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READ FROM THE START - Chapter 1 Scene 1 - MILAN v0.5

Chapter 1 "The Warmest Welcome" MILAN Mars. The ‘red’ planet stood firm like a semi-circular mountain against th...

Sunday, April 26, 2020

April Update



Updated 26/04/2020
Added nearly all of Chapter 2, with the exception of a couple of Zarina's scenes.

The Soldier, the Spy, the Colonist, and the Captain.

Four character-driven stories intermingle to bring dramatic viewpoints of a civilization-spanning tale set a century in the future. One part sci-fi adventure, one part cyberpunk espionage, one part frontier survival, and one part political thriller, Solar Rift brings these different elements together in an exciting clash of backgrounds and ideologies.

In the year 2121, a catastrophe on the largest moon of Mars sets off a chain of events that uncovers a bloody world of inter-corporate battles, national-corruption, and terrorist revolutionaries. All begin to crescendo, as technological progression forces Earth's old institutions and societal systems to finally reach breaking point.

On Phobos, Milan Kalakov, a Major in the Russian Space Force, has only recently arrived to serve aboard Domovoi Outpost. However, his first week ends with a horrific incident, one that forces him to question not only who is to blame but who he can trust amongst his allies, not to mention the corporate representatives and the martian colonists. With a United Nations and Corporations investigation looming over him, and the insidious corporations influencing events, his mission to find those responsible leads him down a dark and disturbing path.

On the corporate-owned spaceship Enceladus, Commander Zarina Verma is tasked with bringing the Chief Investigator for the UNC from Earth to Phobos, while also looking into the Phobos Incident herself. However, her employers, the multifaceted Tao-Kelland-Raman Corporation, do not want the Commander to simply discover if they themselves are to blame; if true, they want her to cover it up. With it taking twenty days to reach Mars, Zarina is not only behind in the race but she is also locked on a collision course with the crew of Domovoi Outpost.

On Mars, colonist and council member Liv Rademaker struggles to deal with the ever-increasing tensions between the Martians and Earth. With her two children and work colleague, Deelon Stafford, to look out for, Liv tries her best to influence the Borealis Colony Council to protect their citizens. But, in the aftermath of the Phobos Incident, it seems that every decision will anger someone, and the councilors find themselves walking a minefield to ensure that their unique place amongst humanity remains intact.

On Earth, the British-Moroccan infiltration expert, Raz Kadir, and his business partner, the Japanese hacker Namazu, finally make it into the big league, having previously only worked in the small-economy. Finding themselves in a steep learning curve, the first official job for their new employer throws them straight into the deep-end against the richest people in the world. With their lives on the line against a formidable opponent, Raz begins learning that Namazu has just as many secrets as their intimidating target.

SOLAR RIFT is a vast saga that takes the reader on a journey through many distinctive characters, locations, and plots throughout the solar system.
Designed to span multiple books, the explosive first entry not only works as a standalone novel but sets up the saga to come, as the four stories continue onwards to greater revelations, twists, and turns.

Chapter 2 Scene 10 - MAX v0.5

MAX


Max groaned as he approached the huge, ramshackle hangar. Just from the amount of dust and dirt that had accumulated, he could tell no-one had shut the large doors before yesterday’s storm. Had it contained a Gryphon VTOL or other machinery it might have been bad news, but, thankfully, the Tigris trucks didn’t have any important parts exposed to the elements.
Sixteen of them usually resided in this hangar, all plugged in and recharging when not in use. But, as usual for this time of day, over half of them had been taken out for work or travel. The remaining ones all looked nearly identical; six-wheeled, rectangular boxes that tapered at the front and had once been painted a pristine white, but now were severely worn from years of use. What separated them apart from one another were the numbers written on the sides and the color of the trim. Each color referenced a different task, be it mining, maintenance, or hauling, amongst others. The trucks that had no trim were for general use by any colonist.
Max kicked a pile of dirt out of the way, as he walked down the hangar to the Tigris that Jack had been teaching him to drive with - the no-trim number seventeen. With an airlock on both sides just behind the cockpit, it helped divide the vehicle up into two sections; the cockpit itself, and the storage section at the back, which had a large door at the rear.
The young martian pulled out the side ladder from an airlock and hauled himself up the four rungs, pressing a thumb to the door’s datascreen. His eyebrows dropped when the panel reported it was locked. He pulled at the manual handle, just to be sure. None of the Tigris’ were usually sealed; this one least of all, being the unofficial learners truck. The vehicle had an L, for Learner, crudely painted on the front and back. That in itself put-off everyone else from using it.
Max pondered for a moment, attempting to recall Jack telling him the key-code. Three-six-seven-five. He typed it in. ACCESS DENIED.
“What the hell?”
He tried again, just to be sure that he had pressed the keys correctly. Still, the door refused to open.
Pressing his helmet to the airlock window, he tried looking from a couple of angles but it was dark and empty. 
Jumping back down, he went around the front to inspect the cockpit, but all four seats were vacant.
The thought came to him about the off-chance that the rear door had a different code to it. With it being intended for heavy storage, safety might require a different code for different parts of the vehicle. They did with the Gryphon aircraft, the type that his mother liked to use. It was to make sure no idiot vented the interior when passengers were present, although the aircraft had a entirely different internal layout.
Walking around the back of the truck and pulling out the access ladder, he climbed up the rungs but never got around to trying the lock. His face came level with the vertical window; it ran up and down the height of the door so that people could easily view the cargo inside. As he did so, a boot disappeared behind the bulk of the door to his right.
Max gently banged on the window pane to try and get their attention, but nothing happened. After fruitlessly typing in the number once more and getting the same result, he looked down to his wristpad and accessed the public communications channel.
“Hey, who’s in there? It’s Max.” No answer. He decided to put his head to the window, and tried rolling his helmet to one side, to see if he could get a glance of the person amongst all the clutter. That’s when he found the occupant leaning forward and doing the same as him. Their eyes met. It was Deelon! “What the hell are you doing in there?!”
The printing engineer instantly threw up a finger to his helmet, shushing Max. He then put his hand near his ear, tapped it, and then negatively waved his hand. 
Thoroughly confused, Max nodded in understanding when Deelon gestured to meet him at one of the side airlocks. He jumped down and sped around the tires. After climbing up the right-sided door, Deelon was still holding a finger to his mouth as he opened it. They cycled the airlock and went back into the rear storage compartment before taking their helmets off.
Deelon’s helmet had duck tape strapped to one side of the faceplate, and it didn’t get past his forehead before he began speaking.
“Whatever you do, don’t use the comm channels to talk to me. It’s not safe.”
“What are you talking about? My mom and Avery have been going nuts trying to find you.”
Deelon, having taken one of his gloves off, quickly rubbed his face, before grunting despondently.
“What have they told you?”
“I dunno,” Max replied. “That you’d gone missing. We just got a colony-wide message saying that we need to go check all of the buildings, just to look for you. That’s why I’m here, I was gonna take the Tigris and use it to cut through town quicker.”
Moving the hand from his mouth to the bridge of his nose, the engineer made a raspy noise through his throat..
“Ugh, c’mon Deelon, think. Okay, so they either know and they’re keeping it quiet, or they don’t know and they’re just worried.”
“Keep what quiet?”
With a heavy sigh, Deelon raised both hands and held them out. For a moment. Max thought his best friend was going to grasp his head, but instead he just balled them up into fists.
“You gotta promise me you’re gonna keep this to yourself,” he replied. “This is the most important thing I’m ever gonna tell you, so you have to keep it quiet.”
Max saw a seriousness in his dark brown eyes that he’d never seen before. The pitch of Deelon’s voice and the desperation it contained brought back the worry that had been tumbling around his belly all day long.
“Okay, I promise. What is it?”
Deelon shook his fists and snarled before turning away. Clutching his left hand to one of the rungs on the ceiling, he turned back around, as if still struggling to say it out loud.
“I got mixed up in the Phobos bombing.” Max found himself speech-locked. He wanted to exclaim the word ‘What?’ extremely loudly, but somehow that didn’t express his feelings. He tried to think of what to say but nothing came to mind. For the first time in his life he understood what it meant to be flabbergasted. Deelon simply closed his eyes before looking away and re-opening them. “I got lied to, okay? A CorpRep gave me a ticket for the spaceplane in exchange for planting a device, said it was hacking tool for breaking into the Domovoi computer systems. All they wanted was info from it, corporate spy-shit, nothing big. Huh, so they said.” Deelon slumped against the wall. “I was so desperate for that fucking ticket I didn’t really care. I didn’t know what they were really gonna do, how could I? No-one’s ever attacked Mars or Phobos before.” The engineer then slid down until his backside hit the floor, his eyes looked like they were on the edge of tears. “I swear to you, Max, on my dad’s life, I didn’t know they were gonna blow shit up or try killing anyone. I swear.” Max continued standing there in shock. He tried speaking again, but once more came up short. “Say something,” Deelon whimpered.
Frustrated, Max tried thinking of what his mother would do. She was by far the best person he knew at sorting out situations. ‘Positive’ and ‘Practical’ were the words that sprang to his mind.
“Okay, I believe you,” he murmured. “What are we gonna do?”
“I don’t know,” Deelon replied. “Someone’s trying to kill me, so I gotta stay low at least.”
This time, the surprise outweighed Max’s shock.
“What! Who?”
“I dunno, maybe the Corporation Representative, probably someone they hired.”
“Then we’ve got to tell my mom, at least,” Max demanded.
“No!” Deelon protested. “We can’t, and you promised! Whoever’s trying to kill me is the exact reason I can’t go hiding behind the Council. If I do, the corporations are gonna tear them to shreds until they get me. That’s why I locked myself here, in the learner truck; you’re the only one learning to drive at the moment, and I knew I had a fifty-fifty chance of it being you or Jack that turned up. No offense man, but I really wish it was Jack that turned up.”
Max sat down against the opposite wall from him.
“None taken. Now I know what’s going on, I wish it was him, too.” They both had a sad chuckle at the thought. “If you want to get away, though, why haven’t just you driven off in this thing already?”
“Why do you think I turned my wristpad off?”
It took Max a second to realize.
“Oh, right. Tracking.”
The engineer nodded before looking up and around the cabin.
“Even if I manage to find the tracker in this thing and disable it, they could still use satellites to see it from space, or even drones. Without a wristpad connection being detected, this thing would look like it was being driven by a ghost. I’d stand out like a sore thumb. So, my only thought was that you or Jack could drive it and take me somewhere.”
“You’re sure you don’t want me to tell him?” Max asked. “Just him, I mean.”
Deelon slowly shook his head.
“Nah, it probably would’ve been more of a gamble with Jack anyway, him being on the Council and all. I just wish I could know what they know.” He rubbed his face again. “What their plan is.”
Lifting his head up slightly, Max tapped his wristpad.
“We do. I told you, they’re having us search all the colony buildings. After that, Erik sent us all instructions sorting us into groups to search the streets as quickly as possible.”
“Are you one of them?”
Max shook his head.
“Erik cut it off so that kids weren’t involved. It’s only for people over the age of ten.”
The engineer sat forward, wrapping his hands around his knees.
“Anything happening after that?”
“They’re going to switch from the streets to sweeping outside the colony, using all the drones, trucks, and aircraft that we have. Tigris, Ventura, Gryphon, you name it, everything. The ground vehicles are going to do an ever-increasing circle around the colony.”
“What the hell for? A drone could spot me from a kilometer away.”
“I think they’re worried that… well.”
“Go on.”
“They didn’t come out and say it, but,” Max couldn’t help it, he felt as sheepish as he probably looked. “I think they’re worried that you might’ve died out there, and… the sand might have covered up your body, making it hard to spot.”
“Shit,” replied Deelon. “I hadn’t thought of them thinking about it like that.”
“The Gryphons are going to race ahead, check all of the mines, the harvesters and all the caves in the area. I was gonna ask my mom if I could take this one to go out and help look.”
The whites of Deelon’s eyes grew ever larger the longer Max spoke. When he was done, the engineer scooched over to the other side of the cabin and bumped shoulders with his friend, grasping for the left wrist.
“The map, lemme look at the map.”
Max simply obliged, holding his arm over Deelon’s knees, but didn’t understand what had him quite so enthusiastic. 


