Exterior light filtered through Kat’s window as the arcology tried to approximate dawn within its confines. She yawned, stretching herself to her full length, wincing at some of the tightness in her muscles. Even if The Tower of Somnus solely took place in her sleep, Kat’s body still reacted to it, and the fight against the peryton had taken a lot out of her.
Quietly she changed and tiptoed out of the room, sneaking a glance at where Michelle lay face down and snoring before slipping into the hallway between their room and their mother’s.
Kat slipped her smart panel over her left ear, adjusting the wire that connected it to the square of smartglass just in front of her eye. With a tap, she turned it on, a twitch of her pupil opening her e-mail. There wasn’t anything from Xander. She should be relieved after the trouble caused by her last run, but her hands almost tingled to take advantage of her Knife I skill. She wasn’t sure what a 3.3% increase in ‘speed and damage’ meant, but Kat was eager to find out.
“Katherine,” she jumped. Her mother, Penelope, was sitting at their tiny apartment’s eating nook, drinking cheap coffee.”
“Sit down,” her Mom shifted to the side, patting one of the three stools lined up in front of the counter. “I’ve just been so busy lately trying to earn a little extra toward our weekly spending limit that I feel like we haven’t actually had a chance to talk.”
“But Mom,” Kat glanced at the door, “I need to get my morning jog in before the streets are too crowded.”
“I don’t mind this obsession of yours with fitness,” her Mom sighed tiredly, “but don’t think that means I’ve changed my mind on you working as a runner. Sure it might be a couple extra credits, but you have to think about the danger. There are people who don’t want that information delivered. Runner’s die every day Kat.”
“Like Dad died in the factory?” Kat crossed her arms, instantly regretting her words but unable to stop. “What about my boss, Jamal? He had a processor fall on him and now he needs a cane to get around.”
“Katherine,” Penelope replied sadly. “You know that’s not what I mean. I’m worried about you. You’re burning the candle at both ends when you don’t need to. I know you love the adrenaline from your runs, but you’ve got a future in front of you. I’ve seen your grades. You actually have a chance to get out of the lower levels legitimately. I don’t want to see you throw that away by getting caught or hurt.”
“It’s safer than you think Mom,” Kat felt a twinge as she lied. “Most of what I do is provide plausible deniability. Everyone uses brokers and runners. The company can’t officially sanction us, but no one wants us to go away. It’s practically corporate employment, like the kids that sell water bottles by the sides of the walkways on the upper levels when the arcology is having a warm day.”
“At least have some orange juice with me before you go,” her Mother relented somewhat, sliding a glass of orange liquid in front of the stool nearest Kat.
“Fine,” Kat sat down, grabbing the class and taking a sip from it. It was overly sweet, the artificial sugar pumped into the drink by the company to cover up the taste of the unripe oranges wrinkling her nose.
“How did the aptitude test go?” Her Mom asked, crunching on a piece of lightly buttered toast. “You took that a day or two ago, right?”
“I finished third,” Kat shrugged, “no surprises. I’m still waiting on a formal job offer but my grades in advanced biology and chemistry will probably land me a posting in a lab.”
“Great,” Penelope smiled. “I know I don’t say it often enough, but I’m proud of you Kat. I haven’t had the time to help as much since your Father passed. Between raising yourself and Michelle I’m surprised you had enough time to study at all, let alone hold down a job as a runner. I know it wasn’t easy, and you really should be proud of yourself.”
“Thanks Mom,” Kat replied awkwardly. She could see that her Mother was being genuine, but at the same time, the entire scenario was strange. They really hadn’t stopped to talk like this in a long time.
“How about Mr. Jacques?” Her Mom asked suddenly, a sly look in her eyes.
“He managed to finish first,” Kat answered, struggling to down another mouthful of the orange juice. “Arnold might not act like it, but he’s actually fairly smart when he puts his mind to it, as rare as that might be.”
“You know that’s not what I’m asking,” Penelope snickered slightly, eliciting a blush from Kat. “Go on, can’t a mom ask her daughter about her little boyfriend? So, how about it? Has he finally gotten up the nerve to start formally courting you yet?”
“No,” Kat muttered unhappily, “and because of who his Dad is, I can’t even bring it up. Honestly, I don’t know if he’s just shy or dense. He has to know that I’ll say yes if he discusses it.”
“Sometimes boys are like that,” Penelope smiled wistfully, staring past the nook into the kitchen. “Why when your Father and I first met, I swear-”
She was interrupted by a shrill beeping from her smart panel. Her Mother’s hand flew up to her left ear, brushing away some of her slightly greying hair to tap the device’s mount and silence the alarm.
“Shi-” Kat’s Mother glanced guiltily at her. “Crap. I’m filling in for Dave’s shift. We need the extra weekly spending to get Michelle a new pair of shoes. Her last pair is wearing out and I don’t want her to hurt herself if the sole falls off and trips her while she’s running.”
With a quick kiss on the cheek to Kat, her Mom hurried out the door, half eaten piece of toast in her hand. For a long moment, she just sat at the nook, staring at the half drank glass of orange juice.
Her Mom might not want her to be a runner, but conversations like that were exactly why she couldn’t quit. As much as her Mother might not want to admit it, she was putting her life at risk for the family by working long, grueling hours with minimal safety precautions. Getting pulled into the whirring gears of industrial machinery would kill someone just as easily as an ill advised fight with a street samurai or a long fall down a poorly maintained ventilation shaft.
With a sigh, she downed the glass of orange juice and stepped exited the apartment, listening for the soft click of the automatic lock to engage before Kat jogged down the stairs to begin her morning run.
