Chapter 5 & 6

Chapter 5: Meet and Greet

 

My eyes open up to the rusted ridges on my aluminum roof. My stomach growls loudly and I am still tired. I wonder which I got more of: sleep or starvation. I’m not sure if it’s day or night outside since I’m underground.

I tap my Econ and ask, “What time is it?”

The female voice informs, “The current time is 6:48 a.m. Do you have an appointment you would like me to set an alarm for?”

Someone out there thinks I do, but I’m not going to make it this or any other morning. “Nope, no appointment.”

“Very well. Notify me if you need anything else. Goodbye.”

I give a silly farewell. “Goooodbyyyye.”

The Econ disconnects and I continue to lie down. I’m not interested in being set up into anything new right now. I’m thinking that whoever sent that letter just wants to talk, although now I’m getting this nagging feeling that someone broke me out to try to kill me. I don’t have many enemies, but there could be someone Trex had me steal from who would want revenge. I’m definitely going to be a no call/no show today, but I do need some food and clothes.

The outfit I have on right now is my favorite. Just like every businessman has a suit and every ninja has a second skin, this one is mine. The shop that makes my suits doesn’t deliver down here, nor does anyone else, so I go pick them up myself from the cleaner each week. This one is in bad shape, so I have to go get a new one after I eat. My stomach groans again.

I cave in to my stomach, “Okay, we’ll go eat.”

I get up and dust myself off, then leave my house. Outside, the Deserted are still just walking around in a daze, holding their heads and talking to themselves. I make my way around them and up the first ladder to the south tunnel, then to the second ladder to reach the city. I climb the ladder and push open the manhole to reveal a weak daybreak outside. I climb up, close the cover, and walk to the nearest sidewalk.

All of the city’s lights turn off at seven in the morning, so everything is still pretty unnecessarily well-lit, but not for long. Traffic is very light with only a few cruisers on the street level. I walk down the street toward the nearest restaurant. The lights around the city go out which is my indication that it’s seven now. I approach a restaurant and the daily special pops up on the right side of me.

A lot of the stores use holograms to display their specials and discount prices to bring people in. I find it creepy because, as a person walks by the hologram, it follows them around like a set of eyeballs in a stationary socket. I don’t want the special they have to offer, but I’ll go in since my stomach has clearly had enough walking. I enter the restaurant and sit down at a booth in the farthest back corner with a view of the door.

A MechCi server approaches me and greets, “Good morning.” It places a small, circular panel down in front of me. “Here, valued customer, is our selection menu, unless you would prefer to simply order our daily special.”

“I’ll browse the menu for a little bit.”

“Very well. May I start you off with an ice-cold beverage prior to your selection?”

“Not yet.”

“I will promptly return in three and a quarter minutes to take your order.”

The MechCi putters away. I press the button at the bottom of the digital menu and a little 3D schematic of a meal hovers up in front of me displaying the ingredients in layers. It circles around to show everything on the plate. I slide my finger across the panel to show the next selection. Four selections later, I choose an omelet breakfast and keep the hologram in front of me so I can show the MechCi when it returns.

When it gets back I dive into curiosity at its hasty return, “Was that really three and a quarter?”

“That can’t be, I haven’t taken your order yet for you to have made a payment.”

I clarify, “I mean for the time you said. Three and a quarter minutes.”

“Oh, I understand.”

The MechCi initiates a controlled, fake laugh. Their wiring makes them all seem real in order to keep the people at ease and to make them lovable. It may work for everyone else, but not for me. I just sit and wait for it to stop.

It continues, “You are a funny one indeed. Of course it was. Is this the option you have chosen?”

I answer, “Yes.”

“And what shall be your selection of beverage this morning?”

“I’ll take water.”

The MechCi shuts off the digital menu, scoops it off the table and inquires, “Sparkling or filtered?”

I test my awful sarcasm on the machine, “Can I have both?”

“Separate glasses?

“No, in the same glass.”

The MechCi starts laughing again. I smile and look down. They make these MechCi so lifelike. They’re like people without flesh and bones that connect at the joint; their dark chrome colors and body type are what distinguish them from ordinary men and women.

The MechCi excitedly speculates, “You are beyond funny, ma’am. Unfortunately, I cannot approve your request.”

“Filtered will have to fit the bill then.”

“Your meal will take eight minutes to prepare and one minute to serve. Do you disagree with the wait time?”

“No.”

“Terrific. I will be back shortly.”

The MechCi walks away and I slide to the end of the booth. I kick my feet up as I rest my back, tilting my head back against the wall while I wait. I have a pretty lonely life, but that’s because I can’t trust people. Being in foster homes, group homes, and prison my whole life led me to hold a grudge against all of these untrustworthy people. Everyone can trust a friendly person easily. When everyone is friendly, people let their guards down. Not me, though.

I’d rather be alone and alert than friendly and stabbed in the back. I can honestly say I get along better with the MechCi than with actual people; actually, that’s not entirely accurate because I do get along with criminals. See, they always stab someone in the back, so with people like Dayio and Trex, it’s already expected. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll prefer if Dayio wouldn’t. Trex is a businessman who would throw anybody under his feet for funds.

The MechCi brings my food and asks, “Will there be anything else you require at the moment?”

“No, thank you.”

“Enjoy your meal citizen.”

The MechCi walks away and I eat my food like I have never eaten before. It is beyond delicious. The food in prison was delicious as well, though, once I got used to it, it became a little nauseating to eat.

Once I’m done, the MechCi putters over to me with a pocket-sized scanning machine and says, “The charge for the meal and beverage comes to thirty aers. IDN please?”

