The young woman known only as Nemesis walked down the crowded alleyway known as Arcade.
She was following the directions scrawled on the back of a business card that someone had given here while she stood in line for her weekly Government Ration Box. She muttered the directions aloud to herself as she walked, "After you pass Harva's, count seven stalls on the left, between the seventh stall and the sewer cap there will be a door. Knock."
The door was so caked in grime it was nearly invisible. Nemesis hesitated, then knocked. The door slid upward with a quiet hiss of well-oiled hydraulics. Nemesis walked through into the dimly lit corridor. There was an intercom unit mounted on the wall to her left, she pushed the only button, "Hello? Is this the Haven?"
A slightly accented male voice answered, "That all depends on who you are and who sent you."
"They call me Nemesis. Someone gave me this card."
There was laughter in the tone, "Aah, so you're our Gov-Rat girl." Nemesis bristled at the slur, "Only when I have to."
"You should come inside."
There was another hydraulic hiss further down the corridor, a bright line of light appeared at floor level and stretched upward to form the rectangle of a doorway. Nemesis reached into her jacked pocket fingering the tazer-knife she kept there and walked through the doorway.
On the other side of the door was a living space occupied by a young man. He was tall, and had unnatural red tips on a head of natural white-blond hair, cut short and spiked like a dandelion puff. He was wearing a cargo suit that, except for the olive drab color, wouldn't be out of place on the streets of the Sprawl, the streets that Nemesis called home. He extended his hand, "I'm Waylo." Nemesis shook his hand briskly and returned her hand to her pocket.
"You won't need your buzzblade here Girly, I'm a friend. What's your damage?"
Nemesis knit her brow in confusion, "What do you mean?"
Waylo smiled, "The injection gun marks on your arm, and I suspect on the back of your neck"
Nemesis reached up to touch the back of her neck reflexively.
"What's your injection of choice?" Waylo continued, "Stims? 'Laxants? Halogens?"
Nemesis shrugged, "Whatever I can get for cheap."
"How about a cup of coffee?"
Nemesis blinked twice in quick succession, "No thanks. Why am I here?"
Waylo smiled, "Because you followed the card."
"Why did I GET the card?"
Waylo's smile widened, "I'll show you." He opened a cabinet and stepped aside. Nemesis gasped when she saw what it contained, "A speedboard? These things are archaic." She caressed the lettered plastic keys lovingly, "Not many people know how to use them."
Nemesis backed away from the cabinet, "Who are you?"
Waylo held his hands up, palms out, "I'm a fellow pirate, an underground patriot if you will. I'm the flare you ran into on your last Jack. I traced you, I'm sorry, but it was the only way to find you. You see, I, WE need your help."
"We who, white boy?" Nemesis asked, her face taught with anger.
Waylo flicked his hands into the street-signs for 'friend' and 'team'. Nemesis relaxed slightly, most assassins didn't know street-sign that well, and someone sent by the Govs wouldn't even know it existed.
She cocked her head sideways to show that she wasn't going to bolt, "Can we talk here?" Waylo shook his head, "Not anymore. You seem to have developed a slight roach problem. Follow me."
"Why should I trust you?"
Waylo grinned roguishly, "Why shouldn't you?"
Waylo led her across the room and through a door that was partially concealed behind a tattered French National flag. The room beyond was full of shelves and racks, all of which were stuffed to overflowing with electrical equipment. Wires and cables were strung between the shelves like a black widow's web.
Sitting at a scanner console near the center of the web was a woman, wearing a dark purple halter-top and faded blue-black fatigues. Her creamy chocolate colored skin was covered in a thin layer of green shimmer gel. Her hair was parted into small square braids, each with a chip of circuit board tied to the end so they clacked together lightly when she moved.
Waylo put a finger to his lips, "She's got a roach."
The black woman nodded, her braids rattling with the motion, "So I heard. Hey little sister, you get anything you're wearing out of a Gov-box?"
"Better run it through the scanner."
Nemesis took off the scarf and set it on the scanner tray. The black woman pressed a few buttons and nodded in confirmation, "Hotter than a habenero popover fresh from the oven. I'm gonna have to fry the damn thing little sister."
Nemesis shrugged, "Go right ahead, it's not like it's mine anyway."
The woman flipped a switch with a sharp click. The scarf, and the small listening device attached to it were flash cooked. All that remained were a few particles of grayish ash. Waylo brushed them off the tray and addressed the room. "Trace? Is she clean? Good. Nemesis, it's time for you to meet the team." He gestured to the black woman, "This is Vixy, our demolitions expert."
Vixy walked around from behind the scanner and shook Nemesis' hand, "It's a pleasure to meet you. The rest of the team's downstairs." Vixy and Waylo led Nemesis through a trapdoor under one of the electronics racks. The room underneath was tidy and sparsely furnished, practically Spartan compared to the rooms above. The walls, ceiling and floor were all decorated with local Sprawl street gang symbols and primitive Hobo pictograms form the early twentieth century.
There were four Jack consoles at the far side of the room; one with a speedboard, one with Virtual Matter Manipulation gloves one with a central matrix direct link, and one that wasn't hooked up to anything.
Clustered around a bank of video monitors, each showing a different view of the rooms above, were three people. One female, one male, and one of indistinct gender. Waylo introduced the woman first, "This is Roe, although we usually call her Kit." Kit grinned, showing pointed catlike teeth, "Charmed I'm sure."
