“Hey Exe,” Kat whispered, laying on a rooftop next to him across from the fortified YMCA where Steel and Blood made their headquarters. “I just thought I should mention, I ran into Belle Donnst’s daughter last night.”
It felt strange to call Xander by his street name, but they were on an operation. From the minute they left the warehouse that morning, everyone with a name left their original behind. At one point, this might have been a matter of operational security, but in this day and age, there were so many cameras around that it was impossible to fully conceal who you were.
Instead it was about honor. Life in the Shell was cheap. People died of malnutrition and exposure as often as they did violence. Only the samurai earned respect from the corporations and the general public, and the currency for that respect was blood and adrenaline.
When all you had to your name was a bit of respect and a reckless willingness to risk your life, that name became so much more valuable. Every mercenary group, no matter how bad their reputation, followed the same set of unwritten rules.
If a samurai was on a mission, they used a name if they’d earned one. Even if everyone else knew exactly who you were off duty, for the next couple of hours, Kat was Erinyes and Xander was Exe. Anything done while using your name was completely separate from who a samurai was in their off hours, and retaliation for actions taken while using a name were strictly against the code.
That wouldn’t stop a samurai from being formally challenged under their name. It was more a shield for family and friends against kidnapping, a welcome if minor respite in the clandestine world of plausibly deniable contractors.
Of course, not everyone followed the rules. Corporate security just didn’t care, but amongst shellers, anyone caught breaking them was shunned socially. Usually in the form of a bullet to the back.
“In the Tower?” Xander asked.
He shifted slightly, the heavy white blanket covering his body and camouflaging him from the security drones that buzzed around the enemy base bunched about his shoulders as he looked back at her inscrutably.
“Yeah,” Kat bundled her own blanket a little closer to her for warmth. The YMCA was almost six hundred feet away, all construction between the building they were hiding on and the two story compound long since demolished by Steel and Blood.
“Anna was on level two with me,” Kat frowned slightly, still not entirely able to make sense of the other girl’s actions. “She kept bragging about how her Mom trusted her with everything and how she’d gotten that military equipment for Steel and Blood so they could crush us.”
“That’s strange,” Xander frowned at her slightly, his expression hard to read through the darkened goggles covering his eyes. “As much as I like a mystery, this close to an operation, I don’t like strange. The records on those purchases weren’t great. More notes and delivery dates than anything more specific. I didn’t really think anything of it because the waste disposal plant was an off site server, and it only detailed their contracts with the company, but that should have been a call that Belle and Daniels made.”
“Anna had an iron tier ability too,” Kat bit her lip. “She mentioned something about cutting a deal with the aliens to get it. I really don’t know if she was just trying to mess with my head or if there’s something deeper going on.”
“At level two?” Xander sighed, removing his goggles to rub his eyes. “That shouldn’t be possible. Some of the more powerful players have iron tier abilities, but almost none of them are willing to sell them. Most use them on themselves or barter for another iron tier skill stone. Hell, if one went up for auction it would cost almost as much as our entire organization to buy it. Still, it couldn’t have been the aliens. They don’t trade with humans.”
“Are you sure it was iron tier?” He asked, putting the goggles back on. “I just don’t see how anyone on the second level could get an iron skill, from humans or aliens. Maybe it was just a maxed normal skill? Some of the level twelve completion perks can get pretty imposing.”
“I was with someone who identified it as Arcane Guard,” Kat replied, a little nervously. She trusted Xander, but her friendship with Dorrik and Kaleek seemed to be unique. As far as she could tell, other humans stuck together and no one had access to the in tower shops. She’d probably let him in on their relationship eventually, but it just didn’t seem like the sort of bombshell you dropped right before an important mission.
“Wizard spell, abjuration II,” he recited the words mechanically, as if he were reading them from something. Honestly, given the amount of wetware Xander sported, he might have been. “That’s a powerful defensive ability. What happened?”
