Kat soared through the sky, Levitation active as she steered her parachute toward the brightly lit neon street below. She pulled one of the cords, slightly redirecting her descent. Strapped to Kat’s back was the unconscious form of Dean Franklin, hopefully covered by the same casting of Shadow that she used to hide herself.
Despite the late hour dozens of cars honked and jockeyed for position, marking the road as a technicolor ribbon of light as it stretched into the city proper. Kat squinted against the darkness, willing Night Vision to activate so that she could make out her landing zone, a squat three story building where Xander and Whippoorwill would be waiting.
Her vision shifted into black and white and sharpened, letting Kat make out the tarp that Xander had spread on the rooftop for her arrival. She adjusted her course once more, before closing her eyes and simply enjoying the feeling of the wind against her infiltration suit.
For a moment, her world was nothing more than the sound of traffic and the flapping of her parachute, a welcome release after the recent mission. All too soon, a gust washed over her, forcing Kat to reopen her eyes and change directions once more.
Less than a minute later, the rooftop rushed up to meet her feet as Kat thumped into the building, barely able to keep herself from tumbling over with the advantage of her magic and enhanced agility.
As she was trying to slow herself, Xander leapt up, grabbing the straps to her mini-parachute and pulling the camouflage fabric from the night sky. Efficiently, he beat the air from the chute before crushing it into a ball and stowing it in a backpack so that it could be folded and reused later.
Kat reached up, pulling the Dean’s arms from around her neck and laying the man down gently on the tarp before undoing the industrial velcro she’d glued to his shorts from the connectors attached to her infiltration suit.
She stepped away from the unconscious man, glad to finally have him be someone else’s problem. Xander nodded to her and began rolling the man up in the tarp as Whippoorwill began rapidly blinking her glazed eyes, finally stirring from her spot next to the haphazard pile of equipment she claimed was her hacking rig.
“How’d it go?” Kat asked quietly, crouching next to her partner as the pink haired girl reoriented herself.
“I’ve downloaded everything and scrubbed the surveillance system.” She smiled back at Kat, unplugging her cranial jack from the computer. “There shouldn’t be any electronic records on the network for the last couple of days. I made sure to get the entry and exit logs too. That way no one will be able to call you out for showing up tomorrow morning.”
Kat nodded slowly, her heart still fluttering with adrenaline as a million nightmare scenarios flitted through her skull.
"And I made sure it would look clumsy, but not too clumsy. Anyone looking into Franklin’s private files will see records of him embezzling money for the last five years along with some e-mails to a headhunter about defecting.”
“So we’re clear?” Kat unzipped Whippoorwill’s duffle bag as the other girl began loading her equipment into it.”
“I even triggered the self immolation trigger on the shunt,” Whippoorwill replied as she shoved most of the rig into the bag with a grunt. “All they’ll find in the security room is burn marks and scrap metal. It’ll look like Franklin tried to melt the control panel down to hide his tracks on the way out.”
“I just can’t help but feel like things have gone too smoothly.” Kat shuffled uncomfortably as Whippoorwill loaded the last of her peripherals into the duffle bag before zipping it shut. “There was a fight on the penthouse, but other than that… nothing. It just doesn’t feel right getting in and out of a place this smoothly.”
“You almost got shot and blown up,” Xander chimed in, the Dean’s limp form covered in a tarp and draped over his shoulder. “I really think we need to have a talk about what you consider to be a successful infiltration. It isn’t supposed to always involve explosions and shooting. Those usually mean you’ve done something wrong.”
“Thanks for the lecture, Dad.” Kat rolled her eyes. “Now how the hell do we get down from here. I’m still antsy about being this close to the college with someone as important as the Dean.”
“If you will, Whip.” Xander grunted, nodding toward a corner of the building. “If you could get the car started, I have to load our luggage in the trunk.”
Kat let herself smile despite the situation as Whippoorwill practically skipped to the edge of the building before grabbing a coil of rope that was looped over a steel piton and jumping over the edge. She followed the hacker to the edge and glanced over. Half a floor down was a padded mat placed in the center of a rickety metal fire escape. Whip was looking up at her, a grin on her face as she looped the rope around her arm.
With a shrug, she vaulted the side of the building, landing in a crouch next to Whippoorwill. The other girl tied the rope off with a knot before padding gently down a couple of the steps of the fire escape before turning back.
