Psychedelic Electrons (Novella Version)


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Post Tue Jan 03, 2006 4:53 am

Psychedelic Electrons (Novella Version)


PE was my exploratory expedition into my own version of Cyberpunk. I admired William Gibson's work, and some others who attempted to mimic him. For myself, I didn't want to ape him, I wanted my own kind of dark future world. Kat's world, especially the artifacts in it, are heavily influenced by a game system called Shadow Run. A publisher called FASA had done their own take on Gibson and made up a complex and detailed millieu. I stole from them a certain number of tech names, but then took my own wild tangents. Because a number of failings in this story, I went back to make a full length novel with a radically different approach. About the only thing the same is the Hershel family, and Kat herself. Even her powers are changed in the novel version. I'm still kind of partial to the action in this one. It definitely has its entertaining aspects...


Psychedelic Electrons
<br>

New Angeles, 10 a.m. Tuesday, November 7th, 2079

Polymer alloy humming in her bones, Kath sat up on the icy steel table and yanked the sterile-white blanket off her naked body. The lab tech mumbled something about waiting but Kath ignored him, caught up in a storm of new electronic sensations. She felt the adrenaline surge as the wires came alive. They'd made her into a weapon, one that would plunge into Brackham's heart. The murderer would pay.

She wrinkled her nose at the caustic smell, made stronger by the neural enhancers. It was a standard nine meter square recovery cubical; stainless steel slab, counter, drug cabinet, chair, chart rack and examination panel. Apart from the furniture, little different from a morgue.

Down the hall a man bellowed in pain, the sound abruptly cut off. Probably cyberware rejection shock. Kath hated shadow clinics, the disregard for life, the mercenary attitude and the clinic's disdain for its customers. The shadow elite and the cyber-surgery outlets existed in a volatile balance. Those who needed power and those who provided it. The only mitigating factor was the number of credits in your pocket. It didn't matter where the money came from. To compete in the shadows, you needed an edge.

Kath's hands trembled as she felt herself getting sharper by the instant. Every tactile sensation grew more distinct; the sound of air sighing from a circulating vent overhead, the swish of the technician's lab coat as he picked up a clipboard to make some notes on a chart, the constriction of the pores in her skin reacting to the cold.

Razor sharp. Sharp enough to dice the corporate bastards who had stolen the lives of her family. Shadow wisdom held that revenge was the motive of amateurs. The moment you let emotions pull you out of the groove you were meat waiting to die; not Kath 'The Cat' Hershel.

"All the prelims look on the green," the tech said next to her. The phospherized light reflected off the old fashioned wireframe glasses he wore. His scribbling on his clipboard never slowed. Something about him irritated her.

"Doc Shears' new prototype cyberware is real wiz stuff, no sign of rejection symptoms or inflammation. One of the best graft-overs he's done— trés chic."

Kath ran a hand up her flat stomach, long nails brushing distended nipples. She shuddered at the intensity of the sensations. Her probing traveled to an itchiness in her scalp. Hyper-acute fingertips encountered only a smooth pate where her long space-black curls had been.

The startling discovery combined with the hyped aggression factors now simmering in her blood evoked a reaction.

Kath's hand snapped out. A crack snapped through the room as steely fingers shredded a thin barrier and clamped around a human neck. She felt the thunder of the tech's blood through his jugular and aorta, detected the jiggle of his adams-apple as he swallowed convulsively.

"Where the frag is my hair?" she snarled.

The tech made wheezing sounds. Kath saw her scowling angular face reflected in his glasses. His unshaved face paled and his dark eyes bulged. "Not— done— yet."

Shivering, Kath relaxed. "They said I'd keep my hair. Paid extra for it. I want it done before I'm out of here." She pushed him back against the counter.

The man staggered away, gripping his neck. The aggression response had been hotter and more abrupt than she'd expected. She stared at her arm now ringed by the clipboard. Her hand had punched through it on its way to the man's throat.

They called the response enhancement Mortallis; killer instinct on a chip. Linked to a network of neuromuscular augmentations, autonomic and endocrinal reflexes, the cybernetics maximized combat efficiency. Combined with increased sense awareness and endoskeletal reinforcement, she could deal with the roughest encounter. The street elite called it chromed-to-the-max.

She opened and closed her fingers, watching tendons pulling in polyteflon coated sheaths. Kath stopped, noticing the pinhead-sized H.W.I. embedded in the center of her palm. She wouldn't have seen the human/weapon targeting interface if she hadn't already known it was there. The tech was right, Doctor Shears did fine knifework. The scars of the invasive surgery weren't even visible.

The cybertech lingered in the room, eying her the way a mouse might peer at a snake.

"Are you still here?" She pulled the clipboard off her arm and tossed in on the counter. "Jet it, kid. If someone isn't here in a couple shakes to do my hair, that clipboard won't be the only thing with a hole in it. You scan?"

He left. The door hissed shut. Down the hall, someone screamed in pain.

Lovely places, shadow clinics.

She found her clothes folded in the chair. After pulling on her underwear and jeans, she settled again on the slab with the blanket around her. Craziness, all of this, hyping herself with experimental cyberware so she could take down Brackham.

After a few minutes, Doc Shears himself came in carrying a large silver biotransport case. The cybersurgeon had graying hair and a beard that didn't go with his youthful looking skin and seamless hands. His smock was stained with at least ten distinct shades of red and an assortment of yellow, brown, and green splotches. Kath didn't care to speculate where they came from.

After setting the case down, he turned and studied her, pulling on his whiskers. Doc Shears' gravelly voice was the only thing that went with his hair. "I hear you're terrorizing the techs already."

"Little sycophant pissed me off. He stank." Until she said it, she didn't realize that the tech had smelled bad; cigarettes and cheap aftershave.

The doctor pulled a compupad from his belt and made an entry with the stylus. "You'll be hyper-sensitive for a while. The neural networks take time to stabilize. Don't put this hardware under a sustained load for a week. Otherwise, you run the risk of a psychotic episode."

Kath snorted. "Yeah, right. About my hair?"

"In the box. Take about twenty minutes for the graft."

"Let's do it."

He nodded, put the box on the counter and opened it. "I didn't tell you during the review, but I knew your father." He pulled out a scapel and examined the edge.

"Oh?" Her tone sounded flat. She didn't like the memories discussions about Father brought back; happier times, ones she'd never have again.

"Met him at a medical convention after reading his paper on adaptive synthogenetics." He pulled out a syringe and put a needle into it. "His wetware designs were the first of their kind. Very revolutionary. He was a monumental loss to the genome research community. Everyone was profoundly affected."

"Yeah," she growled. "You could tell how choked up they were by the way they tore into his patents to steal his work in progress only an hour after the bureaus released news of his death."

"It was debacle, I must agree. Did they ever find his body?"

Kath stared at him. Shears had a knack for questions she didn't like. "No. The cops found blood and traces of a fight. They think he got broken up for parts." It surprised her that she could say it so easily. The last couple weeks had made her numb. Ugly thought, someone you knew and loved being dissected, their organs and limbs auctioned off on the black market.

Shears blinked as if stunned by her answer. He swallowed, apparently realizing he'd probed where he shouldn't have. He cleared his throat, turned and pulled out a clear container in which lay a shining mass of black strands. He picked up the scapel. The blade glinted in the phosporescent light. "Ready?"

"Do it."


An hour later, Kath hit the street twenty kilos heavier and a million credits lighter. The money didn't matter. No-one remained definably alive in her family to spend it anyway. With the bone lacing, muscle and tissue changes she now weighed in at an even 80 kilos, heavy enough she hoped to break the backs of Brackham and his cronies.

Sheets of fetid rain belched from gunmetal gray clouds churning over the Westminster suburb of New Angeles. Kath walked down the grimy sidewalk past barred windows and doorways. She hunched her shoulders, leather jacket pulled tight against the downpour; a rotten day to start getting used to her augmented senses. She felt every raindrop, smelled and tasted each smog corrupted splash. The street had recently been sanitized, and she saw the jaundice-colored tendrils of disease-killing gas writhing along the ground.

Foul weather, foul mood, it seemed fitting. Doctor Shears didn't tell her about the downside of Mortallis. After the artificial adrenaline rush passed, you came down— hard.

Black Tuesday had taken on a whole new meaning. She felt like a spent bullet, nothing but powder burns and emptiness. It worsened the haunting of the specters of her dead sister and brother, her mother brain-damaged beyond repair. The hospital would be calling her soon to fill out the euthanasia forms.

Kath shuddered. If she had a place to go, she might be curled up, nursing a hot stim-brew. It made her wonder what good the vengeance served. The only legacy she'd leave behind would be the stacked corpses of corporate raiders. Her own body would likely crown the pile.

She might have moved on, found a different way if it weren't for Mother. The bastard who pulled the trigger deliberately aimed to cripple, to produce a slobbering mass of human flesh that couldn't feed or clothe itself. She'd never hear her Mother's laugh again or be able to listen to her tacky jokes. Momma Hershel wasn't the best parent that ever lived, but she deserved better than a bullet.

The thought brought anger searing to the surface again. "Brackham, you're meat!" Kath slammed a fist into the slimy brick wall.

Chunks of stone and mortar shattered. Inside the building, a woman yelled in surprise.

Kath trudged on. She had the cyberware. Time to hunt up some weapons to make the raid possible. The media would call tomorrow, red Wednesday.

Blood red.


New Angeles, 11 p.m. Tuesday, November 7th, 2079

The Watts warehouse stank; dust, rail oil, and urine. Rain pattered on the aluminum sheeting overhead. The rotted century old beams shuddered dangerously as a fully loaded freight train clacked by outside.

Kath tensed in the darkness, sensing bodies in motion. The rats had come in out of the rain to keep dry— both species. She shifted to get her back against one of the timbers used to support the decaying roof, careful not to trip over the cracked cement. Her hand went to the haft of the 40 centimeter survival knife she purchased in preparation for this buy.

Kath felt the Mortallis kick in. Her heart picked up and a cold knot hardened in her stomach. "Mace, you there?"

"Present I am," said a thick, vaguely cockney accent.

Kath oriented to her right, only a few meters away. "I have the credits."

She sensed Mace smile. "Pleased I am to hear that."

Kath saw the whites of his eyes in the faint light from outside. She made out the silhouettes of at least six more men flanking Mace, bruisers by their size.

"Did you get everything?"

"Get them I did; special forces milspec, bright, shiny and new. Curious was I, about what be goin down?"

Kath's hand tightened convulsively. "Brackham," she growled. "Brackham's goin down."


New Angeles, 12 a.m. Wednesday, November 8th, 2079

At Olive Lawn, the weight of Heaven's judgment made the waterlogged armor-jacket hanging from Kath's shoulders feel even heavier. She set the gold foil box down and sat next to it on the sodden grass. Ignoring the moisture soaking her jeans, she regarded the three bronze placards with the rifle across her lap. The mortuary in La Mirada was quiet and still, the city sounds only a faint hum in the distance. The downpour had subsided and a waning moon now peeked through rips in the overcast.

She ran her fingers across the bronze placard. Devoted husband, loving father. "Dad," Kath said in a husky whisper. "If only you'd still been with us, it might not have come to this. Mom didn't have your strength. Rick didn't have the street savvy to see the sharks coming. Wouldn't listen to me; same old cocksure, long-nose, Phi-Beta-Cappa attitude. I tried. Shouldn't have let him piss me off. I could have protected them." She tightened her grip on the stock and barrel of the assault weapon. A lump hardened in her throat. "Mom will be with you soon."

