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Book 1 / defrag

Chapter 4

“Well, that was touching,” a voice purred from somewhere nearby.

Glitch jumped and hit her head on the desk above her.

“Drek,” she swore softly to herself.

She crawled out from under the desk and pushed back her hood to see who had spoken, heart hammering furiously. She kept the barretta in hand, but trained the barrel on the carpet. In the darkness, she barely made out the silhouette of the woman Handle had called Syntechie.

There was a sound like the crack of a glow stick. The woman’s bodysuit lit up like a rave. Little neon-blue lines traced the exact shape of Syntechie’s breasts, thighs, and most of her long legs. Little synth wires woven into her hair shimmered with changing neon colors. The outfit was sleeveless, but some sort of moving, glowing, henna tattoos imbedded into what Glitch could only imagine was artificial skin wove and twisted in a slow, mesmerizing dance.  There were two dead spots in the light-show: one shaped like a diamond at the base of her neck, and the other was a heart shape centered a good three inches south of Syntechie’s midriff.

“My eyes are up here, pet,” Syntechie purred.

Glitch jerked – she hadn’t realized she was staring. She felt heat rising in her cheeks and hated herself and Syntechie for it.

How unprofessional.

“Sorry for the mix up,” Syntechie continued casually, as though referring to a dinner reservation, not the deaths of three Runners. “You know how it is with boys.” Her lips – electric blue and glowing like the rest of her – shaped themselves delicately into a pout. “They get their hands on a new toy, and they just can’t wait to try it out.”

Glitch bit back a “fuck you” to avoid the double entendre. She looked Syntechie square in the eyes and got a second, unpleasant shock. Syntechie had no irises or pupils to speak of. The eyes were simply a smooth, reflective veneer that shone like black glass, reflecting the light of the motivational posters around them. Cyber eyes. Very, very expensive. They might be equipped with any number of things: heat vision, cameras, telescoping, microscoping, or even all of the above. It was a safe bet that a little computer in Syntechie’s head was pulling together a dossier on Glitch at this exact second – height, weight, pupil dilation, the works – and feeding the woman its best, algorithmic bets on what Glitch might say or do at any given moment. The longer they talked, the more data it would have. Drek.

Syntechie arched slender eyebrows at Glitch in a perfect, upside down “V”.

“Handle said you were mostly harmless. He didn’t mention shy,” she said. She gave Glitch a coy smile. “I promise not to bite unless you ask very, very nicely.”

Glitch didn’t rise to the bait. If Syntechie wanted input for her cyber eyes to play with, she was going to have to work harder than that. Glitch readjusted her grip on her gun, kept the barrel pointed down, and remained silent. Syntechie’s hips swayed as she took a graceful step forward, closing the distance between them. She eyed Glitch speculatively.

“Or do you just get tongue-tied when you’re talking to pretty women?” Syntechie wheedled. She pressed her lower lip between her perfect teeth.

Glitch treated the question rhetorically.

“Nice cyber eyes,” she said. It was a non-sequitur, but also a nice, neutral statement for the microcomputer to process. Hopefully it would tell Syntechie Glitch wasn’t a threat, and to get this job done, so they could get out of here.

Syntechie’s glowing lips parted into a slow, suggestive smile.

“Aw, you’re sweet,” she cooed, bringing her face down close to Glitch. “Play your cards right tonight and I’ll show you what other parts of me got upgraded.”

Her perfume, or whatever it was she was wearing, made Glitch think of spices. There was something strange about the smell – her head swam and her pulse picked up. Glitch made herself focus on the cold fact of the cyber eyes. At this distance, she could see little spots of light hovering and disappearing just below the glassy black surface – little menus or informational displays the cyberware was showing Syntechie. It was too small for Glitch to be able to read any of it, but the UI layout looked familiar.

“Th-they’re a Nanotech model?” she guessed the name of the largest cyberware distributor in Neosakka. “What year?”