I stand up and stare at the MechCi. It points the scanner at me. A white horizontal line appears from the device and the MechCi moves it slowly down from my head to scan my entire body. The scanner is a payment device to process aers. With aers, no one has to worry about losing or having money for people to steal. The only way people can transfer aers is to go to a treasurer at a DSC building.

Once there, they’d have to ask them to setup a connection between the sender and receiver. If a crook is brave enough, they can kidnap someone, then have them setup a link to that person. They would have to disappear far and fast if the Regs were notified. Aers allow a debt limit of ten thousand only on food before the IDN’s funds are shut down; that means that anyone can safely go into debt without fear of repercussion.

Since aers are digital, any currency someone makes goes directly to paying back the aers that are owed. Then, whatever they make from there is theirs to spend freely once the debt is cleared. For responsible, upstanding people, going into debt is almost impossible; now my debt starts.

The MechCi finishes the scan then notifies, “The payment has been complete. Thank you for your business and have a wonderful day citizen.”

“You too.”

The MechCi walks away and I leave the restaurant. I go stand out front. The first thing on my agenda today is to get some aers. I have to see if Trex has any work for me. Too bad there’s no bulletin board where I can just go pick a job off a wall, but I’m not good at one hundred percent of the legal ones. I start to make my way over to Trex’s place farther south. The transit systems here are free services to everyone.

There are trollies for outskirt and inner city traveling. There are only two trollies that cut through the city from direct center locations; from aerial view, the system should look like a circle with a plus sign in the middle. Taxis are also still around at an additional cost. I take the transit trolley down towards the south checkpoint of the city to get back to the bakery. When I arrive, Feegle is up front working with his MechCi.

“Good morning, Feegle.”

He looks up at me, then excitedly recognizes me. “Vanessa, sweetheart! How are you? What happened to your clothing?”

I had completely forgotten that I’ve been wandering around the city in torn-up gear. After I talk to Trex about a job, a change of clothes is my next pit stop.

“I had a welcome back party last night. I need to speak to Trex.”

Feegle remarks with bland kindness in his tone, “That’s a true understatement. Go on through, darling.”

I go through the door to the sparkling clean ballroom. Being in here when it’s empty is actually quite soothing. There aren’t any windows behind the huge purple drapes on the back wall; I guess the décor was intentionally placed there to make it seem like there is. I cruise through the ballroom, looking at the empty tables lined up along the right wall where the customer bathroom door is centered.

Feegle caters well to the people and earns excellent business in return. I walk to the left and enter the basement door, then down the stairs to the secret door in the right corner. I reach out to the right wall without looking and press a false shingle to open the hidden door. I watch it automatically slide open. One thing I always used to wonder is how a crook like Trex and a feminine male like Feegle met.

Who thought the decision to put a smuggler’s cave in a social hotspot like this would be a good idea? I never cared enough to ask, but then again, I’ve never seen them talk to each other face to face either, so my curiosity hasn’t come up in conversation. There has to be something to that. I make my way through the passage and knock on Trex’s office door.

He instructs, “Come in.” I walk in and he continues. “Just the girl I wanted to see.” He reaches into his desk drawer and pulls out a digitized page, then slaps it on the desk. “Check that out.”

He smiles immensely as I step over to the desk with minor caution and tap the page with my finger. It reveals an old man standing at a podium speaking to a crowd. The words are inaudible. He looks familiar, although I can’t quite put a finger on his name or what he does. I spent two years too many in prison forgetting faces to remember some old guy.

I ask, “Who is this?”

Trex excitedly reacts, “You can’t possibly call yourself a resident of Gharis City and not know who he is. That’s thee Gene Archibald.”

There is a brief pause. I’m not sure if he expects me to know who the guy is or what.

I shrug my shoulders and ask, “So?”

Trex continues holding his expressed excitement. “So, the package we took from the courier was a delivery for the Menta-Life Corporation.”

There is another pause. He is clearly excited, but I don’t see why. We pretty much got their courier killed, then stole the package. He’s happy about that? With Menta-Life being the most important corporation known to man, having stolen from them should be a problem for us.

I question in an annoyed tone, “So, is this winding up to the part where they want to kill us or is this just conversation?”

“No. I found out the package was for them and turned it in. I told them that we found the package and they paid out one hundred and twenty-five thousand aers for it.”

That’s more like it. My first day out and I already snagged the big fish with a fat reward under it.

I ask, “So what’s my take on it? Forty thousand?”

He reminds me, “Don’t forget about your debt from two years ago.”

I speak under my breath, “How can I?”

He continues, “With that, your cut is twenty-five thousand. But then there’s the IDN…”

The minimum wage for working is five hundred aers per week regardless of how many hours worked or overtime. For the job I was sent to prison for, he was only giving me twenty-five thousand aers, which by the regular split rate, that package was not worth much. In short, he is trying to cheat me out of a lot of aers.

I contend, “With how little my cut was going to be for that package, the deal couldn’t have been worth more than forty thousand. And seeing as you picked out the people that took the package, I’d say the debt is on you. Now I can forgive you for trying to deny me my full cut or I could walk around this desk and start with an arm.”

“You know, you’re a hard woman to please.”

I place my palms on the desk and clarify, “I’m impossible to please.”

“Forty thousand aers it is then.”

He does deserve payment for my new IDN. If it weren’t for him, instead of paying for my food I’d have gotten arrested and sent back to prison faster than the time it’d have taken to digest what I ate.

I show my appreciation, “Keep half for the IDN and we call it square.”

I put my hand out for a shake and he swiftly obliges. “Very well, it’s been a pleasure doing business with ya, as always. Did you want any work?”

