Wow, I wrote this 13 years ago. I entered it in a contest on Shapcano’s website, and it was a winner. Sadly, Shapcano passed away last year and his website is gone now. I hunted this down using the Wayback Machine and discovered I’m still pretty happy with it, so I figured I’d post it here so I’d have it somewhere on my own site. I didn’t edit it at all, so this is pure unadulterated 2001.

Hope you like it.

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Ace Mulligan’s Last Run

Looking back, I had to wonder why I’d agreed to this. What was I thinking, anyway? Pretty obvious my brain had taken a vacation and was just now coming back with a big bag of souvenir drek and a hangover.

Little late to worry about it at this point, though. We were here and we’d taken the job. You didn’t back out of a job once you’d taken Johnson’s money–not unless you’ve been fragged over, of course, and so far that hadn’t happened.

Being fragged by Johnson was actually about the last thing I was worried about at the moment. We should have such simple problems.

Fastening up my armored jacket, I did a quick once-over of my team as they completed their final preparations. Tony was checking his SMG and stowing it in the specially-designed leather holster he’d had made for it, while Gossamer was stashing all those weird-looking doodads she used for her magic. She didn’t look much like a mage with her camo jacket and shaved head, but I knew as well as the rest of the team how punishing she could be in a fight, and her recon skills were first-rate. Next to her Desmo, our rigger, leaned against the side of his van, picking at his fingernails with his survival knife. The dwarf didn’t believe in last-minute preparations–he’d probably been ready for hours.

The van’s sliding door was open, and sitting on the edge of the cargo area was our last team member. His head was tilted slightly forward, and a faint rumbling sound reached me through the crisp night air. Ace was asleep.

I sighed, wondering for not the first time tonight how much it would frag our rep if we just took Ace home and called off the job as a bad decision.

The whole thing had started two days ago when we got a call from Frankie, our usual fixer. Things had been pretty tight lately since we’d lost Kerch on our last run, and we were all grateful for a chance to make some cred so we didn’t ask too many questions. We met up with him at a little place called Josie’s and were surprised to see someone with him when we showed.

Frankie waved off our objections and motioned us to sit down. As usual, Tony remained standing. I checked the new guy out as I settled into a seat: human, not young, dressed in leather jacket and jeans. His eyes were watchful and his face hard. I wondered if he was in the same line of work we were. I waited.

Frankie wasn’t much for preambles. “This is Blueboy,” he said, indicating his companion. I noticed then what I hadn’t quite registered in the bar’s dim light: the guy’s eyes were solid blue, and his dark hair was dyed with a faint tinge of the same color. I remembered the name then: small-time runner, good rep, been around awhile, never quite cracked the big time. I’d never met him but I’d heard of him. Folks who weren’t involved in the shadow community would be surprised to find out what a small fraternity we really were when you got right down to it.

I shrugged, nodding a greeting. Blueboy returned the nod. He looked–not nervous exactly, but anxious about something.

Frankie was rising. “I think I hear a drink calling,” he said. “I’ll be back in a few.”

When the fixer had gone, Blueboy and I sized each other up across the table. I could feel rather than see the presence of Tony, Desmo, and Gossamer behind me, near but not too close. They trusted me to do the negotiation for the team. “So,” I said. “Whatcha got?”

“I got a job for you, if you want it,” he said quietly.

I studied him. Runners didn’t usually hire other runners. In fact, I think this was the first time I’d ever heard of such a thing. My internal suspicion needle notched up a couple of levels. “What kinda job?”

Blueboy hesitated for a few moments, as if deciding how much to tell us. “I’ve heard of you guys. You been around awhile. Got a rep for bein’ straight-shooters.”

I made a half-shrug, half-go on gesture. “Yeah, so?” Behind me, I could feel Gossamer moving in a little closer. Curious, probably. Couldn’t blame her. This was weird.

“So this ain’t exactly a standard sorta job. I need somebody I can trust to do it.”

I sighed, leaning forward. “Listen: Why don’t you tell us what this is about, okay?” I was beginning to wonder what Frankie was up to. “We ain’t much for pussy-footin’.”

