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A note from CoCop

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Air rushed past Kat as she quietly jumped from the roof of the squat concrete building toward the ground. She hit with a muffled thud, quickly glancing back and forth for any of the guards she might have alerted with her descent.

A moment later, Xander landed next to her with noticeably less grace and more noise. She winced as he pulled himself up from the ground, dusting mostly imaginary dirt off of his infiltration suit.

They’d made it to the laboratory with only minor trouble. Kat and Xander managed to avoid all but one guard, a man that Xander had frozen with his Psi abilities long enough for Kat to ram her dagger through the back of his skull and dispose of his body over the barrier wall.

It helped that the lab itself was built into the wall. Apparently, most of Beloit’s administration buildings were located near the edge of the rehabilitation camp. The interior of the complex was little more than a vacant no man’s land filled with tents and rival prison gangs that ‘regulated’ themselves.

So long as the camp’s general population didn’t try to break the fortified and electrified inner barrier that protected guard housing and administration, they were more or less given free reign to brutalize and terrorize their fellow inmates. The goal of the ‘rehabilitation camp’ was containment, and if a significant portion of the prisoners died in turf wars, that just meant that the prison administrators could pocket more in profits as they saved on food.

As for VIPs and those that might be expected to one day exit the camp ‘reformed?’ It sure seemed like all of them ended up in one of the three laboratories dedicated to human experimentation on site.

Xander tapped her on the shoulder, silently pointing toward the lab’s entrance with two fingers before scrambling off into the night. A couple of seconds later, both of them were standing on either side of a metal door. Kat’s right hand hovered above her sheathed knife and holstered pistol, ready to draw either at a moment’s notice. The choice for Xander was much simpler. He stood, back to the wall on the other side of the door facing Kat, silenced handgun at ready. Xander raised three fingers.

He put down one finger. Kat scanned their surroundings, looking for witnesses. There was a bunkhouse nearby, and beyond it a wall twice her height. The barrier was unmanned, instead motion sensor triggered turrets studded its length, facing inward toward the center of the general inmate population.

One finger remained. She took a deep breath, finally deciding on her knife. It slid out of its sheath in a single smooth and practiced motion. Kat hefted its reassuring weight thoughtfully. Xander could handle ranged targets. She would cover everything else.

Xander kicked open the door, handgun coughing twice as Kat wheeled around to follow him. She hopped over the threshold, knife at ready.

A man was on the ground, blood welling up from two holes in his chest and staining his white smock read. Shattered around the body were a number of test tubes, little more than glass shards with printed paper labels stuck to them.

The two of them rushed past a wall full of vaguely labeled stainless steel refrigerators. One or two were marked ‘samples’ but the most simply said ‘nutrients.’ Kat had no idea what they were nutrients for, just that the refrigerators weren’t meant to store food. After all, Kat thought as she slammed her back up against the wall next to the door to the adjoining room, the final freezer of the first room was labeled ‘provisions.’

Xander nodded to her before kicking the next door open once as well. This room was a much more traditional office setting, a matrix of half cubicles complete with advanced looking desktop computers.

A man and a woman jolted to their feet as Kat spilled into the room after Xander. The woman jerked as heavy, silenced bullets slammed into her.

Kat didn’t waste a second, triggering Dazzle to disable the man before burning a small amount of stamina on Leaping in order to clear the cubicle before his. She landed on the desk in front of him, driving her knife into his neck and sawing sidewise to sever his windpipe before her struggling target could raise an alarm.

He slumped backward, clutching at his throat. Kat bit the inside of her cheek, focusing on the pain to quell the bile rising in her throat.

She stepped aside, giving Xander access to the direct port for his cranial jack on her victim’s blood spattered desk.

In another life, either of the two lab assistants could have been her. Bright and eager to climb her way up the corporate ladder, fueled by a desperate desire to pay down her debts. It was like St. Louis all over again. The wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At least this time, Kat consoled herself, there truly hadn’t been another option. Xander and her were racing a ticking clock. The only question was whether a dead body was found by a patrol, or whether the wireless network was restored first. Either way, an alarm was inevitable.

