“Erinyes!” Whippoorwill’s voice was shrill and breathy. “There are floodlights everywhere! I think they found our area of the wall by the dead cameras. I’m sure that people will be coming any second and-”
“Whip,” Kat gritted her teeth, reaching into the pouch and pulling out a vacuum-sealed plastic package. “I’m going to need you to calm down and focus on my voice.”
“Given what I had to do to get here,” she popped the package open, removing the putty from inside and warming it with her hands, “the defenses on this server are going to be insane. None of us can move until you crack it and extract that data. People are going to come looking for you just like they’re looking for me. Scalpel will keep you safe. You need to focus on your dive.”
“But Erinyes-” Whippoorwill began.
“Movement on the street,” Scalpel’s clipped voice cut in on the network. “We’re under some pretty heavy-duty camo tarping. I’ll try not to shoot unless someone is entering either my building or Whippoorwill’s, but we have a running clock here.”
“Focus, Whip,” Kat carefully molded a ring of the spongy high explosive around one of the insulated cable connectors, careful not to touch the metal. “You can’t lose yourself like you did last time. You’re better than this.”
“Break it down into small pieces,” Kat kept working, forming another snake out of the explosive dough as Whippoorwill mumbled to herself. “Step by step, even the biggest problems are manageable.”
“That’s the spirit, Whip,” she encouraged her partner, trying to avoid the tension in her shoulders as a round of shouting and gunfire exploded at the base of the arch. Xander was on the move, and all she could do was hope that he made it. “You’ve got this.”
Below her, a building exploded. The pressure wave washed over the suspended data vault, forcing Kat to clutch its sides, the barbs on her gloves scraping against the sheer steel as she frantically tried to keep her feet from touching the conductive cables.
“Wrong building, you idiots,” Xander chuckled gleefully over the comm network. “Hope the high explosives weren’t too spicy for you.”
A burst of gunfire punctuated his boastful statement.
“Erinyes,” he continued more soberly. “That’s as much attention as I can draw. I blew up the security bunker for the arch. Backup systems should be online soon. See you on the other side.”
“Give em hell, Exe,” Kat replied worriedly, carefully returning to her hands and knees even as the vault continued to rock back and forth.
Her only answer was more gunfire. From the top of the arch, she couldn’t tell if it was Xander himself, someone mind-controlled by him, or just a jumpy guard firing at shadows.
Regardless, there was nothing for her to do but cautiously wrap another snake of explosives around the base of one of the cables. Either Xander would escape or he wouldn’t. Same with her. All that was left was speed and luck.
“Hostiles in the street,” Scalpel’s voice cut in grimly. “Looks like they’re going door to door. I’d say we have two minutes before they’re at Whippoorwill’s building and I have to start shooting. Status update please.”
“Almost-” Whippoorwill’s voice was clipped, distracted. “Oh, Jesus. How many connection sniffers even is that?”
“I’m doing fine,” the young woman continued a second later. “I’d be doing better without the constant distractions, but I’m in. There’s a lot of stuff in here. More than I’ll be able to download and carry out.”
“Erinyes,” her partner’s voice was serious, none of the earlier nervousness present. “I think I found the video and audio, but there’s so much junk data buried in here that there’s no way I’ll find the encryption file. Even if I had an hour, it’s just not going to happen.”
“That’s fine, Whip,” Kat tried to keep her voice calm as she laid the last of her explosives down. “We can decrypt it later. For right now we need you to-
A gunshot rang out over Kat’s earpiece.
“Target down,” Scalpel’s voice was almost a growl. She could hear the iron clank as the man worked his bolt action. “Taking shot two now.”
“Grab it and go,” Kat finished after the second gunshot. “Get to fallback point A with the data and we’ll figure things out from there.”
“I’ll cover her,” Scalpel offered, the metallic clank of another high velocity round being chambered audible over his live mic. “I figure I can hold their attention for a couple more minutes before I have to bug out. Give the package a proper chance to get to point A.”
“Get going, Whip,” Kat smiled slightly as she fished out her detonator, a small plastic rectangle with a single button and indicator light on it. “I’m about to draw a whole hell of a lot of attention myself so I’ll be disposing of my communicator. I don’t want anyone tracking me after all. I’ll see everyone at point A.”
The last sound she heard before Kat pulled the communicator out of her ear was yet another gunshot as Scalpel brought another samurai down. Efficiently, she stuffed the earpiece into the explosive putty around one of the cables and stood up shakily.
