The SUV’s wheels screeched against the highway, throwing Kat into the wall as the vehicle swerved through traffic, cutting off another car. Iris practically spun the steering wheel, returning them to the fast lane as she hyperventilated noisily.
Inertia pulled Kat back into her seat and the engine revved, switching gear. She glanced out the window worriedly. Luckily, the night traffic was just a shadow of the daytime chaos. Still, Iris’ erratic driving would just draw attention-
Another car cut someone off without a turn signal or warning, setting off a cacophony of horns as it plowed through traffic, forcing other vehicles to get out of the way. Kat leaned back into her seat, smiling wryly as she checked her seatbelt.
She’d forgotten herself there. They were entering Chiwaukee. Honestly? Driving safely like a sane person would almost stand out more than whatever the hell it was Iris was doing. Kat just hoped that they would make it to their destination in one piece.
“Turn right on Nozick,” Xander called out from the middle seat. “We’re almost there.”
Kat grabbed her seat-rest as Iris veered through two lanes, forcing a truck to slam on its brakes to avoid rear ending them. The SUV groaned as it sped across the rumble strips that were supposed to separate the right lane from an off ramp.
Then they were on the open road, no cars around them as they exited the highway and entered Chiwaukee proper. Decrepit two-story structures gradually gave way to poorly maintained office buildings as Xander directed them deeper into the underbelly of the city.
Her eyes were wild as she took in the barely lit buildings, the chromed thugs wearing leather jackets and multi-colored spikes of hair. A man and woman in gang colors were kicking a drunk curled into the fetal position outside a seedy bar, backlit by a fire burning in a metal barrel.
Iris’ knuckles whitened as she gripped the steering wheel. Drug addicts hassled pedestrians for credits, while their dealers stood nearby, submachine guns displayed openly. The entire scene looked like a tableau out of an entertainment channel crime drama.
It barely fazed Kat. Things were worse than the Shell, but not by much. The only real difference was that in Chiwaukee, no one bothered to drag you into an alley before stabbing and robbing you.
She put a comforting hand on Iris’ shoulder, drawing a surprised yelp from the other girl. Kat tried to paste as friendly of a smile as possible on her face, out of practice with the sort of pleasantries one would usually engage in when trying to calm someone down.
Whatever she did, it worked. Iris exhaled slowly, her hands relaxing noticeably on the steering wheel.
“Now turn up Friedman Boulevard and look for a casino called ‘The Neon Dream,’ we have parking out back.” Xander’s voice interrupted the relative calm as they passed a fizzling street light.
“Neon Dream?!” Iris yelped. “Mom yelled at my brother for an hour when she found out that he’d gone there. She said that it’s one of the most dangerous places in the city!”
“Typical corporate overreaction to the rest of us blowing off a little steam,” Xander replied with a chuckle. “As long as you don’t mind losing a couple credits or a little self respect, it’s safe enough.”
A gunshot rang out. Iris jumped in her seat, sending the car swerving as Kat drew her pistol and frantically scanned the dark streets for the threat.
She relaxed slightly. A half block away, a drunk woman wove slightly on the sidewalk, taking a pull from an unlabeled bottle. She dropped the empty glass, letting it shatter on the pavement before raising her handgun and firing another shot, striking a street sign with admirable accuracy.
Kat holstered her gun, turning to shoot Xander a meaningful glare while Iris blubbered beside her.
“I said it’s safe enough.” He shrugged unapologetically. “I didn’t say it was safe.”
“That’s Friedman Boulevard by the way,” Xander continued, pointing out the bullet scarred street sign. “It seems that turn might be a little hard to notice due to the recent vigilante redecorating.”
The SUV took the corner on two wheels, roaring past the drunk and sending her stumbling to the glass-strewn pavement. Out of her side mirror, Kat saw the woman angrily wave her gun at them from where she sat, sprawled on the pavement.
Xander’s calm voice guided them the rest of the way, past the Neon Dream’s gaudy signs and into the quiet darkness of the parking garage. Iris practically collapsed when she parked the car, her chest rising and falling spastically as she fought to steady herself.
Kat went around back, past Xander as the older man stretched the kinks from his back, and clambered inside. She cast Levitation on Jasper to help with his weight and slipped his unconscious body over her shoulder.
