Part 1

By Mathieu Roy and Jeff Skagen

Early January, 2039

Sporadic rain drops—clearly foreshadowing a substantial downpour to come—were making themselves felt on her face, and a stiff wind kept trying to whip her short hair around. But in spite of the weather, Vivian Lau was smiling as she stood on the roof of the Mandarin Towers and surveyed the area before her.

Ten minutes ago, she'd been reading through the lease agreement for her and Raven's new penthouse suite, seeking to learn just what amenities and services the Mandarin Towers offered its residents. She'd known about the parking garage under the building, so wasn't surprised to find that two spaces there were assigned to their unit, but she had been a bit surprised to learn that there were also a small number of spaces for aircars to park on the roof. The two largest penthouses got two stalls each, while the remaining eight penthouses, including theirs, got one each, with the rest of the lot was dedicated to visitor and guest parking.

Only one of the parking spaces had Vivian's interest at the moment, the one with the number 5734 painted across it in large white numbers, the same as was on the door of their penthouse. She stepped into the middle of the space and turned in a slow circle.

The landing spot was simple, being little more than a rectangular area defined by a painted border, with four chevrons at the corners pointing toward the center. There was no garage or roof over the space; VT cars here were evidently expected to drop directly into their parking stalls from above. A light at each corner would help to define and illuminate the space at night, while a recessed strobe at the center would begin flashing whenever an aircar approached for landing, to help guide it into position.

The slot was rather larger than a parking stall for a ground car would be, Vivian saw, probably because flying cars were subject to buffeting by wind gusts as they land, and thus required a larger open area to land in case they "missed the mark" a bit. Or maybe it was just because VT cars tended to be bigger than ground-only vehicles. Whatever the reason, the stall was a good dozen or more feet wide and even longer front to back.

"It's perfect," said Vivian to herself, sounding pleased. Then she yelped as the rain suddenly began in earnest, and quickly ran for the stairway door.

Raven closed her eyes, concentrating lightly, just so. An unseen knife cut through the hard, black granite of her piece, outlining yet another hair. Raven opened her eyes again, and rotated the levitating, panther-shaped block of black stone, to take a closer look at her last cut. Shallow, slightly curved, and following the musculature of the feline. Perfect. She'd been working on that piece for several days and she was finally starting to see the end product take shape in front of her. It would be a good one, even if it'd been a while since she'd done a furry mammal.

The converted bedroom barely looked like a sculpting studio. Raven had set a table in the middle for her current piece, and practical, sturdy shelving along the walls to hold her materials. An equally cheap carpet covered the floor, gathering the dust and crumples from her work. There was a sculpting tool set gracing one of the shelves, beautiful, neatly organized, brand-new, and never used. Raven had sworn to herself to learn to use them, but never had.

She didn't know why. Perhaps because she'd been sculpting without tools for all her life, and it was the art form she was most familiar with. Perhaps because that made it a connection to her life in Clark Street, hard times those, but simpler too, with the "us" and the "them" clearly defined to the glasses of gangs and turf, rather than the twisted lens of corporate affiliations, temporary alliances, and strategic planning. Maybe because it was the best practice of precision telekinesis she knew of, the practice that had led to her having a degree of control almost unequalled in that little community. Perhaps it was because the sculpting, solitary, quiet, her and one stone, had become a meditative experience for her, a way for her to refill her spiritual energies.

Or maybe because she liked it this way, and didn't see a reason to change.

Whatever the reason, Raven had long grown not to question what went right. She ran a finger an inch above the stone, along the groove she'd just cut but a tad lower; another similar groove appeared, starting to give the appearance of fur to her black panther.

The muffled sound of the front door being thrown open and her name being called gave her enough warning to dampen her power before she could be startled into making an unfortunate mistake, as a somewhat damp-looking Vivian burst abruptly into the room.

"Hey Raven, guess what!" she cried excitedly. "We don't—oh!" She stopped abruptly, looking abashed, as she realized she was interrupting Raven's sculpting. "Uh...sorry."

Raven smiled and gave her work one last once-over, to remind herself where she left off, then gently laid her unfinished work on her sculpting table. "It's all right. Please knock first next time, though." She turned to her adoptive sister, her apron covered in dark dust, some of it muddling her face in spots. "What is it?"

"You know how we've been fussing over where to put a teleport landing pad in this place?" she continued at a more sedate pace. "Well, it turns out that's not a problem at all. We don't need a landing pad in here."

"Oh no? What do you have in mind?"

"It turns out that there are some parking spaces for VT cars up on the roof, and one of them is assigned to us. I was just up there checking it out, and it's a perfect landing pad for a long-range teleport," she said triumphantly. "A big, flat area we know will always be open, with nothing fragile nearby. The most we might do when we jump in is set off a few nearby car alarms. Then we just head down to our room on foot, or even do a second 'port from up there. The shockwave from a jump that short isn't going to do any real damage in here."

