“Here,” Xander threw Kat a package. Really nothing more than a large plastic bag taped shut. She caught it, cocking her head to the side and raising an eyebrow in an unspoken question.
“I, uh,” he blushed slightly scratching the back of his neck, “promised to buy you a new winter jacket as part of that last mission you did as a runner back in Schaumburg. I guess we all got so caught up in the Haupt business that I forgot. So, happy first day of college, I guess?”
“Thanks,” she replied, flashing a smile at him as she caught the package. “Better late than never.”
“Quit rubbing it in, Kat,” he chuckled in embarrassment. “Now try it on, I want to see if it fits. I’ll be heading back to Schaumburg tonight and I want to know if I’ll need to get it resized first.”
A smile still on her face, Kat ripped open the plastic bag before pulling out the knee-length jacket. The outside was a slick dark green, well made and hopefully at least slightly waterproof. She slipped her arms into the sleeves before buttoning the jacket up, taking note of the GroCorp College logo printed on the upper-right chest.
“Did you get this from the college store?” Kat asked, a teasing note in her voice. “I’ve seen the prices on those. What will the kids in the Shell think of me now? Wrapped up in fancy branded apparel?”
“You’re gonna stick out enough as is,” Xander grumbled, his cheeks still flushed. “I just thought it would be nice for you to have something from the college so that you’ll fit in. Chiwaukee is a rough enough place without having to worry about looking like an outsider.”
“Thanks!” Kat laughed, skipping forward to throw her arms around his neck. “You didn’t have to, but I love it anyway.”
“Check the pocket,” his voice was gruff with emotion as he struggled to get the words out. “I owed you the jacket, but it didn’t feel right to send you off without an actual present.”
Kat’s hands dove deep into each pocket, the fingers of her right closing around a glossy cardboard box. Quickly she pulled it out into the dingy flophouse’s weak fluorescent lighting. After the incident with Athena, Xander had negotiated their way into a larger ‘suite,’ leaning on the failure of the bulletproof glass.
“This is the latest smartpanel model,” Kat turned the box over in her hands, “short of a cranial jack, this is the most advanced personal organizer and computing device on the market. It must have cost a fortune.”
“It did,” Xander grinned, “but I think you forgot how rich both of us are now. Plus, now that you’re rubbing shoulders with the elite, you’re going to need to look the part. Even with all of our newfound wealth, you’re going to have a hard time fitting in.”
“Your birth might be a step above a slumrat like me,” he continued, shaking his head, “but to the managers and executives that actually run things, that makes you a gerbil. We’re both rodents. The only difference is that one of us is feral.”
Kat removed her current smartpanel, carefully pulling out the earpiece and pulling the cold metal contacts off the side of her head. Even if it wasn’t as nice as the new one, it was always useful to have a spare.
Maybe the truly rich could just afford to throw the expensive piece of equipment aside, but Kat knew better. In part due to her ‘night job,’ she was a bit rough on electronics. Maybe it was a childhood of hand-me-downs and repurposed products, but she refused to simply get rid of something valuable just because she no longer needed it.
“I just wish Whip were here,” Kat sighed, bittersweet emotions filling her as she tapped the initialization sequence into the smartpanel’s earpiece. “It doesn’t feel right for us to sit around celebrating while she’s stuck in the hospital.”
“She’ll be fine, Kat,” Xander walked over and rested a hand on the shoulder of her new jacket. “The bulletproof glass might not have stopped the rifle shot, but it slowed it down enough that your healing skill was able to do most of the work. She’s gonna itch like crazy and have to take immunosuppressants for a couple of weeks to acclimate to her new vat grown intestines, but it’s not the end of the world. If you work this job long enough, it’s bound to happen. Hell, I think half of my body originated in a factory or a lab at this point.”
“I’d prefer to avoid that honestly,” Kat grinned easily back at him. “Getting shot doesn’t seem like much fun to me. I’d like to opt out of that.”
“Oh shush you,” Xander blinked, his eyes slightly misty. “That’s why you’re the smart girl, heading off to college while the rest of us schlubs muck about in the gutters trying to make an honest credit.”
“An honest credit?” Kat asked, shaking her head slightly as she chuckled. “Didn’t you just make almost a million credits? You’re richer than most mid-level managers and we both know it.”
“Well, so are you,” he smiled warmly back at her, his golden tooth glinting faintly, “now get a move on. Enrollment starts at ten o’clock and you wouldn’t want to be late on your first day.”
Kat chuckled, extricating herself from Xander as she walked over to the lighter spring jacket she’d worn to the flophouse. Drawing her knife from the hidden internal sheathe and setting it on a nearby counter, Kat folded it and packed it away in her suitcase along with the rest of her meager belongings.
Finally, she picked up her knife, lovingly maintained and razor sharp. She glanced at Xander, confusion on her face.
“There’s a sheath inside the jacket, just under your left arm,” he nodded at the jacket. “Nina had one of her boys install it. He took out a good chunk of the insulation and replaced it with a weave of lead, aluminium and some sort of proprietary fabric he pinched from a NeoSyne shipment. It won’t be as warm, but the knife or anything else you try to smuggle in the sheath shouldn’t show up on a basic scan.”
