Zenshou and Gem walked quickly towards the location where they were supposed to meet with the information broker.
Gem caught a hint of movement out of the corner of her eye. She glanced briefly to one side, then quickened her pace slightly. Pulling up alongside Zenshou, she whispered "We're being followed" to her.
"Damn," Zenshou swore softly, trying very hard not to look around and give away the fact they had spotted their tail. "What should we do? Try to lose them?"
"Best idea," Gem muttered. "Duck in somewhere and see what they do."
Zenshou nodded. She looked around and saw the entrance to 93U up ahead. "How about I duck in there, and you double back and see if you find out who he is and what he wants," she suggested.
"Deal. See you in five." With that, Gem set off ahead, apparently oblivious to her surroundings.
Zenshou continued on to 93U and went inside. She nodded and smiled briefly at Duke then made her way to the last empty table. She ignored the mild commotion caused by a couple of the other patrons of the bar over something inconsequential.
Paolo was in a mellow mood. His reacquaintance with Constance had provided him with both funding and a project, exactly the two things he had been hoping for when he earned his freedom. He had chosen to enjoy his success in the familiar environment of the 93 Underground, listening to the music and watching the people go by. He could have gone to a symphony, or a Broadway play, or to a fine restaurant. Knowing that made the 93 Underground all the more pleasant.
Still, one could only bask in the ambience so long before it became tedious. It was time to make some trouble.
He scanned the bar, looking for appropriate victims. There was the usual smattering of lone Zoners dealing in vice, scattered amid tight knots of visitors from the city proper. A scuffle broke out between two such groups; apparently someone had made advances toward someone who had already found companionship for the evening. The altercation showed no signs of escalating, however, and Paolo was about to look away when he noticed the woman skirting the edge of the group.
It was her hair that struck him first, falling to her waist in a riot of blonde curls and contrasting sharply against the gray of her trenchcoat. The coat swung open as she walked, revealing a glimpse of a black, formfitting outfit hugging a gracefully curved body. She walked with easy poise and grace, slipping onto a barstool and waiting patiently for the bartender's attention.
That she was corporate was obvious immediately. She carried herself too carefully, and her clothes, though not a typical corporate fashion, were of high quality. Her skin was an even and unblemished alabaster, her hair shone with the health of careful maintenance, and her eyes were clear and face unlined. Not a runaway, the doctor decided. They looked desperate and unkempt, and while there might have been a hint of uncertainty in this woman's manner, for the most part she seemed at ease. Had there been a bodyguard, he might have taken her for a young executive placed on the fast-track by family connections, but she was here alone. So...most likely she was a thrill-seeker, sneaking away from her sheltered family life to see how the other half lived. Dressing in "dispossessed chic," and mixing unnoticed with the unwashed masses.
The doctor smiled to himself. Every unwashed mass in the room could see her for what she was.
He slipped off his barstool and moved along the bar to the vacant seat next to her. He arrived just ahead of Weis, a dealer in exotic recreational pharmaceuticals whose presence was tolerated by the management only because his unusual goods did not compete with the more conventional ones stocked by the 93 Underground's bar. The dealer gave Paolo a dirty look, but slipped away quietly, choosing to wait his turn.
Paolo sat down on the table and threw the woman a casual smile. "Evening," he said, catching her eye. He nodded back toward the bandstand. "You like Human Refuse?"
Zenshou started and looked at the man who spoke to her. "Excuse me?" She paused for a moment, then realized what the man was talking about. She shrugged. "They're okay, I guess. I'm not really here for the music."
Zenshou looked the man over, noting that she stood a couple of inches taller than he did and that he was dressed rather well for someone who frequented 93U. She found his Hispanic looks pleasant, but what truly caught her notice were his cybernetic eyes. They were unusual, jet black relieved only with a faint band of gray on the outside.
She turned to face him, the trenchcoat falling open to reveal the well formed body beneath, curved in all the right places. "Does Human Refuse suit your tastes," she asked casually, watching his expression carefully.
"Absolutely," Paolo affirmed with a grin. "I'm right at home." He found himself distracted by the figure under her trenchcoat. Normally he found it easy to ignore such perfection—it was his medium as an artist, after all—but something in this woman's more natural appearance seemed to draw him in. He almost wished he had a chance with the girl, but knew his little abrogation of societal norms would end once she saw the necessity to stop being polite.
Although she wasn't drawing away from him the way most thrill-seekers did, and there was no hint of tension. His curiosity piqued, he proceeded to the next step in the game. "Let me by you a drink," he suggested. "The music wasn't meant for anyone sober."
