Cass flew through the air, air which smelled distinctly like garbage. There were other sensations, although she wasn’t really bothered with those. Landing had her attention. It had been years since the first time she’d fallen out of a portal like that, but she remembered the speed, the landing, the impact on her ribs, and knew she had to be quick and decisive. Turning her flight into a somersault, and her landing into a roll, she jumped back up, skidding to a halt at the edge of a building. A building built on the precipice of an impossibly deep drop. She was holding the haft of her hammer. The head was gone, so she dropped it, and noticed the crumpled heap of… eughh. It appeared to be roughly half of Haze. Ew.
Okay, well, that was one thing sorted. She was definitely still in the city, and, going by the smell and the traffic, close to Black-62. Close to home. She stepped away from the edge and looked around. She had a rough idea of which neighbourhood she was in. Not a bad one. One she could find her way around in, and one where she could survive if she had to. But she wasn’t looking to survive. She’d done that part, over half a decade ago, and back then she’d had Tore. She didn’t want to survive on her own again. First things first, she thought. Find Flock’s base. They could still be in danger. Her family.
The first thing she noticed was that her electronics didn’t work. The portal had probably fried everything. Cass kept running down the street, surprised at how empty the floor was. Usually, regardless of the time of night, people were out, talking, eating, drinking. Finally she saw two men wearing the telltale Black-62 badges. Good. They might have been able to get her home, or at least get her a cab there. She approached them with a jovial wave. Flock’s men had always been good at community outreach, she knew that much. They’d be happy to help. Or should have been. As she got closer, she saw the two men were roughing up a smaller four-armed creature. She didn’t recognize the language it was squawking in. What bothered her was the behaviour of Flock’s men. The fact that two guns were quickly leveled at her as she approached was a pretty bad sign as well. She tensed up and froze.
“Hey,” she hazarded.
“Back the fuck off, Decker,” the tallest one said. “Or I’m making you back off.”
“Who the fuck is this chick, Slick? She walking around like she owns the place.”
“Yeah, I don’t like that shit. What is it, Decker? You looking to catch a bullet?”
Cass wasn’t listening. She was calculating, her adrenaline-boosters flooding her system. Those still worked. Time slowed down. She’d gotten good at this part over the years. Very good. She just wished she had her weapons. Any weapon. Oh well, she’d gotten pretty good at improvisation too. The guy in front was very clearly getting agitated, probably because she just glared at them. Maybe they thought she was frozen in fear? Heh.
“What’s your problem, Decker? Say something, or are you too dumb to--”
“Slick, I don’t like this, man. Let’s just back off. I don’t--”
Slick turned his head to berate the smaller man, which was the opening Cass needed. She launched herself forward, quietly. Every millisecond counted, and she’d been practicing on Haze earlier. It was over almost as soon as it started. Five hits in total, which, all things considered, she’d done better, but she’d definitely done worse. And now she had guns, a tazer, and two unconscious guards with minimal fractures -- assholes though they might have been. She dragged the two of them into an alley, took a keypass off of them and enough money for a cab. She was going to get to the bottom of this.
Half an hour later, the cab dropped her off in front of Flock’s compound, the main entrance as imposing as ever. The giant doors were closed but not guarded, which was weird. She’d only been out in front here once before, but security then had been top notch. This was… something else. There was a fear in the back of her mind she didn’t want to verbalize just yet. She’d recognized the inside of Haze’s portal. She looked at Flock’s quiet compound. Was this shortly after an attack? Had the guards been sent out? Defeated? She walked up to the door and swiped the pass. The doors began to slide open and she stepped to the side, waiting for the telltale sign of the automated defenses to click on. She had a solution for them -- one shot each -- but she needed them to pop out of their defensive shells first. But the beeping didn’t come. She peeked around the corner. All she saw was a single guard who was lazily checking out why the door was opening. That was weird; Queen Flock would never allow that kind of laxness.
In the back of the big hall were several people, chained with hands and feet, to the wall. This was wrong. This was all wrong, and she began to have a very distinct feeling why that might be. She spun around the corner, the gun leveled at the guard.
“Don’t even think about it,” she said as they reached for their gun, but, smartly, they froze. “Where’s Flock? Where’s Shakes?” The man stammered in fear, hands in the air, and she took a deep breath. They were barely a kid. “I’m not going to kill you, friend. Just tell me where they are.”
“U-uh, Shakes is that way,” they said, pointing. There wasn’t all that much down that hall, and she knew where to look. Good.
“Thank you,” she said, and quickly pressed the taser to the kid’s neck. It was going to hurt like a bitch when he woke up, but she couldn’t afford to have the alarm go off. She needed to find a friend right now. Dragging the body to a corner, she was about to run down the hall, when she ran back over to the kid, found another keypass, and released the captives bound to the wall. She was sure there were more of them, that these were just there for processing, but it was the least she could do. This, she knew, was not Flock’s Black-62. This was some place way worse.