The streets were partially full, but as far as Kat was concerned, that was an asset. Twisting and weaving around pedestrians on their morning commute helped train her reflexes and agility, and before long she’d worked up a good sweat.
Almost an hour and a half later, her cooldown jog and after exercise yoga completed, Kat stepped into the shower, letting the water wash away the sweat and grime covering her. Mentally she planned out the rest of her day: breakfast, checking her e-mail to see if Xander had gotten back to her once more, and then an early shift at the convenience store. Nothing terribly exciting.
Swiftly toweling off, Kat dressed and made her way to the kitchen, grabbing an apple from the mostly empty bowl of fruit on the counter of the nook before she poured herself a bowl of cereal. Crunching away quietly, she checked her e-mail inbox.
One again, nothing from Xander, but that was hardly surprising. She usually only heard from him about once a week, and given how the last rush job had turned out, the delay was only to be expected.
In between a couple of spam e-mails, Kat found one from the corporate employment office. Opening it, she nodded silently. Her final aptitude test had been reviewed and human resources had assigned her a position as a lab technician third class. The communication terminated with the start time of her first shift, two days from now, and the location where she’d report.
There was no option for more information or turning down the posting. Kat’s ledger was in the red, just as it had been at her birth, and she’d go where she was told.
She brought her bowl to the sink and rinsed it out before checking the time on her smart panel. About a half hour until the start of her shift, enough time to fool around on the information network before she left if she wanted to risk running late, but the shop had been short staffed for months. She didn’t want to risk showing up late and stressing out Jamal more than she had to.
Kat walked to her bedroom and snuck in. Michelle lay in almost the exact position she’d been in when Kat had left for the morning.
With a mischievous grin, she grabbed the blankets covering her younger sister and ripped them off of her, starting the girl awake.
Michelle bolted upright, blinking and swinging her head from side to side while Kat clapped her hand over her mouth in an unsuccessful attempt to stifle the torrent of giggles that threatened to erupt from her.
“Whatha,” Michelle scanned the room in confusion before she spotted Kat’s doubled over form.
“Come on Kat,” her sister pouted grumpily. “What the hell was that?”
“Language,” she replied with a smile. “Mom is already up and at work. I have a shift starting soon so you’ll be on your own. Remember, keep the smart glass to educational programming. You have to pad those grades.”
“You could have found a gentler way to wake me up,” Michelle grumbled, sliding her legs out of bed.
“Maybe you’d like me to use a glass of cold water again?” Kat raised a single eyebrow. “That seemed to wake you up fairly quickly last time you decided to dawdle.”
“I’m up,” Michelle grunted. “I’m not happy about it, but I’m up. Now get to work. I don’t want you blaming me for being late again.”
With a final laugh, Kat left the apartment, pausing the half second to make sure that the auto-lock engaged once again. After that, a brisk walk brought her to work. She nodded at Musa, an 11th year at school that worked the shift just before her, and he gratefully began punching the buttons on the register needed to shift it to Kat.
A couple of seconds later, she slipped around the counter and her coworker was on his way out the door, freed from the drudgery of the late night to early morning shift. An hour or so of selling snacks and toilet paper to commuters was interrupted when Arnold walked through the door, chewing on his lip nervously.
Kat rang up her final customer before waving him over from where he was stewing near the back of the store. Arnold stalked up, both of his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his designer jacket. He glanced back and forth to make sure no one was around.
“I don’t like Dorrik,” Arnold blurted out angrily. “He had the power to knock that thing out of the air the entire time, and he let me get hurt just to prove a point. I don’t know what kind of alien he is, but I don’t trust someone who will just let that happen in order to prove that he’s smarter than me or something.”
“They,” Kat emphasized the pronoun, “aren’t male yet, but I agree that Dorrik acted inappropriately. If they would have let us know their abilities, we probably could have taken down the peryton with a lot less trouble.”
She knew Arnold wasn’t like this. He was just upset over Dorrik showing him up. Once Arnold calmed down a bit he’d be back to his normal sweet and thoughtful self, full of apologies and little gifts over how he’d overreacted. It was just how he was.
“He can call himself whatever he wants,” Arnold grumbled, drawing a frown from Kat. “Look, I checked your schedule. You get off around four p.m. We can both go to bed early tonight and get out of the starting village before Dorrik shows up.”
“We could,” Kat responded slowly, “but Dorrik has been a lot of help. I’m not sure that either one of us would be able to knock a peryton out of the air on our own, and I’ll be perfectly honest. Without wounding it first, I’m not sure that we could take it down even if we did manage to get it on the ground, at least until I can improve my agility and reactions in the game to somewhere near where they are in real life. The last one almost got me because I wasn’t able to dodge as quickly as I’m used to.”
“I could get a net,” Arnold offered excitedly. “I might not be able to do much to it with my sword, but I have enough armor that I can take a hit. If I get a net over it, the peryton won’t be able to fly and you can do your thing to it before it manages to escape.”
“That might work,” Kat conceded thoughtfully. “I still think that we’re biting off more than we can chew. Even if we have to split drops and marks three ways rather than two, Dorrik is pretty handy to have around. Their presence would make hunting an elite like a peryton a lot easier.”
“C’mon,” Arnold begged. “Half the point of playing The Tower of Somnus with you was so that we could spend some time together without-"
He caught himself, and blushed. Kat could feel herself melting.
“When we’re in the real world there are always other people around,” he mumbled uncomfortably. “I might want to do or say things that a camera or a classmate might pick up. In the tower, we can just enjoy ourselves. Pretend that all of this isn’t real.”
Arnold motioned to Kat’s lanyard and then the dingy store around them. She sighed. God, wouldn’t that be nice.
“Fine,” she relented. “I can be in bed by five.”
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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