I back away from his desk. “I did, but I’ll just get settled in and take a tour of what I missed for two years.”

“Want to go for a run with Dayio? He usually runs around the city during the day.”

“He still does that?”

“That’s how he stays in shape.”

“I had to save his skin last night, so it seems he needs a new regimen. Where is he?”

Trex presses a button on his retro landline and calls out, “Dayio?”

Dayio voice exits the speaker, “Go ahead, Trex?”

“Van is coming out.”

“Okay.”

He presses the button then says to me, “He’s at his post.”

I turn around and walk out of the office then through the passage to the forest. Dayio and his group are sitting around in a circle talking, wearing their dark stealth clothes. Dayio is standing with his back to me. I approach them and everyone’s eyes shift to me.

Dayio turns around and greets me. “What’s up, Van? Trex told you about the package, right?”

“Yeah. Menta-Life. Big deal I guess”

Menta-Life is the leading corporation in the center of the city. They gave the world hope after the war. The war ruined more than half of the Earth and, considering a third of it was water, that’s saying a lot. Menta-Life rebuilt it with the creation of their Life program.

The size of this city runs sixty miles around on every side. To have built so much in seventeen years wouldn’t have been possible without their Life program, or so I’ve heard. I’m not the type of person to become attached to the manipulative media. Menta-Life is a really big deal in this and every other city that has a Menta-Life facility.

Dayio shares his thoughts. “That definitely wasn’t what I expected. And it was a major payout, too.”

“Any idea what the package was? Something so small worth so much to them.”

“I have no idea honestly, though whatever it was, I’d definitely do it again. You here to train?”

“What about the run?”

“That can wait. The guys need a little practice if you’re up for some schooling.”

“You sure?”

He turns back to his group as he concludes, “Yeah, you and I both know you could use a workout.” He then addresses everyone. “Let’s warm up.”

I start following them in doing some stretches, then warm-up exercises throughout the forest. We train in fighting, then climbing through trees, and take frequent breaks. Before I know it, five hours have gone by and my stomach is feeling the hunger again. Dayio starts sending groups of three to the passage break room. I sit and listen to them all tell stories, but I don’t chime in with them. When my time comes to go eat, Dayio comes with me and one of his female guards comes, too. We each get a meal out of the foodie and sit at the table beginning to eat.

The female takes an interest in me. “I hear you and Dayio here did a lot of running together a couple years back.”

I confirm. “We did, then I ended up in prison.”

“What for?”

“Apparently I killed twelve people.”

“Wow, you really are dangerous.”

“I am, but I didn’t do it. The couple Trex sent me in with must have jumped the deal and killed everyone.”

“How’d you get out?”

“I didn’t. I was the fall girl. Got sent to prison and, two years later, I’m back here.”

“That’s a light sentence for twelve murders.”

“I broke out. Someone staged a blackout so I could escape.”

“Trex?”

“I have no clue.”

“That prison must be a half-mile high. How did you escape?”

“I fought an Alpha mech. I jumped onto its back as we were falling from the prison. It was badly damaged in the crash. I rewired it and it brought me back here to the forest.”

“So that explosion yesterday was…”

I confirm her analysis. “Yep. An attack helicopter blew up the Alpha after it shot me into the woods. I almost didn’t make it.”

“That’s a story for the grandchildren. What are you going to do now that you’re out?”

“Same thing I did to get in.”

She smiles as we all finish our food. They both seemed very interested in my story. If someone had told me what I’d just told them, I would have said they were full of it. I did do a bit of summarizing, though they get the point of it.

Dayio asks, “Want to go for a run through the city?”

I answer, “Sure.”

He gives the girl orders. “We’ll head out. Return to your post with the others.”

She replies, “Okay, Dayio.” She then turns to me and states, “Nice chatting, Van.”

I nod my head as she leaves the room. Dayio and I get up, leaving her behind. We begin walking through the passage towards the bakery. I look back and see the girl jogging back out to her post. Dayio and I leave the passage into the bakery, then exit to the street. We both look around from where we’re standing.

Dayio asks, “Which direction you want to go?”

“Which direction has the newest developments?”

“That’ll be the west. We’ll head north toward the Menta-Life Corp and go west from there. Let’s go.”

He starts to make his way to the stop light to cross the street. I follow behind him. We make our way to the back of the first building on the other side. We see a pipe reaching from bottom to top so we climb up to reach the top. When we get to the top, we look over at the center of the city from here. The city has a rising effect to it; all of the buildings start from smallest on the outskirts, to the biggest, which is Menta-Life, then back down again in every direction.

Dayio points out, “There is the landmark Menta-Life.”

The corporation is housed in a tall tower that has a slant at the roof of it and the Menta-Life logo on all four sides with a crescent Earth beside it. The top half of the building is all that can be seen beyond the buildings that are blocking the view. The other miscellaneous buildings are important also: electric company, internet services, magazine publishing, and lots more.

Dayio points left and my eyes follow. “Here’s a new piece, Atrio Bank. It was built about a year and a half ago.”

The bank isn’t flat-topped like most buildings in the city. This is probably to indicate its status with a kind of presidential top.

I make my confused inquiry. “A bank?”

“Yeah. The company released a new piece of technology called DSC, or Data Storage Core. They found a way for people to store their aers onto individual storage devices that aren’t linked to a connected network.”

“Contingency in case some lucky hacker manages to breach IDN security. I wasn’t in prison that long Dayio.”

“Hey, I didn’t wait for you. Let’s keep going then.”

