Vanessa drove off the skyway and onto the off ramp, taking the skycar down to street level where its gravity plating took over and kept it hovering above the smooth pavement.

“It’s a beautiful day isn’t it?” she asked and Jack shrugged as he opened the window while pulling a cigarette out of his rumpled black jacket.

“Delightful,” he muttered as they turned around a corner and began driving up towards Barlon headquarters.

“What’s your problem today?  I thought you quit that?”

“So did I,” Jack muttered.  “I just want to get this over with so I can go home.”

“What about all your speeches about ‘having to do this’?  About ‘finishing things for good’?”

“They’re the only reason I’m still here,” he whispered and lit the cigarette, the massive pseudo-pyramidal structure rising above them as they approached.  “They sure do know how to build big don’t they?” he asked after taking in a long drag.

“Ten stories in all,” Vanessa returned.  “Not many buildings that large outside of downtown.”

“Full of their own importance.”

“Just like Vilian was?” she asked as she turned into the small three story high parking ramp and pulled a card to scan at the entrance.  The doors opened and she drove it in as Jack simply looked at her, taking another drag on the cigarette.

“Charles said Vilian died because they worked with the Shang,” he finally muttered.  “Not because they were full of themselves.”

“I’ve seen holos of their old building,” Vanessa whispered as she pulled the skycar into the first parking slot she found.  “I’d have hated to fall out one of those windows,” she added and Jack glanced at her again as the cigarette glowed cherry-red.

“I really hate these things,” he muttered after exhaling the smoke.  “They taste awful.”

“Is that why you quit?” Vanessa asked as he let out a long breath.

“Not really,” he answered and rolled up the window again.  “She wanted me to quit,” he added before opening the door to get out.  Vanessa got out of her side, locked the doors with the remote before catching up to him, and snaked her arm through his.

“Now be happy, silly,” she said with a smile, and he realized she’d dropped into her undercover mode.  “You go in there, talk to these big wigs, and then we’re going to that new theme park on the north side.  No excuses this time, you hear me?”

“Of course, dear,” he whispered back and took another drag of his cigarette.

“And when are you going to stop that disgusting habit?” she added with a wink and he sighed in a longsuffering manner as they approached the doorway linking the parking garage with the headquarters building.

“I’m sorry, sir,” one of the two guards said as he stepped forward, “but cigarettes aren’t allowed inside.”

“This just isn’t a smoker’s world anymore is it?” Jack muttered and the guard pointed towards a smoker’s outpost with a smile.  “Thanks,” Jack returned and stuffed the cigarette into the sand, joining several others with their butt ends hanging in the wind.  He snickered at that thought and shrugged at the guard’s questioning glance, then pulled out his Barlon ID tag and ran it down past the scanner on the doorway arch.  The doors opened and they walked inside, Jack smiling as he noted the guards’ gazes following Vanessa closely.

The doors closed again behind them and she giggled, obviously having caught their gazes, and they walked down the main hallway.  Real gold trim decorated the walls, along with works of art that had probably cost a fortune complementing the high-vaulted ceiling, bringing to mind the more romantic notions of life in the castles of ancient Terra.  Jack had seen pictures of the real castles and much preferred the more fantastical versions in modern holovids.  After all, who would want to live without indoor plumbing and all the advantages that entailed?  They walked through the main corridor and deeper into the headquarters for three minutes before Vanessa started angling him towards another corridor.

“It’s this way,” Vanessa whispered and he shrugged as they turned a corner to look down another corridor as grand as the one they’d come from.  For all of Barlon’s ideas about “maximum benefit” when it came to low-level employees, the owners of the Corporation seemed more than willing to lavish luxury on themselves.  Jack hated hypocrisy like that.

As they walked down the corridor, two guards stepped out of alcoves on either side to bar their way.  “You do not have clearance to enter this area,” one of them said formally.  “Leave now.”  Jack looked confused and turned to look at Vanessa, then back at the guards.

“But I’m supposed to meet with the munitions office in…five minutes,” he responded as he glanced at his watch.

“You turned one corridor too soon,” the guard said and pointed for Jack and Vanessa to go back.

“Oh…I’m sorry,” Jack whispered.  “Thanks for the tip,” he finished and turned to shrug at Vanessa in an “oops” manner.  She shrugged back, her arms rising in an “ah shucks” pose.

