Mana swelled in Kat’s chest, erupting as she cast Dazzle on the heavily chromed samurai only for him to not blink, his rifle pointed unflinchingly at her throat. He grinned without any real warmth.
Internally she swore. Flashbangs were popular enough that it only was a matter of time before she ran into someone with an immunity like hers. Still, it had been worth a try. Knives might be her forte, but they weren’t terribly useful in a situation like this.
“I remember you, girl,” Otto rumbled. “You wrecked my jeep and my knee. I think I’m going to enjoy watching you bleed out.”
“Oh for the love of-” Elaine wheeled around on the samurai. “Quit playing with your food. Do you even remember what I taught you about megalomaniacal speeches?”
“That they just give your victim a chance to escape,” Otto responded, voice taking on the singsong tone of someone reciting a phrase committed to memory via rote repetition. “If you’re going to gloat, do it while standing atop their corpse.”
“Good.” Elaine crossed her arms. “Now quit dithering and shoot the girl.”
Otto nodded, pressing the rifle tight to his shoulder.
“Compulsion,” Kat had never been so happy to hear Xander’s voice. Otto froze, face twitching as he struggled with the Psi ability that had taken control of him.
For a moment, you could hear a pin drop. Xander pulled his battered and bloodstained body from the rubble as both Elaine and Kat watched Otto’s internal battle with bated breath.
The samurai spun around, firing a half dozen shots at point blank range into Williamson.
A shimmering field of silver light caught the bullets, slowing them to a stop just in front of the shareholder. They dropped to the marble floor, clicking impotently.
“You weak minded fool!” She sneered, backhanding Otto with enough force to send the man flying into a nearby wall. “He’s using an old Tower mind trick on you.”
“Compulsion,” Xander repeated the word, his face pale as blood trickled from his mouth.
She snorted with contempt. “Your mind powers won’t work on me, boy.”
Xander stared at her. Despite everything, Elaine didn’t have a single hair out of place. She simply glared back, not even bothering to make a move to apprehend them.
“Well,” Xander muttered unhappily. “Fuck.”
Kat lifted her stolen rifle, firing one three-round burst after another into the woman as she juked to the side. Her chest screamed with agony, the bruises from the grenade blasts having stiffened on the elevator ride up.
Across from her, Xander’s pistol rattled with deadly accuracy, firing a dozen bullets at the shareholder’s condescending smirk in a matter of seconds.
It didn’t matter. The web of silver mana caught everything fired at Elaine, leaving the rounds suspended in the air for a fraction of a second before dropping them unceremoniously to the floor.
Kat’s rifle clicked empty, and the shareholder just stood there. Arms crossed and a condescending smile on her face with a circle of spent lead littering the floor around her. Nervously, Kat looked over at Xander. Her companion was frantically reloading his pistol despite the weapon’s complete lack of success.
Elaine reached down, picking up one of the spent bullets from the ground, rolling the copper jacketed pistol bullet around in her hand before smirking mischievously.
“My turn,” the woman said playfully. She opened her hand, letting the bullet rest on her palm before leaning forward and puckering her lips, blowing on it like a child would dandelion fluff.
The bullet disappeared, burying itself in Xander’s chest.
Kat dropped the rifle, switching to her knife as she sprinted toward the shareholder. She almost made it. A step from the woman’s back, a telekinetic fist closed itself around Kat, pinning her hands to her side.
Elaine turned around, the same bright smile on her face. “How precious,” she purred. “You gain a couple of levels with your lokkel friends and suddenly you think you’re an action hero.”
The bands of invisible force around her squeezed tighter, crushing Kat’s arms to her side and driving the breath from her lungs. Her knife clattered to the ground, falling from nerveless fingers.
“This isn’t a movie, girl.” Elaine shook her head, clicking her tongue mournfully. “And you certainly aren’t anything special. I’ve been killing better warriors than you since long before you were even born.”
Kat’s spell activated, her Pseudopod thrusting itself up and out of her chest, into a sputtering fluorescent light, and down into the top of the shareholder’s head. The entire room flickered, electricity flowing down the tunnel of water and into Elaine.
Whatever ability Elaine was using shorted out, dropping Kat into a heap on the marble floor as the other woman twitched and smoked, her skin bubbling and sloughing off of her face. For a moment, Kat dared to let herself think that she’d won.
Her opponent reached up, a dainty and well-manicured hand ripping into the boiling mass of sloughing flesh that had become her face. Gobs of writhing meat spattered to the floor, revealing the matted fur and elongated snout of a stallesp beneath. Its pink nose twitched once before it spun to glare at Kat, its baleful gaze filled with a bottomless reservoir of anger.