We make our way back down to the street and Dayio continues showing me new landmarks leading north. We head around to the southwest side of the Menta-Life Corporation, then stop on the outside of a tall business building to get a full view of the corporation.

I state, “There she is. The icon of all icons.”

The windows are all black from the second floor up to the roof. They sure do like their privacy. It’s hard for me to imagine a bunch of computers and offices in there. At the ground floor there is a line of people out the door and no cruisers around, so there must be an underground parking garage nearby.

Dayio asks, “You ever think how much they pull in a day from their dream program?”

“Nope. I don’t think I can calculate that high. Have you ever been inside?”

“Of course not. All Menta-Life Corps have the tightest security on the planet. Only way you get in is as a customer.”

“So you’ve never tried a dream then?”

“I refuse to get sucked into that dream habit, just like you.”

“I’ve never wanted to waste my aers on it. My life is long enough as it is.”

Dayio turns around, then faces west and asks, “You ready to run?”

I turn sideways and look at where Dayio is looking. We are standing on the second tallest building in the city and the rooftops descend from here.

I answer as I commence the racing, “Yep.”

I get the fastest head start I can, then jump off the building down to the next one. Dayio is following close behind me as he continues to point out new places while we jump through the city. The sun is slowly going down around us so it must be around six o’clock now. We reach the last building to the west and I finish in front of him. We stop for a while to catch our breath.

I comment, “Looks like you need some practice.”

“Hardly. I don’t see how you kept in practice for two years behind those walls.”

“Me either.”

“I gotta get back to my watch. Where you heading?”

“Going to grab a bite and head home.”

“You ever need anything, come by. It’s good having you back.”

He takes off to a ladder then disappears down the side of the building. I haven’t watched the sunset in years. I sit down and lose myself in the orange glow. It feels good to be back on the outside again, with sunlight. The lights around the city start to turn on, which means it’s seven again.

I forgot that I need to go to Lynn’s shop to get a new outfit, so I get up and head straight there. I run across the rooftops around to the southwest quadrant where her shop is located. Lynn’s Professional Alterations doesn’t stand out at all; it’s bunched in between a line-up of other shops and has no attention-grabbing hologram. Once I arrive, I step into the double doors of her bright yellow shop.

The small shop’s walls are lined with clothing and a counter in the center, where she handles her orders. Lynn is a middle-aged woman that is a lot more humble and less exciting than most of the people in this city. She is the best tailor around, but not everyone knows because she likes it that way. She only does work for exclusive clients and wishes to remain anonymous; that way she can still have her free time and peace of mind without becoming overwhelmed by the massive amounts of people who want to be lookalikes.

While she’s sitting at her desk reading a digitized page, I approach her and plainly greet, “Hello, Lynn.”

She looks up, then sluggishly and uninterestedly greets me. “Vanessa, how are you?” She examines me and adds, “Should I have asked?”

“You already did. If you got the time, I need new gear.”

She sets her page down then grabs a bag that’s hiding behind the desk next to her. I peek at what she’s reading to see that it’s a story book on the scrollable page.

She lifts up the bag and sets it on the counter. “I made you two more last night after Dayio left. Go change out of the one you’ve got on now and I’ll have it and another set ready tomorrow.”

“How much?”

“For these two and the cleaning of this one and another pair, five thousand aers.”

Her prices were usually a little steeper than that, so I question her obvious generosity. “That’s it?”

She responds as she picks her page back up, “This time it is. Welcome back, Vanessa.”

I grab the bag off her desk and go into the back to change my clothes. Her finished works are displayed all around the room like trophies and her work materials are scattered on a couple of tables. I dig into the bag and change into my new clothes, leaving my old ones on the table.

I walk back out to the shop floor with the bag. “Ready for payment.”

She grabs her scanner off the counter and scans me from her seat. The scanner beeps when it’s done.

“Thanks, Lynn. I’ll be back some time tomorrow.”

Lynn and I have never been on informal terms because it seemed like our ideals always clashed, even though we don’t know what each others are. She seems to dislike this place and its people just as much as I do, so naturally we should have a lot in common. We do; not speaking too much to each other proves it. If not for her business, we’d have nothing to say to each other at all and she’d be just another person I brush past.

I leave her shop and see a man standing outside of a parked four-door cruiser with the passenger door open. That’s pretty creepy. The man looks about thirty-five and very rugged with under-average attire, so he definitely doesn’t fit the description of a celebrity’s chauffeur; plus, the cruiser is just an average one that normal people drive.

He stares at me and asks, “Are you Vanessa Pheros?”

Oh good, he’s here for me. I quickly shift my eyes left and right to see if there is any suspicious backup hanging around. Everything looks fine on my end, so maybe he is just a driver. I don’t care to find out.

 

Chapter 6: The Threat

 

This guy obviously expects me to get in. The cruiser is an older model; it is black and has curved surfaces in the front, but a square surface in the back to accommodate the backseat passengers and luggage space. The only thing missing now is the offer of a sweet deal, although I’m not going to wait for that to happen.

I answer, “Never heard of her.”

He pulls open his black leather jacket to reveal a pulser pistol. I’m halted about five feet away from him, which is close enough for me to take his weapon and kill him before he tries to kill me.

He replies, “I think you do know her. My employer wants to meet.”

I cross my arms and ask, “For what?”

“To talk.”

“I don’t wanna talk.”

He reaches for his pistol with his right hand and I quickly step closer to him. He pulls it off his hip as I grab his right wrist and twist it downward to spin him around towards the cruiser. I take the pistol with my left hand, then put it to his head while I pin him down to the cruiser with my right.

He struggles to speak, “We need your help. You have the skills to do things that we can’t.”

