Home Sweet Hovel
Part two of the Huntress Chronicles
Copyright © 1996 John Ryan Decker
Apeshit. That described exactly how the guards were acting.
I was crouching behind a stinking, back-alley dumpster in the middle of the night, wearing one of Rhea’s beautiful evening gowns. There were about twenty very pissed guards within a block of me hunting for their prey--too bad I was it. How did I possibly get myself into these situations? It was fairly easy actually...
* * *
I stepped from the former-warehouse’s doorway and passed through a hole in the protective chain-link fence with barely a whisper. As I ducked onto the decaying sidewalk, I attempted to tie the trenchcoat a little tighter and turned the collar up against the chill air. The sun had set a few hours ago and the first pitiful fingers of Northern California winter were settling in-between the buildings and streets. Toxin laden clouds were speeding across the starry sky as I began my journey to the Corporate Zone. I started walking quickly to keep warm, checking the alleyway corners before crossing them. After a few moments, I caught myself whistling nervously as I passed through the darkened streets.
Great, I thought, I finally get my first major contract and I’m walking like a fracking tourist. I kept my head down and my ears alert for any sounds of trouble. Luckily, we control everything from here to Japantown and I really didn’t expect to run into any difficulty...yet. There would be time enough for unseen problems later. I picked up my pace a bit, black heels clomping loudly in the near darkness. There was a bit more life as I approached the subway terminal, mostly street punks and low-level hustlers; none of them would dare interfere with a Valkyrie. I smiled at them as I passed down the stairs into the sub-levels of Del Coronado; one of the locals waved and belched drunkenly in response. I checked my embedded skinwatch as I force-fed some crumpled Eurobills into the ticket machine. I then grabbed the green magnetic strip it spit at me and waited for the soon-to-be-late train.
“Wednesday October 18th, 2028. 8:16 pm. I’m right on schedule, I just wish the train was,” I muttered below my breath. Two underpaid subway rent-a-cops walked past discussing their plans for the weekend, cajoling the passengers to “keep behind the yellow line or else.” Deciding not to find out what they meant by "else", I stepped back from the aforementioned line. Without any weapons visible besides their issued polypistols it prolly wouldn't have been that much fun anyway. Like them though, I thought that while I had a few minutes it was a good a time as any for me to go over my own plans.
About three days ago the Valkryies were hired by a fairly shady group to perform an assassination. “No problem,” we said, “who’s the target?” We all expected it to be some local gang leader like usual, but we were quite surprised to discover that they wanted a Senator iced! I guess that someone out there still cares enough about the Government to send the very best. We Valks had made quite a name for ourselves on the street after spending the last two years beating the Death Knights into submission. We’ve recently began to pull away from front line actions and are getting back to basics, i.e. paid assassinations. It’s very subtle and requires knowing a lot more about your target than the simple fact that they’re in your gunsights. It seems that the Senatorial election is in November and this Senator Chesterfield fellow is backing a major anti-gun bill. He is expected to win on a landslide vote. The more we investigated into this guy, the more I came to the conclusion that he is a real blork. He’s passed, or pushed for, numerous anti-education and anti-homeless bills. No one keeps track of these things anymore, so the average Joe Citizen doesn’t know jack-shit about what this guy is up to. We agreed with our employers that Chesterfield was a sleaze and took the job--it even paid well.
“Corporate Roundabout train now arriving on track two. Kaisha tomawari no ressha ima tochaku suru no soba kazu ni totta ato,” a feminine voice declared. I quickly got on the train under the watchful eyes of the wanna-be cops. Men, they see a bit of leg and wonder how far up it goes. No time to teach them a lesson now, I’ve got a job to do. The plan itself was simple--the best ones usually were. My den sisters Galatea and Juliet had gotten jobs as kitchen staff at tonight’s Senatorial reception. Juliet has laced the chicken with part one of a two step poison; part two is on the palm of my left hand. It’s ingenious really, anyone that eats the chicken is just fine unless they also touch my hand. So all I have to do is remember to not eat the chicken and somehow get Chesterfield to dance with me after dinner. Taking a quick glance at the low-cut, black evening dress peeking out of the trenchcoat, I realize that this is going to be a piece of cake--he’s a Senator right? As for Galatea, she was there just to make sure that nothing went wrong. “Or to help out if this thing does go bad on us,” I whispered sourly to myself.
The train pulled up at the proper station on the outskirts of the Corporate Zone around 8:53 pm. The molding, white tile was still visible through the gang scrawls in this section of the subway. I disembarked and headed up the stairs, casually looking over the spray-painted messages as I went. Everything was going smoothly so far, and this had me a bit on edge. I emerged onto the street, surrounded by the towering skyscrapers and brilliant searchlights of the Corporate Zone. After pulling my issued invitation out of the left pocket, I swept off the trench and tossed it to a grateful pack of homeless streetscum. With a quick three-sixty glance, I crossed the sparsely trafficked street to the Del Coronado Hilton. The anonymous third party had supplied us with an invitation to the reception, which I presented to the hotel muscle-men guarding the door. One of them took my invitation and began looking down a list of names on his palm-top. The other was standing near a little, reinforced podium. I mentally flipped my right cybernetic eye implant over to thermographic and scanned the podium. I just love the ‘James Hong’ brand of cyber-optic; they may be third-world knockoffs, but they’re visually indistinguishable from a real eye. The thermo scan revealed what looked like a blue blob in the shape of a long weapon. It was prolly a Peltier-cooled auto-shotgun of some sort. These guys must get paid pretty well to afford something like that. I clicked the Hong back to vis-light and smiled up at the first one.
“Ahh here we go, Ms. Diana Hunter. Everything seems to be in order. Have a nice evening,” he offered. The second one near the podium visibly relaxed as I thanked them both and walked toward the main-events room. I stopped only momentarily to readjust my dress and hair in a gilded wall mirror.
“The Senator has his choice of them tonight,” the first one commented to the second. I couldn’t catch what the one by the podium said, but I could see him checking me out in the mirror. I walked into the room swinging my hips ever so slightly--if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
The evening progressed slowly, very slowly. The ballroom was beautiful, the appetizers were excellent, the seats were comfortable, and the company was terrible. Speech after boring speech by a bunch of important-looking men in government-looking suits. I lost interest about ten minutes into it and began to play “Spot the Secret Service” just to keep myself from falling asleep where I sat. That too became boring quickly and I found my thoughts wandering. I began to reflect on our shady third party employers. The fact that they kept their identities secret was no big deal, it was fairly normal actually. If the hit went bad then we couldn’t blame our employers if we didn’t know who the frack they were. Now that I thought about it, these stupid speeches seemed to be focusing around some radical political group known as the 3rd Party. It seems that they were really into big change in government, and everyone here hated them for it. I wonder if there’s a connection? The District Attorney finally stopped his rambling as the kitchen staff began to sweep into the room with the main course.
I ordered the salad, wanting to stay away from anything meat-related this evening. I had already resolved to not shake any hands either. I glanced around the room to see if I could spot the Senator. I scanned up and down the large horseshoe-shaped banquet table, noting the sheer number of government movers and shakers. The way they vocally dodged and dealed reminded me of something that you’d see on some underwater discovery special. I could stare down crazed cybergangers with nothing but a mono-crystalline katana, but these guys gave me the willies. I finally spotted Chesterfield when the salads were brought out. I peered around the waiter as he lowered my dinner to the table, trying to see what the Senator was eating. Chesterfield was looking at the table forlornly, but I couldn’t see at what--I could kill for a set of macro-binoculars right about now! A few seconds later he picked up a fork and I watched in horror as it came up from the plate with a slab of lettuce on it. He stuffed it into his fat face and grimaced at his wife, who was watching him almost as closely as I was. He didn’t order the chicken... was the only thing that my mind could comprehend for about thirty seconds. I sat up straight, trying to keep my breathing down. Oh God, what do I do no? The whole plan is shot!
“What was that? I didn’t copy--over,” came a tinny voice in my ear. I half jumped out of my chair at the sound of it, startling the government slime-ball to my left. I nodded to him and smiled, squirming into my seat. The Secret Service types that I had fun spotting earlier seemed all to close now.
“Repeat, I didn’t copy that Diana--over,” stated the ghostly voice in my head. I reached my tongue back to touch my upper right molar and felt the mastoid communicator shut off. I blushed, suddenly realizing that I must have clicked it on by accident. Ugh, I thought, blonde moment. I tapped the commo back on to hear both Galatea and Juliet frantically calling for me.
“Come in! Come in! Diana are you... Hello? Please answer if you are... need back-up? ”
“Will you two please stop shouting into my jawbone?” I whispered to them under my breath, smiling to the slime next to me so he’d stop staring. Galatea broke in and got Juliet to shut-up.
“Do you know that you sub-vocalize when you’re upset?” she asked. Since she was no longer shouting this time I could hear the warble of the in-line encoder/decoder in the background as she spoke. The remembered that the transmissions were encrypted on the fly, causing a slightly noticeable one-second lag.