She activated Cat Step, not even bothering to dive for her knife as the hallway blurred past her. A massive wave of reddish purple energy slammed into the spot where she’d just been laying, leaving in a crater in the floor that extended down to the bent metal structural beams of the level below.
“To your left!” Xander shouted hastily. A metal cylinder clanked onto the floor near Kat, hissing as it began releasing a thick cloud of inky smoke.
She turned the corner, finding Xander hunched over in a hallway, his left arm clutching at his wounded chest while his right slipped the recording into the back of his cranial jack.
“Whip,” he began, stumbling down the corridor as smoke filled the hallway. “I’m transmitting now. Please confirm receipt.”
“-nothing.” Kat winced as she heard the tail end of Whippoorwill’s voice and then static.
A scream of rage echoed through the floor as the stallesp that had been masquerading as Elaine fired another blast of energy, blowing a car-sized hole in the wall next to them. Xander coughed, hand coming away covered in blood.
“Time for Plan B,” he chuckled, the laughter turning into a grimace as he clutched his chest. “Follow me, I have an idea.”
“You hateful pink-skinned wretches!” The stallesp’s voice echoed through the maze of abandoned hallways as Kat scurried after Xander. “Do you know how much work you have put at risk?”
The building shook as the giant mole shattered another wall, sending Xander sprawling to the floor. Kat helped him back to his feet as the alien continued its diatribe.
“Years of infiltrating, drip-feeding technology to a bunch of hairless apes only for a lucky fucking hit to unmask me. The rest of my brood managed it without any trouble, but no. K’thella, you’re the one who got outsmarted by a waif with a wood tier water spell.”
Xander pulled Kat into a well-appointed boardroom, staggering behind a couch that would conceal them from the hallway, and let himself slump to the ground, body trembling. Kat crouched next to him, trying not to think about the blood on her hand where he’d grabbed it.
For a moment they just sat there, backs to the leather couch as Xander shook next to her. Kat looked out through the floor to ceiling windows on the neon lights and buzzing cars of the Chiwaukee night. In the distance, the garish light of the city reflected off of Lake Michigan.
“Do you think that a little smoke can hide you from me!” Kat winced as the alien shouted once again. “I can smell you. I can track you by the stink of your sweat and the spoor of your fear. I’ll grind your bones into flour for what you’ve done to me!”
“A cake!” the floor rumbled under them as a blast of arcane energy removed another wall. “I’ll turn you into a fucking cake and garnish it with goonya berries just as soon as I get off of this accursed ball of rock.”
Xander put a hand on her shoulder.
“Kat,” he whispered, his other hand, wet with blood finding hers. “In the elevator, I promised you that I’d get you out of here alive. I plan on keeping that promise.”
“How?” She shook her head. “And why are you using my actual name, we’re on a mission?”
“Because I’m talking to you right now, Kat, not the persona we invented for you.” He coughed wetly, pressing something slick and plastic into her hand.
She held it up the blood-covered recording, eyes widening.
“No,” the word was a whisper, a denial of the inevitable.
“She’s too strong,” Xander shook his head. “She just stood there taking shots from both of us before sweeping us away like we were dust. Only one of us is walking out of here.”
“Exe,” she began, unshed tears stinging her eyes.
“Xander,” he corrected. “We lived our entire life by that damn code only for the people in charge to throw everything away and sell our Goddamn planet to aliens. It’s a smoking hellscape, but it’s ours damn it.”
“Xander,” Kat amended herself. “We can go out the window. I’ll use Levitation. It’ll slow us enough that we can probably make it to the ground. We can give the recording to someone and everything will be alright.”
“Kat,” Xander’s hand reached up, cupping the back of her head. “That won’t work and you know it. We’ll be sitting ducks. If the mole doesn’t rip us from the sky, her goons will shoot us down.”
“Please,” Kat heard her voice breaking, but she didn’t care anymore.
“We don’t have a wireless connection to Whip,” He replied sadly. “The mission comes first. If we don’t pull this off, Whip dies. Nina dies. Your family dies. One of us needs to make it down to the tenth floor with the recording, and that’s only happening if we go through the alien.”
Xander chuckled, blood trickling down his face. “We both know that ain’t me Kat.”
“But-” She began only for Xander to shush her, his golden tooth glinting in the light shining off of the city light. In the distance, the stallesp annihilated another wall.
“My lungs are wrecked, Kat.” Xander shook his head sadly. “I haven’t been able to draw a breath since she shot me with my own goddamn bullet. That healing spell of yours won’t be enough to fix what’s wrong with me.”
“I’m only upright due to chrome.” He smiled weakly. “A couple years ago I had an oxygen reservoir installed so that I could do an underwater job. I didn’t think much about the duration then. Ten minutes of compressed air for an emergency seemed like plenty, but here I am. Seven minutes left.”
Kat deflated, tears streaming down her face and soaking the inside of her mask.
