I told him I was an artist.
Personally, I don't like the idea of giving away information, even if it's made-up. When someone asks what you do for a living, they expect a clear-cut answer like 'oh, I'm a veterinary technician' or 'I'm in charge of a bland chain of oriental restaurants'. But, even when they get that answer, they have to keep pushing the envelope. There's going to be more stupid questions, all asked by some idiot who wants to pass the time at my expense or worse, try to get to know me.
Normally this wouldn't be a problem. No one asks me those kinds of questions anyway, so what did I have to worry about? Absolutely nothing. Working for S.I.N. guaranteed that I needn't worry about someone popping the profession question. Heh, needn't… what a funny word… When I walk the halls, everyone knows that I'm a force to be reckoned with, and, given my status as Seth's personal agent, someone to avoid. I was going to be on top of this little world of ours soon, and that's a fact. No eggheaded nerd or chrome clone would get in my way of that.
Still, Seth had an agonizing tendency to throw me odd jobs, and while most of them turned out to be fun in the end, one of them in particular pissed me off.
Let's see… it all started on the proverbial Monday, which any lazy slob would tend to fear. I was looking forward to it, as I always did when opportunities presented themselves. It was a work day after all, and I loved my work. It gave me the chance to get up and do something instead of trudging around the facility following Seth or lying around in my quarters. Whether it was some footwork that needed doing or an assassination that had to be done, there was guaranteed to be some action.
I heard from one of the many guards Seth keeps around that I was needed over in his throne room. There's a lot of other stuff in there, so it's not technically called the throne room. Then again, it's the only room with an actual throne for miles (especially in this damp hole of an underground facility) so throne room it remains. The guard then turned and left to do… whatever guards do. Probably patrol or stand near doors.
Whatever it was that they did, it wasn't really concerning. I left the scientists alone in the medical wing to tend to the most recent imbecile who crossed me and made my way through the corridors of the facility. The halls were stained with dull, grey metal with bits and pieces of black thrown in there. Vibrant blue lights lit up most of the dark bits, but still, walking down the halls would still send chills up someone's spine if they were the timid type. Whoever designed this place neglected some regular bright lightbulbs.
Meh. I wasn't complaining. I could see just fine down here, although leaving the darkness of the facility to return to the surface always made me sneeze. There's a room down here for me, but I hardly stay there. It's only for storing a few oddities and food, since I hate whatever the cooks make. The hermits can have their rooms, pale skin, and thin soups. I'll have my action. I picked up my pace just a little bit as I thought of that.
My mind began to wander at the possibilities of this new task I knew Seth would assign as soon as I entered. What would it be this time? Assassination? Arson? Theft? I liked the first one more than the rest. Maybe I'll get lucky and have to drag someone back to S.I.N., kicking and screaming. It's much more fun when I get someone who struggles. Hmm, I wasn't sure what I'd get. I did know one thing though: I was going to enjoy whatever it was.
I reached the throne room and, not waiting for an invitation, opened the double doors.
"Alright, I'm here," I said loud enough for the thing sitting on the throne to hear. "What's it going to be this time? Blackmailing a politician? Roughing up an informant? Chasing down defectors?"
Seth's face twisted into an expression I identified right away. Annoyance. He called me up here, didn't he? The hell did he expect? Me to bend a knee in front of him?
"No to what you said, and no to what you thought prior to barging in," he said, his voice just a level below shouting. "Your enthusiasm has its uses, but it always seems to consume you, Juri. It's actually sort of predic-"
"Oh shut up and tell me what you want," I muttered.
That familiar expression of anger flashed across his face. His brow furrowed. Since he didn't have eyebrows it was sort of hard to see if he was about to rage or if he was thinking. Actually, he didn't have a hair on his entire body. I guess that fact made it harder to read his expressions, but I've dealt with him longer than the men beneath him, so I know what a simple twitch of the eye means when he makes it.
It was incredibly fortunate for me that I could get away with my snarky tone and snide comments. In Seth's strange world, I was too important for him to give a damn about reprimanding me. He didn't see anyone else who was compatible with the Feng Shui Engine, and I know for sure that none of the people who work in this rat hole can kick as hard as I can. I'm probably just his twisted experiment, left alone to wreck havoc on those he sees fit for it.
"Straight to business…" Seth growled, tapping his fingers on the armrest of his throne. "Very well then. I need you as one of many diversionary agents in France."
