Chapter 23:



Nile did not lie. This process could take hours, and they were already creeping into the late afternoon of the following day. Elle had fallen asleep and plopped her head on John’s leg. He assumed she’d been out for a few hours, and he caught himself dozing too. John couldn’t remember the last time he stayed up so long. The floor of the Nile’s net-hacking “palace” was anything but comfortable, but it didn’t matter when they were running on fumes.

John had only seen Nile get up from his machine once in that entire time. Maybe he had in those moments that John waivered, nodding off, but Nile remained firmly locked with his machine. John checked his watch; they were running out of time. He adjusted Elle, resting her head on his bundled-up jacket.

Sensing John rise, Nile said, “You’ve woken?”

“Barely slept.”

“Now, that’s not the full truth. You’ve been out more than you think.”

John wasn’t about to waste time on his sleep schedule. “Any luck?”

“This is a delicate procedure,” Nile replied, “I can’t simply snap my fingers and pull up your guy.”

“Well, you need to,” John commanded, “If the attack happens tonight, we are running short. It’s already after noon.”

Nile shrugged and returned to the viewer. His lack of a response, confirming or even denying John’s demands, sent a shiver of anger through the PI’s mind. Was Nile fucking with them? He clearly understood pieces about the Revival. He had known back at Skeeters. If this was all a sham to keep them tied up, John would kill him.

“Ah! I believe I’ve found your man.” John was about ready to tear Nile away from his machine, give him a real shakedown. This thought fled as soon as Nile spoke. Again, he glanced up from the view and bid John over. Like an alarm had been attached to the information, Elle perked her head up at the very mention.

John peered into the viewer, seeing that Nile had gained access to a camera. It was a colorless stream, everything appeared in various shades of gray, black, and white. However, John could make out the shape of six Nekos in a room, surrounded by chairs and tables. They were sitting, speaking about something. There was no sound for the feed.

“How do you know?” John asked.

“Net-hacking is all about knowing. You think I found some random shlup based upon a half-assed description your cat gave. There was quite a bit of digging to do.”

“Hey! My description was a start,” Elle snapped, jumping to her feet at the mere sound of Nile’s insult.

“Still had to dig. Like I said, he may have deleted his registrations, but things are never truly removed.”

“I’m surprised this camera is functional…” John muttered.

Nile grinned. “It wasn’t. They didn’t outright destroy it though. That would signal Coolage. A ping was added to it. Keeps the camera sending a false feed. They are easy to bypass, but it’s something you see net-hackers using. Beginner net-hackers.”

“Where is this? If there’s a Coolage camera?”

“Right under their nose. District 14.”

Elle’s mouth dropped. “The lift to the Uppercity?”

John looked up from the viewer. “They don’t mean to blow up the lift?”

“I can’t say for sure. I can’t hear them,” Nile said, “Think about it, PI. You’re the investigator. The Uppercity keeps the Undercity running and vice versa. There are other means up and down, but nothing like the lifts in District 14. If those lifts blew, it would nearly shut down commerce between the two halves of Yorktown. It would castrate the already underfunded, under-resourced Undercity police, effectively cutting off law and order until the lifts could be restored. If they can be restored.”

“Where is this? Precisely?”

“A Coolage storage facility. Designation 15-3546 specifically. From the data, it’s currently unused… unsurprisingly.”

Cutting off the Uppercity would give the Undercity Nekos, a far larger population than humans, a chance to take control of the city. Yes, there would be fighting. Yes, there may be those that refuse. However, there would be little choice in the matter. Without Uppercity contact, the Undercity would turn into a full battleground. Those that remained apathetic would die or be cast out. The Nekos eventually could take control of the government, splitting Yorktown right down the middle.

For Coolage, it couldn’t be sweeter. Such an act of war would immediately be met with swift action. Stopping such a plot early would present huge PR boosts to the company and their involvement. The police would reestablish control quickly, and the Undercity would immediately be locked down. The Revival would fracture with its leadership either dead or captured. There would be rigged trials, executions of the leaders, and an imposing social discourse against Nekos. The status quo would remain. No… it would grow.

“We need to get to District 14,” John said, “Elle, you can back out here if you want. This won’t be safe.”

