Xander and Kat walked into the restaurant together, and the quiet conversation stopped. A dozen pairs of eyes dissected them as they stepped through the door. Kat shifted slightly, feeling exposed as every aspect of their dress and demeanor was inspected and catalogued.
It’s not that the two of them were explicitly underdressed. Kat was wearing a fitted button down shirt with slacks. Xander’s button down might have fit at one point, but after a decade or so of physical activity, he was almost bursting out of the overly tight outfit.
On the other hand, the clientele of the restaurant were all wearing tailored outfits that screamed understated wealth to those who knew what to look for. After half a semester of college, Kat knew what to look for. Nothing so crude as an actual designer label or logo, but the make of a button, the cut of a cuff or the stitching of a lapel could be just as telling.
Studiously, the restaurant’s patrons looked away from the two of them. There were good reasons for outsiders like Kat and Xander to be in a location like this, but they weren’t the sort of reasons that encouraged casual curiosity.
“Ah, ah!” A man ran around a corner in an immaculate suit, bypassing the host’s table and the startled woman occupying it. “Sir and Madame! You must be here for Mr. Stoller’s party. I’ll lead you right to his private room.”
“Stoller?” Xander asked, quirking an eyebrow at Kat as the maître’d led them past a number of well appointed plush booths.
“He means Davis Stoller,” Kat replied, automatically scanning the people sitting at the tables and milling about the bars for threats. A couple moved with the grace she’d come to expect from samurai and players, but all of them wore suits that exuded an aura of watchfulness and palpable menace that led inexorably to one conclusion. Bodyguards.
“An interesting man of many talents,” the man leading them interjected unctuously. “When Mr. Stoller requested the private room on one day’s notice... well that was a familiar request.”
“Not a good sign for the area’s stability.” He chuckled. “When Mr. Stoller takes an interest in something, it usually isn't healthy for those around it. Still, I’d much rather have him as a friend than an enemy, so when he asks for a favor, he gets a favor.”
Xander glanced meaningfully at Kat.
“Davis has connections and moves like he’s spent some time as a samurai.” She shrugged, stopping as the maître’d halted in front of a heavy wooden door. “We’re about to do something colossally dangerous. We need all the help we can get.”
The door opened and Kat stepped through, Xander at her back. The room itself was fabulous, polished marble floors with priceless artwork covering tastefully soundproofed walls, but her attention was immediately drawn to the table. Kat wasn’t sure if it was cherry or oak, but there was no question in her mind that the beautifully maintained hardwood was worth more than the average employee would earn in three lifetimes.
It was set for six, Iris Leander looking out of place next to Davis, Andrew, and a stunningly attractive but bored looking middle-aged woman in a slinky black dress. Davis’ gaze pinned her to the ground the moment Kat’s shoes clicked on the stone floor.
“Exe I presume.” He nodded to Xander, eyes never leaving Kat. “Is there a name you’d like to go by for these proceedings miss…?”
For a bare fraction of a second, Kat turned her attention to Iris. She didn’t want the girl to know about her, but it looked like that wasn’t an option. Kat turned back to Davis’ waiting expression.
She closed her eyes, exhaling. This was it. Her first real business meeting that wasn’t entirely orchestrated by Xander.
“Erinyes.” She opened her eyes, the indecision fleeing from her voice like the morning fog from the first rays of sun. “My name is Erinyes.”
The woman sitting next to Davis erupted into a smile, her boredom forgotten.
“I knew Erinyes had to be a woman!” She purred, leaning forward, eyes glittering. “The rising star of the Chiwaukee underground. The gossip channels simply will not stop speculating about you.”
“Where are my manners,” she said with a smile, placing a hand in the center of her chest. “I go by Hestia, and I’ve heard all about you. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you Erinyes.”
“The Fire Witch?” Xander cocked his head to the side. “I thought you retired?”
She glared at him for a full second before turning back to Kat, the smile returning to her face.
“It can be a bit of a sausage fest at these meetings,” Hestia continued, pointedly ignoring Xander. “Us Greek girls have to stick together.”
“Greek?” Iris cut in, confusion dripping from her voice. “Kat was born in Schaumburg. Also why are you calling her-”
“Stop.” Davis raised a hand. “We are planning an operation. In this room, her name is Erinyes. I’ve seen the footage where she earned the name and I have no doubts about her capabilities.”
“Earned.” Iris’ eyes widened as the realization hit her. “Oh God, you’re a samurai.”
“An infiltrator to be specific,” Andrew supplied, “although one a bit better known for carving her way of jobs than getting in and out of locations undetected.”
“Everyone’s a critic,” Kat replied with a roll of her eyes and a wave of her hand. “I haven’t failed a run yet.”
“Enough.” Davis reached up with his left hand to massage his temples. “I swear to God the two of you are children sometimes. Erinyes and Exe, you can refer to me as Merrimac. Hestia has already introduced herself, and ‘youngster’ over here-”
He hooked a thumb at Andrew. Kat frowned slightly at the emphasis on the word youngster.
