Chapter 13:

Tread the Dark

Code: Zero Defect

I dropped onto the top of a water tower from a raised platform. Below me, the traffic and lively sounds of the undercity flourished like never before. Among those sounds, a number of sirens were blaring, hinting at the unordinary amount of coatsmen conducting their normal activity. Even though I call it normal, it's far from normal.

From my pocket, I pulled out an earpiece, the same one I used to communicate with Ex. At this point, it's been a full week since I last came down here. I wonder if she'll even answer me.

"Ex," I called out.

No response. That's strange.

"Ex?" I mumbled again.

Yet again, I was met with silence. She always replied to me in the past. Did I cross a line I shouldn't have the last time we met? It felt like a fever dream, but I somehow remember everything they told me. Their names, their roles in Calypso, and... Nelia.

Suddenly, a thought appeared in my head. There's a possibility that she's not at her desk at the moment, but that's highly unlikely. If she is listening, then I'll just have to try a more persuasive tactic.

With a deep breath, I called out her name. "... Astrid?"

"Hey, hey! That's me!" her deafening voice blasted through the earpiece. "How's it going, buddy?"

"Don't give me that," I sighed. "Why didn't you answer if you heard me the first time?"

"Cuz you weren't using my real name."

"Why would I do that? Can't these comms be hacked?"

"Aw, it looks like you've underestimated me, buddy. Matter of fact, I hope somebody does successfully penetrate my firewall. It'll give me a fun little challenge."

I don't know why, but it's a little weird talking to Ex now that I know what she looks like. I'm not quite sure how to explain it. Before, it was easy to take and follow orders when I had no idea who she was or the way she acted.

Now that I've met her, it almost feels like I'm working for a kid even though she's older than me. I suppose I should make it a habit of calling her Astrid now. Can't have her going silent when she's the one overseeing my assignments.

"I'm gonna be honest, I didn't expect to hear from you so soon," Astrid said.

"Why's that?" I asked.

"I dunno. I thought you'd be scared of us. Not to brag or anything, but Calypso is pretty notorious. Our bounties are in the nine digits for a reason."

"N-nine digits...? How much is yours?"

"Let's see..."

She paused for a moment, probably searching herself up on the High Order's database.

"Whoa!" she then exclaimed. "I shot up by a whole thirty million! Boss! Hey, Boss! I'm at two hundred and twenty million now!"

"Oh, nice," Holiday's muffled voice came through.

Two hundred... and twenty million... That's like seventy times my current bounty. If Holiday was able to shrug it off like it was nothing, I wonder what her bounty is.

"Anyway, what's it gonna be for tonight?" I asked.

"Ah, about that-" Astrid mumbled before she was interrupted.

"Ohhh, is that my dear Solas?" a chilling voice said through the comms.

As playful as those words were, they sent a chill down my spine. I don't think I'll ever be able to hear her voice without being overtaken by that sinking feeling. A struggle ensued with two people grunting in my ears.

"Loki, you're gonna break my equipment..." Astrid muttered with a slight hint of annoyance.

"You'll be fine even without em’, so quit hogging Solas for yourself," Loki snickered playfully.

"Didn't you almost kill him last week?"

"What are you talking about? I remember no such thing."

"Uh huh..."

While they went back and forth, I took a minute to scan the situation below. In one street, a pair of coatsmen hovercars were making their rounds. Down by a small commerce strip, about a dozen of them were standing by. Further towards the residential area on the banks of a river, they were patrolling in groups of six.

As much as the residents of the undercity try to ignore their presence, they are more than wary of the coatsmen in their territory.

Just then, a string of abnormal movements caught my eyes. Coatsmen all around the block were holding their hands to their ears. Right then, they began jogging towards the east.

"Astrid, there's a situation," I said.

"You're telling me," she grunted. "Loki! Go away! Strider is trying to tell me something important!"