Kath bowed her head and caressed the spot where her mother would be buried. The blades of grass felt cool and tender. Mom liked picnics in the park and lying in the sun. Soon she would lie down in the grass one last time.

"She never said so, but I think she really wanted to be with you anyway. She still laughed, but her eyes never shone like they did for you." Shaking, Kath pressed the icy metal of the rifle against her forehead. "Rick, Dawn— what can I say? I messed up. Wasn't there when you needed me. Damn it, wasn't there." She rose to her knees. "I was the hard ass, the one with blood under my nails and dirt on my soul. Shoulda been me."

She reached over and pulled the lid off the gold box. "It isn't much, troops, best I can do. I never had your smarts, Rick. I never could forgive like you, Dawn. Never forgave a goddamn thing in my life. All I know is shadows and street justice. I'll have that scag Brackham's bones for a funeral bier. Cold fraggin comfort, I know. It's something though. Better than nothing."

She pulled the roses one at a time from the box and placed them on the graves. It felt as if she lost a shard of herself with each flower. When there were four blossoms on each grave, she stood and took a deep breath. The crimson blooms glistened red as blood on the wet lawn.

Kath grew cold inside. She looked to the sky, pulled the rifle's bolt back and chambered a round. "Lord, I don't need forgiveness, just understanding and a whole lot of ammunition."

She shouldered the weapon and headed for the wall and the van waiting on the street. Still a long night ahead.


New Angeles, 3 a.m. Wednesday, November 8th, 2079

O'Hares was buzzing, the regulars still giving the bar-top a steady elbow polishing. Beer bottles clinked, men muttered and an all-day sports network blared on a one meter tri-video. The odor from five brands of smoke, three kinds of sweat, wet leather and synth blended in a hellatious reek.

Kath wanted to vomit.

Swallowing hard, she edged past tables and unconscious patrons, avoiding eddies of drug laden fog. The smell always made her queasy, but not like this. The boosted senses would be annoying until she learned to control them.

She never liked O'hares much. Best place in town for connections though; drugs, prostitutes, black-market arms and mercenaries.

A drunken sea-sec grabbed for her and fell out of his chair when she sidestepped. Kath headed for the clearer air toward the back. A dozen men and women lounged in the booths, decked in worn leather and blasé poise; O'hares' shadow contingent.

A tall lady with frizzy hair and a dark complexion waved to her with a gold anodized prosthetic arm. "Hey, Kat, heard 'bout the shake up. Hang tough, you hear?"

Kath flashed her a thumbs-up.

None of the big muscle appeared to be here tonight. Her loss. She didn't have the funds for a team; only one back-up with some smarts.

She went to a short broad-shouldered negro who sat in the corner wearing faded army ODs and a stained brown beret with a special forces insignia pinned through it. He looked up from an ancient .45 he was oiling, mirrored cyber-insets where eyes had once been. "Mademoiselle Kat."

"Jazz— you seen Apollo?"

"Zee big fellow, two meters, hundred kilos with scar under heez eye?"

She nodded.

"Non, ain't zeen him."

Kath frowned. "Old joke, older than that gun."

"Zey only get better with age, cher."

"Zays you."

He shrugged.

It happened too fast for her to stop herself. She felt the air disturbed by someone reaching for her neck. The Mortallis kicked in. Rap-rap-rap, she machine-gunned a back-kick and three punches belly-high into the space directly behind. The bulletproof paneling of a lined-coat screeched under the force of her attacks.

A huge form looming over her groaned and toppled. He thudded to the floor, swirls of dust and smoke puffing around him. He wheezed, trying to suck air, obviously without success.

Heart thundering, Kath braced in a fighting stance, ready to go for the gun in the holster under her arm.

Applause and a couple of whistles came from different parts of the bar.

Behind her, Jazz laughed. "Zee Apollo, cher, I zink you have found him."

She winced at her own stupidity. She had to keep a lid on the mortallis. She'd clobbered the guy for what had probably been meant as a pat on the shoulder. She rubbed her knuckles and focused on cooling the mortallis; slowing to where she wasn't ready to rip everything within reach to shreds.

Coughing, Apollo rolled to his knees and clutched his middle. She reached to help him up but he brushed her away. Face red, he glared at her with silver-gray eyes.

"What the frag did you hit me with?" he growled.

"Mostly my fist," she answered. "Accident, man, I swear. Got a new edge and I'm still squirrely."

"Your fraggin fist?" he demanded, square jaw tight.

She shrugged. "Yeah, well, with my foot too."

"Your foot too, great." He rose with a groan and rubbed his chest. A shudder went through his burly frame. He looked like a tank with arms and legs, howitzer included in the form of a the assault pistol holstered on his side. "Felt like a sledge hammer."

"Shouldn't have snuck up on me."

"I'll know better now. Frrrag!" He rubbed his stomach. His lined coat had blunted her attack. Without it, she might have killed him. "What the hell kind of edge did you get?"

"Full suite of mortallis augmentations."

"That Gamma series kludge?"

She narrowed her eyes. "Worked on you, didn't it?"

"Yeah," he muttered. "Screamin stuff. How long before it tears itself or you apart?"

"Zip it, huh? I got ten-thousand credits for some reliable backup on a one-day run. Can't be trigger shy. Gonna be heat. Can you turn me onto some good muscle?"

"Ten-K?" Apollo rubbed his face, then gestured her toward a seat in an empty booth. She went and sat. He took his time following, obviously still dizzy. He settled with care, wincing and rubbing his bruised stomach.

Kath wanted to say she was sorry, but knew better. In the shadows, you never apologize. Still, she hadn't meant to give him grief. He'd been straight with her in the past. That was worth a lot. Brackham had flushed her life into the sewers. She didn't need to drag someone else in with her.

"So?" Kath asked. "You know someone?"

He nodded. "Yeah."

"Who?"

"For 10K, I'll do it; need the creds."

Kath raised an eyebrow. "Thought you stopped running and only set up jobs."

He shrugged. "Long story, Kat. What's the deal? I heard Brackham was after your family."

Kath gritted her teeth, fighting to keep her face composed. "Already did it, Apollo. He—" She choked on the words, unable to say them. It was one thing to admit it to herself. To speak of it would make it more true. Ready to explode, she clenched her hands into fists.

Apollo's face hardened. "Oh man, Kat. I hadn't heard."

He didn't say sorry, couldn't, but Kath heard it in his voice. It made the rage in her gut burn hotter. "Frag that. You in, or not?"

"In what?"

Kath stared into his eyes. "Brackham."

Apollo slid back in his seat. "You've lost it. I know this johnson needs it in the head, but you can't touch him. Revenge doesn't work, it gets you—"

"Stow it! In my van, I got a dozen AP-6 incendiaries, two suits of Achilles armor, two maxed out M22A2 assault rifles, guardian heavy machine-pistols, and enough Quicksilver armor piercing ammo to make Brackham's headquarters look like Swiss cheese. I can get to him. If someone has the balls to back me up."

He met her stare, brow creased and jaw set. A muscle in his cheek twitched. Kath had made it a challenge and immediately regretted it. She needed his help, not to piss him off.

He leaned across the table, gray eyes narrowed, his huge fist and forearm shoving against hers. His breath smelled of Vodka. "Ain't in this for family, Kat. I got all the balls you need. Also got brains. Ain't interested in suicide missions."

She swallowed and calmed the anger seething in her body. "It's not suicide. Two runners can do it with my data and the gear in the Achilles armor. Between that, the AP-6s, and the heat we'll be packing, it won't be easy, but it's doable."

Apollo relaxed. He rubbed his nose and regarded her warily. After a moment, he bellowed at the bar. "Hey, TJ! Get us a pair of drafts!"

A muffled response came back and soon a couple of mugs of dark brew were placed in front of them. Apollo said nothing, he sipped his beer and studied her.

Kath took a sip and put the ale aside. She'd tasted few beers she cared for. The neural augmentations made the bitter concoction taste like sewer water.

Apollo downed two thirds of the mug before he spoke. "So, where the hell did you get all this milspec bang-bang?"

"Called in some favors. I'm shooting it all on this one. After this, won't be any more shadow running for me."

Chin on fist, he spoke. "This has you really screwed up doesn't it? You'll die to get Brackham, won't you?"

Kath kept her gaze level. "You in or not?"

Apollo swirled the dregs of the beer around in his mug. "I'm in." He gulped down the last and clacked the mug on the table. "I hope Brackham's insurance is paid up."


New Angeles, 6 p.m. Wednesday, November 8th, 2079

Kath sat in the back of the van caressing the side of the M22A2 assault rifle. The air smelled of lubricant, gun powder, plastique, and phosphorus. Apollo knelt at the front of the compartment checking his equipment, each motion taken with care as if he was afraid to move too quickly. He'd driven with her to Brackham's Headquarters. It wasn't until he climbed into the back to gear-up that he saw and smelled the explosives stacked in the rear. From the way his eyes bulged, it looked as if he might have a coronary.

Apollo finished his examinations. "What do you know about this Achilles armor?" He indicated the two silver cases she'd identified earlier. "Never seen it, I've only heard rumors."

Kath dragged a case to her. "I scanned a chip on it. The combat boys call it a dermal enhancing carapice, DEC for short. It's made of living polymers and attached to bare skin. Supposed to be flexible as fabric but tough as any of the rigid suits in use."

"Fraggin alive?"

"Creepy, huh? These suits checked against the data I had on chip. Theoretically, they'll take a .38 slug at a meter, won't even leave a bruise."

Apollo's brow furrowed. "How? If the armor's right against your skin?"

Kath shrugged. "Don't ask me. The specs say it works. It must, or the S.F. wouldn't have put a death penalty on anyone outside the corps caught wearing it."

"Great," he muttered. "No wonder you got hold of it. This junk must be hotter than a nuclear blast."

Kath shrugged. "I'm not planning on getting caught with it." She thumbed the locks on the case which gave a soft hiss as she lifted the lid. Inside were what looked like folded blue-gray segments of cloth placed in padded compartments. The material glistened as though wet.

Apollo examined it, eyes wide. "It looks even creepier than it sounds. One size fits all?"

"Yup." She pulled out what looked like a glove and sleeve. Though it was half the thickness of a wetsuit, the material weighed more than a kilogram. The texture was similar to the underbelly of a snake. Steeling herself, she took off her blouse and slipped her arm inside, pulling the oddly heavy fabric up until it reached her armpit. It felt like sliding her hand down the warm gullet of a serpent.

"Bodyheat powers the dermal connection interface." A tingling spread across her skin. "Whoa. Here we go." A fierce itch began at her fingers then climbed up her arm. The unit constricted with an electrical snap. Her flesh seemed to swell. After a long breath, the transformation stopped.

Kath stared. The DEC armor had bonded into her skin. Except for color, she couldn't tell skin from armor. She admired the fit, flexing her fingers and elbow, feeling only a slight binding.

"What's it like?"

"Weird." They both stared at the glistening blue-gray skin shimmering in the dim light.

Apollo bent to examine it, touching the armor then the bare skin next to it. His silvery eyes were wide. "This stuff is wiz." A frown clouded his features. "It comes off, right?"

She nodded. "You tap a code sequence on the main joint of each armor segment." Kath demonstrated, hitting the simple morse S.O.S. pattern she'd coded into the armor. She felt the material loosen around her arm. "See?" Kath thanked the maker that it had.

Apollo nodded, obviously impressed. He pulled one of the boot units out of the case. "The engineers who worked on this stuff must be real comedians."