“I brought her down,” Kat smiled thinly. “Whatever she spent on that skill stone was wasted because it’s gone now. If she gets a new avatar, she’ll have to start over without anything that overpowered.”
“Good,” Xander cracked a smile at her. “It’s almost go time Erinyes. Stay on your toes, I’d be surprised if Steel and Blood didn’t have a Player or two of their own.”
“Remember,” he continued, turning to look back at the compound. “I go first, and then you three follow in ten minutes. You have to give me time to get the automated defenses down, and make sure not to get cocky. Turning off the cameras won’t stop you from getting spotted by patrols if you aren’t careful.”
“Good luck,” Kat called out, the words echoed by Elise and Smits to her side.
“Who needs luck when you have skill,” Xander winked at her. A moment later, he was over the side of the building, blades sliding out of each finger to form impromptu climbing pitons as he hurried down the side of the parking ramp they were laying on top of.
For almost five minutes they sat in silence, watching the snow flurries increase in intensity as the biting wind whipped across the bulldozed field. For the first couple of minutes, if she looked closely, Kat could trace Xander’s progress as he wove between pieces of cover toward the building. Then, even knowing exactly where he was, she lost him in the snow and the distance.
“K-Erinyes,” Elise corrected herself. “Do you think Xander’s going to be able to do it? I’ve heard rumors about how good he is at this sort of thing, but I don’t think I’ve seen him leave the warehouse since.. Well ever.”
“He’s a player,” Kat shrugged. “I don’t know what level he is or how many dungeons he’s done, but even if he isn’t leaving the warehouse, Xander is probably fighting for his life most nights. If he can’t do it, we’re all fucked anyway and we might as well go down in a blaze of glory.”
“Good I guess,” Elise giggled nervously. “I just don’t know how we would handle heat sensors and laser tripwires. I mean, maybe at night with proper countersurveillance equipment of our own, but Exe has us going in fast. And in daylight.”
“He’ll get it,” Kat layered her voice with confidence she didn’t feel. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Yeah,” Elise replied shakily. “Say Erinyes, do you think I’ll be able to earn my name on this mission? I know you did it the hard way, but our role in the operation is just crazy enough that Smits and I might get names out of it.”
“What do you mean?” Kat asked, briefly checking the time. Three minutes until they need to leave.
“We’re going to do a daylight raid on an enemy camp in order to seize armored vehicles,” Elise responded. “Plus, our hacking support is hiding a floor below us. We’re at the extreme edge of the shunts range. All of this is like something from an entertainment channel, yet here we are. About to live it.”
“Of course we’re going to earn names,” Smits whispered. “Most infiltration missions are just sneaking, climbing and disabling security. Even if we only manage to bring one UAD back under fire, that’s enough for a name.”
“I’m more concerned with getting out of there alive,” Kat frowned, eyeing up the building. Even at a distance she could see the multiple heavy gun mounts. Further out, she could make out the lookout posts and active patrols that functioned as Steel and Blood’s early warning system. “Even if we do everything right, the end result should be a lot of shooting, and the last I checked, none of us are wearing combat armor.”
“We should be able to hunker down once we get the UADs disabled,” Elise asked quietly, “right Erinyes? We can just find a spot to hide out until the shooting stops?”
“I don’t know,” Kat closed her eyes briefly. “There will be an awful lot of angry samurai running around as soon as the attack begins. We can try and ride it out, but both of you should be ready to fight.”
For a second or two they did nothing but watch the snow whipping across the ground separating them from the Steel and Blood headquarters.
“I’ve never even drawn my gun on a mission,” Smits spoke softly. “Let alone shot it at someone. How do I know that I won’t freeze up when the moment comes?”
Kat couldn’t really see his face through the identical white mask that all three of them wore, but she could hear the fear and uncertainty in his voice.
“Don’t worry Smits,” Kat smiled, knowing he couldn’t see her. “When the time comes there’s a moment of panic where you can freeze or act and your instincts will take over. You’ll feel your body moving without you and the next thing you know, you’re halfway to where you need to be.”
