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A note from Cocop (Cale Plamann)

Merry Post Christmas!

The engines on their tiny, variable-thrust cargo plane screamed as they rotated in their mounts, arresting the vessel’s momentum with a lurch that threw Kat into her harness before the vessel began to lower itself onto the rooftop of a large, squat building.

St. Louis was a strange sight. Near its center, gleaming office buildings jutted into the sky, many of them taller than the arcology she’d spent her entire life in, but outside of the city center, things rapidly changed.

It never quite got as bad as the Shell. Even the beat-up buildings in the city’s periphery looked structurally sound even if they were covered with garish layers of bright paint and patched up with mismatching materials. Hell, even the man guiding them in for a landing had two different colors of glow rods in his hands as he motioned their airplane down.

It settled with a jolt, and Kat hastily looked over at Whippoorwill. The poor girl had practically turned green the moment they took off from Schaumburg, the turbulence and slapdash maintenance of the chartered plane not agreeing with her.

The landing didn’t help the situation. Frantically, Whippoorwill unfastened her harness and bolted out the door. Xander chuckled at Kat as the plane’s engines began to wind down.

“Newbies always ask why Frank has the landing pad painted like a bad acid trip,” Xander unhooked his own harness before slinging the duffle bag that had been webbed to the wall next to him over a shoulder. “Then they experience his flying and it all makes sense. Every time a customer disagrees with his approach to flying, he has to repaint the roof.”

“Sod off,” a middle-aged man pulled himself out of the cockpit. Frank had close-cropped, salt-and pepper hair and just a touch of softness about his gut, but he was all frowns as he limped past Xander. “You were all compliments when I said I could get you into St. Louis without the corps knowing Exe, but now that we’re here it’s nothing but gripes. You didn’t pay for a luxury flight and a neck pillow. I fly fast, I fly discreet, and I fly efficient.”

“Of course,” Xander whispered conspiratorially to Kat as she grabbed Whippoorwill's backpack as well as her own duffel bag. “He might have just painted the rooftop while he was on a bad acid trip. Did I ever tell you the story about how he got that limp? Brickcake and I were-

“Stuff it, Exe,” Frank crossed his meaty arms, the muscles bulging slightly. “I might not be a samurai anymore but I seem to recall kicking your ass a couple times when you got mouthy back when we were both with Cardinals. I’m not above giving that another try.”

“You always were a fan of eating dinner through a straw,” Xander chuckled, slapping the man on the shoulder congenially. “Is Athena downstairs? We need to talk about the job.”

“Yeah,” Frank grunted with a toothy smile. “She’s been antsy ever since you said you were coming down. I don’t think I’ve seen her this worked up since you guys hit that Morgan Holdings armored train.”

“The good old days,” Xander smiled, his gold tooth glinting in the plane’s dim interior.

“Good old days,” Frank shook his head as he stepped out of the plane climbing down the ladder to the tarmac below. “I walk with a limp and can’t go through a metal detector without getting reminded of the shrapnel in my shoulder and ribs because of the good old days, Exe. I don’t understand how you can keep up with all of this shit. I’m perfectly happy to retire as a freelance transporter. Pay’s decent and there are fewer people trying to shoot me.”

“People like Erinyes keep me young,” Xander replied, following Frank down the ladder. “She might not have the same technical skills as me, but she’s a rising star. Give it a couple of years and you’ll be hearing her name everywhere.

Kat’s chest swelled as she followed the two down to the garish rooftop below. She’d already played a key role in one of the biggest turf wars in the Shell’s history, but even more than that, Xander’s acknowledgement meant something. He was an established name, and if she said she was the real deal, that was something worth bragging about.

“Unless she ends up dead by the end of the week,” Frank responded with his hefty forearms crossed once more, unimpressed. “You know better than to tangle with Millenium, Exe. I don’t care how much money is involved. A samurai can’t spend it if they’re dead.”

“Enough with the doom and gloom,” Xander shook his head, smile still in place. “If I’d ever listened to you Frank, I’d have retired five years ago. It’s just not who I am.”