I realize I have unintentionally sold myself. I should have known that he wouldn’t have killed me, but now, whoever they are, they’ll likely want me more than before. Who does he work for? Whatever this person has to offer me can potentially be profitable, yet with the way this guy is dressed, probably not. What harm can there be in going to hear his boss out? All I have to say is “no” and the worst they can do is try to kill me. It’s not like they’d be the first to try.

I ask, “Anybody in the cruiser?”

“No. I came here alone.”

“Then I ride in front and I’m keeping the pulser.”

I turn him to my right toward the front of the cruiser and push him forward, releasing his wrist. I continue to hold the weapon to him as he makes his way around the front of the cruiser to the driver’s seat. I get in on the passenger side and watch him. The cruiser has the average interior with everything hidden, meaning nothing is visible in the cruiser except for the seats until it’s accessed by the driver or passenger. He closes the door and the steering wheel slides out from underneath the dashboard. The battery starts automatically, then he grabs the wheel and begins to drive north.

I demand, “Take it up to seventy-five.”

He presses a button on the steering wheel that flips out a panel on the dashboard between the driver and passenger seat. He presses the gravitational riser and the cruiser slowly starts to rise from street level while still driving the speed limit. It reaches seventy, then merges up with the other traffic, joining at seventy-five as we sail through the air. I still have the weapon held over at him as he drives.

He breaks the silence, “Don’t you want to know where we’re going?”

“Doesn’t make any difference to me. I’ll find out when we get there.”

He just nods and continues to drive in silence. There is only one person who wanted to meet me this morning and this lackey was sent to find me because I didn’t show up. I don’t care who he and his boss are, but with his understanding of my response, I know he works for the people who sent me the letter in prison. They broke me out of prison because they wanted to use me for something. As long as the price is right, they may have themselves a recruit.

I look out of the window in front of me to see the lights from billboards and signs shining as we pass by. The sun has fallen completely over the horizon. The billboards and signs are set ten feet higher than gravity limits on each level to avoid blinding drivers with all of the different colors. The cruisers in front of us are heading the same speed limit we are.

There are two lanes on every gravity level and, depending on how high the side of town is that the person is on, the amount of traffic will vary. Traffic starts to pick up as we get further into the higher section of the city. The buildings are lined up along the streets where the billboards hang. After a long drive heading into the inner city, I hear the driver move his hand and I use my thumb to activate the battery on the pulser as I continue staring out of the window.

He hurriedly explains, “We’re close, I’m just lowering the gravity so we can park.”

I don’t respond to his explanation. He switches the gravity and the cruiser slowly descends down to street level, then merges in when traffic clears. We pull to the right in front of the Cravanaugh Hotel. The hotel has black granite steps to the entrance and it looks to be about sixty stories high. The building is a dark brown color with windows all around and a revolving door in front. There are also ramps on both sides for handicap access.

I tuck the pistol away as a valet approaches the driver side of the cruiser and asks, “Park for you, sir?”

The mystery man replies, “Yes, please.” He looks over at me and commands, “Let’s go.”

I ask, “You gonna open my door?”

He gathers an irritated look on his face as he gets out of the cruiser and the valet gets in. The driver approaches my side and opens the door, but doesn’t look at me while he does it. I get out of the cruiser with the pulser tucked in my jacket still pointing towards him.

I sarcastically compliment, “What a gentleman.” He closes the door, looking at me as if I know where I’m going, so I say, “I’m right behind you, dear.”

He starts walking up the stairs and I follow behind him through the revolving door. The inside of the hotel is fancy. It has marble flooring and beige walls with plenty of seating for guests around the lobby. The circular marble pillars seem to hold the hotel up for about forty feet. I store the pistol in my inner jacket pocket and we make our way straight through the lobby to the elevator.

His people must have been here all day since there’s no need to check-in at the reception counter. There are three elevators and two red-carpeted staircases: one on the left and right of the elevators. He presses the button and the middle elevator comes down. The riders exit. After they’re all out, we go in and he presses button “35”.

The elevator only has mid-level numbers stopping only at certain floors except for the first five. As we ride up in silence toward the thirty-fifth floor, I pull out the pistol, then take out the battery at the bottom. He’ll have to wait for the recharge before he can use it again. I give the pistol and battery back to him.

He looks at it with a funny expression as he sarcastically acknowledges, “Thanks.”

There’s no time to ready the pistol for use, so he puts it into two separate pockets. The elevator opens up as he adjusts his jacket. In front of us is a long hallway with art hanging along the beige walls. The hallways are lined gold doors. He steps out onto the red carpet and I follow behind him. I am surprised there aren’t guards in the hallway; whoever this guy is, he’s not important, unless we’re not meeting in person.

Halfway on the right he approaches door “3512”, then uses a keycard to open it and walks in. I follow him in and feel more marble flooring under my feet. There is a bathroom door on my immediate right and an entry area ahead. The entry is all white with a dome ceiling and there is a small round table about four feet high; it carries a round glass top for placing decorations.

We approach a group of four men standing in the center of the room in front of the table. Three of the men are from last night’s courier robbery and the nerdy-looking blonde one in the gray suit, I don’t recognize. The three men are dressed in regular clothing like the driver. I walked right into a trap laid by the people I’d pissed off by stealing that package. I slow down to keep my distance from the driver as I approach with him, just in case he plans to grab me.

One of the men I fought with last night lets out some angry barks. “Hey, what is this!?! This is the girl from last night who took the bag!”

