Humbrass Atoll wasn’t what Kat was expecting. She’d expected another dingy shantytown made out of bleached driftwood and populated by half-awake locals. Instead, the Marka sailed past a necklace of gorgeous tropical islands filled with well-maintained and multi story-brick buildings. Here and there a shop or house would be made of wood, but given the intricacy of the carvings on their windows and doors, she could tell that it was an aesthetic choice.
The atoll itself was a circle of islands centered around a shallow bay with a pillar to the fifth level in it. Apparently the floor guardian, something called a Dread Kraken, was fairly sedate except when challenged by people seeking to ascend. Then, the citizens of the islands would crowd the beaches to watch the aquatic battle while they enjoyed fruity drinks and placed bets.
The islands varied in size, with most being large enough for a mid-sized town. The biggest isle, Mount Halleka, was large enough to house both the Schaumberg Arcology and the Shell combined, while some of the smaller islands were little more than sandbars. Every one of the isles was occupied with densely packed structures, packed onto the scarce land and connected with their neighbors by a series of bridges.
The Snarled Net, on the other hand, was exactly what Kat was expecting. After she, Kaleek, and Dorrik reset their spawn point to the altar in Mount Helleka, they’d sought out the bar.
Apparently, like everywhere else, there was a pecking order on the Humbrass Atoll. There was no question that the Snarled Net was one of the finest human establishments in the island chain.
Kat’s nose wrinkled as she took in the beat-up collection of canoes, rafts and ancient ships at the New Panama dock. On the atoll, going to the fanciest human restaurant was like meeting the tallest third grader. It just didn’t mean much.
Kaleek started tying up the Marka with swift and efficient motions as Kat jumped onto the aged and worm-eaten wood of the dock and surveyed the island of New Panama. Their catamaran was almost certainly the best ship there, a sorry statement given the Marka’s age and repair.
As for the island? It was barely the size of the parking ramp that Xander, Whippoorwill and her used to hide their base behind the Neon Dream. The buildings were well made if densely packed. Two-story structures constructed from wood and baked mud bricks crowded each other to the very edges of the ocean. Really, the only place with any breathing room was the Snarled Net itself, a three-story brick building directly at the base of the wharf.
Dorrik jumped on the pier after her, wobbling slightly as they tried to overcome the last vestiges of seasickness. They surveyed the island, crest fluttering in the wind as they nodded sagely.
“This looks horrifying on both a sanitary and a moral level,” the lokkel said cheerfully. “Still, it’s much better than another minute on that ship.”
They walked past Kat a few steps before turning around and waving a claw in her and Kaleek’s direction. “Come, Miss Kat, let us meet the dregs of your society. I am sure they have much to teach us.”
She snorted, following the giant lizard down the beat-up pier as it creaked in the waves. A second later, Kaleek finished tying their ship down and joined the two of them just as Dorrik opened the wooden door to the Snarled Net.
The bar was dimly lit. Oil lamps flickered through aged and clouded glass from their perches, hanging from iron rings affixed to the ceiling. The clientele was mostly human, figures hunched over any number of tables as they drank quietly from chipped mugs and steins, but a couple aliens dotted the building’s main floor.
After a quick survey of the room didn’t reveal Xander or Davis, Kat took a deep breath of the room’s stale air before weaving her way through the tables toward the bartender. He was a middle-aged man, dirty blonde hair close cropped, his face and hands a web of scars.
“Hello,” Kat said, nodding to him. Behind her, chairs scraped across the floor as various patrons cleared a path for Dorrik and Kaleek as the two aliens followed her to the bar.
The bartender just grunted, not even looking up from the mug he was cleaning with the tail end of a smock covered in indecipherable stains.
“I’m here looking for a couple friends of mine,” Kat began only to get cut off by a gurgling voice booming from the bar’s door.
“Jacques Terre-du-Tête! By my gills is it good to see you again.”
The bartender sighed, setting the mug opening down on the polished wood of the bar. Kat followed his gaze past her shoulder. An alien, little more than a bulbous triangular head suspended from a number of tentacles slapped his way wetly toward her, an unctuous smile on his rubbery face.
“I thought I told you that I didn’t want to buy whatever it is you’re peddling, Briqui,” the grizzled man growled, leaning forward to put both of his mangled hands on the bar. “I don’t need psychedelic fruit, narcotic powders, or euphoric tree sap. Last time you came through here you ‘forgot’ to mention that Bacchus Honey causes intense shakes and nausea after the high wears off. It took us two nights to get the vomit mopped out of the floor.”
