By Mathieu Roy, Jeff Skagen, Mike Surbrook

December 31, 2038

The suborbital was sleek and white, a technological arrow ready to be pointed at the sky and launched at hypersonic velocities on a painstakingly calculated course that would take it from Sydney and over a large expanse of ocean to its final destination at Hong Kong's Chep Lap Kok airport. As she strolled along the boarding ramp that led to the plane's first class section, Raven Clark smiled, thinking once more that it had been far too long since she'd last flown on an airplane. She'd been teleporting a lot over the last few years, instantaneous travel from point A to point B a vital time-saver, especially if A and B were several thousand miles distant.

Shion Nys had introduced the younger psychokinetic to first-class flights, and Raven thought she finally figured out why the renowned Empress used planes despite her own, equally impressive teleportation ability. In a life as hectic as hers, a trip soaring above the clouds with nothing to do but sit back in luxury and wait in relaxation was a welcome reprieve from bustling, non-stop activity. If she couldn't find other times to relax, Raven resolved, she'd fly first class more often.

Of course, planes also were less limiting for luggage and passengers, which was the primary reason for picking the suborbital today. She examined the two tickets in her hand, picked one, and handed it over to her young charge with a bright smile. "Here, Vivian. Window seat. Trust me, you don't want to miss it."

The teenaged girl looked up as she took the proffered ticket, and smiled back warmly. "Cool. Thanks, Raven!"

As they made there way down the aisle, Vivian couldn't help but glance about in wonder. She'd never been in a suborbital before, and found herself surprised by the degree of luxury displayed in the first-class cabin. She'd known that sub-orbital flights didn't come cheap, but now she thought that they must be even more expensive than she'd ever imagined.

Settling in her seat, she glanced over at Raven as the beautiful esper struggled to force her oversized carry-on into the overhead compartment. Like many of the other wealthy passengers, who probably either had extensive cosmetic biosculpting or were genetic upgrades, she was virtually a model a physical perfection. Although of only average height, her long slender legs made her curvy, well-defined figure seem taller, while her face, framed by a fall of long, luxuriously silky black hair, was simply beautiful, with a smooth, creamy complexion and sparkling brown eyes.

With a pang of sudden jealousy, Vivian turned to look out at the tarmac instead. Next to Raven, she often felt rather plain. Looking at her own reflection in the window, she could admit, intellectually, that wasn't true. That she was in fact rather attractive on the whole, as many mixed-race people were. But whereas Raven was gorgeous, her own somewhat pixieish face was...cute. Her body was far more petite and less developed than Raven's, so much so that she hardly looked the sixteen years old that she was. And unlike Raven's long, shiny tresses, Vivian had to keep her own flat black hair cut short, lest it become frizzy and uncontrollable. She sighed, knowing her jealousy was not at all fair to the woman she loved like a big sister.

Raven, having finally managed to get her bag wedged into the storage compartment, sat down beside her. As she turned and smiled brightly at her, she was glad that the esper was, like her, strictly a psychokinetic, and possessed no empathic abilities at all. "So, Raven, any idea how fast this thing will get us to Hong Kong?"

Vivian could still hardly believe it. Just under two hours from Perth to Hong Kong by suborbital flight. At first she'd wondered why Raven had insisted on flying to Hong Kong when she was perfectly capable of teleporting them both there instantly, but now she was just grateful that she had.

She hoped she would never forget the spectacular view out the window, especially when they had reached their highest altitude, where she could clearly see the curvature of the Earth beneath her. She'd been amazed when she glanced around the cabin, only to realize that most of the passengers were ignoring the view, most either snoozing in their plush seats or jacked into the micro-VR headsets the airline supplied for their entertainment. She tried to imagine how many flights like this she'd have to take before becoming jaded enough to ignore the view, but just couldn't imagine that she would ever feel that way.

Even Raven had started enjoying the flight, and unwound enough to let Vivian order a rum and Coke from the drink cart when it trundled by. She'd half expected it to refuse her, but apparently whatever ticket Raven's fixer friend Nabiki had arranged for her must have had her listed as an adult fare on the passenger registry, because it dispensed the drink to her without protest.

