Wen is her name for today. She runs through names like tissue paper - accepting one from an employer, discarding it when it’s done. Keeping a few in her pocket. Sometimes, she layers one on top of another as an extra layer of protection. Her aliases have aliases; her true self locked up so tight that no one will ever find her.
Today she is High Profile Spec, traveling with a tiny “HiPr” buried somewhere in the datastream that tracks her ticket. With this designation, no one will bother her: Transportation staff and other Independent Enforcement Agents give her and her team a wide berth as she saunters through the teeming rail hub that is New Shanghai Station 24.
She is good at this, by now. Good at radiating the aura of complete indifference. Good at looking exactly like everyone else.
Even though her face is itching. The damned prosthetics may fool facial recognition software, but they never seem to get more comfortable. She wiggles her nose in a vain attempt at relief, and pretends it’s a gesture of annoyance at her feed.
The baggage inspections are empty motions, but the staff put on a good show. So does her team. No one would know, watching the four thirty-somethings wind their way through ticket lines, that they were traveling together.
Certainly no one would know that they were black ops military traveling with an artifact more valuable than the economy of the country they were leaving.
Edwin, Fong, Tufford are Wen’s teammates for today. She’s never met any of them before, but she spent an hour researching each the night before. Their dossiers were flawless - only to be expected for an operation such as this. Still, she’d done some own digging through her own networks and contacts. Just in case.
She keeps them in her peripherals as she boards the train. They follow the seating arrangements they’ve been given: widely dispersed to reduce the chances that all could be incapacitated at once. Seats arranged to cover each other’s blind spots and provide a survey of the whole car.
Each of the four carries a bag. Only one is the real thing. Even Wen and her teammates don’t know who has the payload. Wen’s bosses hinted that they’d given it to her, but that’s just standard practice.
She trusts Edwin, Fong, and Tufford as far as far as you can trust comrades you’ve just met. No one on Wen’s networks had any dirt related to their biometrics; neither, obviously, did the military.
The four may not have trained together, but she knows that they have certain shared experiences. And more than that: they share a neural net.
The shared SimSense protocol allows her to see through any of their four sets of eyes at any time. With a flick across channels, she can see the whole car. The empty corner in her blind spot through Edwin’s eyes: the back of her own head through Fong’s. Wen wrinkles her nose when she gets to Tufford’s channel: he’s been smoking. She’s never been able to abide the taste of cigarettes.
Can’t you cut it out until we’re done? I don’t need distractions.
If I never did anything fun while I was under SimSense, he replies, I wouldn’t have had sex in four years.
Disgusted, she moves on.
The SimSense program was created for Corp infantry platoons: shared targeting, coordination, and more than that - SimSense sex was more popular than anyone wanted to admit, and it strengthened bonds between the soldiers.
But it had had its drawbacks. Stimuli could be difficult to control in large nets: one soldier taking a bullet could incapacitate the whole platoon if his agony rippled out through networked peers. The consequences of the emotional bonding in combat were almost as bad.
So it is that the microscopic machines pulsing in Wen’s bloodstream are now reserved for two applications: entertainment, for civilians who need not perform; and the most elite of the elite military. The ones with the discipline to power through anything without impairment.
Part of being a good soldier is having sharp eyes. Wen notes the decor: wood panelled in the Han fashion, its rustic nature spoiled by the peppering of LED screens flashing reels of advertisements for liquor and cheap nano. That’s the way of these things, she knows: try to make the people feel rich while you bargain away their control. Like Tufford’s cigarettes. She wrinkles her nose.
Wen scrolls through the channels again. Notes Tufford’s black bag where it sits in his lap. Keeps the overhead compartment where Edwin has stored his in her periphery. Never look directly at the payload: but never lose sight of it either.
Outside her window, a massive glass factory goes on for a surprisingly long time. The larger factories are cities unto themselves, many housing residential quarters where workers receive room and board in place of equity they could spend outside the company.
After many minutes, the view changes, grey city giving way to the outskirts of an engineered eco-paradise. Trees rise toward the sky, their branches falling into curiously level tiers where their masters have built houses.
Bei’an is Incarnate territory - beautiful to look at, like its builders. And just as dangerous. It’s easier to hide a weapon in the relatively trees amidst people who have their own interests, less scrutable than those of the corps.
Best enjoy the view, Edwin sends sardonically. Once they implement the hyperloop, the only thing you get to look at is the TV.
And your ugly mug, Tufford retorts, but Wen feels him grin.
Edwin is right about the view. The windows are soon occupied by an even mix of advertising and tacky drama. A little button on hers gives her the choice between comedy and tragedy. It’s almost enough to dull her senses: she’d rather focus on the past or future than the present.
After what seems an eternity, the stop for the South Bei’an Terminal is called. Passengers shuffle off, expressing varying degrees of boredom and relief to be done with another day.
