Philadelphia Stories:
Roughskin Magic

Chapter One: Two weeks in Philadelphia

My stop was getting close, but the train wasn't slowing down at all. Which was perfect.

The wind swirled around my legs and yanked at my pack, howling as the ties below me blurred past. I whispered a silent request and reached for the charm at my neck, a tiny jade-colored figurine with long ears. "Rabbit," I said, out loud for once, since no one could hear me, "Look. I know I don't deserve this. But if you could see your way clear to, well, you know. The usual. Legs and whiskers, please."

There was a brief moment of nothing, when it was just me, swaying, hand gripping tightly to the thin metal railing at the end of the freight car. Then, creeping up like clearheadedness after a long nap, I felt Rabbit's energy fill me: whiskers and strong legs, and the ability to be, if not actually unseen, at least unnoticed.

"He's right there!" The voice was close, but muted. Through the dingy glass window of the car's door I saw the uniforms. Black with yellow stripes: EastRail's goon squad, six steps behind me. I didn't know how many of them there were, and I wasn't looking to find out.

The train slowed for a curve. Only a slight change of speed, but it was my cue. On one side the Atlantic loomed; on the other, an embankment, a muddy crawl, and then the city lights.

I steeled myself for the jump. Even with Rabbit's strength in my legs, it was going to be an adventure.

The first bullet missed my flesh by inches. I could feel it tug on my jacket, pulling out a chunk out of the ballistic nylon. Reflexively I jerked back, before the second or third shots could hit. Then I was falling, that all-important grip on the railing lost in an instant. In desperation I kicked at the train car, turning the fall into a dive, leaping as hard as I could straight backwards.

The ground came up hard.

I'd intended to jump clear of the parallel tracks, but exigency and panic landed me on the thick wooden ties, still bouncing forward, my leap unable to kill the speed imparted by the train. My arms went out in an arc, trying to turn a skid into a roll. I lumped around and around, the heavy load on my back turning me into a misshapen wheel.

Dazed, I tried to get to my feet, only to find I was still moving forward, and promptly face-planted on the gravel beside the rail. A rock tried to cut my cheek, but, well, it didn't stand much of a chance. The one that struck my left tusk was a lot more painful; teeth, even our teeth, are teeth, and the impact hurt. Finally I came to a stop, a small gouge in the gravel around me and a dust cloud marking my impact.

The tusk seemed to be okay; I'd need a mirror to be sure, but nothing felt chipped or cracked. In the distance I could see a small dust cloud like mine. Was one of the goons as desperate as I was? Corp work didn't pay that well. If it had, I wouldn't have been stuck jumping freight.

I squinted into the gloom. The sun had set, and all that was left for light was the sky-glow from the city in the distance. Too bad Tomae wasn't here; her eagle-eyes would have picked out the figure easily. I rolled, gently this time, down the embankment, then pulled myself up and over the stubborn remnants of a metal fence. My feet made deep squelches in the soft ground that had once been a school playground, before the sea had come in and said hello.

Yep. I could just make out the figure against the grey sky. With barely time enough to notice they had a bead on me, I ducked up against the fence, breathing hard. I froze as still as I could. "You don't see me; I am no one; there is nothing here," I mumbled quietly. The first request had tired me out, but Rabbit liked this one better, and I almost instantly got an odd feeling of not-quite-being.

A short rifle barrel poked over the fence, scanning with a precision I thought of as ex-military. After a quick clear, the figure folded itself over the fence, landing quietly, and began picking his way across the field. If it'd been a little bit lighter out, my tracks would have led him back to me. But what idiot would try to hide in plain sight when their pursuer was right behind them?

I forced myself to slow-count to two hundred, until his ass had long since vanished from sight. Only then did I finally allow myself to sink down against the fence. Time to take stock and organize my gear.

The top was ripped off my pack, and I'd lost a few things in the impact. Fuck. They were probably lying a quarter-mile back, where I'd hit, or been flung into the drink. My good sunglasses, kept on top for sudden glare situations; my rain cover; and, worst, the two packs I was supposed to be transporting north. One of my cans of beans was badly dented, but it still seemed to be holding vacuum, so I shoved it in further and thought hard.

With the packs gone, the double-cross was a bust; there was no point in trying to meet my contact now. What I needed to do was lie low for a while, hope that Plaxicorp didn't care enough about one minor shipment to send its own repo men after me.

