“We will start the bidding at one million.” It was strange, hearing Xander’s actual voice next to her even as her smartpanel displayed a smooth, metallic face repeating the same words in a heavily modulated and impossible to identify tone.
“The data is an encrypted audio and video recording of an in-person meeting between shareholders from GroCorp, NeoSyne, JB Holdings, and WMC Integrated Robotics that took place in the last ten days in St. Louis,” the dual voices continued. “The information was acquired yesterday and our organization hasn’t decrypted it yet. Moreover, it is laced with anti-copying protocols. The information can be moved, but doing so will delete the original.”
A murmur went up in the augmented reality auction hall. Kat slowly pulled her gaze across the simulated room. Blank digital walls hemmed in a number of chairs occupied by the genderless, faceless robots that made up their buyers.
The entire display was only visible through the smartpanel over Kat’s eye. In reality, Xander, Kat, and Athena were in a dingy hotel, sitting on a pair of lumpy twin beds and a folding chair respectively.
“This means,” Xander ignored the interruption, “that anyone purchasing it will have the responsibility of decoding the data, but more importantly, they will be the only person other than its original owners to know the contents of the recording.”
“How can anyone even know it’s genuine?” One of the faceless entities asked, in a blurred but feminine voice. “I’m not paying a million or so credits to watch a video of your latest vacation.”
“I am displaying the metadata headers right now,” Xander waved a hand at Whippoorwill. The girl nodded, her eyes blurring. “As you can see, the data was created less than two weeks ago by Millenium Company vid recorders in the St. Louis Secure Conference and Convention Center.”
“St. Louis,” the woman’s altered voice mused. “So you were the ones responsible for the Gateway Arch raid that’s been blowing up the message boards. Millennium won’t even admit that it’s been hit, but word on the street is that it’s willing to pay a lot of money to recover something stolen from it. Interesting.”
“And I’m perfectly willing to sell the data back to them,” Xander smiled like a wolf as his metal avatar inclined its head at one of the robotic dolls in the auction hall that was sitting apart from the others. “I won’t say how the information ended up in my hands, but I will confirm on my honor as a samurai that I haven’t viewed it or been able to make a copy. If Mr. Jackson wishes to repurchase the data, he simply needs to win the auction.”
“I thought this was a secure conference room, Exe,” the avatar’s face blurred, the smooth metal replaced by the frowning, almost emaciated face of an older black man. “I don’t take kindly to being exposed like this.”
Kat shifted. She knew about Mr. Jackson from her briefings on Millenium. No one really knew why he picked such an ordinary samurai name, but the CEO of the Millenium Company was one of the highest ranked players on Earth. He never admitted to a specific level, but it was well known that his class had evolved, making him at least level twelve.
“It’s secure enough,” Xander continued, his avatar waving a metal hand dismissively. “I just assumed that your organization would attend the auction, noticed that you were sitting separately from the rest of the guests, and verified that you were logged on from a St. Louis node. The rest was just an educated guess.”
“Did,” Mr. Jackson squinted at Xander’s metallic avatar, “you just trick me into outing myself in order to convince the rest of these people that your sale was genuine?”
“Now, now, Mr. Jackson,” Kat could almost see Xander’s shit-eating grin on his featureless avatar. “A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.”
“I should have fucking killed you when you were a street rat, Exe,” the samurai crossed his arms, leaning back into the digital seat. “Alas, here I am paying for that mistake. Your little stunt cost me good, Exe. The code says I can’t retaliate unless I can prove that this is all personal.”
“Otherwise,” he continued, gravely voice dragging itself across Kat’s ears, “it’s a ‘regular business activity.’ The code doesn’t want us at each other’s throats, tearing each other apart just because two crews worked opposite sides on a job, even if a couple people died.”
“I’ve gotta say Exe,” Mr. Jackson shook his head, “this sure feels personal to me. I can’t prove shit and you know it, but I have people actively looking for business that involves you. You keep this shit up, and we might be meeting up close and personal sooner than you think.”
“Well,” Xander replied, “I await our future business interaction with bated breath.”
“We are offering discounts to prospective clients that involve you,” Mr. Jackson spat the words out through gritted teeth, fire in his eyes, “and payment plans.”