As Wen scans her chip - apparently as bored as all the others - the operators’ screen flashes red.
Wen feels a little bit of adrenaline - not much.
What’s the hold up? Edwin sends, his message a blink, easy to miss in the corners of her vision.
They can’t find my ticket in the system.
She knows Edwin will go to work on this, even as they speak: he’s the cybersecurity expert.
Did you use a different ID to book the ticket?
...yes I did.
You used a different cover identity to book the ticket for your current one? Edwin sounds half-angry, half-amused. This is a job where a one member’s mistake could prove deadly for the whole team. A job where you don’t want rookies.
But it’s still kind of funny.
No, she reassures them. My narrative is intact. My current cover has two passports. I brought the wrong one out. Let me fix it.
She frowns, makes a remark about bureaucratic incompetence. Demands that the worker scan her ID again. Switches them under the counter while he’s distracted with her displeasure.
At the terminal, four thirty-somethings get into four identical cars.
The cars are enough to draw attention: the streets of Bei’an are thick with bioengineered horses, looking beautiful and majestic, through the garish artificial colors that are in-style this season.
Dozens of horses for rent are tethered outside of the station; a few have been moved specially to make room for the operatives’ reserved cards.
Wen knows she’ll soon be driving alongside one soon enough; she’s seen Bei’an horses reach 100km, seen the strangeness of the living blur that takes a skilled rider to hold on.
But she hasn’t seen it often. She’ll have to get over her squeamishness about potentially killing the things to have the freedom of movement that she needs.
The cars draw attention, dirty looks from passing Incarnates who see eco-poisoning machines. But they’re necessary.
It’s a lot harder to kill a car than even the toughest Bei’an horse.
Wen wishes for any cover but the canopy of trees above as she joins the flow of horses on the ribbon of road. The trees are beautiful. But the sunlight filtering through them makes her think of home.
There’s something she can’t afford to think about, today.
The team will travel in a dispersed convoy for this most vulnerable part in the journey. Even to civilian eyes, the four independent passengers taking the same road may look suspicious; and even a civilian could throw a wrench in the works, with only one ground passage to where they’re going, air transport too risky to chance.
But that’s what professionals are for: when logistics cannot guarantee protection. They’ll grin and bear it: there aren’t enough intact roads out here to give them any other option.
All four team members stand to gain a substantial bonus if they can pull this off without incident. But given the nature of their cargo, all are hoping, rather than expecting, to get that bonus.
Wen slides into her car - a classy black luxury model, meant to imply wealth. It’s a refreshing change from the interior of the train - cheap, bright, and crowded gives way to cool, dark, and private. Leisurely, the car pulls out into the traffic.
And then all hell breaks loose.
Quick as thought, a scream of metal sends her to her SimSense - where she finds Edwin clinging to one half of a ruined car. The other half is causing a traffic disaster two lanes away. She smells the smoke of leather and metal, feels the heat from the still-fresh wound where the car’s other half used to be.
A second cut takes the roof off over Edwin’s head - monomolecular blade, she diagnoses, as she watches the metal peel away like butter.
A nimble black-clad figure, looking human-normal, appears from nowhere. The blade is in her hand, glowing red from the heat of the friction it just plowed through.
Tufford and Fong’s channels show that they’re already moving, but she is their combat specialist.
Ursurai. She supplies the brand of ninja training from the way the attacker moves, poising herself as she watches Edwin struggle.
What the hell does that mean? It’s Tufford.
It means don’t engage in melee. Shoot or wire, but for the love of God don’t try to hit her.
Edwin avoids losing his legs by a fraction of a second as the katana swings again. He sees Fong’s car and braces just in time as it plows into what’s left of Edwin’s.
Wen feels Edwin’s pain sensors go dark in anticipation of the impact. A good thing: the attacker stabs down, her katana passing straight through Edwin’s shoulder and into the seat’s upholstery.
Using the flat of her blade as an anchor, she’s unphased by the crash.
Shit, Wen thinks. She’s good.
Edwin’s dead unless someone can shoot the ninja in the next half-second. Wen is too far away, too many visual obstructions - and she’s their last line of defense.
Shoot her! She screams to Tufford and Fong, turning her own time-processing speed up in hopes of dragging them with her.
Fong hears her. He sets his car to autodrive with a thought and begins to empty two submachine guns through his windshield. Wen privately thinks that an automatic in each hand might be overkill, but she keeps that thought to herself.
The Ursurai is forced to move her blade, freeing Edwin. She moves faster than Wen’s eyes can see as she actually deflects bullets with the broad side of her blade.
Wen thinks she sees three bullets hit the attacker - a slight jerk in her posture with each. But the impacts don’t seem to phase her.
Subdermal plating, Wen sends, in case it’s not obvious to everyone.