This wasn't being the lucrative side trip I'd hoped for.

I clambered up onto the mostly-intact statue of good ol' General W., his tarnished bronze, and stared out across the hazy night toward the city. Philadelphia. I'd loved this place once, a long time ago, but she and I had parted ways, and not on the best of terms.

It was a long, tense, slow slog up the west-side byways, through marshy land unoccupied even by the most desperate of refugees. By the time I could see the flat lights of Philly center, I was huffing and puffing and the crescent moon was fully up.

The walk gave me ample time to think. There wasn't much help for it: I needed a place to crash and get my bearings. And that meant Josh.

We'd been friends since middle school. The nerdy pair, the boys who'd never gotten asked to sit at the cool table, not even once.

We were fifteen when we realized we were more interested in each other than in girls. It took me a long while to get it through my thick head, but Josh figured it out quicker. He was nine days older than me, you see, and that'd made all the difference.

We were sixteen when the mutation hit.

By then we were separated from each other by six hours of train rides, or a four-hour drive. Long distance sucked. He had a car and I didn't, which put a strain on the relationship. I'd been exiled to a college town west of nowhere, deep in central PA; he was living in the big city. Philadelphia never really let him go, but in the end I had to.

We had just turned twenty-two when the earthquakes came, when lower Manhattan vanished under the waves, and flooded power stations sent arcing bolts of energy out to crackle through the night; when two million refugees fled outward, to land in the shattered remains of Upstate and Trenton and Philly.

And we were both twenty-eight when I showed up on his doorstep, two blocks off a side street, right where he'd said it was. He was living on the second floor of a rickety high-rise thrown up to house the refugees from Jersey City, in the desperate flight from the inlets to higher ground.

"Jason?" he asked, his hand still on the door. His fingernails were long, a copy of mine, a dingy grey-yellow like most of us; big knuckles gnarled and calloused, one side effect of the changes that had caused our bodies to remake themselves.

I nodded at him, smiling carefully around my tusks. That was something that still took attention, even after years; it brought with it a momentary surge of nostalgia for our smooth-skinned days. He stood much taller than I remembered, unless I thought carefully; he had always been the shorter one, back when, but we'd both gained a foot and more since high school.

" you need a place to sleep?" he asked. "You look terrible."

I shrugged and tried not to cry. "It's not my first choice," I said; then, seeing the twitch in his face, added, "I mean--I don't want to impose if it isn't--yeah. I do."

"Sure, sure," he said. "Is there anyone with you?" He ducked his head under the door's lintel, his bulk filling the frame completely.

I shrugged. I didn't want to explain Rabbit to him, not yet. So, I fingered the bone chain around my neck, and the green jade cloverleaf bracelet wrapped loose around my left wrist. It wasn't real jade, just hard thermoplastic and cheap dye, but it meant everything to me.

Instead I just shook my head no.

"Well, come in," he said. "Let me introduce you to the missus and the kids."

Gina was just a bit taller than Josh, and you could see at a glance how much they loved each other. She had beefy arms, and a wide smile that didn't give any ground. She reminded me of some of the truckers I'd berthed with, straight except at night, and happy to chat on the long miles between stops. Not the straight part. The friendly part.

Josh was still a tiny bit shorter than me, with fine black hair that always seemed a bit oily, and a sharp chin. His lower left tusk was still chipped along the front, where Joey Pincerati had smashed it with a cinder block. That'd been a fun evening.

Their kids were two and four years old, cute little piles of menace and mayhem. The older, Greta, was a bundle of destructive energy: as in most houses for our folks, only the most durable of furnishings had survived the kids--but even with that, she was giving it a workout. Human-built furniture just wasn't made to handle our frames, let alone the hyper-kinetic energy of a new generation.

I growled at her, and she smiled back, then bared her fangs. We went back and forth for a minute, but it was all play-acting. To my surprise, she took to me quickly. It only felt like minutes before I found myself slinging her around my head by one ankle, Greta laughing manically the whole time.

Josh made me stop, claiming he didn't have the upper body strength to keep that sort of thing up for long.

Little Andrew was sallow, and had a specially-made crib, where his sister couldn't accidentally kill him. He'd been born smooth-skinned--barely durable enough to survive the birth, let alone the challenge of his older sister. His eyes were wide and brown and took everything in from inside his metal prison and sanctuary. Inside, he smashed his toy trucks together with abandon nonetheless.

