“She looks a bit skinny to me,” Nina looked Kat up and down, legs still crossed on Xander’s desk. “Are you sure she’ll be able to handle an infiltration?”
“Nina,” Xander hissed.
“Seriously Xan,” Nina’s feet thumped to the ground as she stood up, towering over both of them. “I don’t see a fleck of chrome on the girl. I know you love taking in strays and turning them into killers, but we don’t have time for a training montage. If this girl is gonna be on the op, she needs to be ready in a week.”
“I literally killed two men with pistols using only a kitchen knife three days ago,” Kat frowned slightly, looking from Nina to Xander, “and I don’t really see what my size has anything to do with this operation unless the plan is to feed me to some sort of guard animal.”
“At least she’s feisty,” Nina grunted, crossing her arms as she stared Kat down.
“Nina,” Xander grumbled, massaging his temples. “Kat is supposed to be an infiltrator, not a samurai. If she has visible chrome, she’s not getting in where she needs to go. She can hold her own in a fight if she needs to, but that’s not her job. If people start shooting, she needs to get out of there so your boys can get to the killing.”
For a second the three of them stood in the small office, a heavy silence weighing down on them. Finally, Nina relented snorting and dropping herself into one of the three rickety chairs arrayed around Xander’s desk.
“Fine,” she huffed, “I’ll give your stray a shot, but if she can’t keep up with my boys she’s not on the operation. I’m not risking my men on someone unproven.”
“That’s all I can ask,” Xander responded with relief in his voice, before Kat could voice her thoughts, he turned to her and just shook his head.
“Before the two of you start ripping each other’s throats out,” Xander walked around the side of his desk and sat down, fishing the cord out of his cranial jack and plugging it into something built into the desk itself.
A second later, the lights in the room dimmed and a projector lowered itself from the ceiling with a whirr of unlubricated gears. The projector’s light flickered on and a spreadsheet covered in tiny font appeared on the far wall.
“Tell me what both of you know about the Donnst family?” Xander blinked and the projector zoomed in on what looked like some sort of business ledger. “Recently they’ve engaged in some suspect dealings that our informant has flagged.”
The screen flickered and four entries were highlighted in light red.
Nina squinted at the entries and frowned. “Belle Donnst is fairly senior vice president. She’s expected to be made a president of the biochemical manufacturing arm of the company once Gregory Daniels is tapped for GroCorp. She has a couple of rivals for the position, but she’s Daniels favorite, and if he ends up transferring to GroCorp he’s going to end up with more sway over than anyone but the shareholders.
“Mostly because the shareholders are all executives or shareholders in GroCorp too,” Nina finished with a chuckle.
“GroCorp?” Kat frowned, “As in ‘Ike Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of GroCorp.’ That GroCorp.”
“Yup,” Nina nodded, her eyes trained on the projector as she tried to absorb its contents. “Gregory Daniels has always been the type to run his own little fiefdom, trading favors and backroom deals to expand his influence both in the company and the Shell. He’s the patron of probably a half dozen merc groups around here, and having access to clandestine muscle has served him well.”
“GroCorp had an opening,” Nina smiled grimly, “rumor has it that the opening wasn’t an accident. Christopher Haupt’s helicopter exploded just after takeoff. I mean, helicopters have mechanical errors and crash. It happens, but a big fireball over north Chiwaulkee out of nowhere?
She shook her head, chuckling slightly.
“The fact that all of Daniel’s rivals for the opening either died or withdrew their applications for ‘health reasons’ certainly wasn’t a coincidence.” Nina stood up and jabbed her finger at one of the accounts on the ledger. “He’s one mean son of a bitch, and that right there is Steel and Blood’s bank account so I wouldn’t be surprised if Belle Donnst is cut from the same cloth.”
“Agreed,” Xander shifted the projector’s focus to another entry which popped open into a series of dated subentries. “This is the account of one of the Ripper’s lieutenants. It looks like she’s been making steady payments but there are occasional big payments.”
“Two of the dates line up with the attempt on Kat in the Shell and the kidnapping attempt on her family,” Xander steepled his fingers, resting his chin in his hands. “The others line up with a drunken brawl that injured the son of another senior vice president and a different vice president withdrawing themselves from consideration.”
“Why isn’t the company doing something?” Kat frowned. “I can understand a certain amount of infighting between the executives, but it sure looks like she’s either killing people or threatening to do so.”
