I'd been planning this run for a week. I wasn't going to let a small abnormality stop my attempt on the biggest corp I'd ever taken on alone. It simply wasn't an option.
"You can't make this run, Eilidh," the middle-aged woman yelled at me from the other side of the living room, "It is far too dangerous and you've clearly not prepared enough." She was my hookup, someone who fielded and verified clients, and also the closest person I've ever had to a mother.
She was irate because I'd decided to infiltrate the Eastern Hills Space Company at their Denver Headquarters in order to steal as much data as I could walk out with. I was going to start preparing for the run in just a few hours, and Berdie just didn't want me to go.
"I know you think it's dangerous," I admitted to her with a sigh. There was no decent way for me to say this without Berdie feeling bad. "We haven't had a proper payday in almost a month and you need your medicine."
"We have so many credits saved up still," Berdie protested. She held her frail lips in such a tight frown. Under the dim lighting in our safehouse, you could barely tell she was frowning; it was so thin. Her eyes were what really gave it away.
"I don't care if we have a million credits saved up," I countered, "Your medicine would wipe it all out in just a few months."
Berdie narrowed her eyes in anger. You could almost feel the daggers she'd started staring at me. "At least I care enough about you not to lose myself to something completely insane!" Berdie yelled, throwing a glass across the room at me. She missed; it burst against the wall behind me.
I sighed. "Would it help ease your worry if I hired an analyst to help me through this?" I asked, pushing my blue hair out of my eyes.
"Yes, but you're planning for tonight," she continued protesting, "You better not be basing this heist off of a small enough amount of data that an analyst can analyze it all in twelve hours!"
"Even if I've got an analyst who I've been working with for the whole thing?" I asked, batting my eyes innocently. After all, I had one friend I trusted unconditionally with all my data, and he'd been looking at it all along.
Marvin was his name. He was the hacker I sold all of my data to. He'd resell it on various bulletin board systems, BBSes, or hand it directly to other teams making runs similar to mine.
Berdie was silent for a while as she mulled through this. "Marvin doesn't count; Eilidh you know that."
"Yes, Mother," I whined. Why did she always have to ruin my fun? I was trying to take care of her. The corps that made her medicine were all making back room deals so they could charge an arm and a leg for it. Even though the formula for her medicine had been leaked by runners, we still couldn't manufacture it ourselves. The equipment needed to do so was, similarly to the medicine itself, far beyond the price range of any makers I knew of. It was also incredibly hard to steal.
Eastern Hills Space Company was just a single step towards that much larger goal: I eventually wanted to liberate the machines that PharmaCo used to build its meds. If we became a burrow in the Colorado Free State with one, we could produce their drugs at their real cost, and not their capitalist bullshit price.
That's what this was all about: My burrow needs things, and I need to pay for Berdie's meds. Two birds with one stone.
I'd started running with easy jobs, fielded by local merchants who just needed gear or information. Eventually I'd made a run I was utterly unprepared for trying to grab an industrial kiln for one of the artisans in the burrow.
"Grab", because I had two guys who were supposed to be my muscle. Of course, they ran at the first sign of trouble. I'd almost been snatched by the security forces while trying to escape. My panic upon returning home had let Berdie pry more information out of me than I'd realized.
She'd then declared herself my hookup and started giving me jobs.
I should have realized that I couldn't keep jobs from her, even in her declining health. "I'm going on this run," I stated, "I've already invested hundreds of credits into information gathering. Its not going to waste, and the data I need is going off planet tomorrow at 0800."
"Fine," Berdie said, defeated, "but you better be back before breakfast young lady." I nodded. What else could I do? If I wasn't back it meant I'd failed. And I'd be dead, or worse.
I walked to my room. The door slid open as I approached it, the automated system having recognized my face. An automated greeting sounded on the speakers I'd rigged the room with. "Play my electro playlist."
The speakers started playing, filling the room with lively music. I assessed my things. A bed was in the far corner, simple, but the mattress was garbage. Every time I laid down for rest it was on the bean bag on the opposite wall anyway.
The room's lighting was provided by many strings of pink, blue, and green electroluminescent wires, all placed in seemingly random places. Some hung from the ceiling; others laid across the floor or hung from the walls. My computer's many monitors lit up, washing out the scene with blue and white light.
I sat in my computer chair and began carefully formulating my plan. Even a single unknown variable could cause this run to go up in flames. I'd lose my life if I wasn't careful.
About an hour into reviewing data and making notes, a video call request popped up on my main monitor. I jumped at the sudden noise before regaining my composure and accepting the call.
