The sucrose solution sprayed from the pipette, soaking the culture. Kat sighed briefly as her gaze lingered on the massive stack of sample dishes. Three hundred twenty two more to go, and then she could look into storing them in the proper heat and light.
No one had ever told her that the lifestyle of a lab assistant third class was glamorous, but she hadn’t really expected things to be this mundane or boring. She’d only worked her new job for about a week, and already Kat was beginning to wonder why there were such strict academic standards for laboratory assistants.
As far as she could tell, the entirety of her job was rote work. Collecting samples, monitoring equipment, and otherwise making sure that the lab ran smoothly. Second class lab assistants were allowed to do more delicate work, but only when an employee reached first class were they actually allowed to analyze the data collected by their coworkers.
Another squirt of sucrose, food for the genetically modified e. coli in the tray, and Kat grimaced. That could be years. Years until she learned enough on the job doing work that could be replicated by any halfway competent robot to be assigned the skilled research and analysis she’d gone to school for.
Really, it all seemed like a giant waste to her, but then again it was still a lot better than working in a factory or farm field. She’d take boredom over sore muscles and poorly calibrated equipment that could rip a careless worker’s arm off in a second.
A gentle chime announced the changing of the shift and a quiet young man walked in to take over from Kat. She handed him her pipettes and began walking to the changing room. She’d learned that his name was Michael and that he was incredibly quiet, struggling to make eye contact even when she asked him direct questions. He seemed nice enough, but she’d never been able to drag more than a full sentence out of him at a time.
Kat folded her smock, storing it in the small cubby assigned to her as she swiped her lanyard through the payroll system to end her shift. A green light and beep informed her that her hours were logged successfully, removing yet another grain of sand from the desert that was her debt ledger.
A tap of her hand and a blink of her eyes switched her smart panel from work mode, giving her access to the corporate entertainment feeds as well as the general information network. Kat began sorting through her e-mails as she walked, hands shoved in her pockets, toward the elevator that would take her from the research laboratory down to her residential level.
At the security checkpoint, a guard scanned her lanyard with a handheld infrared device. A whirr and a click confirmed that she was on the specific upper level during the precise hours allotted to her by her work contract. A brusque nod from the corporate security guard, scarred and covered in gleaming cyberware, sent Kat on her way.
The elevator hummed its way down to her residential floor, a couple domestic servants riding in silence next to her. She turned on some music via her smart panel and relaxed against the wall as the device began to pump a bass beat directly into her ears, inaudible to those around her.
Not that anyone would mind. No one felt particularly chatty after a long day at work, especially in the obviously monitored confines of the cavernous public transit tram. Instead, her lift mates zoned out, either listening to music, tapping into the entertainment streams or literally just disassociating blankly in silence.
Finally, after almost five minutes of picking up other workers on their downward journey, the doors opened on her floor. Kat grunted slightly as she pushed off of the metal wall and exited. Once again, she had to submit her lanyard to the corporate security guard manning the checkpoint.
He was younger and less obviously chromed up than the one guarding the upper levels. It was a matter of priority, she supposed, the upper levels got top tier operators with cutting edge guns and cyberware while the lower levels were assigned rookies and trainees.
The man waved her through, satisfied that Kat wasn’t smuggling anything and that she was on the right level. She nodded, at him, too emotionally drained from a day of mind numbing work to muster up a smile, and began her walk toward her family apartment.
“Kat!” A voice hissed over the sound of her smart panel.
She stopped short and looked around. Pedestrians hurried past, hardly paying attention to each other as they kept their heads down. A hand waved at her, beckoning, from an alley between a bar and a flop house.
Her hand reached for her knife, drawing a wince from Kat when it wasn’t there. Even if the weapon was technically allowed as ‘a tool,’ there’s no way she’d be allowed to carry one into the lab’s secured facility. There was too much of a chance that she’d use it against one of her ‘betters.’
Steeling herself, Kat hesitantly approached the alley, taking note that the shadowy figure within appeared to be alone. After a quick back and forth glance told her that there weren’t any obvious traps, she stepped out of the walkway entirely.
