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A note from Cocop (Cale Plamann)

Word Count: 50,006 (NaNoWriMo Achieved!)

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Every predator in the Shell watched Kat limp through the snowy streets. She could feel their eyes on her from the doors and windows of dilapidated bars, VR arcades, houses, and brothels. Normally, Kat would do everything she could to cover the extent of her injury, but that wasn’t an option.

Each step, fire blossomed from her ribs, forcing her into an uneven gait. Kat’s back was tense, her hand gripping the knife inside her jacket as she surveyed her surroundings, ready for an attack at any moment. Her blood was clearly in the water, and she knew better than to trust the circling sharks.

Luckily, it seemed that word of Xander’s displeasure had spread about the Shell. There were still groups big enough to oppose the broker, Kat’s run in with the mercs proved that, but the average street ronin would know better than to risk his wrath. After all, they liked having hands.

Finally, a block or two from the ChromeDogs warehouse, three of Xander’s affiliates met up with her. Without saying a word, they formed a diamond around her. The woman in front openly displayed an old military assault rifle, moving with a slight whirr on a pair of oversized chrome legs that ended in a trio of sickle-like claws. On Kat’s left was a wiry black man, slightly shorter than Kat but hefting a lovingly maintained rifle almost the size of his body. To her right, was a giant of a man, a belt fed grenade launcher built into his massive cybernetic right arm. She barely even noticed the submachine gun tucked into his giant fist, its size making it look like a toy against the man’s silent bulk.

They escorted her to the warehouse, the trio’s presence scaring off even the gazes. She nodded at them in appreciation once she arrived, sweat beading her forehead from the pain despite the chill of the midwestern winter. The woman acknowledged Kat’s silent thanks with a nod of her own before peeling off with the two men toward the mercenary group’s barracks and training center.

Kat limped the final couple of paces to the conference room and opened the door. Xander was in his normal seat, a frown on his face. Standing to his right was a twitchy man holding what looked like a briefcase.

“Take a seat Kat,” Xander cut her off before she could say anything. “Ramirez will have a look at you and patch you up as best he can. Then we can talk about the mission.”

“But-,” She began, grimacing against the pain as she took her seat.

“Enough,” Xander shook his head. “It’s on the house. I was in the system when things went sideways. I picked up the priority alerts that went out when you got made. This wasn’t a mistake on your part Kat. Someone had the balls to make a move on one of my runners at one of my dead drops. You can be sure, once I find that person they will not have the balls to try something like that again.”

The breath hissed out of Kat as she leaned back in the chair. A second later, the doctor, Ramirez, was lifting up the side of her shirt. Kat made to protest, only for Ramirez to squint at her incredulously, cowing her into submission.

She grunted as the doctor poked her side, clicking his tongue as his cold fingers sent spikes of pain skittering through her body. By the time he was done, Kat was gasping for breath, sweat pouring down her face.

“What’s the damage Martin?” Xander asked, his fingers drumming against the table impatiently.

“She’s roughed up but she doesn’t need surgery,” the man nodded brusquely at Kat, a tic twisting his face as he began to remove objects from his briefcase, putting them on the conference room table in orderly rows. “Broken ribs and heavy bruising, but no internal damage I could see. She’ll stiffen up bad tomorrow, but as long as she gets plenty of rest and eats well they’ll heal on her own.”

“She’s corporate Ramirez,” Xander replied unhappily. “They’re not going to give her time off to heal up. Especially for an injury incurred on an off day. She needs to be able to work her day job tomorrow.”

The doctor sighed, running a hand through his hair, his left eye spasming. He reached into his briefcase and fished out an opaque plastic container, popping the lid off to reveal a handful of oblong red pills.

“I can give her something for the swelling and the pain,” Ramirez glanced from Xander to Kat, frowning slightly. “I wouldn’t recommend it though. There’s a reason your body swells when it’s injured. If she takes the pills, it’ll still hurt like hell and it’ll slow down her healing. She’ll be able to perform light activities, but it’ll drag out her recovery.”

“Do it,” Xander nodded, watching closely as the doctor injected something into Kat’s side before applying a warm, self adhesive compress to the wound.

She sighed, feeling the fuzzy warmth of the painkillers spreading through her body. Her jaw and side still hurt, but the pain was distant now, more manageable. The doctor stuck another needle in her, injecting her with another medicinal cocktail.

