The Vicious Stars

Chapter 1

 

In District 15’s packed streets, Castella swam against the tide. As cheering masses tangled between Boulevard 15’s glossy walls, she slipped through transitory openings, shoving revelers aside too proud to notice her. But at two meters tall she was hard to miss, as was the armored jacket hanging to her knees. It was a gray ballistic weave, stitching together utility pockets and trauma plates. A stiff collar rose to her jaw, covering the bottom of a black helmet that absorbed the street’s holographic sky. It emphasized the orange words burning on her collar.


ARTEMIS, LLC


With a casual sweep of her left hand, Castella removed a blond man ambling ahead. She passed him in the same movement, leaving him to smooth his rumbled silks with a sniff. “Excuse you,” he spat the words at her, “Contractors like you are why this station is going—” gaze catching on Castella’s hip, his objection became a whisper as she vanished into the crowd. “A Samurai?”


The sword was a brutal thing, sheathed in a slightly curved sheath black as the crossguard. It lacked the snarling dragons of its siblings dotting the crowds, while being outnumbered a thousand to one by the guns of the masses. But bouncing on Castella’s hip, it made better time than any of them as District 12’s packed streets parted way.


“...President Bellen-Hanza’s lead expands to point-four points over CRT,” Glamour, Silver Star’s favorite pundit, batted her neon eyelashes from the holographic sky. Crowds cheered, churning mindlessly in self-congratulation. Glamour smiled as if she was on the streets herself. “I’m sure our Syndicate sponsors will be sorry to know most of that lead has come from the Hayabusa Bloc.”


Castella glanced briefly at the show, only to be disappointed by the harmless lights. Turning her attention down to the teal Automap displayed inside her helmet, she took a sharp right to break from the growing celebrations. Bursting out, she stormed down a quiet alley, and she wasn’t alone. Another Artemis Jacket struggled to follow. 


Shorter than Castella, Derek snarled as another pair of drunks closed ranks, reducing Castella to a black shine floating above the crowd., Angrily tugging the rifle on his shoulder, he hunched forward and slipped around them, reaching the alley-mouth as the hem of Castella’s cloak vanished. He hurried after, glaring at the kaleidoscope lights melting along the walls.

The alley was narrow, squeezed by stoops and the rusted cables supporting District 15’s gleaming screens. Cluttered windows offered indiscrete services for discrete customers, from a cybernetic arm in one to a blue vial in another. The colorful denizens lounging on those stone steps watched Artemis Jackets pass with smirks and nods, but didn’t lift a finger to stop them. Soon the corridor ended in a stone archway filled with mist. Holographic blue lights winked there, cordoning off concrete steps slicked by fog. Marching through, Castella shattered the warning into confused pieces that chased Castella an inch before stitching themselves together.

Designated Competition Area – Do Not Enter

Derek stopped at the line with a heavy sight. Beyond the gate was a waist-deep rain basin that fed Gutter 12, one of the open canals dividing Silver Star’s districts. It was quiet, like the moist clouds had devoured the world.    

“Don’t enter? Believe me, I’d rather not,” glowering at Castella’s silhouette, Derek clenched his jaw to mime her growl. “Focus on the job Derek. Find Tam Derek. Pffft, what could go wrong?”  

Thumping down the stairs, he splashed into the murky water. To his right, white curls hid the shoreline, while on his left it trickled over a dam. It was mournfully serene until a notification popped into the lower-right of his visor.

Message From: Silvera

Now Entering Designated Competition Area: Silver Star is not responsible for any Competition-related injuries.

“Yeah, yeah,” Derek deleted the message only to find its twin waiting. Banishing that with a violent swipe, he waded another five feet before a new sender filled his screen.

Message From: Hayabusa Combined Enterprises

This Designated Competition Area is claimed by Hayabusa Combined Enterprises. Please refer to our Stacksite for additional information.

“Oh, come on,” reaching to his visor, Derek crumpled the digital letters in his fist. Then he threw it away, frowning as the rendered image sunk without a ripple. “Pfft, what did I expect?” 

A splash called his attention, just in time to see Castella vault over the dam. “Man, she’s even worse than the Syndicates.” Shaking his head, Derek himself over to admire the vista.