***


Having parked Tigris Seventeen behind his home on the very southeast edge of town, and having given Deelon a thumbs up in the airlock, Max jumped out of the truck and closed the door. With any luck, his mom would still be with the Council, organizing the search, and his sister should still in school. More than enough time to get Deelon some supplies and oxygen.
The house was a printed building made out of hardened martian concrete and internally reinforced with metal to keep it airtight. The reddish brown color made it blend in with the surroundings, and, with it being a bungalow, also left him with a great view of the sky. Most of the eastern main wall around the back of the house was curved, giving some artistic flair to an otherwise very box-driven town. If ever there was a building owned by a 3D printing engineer, this was it.
Max kept his eyes on the tall windows as he walked around the building. The open plan of the house meant that it was relatively easy to look inside and spot if someone was home. He kept his pace slow, to make sure he could examine each window as he moved around to the western side, where the house met the main street.
His concentration was taken from the interior when he turned the corner and saw a man standing at the airlock. Max momentarily stopped, but realized how suspicious that might look, so carried on walking. His ears drew back and his eyes filled with concern as he closed the distance to the domineering figure.
This guy wasn’t a CorpRep; the envirosuit looked different, and had no logos that he recognized. There was a patch on the man’s left arm with three stripes of white, blue, and red. Max had never really bothered studying the flags of the human nations. He knew China and India’s from sight alone, and this was neither. As it turned out, there wasn’t any time to think through what it all meant. The man pressed a finger to his wristpad.
“Max Rademaker, correct?” The accent was really odd, but he definitely remembered hearing it in a movie or show on more than a few occasions. Now he realized why Deelon had insisted on no open communications. He pressed his localized mic button in response.
“Yes?”
“My name is Kalakov. I am a Major in the Russian Space Force.” Once more he began using his suit’s wristpad. “I am creating a new comm channel. Please join it, so that we can speak privately.”
Max stopped walking barely three paces from the man and still had to look up.
‘Aren’t humans meant to be short?’ his mind questioned. He was a good five or six centimeters taller than his mother, but this guy was approaching Erik Lansdorp’s height. 
The surly-looking Russian took a step forward when he asked “Can you hear me?” The first syllable was clipped, due to Max having just switched over, but the rest was audible.
“Yes,” he nervously replied again.
“Good. By the look on your face, and probably the shit in your pants, you know why I am here.”
Max’s entire body felt rigid at the words, and his neck was so stiff that he had to push harder when it refused to easily turn from side-to-side. It took a couple of goes, but eventually it moved enough to go through the motion.
“No, I don’t.”
Kalakov leaned forward.
“This will go a lot better for you if you do not lie. Where is Deelon?”
“I don’t know,” Max replied. “All I know is he went missing, and we’re about to start a search.”
“Do you know how much trouble you can get into by lying to a military officer?”
Even before that statement, Max’s head was filling up with worst case scenarios. His mind was a torrent of flashing thoughts about everything from a simple arrest and being held at Domovoi Outpost to being tried, convicted, and locked up in a prison on Earth.
Despite his shock and disbelief at Deelon telling him the truth, and asking for his help, he realized it hadn’t sunk in. Until now, the entire situation had felt distant and slightly abstract. With a government official from Earth now towering over him, the reality was beginning to kick in, making his mouth and chin tremble. Did he know how much trouble? 
“Yes, I think,” he acknowledged.
“Then you will answer my next question truthfully,” the Russian demanded, with his words getting slower and deeper. “Has Deelon been in contact with you?”
Again, Max’s neck refused to budge and shake his head. He tried all the same and it barely moved. This time, he only had his voice to rely on.
“No.”
In a flash, Kalakov stepped forward, whipped his right hand up, gripped the horizontal handle under the lip of Max’s helmet, and slammed him against the wall.
“I’m not going to give you many more fucking chances!” he shouted.
“I don’t know where he is!” Max pleaded, his voice breaking.
“Start telling the fucking truth, you fucking piece of shit! You do realize Martians don’t have human rights on Earth, understand? There is nothing stopping me taking you back there and doing whatever the fuck I want!” Kalakov’s voice pierced his ears so loudly he wanted to ask his suit to reduce the volume.
‘Is that true?’ he thought, not having time to ponder it. Kalakov’s strength kept his head pressed firmly against the wall, while the Major’s left arm pushed hard against the right side of his chest. He could feel the ribs bending and the compression was biting hard.
“Now answer my fucking questions, you fucking asshole!”  the Russian bellowed. “When did you last speak to him? When? Fucking answer me!”
There was a sound from behind Max’s neck. A crack. Was that a chip from the concrete giving way?
“I …don’t… I don’t…”
“WHEN?” Kalakov blasted.
Max’s mind nearly betrayed him.
“Earli…” Earlier today, he wanted to say, even though it was just minutes ago. The pain, proximity and shouting was confusing him. “Early yesterday.”
The Russian pressed the button on the handle and twisted the helmet. He was going to take it off!
“Bullshit!” he roared again. “Last chance! Where is he?”
Max’s hands went up and tried to pull the man’s arms away, but he was far too strong. 
“I swear! I don’t know! I swear, I swear to you!” Max screamed.
He knew humans had a physical advantage, but had never conceived just how colossal that gap was until now. The martian thought about kicking him in the groin, but that would probably just make him do it anyway.
 “Please, please don’t take it off! Please!” he begged.
Kalakov’s eyes were firmly locked on his watery counterparts as their helmets touched. Even with his vision blurred through the tears, Max could see how deadly serious this beast was. There was something inside the eyes, a bitter rage he’d never witnessed in another human being before. A fire that was intent on burning until it got what it wanted.
Seconds passed, with him whimpering the word please a few more times, before something caught the Russian’s peripheral vision. A vehicle was coming up the street.
Kalakov locked the helmet back in place, stood up straight, and took a pace backward. He even turned, put a hand up, and nodded at the occupants of the vehicle as it passed by, before once more returning his view toward the young martian.
“You got lucky today, kid. Next time,” he shook his head, “Perhaps not so much; especially if I find proof of you lying to me. When you speak to Stafford next, you tell him that if he doesn’t give himself up to me or the Chinese officer before tomorrow night I will not give him a second chance. Do you get me?”
Max was too confused and relieved to argue the point, simply rattling his head up and down.
The Russian turned and walked off southward, with the distant dot of Phobos hanging very close to the horizon just above him, almost like a guiding star. After about twelve paces or so, he even turned around and gave Max one final look of resolute determination. It spoke a thousand words.
After the martian watched Kalakov return to striding away he breathed a sigh of relief and began thinking through what the hell just happened. He pressed the mute button on his wristpad before mumbling to himself.
“What did he mean, lucky?” Max looked back in the direction of the truck. “The Ventura passing by? What did that have to do…Oh.” The answer only made him feel cold. “Witnesses.”