“He goes by Dorian.” Davis sighed. “But if I let the two of them we’ll be catching up on old times for the next four hours. Jasper is missing, and the only lead we have is that Iris said you wanted to call a meeting. I trust you have something that could be useful to me.”
Kat looked to Xander only for him to shake his head and smile before taking his seat.
“This is your show, Erinyes.” He picked up one of the restaurant’s menus and began scanning it. “You called the meeting and you have the same intelligence I do. You’re senior enough to lead a meeting, I don’t see why you can’t start now.”
She took her own seat, mind spinning. Xander had sprung the lead role on her, but on the other hand, he was right. She’d been the one to call the meeting, and he had nothing independent to add. The people in the room knew her. It only made sense that she spearheaded things from their end.
“Exe and I were working another mission last night.” As Kat spoke, the hitch of indecision fell from her voice. “After gathering information from a wet asset, we learned that our target has been picked up and taken to the Beloit prison camp as part of an attempted hostile takeover. The asset also revealed that a number of other individuals that could impede the takeover were picked up and shipped to Beloit around the same time.”
Dorian/Andrew slouched indolently in his seat, a far cry from the attentive driver that had helped Kat only a couple of days ago. Almost casually, he mused aloud. “You know, Thomas Franklin died in a car crash yesterday. Seems he drove his car drunk off of a bridge on his way out of town in the wake of something big. Security is tearing apart his suite and a lot of people are asking questions about his known acquaintances right now.”
“The Dean?” Irene asked, turning to Dorian. “What do you mean he’s dead? He barely even leaves the college!”
“A shame,” Kat replied blandly. “I’m sure he knew a lot of things that would have been useful to our current situation.”
“A shame,” Davis agreed, his brow furrowed. “I have to say, I’m not a fan of all this hostile takeover talk. I owe the Haupt’s a debt that I’ll never be able to repay, and their wellbeing is very tied up in the current order of things. Even if Jasper weren’t in danger, I’d be inclined to lend a hand. I’m presuming you have evidence to back up your claims?”
“Exe was recording.” Kat nodded at Xander as the other man pulled his data jack from the base of his neck. Dorian stood up and walked around the table, flipping back a section of skin at the base of his skull to reveal a patch of chrome and his own cord.
The table sat in silence as the two men touched their connections together. Dorian took a step back, before his eyes rolled back into his head, twitching slightly. Maybe five seconds later he opened them once more.
“I watched the interrogation on high speed playback.” Dorian returned to his seat. “The file appears to be genuine and Erinyes has represented it fairly. There wasn’t any mention of Mr. Haupt’s name, but with his position and the timing, I don’t think there can be any doubt.”
“Fuck.” Davis grunted, leaning back in his chair, index finger tapping the table as he tried to gather his thoughts.
“I’ll drink to that,” Xander responded cheerfully, pouring himself a cup full of water from one of the crystal decanters left on the table.
“Beloit is a tough nut to crack though.” Davis turned to look at Hestia, a contemplative look on his face. “Hestia, you were on a team that was looking to extricate someone from Beloit a year or so ago. Whatever became of that?”
“Our target was killed in a bread riot before we could move, so the entire plan got scrapped.” A marble of blue flame appeared in her hand, dancing over her fingers as Hestia spoke. “When we were considering our raid, the security force was two hundred guards. All of them were players, heavily chromed, or both.”
Kat winced. Twenty-five security officers with subscriptions represented a major investment of corporate resources. Two hundred meant that GroCorp was deadly serious about keeping Beloit’s inmates on the inside.
“The actual camp itself is a fortress.” The blue flame bobbed and wove between Hestia’s fingers hypnotically. “The walls are a massive, concrete octagon that surrounds the entire prison. They’re sheer enough to eliminate climbing as an option, and there are enough tectonic sensors under them to rule out tunneling. Each length has six towers, four machine gun nests and two 30mm cannon emplacements. The corners are fortified to the point that they might as well be bunkers. Between the cannons, mortars, and gun slits I would recommend avoiding them at all cost.”
“A direct attack is out then.” Kat nodded slowly as she took in the other woman’s words. “But that’s hardly news. Even if we need to get two people out, I don’t think GroCorp would take kindly to us breaking into the prison at night and wrecking up the place. So long as we keep our actions to ‘a discrete dispute between executives’ security will likely turn a blind eye after the fact. Actually destroying an expensive piece of corporate property like the prison camp, even if it were possible, would lead to repercussions that none of us can shoulder.”
“Agreed,” Davis replied. “With the caveat that we’re all worm food if this doesn’t work out. GroCorp will accept some damage and moderate employee deaths if it’s to rescue ‘improperly imprisoned executives,’ but if we blow a hole in the wall and kill hundreds of senior guards, they will put a contract on us. If we don’t walk out of there with an executive to corroborate our stories, that will also lead to a contract. Given that most of the people in this room have worked such contracts before, I don’t think I need to emphasize how much I would prefer to avoid that.”