“Why are you even asking that…?”

“To clear my conscience.” John looked at Nile, who enjoyed this little exchange a bit too much. “Thank you… That’s the only time you’ll ever get it from me. In fact, Nile, I promise that when this is all done, I will find a way to make you pay for everything you’ve done.”

Nile flashed his teeth. “Is that a threat, Mr. Darcy.”

“A promise.”

“I look forward to it then.”

John and Elle wasted no time as they fled from Nile’s net-hacking suite, through the Undercity tunnels, and out to the alley. Starting the CX-14, John saw the registration number and Coolage branding removed. If the vehicle was scanned by a police cruiser, it would come up with the registered name of Smlo King…

The CX-14 lurched upward, gunning in a straight line for the freeway. An intense amount of g-force pushed down on them, more than the usual amount when ascending in a vehicle. The CX-14’s thrusters were powerful enough for such a drastic upward pull. John’s old CX-7 could never dream of pulling a maneuver like this. He slid on into the express lane, pissing off one driver who let on the horn as this random CX-14 blasted up between them and the person in front. It was a tight fit, but John navigated it with precision accuracy. That didn’t stop Elle from gasping onto her seat for dear life.

“You know if we die trying to get there, it doesn’t help anyone?” she said, looking back to see the angered driver behind them; his middle finger stuck straight up.

“Sorry. I’ve always wanted to test drive one of these babies,” John said, “It’s really got some pick up and go, don’t it?”

“I guess…” Elle didn’t understand the love of cars some had.

With little care for traffic or signs, John carried the CX-14 higher, scurrying over the vehicles waiting to move forward on the expressway. Yes, this was incredibly illegal, and he could easily be pulled over. John didn’t care. He rocketed the CX-14 forward, facing a series of honks from more angered drivers. If only they knew. John didn’t plan on keeping it. As much as he wanted to, keeping a stolen vehicle was a bad idea. Mr. Smlo King would have a lot of explaining to do when the registration was run.

If the roads were surprisingly bare of law enforcement, no doubt a result of the “gear up” for tonight, John pressed the accelerator down, reaching over the speed limit until he was forced to activate the brakes as they jerked off onto the District 14 exit. He weaved in and out of the traffic, descending down until the road was fully in view. The CX-14 came in hot, too hot, and their near collision with the ground was only prevented by a swift yank of the altitude stick; the front bumper of the CX-14 pulled upwards and just missed the pavement.

John parked the CX-14 outside the storage units that surrounded the lift. It took a moment, but they located the 15-3000 section, consisting of containers with an attached office space. These sort of units were designed for businesses that operated in both the Under and Uppercity. Coolage could store units and goods within the storage containers while workers that made frequent trips between both sections could use the office.

“Did the cops take the taser from you?” John asked as he pulled out the pistol and loaded it. He had no doubts that a diplomatic approach would only get him and Elle killed. Not that he wouldn’t try…

“I tried to tell them not to, but you know, the cops weren’t going to let me keep it,” Elle said with a frown. She reached into a bag left inside the vehicle. “I got some pepper spray.”

“That is… a thing, I guess,” John muttered, “Maybe you should wait at that-”

“I went to the Airyard with you, no gun or anything. I’m fine!” Elle was already making her way towards the container. She was technically correct about that, and John questioned his constant attempts to keep her out of harm’s way. It failed every time.

The container field, much like the Airyard, was a relatively sprawling space. Instead of a wide open area, allowing airships to dock, it was far more claustrophobic with a tight packing of these shipping containers, or their office equivalents, stacked up like skyscrapers. The walkways between them were narrow, forcing John and Elle single file. He took point and clutched onto his pistol. The Revival would not keep this area unchecked, and John scanned the tops of the counters for cameras or stationed men.

He was dead on, at least this time. As they neared where the container with the proper designation, John spotted six onlookers, stationed atop the containers. They laid prone to keep themselves as hidden as possible, but with the daytime sun, a slight glare twinkled upon a bit of metal on their bodies. It was a dead giveaway, and John moved with caution until they arrived at the container door.