Eighty meters wide at the top and sixty at the bottom, Gutter 15 was a deep scar in District 15’s urban sprawl. When it rained, Gutter 15 became a magnificent river that drowned the steaming trash-plains visible now. Paved with broken bottles, ash, and graffiti the walkway ringing its sloped walls was testament to the view.

“Quiet for a DCA,” Derek frowned at the empty skies above the gutter. “Should be some drones at least. Or a Gunhawk.”

Squinting, Derek cast his eyes over the Mega-Habitations bordering the gutter; vast housing complexes built by Silver Star and subsidized by their promotional walls. Syndicate promotions flickered there along political pieces, both making the same promises: live longer, fight harder, die richer. Everyday was a new mascot, tailored by market-calculus that abhorred the familiar.

Yet there was one face constant amid the chaos-marketing, a woman with cybernetic plates grafted to half her face. Beloved by all of Silver Star, her appearance, no matter how dignified, was an intentional reminder to all of Silver Star that she wasn’t human. Even if they called her their own.

“Silvera,” Derek mumbled at the digital face. “Why don’t you know where Tam is? You’re Silver Star’s resident Daemon, don’t you see everything?”

It was a rhetorical question. Daemons emerged wherever humans gathered, arising from primordial network-soups to become intelligences that acted as librarian, manager, and publisher. Indispensable, they provided a singular access to all digital life. Absorbed in their work, these Daemons adopted the mannerisms of their constituents, adapting to their sensibilities until it merged with the group identity.

And Silvera had been with Silver Star long as anyone remembered. 

“Please be aware, Designated Competition Areas remain in effect until nine PM Friday,” Silvera smiled warmly despite her augments. “Remember to formalize your voter-registration, lock-down exemptions, and travel plans. And now, a word from our President, Rebecca Bellen-Hanza.”

Regal blues washed the gutter as a woman conquered the MegaHab walls. Wearing a dour stare, Rebecca looked like a statue carved from pink marble and scoured by blistering winds. A fitting look for Silver Star’s longest serving President.

“These twelve years have been an honor, and I hope to serve you another four,” splaying her hands on the table, Rebecca brought subtle attention to hundreds of signed documents. “My administration has always worked to protect Silver Star’s independence and strengthen your voices. Today, you choose your future once more. Whatever happens, whoever wins, I implore you to trust the outcome. Our democracy is strong, but so is hate and fear; let neither blind you.”

“Rich coming from you,” shaking his head, Derek jumped. He doubled over upon landing, and the waterfall dribbled down his collar. He stomped away with a shudder. “Damn that’s cold.”

«Quiet. You wanna fight?» Castella’s blunt voice entered his mind courtesy of the Stellar Communications NeuralLink chipped in his neck.

No two people described the NeuralLink the same way, though it was a mainstay of modern life. Derek thought of it as a constellation in the unseen space above his brow or the inside of his skull. Each star was a NeuralLink chip like his own, a bridge between minds. He knew the rough direction of each, just like he knew where his hand was in the dark. When he focused on one, he felt someone breathe, sensed someone’s emotions, and glimpsed ephemeral thoughts. If he focused a little more, he could push his thoughts over.

It was a miracle, which made him wonder when exactly he got used to it.

«You know I don’ but give me a break Cas, we don’t all got steel legs like you.» Derek threw the thought back a Castella’s star. «That was at least a five meter- hey! You even listening?»

----

Castella heard Derek, but she was interested in the corpse slumped against the wall. It was a sad thing, cheeks stained by yellowed overdose-tears. Legs kicked out, it reclined in a rubbish throne, eyes empty as the needle in its arm. Squatting, Castella plucked a second ampule from his lap to admire the azure contents. The tiny sea held all kinds of memories for her.

“This war never ends,” whispering, she grinned at the corpse. “Samurai can change the world, but the world didn’t make the Syndicates. Isn’t that what you said bro?”

«He move?» Twenty feet behind her, Derek slipped the rifle off his shoulder. «Please tell me you’re just talking to yourself again.»

«Relax, just talking.» Tossing the ampule to Derek, Castella slipped a hand behind the corpse’s neck. Finding a metal divot just about the shoulders, pinching a tiny latch buried there, she ripped it out with a wet squelch of metal and bone.

