Kat stretched the clear strip of electrofilm across the keypad. A second later, her smartpanel buzzed, providing her with a predictive analysis of the possible passcodes based upon the wear on the keys.
The custom program helpfully flashed in red the percentage chance of each four-digit code. None of the predictions were above 15%, meaning that Kat would have had to abandon the keypad if she had any concerns about an alarm.
Luckily, the electrofilm also analyzed the keys ‘unused’ by the passcode for misplaced keystrokes, a telltale sign that previous users had typed the combination in wrong. A smile blossomed on Kat’s face as a small green light flashed in the corner of the film. It wasn’t a sure thing, but there was a fairly high correlation with previous typos and a lack of alarms that would punish her for making a ‘typo’ of her own while trying to figure the password out.
Four combinations tapped into the keypad later, the door clicked open and she stepped into a dark room. Kat’s nightvision activated, letting her see the room in black and white as clearly as if the noon sun were high in the sky.
Her hand blurred to her waist as Kat threw three dark orbs at the glint of the walnut-sized security cameras embedded in the walls. A moment before the orbs hit, they detonated with an audible pop, turning into a spray of black ink that blanketed the cameras, blinding them.
Kat grabbed her mister, little more than a water reservoir and a muscle-powered pump that would pressurize the water through a fine mesh. A couple of squeezes later, the fine fog of water settled onto the floor without revealing the tell-tale refraction of a laser alarm system.
She moved across the floor, her mind running through possible security measures that she couldn’t check for. Her suit would theoretically contain her body heat enough to defeat a heat sensor so long as she kept moving. Well, an ordinarily calibrated sensor.
Short of using her magic to hover, there wasn’t much she could do about pressure or tremor sensors, but they were notoriously finicky in multistory buildings. Even if the structure had a set of modern counterweights, they tended to sway and wobble ever so slightly in the wind. Their residents learned to ignore the teetering, but it was incredibly difficult to calibrate an alarm system to do the same.
In short, she should be safe from the security systems of an ordinarily paranoid gangster or corporate overlord. The countermeasures needed for an infiltrator to prepare for a real fortress would slow her down and increase the risk that a roving patrol would happen upon her, meaning that unless she had reason to believe that one of the more esoteric security systems was in use, standard operating procedure was to ‘move fast and hope for the best.’
Just as she was about to open the second door, her tower-enhanced senses brought her hand to a halt. Squinting in the pitch-black, she found a small button between the doorknob and the door itself.
A quick inspection brought a frown to her face. Great. Another alarm.
If she’d opened the door without depressing the toggle, it likely would have set off a silent alarm and buried her in security guards.
She grasped the doorknob, careful to depress the button as she turned it, pushing the door open slowly. This time it opened into an office. Her target, an unsecured dataport, sat on a desk in front of Kat, calling out to her.
Her first step into the room triggered a flurry of motion. Silhouettes sprang up from behind the room’s furniture as Kat let herself drop to the ground, drawing her heavy-caliber, low-velocity, silenced pistol in one smooth motion.
The gun bucked in her hand coughing twice as she shot the first figure. Above her, the door she’d walked in from rattled as return fire sprayed it.
Kat rolled to the side, activating Levitation and Leaping at the same time to kick herself off of the ground just in time to avoid another volley of shots. She fired four shots while in the air, two striking the wall behind her second target even as the others silenced it.
Her final target adjusted their aim, sending a shot just past Kat’s face even as she cut her spell and replacing it with Gravity’s Grasp, jerking her body toward the ground fast enough to throw off the remainder of her enemy’s fire.
Finally, one of her last two shots struck her target in the head, silencing it.
Kat stood up, wincing at the pain in her ribs. As effective as alternating Levitation and Gravity’s Grasp was at throwing off enemy fire, her body paid the price. She’d needed to focus on shooting, so there hadn’t been a chance for Kat to diffuse the impact of her fall, and her chest had paid the price.
She placed her shunt, the remote connection to her partner, Whippoorwill, that would let the quiet pink-haired girl hack into the secure network, onto the unsecured port. A second later the lights in the room turned on.
Xander walked in as Kat began reciting the incantation to Cure Wounds I. The middle-aged man glanced at the three spring-loaded metal silhouettes, each of them with a ‘fatal’ splatter of paint on them.
“Pretty good job, Erinyes,” he nodded. “You managed to silence the cameras and defeat the alarm in time, and your reactions saved your bacon when you were ambushed by the ‘gunmen.’ Really, the only ding I have on your performance score is your pistol accuracy. Five of eight hits isn’t bad, but those are the kind of numbers that end up with dead operatives.”
“I’m not on a mission, Xan,” Kat hissed as the golden light from the healing spell began to ease the bruising over her ribs. “There’s no need to use my street name. Plus, you know that I would have been able to take those three in an eyeblink if you let me sneak up on them with my knife. Even with all that range time you’ve been forcing on me, pistols still feel bulky and unnatural to me.”