She prays that backup is on its way. They could have handled a hidden ordinance or an entire squad of non-enhanced, but this is one big budget cyborg, and she caught them by surprise at the most vulnerable point on their route.
Edwin manages to grab his bag with his good hand before leaping over the stream of bullets and onto the roof of Fong’s car. At least he’s now a moving target. Fong, still firing, veers away from the wreck and the assassin.
Wen misses it. While she’s watching Edwin and Fong, the ninja vanishes. She’s nowhere to be seen when Wen looks back to the smoking remains of Edwin’s car.
Shit. Did anyone see where she went?
Thermo-optics, Tufford sends. Someone really spent the big bucks on this one. You know what this means? Someone leaked our route.
Wen considers this. A security leak within the team is a headache she doesn’t want to think about - but it would make sense.
Someone had to have some idea of their payload’s value, to spring for this.
Tufford’s vehicle draws up parallel to Fong’s, and Wen feels herself fidgeting. She’s been holding back from the fight for one reason - she was the furthest from the point of attack. It’s possible the assailant hasn’t even classified her as part of the team. It’s possible that she could be their last surprise.
She loops one hand through the strap of her own bag, still safe on the seat beside her.
Edwin and Fong have both jumped into Tufford’s car, discarding their decoy bags and keeping only the black tacticals pressed tight to their chests.
That means three of the four possibles are now concrentated in one place.
Command, did you copy the incident? Tufford sent as Edwin buckled himself in.
We copy. A synthetic voice came through the encrypted channel.
Do we proceed to deposit?
Negative. Incident has gained too much attention, you are a hot target. Repeat, you are a hot target. Proceed to cover and lose your tail.
Are we clear to move?
Wen and Fong’s cars separate, weaving through traffic to find the pre-designated refuge points. They’re in fall-back protocols now: so much for their bonuses. To be fair, they can’t be blamed; their employer knew the risk he was taking with this transport.
Well. Three of them can’t be blamed.
And Wen doesn’t have time to think about the fourth.
Wen thinks she must be a sight to see - a high-end car screeching into a back alley in quiet Bei’an neighborhood, stopping so suddenly that she slams into the side of the disposal unit. The disposal appears on the outside to be a living thing, and un-tended, moss and weeds growing out of the side of it.
Which is exactly the point. Wen slides out of the back passenger side door, invisible from the road, and at her touch the ‘disposal unit’ opens to reveal a staircase descending into the ground. Her payload held tight and her weapon held tighter, she slinks sideways down the stairs.
This location hasn’t been compromised. Yet. Good.
She switches SimSense channels to check on the others.
Edwin and Tufford are safe - they’re strapping into Arrestor frame skeletons at their own safety points, their payloads safely tucked away in the cargo areas of the machines. The two will be formidable, even next to an Ursurai, in those.
The exos are not exactly discreet, but they’re now well past fear of discovery.
Edwin is cracking open a trauma kit. His fingers find a cylindrical nanospray and empty the spray container onto his right shoulder. With any luck at all, he’ll have full motor function back in minutes.
‘Do we just sit here?’ Fong asks on the group band. ‘HQ won’t be happy if they have to come to us.’
‘We have to assume our locations have been compromised,’ Tufford says, standing up in his exo. The suit makes him towering tall, and even through the SimSense Wen feels a power rush at looking down from his newly gained stature. ‘We have to keep moving, separately.’
His words mirror Wen’s thoughts. If their enemy didn’t know where they were going in advance, with a mole on the team and SimSense active, they certainly know now.
‘Look out for snipers. If they’ve got a Ursurai, they’ve sure as hell got guided munitions.
In silent agreement, the three get to their vehicles. Wen avoids the SimSense to avoid laughing as Fong and Tufford attempt to squeeze into new cars wearing their Arrestors; the thought of driving in one is like a grown man riding a child’s toy car.
She makes it back to her own vehicle, regarding the dented side as camouflage for the urban environment, and guns it for the nearby Lunasys embassy.
She’s weaving through traffic expertly when her vision flares red. Automatically in crisis protocol, her SimSense twitches to Fong.
The reason for the alarm is clear: guided bullets. They swing around in a killing arc almost too fast for her to see. Slam into Fong’s windshield, finding their target.
Fong’s dashboard explodes - and her vision shifts as one of his eyes goes dark. The car is now without a driver as it veers at an enormous speed and slams into a tree. He managed to block his pain receptors before the bullets hit, but his vitals are plunging.
Wen lets out a slow breath as she lingers on the death scene a moment longer.
Over the SimSense, Edwin curses. ‘That guy saved my life.’
Silence on the channel. In this business, no one dares voice sympathy.
And one down means the survivors are in more danger than she thought.
Tufford shushes Edwin over the common band. ‘Command! Is the package compromised?’
Negative. Fong’s was a decoy. Protect the packages you still have.
Are the rules of engagement the same?
Respond with force as needed.
