Kat worked her knife under the access panel, popping up the plate of plastic that was designed to look like wood paneling. A quick glance behind her revealed that the night guard patrolling the hallway was nowhere nearby.
She crawled inside the cramped space before pulling the faux wood shut behind her. It sealed with a pop, leaving her in the claustrophobic shaft. Her night vision perk revealed a tunnel, lined with water pipes and electrical wiring.
Kat reached out to touch one of the pipes, pulling back from the heat before she burned her fingers on the blistering metal. The blueprints marked what she was in as a maintenance shaft, designed to provide access to the master breakers, wiring, and water pumps for each floor. At the very minimum, now she’d know where to go if she ran out of hot water during a shower.
Pausing to check the map uploaded to her smartpanel, Kat made note of her location and began crawling to the left. The access tunnels were thick with dust to the point that she might have had problems with the air quality if it wasn’t for the rudimentary filter built into her infiltration suit. Apparently, maintenance wasn’t the highest concern for the powers that ran the college.
After about five minutes, the narrow tunnel opened up into a cramped room lined with circuit breakers and valves. She ignored them, instead gripping one handhold after another as Kat climbed past bundles of cables and pipes almost as big around as her waist en route to the next floor.
A brief review of her smartpanel later and Kat was on her hands and knees in another access tunnel, wincing at the way her shuffling movements echoed in the silent passageway. Minutes later she was at another hidden panel, ear pressed against it and listening for the footsteps of one of the patrolling guards.
After a minute of hearing nothing, she popped the slab of plastic from the wall, just enough for her to peer over the edge. In the distance, she saw the bobbing light of a flashlight someone walked away, abandoning the hallway entirely.
Hastily, she slipped out of the tunnel, replacing the covert panel. A moment of focus and mana later, she cast Shadow, letting the light flow past her as she faded into the dark hallway.
The spell wasn’t perfect. Someone looking close could still see her and a direct light would reveal a cloud of murky air, but it was more than enough to hide her from casual observers.
Kat crept forward through the second year’s dorms, following the blueprints download to her smartpanel as she cautiously worked her way to another hidden access point. A few moments of knife work later, and she was in another set of undersized tunnels, smearing her expensive infiltration suit with even more dust as she crawled through the dark toward her next maintenance ladder.
By the time she reached the fourth floor, Kat could feel her sweat beading the inside of the suit as her breath came in short, even bursts. Really, the exertion wasn’t too bad. Climbing and crawling were a bit of a workout, but nothing too serious. It was more the tension of the moment when she opened each panel onto the dorm hallways. Each and every time it wore at her nerves, not knowing whether or not a particularly quiet guard might be waiting on the other side.
Quietly, she picked her ways past dorm rooms, careful not to wake the fourth years. One or two rooms still had light peeking out from under their doors, and Kat had long since refreshed Shadow to minimize the chance that a student opening their door for some reason would catch sight of her.
Her heart rate jolted even as Kat told herself how impossible that would be. Despite being dorms, each room was a small suite complete with a kitchenette and bathroom. Frankly, despite the constant complaints from her classmates, it was nicer than the apartment she’d grown up in. Even if there wasn’t a curfew ‘for their security,’ barring a fire alarm or a risky late night tryst between classmates, there wasn’t any reason for a student to leave their dorms after ten.
Kat stopped, the unworried and steady footfalls of another person alerting her just before the guard rounded the corner. Her movements unnaturally silent due to Cat Step, she sprinted to the protruding vestibule for the floor’s recycling bins and trash incinerator, pressing her body in the small corner made by the doorway jutting out into the hallway.
A woman, wearing a simple GroCorp tactical vest walked into view, flashlight held listlessly in her hand. Kat held her breath as the woman walked by, her eyes locked on the heavy flashlight as it bobbed and swayed in the guard’s hands.
It never strayed. Despite Kat’s heart hammering in her chest, the security officer walked her beat without interruption.
As soon as she was past, Kat slipped away, using Cat Step to silence her steps as she made her way through the dorm’s twisting hallways. Finally, she reached the locked metal door to the next floor.
Unfortunately, it only made sense that the college wouldn’t have one interconnected set of maintenance shafts traveling all the way to the top level. Clearly, the tunnels were a security risk. Even in the much lower security of the dorms, they would only travel up one level at a time. Now that she was attempting to breach the more secure labs and classrooms en route to the penthouse, Kat was all out of easy avenues of ingress.
