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  We find ourselves in the warren of the Runny Babbits, on a lazy Saturday.

 

  ‘Come on!’ a harsh hell ‘I thought we weren’t doing no mofu slides!’

 

  ‘Its a mechanic in the game.’ a much calmer voice, ‘Don’t get mad at me for sloppy design.’ The click clack, of thumb-sticks being slammed into borders of their slots, the rapid tapping of various spring loaded buttons. ‘Besides, you’re the one who adjusted your inhibitors’

 

  ‘You try doing this, with-’ and then came the crunch. ‘Fucking shit.’

 

  ‘Told you Nines. Good thing the boss let us do that job eh?’

 

  ‘Well, Ripple was trying to help a brother out. ‘Sides, Bullwinkle wanted to try that breaker on a ghost truck any way.’ 99-One tossed the crumpled plastic and wires into box, with eight other such donations, he reached behind the couch, and pulled a fresh new controller, from a set of fifty that they had stolen off a delivery vehicle the week before.

 

  ‘Think you got it dialed in now at least?’

 

  ‘Yeah’ a small blade extended out of the center of his index finger of 99-One’s mechanical hand. With a few deft cuts the box was open, and the fresh controller was syncing to the console. ‘Think its something like seventeen point five percent that I just adjusted it to. Problem is their speed is tied to their power. Think I’ll see if arch can get me a custom job.’

 

  ‘If you want to end up with a self lubing hand maybe.’ U-Gar laughed at is own joke, sounding like a braying donkey.

 

  ‘Don’t give him any ideas. He’s already been tinkering with that wife bot too much.’

 

‘Its like, I don’t know. You remember when your hands get real real cold, and like, you can feel that they’re working to slow. Imagine playing like that.’

 

  ‘Hey man, you went with that aug job don’t blame me. What you get for having it gigged.’

 

  99-One rolled his eyes, the mechanical job rolled all the way around in its socket, showing a small engraved drawing, to look like human hand extending only its thumb and middle fingers. ‘So, no more of that mofu bullshit, and lets get back to this.

 

  ‘You’ve only taken three off me already, I think I’ll just hop off my mains and see where that gets you.

 

  ‘Just tired of getting bodied. Your footsie is too damn good.’ the two let the conversation drop, as they focused on the task at hand. The sound of punches both high low and mid, with matching sets of kicks, the return of thumb-sticks slamming into their slots, and the occasional scream of triumph, or calm request for another round, was the only sound in the room. For all of fifteen rounds before the next swear and crack of plastic.

 

  Upstairs, Jailbait stood on a plush training mat, attempting a few hold breaking maneuvers with Cat, failing miserably. Thankfully Cat was a patient instructor, and wore a stoic, stony expression.

 

  ‘You want a break?’ Cat asked.

 

  ‘Am I wearing out your patience.’

 

  ‘No, no. Do not mistake my question. I remember much frustration. Some escapes quite hard. Also, very important.’ she smiled briefly, ‘You can do it. Again.’ her face quickly returning to its stoic baseline.

 

  ‘Might be easier if you had normal hands.’ Jailbait complained.

 

  ‘Many foes will not. Most will be like me. I make good practice.’ Jailbait struggled, attempting to move her hand in front of her face as she’d been told. Cat would allow her to get a start but would start resisting quickly. ‘Faster. You know how.’

 

  Jailbait growled in response, and tried again. She got a little farther this time. Almost there. ‘Wrist too tight. Loose.’ her instructor commanded. She’d been walked through a few different escape types, and decided to switch it up. This time rotation her wrist and yanking hard, she almost got her hand back but Cat was strong.

 

  ‘Oh fuck this.’ She grabbed Cats neck with her free hand and attempted to pull it down into her waiting knee. Cat took this moment to show her a more advanced technique, rolling, pulling Jailbait down with her, Cat’s legs locking around Jailbait’s shoulders, locking her arm in place, leaving Jailbait trapped.

 

  Cat erupted into laughter. ‘Its good. You try very hard. Good for now.’ She released her pupil, and helped pull her up from the mat. ‘Good. Mixed techniques, I approve.’

