“Still doing homework, I see,” Emma’s lunch tray clattered onto the marble tabletop next to Kat. “I don’t see why. You’re so far ahead of the rest of the class in biology that it’s pretty much cheating.”
Kat blinked, dismissing the notes projected onto her smartpanel, replacing the fizz of pixels with Emma’s bright smile. The other woman cheerfully tore into the salad and grilled chicken that she’d ordered from one of the upscale restaurants that served the college ‘cafeteria.’
“They focused on biology in my arcology,” Kat smiled back, trying to stifle a yawn. The past ten days were a blur of pushing her limits as a student to uncover more information about the Dean and training with Dorrik in The Tower of Somnus. Even if she was sleeping, the big lizard pushed her so hard that Kat kept waking up feeling like she’d run a marathon.
“Rhetoric and human resources?” She shrugged helplessly at the other girl. “I guess they just never expected that I’d need to know them.”
Kat took a bite out of her sandwich, noting Jasper and his servant’s approach out of the corner of her eye. The turkey, avocado, and bacon sandwich was far from the most expensive thing on the college deli’s menu, but it served as yet another casual reminder of how far she’d come.
It was all real. The turkey and bacon came from actual animals that lived and died on a farm within a twenty minute maglev of Chiwaukee, and the avocado grew on an honest-to-God tree before it was refrigerated and shipped to the deli. Before meeting Xander, Kat was lucky to have one meal a month that didn’t originate entirely in a lab.
Marketing teams did their best to make SynthMeat, Kale Flakes, SoyMeal and Seaweed Mesh sound appealing, but even the poorest of employees never truly fell for it. No matter how much corn syrup, oil, and salt they drenched the vat-grown food with, it never tasted quite right. Still, it was cheap and didn’t involve having to trade with other megacorporations, and that was what really mattered for the powers that be.
Of course, that didn’t stop those same powers that be from dining like royalty, Kat mused as she swallowed her mouthful of turkey and bread. Lab food might be an affordable substitute for others, but almost every executive she’d met would never deign to touch the stuff.
“Ugh that sounds awful,” Emma frowned at her. “I don’t have it as rough as you on that front, my parents made sure to hire tutors on rhetoric and personnel management.”
She paused, tapping a well-manicured, wine-red nail against her cheek. “Now that I think of it,” Emma continued, “almost everyone I knew in the management and executive classes hired those tutors. I guess that was just a ‘thing’ everyone did outside of public schooling to make sure that we would all have an edge on the testing.”
“That checks out,” Kat laughed, trying to defuse the tension behind the sudden unhappy look on Emma’s face.
“But it isn’t fair,” the other woman replied, frowning at her. “School is supposed to give everyone a fair shot at career advancement. I mean, those with more money can afford extra study aids, there’s no way to get around that. Wealth is always going to have some advantages, but if essential classes aren’t being taught, that means the core of our entire system isn’t meritocratic.”
“It would mean that,” Kat agreed before hastily trying to change the subject: “How are the rest of your classes going?”
“Fine, I guess,” the other woman shrugged, still frowning slightly down into her bowl of salad. “For some reason the aptitude testing decided that I would be good at accounting, so now I’m taking like three different classes on bookkeeping and auditing. The test wasn’t wrong, I’m good at it, it’s just boring as hell.”
“Auditing: Preventative Measures with Professor Barnes?” Emma jumped at the question as Jasper sat down next to the three of them. His servant, Davis, stood a couple of paces back, alert as always. “I haven’t seen you in that class, Miss Tiller,” Jasper continued.
“Emma, please,” she stuttered, drawing an eye roll from Kat, “and no, Investigative Auditing: Basic Principles with Professor Lanzer.”
“Professor Lanzer’s a brilliant woman,” Jasper nodded sagely. “We use her best practices guide in our concealment and obfuscation labs. Let me tell you, she doesn’t make it easy to redirect contract payments into personal accounts.”
“Wait,” Kat interjected, trying her hardest to suppress a chuckle as she set her sandwich down and turned to Jasper. “Emma’s taking a class on accounting and you’re literally taking a course on embezzlement.”
