Book 1 / defrag
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Biospace information assaulted her senses. Glitch staggered to her feet. Her cheeks were wet, and her body ached as though she’d been straining to lift the building itself. A moment later, her stomach won the argument it had lost in the chopper and she vomited its contents all over the floor.
Drek, she was tired.
Glitch looked around. The floor was dark, thanks to her blackout, except for the computer monitors. They all glowed with the word “standby” written across the screen.
No sign of Nine yet.
She spat a few times and wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. Syntechie still had her gun. Glitch made her biology suck it up and run. As she neared the stairway, her steps slowed. Glitch hesitated. Nine should have already made it dow-.
A figure detached from the shadows, moving in a low predator’s sprint. Nine slammed into her full force. Her thinner, lighter body flew backwards into the Egyptian-print of the cubicle walls. The breath went out of her in a strangled cry as she hit the carpet. Nine advanced on her slowly, his blade sheathed at his side. The bloodied oni mask on his t-shirt leered at her.
“I need to get through that door, Glitch,” Nine said in a low, cold voice. “And you’re gonna open it for me.”
“Fuck you,” Glitch spat from the floor.
Angry felt better than afraid.
Glitch got to her feet. Adrenaline roared through her veins, numbing the pain in her muscles. Nine blocked the entrance to the cubicle, but there was a computer on the desk behind her. Glitch’s hand felt for the keyboard. Nine saw the movement and lunged. He caught the front of her hoodie with his biological right hand and slammed his cyberware left into the computer tower. Glitch’s fingertips scraped across the keyboard and hit the enter key before he lifted her bodily away. The word “standby” flickered, vanished. The kanji on the back of Nine’s hand flared. Every monitor on the office floor went dead. By the light of his glowing cyber arm, Glitch saw Nine frown. He looked at his hand, and then around at the other, dead computers. The hum of a dozen microwaves filled the air.
“Sorry,” Glitch said. She leaned away from him as much as his grip on her hoodie would allow. “I’m getting Syntechie out. I’ll come back for you before security finds you.”
Comprehension flashed across Nine’s face. He dropped her and swung around, drawing his sword as he turned. Buzzing, chrome spheres flung themselves through the air at him. They dropped out of the air vents and hummed over cubicles. Forked metal flashed and sparked, an angry reply to Nine’s humming blade.
Nine didn’t say a word. His weight centered. His limbs pulled in and the smooth control returned as he took up the ready stance. The first drone of the wave was cut down in a clean arc of steel and blue light. Sparks lit the office space and the smell of ozone filled the air. A second drone struck as the first fell. Nine caught the force of stunner on his arm. The kanji flared brightly, then died down. Nine dropped his wakizashi into his off-hand. His sword hand, he slammed full-force into the nearest, oncoming drone. The cyberware shrugged the held discharge straight into the drone’s camera. Its surge protectors blew and the drone went spinning off into a cubicle wall, trailing smoke and sparks.
Glitch tore her eyes away as the wakizashi made contact with the third bot. Nine still blocked the entrance to the cubicle, so she used the desk as a step to go over the pseudo-wall. Drones dodged and whizzed around her, locked into their only target. Glitch tucked her head as tightly as she could between her hunched shoulders. She leaned down, bent almost double so she couldn’t been seen over the cubicle walls, and ran.
She found Syntechie still crumpled in a heap by the elevator. An unconscious guard lay nearby, stun gun dropped from his outstretched arm. Glitch flipped him over with a grunt. Her baretta was tucked in his waistband. Glitch retrieved it. She looked up. The floor fell silent again.
Glitch shook Syntechie by the shoulder.
“Come on, get up. We gotta go,” she hissed.
Syntechie stirred a little, but didn’t reply. A familiar sound crackled behind Glitch. She straightened and brought her gun up level with Nine’s head. .
He stalked towards her down the cubicle corridor. The light of his blade washed his face in shifting shadows. His off-hand kept his gun steady on her.
