"Just fragging wonderful." I muttered the last bit aloud, much to the confusion of the young woman standing patiently before me as I gave her a critical once-over. "So you're Whisper?" I asked skeptically, half-hoping it might still turn out to be some kind of mistake.
"Yeah. Good to finally meet you, Rico. Fowler's told me a lot about ya." Despite her pleasant grin, the tone in her made me wonder if that was a good thing. Judging from some of Fowler's stories I'd heard, I doubted it.
"She's kinda new at this, Rico, but she's got talent. Trust me, she'll do fine." Those had been Fowler's words to me yesterday, when he'd told me he wouldn't be able to make the run. Down with the flu of all things! I'd laughed when he first said it, convinced it was a joke. But it wasn't. I guess even Shadowrunners get sick - and it's somewhat difficult to fly a Thunderbird Vectored Thrust Craft when you've got a 103 fever.
If it had been any other 'run I would've cancelled. But this was a special gig. We'd already forked over the cred to get the cargo, and our clients wanted it on time or the deal was off. Normally even that's a no-brainer. With a half-dozen crates of Ares HVAR Assault Rifles in your cargo hold, you just wait for another buyer. Easy enough. But these yahoos were going to pay us twice the market rate. IF we got the guns to them before All Hallow's Eve.
Retrieving my hand, I led the way through the archway into the section of the converted warehouse. "Glacier's back there. Cargo's loaded, I was just starting the pre-flight check." Whisper did a pretty good job of not gaping openly when her eyes lit on the vehicle, and I suppressed a chuckle at her reaction. It wasn't every day that a rigger got a chance to fly a T-Bird. Oh, I know, it's popular enough on the trideos - gallant smugglers piloting around their pristine new LAV's, complete with all the latest mil-spec toys and weapons. In reality, we were lucky Fowler managed to wrangle Glacier (beat up and in bad need of a retrofit) out of military surplus. I'm still not sure how the frag he pulled that one off. Maybe she could use a new coat of paint, or a few more armor patches over some of the dents, but she had it where it counted.
The new pilot, on the other hand, I was still waiting to pass judgement on. I waited outside, feeling a tinge of something indescribable as I watched Whisper climb into the cockpit and into the pilot's seat. This wasn't a great run for a new flyer. Nearly 3000 klicks, through four nations, across three borders. Those of us who'd done it before called it the "End Run", since it was the ending point for more than a few promising Shadowrun careers. And lives.
Setting aside my misgivings I ran through the pre-flight check with Whisper, listening to the checklist being read over the external speakers. I checked and rechecked everything, and finally we were ready to go. I pulled myself in through the side hatch, securing it behind me. Sitting in the gunner's chair I felt a little more at ease. As I slipped the fiberoptic cable into the datajack behind my ear I blinked at the disorientation. Screens came to life around me, superimposed over my vision. Our available weapons were on one, outlined in green to show their 'ready' status. I focused my attention on the sensor array, a multi-optic camera system mounted at key points around the vehicle to give me a 360 degree field of vision of the area around Glacier.
"Power to the main engines." I heard Whisper's voice in my head, coming over the internal communications system we were both jacked into. There was a high-pitched whine, dulled by the scant layers of sound damping insulation, as the T-birds power plant came to life. The twin vectored thrust turbines lifted the large vehicle gracefully off the ground, and Whisper guided it through the set of double doors in the 'hanger'. Within moments, the engines kicked into full gear and the ground began rushing by at increasing speed. As I settled my 'vision' into a combination of passive radar scanning and pure visual mode, I sat back in the comfortable padded chair and let myself enjoy the ride.
Crossing the border in to Pueblo lands was null persperation. One of my fixers in Denver had set us up with intel on the border patrol schedules. My thermal sensors detected the latest patrol passing just out of range a few klicks ahead of us. Right on schedule. I gave Whisper the go-ahead and felt the familiar lurch as the T-bird rose into the air. If the intel was right, we had another twenty minutes before another patrol would come by, but it was better safe than sorry. Whisper gunned the engines and I twisted my head side-to-side and up-down, panning all around Glacier to check for targets. Nothing. It seemed we were in the clear.
