Kat woke up, well rested and with a smile on her face for the first time in months. Her sister was already awake, doing homework quietly while laying on her back in bed.
She stood up, wincing slightly at the tightness in her ribs as she looked over Michelle. Her sister was laying still, the only sign that she was awake, her eyes flicking and mouth subvocalizing as her smartpanel read the micro movements and translated them into actions that the tiny computer could understand.
Her smile only grew wider. One day soon she would have enough credits to get Michelle a cranial jack of her own. With a direct connection to the information channels she’d be able to learn her lessons four to five times faster. Michelle would be able to excel in her classes with only half grueling effort that Kat had expended.
If she played her cards right, Kat might even be able to call in a favor big enough that Michelle would be allowed to finish in the final two of her class. It would likely involve a big job for someone high up in the company hierarchy, but if she kept gaining levels that was a possibility.
Warmth filled her chest as she stared down at Michelle, watching her twitch slightly as she accessed her class data remotely. Kat would give her every advantage that had been denied her. She might not be as well off as an executive’s kid, but Kat would drag her sister screaming and wailing by the scruff of her neck into junior management.
Kat walked to the bathroom, a slight hitch in her step as she tried to avoid putting too much weight on her injured side. Once there, she locked the door and leaned against the wall. As soon as she thought of using Cure Wounds I, words bubbled to her lips.
Her mouth moved without Kat’s conscious control. Arcane but meaningless phrases flowed off of her tongue. For a second, her ears began to ring.
Then Kat’s hands glowed faintly yellow. She touched them to her injured side and a second later her mana rushed out of her in a torrent. Eight seconds later, the aura surrounding her hands sputtered out as Kat’s mana pool emptied itself into the bruised muscles of her ribs.
Kat twisted her body experimentally, feeling only the faintest twinge of her injury. She lifted her shirt, noticing that the formerly fresh and angry bruise had faded to a dull green bullseye roughly surrounding the spot where her ribs had been broken.
A quick prod of her finger revealed only the faintest of tenderness, so Kat let her shirt fall back into place. Moments later, she flushed the toilet and washed her hands, not wanting to draw questions as to why she went into the bathroom without doing anything.
Walking back toward the kitchenette, Kat paused, hearing Michelle’s voice from the bedroom. She frowned slightly, Michelle was supposed to be working on a math packet before attending her in person afternoon classes. There was no reason why she would be talking to anyone.
Quietly, Kat pushed the door to their bedroom open. Michelle was still laying on the bed, but there was a wide smile on her face and her hands were clenched in excitement.
“C’mon Jennie,” Michelle muttered, her eyes twitching slightly as her smart panel flashed with the bright colors it was beaming directly into her pupil. “You can’t let them get away with this.”
Kat shook her head, crossing the room in two quick strides and pulling the smart panel off of Michelle’s face.
“Hey!” Her sister squawked, blinking at the sudden light as the smart panel stopped dimming her senses. “Oh.”
Michelle’s face fell when she saw Kat.
“Oh?” Kat replied, arching an eyebrow. “Do you care to explain how your algebra homework is coming along? Maybe I should check your smartpanel logs to see how many sample problems you managed to finish this morning.”
“But Kat,” Michelle begged, “Jennie’s tracked the Digital Desperados back to their hideout in virtual space. They captured Earl Benedict and they’ve hidden him in an abandoned mineshaft. I need to know if she can hack into their firewall vault in time to find out where Earl is before the mineshaft floods and he dies.”
“If you needed to know that badly,” Kat rolled her eyes, “you would have done your homework during the allotted time and I would have let you watch Chrome Cowboys after dinner. Now-”
Kat tapped a parental override code into the side of Michelle’s smartpanel.
“You’re grounded from using the entertainment channels at all for two days,” Kat handed the piece of electronics back to her sister. “Maybe you can use that time to get far enough ahead on your homework that you’ll be able to catch up on Chrome Cowboys.”