“Plus,” he continued, walking past the flight crew working to unload cargo from the small variable thrust plane they’d taken from Schaumburg, “Athena wouldn’t stick her neck out like this if it wasn’t the real deal. I want to hear what she has to say before I give up on a major payday.”

Kat walked over to Whippoorwill. The girl looked miserable, a puddle of bile covered in sawdust about twenty paces from her. At some point, someone had handed the poor girl a water bottle that she was haphazardly nursing in an attempt to rehydrate and remove the foul taste from her mouth.

“Hey,” Kat offered the pink-haired girl her backpack. “How are you holding up? Do you need one of us to make a run to a drug store for you? Something to settle your stomach?”

“No,” the girl replied quietly, taking the backpack with her hacking rig in it from Kat, “I feel a lot better now that I’ve had some fresh air. Still a bit weak, but I won’t be the one sprinting through gunfire and jumping from rooftop to rooftop.”

“Hey now,” Kat stuck her tongue out at Whippoorwill, “my job is to be sneaky and avoid that sort of shit. If things go well, I won’t have to do any of that.”

“Just working from your track record, Erinyes,” Whippoorwill smiled, her face still pale but a hint of mischief in her eyes. “I don’t think I’ve seen you finish an infiltration mission that didn’t end with you covered in someone else’s blood.”

Kat rolled her eyes as she walked toward the stairwell that connected the roof tarmac with the rest of the building. Whippoorwill might have a point even if it was a bit embarrassing. So far, she’d completed all of her missions, but usually by killing all of the guards and waltzing away with her goal accomplished rather slipping in unseen.

The night noises of St. Louis faded away as the fire door to the roof closed behind the two of them. Dim light and cold cinderblocks hemmed Kat and Whippoorwill in, the monotony of their descent only broken up by the occasional crude graffiti, mostly anti-corporate slogans, genitalia, or in more inventive cases, both.

A minute or so later, the two of them walked into the conference room that Xander had indicated on the plane. A wiry black man with grey hair around his temples sat across from Xander while a short woman, barely five feet, paced back and forth nervously.

“Ah good!” She called out as soon as the two of them walked in. Almost immediately, Kat noticed that her green hair matched the slit, snake eye pupils of her cybereyes. “Erinyes and her partner are here so we can begin. I’d rather get the operation underway before Millenium realizes that Frank’s northbound flight to Schaumburg was anything more than his regular weekly supply run to Chiwaukee.”

“Wait,” Xander narrowed his eyes slightly as Kat and Whippoorwill took two of the open seats. “You plan for us to move tonight?”

“Tonight’s the only window, Exe,” she snapped at him, running a hand through her closely cropped hair.

“Sorry,” she apologized immediately. “The stress of this all is just getting to me.”

“Take it slow, Athena,” Xander raised both of his hands, palms up. “Erinyes and I want to do the run, but if we’re going to be taking the risk, you’ll have to convince us that it’s not a losing bet.”

“Erinyes,” Kat jolted as the short woman pointed at her across the conference room. “You have a name. How did you earn it? I need someone who can move quietly, kill, and climb. Do you have me covered on those fronts?”

“Sounds perfect honestly,” Kat pursed her lips. “I single-handedly took down a squad, mostly with a knife from the shadows to earn my name. As for climbing? I’m a player and one of my foci is gravity magic. I can’t quite fly, but I can climb almost anything.”

Athena gave a pointed glance to Xander. He nodded, his gold tooth glinting as he grinned broadly.

She sighed, the tension fleeing her form as she almost slumped in front of them.

“Thank God,” Athena muttered. “As good as you are Exe, I think you’re too old for the other half of the mission. The fuckers in Millenium knew that someone was onto them. They have the data stored in a vault suspended from the goddamn arch.”

“THE arch,” Xander’s grin disappeared. “Like the Gateway Arch?”

“Yes,” Athena grumbled. “Scalpel and I,” she nodded at the black man, “have been softening them up for a week now. Raids on offsite datacenters to upload them so full of worms and malware that they barely boot up. We’ve left some fairly nasty stuff in there that we can remotely trigger to make it look like there’s another attack.”

