Paolo sat on the bench, resting his aching feet. He'd walked a long way from the Williamsburg Bridge, deliberately losing himself in the maze of buildings and streets. He was kilometers away from it now, sitting in Neo York, watching the tide of humanity swirl past him.
No, not the tide, he decided. A tide was meaningless, directionless. Every one of the people in the crowd was going somewhere, meeting someone, doing something. Every one of them had started their day somewhere and would end it somewhere. They had a place.
The doctor shook his head and looked at the ground. At first it had been exhilirating just to walk, knowing nothing was forbidden to him. But then he had begun to tire and the nagging question of where he should go next had surfaced. And he had walked all the harder to avoid having to face it, until he had realized he was walking himself to exhaustion and forced himself to stop. Now, sitting on the bench, bottle of water in his hand, he had to admit there was a problem.
He had nowhere to go.
This should have been a moment of incredible triumph, his escape from a lifetime of slavery, but it felt empty. There was nothing he wanted. Certainly the fact that he could do state of the art cybernetics was thrilling, and he was excited to know he could set up a proper practice now. But that was a project for tomorrow. He wanted something now, some form of celebration.
But what? He knew no one in the city. He could afford a fancy restaurant or even a good hotel, but so what? He could get luxury in the Zone, albeit at a higher price. What could he do here that he couldn't do there?
I don't know anyone in the city, he repeated to himself, then realized it wasn't quite true. He looked over at the towers of the Shiroko-Tsuhi arcology. Lora...but she was probably still in the Zone, hunting this crazed killer. Well, perhaps she was there. He could go to the arcology and ring her doorbell, leave her a message. That was something, at least.
He stood up and began walking again.
With Adam out with Sanato for a few hours, Raven had decided to catch up on some of her sculpting—something her duties with Shiroko-Tsuhi and the numerous forms of entertainment now open to her had let her to neglect. Thankfully she found the task to come back as naturally as before. She'd decided on some good quality sculpting stone, figuring material that was easier to work with would be more forgiving of her rusty skill. She was carefully putting the finishing touches on the general shape of the upraised wing—she had thought to make a raven, but a good sculptor only brought forth the shape already present in the stone.... and that stone badly wanted to be an eagle. So she was obliging the stone, bringing out its natural shape, figuring it'd make a good gift piece for someone.
Slowly, she brought the cutting force she'd shaped her Power into in contact with the stone, shearing off small slivers. Her "tool" never needed sharpening and could apply far more force than any other sculptor could ever hope to, and do so much more evenly. This allowed her to quickly do things that would take hours by more normal means. Her cuts, always smooth and uniform, never required any polishing. And she'd practiced her accuracy so she could draw thin lines in a feather without chipping the material, a formidable feat even with perfect tools. It was all a matter of focus...
The phone's musical chime made her lose her concentration, and she almost applied too much force, something that would have certainly broken the wing off. Frowning, Raven carefully set the eagle-to-be down and glared at the phone. "Conapt, phone, caller ID," she said. "Front gate," replied the phone, in its modulated, blandly female voice. "Conapt, phone, video off, connect," she said. The conapt's voice-control system picked up the commands and routed them to the vidphone. "Hello?" she said.
"Miss Raven Clark?" came a well-spoken, respectful voice at the other end.
"This is Gate 4 security. There's a man by the name of Paolo Zanabria here to see you," there were some voices on the other end of the line, and the speaker added, "He says to tell you he's Dr. Snakeye."
What's he doing here? she thought. She wondered how Dr. Snakeye'd gotten across the river—there were some boats one could hire, there was a smuggling route in a leaky subway tunnel... and there were, of course, people for whom rivers and checkpoints were not obstacles. But if the 'how' could be answered, the 'why' was another matter entirely... Why would Dr. Snakeye come across, let alone try to meet her?
"Send him up," she said, then thought again. "Better yet, wait there. I'll go pick him up. Conapt, phone off." She grabbed her coat and put it on, letting herself out of her apartment.
Paolo waited at the entryway, nonchalantly leaning on a wall and trying not to contemplate the myriad weapons present in his vicinity. Nor the vast concentration of esper power that had said it was on its way down to meet him.
