“Three sevens beats pair of aces,” Iris laid her cards down on the cheap plastic table, drawing a groan from Jasper. The woman grinned, leaning forward to rake the pot, the metal pull tabs from some fifteen vacuum-sealed meals, over toward her.
“You should have known better, Jasper,” Kat said with a click of her tongue as she collected the cards from the stained vinyl surface so that she could deal. “Iris was acting way too smug not to have a winning hand. That’s why I folded right away.”
“How could you know that!” Jasper leaned back into his chair, arms crossed. “There’s no way you could know if she was bluffing, you folded.”
Her hands flickered, barely visible as she slid cards to Iris and Jasper. Kat shook her head, chuckling. “I knew she wasn’t bluffing and that’s why I folded. Both of you really need to know how to rein in your body language. You’re starting to make me feel bad about winning.”
“I still think I’d be doing a lot better if we switched from draw to Hold ‘em.” Jasper sulked, picking up his cards. His eyes widened and the corners of his mouth twitched. “I’m anteing three by the way.”
He slid three of the tabs from the dwindling pile in front of him to the center of the table.
Kat glanced at her hand. She had a pair of fours and a chance to draw up to three cards, but given Jasper’s expression, it wouldn’t be enough. She glanced down at the pyramid of tabs in front of her, half again the size of Iris and Jasper’s piles combined.
“Fold.” Kat put her cards face down on the table. “I’ll say it again Jasper, we can’t play Hold ‘em because there’s only three of us. It’s only really fun with four or more players. At least until you can pull someone out of the pipes, Five Card Draw is the better choice.”
“We could always ask Xander to play?” Iris asked, biting her lip as she reorganized her cards. Finally she tossed three tabs from her pile into the center. “Check.”
“Xander cheats,” Kat snorted as she picked up the deck. “Anyway, how many cards do the two of you want?”
“That just sounds like he’s good at poker.” Jasper smirked back, sliding two cards to Kat. At the other end of the table, Iris discarded three.
“No,” Kat replied, dealing their new cards back to them with sure, quick movements. “He literally tells you he’s cheating when you start playing. Xander uses most games and leisure activities as an excuse to train operatives in the skill you’ll need to succeed on the job. The point of playing cards with him is to train your perception.”
“Doesn’t stop him from keeping your money though.” Kat chuckled, leaning back in her plastic and steel chair. “He’ll just wink at you and say it’s his fee for teaching you.”
“I still can’t believe you’re an actual samurai,” Jasper grumbled. “I had Davis look into you, and all he told you is that you worked for the ChromeDogs and that ‘you could handle yourself.’”
He inspected the cards in his hand before pushing three of his tabs into the pot.
“Believe it,” Iris replied, a ghost of a smile on her face as she looked pensively at her hand. “Davis and his friends were deadly serious about Kat. I didn’t get a chance to see any of their operation but there were a lot of guns and cannons firing when they pulled you and the weird guy out of Beloit.”
“Check,” she finished, matching Jasper’s bet. “What do you have Jasper?”
Iris laid down her cards, a pair of threes and a pair of jacks. Jasper’s face broke into a wide grin as he revealed three tens and scraped the twelve tabs across the table toward himself while Iris sighed.
“How is Davis doing anyway?” Jasper asked quietly, glancing up at Kat. “It’s weird, but the first thing I thought of when Xander woke me up was Davis. Him and Andrew were my security detail for that day, and when the kidnappers attacked our car he jumped out to handle them. I…”
The boy choked up a little, his previous elation over winning fading from his face as he set his cards on the table. Iris leaned over with a pinched expression and covered his hand with hers.
“I didn’t know whether he’d made it out in time.” Jasper leaned back, closing his eyes. “I just remember jerking awake and seeing all of you hovering over me, and something in my chest clenched when he wasn’t there.”
“He’s doing fine,” Kat replied, letting her face soften. “Look, it isn’t weird for you to care about Davis. He might work for you, but he doesn’t strike me as the type to care too much about the money. If he didn’t want to genuinely look out for you, we would have retired years ago.”
