Kat glanced uncertainly to Xander only for him to wave her inside, an unhappy expression on his face. She closed the door behind her, eyes taking in both Belle and the massive and heavily chromed bodyguard standing beside her as she took her seat next to Xander.
“Thank you for joining us, Kat,” icewater trickled down her veins as Belle addressed her. There was just something off about the older woman. No matter the expression on her face, her eyes were as lifeless as a shark circling its prey. “Do give Jasper my best when you return to Chiwaukee.
“Jasper Haupt?” Kat’s breath caught in her throat. “You know Jasper?”
“Of course, dear,” Belle’s mouth opened into a smile that showed slightly too many teeth. “It was a shame about his Father after all. I couldn’t make it to his funeral so I made sure to send a fruit basket. There’s no real reason to be impolite over a minor personal disagreement.”
“You killed-” Kat began, her mind flicking to the conversation with Jasper and the boy’s earnest desperation.
“I allegedly allowed Christopher Haupt to die,” Belle interjected, “but that’s hardly why I’m here. As I’m sure you noticed, security has changed at the Schaumburg Arcology.”
“The new goons have been giving my runners some trouble,” Xander agreed. “They don’t really take bribes, and they’re fairly good at plugging security holes that have existed for decades. Nothing major has happened yet, but they’re certainly cutting into my bottom line.”
“I would agree that they are a hindrance,” Belle inclined her head. “Unfortunately, it appears that they are peacekeepers hired by GroCorp from the Millennium Company.”
“Shit,” Nina glared at Xander. “Look at where your grandstanding got us. I know it must have made you feel like a big man to mouth off to Mr. Jackson given what he’d done to you, but now here we are. Stuck out here while his thugs sniff around, waiting for an excuse to jump one of my boys.”
“You overlook the point, Miss Cromwell,” Belle responded. “Even given Mr. Jackson’s dispute’s with Xander, there isn’t much he could do without GroCorp’s invitation. At some point, GroCorp has decided that Ike Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of GroCorps’ security was insufficient.”
“This is troublesome in two major ways,” Belle pursed her lips. “First, it creates an extra layer of security that is much harder to… come to an understanding with. Given how much of corporate work requires these sorts of understandings, I am sure you can understand why a genuinely independent and incorruptible layer of law enforcement would be considered a negative factor.”
“Of course,” Xander nodded in response, his voice thoughtful.
“More importantly,” Kat shivered as all pretense of amiability disappeared from Belle’s voice, “Millennium couldn’t be here without a contract. Even at a discount, their services cost money, and that means someone in the corporate hierarchy was willing to pay and pay a lot.”
“Do you know why?” She asked, matching Belle’s steely glare for a second before the older woman smiled.
“Not at the moment,” Belle chuckled without any real warmth, “and I will admit that the lack of knowledge irks me. I’ve managed to trace the contract to a GroCorp Shareholder, and as overinflated of an opinion as I might have of myself, I know that a Shareholder is out of my reach.”
“A shareholder?” Kat asked, confusion wrinkling her brow. “Honestly, why would they even care? I mean, I get it if a shareholder would intervene to replace the CEO of Ike Holdings-”
“-a wholly owned subsidiary of GroCorp,” Donnst spoke over her. “Come now, Miss Debs, we must be precise about these things.”
“Right,” she continued, slightly rattled by the older woman’s interjection, “but the idea of directly taking charge of Schaumburg Arcology’s security just doesn’t seem right. They only get involved when something major is happening, like a division being spun off, being traded to another company, or needing a restructure due to being unprofitable.”
“We are quite profitably,” Belle smiled thinly. “No need to worry about that. Given our position just outside the Chiwaukee headquarters, I would be surprised if Ike Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of GroCorp, is being sold or spun off. Allowing another corporation this close would be a security liability.”
“Honestly?” Belle began, raising an eyebrow.
“For once?” Xander asked, leaning back in his chair, a smug smile on his face.
“Very droll,” she turned the full weight of her gaze on the slouching man, glaring at him until he wilted in his seat like a cut flower left for a week without water.
“Honestly,” Bell continued, as if the previous exchange had never happened, “Millennium's presence concerns me. It speaks to a lack of trust and a potential need to have independent forces on hand in order to remove a major player in the area. As a major player in Schaumburg, I would rest easier knowing why Millennium was here.”
“I don’t know,” Kat glanced at Xander. “I think tangling with Millennium once was more than enough for me. Even with a plan, preparation and surprise, we barely got in and out of St. Louis.”
