Chapter 1: The Degenerate
Sartre's was filled with the usual amalgam of City denizens: legalized harlots in full-body erotisuits, designed to entice and intoxicate not only by sight but by pheromone-enhancers as well; holo bookies, their visors pulled low and their fingers grimy with black market sim-sweat, making their prints on clients' comcards virtually untraceable; First tier aristos pretending to slum but protected by unobtrusive catmen, those synthesized trained assassins who sometimes hired themselves out as bodyguards to the highest bidder.
Catmen always made his shoulders twitch. Although he had once toyed with the idea of joining their elite forces, he was a bit repulsed by the idea of some hack neurist playing with his 'trodes – he certainly couldn't afford the higher-end medics. And he certainly didn't want a body-shop sleaze wreaking havoc with his internals. So the catman synth idea had been a no-go.
Still, their glowing golden eyes and lithe grace never failed to fascinate him.
The assassins, in turn, gave him wide berth. Maybe they recognized one of their kind, if not in body, then in spirit. Or perhaps they were all aware of the urban myth that touted the blond conman as their current leader's undisputed saviour in a fiasco several years back. Whatever the case, Mitsu R'Ikeda often walked into clubs such as these unmolested - protected by an unspoken camaraderie he shared with the City's most respected, if not feared, inhabitants.
Mitsu watched his client leave through half-lidded eyes, jaw clenched in irritation. Then he started, stood up and headed for the stim room, wondering briefly why he suddenly felt compelled to do so. It wasn't as if he were hard up for a hit at the moment. And he really had no time for this. His meeting with Benito had gone as smoothly as usual. Which meant that it had not gone smoothly at all. Mitsu needed to bivouac with his crew and and complete the run before Benito got it in his head to rat them out.
But the unexpected niggling in the back of his mind was relentless, urging him to the stim booths, and a runner never questioned his instincts. Of course, some would say that Mitsu's instincts got him into hot water more than it got him out, and that his fame as one of the most successful smugglers in the known cosmos was due more to his crew than to his enviable, albeit sporadic, good luck.Ah, but life would be so boring without a little danger to spice it up…
Mitsu grinned and adopted a cocky gait as he wended his way through the milieu. As he passed by the holo tables, he dared to wink wickedly at Charybdis, the menacing catman who was the undisputed Shah of the pride. It was this familiarity that encouraged the rumors that there was Bushido between the two.
The assassin blinked back, his only acknowledgement, but there was wry humor conveyed in that blink. As Mitsu moved past him, he discovered the reason for Char's mood. The usually stoic catman was currently in the employ of one Senator Sabat, an infamously hedonistic Eurasian who spent much of his hard-earned bribes the old-fashioned way: gambling and drinking into oblivion. A shnockered client, especially an aristo, was an easy client - no fights to break up - and catmen were able to enjoy a certain laxity in their guard. Mitsu gave Char a covert thumbs up in congratulations and moved on.
He carefully avoided the bar. Besides all the tempting new beverages Hypno was sure to have concocted, there were the bar rats to consider. Mitsu had had assignations with most of them, and he was in no mood to play eye tag right now. He did spot a luscious victim, alone and ripe for the taking, two stools down, but he hated redheads, especially synth ones.
To the stim rooms for two clicks and I'm outta here, he promised himself.
From behind the two-way mirrored glass, she watched him conclude his business and walk straight for her cubbyhole. Either he had been tipped off to her presence or it was entirely too smoky in the place for him to realize that the booth was taken. At his double take upon seeing the blinking red light that signaled the cubby's occupancy, she figured it was the latter.
Must thank Sartre for the lack of ventilation in this place, she purred to herself in satisfaction.
She felt his hesitation and did a quick mental inventory of herself. Nothing was out of place as far as she remembered so she put on her brightest, most fatuous smile and settled into the couch in what she hoped was a convincingly casual pose. She keyed the controls to "view-all", allowing the man visible access to the private cubby's interior. Then she beckoned with her head for him to enter. He seemed to shrug then palmed the shield.