Chapter 2 Scene 9 - RAZ v0.5

RAZ


The morning was as crisp and clear as he could ask for, and the concrete was bone dry. Raz knew that it would be just his luck that the day he left Japan would be the first to be completely free of rain. He didn’t ruminate on the thought too long, though, not after the courtesy shuttle rounded the edge of the metal hangar and saw a private jet hove into view near the runway.
‘This is more like it,’ he thought, as the beautiful contours of its design changed as the shuttle approached. With the wind beginning to pick up now that they were clear of the airport’s main buildings, Raz felt something more than just the wind against his face. He was getting a tingling feeling of this being a turning point, like the first time his parents had brought him to Britain. It was a world away from Morocco at the time, and at first, he thought that it would just be the surroundings that would change. But, in the end, he came to realize the way he lived had also changed, as the culture shock and different attitudes began taking hold. As the shuttle closed the distance, he pondered, ‘Is this going be the same thing?’ 
For a while, Raz thought that was purely what the knot in his stomach was about, but the closer he got to the jet, the more the Moroccan realized there was something strange about the airplane, as well. It took a few more moments before the niggling at the back of his mind clicked into gear.
The jet had no markings on it. No corporate logos, no manufacturer logos, and not even a registration number, as far as he could see. If there were any, they would have to be on the top or bottom of the wings.
‘How rich do you have to be to be able to pull that off?’ It was the first realization that he was now in the big leagues, he was now working in the large-economy.
As the automatic courtesy shuttle pulled up, the jet’s door and stairs began unfolding from its fuselage. The luggage robot, sitting in the back until now, stepped off, having the unenviable job of hauling Raz’s huge red-and-black camping backpack. The machine’s stubby little legs, built for heavy loads, seemed to handle the weight just fine, even with the strong, gusty wind doing its best to unbalance it. Raz decided to leave it be to do its job and turned his attention towards the plane.
Getting up, he straightened out his light-gray suit jacket, made sure his white shirt had just the one button undone at the neck, and checked his chewing gum and mints were still in the right pocket of his dark gray trousers. As he began walking, a blue dot briefly flashed in the bottom left of his peripheral vision.
“Open new message.”
“Hey Raz,” Namazu began, “I’ll see you in KL. Good luck with T. Oh, and I hear that plane food sucks really bad - so eat up, bye!”
He couldn’t help but grin and shake his head.
As Raz climbed the stairs, he tried to do so in the slowest manner possible, just to take in the moment and revel in the fact that he was about to fly on a private jet.
Pocketing his sunglasses, the first thing that hit him upon entering the door was what came through his nose. Something was cooking, and it smelled delicious.
“EyeGlass, new message,” he said under his breath. “Smells like professional gourmet food is cooking. Sucks to be you, kthxbai.” He even embellished it with her rising tone of voice at the end, just to rub it in. “End message, send to Namazu.” The little icon of a letter folding up and flew out of his view before he ventured into the cabin.
A security android was waiting ahead of him, giving a stilted nod as he entered.
“You may proceed inside,” it said in a slightly synthetic voice. It did not sound like most of the standard security androids that he had encountered in the past.
To his left, the cockpit was visible due to the door being wide open. A large transparent and curving touch-screen of buttons and controls were blinking away to themselves in multiple colors behind two empty seats. For a moment, he half expected to actually see someone sitting at the controls, considering how wealthy his new employer was. 
Turning right, and moving into the cabin proper, nearly all the rows of seats that you would typically expect were missing. The closest item of furniture was a glass dining table with six matching chairs around it. 
After the table was a lounge area, a cream-colored space with an L-shaped couch on both sides, allowing a central passageway to the back of the craft. Sitting on the right-sided couch was a young Chinese woman that he did not recognize, wearing a white blouse and pastel yellow suit-trousers. She was scrolling her right hand through thin air, seemingly reading an article in augmented reality.
On the left-sided couch was the person he instantly recognized, the woman he would be sharing this flight with - his new boss.
“Hey there.” Raz smiled, as pleasantly as he could, giving a slight nod in the process.
Tao Yin finished taking a sip from her cup of tea.
“Welcome. Please, take a seat,” she greeted.
‘Game face,’ was all he could think, as Raz attempted to slowly but confidently walk over to the lounge and sit down on the couch with grace. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Tao.”
“Thank you, and you also,” Yin replied. “And, so that we are all fully acquainted, let me introduce to you my daughter, Tao Lien.” The woman looked like she was in her early-twenties, but could have been much older, such was the genetic engineering afforded to the wealthy. She gave a genuinely warm smile to Raz, before bowing her head. The Moroccan did the same in return, and both of them exchanged pleasantries until Yin moved matters along.
“Would you like a drink first, before we start the interview?”
Raz blinked once, then twice.
“Interview? I was under the assumption that the job we just did for you was the interview.”
“It was part of the interview,” Yin explained. “I still have some concerns that I would like to go over. So, would you like a drink?”
‘And here was me thinking today was going so well,’ Raz thought to himself, as he tried to hide his disappointment. “A latte would be nice.”
Yin looked towards an invisible button in front of her.
“Gustavo, our guest has arrived and would like a latte, please.” The response went through her ear-implant, but Raz could still hear a faintly audible reaction from the compartment behind the businesswoman. “Would you like anything else, Mr. Kadir?”
‘Time to turn on the charm,’ the Moroccan decided in his head before putting on his best lady-winning smile. “Oh, you don’t have to call me that, you can call me Raz if you like.” 
Yin nodded once, slowly.
“Yes, I am fully aware that I can... Mr. Kadir. Still, would you like anything else?” Her facial expression barely moved.
‘Oh god, this is dropping like a lead balloon,’ was the first thought to rush into his head. He could even picture it falling. “Err, no, thank you. I’m fine till lunch.”
“Very well. No, nothing more, Gustavo, thank you.” Yin then returned her gaze to Raz. He was beginning to wonder if it was just him, or if her eyes were looking more intimidating by the minute. “Now, let me begin by saying that I was satisfied with the speed in which you completed your assignment. Getting the name of who purchased the robot was not an easy task. To do so, so quickly, impressed certain people.”
‘Finally, something positive!’ He thought, giving the slightest of nods. “Thank you.”
“But, as I said just a moment ago, that task was merely to prove your competency in the field. If I am to employ you on a full-time retainer contract then I need to know as much as I possibly can, in order to form a basis of trust between us. Therefore, whilst you were on your mission, I had my personal headhunter work with Tkrai, our Artificial Intelligence.”
‘Oh shit.’
“They did a thorough background check on both you and your business partner. I hope that you understand the necessity to do so.” Her face was stoic.
‘And back down we go.’ Raz’s mind couldn’t help but contemplate the worst. “Of course, I understand completely,” he outwardly replied.
“Good. Then let us begin with the concerns that I have, specifically regarding you, Mr. Kadir.”
Raz put aside the fact that she might have found some issues with him, that was a given. What really worried him was that she was leaving Namazu till last. ‘You always leave the biggest bombshell ‘til last,’ his inner monologue spoke back to him, realizing his heart was beating faster.
Yin looked up to another invisible button. Within half a second, her entire desktop appeared before them. Columns of files, data folders, chat-boxes, and news feeds from different channels appeared. Even with the words reversed from his point of view, he could still see the name of the folder at the top of the pile - ‘Namaraz Solutions - Private and Cyber Investigation Specialists.’
Yin began pulling some of the files from that folder and flipped them around so that he could see them for himself. The first was a straightforward biography of his most basic details, including his full name, Rasil Sofyan Kadir. The second was an immigration record and the last was a government record, listing his and Namazu’s business.
“From what I have read, you have lived a rather interesting life, so far. Growing up in Morocco and moving to England when you were nineteen could not have been an easy transition.”
Raz took in a breath, trying to compose himself for the onslaught of questions that were about to be fired his way.
“It took a little getting used to, that’s for sure. As you can probably tell, the Moroccan accent still hasn’t completely gone away.”
“And why did your parents choose to move to England, specifically?” She raised her eyebrows ever so slightly at the end of the question, but, as Raz contemplated it, they may have been pulling up alarm bells instead. Yin had chosen her words very carefully for a non-native English speaker. Was she talking about why they specifically chose England, or why they specifically decided to move? Considering an AI was involved, he was guessing she already knew the answers and he dearly wanted to win her trust. 
