Aaron

@HatInACat

This is a little page for my writing projects as I learn how to write good. I do not guarantee any kind of quality, but I do guarantee lots of use of 'To be continued...'

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NanoWrimo 2018 - A Castle In The Dark

This was the first piece of writing I ever attempted, for NanoWrimo 2018. It has many problems, and less than a year later I'm already pretty embarrassed by bits of it - but I'm still proud that I got as far as I did!

34,000 out of 50,000 words isn't a bad effort regardless of quality!


A Castle In The Dark

Chapter 1

The soft yellow lights shone up through the grates by the walkways of the only park on Station 17. They provided just enough light to see by, just enough to illuminate the edges of the deciduous trees that dotted the parkway, and to silhouette the few figures here and there on their way through the park. It was, like most nights on Station 17, a still night. The light breeze only causing some quiet rustling in the grass and trees. It was cold too, as evidenced by the clearly visible breath of the various lonely walkers in the park.
The park had originally been installed as a way to improve morale on the station. A change of scenery, something reminiscent of Earth - or for most on the station, the stories they had been told of Earth. They had gone so far as to model the ground to simulate a natural lightly wooded area, complete with little brooks and rolling hills. A piece of paradise on an otherwise grey and industrial station; or at least that was the intent. Station 17 was far less important now than it had been in its glory days, far less profitable. When the colonisation of near space began in earnest, governments and corporations saw it as a new age, a way to increase their power and profitability without much risk - space was vast after all, and there were fortunes to be made out among the stars. Predictably, they got too greedy, went too far, too fast. Promises and pledges were broken, and far-flung colonies and stations were not viable with the state of space travel - the bubble burst. People and corporations withdrew and eventually formed a more practical new world, a ring of civilisation reasonably maintainable from the Earth, and Mars. Meanwhile, Station 17 which was once a frontier, a gateway to the future - had become a backwater on the edge of inhabited space.
Cassie lay on a bench somewhere near the middle of the park, long coat pulled tight against the night chill. She took a slow pull on a cigarette, savouring it, then gently exhaled. She watched the smoke drift lazily up towards the transparent roof of the station high above. There wasn't an awful lot that Cassie liked about Station 17, it was cold, industrial, poorly lit. Here in the park, however, she almost felt at home. The stars shone down through the skylight high above like a beacon, pointing the way to better things. She sighed, then sat up and cracked her neck. This was Station 17. And she was supposed to be working.
Taking in her surroundings properly she took count of the figures in the park. She had a good vantage from here, her bench was up on a slight hill, giving her a good place to watch for her mark. A small woman walked away from her on the opposite side of the park, towards the exit. Meanwhile, three shadowy men in the centre were engaged in loud conversation; enough that she could almost make out the words. She watched for a while, then jumped as the bushes rattled ahead of her. A squirrel scurried up a tree just in front of her, then stopped and watched her from its bows. A staring contest ensued, until out of the corner of her eye Cassie saw a lone figure in a hat and coat enter from the eastward side of the park. Right on time. She looked back to give a farewell nod to the squirrel and it scampered off up the tree. Cassie smiled, and put the cigarette out between mechanical fingers, tossing it into the gutter as she stalked away through the park.

She made a roundabout route through the park circling the edge so as to come up on the pathway a good distance behind her mark. She didn't intend on being seen tonight. She could make him out from here, a man of average height and build with a woollen hat and a large thick coat. Just a regular joe. It was a routine job - watch him as he goes about his business, report back to her client in the morning. Her client was, in fact, his wife, and his business was an alleged mistress, or so she'd been told. It was shit work - but Station 17 was a dirty old mining station, and she'd take what she could get.
Cassie pulled her chin into her coat collar to keep out the cold. She'd let him get a little too far ahead for comfort - from what her client had told her he had only one aug; his right leg from the knee down. It certainly didn't impede him, as he set a blistering pace through the park. Nervous maybe? There's no way he had seen her yet, but if you're in the business of cheating on your spouse I guess it's natural to be paranoid.
The man set a course out of the opposite side of the park, straight towards the outskirts of the main population area of the station. Station 17 was built as a mining outpost, and that meant that most of the space was taken up by processing facilities, machinery, warehouses, and what the locals referred to as the castle; a gargantuan sky-piercing tower, and the local headquarters of Zenith Industries. Zenith was the only remaining inter-planetary corporation still operating on Station 17; they had stayed for the mines and easy access to raw materials, or so they claimed. All of this meant that there wasn't much room to actually house people, and as in most situations when there just isn't enough ground to go around - people built up. The city was a sprawling mess of cobbled together towers, sky-bridges, and countless corridors and alleyways. It was a multilevel jungle of concrete, metal shafts, and dim yellow lights. In the mess of the city, it was easy to get lost, and some never made it back out.
Her mark exited the park and made for a nearby set of steps up to a bridge across the tram system below. He jogged up the steps and made swift progress, not looking up from the path ahead of him, or checking his surroundings. He knew where he was going, and he had gone there many times before. Cassie momentarily lost sight of him as he descended the other side, but it wasn't far, and she knew the area well.
As Cassie came down the opposite end of the bridge she saw his coat-tail disappear around a corner to her left. As she suspected he was heading toward the red-light district of the city. Cassie turned the corner and as she did so, caught her breath - the footsteps had stopped. Her mark stood ahead, nothing but a shadowy figure from her point of view. She slid back around the corner as she noticed another two men, all in black, just ahead of him. A mugging. Of course; no job was ever simple in this city.
The figures surrounded her mark, one in front, one behind. They didn't intend to leave empty-handed. But Cassie had business with this man, and she sure as hell wasn't going to let a couple of thugs get in the way of her business. Of course, if she wanted to make sure that tonight hadn't been a waste of time she couldn't be seen. But that was okay - she'd just have to call in a favour, and as a private eye Cassie had a whole list of 'favours' to call on. People who owed her. Maybe she'd done some free work for them, maybe they owed her money, or maybe she'd seen something she shouldn't have, and they had bought her silence. Right now Cassie knew just the man.
Cassie immediately called him through her right-eye implant, it had an old-school low tech wireframe display. The best she could afford here on the station, where tech didn't come cheap. His name was Konrad, just Konrad as far as Cassie knew, she'd never heard anyone give him a second name. But sometimes people called him "The Thug", he wasn't quite so bad as the name implied, however. He was really just a landlord, but being a landlord in the outer slums of the city meant more than just collecting rent. Konrad had a whole team of "enforcers" to help keep the peace. The city didn't have a universal police force per-say and so each district had its own way of doing things, of keeping people in line. Konrad was this districts. And he owed Cassie for a little free espionage she had done for him. The tone ended, and a gruff voice answered - it was time to call in the favour.


Minutes later Cassie saw Konrad's enforcers approaching from the other side, across the long straight pathway ahead. The muggers had noticed too, in the time it had taken them to arrive they had managed to get some change off her mark, what they really wanted was his leg - which would have meant killing him. Messy business to get up to in the middle of Konrad's district, and at the first sight of the enforcers approaching down the long corridor they put their knives away and scampered. Amateurs. A more experienced crew would have had him dead and dismembered in seconds. Cassie had seen some impressively efficient butchery in the slums. Well - she wasn't complaining, and her mark sure as hell wasn't.
He continued on now at a much faster rate, he was obviously spooked. He ascended a ladder up to a stairwell just out of sight around a small outcropping in the building ahead, and she followed. This area was much darker than the one below, the neon signs of shop windows gave way to very sparse underfloor lamps that shone up through the midnight fog with a dull but somehow still harsh white light. Then she made her mistake. Cassie took a step at the top of the ladder, right into a puddle of water. She froze, hoping he hadn't heard. She wasn't so lucky. The man immediately spun and saw her with a look of horror on his face. "Shit!", he shouted as he turned and sprinted through the mist.
On any normal night, this would be the point at which she would give up. You can't usually get the intel you need from a mark that knows you're coming. Tonight, however, Cassie was desperate; she was low on funds - she needed this money. "Shit." she agreed, as she threw herself into a run.

Chapter 2

The man - she hadn't been told his name - made off so fast that Cassie could barely keep up. He led her on a long chase through sharp turns and corridors in the vast maze-like slums of the outer city. The rain-slick pavement splashed below Cassie's feet as she struggled to keep him in sight. He was moving so quickly and with such conviction that he had to have a destination in mind, and it wasn't the red light district as Cassie had thought. The area they were in now was wholly unfamiliar to her, you could wander the endless corridors through the heights and depths of this part of the city for years and still not see it all. Her mark, on the other hand, was having no problems navigating; of the countless dead ends she had passed, he had not gotten caught in any, choosing his path without hesitation as easily as an evening stroll home. She had been losing ground the whole way and finally, exhausted and out-run Cassie lost sight of him completely. This corridor was long and wet, and by the time she got to the end he would be long gone. In situations like this, Cassie knew there were only two options: give up or take a risk. She wasn't one for giving up.
There was a ladder on her left that led up through the light low lying mist that covered the city at night, she didn't know what was up there, or if she could get down again to cut her mark off - but it was worth a shot. Clambering up the ladder she found herself on a flat roof section - the dim lights of the city below gave way to night up here and it was difficult to make out the ground beneath her feet. At the opposite end of the roof was a sudden drop into nothingness, with a sloped roof on the other side that ended in a short flat section and a ladder down - perfect, assuming she could make the jump. Well, she was here now - she took a run up and long coat billowing, took a leap into the night.
Cassie landed hard on the opposite rooftop, too hard, and started to roll down the slanted roof. She was accelerating at an alarming rate but all attempts to slow herself proved ineffective on the slick sheet-metal roofing. She came down onto the small pathway and, continued straight off into the void. Panicking, arms flailing for something she felt the side of the ladder slip into her palm and gripped hard, then came crashing into the side of the building with a thud. She was going to feel that in the morning.
She clambered onto the ladder and taking a moment to catch her breath saw a shadow walking along the pathway just below her - her mark. He obviously thought he had lost her. He was standing in a dead end alleyway now, in front of an inconspicuous door with a sliding peep-hole. Cassie saw him knock twice, then wait. She slowly descended the ladder, staying as quiet as possible. She was perched now on a rooftop just overlooking the pathway, no more than a short drop down to the corridor-like pathway itself.
The man waited even longer, then, seeming nervous, knocked again. Cassie could just make out his mutterings of "Please, please, I lost her, just let me in, please, fuck.". Cassie no longer believed that this was a simple cheating spouse case. Her interest piqued, she leaned back into the shadows of the rooftop.
After several minutes of knocking, muttering, and nervous glances the man did something that shocked her. He slid down, back against the building, and broke into tears. This case was getting more interesting by the minute. The man stopped crying as suddenly as he had begun and stood up slowly, he was breathing heavily now, and had begun speaking quietly under his breath again; "No, no, no, no..." over and over again, as a man possessed. He began to walk back the way he had come in silence at a slow trudging pace. Once he turned the corner Cassie immediately lowered herself to the ground and walked after him, careful to stay quiet. When she turned the corner she noticed the man had begun breathing with an even heavier, laboured cadence, as though suffering some disease of the lungs, he was still muttering but his voice had grown deeper. Confused Cassie let him make some distance on her, she wasn't sure what she was getting into anymore. The man walked straight away from her towards a nearby set of stairs, but as he went his walking pace slowed and his posture deteriorated until he was limping, when he reached the stairs he fell to his knees and began to crawl down, all while quietly raving "No, no no, no, no no no". Cassie watched in horror from a shadowed outcropping near the top of the stairs as a black substance seeped from the man's clothing, and his body seemed to...dissolve, into nothing but a black tar-like substance, dripping through the stairwells grating. Cassie hung back, eyes wide with disbelief. Then froze. There was someone else here. A tapping on metal above her head, she heard an intake of breath, and a patter like rain on a window as it moved along the wall above her, down toward the stairs. In sudden abject terror, Cassie didn't move an eyeball. She stared straight ahead, barely breathing; until a dark shadow passed across her vision and landed without sound beside the remains of her mark on the stairwell. A sound like sniffing, and it jumped and was gone again, leaving behind nothing. It had taken the mans clothing and somehow, disposed of his tarry remains.
For what felt like hours Cassie didn't move, and barely let in a breath, listening to the silence of this remote height of the slum she had found herself in. Finally, she sunk to her knees and let out a long relieved breath. She didn't want to be here any longer than she had to, but this case had suddenly, and dramatically changed. If there some kind of creature stalking the slums of the city Cassie had to know about it. This was her city after all, and as a private eye, it was her business to know all there was to know about it.
With great effort, she made to her feet and, pulling her coat tight around her, stalked slowly down the stairs. It must have left something, you can't get rid of an entire human that quickly with no trace. Cassie got down into a crouch and drew her fingers across the punched metal of the stairway. It was still warm. A sudden surge of vomit rushed from her stomach as she thought of what had been in this spot not long before, and she drew her fingers back as if burned. Forcing it back and standing up she saw a tiny glint on the ground below, directly under the stairwell. Intrigued she made her way down and picked it out. It was a tiny chip, seemingly undamaged; the creature must have missed it when it dropped down below. Inspecting it she saw no recognisable marks - and she didn't have the expertise to tell what it was for, but it was something and so she carefully placed it in her inner pocket. It would need to inspected by a pro, and she knew just the guy. After another few minutes inspecting what she felt with growing certainty was a murder scene, she put her hands in her pockets and walked briskly away.
On her way back to her office Cassie chewed over what she had seen. She had taken a good look at the wall the creature had slithered up - it had left no marks, and there was nothing left of what less than an hour ago was a man. Nothing but the chip in her pocket anyway. She had never seen or heard of anything like this. It was all too surreal; a mysterious door, a melting man, and a shadow in the dark. She wasn't sure what it all meant. Not yet. But she would make it her job to find out. This night had not gone the way she had expected, and she wouldn't be able to collect the payment that she so desperately needed. She felt like she had lost. She wasn't the only one that had lost that night. So it was in this labyrinthine mess of concrete and sheet metal they called the city; you won some, and you lost more than most would like. Cassie hated losing. She made her way back down through the dark rooftop alleys of the slums, down to the flickering neon lights of shop fronts below. Mind racing in that way that only happens when fully engrossed in thought. She stopped herself on a sky bridge and looked out over the cityscape, dim white lights and fog, speckled with brightly coloured advertising screens and neon shop signs. Flocks of delivery drones flew like silent starlings in the rich northern side of the city. The stars shone down from above, a reminder that despite what she had seen tonight this city was but a spec of dust in the cosmos. Cassie breathed deeply, and as she watched her breath fade away in the crisp night air she smiled a grimace. This was what she had wanted after all. Something to break the monotony of the never-ending tide of cheating spouses and familial disputes. She had a new case.