There simply hadn’t been time to perform reconnaissance and slip into the laboratory unseen. As unfortunate as the situation was, Kat worked a messy job. She could mourn the innocent later, but for now-

“Erinyes,” Xander called out, grabbing her attention. “Check the far wall.”

She glanced over at him, futilely trying to read Xander’s face through his opaque black mask. Giving up, she followed his gaze and froze.

The cubicles only occupied half of the room. The other half was a cluster of sterile white analytical equipment surrounding a dozen large green tubes. Each was large enough to hold an adult man curled into the fetal position, an easy fact to ascertain because two of them did.

Another four contained what could only be fetuses in various stages of development, while the remaining tubes held a variety of children and young adults.

Kat approached the equipment, squinting as she ignored the hum of a running centrifuge. Each of the tubes seemed to glow with a light of its own, as if the murky green liquid cradling the bodies was bioluminescent.

She frowned.

“Exe?” Kat asked absently, her eyes locked on the tubes. “Jasper Haupt and Colyn Raster were only picked up a day or two ago, right?”

“Yeah,” Xander grunted back. “They probably only made it to this facility about twenty four hours ahead of us.”

Kat reached down, running her hand over the metal nameplate on one of the tubes. ‘JASPER HAUPT’ was spelled out in plain font, stamped into the steel in all capitals. She stood up, lips drawn tight.

Inside the chamber was a fetus, late in the third trimester and floating peacefully in the dully glowing green soup. Faintly she could see some shapes etched into the glass of the container. They looked like letters, but nothing in any language she’d ever heard of.

One tube down, was something labeled ‘COLYN RASTER.’ As best Kat could tell, it was a healthy baby boy, between one and two years old.

“Have you managed to figure out what ‘Project Changeling’ is?” Kat asked, concern weighing her voice as she leaned closer to Colyn’s cylinder. Once again she noticed etching in the glass, various repetitive symbols that formed some sort of pattern and glowed with their own light.

“The header is on every file in here,” Xander replied in frustration, “but there aren’t any electronic records of what’s actually happening. Either these are the least organized researchers on the planet, or they’re deliberately not recording what they’re doing.”

“Maybe it’s paper only?” Kat ran her finger over the shapes in the glass, frowning as a thrill of mana ran up her hand from the green tube.

“I’ve run into that before,” Xander grunted. “Everything is hackable these days, and a couple of the more paranoid execs keep their most dangerous secrets in places where they can’t be downloaded. Still, it’s horribly inefficient so most don’t bother. I guess we just have rotten luck.”

“Seems like it.” Kat flinched as the child in front of her stirred, churning the murky green liquid it was suspended in.

She stepped backward, taking in all twelve of the tubes. They burbled quietly to themselves, humming and glowing as the shapes inside them twisted and grew at an almost visible rate.

“Wait!” She turned around at Xander’s exclamation. “That’s something. I found Jasper and Colyn. Apparently they’re in the middle of something called neural patterning?”

“Whatever that is.” Xander shrugged, unplugging himself from the computer. “Not that it matters. I have floor plans and room numbers. That’s all we need to get them the hell out of here.”

“I’m not sure I like the sound of ‘neural patterning.” Kat glanced over her shoulder at the humming tubes of green liquid as she followed Xander. “I’m not exactly up to date on the newest technological innovations, but everything in this lab seems like it’s a generation or four more advanced than anything I’ve heard of.”

“B-wing,” Xander mumbled to himself, picking one of the three doors out of the office before shrugging and glancing back at her. “You’re not wrong, Erinyes. I don’t like jumping to conclusions, but whatever’s going on here stinks to high heaven. As bad as the rehabilitation camp is, these labs are something a whole lot darker. The sooner we get our packages and get out of here the better.”

B-wing was little more than a narrow concrete hallway lit by cheap fluorescent lights. The first three doors were fairly straightforward, containing a bathroom, a kitchenette and a supply closet.

After them, things took a darker turn. Each room had a metal door with an observation slit around eye level. Inside, they were little bigger than a dark and crudely constructed closet. Entirely innocent if it wasn’t for the crude iron shackles bolted to the back wall.

“Here we are.” Xander stopped in front of a metal door marked B-11. “This should be Colyn Raster. Room B-14 will be Jasper. I’ll grab the target while you rescue your friend. Then let’s get the hell out of here. This place gives me the heebie jeebies.”