“Well, firstly, my grandfather had immigrated to England a decade or so earlier and had remarried, so it made it easier for my parents to relocate us there...” He paused, thinking now was the last chance to back out. Even with his chest tightening slightly, the Moroccan carried on. “Secondly, if you’re referring to what I think you are, I was getting into trouble. So, they wanted to try and give me a better life somewhere else. And, to answer your next question, I was breaking and entering and… stealing stuff.”
If Yin was grateful for his honesty her face didn’t show it.
“A habit that did not exactly die when you moved to England.”
Raz pressed his lips together and nearly bit his lip.
“No,” he somberly replied. “It didn’t. My parents gave me a chance and I blew it. I didn’t care at the time, I was young and stupid. But, after my mother died, now I regret it every day.”
He caught the daughter, Lien, looking at him through the corner of his eye. She gave a weak but sympathetic expression before resuming her EyeGlass article.
“I am glad to hear it,” Yin said softly, before flipping to her formal voice. “Quite frankly, I am surprised that none of your... escapades... ended up with you being in prison.”
That raised a faint smile with Raz and even a small puff of amusement.
“Well, I did get charged and taken to court a few times, as you probably already know. But honestly, I usually got off due to a lack of evidence. Not because I was good, or covered my tracks particularly well, but because I got lucky - plain, old, dumb luck. But, if any of it taught me something, it was to learn from my mistakes. Which is ironic; because, despite me wanting to forget that entire period of my life, some of the lessons I learned breaking into places are what help make me good at my job today.”
He felt his internal reflection must have at least made a small impact, because Yin tipped her head.
“Thank you for your honesty in the matter.”
‘That actually felt good,’ Raz thought to himself. It was like a barrier he hadn’t known was even there had just lifted up. He nodded and quietly murmured “You’re welcome.”
“Now,” Yin continued, “on to my other concerns about you.”
‘That wasn’t it?’ he internally groaned. He realized his look of surprise must have become obvious when he glanced over to Lien, seeing a distinctive smirk on her face. She didn’t even acknowledge him, and just carried on reading, as if this was all par for the course. ‘Oh god, what else have I done?’ 
Tao Yin pulled out a datafile from a sales account and twisted it around to face him. He squinted his eyes to work out what it was, but continued squinting when he didn’t quite believe what he was seeing. ‘Is that my... book collection?’ he thought.
Yin took a deep breath.
“This is a highlighted list of all the book purchases that you have made on your online accounts.”
“Er, isn’t that supposed to be private?”
The Chinese woman’s eyelids narrowed.
“For a man who makes his living breaking and entering into other people’s property and information...” She leaned slightly forward in her chair. “Are you sure that is the question you wish to ask?”
‘So, that’s what disappointed looks like,’ Raz realized, before berating himself for blurting out the question in the first place. “Err, no. Not really,” he replied with a wince.
“Good. Now, out of the thirty-six books that you have purchased during your life, fourteen of them, including two short stories, constitute all of the original James Bond books written by Ian Fleming.”
She then pulled out another set of purchase listings. “You have also bought and watched nearly all of the James Bond movies and video games.”
Just then, Gustavo came in, brandishing the latte that Raz had requested. The Chef gave him a derisive look, as if being annoyed at having to lower himself to serving drinks. Or maybe the cook just didn’t like the look of him. Regardless, the Moroccan thanked him and quietly took the coffee from his hands..
“I see.” Raz nodded, trying to pick his words carefully. “And you’re concerned that I do my job for the thrill-seeking aspect.” He instantly blew on the coffee after speaking.
“Not me alone. Tkrai is an especially good judge of character. He has spent decades learning and perfecting the art of observing and predicting human behavior and understanding our psychology. So, when nearly one-third of your entire reading collection centers around an exciting and dangerous lifestyle of espionage, you can understand why he would bring that up as an obvious red flag. But, even then, Tkrai would not base an assumption about your personality based upon escapist fantasy novels.”
She pulled another document out of the folder and flipped it around. Video footage began playing, taken from a news channel a couple of years ago. A daytime scene was showing the rubble of what was once a building with some police androids forming a perimeter. The headline was stark ‘OAKLAND BUILDING COLLAPSES PREMATURELY.’ A small map on the screen highlighted the location of the building in San Francisco.
“Oh, that,” Raz said, almost under his breath. He quietly huffed, irritated at how good Tkrai was. No-one had ever linked him and his partner to that incident, until now. “Would it help my case if I pointed out that, as the news headline suggests, that building was due for demolition anyway?” He took a sip of his coffee, even though it was still scalding hot; he just needed to try and act as if he was still calm and collected.
“Probably not,” replied Yin. “But, what is in your favor is that although Tkrai worked out that both you and your companion were involved in the matter, he could not prove that you were responsible for the building’s collapse.”
‘Maybe I am still just that dumb, lucky kid,’ Raz pondered to himself, as he tried to mask his reaction to the liquid burning the skin in his mouth. The roof of his mouth was going to lose a layer, that was for sure. “We weren’t. There were combat robots and a VI involved, and things... got messy. Technically, they were the ones that brought the building down.”
Yin stared at him for a full two seconds.
“Technically?”
Raz gave a sharp nod. 
“Yep.” Yin didn’t respond. She just kept staring. It didn’t take an AI to work out which way the wind was blowing. “Look, Mrs. Tao, I know that specific incident seems bad, but I can’t believe the other investigators working for you have never had moments where things don’t go according to plan.”
She pulled another file and flipped it around.
“My other investigators did not obsess over a British secret agent, get involved in very public news events, and enjoy spending their spare time doing extreme sports.” The new file was from his social media channel, showing first and third-person EyeGlass footage of him bungee jumping, sky diving, and white-water rapids canoeing. “Are you beginning to notice a theme?” The stern words hit hard.
Raz didn’t realize it, but his eyebrows were frowning at watching his previous self laughing and joking in frivolity at all the thrilling moments caught on camera. His jaw locked, and it took him a moment before noticing the hot coffee cup resting on his knee was scolding the skin, even through the suit pants. He went to speak, but had to refrain himself, and tried again, attempting to hide how pissed off he suddenly found himself for being pigeonholed.
“Look, I am not apologizing for enjoying my life. I find those things, in my spare time, fun to do. Does that mean I go around trying to get myself into dangerous situations on purpose? No. If anything, some of that stuff, like the white-water rapids canoeing, gives me a very healthy appreciation of what’s going to get me killed. It actually makes me value my life. Do I obsess over James Bond? Yeah, probably, and yeah, the action in it is exciting for me. But I love it because he’s always true to himself, and does the right thing, even when he has his license-to-kill revoked, even when everyone and everything is against him, he keeps on going and gets the job done.”
Yin didn’t flinch.
“Tkrai, could you now please give me your assessment, privately, in my ear.”
Raz’s eyes widened, and his head twitched. He was going to start looking around the cabin for cameras, but stopped himself short. 
‘You idiot, of course the AI would be viewing them on the plane!’ he reproached himself, hard. ‘The damned thing is going to be the one controlling the security android and probably the plane itself.’ Raz had read up on AI, and knew how vastly superior they were, but he had never met one before. He had been so unfocused and busy thinking about the high life, the private jet, the gourmet food, and impressing Tao Yin, that he had completely turned his work-brain off. His first thought after that was to contemplate if his outburst had been the last nail in the coffin. It certainly helped ease his breathing. ‘Oh well, what’s done is done.’
Yin made a short and sharp appreciative noise, tilting her head as she finished listening to the AI, before returning her eyes towards Raz.
“Thank you for… going over… my concerns about you, Mr. Kadir.”
‘She didn’t say “address,” I didn’t address her concerns. Is that a translation thing? God, it’s so damned hard to get a read on this woman.’ He was just about to say ‘you’re welcome’ out loud when she continued speaking.
“Now, let us move on to your business partner, this ‘Namazu.’” Raz wanted to put his head in his hands and scream in frustration. 
“Of course, sure,” he replied as casually as he could. If he hadn’t buried them already, she probably would. Yin pulled out another file, this time from an encyclopedia entry, and flipped it around.