Chapter 3

Cassie started awake. The grey light of morning shone in her eyes through half-closed shutters. As the previous night's events came back to her she relaxed back into the cushion of her office sofa. She was sprawled one leg up on the arm of the couch, the other on the floor, arm trailing over the side. Her short red hair was covering her eyes but she didn't have the will to move, not yet. She lay in a comatose state, staring up at the ceiling fan as it circled in a constant speed sending dust particles dancing through the sunbeams. Combined with the constant "thomp" of the air it was quite mesmerising. Perfect for distracting a private eye with too much on her mind and not enough whiskey in her bloodstream. As the ceiling fan continued its cyclical beat she began to process what had happened. In the darkness of the previous night, wandering the slums of the outer city it had all seemed to make sense; sure it had been terrifying, but it had seemed to fit the strange puzzle of Station 17. Somehow, in the stark light of day, the whole thing seemed all the more sinister and unsettling. Cassie had been a private eye for four years, she'd spent that time building up a reputation in the city; the hard-boiled detective that could solve any mystery - and after a while, she had started to believe it herself. Enough time spent faking competence and eventually her bravado had turned into real grit. In the past four years she had tangled with all sorts, from finding lost pets to facing down gang bosses. There were all sorts of rumours about her now, some said she was an ex-marine and that she hid her combat augs under the skin, others said she was the daughter of Zenith Industries reclusive president or even the president herself, there were even crazier rumours that she was some kind of new-tech android spy from earth. None of these were true of course, but she liked to encourage them - all the better to keep her head on her shoulders. After all, if there was a chance that the small woman causing you trouble was any of these things it would probably be better to just tell her what she wants to know right? It was a dangerous game she played, like balancing on a knife-edge. One day she knew she would push the wrong person too hard and she'd end up dead, in a gutter somewhere, or dissolved in a vat of acid. Cassie didn't much care though, the thrill of the chase was too much a part of her raison d'etre, she had tasted the excitement of a great case and the flavour was too sweet to abandon now.
Cassie sat up taking a deep breath and rubbed her face. She was still wearing her clothes from the previous night, complete with her long coat. Looking around her office - well, it was really her apartment. A single room and a bathroom comprised the entirety of her living space, it wasn't much - but it was a roof and four walls. The rent was extortionate, but living in the city proper, getting out of the slums made it easily worth it. She looked over at her desk, strewn with empty bottles and mugs. There were old books littering the shelves on the right-hand side of the front door ahead of her, and a bunch of old arm components lying haphazardly in the opposite corner. She'd get around to cleaning the place someday - just, maybe not today.
Standing up with some effort she groaned as the dizziness hit her. Cassie liked to drink when she was thinking about her cases, and when she wanted to stop thinking about her cases. So most of the time really. Collapsing back down on the sofa she picked up the jar at her feet and gave it a shake. Whiskey - though not as much as there should be. She took a swig and forced herself up and over to the bathroom.
As she stood under the hot water of her shower, steam rising around her, her mind began to race. She had one solid lead in the chip she took from the scene. Other than that she could try approaching the victim's wife again, maybe get something useful out of her. Trying to milk information from a grieving widow seemed a little tasteless, however, and it wasn't something she felt she could handle today. The chip then. Cassie had minimal knowledge of hardware, just about enough to keep her arm in good working order and nothing else. As she stood under the shower she inspected the chip once again, using the 3d scan her eye implant had created in her heads-up display. She spent the best part of half an hour rotating and inspecting it from every angle, zooming in on details, looking for anything she recognised. In the end, however, she just didn't have the know-how. Stepping out of the shower into a towel, the only information she had gleaned was that it was probably part of a cerebral implant. Cerebral implants affected the functioning of the brain, they were dangerous things - an implant like that was meant to enhance human mental processes or to make you think differently in some way. Often they changed the person using them in irreversible ways regardless of their intended effects, and they were much feared, and even outlawed in certain sectors for their potential ability to be abused to encourage people to favour certain ideologies or foster cult-like obedience. Even if the chip had been installed by a reputable professional for a legitimate purpose, it could still be compromised by a skilled hacker, and depending on the mastery of the attacker in the worst case scenario an attacker could theoretically use the host as a human puppet, causing them to think, do or believe whatever the puppeteer desired.
It was possible that this chip hid some useful leads. If she took it to the right person they could probably tell what it's original purpose was, how it was used. They might even be able to figure out if the chip was compromised, and with luck even who did the compromising. Luckily, Cassie knew just the guy to ask. Whether or not he'd be willing to help was another question altogether. Cassie got dressed and checked herself in the mirror. Dark brown ankle height boots, the kind men usually wore, with a low heel - easier to run in; a pair of well-fitted slacks, loose dark blue shirt - the thick type, sleeves rolled up to the elbows and a couple of buttons undone; she had an image to uphold after all. With her short red hair brushed and out of her face she was quite pretty. Pretty doesn't fly in a hard-boiled detective however, so she spent a second practising her glare. Finally, she picked up her coat from the desk chair, brushed it off and slung it over her shoulder. She was ready to go. She took a second as she left, picking up an industrial looking syringe on her desk. The syringe was filled with an opaque white liquid, flicking it with her finger she injected it into a port on her augmented arm. The liquid was supposed to prevent her body from rejecting the augmentations; which could have disastrous, sometimes fatal results, depending on where the aug was positioned in the body. It was how the big megacorps made their money. The masses wanted, (or rather, needed - for jobs, or quality of life) the enhanced abilities that came with augmentation. In order to prevent the augs killing them, they had to buy the anti-rejection stuff the companies sold them. The juice commanded a high price. A nice little racket for the men in suits; not so nice for those that couldn't pay. If you couldn't buy the stuff from the official channels you had to go black-market, and who knew what you were getting there. Stories circulated of the awful effects of black market juice. From dissolving internal organs to zombified brains, exploding eyeballs, you name it. For some however, there was no other choice. The corps provided both the jobs and the augs, the money they paid out in jobs sent right back in exchange for juice. A beautiful system, a money-making machine. For the chosen few. There were some allegations a few years ago that Zenith was artificially inducing rejection symptoms in order to sell more juice, and that they and some of the other corps were reducing the performance of older augs to get people to upgrade; crippling their wallets and their bodies in one swoop. There was a short-lived court case before tragedy struck and the main prosecutor was conveniently found dead; apparently, both of his eyes had exploded - rejection. Cassie recalled the papers reporting on it, along with statements from Zenith where they expressed their oh so genuine sadness at the death of a man who had only wanted justice. They said that despite the court case being at a standstill they would investigate internally to ensure there was no "foul play" going on. How good of them. Cassie dropped the syringe in the disposal unit by the door and took one last look around her dusty apartment before stalking out into the city.

Chapter 4

Cassie walked through the rain-slick streets with the tenacity of a person who knew exactly where she was going. She was excited, and she wanted to keep on the chase while the trail was still fresh. The city in daylight projected a very different image from itself during the night. In the working class area of the city where Cassie lived colourful advertisements and shop signs lost the luster brought about by stark contrast with the night, replacing a predatory neon jungle with a depressing metropolitan cityscape. The rain didn't help, coating everything with a grey reflective sheen, combined with the fresh smell that comes with the rain it all added up to evoke a feeling of muted otherworldly detachment. Being artificial as it was, one would have assumed the weather could be controlled fully to represent whatever state people wanted, in practise however the weather on Station 17 was a mixture of grey skies, rainy days, and dark cold nights. Cassie continued on through the crowds in the wide main street her apartment looked out on, people of all sorts passed her as they went about their business. On Station 17 the laws regarding human augmentation were almost non-existent, and so whereas on Earth and some other colonies certain mods were highly regulated in the city of Station 17 you could find people on all extremes of body modification. Cassie passed some people with extra arms, a third eye, a few with strange many-legged configurations and one person with no legs at all. Most of the weirder aug profiles were fashion statements, for shock value, or artistic expression. Lounging around a nearby street food stall was a group of enforcers either from Zenith, or an ex-military local vigilante group. Some of them had entirely cybernetic eyes, and they all had fully augmented torsos and limbs. Special military grade hardware the lot of it, not the kind of thing you could find on the street. Cassie continued on passed them towards her destination. There had been more and more enforcers on the street lately, at least in the slightly richer area of the working class district. That was a good thing in some ways, there was almost no risk of being attacked by thugs or mindpirates here during the day, and you were quite safe. So long as you stayed on the right side of the law. However with the governance of the city as broken as it was, it was difficult to know just when you were on the right side of the 'law'. The slums were virtually lawless save for private landlord enforcement such as what Konrad was doing, essentially they were run by mafia-esque gangs, some better than others in terms of the rights of the people. The middle-class districts were mostly looked after by the companies, of which Zenith was by far the largest remaining. The middle-class districts 'supposedly' followed Earth-law, as Station 17 was 'supposedly' Earth territory still. The law was kept by the companies and enforcer groups in theory, but in practise, and so far from the Earth and its institutions what was against the law mostly came down to what was convenient or as it may be, inconvenient for Zenith industries. The upper-class areas were an entirely different thing altogether in some cases. These areas were made up of vast estates protected by armies of private guards, while technically the law still applied as anywhere else; no one was going to help you if you got caught on the wrong side of some rich bastard on his own estate. There were some other interesting figures on the streets of the city, Station 17 was one of the few areas in the system where you might find fully unsupervised androids walking the streets. Most jurisdictions required that androids be monitored 24/7 in case they made erroneous decisions, and android intelligence was something that was not yet fully trusted or even recognised. In Cassie's experience this view was pretty justified; you wouldn't get much in the way of a conversation out of an android, and they had an extremely unsettling singlemindedness when going about their tasks. Some enforcement agencies and militaries used them to bolster their forces, either as regular forces or taking advantage of their extreme dedication to a task to put them to work in a similar way that one might use hounds to chase down prey. If you were being hunted by a group of droids, there wasn't much an average human could do.
Finally, Cassie came up to her destination. A small, dingy looking shop with windows so filled with mechanical components and augs that you could barely see in. She pushed through the old wooden door into a musty hardware shop. On her right sitting in the corner was a huge old school robotic dog, unskinned with wires hanging out the sides like entrails. It was the owner's little project Cassie knew, and he had been working on it intermittently for years. Cassie continued straight up to the counter and leaned against it, pinging the bell four times with a little rhythmic beat. A voice called out from a lit backroom, with the poignant smell of burning hair coming from it, "Gimmie a minute!". She could hear a series of muttered curses followed by progressively louder grunts and finally a loud clang coming from the little back room. The source of the sounds was the owner, his name was Andrezj and he was always tinkering. Cassie had become good friends with him over the years, he was an old guy, but he was a good sort. The kind of person that's old enough and has seen enough hardship in the world over the years that they can't bear to add to it, and would bend over backwards to make people happy. Like a man deeply repentant for some dark deed. Cassie didn't know if that was the case or not, and didn't much care; she liked Andrezj - she just had a terrible habit of seeing the bad in people, real or imagined.
The tall, but robust looking man ducked under the low doorway of the back workroom. He had a perpetual grey stubble on his weathered face, and an augmented eye; the older kind with a faceplate and an opaque flat lens rather than a more human-like eyeball. He smiled as he approached, overalls unbuttoned on one side flapping as he waved a hand in a casual gesture, an old grey shirt showing underneath stained with oil. "Cassie my friend, it's been a while since you've come to the shop!", he gave her a solid friendly pat on the shoulder. He was one of the few people Cassie found it hard to play her usual character in front of - his friendliness was so disarming. She beamed "It's been too long - I've been busy, you know. The life of a private eye isn't easy!".
"Ah yes, fighting crime, cleaning up the streets one day at a time am I right?" he chuckled and Cassie gave a reserved shrug "eh, something like that".
He sighed with a smile "I know you have a tough time out there.". Andrezj stepped back and tapped the counter with a glint in his eye, "But you always bring the most interesting stuff, what is it you have for me today?". Cassie fished in her coat pockets for the chip she had found the night before, bringing it out in between her fingers and holding it up like a playing card, "This." she said and placed it on the counter. "Hmm, looks like a cerebral chip, where'd you get it?" he asked with an inquisitive tone, raising an eyebrow. Cassie shifted uncomfortably, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you." she said flatly. He grunted "Fair enough, I know when not to ask too many questions.". He picked up the chip and held it up to the light peering through it, "I can tell you something you probably already knew. The owner of this chip would not have survived its removal, that is sure.". Cassie shifted uncomfortably "I didn't kill him, just to be clear. I'm a private eye, not a gunslinger.". He smiled at that, "Oh I know, what I meant was that it looks like it had some kind of kill switch, and it seems that the switch has been triggered. It's hard to tell what it does exactly without a deeper look, but whoever implanted this was definitely nervous about something.". He glanced back from the chip to Cassie, "Kill switches are serious business. You don't ever want one unless you have something terrible to hide, the risk of accidental activation is too great. What was this guy, some kind of spy?", he checked himself "Never mind. I don't want to know.".
"Is it possible to tell what it did exactly, it wasn't just a kill switch - was it?", asked Cassie. "Well no, it wasn't just a kill switch.", he pursed his lips as if deep in thought. "There are no clues externally, but there is a way I can try to figure out what it was for.". Andrezj blew out a deep breath and sighed, "Oh boy, but you really do bring the most interesting things.". He smiled, "Don't stop doing that, it keeps me going you know!", Cassie gave a smirk. "Well," he turned and gestured, "come on, let's see if we can't figure this thing out!".
Andrezj led Cassie through to his workroom, which was remarkably well organised. The room contained lots of drawer-shelves filled with all manner of tools all clicked in to little clamps that held them down. Apart from a few obviously in use tools, everything was well maintained and in its place, a stark contrast to the shop front outside; it was clear that this is where Andrezj's true passion lay. The room was narrow and long with a tall workbench against the wall on each side, and a couple of tall stools at each. As Cassie entered her eyes were immediately drawn to the human-like shell in the middle of the right-hand bench in front of her. The shell was essentially the internal elements of an android torso and head, but without the skin or arms, it was meant for testing various configurations, with easily accessible internals for swapping and diagnosing issues with certain components. Cassie was no techie, but she guessed that this shell was running only a rudimentary OS, as to use a live android intelligence would be controversial, to say the least. Android intelligence and self-awareness were not fully accepted, but there were some very passionate groups on both sides of the argument, and they were no strangers to violent clashes.
Andrezj sat himself down in front of the shell, and Cassie followed. Up close the shell was quite haunting, it sat like a man flayed on his worktop, jaw hanging open, empty eyes staring soullessly towards the heavens. Andrezj didn't seem to notice though and gave it a hefty pat on its artificial shoulder. "This is my other friend Cassie, I call him Terry, but he is a man of few words you see?", he gave a chuckle and gestured to the stool next to him. "Terry here is my beautiful assistant, together we will perform a magic show for you!", Cassie sat down and replied, "If Terry could tell me what's on my card I'd be very impressed.".
"Hah, an easy job for Andrezj and Terry.", he gently fingered around on the shells brain, and gripped, slowly pulling out a section of the brain, like an orange segment the once perfectly smooth grey metal object in the brain cavity revealed its separation lines and slid out gently. Andrezj carefully placed it on a special anti-static sheet, outer side down, revealing a host of tiny metal pins and interface areas. With large but surprisingly nimble fingers he gently pushed down on a nondescript section and it slowly rose out from the rest of the section. The little drawer like port contained an indented area about the size of the chip Cassie had found the night before. Gingerly Andrezj placed the chip in the slot and pushed it back into the rest of the section, before placing it back on the brain mass and pushing it in with a satisfying click. The section merged perfectly back into the rest of the brain, with no indication that it was ever a separable piece at all.
Andrezj flicked the switch, connected to a thick bundle of cable originating in the bottom of the torso and disappearing down behind the bench. "Let's see what this thing does then.", he said with a curious tone. The head of the torso jolted as power began to run through it and a shared AR display appeared on our individual HUDs, connecting to the shell and spitting out a long line of diagnostic messages in a glowing red text, streaming down through Cassie's vision. "Just getting through the boot cycle, nothing unusual here." said Andrezj. Finally, the endless lines stopped and were replaced by a single dot, it flashed once, then twice, with a delay just long enough to keep you wondering if something had broken, then a third time before coming to a stop with a terminal. "Okay, one second.", muttered Andrezj as he began typing in the air on an AR keyboard that also appeared in Cassie's vision, his fingers stopping as they bottomed out each virtual key, their muscle action being altered by a general purpose AR aug chip Andrezj had installed, perfectly mimicking the tactility of a physical object. Cassie had one too, almost everyone did nowadays, you could get by without one, but it was like trying to walk without ears. You'd keep losing your balance in the world. Cassie's chip had malfunctioned a few years back, and having to go without for a few days was so debilitating and she could do so little without struggle that she ended up spending those days on her couch watching old-timey TV shows.
Andrezj finished typing with a clack of his enter key and the keyboard dissolved in the air, as he did so the eyes of the shell in front of them began to glow and the jaw clamped shut, its' head rising from a lolling hang into a neutral position looking dead ahead. "There we are, up and running, now I've run some basic test and he's running with normal, neutral behaviours and decision-making bias. Let me see what happens if I activate your chip.", a couple more key clacks as the keyboard reappeared for a few seconds, and Andrezj sat back, looking a little confused, "Huh.". Cassie raised an eyebrow, "What is it?". Andrezj furrowed his brow and took a second before answering "It has done...nothing.". After a moments consideration he continued; "Let me check the diagnostics, it is rare that a chip like this would not directly change some behaviours.", he continued muttering under his breath, "Perhaps with a verbose debug switch...". Andrezj continued typing away, lost in his work, but Cassie was beginning to get anxious. If this chip didn't give her a solid lead she would be almost completely in the dark. She didn't like being in the dark, especially not with a case like this, not with some strange creature wandering the city. She could try and scope out that door again, the one her late mark had tried to get inside. That seemed too headstrong though, Cassie preferred to gather information, learn what she was getting in to rather than go in guns blazing. Besides, who knew what was behind that door; if things got heated she knew she wouldn't stand much chance in a fight with no backup. Still, she might wait, maybe she could tail someone leaving. If she watched the door long enough someone was bound to leave. Right? Lost in thought, Cassie was jolted awake suddenly by a screeching electronic scream coming from the shell, eyes glowing with a blinding white light, as it cried a piercing, "AHHH-". Cut short suddenly as Andrezj pulled the plug, his face gone white as a dying man. He turned slowly to Cassie and they gawped at each other. After a second Andrezj slowly formed a sentence; "You won't believe this.".
Cassie, shocked and shaken, but strangely relieved replied, "Tell me anyway.". The man began to stand up and reversed the process he had performed earlier as he did so, removing the chip from the shells brain, talking as he did so. "Your chips kill switch did not entirely work. It should have wiped itself at the end of the process. Something stopped it prematurely, leaving most of the data intact.", he continued, "This was lucky for you in some ways, had it finished you would have gleaned nothing from this chip.". Having finished the removal process, he stopped and held out his hand with chip towards Cassie, "However," he said in a serious tone, it unsettled her, she had never seen him speak like this, "what is contained on this chip is a travesty. It should not have been done and is certainly not legal, nor acceptable.".
Confused she didn't take the chip immediately, "I don't understand - what could be so terrible?", she asked hesitantly. Andrezj sighed and spoke with a resigned sadness, "What is on this chip is the result of a terrible process, it's the kind of thing you tell small children to keep them from spending too long plugged into the soulnet.", he paused and held her gaze, "They have tried to splice multiple minds together, the chip containing one, the host another - to create a kind of digital chimera. Two minds ripped apart and fused together. I can't imagine what they're trying to achieve, but the pain and confusion would have been unbearable. This is a fate worse than death.". Cassie reached out grasping the chip, but he didn't let go, locking eyes with her he spoke slowly, "You need to find the people responsible for this. There are a thousand victims behind this single success. This is not the kind of thing you get right on the first try. It cannot continue.". Cassie met his gaze and replied, "I don't intend to let it.", as she spoke, she knew that she meant it.
Cassie left the shop, mind racing. She needed a drink. She wandered aimlessly down the wide main street for a while, going over everything she had learned. The chip contained a fraction of a mind. That is a human consciousness; and all the memories, experiences, passions, and quirks that come with it. When people spoke about a mind, they meant all the things that came together to create what a person was, bar their physical form. It was their essence, and this persons mind had been ripped and torn. She knew what she had to do, but she didn't want to do it. Cassie's only option to stand a chance of finding the people behind this was to load up this mind in a sandbox. To bring it into existence again, to experience its pain once more in a virtual world. She couldn't risk using a physical body, after all - who knew what this, thing, this fragment of a person was capable of.

