Kat exited the maglev into what looked like a military checkpoint. Security wearing GroCorp armor guarded every exit, and an armored waypoint made of reinforced concrete sat next to the customs station.
A frown worked its way onto Kat’s face as she took in the machine gun nest on top of the checkpoint, manned by a Millennium samurai. He scanned the timid crowd with chrome out cybereyes, alert and more than ready to open fire at a moment’s notice.
In fact, the more she watched, Kat began to pick up on a sort of electric tension that permeated the station. The GroCorp security with their matching uniforms and submachine guns spent almost as much watching the motley collection of heavily armed Millennium Samurai as they did the quiet and nervous crowd.
As for the mercenaries? Only three were visible, clustered tightly around the squat armored building, but Kat could see at least two more rifle muzzles poking from gun slits in the side of the bunker. It was clear from Millennium’s heavier weapons and the casual disregard with which they swept the guns over the corporate guards that there was no love lost between the groups.
She shuffled forward lifting her arms so that a nervous woman in a Ike Holding’s, a wholly owned subsidiary of GroCorp, uniform could run a metal detecting wand over here. Just behind the woman, an imposing figure in GroCorp colors, face and body invisible behind the ceramic trauma plates attached to their powered exoskeleton watched impassively.
The wand fizzed and hummed slightly as it passed over the sensor camouflaged pocket in her jacket, but the woman didn’t appear to notice. More importantly, the security goon’s weapon didn’t move, still in the figure’s hands and ready, but pointed safely at the ground.
A minute or so later, another Ike Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of GroCorp, employee was checking her travel pass as Kat struggled to keep her impatience under wraps. The pass was another recent imposition for anyone trying to enter the arcology. Now, visitors were required to go through screening and submit an itinerary before they would be allowed to enter or leave the massive tower via the corporate owned maglev.
The only real explanation Kat received regarding the new requirement was a vaguely worded e-mail about the ‘unprecedented events’ and the ‘security crisis’ gripping Schaumburg. Luckily, Belle had been able to smooth over the requirement, having someone issue her an evergreen pass that didn’t require her to justify her comings and goings.
Kat couldn’t make herself feel grateful toward the older woman. Belle had the personal warmth and emotional depth of a viper. The pass was just one more way to tie her and Xander down. One more favor that they’d need to pay back if they ever wanted to slip out from under Belle’s thumb.
One elevator ride under the watchful eye of a GroCorp guard later, Kat was back on her home floor and walking through unnaturally subdued streets toward her mother’s apartment. There were still a couple teenagers out, hurrying to and from classes, but the pairs of GroCorp and Ike officers, patrolling the streets with shotguns and pistols visible, put a damper on the usual bustle of the arcology's lower levels.
More than anything, it reminded her of her times in the Shell. Kat could feel eyes on her back from the various stores and apartment complexes as she walked home, but no one made any effort to flag her down or call out to her.
Finally, Kat found herself in the elevator of her family’s apartment building. The solitary bulb lighting the cage of metal sputtered as the lift jerked to a halt with a squeal, drawing a frown. The apartment complex had never been particularly luxurious, but at least it was usually clean and in good repair.
The doors opened, revealing a trash strewn hallway, scuff marks on the wall where the paint had been chipped back revealing bare concrete underneath. Kat hurried down the corridor, her sour expression deepening until she reached the door to her family’s suite. A quick swipe of her identity lanyard and the door opened.
Michelle sat on the couch, her day’s homework hopefully done as she watched an episode of Chrome Cowboys on the massive smartglass screen that occupied half of the wall. Kat closed the door behind her, waiting until the lock clicked into place before turning back to her sister.
The girl was still watching the smartglass, eyes glazed over as a cybercow blew up, throwing a woman into the air, only for her to fall down a yawning mineshaft. Kat cleared her throat.
“Wha- KAT!” Michelle sprang up and threw herself across the room. Kat smiled, teeth peeking out from behind her lips as a pair of skinny arms wrapped themselves around her neck.
She swung her sister around, Tower-enhanced strength letting her lift the girl high enough for her bare feet to clear the apartment’s floor. With a whoofing exhalation of her breath, Kat set Michelle back down.