The data vault swayed back and forth in the night wind under Kat’s feet as she fished around for the last item in her pouch. A second later, she pulled out the same brand of dark and resilient, high-tensile blanket that Xander had used to defeat the razor wire earlier.
With a flick of her wrists, the square of fabric extended completely and Kat grasped its ends forming a sort of scoop from the opaque cloth. Her grip on the right-most pair of corners was a bit tenuous in order to maintain her hold on the detonator, but there wasn’t much she could do about that.
Letting out a deep, shuddering breath. Kat cast Levitation. Immediately, she could feel her body lighten.
Biting her lip, Kat jumped off the vault, sending it swinging behind her. A second later the blanket caught the waiting wind, inflating and slowing her descent further.
She floated gently, like a bit of dandelion fluff over the kicked over anthill that was the Millenium base. Floodlights swiveled, playing their light over the patchwork and poorly maintained buildings of the mercenary camp as they searched for Xander.
In the distance, she heard gunfire and screaming as the wind buffeted her. Kat smiled slightly, content to just drift quietly in the night’s embrace until she neared the outside range for her detonator.
Finally, Kat shifted her thumb, pressing down on the detonator’s button.
She glanced over her shoulder just in time to see the explosives go off. Three detonated correctly, balls of fire ripping the cables free from the rectangle of metal. It swung precariously in the night sky, connected to the Gateway Arch by a solitary and groaning cable.
The night seemed to hold its breath as all eyes swiveled to the hanging, armored server as it twisted gently, buffeted by the wind.
Then, the final cable, creaking in protest under the full weight of the data vault, snapped with an audible crack. It plummeted past her, slamming into the cement below with a loud crash.
Shards of electronic debris sprayed everywhere as the vault’s case shattered from the fall, the security floodlights causing them to shine and glimmer. Another alarm sounded from the center of the camp, and the dark, scurrying shapes of samurai running to and fro began to fill the streets.
Silently, Kat thanked Xander’s foresight. A dark combat suit and a dark parachute against the night sky provided her with all the camouflage she needed to finish her descent unnoticed despite the hundreds of samurai on high alert.
She touched down on top of a garage, quickly wrapping the detonator in the blanket and stuffing it back in her carrying pouch. It probably wasn’t necessary, but the first rule of infiltration was to provide as little evidence as possible. An infiltrator should be a ghost on the site and a name taking credit for a job on the information channels after the fact.
Nothing she stuffed into her carrying pouch had touched her skin thanks to the bodysuit, but better safe than sorry.
Objects stowed, Kat cast Shadow and used the last remaining seconds of her Levitation to scamper down the side of the garage, a mobile and unnaturally quiet chunk of night.
Activating Cat Step, she burned stamina to silence herself completely as Kat rounded the corner of the garage and approached the open bay door. A man and a woman stood under a flickering light, arguing.
“Look, Hazior,” Kat froze as she heard the feminine voice. “I know that the boss sounded the all-hands-on-deck alarm, but that’s for the samurais, not for us. I just finished fixing the transmission on Otto’s jeep and he told me that he wants me to put a new coat of paint on it. You know how crazy that guy is. The boss isn’t going to notice if we don’t report to our alert posts, but Otto sure as fuck is going to notice if his jeep isn’t painted.”
“Otto can go polish his fancy, new chrome arm for all I care,” the man responded angrily. “The alarm means that we all have to get to battle stations. I don’t think either of us are going to do much with twenty-year-old rifles hiding in a crow's nest on top of the pub, but that’s what the orders say.”
“Fuck the orders,” the woman snorted, a jangle of keys audible as she pulled something out of her pocket. “No one cares, and Otto will give me hell for months if his jeep isn’t painted. You can hang out on top of the pub if you want, but you’re not going to drag me into this. Now hand me the paint applicator or get out. Your choice.”
Kat snuck around the corner, quietly approaching the two. The woman was walking into the garage, her back to Kat as she approached a huge red and black jeep that filled up the center of the small repair bay. Behind her, the man grunted and followed, his back to Kat as well.
“Let’s just get this done, Josie,” the man shook his head, tossing a shock of unruly red hair to the side. “The quicker we get the car painted the quicker we can get to our posts. With any luck no one will notice-”
Kat’s hand slapped across his throat, the razor-sharp climbing barbs digging into his unprotected flesh before she ripped her hand away, taking a good portion of his throat with it.