“Ōnamazu, or Namazu. A reference to a giant, mythological cat-fish that lives underneath Japan and is the cause of all their earthquakes.”
Raz shrugged one of his shoulders, gently shaking his head.
“It’s just the online name she uses in the hacker community. Believe me, most of the hackers that I’ve met during my life have names way worse than that.”
“I am sure,” Yin replied. “And normally, I would not have brought this up. But let me be blunt with you, Mr. Kadir; I do not mind your checkered past. I believe that everyone is deserving of a second chance. I even admire the fact that you have turned your life around. And, with Tkrai analyzing your outburst just a moment ago, both he and myself are in agreement about your character.” 
‘Oh, so that was it; she wanted to provoke me, to bring out the real me.’ Raz thought.
Yin took a sip of tea before clearing her throat.
“As I said at the beginning, I simply wanted to determine if I can form the basis of a working relationship with you, to form trust. For that, I need to know as much about both of you as possible.”
The Moroccan kept his long face as still as possible, but his mind said it all.
‘Here it comes...’
“Which is why my largest concern, by far, is with your associate, one Eimi Mesuda.” Yin presented Namazu’s file to him. The transparent datafile, without a doubt, contained the sparsest amount of information so far. “A birth certificate with her name, date of birth, and where she was born. A social security and tax registration number, giving a current address of a vacated building. An email and social contact list, that, when queried, never returns the same IP address. A DNA verification code that belongs to a disabled eighty-nine-year-old man from Hokkaido.” Yin paused for a moment and took a breath. “Tkrai has been with me for over half a century, and my personal headhunter has worked under my employ for over twenty years; neither of them have ever reported back to me with so little information.”
Raz began rubbing his chin and his cheek.
“Yeah,” he drew the word out. “She is super fanatical about her privacy.”
Despite trying to act blasé about it, the fact that even they got so little information surprised even him.
“We checked with the school that she supposedly attended. All of her academic qualifications have been erased. Why would she do that?”
“To be honest,” Raz replied, “I imagine that Eimi thinks she will never go to a job interview, and never need to show anyone her grades.” He shrugged his shoulders. “She’s never needed to in the past.”
“Making her money through hacking.”
“Yep,” he nodded. “And she’s extremely good at it, too.”
“Unfortunately, it is not her skill that I am questioning. Even with such little information, I went ahead and asked Tkrai to do a personality assessment of her, based upon what little scraps of evidence that we have. It turned out to be mostly interaction with you or the community of online hackers that she talks to over social media. I must admit, is rare that Tkrai has ever come back to me with probabilities lower than forty percent. But, the personality traits that he did highlight were extremely alarming. He described her as a rebel, an anarchist, someone who delights in causing trouble, and is extremely unpredictable.”
Putting the coffee down, Raz leaned forward in the chair and put his hands together before nodding.
“Yeah, I can see hints of those traits in her. But I’ve worked with her coming up three years now, and she has never let me down. And what your AI won’t have seen is that our investigation company means the world to her. She doesn’t like physically going out and interacting with people, frankly, half the time I don’t blame her. So, it’s our business that helps her feel like she’s making a contribution. And, when it comes to that, she is one-hundred percent reliable.
Just yesterday, I was physically intimidating an innocent woman, at gunpoint, into giving me information just to get you the name that you wanted. This woman was utterly petrified, partly because of me, but more because of the guy she was going to betray. Eimi wanted to ask her about all the disgusting things he probably did to make her that scared. She wanted to help put that woman’s mind at ease and tell her he wasn’t going to hurt anyone ever again.
I stopped her from doing that, and she listened. Why? Because she trusts me to reign her in when the mission comes first. Just as I trust her when it comes to the cyber-security part of the job. We depend on each other, and we make a good team.” It suddenly dawned on him how much of a rant he had just unloaded, so he sat back in his chair and picked up the coffee again. “Sorry, end of the sales pitch.”
“There is no need to apologize,” Yin replied. “You speak very passionately on her behalf, and, for what it is worth, I believe your sincerity. However, my concerns about Miss. Mesuda still remain, and until I find out more about her, they will stay that way.”
‘I was so close,’ Raz glumly thought.
“But,” Yin said, pausing to take the most imperceptible of sighs, “If you are prepared to take responsibility for her actions, then I will place my trust in you.”
‘O.M.G.’ his mind screamed back at him, even before his face could show it. For a moment, Raz didn’t know why he was hesitating to respond. “Thank you, Mrs. Tao. I’ll take that responsibility. I give you my word that we will not let you down.”
Yin only gave her reply in the form of a stern look, a rare, unambiguous sign of her thoughts. One that warned him he best be true to his word. It also seemed to ebb into a hint of frustration. She began scrolling towards another folder on her desktop.
“Normally, I would ask you to perform one or two more assignments to test your reliability, and assess your performance, whilst I did more background checks. But, current circumstances have forced my hand.”
“Current circumstances?”
“Your new assignment.”
Raz slowly shook his head.
“So, you don’t want me to follow up on Ulysses Kwabela?”
“Tkrai, leave us. I demand privacy.”
“As you wish, Mrs. Tao.” The AI complied and went silent.
Raz was half expecting a beep or something to denote that the AI was no longer listening. Instead, the door to the front of the plane closed as the security android attempted to highlight Tkrai’s dedication.
Yin looked back from her documents.
“Kwabela is a nobody, a petty warlord in Africa. Someone who uses such little technology that yours and Miss. Mesuda’s abilities would be quite wasted. I can easily assign someone else to him. I need you for a different job.”
She pulled out a file and placed it in front of him. The image of Ranajit Raman in his usual dour pose looked back at Raz with dull, apathetic eyes. He looked between the image and Yin twice, checking in his head that he wasn’t about to say something stupid.
“You want me to investigate your own business partner?”
Yin slowly nodded once in reply.
“Yes. The military robot which I had you trace back to Ulysses Kwabela, I believe, was the one used to attack and bomb the Domovoi Outpost on Phobos. I also believe it was done at his request.” Her eyes pointed down to Ranajit as if she disliked even saying his name.
‘Crap. I know I wanted to swim with the big fish, but this is chucking me in at the deep end.’ Raz involuntarily gulped. “Do you have any evidence to go on, like, what have your other investigators dug up?”
“Absolutely nothing,” she replied without hesitation. “I had two personal investigators, both of them worked for me over many years, and I asked them to collaborate on this investigation. Both have disappeared.”
“Both?”
Yin nodded.
“Yes, and if that does not tell you something is afoot, then I may have to hire a new investigator.”
“Oh, people disappearing is usually a very good sign,” Raz was so busy nodding that he didn’t realize what he was saying. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”
“Apology accepted,” she replied, bowing her head. “They were both very reliable and decent people. They did not deserve whatever he did to them.”
Raz’s mind was finally clicking into work-mode, now that there was a mystery to solve.
“This is why you’re taking me to Malaysia; it’s the headquarters of TKR.”
“Unofficially, it is our headquarters, yes. I, myself, will be traveling to China and departing there. But, this plane will carry on to Kuala Lumpur so that you can set up a base of operations. Thomas Kelland also has his main residence located in the city. He and my daughter are the only two people who know about any of this.” Lien looked over and gave a weak smile. “They are the only ones that you should trust, just as I am trusting you.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Yin gave a sharp nod, before pulling open a window in augmented reality and accessing a web page.
“Good. I am setting up an expense account in your name. You will be able to use it to purchase all the equipment that you need for whatever job that you need it for.”
‘Candyland!’ Raz thought, borrowing Namazu’s phrase from whenever she saw a location with an abundance of hackable items.
A sound chimed.
“Yes?” Yin asked.
“Our departure time has nearly arrived,” Tkrai announced. “I am starting the engines now, and we will be taking off in approximately five minutes time. Please, finish your drinks and begin to strap yourselves in.”
“Thank you, Tkrai. You may go.”
As this was going on, Raz’s face turned to puzzlement. 
“Wait a minute, you giving me this lift to Malaysia. How did you know you were going to employ me?”
“I did not, Mr. Kadir,” Yin admitted. “I was going to give you the entire flight to convince me. And, if you failed to do so, I would have let you remain on board and have the plane take you wherever you wanted to go.”
‘So,’ Raz rebuked himself internally. ‘An assignment to investigate possibly the world’s richest sociopath or I could’ve just had the plane take me to Tahiti. She’s absolutely right - I do have a death wish.’