“It’s not embezzlement,” Jasper’s brow furrowed. “The class is on creative reapplication of wealth. Everyone at the division chair level and above does it. The rule is just to make sure that you aren’t so greedy or obvious as to get caught.”
“Yeah,” Emma agreed, “you get fined and put on an improvement plan if you get caught, but only dumb people get caught. The entire auditing guidebook is available on the information channels, and if an auditor doesn’t follow procedure they will be the one fined instead. It’s meaningless to know that someone is appropriating money if you can’t prove it through proper channels.”
“I wouldn’t say meaningless,” Jasper responded through a mouthful of food. “You can submit a Financially Incentivized Discontinuation of Prosecution Request Form if you find irregularities outside of procedural guidelines. The target won’t get punished and the auditor gets a little bit of extra money. Everyone wins.”
“We haven’t gotten to FIDP yet,” Emma replied excitedly, her earlier bashfulness around the executive forgotten as she gushed about her classes. “I’m really excited to learn about the process. Our class syllabus says that over sixty percent of managers that have been promoted to executive positions did so via FIDP payments.”
“Financially Incentivized…” Kat cocked her head at the two of them. “Are you two just talking about straight up bribery?”
“No, no, no,” Emma shook her head, stretching out to put a hand on Kat’s wrist, her salad all but forgotten. “Bribery is unregulated and illegal. FIDP has a formalized process as well as a schedule for payments that’s published quarterly. It’s all very legitimate and above-board.”
“If you say so,” Kat took a bite out of her sandwich to avoid saying anything she’d regret. Emma wasn’t a bad person. In fact, the girl was very sweet. It was just that she strolled through life without an ounce of self-awareness. At some point she would encounter a true challenge and wake up to the reality of their world. Despite everything, Kat couldn’t help but hope that Emma’s introduction to the brutal unpleasantness of corporate strife didn’t harm the girl too much.
It was inevitable that someone would take advantage of the naive woman at some point. She was too easy of a mark for anything else to happen. When it happened, Kat only wanted it to be a wake up call. Not a life ruining iteration as the fall person for someone richer and more powerful
She didn’t have much sympathy for Arnold despite growing up with the boy; he lacked empathy on an almost sociopathic level. Still—she looked briefly at Jasper—the way he died didn’t exactly sit right with her. Arnold had done plenty of things wrong, and he deserved to be punished for all of them, but he had little if anything to do with Christopher Haupt’s death.
Jasper perked up, reading some sort of import into her look. He nodded at her, agreeing with whatever he’d erroneously interpreted her furtive glance to mean.
“Emma,” he smiled at the other girl, “I think we’re boring Kat. Do you mind if I steal her for a second? We’ll be back in just a minute.”
“Of course,” Emma blushed, winking at Kat. “Take all the time you need.”
Kat frowned, opening her mouth to correct the other woman’s misconception when Jasper made things worse by putting his hand lightly on her elbow and guiding her away from the table. She tensed, hand flexing as Kat fought the instinctive urge to go for her knife.
Not here. She wasn’t in the Shell.
The faces of the two mechanics from St. Louis flashed in front of her eyes. That was what happened when she defaulted to violence. Maybe they weren’t innocent, but she could have taken them down quietly and without lethal force.
She unclenched her jaw, releasing her clenched fist and relaxing her taut muscles. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Davis stiffened into a state of vigilant readiness, his vision locked on her. Whoever the man really was, he’d been perceptive enough to note her reaction.
“Come on, Kat,” Jasper smiled congenially, unaware of the moment’s subtext, “let’s go grab a booth so we can talk.”
Kat tried to ignore Emma as the woman called a couple of her friends over, loudly whispering to the two newcomers and pointing at her and Jasper as they walked away.
She tried and failed to gently pull her arm from Jasper, not wanting to cause offense.
“Look, Kat,” Jasper leaned over to whisper to her as they walked, his shoulder brushing hers and drawing a round of giggles from behind them. “I know that you’re worried about trusting me. Davis says you probably have your reasons, but I want to show you that I’m on your side.”
“This isn’t about sides,” Kat whispered back, watching as Jasper ran his corporate ID over a lock on a privacy booth, depositing fifteen credits and opening the soundproof room for the two of them, “this is about survival for me. You tell me what happens if I make an accusation against a powerful person without proof. You know GroCorp law better than me on that point.”
