“Welcome to Java Bounty!” The lurid anime girl bounced unnaturally before putting up two fingers in a peace sign. “My name is Cafe-chan, enjoy your stay and make sure to try a Moe Mocha!”
Kat rolled her eyes as she walked past the smartglass. She kept her eyes peeled as she entered the coffee shop proper, but it was hard to retain the tension that gave Kat her edge as a veteran runner when a cartoon girl was singing a jingle and spilling out of her shirt behind her.
The interior of the shop wasn’t as sparsely populated as her last run. Maybe five people sat at tables, sipping drinks and staring vacantly as they interacted with the smart panels mounted on their heads rather than anything in their surroundings.
Honestly? It was eerily quiet as Kat walked up to the cash register. Other than an occasional slurp or the sound of a recyclable paper cup being put down on a table, the room was dead silent. It gave her the creeps.
It was almost like the world was holding its breath, waiting for something to happen. Gooseflesh spread across the back of her neck as Kat glanced hurriedly around the room.
None of the patrons were looking at her, all of them occupied by their own pursuits, but Kat couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. Steeling herself, she turned back to the counter and the sensation returned.
Somewhere, a pair of eyes was locked on her back.
In her years of operating just outside the law, Kat had learned to trust her instincts. They might not always be right, but a gut feeling had helped her avoid more than one checkpoint.
Unfortunately, she was already committed. Walking halfway to the counter before turning around and leaving unceremoniously would be more suspicious than completing the mission.
“What do you want,” the barista barely even looked at her, the distant look of someone watching an entertainment channel in her eyes.
“I’m here for a pickup,” Kat forced a smile as she put the envelope on the counter. “An order for a Mr. Merriman. I believe it’s a Chibi Chai with extra almond extract.”
That got the woman’s attention. The barista blinked, turning off whatever program she was watching before taking a moment to properly look at Kat.
“Thanks for stopping by,” casually the barista slipped the envelope full of credits under the counter. “Someone called ahead for that order so I already have it in the back, made and ready to go. If you could wait just a second, I’ll run it out to you.”
The woman disappeared into the back room, abandoning Kat at the counter. Seconds dragged on, and her concern intensified. Either she was about to have a panic attack, or she’d been made. Someone was monitoring her, and as a runner, that was anything but good.
Her job was to move quickly and quietly, too ordinary for security to take note of. If she was spotted, her only real option was to run and hope no one noticed her face. For a fee, Xander could usually blur or obscure camera records of her passing, but that would only work if she wasn’t being monitored in real time. Plus, a trace of a smile crossed her face, it was hard to make a profit as a runner if you kept paying your boss all of your wages to clean up after your mistakes.
“Think of the money Kat,” she mumbled the words to herself, a talisman against the growing discomfort as the barista exited the back room with a paper ‘to go’ cup.
She was so close to being able to afford cyberware. Everything would be worth it once she could interface with the information network directly, able to learn at the speed her neurons fired rather than struggling with the optical interface of a smartpanel.
“My boss left a note with the order,” the barista frowned as she passed the cup over to Kat. “Apparently Chibi Chais with extra almond extract are a collectors item right now. A lot of people are looking to get their hands on one.”
Kat’s smile faltered as her blood froze. There wasn’t a question now. The back of her neck was crawling.
“Thanks,” she managed to choke the word out, a thin veneer of her pleasant expression still in place. “I’ll make sure to take that into account.”
The barista bit her lip, obviously torn with indecision. Finally the war on her face resolved itself and she leaned forward slightly, the volume of her voice lowering just enough to make overhearing hard, but not enough to sound unnatural.
“Be careful with the coffee,” the barista glanced around the shop worriedly. “It’s hot.”
Kat just nodded, not trusting her voice. It was time to go.
Tension weighed on her as she moved to exit the cafe. The crypt-like silence of the shop crushed in on her, threatening to steal the breath from Kat’s lungs. Every step felt like it was one closer to the gallows as she tried her hardest to act casually.
“Thank you for your purchase!” Cafe-chan’s voice assaulted Kat, shocking her into a startled jump. “Please come back next time and try our Isekai Iced Coffee! It’ll send you to another world of flavor!”
Kat slapped her hand to her chest, heart beating wildly as she tried to keep herself from a manic giggle of relief. Nothing at all, just a mascot.
She brushed a nonexistent strand of hair from her face and looked over her shoulder, trying to calm herself after the start given to her by the store’s avatar.