Finally, he pushed two plastic containers full of pills toward her, leaving them on the table in front of her. Efficiently he began packing up his briefcase.

“Take one of each of those before bed and in the morning,” the clasps on the case clicking loudly as Ramirez kept speaking. “Make sure to take them without food or you’ll end up sicker than a hungover dock worker. Nothing in your system but water for one hour before and after. Most importantly, try to avoid physical activity. I know you’ll be going to work but no climbing, lifting, fighting or screwing.”

Kat blushed, the warmth and fog of the drugs not providing quite enough emotional distance for her to deal with the doctor.

“Thanks Martin,” Xander nodded, a hint of relief on his voice. “I’ll remember that you were able to get here on a moment’s notice. Send me the invoice and we’ll square up.”

The doctor only nodded, walking over to the conference room’s coffee machine and washing his hands in the sink next to it. A minute later, he left the room, briefcase in tow, leaving Kat alone with a brooding Xander.

“Please tell me you got the data,” Xander asked as soon as they were alone. “If they were willing to go that far to stop the transfer, there has to be something major on it.”

Kat unzipped the inner pocket of her jacket, removing the data stick and sliding it across the table to the information broker. Distantly, she could feel her broken ribs screaming at her.

“Thank God,” Xander snagged the stick off the table, slotting it into a dataport in the back of his skull with one smooth motion. “That run was a piece of art Kat. I honestly don’t know another runner in the Shell that could have gotten out of there at all, let alone with their payload intact.”

“It was a near thing Xan,” the room was starting to sparkle a little bit, but other than that she felt remarkably clear headed. “I don’t know about any of the other mercs, but that last guy I fought was mounting some serious augments. Either he was executive security or a big fish out here, not someone who belonged on that level of the arcology.”

“Stazz,” Xander answered. “A squad leader in Steel and Blood.”

Kat frowned. She wasn’t an expert in the contractor teams operating out of the Shell, but Steel and Blood were well known even in the arcology. They weren’t the biggest or strongest of the merc organizations, but they were probably the most dangerous.

Although not officially part of the company, Steel and Blood had standing contracts. Very lucrative contracts that they invested in heavy cyberware. Although the organization had a handful of players, their focus was more on chrome and wire, using technology to augment the human form until it could perform insane feats of strength and reflexes.

Most notably, they were one of the organizations that didn’t seem to really care about the Wierzbeck limit, the theoretical maximum operating capacity of the human brain. True, the nervous system could be enhanced and reinforced, but past a certain point things began to break down.

The limit was different for each person, but eventually there would just be too much input, and the excess cyberware would overload the samurai’s ability to process it. The lucky ones just ended up with verbal or physical tics, minor scars from the neural static scorching their systems. The unlucky ones went catatonic, eyes rolling up into the back of their heads before they began to twitch and spasm, stuck in an eternal seizure until someone put them out of their misery and harvested their chrome.

Steel and Blood collected the third category. People who adapted to the overwhelming psychic input by going quietly insane. It manifested differently depending upon the affected individual, but the most common outcome were battle junkies. Amoral sociopaths that could pass as normal when needed, but that lived for the rush and risk of combat.

Even though the junkies made up a minority of Steel and Blood, they were what made it dangerous. Heavily armed and well trained mercenaries that literally didn’t care if they lived or died, willing to take on any risk in order to live one more moment on the precipice of life and death.

“Is he?” Kat asked, the rest of the question unnecessary in light of Steel and Blood’s reputation in the Shell.

“I don’t know,” Xander sighed. “Stazz is a mean son of a bitch, but he doesn’t show any of the tell tales. He’s chromed up pretty heavily, but he doesn’t advertise it. A lot of the junkies will walk around looking like full cyborgs. It’s only one datapoint, but I honestly haven’t found anything definitive one way or another.”

“He kicks like a mule,” Kat grimaced. “That’s all I know for sure.”

“Subdermal armor and synthetic muscle grafts,” Xander nodded. “I’ve been able to track down the doc that put them in him. Real top of the line stuff.”

“Look Kat,” Xander sighed, massaging his temples. “I’m going to track down who called this hit out on you, but unless it was something internal to the Steel and Blood, I’m not going to tangle with them. Life in the Shell is about deterrence and reputation. If a couple of my boys and girls have to bleed to keep the riff raff afraid of the ChromeDogs and me, that’s the price to play the game.”