“It’s a shame that Nina couldn’t be here,” Kat commented as she slid the knife into its new home, “I know that the ChromeDogs needed someone to hold down the fort in Schaumburg, but I’d like a chance to thank her in person.”
“She knows,” Xander chuckled. “Feel free to write an e-mail if you want, but you really need to get going, Kat.”
With a wave of her hand and a roll of her eyes, Kat buttoned up her jacket and grabbed the luggage before leaving the room. The hallway was bare concrete, barely broken up with faded paintings and limp and half-dead flowers. The sounds of a domestic disturbance and a blaring entertainment channel followed her into the elevator as it ‘dinged’ shut behind her.
The elevator jolted and stuttered on its way to the ground floor even as Kat triggered her brand new smartpanel and called for a cab. Theoretically, Kat had enough money that she could buy herself a car, but she’d learned her lesson in St. Louis.
Life in the arcology had given her a very specific set of skills, and despite her recent efforts, firearms and automobiles really weren’t part of those abilities. Given what she’d heard about Chiwaukee traffic, she’d rather trust an AI driver than her own rudimentary skills.
She walked through the building’s atrium, ignoring the bored clerk and the trio of sex workers smoking cigarettes just inside the door, unwilling to brave the late winter cold. One of them eyed her tiredly, but Kat just shook her head, leaving them to kill time as she stepped out onto the street.
Even in daytime, the glowing neon advertisements were an eyesore. Men and women in heavy coats hurried up and down the snowy street, body modifications and weapons plainly visible.
More than one eyed her, but they largely kept their distance, the GroCorp College logo on her jacket out of place, but marking her as troublesome target to any restive street toughs. Finally, a cab skidded to a halt in front of her just as her smartpanel pinged to let her know of its arrival.
Its door opened upward with a shriek of tortured metal, and Kat pulled herself inside. Instantly, her nose was assaulted by the chemical ‘evergreen’ smell of the air fresheners hanging from the taxi’s roof. She shifted slightly to put her seatbelt on, trying as hard as she could not to think of the way that her brand new jacket stuck to the seat.
The smartpanel read her pupils as Kat flicked them back and forth, selecting her destination and authorizing payment. Then the car took off, screeching into traffic as it cut off a truck.
Kat’s heart leapt into her throat as the vehicle accelerated, swerving into another lane, accompanied by a symphony of horns. Then the seatbelt bit into her chest as the taxi slammed on its brakes, a limousine weaving through traffic in front of them.
Adrenaline coursed through her body, her fingers digging into the sticky fabric. Out of the corner of her eyes, Kat could barely make out a man and a woman in the back seat of the limo, eating and laughing together, completely unperturbed as their vehicle accelerated past her.
Then they were gone, and Kat’s taxi was on two tires as it screamed onto a sidestreet as her smartpanel flashed the word ‘recalculating’ like that was supposed to make the vehicle’s sins against the laws of physics acceptable.
Five minutes later, she staggered out of the cab, short of breath and struggling to keep her stomach settled. Next to her, a car calmly came to a halt, disgorging a young woman in a fashionable blazer that glanced worriedly at her before ascending the massive marble steps toward the twenty-story stone building that was the combined dormitory and college.
Finally, Kat took a hesitant step, her rubber legs almost betraying her. A second and a quick breath of the brisk, chilly air later, and she began making her way up the staircase.
Before long she found herself at the back of a short line just outside of the large glass doors to the college.
Ahead, a pair of figures wearing heavy body armor directed the line, one running a metal-detecting wand over the students while the other held a rifle in a casual, low-slung grip and directed the teens to run their luggage through a large x-ray apparatus.
“Remember,” the figure without the metal detector shouted, her feminine voice clear and crisp over the sounds of traffic and honking horns. “Firearms, schedule two recreational drugs, and explosives are strictly prohibited. Muscle-powered weapons that correspond to recognized Tower skills are permitted, but you need to register them before entering the building.”
For a second, Kat considered testing the effectiveness of the scanner shielding on her jacket, but then she crushed the instinctive urge. She wasn’t on the streets anymore. There was no reason to tempt fate by concealing the knife.
Many of the students had the power and backing to be players, and it would be strange for an institution such as the GroCorp College to neglect the tower side of their development. In fact, ‘archaic weapon combat’ was one of the more common electives that the college. Not only could she have the knife, bringing it into the dorms wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.
“Are you from an arcology too?” Kat looked up into the smiling face of the girl that had exited her car in front of her. “I’m just asking because I think most of the Chiwaukee students checked in before us. Everyone around here looks lost.”
“Great,” she reached out a hand and took Kat’s in her own. “My name is Emma Tiller. I’m from the Crystal Lake Arcology where my Dad is a senior manager. It’s good to meet someone just as lost and confused in the big city as me.”
“I’m from Schaumburg actually,” Kat smiled weakly back at the girl. “My Mom’s an employee, but I was third in my class when the top two got disqualified.”
“Schaumburg…” Emma trailed off for a second before brightening. “That was the Haupt murder! You went to school with Anna Donnst and Arnold Jacques!”