Raven's eyes lit up at the suggestion. "That's a great idea. How's the access from there to here? Can we go from there to here without freaking out the neighbors?" The older esper undid her work apron and tossed it onto the workbench. "C'mon, show me."

"Sure thing!" said Vivian, leading the way. "Unfortunately, the elevators only go up to the fifty-ninth floor, so we have to climb at least one flight of stairs to get up to the roof. But since we're only three floors down anyway, I think it's easier to just take the stairs the whole way. Seems kinda lazy not to, y'know? And no, we won't freak anyone out on the way, because we're supposed to be able to come and go from the roof. The door up there responds to any of the penthouse keycards."

"Convenient. So long as nobody notices we go up there and no aircar ever comes out, or we come out and nothing ever parks there. But really, who cares?" She grinned and swiped her access card to open the stairwell doors. "Lead on."

"True," said Vivian, starting up the stairs. "But we don't have to go up to the roof to leave; we can just 'port right out of the living room or wherever. And I doubt anyone seeing us coming down the stairs is going to pay us much attention. Although I suppose we might well freak someone out if they were already on the roof when we suddenly there appeared with a bang." She glanced back over her shoulder at Raven. "But like you said, who cares? If we're going to advertise as freelance esper weapons, then we've got to assume our talents aren't going to stay a secret from the other residents for long. And it's not like we're criminals or something. Miss Ferrari can't just kick us out for being espers...uh, can she?"

Raven shrugged. "I don't know. Even if she did, she might not try to just in case I had Shion's temper, that would be hell on the property values. But anyone they're renting those top penthouses too has to come with some baggage, and there's only so many people who can afford them so they probably don't want to kick out paying tenants who don't cause trouble."

", even if she finds out we're espers and hates it, she maybe can't and probably won't try to kick us out. Good enough for me. If you agree the space is as good as I think it is, I say we go ahead and use it. I don't think you're planning on buying a VT car, so it's gonna go to waste otherwise."

"I dunno," Raven said. "I was thinking of a cool ground car. I kinda liked the Lucifer when I had it, but it'd be hellish to drive in here. VT or bike seems to be the options here. And I can't drive a VT anyway."

Vivian fumbled out her keycard as they arrived at the door to the roof. "I should warn you, it was raining pretty hard when I left. You can see the space from the doorway, but if you want a close look you're gonna have to get wet. You're choice; I'm already wet, so I don't mind." She swiped her card, then flung the door open and pointed. "Ta-da."

"Well I'm in my work clothes anyhow." Raven strolled outside under the hard rain, unconcerned; life in the Zero Zone made you tolerant to the elements. She walked onto the parking space, looking around, then up. "It's a good spot, but it's kind of exposed," Raven noted, "and I sure hope nobody steals our spot 'because we aren't using it'. But it's a great landing pad."

"It would have been even nicer if they'd had a central landing area with covered parking next to it, but I'll take what I can get," said Vivian, who'd followed her out. "Of course, if you're really worried about someone parking in our space, I guess you could always just appear fifty or a hundred feet above the building instead, and then fly on down."

Raven considered thoughtfully. "I'd rather not; the whole point of the landing pad is for it to be relatively discreet. I'll just put a sign here indicating this to be a no-parking zone, and actually, fence it out. That'll keep the cars out."

Vivian chuckled. "Or we could just paint a giant skull and crossbones across the space. That should frighten off anyone trying to land here."

"You think? That just screams 'goth party spot'," Raven said with a grin.

"Well, at least we finally got our landing pad sorted out," said Vivian. "I'll be a lot more comfortable taking on the sort of jobs you do if I know where I'm gonna bug out to if the shit hits the fan, y'know?"

"That's good, although I prefer to have a spot a bit closer to the action," Raven said, walking across the pad to get a closer look. "It takes less energy and less concentration than to try to do Tokyo-Hong Kong at a moments' notice."

"Really?" asked Vivian, sounding uncertain. "I guess that makes sense, seems like the action could happen almost anywhere, couldn't it? Do you scout out a nearby safe spot to bug out to before you start a mission somewhere, or what?"

"That's usually what I do." Raven gestured with one hand. "Of course, there's usually an extraction point and a secure location set up for the more offensive weapons, so that's two good spots to retreat to. They're also good to recover, reload, and get the security forces to go 'where did she go' and freak out until I come back from another angle. Then there's the defensive missions, where's there's usually at least a couple strongpoints or safehouses you can retreat to. The long teleport is a bit of a last-resort, though it's darned useful if you don't really trust your employer."

"Oh," said Vivian softly. "I didn't realize it was all so...complex. I guess I have a lot to learn. Could you maybe teach me the basics? I don't even know how to go about advertising myself as an esper-for-hire."