Shuddering, Derek looked to the pilfered capsule in his palm. «This is Syndicate stuff.»

«Mhmm.» Plugging the chip into a port on her sleeve, Castella accessed its logs. Medical alerts filled her visor, detailing a violent spike in neural activity followed by a deadly crash.

Pocketing the vial, Derek ran a facial scan against the corpse: Dexter Takemura, age thirty-five. Grunting, he turned to stare down the gutter. «Not our guy. Hopefully not a Ghost either.» 

«Derek.» Castella misted the interior of her helmet with a sigh, Castella pointed to the apartments veiled in neon clouds and tangled wire. «Why are you so scared of Ghosts?»

«Dunno, maybe because I don’t like the idea of some Nethead hijacking my corpse. I mean this is a fuckin’ DCA, Hayabusa probably offed Tam, we’re just risking our necks down here.» 

«No better on High Street.»

«Uh, Syndicates aren’t legally allowed to shoot us up there.» Fingering a key tied around his neck, Derek looked to the fluorescent sky, criss-crossed by thirty-floors of inexpertly spliced cables. Beneath the metallic clouds, a tram raced along the MegaHab-rail, crammed with colorful advertisements that the gutter soaked up until you couldn’t tell it was filth.

This Line Brought to You By: Hayabusa Combined Enterprises

Derek spat, and the screen flickered in disappointment.

«We’re here because we’re being paid.» Castella prowled off, acidic tone burning Derek’s tongue over the NeuralLink.

«Geesh, say something to Vals if you hate it so much.» Derek pointed a finger toward the overgrown sky, indicating the few twinkles of light poking through. «We could’ve been on High Street instead.»

«I don’t hate this.»

“Excuse me, Samurai,” mumbling, Derek pulled a thin cylinder from his jacket. The underside of his helmet melted away with a thought as he bit tdown. Inhaling to light it, he let the fumes blunt the suffocating chill of Castella’s NeuralLink.

«I like these kind of places, Syndicates shit-holes always bring me back. Puts me in the right mood for violence..» Castella traced her fingers along the worn leather hilt at her side. «And there’s going to be violence.»

«Those Samurai instincts of yours sure are something.» Tipping his chin up, Derek sent his view of the sky over to Castella. «But I prefer facts. Starting with I don’t see any Syndicates.»

«I gave you the facts.»

«Mhmm.» Puffing on the Haze, Derek mentally nudged the Stack-Interface-Gateway chip nested beside his NeuralLink. StackSpace, the digital network of modern life, shimmered across the MegaHab as a lattice of interconnected dots.

Each of those lights was a Stack, an address for a person or organization. There was no point tracking individual devices, not when the average user went through eight a year. Instead the individual was tracked, triangulated from their long history of machines. Modern devices never forgot anything, nor ceased to function, even when left to fossilize under a dozen of newer purchases.

Though Derek’s lightshow was two-dimensional, StackSpace existed in as many dimensions as you could imagine. Most people didn’t bother navigating it at all; not when Silvera would do it for you. But when you wanted to explore or stay anonymous, you did the looking yourself. After some practice, StackSpace wasn’t that different from reality, it was all a matter of perspective.

Accessing Dexter Takemura’s unencrypted Stack, Derek found the usual indulgences of social media, malware, and more intimate material. Seeing nothing unusual, he took another pull of Haze. «What’s so important about this CRT kid? Rebecca’s gonna win anyway?»

«Everyone wants a fair election.»

«You included?» Derek snorted softly. «Thought you preferred swords to ballots.»

«We sold out.» Turning her chin to the drooping sky, Castella scowled as a raindrop smeared the watercolors falling on her visor. «Rebecca’s got a whole city to do her dirty work but here we are.»

«Ya don’t say.»

Derek didn’t notice his mood leaking into Castella’s NeuralLink, a melancholy that sucked her shoulders into her stomach. A vision accompanied it; Rebecca Bellen-Hanza standing before a burning city while Castella, from Derek’s point of view, pointed a knife at the woman’s throat.

Castella looked his way. «Looks like we can agree on something.»

