CONTENT: Anxiety, trauma, dissociation, death, suicidal ideation
Aubrey's day goes from bad to worse. Decisions are made. Crises are had. The clock ticks ever closer to midnight. While the NeoScum reckon with unfathomable enemies in Los Angeles, Aubrey finally caves to the mounting pressure to turn and face the demons that have been chasing her for so long.
Tonight is the night where everything changes, forever.
(Part five of Lost In Transit.)
Once you're sure you can convincingly argue that you haven't been crying, you manage to pick yourself up off the ground and stumble back into the conference hall. You re-join Dinesh at your observation point and answer with only a curt nod when he asks if you're okay. It's all you can offer.
You wanted answers and you only came away with more questions.
What did they do to you? If not to you, all of you, then to Zenith? Because this has to be because of Legacy. It has to be. Why else would they know? Why would they bother saying that?
Zenith's not... sick. Is ze? You didn't ask. Ze didn't say. You'd assume not, based on what you've seen of hir, but it's not like you offered up your known medical history, either, and people tell you you don't "look ill" all the time. Is that it? Is that them? This whole time, you've been blaming your chronic pain and fatigue on fibro and PTSD and all the rest. What if the root cause is something else? Something Legacy did to you that you never knew about?
You've spent a lot of time in your life burdened with the feeling that your body is something uncomfortable and alien; something hostile to your very presence inhabiting it. You thought you were getting over it. You thought you were starting to move forward.
Like so many other things lately, that feeling seems to want to prove itself inescapable.
Dinesh either doesn't notice how despondent you are for the rest of the day or just doesn't know how to bring it up. If it were Kaveh or Iloya you were paired with they'd know something was wrong by now. You make a point of avoiding them. That's a series of questions you don't know how you're going to answer yet. You'd rather not have to answer them at all.
"Aubrey?" Kaveh's voice on your comm cutting through your thoughts almost gives you a heart attack. For a second, you think that he knows–that he saw you in the courtyard, or he's just that good at sensing when you're stressed, or–
"Reading," you answer reflexively.
"Can you and Dinesh come over to the west wing? Someone's been screwing with the locks on some of the doors over here."
"What about our post?"
"Someone's going to cover for you." So he wants you, specifically, but he doesn’t want to split the two of you up. Which means he's legitimately concerned. Well, you wanted a distraction, didn't you?
"Sure. We'll be right over."
"Thanks. See you in a minute." The call cuts and you tap Dinesh on the shoulder.
"Hey. We're wanted over at the east wing." The automatic alert appears in your AR feed a second later, before he has time to question the authenticity of the request. "Apparently someone's been fucking with some locks over there and they want us to take a look."
"They want you to take a look."
"Yes." You laugh. Hopefully it doesn’t sound as hollow as it feels. "Look, someone's coming over to cover for us. C'mon. If anything kicks off over there, I don't wanna miss it."
You start to weave your way through the crowds of people milling about, trying to steel yourself for the inevitable run-in with Kaveh that's on your horizon. Come the fuck on. You've put on a front for him so many times before. You can do this.
You have to do this.
The alternative is unthinkable.
You try to shake all thoughts about Zenith and Legacy and what's happening on the other side of the UCAS out of your head and concentrate on what's going on around you instead. The building is another one of Portland-Augusta’s hastily-constructed monolithic superstructures, all concrete and steel and glass, and it feels no more welcoming once you’re inside. With its blank walls, high ceilings and apparent lack of any ledges or alcoves or anywhere else someone could reasonably conceal themself–remember, you’ve checked–your culprit is probably hiding in plain sight. You need timestamps on the hack attempts. You file it away, mental note to self #1, first thing to check when you get there.
You hope you're wearing the most neutral expression you have when Kaveh comes into view. He's standing beside a big set of utility doors with Sissel, and raises a hand slightly in greeting as you approach.
"Can you take a look at this?" he asks once you're within earshot, pointing at the digital lock on the wall next to the doorframe. "I know we have the right codes to get in, but..."
"Right." He hasn't said anything yet, which bodes well. You lean in towards the lock to get a better look at it. There's a little warning sign flashing on the screen with an "incorrect passcode" error. On inspection of the casing, it doesn't look like it's been tampered with; it's solid metal that needs proprietary tools or significant brute force to do noticeable damage. "They definitely didn't give us the manuals for these, did they?"