“But this is going to work out,” Elise asked worriedly, “right Erinyes? Your first mission was a lot worse than this and you came out just fine.”
For a fraction of a second, Kat wanted to explain what really happened at the waste disposal plant. How close and frantic each of those fights had been.
She looked back at the two of them. Even through their masks, she could feel the weight of their expectations on her. Elise and Smits were panicking, letting the emotions of the moment get the better of them. They didn’t need the truth, they needed reassurance.
“As long as we’re careful,” Kat did her best to sound confident, “everything will be fine.”
Her earpiece buzzed, mirroring the churning in her stomach. Ready or not, it was time to go.
“Times up boys and girls,” Kat rose to a crouch, letting the camouflaged blanket fall from her back. Her insulated body suit clung to her body, swirls of white and grey helping her blend in against the whirling snow of the growing storm.
“Are we patched in Whippoorwill?” Kat asked her partner as Elise threw a rope over the edge of the parking ramp.
“I can hear you just fine K-,” the girl coughed into the mic from her hideout a floor below the ramp’s roof, “Erinyes. Exe is out of contact but that’s what we were expecting.”
“The name is new for me too,” Kat half chuckled, watching Elise begin her rapid descent down the side of the building. “Let’s hope I can grow into it.”
“Good luck Erinyes,” Whippoorwill responded nervously.
Kat grasped the rope, giving it a test yank before she threw herself over the side of the building. “Thanks Whippoorwill,” she responded. “Just stay ready and we’ll get out of this thing in one piece. Going radio silent now. See you on the other side.”
The nervousness fled her body as Kat’s feet hit the side of the building, pushing off against the cold concrete as she repelled down the building. A minute later, she rounded the corner of the parking ramp from the side where she’d made her descent, stepping out into the snow storm and regaining a line of sight on the YMCA.
Now that she was on the ground, the compound loomed on the horizon, an indistinct but hulking grey shape, partially obscured by the clouds of swirling snow. Smits walked up behind her, his steps impossible to hear over the screams of the wind.
Elise’s white shape raised its right hand, tapping the side of her head and pointing forward. Kat nodded in response and began following the other woman as she took off in a low crouch across the snowy plain.
The wind only increased as they moved closer to the Steel and Blood fortress, drilling straight through Kat’s insulated camouflage and into her very bones. She shivered slightly, and kept her eyes on Elise’s back as the other woman expertly moved them from one snow drift to another, occasionally pausing to minimize the chance that anyone peering into the swirling white would spot them.
Elise stopped, raising one hand. She pointed, and only by squinting could Kat make out a series of metal stakes in the field.
The other woman flattened herself on the ground and shimmied through the snow, her white on white camouflage almost invisible at only a couple paces. Once Elise closed in on one of the stakes, she grabbed a handful of snow and threw the loose powder at the stake.
Kat held her breath, watching the entire display in silence.
“Lasers tripwires are down,” Elise’s whispered voice startled Kat as it crackled quietly in her ear. “It looks like Exe got the defenses. We need to keep moving just in case they can reset them.”
“Agreed,” Kat replied. “I’d prefer to not be in the open when the automated turrets turn on. Lead us to cover.”
Elise only nodded, motioning with a hand before she scurried off into the swirling snow. Kat followed her silently for almost a minute before the other woman threw herself to the ground, clicking her tongue into her mouthpiece to alert Kat and Smits.
The two of them joined Elise a fraction of a second later, half burying themselves in the snow. Anxiety burbled in Kat’s stomach but she didn’t say anything, instead doing her best to ignore the cold snow under her body.
Ten seconds later she heard it, the shuffle crunch of someone walking slowly through the snow. Kat glanced up.
A man in a thick parka, a battered hunting rifle under his arm, strolled by a mere twenty paces away. His cheeks were red from the cold, and his eyes were on his feet, concentrating more on not slipping than actually watching his surroundings.