Another long pause, and then Blueboy sighed too. “Okay.” His blue eyes met mine. “You ever heard of a guy named Ace Mulligan?”

I rummaged around in my brain–the name sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. Tony moved in, supplying the details. “Ork runner from a few years back. Good in his day, right? I thought he was dead, though.”

Blueboy shook his head. “He’s not dead. He used to be my partner.”

I didn’t let the reaction reach my face, but his words did catch me off guard. Not for long, though: the memory came back, triggered by Tony’s words and Blueboy’s pronouncement. Ace Mulligan and Blueboy, along with a couple of others whose names I couldn’t remember and who were mostly likely dead, had been a pretty good team in their day. Never hit the big time, but big enough to be remembered. The particulars weren’t coming to me at the moment, but the reps were solid. “Used to be? He get out of the business?”

Now Blueboy’s expression was bitter. “Yeah, you could say that. Kinda forced out by nature, you know?”

For a moment I didn’t realize what he meant, and then Tony’s soft voice came over my shoulder. “Right. He’s an ork. Natural-born. He’d be, what, about forty now?”

I looked up at Tony’s face and saw more bitterness in his own orkish features. Sometimes I tended to forget that he was only twenty-one, because from the look of him and the way he acted, he seemed quite a bit older. Orks aged fast and died, at least by human standards, young. Sighing softly, I turned back to Blueboy. “Hey, I’m sorry about that, but–”

Blueboy waved me off. “Can’t do nothin’ about it, I know that. Not about what’s happened to him. But I can do something about part of it, and that’s why I want to hire you guys.” He smiled, just a little. “I want to give Ace one last run.”

It was about that point that my brain had ordered up a ticket and departed for sunnier climes. Blueboy had produced a datachip which contained two things: the address of the Oak Meadows Rest Home, which was Ace’s current residence, and the location of a small research lab on the edge of Seattle. We were to bust Ace out of the rest home, outfit him with some armor and a gun, and take him with us on a run to steal some files from the lab. The cover story we were to use was that we needed Ace’s knowledge of the place’s layout–apparently he and Blueboy and the rest had broken into the same lab several years ago on a run.

I headed off my brain as it stepped onto the jetway toward the plane long enough to protest: “Are you crazy? You want us to break some old guy out of a rest home and take him on a run? Why can’t you do this yourself if you’re determined to give him a last fling? Couldn’t you just go–I don’t know–sign him out or something?”

Blueboy shook his head. “First thing, I can’t do that. I’m not family. The security’s pretty tame there, but they don’t just let anybody come in and take somebody out. Second–he’s old, but his mind’s still there. If I showed up, or had any part of this, he’d suspect something was up.”

“So we’re supposed to risk our lives for nothing?” Desmo asked. They had all given up the facade of letting me do the negotiation now and had crowded in around the tiny table. “I assume these files you’re talking about are worthless?”

Blueboy shook his head. “No, they’re the real deal. They aren’t worth much, but if you get them you should be able to sell ‘em for a couple thousand. Plus I’ll pay you ten thousand up front to do this. I got some cred stashed, and I can afford it. That should make it worth your while. Another five when the run’s over.” He paused a moment, and when he spoke again he met not my eyes but Tony’s, even though he was talking to all of us. “Look…I went to visit Ace a couple of weeks ago. He’s wastin’ away in there. I could see it in his eyes. Guy like him, guy used to action–it’s fraggin’ hard on him to have to stay in a place like that all day, even though he ain’t really up to takin’ care of himself. They take good care of him. It’s a good place, not one of them dumps they warehouse people in till they die. But–” He spread his hands and sighed. “It ain’t right. He ain’t got long left–I figured somethin’ like this might be just what it takes to make things bearable for him until–” He trailed off, but all of us knew what he was going to say: until he dies.

I took a deep breath, letting the silence hang in the air for several moments. “Give us a few,” I told him. “I want to talk to the others about this.”

In the end it was Tony who decided it for us. “I want to do this, Jason,” he said soberly when we’d moved off, away from the table. “I know what it’s like. I just lost my dad a couple of years ago–it was like one day he was fine and the next day he was old. I know it wasn’t really like that, but for all the times I made excuses when I should have gone to see him–” His tone was bitter again. “It’s drek the way orks go so fast, Jason. Ace was one of us. Maybe we never knew him, but he was. I’m in.”