"Marvin," I said, trying to keep the adrenaline away from my voice.
"Eilidh," Marvin replied. He was grinning a wide grin, making his blue eyes crinkle. "I just uncovered something in your recon data."
"Tell me about it," I said, going back to drawing my plans. I'd just been reviewing guard rotations and paths in the research and development building.
"They are guarding something big in the secondary building," he laughed, pleased with himself, "No guards on the outside of the building, but I cross-referenced some of your data with that of another band of runners who tried to get in. Their recording devices were blank when they came back out, and they couldn't even remember what they saw in there."
"How's that possible?" I asked, looking up at the camera above Marvin's face. "Are they working on memory alteration?"
"Maybe, but it gets better," he says, his excitement is very visible on him. He's nearly bouncing out of frame. "Their security team kills people, Eilidh. These guys walked out of their failed run not remembering it at all. They don't want people to think there's anything there worth running against."
"I gathered," I sighed, "that doesn't make it any more appetizing of a target, Marvin. Get to it, what else did you find?"
"Rumors," he replied. His red hair was a mess from the excitement he could barely contain in his thin frame. "They say there's ghosts there. And magic! Real magic!"
"Marvin," I snapped, "I know you've been trying to prove magic exists for the last fifteen years, but you're twenty-seven now. Can we drop all the childish games?"
"It couldn't hurt to look, Li," he said, using my nickname from when we were young, "Please, whatever is in that building is really high priority."
Another change to the plan. I didn't like it. I'd spent most of my time looking into the main R&D building. It would likely be too risky to run against the secondary. "Alright," I said giving up, "but you're going to sweeten the pot for me if I walk out of there with nothing. And you're going to be on vid with me the whole time."
"What do you want?" Marvin asked. He'd started typing frantically, his already big smile widening.
"You'll pay for Berdie's meds for the next four months." A run like this could pay for that much, probably. I wasn't actually getting paid, just hoping I'd get enough data for a good payday, so this was a baseline of pay at the very least.
"Fine," he sighed, "but that's a lot of money, so I'll be recording your whole run. And I'm sending a drone with you: one I'll be piloting."
"More help is more better," I said, "but now that you're in, help me with the damn plan."
A few hours of planning later, I found myself sighing deeply. "Marv, wanna go to the club before I get myself killed?"
"Sure," he replied. His face was no longer lit up with excitement. The planning had taken a lot of effort and I could see that he was frustrated. "This plan is now solid enough to stand on, but I can't help but feeling like you're walking into a deliberate trap."
"You wanted me to hit the secondary building," I said, shrugging. "See you at the club."
"Wait!" he cried before I could hang up. "Which club are we going to?"
I shrugged. "Which one is open at 1500?"
He started typing again, fingers moving fast enough that they were just blurs in the camera. "Looks like Railgun and TripSmash are open."
"TripSmash," I said. "Railgun was boring as, last time."
"See you there," he said, cutting the connection. With the video call now disconnected, my music started playing again. The music had resumed in the middle of a drop, so the sudden noise caused me to jump, knocking my chair back.
I'd ended up on the floor. I couldn't help laughing. It was kinda funny. Before I could pull myself off the floor, the door was sliding open. Berdie's face held a firm expression, but her eyes were red and puffy.
"Marv and I built a plan," I said, finally getting back up on my feet, "We're gonna go meet up at the club, I wanna dance with some girls before I end up in a corp prison."
She exploded in laughter, the somber kind of laughter. When she finally regained her composure, she was biting her lip in that worried anxious way she always does. "You kids take care of each other out there."
"We will, Mom," I said. Her worry over me did make me feel good. I knew this was a risky run, but I had to do it, to prove to myself I could be independent again.
As she left my doorway, the door slid shut. I breathed slightly. "Time to pick clothes and hit the shower, I guess. Should I do makeup? Probably. Will I? Maybe. I do want to dance with some pretty women. Maybe I will doll up just a bit."
I settled on a black crop top and a simple pair of black jeans. I'd be wearing a brown jacket with a black hood to keep the cold off. And my black combat boots would tie the outfit all together. I sighed; there was no way I'd pick anyone up wearing this. At least Berdie never had to worry about me bringing anybody over.
I laughed my worry away only slightly. I just wanted to dance with someone cute; was that so much to ask for? Yeah. Probably. I sighed and took my clothes to the bathroom with me.
