“This feels like a trap,” Kat mumbled for the twentieth time, her eyes on the empty building across the street
“Probably is,” Nina agreed over her earpiece, the bluster from their initial encounter replaced with cool professionalism. “If this place is as important to Belle Donnst as we think it is, there’s no way this will go perfectly smoothly.”
“Thank you for the reassurance,” Kat muttered, pacing urgently back and forth in the metal dumpster that she’d repurposed as their field headquarters. At some point, it’d been tipped onto its side and abandoned, leaving barely any hints as to whatever refuse had originally been stored inside.
Next to her a girl with pink hair sat on a mouldy couch cushion that Kat had dragged into the upended dumpster, her back against the cold metal and a pile of electronics she swore was a ‘high end rig’ sitting next to her. Maybe it was. Kat’s only experience with computers were the streamlined and over designed commercial models provided by the company.
Internally, Kat shrugged. Technically, Whippoorwill was a woman, the same age as her, but years of malnourishment and staying indoors left her pale and gaunt to the point that she scarcely looked like she was over sixteen. Xander swore that they’d been feeding her better ever since some of the ChromeDogs caught her digging through the refuse bin behind the warehouse, but the girl still looked like a stiff breeze would carry her away to Kat.
Apparently Whippoorwill had become the unofficial team mascot while Xander taught her how to hack. Every one of the deadly competent samurai of the ChromeDogs considered her their younger sister. More than one had taken Kat aside when she’d arrived at the warehouse after her first tedious day back in the lab to explain in detail how important Whippoorwill’s safety was to them.
“Are you ready?” The girl asked timidly, shivering slightly despite the heavy coat draped over her thin shoulders. She fidgeted nervously with the cord running from the back of her head to the hacking rig sitting on the floor of the dumpster next to her.
“Sorry,” Kat tried to throw her a reassuring smile. “Is it your first time working in the field too?”
Whippoorwill brushed a strand of dyed hair out of her face, nodding at Kat.
“Yeah,” she responded, trying to power through the hacker’s nonresponse. “It’s my first mission too. I think I’ve just got pre action jitters.”
The other woman didn’t respond. Instead her eyelids fluttered as she accessed something through her cranial jack, leaving Kat in silence, her words still hanging in the air.
“Well,” Kat continued lamely, trying to fill the emptiness. “I’ve done plenty of runs before, but that’s just getting from point A to point B without getting caught. Sure I’ve had to run from corporate security before, and recently I’ve had to fight a couple of times, but nothing like this.”
“It's fine,” Whippoorwill whispered, smiling slightly at Kat. “Xan showed me a video of one of your fights. You’ll do all right.”
“Easy for you to say,” Kat chuckled nervously. “You get to sit here in your nice safe metal box while I have to jump into the unknown. God this so-”
Kat bit her lip. She reached into the holster at her side and pulled out the forty caliber pistol Nina had given her before they left the warehouse. It was heavy and cold in Kat’s hand, matte black and without frills.
A more experienced operative would have a smart weapon, something that would project a targeting reticle into her vision, but Kat didn’t have the chrome to accommodate that sort of software. Instead she got an older model: simple, efficient, and almost useless in her hands.
“They gave me a gun,” Kat turned the weapon over in her hand. “I’ve literally never fired one of these before. Nina just handed it to me and showed me where the safety is. I’m sure I could shoot it, but I’m only going to be a threat to nearby walls and windows.”
“That’s Commander Cromwell or the Commander while we’re on a mission Kat,” Nina growled in her ear. “Easy solution. Just don’t get caught. If you do, point that at a janitor. They won’t know that you barely know which end of the gun to point at them and it’ll scare them a hell of a lot more than seeming some slip of a girl with a pigsticker.”
“Now,” She continued, “quit working yourselves into a lather. If we had time to case the place, we would have. You’re going in blind now, or you’re going in blind in an hour. Waiting isn’t going to make the situation any better.”
Kat opened her mouth to say something, but thought better of it. Nina had her pegged. The longer she spent thinking about how bad the situation was, the more worked up she’d be, and stress didn’t help anyone’s situational awareness.
“You’re right,” Kat pulled the hood of her bodysuit up over her forehead, sealing away her hair. “Let’s go over the plan one more time.”
“Fair enough,” Nina replied as Kat pulled up her mask, a mesh of cloth that obscured her features but let her breath and see out freely, “The first step is to gain access to the waste disposal plant. It looks like Kat’s best bet is a second story window. After that, it’s just a matter of finding the building’s secure server and setting up the shunt for Whippoorwill to do her work.”