“New girl,” Xander called out as Iris stepped timidly out of the car. “You have to carry the second package. I need to go first to disable security.”
“Does he mean?” Iris hesitated, eyes flickering to Raster’s unmoving form.
“Yep,” Kat grunted back, using Levitation on the other man as well. “He should be a little more manageable now, but Exe is right. I’d prefer to have him disabling security on the way in. It beats us getting fried in some booby trap.”
“I really don’t think I’m cut out for this,” Iris mumbled, mostly to herself as she gingerly picked up the executive’s body.
“I wasn’t either when I started,” Kat responded, following Xander toward the entrance to the safe house. “You either get used to it or you get soft and someone shoots you. It’s not a pretty choice, but you play the hand you’re dealt, not the one you wish you had.”
Iris quieted, sullenly following Xander and Kat through the camouflaged doorways and into the familiar gloom of the buried outpost. As he closed the metal door behind them, locking it and re-arming the traps, Whippoorwill walked into the room, pink hair disheveled and wearing pajamas that featured cats transforming into anime girls and fighting monsters.
Whippoorwill froze, one hand stuck rubbing sleep from her blurry eyes.
“We have company,” she croaked out, voice strangled. “No one told me to expect company.”
“Whip.” Xander pointed at Whippoorwill, before indicating Iris. “New girl. New girl, Whip.”
He began wrestling down one of the wall mounted cots as he continued speaking. “Now that we’re all friends, I’m going to need you to grab two doses of wakey-wakey, Whip.”
“Gentle or harsh.” Whippoorwill shook her head, trying to clear the last vestiges of sleep from her brain.
Kat winced. Wakey-wakey wasn’t a singular drug. More of a slang name for any number of concoctions made by backalley chemists to keep a samurai alert and fighting. Gentle was slightly addictive, and more than enough to combat most bouts of unconsciousness.
Harsh wakey-wakey could be anything, but it almost always featured enough amphetamines and adrenaline to damage a race-horse’s heart. It did the trick, and it did it well, but more than one samurai had ended their career gasping for breath and begging for another hit of the concoction.
“Gentle,” Xander grunted, motioning toward Iris as one of the folding beds clicked into place. “We’re dealing with a friend and an asset that might pay a bounty for his release. Things are urgent, but not so urgent that we need to blow someone’s heart up.”
Kat deposited Jasper on a second bed with a grunt as Whippoorwill returned with two syringes. She took a step back, letting Xander kneel next to Jasper and slide the injection into his arm.
Jasper awoke with a start, jolting up into a sitting position before crumpling forward clutching his head.
“What in Adam fucking Smith’s name was that,” he groaned, voice muffled by his palms. “One minute security was asking me a question about a suspicious man spotted in the quad, and the next I was in a dark basement somewhere. Then everything went white and-”
He looked up, squinting against the dim lights.
“Oh God.” He shuffled up against the bare, unpainted concrete wall, eyes wide. “It wasn’t a dream. That actually happened. Where am I? Davis was there with me, is he all right?”
Kat grunted as Iris pushed past her, falling onto her knees next to the lumpy cot and grabbing both of his hands in her own.
“You’re safe now,” she sobbed, clutching at him like he was the only life raft in a turbulent ocean. “It’s all over Jasper, you’re safe.”
“What happened?” Jasper asked distractedly, eyes glazed with a combination of disorientation and the drugs Xander had administered to him as he looked at Iris. “I remember reliving my life over and over again, then there was a bright light and I thought I heard Kat Debs, the new girl I brought to the meeting, but…”
“She went in and saved you Jasper,” Iris blubbered uncontrollably. “You were in Beloit. Oh God, I was so scared but she took charge and saved you. They were shooting so many guns near the end, but she pulled you out of that hellhole.”
Kat watched the two’s overly damp and emotional reunion for a couple seconds before sidling uncomfortably up to Whippoorwill.
“Sooooo.” She struggled to keep her face straight. “I didn’t take you for a fan of Chibi Princess Cats.”
“Shut up, Kat,” Whippoorwill replied, blushing deeply. “A couple of the kids I ran with before joining the ChromeDogs managed to scavenge a smartpanel. It only got two entertainment channels. It was either gossip broadcasts or CPC and Star Warriors Horizon.”
