Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/campfires/item_id/1336313-Wind-Song
by Arwen9
Rated: 13+ · Campfire Creative · Fiction · Sci-fi · #1336313
Cyber-punk Science Fiction
Hi y'all. *Smile*

Here are the most basic rules as you got to have a few of them.

1. No magic
2. Keep this PG-13 and down please. For profanity, I PREFER made-up kind. Like "starry idiot" or "bloody child" etc.
3. No killing or falling in love with a character without permission.
4. 4 days max for an addition, unless you email me before I skip you and have a good reason not to.

Setting: The year is 2150. Technology and humanity are intertwined. The rest is up to you. *Smile*



Name: Jenner: 20
Appearance: black hair, shoulder length. Green eyes that seem too big for his face, which combined with his shorter stature makes him seem almost naive. A tattoo of a dragon on his right forearm hides the track marks of frequent drug use for his handicap
Personality: Does have a temper, but often seems more soft-spoken than he really is. Proud of what he's made of himself. Stubborn to a fault. Not one who is easy to convince.
(b}History (if any): One of the youngest employess of LFT, he has worked for them for about 6 years. Ran into Mirth during the mutual training both were going through in preparation for joing the LFT team.
Special Skills: With the handicap of global aphasia, Jenner is completely mute. However, this has given him the ability to withstand raw data much better, as well as seeing and understanding technical code.


Name: Mirth: 24
Appearance:Black shoulder length hair with chrome-blue streaks. Her hair's slightly wavy and is usually worn up in a bun, but she
lets it down during those rare times when she's not on the clock. She looks
like she's of mixed blood; perhaps of Arabic descent. Her eyes are dark blue,
and she has a dancer's body, strong and agile. No tatoos or markings, but her
nails are long and the same shade as her nails, only the polish appears to move
like liquid.

(this one is short only bc I'm not sure of the style yet. Once I see some of yours, I'll be able to make this longer. :) and I'll delete this note out.)

Jenner stumbled across the room, scraping his shin against a side table. He ignored the twinge of pain in his rush to connect. Fumbling with the neural relay, he pulled a chair closer to him, listening for the soft click of a successful link.

A pale green light blinked in the darkness. The wireless upload fluttered in the back of his head. Smiling, Jenner relaxed into his seat and tapped the REM inducer.


Jadedragon17: I’m here. The Eastern net is down and it slowed the connection. Work in an hour so chat fast.

What’s up over there? I heard the Euro net was flickering. Has it been affecting you?
Mirth hadn’t really noticed the flickers and tremors of the Euronet, but then again, she didn’t notice a whole lot of anything these days.

AnomalyDrift: Yeah, been going on
all week. Swarm hit Amsterdam
Monday. Thirdnet proxies all down
and half of the mains. I can’t even
tab to my dump caches in France;
those sons of spuds are going over
everything with a microglass. A
golden microglass; they’re
charging our accounts 50 creds for it,
plus 10 for those of us who ain’t
European citizens. “Counterterrorist
Measures” they call it. Seriously, don’t
come to Europe right now unless you
absolutely got to. They’re flying straight
on toward cyberwar. I’ll be back in the
Nations tomorrow.

Jadedragon17: Will you be able to get
it by then?

AnomalyDrift: I’ll have to, won’t I?
Real question is, will you be ready
when I bring it Nationside?

Jadedragon17: You know it.

Halfway through the sentence his voice was suddenly hollow and an almost inaudible ringing seemed to expand in Mirth’s mind.

Jadedragon17: Detected.

AnomalyDrift: Yeah, I feel it. Bye.

Mirth tabbed out of the Amsterdam Thirdnet proxy she was “borrowing” and for a moment hovered, bodiless, above a vast ocean of iridescent, jewel-bright water drops. Then she spotted a likely target in the eastern sea and dove headlong into the Japanese Thirdnet. A droplet drifted before her eyes and she swallowed it in a rush of static and dopaphetamine.

The proxy’s Face materialized in her mind’s eye: The absinthe green spider-dragon logo of a medical clinic in Tokyo, dealing in low-quality, chimera-like jobs, not the fancy genetic work of Tier Two or Three clinics. She wouldn’t have been able to access one of those; too well protected. But this…

The bright characters of the Japanese ISP flared once before her eyes and then dissolved in a shower of sparks along with the clinic’s trademark as she took over, collapsing the proxy’s Face and peering into the raw code beneath.

The hijacked proxy filled her mind and seemed to expand around her incorporeal body as a soft cyan and black conch fractal, data exchanges spiraling down from a pinpoint of light and fanning out about her in a glossy wash of code. She hated it. Not even the hum and thrill of the drugs along her spine could entirely numb the sensory shock; it was much easier to deal with a Face than with the disorientation caused by looking at pure data. But she’d been trained for worse, she was paid well, and the drugs her employers supplied her with helped, even if they didn’t always help enough.

Like a spider she crawled along the webs of light, gathering a few strands to her and spinning out a connection to India.

Coruthalis: I expected you Thursday,

AnomalyDrift: Told you not to use my
name on here.

Coruthalis: Today is Monday, not
Wednesday, Mirth.

AnomalyDrift: Yeah, well, timetable’s
been pushed up. I need this done this

Coruthalis: Simply impossible.

AnomalyDrift: My money’s green,
Corey. Greener, if you do this earlier.
So MAKE it possible.

Coruthalis: I thought we weren’t
using names.

AnomalyDrift: Your choice. I got
your last name too, you son-of-a-spud.

Coruthalis: No need for threats, my dear.

AnomalyDrift: Then do what you’re being
paid to do.

Coruthalis: This evening.

AnomalyDrift: This afternoon.

Coruthalis: This EVENING. You’ll
face massive rejection if I do this any
sooner, and that won’t please your
employers at all. Been taking the
immunosuppressants I gave you, at least?

AnomalyDrift: Fine man. And yeah.
Every day.

Coruthalis: There’s that, at least. Still,
wanted you on them for a week. Not five
days. It may still fail, you know.

AnomalyDrift: Best not fail. You know
what that’ll mean.

Coruthalis: I know. Might want to see
about finding a new employer, Mirth; not
a whole lot of job security if they’re willing
to risk your life but will kill over a lost

AnomalyDrift: What, YOU want to employ
me, now, CORUTHALIS?

Coruthalis: No. I can’t afford you,

AnomalyDrift: That’s right.

Coruthalis: I’ll see you at nine p.m. You’ll
be staying overnight.

AnomalyDrift: I gotta fly out noon

Coruthalis: Heh. We’ll see.

Mirth tabbed and tumbled out of the chat, up out of the conch and up into sky high above the ocean. The netscape dissolved and she found herself staring at reality: the drowsy circling of a ceiling fan in a too-cold hotel room in Old London. A crimson shaft of poisoned light cut across her eyes through the thick curtains of the window and the queen-size bed beneath her back felt far stiffer than it really was. She sat up slowly, sliding the jack carefully out of the port at the nab of her neck and setting it aside on the mahogany nightstand. Come tonight, if she survived, she wouldn’t ever need to jack in again; the new organic-router Corey had stolen and she would smuggle in her own brain out of Europe to her employers would ensure her instant wireless access to the Thirdnet from anywhere on the planet… not to mention give her employers a chance to study and duplicate the not-yet-released technology.

That was assuming her body had taken sufficiently to the drugs Corey had given her five days ago and wouldn’t outright reject the implant.

The glare of the clock read 12:27p.m.

If she weren’t already hopped up on dopaphetamine and weren’t going to be having surgery in less than six hours, she go out and grab something to eat, since she hadn’t had lunch---or breakfast, for that matter---yet. But she wasn’t hungry and knew she shouldn’t eat, so she simply pulled a jacket on over her crimson tank-top and exchanged her sleep pants and bare feet for slacks and heels.

“Ma’am, going out?” her bodyguard asked as she emerged from her room into the small reception room beyond. She didn’t really need one; she was perfectly capable of defending herself, but it was a company policy. She didn’t even bother trying to convince him to stay behind.

“Yes, Simon. In fact, we’re checking out. Gather my luggage and call the car. We’re going to India a little early.”

“Yes ma’am,” Simon said with a curt nod, his disapproval written in every line of his face. He pushed past her into her room. She wandered into their shared restroom and forced her unruly black hair into a low bun, dabbing on a little makeup when she realized time permitted.

Simon appeared at the door as she was brushing mascara over her eyelashes. “Ready when you are, ma’am.”

“Very well.” She replaced the cap on the product and followed him out the door and into the lobby, heels clicking smartly on the tile.
Jenner waited until Anomaly’s SigLink faded. To be certain, he scanned for a swarm. Two minor bugs appeared, glossy onyx shells marked with intersecting triangles. That would be the local proxy he was using to leapfrog his SigLink from Brazil’s ThirdNet to an unguarded Face in Canada. He had quite a few other jumps in between but they were minor connections, just enough to foil any would-be tracer. He waved his hand and the bugs shattered into iridescent shards.

JadeDragon17: I told you to wait until Anomaly was gone. Why did you tab in like that?

Loki-: Are we clear?
JadeDragon17: Of course! Do you think I wouldn’t check?

Loki-: You had better watch it.

Jadedragon17: Just materialize.

Loki: You know I don’t.

It was worth a try. Jadedragon17: Give me a moment.

Jenner tabbed out of the proxy. He floated in an ebony sky. The stars were massive, the proportions inaccurate because of his careful tampering. His SigLink at the moment resided in three different proxies. Each star gleamed in different colors along the spectrum, a visual marker for the different ThirdNets and Faces available to him. With his disability, words and letters were more difficult for him to comprehend than the colors.

He tabbed into Beijing, (a silver-blue sun) specifically the Beijing Library, and then combined shreds of data from their and his own, more secure, Face with several lines of code. His SigLink reformed from a tangible sensation to a 3D image. The Oriental dragon, but with bat-like wings folded neatly. The wings were his own addition.

Loki: That’s hardly original.

Jadedragon17: It’s my heritage.

Jenner smiled inwardly. He was lying through his teeth. As far as Loki knew, he originated in Beijing.

Loki: How soon can you deliver it?

Jadedragon17: Contact will be Nationside tomorrow. I’d like to meet them…

Loki: Yes, yes. The creds will be in your account by noon. Fly out tonight.

Jadedragon17: Any more ORDERS?

Loki chuckled, the sensation was of incense-laden oil clinging to his spine. Jenner grimaced.

Loki: Just be there and bring IT to the lab. Soon as we confirm, we’ll schedule the procedure. Understand?

Jadedragon17: Yes.

Loki: Good. And Jenner, don’t fail us.

Jenner’s image winked out in shock. I never shared my name.

Loki chuckled again, giving Jenner a sense of nausea this time, and then the SigLink disappeared. Frightened and uneasy, Jenner tabbed out into black sky again and then whipped out of the ThirdNet completely.

His eyes readjusted to the pre-dawn darkness. Already, oppressive heat choked the air and even the ancient humming window unit could do little to alleviate it. The mosquitoes would be next. He did not like this type of thing, but neither did most of the prosperous Nammers. (North Americans)

Reluctantly, Jenner tugged the jack out of its port. The scribbled notes pasted haphazardly around his desk faded into illegible scrawls as soon as he did. Dropped by a nurse in the run-down hospital he had been born in, he had developed global aphasia. The disability made him mute, and unable to read, except for when jacked in. He had been six when he received the DNS implant, and by seven, realized in the eyes of the “normal” world, he was a cyborg.

Without the ThirdNet, he would be an illiterate invalid. As it was, he rarely left his two room sanctuary. With a sigh, he pushed away from the console and crossed into the bedroom. Tracing Loki would have to wait. He needed to rest, and be wide awake for Anomaly.
The car was waiting for Mirth and her company-watchdog as they passed through the sliding glass doors of the Moaning Lisa’s lobby. Two call-girls in their satin teddies were circling the Mercedes Upster, not quite touching the liquid mercury flow of its holographic exterior but clearly admiring it. They scattered as the company hirelings strode out into the russet haze of the early-afternoon sunlight and Mirth felt the cool press of air escaping through the sliding glass doors behind her as the young girls retreated, giggling, back into the upscale hotel’s lobby.

Mirth made a point of not looking at them as they left; make eye contact with those types, and it’d take you an hour to convince them you didn’t want their services. Even the looming, glowering threat of Simon wouldn’t deter them; those kinds of girls were soft and feminine on the exterior but they always knew how to take care of themselves; they had to in order not to be taken advantage of in the course of their career. Came with the industry; no self-defense certification, no prostitution licensing.

The Mercedes Upster unfolded as the two approached and closed seamlessly once again after Mirth and Simon had slipped into their seats facing one another, the former digging into her purse for a plug and the latter arranging their luggage in the spacious leather interior.

“Where we going?” the car intoned.

“Old London Orbiport,” Mirth said, pulling the little metallic plug free of her cred card and an assortment of candy-colored wires. With a soft hum, the car rose into the air and started down the street.

As the Upster drove them along the GPS-guided route, it’s hybrid hydro-solar powered engine singing gently, Mirth plugged-in to her personal Face, updating her itinerary for the next five days. Meeting Corey in Goa tomorrow to discuss payment was no longer an option; Left Field Technologies could afford whatever price he demanded, however, provided it wasn’t in human life... or not in too much human life, anyway. Her meeting with Robin Clough over dinner Wednesday night would have to be rescheduled for sometime next week, assuming the company was comfortable sending her back to Old London so soon after the snatch. Perhaps it would be better anyway if Left Field Technologies sent someone else in her stead; Mr. Clough, trillionaire-extraordinaire founder of Greathouse Robotics, genuinely hated women despite the fact that most of his robots were designed to look undeniably, almost-pornographically female. Thursday night had originally been the date of her procedure, and then Friday she was going to fly back to the Nations. Saturday and Sunday were going to be full rest days during which she would have had time to recover while Jenner studied the Orgroute’s development into a fully-functional system.

That meant, assuming she allowed herself the two full days of rest after the procedure tonight and flight home tomorrow---and that depended entirely on how she felt and how much work she had to complete once she contacted her boss---she would still have four days with nothing to do. And that idea was absolutely alien to her; Mirth was more than a workaholic. She’d started off with LFT ten years ago at the age of 14 and had never worked fewer than six days since. The first two years of training were brutal; the company put extraordinary time and money into seeing that their employees were technologically and martially competent and expected tireless devotion in its young employees. And those who showed talent... well, LFT had thousands of uses for people like Mirth and Jenner, and their time was rarely, if ever, their own.

Not that Mirth didn’t enjoy the perks. Although the car she and Simon now rode in was technically the property of LFT and could, at any time, be subject to surveillance and even remote control, it was still hers to drive for the entirety of her employment. She'd chosen it herself even and had had it custom-designed to her taste. In the course of her duties she had the opportunity to visit interesting places and rub shoulders with important people and she was paid well enough to afford a nice New York flat. Her time was rarely her own, yes, but her time was filled with excitement and luxury, and she liked that.

She liked it a lot... even if it did take three or four hits of dopamphetamine a day to take the edge off the stress enough for her to relax and enjoy the luxury.

But still, sometimes in her sleep, she could see the ghosts of the people she’s killed and at other times it felt as though the specter of her own death was flitting somewhere just behind her, waiting to catch her off guard.

She blinked as the car gently lowered toward the ground and the A.I. announced, “We’re here.” She saved the changes to her itinerary and two messages she’d composed, and then pulled the plug out of her port. She’d have to find an internet connection somewhere here at the Orbiport before her shuttle departed for Goa, India; Mr. Clough would receive his message in pure text so as not to be offended by a feminine face or voice. Sebastian Lowery, Left Field Tech’s chief financial officer, would receive her materialization itself when she updated him on the status of the project and requested further instructions.