From here on out, there wouldn’t be any hidden access tunnels, just locked fire escapes and elevators. Unfortunately, the interior of the elevators were riddled with electronic monitoring equipment, so it would be manual stairs for her.
Of course, it wasn’t like the fire escapes didn’t have their own security. Cameras and fingerprint scanners were what was indicated on the blueprints, and Kat would bet her bottom credit that college security had added something else in the meantime.
A quick glance over her shoulder assured her that the floor’s patrolling guard was still walking her route. With practiced efficiency, Kat pulled a strip of electrofilm and stretched it over the thumbprint scanner that locked the door.
The film glowed a dim blue as the mini-LEDs built into it illuminated the oil residue on the security device so that the electrofilm could analyze and replicate them. The scanner flashed red, indicating an unsuccessful attempt to open the lock as it registered the light from Kat’s intrusion device.
Moments later, her smartpanel pinged, updated by the advanced strip of clear material. Kat flicked her eyes to the side, the subtle movement picked up by the smartpanel and translated into a request to open the alert from the electrofilm.
The images of three different thumbprints popped up, one only a partial print but the other two full sized and photorealistic. Focusing her attention on the far right picture was all it took. Seconds later, the electrofilm glowed again, the tiny LEDs in its densely packed structure reproducing the thumbprint.
The door flashed green, opening with a click. Kat quickly grabbed its handle, pulling it halfway open before she peeled off the electrofilm and stepped into the stairwell, letting the heavy metal fire door close behind her.
Inside the cement and steel landing, she spotted a security camera. Without hesitation, Kat stepped directly under it before any operator could notice her presence. Even if they were watching, likely all they’d see is the door opening and a blur of shadow stepping through.
Kat placed the electrofilm into its padded ceramic case as she used her eyes to page through the mission notes and pull up the building’s blueprints once more. Four stories via the fire escape, and then she’d have access to the first of the college’s security nodes.
Clinging close to the wall, she began climbing, her vision scanning back and forth as she watched for any surprises. She didn’t think that any of the guards would venture into the stairwell—they had access to the elevators after all—but it was better to be alert and prepared than to let something unfortunate happen due to a lapse in vigilance.
Kat counted the landings as she passed them, anything to break the monotony of unadorned concrete walls and steps. Even then, each new floor wasn’t anything special. Just a metal door, unlocked from the inside, and a solitary security camera trained on it.
In all likelihood, the metal fire doors would unlock if an alarm sounded, letting anyone on the upper floors escape the building without the risk of the elevators seizing up on them. Still, it didn’t look like the stairs were patrolled often. They weren’t exactly dusty, but from the dull and chipped paint on the doors and the occasional scuffs on the walls, the entire stairwell gave off almost the same ambience as the abandoned buildings of the Shell.
A line of red light flashed into Kat’s vision. Her foot stopped in the air, hovering for a second before she stepped back. Just about chest height, a ruby string of light trailed across the shroud cast by Shadow, bending and twisting crazily as it entered the area altered by her light magic.
She squinted, inspecting the cold, unpainted concrete to her left. Sure enough, the tiny lens of a laser lay hidden in a crack. Next to it, a slight discoloration in the cement gave away where something had been buried in the wall.
Carefully, Kat took another step back, inspecting the rest of the wall. There weren’t any other tell tales, but Kat shuddered anyway. She wasn’t sure whether the new cement hid a shotgun or a bomb, but either way, that explained the lack of guard activity. GroCorp didn’t offer much security to its employees, but even for them, directing someone to walk into an active and lethal booby trap was frowned upon.
She ducked low under the laser before continuing, much more slowly. Where there was one trap, there easily could be more.
A minute later, she was hopping over a stair whose concrete surface had recently been replaced and onto the fourth landing. It’s possible that the resurfacing was completely innocent, a simple replacement for the crumbling, under maintained step, but Kat wasn’t willing to take the risk. Knowing her luck, the entire step would explode or trigger an alarm that would bring every guard in the building down on top of her head.
She refreshed Shadow, noting grimly the steady drain on her mana caused by keeping the spell active in the real world. Kat would need to stop soon to allow her mana to recharge or risk running out at an inopportune moment.
Leaning forward, she placed her ear against the metal door, straining to hear footsteps or conversation on the other side, anything to alert her that a patrol was nearby.