“Thank God,” Arnold pulled down his hood. “I was afraid that you wouldn’t hear me, and this was the only way I could think of grabbing your attention. I tried to visit you at work, but Jamal told me you didn’t work there anymore.”
“You look like hell Arnold,” Kat recoiled. His usually curly hair was stringy, clearly unwashed, and his skin was pallid, almost grey. Worst of all were his eyes. Bloodshot and desperate orbs, giant dark smudges beneath them a testament to his lack of sleep.
“Yeah,” Arnold ran a hand through his limp hair, chuckling mirthlessly. “I haven’t slept at all since I fell in the dungeon.”
“That was almost two days ago,” Kat shook her head. An uncharitable part of her noted that the smell clinging to him might not have anything to do with the alley. The shirt Arnold was wearing under his designer jacket was almost completely sweated through.
“I could feel everything when I hit Kat,” Arnold’s hands shook slightly as he wrung them together. “Every bone breaking. It jolted me awake, and every time I’ve tried to close my eyes it all just flashes back at me. I-”
He gulped, eyes watery as he stared plaintively as he hesitantly continued speaking. “I think I might need to get some more EasySleep, but my Dad noticed the last dose that went missing. I need your help to steal some.”
“Absolutely not,” Kat didn’t even blink. “I wouldn’t know the first thing about sourcing EasySleep let alone stealing it. Plus, I wouldn’t know the first thing about disabling a security system or sneaking into a pharmacy. That isn’t even close to my skill set.”
“But Kat,” he hissed, closing his eyes as he shuddered. “I know you’re a runner. This is the sort of thing you do, and I need this.”
“Listen to yourself Arnold,” Kat shook her head. “You sound like a fucking junkie right now. This will just get both of us arrested for damaging corporate property.”
“Kat,” he reached out with both hands, trying to clasp Kat’s hand in his own, his eyes burning brightly as he implored her.
“Look,” she brushed his hands aside, stepping away from Arnold as her nose wrinkled slightly in disgust. “I can put you in touch with the kind of people that can do this, but it won’t be cheap. You’re talking about a serious job for very serious people.”
“C’mon Kat,” Arnold begged, “couldn’t you just help me out? For old times?”
“No,” Kat crossed her arms. For a second neither of them spoke, but then her resolve slipped slightly. “Look, it’s not that I’m unsympathetic Arnold, but this is just beyond me. You got yourself in trouble by taking meaningless risks, I’m not going to put myself on the line to get you out of trouble by taking the same sort of pointless risk.”
“You owe me Kat,” anger flashed across Arnold’s face, replacing his previously subservient demeanor. “You let me die in that dungeon.”
“What the hell?” Kat pulled back, incredulous. “Arnold, I told you that the dungeon was a bad idea almost a dozen times. You strong armed me into going in there just like you’re trying to force me to help you with some idiotic heist now. How does this even begin to approach being my fault?”
“You could have stopped me if you really wanted,” Arnold snarled, stepping closer to her. “I’d have listened if you insisted. Clearly you knew that the dungeon was going to be dangerous, and despite that you let me skip in there unaware until your carelessness got me killed. Then here you are, right as rain. Well rested and refreshed.”
“Clearly you managed to make it out,” Arnold ranted, his eyes burning. “You’d be like me if you died. A desperate and sad wreck.”
Kat winced. There went her plan of claiming that she’d died in the dungeon too. She didn’t know what Arnold was capable of in a state like this, and the last thing she wanted was for him to have some sort of final hold over her.
“You got yourself killed Arnold,” Kat held firm. “I almost died there with you because you dismissed each and every one of my concerns. This is on you.”
“Kat,” he grabbed her wrist, his breath reeking of cheap beer and malort as he pulled her toward him. “Don’t think that you can walk away just like that.”
Without thinking, Kat concentrated on Arnold, feeling the familiar click and release of as her mana flowed into Levitate. Her body whirled, faster than she’d expected, and before she realized what was happening, her shoulder was in Arnold’s armpit. With a flex of her legs and a twist of her hips, he flew into the wall of the alley with a dull thud.
Her hands flew to her mouth in shock as Arnold just lay there, unmoving.
What had she done. Arnold was her friend, and he’d needed help. His idea was trash, but the least she could have done was hear him out.