Of course we were all in after that. Back at the table, I gave Blueboy the word. He didn’t smile, just nodded and handed over the datachip and the location of Ace’s room at the rest home. Oh, and the ten grand. We might feel sorry for the old guy, but biz was biz.

You can believe me when I say we made some fraggin’ careful plans before pulling this one off. My brain might have been on vacation, but it was still calling to check in with Reality Land once or twice a day and I didn’t plan for myself or my team to get geeked over a milk run with an old geezer, pay or no pay.

A little research by Desmo (he was doing more decking than rigging these days, and was equally good at both) turned up the particulars on the lab: it was a little biotech operation loosely affiliated with a small corp that was itself loosely affiliated with Ares. As near as he could determine there wasn’t anything vitally important going on there, and the data we were supposed to boost was probably just notes on one or more of their projects in the pipeline. Security was minimal, and the place wasn’t likely to have more than a skeleton crew hanging around after dark. Looked like Blueboy wasn’t trying to frag us that way. Desmo managed to download a floorplan of the place (I didn’t ask where he found it–sometimes it was better just not to know) and two nights after we’d signed on, we headed off to do the first part of our job.

The Meadows Rest Home was on the edge of a residential neighborhood in Everett. We parked half a block down the street and checked the place out from the van. It was a single story building surrounded by parklike landscaping. Out back was a large grassy area lined with wide paved pathways and dotted with little benches. The fence that surrounded it was tasteful and unobtrusive. Still a fence, though–they wouldn’t want anybody wandering AWOL.

Gossamer took a jaunt through astrally and came up with nothing suspicious. “Just a bunch of old folks,” she said. “Looks like maybe about sixty of ‘em, some awake, most asleep, and about ten people who are probably staff.” She sighed. “Some of them are happy, but most of them–they just seemed depressed. Lost. Like there’s nothing left to live for.”

I ignored her last words–Goss got a little funny sometimes with the emotions she encountered on the astral and it was best just to move on and let it pass–and glanced at my chrono. 21:00: a little late for visiting. “Goss, you and Tony come on. The locks can’t be much–there’s a back door a couple of hallways from his room. With luck we can just get in and out before they discover us. If not, Goss can make us look like we belong there. Desmo, you stay here with the van and stay in contact. We’ll want to get out fast once we’ve got him.”

The door was a cakewalk–Tony got it open in about five seconds, and even I probably could have done it in thirty. We waited a moment to make sure no alarms would go off, then slipped inside. We were standing in a wide corridor lined with doors which were mostly closed. Two or three were open a bit, with wedges of light coming from behind them. Overhead dim fluorescents shone at low levels, making the hallway bright enough for the staff to navigate. Wheelchairs, IV poles, and a couple of hospital gurneys were pushed against the walls at intervals.

“Nobody here,” Tony whispered. “C’mon. Let’s get this over with.” He seemed uncomfortable, but I didn’t ask why.

We crept down the hallway. As we moved slowly in the direction of Ace’s room I took in the walls: they were lined with holopics, a few still-lifes of fruits and flowers, and bulletin boards with notices, more holos, and cut-out crafts. I think I realized then what was bothering Tony: everything looked so relentlessly cheerful, but around every corner, behind every cut-out flower and family holopic was the lurking despair that none of these folks were long for this world. Gossamer touched me on the shoulder and gave me an are you all right? look. I nodded and moved on. The place smelled faintly of old-fashioned perfume, cleaning products, the far-off tang of medicine, and the slightest odor of stale urine. Hospital smells. Suddenly I felt sorry for Ace Mulligan.

Gossamer, who had taken the lead, held up a quick hand and pantomimed that someone was coming down the hallway we had been about to turn down. Tony grasped my shoulder and pointed at a half-open door next to me; I darted in followed by Tony and then Gossamer. We closed the door behind us.

“Well, hello there,” said a soft, quavery voice. I whirled, realizing instantly that we might have made a big mistake: we weren’t alone.