"Diversionary agent?" I thought out loud as I began to pace the room. "France? What's in France that's bothering us?"
Seth gave me a questioning look which asked, 'Why do you care? You just like destroying lives. Nothing more, nothing less.' If I was to ever take his position, I needed to know the whats and whys of everything he gave me. Understanding the reasons behind his actions would allow me to get a grasp on his level. He shook his head when I refused to react to his look.
"If you must know, there will be a group of UN chairmembers present in France in three days. France is hosting the Bordeaux Wine Festival, and these members are visiting the various embassies at their banquets scattered around the country as a show of good faith." With a dark chuckle he continued, "They've ignored our endeavors, and, as a consequence, they will feel the cruel sting of fate as their precious political power falls around them. We will send a message that we are not to be ignored, nor trifled with."
I found myself nodding to what he said. He can be a boring 'man' at times, but he's got a silver tongue. That's something men have to work at, so I give him some credit. But he's not getting off my hit list just because he has a way with words. Everyone has something to say, especially within the last minute of their life, and especially when they're looking at me during it all.
But this operation in France got me riled up. I don't like the idea of having to go into that country to be a big diversion. I'm the one doing the work; I'm the one with the action. I might get some, but, because I'm the diversion, that meant someone else was going to get the most of it all. I'd be huddled up in some out of sight embassy, bonking the heads of a few officials who could hardly put up a fight. Disappointment was not something I handled well…
"So…" I started after a bout of awkward silence, "am I going to Paris?"
"Yes," Seth replied, propping his chin against his fist as he lolled in his throne. "I need you at the Australian embassy. There you will masquerade as one of the guests until you are called upon to do what you do best."
My pacing immediately ground to a halt. I'm pretty sure when I looked over at Seth he smirked, for he could see just how pissed I looked at that moment. The Australian embassy? Disguising as a prissy guest? Who the hell did Seth take me for? This was the stupidest joke I've ever heard. Fraternizing with a bunch of beer drinking, piss throwing, mustachioed ockers is not my idea of a good time.
But that wasn't the biggest thing that got at me. This whole operation seemed so… easy! I wanted something fun, something challenging! Any woman can put on a show and play herself off as someone she's not. It's not even hard! You just gotta sway your hips and act the part. Men fall head over heels for that routine so much that it's just not funny anymore. This wasn't a job people gave to professionals. This was a job for newbies, idiots who needed to have their hand held at all times!
Speaking of hand holding, I have to wait for someone's order to be myself again! I hate having to wait for my playtime, especially when someone is holding it above me like it's a carrot on a stick. I set my own times, and I give myself my own signals. I bet Seth planted a group of suit and tie guys wearing sunglasses in the banquet to do all the work behind the scenes. They'd poke their bald heads out and give me some hand gesture, and I'm supposed to interpret that as 'go crazy'.
Damnit. I'm ranting.
"This is so stupid," I said out loud. "What makes you think I'm the one to do this? Give me someone you need dead and I'll do it, just don't throw me these stupid parameters to work in! Better yet, where is Viper?"
That crimson-haired agent should be doing this job, not me!
"Viper is busy with an assignment in North America. Her schedule requires her to remain there for another five days, and as such, she will not be present to perform this task," Seth said. "If I recall, you're available to perform."
Screw the assignment, I know just what exactly Viper was doing up there in America. Breast implants! She can flaunt them around the facility and have everyone ogle but she ain't fooling me. Those aren't natural. Bigger is better, isn't that what Americans think?
"So, what, am I supposed to be ok with this?" I asked, gesturing with my hands. "Am I going to have to dress up and... and act the part of a prissy partygoer?"
"Such is the norm," he replied in a dull monotone. "Tomorrow you will visit an outfitter who will take measurements for an outfit. Try not to bite," he said with an upturn of his lips.
I liked how he laid out plans already for the next day. He avoided arguments by doing that. No discussion would follow, he thought, because nothing people said would persuade him from changing his plans again. Oh, and humor! That's something I hardly hear from him. That's a good thing, 'cause his jokes are terrible. He's better off bald and brooding.
Why did I have to get a completely new outfit for this? I could walk out of the facility and down to a high-society dress shop and get one without much hassle. Hmm… I couldn't help but think of Seth at this point. He was a synthetic human being, created by science. How did he know when he got out of that test tube that he was a guy? He had nothing down there to give him an idea. I wonder if he thought he was a she at first and wore a dress instead of a tux. Sure he didn't have boobs, but some women have flat chests.
