“Look,” Kat could feel a headache coming on, “I know you don’t want to learn how to figure out derivatives, but-”
“The numbers are just squirming in my head,” Michelle frowned at the smartglass tablet sitting on the table of the kitchenette nook between them. “It’s like, each one of them makes sense individually but when I try to think about them all at once they just stop making sense.”
“Michelle,” Kat tried to smile, but her expression was tight. “It was like that for my first year too. You just need to keep working at it and we’ll have you ready to start first year calculus in no time.”
“This isn’t fair Kat,” her sister leaned back, crossing her arms. “I’m only twelve. All of my friends are running around outside playing Employees and Criminals, and I’m stuck learning math.”
“Life isn’t fair,” Kat sighed back, wincing slightly at how drawn out she sounded. “If you don’t learn calculus before your first year in secondary school, you won’t be ready for the class, and if you don’t take the class you won’t be ready for the advanced science courses you’ll need to score high on your aptitude testing.”
“Why can’t I just learn calculus in class like everyone else?” Michelle huffed. “All of my friends get to watch entertainment channels rather than educational programming. I don’t even know who the new characters are on Chrome Cowboys, let alone what’s happening with the NeoHouston plot arc.”
“First of all,” Kat pinched the bridge of her nose. “That show will actively rot your brain. People in the shell do NOT ride cyberhorses or whatever the hell they call them. Second, street samurai don’t spend their spare time wooing ‘corporate belles.’ All I’ve ever seen them do is train, fight, and drink.”
“Secondly,” she slid the smartglass back toward Michelle. “We’re learning calculus a year before you’ll need it precisely because it's hard. It’s a tough world out there. Neither of us can afford to be average. If you’re going to struggle, it’s better to struggle now rather than when it actually matters.”
Michelle refused to move, arms crossed and slumped backward in her chair. She glanced up at Kat, pouting, before blowing her bangs out of her face.
“I don’t need to learn calculus,” Michelle sulked, her feet kicking against the cheap panels of the nook. “Mom didn’t learn calculus and she’s doing just fine.”
Kat sighed as her sister glared at her rebelliously, taking a moment to pick her words. She was proud of their Mother. She’d given Michelle and Kat more than should have been possible for a low level employee on her own, but it hadn’t come without a cost.
“There’s no shame in working in the fields or a factory,” Kat replied carefully. “It’s honest and necessary work. Without people like Mom, the world would fall apart in a matter of days. That said, it doesn’t pay. Mom is trapped, and more than anything she wants both of us to escape that trap. You don’t have to work in a lab like me, but Mom has given up so much so that we could have a chance at being something more. We can’t squander that Michelle.”
“I still don’t see why you get to run around and be a street samurai while I have to watch supplementary classes after school,” Michelle huffed. “I want to hang out with information dealers and go on corporate raids too.”
“That is not at all what I do,” Kat choked out. “I transport parcels too sensitive for the company information networks, nothing more and nothing less. It’s barely even illegal. How did you even find out about that anyway?”
“Arnold mentioned it,” Michelle wrinkled her nose. “He’s been coming to the house and asking about you. He wanted to know if you were busy ‘on a run’ or something.”
“Goddamnit,” Kat muttered, grinding her teeth. “When did that happen?”
“Yesterday,” Michell sat up, a glint of excitement in her eyes. “You went to bed early. He got really upset when I told him that, and started ranting. Did you dump him or something? Arnold looked like hell.”
“Or something,” Kat agreed, shaking her head. “I’ll talk to him, but I told Arnold to stay away from me. I have to get him something, but once that’s over I don’t plan on talking to him again. He isn’t half the person I thought he was.”
Confusion and worry bubbled in her gut. Arnold hadn’t e-mailed her about wanting to meet. She couldn’t help but worry about why he was hanging around their apartment. Of course he wanted her to hurry up on getting him a subscription, but he was going about it all weird. It almost sounded like he was talking to Michelle with the intention of her talking to Kat about it. Just letting her know that he was around and watching her.