“Put it down, Hacker,” Nine ordered quietly. There were scorch marks on his jacket, but he looked unharmed.
Glitch backed away, but kept the gun trained on him.
Nine shook his head. “‘I’ll come back for you before security finds you’?’ Really? You’re either a liar, or a terrible Runner. Between the two, I’m betting you don’t play poker.”
Glitch eyed him. “I don’t do the corps’ work for them.”
“And I respect that,” Nine replied. The dead calm in his voice ate away at her bravado. “Really. Under different circumstances, I bet we’d get along.”
Glitch’s back came up against the wall. She’d run out of room to retreat. Her jaw clenched and her shoulders locked tight under her hoodie. The barrel of her baretta wobbled. Fear – that’s what that sensation rising up out of her stomach and closing up her throat up was. Fear.
She hated that feeling.
“Normally I’d start by cutting off a finger so you’d understand what you’re losing, but we’re short on time,” Nine went on in a quiet voice. “I will take your arm, Glitch. You’re right handed – it will not be fun to start learning left, I promise.”
Glitch’s arm twitched involuntarily.
“It’s not worth it,” Nine said. He stepped over Syntechie’s fallen form to close the gap between them. “That wage slave shitting himself upstairs is nothing to you.” His voice turned gentle. “Come on, Glitch. Don’t make me be the bad guy.”
Glitch lifted her chin. Her breath was loud in her ears. She met Nine’s gaze definitely from within the shadow of her hood.
“I’m getting my team out of here,” she told him. “Don’t come any closer or I swear I’ll shoot you.”
Nine’s mouth spread into a grin that turned her blood to ice water. He stepped forward.
A loud cracking sound made Glitch jump. Nine’s back arched. He pitched over to one side. Behind him, Syntechie knelt by the fallen guard, the stun gun in her hands.
Syntechie let out a slow breath.
“Boys,” she murmured to herself. She arched an eyebrow at Glitch.
Glitch stared. “Thanks,” she said.
Glitch used most of the curse words she knew. She relieved Nine of his wakizashi and gun, then scooped up the stunner from the floor where it had fallen from Syntechie’s hands. The leads were still embedded deep in Nine’s back. She left them there, and examined the stunner more closely. It was a higher-end model than most of the equivalents she’d seen on the street – this one administered a small dose of some drug along with the shock. She checked the gun’s vitals: power was at 83 percent, and there were still four drug doses waiting to be deployed. Keeping the stunner in one hand, Glitch bent over Syntechie. The lights on the Fixer’s dress were darker on one side below the waist. Glitch leaned closer and, using the light from her phone, realized there was blood coating the material. Syntechie had caught a stray bullet at some point while Glitch was in the Matrix. Glitch didn’t have any medical training, but she was pretty sure people could survive leg injuries, provided they didn’t lose too much blood.
Glitch fingered the edge of Syntechie’s outfit but it was all synthetic material – nothing absorbent enough. She looked at Nine. His jacket had too many pockets for her to cut it down easily into bandages, and she was fragging sure she wasn’t brave enough to strip him of his shirt or pants.
Glitch swore some more and peeled off her hoodie. The t-shirt underneath sported a picture of a game controller and the FightStreet12 logo from a gaming tournament three years ago. Mercifully, it was not one of her favorites. Glitch stripped herself of it, ignoring the chill of the office, and used Nine’s wakizashi to slice it into strips. Whatever cyberware interfaces it had, it functioned just fine as an oversized pair of shears. Nine twitched part-way through the process, and she pulled the trigger on the stun gun again for good measure. She’d almost finished bandaging Syntechie’s leg when the woman’s phone lit up and started ringing. The caller ID read “Nero” with a little picture of a silver car under it.
Glitch picked up the call. She tucked it between her shoulder and her ear so she could keep working.
“Where are you?” a man’s voice hollered at her from the other side. She could hear the whine of the helicopter in the background. “You wouldn’t believe the night I’ve had!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Glitch grumbled into the receiver.