Kat glanced at Xander, slightly worried. Athena shifted on her bed in the dingy hotel room. Samurai code was pretty clear. If a samurai had earned a street name, usually either killing another named individual or completing some sort of difficult and highly dangerous feat, their personal lives were protected. All out war was bad for everyone, and no samurai wanted to wake up to the muzzle of a gun in their mouth.
Business was business, and given how often samurai ended up shooting at each other, bad blood was inevitable. About seventy years ago, before The Tower of Somnus even came to Earth, all of the big crews came to an agreement. Any organization that retaliated against another for simply doing a job better than them was widely mocked and ostracized.
That didn’t mean that there weren’t feuds and vendettas, but for almost every samurai, their most valuable asset was their word and their name. If you got a reputation, other crews wouldn’t work with you, street docs wouldn’t help you, and smugglers wouldn’t sell you the best gear.
Mercenaries didn’t offer discounts. It simply wasn’t done. It gave the impression that a crew was taking something personally. They worked a dangerous job, and the idea of accepting less money for risking their lives was anathema. Samurai didn’t negotiate. That was something that corporate employees did. Either you could pay their price, or you couldn’t.
Payment plans were even worse. Nine times out of ten, only the first or second credit transfers cleared. After that, clients almost always requested intercorporate arbitration which they had a tendency to win regardless of facts.
Mr. Jackson wasn’t technically breaking the code, but he was toeing the line. Honestly? If he wasn’t the leader of one of the world’s largest independent organizations, it would probably be enough to blacklist his entire organization. Unfortunately for Kat and Xander, there were certain privileges that came with having a lot of guns and enough chrome and players to use them.
“That is very generous of you,” Xander clicked his tongue sympathetically. “I would have thought that you would be eager to devote your time and credits to fixing the flaws in your security. After all, that’s what led to the data’s theft. Instead, you decide to give back to the community over a business transaction gone sour. Very commendable Mr. Jackson.”
“A business transaction gone sour?” The avatar ground his teeth together. “You broke into my home, guns blazing, stole information from me and-”
“If you two are done flirting,” the earlier female cut in dryly, “can we get to the auction? Mr. Jackson feels entitled to the data. Great. Let’s see if he can outbid the rest of us. If he can’t, all of the posturing in the world isn’t going to change anything.”
“One point one million credits,” a male voice responded, one of the metallic avatars raising a hand.
“Now,” Mr. Jackson’s digital image stood up from its seat. “If the august individuals present here would just show me some face and-”
“Face?” The woman sneered at him. Out of the corner of her eye, Kat spotted Xander grinning like an idiot. “The only way this footage would exist is if you had betrayed your employers. You just all but broke the code to threaten Exe and interfere with this auction. If your unhinged actions were a piece of theater by Exe to convince the rest of us that the data was a bombshell, it sure worked on me. One point two million.”
Mr. Jackson sputtered, unable to respond to her.
“Plus,” she continued, “You don’t know who any of us are. Even if I wanted to curry favor with you, I couldn’t exactly reveal my identity right now for obvious reasons. I gain nothing by doing you an anonymous favor.”
That was Belle Donnst. Kat didn’t understand where that knowledge came from, but there was no question in her mind. Even without the predatory woman’s physical appearance or voice, Kat would recognize those mannerisms anywhere.
The other attendees at the auction murmured appreciatively, several of their avatars nodding while Mr. Jackson fumed.
“One point three million,” a different male voice interjected.
“Too rich for my blood,” a woman chuckled. A moment later her avatar disappeared entirely, leaving only an empty seat.
“One point three five,” Mr. Jackson hissed, his words almost bringing him physical pain.
“One point six,” Belle responded almost lazily, her smooth metal face turning to stare down the mercenary. “You have a fair amount of money for a contractor, Mr. Jackson, but do you really think you’ll be able to keep up with corporate resources?”
“This isn’t over,” he replied, crossing his arms. “I don’t think any of you understand the depths you’re swimming in right now, but I, for one, will be ecstatic when the sharks swimming just below your feet tire of your games.”
The mercenary disappeared with a flourish, his avatar flashing into a spray of colored pixels before fading entirely.
For a second no one spoke as an uneasy silence descended upon the auction. Even in their hotel room, both Whippoorwill and Athena looked very uncomfortable. The smaller woman was sweating as she sat on the end of her lumpy mattress, hands shaking as she rubbed them together.