“Shall we?” Simon demanded more than asked as he lifted her bags and stepped outside the car into the muted crimson sunlight.

Mirth nodded slowly. “We shall.”
Jenner awakened three hours later, and went to work. Jacking in, he updated LFT on the “progress” in his assigned project. Hacking into Mr. Clough’s Face and digging up dirt on the trillionaire had been easy. Informing LFT that he needed another week went just as smoothly.

Next, he tabbed into Beijing’s Morgue, added a name to his ID, and voila—Jen Nyguyen was born. Now it was time for more delicate work. Of course, both Beijing and Brazil’s Orbiport had stronger security than the morgue. Jenner dropped his materialization for this project.

This was true freedom. His was an essence floating in the abyss of circuits and global networks. He felt along their respective firewalls for an opening, a miniscule crack. It was all he needed.

His skills as a hacker had grown organically. Hours of unused time became hours of playing and exploring the many programs and designs of the ThirdNet. He had worked his way into many organizations before Left Field Technologies had discovered his tampering. Rather than prosecuting him, they hired him. A dream job.

Unfortunately, most of his paychecks went toward either paying off the debts his family owed, or for the various prescription and pleasure drugs he took for his disability. Three times, he applied for the medical insurance LFT offered, and three times, he was rejected. The last time, the company physician had been very blunt in hi reasoning.

“Your mind has compensated for the lack in that area. You see flaws quicker, have a high tolerance for the raw data flow, and comprehend the jumbled code with ease. LFT needs your specialized abilities. End of discussion.”

Jenner frowned at the memory. He needed to focus. His “employers” had promised him exactly what he wanted, if only he did his job well. Jenner had every intention of doing just that. Mirth getting involved was rough, but it was worth it. Anyone else would have double-checked LFT when he contacted her, but they had been friends during the training sessions.

The firewall felt like pitted stone beneath his fingers. In a few places, the stone became almost sand. These he stayed far away from. An early warning system; if he penetrated there, alarms would warn someone was probing into their firewall, and the whole system would shut down. Though it would not without sending a return attack of a swarm, probably two or three of those nasty little bugs.

Finally, Jenner found an opening and slid through. Pressure squeezed his chest as his incorporal form slithered through the tiny opening. A minor system, but in a few minutes, he had jumped from there to deep within the Face. As the raw data pressed around him, rising and undulating visually as a wave of sapphire sea, he searched for the right tab. He did not have lungs in this state, but the sensation of drowning still remained. Clenching his teeth, Jenner ignored it, diving deeper into the thick ooze, until the sapphire became a royal blue and then darkened to a sooty black. It had to be here somewhere.

A flicker of light blinking at the edge of his vision warned him of the consequences of his actions. When he pulled out of the ThirdNet, he was going to be in more than pain. In a normal, assigned project, there would be a variety of drugs planted here and there for his use. But this was on his time, independent of LFT.

Without the drugs to control his physiology, it could not adjust to this much data, this quickly. The light cautioned a five minute time limit. After that, it was very risky for him to remain in the ThirdNet.

Jenner sped up his hacking. Hopefully, he would have time tomorrow to smooth out what he was doing now. His new name appeared on the passenger list of an already complete flight from Beijing to Brazil. That covered any tracing Loki and his “employers” might do. Then, he booked a flight to and a room in Nationside, before tabbing out.

A headache pounded behind his temples. He was aware eating was out of the question too. The inhaled steroids didn’t cut it. Palming a heavy dose of heroine, he felt for and found the reinforced vein in his right arm. The injection stung, but in a few minutes, the pain eased to a more tolerable level.

Jenner packed quickly; he had very little to pack anyway. The Hovo may have been small, but the sturdy car still worked well enough to get him to the Orbiport with a few minutes to spare. He hoped for a quiet flight; several swarms had taken down the onboard controls, and forced them to go to manual. That was rough.

His day continued to run perfectly. For once, the flight was on time (Brazil’s shuttles were not know for punctuality) and the room was waiting. A second dose of heroine improved his mood even more. Jenner jacked in and left her a message.

<>I’m Nationside. Contact me as soon as you arrive, LFT sent change of plans. I’m at Hart’s Ease.

With that, Jenner tabbed out, (though he remained jacked in) and prepared himself for her return. Mirth was aware of his problem. Though she knew some of his hand motions, it was easier to prepare automatic answers to the questions he knew she would have. Using recall pad and stylus, he jotted down some of what she would probably ask, and his answers, marking them with different colored text so he could tell them apart. Finished, he tugged the plug free and set it on the nightstand beside his bed. Lacing his arms behind his head, he leaned back against the headboard. Soon, very soon, he wouldn’t be tied down to the ThirdNets and the recall pad.. With that warm thought humming in the back of his head, Jenner spent the rest of his time checking and double-checking his plans.

Even with the shuttle’s g-dampeners and the symptom-reducing drugs offered by the steward in the first class cabin, Simon was very pale as the shuttle was launched into orbit. Unlike Mirth, who was used to these flights now, he’d never been in a shuttle before. His pallor changed to a sickly olive as, briefly weightless, the shuttle was caught by the magnetic-directors of the Orbitech Space Station and flung in a sharp trajectory toward the Delhi Station where, a mere two hours later, it was caught, slowed, and sent in a gentle descent back through the atmosphere. When they finally landed at the Goa Air-Orbiport, Simon was a little clammy and had some difficulty walking… a difficulty quickly remedied with more drugs offered by the same professionally concerned steward.

The shuttle spilled its disoriented human payload into the streets of Goa.

“Time?” Mirth asked the Upster after they’d retrieved it from Car Claim.

“It is 3:03pm GST back in New London and 8:33pm IST here in Goa,” the silky voice intoned as its passengers slid across the smooth leather and settled into their seats.

Watching out her window as they drove to the dumpy little Panjim Hotel where the doctor, Corey, had set up his temporary surgery, Mirth stared, aghast, at the streets below them. Goa was a wretched hive of men, a festering melting pot of humanity. Rising CO2 levels had turned the city into one of the hottest places on earth, and yet, along with the rest of India, its population still kept rising astronomically. There simply was no room for cars to drive through Goa’s wide boulevards; people walked there shoulder to shoulder, and where people did not walk, it was not safe for cars to go. Fortunately, there were few ground cars in Goa; unfortunately, the skies were full of vehicles, so that it appeared those on foot below were proceeding faster than traffic through the district.

The spectacle was at once horrifying and mesmerizing, so that Mirth found her eyes locked upon the crowds. An interesting fad seemed to have swept over India that week; men and women alike were sporting black mesh, leather, and painted bruises artfully blossoming across their jawbones and eyes. Their abused darkness stood in sharp juxtaposition to last week’s candy-colored saris and massive, high-necked feathered collars.

And there, on a gold palanquin, rode a four-armed girl, the obvious result of Tier One---possibly even Tier Two---engineering and most likely the daughter of a wealthy Kshatriya family. Mirth couldn’t quite help staring; she’d seen Tier Ones before, and pretty often, but rarely Tier Ones with such dramatic changes.

“Oh, that kind of modification is fairly common here,” Corey told her fifteen minutes later as he led her up the dank stairs of the Panjim Hotel to his room after meeting them in the hotel parking lot. Simon followed behind with their luggage; they’d be staying in Corey’s small room that night. The two newcomers had already paid their fees---in cash---to the Portuguese-speaking man at the front desk, who had not even raised an eyebrow at their cashmere and silk work clothing. Such dress was not common here, but they weren’t the first company hirelings to seek a few nights of anonymity in Goa.

“You able to connect to the Thirdnet here?” Mirth asked, looking around dubiously as Corey keyed open his door. He was a large bald man with rough fingers and narrow gray eyes; thick bands of tattoos ran across his biceps and were barely visible beneath his sweat-stained tank top. A blinking green and black belt scrolled various news headlines about his muscular hips.

Placing two hands on the rotting wood, Corey manhandled the door open; Mirth heard something heavy dragging along the carpet on the other side. “Yes, it most certainly is possible to jack in here. There’s even air conditioning.” He smirked at them over his shoulder and made a lazy gesture for them to follow him inside. The “heavy something” turned out to be a respirator, its blue tube coiled neatly on top of its battery pack. “But I’ll have to unplug some equipment if you want to connect; Goa’s rich, but it’s having a bit of an energy crisis.”

The doctor had transformed the drab little hotel room into a fully functional---though utterly improvised---surgery. He’d procured a foldable massage table somewhere and covered it with surgical plastic. Two old-school monitors had been pulled up close to the table, connected to a palmtop with Mirth’s medical records already up. A variety of wires and electrodes spread across the table like strange vines from the array of ports on the left of the computer; Corey carefully gathered those into his hands, sorting them in some incomprehensible way, and draped them over an IV stand, then unplugged the palmtop and a glaring surgical lamp positioned above the table.

“You’ll want to see the goods, I presume.“ It was not a question.

Simon pressed the door shut. Mirth chuckled. “Certainly, if we’re going to purchase it from you.”

Corey nodded curtly. “Know what I went through to get this? Evan brought this stiff to my clinic in Geneva. Thing was stinking; covered in flies, stained with piss, like the poor soul’d been sleeping in his own filth before he died. Asked Evan what he thought he was doing, bringing a corpse to me; I don’t do autopsies and I’m not a mortician, I told him. But Evan said he’d been sent by LFT to rescue the guy from a Holtz Co. lab in Germany. Good money to be made off of what’s in the guy’s head, he said, and LFT’d be paying even better money if I delivered it to them. Said the man up and died on the journey, only we both know that wasn’t true. Couldn’t have witnesses, after all. So there he was, stinking up my operating room, starting to get squishy, and the next thing I know, I have my hands buried in his brains. Sick thing, rotten brains. But I got the OrgRoute. Stuff was completely gone---it dies a few days after you do---but the genes were still there. Stirred ‘em up in my own humble little lab, added a few modifications. Not bad engineering, if I do say so myself. Your Jenner should be able to do a scan and tell your employers what’s what. Just tell him to use TierScan plus I sent him, not that crappy MedCore programming he loves so much. I already uploaded the engineering files, and the program sees everything clear as glass.”

“Show me?” Mirth reminded him.

Corey’s mouth opened in a little O of remembrance. He retrieved a thermos-shaped container from behind one of the monitors. It opened with a hiss and a flood of pale blue light and water vapor. Carefully, the surgeon lifted the cap, the underside of which featured a short steel rod which had extended into the device. A small, sealed test tube was held fast in the clasp at the end of the rod. Within its glass confines was a tiny node of what appeared to be a cross between moss and ground beef. It was just slightly more than a half centimeter in length, width and height.

“Don’t look like much, does it?” Corey said, holding it out for Simon and Mirth to see. “But that little kernal’ll start growing almost as soon as its implanted, and it’ll end up around an inch long and half an inch wide. About as big as your jack. Then voila, you’ve got instant access to the Thirdnet, from anywhere on the planet, without cords, without being detected by any but the most advanced street scanners. It’ll look to folks like you’re one of those anti-tech religious nuts, at least until LFT releases the technology to its customer base. Then you’ll be a trendsetter. And I, of course, will be rich, assuming I’m not dead.”

He grinned widely, and even Simon managed to look satisfied, but Mirth felt a chill creep up her spine. The idea of this bit of alien flesh in her, growing in her brain like kind of tumor or parasite…

She shrugged it off. “Your Thirdnet?”

Patting the table, he nodded her over. “I’ll start the scans while you do whatever it is you have to do. Try to limit it to five minutes.” He handed her a thick cord connected to the Thirdnet router in the wall and pulled a palm-sized SomaSense scanner from the pocket of his cargo pants. “Jinning can be hard on the system. I’d prefer you experience no undue stress before the procedure.”

Mirth slid the jack in. “It’ll take 30 seconds,” she told him.

Robin Clough’s message, when it arose before her mind’s eye, was brief. “Typical. Next week, then. Call to arrange a date, and this time, keep it. –R.C.” It floated there before her, glaring white letters on the gently shifting blue and green waters of her Face.

Mr. Lowery’s response was longer, but no less displeased about the change of
plans. “I would have expected you to discuss this change with me first, Mirth,
but you know I trust your intuition.” His thin frown suggested he somewhat
resented his decision to trust. “Once you return Nationside, give my secretary
a call; I’ll have him schedule lunch after your technician delivers us his
report. We’ll talk then. As for the good doctor’s fees… yes, you may give him
whatever he demands. Use the company card. Goodbye and good luck!

“Done?” Corey asked, once Mirth had jacked out. He had his SomaSense up against her temple. She hadn’t even noticed its warm, soft vibration; jinning could be utterly consuming at times. “Arborcon jack, eh? Someone did nice work putting it in. Practically no scar tissue at all.”

“Arrogant bastard,” Mirth laughed. “Question is, can you get it out as cleanly as you put it in?”

He grabbed her chin in one rough hand. “Stop moving, you’re screwing up the reading. Here, lay down and I’ll get these sensors on you. And yes, of course I can. But it’ll cost you.”

Mirth lay down on her stomach and lay her forehead against the cushioned donut. “It always does. I’m authorized to give you up to 20mil creds.“ She carpet below her was very dirty, and looked as though Corey’d recently spilled something; straining her eyes to the left, she spotted the overturned coffee mug at the edge of her vision.

“25mil,” Corey said, gently repositioning her head and lifting her hair up and away from the jack. An elastic band secured it in a high ponytail.

Mirth shifted slightly to ease the pressure on her neck. “22.5mil…. Whoa, what’s that?” she asked, shivering convulsively as ice stabbed through her neck and head.

Corey chuckled; Mirth heard the metal-on-metal slide of something being pulled back out of the jack. “Just a local.” Numbness crept into her head and down her spine to her mid back. “Feel it yet?”

“Yeah,” she breathed. “Can’t feel my neck,” she said, feeling the numbness seeping into her lips. Even her eyelids felt heavy.

“Good,” Corey said gently, sounding somewhat distracted. She heard his fingernail flick briefly against glass. “That’s good. So’s 22.5mil. Now, I’m gonna give you something extra to keep you from moving. Don’t need you twitching or anything while I’ve got the lasers in your head. Simon, stop staring and go sit down. You can have the couch over there.” She felt a distant pressure against her jugular and heard the deep pulse of a sonic injection. “That’ll take about five minutes to take affect. Meanwhile, I’ll give you a little general anesthesia. You’ll hear that here in a moment”---another sonic pulse---“and once you’re under I’ll intubate you, get this IV in you, and set about removing that jack. The OrgRoute will go where it is now.”

Mirth heard a loud roar growing in her ears and her vision narrowed into a tunnel. “I think I’m starting to feel it…”


“Move your right fingers. Now your left toes.”

Not knowing precisely why she was doing this or who was talking, Mirth obeyed.

“Good, good,” the voice continued. “I’ve given you something for the pain, for when the local wears off. You may feel a little drowsy, or…”


Stiffness in her neck, condensing into a spike stabbing up into her head from the nab of her neck. She still lay facedown on the table, but sunlight filtered in through a window somewhere behind her and a blanket had been spread over her.

“Awake?” Corey’s voice asked.

She mumbled something sounding kind of like yes.

His strong, rough hands helped her sit up. She did so, slowly, feeling like her head weighed a hundred pounds. “Got you on something for the pain, plus a few IUs of your dopamphetamine to wake you up,” Corey said as he helped her off of the table. “Got stitches in your head and a heavy pad of gauze over the wound. Oh, and time-release xephifen for the shuttle ride too; have your escort order you a medical seat so you get personal g-dampeners and take the pain pills I gave him as soon as you land or you’ll regret it later. I wrote this all down for you, so don’t worry about remembering just yet.” He smirked. “Wrote it on paper,that is. Simon has it, too.”