An instant blast of noise and alc stench assailed her then the shield was back in place, ensconcing the two strangers in a bubble of intimacy and stim smoke. Wordlessly, she offered him a stick but he declined with a quirk of his mouth and produced a cartridge of his own. She reached forward with a light, which he did accept, then both leaned back in their respective couches to inhale. They shared the conspiratorial smile of fellow stim addicts.
There was something about her that was intriguing. Mitsu couldn't place it yet, a first for the usually perceptive conman. He had felt her pull even as he entered the room. Actually, it had been more of a scratchy itch at the base of his skull more than anything, and it was this that had sent him directly to the cubby. He hadn't known that his itch would produce a woman.
And this was definitely a woman, not some doped-up adolescent aristo out looking for her first lay and definitely not some bar rat desperate for a quick fix. If Mitsu hadn't just upgraded his wetware or if he hadn't plugged in the enhanced scanner he'd lifted from Cain, he would have had her pegged as a very expensive synth clone planted by Sartre to lure customers in. But that wasn't Sartre's style - he had customers aplenty. Plus, this woman did not have the glassy, vidscreen sheen on her eyes that even the most advanced of technology could not eradicate from clones even now. She did have that plastic smile on her face, though. Mitsu decided to probe, but with caution.
"Ha'llai," he began, two fingers to his temple in the galactic gesture of greeting.
"We're past formalities, sir, since you've agreed to share my cubby," she replied coolly, her eyes appraising him sharply but the empty smile still on her face.
"In that case, let's drop the 'sir'. It's Mitsu."
"He'la, Mitsu. Getting in a fix before blast off?"
"What?" Then Mitsu remembered the pilot pin he had swiped from his roomie and affixed onto his lapel to get past the recon sentries the night before. Apparently he had not returned it. And Jed was scheduled for duty today.
Shit, I'm gonna get it.
"It's not mine, really..."
"I was holding it for --- how'd you know?" The blonde was instantly on the alert. Guardians were everywhere these days and he was in the middle of a run. If this was a sting...
"Real pilots wear their pins on the left. I know. I've dated more than my share."
The woman dragged red-clawed fingers through her long black hair and pouted suggestively. It was a calculated move to disarm him and Mitsu recognized it as such. Still, he remained intrigued and the itch at the base of his spine hadn't reached red alert status yet. He pressed on.
"Haven't seen you here before. You a bookie?"
"What makes you say that?"
"Dunno. That bulge in your left breast pocket? Looks like an Atropos comlink."
The woman lost her languid pose for a nanosecond, her pupils striating in surprise. She recovered almost instantaneously, though, crossing long legs encased in body-hugging plasticine and shifting sensually on the couch. Mitsu did notice that she had managed to mask her left shoulder in the shadows.
"You must be mistaken. How would someone like me have access to hardware like that?" She tried to soften the hard edge that was creeping into her crafted persona.
"Anything can be had in the City if you just know where to look."
Curiouser and curiouser. Mitsu's eyes narrowed fractionally. The woman was proving to be quite the enigma. She knew about pilots and had an air of caution and alertness about her that even her artful nonchalance could not mask. And she kept her hair long, past her waist, so definitely not an aristo. Not a bookie, huh? A runner, then? But Mitsu could've sworn he knew everyone in the Guild. And who could miss a knockout like this one? No, definitely not a runner. Flyer gone rogue? Some aristo's cast-off demimondaine fishing for a new keeper?
From this angle, the conman couldn't tell if she was 'troded or not. It would have given him some sense of security if he had that information. It wasn't as if trust came cheaply anymore, especially not in the City, but orgamechs usually had their own honor code and weren't liable to play Pilate on each other. Mitsu's eyes narrowed slightly as the woman continued to watch him. The itch was becoming uncomfortable.
"So, Mitsu," she growled low in her throat, "do you like what you see?"
"You're changing the subject."
"I didn't know we were on a subject worth pursuing."
"It's customary to exchange creds upon first contact."
"I don't need to be reminded of galactic etiquette."