Chapter 5

The streets were quieter now as Cassie sat sipping coffee at a little coffee shop by the side of the street. The morning rush had subsided as people went about their daily routines. She liked to sit here and watch the people go by when she had a difficult problem to solve, it was soothing, almost meditative. Sometimes she'd spot an interesting figure in the crowd and try to guess what they were doing, where they had come from, maybe give them a little backstory. It helped exercise her detective's instincts, but mostly it was a distraction. That's not a bad thing, Cassie needed her distraction from time to time. Sometimes, when you think about something too hard, pursue a thought too eagerly, it becomes harder and harder to see the answer. Then you might be in the shower one day and the answer will appear clear as day in your head like its the most obvious thing the world. People watching was like a shower for Cassie. However, this problem she feared would have no easy answers.
She needed to find out more, get a lead she could follow. Find the people committing these atrocities. To do that she would need to somehow communicate, or otherwise glean information from the mind fragment on the chip she found. But even ignoring the pain that would cause to what was left of the person, it would likely be impossible to make sense of it in the best case, and in the worst it would immediately attack her, crazed from its torture. Cassie sat for a while watching the shadows lengthen. Station 17 rotated in such a way as to simulate a regular day-night cycle on earth, and with that came beautiful sunsets. Cassie, however, was not watching the sunset. She was far away in her mind, and she knew what she had to do. Regardless of the result or the odds of success, she would have to interrogate this mind, and she had to do it now. She stood up, fixed her coat, and walked off into the red light of dusk.
She had spent the better part of three hours considering the best way to go about this, turning the problem over in her head. Still, she had no good answer. As is so often the case with these things, she had confused a difficult problem with a difficult task. It was a simple problem with a simple solution. It was the doing of it that was difficult. Cassie strode through the city now with a sense of purpose. She knew she had to face this head on and so she would. Right now. The hour of dusk was still. Eerily so. Like the whole world had been waiting for Cassie to make her decision, and was now watching eagerly from afar. She slowed as her destination came into view. The Soul Society. Essentially an internet cafe, but not quite just that. The Soul Society was where you went if the world or circumstances you were born into weren't quite what you had hoped. It was the place people went when they felt their real lives were over, or pointless, worthless. Some saw services such as The Soul Society offered as like a drug addiction, or some other coping mechanism. Others thought it was a legitimate choice, a way to choose a new life, a new destiny. In reality, it was both of these and something else. People would come to The Soul Society, check themselves in, hook into the network, and never leave. The idea being that you could live a new life, choose one of the many virtual worlds and join a society more to your liking, be free to choose your life rather than be born into it. The services provided by the Soul Society and other cafes like it were to take care of your physical body so you wouldn't have to unplug, so you wouldn't die from starvation or just plain neglect. The dream of a life you could choose was powerful, and many unfortunates flocked to these places. They would more often than not find that a virtual society still needed to function, and that meant someone had to do the dirty work. Even a virtual world needs people to work the fields or clean toilets.
Cassie entered through the long dark corridor. It was like an alleyway down to the underworld. The sign above the entrance was different to most establishments on the station, having eschewed bright neon for bold black on white lettering, etched into metal. Thick cables were visible on either side, strung together in bunches like writhing snakes. Cassie thought it was an interesting aesthetic choice for a place that purported to offer a better life, she'd have thought they would want to lure people in, rather than provide a physical reality to their often figurative darkness. She came to the end of the corridor which then opened out on to a lobby area. It was very quiet, the only sound was the omniscient low hum of computers around the walls. Cassie could see a single figure, feet up on the welcome desk, apparently sleeping. She had come to this place because she needed two things in order to perform her little interrogation. A sandboxed system, to ensure her evidence didn't escape into the vastness of the soulnet, and someone to pull her out if things went wrong. Cassie didn't have enough processing power in her office-apartment, and she didn't make friends easily. She had friendly acquaintances sure, like Andrezj but she had always found it frustratingly difficult to engage with others, to forge real relationships. She found it impossible to ask for small things, like a drinking partner, never mind something like this. So she gave up on trying, and married herself to her work.
Cassie strode up to the counter, leaning against it. After waiting for some seconds she gave the bell a good hammering, and the man behind the desk immediately jumped up, falling out of his chair. Just some kid, probably working here in his free time in between classes to save up enough to get off this god-forsaken junk heap. Picking up his glasses the young guy jumped up and with an embarrassed grin asked "Ah, sorry about that, how can I help you miss?". He looked to be in his early twenties, Cassie wasn't a whole lot older, but she couldn't help but be a little jealous of his youth. He didn't need to care about anything, he'd complete his studies and be out of here in a few years, meanwhile, she'd still be drinking herself to death and spying on cheating spouses.
She pulled herself away from that line of thought - she didn't know this guy or his life; everyone has their struggles. "I need a temporary sandbox, can you do that? It would need enough processing power for two, and completely cut off from the wider soulnet." she asked with a sigh. The guy behind the desk looked a little bit puzzled, "Uh, yeah. Not what I was expecting. Most people don't come here for that sort of thing but we can do it. How long do you need it for?".
"Not long." replied Cassie, "A couple' hours at most. And I need someone to watch me, pull me out if my mind starts to go haywire. Could you do that for me?". He smiled and cocked his head, "Of course, yeah. I have a machine set up as it happens - so I can get you on whenever you're ready.". He paused, then continued with a grin; "This sounds dangerous - if you need a chaperone, mind filling me in?".
Cassie frowned, "Yeah I do mind.".
Five minutes later and Cassie was being guided through a corridor with countless offshoot lanes, filled with residents of the Soul Society. Suspended from the ceiling in harnesses, their bodies supported by a series of straps. Countless thick cables hung from their mouths and neck like the tendrils of some long forgotten creature of the deep. Looking at them now, thin bodies and sunken eyes, it was hard to imagine the lives their minds were experiencing in the soulnet. Finally, they came to a free bay with an unoccupied harness. "Here we are, so since it's only an hour or two we don't need the feeding tubes. You have a neck port right?", Cassie did, just like almost every other citizen born in the last 50 years. The only ones that didn't have one were purists (or those that had purist parents) that opposed the digitisation of the human species. "Yeah, is there a port for this guy?", she showed him the chip for the first time. "Universal interface? Yeah that's no problem.", he took the chip and inserted it into a port in the wall. Sitting in the harness Cassie felt like a deep-sea diver about to plunge into depths unknown, with no support, and no way of escaping should she run out of oxygen. But she had a job to do. "Plug me in.", she grabbed the attendant by the arm and pulled him toward her. "And if you want paid, you won't take your eyes off me when I'm in there.".

Chapter 6

As Cassie plugged herself into the machine she felt a sudden jolt, then a strange sensation. It was that sort of mildly terrifying feeling you get when you wake up, and can see, but are unable to move - you're paralysed. In that moment Cassie was a resident of her body, but she was not its owner. Slowly her vision faded to black as she grew steadily more tired, then finally she was gone, her body limp.
Cassie opened her eyes to a blinding blank whiteness. She had told the attendant to prepare a neutral environment for her interrogation, but this was taking it a little far. Fortunately, after a short delay, the white nothingness surrounding her turned to a sandy beach, with gently lapping waves, a bright sun overhead and open inland fields, dotted with little trees. Cassie spent a few minutes taking in her surroundings, the scent of the ocean reminding her of summer days and good whiskey. It was beautiful. The beach went on forever, and the dry sand flowed like a ribbon all the way to the horizon. She had never seen the sea before, and it took her breath away. The long thin leaves on the strange little trees flapped gently in the wind, and the grassy fields waved back and forth like hair on the head of a sleeping giant. Cassie looked up at the sun and smiled. She'd see this one day, for real. On Earth. She could get off this rock. See the real beauty out there. Feel the sand between her toes. She just needed to finish this job first. Still wearing her long coat and boots she felt a little bit out of place, but strangely the temperature didn't seem to affect her, she felt just right regardless of her clothes - likely a feature of the sandbox she had been placed in. She looked down at her hand, which was holding a small glass slate with a terminal on it. Thankfully she had admin privileges here, so even if the thing in the chip attacked her, she'd be able to pause the whole simulation at a seconds notice. It was time. Casting all other thoughts from her mind, she took a deep breath, and entered the commands to load up the mind from her chip.
Nothing changed. The still quiet continued to dominate as the lapping waves caressed the shoreline. Cassie took a stroll down the beach. She had not specified where she wanted the new mind to appear in the simulation. She didn't know what sort of state it was in, and so doing so posed the risk of setting it off - something she wanted to avoid at all costs. She needed to try and make it comfortable, if she knew more she could have tried to choose an environment that brought back good memories to the mind. She didn't however, so she went with this beautiful beach in the hopes that it would inspire feelings of calm and safety in it. Call her a pessimist, but Cassie didn't have much hope for that.
She slowly walked along the beach, letting the water lap around her feet. She saw it now, in the distance. The mind had manifest as a young girl. She was making sand castles, digging a moat to fortify them against the rising tides, it was such a picture of innocence and childhood joy that it caught Cassie off guard. For a moment she forgot what it was she stuck in there with. Certainly not the child it appeared to be.
Cassie stood and watched for a while. The child, or child-like entity seemed perfectly content fortifying its little sand castles as the waves caressed their walls. Something wasn't right. The mind should be in a state of pure chaos. Yet here it was building sandcastles. Cassie approached slowly from a distance. The attendant had told her of a command to end the simulation immediately, and she nervously typed it into her little glass terminal - ready to execute should anything go wrong. Cassie took a few more steps, she wasn't far away now. As she slowly stepped closer the child's head snapped up with an unnatural quickness, staring straight at her. Cassie froze, and so did the girl. They stared at each other for seemed like an age. Slowly, Cassie overcame her fear, and presented her hands palms out, in a non-threatening gesture towards the girl. The child's staring eyes moved in an unsettling way, smoothly down from Cassie's eyes to her hands, and fixated there. "Hands." said the girl. Cassie opened her mouth but didn't know what to say, before she made up her mind the child continued. "Hair. Boots. Coat. Face. Woman. Person.", she was staring right at Cassie again now. "Human.". The girl stood up suddenly, eyes not leaving the Cassie's own, looking through her almost. She began to walk steadily towards Cassie, silent now.
When the girl was close enough to touch, she finally stopped, completely still. She was still staring at Cassie's eyes now, and she was close enough that Cassie could hear her soft breathing over sounds of the lapping waves. The girl continued staring, then spoke, with the same expressionless tone she had before, "I don't know you.". They stared at each other for another while, until Cassie finally generated the willpower to force words from her dry throat, "No. I'm a visitor. Would you like to be friends?". The girl did not move a muscle, and replied, emotionlessly, "Friends. No.", she shook her head. "I don't need that.". She turned on the spot and walked back to her sandcastles. Cassie let out a breath that she felt like she'd been holding for hours. Then she followed the girl at a relaxed pace. No need to give her any reason to get agitated. Cassie watched as the girl went right back to digging a moat around her little castles. There was no sign of pleasure or emotion in her actions. She just continued about her work like it was the only thing in the world. She didn't look at her, or further acknowledge Cassie's presence. She just worked. "What's your name?", Cassie needed to start somewhere, and this was as good a place as any. "I don't know.". The girl didn't even look up. It didn't know what its name was. Cassie had to find out what kind of state it was in. "Do you like building sandcastles?". The small girl still didn't look up, "No.".
"Then why do you build them?". The girl turned her head towards Cassie, staring at her again, "I don't know. But I know I have to.".
"Why?", pressed Cassie. She was beginning to feel more comfortable now, getting into the flow of her detective mindset. "If I stop. They will be washed away.". The girl went back to her work again.
Cassie was used to getting some sort of reaction, even suspicion towards her from the people she questioned during the course of her job. This girl, however just answered her questions as succinctly as possible and continued with her work. Not in a way that said "Please go away.", rather she reminded Cassie of a computer without AI, that performs the tasks you ask of it, and nothing more. This, however, was an entirely human mind fragment. Why did she care if the sandcastles got washed away? The whole scene was just so obtuse. Cassie felt more and more that she was trying to commune with the dead. In reality, she wasn't far off. This was a ghost. A fragment of a girl that once was human, but no longer remembered what that meant, or what she had lost. Building fake sandcastles, on a fake beach, working to protect them from the threat of the fake waves lapping ever closer to her precious work.
"Where are your parents?", perhaps that would elicit a reaction. The girl didn't so much as blink, "I don't have those.". Cassie continued to press, "Everyone has parents, what happened to yours?". Again, no reaction, "They don't exist.", she had begun work on a little perimeter wall behind her moat. Cassie was getting nervous again, she didn't want to push too hard but she had to keep going, had to get some kind of answers from this girl, "Did your parents pass away?".
"No. I don't have parents.", this was going nowhere. She would have to push a little bit harder if she wanted her answers. After a few more seconds of silence, Cassie continued pushing, "Did someone hurt you?". "No." the wall was taking shape now. The girl did not seem the least bit perturbed by Cassie's incessant questions, perhaps she wasn't as volatile as Cassie thought she might be. "Have you forgotten anything recently?", a bad question, she should have thought it through. "If I had forgotten, I wouldn't remember that I forgot.", the wall was almost along the whole front portion of her moat now. Cassie was getting frustrated, she would need to do something to get a response out of this girl or this case would be good as dead. Then she remembered.
"How do I get through the door?".
For the first time, the girl stopped what she was doing. She looked at Cassie, aghast. "I don't want to go through the door.". She sounded terrified. It was the first time Cassie had heard any kind of emotion in the girl's voice. "I'm not taking you through the door. I need to go through the door so that I can stop it from ever opening again.", the girl's facial expression faded and Cassie continued, "I want to stop the people behind the door.".
"You can't." replied the girl, emotionless as before. "Can you tell me how to get through?", pressed Cassie. The girl's wall was almost complete now, the water already eroding it from below. She turned and looked at Cassie. "Denom has the key.". She turned back to her castles and stood up, "But, it doesn't matter.". She glanced at Cassie, then back to her work, "You'll die if you go through the door.".
The girl was smiling now as she surveyed her completed work. An unsettling grin. She stood like that for a full minute, as if in a trance. Then she picked up her little spade and began to smash it all to pieces. Cassie watched as the little girl went to great lengths to ensure that every last trace of her sandcastle empire was destroyed, then she filled in the moat, and finally patted it flat. Cassie raised an eyebrow, what was left of this girl was clearly confused, but didn't seem dangerous. "Why did you do that?", she asked inquisitively.
The girl continued staring at the flat patch of sand where her castles had once stood. "I didn't do anything.", she paused as though she forgot what she was talking about midway through her sentence. She slowly looked around at Cassie and then spoke again "Hair. Boots. Coat. Face...". Cassie had gotten all she was going to get out of this one. Thankfully the girl didn't seem to remember what had been done to her. There just wasn't enough left.
Cassie brought up her glass terminal and ended the simulation. Finding out who or what this Denom was would be her top priority. Her little interview had been a success. Still, Cassie couldn't help but feel a chill as she began to awaken, remembering the girl's words, "You'll die if you go through the door.". Just what was in there anyway?