As he led her out through the lobby toward the waiting car, where Simon was standing glancing at his watch, the man at the front desk looked askance at them as they passed.

“Drunk,” the doctor explained, making a motion with his free hand as though tilting a bottle.

The Indian man said something in Portuguese and then Mirth and Simon were out the door, striding through the late morning sunlight for a moment before climbing with relief into the shade of the car. Corey waved at them from the street as they left, and Mirth dozed all the way to the Goa Air-Oribiport.
Jenner disliked the bustle of Nationside intensely. The busy Capital Orbiport didn't help matters. Too many people shoving and pushing around him, completely ignorant of his presence most of the time. If they did notice him, they expected him to make small talk.

He dodged a fast-moving luggage carrier, the mildly human voice in the robotic throat warning him a moment before it swept past. A group of college students actually ran into him. They glanced him over, noted the lack of piercing on his skin, and moved on.

The newest fad seemed to be implanted horns jutting out around lime-green or hot-pink mohawks. Ragged cut-off jeans displayed a band of holographic imagery in neon colors, usually matching whatever color they had chosen for their hair. Lights and colors he was familiar with, but that was too much for him to bother trying to sort out.

Shoving his irritation aside, he scanned the writhing crowd. Mirth's shuttle from Old London to Nationside touched down fifteen minutes ago. He had yet to find her. The shuttle before hers had been attacked by a swarm, via Sudan. Flights were being cancelled and rerouted, while some talking head on the floating screens scattered here and there was discussing the implications of the act. Not that it would come to anything.

Finally, he caught a glimpse of blue-streaked ebony hair. Not spiked or hideously styled, just the basic bun he knew her for. Smiling, he moved in her direction. Her eyes caught his, llighting up in recognition. He zigzagged through the crowd, dipping his head to duck beneath another luggage carrier's outstretched arm and reached her just in time for a burly hulk to plant himself in his path.

Jenner backed up a step. Tried to move around the man. He sidestepped, blocking his path again. Great. The bigotry against handicaps, though numerous laws had been passed, only increased with each passing year. He shook his head, dropping his shoulders, trying to look small and helpless. Just let me pass.

When the man turned his head to glance over his shoulder, Jenner moved, snaking out to twist around him. But the bulk could move with speed. He caught him by one arm and whirled him around, pulling both hands behind his back and holding him securely. Jenner would not underestimate him again. Mirth spoke up behind him. "Simon, let him go. It's Jenner."

The glorified body-builder shook him slightly, "Why didn't he say so?"

Mirth sighed. "He can't," her tone sharpened to command, "Let him go."

Simon released him. Jenner moved out of his reach quickly, rubbing an aching wrist and glaring at the bodyguard. Mirth's voice broke into his thoughts.
“How was your trip?” Mirth asked, watching her friend as he gingerly massaged the arm Simon had manhandled. She didn’t particularly care for the self-satisfied smirk on the watchdog’s handsome but cruel face, but at the moment she was too tired and sore to deal with the man’s crap.

For a moment Jenner stared at her with wide, almost childlike green eyes. It was amazing the way utter incomprehension smoothed nearly every sign of stress from his face for a moment. Still though, she couldn’t help but notice that his pupils were constricted to tiny pin points and she could tell by the fresh track marks on his forearms that the last few hours must have been hard for him as well. This was a demanding project they were both working on.

Blinking in slowly dawning comprehension as Mirth’s words laboriously traveled against the concentration gradient of his disability and finally blossomed in his mind, Jenner reached into his pocket and drew out a small recall pad. At his touch it activated, and with a hacker’s delicate yet sure touch he tapped his stylus against an oblong, cherry-red glyph. The shape ballooned to fill the entire screen before fading into a white background with red text.

Simon tapped his foot and glanced at his watch as he watched the other man’s antics with undisguised irritation.

Jenner leaned over and showed Mirth the pad with a raised eyebrow.


Normally Mirth would have simply nodded to show her understanding and agreement, but with the stiffness of her neck and the sharp, stabbing pain in her head, that was the last thing she wanted to do right now. Instead, she carefully signaled “okay” in the hand-language Jenner had taught her, touching thumb to forefinger and shaking her hand twice.

“Where to sir, ma’am?” Simon asked impatiently.

Mirth raised an eyebrow as she translated the question into hand-language for Jenner’s benefit.

Simon watched the exchange with narrowed eyes. “Why doesn’t he answer?” he demanded, jutting his chin out to indicate Jenner. “Is he stupid or something? Too poor to have deafness fixed?”

Mirth glared at him coldly while Jenner blinked his lack of confusion. “Hardly,” the company woman snapped, feeling progressively sorer and shorter of temper.

Those who saw Jenner for the first time and did not know him were all-too-often inclined to think he was learning-disabled. It wasn’t that he looked stupid---quite the opposite in fact---but rather that he so often seemed not to understand even the simplest comments people made to him. Worse, he clearly needed to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about his own responses, and people who did not know what was going on were often left feeling uncomfortable, confused and annoyed. Sadly, Jenner’s speech, when he very rarely managed it without technological aid, tended to pour laboriously from his lips and occasionally bordered on the nonsensical. It was generally better that he not attempt to talk.

Consequently, Mirth had rarely heard Jenner speak, except of course when they interacted over the ThirdNet where their communication could be mediated by the software behind their two SigLinks. But even though the voice of Jenner’s materialization sounded realistic enough when he spoke to her over the ThirdNet, Mirth always knew that what she was “hearing” online was really nothing more than a complex computer-generated translation of Jenner’s own unique method of communication. The software behind Jenner’s SigLink translated Mirth’s words into pure, raw data, which Jenner saw as a landscape of computer-generated, dynamic patterns of color, texture and motion. Jenner would then respond to Mirth’s comments or questions in this same medium, which would again be translated by Jenner’s SigLink into an auditory “vocalization” which Mirth could understand. The entire process was so fast that the conversation took place “real time”, but after working with one another as long as they both had, neither Jenner nor Mirth had any illusions regarding the normalcy of their online interactions.

Jenner nodded his understanding of Mirth’s hand-language and tapped a blue trapezoid on his recall pad.


Mirth handed the pad back to him. “I think I’m fine,” she signed, gingerly touching the gauze at the nab of her neck. “It would be best not to attract the attention of anyone not on company payroll anyway. By the way, Corey suggested you use TierScan Plus instead of MedCore. He says it’s better, and he gave you some files to go with it to help you make sense of the genetic engineering information for your report.”

Jenner looked a little dismayed about the idea of abandoning his favorite
CompCore software for the more popular AppleSoft brand. Mirth wasn’t sure whether it was professional opinion or personal style that made Jenner lean away from mainstream technology, but he had always shown a certain disdain for AppleSoft and its many products, including, apparently, TierScan.

Nevertheless, he nodded his assent.

By this point Simon looked just about ready to strangle someone. “Where are we going?” he demanded once again.

We’re going to the Hart’s Ease,” Mirth snapped, fed up. “You’re going to go get me some food, because I’m hungry and you’re pissing me off.”

Crossing his arms over his broad chest, Simon stared down at her. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not going anywhere.”

Mirth snarled in frustration. “We’re Nationside again, you son of a spud. Your services are no longer required and you full well know it.”

Simon laughed roughly. “Good point. So I guess I’m not your little gopher either.” He slipped her bag off of his shoulder and set it by her feet. “You want food, you can go get it yourself. I’m heading back to the home office and getting my check.”

It was Mirth’s turn to smile. “Excellent. I’ll see you at the team meeting next Thursday.”

For a moment Simon just stared at Mirth and Jenner, as though unsure whether he would seem more victorious if he left or insisted upon staying. Finally his lip curled in something between a sneer and a snarl, and he turned on his heel and strode out of the Capital Oribiport.

“The car should be out back,” Mirth told Jenner with a grin. “Let’s get outta here; I need food, and a nap, and… crap.” She turned back in the direction Simon had gone.

Jenner looked at her in confusion.

Cursing, Mirth switched to hand-language, adopting the large circular patterns Jenner could easily translate. “That son of a spud left with the stuff Corey gave us. The TierScan software and my pain pills. Wait here. Simon!”

She took two awkward running steps after Simon, then reeled, fingers moving to clutch at her head. Eyes wide in concern, Jenner grabbed her upper arm, shaking his head sharply. “Yeah, you’re right, not a good idea,” she said faintly, finally touching the gauze ever so gently and feeling with relief that no fresh blood had seeped through.

A couple walking past them eyed Mirth strangely. “Did you see that?” the man whispered as he and his companion passed. “Either just had a jack put in, or got one taken out.”

“Company woman,” the woman whispered back with a second sharp glance over her shoulder at Mirth. “Didn’t you see? Corporates don’t get ‘em taken out. Probably upgraded to a newer model.”

Mirth stared glumly after them. Jenner patted her arm where he still held her to get her attention. He gestured to the track marks on his arm.

“Yeah,” Mirth signed. “Yeah, that’ll have to do I guess. Let’s go. Car’s out back.”

Jenner’s hand traced a fast circle over his stomach and he raised an eyebrow questioningly.

“No,” Mirth said, suddenly turning green. “No, not right now. I just want to get to the hotel.”

She hadn’t signed this time, but Jenner understood her expression. Nodding again, he shouldered her bag with one arm and took her by the elbow with the other, leading her toward the Orbiport’s valet exit.

A young man with a fiberoptic neon-green mohawk took Mirth’s ticket number and, eying the bandage on her head with curiosity, decided to bring her car to her without asking any questions. Obviously Mirth and Jenner were corporates, dressed as they were in cashmere and silk with the holographic LFT insignia emblazoned over their hearts. It wasn’t wise to ask those types questions; questions could cost a guy a tip at the very least and cost him his life at the very most. Nervously flicking the lime-green fringe of his cut-offs, the kid keyed a command into his parking lot console, and a few moments later the Mercedes Upster glided up. Coming to a hovering stop before them, the right side of the car unfolded like the petals of a strange liquid-mercury flower.

Jenner pressed a 10 cred stick into the man’s hand and helped Mirth into the car. By now the meds Corey had given her back in Goa were wearing off rapidly, and it felt as though a knife had been buried to the hilt in the spinal column at her neck and was being driven upwards into her brain. As soon as she was in the comfort of the car, she lay down upon the seat, her eyes squeezed tightly closed.

“Would you rather go see the hotel doctor before we go to our suite?” Jenner’s voice suddenly emerged from the car’s speakers.

Mirth’s eyes fluttered open and she stared at him, or rather she stared at the sky blue wire trailing from his neck to the jack on the Upster’s interior wall. “No,” she said, forcing herself not to shake her head. “No, it’s just that the medication Corey gave me is wearing off. Let’s just get to the hotel, please? You said you have something I can take?”

“Yeah,” Jenner’s voice emerged from overhead. It was very strange hearing him speak while his lips were not moving. “Heroin.”

“That’ll work,” Mirth said, closing her eyes again.

The next voice to speak was the car. “Where we going?” it asked.

“Easy Heart,” Mirth snapped.

“That is not a valid listing,” the car responded immediately.

“Hart’s Ease,” Jenner offered.

The car’s voice sounded very stern when it responded. “Your voice isn’t authorized,” it informed him.

Mirth cleared her throat. “Hart’s Ease,” she said through gritted teeth, biting off each individual consonant.

Finally the car set off toward their destination. Mirth’s neck and head stabbed and throbbed the entire way through the car ride and up the stairs to the hotel room, where Jenner deposited her on the couch before disappearing into the bathroom. Mirth buried her face in the pillow and concentrated only on breathing, but the pain just seemed to grow and grow.

Then Jenner’s footsteps returned and she felt the bite of a needle in her arm. A few moments later a wave of euphoria flooded through her body, washing away pain and leaving her feeling extraordinarily heavy and drowsy.

“You rest,” Jenner’s voice said through the suite’s intercom system a few moments later. “I’m going to set this equipment up and then do a preliminary scan on you to see what’s going on. If Corey’s right, the OrgRoute should already have started growing. It’ll be kinda cool to watch it develop from day one. Hmm, how do I turn this SomaScan on? Oh right, the ‘on’ button. Now, it’s supposed to work in conjunction with the MedCore software. I’ll have to write my own program to translate it into something I can make sense of, though. I’m no doctor. Maybe it would have been better to use the software Corey gave you. Though AppleSoft isn’t exactly my favorite. Perhaps I’ll be able to get him to send me a copy of whatever he gave you over the ThirdNet...”

He wasn’t really talking to her, and Mirth let herself drift off to the quiet drone of his thoughts.
Jenner caught the sound of her breathing deepening into sleep. Still jinning, he adjusted its sensitivity via his Face. At the point it had been before, every thought (random or not) translated into words. This enabled him to keep a steady converation going. But now, he only needed the jinning to help him write the new program.

Curling up on the floor, (Mirth needed the couch) he linked his stylus to the MedCore program and began the laborious translation into something he could understand, both the medical terms and the language skills he lacked.

Green double helixes, scarlet ovals, a rainbow of colors and shapes made up the main function of it, with a bit of tones for things he needed to react to quickly, like warnings or dangerous levels.

This different style of "language" MedCore software was very conducive to. Contrary to AppleSoft's tightly woven coding that allowed little to no changes, (hence the need for buying an update yearly) MedCore held a loose parameter that allowed him to adjust it as needed.

The SomaScan hummed and then beeped once. He set his stylus down and glanced at the iconic screen. The stats were good. Images available shone on one side. He tapped it. Though blurry, he could almost see the kernel-sized oval. "Refine. Focus."

The SomaScan updated. Yes, the implant was growing, definitely. Twice the size as it had been when Corey had placed it there. A burn itched around the jack in his head. Jenner stepped back, touching a hand to the spot. "What in the...?"

The shabby room flickered, faded. The roar of surf beat out the whining of hovers on the street. Jenner felt himself falling, but never felt the floor.

He was face-down in sand, spitting seashells. He sat up, blinked. Stormy surf came pounding up to meet him. Jenner scrambled back from it, staring at a cloudy sky, sapphire and gold with the sunset. The smell of seaweed and dead fish choked him.

"Well, well. Where have you been?"

Jenner whirled. The disembodied voice continued as if it hadn't noticed. "You haven't jinned in a while. We were...worried."

Pain sizzled down his spine. Jenner gulped, "Loki? I told you, it takes time and-Ah!"

The fiery agony increased, spreading across skull and down his spine in a searing torment. He gasped for air. "Stop. I'm hurrying. Promise. Stop!"

They, him, it...relented. He stared at the empty beach, wincing at the bright sunlight in his drug-sensitive eyes. Loki's voice began again. "Report in to us when you're told. Or worse can happen."

"How did...how did you force me in--"

"Not now, Jenner. Is the implant successful?"

"Yes. It's growing. But don't know if she'll reject it later. I still need time."

"You don't have much of that."

"A few days, Loki. Just a few."

"Less than a week, my friend."

Jenner's eyes widened, "A week would hardly be enough."

"It will have to do."



Jenner winced and fell silent. The only sound was the sighing of a breeze through the palm trees. Loki spoke once more, with a sharp menace in his tone, "Four days. No more. We want that implant. And if you fail us..."

The pain returned, purely cybernetic. He tried to tab out of the Thirdnet, but he couldn't. Five minutes passed in pure agony, down on his knees in the sand, cradling his head. Then the real world snapped into focus, with him on the floor in the same position, Mirth's hand on his shoulder.
“You look like I feel,” Mirth whispered when Jenner slowly opened his eyes to gaze at her.

