imaginary archive (ib_archive) wrote,
imaginary archive

[story] dragonvirus

author: thornsmoke (thornsmoke)
email: lasyungwen [at]

Rain bled the streets of color, limned the neon flashing towers with clear streaks that ran to silver and pearl at night. Up and down the sidewalks, men and women in magpie colors sidled along, stealing into seedy shops. The dark was filled with glimmers of the colorless marks that braceleted their wrists.

Then a roar splintered the stillness, and a dragon lumbered up out of an alley--

"Halt!" a young voice called. Seated on the pavement, Bastian saw Jane melt through a garbage can in the alleyway, her eyes steady on the dragon. The monstrous thing, a huge and shimmering shape, ignored her and thundered on to the palace in the distance. Jane bit off two violent syllables and flailed vaguely after it in steps reminiscent of an ancient macarena. "Stop!"

Bastian rolled his eyes. "Ting," he said, standing. Around them, the frame skittered and whirred to a standstill. "You should know better than to use Common on the old models of the security cams, you idiot."

Jane whirled. The still moonlight seemed nearly real as it sleeted through her feathery hair. Night reduced her to a fragile form with bones thin as needles, looking tinier than ever among the holograms of the towering buildings and the monsters rising. Her upturned face became a triangle the stark color of raw ivory, mask-flat and empty of shadows, her slitted eyes impossibly black.

"Excuse you," she snapped. "The place was rich enough to steal from. They obviously have enough cash to bring in better security cams than this."

Marching to the dragon, she jabbed a fist through it and glared at the transparently glittering construct as though it had proved a disappointment by not being real enough to eat her for punching it.

"Stupid thing," she muttered under her breath. "A dragonvirus should be solid."

"I am heartily sorry that our security system has so disenchanted you, Mad'sel Lee," a voice said from behind them both. The banker appeared in a tailored silk suit and a flourish of, Bastian noted as nonjudgmentally as he could, pink sparkles. Maybe the color of the sparkles denoted what rank one held in the bank as the flashing sigils on their arms denoted that they belonged to it.

Or maybe the banker just liked to feel pretty.

"Perhaps you could recommend for us a better service? We are afraid that this one has been rather less promising than we anticipated." A fluttering gesture to the dragon with plump hands; a chuckle. "As you can see. Though I'm afraid their services never did promise safety against draconian invasions."

Jane opened her mouth, presumably to comment on how it all seemed rather like a creepy medieval crossover with the twenty-first century; and speaking of the twentieth century he should pick something that would be less tasteless next time. But even if she had dressed up for the meeting - a silver suit, the sigil that marked her rank twining sapphire around her wrist - Bastian doubted that a patron would look kindly upon a mere detective treating his bank like her own personal theater.

He cut her off before she could start. "My partner was only noting that it is very difficult to investigate a scene when there is nothing corporeal..."

But that had been the premise of the case: why the police had closed their books and let the amateurs on a weedy little street at the edge of town cut in. No electronic traces, no fingerprints and nothing but a strangely-coded dragonvirus was what they were made for.

The police weren't made for weird. The Golden & Lee agency was. They were good at weird.

"Ah, yes, Mister Golden." The eyes were sharper on him. Bastian wondered what he had heard. He hadn't bothered to check in with Reynolds lately about street cred and all the regular worries. For all he knew, they'd started to spread rumors of a penchant for squirrels. "Well, I am afraid that this is all we can offer. If you like, I can patch you through to the technicians. Bright young persons. Very bright. I am sure that you will be able to work something out with them."

"Uh," said Bastian, aware of Jane's pressed lips fighting a grin in the background. Evidently, the banker hadn't done his research. With his luck, the patron would insist, force him to it, and the next day's headlines would be made: DUMB DETECTIVE BREAKS BILLIONAIRE'S BANK IN INVESTIGATION. "No, thank you."

"Does this thing let us actually walk around?" Jane asked. "Or am I going to find that if I try to walk more than ten paces, I will, in fact, fall out of the holobed because my body is moving while the camera this was filmed from," she jabbed a finger at a suspicious-looking lamp post, "stays in one place, in spite of everything that a certain unreliable partner tells me?"

"You can walk around as you please, Mad'sel Lee," the banker assured her, beaming, while Bastian sputtered. "It's high-tech enough for that, I trust."

Jane nodded, stalked two steps toward the dragon, and vanished with a sizzling pop. In the distance, Bastian thought he heard the cry and crash of someone falling out of a holobed.

"Hm," said the banker. "Perhaps not, then."

"That's going to bruise for weeks," Jane complained, arching against the seat. "Did the stupid man seriously not know what security system he was installing?"

"Businessmen rarely do," Bastian said as he drove. His bones throbbed. He could, he supposed, change the car to autopilot. But then he'd have to give Jane his full attention, and his life would go from a drama to a downright tragedy. "They just say, 'Get me top of the line,' and don't pay much more attention than that."

"That was top of the line fifty years ago," Jane said. "Even bankers--"

"Not him."

"Oh." She subsided. Then, just as silence started to fill the car-- "Augh, I have an enormous bruise on my hip already, I can feel it."

Bastian risked a glance, then flicked his attention carefully back to the road. "Jane," he said, "please take your hands out of your pants."

"But it's bruised and it hurts," she insisted.

"Yes," said Bastian, after a pause. "That was my point, actually."

"It looks like someone squashed a bunch of grapes into my hip."

"Great. Great imagery. Go write a book. Don't tell me these things. Talk about the case. What did you notice?"

Reluctantly, Jane pulled her hands out, knotting them together as she gazed ahead. "Well, the bank looked like a theme park--"

"And spare me the aesthetic commentary. If you wanted to be surrounded by beauty, you could have gone into another business."