“I do?” I said, and the slime looked up.
“Yes you do,” they both answered simultaneously. I gave the slime a quizzical look and whispered to the girls to hold on a second before clicking the commo off.
“What?” I asked him.
“I said that you look beautiful this evening,” he confirmed. I smiled and glanced past him towards the Senator, who was still eating his salad under the crone’s watchful eye. Disgusted, I leaned back in my chair, barely realizing that I had leaned forward in the first place. The slime had noticed though, the smile on his face told me that much.
“Interested in the Senator?” he asked as his eyes began to drift ever lower. I almost laughed in his face right there, but luckily held off.
“Yes, yes I am,” I responded, “do you know why he isn’t eating the chicken?” Dumb, dumb, dumb! His brown eyes darted up to lock on to mine; I bit into my lower lip to keep from yipping and did my best to imitate Spock’s questioning eyebrow. All those years of watching ancient 2-D sci-fi with Chris finally paid off. He relaxed and placed a hand on my thigh.
“You see my dear, the good Senator’s wife was worried about his health and has forced him onto this horrible vegetarian diet.”
“What’s wrong with vegetarians?” I bit at him. He was taken momentarily aback by this, but quickly shifted gears to compensate.
“Nothing, if they all were as stunning as you,” he suggested and he squeezed my leg. If I weren’t undercover right now, this boy would be a greasy spot on the tablecloth. I endured it as a wall partition stealthily folded itself back into the wall to reveal what looked to be a swing band. I turned to look at Chesterfield, but ended up staring into the slime’s eyes again.
“Who the hell are you anyways?” I said as I crossed my arms and leaned back into my chair. He removed his hand, only to reach inside his jacket with it. I tensed ever so slightly, but relaxed when it came back with only a holocard.
“Jim Morh, Natural Resources Commission. My card,” he answered as he presented the cut-crystal wafer to me. I accepted it as the music started, and noticed that Chesterfield had gotten up to dance. I glanced at the card briefly, giving him enough time to re-position his hand on my upper thigh. He was no-doubt some high-up version of government slime to be acting so directly; I’ll have to scan his card later. His hand continued it’s slow progression upward and he leaned forward to try to talk over the music. I pushed away from the table, letting the green table-cloth fall away from my legs. While this put his hand out of reach, I had now given him a new view to look at.
“Hey, nice shoes. Wanna fuck?”
Galatea and Juliet were both laughing in my ear by the time I got to the ladies room.
“You should have seen your face Diana!” Juliet laughed, “Your face turned redder than Galatea’s hair!” I clicked off the mastoid and adjusted my dress in the full-length mirror, still holding on lamely to Jim’s holocard. With no spare pockets I was at a lack of where to put it. Even though I wasn’t wearing one, I finally resorted to the “stuff it down the bra” trick by shoving the tiny holocard down the front of my dress. With a chuckle I realized that Jim’s card was going places that he would never see. I stared at myself and took a few deep breaths. This evening wasn’t going the way we had planned, and Rhea’s dress sure isn’t conductive to free breathing. I tapped the commo back on and got the girls’ attention.
“Will you two fluffheads shut-up and listen?” I barked at them. Oddly enough they did.
“Unless you can think of a way to force-feed the Senator, we’re switching to plan B.”
“Umm Diana,” Juliet offered, “We don’t have a plan B.” While she spoke I ran my right hand down the length of the shimmering, black dress until I came to about the waist. I could barely feel the cut in the fabric that led to the dress’s only pocket. Inside, I had stashed an impossibly thin Diggerknife. While useless in any form of combat, the little digger was a wonder of assassin technology. Once it broke the skin, the oddly serrated, mono-crystalline blade would literally begin to “dig” it’s way to the victim’s nearest vital organ. Once there it would detonate with a tiny C-8 charge, scattering crystal shrapnel throughout the target organ. This little demon is said to cause horrible, agonizing deaths if targeted on the heart, lungs, or brain. I would just have to get close enough to use it. Smiling again at the dress, I confidently strolled out of the ladies room and onto the dance floor.
“All right girls this is it. Juliet, get your ass out of here. Galatea, I’ll need a diversion as soon as I prick the prick. Do you think you can handle that?” I demanded of them under my breath.
“Yes Diana,” replied Galatea, all the humor drained from her voice, “We’ll be ready.” I nodded to myself as I plunged into the swirling mass of dancers.
I paused at the edge of the dance floor, attempting to discern what sort of mélange the dancers were currently participating in. I watched as the thirty or so people split into two groups of male and female. Taking a quick head-count, the tuxedo-dressed organizer of this chaos must have decided that he needed another female and he pointed straight at me. One of the middle-aged women from the female group walked over to grab me. I was about to protest as she reached for my arm, but noticed the Senator milling around with the guy’s group. All I have to do is catch his eye during the dance, I thought. Drum-machine and synthesizer laden music began and the two groups organized themselves into ragged, parallel lines. It was at this point that I realized that I had no idea what dance this was. The two lines turned to face each other and I followed suit, taking clues as to what to do next from the woman to my right. She advanced towards the male line and I followed her example again. I looked up to see who my dance partner was going to be.
“Hello again sexy,” stated Jim. That’s it, he’s dead.
“I apologize if I scared you away earlier,” he continued, moving to take my left hand in his. I paused, remembering that he had eaten the chicken, but saw that everyone else had joined hands. If I don’t let him grab my hand it’ll look suspicious. He’s a slime, but do I really want to kill him for it? I quickly offered him my elbow, which he linked his own arm through. I may be an assassin, but I’m not evil--am I? The new line had broken roughly in half and the two pieces had moved away from one other. Couples had turned to face their partners again, and I caught Jim’s eyes roving up and down my body. Bastard We did this dosey-do thing and I ended up in the guy’s line. I looked up the line towards the Senator, noticing that the male and female lines were now randomly mixed. A group of four near the front of our line began a complex little maneuver, while the rest of us waited our turn. As the next group started up I saw that the passing required the couples to hold their arms out to the side, grasp each other’s hands, and spin chest to chest. The Senator was loving it. I glanced back to Jim, who had been staring at me the entire time. He just can’t wait can he? As our quad started up, I realized that I was going to have to grab his hand in the next few seconds. Two swirls, dosey-do, spin, hands out, and slide sideways to face partner. We stood face to face, my chest lightly brushing against his suit front. As the beat came to grab hands I deftly grabbed the back of his left hand with my right. I quickly placed that hand on my waist and stepped into him slightly. I kept my poisoned left away from him and his clothing as best as I could. He placed his free right hand around my bare back and held me close as we span. As we broke apart, and were swept into our new positions, I caught a glimpse of his face. He was being glared at by some of the women around him and was blushing as bright as Galatea’s hair. Revenge is mine, I thought as I chuckled to myself. I silently pulled out of the dance in order to watch it from afar--and to avoid Jim. My absence didn’t seem to matter much by this point. The two lines were now merging in their spinning, haphazard way. I could now make out that each time the couples dosey-doed they would swap positions according to height. The merged line was slowly being sorted by height and gender. I suddenly recognized what they were doing and laughed out loud. The lines, the swaps, the merging--I should have seen it earlier. These fools were doing a Mergesort and they didn’t even know it! This was one of the oldest computer sorting algorithms in the book, Chris had used it all the time. My laugh died quickly at the though of Chris, I wonder how he’s doing...
“Diana,” Galatea’s voice whispered into my ear, breaking the vision of my foster-father and returning me to reality, “the diversion is a go on your command.” The Mergesort had finally ended and Chesterfield was doting on the girl he had been spinning with earlier. I didn’t see Jim, but he had to be around.
“Okay, I’m moving in,” I told Galatea as I started moving quickly towards the Senator.
“...and then the second farmer’s daughter says ‘I thought it was a snake-warmer!’” he bellowed. The girl laughed politely and glanced around, obviously looking for a way out. I came up in back of her when the Senator reached for a passing wine tray.
“Run,” I whispered to her. She looked up at me, blue eyes full of gratitude.
“Thank you!” she replied and scuttled off to hide. I slinked towards the Senator, taking the place she had just vacated. I smiled and did my best to “twitter.” He looked at me over the rim of his wineglass, his eyes focusing on his new target.
“You are so funny!” I said, placing my hands on the front of my thighs and bending over slightly to laugh breathily. When in doubt, pull a Marilyn. Dione had dated a techie last year who hooked us up with over 1000 channels through this chicken-wire dish on the roof. I had put them all to good use.
Chesterfield lowered his glass and produced an ear-to-ear grin as he looked me over. He’s prolly undressing me in his mind. I’m going to take a long, long shower after this. I extended my hand to him.
“It’s such a great honor to finally meet you Senator Chesterfield!” I told him as I shook his hand with both of mine, just in case he had snuck some chicken past his wife.
“The pleasure is all mine, Mrs.?”
“Miss Diana Hunter,” I emphasized with a wink. The music had started, slow Jazz this time, and he moved closer to me as the lights dimmed slightly.
