“I don’t see why the new girl gets to drive,” Xander complained, his arms crossed.
Kat glanced back at him from the front seat of the SUV where she sat next to a white knuckled Iris. Xander was sulking, arms across his chest in the middle row of seats.
“Because I can’t drive safely in this traffic and you’re a maniac,” Kat responded smoothly, turning her head back toward the road. “Iris is getting us to Beloit fast enough, and without drawing attention. If you were behind the wheel, Exe, we already would have cut something like six cars off and forced at least one off the road. There’s no way in hell we would make it to a sensitive location like the Beloit Rehabilitation Camp without kicking up a fuss if I let you behind the wheel.”
“I could get us there faster,” he muttered, glaring out the tinted windows at the decrepit outskirts of Chiwaukee as they left the megalopolis.
“I acknowledge that,” Kat replied, checking the throwing knives in her bandoleer and the infiltration equipment in her carry pack for what felt like the dozenth time. “I also believe that the security guards would be able to track our arrival by the honking horns and the plumes of smoke you left in your wake.”
“He can drive if he wants,” Iris whimpered, merging into the slow lane to let a trio of motorcyclists clad in body armor with rifles strapped to their backs roar by. “I’m really not enjoying this. In fact, I’m pretty sure that my presence will just slow the two of you down. You don’t even really need to bring me on this mission. I won’t tell anyone what’s happening.”
“Nah.” Kat could hear Xander shaking his head from behind her. “Even if I wanted to get on Merrimac’s bad side, and considering his reputation, that would make me a bona fide idiot, he’s right. Even with your family connections, if you get caught participating in a raid on the BRC there’s no way you’ll be able to come out of it unscathed. This is the best way to ensure your silence.”
“Plus,” Kat put a hand on Iris’ arm soothingly, “we will need a getaway driver. You won’t even need to come inside, just protect the car until we escape with the prisoners.”
“Kat-” Iris began only for Kat to cut her off.
“Erinyes.” She shook her head at Iris. “When we’re in the field or planning you need to call me Erinyes.”
Iris flinched. “I’m never going to get used to that,” the woman muttered. “What did you do to earn that name anyway? I heard that a samurai needs to be pretty serious about what they do to get named.”
“She killed an entire strike team,” Xander volunteered gleefully. “A target that only should have had unaugmented security had multiple named samurai on site. She killed all of them and secured the objective with only offsite support. Even if the people she finished off weren’t named, that’s enough to earn a name in most places.”
“Oh God.” Iris squirmed in her seat. “Does Jasper know?”
“No.” Kat chuckled. “Merrimac clearly suspected, but for whatever reason he didn’t tell Jasper. He knows I’m affiliated with ‘independent contractors’ but he doesn’t know my role or my seniority.”
“We-” Iris licked her lips, trying to calm the stutter in her voice. “We are going to save him though, right? I know Jasper can get a little intense about his family, but he’s always been nice to me. With everyone else, you can tell they’re just pretending. That they’re trying to squeeze some sort of advantage out of you or your family, but with Jasper it was different. He could be ruthless when necessary, but the rest of the time, he was just nice. The idea of him disappearing forever-”
She stopped speaking for a moment, simply staring out the SUV’s front window as they wove in and out of traffic. Farm fields and windmills rolled past them.
“Most people don’t come back from the Beloit Rehabilitation Center,” she continued bleakly. “Those that do aren’t the same. They aren’t as quick on their feet, and if you even hint at questioning the CEO, they start trembling. I can’t have that happen to Jasper.”
“We’ll get your friend,” Xander spoke up, his voice softening. “Partially because Merrimac wants him out and partially because he’s connected to Erinyes, but in all likelihood, the newly picked up political prisoners will all be in the same place. They’re going to want to interrogate them before releasing them into the general population. It only makes sense to pull both of them out at once.”
“Thank you.” Iris practically whispered the words, but it drew a smile from Kat.