“God.” Kat shuddered. “The voice acting on Star Warriors Horizon was awful. I could watch it with subtitles on, but even then it was a struggle.”
“I know!” The other woman shook her head. “The way Garibaldi delivered his villain speeches was ridiculous. Every line was completely flat, like the voice actor was asleep or a robot.”
“Or both.” Kat shrugged, shaking her head at Iris’ shuddering form. The last four or five hours had been rough on the girl, but still the entire performance was a bit melodramatic for her taste.
“Wait.” Whippoorwill turned to Kat, confusion on her face. “You watched Chibi Princess Cats too?”
Before Kat could respond, Xander interrupted the two of them. “It looks like gentle wakey-wakey did the trick. Mild disorientation but no other side effects. It seems to be safe to use on the primary target.”
“Did you just use Jasper Haupt as a guinea pig?” Kat hissed at him, glancing furtively at the pair of corporate scions on the other side of the room to make sure they didn’t overhear. “Merrimac would have killed us if something went wrong!”
“Merrimac knows the risks.” Xander shrugged as he kneeled down next to Colyn Raster, tapping any bubbles out of the syringe before inserting it into the unconscious man’s arm. “Sometimes not everyone survives a raid like this. We were making a significantly more dangerous run than his crew. If Jasper had an adverse reaction to the drugs needed to wake him up? Well, shit happens.”
“I get that the kid is your friend.” He depressed the plunger on the syringe, injecting the cocktail into Raster’s arm. “But we’re playing for keeps. Things are bad back at Schaumburg, and unless we can bring Williamson down, a lot of people are going to die. She might wind down all of Ike Holdings.”
“But if they wind Ike down, what happens to everyone in the arcology?” Kat asked, her heart hammering in her chest. Winding down meant selling all assets and closing down business operations. At a very minimum, that would involve kicking everyone in the arcology out into the Shell. At worst? Many corporations considered employees that owed the company money to be assets.
While low level employees had jobs, it wasn’t worth the company’s time and money to track them down and abuse them. They did their part, serving as barely paid cogs in the massive machine, their weekly spending allotment notated in the company finances where expected maintenance costs would go on a piece of industrial equipment.
Without jobs, employees were little more than research subjects and a source of emergency organ transplants.
Xander just shook his head grimly, standing up a half second before Raster jerked up into a sitting position.
The man screamed, hands clawing through his short-cropped red hair. The noise cut off abruptly and the man shuddered, hands going to his throat.
A second later, he leaned over the side of the cot vomiting up some sort of grey, oily discharge that splattered across the room. Kat hopped to the side, interposing Xander between her and the bile, but everyone else standing next to Raster’s bed received a helping of the vile liquid.
Colyn looked up at the three of them, fear in his eyes as he tried and failed to place them. It only made sense. Xander and Kat were clearly samurai, but ones he’d never come into face to face contact with. Even when Kat had dropped the recording off with him, Colyn had used an intermediary.
“I have good news, Mr. Raster!” Xander’s grim expression was gone, replaced by his trademark grin, gold tooth glinting mischievously. “While you might have enemies within GroCorp, you also have friends outside its influence! For a modest fee to be negotiated later and a couple snippets of information, you have been saved from a truly horrendous fate.”
“R-raster?” The man stammered. “Is t-that who I am? I remember green liquid everywhere. Around me. Pulsing. It embraced me, whispered that I should just let go. I fought at first, but there was this light around my head and-”
He stopped, shuddering once again. Kat bit her lip, shooting a worried glance at Xander.
“Yes, good sir,” Xander continued unfazed, oozing the oily charisma of a carnival barker. “Your name is Colyn Raster, and you have the honor of being an executive working for Ike Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of GroCorp.”
“M-maybe.” Raster looked down at his hands, turning them over in front of his eyes as if he was seeing them for the very first time.
“Mr. Raster.” Xander leaned forward, gently putting a hand on his shoulder. “I have reason to believe that you were kidnapped and tortured. Forces within GroCorp wanted to know the contents and the location of a recording that you bought at an auction after it was stolen from a Millenium Company data vault.”
“I r-remember the recording.” Raster looked up at Xander and past him to Kat. “The light kept asking questions about it. For some reason I w-wasn’t supposed to tell the light where it was. I d-don’t know why.”
