The other woman staggered back, massaging her wrist as she glared at Kat. Iris glanced at her friend on the ground before scowling at Kat once again.
“You said something about Jasper disappearing?” Kat asked, trying to ignore the other party’s animosity.
“Yes.” Iris reached down to help the other girl up. “Alicia and I are in a book club with him. We were going to meet to discuss Thorstein Veblen, but he never showed up. When we tried calling his estate, they hadn’t seen him either.”
“Did you contact Davis?” Kat struggled to suppress the flash of impatience that ran through her.
Kat’s head was whirring as she tried to make sense of the chaotic thoughts rushing through her. Schaumburg was under siege and Jasper was gone all at the same time. He must have been picked up in the purge Franklin mentioned, but for the life of her she couldn’t figure out how Jasper had been targeted.
“No,” Iris replied defiantly. “You showed up at that meeting, and I knew you were trying to get your claws into Jasper. I thought it was just gold digging at first, but then you disappeared all night right after he went missing. I could put two and two together. You’re working for the capitalists to try and undermine the worker’s struggle.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Kat muttered to herself, feeling her control beginning to fray as Iris puffed out her head in triumph, as if her nonsense declaration meant anything.
“EVERYONE works for capitalists, Iris!” She cut herself off for a second before continuing quietly, but with the same intensity. “I admire what Jasper and you are trying to do, but I’m just looking to survive. I don’t have the luxury of high-minded political philosophy, but I will say unequivocally that I did not do anything to Jasper.”
The woman behind Iris, Alicia, shuffled back nervously licking her lips as she tried to avoid notice.
“And that is the attitude of a revanchist and counter-revolutionary,” Iris crowed triumphantly, pointing a finger at Kat.
“I barely know what that means, and I care even less.” Kat shook her head. “Now can we stop accusing each other of being ogres in the hallway and take this to a room? We’re going to wake up the rest of the girls, and I don’t think either of us want that.”
“Fine,” Iris relented, folding her arms in front of her. “We’ll meet in Alicia’s room.”
The other woman’s head snapped up, startled.
“Why me?” She asked, a hint of a whine in her voice. “This is between you and Katherine. You just wanted me here to drop a curse if things didn’t go our way, and you saw how that worked out. She went through both of us quicker than a middle manager with an open-ended budget. Honestly, I’m not sure I want to be alone in a room with her.”
Kat grinned at Alicia, triggering a flinch from the discontented woman.
“Just open the door, Alicia.” Iris didn’t even turn around, still glaring at Kat with her arms crossed.
They walked two rooms down where Alicia opened the door hurriedly, her hands shaking slightly as she ran her ID over the scanner. As soon as the lock clicked, the three of them filed in, Kat casting a hasty glance over her shoulder to make sure that no one else was watching them.
She stepped into Alicia’s room and sighed. Kat knew she shouldn’t be surprised that an executive’s daughter had a suite almost three times the size of hers, but somehow it still took her aback.
The walls were covered in massive signed posters from entertainment channel stars and singing groups. More than one of the heart-throbs had scrawled a phone number or e-mail address beneath their signatures. Kat quirked an eyebrow at Alicia and the girl blushed.
“My Daddy paid for the suite upgrade and uh-” Alicia shuffled her feet slightly. “I like musicians. I would pay extra for backstage passes to meet them, and uhm. Talk about their mus-”
“We don’t care about who you’re sleeping with,” Iris cut the girl off. “We’re here to figure out what Katherine did to Jasper.”
“I DIDN’T SLEEP WITH ALL OF THEM,” Alicia squealed indignantly, her face beet red.
“Sure,” Iris replied unconvingly while her friend sputtered. “It’s counter-revolutionary for me to care about you being a slut, so I don’t, naturally. After all, the only struggle is class struggle.”
“I didn’t touch Jasper.” Kat massaged her own temples as she repeated herself, “but I was out looking into another disappearance last night. We need to call Davis because I think he’s being sent to Beloit.”