He stumbled forward, hands going to his throat in surprise as he tried to process the sudden pain from Kat’s strike. The woman turned, a look of confusion on her face as she tried to make sense of her companion cutting off mid-sentence.
Kat’s slap literally wiped the expression from her face.
The woman stumbled backwards, opening her disfigured mouth to scream only for a followup swipe to rip her throat out.
As the woman collapsed to the floor, Kat frowned. Both of them were mechanics, not samurai. Bystanders just trying to make ends meet in the wastes between corporate enclaves. In all likelihood they’d started working for the Millenium Company because it was one of the more stable and profitable employers nearby.
They didn’t deserve to die like this, but she didn’t have a choice. Sneaking past them risked discovery, and although the entire compound was locking down, they still hadn’t pinpointed her location. More importantly, Kat would need an escape route.
She sighed, removing the blood-soaked gloves and putting them into her pouch. As effective as they’d been, Kat still preferred a knife.
A moment later, Kat was rifling through the woman’s pockets until she found the jeep’s keys. After a couple attempts, she found the matching key on the ring and opened its surprisingly heavy door. She paused, the vehicle halfway open as she inspected the solid steel plate hidden just behind the door’s upholstery.
Kat smiled as she climbed in, flicking the windshield with her index finger, drawing the hollow thud of thick bulletproof glass. It was uparmored enough to ignore pistol fire, and with any luck it would be able to shrug off a decent number of rifle rounds. This might work after all.
She turned the key in the ignition. The engine turned over with a welcome thrum.
Good. Xander had only taught her the basics of driving, considering it one of many potentially useful skills that his infiltrators should know. If the vehicle had any problems, or God forbid, it was a manual, she would have been completely out of luck.
Carefully, she shifted the car into drive and tapped the gas. It lurched forward with a growl. Kat wrenched the wheel to the side, trying to avoid a hydraulic lift meant for elevating vehicles.
A second later she was cursing herself for oversteering as the vehicle almost ended up lodged sideways in the garage door. Foot on the brake, she shifted the car back into reverse and shimmied it back into the building.
Even as she tried to exit the building again, carefully nursing the steering wheel, she couldn’t help but imagine the mercenaries in the surrounding buildings converging on her as she created a racket.
Mercifully, she managed to edge the jeep out of the garage before any unwelcome witnesses happened upon her. As soon as the vehicle was in the streets, Kat hammered the gas pedal.
The tires squealed for a second, the jeep fishtailing as their treads desperately tried to find purchase on the asphalt. Then, the vehicle kicked Kat back into her seat as it launched forward, accelerating down the narrow street of the compound.
For a second, a manic grin blossomed on her face as the jeep tore down the narrow street, scattering trash as the big vehicle’s grill slammed through the cluttered and dirty streets. Then, the road curved, angling toward an exit from the compound.
In a panic, Kat switched her foot from the gas to the brakes. The car skidded, the steering all but unresponsive as the tires locked up in a futile effort to slow the jeep’s momentum. At the last second, Kat remembered her lessons from Xander and released the brakes, tapping the gas.
She struggled with the wheel, failing to keep the vehicle under control as it careened sideways into a nearby building. The metal screeched, as the cinderblocks of the dark and hulking structure scraped off paint and a mirror.
Kat barely managed to keep the vehicle from stalling out, accelerating away from the damaged building. Her breath came in ragged bursts, sweat filling the airtight suit. The road rumbled beneath her, but Kat’s eyes couldn’t help flickering to the doorways and rooftops around her.
She was more or less in command of the jeep now, but her efforts had made a lot of noise. It was only a matter of time until someone noticed that she was-
The windshield thudded as a bullet struck it, spiderwebs of cracks springing into existence as the interior layer of glass sprayed across the passenger side seat. Kat swore.
Two nearby roofs erupted into gunfire as concealed Millenium samurai and employees opened fire with whatever weapons they had on hand. Bullets whined and cracked off of the jeep's hood even as others thumped like hail into the thick armor plates of its doors.
She ducked, windshield rattling as a spray of bullets transformed it into a cracked and cloudy mess. Squinting, Kat could barely make out the road ahead of her through the handspan of clear bulletproof glass just above the dash.
Then, she was past the emplacement. Rifles still cracked behind her, and while the occasional shot hit the back of the jeep, nothing came close to penetrating the armored vehicle.
