December 31st, 2199
An eyeblink later, and dusk arrived. Dante had slept well; the weariness that had filled his bones the night before had faded completely.
He walked down into the common room and saw Aaliyah already eating breakfast; a bland and healthy paste of nutrient powder and water. He grabbed a bowl of the stuff and got to eating.
Neither of the runners spoke a word, the tension between them whipcord-taut. They were both worried. If you’d looked at it, you would’ve seen it.
Soon enough, though, Dante grabbed his PDA and checked the time, checking the chamber on his guns for the fifteenth straight time.
8:00 pm. Sundown.
He pursed his lips, then called to Aaliyah.
"The sun's down. If we're gonna do this, let's get started."
A brief pause. Then she nodded, mouth a thin line.
They stood and looked at each other. Dante hesitated for a moment.
"If I fail tonight, it's been an honor, Aaliyah."
He sounded foreboding. She met his eyes, searching the blue for any hint of uncertainty. She found no doubt. No fear. Only anticipation.
And, as if on some unseen signal, they disappeared in a rush of grey.
The twin blurs blasted out of the back alley, slowing to the regular spectrum as they began to climb the rough stone walls of the monoliths. They moved up as fast as spiders, always looking for the next foothold, scrambling to beat each other, racing to find the advantage.
They quickly reached the rooftop and ran down the chaos of Outer Omega. They were neck and neck, hurtling towards the sunscrapers in the distance at inhuman speed, pounding the roofs of the houses with all their might, easily landing leaps impossible for other humans.
Dante wasn't even breathing hard yet.
They quickly reached the Financial District, the rings of sunscrapers and luxurious apartments that formed a rough wall around the Core. Mountains of steel and glass, smooth and hellish to run on.
Dante cursed softly and grabbed for his utility belt.
He had left it in the alley, detached for sleeping comfort and containing hundreds of dollar’s worth of tools.
Inexcusable. Think; improvise.
As he passed a sewer drain, he scooped up a handful of organic muck. On his command, the GIACA immediately began to invade the cells of the sludge, turning it into a grey, gooey mass.
Ah, the wonders of biotechnology.
He willed the stuff to form into a hook and cover his hand; it obliged, moving like thin oil up his arm. Dante looked up from his hand and saw the gleaming side of a helioscraper approaching. He grinned and jumped as hard as he could towards it, swinging the hook into the glass.
It worked perfectly, as the crash of shattering glass told him. The windowpane broke and the hook caught on one of the floors of the offices, bursting through walls from his momentum.
He made excellent time across the shimmering facade.
Aaliyah took a look around as the Financial District began to fade into the shining white Core, jumping and twisting in to keep herself at original pace. And as her eyes scanned the glass and plasteel, she saw her student taking the lead, a line of broken glass falling to the ground in his wake. Pride swelled up within her; she was finally outclassed.
Once he's got the advantage, he won't let it go. I wish I could use the GIACA like that kid. Good job, Dante.
Aaliyah sighed and glanced upwards as she jumped from the low roof of an apartment. A trio of teardrop-shaped shadows were growing steadily in size, blots of ink on the white of the Core.
Why now, of all nights?! Don't they have something better to do than harass random runners? She shook her head and tapped the commlink in her ear, linking it to Dante's channel.
"Dante! Incoming R.I.O.T Pods!"
"Dante! Do you copy? Incoming Hunters! Answer me, damn it!"
Dante could not hear anything; the commlink was in his toolkit. Nor would he have payed attention. He was having too much damn fun.
This was what he lived for, the feeling of the speed years of training had prepared him for. In the end, he could care less about any of the vices that he ran into regularly. Those things were nothing compared to the freedom he experienced when he ran.
His world was spread out around him like a map. Nothing was out of reach, nothing was impossible. And he was one of the deadliest creatures in his world, top of the food chain, almost everything else not even close to his power.
But for every jungle there must be hunters.
And as he felt the hooks pierce his arm, all of the adrenaline-fueled bliss flew away and he twisted in the air, trying to draw his guns or his chakram. But it far was too late. He felt the anesthetic numbing him to the world as he fell to the roof of a home block and hit the gravel with a dull crunch.
Aaliyah’s eyes widened with horror as she saw Dante fall, and as she leaped for the next block she felt the barbs barely miss her. She had to take the drones out, fast. She drew her guns, lining a shot at their sensors, and had to dodge another volley of hooks.
These ones sizzled as they hit the roof, and lit the stone with a sick orange light. Aaliyah knew Bloodfire toxin when she saw it. They were shooting to kill. One slip, and she would be ash in the wind.
But Dante hadn't been hit by the stuff, he was still alive! She weighed her options in the next second, decided in a half, and leaped towards the opposite block.
Dante floated in a warm, black sleep, drifting on the fine line between overdose and the money spot. He was content, locked in the womb. He didn't even know he was actually drugged; do dreamers know anything outside of the dream?