“It’s funny you mention that,” Xander replied, a wave of his hand zooming the projector in on another ledger entry that expanded in front of them. “It looks like Belle owns a waste disposal business that operates an incinerator out here in the Shell. There are two holding companies with owners that only exist inside the network as well as a proxy manager that I suspect is also an employee ID without a person behind it.”
“What’s the most important,” he continued, “is that the waste disposal business has access to every level of the arcology, courtesy of Gregory Daniels. In addition to removing the usual refuse that accumulates when you have a lot of people living in a confined space, they make custom pickups. A service that both Gregory Daniels and Belle Donnst have taken advantage of.”
“Let me guess,” Kat interjected wearily. “None of the waste inspection workers are inspected closely and no one is bothering to closely look at the trash they cart out of the arcology. A couple hours later, any evidence is thrown in the incinerator.”
“Damn,” Nina muttered. “So they have a couple crews on retainer, and they can slip them into the arcology with their weapons hidden in the trash and slip them out with bodies. No wonder the rest of the executives are staying out of their way.”
“What’s the last account you’ve highlighted?” Kat asked, her eyes locked on the nested financial entries displayed on the wall.
“Honestly?” Xander shrugged sheepishly. “I have no clue. Belle transferred almost two hundred thousand credits to a no name manger without any explanation. At first I thought he’d turn out to be a cut out, some sort of made up entry in a forgotten data set designed to hide and launder her ill gotten earnings, but he’s a real guy. Just plugging away for the company.”
“Great,” Nina sighed, her brow wrinkled in exasperation. “You’ve found an awful conspiracy by a bunch of company executives to kill each other and dump the corpses in an incinerator. Now I want to know why this is our problem. I couldn’t give a bent credit if the lot of them killed each other. It would probably make the world a better place.”
Xander waved a hand, turning the lights back on in his office. Kat turned to him, surprised to find a sheepish expression on the normally collected information broker’s face.
“Unfortunately,” Xander unplugged his cranial jack from the table before running a hand through his hair. “We have some information on the Christopher Haupt explosion, but not quite enough to collect the bounty.”
“What do you mean?” Nina turned to Xander, a deep scowl on her face. “That’s close to a million credit bounty for information on his death from his family. Enough for us to triple in size overnight, but that means we’re going to have other crews gunning for us the second they find out.”
“I think Donnst knows,” Xander sighed. “Kat was jumped recently by some Rippers in an abandoned building while coming back from a run. It turns out that the data she was carrying had the schematics for Haupt’s helicopter along with a list of known weaknesses for the anti tampering program that Haupt used to stop people from fiddling with it. It was from Daniels’ personal network.”
“Immediately after that run,” he continued unhappily, “I lost touch with the informant that supplied the data. It was like they disappeared off the face of the network. One minute, there wasn’t even a record of their ledger or their apartment. They were gone so thoroughly it was like they’d never existed.”
Kat shifted in her seat. That could be her family if she wasn’t careful. Every digital trace scrubbed from existence. No death report, no funeral. Nobody to remember them except terrified neighbors awakened at two a.m. by their door getting kicked down, but too frightened to even admit that they heard what happened.
“I only put two and two together on Kat’s most recent run,” Xander continued grimly. “The financial records we went over today had some of the contract details with Steel and Blood. One was from Donnst, directing them to eliminate my informant. It listed him as a ‘mutual liability.’ The other was an unspecified mission to Chiwaulkee three months ago. One for which Steel and Blood was very well compensated.”
“Are you saying that Steel and Blood-” Kat began, her heart hammering in her chest.
“Fuck!” Nina stormed to her feet and started pacing. “She won’t even have to act on her own, just let a couple of the gangs know that we have the information and none of the boys will be able to leave the warehouse. We can’t even hand the data over to end everything because all we have is enough to suspect Daniels. You can’t arrest someone of his power just over having some dodgy schematics.”
“What are we gonna do Xan,” Nina continued her heavy pacing. “I know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t build us up like this without some sort of solution. Just spit it out already.”
Kat looked at Xander, only to be met with a sheepish smile.
“Well,” Xander laughed, his gold tooth glinting. “Thank you for undermining my attempt at dramatic tension. I was trying to impress Kat.”
Kat smiled slightly. There was still enough tension for her. Clearly someone had pegged her for the runner that carried the hot data, and now they were coming after her. Maybe they thought she still had some or all of it, but even with Xander’s help there was no way her family could survive that sort of pressure.