“To lure guards away?” Kat asked, drawing a nod from Scalpel.

“The last two times we went in they’ve had people nearby to try and trap us,” he replied, a hint of a Scottish accent to his voice. “I think we’ve made enough of a nuisance of ourselves to help take the heat off of your infiltration.”

“The plan,” Athena rubbed her hands together, “is that Exe makes it to the security mainframe at the foot of the arch and disables the pressure sensors on the arch so that Erinyes can scale the arch and make it to the vault. Scalpel will provide overwatch. He knows enough of the base layout that he should be able to knock out any of the cameras on your way in.”

“That sounds awfully loud,” Kat leaned back in her chair. “I mean, even if he’s using a silencer, they’re sure to notice that their cameras are going out at some point.”

“Eventually,” Athena grinned, “but that’s why Scalpel and I are getting ten percent. The program we’ve uploaded into the offsite servers last week should have spread around their entire base right now. Any sensors that go offline won’t trigger an alarm. They’ll still be able to manually see if they’ve gone dark, but that’s the best I’m going to be able to do.”

“In short,” Xander frowned as well, “even with your assistance, we’re going to be racing a lit fuse and we won’t even know how loud it is.”

“Yes,” Athena threw up her short arms helplessly as she paced nervously. “My informants say they’re moving it off site next week, and if Millenium gets word than any of the local players have brought in out of City muscle, they’re gonna clamp down vise tight. This is our best shot at this. If we wait until tomorrow, you’re looking at exosuits with autocannons and miniguns at best.”

The room sank into silence. Whippoorwill shifted nervously next to Kat, her fingers shaky as they went through her pink hair. Xander locked eyes with her, cocking his head slightly as if to ask a question.

She blew out a ragged breath. Athena didn’t have the best plan, but it could work. It was risky, but the amount of money they were talking about was insane. If bidding would start at a million, she was looking at a quarter million easy. Enough to move her mother and sister up a couple floors at the arcology and prepay their expenses for a decade.

It would also add national acclaim to her name. Even if they didn’t know Katherine Debs, everyone would know that Erinyes had been involved in the heist of the year if they could pull this off. Kat tried to ignore the whispers of pride and greed. She needed to deal with the situation rationally, but it was hard. The survivors that eked out an existence in the Shell respected her, but soon she’d be moving to Chiwaukee for college, and that would change the game.

The gangs were harder there. The crews had access to better equipment, drugs, and more importantly, subscriptions. It wouldn’t just be her knifing thugs with half-fried nervous systems, loaded down with every bit of chrome they could convince a street doc to plug into them.

This would be Steel and Blood all over again. Serious and dangerous people. If she was going to survive, the respect that came from a major gig would help immeasurably.

She nodded back at Xander. His smile sprang back to his face and he turned to Athena.

“We’re in,” he stood up, unlatching the compartment on the back of his neck that hid his cranial port’s cord, “now upload the base layout to me so we can get moving. The night’s still young and we need to get our support into position.”

Xander nodded at Scalpel and Whippoorwill as Kat stood up.

An hour later, the two of them stood in an alleyway outside the cement wall that marked the outside of Millenium’s base. The Gateway Arch jutted into the night sky beyond it, over six hundred feet tall and lit up by floodlights.

For about the fifth time that night, she regretted agreeing to the run. Maybe if her highschool in the arcology had focused on the history of the former United States rather than ‘intermediate and advanced corporate flunky training’ she’d have known how stupid it was for her to free climb the arch.

A crunch and a tinkle of glass heralded the first of Scalpel’s shots. One camera after another disappeared from the stretch of wall in front of Kat and Xander as the sniper methodically worked his way down its length. A second later, the two gun emplacements shook as their motion sensors were taken out with a pair of precise shots.

Xander tapped her on the shoulder and pointed forward, two fingers extended just before he began moving. He hit the wall at a run, his body glowing dimly purple for a second before he leapt into the air, slamming a pair of pitons into the wall roughly three-quarters of the way up. Somehow they held, and a moment later he was pulling himself upward.