He rushes toward me and all of the guys except the one in the gray suit quickly rush to hold him back. I stop and cross my arms as I watch them. The guy in the suit definitely isn’t in charge; he looks too well-spoken and clean, like a secretary or advisor, with those rectangle glasses. The driver pushes the guy back and the other two get ahold of him.

The driver forcefully demands, “Calm down, alright? She’s the one that he wants to speak with.”

The angry guy argues, “She can’t be. She’s the one who stole the package in the first place.”

The nerdy guy chimes in, “That is for your employer to sort out. Everyone wait outside.”

He has a slight German accent. I stare at the guy in the gray suit as he stares back at me with a smirk. What is he so happy about?

The angry guy shakes the other two off him, then sternly states, “I’m fine.”

They all group together and walk by me toward the door. I can feel the angry guy’s eyes still on me as I stand here with my arms folded, not paying any attention to him. I hear the door close behind me.

The guy in the suit apologizes. “Sorry about that. Last night was an unexpected event. Would you like a drink?”

I am still hungry and a glass of juice or water would do wonders for me right now, so I answer, “Only if I can pour it myself.”

He guarantees, “Certainly. Follow me to the kitchen.”

He turns to his right and starts walking. I follow behind him, entering the big kitchen. The room isn’t all silent, though, perhaps to the untrained ear it would be; there is a white noise in the background, as if someone is recording or listening in. The kitchen is gorgeous, like something you’d see in a president’s home. This particular hotel room must be a suite. The counter begins to rise up from the center of the floor.

He walks around the counter and I walk straight to the foodie, then dig in as I ask, “So what do you want with me?”

I grab a gallon juice bottle and set it on the counter as he introduces himself. “My name is Hines Aldwich and, well, first I would like to know what happened to the package.”

“Got me. I never even touched it. All I know is that super corporation Menta-Life has it.”

“What a terrible shame indeed.”

Their food selection isn’t very appealing to me; like it’s set for a trainer’s diet with things that I don’t even recognize, so I close the foodie and start drinking the juice straight from the bottle. The guy looks at me in disgust, like he’s better than I am, which he may actually be.

He clears his throat and continues, “The contents of that package were very imperative to Menta-Life; contents that I had great interest in.”

“I know. Can you believe they paid a hundred and twenty-five thousand aers for it?”

“Yes, I can. That package contained vital technology that my people could have potentially used against Menta-Life.”

“Use against them? I thought rich suits like you loved them.”

“I’m far from a rich suit, Ms. Pheros. Have you ever heard of Equility?”

“Nope.”

I chug some more juice as he replies, “That’s good. My people represent change in the city and we want the Menta-Life Corporation to crumble.”

I ask, “So what are you guys, some kind of terrorists?”

He strains his expression lightly as an obvious insult, “Freedom fighters, Ms. Pheros.”

“Menta-Life is the number one corporation, head of the new world, and is more secure than any other corporation made so by the armed forces and government, so I hear. You think you and your four pathetic henchmen will be able to bring them down?”

“Our numbers greatly exceed the five of us and we have to bring them down before they abolish what’s left of the new world.”

Hines is certainly being much too over-exaggerative and very incorrect. The corporation makes too much money off the people to want to destroy this new world they created, or anything else for that matter.

I reply, “You’re obviously crazy and I think you and your squad out there should get some help. Besides, I have no interest or care in saving the world.”

I put the juice down on the counter and start walking away as he quickly says, “You’re no exemption. They’ll destroy you, too.”

I quickly reply back, “They can try.”

He demands, “Please!” I stop, then turn my head back toward him as he points his palms out and asks, “Please, just hear me out?”

I turn around to him, crossing my arms. This is some kind of recruitment drive that I am not interested in. As smart as this guy looks, the worst he can do to them is petition. I guess that’s why they need me. I have skill, but not enough stupidity to want to start an attack on Menta-Life. He seems desperate, so I decide to at least hear what he has to say; there may be some profit involved.

I answer, “Fine.”

“Thank you,” he sighs a breath of relief. “A little more than a year ago, we uncovered some vital information by one of our own who was killed while trying to retrieve it. He breached the Menta-Life system and directed us a message from one of their servers. It took us a month to decode the message and the information was most troubling.” He begins pacing. “As everyone is aware, Menta-Life is able to use their technology to allow one to live ninety years in their Life system on a connected server. Now, from what we’ve gathered, since the founding of the corporation, technological advancement has shot up three hundred percent and is continually ascending very rapidly. When the old world was defaced back in 2068, we lost everything except for what belongings the survivors had on them. Four years later, Menta-Life was born and it only took a decade to surpass a level of technological innovation that had previously taken humanity thousands of years to achieve. However, that’s not the bad part. Technology is expanding, yes. How, is the question.”

I start scratching my head. This guy can talk. It’s not that his words aren’t getting through, it’s just that he’s preaching to the wrong choir. By scratching my head, he understands the unsaid message that his speech is running on too long for me.

He starts summarizing, “We have reason to believe that they’ve been monitoring their client’s Lifes and stealing their ideas.”

I only know bits and pieces about Menta-Life, though I know for sure that one of their assurances, which are mentioned in fine print, is that they will never invade their client’s Life.

He continues, “Now, of course, just stealing their ideas isn’t enough because there are those who can fight against it if they see their technology on television, billboards, etc. Now, to eliminate that risk, they have taken it a step further and have actually breached people’s memories, keeping it for themselves. Follow me.”

He turns and walks straight past me to the door in front of the entry. I cautiously follow behind him, watching every corner. He opens the door to an office and I follow him inside. The office has red carpeting just like the hallway outside and a desk with three chairs. Hines walks around the desk and activates a digitized page, then turns it towards me.

