Chapter 45

Steve woke abruptly to the sound of someone pounding on her door. She sat bolt upright, alert but not yet fully awake. Below her, Violet made noises of intense dissatisfaction.

“Steve!” someone’s voice came from outside. “Are you in there?”

More pounding on the door.

“I’m up!” Steve shouted. “I’m up!”

“Shaddap!” Violet murmured.

“You slept through exercises!” The voice, which Steve now recognized as Zap’s, had a definite sense of urgency in its tone. “Our store-wide match is in less than an hour!”

Steve sat silently for a moment as her sleep-addled brain slowly processed the information. Her eyes went very wide as she realized what day it was. “Oh, shit!” she said. “It’s Friday!”

“Yes!” Zap shouted. “Get your ass out of there! Paru’s going to flay you if you’re late for briefing!”

“I’m coming!” Steve threw herself out of bed, tumbling as she hit the floor. She rushed through her morning routine, skipping her shower under the rationale that she’d be getting dirty soon anyway.

Several minutes later, Steve stumbled into the hallway, where Zap was waiting. “Speedy,” he admitted. “C’mon.”

The two hurried down the hallway, talking as they went.

“Why the hell did you sleep in today, of all days?” Zap asked, clearly a little irritated at having to rescue his coworker.

“Violet and I were up late talking,” Steve said. “We were catching up on gossip and shit.”

“Gossip?” Zap asked, a bit incredulous. “You?”

“I like knowing what’s going on,” Steve replied acidly. “Sue me.”

“Anything out there about me?” Zap asked with a small smile.

Steve was silent for a moment. “We can talk about it later,” she said.

“Whoa, what?” Zap asked, his eyebrows raised and eyes wide.

“Don’t worry about it,” Steve said. “We’ve got bigger things to focus on.”

“You—” Zap spluttered. “You can’t just do that! It’s going to gnaw at me until you tell me! What’re people saying about me?”

Steve chewed her lip. “People think you’re neglecting Pazi,” she said.

Zap started, and then shook his head. “I’m not … no, I’m not neglecting her,” he said. “We’re all really busy.”

“But we’re all trapped in the same facility,” Steve said. “And it’s not like we don’t have free time. I think you hang out with me more than you hang out with her. And much as that’s cool for our friendship and all, that doesn’t exactly make you boyfriend of the year, you know?”

Zap lapsed into a fretful silence.

“Look, you really need to not think about that now,” Steve said. “We’ve got a match. You know who we’re fighting?”

“Malachi Park,” Zap said.

“That should be interesting,” Steve said, clearly apprehensive.

“I know,” Zap said. “Nasty neighborhood, tough employees. Lotta intrinsics.”

“At least they’re down Creepy Don,” Steve said.

“More’s the pity,” Zap said.

“Yeah, you’ve got a point,” Steve replied. “I’d love to cap that motherfucker in a company-sanctioned environment. If I could get to him before anybody else.”

The two power-walked out of the dormitories, close now to the briefing room.

“Do you think I’m a bad boyfriend?” Zap asked.

Steve looked away. “Maybe you just haven’t…”

“Haven’t what?”

“Never mind,” Steve said. “Yeah, you could be better.”

Zap frowned.

“Aight, here we are,” Steve said. She looked over at Zap. “You ready?”

“No,” he replied.

“Me neither,” she said. “Let’s go.”

In the control room of the installation’s Kekkai battlefield, several employees of the Securemarket™ were getting ready for the upcoming match.

“Good morning, kids,” Sir Erdrick said to the inhabitants of the control room, closing the door behind him as he entered. He was wearing his standard kit; a business suit with his sword and pistol sheathed at his side. He was also carrying a large travel mug.

“Good morning, Sir Erdrick,” Mya chirped.

“That’s a little too cheerful for ten o’clock, Miss Ai’o,” the knight said.

“So sorry,” Mya said with a smile. “Won’t happen again.”

“Bullshit,” Sir Erdrick growled. “But you’re cute so I’ll let you live.”

“Sir Erdrick, Miss Ai’o is still technically under my care,” interrupted Dr. Wallace, the bespectacled young on-site physician. He was looking out of the window of the observation booth, watching the parties gather below. “I would appreciate it if you toned down your flirtatious banter.”

“Scott,” Sir Erdrick said, raising his eyebrows, “if I want your opinion, I will carve it into your brain myself.”

“Have some coffee before you talk any more, Sir Cranky of Pants,” Mya suggested.

Sir Erdrick sighed heavily and took a sip from his coffee.

“Kekkai or no, I still hate all this,” Dr. Wallace murmured.

“It’s good for them,” Sir Erdrick said, walking up to the large window and peering out of it. “Hard, but good. Every New Washingtonian should have to go through this sort of thing.”

He turned to one of the two Kekkai technicians, who sat near a console shell at one end of the room. The other was at the back of the room, his eye darting between several screens.

“How’s the generator holding up?” Sir Erdrick asked the technician.

“It’s running fine,” the technician said. “Won’t be due for a service until after today’s exercises.”

“Good,” the knight replied. He turned back to the observation window. “This should be very interesting.”

“Why’s that?” asked Dr. Wallace.

“Malachi Park’s employees have, on average, the best weapon certification at this retreat. They’ve grown up in a tough neighborhood and felt threatened most of their lives.”

“And you’re looking forward to watching them mop the floor with 15th Street?” Dr. Wallace asked.

Erdrick laughed. “No,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how Paru handles a challenge.”

Paru surveyed her employees carefully. “All right,” she said. “You’ve been assigned your groups: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.”

The employees, all gathered in their respective groups, shifted their feet; they were all a bit nervous. Alpha group, comprised of some of the more direct combatants in 15th street, stood directly in front of Paru: Alan, Arden, Click, and Loren’s roommate Marlon.

Beta was just to the side, another group of short-range fighters: Emma Rammek, the quarter-dragon supervisor, To’mas’s roommate Michael, May-May Dunaway, and her roommate Prue Smith (the latter two stood very close to each other for reassurance).

On the other side of Alpha was Gamma Team, the longer-range gunners: To’mas, Steve, and Loren (who had been placed in Gamma mostly because his skill with a pistol was far better than his skill as a ground combatant).

Delta Team, the specialists, stood in the rear. The swathed form of Raye Courts-the-Shadows, the floating apparition everybody called “Hollow-Eyes”, Matt, and Zap.

“As you’re all aware, you’re facing a lot of firepower,” Paru said. “Malachi Park has a high level of weapon proficiency, and they’ll be ready for yours. We’ll be using our magic in ways they won’t expect, and that should give us an edge. That doesn’t mean you can falter on the offensive, because a lull in our attack will let them know that something else is coming. Fight as though Delta Team doesn’t exist. I expect you to give everything you have and more.”

Paru shouldered her rifle and swept her gaze over her employees. “We will succeed,” she said. “But only if you use everything you have and kill without mercy. Do you understand?”

The employees murmured their assent.

“I’m sorry, do you understand?” Paru asked again.

“Yes sir!” the employees shouted.