"Why?"

"Look at the heel."

From the heel up the back of the leg, the armor looked twice as thick. The words 'double reinforced' were printed at the widest point.

"I don't get it."

"Don't you know the story of Achilles?"

"Nope."

He sighed. "Nevermind." He looked at the groin covering. "What the hell will this stuff do with privates?"

"What? Your thing too big to fit in the armor?"

He scowled. "Now who's the comedian?"

"One way to find out." She loosened her belt and pulled her jeans off.

"You going to strip in front of me?"

She stopped. "There a problem?"

Apollo rubbed the back of his neck. "I didn't realize you trusted me."

Kath's gaze flicked to the gun on the floorboards. "I don't trust anybody that much." She pulled off her jeans, panties and bra, then picked out the triangular groin segment. Rubbing the slick material, she realized she wasn't looking forward to having the material on her privates either.

The queasy sense was almost enough to make her scrap the idea of using the armor. They needed the bullet proofing this stuff would provide though. That in addition to the scanners, star-light, and other surveillance and stealth measures built into the armor's cyber circuitry.

She pulled the thick shorts around her hips and then tugged on the individual 'pant-legs' with their integrated booties.

The itching as the armor grafted was nightmarish. She noticed where the material overlapped, the pieces melded into each other.

"A few meters away, I wouldn't even know you were wearing armor," Apollo marveled.

She nodded. "Only the helmet and the fuel cells left."

"Yeah, what about hair?"

Kath's answered by pulling on the mask. The face and scalp graft were even worse. The material somehow forced around her hair as it locked into the skin. It left the strands outside the armor. A clear membrane hardened over her eyes. A stiff ridge formed along the bridge of her nose. It covered the mouth, the material thin enough to speak through.

"I'm in."

"Sure fraggin are. Trés chic babe."

Kath took the two flat disk-shaped fuel cells and hooked them into the hollows designed for them on either hip. The moment power was added, the material came 'alive'. A jolt surged through her body. She felt the mortallis kick in, and every synthetic wire in her nervous system went incandescent. Colors and sounds whirled through her vision.

Her heart raced and her muscles quivered. Before she could worry that something had gone wrong, it all stopped.

Superimposed over the vision of her right eye, a digital readout displayed the diagnostics of her cyberware augamentations, revision levels and status.

The armor had not only interfaced with her skin, but her cyberware as as well.

"Apollo, we are in business."


New Angeles, 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, November 8th, 2079

Kath finished the perimeter sweep, having identified every guard and security system around the twelve story mirrored glass building that served as Brackham's headquarters. She'd put her street clothes on over the armor so she looked like a pedestrian.

At 7:50 the rain had started again, a light patter that she couldn't feel through the heavy material but heard as droplets hit the rigid eye guards. It took time to get accustomed to the Achilles armor. The joints restricted movement in unexpected ways.

She thumbed the radio-link adhered to her throat. "The shift change is about to start, time for our devil dance."

The receiver in her ear clicked. "Copy," came Apollo's gruff whisper. "AP-6's in place, available on channel three."

"Wiz. Rendez the van in two."

"Copy."

Kath circled the building watching for out-of-place security. Lights glowed in a few office windows in the upper stories; late shifters who'd wish they called in sick after tonight. Only a handful of pedestrians and homeless people were braving the rain. Vehicle traffic looked light and the maintenance crew left the building ten minutes ago.

Her gut tightened. The raid would begin soon. Somewhere on the twelfth story Brackham waited. A stolen copy of his appointment calender told her that he'd be alone except for a girlfriend and his trusted goons.

Brackham's date would be hotter than he ever imagined.

Two blocks from Brackham's headquarters she reached her gray-black van as Apollo's bulky silhouette stepped out of the shadows. Kath hit the alarm switch in her pocket and waited until the security web dropped. The lights on the locks shifted from red to green. Sliding the panel open, she stepped in. Apollo drifted in behind her and closed the hatch with a thud.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"You're right," he said, voice muffled by the armor. "It's do-able. They're making up for sloppiness with firepower." He patted his chest, his expression hidden except for narrowed eyes. "The armor should handle the bullets. The AP-6's will cut main power, land lines, and cyber-net access."

Kath rubbed her fingers. "Between 2050 and 2100 hours their satellite relay goes on maintenance cycle and they use secondary communication channels. It'll take two minutes before a call gets out plus a three minute security response time. It leaves you a viable escape window."

"What about you?"

Kath sighed. "Worry about your own ass."

He stiffened. Wordlessly, he started harnessing the equipment for their run. Besides the four AP-6's Apollo planted, they each would carry six of the antipersonnel incendiaries. The ammo belts held five clips of .32 caliber armor piercing Quicksilver for the M22A2's and four of .45 caliber for the Guardian pistols. Both of the M22A2's under-slung grenade launchers were loaded with five mini-warheads. First rate favors for Brackham's surprise party.

Cinching the last of his straps, Apollo slapped a clip into his pistol. "You fired one of these yet?"

"No," she admitted, looking at the big weapon. "I've used its cousin, a Predator-II. Heard the Guardian was top-gun for 12 mil Quicksilver— only the best for Brackham."

"Watch the burst mode. It'll spray a 24 round clip before you can sneeze."

Kath nodded and touched the weapon in the holster under her arm. That aspect of the armor bothered her. The protective mesh dulled tactile sensations. For now, that was advantageous, since the mortallis made her so sensitive.

She went to her van's nav console and set the autopilot remote to receive. Now, if they needed to, they could control the van from in the building.

Kath calmed herself. "Let's do it." She checked her chrono. "2012 hours— mark." When Apollo synchronized his watch, she continued. "Hit the comm-center at 2040. Plant two AP-6's on ten minute timers and go for the top."

"I scan." Apollo pulled a backpack into his lap. He patted the full sack. "These boys are gonna have a full dance card."

Kath smiled grimly. "Hope they like slam dancing."

Heavy rifles slung over their shoulders, AP-6 grenades clipped to bandoleers, they zigzagged through the alleys into the shadow of the huge building.

Kath's intelligence had uncovered a basic weakness in Brackham's security. He used state-of-the-art intrusion detection equipment, but key wiring conduits were vulnerable if you knew where to punch through the exterior cement.

She did.

Ten seconds. A magnesium/phosphor charge burned a hole in the concrete destroying the main alarm gang. Thirty seconds to mount another that melted through the heavy plasti-steel window and grate. Twenty more to slip inside.

One minute, Kath was in and crouching in the darkness. Tactical displays flickered through the view of her right eye lens. The dim laser light of the armor's retinal-cursor tracking her pupil showed as a brilliant pinpoint. She looked up and activated the armor's internal cyber. Armor functions appeared in a list. She focused on the star-light imaging selection and rapidly blinked three times.

The shadowy confines of the office grew brighter. She pulled the Guardian pistol from its holster. A glowing red cross-hair appeared in her vision as the gun's smart-sight linked to the H.W.I embedded in her palm.

Gun trained ahead, she slipped around office furniture and equipment to the door. The darkened corridor was empty. Kath tapped her comm-link twice.

Apollo slid through the opening and rose. He moved with surprising grace for a man so big. Gun out, he gave her a thumbs-up.

Kath checked the chrono; 2016. They had twenty minutes to reach the comm-center and plant the charges.

She signed to Apollo to stay with her and headed down the corridor at a trot. Kath scanned rows of offices now empty. So far, nothing appeared to be secured by visual surveillance. Reaching a turn and Kath slowed to peer into the adjoining passage. She saw what must be the main stairwell access about twenty meters down and an unexpected surprise; goons.

Light coming from the street access farther down the hall illuminated their faces. Dressed in dark three-piece outfits they slouched by the stairwell door drinking beer and smoking. Big guys, some of Brackham's muscle boys.

Kath signalled Apollo, indicating enemies ahead.

He nodded, handed her his rifle and removed his pack. Holstering her pistol, she popped the safety on the rifle, readying it for an emergency. They didn't want noise— yet.

Apollo pulled out a long barreled ceramic gun that looked like a child's toy, a clip of small darts, and another clip of capsules that Kath recognized as compressed nitrogen propellant for a Narcojet pistol.

He worked with the weapon for a few seconds then put his shoulder to the corner. Kath raised the rifle to her cheek and sighted. The optics in her right eye lens pulsed as the H.W.I. synced to M22A2's digital enhancement array.

The acne-scarred face of one of Brackham's men loomed in her magnified vision split by black targeting lines. Through the scope she made out each slicked-back blond hair on his head, the comm-link in his ear, and noted the cheap make of his synth-wool suit. Peripherally, she saw Apollo brace against the wall for accuracy.

The gun puffed twice. In the scope, the darts appeared to sprout from the necks of the two security men. They slumped.

She threw Apollo his rifle and headed in, unshouldering her own in case of other sentries. Heart drumming, she kept the gun trained on the unconscious men and kicked away the pistol one had managed to pull before he hit the floor. She disarmed the other and thrust the gun forward to scan the stairwell. Clear.

Apollo trotted up and checked the men's comm-links. He signed to her the channel they were using. She dialed hers in, and caught the tail end of a transmission.

A gravelly male voice spoke. "...checkpoint epsilon-2 clear."

A roving patrol, they'd expected that. Together they dragged the guards into an office and stripped them. She put on the smaller man's suit jacket. Her leather coat on top of the thickness of the armor broadened her shoulders enough to fill out the muscleboy's tailored V coat.

A camera key should get them past the video-surveillance in the stairwell. As they neared the entry, she pulled the egg-shaped device out of her pocket. She tapped Apollo on the shoulder and pointed to it. He nodded.

Driven by a ten credit logic circuit, the hacker's contraption consisted of three components mounted in an egg shaped housing; a laser sight, a phase-shift sounder, and a common camera auto-focusing unit.

Operation was simple. Train the laser on the lens of a surveillance camera. The camera's auto-focus would attempt to adjust for ambient light and its sounder would 'ping' the area. The key intercepted the signals and 'pinged' back false ones. With the sec-unit's focusing confused, even a cheap disguise would pass the scrutiny of the watching guards. By hiding the rifles under their borrowed goon coats and acting as if their comm-units had malfunctioned she and Apollo could avoid tripping an alarm.

Three steps up, she confused the first camera. Not a peep from security. Her chest tightened. If they reached the fifth floor, half their job would be done. She rounded the bend and 'keyed' the next camera. If the guards in the security room were lax, they might not see them at all.

Her footsteps sounded loud in the narrow confines of the stairwell. Kath took the stairs two at a time, sensing Apollo keeping pace with her.

She topped the next landing and leaned into the next flight of stairs. She paused half way up and took a burning breath. Fifteen kilos of cyberware and 25 more of armor and weaponry made these stairs formidable opponents.

Vengeance had made her sloppy. How could she have accounted for every factor except herself? Dumb. Over anxious, and grave marker stupid. Hadn't done one test drill to see if she was in shape enough to handle it. Just assumed; only fifteen kilos.

Assumed. God, how many dead runners had that engraved on their headstones?

Push through. Her chest grew tight. The mortallis kicked in, heat flashed through her as wire systems came alive and dumped stress loads into her blood stream.

Too much.

An explosion of energy ripped through Kath as the augmentations kicked into overdrive. She lunged up one flight, rounded the landing and leaped halfway up the next series before the Achilles systems flashed warnings across her eye lens. Lights danced in her head. She stumbled and caught herself on the rail. An angry wasp seemed to be trying sting its way out of her chest. The world grayed.

