far away?”
“If Hasenkamp wants my services, he does not get to dictate the terms by which he receives them. That means I use my crew the way I deem necessary, and he can deal with it.” Blitz glowed with affirmation; she poked a finger hard at his sternum. “But frag this up and I will let Dante use you as a chewtoy.”
His expression soured. “Thanks.”
“See, Blitz,” she said, patting his arm, “the way I see it is that nobody had ever bothered to consistently enforce boundaries and consequences with you. I think my methods are showing results.”
“You just called me a catastrophe.”
“You’re a work in progress.”
Chapter 16: Real Turkish Coffee
He’d expected guards. Maybe not quite so many, or so well armed, but their presence was not a shock. And he’d been expecting fortifications, though perhaps not so formidable. But kieze had always defended themselves however they could, so this too was not unanticipated.
The hellhound had been a surprise, though.
They’d snapped him up fast – not that he’d been trying to avoid detection, having reached his goal. But they’d still noticed the perimeter breach almost instantly (probably the hellhound), and descended on him in force. He’d told them, hands up, fingers spread, who he wanted to see, and they’d exchanged…eye rolls? They’d rolled their eyes at the mention of her name, and then one of them threw a bag over his head. There was muffled conversation, and his arms were seized, feet catching on the rough pavement as he was dragged along.
Towards the smell of soykaf.
A door was opened, more dragging, and then another door, and he was thrust into a hard seat.
“Nicolae. Seriously. You black-bagged him?”
A voice muttered defensively about security.
“Like he can’t tell he’s in a coffee shop.” The bag was whipped from his head.
He blinked hard against the light, and when his eyes could focus, they fixed on the person standing opposite him. Oh, good. It was her. Same bleached hair, same dark eyes framed by thick swoops of cats-eye eyeliner (she was really committed to that look). Zee cocked her head. “I know you.”
“Quorin,” he said. “From Gesundbrunnen.”
“Right,” she said slowly. “What are you doing here, Quorin?”
“Got a proposition for you,” he said, trying to muster up some dignity, as if he had any hand at all in this transaction.
She lifted an eyebrow, then looked past him. “Altuğ.” Quorin started – he hadn’t even realized the man was behind him. That did not reflect well, he thought sourly, glancing over his shoulder at the tall Turk with salt and pepper hair and sarcastic eyes. “Will you get our guest a drink? The real stuff.” The Turk said nothing, and she glared at him. She was a champion glarer. “I’m good for it, you tight bastard.” His lips twisted humorously, and he was gone.
They were in a storage room, it seemed, and Zee grabbed a wobbly café table from the corner and set it in front of him, pulling up another chair for herself. “How are things in Gesundbrunnen?”
“Not great,” he said honestly. “Surfturf – or what’s left of it – has been trying to raid our supplies. They’re feeling squeezed. We all are.”
She nodded. “Rammbock tried to…open negotiations last month. It didn’t go well for them.”
“Must be nice. But then, I’ve heard things about this kiez, since the invasion. And about you. Baroness.”
Her face was unreadable. “Whatever you’ve heard, some of it’s true. Most of it isn’t.”
The door opened, and Altuğ returned, bearing a very small, surprisingly dainty coffee cup and saucer. Quorin raised skeptical eyebrows at the painted flowers on the cup’s rim, and at the slightly frothy liquid it contained. It smelled like soykaf.
“Make sure to swirl it as you drink,” the Turk instructed. Quorin gave the cup an experimental jostle.
No, he realized, soykaf was supposed to smell like this.
The coffee poured over his tongue, soft as satin, rich as velvet. It was smooth and earthy, a crisp acidity offset by a faint sweetness, fruity with a kiss of bitterness. It felt like someone had opened the top of his skull and poured sunshine into his head. He wondered if this was what a religious experience was like.
“So what’s this about a proposition, Quorin?” Zee asked. He’d almost forgotten she was there. Her face was still impassive, but he thought he saw a smirk play at her lips for an instant. She’d done this on purpose.
He set down his cup. “There was a block of squats near one of our tunnel entrances.”
“Corp called PMK seized it, kicked everybody out, knocked it down.”
“Pinzer-Merke-Klepper,” Altuğ supplied. “A German subsidiary of Mitsuhama.”
“Yeah. So me and the rest of the Rabengeister are barely keeping it together in Gesundbrunnen, and all these refugees start turning up.”
Zee nodded. “Been a lot of that lately.”
“There’s an upside. PMK tore down the old buildings to put up new corporate housing for their wageslaves.”
“How’s that an upside?”
“We’ve been stealin’ stuff,” Quorin shrugged. “Just little things, here and there. But we found out they’re going to be bringing in solar panels for the buildings next week. That’s a bigger score than we can manage, but we could really use those panels. Trying to tap the grid’s getting way too unreliable these days, and without our grow lights, we’re fragged.”
“What you’re saying is you need help.”
Quorin swirled his coffee again and took another drink. Still just as good. “Yeah. I can’t promise you any payment other than whatever you can take other than the panels, but…” He took a chance, and met her eyes. “We’ve got to take care of our people. I figured you’d get it.”
She had a world class poker face, still as glass. He held his breath. Then she nodded. “Yeah, I get it. Let’s talk specifics.”