Cass ran down the hall, gun leveled. None of the usual guard patrols were around, and she couldn’t help but wonder how bad things truly were here. None of the storerooms she checked were occupied, until she got to a room which she was pretty sure was a private room. She didn’t bother knocking, instead using the pass again to slide the door open, gun raised. Inside were two men, standing at a table. The room itself was fairly bare, the only other pieces of furniture being several heavy tables, a bed and a large locker. The two men were the room’s most distinguishing feature. One of them was a tall, official looking man with a shaved head. He had several prosthetics all around his head. Next to him stood Shakes. Well, not the Shakes she knew. This man was younger. A lot younger. He still had all his hair, for one thing. The other was that he was wearing a guard uniform. Crap. Crap. Crap. That was bad news. That meant the bald dude was King… Electro? House? Dubstep? She had the gun raised still, which was why neither of the men moved other than to raise their hands.
“Shakes,” she said, “don’t panic, and please don’t go for that gun. I don’t want to shoot you.” She was breathing heavy, thinking through plan after plan. What was she supposed to do? She could wait around for Flock to come, to dethrone the other man, who was clearly her predecessor. But how long would she have to wait? A week? A month? A year? She didn’t know how far back she’d gone, and she was, well, here. She took a deep breath.
“Morris,” the tall man said, “who the fuck is this?”
“No idea, Boss,” Shakes said, frowning. “Why’d you know my callsign? You were the one that called me earlier, weren’t you?”
Fuck. “Shakes,” Cass said, taking a deep breath. “You’ve got a picture.” Shakes’ frown deepened. King (Rave?) began to lower his hands. In one swift movement, Cass slammed her fist on the panel that closed and locked the door, then fired two bullets at the King’s feet. “Do not fuck with me right now. You try anything and I’m going to ventilate you and feed you to the Shredders, am I clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” both men said.
“Shakes,” she continued. “You keep a photo of your childhood lover in your locker. You--”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” King Drum ‘n Bass asked.
“How do you know about that?” Shakes asked. He seemed genuinely upset.
“Because I need you to trust me, Shakes. Because I know you, better than this bastard slaverunner does.” It was a bluff, but she had to try. Shakes looked at the other man, and then back at her.
“How do you know about the picture?”
“You loved him,” she added, and she saw Shakes’ eyes redden as tears began to form in his eyes. She lowered her voice, feeling guilty for bringing up a painful memory like that. “I’m sorry.”
“Morris,” the King began.
“Shut up, sir,” Shakes said. “She’s trustworthy.”
“Like fuck she is,” King Trance said and dove to the side, grabbing a gun from the table. Shakes looked from him, to Cass, back to his boss, and seemed to make a decision. He pulled his gun from its holster, a little too slow. The tall man, the warlord, made a perfect roll, turned, and ended Shakes’ career as a guard with two bullets to the knee. Cass dove in the other direction, missing shots but keeping the man in cover behind an overturned table. She heard a buzzing noise and saw a drone fly overhead. Shit. Two shots and it was out of the air, but where there was one, there were others.
It was time to end this before it got worse. There were roughly twenty steps between her and the old crime lord. The buzzing of additional drones got louder. She jumped over the table and took a bullet to the shoulder from a second drone. Two shots and it was down. A third got her in the side, but it went through and through. She’d had worse. She kept running. It was too late to stop now. Another jump and she took several bullets through the legs, but it was too late for that, too. She was already airborne, and flew over the table leveling her gun and landing with a thud in front of King Techno, who was remotely controlling the drones with a device on his arm. He seemed almost surprised to see her.
“You’re bad at this,” she said with a grin, and pulled the trigger several times as another drone fired its last shot. That one went in the gut, and hurt like a bitch. Her vision flickered for a moment, and she felt the old, familiar painful sensation of the deadstone around her neck coming to the same conclusion Cass had come to herself. Shakes limped over to her. The look on his face spoke volumes.
“Who the bloody depths are you?” he asked.
“Uh…” she said. ”Name’s Loki?” she hazarded. It would be weird if Tore was out there. Better to have an alias for now.
“You’re gonna be dead soon, Loki.”
“‘Sfine,” Cass said. “Bring my deadstone to someone named--”
“Nah,” Shakes said, and picked her up. Fuck, that hurt. He walked her down the halls, and she was surprised again at how there were no reinforcements. The Queen of Black-62 would never allow for something like that. “Boss is dead, you know things about me nobody else does, an’ just… look, you did what I didn’t, what nobody had done yet, an’ you know things, an’ I can’t run this place myself.”
“What are you talking about, Shakes?” she mumbled, finding reality harder and harder to grapple with. It was slipping through her fingers like sand.
“The old boss didn’t trust the resurrectors… look, I’ll explain in just a second.”