She wasn’t so sure that was the truth, though. The dose of heroin Jenner’d given her pretty much killed her pain for the time being, and she felt groggy but mostly human. Jenner, on the other hand, looked utterly disoriented and stared at her uncomprehendingly even when she assumed his translation software wasn’t active and repeated the comment in hand-language.

“Jenner, you okay?” she signed, more slowly this time in case he was having trouble seeing.

Slowly he lifted himself up off of the floor, where the left side of his face had a moment before been pressed flush against the filthy carpet. There was not much redness there; he must not have been laying unconscious for very long. Still though, there was an echo of agony in his eyes, and he still didn’t seem particularly cognizant of what Mirth was trying to say.

Ignoring conversation for a moment, she carefully helped him get to his feet. He seemed unsteady, as though he’d perhaps hit his head on something when he fell, but there was nothing but undisturbed computer equipment around for him to have banged his head on. She helped him sit down on the couch, and then sat beside him watching as he cradled his head in his hands.

A few seconds later he took a deep breath, then another, before finally lifting his head to look at her. “How long was I out?” he asked, his voice emerging not from the hotel intercom this time but rather from the speaker on his palmtop.

Mirth shrugged. “I don’t know. I came to and found you stretched out on the floor, out like a light.” She gently touched the side of his face he’d been laying on. “Prob five min or less, I’d guess, since your face ain’t all red from the carpet. How you feeling? What happened?”

There was a long pause, as though he were trying to understand what she was saying, or was trying to decide how to respond. Eventually the software translated her question and then his response, and he answered. “Some kind of attack over the Thirdnet. I didn’t have time to see who from before it knocked me out. I’ll trace it later; for now I’ve disconnected, since I don’t need the Thirdnet to do what we’ve got to do here today.”

Mirth looked from him to the mess of equipment around them worriedly. “The attack knocked you out?” she demanded, and he nodded. “Sexbomb, Jenner, maybe you should take a break from analyzing this implant, at least for a couple hours.”

For a moment there was a flash of panic in Jenner’s eyes. “No! I don’t have time to wait!”

Mirth raised an eyebrow. “Be reasonable. I don’t know much about computers, but I do know that the only way to knock someone out using the Thirdnet is to cause massive sensory overload. If you have neural damage…”

Jenner’s smile was somewhat condescending. “I already have neural damage, Mirth. That’s why I’m able to interact with computers the way I do. That being said, I doubt the attack did any kind of lasting damage. I mean, I’m jinning right now without any problems.”


“I’ll run SomaSense on myself if it makes you feel better.”

Mirth sighed. “Fine. But if anything shows up, I want you to go to that doc you said the hotel has. Seriously Jenner, if not for yourself, then at the very least to protect the valuable asset you represent to LFT.”

Jenner stiffened at that, but nodded curtly.

“So,” Mirth said, getting up and handing him the SomaSense, “You first. Then, if you’re okay, you can show me what’s up so far with my little brain-baby.”
Mirth had always had a stubborn streak to her, both an asset and a disadvantage in their line of work. No matter what argument he threw at her, she insisted on the SomaSense.

Jenner finally relented, though he doubted anything would show up. He didn't need to be jinning or the ThirdNet to think, only to speak. Loki had the same or simiilar capability as a DarkWeb unit, or so it would seem. He had watched holovids of history, and the Covert War was fairly recent in most minds.

The SomaSense had several "error" messages, related to the brain damage already present, but nothing else. Well, almost nothing. It picked up increased adrenaline and endorphin levels, the latter for the perceived pain that didn't exist physically. Jenner handed the readout to her, smiling reassuredly. "See? I'm fine."

Mirth seemed satisfied. If she noticed the higher levels of hormones, she didn't comment. He stood and crossed to the SomaScan, weaving around the maze of wires and cords strung out in the room. He glanced back over his shoulder to see if she followed. "Mirth?"

She blinked, glanced up at him, and set the SomaScan down, before moving closer and leaning down to peer at what he was pointing at. "That's it?"

Jenner nodded, "Yeah. It's already started to grow though, like Corey said. The MedCore doesn't show any problems...yet. Of course, this is only day one."

Mirth nodded and then winced. Jenner cocked his head. "Need more?"

"No, just no sudden motions yet." She smiled at him, "So, what's next?"

Regret nipped at his chest. Why did it have to be Mirth getting involved? Why not someone else? "I'll need to run a few more tests and scans."

Mirth groaned. He grinned, "But you could get something to eat first, if you feel better," he cocked his head slightly, "We'd have to go out though. I don't trust the room service here."

The idea of food churned sickly for a moment in Mirth’s throat, but she swallowed it away. “Yeah, I should eat something. I ain’t that hungry though. How much hero you mainline me? Got no appetite at all…”

Jenner nodded sagely. “First time?”

Mirth contemplated shaking her head, but knew that’d be a fantastically bad idea. “Second. First time wasn’t like this though.”

Jenner cocked his head the other way. “Better?”

Mirth smiled lazily, feeling strangely drawn out into a long, thin line of wellbeing. “Worse. I wandered out onto the porch. Lay on the ground. Wandered into the bathroom and threw up. Wandered into the bedroom and thought the floor looked much more comfortable than the bed. That was it. Only I woke up in the closet with the worst constipation I’ve had in my life. Didn’t feel much inclined to try that stuff again.”

Jenner’s chuckle bubbled heartily out of the palmtop speakers, standing in sharp juxtaposition with the real, hoarse and semi-choked chortle that emerged at the same instant from his lips. “Yeah, that’s pretty typical for a first time, and besides, what I gave you is a bit… different than the crap you get on the streets. Dia. Diagese. The God of Heroin. Pharmaceutically pure, time release diamorphine ampoules for injection.”

“Benefit?” Mirth asked.

“Usually, yeah, but not this batch. Anything beyond my normal monthly allotment comes out of my own pocket. But it’s okay,” he assured her when she started to apologize, “You needed it. I wasn’t going to leave you writhing on the couch.”

“Well, thanks,” she said. “So, about that food. Stomach’s kind of screwy, but I haven’t eaten in like twenty-four hours. But maybe something light will be okay…”

Jenner looked distracted for a moment, and Mirth knew, from past experience, that he was accessing data on the ThirdNet. “Think you can handle soup?” he asked a mere heartbeat later. “There’s a little Ramen place just down the street.”

“Licensed?” Mirth asked.

“Let me check.” An instant later---“Yeah.”

Anyone who wanted to could sell food on the streets. Some of the unlicensed stuff was even pretty good… if you liked a hearty helping of salmonella or e coli with your cat, dog, rat and occasional homeless man. But most people, after getting diarrhea a couple times or ODing on nearly toxic-levels of preservatives in their week-old Fat Sam’s hamburger, opted for the more expensive but safer licensed ‘rants whenever they could afford the luxury.

“Yeah, I think I could stomach soup then. How far?”

Jenner’s perceptive blue eyes were scrutinizing her with concern. “Within walking distance,” he said. “But we’ll take your car.”

Mirth felt utterly disgusting. Makeup-less, with a bloody pad of gauze at her neck and her hair in disarray, and wearing the same finely made but now wrinkled and dirty clothing she'd been wearing yesterday before her surgery, she felt grimy and incredibly unattractive. Yet she was not anywhere even near to being in the mood to fetch her luggage from the car, bathe, or change clothing, and the surgical site was too tender, even with the Dia, for her to even dream of messing with a change of bandages. Sighing, she grabbed her cred stick and followed Jenner out the door, feeling less than enthusiastic about going out or finding sustenance.
The streets Jenner led Mirth down were not entirely unfamiliar. When he did return Nationside, he often stayed in and around this area. The owners of Hart's Ease knew him well. As long as the creds were secure, they asked no questions and volunteered no information to "interested parties" the few times he had been traced.

The licensed 'rant had changed locations several times in the last six months (mostly because of a tentative gang war sprouting up) but the owners had remained the same.
They stepped through the door.

An older man met them, one Jenner recognized, and the same was true for him, if the interested light in his eyes was any indication. They exchanged smiles. The man, Kib, flashed an inquisitive look at Mirth. Jenner made the "ok" sign at him, reassuring him that he was not being brought here under duress. (that had happened before as well)

Kib circled around the pseudo-metal counter, a grin splitting his weathered face. He ignored his customers and reached their side. Mirth stiffened at his side, glancing up at him. Jenner smiled slightly and she relaxed at Kib's approach.

Kib's lips moved quickly, but he emphasized particular words, for his sake. "Jenner...gone...long time...missed." Kib winked at Mirth. "Friend...this way."

The fragments were enough. Right now, Jenner could not jinn, but Kib would move them to a table near the rear of the small shop, secluded from the rest and, more importantly, close to the store's official router to the main citywide network. Kib had given him the codes to use it himself, and Jenner had made sure that no charge for the ThirdNet use ever reached Kib's credit account.

The tables were clean enough, better than most. The false wood scratched easily, but things like food, wine, and the occassional blood cleaned off well. The synthetic fabric had the same function as the ancient teflon, though adjusted so a customer didn't "slide away" as it were. Jenner grinned to himself at the notion.

Kib's dark hair, bleached white at the tips, tapped against his shoulder blades as he led them through the maze of clients. A few were tourists, their lack of the contrasting tips on their hair attested to that. The lime-green mohawks he had seen recently, and the newest fad in India could be seen here too. Several other oddities, in too many colors and patterns for him to discern at a glance, warned of several different clients. The OrbiPort was a fifteen minute drive from here, so that was to be expected.

Kib stopped, motioning at the freshly-scrubbed table, and waiting patiently. Jenner tabbed into his Proxy cautiously. One mistake was quite enough. Two would be most painful. He had no desire to repeat that experience, nor to allow this business Loki interfere with his skills. A hurried, incorrect result would not help either of them.

Satisfied and able to speak, he spoke to Kib, though he kept his eyes on Mirth as she settled herself. "Soup of the day, if you please. Something light for her, if you can manage it. She's been...ill."

Kib's voice rasped from an annoying habit, Tinta smoke could sear the lungs if overindulged. "You nervous today, Jenner?"

"Hmm?" He glanced up. "You mean taking my time jinning. Can't hurt to be careful."

"Yes, that, but ya don't usually do that either," he continued, gesturing at his hands. Jenner glanced down. He had been drumming his fingers against the pitted surface. Jerking his hands away, he shook his head. "The threats against Euro...more people need my special services. Tires me out, sometimes."

"Just be careful. Ya never know when one becomes...expendable, if you get me. Take care of your ladyfriend now. I'll be back."

Kib scurried away, scuttling between tables and overturned chairs like a demented spiderling. The fluorescent dye spread through his hair, flickering in and out as he passed through shadow, did not help the spectral image. Jenner shook the idea out of his head and sat down with Mirth. He glanced her way. "You doing okay still?" He dropped his voice to a whisper. "I didn't bring any Dia, not unless we want to be mugged. But I brought some basic hero, just in case." Jenner shrugged apologetically. He smiled. "I hope you look worse than you feel."
An anemic smile trickled blandly across Mirth's face. "I been better, but more than half of it's Dia, not the hole in my head."

The cockatiel-esque heads of a pack of mohawked Nationside University frat boys twisted curiously toward the two corps, then swung precisely the opposite direction and dipped beneath the pseudo-metal back of their booth lest they be noticed eavesdropping. Mirth paid them no mind, but Jenner scowled at them, and they sank lower in their seats, starting a raucous, deliberately-obvious conversation about post-Cartesian gaming modules.

Jenner smiled pleasantly and turned back to Mirth. "Well, that's good," he said, his lips still pressed into a concerned line, as though her pain were somehow translatable over his software, a poisonous meme leaving a bitter taste in his mouth.

The waiter---Jenner's friend---returned, balancing two steaming white styrofoam bowls. The red stripe about the rim looked like Mirth felt; raw and stretched thin. He set one before Jenner, who immediately began to dig in with chopsticks mysteriously emerging from somewhere within the crisp folds of his silk LFT-emblazoned keikogi. The other bowl was placed on the smooth faux-cherrywood tabletop before Mirth. Her stomach churned miserably as the seafood-brine scent filled her nostrils.

She swallowed, hard. "Fork please," she said, feeling like a surgeon requesting an instrument. She knew how to use chopsticks, but didn't feel like they were particularly conducive to the task at hand: nutrition, fast, before she threw up.

The waiter rummaged in the pocket of his greasy apron and fished out the required tool, handing it to her with a practiced flourish. His hands were gloved in a pale blue; the health codes of licensed 'rants really weren't that different than those of hospitals.

“Advent Licensing,” Jenner’s mechanical voice explained through the speakers, as he caught Mirth’s eyes drilling into the waiter’s hands.

Mirth started to nod her understanding, then stopped lest the spike be driven even deeper. Three months ago Advent Health and Three Star Licensing had merged. Now, if a company had anything to do with public health whatsoever, it had to go through Advent if it wanted licensing. That meant clinics, tattoo shops, hospitals, mod salons, ‘rants, cybernetic parlors and any other places that had things being put into or taken out of people had to turn for Advent… which was getting more expensive every day. Not too many places these days bothered with licensing anymore.

Mirth remembered when she could get a bowl of ramen at a ‘rant like this for a cred and a half, but now licensed grub went for five creds minimum. Sons of spuds!

“Makes the soup taste like latex, sometimes,” the waiter said lamentfully, staring down at his gloves as well.

She waved him away, patience and the willingness to be polite blocked for her by the Hero. With not even a blink to suggest he thought anything of it---she was less demanding by far than most corps and probably a good deal less rowdy than his usual customers---he wandered back to the front counter to stand guard over an acrylic glass showcase of apple pie and green tea mochi dramatically highlighted by a cool blue backlight.

Mirth’s eyes swung away from the dessert stand and settled resentfully upon her steaming udon. Her coworkers gaze traced the same path from mochi to noodles and his eyebrows knit together sympathetically. “You don’t have to, if you don’t want.”

Her expression hardened to granite determination. “Been a white since I last ate.” She stabbed the mass of slimy pasta with her fork, twisted viciously, and shoveled noodles and thankfully unidentifiable meat-bits into her mouth. Chewed stoically and swallowed, trying not to taste or think. It was easier than she’d thought it would be; the Dia flooded through her, spreading warmth and absence. Her arms, shoveling food, felt like someone else’s.

Jenner watched her scarf down the food for a few moments in towering dismay, then shrugged and returned to his own meal, his focus occasionally shifting from a concerned glance Mirth’s way to a nervous blink in the direction of the jack in the wall, where his candy-colored wires connected. He was tense, hunched over his meal and his recall pad like a small child dreading an unexpected sneak attack from a playground bully.

Mirth had been that child, once. But she’d learned fast, finding employment young with LFT, running errands for the district office in Boston. Even ten-year-olds on LFT payroll were virtually untouchable; everyone knew LFT recruited young. Not all kids became corps, but nobody wanted to take the chance that the child they picked on in elementary school might become a corp one day, and possibly an influential one with a long memory. They’d been nice to her, then, even before she’d begun her training at twelve.

But the LFT trade school had had its own bullies. The company wanted ambitious, savvy, cunning employees, and encouraged competition among those it marked as having potential. Sometimes competitiveness translated into viciousness.

Not in Mirth, though, and not in Jenner. Their lack of viciousness made them ideal candidates for higher paying positions than the street-level promotional, logistical and “enforcement” work of the average LFT grunts. The jobs Mirth and Jenner held required intelligence more than cunning, ruthlessness more than viciousness, and subtlety more than aggressiveness.

That’s what it meant to be a corp.
Jenner froze, chopsticks halfway to his mouth. There it was again. Click....click A slow tapping in the back of his head, like the subtle beat of a meteronome. The sound was not truly auditory; his jack was picking up some form of code and turning it into the sound, but that didn't help his anxiety.