Inside the shop, a man in a nondescript grey and brown suit was standing, halfway out of his chair, gaze focused on her receding back. Their eyes locked.
“Fuck,” Kat whispered, crushing the coffee cup in her hand and slipping the revealed data stick into one of her jacket’s interior pockets.
Then, she was running, shoulder slamming into the exterior door as her fingers fumbled to zip up the pocket carrying her cargo. The last thing she needed was to lose her mission objective in the heat of the moment.
The man bolted after her.
They exploded onto the street, and Kat’s lead began to narrow almost immediately. Whoever her pursuer was, he was either in shape, chromed for speed, or both.
Frantically, Kat ducked into an alley, slipping past a dumpster as she tried to make use of her smaller size and greater agility to counteract the man’s longer stride.
His footsteps hammered after her, the telltale electric crackle of a stun baton motivating Kat to quicken her steps. It might have been her imagination, but even over the stench of rotting garbage, she thought she could smell the burning ozone that accompanied one of the devices.
Gritting her teeth and turning sideways to slide past some rusted out construction equipment, Kat searched frantically for a way out of her situation. If the person chasing her had a stun baton, that meant things had progressed past a fistfight.
Whoever was after her, they wanted her unconscious for an extended period. Kat tried not to dwell on what exactly that meant, but at least there was a small mercy. Her pursuit was relatively silent, and there were no signs of corporate security closing on her position.
That meant someone with power and influence wanted to take her down, but at least it wasn’t endorsed by the company itself. It might not be an ideal situation, but if she could escape, that fact gave her the barest hint of a lifeline.
A fire escape flashed in the corner of her vision as Kat’s pursuer drew closer. She focused on the metal ladder and staircase, its lowest rung almost twice her height off the ground.
They weren’t common on the lower levels. The employees that lived there couldn’t afford the rooftop gardens that management and executives enjoyed, and frankly, it just didn’t matter as much if there weren’t survivors from a burning apartment complex.
Mana drained from Kat, and her weight dropped just as she sprang into the air. The spell, Levitation, was nowhere near as effective on Earth as it was in The Tower of Somnus, but it was enough.
For a second, she hung, suspended in open space as the goon pursuing her skidded to a halt, his mouth hanging open and the rod of steel in his right hand flickering with its barely contained electric charge.
Then her hands hit the lower rung and Kat scrambled upward, trying to ignore the inevitable bruises the stunt had earned her on her ribs and forearms.
The fire escape didn’t shake nearly as much as it should have under Kat’s weight as she pulled herself up onto the stairs, yet another small mercy from Levitation. As soon as she had her feet under her, Kat practically flew up the steps, her decreased weight allowing her to climb with almost supernatural speed.
From below her, Kat heard a series of dull thumps, followed by the bricks around her shattering. Her pursuer struggled to track Kat’s movements, a huge pistol tracking her movements as it unleashed another oversized subsonic bullet that sprayed her with sparks as it glanced off of the fire escape’s handrail.
“Shit, shit SHIT!” Kat swore to herself as she slammed into the metal railing of the escape’s landing before ricocheting off and pounding up the steps as she tried to outrun the shooter.
High caliber subsonics weren’t exactly common, but they served a very specific niche. Specifically, covert operations against unarmored opponents. Their bullets didn’t break the sound barrier, muffling the sound they produced ,but their large size carried enough punch to deal some damage.
Of course, this all really only applied if the target wasn’t wearing armor. The big, slow slugs were about as good against kevlar and advanced polymers as a beanbag. It would knock its victim around and bruise them, but little else.
A window next to Kat shattered as her feet clanged against the metal of the fire escape. Like her, it wasn’t wearing body armor, just the brightly colored light jacket she used on all of her runs. Between her speed, sudden movements and the metal of the fire escape, the goon shooting at her was struggling to draw a bead on her, but a single shot would end her run in a hurry.
Whoever was after her wasn’t fucking around. Guns, even the scavenged and homemade pistols that were little more than pipes, solder, and a trigger mechanism that were for sale on the ground floor, were almost impossible to smuggle into the arcology without a permit.
A tail with a stun baton spoke to a worrying amount of wealth and influence. One with a gun that was willing to risk a run in with corporate security by firing inside the arcology?
Not only was Kat’s nemesis powerful, they clearly put a high priority on her capture or death. Now, if only she knew why, Kat could move on to feeling flattered by their rather violent attention.