The only incident to even slightly mar the experience had been when she'd noticed a severely dressed older woman glancing at her distastefully. It wasn't hard to guess why; everyone else in the cabin, including Raven, were dressed and accessorized in expensive and finely tailored outfits. Vivian's simple denim jeans and button-front blouse were presentable enough—Raven had always made sure the children had new clothes before their old ones had worn out—but the sort of durable working clothes one wore on a homestead deep in the Australian Outback bore little resemble to the stylish ensembles being worn here, and clearly marked her as coming from a lower social strata. But since she couldn't do anything about it, Vivian had resolved to ignore the social snob and enjoy the view out the window instead.

Unfortunately, while the flight over had been delightful, Hong Kong itself was proving to be somewhat less so. It hadn't seemed that way at first. Chep Lap Kok airport on Lantau Island had been bright and modern, and the MTR (mass-transit-rail) that had taken them under the harbor into the New Territories, then Kowloon, and finally to Hong Kong Island itself had been wonderful, the cars immaculately clean, warm, spacious and brightly lit, with holographic billboards and large digital maps in both Chinese and English that displayed the train's current position and next destination. Only the surfeit of armed security guards in their immaculate uniforms had bothered her, making her feel more oppressed than safe.

But upon stepping out off train in the Wan Chi district, Vivian had immediately noticed been how cold it was outside. She was used to thinking of Hong Kong as a hot and humid city, and although Raven had warned her that they were crossing the equator and that it would be winter in this hemisphere, Vivian was still surprised by the chill air. Still dressed for the dry heat of Outback, she soon found her shivering in her light, loose clothing.

Much worse than the chill, though, was the smell; a blend of human sweat, vehicle exhaust fumes, foods being cooked in the open, and a mix of salt water, sewage, and rotting fish and seaweed coming off the bay. Large amounts of incense were being burned as well, but if it was supposed to cover the stench, it was only succeeding in adding a new element to it instead.

They'd only been out of the MTR terminal for a few minutes when Raven saw Vivian hugging herself from the chill. "Oh, I'm so sorry... I should have reminded you to pack a jacket or a coat", she said. She looked down the street, pointed at a clothing store and smiled. "Here, let's go buy you one. We don't want you to catch a cold."

The older psychokinetic led her adoptive sister inside the store. It was casual wear, but nonetheless a high-class establishment, catering to visiting executives, and all the clothes on offer looked stylish, fashionable, and expensive. Raven made an immediate beeline for the coat racks, waving off an attendant who had approached as soon as they'd walked in. "See anything you like?" she asked Vivian, as she picked a rack and started examining coats.

Vivian thumbed hesitantly through several of the jackets on the rack. "I'm...not sure. They all seem so nice. Almost too nice for me, y'know?" She plucked a jacket off the rack briefly, but quickly put it back when she saw the bewildering variety of closures it sported on the front. "Maybe something simpler. Do they have anything in black synthleather?"

Raven smiled when Vivian mentioned black synthleather, reminded of a certain trip to Mega-Tokyo and another black coat, before returning to the rack and coming out with a stylishly simple, well-made coat in black leather, a classic cut with no superfluous adornments to break up its simple beauty. Genuine leather, of course—this store didn't DO synthleather. She checked the label to make sure it was in Vivian's style then handed it to the teenager. "How's this one?"

"That' That looks great." Vivian put the jacket on, surprised at how well it seemed to fit her small frame, and fingered the supple leather. "I love how it feels, too." Zipping it half shut, she did a quick pirouette for Raven. "So, how do I look in it?"

Raven watched her with a warm, pleased smile and clapped her hands once. It was very nice on her, the way she wore it, simple and elegant, yet active and casual. Very stylish, but it was also very Vivian. Raven thought that was the best part. "I think it looks awesome. So you like it?"

"I love it!"

"Sweet. It's yours." She motioned Vivian to the cash register.

Vivian followed and watched as Raven casually paid for the jacket without even inquiring as to its price. Then, as Raven turned back, Vivian surprised the taller esper by abruptly throwing her arms around her.

"Thanks, big sis," she said softly as Raven returned the hug.

A moment later Vivian broke the embrace and stepped back. "So," she said, nodding toward the door as she zipped up her new jacket, "I guess we start looking for a new place to live now, right?"