“Care to dance sweetheart?” he asked. I imitated some of Norma Jean’s innocent bashfulness as I allowed him to slip his chubby arm around me. It’s amazing what you can learn on TV.
“Why Senator, I would love to!” I replied as he led me further onto the dance floor. During the course of the dance he proceeded to hold me tighter than Jim did while whispering crude jokes into my ear at the same time. I put up with it in good humor, but each time I slid my hand down to reach for the Diggerknife he would place it back on his shoulder saying “Now, now, you can’t go yet, you haven’t heard the one about the Ruski and the Nip...” or some such garbage. In an attempt to get some room I switched the conversation to politics, hoping that it would get him to step back and re-evaluate me. Sadly, I didn’t know much more about “the Issues” then the next girl; and considering the room I was in I knew considerably less.
“Galatea,” I murmured, “get ready.”
“What, my dear?” he asked. I didn’t get a reply from Galatea, but I couldn’t risk calling her again.
“Do you think the people are ready?” I asked him, hoping that it fit into the conversation.
“Why yes!” he replied, “Frederick Douglass once stated that all you have to do is ‘Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.’” I couldn’t believe he had just said that. Without thinking I whipped off one of Chris’s old lines in retort.
“And Thomas Jefferson once said that ‘God prevent we should ever be twenty years without a revolution,’” I spouted off to him with a glare. He pulled back from me slightly, giving me just enough room to finger the Diggerknife.
“Galatea, in five,” I whispered as he began to open his mouth and pull closer to me yet again. He placed his arm around my back and slid his hand under the fabric of the dress, slowly working his way to my waist.
“Why don’t we head up to my room to discuss this further. Perhaps I can...change your mind about my position,” he implied as the kitchen detonated. A deafening fireball rolled out of the kitchen doors, throwing tables and people on that side of the room off their feet. With my left hand I pulled his jacket front open and plunged the Diggerknife into his chest with my right. His eyes dilated as he fell to his knees, clutching at the bloody spot over his heart.
“You can take that as a no,” I whispered into his ear before making a break for the door.
I hiked the dress up slightly and sprinted for the ever-crowding door. SecuriCorp heavies and a few Secret Service types were fighting their way through the crowd, trying to get into the room. I stopped to re-evaluate the situation.
“Galatea, we have a success, repeat, a successful hit. It’s time to get the hell out of here,” I told her as I scanned for other non-clogged exits. I headed for a fire door, only to find that it too was jammed with frantic people. The SS had made it into the room through the main door and were shouting orders to each other.
“Roger that Diana, I’m already out and heading for home,” she replied.
“How the frack did you get out?” I shouted to her as I ducked behind an overturned table.
“Cargo elevator to the loading docks, it’s through the kitchen.” I looked at the blackened hole that had once been the kitchen, noting that the internal sprinklers had put out the fire.
“Thanks Galatea, I’m on my way.”
“See you at HQ Diana, Galetea out,” she said and I heard her mastoid-communicator shut off. I stood and headed for the former-kitchen, thinking myself home-free until I heard the shouting.
“You there, in the black, stop!” I glanced back to see two Secret Service man and a SecuriCorp female begin pursuit. Oh drek, oh drek, oh drek, oh drek! I ran full speed through the sprinklers in the blasted kitchen and through a small door which, amazingly enough, was still on it’s hinges. I raced down a short hallway and slammed my fist into the call-elevator button. I turned to face the kitchen door, straining to breath against Rhea’s tight dress. The cargo lift’s doors began to cycle open just as one of the SS men burst into the clean hallway.
“I’ve got her,” he called into his lapel as he started running my way, “suspect entering the cargo lift.” I jumped backwards into the open lift, grateful that it was empty. I nailed the down button and froze, watching the SS pick up speed as he charged at me. The doors just began to close at his two companions joined him in the hallway. He made a daring leap for the doors. I slid to the side, grabbing the back of his suit as I did so. He was moving to quickly to stop and I placed my ankle under his leg, using his own momentum to slam him into the back of the steel cargo lift. The doors shut as I again smashed his head into the wall. He slumped to the ground unconscious as the lift began it’s slow decent. I slide the radio rig off his head and listened. The SS were headed for the back of the building with SecuriCorp guards in tow. I guess the SecuriCorp guys don’t have access to the SS com channels, this could be useful to know. I shoved the drooling SS man in the corner and waited for the lift to open. The second the door cycled I was out like a shot, and into the arms of a burly SecuriCorp guard.
“Woah, hold it there missy,” he said as he held me up, “what are you running from?” I glanced back, seeing the lift begin its cycle again, luckily I couldn’t see the SS man.
“The Senator’s been shot!” I shouted at him, pointing to the lift as if to indicate the entire upstairs area.
“Holy Jesus,” he said as he ran into the lift just as the doors were closing. Hitting the button, he noticed the limp Secret Service man. He looked up straight at me as I turned to run.
“What the fra- ,” is all he got out before the door closed on him with a pressurized hiss. Smiling, I jumped off the loading dock and headed out into the darkened alleyways.
Okay, so it didn’t work. The burly SecuriCorp guy managed to get the elevator stopped and headed back down before he was halfway to the ballroom. The others linked up with him on the loading dock and they all shared my description, which I heard through the stolen government communicator. I was able to use it to ditch their patrols for a while. Although, when the SS man that I had beaten woke up, they realized it was missing and switched encryptions. This left me stuck behind a dumpster, ditching pissed guards at 10 pm, with no way to catch a subway home. Subway. Duh. There’s a subway junction-station not more than two blocks from here! All I gotta do is ditch the guards and I’m home free! I flipped over to thermo and poked my head around the cool dumpster. Peering down the darkened depths of the alleyway system I spotted two large signatures, standing out like magnesium torches on a dark night. I waited until this latest set of SS/SecuriCorp searchers headed off into a different alley, and I made a dash for the open street. I clicked back to vis-light as I ran, but not soon enough to avoid a steam grate set into the middle of the sidewalk. I winced as my left heel wedged itself into the grating, stopping me dead in my tracks.
“There she is!” I heard shouted from behind me down the street. I twisted my foot, snapping off the heel, and hobbled into the nearest building. I brushed through the revolving door into a starkly functional, but heated, lobby. The interior was done with dark marble, and there was a large mosaic on the floor leading to the receptionist/security desk. I stepped onto the mosaic, which resembled a formation of birds flying in front of the sun, and looked for a place to hide. The brown-uniformed security officer looked up from his Interface Inc. Newsreader to look at me. He didn’t look worried, just put-out. An elevator opened to my right out of a gilded marble column, I hadn’t even seen it before it opened. The officer lazily pointed to the elevator, and I headed for it quickly. A short man in a tux and an even shorter hooker stepped out of the elevator as I stepped in. I saw only two choices, and hit the button marked with a simple up arrow. Just as the doors slid close I saw the SS men rushing into the lobby. Great, now I’m trapped...again. The lift accelerated upward quickly, leaving me a little nauseated.
“Saiko no tatemono,” it stated softly as the doors slid open to deposit me inside yet another ballroom. If I live through this, I’m never going into another ballroom again. I stepped out of the lift with a pad and a clomp of my respective shoes. I bent my right leg slightly, and placed all my weight on my left so at least I won’t list. As the lift door flowed shut I panned over the room, trying to figure out where fate had dumped me. The entire place was populated by short Japanese businessmen in dark-blue suits and their various dates in dresses and kimonos. An energetic Taiko drum group was wailing out an extremely loud routine by the far wall. Luckily they had most people’s attention, so my entry was barely noticed. I began to weave through the people, trying to get as deep into the crowd as possible. The routine ended to a spattering of applause. I was standing next to, and towering over, a Nipponese couple who seemed to be interested in my broken shoes.
“Kutsu,” he told me, pointing at my feet.
“Yeah, I know,” I told him, “I broke them on the way in.” He looked up at me, squinting. His young wife giggled, placing her hand over her mouth.
“I apologize madam,” she started, bowing as she continued, “but my husband wishes you to remove your shoes.” They both smiled in a friendly manner. Duh, you knew that Diana. It wasn’t that long ago when Chris took you to Japan. I took his offered shoulder and removed my broken shoes. The wife took them and vanished into the crowd. Looking back at the door to the lift, I wished that I could do that. Even without my heels I’m still at tall as the men here, the blonde hair isn’t helping much either. At that moment the lift doors began to open. Like a horde of Keystone Kops, three Secret Service boys and two SecuriCorp women came pilling out. They looked over the crowd and spotted me almost immediately. They started spearheading their way through the people, heading straight towards me. I burst through the crowd towards the more sparsely populated dance floor. Looking behind me I could see one of them leveling a rifle, only to have it pushed away by an enraged Nipponese corporate. The others continued pushing towards me as I entered the dance area. I turned to watch where I was going, and slammed face-first into a large gentleman in a dark-grey suit. We both went sprawling to the floor in a jumble of limbs.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized to him as I attempted to scramble to my feet. The guy that I plowed into had helped me to my feet, but was still holding onto my arm. The guards were closing in, but he wouldn’t let go.