“Kaaaaaaat,” Michelle whined, staring at the smartpanel in her hands morosely. “You can’t do this. My friends are going to watch the show and talk about it at school. If I don’t know what happens, I’ll look like a dork.”
“Well,” Kat grinned acidly. “We can’t have you looking like a dork.”
“Jennie breaks into the firewall vault and learns Earl’s location,” Kat began, ignoring Michelle’s wails of distress as she tried to cover her ears. “When she gets to the mine, it turns out it's all been a setup. Earl Benedict has been working with Danny Rodriguez, the man Jennie detests but is married to for political reasons, the entire time. Everything with the Digital Desperados was a ploy to lure her out into the desert where Earl and Danny, who have secretly been lovers the entire time, trap her in the abandoned mineshaft. Now, once she dies, Danny will inherit her family’s cybercow ranch which secretly has a vast oilfield under it that Earl discovered.”
“Noooooooooooooooooooo!” Michelle screamed, pillow over her head as she kicked her feet wildly. “How could you spoil it like that Kat?!”
“Maybe next time you won’t try and sneak ten minutes of entertainment channels in the instant I head to the bathroom,” Kat smirked. “But seriously Michelle, I need to know where you’re at on those homework problems. Don’t forget that you need to finish them up before I can tutor you on next year’s math tonight.”
The room buzzer rang, drawing an immediate frown from Kat as her hand slipped toward the knife sheath in her light jacket. After the raid on their home, Kat had taken to wearing it at all times, just in case.
She heard her mother’s voice, muffled and from the front door. Michelle was saying something, but Kat could barely pay attention, adrenaline running through her body as she tried to strain her ears to make out what her mom was saying.
“This isn’t over,” Kat glared sternly at Michelle, silencing her. “I’m going to see what Mom is up to, but I expect those algebra problems done by tonight or we’ll have to look into extending your Chrome Cowboys ban until next week.”
Kat walked out of the room toward where her mom was speaking urgently with two burly men, both wearing the heavy utilitarian coats she’d come to associate with shellers. One of them was wheeling a dolly into the living room toward the two putrid barrels while the other tried to hash out details with Penelope.
“Hey Mom,” Kat called out, a bright smile on her face as she sized the two men up. Neither of them moved like fighters, all bulk and no grace, but in an enclosed space without a battle plan, that might be enough. “Who are your friends?”
“Oh hi Kat,” her Mom smiled at her, relief plastered across her face. “I didn’t hear you back there. These are the workers from QASP. They’re here to get rid of those god awful barrels.”
“Why don’t you introduce yourselves,” Kat stepped past her mother, angling her shoulder slightly so that her body was between Penelope and the strange men. “I forgot your boss’ name, but I told him that I was trying to get into contact with someone in the Shell. I’m sure that he has some sort of message to pass on to me.”
Her finger tensed on the knife handle as her eyes slipped from the man’s face to his broad shoulders. Eyes could lie. A trained fighter could draw you off, look at your right side while they stabbed towards your left, or stare you dead in the face while they swept your legs.
Shoulders were honest. You couldn’t shift your balance appreciably without moving your shoulders slightly, and although it was possible to strike someone using just a snap of the elbow, those blows carried barely any force. Even if the man were to go for a gun, he’d have to move his shoulder back to draw from a concealed holster.
He gulped, eyes widening as Kat stared him down the same way a snake looked at a particularly juicy mouse. He took a half step backward, but Kat didn’t budge, her left arm draped across her chest while the right gripped her knife in its sheath tightly.
“Wow Gus,” the man with the dolly had already levered it up under the barrel and turned to grab another one. Wandered forward, oblivious to the tension in the room, leaning over to the other worker and whispering in his ear. “She’s really pretty Gus, do you think I could get her number.”
“I’m real sorry Ma’am,” the original worker’s eyes widened, as his throat pumped soundlessly, “but are you Katherine Debs?”
