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Book 1 / defrag

Chapter 5

Glitch and Syntechie fled through the maze of cubicles in silence. Gitch heard a faint hiss, like the release of gas, and Syntechie’s outfit went dark. There was a metallic clattering behind them – the vent cover hitting the ground. Glitch risked a look back over her shoulder. The body of the chrome-plated drone was small – maybe the diameter of a microwave dish – and perfectly spherical, with embedded cameras shaped like the Eye of Horus on its cardinal points. Four propellers extended from its top, and a pair of metallic prongs like tuning forks extended from its base. It disappeared into the cubicles with a low, whirring hum.

The pair reached the huge, glass windows at the far end of the office. Glitch slowed as they approached, unwilling to go near them. She looked around for the nearest computer to jack into.

“If you can distract them, I can shut them down from the Matrix,” she told Syntechie.

Syntechie smirked at her in the darkness, neon lights from outside washing over her like body paint. “This run has been a disaster for you. I’m not putting my life in your hands.”

Glitch’s chin came up and she shook stray hair out of her eyes. “What are you going to do?” she asked sarcastically. “Be sexy at the drones? For a woman who’s half cyborg, you’ve got a really poor grasp of computers.”

Syntechie peered out the window at the forest of skyscrapers, neon, and darkness, searching the sky for something.

“Hush, pet” she murmured. “I’m working.”  She smiled suddenly and pointed. “There. I love a man who doesn’t keep me waiting.”

A chopper like the rental Glitch had come in on veered around the building across the street and headed towards them. Syntechie’s shoulders relaxed. She fluffed her hair with her free hand, like a holovid celebrity about to deliver a speech.

A streak of light screamed down from the roof. The chopper dipped sideways, but it wasn’t fast enough to avoid the rocket completely. Syntechie went still as it hit. Both women stared at the cloud of smoke. It cleared, and against all odds, the chopper was still in the air, lolling dangerously from side to side. Smoke or steam poured from its underbelly. The chopper retreated. A second rocket shot down from on high, but the helicopter was out of range now.

Syntechie released a slow, measured breath. Glitch gave her a sidelong glance.

“What’s the expression about plans and first contact with the enemy again?” Glitch asked innocently.

Syntechie started walking briskly away down the cubicle corridor.

“Keep moving,” she said over her shoulder, and flipped out her phone.

Glitch looked around. She could hear the microwave hum getting louder, but couldn’t see its source. The drone suddenly popped up over the pseduo-wall Syntechie had her back to. The metallic prongs at its base started glowing. Glitch sprang forward. Syntechie, already on the phone, recoiled as Glitch sprinted towards her. Syntechie reached for the berretta. Glitch pulled up her hood in the three strides that lay between them. The barrel of the gun came up, aimed at Glitch’s chest. Glitch hoped in that split second that the Kevlar of her hoodie was tough enough to eat the blast. There wasn’t time to position properly. Glitch grabbed Syntechie by the shoulder and forced her down. She flung up a defensive right arm as the drone finished charging and struck. It nailed her in the arm, instead of between Syntechie’s shoulder blades.

The charge was intended to stun its victim – Glitch had seen its like before – with the added benefit of tripping the surge protector in cheaper cyberware and shutting it down. The leather casing of her hoodie ate the worst of the shock, but every hair on Glitch’s arm stood up. Her skin went tingly. The drone pulled back, out of reach, and started charging again. Glitch shook her arm out, tried to position for when it came in for its second sweep. Syntechie slid out of the way, giving Glitch more room to move her feet.

The drone dove again. It had some kind of learning protocol installed – when Glitch raised her arm a second time, it dropped and hit her in the chest instead. This charge was stronger – it made a sharp cracking sound as it discharged – but her armor was thicker there too. Glitch’s torso arched involuntarily but she kept her feet. Behind her, Syntechie squeezed off a round. It pinged harmlessly off the chrome casing and bounced into the array of cubicles. The smell of ozone and gunpowder filled the office space. The drone pulled back, charging again.

“Behind!” Syntechie hissed.

Glitch turned, left arm going up instinctively. A second drone nailed her forearm. Glitch’s entire arm went numb. Damn, the drones were talking to each other, compensating according to what their counterparts had learned.

“Run!” she snapped through clenched teeth at Syntechie.

Syntechie didn’t reply, but she did obey the order. Lips pressed together tightly, she disappeared down the corridor of cubicles at a run, phone still in hand.