“One point six five,” a different mechanically distorted feminine voice interrupted the moment. “If Mr. Jackson is willing to risk sounding like an antagonist from Chrome Cowboys, there really must be something to this recording.”
“And I’m sure there is!” Xander cut in to egg them on. “It was located in a secure data vault suspended almost five hundred feet off the ground by electrified cables with at least four 80mm anti-aircraft cannons pointed at it. I only come to the august individuals in this room with the finest of creatively sourced information, and I am sure that the data for sale today will meet your expectations.”
“One point seven million credits hope you’re right,” the metallic avatar that Kat assumed was Belle laughed sardonically.
“One point seven,” Xander whistled, his digital image giving the assembled bidders a double thumbs up. “Can anyone beat one point seven million credits?”
“One point nine million,” Kat turned to look at an avatar that had remained silent and motionless until that moment. It lowered its hand almost lazily.
“Oh God,” Whippoorwill whispered next to her, “that’s so much money. I don’t even-”
“One point nine!” Xander pointed at the avatar that had just spoken. “Can any of the gentle-beings present make that two million?”
The digital auction hall lapsed into silence with the various metallic figures glancing at each other, asking unspoken questions. Finally, the icon Kat associated with Belle chuckled.
“Unfortunately,” she shrugged a pair of silver shoulders, “I’m tapped out. Enjoy your purchase, and a good night to the rest of you.”
Then, she disappeared in a flash of color, logging out of the digital auction hall.
One by one, the various other parties began to follow her lead, disappearing in bursts of multicolored pixels as they forfeited and ducked out of the auction until only the highest bidder remained.
“Well then,” Xander’s avatar jumped down from the podium he’d been using to address the gathered bidders. “Congratulations are in order. If I could have a drop location and a proof of escrow, we will get you your product shortly.”
“First,” the figure raised a hand, pointing its palm at Xander, “how can I be assured that the data will reach me? I have some idea as to the identities of my competitors and none of them are known for playing fair or nice.”
Behind Kat, Athena whimpered.
“A valid question,” Xander waved a hand vaguely in the direction of Kat’s immobile avatar. Without a cranial jack, she was mostly immobile, only able to rotate her head and look through her smartpanel unless she purchased a controller or a joystick. “Erinyes will be handling the delivery. So long as your drop point is in Chiwaukee, we can get the product to you tonight.”
“If anyone tries to stop Erinyes,” Xander chuckled darkly, “she has a bit of a reputation for leaving bodies in her wake. I obviously can’t promise you one hundred percent safety, but the data will be much more secure than the lives of anyone foolish enough to try and come after it.”
“She was the one that took down an entire squad over in Schaumburg, right?” The man asked after a pause.
Xander and his avatar both nodded.
“That should be sufficient,” the anonymous man agreed. “I am in the Oak Suite of the Royal Ambassador Hotel on Michigan Avenue. As for the money, you can contact Zurich Escrow, account number 981-B-822-J. My man is wiring the money right now. As soon as I verify the data, it’s yours.”
Xander motioned with a hand toward Whippoorwill. She leaned back, her eyes losing focus as she accessed Zurich Escrow’s information portal to verify the man’s claim. A couple of seconds later she sat up from the uncomfortable and questionably stained chair.
“It’s there, Exe,” her voice was quiet, almost hesitant. Kat frowned slightly as she glanced between Whippoorwill and Athena, the shorter woman rocking back and forth, mumbling something under her breath.
“Good doing business with you, Mr. Oak Suite, “ Xander clapped his hands together cheerfully. “Barring interference from a rival, Erinyes should be over with your data within the hour.”
The avatar simply nodded before disappearing into a multicolored sparkle as he logged out. A second later, Kat’s view of the virtual space in her smartpanel disappeared as Xander dismissed it entirely.
“There!” Xander spun around, gold tooth glinting in the neon glow of the advertisements flickering outside the flophouse window. “That wasn’t so bad now, was it? Whippoorwill, if you could upload directions to the Royal Ambassador Hotel into Kat’s smartpanel, I would appreciate it.”
Even as the hacker stood up, crossing the room toward Kat, Athena threw herself backward and screamed into her communication earpiece.