Kat knew she could take him, her muscles tensed, ready to explode from the ground and bring the guard to the ground, but she held back. It was too early. Even if he went down silently, eventually he would be missed and an alarm would be raised.
Instead they kept quiet, unmoving as the bored man trudged by, entirely unaware of their presence and how close he’d come to a knife between the ribs.
Finally, Elise clicked her tongue and the three of them rose as one, setting off in a crouch once more. It felt like moments in the biting snow before they reached the edge of the heavy snow they were using as cover.
The YMCA loomed in front of them, grey squat and oppressive in the winter air, but more importantly, they’d reached the edge of the paved area surrounding the building. There was still snow on the ground, but it wasn’t ankle deep, likely having been plowed just the day before.
Elise tapped Kat’s shoulder, drawing her attention. Then she pointed at a pair of concrete dividers. They formed a triangle in front of a simple shack made of corrugated steel. Two shadows stood just inside the shack, clustered around the welcome glow of a fire they’d stoked in a metal barrel.
“Guard post,” the other girl whispered. “Even with the snow they have clean lines of sight on us. If we try and get past them. Maybe if it were night out but-”
Even through her camouflage, Kat could see how uncomfortable Elise was. She struggled for a moment before continuing.
“If we just try and slip past its a 50/50 proposition,” her words were fast and nervous. “Erinyes do you think you could-”
Kat just nodded, moving away from the other two infiltrators as she scurried toward the shack. Unfortunately, moving solo didn’t change her fundamental problem. Fundamentally, the guard post was little more than a defensible position in a sea of concrete, giving it clean lines of sight in every direction.
Luckily, the two guards were more focused on staying warm than spotting intruders, but there was no way that Kat could count on them remaining derelict in their duties. Even if her camouflage let Kat blend into the white landscape, her shape would still stand out from the uniformly flat parking lot she was creeping across.
Closer. She was almost to the cement barriers when she heard them.
“Gotta drain the lizard Jake,” a male voice from the shack, practically a grunt. “Might as well glance around, keep the boss from ripping our heads off.”
“I know it’s cold out Travis but keep it the hell away from the post,” Kat practically sprinted to the waist high barrier and dove behind the cover, “if I end up dying because I slip and fall on your frozen piss I swear to God I will come back from the dead and haunt your lazy ass.”
“You just want me to freeze my pecker off in this goddamn blizzard,” Travis replied, stepping out of the shack and squinting his eyes against the blowing snow. He placed his right hand above his face sheltering his eyes as he looked back and forth, a simple hunting rifle cradled under his left arm.
“Good e-fucking-nough,” the man muttered, taking a handful of steps from the shack before slinging his rifle up onto a shoulder. A second later, Kat barely heard a metallic zip over the whistling wind.
Her feet flushed red as Cat Step hastened her movements. A second later, her hand clamped over his mouth while her dagger slashed through his throat.
Despite his surprise, the man struggled, slamming her with an elbow as he tried to pull free, his blood staining the snow.
The blow was frantic and off center, without the guard’s full force behind it. Ordinarily, it would have done little more than bruise her ribs.
Instead, Kat’s eyes widened as her feet slipped out from under her. Her feet flew up into the air as she fell over backward, timing her arm to slap into the snowy ground just as she hit to diffuse the impact.
The cement slammed into her back, knocking the wind out of her, but Kat had the presence of mind to tighten her neck, preventing her head from whipping onto the hard ground. The guard she’d stabbed clutched at his throat, staggering slightly as his screams for help were turned into wet wheezes by his destroyed windpipe.
“Travis?” A voice called from the shack. “Did you slip or something? I heard a thump.”
The injured man sunk to his hands and knees gasping for breath as he bled out in the snow.
“Goddamnit Trav,” the other guard grumbled. “I swear to God if you’re just fucking with me I’ll smack you upside your head if you’re not zipped up, there’ll be nothing left to zip up.”