He says, “Look at this.”

I approach the desk and look at the page to see a middle-aged man being arrested as he tries to break free from the Regulators in their blue uniforms. His struggling doesn’t seem to be getting him anywhere as they’re just hauling him along through the crowd of photographers and reporters.

I ask, “Who is this?”

“That is Liam Reber. He tried to plead a case against Menta-Life because he felt that he had forgotten something significant after using the Life system. He was a famed scientist who was judged as insane. The ironic thing is, soon after, he did become insane. His mind started to deteriorate and he was cast down as a Deserted. The accusation took place in 2079, four years after Menta-Life was first opened to the public. Deserted numbers have increased slowly, yet consistently ever since.”

“Are you saying that Menta-Life was responsible?”

“That is precisely what I’m saying. Some of the Deserted used to be important people who became addicted to the system Menta-Life offers. Famous prodigy bachelors, scientists like Liam, people who had the brains to discover they can use the Life system as more than just a tool for fun and figure out progressive technologies; all of these people have lost their minds. That was the message I mentioned earlier. All it read was ‘Deserted’ then we instantly understood. Now we have to stop them before it’s too late.”

“Too late for what?”

“Menta-Life has corporations in every city, so I can assure you that this is not just happening here. They will continue to steal memories and we don’t know if they’ll stop or when.”

His theory makes perfect sense based on what I have heard and seen of the Deserted before I went to prison. I’ve lived among them since I was eighteen, and I’ve heard their ramblings and whispers. This sounds like something I’d risk my life to accomplish, so I wonder how much that’s worth to him.

I ask, “How much?”

He pauses then requests, “I beg your pardon?”

“It sounds like I’m going to be saving the world from utter destruction, so how much do I get for my services?”

“This cause is much bigger than money.”

“Not to me it isn’t. This place can burn for all I care, but if it’s worth anything to you, you’ll pay. Now, I figure there are at least three million people in this city, and I hear kidnappers charge about three hundred thousand for a ransom, so slash that figure in half and multiply it by three million and that’s what I want.”

He quickly comments in a surprised tone, “That is absolutely preposterous. There is no way we can reach a sum that high.”

“Then throw out a number and make me happy.”

“I unquestionably cannot.”

That white noise is still in the air around the room, so I decide to bring the people listening to the stand with my offer.

I look up and raise my voice to ask, “Then how about you up there?”

Hines quickly asks, “What are you doing?”

I look at Hines and answer, “Seeing if your boss up there has a better deal for me.” I look up then ask, “Come on, what’s the offer?”

An older male voice from above rains down, “You are very perceptive, Ms. Pheros.”

I add, “And very irritated by that white noise static. You should maybe talk to your electrician about that.”

“Ms. Pheros, we need your expertise in bringing down Menta-Life.”

“What do you know about my expertise?”

“I know everything about you, Ms. Pheros. I know about your time in prison, every jail you’ve been to, every foster home, mental hospital, et cetera, et cetera.”

“You’re very nosy, aren’t you?”

“Ms. Pheros, I am a very powerful man.”

I interrupt, “But not powerful enough.”

Hines calls out to me, “Ms. Pheros–”

The old voice interrupts, “Mr. Aldwich, it is quite alright.” He continues to me. “Ms. Pheros, you will be one of many that will be working to help us bring down Menta-Life.”

I ask, “Then will you meet my price, Mr. Powerful?”

“Your price exceeds even the limit of the Menta-Life Corporation.”

“I highly doubt that. What do you have?”

“I can’t promise much.”

Why does this strike me as a ruse? He claims to be powerful, yet not have much to give. I have no idea how that can possibly make sense, but since he plans on bringing down the Menta-Life Corporation, there could be a massive profit in that.

I reply, “That doesn’t sound promising at all. A million aers to start and we’ll work out the rest later when I see your operation and plans.”

Hines states, “Pre-payment is out of the question.”

I reply, “Then be glad it’s not a question. That’s my starting price. Pay up or I walk.”

The old voice notifies, “Payment is being sent.”

Hines raises his voice, “But sir–”

The old voice sternly demands, “That is enough, Mr. Aldwich. We cannot manage to terminate Menta-Life without Ms. Pheros’ help. She has us in a bind.”

I chime in, “I’m glad you get it because Hines would have let me walk right out that door.”

I receive a notification on my Econ and the female voice informs, “One million aers have just been transferred to your account.”

I thought the guy was bluffing, but apparently they really do need me. For a million aers, they have me reeled in as far as I can possibly go. I could care less about their ideals and what they’re trying to accomplish; as long as I get paid, we don’t have a problem.

I state, “So, it seems you people really mean business. Where do we start?”

The old voice answers, “First, you should come meet the members of Equility, then we work from there. Mr. Aldwich will direct you from there to us. We’ll see you soon.”

The white noise goes silent. I say to myself as I itch at my ear, “Finally, that irritable screeching is done with. That was annoying.”

Hines grows a baffled expression on his face, so I guess he thinks I’m referring to his boss. His expression doesn’t bother me at all. I stand still, staring at him, waiting for him to make the next move. Hopefully he mentions food because I’m still out of fuel.

Hines asks, “Shall we proceed to the base?”

I answer, “No. It’s been a while since I’ve eaten, so I’m getting some food first.”

Every fancy hotel in the city has a buffet in it and that’s exactly what I need right now. I start walking towards the door, so I can get back downstairs to the lobby.

Hines quickly suggests, “I do think we should make haste.”

I reply, “Relax, I won’t be long.”