She didn't feel herself hit the steps. The images in her vision pitched and flickered. She couldn't control her arms and legs. No air.

Apollo caught up. He cursed, his anxious words drowned beneath the thundering of her blood. She couldn't see what he did, only felt him shove something between her breasts. Kath heard the word 'sorry' before everything went black.


New Angeles, 8:36 p.m. Wednesday, November 8th, 2079

The read-out in her eye lense was sitting at cyber system boot prompt, the clock display read 2036 hours. Everything else looked blurry. Diffuse light from fixtures overhead gave everything a halo. Her chest ached. Every nerve ending throbbed as if her whole body had fallen asleep. She smelled something burning.

"Aaa—" she tried to say 'Apollo' but it came out jumbled.

He leaned over her. "Goddamn gamma series drek. Lucky my taser reset that mortallis stuff."

"Wh—wh—where?"

"Men's room, third level. Hit you with my taser to force your cyber systems to shutdown. Don't know if we were seen. Just zapped you and ran. No alarms yet, doesn't mean anything though. On your feet, Babe."

Kath struggled to move her arm. It felt glued to the floor. She dragged it up and over to lever herself onto hands and knees. An army of sewing machines seemed to be trying to stitch up her side.

Gasping, she blinked the sweat out of her eyes. Maybe she should abort. No, it had to be tonight. Otherwise, she risked Brackham learning about her purchases and augmentations. He'd be waiting then with the hardware capable of repelling her efforts.

She gathered her strength. Right now, a kid with a slingshot could shut her out.

Kath took a breath, ignoring the burning in her chest. The armor only made it harder now. Colors flicked at the edges of her vision. She fought to twist onto her knees and straighten her arms.

"Get up," Apollo said, "or I throw you over my shoulder and we abort."

"No!" Kath glared up at him. The big man's face was all shadows and reflected light, no details. With a surge, she heaved herself up only to have her arms buckle. In the next instant, she was hugging gray and white tile, sparks dancing in her head.

"Listen to me," Apollo said in a level voice. "Push those enhancements too far, they'll burn and you will die. Never take fresh chrome on a run. When you said a new edge, I thought you meant a week— not a day. High-end augmentations overcompensate when new."

Kath didn't answer. Apollo probably didn't expect one. He was politely telling her she'd been stupid. She didn't disagree.

He spoke in her ear. "We'll sit tight for a couple minutes. Pull it together, we go. Otherwise, I blow the AP-6s and drag you out in the confusion. Scan?"

She nodded, skull rattling as if filled with marbles. Apollo stood, chambered a round in his M22A2 and went to guard the door.

Kath marshaled herself, willing life into her paralyzed limbs. Her stumbling heart gathered speed. The shutdown of the wires caused paralysis. To function now, she needed to activate the wire systems.

Kath balled her hands into fists. She hammered the concrete floor, energizing the cold wires and driving new life into her body.

Come on, kick in— do it!

She took shallow choppy breaths and with a final heave of will forced the mortallis to activate. Kath felt the autonomic cyber seize control, stabilizing heart rate, blood pressure. A numbness spread through her as the endorphin injectors dumped secretions into her bloodstream.

Kath grunted and stood. Arms and legs trembling, she staggered and caught herself on the wall. Apollo stared at her. All Kath could read of his expression through the holes of his mask were narrowed eyes. His jaw muscles tensed. He probably wished that she'd stay on the floor.

Something in her wished she could; that she might wake up from this nightmare. No, she stood nine stories beneath Brackham. She must avenge a woman who'd never lifted a hand in violence, not to her or anyone. Brackham had crippled Martha Hershel simply for being in the way, for being the head of a family that annoyed him.

He thought the Hershels had annoyed him before— wait until 2050 hours when five AP-6s went off.

The thought gave her strength. Kath straightened. She walked in a circle, getting more confident as the mortallis compensated for the shock caused by the psych-out in the stairwell. Kath stopped and held her hands out. Still shaky, but not too bad. A million credits worth of cyberware were finally functioning properly.

Kath reset the armor's internal cyber and felt it link into the mortallis; ready to rumble. At the edges of her vision, colors still danced like wraiths.

She picked up her rifle and moved toward Apollo. A chrono check showed 2042. Eight minutes to get to the fifth level and set those charges.

"We go?" he asked.

Kath counted to five slowly. "Ready."

"Okay." He squeezed her shoulder. She didn't see him smile but sensed it.

Apollo opened the door a crack and peered out. Kath readied her rifle. The tension came back in a rush. Two floors and seven minutes to their window of opportunity. If they bailed, the burned wiring would be found and their avenue of entry sealed. One chance at this deal; no more.

Apollo checked the corridor and led the way to the stairwell. He pulled the camera key from his belt as they neared the door.

Kath's heart speeded up and her breathing quickened. A icy thread a fear snaked through her guts. The mortallis could psych-out again any moment and her heart would explode. The band of colors in her vision intruded for a second then faded. It made her raw nerves worse.

Chill, she told herself, its natural to feel tense. Heart's got to work harder then.

Apollo cracked the entry, paused and entered. Kath took the steps with care, measuring her pace behind Apollo. They would have company soon. By now, the guards on the first level entry would have missed a check in. Everything rode on the next few minutes.

They passed the fourth level and headed for the fifth. Apollo froze. At the next landing a tech and one of Brackham's muscleboys stared at a security-camera. The two men jerked and froze too.

Gazes locked across a distance of less than three meters. Neither side moved. The guard's gun was still buttoned in its holster. She and Apollo had the M22A2s ready.

Kath gripped the rifle so hard so heard the plastic creak. The cold thread in her stomach had become a thrashing worm.

Wires hung down from the camera; probably blind. Security wouldn't know about the confrontation unless someone started shooting— or they squealed on the comm-link. She tapped her comm into active mode. The taser charge forced everything into standby. No messages— yet.

"On the deck." Apollo gestured with the rifle.

The tech kissed the concrete. The muscleboy hesitated, broad face set. His hands opened and closed nervously.

"If one neck muscle twitches to subvocalize into that c-link," Apollo growled. "I'll geek you." He nodded to Kath. "Get that comm off him."

She watched her footing on the steps, aware that the tech could grab her leg. The mortallis revved up a notch and her heart drummed faster. She shouldered the rifle and pulled the Guardian from its holster.

Sweat beaded on the muscleboy's face. Tension danced through his thick body. Having been in a similar situation, she knew what flicked through his mind. Am I fast enough?

Kath shoved the gun into his stomach. "Not a twitch. It has a hair trigger and it's on auto."

He stared at the gun, eyes seeming all whites. He stayed still. Keeping her gaze locked on him she reached for the comm-wire and vocal patch. The man smelled of Virago aftershave and cigars. Even through the armor Kath felt the coarseness of his five-o'clock shadow. Pulling the mike off his throat, she popped the listener out of his ear, pocketed them and stepped back.

The tech grabbed her leg. The muscleboy lunged. The mortallis went full on. Kath went to one knee. A left-handed hammer fist dribbled the tech's face on the concrete. With the other hand she reversed the heavy pistol and yanked it up between the guard's legs. She heard a plasterine groin protector crunch under the impact of the gun-butt.

The guard howled. She jerked him sideways and so he tumbled past Apollo and sprawled on the landing below. Body electrified, she poised in ready stance.

The guard turned onto his belly and vomited. He made mewling sounds. Cursing, the tech clutched his broken face.

Apollo pulled out his taser and silenced both men's noises. "You scared the drek out of me."

Kath found it funny. She took hold of the back of his neck and stood on tiptoe. "Didn't know you cared."

He poked her in the stomach. "Move. Two minutes to the window."

She climbed, letting Apollo step ahead with the key in case there was camera at the door. As she ascended, Kath suppressed an urge to giggle. She found the sensation unsettling. What was happening to her?

The mortallis hummed in her mind. It must be the endorphins dumped in her blood to combat the shock. That might account for the odd urges and the colors.

One minute to the window. She could tell Apollo knew it by the way he charged out the door with M22A2 leveled. It appeared Apollo intended to stay on schedule. Two sec-men saw them. They pulled their guns. They each got off two shots.

One moment Kath was running, a flash and in the next, she spun and found herself on her back looking up at the ceiling fixtures. A ringing ran up and down her left arm and calf. The heavy slugs hit like hammers.

Doesn't even leave a bruise. Maybe not, but it hurt like hell. When the shells hit the armor, the metal gave off a whine and an electric rasp. She guessed the mesh 'skin' converted the bullet impacts into electrical energy.

She rose in time to see Apollo turning to check on her. Both guards were down. She signed okay. Apollo plunged toward the comm center. Kath ran after him. For a pro, she'd acted pretty green tonight. First one to hug the ground, and last one to fire.

They knew where the communications center lay in the structure because nearly everything in the wiring diagrams led back to it.

Apollo turned a corner and ran right into four more security men. The big shadow runner didn't even slow, he dove at them. Shots whined off his armored body. The stock and barrel of his rifle caught two men in the midriff. His weight and momentum slammed them onto their backs. He rolled to his feet electricity arcing off his armor into everything metallic in the vicinity.

This time she was ready. Kath focused the red HWI crosshair in her eye on one man's gun then the next. Bursts of Quicksilver cracked from her pistol, shredding each weapon and sending the men to the floor clawing at slivers of hot metal. Kath ripped the comm-links off their necks as she ran past.

The blare of alarms went off. Apollo leaned into a full sprint. Rushing down the corridor Kath saw why. The armored doors of the comm/sat room were grinding closed.

Apollo creased the doors with his M22A2. Some went inside ripping through a guard at a console. The others left smoking indentations, but the shells didn't penetrate.

"Frag!" Apollo threw himself into the narrow opening and tried to brace it open. "Blow the mains!" he yelled.

Kath switched the comm to channel three and sent the code. A rumble reverberated through the building. The lights flickered and went out.

Apollo cursed. The doors hadn't stopped. She still heard the chug of the hydraulics. Shots whined off her back in a flare of pain that knocked her off balance; another detail of security. Gun-fire erupted from the sec-room pelting Apollo. He yelled. Electricity flashed and licked around his armor.

All coming apart. Colors danced and played in her vision. Kath thrust her rifle into the room and sprayed bullets until the gunfire stopped. Apollo let out a gagging sound as the doors bit into the armor.

She dropped low and braced feet and hands against the opening, and heaved. They didn't budge, must be a ratchet system of some kind.

"Forget that," Apollo groaned. "Set the AP-6's and toss them in. Auggh! Now!"

More bullets staggered her. She fired a burst that leveled the guards. The mortallis had revved her heart so fast her whole body vibrated. She yanked, set, and tossed three charges past Apollo into room. The square loads of explosives bounced up under vital consoles and connection scramblers.

"Give— count," he yelled. Right elbow and hand levered against the door, Apollo fired inside.

"Nine seconds!" she called. What was he doing?

He fired higher up. He must be shooting at the hydraulics. If she could get an angle she could assist. She switched clips in her Guardian pistol.

"Six seconds." She handed him her full pistol anticipating his need.

At half the clip, the hydraulics gave out a screeching wheeze. She threw her weight against the door.

"Three!" she called. The door didn't budge. Apollo kept firing.

In the armor, the concussion wouldn't hurt him but the incendiary's heat would cook him like a Christmas turkey.

Her heart beat three times for each second. She braced and threw all her strength into levering enough space for him to escape.

"One!" Something snapped and the door gave.

Kath yanked Apollo out the opening and dove for cover. The AP-6's erupted phosphor white while they were still mid dive. Shockwaves cart-wheeled them end over end, blast heat seared her skin even through the armor.