“You don’t have to make it public,” he responded, sealing the door after her with Davis waiting just outside, “but that’s hardly the point. Davis has had some people keeping an eye on you, and they’ve reported that you’ve been wandering around the faculty levels of the college. It almost looks like you’re searching for something.”
“Keeping an eye on me?” Kat squinted at him. “Are you trying to blackmail me or something?”
Nothing he’d said had been menacing or threatening. Rather, as best she could tell, Jasper was eager to please. After the debacle with Arthur, she was hardly in any position to market herself as an expert on interpersonal dynamics, but Jasper honestly sounded like he just wanted to be her friend.
“God, no,” he flinched backward as if stung. “Why do you always assume I’m some sort of monster? I just wanted to send you a copy of the college’s schematics and see if there was anything I could do to help.”
Her smartpanel pinged, indicating an incoming e-mail.
“Look,” Kat ran a hand through her hair, oddly affected by the hurt look on Jasper’s face. “I’m on my own in a world that has it in for me. I think your servant, Davis—”
“Majordomo,” Jasper corrected. “He’s like an executive assistant crossed with a bodyguard. Technically I employ him, but he’s much more than just a servant to me.”
“And that respect for him does you credit,” Kat nodded her acceptance, “but you’re asking me to trust you, and on the street trust isn’t something you give lightly. Even friends you’ve known for years will betray you for enough money.”
“Right now I’m not asking you to do anything,” he shook his head earnestly. “I will admit that I’m trying to prove myself worthy of your trust, but everything I’m giving you is free and clear of any connections.”
“Not everyone in the higher levels of GroCorp is evil, Kat,” Jasper continued, an urgent, almost puppy dog look in his eyes. “There are groups of us that are trying to undo the harm inflicted by our parents from within. In a couple of years, it will be our cohort that will be executives and shareholders. Then we can actually begin to change things.”
“I appreciate the sentiment,” Kat took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a second as she tried to center herself, “but you’re asking me to go above and beyond the Code, Jaspar. I can do jobs for money, and I can turn over my information and observations, but the minute I start speculating or working for a friend, that’s when I become a player, and players without a backing tend to die quick and brutal deaths.”
“Look,” she smiled weakly at him, brushing a stray hair from her face. “I know you’re just trying to be friendly, but the information you’re looking for could easily get both of us killed. If you act on it, not only would it be my head, it would be my entire crew's.”
“I’m not going to lie and say I don’t want to know who was behind my father’s death,” Jasper grimaced, “but I understand and accept your reluctance. Davis has explained some of Samurai Code to me, and I don’t think I completely understand it, but I can at least comprehend its importance.”
“Thank you,” Kat replied gratefully.
“Although I would appreciate it if you’d be willing to meet with some like-minded friends of mine,” Jasper beamed at her. “It’s nothing too serious, we just have biweekly meetings to talk over current events, politics and economic theory. Everyone is super excited to meet an honest-to-God employee.”
“Of course,” she could feel her face falling at the prospect of being presented like an exotic pet.
Five minutes later they rejoined Emma and her friends. Twenty minutes of pleasant but meaningless conversation about classes and the entertainment and gossip channels later, Kat was finally able to extricate herself from the constant chatter.
That night, before bed, she went over the floor plans with Xander and Whippoorwill. Her casual exploration and review of visible security systems over the past week had helped paint a picture of what they were up against, but the documents from Jasper filled in all the gaps.
Unlike her forced casual sojourns, the blueprints covered the entirety of the college’s upper floors. More importantly, they contained a complete map of the HVAC tubing and maintenance access stairwells.
Ostensibly, Jasper’s documents even had a diagram detailing the electrical and security systems, but Kat knew better than to put too much weight on the reported locations. Given the prevalence of promotions via assassination and blackmail, no executive would report any ‘custom work’ done to ensure their personal security.
Still, it was enough for Xander to green light the infiltration for the following night. Kat would need to be careful. Murders in the college would trigger an investigation that would almost certainly reveal her ‘strolls.’ No, this would need to be something that she’d always struggled with: a quiet job.