I relaxed when I saw her, though: a tiny, gentle-looking human woman with wispy white hair and a bed-jacket covered with bright violets. She was smiling at me, her eyes twinkling through her small round old-fashioned glasses. “Hello,” she said again. “I wasn’t expecting gentlemen callers so late in the evening.”

There was something in her voice that told me she wasn’t seeing quite what was really there. Off to the side I sensed Goss sitting on the other bed and going astral to follow the progress of the person in the hall, while Tony looked back and forth between the two of us and waited. “We’re–just visiting for a couple of minutes,” I told her. “Sorry to bother you…”

Her laugh tinkled like a small glass bell. “Oh, it’s no bother,” she assured me. “I don’t get many visitors here.” There was a slight sadness in her tone when she said it. She shifted a little in bed, her movements birdlike and precise. “I’d offer you something, but–”

“No–uh, thanks. That’s okay. We appreciate it, but we really do have to be leaving.” Gossamer was waving that the danger had passed by, so I nodded politely to the lady. Her eyes were blue, her face wrinkled with papery pale skin. The scent of violets surrounded her, maybe to match her jacket.

“Must you go so soon?” Her voice quavered a bit again, and even somebody as dense as I am about emotional things could hear the disappointment in it.

Impulsively I gave her a gentle pat on her hand. “We have to,” I said gently. “We have to get going. Maybe we’ll come back some other time.”

“You do that,” she said, her eyes fluttering as she began to drop off to sleep. “Such a nice young man. It’ll be such fun…”

I didn’t say anything as we left the room, except to glare at Tony as if to say, you make a comment, you’re dead. Funny thing was, he didn’t seem inclined to make one anyway.

We reached Ace Mulligan’s room without running into any other wandering staff members or residents, except one old guy parked in the hallway in a wheelchair who looked deeply asleep. We sneaked past him and he didn’t wake up. The sign on Ace’s door read “Gerald Mulligan.”

The door was closed and the light was out. The three of us exchanged glances as I subvocalized into my throat mike and updated Desmo on our progress.

Gossamer used her clairvoyance spell to check out the inside of the room. “Looks like he’s in bed,” she whispered. “He’s alone. There’s a night light in there, but that’s it.”

“Can we go out the window?” I asked. It had occurred to me that it might be easier than trying to make our way back through the hallways to the door.

She shook her head. “Nope. Too small.”

I sighed. “Okay. Let’s do this before anybody else shows up.”

The door, of course, wasn’t locked. As we slid inside we could hear the loud snuffling sounds of Ace snoring and the softer sound of a small fan. Other than Ace himself, the room contained two beds (one empty), a trideo unit bolted to the ceiling, two nightstands, and a couple of chairs. Two doors led to a closet and a bathroom, and I grinned when I saw what was hanging on the wall between them: an R-rated calendar featuring ork pinup girls. Goss was right: the window was far too small and high up for us to make use of.

Gossamer and Tony watched the door while I moved over next to the bed and shook Ace’s shoulder. He was still big, but I could see he’d once been bigger: his wrinkled skin sagged over muscles that had been strong and healthy only a few short years ago but were now going to fat. I hoped he wouldn’t yell when we woke him.

He stirred, looked startled, and snuffled deeply. “Hm? What? Is it morning already?” His voice was deep but not loud. “Frag it, Nurse, I said I didn’t want to–”

“Shh…” I whispered. “It’s not the nurse. We need your help, Ace.”

At the sound of the name his wandering gaze focused a little. “Ace?” he asked sharply. “How did you–?”

I risked switching on the light and let him see me. In the glow of the bedside lamp he looked even worse: tired and old and wasted. His hair, white and thin, was plastered over a freckled skull, and one of his tusks was badly yellowed. His eyes, though, seemed clear–brown and keen. “We need your help,” I repeated. “We’ve got a job and we heard you’re the guy who knows the layout.”

He looked at me suspiciously, then checked out Goss and Tony. He seemed to relax a bit when he saw Tony was an ork. “You runners?”