Wen is jerked back to her own vehicle as she merges lanes, too close to another vehicle. The car sways with near-impact before she rights it.
She curses under her breath. Juggling SimSense with active combat may be a skill she’s known for, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.
And then there is a whine in her ear, and mutes her SimSense for a moment. The whine vanishes. It’s outside of Edwin and Tufford’s car.
That’s good for her, but terrible for them.
She flicks back to SimSense in time to see what she’d feared: six armored drones following their cars where they drive close to each other on the road behind her. As she watches, the drones dodge and weave in perfect harmony, getting a fix on their targets.
Genuine surprise lances through Wen, along with a sick, sinking feeling.
Someone really wants this payload.
She’s beginning to get an idea of what it might be.
There’s not much can be made on this world that would warrant such expenditure - and such risk. The degree of force being used against them could be grounds for retaliation by multiple factions, if their attackers’ identity were to become known. Whatever she’s helping to transport must yield rewards great enough to exceed the risk.
Then it’s something that can’t be made on this planet.
Wen feels her blood begin to race in a new way.
Off-planet imports are banned by GENECIA itself. The AI directs every aspect of life on this world: her influences is felt in industry and trade, in infrastructure and civics. She is the government, and the invisible hand of the market.
Although she does not intervene in disputes between her children - the people in this world - she has managed to prevent even the most ferocious from trading with outsiders for centuries. There have been rumors of people simply dropping dead in the streets, their nanoblood malfunctioning, after defying her.
If this thing is from off-planet, smuggling it is tantamount to offending God.
Wen tries not to hyperventilate as she turns a corner, sharply, and gives herself a full five seconds off of SimSense to monitor her own surroundings.
Around her, all is peace and quiet.
She has a sudden, awful feeling that she’s the only one who’s going to get out of this.
Edwin and Tufford’s visual feeds are a blur as they leap from their cars, scrambling under the weight of panic. Behind them, a sound Wen knows well: the detonation of a missile.
‘How is it,’ Edwin thinks to Wen, ‘that you’re the only one not having any trouble?’
‘Don’t waste your suspicion on me. If I were running this kind of operation, I’d kill my mole first. No chance he can reveal who hired him if he’s dead.’
‘But they found us,’ Edwin says, ‘after Fong died.’
That’s a valid point.
‘Less talk, more action. There are six drones packing ordinance in your vicinity. Don’t die.’
She feels relief when Edwin starts to spray bullets, emptying his assault clip in an effort to hit the nearest drone.
But the thing is incredibly deft for something the size of a small car, and it’s gone before the bullets reach it. It reappears on his opposite side, making the clicking noises that mean ‘arming.’
Tufford’s using an augmented reality view, tapping into several local cameras. He’s the one who sees the incoming munitions as they zing past a neighboring building, promising destruction.
Wen recognizes them as Shredders. These are the worst combination of a hollow point and a bag of razor blades, fired at you out of a gun.
‘If one of those hits you,’ she shouts over the common band, ‘there is no exit wound. Your body is the exit wound.’
And then she rips herself back into her own car - a flag catching her attention.
A Lunasys flag. The embassy.
A safety point.
‘I’d give my left nut for an EMP grenade,’ she hears Tufford send. It’s a subtle, futile plea for help.And she wishes she could help him more. For tactical purposes, he and Edwin are already dead.
Why the left? Edwin’s voice comes, a little pained.
Because I scratch with my right hand.
She hears an explosion, the sound of a pillar turning to rubble.
And she is out of her own car, running, running across a quiet, peaceful lawn for the embassy building doors. Her bag is slung over her shoulder. Can she really be -
She’s inside the Lunasys embassy. Hallowed ground. No one with any sense of self-preservation would dare to touch her here.
And people are looking at her. She smiles apologetically, flashing a false Lunasys ID. “Late for a meeting,” she quips, and continues jogging toward the elevators, clutching her bag.
She rounds a green marble pillar, getting herself out of sight of the desk. In a little-used hallway, she smooths her suit and prepares to put on a new demeanor.
Now she has to wait for orders. Might as well use the time to catch her breath.
Switching from team to solo mode is one of the hardest parts of the job. The temptation to stay with Edwin and Tufford is strong. But she could not help them from such distance, even if she was able to risk herself - and her payload.
They’ll have to go it alone.
She tries not to think about them, fighting for their lives against odds that are likely unbeatable. Tries not to think about Fong bullet-ridden, years of training and millions in enhancements rendered useless in an instant.
Tries not to think about whether Fong was heroic. Did he save Edwin as a matter of good professional practice, or out of the kind of chivalry that can’t survive long in this profession?
She settles into one of the embassy’s luxurious armchairs to wait, scanning her surroundings as she does so.
Everything in this lobby is about ostentation. Wen hates it. Ostentation is something you do when you can afford to - show off your wealth, your power.Your lack of concern about the dangers of the world.