She packed her infiltration gear into a duffel bag and returned to the dorms. It registered as nothing more than clothing and electronics to the cursory scan at the door, and an hour later she was in bed, her equipment stashed under her bed while Kat tried to calm down enough to sleep and enter the Tower.
Closing her eyes, Kat began to go over the infiltration in her head, trying to think of new ways to make it through the hallways of the penthouse where the Dean lived without triggering the overlapping cameras. Finally, her thoughts began to grow fuzzy and sleep washed over her, quieting her anxiety.
“Finally, Miss Kat!” One of Dorrik’s clawed hands slapped her on the shoulder before she was fully oriented.
She blinked in confusion at her teammate as the buzz and bustle of the adventurer’s hall assaulted her senses, demanding her attention.
“The scouts have confirmed that there were abnormal numbers of high level stallesp in the area, but they’ve moved on,” Kaleek supplied helpfully, his whiskers twitching in amusement as he leaned against a nearby stone pillar. “Dorrik is excited.”
“Of course I am,” Dorrik replied, a toothy smile. “We can finally acquire new equipment. I, for one, am looking forward to armor that can actually take a blow from a boss-level monster.”
“I’m not going to turn down that concussive force enchantment that Sikka was hyping up,” Kaleek agreed. “It might not do a whole lot of extra damage, but the stunning or staggering enemies at a key moment would add a lot to my arsenal.”
“More importantly,” Kat interjected, grinning back, “we actually get to go and fight monsters. No offense, Dorrik, but I was starting to go crazy. I don’t know how you train at that intensity day in and day out, but I’d be gibbering to myself if I tried to follow your schedule indefinitely.”
“Me too,” Kaleek barked out a quick laugh, “but that’s why Dorrik is a generational talent and the rest of us are just ‘really good.’ I used to try and compete with them until I realized that there was no way that I could match that day in and day out intensity. Now I just settle for being their dashing and debonair sidekick.”
Dorrik ignored the otter, patting Kat on the shoulder.
“Don’t get too comfortable, Miss Kat,” they continued, “I will still be watching your form and we will need to redouble your training if I catch you backsliding, but until then, the enclave has cleared us to hunt sand sharks.”
Kat cocked her head, raising a single eyebrow as she looked at Kaleek, waiting for the desoph to explain the situation in more manageable terms.
“Armored burrowing carnivores,” the otter winked at her. “Their scales are a key component in a lot of lower tier magical armor and their fangs can be used for smaller enchanted blades. A good first start if we’re actually going to improve the party’s gear.”
“Fill your waterskins,” Dorrik began walking toward the exit of the hall, “we have a bit of a hike ahead of us, and we’ll need to hurry. Sand sharks are one of the top targets for resource gathering teams. If we don’t get moving, other teams might hunt all of them and force us to wait for tomorrow’s respawn.”
Kat followed, making sure to fill her waterskin and wet down her sun hat at one of the communal wells before they left the city. The damp fabric would only help her keep cool for an hour or so before the moisture evaporated, but that was still one more pleasant hour than she’d otherwise experience in the ‘sun’ and dry heat of the third floor.
An hour and a half later, her fears were confirmed. The hat and veil kept the worst of the ‘sun’ off of her, but the dry air was sawing at her throat as they trekked across the unending dunes, Dorrik occasionally pausing to compare their location to a map they carried with them.
Kat had no idea what he was looking at. As far as she could tell, the entire level might as well be nothing more than small rolling hills composed of fine, tan sand.
“Dorrik,” Kaleek rasped miserably, staring at the empty waterskin in his paws. “We’d better find a sand shark over the next dune or I’m turning around and coming back tomorrow. I will be the laughingstock of my pod if I have to start over from level one due to dehydration and heat stroke.”
“Just a short while longer,” Dorrik agreed amiably, preening comfortably in the hot air. “If we don’t see anything in the next ten to twenty minutes, you might be right about coming back tomorrow. We will just need to make sure that we leave early enough that the sand sharks aren’t over-hunted by the time we arrive at their breeding grounds.”
“I probably won’t be on time tomorrow,” Kat responded ruefully. “I have to do some late night skulking. I might not even make it to the Tower at all depending upon how things go.”