“I’ve got to- ,” I started.
“Jene...,” he said quietly. I stopped struggling and stared at him. In a daze I looked him over, the pursuing guards feeling a million kilometers away. He had on new obviously new dress shoes, and a dark-grey, Italian-cut business suit--possibly an Armani. He was in his late forties, and had short-cut grey hair in a military-esc style. He was staring down at me with piercing blue-grey eyes.
“Chris...,” was all I manage to say in reply. He looked up and past me at the commotion the guards were making, and then back down at me with a disapproving frown.
“Do you still remember how to waltz?” he asked, slightly quicker on his feet than I. He took my right hand in his left and placed his right arm around my waist, sweeping me deeper into the few remaining dancers. I pushed into him, hoping that the guards would somehow leave us alone. Chris is here, he’ll protect me. The music stopped and Chris stopped dancing. He placed both arms around me and cleared his throat. I buried my face into his chest and froze with panic as I heard the SS team walk up to us.
“What’s the problem officer?” he asked as if he had done it all his life. He has, actually.
“This girl is under arrest for treason, please release her to us,” the SS man demanded.
“Jene?” Chris inquired innocently, stroking my hair, “she’s been with me all evening.” The guard huffed, he didn’t sound amused.
“Yes, sir,” he growled. I heard him shuffling around and twisted my head slightly to peer through my hair at him. He was holding up an ID with his left hand, and had his right on his pistol butt.
“You will release her to us now,” he intoned with a leering grin, “or we will have you arrested for aiding and abetting a felon and traitor to the United Stated Provisional Government.” I felt Chris chuckle, this was somehow humorous to him. He took a breath and I closed my eyes as he started his rant.
“I’d tell you what you can do with your damned Provisional Government, but you’re new at this, so you might not know where to stick it,” he asserted forcefully. The SS boys stared dumfounded as the SecuriCorp gals chuckled slightly.
“You, you can’t talk about the Uni- ,” he stammered until Chris cut him off.
“Shut your face, or I’ll shut it for you,” Chris growled back to him. The SS closed his mouth obediently, looking to his comrades for assistance.
“When I was your age, I- ,” Chris started, until he too was cut off.
“Is there a problem gentlemen?” came a soft voice to Chris’s right. I turned fully around to face the SS, Chris’s arms still protectively wrapped around my shoulders like a scarf. An equally grey-haired Nipponese man in an anonymous dark-blue suit had come up to stand with us.
“Hai, Kanemitsu-san,” Chris spoke with a slight respectful bow and grin to the suit-man, “these people are interfering with our enjoyment of the evening.” The SS boys turned to the suit and started on their explanation again, but Mr. Kanemitsu blew it off with a mere wave of his hand.
“It is all irrelevant,” he said in perfect, although accented, English, “this building is built on Japanese territory. I suggest you remove yourselves from the premises before you cause an...international incident, rikai suru kutabari?” Chris spurted out a quick little laugh before chuckling into his hand. Whatever the joke was, I didn’t catch it. Chris placed his arm back around my front and glared at the SS men. He started to say something to the effect of “We’ll be back”, but Chris simply nodded his head slightly forward and shut him up with pure force of will. The guards quickly and quietly retreated back to the lift. As the last one left, Chris and Mr. Kanemitsu both bowed to them. I, on the other hand, flipped the bastards off with a smile. As the door closed on them, Chris turned to face Mr. Kanemitsu.
“Arigato, Yoshindo,” Chris said to the grinning Mr. Kanemitsu.
“Anytime Chris,” he responded with a laugh. He looked back down, level with my eyes.
“Who is this lovely lady?” he inquired of us. Chris smiled, placing his hands on my shoulders.
“Yoshi, may I introduce my foster-daughter Jene McPhearson,” he stated with pride. I bristled at the mention of my old name, but relaxed when Chris squeezed my shoulders to get me to calm down. Yoshi’s eyes looked like they were about to jump out of his face.
“Daughter?” he stammered, looking up at Chris, who was simply beaming at me. Yoshi bowed reverently before extending his hand. I shook it firmly.
“Pleased to meetcha,” I told him. A little guy came up to Yoshi and whispered into his ear. His smile had faded by the time he turned back to us.
“Please excuse me Chris, there seems to be a problem in the lobby.”
“Mind if I take Jene here to the back room to get cleaned up?” Chris asked. Yoshi agreed and told his assistant to let us in. He bowed quickly and headed for a different elevator.
“Come on,” Chris told the assistant and waved for him to follow us. I was about to ask Chris what he was doing here, but he hushed me with a slicing wave of his hand. We left the crowds and entered a small, dark, mirror-lined hallway. We stopped at what seemed to be a random point, and let the little assistant catch up with us. The assistant placed his hand against the wall, which glowed a dull, brown-white in the immediate region of his palm. The mirrored wall-panel clicked and began to slide up into the ceiling. The assistant bowed and headed off without another word. Chris placed his hand against my bare back, and lightly pushed me into the room with a sweeping flourish of his other hand.
“Welcome to the executive sex room,” he chuckled. I padded inside in my bare feet and look around. There was a lavish bathroom off to my right, a mini-bar to my left, and a large bed overlooking a sweeping view of the city.
“Wow,” I whispered, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Chris had taken off his jacket and tossed it on the bar.
“Amazing isn’t it?” He asked rhetorically, “Yoshi and the top staff use this room for various nefarious purposes.”
“Like boffing the secretary pool?” I questioned as I turned to face him. He looked older than I remembered him, leaning against the door like he was. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He then opened his eyes, locking immediately onto mine as if he knew I was watching him the entire time. I glanced away towards the bathroom.
“Let’s get you cleaned up, eh?” he proposed. I let him lead me into the bathroom, and didn’t even protest as he picked me up and plopped me down on the counter top. He grabbed a small wafer from a dispenser on the wall and held it under the IR sink. The faucet detected his hand and started the water running. The little wafer quickly expanded into a small sponge, which he squeezed a few times to fill with water.
“What are you doing here?” I asked as he set to work cleaning the smudges off of my face. He briefly looked into my eyes before speaking.
“I’m here on business,” he stated cryptically as he examined my left hand. I almost pulled it back, but he held on and started to wash the poison off with the sponge.
“And?” I prompted him. He stopped cleaning and dropped the sponge in the sink. He looked up into my eyes and leaned close, whispering into my left ear.
“I’ve recently made a major deal with Miosha.”
“Who?” I asked him quietly.
“Miosha Aerospace Corporation, Yoshi is the primary stockholder. We’re in their tower now.” I nodded, so that’s where I am.
“Two months ago I discovered that OTDC, a major underwater development firm, was planning a massive project off of Australia’s east coast. The bastards were going to take huge chunks out of the barrier reef, and I simply couldn’t let that happen.”
“What did you do?” I asked, slightly worried. Chris was notorious for his overkill; if it took a grenade, he’d end up using a nuke.
“Nothing disastrous, I simply broke into their system through the Neonet and diverted the project’s funding.” He was smiling by this point with that little devious grin that he gets when he thinks he’s come up with a really great plan.
“I had to come up with something fast and completely non-related to sink the cash into, so I bought one of Miosha’s aging orbital workstations. Since I’m now technically a stockholder, Yoshi invited me to their annual Ball. Good thing too,” he said, looking at me. I blushed and turned away from him. He pulled back and picked up the sponge. Wetting it, he went to work on my alleyway-stained legs.
“I don’t want to know why you ran Jene,” he said solemnly, “but why didn’t you come back?” He stopped what he was doing and just stood there, holding up my left leg and staring at the floor.
“I...,” I started, “I wasn’t your responsibility.” He sighed. He didn’t look hurt, or confused. He looked up at me with those piercing blue-grey eyes, which had gone suddenly soft. I looked down at the muted carpet.
“I looked for you,” he said, “I found Lauren’s obituary in the Del Coronado City Times two years ago. I hacked into the city databanks, but they didn’t have either of you listed as entering the city.” He placed his hand under my chin and raised my head up, he was smiling slightly.
“You covered your tracks well kiddo. Made your pop proud,” he said with a sniffle. I hugged him. He pulled me off the counter and held me in his arms for what seemed like hours, stroking my hair and rocking me slowly back and forth--I didn’t mind. The door pinged three times before he left me to go answer it. I turned to face the mirror, noting my red eyes and tearstained cheeks. I look like drek. I attempted to wash my face before Chris got back in, but he was too quick.
“That was assistant Yaseta,” he spoke to me from the doorway of the bathroom, “he said that we can crash here for the night.” I looked up at him, water dripping off my face and hair. He was leaning against the doorway watching me.
“Nice dress,” he stated objectively. After the problems with Jim earlier this evening I almost expected “wanna fuck?” to follow suit.
“Where did you get it?” he asked. I grinned as I toweled my face off, knowing that this was Chris’s way of asking me who I was staying with.
“I got it from Rhea,” I said as I brushed past him and into the main room.