Kat grimaced. The absence of noise didn’t mean she was alone. It could just mean that the security officer was being quiet. She could either sit here listening for a guard that might very well not be there, the dark smudge of her magic square in the center of the security camera, or she could push the door open and hope for the best. Either way, she was taking a risk.
Biting her lower lip, Kat opened the door and slipped through almost choking when she spotted a guard about twenty paces away. Her hand darted silently toward her knife only to stop at the last second.
The man’s back was to her, his foot tapping impatiently as he stared off into nothingness. A couple furtive steps later and she had a better view of him. In the darkness, the bright flashes of light from his smartpanel display lit up the guard’s face in oranges and reds.
Kat felt her shoulders relax, and a half smile creep onto her face. She always told Michelle that the entertainment channels would rot her brain, and here was the perfect example. It was awfully hard to successfully watch for intruders if your attention was held by the mindless amusement pumped out by the megacorps to keep employees docile.
Sure, the ninth floor of the GroCorp college was hardly the number one target for thieves or assassins, but on the other hand, here Kat was. She padded noiselessly past the insensible man. Whatever show he was watching or game he was playing drawing enough of his attention to let her pass entirely unnoticed.
Finally, after passing any number of low security labs and research facilities, Kat reached the node. Little more than a glorified break room for the guards except for a weapons locker and a bank of closed circuit projection screens displaying the contents of the various cameras placed about the building.
Kat reached into her pouch, pulling out a trio of metal disks. One by one, she depressed a tab in the center of them before slipping them under the door.
Then she began counting to one hundred and twenty. The security node would almost certainly be lit and manned. There was no way she would be able to raid it without being noticed. Xander’s solution had been ZZ3 gas.
Originally, ZZ3 had been manufactured for crowd control purposes during the South American Resource Wars. Colorless and odorless, it would knock someone out for about five minutes. Long enough for riot officers to disarm and ziptie anyone involved.
The ChromeHounds had liberated a fairly sizeable supply when they took over the Steel and Blood headquarter. Apparently the Urban Area Denial vehicles they’d seized from the rival mercenary group had been fitted to launch fist-sized grenades of the substance out of belt-fed launchers.
Unfortunately, ZZ3 wasn’t the answer to every question. As effective as it was, a simple filter like the one built into Kat’s suit or most exo armors was more than sufficient to neutralize it entirely. Still, for a bored guard flipping between security and entertainment feeds in an enclosed space?
A thump from behind the door answered Kat’s rhetorical question. She opened the door and entered the node. The duty guard had fallen out of his chair, a half-finished microwaved meal and lit cigarette on the table before him, lit by the flickering light of dozens of security cameras.
Kat hurried over, fishing a hypodermic needle from her satchel and injecting it into the skinny man’s neck. He twitched slightly in his sleep before his breathing slowed further.
The ZZ3 might be enough to put him down for a couple of minutes, but the sedatives used by GroCorp scientists to keep bioengineered cattle calm would be more than enough to knock him out for at least an hour.
She pushed his dinner to the side, finding the data jack that someone would use if they had a cranial interface. Kat pulled a shunt out of her satchel and seated it on the jack.
Finally, Kat exhaled slowly, letting most of the tension drain from her. The hard part was over. After pulling the unconscious guard back up into a sitting position in his chair and cleaning up the ZZ3 dispenser, Kat found an overstuffed faux-leather couch and sat down.
“I’m in,” Whippoorwill’s voice startled Kat as it broke the complete silence almost three minutes later..
“That was fast,” Kat chuckled, shaking her head as she tried to calm her racing heart.
“They weren’t expecting anyone,” Whippoorwill replied disdainfully. “Seriously, I’ve run into better security on vending machines.”
“Tell me what we’re looking at, then,” Kat stood up from the couch and began sorting through the items in her satchel as she prepared to head out once more.
“As bad as the security is,” Whippoorwill grumbled, “they weren’t quite dumb enough to put the Dean’s personal files on the same network.”
“One of these days we’ll find someone stupid enough to make it easy for us, Whip,” Kat chuckled.
“Where would the fun be in that?” Whippoorwill sniffed. “You’d just sneak in, and then ten minutes later you’d have the information you needed and you’d leave. No suspense, no fights. It’d just be boring.”
“I’m fine with boring,” Kat shook her head, smiling under the mesh facemask of the infiltration suit. “You’re not the one getting shot at when things get exciting.”
“It still sounds asinine to me,” the pink haired hacker groused.