"Jason?" Josh poked his head in while I was reading a story at them. "We put a blanket out for you, and a pillow. Sorry it's the floor, but--"

I nodded. It was tough all over, especially with kids to care for. "I'm out of the rain," I said.

"Yeah. We're going to get some meat out of the pantry, and cook up goulash; it's been a few days."

"I've got--" I scrambled for my pack. "I can put in the pot." Out came both of my big cans of meat, one a beef stew from a decade past, and the other a double-size portion of reliable old spam.

"Hey, we can't take your travel rations," Josh said.

"Just the stew, then?" I said. "It's getting long in the tooth, and could use the company."

His shoulders dropped. "Yeah," he said, putting his hand on mine. "Thanks." For a moment our eyes locked; his irises were nearly black now, much darker than the deep brown I remembered. I thought he was going to add something, but then he pulled away, taking the can with him.

"Pharma runs, mostly," I said. "It keeps a little cash coming in. Hey, this is good stew."

"Thanks," Gina said. "I just bashed it together."

"The carrots are a nice touch. I always forget you can get discount tins at the end of the month. But how'd you get that crunch?"

"Those are fresh!" Josh said with a smile. "We've got a local guy that's put together a mess of clean soil and lets the neighbors farm it."

"Wow," I said.

"Which companies you working for?" Gina asked.

"Plax, mostly," I said. "Pay is decent, when a job comes around. Usually one heavy pack through the battle lines, two hundred kilos or so. If I have to go into Jersey it's double-pay, but I try not to take that kind of job if I can avoid it." I shuddered, recalling the last run; I'd used up the job fee, and more, to have a nearly-detached finger stitched back on. Damn black market doc upping the price at the last minute.

"What're the loads?" Josh asked, then flushed. "I mean--uh--none of my business."

"It's what you'd expect," I said. "Either designer narcs going uptown, to be cut for distribution; or psychedelics for the college kids. I don't handle that end of it, just urban transport."

"And no one--tries to take it?" he said, a note of alarm in his voice.

"Sure, they sometimes try," I said. "But I can move pretty good when I need to."

He gave me a wry grin. "Jason, the track star."

"You ran track?" Gina asked. Made me realize she didn't know one damn thing about me; wondered what, if anything, Josh had passed along, about this old stranger suddenly in their home playing with the kids.

"I was on the team for two days," I said. "Couldn't run fast enough to get away from the other boys."

"Frank Marshall," Josh said.

"Frank fucking Marshall," I said. "Pardoning your pardon. Kids and all."

Gina shrugged. "This fucking city, they hear that all anyway. The kids know it's grown-up talk."

"I mean--now I could probably split Frank's skull open in a second, right?" I growled, clenching one fist for a moment. The callouses and gnarls lined up, making it a solid weapon of destructive force. I'd bashed open a steel-lined door with that fist, once, when I'd stupidly allowed myself to get cornered in a blind alley. That'd stung for a while.

Frank had been one of the ones who'd freaked out when the mutations started. Though he and his parents were both unaffected, his mother had quickly moved him out of our school district--as if it'd keep him away from this, as if it hadn't happened everywhere across the world, as if the magic hadn't resumed its hold in every city and town.

"But you wouldn't," Josh inserted sharply. "Not now."

"I wouldn't do it, no," I said, fingered Rabbit's charm again, and recited his credo under my breath. I wouldn't do it, now. Not unless-- "Hey, so, what's doing on the job front for you and Gina?"

"I fix trucks," she said. "Roads are such crap, it's a steady business. When we get heavy steel I do upgrades; otherwise, it's mostly welding rims and axles back together."

"She's being modest," Josh said. "She helped put together a couple of big culture rammers and wreckers. The shop even built a custom half-track monstrosity for some heavy-looking guys."

"Wreckers? I saw one uprighting a car on my way here. Astonishing that emergency services are servicing beyond the pale."

Josh chuckled. "Emergency services. Yeah. No. That was probably just Fozzie."

I didn't know who that was, so I changed the topic. "Culture rammers, hunh?" I hadn't seen them in action, but c-rammers were the next step in the arms race between squatters and security barricades. Us poors had been cut out of what felt like half the city: tall metal fences, back doors welded shut, busted cars chained together and upended to block the main streets. Inside the wall, there was media campaign to blank it all out: from their side, it just looked like streets that curved around, the back side of a mall in suburbia.