“I’ll get the car,” she whispered, “you grab the padding once Exe is through and cover the rear. Remember, there are apartments in this building. We have to be quiet.”
“Come on.” Kat grinned at Whippoorwill, “I’m an infiltrator.”
“I’ve seen your infiltrations.” Whippoorwill began walking down the metal stairs. “Remember to be quiet, Erinyes.”
Kat chuckled quietly, only to whip around, knife out as Xander landed on the mat next to her. He grinned, golden tooth gleaming in the dim light, and set out after Whippoorwill.
Grumbling, Kat rolled up the padding and slung it over her shoulder before following Xander down to the street level. By the time she caught up with her teammates, Xander was slamming the trunk of a polished sportscar, the Dean’s body conspicuously absent from his shoulder.
She walked up to the car, noting that Whip was already in the front seat before opening the back door and shoving the padding inside. As Kat was buckling in, Xander started the vehicle, sending a quiet thrum through the leather seats.
The car purred before Xander tapped the accelerator, edging the vehicle out into traffic. Immediately, the blood left Kat’s face as she gripped frantically at her armrest.
Xander didn’t drive with Andrew’s quiet and machine-like efficiency. Instead, he marked a line between point A and point B, and woe upon any car in his way. Landmarks blurred past, neon and chrome, while lasers projected advertisements into the low hanging clouds, but all that Kat noticed was the honking of horns as vehicles swerved out of their way.
Finally their car took a two-wheeled turn down a seedy side street, past a technicolor sign bragging about the loosest slots and escorts in Chiwaukee. Xander pulled up to a three-story cement parking ramp and swiped some sort of passcard before bringing the car inside and parking it.
Kat exited the vehicle shakily, frowning at a large painting depicting a male android placing a credit chip in what she charitably decided was an unclothed female android’s navel. Whippoorwill walked past her, opening the trunk to retrieve her rig from where it sat atop Franklin’s tarp clad body.
“Wait,” Kat began hesitantly, “are we in-”
“Yeah.” The pink-haired girl wrinkled her nose in distaste as she hoisted the duffle bag over her shoulder. “We’re in the Neon Dream’s parking structure. Xander paid for a couple rooms to be built into the foundation, off the record and only accessible via a service stairwell.”
“A low-rent casino and brothel is the perfect cover.” Xander pulled the tarp clad body from the trunk. “There are so many people from all walks of life coming and going at all times, so no one will think anything of us being here.”
“And does Nina have an opinion on this?” Kat asked, taking the mask off of her infiltration suit and raising an eyebrow at him.
Xander paused, a flash of panic on his face rapidly replaced by his trademark cocky smirk.
“We could sit here all day bantering”–he slung Franklin’s body over his shoulder–“but we have a busy night in front of us. Jumper cables to hook up to a car battery and whatnot.”
Whippoorwill glanced at Kat worriedly, but all she could do was shrug. Xander sounded like he was joking, but he was also the sort of person that would tell a joke during a firefight. You just never knew when the humor was genuine or an attempt to defray tension right before he dropped something serious on you.
They followed him, past a reeling drunk in the process of pissing on a pillar and his own feet, en route to a stairwell marked ‘employees only.’ Xander used his free hand to swipe a card through an old-fashioned magnetic reader, and a couple of seconds later, they were descending into the cool concrete depths of the building.
Xander led them through a small kitchen and a bedroom lined with bunks that folded into the wall before pushing his way through a metal doorway and into a storage room. Whippoorwill flipped on the lights, igniting two large directional lamps aimed at a metal chair placed in the center of the room, just behind a prominently positioned drain.
Whistling cheerfully to himself, Xander placed the tarp next to the metal chair. He began unrolling it, spreading the waterproof blue fabric on the concrete floor of the room, only pausing to pick up the metal chair and put it on top of the now unfurled tarp.
Xander stepped back and surveyed the scene, nodding to himself before he drew a knife and cut a hole in it, just above the room’s drain.
“Waste not, want not,” he grunted at the two of them with a wink as he wrestled the Dean’s body into the chair. “We have a perfectly good tarp sitting just sitting here. Might as well put it to good use before we have to burn it after the mission is over.”