“Ah!” The squid thing waved a tentacle agreeably at the proprietor. “Jacques, my old friend, you only say that because last time I did not come to you with my finest product, Dread Kraken Ink. One drop into each of your eyes and you will see things you could never even dream of. Usually I sell it for five marks per hit, but for you I could go as low as three.”
Kaleek cocked his head at the overly cheerful alien, whiskers twitching thoughtfully.
“Doesn’t Dread Kraken Ink put the user into a fugue state where their greatest nightmares become reality?” the otter asked quizzically. “I’ve heard that the Omicron Pirates are known to use it in interrogations to torture the truth out of their victims.”
“Just two marks for four hours that you’ll never forget!” Briqui glanced at Kaleek nervously. “From my beak to my tentacles, I swear you won’t regret this.”
“I can do two marks,” a tall thin man blurted out, lurching drunkenly to his feet.
“Oh sit down, Adam,” another man at his table grumbled, wine-glass halfway to his mouth. “You’re drunk and this is an absolutely awful idea.”
Kat stood to the side, eyeing the exchange in confusion while Dorrik studied it with their usual academic fervor. Kaleek? The desoph just covered his muzzle with a paw, likely trying his hardest to hold in an inopportune snicker.
“Ah-hah!” The squid-like alien undulated toward the swaying man, beak chattering excitedly. “I knew I could find a human of with a properly adventurous temperament in this august establishment.”
“No you can’t do two marks, Adam,” Jacques sniffed, reaching under the counter and retrieving a heavy metal mace that he slammed down on the polished wood in front of him. “You still owe twelve on your tab that you keep promising you’ll pay off ‘tomorrow.’ And Briqui? Get the hell out of my bar.”
The squid capered, bobbing its head in a half bow before it flowed back out of the building. A moment later, the general conversation and hubbub of the common area returned as muted conversations resumed and glasses began clinking once more.
“Sorry about that, miss.” The bartender nodded at her. “You were saying something before we got interrupted?”
“Ah.” Kat hesitated, rattled by the exchange. “I was looking for some of my friends. They were coming down from other floors to meet me, and we were going to meet here.”
“I can be your friend, baby!” The tall man that had been trying to solicit drugs from the alien squid wobbled toward her, only for his companion to grab his wrist and restrain him.
Dorrik stepped in between her and the drunk, top pair of hands touching the hilts of their swords. A low growl escaped their throat, crest flat against the back of their head.
“I consider myself a student of human culture.” The lokkel’s voice was deeper than usual, a dangerous rumble that set even Kat on edge. They stepped toward the human, towering half a head over the tall man. “And I don’t appreciate you bothering my companion. Take your seat and return to your drink or I will become a student of human anatomy as well.”
“Hey now!” Jacques' scarred hand slapped onto the table, drawing attention back to the scowling bartender. “This bar has two rules on fighting. First, do it outside. Can’t have any broken furniture. Second, if you kill a man, you pay his tab. Adam owes me twelve marks. Pay up or leave the asshole alone.”
Kaleek burst out laughing, unable to restrain himself as the drunk blanched and returned to his seat.
“That settles it.” The otter’s body was shaking with mirth. “Unless the beer here is absolute piss, I think this is my favorite bar on the entire atoll.”
“They aren’t completely piss,” the bartender responded defensively. “You gotta cut ‘em with rainwater first.”
“My friends?” Kat could feel a headache beginning to press down on her temples like a vise.
“We had two groups come down the stairs and tangle with the Kraken today.” Jacques picked up the glass and began rubbing it with his smock once more. “Real scary blokes. Said they’re waiting on someone and to send her up to them when she shows up. They’ve got the dining room upstairs.”
“Thanks.” Kat smiled back at him, struggling to be polite, but the bartender just grunted back, nodding slightly.
Giving up she turned, following Dorrik as the big lizard cleared a path to the dark staircase in the corner. They climbed past the dirty oil lamps and into the next floor in silence.
There, things were cleaner and better lit. Magical lights dotted the old but recently washed wooden walls, and there was even a small vase with a handful of red flowers in it next to a window. All of the plants had seen better days, but it was the thought that counted.
Kat stepped past Dorrik, leading the way toward a door labeled ‘dining hall’ in clear, block lettering. She pushed the door open and stepped inside.
