Chapter 3

The one thing she had learned about her nascent powers was that she had to have a very clear objective in mind when she tried to invoke them. In thinking about it, she supposed that was why, at first, she had to teleport to Kalijor initially, then back to the ‘real’ world in order to move between two points. While she still had no idea of how these abilities worked or where they were coming from, now she merely had to have a clear picture in her head of where she wanted to be.

Which raised the question of how Anja had figured them out so quickly. If Riana’s epiphany was correct, then it meant the abilities were at least partly related to her physical being. Something about her construction, or composition, that could be inherited by another when… She shuddered, remembering Vincent’s recounting of the altercation he’d had with the half-Anja, half-Shantal creature in Ceres.

Pulling her thoughts back to the moment, she focused on her destination. She concentrated on a corner of the room, some place out of the way, where she could pop in and be in less danger of startling someone, or better yet, being seen at all. Making sure her weapons were all properly concealed, she opened her eyes and pushed with her mind, aiming for that dark corner on the balcony. She felt space bend around her, warping and pressing in on her in mild protest to her passing. A brief flash of utter darkness washed over her, gone just as quickly as it had come, and a heartbeat later she was there, in the corner she had pictured.

The driving beat of the music from below slammed into her chest, staggering her breathing even through the audio dampening field that kept the majority of the sound on the first floor. The lights were dim, providing the dozen or so sunken computer terminals and their occupants with their ideal mood lighting. As she moved from the shadowed corner into the balcony proper, she could see that the terminals were all occupied with people, mostly young kids, hard at work with whatever nefarious jobs they’d been given by The Ether-Bean’s proprietor, Almon Genloe.

The man had his fingers in literally every business in the city, whether it was legitimate or illicit. Genloe knew everything that happened in the city, and most of the solar system, and he knew just about everyone there was to know. Of course, he did nothing for free and was a ruthless adversary to have. The last time Riana had been there, she, Vincent, and Daray had shot up the place and made a rather hasty retreat. She knew he was a lot of things, but forgiving was not one of them.

She made it less than halfway down the sweeping, curved staircase to the main floor before she found herself blocked by a pair of hulking cyborgs that had been shoehorned into classic gangster suits. Her head was still above the invisible sound barrier separating the two floors of The Ether-Bean, so she couldn’t hear anything the leader of the pair was saying to her, but the way they stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking the entire stairway, and shaking their heads menacingly, told her everything she needed to know. Casting her gaze over the bannister rail, she saw two similar thugs looking up at her from either side of the front door, and another pair by the hallway that led to the building’s rear exit. Turning around, she smiled up at another pair of enforcers that had appeared at the top of the stairs, raising her hands to indicate that she was not intent on making a scene as she moved back up to the balcony and in-between the waiting brutes.

“Hi there,” Riana chirped as the goons from below moved up behind her, fencing her in-between the four of them.

“Mister Genloe will see you now,” one of them growled. She could only tell which by pinpointing the sound’s source. None of them had mouths, or lips, or any other articulated parts that might be indicative of their speaking.

“I didn’t realize I had an appointment,” she rolled her eyes as they started moving toward the back of the balcony and the single, nondescript door that adorned the center of the wall. The giants flanking it with their backs to the wall and their dark photoreceptors scanning the room around them, wary for any signs of danger, held all of the ominous foreboding that the door did not.

“Mister Genloe always makes time for his favorite guests,” one of them replied as they moved up to the larger guards.

Eyeing them up and down, she spied hints of enough on-board weapon systems to level a light cavalry unit, and judging by their size and bulk, she suspected they had the armor and strength to fend off an artillery barrage while working their magic on the infantry. She was certain the pair was sizing her up as well, although their atypically dark photoreceptors gave no real indication of their inspection. Neither did they move to let on that they were anything other than statuary, until some unseen signal apparently alerted them that everything was alright and they stepped clear of the door as it slid open with a quiet hiss.

The formation of cyborgs surrounding her broke to move through the doorway, two moving through ahead of her and two behind, but it reformed as soon as they were through and the door was closed behind them. Riana realized it had been a long time since someone had taken what danger she might represent a little too seriously, but this situation certainly filled in the gap.