Kat rolled her eyes at him before hurrying down a couple of doors to room B-14. She stood on her tiptoes, looking through the observation slit.

Jasper was inside, suspended above the ground with his hands and feet in the shackles, bolted to the wall. On his head, a ring of golden metal glowed brightly enough to forcefully deactivate her Nightvision. Even as Kat blinked away the halo’s glare, the circle pulsed ominously, the sound of static filling her ears with each flare.

She slipped inside, leaving the door open behind her. Jasper was sleeping fitfully, body jerking periodically while his eyes twitched wildly beneath their lids.

With a frown, she hooked her knife under the glowing halo. Mana surged into her body, singeing Kat’s hand and filling her reserves as she quickly flipped the golden ring off of Jasper’s head.

The minute it lost contact with his body, the metal circle’s glow disappeared, plunging them both into twilight as their only illumination came from the fluorescent lights in the hallway.

Jasper groaned, stirring as the halo clattered to the floor. He opened his eyes, staring blearily at Kat’s silhouette, confusion filling his features. He cocked his head to the side.

“Aren’t you a little short for a corporate security guard?” Jasper asked, blinking at her.

Kat didn’t reply, burning stamina to activate Penetrate and pierce the locking mechanisms on his shackles. As soon as his hands were free, Jasper slumped forward, unable to hold himself upright.

She caught him with a grunt, stabbing her burning red dagger through the restraints holding his ankles. Jasper stumbled down from his perch, half collapsing against one of the coffin-like room’s walls as he tried to orient himself. Almost as an afterthought, Kat picked up the golden halo and tucked it into her carrying satchel.

“God,” Jasper mumbled, the words slurred. “I keep remembering my childhood over and over. I swear Dad has taught me to ride a bike for the first time a dozen times in the last week. Then as soon as that’s done, I’m hitting the winning double in the little league grand prix. Over and over and over again.”

“They were doing something to you,” Kat stated, the ring of metal in her satchel weighing guiltily against her hip. “We’ll have you looked at once we get out of here, but for now there isn’t much time.”

“Wait.” Jasper lurched toward her, losing his balance and forcing Kat to slip her head under his arm to balance him. “You don’t work for Davis. I’ve heard your voice somewhere, but-”

“No names.” Kat shook her head, half dragging him out of the room. In the hallway Xander had Colyn’s slumped body draped over his shoulder.

“But I’m pretty sure I know you,” Kat grit her teeth as Jasper babbled drunkenly into her shoulder.

“We can talk when we’re free, Haupt,” Xander grunted, struggling under Raster’s weight. Apparently he hadn’t gotten all that many strength points in the Tower.

“Free from where?” He asked, shifting against Kat’s side. “One minute I was having a glass of wine with dinner, and the next I could barely string two thoughts together while a pair of commandos drag me out of somewhere.”

“You’re in Beloit,” Kat replied as Xander leaned into the door out of B-wing with his unoccupied shoulder.

“Beloit!” She clamped down on Jasper’s arm as he struggled drunkenly to escape from her grip. “What the hell am I doing in-”

The instant Kat stepped into the office area, Jasper abruptly stopped rambling. He also stopped moving.

He whimpered, body shuddering against her. In Kat’s pouch, the hoop that had been over his head warming suddenly enough that she could feel it through the fabric.

Jasper collapsed, slipping from her grasp and slapping his hands over his head, moaning as he rolled back and forth on the poured concrete of the floor.

“It’s me!” He whispered urgently. “Oh God it hurts but it's me! I can feel it in my head, crawling around. Begging me to let it in.”

Two of the green tubes up against the wall began to glow brighter, the liquid bubbling as if it was boiling. Kat didn’t even need to look to determine that they were the cylinders devoted to Jasper and Colyn.

“Erinyes!” Xander hissed. Colyn had stiffened up over his shoulder before thrashing around. The older man was wholly occupied with keeping his charge under control. “We need to stop the feedback.”

She drew her silenced pistol, aiming first at the green tube linked to Jasper. The gun shuddered in her hand four times. Kat might not be the best shot in Chiwaukee, but it didn’t take a gunfighter to hit an immobile tank full of glowing liquid.