Both of the other girls paled. The keycard Alicia had been playing with dropped from her hand.
“Beloit,” Iris whispered shakily, “but that isn’t possible. His family are executives, Jasper should have been isolated and fined, not…”
“Do you actually think this has anything to do with your little club?” Kat asked incredulously. “The entire Schaumburg Arcology is on lockdown and shareholders are making power plays. We literally could be in the middle of a hostile takeover right now, and the two of you think that corporate leadership cares in the slightest about your efforts?”
“Lockdown?” Alicia whimpered, licking her lips nervously. “Why haven’t we heard anything about that? Daddy has interests in Schaumberg’s bio-research division. He should have heard something about it by now.”
“Lockdown usually means interrupting communications,” Kat replied, trying and failing to be patient with the distraught girl. “Unless someone was able to make it past the guards and bring information directly to your Father, he’d have no way of knowing.”
“Then how did-” Alicia began, only for Kat to silence her with a condescending glare.
Iris worked her mouth, looking like nothing more than a fish gasping on a riverbank as she tried to process Kat’s eruption.
“Oh for God’s sake,” Kat grumbled. “I need to get back into The Tower of Somnus. Someone call Davis and tell him I said I have information about Jasper, but that we’ll need to move fast. We can meet at the restaurant across the street from the college at six o’clock. Tell him I’ll bring one of my friends from Schaumburg.”
“What are your friends going to do to fix this,” Iris blurted out, practically hyperventilating. “If we need to get into Beloit we’ll need a merc company. I can talk to my Mom. She doesn’t approve of the Vanguard, but if I tell her that there’s the potential for a hostile takeover-”
“We can work that out with Davis.” Kat cut her off with a decisive movement of her hand.
“But you don’t understand.” Iris just kept talking, cheeks flushed as she rattled on at a feverish pace. “This isn’t the sort of thing that our personal guards can handle. We’re going to need to hire some independent contractors. My Mom has a fixer, someone who can set us up with some samurai. It might take a couple of days, but-”
“Holy shit,” Kat interrupted, failing to contain a chuckle despite the severity of the situation. “You seriously didn’t even do a background check on me before you tried to jump me? That’s absolutely priceless.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Iris asked, finally jolted out of her monologue by Kat’s laughter.
“Ask Davis before you decide on whether to attend the meeting tomorrow.” Kat turned to leave, waving at the two of them over her shoulder.
She closed the door to Alicia’s room behind herself, ignoring the urgent questions from the other two girls as she made her way back to her room. A minute later, her head was on the pillow. Kat closed her eyes and let herself float off to sleep.
Kat stumbled as Kaleek slapped her on the shoulder.
“Another long night, Kat?” The otter chortled as she staggered and shot him a playful glare. “Elders help us if you can get past your smooth skin and get a boyfriend. You’ll leave Dorrik and I here holding our tails every night.”
“Ignore him, Miss Kat,” Dorrik interjected. “Kaleek is just excited to be on a damper floor. He spent the first hour bragging about how excited he was to swim and fish. Then when he realized you were late, he just started fretting.”
“It’s good to see both of you, too.” Kat straightened up, brushing off the back of your armor. “I’m sorry for being late, I was busy unraveling the conspiracy to take over my planet, thank you for asking.”
Dorrik leaned in, their eyes narrowed.
“We’ve found out that members of my world’s leadership met with the stallesp directly to discuss taking over the planet in partnership with the stallesp,” Kat continued grimly. “Better yet, a recording was made of the meeting.”
“This is perfect Kat!” Dorrik smiled, crest flaring wildly. “There isn’t a lokkel enclave on the fourth floor, but I can send a message out with my next ship. With this recording in hand, the clans can convene and send out a punitive expedition to clear the moles from your orbit.”
“It’s not in hand.” She winced. “Well, it was but I think I sold it. Right now we know someone who can locate it, but he’s in enemy custody at the moment.”