Inside the room, heads jerked toward Kat as she stepped inside, making room for Kaleek and Dorrik to follow her. The interior was little more than a small brass and crystal chandelier hanging over a large table with five of its eight seats occupied.
“Kat!” Xander sprang to his feet, richly colored cloak billowing behind him and exposing an iron breastplate covered in carvings of men and women laboring before a gleaming golden ziggurat in the center of his chest. “Come on in and introduce us to your friends.”
“Oh and big guy.” He pointed at Dorrik and winked. “Make sure to close the door behind you. Super secretive stuff going on in here, very hush hush.”
Dorrik cocked their head and stared at Xander, crest fanning out in bemusement before they closed the door. Kat just rolled her eyes at yet another example of Xander being Xander.
“This,” Kat hoooked a thumb toward a waving Kaleek, “is Kaleek. He’s a desoph. They’re pseudo-mammals that live in mid-sized communities on mostly oceanic planets.”
“Kaleek, meet Xander,” she continued, nodding toward the human. “When on a job he goes by ‘Exe,’ just like I do with the name ‘Erinyes.’”
Before she could continue, Dorrik stepped past her, having already closed the door.
“I’m Dorrik,” the lokkel volunteered, stepping forward and inclining their head. “I like to think of myself as a student of your race’s history and customs, and working with Miss Kat has been an absolute pleasure. I look forward to learning more about each of you as we work together.”
“It’s good to meet you, Dorrik,” Belle Donnst stood up, her voice overly cultured and smooth in a way that sent shivers down Kat’s spine. “My name is Belle, and I’ve worked with Miss Debs in the past, but I have to say that this is the first time a lokkel has actually bothered to talk to me. Usually when your people find out who I am, they look at me like I’m a half-eaten apple with only part of a worm in it.”
“Belle Donnst!” Dorrik’s face lit up. “Kat has told me so much about you! She refers to you as ‘the toxic pinnacle of competence and treachery.’ I must say, her descriptions of your callous disregard for the life and feelings of your fellow humans are fascinating.”
“Charmed,” Belle responded, a pleasant smile on her face as she motioned to a burly man sitting next to her. “I honestly couldn’t think of a more fitting summary. This is my second, Jason.”
“Davis Stoller, or Merrimac when I’m on a job,” the older man introduced himself before nodding to the woman next to him. “This is Hestia. Her actual name isn’t commonly known so we’ll keep it to commonly available knowledge.”
Hestia smiled at Kat waving quickly to her, ignoring the scowl thrown her way by Davis.
“Great,” Belle spoke up, clapping her hands together. “Hestia if you could be a dear and activate the chandelier, our newcomers should take a seat so we can begin.”
Kat pulled out a chair, noting the cushion tied to its simple polished wood. The seat wasn’t anything special, but it was still a good sight better than the dimly lit rough construction of the first floor.
Hestia raised a hand, creating one mote of blue flame after another until four small balls of fire rose to the glittering arms of the chandelier. As soon as they touched the wicks of the fixture’s candles, the spell disappeared.
All of Kat’s hair stood on end at the same time as a static charge ran through her. Dorrik looked up in interest, inspecting the gleaming bronze carefully.
“Anti-eavesdropping and recording enchantment,” Xander supplied with a grin. Absently, Kat noticed that his avatar didn’t come with the older man’s signature golden tooth. “Very useful for clandestine meetings like this.”
“Indeed,” Belle replied, her smile growing a little thin. “Now Exe, you’ve mentioned that Kat and you have managed to pull some intelligence out of the assets you’ve extracted from Beloit.”
“Watch yourself,” Davis growled, fixing a stormy gaze on the elegant woman. “One of those ‘assets’ is Jasper. Don’t think I’ve forgotten what you did to the poor boy’s father. We might be allies of convenience today, but don’t think that I won’t have you killed if you pull any stunts.”
Belle’s companion jumped to his feet, drawing a longsword in a flash as he interposed himself between Davis and Belle. Merrimac stood slowly, both of his fists glowing dully red as he stared down the younger man. Behind him, a constellation of blue flames sprang into existence behind Hestia. She licked her lips hungrily as the balls of fire began to weave together in a complicated dance.
“Sit!” Belle snapped, crossing her arms. “Either of them could take you apart with one hand, Jason. While your courage is laudable, a poodle yipping at a junkyard dog is hardly menacing. You’re embarrassing me.”