"Then I need physical access. Anyone got anything I could pull this casing off with?" Your request is met with silence. "...Okay, I guess this is how we're doing it."
You hoist your sleeve up and one of your wrist blades whips out from its place tucked inside your arm. After a minute spent fighting to wedge it in the barely-visible seam between two of the metal panels, the casing pops open like a clam and you're able to peel it away to expose the underlying circuitry.
"They'll have our asses for this," Kaveh chides, as you reach for the datajack in the back of your neck.
"Hey, you're the one who called me. I'm just doing my job." There's the vaguely uncomfortable zzzzipping sensation as the datajack winds out, and you have to bend a few pins in the lock’s circuits to get it to connect properly, but it's workable. You test the connection and then slip into the security matrix.
You have to fend off the IC that greet you at the door, and someone's probably going to be mad at you for this, too, but you've gotten away with much worse. The organisers should've fucking gotten you comprehensive access if they didn't want you to have to fudge it like this. Pulling the most recent set of input attempts only takes a few seconds once you're done swatting the IC away.
"The last attempt was... about fifteen minutes ago. Six incorrect passwords." You glance back up at Kaveh. "You said there were others that had been messed with?"
"Yeah, a few of the other access doors like this." Following the security network through the Matrix, it's easy to locate them. Much like this one, they all have a handful of seemingly random password entries before having been abandoned.
"Well, they didn't get into any of them. I don't think they expected to get into any of them. The numbers were random–they were doing this by hand." You jack out, pull the cord and wind it back into its port. "They're fucking with us. This was a distraction."
"Shit. Okay, let me–"
Even from the other side of the building, these big, open halls carry the echoes of the gunshot loud and clear.
Fuck. Shit. Fuck shit fuckfuckfuck. You, Dinesh, Kaveh, Sissel, you're all running within a split second without a single word exchanged as heads whip around in the direction of the noise. Your comms are lighting up already, everyone checking in to make sure it’s not one of you who took (or fired) that bullet before the line becomes a flurry of agitated conversation. You get the idea: everyone out of the goddamn building.
"Aubrey, go see what the fuck's happening," Kaveh yells, peeling off towards the south exit of the building with Sissel. "Look for Ami. Dinesh, on us. We need to manage these crowds."
You signal back an affirmative at him and after a brief battle through the onslaught of incoming foot traffic as people start to scramble for the exits, you're out and bolting for the east wing as fast as your legs will take you.
It's not hard to find the crime scene. You can see the splatter of candy-red blood on the pristine marble tile before you turn the corner into the atrium where the lifeless body of a human man in an expensive-looking purple suit lies with a hole blasted clean through his skull. Ami is kneeling beside the body. The area has already been vacated. Nobody needed to be told to leave after seeing that, you guess. There are a couple of other guards there, but it's clear everyone knows that any attempts to revive him would be a complete waste of time, even by magical means.
"Who am I looking for and where did they go?" you bark. Ami looks up at you and points down a corridor to your left.
"That way. Human, brown hair, maybe 30ish, dressed like a janitor. Might have cyberware. Armed and willing to use it. Izak and Ha-Yun went after him." That's all you need. You're off again, sprinting down the corridor, boots thumping against the tile. This is what you need: not the agonising crawl of watching clocks tick and waiting on the unknown, but the adrenaline-fuelled urgency of a situation where you can make a real difference.
This is what you were made for. To hunt.
Like how so many people like you have hunted the very same people whose safety you've been deathly afraid for all week.
Where's the line?
The revelation takes all the momentum out of your pace and you drift to a slow halt in the middle of the empty corridor.
What makes the person you're pursuing any different from Zenith? Or Pox? Or Dak, or the wizard? It's the same gig. You're just getting paid to chase this one down.
Would you hunt them down, too, if it paid your bills?
What makes you any different from any of the security forces that have put their lives in jeopardy?
You wouldn't kill them, you immediately tell yourself. No. Probably not. But you're not above dislocated joints, broken bones, snapped tendons and burnt-out cyberware.
And your kill count under Zodiac, regardless of how you want to justify it, is greater than zero. Death is not off the cards.
It's not like you don't know that your job is messed up. You know a little too well that it is. But it's safe, and it's all you have, and turning a blind eye to the unpleasant truths is easier when everyone around you is doing the same thing.