"Damnit, fine," I muttered, finding myself accepting defeat. "I've got nothing better to do anyway." Folding my arms across my chest, I leaned forward and scowled. "This had better be worth my time."
"Hmph. You always manage to make the most mundane and simplistic of tasks worth your time," Seth retorted.
He sent me off with a wave of his hand, tacitly telling me he was finished with me. With one final look of disgust, I dropped my arms and left the room. What was left to argue about? I said all that I wanted to say; no wonder I took the job. As the doors closed on their own, I couldn't shake the feeling that I've just been royally screwed over. And I didn't even bend over.
I sighed. Now was not the time to get worked up. I had a job to do, and I was going to see it through. And I sure as hell was going to make as much fun out of it as I could. Maybe, just maybe, when I was done and the fires didn't attract too much of the authorities, I could sneak away and use someone's wallet to pay for one of those lavish French dinners at some five-star restaurant.
There, I was smiling again.
I swear, time never passes as slowly as it does when someone's waiting for something. There was absolutely nothing interesting that went out during the three days I waited for my flight into France. Seth sent me topside to get a dress from one of those tailor shops in some tourist town nearby. What was funny about this was that he didn't give me any money to pay for the dress, so I had to pay the tailor with my own hard-earned cash. I'm starting to think that was why he had no friends.
The tailor was not who I expected. I expected some overly rambunctious, effeminate man, not a tiny woman. Despite how tiny she was, she made it clear to me that all she wanted was business, not a conversation. That was good, since I didn't want to talk to her anyway. She did show me respect though, and she didn't treat me like a total idiot, unlike some people. This didn't mean I wasn't going to respect her back.
Right, with the revealing dress ordered, I was free to do whatever I wanted days before the flight, or so I thought. In actuality, I wasn't out of hell just yet. It might have started as a little joke by Seth, since, once again, he makes terrible jokes, but I found myself staring at one of the head researchers of S.I.N. He was a tall, bumbling oaf who somehow managed to have sparks of brilliance every now and then, making him semi-valuable to the organization. That meant I couldn't kick his ass when I wanted.
Seth probably believed that I wouldn't put any effort into preparing for France, and so he sent this egghead to teach me a bit of the local language. Wonderful, now when I'm running around the cobblestone streets of smelly romantics, I'll actually understand where to go. I'd find my way back to the airport when I was finished. I didn't need translations, and I didn't need a tutor. Still, the man persisted, and he became the only man who put up with me for an entire hour without getting a limb broken.
I trained with a few dummies left around the training area of the facility in my downtime. It felt like months since my last assignment, and I wasn't about to go into another one feeling rusty. I would have asked someone to spar with me, but no one in this facility could hold a candle to me. Maybe Seth, I thought when I was feeling generous, but he was always busy mulling over data, maps, files, and other information. Besides, the last guard who thought he had what it takes cried to the others from his infirmary cot, so now no one wants to fight with me.
To keep myself from getting bored, I began to pace in my room as I mentally prepared myself for this 'operation'. It seemed fruitless to plan about where I would go and who would be where, since someone neglected to give me a map of the embassy. I didn't mind in the slightest. Coming up with a plan in the spur of the moment is much more satisfying than planning ahead of time.
While people would like to think Viper and I were always at each other's throats, in reality, I'd say it's more of a rivalry. I don't trust her, but I do respect her. Her cloak and dagger ways got S.I.N. out of a few rough patches, and her cutthroat business attitude makes everyone shut up and pay attention. She's a good agent, but the day I'm forced to rely on her is the day I draw the line. When she's out of that suit, she's just as feeble as any other person in this facility. She can't fight like I can, and even with her suit she's no match for me.
The reason I thought of Viper was obvious: I needed an alias. That snake was great at espionage, using all sorts of tricks to distract and charm her way into restricted areas. I'm not going to wiggle my hips or show the world a generous amount of cleavage to get by, oh no. I've got way more class than that. Men want to know what makes a woman tick before they corner them, and these people will certainly get to know what makes me tick.
Coming up with a name was easy. Unlike Viper, my name didn't have some underlying meaning to it or have some kind of secret message. I could pass off as a Japanese woman, so I went around the facility and looked at a few of the researchers from the rising sun, taking bits and pieces of their name to come up with one: Saki Akiyama. I didn't realize it at the time, but I could have just thrown a dart at a wall covered in Asian names and still come up with something good.