“Steel and Blood just don’t care,” he shrugged. “I can probably call in markers and take them, but it won’t even bother them. Half of them are straining at their leashes for the chance to fight. They might even thank us.”

“I’m sorry,” Xander grimaced, “but they just aren’t people you can reason with. They’re rabid dogs.”

“It’s okay Xan,” Kat smiled back at him, touched that he’d even bother to explain himself. “I’m roughed up, but the run succeeded. No need to get a bunch of people killed when things more or less worked out.”

“I’m glad you understand,” Xander sighed before shooting her a grateful half smile. “Don’t get me wrong. Once I get this data decrypted, we’re going to find who authorized this operation, and I will make an example of them.”

“Thanks Xan,” Kat felt warmth trickle through her body that had nothing to do with Doctor Ramirez’s injection. “I mean it.”

“Before you go,” Xander blinked, and the lights in the conference room dimmed. A second later, a projection screen displayed the tail end of her fight with Stazz, the loop of water shorting out his stun baton prominently visible. “We need to talk about this.”

Kat’s breath caught in her throat. She’d hoped that none of the cameras had caught that moment, but-

“I’ve already deleted the fight from the company archives,” Xander waved a hand at her dismissively, “so there’s no need to worry. Your jumping and leaping around could be chalked up to you being in peak physical shape, but there’s no hiding that spell.”

“So Kat,” Xander blinked again, transforming the still image into a slow motion video of her fight with Stazz. “Which are you, an elementalist or a wizard?”

“Elementalist,” her mouth was dry. She didn’t know what else to say but the truth.

“Look,” Xander turned the projection off, the lights igniting automatically. “Nothing has changed in the past twenty four hours. I’d like you to consider becoming an infiltrator again, but that’s it. If you’re a player, it’s only a matter of time before you develop the kinds of skills and powers that could make you a great deal of money.”

“If that makes you uncomfortable?” Xander grinned, gold flashing from his exposed teeth. “You’re like a daughter to me Kat. I’m not going to try to pressure you into something you don’t want to do.”

For a couple of seconds, neither of them spoke. Xander smiling in silence while Kat eyed him up, gauging the information broker. Finally, she broke the silence.

“Didn’t you kill your son?” Kat asked, cocking her head slightly to the side.

“Daniel was a disappointment,” Xander sighed. “I loved the boy, but he was running guns on my territory without giving me a cut. I gave him a couple chances to remedy the mistake. Hell, I was only charging him half the normal fee, but he kept trying to hide it from me rather than make things right. Remember Kat. Whether you’re in your big metal tower or Somnus, family is important, but business is business.”

The meeting wrapped up quickly after that. Xander promised to give Kat a call as soon as he had any information on the run, and she made her way back to the arcology. No one bothered her as she walked through the Shell, and even the vendors on the ground floor seemed to know enough to avoid her as she made her way toward the lift.

Her lanyard scanned without difficulty, and before long, Kat was on her own floor walking toward her apartment, the pain in her side and jaw a dull but distant ache. Just as she was about to scan her way into her building, a man cleared his throat behind her.

Kat whirled around her hand on the knife in her jacket. Internally she cursed the drugs for dulling her senses.

“Hey Kat,” Arnold had lost weight. His trademark curls had grown out into a stringy mop of sweat soaked black hair. “I’m glad you’re alright.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Kat asked, her hand, which had been relaxing, squeezed the hilt of the knife once more.

“Just,” Arnold responded evasively, trying to buy himself time. “A lot of stuff has been happening. I’m glad you’re doing well.”

“Thank you Arnold,” she replied, using her left hand to bring her lanyard near the door’s scanner. “Now if you don’t mind, I need to get inside. It’s almost my bedtime.”

“Kat,” she gritted his teeth as he called out to her, “please. I really need that subscription. I’ve been able to put my Dad off, but it isn’t going to be able to work much longer. He’s already asking about my pre-college reading.”

“I’m going as fast as I can Arnold,” Kat replied, trying to stay as diplomatic as possible, “but this isn’t the sort of thing that you can rush. If I’m not careful, I’ll end up dead too and then we’ll both be out of luck.”

“I managed it in a couple days,” he mumbled unhappily.

“And then you rushed us both into danger and got yourself killed,” Kat responded with finality. “Goodbye Arnold. I’ll let you know when I have it. Until then, you’re just wasting your time.”

“But Kat-” the front door to the apartment complex clicked behind her, silencing her former friend.

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About the author

Cocop (Cale Plamann)

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

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