The pop of gunfire drove Kat into the scant protection of a doorframe. Her breath fogged the air as she pressed her slim shoulders against the rusting steel and crumbling concrete of what used to be an apartment building.
At some point, half of the structure had collapsed. The damage could have had any number of causes from a car crash or a turf war to something as simple as neglect. A baby began crying inside as the sporadic cracks continued.
Kat pursed her lips. Of course there were still people living in the crumbling building. That was the way of the Shell. A bombed out building without utilities was still better than direct exposure to a cold midwestern winter.
According to their history classes, the Shell was what remained of Schaumburg, a suburb of the Chicago Megalopolis, before the company purchased a large multilevel furniture store to use as the basis of the arcology. Over the course of decades, a gleaming tower of glass, steel and wealth grew out of those humble beginnings.
Money flowed into the arcology as those who could abandoned the rest of the City for the status and comfort of corporate employment. As property tax values began to fall, the local government began to cut services and Schaumburg fell into disrepair. Poverty and crime blossomed, hastening the City’s slump.
It was only a matter of time before Schaumburg declared bankruptcy and its assets were put up for auction. No one bothered. The City’s burned out shell was filled with feral refugees from corporate enclaves and ‘extra legal contract’ mercenaries armed to the teeth.
Anyone trying to assert control over the slums would have to fight street by street to reclaim them, an awful lot of work for a collection of half destroyed buildings. Instead, the corporation just turned a blind eye. So long as the Shell policed itself and didn’t let its chaos and violence spill into the arcology, corporate security largely left them alone.
The gunfire stopped. Kat’s lips moved soundlessly as she counted the shots. Eleven, semi automatic, all small caliber.
She sighed, her breath a jet of mist in the cold air. Probably a personal dispute then. Corporate security would use rifles, and enforcers would’ve shot a lot more, likely with submachine guns or something automatic.
Kat abandoned her doorway, slinking back out into the street, the thin layer of snow crunching under her shoes. She shivered slightly and pulled her light jacket tighter around herself.
She knew that her outfit drew attention to her as an arcology employee. The jacket was too thin and the bright teal and black corporate logo on the back screamed her origins. Unfortunately, stores inside the arcology didn’t sell the drab but functional clothing that was common in the Shell, and she’d lost her only winter jacket a week or so ago, squirming through a chain length fence to avoid getting caught by corporate security on a run that had gone bad.
Ordinarily, there was no way she’d take another run without proper apparel, but Xander had approached her with a rush job. Despite the extra pay, Kat had been tempted to turn him down, but deep down she knew he’d just find someone else to make the run, and the next time he had a big job, they’d be the one to get the call rather than her.
She ignored the curious and hungry glances thrown her way from the broken windows lining the road, slipping her hand into one of the jacket’s internal pockets and letting her fingers caress the handle of her knife.
It wouldn’t be much use against someone with a gun, but corporate security generally considered shooting employees as ‘damage to company property,’ and would retaliate with extreme force. That didn’t mean that they wouldn’t rough her up or stab her. The company wouldn’t really care unless she was unable to work for more than a week, and the predators that lived in the Shell knew it.
Still, as much as her company issue jacket marked her as a target, it would also keep the worst of the jackals at bay. Between the knife and her speed, she was reasonably confident that she could handle herself against the smaller groups of toughs that lurked in the shadows.
Despite that thought, her grip tightened on the knife’s handle as she got closer to Xander’s warehouse. Technically he shared it with an enforcer group called the ChromeDogs, but everyone knew who was running the show. The Dogs were well equipped, disciplined, and overall decent people, but none of them were Players.
So long as Xander didn’t push too hard, they’d follow his lead. Not only because of his status as a player, but due to his connections and information networks that stretched from the highest levels of the arcology to the megalopolis beyond.
The dusting of snow seemed to absorb the morning sounds of the Shell. In the distance, the bass beat of a song thumped quietly as cars honked their horns, but near Kat everything was still and quiet. It was almost like the City was holding its breath.
Kat jumped slightly as her keen hearing picked up the sound of a boot crunching in the snow behind her.
She turned to the right, quickening her pace and immediately heading down a mostly abandoned side street. No one had a good reason to be there. If she was followed, it meant that her pursuer wasn’t a coincidence.
It might be paranoia on her part, but paranoia had kept her alive and her bones unbroken over her past two years as a runner. Xander might complain about her ‘detour’ delaying delivery, but he’d deal with it.
Broken glass crackled and a man’s muffled voice cursed.
Kat started running, her tennis shoes slipping in the thin snow as she tried to round a corner into an alleyway. The instant she was out of sight of the street, her eyes rapidly flickered over her surroundings looking for an exit or something to climb.