Less than an hour later, I was reconsidering those words. I had allowed myself to relax, idly watching the scenery pass by as we made our way deeper into the Rocky Mountains. LAVs like Glacier weren't meant to take steep hills, not to mention mountains, but there were ways. Canyon trails, paths cutting through places where the slopes weren't so harsh - it was definitely possible. IF you knew the way. But our problem now was something more basic than directions. As Glacier crested a small ridge and banked right, alarms began going off all over the place. I scanned the skies frantically, then the ground, searching for targets before my mind finally caught up and realized that it was an internal alert.
The T-Bird lurched sideways, and there was a brief sensation of falling before Whisper righted the vehicle once again. Her voice came over the comsys, drowning out my series of explecitives. "Right engine malfunctioning. I don't know what the frag happened, it's in the red line. I'm bringing 'er down." There was a light bump as Whisper set Glacier down for a landing on a relatively flat section of the canyon floor. Muttering something about bad karma, I unstrapped my safety harness and jacked out.
Whisper joined me outside as we looked over the engine, and it didn't take the two of us long to figure out that - whatever was wrong - it was beyond our capacity to diagnose and fix. But we did determine that the engine could operate on half-power relatively with relative safety. Sighing inwardly, I consulted the maps I had stored on my pocket comp. "I know where we can go," I said finally. "Hopefully we can make it there on half power without running into any trouble."
The place in question was a common waypoint along the route. Well.. common for those who had a bit of experience. I wasn't surprised to learn that Whisper had never heard of Midnight Caverns. But she knew enough not to ask too many questions, and after about half an hour of crawling down the canyon we came to our destination.
"Where?" was Whisper's confused reply as I told her to head towards an apparently blank wall. But as we got closer to the canyon wall, Whisper was able to see the cleverly-concealed cave entrace. The Glacier was a familiar enough sight for the people here, and we weren't given any trouble as Glacier limped inside. Whisper followed the instructions of a helpful young man armed with twin glow-rods to direct 'traffic', and we promptly settled down for a landing alongside the other eight or so vehicles.
As I climbed out of the side hatch, a familiar face was approaching, his bearded features set into a severe frown. "What 'ave you done with 'er this time, lad?" the stout dwarf demanded. "Good to see you too, Drake," I said in mock indignation. Then I gestured towards the right engine, explaining how it had conked out on us. Drake asked a few probing questions about the engine's fate since he last looked at it, then nodded, once. "I'll check it out."
Since we had a few hours to kill, I offered to take Whisper on a quick tour of the area. It was pretty impressive -- natural caverns, with an underground river nearby for water and power. I introduced Whisper around, answered countless questions about where Fowler was, and finally crashed wearily into a rickety sofa in the 'lounge' area. My brief nap was interrupted some time later by Whisper, who nudged me awake and told me that Drake had finished repairs on Glacier. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and then paid our respects (and nuyen, of course) to the ever-resourceful Drake. With the right engine purring happily, Whisper swung Glacier back out into the canyon and we countined our route south.
The next big hurdle didn't come until nearly two hours later, as we approached the Pueblo-Confederated American States border. The crossing went much smoother than I'd expected, and I had to hand it to Fowler. This kid Whisper really was a slick flyer. As soon as we were safely in Texas Whisper banked left, adjusting our course to head southeast. We paralleled one of the old CAS Interstates until we neared San Angelo, then veered south.
"Another secret rendevous?" Whisper asked over the comsys as I announced another slight deviation from our plotted course. It was my standard practice never to include the rigger hotspots on any of my navmaps. Not that a map would have helped us find Castle Creek. Despite the name, it was not located anywhere near a stream. It was a transitory camp, constantly changing location to avoid any unhealthy interest. I broadcast my name and the last passcode I'd received (encoded transmission of course) over the usual frequency and waited for the reply. After about thirty seconds, it seemed that I had passed the test. Glacier received a transmission giving us Castle's current coordinates.