“Shakes, I’ll be dead in jusss--” Cass said, and died.
She opened her eyes, and immediately regretted it. Her head hurt. She felt like she was… submerged. Moving was incredibly difficult. There was an unfamiliar sensation, the feeling of intrusion, all over. Every small movement seemed to cause lines to pull taut, slightly painful. She risked opening her eyes again. Blue-green. And behind that… a soft white light, like the sun through the clouds. Her head pounded. There was a loud clank, muffled by the liquid she was floating in. The water around her seemed to vibrate with a low rumbling, and then she felt a sensation pulling down. The water was starting to drain, and the tugging in her limbs suddenly fell away as she realized that whatever had kept her suspended had been released. She was roughly lowered onto a metallic surface, and found she did not have the strength to even stay kneeling, and slumped over. She fell against a glass barrier, almost too weak to even hold her head up. She looked down at herself. She was young. Had she always been this young?
The glass slid up, and a large face appeared in her view, picked her up, and wrapped her in a rough piece of cloth.
“Hmm,” she managed. Her head hurt. Who was this? Where was she?
“Your head might feel a bit weird. The, uh, the thing, the boss was growing, like new bodies for some kind of kid supersoldiers he was gonna use. Lead an army of drones an’ all. You ought to have an implant like that, if I ain’t wrong.”
She focused, and felt a kind of pressure at the source of the headache, something she could push against, that responded. She became aware of unprotected electronic systems around her. The man wasn’t wrong. The man.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Ah, crud,” he said. “I was afraid of that. The kids weren’t supposed to remember much, so the implant makes it harder.” He paused, and she saw him fidget with the gun in his holster. “How, uh, how d’you feel about… human trafficking?”
“Abhorrent. What kind of question is that?” He seemed to study her face for a second, and then lowered his hand. Without his knowledge, several drones in the hall outside powered down.
“Good enough f’r me. Let’s get you dressed. Um, m’name’s Shakes, by the way.” She sighed in relief.
“Nice to meet you, Shakes. Where am I?” Shakes opened the door and saw a swarm of drones of all shapes and sizes hang in the air. They moved left and right at her whim, and she enjoyed the patterns she could make them fly in. She reached out and gently tapped one, and it did a little lap around her head. She couldn’t help but laugh. Shakes was uncomfortable at how many of them there were, clearly, but they flew aside as they walked through them, like a school of fish, moving as one.
They walked down halls, everything unfamiliar, but Shakes was happy to lead the way and to explain to her she was in what was ostensibly a gang hideout. The swarm of drones followed them happily, and she enjoyed seeing the world through their eyes whenever she wanted to, right up until she saw parts of the world outside of the compound.
Things were bad, bad all over, and it was working for a gang or risk ending up as livestock. Apparently the place she was in was called Black-62, and it was a shithole. Apparently, according to Shakes, she had started cleaning things up by killing the biggest warlord on the floor. “Cool,” she said. “Do you think we can do it?”
Shakes nodded. “Think so. A concerted effort. It’s goin’ta take a lot of money, a bit o’ fear.” He looked at the swarm. “Drones.” She looked up at him.
“And some style. This place is a hole.” She paused. “What’s my name?
“You told me your name was Loki,” Shakes said. He clearly seemed to feel guilty that she didn’t remember who she was. It was frustrating, sure but she could make a difference here, memories or not. But not with a name like ‘Loki’.
“Nah.” She shook her head. “That doesn’t feel right. I think I’ll need something with a little more punch,” she said. “Something people can be scared of, or look up to. Something that feels a bit more…” she paused and a small drone flew in front of her and landed on her hand. “Something that sparks the imagination.”
The Flock of drones slowly converged around her, and she saw the world through a thousand electronic eyes, and smiled. She was going to clean up Black-62. They were going to fear her and love her. She was going to be the Queen here, and set things right.
“No fucking way,” Tee said. “Cass?” They took her face in their hands and looked into the eyes again, where recognition started to flow like a river through her memory, dislodging memories long locked away.
“Tee?” she asked, and a smile started to spread across her face. “I don’t…” she looked around her like she was only now taking in her environment for the first time. “I didn’t remember,” she mumbled. “Ellis!” She reached out to him and he immediately rushed over, taking her outstretched hand.
“Wait,” Shakes said, slowly. “But… You’re…” He stopped, stunned into silence. Ellis, Tee and their friend pressed their foreheads together.
“Is it you?” Tee asked softly, and Cassandra nodded, biting her lip and blushing softly.
“It was always you?” Ellis added, and again Cass nodded, and tears started to roll down her face. “You remember?”
“Yes,” Cassandra said. “I remember. I remember everything.” She cried, embraced her family, and swore never to lose them again.
That's it! It's over! Thank you all so much for joining me on this journey. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Not So Different was a wonderful project to work on, and I hope to work on more like it in the future. There might be more stories in this universe, even!
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