Syntechie’s luminous smile shrank into a disapproving purse of her lips. “Don’t you know it’s rude to ask a woman her age?”

She tapped Glitch playfully on the nose with a well-manicured finger.

Glitch’s hand flew up to push the offending digit away. Syntechie’s other hand darted out. The taller woman caught hold of the barrel of Glitch’s gun. She twisted it away in a swift, clean motion. Glitch lost control of the beretta, but caught hold of Syntechie’s wrist. The cyber eyes must still be calibrating – Glitch had never planned on using the gun in the first place.

“You don’t touch me,” Glitch warned in a low voice. So much for not giving the computer any data.

“You sure?” Syntechie simpered. “I’m very good.” She reached forward with her free hand and ran her fingers down the front of Glitch’s hoodie. The fine hairs on Glitch’s arms and back stood up like hackles.

For the second time in almost as many seconds, Glitch fell for the misdirect. Her body bunched to shove Syntechie away. Syntechie dropped the gun. She twisted, catching Glitch by the sleeve with her captive hand. Syntechie yanked hard, stepping back with her whole weight at the same time. The gesture caught Glitch by surprise. She stumbled forward. Syntechie pivoted, using Glitch’s captive arm as a lever. In a clean motion, Syntechie flipped Glitch off her feet.

Glitch landed on her back with a grunt. Syntechie scooped up the firearm again. She pressed the muzzle of the gun against Glitch’s throat, where the hoodie gave way to bare skin. Her cyber eyes glinted in the darkness. Glitch stayed put, feeling the cold metal in the soft spot above her collarbone. She fought down the urge to bat the gun away, consequences be damned. She wasn’t sure exactly what her first impression of Syntechie had been, but whatever it was, it needed reevaluating.

“How about we set up up a safe word, before we go any further, hmm?” Syntechie teased. She leaned closer and brushed some strands of hair that had come loose out of Glitch’s face. “I’d be mortified if I found out we did something you weren’t comfortable with.”

“Syn, stop playing with your food,” a voice said. “We’re on the clock.”

Syntechie straightened up and turned, the gun still on Glitch.

“Please, Nine,” she purred. “You know I would never.” She nibbled her thumbnail suggestively. “I’m a lady.”

No. “Purred” was wrong. Soothed? Warned? Something seemed off about Syntechie’s tone, but Glitch couldn’t pin it down. She turned to see the newest arrival.

Nine looked Japanese by descent, with longer, dark hair that could’ve once been a business cut, and a slighter, compact build. The way he squared his shoulders and the confidence of his stance gave the impression that he would have to make an active choice to slouch at any given moment. Glitch guessed that whatever he was now, he’d come from money, enough money to think cred didn’t matter. She looked him up and down for the cyberware she knew he had to be fitted with, to be a Runner worth anything. Whatever it was, it was subtle enough that she couldn’t pick it out on the fly. In stark contrast to Syntechie, he wore street clothes: jeans, beat up converse shoes, a t-shirt with a stylized, black-and-white Oni mask on it, and a canvas jacket covered in pockets. Apart from the gun on his belt, he looked like a guy running late for work at a netcafe, not running corporate espionage. A short, Japanese sword she recognized from video games as a wakizashi swung from his right hip – he was left handed then.

Nine cocked his head to look at Glitch.

“Oh,” he said idly. “Guess I missed one.”

He reached for his wakizashi in a smooth, controlled motion that belied the casualness of his voice. Glitch saw he had a kanji character tattooed on the back of his hand – one she didn’t recognize.

“Nine, wait,” the words tumbled out of Syntechie just in time to stop the full draw. “I’d take it as an extra special favor to me if you didn’t do that. I need this one alive and walking, if it’s not too much trouble.”

Nine’s eyebrows rose fractionally. “Not like you to get attached.”