Zenshou hesitated for a moment. "Well, okay. Just one. I wasn't planning on being here very long." She glanced towards the entrance of the club.
Ah, thought the doctor. A standard opening for Round 2: Apprehension, and an imaginary friend due to arrive at any moment.
Alan was handling the bar tonight, and Paolo caught his eye. The man nodded to show he'd seen him, but continued cycling through bottles as he mixed drinks for a group of industrial workers. The doctor returned to the conversation.
"Snakeye," he introduced himself, extending his hand. He could have used his real name, of course, but that didn't fit with 93 U somehow. Besides, this made him more of a novelty in the corper's eyes. "My friends call me 'Doc.'"
"Zenshou Shinju," she replied. She shook his hand with a practiced and firm grip. "Doc," she said. "As in medical doctor?"
Zenshou's eyes narrowed slightly, wondering if Gem was alright, then chastized herself for second guessing the street sam. Obviously the person who was following them mustn't have been that good if he'd been spotted - or was the bodyguard that good?
"That's right," he confirmed. "Doctor of Medicine, board certified cyberneticist." He smiled. "What line of work are you in?"
A guarded expression suddenly crossed Zenshou's face. "This and that," she replied. She looked around the room, unaware that a hunted look had appeared in her eyes. Zenshou looked at the door again, wondering what was keeping Gem.
"Oh, well that's big business," observed the doctor with a grin. "That's what most of the execs who come in here do."
"Execs?" Zenshou asked cautiously. "What makes you think I'm an exec?" Her mind worked rapidly, wondering how he knew, what he knew, and if he recognized her. She hoped that it was just a shot in the dark on his part, because she really didn't want to have a confrontation here. Zenshou shifted her stance as her body unconsciously tensed.
Paolo hesitated. This isn't quite right, he realized. Normally, the thrill-seekers ask the question as away to deny they're corpers, but they're just a little thrown. This woman is scared. Is she running from something?
"Well, Ms. Shinju," he observed. "Your clothing is good quality, your skin and teeth are in good shape, and your hygiene is perfect, so right there you're not a Zoner. And—" he paused, trying to articulate the thought in a way that was both clear and not insulting. "You carry yourself very carefully. You don't give anything away. Most of the non-corporate types when they come here from over the bridge, they cop an attitude. They're suspicious, or cautious, or tough. You're a blank slate. Comes from living in a place where cameras record your every move," he added. Then Paolo shrugged helplessly, and gestured to the crowd. "With all due respect, every one in this room knows you're a corper. I just assumed exec, because someone with a secretarial kind of job would have been eager to tell me who they worked for. Make themselves more important." He clarified. He watched her reaction carefully, trying to judge if she felt threatened.
Zenshou muttered a string of obscenities, switching between English, Japanese and Zone slang, which was very much at odds with her appearance. Her eyes then scanned the room, looking for anyone who was paying too much attention to her. "Trying not to being attention to myself and I end up walking around with a neon sign hanging over my head," she said in disgust tinged with concern - and a hint of fear.
"Calm down," he reassured her. Dear God, what's she running from? Paolo wondered. "No one here has spared you a second thought, unless they knew you by face anyway. You're following a common pattern. You come in here alone, 'dressed down,' slumming it on a night out. A handsome, charming stranger strikes up a conversation," he grinned. "And you engage in witty banter. You walk out with him," his grinned broadened to a wry smile at this, "And everyone assumes the obvious, whether we say good-bye in the alley or not. Or, if that thought is too repulsive, I am driven to another barstool, wounded by your cold-hearted rejection," he placed his hand to his forehead, "And you entertain the next suitor, and so on, for as long as you choose to stay." He shrugged. "Sooner or later, someone's going to try to sell you some exotic drug, and your best move is to buy enough for two, if you can afford it. Then you can leave alone. And anyone who notices will snicker and think how much you probably overpaid for it." The doctor gave her a reassuring look. "Now smile and act like you're enjoying yourself," he advised.
Zenshou couldn't help but smile. "I think I could afford a bit of chemical entertainment," she replied. "If you keep your word and pay for the drinks." She sighed and visible relaxed. "And since I'm going to be around here, in the Zone, for a while, I guess I'd better work on building a better 'face'. Any suggestions?"
Paolo considered. "Well, how do you want to protect yourself?" he asked. "Do you want to be safe from street gangs, but stick out like a sore thumb? Or are you willing to risk the gangs, but don't want corporate types to notice you?"