Chapter 7

"Denom has the key.". Like the whiskey in her glass, Cassie had been turning those words over in her head for the past couple of hours. She sat in a dimly lit booth at the back of Bucky's Bar, a dive bar that had managed to keep a little spot on one of the main streets of the middle-class district of the city by virtue of simply having been there first. Cassie liked it here. It was quiet, and it had a few decent regulars. The ceiling fan turned slowly, scattering the cigarette smoke that hung in the air like the thick smog that hung over some parts of Station 17. She took a sip of her drink. A nice Irish whiskey, not too demanding. The perfect background companion when turning over a tough case. Cassie was at a familiar point in the case now. She called it the mud. Like mud, it was a sticking point. This was a point that many, but not all, of her jobs came to. where she had chased up her initial leads, and gotten all she could out of them. Now it was time to, just sit back and...wait. With luck, at some unexpected hour of the day, the answer would simply come to her with no warning. Like a lightbulb, her brain, working away in the background would say "Hey idiot! Jobs done!", and she'd suddenly know what she had to do next. Or, maybe she would be walking down the street, pass someone or overhear a fragment of a conversation between strangers. Maybe she would see some advertisement, or maybe she'd just be sitting here sipping whiskey, and two and two would come together and boom, she'd know what to do next. Once or twice, she'd had an accidental conversation with someone, only for them to know something that she didn't, and the case would be split open.
With luck. There was also a chance that none of that would happen and she'd just sit here until she got a little bit too drunk then stumble home, go to sleep, and try again the next day. Until she finally gave up and moved on. Only time would tell. Cassie was good at what she did, but she wasn't perfect. Sometimes you just had a case that went nowhere. Cassie was fine with that. Usually. But this case wasn't like that. This wasn't some little dispute or a suspicion of guilt in some minor infraction. People were being destroyed here. Kids too. This wasn't a case she would give up on so easily. Besides, she always had her backup plan. Her last ditch resort. The mysterious doorway. If it came down to it, she could wrench it open somehow, take the 'gung-ho' approach, hope for the best, and probably die. What did she have to lose anyway?
Another sip. Cassie didn't know how much time had passed. That was the nice thing about Buckys, it was like a time capsule. You couldn't see outside from here, so you went in, and when you came out it might be a whole new day. Or it could have been ten minutes. It was peaceful like that. Not too busy. Cassie lay back in her seat, entranced by the smoke swirling slowly through the air.
Cassie jumped out of her trance in shock as someone put their hand on her shoulder. Looking up she saw a weathered face with a prosthetic augmented lower jaw, and a glowing red eye. "Jesus, Philla, you trying to give me a heart attack?!", the older woman grinned and took a seat opposite Cassie in the booth. She was a heavyset woman, she had been a ship mechanic in the past, Cassie wasn't sure what she did these days besides drink and smoke. "Cas, its been a while!", she had that wheezy voice that lifelong heavy smokers often had, and she stank of the stuff. Philla was a good sort though, and Cassie didn't mind her company. She might even consider her a friend. They had met a few months ago when she drew up a stool beside Cassie at the bar and insisted on buying her a drink. Strange woman, but sometimes Philla was just the person to help Cassie take her mind off a case. Cassie relaxed back into the leather seat "Yeah, I've been busy with work Phil, got a big case going at the minute.".
"Big case, huh. Mind telling me about it? You have such an interesting job, you know. Most aren't so lucky.". Cassie smiled a little at that, "Interesting, yeah. Sometimes." she took a sip of whiskey, "Other times it's more boring than watching paint dry. It's not all good. Swings and roundabouts Philla.". The older woman raised an eyebrow at that, "Wanna hear what I've been doing all day?". Cassie did, actually. "I've been chasing the rats from my damn apartment garage. They keep chewing on cables." She drew from a thick cigarette she had in her hand. "Little bastards are fast though, and smart. They always find a way back in. And no matter how many I kill they keep coming back, it's crazy.". Cassie raised an eyebrow "Doesn't sound so different from my job. Except I imagine the rats don't fight back much.". The woman laughed, "You'd be surprised. They can be vicious bastards!". They sat for a while drinking or smoking in silence. Then Philla left for a while to have a chat with one of the other regulars at the bar. Cassie could hear them laughing from her booth. She was lying down now, back propped against the wall, staring out at the rest of the bar and gently swirling her whiskey. Denom. Was it a person? A company? It could even be an acronym or a codeword for something. She had her AR display up, red and black lines displaying search results and playing video, floating in front of her eyes. She'd been running searches on the name and had come up blank, she had tried countless variations and spellings but had only gotten useless results. Nothing seemed to give her any kind of lead on what 'Denom' was. She'd been sitting thinking this over for what felt like hours, and she had come to the conclusion that the only way she would get anywhere on this case was to start asking around. Asking around after this kind of information was dangerous though. Cassie tried to avoid it whenever possible. Ask the wrong person, or simply be overheard by the wrong person, and you could find yourself being stalked by dark shadows in the night. You might go to sleep, and not wake up some night. She knew the risks. Sometimes though you had to peek out from under the blankets, or you'd get nothing, and the boogieman under your bed would still get you eventually. "Hey, Phil!", Philla was drinking at the bar, engaged in what seemed to be a riveting conversation with a very drunk patron. The rough looking woman clinked beer glasses with the man, then sauntered over to Cassie's booth. "Yeah?", she took a long chug of beer. "Sit down a second will you? I need to ask you something.", the woman raised an eyebrow but did as Cassie asked. "How very mysterious, detective girl has questions, huh?", Cassie smiled and sat up leaning over the table and brushing her hair out of her eyes. "This is important ok? You can't tell or mention to anyone what I'm gonna ask you.". Philla had a bemused expression on her face. "I'm serious. These things can be life or death, Phil", Cassie stared straight at her. "Can I trust you?". The older woman donned a more business-like expression, "Yeah, ok. Ms bigshot. What is it? I won't say a word. Who am I gonna tell anyway?.". Cassie took her last sip and savoured it, before gently placing the glass back on the table. "Ok. Here it is.", she sighed. Cassie spoke in a hushed voice, "If I said the word, 'Denom', to you. Would that ring any bells?". Her words hung in the air. The woman with the red eye had a poker face like granite. Cassie could read nothing from her expression. Finally, the woman sat back in the booth. "Denom, huh?", Cassie shushed her. "Don't say it unless you really have to, I'm trying to avoid being overheard by the wrong people, you know?". The woman nodded, staring at Cassie. "I haven't heard that in a long time.", she smiled. "Where'd you hear that?", the woman hesitated then shook her heard. "Doesn't matter, and it's nothing that would get you killed, Cas. Years ago, Denom was a sort of engineering club. Robotics types would go there, work on side-projects. I used to go sometimes. Yeah, it was out on the edge of the city, in the slums. That's what was cool about it. No expectations, no haughty airs. Just a bunch of mechanics messing around. The name was a sort of combination of the founder's names - what were they called again...", she looked deep in thought for a while, then shook her head. "No use, I don't remember. That's a blast from the past though. Strange that you'd bring that up. The club was tiny, couldn't have been more than 5 or 6 regulars, and it sort of lost steam after a year or two so it wasn't even around that long.". The woman shook her head and laughed, "You were terrified, should have seen your face! I'm real' interested in who told you that name though Cas, could be an old friend of mine. It's been a long time...". Cassie grinned and stood up, ready to get back on the trail, "Sorry Phil, I can't tell you who it was. You know - confidentiality and all that. But listen - thanks. You really helped me.", Cassie smacked a few credits down on the table, "Get yourself a couple' beers!". Freed of the mud, Cassie virtually skipped out into the night.

Chapter 8

Cassie wandered slowly through the neon sea that was the city at night. It was getting quite late and the streets had begun to empty, there was that calm freshness to the air that you got on a cool night with little wind. She was in a good mood. Sure, she was far from getting to the bottom of this case, or even the strange riddle she heard from the broken girl - but that wasn't a big deal. She had made progress, and that's what mattered. Truthfully, she hadn't expected to get anywhere today, and she'd gotten further than she could have hoped. She now knew that Denom was a defunct engineering club, but more interestingly the name was a combination of the founder's names. Assuming this was the same Denom, and if 'Denom has the key'; maybe she just had to figure out the names of the founders and track them down? She had a physical location too. It was unlikely the building was the same since the club had shut down, but she might be able to find something out. At the very least she could find out who had rented the place in the past thirty years and follow the trail from there.
She'd get to that tomorrow though, tonight she needed some time to think. She liked to wander the quiet streets of the city at night from time to time. It was relaxing, and the middle-class district she lived in was fairly quiet, fairly safe. Neon lights reflected off the rain slick streets, creating a beautiful otherworldly array of colours; hot pinks and bright blues shot in every direction. The city was ugly by day. It was ugly by night too, in many places - but the main streets made up for it with their dazzling lights. Cassie was meandering slowly towards the old tower-like temple that stood in the middle of her district of the city. It had been built when Station 17 was first established, years ago. The idea was that the settlers from Earth would want to bring their culture with them, and they'd need somewhere to worship here among the stars. It wasn't much used for worship nowadays, but it stood as a beautiful monument to those early settlers. At the top of the tower was a garden area, which some of the elders around the area kept nice as a kind of pass-time. It was Cassie's favourite place on the whole station. The top of the tower was high enough to be taller than all the buildings nearby, so that when you lay down on the grass in the garden at night you could look up and see the stars and it wasn't too hard to imagine that you weren't on a barren rock hurtling through space, but somewhere better. Cassie reached the tower and lazily climbed the old wooden steps. A figure was coming down above her; the ancient steps squealed from the strain so it was easy to tell when someone was coming. She met the tall figure halfway up - it was an android. One of the new patrol droids - creepy looking things. These new models had eschewed the human-like appearance of most droids for bare metal and advanced black fibre limbs. They were owned by various corporations and private owners - ostensibly 'provided' to the people as a kind of new police force. The real reason the corporations provided these bots was obvious; monitor and control. Private spies and bodyguards for the high and mighty in their ivory towers. Cassie could see from the printed logo on its chest plate that this one was owned by Zenith. They were of an as yet unknown level of intelligence, and unlike their common brethren they did not seem outwardly bothered by the ownership their corporate overlords had over them. The android paused in front of Cassie for several seconds visibly tilting its head up and down as it scanned her. Cassie rolled her eyes at the thing and pushed past it, continuing up the stairs. Freaky things. They were perfectly capable of saying 'Hello', and she'd definitely heard two of them conversing before (though why androids would need to audibly talk to each other Cassie did not know, when they could clearly just 'speak' digitally). It's like they purposefully avoided adhering to the normal rules of human interaction to make you feel uncomfortable. She reached the top of the stairs and put the droid out of her mind. Cassie entered the garden passing through an entrance way guarded by tall hedges on either side. Little fairy lanterns were stuck in the grass, dotted at regular interval throughout the garden, creating a wistful low-light ambience. She made her way through the garden, the scent of lilac flowers, muted by the cool night air instantly brought her mind to a good place. Cassie reached her favourite spot - a small grassy knoll. She liked it here because she could lay flat on the grass and see all at once the stars in the sky and the happenings in the garden without moving. She lay back and took in the night sky thinking of as little as possible. It was a still night, and up here the sounds of the city were virtually inaudible. It was the perfect place to take her mind off things. After a little while, she was joined by a curious black and white cat. "Hey Lizzy, what are you doing tonight?", Lizzy cocked her head at her and purred softly as Cassie stroked her. She lived up here, and she always came to visit Cassie when she came up to the garden. Curling up in her lap or on her chest. Cassie smiled, the cat was probably her best friend. "You aren't gonna forget about me are you Lizzy?", Lizzy purred and curled herself up at Cassie's side. "You just want me for my body heat, don't you?", the cat looked at her through half open eyelids and gave a little meow. "Yeah whatever, that's what they all say.". On nights like this, with a little alcohol in her system, lying alone at the top of this tower with only the cat for company she often fell into a depressive state. Cassie had never had many friends - there weren't a whole lot of people on the station around her age, and growing up she had been a bit of a weirdo. She wasn't much better now, in her late twenties. She found her mind wandering fantasising about what could have been, if she had grown up in a different place, or if she had said something else in some meaningless conversation years ago, or if she had just been a little less...herself. She dreamt up imaginary relationships with people she barely knew, imposing her vision of a perfect partner or friend on a nearly blank canvas, the real faces they were based on bringing her daydreams to life. Cassie didn't feel like her life had started yet, like everything up to now was just warmup for the real thing - and that would start any day now, right? She knew deep down though that this was it, this was her life, and no amount of daydreaming would change it. A tear streaked down her cheek, and she grew angry. She hated this self-pitying little girl that came out at times like this. She hated her life too. She hated that she was too scared, or just didn't know how to change it. As always though, the apathy would return and the blissful uncaring would save her from her feelings. She hated that as well. But she knew she needed it to keep on going. She let herself slowly drift into that numb state, then she nodded off, stars twinkling above as Lizzy purred softly at her side.
Cassie awoke with a jolt - something was wrong. She hadn't slept for too long - her HUD told her it was just past 1 A.M, meaning she'd been sleeping for around 15 minutes. Lizzy wasn't purring, the cat was sat up now, ears prickling, and her attention was focused entirely on the side of the garden, where the entrance stairwell that Cassie had come in by earlier was. She heard multiple footsteps coming up the wooden steps, the groaning audible even from this distance. Strange. It was late - who could be coming up here at this hour? The footsteps stopped quite suddenly as the new party reached the top of the stairs. A stillness hung in the air. Cassie didn't like this one bit. Neither did Lizzy, who hissed and bolted off towards her favourite tree. Cassie was up on her haunches now, listening. There was no sound for several minutes, then through the brush and shrubbery she heard footsteps. She could see them now, dim red eyes glowing in the night. Droids, four of them. Just like the Zenith one she had met on the way up earlier, but these ones were carrying small stun pistols. They were looking for something. Her. Cassie didn't know exactly why, but there was no doubt about it. The way the one on the stairs had stopped to scan her had freaked her out a little bit, she hadn't thought much of it at the time - but that was strange even for a droid. Maybe she had said the wrong thing to the wrong person, maybe grudges from her past detective work had finally gotten up with her, or maybe this was to do with the mind fragment in her pocket. She didn't mean to stay and find out. Cassie crouched and half walked, half ran as quietly as she could behind the bushes. The droids had split up, each searching a corner of the rooftop garden. They moved eerily, their footsteps too smooth, almost gliding - like ghosts. If one of them spotted her she would have no chance up here, droids had near perfect aim, and when one got you in its sights you were better off praying for a weapon jam than running. She carefully headed towards the side of the building. There was only one way down from here, the stairs. For most people. There were benefits to having an augmented, robotic left arm. Cassie spun into a shadowy spot in a hedge and froze as a pair of glowing red eyes appeared from around a corner ahead of her. She hadn't heard it coming - these droids were extremely quiet compared to the traditional type. The bot scanned the corner, lingering much longer than Cassie would have liked, her heart near beating out of her chest. Finally it slowly, almost hesitantly turned on the spot and marched back the way it had come. A laboured breath of relief, and Cassie jogged over to the edge of the building. Looking down from up here the tower seemed gargantuan. There was a thick drainage pipe leading down the outside of the building, if she could slide down it a bit she'd be able to swing herself into the stairway below, avoiding the droids. Vertigo overwhelmed her as she thought about it, looking down over the edge. One slip and she'd be dead. But there was no telling what these things would do to her. Taking a deep breath and stifling a whimper, Cassie locked her mechanical hand onto the drainage pipe. Then she closed her eyes and jumped out into the void.

Chapter 9

Cassie slid down the drainage spout much faster than she had anticipated. She tried to slow herself with her augmented hand but she was doing all she could just to hold on to the wet surface. The stairway was just a little below her now. She kicked her feet off the wall, swinging her out into the air, then coming back she let go at just the right time to send her hurtling into the stairway. She crashed into the side and rolled down a few steps before she shakily pulled herself to her feet. Dizzy, Cassie took a second to regain her balance. Then she heard footsteps crashing above - they'd heard her, and they were coming. Cassie ran down the stairs half sprinting, half falling at gravities mercy. Barely controlling her balance, each step a blur she couldn't stop herself from running face first into a droid running up the stairs the opposite way. She smashed into it with such force that the droid spun and launched itself up the stairs in an emergency manoeuvre, as she much less gracefully plummeted down the stairs, scrambling to regain her balance. The droid stopped mid spin and fired off a shot of its stun gun. The energy ripped through the air with a crack and glanced off Cassie's mechanical forearm. A shot like that, even glancing would be enough to knock out a human if it came into contact with flesh. As it was Cassie got lucky, her left arm had again saved her from certain capture. She continued down the stairs, coughing and spluttering now as her entire left side convulsed, muscles screaming as they involuntarily pulled tight from the shock of the stun gun. As she struggled to the bottom of the stairs she gradually regained control of her left leg, but her arm was useless now, dead and dangling at her side. Cassie grabbed the support beam at the entrance and spun herself around running down the street away from the entrance of the temple. Sprinting now, the narrow side streets passed Cassie like a blur. Her collision would have managed to stall them for precious seconds on the narrow stairs, but it wasn't nearly enough. Escaping a pack of military grade droids like this was near impossible once they got your scent. Cassie had heard the stories, and they powered her on - she couldn't stop. Glancing back, she saw four sets of red eyes in the night, running nearly soundlessly. They were gaining on her, and they were barely trying. Toying with her? Did droids do that? Cassie took a sharp turn down one of the side alleys, it was very narrow - her hope was that she could find somewhere to swing herself up. If she could get up among the rooftops with more places to hide and throw them off she would have a far better chance. The dark alley was completely deserted, Cassie flew by backdoors and rubbish bins looking for a way up but she could see nothing. Then, finally, towards the middle of the long alleyway a chain-link fence cut off her side from the opposite side. Just above it a set of stairs clung to the building tantalisingly within reach. Her left arm was still dead, short-circuited by the stun round. Cassie jumped up on a large metal bin on her side of the fence, then using her good arm to steady herself she stepped up on top of the fence, coat billowing around her in the night air. The ladder to the stairway was on the opposite side. Pushing herself away from the wall she made a controlled fall towards the ladder, grabbing on to one of the rungs her feet slid from the top of the fence and dangled out into the air. She was facing the way she had come now and the droids were very close. They had slowed down and were looking at her. She saw them raise their arms. Cassie pushed off the wall and her foot found purchase. The stun charges on the droids arms began to glow, filling the alley with a soft blue light. She forced herself up, scrambling, heart in her mouth. The hum of charging stun rounds throbbed in Cassie ears, rising to a high whine as her heart pounded and her legs launched her up the ladder. Then a few seconds of silence. As Cassie reached the top and pulled herself up on to the stairway the sounds of hissing electricity filled her head and for a few seconds the alleyway was illuminated as four charge rounds crackled through the air at the stairway. The shots were on target. Cassie ducked as one landed a hair above her head, then a hail of three more battered the stairway. The shots dispersed, electrifying the metal stairs for a split second. Cassie smothered a scream as the pain seared through her hands and up her body. The skin of her left hand burning on the metal floor of the stairs. The droids couldn't see Cassie any more from down there. But that didn't mean they couldn't hurt her.
Cassie forced herself on and up the stairs. The ominous red eyes below had begun to move again, two running back, one running on down the alley past the fence, and a final one that seemed to be climbing up towards Cassie. Reaching the rooftop she ran on, thighs screaming at her to stop. She pushed through the pain and continued across the rooftop. She had reached the end but thankfully the next rooftop was only a small jump away. It had started to rain now and the city had begun to glisten, it suited its new shimmering coat. Cassie took a deep breath before jumping over. These rooftops were too flat, unlike the ramshackle buildings of the slums - she would never be able to hide here. Panicking now she looked around desperately, hoping for something. Towards the right side of the rooftop was a building under construction. It had plenty of pillars, machinery, clutter - places to hide. It was a long shot, and she might not make the jump, but she didn't have much choice. The first set of red eyes came into view behind Cassie from the way she had come. Floating there in the dark as if considering her. Cassie turned towards the opposite building, it was her only chance. She broke out into a sprint and the red eyes followed. The rain had begun to pool on the ground but she ignored it, sending up a shower of water as she ran glistening with the colours of a nearby billboard video ad. Cassie reached the edge and pushed herself in a desperate leap towards the bare concrete of the building opposite. Reaching for the edge, she grasped it with the flesh of her right hand. It was then that she remembered her dead left arm. Cassie thumped into the edge of the building knocking her jaw off the concrete. Her grip failed and she spun forward in onto the floor below, slamming into the hard concrete floor on her back, her head violently jerking back into the ground. Cassie's vision darkened and everything went black.
A sudden convulsive gasp of air, Cassie came back to as she went into a fit of coughing. She could taste blood in her mouth. Her vision was blurry and her head burned with a searing, relentlessly throbbing pain. She tried to move but her body wouldn't obey her. She looked down at her fingers. With enough focus and effort, she was able to make them move slowly. Still alive. For now. She stared up at the dark rooftop above. Mouth hanging open, the effort to breath seeming like a laborious task. Then, from the dark corners of her vision, four sets of red eyes approached and surrounded her. The droids watched here for what felt like several minutes. Cassie just stared blankly back at them, defeated. Then the one on her right took a step closer and crouched down. Rummaging through her coat pockets, jostling her useless body - it was looking for the chip she realised. It found it, zipped inside Cassie's hidden inner pocket. The machine stopped and examined it, then stood slowly up. Then the four sets of red eyes retreated into the dark corners of her vision. Lying on the concrete, half-broken, Cassie couldn't bear to think. So she didn't. For a while, she just lay there staring blankly at the grey ceiling, surrounded by darkness, and the somewhat distant pitter-patter of rain outside. Until eventually she drifted into sleep.
Cassie awoke some hours later. The darkness was slowly beginning to give ground to the light as the station rotated slowly to face the sun. Dawn. She was still lying where she fell, looking up at the rooftop. Everything hurt. A throbbing, constant pain that told her she had survived - but barely and only for now. Cassie tried to move her legs, and they obeyed her reluctantly. Her fingers moved fairly freely, though her augmented left arm was still dead. Attempting to lift her head caused the throbbing to become even more intense, but she pushed through it and tried to sit up. Her collision with the side of the floor above had not done her any favours. When she sat up an excruciating burning pain in her chest joined her throbbing head in its assault on her senses. Gasping, she forced herself up. If she could make it back to the apartment she had a stash of injectable medibots, just for this kind of emergency. Tiny nanobots that would enter the bloodstream and travel around the body fixing you up. They were a miracle, and could heal most trauma in a matter of hours. Cassie had to get there first though. Shakily she made it to her feet. Walking she felt like she was drunk, but with violent pain on every step. She gritted her teeth and forced herself forward, tears beginning to well up and stream down her face with the pain and the effort. Cassie pushed on, down the steps. She put one unsteady foot before the other and did her best to balance herself with her good arm. Sweating, doubtful she'd survive another fall, she slowly progressed down to the street. With her injuries, something as simple as making her way down stairs had become a life-threatening task. The apartment wasn't far from here, she just had to keep putting one foot before the other. She made her way through the backstreets. As she did so she garnered the attention of a couple of stray dogs. They watched her with curiosity at first, then began to follow her at a distance. They made Cassie nervous. She had been chased by the droids all night, she didn't need to be pursued by actual hounds now that she had survived. Much to her relief, the main street on which Cassie lived was quite lifeless still. With some luck, she'd be able to make it back to her place without being questioned by some too eager enforcer. Her flickering HUD told her it was 5.36 am, a little before the day would really begin, and she had just become aware of the biting cold. Shivering now and wrapping herself in her coat she slowly made her way down towards her home.
As Cassie approached the door to her apartment she saw her door was open. She definitely hadn't left it like that. She waited nervously for a long five minutes but didn't hear a peep. If anyone was still there she was a dead woman, but she had nowhere else to go and she needed to get that medical shot. Cursing under her breath she shambled slowly up to the door and peeked in. Her tiny apartment had been trashed. The door kicked in, glasses smashed, drawers emptied out. They had even broken her desk right down the middle. Heart sinking to even greater depths, Cassie stood there and took it all in. The tears came back now, as the events of the night caught up with her - she'd been running for her life, bearing excruciating pain, she had been shot at, stolen from. She didn't need this too. She should have known. If they knew enough to come after her they would know where she lived. They had made one error though; she was still alive, and she wouldn't let this stop her. Angry now as the tears streamed down her cheeks, Cassie stumbled inside locking the door behind her. Thankfully they hadn't bothered with the medibots. She propped herself against a wall, sitting down and grabbing an injector that had been tossed out of its compartment. Taking a deep breath she removed the protective cover and slammed it into her leg. The cool, numbing sensation spread out across Cassie's body as she let out a sigh of relief, then drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 10