As they moved into the large office, with its many glass and gun-metal appointments, her escorts turned her toward the outside wall where Almon sat behind a desk not too different from Xavier’s. It was large, transparent, and bore only a small, crystal obelisk of some kind as decoration. Straight, simple, and to the point. Almon was reclined slightly in a simple black chair with shining chrome accents and supports, elbows resting on the armrests and fingers steepled in front of his mouth as he watched the procession approach.

“Good day, Miss Thorindal,” he began in a level tone, adding, “It is Miss Thorindal, isn’t it? Not Miss Reyals?”

Narrowing her eyes at him, Riana shouldered her way through the assembly of guards around her, stepping toward the expanse of glass. She was stopped short by a hand on each of her shoulders, but she kept her eyes locked on Almon. “How do you know that name?”

“That is the name your doppelgänger is using. I understand it is part of your hidden past, although the details to that are, sadly, still unknown to me. I don’t suppose you would be willing to enlighten me?” He arched his eyebrows in question.

“Not likely, Genloe. Get your thugs off of me before I start hurting them,” she grunted, rolling a shoulder to try and dislodge one of the cyborg’s hands.

Almon went silent for a moment, eyeing the scene before him, then nodded almost imperceptibly to her escorts. Without a sound, they released her shoulders and retreated to the back and sides of the room, standing up against the walls where they had a clear and overlapping field of fire on her, but were out of the way. “I thought not. But if I’ve learned one thing in my time, Riana, it is that if one does not ask, then one is unlikely to receive. So, please, have a seat. What can I do for you?” He motioned to one of the chairs opposite his desk.

Eyeing him for a moment, Riana picked up one of the chairs and inspected it briefly before placing it in a new spot and sinking into it. “I was just leaving when your thugs accosted me. I don’t want anything from you, Genloe.” Her ears laid back in annoyance as she spoke.

“An interesting thing, in and of itself,” he responded. “Normally, people don’t come here without something in mind. Some reason to be here. Yet here you are, just leaving. You have  no reason in mind for being here, and no one saw you enter. I must admit, you have piqued my curiosity.”

Rolling her eyes, she fixed a hard stare on him and shook her head ever so slightly. “I’m just passing through. If I could have gone a different way, believe me, I would have done.”

“Which implies some significance in this location, if nothing else,” he said, watching her.

“I doubt you would believe me, even if I could properly explain it,” she sighed. “So, can I get out of here, or are you going to make me burn the place down?”

“I hardly think we need to go to such extremes,” he smiled, leaning back in his chair and motioning toward the door. “There’s the door. By all means, feel free to use it.”

Eyes flitting to the door, Riana considered taking him up on his offer. After only a few seconds, she dismissed that line of thought. She had to know what he knew about Anja. The fact that she didn’t know of any other places in Neo-Tokyo she was familiar enough with to teleport to was another issue, if she couldn’t get what she wanted from him and get out of The Ether-Bean through a door. Of course, she could probably handle his entourage and make a break for the exit, or possibly a window. Shifting her focus to the window behind Almon for a moment, she cracked an internal smile, ears perking up as she locked her eyes back on him once more and cocked her head to the side.

“Okay, you win.” She smiled. “What do you want?”

“In exchange for what?” He arched an eyebrow.

“Everything you know about Anja… Reyals…” she bit the last name off like a bitter pill that she wanted nothing to do with. She hadn’t heard Anja using that name before, and the fact that she was meant that Anja knew more about Riana’s past than she was comfortable with.

“Everything?” He prodded.

Sighing, ears cocking back with annoyance, Riana nodded. “Yes, everything. But I’m only compensating you for information that is new to me, so we’re going to have to work out some kind of sliding scale here.”

“I am afraid that information has an entirely subjective value,” he began. “Said value is only as much as someone will give you for it. Since you are asking for fairly pointed information, my assumption is that its value is higher to you than it may be to someone else. Therefore, I am disinclined to let go of said information for any sum of money. I feel you must match my information with information of reciprocal worth to me as what I offer you.”

“How do I know you won’t lie to me?” she asked.

“You must trust me, as I must trust you. I am many things, Riana, but a liar is not one of them.” He smiled back at her.

“There are things I won’t tell you,” she added. “Things that aren’t mine to tell.”

“I offer you the right to refuse a question, based upon those sentiments. However, if you do so, I will ask two questions in its place. Questions you must answer, unless they similarly violate your personal ethics. If you refuse two questions in a row, then our exchange is over and you leave.”