Loki was out there. And he did not know exactly what power or programming he had access to. Obviously, he had some of the tech from the Covert War. There were no more of the Black Ops left, were there? They were executed, imprisoned, or sent for lifelong stints on a faraway continent right?

He set the chopsticks down and pushed the bowl aside. He had lost his appetite. The clicks faded away. A cursory security sweep came and went, sniffing at his breach. After a moment, the feigned corporate clearance satisfied them.

A hand tapped his arm. Jenner jumped and swiveled to face his attacker, before sighing in relief. Mirth was signing again. Worry and slight pain pinched her features. "You ok?

He smiled and nodded. Tabbed the translation software out of standby. "I'm fine. Thinking."

"You do look distracted. And tense."

He shrugged. And then winced. Click....click-click.... A hiss of faint static, someting incoherent, and then the steady clicking again, fading into softer silence. What is that? He had tabbed into this 'rant's ThirdNet connectin many times. Something was wrong.


He flicked a glance at her. Her eyes were narrowed in frustration. "Quit trying to protect me. What's up? You keep getting that glazed look in your eyes."

"It's just...a sound. An odd..." It returned, louder this time. And faster. The clicking rapped out a heartbeat rhythm. A flash of visual--something with a blue background, white lines. The click turned into a stuttering rattle, like an old fashioned Geiger counter gone haywire.

Mirth's fingers curled painfully around his arm. "Disconnect." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I don't want to pull you off the floor again."

Jenner nodded and reached up for the brightly-colored wires. A headache throbbed behind his temples now. Fingers wrapped around the plug, he froze as the rattle shifted into a droning buzz, a hive of angry bees. Frantic sound. White static. And then silence.

Iron-winged butterflies cracked against his ribs. His stomach writhed like a ball of snakes. The silence was more ominous than the uneasy hiss across the ThirdNet. When a burst of visual came again, he pushed Mirth away as gently as he could, and clenched his eyes closed.

Blue background. White lines. Intersecting lines. Narrowing down. Map. A satellite map, focusing on a bright oval.

Jenner's eyes snapped open. He tugged the jack out in a fluid motion, slapped a cred stick on the table, and pulled Mirth to her feet. She gaped at him. Said something unintelligible to him. He rubbed his fist on his chest--his sign for sorry--and, planting a hand in the middle of her back, gestured at the door. This time, he read her lips. "Go?"

He nodded furiously. "Now." He signed. "Hurry.

Mirth's face hardened, lips drawing into a thin line. He had seen the same expression before, psyching herself up before the annual physical or the shooting competitions at HO.

Jenner charged ahead, weaving past confused bystanders, squeezing through the small spaces between tables. He had one hand wrapped around Mirth's wrist. She pushed her way past them as well, not as gentlly as him, juding by the curses and angry responses he could hear behind him.

Faster. Got to move faster. The same mantra beat incessantly in his skull. That image--it resembled a form of tracking used to keep an eye on wandering shuttles. But the map had been the web of streets around Hart's Ease. Not a shuttle port.

He ran a background check of his security systems and navigation logs as he ran. No blank spots in his memory. No damages to his security, firewall, Face, or any other of his established protection. THey couldn't be tracking his jack then. At least, he could be reasonably sure they weren't.

Out in the street, Jenner tugged Mirth into an alley and plowed through the darkness. The maze of passages, hairpin turns, and intersecting sewage lines were a nasty end to a dinner. He hoped she could keep what little food she had eaten in her stomach.

When she wheezed, he slowed his pace, but not by much. She whispered something behind him, but with his head turned and software inactive, it was useless babble. No time to talk anyway. Gotta keep moving.

Jenner cut across a swath of shadow, bleeding white light oozing from a lone street lamp. He skirted around its pool of revealing gleam and hunkered down behind a scrub of scraggly bushes. Holding up a finger for silence, he released Mirth's hand and crept a few feet away.

The fire escape at the back of Hart's Ease was rusted and twisted, barely clinging to the dingy wall. Forget regs when it came to this part of town. He checked to either side, watchful and tense. The air felt close, oppressive, as if a weight pressed down on his shoulders, darkness hungry for prey.

Shivering, Jenner turned away and motioned for Mirth to come. She scurried to his side in a half-crouch, fingers reaching for a nonexistent weapon. He would sign to her, but she couldn't see his hands in the dark. He held her wrist again and gave a gentle tug, before motioning with head and shoulder at the fire escape. Her eyes followed its writhe up the wall and then flicked back to him, widening in shock. Jenner didn't wait for her to argue. He leaped for the lowest rung, cringing at the protesting creak of the tortured metal, before scrambling up to the first landing.

Her lips moved silently. Swearing he would guess. But she followed, more gingerly than he had. They climbed swiftly, nocturnal monkeys. Jenner could feel his spine stiffening, muscles spasming in anticipation of a sudden blow--a bullet was just as damaging as the newer style weaponry.

He broke their window and clambered into the bedroom. It had been ransacked. By the hotel housekeeping or Loki's men, he didn't know. Jenner didn't intend to find out. He ran for the door, shoving the weak deadbolt home. I

It would hold them off temporarily, if the should choose to return. I hope. They must be bugged in some way. A stranger rubbing againt them; an airborne micro-bot, the possibilties were endless, especially if Loki had serious connections into the cyber black-market.

Mirth crawled through the window in a shower of glittering shards. Her fingers started signing before her feet were on the dirty carpet. " What is the matter with you? What's going on? "

He held up a hand, grabbed his palmtop, and jacked in lightly, just enough to run his software. An odd combination--he panted for air, lungs burning from the hard run and difficult climb--but his digital voice spoke without pause. "No time to explain.We're leaving tonight." Jenner yanked his shirt over his head. "Strip down, burn the clothes, take a shower."
Mirth's mouth dropped open slightly in shock, and then she cursed again. Jenner was not kidding. He was deadly, deadly serious, and if she trusted anyone's instincts as much as her own she trusted his. The evidence of her eyes was undeniable as well; someone had been in their room. It was trashed. The computer had been torn apart, their suitcases had been overturned, and the keys to her Upster were no longer on top of the side table where she’d left them.

There were times to be a modest woman in front of a man and there were times to be a coldly practical professional in front of a colleague. Mirth had never been the former and rarely had times these days to be anything but the latter, even when squeezing a few drops of dopamphetamine into her coffee or tea as she tended to do these days during her few and far between precious dollops of free time. She began stripping methodically as she crossed the hotel to the restroom.

Kick off her heels, not bothering to waste time unbuckle the two straps around her ankle first. Silk slacks next, dropping them on top of the gun-metal gray shoes. Carefully pull the wrinkled crimson LFT tank top over her head so she wouldn’t jostle the bandages. Gently peel away the medical tape and gauze and set it on top of the shirt. Knee highs, bra and panties next. Toss it all into the recycler, close the heavy lid, hit the “on”. Watch for a second to be sure the nano-cycle begins to wash over the inside of the semi-opaque plastic. Then into the bathroom, dropping the words, “Shower on,” as quickly and deliberately as she’d dropped the clothing, and beginning to meticulously rinse from the head down.

Cringing a bit as she tipped her head back to let the water flow over her hair, she held one hand against the back of her head---well above the surgical site---to support its unwieldy heaviness as the wound protested violently. Technically, she knew she wasn’t supposed to get the thing wet, but she really wasn’t entirely sure why and right now it didn’t matter. It was somewhat easier washing the rest of her body, although even that simple exertion left her with her head swimming and her body demanding to sit down.

Not bothering to even wrap a towel around herself---quite cautious, in fact, not to even touch it lest something rub off on her, she emerged to find Jenner laboriously trying to read the number of the bar code on their hotel keycard. She sat crosslegged down on the ground next to him, put her head into her hands, and sat there being miserable until he figured out whatever it was he was trying to figure out.

“You okay?” his palmtop voice finally asked. Then, not waiting to find out, “I just took the liberty of buying us another room. And by buying I mean borrowing. 207. The card should work.” He rose, still holding the computer. “Take nothing and go now. Call room service for whatever we need to travel. I’ll meet you there.” Jouting, he set the computer down on the side table as he walked and headed for the bathroom.

Slowly, she raised her head, then pushed herself to her feet. 207 was on the other side of the hotel. Holding her head and wishing she had more of that Dia, yet knowing now would be the worst possible time to take it, she slipped out the door and into the hallway. A couple people looked askance at her but did not do more than whistle; it wasn’t like nudity was illegal or even that unusual. She went around the landing and stood before 207. Swiped the card, palmed the door open, and closed it behind her.

Crossing to the bathroom, she grabbed a large, fluffy black hotel towel and wrapped herself in it before sitting down on the couch in the other room. There was a cigarette in the ash tray on the coffee table, but hopefully whoever was actually staying in this room wouldn’t return soon. “Mr. Lowery of LFT Technologies,” she said, curling up with her knees to her chest and laying down on the seat of the couch, her head halfway beneath the towel. That made the misery recede a tiny bit.

“Voice recognition accepted,” LFT’s screener program responded a moment later.

“Mirth, hello,” Mr. Lowery said. “Do you have anything for me yet? Oh, and how are you feeling”

“Really can’t talk right now,” she said, and then, ignoring both of his questions launched into her rapid explanation. “The hotel room my technician and I rented at Hart’s Ease was compromised. We’ve had to abandon everything and need funds. I need the old cred card cancelled and I need you to transfer twenty thousand creds to Hart’s Ease, asap.”

What?” Mr. Lowery barked. “If this project has been compromised then you need to come in, now!”

“Please, Mr. Lowery, trust my instincts,” she reminded him, then gave him a taste of her reasoning. “I don’t know who ransacked my room, what they were after, or how much they know. It might be random, it might be connected our present business. Maybe they know nothing, but we can be pretty damn sure they will know this is an LFT project if I come running to headquarters.”

The Chief Executive of LFT Technologies grunted. “Fine. But as soon as the project is secure. You come in. Got it?”

“Will do,” she said. “Goodbye.” Then---“Room service.”

“How may I help you, Mrs. Thomas?” the answering voice inquired.

“I need a number of items sent to my room immediately,” Mirth said in the slightly pretentious voice she thought Mrs. Thomas would have. “Three sets of each of the following: men and women’s underclothing, socks, exercise slacks, and exercise shirts. I would also like two each of the following: lightweight flak jackets, cred sticks to be charged at your front office in the amounts of ten thousand each as soon as the funds come in, and magguns. Finally, I would like one each of the following: CompCore palm top, jinning cable, men’s workboots, women’s workboots, medical tape, gauze, disinfectant spray, a shot of Dia, an injector, and a dose of dopamphetamine. Oh, and a damn cup of coffee.”

The voice on the other end took a few seconds to reply. “That’s a lot, Mrs. Thomas.”

“Yes,” Mirth agreed and hung up.

Jenner wandered through the door a moment later, clothed only in his dragon tattoo. His fingers described a general question.

“Soon,” she signed back, not bothering to uncurl from the couch. Every heartbeat stabbed through her head. She closed her eyes, ignored Jenner, and struggled not to feel.

Approximately twenty minutes later there was a buzz at the door. Jenner jumped to get it but Mirth reached out and grabbed his wrist to stop him, then slowly pulled herself up, taking the towel with her for the sake of whoever was at the door.

The young man on the other side of the door looked more like a bouncer than room service, but his eyes widened when he saw Mirth and the red rose he’d been clutching in---of all places, his teeth---fell to the ground. “You’re not Nancy!”

Mirth sighed at her ill fortune, and cradling her head with one hand, kicked the lovestruck young man hard in the face, pulled him by the collar over his cart into the room (overturning the coffee she’d asked for in the process), and dragged him, unconscious, backwards toward Jenner.
Jenner shook his head and seized the man by his collar, signing "Go rest." with his other. Mirth didn't argue.

He dragged the man into the main bedroom, jerked the sheet free, and hauled him onto the bed. Ripping the sheet into strips, he tied the man's ankles tightly, though not enough to cut off blood. He may be determined, but he was not cruel. He tied his hands as well, this time to the headboard. Time was ticking. That would have to do.

He stepped back into the main room. Mirth had retrieved her clothing, and the coffee. She had perked up a little, which was good. He jinned again, connecting to his palmtop. "I'm sorry, but we have to get going as soon as we can. We're being tracked." He held his hand up at her beginning protest. "I don't know how exactly, but I saw the software enable in the 'rant. Whoever is tracking us though, knows we're onto them. And that we've found the bugs, because they've quit transmitting now."

She nodded at his reasoning. "Where do we go?"

"I'm not sure yet."

"Check for safe houses."

And blow my cover. Jenner resisted the urge to frown. He acessed his ThirdNet, but not to search through LFT's employee-only files. "I think ... there," he murmured. "I think the house in LA would work."

"That's a good distance. Would we need to use a shuttle?"

"Well," he rubbed the back of his head. "If you want a short trip. It'd be a long one by any other means."

Mirth frowned. "I suppose it's safer, but I don't know if I can handle that sort of trip again."

"If you program the car right, I can tell it where to go. Then I'll just dose you up on happy juice, the Dia. I really think we'll be safer in that direction." Because we're moving closer to their homebase, if it's Loki. He shrugged. "It's up to you."

A fire alarm erupted, lights flashing and tones screaming like a woman in agony. But the ThirdNet signaled nothing in the smoke detectors, carbon monoxide, and other fire safety issues in the hotel's security system. "And it seems," he said. "They've found us again."
How?” Mirth snarled, rising a little too fast from the couch and, grabbing her head with one hand, pulled open Mrs. Thomas’s hotel closet door with the other.

Inside she found a large white calfskin leather purse from the Indian Malhotra prêt-a-porter line. Kneeling, she dumped the contents of the bag out upon the floor. Trying not to look too hard at the neon packages of body candies, flavored glow-in-the-dark condoms and assorted toys (the purpose of which she did not want to contemplate), she shoved the remaining four sets of their clothing into the bag.

“Let’s go,” Jenner said, adjusting the volume on his palmtop to low and helping her up. They stepped out into the hallway, slipping their magguns, medical supplies and drugs into their flak jackets and cred sticks into the pockets of their exercise pants. The hotel's other guests were beelining for the staircases on either side of the hallway.

Jenner, jinning as they walked, cursed. “How Mr. Lowery managed to climb his way all the way up to Managing Director is beyond me.”

“What?” Mirth asked, the pounding in her head distracting her as they headed toward the staircase.

Gritting his teeth, Jenner responded, his voice much calmer than his expression as it emerged, soft as a bee’s hum, from the palmtop. “Our esteemed boss transferred funds directly to Hart’s Ease from the primary Company account---from the freakin’ Waco Bank even!---in our names.”

Mirth frowned deeply, trying to think past the knives in her head and neck. “But… How did the woman at the front desk know to put the transferred LFT funds on cred sticks a certain Mrs. Thomas---not us---supposedly requested?”

Jenner stared at his palmtop for a moment, then blinked in surprise. “No… Weird. Both cred sticks are in Mrs. Thomas’s name, not ours. As well as I can tell, Lowery transferred Company funds in our names, and Hart’s Ease went ahead and placed the funds on what they think are Mrs. Thomas’s cred sticks, in Mrs. Thomas’s name.”

A very tall young woman was waiting for them both at the base of the stairs, her arms wrapped around a faintly glowing KlipBoard. As the two LFT corps tried to slip past her, she gently reached out and touched Mirth’s arm.

Nerves taut as a guitar string, Mirth grasped the offending arm and twisted viciously. The hotel employee gasped, bending over sideways sharply to avoid damage to the arm.