My shower was quick and cold, but it got me clean. I had been pretty dirty after the recon I'd done last night. I'm amazed Berdie was able to argue with me for so long when I stank that badly.
After getting dressed I decided I would do my makeup. I neglected foundation and coverup, but focused on my eyes. A little blue eye shadow to pull out the blues in my eyes and hair. Big wings drawn in eye liner. Mascara to thicken up my lashes. Sky blue sparkles on my eyes and cheeks to enhance the pale look of my skin.
Finally I picked some black lipstick and put it on. It was so black in comparison to my pale skin, chosen intentionally for the contrast.
So I liked the color of my face being washed out. It looked good, okay?
Looking at myself in the mirror, an odd idea crossed my mind. "Any deities that might smile upon me, I ask for a blessing in my endeavors tonight." I knew deities weren't real, but on the off-chance that I'd gained the favor of one, I might as well ask, right?
The club was a short ride from the safehouse on my motorcycle. Ten minutes after getting on the bike, I was walking into TripSmash. The club wasn't much to look at from the outside: it was a simple old warehouse covered in graffiti with a sign out front.
On the inside, TripSmash was a den of cyberdelia love. High-tech lights pulsed to the music as lasers shone into the smokey dance floor. The bar was on the wall right as you walked in, and a seating area was across the floor from it. On the wall directly opposite the door stood the DJ at their perch, looking at pink-tinted holographic displays. They looked badass.
"When did you get that?" Marvin asked, sliding up next to me and pointing at my belly button ring.
"Last year, I think," I said, heading to the bar. "After my run on Xycell."
"What can I get you?" the bartender asked, flashing me a smile.
"What ever fruity drink you recommend," I replied, giving the bartender a courteous smile. He wasn't my type, but he was cute.
"And another Fringe," Marvin said from next to me, then turned to me, "So you got a belly button ring after Xycell. Why?"
"Saw one on the cute receptionist as I entered the building," I laughed, "thought, 'I really can't not look that cute,' and now here we are." Marvin joined in my laughter. The bartender came back to our side of the bar and handed us our drinks.
"The Fruity Tootie," the bartender said, "but your limit is two, especially after your friend here nearly brought our network down."
"Marvin!" I exclaimed, turning back toward him, "you nearly brought their network down and you let me drag you here?"
"Uh, yeah," Marvin replied, sipping on his new drink. It was a pretty blue, almost two shades lighter than my hair. "I uh, forgot I did it. I was pretty turned up by this designer amphetamine I'd taken earlier in the night. Wild party though."
I shrugged. "I'mma go hit the floor, watch my drink?"
"Sure," Marvin replied, "have fun." I walked out there, trying my best to saunter toward a beautiful woman in a short black dress. She met my eyes and smiled. Her eyes were a pretty gray.
As I got closer I started dancing, giving her looks that I hoped would invite her over to come dance with me. She smiled, a pretty smile, almost a challenge.
Should I move closer to her?
No, I didn't think so. Not yet.
She'll come around, right?
She inched closer and closer to me until she was right in front of and dancing with me. I gave her a sly smile; she gave me a grin. Her eyes were much prettier up close. They were only gray under the pink the lights had turned, the pink matching the holoscreens. Now that I was closer, I saw they were actually a beautiful lavender.
"Nice eyes," I whispered into her ear, the music slipping into a more chill track. "They're beautiful."
"Thanks," she replied, hesitantly threading her fingers in mine. "Yours are pretty, too. You did good with your makeup."
I smiled. "Thanks, wanna go grab a drink?"
"Yeah," she replied, "I haven't had anything to drink in a bit. Lose myself to the beat." She shrugged.
"Makes sense," I laughed, "Come on." I pulled her to the bar next to where Marvin was sitting on a stool.
"Wow," Marvin said, looking my dance partner over. "She's really cute, Eilidh."
"Yep," I said, a blush working its way into my voice, "she's really gorgeous."
"Lucere," she said, squeezing on my hand. I took a gulp of my drink and turned to her.
"Nice to meet you Lucere, I'm Eilidh," I said, squeezing her hand.
"I'm Marvin," Marvin said, obviously trying to trip me up, but I didn't feel any of the normal anxiety with Lucere. She was easy to look at, her pretty black dress clinging to her frame, highlighting every curve. Her beautiful eyes were captivating.
"Did you want a drink, Lucere?" I asked as the bartender came to check up on us. She looked at me for a moment under diffuse white lighting.
"Yes," she replied, then broke her gaze to tell the bartender, "Gin martini, stirred, two olives." He nodded and hurried off to prepare it.