Container 15-3546 was huge compared to the others. Nearly double in size, John could see that the office space presented was more luxurious than the other containers. Whoever gifted this to the Revival was high up in Coolage, and it further signaled to the company’s grand plan. At the front door, John was fully aware they were spotted. He quickly typed in the access code that Nile sent them; the door slid open.

“Hurry now,” he ordered Elle while taking a glance back to the tops of the containers. Sure enough, one of the guards spotted them and messaged through some walkie talkie. There would be no surprises.

Elle entered the container, and John followed quickly after. He shut the door and damaged the access. The door would be tough to open, both in and out. Elle was speechless, and as John turned, he saw why. The container, a wide open space, was essentially empty. He expected to see a mass of boxes or goods stacked upon each other, towering over the catwalk that led to the office space. Instead, a single, man sized, dome sat in the center of the room.

“What is that?” Elle asked; the red light on it flashed at two second intervals.

“A small grade explosive,” John replied, “No… It’s made to look like it. It’s got to be-” He couldn't finish his thought. Just as John speculated the bomb was either a decoy or far more power than it let on, the eruption of sparks burst within inches of them. Gunfire rained from the catwalk; two Nekos shot at them with little more than handguns. John returned fire, making a break for the centralized explosive. Elle, with little cover in sight, dove for the stairs. The Nekos seemed more interested in John, focusing the majority of their attention on him. John dove for the bomb; the gunfire ceased.

“Got you,” he muttered, using the explosive as a makeshift shield. One wrong shot could blast them all to kingdom come. John banked that they wouldn’t want that.

Elle ducked behind the stairs, clutching onto her pepper spray and cursing that she didn’t have a gun too. They provided decent cover, especially as the Nekos focused in on her, but it did her little good when her “weapon” had a range of about ten feet. Some defense… Elle ground her teeth. Why did she always get stuck with the useless crap? Once these guys were dealt with, she was taking one of their pistols.

“We can stop this!” John called out, pushing himself up against the explosive, “I only want to talk with Sal. We know he’s here.”

“You’re lying!” one of the Nekos snapped, aiming his pistol as a finger danced upon the trigger. His panic was confronted by his partner, who reached out and pushed his arms down.

“You crazy? You’ll get us all killed.”

John smirked. “Exactly. Look, I'm not here to hurt anyone. I’d much rather talk this out like men if we can.” The two Nekos exchanged glances at John’s offer. It could be a trap, a ploy to convince them to lower their guard. John saw their unease and sweetened the pot. “We ain’t with the police or Coolage or anyone. We’re here to help keep you and a lot of other Nekos alive. I need to talk to Sal.”

Again, the Nekos shuffled with uncertainty. Elle called out, “Tell him that Amber’s friend’s here!” She stepped out from around the metal stairs. “He knows me.”

In the rush, they had not realized Elle was a Neko. She put them at ease a bit, and Sal had mentioned an “Amber” before. It was enough personal information for them to slightly lower their guard. Elle started up the stairs and continued, “Promise this is not a trick. The Revival is being set up.”

It was an interesting tactic, and one John realized he could never pull off without her. The two Nekos, still struggling with the strangeness of the situation, agreed to Elle’s request. One departed into the office while the other stood watch. Elle was now at the top of the catwalk, slowly making her way towards them. Eventually, the remaining Neko brandished his pistol, demanding she stop. Elle did not question him.

Moments later, Sal emerged from the offices. He was joined by another Neko, a young man with a scruffy face, and the Neko who went to fetch him. Unlike the others, he carried an assault rifle. There would be no fighting their way out this time. John had to rely on good old fashion talking and the hope that Sal wasn’t crazy enough to blow them all to sky high.

“Amazing,” he muttered, upon seeing Elle and then John ducked by the planted bomb, “To think, I figured the police would do a better job keeping you after the Airyard. It appears I was wrong. As I have been about many things.”

The young Neko with the heavier weaponry stepped towards Elle. He quickly frisked her, locating only the pepper spray. He asked, “This is?”

“Promise it is,” Elle assured, thankfully he had been respectful when searching her.

“Veet, let me see that,” Sal ordered. The young Neko named Veet tossed the pepper spray to his leader. Sal caught it, and upon a quick glance, he began to laugh. “This is all you have? I mean… what would have happened if this turned into a firefight?”