After a swift elbow from Nina, Xander nodded in agreement. “Sorry Mrs. Donnst, we just finished a fairly big job and it’s probably for the best if our organization lays low for a little while. We have some pretty hefty cash reserves now, and Nina was thinking of upgrading our defenses-”
“Don’t worry,” Belle smiled mirthlessly. “This is nothing for the ChromeDogs. I agree with Miss Cromwell’s assessment. Much of North America has its eyes on your organization right now, and it would be for the best if it did not draw any more attention. After all, how can I use the ChromeDogs in the future if a megacorp decides that you’re idealists and takes it upon themselves to crush you.”
“Idealists?” Kat asked.
“The ChromeDogs aren’t worth destroying if they’re a normal mercenary company,” Belle lectured. “If the companies think that you are just looking out for your profit margins, the ChromeDogs are just another tool. Attacking an independent contractor is illogical. After all, why would you destroy a tool when you could crush the hand holding it?”
“On the other hand,” the older woman continued, gracing Kat with a chilly smile, “if companies become convinced that you are an idealist, your little band is no longer a tool. Once you start picking and choosing your contracts, a mercenary company becomes a player in its own right. At that point, if there’s a pattern to your activities, such as a vendetta against GroCorp, you become fair game. Where GroCorp might not care about a random company making a living, they certainly will take efforts to stomp out someone who actively means them harm.”
“Never mind that,” Nina crossed her arms, glaring at Donnst and her bodyguard, “if you didn’t come here to hire the ChromeDogs, why the hell did you come here? I’m assuming this wasn’t some sort of casual social call.”
“I didn’t just swing by to grab a coffee,” Belle gave Kat a knowing wink. “I’ve already done some research into the shareholder in question. Elise Williamson. Fourth generation GroCorp, living primarily in Chiwaukee.”
“More importantly,” the older woman’s gaze settled on Kat, “her primary lieutenant is Thomas Franklin, a vice president with GroCorp and the current Dean of GroCorp college. I happen to know that he lives on campus, meaning that anyone who happened to be attending that school would have fairly easy access to him.”
Kat stood up, chair scraping beneath her. At the other end of the table, Donnst’s heavily chromed guard’s hand blurred toward a holster at his hip only for Belle to bring him to a stop with a wave of her hand.
“No, no, no!” Kat backed away from the table. “I barely know my way around the campus. Security is everywhere, the college isn’t some two-bit data repository in the middle of nowhere. They designed that place to protect some very rich and powerful students. It’s practically a fortress.”
“It’s a good thing we have a person on the inside,” Belle countered smoothly. “Don’t worry, Katherine, all I want is some data from his personal desk computer. In fact, I would actively be upset if you handled this your usual way and simply killed everyone. While imposing, that isn’t the goal. I would prefer that this little fact-finding mission take place unnoticed.”
“This sounds like an amazing way to get caught and poof,” Kat blew out a puff of air as she paced back and forth past the table, “disappear.”
“Now, now, dear,” Donnst replied. “I’ve seen your work, and I believe in you. It might take you a little while to prepare, but at the moment there isn’t any rush.”
“Maybe,” Kat exhaled frantically trying to think of a way to get out of the situation, “but this still seems like a bad idea. I already feel like I have a target on my back from the Millennium raid.”
“I don’t need the money,” Kat stopped pacing. “I can help someone get in, but right now the most important thing is letting things blow over.”
“Come now, Katherine,” Belle clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “I thought you were smarter than this. Please don’t make me get crude. We both know that there are more matters than just ‘money’ at play here.”
“Kat,” Xander reached out and touched her wrist. She looked down at him. A hint of worry touched the corner of both his eyes as he shook his head slightly.
She sighed and sat down next to him. There were any number of reasons why going after Dean Franklin was a bad idea, but at the end of the day her entire family lived in the Arcology where Belle was an executive. As long as Kat was useful to the older woman, they would be looked after, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t all but hostages.
“How much are we talking about?” Xander asked, his hand still covering Kat’s wrist, almost protectively, while he made eye contact with Belle. “Look, Kat is going to need a support team. That means my side of the operation if not Nina's, and that means we have an entire team to pay. You might be able to strong arm us into taking a mission, but by God you’re going to pay market rate for our work. Extortion is one thing, but we aren’t a charity.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Belle replied. “Twenty-five thousand credits. Ten thousand up front and fifteen upon delivery. In addition, you can keep a copy of the data. Exclusivity isn’t important to me, and I think you’ll be almost as interested in learning Millennium's role in the area. After all, they’re hardly just MY problem.”
“What do you think, Kat,” Xander turned to her, “the rate of pay is fair and this time we’ll be doing the pre-mission scouting in house. Though I’d still prefer to lay low, Belle’s right. We do need to learn what’s going on with Millennium in the area. It clearly isn’t a coincidence, and that’s the sort of ignorance that could get all of us killed if we aren’t careful.”
She nodded. Too angry at herself to trust her voice. Angry because she let Belle wind her up until she wasn’t thinking clearly. Angry because she let Belle maneuver her into a corner and force her to do something dangerous. Angry that there wasn’t really a way out of the situation.