"Martini, huh?" I asked, shivering under the weight of her returning gaze. It felt like she was drinking the look of me up.
"Yeah," she replied, "Martini. A brother-in-arms used to drink them. I try to have one every once in a while before kissing someone. One of his old traditions."
"You were in the war?" I asked. A war broke out in the Colorado Free State last year. It lasted roughly a week, but the battle had scarred the Denver cityscape permanently. Several corporate towers had been leveled within a handful of hours.
"Something like that," Lucere laughed. She began pointing up. "Been off world a few years on assignment. Got back today."
"Woah," Marvin exclaimed. "What's it like up there?"
"I missed the ground," Lucere admitted. The bartender slid her drink up next to her. Her face lit up before she snatched it off the bar and gulped it down. I chuckled. She set the empty glass down on the bar before reaching down and kissing me.
Lucere's kiss felt electric against my lips and her hands like fire against the skin of my waist. I moaned.
"Oh shit," I laughed, breaking away from the kiss. "That was pretty sudden and really nice, don't get me wrong, but I wasn't expecting, um, that, quite so soon."
"Sorry," she said, blushing, "I just, its been a while since I've been in the Free State, a while since I've been anywhere but the medical ward of a starship."
"Don't be sorry," I said, reaching up to kiss her again. "It was really endearing. And a lot of fun."
She smiled, broke away from my embrace, then looked at Marvin with a contemplative face. "You look sufficiently nerdy. Know any runners?"
I coughed, nearly spilling the fresh sip of my drink on my crop top. Marvin pointed at me. Lucere's eyes lit up as she looked at me. Oh, that was a feeling I could get used to.
"Why do you need a runner?" I asked, trying to avoid looking outright curious. I tried for a look of calm and collected.
"I work for Eastern Hills Space Company," she replied. Her eyes looking for any cracks in my mask. "Looking for someone to break in as a security test. I want it to be as real as we can manage."
Shit. I was spooked and even Lucere could tell. Did she know I had planned a run for just a few hours from now? How did she know? What was I doing still standing here holding her hand?
"So you were going to hit us tonight," Lucere mumbled. "No worries. I can pay you right now: double whatever you were going to get from it and protection for you and your crew. But for that I suppose you'll have to become a runner for us. I understand how that could make you feel."
"How about we drop you right here," Marvin suggested. His eyes fell down to where I was still holding Lucere's hand. I looked down and saw that she was still holding my hand, calmly and happily.
"You could not hurt her," I offered. Finally, I gave up and relaxed. "I kinda wanna just keep kissing her, if that's alright with everyone."
Marvin threw his hands in the air, then brought them down hard on the bar.
"Bartender," he yelled, "can I get, well, anything? I need some chemical help to understand the world I find myself in."
"Yeah," Lucere finally said, cutting off her giggling. "I'll kiss you some more, but you realize that if you don't take this job, we're gonna walk away from here enemies."
"Guess I better make the best of the time we're friends then," I replied after finishing my drink. I ran my free hand along her jaw. I couldn't help myself. Something about her was electrifying.
"One last question before we kiss, Eilidh," Lucere said.
Oh wow. The way my name came off her tongue sounded like honey. I nodded quickly before I could lose myself in that feeling.
"Do you feel the pull?"
I furrowed my brow in confusion. "What do you mean?"
She merely pulled out a mirror in response and used it to show me the small of my back. There was an interesting mark, but I couldn't make out what it was. Regardless of that, it was new. Hadn't been there when I showered an hour or so before.
"Shit," I exclaimed, "When the fuck did someone have the time to tattoo me in the last hour?"
"Not a tattoo," Lucere replied. "I have one just like it." She turned. Her dress' back disappeared. Or was it always like that? In the small of her back was an almost wireframe representation of a simplistic lotus.
Without thinking I put my finger to the mark and felt its ridges. As I ran my finger over the mark, it began to glow along the outlines. A faint purple glow that was reflected in my hands.
"Woah!" Marvin exclaimed. "What the fuck?"
"We leave here as friends," Lucere stated, a smile on her face again. "And that felt really good. You have to promise to put your hands all over me sometime soon, okay?"
"Will someone please talk to me?" Marvin asked.
"Magic," I whispered, realizing instantly that I'd been wrong. "Its real. Look at it. Its beautiful."
"I need you both to come with me," Lucere said urgently, "Eilidh has about a week of transformation to do, and I suppose Marvin could be a good artificer. You look nerdy enough for it."