“I kept it secret.” The scarred man beamed up at both of them. “As much as the green liquid told me to give in, and as many times as the light told me to give up, I kept it secret.”
Kat glanced, at Xander, chewing her bottom lip in worry. She wasn’t entirely sure what had happened to the prisoners when they were trapped in Beloit, but Colyn’s descriptions were disconcerting to say the least.
“Good,” Xander cooed soothingly, his hand still on Colyn’s shoulder. “Now I need to know about the recording. What was so secret that you needed to hide it from the light?”
“There were people at a table,” Raster began hesitantly, the stutter in his voice and the tremor in his hands fading as he spoke. “They were planning some sort of secret program. Starlight or Sunfire, something like that.”
“Starfall,” Xander supplied. “You’re doing a good job Colyn, now tell us what the people said.”
Raster ran a hand through his short cropped hair, closing his eyes to try and gather his thoughts before continuing. “They said that everyone needed to consolidate their power, that there would be enough alien technology to go around.”
“Aliens?” Colyn opened his eyes, scratching at his red hair. “Like the people that made the Tower, I guess.”
“Tell us about them,” Xander prompted. “Are they coming to Earth? Are they making contact with players through The Tower of Somnus, how are the aliens involved.”
“Both.” Colyn frowned uncertainly. “I think the aliens have been helping them level faster in the game, and they talked about a ship hiding behind the moon. Apparently they’ve signed some sort of deal with the aliens. Once Jackson hits level twenty-four, the aliens would receive mining rights to everywhere in the solar system other than Earth. In exchange, the aliens would provide the technology needed for the human conspirators to take control of their respective organizations.”
Xander glanced back at Kat, worry clouding his face. “Colyn,” he continued. “I need to know which organizations were there. Who signed this treaty with the aliens?”
“ Members of Millennium and the megacorporations,” Raster replied, shifting himself so that his back rested against the bare cement wall. “No other contractors outside of Millennium as far as I could tell.”
“Which megacorporations?” Kat asked, careful to avoid the splatters of grey sludge as she stepped out from behind Xander. “GroCorp, VodCom, KRG Holdings, NeoSyne? Which of the companies do we need to watch out for?”
“All of them.” Raster chuckled bleakly. “Each and every one had an executive or a shareholder present. If that’s who you’re fighting, both of you are well and truly fucked.”
“Except according to Erinyes, the aliens are breaking the rules.” Xander’s voice was urgent, like he was trying to convince himself more than Colyn. “That recording is evidence that they’re interacting with an embargoed species. If we can present that to the authorities, poof! The aliens are gone. Plus, I’m sure the shareholders of the Megacorps would be interested to know that their fellows are conspiring with the aliens to overthrow them.”
Xander continued, almost pleading with the former executive. “If we can just get our hands on the recording and release it into the information channels, all of their plans would be undone in a matter of minutes. So please, Mr. Raster, tell us where you hid the recording. GroCorp hasn’t found it yet, and you’re our only hope.”
Colyn just laughed, head thrown back and his short red hair brushing the wall behind him. Whippoorwill nudged Kat to get her attention before nodding at Raster with a frown.
Kat shrugged. She had no idea what was going on with the man. Whatever GroCorp had done to him, Raster clearly suffered from some sort of neurological damage.
“Is that what you’re counting on?” Colyn cackled madly. “That you’ll find a copy of the recording and broadcast it, resulting in your enemies being struck down while you ride off into the sunset on a cyberhorse like some sort of reject from Chrome Cowboys?”
“Yes?” Xander asked, without much hope in his voice.
“Good!” Colyn wiped tears from beneath his eyes. “It might even work too. The footage on the recording is damning beyond belief. I’d be surprised if anyone featured on it managed to escape being executed for insubordination.”
“There’s only one problem with your reasoning.” Raster stared up at Xander and Kat, madness in his eyes. “I don’t have the recording anymore.”
“I didn’t trust anyone with the data.” He giggled to himself. “So I uploaded it onto a mobile storage drive that I concealed in my cufflinks. After all, where would be safer than on my very body?”
“Fuck.” Xander spat out the word, without any emotion or inflection.
“If you want the recording, find the suit I was wearing when they grabbed me.” Colyn burst out laughing, an unhealthy barking sound. “If they haven’t destroyed it yet, the data is all yours.”
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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