«That’s none of your damn business.» Withdrawing from the NeuralLink, Derek grabbed that key about his neck. His eyes went elsewhere, to another passing tram. Its sides flickered, searching for the highest bidder before settling on a young woman, holding out a hand.

You Can’t See Hell from Heaven - VOTE CITIZENS FOR REFORM TODAY

“Pfft.” Castella snorted, but Derek caught the slogan across the NeuralLink, bouncing around in her head as she tore her eyes away: You can’t see Hell from Heaven.

«No way.» His surprise gave way to a grin. «That bothers Cas the Samurai?»

«You ever try to change the world?» She started walking. «Don’t bother.»

«You ever try with anything besides a sword? I’d take CRT over Samurai any day, just look at that shit.» Derek glowered at the gutter-wall on his right. A graffiti skull glared back, crimson eyes gloating as bullet-studded mandibles gnawed a bleeding title.

LAW & MURDER

«Law.» Castella locked eyes with the design. It rekindled old memories, igniting the tattoo on her shoulder like so much oil. «Yeah, Silver Star sure knows how to make Samurai.»

«That’s my point.» He released the key with a sigh. «Sword arm never gets tired, does it?»

«I’m right-handed.»

«Should practice with your left then, could cut a truck.»

The remark made Castella’s three metal limbs throb like bruised flesh. Steel doesn’t feel; that’s what everyone said, but eight years and her augments hadn’t caught on. The only thing they didn’t seem to feel was fatigue from slogging through a gutter so hot it cooked trash into opaque sweat-mist.

The rain picked up, millions of hard pellets intent on drowning Castella. Filtering through the tangled sky, the rain shattered High Street’s radiance into countless jewels. Her scowl deepened. Five days ago, she’d been anxious to leave that delirious neon haze.

“Now, look where I am,” she muttered with a deep breath.

The rain smelled old; recycled one too many times as it fell from Heaven. Housed above even High Street, Heaven was a distant paradise. Yet Silver Star’s waste-heat pooled in those climes and were kept in check only by the Spring winds of climate controls. Every eight hours, these machines vented their heat-stained waters in a process called Equalization. No doubt there was a more efficient system, but Angels liked a storm now and then.

Derek rolled his shoulders as the rain thickened. He glimpsed a holographic cloud passing over head; a fist holding a katana wreathed in lighting-blue. Bushido Radio: Law’s Favorite Station. Just looking dragged him into the broadcast, along with a million others, as the stream hijacked a quarter of his visor. A man appeared, gaunt cheeks gleaming in the white glare of his glasses.

“Justice,” monotonous as static, he drew a card; the weeping skull on its face holding golden scales in its teeth. “A potent omen on election night.”

“Great, first the Syndicates, now the crazies. Just my luck,” shaking his head, Derek closed the broadcast to focus on an Artemis NeuralLink floating in the MegaHab to his left.

«See anything Ein?»

«Lots.» Although he’d been with Artemis four months, Ein’s voice still missed a veteran’s edge. «But I think I might have found Tam.»

Derek dipped into Ein’s mind. Through a riflescope, he peered at a stretch of walkway some twenty meters ahead of him. He counted a dozen oblong shapes strewn amid the usual debris, the metal of clean cybernetics glinting here and there. His stomach knotted itself into a ball that sunk to his feet.

«It gets worse.» Ein’s tone was tight as he moved his aim across the gutter.

Tio’s Bar and Grill sat between two MegaHabs, but its lower patio opened into Gutter 15’s walkway. Since it was situated within the local DCA, Derek expected Syndicates forces, but even with Ein’s warning he was surprised.

The squad wore what looked like overlapping chitin-plates, each of which was composed of scales that covered pockets of shear-thickening fluids. Designed to resist Syndicate-grade weapons, the armor was as much an identifier as the silver letter inked on their shoulder.

DREAD.

Daemon Regulation, Enforcement, and Detainment had a thuggish reputation, one Silver Star was quick to forgive. They were responsible for keeping foreign Daemons out; if they had to shake you down, hijack your Stack, or smash your door, it was a small price to pay for the station’s continued independence. It was a different story if you weren’t a citizen.