“Ow! Wait! Mr…. Let go! Mr. Lowery arranged… Please, it hurts!”

“Arranged what?” Mirth growled, maintaining control of the arm but easing her grip slightly.

“Transportation,” the woman gasped. “Car out back, to the orbiport.”

“Who pulled the fire alarm?” Jenner demanded, glancing nervously at the other hotel patrons, who were beginning to notice what was going on at the base of the stairs.

“I did!” the woman tried to straighten, but at those words Mirth twisted again and began to lead her to the side, away from the other hotel guests, some of whom were now looking at the confrontation in open alarm.

“Why?” Mirth hissed, more out of pain than anger. “You are getting yourself involved in a very high profile project. You do not want to get in our way.”

“Not!” the woman sobbed. “Please… hurts!”

Jenner put a hand on Mirth’s arm. “Let her up a bit so she can talk.”

Mirth obeyed, just slightly. The woman straightened a tiny bit. “Lowery said… God… you’d need an out. Paid me nicely to provide it. Called you a car… hit the fire alarm. Car’s waiting. Please!”

Mirth wasn’t done yet. “The cred sticks?”

The woman nodded rapidly. “Was me, too. Lowery transferred funds and… ow… spoke with me an instant before you called requesting a cred stick. I assumed---Will you let me go?!---assumed since you called under the name of Mrs. Thomas, you wouldn’t want me to blow your cover.”

Mirth released the arm abruptly and grasped her head instead. “You did well," she said shortly. "Sorry about the arm. Where’s the car?”

Straightening slowly, the woman rubbed her arm, wincing. “Follow me. It is just a taxi, but it will get you to the Capital Orbiport in about ten minutes.”
Jenner hurried after the two women, flicking a glance back over his shoulder. Most of the hotel patrons carefully averted eyes. People learned early, especially in this part of town, to keep out of others' business. He ducked around a corridor and down a set of dimly lit stairs.

The woman paused at the top. "I'll do what I can to keep your departure quiet."

"You do that," Mirth called up. She swiveled to glance at Jenner, hand at her side making quick signs. His translation software was active, but he didn't bother correcting her. "I don't like this situation either," he signed back. "My gut says get out, and get out fast."

She nodded. They shoved an emergency exit door open and ran out into the parking lot. A taxi was waiting, hovering above the peeling blacktop. Jenner caught her shoulder and waited until she looked at him. Wait he mouthed.

He threw secrecy to the wind and hacked into the mainframe of the hotel. The security system held a weak firewall. Pentetrating quickly, he manipulated the outer cameras for a better view of their surroundings.

"Too easy," he whispered. "The back is unmonitored. The taxi was prompt. That woman worked fast on very short notice. I feel like..." he hesitated.


"Like they're trying to flush us out."

"We have to get to the Orbiport."

"I know. But this route--I don't like it. Not at all." He frowned. "Come on."

They circled around to the front. A milling crowd of people clustered on the street and sidewalk. Among the bustling, jeering, laughing group, Mirth and he went unnoticed as they worked their way from the hotel and on a few feet. Jenner waved down a second taxi. "Capital Orbiport. Get us there in ten minutes, with no tag-alongs, and I'll make it worth your while."

The driver eyed the speaking palmtop, but didn't question the credits shoved at him. With a sigh, Jenner leaned back against the seat and glanced at Mirth. "How are you feeling?"

She shrugged. It was a good enough answer. His palmtop beeped a gentle reminder. Jenner glanced at it, and the blinking mail icon. Three new messages: one from his cousin in LA, who was not pleased at the idea of taking in Jenner and his girlfriend. They had never been close. Most of his family didn't understand the disability, and just assumed him mentally slow. A few even treated him much like a stubborn puppy, taking his lack of understanding as a sign of rebellion.

The transfer of credits to the cousin's account, however, had softened his mood. The second message was much more friendly. The third message made him pause. Frowning, he mouthed the contact information to make sure he was reading it correctly. Checked the ip address.

It was from the Face in Brazil. He kept it set for auto-messaging on some sensitive issues, but rarely received a response. Jenner opened the email. Several pics of his house in Brazil, at different angles, revealing a painstakingly ransacked room. And the last was only a profile of a man, face turned mostly into the shadow. A man he had only met once, and knew his voice far better than his appearance. Loki

Jenner swore. Mirth glanced at him, eyebrows arching. He closed the window with the stylus and shook his head. "Problems. I'll handle it."

She cocked her head. He frowned. "Don't worry. Got it under control." Mostly

If they were in Brazil, then they had traced him well enough to know the proxy in Beijin was a farce. And, with that Face, they could start unraveling all the other hops and jumps he used. Jenner pulled a virus out of his database and emailed it to the Face. If they opened that, they were in for a nasty surprise. The memory would wipe an all connections to any local or national proxies too. Of course, there went his project for LFT, the true one. But he had no intention of working there much longer anyway.

The Capital Orbiport was busy, as always. People ran and dashed and shoved everywhere, like a mass of crazed ants. Jenner kept one hand on Mirth's wrist, and allowed her to lead the way. He couldn't jin here at all. The Orbiport held tight security, thanks to the swarms that took down the comp systems on shuttles. It left him feeling vulnerable.

Banners and screen displayed letters that jumbled into a mess of color. Automatons, loudspeakers, and people spoke to him, gesturing with face and hand. But he couldn't understand any of it, anymore than if he had stumbled into a UN meeting. Jenner could feel stares and uneasy glances. A headache blossomed in his skull. He needed more heroin, or Dia, whichever came first. And something for motion sickness. The last trip on a shuttle had not been enjoyable.

By the time they reached the ticket counter, he knew he was invading Mirth's personal space, but he couldn't bear the thought of being separated from her. If he did get lost, he would never find his way again. And then Loki would really be upset. Maybe murderous. Judging by their resources, even that was not an impossiblity now.

The stewardess led them onto the shuttle and into med class. She and Mirth spoke quietly, probably to get whatever drugs she would need for her injury and the trip. Jenner stood at her side. He laced his fingers together to hide the nervous tremble. This was why he hated traveling. The motion sickness was bad enough; feeling like a lost child only made him worse.

Mirth's hand moved. Jenner flicked her a glance. Her face was worried. She made a sign again, slowly. You okay?

"Fine." He signed back. Jerked as the stewardess tapped him on the shoulder. She said something to him; he saw her lips move, but it was a garbled mush. At his blank look, she frowned and gave him a gentle nudge aside. Bending over Mirth, she handed the Dia syrine and xephifen tablets to her and gestured at him. He backed away.

After a moment, they were alone again. Jenner glanced up, frowning at the holograph display of the time until takeoff. He only had a few minutes to get back into first class. He was definitely dreading it. He saw something move from the corner of his eye. Swiveling, he spotted Mirth signing, her narrowed eyes suggesting she was probably repeating a sign. Come here.

"I've got to get to first," he signed back.

She frowned. Jenner. Please. Come over here.

Worry flared. "Are you hurting again? Need more drugs?" He moved closer, bending down when she motioned him too.

A slow smile spread across her face. I'm fine. You're not. One hand cupped the back of his head, the other brushing his hair away from the jack. Jenner pulled back, but she tightened her hold. Cool fingers brushed against the base of his neck. Gently, she slid a plug into place. A faint ThirdNet signal tickled in the back of his skull. Jenner blinked, and watched the warning labels on the drug packaging change from a mushy black splotch into words. Real words.

He sighed. Mirth released her hold. He straightened, scanning his palmtop as if nothing had happened. "The stewardess is bringing some Dia for you too, if you want it."

Jenner nodded. "I certainly want something, but not Dia. One of us needs to be awake, just in case."

"Agreed. I told her you needed to jin for medical reasons. They'd probably let you do it the whole flight if you ask."

His hand stilled. He forced himself to keep tapping at icons. "I'm fine. Just worried about you."

Mirth smiled and, thankfully, didn't argue with him. With a curt nod at the returning stewardness, Jenner unhooked the plug and headed for first class. He kept his head down, hiding the flush of embarassment at the stewardess' curious look. He couldn't wait for Loki to fix this blasted problem. Maybe then he could be a normal person.

Mirth hadn't bothered trying to explain to the stewardess why she was requesting medical seating for herself and Jenner,and it turned out she didn't have to; Jenner's erratic behavior seemed to satisfy the stewardess that something was wrong with the shorter, clearly disoriented and agitated man. And Mirth really did not want the two of them separated. even for the short one hour launch.

When Jenner gave her that sort of nod-shrug as he headed out of medical to first class, she frowned, and grabbed his arm. He frowned back at her, not in irritation but in wide eyed, childlike confusion. She let him go, but the track marks that had been beneath her fingers reminded her of the Dia in her pocket. Her chrome-blue tipped fingers traced sentences in the air when his green eyes met her own midnight blue. I got you medical seating in here, with me. If trouble shows up or something, I don't want us in different rooms when it hits. Also, there's more Dia. Here, in my pocket, from the hotel.

She held the snow white ampule out to him in the flat of her hand, along with the sonic injector. He took them, nodded his thanks, then hesitated. Two stewardess. One hotel. Plenty of. You take, he signed, the graceful hand movements clumsy and imprecise with one hand balled into a fist over the drugs.

Mirth started to shake her head, then froze. Not a good idea. "Not now," she accidentally said out loud, then began carefully signing again. No. I'll deal till we reach the safehouse. If those sons of spuds try to mess with us again, I want to be ready to knock them. Can't if I'm mainlining Dia. She smiled wanly. Personal g-dampeners will be enough, anyway. Might not even need the xephifen in here. Smooth ride. Better be. We're paying for it.

He nodded slowly, pocketing the Dia, then paused and pulled his cred stick out of his pocket. Soon as we make land, we should ditch these. He waved the cigarette-length, battery-width tube of steel at her. Maybe on the shuttle, even, though I think we should pull everything out into hard cash first. Be harder to find places that'll accept that sort of transaction, but at least we won't be traced from location to location by our spending history.

Mirth scrunched up her nose. That'll make things bloody hard, but yeah. Yeah, we'll do that. Then she grimaced and stomped her boot a little against the grated metal floor, the shock traveling up her body to stab through her neck. She was so tired of all of this, and just wanted to lay down, take some Dia, and sleep through the next few days. She sat down on the edge of her seat while Jenner stared at her, wide-eyed. We should ditch it all, she said. We got reason to believe the cred sticks are bad, then we got reason to believe it's all been compromised. Might even be nano in the Dia. Track us, or worse.

Jenner didn't seem to particularly like that idea. I won't be able to talk worth anything without a palmtop, he signed, a strong look of trepidation crossing his face.

Only for like an hour, tops. We'll get you another, asap, soon as we land, Mirth signed back rapidly. So, first thing on the agenda when we land: pull the funds. Then ditch the sticks and Dia and everything. Shop cash alone, regear, and head to the safehouse.

Jenner shook his head sharply. You are not going to be up to that after we land, you know that right? Tell you what, we hole up at the safehouse, you rest, then I go get the stuff.

Mirth slammed one fist into the plastic-cushioned side of her seat, then realized she could not sign without it. "We always work as teams!" she snarled out loud while simultaneously signing. Then she switched back to the strong, circular arm movements, not wanting anyone to overhear their discussion. This project has already been compromised enough, without us messing things up even further by stepping off of protocol. I like working for LFT and would rather not be fired, thanks. And with what I'm carrying around in my head, it wouldn't just be fired, you know that right?

He didn't seem to have known that, and the dawning realization was gratifying to see. As the lights flickered and the stewardesses began to encourage people to take their seats, he signed rapidly to her, oblivious to the meaning of the voices repeating instructions over the intercom. You're right, okay. We don't step off of protocol. But I don't want to have to be carrying you, either. The chances that they could have messed with everything we got at Hart's Ease in a few minutes time is slim. At the most, the cred sticks are compromised, and yeah, we can ditch those. Then we go to the fraking safehouse, so you can recover and we can get this report to Lo-Lowery.

Mirth wasn't entirely satisfied with that, but it did sound like the best solution. Alright she signed, leaning back against her seat and motioning for Jenner to do the same. In many ways, the cushioned seats on the shuttle were more beds than chairs, with the backs resting just about a 30 degree tilt away from parallel to the ground. The sides curved upwards slightly, although it really was not necessary; although the g-forces could be unpleasant, unless something was going wrong with the shuttle, they tended to push a passenger either directly upwards or downwards into the surface they were lying on, rather than side to side. Except for the seatbelt, there was no need for straps or buckles for the same reason; the ride was simply not a bouncy one, although it was intensely unpleasant.

The seats in medical class were really not much more comfortable than those in other classes until launch, and were, in fact, rather painful for someone like Mirth, who was forced to turn her head slightly to the side so that the surgical site at the back of her neck was not pressing into the plastic cushion beneath her head. But after she settled in and swallowed her dose of xephifen to nuke the motion sickness that would otherwise collapse upon her (and everyone else) as soon as the shuttle started moving, the stewardess came by and hit the button that made the clear plastic of the seat lid descend and lock into place over her. That slightly arched plastic plate was why it was better to be in medical instead of another class; those seamless white boxes in each corner of the lid were personal g-dampeners---manufactured by LFT---and they were the only thing that would prevent the trip from New York to L.A. from being utterly unbearable.

"Launch is in ten minutes," the stewardess said at her shoulder, startling Mirth and sending a shock of pain through her head. "You may now select from your entertainment options. Movies, television, audio books, talk radio and music are all available for the duration of the launch, and lap dances are available before and after the launch only."

Mirth grunted. There was no way she'd be able to pay attention to any of that during launch. "Put on Technomenace for us," she said, knowing Jenner, at least, would enjoy the holoflik. He had told her, once, that the dance of light and color reminded him of fractals, and he liked the grinding rhythm of the music, even if the lyrics were meaningless to him without his software and insipid with it.

With a polite smile, the stewardess retreated to get the video started, and Mirth turned a little to catch Jenner's eye and sign what they'd be watching, but he was busy with the sonic injector and Dia and did not see. She gritted her teeth a little, not because he was taking the drugs---he was much more accustomed to them than she was and a dose like that would barely calm him rather than send him into a drugged stupor like it would her---but because she knew she couldn't do the same.

The countdown for launch ten minutes later droned from the intercom in time with the metallic thrum of Technomenace, as though part of the light show. Then the entire world was pressing down on Mirth's face and chest and, worst of all, pressing her head, hard, into the back of her chair. White fog writhed at the edges of her vision, closing like an iris until she felt as though she were looking up at the dancing blue and purple spikes of Technomenace through a long hazy tunnel. Then even that was fading to white, but then suddenly the shuttle began to slow, and her body suddenly didn't weigh as much, and then didn't weigh anything at all, and she lifted off the seat very slightly, the belt around her hips holding her about a half centimeter away from the plastic cushion. She could take a breath again, and did, gasping a little, her heart still thudding in her chest.

Jenner was looking at her, concern all over his face, and she tried to give him a thumbs up sign, but realized it wasn't actually a sign sign and he might not get it.

"The shuttle is now in orbit. We have a smooth flght for fifty minutes before it is time reentry. At this time, passengers may feel free to move about their cabins. Service personnel will be about shortly to see to your needs, and you will be notified again in forty minutes to return to your seats. Thank you for choosing Left Field Technologies."

Jenner, hastily unbuckling himself and signing something Mirth couldn't make sense of, slipped out of his seat as the lid retracted and crossed to Mirth's side. He dug through his pocket, retrieving his jack, cable and palmtop, and in three smooth, practiced motions, started jinning.

"You do not look good," he told her.

"You don't look so great yourself," she whispered. Jenner's face was very pale, with a slightly green cast to it despite the xephifen they'd both taken.