The first drone caught Glitch square in the back. It felt like she’d been punched by Jones. Glitch stumbled forward, dropped to her knees. The second drone swung into her field of vision. Her limbs didn’t react fast enough to her command – fragging biology – and her right shoulder ended up taking the hit. The drones traded off, back and forth, keeping up a steady stream of jolts. The world turned glassy. Her whole body went numb, like a mild case of dumpshock.

Nine rounded the corner of the cubicle corridor. His canvas jacket flapped around him as he ran towards her – no way that thing was going to withstand the force of a shock. One of the drones zipped towards him. Nine reached for his wakizashi. The kanji tattooed to the back of his hand glowed hot white as the blade cleared its sheath. The entire length of steel lit and crackled with electricity. Nine carried the momentum of the draw into a swing. It connected squarely with the drone’s body in a smooth, clean motion, like the slide of a well-oiled gun. Light – blue, red, and orange – flashed and flared. The drone’s circuitry overloaded. It dropped to the floor in a sparking, smoking mess of scrap.

The second drone closed immediately behind its counterpart, diving into the opening left by the swing. Nine dropped to one knee. The drone shot past over his shoulder. Nine whirled. His blade cut a crackling crescent through the air and caught the drone from behind. Another display of electric fireworks and it also hit the floor.

Nine stood in a fluid, controlled motion. He turned in a slow, tight circle, searching for more enemies. The office space was still. The glow on the back of his hand faded away. With it, the electricity died out and he was left holding a more conventional blade of its kind. He sheathed his weapon. The steel made a soft hissing sound in the silence.

Gingerly, Glitch tried to get up. She made it to her elbows and knees – the rest was a bit more challenging. Nine pulled a phone out of his jacket, hit speed dial, and held it to his ear.

“Drones are down, Syn,” he reported. He looked down at Glitch. “I’ve got your netrunner. Get the data. Security’s going to be breathing down our necks before much longer.”

There was a pause.

“Understood. I’ll have the hacker shut it down,” he said.

Another pause. Nine frowned, though Glitch couldn’t tell if it was at her, or the person on the other end of the conversation.

“I can’t hack a rocket emplacement,” he said. “I’d have to dismantle it physically.” His eyes narrowed on Glitch like a targeting reticule. “We have her, we should use her.”

A third pause, and Nine let out a controlled breath.

“Fine. Hurry,” he said tersely, and hung up.

Nine slipped his phone back into one of his canvas jacket’s many pockets.

“You okay?” he asked Glitch.

“F-fine,” Glitch replied. Her tongue was numb and her speech came out slurred and stuttering. “Just sh-shock wea-wearing off.”

“It’s Glitch, right?” Nine said, pronouncing her name carefully. “Syntechie told me you covered for her.” He gave her a measured nod, “Quick thinking for a netrunner working in biospace.”

Glitch returned the nod. “Th-thanks for h-handling the drones,” she replied.

Nine nodded at her. “Welcome to the crew,” he said. He shifted his feet in a restless motion, as though trying to bleed off excess energy. “We need to keep moving.”

Glitch made another attempt at standing. She got to her feet, but her knees didn’t quite hold.

“Can I give you a hand?” Nine asked. The question was delivered in a perfectly polite, neutral tone.

Glitch hesitated, then nodded. Normally no, but they were on the clock, and she wasn’t going to be the one to fuck up this job any worse. Nine wrapped a hand around her forearm and lifted her bodily to her feet. For a man built along the lines of a knife, he was surprisingly strong. Maybe that was part of his cyberware. Up close, she could practically feel the energy coming off of him, like the buzzing electrical charge of a powerline.

“I think you spooked Syn, jumping in to help her like that,” he said conversationally as he guided her back through the maze of cubicles.

“Or her c-cyber eyes,” Glitch returned. She tried to pitch the statement like a joke, but he didn’t laugh. With her muscles moving, the numbness started to wear off.

Another explosion sounded from somewhere below them. This one was close enough that Glitch felt the vibrations through the floor. Nine quickened his step, pulling her along with him.

They rounded a corner just as the last of the numbness wore off, which was just as well, because the carpeting here was slick with blood. Glitch snapped her teeth together to bite off the end of an involuntary gasp. They’d arrived upon the wreckage of the server room.

“Oh, there you are, my pets.”