Blending in would be challenging. I had to act like I had no care in the world, like I wasn't waiting on a signal. Because I was an Asian woman, I'd stick out like a sore thumb among the masses of people attending this banquet. I needed a reason to be in France in the off-chance someone wanted to talk to me. Tourist was a terrible choice. They don't get invited to crappy banquets.
I knew that I would be Saki Akiyama, a Japanese woman who happened to be on the list. Maybe I could be… a psychiatrist, or a nurse. I retained a bit of biology from school, and learned a lot about it just by fighting. Psychology was just common sense, and once again, I knew a lot about it just by analyzing my foes. Hmm… that's all I'm good for it seemed. Just fighting. I couldn't go as a martial artist though…
Or could I? I stopped my pacing and looked at my gloves for a moment, weighing the pros and cons of admitting to that occupation. On one hand, it was something I really enjoyed doing, and I knew much about the subject, like, how to jump in and torment, when to lash out, positions, stances, maintaining a balance of power and speed, etcetera. On the other hand, the chance someone would believe me was stupidly low. How many women can get invited to a banquet, say they're a martial artist, and not look beat-up to high hell? Martial artists fight, not go to silly parties with people they hate.
Hold on… Martial artist… Martial artist… Artist… I could play myself off as an artist! That'll fly well up there in France. They're the snobby, artistic types. And it wouldn't matter what I specialized in, I'll just tell them I'm an artist. These days, anything can be considered art. Paintings, literature, filmmaking, pornography, videogames… Kicks and punches, ki and pain. Those are my arts. Juri, you're one smart woman.
I was Saki Akiyama, a Japanese artist.
Now I was ready for France. Whatever the Australians threw at me, I'd be ready for it.
After those three days of waiting and preparing passed, I found myself on a small private S.I.N. jet headed towards Paris. It seemed Seth already had a few other agents in the city, as I was the only one in the plane, besides the pilots. Seemed like a waste of fuel to charter one person over to a location, and then fly them back. The plane could hold so many people, but I wasn't complaining. I had the whole thing to myself.
There was a TV in one end of the plane, which in hindsight was the second best part of the whole day. I haven't watched TV in what felt like months! Even though there never was anything good on, the news always was a welcome addition to my day. After spending weeks in an underground facility, I was curious of the world and how it had changed. Layoffs here, terrorism there, a political scandal in the American Congress… nope, nothing new. I hardly noticed the plane touching down with that TV on.
Paris, like any other tourist city, was bustling with life. Even through the windows of a requisitioned taxicab, I could see the city of lights showed no signs of aging or dying. The people here made sure it was alive. I guess I should have felt honored to be counted among them. Paris would certainly come alive after I was done with it.
I thought the taxicab driver tried to spark up a conversation, but I wasn't paying that much attention to him. I was too busy thinking about the 'operation'… that and my dress. The dark green thing hugged my curves well enough to not get in the way of fighting, but there was a skirt that I had to deal with. It was small enough, and there was plenty of cover underneath, but it felt foreign on me. I don't wear dresses, and I couldn't wait to tear this off when I was finished here.
Now, the mission I was alright with. I knew where to go and what to do for the first part; the rest I would adlib when the time came. I was a little nervous, but everyone was when they were about to act. There was a fear that things wouldn't work out like I planned, or that my cover would be blown as soon as I opened my mouth. That nervousness was good, for it kept me on my toes. Being too laid back or confident could prove disastrous for me if things went sour.
The cab stopped in front of the Australian embassy, which was a tall, grey building with tons of windows. It looked like a rounded corner to me, like a half C. I paid the taxicab man my fare before stepping out, ignoring his thick accent as he attempted to pry a number off of me. I guess I looked presentable enough that I was getting hit on in the 'most romantic' country on Earth. There was a courtyard in front of me, lit up with festival lights. I saw a few people walking into the entrance of the embassy, and, not wanting to delay this shindig any longer, followed them.
Nobody gave me odd looks or questioning glances, so that meant my cover was safe. Funny how people like Bison or Vega couldn't go outside for ten minutes without causing a scene, yet my face was unknown. I didn't kill everyone I came across, and I didn't pose in front of cameras to make sure people remember my face. A lot of what S.I.N. did to the world was swept under the rug by governments, possibly thinking that the public didn't need to know what we stole or who we killed.
