Chapter 1: Into the Other with New Company
Alistair removed the key from the door and closed it behind him, doing up the locks one by one. The room was dark, save for the faint flickers of tiny lights scattered around the room. Reaching around the corner of the entry, he groped for the switch, eventually finding it and flooding the room with harsh white light. The hare was the sole occupant of the small apartment on the Lower West 11th just beyond the half-closed industrial bunker. The living room had more monitors and computers than actual furniture and enough wiring and cables to supply a district. Like many in the metro area, Alistair Conway was versed in computers, in this day and age, if you weren't, you usually didn't live long. He walked over the main CPU section, took the only seat and boot up the unit, the several screens flash to life. He turned directly to a lower right monitor, striking his keyboard furiously, the screen eventually turning black before lines of output begin to stream down. When it finally stopped, he was greeted with a single line of text.
Azrael is online;
Scowling at the monitor, he leaned back. His 'friend' wasn't supposed to be online tonight, he only ever was when he wanted something. As usual, Alistair was right.
Azrael: You in tonight, or you gonna wus out like last time?;
This really got Alistair mad. Azrael had no right to lecture him about what he chooses to do, especially when it comes to this.
Dark Angel: I'm not having this conversation here. I'll be there in a minute;
Turning off the monitor and rolling his chair over to a second console, this one standing separate, no monitor, no keyboard, just a single metal cap and plenty of cables. Picking up the cap and placing it over his head, he tucked his ears behind the leather bands and let the cables hang down over his shoulders and back. Getting comfortable in the chair, he pressed the large green button and everything went black.
The bridge was always disorienting for the first few seconds. After blinking his new eyes a few times, things started to clear up. He was now standing on a busy street corner; neon, metal and glass were everywhere. Alistair looked up at the tall towers above his, trying to get his bearings. Before he could however, a voice spoke from behind him.
"Glad to see you could join us on such short notice". Turning around he was greeted with the smirk of an Egyptian Mau, dressed in dark jeans and a black hoodie with glowing red decals.
"OK, where are we? why, and more importantly how, did you hack my port?...and what the HELL am I wearing?!" cried the frustrated hare as he realized that he was wearing nothing but a floral print shirt and white boxers. Only a few passers-by had taken note and smirked to themselves.
"Well, we needed you here now, we have a perch nearby and your port was two districts away. If the great 'Dark Angel' needs to ask how I did it, then we're in more trouble than I thought. As for the clothes, that's just for fun", replied the cat as he smirked, turned and began walking the other way.
Alistair stared as his companion for a few seconds before final starting walking himself, cracking his knuckles and focussing on his usual apparel. As he kept up the pace, his clothing began to change, first starting to glow a pale blue and then stretching into shape. After a few seconds he was walking briskly down the street wearing his usual fitted white suit and dress pants.
The streets that they were walking down were, in fact, not real. Alistair was still sitting at home, mostly unconscious, but still alive. The world they were in was an escape from the real one. The outside was corrupt and near death, the world started turning against them about 75 years back, storms got worse, droughts, floods, disease. Society had fled underground and never really made it back up. It was now a borderline police state out there. Here however, people could live how they wanted using avatars, some going as far as custom building themselves into their own personal perfection. It didn't take long after launch for the government to begin taking this over too, until members started to fight back. Alistair and Azrael were some of these people, except here, he was known as Dark Angel and this was Ultima Solem.
The pair walked down the street, pushing past the people dressed in bright, clean clothes. They passed restaurants and bars, shops and markets, passing each one without noticing or caring. After a few blocks, Azrael turned abruptly down a side alley. This one was the opposite of the bright and vibrant street they left, it was dark, depressing and not well travelled. Alistair walked down, following the glow from Azrael's hoodie before losing it behind a door, which the cat closed behind him.
Alistair stepped up to the door and reached for the handle, there wasn't one...Sighing, he took one step back and looked at the door. he flexed his hands and brought them in front of him and closed his eyes tight. He opened them sharply, his vision distorted by a shifting series of text lines. Turning his hands slightly, he found the patch he was looking for, the one that opened the blank door. Azrael was always doing something like this, he called it initiation, Alistair called it being a prick. holding his left hand steady, he began flicking his right, a second overlay displaying in front of him as he began adjusting the lines. After a few seconds, he lowered his hands, the displays fading, took a step forward and slammed the side of his fist against the door. It opened slowly.
The room beyond was warm and dimly lit, all Alistair could really make out was Azrael's glowing hoodie moving towards a wall. Suddenly the room was flooded with light and the door closed and locked behind him. They stood in a large storage area, now cleared except for the desks.
"Took you long enough" said Azrael as he walked towards the now visible work bench. Unfortunately, he wasn't the only one in the room... Sitting on the bench were two other figures, one a hulking and muscular wolf, the other small and sleek siamese. The former was Thask, the group's bruiser, standing well over six feet and arms crossed over his massive chest. Like most other thug-like figures, he was wearing a thin muscle shirt, jeans tattered away at the knees and a glare that hit almost as hard as he did. The other figure stared nervously at him, shifting her position on the bench to come off as more confident and experienced. Her shorts, shirt and jacket were the typical bright colors of most of Ultima Solem, meaning that she was probably new to the hacking and infiltration game. Alistair did not recognize her.
"Where are Phen and Dramax?" asked the confused hare, lacing his question to include 'who the hell is this?'
"Azrael..." said a female voice from the rafters behind Alistair. He heard a creak and a muffled thump as she landed just behind him. This was Phen. She brushed past him and went straight for the feline. "Did you forget to inform him of something?" she said coldly, cocking her head.
"Maybe...", replied the cat, staring defiantly up at the frilled lizard.