Syntechie leaned over a datapad hooked into one of the servers. Her neon outfit had reignited, casting cold blue light across the ghastly scene.

A grizzly mess of human parts, mixed with cubicle debris, littered the perimeter of the blast site, like human sacrifices to a corporate god. Blood still trickled down the wall in places and spread from the corpses in pools on the carpet. Glitch picked out the shape of Jones’ gun – now a twisted, useless length of metal – lying to one side, and Wingz’ body, mostly intact, but missing a huge chunk of his head.

Her biology took the hit from the horror that rolled through her. Glitch had seen corpses before – she’d made two of them in her time as a Runner – but nothing like this. Stomach bile rose up into the back of her throat. Her heart battered her rib cage and her throat closed up to hold down the scream building up inside her.

Glitch closed her eyes. Forced herself to exhale. When she opened her eyes again, she kept them focused on the far corner of the server room, instead of letting herself stare at the broken bodies of her team. Their deaths didn’t make sense to her and she didn’t want them to. She didn’t want to be here. She didn’t want to feel this.

Glitch looked around for a jack-in port to escape into, but Nine was still holding on to her arm. Was it her imagination, or had he tightened his grip? She realized her hands were knotted into white knuckle fists.

Glitch shook Nine off. To her relief, he released her without comment and took a sudden, intense interest in the collapsed cubicle wall to his right. A small kindness.

Someone was saying something. Glitch’s head came up. Syntechie had closed the gap between them. She had an expectant look on her face, like she was waiting for Glitch’s reply.

“What?” Glitch asked. The sound of her own voice brought her back to the present. Pride refused to let her crumble in front of Syntechie and she clung to it stubbornly.

Syntechie’s forehead creased.

“Thanks for jumping in with the drones,” Syntechie said, instead of repeating whatever it was she’d just asked. Her glowing lips parted in a smug smile. “And welcome to the ever-growing club of people who enjoy watching my back while I work. I’m told I have quite a following.”

“Don’t mention it,” Glitch mumbled, and then added, “Ever.”

“Aw, don’t be shy,” Syntechie teased. She tipped her head down deeply to one side so she could peer past the lip of Glitch’s hood. “We’re on the same team now.”

“Then you should keep your distance,” Glitch said. She backed up a half-step, turning to put a hunched shoulder between herself and Syntechie. The blood-soaked carpet made a soft, wet, squelching sound under her feet. “Being on my team hasn’t worked out so well lately.”

Glitch started to turn away, but Syntechie caught her by the forearm. Glitch’s head whipped back around. The muscles in her arm bunched to strike.

“Hey,” the directness in Syntechie’s voice surprised Glitch enough to make her pause. “It’s not your fault they’re gone,” Syntechie said. “Everyone had jobs to do. We did ours better. That’s all.”

Glitch wished cyber eyes on herself. Her eyes darted all over Syntechie’s face, trying to divine a hidden game, or a setup.

“Here,” Syntechie pressed something into Glitch’s hand. She released Glitch’s and took a step back. “It stings now, but believe me, someday, you’ll wish you’d kept something to remember them by.”

Glitch looked down and opened her hand. It was Wingz’ watch. Blood, mixed with grit, stuck to her hands. She rubbed her fingertips together, and it came off in little rolls. Glitch turned the watch over one more time in her hands, and then dropped it in her hoodie pocket. If the cyber eyes were still looking for data, they were getting it – she could feel her heart hammering double time inside her chest.

Glitch checked Nine’s reaction. He didn’t turn away quite quickly enough to hide the smirk on his lips. Glitch stiffened.

“Are you feeling alright?” Syntechie asked. Her lips shaped into a sympathetic little pout.

Glitch’s head swung back around. She looked directly into Syntechie’s gaze and saw little readouts flashing across the interface. Syntechie’s eyes darted across Glitch’s face, gathering data. A particularly large readout opened up across both eyes a split second later. Syntechie’s head recoiled.

“Tell your cyber eyes they can go fuck themselves,” Glitch replied.

Syntechie’s slender fingers curled against the datapad.

“Did I seduce a boyfriend of yours that I’m forgetting about?” Syntechie demanded. “In the first place, you really can’t blame him, and in the second-.”

“You killed my crew.” Glitch’s voice came out in a low snarl.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nine turn to look at them.

“Ooh,” Syntechie made a little cooing noise of sympathy. “I killed your boyfriend. Literally. Well, lesson learned, you really shouldn’t mix business and pleasure.”