Moments before he had been indulging in a sort of melancholy exuberance, engaged in a grand quest to find something—anything—unique to do with his freedom. As he expected, Lora had not been in when the guards politely called her up. He had been about to leave when, on a whim, he had decided to buzz the esper. With hindsight, he could see how quickly he had fallen back into his old mindset. In his days as an indenture, a high-ranking corporate operative would never have agreed to meet with him. So he had been unprepared for Raven Clark's response.
I really didn't think this through, he concluded. Still, how much danger could he be in from a social call? The thought tickled the back of his mind that Adam and Sanato would know about this soon, if they didn't already. What would they make of it? How would they respond?
For that matter, when Raven asked him what he wanted, how would he answer?
The security doors at the end of the hall opened silently, revealing the slender figure of the esper. She was dressed in a leather coat over a black turtleneck and jeans, and her thick, dark hair hung loose. The doctor noted a slight coating of dust or powder on her clothing, and wondered what she had been doing. The security crew nodded politely to her, and stood respectfully by as she approached the doctor.
"Hello," he greeted her, trying to sound friendly and open. It wasn't his strongest suit.
"Hello," she answered, a hint of uncertainty cooling her tone.
"You look well," he said.
"Thank you," she answered. There was a long pause. Not the kind of deep, meaningful pause that marked a corporate business encounter, but a genuinely awkward moment. "So, what can I do for you?" she asked finally.
"Well," said the doctor, trying to relax and be casual. "I was just...in the neighborhood, and I thought I'd say hello."
Raven looked at him for a moment, her face unreadable, then she chuckled, draining some of the tension away. She glanced at the security guard, then returning to Paolo, offered, "Would you like to come in to my place, so we can talk? Or better yet, we can go to a coffeehouse on the Park level, since my place is a mess right now. I was sculpting."
"That sounds wonderful. Thank you," he answered, relieved at this turn in the conversation.
"Well, come right this way." Smiling, she waved towards the elevator, letting Paolo take the lead.
"So you're a sculptor?" he asked as they stepped into the elevator.
"Mm hmm," she confirmed, keying their destination into the machine.
"What kind of sculpture do you work on?"
"Oh, I don't really have a specialty. I do mounted figures, reliefs, jewelry, anything that strikes my fancy. I was just working on an eagle mounted piece when you called."
"Sounds interesting," he said, knowing that his complete ignorance about the subject made this line of casual conversation difficult. "Where did you study art?"
Raven laughed lightly. "The school of hard knocks. I'm self-taught, really, I learned for lack of better things to do." She pulled her turtleneck collar and fished a pendant from under her shirt. She lifted it over her head and handed it to Paolo. It was a locket, with a finely-crafted raven carving adorning the front. The perspective on the feathers was impressive in its realism, and the black laquer that gave the bird its glossy color was carefully applied and unchipped, though a closer look revealed that it had been repaired. It was slightly open, revealing an old-style, two-dimensional picture of a badly deformed girl with long black hair, and an older woman looking over the girl's shoulder at the camera and hugging her.
"It's beautiful," said the doctor, admiring the careful worksmanship. Then the picture drew his attention, and he looked again at Raven. Cybernetic eyes went gray for a moment as they shifted into a microscopic focus and the doctor took in the perfect, unspoiled evenness of her skin and pristine cleanliness of her pores. The realization was so startling that he scarcely noticed the woman's reflexive gasp at the sudden change in his eyes.
"This is you?" he blurted. "You're the same Raven who used to work with the Clark Street Devils?"
"One and the same." She smiled faintly, and placed a hand on her hip. "Before and after. Pretty impressive, isn't it?"
"I'm sorry," he said, apologizing for his abruptness. "I just hadn't made the connection."
"It's alright," answered the esper, "Hair tip you off?"
"Yes, it was your hair that made me wonder," he said. "And then I checked your skin. It's in too good condition for natural adult skin, so I knew you'd had genetic work done." Seeing Raven frown at this, he added, "But I knew your hair had to be natural. Any genetic engineer who could reproduce a lovely head of hair like that would own the world by now."