“The Goddess?” he inquired sarcastically with the same Spock eyebrow that I had used earlier. I sat on the fluffy bed and began to tell him about the Valks. He sat down at my feet and leaned against the bed, his head propped up by his hand. I told him everything that happened since I left him: Lauren’s death, finding the Valkryies, Rhea convincing me to stay, the war on the Death Knights, and even tonight’s adventure. He listened and asked a few questions, letting me do most of the talking. He seemed to dwell on the part about Rhea, and her convincing me to stay. Every time I mentioned her name after that, a darkness flickered across his eyes.
“Rhea...,” he said softly to himself, his voice filled with hatred.
“Oh Chris don’t,” I pleaded, “she’s been real good to me. She’s like the older sister that I never had.” He looked at me, hurt.
“Was that worth the father that you did have?” he asked. I turned away from him and noticed a tri-phone hidden inconspicuously behind the bar. Not knowing what to say to him next, I asked if I could use it. He was staring out the window, and waved me towards it without looking at me. I walk over to it and pull it up onto the bar before dialing Valkyrie HQ. The tri-phone displayed it’s spinning dialing-glyph in mid-air for three minutes before the connection finally went through. A dark, robe-wearing figure answered.
“You have reached us,” came a low, mono-tone voice out of the darkness of the hood.
“Hey Nemesis,” I said lightly, “can you fetch Rhea for me?” The cloaked figure pulled back the hood and upped the lights on her side. Nemesis’s curly brown hair momentarily filled the holo-display before it refocused on her perky face.
“Sure thing Diana,” she replied, “she’s been worried about you.” Nemesis looked over her shoulder and motioned to someone.
“Umbriel went to get her,” she told me, “how’d things go tonight?” I shrugged.
“It could have gone better I guess.” Nemesis slid out of focus and Rhea took her place, her hair is all wet.
“Did I catch you in the shower?” I asked.
“Yeah, but that’s just fine with me; the fracking water-heater is busted again,” she replied. I told her where I was, and that I’d be spending the night here. I noticed that Chris had dimmed the lights and was sitting on the bed watching me. Well, not really me--he was watching Rhea. I clicked off and headed back into the bedroom.
“Was that her?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Huh,” he grunted in confirmation.
“Not the monster you think she is, is she?” I hazarded. He neglected to respond, but instead sat on the bed to remove his shoes. I stared past him out the window to the city-scape.
“Beautiful from up here isn’t it?” he questions.
“Yes, you can almost forget all the crime and the violence,” I replied. He took off his shirt, tossing it in a pile near his shoes.
“You must never forget Jene. Never forget what it’s like out there for the average person. The ten percent that live in these towers have either forgotten or choose not to notice, but we do. We notice, we remember. If you ever forget, you become one of them. One of the government or corporate bastards that doesn’t care who they screw over, or what they destroy, or who they kill...” He drifted off into his own thoughts. In the dark, lit only by the sodium lights of the neighboring towers, he looked younger--like how I remembered him when I was young girl. His voice gave him away though. It was the voice of a man who had seen too much in his life to ever forget. All he had experienced would haunt him for years to come.
“I won’t forget Chris,” I whispered into the darkness as I fiddled with the zipper on the back of Rhea’s dress. Chris stood without a word and placed his hands on my shoulders. He turned me lightly around and unzipped my dress for me. I palm the holocard as it slid out of place, now that the dress was loose, and put it in the tiny pocket that the Diggerknife was in earlier.
“You still clean?” he asked as he helps me step out of the dress.
“Of course,” I answered as I took the dress and placed it over the back of a near-by chair.
“That’s my girl,” he muttered as he tossed his slacks in the general direction of his shirt and climbed into bed.
“Don’t you want to see my papers?” I asked as I head back to the foot of the bed. It’s SOP, everyone checks everyone else’s certificates of biosafety-cleanliness before even kissing these days.
“No, I don’t want to see any damn papers,” he mumbled as his head hit the synth-feather pillow.
“Call me anachronistic, but I remember a time when even sex was considered safe...” He trailed off into sleepy rambles at that point. In a few minutes I could hear his breathing even out. I padded to the window and looked over the city, trying to see Japantown and our warehouse. After a few minutes of useless squinting, I figured that we must be on the wrong side of the building. I stealthed off to the bathroom for the hot shower that I had promised myself earlier--a luxury like that is not to be missed! It was the most relaxing thirty minutes I’ve spent in a long time. After which I towel myself off, slid my panties back on, and climbed into bed. Chris was snoring lightly as I snuggled up against him.
“Goodnight Chris,” I offered as I slid my arm around him.
“G’nite Jene,” he returned as he slowly squeezed my hand.
Within minutes we were both sound asleep.
My skinwatch buzzed my central nervous system at 6 am. I awoke, still curled-up against Chris. The room was lit by a dull, gray light. I could hear what sounded like sheets of rain pattering against the window. I had slept on my left arm funny, and it tingled as the blood rushed back into it. I pulled it in front of me with my right arm, propping it up against Chris. He mumbled as I reset the alarm to 10. I pulled the covers up tighter and whispered to the heater to up the room temp by five degrees before drifting back off to sleep.
When it buzzed me awake next, the room was filled with dusty beams of light shooting in from the windows. I sat up in bed, stretching and brushing the hair way from my face. Chris was still out cold as I climbed out of bed and padded to the bathroom. As I re-entered the main room, I headed to the bar to scrounge up something to drink. Locating some orange-flavored juice that’s supposed to be used for Screwdrivers, I filled myself a glass and peered into the harshly lit room to see if Chris was awake yet. Damn glare, I can’t see a thing.
“Windows, dim by fifty percent,” I quietly told the room. Liquid crystals in the carbo-glass windows polarized on my command, instantly cutting the light down to reasonable levels. I could easily see Chris now, sprawled in the middle of the bed. I glanced at my skinwatch as I tried to find some clothing besides Rhea’s dress. 10:25, getting a late start today Diana. After an unsuccessful five minutes of searching for spare clothes, I plopped down into a chair to finish my pseudo-OJ. I spied Chris’s discarded shirt at my feet and pick it up. Not wanting to do my exercise routine in just my skivvies I put it on, buttoning a couple of the middle buttons so it’ll stay put. Better than nothing, I guess.
I had gotten through most of my katas by the time the door rang at 11:30.
“Open locks, whoever knocks,” called Chris from the bed. I span to face him.
“How long have you been up?” I hissed at him as the door began its slow progression into the ceiling.
“About thirty minutes I’d say,” he shrugged with a sly grin. He nodded his head purposely towards the door. I span back to face it, seeing the little assistant standing there bowing. I sideslipped behind the bar to keep him from seeing my bare legs.
“Ohayo Tai-sa Dorman-san,” he said to Chris, “and konnichi-wa to you McPhearson-sama.” He smiled at me, purposely ignoring the fact that I’m half nude and hiding behind a bar. Gotta love honor-based cultures.
“I regret to inform you,” he told us with his thick accent, “that Kanemitsu-san was forced to depart early this morning on business, and will be unavailable to see you off this afternoon. He has made my services available to you in his stead.”
“Excellent, Mr. Yaseta,” Chris said him from the bed, “Have a robocab pull up downstairs in a hour. At the same time, call a VTOL-taxi meet us on the roof.” Assistant Yaseta nodded in agreement and turned to leave.
“One more thing,” Chris called to him, indicating Rhea’s dress, “please have that cleaned and returned here as soon as possible, thanks.” The assistant entered the room and retrieved the dress lightly. He turned, bowing, and left without another word. I rotated back to face Chris, my arms crossed and foot tapping.
“You were watching me for thirty minutes?” I intoned to him as if we had never been interrupted, “Whatever happened to ‘If the sun is in the eastern-half of the sky, it’s time to go back to bed?’” He raised his hands in an expression of false innocence. Han Solo, The Empire Strikes Back, I thought.
“There are some things worth getting up for,” he commented with a knowing wink. I blushed, and he fell back into the pillows laughing. Turning away from him, I headed into the shower under the sound of his playful snickering. When I returned after my post-workout shower, he was standing in the room in his slacks and shoes brushing his wet hair. I held the knot in the towel that I had wrapped around myself with one hand, while handing him his semi-steamed shirt with the other.
“I used the shower next door,” he commented, handing me Rhea’s freshly cleaned and pressed dress.
“Unless you feel like wearing a full Kimono, this is the only thing we’ve got,” he told me as he slipped on his well-used shirt.
“I can survive wearing it a bit longer,” I said as I headed into the bathroom to put it back on. I heard what sounded like hammering in the main room, and returned to see Chris beating on the edge of the bar with my right shoe. He gave it one good, last whack and the heel flew from the shoe to bounce off the door. He held the two broken shoes up to inspect them.
“There we go Jene,” he told me as he set them down on the bar, “now you won’t be the leaning tower of Piza.”