Chapter 2 Scene 8 - LIV v0.5

LIV


The helmet and gloves wouldn’t come off fast enough, as Liv finally put them into one of the holes in the wall and strode as quickly as possible into the Longhouse Main Hall.
She had spent the last half-hour making sure Avery was alright after his daring challenge to the Russian. What little information Kalakov divulged seemed both shocking in its implications and frustrating at the same time. Deelon wasn’t an out-and-out murderer, but the fact that he had been involved in an attack that resulted in someone dying had hit his father hard. Avery had cried as many tears of misery as he had in joy just a couple of days ago. It made Liv rue the roller-coaster of emotions they had both gone through when she let him weep against her shoulder.
The disappointing part came from the Russian only bringing up more questions than answers, knowing she would have none of the latter for her fellow council members. With Jack Fallon having to travel from outside of the town to make it back to the Longhouse, they had decided to give it forty minutes before meeting, but it still wasn’t quick enough for Liv.
Inside, five chairs had been placed in a circle near the large view-screen. Kaito and Bella were already sitting down and idly talking between themselves and one of the other council members, Erik Lansdorp. Being an extremely tall, pale, and gaunt man, he was the epitome of what humans thought all martians looked like.
“Where’s Jack?” Liv asked impatiently, approaching so fast that she nearly broke out into a jog.
“I just heard one of the airlock’s behind us cycling through half a minute ago, so it’s probably him,” Kaito replied. “What’s this about?”
“If it is Jack, it can wait a few more seconds,” she replied, stopping behind an empty chair and putting both hands on it.
“Is it about Deelon going missing?” Bella asked, “Abigail told me Avery was worrying himself sick.”
“Oh, it’s way worse than that, we’ve got big problems. Hey Jack.”
Jack Fallon nodded back to her, before regarding the group with a simple “Liv, everyone,” as he entered the room and sauntered over. He wasn’t as tall as Erik, but was physically stronger in stature, having spent most of his life working at a few of the colony’s mining rigs. However, his grizzly and worn face was just as pale, and his black crew-cut and stubble made him look almost as much a soldier as the two military men from Phobos. As everyone began giving quick, curt greetings, he had one question in return. “How big are the problems?”
“Huge,” Liv replied as she dropped herself onto the seat. “It turns out that Deelon was involved in the Phobos bombing.” The shock and dismay of revealing the truth was just as bad as she’d imagined, with Bella being surprisingly the quietest of all in throwing out questions, as the inevitable deluge flooded the engineer’s way. “If you give me a second, I’ll explain. A Chinese Captain and a Russian Major from Phobos came to Avery’s house while I was helping him track down Deelon. They were trying to hide their true intentions but their goal was so obvious it was almost a joke. They wanted to arrest him and do it before we could find out. Avery somehow managed to get the Russian to give us some details. As it turns out, Deelon didn’t set any of the explosives himself, but they do have footage of him disabling some of their systems to allow the saboteur to do their job.”
“Oh my god, Deelon, what the hell have you done to us?” Bella asked the air above her. The rest of them fell into silence for a few moments, processing the new information. Kaito was the first one to bring up a new question.
“So, what, his entire parachute jump was a cover story?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Liv replied. “He really wanted to do that jump. It meant everything to him.”
Jack cleared his throat.
“I can back that up, it really did. Both of us helped him prepare for that stupid skydive. He took ages trying to convince one of the corporations to let him travel on a spaceplane. He was even creating a store of alcohol to trade for the ticket. In fact, he was so obsessed over it he often used it as an excuse to come around my place and drink all my beer. My guess? It was going to take him so long to make enough alcohol, that once one of the corporations realized how desperate he was, they gave him a simpler solution.”
The features of Erik’s long face drew toward his green-tinted eyes.
“A ticket for taking part in a bombing? He must’ve known he would get found out afterwards, even Deelon’s not that stupid. Something smells off.”
Meanwhile, Kaito was leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees and resting his chin on his hands.
“Did he tell you which corporation gave him the ticket?”
Remaining quiet, Jack simply shook his head with a look of resignation crossing over him.
“I think he told me,” Liv piped up. “But, it was weeks ago and I just don’t remember. Sorry.”
“If one of the corporations put him up to it, the others will want to know who it was.” Erik’s voice was dry and devoid of emotion as he rolled his head to look directly at Liv.
“Now you know why I said it was a huge problem,” she replied.
Bella’s face was still as worried as when she had first heard the news.
“God, when they find out, they could turn the entire town upside down looking for him.”
“If he’s even still alive.” Liv regretted even thinking it, but her mind had been contemplating all the interactions she’d had with the crazy kid over the last few days.
“What?” was Bella’s instant reaction.
“He was really dejected at work yesterday,” Liv admitted. “I thought it was because he was feeling guilty about going ahead with the jump when we learned that someone on Phobos had died,” she snorted. “Well, I guess it was guilt. Before we finished work he even apologized to me. Now that I’ve had time to think about it though, it seemed like there was something more to it, like he was saying sorry for all of this.”
The room went quiet again for a moment as the implication sunk in, but Kaito was the one that finally asked what most of them were probably thinking.
“Did it sound like a final goodbye?”
Liv gave a long, drawn-out sigh, and her shoulders dropped slightly.
“No, maybe, who knows? I know we’ve had suicides in the past, but I’ve never spoken to them before they’ve actually done it.”
“Well, no one’s reported a dead body so far,” Bella added. “So let’s keep positive, can we?”
Erik crossed his legs, and with one arm resting on the back of his chair, his high forehead and thinning hair, he looked for all the world like one of those Earth psychologists.
“Do we have any idea where he could’ve gone?”
Liv shook her head.
“Not really, it turns out I was the last one to see him and there was a dust storm. I watched Captain Liang from Domovoi use his satellite cameras. Even the thermal vision couldn’t pick up where he went after he left the 3D printer.”
“That’s a view from space, tens of thousands of kilometers away,” Jack pointed out. “What about the thermal cameras down here on Borealis? I know for a fact the corporations use them on their buildings for security.”
Frowning for a moment in thought, Liv’s face began unfolding in realization.
“You know, I don’t think Liang thought of that. If he did, it was after him and Kalakov had left.”
Jack grunted, his husky voice only made his words seem more resigned.
“It still might be a long shot, it entirely depends on if any of the corporation buildings have the industrial printer in their view.”
“I’ll have a look after I leave here,” she replied.
The disappointment over Jack’s face was like someone had stuck hooks at various points and was pulling down on his features. The miner knew Deelon looked up to him much in the same way Max idolized her fellow printing engineer. The longer the meeting went on the more he seemingly hunched and sagged.
“Regardless of if they do or they don’t,” Kaito continued. “We have to move fast. This will not stay quiet for long, and the moment we start a colony-wide search for him the corporations are going to ask what’s going on. And even if they don’t figure it out, you can bet when they relay it back to Earth one of those AI’s will instantly work it out for them.”
“What do we do if… when we find him?” Erik only amended his statement when he saw Bella’s glare. “From the way you’ve told it Liv, he’s completely guilty.”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “It’s not the same as when Ben murdered that CorpRep, that was flat-out murder. I don’t want to pre-judge anything until I’ve heard Deelon’s side of the story. For all we know, he was coerced into doing it.”
The flagging visage of Jack began changing once he put a hand to his forehead and harshly swept it down his face. A more determined and resolute man emerged. The man people always seemed to envisage when they mentioned his name. Liv always thought it was the tough life he spent fixing drills, industrial robots, and the dangers associated with mining that had made him that way. People usually considered that her job had a mild degree of danger to it, with a rickety, old printer that spouted dangerous chemicals and metals; but at least if the printer broke there was only a remote chance of it or the materials killing you.
The little voice at the back of her head noticed the change in his demeanor might have been to do with her mentioning coercion.
“There’s one thing we do know for sure;” the miner added. “If the Chinese, Russians or corporations find him first then we wont get any say in the matter.”
“Then I call the vote,” Bella forthrightly announced. “We put out a message that goes only to our fellow colonists. We ask them to search their homes, warehouses and workplaces immediately, and to keep it quiet. Then, when everyone reports back, we go out in search teams, check every street and use all the vehicles we have to sweep around the general area.”
“And don’t forget the mines and harvesters,” Jack added.
“Them too. Once we find Deelon, we let him give his side of the story to the colony, and then as we normally do - let everyone vote. Should we protect him and judge him ourselves or hand him over to Phobos. All those in favor?” Bella’s hand flew up like a puppet master was hiding somewhere in the ceiling. Everyone else followed suit, with the sole exception of Erik Lansdorp. He remained motionless and his face was enigmatic. “What’s wrong, Erik?”
The colony’s doctor remained stoically pensive.
“I agree with the search. But I think we should hold off deciding what to do with him until after we find him. For all we know, Earth or the corporations might not give us a choice in the matter, and if it looks like people might get killed over him, well, we’ll need to be flexible on the matter.”
Bella’s eyebrows clashed together in frustration and Liv felt much the same. Why was Erik being so pedantic? If the corporations or Earth forced their hand it wouldn’t make any difference to whatever they voted for here.
“Fine,” Bella replied with disdain, her eyes locked on Erik. “I call the same vote except without the decision on Deelon.”
All the hands went up, but the tension remained. For a moment, Liv wondered if they needed permission from Bella to bring their hands back down. It was certainly the most uncomfortable vote they had experienced for over a year. Liv made the decision to bring her hand down first and everyone else followed suit. Even after it, something lingered in the air that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
Kaito, ever the breaker of moments, smashed the silence by clapping his hands together.
“Good. Now that’s sorted, lets not waste a minute. I’ll type up and send that message to everyone. Erik, you’re good with bureaucracy, you want to draw up a map of who searches which streets?”
“Insults aside, yes I’ll do it,” the doctor blithely replied.
Liv remembered back to earlier in the discussion, and decided to keep up her mantra of being positive and practical.
“I’ll go check the printer and see if any of the corporate buildings have a good view of it.”
“Anyone want me to do anything?” Jack asked, looking as lost for ideas as his question implied.
Liv gave him a wry smile and a sidelong look, finding amusement in his lack of imagination.
“Considering you work with machinery all day long, how about checking there are no broken vehicles that need fixing before we get to the outdoor search?”
“Sounds like a job,” he replied with a nod. “I’ll get on it.”
Bella took in a quick breath and immediately snorted it back out.
“I’ll take responsibility for handling the CorpReps, when the outdoor search begins and they start calling, that is.”
Liv warmly smiled at her but the Latino woman gave a rueful look back. It was the one job none of them wanted, but Bella had grown to realize she was good at it, with her sympathetic ear and genuine concern for people being her strongest traits.
“You’re a braver woman than me, Bella.”
“Well, you know what they say,” she replied. “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.”