“I guess,” he began only to be cut off as an irate buzzing tone filled the compound.
Kat jumped to her feet, checking her pistol and knife to make sure that both were ready for use at a moment's notice. Xander jogged by the three of them, nodding briefly before turning on the old smartglass display next to the door.
After inspecting a grainy image of a woman with pink hair walking down the trapped walkway toward the front door, he grunted and stepped back from the door.
“It’s just Whip, no need for guns.”
Kat sighed with relief, trying to calm her racing pulse in the wake of the adrenaline rush caused by the alarm. She turned to sit down.
“Don’t get comfortable, Kat,” Xander called out to her. “Whip is coming back from breaking into an open terminal. With any luck, she’ll have some updated intelligence for us.”
“Good.” She nodded apologetically at Jasper and Iris. “No offense guys, but I think I would have snapped if I had to spend a fourth day cooped up in here.”
The door rang as a fist knocked against the reinforced metal. Xander pulled the eye-slit to the side, his finger hovering over a button that would activate the twin flamethrowers trained on the doorway as he visually confirmed that it was Whippoorwill at the door.
Unfortunately, as useful as technology was, every step forward came with its own perils. As Kat was well aware, spoofing a CCTV system wasn’t terribly hard. That portion of Xander’s security network primarily relied upon a potential invader being unaware of the hardwired observation system’s existence.
For everything else, there was a weight sensor and good old-fashioned eyeballs. Between the hints of corporate strike forces equipped in optical camouflage and Tower-granted magic, invisibility was a reality they had to deal with. Even if mana and technology could fool their eyes, most infiltrators wouldn’t think to use gravity magic to baffle the concealed scale just outside the door.
Xander stepped back from the door, ondoing the lock and letting Whip inside. The girl hurried in, shivering slightly despite the oversized hoodie she’d worn for her excursion.
“The next safehouse goes somewhere with less degenerates,” Whippoorwill grumbled, glaring at Xander intently. “Either that or you send Kat with me so that people will think I have a girlfriend. I had a drunk guy follow me half a block from the Neon Dream before he tripped over a curb and I was able to lose him.”
“Or maybe I can teach you how to use a gun,” Xander replied thoughtfully. “I know you’re not a frontline operative, but it just doesn’t seem right for a ChromeDog to not be able to shoot.”
“You want me to shoot random drunks now?” She pulled the sweatshirt over her head before hanging it on a metal peg sticking out of the wall. “I’m not saying no, it just seems a tad aggressive.”
“Maybe.” Xander shrugged sheepishly. “You might be right, it does seem a little extreme.”
“Whatever,” Whip responded, rolling her eyes as she pulled her cranial jack out of the back of her head. “Just download the data, I need to take a shower before the freeloaders run us out of hot water again.”
Xander touched his cord to hers and for a second or two, both of them stood perfectly still, their eyes twitching rapidly beneath their lids as if they were dreaming. The moment ended with Whippoorwill stepping away from Xander and walking past Kat with a quick nod.
The older man just stood there for a couple seconds, face thoughtful as he ruminated on the information passed to him from Whippoorwill. Finally he sighed.
“I hope you're tired, Kat, because we need to go into the Tower.” Xander shrugged helplessly. “And if you’re not, a street chemist owed me a favor a couple months back and whipped up a couple batches of the sleeping drugs the executives use to keep themselves under for hours at a time. You can’t take them too often without getting the shakes, and even one dose will give you dry mouth and a headache, but-”
“But the information Whippoorwill has delivered is that important?” Kat finished for him.
“Yeah,” the older man replied unhappily. “Just a second, it looks like I have to burn one of my ghosts.”
He walked over to the wall and plugged himself into an outlet by the smartglass. Kat watched as Xander silently went about the business of contacting their allies.
Whippoorwill had explained the process to her, and it was suitably paranoid. None of them could directly use their e-mail or social media accounts as it would be surprising at this point if they had gone unmonitored. Instead, Xander would tap into Neon Dream’s network and piggyback off of someone using an entertainment channel to send a packet of data to an offsite relay of his own design that Xander called ‘ghosts.’