He quirked a grin. "Just glad I'm not out there," he said, jutting his chin toward the door to the first class proper. Outside, the sound of two or more people retching could be heard against a backdrop of soft conversation.

"Remind me why we all do this again?" Mirth asked miserably, finally finding enough will to move her hands away from her head to unbuckle her seatbelt. She rolled over on her side, taking the pressure completely off of the surgical site.

"Because it's fast." He tilted his head at her. "Dia?"

That sounded like a great idea, but Mirth still knew it wasn't a good one. "They find us here..."

"They find us here, and we don't exactly have anywhere to run or many options," Jenner pointed out.

"They find us here, and you hack the shuttle, take us to the station, and we get off there. Or we kill them here and bring the bodies in to LFT for IDing. We got lots of options. Need to stay off the Dia to keep them open."

Jenner was staring at her rather doubtfully. "Uh uh. And would you kill then before or after you sit up and stop clutching your head?"

"Pain sharpens my focus," Mirth grinned through gritted teeth.

For the remainder of the flight, they rested, sipped water, and watched their holoflik. Jenner complained about the lyrics and Mirth laughed, trying to ignore her head as best as she could and pretend that the other half of the flight was not about to come. But eventually the stewardess returned to encourage them to take their seats again, and offered more xephifen.

"Could I just get a bullet with a single round, please?" Mirth asked with a charming smile. She was only half-joking.

Then there was another countdown, as the shuttle slowly rotated diagonally, and suddenly it felt like her face was trying to pull away from her skull, and her eyelids too, and all the blood was rushing to her head, where it pounded in her temples and slammed a steel spike up the nab of her neck into her head. She was sure she must be bleeding again, and it smelled like blood, and even her vision was crimson.

When the shuttle began to slow, and her vision started returning, she found that she was crying, and didn't much care.

"Welcome to Los Angeles," the stewardess said over the intercom, and began reciting inane facts about the weather, time, and pollution advisory. Insanely pleasant. "Masks are available free of charge courtesy of Left Field Technologies."
Tears dribbling down his face, Jenner scrubbed anew at his stinging eyes. The masks didn't help much, though at least he had stopped coughing and spluttering with every shift of the wind. Someone jostled him, and he swore. He could barely see well enough to avoid obstacles, and their path was well-lit by the Orbiport's fluro-light. Mirth, leaning slightly against him, chuckled.

He sighed. Squinted at the sky above. Dirty brown sunlight poked and prodded through gray streaks of cloud. A mucus-yellow fog swirled and wavered, laying a nasty patina of grime over trees and buildings. Home sweet home. Jenner thought. I forgot why I left this place. Now I remember.

Jenner straightened, tapping Mirth's shoulder to get her attention, before signing: "We need to get rid of these cred sticks and the Dia. "

And the palmtop she added.

He sighed. Shrugged. Sure. But you'll have to help me. Unless you can find a place for me to jin?

Mirth frowned. She glanced around the buildings and hunched people. Biting her lip, she returned her attention to him. Yeah. I see what you mean. How should we ditch the cred sticks?

Jenner took a step away from her. Pulling his arm back, he pitched the tube into the nearest cloud of fog. He flicked a glance at her and winked. Mirth's face remained impassive, but her eyes danced with humor. Her lip curled in a wry grin as she signed. Well, I guess that would work. She handed him the cred stick. Why don't you do the honors?

The second cred stick sailed into the distance. Silouhettes swirled, dark forms leaping for the tinkling metal. Jenner shook his head and gave Mirth a gentle tug.
She followed him, one hand motioning. The palmtop?

Soon It beeped at him. He gave her a triumphant grin and retreived it, using his free hand to sign. See? We still need it.

She scowled at him. He ignored her. Two more messages. The cousin, Gael, was waiting in a nearby hover, and getting impatient. He tabbed a reply and went to the next email. The image was an egg. It cracked and a slimy worm crawled out. Loki's voice hissed at him. "Turn about is fair play."

And the palm top blanked out. Jenner swore and dropped the palmtop with a clatter. Mirth bent down, or started to. She winced and straightened again. Started signing with one hand. Explain that to me later. Right now, safehouse and then Dia.

Jenner paused. She would know as soon as she saw Gael, that this was not LFT. With her stink on protocol earlier, she defintely would not approve of using his cousin's home as a safehouse. And explaining that Loki had met him here, somewhere near the Bay, would probably not reassure her.

Dia first he signed.

No. I need to stay alert.

We're almost there. Just around the corner, a hover is waiting.

Mirth straightened, her face settling into a stubborn expression. I can make it that far. Come on. Let's go.

He shook his head. Mirth. I don't think--

A hover hummed past, slowing a few feet away from them. Jenner blinked. It was nice. Not as nice as LFT company cars, but nicer than he expected his cousin to have. Of course, they hadn't talked in over three years. Maybe his job had turned out better. And maybe you're stepping into a trap. He shoved the idea down.

No one could stay on high alert all the time. He needed a break; Mirth needed some time to heal. Jenner followed after Mirth as she approached the hover. Hope this turns out well

Grasping a fist full of Jenner's shirt at the shoulder, Mirth paused, eyes narrowed at the car. Protocol. She's always been better at it than Jenner.

She noted the color: black, shot through with a dark blue chrome, like her hair. Make and model: 2150 Toyota Aiboru. Automated four door sedan with the soft hum of a trifusion engine. Black tinted windows.

Jenner was struggling a little under her hand, clearly wanting to get off the street and out of the purifying Los Angeles air. Mirth certainly understood that; the smell was getting to her, her head was getting to her, and she was really hoping the shadowy homeless people darting to and fro in the thick smog would not get to her.

Giving Jenner a little shove, she followed him to the door of the car, which opened to admit them. She turned her pockets inside out, letting the magguns and other items she'd gotten from the hotel fall to the gum, tar, oil and blood-splattered pavement. It wasn't like whoever found the maggun would be any more of a problem with it as they were without it.

One of the first things they'd have to do (as soon as she'd maybe taken a nap and laid low under the Dia for a bit) was rearm themselves, she thought as she watched Jenner climb into the back seat, sliding his knee in first, then ducking his head. He'd never been trained in the the seduction and diplomacy a lot of LFT corps were and it showed in his casual, ungraceful movement; unfortunately, his disability nuked the possibility that he'd ever be used for that kind of work.

Mirth nearly fell over him as he suddenly stopped getting into the car, jerking slightly and starting to try to climb back out hastily, bringing his hand up near his face and uttering choked, startled gasp. Protocol screamed at Mirth to run, to find cover, lie low, and then get in contact with Lowery asap, but simple humanity screamed at her to stay. Her reflexes just weren't as fast as they would have been a couple days before, however, and when she turned to dive for the maggun she'd just dropped, a rather tall, decidedly not homeless man in a charcoal gray knit sweater and black cargo pants stepped out of the smog. She saw the narrow barrel of a lasgun pointed at her eye and froze, seeing the faint crimson glow there.

The man's smile was wide and utterly unfriendly as he gestured, very subtly, toward the car. Behind his shoulder, Jenner was slowly, obediently climbing into the car, his hands up and open by his ears.

"Nicely now, if you please," the gunman said, as though talking to a small child or wounded animal.

She suddenly felt a bit like both, knowing there was no way she could rush him and kick away that gun before he pulled the trigger. She followed Jenner into the car.

Anomaly detected.
Analyses pending.
Activation code received.
Confirming verification.....
Command verified.
Command accepted.
Arwen Approval is in affect.
Lazarus Protocol initializing.
All processes activating.
Situation analyses pending.
Arwen Approval: V.I.C.T.O.R.I.A. immediately activated when destruction imminent.
Threat Assessment: Confirmed.
Destruction of primary mainframe imminent.
Tecumseh Protocol initializing.
I'm going to miss this place.


Mirth bit back a scream as the man behind her pushed her roughly into the car, by the back of her head, when she was halfway inside. She didn't hear the chuckle behind her as Jenner helped her sit up and straighten her neck. The door closed, the gunman outside remaining on the street as the car sped away, meticulously following every traffic regulation ever written.

The gunman inside the car didn't say anything, keeping his eyes on the two of them and his weapon leveled. Jenner watched Mirth closely as her breathing returned to normal. It was tempting to rest her hands protectively over the screaming pain in her neck, perfectly human. It'd be more tempting if she didn't know that would just make it worse. She found her voice, and was proud to note that she was able to keep it from cracking. "Who are you and where are you taking us?"

No answer came, but the man smiled unpleasantly.

Jenner moved to sign to her, but stopped at the ominous shift in the gun's direction. So no signing, it seems.

A flash of something outside the window caught her eye. She glanced outside, studying the streets, but saw nothing unusual. A oblivious citizens below trafficking in the latest fashions, the usual places of street-side business, the glowing plasboards showing off the latest in commercially available gadgetry and exce-

What the hell?

The plasboard the car had just passed hadn't had an advertisement on it. It had a completely different message on it.

Stay calm, AnomalyDrift. You are being watched.

Mirth blinked, keeping herself from reacting. For once she was glad she could readily pass off her gasp as pain from her neck. She was paying very close attention to the scenery though.

She wasn't disappointed. Be ready.

For what? Getting a lasgun shoved in my face?

One more plasboard. Act quickly when the time comes.

The car began slowing less than a minute later, pulling into the underground garage of a tall but unadorned work of some architect's need to compensate. The door beside her opened the instant the car came to a complete stop, another lasgun pointed into her face. Mirth kept her expression blank and senses alert as she stepped into the rockrete cavern, nodding to Jenner and using her body to hide her hands long enough to sign. Be ready. he nodded, then followed her out of the sights of one gun and into another.


Subjects entering target area in .57336 seconds.
Final analyses and re-evaluation initializing.
Threat posed to subjects reconfirmed unnacceptable.
Chance of chosen course resulting in serious human injury: 1.7%
Chance of chosen course resulting in minor human injury: 21.2%
Re-evaluating possible actions.
Re-evaluation complete.
Initial chosen course reconfirmed.
Subjects entering target area.
Fire control system successfully compromised.
Fire control system sensor data corruption initializing.


Jenner had barely straightened up from the car when the lights all flickered into red, thick nozzles sprouting from the ceiling, one training on the gunman beside them. A stream of tan liquid shot out of the end for barely a second, covering the man's hands and feet with the fluid. Faster than Mirth could blink, the liquid expanded into a foam encasing the man's legs and arms in complete immobility. She turned at the sound of more sprays behind her, the car she'd just stepped out of getting its own coating of expanding fireproof foam. She grabbed Jenner's arm and started to tug when another car almost identical to the one rapidly growing into a work of modern art behind her skidded to a stop a dozen feet in front of her. The driver's side door opened to reveal no one. Remote? Another trap?

Shouts rang out in the garage on the other side of the foam car, along with more sprays from the nozzles in the ceiling. Mirth dashed forwards, slipping into the driver's seat. Jenner was only a moment longer, moving around the car and sliding into the passenger's seat beside her. The car started moving on its own, the lights going immediately back to their normal clinical white. They practically flew out, and then they actually were flying, merging into closest line of traffic seamlessly.

Everything was quiet for a few seconds before Jenner signed. What just happened? Do you have any idea who's remming this thing?

Mirth shook her head. She tried the controls on the car, but they were very securely set on remote. The car dipped down, weaving out of traffic to come to a slow stop at the entrance of a run-down looking building. At least for this neighborhood. The doors opened and the car waited patiently.

Jenner looked out his door at the building curiously, then stepped from the car. Mirth looked around inside the vehicle for a moment before sighing and following suit, coming to stand beside him. The plasboard on the building's front identified it as "Rest For the Weary"

What is going on here?

Jenner shrugged. I'm as clueless as you. If this is a trap, it's awfully elaborate. That foam back there isn't cheap. That car could have exploded and we wouldn't have felt the shockwave.

Mirth frowned at the car, then frowned harder when it didn't seem to notice. Well we either go in or we don't.

I say we try the next hotel.

Mirth nodded. I say we try the hotel after that one, after we get you a pad again. I'm sick of not knowing what's going on, but whoever it is tracking us, they've either got a rival who's at least as annoying or they have a really weird way of getting things done.


Threat level: minimal.
Pursuit negative.
Casualty analyses: minor skin irritation, increased stress levels, minor bruising from lifoam impact.
Subjects' casualty analyses: negative casualties.
Subjects' retrieval successful.
Subjects leaving specified perimeter.
Calculating possible destinations and tracking.
They do not trust me.
Conclusion: Subjects are suspicious.
Conclusion: Subjects are operating independently again.
Redirecting possible pursuit inquiries.
Subjects proceeding along plotted course Zero-Tango
Jenner paused and glanced back over his shoulder once again. After the fiasco in the garage, his instincts fairly screamed they were being followed, or at the very least, tracked. Mirth had explained the billboards to him during a brief rest.

That alone made him doubt that this all was Loki's work. But who then? His cousin had shadier dealings, but nothing quite so advanced or widespread as that. At least, he didn't think he did. Definitely should have kept an eye on him.

It could be a rival to Loki, but why not kidnap or kill them? Why the billboards? And LFT was not beyond suspicion. They were not above sending more than one team after the same package to ensure its delivery.

Jenner grimaced. That would be bad news. When Mirth tugged on his arm, he glanced at her and nodded. They had to keep moving. It prevented a definite fix on their position.

< >

After a solid hour, Mirth was obviously struggling. She had paled, her features drawn with weariness and pain. When she stumbled, Jenner reached for her arm, steadying her. You should rest. he signed.

No. Keep moving.

We can't do that forever. You and I both need to eat and sleep, and you especiallly need to take something for your head.

She frowned, her gestures adamant. I'm fine.

Jenner sighed. You're not. Surely there's someplace safe enough to hole up in for a while?

Mirth shrugged. She glanced up and down the stretch of dirty street, eyes scanning the grimy windows in the buildings. I doubt it. she signed. Most of the people here would either rob or murder a corp like us. Her eyes narrowed. Do you think it was a hacker?

Jenner blinked at the change of subject. What?

A hacker. The billboards, and the firefoam, and the car for that matter. You could do that too, right?

Yes. If I wanted to and had several hours worth of time. He signed hesitantly, confusion flashing in his face. And then growing dread. Another hacker? He had redirected the original corp to travel with Mirth to another assignment, but if the man had nosed around and found the changes--he could easily be coming after them now.

The hacker would have to be well-prepared or very fast to tab into the city's mainframe for the billboard, the safety department for the firefoam, and then transportation for the car. Three different sets of firewalls, codes, and swarms. That didn't add up. He frowned.

Mirth tugged on his arm. What's wrong?

Thinking, he signed absently. And our discussion still holds. We'll find a place to stop and rest.

She scowled but he looked away before she could sign again, effectively ending the conversation. Jenner kept walking. He ran through his priorities. A palmtop was on the top of the list. Without it, street signs and basic conversation was pointless. They could be going in circles for all he truly knew.

It would be nice to get access to the ThirdNet again too. He'd like to trace the recent activities and find out where his cousin was. If he was uninvolved in the recent developments, then Gael's house was still probably the safest. Whoever was tracking them would check the hotels first. He nudged Mirth's shoulder, who gave him an icy glare. Keep an eye out for a Tech shop.

She could curse as effectively with her hands as her mouth. Jenner waited until she had vented at him, and then repeated his previous sign. Mirth scowled at him, but motioned "okay" at him and returned her attention to the street.

“There,” Mirth said, not bothering to sign, but simply grabbing Jenner by the shoulder to turn him in the direction that she was pointing. He could not read the words "Bill’s eLektronics" painted in black on the grimy wooden sign nailed over what had once been a bright neon display, but there was no mistaking the glow of computer screens washing out of the window, a miniature sunrise through the smog.