Belatedly, I replied to Whisper's question, "We need intel on the Azzie border before we try to run it. I don't know about you, but I don't like flying blind." Castle Creek certainly was the place for intel. It was run by a CAS Army Colonel, now retired, who was able to use his contacts in the military to get his hands on all sorts of military surplus tech. Especially surveillance equipment.
Whisper set Glacier down for a landing on the outskirts of the camp, and a group of helpful mechanics bustled about refueling the bird and pulling a thermo-camo tarp over it to hide the vehicle from prying eyes overhead. Whisper and I made our way to the center tent in the ramshackle camp, singled out by the large satellite dish on the ground in front of the tend. After a brief meeting with one of the lead deckers of Castle Creek, and the exchange of a hideously high (but well-spent) amount of nuyen, we had a datachip containing the latest intel on Azzie listening posts along the border between here and San Antonio. "This is what we needed," I said to Whisper, tapping the chip as we headed back out to Glacier.
Who was it that made some smart-alec comment about the best-laid plans of men? As we found ourselves dodging flak from an Aztlan air-defense battery (not listed in the intel we'd gotten from Castle), I had to agree with whoever it was. I bit back a curse as the T-bird lurched to the side, breaking a missile lock and silencing the annoyingly loud warning alarm. But unfortunately, the sudden maneuver also spoiled my missile lock, forcing me to spin the top turret around to get another chance at acquiring the target. Whisper brought us around in a low, tight loop, buzzing the troops on the ground and causing some of them to dive for cover.
Panning my vision towards the rear of the T-bird, I spotted the missile turrets on the two APCs pivoting in an attempt to track us. Our problem was that they outgunned us. If we paused in the evasive action long enough to try for a good shot, chances were that one of their missiles or guns would toast us in the process. And to top things all off, we couldn't just run for it because then our jammers would get out of range and we'd soon have every Azzie trooper and his mother out there combing the countryside for us. We had to take out these fraggers so we'd have enough chance to get clear before anybody noticed the ruckus. Hopefully.
It was about that time that Glacier jerked suddenly and I noticed that we were moving at a snail's pace. "What the FRAG!?" I shouted in angry surprise, but then I noticed that many of the rear sensors had just gone dead. Well, not dead exactly.. their status reports listed them as active and enabled, but I sure as drek couldn't see anything out of them. As I panned one of the side cameras over, it suddenly became clear why. I'd seen enough trid to know an Earth Elemental when I saw one, and.. how to put this?.. there was one of those things clinging to the back of my Thunderbird. And it was slowing us down.
Alarm klaxons went off all around us, missile lock warnings sounding in my ears, along with Whisper's worried shouting. I had only a split second to respond, but fortunately my turret was already pointed in the right direction. The good thing about being slowed down was that I could aim too. And aim I did. Half of my belt of Vigilant autocannon rounds was expended before my brain caught up and realized that the smoking ruins of the two armored personnel carriers weren't going to be much of a threat any more. As an added bonus, my bursts had apparently taken out the mage, since his elemental disappeared without a trace. Whisper, much to her credit, kept her cool. We did one last sweep of the area to make sure we'd gotten everybody, then floored it. Heading south, we pushed the engines to their limits to put as much distance between ourselves and the destroyed vehicles as possible. It wasn't until nearly half an hour later, still with no sign of pursuit, that we finally breathed a sigh of relief.
An hour and nearly 500 kilometers later, Whisper brought Glacier in for a landing at our designated rendevous point. We sent out the signal, and waited tensely for the buyers to show (half-afraid that it would turn out to be a setup, or that our clients had been found out and the only welcoming party would be a troop of Aztlan National Police.) But they eventually appeared, grizzled-looking Yucatan rebels who were only-too-eager to get their hands on their new toys. We were even invited to a nearby village, to chill for the night. I suggested to Whisper that we take them up on it. She seemed appalled by the idea.
I shrugged, grinning slightly. "Why not?" I put on my best dramatic voice and quipped, "After all.. Eat, drink and be merry. For tomorrow we have to do this all over again." Whisper's expression was one of stunned revelation, as if the thought hadn't occured to her that we had to get home somehow. "Come on, kid," I said, laughing, as I started following the rebels back towards town.