He stepped out of the shack, eyes widening as he saw Kat, on her knees and in the process of standing up, right next to his dying companion. She gritted her teeth, focusing on the magic inside her as she shaped a spell with her mind
“Oh shi-” he began, but Kat’s Water Jet stole the rest of his sentence, dousing his face and upper chest with freezing water as it slammed into him with enough force to take him from his feet as well.
This time, the uncertain footing worked in Kat’s favor, and even as the man tumbled over backward, his rifle flying from his hand, Gravity’s Grasp yanked him even harder toward the asphalt.
He struck with a dull thud, likely enough to put him out of commission for the time being, but not anything Kat could count on. Before the stunned guard could right himself, Kat was straddling his chest, her knife glowing briefly red as she used Penetrate to sink it deep into the man’s eye.
She held him still until he stopped twitching, breathing hard as she came down from the adrenaline of the moment. Kat still felt a little of her old agitation and revulsion over killing a man, but it was certainly coming easier. Honestly, she didn’t know whether that was a good thing. She’d leave that question to the people that had the time and luxury to care about philosophy.
Sighing as she pulled the blade from his head and wiping it on the man’s shoulder. For a second, she looked longingly at the two mens’ cloaks before she shivered and made her way back to the edge of the cement barriers and motioned for the rest of her team.
They hurried in a low crouch toward her. Smits wobbling for a second when he saw the amount of blood staining the dirty snow.
“Jesus Erinyes,” Elise shook her masked head slightly. “I mean, I’ve shot someone before but-”
“Knives are quiet but messy,” Kat shrugged. “The post is empty, and the alarm hasn’t been raised, but we don’t know when the guard is set to change.”
“R-right,” Elise replied shakily. “Thanks for that. I don’t think Smits or I could have handled it without making a ruckus.”
“Think of it as division of labor,” Kat replied, eyeing the grey-brown walls of the compound about two hundred paces away. “You get us into where we need to go, and I make sure that there’s nothing in our way.”
Elise led the way, pointing out a set of cameras as well as motion sensors at the base of the building as they hurried toward the UADs. Every step of the way, Kat waited for an alarm to go off or a crowd of Steel and Blood samurai to jump them, but Xander had done his work.
The three of them snuck into the carport where the UADs were stored undetected. Distantly, Kat saw one or two figures with long barreled rifles patrolling the rooftops, but all she could do is look at her knife with a half smile. Even if they spotted her, there was nothing Kat could do but run.
Elise tapped her shoulder, pointing at one of the three armored vehicles as the stood, inert but menacing in a line. They were blocky monsters, covered in angled armor and turreted weapon ports. Whoever designed them clearly hadn’t made them for comfort or a parade ground. They had one purpose, and aesthetics simply didn’t factor into the equation.
Then Elise tapped Smits on the shoulder and pointed to a second vehicle before poking herself and indicating the final UAD, at the far end of the row. Kat nodded at her, and the three of them quietly set out, splitting up fairly quickly as each of them approached their assigned vehicle.
Looking back and forth, Klaced her shunt against the computerized lock system on the door located at the UAD’s rear.
“Whippoorwill,” she tapped her earpiece to alert her partner. “I have you on the UAD’s door. Can you get in.”
“Oh,” Kat rolled her eyes as the other woman responded with surprise to her sudden contact. “Of course Ka- Erinyes. Just give me a second here.”
Kat huddled next to the armored vehicle, letting the magnets on the shunt hold it to the door. Twenty paces to her left, Smits was doing the same thing, hand touching his earpiece as he nervously glanced around them.
“Shit,” Whippoorwill’s voice was clipped and staticy. “These still have military counter intrusion programs Erinyes. They’re-”
Kat frowned as Whippoorwill’s voice disappeared into a burst of static. A second later she was speaking again.
“That was a tracing program,” Whippoorwill was speaking quickly, concern in her voice. “I think they’re trying to find us to upload something into our rigs.”