“Are you sure we’re in the right spot?” Kaleek complained, more or less ignoring her. “Dorrik, you keep talking about how we have to beat other hunters to the punch, but I’m going to be honest: I haven’t seen a single other team in our entire time out here.”
“Now that you mention it,” Kat brushed some of the netting aside to scratch at the clammy back of her neck, “we haven’t seen a single player or monster since we left the city.”
For a couple of seconds, no one responded. Kat shielded her eyes against the glare as she stared out across the dunes, taking in a lot more of the barren nothingness that had plagued their party for the entire expedition.
“Sometimes a hunt is simply unsuccessful,” Dorrik began unconvincingly before pausing and craning their neck at a tiny dark blob in the distance. “Wait, there are two people now.”
Kat squinted her eyes, trying and failing to make out any details distant individuals.
“If you say so,” she replied with a shrug. “I still don’t see how that changes things. We came here for sand sharks, and instead we found strangers.”
“Let’s check to see if they’ve seen anything,” Kaleek grumbled, “or at a minimum if they have any spare water we can trade for.”
“I could always just hose you down with Water Jet,” Kat supplied helpfully, winking at the bedraggled otter. “Just make sure to point the open spigot of your water skin at me when I finish the spell. We wouldn’t want to waste any of it.”
Kaleek glared at her, but it was hard to take him seriously given the bleariness in his eyes and the slump of his shoulders. Kat grinned back, the sun veils of her hat hiding her expression. He practically snarled at her, letting Kat know that her intent had been received regardless.
“Maybe if things get desperate,” Kaleek conceded grudgingly.
“I don’t entirely know if approaching strangers is a good idea right-” Dorrik interjected before pausing with a frown. “Well, they’ve seen us and they’re on their way over right now.”
Kaleek glared at the two of them before walking to Dorrik’s side and plopping down in the sliver of shade provided by the towering lizard. Wisely, neither of them commented on his behavior as Kat suspected the desoph had another diatribe ready to go if provoked.
“Kaleek,” Kat winced as Dorrik put one of their claws on his shoulder. “It’s time to go.”
Kat glanced over at the lokkel as their gentle shaking of the slumping otter grew in urgency.
“What Dorrik?” Kaleek snapped back. “Did you seriously have to wait until I was finally comfortable just to bother me?”
Dorrik’s entire body was tense, their crest flared in distress.
“The newcomers are stellasp,” they hissed, “and one of them has some sort of floating orb. I think it’s a spell focus.”
Kaleek’s face screwed tight in confusion, his whiskers twitching as he looked up at the two of them.
“But that would mean-” he began, only for a jagged crackling bolt of red arcane energy to slam into the dune about fifteen paces from them, flash fusing it into glass.
“What in the FUCK was that!” Kat yelled, grabbing onto one of Dorrik’s lower arms to maintain her balance as the sand heaved and shook under her.
“An iron tier offensive skill,” they responded grimly. A moment later, a crossbow bolt wreathed in flames struck nearby, burying itself almost up to the fletching before the magical fire guttered out.
“The good news is that we’re out of their effective range,” Dorrik pulled Kaleek to his feet as they pushed Kat gently to force her into movement. “The bad news is that arcane lightning at that level would rip any of us in half. Whatever their levels, that isn’t a brand-new ability. We need to move. Now.”
“I thought there weren’t supposed to be any stellasp out here!” Kat shouted, sliding and running down the loose sand of the dune.
“I’m sure our friends will be happy to field your complaints,” Kaleek replied, skidding down the dune on his armored back as a storm of acid from some unknown spell sprayed the dune where they were just standing.
Dorrik joined the two of them at the bottom of the sand hill, grimacing as they beat at a hissing hole in their armor where a droplet of the acid had caught them in their retreat. For a second or two, they just stood there, breathing heavily as they contemplated their situation.
“Unless they can shoot directly through the sand dune, the stallesp can’t see us,” Kat shrugged. “What now?”
“They can if they have silver tier abilities,” Kaleek spat out a mouthful of sand, “but at that point we might as well start planning out our next avatar’s build.”
“So we’re running then,” Kat pursed her lips. She was already worn out from the ‘sun,’ heat, and lack of water. A headlong flight across the desert sounded miserable if not quite impossible. “Any idea as to where?”