 

  Jailbait was rubbing her wrist. ‘You have everyone go through this.’

 

  ‘Not yet. Ripple.’ She tilted her head in thought ‘U-gar. Though his is different. Will include weapons.’

 

  ‘That uh, sounds.’ She trailed off. She already hated what little she was being made to learn of this combat stuff. She had to admit it would be useful at some point. Most of the jobs lately have been pulled by the veterans. And her skill set was still being refined. Spooner was a harsh taskmaster like Cat, but without the friendly demeanor. He insisted how core her role would be, and so they drilled the social engineering techniques over, and over. He’d had her sneak into buildings, and all sorts of other things. When she was out it was thrilling, but this, this drove home the danger.

 

  ‘Fun. Knives make it fun.’ Cat smiled with only her eyes, and the fire behind them, while giving Jailbait a firm pat on the back. ‘You will get there. Knife probably. Last resort. Quiet, fast, efficient, sneaky, you will be very dangerous. I make it so.’

 

  ‘I don’t know that I’m any good at this.’

 

  ‘We, make it very hard. On purpose. One day it will happen.’ She taking warapping one arm around her student’s shoulders, waving the other in front of her in an arch, ‘Flash! Prepared, will not think, will do. We care very much.’ giving the shoulders a small squeeze.

 

  ‘I know, I know.’ her face still looked slightly defeated, but she tried to look resolute instead. They’d make sure, heaven knows Spooner would. ‘So, something else?’

 

  Cat pursed her lips, and her looked up and away, before she finally replied. ‘Meditate. Tea.’

 

  ‘That sounds a bit more my speed, I brew a mean cup of chai.’ and the two wandered downstairs to the kitchen.

 

  Ripple sat on a workbench, his feet resting on a stool, one hand resting on a joystick, had a glove with protruding wires and a cable running out into a computer. He was taking a look at some code Arch had thrown together for a robot project he’d been working on. He spent basically every minute he wasn’t working on something for their commander, on it. ‘You know, they make robots for this right? Like, some of them are’ Ripple gulped ‘Pretty good looking is all I’m saying.’

 

  ‘I do.’ Arch had an arm assembled on the table, attached to a kind of psudo-joint rig he had for testing, sending it through all kinds of motions. ‘I’ve looked. Quality workmanship.’

 

  ‘There’s also like, you know. Like real live girls.’

 

  Arch threw him some absolutely caustic side eye, and the hand made an obscene gesture. ‘Ever put in the effort to court one’

 

  Ripple paused, then sorted out what Arch had meant ‘Umm, yeah, yeah no. I’d say the bots are easier for sure, I’m not chucking dark your way. No judgment.’

 

  ‘So way I reason, man’s still got to earn it in some capacity. Too easy and it rots’ he tapped the side of his head with the tip of a screwdriver ‘so here I am.’

 

  Ripple rolled his eyes. ‘I’m more on the other side, I don’t want to have to come home and dance for it you know. Simple. Bots are good for that.’

 

  ‘Far better than their competitors’ Arch said, as he took steps to attach the arm to the frame.

 

  ‘Well, code looks good. I don’t think it will rip your dick off at least. Calibration parameters look fine, assuming you’ve got a training regimen in mind?’ Arch returned a nod. ‘You started thinking about a chat algorithm? Some streamer girl you like? Or you going to go full custom job.’

 

  At that, arch paused, a rare sight that lasted all of two seconds before he was spinning the screwdriver in his hand. ‘think a blend would work?’

 

  ‘Maybe, need a couple tries. Might treat it like proper dates too.’

 

  ‘Now there’s an idea.’ Arch looked mildly enthused about the project.

 

  ‘I can start getting something cobbled together? Could try online for a bit, while you finish up the bod here.’ Ripple was thinking he could use some of that same energy in his life. Some where deep in his brain was screaming, but it did that, best noted, then ignored Ripple thought. ‘Really is hard competing for the real thing.’

 

  ‘Yeah, polyamory really took off once the bots got decent. I hear it was weird for the first couple decades.’ Arch mused, the arm fully attached, and he was walking around the frame.