Kath hit the carpeting, all the clothing worn over the armor a blazing like a torch. Apollo let out agonized bellows.

She tore away the clothing and tossed it. Her stomach twisted as she saw hunks of her hair smoldering on the floor. The meter of ebony hair she cherished had been turned to char, another casualty of this conflict.

"Augh. Is it bad? Is it bad?" Apollo groaned.

Kath ripped the burning cloth off the writhing man and found the source of his pain.

"Still!" she ordered. Immobilizing his leg, she examined the burn-through. A patch of flesh behind the left knee appeared cooked. Severe, but nothing a chop shop couldn't fix. Apollo's pack was a smoking ruin but most of the contents including the medikit were either ceramic or metal. She grabbed a dermal burn patch and slapped it on the wound. The local anesthetic impregnated in the graft would kill most of the pain.

The hiss of overhead flame retarders cutting in preceded a rain of thick white mist. Kath heard the armor's recyclers hum, filtering out toxic deoxygenating substances.

"Drek. Drek. Drek," Apollo groaned. "Messed it up. Thought I'd get the fraggin door open faster."

"Worked though, they didn't get time to signal out."

Kath helped him stand and supported him as he staggered to the wall. Grabbing his rifle she tossed it to him. She shoved Apollo's equipment into the folds of a guard's unburned jacket to make a satchel. After knotting the arms into a loop she hung it over his shoulder. A guard's utility belt cinched around her waist gave her a place to hang her last surviving AP-6.

Apollo leaned against the concrete, pain evident in his body language. He clutched the rifle. His attention focused on her. "Kat, your hair, it's gone."

"Yeah." She tried to keep emotion out of her voice. "Gone like every other fraggin thing in my life." She clenched her fists. "I gotta go for him. Can you get out?"

He winced, testing his damaged leg on the ground. "When the PKs take effect I'll make it." He gestured down the hall. "Go for it."

Kath squeezed his shoulder. She wished Apollo's face wasn't covered with armor. She wanted to see it one last time. She headed for the stairs. With power down, the elevators wouldn't work until the auxiliaries cut in.

Alarms blared, red emergency beacons flashed, and flame retardant hissed. Kath climbed steadily. If she rushed, the mortallis might psych out on her again. Apollo wouldn't be with her this time. The colors that flicked and danced at the edges of her vision were a reminder that a neural overload might be only be a heartbeat away. Kath Hershel, a scorched, bald, military death target, without a family and potentially brain-dead all at the age of twenty-nine. Better to burn out than to fade away; or so they said.

Burn. Brackham would do that— among other things. Take away everything someone has and all they have left is anger. Unlike others, Kath didn't see revenge as a dish hot or cold. Vengeance was karma working through a human tool. It didn't matter to the uncaring cosmos whether its harbringers were themselves destroyed in the conflagration. Every act had its price; even being born.

On the seventh level landing, three armored guards burst through the entry, heavy weapons leveled. The hail of lead from machine guns slammed her into the steps. She reflexively clamped her finger on the trigger of the M22A2 and swung it around. The first burst of Quicksilver punched three holes in the lead man's chest piece. She didn't see his dying expression behind the mirrored visor.

With belts feeding their weapons from backpacks Kath knew the remaining men didn't lack for ammo. She dove and scrambled to stay clear of their aim, determined not to be hit by any more of those thousands of shells than necessary. Like her, the armor could only withstand a finite amount of punishment— she wasn't eager to learn its limits. Bullets ricocheted in the tiny space. The ones that scored sent flares of pain cascading through her body.

Reaching the next landing, she chambered a round in the underslung grenade launcher, turned and fired. The gun boomed and kicked as a grenade shrieked to target. A hundred gram explosive warhead detonated at a guard's feet.

Explosive force knocked both men through the door and tore away the landing. Kath slumped against the wall, her breaths coming in gasps. She felt battered and exhausted. The image of her mother's face called to her; demanding an answer be taken to Brackham. Visions of Rick's scorched corpse and Dawn's crumpled body put hot metal in her veins. Kath forged on. This bastard had an appointment with karma; she'd ensure he reaped what he sowed.

Each step seemed to take forever. The armor turned fatal bullet hits into bruises, but it was like being on the canvas with prize fighter bashing away. Stay in the ring long enough and eventually the K.O. punch would come.

On the ninth floor, she kept the M22A2 leveled on the door in case someone else tried to surprise her. None came. Upward. Kath's legs trembled and the rifle grew heavier in her hands.

On her way to the tenth floor, she heard the footsteps of several people coming down from above.

Kath chambered a grenade. Four men in blue technical coveralls came tripping down the steps.

"Ice it! Now!" She yelled, aiming the rifle at the lead man; an overweight codger with graying red hair.

The men behind him, all younger, fell over themselves trying to stop. They looked scared and sweat covered their faces.

"How many on the twelfth level?" she demanded.

"We don't know; five, maybe eight," the eldest said.

"Special Forces," someone in the back mumbled.

"Where's the insignia?"

"Black op, we're dead, oh God, we're dead."

"Get out," she ordered. "All the way to the bottom." She poked one of the younger men with the tip of her rifle. "Don't talk to anyone. Scan?"

He nodded vigorously. She knew better and that was fine. Their misinformation would confuse investigators and street people who tried to follow up on this run.

"Jet!" She grabbed him by the collar and half-threw him down the steps. "Rev it. Rev it! Get out of here!" She gestured with the gun as the men retreated.

When she could no longer see them she continued her climb. One floor and six or seven men between her and Brackham. Those obstacles weren't much compared to what she'd already come through. The last hurdle was always the toughest though.

The entry on floor eleven started to open but Kath kicked it closed so hard that the cement around the doorframe cracked. Through the soles of her feet, she felt the vibration of a body hitting the concrete. The door didn't open again while Kath was in hearing range.

She paused at the twelfth story access. Top of the hill. Auxiliary power hadn't been restored yet, so unless he'd gone out a window, been flown out, or simply had never been there to begin with, Brackham was here someplace.

With only one access, his bodyguards would have secured it. She smiled to herself. If she was going out with a blaze of glory, coming in the same way seemed fitting. Kath pulled the last AP-6 off the belt, set the timer, tossed it up by the door and retreated out of blast range.

The grenade roared and Kath charged up the steps. She dove through the ruptured door feeling the flames. Bullets pinged off the wall, fired through the smoke. Kath rolled and came up, gun ready. The only light in the hall came from battery powered floor-lighting that ran in narrow strips along the bases of the walls. Coats flaming, four sec men were already retreating. In semidarkness, the flash of the AP-6 would cause blindness. The heat could scald over twenty meters away.

Through the haze of flame retardant raining from the ceiling, she put a shot through the back of the trailing man's knee. He went down bawling. Kath didn't get a second shot before the remaining three guards got out of range.

The burly gunman they abandoned turned and aimed at her. Switching the armor lenses to star-light sensitivity she could make out more details. The skin of his blocky face looked bright sun-burn red. The melted remains of a mustache hung askew on his upper lip. She shot his gun out of his hand before he pulled the trigger. He clutched his shrapnel damaged fingers and cursed.

Kath approached. "Stay still, you live," she said in a level voice. "Only here to kill one man. Give me grief, you die. Simple as that. Scan me?"

He nodded, wincing and cradling his hand. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"

"The Easter fraggin bunny. Where's Brackham?"

The guard pointed. "The living quarters." He wiped his sweaty brow. "Lady your software has a serious glitch if you think you can whack Brackham and live."

"Yeah?" She prodded him with the rifle. "Up." After he fought his way to stand on his one good leg, she checked him and found a concealed pistol and a knife. Tossing them aside, she pointed to the stairwell. "Jet. I see you again I'll put a Quicksilver round right here." She poked her index finger against the middle of his forehead. "Rev it."

He didn't argue but stagger/hopped to the stairwell using the wall as support. He coughed and choked on the fumes and poor air but made it through.

She headed deeper into Brackham's domain. If they were smart or experienced the guards she'd injured would try to lead her away from Brackham.

She took the hall the guards had avoided. Kath noted the lavish appointments of the offices, marble slated walls in the conference areas, custom grown flowers, real teak and mahogany furniture; megabucks. She passed through a set of double doors and the decor turned sterile, pristine white walls. Stopping at a split, she looked both ways. Down one side were suites that looked like clinic waiting rooms. In the other direction, the rooms appeared larger. A pair of wide blue doors ended that hall.

Kath went toward the doors. She wished she could smell through this suit, but the breather was still purifying her air. As she prepared to go through the doors voices talking on the other side stopped her.

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Post Thu Dec 14, 2006 5:22 am

== CONTINUED ==

She retreated into the darkness of one of the large rooms. Floor lighting was not provided so she was forced to switch to infra-red to make out anything in the room. Everything flickered into shades of red, the coldest objects black and the hottest crimson. Three large cylinders set horizontally on stands glowed bright. A faint hiss came from them. Activity lights blinked; equipment backed up on uninterruptible power supplies.

The voices drew closer. Her armor deadened sound made it difficult to make out what they said. She recognized the words, 'evacuate', 'risk', and 'lunatic'. Kath suppressed the urge to giggle. Since the implants, odd things struck her funny and at times when they shouldn't.

The clanging of metal on the other side of the door indicated security bolts had been thrown. Under protest, from the sound of the other voices. Kath drew back further in the room. If this was Brackham, and instinct said it was. She wanted to have the drop on them. She wanted him--

Alive.

In the corner, the hissing sounded louder and the cold air blew from the grills of heat exchangers. She ran a hand along the rounded edge of the cylinder. From its smoothness she guessed it must be crystal or plastic.

The commotion at the door continued. Someone was determined to come through while others resisted. Kath remained patient, the chaos would only assist her. From the sounds at that door, she would have had problems getting through it anyway.

Colors continued to flit at the edges of her vision. Her hands tingled. She was conscious of the thrumming in her chest and the itchiness of her scalp. She rubbed the top of her head. Only curled and shriveled filaments remained after the blast of the AP-6.

A gnawing curiosity worried at her. What could these two meter containers be that the contents needed to be kept warm and sustained on uninterruptible power supplies? She put her ear to the material. Something bubbled within, and she heard the quiet chug of pumps.

The hall doors finally opened. Two monster bodyguards peered through the opening. They were dressed in full rigid body armor. Her stomach twisted as she recognized one was carrying a AS-7 automatic shotgun. The deadliest close quarters weapon made, it could fire 3 ten gauge shells with a single pull of a trigger. Few men could use them because of the weapon's monster kick. She felt the armor mesh covering her body. Even if the Achilles stopped the attack, the concussion would turn her bones to pulp.

The other man carried an AK-97 assault rifle, the Russian equivalent of her M22A2. Two to one, they were better armed. She had the Quicksilver ammo and the Mortallis augmentations as compensating factors.

The men paused in the doorway. Brackham or whoever they escorted stayed hidden by darkness and their armored bulks.

One guard spoke into his throat mike, then apparently listened to the answer. He looked behind him. "Boss, they ain't heard nothing since the stairwell access got blown three minutes ago. They lost Smith when they bugged."

"How many they think are on the premises?" The voice asked, level and stern. It sounded familiar.

The guard relayed the question. "They only saw one, but nobody down below is answering."

"I can't afford to take any chances. We need to secure these pods and get them to safety."

"Boss, it takes four men to move one of those things. There ain't but the two of us, and the three second stringers."