Derek’s brows pinched. «Why weren’t they in briefing?»

«They’re not the only ones.» Ein moved his sights over to the bar’s wall where Derek saw more of those unsettling lumps, piled against the street-side wall like kindling. Seven of them had been separated and propped against the wall. One wore Hayabusa’s bronze phoenix on his shirt, along with a wire running from his neck to a thin-faced DREAD officer.

A second DREAD stood nearby, wearing armor Derek didn’t recognize. It looked like a baggy drysuit, topped by a cowl that spilled cables down his chest. Despite his appearance, the DREAD stood stiff as a machine.

«Man…» Derek inhaled slowly. «Glad we got Preferred Partner status.»

«Relax.» Castella shared her slow pulse. Over the NeuralLink, Derek felt her savoring these fraught moments when her three dead limbs were more than dull phantoms. «On the same side aren’t we? And if we’re not…» She touched her waist. «That’s why I’m here.»

«We’re not looking for trouble.» Derek waved her down before reaching into StackSpace. “Silvera, ID the Hayabusa Synder. And why is DREADs searching him?”

Message From: Silvera

Hello Preferred Partner! Requested individual is Hayabusa Employee 9817 in the Silver Star database

I have attached video footage pertinent to your second question.

Seeing the footage’s metadata originated from Silver Star’s docks, Derek switched it on.

Hayabusa Employee 9817 departed his executive shuttle with a bodyguard and the dangerous swagger of implanted muscle-memory. Silver Star had seen the likes of both before, and neither was enough to impress, but the obstinate crowds shuffled out of his way. Derek nearly did too, for a golden halo swaddled him in StackSpace. Even as he submerged himself in the chaos, his light shone bright.

Most people didn’t bother with encryption; preferring to blend in with the crowd. Rare was the individual who installed a Blackwall, software that appeared as an obsidian lattice in StackSpace, and cooked alive unwanted guests with their own overclocked hardware. Unusual as Blackwalls were, a Goldwall was something new.

But that hadn’t stopped him from ending senseless as DREADs feet. 

«So DREADs took out Gold-boy even with that tech? Too bad.» Castella leaned forward, squinting across the gutter. «Was looking forward to fighting some Synders.»

«Castella, we are not getting involved.» Grabbing her elbow, Derek highlighted the golden shimmer still flickering around Employee 9817. «If they took him out, they can take us out, Preferred Partners or not.»

«Yeah?» Castella pointed to the mounds in the walkway. «And what if they offed Tam?»

«Cas is right, we should make sure they don’t hurt anyone else.»

Derek winced at Ein’s hopeful tone. «That a good reason to die?»

«We’re just going to see what we can find first. Maybe it’s all a misunderstanding.» Casella’s hand drifted to her katana. «If it isn’t? Ein drops smoke and I take care of the rest.»

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” muttering darkly, Derek followed Castella toward those quiet heaps.

From their vantage distance, the sidewalks bustling overhead managed to convince themselves it was just more trash. But as Derek drew closer, there was no mistaking the arms and legs.

«Shit.» Ein’s thoughts trailed to the passing crowds. «How come no one noticed?»

«It’s a DCA.» Castella’s jaws clenched around the words. «What do you expect?»

«There’s always someone, always a voyeur.» Derek delicately stepped over a young woman whose cybernetic eyes were still set to record. He risked a look back at Tio’s, where the DREADs kept watch over the fallen.

«You’re saying DREAD – » Ein trailed off.

Letting the question linger, Castella and Derek wandered through the casualties until they came across a young man in the middle. Soft hair curled on his head, slicked with bloody testaments to his fall. While the wounds shouldn’t have been fatal, the kid’s eyes were empty things fixed on paradise.

And this face belonged to Tam Kassan.

“That’s him,” Derek scrunched his nose, then looked back to Tio’s guests. “Something’s wrong, Silvera should’ve seen this..” 

«He’s alive.» Flipping Tam over, Castella reached for his Stack-Interface-Chip. She spun, fists rising, when Derek caught her wrist.

“Disconnect,” he hissed, tapping his neck.

Message From: DREAD

This area is restricted, leave immediately.

The DREADs officer turned his attention away from Employee 9817 to fixate on Artemis. Derek raised his hands, fighting to keep his thoughts neutral.