"He can tell me instead," Loki hummed. "Wouldn't you like that better, my dear Solly?"

"... S-Solly...?" I muttered.

"I said, move!" Astrid shouted.

A sudden slam echoed through the comms, which was followed by a yelp and a thud. Minerva must've just arrived on the scene because she began frantically screaming and continuously asking Loki if she was okay.

"Alright," Astrid sighed. "Now that she's out of the way..."

"How did I miss all that noise for the last six months?" I asked.

"Soundproof tech. I didn't bother turning it on when I noticed it was you who was calling for me. Tsk... and I paid the price for it."

"Well... Anyway, the coatsmen are mobilizing. Looks like something is happening at the Eastern Ward."

"The Eastern Ward?"

Astrid took a moment for herself while I continued to monitor the coatsmen's movement. The patrolling hovercars are straying from their routine paths and moving towards the rest. From here, I can't see a single coatsmen in the area who isn't running.

"Astrid, they're picking up the pace," I informed her. "Care to explain?"

"Hm... Zephyr's been caught," she whistled. "That's gonna put a dent on her ego."

"Wait, what? Standby. I'm heading over."

"No need."


Astrid's exaggerated laugh came through the comms, the kind I'd hear on television shows. It always irked me whenever I heard it, but it wasn't so bad when it came from Astrid.

"Don't you know who we are, buddy?" she scoffed. "We're Calypso. And Zephyr? Heh... Even Loki doesn't come close to how violent she can be."

The thought of it surprised me. The warehouse where I first met Loki was filled with bodies that were mangled to the point where they were unrecognizable. It looked more like the work of the devil than a person. I find it hard to believe Zephyr can match Loki in their methods, but then again, I haven't seen her in action yet.

"Regardless, I'm gonna go back her up," I said as I jumped off the water tower. "She might need it."

"Pft... Again, you're talking about a Calypso here, but sure," Astrid chuckled. "Do what you want."

I ran through the crowded streets, careful to evade the straggling coatsmen as I approached the Eastern Ward. While much of the undercity is populated and very much 'alive,' there are some areas where electricity has been cut off to conserve energy—abandoned and left to rot. This is one such place.

Towering silos rose from a massive edifice with no clear shape. The surrounding warehouses were completely empty. Several forklifts dotted ground level, and many hovercars sat vacant. This place seems to be an abandoned factory, one of many scattered across the undercity.

Marching up the main building was a large number of coatsmen, their flashlights lighting up a small section. More of them came from the road that led up to the factory.

Zephyr must be inside. I've been in similar situations before, but never one on a scale like this. Nonetheless, she should be fine, right? She's not a Calypso for nothing.

After confirming that the parking lot was clear, I dashed through the various obstacles, careful to conceal myself as best as possible. I then stopped when I almost tripped over something.

I turned around and accessed what looked to be a deeply wounded body. These cuts... They're not the same as the ones I found the day I encountered Loki. The cuts made here are precise and deep. Only certain death could follow such wounds, even for the augmented.

However, it wasn't just one body. Upon closer inspection, the lot was littered with them. Loki's kill count on that day doesn't even compare to this. It's like this factory was turned into a massive graveyard.

A bright light abruptly shined upon me.

"Who's there?!" shouted a voice.

I quickly took a peek to see several coatsmen pointing their guns at me from a distance. I reached underneath my cloak to pull out a knife and hurled it at the foremost target. As soon as the knife struck, the ensuing firestorm began.

I rolled behind a hovercar with my dagger in my hand. There's not much cover here. If I peek out for a single second, I'm a dead man.

From my waist, I grabbed a smoke grenade and tossed it out. As soon as it popped, I rushed into its cover.

"Shit! Where the hell-" a coatsman cried before I pierced his torso.

As he fell, I slashed at another one, taking him out before lunging at the next. Within the cover of the cloud of smoke, I struck down the coatsmen while they were frantically shouting at one another to take me out.