"He's your recruit, therefore your responsibility" she strode furiously past, towards the unknown woman. "This is Mellis, she's our new recruit. As for Dramax, he's offline at the moment". Allistair knew better than to press any further with Phen.
"OK then, umm... pleasure" Alistair stammered out, looking and nodding towards the girl. "Now, can someone please tell me what we are here for?"
"Damn, Azrael, you really didn't tell him anything" said Thask, finally speaking, "Mellis isn't technically in yet. We, you to be specific, are here to test her for field work". Thask, given his size and appearance, was actually the best spoken and most educated person in the room; having a masters degree in AI, and having 8 years of former government employment can do that. As usual, he was also right, Alistair was the best Shaper and could initiate any new recruit thoroughly.
"OK" he said to Thask before turning to Mellis. "Build and version?"
"Combat, version 12.7.0".
"Ah, latest version...Are you ready?", Mellis nodded somewhat hesitantly. "Phen, are we well shielded?"
"Of course, latest tech, do your worst...", everyone stepped to the edge of the room while Mellis took a position in the middle and changed into her Gear, a charcoal black mobile armor suit, several silver rods about a foot long strapped to her belt and back. Allistair cracked his neck and brought up his display.
Before she was fully ready, Allistair spread his arms out to his side, the floor of the room dropping 20 feet down in every empty inch of the room. She landed firmly on her feet in a ready stance, grabbing two of the rods. A small red dot began blinking to Allistair's right, it was a file. He gestured towards the dot, opening it. Inside was a set of AI programs from Thask, modified versions of the Cyber Control bots used to police Ultima Solem. He flicked through, seeing what he could use before finally selecting three basic Guards as a test run. He glanced at the pit below and placed them on all sides of Mellis. The Guards phased in, gleaming white and red looking like mannequins with armor, automatic rifles drawn and aimed.
Mellis spun around, two katana blades sprouting from the rods in her hands. Before the Guards could shoot, she had already leapt on the closest one, ducked behind it, stabbing it through the chest and slicing the head off. The other two turned towards their fallen companion and opened fire. Mellis ripped the blade out of the bot, retracting the blades at the same time and reforming them into two large bladed shields and rushing another. About six feet from her target, she jumped high and jammed the blade tips into its helmet, disabling it immediately and smoothly grabbing the corpse as another shield. She finished the last off with a bladed whip through the chest and turned up to look at Allistair, a fierce gleam in her eye. He was impressed.
Allistair looked at the area, about 70' square, it wasn't much, but he could make due. He brought up a maze 20' tall around Mellis and quickly populated it with two more Guards and two Crushers. She turned the first corner and came face to face with the first Crusher, a large, heavily armored bot with a single 50. automatic rifle for a left arm. It raised its gun and started firing. Mellis dashed back behind the corner and ran in the other direction, the Crusher right behind her. She was headed right for a dead end and didn't know it. She and her pursuer turner again and Allistair lost sight of them. Before the Crusher could reach her, she was up on the top of the wall and striding briskly over them, dual javelins in her hands. She threw both at targets he could not see, but he heard them both go down, both Guards. She jumped down and collected her tools before returning to her perch and resumed stalking. Within a minute, both Crushers were gone, she went as far as to completely fill one with the shots from its own rifle. He was very impressed.
The trials continued for about another hour. Mellis was showing no signs of slowing down and Allistair was running out of thing to throw at her. He finally stopped and raised the floor. She stood there, retracting her weapons and looked at them all defiantly. Azrael cleared his throat.
"Well, I'd call that a success". No one could argue, the girl was good.
"Quite", replied Phen, "She actually did better than you did when you started, Azrael".
"I wouldn't go that far...", Azrael snapped back, glaring at Phen. "I think we need to discuss the details. Thask, Phen, into the office". The trio walked off into another room, leaving Allistair and Mellis alone.
"Well done in there, I'd take Phen's word as a compliment, you are better than most of the people we've worked with, especially for a new recruit", Allistair said, walking with her to the desk and taking a seat.
"Yeah, well I thought I was in trouble a few times. Does everyone get the sadistic asshole routine when they first meet you?"
"Not usually", he replied, "you were kinda embarrassing me so I had to step up. I thought Thask was going to break down a few times cause those were his babies you were destroying".
"Yeah? How the hell did he manage to quarantine them? I've seen Guards take down people and those were scary accurate", she asked.
"They didn't really tell you much did they? Thask used to design those for a living, he had the base files stashed away before he quit and knows exactly how they work".
"What about you and the others, what do you guys do?"
"Well, umm, I'm in electrical management, that's about as much as I'm willing to say because I'm not too well hidden. Thask is buried deep, he moved and wiped his trail before they could think about looking for him. Dramax is...interesting. He used to work in the industrial sectors and suffered a minor head trauma. Umm...yeah, let's just say that he's the one that gets us into and out of trouble. As for Azrael and Phen...We honestly don't know. Phen is about mid 30's from her build, Azrael is still running a version 6 Stealth build, He and Phen stick with the whole 'harder to track' and 'easier to mod' stories, but v6 is about a decade out, so he could be anywhere in that range and simply not reregistered. What about you, what's your story?".
"Were to start..." she said, leaning back in her chair. "I'm currently unemployed, but can sustain myself pretty well, Azrael started watching me about a 7 weeks ago and actually recruited me last week. From what I've seen, he's a bigger ass than you are", she said, smirking at Allistair. "Other than that, not much to say".
It was at this point that the office door opened and the others stepped out. They walked towards the pair and loomed over them.
"After some heated discussion, we have come to a decision", exclaimed Azrael, Phen rolled her eyes and Thask seemed unimpressed. "You're in. At least for now, we'll see how you work with everyone. Now, the fun can begin".