At the top, Xander let go of the left piton and reached into his belt, removing a tough, but thin, dark polymer blanket and throwing it over the top of the wall. As it settled onto the razorwire that curled across the precipice of the barrier, he swung slightly to the left, grabbing hold of his piton.

He hefted himself upward, forearms glowing faintly purple as he enhanced his strength beyond human norms, and landed in a crouch on top of the blanket. Winking back at Kat, he jumped down from the wall and into the Millenium compound.

She sighed, focusing to cast Levitation on herself before sprinting across the open space between her alleyway and the barrier. No one was on the street. Hell, most people didn’t even come within a city block of the fortress without a good reason, likely afraid of getting caught in the crossfire between Millenium and any other crew that might want to take a crack at them.

Just as Kat was about to hit the wall, she activated Leaping, letting the skill burn her stamina as her legs glowed red.

Then she was in the air, clearing almost all of the wall in one jump. Kat grunted as she slammed into it, her hands snagging the pitons left there by Xander.

For a second she just hung there, a black blob in her full body suit, pressed up against the wall. Then she pulled, muscles straining against the metal spikes in the wall. Levitation did its work, and she rocketed to the top of the wall.

Careful to keep her body on top of the tough, armored blanket, Kat squirmed over the top and let herself drop into the compound. She fell slowly, almost like a leaf as her unnaturally light body drifted to the ground.

A shadow detached itself from the wall and Xander, in an infiltration suit similar to her own with only his eyes visible pointed at her and then himself before turning and moving in a crouch toward the arch.

She followed, keeping her head down as they set out. The outer layer should have been guard posts, but from the look of the unmoving boot sticking out of a nearby door, it shouldn’t be a problem. She wasn’t sure whether Xander or Scalpel had killed the sentry, but from there, Xander and her path was fairly clear.

They wove in between buildings, each of them concealed by a Shadow spell cast by Kat. It was far from full invisibility, mostly just decreasing the amount of light that passed out of their immediate environment, but it was enough to let them sneak past the various barracks and residential complexes.

Judging by the sound of blaring smartglass entertainment channels and alcohol-slurred conversations, the magic might not have been necessary after all. Still, she’d prefer any drunk, sleepy, or distracted samurai glancing outside to simply see just another patch of darkness as she ran past rather than a distinctive silhouette.

Either way, the two of them reached the security checkpoint undisturbed. A squat, one-story bunker made out of concrete with windows made of sliding, bulletproof glass, Kat frowned as she began formulating a plan to get inside.

Xander didn’t wait, he slipped away from their hiding spot near the wall, walking toward the bunker at a fast clip.

Mind Sense,” he glowed purple briefly as he activated a psi ability. “Compulsion.”

He glowed again. Kat frowned as she heard some sort of struggle inside the bunker.

Compulsion,” Xander repeated himself.

She glanced from him to the bunker, unsure whether to break her cover and move toward Xander while he stood just outside the door or not. A moment later, the door opened.

A hulking samurai stepped out, a pair of metal arms gleaming in the dim light of the compound. Without speaking, the man went down on one knee in front of Xander.

In one smooth motion, Xander pulled his knife free from its sheath at his side and slammed into the unmoving man’s ear. He twitched once before falling to the ground.

Kat padded across the street and joined him, a slight frown on his face.

“Help me drag him inside,” Xander whispered, panting for breath. “He’s a big one so I’ll need you to get his legs.”

After a couple seconds of grunting exertion, the two of them wrestled the massive body inside where two corpses already occupied the ground in slowly growing pools of blood.

Kat dropped the dead man and pursed her lips at the disorder. Chairs were upended and the smartglass of the security camera displays was cracked. Apparently something large and blunt had had hit it hard enough to almost shatter the resilient piece of technology.

“What the-” She began, shaking her head as she looked around the room.

“Give me a second Erinyes,” Xander gasped as he slumped down into a nearby sofa, the only piece of furniture that wasn’t half destroyed. “Psi abilities burn stamina rather than mana and carrying that lunk was a bit much after I all but emptied my reserves.”

“What did you do?” Kat glanced at the bodies, noticing the neat bullethole between the eyes of one and the crushed ribcage and torn-out throat of the other.