“That sounds like the opposite of in hand,” Kaleek interjected helpfully. “You should try not selling critical evidence of violations of Consensus law next time.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Kaleek.” Kat rolled her eyes. “We’re going to get the recording. It’s evidence of treason by some very powerful people that want to kill my family and I. I’m not sure I would survive long enough for your fleet to arrive without it.”
He clapped his hands together. “Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s find a map and a boat so we can hit the waves.”
Dorrik’s crest fluttered, in distress.
“I’m not sure that we should be diving into anything Kaleek,” they replied somberly. “The fourth floor isn’t as closely mapped by my race as the third for obvious reasons, and if what Miss Kat’s saying is true, we may have a tremendous problem on the horizon.”
“I knew this was going to happen.” Kaleek grinned, “so for once I planned ahead. Someone in my pod had information on a dungeon named ‘Whirring Cogs.’ It’s about an hour away so we’ll have plenty of time to talk.”
“What sort of information did you acquire on Whirring Cogs?” Dorrik asked unhappily. “It sounds like Miss Kat could use another dungeon award sooner rather than later, but I would prefer that we entertain challenges with our eyes open.”
“The average enemies are called Iron Automatons—they have a number of blade based and spring loaded traps—and the boss is something called a Clicking Horror.” Kaleek put a hand on both of their backs, pushing them toward the marketplace of the adventurer’s hall. “The dungeon itself is metal and clockwork themed with the foes and traps modeled upon stylized archaic robots. Is that a good enough answer, professor? Can we go now?”
“What about that makes it a good match for our skillsets?” Dorrik squinted at the impatient otter. “Psi abilities don’t usually work on robots, and I’m not sure I like the sound of traps. Having footpads or someone with a spotting skill is usually recommended for those sorts of dungeons, and as you will note, we have neither.”
“Kat’s basically a footpad.” Kaleek squeezed her shoulder, drawing a brief frown. “Plus, I looked into it. One of the major drops from this dungeon is something called a ‘soul engine.’ It’s a red, fist-sized ball lodged in the Iron Automatons chest that lets them be targeted by Psi Abilities.”
“Well.” He twitched his whiskers in amusement. “That and soul engines allow them to adapt to their circumstances and plan ambushes. Still, that only makes them more fun to fight.”
“I don’t have any footpad skills,” Kat replied. “I might have the agility and reactions of a footpad, but unless your plan is for me to trigger traps and jump out of the way before I get impaled on spikes, I’m not sure how you expect me to deal with traps without the Disarm skill.”
“Also,” she added, squinting at the otter, “if that is your plan, I’d suggest you go first. You’re pretty stout and you have heavy armor. I doubt a trap could kill you in one go. We could just heal you up and send you back into the fray after each one.”
“There aren’t that many traps.” Kaleek fluttered his eyelashes at her. “It’s mostly a monster dungeon. Just one or two to keep us on our toes.”
“One question...” Dorrik rumbled, drawing an easy grin from Kaleek.
“Yesssss?” The desoph asked, drawing the word out as he smiled triumphantly at the big lizard.
“...for Miss Kat.” Dorrik ignored Kaleek’s dispirited groan. “How soon do you need to find this political prisoner, and how dangerous will it be to save them?
“Tomorrow if possible.” Kat grimaced. “They’re going to torture information out of him. Even if he has nerves of steel he’s going to crack if we give them more than two days. As for the danger level? I’m going into an armed prison camp blind with unknown backup. I would say somewhere between ‘extreme’ and ‘idiotic.’”
She pursed her lips unhappily.
“Honestly?” Kat flipped some hair out her eyes with a deep sigh. “If I wasn’t racing a clock, there’s no way in hell I’d run the mission. There are just too many unknowns, even if we had the time to properly case the joint, it just seems like a recipe for disaster.”
“Then it sounds like we need a map and a boat.” Dorrik nodded somberly. “Miss Kat needs our help, but we are too far away to assist. I’m not comfortable running a dungeon with incomplete information, but if necessity can make Miss Kat step outside her comfort zone in the waking world, I don’t see a reason why it can’t do the same to me in the dreamscape.”