“Thanks,” I uttered sarcastically. Well, I can’t be too hard on him. I was going to do the same thing in a few minutes here. I had him zip the dress and I picked up the scuffed shoes, not wanting to make my previous mistake. He put back on his jacket, similarly picked up his own shoes and headed for the door. He paused momentarily to slide on some orange slippers that have been placed in a small cabinet near the entrance. I followed his example and picked out a smaller pair.
“Ready to go?” he asked. Black evening dress, wet hair, and international orange slippers--what a combo.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied. We headed out the door and back down the dark, glass hallway. Chris took a right at the ballroom and we entered another small elevator. He hit the button marked ‘RL.’
“RL?” I asked.
“Roof Lobby,” he told me, “It’s for the execs that come in by VTOL--the same way we’ll be leaving.”
“What about the robocab downstairs?” I inquired to his fox-like grin.
“Why, that’s just a diversion,” he stated, “You know me better than to think that I’d take the obvious route.” I nodded in agreement. He’s got a point. We arrived upstairs to a large circular lobby, security desk and all. There were four glass elevators equally distributed around the room leading up, presumably to the roof. Mr. Yaseta was standing in the middle of the sun-and-birds mosaic with a large etched quote embedded in the wall behind him. I squinted at it, trying to see what it said. Chris looked at me and opened his mouth as if he was going to ask me something. The assistant beat him to the punch though.
“The VTOL-taxi is ready and waiting Tai-sa Dorman-san,” he stated. Chris nodded in understanding.
“Tell Yoshi to call me next time he’s in Denver,” Chris commanded him as we turned to head for a random glass-elevator.
“It will be done,” replied the little man. As we entered the lift, they both bowed to each other until the glass doors closed. Chris stood and leaned against the railing to put his shoes back on.
“You’re getting pretty good at all this,” I told him.
“You mean the cultural stuff?” He asked, “Well, it comes with the territory I guess.” As we moved flush with the ceiling of the roof lobby, the glass-elevator inserted itself into a tight, metal cylinder.
“Mensetsu no yane,” the lift told us as it lurched to a stop. The glass door and it’s metal companion coasted silently open, allowing the brilliant sunlight to pour in. The Hong automatically dilated down to compensate, but my natural eye wasn’t so lucky. Blinded, I held my hand up in front of my face, feeling the burning rays warm my pale skin.
“Come on Jene,” Chris pleaded, tugging on my right arm, “hurry to the taxi, you know we don’t have enough ozone left to dally in the sun like this.” I closed my left eye and placed my hand over it, allowing Chris to pull me along by my right arm. Looking exclusively through my Hong, I could see that he had slipped on a small, dark pair of mirrored sunglasses. The sunlight was beginning to tingle on my mostly-bare shoulders and I was relieved when we finally entered the cool shade of the VTOL-taxi.
“All aboard!” the helmeted pilot called as he helped me into the passenger compartment. Chris piled in next to me, and the pilot locked the door with a clang. He thumped the hatch a couple more times for good luck before starting his pre-flight check.
“Damn, I’m starting to feel like a vampire every time I step outside these days,” Chris commented. I nodded absently as I glanced around the inside of the vehicle. Although I had never been inside a VTOL-taxi before, it resembled the ones that I had seen flying around the Corp Zone when the pollution was thin enough to see that far into the city. With a start, I realized that I was that far into the city. Hanging around with Chris has it’s benefits. Up-close, I saw that the inside of the VTOL-taxi was about as cramped as a robocab. Most of the internal area must have been taken up by the huge engine that I felt thrumming under my seat and behind my back. The one-seater cockpit was directly ahead of me, separated from the passenger area by two small wall lockers. There were pictures and other trinkets stuffed into, and dangling from, just about every square inch of the front area. I saw the pilot’s license and registration clipped to one of the lockers with some speaker magnets, but I couldn’t quite make out the name. He had a dark face, possibly Hispanic. I tried to get a better look at him as he climbed into the cockpit, but his visor was down.
“‘ello,” he said as he contorted into his seat. Snapping on a five-point harness, he reached up with his right hand to adjust an ancient rearview mirror. He had somehow attached it to the top of the cockpit’s main window, and now swiveled it around to look at us in the back seat.
“Where to?” he quipped, raising the dark visor so that he could look at Chris through the incongruent rearview. He was very dark, but had a wide, curious face. He certainly didn’t look like any of the other Hispanic-named people I’d seen around Del Coronado.
“The Core Dump,” Chris responded.
“You sure you want to go there Guv?” the pilot asked with his slightly English accent, “You two just don’t look the type, if you don’t mind me it pointing out.”
“We're chameleons, we’ll change when we get there,” Chris said to him forcefully.
“No worries then. If that’s where you want to go, then that’s where I’ll take you,” the pilot voiced before falling into a terse silence. He kicked up the turbine and pulled a lever to angle the thrusters. The craft lifted off the Miosha Aerospace tower and slowly slid sideways in the breeze. He span the nose around, facing east, and swiveled the thrusters more towards the rear. We took off like the tower had spit us out on a railgun, dropping several hundred feet in the meantime. Chris was gripping the seat and staring straight ahead, turning slightly pale. I felt my stomach rising into my throat and swallowed to get it back down. The pilot whooped as he leveled us out at about thirty meters off the vehicle-choked pavement. We blasted through waves of pollution and steam, racing across the hazy sky. The insane pilot pulled the taxi onto its right side, maneuvering the thrusters to whip us around a ninety degree street corner. I gaped in horror as huge corporate towers flashed by on either side, just before I was crushed into my seat by the centrifugal force of the turn. The demented madman at the controls pulled us through a similar turn to the left before spinning into a flawless barrel-roll and leveling out at fifty meters. We were out of the Corporate Zone, and were now zipping along at rooftop level. Chris was still staring straight ahead, one step from comatose. I turned to the pilot, who was just starting a rousing chorus of Into the Wild Blue Yonder.
“Who the Hell do you think you are?!” I shouted to him over the scream of the turbines. He flipped up his visor, looking at me through the rearview mirror.
“‘ello miss, my name’s Demetrio Rodriguez de Belmopan, and you’re onboard the Mayan Express,” he yelled back to me with a self-righteous grin, barely paying attention to his flying. We had begun to lose altitude, and Chris had reached forward to pull me back into my seat.
“Please do not bug the pilot Jean,” he squeezed to me through clenched teeth. I leaned back, leaving them both alone. Belmopan, isn’t that in Beliz? At least it would explain the obnoxious accent. We pulled up and arced high over what looked to be a former small-business district. The pilot pulled the VTOL-taxi down to street level, rotating the thrusters to slow us down at the last moment.
“‘ere good Guv?” he asked as he lowered the compact landing gear.
“This will be fine,” Chris whispered back to him, paler than ever. Demetrio dropped us to the ground and idled the engine, not quite wanting to turn it off while in this part of town. Chris was fumbling with the harness’s quick release, but his hands looked almost numb. I punched it for him and leaned over to unlatch the door. Demetrio beat me to it and helped Chris out of the taxi. I climbed out, seeing that we had parked half on the sidewalk, under the shadow of a former pizzeria. Chris stood, obviously feeling better now that he was on solid ground--or as solid as it ever got here in NoCal. Chris reached into his wallet, handing the pilot a cashchip card. Demetrio whistled as he saw it.
“Zuribank eh Guv?” he said as he swiped it through a portable card scanner.
“Who are you to ‘ave an anonymous Zuribank account?” he asked as he returned Chris’s card.
“Me?” Chris spoke as he slowly lifted his head to look at Demetrio with those cold gray eyes, “I’m no-one of consequence.” The pilot chuckled, climbing back into the VTOL-taxi without another word. He nodded through the window, flipping his dark visor back down. Chris pulled me back into the cover of the dead restaurant's doorway as Demetrio raised the craft up and away, scorching the old asphalt street slightly. Chris peered up and down the wet street when the scream of the Mayan Express had faded into the distance, fleeing back to the Corporate Zone. I closed my eyes and listened, hearing dripping water and a light rumble of thunder from this morning’s storm--now safely on the eastern horizon. Chris was breathing rapidly to my left; he coughed slightly as he sucked in the polluted, damp air.
“Ready to go Jean?” he inquired.
“Where?” I asked, “There’s nothing here but trashed buildings. I don’t even know which cybergang owns this part of town.”
“Von Barons, I think,” Chris said, “It doesn’t really matter, we’ll be inside shortly.” He ducked his head and took off at a run across the street towards an equally destroyed-looking two-story building. He pushed aside a well-armored door and stood there holding it open for me. I ran to him at the best speed I could manage in my heel-less dress shoes. I could feel the UV rays pumping into my back and scalp as I hustled into the cool doorway, barely noticing a carbo-glass covered holosign placed above the doorway. I stopped just inside the door, standing on the second step of a short flight leading down to the ground level of the bar. There was a normal set of stairs to my left that I assumed led to the second floor; I saw a sign hanging from a flimsy chain barring that path, but again I couldn’t make it out. I looked across the establishment as Chris shut the door behind me, every set of eyes in the place were looking back.