Everyone but Iris, who looked about as confused and comfortable as a puppy in a thunderstorm, nodded solemnly. Assassination and open combat were entirely different concepts. Kat had won more than her fair share of battles against better armed and more skilled opponents due to the element of surprise. On the other hand, even if she gained another dozen levels, Kat didn’t like her odds against a bomb installed inside her toilet.
“You can’t be serious right now.” Iris glanced wildly about the table. “We can’t just raid the Beloit Rehabilitation Camp. The BRC is impregnable. I’m sure that if we start a letter writing campaign, someone in a position of power will realize that they’ve made an error and release Jasper before anything-”
“Oh will you just, shut the fuck up!” Hestia shouted, her ball of blue fire erupting into a quartet of burning butterflies that flapped toward Iris, circling the trembling girl's head as the angry woman ranted. “The people that put our targets there knew exactly what they were doing. We’re past the point of appealing to their better nature. Hell, we were past that point well before either of us were born. Push has come to shove, and unless you’re willing to kill someone to get your way, your opinion means nothing at this table.”
Kat opened her mouth to say something, but stopped as Xander’s hand gripped her knee. He shook his head once, curtly, as Hestia stood up, stalking toward Iris, the blue butterflies flying closer to the whimpering girl.
“I owe Merrimac a couple favors and I agreed to take on this job for old times sake, but I didn’t agree to listen to this kind of drivel.” Iris was practically a puddle, wilting in her chair beneath Hestia’s wrath. “Have you ever even killed before?”
Iris shook her head, eyes wide with terror.
“Been shot?” Hestia asked heatedly. “At least been shot at?”
Iris whimpered, shaking her head again.
“Then you are not in a position to offer suggestions at this table.” Hestia crossed her arms with finality. “Your pretty world of dinner parties and corporate progress is built on a foundation of shadow and bone. It’s not polite to talk about how people got where they are or why they have what they have, but when your mommy and daddy want something done, they come to someone like me. I swear to God, about half of the ‘gas leaks’ that took out senior corporate officials were my doing.”
“At the end of the day, sometimes the only way forward is violence.” The crown of butterflies flew lower around Iris, singing her hair and almost landing on her shoulders. “Our opponents are willing to kill thousands to get what they want, so we can only answer in kind. If you want to save your friend, your hands are going to get dirty. If you don’t have it in you, then so help me-”
“Enough, Hestia.” Davis stood up, the red sheen of a stamina-based skill lighting up his entire body. “Miss Leander has already agreed to participate in this mission. Given how much she’s heard, we obviously can’t let her walk away without her assistance. The risk of her reporting on us in exchange for clemency is too high. She will be involved in the mission. If something were to happen, we will all be implicated together.”
“Will I have to fire a gun?” Iris asked in a whimper, not meeting Hestia’s eyes as the woman smirked down at her. “I’ve only ever fought in the Tower before.”
“Did you actually fight in the Tower or did you have a team of retainers carry you through a dungeon?” Hestia recalled her butterflies with a flick of her hand. They sailed back to her, merging into a ball of blue flame that once again began dancing over her knuckles.
“I-” Iris began to stutter only for Davis to cut her off.
“Hestia, this isn’t productive.” He stepped between the two women. “Take your seat so we can get on with the planning.”
“What if we take down the wireless network?” Andrew/Dorian asked, interrupting the argument from where he was still slouched in his seat. “Beloit has two hundred guards, but those walls have a lot of square footage to them. If we can knock out communications for an hour or two, whoever is going after the targets will only have to fight a handful of guards at a time. It’s still dangerous as all hell, but not an explicit suicide mission.”
“That would mean splitting the team.” Kat observed evenly. “Plus, it would make remote hacking impossible. It could work, but we’re already heavily understaffed for an operation like this.”
“Three and three, one computer specialist with a cranial jack on each squad.” Dorian shrugged, sitting up. “It would be a matter of minutes for Merrimac to figure out where the substation that provided coverage for the prison was, and a team of three should be able to keep it offline for about an hour. After that techs and security start showing up, and the people inside the prison are on their own.”
“Then how do we divide up the teams?” Kat asked, feeling her heart sinking as she already suspected the answer.
“There isn’t any time for training so each group will be people that are familiar with each other.” Davis nodded slowly. “Our team will take down the substation. You will have to handle extracting the targets.”
“I could go with them,” Hestia offered cheerfully. “I’d love to spend some time getting to know Erinyes.”
“No.” Davis shook his head solemnly. “Both teams will need a caster, and they’re on a stealth mission. You’re about as subtle as a hand grenade.”
“Subtlety,” Hestia huffed. “Why should I hide my work? I’m an artist.”
Uncomfortably, Kat looked over to Iris. The other girl was quivering, eyes wide.
“I suppose that means we get Miss Leander?” Kat asked without any enthusiasm.
“Of course,” Dorian interjected, a slightly malicious smile on his face. “After all, Erinyes, she’s your friend.”
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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