Message To: DREAD (Reply)

We’re Artemis, Priority Partners, here for Tam

Message From: DREAD

Negative. You have 5 seconds to leave.

«They can’t order us around like that.» Ein balked as the DREADs officer turned away. «We got orders straight from Rebecca. We’re fuckin’ here to help!»

“Now I know why Rebecca hired us,” ambling backward to the Gutter-lip, Castella flashed a slasher-smile that tugged at Derek’s lips. “We got a job to do.”

“Castella…” Derek extended a hand, but she had already vaulted the eighty-foot gap.

----

Castella’s right arm trembled in ecstasy as she soared, flesh and blood powerful in a way steel never did was she fell toward Tio’s. Right hand drawing her sword, her left a pistol, she counted the seconds.

A quarter-second for Ein to take the shot, a tenth for the round to land, another quarter for the DREADs to aim. She tucked her knees to blunt any lucky shots as black smoke engulfed the patio; heat scrambling infrared, and sharp particles blinding open eyes. 

Landing on the edge of a table, Castella skated down the incline; channeling that momentum to spear DREAD One on her sword. Slower than a bullet, the blade slid between two scales, cutting up to the crossguard. A hundred-thirty degrees back, Castella’s pistol spat ceramic slivers, chasing DREAD Two as he jumped away. Ripping through polymer chairs, the shattered rounds sowed the ground with plastic and clay.

DREADs Three and Four reacted by fanning out behind Castella, tracking her movements by volumetric-displacement within the smoke, yet holding fire. Dislodging her blade through One’s ribs, Castella felt something more than bone resist, slowing her swing enough for Three to flinch out of the way with a nick to his forehead. As the singing blade splashed crimson, Castella pulled her knee up then kicked the table. Smashing aside a dozen chairs, the makeshift projectile forced DREAD Four to tumble away. Castella took the opportunity to jump away from One. Or try to, her legs weren’t listening.

Ribs glistening between crimson strands, One reached for Castella’s neck. Tucking her chin, Castella drove the crown of her head forward. Blood washed her visor as it shattered One’s nose. When One staggered back, Castella lashed out, taking his left arms at the elbow. 

«They got Ghosts!» Ein hollered, and One gurgled in agreement.

Ghosts were the natural result of people filling themselves full of hardware. Eventually, you had enough to puppet a dead body. Syndicates made good use of the idea, augmenting their soldiers while keeping an operator on standby to hop in. Best part was, Ghosts only stopped when they were bloody smears on the pavement.

Castella swung her left arm up on an intercept-course with One’s head. Her arm moved, but the barrell swung harmlessly past One’s skull, while her finger didn’t even budge. StackSpace glistened in Castella’s eyes as she looked at her arm. Software-strings, the same color as 9817’s Goldwall, flowed across her arm like loose stitching, only cinching tight to point Castella’s own steaming pistol against her.

----

“C’mon, don’t die on me,” muttering, Ein watched the smoke envelope Castella. Moments after she landed, he had felt a shock in his right arm, the sensation of cutting meat. It had been followed by a heavy, alien, sensation that coated his left arm.

«Cas, you alright?» He squinted, as if seeing her would force answers from her NeuralLink. But silence leaked from that star, along with a tight-knit rage that squeezed his heart.

Sights trembling in tandem with his rapid-fire heart, he moved his aimonto the DREAD Officer. The man was staying outside the cloud, a clean shot, but Ein knew his FMJ round would punch through Officer’s skull, then the wall, and who knew how many people behind. Switching to center of mass instead, his trembling nerves pulled the trigger a fraction too soon.

Officer folded at the hip, armor rippling like a struck trampoline. Ein saw black scales blow out from Officer’s back, the armor giving way instead of trapping the bullet inside. Missing a cloud of blood plastered to the wall, Officer clutched the wound as he fell over onto Employee 9817’s lap. Peeling away a bloody hand, he gestured to OctoDREAD, who then marched into the smoke like a tin solider. Ein barely noticed, his sights were already swinging to the black cloud. He sighed in relief as an invigorating rush came from Castella’s star, and that iron weight had been lifted from his left arm.