Chapter 2 Scene 7 - SHOTA v0.8

SHOTA

Shota Ishijima was always jealous of his best friend, Hiroto Daiju.
Hiroto was tall compared to the Japanese average. His muscular left arm flexed and glistened as he walked due to the drizzling rain having only just stopped. His other arm was a matte-black, carbon-fiber cybernetic limb. Glints of shiny metal peeked out from between its plated segments, and red and white graffiti was plastered over the plates themselves. The LA Lakers basketball jersey allowed both arms to be displayed in all their glory as they strutted down a street in Osaka’s busy Old Town district. 
Shota, on the other hand, was short, stout, and overweight. And, whenever he glanced across and saw Hiroto wearing something that highlighted his muscles, a dull pang of resentment would press against Shota’s lower ribcage and briefly constrict his breathing.
It wasn’t fair; he had tried working out, on many occasions, but the fat just never seemed to disappear. A few months ago, he dedicated himself to a week-long stint of trying to exercise, but it barely made a dent. In his most quiet moments of reflection, Shota admitted to himself that he should perhaps also stop eating as much as he did when attempting to do an exercise course. Even with diet and fat reduction medication, the problem was that every time he felt hungry he would always forget about his grand plan. It only made him more depressed when he saw how easily Hiroto managed to scoff junk food whenever he wanted and still keep his physique. Even right now, he held a bag of french-fries and was idly chomping away on them.
The thought lingered too long, and the distraction of looking at Hiroto’s left arm nearly made Shota clip an oncoming pedestrian.
By day, the sidewalk was always a congested mess of people, made worse by the homeless bums that littered the store-fronts and narrowed the available walking space. The deluge of people only eased off at around this time, late in the evening. But even then, it was as if two flowing streams were clashing together.
Idly scratching his unshaven cheek, Hiroto shared a joke about the eatery that they’d just visited. The meat, as with most hawker stalls or small-economy restaurants, tasted vague and hard to pin down. Jokes about where and what it came from were always a good way to pass the time, especially when the conversation was slow. 
Tonight they were joined by Hiroto’s friend, Kyoko Aiso. She called herself a cyber-security grunt, but even Shota knew that meant she was a hacker. Hiroto often worked with her on his shady business, selling things that weren’t easily obtainable. He was in big with a large-economy corporation, or so Shota had gleaned from knowing him for so long. Considering the big seven, he guessed it was Ramuda-AMG, due to the corporation’s Japanese and Australian origins. But, even without dealing with one of the world’s largest companies, Hiroto’s work was so dodgy that Shota easily understood why his best friend needed someone like Kyoko.
He had briefly met the tech wizard a few times before, but never for an evening out like tonight. Shota had soon come to realize that Kyoko was as flamboyant as her clothes were. She was tall and lanky for a woman, especially a Japanese woman. Her orange beanie hat, pink gilet, and fluorescent yellow t-shirt that read ‘BITE ME’ in a repeating animation, all combined for the geek-chic style that she so obviously wanted to cultivate.
It oddly matched the street itself, which was just as brash. Garish multi-colored shop signs lit up the night, all of which were desperately trying to compete with the extended barrage of commercial advertising hovering around in augmented reality. The clashing colors reflected off the various types of wet garbage that littered the cracked pavement, and the faint smell of rotten food only added to the subject of conversation.
Kyoko accidentally kicked a cardboard burger box out of her way and into a homeless person.
“I’m telling you,” she said with a grin, “it was cat meat in my broth. It definitely tasted of cat.”
“Considering how hard it is to get meat,” Shota countered, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a back room filled with dead rats from the sewers and had little Korean kids skinning the lot.” He pulled a face of what he believed an unhappy child would look like, gesturing a knife hurriedly slicing away like a potato peeler. The shaking action made the chunky gold chain around his neck jiggle.
“You think that’s bad?” Kyoko replied. “I once ate at one of those ethical hipster bars. No lie, they had these two aquarium water tanks, one at both ends of the counter. You could see them growing the ‘responsible’ meat that they used.” Her face turned into a horror mask. “Ugh! It looked like someone had butchered Frankenstein and put pieces of him in a jar. The meat itself was bubbling, and there were white and yellow streaks hanging off it. God, it made me want to puke!”
“I’d have eaten it,” Hiroto blithely remarked as he picked out another french-fry from the packet he was carrying.
“You’d eat those snails they serve at the really fancy restaurants,” Kyoko retorted.
“Food’s food,” the black-market dealer replied, “as long as it tastes alright.”
They began passing a few twenty-four-seven food outlets, and the assault of commercial advertising in augmented reality became significantly worse. Shota hated the animated logos and the enticements on cluttered streets like this one. He imagined the only reason they weren’t banned was because when accidents did occur, it only served to make you remember the product that caused the incident in the first place. 
Hiroto obviously felt the same way.
“Ugh, god-damned commercials, I can’t see shit. EyeGlass, remove all but the basics from AR.” 
Shota, never wanting to seem out of touch with his best friend, did the same. “Yeah, it’s crazy tonight, isn’t it? EyeGlass do the same for me.”
Immediately, only the physical signs and billboards remained. Even some of the tall tower blocks that used their exterior as advertising space disappeared into the night. Shota noticed one or two colorfully extravagant avatars chatting with their friends in the street, but, apart from that, the only other augmented reality items left in his vision were the usual tourist signs and the ugly face of Kuidaore Taro. 
The Osaka city council continually plastered the face of their bespectacled clown mascot all over the place, and his two-dimensional head hovered in the sky above the distant street junction ahead. How that vacant face with stupid red lips ever became a symbol of Osaka was something Shota could never be bothered to look up. The pointy red and white striped hat with a blue bobble on top made the character look even more ridiculous.
If it wasn’t for the fact it would disrupt the conversation further, Shota would’ve asked his EyeGlass to remove Taro as well. The irritating thoughts about the mascot only served to further distract him from the street, so he returned his view to the deluge of pedestrians.
A young woman strode out from a side alley just ahead of them and off to their right. Shota didn’t notice her at first, due to his preoccupation with the hideous clown, but then she stopped and swiveled ninety degrees to face the group head-on. Wearing an elbow-length and sleeveless black-leather jacket, bright red skirt, pink fishnet tights, and black socks, she also had a white t-shirt on that read ‘ONLY IF YOU BITE FIRST’ printed on it. With three purple ponytails sticking up out of her head, she tilted it and smiled at them.
Shota only realized she was a problem when he saw her blocking Hiroto’s path on purpose. Hiroto came to a sudden stop, making both Shota and Kyoko stutter in their reactions as they too came to a halt. The flow of the street was like water crashing against the rocks, with a couple of people smacking into Shota’s left arm. After hearing an apology without locking eyes on the culprit, Shota returned his view to the girl. Everyone else tried to redirect around the group.
“Hi there! How are you?” she greeted them while waving her left hand. Oddly, the girl was speaking English.
Hiroto twitched his head up in a curt greeting.
“What’s up?” he responded in the same language, looking extremely suspicious.
“Oh, it’s nearly always the opposite of down,” the girl replied sincerely, acting as if she genuinely had to explain it to him. Hiroto’s eyebrows crunched together in full-on annoyance.
“The fuck? What you want, little girl?”
“What do I want? Let’s see…” She began pointing at them individually. “He’s Shota Ishijima, and she’s Kyoko Aiso, which makes you Hiroto Daiju. Looks like I’ve got everyone, but I only really want you.”
“Oh really, and what do you want me for?” Hiroto asked in reply.
The girl didn’t get a chance to answer, as Kyoko butted-in.
“Wait, how do you know our names? Are you in one of our social groups, or are you using facial recognition?”
Shota realized that was precisely the unshapen thought niggling at the back of his mind, as well. Who was this girl?