"Of course I'll help. I was planning to. If you want to advertise, you need some contacts to get you started, fixers who'll get you in touch with potential employers. Once we get settled down here, I was planning to introduce you to my friend, the mysterious and inscrutable Ling Ling Li, fixer extraordinaire. And Shion's sister-in-law."

"Oh, thanks Raven. I really appreciate all the help you're giving me to get on my feet," Vivian said with a grin. "Ling Ling Li....I think you mentioned her before. Isn't she the one in Mega-Tokyo? I didn't know she had a relation to Shion, though. I can't wait to meet her."

"Ling Ling is the fixer in Hong Kong. You're thinking of Nabiki Tendo, who's quite famous, but someone I've had to have a chat with over the supposed security of her 'safe houses'. So I take her reputation of reliability with a grain of salt. Ling Ling is more of a friend. I was at her wedding after all."

Vivian nodded. "So, I gather that's how most of our business arrangements are handled? Through intermediaries, like fixers? I guess that makes sense now that I think about it. Given the nature of the work, I can see why many of our clients might want to be discrete about having hired us."

"That's mostly how they do it, yes. Then there's the matter of discretion on our end. I don't want to be harassed by corporate recruiters, which is why I handle work through someone like Ling Ling, whose job it is to deal with these people."

Vivian nodded firmly. "Well, I definitely don't want to be bothered by corporate recruiters! If that's one way to avoid that, then I'm all for it." She paused, glancing up at the sky for a moment. "Say, is there any reason we're still standing out her in the rain discussing this, when we could be back inside?"

A fireplace is one of those things you think you could easily live without until you have one. Raven had lived all her life in a building heated by various means, including wood fire in a makeshift chimney. She had thought regular central heating to be an immense luxury when first exposed to it. But now warming up in her wet clothes in front of the joyful fire of the fireplace, she had to admit there was a great deal of value to the traditional things... even if they were tinged with technology, as the gas fireplace was.

Raven smiled broadly, kicked off her shoes, and stretched her long legs in front of the fireplace, extending her feet towards the fire, and wriggled her toes to throw off some of the water. "Hmm... nice."

"It sure is," said Vivian, who pose was almost the exact opposite as she sat cross-legged near the fireplace, hands extended toward the warmth. "So, where were we? Oh yeah, we were talking about fixers and the like." She paused, finding herself at a bit of a loss. ", what about the financial arrangements? Does Ling Ling get paid a fixed rate, like a finders fee, or does she take a percentage of our payment in return for setting the deal up?"

Raven shrugged. "It depends on how the deal is set up. Sometimes the fixer will present a deal with pre-established money, in which case the cut is already paid. Other times they get a cut from a negotiated price from a referral. It's always a percentage, though, as that's where the money is. But the employer pays that, as he's the one hiring the fixer to make use of their contacts." She grinned. "We've got one of the world's most valuable phone numbers, so think on that before you give it away to your next boyfriend," she kidded.

"My next boyfriend?" Vivian shot Raven a mock glare. "I can't have a next until there's been a first, y'know."

"Technically your first boyfriend would also be your next boyfriend," Raven pointed out playfully.

Vivian snorted. "Technically, maybe, but you're splitting an awfully fine hair there." She paused, then smiled impishly. "Then again, I bet I could use that technicality to my advantage. I mean, how many people want to hire an unknown and untried esper? But if we tell them they'll be my next client..."

"See? You're already working out this marketing thing. You'll do great, I'm sure," Raven said with a chuckle. "Before long you'll be working the phones and juggling fixers with the best of 'em."

"That may be," said Vivian with a laugh, "But lets not get ahead of ourselves here. I don't even have a first job yet. In fact, I won't even have a fixer to arrange a first job through until you call Ling Ling. And who knows—if she's as experienced and professional as you say, will she even want to work with a complete unknown like me?"

"That's where I come in," Raven said. "I do the introductions, I let her know I trust you. She'll start you on some easy work to begin with, where you'll be complete overkill, to test you out. Then you can progressively ramp up. You'll be pulling top dollar in no time."

"I appreciate your putting in a good word for me with Ling Ling," replied Vivian. "But...'easy work'? Is there really such a thing for an esper weapon?"

"Yeah, though you shouldn't expect it to pay a lot," Raven said. "And none of it will be entirely risk-free." She considered for a moment. "I know! What if we offered our services as a tag-team for a job or two? You'd get some money and get to establish your reputation with a little help along the way, and I can show you the ropes."

Vivian's eyes lit up immediately. "Hey yeah! I like that!" she said excitedly. "I'd get some hands-on experience, but with the security of having you there to back me up. And I'm sure Ling Ling would be more comfortable knowing I had a sitter on my first couple of outings."

"I think that would work well. We'd call you my understudy or something like that, and get a nice straightforward job. It won't be top dollar, but it should be pretty nice."

Vivian nodded, looking quite pleased. "Yeah, I like that. Let's do it that way."

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