Part 2

By Mathieu Roy and Jeff Skagen

Early January, 2039

"Oh Vivian!" called out Raven as she flicked off the vidphone, blackness replacing the 'connection terminated' message. She rose from the chair at her desk and called again. "Vivian!" Her room was a cozy affair in cool blue and green, with one wall lined with shelves covered in raven sculpture and old books with pictures that might have looked futuristic in the 1990s and now merely looked quaint. A large puzzle of a raven in moonlight, framed in an elaborately-tooled metal frame, held place of honor along the longest wall, surrounded by several other paintings, with not a theme among them. Her bed was large, soft, covered in a hand-stitched blanket, and decorated with a pile of teddy bears and other plush toys.

"Yeah, what's up?" asked Vivian as she appeared in the doorway.

Raven smiled and waved her inside. "Ling Ling just called. She found us some work."

"Really? Excellent!" The young esper's face lit up with excitement. "What kind of job is it?"

"It's bodyguard work." Raven grinned. "Officially, that is. I figure it's more of a 'show of force' thing. The guy isn't really under major threat, but he's handling a delicate transaction and just wants to impress anyone who might be getting ideas."

"Impress people?" asked Vivian dubiously. "I don't know. Do you really think the client will be happy with me? You fit the bill, especially to anyone who knows who you are. But I can't imagine who Ling Ling thinks I'm going to impress."

"One esper would scare them already, but two?" Raven laughed. "The guy is getting a great deal, people who were going to wonder how he could afford to hire one will freak out when they find out he got two. It'll impress all right."

"Well, I suppose," said Vivian, sounding doubtful. "If its obvious that I'm an esper. Then again...maybe it is obvious. Why else would a rich and powerful executive have a scrawny young girl acting as his bodyguard?"

"Don't worry. The word about who we are will be carefully 'leaked', since the whole point is deterrence. It could allow attackers to prepare but I'm told it's very unlikely our client-to-be's enemies would be willing to spend enough to mount a credible attack on us just to get at our customer. Everyone who needs to know will know." She smiled. "Unless you'd rather be the ace in the hole?"

"Uh...I don't think so," she answered after a few moments. "If I'm ever going to develop a reputation, then I have to get out there and be seen, don't I?"

"You're probably right. Nothing will probably happen and you won't get much buzz that way, though the people who really need to know will." She smiled. "So? How'd you feel about it?"

Vivian considered a moment, and then nodded. "I like it. Low risk is good, even if it means less publicity. Besides, like you say, it's the right kind of publicity to the right people. In fact, I probably should only take lower-profile jobs for a while. A reputation as 'little miss blows-stuff-up' I don't need, especially now." She fidgeted uncomfortably, then moved to sit down on the end of Raven's bed. "I should tell you, after our meeting at Azumi's the other day, Shion and I met later that night in the bath and got to talking. She suggested that I should become the poster child, as it were, for our cause. She said I come off as young and innocent. I...I told her I'd do it. I hope that's okay with you. I probably should have talked to you about it first."

"Oh? No, don't worry about it. That's fine. It's your choice, and besides I'm glad you're willing to help out like that." She smiled. "You've got that girl-next-door vibe that's going to make everyone love you."

"Thanks," Vivian returned the smile shyly. "Girl-next-door, huh? Shion wanted me because she says I'm not threatening. She wants someone who will arouse sympathy rather than fear." She glanced out the widow, gazing into the distance. "That's why I'm thinking I should avoid high-risk and high-profile jobs for awhile. It won't do our movement any good for me to manage myself a reputation to the contrary...unlikely as that might be."

"Well this is nice and safe", Raven said. "You're protecting someone, being the nice big sister watching over. That's a pretty sympathetic role, I think."

"Yah it is, which is why this job is just perfect for me right now. It lets me do some esper work, while maintaining the image I need to project." She flopped back on Raven's bed. " 'bout filling me in on all the gory details. You know, the who-where-when stuff?"

The glass-walled building couldn't be called a skyscraper, with its dozen stories or so, but nestled in the commercial district as it was, it made the office building loom taller than it really was. Out on the front, the logo for Thalius Studios, a male profile over a stylized old-style gaming joystick, glowed in red and blue on the main display screen, prominently announced the main resident here alongside temperature and time of day. This was not the owner of the building; a large real-estate consortium owned and managed the place, and they leased this out to a variety of customers, with whoever having the most floor space getting their logo on the front. Thalius, a fast-growing entertainment software company, had just one month ago earned this

This was, incidentally, much to the annoyance of the local director of Yakahima Corporation, who had a divisional office here; unfortunately he could not get anyone meaningful in Yakahima to care about his precious facade, and his calls of additional hires to "preserve the image of the corporation"—by filling the office building with a bunch of gophers of undefined duties so as to occupy more space—had gone unheeded.