“Oooooh,” Michelle’s eyes grew wide. “Do you have your own Earl Benedict?”
“Earl who?” Kat asked, cocking her head at Michelle as the younger girl leaned across the nook, her tablet forgotten.
“Jenny Silverarm’s secret lover in Chrome Cowboys?” Michelle scoffed, incredulous at Kat’s lack of understanding. “She married Danny Rodriguez, the son of Tri Holdings’ CEO, in order to cement the temporary partnership between NeoSyne and Tri Holdings, but she doesn’t love him. He keeps trying to stop her from playing music and protecting her family cybercow herds from thieves.”
“I thought you said you weren’t up to date on that trash,” Kat raised an eyebrow at Michelle, watching the girl deflate under her withering gaze.
“Fine,” Kat sighed. “How about a compromise. So long as you’re up to date on your supplementary lessons and you can complete eighty percent of your sample problems under the time limit, you can watch an hour of Chrome Cowboys every other day.
Michelle squealed, jumping up from her seat and running around the nook to hug Kat.
“ThankyouthankyouTHANK YOU Kat,” Michelle’s bony arms threw themselves around her stomach, drawing an involuntary smile to Kat’s face.
“Hey,” Kat chuckled, patting her sister on the head. “I get it, no one likes learning math. Plus, this way you won’t stay up all night sneaking in episodes when you think I’m sleeping.”
“You really did look like you were sleeping,” Michelle mumbled, her cheeks flushing. “I’m sorry, I just needed to know whether Jenny would be able to escape the Blockchain Bandits, but then I ended up watching another episode and…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kat’s rustling of her younger sister’s hair was interrupted by the chime of an e-mail arriving.
Reading it quickly, she pursed her lips. Ultimately, Kat sighed and released Michelle.
“Sorry about this Michelle,” Kat began walking out of the kitchenette toward their bedroom. “That was work. I’ve gotta head out. Do you think you’ll be able to handle yourself for a couple of hours until mom comes home?”
“I thought that today was your day off?” Michelle asked, a hint of a pout furrowing her brow.
Kat grimaced. The company might give them one day off a week, but that was only because some executive in charge of workflow authored a study showing that ‘well rested’ workers increased their productivity by over fifteen percent.
“Other job,” Kat replied, sliding her knife into the sheath she’d carefully sewn into her jacket. “The one you aren’t supposed to know about.”
“Oooooh” stars practically sparkled in Michelle’s eyes as she stared at Kat from the nook. “What are you going to do? Do you have to sneak into an executive’s suite and kill him? Wait! I know! You have to seduce him?!”
“Seduce?” Kat rolled her eyes as she did her hair up in a bun. Free hair and ponytails could be grabbed, and if someone had you by the hair, the fight was already over. “Just what is it you think I do girl? I’m a runner. I transport things that rich people don’t want intercepted. I don’t do wetwork.”
“Now be good for Mom!” Kat shouted over her shoulder, ignoring her sister’s audible disappointment. After waiting a second for the lock to click, she was moving once again.
Her hands in her pockets, Kat made her way toward the public lift that would take her to the ground floor. This time, there was almost no inspection. Corporate security didn’t terribly care about people traveling between the lower levels. Even if they carried drugs or explosives, who really cared? Low level employees were treated as a renewable resource. If you gave it a little time they’d appear out of the woodwork on their own.
Finally the doors to the ground floor opened and Kat walked out into the open air market that occupied the level. An estuary of trade between the regimented order of corporate life and the absolute chaos of the Shell. Freelance merchants, company and sheller alike offered yelled as they hawked their wares, from the newest of corporate goods, obtained under dubious circumstances, to the rough and homemade goods of the Shell.
A figure in a heavy coat shouted at her, the words barely comprehensible through their thick gutter accent as they waved a sizzling chunk of meat on a stick at Kat. One sniff wrinkled her nose as she pulled her coat tight against her body and kept moving.
No stranger to the ground floor, she recognized the crispy fried rat when she saw it.