To the user, it would look like a couple pixels burnt out on their smartpanel for a fraction of a second, a hard to notice digital artifact under normal circumstances, it would go almost unnoticed by the drugged and drunk clientele of the Neon Dream.
From there, a bot would extract a packet of data before posting a coded message on a Chrome Cowboys fan forum. Finally, the bot and the ghost would delete themselves, a small charge slagging the thumbnail-sized piece of electronics.
Xander was limited in the messages that he could send, and he had only pre-planted a certain number of the ghosts around the city, but the chances of the message being traced back to their hideout were almost nil.
He opened his eyes and nodded to Kat. “The meeting is in one hour at the Snarled Net, we should get ready.”
She followed Xander into the hideout’s bunk room, and the two of them folded down the thin mattresses from where they were stored vertically against the wall. They weren’t soft or comfortable, and after only a handful of days Kat was ready to return to her dorm bed, but at the same time they had an important advantage of her ‘not waking up to a corporate goon slipping a bag over her head.’ It was hard to beat amenities like that.
Xander pulled an unlabeled bottle out of his pocket and removed two pills from it. He offered one to Kat before slapping the other into his mouth, Adam’s apple bobbing.
Kat swallowed her own, trying not to think about its chemical fragrance and bitter taste. She laid down on her cot, shifting her thin body to avoid the bed’s numerous lumps and hard spots.
Her eyelids drooped, heavy with sleep as the drug began to kick in. Kat’s thoughts slowed and became fuzzy as the room around her darkened. She blinked.
The bustle of Mount Halleka’s adventurer’s hall appeared around her. A second later, Xander appeared in a cocoon of rainbow light.
“It’s still weird to see you in here.” She shook her head, taking in his brightly colored cloak and simple iron armor. “It’s like when my teachers in school would come into my convenience store. It’s just… wrong.”
“I don’t know,” Xander replied with a grin as he led the way out of the stone building, “you seem about the same. All dark clothes, knives, and pointy bits.”
“Thanks, I guess?” Kat laughed back as the two of them walked through Halleka’s crowded streets, making their way down the paved slope of the mountain and toward the bridged road that connected the various small islands of the Humbrass Atoll.
The narrow and crowded walkways were filled with aliens of all stripes, but only the occasional human. Kat and Xander draw more than one stare as eyestalks swiveled to follow their passage. Only after about twenty minutes, when the two of them were far from the main island, did they begin to see more of humanity.
People showed up in twos and threes, their armor and weapons noticeably more drab than those around them. Somehow, their envious glances as they eyed up Kat’s lokkel crafted armor was almost worse than the gawking aliens.
Finally, they reached New Panama. Other than the better maintenance, it really did remind Kat of the Shell. People were cramped and on edge. She could almost feel the eyes of scavengers tracking Xander and her as they stepped off of the rope bridge and onto the tiny landmass only to dismiss them.
The island might be full of vultures, but Xander and her moved like wolves. Actual predators that could tear through the avatars of the underequipped thugs that might only have a handful of dungeons between them.
Just as Xander reached for the door to the Snarled Net, it slammed open, the tall skinny man from the previous day slumped over his friend’s shoulder.
“Get him out of here, Ben!” the bartender shouted from inside. “And remember to tell Adam that it’s fourteen marks now when he wakes up!”
The mostly sober man nodded apologetically at the two of them before he brushed past, half dragging his slurring and staggering companion out into the Tower’s fake light.
Xander didn’t even slow, wading into the morass of degeneracy like a fish slipping into the water. A couple of the bar’s patrons eyed Kat up, but after noting the number of knives she carried and the easy grace in her step, they returned to their drinks.
“Jacques, you old pirate!” Xander grinned at the scarred man as he slapped his hands down on the bar.
The bartender carefully put down the mug he was cleaning before replying with a sigh, “what do you need now, Exe? I thought I was done with this shit when you made it to the fifth floor.”