“Favor to an old friend,” Syntechie said with a flip of her hair. She treated Nine to a blue-lipped smile. “You understand.”

Nine looked from Glitch to the gun. “You’re going to have your hands full,” he pointed out.

“Oh, I think we understand each other now,” Syntechie replied. She tucked Glitch’s gun in the deeply-dipping back of her outfit and stepped back to let Glitch stand. She offered Glitch a hand up. “Don’t you think?”

Glitch ignored the proffered hand and stood. She pulled up her hood, acutely aware of Nine’s scrutiny.

“Specialty?” he asked.

“Hacker,” Glitch replied and then, because she needed an ally right now, added, “I’m Glitch.”

Nine inclined his head at her, a polite gesture that took her by surprise.

“What do you do?” Glitch pressed when he didn’t return the introduction.

Nine hooked a thumb at his wakizashi.

“I hack things too,” he said. Nine looked at Syntechie and opened his mouth, but whatever he was about to say was interrupted by a dull booming sound somewhere below them.

Syntechie made a small hissing sound between her teeth while the memory of the grenade set Glitch’s ears ringing again. Nine’s eyes lit up.

“Jackpot,” he said and his lips spread into a smile.

“It’s thrilling,” Syntechie said through clenched teeth. The throatiness in her voice was gone. “Makes me want to take you right here on this hideous excuse for carpeting. How many floors down was that?”

“Three or four, depending on which charge they set off,” Nine replied. There was something eager in his voice like a dog on the end of a leash. “How long do I have?”

“A good ten minutes until the bot finishes with the server. Then we’re leaving,” Syntechie said tightly. “Maybe next time, to speed things along, we don’t play with live grenades twenty feet from delicate computer equipment, hmm?”

Nine shrugged. His head turned towards the stairs, and adjusted his sleeves. “Calm down. Plans change.”

He nodded once to each of them and strode off through the cubicles. “I’m reinforcing the stairway. Get the data we need and Nero up here by the time I get back.”

Syntechie cursed his back under her breath. She pulled out her phone and dialed with her free hand.

“Nero, my hero,” she purred into the phone, “if that chopper’s not in position inside of five minutes, I’m going to think you don’t love me anymore.”

Syntechie cocked her head away from the phone for a moment to avoid being deafened by the tirade erupting from the other end. She waited a few moments, and then returned it to her ear.

“But you do the impossible all the time,” she crooned. “Surely a man with your talents can find their way past an itty bitty anti-air emplacement?”

Another stream of complaints erupted from the earpiece.

“Mmm hmm, yes, that’s wonderful, I’ll see you soon,” Syntechie said through the noise.

She hung up with Nero – whoever he was – on the other end still complaining loudly.

“Come on,” she said to Glitch in a high, cheerful voice, the one people used to address children and animals. “Let’s go check on the servers.”

Glitch shoved both hands in her hoodie pocket and fell into step with the taller woman. Syntechie gestured for her to lead the way – apparently the cyber eyes still hadn’t written off Glitch as a threat. Not enough to let their user turn her back on Glitch, anyway.

“I can’t believe you’re using a code-jimmy,” Glitch grumbled as they walked. “Those things take ten times longer, and they only get exactly what you sent them in there for. No judgement calls.”

Ten times was an exaggeration, but she had her professional pride to consider.

“To err is human,” Syntechie said cooly.

A statement, Glitch reflected, descriptive of how they’d come to the current situation.

The air conditioning turned off. Glitch stopped dead. Syntechie nearly ran into her.

“Such thin skin too?” Syntechie baited, misreading the reason for the halt. “Is this your virgin run, darling, or-.”

Glitch shushed her impatiently. She pulled back her hood and strained her ears, listening. To her surprise, Syntechie obeyed and fell silent. Small mercies.

A faint whirring sound reached her ears, like the hum of a microwave. Glitch’s chin tipped upwards and she studied the ceiling vents.

“Drone,” she said. “Run.”