Thick, yellow fog whirled around his boots, unimpeded by torrents of bitter rain. His chiptracker lit the haze in a sickly green halo and throbbed tauntingly toward a half-rusted sewer grate. Roman sighed, a barely perceptible wince creasing between his brows, and ran long, blunt fingers over his closely buzzed head in clear agitation. The orthoskin gloving his hand caught on the dark stubble; the weak sensation slid around in his brain before his chip diverted the nerves elsewhere. Swag, the sewer; of course, that’s where she’d go. After five years together, the smart-ass keeb knew his posh tastes well-enough. She also knew well-enough that ruining pair of ¥3000 boots had never kept him from finishing a run. Roman, not for the first time today, wished his transfer to Seattle had never gone through.
When the sub-orbital touched down six months ago, Kestrel had clicked dismissively, “And I thought Detroit was fragged.” When Roman’s only response was the slight reddening of his round ears and a decidedly petulant stomp on the misty tarmac, she held out narrow, placating hands, “So ka, transfer means promotion, which means more nuyen to support you in the manner you’d like to become familiar with. But drek, d’you know it would be so damned ugly here?” Her physical mask dimpled a bit under the damp duress of the west coast atmosphere. Today, Kestrel wore her usual corporate illusion, a bland, all-business brunette. She was a remarkably beautiful woman if you could get a clear look at her, but you rarely could. Sometimes, from the corner of his eye, Roman caught a glimpse of the golden fall of her hair and elegant sweep of pointed ears that he knew was under the spell.
After the better part of a decade as her partner, Roman knew her voice- an intimate annoyance as her curses scoured his commlink- he knew the low, soykaf scented throb of her mana as healing spells spiraled down his nerves, tingling and stinging like the return of feeling to blood starved limbs- and he knew the razor-sharp dance of lasersights and cracking retort of her sniper rifle. He’d thought he understood her, perhaps better than anyone else still living, but in the end, that wasn’t enough. If he’d known then, on that dreary September afternoon, how it all would end, Roman might’ve forced her back on the plane, used his massive arms to crush her slight frame against him, or confessed every snarl of emotion flooding him now, but she would have quipped, flared a crackle of magic, or laughed in his face. Maybe, though, if he had, everything wouldn’t be hosed now.
The steel sewer grate moved easily enough. A year ago, it would have taken a little effort to move the seventy pound cover, but his recent bioware upgrades meant Roman was left staring down the gaping, fetid hole with barely a flex of his finger. With gritted teeth, he jumped down, sagging just a little as drek and who knows what else splashed up his armored thighs. His eyes quickly adjusted to the near darkness, the low-light mods to his new cybereyes washing everything in bichromal blue and white. Kestrel’s tracker pulsed like a frantic heartbeat some distance down the tunnel. A practiced flick of a wrist pulled several inches of katana from the koshirae strapped to his back.
The indicator hadn’t moved at his less than stealthy descent. Her heart monitor kept a slow, steady rhythm on his HUD. She could be asleep, he supposed, but Roman imagined it far more likely that Kestrel was snugged up in a sniper’s perch with her gun trained on the only entrance. Steady lines of biometric data steamed next to her avatar in a hollow representation of life. She’d programmed her icon in his commlink herself. The luridly posed elven pinup somehow seemed even more vulgar under these circumstances. The linc that had acted as a lifeline between them of so long was now only a bull’s-eye.
Years ago, on their first op, they’d jacked in together, syncing their datstreams, and the feedback had geeked her mask. It was just for a split second, but Roman had caught the shine of cybernetic eyes, the red of curved lips, and the tenderness of a pointed ears. He snorted, “The bunraku parlor’s down the hall, dandelion eater. I’m not a pimp or a babysitter.”
Kestrel reseated her mask with a wisp of magic, “So ka. The breeder’s got a sense of humor. I can work with that.” And she had. For years, for hundreds of runs, she’d kept up a steady stream of smut through their commlink. “Omae,” she’d coo in his ear when he unsheathed his katana, “such a fine sword. Where’d you find one so big? D’you take it off a troll? I’ve heard a streetdoc could attach it the right place though.” And after a while, her casual innuendo became a comfort to him because she only corked it when they were truly fragged.
The unnatural silence in his ear edged Roman farther from alert and closer into panic with each stumbling step through the sewer sludge. The filth in the tunnel effectively hide all debris under his feet. It was like walking through a dark, moist mouth filled with rotten teeth. He wondered idly if he were walking himself directly into the monster’s gullet as he crossed the threshold into the dimly lit chamber marked on his tracker.
The hammer’s blow against his flak jacket knocked him on his hoop even as the familiar crack of her rifle echoed deafeningly against concrete, stone, and ear drum. If Roman hadn’t had his replaced already, he’d have blown ear drums as well as bruised ribs. She gasped as the retort died around them, “Roman…”
A reflexive tingle of healing wound through his limbs, seeking to smooth the hurts as she’d done a thousand times before. He lay still in the drek and stinking water, grasping his blade tightly along his thigh. Kestrel dropped her gun- he heard the distinct crunch of steel against gravel- and ran towards him. Her footsteps thudded like small memories of the shot’s blast.
Cool, long fingertips grazed his ear. He surged forward and upward, driving his katana through the gap at the side of her chest plate. Her empty hands curled uselessly against his ruined jacket. “Omae,” her whisper grated like broken glass on his new skin, “you never would listen to me anyway.”
She left him cradling her head between his powerful hands like an empty eggshell. Her magic ebbed away in a red wash down his leg. Roman memorized her face, her true face, as best he could, smoothing a coarse thumb against a dark, arching eyebrow.
Pulling his sword free released a fresh blood to stream into the refuse and filth of the city above them. Roman searched her body as gently as he could, touching her in death as he’d never allowed himself to in life. He found the paydata Ares wanted back inside her breast pocket. He found a shockingly depleted credstick tucked in her left boot top. He found a knife, still sheathed, at her waist. He didn’t, however, find the HUD that matched his on her body or in the small blind she’d built in the vent at the top of the tunnel. Kestrel couldn’t have known who was coming through that door before she’d fired.
Roman shook his head like fleabitten dog, carefully wiping both hands and blades as clean as he could manage against the clean edge of her shirt, and pocketed the data. Someone in the shadows, he knew, could tell him what was in the encrypted files and why Ares wanted them back so badly.