There was a pause.
“I love hearing those words from a woman, trust me, but who the fuck is this?” said the voice on the other side.
“The hacker catching a ride out with you and your team,” Glitch returned.
“Yeah?” the voice on the other end sounded skeptical. “Syntechie didn’t mention she was bringing friends. Where is she?”
Glitch finished tying off her improvised bandage.
“Mostly unconscious,” she replied.
“Uh huh, and the other one?”
Glitch glanced over at Nine.
“About the same,” she replied.
There was a pause from the other end. Nine might have moved slightly in the darkness. She eyed the stunner.
“What’s that noise?” Nero asked.
“Just some electrical equipment,” she said, releasing the trigger again. “Get your ass down here and help me move them. I can’t drag them both at the same time.”
“Yeah, I don’t think this chopper’s gonna fit down the stairwell,” Nero said. “What floor you on?”
“One-eighty-nine,” Glitch said. “And you’re gonna have to leave your bird alone for a little while, or else pick which one you want to save. I can’t move them both on my own.”
“I heard you the first time, lady,” Nero answered. “I’m fucking exhausted, not deaf. I’ll meet you by the windows.”
“What do you-,” Glitch started to ask, but he cut her off.
“Just shut up and do it,” Nero interrupted. “I’ll handle the rest.”
“Great, wonderful. I’m com-.” Glitch swore mentally and then rephrased the statement. “I’m on my way.”
She hung up on him.
Glitch struggled back into her hoodie, slung the sheathed wakizashi over her back, and stowed the other weapons in her pockets and waistbands. Nine was still out cold. She grabbed him under both arms and started dragging him backward. Without adrenaline for a painkiller, her body protested every fragging step of the way. She heard glass shatter two-thirds of the way there, but she was too focused on putting one foot behind the the other, instead of collapsing into a chair, to pay it much attention. She kept moving towards the windows until she felt cold air on her back and heard wind. Glitch froze.
Hovering outside the shattered window was an industrial-level transport chopper with its passenger door open and a man half-leaning out of it. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, and sported an oversized pompadour. A digital faceplate covered the upper half of his face. He wore a thick, bright, synthetic, red jacket, black t-shirt, heavy jeans, and a pair of teal, high-top converse with glowing white soles. A jack-in cable ran from the back of his head and disappeared deeper into the chopper. Glitch swallowed. More heights. Oh, and he had a shotgun pointed at her face. That was scary too. Drek, she was exhausted.
She forced herself to focus on the pilot, instead of on the gap between the chopper and the building.
“I don’t know what the spread is on that thing,” she yelled over the noise of the chopper, “But I’m pretty sure you fire and it’s gonna hit me and your crewmate!”
Nero studied her for a moment longer. He let go of the shotgun and it swung down to his side on a shoulder strap. Nero reached back into the chopper. He came up with a harness secured to a safety cable. He hefted it once, testing the weight, and then hurtled it across the space between them.
“Catch!” he yelled.
An awkwardly-shaped brown glove – sports equipment of some kind – flashed across his faceplate in digital neon. Glitch set Nine down just in time to grab the harness before it slid away. She more or less shoved Nine into the harness, did up as many of the buckles as she could find, and then gave Nero a thumbs up.
“Syntechie?” Nero hollered. He kicked something behind him and a winch somewhere inside the chopper ate up the cable’s slack.
Glitch gave him a tired nod. She turned back, once more, to the cubicles. Glitch took a deep breath and forced her body to sprint. It turned into a jog after only a few strides. Glitch mentally cursed biospace with every aching footfall that sent pain running up her back.
Syntechie lay where Glitch had left her. She roused as Glitch swung the woman’s arm over her shoulder.
“Aw, you came back for me?” Syntechie murmured weakly. “I knew there was something between us.”
Glitch ignored the comment.
“Come on, I’m gonna need you to try and walk at least a little,” she told the woman, “Or neither of us is gonna make it out of here.”