"Then use it." Mitsu crushed his stim out in one of the canisters provided and glared at the woman. Now that he'd grown accustomed to the dark and the smoke, he was able to observe her more closely and he realized that there was something off about her.
It wasn't just the indifferent act she was putting one, the one that kept slipping at every inquiry as to her identity. There was something else. Something not quite right. Mitsu's hackles rose and he stood up to leave. The presentiment that had propelled him to the stim booth was now cautioning him to get the hell out. Fickle presentiment.
"Listen, lady," Mitsu held up a hand as she attempted to stop him with an alarmed hand. "I don't know what game you're playing, but I'm not in the mood. Thanks for the booth and the eye candy, though." He let his gaze travel up and down her body insolently.
The woman gritted her teeth at the obvious dismissal but managed to maintain her poise. She took another drag from the stim stick, vacuous smile intact although fraying at the edges, and tried another tack. "What's wrong? Am I setting the legendary Mitsu R'Ikeda on edge?"
The conman's internal alarm system hit overdrive. She knew who he was, had probably known all along. She was toying with him. And at the moment of his dawning realization, her smile widened. There was no trace of fatuousness now; it was purely predatory. Mitsu was familiar with that smile. He had practiced it himself many times when confronting particularly recalcitrant clients. Anger spiraled through him like a juiced 'trode.
"Who sent you?" He asked through gritted teeth.
"Ah, that is the million credit question, isn't it?"
"I'll ask again nicely. And I don't do nice the third time around. Who sent you?"
"Tetchy, aren't we?" The woman did not flinch at his enraged tone. In fact, she actually sunk deeper into the couch and closed her eyes in apparent unconcern. The smirk still laced her lips and she raised her hand to enjoy her stim stick once more.
"And about to get tetchier!"
Before she could blink, the woman found her ashed-out stick smoldering on the couch not inches from her thigh and an enraged conman clutching at her biceps, looming over her like the wrath of god. Wild violet eyes, glinting with golden 'trode static, bored into hers. For the first time since the mission began, she began to doubt the wisdom of those who had sent her to procure the target.
"Now, one last time: who sent you? Who are you? What do you want from me?" Mitsu punctuated each question with a ferocious shake.
She refused to be cowed. Damn de Medici! He didn't need this bastard! She didn't care who he was affiliated with. As far as she could tell, the target was a has-been, a reject model, a jacked-up techie who maybe was once one of the elite but now looked like he'd been dragged through places even her utility droid would disdain. This beast – this orgamech! – should be shot for laying a hand on her! She'd had it. Enough was enough. Game over.
With a move that could have proved lethal had she not been under strict orders, the woman bucked on the couch, throwing Mitsu off balance, then raised her legs and clamped them tight around his neck. She took great satisfaction in watching his face turn blue. It wasn't until his grip on her arms loosened reluctantly that she relinquished her hold on his windpipe as well.
Mitsu fell to his knees, clutching at his neck and wheezing. That bitch! That motherlovin' bitch nearly killed me! What the - ?
His eyes traveled from the tips of her boots up to her glowering face. She towered over him like an avenging Amazon, her gaze hot with kindled anger. Then, scornfully, deliberately, she palmed her left shoulder with her right hand and the holo dissipated. Mitsu paled.
Adieu to the long, black hair. Good-bye to the sultry, come-hither eyes. Sayonara to the titillating plasticine bodysuit. In their place was a commanding figure with a shock of close-cropped red hair, icy green eyes and a painfully familiar uniform.
Shit, shit, shit.
"Get up, Mitsuru Ikeda. Party's over. It's time to go home."
If Mitsu entertained any doubts about the woman's intentions, her use of his true name dispelled them. As she hauled him none too gently on his feet and slapped a pair of magnetic binders on his wrists, the conman flicked his blond ponytail behind his shoulder and snarled.
"Lady, I'm gonna enjoy tearing that pretty little head of yours from your spine."
The woman had the audacity to laugh in his face scornfully. "I'd like to see you try."