The voice dropped and spoke in a rasp, sounding more familiar than ever. "We'll move these things if you have to carry them out on your backs. Scan? Find a way. Jet. Jack, stay with me, we have to prep the pods for transport."

The guard with the AK-97 nodded back to the shadowy figure and jogged off.

Kath shook her head. Why couldn't he have sent off the guy with the shotgun? The guard turned and entered the room. Kath pulled back behind a cylinder. The last thing she wanted was having to draw on that guard. Even if she fired first, that cannon-sized shotgun could go off and both of them would be dead. Not an option in her playbook.

"There's some chemical lights in the cabinet on the left," Brackham said. "We'll set those up until the auxiliaries cut in."

Where had she heard that voice before? Kath clutched the rifle. If she could disarm the guard before he could raise the weapon.

Brackham was close. One leap and she would be on top of him, choking the murdering life from his worthless body. Karma. What went around came around. Rainbows danced at the edges of her vision, and her heart zoomed. The end of this debacle was an instant away.

Something splashed. Kath jerked, then held herself still. The contents of the cylinder had moved. What the frag was being kept warm in a liquid and-- alive? Icy fingers tickled their way down Kath's back.

She felt the two men in the room stiffen at the sound.

"What was that?" the guard asked.

"Damn," Brackham said. "They've reached threshold. A trauma to them now could be very bad. Get those lights on."

They? Kath drew a breath. Trauma wouldn't begin to describe what she planned to inflict on that bastard.

Kath heard the squeak of cabinets, and the clunk of heavy synth objects on hard countertop. Chemical lights weren't bright like electricals, but they provided more than enough light to force Kath to make her one and only move. Her stomach tightened.

Truth. Vengeance.

Karma.

When she heard the fizz of catalytic bars hitting phosphor solution, she leaped for the sound. The guard would have his hands occupied. The surge of light would also temporarily impair his vision.

Kath vaulted over the cylinder. Both feet hit the guard in the back, slamming his giant armored bulk into the wooden cabinetry. The thin material shattered as the man crashed into it. Time froze as the mortallis launched in response to something she barely even registered in her vision.

The guard had spun as she hurdled through the air. Incredible reflexes.

Wired.

The shotgun came around. Kath stepped in and hugged the man, taking the impact of the gun-barrel on her side. Two places for her to be in this room, in front of the trigger or behind it. She looped her arm around the loader and hung on as the AS-7 let off a gigantic triple boom. The recoil hammered through her body. Wall and ceiling plasteen rained, the two of them fell to the floor struggling over possession of the shotgun. The AS-7's drum loader whined three more shells into the chamber.

Brackham screamed, "Not here! Not here!" over and over.

The chemical light bathed the room in a green radiance. It tinted the guard's bearded grimacing face in shades of emerald. His cosmetically altered eyes glittered with rainbows of color. A fiery red reaper's scythe tatoo glowed on his broad cheek; the indoctrinating mark of the Apocalypse elite forces regiment.

Kath treated the red insignia like a target, ramming an armored elbow into it. The man's helmeted head smacked the floor. He snarled and levered her off his gun.

The strike didn't slow him. Lunging, she shoved the gun aside as it roared again and ripped the wall asunder.

Brackham cried out again, entreating them to stop. Not fraggin likely. Kath knew, armor or not, that weapon could make a hole in her the same as that wall.

The colors in her vision flickered. Either she won or died trying; no retreat, no surrender. The last obstacle between her and Brackham was a 150 kilos of flesh and armor.

Feinting for his head, she snapped a kick to the inside of his knee. His armor took the brunt but the shock knocked the big man to floor. She dodged as he blasted again.

A flare of white-hot pain erupted from her side. Warning messages flashed across her eye lens. Kath screamed and electricity crackled like lightning. The arcs grounded into the armored guard.

He let out an ululating bellow as the kinetic force of the shotgun blast lashed back at him as electricity. He clutched his chest. Fists clenched together Kath slammed the top of the guard's head driving the helmet down against the armor's shoulder toggles with a metallic crunch.

The man dropped.

She staggered against the cylinder nearby and clutched her side. Hadn't nailed her solid, but the blast tore a chunk out of her like a bite from an apple. Blood pumped across her fingers. Her vision flickered and rainbows cut swaths through everything.

Kath staggered. She must stay upright and finish this. One word echoed through her mind.

Brackham.

Supporting herself on the cylinder, she turned. The snap-click of a round being chambered in her M22A2 made her stop.

Brackham's voice. "Move away from the pod; back against the wall."

It took all her will to stay on her feet. She obeyed. The agony of her ripped side decreased to a sharp throbbing. The mortallis was drowning her pain receptors in endorphins. If a truck ran her over she wouldn't feel it now. She wouldn't know it was time to die until she crossed the line.

Supported by the wall she stared at the enemy. His indistinct outline looked familiar. The fuzziness of her sight made him difficult to make out.

Brackham stepped closer. "Who are you?"

She snorted. "Can't you guess?" Her voice sounded slurred.

He took another step. The way he clutched the rifle told her he didn't often handle weapons. Relays snapped overhead. Ceiling lights buzzed, then brightened as auxiliary power came on-line.

Her blurred vision must be playing tricks. The added light made Brackham visible. It couldn't be. Nausea swept through her. "Dad?"

His eyes widened. "Kathryn--?" The barrel dropped. "You're dead! Temmes McGarren killed you!"

"McGarren?" She blinked and rubbed her eyes. Veils of color danced before her eyes. She needed a medikit. "McGarren couldn't find his fraggin ass with both hands." She rubbed at her forehead uselessly, trying to wipe the sweat away in the helmet. "Dad-- you're Brackham?"

"Richard Brackham." He nodded. "Kathryn you're dead. You simply don't know it. You died on an operating table twenty years ago when you rejected a cloned spleen. A shot from an assassin's rifle knocked you off a roof."

"What?" Confusion rocked her. It sounded like her father. It must be a trick. It couldn't be.

"Living a lie, Pet. All of you, Anna, Dawn, Rick, were my first attempt at restoring a family that the Yakuza murdered. Using experimental identity recreation wetware I generated complete personalities and memories from the patterns taken from the originals. It didn't work as hoped. The personalities that arose were quite different from those of the wife and children I knew. Synthetic people patterned after, but unlike the Brackhams who lived ten years before."

He looked out the doorway, apparently wondering why the other guard hadn't returned. She wondered too. Everything had been manageable until this moment. What to do? It all sounded so confusing; so impossible.

Brackham sighed, apparently feeling obligated to explain while she bled to death. "Somehow the four of you escaped right after one of the memory grafts. I assume that you wandered around traumatized. Eventually, the identity wetware must have adapted and filled in enough of the gaps for you to function. Anna reclaimed her maiden name, Hershel. She and Rick rebuilt the family business from scratch in a matter of months; amazing. It's all very unfortunate. I'm sorry it happened this way."

"Sorry?" The nausea became a burning in her throat. "Sorry? Some loser shoots my mother in the head and all you can say is sorry!" Tension vibrated through her, she felt tears trickling down her cheeks. Her vision grew hazy. "She wasn't some divergence! She was alive! We were alive!" She held up an armored hand covered with blood. "I'm not a machine you can dismantle if I don't turn out the way you want!"

"Couldn't help it," he said in a flat voice. The muzzle of the rifle he held wavered. "You were aberrations, mistakes-- untruths." A splashing in the cylinder next to Brackham made his body go rigid for a moment. She saw his desire to turn and look. He resisted it. Instead, he continued. "You had to be unmade."

Kath's hands opened and closed. "My father wouldn't have murdered anyone; especially his wife and children." She moved forward. "What will you do, father? Unmake your mistake?" She glanced at the fallen guard and the shotgun lying beside him. "Pretty fraggin big one, leaving me for last." She took another step.

"Don't," he raised the gun. A tapping came on the plastic by his hip. Brackham winced but stayed focused. Beads of sweat formed on his face.

The blurriness in Kath's world vanished, leaving a brilliant clarity. "Can't expect me to be afraid of dying. I resigned myself to that before I came." She bored her eyes into his. "If I'm going to meet my maker, I want to look him in the eye as he pulls the trigger." Kath went closer.

His finger twitched on the trigger. "Stay there!"

"Don't you want to embrace your daughter as she bleeds to death?" She held out her bloody hands.

He gritted his teeth. "You're not my daughter."

The tapping by him became more insistent. Sweat rolled down his forehead.

"I'm your blood," she growled.

A drop of sweat rolled off his brow into his eye. Brackham blinked.

Kath flicked her hands. She dodged as the pooled crimson hit him in the face.

Brackham yelled, cringing reflexively from the blood. The M22A2 went off, chattering a burst of Quicksilver that punched smoking holes in the concrete wall.

She dove under the platform the cylinder sat on as he swung the gun, spraying a line of hissing bullets. Even through the mortallis, Kath felt the jolt of pain as she belly-flopped on the floor.

The target was in sight.

She grabbed his leg and yanked. Brackham toppled, she heard his head smack the adjacent cylinder. The rifle clattered on the floor. She swarmed over his prone body, grabbing the weapon before her dazed father could reach it.

If he was her father.

"Be still!" She ordered as he struggled. A backhand across his face made him obey. The jolt made pain shoot through her body.

Colors flicked through her vision in a torrent. The clarity had vanished. Her heart hammered erratically. She grabbed his shirt and ripped the fabric off his chest.

"Hey!"

She ignored him folding the cloth and pressing it into the wound. She grabbed his belt off and cinched the cloth into place to keep pressure on it. At best, it might keep her conscious a few minutes more.

Enough time to decide how to finish this.

Still straddling Brackham, Kath studied herself. Splashed in crimson, she probably looked like some blood-soaked spirit of vengeance. The problem being, the blood was hers.

The incessant tapping on the cylinder become a frantic pounding. She glanced at it. Who or what was in there? A gnawing suspicion churned in her gut. She looked at him and saw the fear in his eyes. He deserved to die and knew it. His words came out in a pleading torrent that pain and indecision made her ignore. The question was could she kill this person so like her father?

Could this be him? True, they never found his body, but this man seemed so different. Killing mother? She didn't know what to make of that drek about her being some copy of the original. It didn't make sense.

The pounding from the cylinder intruded on her thoughts again. Part of the answer was in that tube. She put the gun in Brackham's open mouth to silence him.

"Shut up."

He did. Kath glanced out the doorway, that guard would be coming back soon. She must decide fast. With a groan, she stood and looked through the clear window in the cylinder's top.

Frightened brown eyes stared back at her from a young familiar-looking face of a girl about nineteen. She had angular features surrounded by dark hair that floated in the amniotic fluid filling the tank. Kath blinked. There was a reason that face looked familiar.

It was hers.

The girl inside the tank froze, wide eyes going wider, the mouth dropping open in dismay.

The shock rang through Kath like the blow of sledge hammer. She grabbed the tank to keep herself from falling. Her mind rebelled. Could she actually be a flawed copy of the original?

No.

The room spun and a pounding filled her temples. Footsteps sounded in the corridor. Brackham yelled a warning. She convulsed as the mortallis tried to accelerate her endorphin drenched body.

The desires of her mind, the limitations of her body, and mechanical instinct of the mortallis pushed Kath in three directions at once. The result of the multiple impetus put her face down on the tiles as the burly sentry with the AK-98 charged in.

"Get her!" Brackham yelled.

Kath watched in dreamy slow motion as the guard lowered his weapon. Her muscles wouldn't respond. The air around her seemed to cling to her limbs like jelly.

I'm dead.