From out of the lobby behind her, piano music is playing. She glances over and sees a pianist playing - a real, live pianist, playing on a real baby grand. She assesses him for threat level. He’s nil, of course. But Wen will never stop assessing people.
It’s the death of security, this attitude that wealth means relaxation.
‘Command,’ she inquires, finally, when she’s satisfied that the lobby is secure. ‘I am inside the Lunasys embassy. Still in possession of my payload. Edwin and Tufford deemed too high-risk - assistance would’ve been suicide. I disengaged, as we’d discussed.’
She waits. Notices a tea dispenser across the lobby. Argues with herself. It’s against her principles to relax on duty, but, she could use a hot cup…
‘Good work, Wen,’ comes the voice from her employers’ channel. ‘We were right to trust you with the real thing. Lunasys Embassy is your drop point. Proceed to fiftieth floor. Contact ‘Mr. Leon’ is waiting.
Wen feels her eyes go round. Using Lunasys as the drop point means two things: her employer is very important.
And he knew she was going to end up here.
The green marble floors, Wen must admit, are beautiful beside the white pillars. The elevator itself is a work of art, gold studded with rare stones.
She taps her foot with real impatience, and pretends she’s late to a meeting. Which, technically, she is.
In her current garb, she looks like a low-level secretary next to the impeccably suited executives waiting with her. They’d be corp property, all high-priced commodities.
She grins, wondering what the others in that elevator would do if they saw their own net worth next to hers.
Tick tock. The elevator finally comes, a gorgeous chiming like a waterfall of wind chimes through the marble lobby. The cream of the crop of Lunasys - and Wen - slide onto it together, chatting amongst themselves in low voices.
The elevator ascends past one office floor after the other. Wen stays on. Past the public access floors. Past the Level 1 Security floors. Past Security Levels 2 and 3.
The last Lunasys asset looks at her suspiciously while disembarking on the 40th floor. Likely she’ll be sending a security detail to investigate the, low-income looker who’s riding the elevator all the way to the top.
Too bad. Whatever security responds will be disappointed to find an eccentric billionaire very indignant at being questioned.
As soon as the last passenger is gone, Wen whips out yet another ID and scans it.
The elevator keeps ascending.
And then, it stops. Its readout goes dark - no way to tell which floor she’s on, or if she’s between two of them.
And all at once, Wen’s heart is thundering in her chest. Cold sweat standing out on her skin. This is not a good place to be surprised.
Has someone, somehow, hacked the Lunasys embassy itself? Are they about to drop her fifty stories, payload in hand? It makes an awful kind of sense -
But then there is a voice, like a wave rolling over Wen’s circuitry, reverberating through her nanoblood. For a moment, awareness of her surroundings fades away and there is only the voice.
‘Open the case.’
She glances around the elevator, futile, desperate for an enemy she can see.
Her brain and the elevator. This is a bad hack. Very bad.
‘I am saving your life. Open the case.’
‘It’s bio-locked,’ Wen thinks back. No new SimSense channel is available to her: whatever this is, it’s a one-way connection. And the voice sounds female - not a good match for ‘Mr. Leon.’
‘It’s not locked anymore. Open it.’
Wen looks down at the bag in her hands. This could be a trick. It could be wired to explode in case of tampering. Command had mentioned no such thing, but they implicitly trust their transporters not to try to open their packages. Anyone who tried would deserve what they got.
Someone might want her dead that way. The same someone who killed…
‘No, you idiot. That’s who I’m saving you from.’
The intruder is in her thoughts. The private thoughts that are not linked to her SimSense channels.
‘Who the hell are you?’ Wen demands, trying to sound combative instead of scared.
‘Just think of me as a friend.’
That is the last thing she wants to hear. Anonymous ‘friends’ giving ‘lifesaving’ orders are the worst kind.
In this moment of silence - this moment where she’s powerless even to flee - Wen allows herself to lean against the mirrored wall of the elevator, and slide down to sit on the floor.
A moment of real peace. Nobody watching, except the hacker that can’t be helped. And not much left that can go wrong.
Is it even possible to remotely hack a biometric lock?
‘Who,’ she asks the voice carefully, ‘are you saving me from?’
‘Your employer wants everyone who knows about this payload dead. To protect himself from GENECIA. You’ve already figured this out. Or must I explain it to you, to prove I know my shit?’
Yes. She had.
‘They left you alive because you’ve got the real thing. The others distracted - others - during the most vulnerable parts of your journey. You were driven toward Lunasys.’
This hacker knows her shit. This is not new information to Wen, but it still chills her blood to hear that the other three might have died - just to distract bogies from her.
‘And why should I believe you’re not trying to kill me, too?’
‘If I wanted you dead, I’d just wait until you gave Heaven’s Edge to Mr. Leon. He’d have your head separated from your shoulders within seconds.’