That was when she attacked.  The skin under her armor rolled back to uncover a device above each of her wrists which then levered out, pushing the armor with them.  The normal clothing she wore over her skin tight armor bulged slightly at the wrist and the security guards had barely enough time to see the muzzles pointed at them.  Two beams exploded from the cannons, blasting through the guards’ armor and dropping them as if their strings were cut.  “Mark 31s,” Vanessa whispered in a derisive tone.  “Too easy to disable to be of any threat to a modern military grade AI.”

She retracted the cannons into her arms again and walked past the power core-gutted AIs and around a bend in the corridor as Jack followed carefully.  “You come with all the little goodies don’t you?” he whispered in awe and she simply smiled back innocently as she stopped in front of the door.

“I’m designed for infiltration, under cover ops, and all matter of fun stuff like that,” she returned with an amused smile.  “I need to be able to defend myself, amongst other things,” she finished with a wink.  Then she looked at a panel to the right of the door, pulled the white glove off her hand, and placed it on the panel.

“Open.  Authorization Arthur Daniels, Chairman. Personal code theta, alpha, gamma, ten,” she uttered in a masculine voice and the panel blinked red several times before turning solid green.

“Finger prints accepted.  Voiceprint accepted.  Personal code accepted. Chairman Arthur Daniels is cleared for entry,” the panel spoke in a computerized voice and Vanessa smiled as the door opened.

“Ok…that wasn’t in our little briefing today.  But remind me not to piss you off.  You could probably make my life a nightmare with that trick,” Jack muttered subconsciously as they walked into the computer room and his gaze took in the panel that had been so capably fooled by her shifting voice.

“You have no idea what I can do with that trick,” Vanessa responded in her normal voice, sounding far more serious than normal, as she made a beeline for the primary computer core.  He watched her carefully, wondering what she meant by that, as the tips of the fingers and thumb of her right hand split open and rolled back, revealing datajacks which she plugged into the computer core’s dataports.  “Protective programs are attempting to resist,” she noted simply, her voice dropping into a less expressive and more formal style of speaking that sounded more like a computer noting statistics.  “Protective programs are proving ineffective,” she continued.  “I have infiltrated the system.  Commencing search pattern alpha now.  Search pattern alpha completed.  Relevant data has been saved.  Commencing search pattern bravo.”

For over a minute, the AI simply stood in place, running through a dozen searches and keeping Jack appraised of her progress with only a small part of her electronic brain.  Right now was the culmination of four months of infiltration and gaining what passed for trust in the Corporate Security fields.  It was everything they needed but the day was going too smoothly by far.  They’d picked their time well, but he still didn’t like it.  Things were too quiet and he knew the calm always came before the storm hit.  Then she pulled her hand away from the computer core and smiled, the animation of a personality returning to her avatar.  “I’m done,” she whispered “Let’s go.  I may have been traced.”  Her fingers closed back up and she pulled the white glove back on as they walked out of the computer room and down the corridor again.

Vanessa came to the corner first and looked around it, only to bring her head back quickly and raise her hand to stop Jack.  “I was.  We’ve got company.”

“I thought the plan was for us to not have to shoot ourselves out?” Jack asked and she smiled innocently.

“Look’s like we’re going to plan two then.”

“What’s plan two?”

“This,” she noted simply as she bent over to pull a set of glasses out of her boot top.  She slid them on and Jack instantly saw that their edges conformed perfectly to her facial lines as she turned to let him get a good look at them.

“What do those do?”

“They look cool,” she whispered back with a smile.  “They also draw power from my main power core to help maintain a localized absorption field.”  Then Jack saw the sleeves of her shirt bulge out and knew what was coming next.  “Get ready to run,” she whispered and prepared to step around the corner.

“You don’t think you can win?” Jack asked with surprise and she turned her head to look at him for a moment, trying to decide whether he was joking or being stupid.

“I meant this way,” she noted simply and then jumped forward around the corner, dropping to the floor in a shoulder roll as her wrist cannons fired.  Return fire ripped into the wall behind her, shattering the rich paneling into splinters flying through the air.  Jack cringed as one of them sliced past his cheek, and his hand came up to wipe blood off.  That was going to leave a mark.