As soon as she exited the arcology, things quieted noticeably. The huge self sustaining edifice of glass and steel rose above her, at least seventy five floors in the air, the actual number classified. The rumor was that the CEO and the shareholder class lived on the top floors, but that access was restricted past seventy. Above that level was the company server farm as well as secure storage for some of the company’s most valuable assets.
According to Xander, above level sixty, the security was shoot on sight. Most lifts only went up one level at a time, forcing a potential interloper to work their way through layers of security checkpoints on each floor.
She began walking. The wall of the arcology always on her right, gleaming and scrubbed clean of graffiti daily by a veritable army of employees. After almost ten minutes of walking, she finally reached the edge of the giant building.
Sometimes she forgot how huge the arcology was, but it almost had to be. Food processing, water purification, power generation, all of it took place inside the building. Most employees lived their entire lives within its confines, only farmers and the more… enterprising, like Kat, actually ventured out of its silver embrace.
Her feet crunched in the brown snow that lined the streets of the Shell. Out here, people still used dirty alcohol and gasoline burning cars rather than the cleaner and bubblelike electric transit pods used by company elites within the arcology.
They made a god awful racket and belched black smoke everywhere, but they were better than nothing. Kat had seen the price tag on the transit pods, and even without the struggle of figuring out a way to power them outside the arcology’s grid, they were well beyond the means of anyone in the Shell.
Various denizens eyed her, but most of the cold and predatory gazes taking her in could spot her hand resting on a tell tale bulge inside her jacket. Unlike a sheller, they simply couldn’t kill Kat and get away with it. Even if the company would turn a blind eye to her getting roughed up if Kat wasn’t careful, murder was damage to company property, and would likely bring reprisal.
After sizing her up, the watchers dismissed her, although a few ‘extra legal contractors’ kept an eye on Kat as she passed through their turf. She looked scrappy enough to hold her own if someone tried to rough her up, and nowhere near rich enough for anyone sane to take the risk.
Still, she kept her eyes peeled as she approached the ChromeDogs’ and Xander’s warehouse. As much as her every movement threatened graceful but sudden violence, that some junky wouldn’t risk it.
Finally she arrived at the warehouse, nodding to a guard she knew. He was a big man, hispanic with long black hair. He sized her up with his cybernetic left eye, a slight whirr betraying it as it shifted out of the visible spectrum while he searched her for weapons.
He nodded, waving her in with his metal right arm, the wicked trio of metal claws clicking slightly in the quiet air. Kat nodded back, walking past him.
Inside the warehouse, she walked to her usual conference room to meet with Xander, the grunt and thump of mercenaries sparring a counterpoint to her quiet and solitary approach. A quick rap on the door alerted him to her presence, and about ten seconds later, the door opened on its own, a data jack snaking out of Xander’s head as he disconnected from the network.
“Kat!” Xander called out cheerfully, waving her toward a seat. “I’m glad you could make it here so quickly. Cocoa?”
He nodded at a carafe, burbling away happily on a hot plate next to a quartet of chipped ceramic cups.
“Thanks,” she flashed a smile at him before taking a seat. “It was as cold and unpleasant as ever getting here. I really need to look into getting a new winter coat.”
“Of course,” Xander smiled at her, a gold cap flashing at her in the room’s dim light. “If you buy a winter coat in the traditional fashion, there will be questions as to where the last one went. Very troublesome.”
“Tell you what,” Xander put one of the beat up cups brimming with brown warmth in front of her before grabbing a mug of his own. “I’ll throw in a coat as part of your pay for the next mission on top of your usual rate. Consider it my way of apologizing for how things turned out on your last run.”
“That’s generous,” Kat replied, hissing slightly as she lightly burned her tongue on the viscous brown liquid. It was real hot chocolate. Not the powdered synthetic stuff. Honest to God chocolate from an actual plant.
“Holy shit,” Her eyes widened. The cup she was drinking from probably cost at least twenty five credits. Almost a week’s ‘wages’ before her living expenses were deducted.