“You’re right about one thing.” He grinned at her weakly. “Two people are about to go out that window. You just aren’t going to be one of them.”
She looked up, uncomprehending, barely even noting the screams and explosions as the stallesp drew closer.
“It’s the only way to get through that shield of hers,” he replied. “Spells can penetrate it but bullets can’t. You need to cast Levitation on her as soon as she gets in the room. Then we need a blow with enough momentum to knock her out the window.”
“That’s my job.” Xander put a hand on his chest. “Once we’re falling, you need to increase gravity’s pull on her. I don’t know how strong that shield is, but 30 stories at two g should turn her into strawberry jam.”
“I-” Kat tried not to think about her hands shaking. “I can’t do it.”
The door to the conference room rattled as another spell exploded nearby.
“You’re a good kid, Kat,” he patted her on the cheek through her mask. “Tell Nina-”
He paused, the facade of confidence slipping for a second. “Tell her I’m sorry.”
“Tell Whip I’m sorry.”
The door to their hiding place shattered. ‘Elaine’ stood outside, a gross parody of a human being with her mole face sticking out from a woman’s body.
“I can smell you in here, vermin.” The alien‘s hate-filled voice rumbled through the room.
“And Kat,” Xander whispered. “I’m sorry to leave all this weight on your shoulders. If anyone can see this through, it’s you.”
Then her hand was empty, the bloody data stick all that remained.
Xander burned purple, his remaining stamina fortifying his shattered body as he sprinted for the window. En route, he picked up a chair, swinging it in a double-handed grip with the strength of an Olympian.
The window shattered outward, shards of glass spraying into the neon lit night like a thousand stars as Xander slipped himself out onto the narrow ledge outside the windowsill.
‘Elaine’ fired a blast of energy, shattered the rest of the panes, but missing Xander as the older man ignored his pain and nimbly shimmied to the side. She sprinted after him, a snarl affixed to her furry face.
Eyes blurry with tears, Kat finished casting Levitation just as the stallesp reached the window and leaned outside, one hand high in the air as a crackling orb of reddish purple energy gathered between her well-manicured fingers.
Xander slammed into the alien, drawing a high-pitched squeak of surprise from the mole before both of them tumbled off the ledge and into the night air.
Kat canceled her spell and ran to the edge of the building. Even from the thirty-second floor she could hear Xander laughing like a maniac as he pinwheeled toward the pavement below.
A bittersweet smile found its way onto Kat’s face. That was just like Xander. Even in death, he was going to go out on his own idiotic terms.
She cast Gravity’s Grasp twice on the stallesp, enjoying on a deep level the alien’s squeals of alarm as she jerked downward, outpacing Xander in her descent until she slammed into the street below. There was a flash of white energy as the shield overloaded and failed, leaving behind a mangled cluster of limbs and abused flesh.
Kat turned away. Unable to stomach what would come next. The blood-covered data stick was unbearably heavy in her hand as she left the conference room.
The next couple minutes were a blur. Kat didn’t even remember retrieving her knife let alone fighting, but the next thing she knew, she was entering the security room on the tenth floor.
She handed the datastick to Whip. For some reason she wanted Kat’s smartpanel, too.
Kat didn’t argue, handing both to the woman and flopping into the corner, head in her knees. Merrimac, Hestia and Whip were cheering, slapping each other on the back with the zeal and relief that could only be brought on by a near brush with death.
They’d won. After all of the struggle and heartache, Elaine Williamson and her conspiracy was exposed. Their families were safe, and they could return to their everyday lives from before they’d discovered Operation Starfall.
Her body felt miles away. Intellectually, Kat knew she had a fractured arm and two broken ribs. The bruises from the grenade blast were bleeding internally now, the constant activity exacerbating the injuries.
Her infiltration suit was a mess. Torn and battered from her descent to the tenth floor. At some point a bullet had creased her side, ripping a hole in the kevlar and leaving a long, bloody gash on her flank, but none of that mattered.
It didn’t even hurt.
The main smartglass display in the security room was playing picture in picture the footage of Xander and Kat killing their way up the tower alongside the boardroom footage from the Millennium meeting that had started everything. An icon in the corner of the screen indicated that the footage was being uploaded to a dozen different channels at once.
The room erupted in cheers when Kat doused the Millennium enforcer in his own acid. They gasped when Elaine’s face melted off to reveal the alien underneath.
Then the footage was in the conference room. Kat’s breath was coming in short, ragged gasps.
“Tell Nina I’m sorry.”
The room was dead silent.
Then, Whippoorwill was crouching next to her, a hand on either of Kat’s shoulders shaking her still body with a fierce urgency.
“Where is he, Kat?” The girl’s voice was panicked, lost. “Where’s Xander?”
Now it hurt.
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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