Unfortunately, it didn’t do anything. Each spot the bullets hit sparkled, glowing blue for a fraction of a second before the flare of light faded, leaving little more than a missing chip of glass behind.

At her feet, Jasper twisted, his body contorting with a grunt of pain as his muscles all spasmed at once.

Kat slipped her gun back in its holster. Even if she emptied both of her remaining magazines into the equipment, it wasn’t making any progress. She began gathering her mana as Jasper rotated onto his back, eyes rolled up into his skull.

Itha vokkar tammos Drapp!

Whatever Jasper was shouting, it was something more than mere babbling. There was a structure and purpose to it that Kat couldn’t parse.

A problem for another day. She squinted, launching a Gravity Spike at the cylinder. This time, something happened.

For a brief moment, the entire cylinder flared blue. Then, the force of the spell ripped the glass apart from the inside, shattering the tube.

Green liquid, too thick to be water and smelling strongly of sewage, splashed out onto the office floor. Almost immediately it began hissing as it started chewing holes in the uncovered concrete, the still body in its center the only thing unaffected by its acid bite.

Jasper relaxed at her feet, unconscious.

Kat turned her attention on Colyn’s tube, cracking it open with Gravity Spike a couple of seconds later.

“Definitely time to get moving now, Exe.” She picked up Jasper, slinging him over her shoulder. Already the room was beginning to fill up with a thick yellow-green mist as whatever was in the glass cylinder interacted with the cement of the floor. Kat couldn’t confirm that the gas was dangerous, but given the way the mysterious liquid had torn into and pitted the floor, she wasn’t enthused at the prospect of testing her lungs against it.

He nodded back, picking Raster up and opening the door to the laboratory’s cold storage room. The two of them jogged through it, eyes straining for threats but finding none. Then they were outside, stars twinkling down at them as the general unsettling shouts and screams of the nearby main prison filled the night.

Xander turned to her, shifting Colyn slightly on his shoulder.

“We’re not getting out the same way we came in.” He nodded toward the high outer wall of. “The original plan was to use your magic to help them climb a rope, but that requires the target to be conscious. I think I saw some schematics for a waste treatment plant on the other side of the camp. We’ll need to sneak over there and overwhelm the guards that are monitoring it and disable the purification system, but once we do that we’ll just be five hundred yards of crawling through shit-smelling foulness from freedom.”

Before Kat could respond, a low siren sounded, building in intensity until the steady tone filled the entire prison. One by one, searchlights began to snap on atop the guard towers.

“Plan B!” Kat shouted, turning toward the massive concrete wall. “Gravity Spike does more damage against heavy objects. Cover me while I blast our way out of here.”

“Good enough for me.” Kat could almost see the grin on Xander’s face as he drew his machine pistol. “No point in being quiet now that they know we’re here. We might as well break out the fun stuff.”

Despite the lights, no one noticed the two of them until she used Gravity Spike for the first time. The prison was simply too large, and although it had a lot of guards, most of them were spread out covering its massive surface area.

The wall shook, cracks running up its entire height as a massive chunk of concrete at its base shattered, crumbling into more manageable pieces. Kat set Jasper’s body down and began clearing the area of debris even as she focused her mana for another strike.

Behind her, she heard the rapid crack of automatic gunfire.

“Get fucked ya corpos!” Xander shouted, clearly enjoying himself more than he had any right to under the circumstances.

Psi Thrust.” His voice was obscured by the crackle of more gunfire. Kat felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. A second later, there was an explosion and some screaming.

Her second Gravity Spike hit the wall, causing the entire structure to shudder. Already it was beginning to sag slightly.

She frowned. That could be a problem. If the entire wall collapsed, they’d have to climb it while every guard in the rehabilitation camp shot at them. Her original plan had been to use the spheres of gravity to drill a hole in the concrete that they could crawl through, but-

A lightning bolt snapped past her, Kat’s vision dimming for a second, protecting her from its bright flash. Gravel showered down on top of Jasper and her from where the spell had struck the wall.

Compulsion!” Xander shouted back, firing a shot for emphasis. “Stop throwing mana at us and burn this place to to the fucking ground!”