It knows her contact’s name. Shit. Shit. This is bad.
‘Trust me, or die.’
Wen looks into herself. To the only thing that she can really trust. Her intuition.
Does she trust Mr. Leon? Hell no.
Does she trust her hacker? Time to find out.
She unzips the bag. Stares at the black tactical case.
‘What are you? Gnost, or something?’
‘Unimportant. Open the case.’
‘How much are you going to pay me?’
‘We’ll discuss that later, Azrielle.’
And the bottom drops out of her world.
Azrielle. That name - it can’t be -
Someone has hacked her.
Someone has hacked her real identity.
That means that they know who she is. What she is. What she’s capable of. They know her market value. How much they could sell her for.
The level of control they now have over her is so terrifying that Wen’s mind goes numb.
‘Open the case, Azrielle.’
She obeys robotically, hands shaking as she presses a thumb to the reader. The case pops open, just as though it were meant for her all along.
Heaven’s Edge. It’s a sword. Made of jade. A pretty thing, ornately carved and jeweled, but perfectly useless. Its edge is polished round - it doesn’t even look intimidating. Beautiful, but not dangerous.
Wait. It’s two swords. Sandwiched together.
This could only be some sort of technology; it’s too ridiculous to be anything else.
Forbidden, offworld technology. Put together by someone who values aesthetics, a sense of ceremony. And what else?
Maybe her best chance at survival.
She slips her fingers around the sword’s hilt.
When the time comes…then what?
She slips the sword beneath her shirt, thanking non-existent deities be for the heavy blazers that are high fashion, now.
For a crazy moment, she wonders if her hacker had something to do with that, too.
The elevator’s lighting returns to normal, and it begins to move as though nothing earthshaking has happened.
Security is the first thing she sees when the door opens again. Large men - large enough to be wearing exoskeletons under their black uniforms.
“Identification,” they demand, leaning in for sidearms. They’ve clearly already decided that she doesn’t belong here.
But she hands an ID over, smiling beatifically. The guards stare at it, unabashedly open-mouthed.
The next thing she sees is a QR code projected on the ceiling. Looking at it brings up a music menu, overlaid on her visual field: each guest here has the option to choose their own soundtrack, played on brainware. A list of popular options are provided to allow those who chooose to dance to the same beat.
Wen opts for silence.
Chandeliers hang over the party. They sparkle, brilliant sparks of rainbow under dim lights. The effect is something between a grand ball and a nightclub. That appears to be exactly what the designers wanted.
Bordering the room, tall, beautiful potted plants bear fruits in the shapes of plates, silverware, napkins: all Incarnate-engineered, grown, not manufactured, and completely biodegradable.
The crowd of perhaps two-hundred party guests produces a dull roar. The sound of wealthy people having a wonderful time. Words drip from the mouths of men in tuxedos and women in evening dresses. Deep, delicate laughter tinkles from somewhere. The air smells of the latest AromaStims.
No words come from the entertainment - women with perfect bodies, dressed in absurd costumes, or in nothing at all.
She weaves her way through the crowd, keeping eyes out for ‘Mr. Leon.’ Heaven’s Edge digs into her ribs as she turns to crane her neck. Reminding her -
That she’s been hacked. That she is done for. That Mr. Leon is the least of her problems, now.
She fights to keep her spirit afloat; being distracted in a combat zone is very, very bad. And she has no idea how to use the bloody artifact she’s been told is her only hope.
“Have you been served,, Ma’am?” A smiling waitress seems to appear from the crowd, presenting a silver platter to Wen with flawless grace. It holds a dozen long, crystal champagne flutes and small, porcelain plates containing potato wedges. “We have Prosecco tonight,” the waitress says with a pointed look. “Very special.”
Wen smiles. “Later, please.”
The server disappears into the crowd as swiftly and silently as she had come.
Wen smiles. She’s posed as a waitress before, on previous jobs. The job description has surprising overlap with covert ops.
Her employer is clever, she’ll give them that. Arranging the dropoff for the most exclusive, secured arena of one of the largest corp in town is sheer brilliance. An attempt at violence here would mark the offender as a risk to the movers and shakers of the corporate world.
However, Wen wishes they could have picked a different party.
This is a showroom debut - a demonstration of the latest in sexual tech. The women being sampled here are the best of the best, not only in perfection of their bodies’ forms, but also in their capabilities.
Wen sees half a dozen different models of meatpuppet as she catalogs her surroundings - one for every taste. There are lolitas, strippers - a parody of a secretary whose garb is worryingly similar to Wen’s own. One woman is suspended from the ceiling like an acrobat, her remote-controlled body pulling off a series of contortions that would make a gynecologist blush.
At last through the mist of corporate gods and roboticized beauties, she sees someone looking at her. A man, sitting cozy in a booth with two women. And they are not ordinary women.