This would mean moving out into the Shell, away from the electricity, water, and heat that made their drab corporate life bearable. The only alternative was to wait for a merc with a gun to get a drop on her, silencing Kat forever.
As much as her status as a player gave Kat an advantage in a fight, it didn’t make her bulletproof. Unfortunately, that wasn’t a metaphor. The Steel and Blood team had already tried to use high caliber subsonics on her, and it was only a matter of time before someone more competent than the Rippers was sent to finish her off.
“We need leverage,” Xander smiled, “and thanks to the most recent drop, we have a clean enough picture of the Donnst family finances to get it. No one is supposed to know about the waste disposal company so the defenses are minimal.”
“We need to keep the boys at home,” Nina shook her head. “I’m not arguing, having something on Donnst could probably keep the wolves from our necks, at least for a couple of weeks, but I can’t spare a smash and grab team.”
“And that is why we have an infiltrator,” Xander grinned, winking at Kat. “Even if Donnst knows who Kat is, I doubt that the gangs will. She should be able to move freely.
“Unfortunately,” Xander continued, “The rest of my infiltrators are known commodities at this point. They’re less likely to get nabbed than one of Nina’s samurai, but the risk is too high. Everyone publicly associated with our crews is going to have to hold tight in the warehouse until things blow over.”
Kat squirmed in her seat. She could see the logic in what Xander was saying, but it seemed like a whole lot in a short period of time.
“I was thinking of pairing Kat up with Whippoorwill as her electronic support,” Nina nodded soberly as Xander kept outlining his plan. “She’s just had her cranial jack installed and finished her training. She’s a little raw, but she hasn’t been publicly seen with either of our crews yet. The two of them should be able to break into a soft target like the waste disposal company and pull a full download of their mainframe.”
“A simple job,” Xander leaned back in his chair. “Whippoorwill grabs schematics for Kat. Kat sneaks in and connects a remote shunt to their mainframe. Then Kat grabs the shunt and books it. In and out, then we can sell information on the disposal company to Daniels and Donnst’s rivals. I’m sure they’ll be intrigued to learn how the two of them have been sneaking armed teams into the arcology.”
“That should be enough to keep them off our back long enough to figure out what’s going on with the Haupt helicopter,” Xander continued. “Hopefully. At minimum, it should give us enough time to look into Steel and Blood to see where we can find more evidence on the bombing.
“I’m going to be honest,” Kat frowned. “In the last month or so I’ve learned to distrust anything someone describes as a simple job. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
“At least she’s smart,” Nina snorted, a hint of a smile on her face.
“And she’s probably right!” Xander laughed, his false bravado cracking slightly. “Usually we’d spend a week casing the place physically and electronically before we sent someone in, but we’re on a tight schedule. If Donnst and Daniels haven’t already leaked that we have the Haupt files, it’s going to happen in a day or so.”
“By the end of the week,” Xander smiled bleakly, “every chromed out ronin in the Shell is going to be gunning for us. I can’t be sure that we can protect this warehouse, let alone your family. I’m sorry Kat, but anyone else would get spotted the minute they left the headquarters. It’s now or never.”
“What do we do if they claim we have the Haupt files even after we raid the waste disposal center?” Kat asked, trying to work her way through the twists of the unfamiliar situation.
“Simple disinformation op,” Nina grunted, nodding slowly. “Xander will be able to make it look like the Haupt rumors are being spread to stop us from releasing the information on their mercenary operations. Unless Donnst and Daniels are willing to admit that they were behind the Haupt bombing, it will muddy the waters enough that nobody will do anything drastic. Probably.”
“You should still watch yourself though,” Xander agreed. “The other mercenary teams might not be willing to start a full war, but tensions will be high. Anyone operating on their own could end up becoming a target of opportunity.”
“Great,” Kat muttered. “You really seem keen on making me regret signing up, and its only my first day"
“Don’t worry girl,” Nina chuckled, clapping a giant hand on her shoulder. It was cold. Chrome under a thin but convincing layer of false skin. “Xander and I have been in tougher scrapes than this. We’ll pull through and there’ll be plenty of credits to go around.”
The big woman walked out of the room, stopping in the doorway and looking back over her shoulder.
“I’m still not sure you’re cut out for all of this,” Nina shrugged, “but we can always reassess that after your first infiltration. Come on girl,” she jerked her head toward the second floor hallway, “let’s get you outfitted with some proper combat gear. If we’re going to be sending you into the lion’s den alone, the least we can do is give you a fighting chance.”
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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