A wracking cough stole her away from her fitful sleep – each bout thundering through her brain. She rolled onto her side, hoping to abate the coughing fit, her stomach lurching as she moved. For a time, she remained there, staring at the sepia wall, the taste of vomit and a dozen cigarettes in the back of her throat. Slowly she turned to face the room. A pulsing red neon lights outside her window fought through a film of filth and the thin blinds, illuminating everything with a pink sheen. As she swung her legs off the dirty cot she lay in, her feet knocked over an almost-empty bottle of whiskey before finding the cold steel plate floor. She fumbled on the nightstand and produced a crumpled packet of cigarettes, pulling the last one free and throwing the empty box into a corner. She lit it and sat with her head in her hands, willing the pain behind her eyes to abate. When she eventually took her first drag, her empty stomach rumbled. She belched. She knew she had paracetamol somewhere, but her apartment was a disaster area. The floor was littered with the armour she had dragged from her body after returning from yesterday’s jobs. There was still a faint smell of burnt plastic in the air from where the laser had burned into her chest plate – it had nearly gone right through, and would offer no resistance to another shot. Replacing it would be costly, and she barely had the credits to eat today – she might be able to get away with a patch job. She was thoroughly regretting the drink – but when life’s shitty, you make shitty choices. As unsteady as a new born deer, she tottered to her feet and ambled across the room to her Citycom Terminal and punched into the mainframe. She ignored the emails that flash up, they’d mostly be overdue debt notices anyway, and navigated to the jobs screen. Runners Wanted. Quick Job. Low Risk. She grunted to herself. Yesterday’s job had been ‘low risk’, carrying parts around the city for suit-clad business types; too clean and proper to carry their own dirty laundry. But she had come across a mugger in the subway, who had pulled a laser pistol on her when she refused to hand over her cargo. She had opened his chest with her 9mm, and taken his pistol and a handful of dubious looking stims from his body. She would have gotten more, but the Copbots were coming – drawn by the echoes of weapons fire. She’d fancied the pistol for a moment, but decided it was likely easily traced back to its true owner, so left it on the floor. She completed the drop, and traded the stims for the whiskey; but the payment for the job itself had to clear H.R. first. It would take up to 5 working days, standard protocol, the disinterested assistant had told her across a desk as he looked out of the window. So she needed new work to ensure a meal tomorrow. She took a long draw of her cigarette and started at the sickly green screen. Runner Wanted – Quick Kill Job.
She had needed a good hour for her hangover to subside enough to allow her leave the apartment. Now, she moved down Pepper Park’s main avenue. Flashing neon signs bearing lewd images winking down at passers-by. The first time she had seen Pepper Park, she had been captivated. It had a sense of danger that had excited her. Now all she saw was the club-goers - their sentiency erased by drink and drugs, walking past scorch marks left there by last night’s fighting. She saw the tired women, wearing nothing, or next to nothing, gyrating cynically in glass booths, many sporting fresh bruises on their drawn faces, and track marks on their arms. She saw the thugs who strong-armed residents and business owners, too poor to move away from their tyranny. Most of all, she saw weapons, worn openly, and never more than a heartbeat away from their owner’s hand. She’d thought about joining the gangs that ran the streets on more than one occasion – they offered the illusion of protection to runners desperate to join. Each time she had arrived at the conclusion that she’d rather try and get along on her own than end up as a meat shield in a turf war. Neocron city was, as a whole, dilapidated – its infrastructure slowly crumbling to the stranglehold of time. Its greatest minds, had been lost long ago, during a failed colonisation effort and the subsequent wars – their skills and knowledge slipping into obscurity. Some sectors of the city fared better than others – Pepper Park was one of the unlucky ones. She turned into an alley way, her combat boots splashing in a puddle of something she didn’t care to look down at. The smell of urine was strong, and a rat stopped chewing on trash, watched her, bolt-upright, and darted into the shadows. She stopped at a heavy metal hatch, with a palm-reading access panel. She pulled a worn-looking case from her pack, drew loose two wires and plugged them into the panel. It was poorly made and didn’t take long to break the encryption. The hatch opened automatically, though with a grating squeal. The stench of decay billowing from within. She took a quick mental inventory, drew her pistol and proceeded.
