“Hey. I said ‘it’s illegal’, not ‘I won’t do it’. I’ll help you, but just you remember I was never there, and you’ve never seen me in your life. Come along.”
Her teeth were sharp as razors. I’d never really paid attention to them before; who really had time to stare into toothy grins for more than a passing second.
But when she grinned after saying she’d help me, what else could I do but stare?
She was a family friend. She’d been in the background of a Christmas photo here and there, and gone to Thanksgiving last year.
Just managing to catch up with her was a miracle, but she’d left a note of which SIN she’d be using this week, and it had enough time left on it that I didn’t feel terrible calling her up.
“Well?” She asked, flicking her hair. “We going to do this or what?”
The traffic wasn’t bad at 4 am. A petty moment of winding my justifications back up. A petty moment of hoping that it’d be enough for the two of us. She’d insisted on the time.
“Yeah,” I said, breathing in. Hissed it between my teeth. Smooth. Not jagged like the ones I’d seen in her mouth when she’d laughed.
The building was tucked under the overpass was nondescript businesses. Therapy office, the headquarters for a local testing agency. A radio station in the front. Ubiquitous in purpose and design.
But getting out late from therapy yesterday had meant I’d seen them carry in the girl.
And I was just delusional enough to think that someone should save her.
Call in Aunt Rachel, with her smile full of razor blades and her… less than clear connection to everything else.
“Haven’t cracked this place before,” Rachel said, poking her head up further from the overpass.
“Think they’ll have any Phalanx down there?” I hissed.
“Probably not,” Rachel said. “There’s a reason why I chose this town as a hiding place.”
I looked at her. She ran a hand through her blonde hair, smirked, and went back to eyeing.
“So uh… what’s the chance we get shot at?”
“If everything goes well?” Rachel asked.
“…Sure,” I said. “Sure, what’s the chance we got shot at if everything goes well.”
“Basically nothing,” Rachel said. Then she handed me a gun. “You know how to work one of these?” She handed me a gun.
I flicked my eyes over it a few time. This…. this escalated quickly. We were really going to do this. Serial numbers long since gouged out, smoothed. Acid? Fire.
Rachel was hardcore.
Maybe that’s just what we needed.
“Not really,” I said. “I took a lesson or two back when Dad first said you were coming for Christmas.”
“Really doesn’t want you to take after him. I respect that,” Rachel said, rubbing her hand against my hair affectionately. “Trust me, unless things go horrifically wrong, you won’t be using much of it.”
“And if they do?”
“You can count on your aunt Rachel to get you out of the worst of it intact,” Then she reached into the bag on her hip and pulled out an Oni mask.
Red for her. Blue for me.
Made my breath clammy against my skin, but I felt a tiny bit better about the cameras probably swarming the building.
“Looks like the building was made in the 70s… probably retroactive wiring of any security systems…” Rachel listed off. She flicked her eyes over to me. Felt them rake over the outside of my mask, and then she grinned again, showing off razor teeth, and stood up.
“Come on, it’s 4 am. Night staff’s not going to be expecting a thing. You weren’t seen, right?”
“Don’t think so,” I said. “Just saw them out of the rear view mirror of sis’s car, as I was leaving. You know, the mirror’s broken-“
“From last year from the drunk driver,” Rachel finished. “I got him to pay for you guys, I know what you mean.”
The shadow of the overpass provided a background of grey noise and static that barely hid the thump thump of my heart. The dry growing noise of anxiety and fear that sounded suspiciously like late night truckers trying to squeeze another k out of their monthly paycheck.
Then Rachel stepped forward. “Keep a watch, we’re going in through a side door. If anyone comes up on my, just say so. I’ll take the shot.”
Slight moment of pause in her voice. “Unless you think you’re up for it?”
“We’re saving a girl,” I said, swallowing.
“Sure kid,” Aunt Rachel said. Her mask didn’t gleam in the street lamps, the surface had been roughed up to stop that.
But she looked every inch the demon she was pretending to be.
I just hoped I could live up to mine as well.
The front door lock was eight combinations, but aged in that special way that anything exposed to hurricanes aged. They’d failed to update their drivers and Net security, so it wasn’t hard to spoof the company’s null codes, and the door clicked open.
“Walk proud,” Rachel barked, and I swept in behind her. I was a soldier, I was a warrior. I was anything other than a depressed idiot who’d accidentally guessed his aunt would be the perfect person to call for this. “Don’t show your fear. Hands stiff, calm.”
The gun was heavy in my hand, but the safety was on, so I didn’t feel awful about it.
She ignored the elevator and the key code on it. Looked far more up to date than the one outside; didn’t have a second of the half rust and finger oil decay lacing it. Instead, she turned to the stair well.
“What floor?” I asked.
“Third,” she said. “The Pepperson Testing facility runs most of their activities out of another office, so why would they need one tucked into here?”
I blinked. I’d taken a Pepperson test when I’d tried to get the hell out of this town a few months ago. A point or two off from getting a scholarship to one of the corporate universities up north.
Blue regiment, the local Police Corp, had failed me for being a second too slow, so I’d fuck all to do except languish off of Dad’s old settlement.
And save a captive girl apparently.
“Besides,” Rachel said, and I heard her voice grow grimmer and flatter. “Pepperson’s one of the worst for shit like this. If you ever get into stuff like this… and try not to, I promised your dad, you’ll hate them.”
Legs pounded against stairs. Four am, the first trickles of early morning wage earners would be coming in soon. At least my therapist wouldn’t be in until eight. I had that going for me.
We made good time on the second floor, and then hauled up to the third floor. Rachel frowned at the keypad to get in there, and knelt down.
“So how badly do you want to save this girl?” Rachel asked.
I’d seen her thrashing about in the carry she’d been in. Black uniforms, heavy helmets.
Phalanx. The heavy duty guards of this part of the nation. They’d gotten into a scrape with some of the Paladins up north, contractual disagreements, but they weren’t licking their wounds here.
Here they were every bit the enforcer for the rich and powerful. If I hadn’t seen the girl’s face, bound and gagged.
Maybe nobody would’ve. I couldn’t deal with that.
“Do it,” I swallowed.
She slammed a knife into the keypad, and a few swipes later, she’d slammed the door open.
She hesitated, and I hesitated, counting our breaths. No alarm was going off.
She hissed out a laugh. “Good. New plan. We got maybe five minutes before that alarm goes off. So we get in, get your girl, and then we’re going to hide the fuck out, alright?”
“Got it,” I hissed back.
Pepperson owned the third floor. Carpets stretched across it, the better to make it look like something other than a repurposed shithole from the 70s. Tables stretched with desklamps. Magazines.
It’d’ve been harder to figure out where the girl had gone, except that only one of the doors looked like it’d been kicked in, and only one of the tables was missing a lamp.
It was enough for Rachel to move in, walk up to the door, and knock politely. She ignored the scanner entirely.
I stared at her. What happened to stealth?
She drew a finger across her lips. “I smell blood.”
The door opened.
Three shots from her silenced gun. I watched a man die, crumple to his feet, knees folding like cardboard, and then she stepped on his throat to muffle his noises.
But that’s not what stopped me. Because as we stepped into the next room, and the smell of blood was starting to circulate, I saw her. A dozen wires fed back and forth into her flesh. Connected to various pieces of equipment strewn about the room. Computers read her vitals. Wires read her thoughts.
Something out of a bad novel.
I could taste her blood in the air, saw it long dried on her skin. My heart thumped. This is what we’d killed for.
Brown hair. Bruised face. Could see where her restraints had rubbed her skin raw.
But what was really strange were the wings growing out of her back. Long elegant brown feathers.