She looked at him hesitantly, knowing an answer told the man still more of the things she didn't want to admit. "I'll answer both questions, if you like," the doctor said gently. "You don't have to trust me. But I've been on the run myself, and I wouldn't burn you, no matter who you are."
"To be honest, I'd rather not have to deal with anyone," Zenshou replied. "But I can deal with the gangs - most of them respect power, and I have that. I can't complete with the resources of the corps, so I'd rather be invisible to them."
The doctor's eyes narrowed at her mention of power. It was confidence, not bravado, and that was the first truly surprising thing she had said. "Alright," Paolo said. "The best way to avoid being noticed is to make it easy for people to explain you away. You need to look like you have a story they know, preferably one that puts you beneath their notice."
Zenshou looked at him quizzically, but did not interrupt as the doctor continued. "I told you a minute ago what people were seeing when they saw you—your story. I also showed you how you can walk out of here without their having any questions at all, if you just complete the story for them in a predictable way. You have to be something they expect, so they won't look any closer."
"I see," the woman responded, mulling it over.
They were interrupted by the bartender, at last arriving to take their drink orders. The doctor ordered his customary vodka, while Zenshou asked for a whiskey, and the man disappeared behind the counter.
"So, what kind of story would work for me?" she asked, after he was out of earshot.
The doctor smiled. "Corper wannabe," he answered. "You need to look like someone who wasn't born in an arcology, but wants people to think she was. You don't need to change much for that—just try and get your clothing and your mannerisms a little off. Then if you forget yourself and get it right, people will dismiss it as a fluke. Especially corpers," he added, with a wry smile. "They'll be the ones most determined not to see you. You're trying to step out of your place, and it's deeply ingrained in every child of the arcology that you can't acknowledge someone who does that. Even the most careful intelligence agent can fall victim to that kind of arrogance." He paused to let her digest that.
"Is that what you did," Zenshou asked quietly after studying Paolo for a few moments. "Your eyes and the name you use are obviously meant to cause discomfort in corpers."
The doctor grinned sardonically at that. "That was half of the equation," he answered. "But my eyes were replaced long before I went on the run, and that decision wasn't mine." He shrugged. "The truth is, I was more worried about muggings and the like. So I went the other way, and never tried to hide my background. But I was careful to treat everyone I met in the Zone as a corper. They're not used to it, and it didn't make sense to them. Like people everywhere they're afraid of the unknown, and since I never threatened or intimidated anyone, they could walk away without having to back down and lose face."
Their drinks arrived, and the doctor took a pull from his vodka as the bartender disappeared to tend to his noisier patrons. "There was nothing I could have done to hide if the corporation had been actively looking for me. There aren't more than three- or four-hundred sets of eyes like these world wide, and they would have given me away."
"So what, you're just waiting for them to find you," Zenshou asked in surprise. "What then? Do you plan on spending the rest of your life on the run? I'm sure as hell not." A steely glint flashed in Zenshou's eyes. "When they find me, it's going to be on *my* terms." It looked as if she was going to say more, but caught herself and visibly fought down her anger.
"I'm not waiting for anything," the doctor replied evenly. "I said I have been on the run, not I am. I settled my score, and now I'm a free man." He drained his glass. "But I understand wanting revenge."
"It's not just revenge, Snakeye," Zenshou replied through gritted teeth, though the smile on her face was in stark contrast. "It's a matter of duty and honor. They slaughtered everyone. The servants. My parents. My six year old sister. Everyone who was in the house and on the grounds."
"I don't know who they are, and I don't care," she continued, her voice calm and collected. "I am going to discover who they are, expose them, and turn them over to the police. If the police can't or won't bring them to justice, then I will."
The doctor was silent for a moment, uncertain what to say. Finally, he spoke. "I admire your commitment," he observed. "A story like that is tragic. And memorable."
He couldn't help but watch her hands, wondering how she would respond. She doesn't seem ruthless enough to try to kill me, he thought. But that was a risk. I didn't have to tell her anything, but I wanted her to understand how distinctive that story is. Why am I trying to do her a favor?
Zenshou opened her mouth to say something else, then a look of horror crossed her face when she realized that the man she as talking to probably knew who she was now.
"So you know," she said in an even voice, her eyes watching him like a hawk. "What are you going to do about it?"
Before he could respond, a cold voice interrupted. "Is this man bothering
you?" Looking up, he saw a young Japanese woman standing by them. She flexed her arms, almost itching for a fight, and he could immediately tell her reflexes were boosted. She glanced towards Zenshou, then fixed a narrow glare on Snakeye.