“Scalpel, NOW!” Kat’s head whipped to the side a fraction of a second too late. The window to their shared bedroom shuddered, a spiderweb of white lines appearing on it.
Then blood erupted from Whippoorwill’s stomach, the girl folding over as the report from a rifle shot echoed from across the street. Kat’s eyes widened as her partner collapsed in front of her.
Movement caught her eye as Kat instinctively threw herself the ground, out of sight of the damaged window. Athena was ripping a submachine gun from the lumpy pillow she’d been sitting on. It was an ugly thing, matte black rather than the usual gleaming metal, but every one of its polished angles spoke to its deadly purpose and efficiency.
Kat focused her mana, forming the spell Pseudopod even as her chest bounced off of the thinly carpeted floor of the hotel room. The breath rushed out of her with a thud, but the tentacle of water wrapped itself around the weapon, yanking it upwards just as Athena pulled the trigger.
The enclosed room amplified the sound of the gunfire, practically deafening Kat as the submachine gun roared, pouring lead into the ceiling.
Plaster rained down on the three of them, filling the room with a white fog. Athena was screaming something that Kat couldn’t hear through the ringing in her ears even as Xander ran to the window, his eyes burning with purple flames.
She leapt across the room, scrambling up the bed as Athena struggled with the fist-sized rope of water that held her wrist in a vise grip. Her hand landed on the smaller woman’s face, hand curled into a claw as Kat struck her nose with its heel.
Blood erupted from Athena’s face as her nose crumpled under the blow. Her head bounced off of the lumpy and soiled mattress as a second open palmed blow slammed into the women’s cheek. Once again, something crunched under her hand.
“Compulsion,” behind her Xander used a psi ability as Kat grabbed Athena by the wrist, twisting it so the back of the smaller woman’s hand faced her.
With one smooth motion, she brought her left hand around, smashing it into Athena’s elbow, shattering it with a sickening crack.
Athena screamed, dropping the submachine gun only for the pseudopod to snag it out of the air and pull the weapon into Kat’s grip. She pointed it at its former owner, finger resting on the trigger.
“Stop, Kat,” Xander called from the edge of the room. “It’s over.”
She looked up, tears blurring the corner of her vision as she took in Whippoorwill’s pale form on the bedroom floor, a pool of blood surrounding her.
“Open the window,” Xander’s eyes flared purple as he glared at Athena. “Jump.”
Across the street, Kat barely made out a silhouette throwing itself from the sixth floor of a building, arms flailing.
“Give me the gun and tend to Whippoorwill,” Xander nodded toward the bleeding girl. “I’ve already called for a street doc, but someone needs to stabilize her before they arrive. Do you think you can handle that?”
“I,” Kat’s eyes didn’t leave Whippoorwill’s bleeding form. Somehow her injury brought the entire situation home. The past three months of her life had been a whirlwind of ultra violence and adrenaline as Kat killed and ran from one situation to another, but it just didn’t seem real compared-
“Kat,” Xander’s hand was on her shoulder. “Whip needs you. You can’t freeze up now. Can you take care of her until the doc arrives?”
She shook her head, clearing the cobwebs and indecision.
“I’ve got it, Xan,” She handed him the submachine gun, crawling off of Athena and hurrying to Whippoorwill. The girl was mewling slightly, hands clutching at her bleeding stomach.
She cradled her friend’s head in her lap, activating Cure Wounds I. Distantly, Kat heard her voice twist as she recited a string of eldritch phrases, her hands positioning themselves precisely to form a sequence of arcane seals. Then her hands were glowing a healthy gold as she pressed them into Whippoorwill’s stomach.
“Why did you do it, Athena?” Xander stood over the bleeding and injured woman, the submachine gun trained motionlessly on her navel. “We had history and we struck a deal. If you’d wanted to do the job on your own, you didn’t need to bring us in. Hell, you were about to get a hundred and ninety thousand credits for a tip and about fifteen shots taken by Scalpel.”
“Now he’s dead,” anger began to well up in Xander’s voice, bubbling past his normal devil may care attitude, “and one of my girls is bleeding out on the floor. All of it is a Goddamn waste, and I don’t even know why, after fifteen years of friendship, you tried to pull this stunt.”
Kat’s breath came a little easier as the wound stopped bleeding beneath her hands. She was beginning to run low on mana, and there was still an ugly wound in Whippoorwill’s stomach, but already it was beginning to visibly close under the influence of her spell.