Syntechie leaned heavily on Glitch, but managed to support at least some of her weight on her good leg.
“Why?” she asked as they hobbled back towards the chopper.
“Because I spend most of my free time in cyberspace and you’re fucking heavy,” Glitch growled.
“You cared about your crew,” Syntechie clarified. She took a deep breath, rallying her energy. “Why help?”
“You’re my ride out,” Glitch said. She tried to shrug but it was a bit too much effort with Syntechie’s weight bearing down on her.
“My eyes say you’re lying,” Syntechie replied.
“Your eyes can go fry themselves on a powerline,” Glitch grunted.
They were getting close to the window. There was a high keening sound and a flash of light from the far side of the office floor. Glitch swore – she’d heard an EMP go off before. That meant the drones she’d left on guard duty were probably out of commission and they were going to have company real soon.
“So why?” Syntechie pressed.
Glitch kept her eyes fixed on the chopper ahead of them. “Imagine a world where someone gave a damn about other people. Wouldn’t you rather live there?”
A shaky laugh spilled from between Syntechie’s lips. “I’m hallucinating from blood loss, aren’t I?” she breathed when she could speak again.
“Sure,” said Glitch. She lowered Syntechie to the floor and gestured for Nero to throw her the harness again. “Why not. Just stay calm and when you wake up in a hospital this will all have been a bad dream.”
“Were you really going to shoot him?” Syntechie asked. Her voice was getting weaker.
“What do your cybereyes think?” she said, instead of answering the question. Nero tossed her the harness and she caught it.
Syntechie was silent for a moment and Glitch thought the woman might pass out again.
“I think you can make anyone to do anything, if you find the right pressure points,” Syntechie said. “And you’ve had a long day.”
Glitch didn’t reply.
“Last question,” Syntechie said. She cocked her head at the improvised bandage on her leg. “How many t-shirts do you usually wear on a run?”
The cyber eyes betrayed nothing, but the corners of Syntechie’s mouth twitched.
Glitch sighed. “Make sure you get all the buckles,” she said.
Getting a partially-conscious Syntechie into the harness was easier than it had been with an entirely unconscious Nine. Glitch signaled Nero, and then made the mistake of looking down. Glowing rivers of traffic flowed back and forth far, far below, tinted by luminous, neon billboards and blazing marquees. Her head spun at the sight of the drop. The floor felt like it was shifting under her feet. Her already strained nerves failed her. Glitch stumbled backwards until she ran into cubicle siding.
Nero pulled Syntechie into the helicopter and started pulling her out of the harness.
“Come on, jump!” he yelled. A little analog clock with a ticking second hand displayed on his faceplate.
“I think I’ll take the stairs!” Glitch tried to joke, but the words got trapped in her throat.
When she didn’t move, Nero finished wrestling Syntechie out of the harness and threw it back to her. Glitch fumbled with straps. She slipped into it, snapped the main buckle into place, and started tightening straps. She knew, in the back of her mind, that she would never convince herself to make the jump across that space, but every second she spent securing the harness was one where she didn’t have to admit she would rather die in this building, at the hands of the corps, then make a four foot leap to relative safety. Fuck biospace.
“Freeze!” someone yelled.
Glitch turned. A squad of security officers ran towards her down the cubicle aisle. They had weapons – stun guns, sidearms, even a shotgun – drawn.
Glitch dove out of the way behind the nearest cubicle. She ran out of slack on the harness and it yanked her off her feet. She looked up. The security guard wielding the shotgun leveled it in her face.
A force akin to the grenade blast slammed into Glitch’s body, carrying her backwards. She had the impression that her skeleton had tried to quit her body without consulting the surrounding flesh and muscle. She glimpsed, for a moment, the startled expression of the security guard. A split second later, she realized the safety line attached to the back of her harness had gone taut. The chopper hauled her backwards, out the window, like an eager, two-ton dog on the end of a leash. If there’d been any breath left in her lungs, she’d have wasted it screaming.