That's when he noticed a change since last time they'd met—one of the locks of Raven's hair had been dyed pure white. Raven, for her part, smiled genuinely at the compliment. "You're a charmer, doctor," she said. The elevator chimed, and the doors opened, right into one of the many pathways of Shiroko-Tsuhi's greenhouse-like Park Level. Air conditioning was on, but a wave of humid heat nevertheless entered the elevator. Raven waved at a winding path between two rows of bushes, politely letting the doctor go first.
He nodded his thanks and proceeded down the path, savoring the smells and sounds of this green oasis. "So you grew up in the Zone?" he asked, looking back at the esper. "This must have been quite a change."
"It's certainly more comfortable, and I never go hungry anymore. There are things here that are taken for granted that would be luxuries in the Zone. Cars, showers, computers..." She brought the doctor to the patio of a small cafe, overlooking a pond, and selected a corner table. "How about you?" asked Raven, sitting down. "Was it a big change coming to the Zero Zone?"
She realized belatedly that the question touched on his past, and wondered if it would put him on his guard. Instead, the doctor seemed to hesitate, as if grappling with something more unfamiliar than disturbing, and finally smiled. "It was a change," he said easily. "Everyone there is so...straightforward. They'll lie, cheat, rob you blind, and kill you. But you're a person to them, not a commodity."
"I don't know, doctor," said Raven. "I've found that the people have pretty much the same attitudes... It's just that here, what's blunt in the Zone is treated with a certain level of detachment.... There's a veneer of civility over it, but deep down, it's all the same games. I mean that about the execs, of course. This arcology is full of everyday working joes who are pretty much like those across the river."
"The games are the same," acknowledged Paolo. "But there's a difference in flavor. A gang leader has to look his people in the eye and make them do what he wants. He can abuse them, but he has to acknowledge them as individuals. Here, corporate power is so complete that resistance isn't really an option of 99% of the company's employees. Leaders can get away with treating human beings as interchangeable parts, and efficiency is their only concern. That's dehumanizing."
Raven shrugged. "It's all a matter of scale. And you find it in the street as well. Yakuza oyabun doesn't really think too much about the fate of individual gangers, several rungs down the ladder. And corporate supervisors can't really treat their direct underlings like dirt and expect good performance." She tilted her head to one side. "Like a transmission, sort of. Shifting gears affects the parts at the other end, but only through a series of direct contacts." She shrugged again, chuckled. "I'm not too good at this sociology stuff."
"No, that seemed like a fair analysis," replied the doctor easily. He shrugged. "It's really a question of the degree of control, I suppose. Maybe people always act in the same ways in the same positions."
A waiter—a natural human, not a replicant as would have graced a more elite establishment—arrived to take their order. After Raven ordered her capuccino and the doctor requested his black coffee, the man departed, leaving them to resume their discussion.
The esper nodded noncommitally. "So, doctor, what brings you here? I don't think you smuggled across the river just for a courtesy call."
The doctor shifted uneasily. "Well, it's..." he began, then stopped and sighed. "I settled some old debts this afternoon," he said finally. "Walked across the bridge a free man." He looked at Raven, embarrassed. "To tell you the truth, I came to the arcology and rang up to Lora's apartment first, even though I expected she wouldn't be in. I called you on a whim—I wasn't even sure you'd meet with me."
Raven looked at him, unblinking, then she laughed. "And here I was thinking you had some deep and mysterious motive for risking the trip across. Congratulations, doctor. I can't say I'm very familiar with your situation, but I'm glad you're free."
"Thank you," he said, relieved by her response. Then he smiled. "No deep, mysterious agenda this trip," the doctor added. "Maybe next time."
"So, you're a free man," said the esper. "What are you going to do now?"
The doctor considered. "More of the same, I suppose," he said finally. "Try and run my own practice. I'm in no hurry to go into a corporate clinic." He shrugged. "Life will get easier, though, now that I can advertise."
Raven nodded. "I understand you're a cyberneticist. How is the freelance market for that? The legal freelance market, I mean."