“Yeah. Like I said–we got a job, and we gotta hurry. That’s why we’re bothering you. If you can help we can make it worth your while…” I hoped I sounded sufficiently pleading. Somebody was bound to notice the light under the door and check soon. I hoped too that he wasn’t sharp enough to catch on to just how thin our story was.

A slow smile spread across the old ork’s face, and he made a fast decision–the kind he’d been known for making in his shadowrunning days. “You got yourself a deal, kid. But you gotta take me with you.” He sounded adamant.

“I don’t know, Ace,” I said, while doing my best to suppress a grin. “What will the nurses–?”

“Frag the nurses,” he said cheerfully. “I ain’t never had a chance to get outta here, and I ain’t gonna pass one up. Help me up or no deal.”

We helped him up.

Getting out was easier than we expected: Ace knew all the nurses’ routines, and once we’d gotten him into his clothes he took us unsteadily down another corridor that led to yet another exit door. In less than ten minutes (most of that because Ace didn’t move so fast) we were out in the night air and Desmo was pulling up with the van.

That had been a little over two hours ago, and it was nearly midnight when the van slid silently to the curb half a block down from the lab and we began our final preparations. I’d reconsidered three or four times between the time we took Ace away from the rest home and our arrival here: the old guy was definitely showing his age both in the wasting of his body and the wandering of his mind, and I more than a little scared that he’d frag the mission by doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. I was even more scared to give him a gun, but that was part of what Blueboy had hired us for: to make it seem like he was a valued part of the team. I compromised with rubber bullets, telling him that this was a non-lethal run. True enough anyway: no point in killing a bunch of innocent security guards for a bogus job.

He sat there now on the van’s step, snoring softly, a tiny runnel of drool wending its way from the corner of his mouth. We’d kitted him out in an old armored jacket of Tony’s that hung on his once-massive frame, some low-light shades, and an SMG on a strap. He clutched it now even in sleep, and all of us made sure to stay well away from the business end as we got our gear on. “You guys sure you’re still in?” I whispered. “Last chance for any of you to back out.”

Tony nodded, with a glance toward Ace. “Yeah, I’m still in. Should be in and out. We can keep an eye on him, keep him outta trouble.”

Gossamer nodded next. “We took the job.”

Desmo was a little slower, but at last he too inclined his head. “I don’t like it,” he said, “but I can see why we’re doing it. I certainly wouldn’t want to end up stuck in a place like that.”

I looked around at them, reading their faces, and grinned. “Okay, then. Somebody wake Ace up and let’s go.”

Ace’s description of the place, which he had given us in bits and pieces on the trip over, corresponded surprisingly accurately with the map that Desmo was surreptitiously checking it against. Goss’ astral recon confirmed that there were only four guards in the whole place, and by their auras they seemed more bored than anything. The only thing that troubled her was that there were a couple of places she couldn’t penetrate, but they weren’t near where Blueboy had told us the files were. Desmo noted them on our map before we went in. Amazingly enough, it looked like this run was going to go as easily as it was supposed to. Still, I kept on guard and I could tell the others were too. Things never went as easily as expected. Thinking they would was the fastest ticket to Dead.

Normally in a job like this we’d try to pass ourselves off as the janitorial crew or something, but with Ace that wouldn’t have been possible so we just found ourselves an out-of-the-way back door and got in courtesy of Desmo’s electronics wizardry. I could hear Ace’s breathing behind me–he sounded like a freight train back there and I was afraid he was going to alert the whole place, but so far things were quiet. Desmo was supporting him on one side and Goss on the other, while Tony held his SMG ready and crept quietly down the hallway next to me.

We carefully avoided the cameras until we could find Desmo a jackpoint where he could plug in and do a little creative doctoring of the images. Fortunately there weren’t all that many cameras, so it only took him a few minutes to make the changes so all the hallways looked clear. The rest of us watched the door and paced around–all except for Ace, who was muttering to himself.

“Something wrong, Ace?” I asked against my better judgment. I was relieved to see that he still had the SMG holstered. The original plan was just to kind of humor him, but his mutterings were getting louder. I figured I’d see what his problem was before we got back out in the hallway.

“Yeah…” the old guy said in his gravelly voice. His gaze wandered around the room. “Yeah…Something wrong…”

Goss wandered over to listen. “Something in particular?” I asked. “Feeling bad?”