“When did you get back?” Michelle gushed, scrambling back a couple of steps. “Everyone at school is still talking about you. Delaney, the girl whose dad is a manager, is super jealous of you, but everyone else is excited about you attending college.”
“Slow down,” Kat chuckled, “I wanted to surprise the two of you so I didn’t message ahead, but I just came from the maglev. I have to head out to meet some people this afternoon but I’ll be home all weekend. We’ll have plenty of time to catch up.”
“Mom is getting off of her shift in an hour.” Her sister was practically hopping with excitement. “You can tell me all about Chiwaukee over dinner.”
She paused, her tiny face scrunching into a look of concern and then a frown. Finally, Michelle forced a smile, worry still wrinkling the corners of her eyes.
“It’ll be fine, probably,” her sister’s eyes flickered as she used her smart panel to rapidly type out an e-mail, “I’ll let Mom know and we’ll figure something out.”
“What’s wrong?” Kat asked, crossing her arms as she looked down at her sister. “Seriously Michelle, don’t try to weasel out of this. I can tell when you’re pulling a fast one.”
The younger girl squirmed for a second, obviously at war with herself as she debated how much to tell Kat. Finally, Michelle gave up with a sigh.
“Ever since the new guards showed up things have changed,” her sister shifted unhappily. “Not everyone is working. GroCorp announced that they only wanted people leaving their houses to do necessary work. A lot of people have been sent home with their weekly spending limit cut by two-thirds.”
“Even if you can afford to buy things,” Michelle shrugged, a defeated look on her face, “food is rationed. I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out, but dinner will be a bit tight.”
“Things didn’t look good out there,” Kat responded, mind whirring, “but no one gave me any trouble after I made it through customs at the maglev station.”
“Of course,” Michelle rolled her eyes, “you’re wearing a GroCorp College jacket. That means you have connections. Plus, there aren’t any official rules against walking the streets. You just hear stories about people who aren’t going to or from work being questioned. Worse, every once in a while there are whispers about someone not making it home. It might all be urban legends, but no one I know is willing to take the risk.”
“Well,” Kat smiled reassuringly at her sister, “don’t let Mom worry about it. I need to go out for a business meeting anyway, and I’ll be sure to come back with proper food.”
“Are you sure?” Michelle asked, concern warring with excitement on her face, “we’ve been stuck eating kelp wafers on everything, but still. Even if someone didn’t stop you this time, that doesn’t mean you’re completely safe. They’ll probably leave you alone, Kat, but every time you go outside they might pick you up for questioning.”
She reached out, rustling her younger sister’s hair. At some point Michelle had grown. The top of her head was at eye level now. It seemed like yesterday that her sister hadn’t even cleared Kat’s shoulder.
Her breath caught slightly as a pang of regret tightened Kat’s lungs. It hadn’t been like this before when it was just Mom, Michelle and her. They lived their lives and Kat had been in the thick of it, there for every event, good or bad. Mom’s birthday, Michelle’s first day of school, the first time she’d kissed a boy, she’d been there for all of them. There was no period of acclimatization, no sudden realization that her kid sister was growing up.
“I’d just like to see them try and catch me,” Kat winked at Michelle, trying to ignore the wave of melancholy. “I was running circles around local security for years before these new guys showed up. They won’t even know which crawlspace I’ve used to make it past them.”
Kat stepped away from Michelle dropping a hand to either of the younger woman’s shoulders. She’d just have to get used to the feeling of coming back to changes. Subtle differences marking the passage of time and the development of her family in Kat’s absence. One more price she would need to pay in order to get ahead.
“I’ll leave my things here,” Kat unslung the duffel bag containing her gear and clothing, putting it just inside the apartment’s door, “but I have to run to that meeting. Tell Mom that I’ll be back for dinner okay?”
“Be careful, okay?” Michelle asked, a hint of a frown on her face. Kat just winked and stepped back outside.
Immediately, the cheerful expression fell from her face as she began composing an e-mail to Xander. If anyone had black market food in Schaumburg, it would be him, but at the same time, that didn’t solve the problem.