“I hear you,” Xander grinned, his sole gold tooth glinting. “I’m not a fan of them either. These days I mostly use what I’ve picked up in The Tower of Somnus to end fights before the other side even knows that we’re scrapping. Sometimes, thought, it just doesn’t work. They’re too far away, I’m fighting automated security, or the other side is a player with defenses of their own.”
“Then,” he tapped the knife at his left hip and the gun at his right, “it pays to have options. I’m not quite as into cutting people up as you are, but knives keep things quiet, and on an infiltration that’s an important factor when you can get the drop on someone. Of course, if they’re more than five or six paces away…”
“Yeah,” Kat agreed, straightening her back and nodding at the lack of pain in her side. “Charging someone with a drawn firearm while you’re holding a knife is a great way to get shot.”
“Give it some time,” Xander smiled at her. “You’ve clearly been gaining some points in reaction in the tower. If you keep working at it we’ll turn you into a gunfighter yet.”
“You do realize that the same boost to my perception and reflexes will let me close the ground between me and anyone who hasn’t drawn their gun in a fraction of a second,” Kat walked over to one of the couches that a metal silhouette had been hiding behind and flopped down in it. “Guns may be fun, but knives are a girl’s best friend.”
“Just keep at it,” Xander waved a hand at her as he walked around the desk and moved the fake shunt off of his access port. A second later, he’d plugged in a cord that snaked around to a cranial port in the back of his head. “You’re probably right that nine out of ten times you’ll be solving your problems with that knife. I’d just prefer that my protégé be ready and able to shoot someone that tenth time.”
“Hey,” she replied defensively, sprawled out on the couch. “You saw the footage of me trying to shoot people on my first run. Considering I can hit things without putting my gun directly up against them, I deserve some sort of ‘most improved shot’ award.”
“How about a mission and a chance to earn some credits?” Xander raised an eyebrow at her. “I’ve got a juicy one on deck and it’s gonna take two top-tier infiltrators. With today’s results, I think you qualify.”
Kat sat up, interest flashing in her eyes. Although she’d played a vital role in a handful of past missions, almost uniformly, those had ended up knee-deep in bodies. It was an unfortunate fact, but Kat was much better at killing that she was at infiltration.
Hell, even her tower-granted stealth abilities all tended toward assassination rather than sneaking into a building guarded by modern security. Constant training with Xander was helping to rectify her lack of experience with the intrusion equipment, but she was still more of a killer than an infiltrator.
Xander on the other hand was the whole package. She’d tried to beat his times on some of the practice courses, and it was ridiculous. The man was a ghost, flitting from one camera blind spot to another, pausing only long enough to toss a saucy wink her way as Kat monitored his progress from the command center in the warehouse Xander’s gang used as a headquarters.
It didn’t help when she realized that he wasn’t even using his psi abilities. Like Dorrik, Xander was a psi initiate, but even without utilizing the purple energy that could boost his natural capabilities, Xander beat her two out of every three times in the sparring ring.
As far as Kat could tell, Exe, as he was known on the streets, was much more than a local name. He’d settled in the Shell, the half-destroyed collection of buildings outside the Schaumburg Arcology, in part because it was his wife’s base of operations.
Nina Cromwell ran the ChromeDogs, a decently sized mercenary team of street samurais that had recently secured the top spot in the Shell. The woman herself was a skilled samurai: chromed, skilled and significantly more dangerous than most running the streets.
She just wasn’t a player. As fast and tough as Nina was, she was constrained by human limits. Kat still couldn’t take her, either with a firearm or in melee combat, but given enough time in the tower, eventually she’d surpass her. Fair or not, that was the truth of their world. Entry into The Tower of Somnus unlocked a potentially unlimited well of potential, and that potential came with a corresponding increase in status.
“Well, you certainly look interested,” Xander’s dry chuckle cut through Kat’s thoughts. “How do you feel about St. Louis?”
“St. Louis?” Kat cocked her head. “Isn’t it one of the few megalopolises that hasn't been completely taken over by a megacorporation? I seem to recall that most of the North American corporations have satellite offices there.”
“Same with the South American corps and Vodcom out of Britannia,” Xander agreed. “St. Louis, Hong Kong, Milan, and Sydney are the big neutral cities. The megacorps use them to exchange goods away from anybody’s home turf. If you think the Shell is bad, you haven’t been to one of the neutral cities. The big players frown on open warfare, but everything else is fair game.”
“That sounds chaotic,” Kat frowned. “I’m assuming that we’re talking about St. Louis for a reason?”
“Besides the fact that you haven’t lived until you’ve run the streets of St. Louis?” Xander asked, a touch wistfully.
Kat just rolled her eyes.
