Prologue

Present Day… Present Time

It was a cold day in Bakersfield: cold being about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. All over the city life was happening. Be it corporate zombies droning out and working for the hive or the malcontented humdrum of the Shadows, life was happening.

Spritch couldn't decide if this was a good thing.

He was uncertain as to whether or not the regular day to day runnings of Bakersfield were appropriate considering what he knew. These people should be either terrified or in jubulation, celebrating or bunkering down. No matter the case or the juxtoposition there was no way life should be normal. Not with what Spritch knew.

The hacker, gunslinger, and pilot extraordinare had been a long-time resident of Bakersfield (at least by its standards) and had taken it upon himself to keep track of the city's history as a hobby. This meant that gang wars were documented and catalouged; corporate movements big and small meticulously charted and indexed; rumors categorized and stored. His passion for being correct on these issues made Spritch the ''go-to man" for every gang boss, corporate info gatherer, fixer, and Johnson through-out the city. His life brought him privledge… and danger.

Policy with Spritch was simple, he didn't ask why you wanted the information you wanted, and he didn't tell anyone else what information you asked for. As fas as Spritch was concerned, the information never left his room so it didn't matter who asked for what or the reasons why they wanted it (or why others wanted to know). This was an issue that Spritch had begun rethinking as of late — and for good reason.


2 Weeks Ago

It all started with a seemingly obvious prank. Spritch was organizing his digial porn collection (by category, simstress, and intensity of course) when he received a RMS from someone by the alias of D.Djon. Like all things, Spritch catelogued the message which read:

Spritch, I hear you're the slot to talk with if Johnny needs data on the megas or gangers. 
Can we talk prices in the Net or do you prefer the meat? 
-D.Djohn

… and then continuted about his day as though the message never came.

Unfortunately for Spritch, in a matter of minutes another message was delivered to him with the same sender and node address. He, like always, catelogued it and added a footnote: ''Annoyance, low priority," then went dark from the Matrix and continued his historical archive of hardcore sex. D.Djon was, to Spritch, to be dealt with on another day. To Spritch's dismay, D.Djon had other plans.

A few minutes after Spritch had waved his connection to the Matrix closed and retreated to his personal simspace of an old movie theatre he heard something that didn't belong in his space. Bouncing idley was a transluminant orb of what seemed to be Polyplastic. Every bounce switched the color and sometimes the ball would adopt a texture. It didn't belong. Things being not where they belonged bothered him. As he reached out to edit the ball and move it from the movie room he was in to the storage closet, it stopped bouncing and adopted a human face texture. It spoke.

''Most people in your line of business are typically good with handling potential customers with promptness. I decided that you were either dead and jacked in, or about to be dead and jacked in. Either way, I came here to do two things."

Spritch concentrated on his real body and felt around his neck for his datajack. It took a second to find it and when he did he quickly gave it a fast tug and severed his conciousness from the digital world of his comlink. The dumpshock hit him like a magtruck moving ninty miles an hour. Spritch's brain felt like it was on fire. His skin was telling him that bugs and vermin were crawling over his skin even though he lived in a clean condo on the 23rd floor of the Casa Pelicho in the South Sprawl.

What bothered Spritch was not that his brain felt like it was changing into nanopaste or that his sensory nervous system was feeding him fake information. It wasn't the blaring white light that seemed to blot out everything in his condominium unit or the light ringing sound coming from his inner auditory cortex. What really bothered Spritch was the the voice was still talking to him.

''Ouch. You took some pretty hefty dumpshock there Eric. Yes. I know your name, I know what you do, and I know what you did a long time ago. The past is the past though and I could care less what's going on in your life right now or who you've managed to piss off. What matters to me is that we meet. Today. There is data you need to share with me, and though it sounds cliched, your life depends on it."

Trying to keep some composure, Spritch responded at last through an RMS to the original sender D.Djohn:

"5:30PM, The Slagheap. Tell Jeremiah he was a bullfrog."

Before D.Djohn — whoever he was — could respond, Eric ''Spritch" Falister in a desperate move, turned his comlink Off.

Then he started to cry…

… his tears were red.


Two weeks ago

Spritch took a long sip of something tan colored in a tall bottle. He didn't know what it was, but he did know it was alcoholic, it burned, and he was pretty sure it was killing brain cells with each sip. Considering the situation he found himself in, Spritch wasn't sure if this could be called a good thing or an excelent thing.

As he sipped at the liquor of unknown origin, Spritch debated his options and recapped what D.Djohn had said before Spritch turned his comlink off. Why was he in danger of death and what made D.Djohn so sure that Spritch's number was up? Rather than contemplating his newfound numerous problems he took a long draw from the bottle and turned his comlink back on. The familar hum of digital activity flooded back into his mind and he made note of the time. It was 5:28PM.

A private message arrived from Jeremiah through the shadow node hosted from The Slagheap, it was addressed to Spritch's shadow alias ''Scholar:"

You know the rules Eric. No firearms or mess... and you fucking owe me one.

So Mr. Mystery was early. Good. Maybe Spritch could finally get some answers… or death. Either would be preferable to not knowing what the hell was going on and wondering when he was going to die and who would do the deed. Spritch saw three comlinks opperating in hidden mode go through the hidden side room and move towards the back storage space that Jeremiah had converted into a private meeting room to score some extra income from fixers, Johnsons, and the odd couple that suddenly felt the need for some private space.