The doctor laughed at her qualification. "Pretty good," he observed. "There are a lot more independent operators than you might think, and the corps contract out some work. I should call up some of my old patients," he observed, thinking aloud. Then he added by way of explanation, "I used to work for an outfit called Avatar Designs. They don't exist any more, so I might be able to get some old clients."
"That's great!" Raven said with genuine enthusiasm. There was a little pause, as she fished for something to talk about, then she asked, "Do you have an area lined up for your clinic?"
"No, not really," he shook his head. "Things are pretty much a blank for me right now—I'm not sure I really believed I'd get to this point." There was a long pause as the server brought them their requested drinks, and disappeared again. "How have you been?" Paolo continued. "Any more gunbattles with Yakuza lately?"
Raven started fiddling with the white lock in her hair as she responded. "No... not with the Yakuza..." She sighed. "I've lost a few friends lately. It doesn't happen only on the other side, it seems."
"I'm sorry," offered the doctor, regretting his flippancy. "That's hard." There was an awkward pause, and he continued, "Do you want to talk about it?"
"There isn't much to talk about. I doubt you knew either of them, anyway. One was killed trying to escape from bounty hunters, and the other..." Raven hesitated, trying to figure out how much to say about Lilith. "The other decided to sacrifice herself for something she felt was important," she finished evasively. "I didn't agree."
The doctor nodded. "That's hard," he offered. "You can't save people from their own choices, and it hurts to watch it all go wrong." He looked at her sympathetically. "Were you very close to them?"
Raven took a steadying breath. "Pretty close. I get attached to my friends easily, doctor, because I haven't had many." She chuckled self-depreciatingly. "That kind of attitude comes back to bite you a lot in the Zone, but...," she spread her hands helplessly, "That's the way it goes."
Paolo was silent a moment. "Probably better to get too close than not close enough," he observed. "I'm only now realizing how isolated I've let myself become in the past few years."
"It's always hard to start off in a new environment," said Raven. "You have to learn new cues, new social rules... You can't make friends easily while you're doing it."
"That's true," he replied. "Though you seem to have settled in well. How long have you worked for S-T?"
"A little less than a year," said Raven.
"No plans to go back?" It was hard to tell if he was kidding.
She chuckled. "I visit often."
The doctor seemed amused by that. "I don't suppose you worry much about the cops at the bridge, do you?" he asked. "What's it like, being able to come and go knowing there's no force on Earth that can stop you?"
"It's damned convenient!," Raven replied, laughing a little. "Well, I wouldn't say there's NO force on Earth that can't stop me. But... I don't really know how to describe it. It's a thrill, of course, to be able to just go wherever you like in a second, while 'normal' people have to plod along. I got a huge rush the first time I 'ported from across the Earth, let me tell you." She chuckled. "But most of the time, I'd actually rather walk. Walking's newer to me. I've been teleporting for years, I don't give it so much thought anyone."
"I hadn't thought of that," the doctor observed. Then smiled. "You want to hear a really strange story?" he asked.
"Sure," answered Raven.
"I used to work on an orbital platform, taking care of construction borgs—the hard shell kind, modified for space work. These were Pisces chassis, designed with four functionally-equivalent limbs, and symmetric across the dorsal-ventral plane." He seemed unaware that he had lost his audience. "Every so often we would get a recent graft, and I would have to finish their acclimation to their bodies. That's tricky," he said, warming to the subject. "These are non-humanoid grafts, working in zero-gee. I had to find ways to make sure they had fully accepted their new bodies and their environment on an intuitive level, because if they hadn't, it wasn't safe to let them work in construction. So, when I thought they were ready, I'd work them through a series of exercises in zero gee, get them into a rhythm. Then, at the end, I would tell them, 'Stand erect.'" He looked at the esper expectantly, but she shook her head in confusion. "When they asked me what I meant, they'd adapted."
"That weird," said Raven, looking away nervously. She paused, hesitated, then said, "But I think I know what you mean. You eventually get used to your abilities, no matter what they are, don't you?" She turned back to him. "Your cyborgs are like me, only in reverse. They have to unlearn how to walk and act like 'normal' humans. I have to learn."