“Target is escaping on foot,” Kat grunted at the voice of the man below her. At least his gun had run dry and he wasn’t shooting at her. “She’s made it to the top of 1800 Lingonberry Street. I’ve lost eyes on her. I need backup.”
That’s exactly what she needed.
Her breath was coming in short shallow gasps as she looked around the rooftop. The ceiling of the arcology was only a bit above her, lined with fluorescent panels that roughly simulated daylight. The roof itself had machinery for pumping climate controlled air through the building and a stairwell, but the rest of it was a small park or garden. Meandering gravel pathways lined with flowers wove through perfectly manicured grass. A woman screamed, clutching a small child to her as she spotted Kat’s disheveled form.
Kat simply ignored her, craning her neck to look for a way out of her predicament. The stairwell wasn’t an option. Any extra legal extraction team worth its salt would already have a goon sweeping them.
She sighed as her gaze was drawn inextricably to the next building over. Her only escape was to get outside their net and disappear.
“God this is dumb,” Kat muttered to herself, taking a couple of steps back from the edge of the building to give herself room to build up speed.
Behind her, the door to the stairwell crashed open, and Kat took off. The rooftop blurred by her, as Kat’s lighter body let her bound with the speed and grace of a frightened gazelle.
Then she was in the air. The alleyway between the buildings was just narrow enough that it might have been physically possible for her to make the jump before entering The Tower of Somnus. Even if she succeeded, it would have been by slamming against the side of the building, hoping to get a good enough grip on the concrete ledge to pull herself up. One missed step or an unlucky landing and she would have tumbled the eight stories to the arcology floor.
Kat hit the ground, a solid eight to ten feet past the edge of the building, her legs still pumping. To her left, Kat eyed up the buildings on the other side of the pedestrian thoroughfare and dismissed them. She might be in better shape than before, but even now that wasn’t a good plan. Instead, she continued, sprinting toward the edge of the building she was on in an attempt to escape her pursuit.
“Target is a runner,” Kat could barely hear the voice of the man on the other building. “She must be packing some kind of speedware. She just made the jump to 1804 Lingonberry.”
She jumped again, her breath starting to come in shallow gasps as the rest of the world faded around her.
Kat stumbled as her feet hit the soft grass of the rooftop, almost losing her footing as her light shoes sunk deep into the soil as she landed. A quick glance around revealed a fairly empty expanse, no ‘extra legal contractors’ in nondescript outfits in sight.
She needed to get to street level. There were only so many buildings in a row. If she tried to keep this up, it was an open question whether she’d run out of roof or breath first, but either way it was only a matter of time until they caught her.
Releasing Levitation before it began requiring mana to maintain the spell, Kat power walked to the stairwell and opened it. One story later she was on the top floor of the building, walking through the public amenities for its wealthy residents on her way toward the elevator.
Deep in her chest, Kat hoped that it wouldn’t require a lanyard to access the lift. Many of the higher end buildings had security features to keep out the riff raff which, unfortunately, meant her.
Just as Kat reached the elevator, it opened with a ding. Inside stood a man, a head taller than her and almost twice as broad as her slight frame. Sunglasses concealed his eyes and a brown blazer covered his obviously bulky frame.
Before Kat could even spit out a curse, the man flicked his wrist and the metal rod of a stun baton landed in his palm.
She backpedaled, hand reaching into her own jacket for her knife as the crackling bar of metal passed through the air where her neck had just been. A follow up thrust burned a hole through her fluttering jacket as Kat swirled away, blade finally in her hand. After her nights in The Tower of Somnus the weapon felt small, inadequate for any sort of real fight, but it was all she had.
The man brought the baton back to a guard position, electricity hissing off the weapon as it burnt the very air itself. They circled each other in silence, Kat with the practiced and smooth gait of a jungle predator, and her opponent with the twitchy quickness of wired reflexes.
His face was impassive, eyes a mystery behind the glasses, but Kat knew she was in trouble. Anyone that could hire this quality and quantity of muscle would be able to ruin her with a dead body.
Self defense was barely an argument against the predations of the powerful when you were on your own floor minding your own business. This far up in the arcology, while in the possession of stolen information? A body would ruin her.
The company did its best to cover up and turn a blind eye to extra legal contractors so long as they kept their actions clandestine, but it would be fairly difficult to cover up a gutted merc on the top level of a manager level residential apartment. They’d need someone to make an example of, and Kat didn’t have any doubt that the victim would be her.