Imagine if this was someone you knew, though. Because it just as easily could be. For all your worrying over Zenith’s life, it could have been that someone like you, with a different insignia stamped on their armour, gunned hir down like you were so scared would happen.
You’re just following orders. Yes. Yes, you are. But you’re not a captive child anymore.
All these jobs you do, all these events and corporations you work for; the only ties you have to them are money and contractual obligation. Is what they do behind closed doors any more virtuous than the people you've brutalised?
Who are you protecting?
How much longer can you keep fucking kidding yourself?
"Aubrey, where are you?" Kaveh's voice buzzes in your head, interrupting your second existential crisis of the day.
"I–east wing. I found the casualty, but I lost the perp. Ami said Izak and Ha-Yun went after him."
Ha-Yun’s voice interjects: “I lost them both. We were trying to pincer him, but he must have slipped away. Izak?” No response. “Izak, are you there?”
Still nothing. Because your day needed to get worse.
“Keep looking for him,” Kaveh tells Ha-Yun. “Aubrey, can you get out here? People are panicking, we need crowd control."
It wouldn't be out of character for you to argue; you have a track record that you're proud of when it comes to apprehending targets. If nothing else, you should be concerned for Izak, and Ha-Yun shouldn’t be doing this alone.
But today, you turn around and start jogging back towards the south entrance of the building.
Kaveh was right. It's chaos out here. You can see some people down past the plaza pooling at the entrance to the metro station that you know will have closed its gates. Others are trying to flee to their personal vehicles, and are rapidly overwhelming a cohort of your colleagues who are no doubt doing their absolute best to explain why they can't let anyone leave yet.
Kaveh, Dinesh and Sissel are impossible to miss, each standing atop big, ornamental stone spheres, and yet only a fraction of the crowd seem to actually be paying attention to them. Attendees are still pacing back and forth on the plateau the doors lead out to. You can hear the angry and indignant ones raving about how their personal security teams could have apprehended the culprit before they could even pull the trigger, how useless you are, how the organisers should have sprung for one of the big-name security corps and not "wet-blanket locals".
Fuck you, too. Fucking asshat.
Shouting and clapping your hands together proves to be a miserably ineffective way of getting anyone’s attention. After a few unsuccessful attempts to shepherd everyone away, you’re about ready to fire a round of your own into the air just to get them to fucking listen. (Don’t do that. It’ll make things worse.) Kaveh, Dinesh and Sissel have spotted you at this point, though, and descend from their boulders to come to your assistance. The combined presence of all four of you as a unit is apparently enough to convince the last stragglers to let themselves be herded down to the plaza.
The rest of the team has managed to coax everyone away from the exit routes and formed a perimeter. Above the incessant noise of the chattering crowd and the ongoing exchanges over comms, you can hear sirens somewhere in the distance.
“Has anyone heard from Izak?” Kaveh asks, to a chorus of mildly noise-distorted nos. “Ha-Yun?” There’s several seconds of tense silence, but then Ha-Yun’s breathless voice bursts out.
“I think they’re on the roof,” ze says, the echoing thudding of sprinting feet audible in the background. “I don’t know how they got up there, but–”
The rest of zir sentence is drowned out by a string of gunshots from somewhere above you.
Some people duck. Those who had their backs to the convention centre whip around. You can feel the energy in the air of the hair trigger that every member of your team is resting on.
One figure comes into view on the roof. Then two. You already know who they are, but your stomach drops anyway when you zoom in with your ocular.
Izak is backed against the edge of the building. Pointing a bulky pistol at him is a human in a bloodied jumpsuit–gunshot to the arm, nonlethal–and there's nowhere left to run.
"Izak!" The scream is so raw it burns your throat as you launch yourself back across the plaza. You shouldn't have left him alone. You shouldn't have left him alone. You shouldn't–
You skid to a halt and can only watch in horror as Izak reels backwards. His limp body drops over the edge of the roof in slow motion and all you can hear is the crack of his neck and skull breaking on impact. Immediately fatal, if the bullet tearing out a chunk of his throat hadn't already done the job.
The world has only just started spinning when you hear another primal scream and a solid whack from up on the roof. You look up, and there's Ha-Yun with a giant, shimmering phantasmal fist, and there's the shadowrunner, only given a couple of seconds to comprehend his fate before he too slams into the concrete. He hits it face-first and the momentum of the fall bending his spine backwards must snap something, because there's another crunch and then he slumps into a lifeless heap beside Izak.