The third Gravity Spike was enough. The wall groaned dangerously, and the tunnel she’d ripped into it was filled with fist sized chunks of stone and rebar, but it would have to do. Xander was holding the line for the moment, but it was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed.

“We’re through, Exe,” she shouted back at him, taking in the burning squat buildings of the prison administration center while Xander’s machine pistol chattered relentlessly.

She didn’t take the time to assess his kill-count or the full extent of the damage Xander had done, instead grabbing Jasper by the scruff of his neck and dragging him into the tunnel.

The cement hurt like hell under her hands and knees, and Kat banged her head more than once on the narrow ceiling, but a couple of seconds later she was free, casting Levitation on herself as she slung Jasper over her shoulder. Barely ten seconds later, Xander joined her. Kat used the last of her mana to repeat the spell on him as he fiddled with something fist sized and metal that he’d pulled from his storage pouch before rolling it into the tunnel.

Then they were running as fast as their magically lightened loads would let them. Behind Kat, there was a loud ‘thump,’ and then a wall of pressure and rock dust washed over her. She didn’t know where Xander had gotten his hands on high explosives, but Kat certainly appreciated him collapsing the escape tunnel and part of the wall itself behind them.

Machine gun fire stabbed through the night, raking the ground in the general direction that Kat was running. Instinctively, she reached for her mana to cast shadow, only to find her reserves empty.

One of the cannons thumped, sending of a plume of dirt flying as it struck the earth some distance to her left. Searchlights were playing over the field around the prison camp, the siren changing to a louder and more insistent tone as the defenders tried to find them.

Another burst of gunfire lit up the night, this time well behind the two of them. The guards were firing blindly, hoping to get lucky or force Xander and her into a mistake while they waited for the light crews to find them.

Gritting her teeth, Kat redoubled her efforts. If she and Xander hadn’t been found, it'd be just a matter of getting far enough away from the prison before a search team mobilized.

Her legs burned, and breath began to rasp in her throat. Xander kept pace with her. Despite the blood pounding in Kat’s ears, she could hear his heavy ragged breathing as well. Both of them were in shape, but neither had the muscular build needed to carry a body while dodging gunfire.

More cannon fire erupted, almost drowning out the thump of mortars. The night shook and exploded around them, shrapnel flying wildly as fireball after fireball erupted in the empty field. Some were near enough to singe and batter Kat, but most missed wildly, blindly fired wastes of ammunition.

Then they were over a ridge, Beloit’s bright searchlights obscured by the mound of dirt. Kat slowed to a steady jog, Xander matching pace with her. With a jerk of his head, Xander changed their course, the mapping software in his cyberware directing him to their rendezvous point.

In the distance, Kat still heard the crackle of gunfire and the thumps of explosions as the prison guards kept firing wildly. They were well out of range, but the corporate security couldn’t know that. Still, that was no reason to slow down. It was only a matter of time before search parties with gene-engineered hounds were sent after them, and when that happened, Kat would vastly prefer to be in a car, on her way back to Chiwaukee.

Finally, they came upon the rest stop. She felt a layer of tension ease as she recognized Iris’ SUV. The girl would have been an idiot to run. Merrimac would’ve ended her before she even made it back to her house, but smarter people had done dumber things while panicking.

“Oh my God!” Iris screamed at them, exiting the car and opening the sliding side door for them as Xander and Kat approached. “Is he dead? Did we really do all of this just for Jasper to-”

“Calm down,” Kat grunted, slipping past the hyperventilating girl to put buckle Jasper’s unconscious body into the back seat of the SUV. “He’s just knocked out. They were doing something to him in the camp. Now get into the driver’s seat because we need to get moving. Things are bad, and they’re only going to get worse.”

“I hope this was worth it,” Xander muttered darkly as he passed Colyn’s body to her. “I can’t say for certain, but based on what we saw in that lab, I’d say we made some serious enemies today. The kind that aren’t going to care about the Code.”

Kat’s blood ran cold as she buckled the comatose executive in next to Jasper. She didn’t refute Xander. That was a tall order when she agreed with him.

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About the author

CoCop

  • United States
  • Founding Member of the Zard Skwad

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

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