The residents turned a tacitly-supporting blind eye to it all, of course.

And then there were the checkpoints: heavily guarded, sturdy towers looking down on kill boxes. I knew the routes around, of course--it was my job--but some took the barricades personally. Culture-jammers took it on themselves to break the omerta. They made it their mission to smash on through, paint the walls, drop a steaming pile on some corpex's desk: anything to leave behind some shred of evidence that they still existed. The trick was getting out again afterward.

I realized they were staring at me expectantly. "So what's going on with my old schoolmate, work-wise?"

"Josh is helping raise the kids while he looks for work," Gina said.

"Ah." I put a firm hand on his shoulder. "That's tough."

"Yeah, those kids wear me out." He glanced back at the nursery, where Greta was snoring loudly and Andrew watched us with quiet eyes. "In a lotta ways. Have to be so careful with that one."

"It's all too easy to break a little girl's heart," I said, nodding.

"No, I meant--" He stopped, got it, grinned. Just a hint of the old Josh.

"How long you staying?" Josh asked the next morning.

"I can be out of here now, if you need," I said quickly.

"No! No--I meant--I meant it the other way. It was nice having you here. It is nice."

"Oh." I stopped, stared at the floor a moment. It'd been firm and quiet and didn't move that much. I'd slept the previous night on a north-bound train, wedged in a mechanical room up against the rattling old air conditioner. This was luxury in contrast. "Well, look, I got to take care of some things today. See if I can scrounge up some fresh food, then I'll be back for dinner?"

"I'd like that," he said. We shook hands; then he gave me half a hug, and I hugged back, but he squirmed out of my grip. We stood there another minute nearly touching, but not actually. I didn't know where that should go next. He smiled at me, and walked out, and that answered that.

In the dim morning light, the neighborhood made a lot more sense; there were a few dozen folks there, starting to set up shop on the sidewalk. Junk bins and trading stalls and service parlors. I had a little change in pocket, so I splurged on a spicy Jamaican meat pie off a seller. It wasn't meat, and it was clearly well past its prime, but it was also stone cheap.

Plus, our insides were nearly as tough as our outsides. One of the upsides of this odd condition.

Ahead of me there was a bit of a commotion: a car on its side, half in the street, half on the curb. Whomever had taken it on its final joyride had long since scampered, leaving a mess of glass and steel blocking up the place. A broad, shaggy roughskin was crouching down and attaching some sort brace to the car; behind him, I saw the unbelievable, a working wrecker truck, in position to help remove the damn thing. I grinned at the mechanic, and he smiled back with a wistful look. But then a strap snapped, and he leapt back. Behind, I could see a young smoothskin woman working the controls of the winch. A quick shouting match ensued between them, a jocular one, and I pressed on.

A healthy mix of people were walked the streets; about half smoothskin, the balance mostly fellow roughs, though there were a handful of big'uns moving carefully through the crowd. That small count included one very big, and very familiar, head. My nerves jangled and a smile came to my lips.

"Tomae!" I shouted, before I could think it through.

She turned, looking. She was sporting a bright green shock of hair, a little longer than normal for her, but the tattoos on her right cheek were all too familiar. "Son-jay!" she called out, her bass voice booming and cracking through the narrow street.

Big'uns don't have much in the way of subtlety available, not when in these crowded quarters, and everyone around us took notice. She was svelte for such--her shoulders were barely wider than mine--but she had the height and the reach and the strength. If I stretched on my tiptoes I could touch that hair, and had, once, on a dare; afterwards she'd held me upside down by one foot until I promised not to do it again.

"Headed uptown?" I asked. I wasn't, but it was worth the detour to catch up with her.

"How'd you know?" she said, smirking.

"A little bird told me."

"Don't tell me Rabbit's given you up! Coming my way?"

"Nah, just a figure of speech," I said. "How's Eagle treating you?"

"Proud as always," she said. "One of these days he's going to have to swoop down and snatch you."

"Not if I keep running," I said. It was our usual banter, nearly compulsory at this point, though it'd been months since I'd seen her. "So what are you doing all the way out here? Shouldn't you be uptown, hard at work with your secret masters?"

"They--ah. Maybe we should find a place to talk," she said.

"Sure," I said. "How about we walk up the west side tracks?"

She nodded. The path was wide open and unguarded--but no one would be sneaking up on Eagle, not in broad daylight.

"Plax let you go?" I said, shaking my head in disbelief. "But it was such a posh placement!"

