Fatigue dragged Kirsten’s run to a stagger, then to a halt. She leaned on the side of a building, gasping for breath. The psi-armor helmet enclosed her head in a claustrophobic cage. Though it weighed no more than plastic, it burdened her as if made of iron.
After running over a dozen city blocks, her breathing had fogged the visor into an opaque haze. Trickles of perspiration stung at her eyes, ran down her cheek, and tickled the back of her neck. Division 0 tactical armor was a new feeling, a new, heavy feeling, and she didn’t much care for it at all. The extra weight and lack of ventilation ruined her.
Deserted, the street held a few abandoned cars as well as fragments fallen from crumbling buildings on either side. Up ahead, gunfire popped at random from alleys along with distant sounds of rioting, sometimes followed by the shriek someone taking a bullet. Paper trash skittered by in a faint breeze laced with the fragrance of chemicals and urban rot. A scream for help echoed. She spun around, unable to tell where it came from.
“Civil unrest in Sector 77. All personnel be prepared to encounter armed aggressors.” The digital voice seemed so loud, her entire helmet vibrated with it.
The same scream repeated, drawing her attention to an alley half a block away. She couldn’t tell by sound if a woman shrieked in terror or if a man had been stabbed with a red-hot vibro-blade.
After taking a couple more breaths, she forced herself up to a jog, E-90 in hand. The roar of fighting grew louder as she neared the alley. She ran against the wall at the corner, gathered her wits, and whirled around with her weapon raised. Four men, jackets emblazoned with gang markings―The Disowned―surrounded another man. Cowering in a ball, the object of the gangers’ amusement begged for his life, oblivious to Kirsten’s arrival.
“Police, against the wall, now!” she yelled.
The Disowned looked up at the diminutive shout. Outright laughter stalled at the sight of her laser pistol. Whimpering, the victim crawled away from his tormentors. The four thugs raised their hands, but continued to grin as if up to something. Kirsten wagged her weapon to the left.
“Over there, against the wall. Do it.” A flick of her eyes at the helmet visor opened a comm channel. “Dispatch, need a suspect transport. Sector 77, track my signal.”
“Copy that, en route.” A brief static crunch preceded and followed the voice in her helmet.
She eased closer, gaze shifting among the men. “Move, now.”
Kirsten almost shrieked as a boarded up window to her right burst open, spraying her with splinters and boards. A man grabbed her by the arm and threw her headfirst into another ply-board panel. It broke under her impact, sending her spilling into a face-first slide along the floor of a derelict building. The disorientation of the maneuver left her motionless for an instant, mystified by the echoing clatter of wood in the cavernous empty space.
She snapped out of the daze in time to notice a man about to drive a heavy armored boot into her side. A quick roll got her out of the way. The man put so much strength into the kick, he knocked stumbled, nearly falling when he made contact with nothing but air. Kirsten scooted back and scrambled upright before raising her… empty hands. She glanced around, but the E-90 appeared to have vanished.
The huge man also wore the colors of the Disowned. The top of her head barely reached his pectorals, and his arms made her thighs feel thin. After recovering his balance, he turned toward her, snarling. Something familiar in his green eyes caught her off guard and killed her fear of him. For a second, she lost herself admiring his handsome face and perfect muscles.
A punch to the helmet knocked her back three steps.
This isn’t fair.
She ducked a telegraphed kick, avoiding it in the exact way he expected her to―right into his waiting hands. He hauled her into the air and threw her chest-first into drywall. She bounced away, right back into his grip. His arms closed around her from behind, crushing her against his chest.
Reacting on instinct, she planted a foot on a nearby cart and shoved herself up, mashing the top of her helmet into his chin. He staggered back, losing his grip. Kirsten recovered her balance and spun around with a high kick, slapping him across the face with her boot. His head whipped to the side, but he smiled.
“Nice form, but you kick like a ten-year-old girl.” He rubbed the spot. “Probably because you’re the same size as one.”
Kirsten growled, pulling the stunrod off her belt and lunging in with a wild overhead swing. He caught her wrist and flipped her over onto her back. A skillful twist sent a thread of agony up the nerve in her arm. Her hand snapped open as if of its own accord. The stunrod fell away.
A heavy gasp fogged the visor of her helmet.
“And, you’re dead,” he taunted before letting go of her and taking a step away. “Aren’t you supposed to be a police officer?”
She rolled upright and backed off, favoring the arm. The urge to knock a few of his teeth out grew strong, but they were so perfect. His face entranced her again.
The cute ones are always so shallow. Plus, he is trying to kill me.
Adrenaline welled up as he came in with a series of rapid jabs. She blocked each in turn, backpedaling to make him advance. The gleam of a knife at his belt took her eyes off his perfect teeth.
A kick she didn’t see coming crashed into her ribs. She staggered, spraying spittle onto her visor.
“You get angry too easy. Don’t fixate on the weapon. Watch my entire body. Watch my eyes. You can’t read where your opponent goes if you fixate. If you give in to rage, you lose your edge.”
He faked another stab. This time, she blocked the kick. The knife came around the other way, but she got a forearm up to catch his wrist. Her body jerked from the impact of the block, but she kept her grip and wrenched him around by it, applying twisting pressure. He stumbled after his trapped limb, and lost his grip on the knife before slumping to one knee.
“Not bad, but a little more torque on the hand would have incapacitated me.”
Letting his weight take him down, he pulled her into a stumble and kicked her legs out from under her. Kirsten landed flat on her front. They rolled away from each other and stood at the same time. He shook his almost-sprained wrist out while she tried to cradle her left breast despite having armor it the way. The spot the wraith had clawed open still hurt. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the stunrod a few feet away and went for it.