“Wow...,”whispered a kid near the back. I stared at him and his friends. They were sitting in one of the high-backed wooden booths that lined the outer wall of the place. The bar proper was set directly in the middle in a rounded-corner hexagon. The muted lighting came from a myriad of sources stashed among the antique technical crap that clung from the walls and hung from the ceiling. The kid blushed and turned away, only to be hassled by his friends. The other sparse inhabitants of the bar kept staring at me though. I feel like a window holo-model, I thought. This dress does its job way too well. The older bearded barkeep looked from me to Chris, grinning. Chris stepped down into the rubber-tiled floor lightly, briskly walking to greet the barkeep.
“Joshua!” Chris beamed, gripping the man’s burly forearm. I slowly followed after him, observing that most of the people had gone back to their own business when Chris stepped into the room.
“Chris?!” the barkeep intoned, laughing heartily, “How the Hell are you?”
“I’ve had better days,” Chris replied, coughing into his hand. I came up to stand behind him, accidentally catching Joshua’s attention.
“Hello,” he said, “Now who’s little girl are you?” Chris chuckled, prodding me forward slightly.
“Joshua, may I introduce my daughter Jene,” he stated.
“Don’t you mean foster daughter?” the barkeep implied. My jaw dropped slightly. Now how the frack does he know that? Chris wore a similar expression.
“You’ve been taking to Bit_Stream again haven’t you?” Chris theorized. Joshua merely shrugged.
“Speaking of Bit_Stream, I left some of my stuff with him yesterday,” Chris continued, “Do you mind if I go in back to pick it up?”
“Not at all, I’ll keep an eye on this lovely lady for you,” he smoothly spoke as he brought his hand up stealthily to slide it down my left cheek. Cute, I thought, blushing slightly against my will.
“Yeah, yeah you old scoundrel,” Chris said as he took my hand.
“Listen Jene, chances are we’ve been followed. You just sit tight in a back booth, and I’ll be back out in a minute,” he said, giving me a squinty-eyed look. He’s telling me to watch out for Joshua. Chris nodded his head to the barkeep and strolled to the back rooms. He pulled his antique glasses down slightly, looking at me over the rims and leaning slightly on the weathered bar.
“So,” he said the second Chris had moved out of earshot, “You’re the little lady that’s been causing all the trouble these last few weeks.” He lightly took my hand, his eyes quickly surveying what my dress didn’t cover. He no doubt observed that the dress didn’t cover much.
“How do you know me?” I asked him, similarly leaning into the bar. His eyes drifted down slightly, as if in a daze. He recovered quickly, snapping his head back up--mere inches from my own. His eyes were pure black disks set against a stark white background. They seemed to suck up all light that entered them. I shivered, feeling as if they were peering into my soul.
“I know everyone my dear,” he responded nonchalantly, leaning back and raising his arms as if to encompass the entirety of Del Coronado. I grimaced, waiting for him to continue.
“My patrons consist of data collectors and information gatherers,” he explained, “At times I will accept information in exchange for various.....services.” I grinned, having seen his type before. Databroker, he could be a useful person to know.
“Rumor has it that you...girls... have been getting into quite a bit of trouble lately.” He paused, lightly tracing a symbol on the surface of the bar with a think finger. It was a circle and a cross: female, Venus--the trademark of the Valkyries. He knows. I stood there in shock as he wiped the bar down with an old t-shirt. No-one is supposed to know who we are! I chuckled emptily as I turned from the bar, his black eyes following me as I walked. It was no longer the sable eyes that I feared, but the all-hearing ears. They too were like black-holes, sucking in and capturing everything that went near them.
“I’ll wait for Chris over there,” I told him shakily. I went to the farthest booth that I could find, and pushed myself deep into it. The wall decorations in this area consisted mainly of burnt-out chipboards from something called a Pentium Pro. I realized that I was very out-of-place here. Like a velociraptor in a heard of cattle. I curled up in the corner between the wall and the stiff-backed booth, watching as Joshua placed a new musichip into the bar’s sound system, and tried to look non-threatening. The kid from the back booth had gotten up and was headed this way. He was wearing a light-brown jumpsuit with a belt full of jangling technical devices, none of which I recognized. He had fuzzy brown hair that shook when he glanced back to his friends for moral support. I uncurled from the corner to await his slow arrival. He couldn’t be more than seventeen, I guess that NoCal must be using the “if you can reach the bar to order” style of drinking-age laws these days. Still, he was kinda cute in his own repressed little way. He stopped for no apparent reason, cocking his head to listen to something. I recognized it immediately and glared at Joshua. He was staring back at me, barely containing what was obviously a bellowing laugh. I glared shuriken at him before facing back to the petrified kid. Petrified being the operative word to describe him. He was just standing there staring at me, frozen in place with fear. Well, now he knows too. Probably everyone in the bar does. Wagner, thanks Joshua... I stood slowly, so as not to spook him, and took a step towards him just as the door sounded with three resonating clangs. The kid and I both turned to look that direction.
“Open locks, whoever knocks!” called Joshua to armored doorway, turning the stereo down as he did so. It was the same line that Chris used earlier this morning. How long have these two known each other? A tall, thin gentleman entered. He was wearing a dark, government-issue suit and trenchcoat, looking even more out of place than I did. Here come the other ‘raptors, I though as I ducked back into my booth. I had switched my Hong over to thermo before I had even hit the cushion. Peering through the wooden booth-back opposite me, I could see that there were three of them in all. I glanced back to the kid, seeing him still frozen in place. There’s nothing like seeing a man’s fear displayed in thermograph.
“Hide you idiot!” I hissed at him. My voice must have broken him out of his delirium, as he scuttled back to his friends quickly. The other patrons had noticed the three gentlemen by this point, and the bar had fallen silent. Nevertheless, I could still barely hear Joshua’s voice as he changed the chip-player.
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” he muttered, quickly glancing in my direction before turning to address the dark-suits. Chris, where are you?
“Welcome to the Core Dump gentlemen, how may I be of assistance?” Joshua asked of them. One of the dark-suits silently broke off from the pack and flanked around the other side of the hexigonical bar to cover the emergency fire-exit in the back. The other two approached Joshua with long, determined strides.
“I believe so,” the first one said when he got to the bar. I again curled up into the booth as far as I could go, wishing that the wall was another few feet back. From where the dark-suits were standing they could actually see my knees. They were also standing too close to each other and their heat signatures were blurring slightly. I switched back to vis-light and franticly looked for something to peer around the corner with. I spotted a mirror-like CD attached to the wall across that table and stretched over to get it. Yanking it from its emplacement with a pop, I held it out in front of me. Using it to look around the corner of the booth at the dark-suits, I could see that they had pulled a palm holo-projector out of another one of their jackets. They clicked it on, and reflected in my CD mirror I saw a fuzzy image of myself spinning silently in the air. The little two foot tall replication was of me yesterday at the Senatorial reception, dancing with Jim.
“I said,” emphasized the leader as the second placed the holo-projector on the bar, “have you seen this girl?” Joshua shrugged non-commitally, and stared right back at him.
“Nope,” Joshua said, blatantly reaching his right arm down to hover over the bar’s chip-player, “I’ve never seen her before in my life.” He tapped the play button, drowning out the dark-suit’s response in a wave of hard drums and driving guitar chords. The man flushed red in anger, slamming his fist down on the bar and accidentally jarring the holo-projector off. He began ranting at Joshua, who just stood there taking it nonchalantly. The clientele, knowing that they don’t want to be part of any upcoming confrontation, begin to trickle out the door. Only the very curious, or those currently logged into the Neonet, remain. I spotted the shaggy-haired kid still hiding out with his friends, all holed up in their booth watching the confrontation at the bar. I looked back through my CD at Joshua and the dark-suits. The assistant had also looked away from his raving boss, and ended up staring straight at me though the reflective CD. He must have spotted it when I glanced to check on the kid. He was just waiting to see who was holding it. Damn! I shoved myself back into the booth, dropping the CD on the table. I stared past the flashing disk as it settled on the table, looking up into the beady eyes of the dark-suits. The leader loomed over me, the assistant standing obediently at his side. He reached down with one finger, and stopped the CD’s rotation with a slap as it was pushed flush against the table. He cleared his throat as he and his assistant reached into his jacket for something. Joshua had turned down the resonating vocals in order to possibly hear what they were going to say to me. I sat up straight and regulated my breathing back down to reasonable levels. I tensed, ready to sprint at the first opportunity--not like there was an unguarded exit. They both came up with un-readable ID’s.
“Ms. Diana Hunter,” he said, flipping his ID back into his jacket, “my name is Agent Dullo, this here is Agent Pierce. We are with the FBI. You are under arrest for the assassination of Senator Herschel Chesterfield.” He stood back slightly, pulling his jacket back to reveal his pistol.
“If you will please come with us,” Dullo asked.
“Really?” Chris asked, “Where are we going?” Chris must have snuck up behind him while they were occupied with me. He was now wearing a dark-gray jumpsuit with darker grey and black splotches.
“None of your business mister,” Dullo responded, not taking his eyes off of me.