There wasn’t much room for mercy or good deeds on Earth. Part of that was Kat’s comparative power. She’d never been in a position to help someone. In Schaumburg she might have had a few more scraps than the other scavengers, but her position was always too tenuous. One misstep and everything would come tumbling down around her, throwing Kat back into the gutter that she’d just barely crawled out of.
She was still only a step away from the precipice, but this was one tangible way she could make the world a better place. Jasper was annoying and a bit aggressive, but as far as Kat could see he was a good person. Well, as good a person as anyone could be.
Helping him wouldn’t fix economic inequality. It wouldn’t save the world or provide blankets to the street rats shivering themselves to sleep in the bombed out buildings of the Shell, but it was something she could do here and now without appreciable added risk to the mission. It was a small step forward, but it was a step that Kat could proactively take.
“It’s not just altruism.” Kat craned her neck backward to see Xander frowning in the failing light. “If our intelligence is right, major changes are coming to GroCorp. A hostile takeover means a lot of deaths, and a prolonged disruption of business. Even if me and mine don’t get caught up in the purge, there’s no promise that it won’t interrupt food supplies and public order.”
“To those of us on the outside,” he continued slowly, “cutting food and fuel will kill us just as surely as a team of corporate thugs. It’ll just stretch the experience out over a couple weeks. We need people like your little friend alive and well so that he can alert the rest of the executive class to what’s coming. Hopefully if enough of you have the heads up you can nip this little revolution in the bud.”
Iris whimpered slightly, and Kat patted her on the knee. She’d never been great at emotions or comforting people that were down. Her mom would probably have a whole speech to get the woman to open up and calm down, but Kat was out of her depth.
“We’ll get him out of there,” she finished lamely. Iris nodded, eyes moistening as she kept driving.
The minutes melted away in tense silence, the steady hum of the SUV’s engine the only sound as the sun set. Finally, Iris pulled the car off the road and into the parking lot of a rest stop about a half mile from the Beloit Rehabilitation Camp.
She turned off the car, and they waited. Kat pulled the headpiece of her infiltration suit over her face and tightened her joint seals, but after that, there was nothing to do but periodically check her smartpanel for signs that Merrimac’s team had been successful.
Finally, the recap of last night’s episode of Chrome Cowboys cut out, replaced by an error alerting her to check with her system administrator. She turned to Xander, his face a solid oval of black fabric. He nodded back at her.
“We’ve got an hour, Erinyes.” Xander opened the side door of the SUV and stepped outside. “Get me over the wall and to a hardwired computer hookup and I can find our boys.”
“Fast and quiet?” She asked, sliding a silenced pistol into the holster on her right hip and a 5.5mm high velocity machine pistol into another.
“Don’t be afraid to take someone down, but be stealthy about it,” Xander responded, checking his own weapons for the final time. “Their wireless communication is down, that doesn’t mean that everything is nonfunctional. Gunshots will still bring people running, and if anyone is near a wired hookup, they can sound an alarm and bring the entire camp down on top of us.”
Kat nodded her acknowledgement back, and then they were off, running in a half crouch as they made their way through a farm field, the half-grown crops concealing their furtive movements. Ahead of them, Beloit itself was visible, spotlights playing their way back and forth across the empty grassland that separated it from the nearby farms.
They paused for a minute at the edge of the corn field for Kat to cast Shadow once on both of them before taking off once again. She only needed to burn stamina on Cat Step to keep up with Xander twice, and then they were at camp’s walls, her chest pumping rhythmically as Kat tried to catch her breath.
“Up and over,” Xander whispered, pulling a length of nylon rope and a climbing metal stake out of his pack and handing it to her.
Kat dismissed his instance of Shadow before casting Levitation on herself. She took a couple of steps back, hopping up and down on her toes to assess her lessened weight while eyeing up the wall.
She exhaled, burning stamina to activate Cat Step once again in order to increase her speed as she sprinted at the cement barrier. At the last second, she switched to Leaping, partially crouching mid-step as her thighs burned red before launching herself into the air.