“Compulsion,” Xander rasped as he undid a flap on the back of his neck and fished out the cord that would allow him to directly connect with the security checkpoint’s network. “It’s an expensive and powerful iron-tier ability, but I can directly take control of a person with a low charisma attribute. One of our friends here was a player, a footpad if I guessed right. He would have been a hard kill if he saw us coming so I just had his friend shoot him in the head. Remember Erinyes, almost every gun is silenced if you push it up against flesh.”

“But he doesn’t look like he made it,” Kat replied, eyes widening as she realized what had happened. “The man that came outside-”

“Yes,” Xander responded as he plugged his cord into the wall interface for the building. “I had to use compulsion a second time after the big guy killed my patsy. I can do that in The Tower of Somnus twice in a row without it being too awful, but the extra mana cost on Earth makes it a last ditch option. Now give me a second here, I need to disable their security systems.”

Kat stood in the room, biting her lip slightly as she looked at the pile of dead bodies. She probably could have taken them, but it wouldn’t have been quiet. At least one of them would have gotten a shot off, and unlike Xander and her, they weren’t using silenced weapons. The entire block of the Millenium compound would have known that they were there, and that would have been the end of the mission.

As good as she was, Kat wasn’t untouchable. A single slip-up and she and Xander would have been running for their lives.

She clenched her fists. There was still so much to learn, so much power to earn from the Tower of Somnus.

“That’s dirty,” Xander mumbled from the couch. “I’ve got the security down but it was a lot more than just vibration sensors on the arch. They have anti-aircraft guns surrounding the thing and the vault itself is worse.”

“What do you mean, Exe?” Kat asked quietly.

“The data vault itself is about the size of a coffin,” Xander continued. “Suspended by four metal cables from the arch. The problem is that they have a high voltage current running through the surface of the vault with insulators at the base of each cable. Anyone touching both the vault and the wiring at the same time gets fried like a squirrel on a power line.”

“Can you disable it?” Kat questioned hopefully.

“The vault’s security is completely separate,” Xander shook his head. “All I can do is handle the alarms and automated guns. You’ll just have to be careful up there.”

“Fuck,” Kat spoke the word without any real feeling.

“Fuck, indeed,” Xander agreed, grunting slightly. “Okay, security is down. Good luck, Erinyes.”

Taking a deep breath, Kat recast Levitation. Her wait while Xander broke into the security system gave her enough time to mostly regenerate her mana. A small boon.

She walked out of the security bunker to the base of the brightly lit arch. Kat reached into her hip mounted pack and pulled out a pair of gloves, just as black as the rest of her outfit and covered with razor sharp barbs she could use to hook into even the narrow ridges between each segment of the giant steel structure.

Even after years without proper maintenance it gleamed silver under the floodlights that the Millenium Company kept trained upon it. Gingerly, she approached it, slipping her hooked glove into the first narrow gap and pulling herself up.

Despite Kat’s awful grip, the slit between the arch’s segments wasn’t really large enough for much more than her fingertips, Kat had more than enough levels in gravity magic to actually climb the metal beast. One hand after another she pulled her unnaturally light body up the top side of the arch.

A couple of minutes later, she had to renew the spell, almost slipping as gravity’s sudden return yanked at her tenuous hold on the gleaming structure. A second later, her weight evaporated and Kat gasped for breath.

She was only halfway up, pouring sweat inside her suit, and Kat had never felt so exposed. She didn’t dare look down, but she could only hope that any samurai looking at the arch couldn’t identify her as anything more than a smudge on its side. Hopefully, she’d look like nothing more than one of the many patches of rust to them.

Still, there was nothing around the arch to provide even the slightest hint of cover. Even if Millenium didn’t look for her, she was probably visible to Frank and Athena back at the airfield if they'd thought to use a telescope. In short, all she could do was move faster and hope that her luck held.

Kat’s arms were aching, screaming at her to stop the repetitive strain she was subjecting them to, but instead she redoubled her efforts. Each scraping claw dug into the arch pulled her further up its gleaming height and away from prying eyes.