Incredible, the useless information that preliminary research could dig up. Raven had a small smile as she came out of the black car she'd rented along with its driver; she liked these ironic stories on human stupidity, particularly when they concerned the senseless pride of moderately successful people. She cut an intimidating, if gorgeous figure in her black coat and wraparound mirrorshades.

Following closely behind her, Vivian did not cut quite so gorgeous or intimidating a figure as her big sister, despite being dressed in similar fashion. This was partially because the petite and somewhat pixyish-looking younger girl simply couldn't match Raven's super-model good looks or statuesque build, but mostly because her slightly tentative gate and frequent glances about did not project the same air of confidence as her partner's more resolute stride.

Raven led Vivian inside the building. The security guard at the lobby desk followed them with his eyes, but made no move to stop them; he was more for show than anything and was all too happy to look at attractive women passing in. Raven tapped the code she'd been given on the express elevator pad; she was answered almost immediately with a chime and the doors opening. She stepped inside.

Vivian followed her in, glancing idly about. She had yet to see any sign of security for their new employer, but mirrored glass and shiny metal of the elevator interior could hide any number of cameras or even discrete retinal flashers. In the corporate world, she knew, visible security was sometimes expected, even required, but at other times could be seen as a grave insult. She found herself wondering just how their job here might be affected that dynamic.

The elevator lifted them up nine stories before stopping, doors opening with another pleasant chime. Raven and Vivian stepped out to find themselves in a finely appointed secretarial office, dominated by a pair of couches off one side. On the left, the outside window gave a reasonable view of the strip malls and other stores of the area; on the other, another one-way window put the cubicle farm of the studio on display.

Behind the desk was a blonde, pneumatic secretary, with a carefully chiseled face and toned body that rivaled Raven's. She looked up as they entered, her slightly vacant eyes screaming synthetic, and not a particularly brainy one at that. "Yes, may I help you?" she asked politely.

"We're here to see Mr. Vandermeer", announced Raven.

"Please sit down and make yourselves comfortable, I'll announce you." She stood up and headed towards the wooden double-doors in the back of the room. She cracked them open and slid inside.

Vivian quickly leaned her head closer to Raven's. "So, where's your money?" she asked, voice low. "Are we special enough that he'll see us right away, or will he keep us waiting to make sure we know how important he is?"

Raven shrugged. "Possibly. Or he could be genuinely busy, or in a meeting. I've found the best way to deal with someone who might be playing that kind of mind-game with you is to ignore them. That way he never gains an advantage and if he is sincere, you don't come across as rude."

Vivian nodded resignedly. "Right. Sorry. I'll try to remember to not just assume the worst about everything he says or does."

Raven smiled. "Prepare for it, but don't assume it. In this case, it does no good to worry."

The beautiful synthetic came back to see the pair. "Mr. Vandermeer will see you now."

At these words Raven got up to follow, with Vivian tagging along closely behind her.

They entered the room and, at the secretary's gesture, seated themselves in a pair of exceedingly comfortable leather chairs. Vivian glanced about, surprised to find that Mr. Vandermeer's office, although large and well-furnished, was hardly the edifice to self-importance that she'd half-expected to find. She'd imagined a corporate executives office would be an ostentatious place, a testament to excess with the posh feel of a luxury spa, or perhaps an old-world gentleman's club. This place, however, actually felt like a working environment, like somewhere that business was done.

It was still fairly well-appointed, of course. Raven and Vivian were comfortably seated in high-backed, black leather chairs with dark wooden trim. The matching desk was a sizable corner affair, and though the entire surface seemed to be carved of the same wood grain as the sides, a careful look revealed it was, in fact, a vidscreen no doubt hooked to the advanced computer sitting on the desk. Likewise, while the burgundy walls were decorated with several tasteful paintings (with a notable preference towards the abstract), some of them were almost certainly vidscreens. The office was not huge, but there was enough room to feature a set of couches around a table in one corner. There was a door to one side besides the one the two kinetics had come through.

Sitting behind the desk was the man the two women presumed was soon to be their new employer. He was a middle-aged man, perhaps in his mid-fifties, stocky though not fat, with pale blue eyes and a full head of once-dark hair that had been allowed to go mostly gray. His slightly angular features were not precisely handsome, but lent him a suitably dignified appearance. Behind his right ear a datajack could be glimpsed, although his body sported no other overt cyberware.

"Good afternoon, Ms. Clark, Ms. Lau. It's a pleasure to meet you both. I am, of course, Martin Vandermeer."

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