The ground disappeared beneath her as air whistled past. Just as Kat reached the apex of her leap, she stretched her arm upward, barely grabbing onto the lip of the wall with her fingertips.
With a grunt, she heaved herself over the edge, landing shoulder first onto the metal walkway. She winced at the clang and clatter as her artificially light body bounced off of the steel panels. Now that she was on the wall, Kat could hear plenty of noise from the prison camp inside, but her ascent had still been louder than she-
“What was that?” Kat froze as she heard a woman’s voice coming from her right. “This is patrol Beta Forty-Four, I have an unexplained sound, investigating now.”
Kat hauled herself up into a crouch, chest heaving. Shadow still clung to her, hiding Kat’s outline from the guard cautiously approaching with her rifle in both hands, ready to snap it up to her shoulder at a moment’s notice.
“This is Beta Forty-Four.” The patrol stopped releasing the rifle with her left hand and letting it swing backward on its sling as she pressed the now free hand against the side of her smartpanel. “I’m only getting static here, please respond.”
Kat exploded into motion, one hand whipping a dagger at the distracted guard as she broke into a Cat Step-assisted sprint.
Her target snapped her hand up in time, the knife meant for the woman’s throat instead sprouting from her forearm. The guard hissed in pain, reeling backward as she tried to bring her rifle to bear one handed.
Then Kat was in front of her, driving a heel into a knee and flipping her knife into a double handed grip, one hand wrapped around the handle while the other gripped the pommel in order to drive the blade into the guard’s chest.
Kat winced as, rather than snapping her target's knee back, her foot bruised itself on the metal of cyberware. Still, the blade struck true, Kat activating Penetrate to push it straight through the guard’s ribs and into the organs beneath.
The other woman wrapped an arm around Kat and dropped, dragging the two of them to the metal paneling together. Blood flecked the guard’s lips, and her entire body began to glow red as she activated some sort of skill.
Almost immediately, Kat felt the pressure on her back from the woman’s injured arm double. Then the guard’s other arm joined it, linking together in the small of Kat’s back. For a moment, Kat managed to keep some space between the two of them using her own hands and elbows as a buffer, but she felt herself slipping.
The hilt of her own knife slammed into Kat’s ribs as she pulled her arms to the side rather than risk breaking them under the inexorable pressure.
The other woman grinned at her, blood staining her teeth into a crimson jackal’s grimace. Madness filled the other woman’s eyes as her grip on Kat tightened.
Stars flashed in Kat’s vision and her bones seemed to creak under the pressure as she wriggled her hands to her sides.
“Feel that, ya bitch,” the woman hissed at her, blood spattering Kat’s facemask. “I’ve got yer hands at your side and Ferocity active. Lost HP is just making me stronger. Punctured lung is already healing, but until it does I have fifty percent more strength to crush you with. I’ve fought snakes like you before. Good luck wriggling free from this.”
Kat’s silenced pistol left its holster, pressing its muzzle against the bone of the guard’s hip. Without saying anything, she pulled the trigger.
The gun coughed and bucked in Kat’s hand.
Kat grunted. The woman’s eyes widened, the red glow around her doubling in intensity as her arms crushed Kat even closer against her chest.
She shifted the aim on her pistol, aiming upward into her opponent’s chest. It shuddered in her hand three more times, the force of the bearhug increasing with each bullet until abruptly the red glow disappeared entirely and the woman slumped backward.
Kat sat up gingerly, wincing at the aches covering her body. She reached down, ripping the knife from the guard’s chest, leaning forward to slash open her throat before retrieving her throwing knife. With a grunt, Kat lifted up the body up and toppled it over the side of the wall toward Xander.
A second later, she used Penetrate to ram the piton into the concrete and throw the nylon rope down after the corpse.
She slumped against the wall, using Cure Wounds I to fix the muscle pains and strained joints while the piton jerked and vibrated next to her. Finally, almost two minutes later, Xander clambered over the wall and slipped down into a crouch next to her.