“Unfortunately,” Kat kept listening as she pressed the seals on each wrist, vacuum sealing the airtight suit over the gloves she was wearing. “We only have the loosest information about what the interior of the building looks like. In all likelihood, Kat is going to have to improvise on the scene.”
“Great,” Kat muttered, tapping the seals on each ankle, repeating the process. She stood up, jumping on her toes slightly to make sure that the suit allowed her to move freely.
“The next time we do this,” Kat checked the knife strapped to her hip, “can we have a better plan than ‘get in there and figure it out?’ I feel a little exposed here.”
“I’m sorry Kat,” Nina’s voice had a hint of genuine contrition in it. “I wouldn’t do it this way if we had any other option, but you heard Xander. Time is short and we have to cut corners.”
“On the other hand,” Nina chuckled, “if my brother were still around he’d have an even simpler plan. Show up in an exosuit and kill his way through the disposal center. Not exactly covert but it has a charm of its own.”
“Do you have a spare exosuit?” Kat quipped as she stepped out of the upended dumpster into the dark Shell night.
“We’ll see about getting you one if we can pull off the Haupt bounty,” Nina responded dryly. “Good luck Kat. You’ve got this.”
She walked out of the alley, hugging the wall of a partially demolished building. Luckily, the waste disposal facility produced enough smell that the area of the Shell around it was almost completely abandoned. Even the usual squatters and survivors avoided the area, preferring the run down buildings in less blighted areas of the ruins.
Kat’s eyes flipped to the nightvision she’d earned in The Tower of Somnus, the few remaining colors disappearing from the drab night as her vision switched to black and white. Immediately, the long shadows cast by the half destroyed buildings around her disappeared as the entire Shell lit up, bright as noon.
She winced, making out a pair of old fashioned rectangular cameras, slowly panning back and forth at the building’s corners. It was possible that the disposal center had more modern and thus harder to spot surveillance systems, but Kat could only react to what she could see.
Pressing her hand to a rotted wooden door of the neighboring building, Kat made her way inside. A quick glance revealed trash and droppings everywhere. Even if the smell kept people away, it apparently didn’t have the same deterrent effect on vermin.
Carefully she made her way through the building. Overturned tables and a half destroyed buffet line hinted that it had once been a restaurant, but Kat couldn’t even begin to guess how long it had been since a human had entered the dining area.
Quietly, she made her way toward the kitchen area, picking her way around the damaged pans and implements that littered the floor. She paused at the kitchen fire exit, listening for a second for the sound of movement outside.
Hearing nothing, she pushed the door open, wincing as the rusted hinges screeched in protest. Quickly, Kat darted outside, ducking behind an old truck, its wheels, doors and hood long since removed by looters.
Her heart hammered in her ears as she waited in the truck’s shadow, waiting for a security guard to check on the noise. One minute passed. Then two.
Finally, Kat peeked out from her cover. The waste disposal plant was about twenty paces away, a razor wire topped fence the only thing separating her from the truck garages that the disposal workers used to transport their wares.
Taking a deep breath, Kat activated Levitation.
In a second she covered the distance between herself and the fence before launching herself into the air, corkscrewing and arching her back in order to clear the glittering knife edges of the razor wire.
She landed on the snow covered cement with a dull thud, the Levitation decreasing the impact of her fall to a reasonable level. For a second, Kat pondered using Cure Wounds I on herself, but almost immediately she gave up on the idea. She was pretty sure that she would walk away with a bruise from her landing, but she never knew when she’d need the mana the expensive spell would need.
Eyeing up the building, Kat confirmed that the two cameras watching the front didn’t have a proper angle on her before she approached the truck garage. The disposal center didn’t have any unbarred windows on the ground floor, even with the cameras and the razor wire the building was still in the Shell, but she’d spotted a likely target.
Overlooking the driveway was an office with a window that opened outward, just large enough for her to squirm through if she could pry it open. After a couple moments of searching she spotted what she needed, first one handhold and then another in the crumbling concrete wall beneath the window.
They were little more than seams in the cold concrete. Pits in the wall formed by erosion and poor maintenance.
Kat chuckled to herself. Ordinarily she wouldn’t have attempted this sort of ascent. Her thin, glove covered fingers barely fit into the cracks, and more than once she found herself lifting her entire body by little more than her fingertips, but Levitation did its work.
Slowly, she made her way up to the Window. Kat needed to renew the spell once as she made the climb, but after almost ten minutes she was there.
With a slight grunt, Kat cast Pseudopod and let it slip into the crack under the window. Both of her hands were occupied, barely holding her body aloft by the barest of margins while the water tentacle fiddled with the window’s latches.
The window clicked open, and Kat curved the Pseudopod with her mind pressing hard enough with it to push the pane outward.