“Don’t let her get away!” a man’s voice shouted above the hurried footsteps and grunts of her pursuers. “She’s a slippery one but she’s on her way back from a big score. More than enough credits to go around if we can catch her.”
She slammed her shoulder into a door that opened up into the alley. The blow knocked the breath out of her but the door held.
Two shapes filled the mouth of the alleyway but Kat didn’t even look, throwing her body into it once more. This time, the door smashed off of rusted hinges with a loud crash.
Kat picked herself up off the ground and started running through the dark building. Trash littered the floor and the drywall had long since been ripped open by addicts stripping the building for its wiring, but she was sure-footed enough to avoid tripping over any obvious hazards.
Unfortunately, in her haste Kat took a wrong turn and found herself deep in the bowels of the abandoned building, looted office suites all around her but no exit in sight. She spun around to return the way she came only to see two men panting in the only entryway.
Both were taller than her, but she couldn’t quite make out their features in the dark. The fact that one held a pipe didn’t ease any of her concerns. Even though the other was unarmed, the dim silver shine of a robotic arm warned her that he was the bigger threat of the two.
Full limb replacement cyberware wasn’t cheap, and even the simplest model would give him inhuman strength. Really, all Kat could do is hope that he didn’t have souped up reflexes or a hidden blade to go with the arm.
“We got her now boss,” the man holding the pipe gasped. “We just gotta hold her here for a bit and the rest of the boys will catch up. Then she aint going nowhere.”
“Shut up Greg,” the chromed up thug growled. “The more you talk, the more she knows. We just need to rough her up, take the credits from her run and get out of here. No need for a monologue.”
Gritting her teeth, Kat pulled the knife out of her jacket. She would have preferred the monologue. It would have given her more time to think and escape. Unfortunately, not every thug could be dumb enough to accomodate her whims.
“What if I just gave you the credits?” Kat asked, eyes shifting from one opponent to the other as they stepped through the doorway and moved to encircle her. “Xander will be pissed with me, but I think he’ll understand if I gave up the payment after being cornered by an entire gang.”
Xander would be more than pissed. He wasn’t bad for a fairly prominent figure in the Shell’s underworld, but he played by his own rules. If Kat got robbed on a job, she would have to pay him back for his losses. Of course, he’d also kill anyone that dared to rob one of his couriers to try and discourage the practice, but he wasn’t one to take a loss laying down.
There was no way she’d give up those credits. She just needed another couple of seconds to plan her escape.
“Sorry darling,” the man with the metal arm sneered at her. “Orders say that we have to rough you up. Apparently you’ve been sniffing around something that belongs to someone else.”
Well. That was just great.
Kat lunged toward the speaker, leading with the knife in a single handed grip. He responded with a punch, fast but telegraphed well enough that she easily slipped under it and dragged the knife across his ribs.
She kept moving past the man as a torrent of curses erupted from his mouth. She was in an enclosed space with poor lighting with two bruisers. The second she slowed down, one of them would land a clean blow on her and it would be all over.
The man with the pipe shuffled in front of the door, his big meaty fists holding the chunk of metal in a double handed grip like a baseball bat.
She feinted toward him, drawing an uncontrolled swing from the pipe that would likely take her head off if it connected. Instead, she leaned backward, the air from the passing attack blowing the hair out of her face as it rushed just past her face.
Her knife flashed in the dark room as it scored a deep cut in his arm, slashing open his tricep just past the elbow. He yelped, losing his grip on the pipe and letting it clatter off into the darkness.
Kat flowed inside his guard, knife flickering and jabbing as it struck almost five times in the single second it took her to skate past him.
The former pipe wielder doubled over, bleeding heavily, but well within the capabilities of the average street doc. Kat began running once again. With any luck, he’d get out of this with nothing more than a couple scars and a healthy respect for cornered couriers.
Unfortunately, he was standing between Kat and his boss and luck wasn’t on his side. A metal fist that had been aimed at Kat’s back as she darted past slammed into the pipe man’s face, caving it in.
She didn’t look back as he flopped to the ground, almost certainly dead. For a second, her mind went blank. She’d been in her fair share of scraps, and Kat had seen people die before, but never someone this close. Never this brutally.
But she didn’t have time. She could deal with the emotional fallout later. The two men had mentioned backup and she needed to be gone before help arrived.
The entire encounter, from her realizing that she had been trapped to slipping past her pursuers, had taken maybe twenty seconds. Barely even a reprieve from her flight, but if she slowed now they would find a way to surround her.
Behind her, Kat heard the man with the cyberware arms screamed out in impotent rage. Her tiredness evaporated as she reached deep and increased her speed.
That wasn’t the scream of a man who was just going to beat her up for money. The noise was more primal than that, ripped from an unwilling throat. That was the sound of a man who planned on killing her. If Kat was lucky.