Paolo nodded. "Everything 'normal' comes down to reflex and habit," he observed. "There's less than two kilograms of flesh that really define a human being—everything else can be replaced or augmented."
"And as they say, people can get used to anything," Raven added. The young telekinetic took a sip at her cappucino. "Hmm, this is good stuff. Corporate life has its plusses."
The doctor nodded absently, apparently mulling over something Raven had said. "People don't always adapt," he said finally. "Some refuse. It's called spirit—or rebellion—when they refuse to adapt to their social environment, but illness when they refuse to adapt to their body." He looked up at Raven. "Why the distinction? We live in a world where it's easier for some people to change their bodies than their circumstances."
"It's the ethics of the thing," said Raven. "When you change your own body, there's rarely an issue of right or wrong to it, but if you fight against injust social restrictions, or a life poverty, or something of that sort... it's just noble, you know, to try to improve your lot. And you may end up helping other people who are in the same situation. Body changes... they're always exclusively personal."
"I suppose," answered the doctor. "Most of the ethical questions in my line of work come up because of questions about who owns a given body. Or mind." He took a long sip of his coffee, savoring the high quality. "But a choice about a body can amount to a social choice as well. The cyborgs I worked with in orbit had their own subculture—they had to, because they couldn't really maintain normal human interaction. Replicants are invariably treated as an underclass, even in places where they're free." He shrugged. "Physiology can limit your ability to adapt to a social niche in the same way it can limit your ability to adapt to an ecological one."
Raven shrugged. "If your physiology's of your own choosing, maybe you can't complain too much about the social niche it's set you into. But if your physiology or your social standing's imposed by outside, it's different, I guess. There's nobility in fighting restrictions set outside of your will, I think... Well, it depends on the restrictions." She chuckled. "I wouldn't think a thief is noble because he's fighting the restrictions on stealing." She tilted her head to the side. "I'm thinking there's a nobility in your fight, though. Or was, now that you've won."
"Thank you," smiled Paolo. Then his expression darkened, perhaps with an overtone of guilt or shame. "But it's a strange feeling. The truth is, I've been an indenture almost my entire life. Now that that's over...Well, it ought to feel wonderful. Instead, it's just...disorienting."
Raven smiled warmly. "Trust me, you'll get over it once you've set your feet down a bit. Big change always shocks the mind, that's what my Auntie said to me once. Heck, how did it feel when you landed in the Zone the first time?"
He laughed. "Actually, it felt good," he answered. "But then, I'd gotten out of two different corporate wars in the last 48 hours, so anything would have looked good." He took another drink, consdering it. "I suppose the real difference was that there were still limits on what I could do, even if I didn't really understand what they were. I suppose there still are, but a lot fewer of them."
"It's a different dynamic, doctor, but I hope you'll find it to your liking," she said. "And I'm sure you'll adapt in no time. You're certainly resourceful."
"Thank you," answered Paolo. He leaned back. "If you don't mind my asking, what are your plans for the future? Do you expect to stay with S-T indefinitely?"
Raven smiled mysteriously at him. "Please, doctor. I don't think this is the appropriate venue to be discussing that," she said, waving to a nearby terrace where the Shiroko-Tsuhi logo had been depicted with red and green bushes, pruned to perfection. "Comments on that by me might provoke unwarranted reactions if they fall into the wrong ears, no matter how innocuous they are."
Paolo winced inwardly, realizing how far he had let his guard down. Here, of all places! "Sorry," he apologized. "What about less...career-oriented issues. Are you considering college or anything like that?"
"College..." Raven looked out to the park. "I haven't even *thought* about getting an education. I guess it was something I've never really had any hopes of getting, you know what I mean?" She turned back to him. "I guess now it'd be easy to get a degree, though. Even though I've never seen the inside of a school in my life. I wonder if I'd have to go through high school, or something."
"You could take some placement tests and find out," he suggested. "But you should definitely think about it. There are some excellent schools in—" he broke off, smiling. "I was about to say, 'There are some excellent schools in Neo York.' But I don't suppose that really matters. You could study sculpture at the Sorbonne without changing your mailing address."
"What's the Sorbonne?" asked Raven.