After their brief shopping diversion, it hadn't taken Raven long to look up a number of higher-end condominiums for sale or rent that might make suitable accommodations for them, and they'd set off in search of a new abode. But for the last few hours they'd been checking out various places in the Wan Chai District without much success. Actually, Vivian had thought most of them were just fine, but Raven had firmly rejected them all so far. She wasn't really sure why, but trusted that Raven knew their needs better than she did.

By now, the constant bumping and jostling as they fought their way through the teeming mass of bodies, bicycles and scooters to their next destination was leaving Vivian jumpy and on edge. The noise, as shouting vendors and blaring advertisements on either side of the street tried to out compete each other for her attention, wasn't helping either. She sure hoped Raven would approve of the next place they were going to, especially since it was the last place on their current list.

"Let's not visit it on an empty stomach, since it's the last", Raven suggested. "Mandarin Towers has a ton of restaurants, we might as well hit one while we're there. What would you like to eat?"

Vivian looked about uncertainly. "Well, I guess I could go for pizza, if they have it here."

Raven laughed. "Italian then? We can order pizza in the new place, and we'll want to so we can find a place that makes good pizza, so you might want to get pasta or something just now..."

"Okay, Italian it is! I'm kinda hungry, so pasta alone might be a bit light. But I'm sure I can find plenty of stuff I'd like on the menu."

The older PK shook her head. "It'll be good, but it won't be Auntie's cooking, I guarantee you that. Nothing is." After consulting her PDA, Raven led the pair to Gino Fratelli's, a casual but classy Italian restaurant with red synthleather booth seats and a broad menu.

"This is real Italian", Raven said, as she flipped through the menu, "not some knock-off with a Family theme." She grinned and tapped the menu. "And see, they deliver pizza, too. I like this place already."

"So do I," said Vivian. "It's quite and it smells a lot better in here than outside."

She found multiple menu placards, in Cantonese, Japanese, English, and what she guessed was Italian. Now that she was in her father's home city, she decided she'd better start practicing her rather rusty Cantonese, so snagged that menu and started studying it. She hadn't heard of most of the dishes on it, but she did spot a few favorites, and the others at least had descriptions beneath them.

After a minute she laid the menu back down. "I think I'm gonna try the Manicotti Formaggio. Sounds filling but not heavy. You know what you want yet?"

"Spaghetti with Bolognaise sauce and Italian sausage", said Raven, tapping into the menu. She grinned. "Spicy. And mineral water. Pop for you?"

Vivian nodded. "Yeah. Anything citrus flavored and caffeine free."

Raven stopped a passing waiter and quickly ordered for the both of them, then returned her attention back to Vivian. "So what do you like of the places we've seen so far? I could tell you liked a couple of them."

"Well..." Vivian considered a moment. "The thing is, I think I kinda liked everything because I don't know any better. They all seemed so much more modern than anywhere else I've ever lived before. Sure, the house in the Outback was way better than what I used to have in the Zero Zone, but even it was pretty old and basic, and didn't have most of the things the places we looked at today."

Vivian paused to take a sip of water, then continued. "I guess some of the things I liked best, though, were the various bathing facilities some of them had—a few had those shower walls with the fancy showerheads, and the one had that jacuzzi tub. I'd love to have a place with something like that. Also, a few of them had really big, fancy kitchens. You know Auntie's been teaching me to cook a bit, and I'd love to see what I could do in a really modern, well-equipped kitchen—well, once I learned what all the new gizmos did, of course."

She glanced through the window at the street outside, and then added, "I also liked the view from the ones that were up high. To tell the truth, Hong Kong seems kinda garish and ugly at ground level, but viewed from above it seemed a lot prettier. And I bet all that the colorful neon lights will look really pretty at night from a distance."

"Don't worry, I'm lousy at picking too", Raven said thoughtfully. "I'm used to the Outback, so looking for some luxury feels a little off, and they all looked like they'd be miles ahead of any of my old places. I've been systematically rejecting them just so I can force us to see them all and figure out which one we like best. This is the last of the list, then we can go back to whichever we prefer—they won't turn us away."

"We're getting a view, that's for sure", Raven said. "Whoever thought of setting up that apartment's windows right behind the huge logo they put on the side of the building wasn't very bright. 'Fantastic view', indeed. I agree on the hot tub, they're fun." She laughed. "Though I don't think we need a pool right in the apartment, like Shion has. I wouldn't turn it down, but still."