He shook his head impatiently, then paused for awhile, dizzy and breathing hard. “No, not me. Not me. Something–” Once more he shook his head and then said no more. I thought he was looking even older than when we’d picked him up: his shoulders were slumped under his heavy armored coat, his skin pale, his chest heaving in and out with his labored breath. I hoped his old body would hold together long enough for us to get him out of here and back to the home.

“There,” Desmo said, pushing the chair back from the console. “That should take care of it. I also unlocked the door to the room we’re headed to, so this should be an in-and-out.” I didn’t miss the significant look he cast toward Ace to go with his emphasis, but he didn’t comment further.

Almost as an afterthought Gossamer used her clairvoyance spell before we went out–I could already see we were all getting a little sloppy. That changed in a hurry when she stiffened. “Hey–there were only four guards here before. Now there are–” she paused to count “–eight. And they look agitated about something.”

I was immediately on guard, and the others weren’t far behind. “Where?” Tony asked, his hand on his SMG. “They seem like they’ve noticed us?”

Goss closed her eyes and looked some more. “No. They’re on alert, but they’re not headed this way.”

“Expecting somebody else?” Tony mused.

“Thought Bl–” I caught myself fast before mentioning our employer’s name in Ace’s earshot. “–Johnson said there wasn’t much else worth taking here. They’re not guarding the room we’re headed to?” I was more worried about where they might have come from, but no time to worry about that now.

Gossamer shook her head. “Nowhere near it. They seem to be concentrating on the south end of the complex.”

That was where we’d gotten in. “We’ll have to find another way out,” I said. “And we’d better hurry. It won’t be long before they find out somebody’s been fragging with the cameras.”

Ace had started muttering again. He’d drawn his SMG but he still wasn’t aiming it at anything. He kept looking around the room and at the views on the cameras as if trying to puzzle something out. He didn’t give us any trouble as we headed out, though, and in a couple of minutes his mutterings didn’t matter–they’d been drowned out by the sound of the alarm klaxon that went off almost directly above our heads.

Goss and Desmo just about jumped out of their skins. Tony and I stayed relatively calm, and surprisingly so did Ace. His gun barrel swung around toward the speaker but he didn’t fire.

“Come on,” Tony snapped. “Let’s get this thing and get the frag outta here while they’re busy at the other end.”

“Are you sure?” Desmo asked, casting a significant look at everybody but Ace, who was busy examining the walls. I knew immediately what he was getting at–Blueboy had hired us to give Ace a thrill and steal a mostly worthless set of files on a cakewalk run. Something had clearly gone wrong–did we keep up the pretense, or cut and run while we still could?

Everybody looked at me. I was the team leader, so I got the fun decisions. I forced myself to ignore the sound of the klaxon and think. “How close to it are we?”

“There,” Goss said, pointing at a door at the end of the hall we were in.

Tony gripped my arm. “Look!”

I looked. Between us and the room that was our destination was a large, heavy double door. Above it in green, glowing, government-issue letters were the sweetest words in the world: “EXIT”.

I grinned. “Let’s do it,” I said. “Come on–hurry. We’ll get out there and Desmo can bring the van around by remote.”

I started off toward the door and felt cold bony fingers on my arm. “Wait…” Ace said. “Something–not–” He was looking around wildly, frustration clearly showing on his wrinkled face.

“Come on, Ace!” I yanked him impatiently in the direction of the door. The others were already headed that way. “Whatever it is, we’ll worry about it when we get out.”

Just as Desmo had said, the door was open. The room was empty except for a bank of old-fashioned file cabinets and a desk with a chair. While Tony and I kept watch, Desmo and Goss quickly found the file in question and Goss tucked it inside her jacket. “Done!” Desmo yelled. “Go!”

Ace had been leaning against a wall, catching his breath. This time he grabbed Goss’ arm. “Wait!” he said again. There was a strange look in his eyes–it was like the rest of him was old but his eyes were leftover equipment from the old Ace. His hand shook on her arm. “Please–” He looked like he was about to cry from frustration. “Can’t–remember–”

Tony swept the door open and moved out into the hallway, covering it with his SMG. No sign of guards yet. “Come on!” he hissed, moving toward the exit door.