Zenshou jumped, startled, then let out a breath of relief. "No, Gem, he isn't." She looked back at Snakeye. "Doc Snakeye, meet Gem. She's the person I told you I was waiting for."
"He was just giving me some advice on how not to stand out like a sore thumb in the Zone," Zenshou continued. "Did you get that matter taken care of outside?"
Gem turned to Zenshou. "Nothing to worry about. Harmless guy, trying to peddle some rubbish" She shot a suspicious glance at Snakeye, then seemingly ignored him. "So what's the plan from here?"
"Rubbish," Zenshou replied. "Hmm. Maybe he's just who I need. It appears that I need to update my wardrobe. Will he still be out there, or did he decide to change locations?"
"Most likely still out there. I brushed him off as fast as I could - not an easy task though."
"Good," Zenshou replies. "I have some shopping to do." She looks at Snakeye. "It was a pleasure to meet you," she says to Snakeye.
"And you," said the doctor. He nodded to the pair politely. "Ladies."
"Now, before we leave," Zenshou said. "I'd like to know the answer to my question. What do you intend to do?"
"I said before I wouldn't burn you," answered the doctor expressionlessly. His eyes flicked to the bodyguard, and then back to her mistress. "I don't advertise things that aren't my business."
Zenshou stood and looked at Gem. "Let's go."
As they headed towards the entrance, she looked down at her companion. "Didn't have too much trouble getting in, or do I owe Duke a big tip," Zenshou asked with a smile.
"I explained my business here." She scanned the crowd, sounding somewhat distracted. "He didn't exactly want to let me in, but..."
Zenshou looked at Gem with a raised eyebrow. "So I owe him a big tip." She smiled. As they walked out of the club, she paused and spoke quietly with Duke for a moment, and slipped him a $100 bill.
The doctor watched them go. Funny world, he mused. Child of privilege, but she hides in the same place I did. It seems the only thing that can't tell the difference between the mighty and the lowly is fate.
On stage, Human Refuse broke into their rendition of "Crimson Undertow."
One of the thugs from the group of rowdies that had been fighting over a woman when Zenshou walked in made a motion towards the door, and over half of them got up and followed Gem and Zenshou out of 93U.
Paolo frowned. This isn't good, he decided. The pack of predators must have seen Zenshou leave with a bodyguard, and decided she had something worth protecting. Or maybe they were just after the obvious.
He waited a moment, finishing and paying for his drink, then made his way over to the weapons check just as the group was wending its way out the door. He absently accepted his gun and medical bag, tucking both away, then followed after the crowd.
They were headed down a side street. Paolo walked past it first, then doubled back once he was out of sight and made his way down. The gang was just disappearing around a corner as he made his way down, and the doctor walked hesitantly forward, stepping lightly through the trash and refuse to avoid letting his footsteps give himself away.
Why am I doing this? He wondered. I don't owe her anything. His thoughts were interrupted by the press of steel to his throat.
"Whatcha doin', suit?" Asked a quiet voice from behind a dumpster. "You thinkin' a' gettin' in the way of our fun?"
The doctor slowly slid his hand up to his neck, fingering the rainbow-colored tag he wore around his neck.
"A Triad policy," the voice continued. "Cute. But'cha know, they don't pay off if you're not mindin' your own business. And you're not."
It was true, the Paolo realized, starting to sweat. The thug could take a lie detector test, and the Triad would leave him alone.
"So," the voice continued. "Can you give me a good reason why I shouldn't kill you right now?"
Behind him came the sound of a pistol being cocked. "Just to answer your question..." It was Gem's voice. The doctor turned his head just a hair to see the bodyguard and her mistress standing in an unused stairwell behind the dumpster. Gem held a gun to the thug's head, staring coldly at her victim. Apparently, the pair had given the gang the slip, and taken their rearguard by surprise.
"Actually," Zenshou said, her strong, confident voice carrying through the alley. "He's a holder of the... Pearl, policy. Yeah, that's it. The Pearl policy." A grin curved her lips, obviously amused at what she had said. Unseen, Gem rolled her eyes.
The joke seemed lost on the knife-wielding thug. He hesitated a moment, then said. "Let's all be cool," he suggested. "You don't want trouble with my brothers."
As if in answer to his prayers the gang rounded the corner again. Their weapons were at the ready, a mix of firearms, clubs and blades. "What the Hell, Nigel?" asked one of the newcomers of the captive member. The latter simply shrugged, not eager to speak while Gem had him covered.
Zenshou cocked her head to one side as she looked at the thugs. "I suggest that you continue on your way, gentlemen, before you get hurt."