She exploded onto the street. One woman stood outside the alley, a length of chain dangling from her right hand while she peered into the darkness, the bags under her eyes and a persistent facial tic giving her away as an addict.
Kat didn’t hesitate. Her knife whirred through the air and planted itself in the lookout just under her shoulder.
The woman stumbled forward with a squawk of surprise, reaching back with her free hand but unable to find the knife protruding from her back.
Then Kat was upon her, planting a snap kick into the back of her knee to bring the woman down before ripping the knife out and stabbing her twice more.
A twinge of guilt fluttered through Kat’s conscious as she began to run away once more, but she suppressed it. There was a good chance that the woman was dead or dying, making her the second corpse that Kat was responsible for.
She just didn’t have another option. If she hadn’t struck quickly and decisively, the lookout would have been able to delay her and point out which way she ran to the rest of the gang.
Kat made it back to the main streets of the Shell, but didn’t stop running. In the back of her mind, she hoped that the gang would bring the woman she’d knifed to a doc. Both because that would give her more time to escape, and because she doubted that the addict, forced by her demons to join a street gang, truly deserved to die in the snow.
But she’d learned from a young age that hopes weren’t something you could rely on. She couldn’t count on the basic humanity of the gang to try and save their companion. She needed to get to Xander and back to the arcology where she’d be safe.
After five minutes without further pursuit, Kat slowed to a jog and let out a sigh of relief. If the group that had jumped her was going to take another shot at her, it already would have. Still, she refused to relax her guard until the comforting steel and concrete building occupied by Xander and the ChromeDogs loomed above her.
A man, clad in kevlar with a surplus trauma plate and helmet that didn’t quite fit, peered at her suspiciously, his finger on the trigger of his MAC-10.
“I’m here to see Xander,” Kat flashed him a brilliant smile. “Tell him Katherine Debs is back from her run.”
The man relaxed slightly, stepping back toward the wall of the warehouse as he spoke into a microphone by his neck. His hand was still on his stub nosed submachine gun, but Kat was happy to see that finger no longer rested directly on the trigger.
After about thirty seconds, the guard’s radio responded. The man listened intently, his eyes still on Kat. Finally he nodded.
“You’re cleared to go in Ms. Debs,” the guard’s voice was a little deeper than she expected for such a skinny man, but entirely professional. “Mr. Xander will be waiting for you in the first conference room.”
“Thank you,” Kat replied politely. The man nodded, turning his attention to the mostly empty street as she walked past.
Inside, she walked toward the room where she traditionally met Xander and stepped inside. Xander was already seated, eyes blank and a cord hooked into his cranial jack as he sifted through the corporate information network through the black market tap he’d had installed years ago.
Without saying anything, Kat put the eleven hundred credit coins in front of him and stepped back. As soon as the coins clattered on the table, Xander returned to his senses. He unplugged the cord and shook his unruly dark hair until it fell into place covering the jack.
He grabbed a coin and threw it back to Kat. She snagged it out of the air with casual ease.
“How did the run go?” Xander asked, his voice hoarse.
“There were goons waiting for me,” Kat replied, quickly slipping her pay into her jacket pocket. “They knew that I was coming back from a run and one of them let it slip that they were being paid to rough me up. The kid at Java Bounty was a bit strange too. He said he didn’t know about the order, but he paid me anyway. Between the rush job, the goons and the drop, it doesn’t add up.”
“Crap,” Xander intoned, frowning as he drummed his fingers on the table. “I knew this job sounded fishy, but it was a lot of credits for such a simple hack. Hell, preliminary earning reports are almost public record, all I-”
“Nope,” Kat put up a hand. “I told you before. I don’t want to know what’s on the sticks. I need some plausible deniability here. For all I know they just have you retrieving vacation photos from offsite storage. Nothing illegal.”
“Well,” he shrugged thoughtfully, “that wouldn’t be far off this time. Regardless, I’ll look into it. If someone is gunning for my couriers, that’s a problem. I’ll contact you as soon as I find anything.”
“I can’t afford that Xander,” Kat frowned. “I know your rates, and I'm trying to save some credits. I’d rather just take my risks with the street toughs than pay that much for information.”
“No,” Xander shook his head. “I insist. It’s bad business for me to let something like this go unanswered. Consider it on the house.”
“My knight in shining armor,” Kat fanned herself, smirking. “Be careful with all that chivalry or you’ll give me a case of the vapors.”
“Shut up Kat,” he answered with a roll of his eyes. “Plus it’s almost seven o’clock. Don’t you still have school in an hour?”
“Oh God,” her eyes widened. “The aptitude test!”
Support "Tower of Somnus"
- United States
- Founding Member of the Zard Skwad
Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night