Work was a dream. Kat struggled to focus through the slight fog of the painkillers, every movement distant and half conscious. As awful as the day should have been the haze and sparkles from the medication made time move more quickly, making things almost bearable.
Thankfully, the anti inflammatory pill did its job. Her side still ached, but the stiffness abated to the point that Kat could actually move and twist as she handled the massive trays of samples.
Unfortunately, she had seemed to trade one problem for another. Even before she got off the elevator to begin her walk to the lab, her stomach felt like a pit of writhing snakes. Simple acts such as clocking in and putting on her work apparel took almost twice as long as she had to pause to let her stomach resettle. Only once Kat started working did she actually slip into enough of a groove to lose some track of the persistent nausea.
One motion blended into another as she added sucrose and adjusted temperature settings to one sample after another. Finally, she blinked in surprise as her spartpanel buzzed, alerting Kat to her corporate mandated twenty five minute lunch.
Carefully, she closed the cover on her sample tray, snapping the latch shut and locking it. Then, Kat brought the sucrose and pipette over to the equipment cabinet. Placing them inside, she closed the cabinet and activated the combination lock. Corporate guidelines stated that all unmonitored equipment needed to be under lock to avoid espionage, and it hardly mattered when you were just feeding sugar water to mutant e coli.
Finally, she made her way to the lab lunchroom, the muted colors of the lab hallways blurring around her. She removed the brown paper bag with her name written on it in black marker from the refrigerator, picking an empty table in the lab break room.
Efficiently, she unpacked the peanut butter sandwich, nutrient gel, and vitamin drink onto the cheap but well maintained plastic counter. For a second she just stared at them as nausea welled up in her gut, but she did her best to quell her stomach’s rebellion.
Kat’s shift would last another six hours, and even if she wasn’t terribly hungry now, she’d be miserable by the end of it if she didn’t choke down the food. The peanut butter sandwich tasted like wet cotton, and the gel tasted like sugary glue, but she managed to force both of them down.
Her stomach wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, Kat felt bile tickling at the back of her throat as she began to sweat from the almost uncontrollable nausea roiling through her. She bit her tongue, counting internally.
1, 2, 3, 4 deep breaths. Focus on the air coming in and out.
5, 6 don’t think about food. Don’t think about moving. Just ride out the wave.
7, 8, 9 everything is going to be alright, you’re just having a moment.
10, 11 wait. The pills. Doctor Ramirez said not to take the pills with food!
Kat exploded into motion, hoping vaguely that no one noticed her tower enhanced speed as she grabbed a wastebasket and wretched into it.
Each heave was like an ice pick into her side. The drugs kept her from feeling the full breath-stealing pain of her broken ribs, but each convulsion that wracked her body reminded Kat of the price she’d be paying as soon as they wore off.
Finally, she set the wastebasket down, arms shaking and eyes watering. Her half digested meal mixed with empty wrappers and a pair of apple cores.
“Miss Debs,” a male voice interrupted her. “Are you feeling alright?”
She turned, frantically wiping her face on a sleeve to try and make herself presentable. Standing behind her was Samuel Vanden, lab assistant first class and her cohort’s supervisor. This his face and his voice betrayed some concern, but even with her eyes half open Kat was perceptive enough to see that it had nothing to do with her welfare and everything to do with the progress of the projects he was overseeing.
“I’m doing fine Mr. Vanden,” She choked the words out, her skin visibly clammy as Kat tried to ignore both the spasms in her stomach and the drumbeat of pain from her broken ribs. “I just think that my lunch disagreed with me.”
“Just see that it doesn’t disrupt your-” he paused, a light going off behind his eyes. “Wait, you’re the one working on the Delta Nine project, the modified e coli, right?”
Kat nodded, unwilling to open her mouth lest she end up needing the wastebasket again.
“Did you get the interoffice memo about using the fume hoods and protective gear whenever you applied heat to the samples?” He stepped back from her, nervously creating distance between the two of them. “There were some worries about how the modified virus might interact with the increased heat, and tier one biohazard-”
His mouth slammed shut. “Never mind, I’m babbling.” Samuel said, cheeks flushing slightly. “Did you use the fume hood and a respirator?”
“No,” Kat croaked, her throat still raw. “There aren’t any respirators in my equipment locker and no one has given me the access code for the fume hood yet. I wasn’t supposed to need it.”
“Damn,” Samuel muttered hastily. “Look, it’s probably nothing but you need to go home now Miss Debs.”
“Are you sure?” Kat asked, barely keeping it together as her stomach flip flopped. “I can still-”
“No,” Samuel stepped to the side, pointing at the door out of the break room. “You’ll still be paid for the day, but now that you’re starting to show symptoms-”
He stopped speaking for a second, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath to steady himself.