The door opened slowly and Spritch saw two hands come through with open palms: a gesture of peace. Before the door opened any wider to allow human entry, the person Spritch assumed to be D.Djohn spoke.

''It's been a long time Eric. Or should I call you Glitchy?"

All at once Spritch's anxiety and worry melted away. He called back to the visitor he now knew was a friend, ''Fastjack… Jesus allmighty it's good to hear your voice. Sit down and drink, then fucking explain yourself."


Later

''So let me get this straight," said Spritch as he polished off the last of the unknown liquor. "Sujii Electronics, a division of Horizon, may, or may not, be working on a project funded by worshipers of the Prime Dissonance… an entity that may, or may not, exist. The goal of these people who may, or may not, be involved, is to create a gigantic hole in the matrix which merges with Astral space so that they can summon the fucking devil." Spritch tossed the synthaglass bottle into the recycling chute.

''Yep," responded Fastjack who took a very short sip out of a hip flask, ''that's about the jist of it."

Spritch sat down in his chair hard and cradled his forehead in his palms. ''What if everything you've heard is wrong? What if your contacts are being controlled and we're being misdirected?" Spritch looked up at Fastjack and sighed. ''Then again, what if they're right. How do you kill the motherfucking Devil?"

Fastjack shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "Same was as everything else I reckon. Put a tank round in his chest. Seems to work on spirits just fine."

Spritch could not understand the nonchalant attitude that his old friend and potential Echo Mirage candidate was taking towards this whole paranormal electronic tinkering that a misguided cult was attempting. It was the fucking DEVIL.

''So," grunted Spritch as he stood up and reached for his EV Jacket, ''Why bring this to my attention?"

''You're the man to know in Bakersfield." Fastjack chose to remain seated. ''The way I see it, if anything is wrong with the conclusions the other cans came up with, then you will find out what it is with your historical records and a little bit of cunning. "

''Not only that," he continued, ''But you love a puzzle and you love this city. If anything jeapordized your little paradise, I'm sure you'd take care of it one way or another."

Spritch nodded his head in silent agreement. ''Be safe out there Brian."

Fastjack raised his hipflask in acknowledgement.

''Oh and Brian…"

''Yeah?"

''Don't leave town."


Present Day, 8 Hours Ago (1:42 AM)

Spritch stared disbelivingly at his readout in his VR environment. Brian — Fastjack — hadn't been entirely right about what was going on in Sujii electronics. While it was true that Sujii was owned by Horizon, a fact that even he didn't know, it wasn't true that their latest project involved the devil. It did involve what Fastjack had called the Prime Dissonance.

Sujii had been, for the past six or so years, working on something so top secret that their main manufacturing building had been shielded astrally and kept safe from the rabble who lived in Bakersfield by anti-personel tanks and a very hefty system of ATTMs. Whatever it was they were working on, it was big… and potentially very dangerous. That's all Spritch could find out about it. It was big and it involved the Prime Dissonance.

Not knowing what the Dissonance was he called the only person he could think of that would know: Count Charles Tenault, Leader of the R&D department of the W1ZK1D5. Count Tenault described the Dissonance as some kind of anti-entity in the Matrix. His explaination was so technical in nature that even Spritch couldn't follow. He suspected that Tenault knew he had lost his inquirer and summed it up in the words that haunted Spritch as he drifted off into sleep.

''The Dissonance is what remains of all the dead AI's and minds of hackers who die in the Matrix. It is a malelovent being that only desires destruction and chaos. I hope you aren't playing with it."

The thought of a corporate project involving Dissonance made Spritch's skin crawl like he had just experienced Dumpshock. He pushed the discomfort from his mind and willed himself to sleep with a hypnosis program in his VR sim.


Present Day, 15 minutes ago (9:27 AM)

Spritch was just starting to wake up from his VR slumber when he noticed that he wasn't still connected to the Matrix… Odd. He never disconnected. With a wave of his hand in VR he sent out a connection protocol attempt and received an unfamiliar two beeps indicating an error. Spritch shook his head and tried again, this time being met with success.

The first thing he noticed was a string of messages awaiting his attention. Every single one of them was listed as high priority and came from ''Unknown Sender@Unknown Node." This wasn't someone being anonymous, this was someone who came from nowhere and had no address. Either someone very good at hacking or a technomancer who'd been submersed for a little too long.

The second thing he picked up on was that all his icons were flickering as though infected with some kind of viral code or agent. Spritch transfered the messages to digital paper and once again left VR and turned his commlink off.

With each note that Spritch read his eyes grew wider. When he finished, Spritch picked up a spare commlink from his desk and left his Condo.


Present Day, Present Time

Without much thought Spritch turned on his spare commlink. Being his spare it didn't have any of the interesting goodies that he had in his regular commlink that prevented tracking and signal interception… but the situation called for annonymity. This commlink had no ability to broadcast a matrix address or SIN which made it perfect for one thing: Phone calls.

''Jeremiah. Spritch. I need a team of Runners for a combo job. Find me capable people. This is not going to be pretty or easy. No… don't tell them that. Yes, it's dangerous. No, don't tell them that either. Look, I don't give a fuck. Just find them."

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