I walk out of the door and see the four men standing in the hallway next to it; two on the left wall and two on the right. I start walking toward the elevator on the left and see the angry guy staring at me. I feel like pissing him off even more since he’s still being a jerk.

I smile and say to him as I walk past, “Looks like you’re mine now, pumpkin.”

I wink at him, then face back toward the elevator and continue walking. That feels really good. To maintain my cool, I can’t look back at him to see the damage I’ve done or I’ll look like I’m being too cautious. I reach the elevator and press the button. As I wait for the elevator, I hear a door close behind me.

Someone must have gone back into the room. The elevator opens up on a bellman with a smile on his face and his hands at ease behind his back. He has on a burgundy bellman’s outfit: a pair of slacks, a button-up shirt with vest, and blue bellman’s hat pulled down really low.

I quickly ask, “Where’s the buffet?”

The bellman answers with a small as he exits the elevator, “Fourth floor.”

I step into the elevator and hit the button marked “4”. I look back and see the hallway is clear except for the bellman walking away with his hands in front of him. The elevator door closes and descends down to the fourth floor, then makes a pinging sound as it opens. There’s just another hallway in front of me that’s lined with doors.

I look up to make sure it’s the right stop at the fourth floor and it is. Stupid bellman doesn’t even know where things are. Why is that? He was kind of abnormal acting for a bellman. I get this feeling in my gut that something is wrong.

As I press the button marked “35” to go back up, I angrily say to myself, “Dammit.”

The elevator closes and it can’t make its way back up any faster, yet it’s still faster than the stairs. The elevator makes the ping to let me know it’s about to open. I move to the left corner as the door opens. No one steps in so I stick my head out and peek into the hallway. I see a body lying in the doorway of the room I came out of.

I can’t tell who it is, though, because their face is looking towards the other end of the hallway. The body is on its left side, so he must have let the bellman in, then been shot as the bellman entered. The body had to have fallen sideways out of the room. I slowly walk over to the body and recognize the clothing of the angry guy. I approach the door, then stick to the wall next to it for cover.

I look down at the dead body to confirm who it is. It is for sure the snappy one. There are four men unaccounted for so far, and a killer dressed as a bellman. I poke my head into the room, then quickly back out in case someone has a weapon pointed at it. Nobody shoots at me, so I think it’s safe to enter.

I cautiously look into the room and see the dead driver lying in a sea of glass next to the four foot table with his pistol above him; that’s three remaining. The table is still upright and the body is right next to it, so he must have been shot when the bellman entered the room as well. I search the body at the door and take the pistol from the right pocket and enter the room. I look at the wall on my right to see two small burn marks on it.

The shooter must have a second weapon to get them both so fast. The bellman had no jacket or place to conceal the weapon besides his vest. It would have been too obvious from the front for the driver not to get a shot off in time after seeing his partner go down. The bellman must have fired one gun through his vest as he pulled the other and took out the driver. The driver fell into the corner of the table and flipped the glass causing it to break and scatter the way it did.

I scan the room with the pistol ready, looking for the bellman. I look towards the kitchen and see no one in the immediate doorway. I step to the doorway to see the retracted counter and emptiness. The door on the right and the office door in the middle are closed. I step into the kitchen, then quickly check for the bellman or Hines and the other two missing henchmen.

The kitchen is clear, so I double back to the entry and head into the office. I notice three burn holes in the center of the door. I open the door and see the other guy dead at the desk. It seems like he was hit through the closed door. These pulses can’t singly penetrate walls, so this bellman has to be an amazing shot to get multiple shots through back to back like that.

I look down to my left and see the other guy in street clothes lying dead behind the door. He must have closed the door when the bellman came in, but the bellman fired through the door anyway and killed them both. That’s four bodies accounted for, but no Hines or bellman. The last room I haven’t checked must be the bedroom. I leave the office and head left, quickly pushing the bedroom door open.

I see just the bed and end tables on the sides of it. No one is in here either, so the bellman must have taken Hines. I never left the elevator, so they must be headed down the stairs. I have to move fast. I bolt out of the room and down the hall, back to the elevator. I hit the button and impatiently wait for the elevator to arrive. When it does, I run inside and push the button marked “L” for Lobby.

I constantly press the button until the door shuts completely. I hold the pistol behind my back as I wait for the elevator to reach the lobby. Once I hear the ping, I tuck the gun in the back of my pants, behind my shirt, and rush out as the door opens. The lobby is full of people, but I don’t see the bellman or Hines. Taking the stairs couldn’t have gotten them too far ahead of me.

I walk straight to the front of the lobby and out the door to where the valet is. There are a few people coming in and out of the hotel; no one familiar. I see the same valet who took the cruiser when we got here, standing at the curb. Pretty soon, someone will report the dead bodies to the Regs and it won’t be a smart idea for me to get quarantined inside of the hotel when they show up. I can sit in the car and wait for the bellman or Hines to come out, though.

I approach the valet from behind and get his attention, “Excuse me?”

He turns around and requests, “Yes, how may I be of service?”

“Can you get my cruiser?”

“Yes certainly.”

The valet walks away, then I start to look around the surrounding area to see if I spot anything fishy, but nothing out of the ordinary is happening. The valet shows up with the cruiser and I quickly get in, then pull away. I drive to the corner, then make a U-turn and park across the street where I can still get a view of the hotel from a good, unnoticeable distance.

I’m not sure if they got out of the hotel yet, but I have no way of catching them, so I just have to hope they didn’t; maybe even wait them out. Damn. Hines had to go and have his incapable crew try to protect him. Without him, I have no way of knowing what to do next, unless they decide to find me, assuming they don’t believe this was my doing when they find out.