“Both?” she replied with a fake look of confusion. “I also hacked your contact lists.” Frowning in puzzlement, she shot a glance towards Shota. “By the way, who is ‘Big-Balls Vanessa?’” She even held out her hands for emphasis, as if grasping them.
Shota’s face leapt into shock, and he found himself not breathing. He looked between her and Hiroto, trying to garner the reaction, but his best friend continued staring straight at the girl.
Hiroto had always been a straight-laced tough guy, and although he wasn’t homophobic to the point of outright hatred, he most certainly looked down his nose at anyone who wasn’t heterosexual. How had this girl found out about Vanessa just from his contact list? Shota had listed the name as BBV and thought it safe.
Hiroto threw his french-fries away to one side, took a step forward, and leaned his head down towards the girl.
“Okay, you got my attention. Now, tell me what you want.”
The girl shrugged her shoulders.
“I just want the name of who you sold your last military robot to, that’s all. The Ashigaru model.”
Hiroto stuck a hand out and waved it through her digital body. He gave a sly grin and leaned back before turning around, walking a few steps away, and then began chuckling to himself. Shaking his head, he put his hands on his hips and looked over to Kyoko.
“Can you trace this bitch?”
Kyoko gave him a knowing look.
“Does a bear shit in the woods?” she replied sardonically, before pressing an invisible button. The geek-chic woman began opening three digital windows, all of which started running various programs. “If she’s dumb, she’ll stand here and keep talking to you.”
“Oh, I bet she’s dumb.” Hiroto nodded as he faced the short girl once more. He gave a casual, dead-eye expression. “I bet she’s also nothing but a fat, thirty-year-old white guy.”
“All I want is the name of the person you sold it to.” She waggled her two index fingers negatively. “I don’t want trouble.” Despite looking like she was in her early twenties, her expressive nature made her seem younger. 
Hiroto copied her use of expressive gestures by putting both hands to the sides of his head and mockingly shaking them. 
“Well, too bad, you’re in the shit now. Doesn’t matter where you are in the world; when Kyoko finishes her trace, we’re gonna come pay you a visit.” Shota felt the strength behind the words. No-one messed with Hiroto; he had the money to fly wherever he wanted and even had Yakuza connections to help back up the threat. Part of the reason Shota liked Hiroto, even after school, was that no one would dare challenge him, either. The criminal element to Hiroto’s work simply made it all the more glamorous. He was like a large-economy guy living in the small-economy world.
Hiroto’s status made it feel all the more surreal when the girl’s worried look of concern changed to that of an impish, cat-like grin, with eyes that flashed a predatory glee.
“Oh, you don’t want to do that,” she replied as if knowing that a mousetrap was about to spring.
“Oh,” he mocked her voice this time, “And why not?”
The girl pulled both hands up to her eye-level, closing all the fingers except for the pinkies.
“You see these? These are my little fingers of doom. You make me mad, and I make them rock your world.” Her smile stretched even wider and she jostled both hands around in a circle. It was like the little fingers were dancing.
This only made Hiroto even more bemused, and he took another step forward, snorting in derision.
“Really? Well, guess what? I like the idea of you being mad when we find you. If you are a girl, it’s always more fun when they struggle. I get to hold you down and feel you wriggle about.” He put his hands out, tracing an outline of her torso and hips, gesturing their movement.
Aiming her left hand’s little finger at his side, the girl made a ‘pop’ sound with her mouth - as if firing a bubble from her smallest digit. Hiroto’s cybernetic right arm turned itself off and dropped down, helplessly flopping against the side of his body.
Shota noticed Kyoko performing the same comical double-take as he was doing when they spotted the lifeless arm. Having met a few hackers during his friendship with Hiroto, he had seen them do some neat tricks in AR with their fingers, but he never knew you could so easily disable someone’s prosthetic limb.
“Ohh, we’ve got a comedian,” Hiroto replied, with his voice lowering and almost bordering on anger. “That’s cute, but all you’ve done now is piss me off. When Kyoko is done tracing you, we’re not gonna be soft; we’re gonna fuck you up real good.”
Normally, Shota would have been unwavering in his belief at Hiroto’s words, sneering at the stupid idiot in front of them. But, after the embarrassment at his secret life being exposed, and seeing how easily she took out Hiroto’s arm, something nudged him at the back of his head - doubt.
The girl held up her right hand with her pinkie pointing towards the sky.
“That was just one little finger; I still have this one as well.” She briefly pointed her eyes towards the small digit.
“Aww, go fuck yourself, you stupid little bitch. What you gonna do, make my hand strangle me?” Hiroto snickered dismissively.
The girl shook her head.
“No,” she replied sincerely, “that’s controlled by your brain’s motor-cortex, I can only turn that off and on. What I can do - is this!”
She turned side-on to him and lifted her arm with one eye closed. Taking aim at his head and making another ‘pop’ noise, the girl fired her right hand’s little finger. A thumping, electronica dance track began blaring out, and Hiroto threw his left hand up to cover his eyes. He alternated between that and clutching his left ear as he doubled over and fell to the ground in pain. Pedestrians on both sides of the street became startled, fearfully looking towards the commotion at hearing the screams. 
‘What the hell is going on?’ Shota’s mind screamed out. He stared in disbelief at his best friend writhing in agony on the floor.
The girl began nonchalantly moving her hips and torso in time to the music.
“He’s seeing very bright things in his eyes right now,” she explained. “He’s also really enjoying the music.” Grinning cheekily and nodding, she put a finger to her left ear to emphasize the fact. 
Looking back down to his friend, Shota could see Hiroto repeatedly pressing on his left temple and shouting for his EyeGlass to shut off, but to no avail. Shota squatted down with a clink from his chunky gold chain, and, without really knowing what to do to help, tried putting his fingers in his friend’s ears. The hands were instantly swatted away. He had never felt so helpless. Usually, it was Hiroto that looked out for him.
Without a clue as to what to do, he looked up to Kyoko, hoping that, being a hacker herself, she might have a solution.
Kyoko was no better, seemingly frozen in shock. Her mouth was locked open, and her eyes winced with the look of someone who had just witnessed a surgical operation for the first time.
The girl swiftly pointed both of her pinkies at Kyoko while still moving in time to the music. She nearly had to shout over the volume of the thumping tune. “You still want to keep tracing me?”
Kyoko took a couple of glances between Hiroto rolling in agony and the two pinkies pointing her way. She quickly grasped at her floating programs and scrunched them up into a ball before throwing them away. With a final look of terror at Shota, she turned and ran back up the street from where they came. It took only a moment for her to disappear amongst the throng of concerned pedestrians.
The girl returned her attention to the tortured man.
“I didn’t do anything to your right ear, so I know you can still hear me. Do you tell me the name, or do I turn up the music and burst your ear-drum?”
Hiroto instantly replied, but it didn’t carry over the music.
“I can’t hear you!”
“Ulysses Kwabela!” he shouted, “Ulysses Kwabela!”
The girl blew on her right pinkie like a gunslinger blowing smoke from a gun. The moment she did so, the music stopped, and Hiroto’s body relaxed. He let go of his eyes and began blinking them repeatedly.
Shota tried to get his friend back up on his feet, but between the two of them, they only managed to bring him up to a sitting position. Patting Hiroto’s back gently, he felt the deep breaths of relief that were coursing through the man’s lungs. 
“See? That wasn’t so hard,” she said while crinkling her nose and giving a pearly grin.
Hiroto began waving his left hand in front of his face, and Shota felt his best friend's ribcage beginning to speed up once more. He hunched over and tried to find out what the problem was.
“Are you alright?” 
“I... I still can’t see!” the trembling voice replied.
Shota looked up to the girl with his silent question hanging as low as his chin.
“Don’t worry, it will come back.” She looked up towards puzzled eyebrows. “I think.”
Shrugging with both shoulders, the girl turned her heels ninety degrees and quickly swiveled her body to match. After blowing a cheeky kiss towards Shota with her hand, she skipped off back down the alley.