Another burst of static filled Kat’s earpiece as she glanced around nervously. No one had noticed them but she felt exposed crouched next to the bulky armored vehicle.
“That almost got me,” her partner’s voice was back, the words tight and clipped. “This wasn’t in the plan Kat, I don’t know what’s going on but this is more than-”
Her voice cut out again. Kat didn’t even think of distracting Whippoorwill by bringing up the slip regarding her name. A quick glance to her side revealed Smits shifting from one leg to another uncomfortably.
The door behind her ‘clicked’ open. Kat slipped inside quickly, grabbing the shunt and placing it directly on the vehicle’s dataport, where the pilot was meant to interface with it via cranial jack.
“We’re in,” Whippoorwill’s voice was distant, exhausted. “I don’t know who programmed that software, but they’re a piece of work. It tried to piggyback on every protocol I used and flood my rig with contradictory commands to overwhelm it long enough to trigger a power surge.”
“That’s not supposed to be legal outside of designated high security areas,” Kat frowned. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Steel and Blood would want to use software like that, but I AM surprised they were able to source it.”
“Well,” there was a hint of pride in the pink haired girl’s voice. “As illegal and shady as it was, I managed to crack my way through it. I have full control of the UAD’s systems even if I can’t see anything.”
“Great going Whippoorwill,” Kat congratulated her, “I have to say that I’m happy to finally be under cover-
Her sentence was cut off by a blood-curdling screen.
“Christine!” Whippoorwill shouted, completely forgetting about the earpiece. “Oh my God, pull out Christine!”
Distantly Kat heard the screaming get louder.
“Oh God,” Whippoorwill whimpered, “Her eyes are rolled up into her head and-”
Kat winced as she heard the sound of vomiting. A second later, the rising note of a siren filled the compound carport.
She darted to the rear of her UAD, glancing outside. The door to Smits was ajar, but Elise stood outside hers, both hands on the lever, trying to pry it open.
More importantly, her vehicle was the source of the alarm, flashing red lights rimmed the top of its armor.
“She’s smoking,” Whippoorwill’s voice was distant. “Oh God, she’s burning. She's not supposed to be on fire.”
A gunshot plinked off of Elise’s vehicle. At least one of the rooftop samurai had sighted her.
“GET TO COVER!” Kat screamed, staring as Elise fumbled with her pouch, pulling out a fist sized glob of explosives. “You’re a sitting duck!”
Elise scrambled up the side of the UAD, stretching the explosive out into a thin line and wrapping it around the midway point in one of the vehicles two pinion mounted anti armor rocket pods. Kat could almost remember Xander’s voice as he taught them how to trigger the putty-like explosive for maximum effect- they didn’t need to blow the vehicle up, just wreck the barrels and treads enough that it couldn’t fire or move.
“This is Erinyes calling for Tiamat,” frantically, Kat switched her earpiece’s frequency to include the entirety of the ChromeDogs. A trio of bullets sparked and whined off of the armor just to Elise’s left.
“Erinyes,” Nina’s voice came back, gruff and confused. “What’s going on, I was supposed to be hearing from Exe, is he alright?”
“I don’t know,” Kat responded helplessly, trying to ignore Whippoorwill’s distant maddened stammaring as Elise scrambled across the top of the UAD to rig the other missile pod. “We are in the UAD bay, two of of the vehicles are down but some sort of alarm triggered and we are taking fire.”
“Shit!” Nina screamed into the earpiece. “We’re about five minutes out girl. You’re going to have to hold on.”
“I’ll do my best but,” Kat answered, eyes fixed on Elise as she put the finishing touches on the last missile pod before turning to the vehicle’s autocannon. “Oh God.” Kat choked to a halt.
Just as Elise stood up, her head disappeared in a cloud of red mist.
A fraction of a second later, the crack of a high caliber rifle echoed across the carport, and Elise’s body bonelessly slipped over the UAD’s side.
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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