Cassie's eyes slowly opened to the trashed remnants of her office-apartment. It was dark now, and her HUD told her it was nearing 9 pm. She had slept through the whole day. That's what happened when you went under from a medibot shot. She lay there unmoving for a while, grateful that the throbbing ache on her head had subsided. She lay there in a state of homeostasis, not wanting to try, not wanting to discover that she couldn't move her legs or to wake one of the terrible injuries she sustained the night before. As she did she let her mind run through everything she knew so far. The door, the creature, the melting man with a chip in his brain, Denom, the droids...Zenith. She had three leads; the door - too dangerous for now, and she'd need the key. There was Denom, the mysterious partnership - she would make investigating the old hackerspace her number one priority. Finally there was Zenith, those droids had been owned by the company, it was clear that someone at Zenith was either behind this or heavily involved. However it was such a vast organisation that to find a culprit or even a team responsible without more information would be near impossible, and she couldn't just lay this at the feet of the whole corp, not without overwhelming evidence. So, Denom it was. The droids had just taken the chip from her, the little girl. She hadn't decided what to do about her, the only humane option was to destroy the chip - assuming there were no backups of the girls mind somewhere. Still, Cassie couldn't bring herself to make a decision of such finality. She didn't know enough to say definitively that she couldn't be fixed, but her gut told her it was impossible. Maybe the droids thought she would die there in the construction site, didn't think there was any point in finishing the job, or maybe they meant to leave her alive. Regardless, whoever was behind this would come to regret the decision. Cassie was more determined than ever to bring them low. It was personal now. She tested her limbs cautiously, then tried to raise herself. Relief washed over her as she found herself pain-free, and she hopped to her feet - just a little unsteady. The nanobots had done an amazing job, she breathed easily and fully appreciated her pain-free existence. Like on the first day after having a head cold that blocks your nose for a week, she could breathe freely again.
A shower and a change of clothes later, and Cassie was on the trail again. She couldn't rest until this was done. Not least because the bastards knew where she lived now. The streets were dark, but dry with no rain tonight - the odd puddle lay from the day before. She wrapped her slightly tattered coat tight about her and strode down the long main street. She was heading out to beyond the slums, where she had been told Denom used to meet. Normally she would leave this sort of thing until the morning - the slums were dangerous at night, but she felt she had no choice. An enforcer did the rounds towards the top of the street, casually strolling down the long walkway and stopping now and again to stare up at the stars. He didn't notice, or didn't care when Cassie quickly passed by. She walked for about half an hour, the streets slowly narrowing until they became the twisting corridors and alleyways of the slums. On the ground level here there were countless bodies of the homeless, mostly asleep though some looked so still they could be dead. They didn't notice her for the most part, though some looked up, eyes twinkling in the dark. A few old men begged her for some credits or a spare vial of aug juice to stop their bodies shutting down. Cassie had none and kept on. Stopping for too long in the slums was a great way to get mugged, or worse. She continued for a good while as the buildings and streets around her began to reduce in density and then, at the edge of the city zone they almost disappeared for good. A huge water processing plant was ahead of her, with a cliff-edge drop to a reservoir far below, cordoned off behind a high barbed-wire fence. There wasn't a whole lot out here at the edge of the city, but she followed the map on her HUD which showed her a route down past the slums to the old city outskirts. She was mostly passing smaller industrial buildings now, some warehouses, the odd manufacturing plant. After navigating the edge of the city for a while more she saw what she was looking for. It wasn't much to look at. Just an old warehouse, it looked dirty, as if it had been unused for years. It was surrounded by a chainlink fence, that would be easy enough to hop over, but Cassie was cautious. It was always better to play these things slowly. She began to walk the perimeter of the old building. The windows, she noted had been blacked out. Whether that was old or a more recent development was hard to tell, however, she did note that her eye augment could not see through them. That meant they had been specifically shielded, and why would a bunch of nerds running an engineering club care enough to have expensive shielding installed on their windows? She continued around the perimeter, when she reached the back her HUD blinked showing her two potential entrances - a ventilation duct high on the wall; accessible via a ladder and stairwell, and what looked like a loading bay. She hadn't noticed any activity inside, and to the untrained eye the building seemed totally unused. Still, the shielded windows gave her enough reason to be suspicious. Coming back around she noticed impact marks on the left side of the building. A small ship had landed here, and it couldn't have been that long ago if the marks were still visible. There was definitely more going on here than met the eye, Cassie confirmed this when she saw the main entrance gate again. The first time she hadn't paid it much attention. It was just a chain link gate after all. But seeing it for a second time she now noticed that the lock was a heavy duty bio-signature lock. The gate would open automatically when a permitted person approached it, reading the unique patterns in their bodily functions, and matching it against a database. There was no way a lock like that protected an old unused warehouse, and if it had that kind of tech on the gate who knows what hidden security functions the thing had that were invisible to the naked eye and shielded from her augmented one. No, she couldn't risk getting caught here. Better to stake the place out. Cassie had seen plenty of small storage sheds and other buildings nearby, she took a walk across the dirt road to a locked up concrete building. It was a low, plain building, built from breeze-blocks and with an angular corrugated roof. Around the side was a set of steps up to an outer door on the second floor. It was fairly dark at the bottom of the stairs, but she could see the entrance of the Denom warehouse clearly from here. Sitting down she noticed the smell of sewage, probably coming from a nearby drainpipe. It wasn't the most comfortable place to stakeout but she had done worse. At times like this she was glad for her thick coat, she pulled it tight around her and lay back on the stairs.
The industrial park was very quiet at this hour. It would be mostly staffed by autonomous drones and other lesser droids without much in the way of intelligence, and while the silence was occasionally broken by the hum of a drone passing overhead with precious cargo there were very few ground-based units active. Cassie hadn't seen any in fact - which was good for her because it meant no questions asked. The silent night grew colder as Cassie lay on the hard stairs, but thankfully stayed dry. She had been hoping to find an abandoned warehouse that she could snoop around for clues to the mysterious characters behind the Denom name. In some ways, the fact that it was still in use and so obviously trying not to be of note had the potential to be much more useful to her, but it was also a lot more boring. This was the part of her job she hated - apart from the (ever more common...) physical and emotional trauma of course. The waiting. She'd have to sit here until something happened. The problem was there was no guarantee that anything even would happen, or that if it did that it would be something useful. In the early days she had once waited outside a suspects house for 26 hours straight, without sleep or even a coffee break, only to grow impatient and upon investigation find that he had left by the back window - probably not long after he had gone in. She smiled, those early days of figuring things out seemed funny to her now - the mistakes she made.
A sudden clanging noise jolted Cassie out of her thoughts and sat up straight, immediately focusing on the job at hand. The lock at the front of the warehouse had come undone. This was it. Cassie began recording what she saw through her augmented eye. For nearly a minute, there was nothing - silence. Then four figures approached the gate from the inside, exiting the warehouse. There were three in front that looked from here very similar to the droids that had chased Cassie through the streets the night before. Zenith droids. She already knew they were involved, this just helped to convince her further. The fourth figure looked like it might be a man. Cassie couldn't quite focus on him - the details blurring on whatever she focused so that she only got a general sense of the movement and shape of the person. A muddled mix of colours so that she could only assume he had a brown jacket and grey trousers. He had to have some kind of aug jammer on, nowadays almost everyone had some kind of eye aug to support HUDs and other features - in general it was fairly easy to mess with them. For him to be almost completely indecipherable to Cassie at this range, and considering that her eye was actually pretty state of the art told her two things. He had to be either very rich or impossibly skilled, and to go to this much effort he very much did not want to be associated with either Denom, or Zenith Industries.

Chapter 11

Cassie sunk back into the shadows. If this person had the tech to hide himself, she had to assume he had the tech to detect when he was being followed. A stealth drone, or some local area detection hardware to pick up on her augs or bioindicators. She needed to tail him of course - even if she couldn't get a glimpse of the mans face, she might be able to find out where he was going or pick up some shred of conversation. Any information she could gather could crack this case wide open for her right now. She waited until he was a good 60 meters ahead of her, as confirmed by her HUD. The little number in the top right corner of her vision slowly incrementing as he walked away from her. She just had to keep outside of that range to be fairly safe from common detection hardware. Of course if what she had seen so far was any indicator, this man did not use common hardware. Still - she had to take the risk. Cassie took off at a slow meandering pace. Her hope was that if something did alert him to her presence she would seem to just be some homeless unfortunate, wandering the outskirts. At the distance she was at, sixty-three meters now, she could make almost nothing of the blurred figure out in the darkness. With a passing glance, had she not known that he was there she would have just seen the three droids walking in the night. The figures were keeping a brisk pace back towards the city, enough that Cassie almost had to jog to keep up with them. Walking back in the night, the shadow of the city loomed like a spectre, its lights mostly hidden from this angle but for a tell-tale glow emanating around its silhouette like an enigmatic halo. The blurred man took the path that Cassie had used to come out here, droids in tow. After a few minutes, however, he deviated. They left the path heading into the hard, rocky dirt outside the city avoiding the slums. There weren't many likely destinations from here Cassie knew, and so it seemed likely that he had some form of transport lying in wait. She continued following, increasing her distance cautiously as the terrain flattened, giving her precious little cover should one of the droids take a look around. She kept on following them for some time as they walked the outskirts of the city. It didn't make any sense, there was nothing out here. If he had a ship waiting or something it should have been much closer, there had to be some reason for him to be wandering so far from the city - unless of course this was a trap and he knew she was following. As she began to doubt herself, pulling back further the caravan stopped suddenly. Cassie immediately hit the ground as the droids took positions around the blurred man, watching out in every direction. She was mostly concealed behind a small outcropping of rock but she could still see what was happening up ahead. As she lay watching the blurred figure slowly materialised as a solid entity. It was a tall, but greying man in a business suit. He was carrying a small black briefcase and seemed to be looking out for something as he turned slowly looking out in all directions. Cassie used her eye to get as much footage of the man as possible to try and get a match on later. He didn't seem at all nervous or rushed, he looked a little bored actually - like he had done this a thousand times before. Cassie could see him beginning to slowly pace. It looked like he was whistling, but she couldn't hear him from her nook by the rocks. After a few minutes, the man stopped. The droids and the man included all turned to look at something, but Cassie could see nothing. Then the man put his foot up as if on a ledge and stepped as if climbing, Cassie gasped as she saw what happened next; the man's entire body disappeared head first. The droids did the same, until the whole party had vanished into the air. Some kind of stealth technology? She hadn't heard about anything like this, but there hadn't been a major war in many years so it was easy to keep stuff like this hidden for the more advanced corporations and government militaries. Cassie suddenly felt very vulnerable. She couldn't see what kind of vehicle they had entered or where it had gone, for all she knew they were watching her right now. She huddled in closer to the rocks and lay still and hidden for a while - listening until she was sure they had gone. The night out here was still and silent, and Cassie heard nothing but the slight wind blowing around her. After a long while she crept to the edge of the rocks to ensure the coast was clear, then she scampered back towards the city in the pitch blackness of the early morning. Cassie walked with a briskness through the winding streets back home. The thought that she could have been spotted was enough to make her feel sick. There was something terrifying about knowing that someone was nearby, but not being able to see them. That man could have been right next to her and she wouldn't have known. They could have followed her, could be behind her right now. Her only consolation was that she had heard no sounds whatsoever. All she could do right now was get to her apartment as quickly and quietly as possible. She was beginning to wonder if this whole thing was worth it. She could sell her meagre possessions and just get off this rock. Leave all the bullshit behind and let the people that remain deal with it. She had done plenty for this town over the last few years, but this case was beginning to look much deeper than she had initially thought. Of course she wouldn't run, those were just the panicked thoughts of a worried mind - but what would she do when she did find the culprits? With the tech they had access to they were clearly very powerful people. Everyone knows, the rich don't pay for their sins. Deep in thought, Cassie had walked almost the entire way home without realising it. Looking around she saw no one, just that same enforcer wandering the main street, staring up at the stars. At least he seemed content. She opened the door to her apartment and, barring it shut, poured herself a drink and flung herself on the sofa with her nightcap in hand. There probably comes a time in everyone's life where they have to decide to stop what they've been doing and go somewhere else, start something new, or to keep on and persevere through the hard times in the hope that there were greener pastures on the other side. Cassie didn't hold much hope for greener pastures, but she wasn't a quitter. For better or for worse she would see this through. She set her processor to search the footage she had taken to try and find a match for the blurred man. Then she lay, sipping her whiskey, clearing her mind, and tried to have a normal nights sleep.