"It's—a famous school for the arts. In Paris," he explained. He seemed very excited for her at the thought. "You should definitely think about it. The whole world is open to you."
"You think I should study sculpture?" she asked, eyes wide, as if seeing a whole new world before her.
"Well, anything you want," replied the doctor, waving his hands in the air. "I just mentioned it because you'd said you sculpted. It may be a lot of hard work to get in where you want to be," he added. "You may need to spend a few years studying and building credentials. But you're young, and your position is secure. You've got time."
"Thanks, doctor. You've sure given me something to think about." She sipped at her cappucino, and gestured towards him with the cup. "You're educated. How was school for you?"
"Well..." he considered. "I went straight from a corporate program into medical school, and I was young for it. It was an awkward transition." He smiled ruefully at some memory he chose not to share. "But once I got into it, it was wonderful. I did an MD/PhD program in cybernetics at the University of Moscow—got involved with a research group run by a man named Katusov. It was an exciting place to be at a time when cybernetics was moving as fast as it was. We were watching—no, we were building history, right there in the lab."
"What about...other things?" prompted the esper. "You know, friends, recreation?"
"Oh, I had a great time," he assured her. "A bunch of us went drinking one night at a club called the Electric Banana. I wound up on stage, jamming with Vitaly Chernobyl and the meltdowns. That was before they were big names," he added. Then he looked over at Raven and came up short. "Oh, no, tell me you know who Vitaly Chernobyl is," he said desperately.
"Afraid not," she replied.
"God, you make me feel so old!" He roared. "They were the best. Kelly always said they peeled your brain like an onion and dropped it in a cocktail."
His face fell just a little as he realized what he'd said. Raven asked, "Who's Kelly?"
"The girl," he replied.
"The one that got away. Everybody should have one," he concluded. But his nostalgia seemed to have exhausted itself. "They were good times," was all he said.
"They sound like they were," Raven said. "Is college life always so... rowdy?" she asked, smiling. "You sound like you partied even harder than the Devils ever did. Of course, when they did it was with moonshine and a beat-up radio that could barely catch the Fizz, but it was fun to watch the Boss chasing girls, Chester trying hard, and everyone trying to get Rammer to pull out his guitar... You'd think a big bruiser like that'd have no use for anything artsy, but he can jam a guitar like there's no tomorrow. He didn't like to be seen doing it for some reason though."
"Maybe he figured real men don't jam," answered the doctor. "Anyway, college isn't always like that—it's what you make of it." He considered. "Actually, you'd probably have a very different experience, living off campus." He looked up, the glass walls of the park level revealing how low the sun had sunk. Best not to walk around too late, he decided. This isn't the Zone, but I don't know where I'm spending the night and it's better not to take chances. He drained the rest of his coffee, and noticed that Raven had finished hers as well. "Well, I don't want to keep you from your sculpture too long," he said. "There's a piece of stone up there with your name on it." He began fishing for his billfold.
"Hey, don't worry about the bill," said Raven. "You'll need every last penny to start your business."
"Thanks," he said. He smiled gratefully.
Raven nodded and stood. "I'll walk you out," she said. She had to, of course, or security would have come looking for him.
They made their way back through the meandering garden path, and a thought struck the doctor. "About college," he said. "Maybe we're thinking about this too conventionally. You've got a talent that's valuable to a teacher. Maybe you should look for ways to bargain it in exchange for tutoring."
"How do you mean?" Asked Raven, as they arrived at the elegantly sculpted entryway to the elevator.
"Well, suppose you decided to study sculpture," Paolo proposed. "You look around, and find the artist you'd most like to work with. You approach them, maybe convince S-T to offer them a small stipend, and tell them you'd like to learn by studying what they think are the world's greatest pieces of art. Think of it," he said. "You go to his studio in the morning, and he tells you what he wants to show you today. You take him there, and he lectures to you about that piece, pointing out all the details. He gets to see all of the world's artwork, and still work in his studio in the afternoon. That would be worth a few lectures, don't you think?"