"I know," she said, ruefully. "Can't even prove it's racism. Of course. One of the managers just said I didn't fit in."

"Fit in," I repeated.


I stared down the tracks, past the swamps, past arcologies and skyscrapers, down to where the path ascended slowly toward the rail bridge. Up here, the city's architecture seemed a reasonable size. Up here, we could both spread our shoulders and walk upright, unconstrained by the slim geometries of the smoothskin majority, by the imposed strictures of our collective past. "Fit in. Like, fit in their flimsy chairs, or fit in their flimsy moral system?"

She guffawed. "That's the thing. The CFO's a big'un, too. Kara Kristov."

"Yeah," I said. "I've heard of her."

"You have?"

"Helps to know the names of the paymasters."

"Oh, right, you're running for us these days." She winced. "For them."

"When they actually pay."

"Got anything lined up?"

I shook my head. "Can't help you there. Kind of between jobs myself." A bit more than between; I was on my last dollar. A job in Philly hadn't been my first choice, even if it did end up meaning I got to see Josh again. And that was before my two little packs of payday had vanished into the river.

"So why were you heading uptown?"

I shrugged. "Wasn't really going anywhere in particular. Figured on finding some day labor. Got to pay my rent."

"You got a place?"

"Staying with an old friend," I said. "Older'n you."

"Doubt it," she said. In one sense direction, Tomae was my oldest friend. When the change hit us all she'd been long post-puberty, well into her twenties. It'd been a hard transition, gaining a meter and tripling in weight. She'd told me about twelve pain-wracked weeks of stretching followed by months of tough adjustment and gorging.

Josh and I had it relatively easy: we'd cleaned our parents out of food for weeks, but nothing that much worse than a normal teenage-boy growth spurt. Tomae went through that, and worse, all on her own, bankrupting herself on normal-shaped meals until she figured out what we all eventually figured out about fat and calories.

"Two lurkers ahead," Tomae said abruptly. "Both with long guns of some kind and hiding up ahead, trying to draw a bead on us. You got heat?"

"I never carry," I said. I squinted, but the morning sun was getting bright and hard to see through. Sunny days were hard for a roughskin; even with my now-vanished sunglasses, I had a hard time looking in the sun's direction through irises that had grown to admit more light.

"Then get the fuck out of here. They mean business."

"Hey, I can get out of here pretty easy, but I don't want to strand you."

"Appreciated," she said tightly. "Help's on its way. Jet if you have to."

"Help?" She was lying.

"Help," she said firmly. "I do still have a few friends." I frowned, so she continued quickly. "Other than out-of-work drug runners."

"Thanks," I said sardonically. "But I'll stay. I can go up on their left. Keep them looking at you?"

"Can do, if I have to." She nodded, once, sharp. "Right. Let's do this."

I nodded, too, feeling a shiver go down my spine. It didn't matter how many times I did this, faced this, got through this. Still the rush, the part of me that Rabbit never quite understood. I felt that warm presence as I gathered power around me. The faint smell of white fur invaded my nostrils; far off, a scent of danger, the smell of polished steel and gunpowder.

I stood stock still; or rather, appeared to. In a flash the real me was off and running, leaving a stationary illusion behind. With long low strides I closed the gap to the gunmen, leaping off the rails and down onto the quiet dirt beside them to minimize sound.

The two toughs were still right where Tomae had said, hiding behind a steel substation track-side. They were waiting, keeping aim on us, letting us get close enough that even they couldn't miss. Roughskins both, one sporting a full head of metal spikes, the other a crew cut and a military tattoo across his forehead.

I rabbit-punched spike-boy, catching him right at the base of base of back of the head. It'd have nearly taken the head off a smoothskin, but we were made of tougher stuff; instead he collapsed to the ground, nerveless. I grabbed the barrel of his gun and tried to yank it free, but he'd lassoed the damn thing around one shoulder and I couldn't get it.

The struggle gave the other one time just enough time to spin around, rifle leveling at me. But then something blue and winged swooped down at him, a shrieking mass of talons and anger. I only caught a glimpse of the raptor before it tore into his face: latching on and pecking at his eyes a few times, before spreading its wings for balance.

He dropped the gun and swatted at it with his hands, smacking himself with one but grabbing the bird's foot with the other. I waded into the mess before he could hurt the creature. I put his rifle butt went into his Adam's Apple, hard, hard enough to stop his breath. Crumpling to his knees, he grabbed for a blade at his hip; but my next punch laid him out alongside his compatriot.