She smiled gratefully at the big lizard as Kaleek cheered and ran over to a vendor. Barely a minute later he was back holding a map seared into leather with a coat of some sort of waterproofing slathered over the top.
They left the adventurer’s hall, stepping out into bright fake sunlight and the smell of saltwater. The light wasn’t anywhere near as oppressive as on the third floor, but Kat still shielded her eyes and looked up. Above them, the shadows of birds wheeled around in a cloudless sky, screeching at each other before they dove into the water in search of the plentiful shoals of fish.
Kaleek led the way, practically skipping, past a number of one story fishing shanties made out of a combination of mud bricks and driftwood. Kat couldn’t help but notice that they received a fair share of unwelcome looks, but she put it down to the three of them being a new team on the floor. Still, her hand hovered around her knife’s sheath as they chatted on their way to the city’s wharves. It never hurt to be careful.
Finally, they were tromping down a weathered wooden dock past a sign that said in simple clean lettering “boat rental.” Tethered to the expanse of wood were three older but lovingly maintained catamarans. At the end of the pier, a black-and-orange gecko with a pair of giant fins that resembled wings growing from its sides, slouched in a misshapen rocking chair made from driftwood, a reed cap pulled over their face and eyes.
“Hello stranger!” Kaleek called out cheerfully as they approached.
The gecko barely moved, body still slumped bonelessly in the chair, a single sticky black limb reached up and pushed back the hat just enough to reveal a trio of yellow eyes.
“Lo,” they replied, unmotivated and lethargic.
“I see that you have boats for rent,” Kaleek continued helpfully. “It just so happens that my friends and I are looking to charter one”
The gecko shifted slightly with a slurping sound that sent a shudder down Kat’s spine.
“One of your friends is a lokkel,” they observed, yellow eyes blinking slowly.
“Very astute of you,” Kaleek replied, a hint of uncertainty entering his voice. “Now if you would be so kind as to give us your prices, we would love to get sailing.”
“Don’t rent to no lokkel,” the gecko rocked forward, the chair squealing under their weight before they leaned to the side and spit a gob of something greenish into the water. “Don’t rent to no stallesp either. Bad business.”
“What?” The otter asked, confusing now reigning on his face as he looked back at Dorrik and Kat, whiskers twitching helplessly.
“Lotta stallesp on the floor.” The gecko focused on Dorrik, nodding slowly. “Ships with lokkel on them go missing. They say it’s pirates, megalodons or living reefs, but ol’ Jaffy knows better. Only stallesp and lokkel ships go missing. Then the other side has a ship come back, covered in burns and holes. Bad business.”
“You’re Jaffy then, I take it?” Kaleek asked, trying to turn on his charm once more. The salamander grunted in the affirmative. “Well then, Jaffy, let’s say I wanted to sail out for a dungeon run anyway. What would you recommend a dashing fellow such as myself with a lokkel friend do?”
Jaffy turned their attention to Kaleek, staring at the desoph. One second faded into another and before long, the otter was fidgeting slightly, plastic smile still adorning his face.
“Won’t rent, but you can buy.” Jaffy jerked their head toward the smallest of the three boats. “The Marka has seen better days, but she’s a good ship. Doesn’t look pretty, but she’ll get you where you need to go and she has a shallow enough draft to avoid most of the living reefs.”
Kaleek looked back at the three of them uncertainly. Kat shrugged helplessly, but Dorrik nodded their approval.
“How much for the Marka then?” Kaleek’s toothy smile was already back on his face as he addressed the gecko once more.
“Five hundred marks,” Jaffy grunted without any enthusiasm. “You ain't gonna find a better ship for less. Mostly cause you ain't gonna find another ship.”
Kat winced as Dorrik drew in a sharp whistling breath. Between the three of them, they had enough, barely, but it looked like the sleepy gecko was about to take them to the cleaners.
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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