“Here,” Dorrik interjected, an upper claw stabbing at a point on a map held by their two lower hands. “Stinging Mist Dungeon. We’re only about a ten minute hike or a five minute panicked sprint from it.”
“I’m not sure we’re ready to take on a dungeon,” Kat glanced worriedly at Kaleek. “Plus we don’t know if it’s a good match for our skill sets. There had to be a reason why the Ahn Enclave didn’t recommend that we raid it.”
The dune next to them shook as another spell struck it, sending a spray of molten glass into the air above them, the droplets tinkling and cracking as they froze and shattered in the air.
“Five minutes it is,” Kaleek exhaled before taking off.
A moment later Kat and Dorrik caught up to him with Dorrik’s long quick strides letting the lizard take the lead. The stellasp pursued them, steadily gaining ground as they lobbed spells and elementally charged crossbow bolts at them every time the trio crested a dune and popped into sight.
By the time they reached the dungeon portal, the stellasp were close enough for Kat to roughly make out their features. Worse, as they drew closer their aim improved. One of Dorrik’s arms hung limp at their side and Kaleek’s fur was a smoking patchwork of acid burns.
As for herself, Kat’s ears were ringing and her vision blurred, signs of a likely concussion. Perhaps more importantly, the same arcane lightning near miss that rattled her had sprayed her entire left side with molten glass. Kat’s armor had protected her from the worst of it but her hair, face and hand were riddled with third degree burns.
Every step sent another jolt of pain through her injured body, but Kat forced herself to scramble up the small rock face toward the dungeon entrance. Behind her, the stellasp yelled something incoherent but menacing.
Dorrik touched the gate, activating it for them even as they turned and faced down their pursuit.
“Arrest Momentum,” Dorrik’s words were almost as comforting as a blast of air conditioned air. A field of purple energy crackled into being around one of the two stellasp, forcing the other to pause and turn to help their companion.
Kaleek jumped through the portal, disappearing in a crackle of rainbow light.
The purple field of psi energy slowing the angry mole person shattered, forcing a grunt from Dorrik as they slumped from the strain of maintaining the ability against a more powerful foe.
“Go, Miss Kat!” The exhausted lokkel shouted at her. “I will close the portal behind you, but you must go now!"
A brief backward glance at the stellasp wizard casting a new spell, brought a frown to her face, but dutifully Kat touched the energy field of the portal, disappearing in her own multihued burst of energy.
Seconds later, she staggered out into a wood panelled room. Kat blinked. A cool fog wreathed everything, preventing her from seeing more than a couple of paces. She sighed in relief, enjoying the feel of the chilled air against the jagged heat of her burns.
A quick survey of the room revealed Kaleek, half collapsed nearby, heaving for breath. He waved at her weakly, features obscured by the thick mist. Before she could approach him, a spray of prismatic light filled the room, reflecting off of the fog and practically blinding her.
Dorrik stumbled forward a step or two, appearing from nothingness only to fall forward and reveal a massive hole in the armor and scales on their back.
Kat wheeled around, immediately beginning the incantation to Cure Wounds I as she propped her friend up onto their side. Moments later, the golden glow of healing light encompassed her good hand.
“That was a bit closer than I’d like,” Dorrik chuckled weakly, the flesh and scales of their back slowly knitting together under Kat’s magic, “but we should be safe for now.”
“Safe,” Kat rolled her eyes as she pushed her hands deeper into the lokkel’s wound, practically touching one of their shoulder blades, “we’re stuck in a dungeon without return stones and I’d be surprised if your hit points are in double digits. I struggle to find anything ‘safe’ about the current situation.”
“The stellasp know that this area is being patrolled by Clan Ahn forces,” Dorrik gritted their teeth against the pain. “They won’t be able to wait outside the dungeon forever, and they can’t follow us in. We just need to leave the dreamscape. Tomorrow, we’ll reappear here at the start with full health and no infirmities.”
“Then we just have to complete a dungeon we know nothing about and with half of our gear lost or destroyed in our retreat,” Kat sighed, slumping back with a wince as she ran out of mana.
“Well,” Kaleek replied from the corner, at least partially restored by the humid air of the dungeon, “at least it’ll be interesting.”
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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