Tomae was alongside me in a moment, the bird perching on her wide shoulder. Next to her enormous head, it looked barely larger than a sparrow. It was a millennial falcon, one of that rare breed that had appeared in the first decade of the 2000s, not long after the Change. It preened its blue plumage and stared at me with the unlikely intelligence that was characteristic of its kind.

"Thanks, Catkiller," Tomae said, reaching up to scritch its chest carefully as it settled its feathers. Then, with a bob of its head, it flapped upward and vanished into the skin canyons from which it had arrived. I briefly felt bad for any local rodents; a bird's gotta eat.

We got the guys tied and gagged. By the time we were done, the one with all the studs was conscious again, though he clearly wasn't remembering much of the fight. Instead he was staring at us confusedly, mouth hanging open.

I patted him on the shoulder, and explained what had happened carefully. It wasn't my first rodeo, and it wasn't his either; he nodded slowly, his eyes still not focusing right. Mostly, he seemed confused that I was leaving him alive; the folks picked for jobs like this didn't always have the firmest grip on reality. Folks without a place to go, who got picked up early and used mercilessly. Some of us had made it back out again.

But the two gangers were suspiciously well-armed. The rifles themselves weren't notable: reliable AR-15s, the kind every killer wished for Christmas. But both had noise/flash suppressors. Those were easier to get now than in decades past, but possession would still net a hefty prison sentence. More of a concern, both were chambered with rather expensive bullets, the sort that you used against armored targets. Or big'uns.

The one with the clawed face had a securident, too, though no other details were accessible without a card reader. I took their credsticks and gave one to Tomae; a quick scan revealed more than enough for a nice grocery run, or nearly enough for a few nights of hotel. Or one evening of fun.

And a pair of phones, of course, plus a burner pad. I stabbed at the power, but they wanted passwords. Of course.

Clawed-face came to about this time, struggling against the gag. I cuffed him gentle-like, just hard enough to remind him that his hands were tied behind his back. He seemed the leader; certainly he was a few years older than stud-head, maybe even Tomae's age. Far beyond redemption.

I told him to be quiet and we'd let them go. Then I hit the panic button on one of the phones and dropped them on his chest. Someone would be by for them soon enough.

"What do you want to do with these?" I said, waving at the rifles.

"I really don't want them back in circulation," Tomae said, "not as bad as the streets get around here. Let these idiots build up their armory again, if they have to."

Her face was paler than normal, but her hands didn't shake as she grabbed the guns. I wondered how much she'd had to handle, how often she'd had to hold back for fear of destruction. It was too easy for the big folk to maim, to kill; I saw how carefully she moved, even now, even with a pair of killers after us. Wondered if her scars matched mine.

"Okay, but...we can't walk around with them."

"I know someone," she said finally.

"Christ, who did you two piss off?" the woman asked. Her surgically-altered ears twitched in the breeze, or maybe it was in annoyance. She was tall and thin, and smelled of elderberry or ash, or some nonsense. Really taking the whole New Age look too far.

"Don't know," Tomae answered. She was squeezed into the tiny seating area. It was almost comical; she took up nearly the entire front of the narrow shop, and I was basically sitting in her lap. This rusted old storefront looked barely worth keeping together--or so had it appeared as we'd approached.

On the inside, behind a thick door, was a small fortune in grey market electronics and gear. The owner was a woman seated in the middle of the room, in a positively throne-like chair, all screens and hardware. Her hands were working furiously; behind her, in synchronization, tiny robot arms were repairing damage to a flying drone's battery pack.

Her almond-shaped eyes had refocused as we came in. She shot Tomae a broad smile. "Glad you dropped by again."

"Hey, Fiona," my friend said. There was something in her voice I couldn't place.

Fiona--though I privately doubted it was her real name--sighed. "Business, then?"

"Yep. Jason?"

I handed over the securident. Fiona took it with thin fingers and slotted it into a locked-down rig. "This is last-gen, but it's still primo Corp shit. Plaxicorp. Tell me more, Tomae."

"They did just fire me," she said slowly.

"You find out something you ought not have?" I asked.

She shrugged. "No more than anyone else."