“Nathan, he-” Athena stuttered, blood streaming down her face.
“He shot Whippoorwill, a civilian,” Xander replied harshly. “He had a strong will and I only was able to control him for a second or two. Not enough time to disable him, but more than enough to force him to jump out a window.”
“That bullet was meant for you Xan,” Athena spat back, coughing as blood from her shattered nose and cheek began filling her mouth. “The plan was to take you down and let the girls go. This was never about them, she just stood up at the wrong time and caught your bullet.”
Kat cut off her spell, completely out of mana. At some point, Whippoorwill had slipped into a restless sleep, twitching and turning but still unconscious in her lap.
“But why, Denise?” Genuine frustration filled Xander’s voice. “We’ve known each other since before we joined the Cardinals. Hell, I remember boosting credits from corner stores while you served as a lookout when we were only thirteen. We were more than just business associates, we were fucking family.”
“Family?” Athena coughed, her face a mask of blood while she cradled her broken arm. “Family wouldn’t have mouthed off to Mr. Jackson and gotten a hit put on all of our heads. It’s always been your fucking ego with you, Xan. You always needed the biggest and flashiest score, but you never thought about the fallout.”
“Things have changed in St. Louis, Xan,” Athena squeezed her eyes shut, hissing in pain. “If no one is looking, Millennium doesn’t follow the code anymore. Every day there’s more of them on the street with newer and fancier equipment. They’re almost a corporation of their own by now. It’s only a matter of time before they force the rest of the crews in St. Louis to retire or join them.
“So what if they’re a corporation,” Xander snorted, sitting on the bed, gun still pointed at Athena’s petite form. “It’ll just be like the good ol’ days, Denise. We’ll tell ‘em to fuck off, steal their information and sell it to the highest bidder. Just like we do with all of the other corporations.”
“The other corporations aren’t crazy,” Athena opened her eyes, glaring fuzzily at Xander. “They want money. Mr. Jackson is in it for the power and you had to go and trash his ego.”
“I never would have done this to increase my cut, Xan,” she shook her head sadly. “You heard Mr. Jackson. The only way out for Scalpel and I was to assuage his ego. That meant giving the data to him along with your body.
“It wasn’t about money,” she sighed. “It was about survival.”
For a moment she was silent, a brooding silence settling over the room.
“For what it’s worth,” Athena coughed again, “I’m sorry about your girl. She was never the target.”
“How’s she holding up, Kat?” Xander didn’t bother to look back at her. “Street doc is downstairs, what does he need to know?”
“There’s some physical trauma still,” Kat glanced over the hole in her friend’s bloodstained hoodie, “but she isn’t bleeding anymore. Whip’s unconscious but her pulse is steady so I don’t think she’s in shock. She still needs help, but she’s doing all right.”
“But how?” Athena struggled to push herself up into a sitting position with her one good arm. “Nathan was using a .308. That should have turned her insides into hamburger.”
“I’m not an idiot, Denise,” Xander snorted. “You go everywhere with Nathan. As soon as you mentioned he wouldn’t be able to make a meeting on one of the most important sales in your career, I knew something was up and requested a room with bulletproof glass windows.”
“I suppose I’ll have to lodge a complaint with management,” he continued mirthlessly. “The windows only managed to slow his bullets, not stop them.”
“Kat,” she glanced up just in time to catch the coffee mug-sized portable secure hard drive that he threw to her. “I’m e-mailing you the location of the hotel in question right now. The doc is on the way and the immediate situation is handled so I need someone to make the drop.”
“But-,” she began, noting the flashing icon of an incoming e-mail.
“Get going, Kat,” Xander cut her off. “We’re in a fairly lawless area of Chiwaukee but we’ve made enough noise that someone is going to check out what happened. We’re going to need Whippoorwill stabilized and moved before someone shows up asking questions.”
Kat gripped the hard drive tightly before grabbing her messenger bag from a nearby table and slipping it inside. She opened the door, pausing in the portal as she looked back on the three people in the room.
Exhaling, Kat closed the door behind her and began walking down the hallway. She barely made it twenty steps before the chatter of gunfire behind her stopped her.
A moment later she continued, grim determination lining her face.
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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