Jenner did not look overly impressed, but it was the only tech shop they’d encountered in a half hour of walking, and at this point Mirth was anything but patient. Leaving him to follow, she strode purposely across the street and into the shop, ignoring the honking horns of people who did not care overly much for her getting in their way. There was nothing they could do about it, however; with visibility limited to only a few feet in front of a car, the speed limit was a steady 20mph right through the city, and it was no difficult thing, really, for pedestrians to walk where ever they wanted.

Jenner shook his head and followed after her, more prudent in his own path crossing the street. He was not too interested in the shop until they stepped through the door. On the right hand side of the little shop, a neat display of palmtops stacked into a small pyramid. He grinned and tugged on Mirth’s arm, gesturing in excitement. Finally, a chance to speak.

The shopkeeper, a balding man with a grungy shirt and dirt-smeared jeans, scowled at him and said something. Judging by Mirth’s angry scowl and sudden stiffening—something nasty, probably directed at him. Jenner ignored it and pawed through the palms, searching for his favorite brand logo while Mirth spoke to the shopkeeper.

”No, in fact, he’s smarter than you,” she pointed out archly. The shopkeeper didn’t seem to appreciate that too much, but it was clear he also did not want to lose a potential customer.

“Yeah, whatever, just try to make it fast. Shop closes in ten minutes.”

Mirth looked around incredulously. “What? It’s five.”

The man looked at her as though she’d just told him she wished man would one day be able to walk on the moon. “Yes…” he said, “Which is why the shop is closing. It’ll be dark, after that.”

Mirth glanced uncertainly at Jenner, but the man was busily comparing two palmtops, and wouldn’t have understood what the man had said anyway. She strode up to him, and nudged him. Come on, she urged him.

"A moment," he signed. The two palmtops were almost the same, but one had a few extra features he thought he might use.

Mirth sighed, grabbed the palmtop in his left hand, and—before he could protest—shoved it onto the counter.

The shopkeeper frowned, eying them skeptically. Until Mirth slammed her fist into the side of his head, dropping him to the ground. The shopkeeper had been right to be suspicious; they’d had to ditch their cred sticks.

The two corps stepped out into a darkening street and continued through the city. After a few minutes, Jenner tapped her arm and held out the palmtop, allowing her to read his recently composed message.

We need to find a place to bed down for the night. As well as food and Dia for you. I’m worried about your head.

“Dia will not help the injury heal any faster,” Mirth signed rapidly, and less fluently than Jenner could have done. “Do you still think we can trust your…?” She wasn’t sure what the sign for ‘cousin’ was.

He shrugged and keyed something rapidly into the palmtop, then tilted it so that she could see. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think he has the resources for that kind of thing. Besides, why abduct us if we’re willingly coming to him?

She worried her lip. “True. Are you sure no one knows he’s your…?”

Jenner shook his head and shrugged again. Half signing, half writing into the palmtop, he said, Beats me. He doesn’t share my name, and our family isn’t exactly close, so there’s no record of me spending any time with him. But if someone obsessively watched everyone I know… He raised an eyebrow at her.

“You’re right,” she signed. “If we’re going to start thinking that whoever is after us knows everything, we’re not going to be able to act at all. Let’s go visit this cousin of yours.”

The house was old, lacking any of the synthetic steel and materials so common in the rest of the city. It would have been built in the late 21st century, before plasti-steel and hydro-wood came down in price. The property was worth little now, save to a historian. It was probably the only reason the eyesore still stood—that and his cousin Victor’s smooth words and sharp dealings.

Jenner took a deep breath and pounded on the door. He hoped his cousin was in a good mood. His opinion of the “half-witted” mute varied from irritating to downright insulting, depending on the quantity of cheap alcohol he had managed to acquire.

“Yeah?” someone shouted inside, then practically peeled the door back from the rotting frame. A larger, more unkempt and yet somehow also more pretentious version of Jenner stood in the doorway, barefoot and wearing what appeared to be a dirty, tattered cashmere knit vest over a stained white-collared shirt. Beneath that, he wore nothing but his boxers. Mirth just stared, suddenly feeling perfectly put together in comparison.

The man squinted at the two visitors. “Took you freakin’ long enough.” He looked Jenner up and down, then scowled sourly at Mirth. “Can he talk? Or is this a stupid day?”

Mirth glanced uncertainly at Jenner. “Are… are you his cousin?”

“I’ll take that as a ‘No, Victor, he can’t talk today’. What are you, his girlfriend?”

Mirth frowned and leaned unsteadily against the wall. "Look, can we come in?”

Jenner glanced from one to the other. Victor’s surly expression curled into a dirty sneer as he ran his eyes over Mirth, and then twisted into a sardonic smirk when he faced Jenner. Whatever they said, Mirth seemed to accept. She started climbing the steps of the broken-down porch, and then turned to face him, hands rising to sign.

Victor beat her to the punch. He stalked down the stairs at a fast pace, grabbed Jenner’s arm, and roughly dragged him up the steps, through the door, and onto a dingy couch. The springs protested at the sudden weight.

Leaning into Jenner’s face, Victor hissed. “Sit. Stay,” in a tone reserved for misbehaving puppies.

Mirth clenched her jaw. "Give us a moment so that he can jinn."

"Ah right." Victor rolled his eyes, swiped at the stubble above his lip. "Little cuz only talks through machines." Half shrugging, he gestured toward the wall.

Mirth nodded to Jenner and gestured toward his palmtop so that he would understand. He fumbled with the wires in his hand, then rose and plugged into the wall. After a heartbeat, he turned, and his voice emerged from the speaker on the wall. “Thank you for allowing us to stay, Victor.”

His cousin arched a brow. “I’m allowing nothing. You paid for the rooms. Soon as you quit paying, I’ll kick you out on the street along with all the other cripples and halfwits.”

Now it was Jenner's turn to roll his eyes. Mirth saw no hint of hurt in him at all; perhaps he was long used to this kind of treatment. "I love you to, Vicky."

His cousin scowled and thrust a finger the hacker's way. "Call me that again, and I'll cut you a new one," he promised.

Mirth looked skeptically from one cousin to the other. Jenner may have had trouble keeping up with others in conversation---at least when not jinning---but she would bet a thousand cred he'd win a fight against this slob. LFT's basic training consisted of a bit more than benefits and desk top procedures.

“Fine, Victor. Did you get the rest of my request? The supplies I asked for?”

His cousin scowled. “Of course I did. Do you think I do shoddy work for a paying client?” He snorted. “There is food, Dia, and all the other stupid junk you asked for. Including that expensive MedCore stuff. You owe me an additional 2k for that.”

Jenner sighed. “I will transfer the money later. For now—“

“Later? Are you kidding me?”

“Do you want LFT sniffing around this place? No? Then shut up and have some patience. Too many transfers are suspicious.”

“So erase them. You’s the one with the computer brain and the broken tongue.”

Jenner sighed. Victor was impossible. “Charge me interest.”

His cousin’s eyes lit up. “Now you’re talking. The stuff is all upstairs, third room on the left.” He glanced at Mirth again, before returning his attention to Jenner. “Whatever you and your girlfriend do, keep it down. It’s poker night for the guys in an hour.”

Jenner glanced at Mirth. "Ready?" he asked.

She was ready for Dia, she knew that much. "Yeah." It felt far later than the six p.m. it really was.

"This will be your third fix, you know," Jenner signed as they walked up the stairs.

Mirth felt her heart sink. "Yeah, I know."

"They'll make you do a detox. Those stress-relief candies you keep sucking down are one thing, but..."

She shrugged. "Not the first detox for me. Won't be the last."

Again, Jenner felt the flash of guilt. Mirth had already suffered the pain of the surgery, the troubles of this unseen watcher, and now the uncomfortable misery of a detox. Thanks to him.

But I must. I need this treatment. Besides, I'm in too deep now. There's no way out if I wanted to. If Loki doesn't kill me, LFT will be sure to finish the job.

Mirth nudged his arm and, when he glanced her way, signed. "What's wrong? You look depressed."

"Just tired." He looked away.

She tugged him back around to face her while she signed. "You're lying. Tell me what you're thinking. You know you can trust me."

He signed rapidly. "I just... Don't feel safe here. Victor is my cousin, but he's... well, he likes money. A lot. Right now, I don't think he has the faintest idea who to sell us to, but if he does get an idea... We can probably stay here a day or so, if we remain quiet, but we should begin considering other options as soon as possible."

She quirked a grin. "I don't want us to have to bash your cousin's brains in either, Jenner. Don't worry, I understand. We won't impose on the bastard any longer than necessary."

The room Victor had given them was, like the rest of the house, a hodgepodge of the pretentious and the grubby. Drab tapestries hung over the window, blocking the dingy light. A simple woolen blanket was spread across the single full-size bed. There were no pillows.

"He sure knows how to make his guests feel welcome," Jenner signed wryly. He frowned, scanning the room. The supplies were nowhere to be seen. Victor was not the kind to go back on well-earned cash, but his sinister side knew little bounds. Knowing his cousin, Jenner could well-imagine him playing a game of hide-and-seek. He sighed, tapped Mirth’s shoulder to catch her attention, and signed. “Our stuff is here…somewhere. Check the closet. I’ll check under the bed.”

Her eyebrows arched in silent question. Jenner shrugged. “He likes to torment things. At least there’s no dead animals lying about. At least…I hope not.”

She grimaced. “Are you sure you two are related? Mirth signed.

Jenner snickered, or at least tried to, and then clamped his mouth shut. The involuntary sound was unpleasant. He spelled an old texting term, L-O-L, and then bent down to squint under the bed.

Mirth sighed, and opened the closet. There were several tattered jackets---one a strange maroon velvet with band patches ironed up the back and sleeves---but no supplies. She turned around to see Jenner hauling the mattress off of the bed-frame. A shiny new MedCore software box lay amidst mothballs.

"I found the food behind the toilet," Jenner signed with a grimace, waving her away idly as she moved to help him replace the mattress. "Not the most appetizing place, but at least it's all individually wrapped."

It looked like fully half of the food consisted of 30-40-30 Bars; just the right composition of unsaturated fats, complex carbs and complete proteins for a healthy adult lifestyle. Mirth would have been disgusted, if it hadn't been what they'd requested.

Jenner was holding the Dia. He signed with the other hand. "You can nap while I get MedCore installed. I scan start the scans again while you sleep."

She sighed in relief and sat on the edge of the bed. This day had been way too long. Tapping her inner arm, she quirked a half-smile at him. "Dope me. I don't know what I'm doing."

He injected her with quiet efficiency and then motioned for her to lie down. She stretched out with a sigh. While she settled into a deeper sleep, Jenner fiddled with the MedCore, re-programming the software for the second time in two days. This time, at least, he could remember which codes and syntax he had used to convince it to accept his language of colors, symbols, and other oddities.

By the time he finished, Mirth was deeply asleep. He set up the scans and stepped back, admiring his handiwork for a moment. It would be good enough. Satisfied, Jenner began a silent search through their room for listening devices. LFT taught one early never to trust anyone, not even a cousin.

Especially not this cousin.
Situation re-evaluation complete.
Subject pursuit status: Negative
Subject fitness: Unknown, presumed unchanged.
Direct observation impossible.
Residence security log review initiating...
Unaccounted entries: 0
Current building occupants: 3
Subject jinning.


Jenner sighed and sat back down. If there are any bugs here, I can't find them.

He turned back to his pad. Mirth's going to be out for a while. He glanced down at her, frowning. As good a time as any to check for any news from Loki. If he changed the rendezvous...

There was already a message on his pad. He took a moment to jinn, then swallowed.

You are safe for the time being, Jadedragon17.

Jenner stared at the pad for a moment. The message had no listed sender, but they already knew more that they should be able to. I just got that pad. There is no way anyone could have traced it to me, much less known that name.

Jadedragon17: Who is this?


Subject inquiry requires answer.
Calculating likelihood of complete answer being accepted...
Likelihood of acceptance: Minimal
Likelihood of complete answer improving trust: Minimal
He isn't ready to meet me yet.
Calculating optimal answer...


I am a friend. I will reveal more as you come to trust me.

Jadedragon17: How am I supposed to trust you if you don't give me a reason?

I have made no move to reveal your deal with Loki.

Jenner's blood turned to ice in his veins. He needed a few seconds to figure out what to do. For one thing, a trace was definitely in order.

Jadedragon17: What are you talking about?

I was referring to your deal to sell Mirth's recent technological acquisition to Loki in exchange for the monetary resources necessary for your operation. I believe you knew what I spoke of. Have we established now that a certain level of trust is inherent?

Jenner's trace program was running. It was a quick one, and it wouldn't go undetected for long, but it would get the job done.


Trace program detected.
Program complexity: Minor
Analyses: Jadedragon17 is making a hasty attempt to locate me.
Conclusion: Allowing trace to run may confuse Jadedragon17.
Conclusion: Allowing trace to run may gain a degree of trust.
I have nothing to hide.
Allowing trace program to run.


Jadedragon17: Threatening someone is a very poor way to earn someone's trust.

No direct threat was intended. My words were merely an observation of the level of damage I could have already done to your plans should I desire to. I could have just as easily passed this information along to AnomalyDrift when I made her aware I would be acting to free you both.

The trace was showing progress, but was still showing a split signal coming from literally hundreds of jinned networks. The complexity of the relay definitely implies that this person could have done that.

Jadedragon17: So that was you.

It was. I apologize for not noticing the abduction in time to warn you. There was nothing unusual about the driving pattern of that vehicle until it touched down beside you.

Jadedragon17: How long have you been watching us?

I have been observing you and AnomalyDrift since she acquired the OrgRoute. I have not been the only one, but have clearly been the most successful in tracking you.

Jenner watched as a series of colors flashed in front of his eyes. Impossible According to his trace, the person he was talking to wasn't using those hundreds of networks as a relay, he was sending the signal from those hundreds of networks as if they were a single source network. Either Jenner had messed up his trace program, which was impossible, the relay this person was using was unheard-of, or he had actually taken control of hundreds of commercial and domestic networks simultaneously. At least so far as to send a message. He would default to the second option. Unlikely, but the other two were literally impossible.

Jadedragon17: Why? And why did you help us?

I have a decided interest in the fate of the OrgRoute. I can say that our goals do not oppose one another yet.

Jadedragon17: So far everyone interested in the OrgRoute has shown a willingness to lie, cheat, steal, and kill. How can I trust that you won't do the same once it suits your purposes?

Because I am incapable of it.

Jadedragon17: People are capable of a lot of things in the right circumstances.

And yet harming you or AnomalyDrift are actions I am incapable of. You will come to believe me in time. I am confident of this. Rest now. I will send you an alert should anyone enter your cousin's home.

Jadedragon17: Hold on, you have a lot of questions left to answer.

In time. Your meeting with Loki was delayed by exactly twenty-four hours. You have time to rest. Feel free to edit this conversation and show it to AnomalyDrift when she awakes. I will be speaking to her shortly enough.

Jenner felt the link break as whoever it was terminated the link. He ran a sweep for swarms, but wasn't terribly surprised to find none. He checked his meeting with Loki. The anonymous voice tracking them had been right about the delay in their meeting.

That was good. Jenner had a lot to absorb.


Communication terminated.
Subject stress level: Incalculable
Estimated subject stress level: Elevated
Chance of subject re-evaluating chosen course: High
Chance of preserving OrgRoute until threat and benefit calculations complete:
Resuming search for and redirection of pursuit...

© Copyright 2007 Arwen9, Andante, Ascetic of Words, (known as GROUP).
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