The Dean had mentioned something about the arcology, but the crackdown was much worse than expected. If she hadn’t already been meeting with Xander and Belle Donnst to debrief from the mission, she would have been calling for a sit down of her own.
Something was wrong, and it was more than the normal corporate infighting. Executives blackmailed, extorted and sidelined each other all the time. Expecting them to behave any differently was the height of folly.
That said, shutting down most of a profitable corporation’s operations wasn’t business as usual. Disrupting the company’s profits was the one cardinal sin that no executive could get away with. By all rights, whoever launched the operation should have been torn apart by their fellow executives and shareholders for shredding the bottom line, but instead, it only looked like things were getting worse.
Her journey to the first floor was almost as harrowing as her usual trips through the Shell. Patrols eyed her, and at least once changed its regular course to follow her all the way to the elevator. The man checking her papers to verify that she was cleared to travel to the ground floor too much longer than usual, the pair of guards eyeing her the entire time.
Eventually, her pass checked out and Kat was back in the wreckage of the Shell. Quartets of samurai, all heavily armed and wearing Millennium colors marched openly past the burned out and half-destroyed buildings, forcing her into the poorly lit back alleys on her way to the ChromeDogs warehouse.
When she arrived, the building’s security was even stronger than before. New faces manned additional guns mounted on the building’s roof, and almost every surrounding structure had a pair of windows sprouting rifle muzzles.
Kat’s expression slipped into a scowl as she surveyed the headquarters of the gang that had taken her in. The street out front had a deep crater in it, and a burned out armored car had been pushed into a nearby alleyway. A closer inspection revealed lines of bullet holes stitched into the steel and concrete walls lining the road just outside the entrance.
One of the guards waved her through, tapping his smartpanel to send word ahead of her arrival. A minute or so later, she’d made her way past the training mats and into the second story rooms reserved for senior members of the gang.
Nina and Xander were already there along with a couple of the more senior samurai, waiting for Kat’s arrival. Nina nodded, a short professional jerk of her head before she turned back to her subordinates, continuing her former conversation in a hushed voice.
“Kat!” Xander called out cheerfully, slipping past one of the samurai and clapping a hand onto her shoulder. “I got your e-mail. I’ve talked with the quartermaster and we have a fair amount of food on hand. Hell, over the last couple of weeks we’ve been making more money off of smuggling luxury food into the arcology than information drops.”
“Can we set something up so my family get regular deliveries?” She asked, a hint of sourness pinching the corners of her mouth. “It sounds like they’re living off of kelp right now, and I can’t help but feel like I’m being a terrible daughter if I don’t set something up for them.”
“You certainly are rich enough now,” he replied with a chuckle. “I’ll set something up with one of our runners to make sure your mother is getting some extra food weekly.”
Xander stopped for a second. The quiet conversation between Nina and the ChromHound combat leaders filling the void. He smiled wistfully.
“None of them are quite as good as you though,” Xander shrugged. “We have this whole new crop of starry eyed kids ready to learn how to run, climb, and fight, and all I can think when I see them is that none of them had half the raw talent you did.”
“Talent?” Kat rolled her eyes. “When you first brought me out here I was shaking. I thought I’d made the biggest mistake of my life in coming to the Shell. I was sure you were going to sell me off to some organ harvesting operation.”
“That is the thing, Kat.” Xander ran a hand through his salt and pepper hair. “You were terrified and it was obvious, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone work harder. Every day, from the minute you got off your part time job, you were skipping sleep to slip out to the Shell and run obstacle courses or do self-defense training.”
“Or maybe I’m just getting nostalgic,” he hurriedly finished, the words falling flat after his brief burst of sentimentality.
A red indicator flashed from a partially disassembled pile of electronic equipment in the center of the conference table. Xander had assured her that it was a secure uplink in the past, but she’d always been doubtful of the pile of metal and exposed wires.
“Game faces, people,” Nina’s voice reverberated around the room. “Donnst is on the line.”
Quietly, everyone but Xander made their way to the seats around the table. Nina and the combat arm of the ChromeDogs on the right and Kat taking the seat next to Xander’s while the older man plugged his cranial jack into the projector.
