Jin Uzuki brought the disposable cup to his lips and grimaced at the bitter flavor of the tea. He was used to his own home-grown blend; what he was drinking was overpriced grass clippings. Over the rim of his cup he looked at his little sister's quarters on the Dammerung. He'd been there twice before.
The first time had been just after she'd joined Vector Industries. Her high educational scores had gotten her a position in the First R&D Division, but she'd been required to move to the company's mobile supercolony. Jin hadn't liked the idea of Shion moving so far from home. He'd gone with her, supposedly to help her get settled, but mainly to hover. Shion had politely but very firmly ousted him after a week.
The second time had been for a surprise visit on her birthday; she'd had to change her plans, and Jin still knew exactly how much that unused concert ticket had cost her.
Jin noticed that Shion's quarters hadn't changed much from the last time he'd been there. The holographic art had changed from a view of leaping dolphins to an image of a radio lobe, and the cushioning on the bed was purple instead of blue, but otherwise there was still a certain modern sterility that Jin found unattractive. He much preferred the warm woods and tatami mats of his house back on Second Miltia. There was history in those materials; here, there was no past.
"How do you manage to be sarcastic without saying anything?"
Jin jumped, splashing inferior tea on his mouth and chin. "What was that?" He wiped at his face with his left hand.
Shion handed him a napkin. "You've been holding that cup to your lips—after one sip—for a full minute. You could just say you don't like it. You don't need to do the whole 'thousand yard stare of horror' thing."
"I wasn't—," Jin began to say, moving to take a second sip.
"Do you have any idea how much that stuff costs?"
Jin aborted the sip. Apparently he'd been right about it being overpriced. "I'm sure you meant to impress me," he said, trying to be conciliatory. It didn't work. He watched as Shion's jaw tightened.
"And I'm sure we both noticed that I failed."
Jin sighed. This was not going like he'd hoped.
For the last six days, the Dammerung had been in geosynchronous orbit over Mitrei, Second Miltia's capital. As Jin understood things, the supercolony was there so that Vector's First Division, on the Dammerung, could coordinate with Second Division, which was headquartered in Mitrei, in order to install some newly tested field generator. Or something. All he'd really cared about was that it brought his sister back in reach for a while.
He'd decided to visit Shion on the Dammerung, on her own turf, instead of insisting she come down to the planet. Shion had resisted the idea at first, citing work responsibilities, but when Jin had pointed out that Vector couldn't be forcing her to work all the time she'd finally given in and admitted she had a free weekend coming up.
So there they were, an hour after Jin'd arrived. He was sitting on her fold-down couch with a cup of rapidly cooling "tea" in his hands and she was standing with her arms tightly crossed.
Jin made a circular gesture with cup, gently sloshing the contents. "I didn't mean to be offensive. I just meant that I knew you'd made an effort."
Shion remained standing, but at least she wasn't clenching her upper arms hard enough to make her knuckles whiten anymore. "Okay then," she said, then was silent for a few beats before adding, "I guess I'm glad I only bought the sample pack. Is it really that bad?"
Jin handed the cup to her.
She took a sip, and Jin was inwardly pleased to see her grimace. "Okay, that's swill," Shion admitted. She went to the alcove that passed for her kitchen and did away with the offending beverage.
And suddenly there was nothing to talk about. That was how things were for the two of them, Jin reflected. He had stories to tell about the new textiles shop he'd opened up and what he had planned for the garden since the last big storm had torn it up, and she probably had some stories of her own, working for the most prestigious division of the biggest corporation in the Federation, but did they talk about them? No, they chose the adversarial route, instead.
Well, Shion did. It was usually Jin who tried to restore peace between them. (He tried to ignore the quiet voice in the back of his thoughts that said he hadn't needed to be so obvious, earlier.)
Jin slid over a few centimeters, a clear invitation for Shion to sit. She did. "I really am glad to see you," Jin said.
"Yeah," Shion said to the air in front of her. Then she looked at him. She wasn't smiling, but she wasn't frowning, either. "It's good to see you, too."