"I suppose it would be!" Raven said, as the two of them stepped onto the newly arrived car. "And I think I'd like to see all this artwork. But I'm really more into the technical side of it than the historical side. It's a hobby, you know, I do it just to relax." She smiled. "Still, I think I need to start visiting some art museums. And you, doctor, what's your hobby? You said you played music?"
"Guitar," he said. "Though I lost my ax—well, you may remember," Paolo winked. "Anyway, I still play around a bit when I can borrow one. Late at night on Thursdays at the 93U, the band'll let people come up and jam. It's fun."
"I'd like to hear you someday," she said. "Maybe you can even start a band or something, now that you're on this side of the river. I'm sure you can find some more musicians." She smiled. "I think Lora's into music, for one."
"That would be nice," he reflected. "But I'm going to have my hands full for a while setting up a practice. Have you heard anything from Lora lately?" The question was just a hair less casual than it should have been.
Raven hesitated. "I'm not sure. I understand she's on duty somewhere, and it's been hinted that I might go join her soon, but I don't know anything more than that."
"Just curious," replied the doctor, not wanting to push for sensitive information.
The doors opened onto a security checkpoint overlooking the public mall. Past the two guards, Paolo could see a huge atrium lined with shops, interspersed with fountains and statues. "This is a public level," Raven explained. "You can let yourself out from here."
"OK," Paolo nodded. He turned to face the psycokinetic, and smiled gratefully. "Thank you," he said. "I really needed this."
"It's been a pleasure, doctor," Raven said, standing and extending a hand.
"You don't have to call me doctor," he replied, shaking her hand. "Most of my friends just call me, 'Doc.' But I guess it can be Paolo, now."
"Paolo," she repeated. "You should drop by again sometime."
"I'll do that," he smiled. "You can tell me about the latest galleries you've hit. I'll drop you a line when I have a permanent address."
Raven fished in her pockets until she came up with a slightly crumpled business card. She smoothed it before handing it to the doctor. "Here. Call me anytime, Paolo."
"Thanks." He handed one of his own, cruder business cards, which included his cell phone number. "You take care. And good luck, whatever you decide to do."
He turned and strode off into the crowd, following the signs toward the exit. What an extraordinary situation for her, he reflected. Total job security, enormous power, youth, beauty, and enough freedom to pursue almost any interest. He frowned slightly at the thought. But she's very much under corporate control; her life isn't really her own, and maybe never can be.
My situation may be far better, he realized. True, I'm probably close to twenty years older than she is, but I have total freedom. There's nothing standing in my way. And as for power, I have my own gift that no one can take from me. I don't have to know what I want right now. I can decide later, and take it.
He threaded his way out of the mall, through the parking level, and back into the Neo York streets.
Raven closed the door to her apartment behind her and leaned on it, looking at the half-formed eagle still sitting on her table. Too late to finish it now, not that she felt really inspired. Still leaning on the door, she carefully teeked the unfinished piece back in the crowded room she used as her 'studio', storing her unfinished work, and set it on a shelf there.
Slowly she lifted the dust off the table, bit by bit, distracted by other thoughts. The doctor was an interesting fellow, but he had his work cut up for him. Starting up a business from literally nothing (well, nothing but skill) was already difficult in the Zone; in Neo York, where the corps watched like hawks over anything that might compete with their business lines, it was an undertaking of titanic proportions. Yet after seeing how he'd handled Sanato, she somehow felt the doctor had good odds of success. She was pretty sure he could play enemies against each other and make himself to valuable to cut out.
She tossed the dust into the trashcan, still leaning back against the door. She'd taken the doctor for a pretty cold person, but he'd turned out much better than she thought, and seemed genuinely excited at the idea of finally being able to do what he always wanted. Never assume you know everything about people, was what Auntie said. She was right, again. She was looking forward to seeimg him again; she'd definitely have to look him up once he'd set up his place of business. Maybe they could strike up another conversation on sociology.
And right after a broadening of his own perspectives, he'd managed to show her some new avenues for herself. Raven had been falling into a routine in her daily, maybe to compensate for her rather exciting life outside of home. Maybe it was time for some change, some excitement—the good kind, not the kind of stress she'd been under lately. Yeah, that would be good....
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