Chapter 12

Cassie sat sipping tea outside a nearby coffee shop on the main street. Little tables with parasols dotted the seating area in front of the shop. It was mid-morning, around 10 am, and the sun was high in the sky. Crisp morning air filled Cassie's lungs and she sat back, looking up at the artificial white clouds. She had just eaten a delicious breakfast of poached eggs and wheaten bread with cream cheese. She felt like she deserved a bit of indulgence after what she'd been through recently. The last few days had been so hectic she had barely eaten, hardly had a pain-free second to sit back and consider her path going forward on this case, or even just to relax. Last night had been a new chapter in the case, however. When she had awoken this morning she had been presented with a notification from her processing job she had set the night before. The computer had found a match for the mysterious blurred man from the night before. His name was Dennis Lagrange, and he was ex-CEO of Zenith Industries - now retired, but still a board member. She now had evidence directly linking Zenith to the Denom building. It wasn't anything like enough yet of course. She still had no idea about the mysterious door in the slums rooftops, the strange creature, the dissolving man, or even what was inside Denom - nor did she know for sure the names of the Denom founders though Dennis was a good candidate for one half of the word. She took a long draw on her cigarette, slowly letting the clear white vapour slip through her lips and nose. She only smoked clean cigarettes, essentially vapourisers, they were disposable and looked a lot like an old-school nicotine cigarette. Gave her that noir detective look, without the cancer, and it worked just as well as a delivery mechanism for various drugs. They were mostly harmless but the vapour helped her focus. She needed to get inside the Denom building. It was the only way to move this case forward. But how? She could try to sneak in but if she was caught it would be a death sentence for her. She knew too much now. They'd take her mind, pillage it to find out what she knew. Then when they were done they'd either kill her or worse; break her mind to make her go insane. Was there some way she could get inside legitimately? Or a safer way than breaking in through the outer gate, which was probably covered in all sorts of undetectable to the naked eye sensors that would pick up her unauthorised presence. The sewage system maybe? A warehouse of that size was bound to have some facilities that used them. Even so, with the security around the outer gate and the lengths the owners had gone to in disguising the building as a disused old building it seemed unlikely that any sewer entrance wouldn't be monitored, trapped, or guarded in some way. What if she didn't have to go in? She could send a drone of some kind. Cassie took another sip of her tea. The streets were busy today, people going this way and that. A pack of serious looking people in suits sat at the table across from Cassie, heatedly discussing some business deal or other. Cassie had been watching them for a little while now, there was a tall man in the centre with two augmented eyes - the old faceplate kind. The man's face was growing more and more purple as the debate raged on. Cassie thought his head might explode at any second. In the crowd she noticed a small girl, no more than 10 or 11 years old but heavily augmented. The girl's legs, arms, and both eyes were near fully artificial, and quite expensive augs they were too. It was very unusual to see a child so heavily modified, not illegal, especially not on the station, but very unusual for sure. There weren't a lot of children on the station to begin with which made her all the more interesting. Must have had seriously rich parents, thought Cassie. The blue haired girl seemed happy skipping on down the street through the crowd, until Cassie lost sight of her. No, she knew what she had to do. She needed to get inside herself. A drone wouldn't cut it. She had to get in, find some piece of conclusive evidence or the key to the strange doorway, and get out. If she let this case drag on too long she'd come more and more onto the radar of the people involved, and private eyes that got onto the radar of powerful megacorps had a habit of disappearing. Or killing themselves with a gunshot to the back of the head. Cassie had to finish this quick, and that meant getting inside. She would have to return there tonight. Scope the place out, look for any weakness and find a way in. Preferably when no one else was around. Then she'd find what she needed, and get out - clean. She could hope. She'd need to take some precautions, turning off her HUD, and eye augmentations that had outgoing sensors - those were the most likely to be detected by any security measures. If the place was equipped with bio-indicator sensors there wasn't a whole lot she could do. The best idea would to simply avid the front gate - the most likely place for any bio-sensing devices to be installed.
She had a plan then. Still, some things just didn't add up; why would Zenith be researching chimera minds? From what Cassie could tell it didn't make much sense. She had spoken with the girl and she was ruined beyond repair, a husk of a human mind; what advantages would combining two minds into one have? Sure you might get some knowledge or skills that weren't there before - if you were lucky enough to have a functioning being at the other end of your little experiment. It just didn't seem enough to Cassie; a process that results in one broken individual, made from shattering the minds of two normal, functioning people. Was it just because they could? Were Zenith so powerful that they didn't fear any repercussions and simply acted on their whims knowing there could be no consequences? It would certainly help explain why she was still alive. Cassie had a good nose for detective work, and this whole thing stank of something bigger; hidden to her - for now.
"Would you like a refill Miss?", a short, heavyset older man with a big bushy moustache had approached Cassie; the owner of the shop she was at. "Yeah I could do with another cup", she replied, "though, maybe coffee this time - if that's alright?". The man nodded and went off to fetch the coffee pot. Meanwhile the purple-faced man at the table opposite had finally had enough, he stood up visually quivering in rage - shouting at his associates.
"Alright!? We most certainly will not be alright! It's the most ridiculous thing I've heard in thirty years! I won't stand for it!", slamming down a few credits on the table he continued "You will hear from my office! But I don't want to see your faces in my building again!" and marched off into the crowd; leaving his stunned colleagues sitting in silence.
A thought came to Cassie: Station 17 was home to less than a million people, all in all, it wasn't huge - if Zenith were kidnapping little girls and peoples husbands on a regular basis people should be talking about it. It should be all over the news; especially the girl - there were so few children on the station and with an aging population the lack of children and young people was seen as a pressing crisis. Yet Cassie hadn't heard a thing about that little girl. Either they had covered it up somehow, or - perhaps the girl was taken from somewhere else in the system? Something didn't add up, and Cassie hated being in the dark.
The portly moustachioed man returned with a fresh cup of coffee, then as he turned to leave she stopped him; "Hey, this might seem like a strange question, but have you been keeping up to date with the news lately?". The man turned with a smile "Not at all miss; I'd say I like to keep on top of things yes.". Cassie cocked her head, "Heard about any missing kids lately?". The man frowned under his bristling moustache and shook his head. "No missing kids - no thankfully, that would be something I'd remember.", he paused, "Say - you're that private eye girl aren't you? I've seen you around here - don't tell me someone's missing?". Cassie smiled, "No, nothing to worry about really; I was just thinking about something that's all - thanks for the coffee!". He nodded and went back to his work, cleaning nearby tables. No, there were no kidnapped children on the station, not recently. Cassie frowned as she drank the dark liquid down, the caffeine giving her a much-needed boost. She'd get to the bottom of this. Then she'd leave this place. It ground her down; this work - you really were forced to constantly examine the worst sides of humanity, and Cassie couldn't take it any longer. She needed something positive in her life. No; she'd finish just this one last job, then she'd make a better life for herself somewhere else. Cassie sighed, taking a sip of coffee, then she cleared her mind, and went back to people watching.

Chapter 13

The near pitch darkness was broken only by the twinkling of the distant stars, and the odd floodlight coming off a drone or a nearby warehouse security light. It was a still night without wind and that sort of silence that meant something was about to happen. The calm before the storm. For Cassie, eyes peeking out from behind the iron steps on the outside of a nearby building; something was about to happen. This was the night that she finally split this case open, or died trying. She took a long draw on her cigarette, it had a special formulation designed to keep her alert, and it was working. Cassie had counted the seconds, then the minutes since the last time the main gate had opened, letting a blacked out people transport drone in. It had been six hours and fourteen minutes, seven seconds. Eight, nine, ten. Still, no one had left the building. Eleven, twelve, thirteen. Cassie was growing agitated - every building had a weakness and Cassie had found this ones. There was a disposal shaft with an exterior ladder attached on the side of the building. The ladder was out of reach from the outside of the fence but the disposal shaft curved outward and connected up with the fence. She could swing herself up there - she was sure of it. She hadn't seen anything come out of that shaft so she might be able to get in that way; but she was far more interested in the ladder. The ladder would allow her to reach the roof and from there she should be able to find a way in, either through a door or maintenance hatch, or by scaling down to the external walkway on the opposite side of the building. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Cassie had set a time limit, she had told herself that she would wait until those who had entered left, just to be safe. Then she had told herself that she would wait a maximum of six hours before going ahead regardless. It was now six hours and nearing fifteen minutes and no one had left. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. Cassie stopped counting and stoop up pulling her coat tight about her. Then she stalked across the road.
The industrial park was deserted, there wasn't a single figure in sight, and there hadn't been for hours. Cassie had only seen one or two drones in the past few hours - the place was deserted, and to most would certainly appear derelict. But Cassie knew better. She made her way down the side of the fence. That was the first test. If an alarm went off simply from her walking too close to the fence then she could simply run and with some luck she'd be okay. It's always best to approach a problem like this in stages, sections, pieces - especially when one mistake could result in your death. Nothing. Next - contact; Cassie took her right hand - the human one - out from the warm embrace of her pocket to the bite of the cold night air. Then she put her fingers in between the links of the fence and walked, running her hand along the fence. In the silence of the night the noise from her fingers vibrating the links sounded deafening. Still - nothing. The next step in Cassie's plan was to put some force on the face, as if climbing it. She sidled up to it, reached out with both her arms and pulled enough to lift herself off the ground a little. No alarm. Cassie was getting nervous now. Either there really was no alarm system, and she had vastly overestimated the security measures in place - or whoever was inside the building was watching and laughing at her right now as she attempted to test the security of the building. She cursed under her breath - she had nothing to go on whatsoever, and that meant she had to continue with her plan. It was one of those moments where you realise that you really did not want to do the thing that you had planned to do, and instead were hoping deep down that something would go wrong making your plans impossible. Maybe you thought that it might rain that day, or that your boss or crush would stay home sick and not be around, and so you couldn't approach them even if you wanted to. Cassie now realised that she didn't really want to put her life on the line for a case that she had so little information on - even if people were being experimented on. Still - this was her job, and she had nothing else, nothing but the promise she made to herself; finish this job and escape this rock. Be happy. So that's what she'd do. Brushing a clump of red hair from her mouth, and tucking it behind her ears she reached up to the lip of the disposal shaft, and pulled herself up with the aid of her feet against the chain link fence. After some awkward balancing in the mouth of the shaft, she managed to get on top of the duct. From here the ladder wasn't so far away, looking down she was just over the yard of the building - officially inside the fence; so far, so good. She crept over to the edge of the shaft which began to curve upwards, all too aware of the creaking noises it made with each step - she nervously realised that hadn't considered whether it would be able to support her weight. Balancing on the edge of the duct Cassie reached out and let herself fall forwards towards the wall, putting her hand in easy grasping range of the ladder. Pulling herself out and on to it was easy and she began to climb, relieved that the most difficult part was over. The top of the roof hadn't been visible from the ground, now that Cassie was up here she saw that there were four skylights arranged in a square in the middle of the roof. They were frosted and so she wouldn't quite be able to tell exactly what was going on inside, but she quietly padded her way over to them to see if she could make anything out. Looking down Cassie could see no movement, just a mess of brown and grey - there were no lights on from what she could tell. Cassie thought that curious. She would have expected to see something, after all - she knew that there were people inside. Standing up and taking a look around Cassie noticed for the first time the view of the city from the rooftop. From up here she could see the buildings rising like a menacing beast, but she was high enough up that she could see further, past the slums and huge towers, towards the center of the city shone an incredible array of colours; countless neon signs lighting up the night. It looked to Cassie like a dragon sleeping, curled up on a pile of glittering gold. Beautiful and terrible. To Cassie the city was mostly that second one. She turned back, tearing herself away from the view and focusing on her work. She crept over to the opposite edge of the roof and took a look down at the walkway she had seen from the ground. It was high up on the building and was not too far away, she could probably lower herself down to it without making too much noise, then she could hope that the door was either unlocked or easily picked. There were also some ventilation shafts on the roof, massive, wide things that could easily fit Cassie. The choice was between the potentially safer, but unknown option of the shaft or lowering herself down and hoping she didn't get stuck on the walkway with no way of getting through the door and no way of getting back up to the roof. Cassie chose the shaft. The grid on front came away with some effort, making just enough noise to make Cassie feel uneasy. Still, no alarm, and nothing to be heard inside. This whole thing was going far too smoothly so far, she would have expected to hear something, or to have met some kind of resistance by now. The interior of the shaft went straight down for a good 10 meter drop or so, but thankfully each section had connections that gave Cassie foot and handholds, making for an easy climb down. The vent groaned with every wrong move Cassie made, and the fear and effort to be as smooth as possible was starting to make her sweat profusely. With much relief she came finally to the bottom which ended in a short L-section that seemed to lead out to the interior of the warehouse. Cassie took a deep breath and made her way on hands and knees to the edge of the vent. She had worried that the shaft might end hanging in the air, over nothing, but to her great relief she saw a dark room outside the grill. Cassie lay waiting for several minutes that stretched so long they felt like hours. She was inside the warehouse now, the Denom building - and yet she hadn't heard a peep, no lights, no movement, nothing. Somehow, this stillness made Cassie even more nervous. Like the whole building with her in it would go up in flames at any second. Eventually, she grew the courage to remove the grill as quietly as she could; which wasn't quite quietly enough for her. Her fear and stress were really causing Cassie to sweat a lot now, and every movement she made seemed like it required too much effort. Like she was walking for the first time. Peeking out, Cassie couldn't make much out in the darkness. The floor wasn't too far down thankfully - she was able to draw her self out and lower herself fairly quietly to the ground. Nothing moved. In the darkness Cassie's imagination went wild - visions of the strange creature she had seen a few nights before clawed at her in the darkness - and the silhouettes of melting men played at the corners of her eyes. She waited a few minutes for her eyes to adjust to the low light, and the demons slowly left her. She was in a fairly typical office, a small room with enough space for a desk and chair, a potted plant in the corner, and not much else. Relieved - but also slightly disappointed - Cassie snooped around the desk. Nothing interesting. Just a bare desk with not a single item in the drawers, save an old piece of string. Strange, the place didn't seem used at all. The door was an old-fashioned type, just a dumb door with no access control. Cassie padded up to it and took a look through the keyhole, the door led to a walkway on the upper reaches of the Denom building. It was lighter out there, due to the ambient light of the city flooding in from the skylights above. She gingerly tried the handle - it was unlocked. Slowly prying the door open Cassie took a better look at the interior of the warehouse. From up here she had a good vantage point from which she could see the entire area of the main part of the building. It was entirely empty. Just a few old boxes here and there - nothing. No machinery, no secret lab, no people, not even miscellaneous stored goods - just nothing. Had she really spent all that time worrying about breaking into an empty warehouse? She'd thought this day could be her last, but all her worries; and efforts had come to naught. Disappointment gave way to a sudden surge of determination in Cassie - she had seen that mysterious man the other night; he had come from this building. She had also seen the transport drone; there had to have been people in it, and it came into this building. She had seen these things, and yet - there was nothing here. No - this only made the whole situation worse. There had to be something - people don't just vanish. With a sudden sickness, she thought back to the first night of this case. Mostly, people didn't just vanish. Cassie made her way along the walkway, down the steps along the wall to the ground. The room was mostly just flat grey concrete, just space for storage. In the shadows Cassie saw there was a door on the back wall of the room, the only other interesting feature of the room was the loading bay which was also on the back wall - currently closed with a retractable metal sheet. Cassie cautiously crept through the empty room in the direction of the door. She needed to check every room in the building; make sure there really were no people around before she considered other options like hidden doors or passageways. Pressing her ear against the door Cassie heard nothing once more, just the empty silence of a darkened room. She creaked open the door and was met with nothing but an old kitchen, the kind of place workers might have their lunch. There was nothing of interest here, and the room only had one other door that just lead out to the back of the building. Relaxing a little now, Cassie let out a long held breath. She was alone. For now. She hadn't seen any cameras or security features on the way down here, so with a little luck she would be able to take her time and try to figure out where these people had gone - why had they come here? Cassie sat down breathing heavily and running her fingers through her hair. She needed to focus. Sometimes when she got distracted she'd start to wonder why she even bothered putting her life on the line for this kind of work - what was the point? The whole thing just seemed ridiculous; she was sitting in an old abandoned warehouse in the middle of the night, chasing a melting man, a strange creature, and an evil corporation that was ripping peoples minds apart. Maybe this was all a fantasy, the product of a sick mind in the middle of a quarter-life crisis. Cassie laughed to herself in the dark. Then shook herself out of it. She needed to keep going. She'd figure this out, then leave this place and never come back. Tomorrow night she'd be getting herself a ticket to earth. She stood up, brushed her hair behind her ears, and wrapped her coat around her. Time to work.
The kitchen didn't hold any secrets, it was very old, very dusty, and had only a couple of round tables and chairs. Nothing of interest - she needed to look for areas where the dust had been disturbed or there were obvious use-marks. She walked on out to the warehouse floor, less cautious now. The building wasn't particularly big, for a warehouse on a mining station it was actually quite tiny. She couldn't imagine what use it would be out here, most of the storage buildings like those owned by Zenith were enormous, miles long things filled to bursting with rare metals and other products of the mining operations on Station 17. Pacing the outer wall of the building Cassie didn't see any obvious signs, so she continued circling around the interior - slowly moving inward. After a while she gave up on the main floor of the building; there was just nothing there. It was all totally empty space, with no sign of recent use. Either there really was nothing there or these people had disguised their secrets well. She took a look over at the loading bay. It too was completely unused - maybe not even functioning anymore from the look of the motorised doorway. She was getting frustrated now, and trying less and less to be quiet. She checked every square inch of the building with no luck whatsoever. Not a mote of dust was out of place, the entire place was deserted and looked like it had been for years. Cassie threw herself down on the floor out of annoyance and wracked her brain - there had to be something. She was missing some obvious clue. She had to be. She watched that man leave, and that transport drone definitely flew in here. Cassie began to pace back and forth, wall to wall. Where did they go? She was halfway across the room when her foot caught something and she fell face-first on to the concrete floor. She stifled a curse under her breath, hands and knees smarting from the impact and rolled herself over to get a better look at what had tripped her. There was nothing there. But her foot had hit something hard, she knew it - her stubbed toe was testament to that. Cassie sat up and inspected the spot she had fallen from. There really was nothing there. Maybe it got knocked away? It felt like a heavy object, or one bolted to the ground. She waved her hand across the area, and it knocked into something small and hard. There was nothing there. Reaching out, she probed at the thing with her fingers - it felt like a bolt. There was a low flash of light and a little metal screw-like object appeared in between her fingers. Was this the same sort of tech she had seen the night before - she had watched the blurred man enter some kind of invisible vehicle or structure after all. Cassie had a sudden shiver run down her spine as she realised what this meant. If these people could apply this tech to any object then she could have missed lots of things on the way in here. She could be being watched by invisible drones or cameras right now. But she was still here - why would they let her get this far if they could see what she was doing? Nervously, she pressed down on the nub like screw, it slid into the ground with some resistance and then shot back up with a startlingly loud "THUNK" which echoed all around the room. Shit, Cassie panicked and ran to the doorway into the kitchen. Just in case.
Nothing happened at first, the echoes died away and silence buried the building again. As she watched from the kitchen door she began to wonder after a while if anything was going to happen at all. Then, after several minutes of nothing Cassie saw a seam appear across the area where the invisible bolt was - light began to bleed through as the concrete slowly separated. Cassie watched with widening eyes as the ground rearranged itself; it folded up like sheets of paper, some sliding in beneath the main floor, others regressing down into the earth forming shapes. In seconds it was over and Cassie was presented with a set of steps leading down, a warm red light flooding up into the warehouse. It looked so natural - like it had always been there. Relief filled Cassie - she had found it. She didn't know what it was, but she had found it. This was it. Tonight was the night - either she would die here, or she would crack this case. Cassie took a deep breath, fixed herself, and strode out towards the steps.