The crack of the first round striking the small of her back made the world flicker brown. She saw the muzzle flash from the next bullet and felt it hit her calf.

The discharge of bullets increased. Kath felt two more hit her paralyzed body, then heard the shots start whining off the walls and ceiling.

As her vision grayed toward black, she saw that two brilliant red blossoms had appeared on the guard's chest. Behind his collapsing body stood Apollo, rifle poised to fire again.

Nice try, Apollo, too bad I'm already dead. The word echoed in her mind.

Dead.

Dead.

Dead...


An acrid odor sent a bolt of revulsion shooting through Kath. She shuddered. "Auggh!"

Her mask was off and she lay between the clone cylinders staring at the ceiling. A kaleidoscope of colors played through the bullet riddled square room. Kath shoved away the tube of smelling salts Apollo held under her nose.

"You're not dying on me yet damn it," he growled in her ear. The outlines of his face looked fuzzy. Seeing him again sent a wave of warmth running through her. She'd missed that face. "There's a trauma patch on you, synthotissue on that gunshot."

Kath's throat constricted. It took all her concentration to form words. "Let me die."

"Frag that. What am I supposed to do with Brackham?"

The question hit her. Brackham. Which was the original and which the copy? What about the frightened dark-haired girl trapped in the cylinder? Who was she? Is Kath Hershel really who she thinks she is?

"Not Brackham," she muttered. "Father."

"This sicko?" Apollo looked over his shoulder. Kath assumed he looked where her Father was. "Not likely. While you were distracting the guards I cased his inner-sanctum. I found another guy that looks like him on ice in a permastore chamber. I think it's Brackham."

How did that track? "What? If that's--"

"Listen, he's not your Father, either. He's--"

"That's a lie!" came an outburst from across the room. "I'm the real Richard Hershel-Brackham!"

The crazed tone of the man's voice made the statement seem doubtful. Her Father never sounded like that.

"I think Brackham was whacko enough to have followed your Father's research without controls. I found papers that mentioned tissue from the original experiment. I think the project backfired and bit Brackham. John Hershel's clone took Brackham's place and assumed his identity."

"Not true!" she heard sobbed.

Apollo stood, wobbling on his burned leg. "Either zip it or I gag you." Apollo knelt by her again. "This guy is schitzo. Not only is he a copy, but a fraggin unstable one. Since I wasted that guard, he's been comin apart at the seams. Doesn't know who the drek he is."

Kath felt a spark of energy. A slight clearing of the rainbows in her vision. She still didn't know what to do. Not so much in the case of Brackham or whoever he was, but the lives in those three containers. What if the djinni's in the bottle were as lunatic as the first one?

"Help me sit up."

The room gyrated as Apollo helped her.

"How much time?"

"City security's in the lobby now. I blew the stairwells and cut the elevator power. They'll have called a helo. Minimum fifteen minutes before they move on us."

"The other three guards?"

Apollo ran a finger across his neck. "Just us and him." He jerked a thumb in Brackham's direction.

Kath shook her head. "Them too." She rocked her head back against the tank.

Apollo frowned and rose. Kath watched his face as he looked in the window as she had done. The runner's eyes widened and he drew a breath. "What the frag. This one's alive! She's--" The man's whole body rocked back with surprise. "You."

Kath groaned. Why couldn't it have been a hallucination? Alive. She was alive and trapped in that chamber; frightened. It pained Kath to consider the confusion and terror that must be assaulting the teenage girl. Was she simply an empty shell with no memories? Or a fully viable human being as Brackham suggested?

She had to know. "Open it."

"What?"

Kath swallowed. "I said, open it."

"What if she's a space-cadet like him?"

"I am not a space-cadet!" The man hollered.

Apollo pointed his gun at Brackham. "You'll be a corpse if I hear another word."

"We can't tell if she's sane unless we open the case," Kath said.

"You'llll regrrrret it," Brackham cackled.

Kath pinched her temple against the pain. Her head had cleared considerably between the drugs and mortallis. "Was there any marrow stimulant in the medikit?"

"Used all I had," he said. "Between that and your cyberware, should be replacing blood like crazy. It's a drain. I don't need to tell you to take it easy, do I?"

"No, doctor." She took his arm. Apollo pulled her upright. She stumbled and caught herself, then looked at the cylinder and the obvious controls that evacuated the fluid.

"You sure you want to do this?"

"No, Apollo, I'm not." She didn't add she was supposed to be dead by now. "I'll deal with the family crisis, okay? You figure a way out of here."

"Hey." He gripped her shoulder. "I'm on your side, remember?"

"Sorry." She collected her thoughts. "My van's autodrive remote is on channel 67. Check its status and make sure we've got a vehicle to bail in. If its too hot, I programmed a fallback address in the satnav. It'll drive itself to the new pick-up."

The expression on Apollo's broad face softened. "Check, Boss." He went over to mask lying on the floor and put it on to use the communicator within.

She turned her attention to the chamber and punched the cycle button with her fist before she could change her mind.

Her gaze fixed on the younger copy of herself as the fluid drained away. Dark eyes exactly like hers. They remained fixed on Kath, unblinking. She found it hard to read the girl's expression; part fear and part fascination. Behind her Apollo pulled things out of the cabinets.

Are we really the same person separated by time? Is a person at thirty really the same person they were at twenty?

Kath had no time to ponder the other potent questions that rang through her mind. The young woman coughed and choked as the last of the solution filtered away with an slurping noise. The lid latch clicked, and a split opened down the side of the cylinder. Servos hummed and the top half pivoted open.

Spasms wracked the girl's nude body as she disgorged the clear solution she'd been breathing. A maze of wires attached to an encephalo-harness on the girl's head rattled as she jerked. Lithe and pale with a bilious red placenta still connecting her belly to the artificial womb she looked helpless.

Kath's chest tightened. Her heart sped, not with a rush of fear but with an inexplicable excitement. It was as if she were watching herself being born. The girl looked pristine, with skin like cream colored silk, her blue eyes bright. The clear residue made her skin glisten in the fluorescent light.

The girl continued to choke, apparently unable to sit up. Kath hesitantly disconnected the wires tying her into the chamber, then gently assisted her to a sitting position. The young woman seemed to weigh nothing at all. Kath wished she could feel that new skin through her armor gauntlets.

The girl wheezed, spilling clear solution out her nose and mouth. Kath braced her, supporting the weak neck and putting weight against a slim leg. One of the girl's hands found her arm and gripped it. As she cleared her lungs, there was a shearing noise came from the lid mechanism where the synthetic placenta connected. It sounded like a knife blade cutting down on metal.

The fibrous red mass fell loose and dangled from the girl's stomach. After a few more wheezes, the woman drew her first breath of real air. Long dark hair lay slick against her skull, back, and chest, a stark contrast to pallid skin that had never been touched by sunlight.

She drew heavy breaths, the liquid still in her lungs a dull rattle in her chest. Her gaze went to Kath's face, eyes that looked anything but vacant, now seemed to devour every detail. She licked her lips, then opened her mouth as if to speak.

An unintelligible rasp that sounded like phonetics came out. Kath's heart beat wildly.

The girl swallowed, the muscles in her throat working. Her gaze flicked from side to side. She made an 'M' sound.

Kath's stomach turned to ice.

"Ma," the girl tried again, her lips exaggerating the syllable. "Oh-- er." She looked to where she clasped Kath's arm. "Ma-oh-tha-er?"

Standing in the corner, where he'd been using the armor's cyber Apollo looked over. "What's she--?"

"Shhh!" Kath hissed.

"Moe-- ther." The girl coughed and closed her eyes. "Mother," she enunciated. "Mother." She put her arms around Kath and lay her head against her breast.

"Drek," Apollo grumbled. "Fraggin great."

Brackham cackled.

A tremor went through Kath. A wave of confusion. Mother? She looked across the room to where Brackham sat in the corner, hands tied behind his back. He looked like her father, but the demented glee that sparkled in his eyes was nothing like any expression John Hershel had ever worn.

"What have you done?"

He chuckled again. "Like any good scientist I realized my limitations. Bodies are easy to modify or build but personalities are complex. Neural paths can be laid down to guide the development of a person, but only rudimentary data can be preprogrammed. The rest must be learned through the environment and our-- parents." His eyes glinted. "An attachment impulse gives the clone a fixed role model."

"Kat," Apollo growled. His face had darkened, a man who planned to say something harsh. "I hate to be practical, but in ten minutes city security will be here. I know what you're thinking. You can't do it. We're both hurt. We'll be lucky to get ourselves out of here. I've got a way," he fingered the lone AP-6 incendiary hanging on his bandoleer. "But not with a passenger."

"I can't leave her to die!"

"Kat, you don't even know if it's stable."

The girl focused on Apollo. "Don't--" she struggled to speak. "--Want die."

Kath looked at the girl and her jaw tightened.

Apollo winced. "She's a parrot, Kath. Brackham messed it up. Don't you see? She's not viable." He rocked his head. "What about the other two? Gonna adopt them too?"

Kath looked at the cases. "Check them."

Brackham giggled.

Apollo sighed. "Why put yourself through this?"

"Do it."

The girl reached up a trembling hand to the top of Kath's head. Her fingers probed the stubble. "Mo-ther, you-are hair?"

"Yeah, gone. Maybe it'll grow back."

"This one's dead," Apollo reported. He pushed his finger through the top of the case in three places. "Must be some molyalloy in the ceiling supports someplace. A few of your quicksilver rounds did an about-face. This one's fading." He pointed to the other case.

Brackham blanched. "No! Not Anna!" Blubbering, he tried to get to his feet. "Let me up, I can help her!"

An icy knife twisted in Kath's guts. She didn't know if fate was being cruel or kind. What if she allowed copies of her mother and brother to come to life? Somehow, it mocked their memory to try to create people to replace them; a selfish desire to ease her own pain. That's what Brackham tried to do.

Now the madman may have killed Anna Hershel twice. Kath's voice was flat. "Cycle the chamber. Slap a hibernation patch on her. Maybe she'll live long enough for the medics to get up here."

Apollo limped to the doorway and grabbed his makeshift satchel. He punched the cycle on Anna's chamber. "What about Brackham? He'll finger us. Come on, Kat, there's seven minutes left."

The girl trembled against Kath, obviously cold. What should she do with Brackham? He was insane and he owned a flawed cloning technology that he was willing to use.

Anna's case opened. She heard a whimpering and coughing sound. Kath couldn't see what Apollo did and didn't want to. Part of her wanted Anna to live. Another part said it was wrong. Brackham continued to plead with Apollo while the big runner applied emergency first aid to the wounded clone.

"Let's get you out of this case," Kath said. She lifted the young woman's legs and turned her so she could get out. There appeared to be enough muscle mass for the girl to walk but Kath doubted that she possessed the motor control yet to do so.

She put a hand under her arm and buttocks and started lifting her out. A searing pain shot down Kath's side. She faltered and caught herself against the cylinder.

"Mother?" The girl searched Kath's face with frightened eyes.

"I'm okay," she assured. Between trauma drugs, pain killers and the endorphins, she'd almost forgotten the extent of her own wounds. Only the cyberware was keeping her functioning. "Let's try again." Kath switched positions and put the stress on her good side.

The girl weighed barely over forty kilos. She could stand, but her legs trembled so much, Kath knew she'd fall without support. That she could stand at all was more than Kath hoped.

Brackham continued to cry. She wished he'd shut up.