"I'd also like to have an exterior balcony, and enough rooms to have a guest room and a workshop, and maybe one room just for a landing pad, though that can double up as a gym or something", she added. She grinned. "We'll get you a cool kitchen, but don't expect me to become an ace cook. I can do the simple stuff but it never seems quite up to Auntie's standards. I'm sure you'll do better, but don't feel like you have to work to feed the both of us." She waved the Fratelli menu for emphasis. "Plenty of good food around just for the asking."

Vivian chuckled. "Oh, I don't think I would want to try cooking for us on a regular basis just yet. Even with what Auntie taught me so far, I know I'm still just a dabbler. But I would like to cook for us sometimes, to keep in practice and to learn some new dishes."

"I'm glad I understand why you were saying no to those other places, now. I thought there was something wrong with them that I was missing," she added. "I think you have some good ideas on what to look for. I would never have thought of a balcony or a room set up as a landing pad, for instance. Although I imagine you'll be making more use of that than me, at least for the immediate future."

"Don't worry, Vivian, you'll get there. Your distance is great, you just need a little bit of control to externalize the effect a bit." She quieted down when the waiter returned with plates and drinks, noting the speedy service with appreciation. She grinned into his stare when he lingered there a little, just to see if they needed anything else, you know, and gently waved him off. Then she stuck a fork in her steamy pasta and cut off a bit for a taste.

"Hmmm... it's up to my standards at least..."

Vivian took a taste of her own dish. "Mmmm. Yeah, my Manicotti's good too. Like you said, not quite up to Auntie's standard, but I like it."

A couple of minutes passed in silence as the two focused on their meals. In the booth beside them, a matronly woman had given up trying to control her rambunctious children and was now apparently hoping they would tire themselves out if she just let them go wild.

Vivian grimaced and rolled her eyes as the back of her seat was kicked for the third time and, leaning forward, whispered to Raven "Next time maybe we get take out instead, huh?"

Raven frowned as she watched the kids. "Take out sounds good right about now, once we have some place to take out to. But usually you don't get things like that—people are a bit more polite with their children..."

Behind Vivian, Raven could see the waiter—doing the classic waiter trick of balancing multiple plates along each arm—arriving at the woman's table, and hoped having food in front of them would quiet the children some. Suddenly, one of the kids bolted out from hiding underneath the table and under the waiter's feet, with the inevitable result. The food-laden plates tumbled to the ground, shattering loudly on the tile floor.

In that same instant she felt a spike of PK energy—and the plates on their table suddenly flew towards her. She managed to dodge Vivian's leftovers by ducking to one side, but her own plate fell right onto her lap, leaving its contents on her skirt before hitting the ground with a clatter.

Behind her, Vivian heard a sharp crack from the decorative glass divider between the booths, and cacophony of crashes and clatters as glasses and utensils were swept off the nearest tables. Even the shattered dishes and spilled food the waiter had dropped suddenly skittered and smeared across the floor away from her.

Realizing what she was doing, she took a quick breath and clenched her fists, trying to will herself, and her flaring PK field, to calmness. But just as she felt it start to wane, the startled children behind her began crying and caterwauling, setting her nerves on edge again. "Shit," she gasped as she felt her energy start to spike again. "Help."

Raven, standing next to the table with her hair billowing in Vivian's psychokinetic waves, nodded and spread her hands, palms up, closing her eyes in concentration. Waves of psychokinetic force emanated from her, unseen by all but the espers, straining against Vivian's uncontrolled Power, stilling the effects of her kinetic force. Her hair and clothes slowly settled down as the flow of PK energy emanating from Vivian slowed to a trickle.

Vivian unclenched her fists and allowed herself a deep breath as she found she no longer needed to fight as hard to rein her power in, and of course as she calmed down the adrenaline-driven spike of power subsided all the more readily.

As soon as she was sure of her control again, she looked around at the mess she'd made of the eatery...and of Raven. Fallen utensils and broken dishware lay scattered about nearby, Raven had a lapful of spaghetti, and the glass divider behind her booth was fractured. The waiter was staring at her, obviously shocked, while the mother had backed well away in fear, dragging her still crying children with her.

She turned back to Raven, looking miserable. "Oh, I'm sorry, Raven! I didn''s been so long. I thought I was passed this. I didn't...I just..." she clenched her jaw, fighting back tears, and shook her head. "I'm sorry."