“And if you don’t want to answer my questions?” she prodded.

“I will answer any and all questions not pertaining to myself, or my immediate business dealings. Everything else is fair game,” he replied.

Narrowing her eyes, Riana gave him a long, hard look, then nodded. “Funny, I thought you’d be more upset about my last visit. You’re being a lot more reasonable than I was led to believe you are even capable of.”

“Business is business, Riana. You localized the damages, made an expeditious exit, and pointed out numerous flaws in my security in the process. I am willing to call it a wash, provided there is no repeat performance.”

“I think I can agree to those terms,” she confirmed.

“Very well, then. I will let you ask the first question,” he smiled, steepling his fingers again.

Taking a deep breath, Riana lined up her thoughts. She needed to ask questions to which she did not already know, or could deduce, the answers herself. This information was likely to cost her more than she wanted to give up as it was, and the more Almon knew about her, the more complicated her life would get. Fixing her eyes on him, she exhaled and asked her first question. “What did Anja find on Mars, and then Venus Station, that sent her here to lock down the city?”

“On Mars, she found a scientist, on Venus she found an engineer,” he responded, causing Riana to narrow her eyes at him, then he smiled and asked, “What is your primary power supply?”

“I see how this is going to work,” she said, folding her arms across her chest. “My primary power supply is a model nX500a Sub-Space Zero Point Energy field extractor. What, specifically are the fields of study/operation for the scientist and engineer Anja found?”

“A planetary ecosystem and geological scientist and an engineer in the fields of harsh environment habitat design and complex load-bearing and articulated systems.” Almon responded without missing a beat. “What is your peak processing throughput?”

“Ten point six exaflops, nominally,” she fired back. “Why did she choose Neo-Tokyo? What is it that brought her here?”

“Building Zero, and a lack of Conglomerate corporate headquarters. What is the maximum range of your teleportation?”

Riana paused for a moment, taken a bit by surprise at his blatant admission that he knew she could do…. whatever it was she could do. Her response earned her a barely perceptible smile from Almon as she responded. “I have no idea. The furthest I’ve gone intentionally is around ten miles, and the furthest I’ve gone instinctively is unknown. I have no idea where I actually was on the far end.”

Hoping her willingness to respond, even though the information may not be as complete as he had hoped, had earned her another shot instead of more questions from him. After all, it hadn’t been a flat refusal to answer. Eyeing him, she received a subtle nod confirming her hope, then fired off with, “Who performed the grafting operation on Shantal?”

His smile widened then, a mirthful glint in his eyes that said he was either impressed, or just very amused that she had figured it out. Either way, it confirmed her earlier revelation. “He did it himself. What is the ballistic rating for your armor-woven dermis?”

Riana thought for a moment, considering the potential uses for such information. If she told him, she would essentially be telling him how large of a bullet to use if he wanted to shoot her dead. But at the same time, the information would apply to Anja as well, and Riana hadn’t done much to warrant a bullet in the head from Almon, especially according to him. On the other hand, if she didn’t tell him, all he had to do was take a few pot-shots at her with increasingly larger caliber weapons until one finally did the job. It could take days, weeks, or even years, but he would doubtless find out, eventually. Then there was the trade-off of refusing to answer the question. Two more questions. It seemed obvious that the man was collecting technical data about her and her capabilities, but the real question was, to what end? Did he want to end her? Or Anja? Or both of them? At last, she decided to play along for a little while longer, although she also saw no real reason to give him an exhaustive report on her capabilities.

“Seven thousand pound-feet,” she responded, narrowing her eyes at him. Her skin had stopped rounds with that much energy at range, but she’d never tried it up close, or with her reactive body armor worn in addition to her skin’s natural protection. In truth, she was fairly certain that, at range, and with her body armor in good shape, she could take a hit as much as twice that and still be able to at least stagger away. “Why is Turin Glastnost protecting Anja?”

While she knew that Turin was not willing to give up much information about Anja, without getting herself and Vincent in bed with him anyway, she wasn’t certain it actually constituted real protection. But she did know from experience that Anja had worked with Turin more than once in the the past year or so, as attested to by Daray and Lana’s recounting. She also knew that the man knew more about her than even he let on during their recent conversation. More frightening yet, was the fact that Turin’s goons were sporting unreleased cybernetics and cranial augmentations from Quark Industries, which implied a level of corporate involvement that frankly scared the hell out of her. So, while it was a bit of a guess on her part, Almon’s response confirmed a number of her suspicions, which was not a good thing.