Then he saw Castella through a lull in the smoke, DREADs Three and Four at her back, DREAD Two on her left, and One’s Ghost staring her down. Before he even thought of pulling the trigger, Castella fired her machine-pistol at DREAD Two: bullets tearing off his head like a clump of wet grass. Ein winced, pulse quickening even as he hunted for a target. He missed Castella drop.

----

With the first shots rolling in, Derek dropped to the damp walkway. There wasn’t a chance DREADs had forgotten about him, so he squirmed into position next to Tam. One hand keeping his rifle pointed across the gutter, he slowly reached to his back where he grabbed a ribbed rod the size of a baton. Discreet as possible, he set it on the ground before him, thumbing a switch that elicited a magnetic thrum.

“That better be worth it,” putting the rifle in both hands, Derek frowned. His visor’s display was empty, missing red notifications, temperatures, and his rifle’s cross-hair. “Fuckin’ Goldwall,” sighing, he settled his cheek to stock, looked down the iron-sights and waited.

Castella exploded from the murk in a backward roll, DREAD One’s ragged corpse chasing fast enough to crack bones. Instantly on target, Derek spotted the gash Castella made and fired. The bullet blew through the punctured armor, cruising through One’s torso before wrench off One’s remaining arm at the shoulder. One kept charging, teeth bared for Castella’s throat.

“I hate Ghosts,” chambering an explosive round, Derek took a second shot. This time, the left half of One’s skull blew open. There was a glimpse of the metallic ribbons piloting the Ghost, then the corpse slumped to its knees.

----

In the middle of her roll, the explosion’s shock-wave brushed Castella’s neck. Trusting it take care of One, she exited the tumble by shoving off her feet. She sailed ten feet, knocking aside tables and chairs to line up between DREADs Three and Four. Grabbing a chair at her side, she hurled it toward Four, before whipping her left arm in front of her face. She charged Three while Four scrambled to recover.. A current flowed through her forearm, generating magnetic fields that deflected incoming fire by a fraction of angle. Instead of killing her instantly, the hail of bullets tore chunks from her Jacket, one hitting hard enough to crack a rib. If not for her augmented legs, she might not have made it at all.

Then a bullet caught the crown of her helmet, cracking her visor as she barreled ahead. Blinking away stars, Castella bent her knees then jumped, eating two more shots to the ribs as she threw her shoulder out to extend her reach. She hurtled past Three, and the DREAD toppled with half a head.

Ducking as Four opened fire, Castella overturned another table and vanished behind. Bullets kicked up plumes of plastic and stone as Four hunted for her, ripping up the patio on full auto. Blinded by the smoke, bullets confusing the air, DREAD Four walked along the outskirts, putting distance between himself and Castella while returning to Officer and OctoDREAD.

“Gotcha,” Derek pulled the trigger, and Four joined the rest.

----

Across the patio, Employee 9817 opened his eyes, a delirious sheen coated those intelligent orbs. Blinking, he fumbled about his neck, found his exposed implants, then awkwardly looked down to find the DREAD Officer bleeding at his feet. Brow furrowed, Employee 9817 latched his fingers around the distracted Officer’s throat.

Drawing a knife, Officer swung around and embedded it in 9817’s neck. 9817 jerked back silently, pain wrinkling his features as he touched the blade violating his throat. Officer let him hold onto the knife as he turned his attention back to Castella’s ephemeral shadow.

He didn’t notice 9817’s fingers twitch, then go still, just as he didn’t notice the man’s golden aura exploded. It burned bright as dawn in StackSpace, then surged in every direction. The MegaHabs went dark, their network-grids neutered as the glow crushed their Stacks. But only Ein noticed, Derek and Castella were too preoccupied by the digital tsunami bearing down on them.

Seeing the Stack-light rush through the smoke, Castella instinctively flung her arms up. Two milliseconds of contact hit her systems like a sledgehammer, making her cybernetic swim with static, and every Stack in sight collapse as that immense bulk passed like some limitless storm. A dozen feet away, OctoDREAD stiffened; hardware accelerating to a shrill whine as safety-protocols were overruled. Discipline forgotten, OctoDREAD staggered, crashing into a chair and into a sprawl. Howling something senseless, he convulsed as his brain cooked.