Raven stepped across the table and hugged Vivian, taking care not to do so so closely that she transmitted some spaghetti sauce. "There, it's all right. You should've seen me when I got a cold at your age." She winked at the younger girl and patted her back. "You've lived in the Outback for years now, you just need to get used to civilization again."

Raven turned towards the waiter who was standing there dumbfounded. "Don't you want to call your manager?" she asked. "I think him and I need to have a talk."

And then back to Vivian. "How about you go out in the mall and have a walk? I'll smooth things out here and be back with you. Everything will be fine."

Vivian hesitated, then remembered that the open court of the Mandarin Towers shopping area, while busy, was nowhere near as crowded (or as noisy, or as smelly) as the streets outside. "Okay," she quickly, nodding. "I'll, um...I'll wait for you out there."

Turning back to the waiter, she gestured helplessly with her hands. "Sorry," she finally squeaked to him, before hurrying out the front door.

Raven sighed once Vivian was out of earshot. Having had to deal with a large number of esper kids—not to mention firsthand knowledge!—she had a good idea of how embarrassing it could be to lose control of one's Power. Then the nervous waiter returned with a handsome, equally-nervous man of obvious Italian descent, and Raven concentrated on smoothing things over.

It took a great amount of charm, a bit of puppy eyes, taking some advantage of his Latin temperament by casually posing off her gorgeous body, and the exchange of a goodly amount of lucre, but in the end she managed to smooth things over enough to keep the whole matter quiet, and the manager seemed taken with her enough that it might be conceivable the espers could return to the restaurant... after a year or so. Raven then excused herself to the washroom to replace her skirt with a pair of designer jeans from her carry-on bag. She had a slight smile on her face as she strolled outside the restaurant.

Outside, Vivian was hovering near the door, hands clenched together in front of her. As Raven emerged, she looked up. "Well?" she asked. "Is everything okay? You're smiling. Does that mean it's okay?"

She grinned. "It's okay, but we may want to avoid the place for a bit. I had to pay off the damages and charm him out, but I don't mind—he's cute. And I'm sure he can cook." She extended a reassuring hand to Vivian. "Had your fill? Do you want to hit a burger place for takeout before we head over to the leasing office?"

Vivian took her hand and smiled shyly. "Nah, I'm fine for now, if you are too. I'd already eaten most of my meal. But, um...thanks for paying for everything. I know you can afford it, but still, you shouldn't have had to."

"Oh, don't worry about it", Raven said with a smile.

"Thanks," said Vivian, looking almost happy again. "Well, I guess we'd better get moving then. We probably should've called the manager lady again when we decided to stop for food. I hope she won't mind that we're running so late."

6:08 PM.

Friday, December 31, 2038. New Year's Eve.

And I'm still in my office.

Four hours ago one Raven Clark, of Alice Springs, Australia, had called and said she wanted to look at an apartment. Seeing as I had little else planned for the day, I foolishly said yes. If I'd given it half a thought I'd have told her the office was closing early, please come in Monday and I'll be glad to show you around. But no, I have to be nice and say "Of course, I'd be happy to." and give her my best "subservient synthetic smile," the one I've practiced on countless HK salarimen.

And now its 6:18 and I'm still sitting at my desk, datacable dangling from the side of my head, monitor long since gone over to the screen saver, thinking its high-time I get out of my chair, take a long hot shower, get dressed, and see Sandra about that New Year's Party she mentioned. Maybe I can get Andy to come along, since I figure he'd probably be happier drinking with friends than shooting enemies.

Then again, Raven is a fellow citizen of Oz, so I feel some obligation to not stand her up. On the other hand, national sisterhood week this isn't.

My moment of indecision ("do I stay or do I go?") is broken by the sound of the outer door opening—the one that leads out to the first level of Mandarin Tower's shopping complex. I hear faint music and the general murmur of the crowd for brief moment and then all is quiet.

"Hello? Ms. Ferrari? Are you in? Sorry we're late."

I pull the plug from my temple, run my hands through my hair, straighten my tie, and give a glance at the window. Shirt, tie, skirt, shoes? Check. Blue skin and hair? Check. I try my smile again, just to be safe. It seems to be working, I don't look half as tired as I feel.