But then he felt something enter into his mind; a presence, strange and unfamiliar. He wanted it to go away, and said so, projecting his thought towards it. The presence seemed amused, and moved to him. Dante became aware that he was standing upright. He was suddenly afraid, seeing the infinite dark around him, and drew himself into a ball.
The presence seemed to laugh aloud and moved over to him.
Is this a dream? Dante said, or thought he said.
Obviously. the thing said. It touched Dante, and he felt the fear leaving him. He straightened, and began to speak. But it made a gesture, and he quieted.
There's something I need to do, and we have very little time. Give me your arm, it said.
Dante obligingly extended it. The thing grasped it with a (hand?) and surveyed it critically. Then its (eyes?) ran up and down the runner’s body, as if it were looking at a complex machine.
Perfect. Prime material. Now, stay with me while I do this…
The thing’s grip tightened. And a pain like a thousand needles on every nerve surged into Dante, setting him afire.
He screamed, a roar of pain and fear, and his eyes flew open.
He saw Aaliyah standing over him, fending off three black teardrops, pieces of the night itself. He raised his burning arm, holding it before his eyes, and a sea-green light emanated from it!
He was back in the darkness, the thing’s (hands?) still gripping him tightly.
Stay with me. If you interrupt the process, you can and will die!
Dante snarled and railed against his grip, but the thing was far too strong. The pain doubled, and he fell to his knees. His eyes flew open again.
Aaliyah was wounded, blood slowly trickling from her side, fending the drones off with her bare hands!
Let me go! I need to help Aaliyah! he screamed to the presence.
You can't help her. And I can't afford another interruption. Dante felt something slam into his temple, and his entire world went black.
He woke, still in the darkness, with the presence standing over him. Dante stood slowly, looking the thing in the (face?).
What have you done to me? he said.
I've helped you realize your full potential. You are what few mortals believe in now.
Dante looked himself up and down. What the hell are you talking about? Nothing new, just a tattoo on my arm-There's a tattoo of a wolf on my arm, why is there a tattoo of a wolf on my arm, why is that there, what the hell is it?!
The thing chuckled.
That's what many referred to as your 'totem' animal. That is your soul on your arm. But I must leave now, and you have to escape before they get you to their base.
The thing turned to leave, saying over its (shoulder?), End them all, Dante. Bring your wrath and the wrath of your sister down on their heads. Bring the anger of the oppressed their doors. Goodbye.
Dante tried to go after it, but found himself unable to move. Where the hell am I supposed to start, O Wise, Mighty, and Incredibly Vague being?!
It turned, and looked at him in silence. Then, You will feel their call. Follow it, and it will lead you to them.
Dante rolled his eyes. What's your name? he said.
Without turning, You don't need to know my name. But tell the other Malek sent you. Now wake.
Dante's eyes peeked open, just enough to see. Malek had warned him correctly; he was on a Corporation transport. He could feel the straps, cloth and wire binding him to a seat on the aircraft. He could hear rough voices speaking around him, soldiers from the sound of them.
"Now this is a night's catch! Boys, we caught runners! These pesky bastards have been plaguing us since the early days!"
"Well, caught one anyway. Not sure about the other one."
"Aye. It's a pity, really. She was quite good looking."
Dante opened his eyes, searching around the carrier. He saw it almost immediately; an arm hanging from a plasteel box.
A woman's arm, covered in a grey, skintight material.
They killed her. Aaliyah is dead.
He sat there, feeling the tears burn up his eyes. The sounds of the soldiers seemed to fade, the wind the only sound in Dante’s ears. Unfortunately, one of the soldiers noticed he was awake.
He walked over to Dante and grabbed his chin, trying to look into his wet eyes.
He let out a satisfied grunt. "Good, he ain't dead. But what's this?"
A tear had fallen loose from Dante’s eyes, sparkling as it fell.
The soldier looked at it incredulously, then broke into guffawing laughter.
"A runner? Crying? I thought ya’ll were nothing but piss 'n vinegar, and I see a runner crying?! This day just keeps getting better!"
Dante opened his eyes, and involuntarily glanced towards the runner's arm. The soldier followed his eyes, and laughed even harder.
He punched Dante hard in the stomach, saying, "Oh, li'l baby! Was that cunt a friend of yours? Was she your little girlfriend? Was she your bi-"
Half a second and the soldier was dead, his head spinning across the transport. The other soldiers leaped up and grabbed their guns, shouting to the others, "The runner’s loose!"
But Dante couldn't have cared less about the others.
Eyes closed, he watched the images of Aaliyah go by; years of memories streamed past.
Images of the jobs they had shared, the quiet moments they had had, the lessons, the rescues, the arguments, and ultimately of the love she had always held for him rushed by. Her eyes. Her face. Her voice.
All gone now, never to return.
Then the first bullet hit him on his unarmored forehead, ricocheting off into the night.
His eyes opened.
And anger exploded in a wrath that could cow Satan himself.