He glanced Kat up and down. “Making friends up here without me?” He asked. She could almost see the shit-eating grin on his face under the mask.
“Just gobs of fun,” Kat replied, pulling herself to her feet. “I’ll let you fight the next one. I think I just dislocated every vertebrae in my back.”
“Lucky, I pay a huge blonde guy good money to do that.” Xander nodded sagely.
Kat just stared back at him, removing the magazine from her gun and loading a couple loose rounds into it before slamming it back into the butt of her pistol
“Anyway.” Xander coughed. “Are you ready to take over one of these towers? I’d bet my last credit that they have wired connections in them.”
“Ready enough,” Kat replied, sliding her pistol back into its holster and checking her mana levels. Even with a couple minutes of regeneration, she was barely over half. Enough for a quick fight or two, but a protracted engagement was an awful idea.
“Then follow me.” Xander turned from her, leading the way toward one of the nearby cannon towers.
An ugly cement construct, it was barely a story taller than the wall itself. The bunker’s centerpiece was a 30mm cannon, big enough to chew apart anything smaller than a main battle tank, but Kat couldn’t help but notice the rifle slits dappling its walls and the spotlight on its roof, manned by a silhouette.
Xander tapped her on the shoulder, motioning for the two of them to move closer to the tower. Once he was pressed up against it, his body glowed faintly purple for a fraction of a second.
“Compulsion.” The word was barely a whisper. Xander held his hand up, palm outward to halt Kat.
A couple of seconds later, she heard a muffled thump from inside. Xander stood up and opened the door.
Kat followed him in, taking note of a burly man with a single chrome arm standing over the corpse of a woman, her head twisted at an unnatural angle. His eyes were blank, staring sightlessly at the computerized controls for the cannon that filled most of the room.
Without saying anything, Xander walked up to the man and placed his silenced pistol against his temple. It was like hitting a watermelon with a sledgehammer. Kat flinched as gore sprayed against the far wall.
A second later, the body crumpled to the floor, Xander stepping over it nonchalantly on his way to the computer. He pulled the cord to his cranial jack out of a flap in the back of his infiltration suit, crouching next to the firing computer.
“This will take a minute or two.” Xander glanced back toward her. “Make sure there aren’t any surprises while I work.”
“Got it, Exe.” Kat’s voice was more strained than she would’ve liked. “I think I spotted someone up top, I’ll clear them out and be right back down.”
He just grunted at Kat as she put her feet to the metal rungs of the latter, burning a little stamina with Cat Step in order to prevent her footfalls from echoing and alerting her quarry. Quietly, she pushed aside the trap door and clambered up onto the tower’s roof.
In front of her, a man rested his arms and torso on the spotlight, his rifle’s muzzle pointing at the night sky from its perch leaning against the structure’s stomach high wall.
Kat padded up behind him, each step inaudible over the steady din of the prison camp behind them. She deactivated Cat step, noting that her constant stamina use was about to leave her critically low.
Still, there was enough left over for Penetrate as Kat’s left hand snaked around and clamped itself over the man’s mouth a fraction of a second before her blade sank through the back of his skull.
He twitched once, body going limp and slumping against the spotlight. Gently, Kat pulled him off, rolling him over and slitting his throat just to be sure.
Once she had confirmed his death, Kat made her way to the barricade, willing her eyes to switch to back to Night Vision after the bright lights of the tower control room had shocked her out of it. She surveyed the wall. There were guards patrolling its length, but none near enough to pose an immediate threat to Xander and her.
With a sigh of relief, Kat clambered down the ladder, no longer worried about stealth. When she turned back around, Xander stiffened suddenly.
“I think I found them, Erinyes.” His voice was tense and clogged with worry.
“Shouldn’t that be a good thing?” Kat asked tentatively.
“Finding them is a good thing,” Xander replied, turning his faceless head toward her. “Hell, they’re even nearby. It’s where they are specifically that’s the problem. It’s a biomedical lab rated for human experimentation. Both of them are registered as test subjects in some sort of black project called ‘Operation Changeling.”
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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