She sat, frozen, as the Matrix whirled around her. Neither her body nor her icon, an image of a glittering bird, were capable of moving. The dread rose up within her as she felt the weight of panic begin to press down on her chest. Cerebrally, she knew none of it was real, but that meant little to whatever chemicals were having a free-for-all in her brain right now.
Cas had attacks like this before, but previous experience never seemed to help the fact that it was happening again. Her hand shook as she tapped the icons and buttons needed to safely jack out of the system. Senses heightened, she could nearly feel every stitch on her new AR gloves as she waved her hands in front of her body. The weight of her deck, which used to be a reassuring thing back in the day, just seemed to add to the weight on her chest; pressing down like an ork had taken a seat and decided to stay, making it harder and harder to draw a breath.
She saw the familiar surroundings of the public grid and hit the button to jack out completely as the waves of nausea started to roll over her. Cas hastily pulled the jack from the trode in her head and tossed it to the floor along with her deck and goggles. The room spun as she yanked off the gloves and shakily dropped them on to the pile. She leaned over in her chair and put her head between her knees, willing herself not to pass out or boot her breakfast on to the floor.
“Frag it! Not again! It wasn’t even IC! What the hell is wrong with me?!” The conversation with herself began as words spat out between gasps and by the end had devolved into sounds choked out around sobs. Cas crawled out of the chair, across the floor, and onto the couch. She wrapped herself in an old blanket and continued to gasp and sob until she slipped into the sweet release of sleep.
Cas never used to fall apart while decking. She used to flit through the matrix as easily as the bird in her icon might have flown through one of those ‘forests’ they used to have back in the fifth world. Her fingers danced over icons and keys as she wove her way through the code, grabbing a file here, setting a data bomb there. Cas had been one hell of a decker before…before “it” happened.
“It” happened nearly two years ago. Cas and her team had been on a run on the outskirts of Chicago. The run was nothing major; just a routine data grab for some middle management Mr. Johnson looking to get ahead by sweet-talking the boss with super-secret intel on the competition. Everything fell apart when the in-house security that the Johnson had assured them wouldn’t move from their front desk console, burst into the server room. Cas had been jacked in to the mainframe and the team was watching her back as she extracted the files requested by Mr. Johnson.
Three security guards slammed the door open and stormed in, guns blazing. Cas had to hand it to Stomp, the team’s street sam, as he had managed to take out all three guards in less than five seconds. Unfortunately, it had been three seconds too long for Jess, their elven mage, who took a bullet strait through the brain from one of the guard’s guns. Cas had dropped from VR into AR and turned just in time to watch Jess jerk back at the bullet’s impact and drop, lifeless, to the floor. Cass saw the exact moment when the life slipped out of Jess’s body as the group’s vitals scrolled across her AR display.
Cas didn’t remember how the group had gotten her out of that office building that night; nor did she remember how long it had been before she managed to ask Stomp if what she had seen was real. “Real as drek, baby girl. I’m so sorry.” Stomp sighed heavily and picked Cas up off the floor where she had collapsed at his feet. See, Jess hadn’t just been their mage, hadn’t just been one of Cas’s team members. Jess had been Cas’s partner, in both shadowrunning and love, for just a little less than five years when she was gunned down in front of her lover, by guards that weren’t even supposed to be patrolling that part of the building.
Eventually Cas had convinced the team that she was capable of going home, back to the tiny apartment she and Jess had shared; now silent and massive in its emptiness. They had let her go, and had checked in as often as they could; taking turns bringing her food and trying to convince her to eat. Eventually, they had to get back to their own lives, and Cas was relieved to be left alone with her grief.
Jess’s family had handled her funeral quickly and quietly. They had conveniently left Cas out of the planning and had gone so far as to let it be known that she was not welcome at the service. While same-sex relationships were much more accepted in the sixth world than they had been in the fifth, Jess’s parents had hated Cas for drawing Jess into the world of shadowruning; and hated her even more for being a dwarf. In their elitist elven minds, the only way Cas and Jess’s relationship could have been more insulting would have been if Cas had been an ork instead.
Despite the vitriolic screaming matches that ensued between Jess and her parents, Jess had stood by Cas, quite literally to her dying day. The day before she died, the pair had been discussing what to do for their five-year anniversary. Jess was hoping to get a reservation at a hip new restaurant that had opened on the West site; Cas had managed to secure a table and had been secretly planning to propose to Jess at the end of the meal. They had discussed marriage before, but neither felt it was necessary to prove their love for one another. Despite their earlier agreement that it wasn’t important, Cas had been feeling the pull to make it official more and more recently, ever since a couple close calls on runs. Cas wanted to be able to call Jess her wife…and now she would never have that chance.
Cas startled awake several hours later, hair matted and dried tears and snot streaked across her face. She pushed off the couch and stumbled to the shower, standing under the scalding water in an effort to feel somewhat alive again. In the steam, she ran the afternoon’s practice run through her head again.
Technically speaking, everything had been wiz. She had gotten in to the server and found the data file she was looking for, had deleted the one mark the host managed to get on her; all without attracting the attention of any of the IC she had programmed into the dummy system. As Cas remembered the way she had grabbed the file, her hands started to shake again. She turned the water to cold, freezing the anxious thoughts before they got worse. Sighing, she turned off the shower and got out, wrapping herself in a towel as she swiped her hand across the mirror. She stared into the cleared spot in the steam-covered mirror, wishing she saw anything else but her own haggard eyes staring back. “Frag it Cas, you have GOT to get it together,” she said to her reflection, “if you don’t run, you don’t eat, and the rent on this dump ain’t free ya know.”
Pep talk falling flat, Cas padded barefoot and dripping back out to the couch. As she dropped, defeated, back onto the nest of blankets, a data stick clattered to the floor. “What the..?” she mumbled as she picked it up, “Oh, right, Stomp gave me this a couple weeks ago.” Stomp had handed the stick to her along with some leftovers he had brought over, “Look girl, this may sound like hoodoo mumbo-jumbo to you, but maybe you should give this guy a call. He’s an old chummer of mine and he’s had some success with…well, dreky situations like yours, in the past.” At the time, Cas had neither known nor cared what Stomp was going on about, and the data stick had been dropped onto the pile of junk on her couch. Covered up by old bills and a couple of concert flyers, she had completely forgotten about it until today.
“Ok fine, let’s see what old Stompy brought me, shall we?” Cas asked no one in particular as she slotted the stick into her deck and picked her goggles up off the floor.