“Now that you appear to be ill,” he continued shakily, “it wouldn’t be fair to you to force you to keep working. Please, I’ll authorize your compassionate leave right now.”
Kat’s smart panel buzzed, alerting her to a new e-mail. She noted that Arnold had sent her something, but filed it away for later as she opened the message from her boss. Three days off, paid. Already approved.
She raised an eyebrow at him, confusion clouding her already drug addled eyes.
“Please go home,” Samuel smiled nervously. “In fact I insist. Just make sure to stay more than ten feet from me and any other lab worker while you do so. Having some space to recover is an important part of convalescence.”
Kat just nodded at him, walking to the locker room to grab her things and go. Already, just walking around was starting to make her feel better. In fact, once she stepped outside, almost all of the nausea faded away as she stepped into the open air of the arcology, away from the stale reprocessors used to keep the lab safe in case of a chemical attack.
By the time Kat made it to the elevator, she was almost entirely back to normal. It seemed that she’d left most of her problems in the break room waste basket, but still she made a point of not having breakfast after taking her pills in the future. She’d have to pack a heavier lunch and skip breakfast entirely if she wanted to avoid a repeat.
As the elevator whirred into motion, almost entirely empty due to the off hours, Kat opened up her e-mail once again. Still nothing from Xander, but she had her reply from Arnold. Opening it, she frowned immediately.
Don’t bother. It’s too late for that now. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. -A
Kat bit her lower lip, chewing it slightly as she tried to process what was happening. The additional clarity from the fresher air once she exited the elevator on her floor didn’t exactly help. Did this mean that Arnold’s father had found out that he’d taken the money? That wasn’t good, but Kat could hardly figure out why that would lead to Arnold apologizing.
Hell, her brow scrunched further. Even if his dad caught him, Arnold should still want the subscription. Restarting as a player might not be worth the amount of money that he paid for his original subscription, but the status and power that went with climbing the tower were certainly worth something.
Her confusion continued unabated as Kat arrived at her apartment complex. She took the stairs, wincing at the pain in her side. The building’s elevator had been out for months, but the company had more important priorities than fixing a maintenance breakdown in the lower levels of the arcology. It would get fixed, eventually, and all they could do is periodically renew their request for repairs and take advantage of the extra cardio from using the stairs.
Kat snorted, frankly, they were lucky that the company didn’t figure out a way to charge them more for the exercise. Maybe some sort of mandatory gym charge tacked on to the end of their monthly ledger.
Honestly? The only reason the company didn’t bother was that it probably didn’t matter. Almost all employees that lived in the lower levels would never come near paying off the ledgers. The pay was too low and the costs of staying alive were too high, all by design. A couple extra credits in the red barely mattered. Much like the rest of the debt, it’d never be paid off and the accountants could better be employed trying to pad a contract or a request for proposal to another company.
Finally, she reached her floor, her ribs aching through the haze provided by the drugs. Kat ground her teeth together. Whatever Doctor Ramirez had given her, it wasn’t enough. A higher dose might leave her giggling and unable to string a sentence together, but right now it had a certain charm.
She reached for her front door only to realize that it was slightly ajar.
Realization struck her like a bolt of lightning. That morning she’d been too busy to stop and listen for the faulty autolock to make sure it had engaged. She’d been in too much of a rush and lost in her drugged out haze.
Still, the door shouldn’t have been open. Unlocked yes, but the only way the door would have been left open was-
An indistinct man’s called out from inside.
There were men inside the apartment. Kat’s hand closed on open air where her knife hilt ordinarily would have ridden.
She squeezed her right hand into a fist, knuckles whitening. Briefly, she thought of trying to acquire a weapon from a neighbor or a nearby store, but there wasn’t time. Michelle had a day off of school for independent study. Unless her sister had broken every rule that Kat and her mother had set for her, she was inside.
Kat exhaled, trying to find the calm place that Xander’s trainers had drilled into her. The men inside would be bigger and stronger than her. If she fought angry, she’d get captured or die. Her only chance was to out think them.
Crouching, Kat pushed the door gently open, slipping around its corner and into the apartment’s living area. The cheap sofas and chairs were all out of position, moved or flipped over entirely by the men that were ransacking the place.
“Jay-Raz,” her eyes immediately found the skinny white man in a trenchcoat as he called out to someone while facing away from her, toward the bedrooms and bathroom. In his hands, he fiddled with a stun baton, not yet activated but almost as much of a threat as the firearm, a poorly concealed lump in the trenchcoat at his hip, that the man clearly carried.
“I don’t think she had the day off of school,” the man continued, bored. “I don’t know if the schedule that kid gave us was bunk or what, but we’ve been here for almost an hour. If the target was going to come home, she would have by now.”
“Shut up Twitch,” a deeper voice growled from her shared bedroom with Michelle. “I swear I can smell the little bitch. She’s just hiding somewhere. We just have to flush her out.”