"Ms. Clark?" I step out of my office into the open common room. The secretary (a replicant like me... well, not quite, I doubt there's another replicant in the world that's anything like me) has already gone home to her quarters on the fifth floor, so the room is pretty much empty, except for the three of us. "Welcome to Mandarin Towers."

I pause, waiting for the inevitable reaction (leaving in a huff, asking to see the real Miss Ferrari, staring as if I'm something on display in a museum, you know, the usual), and look at my two prospective tenants. Raven Clark is a touch shorter than me, with the face and figure I've come to expect from the genetically enhanced. In fact, she makes me look more than a little plain, and as a repliacted human that's saying something. Her most striking feature is a great mass of waist-length shiny black hair, giving her a look that reminds me of Ling Ling Li and her bodyguard Marta Nys. Maybe its a corporate thing, like hideously expensive cars and over-priced suits. I don't know.

Then I see her companion, a skinny young girl who might, I repeat "might" be in her middle to late teens. Actually, it takes me a moment to decide she's is a she, since the short hair, long coat, and trousers give her a fairly androgynous look. Sister? Friend? Lover? Is waist-length black hair some sort of lesbian call sign? There's a very brief moment where I try to imagine Sandra's response to that, a moment I have to forcibly suppress before I'm overcome with an interview-ending fit of the giggles.

A quick swallow and I'm all business again, my face calm, my mind reflecting on what units are open and where they are. The pair are dressed in a mix of styles, so I can't peg a floor instantly. They might want something small and basic, or they might be able to afford an upper penthouse, and only dress this way to throw others off. I won't know till I get a look at their credit balance.

For a brief moment Ms. Clark is clearly surprised at my appearance—she hadn't called me from a video-phone after all—but she doesn't seem offended. In fact, she hides any further reactions under a demeanor as calm and professional as my own. Either she's used to being around replicated humans, or she doesn't care. Coming from Alice Springs? Could be either.

"I apologize for keeping you busy on New Year's Eve, Ms. Ferrari, but as I mentioned on the phone I'm really hoping to find some living arrangements as soon as possible" Her tone is friendly, courteous, and she even sounds genuinely sorry. "Today, if at all possible. I believe you mentioned you had some penthouse suites available; could we trouble you for a visit?"

Penthouse suites. I see. Considering how much they go for, and the commission I could make (I don't have a lot of monetary needs, as my apartment came with the job, but still...), I push thoughts of drinking David and Sandra silly out of my mind, and gesture to the door. "Of course, you can. Please, come with me."

A short walk across the concourse and we are in one of the all-floors elevators. My keycard unlocks the settings and I punch in "57."

As the lift starts its trek up, I start my speil. "As you may have noticed, Mandarin Towers is circular, and all apartments wrap around the ring. The core of the building is open for the most part, which we feel makes up for the lack of external balconies. In addition, the bottom of the Towers consists of five floors of shopping, allowing you to purchase most of your basic needs without leaving the building." I pause and glance over at them, "A major benefit considering Hong Kong's crowded streets."

The lift slows and the doors slide open. One of the domestic cyberdroids trundles by, pushing a trash cart. I'm trying to decide of this is good or bad (good because it shows we care about keeping things clean, bad because the domestic help dared show its face), but then figure it simply better to forge ahead. "Up here on the 57th floor the apartments take up a quarter of the ring. They have two bedrooms, three if you want to modify the den, kitchen, dining room, and two baths." I live on the 6th myself. One bedroom, one bath, one tenant—me.

We stop in front of 5734, and I run the keycard through slot. The door opens and we step inside. The penthouse suites are big—empty they are positively cavernous. I try to ignore the echos and walk over the window. "Of course, I think the best feature is the view," I inform them as I open the blinds and present the sea of light that is Hong Kong at night.

Although there are taller buildings in Wan Chai, none are that near to Mandarin Towers. Thus, from up here, one has a fairly open view all the way to Kowloon. And what a view it is. Almost on cue a VT car swoops past, running lights bathing the room for an instant in green and red. Further out are huge video-boards advertising just about everything, although I always find it rather disconcerting to have a six-story woman smile at me after taking a bite of something. Makes me feel I'm next on the menu. Near the harbor there's the yellow-orange flare of waste gases being burned off from some industrial concern or another. And then across the harbor, where the big buildings are, you can catch sight of towering skyscrapers as tall as anything in Sydney or Mega-Tokyo.