“Pierce, get rid of him,” he commanded.
“Ahh ahh ahh, Agent Pierce,” Chris taunted, “me and my friend Colt here would prefer that you both leave this girl alone.” I caught a flash of dull light at Dullo’s right side, noting for the first time that Chris had a gun placed there. For a second everyone froze. My adrenaline-injector came on-line, slowing down the world slightly. Dust hovered daintily in the air in front of Dullo’s worried face, caught like an animal in a trap by the reflected light of the CD on the table. His eyes darted to his right, and his head turned ever so slightly--trying to catch a glimpse of the man that had a gun to his ribs. Pierce drew his right leg back, presenting less of a profile to Chris, while dropping his arm towards his own pistol. Chris took a breath and slowly closed his eyes, visually memorizing everyone’s position in the instant it took for him to pull the trigger. There was a muffled explosion as Chris’s old cased weapon fired into Dullo’s chest. I heard screaming as Chris dragged Dullo around to get the body between himself and Pierce. There was the pop of a caseless round when Pierce fired his heavy poly-pistol into Dullo’s lolling head, trying to get Chris as he span. I saw a flash from a sword-hilt of some sort at Chris’s left side as he and Dullo collapsed into the booth across from me. Grabbing the blade with my left hand as I went, I launched out of the booth towards Pierce. He attempted to switch targets to hit me, but I placed a draw-cut under his unprotected armpit as I sailed past him. He screamed and dropped his gun. There was another deafening blast from the booth and Pierce dropped to the ground, his right shoulder exploding out towards me. I heard the one that broke off earlier running our direction to place a few shots at Chris. Turning back to the booth, I saw Chris smiling and saluting me with his pistol--he doesn’t know the other one exists! I pushed off the bar, tossing the rapier into my off-hand as I tried to desperately intercept the third FBI agent. He juked left around the shell of an old stand-up “super-computer,” cutting me off. I saw him lining up a shot at the still-oblivious Chris, and I dove for him. Tucking, I hit the ground with a roll, steadying myself with my free left hand. I heard Rhea’s dress rip horribly as I lunged out and span on my the ball of my right foot. I swung, slicing open the back of his right calf while darted past me. He sprayed a popping three-round burst from his pistol into the ceiling before tumbling onto the floor. Flipping onto his back, he screamed and leveled his pistol at me. I tried to scramble out of the way, but got caught up in the slit skirt of the dress. Turning back, I stared into the glowing ring of his lasersite. Like a deer staring into oncoming headlights, who’s the ‘raptor now? He flipped the pistol to single-shot, wanting this to be a clean kill, and I saw someone rise up in back of him. Chris threw off Dullo’s body, lowered his head, and raised his gun like an angry god. His face concealed in shadows by the lighting from above, he flicked on his own laser site. I realized that if he missed, he was going to hit me--Oh God Chris, please don’t miss. The third agent chuckled at me, still bleeding on the floor.
“Goodbye, bitch,” he growled.
“NOOOOOO!” Chris screamed, slamming round after round from his belching, roaring pistol into the last agent. He walked forward slowly, pumping shots into the twitching, mutilated body until the clip ran out. Chris paused over the oozing corpse, swapping a full clip into his pistol in a well-practiced maneuver. He returned his Colt to its holster on his right side, and picked up the man’s pistol.
“I see that you’ve picked up a few new tricks Jene,” he stated calmly as he helped me to my feet. The found that the dress was split up both sides to mid-pelvis, still wearable if I was careful. A couple of safety-pins or some duct-tape later would keep it from ripping more. I looked up at him as we traded pistol for rapier. I then glanced at Joshua, standing at the bar with a huge over-under shotgun. He nodded, as if prodding me on.
“It’s Diana now Chris,” I told him, looking down, “Diana the Huntress.” Chris looked me up and down, wiping the blood off the rapier onto the third agent’s overcoat. He stood, sheathing it, and came to stand before me.
“I can almost believe it,” he said quietly, slowly placing a hand on my shoulder, “I can almost believe it.” He turned when the cute, bushy haired techie called from the armored front door.
“Captain!” he shouted to Chris, pointing out the door through a beam of sunlight “there’s a whole fracking van of them outside!” Chris nodded silently and walked towards the back office, shouldering a worn black satchel that he had dropped in the doorway at one point. He was all but ignoring the frantic techie.
“Airjock,” he stated calmly, “evaluate threat status and report.” The techie calmed, and looked back out into the street.
“I don’t think they kn-,” Airjock began before diving into the room, slamming the armored door behind him.
“Everybody down, NOW!” Chris shouted, physically pulling me with him as he dove behind the heavy hexigonal-bar. The plate-steel doorway thumped and burst inward, scattering molten shrapnel across the establishment. Screams and fires sprouted wherever they imbedded themselves, depending on what they hit. Joshua’s shotgun cracked twice above us. I heard the sound of something heavy tumbling down the steps onto the rubber-tile floor. Airjock came scrambling around the bar to hide with us, his friends long since run out the back. I grabbed him by his brown outfit, and yanked him up against the bar’s wooden side.
“There’s still one more sir!” he wheezed across me to Chris, who nodded. Chris perched on the balls of his feet, facing the bar and swaying slightly. He pulled out his Colt and clicked off the safety. I pulled out my new gun, just in case.
“I can’t hear him,” Chris muttered. With my ringing ears, the crackling of the fires, and the sound-absorbing floor, I doubted if even a cybernetic ear could pick him up. I similarly turned to face the bar, the front of the ruined dress falling between my legs like a shimmering loincloth. I flicked the Hong again to thermo and spotted not only Joshua and the intruder, but a new pair just now entering the door. I pointed towards the first one and whispered to Chris about the door problem. He smiled with a slightly insidious gleam in his eye.
“Joshua,” he hissed, “take the door.”
“Ready?” he asked me, turning slightly towards the first one. I shook my head quickly in agreement, slipping the unfamiliar pistol into my good hand. He jumped up and I followed. Lasers ablaze and weapons firing, the beams and ammunition intersected a heavily armored federal trooper. Shoulder to shoulder, arms and pistols almost touching, we let fly with the slug-throwers--mine popping quietly, his cracking spent shells every which way. Our brief cacophony way quickly emphasized by two more blasts by Joshua’s shotgun. The room again fell silent as the troops collapsed to the ground. I tossed the empty pistol and scampered to one of the fallen troops to snag his bull-pup, caseless, assault rifle, commonly known on the street as Snubby-guns.
“Whew-hoo,” Chris sang as he swapped his last clip into the Colt, “this is starting to remind me of the good ‘ole days.”
“What in Hell would you consider good about the Milita Wars Chris?” Joshua asked, reloading the rifle.
“At least I didn’t run off to Europe to wait it out,” he spoke back to Joshua. We all ducked involuntarily when another explosive round crashed into the floor above us.
“That’s our cue to leave,” Chris informed me, “Airjock, stick your brain into the Neonet and see what you can do about slowing these boys down.” The techie saluted as we shuffled to the back exit. It was a quirky salute; starting with a clenched fist over his heart, he then snapped his arm down and out about thirty degrees before arcing it back up for a standard salute. Chris mimicked it before kicking open the emergency fire-exit that the fleeing patrons had used earlier.
“What,” I asked him, “no diversion?”
“This time Jene...err Diana,” he said, stumbling on my name, “we take the obvious route.” Chris went out the door butt first, facing Joshua as we left.
“Good luck mate,” Chris said tipping his head towards the doorway.
“And best of luck to you mon ami,” Joshua replied, nodding to me with a wink and a thundering laugh. Now what does he mean by that? Without any more time to contemplate the subject, we raced into the deserted alleyway.
***find car, queensryche, how did you know? -> “Hammer to Fall” Queen, The Works album 1984 ***
We were about to pull into the street when Chris stomped on the brakes, sending me bouncing off the dashboard. I picked myself back up in time to see an empty robocab careen around the corner and race past us, horn honking and lights flashing. Chris floored it as soon as it had past and hung a left. There were a series of thumps and shatters as the troops near the van opened up on us with snubby-guns. The fire suddenly stopped, and I stupidly poked my head up to see what had happened. Amazed, I gaped as the remote-controlled robocab pummeled itself into the side of the van. The little alcohol fuel tank detonated, taking the van and several of the nearby troops with it. Chris adjusted the rearview mirror to look at the flaming deluge.
“Excellent,” he quipped, “I’ll have to give that kid a raise.” I stared at the burning cab until we had turned a corner. Even then, its image pricked at my mind. I had seen this once before, the night Lauren died. I turned again to face front, valiantly choking back the tears of the thought of my lost friend. She’s gone, I thought, She died trying to save my life--just like Chris is doing now. He caught me looking over at him and ruffled my hair. He pulled the hair back from my face, his hand sliding down to rest on my left shoulder. He gave it a slight reassuring squeeze before turning back to concentrate on driving. I sighed; Chris, I don’t want you to die, not for the likes of me. We stared forward, both lost in our own thoughts as we twisted deeper into Del Coronado city.