Chapter 14

Cassie moved out cautiously towards the warm light in the middle of the room. She hadn't heard anything since the steps had finished constructing themselves, the silence had returned and all she could do was move forward. As she neared the steps apprehension grew inside her. Whatever the blurred man was doing in here, wherever the transport drone had taken whoever was inside it - it was down there. What horrors would she find there? She had seen so much already, and there was only so much she could take. It had all seemed like a dream to her up until now, something that wasn't made real until it looked her in the eye. Finally reaching the top of the steps she looked down. At the bottom was a doorway, not like the others in the building. This was a modern slide door. It could probably read her vitals, tell if she had permission to enter. Maybe it just wouldn't open for her and she'd have to go back? She could hope. Cassie gritted her teeth and lifted her left foot out into the air above the first step. She wasn't the type to turn back at a moment like this. This was do or die for her. She was beginning to wonder whether she cared at all about this particular case, or if she was just using it as a way of allowing herself to move on, to leave this place. Do this one thing - and she'd let herself go. She shook her head - it didn't matter; then she pressed on down the steps. At the bottom she came up against the door, and walking forward it slid open silently before her; revealing a long featureless corridor lit by warm light. So much for that - but why had it opened? Cassie felt more and more that she was walking into a trap - she still hadn't heard a sound. The corridor smelled earthy, and nothing moved down its length. From the doorway she could see that at one end the corridor gave way to more steps leading farther down. Cassie didn't like it, but if this was a trap she'd deal with the consequences when the time came. She took her first step through the door, and strode down the corridor. If there was one thing Cassie was good at, it was walking headlong into certain failure with a confidence that could only be described as delusionary. She made it all the way down to the bottom of the musty corridor - still not a sound nor sight of anything or anyone. She came to the second set of steps but this time she kept on; she had momentum in her confidence now, she had to keep going or she'd lose it. The second set of steps went down much further than the first, so that Cassie knew she must be quite far underground now, the smell changed from musty to damp and the corridor curved around to the right power cables snaking along it like vines. Cassie kept on, this corridor was longer than the last and the curve meant that she couldn't see too far ahead of her. It was unnerving and her confidence was beginning to falter; she kept going however, knowing that if she stopped she'd give in to fear and be unable to take another step forward. Finally after following the curving corridor for what felt like hours Cassie came to a gate. It was an old bolt lock gate like you might find on a park entrance or on an old-fashioned prison cell. It was unlocked. Once again Cassie noted how easy this all was. Once again she ignored those facts and pushed on. The lighting made a sudden change now, the warm lights giving way to dim white that lit the area in such a way that no matter how many lights there were it still felt ominous, dark. Cassie continued on and up the set of concrete stairs on the other side of the gate. The stairs seemed to go on forever, this was it - whatever she had come here for; it would be at the top of these stairs. Finally she reached the top, and was presented with a door. The door was a heavy duty one. Fireproof, secure, it was a serious door - the kind you put in to protect important places. In the middle of the door was etched in large, imposing characters: ZENITH INDUSTRIES. "Well," she thought - "can't turn back now.", she spat, half to get rid of the nervous saliva pooling in her mouth, half because it felt like the kind of thing a fearless hero would do before the final battle. Then she pushed through. She was not surprised when the door opened easily. The door led through to a much wider room with thick glass on either side, stretching on to another doorway on the opposite end from Cassie. The areas behind the glass were filled with shrubbery and trees on one side, and a concrete maze on the other - it reminded her of the rooftops above the slums. Light poured up from sparse, but dramatic floodlights pointed upward at angles that cast strange shadows on the walls and rooftops, and among the trees. The grey light and dark shadows made Cassie feel like she was in an old black and white detective film, the world devoid of colour, but for the few bright shades of green and red she could make out that seemed all the more impactful. Peeking in through the glass Cassie could see nothing that moved; just the shadows playing tricks on her, feigning movement when there was nothing there - the silence combined with the lighting and props created a deeply unsettling feeling in the pit of Cassie's stomach. Standing still here made her feel vulnerable, so she kept moving. What a strange place - what could it be for? Someone had put an awful lot of effort into these fake biomes. The opposite doorway led through to a fork, a left passage that led to a well-lit corridor with many doors off each side, and a set of double doors straight ahead. The glass windows in the doors revealed nothing but blackness on the other side. Cassie chose the dark path and pushed through. She took a sharp breath and stopped in her tracks as the doors silently swung closed behind her. The room was near pitch black, but in the darkness she was presented with thousands of tiny red lights that ran to her left and right as far as she could see. They hung like eyes in the darkness, watching her. From all around came a quiet, soft rush of air, back and forth like a gently sleeping giant. The effect was overwhelming, oppressive; like a thousand demons in the dark just waiting for Cassie to step too close so they could tear her to shreds. She stood there for a while, waiting for her eyes to adjust and as they did she began to see shapes in the greying dark. Like shelves - thousands of them in regimented lines stretching away into the distance. Cautiously, Cassie moved in for a better look. As she did so she saw that they weren't shelves, but racks - for people. Each rack held a person, strapped in, cables emerging from their mouths and noses like thick tentacles. Plugged in. This was a farm. A mind farm. She had heard stories but like most people, she assumed they had been made up to scare young children from spending too much time plugged in. Cassie felt sick - how many people were in this vast complex? There was no end to the rows and rows of people strapped into these racks. From where she stood Cassie could see elderly people, teenagers, male, female; people at all stages and walks of life were represented here. She had wondered where Zenith could be getting their subjects from - now she knew. Still, she wondered; surely the disappearance of these people must have been noticed? Station 17 had a dangerously low population, and it was steadily growing older year by year. Was she to believe that all of these people had just been taken from the streets and no one had noticed or raised an eyebrow? What about their families? There were kids in here! It smelled to Cassie - something strange was happening. There was no way these people could have been taken from Station 17. There would be widespread panic, people would have been looking for the perpetrators. Cassie turned back through the double doors - she didn't want to spend any more time than she had to in there. Standing in the forked passage she realised that she probably had enough - she could most likely walk away right here and hand this over to authorities. One of the larger private enforcement companies, or maybe the government of Earth. They'd love any excuse to reduce the power megacorps like Zenith had over the voting populace of the system. She could hand all the information she had gathered over to them and just walk away. Get on the next ship heading off this rock and never look back. Standing there in the dim light she was tempted. She had done her job. Still - there was too much she didn't know, mysteries unsolved. The creature, the man, the why of it all. She had to know. The whole thing had been so easy so far. Whether it was a trap or just a recklessness born of perceived invulnerability on the part of Zenith she didn't know, and she didn't much care to think too hard about it. Cassie pushed through into the lit corridor. She had made her choice - there was no going back. Not until she knew. The doors here were labelled, "Meeting Room 29A" was the first door on her right. It looked deserted. The lights were on but no one was around. Cassie looked down the wide corridor, it tailed off to the left - a parallel to the darker corridors she had come through on the way here. The ones with the glass. The whole place was spotless - clinical, like a hospital or a lab where contaminants were a real risk. She followed the corridor around passing dozens of doors to meeting rooms or labs, hearing nothing, seeing no-one. Cassie paused outside a door on her left; the sign said "Observation Chamber 3". Cassie paused - then pushed through, entering the room.

Chapter 15

The room was dark but as Cassie stepped in the lights came on in rows. Clack, clack, clack. A bright white light filling the room. There was a long desk in the middle of the room where hologram projections started, showing whatever they had been left on. Graphs, and figures that Cassie could not decipher. The room was almost empty, but for some offline computing docks. Any-purpose computing power, usually that kind of thing was bought and used off the net whenever it was needed, whatever data they held here; they didn't want it leaving this building. Cassie continued to the opposite end of the room where there were two large blacked out windows. An interface appeared in her HUD as she approached, controls for allowing light through one way, the other, or both ways. She hit the command allowing her to see through but no light from her end to pass through to the other side. The window rearranged and in seconds she was presented with the constructed area filled with trees she had seen on her way here. What were they watching in there? She looked for several minutes, trying to discern anything of interest but found nothing. Maybe it was the plants themselves? Did they have some strange properties? That didn't make any sense - if you wanted to study a plant you could just walk up to it and take a look. Then as she turned to walk away she noticed something in the corner of her eye. Movement? Her eyes traced the edge of the tree up to one of the thick lower branches. There was something there. In the shadows. She couldn't quite make it out, but there was a large creature attached to the branch, it was sitting in such a way that she wouldn't have been able to see it at all from the other side, on the way here - and from the observation post it was nearly invisible because of the arrangement of shadows across it. Cassie only noticed its presence at all because when looking directly at that spot the shadow seemed a little bit too...large - like she should be able to make out the next branch over. Still, she couldn't make out any details - she just knew that something was there. Then it moved. Scuttled, even. It was fast enough that Cassie still couldn't tell what it was. But - that sound, the tapping; she knew that sound from the night she had started this case. It was the creature she had seen that night. She knew. Cassie stood frozen for several minutes, but the creature didn't come back into view. Did it know she was here? Could it smell her? The awful sniffing sounds it had made came back to her. Sweating, Cassie turned off the one way screen and hurriedly left the room. She kept going along the lit corridor, more frantic now; she needed to hurry. She had heard nothing and it was the middle of the night but she had seen that transport drone enter the building and those people had to be here, somewhere. Suddenly, she saw a figure up ahead. Slipping off into a nook by the side of the corridor Cassie glanced out. It was a man, heavily augmented and holding a large rifle - a guard? So she had finally come across her transport drone. "Alright," she thought edging out, "I just need to move out to the right...". The guard wasn't paying much attention as she slipped out of her nook and around down the forked passage. Letting a breath out she saw a short corridor with a single room at the end. The door read "Dr. Lavagen - Head of Research". Perfect. She entered without hesitation to a small office with a desk and lamp. There was a stack of e-reports on the desk. Picking one up projected a hologram with text and graphs into the space in front of Cassie. Reading through it she couldn't quite understand based on the technical jargon what exactly they were talking about. One line caught her attention however; "Hosts demonstrate enhanced motor skills while maintaining basic self perception and cognizance.". She opened another one; "While not instantaneous the evaporation method destroys the specimen quickly, leaves very little trace and can be easily implemented in current chips...". Immediately Cassie saved the report to her own storage and began to save the others as well - she was sure there would be enough evidence in here of what they were doing. As she made her way to the door she set her computer to begin sending the files, as well as the location of this hidden lab out to all the major enforcement agencies and the justice department of Earth - maybe at least one of them would care enough to take a look. If she was lucky they might even decide to do something. She opened the door, then immediately slammed it shut. "Shit.", a pair of armed guards walked past down the corridor she had come up and she heard voices. It had been too easy up until now. She had known something was wrong - at the very least she got the important stuff out to the world. Now she'd have to think fast if she wanted to get out of here alive. She slowly creaked open the door, a young woman approached the door - she was reading something on a hologram and didn't notice Cassie. "Shit, shit, shit.", she'd have to think of something and fast, "fuck!". Looking around the room there was nowhere to hide, nowhere she could run, this room was a dead end. Cassie pressed herself up behind the door and waited. It was only a few seconds, but her heartbeat was going a mile a minute. The door burst open and Cassie immediately cracked the woman around the jaw with her augmented fist, her head jolted from the impact and her neck went slack. Cassie caught the woman's limp body and laid her down in the corner. That wasn't exactly planned but it worked out well, considering. She had to go. Now. Leaving the room she made her way to the end of the corridor - the guards that had gone down the way she had come were out of sight now. If she was lucky they'd have gone into one of the side rooms and Cassie could get out of here. The lone guard at the door was gone, though there were some more people in white lab coats deep in conversation outside the door. Cassie decided it was best to ignore them and just walk away; with some luck they wouldn't notice her. She strode down the corridor, summoning all of her reserves of confidence. Maybe if she put a bored look on her face they'd think she worked there? A man with large rifle stepped out from a nearby room whistling. He gave a gesture into the room as Cassie passed him. She heard laughter from the room but kept on going. Did he really not see her? Her question was answered a few seconds later. "Hey...you - I need to see some ID!". Cassie took a deep breath and walked faster. "Hey! Come back here!". She made a left - she could see the door she had entered the clean lab area from. The guard was shouting now, Cassie heard him start running, cursing loudly. She broke into a sprint for the door; it was so close! Adrenaline surged through her body as she slammed into the door driving through into the dark corridor. She kept going, bounding down the steps and past the observatory; trying not to think about what was inside or what it could do to her if it got out. The trees rushed by but she kept her vision planted straight forward. Dim lights flickered past her like torches on the walls of a tomb - she could hear more frantic shouting and feet smacking the concrete behind her now. She half fell, half ran down the next set of steps to the door with Zenith printed on it. Finally she was down in the curving tunnel, still running; her legs burned but she could barely feel it - she was on the home stretch. The corridor wound around for what felt like miles as Cassie ran, lungs gasping, the rush of air past her ears like a high wind in a storm. She started to slow and her body began to give out as she saw the door appear ahead of her the exit; freedom! She could leave all this behind her. Be done. She approached the doorway and put her hand out to steady herself, heart about to burst from the exertion, she took three deep breaths; then walked through to the darkness of the warehouse behind the door. Into the barrel of a gun. Cassie stopped dead. Eyes adjusting to the change in lighting she couldn't see much, three figures stood ahead of her.
"You did well, Cass.", She knew that voice. "Didn't think you'd have the balls, to be frank," the voice continued "moping around drinking all day, feeling sorry for yourself. Hah.", it was a woman, she cleared her throat and spat on the ground.
"Philla.", it didn't make any sense. Cassie's vision cleared and confirmed what she had suspected, two militant guards to either side of her. "Why - I don't understand...".
The big woman laughed, "It's my job idiot. You didn't think I was actually your friend did you?" She grinned; "Thanks for the drink by the way.". It didn't make any sense - "Your job? I don't get it...you work for Zenith?".
"I'm a plant you might say, I find you dissident types, befriend em', try to figure out your plans and then..." she made a cut-throat gesture, "pull em up by the roots.". The fat woman smiled. "You were easy Cass, a deadbeat bitch with no prospects - I just had to butter you up a little and you'd talk all night." she laughed again. Her laugh made Cassie feel nauseous, and the sting of betrayal bit at her. She stood there numb, trying to take it in, trying not to let that tear escape. "Bitch.", she said it under her breath but with a fury. Then she shouted it, "You fucking bitch!", she made a move to lunge at her but was promptly reminded of the gun against her temple. "Now, now, Cass; settle down - you really are such a sore loser.", the woman chortled; the sound disgusting to Cassie. Her red eye now reminded her of the droids Zenith employed. "When you told me about your latest case I just had to play a little game you see. I figured I'd just hand the answers to you on a silver platter and if you were going to be any trouble you'd take the bait and I could take you out then and there. Best way to catch a fly? Invite it in for tea. And you came, you did beautifully too - you're a good dog Cass, sniffing around. But you're just so stupid, really. You thought it would be that easy? Just waltz in here and away you'd go? Idiot.", the woman cleared her throat; clearly she was enjoying this. "I was watching you the whole time you know, stumbling around, crawling in the ventilation shaft?", she laughed again, "Fantastic entertainment Cass, really. I'm amazed you actually found the nub, figured you'd give up when you saw there was nothing here but you surprised me! Then all I had to do was wait for you to come running.". Cassie's whole body was numb - of course, she had known there was something wrong. It had just gone too easily, too smoothly. What an idiot. She should have played it safe and left. Now she was staring down a barrel. Philla frowned, "I did not expect that you'd get far enough to make it to the director's office. Those documents you sent out - yeah we've been monitoring you - they could prove to be a problem for us. But that's an issue for tomorrow. Get on your knees.". Cassie didn't respond. "Down, shithead!" forcing the barrel of her gun into Cassie's forehead. But she was done, didn't care anymore. "Go to hell.". The big woman grunted and cracked Cassie on the jaw with the butt of her gun. It all went black.