The ladder that should have led her down had long since sheered away from the wall, and laid rusting to the floor below. Someone had since piled boxes to form a crude ramp, and she carefully eased down upon them – the rotting wood bent under her weight. Carefully she clambered down, her feed probing each box in turn to ensure it would continue to support her. She stood on the corrosion pitted steel plate floor and took stock of her surroundings. A chemical light coughed off and on above her, illuminating the piles of ruined storage boxes around her. In one corner, a vagrant had left the pile of filthy blankets they had once used as bedding – the empty beer cans rusting around the dirty nest. She shivered subconsciously. Despite her apparent solitude, she felt eyes upon her. As she scanned the shadows that veiled the corners of the room, she found nothing. She stalked to the door that led deeper into the cellars, her pistol proceeded her - firmly held in both hands. As she eased the door open, the pistol’s muzzle poked through, scouting the corners as she entered. The sickly-sweet tang of decay was more pronounced, but still some way away. She could see nothing of import; more rotten boxes and discarded storage cubes. A hum of industrial machinery resonated through the ceiling, and a scroll work of pipes sprawled across one wall, contents dripping from neglected joints. It was times like these that she envied the PSI Monks – their latent psychic abilities allowed them premonitions of dangers, and allowed them to counter threats before they full emerged. Their abilities were conjoined with an almost preternatural intelligence that left them cold and detached from humanity; and had led them into direct contact with the city’s administration on more than one occasion. Prior to this, they had applied their talents to all-out war, and thus, created the Gen-Tanks. These genetically engineered super soldiers were once instrumental to the survival of Neocron, and were now discarded – reduced to offering their services as thugs, private security and mercenaries. The monks employed a gauntlet that acted to enhance their abilities – or for simple runners like her – access to the most basic of techniques. She had acquired a discarded gauntlet for herself, mottled with use and slightly too large to be worn comfortably, and had learned how to use it to knit together her own wounds, but lacked the aptitude for much more. Still, she strained her senses – willing herself to feel beyond the door, and entered once her gut told her that she could proceed.
The second room bore a large fan on the opposite wall - it spun lazily, pushing warm stale air that irritated her eyes. Pipes, as wide as she was tall, spanned from the floor to the ceiling and rattled in their worn brackets. Despite the patina of rust that covered most things in the room, one particular brown stain caught her attention. It began on the wall and seemed to melt down towards the metal plates and pool on the floor. She stepped towards it, kicking a spent shell casing as she did. Although the tell-tale coppery scent was missing, she was certain that the stain was blood, and there had been a lot of it. The puddle on the floor tapered into a trail which led through a doorway – she stared at it long and hard. The entry on the Citycom referenced creatures in the cellars, but had been vague on the identify. She had hoped it would be something simple like the packs of dogs that sometimes lurked into the alleyways during the inky night time. Now she understood that it was something bigger. She could always turn back, but she wasn’t likely to find a job this well payed for a couple of weeks – it was a chance to keep herself comfortable, and to replace her ailing armour. She swore under her breath and proceeded through the door. She stepped across the threshold into a chamber – its walls climbing many meters above her. She could not see a ceiling – only a light that barely reached the floor; picking out only the most raised surfaces with a faint sickly green. Beside her, water ran from a burst pipe, trickling down stalactite that had formed from the pipes ruined maw and splashing against metal as it cascaded through a grate and into the inky dark unknown. Unable to see her own feet, she inched forward, each step deliberate. Rust crunched below her boots. Something moved. She froze, statue rigid, finger tight around the trigger of the pistol that guided her through to gloom. She stared into the darkness, each beat of her heart seemed minutes apart, her breath caught in her chest. There, again. Her knees bent slightly, shoulder locked, eyes narrowed. Before her a mound, perhaps cloth, rose to the height of a man – the pistol’s muzzle followed, locked on centre mass. She let out a low whistle, and the mass turned to face her, slowly and carefully. She could hear each slap of leathery feet as it shuffled in an awkward circle. She could not see his face as it was obscured by a filthy burlap hood, but she could make out the emaciated figure of his bare shoulders and chest in the baleful light from above. Slowly, almost mechanically it raised its arm, metal glinting from the hand – palm facing her face. There was a second of luminescence as the PSI module activated, plasma forming in-between his claw-like fingers. She had heard of these creatures - Enlightened Preachers – wretched parodies of the PSI Monks. His face lit up as the pistol barked twice, both slugs bursting through his narrow chest. There was a moment of tinnitus. Spent shell cases tinkled upon the plate metal floor. It let out a rasping sigh as its body folded, spilling him onto the floor. Rheumy eyes fixed lifelessly on the light above. She lowered to a crouch and patted down his clothing. Even mutants carried scavenged equipment that could be sold to one of the city’s numerous less scrupulous pawn brokers. Many runners began their careers with materiel recovered from the fallen, haphazardly repaired and sold to the needy with no guarantee to their longevity. She had herself wielded a nail gun cobbled together from old pipe and an air compressor – not refined, but serviceable none-the-less. There was a metallic whine to her left. Instinctively she rolled forwards. An orange flash. Bullets flattened against the metal storage crate beside her. She ran for cover, blind-firing behind her. A sound like ripping cloth heralded the return fire. She counted off each pull of the trigger – she was running low now. She stopped behind dilapidated barrels and took a moment to regain her composure. Fluidly she stood, pistol held in both hands. She squeezed the trigger, the recoil jolting up her arm. The mutant snarled as it raised its chaingun. She heard someone talk about Aggressors before. They stood over six feet tall and seemed to have their weapon grafted to their arm. Someone said they were born that way – she’d laughed back then. Now, it seemed less funny. She adjusted her aim, and sent her last round screaming into the Aggressor’s forehead. Its head snapped back, but her elation quickly boiled away. The mutant craned its head forward again, the slug visible – squashed against one of the many plates of scrap that were grafted to its skin. The snarl broke and became a cold humourless smile as the barrels rotated and spat flames.