Castella saw it but filed it away for later. Because right now there was the newcomer navigating the gore-strewn plaza with open arms

“Castella,” his voice was cool as marble, flush with the same conviction it had eight year ago. His face was right too, unmarred by age or blade. It was almost enough to convince her as he approached her with open arms and a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”

“I killed you,” her finger flashed like a knife. Her lips curled, revealing grit teeth. “I ended that war. Isn’t that right bro?”

Silent and unjudging, the man drew close. Flicking her blade up to meet him, Castella advanced, touching the blade to his chin. Abruptly as he appeared, the man dissolved, leaving her lungs empty.

«Cas?» Ein came across muffled, faraway. «Your NeuralLink went quiet, everyone’s... oh wow.» He trailed off in an awed wonder that compelled Castella to look up.

District 15’s neon Fall had turned to Winter, where seething blizzards covered every surface. Impressed, Castella admired this new world a moment; almost forgetting about her fresh bruises, and the crowds gathering to gawk at her from the MegaHab balconies.

«I’m fine Ein.» Snorting, she stomped over to the DREAD’s Officer, only to find him drooling with a vacant expression. OctoDREAD wasn’t much different, save for twitching as silicone melted down his spine.

“So that what DREADs was after?” Scowling, she checked the corpses lining the wall; all vacant-eyed and kitted with Syndicate gear. Shoving the information into Artemis StackSpace for safe-keeping, her thoughts turned toward a NeuralLink outside of Artemis.

«Done already? How is Tam?» Silvertongue picked up, mind sanitized and empty. Castella grimaced, used to Artemis’ open minds.

«Alive, but looks like someone fried him.» Castella sunk into her flat tone. «Think DREADs did, told us to leave, didn’t call emergency services, got violent, had Ghosts. Then we got hit by some kind of Stack explosion.»

«I see. I’ll let Rebecca know that an investigation is in order.» Silvertongue’s blithe remark punctured Castella’s boredom. «I’ll order emergency services to your location. We’ll be in touch.»

Then she was gone, leaving the strange void where minds had touched.

“Fuck, was hoping we’d be done with her,” sighing, Castella jumped back to Derek, landing to cheers from the growing audience. Ignoring them, she found Derek senseless on the ground, his NeuralLink a haze.

She punched his shoulder. 

“Wha-” waking with a start, he blinked at the digital blizzard. “Is that-”

“Attention District Fifteen! Tam Kassan has been found, thank you all for your assistance.” Silvera replaced Winter with an enthusiasm that reminded Castella of a belligerent politician. “I apologize for any inconvenience , but you may experience unscheduled reboots in your area. Accordingly, please be prepared for closures of some transit routes in your area.”

Behind Silvera’s avatar, a map of District Fifteen’s hundred public lines appeared. Most turned red under the attention, shrinking to a dozen functional lines as the trams were already stopping.

«Wonder what this has to do with that Goldwall. Whatever it did, never saw anything like it.» Castella glared at the crushed StackSpace around them. «If it came from 9817, Hayabusa must have been testing something out. Could be why DREADs hit ‘em.» Her boot rasped against the Gutter as she started climbing. «They report to Rebecca though, Silvertongue should have known.»

“That’s bureaucracyfor you, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why Rebecca wanted you,” grumbling, Derek reached for another Haze stick.

Castella snorted. “If she wanted me to rip up the bureaucracy she should’ve just said so.”

“Yeah,” inhaling, Derek eyes swung back to Bushido Radio’s belligerent cloud. Maybe it was the drugs, maybe it was the stream, but there was a gleam in his eye. “Maybe she did.”

----

“Death,” live on Bushido Radio, Heiro drew another card, the skull on this one gasped, looking skyward as it crumbled into dust. “Tam Kassan met his Daemon in District Fifteen.”

“Wish I could say I’m surprised Heiro, but Heaven always ignores the Districts. Makes me worried about tonight’s election frankly,” Xavier drummed his finger against the table. “We hope for change, but when they ignore our votes and kill our youth, what Justice is there?”

“Mine.” Heiro placed the Death card atop Justice. “Law is coming.”