Each woman has large cat ears, twitching as they sweep the crowd like radar dishes for ominous noises. They are muscular as no human would be without a constant bodybuilding regimen, and their fingers end in long, shining claws that have been painted stylish colors.
The women are sipping drinks, appearing relaxed, distracted. But Wen knows better. They’re Gallian women, genetically enhanced and combat-trained. Bodyguards.
She puts on her crisis smile as she sidles up to the table.
“Mr. Leon,” she says, extending a hand to the manicured man. “I’m Wen.”
The woman at his side slides over and pats the seat beside her, as though they’ve all been waiting for their final guest.
Mr. Leon raises his eyebrows. “You’re lucky. I hear the others had quite a bit of trouble.”
Wen’s smile stays frozen in place. “Am I?” She hands over her bag, the re-sealed but empty tactical case inside of it. Prays he does not know how much his payload is supposed to weigh.
“Yes,” Mr. Leon says softly, “you are very lucky.” He peers into the bag, and she watches something change in his expression.
There it is. The killing order.
The Gallian at her side moves, but not fast enough. Wen evades the would-be restraints of the woman’s arms, evades the half-meter blade that appears out of nowhere in her left hand.
Wen has somersaulted away, dancing like lightning as her combat apps kick in, charging her own special abilities up to superhuman levels. She has lashed out with a leg, knocking the Gallian on top of her master, almost before she realizes it.
The other is coming from her side, a blur. Wen lands a chop, powered to crush concrete - lands it at exactly the right time and place. The woman lurches past her and keeps going, howling as she clutches her shattered ribs.
Gunfire. Not surprising. But now that Wen’s in motion, she’s impossible to hit. A shredder would be hard-pressed to take her out, and even Leon wouldn’t be crazy enough to bring a shredder here.
Bullets create faint breezes as they zing past her, her dance partners for the evening.
Lunasys security has finally responded. Black hulks bob awkwardly through the crowd, trying to avoid stepping on anyone important.
Wen feels herself smirking - a horrible smirk - as she turns on them.
She propels herself through the air, hitting one exo where it hurts - above its center of gravity. The thing is halfway to the ground before it can right itself, and Wen is skidding to a stop outside of its impact zone.
The first exo falling gives her time to deal with the second. She darts between its legs from behind, reaches up to seize its arm. Pulls at just the right angle, and it teeters. Swings over her and into the Very Important crowd as it topples, causing chaos.
But by now something else has begun to happen.
The change is subtle at first, but it’s enough to be marked by her trained mind as a red flag. A shift in the cadence the shouts that erupted when she began to fight. A quieting.
The sound of two hundred people simultaneously realizing that something is wrong.
The meatpuppet suspended from the ceiling stops its contortions. Drops down, landing from the ten-meter fall as lightly and precisely as a ballerina.
She looks at Wen.
All of the meatpuppets are looking at Wen.
Some of them have blades extending from their hands.
The meatpuppets are fast and strong as only creatures with designer muscles can be. They descend onto Wen like a swarm, her flurry of blows barely keeping them at bay.
Shit shit shit.
She rolls into a defensive crouch and pulls the sword from her shirt, batting away half a dozen remote-controlled women with her free hand as she does it. She feels briefly sorry for the bodies’ owners; those blows are going to hurt in the morning.
Wen slashes with the blade, blindly swinging the artifact in a cutting arc. Channeling her battle energy through it is second-nature: all of her limbs are weapons, armed or otherwise.
At first, she feels nothing. No kickback, no contact. None of the things that a weapon is supposed to do. There is only a faint sound like exhalation, like rushing through a newly opened window.
But the meatpuppets stop, seeming almost bewildered. Their limbs flail to a halt, as though their programming can’t process what is happening to them.
And then the screaming starts.
All Wen can afford to notice is that where the sword has been pointed, the meatpuppets have stopped in their tracks, looking surprised. She can’t afford to wonder about the reason for the screaming, about anything other than getting out of this alive.
She swings it in a 360 degree arc, covering the entire ballroom. Wherever the sword swings, her attackers seem to become paralyzed.
What is this thing? she just has time to wonder, and wonders if her hacker will let her keep it.
When she thinks that she is safe, she looks down at the weapon. Its blades have parted, and in the space between them shines an unearthly blue radiance. It’s beautiful: a light that feels like warmth itself, yet feels also eerie and eldritch.
Wen stares into the light, mesmerized, for several seconds. Until a new movement attracts her attention.
Something falls, wetly, to the floor in front of Wen. She hears the sound and looks up to see the top half of a woman rolling toward her.
The meatpupped has been severed at the waist as neatly as if by a monomolecular blade. A red pool is seeping out of her to join a larger red pool, spreading from the crush of bodies -
The entire floor of the ballroom is covered in blood.