Kat rolled her eyes. It would take more than a little blood to make her squeamish. She might not want to involve civilians in her raids, but that didn’t mean that she would bat a single eyelash for people like the Dean. Every antique painting and length of opulent hardwood decorating his penthouse office was earned by dirtying his hands.
She didn’t pretend to have the moral high ground. That was a mistake some samurai made, but it was nothing more than a gentle hypocrisy to help them sleep at night. Kat might not be a major player, but the ChromeDogs were a business, and working for a business meant getting your hands dirty. It’s true that she was doing this to protect her family, but at the end of the day, she couldn’t hide from the truth of her existence.
Xander finished shackling the Dean to the chair and stepped back for a moment to admire his handiwork. Clapping his hands together, he walked over to a nearby shelf and opened a briefcase.
Kat leaned against the room’s cool concrete walls as she watched Xander put on a pair of elbow length black rubber gloves and remove a thin bladed knife and a needle from the case. He walked back to the prisoner, tapping the needle to clear out any bubbles, before he inserted it into the man’s neck.
“Whutha,” the Dean jerked forward in his chair, lurching against the handcuffs that chained him to his seat.
“Thomas Franklin,” Xander savored each word as he smiled ghoulishly at the man. “It’s good to finally meet you.”
The handcuffed man blinked up at Xander, his eyes still dilated from the drug that had kept him unconscious. He leaned forward, his movement arrested once again by the rattle and clank of his bonds.
“If this is about money,” Franklin slurred, shaking his head as he tried to clear it.
“I have plenty of money.” Xander crouched in front of the man tapping the flat of the thin blade against the palm of his hand. “What I don’t have is answers.”
“Ah fuck.” The Dean blinked up at Xander, trying and failing to make out his features through the intense backlighting that illuminated the room. “I don’t suppose that it would do me any good to say that I’m a GroCorp Executive?”
Xander shook his head, extinguishing the hopeful note in the Dean’s voice.
“Sorry friend,” Xander replied mournfully. “The people that hired me are GroCorp Executives too. I’m truly working in rarefied heights this time.”
“So, it’s going to be like that, isn’t it.” Franklin’s eyes were glued to the knife in Xander’s hand.
“It’s going to be like that.” Xander stood up. “I’m sure you know the rules for this sort of thing. I’m going to ask you questions. We already know the answers to some of the questions. If you refuse to answer, or you answer wrong, things are going to get painful. If things go well, we drug you and drop you off in a park with a splitting headache and no memory of what happened here. If things don’t go well, you disappear into the night, another casualty of the corporate battlefield.”
Their captive’s Adam’s Apple bobbed soundlessly as he squinted at Xander.
“First question,” Xander leaned forward, reaching forward to place the tip of the knife against Franklin’s cheek. “Do you work for Elaine Williamson?”
He nodded slowly, careful not to cut himself on the razor sharp knife pressed into his skin.
“Good answer,” Xander continued, grinning at the man. “Next question. Did Elaine order the occupation of the Schaumburg Arcology?”
“Wait.” Franklin frowned. “This is about Schaumburg?”
He screamed, blood flowing down his cheek as Xander put pressure on the dagger’s hilt, pushing it until its tip struck the Dean’s cheekbone.
“That,” Xander sand nonchalantly, “was a bad answer. I am the one asking questions, and I would appreciate an answer. Once again, Did Elaine order the occupation?”
“Fuck!” Franklin rocked back in his chair, trying to get away from Xander. “If you’re asking about Schaumburg, I’m not answering anything. You can do what you want to do, but it won’t be any worse than what Elaine would do to me if she found out I narced on her. Hell, for all I know this kidnapping is all some sort of complicated loyalty test on her part.”
“I can assure you, it is not,” Xander responded, crossing his arms in front of his chest as his knife slowly dripped blood onto the tarp below. “Are you sure about this? It’s your final chance to walk away from this without it getting very ugly.”
Kat shifted slightly against the wall, her lips pressed bloodlessly together. On the other side of the room, Whippoorwill simply turned and walked out.
Part of Kat wanted to follow her, but at the same time, that would be turning her back on the ugly reality of her job. Eventually, as much as she wanted to avoid it, she would need to interrogate a target, too. It might be easier to play the part of a wilting violet and run away from the ugliness inherent to being an infiltrator, but ultimately, she needed to face the unpleasant parts of the job head on.