Everything melts away around you. People are shouting, somewhere, off in the distance. Blood is pooling in the cracks between the tiles. Ha-Yun is crying. You shouldn't be able to hear zir from down here, but you know that ze is.
There are two people smeared across the ground in front of you when there didn't need to be.
This is your fault. You made the selfish choice. Look what you've allowed to happen.
All because you chose to run away.
Familiar, isn't it?
When will you learn?
A heavy hand claps your shoulder, and all at once, you're sucked back into reality.
"Aubrey." Kaveh looks down at you, the concern evident on his face. "Aubrey, hey, come here."
"I..." You turn back to the grisly scene as two more guards run past you, up the steps. The distant sound of sirens has steadily been growing louder, and the glass and polished glass and steel of the convention centre's front facade catches the reflection of the lights on the police and ambulance vehicles as they come whipping into the emergency services parking bay adjacent to the building.
You could have said no to Kaveh. Told him you were going after Izak. He would’ve understood. It’s what you should have done, and you knew in the moment that you were making the wrong choice just as much as you know it now, seeing the consequences. You wouldn’t even have killed the merc. You didn’t want anyone to die here today.
Look what you’ve done, says that voice in your head again. It echoes as clear and smooth as if it were being spoken to you anew, and stings like a salted wound.
You try to shrug Kaveh's hand from your shoulder but he pulls you back in, and that's when the tears start. As if you have anywhere to run to, anyway. You can't comfortably bury yourself in his chest like you can when he's out-of-armour, but his arms hold you as securely as ever. You need to savour this. This is your one moment of comfort. After this comes the cleanup, the questioning, the incident reports, the things that cast you under painfully bright lights and aggressive scrutiny and still remind you of things you wish you could bury forever.
Sure, it’s not your first time through the wringer. Despite your best efforts, you’ve been responsible for on-the-job deaths before.
It’s just that it’s never been one of your people.
Kaveh's crying, too. You can feel it in the way he shudders when he breathes. But the two of you can't stand there and weep into each other forever. The cops are coming, which means it's time to steel yourself and act like this is all par for the fucking course. They'll pretend that they care, feed you some empty condolences about Izak, crack some distasteful jokes when they think anyone who'll care is out of earshot, and you'll just have to act normal and not like you're wading through a waking nightmare of a day, because cops will pull guns on you for going into sensory overload where your coworkers won't.
You straighten up, put on your neutral face, and turn to address the Lone Star agents striding towards you. Do what you're so good at. What you always do.
It's been a long time since something like this fucked you up this badly. You’ve heard of people dying on duty. It’s a job hazard. You all signed up for it. You’ve never lost someone personally, though, and not least when you've already got one friend MIA, possibly dead. Not least when you're grappling with your own imminent mortality.
It's too much. Too much.
The rest of the afternoon and evening passes in a blur. You're outside, on the steps, talking to Lone Star. You're out in the plaza, holding the perimeter as the sun sinks in the sky. The sky is deep blue and you're drinking something thick and vaguely vanilla-smelling from a bottle Kaveh comes and presses into your hand. An indeterminate amount of time later you're throwing it back up over the stupid topiaries by the metro station. The crowd is gone. The cops clear out once they have their names and statements and security footage. You're in transit. You're back at HQ and the lights overhead are blue-white and blinding.
More paperwork. More sitting around, waiting for interviews. More of the familiar, sickening feeling of having your every move pulled apart and examined in a vivisection you can barely force yourself to be present for.
You should have gone after Izak. It was Kaveh who told you to leave him, but you should have known better. It's glaringly obvious to everyone around you. Ami won't look you in the eye. You can't blame her. Better that the cops don't want to get their hands dirty with your business, really, in the end. You don't need them breathing down your neck on top of everything else.
It feels like Bia is sitting a mile away when you're across the table from her, trying to listen to everything she's telling you about arranging a meeting and some refresher training with whoever the fuck. It's probably less than you deserve, but it does mean you get to walk out of the room with your job intact, which is cool, because you're standing on a knife edge and demotion or suspension or a firing might be enough to make you slip. You're out in the locker room. You're staring at your locker, trying and failing to parse the concept of inserting the key into the little hole so you can retrieve your bag.