Eventually, every single one of them dropped to the ground with their last breaths. How did they even get here without me noticing their footsteps?

I tossed my dagger in the air and caught it. Oh well. For a surprise attack, I'd say I did pretty well. I wonder if Astrid is watching right now.

"Stri... der!" her staticky voice came in.

"Oh, speak of the devil," I scoffed. "I was just wondering if you were watching me just then."

"No time! You... get..."

It was hard to hear her with all that static. Funny how the legendary hacker, Astrid, who once hacked the entire security system in the city, was having connection issues.

"Astrid?" I said. "You're breaking up."

"Strider... you... run!"

Suddenly, a roaring cackle split the air behind me. The moment I turned around, a sharp pain in my leg forced me to my knees.

The clacking of high heels echoed in the lot. From the shadows, a glimmer of red appeared, and out walked a lady draped in dark leotard. A decorated, white coat hung from her shoulders, and a pair of gleaming red sunglasses covered her gaze. Her short, block hair had a long magenta strand curling down her face. With a sinister grin, she pointed what looked like a flintlock pistol at me, a trail of smoke flowing out of the barrel.

"A stray defect," her cold yet elegant voice rasped through the air. "Now, where have I seen you before?"

I kept my silence. She's no ordinary coatsman, and that was proven to be true when a group of soldiers ran up to join her.

Dammit. From the looks of it, they're wearing proper tactical suits and carrying lethal firearms. These guys aren't coatsmen. They're with the army.

"Ah, that's right!" the lady exclaimed. "Strider, wasn't it? I've seen your wanted posters here and there. A bounty of a whopping three million credits."

Again, I stayed quiet, and that seemed to have infuriated her even more. She pulled back the hammer of her pistol once more.

"On a normal day, I would've liked to bring you in alive," she smiled. "Unfortunately, I'm not in the best of moods today. So, farewell, defect. It's a shame you had to run into me of all people."

With that, she pulled the trigger. It felt as though time had decelerated. I saw the bullet spinning through the air. It's like the world knew I couldn't move in time and was taunting me with the revelation.

Shit... I can't dodge it.

"Code: Temporal Acceleration!" a faint voice whispered in my ears.

Upon the final moment, a flash of moonlight struck my eyes. The silent shriek of the wounded air vibrated in my ears. The scene in front of me distorted for just a second, and there I saw a head of flowing white hair flailing like a trail of snow.

The bullet that was once racing towards me visibly shook. A line formed through the center before it split in half, the two pieces whisking past my head.

I was only able to briefly glance at the person before they disappeared like a snuffed out candle. One by one, the soldiers fell seemingly of their own accord. An enormous volume of blood painted the sky, and the screams of the next victims joined the orchestra of death.

As if the halted time came to curtain call, Zephyr appeared in the center of the stage. Just like that, every drop of blood fell to the ground with a splash, along with those whom they belonged to.

She slightly turned her head, and while the moonlight shines upon the right side of her face, the latter half was covered by a silhouette. Within those indifferent eyes that glowed in the darkness, a hollowed diamond glared at me menacingly. A dash of blood dripped down from her forehead, but I knew very well it wasn't her own.

The only person left standing was the lady in the bright red sunglasses. Her smile grew wider as she let out a chuckle, and that soon turned into a wicked cackle. She clutched her stomach and stumbled back a bit.

"And here I was thinking those idiots were drunk and out of their minds!" she exclaimed. "Zephyr of Calypso in the flesh! Oh, dear..."

Her head rose as she wiped a strand of tear from her eye. She shot a threatening glare at Zephyr, who didn't even so much as react to her imposing presence.

"Showing up in front of me like this... You must truly want to die."

Zephyr's eyes lowered. Fear, panic, nervousness—she showed not the slightest hint that she felt anything more than contempt.

"In the past, your petty threats never meant much to me, Lieutenant Van Lachlein," she said bitterly. "The same can be said about now."