“Good,” Xander took a sip from his own mug, “isn’t it?”
“How in the hell did you get your hands on chocolate?” Kat brought the cup to her mouth, savoring the aroma before letting it coat her tongue once more. “This stuff isn’t even available on the black market half the time.”
“You wound me Kat,” Xander laughed quietly. “I’m an institution of the black market. Veritably a fixture. I might not get first pick on luxury goods like this, but I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that I get the third or fourth crack at them.”
“What’s all of this about then,” Kat glanced around, suddenly wary. “You’re attractive and all, but I’m not going to sleep with you Xan.”
Xander erupted into a belly laugh, carefully setting down the chocolate as he rocked back and forth, pausing only to wipe a single tear from his eye.
Kat pursed her lips, unsure whether she should be relieved or offended at his dismissive attitude.
“You’re safe from me Kat,” Xander struggled to keep a chuckle from his voice when he finally recovered enough to begin speaking. “No offense, but I prefer women with a little more meat to them. No, this is about a proposition of a different nature.”
She cocked her head slightly, trying to make out his angle. Finally she gave up.
“I’ll bite Xan,” Kat shrugged before taking another sip of the hot chocolate. “I don’t have the slightest clue what you’re getting at right now. You might as well fill me in.”
“You’re ready for the big leagues Kat,” Xander grinned. “One of the thugs that tried to rough you up, the guy with the chrome arm. He had wetware, including a recording suite that was running through the entire fight. Apparently whoever paid him wanted to see him breaking your pretty face.”
“I watched your entire fight,” he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table as the smile never left his face. “You handled yourself quickly and decisively. You struck when needed and then got out of there before the situation could devolve further. Exactly what I’m looking for in an infiltrator.”
“Xander,” Kat frowned, setting the cup down. “I’m only a runner. I promised my mother that I wouldn’t get any more involved than that.”
“Oh come on Kat,” Xander rolled his eyes. “I’ve seen the way you move and the way you fight. You’re a natural, and that can only mean one thing.”
Silence stretched between them for a number of seconds, the tension building until eventually, Kat gave in.
“What does it mean Xan?” She hated the triumphant smile on his face as the words were dragged out of her.
“You like it Kat,” Xander leaned back in his chair, slinging his legs up on the conference table and then crossing them. “You can deny it to me if you want, but deep down, only an adrenaline junky could do what you’ve done. You crave the rush from living on the edge, from struggling in that moment between life and death and coming out the victor.”
“Xan-” Kat frowned only for Xander to wave her silent.
“Just think on what I had to say Kat,” the shit eating grin had never left Xander’s face. “I’m not going to force you into anything. Even if you don’t want to take the next step, you’re one hell of a runner and I’d be happy to keep you in that role. I just don’t think that you’d be happy staying there in the long run.”
“Thanks,” Kat responded, takens lightly aback. “I guess.”
“For today,” Xander slid an envelope across the table to her. “I have a fairly simple job. I’m trying to track down the sick fuck that put the hit out on you. An informant is dropping off some data they don’t feel safe moving through the network at Java Bounty. You’ll be be on your way to pick up an order for a Mr. Merriman. A ChibiChai with extra almond extract. The pay is one hundred credits upon delivery.”
Kat counted the credits in the envelope, her eyebrows raising involuntarily. Three thousand credits, a small fortune.
“I take care of my own Kat,” Xander’s smile transitioned into something a little more predatory. “Remember that. It’s a cold world out there, and I like to do what I can to remember my friends so long as they remember me.”
“Sounds good,” Kat licked her suddenly dry lips. “By the way Xan, whatever happened to that guy with the chrome arm that tried to jump me? I’d like to give the thug a piece of my mind.”
“He tried to lay a hand on one of my runners,” Xander’s eyes glinted dangerously, “so I confiscated both of his.”
“Hands?” Kat asked, her blood running cold. “I thought he only had one cyberarm?
“He did,” none of Xander’s smile reached his eyes.
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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