“Nothing much.” Xander winked at the other man conspiratorially. “Just the key to the meeting room from yesterday. I have a couple of friends dropping by and if you could send them my way, I would appreciate it.”
“That’ll be five marks, Exe.” Jacques reached inside his shirt, pulling out a keyring he wore on the end of a necklace like jewelry.
“Five marks!” Xander gasped, putting his left hand on his breast as if affonted. “After I saved you from a sand grub infestation on the third floor and mediated that dispute between you and the Cahokia Crushers?”
“It’s been a while since St. Louis, Exe,” the bartender grumbled, removing a bronze ring and handing it to Xander. “You can’t keep relying on old times forever.”
“I’ll stop bringing it up when it stops working,” Xander replied with a quick laugh as he made the key disappear somewhere inside his cloak. He turned to leave, but Jacques called out to him.
“Hey Exe, watch yourself. It’s about time for you to retire and find something to occupy your old age like I did. There aren’t many samurai with grey hair for a reason. People get slow and start making mistakes. You need to get out while you still can, spend some more time with that wife of yours.”
Xander only winked back before stepping onto the dimly lit stairwell. Kat followed him in pensive silence. Finally, just as they were opening the door to the meeting room, she spoke up.
“There might be something to what he was saying, Xander. You’re sharp and on top of things right now, but how much longer do you think that can last?”
“That’s just Jacques,” Xander replied, waving his hand and dismissing her concern. “He was always a klutz. He likes to make everyone think he earned all of those scars on runs, but it was really a forklift accident. Good guy, but a bit melodramatic.”
Kat opened her mouth to reply, but stopped herself. It was clear that Xander didn’t want to hear anything she’d have to say. Instead, she listened distractedly as he nattered on about the good old days back in St. Louis where he’d first met Jacques.
Finally the door opened. Belle and her companion entered, followed just under a minute later by Davis and Hestia.
Davis closed the door as Hestia lit the chandelier. Once again, Kat felt the electric thrill of the enchantment running over her as Xander stood up.
“Good news,” he started cheerfully.
“It had better be,” Belle cut him off darkly. “Food reserves at Schaumburg are running critically low. Already the enforcers from Millennium have put down two bread riots. With submachine guns.”
“As I said,” Xander continued, rolling his eyes. “Good news. It seems that Elaine Williamson has a conference in the New York Megalopolis. Half of her security detail has already shifted to prepare for her arrival, and her motorcade is leaving between six and eight o’clock tonight. Her suite will still have security, but if we’re going to break into that vault, tonight is our best bet.”
“That is good news,” Belle agreed, a rare genuine smile on her face. “I’m ready to proceed per our arrangements from yesterday. My people will make a disturbance at the Schaumburg maglev stations to draw security from Chiwaukee.”
“If you give me a couple of hours, I can get some teams out to start riots in Chiwaukee too.” Davis nodded thoughtfully. “I’m going into the Tower though. Even if the security detail is mostly gone, this is too big of a job for just two people.”
“Unfortunately, I agree.” Xander sighed. “Whippoorwill, a support agent, will be coming with us, but she won’t be enough. We’re going to need a full combat team if we want this to work.”
Hestia grinned, giving Kat a thumbs up, eyes twinkling.
“Remember to be careful with who you bring,” Xander warned. “We don’t know how long Elaine has been running that cloning lab of hers. Anyone that has disappeared for more than a week could be a double.”
“Don’t tell your grandmother how to suck eggs,” Belle replied crossly. “I’ve been ferreting out corporate spies and informants since the days when you were running protection for two bit drug dealers. My people have already caught two imposters. The clones crack under questioning when you run an electrical current through them.”
“That seems like a fairly obvious weakness.” Davis frowned. “Elaine is a wily opponent, she wouldn’t leave a loose end like that open.”
“Of course.” Belle tapped the side of her head. “You have to target the electricity. Scramble their implanted memories.”
“Your people consented to that?” Kat asked, disbelief in her voice.
“Consent?” Belle cocked her head, bemused.
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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