“Your objection to my safety is noted,” Kat replied, rolling her eyes. “Now tell me what the situation is with regard to security.”
“I have complete control of their system,” Whippoorwill’s whining disappeared as she switched to a matter of fact situation report. “While we were talking I removed the footage of you sneaking your way up to the ninth floor. The good news is that from here on out, I should be able to let you know the location of the guards and traps on your way up. Better, I have enough control that you should be able to use the elevators freely.”
“That is good news,” Kat responded cautiously. “Now what’s the bad news?”
“Dean Franklin is still awake,” Whippoorwill answered uncomfortably. “He’s in his living quarters rather than his office, so you should still be able to sneak in and set up the shunt, but-”
“I remember the blueprints,” Kat sighed, clenching her jaw in frustration. “His office and living quarters are connected. There will be an intervening wall between us, but that wall has a door in it.”
“Yeah,” the hacker muttered. “Still, the back door we have into their security network should last for a good twenty minutes. Once you get what we came for, you’ll just be able to take the elevator back down to your dorm room and get a good night’s sleep with no one the wiser.”
“Thanks,” Kat replied wryly, “but I’m still not over ‘breaking into a secure network without getting noticed by someone in the other room.’ That put a bit of a damper on my mood.”
“The coast is clear for what it’s worth,” Whippoorwill replied, almost apologetically.
Kat left the node, following her guide’s directions to the elevator before hitting the button that signified the fortieth floor. The lift pulled down on her, whirring as it traveled upward before slowing to a stop. The metal doors opened on a darkened hallway dominated by the empty reception desk of the Dean’s secretary.
“Straight and to the left,” Whippoorwill’s voice pulled Kat back into the present, “it will be the third door.”
She followed the instructions, the entire floor quiet other than a single male voice. Kat couldn’t quite make it out, there were multiple walls and doors between her and the speaker, but she did note that it became louder and clearer once she opened the door to the Dean’s office.
Once inside, it wasn’t hard to find the spot for her shunt. It clearly wasn’t the waiting area, and there was nothing but massive wooden bookcases filled with antique paper tomes in the study.
The Dean’s workspace, on the other hand, had a full wall smartglass projector and a massive walnut desk with a jack built into it. After all of the work and risks it took to get to the penthouse, it seemed anticlimactic to just drop the shunt on the jack and let Whippoorwill do her thing, but that seemed to be how things were shaking out.
With an internal shrug, Kat snuck over to the side door that connected the office to Dean Franklin’s living quarters. She’d have at least a couple of minutes before Whippoorwill finished downloading the files that Belle would need, and it only made sense to stay as on top of potential threats as possible.
The voice she’d heard from the hallway became clearer, and by the time she pressed her ear against the door, she was actually able to make out one side of the conversation.
“I wasn’t the one to okay the raid,” the man spoke angrily, his voice a raspy tenor. “I know it was a fucking disaster, I could have told you that. Schaumburg is one of our most independent subsidiaries, of course they’d kick up a stink. It didn’t help that you used a bunch of trigger happy mercenaries.”
The hair on the back of Kat’s neck stood up straight.
“Of course you didn’t find any evidence,” he continued, chastising the unknown party, “they aren’t fucking idiots over there. Even if you turned the entire arcology on its head and shook, we would just end up having to pay out a ton of money in arbitration. They have access to their own shareholders.”
She unclenched her fists, focusing on slowing her breathing. The silence stretched on. Whoever was on the other end of the conversation just kept talking.
“No,” the man spoke again, finality in his voice, “I don’t care what your ‘friends in orbit’ have to say. So long as they can’t land and replace the shareholders we’re going to tread carefully. Intelligence and support in the Tower are great, but they aren’t going to stop us from getting dragged before a tribunal if anyone catches wind of what’s happen-”
“The files are downloaded,” Whippoorwill’s voice drowned out the speaker, “I’m ready to get you out of there whenever you want, but uh, try to make that ‘whenever’ in the next couple of minutes. The system looks like it’s going to reset itself soon and that will be the end of my backdoor access.”
Reluctantly, Kat pulled her ear away from the door, concern sending ice water down her spine as she went back to pick up the shunt. In the distance, she could still hear the man, now shouting incoherently at his conversation partner.
As the door to the elevator closed behind her, Kat pressed the button for the second floor. She still needed to visit The Tower of Somnus tonight, but it was probably about time she called her Mother. Just in case.
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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