“We banked that it wouldn’t,” John said, “Sal, you need to call-”

“I will speak only with Elle,” Sal fired, “Only a Neko can understand why we do what we do. Even a human who is sympathetic could never hope to fully grasp our situation.”

Elle frowned. “I don’t understand… I mean, I do in a way, but not this way. Not the way you’ve planned for all this. But, that doesn’t matter right now!” She was almost yelling. “Coolage knows, Sal. The police are going to destroy the Revival tonight. They know! Everything! They’ve led you all on, supplied you with what you need, and plan to pull it all out from under you!”

The Nekos began to murmur amongst themselves until Sal ordered them quiet. His fists tightened; his teeth ground. “You think we’d believe that?”

“I heard it from Coolage’s mouth,” John said, “The Revival’s a patsy designed to turn public opinion against Nekos. You’re just a tool to subjugate your own people!”

“Fuck your human lies!” Sal growled, “No! All of this has been planned for five years. We are prepared. The Undercity will belong to the Nekos, and you Uppercity scum will have to concede to our personhood. Humans will no longer deny Nekos!”

“They will,” Elle said, “They’re using your anger against us. Sal, I don’t know what your life was like before this. I can only imagine how hard and terrible it was. I… I grew up in the Uppercity. Like John, I can never fully grasp what you’ve gone through, but in a way, I can at least a little. I’ve experienced it too. Maybe not in a way that you have. I feel it though…”

Elle’s attempt at passion and empathy fell quickly on deaf ears. Sal was silent for once, breathing heavily. His right-hand man, Veet, reached out but was swiped away. His rage only grew; Sal believed none of their lies. They angered him so much, and despite the logical portion of his brain saying it was a trap, the emotional side pumped his thoughts full of doubt.

“What proof do you have?” Sal asked, “I won’t take a human’s word. Neko, what proof do you have?”

Elle shifted awkwardly. “Well… I was, uh, not really there. We were at Coolage, but no… this is true! Sal, you have to listen to John. I trust him. He might not be perfect, but he is a good man. You can trust him! I promise!”

“Simply words then…”

“How did you convince your followers?” Elle asked, “With only words. They trusted you based on that. I’m asking the same.”

Sal offered nothing, but Veet was the one to ask. “You said Coolage knows. What’s their plan?”

“They are going to raid your cells in each of the Districts,” John explained from below, “Before you can even hope to coordinate these explosions, they’ll knock you down one by one.” John would not mention when they planned for this. Three days was too much time of the likes of Sal.

“Then what would you have us do?” Veet asked.

“Send a message to break up the cells. Get anyone who has agreed to help the Revival away from the explosives. Don’t let them catch anyone. Disappear into the night,” John said, “That goes for everyone here too.”

Veet turned to Sal for a response, for an order, for anything. Sal‘s breathing had almost stopped. Each shallow inhale was met with a near silent exhale, to the point where Elle questioned if he was even breathing.

When Sal said nothing, Veet spoke for him. “This is… a change. If we are to believe you, such a breakdown of operations would be difficult. It’s a lot of coordinating in a short time. I don’t know if it's possible.”

“Make it possible,” John ordered, “Please!”

Sal was still unresponsive, and Veet realized that their leader turned inward. So much for the grand Sal Regis, whose plans cracked and shattered under the weight of everything. To Veet, they could at least regroup and try again later. Once things cooled down, they could build up, retry, and strike harder. It was a plan, at least.

Veet turned to their other men. “Send a message to the other cells. Tell them to abandon tonight. If this is a lie, then we can restart and group in the next week. If not… we can’t risk it.”

“Belay that!” Sal fired, yanking away a pistol from one of the Nekos. “Let them come! Let them try to destroy the Revival. It’s in the name. It will always come back!”

Sal aimed at the bomb and pulled the trigger. Five rounds pierced the explosive; John heard the clear click indicating something had been triggered. Before he could utter a curse, John barreled backwards, diving as far back as he could. It didn’t matter. He could feel the heat as the bomb casing was torn off; a massive fireball grew.

A large explosion erupted over District 14.