"Look," Fiona said, "there's maybe four thousand sunk into this hit. That's assuming they owned the rifles but had to buy the ammo, and tallying up the balances on the credsticks. That gives you the low end of how bad they want you dead. You learn something worth that much?"

Tomae shuddered. "Wow. No. Not that I know of. No."

The woman flipped her long hair over and back, revealing two sockets on the side of her head, above her right ear. The top one had a pass-through plug, an antenna wrapped around it. Probably keeping her connected to her shop if she ever went outside. The other was crammed with memory, the green-striped one that all the movie stars wore last year. I stayed away from that stuff. Rabbit didn't approve.

"Well, think hard," Fiona said.

"Merger," I said suddenly. "Corp buyout."

"What?" Tomae looked lost, an odd look for her.

I stared up at her. "I heard rumors. Someone's gunning for the company. Big bid coming down the wire. The only sign I heard for real was a delta in our payout structure. Last few jobs came through in Euros."

"German buyer?"

"Krupp," Fiona said. "That'd be a new twist for them."

"Or Bayer-Roche," I said. "Can't underestimate the upstart."

Tomae looked back and forth between us with panic growing on her face. "But I don't know anything about that."

"Calm down," I said. "This is all just conjecture."

"Maybe tell us what you do know," Fiona said.

"There was..." Tomae leaned back. "I sometimes see stuff, you know? Stuff I am pretty sure I'm not supposed to see."

I nodded.

"There were plans for a--I don't know. I can't--it's too--"

"Wait," Fiona interjected. "You really trust this guy?"

"Yeah, I guess I do," Tomae said, the beginning of an angry rumble starting in her chest.

"He was there when you got ambushed, you know," Fiona pressed. "With a pair of smalltusks, like him."

I gritted my teeth at the slur.

"I said he's cool, Fiona," Tomae said quietly. She clenched then unclenched one enormous fist, staring down at the waifish figure.

"Then tell us what you saw," Fiona barked. Too late I realized what she was doing: using Tomae's anger to pull her out of panic, to get her focused and angry and thinking again.

"It was a longer-term trial. Drugs for living on reduced resources. Made it so the subjects need less food, less oxygen even. Like--slow. Slowed down."

"Shitty downers," I said. "Though most of those make me more hungry."

"That was just it--it seemed useless. Couldn't figure out the use. Maybe it was one of these unexpected side benefits. But the file was on the high-pro floor--high profit potential, that's why I noticed it."

"You in the habit of poking around files on the high-pro floor?" I asked.

"Routine sweep," she said. "They had me patrol the upper offices during the early morning, a big banner of security. In my bright green uniform, helmet and a big nightstick, making the rounds. This folder seemed out of place; I don't usually see physical files on the upper floors."

"That does seem odd," Fiona said. She and I exchanged glances.

"That wasn't the half of it. There were a pair of suits there, too, folks I didn't recognize, and they were arguing with a pair of ours. Pretty heated, but they shut up as I arrived on the floor. Two Japanese, two American."

"You report that?" I asked.

"I told my boss, and she pushed that up the chain." She put her face in her hands. "Was that wrong?"

"Depends on who it was, and who wanted whom to know what," Fiona said. "Oh, no, honey, it wasn't wrong. You did the right thing. But it might be enough for someone to want you gone."

"Then why fire me first? Hell, they paid me severance and everything."

I smirked at that. Severance. Corp life really was different.

"So, 'honey', eh?" I asked her, as we walked down along the shore toward Brewerytown.

"We dated for a while," Tomae said quietly.

I let that one rattle around in my brain for a while.

"You know they make vibrators in all sizes, right?"

I bit my tongue; I had made my own comparable discoveries, after. "She seems nice."

"In the right doses," Tomae said. "But she knows her stuff."

"We got the money off those sticks, and that's the important part," I said. And Fiona agreed to take care of the guns, see to it that they weren't sold right back into circulation. She also disposed of the ammo, right there; she shared my instincts to take that stuff entirely off the map.

The sticks we had converted to cash. Tomae had the bulk of the grocery run in her pack, but I was carrying a fair amount myself. Josh and Gina were going to be ecstatic.

"Thanks for helping," I said.

"Sure. How do you know them?"

"Oh, I know Josh from high school. From before...this," I said, waving down at myself with my free hand.


"Sort of," I said.

"Ah." She smiled. Eagle saw damn everything.

I hope you enjoyed this free sample. To read the rest of Roughskin Magic, please support independent writers (me) by buying a copy.