“We’ll be in touch, Belle,” Xander nodded to the woman, “but for now Nina will walk you and your associate out.”
Next to them, Nina unfolded, easily as tall as the huge bodyguard standing next to Belle. From personal experience, she knew that the huge woman had almost as much chrome as the guard, just tactfully hidden beneath artificially tough synthetic skin.
Nina nodded wordlessly at Belle and led the two of them out of the conference room. For a couple of seconds they sat in silence, Xander brooding as he stared off into space. Finally, he turned back to Kat as she stewed, trying to overcome her frustration with the status quo.
“It’s just like programming, you know,” Xander smiled slightly.
“What?” She replied, confused by the sudden digression.
“Sometimes solving one bug means you find two more,” he shrugged. “I guess I was never in a corporation, but when I was young I grew up on the streets of St. Louis and things were pretty grim.”
“I don’t know what it’s like to be owned by a company from birth,” Xander sighed, “but I did have my share of hungry nights and bruises from bigger kids taking food from me.”
“The proudest day of my life,” he stared up at the ceiling wistfully, “was when I joined the Cardinals. They weren’t the biggest crew in the city, but suddenly I had a roof over my head, a gun at my side and some cyberware in the back of my head.”
“You should have seen me,” Xander chuckled slightly, his eyes still on the crumbling panels above the two of them. “I thought I was hot shit. Just a thug, barely even a samurai. Definitely no name of my own, strutting around my old neighborhood and bragging about having a backing.”
“For about two weeks, everything was perfect,” a flicker of a grimace flashed across his face. “Then I had to go on a mission with two other guys. One of them died, fell out of the getaway car on a highway and a truck flattened him. The other?”
Xander looked back at her, his eyes serious. “He was like your teammate, Smits. He froze up but he survived. Couldn’t hack the job and ended up retiring to desk work.”
“At that point,” he continued, “it hit me. I was getting all of this money and power, but it wasn’t freedom. It came with responsibilities and duties. I wasn’t hungry anymore but I was tied to my crew, and I ended up having to do some things I didn’t like.”
“A full six months undercover in Millennium,” Xander shook his head. “Mr. Jackson gave me my subscription himself. Hell, Athena was my handler. It was the toughest job of my life, but I got through it, burning a bunch of bridges on my way out.”
“I guess deep down I knew that Athena was up to something,” Xander grimaced, “but she was almost family.”
“I couldn’t just act on a gut feeling with her Kat,” he stared at her, teeth grit. “I needed to give her one last chance to not go through with it. I just thought that it would be me taking the bullet rather than Whip if the window couldn’t handle it.”
“I think I understand,” Kat frowned slightly. “I just don’t get what that has to do with programming?”
“Oh,” he chuckled. “Sorry, I was woolgathering for a bit there. What I meant is that in this world, freedom is more or less an illusion. If you ever think you’ve solved a problem, something new is going to pop up.”
“You got rid of your debt slavery and the threats to your day-to-day life,” Xander shrugged, “only to get stuck working for someone like Donnst. Our kind don’t get to retire often. We exist because we’re useful to those with actual power, and once that ends, well. You’d better have an exit plan or things get ugly.”
“That’s… pretty grim, actually,” Kat shook her head, smiling tepidly at Xander.
“Sorry,” Xander replied. “Athena’s betrayal has had me feeling pretty morose. She always called it ‘wearing a golden collar.’ You could get a fancier one or something that fit better, but at the end of the day, you’re still a rich person’s dog.”
“Anyway,” he shook his head. “We would probably talk about how you’re gonna steal these files from your dean.”
“I’m going to need Whippoorwill,” Kat slumped in her chair. “At a minimum we’ll have to wait until she’s feeling up to it.”
“Well,” Xander flashed her a quick grin, his golden tooth glinting. “First things first, I want a better setup than a flophouse. I’ve been thinking, the ChromeDogs need a branch office in Chiwaukee. Now that we’ve got the money, it’s time to set up a base of operations and a safehouse out there.”
“Is that just for me?” Kat raised an eyebrow, confusion in her voice. “I know we have more money now, but this just seems extravagant.”
“Sort of,” Xander chuckled. “It makes sense that I have a base of operations for my best agent, and it helps that you’ll be based in the financial hub of the upper Midwest. Plus, this is my retirement plan, after a fashion.”
“One of these days I’m going to have to retire and pass all of these headaches on to you,” he winked at her. “Having a safe house I can retire to where no one recognizes my face, well, that just sounds nice.”
“Retire,” Kat rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t pretend to go senile on me. I know you’re having too much fun to give any of this up.”
“You never know,” Xander stood up. “I’m thinking of taking up whittling. It seems… wholesome.”
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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