 

  ‘Add being a streamer, selling pics, or just the attention you know? Next to impossible to compete with that. Some corporate rich boy you know?’

 

  ‘Not like we’re swimming in free time. Spooner has Bullwinkle breaking my shit every other day. Virus here, log there, changes a setting there, and then the war games.’ Ripple pulled off the headset and set it down, leaned into the wall, it was uncomfortable but he couldn’t muster the give-a-shit.

 

  ‘Just making sure you’re not going to be the chink in our armor.’ Arch stated, tone slipping kind of far off, distracted, as he finished attaching the other arm he’d been testing.

 

  ‘Which, I’d hate to find out it was me. Bullwinkle’s taught me a lot.’

 

  ‘And that’s why we trust you. You’ll get there.’

 

  ‘Yeah. I hope so.’ looking despondent he got up, gathering up his gear. ‘Send me a list of the girls you like, and I’ll get my pot a brewing.’ the only response was a free hand thumbs up, as he wandered back to his own setup space. Hooking all his stuff into his rig, he went and collapsed onto his bed. They hadn’t pulled a serious job since he’d joined. They’d knocked over that truck for the controllers, that had been fun, but he really wanted to stick it to one of the damn corps. B and B especially, but all that could wait til Spooner gave the word. That wouldn’t be today, but he hoped soon, as he drifted off to sleep.

 

  Spooner sat at his desk upstairs, a set of AR goggles, and a matching set of gloves on his hands. He as making connections, between various attached articles, on a kind of digital cork board. Veyber was hitting the Sans-Rybal Consortium rather hard lately, and it was all in this city. And then, there’s the bit with the nerds in that one radio tower getting something, coming from a hotel a day ago. The news cycle was too fast, and Spooner had to rely on demons to get a good scoop of articles to read though. Lot of weird going on.

 

  ‘Ey Boss.’ Bullwinkle, probably not serious. Spooner could probably afford to ignore it but he felt like his eyes were going to bleed.

 

  ‘Proceed’ taking off the googles, and setting them on a custom stand. ‘Urgent?’

 

  ‘Naw. Just seeing if you needed anything run. Getting antsy just standing around.’

 

  ‘We’ll find something. Opportunity always drops something on you.’

 

  ‘You get anything pieced together with that corp war you were going on about?’

 

  ‘So far no.’ he picked up a pen, rhythmically tapping it on the desk’s hard surface. ‘And I’m starting to think I’m just getting antsy.’

 

  ‘Even the smurfs are running low on work, from what I’ve heard.’

 

  ‘Now that, is strange.’ Lots of times Corps used blacknet teams to attach each other, or even themselves sometimes. The Smurfs didn’t care who came, so long as there was cash involved.

 

  ‘They’re just causing trouble is what has you thinking that?’ If it moved fully internal, it must be something very sensative.

 

  ‘Yeah, birdies have been sayin.’ Bullwinkle leaned into the door frame, it creaked a little under his bulk. ‘Had a run in with a couple of em the other night myself. Normally they’d know better.’


  Spooner let his mind drift, running over a series of mental checklists, they’d got plenty of food, if not exactly the good stuff. They should have sufficient cash saved up in various forms. They got controllers, a silly request but it kept them on their toes. ‘You tracking any of the babbits wanting anything? Too afraid to ask?’ A head shake all the confirmation he needed.

 

  ‘One more thing. Sid’s back. Some new girl, so O said. Used the Faust order.’

 

  ‘Faust, Faust.’ Spooner reaching back into the archives of his brain. ‘When did we put that one in?’

 

  ‘Been a few years.’ Bullwinkle laughed, deep in his belly. ‘He always was the type.’

 

  ‘O also mentioned, a few Veyber guys hassling him about it. Him and his new girl. No body seems to know her though.’

 

  ‘Corp you think?’

 

  ‘That or government.’

 

  Spooner let the details sink in, and thought back to his map. ‘He reach out yet?’

 

  ‘Not yet.’

 

  ‘He will. I’ll keep you posted.’

 

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Highlord_of_Iron

Bio: Highpriest of the new word.

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