“Oh my God,” the girls squealed, her eyes widening as her grip tightened on Kat’s hand. “You have to tell me EVERYTHING. That scandal was on EVERY gossip channel back home.”
“Err,” Kat glanced around nervously, noticing that more than one new student was listening in to their conversation. “Maybe when we get inside? I’m in room 2107.”
“Great,” Emma replied cheerfully. “I’m in 2214, it’s in a different wing but on the same floor. We can meet up to study together and talk about what happened. I’m so excited to get the inside scoop.”
Kat cocked her head slightly at the girl. Her instincts should have lit up like a Christmas tree screaming warnings at her, but they weren’t. She struggled to think of anyone who’d approached her so casually in her entire life, simply wanting to talk with nothing in return.
Really, only conversations with her family were this free. For a while, Arnold had been the same, but he’d revealed his true colors eventually.
She struggled to stop herself from making a face. Well, he’d always been showing her true colors. It was more that she noticed them eventually.
“That sounds fun,” Kat smiled at the girl, trying to keep her expression natural. “I’d love to have a study partner. I actually used to practice for my exams with Arnold Jacques, but… you know.”
“You were friends with Arnold,” Emma’s eyes widened. “I need to call Stephanie as soon as possible, she’ll just die if I-”
“Move along,” the armored man with the wand interrupted them, “you’re up next lady, you can keep chatting once you get inside.”
Kat watched, bemused as Emma practically buzzed forward, placing her suitcase in the scanner before letting the man run the wand over her. It whirred angrily as it passed over her smartpanel, but the guard didn’t seem to take any special note of it. A couple of seconds later, he was approaching her.
“Okay, Ma’am,” the armored figure pointed the wand at Kat. “You walk like you’ve been in the tower. Do you have any weapons to declare before we begin?”
“Just a knife,” she responded, pulling the weapon smoothly from its hidden sheath before flipping it in her hand and offering the hilt to the guard.
She could almost see him raise an eyebrow under his faceplate as he took the weapon from her. The wand whirred gently as it passed over her body. Finished, the man handed her the dagger back.
“Enhanced agility and a skill related to knives or bladed weapons?” He asked, stepping to the side to let Kat pass.
“A lady never tells,” Kat replied, winking at him as she walked by to retrieve her luggage from the detector.
Just as she picked it up, a young man, well-built and a head taller than her approached Kat, the easy smile on his face barely concealing a bad case of nerves. He kept cracking his hands at his side, feet shuffling anxiously even as he beamed at her.
“Miss Katherine Debs?” He asked, thrusting his hand into hers. Despite the practiced strength and firmness of his grip, she could feel the clamminess of his palm as it slapped against her own.
“Yes?” She shook his hand, glancing from him to where her luggage was waiting at the end of the scanning tray.
“Don’t worry about it.” He waved with his other hand and a man in a suit hurried past the two of them to grab it. “My man Davis has it handled.”
“Okay?” She responded, retrieving her hand and crossing her arms across her chest while eyeing him up expectantly.
“Oh, right,” the easy grin returned to his face despite a slight clench of his jaw. “My name is Jasper. I overheard your name when you were talking to the young lady over there and I couldn’t help but think that we might have something in common.”
“And what is that?” Kat’s eyes followed the servant as he began walking with her luggage in the rough direction of her room.
“I may have looked into your background a little bit,” his eyes didn’t even flicker as he admitted it, “and it appears that we have some mutual acquaintances. I was wondering if you’d be willing to accompany me to my quarters so that we could catch up on old times.”
Around them, the buzz of conversation swelled as the various students reacted to his statement. Apparently it was quite scandalous, but Kat could barely bring herself to care. All she knew was that he was triggering the warning bells that Emma had avoided. Maybe it was his practiced facial expressions or the obvious nervous tension filling his body, but everything about Jasper seemed off.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to decline,” Kat tried to smile as graciously as possible. Following a nervous rich man to his room without witnesses? She’d watched Chrome Cowboys. That’s how you ended up in pieces in Lake Michigan.
“I don’t think you understand who I am,” his pleasant smile faded somewhat.
The buzz turned ugly. The whispers weren’t friendly anymore and she was sure that at least some of the rubberneckers were taking pictures or uploading the scene he was creating onto the gossip channels.
Kat tried to make the movement casual as she slipped her right hand into her jacket to brush her fingers across the hilt of her knife.
“Is this the part where you give some long-winded speech about how I should be grateful for your intentions?” She asked sarcastically. “About how I might escape you today, but you and your family will make me suffer for rejecting you?”
“What,” he took a step back, blinking at her as genuine bewilderment flashed across his face. “Oh God, is that what you thought? No. A thousand times, no.”
“Let’s start over,” he closed his eyes, exhaling as he splayed his right hand out on his chest. “My name is Jasper Haupt. You were friends with two of the people who conspired to kill my Father. Even if no one will admit it, I know that there is more to the case, but you’re the first lead I’ve had in months.”
“Please,” he fixed his blue eyes on her, begging. “I need to talk to you about the death of Christopher Haupt.”
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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