Chapter 16

Blurred vision gave way to a dim setting as Cassie came to. Staring down at her legs, arms tied behind her back. Her head hung limp as she breathed in forcefully. Jaw aching with a pain that shot down her neck like electricity. She slowly raised her head. She was sitting at a small square table, in total darkness save for the single bright white light that shone down in a thin cone directly onto the little table. The stark contrast of the lighting meant Cassie couldn't make anything out at the edges of the room, all she could see was herself, the table, and now she noticed the barely visible silhouette of a man at the opposite end. The combination of the lighting and her spinning head made her feel like she was drifting through the void. Then he spoke.
"I see you've finally come to.", he sounded upper class - the rich on the Station had a particular way of speaking. Differentiating them from the prole. Cassie grunted in response. "Headache? My associate is not the most gracious of captors, I admit. Still - it's nice to finally meet you; Cassandra was it?". She barely stifled a laugh at that, no one had ever called her 'Cassandra'. Instead, she replied in a ragged voice, "Sure.". The man leaned in a little closer. She still couldn't see his face, only his hands on the table, cufflinks reflecting the white light. "You followed me the other night. An excellent job you did too. Why - I hadn't noticed a thing until I flew right over you. Huddling behind those rocks. Bravo!", he smacked the table like it was a drum; "Not many people can follow me for so long undetected. You must have guessed at my radius did you? Excellent job. You must have had quite a shock when I simply - disappeared - before your eyes!". The man was speaking almost theatrically now - like he was telling a funny story to a friend. Somehow that scared Cassie more than anything else; he sounded like the kind of person that would torture small animals for fun. She interrupted him mid-giggle. "What do you want from me? You already know everything, right? You've got me in cuffs...what else could you want?". The man stopped, completely silent for an extended period. "I am here to give you your options. For we all have options, choices, Cassandra.", he paused; "Yours are simple, I will shoot you in the head right here without further ado. Or...you will work for me as my agent. You will infiltrate rival organisations, rise within them, send me their secrets. A specialist!". He tapped the table with his fingers then stood. Leaning into the light, shadows casting down over the face she had seen from a distance a few nights before making him look like some grotesque horror as he smiled; "Your choice." He laid an old style revolver on the table in front of her, then backed off. "Choose.".
The man left the room but Cassie couldn't see a door, she heard only his footsteps dissipating and the soft 'click' of a lock engaging. Her mind was swimming from the pain and the disorientation. Choose? There was no choice here. She would never work for this man. Anger flared up inside her and she struggled against her bindings, but it was no use. She was tied tightly, there was no play in the knot. For an unknowable length of time in the dark room she struggled, knowing it was probably hopeless. He had left the gun - if she could only reach it! But she didn't get close. At last, when she had given up and sunk down into her chair; she heard the familiar 'click' of the hidden door, and the mans footsteps slowly grew louder as he approached.
"What is your decision?", he lifted the gun from in front of her with a pale hand. "Fine. I'll do it.", if she could just buy some time - anything was better than getting shot in the head right here in this chair; she might be able to figure a way out of this. He didn't sound at all surprised, "Excellent. I knew you'd come to this decision. You've made one good choice.", he continued "Now. Of course, you must prove yourself. You'll be taken to a holding cell now, where you will await a test of loyalty. Goodbye for now.". That was that; the footsteps faded away once again. But for now at least, she would live - and that meant she had a chance. When the blurred man left, silence took over. Cassie sat in the darkness, mind racing. There must be something she could do. Some way to get out of here. They knew her now, knew who she was, where she lived, how dangerous she could be to them with the information she held. Even if she escaped somehow, got out of here, was able to board a ship. Even if she made it to Earth, or Mars - they'd still find her. Zeniths tendrils stretched across the entirety of inhabited space. She would never escape them. Not unless she killed Dennis Lagrange, the blurred man. Even then; there was no guarantee that he hadn't instructed her to be watched already. Besides that - Cassie was streetwise, she knew how to keep herself alive when working a case in the dangerous areas of the city; but she wasn't a killer. Even if her life depended on it, even if she got the chance - she didn't know whether she could do it, in the end. Then, as she was lost in thought, the door opened and this time light flooded the room. After so long in the dark Cassie's eyes were overwhelmed by the light and it took her a while to adjust. A set of footsteps made their way over to her, through unclear vision Cassie made out the colours of a guard uniform; dark grey shades with black boots, collar and sleeves ringed at the ends with a white strip. She was pulled to her feet from behind, and it was then that she saw there were two of them, a man at her side, forcing her up, and a woman of average height and build holding the door. They both had emotionless grimaces on their faces like it was just another day at the office and they wanted to get this over with so they could go home. The man walked Cassie to the door where the woman fell in at the other side of Cassie so that she was flanked on each side. The guards wore pistols at their hips and carried electrified stun batons, but thankfully so far they hadn't used them. They walked Cassie down a bare concrete corridor, this place was completely unfamiliar to her - but it looked like a prison, or holding area. She needed to find a way out now, before they got her to her cell. She knew that once there it would most likely be near impossible to escape. Plus - she didn't know how long she had before an order would be put out for her head. They had un-cuffed her to remove her from the seat and not reapplied the handcuffs, that was good, but they still had her tightly held with arms screwed up behind her back. They approached a corner with a reception desk with a low counter built into the wall. Cassie hadn't seen anyone since she'd been escorted out of the cell. If she didn't act she was dead. If she did and she messed up, she was probably also dead, eventually. In a way, she had nothing to lose. As they passed the counter Cassie waited until they were about to come up to the door of the desk then with her augmented arm she generated all the force she could and pushed hard on the man to her right sending him flying through the flaplike entrance. As he hit the ground Cassie turned to the female guard who cursed and went for her pistol - but Cassie already had the baton from her belt which she grabbed mid push as the mans grasp loosened. She turned, cracking the woman across the forehead with the baton and ran as she crumpled heavily to the floor. Cassie sprinted, down the corridor following the signs to the exit. Turning and twisting through countless short concrete walkways she ran. Cassie hadn't met or seen any sign of other staff working down here right now, perhaps because it was the early hours of the morning? Maybe those guards had been called in on overtime or something? Or maybe she just got lucky. It didn't matter. The guards' footsteps could be heard faintly in the distance, in pursuit. But she didn't pay any heed, she wasn't afraid now, she was just doing what she had to. She wasn't running because she'd been caught, she was running because that was her mission - what she had to do right now. Finally, she came to a set of stairs leading up to a flat, bolted trapdoor. There were warnings to employees everywhere here, reminding them to shut and bolt the door and to question any unrecognised persons. Cassie blasted up past the warnings and threw open the bolt, heaving the trapdoors wide. She found herself outside, on the outskirts of the city. After a second she recognised it as being not far from the spot that she had seen the blurred man, Mr. Lagrange, disappear from sight the other night. Taking a second to catch her breath, she slammed the doors shut and blocked them with some large rocks that had surrounded the doors, making them hard to notice if one was just walking by. Then she ran again, straight back in the direction of her apartment. She needed to get some things. Her gun for one - she didn't normally carry it. It was Cassie's opinion that carrying a gun unnecessarily would lead to it being used unnecessarily. She would get supplies, grab her gun, and leave. She didn't know where. It would likely be impossible to get on a ship. Her earlier thought of killing Dennis Lagrange seemed ridiculous now that she had actually escaped. How would she find him? And even if she did - how on Earth did she intend to get away with it? No - she'd probably not be able to get on a ship; but she had to try.
Later, as Cassie left the door of her apartment; likely for the last time, with her few possessions in tow, old revolver tucked into the inside pocket of her long coat, she wondered if she'd ever return. Then banished the thought - no, she'd grown attached to her tiny apartment over the last few years, but it was more a Stockholm syndrome than an actual love for the place. The rain had started up when she was inside, and it now fell in droves as she left. The pitch darkness of the night sky was slowly beginning to gain a little colour as deep night turned to early dawn, adding to the neon orchestra of colour reflected in the falling raindrops. Cassie pulled her coat around her, collar high and red hair falling around her face; it was time to go. She wrapped her fingers tightly around her gun and took a few steps into the night. Then she saw them. Droids. Cassie's breath caught in her throat. Three sets of red eyes reflected and warped by the heavy rain, staring at her with a sense of inevitability. Harbingers of her own personal apocalypse. There, in their midst stood a blurred figure, barely visible in the rain - but she knew he was there. That was fast. How could she ever have thought she had a chance? Stupid. Finally letting out that breath, she dropped her bag and ran.
It was like a dream. The winding city streets flew by beneath her feet. The rain coming down so hard she could barely see a few meters ahead of her. The city a blur of colour. Senseless, meaningless, colours flashing before her eyes. She had been here before. So many times. Chasing a perp', or being chased herself. It was different this time. This time there was no way out. She knew that, the feeling of pointlessness was almost overwhelming. Yet she kept running, kept going, kept fighting. The droids were on her tail, closing on her. Playing with her as they had before. She knew. They could take her now if they tried. They wanted to watch her run. In the back of her mind, her life's various failures and disappointments flashed through her thoughts. So many missed opportunities. So many dead dreams, wasted years, lonely nights. She had missed out on so much in her short life, barely achieved anything, rarely been happy. Why was it that her impending death acted as a mirror in harsh light, suddenly making clear all of the ugliness that had lurked just beneath the surface before. She began to cry as she ran, with the rain it didn't make much difference. She couldn't die tonight. She couldn't. A flame awoke within her as she pushed harder. She couldn't die tonight. She had too much to do. Too much to make up for. She had to live. She owed herself that. Cassie pushed herself up onto a nearby waste unit, then pulled herself up onto the low roof above it. The twisting rooftop maze was her best chance of getting out of here alive. Leaping forward she mounted another, higher section of the rooftop, looking around before she did so she saw the eyes down below. Staring up at her like a pack of wolves watching a deer in the woods. Then they began to ascend. Cassie took off through the lashing rain, half sliding down the sloped opposite side of the roof, she caught her balance and threw herself into a sprint at the bottom, making a hard right down a small rooftop entryway with doors on either side. At the end of the entryway was a short wall and a drop. Running straight at it, Cassie planted one foot on top of the wall then launched herself out into the void. She hit the other rooftop rolling and in one smooth movement came up and back into a run. There was no room for doubt anymore. There were storage sheds to either side of her, constructed from wood and without proper doors, entranceways covered with rough cloth. Cassie threw herself into one. Then she waited, breath heaving in her chest. Drawing her gun, she pulled back the hammer with a click. Her mind was quiet now. Illusion of choice gone, her confidence was absolute, her mind resolute. This was what she had to do. The rain came down. For a while she just waited there in the shade behind the curtain, listening to it. It was such a soothing sound, hammering the wooden roof of the shed. Then she heard it. The 'thunk' of a droid, landing from the opposite rooftop. Just one. It sounded far away through the rain, but she knew it was an illusion. Then she saw the red eyes approach, they shone through the curtain like stars on a canvas. Gun in hand she waited for her moment. She only saw one. She could take one if she caught it unaware. If another saw her, of course, it would be all over. But sometimes you need to take risks. The eyes grew larger on the canvas until she could see them right in front of her. Nothing between them but a sheet. Cassie waited until the eyes turned away, then she drew the curtain back slowly. The droid had turned to look back the way it had come, scanning the nooks and hiding places among the sheds. It didn't notice as Cassie drew her revolver up, lined it up with the back of the droids head, and pulled the trigger. The heavy rain dampened the sound of the gunshot in the night, and Cassie barely heard as the heavy body fell to the ground. One down. She turned and ran, dropping down the gap to the next level. Ahead of her was an open door, an old door. It was the entrance to what was once a grand residence of some politician or aristocrat - now it lay dark and vandalised. A drug den and home to the homeless. The perfect place to lead two droids on the chase. Cassie entered the dark hallway, graffiti covering the walls on either side. As she made her way in through the hallway she noticed the bodies lying on mattresses, high out of their minds. Some laughed, some asked for change, but most just lay there in a stupor. She found herself in a grand reception area, double staircase winding its way up to the next floor. Once beautiful, it was now dark, broken, and riddled with rubbish. As Cassie reached the floor above she heard a scream below. Then a shot. They had found her. Cassie ran a short way down the corridor until she came to a room off the side. From here she could easily see what was happening the corridor and run out the back entrance to the neighbouring room if need be. And so she waited, back pressed against the wall, peeking out. The scream had long since faded, the silence returned to the building like a heavy fog. Cassie heard nothing. Then she saw them. Two droids. They came to the top of the stairs, surveying their surroundings. Then they made off in opposite directions, ignoring the main hallway that Cassie had come down. Cassie chose one, and quietly padded in that direction, following it. By the time she had come back to the corner the droid had passed from her sight, but she followed in pursuit. It was quiet as she passed countless darkened doorways, and her mind couldn't help but imagine a set of gleaming red eyes in each one, watching her. Then Cassie heard a noise, a creaking, she spun on the spot whipping out her revolver and pointing it back in the direction she had come. She was met with the shape of a drugged up homeless man stumbling quietly out of one of the side rooms. Heart racing, she sighed and turned back - just as the droid appeared in front of her. It jerked as if in surprise, then immediately pulled up its stun gun armed hand, as it did so Cassie dropped to the ground in desperation firing three shots straight at it. She thumped hard into the carpeted floor as her last shot took it between the eyes, and it dropped to the floor, stun shot missing Cassie by an inch and ricocheting down the hallway. She lay in shock for a second as she recovered, the sounds of her shots like a dinner bell for demons, echoing down the hall. She had to run.
Sprinting towards the opposite side of the hall Cassie spotted a maintenance stairwell, she twisted mid-run, grabbing the railing as a hail of shots hit the wall next to her face. The last droid - it had found her. She leaped up the stairs and burst through the door at the top, finding herself on the top floor of the large house. Cassie ran through, the thumping footsteps of the droid hunting her echoing in her ears. A large portion of the rooftop was missing here, and so the rain came sweeping in. She turned a corner, splashing through puddles left in the ruined old carpet - sunken and colourless after years of neglect. On the eastern edge of the building Cassie swung into a room. The side of the wall was missing here and the rain came in, streaming down her face, soaking her red hair and sticking it to her face. Back planted firmly against the wall she brought up her gun, checking the barrel. Two shots left. Cassie took a deep breath and stared out through the broken wall at the city beyond. Dark buildings rose dramatically against the sky, neon lights shining through. She closed her eyes against the rain and listened. Footsteps. This was it. Cassie waited until they came closer. She only had one shot if she wanted to be able to defend herself against the blurred man. The footsteps stopped outside her door. She heard the sounds of a droid scanning the area. Just one more step, and hopefully it would have turned away from her room. The step came - Cassie launched herself around the doorway gun in hands. The droid was looking right at her but it didn't matter - she got a bead on its head and fired. The droid dropped. A moment of elation filled her as she realised she had done it - she had beaten them! Then the pain came. A searing pain. She coughed, covering her hand in a spray of blood. Looking down she saw the red stain growing outward from her side,from the dead droids hand rose the fine tendrils of a smoking gun. "No..", she gasped as the realisation dawned on her. She had been shot. Staggering she backed into the room against the wall, sliding down it as the city watched. The droid had taken its gun off stun when it saw its dead comrade. It had put a hole right through her. She cursed under her breath as she sat, assessing the damage. With a herculean effort she got to her feet. Then fell back against the wall. She had come so far. She couldn't give up now. She just had to get back to her apartment. Her syringes. She had dropped them with most of her belongings when she ran outside her apartment. She needed to get back. Cassie struggled to her feet again. Then she heard him. A grim laughter from somewhere in the room. The blurred man. She hadn't seen him enter, hadn't noticed him earlier. "You did surprisingly well, Cassandra.", she couldn't tell where he was. His voice echoed strangely. "I made a little bet with myself you see. I decided that if you managed to kill all three droids, then I would kill you quickly.". She still had one shot. If she could find where he was...
"But, as it happens, I'm not feeling particularly merciful today.", his voice came from everywhere all at once, and the rain didn't help. She looked all around couldn't tell - whether because of the rain or of the growing nausea-inducing pain from her wound - where his blurred form was. "I don't like to be betrayed, you see, Cassandra.", he continued with his monologue, Cassie searching in vain gun held tightly in her hands. "I saw it coming of course. Still. It - rubs me the wrong way.", he paused. "So Cassandra. Here is what will happen. I will shoot you in the stomach. I will stand here and watch the life drain from your eyes - slowly, and with much pain, over many hours. Then, I will go home, and you will be dead. One. Problem. Solved.". In that moment he materialised in front of Cassie, gun almost making contact with her stomach. Cassie looked up at the blurred man. He wore a look on his face that one might have when cleaning out a pet's faeces. Absolute disgust. "Goodbye Cassandra.". Before she knew what was happening she twisted, her augmented arm grabbing the muzzle of the gun and turning with incredible speed. Simultaneously, she raised her own gun to his head and fired. Her shot took off the back of his head, he slumped back, eyes going dead, blood spraying against the wall as he fell. Still; she wasn't fast enough. The blurred man's bullet took her in her other side, force slamming her against the wall, blood spraying from her mouth. Cassie collapsed to the floor. She felt weak now, coughing up more blood, laying sideways on the floor she could see only the still disgusted face of the dead man that had shot her. She struggled, forcing herself upright, and tried to get to her feet. It was no use. Her strength was leaving her. Blood leaking out, pooling around her where she sat, slumped against the wall. She looked up at the night sky. Felt the rain come down on her face once again. It felt good. She couldn't feel much anymore, but she had been like that for a while. She had such hopes. Such dreams. But they came too late. She spat the blood from her mouth, but it was pointless, as more leaked in. An unfulfilling life, slowly meeting an unfulfilling end. She let herself cry, it's not like it mattered. An empty numbness began to eat at her as she stared out at the city, the dark tower of Zenith far in the distance. Staring down at her. A stronghold of all that she despised. She had done one thing right before she died. She had killed Dennis Lagrange. Maybe that would change something on this rock, make it a better place than it was before. Probably not, she thought. Still, she had tried; had fought, in the end. She had fought well, and she hadn't given in. What more could she have done? She cried more now, uncontrollably, as the emptiness filled her. Why? It was all she could think, the only word that came to her mind. Cassie lay there like that for a while, thoughts draining, rain, and tears marring her face. The city watching on as the numbness took over and her mind grew quiet.

THE END.


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