“Boyfrie…” Glitch felt the heat of anger rising up inside her again. She welcomed its return. “This may shock and offend your delicate sensibilities, but I wasn’t sleeping with any of them. Drek, most of us had barely met before this job.”

Syntechie’s elegant eyebrows arched gracefully across her forehead. “I was joking before, but… is this your maiden run?”

“My eleventh,” Glitch growled. Technically true, though she’d mostly been a digital lookout on the first three. If you could survive upwards of four runs and come out on top in at least one of them you were considered a veteran.

Syntechie uttered a short, high laugh. In a less confident woman, it might have sounded like the prologue to a nervous breakdown. “How have you survived this long?”

“Probably my charming personality,” Glitch muttered.

“Data,” Nine interrupted the exchange.

He snapped his fingers twice at Syntechie. Glitch wasn’t sure if the interruption was on her behalf, or if Nine was just restless, but she welcomed intrusion. Syntechie drummed her glossy nails along the top of the server.

“Another two minutes, handsome,” she said tightly.

Nine spun on his heels and walked away with a clipped, deliberate gait.

Syntechie straightened sharply. “Where are you going?”

“Anti-air emplacement,” he said without looking back.

He drew his wakizashi and trailed it beside him, letting the tip slice through the fabric covering of the cubicle walls as he passed them.

Syntechie took a step forward, as though she were going to call him back, and then seemed to think better of it. She hesitated in the hallway. One hand rose absently and started twirling the ends of her hair. It seemed an oddly vulnerable gesture to Glitch. The glint of neon against metal caught her eye – her gun was still tucked in the back of Syntechie’s outfit.

Another explosion broke the silence – it sounded like it was only a floor below them now. Syntechie’s head whipped around, and in that moment, Glitch struck. She lunged forward for the berretta. Syntechie whipped around, drawing the weapon as she turned. Glitch brought her arm down hard on Syntechie’s gun hand, knocking it out line of with her body. Syntechie fired. The bullet bit into the wall of the server room. Glitch brought her knee up into Syntechie’s stomach. Lights flared across Syntechie’s outfit. She doubled over, clutching her stomach. Glitch seized the gun by the muzzle and tore it out of the other woman’s hand. She backed up, fumbled the gun, almost dropped it. Syntechie leapt forward and Glitch scrambled out of reach. She finally got the beretta pointed in the right direction and brought it up into Syntechie’s face.

“Stop,” Glitch snarled.

Like magic, Syntechie froze. That was the power of a gun. The world bowed before it, and it felt good.

They stood in silence for a moment, struggling for air, watching each other. Glitch imagined the millions of scenarios the cyber eyes had to be running through at that moment.

“What’s the matter, pet?” Syntechie purred. “Are you scared? Always had someone there to pull the trigger for you?”

“Listen to me,” she said between unsteady breaths. “Stop playing around and fucking listen to me. I don’t kill Runners. Not if I can help it. If I planned to kill you, I’d do it right now. All I want is to get out of here.”

She paused. Gave the cyber eyes time to assess her biosignatures. “Check your readouts. Do your eyes think I’m lying?”

Syntechie’s lips pressed together in a thin line. She smiled tightly.

“You’re a Hacker,” she said. “You know better than most that technology is imperfect.”

Glitch took a deep breath and willed every strained nerve in her body to be patient. “Meat-side security will be here soon,” she said in as calm a voice as she could muster. “I’m going to go find a jack-in point and shut security down. All I need is time. Buy me some.”

She reached forward and took Syntechie’s wrist. The muscles in Syntechie’s arm twitched. Glitch pressed the gun into Syntechie’s palm, with the barrel facing outwards, towards Glitch’s chest. She looked up into Syntechie’s face, wishing she could see the readouts playing across the cyber eyes.

“You don’t have to trust me. Just trust that I’ll do my job. Then we all walk out of here alive,” Glitch said quietly.

She let go of Syntechie’s wrist. Syntechie didn’t fire. Glitch flipped back her hood, shook out her ponytail. Her jack-in cable came willingly to her fingers. Glitch walked away deliberately until she found a cubicle untouched by the explosion and the debris .

Glitch breathed out. Dropped to her knees in front of the jack. Paid attention. Her hammering heart. The rustle of her leather hoodie. The worn carpet. The stale air of an office building.

Then she jacked in.