"Kit's our medic." Vixy explained. Waylo gestured to the man, "This is Kit's brother Jerome." Jerome flicked a forked tongue out over his bottom lip and held his hand out to shake. When Nemesis took it he held her fingers to his lips briefly, "You can call me Ssnake." Again the tongue flicked out. Vixy rolled her eyes, "Always the charmer aren't you el mano?" Jerome shrugged, "Hey, can I sstop myself from being attracted to beautiful women?" Kit and Vixy glanced at each other knowingly, "Yes!" They said in unison. Jerome backed up a step, "Whoa, sstereo ssnapocity."
Waylo smiled at Nemesis, "The only thing you can do at this point is ignore them, they'll stop eventually. Now, the quiet one on the end is Trace. Trace is the one who gave you the card, being our Master of Disguise." Nemesis raised a quizzical eyebrow, "Master of Disguise?"
Trace's holographic face flickered, becoming similar to Vixy's, "Welcome to the team little sister." Nemesis' eyes widened, "You're an Artificial?"
Trace flickered again, becoming a uniformed CenSec officer, " 'A Rogue Artificial has been found among our ranks.' I was just lucky that the Manimal twins were there to rescue me." Trace said flickering back to what Nemesis now saw was a combination of the rest of the team's body shapes and facial features, "Why do they call you Nemesis?"
Kit pulled herself away from what was becoming a heated argument, "I was wondering the same thing myself dishy." Nemesis pulled back the flared cuff on the single sleeve of her cobalt blue cargosuit, revealing a wide, tarnished copperplate bracelet with 'Nemesis' etched into it. She shrugged, "It's the only name I remember. I woke up in a center about five years ago with no recollection of who I was or how I'd gotten there. I knew strange things, things I knew weren't common knowledge; how to use a speedboard, how to tell a meat-puppet muscle boy from a regular one, how to burn chrome, how to tail a virus, things like that. But nothing about my personal life, my name, where I was from, anything."
Trace nodded, "Sounds like a case of erased memory. Maybe you pissed off a former employer?"
"Even if I had I wouldn't remember."
Now it was Waylo's turn to nod, "True, but since they either botched the job, or left those snippets of memory for a reason..."
"Which is what I'm going with," Kit interjected, "since the Gov's felt a need to infest her."
"As I was saying, in either case they will have left a trigger. You'll see something, hear something, smell something, taste something, whatever and all your memories will come rushing back."
"Not necessarily Waylo." Trace cut in, "It may only come back in bits and pieces; a feeling, a word, an image if you're lucky. Then you get to put all the pieces together like a mental puzzle in four dimensions." Nemesis grimaced, "I hate puzzles."
Vixy had won the argument. Snake had his arms crossed across his chest, "Sso, when'ss the new girl going to sshow uss her sstuff?"
"Yeah dishy, when're you going to flaunt your skills?"
"As soon as someone tells me why I'm here."
Vixy smiled openly at her, "Because little sister, you're Elite." Nemesis closed her eyes and took a step back, "That doesn't answer my damn question!"
Waylo was concerned, he reached out to touch her arm, she pulled away from him, "Don't touch me."
"Are you alright?"
"No. I am not alright. Why am I here?" Kit looked puzzled, "Trace, is she coming off a rush?" Trace was just as puzzled, "No, I would've picked that up as soon as she walked through the front door."
Nemesis backed up another step, coming up against the bank of monitors, "I'm not buzzed. I just want a better explanation than you need my help because I'm elite. What is it that you need my help with?"
The room fell silent. Vixy rested her hand on Waylo's shoulder and murmured to him, "We've brought her this far, Waylo, we may as well tell her what's going on."
Waylo ran his hands up his face and through his hair. "Here's how it is, " he sighed, "The Government has been burning books as long as anyone can remember, but in the past twenty years or so, they've become more active in doing it. Completely obliterating all trace of any authors before the late twenty first century, and quite a few of them after that. Since nobody has actual, physical books anymore, it makes their job that much more simple."
"But what does this have to do with me?" Trace smiled wanly, "We need your help to hack into the Gov's systems and broadcast all the books they've got stored there. The works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, William Gibson..."
Snake cut in, "Terry Pratchett, Douglass Adamss, Ray Bradbury, Jane Yolen, Agatha Chrisstie..."
Kit continued the stream of names, "Alice Walker, Lewis Carroll, Edward Gorey, Geoffrey Chaucer, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Brian Jacques"
Nemesis held her hands up as if to push away the wall of words, "I get it now, and I agree. I'll help. But I need to get my stuff from home."
Waylo shook his head, "Too dangerous. The Govs will probably be watching your place."
Trace shrugged, "I'll go. I can mimic you to get your belongings and I'll be able to fend off anyone that gets too close."
"You know where I live?" Trace chuckled, "Southeast corner of the floating market, apartment above Phreak's Boutique. The Phreak's the one who led us to you."
"Thank you for doing this Trace. All of my personal stuff is in the duffel under the false floor of the closet." Nemesis took her buzzblade out of her pocket and handed it to Trace, "Leave this on the pillow. I told the Phreak that if I was ever leaving, this would be the signal that I'd left of my own accord." Trace took the knife, "I will."
Trace flickered, becoming a second image of Nemesis, "Say something for me so I can modulate my voice, just in case."
"There was an old person of Jodd,
Whose ways were perplexing and odd;
She purchased a whistle,
And sat on a thistle,
And squeaked at the people of Jodd. Edward Lear."
Trace nodded, "That should do it. I'll be back."
Everyone turned to watch the monitors as Trace left the building.