You must manage it at some point, because when you start to come back into yourself, you're standing under the cascade of a shower, one hand braced against the tiled rear wall of the cubicle. The heat of the water makes you shudder like you've been out in the cold, but it's a sign that you can kind of feel your body again. Jury's out on whether that's a good thing. There's a bunch of message notifications clogging your AR feed that you don't feel like dealing with right now; you shut it off and lower your head, watching the water run down your body.
Will it be sudden or slow, if you die? Will a killswitch simply switch your brain off, or will your heart just stop, or will you have to suffer while your body fails and shuts down, one organ at a time? You'd once resigned yourself to what seemed like an obviously inevitable death in a warzone; gunned down or blown apart or having your brain liquefied by biofeedback. The threat of taking a bullet to the skull still remains now, but feels less oppressive. Maybe it'd be an okay way to go. Quick. Relatively painless. You could do it yourself, actually, if your body did start to fall apart. Why wait for the candle to burn all the way when you could snuff it out there and then?
It's not fair. None of this is fucking fair. You want to slam the wall and scream but you can't guarantee that nobody is around to hear you, so you just cry into the torrent of water pouring over your head instead.
You have to leave the security of the shower eventually, when you realise your feet and hips are starting to ache despite the soothing heat of the water. The changing room is mostly empty; you pass by a couple of other people who don't seem to pay you any mind as you return to your locker again for your day clothes. You remember the message notifications and flip your AR feed back on to go through them while you dry off and get changed. Unsurprisingly, it's mostly people expressing concern for your emotional wellbeing. You don't really have the energy left to deal with any of it meaningfully, but you should at least acknowledge them.
Iloya's caught wind of what happened, because of course they have. This'll spread through the entire corp like wildfire. There are several messages asking what happened, if you're okay, if you need anything. You tell them you don't, and that you can talk about it tomorrow. Kaveh asked where you went, and offered you a ride home, which you declined. He must still be hanging around, because he replies almost before you can open the next message.
KAVEH:ARE YOU SURE?AUBREY:YES. I CAN TAKE THE METRO.KAVEH:OKAY. LET ME KNOW IF YOU NEED ANYTHING.AUBREY:I WILL. THANKS.KAVEH:❤AUBREY:❤
It's the same for every other name on the list. Dinesh, Sissel, even Ami's found it in herself to wish you well. You keep her message open for a while, but she's the one person you end up not answering. You need to be fully present for the apology you want to offer her. She deserves better than whatever you can scrape together from the bottom of your emotional barrel right now.
It’s late by the time you finally step outside. You plod down the stairs with heavy feet and start to make for the station on autopilot. The sky may be dark, but the streets are still crammed with open stores and attractions, illuminated windows and bright neon that makes you wish you could turn down the light sensitivity in your organic eye as well as you can in the drone.
What if that thing just explodes one day? Maybe that’s it. They set you up with a little shrapnel grenade in your skull, something like that, something you wouldn’t expect. You want to tell yourself you’re being paranoid, but it doesn’t feel unreasonable to be concerned about the very real possibility that you have a ticking time bomb hidden somewhere in your body.
What do you even do about it if there is something in there? That’s it. That’s the scary part. If it’s in your ‘ware, like Pox said, this–this organic matrix thing–how do you remove something like that? Does it have a physical form? Or is it hard-coded into the technology that your brain is tapped into, something so integrated that removing it would be like hollowing out your skull?
How about this: do you want to be able to plan for it? Or do you want to drop dead on your friends someday with no warning, no chance to say goodbye, and leave them with questions they’ll never get answers to?
That reminds you of someone a little too much.
You’re halfway to the station already, but you stop and turn around, gazing up at the big tower that sits at the centre of Zodiac HQ. It’s still visible this far down the street, dark and imposing.
You want to go home. You want to go home so, so badly, just pop an Anapax and crawl into bed and hope the world will have righted itself by the morning.
That’s what you always do, though, isn’t it? Here you are, running away again. Too fearful to face the truth.
Perhaps it's time you stopped running.
It’s the middle of the night. Nobody will be around to question why you’re there. This is the perfect opportunity, and one you’re not sure you’ll be brave enough to take if you don’t do it now.
You only spend a few seconds internally grappling with the decision. As you dial the number for the med bay, all you can hear is your heart thumping out of time with the dial tone.