Briefly, Kat took in the two empty seats next to her. Right now, Xander and her represented the totality of the group’s intelligence gathering wing. Originally there had been two other infiltrators, but Elise had died in the raid on the Steel and Blood headquarters.
The other infiltrator, Smits, had frozen up under fire. His panic had put the entire team at risk. Kat hadn’t given the nervous boy a hard time. It was obvious that he was beating himself up over what happened to Elise until one day he just… stopped showing up at the warehouse.
No one really said anything about it, but they didn’t need to. Smits had been a nice boy, but it was clear that he wasn’t cut out for the life of a samurai.
The smartglass screen occupying the far wall flared to life displaying an image of Belle Donnst, glaring at the room in the same manner that the ball pythons in the company lab stared at rats.
“Exe.” Belle frowned, a hiss of static blurring her feed. “Please tell me that this connection is secure on your end. We are under too much scrutiny to make a mistake right now, and when I tried to interface with your network the protocols felt a bit… dodgy.”
“It might not be designed to look pretty, but it’s a custom build. More secure than any corporate uplink you’ve ever used.” Xander patted the pile of exposed wires and metal boxes appreciate, causing the audio to shriek and Belle’s image to blur and stutter.
“If you say so.” She folded her hands in front of her. “Just be aware that my enemies aren’t the sort for half measures. They will destroy my allies as swiftly and thoroughly as they would me.”
“Jasper?” Kat asked despite herself, struggling to square Belle’s words with her vision of the man. Maybe Davis, but-
“The Haupt boy?” Belle raised an eyebrow. “He isn’t a threat. Little more than a pup really. No, if the data you’ve relayed to me is to be believed, GroCorp has a whole lot more trouble than some whelp playing the avenger of justice.”
“Does this have anything to do with what Kat overheard during her run?” Xander asked, leaning forward with his elbow on the conference table. “I’d think that ‘friends in orbit’ could have the potential to shake things up a bit.”
“Possibly,” she responded, a perfectly manicured nail clicking against the marble countertop on her end of the transmission, “but there are no references to the stallesp. Instead the problems are of a much more terrestrial and mundane nature. The data retrieved from Franklin’s office describes a cabal of shareholders and senior executives that are conspiring to take over GroCorp and drastically rework its subsidiaries.”
“That’s why the arcology is under lockdown right now.” The steady tattoo of her finger against the table served as a metronome, underscoring Belle’s words. “Franklin’s allies generated fake evidence that Ike Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of GroCorp, was conspiring with NeoSyne to spin off into its own company. Really, it was an excuse to try and put a handful of active senior executives and myself under close surveillance.”
Tak, Belle stopped speaking for a moment. Tak, but her finger kept tapping the same beat against the stone.
“We are under surveillance,” she continued grimly, “but they haven’t found anything. I know because the data you provided made it clear that they were looking for something, but I still don’t know what. The good news is that even now, our allies amongst the shareholders are screaming about lost profits, and it’s just a matter of time before they let up. The only problem is that I don’t know if it will be enough. The data contained two important factors that I am struggling to find a counter to.”
“First.” Belle’s finger clacked against the counter, punctuating the word. “Our enemies appear to have a fairly comprehensive plan to bribe, blackmail, extort, or simply murder those that might oppose them. While they may play by the rules at first, I doubt that things will remain that way for long.”
“Second.” She leaned back in her chair. “They have a list of ‘inventions,’ all ready to go but hidden from the public that they repeatedly refer to as their funding source.”
“The stallesp,” Kat whispered, lips pursed.
“Quite.” Belle nodded. “Franklin’s benefactor, Elaine Williamson, has been quite vocal about setting up an alliance with the stallesp. I have always advised against such an agreement as I know that any treaty with the aliens would lead to the entire corporation being exploited like a common employee.”
“Unfortunately,” she finished, “Elaine is a shareholder. Well beyond my reach. If we don’t stop her, it’s only a matter of months before she has all of us framed or killed.”
“How do you want us to stop her then? Nina asked, worry in her voice.
Belle just shrugged.
“Honestly,” the executive sighed, “I haven’t the slightest clue. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears.”
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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