Some kid was at the doors, taking names and double-checking their credibility. He looked at me for a good amount of time, raising an eyebrow. No doubt he was wondering what could bring a woman like me here, but when I told him my false name and smiled, whatever second-thoughts he had instantly vanished. I state again, charming men was very easy.
After that, I was lead into the banquet room of the embassy. In reality, it was the front desk and waiting area converted into a grand festival hall. I noticed that my black heels clacked against hardwood flooring, and I looked down to see my reflection in the gloss. It occurred to me that embassies were created by the native people, not the people who resided in it. All this fancy embroidery, woodwork, and stone masonry had to be the work of the French.
I grabbed a small glass of white wine from one of the passing hosts carrying a platter and sat down on a small chair cushion. Leaning back, I decided now was the best time to examine the area. Behind the front desk was a grand staircase that split into two once it reached the second floor. Opposite of that was a balcony occupied with what seemed to be a few guards and partygoers. Looking up, I spotted an intricate gold chandelier hung high over the middle of the room. Despite how much I wanted to swing on that, I knew the best course of action to take would be to crash it to the ground to cause a little more chaos.
My left eye twitched in anticipation.
This didn't seem like the Australian embassy. The men were wearing suits and ties, there were hardly any mustaches, they were drinking wine instead of beer, and I heard no native music. I realize I held a stereotypical view of a lot of people, but stereotypes were fun! A world without stereotypes would suck big time. They weren't that bad people from what I saw, they just had a very down-to-earth style of talking. The accents were funny though.
No one came to speak to me right away, which was a good thing. The less social interaction, the better. Most of the patrons were married or had dates of their own. They were engaged in meaningless conversations, drinking wine, or chatting with close friends. I saw a few people talk to a bald-headed man in a nice suit, and after a good moment of looking, I believed this guy to be a UN chairmember. He looked old, almost old enough to have a heart attack. I sure hoped he didn't have one when I started redecorating. Seth wanted him to see his political power crumble around him, so I figured I'd leave him physically unharmed.
As I began to get up from my seat, a man came up from my left and managed to get my attention. The grin that I had been forming vanished quickly to become a forced smile. Oh great, someone wanted to talk to me. He was a tall guy with dark hair and exaggerated sideburns, and one hell of a goofy grin. I guess a little conversation wouldn't hurt.
"Evenin' shelia," he said to me with that accent of his. "Enjoyin' the festival?"
The Bordeaux Wine Festival, I remembered. That was the reason why there was wine, right? Or maybe the French just swam in wine.
"Hmm? Oh, oh yes," I replied, nodding my head. I took a small taste of the wine that I held in my hand, trying to hide a wince at the strong flavor. "The wine's pretty good here in France, not at all like the ones in Italy," I lied.
"Too strong is it?" he asked, pointing at my glass.
"Well, a little bit. I'm not used to white wine." I took a quick glance to the right, trying to find one of Seth's men. I needed to pay attention for whatever signal they would give me. "Are you a wine man?" I asked, trying to look interested.
"Matter of fact I am, miss. Few of my boys made the wine we're drinkin' now," he said, pressing his knuckles against his hips as a position of pride. He offered his hand and said, "Robert Owston, but my mates call me Robbie."
I looked at his hand for a few seconds, contemplating whether or not to submit to the gesture of introduction. He wasn't going to kiss my hand, he was just going to shake my hand.
'Eh, what the hell,' I thought, grasping his hand in mine. "Saki Akiyama. So… you make wine?"
When the man nodded and began to speak, I had an inkling someone was looking at me, and sure enough, one of the guards on the balcony above me was giving me a look. Arms folded, sunglasses, suit and tie… yep, that seemed like one of Seth's men. He looked to the guests below who were gathering around the chairmember as he began rambling on about some story before turning back to me. I saw him nod once to me before he and the guard next to him calmly walked off from the balcony.
"Yep, nothin' special. It was either a winery or a brewery, and wine sells better out here than it does back home. What about you shelia, what do you do for a livin'?" the man asked me, released from the handshake.
He probably saw that I was stripped for time. Already I could feel the energy coming from the eye coursing through my veins. It whirred slowly, and no doubt about it the man noticed. He narrowed his eyes in confusion as he looked at me, to which I could only reply with a sneer and an answer to his question.
I told him I was an artist.