Kat didn’t have a chance to relax. Her hands were still clenched painfully tight on the steering wheel, the front of her outfit studded with glass shards from the repeated impacts on the windshield.
Ahead of her, Kat saw the steel curtain of the compound’s gate, a huge man glinting with chrome and holding some sort of huge rifle standing just to the side of it. Almost in slow motion, he turned, bringing the gun to bear on her.
Kat poured mana into the air just in front of him, casting Dazzle.
The night exploded into strobes of light, visible even through her eyelids as Kat hammered her eyes shut. The man fired the massive firearm, the thunderous report half-deafening her even through the jeep’s armored frame, but the spell did its work, blinding the man for a half second and sending his shot wide.
Then, Kat’s seatbelt slammed into her chest like a sledgehammer as the jeep plowed into the man.
She was spinning, all control of the jeep lost in the impact. Before Kat could even process what was happening, air bags exploded all around her, cushioning her from the sudden jolt as the vehicle slammed sideways into the fortress’ gate.
A second of fuzzy fumbling later, Kat cut herself free, her black infiltration suit covered with both glass and the white powder in the airbags. Dazed, she staggered free from the jeep, trying to ignore the ringing in her ears as she assessed her circumstances.
“You slag!” An enraged baritone voice shouted behind her. “What the FUCK did you do to my Goddamn car!”
Kat whirled, eyes widening beneath the one-way mesh that covered her eyes. The man she’d hit with the jeep was still standing. Somehow.
He hadn’t emerged from the crash unscathed, the huge weapon in his arms was a mangled wreck, his left leg twisted unnaturally backwards, and a huge wound on his face bled freely. That said, even as Kat watched, his leg glowed red and snapped back into place with a sickening, crackling sound.
“I fucking have the Immovable perk,” he looked at the destroyed cannon in his metallic arms, throwing it to the ground in disgust, “and you have the gall to hit me with my own fucking jeep?”
“I don’t care whose crew you’re in,” he drew a handaxe from his belt, the weapon almost inconsequential in his huge grip but for the red glow of a tower-granted skill suffusing it, “I will find you and I will end you for that.”
Without speaking, Kat drew her handgun, focusing mana on a Gravity Spike as she quickly sighted the weapon on him and began pulling the trigger.
He tried to dodge, but whatever skill he was using to repair his left leg hadn’t quite finished its work. The limb buckled as he put weight on it, and almost half of the high-caliber bullets slammed into him.
She gritted her teeth, noticing the spark of metal on metal even when the bullets stuck his torso. The slow speeds required to silence her high caliber rounds made them almost worthless against armor, and whoever this man was, he’d had enough steel implanted under his skin to classify him as construction equipment.
“Do you know how much synth skin itches?” He growled, pulling himself back into a standing position as the slide on her pistol locked open, out of bullets. “You must because that’s all your little tantrum will cost me.”
“You know,” He wiped the blood from his eye with his free hand, “I’m going to cut your hands off for that. No one makes me bleed my own blood.”
Kat grunted, released her stored mana into Gravity Spike. The gunfire and his grandstanding had kept the samurai in the same spot for the full two seconds the spell required for the spell to activate.
This time, his leg almost exploded.
For a moment, it strained as the magic pushed and pulled on the limb simultaneously, the man’s pants rippling under the pressure. Then, the metal implanted under his skin gave way. Pistons and smashed electronics burst from either side of his knee as the conflicting gravitational forces ripped it apart.
She didn’t wait for him to collapse, activating Levitation and Leaping simultaneously to jump onto the roof of her jeep. A moment later, her chest slammed into the gate. Kat’s hands fought for purchase on the slick metal, eventually grabbing the top and pulling herself over even as the samurai screamed with impotent rage.
Kat landed in the streets outside the compound and sprinted away, casting Shadow as she vanished into the maze of urban disrepair surrounding the Millenium base. Behind her, Kat still heard scattered gunshots and shouting.
She redoubled her efforts, forcing stamina into Cat Step to increase her speed as she sprinted through the dark and empty streets of St. Louis. Ten minutes and almost two miles later, she paused, gasping for breath.
The extra point of endurance from The Tower of Somnus was really beginning to show its worth. Usually, she was more of a sprinter than a distance runner, but between her adrenaline and magical enhancement, Kat found herself in an alleyway between a clothing store and a smartpanel shop, exhausted but well away from Millenium pursuit.