"Oh yeah, what are you goin' to do, girlie," one of the gangers. There were perhaps two dozen of them, total, the doctor noted. More than had been in 93U. Apparently, they'd met friends outside.
Zenshou sighed. "We warned them, didn't we, Gem?"
Gem sighed. "Fine. Just make this easy and form a nice, orderly line right in my sights."
"They seem a bit reluctant to follow directions," Zenshou commented. "How about I help them a bit?"
The woman's hair began to move as if being blown around by a rowing breeze, and her trenchcoat started to flip and twist. Suddenly, half the gangers flew up in the air, twisting and screaming until they were lined up in a neat row, about ten feet off the ground and in a neat line as if targets in a shooting gallery.
"How's that," Zenshou asked absently, as she watched the rest of the gang members.
Gem twitched slightly and the gun in her hand barked. Paolo felt a slight wetness on the side of his head, and was aware the knife at his throat was suddenly gone.
With a flick of her fingers, Gem, Zenshou and Paolo were surrounded by a glowing ball of energy, protecting them from the hail of bullets.
"Perfect," muttered Gem through gritted teeth. She waited a second for a break in fire, then called out "Drop it!"
"It's only to stop the bullets, but if you insist..." Zenshou concentrated for a moment and the field twisted and distorted, then reformed in two smaller globes - one around herself, and one around Doc Snakeye.
Gem pounced forwards, darting into the midst of the thugs. She lashed out with her feet and her pistol, kicking one thug in the face, firing into another's chest and sweeping her foot across a couple more.
Zenshou scanned the area quickly and saw some of the thugs had taken cover behind a wrecked car. "Now, that isn't very nice," she said and the rusting hulk flew off to the right and into the side of a building.
"Doc, if you can move," Zenshou yelled out. "Would you care to join me over here?"
The doctor looked down the alley at the melee, then darted across the alley to stand near Zenshou. He pressed his back into a doorway, choosing to supplement his faith in the esper's ability with a few inches of concrete wall.
"Is she going to kill them all?" asked Paolo, watching Gem's progress.
"I don't know," Zenshou replied honestly. "Gem," she called out. "Have they had enough of an object lesson, do you think?"
Gem watched the last few gangers scurry (or crawl) away, shrugged and wandered back towards Zenshou. She wiped her cheek, and her hand came away bloodied. "Must've gotten splashed," she muttered. "So are we done here?"
Paolo surveyed the carnage. To their credit, the gangers seemed to have pulled off their own wounded. Or perhaps Gem's marksmanship simply hadn't left any. Regardless, there didn't seem to be anything for him to do here. "They usually learn lessons a little more quickly than this," he observed. He was unable to keep the edge out of his voice, though he was aware of the irony of accusing the pair of brutality when moments before he had feared for their safety.
"Their teacher usually isn't that quick," Gem quickly replied. She warily eyed Paolo, as if waiting for an excuse to hurt him.
The doctor returned her gaze impassively, dark eyes revealing nothing.
"You going to be okay," Zenshou asked him. "I'm sorry about all this," she said, gesturing at the ground littered with corpses. "I don't really like violence, but sometimes that's the only language that people like them speak. Can you get home okay, or would you like us to walk you home." A wry smile twisted her lips slightly.
"I'll be fine," he said, turning to Zenshou. Expression softening, he added, "Thank you. I owe you both."
Gem rolled her eyes and turned to her employer in barely concealed disgust. "Now remind me, what are we babysitting him for?"
Zenshou looked at Gem. "We're not," she replied. "See you around, Doc."
"Sure. Take care," he replied, turning to walk back up the street.
The esper looked at her diminutive bodyguard. "I hope you don't mind shopping," Zenshou said conversationally as she turned to leave. "I need to rebuild my wardrobe..."
"Mr. Oil Slick's suggestion, right?" Gem shrugged. "At least he's got eyes. Come on, I'll give you a hand."
That's Doctor Oil Slick, thought Paolo, moving out of earshot. The bodyguard seemed to him a very normal street sam, though she'd gotten good equipment somewhere. She didn't have the stoic demeanor most sams used in bodyguard work, so maybe she hadn't been at it that long. Regardless, he hoped to avoid her in future.
Zenshou was more of a mystery. She certainly wasn't accustomed to life on the run, but seemed to have few qualms about violence. Had her esper talent been used for corporate ends in her prior life? Perhaps it was simply that the gang members had not been human to her, that her corporate existence had isolated her from such people. Paolo smiled at that thought. It would be ironic if life on the street softened her.
He drifted on toward the room he had rented for the night.
Return to Kazei 5 PBEM Stories