Jin couldn't let the conversation stall. "I got the koi pond cleaned up."
"Yeah? The fish like it better now?"
Jin drummed his fingers on his knee. "They died." He caught her glance. "After I cleaned the pond." In the silence Jin heard the soft hum of various appliances.
Then Shion's hand flew to her mouth to muffle a cough, which became a chortle, which became a full-blown laughing fit. "I cannot believe—" she wheezed between bouts of laughter. Eventually she calmed down.
When Shion looked at Jin again she was smiling. "I needed that."
Jin smiled back. "There's my sister. So! I hope things have been going well for you. Are you involved with this new generator or whatever it is?"
"Only adjacently," Shion said, flipping her hand palm-up and palm-down. Then she said, with exaggerated precision, "The system is a wide-range Hilbert wavelength translator and amplifier. Basically, it will make the Gnosis solid."
Jin nodded. The monsters had been a terror on the fringes of the inhabited galaxy for more than a decade, attacking vulnerable planets, often in swarms, and inciting panic throughout the star cluster. It wasn't enough that they descended like a plague, they were just intangible enough that physical attacks were useless, though not so intangible that they couldn't wreak havoc on their victims. "That will be very useful. You said you were adjacent to this project?"
"We-ll," Shion began, "the thing I'm working on is mostly top secret. —It's true!" she insisted when she saw Jin begin to roll his eyes.
"Have you been there long enough for them to put you on a top secret project?"
Shion huffed. "You know exactly how long I've been working here."
He did know: a little more than eight months. "You said mostly top secret."
"Well, I can tell you my project's Chief Engineer was on the development team for the Hilbert generator. And I can tell you that there'll be an upgrade to commercial-grade transfer systems coming soon."
"Good to know. Mine has been mangling my purchases. I ordered a pack of origami papers last week and half of it had turned to sludge."
"They do need upkeep," Shion pointed out. "When was the last time you had it recalibrated?"
"Jin!" The sheer force of Shion's exasperation propelled her upward. She tugged Jin up as well. "Come on."
"Where are we going?"
"We're getting you a new transfer pad." Shion got her jacket from the closet. "I can't believe you nev—actually I can believe you never had your pad recalibrated. It's like you think anything modern should just work forever and it's okay to ignore it. But anything ancient, oh no, you baby those." Shion marched the two of them down the hallway toward the elevators, and chose UP.
They went up twenty floors. When the doors opened Jin saw that they were in the bottom corner of a large diamond-shaped room. The walls were mostly glass, and the opposite corner was the end of a long, arched tunnel, with a mag-rail strip in the center. A transit platform.
Shion tapped her connection gear against the big screen to their right, and made a request for two seats.
"I can pay," Jin said, as Shion led them to an empty row of chairs in the waiting area.
"Residents ride free," was Shion's response.
There was a low rumbling from the tunnel. Jin leaned forward and saw something approaching at speed in the distance, light and shadow flashing across its front in rapid succession. He heard a thunk, a hiss, and a long scream of metal as the train reached the end of the magnetic strip and moved onto the braking rail. The train came to stop with one last hiss.
They chose a pair of seats partway up the left side of the train, with Jin taking the window seat. He looked at the interior of the Dammerung spread out below him.
The place was massive. One thousand kilometers didn't quite sink in until one saw it for oneself. Of course, Jin could see wide expanses from the top of any skyscraper in Mitrei, but that was different, that was on a planet, formed over billions of years by Nature's efforts. This was something built by human hands, over a few centuries.
Jin knew he wasn't seeing all of the Dammerung. This was only the residential and commercial area, but it was still impressive. An uncountable number of towers rose up, in clusters and groupings of two or three, connected by crisscrossing spans of mass- and private-transit pathways. Occasionally one truly massive solid black spire would appear, isolated from all the other towers. The Dammerung was currently on its day cycle, but when night took hold Jin knew the towers and transit paths would be awash in glittering lights.