He groaned, and shifted slightly, bruised but still alive and conscious.
“I’m sorry,” his voice was muffled, barely audible over the sound of the pedestrians walking to and fro outside the alley.
Kat took a step toward him before stopping hesitantly. No matter what else had happened, corporate security would believe that she’d assaulted him. There was no one else present, and it was the word of a manager’s son against a lab tech third class. They wouldn’t even need to look at his injuries before sending someone to question her.
Arnold shifted against the wall, rolling over so that his back was against the alley and he was facing her. Tears were streaming down his face.
“I’m so sorry Kat,” he was blubbering now. “There’s just so much going on right now. My Dad is going to want to know where the money is, I can’t sleep, and she keeps-”
He gulped, Adam’s apple bobbing, as he stared up at Kat with teary eyes.
“You’re right to hate me,” Arnold whimpered. “I’m trash and I know it. Things would have worked out without me fucking them up and trying to rush. Now-”
“Fuck,” he closed his eyes, exhaling raggedly. “I should probably just kill myself. There isn’t anything left for me, and Dad is going to make me wish I was dead if I took the tuition money with nothing to show for it.”
“Don’t talk like that,” the words were torn from Kat’s throat. As angry as she was at Arnold, he’d still been her friend through a lot of tough times. The thought of losing him entirely, left a raw and angry wound in her heart. “Your parents will be mad, but you still have plenty to live for Arnold. You can just muddle it out in the lab with me. It’s not a great life, but at least its life.”
“I don’t think I have it in me Kat,” Arnold didn’t open his eyes, “if I end up there, they won’t treat me like they do you. I won’t be one of them, I’ll be ‘that guy that fucked everything up.’ Better to get it out of the way now.”
“Stop it,” she chastised him. “You’re just tired and depressed right now. Once you get over your sleep disruption you’ll look back on all of this and cringe.”
“We’re friends right?” Arnold asked, looking at her sadly.
Kat nodded slowly. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but even before he fell into a pit of desperation, getting on Arnold’s bad side would be a bad idea. Even without his Father’s connections, he just knew too much about her.
“Can you do me a favor?” He smiled at her, a hint of his earlier tears still in his eyes.
“As long as your favor doesn’t involve some sort of stupid heist to get you EasySleep,” Kat snorted. “Sure.”
“I need another subscription Kat,” he licked his lips nervously. “I know it's a lot to ask, but I need to get back into the game. It’s the only way for me to make things right.”
Kat stopped. He was right that it was a big ask. That would mean hunting perytons until one of them finally dropped a subscription stone. There’s no way she would be able to manage it on her own, and even if she cooperated with Dorrik, an equal split of the loot meant that it would take a lot of the flying stags before she'd have anything to show for her efforts.
Of course, Kat winced, remember her fight with the peryton alpha. That was only if she managed to survive the fight. The dungeon was bad enough, but even with a full team she wasn’t sure that she could assure a win one hundred percent of the time over the elite monsters.
“I’ll need to put together a team,” she responded slowly, buying time as she pondered the implications of his request. “Maybe Dorrik will help me out, but-”
“Dorrik,” Arnold’s eyes flashed and his teeth clenched. “Do you really have to team up with him.”
Arnold’s reaction was like a bucket of cool water over her head. Kat’s confusion evaporated, replaced by disgust. Both toward Arnold and toward herself for her sympathy toward the pathetic man.
“Yes Arnold,” she replied testily. “I will need their help if I want to complete your ‘big favor.’ That’s it though. Once I get you back into the game, we’re done. I might owe you, but clearly you haven’t learned or grown from any of this. The Tower of Somnus is too important to me. I can’t have you holding me back.”
She walked to the mouth of the alley, leaving Arnold slumped in despair against the wall. Realization had washed over her. She’d used her magic in the real world. It had taken more out of her than usual, and the spell had only exerted a third its normal influence, but it had happened.
Even if she was only level one, Kat had beaten a dungeon. It might not be a good idea for her to reveal it, but she was finally a real player.
“Take care of yourself Arnold,” she stopped just before stepping out onto the street. “I’ll let you know when I have the subscription. Until then, I’d prefer it if you left me alone.”
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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