[Another installment of Short Fiction Friday, about a few NPCs from my current Shadowrun campaign. Once again, if you like the art, while I’ve used it for my NPCs, credit goes to http://tapastic.com/series/fisheye — the comic that’s the source of these characters.]
Nick knew the Boston underbelly better than his companions. He hadn’t grown up there, but it was similar to the warrens he’d been driven to when his family cast him out. He returned to old habits quickly, and found places to hide. It had been a while since he’d used his talents, but they came back to him quickly. He made sure they couldn’t be found while they got situated, and he suggested they all stick together. Ken agreed, and Alice was in too much shock to argue. Nick worried about that, but had other work to do first.
Without any kind of formal training, Nick had a hard time explaining technomancy, and what it was he could do. Using his power felt like merging with a computer– on the rare occasions he tried to describe it to someone, he’d liken it to falling backwards into a swimming pool. He was eternally curious how ‘normal’ people worked with computers, because he couldn’t imagine it was like what he did. He swam through streams of data and made little edits and slight alterations as he saw fit. He was aware of defenses, tuned to keep out normals, and he’d developed weapons against them, more fluid and unpredictable than any program. He could even create clones of himself, which would do things he needed them to while he wasn’t around, as if they had a mind of their own. Maybe they did, he wasn’t sure.
He’d been accused of being spacey, before his family had thrown him out for being a “mage freak”, and he’d never been able to explain what was going on. He was paying attention, as best he could, but he was also paying attention to a hundred other things– someone’s nearby text messages, what the screens in four other rooms were displaying, what the cameras were showing. In middle school, he’d been picked out as an easy target and had a larger boy give him grief. It became apparent quickly that the bully was smart enough to seem innocent, sometimes remotely harassing Nick with programs he’d written while sitting attentively in another class. Months of attacks followed; Nick was small and not especially quick-witted, and being distracted by the constant technological cacophony around him made it hard for him to fight back. He spent most of a school year with some injury or another and no friends, thanks to the other boy’s dedicated efforts. It was the first time he’d actually tried to change any of the digital things he observed, and it turned out he was rather good at it. Setting the bully’s phone to blast illegal porn (swiped from another computer he’d found) at full volume in the middle of class had been satisfying, and disabling all inputs so it couldn’t be shut down was doubly so. He considered it justice for the technological, social, and physical abuse he’d endured, and when he glimpsed the boy being led off by Boston Police he didn’t feel any remorse.
Now, his passive awareness was laced with intent. He could feel the gentle tug of Alice or Ken pulling him along when he slowed down, but his mind was ahead of them, checking cameras and making sure they didn’t walk into the field of view, or disabling them if that was impossible. It was exhausting, and sapped his attention, but he knew that they’d be ID’d and found if even one camera saw them. He insisted that they all stick together, explaining why, and the three traveled as a group for the first month of their lives in the shadows. Alice’s money bought them food that first month, and Ken found odd jobs to do to supplement things.
In the second month, they turned to stealing. It started simply– they didn’t have enough money for a full box of biscuits, so Ken bought a half-box and swapped it right after checkout, when he knew no one would catch him. Ken had a knack for that kind of thing, and it kept them eating. He needed to be alone, though, which meant Nick couldn’t protect him. Nick, for his part, was exhausted from the constant vigilance, and was fighting illness. Alice had been keeping to herself, mostly practicing magic and giving the other two money, but the stress was getting to her. They were living in a forgotten concrete box, one of ten thousand like it in the city, and had to occasionally fend off other vagrants. Magic was the easiest for them, and with years of training and natural talent, they easily outclassed anyone who encroached on their space.
The problem was, their use of magic garnered attention. The first few invasions of their adopted home were by the very desperate: violent, drug-fueled types who were beyond reason. Alice had tried to give them a scare, but they were too far gone for it to register. Ken had been out, and Nick had looked up from lying semi-conscious in bed to see Alice get grabbed by two men larger than she was. There was a flare of light, then just Alice and two piles of ashes. Alice got quiet after that, and as Nick slipped in and out of consciousness he saw her talking, crying, and talking again with Ken, and the next time a frothing troll burst into their space she incinerated him without a second thought, an icy expression on her face.
What became a problem was when the sane people tried to move in. They could be reasoned with, and when Alice started conjuring flame, they backed down and fled. Word spread quickly of the mage-kids and their location, and they started having obvious gang members, several fully armed, watching their location. Ken suggested, once again, that they move. Nick had already scouted another location but was feverish and exhausted; they couldn’t go out without him and he’d only gotten sicker. The move was more than he could handle, and as Ken carried him through the Boston streets, he desperately fought to stay conscious so he could turn off that next camera, to fend off the specter of men in uniforms with guns descending on them, that none of them could entirely forget.
Nick lost about a week after that, sick and bedridden. Ken had somehow managed to steal two weeks of food and some medicine, and he and Alice were nursing Nick back to health while ensuring he wasn’t needed to go out. They were out of money and Nick couldn’t keep this up forever. They needed some way of paying for things and they needed to be able to stop worrying about the cameras dotting every street corner.
Ken was the one with the plan, as usual. He was very, very good at finding creative solutions to problems. Near the end of the two weeks, when Nick was finally feeling better, Ken walked in with a large white box. He set the box down and pulled both Alice and Nick outside with him. As they walked, he pointed a camera out to Nick. “Watch that camera, but don’t turn it off unless it tries to alert someone about us”. Nick had seen the camera alerts and had shut them down, but it was taxing to do so; turning the cameras off pre-emptively was usually safer. Ken seemed to know what he was talking about, though, and the three of them walked into sight of the camera, Nick bracing himself for the systemwide alert ping that never came. For the first time in nearly three months, they were standing on the street in full view of a camera with no need to worry. Nick could only stare at Ken as they walked back inside.
Ken was quiet as they walked back, but beelined for the white box as they settled back in. Alice was full of questions and Nick was simply confused, but Ken wasn’t answering anything until he opened the box, passing out some of its contents and showing off the rest. He handed Alice and Nick new ID cards, with new, unfamiliar System Identification Numbers. They were new identities, high quality disguises to make sure they couldn’t be found. They could operate freely, independently, without worry. Ken smiled a tired smile. “We’re going to have to do a bit of work to pay those off. Sorry.”
Ken also held up the box, showing off the rest of its contents. There was a large cake inside, obviously from a higher-end pastry shop above the plate, and in chocolate was written “HAPPY BIRTHDAY NICK”. Another, smaller box contained a single serving of crème brûlée. That night the trio celebrated, relaxing for the first time in months. It was the best crème brûlée Alice had ever tasted.