After about three minutes, Kat stripped out of her infiltration suit, wincing as the wet fabric clung to her skin. She really needed to rehydrate.
Finally, she plopped the expensive and damp pile of polymers and armor into a nearby dumpster. She reached into the pockets of her street clothes, producing two large plastic bags of metallic powder, one silver aluminum and the other, reddish-brown iron oxide.
Efficiently, Kat spread a thick layer of the powder on the remains of her suit before removing her final piece of infiltrator gear, a simple, automated zinc firestarter on a timer. She clicked the silver and black circle twice, giving herself five minutes.
Another casting of Levitation and she was on the roof of the clothing store, darting past the rusting HVAC unit and air filtration equipment that littered its surface.
As soon as she reached the edge, Kat activated Leaping, still wreathed in Shadow, to jump to the next rooftop, repeating the process as necessary. A couple of minutes and rooftops later, she lowered herself into another alleyway and let her spells fade.
Her street clothes were rumpled and wet, but otherwise serviceable, as Kat stepped into the street just outside St. Louis’s downtown. Storefronts lined the street, their doors barred shut given the time of night, but with the occasional bar, flophouse, unregulated cyberware clinic, and drug den spilling noise and light into the otherwise fairly sedate walkway.
It wasn’t exactly busy, but there were enough people walking the poorly maintained streets, peering at the beat up storefronts for her to not look out of place. Most of them stood outside the handful of open buildings, smoking or drinking openly as they took care not to make eye contact with anyone on the move.
Kat smiled slightly. It was just like the Shell. Most of the time, people wouldn’t bother, but curiosity could get you killed. Sometimes, it just wasn’t in your best interest to remember identifying features on a dark figure hurrying alone at night.
As she drew closer to the downtown, there still weren’t any streetlights, but the frequent acrid blue, green and pink advertisements provided enough light for her to make her way even as they screamed silently at her to upgrade her smartpanel and enjoy a ‘Neobeef* Barbeque at Doc Morbid’s.’
Kat didn’t have the first idea what neobeef was, but she knew better than to trust any restaurant that advertised itself as the ‘best iguana on a stick in junktown’ in follow-up ads. It just didn’t seem like the sort of place p someone with any other options would frequent.
Then, the street she was following turned and Kat saw downtown St. Louis for the first time. Her step faltered and she sucked in a breath as she tried to process it all.
Glass and steel buildings, covered in garish corporate logos, lined the road. The street itself was filled with a boisterous and eclectic mix of people. Most of them sported some chrome, but almost as ubiquitous were body modifications.
Whether it was metal spikes growing from a man’s shoulders, or a woman’s cat tail flicking back and forth in the pink and blue glow of a two-story bar wedged in between two corporate enclaves, cosmetic changes were everywhere.
She picked up her pace, hand on the knife inside her jacket and acutely aware of the empty holster on her hip. Back in the dumpster, it was melting in a thermite blaze along with the rest of her depressingly expensive infiltration gear.
Despite the waste, the chances of Millenium being able to identify her or spot Kat as she tried to leave the City were too great. Tracking people via DNA and fingerprints was hard without any sort of centralized database, but far from impossible, and from what Kat had heard about Millenium, she would prefer to only leave them with ‘impossible’ options.
She shouldered her way through the crowd, her smartpanel superimposing a red dot on her destination. No one bothered her, the various colorful civilians and samurai too intent on their own goals to bother.
It was refreshing really. A combination of the Shell without the constant paranoia and threat of a gunfight mixed with the affluence of her arcology minus the slavish devotion to the company. As long as Kat ignored the massive mercenary compound in the middle of the City that she’d just escaped, she could see why Xander liked the place.
Finally, she reached her destination. Neon Taco. The pink and green displays outside lived up to its name, showing flickering images of a man shoving a taco into his face while a woman gave a thumbs up.
She pushed the door open and stepped inside, wincing as an awful jingle about the ‘freshest beef, beyond belief’ assaulted her ears. A quick glance around the mostly empty store located Whippoorwill sitting next to a tense looking Xander. A table over, Athena was practically vibrating in her seat while Scalpel casually ate a burrito.
She sighed. Despite everything, it looked like the plan was still on track.
“Looks like I’m the last one here,” Kat walked over with a smile, drawing relieved looks from both Xander and Athena. “Sorry about the delay, I ended up having to jog across half the City.”
Now they just had to get out of St. Louis and sell their ill-gotten gains.
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- Founding Member of the Zard Skwad
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