The girl (What is her name? Did Ms. Clark give it to me? Now I can't recall.) promptly mars the glass with her palm prints as she presses herself up against the window. "Whoa," she says, "This is the best view yet. Raven, come get a look at this! I knew Hong Kong would be gorgeous at night!"

At that Ms Racen Clark walks over to the window. She is doing a fine job of looking detached, but I have shown this view to people before, and the subtle mannerisms don't lie; she's excited, perhaps as much as her young companion. She peers over the teenager's head and observes the city. "It's definitely an excellent view," she says, not quite succeeding at sounding noncommital. She peers out the window for a while longer, taking it in. Then she turns to me with something resembling a poker face. "There's a balcony?"

Before I can answer, the younger girl, without taking her eyes off the view out the window, says "You weren't listening. She already said there weren't outside balconies, but the core of the building is open." Then she turns and addresses me for the first time. "Hey, does that mean there's an 'inside' balcony?"

"Not unless you count the access hall." Although some people do treat the core hall as a sort of ad-hoc balcony at times. But I'm not going to put any ideas into their heads. "Do you wish to see the rest of the layout?"

"We sure do!" answers the girl eagerly. "Show us what else this place has! Can we see the kitchen next?"

Miss Clark smiles indulgently. "She likes cooking," she explains to me. "Yes, let's see the kitchen and the rest of the place."

"It's right this way."

Vivian pressed the button for floor 57 as Raven followed her into the elevator, and then jabbed impatiently at the "Close Door" button. Now that all the paperwork had been signed and their one-year lease was formally in effect, she couldn't wait to get back to their new penthouse suite and start planning how to furnish it. Finally, the lift started moving.

"So," she said, unable to contain her excitement, "What do you like best about our new place? I can't decide which I liked more, that spectacular kitchen or the walk-in shower and whirlpool bath in the main bathroom."

Raven grinned. "The bathroom was impressive, I've gotta admit. I also liked the view. Oh, and the central habitation computer looks really recent, top-notch. As if they'd just upgraded it. But I think what I like best is the layout. I like the kitchen with the breakfast nook and a table there, with the larger dining room acriss the doorway adjacent to the living room. You can have cozy breakfasts and lunches and still get to entertain in style."

"Yeah," agreed Vivian, "The layout is pretty workable. But speaking of the dining room. I know you want the option of entertaining there, but honestly, I think we may want to consider making it our teleport landing pad instead. It's a largish, fairly isolated room that won't otherwise see a lot of regular use. I mean, ninety-five percent of the time, we'd probably be eating in the breakfast nook anyway. And we could always stick some fairly sturdy gym equipment in it so it would at least have one other use."

"Hmm. I don't think we need a huge area as a landing pad, I thought we might pick a smaller room and have it double as a gym or something," Raven said thoughtfully. "We just need someplace without too many loose objects we'd need to pick up after 'porting in. But we could revamp the dining room into something else and just set up in the living room if we want to have a big dinner or something." She laughed lightly. "So much room and we still can't seem to fit everything we want. Well, what else do we need—two bedrooms, guest room, and a workshop?"

"Yeah...and assuming we use the den as a workshop, we've already got most of that. Except the guest room, of course. Not sure what we'll do about that yet." She glanced at the elevator's display, which showed they were currently passing floor 41. "Maybe we need to look at using the rec room for something else. If we put all the A/V gear against the far wall in the living room, that leaves the rec room free to be something else. Maybe then the den could be the guest room instead. we really need a dedicated guest room? We could always let any guests use my bedroom. I'd be okay with sleeping on the couch or something."

Raven watched the digital display absently, considering. "I think you're right; we can always set people up in the living room or the den if we need to. I've seen a few places that have these closets that contain easy-to-deploy beds, and there's always the old convertible bed-sofa. That will free up rooms for stuff we'll use on a regular basis." She turned to Vivian with a mischievous grin. "We can keep all the amenities. If we're going to live in a penthouse I want all the trimmings. Don't you?"

The elevator stopped as it reached their floor, and the doors opened with a soft chime. "Of course I do!" answered Vivian, stepping out intro the hallway. "Although truthfully, I don't think I even know what all the trimmings are. I was raised in an utter dump in the Zone, same as you. The nicest place I've ever lived in was our house back in Outback. My idea of luxury is a place that has intact windows and electricity."