Allegedly, there had been elevators on the inside of the arch, but Millenium had long since welded the doors shut and filled the interiors with enough detritus to make that route impossible. That didn’t stop Kat from wishing that they’d given it a try. Impossible or not, any option that involved ‘not climbing’ was something she was willing to explore at the moment.

Her breath rasped in her ears. Thankfully, the climb was much easier near the top as the arch’s angle evened out. A small blessing given how spent Kat’s arms were.

Even as she reached forward, digging her fingertips into another crease in the metal in order to pull her battered torso across the rusted steel of the structure she could tell that she would need to bathe them in ice tomorrow. Curative spells might be able to fix simple damage, but strain on this level was something else entirely.

Finally, she sat in a crouch at the top of the arch, wobbling slightly as the entire arch swayed in the wind. The metal was pitted with rust, jagged and vacant. Eroded and battered in the spots where it had once been thick with ice. Kat sighed into the night air, but she could see for miles. Miles in every direction of light, glass and steel, St. Louis was a neon panorama beneath her.

Quietly, she recast Levitation and followed up with Pseudopod. Then, she closed her eyes and stepped off the edge.

Almost on her own, the tentacle of water reached out to a cable on her right, slowing Kat’s gentle descent, but holding her at two arm'slengths from the strip of metal. Silently, she fell at a measured pace, her magic all that prevented her from plummeting to her death.

She opened her eyes and looked down, immediately regretting it as her vision swam. Kat slammed her eyes shut to recenter herself before opening them once more, this time focusing on the dark, metal data vault rushing up beneath her.

Finally, just shy of the vault, Kat dismissed Pseudopod, ensuring that there would be no connection between her and the cable. Then, her feet touched down.

Kat quickly went to her knees, finding the hatch that concealed the data port she’d need access to on the vault. Whatever the lock was, Kat couldn’t even begin to make heads or tails of it.

She smiled in the night air. Oh well, she always had plan B. Knife.

The blade glowed red as Kat burned through her stamina. Four precise jabs of the knife removed the hinges from the data port’s armored cover.

Quietly, she picked the square of metal up and moved it to the side, replacing it with the data shunt from her pouch.

She leaned back on her heels, tapping her earpiece. They’d maintained radio silence the entire mission in order to prevent their communications from alerting Millenium, but the data stream from the shunt would be just as ‘loud’ to any data sniffer as a quick call.

“Whippoorwill,” Kat stared off at the glittering city. “The data shunt is in place. Do your thing but expect heavy resistance.”

“Got it, Erinyes,” the woman responded. “Scalpel is saying that everything is quiet on our end. I’ll let you know when I have something.”

Kat sat down, stretching her back and aching arms, the vault swaying in the wind beneath her as she waited for the hacker to do her work. Above her the stars twinkled peacefully.

She really hadn’t had much time like this. Really, most of Kat’s leisure had been in The Tower of Somnus, but even then most of her time with her friends had been devoted to hunting and killing monsters.

Maybe once she got to college she’d actually have some time to herself between classes. As much as she loved the adrenaline and challenge of her job as an infiltrator, she desperately needed time to herself for some reflection.

A burst of gunfire from below startled her out of her reverie. Kat sat up blinking as an alarm blared to life and lights began to snap on across the multiple city blocks of the compound.

“Erinyes!” Whippoorwill shouted into her ear, her voice panicked. “Scalpel says that Millennium samurai are moving everywhere! Oh God, I’m not even halfway-”

“Change of plans,” Xander’s voice cut Whippoorwill off. “Erinyes, you need to stay with the shunt until the hack is complete. No matter what, the hack needs to be completed. We need this data.”

“Then you need to destroy the evidence,” Kat found herself nodding along as Xander delivered the clipped orders. “We will meet at fallback point A in two hours. If anyone is missing, we will pick up stragglers at point B in three hours. There is no point C. Plan C is hitchhiking home.”

“Good luck, Exe,” Kat replied, eyes glued to the shunt in front of her.

“Good luck, Erinyes,” he answered, voice softening slightly. “I’m about to break out, hopefully that will take some heat off of you. Stay safe.”

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About the author

Cocop (Cale Plamann)

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

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