Kat’s blood ran cold. If this were a robbery, they could deal with it. The company would charge ‘cut them a deal’ on replacement furnishings, but it wasn’t worth anyone risking their life over it.
This was different. Street toughs couldn’t get their hands on guns in the arcology. These two had connections. A crew. They were in her apartment for a reason.
Kat exhaled quietly, creeping forward, her ears peeled for a sign of a third invader. Even with two, there wasn’t any room for error.
“Come on Jay-Raz,” trench coat man shifted impatiently. “I know you want to show off all that new chrome of yours, but I don’t care whether you smell blueberry muffins or the blood of a fucking englishman. The job’s a bust. Plant the message and let’s get the hell out of here. As bad as corporate security is, they’ll find us eventually if we stick around forever.”
Kat’s Pseudopod crept up over the edge of the nook toward the corner of the kitchenette, the thin tentacle of water wrapping itself around the hilt of a butcher’s knife. She’d used it before. It wasn’t anywhere near as well balanced or sharp as she’d like, but it would serve for what she had in mind.
“Corporate security will do what it’s told,” the deeper voice responded irritably. “Didn’t you pay attention to what the client was saying? This isn’t some back alley hit in the Shell, Twitch, the client has some serious clout. This is the kind of job you don’t fail.”
The knife wobbled in the air as Kat almost lost her focus. It hung in the air, its tip almost dragging against the fake stone counter of the eating nook. She took a deep breath, biting the inside of her cheek to concentrate through the fog of her pills.
A second later, its unfamiliar weight was in her hand. Kat released her previous spell, and changed her focus and letting more mana slip out of her. She felt her weight drop as Levitation clicked into place.
This was the part that was going to hurt. From a crouch in her hiding spot, just behind the meal nook, Kat jumped into the air.
She hung for a second, her spell both powering her ascent and slowing her fall, before she landed, on the counter behind the man in the trenchcoat. Her toes touched down first, cushioning her descent as Kat settled into another crouch, smoothly and quietly enough not to disturb the complaining tough.
Her ribs screamed agony at her, but Kat really didn’t have another choice. Sneaking around the corner into the kitchenette would have brought her directly into his line of sight. Then, even if he couldn’t draw the gun in time to take Kat on his own, a simple shout to his companion would put her in an impossible situation.
“I’m sure the client thinks that they’re tough shit,” the man just in front of her complained, oblivious to Kat’s presence, “but what are they gonna do in the Shell? Nothing. They’re a big shot in this silver tower, but out in the real world? Nothing more than a scared kid with money.”
Icewater ran down Kat’s spine. He could turn around at any moment. All it would take to ruin everything is one casual glance over his shoulder.
Before she could test her luck any more, Kat’s left hand snaked outward, clapping itself over the man’s mouth as soon as he was done speaking and yanking his head backward. Surprise robbed him of his ability to resist, and before he could process what was happening, Kat’s knife traced a deep crescent across his throat.
Blood sprayed across the kitchenette, splattering the cheap refrigerator and the chipped tile of the walls, his screams muffled by Kat’s hand. For a second, a thrill ran through her. It was working, just like in the action movies on the entertainment channels.
Then one of the man’s flailing arms slammed into a bowl her mother had left out that morning. It hit the ground with a loud clatter that might as well have been a siren. A leg kicked into the cheap wood of a cabinet, breaking the panel with a clearly audible crack.
“You alright Twitch?” Kat could hear footsteps moving in her bedroom, but all she could do was hold on for dear life.
“Twitch?” There was concern in the other man’s voice now. He was closer.
She was out of time. Kat let go of the man and jumped off the counter, scooping up the stun baton that he’d dropped in his struggles and thumbed the weapon on with a satisfying crackle.
Twitch let out a wet gasp as he reached feebly toward Kat, a puddle of his blood growing around him on the kitchenette’s linoleum.
“What the-” a huge bearded man rounded the corner, his eyes widening at the sight of his dying partner.
Kat didn’t give him another chance. Most of her remaining mana flooded out of her, activating Dehydrate over the man’s head. Hopefully, he was suffering from the mother of all hangovers, but Kat wasn’t going to count on it.
The butcher’s knife flew from her hand toward the space between the interloper’s eyes, its poor balance leading to it striking hilt first, but the action spooked the disoriented man enough that he brought up his arm to block.
That moment of distraction was all she needed to slip close, jamming the stun baton into the large man’s side. It discharged itself with a crackle, bringing him to his knees with a whiff of burnt hair and ozone.
She pushed the stun baton against his temple, contravening every safety manual ever published regarding the weapon. The baton crackled and the man’s eyes rolled up into his head, mind scrambled and safely unconscious. For the moment.