“Elaine will find me.” Franklin spat some of the blood that had trickled down his face out on the floor. “She will reward my silence. You won’t get anything out of me. At the end of the day, I’ll have a promotion, and you’ll be dead. Just another street thug, face down and without a name in a gutter.”
“I don’t enjoy this you know,” Xander mused out loud as he walked over to the briefcase and fished around in it. “I know some people get a rush out of torturing corporate execs. They act like it’s some sort of nihilistic blow for the ‘class struggle.’”
Xander pulled out another syringe and held it up before nodding at it.
“You and I, Tom,” he continued as he walked back toward their prisoner. “I can call you Tom, right?”
The Dean just glared at him, blood streaming from the deep cut down his face.
“We know how foolish those beliefs are.” Xander crouched in front of the captive, careful to ensure that the room’s lighting was behind him so that Franklin couldn’t make out his face. “There is no class struggle. The rich won decades ago. People like me? We’re just trying to survive. There’s no real point in raging against the wealthy.”
Xander reached out, grabbing Franklin’s wrist and slipping the needle into it. The Dean stiffened as the needle hissed, depositing its payload into his veins.
“These interrogations are just so boring.” Xander stood up and sighed. “The target always starts by bargaining. Then they threaten me. When both of those don’t work, they brag about how I’ll never get any information from them. It’s like all of you corporate types are reading from a bad script or something.”
“Whatha,” Franklin tried to answer, his eyes dilating under the floodlights. “Whath are you doin to me.”
“I’m putting you into a suggestible state so I can get some answers,” Xander replied calmly. “Compulsion.”
“Now, let’s try this again.” Xander’s gold tooth glinted as he smiled. “Thomas Franklin, did Elaine Williamson order the occupation of the Schaumburg Arcology.”
“Yes.” The Dean’s voice was dead, emotionless.”
“Why did she order the occupation?” Xander towered above the board stiff captive, staring into his glazed eyes.
“Millennium contacted her.” Kat shuddered as she listened to the Dean speaking. They were getting answers, but looking at his face and eyes, there was nothing there. “The recordings from the Starfall planning meeting had gone missing. The mercenaries tracked them to an Ike Holdings, a wholly owned Subsidiary of GroCorp, executive in Schaumburg. Elaine ordered the occupation to try and flush him-”
“What do you mean by ‘Starfall’?” Xander asked, interrupting the man with a frown.
“Starfall is the operating name given by the coalition of executives working with the Stallesp for their plan to stage coordinated hostile takeovers in every megacorporation simultaneously.”
The room lapsed into silence. Xander turned back to Kat, shooting her a worried look. She stepped forward, stopping just behind the floodlights.
“Who is the executive that had the recordings?” Kat asked.
“Please answer the lady’s question,” Xander followed up with a grateful nod in her direction.
“Colyn Raster.” As soon as she heard the Dean’s response, Kat frantically began flipping through the Ike Holding management and executive directory downloaded onto her smartpanel. She hadn’t opened the thing since she bought the smartpanel, but corporate bylaws mandated that all electronics sold in the Arcology have the directory. Usually it was a minor annoyance, little more than a waste of system memory, but today it was a Godsend.
Raster’s profile popped up on the display. Her eyes flickered across the screen as she began reading about him. Senior Vice President in charge of finance and trust management. She scrolled down until his picture popped up.
Kat’s gut tightened. Middle aged with hints of white around his temples, it was the man from the Oak Suite. This was all about the recording she’d stolen from St. Louis.
If the recording detailed the Starfall planning meeting, Belle and the ChromeDogs needed a copy. It would be proof that Elaine and a number of other shareholders were planning on betraying the entire planet, and more importantly their employers. More than enough to unseat them and buy everyone involved a little breathing room as they tried to find a way to stave off the Stallesp’s predatory designs.
“Has Mr. Raster been apprehended?” Kat barely heard Xander’s follow up question. The entire room was spinning.
“Yesterday.” Her head whipped around at Franklin’s bland voice. “We haven’t been able to find the recording, but Colyn is being shipped to the Beloit Detainment center for questioning.”
Her heart almost stopped. Everyone knew about Beloit even though no one dared talk about it above a whisper. The place was a hell hole of crime, torture and starvation. Once the company officials got what they needed out of Colyn, they’d dump him in the general population where he’d be lucky to last a week. People of interest that went to Beloit didn’t return.