Normally, she’d just stick her opponent and get away, but that strategy only worked when she was fighting someone she outclassed. From the way her opponent held his baton, to his hummingbird quick jerky movements, everything about him was bad news.
Depending upon his level of enhancement, Kat could probably bring him down. She was a player after all. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t be able to do that while holding anything back. A half measure now would end with a sizzle and her waking up to a burlap sack over her head in a second.
He jabbed at Kat with the baton, a feint designed to force her to dodge into a backhand from his left arm. She jerked toward his blow anyway, the point of her knife leading the way toward his hand.
Her knife hit his forearm, but it barely did anything, punching through his skin before scraping off of subdermal steel. Kat’s eyes widened at the thin line of silver, all she had to show for her attack, just before his knuckles crashed into the side of her face.
Kat spun woozily, stars flashing as the iron taste of blood flooded her mouth. She stumbled backward, knife still at ready for whatever good it would do. The man’s impassive expression broke, a broad, predatory smile blossoming on his face.
She was lucky that his strike hadn’t hit her temple, but that was about it. Kat wasn’t sure if his entire left arm was cyberware covered in synthetic skin, but at a very minimum it was enhanced with enough vat grown muscle to arm wrestle a forklift.
Her previous judgement was off. Without tricks, this wasn’t a fight that she could win.
The stun baton twirled in his grip, the hum-crackle of electricity vaporizing water from the air a droning counterpart to her harsh and ragged breathing. Luckily for her, Kat wasn’t entirely without tricks.
Mana flowed down her body and to her left hand where a thin tendril of water coiled and formed. Her opponent lunged, his baton leading the way.
Kat jumped to the side drunkenly, taking a kick to the ribs for her trouble as her woozy mind failed to adjust to her assailant’s whipcrack fast movements. She slumped to the ground, exaggerating her injuries just enough to draw him in.
The baton came down just as her Pseudopod wrapped itself around it, the watery tentacle grounding itself on either side of the electric weapon. Onto her attacker’s hand.
He jerked uncontrollably, his muscles clenching and spasming as the baton all but shorted itself out into him. The sunglasses fell from his unflappable face as he twitched wildly, revealing the red irises of custom made cyber eyes.
Finally, he slumped to the ground, his nervous system completely overloaded by the current. Vaguely, Kat hoped that he would be fine so that she could avoid future trouble, but at the same time, it was hard to have sympathy for the obviously high end mercenary through the aching pain in her face and ribs.
Bending over with a wince, Kat snagged his lanyard. A couple of stumbling steps later, she swiped herself down the elevator. The entire fight had maybe taken a minute, and with any luck there wouldn’t be anyone waiting for her.
For once, things went Kat’s way as she walked casually out of the building, doing her best to adopt a quick but unconcerned gait. Maybe it was overconfidence on behalf of the team that tried to snatch her, but she wasn’t inclined to fault them. The merc she’d run into had been tough.
She could almost sense the activity down the street from her as corporate police began to cordon off the block, finally responding to the muffled but still quite audible gunshots. Hopefully, security would keep the mercs occupied, Kat mused as she tossed her captured lanyard into a nearby alley.
Still, she wasn’t going to take any chances. Rather than make her way back toward the maintenance section of the floor, Kat approached a massive ventilation shaft built into the arcology’s wall. Luckily for her, the massive building needed to keep a lot of air moving through it to prevent its denizens from suffocating.
Unluckily for her, Kat mused as she used her knife to pop an access panel off of the yawning vertical shaft, there wasn’t any need for a ladder in a ventilation shaft. She slipped her knife back into its sheath in her jacket before activating Levitation once more. With a deep sigh, she shoved her torso into the darkness.
The metal walls of the tunnel were hot to the touch as she pressed her left hand against it. A second later, her right hand was pushed into the other side of the shaft, creating just enough tension to support her newly lessened weight.
Pain shot out from her injured ribs as Kat pulled her legs into the vertical passage with her. One by one, teeth gritted she shoved them up against the not quite burning walls as well. Then, she released the tension just a little bit, letting herself fall for a half second before catching herself.
The bruises in her side screamed at her, bringing a sheen of cold sweat to Kat’s forehead as she began to shimmy her way lower in the darkness. It was a long way to the ground floor. Even with Levitation, this was going to hurt.
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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