Raven grinned. "I know the feeling. The first penthouse I saw was Shion's. She has a pool. In her penthouse." She shrugged and added, "I don't think we can go quite that far, but we can have a bit of the cool stuff, y'know? Hot tub, gym equipment, electronic amenities, A/V system..." She chuckled. "Maybe we can furnish progressively though."

Vivian nodded. "Well, I certainly understand if you can't afford to buy everything we want all at once. We'll just have to prioritize." She pulled out her keycard as their door came into view. "She really has a pool in her penthouse?"

"Yes. It's not Olympic-sized or anything, but she does have one. Here I thought my corporate digs were luxurious and then she takes me to that place." Raven waited for Vivian to open up the penthouse and let her go in first before stepping inside and making a beeline straight for the panoramic view. "We can't move the living room from here, at least, and the kitchen's fixed, so that's two rooms settled."

"And there's not much to say about the bedrooms or bathrooms, I suppose, except that you obviously get the bigger bedroom and its attached bathroom, while I'll take other bedroom and the bath across the hall." Vivian paused in the doorway, looking over the vast living room, grand even in its emptiness. "As for the rest...I'm just not sure right now. Maybe we can hash out the details tomorrow, while we're shopping for furniture. Speaking of which, I've noticed it's getting kinda late and we don't have any beds. Are we just gonna sleep on the floor, or what?"

Raven shrugged. "Even if we go furniture shopping now, it's not like they're going to be delivering tonight. We can get some inflatable mattresses or get a hotel room. What's your pick?"

Vivian looked surprised. "Oh. Um...hotel room, I guess, if we can get one this late. I didn't really think we could, but then again I also didn't think furniture stores would be open at this hour either. Just shows how little I know about living in a city, huh?"

"You can usually find an open hotel whenever", Raven said. "Furniture usually not, in most cities, but Hong Kong is one of those places that never sleeps. We could find someplace open. Of course, we wouldn't have as much selection." She smiled and pulled out her PDA—a tiny thing with a 'Net connection, that could do simple browsing. "Let me find a good hotel not too far and we can furnish tomorrow."

Vivian nodded. "Sleep and shop, sounds like a plan to me. And don't forget, we also gotta get me some new clothes tomorrow. You told me to leave most of my old wardrobe—which I believe you described as 'terminally rustic'—behind, remember?"

Raven laughed. "Overalls and sweatshirts with patches don't go over too well in a city, you know. I don't want you to feel out of place in this environment. Besides, tell me you wouldn't like something nicer to wear, now that you live in a place where you won't rip it up."

"Well of course I want some nice clothes!" exclaimed Vivian. "I've been wearing mostly hand-me-downs for the last five years, after all. I can't wait to go shopping! Although, um...I think I'll need your help to pick stuff out. I don't really know what's fashionable in Hong Kong. Or anywhere else, for that matter."

"I'll help you out. You can learn a lot of this stuff by observation—see what people like, what's in magazines, that sort of thing. But don't feel like you have to follow all the trends." She consulted her 'net-enabled PDA, scrolling through hotels. "It's more important to pick stuff you like; if you're not gonna wear it, it ain't going to be fashionable, it's pointless." She looked up and winked. "You might even want to try a few skirts."

"Skirts?" Vivian glanced down at herself, looking dubious. "I dunno. Last time I wore a skirt was, um...I'm not sure I've ever worn a skirt. I guess I could try some on though. I know I won't just be able to just blend in, but at least I can try not to look like I just came in from the bush. Even though I did."

"You'll be fine. I think they'll look great on you, but if you prefer slacks we can find plenty of those, too. Oh, I'm sure we'll have tons of fun shopping!" She laughed and pointed at her PDA. "I've got a good hotel here with a vacancy. Nothing too classy or five-star but it'll have clean warm beds and running water, so that's already pretty good. Let me make a reservation then we can get going."

"Sure thing," answered Vivian. She watched as Raven made the reservation, thinking how useful a PDA would be to her as she tried to find her way around a new and unfamiliar city, and resolved to later ask Raven about adding one to their shopping list for tomorrow. "Are we ready to go?" she asked as Raven finished and put her PDA away.

"Let's go", Raven said. "We've got another big day to go tomorrow..."

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