He leapt at her, distracting her from the weapon. No longer enamored by his looks, she ducked and spun under his arm, pulling it over her shoulder before flipping him with a hip thrust. He hit the floor on his back. She wrapped her entire body around his arm, bracing her heel against his throat. If she pulled just right, she could break his neck.
She chickened out.
The man howled under her attempt at a pain submission hold. She applied a little more pressure and he stopped fighting.
“You’re getting better,” he croaked. “About time to call it for today, I think.”
“Okay,” said Kirsten, releasing her grip and simply lying there, too tired to get up.
Tingles spread down her body, riding the forefront of a wave of numbness that soon became total paralysis. Brightness intensified, washing out the details of the ceiling until she floated in a vast nothingness white light.
“Simulation end,” chimed a pleasant, omnidirectional female voice.
The oppressive glow dimmed and shrank into several rows of bright parallel lines, LED tubes. A padded chair appeared beneath her. Sweat dripped down the sides of her head, though wonderful cool air lifted the sweat from her thin white bodysuit.
Kirsten started to sit up, but the helmet she forgot she had on jerked her back into the seat by the wires tethering it to the machinery.
“Ow.” She undid the chinstrap for the senshelmet and pulled it off, leaving it hanging on the wire tethering it to the chair. “Why am I so damn sore?”
“It’s your brain. Takes a few minutes for you to figure out it was all fake.”
The same man she’d been fighting a moment ago—with much shorter hair—came around the side of a console of blinking lights in a blue-grey Division 2 jumpsuit. Kirsten’s gaze went right to where the lowered zipper exposed some of his chest, left of the name ‘Silva’ on a tag. She whispered it in her mind, unable to suppress a wry grin at how he’d embellished his physique in the sim.
“You’re improving.” He extended a hand to help her off the big VR chair. “Starting to feel more like a sparring match now instead of just me stealing your lunch money.”
She accepted his hand and slid off the thick, black cushions, winding up on her sock-covered feet mere inches from him. At least in the real world, he didn’t tower over her so much. The scent of his exertion mixed with a hint of cologne, and she found herself in no major hurry to move away. Despite the fight happening within cyberspace, the training had worked them both to the point of needing a shower.
“Thanks for staying late. I really appreciate it.”
He grinned while grabbing a towel from a nearby tray. “Your captain was concerned enough to make the request after the incident with the mercenaries.”
Arms folded over her ribs, she cringed at the memory of clinging to an ad-bot. “I’m not sure hand-to-hand training would have helped. That bastard had vibro claws.”
“They’re not much different from a knife to be honest. Same reach considerations, but the major problem is you can’t twist cybernetic claws out of someone’s grip with a pain-compliance technique.”
Kirsten took hold of his wrist, spinning with a slow-motion ju-jitsu maneuver that pressed her back to his chest. “So what’s the best way to defend against them?”
“Shoot him before he gets close.”
She poked a teasing elbow into his ribs.
“Oof.” He took a step back and swiped his hand in a playful attempt to ‘claw’ her.
She caught his wrist the same way she’d defend against a knife—but he thrust his left hand ‘claws’ into her belly and tickled.
Peals of laughter came out of her as she leapt away, doubled over.
“Most mercs who install claws do both hands. The best you can do is stay away from them or use a weapon with better reach.”
“Like a sword?” she rasped, trying to catch her breath.
“Yeah, that could work. Most police don’t carry them, though.”
The chair creaked as she leaned into it. “Some of ours do. They’re easier to use on astrals. Bullets don’t have much effect, not a lot of surface area to bind. How much reach do you get with a sword?” She blushed before he caught the innuendo.
“K, he’s married.” Dorian the Dream-Killer appeared out from the wall.
Picking at her ear with her middle finger, she sighed at her teacher.
Gabriel Silva, martial arts instructor for Division 1 training academy. Of course, you’re married. You’re too damn perfect.
“You okay? Looks as if you just got some bad news.” He patted her on the shoulder.
His ring had been obvious the whole time.
“Nothing I’m not used to. I guess I’m just tired.”
“Okay. I’ll see you on Thursday, right? You’re taking to the ju-jitsu pretty well so far. We can see how you handle some Wushu sword forms next week if you want.”
“Sounds awesome,” she muttered, trudging for the showers.
Dorian winced. “Sorry. I know how you are about getting things out of the way sooner rather than later.”
She slammed the locker open. “He knows I’m psionic and doesn’t care.”
“You’ll find someone.”
Kirsten let her arm dangle on the tiny door. “I hope you’re feeling better. I haven’t seen you for two days… Was starting to worry.”
He grinned, holding his arms out. “Like new. Just needed a long nap.” His smile fell flat. “Thanks for… umm.”
“I don’t think they’d listen to me about that. Did you ever consider that you’re not on their list after all?” She slipped her socks off and put them in the locker.
Dorian gave her his usual big-brother smile. “I find it more comforting to think they listened to you.”
“Your soul isn’t as dark as you’re afraid it is.” Kirsten pinched the nanomesh clasp at the neck of her white bodysuit, looking over her shoulder at him as she peeled it open from throat to hip. “Gonna watch me shower, too?”
He held his hands up, shook his head, and wandered off into the wall.
“Sorry!” she yelled. Damn. She let the wet garment hit the ground and stepped out of it. Lonely and a bitch today.
Dorian poked his head back out. “It’s okay. We both had a rough day.”
Kirsten smiled and slouched with relief. “See you upstairs in a few.”
He nodded and pulled his head back into the wall.
After a peek over her shoulder to see if anyone happened to be watching her, she stripped despite there being three men and two other women in various stages of showering or changing. No one seemed to care, but she kept her back to the room as much as possible and crept to the nearest autoshower tube.
How do soldiers ever get used to this?