Grimly, Kat fought through the pain and revulsion as she searched for the knife she’d used on the first man. A second later, his larger friend joined him, bleeding from a fatal neck wound on the kitchenette floor.
The nausea returned. This time having nothing to do with the concoction of pills Kat had taken. Her time in The Tower of Somnus might have hardened her, but there was something fundamentally different about fighting monsters in a game, no matter how real they felt, and killing men that were talking just a second before.
There hadn’t been a choice. If she hadn’t acted, Kat was sure that death would have been an easy fate for her sister and her, but while she understood that intellectually, it was different to stand above two cooling bodies, covered head to toe in their blood.
“Michelle,” she called out, trying to keep her voice gentle despite her revulsion. “I got rid of them. It’s safe to come out now. Please let me know if you’re alright.”
God, if she hadn’t gotten sick and come home early. If she hadn’t noticed that the men were here, anything could have happened. Her mind whirred, clouded by pain, drugs, and panic.
“Michelle-” Kat caught herself as she heard a click from the bathroom. Picking up the stun baton she stepped into the hallway.
Her younger sister stood framed in the bathroom door, still wearing her school clothes, jaw wide open.
“Kat what-” Michelle began, struggling to speak.
“Shhhhh,” Kat answered, tears streaking through the blood covering her face. “It’s fine Michelle. Some bad men came to hurt us, but they’re gone now.”
Her body shook slightly as Kat tried to keep her voice from cracking. “You’re safe now. We’re both safe,” the words just kept spilling out of her mouth, almost babble.
“What happened Kat?” Michelle asked, eyes wide. “I heard them talking as they opened the door to the apartment and they sounded like the Block Chain Bandits from Chrome Cowboys, all growly and scary, so I hid.”
“Hid?” Kat asked incredulously. “How did you manage to hide from them for that long?”
“Promise not to get mad,” Michelle looked away, unable to meet Kat’s eyes.
“I’m not going to get mad,” Kat shook her head, smiling slightly. “I’m just happy you’re alright.”
“Promise Kat,” Michelle responded sternly, still not making eye contact.
“I promise Michelle,” Kat put a blood covered hand over her heart. “No matter what you say, I won’t get mad.”
“Good,” Michelle beamed back at her. “I undid the clasp on the fake cabinet inside the sink where you hide your knives and credits from mom. Once I put the wood back up, they couldn’t find me. It was super uncomfortable and tight, but it was just like a game of hide and seek.”
“You knew about the false back to the sink?” Kat asked. “How in God’s name did you manage to figure that out?”
“Every time you snuck out to go on your missions you would go to the bathroom first,” Michelle rolled her eyes. “I figured it wasn’t just because you really had to poop so I started looking for whatever your secret was while you were out. One time, you left the thingy undone”
“You’re not mad, right Kat?” Michelle turned the full force of her moping eyes on Kat. “You promised.”
“I did promise,” Kat chuckled. “Now I’m going to need you to do me a favor. You need to stay over here. You can go to our bedroom and the bathroom, but you can’t come into the kitchen or the living room. Some bad things happened over there.”
“Did you kill someone,” Michelle’s eyes lit up. “I bet you did!”
“Yes,” Kat replied somberly, “and it isn’t a cool or a pretty thing. I need you to promise me, Michelle. Bedroom and bathroom only.”
“Fine,” Michelle sulked, “but you’ll need to tell me the story later.”
“I can probably manage that,” Kat responded over her shoulder as she gingerly made her way to the bathroom.
One shower and change later, Kat was on her way to the ground floor, knife in its sheath and the comforting weight of real credits in her pocket. She’d taken almost half of her stash, an unpleasant necessity, but Xander had trained her well. Kat knew exactly how to deal with this grisly scenario.
She walked through the smells and shouts of the ground floor bazaar, making her way toward a store near the South wall of the arcology. Her nose wrinkled as she approached, the smell threatening to upset the minor amount of control Kat had maintained over her stomach.
Upon opening the door to the shop with a jingle, the smell grew significantly worse. Her eyes teared up as the acrid scent assaulted her.
“Just a second,” a jovial, wizened man scrambled out of the back of the shop. He brushed himself down before turning to Kat with a wide smile.
“Welcome to Rex’s, what can I do for you?” his cheerful voice had a bit of rasp, but Kat couldn’t see any duplicity in his eyes.
“Two things,” Kat answered somberly. “My name is Katherine Debs. I work for Xander. I need to make soap, and I need word to get to Xander that I’m making soap.”
The man’s face fell instantly as he sized Kat up, his eyes focusing with a laserlike intensity on the barely visible bulge of the knife in her jacket.
“Tough business that,” he replied after a moment, sighing. “I think I can get word to Xander and some lye and a barrel to you. How many batches are you planning to make?”
“I’ll need two barrels,” Kat replied grimly.
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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