“Tell me about the transportation arrangements,” Kat commanded the captive, hoping against all logic that Colyn would be in some sort of intermediate facility where they could rescue him
“An armored van containing Raster and some malcontents from Chiwaukee left downtown at midnight.” The Dean spoke woodenly, without any inflection or emotion. “I was tasked with monitoring them from my office when your team grabbed me. They should already be there.”
“Compulsion.” Xander renewed the spell grimly before turning to one of the storage shelves and rustling through the material there.
A moment later, he pulled out a bottle of thirty year old scotch and began splashing it on Franklin’s clothes. He put the bottle to the robotic man’s lips and tipped it back.
“Drink.” For a second there wasn’t any sound but the glug of the Dean’s Adam’s Apple working. Then Xander pulled the bottle away and corked it.
“Such a waste,” he muttered with a sad shake of his head. “That one bottle was as expensive as some of the chrome I’ve seen the boys sporting.”
Xander leaned close to the Dean, whispering something in his ear while his hands swiftly unlocked the handcuffs. Franklin stood shakily, almost stumbling as he took his first hesitant step. Then, with Xander walking he wobbled robotically toward the door and out of the room.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Kat whirled to face Xander, confusion on her face.
“After all of that,” she hissed, “we’re just letting him go?”
“Go?” Xander quirked an eyebrow. “Oh, God no. He’s seen far too much and it would completely blow the cover story about embezzlement if he survived long enough to answer questions.”
“No.” He shook his head, mouth set into a grim line. “Drunk driving is a clean and understandable way to go. That was his car we took here and we’ll need another way back. After all, he’s about to drunkenly drive it off of an overpass at something like three times the speed limit without a seat belt on.”
“That’s the thing, Kat.” Xander patted her gently on the shoulder. “None of our cover stories will hold up under prolonged investigation. Sure, we made it look like he was embezzling money, but it’s not like Whip and I knew enough about GroCorp’s inner workings to make it the evidence ironclad. What we need are neat and easy explanations.”
“If you give a corporate detective a mystery,” he continued, “they’ll spend the next three months lifting up every rock to see what’s under it. If you give them a simple story of corporate greed where the ‘bad guy’ is already beyond punishment? There aren’t any promotions to be earned digging for the truth there. Just more paperwork.”
“I really shouldn’t be surprised or depressed by that.” Kat furrowed her brow. “And yet I am.”
“Come on, let’s get you back to school,” Xander replied with a chuckle. “We’ll figure out how we’re breaking into Beloit and fill you in once we have a plan.”
The drive to the college was a good deal more sedate. Xander still wove in and out of traffic like an absolute madman, cutting other vehicles off with abandon, but for some reason it didn’t faze Kat nearly as much.
Security barely checked her on the way in, and Kat made it to her floor in a fog, her mind awhirl with the implications and adrenaline afterglow of the night.
Just as she was reaching down to swipe her lanyard past the electronic locking system to her dorm room, a hand landed on Kat’s shoulder.
Without even thinking, Kat dropped her card and grabbed the wrist of the hand gripping her shoulder, rotating the person’s arm until their elbow was locked and they were bent over at the waist staring at the floor.
A gasp up the hallway drew her gaze to a vaguely familiar girl. The girl’s hands began moving as she muttered strange words, clearly some sort of Tower granted spell or ability..
The person in the arm lock struggled against Kat’s grip, causing Kat to plant her free hand into their shoulder, pushing their body closer to the ground as their arm twisted unnaturally. Kat began summoning Pseudopod as the person beneath her let out a feminine gasp of pain.
Before the other girl up the hallway could finish her spell, Kat’s water tentacle grabbed her by the ankle and yanked, spilling her to the ground and knocking both the mana and the breath out of her.
Then pre-dawn silence descended on the hallway. The girl in Kat’s grip lurched to the side, an attempt to escape that Kat easily thwarted by putting more pressure on her shoulder. The person on the ground groaned, rolling onto her side and clutching her head in both of her hands.
“God, I knew it,” the woman struggling beneath her hissed. “Jasper goes missing the same day I catch you sneaking into the college after hours and you’re a fucking high level player. It all makes sense now.”
Kat frowned, squinting at the woman she was holding.
“Iris Leander?” She asked incredulously, releasing her victim.
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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