All of the meatpuppets are collapsing where they stand. So are all their patrons. Mr. Leon, who hadn’t bothered to get out of his seat for the fight, has been decapitated. His neck spurts little fountains of arterial blood with the rhythm his still-beating heart, almost comical as his body retains its posture of perfect confidence.
Every person in the room is dead, except for Wen.
Then comes the sound of screeching metal. And everything above the level of Wen’s waist is moving.
She ducks, instinctively, as the ceiling above her begins to shift. Plaster grinds on plaster, cream-colored drywall falling away. Metal grinds on metal, chandeliers tremble and tilt. Water like blood begins to seep from a hairline crack running at about waist level all around the room.
She imagines the lifeblood of the building spilling from severed pipes, diluting the human blood on the floor. Flooding the ballroom with red.
In her panic, she made a crooked cut. The top of the Lunasys embassy is now unbalanced, and is sliding off of the building under its own unbalanced weight.
She tries not to think about the gargantuan structure plunging fifty-eight stories as it screams past her. Tries not to think about what it will look like when the mass of concrete, metal, and plaster hits the road below at terminal velocity.
The noise of the steel sliding past steel is like nails on a chalkboard, multiplied a thousand times to become deafening. It faces into one last awful rumble, and a shift, and then -
There is only cold wind, ruffling Wen’s hair.
She is alone. Surrounded by corpses at the top of the world. The sound of traffic below is distant, muted by a breeze. She looks out over what is left of the ballroom’s walls and sees the jeweled lights of other towers on every side.
Looking up, she sees only stars.
For a moment, it’s easy to imagine that her problems have vanished into the ether. That she is truly alone. That no voice follows her, that no voice knows her -
A noise behind her makes her whirl. Heaven’s Edge is poised to cut before she realizes it.
But what she sees doesn’t look like a threat - or an enemy.
Amidst the corpses halfway across the remains of the demolished club, something is stirring. A survivor - female and apparently unarmed - is pushing pieces of corpses off of herself.
Wen advances slowly, Heaven’s Edge poised to strike. She knows she should flee, knows she should be gone already. Knows that this person - who wears a billionaire’s dress, not a meatpuppet costume - can only be trouble.
But she hadn’t meant to kill these people. Not all of them. Let alone the people who the tower must have landed on, fifty stories below. And she already abandoned her comrades, so set she was on saving her own skin.
She doesn’t want to kill anymore. Wants to help one, if she can.
A few meters from the woman, Wen stops. Stands stock-still. The woman isn’t pushing away the corpses; she’s embracing them, wrapping them in arms that look almost loving.
Would look loving, if they weren’t turning onto a mass of writhing tentacles before Wen’s eyes. As she watches, the tendrils extend into the corpses like roots, and the corpses begin to shrivel and dessicate.
Wen is backing away. And then she sees something even stranger.
She’d thought that perhaps this survivor had been conveniently positioned - had been trying not to judge what a wealthy woman would have been doing under a table or on the floor at a party like this.
But she was wrong. This survivor didn’t avoid Heaven’s Edge. She’s been cut in two.
And she’s putting herself back together.
Wen stares as she watches the woman drop set of bloody clothing that had contained half of a body moments earlier. Watches as she uses her hands to maneuver her own hips back into alignment below her torso.
Watches her brow furrow in concentration, as though willing herself back together. The flesh knits as though it were just that easy. Within seconds, she’s intact.
What fresh horrors does this world hold?
And the woman lays back, pale and exhausted, but very much alive. She looks up at the stars for a long moment. And then she looks at Wen.
“It’s rude to stare, you know.”
To Wen’s shock, she feels herself blushing. That’s a social response - not a response to untold horrors. She just manages to stop herself from stuttering an apology.
“I - who are you?”
The pale woman props herself up on her elbows. Looks down at her feet, still wearing expensive designer heels.
Wiggles her toes. Successfully.
“My name,” the woman says, “is Raamaa. I like to think I’m a good person to know.”
Raama pulls herself up into a sitting position, and Wen thinks she still seems noble, even regal, despite sitting among corpses in a blood-soaked, tattered dress.
“And it looks to me,” Raamaa says, extending a hand to Wen, “like you’re a good person to know too.” Raamaa’s eyes flicker to Heaven’s Edge, linger on it with an unreadable expression.
Wen wonders if she should - or can - kill this person.
She reaches out to take her hand.
Raamaa’s hand feels cold and indescribably strange in Wen’s own. At the memory of fleshy tendrils, Wen barely manages to avoid pulling her hand away. As the woman stands, Wen notes that she looks human - but she can only be an Incarnate, with regenerative abilities like that.
An Incarnate masquerading as a human? At a meatpuppet party?
“I predict,” Raamaa says, “that you and I are going to be friends.”
Wen could use more friends whose faces she knows.
She lets Raamaa lead her to the emergency stairs.