The man opened his mouth as if to say something, before ultimately eating his words. He sheathed his sword and sat down, staring moodily at the table before him.
“Remember your job here?” Belle asked him, her voice tinged with acid.
“Look pretty and stay silent, I should be seen, not heard,” Jason mumbled back, his pleasant tenor bitter as he recited the words.
“Good,” she finished, her tone of voice allowing no room for argument or compromise.
“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Stoller.” Belle’s wintry expression disappeared as she smiled back at the still standing Merrimac and Hestia. “I forgot that you were still prone to bouts of sentimentality regarding the boy. I will try to watch my tone in the future.”
Davis nodded slowly. Behind him, Hestia snapped her fingers, causing the foxfire to disappear as suddenly as she’d summoned it.
The older man took his seat, face troubled. Kat couldn’t help but notice his slightly haunted expression. For a moment, she thought about how she would react if her family were in danger, and she couldn’t help herself.
“He’s doing fine, you know,” Kat interjected with an awkward smile. “Jasper had some memory problems for the first day or so, but I think we got him out quickly enough. Collyn Raster on the other hand-”
She stopped. Raster wasn’t improving. He could still take care of himself, but more and more he would isolate himself, sitting in silence for long periods of time only to break out into laughter or mumbling to himself in foreign languages.
Davis inclined his head slightly, a grateful look in his eyes. For a moment, no one spoke as everyone around the table tried to find something to say that would reassure the worried Merrimac.
“Splendid,” Belle broke the silence. “Now that affairs of the heart have been settled, we should talk about the conspiracy that very well may kill us all. Xander, if you will?”
“The good news is that we know that the recording exists, we know what’s on it, and we know where it is,” Xander replied with a grin. “Even better, the contents are incriminating enough to save all of our asses. Elements of every megacorporation on the planet are conspiring together to overthrow their existing leadership and form a cartel with the help of the stallesp.”
Kat’s brow crinkled slightly. Xander hadn’t told her anything about the recording’s location.
“Oh?” Belle leaned forward in her seat. “By all means, Xander, proceed with your highly anticipated dramatic reveal.”
“The bad news is that although we were able to track the recording through poorly secured logistics records, it was only notated as a prisoner’s personal effects after all,” Xander replied, grimacing slightly. “It’s located in a vault in Elaine Williamson’s suite. So that’s the story. We just need to break into a shareholder’s fortified residence, steal the recording from a secure location, broadcast it, and hide from the fallout. Easy Peasy.”
For a second, a pensive silence filled the room as everyone digested Xander’s words. Then, Dorrik shook their head, their voice rumbling unhappily. “Unfortunately, things will hardly be that simple. Miss Kat has mentioned that the contracts signed between the stallesp and your enemies become valid when a Mister Jackson reaches level twenty-four, is that correct?”
“Yeah,” Xander agreed, a frown on his face, “but that’s years away. The other shareholders will kill off the rebels before he gets a chance. After that, the problem is settled and we all go our own ways.”
“You misunderstand.” Dorrik shook their head. “Something happens when a member of a probationary race reaches the twenty-fourth level in the dreamscape. I cannot tell you the specifics, but it would be safe to say that the potential harm far outstrips a petty civil war between corporations. As a race, you have two options, kill this Mister Jackson before he achieves his goal, or beat him to it.”
“I suppose the third option is being enslaved as a race to perform mineral extraction for the moles.” Belle sighed, fingers tapping the table.
“Exactly, Miss Donnst,” Dorrik replied, a slightly predatory smile on their face.
“Is it too much to hope that your people would help us out with this predicament?” She asked hopefully, raising a single manicured eyebrow. “As best I can understand the lokkel aren’t exactly on speaking terms with the stallesp.”
“No,” Dorrik declared, leaning forward with clawed hands digging furrows into the wood of the table as they grinned, “I cannot help you. You are untrustworthy and just as likely to betray me as the stellasp themselves. I can help Miss Kat.”
Belle’s face broke into a bright smile as she chuckled slightly. “I suppose that’s fair enough. You’d be a fool to trust me, and I don’t trust fools. Kat is a bit altruistic for her own good, but in all honesty, every other choice I can think of would be worse.”
“Great!” Xander clapped his hands together cheerfully. “Now that we’re done with all of our nefarious plots and menacing threats, who's ready to plan a raid?”
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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