“Fine,” he chuckled. “Not to take a trip down memory lane, but once upon a time I ran with a crew called the Cardinals out of St. Louis. I was their top infiltrator when the rest of the old guard reached their limit. We broke up so some of the older samurai could retire before their fading reflexes did them in during a firefight.”
“They were a good bunch,” Xander smiled off into space. “Earned my name and subscription with them, but I hadn't heard much beyond an occasional check-up and chat about old times for about five years.”
“Then,” he continued, “a good buddy of mine e-mails me out of the blue. She wants a ten percent cut, but she has a line on a huge score. Apparently the shareholders of a few megacorps, including GroCorp, met in St. Louis a week or so ago. A big fancy sit-down. In person with no electronics. None of them would trust the others’ corporate security so they compromised and jointly hired outside security.”
“According to my friend,” Xander nodded cheerfully, “the outside security made a recording of the meeting. Full audio and video of everything that took place. Maybe they just thought they needed insurance in case one of the megacorps tried to silence them, or maybe they just wanted to sell the recording to another group to make a quick credit. He didn’t know, and I don’t either.”
Kat gasped slightly. Shareholders were more-or-less a myth. There were usually a couple in each corporate enclave, sheltered and hidden from the chaos and violence of the outside world, but a single wave of their hand could move mountains.
When they travelled, it was via motorcade with multiple tanks and armored vehicles flanking them while gunships secured the airspace overhead. Each shareholder fundamentally was the heart of a corporation, and they were protected as such.
Honestly? Kat wasn’t sure whether multiple shareholders from different megacorps had ever met on neutral ground before. Maybe to put an end to the South American proxy wars or the African resource scramble, but certainly nothing that had happened in her lifetime.
“The good news,” Xander steepled his fingers in front of his face, leaning forward across his desk, “is that the video and audio from that meeting are worth an insane amount of money. At least a million. The bad news is that the crew that they used for security are serious business.”
“I’m assuming they’re worse than Steel and Blood?” Kat asked, her mind flashing back to the gang that Anna Donnst had armed in an attempt to crush her and Xander before they could sell the information related to the woman’s assassination of Christopher Haupt.
“They used the Millenium Company,” Xander winced, the words dropping heavily from his lips as if they should have some sort of extra meaning for Kat.
“Who?” She asked, cocking her head. “Xan, you have to remember, for as plugged in as I am in the arcology and the Shell, I barely know what’s going on in Chiwaukee. You’re lucky I can even find St. Louis on a map let alone know who to be wary of.”
“Millenium isn’t just a St. Louis mercenary group,” he replied sourly, his thunder stolen by Kat’s ignorance. “They’re probably the biggest non-aligned player group in The Tower of Somnus next to the Triads. I know you’re only on the second level, but you should have run into at least some of them by now.”
“I just ascended to the third, actually,” Kat replied, “but I don’t really spend much time with other humans. I kinda got stuck on my own after my first dungeon and a couple of aliens adopted me. I’ve been adventuring with them ever since.”
“Stallesp?” Xander frowned. “Watch out for the moles. They’re full of promises but you can’t trust the fuckers. As much as I don’t like the megacorps, I’ll take them over those beady-eyed assholes any and every day of the week. Every time you talk to one you can almost see them calculating how much you’d be worth to them dead.”
“No,” Kat responded, “I’m teamed with a lokkel and a desoph. They aren’t all that keen on the Stallesp either.”
“Huh,” Xander leaned back in his chair. “Going to be honest, Kat, that was not the answer I was expecting.”
“Probably for the best, honestly,” he shrugged. “If you aren’t involved with an established group, someone will eat you alive in there. I’m more or less solo right now and finding people trustworthy enough to run a dungeon with is quite a feat. I haven’t ascended a level in years.”
“I could talk to my friends-” Kat began.
“I appreciate the effort,” Xander cut her off with a low chuckle, “but I expect it’ll be a little harder than that. I’ve done what I needed to in order to earn dungeon awards and ascend levels, but by the time I'd learned that the existing factions in the tower were watching and taking note, it was too late.”
“I’ll live with my mistakes,” Xander smiled at her. “How about we leave it at that?”
“I suppose,” Kat frowned. “Still, it doesn’t sit right.”
“And that’s because you’re a good person,” Xander winked. “Now, how about this mission. We’ll be in a strange city, sneaking into a secure facility guarded by dozens of players day and night. My contact claims he has some of the old floorplans for the facility we’ll be raiding as well as some rumors he overheard from a pair of drunk Millenium samurai.”
“The actual file itself,” Xander continued, “is stored separately from the facility mainframe in a much higher security vault. The plan would involve me going in first to disable the remote security while you breach the vault and secure the data. What do you say, after expenses, sixty percent me, thirty percent you and ten percent Whippoorwill?”
“What about your friend?” Kat frowned. “I thought you said she wanted ten percent.”
“She’s expenses,” Xander replied with a grin.
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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