It was a little hard later to reconstruct what happened next, but I think I got it right. I was moving to follow Tony when suddenly a form shoved past me. At first I thought it was a guard, or maybe Desmo, but I realized in shock that it was Ace Mulligan–yelling “NO!!!” at the top of his old lungs and slamming himself into Tony just as Tony pulled open the door.

After that things got even crazier. There was a bright flash of light followed by the unmistakable staccato pattern of automatic weapon fire from some automated rig behind the door. Ace screamed, then Tony screamed, then Desmo slammed the door shut and it was just the klaxons again.

At first I was afraid it had gotten them both, but Tony rolled up and was on his feet so fast I knew he couldn’t be hurt. Ace, however, was another story.

The old ork lay on the floor against the wall opposite the deadly doorway, curled up in a ball with a red puddle slowly spreading beneath him. He still clutched his SMG and was moaning softly.

Tony and I dropped down next to him. “Ace!” I called in his ear. “Goss, get over–”

Ace shook his head. His eyes were bright. “Map–wrong,” he whispered. “Door–didn’t match up with–outside–” His head slumped to the side.

My eyes widened and met Tony’s. Above us, Desmo’s voice was harsh. “He’s right, frag it. How did I miss–?”

Gossamer cut in on us. “They’re coming,” she said. “We’ve gotta get out of here. I’d say about a minute at most.”

“Come on, then.” I bent down to pick up Ace, motioning for Tony to help me.

He shook his head; his eyes were hard. “He’s gone, Jason. We’ll never get out of here if we have to–”

I could hear the pain in his voice, but also the professionalism. I could also see that he was right–Ace was staring up at us with glazed, unseeing eyes. We had less than a minute to get to the real exit and get out. “Let’s go,” I said, rising quickly. “Leave him.” It was one of the hardest decisions I’d ever had to make.

I spared one last look back at him as we pounded down the corridor toward the way out. “Thanks, chummer,” I whispered, and wondered if somewhere out there he hadn’t heard me.

We almost didn’t show up back at Josie’s. We almost just called to give Blueboy the news and tell him we didn’t need the rest of our payment. None of us thought we deserved it. Still, though, we were professionals and pros saw things through even when they weren’t pleasant. It was four pretty hangdog runners who showed up at that meet.

Blueboy was already there waiting for us. He checked us out, then cocked his head to the side a little. “Where’s Ace? Did you already take him back to the–?”

“Ace is dead, Blueboy,” I said. I sounded a little more blunt than I wanted to, but the quicker it was out in the open, the better.

Oddly, he didn’t look surprised. “What happened?”

We gave him a quick rundown of the job. Even more oddly, as we got to the part about Ace’s contribution and his demise, a slow smile spread across his face. “You mean he was actually useful? He helped you guys out?”

“That old geezer saved my life,” Tony growled. “Hadn’t been for him, I’d’ve–Why the hell are you smilin’?” he demanded, glaring at Blueboy.

But right then I got it. I nodded slowly. “You–expected Ace to die on that run, didn’t you?” I asked Blueboy. “In fact–you hoped he would.”

The rest of my team just stared at me like I’d sprouted wings, but Blueboy nodded. “I know it’s a hard thing to say, that you hope somebody would die–especially somebody as close to you as a brother–but–” He spread his hands and didn’t meet my eyes. “Yeah. I did.” There was an edge to his tone, as if daring one of us to challenge him.

The others were catching on now. It was Tony who spoke next. “You sent him out there because you knew dyin’ doin’ something he loved–doin’ something where he felt useful–would be better than wastin’ away in that place.” Tears glistened at the corners of his eyes and his voice shook a little. “Frag…” was all he said as he turned away. In all my life, I’d never heard a word spoken with more respect.

We didn’t take the second half of the payment. Instead, we told Blueboy to find something Ace would have wanted to do with it. “Just figure it’s his cut for his last run,” I told him.

Blueboy didn’t say anything as he left, but I was pretty sure he approved.

(c)2001, Rat