Then he looked back at Vanessa as a blast of energy slammed into her shoulder, leaving a large scorch mark on the armor that had been uncovered by previous blasts.  Her shirt and pants hung in tatters off her frame as she spun to avoid being hit, firing back relentlessly.  Ten hits slammed into the wall behind her, ripping the expensive materials to pieces, for each one blast that hit her.  But each hit scorched the armor more and more and Jack could tell the absorption field was failing.  The calm was most definitely gone now.  Time for the storm to hit.

With a smile, he reached into his uniform jacket and pulled a pistol out.  Cradling it gently in his hand, he poked his head around the corner as another twin blast from Vanessa ripped down the corridor to their attackers, and then brought the pistol up to aim at a security guard about to fire on her.  He pulled the trigger and the rings of the barrel powered up, shunting the slug in it out at supersonic speeds and only massive dissipation fields kept the weapon from ripping his arm off with the recoil.  It still left him with a heck of a shoulder ache, but he liked his little gun because of what it did to his targets.

He let the recoil throw him back around the corner barely in time to see blasts of energy fly passed his nose so close his eyes crossed each other while he took a deep breath of relief.  He felt the next projectile lock in place as the power cell in the weapon finished recharging the barrel, and he spun around to look down the corridor again, his gun arm tracking with his eyes.  His first target was down in several pieces on the floor and he winced as another blast nearly turned him into New Kentucky Fried Terran, then re-aimed and fired again, letting the recoil spin him around the corner.

And with that, Vanessa stopped moving, lowered her arms, and pulled her wrist cannons back into arms.  “Thanks,” she noted simply as Jack glanced at her badly scorched and cracked armor.  Nothing was left of the clothes she’d been wearing a mere ten seconds ago, leaving her very shapely form out for all to see.  “Now run!” she ordered and vaulted ahead down the corridor as he followed quickly, thinking that the view was not one bit bad.  His weapon vibrated contentedly in his hand, telling him it was fully charged and ready to blow something to pieces, as he shot by the firing position five AIs had held.

“31s?” he shouted out as they passed and she shook her head firmly as she came to the main hallway, bringing each of her arms up to face down both directions.  The wrist cannons swung open again and she fired as she found her targets while flying through the intersection.

“40s!” she shouted back as she landed on the other side before spinning and stepping back out to take fire from both directions on her damaged armor as Jack neared the intersection.  He reached it and jumped, trying to cross it as fast as possible, as he aimed his cannon at another security guard while in mid-air.  He pulled the trigger and felt the recoil send him flying off course to bounce off the wall, stunning him for an instant.  Before he could move, a white hand grabbed his shoulder and yanked him out of the intersection even as energy blasts passed near enough his feet that he could feel the heat of their passage.  He was going to feel that in the morning.

“I told you to run, not fire!” Vanessa belted out as she jumped out into the hallway again, this time turning with both wrist cannons to fire in the direction he hadn’t.  No blasts hit her in the back, and he smiled as she silenced the fire from her direction as well.  Then he stood up gingerly, rubbing his shoulder experimentally to make sure nothing was broken.  “Great, the exit’s blocked by guards,” she muttered as she looked down the main hallway towards the exit to the parking garage.  “Now run!” she ordered again and turned to shoot passed him faster than he could possibly follow.  Not that that was a surprise.

As he shot down the side-corridor, he felt the building shudder as if hit by something.  “Cat?” he asked and Vanessa shrugged.

“If it isn’t I guess we’ll find out soon!” she yelled as she dropped onto her hands before vaulting herself, spinning, into a smaller intersections of corridors.  She landed with no weapons fire around her, but she was obviously aiming at something as Jack followed her.  She turned to simply stand motionless, her wrist cannons locked on her target and Jack came around the corner to aim his weapon as well, then stopped suddenly.

“Vihon,” he whispered and the man nodded simply, lowering his own weapon to point at the floor.

“A Security Squadron is hitting the building as we speak.  Guards have been dispatched to deal with them,” he noted as he glanced at Vanessa.  “I obviously underestimated you.  I assume you have what you came for?”  She nodded in response and he turned around to walk back the way he’d come.  “Take corridor fifty-three to the end.  The light fixture will open into a maintenance tunnel that will take you nearly to the edge of the building.”


“Sorry.  No easy ways out unfortunately.”

“Ah well.”

“What about you?” Jack asked and Vihon turned back to stare at him intensely.

“I will wait,” he noted and walked away.  “Now go!” he shouted and Jack shot down the corridor with Vanessa leading the way as the building rumbled with the sounds of incoming fire all around them.