“Turin doesn’t share all of his business plans with me, I’m sorry to say. But I can tell you that he and Anja have some sort of arrangement regarding her cybernetic systems. I suspect they are trying to reverse engineer some, or all, of her technology. What are your intentions with the Anja situation?”

Now that was straight to the point, Riana thought. “I intend to stop her,” she said.

“That’s an incomplete answer,” he responded before she could ask another question.

Knitting her eyebrows, she took a deep breath and added, “Very well. I intend to go in there and drag her out where we can be seen together. If I can make her admit that it’s been her causing all this trouble, I will. If not, then just being seen together may be enough to start clearing my name. Either way, I’ll turn her over to the authorities or, more likely, put her down myself since she isn’t likely to go quietly. What kind of resistance can I expect, going in there after her?”

“We know for certain that she has several dozen accomplished mercs in her employ, possibly as many as one-hundred. The majority of them are in building zero with her. Additionally, she has rallied most of the street gangs and local thugs to her cause and has directed them to hold the barricades and keep people in their homes. Most of them are only too happy to be her enforcers, especially because she has given them free reign to maim and kill.” Almon’s information was about what she’d expected to hear, but it was still nice to have a better idea of the number and quality of enemies she would face, entering the building. “You’ll have to kill her,” he added.

“That wasn’t a question.” Riana raised an eyebrow at him.

“No, it wasn’t. I think our little game has moved beyond that now,” he said, lacing his fingers together and resting his elbows on the arms of his chair.

“What’s the new game then?” She gave him a suspicious glare.

“No game. I want you to go and root her out of there. I don’t know what it is she is after, but I do know that it’s only a matter of time before the Conglomerate decides it isn’t going to put up with this situation and vents the entire city into space. They’d rather loose everyone in here than take too many more punches to the face on this matter.” His response was troubled, maybe the first time Riana had ever seen such a thing. It was as if a caring person was suddenly sitting across from her. Then he went and ruined her rosy thought by adding, “And I won’t have them killing all of my clientele because of whatever white whale she is hunting.”

“Fair enough.” She nodded, leaning back in her chair as she gave him a tentative inspection. “So, I’m going to need a few things to make this happen.”

“Before you ask,” Almon responded, “I don’t own anyone on either side of any of the barricades. I couldn’t get Vincent in here if I wanted to, which I don’t.”

Riana’s face soured at his assumption, as close to correct as it was. Instead of jumping him, however, she changed tack and shook her head to cover the evidence of her initial response. “Actually, I want him kept out of here. The last thing I want is to get him mixed up in any of this more than he already is. The longer we can keep him out of Neo-Tokyo, the freer I am to do what needs to be done without having to worry about him. What I’m going to need will be equipment. Weapons, ammo, armor, surveillance, that lot.”

“Understood. Prices are high right now, due to the blockade, but I’m sure I can dig up whatever you need,” he responded.

“That’s a shame about the prices,” she sighed dramatically. “I’d help you out if I could, but with my SO accounts all frozen and it being my neck on the line across the board here, I’m thinking you can find a way to make it happen.”

Almon sat and stared at her in silence for a long moment before breaking into a wide grin and shaking his head as if he’d just been beat in a friendly game of darts over a pint. “Indeed it will be. Alright, Riana, give me your list and I’ll contact you with a drop point in the next twenty-four hours. If you succeed in your task, the gear is yours to keep, but you will owe me two favors. If you fail, I reserve the right to reclaim your body, or whatever remains of it, and do what I will with it.”

“One favor. No wetworks,” she responded.

“Two favors, and I agree with your no killing clause,” he countered.

“Done.” Riana stood up and leaned over his desk, offering her hand to him. “I’ve just transmitted the list to your system. I’ll be online for one hour beginning twenty-four hours from now. Before and after that, don’t expect to find me. If I don’t hear from you during that hour, the deal is off and I’ll handle Anja on my own.”

“Fair enough,” he smiled, standing up to see her past the burly cyborgs outside his office door and to the top of the staircase. “For all our sakes, I hope you meet with success.”