Kat nodded, bending her knees slightly to sink into a stance that would allow her to explode into motion at a moment’s notice.
“Katherine,” the worker that brought in the dolly took a half step forward, a broad smile on his coarse but friendly face. “That’s a real pretty name. I’m Gus Henderson.
“Thank you for your patience Ms. Debs,” the other man coughed slightly, grabbing Gus by the shoulder and pulling him back. “My name is Ben Tilling. I work for Rex over at QASP and he did have something from Xander to pass on to you. Apparently Xander wants to see you, he says that he has the data decrypted. He uh-”
Ben gulped audibly, his eyes on where Kat’s hand disappeared into her jacket.
“Rex and Xander said that since this cargo was hot,” Ben spoke hurriedly, eager to get the words out, “it might be best for you to escort us down to the ground floor before you go and see him. He said that after what happened last time, we couldn’t be too careful.”
“It shouldn’t be hot,” Kat’s mom intervened cheerfully. “We made sure to turn off the heating apparatus at the time indicated in the guide.”
“Sure,” Kat replied, ignoring her mother as she released the hilt of her knife and relaxing her stance slightly. She still kept an eye on the two workers, but for now she was satisfied that they weren’t part of some overarching scheme. “I’d love to see Xander again.”
Ben exhaled, nodding at her thankfully before he pulled Gus out into the hallway. The big man spoke hurriedly, trying but failing to muffle his words in his urgency.
“She’s not just a pretty face Gus,” he hissed to his companion. “How the hell do you think those barrels got filled? Word is that Xander has offered to promote her to infiltrator, he’s just waiting to hear back from her.”
“But Ben,” Gus responded, barely quieting his voice.
“Don’t try that shit man,” Ben continued in a forceful whisper. “Learn how to read a room. Did you see the way she was looking at us? If you mouth off to her, we won’t have to worry about what Xander or Rex will do to us. The next team will be taking down four barrels.”
Kat frowned slightly. She wasn’t sure how she felt about acquiring a reputation in the streets of the Shell. On one hand, it would keep riffraff off of her back. On the other, she wasn’t terribly comfortable with the amount of fear it would instill in common refugees and subsistence workers that made the burned out buildings their home.
Plus, she sighed. Not everyone in the Shell was totally coherent. Between drugs, street ronin unaffiliated with any crew, and the general idiots that ignored the Wierzbeck limit and chromed themselves into psychosis, a reputation put a different kind of target on your back. More than one famous samurai had their final curtain call at the hands of some asshole trying to make a name for themselves.
“Mom,” Kat said gently, taking the other woman by the shoulders as the two workers argued in the hallway. “I don’t want to lecture you, but you can’t just open the door when someone rings the doorbell. There are bad people out there, and I would honestly be disappointed in them if they hadn’t already tapped our communications.”
“What?” Penelope asked, confusion on her face. “I called QASP and they showed up, just like you said. It would be silly for me to not let them in after I reached out to them.”
“You called QASP,” Kat agreed, speaking slowly as she tried to impress the gravity of the situation on her mother. “But did you make sure that the two large men that showed up were from QASP when you opened the door?”
“Oh,” her mother’s eyes widened. “Oh God. They might have-”
“They are from QASP this time,” Kat released her shoulders, “and I’m going to have to go with them now, but going forward, only answer the door if it’s me. Even if a friend of yours is on the other side, it’s possible that someone got to them.”
“I’m sorry,” Kat smiled bitterly, “but for the time being, we’re under siege. When I get back, we’ll talk about alternating your routes to work so you don’t get predictable and whether or not we can get away with calling Michelle in ‘sick’ for a couple of days.”
Her mom just nodded worriedly, and a couple of minutes later Kat was leaving with the two nervous QASP workers. Almost surprisingly, no one tried to stop them and Kat walked the sweating men to Rex’s workspace on the ground floor.