It moved with glacial speed, the weakness of the Pseudopod outside The Tower of Somnus directly warring with the poorly maintained hinges on the window. After almost a minute, Kat swung her feet over, catching her left toe on the lip of the sill.
Her right leg cheated over, pulling her body so that she was half in the building while her hands still clung to the tiny seam in the concrete of the wall. Kat exhaled, willing the butterflies in her stomach into submission.
She let go with her fingers, Pseudopod and legs hooked over the sill to keep herself from falling as her body swung down and sideways toward the window. With a quiet thump, her back hit the disposal center’s wall.
Kat sat there a moment, making sure her legs firmly gripped the window, before she clenched her stomach and pulled herself up.
She found herself sitting in the window of a cluttered office, two chairs situated in front of a plastic desk were covered in poorly organized paperwork. Kat pulled herself inside, closing the window after her.
Approaching the desk, Kat noticed a port for a cranial jack to directly interface with a computer. Quietly, Kat avoided the piles of paperwork and discarded food wrappers as she made her way around the desk, removed the shunt from a pouch on her hip, and plugged it in.
“Whippoorwhill, she whispered the word while tapping the earpiece to alert the rest of her team. “I have the shunt in a network of some sort, but there’s a lot of physical paperwork here. I’ll start searching what they’ve left out, maybe I can find something you can’t.”
“I’ll let you know when I find something,” the girl replied.
Kat took a half step back from the desk, looking over the haphazard piles of paper for some semblance of order that might give her a place to start. She randomly picked up a handful of sheets. Shipping orders and invoices, nothing of real importance.
There was no way she’d be able to search all the paperwork in the room in a reasonable time period, and honestly it didn’t make sense that whoever worked here would be able to find anything important hidden in all the mess either.
She began opening drawers on the desk. They were organized but unhelpful. The first contained pens and loose paper, the second was a snack drawer filled with unhealthy sugary snacks, and the third held a meticulously organized collection of datasticks devoted to various physically improbable pornographic acts.
Finally, the bottom drawer was locked. Kat pulled it out slightly until it caught on the metal of the latch before sliding her knife into the gap between the desk and the drawer and pushing sideways. With a slight jiggle, the cheap lock disengaged and the drawer slid open
She dove in, only to meet disappointment. The drawer was filled with manilla folders, each one with the name of an employee on them. Kat began to sift through them, only to find more of the same. Reprimands, notations about how many shifts they’d missed. Utterly routine questions of human resources.
In frustration, Kat continued to remove files, flipping through them in search of anything interesting, but from David Anderson to Quinn Zimmer, none of the waste disposal workers had anything more interesting in their file than a notation about drunkenly operating the waste disposal trucks.
Just as Kat was starting to put the folders back, she noticed that the exposed bottom of the shelf was made of a slightly different color plastic than the rest of the shelf.
Getting down on her knees she squinted at the drawer before feeling around its edges with her right hand. With a quiet ‘click’ she triggered a latch, popping a portion of the bottom of the shelf upward.
Gently, Kat removed the false bottom of the shelf, revealing a single folder labeled ‘special operations.’ Opening it, Kat found fifteen memos, each authored solely by ‘Donnst.’ The only other content of the folder was a simple red keycard, the sort used in high security locks.
A quick scan of the documents immediately revealed a theme. None of the memos contained much information, solely directives to the waste disposal employees to offer their ‘full assistance’ to representatives of Steel and Blood and the Rippers as well as times during which the employees should avoid the secure operation center in the basement.
Kat folded up the memos and grabbed the keycard, stuffing both in her pouch. The office she was in might be a bit of a bust, but at least she had an idea where to go next.
“Kat,” Whippoorwill hissed directly into her ear. “I’m in. They had better anti intrusion software than I expected, but I’ve already downloaded their records for later analysis. It doesn’t look like it’ll be what we’re looking for. It’s mostly payroll and truck maintenance logs.”
“If that hookup isn’t the server,” Kat nodded to herself as she responded, “I think I have a pretty good idea where it is, it will take me a couple of minutes but-”
“Wait,” Whippoorwill cut her off, her voice breathy and panicked. “I have access to their security system. They had a motion sensor go off on your side of the building almost twenty minutes ago.”
Kat thought she could hear voices from the hallway outside the office.
“It didn’t trigger a full alert,” Whippoorwill continued urgently, “but they have a pair of guards doing a room by room sweep. If you haven’t seen them yet, you will soon.”
There were definitely voices in the hallway now.
“You don’t have a couple of minutes Kat,” Nina cut in. “You need to get out of there with what you’ve got now. We can try something else later, your safety is more important.
An old metal key jingled as it scraped against the room’s lock.
“Fuck,” Kat whispered, eyes on the door.
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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