Far below there was a surprisingly large amount of green amid all the gray and silver. The supercolony had parks and grassy fields, and at one point the train passed over the canopy of a thick forest. Along the forest's perimeter there were flickering patches of white: the reflection of light on one of the Dammerung's canals.
"It is rather breathtaking, isn't it?"
Jin looked at Shion. He couldn't resist making her deflate a little. "I'd miss seeing the sunrise from the hill behind the house."
Shion's cheeks caved in as she sighed in frustration. "Nothing impresses you."
"That's not true," Jin relented. "I can and will admit that the view is quite remarkable."
A slight movement from several of the other passengers forewarned them; a glance ahead showed the connecting tower rapidly approaching. Braking began, and Jin was pleased to note that the sound was muffled inside the train.
Once they'd disembarked Shion pulled them toward an open double door, and Jin didn't have much of a chance to examine the destination platform. As they neared the threshold Jin became aware of a jumble of shadow and color beyond.
The place they entered was a temple of commercialism, or least the entryway. Jin blinked at the sudden dimness after the bright lights of the transit platform, and as he turned his head streaks of glowing lilac seemed to float along the edge of his vision. His sight resolved itself and he realized he was in a hallway, looking at a series of doorways outlined in luminescent pale purple, set in the opposing wall. There was bright signage over every door, cycling between photographic images, icons and text, indicating what was being sold beyond.
This time Jin didn't need Shion to lead him, and he headed for the door marked Small Appliances. The room was brighter than the hall, and again Jin was momentarily dazzled.
He moved to one side so he wasn't blocking the door, and let his eyes adjust again. "That could get annoying," he said.
Shion nodded. "But effective marketing. I bet you're good and disoriented and now all your attention can be focused on all the wonderful modern conveniences to be had, here."
Jin chuckled. "I guess you're not too impressed, either."
Shion looked up, apparently at her own thoughts, and her lips twisted upwards a bit. "At least they pay me to like it. Come on," she added, bypassing a row of demonstration kiosks.
Jin's eyes flicked from one display to another. There were interactive holo-art frames and light mixers; portable desks with network screens built right into their surfaces; refrigerator-and-hotbox combos in both full and miniature sizes. "There's really no rush," he said, as they passed one of the art frames. "We could afford to look around." Not that he had much space for any of these things in his house, but he could look . . .
"Oh, no," Shion said, drawing out the words. "That would be an excellent way to drain both our bank accounts. Here's a tip: never buy anything at these places. Always buy things over the UMN if you can. It's cheaper that way."
For a moment Jin slowed down, trying to work that out. "Then why are we . . . ?"
"Hang on." Shion had finally halted and was scanning the area. "Where—there he is! Jerry! Jerry!" She waved to a young blond man pulling a pallet stacked high with boxes. He adjusted course.
"Yeah?" Jerry said, glancing back along his original path. His posture and his expression said that he didn't have a lot of time to spare.
"This'll be quick," Shion promised, then amended it with, "I hope." Jin thought that she probably didn't notice him grinning behind her. "Jin, shut up. Anyway, Jerry: have the new transfer platforms started coming up?"
"Yeah, they're almost all in."
"Could you set one aside for me? So I can order it through the network."
Jerry looked thoughtful, and he said, "You know, it's a funny thing, but one unit went missing earlier, and no one knows what happened to it. But I am certain it will turn up soon."
"Thank you!" Shion bounced on her heels. "You're the best!"
Jerry saluted. "Don't I know it. —Ah, back at it."
After Jerry left, Jin put a hand on Shion's shoulder. "I do appreciate all this effort."
"Well, you can't have sludgy origami paper. When I order it I'll have it sent down on the shuttle and drone-couriered to the house," Shion said. There was no sending a transfer pad by transfer pad.
Jin smiled. "Well, thank you."
Shion smiled back.
Then Jin rubbed his jaw. "Though—you did seem rather friendly with Jerry. Is there something going on between you two?"
"Jerry? No. He's nice but I've got a boyfriend."