After seeing them off she began her walk to Xander’s warehouse, thin jacket pulled tight around her. This time, when the Shell’s predators looked at her, Kat looked back. Most looked away first, unwilling to meet her gaze as she stared them down, but a couple of the street samurai, well armed men and women with visible chrome, nodded back at her appraisingly.
She reached the warehouse smoothly, and the guard didn’t ask her any questions, instead just nodding her in.
Xander was waiting just inside the doorway, hands shoved into a leather duster as he leaned against the wall next to the conference room where Kat normally met him. His eyes lit up when she stepped into the warehouse.
“How are you holding up Kat?” he asked, “The two guys you flatlined were only rippers, but you were pretty banged up when they came for you.”
The rippers were a small time gang. Mostly petty thugs boosting things that wouldn’t be missed so that they could afford drugs. Now and then they’d rough someone up, but they weren’t known for their effectiveness in a real fight. They were hired for two reasons only. Rippers were cheap and disposable.
“I got better,” she flashed him a quick smile. “Look Xan, I’ve been thinking about my role with the organization-”
“I respect your decision Kat,” a slight flash of disappointment slipped through the cracks of Xander’s usually well controlled face. “I would ask that you hold off on leaving until we go through the details of the encrypted data you retrieved. Unfortunately it involves you.”
“Leave?” Kat chuckled. “Is that what you thought this was? You were right about me the first time Xan. This might be a bad decision and I might be a bit of a junkie, but I want in. If you’re still looking for an infiltrator, I’m your girl.”
“Oh,” for the first time in her years working with him, Kat saw genuine surprise on Xander’s face. “That’s wonderful news!”
“Here,” he spoke over his shoulder as he turned to walk down the hallway into the warehouse proper. “Follow me.”
“We already have two infilitrators,” Xander kept speaking to her as they walked past the training mats where two ChromeDogs moved with snakelike quickness, sparks spraying off of their cyber limbs as they sparred, “but a third will be welcome. Nina struggles enough with filling out the ranks of the ChromeDogs with samurai, but it's almost impossible to meet our client’s demands for operators with a more… deft touch.”
“You may be aware that the ChromeDogs and I have a fairly close business relationship,” Xander waved a hand in front of a metal door. It clicked open after reading a chip buried beneath his skin, and Xander led Kat up a narrow stairwell. “I don’t make it publicly known but I do have a couple of direct employees in addition to a web of informants and runners. Specifically, I’m in charge of intelligence and information gathering. That means infiltrators and a small team of hackers.”
“Your corporate overlords,” Xander snorted as he waved his hand to unlock another metal door, “in of all their wisdom figured out pretty quickly that my ilk could hack pretty much anything public facing. Logically, that meant that the upper floors have their own networks disconnected from the rest of the arcology. Secure facilities will even have subnetworks for sensitive data that can’t be accessed by anyone wirelessly.”
“Most of what infiltrators do,” Xander led her down a narrow and dingy hallway, past a number of doors that he ignored entirely, as they continued moving across the second floor of the warehouse. “Is break into secure locations and maintain an outside tap into those networks for long enough that a remote team can retrieve the data that we need. Of course, sometimes you will be retrieving physical files. Rarely, we will need you to work in conjunction with the ChromeDogs to eliminate or retrieve a human asset.”
Kat nodded grimly. She’d known it was coming, but it still didn’t make her happy. Assassination wasn’t a service that the ChromeDogs were known for, but any mercenary crew needed to be willing to get its hands a little dirty if they wanted to survive in the lawless maze that was the Shell.
“And now,” Xander opened a final door, revealing a well appointed office with a woman inside. She was tall, almost a head bigger than Kat, with close cropped hair just starting to grey about her temples, and her crossed feet propped up on a handcrafted chestnut desk, “may I introduce Nina Cromwell, commander of the ChromeDogs and my better half.”
“Honey,” Xander’s face twisted slightly with embarrassment. “Could you please get your boots off of my desk? We have company.”
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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