"Apollo, you sure there's no guards left?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Trade armor with the goon." She pointed to the man who'd used the shotgun. "I'm going to find clothes for Kathryn here, and get myself a security outfit. If we have to, we can try and pass ourselves off as wounded security people. We left enough men alive that it might not be suspected."

"I follow. You've about five minutes before they charge in here."

"I copy. The building techs think this was a black military op. I told them not to talk which is S.O.P. They'll spill guts to the first authority who asks. We play on that."

"Works for me, except for Brackham."

"I'll deal with him."

Kath put an arm around the girl's waist a assisted her in walking. The clone stumbled, but picked up the mechanics of the motion in moments. Kath guessed this must be what Brackham meant about laying down neural paths to guide development.

The young Kath didn't have the strength or practice to walk, but all the necessary reflexes appeared present. The motions only needed reinforcement through repetition.

Kath assisted the clone into Brackham's private suites. The man's pleading faded behind her. She breathed a sigh of relief. The girl concentrated on walking. Trickles of sweat appeared on the glistening sheen already on her skin.

"Walking," the clone said. "Good?"

"Great," Kath responded, distracted by her search for a guest quarters or a bedroom. A woman lived here with Brackham. She needed clothes for... The clone should have a name of her own. Kath decided on Teresa, her middle name.

Time. She could feel the clock ticking. They must do this fast. She located the main quarters and found female clothing in one closet. Sitting Teresa on the bed, she went into the bathroom, grabbed a towel, and dried Teresa off.

Kath rifled through the wardrope searching for a skirt and blouse. "Just my luck, this woman is the size of a whale!" Teresa might weigh half what Brackham's hefty girlfriend did. The girl could swim in the smallest of the woman's blouses. She tossed aside an armful of dresses. "That and she's three fashion fads late."

Kath snatched out the best candidates, and started dressing Teresa. The girl smiled at Kath's attention and followed every instruction. She seemed to grasp Kath's desire for speed but obviously didn't understand why.

After cinching on the skirt with a belt, Kath examined her work. Horrible. Teresa would probably start a new fashion trend in baggy blouses and bunched up skirts.

Teresa saw the frown on Kath's face. "Bad?"

Kath rubbed her face. "Bad. Best we can do. Don't move, okay? I'll come back."

Her turn. She needed to change clothes with a guard. She found one back in the hall that hadn't been too bloodied. Peeling off the armor was painful, she had to bend and twist to release the segments. The man's shirt and slacks fit only slightly better than a gunny sack. The shoes were impossible. She'd have to hope the whale's feet weren't as big as the rest of her. She checked on Apollo.

Apollo had traded clothes with the big guard. He'd kept his last AP-6 and it hung on his belt. He stood near the chambers, the AS-7 slung over his shoulder, fastening the last of the security armor.

He raised an eyebrow when he saw Kath. "You're barely in that uniform, soldier."

"Tell me about it. Brackham's girlfriend needs a diet bad. Teresa can do the backstroke in her clothes."

"Teresa?"

Kath shrugged. "My middle name." She looked to the cylinder where the clone of her mother lay. She wanted to look, but her feet stayed rooted. "Did you stabilize her?"

"She might pull through. The slug punctured a kidney. If she'd been eating solid food the toxin shock would have killed her right off. She's been on nutrients so the damage wasn't too bad." He looked around. "Now what?"

"Him." Kath turned her attention to Brackham who sat in the corner, mumbling quietly to himself. "We put him in the clone chamber and fill it. By the time he spits out enough fluid to talk we'll be long gone. By then he'll have a lot of other questions to answer."

She saw that Apollo didn't agree but he knew they didn't have time to argue. Together, they stood Brackham up and walked him to the chamber.

"You're getting off light, buddy," Apollo told him.

Brackham snickered. "She can't kill me. I'm her father."

"Shut up," Kath growled.

Apollo bent Brackham over the edge of the open chamber.

"Get in," she ordered.

Mindfull of Brackham's untied feet she assisted Apollo in lifting the man over the edge of the chamber. The man grunted as his butt thumped in the bottom of the troth. Streaks of red ran through the lines of his tan face. His wide eyes glinted like those of a trapped animal. He shifted so he lay on his side.

"This is where we part company," she told him reaching for the lid.

Brackham's eyes narrowed. She pulled but the mechanism didn't move.

"Damn it, there's a catch bolt on this hinge. Apollo check your end." Keeping an eye on Brackham, she felt around for the safety release on the back.

"Got it," Apollo said. "Watch your fingers." She heard a click.

A grating metal on metal sound came from in the case. Kath didn't see exactly what happened but she felt the heel of Brackham's foot jam into her wounded side. Kath yelped and clutched her wound. The lid flew open, the edge caught Apollo and knocked him sprawling. The AS-7 clattered to the floor. Brackham scrambled out of the case and leaped on Apollo.

The big man snarled and threw the smaller man off so that he tumbled across the room.

Apollo started forward as Brackham rolled to his feet.

"Ah ah!" Brackham pointed a finger. He held up the bright yellow block of Apollo's AP-6 his thumb pressed against the detonator. "You know I'm crazy enough to do it. Out the door."

Kath looked for an opening. Waves of pain throbbed from her side. Her M22A2 lay on the floor out of reach.

She and Apollo backed into the corridor. Brackham shouldered the gun and kept the AP-6 poised. "You're right, Kath, this is where we part company." He backed down the corridor. Fifty paces away, he turned and ran. Kath dove for the hood of her Achilles armor which still lay on the floor where Apollo discarded it.

She pulled it on and activated the cyber. Her heart thrummed. She gave Brackham a chance to live and pay for his crimes. He discarded it.

"Do it!" Apollo yelled.

Kath saw the image of her crippled mother float in her mind. The burned bodies of Rick and Dawn; murdered.

"Goodbye." She sent the coded comm signal to the AP-6's radio detonator. A muted roar rumbled down the corridor. She didn't hear a scream. Kath's guts twisted. Dead, he must be. Karma, vindication-- vengeance. God willing, the twisted copy of her father was gone and hopefully his research with him.

She shuddered and pulled the hood off. Apollo limped to Kath and helped her up.

"We have to jet-- now."

A soft voice came from behind her. "Mother?"

Kath snapped around. Teresa leaned in the doorway to the private suites. The girl's face glistened with sweat and she was breathing hard. It had been a long trek on those untried legs. She looked down the hall and pointed with a trembling hand.

"Man gone?"

Kath felt a fluttering in her chest. Those dark eyes were so hungry to understand. Teresa already knew so much but there was many times more she didn't.

"Gone," she agreed. "Come on." Kath took her around the waist and assisted the girl.

Apollo checked his chrono. "Cutting it tight." He led the way as they limped down the corridor. Kath focused on helping Teresa and staying upright. Her impulse to keep the girl baffled her. The three of them might be dead soon. She'd left her mother's clone behind to fend for itself.

What use was there in analyzing chaos? Apollo did what he could for Anna Hershel's clone. She had as much right to live as Teresa did.

They covered their faces and edged through more flame-retardant raining from the ceiling. The floor and walls were blackened. Kath didn't look for Brackham's corpse, she simply hurried Teresa through.

They stopped in the lobby near the powerless elevators. Apollo pressed his fingers into the cracks and pried the doors open. Since they were on the top floor, the booth of the elevator waited on the other side. Kath and Teresa slipped inside while he held the doors.

Pounding came from the stairwell. Security probably on its way up. Seconds left. Apollo braced the doors with his body and slid inside letting the doors clamp shut. He went to the ceiling access panel. Opening it, he pulled himself up, then lifted Kath and Teresa out.

The elevator shaft was clammy and dark. It smelled of ozone and mechanical oil. The elevator cables ran up several meters into the winch machinery.

Faced with the closed in space, Teresa clutched Kath's waist and made whimpering sounds. Kath smoothed the girl's hair and hugged her trembling body.

Apollo reached into his satchel. "I'd hoped we wouldn't have to use these. Once the batteries die, I have to buy new ones. Cost fraggin near as much as I'm getting for this run." He pulled out a thick plastic band with a long cable ending in a clip. "Put your arm next to hers, this one will have to decephalize for both of you." He wrapped the band around both their wrists and velcroed it down. He clipped the end to the elevator cable, then duplicated the process on himself. He hit the switches on both devices. Green activity lights began blinking.

"A bio-scanner cloaking device?"

"Yup."

"Damn, that's wiz. So we just wait?"

"Yup. The techs will get this elevator activated eventually. They'll sweep the building and we wait and jump off on a floor they've already secured. If we get caught, we bluff our way out with the security uniforms."

"Thin, but better than trying to blast our way out."

Teresa whimpered and Kath pulled her tighter. What was she thinking in keeping this girl? Teresa was a child in a woman's body. What life could a shadow runner show her? This girl could grow up to be a bigger rebel than Kath.

Self-respect, self-love-- could those explain it? Who knew Kath Hershel better than herself? It made her head hurt. Maternal? No one who knew her would ever mention the word in conjunction with her name. There was no time for nurture in the shadows; kill or be killed, evolution through natural selection. Only now, human's artificially tailored their mutations with cyberware.

They sat in the dark for hours. Kath had ample opportunity to reflect on what she planned to do if they somehow escaped the hornets nest of investigators, criminologists, and other security personnel. Using their comm-links and from what they could hear through the walls they caught snippets of conversations between arson investigators, government weapons agents, and even military police. Brackham had been under investigation for a long time. Apparently, the words of 'black-op' and a hit on Brackham had brought every investigatory service crawling out of the woodwork. The shear volume of people had worked to their advantage, the interdepartmental squabbling was causing heated relations and preventing effective analysis of the scene.

For three people trapped in an elevator shaft, the less thorough, the better. Teresa began complaining of hunger and it took major effort on Kath's part to sooth her into silence. The clone had been only sustained on liquid nutrients and not a gram of fat existed on the girl anywhere.

Around midnight the relays in the elevator mechanisms overhead snapped. From the sound of their voices five or six men stepped into the car for the twelve story ride to the bottom floor.

It took several more up and down trips before the car was empty on one of its journeys between ground level and penthouse. They got off on the second floor and took refuge in a lunch room where a vending machine dispensed food for the three of them.

They spent the remainder of the night evading investigatory patrols. Through fragments of comm-traffic Kath learned that Anna Hershel's clone had been transported to emergency care in critical condition. Brackham's corpse had been identified along with the permastored original. The authorities were really puzzled by that.

An hour before dawn, Kath, Apollo, and Teresa slipped out a second story window and into the street. Moving furtively, they escaped observation and reached Kath's van. They headed East. Kath didn't stop until the city lights were a polychromatic glow in the West.

Together the three of them sat on a dune and looked out across the vast mojave desert and watched the sun rise on a new day. Kath felt the warmth on her face, and the first stirrings of a Santa Ana breeze. Her mind and body were spent. The wounds of the past would be a long time in healing. Her plans had not been to have a future. The road ahead was a climb no less treacherous than the ascent to Brackham's sanctum had been. Taking responsiblity for another life committed her to that path and the prospect made her tremble inside.

Days would have to pass before they could safely venture into the city again. It would be a painful time of self-healing and renewal. Before she could truly start anew, she still had things to do.

Karma had been served. She'd paid her final respects to her father, and to the rebellious life as a shadow runner. She must still return to the hospital and her mother. All that remained was to look into her eyes, kiss her on the forehead, and for the last time say--

Goodbye.

===================================================
Paradox Concepts, the breakfast of impossibilities.
Ring Realms Ring Leader & Webmaster
Will Greenway
greenway@_ringrealms.com

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