"Or at least found a different partner." She tossed him a grin, which faded. "Three of the clerks were fidgeting with their marks--"

"Which might mean nothing."

"It could mean something. Nervous clerks are sell-out clerks. I thought we'd been over this." She snorted, scratching at a silver sleeve. "Or maybe they were just creeped out by the seriously tasteless decor. If I had to work in a simulation of the red district in the twenty-first century, I'd start picketing on my first day."

"Thus why no corporation ever saw fit to give you a desk job. Some people like a unique work environment. But I digress. Continue."

Jane shrugged. "There wasn't much else. Two of the fidgety clerks had earrings, I didn't catch the shape but since they were both male Caucasian blonds, it might signify a trend. A cult," she guessed, with evil hopeful relish.

"A cult that steals from banks?"

"There have been much weirder cults. Remember the cult that ate men's--"

"No," said Bastian loudly. "No, no, no. I have forgotten. And I never want to remember again."

"--after staking them and roasting them and using the extra skin for little drums," Jane said happily. Glimpsing Bastian's quick glare, she hurried on. "Nothing else. Besides the dragon, of course. You got the coding they detected for that, right?"

With two fingers, he drew the disk from his pocket and flicked it to her; her hands snapped shut on it. "The police have been over it a couple of times already," he said, and swore as he shunted into another lane. Twisting to glare at the car that had nearly smashed into them, Jane pushed down the window and shouted. The roaring wind tore her voice into unintelligible shrieks. "They didn't find anything," Bastian continued as she rolled up the window again, settling back into her seat with flushed cheeks and a look of glee beneath her straggling hair, "so we'll probably have to go see Reynolds on Tuesday. Anything else?"

She raised a brow, her grin lopsided. The disk shone, spinning on a toying finger; the sleeve, slipping down her arm, showed their blue agency-sigil, which did too. "What do you mean, anything else? That was all. It was routine. A neg for the electronic sig, suspicious perps identified, nonsuspicious personnel on the scene memorised, really tacky scenery accounted for, camera angles noted. And, of course, the big one - the dragon. What more do you want me to say?"

"Well, you missed something a little basic."

She shot him a dark look through her hair. One hand reached out to steer the wheel while the other pushed brown tangles away. "Turn here. Don't forget, I don't live at your place and I'm not a stray you can take home. You know, I can't help it if I don't feel like bringing up every detail on the scene, okay? It was raining, it was dark, yadda yadda, the weather inside is full of boring--"

"And the dragon had a rider," Bastian said, ignoring the blabber about taking people home since if Jane had been a stray she would have been the kind that foamed at the mouth. "That seems worth noting, don't you think?"

"A rider?" Her eyes were very blank. "I didn't notice a rider."

He blinked. "It was -- a little obvious, I thought, if you were watching the dragon the whole way through," he said. "Tiny person on the dragon's back as it came out of the alley, rather flickery--"

"Did you catch the time?"

"Fifty-three seconds into the hour," said Bastian. Memories sparked and pieces snagged on each other; at the backs of his eyes, he felt an image gradually form. His knuckles tightened on the wheel. "You're going to love this," he said grimly. "I think I just got it. What color was the dragon?"

"A sort of horrifying Prussian blue that should never be worn except by babies and supermodels," Jane said, with an odd look. "Give or take a few shades, since there was moonlight, and moonlight is killer on color iden--"

"Right. Now if I told you that the rider was wearing an eyepatch...?"

"They were born just as cryonics were invented, because nobody dresses like that now?" Then she got it, too. She snarled and thumped her head. "Did you get a face?"

"I don't think--" He winced. "We couldn't walk. So we'll look at the records again later, but I doubt we can trust any she left. She's careful."

"She always codes a dragonvirus to hack security, she always leaves something blue on the crime scene, and this time she wore an eyepatch," Jane said, gloomily leaning her chin on the dashboard. "Speaking of tacky. What do you want to bet she shows up to the next one with a parrot and a Caribbean accent?" A pause. "Are you sure?"

"Flickery but definitely there."

"Because I didn't see a thing. And it's not her style to go after a bank when her last heist was to some sort of top secret corp-o. And your hair's going all black and horribly curly, which can't be a good sign."

"My hair has always been black," said Bastian with dark patience. "And curly. What's your point?"

"Not like this," Jane said. "It looks like someone upended a box of rusty corkscrews on your head. And you have huge shadows under your eyes- though if that's because your eye-matching mascara ran or something, don't tell me; let me preserve my illusions of a Bastian who doesn't wear makeup - and hasn't shaved in several days. Also, no offense, but if that's your new cologne, you should go demand a refund--"

"Shut up," Bastian said tautly as he steered into the parking lot of her apartment building. "I'm sure. How many hackers besides the Lady Pirate would use a dragonvirus?"

He put on the disk while Jane made coffee. Coffee, she insisted with the look of a religious fanatic, cured all ills, including lack of sleep and leprosy. Faced with the prospect of prying his partner's well-rested hands from the coffee machine, Bastian voted to go wrestle with the disk instead.

He was still on the scene at fifty-three seconds when she came out half an hour later, wearing an air of distinct triumph and large splatters of coffee. "I don't believe this," he said.

"Don't believe what?" She leaned over his shoulder. A hand snaked over and laid the cup beside his arm with a clink. Jane blinked. "I count zero tiny eyepatches, zero tiny shapes, and zero lady pirates. There's nothing there."

"That's my point."

"You know," Jane said idly after several seconds, "some men do start to hallucinate if they don't get enough sleep. Of course, because you don't get enough of anything else either, I would have thought that you'd start to hallucinate dancing girls, or--"

"We're working on a case and I'm getting enough sleep and before you ask, yes, I eat and I take showers," said Bastian, refusing to respond to anything that involved dancing girls. He shifted out of the way as Jane moved forward to examine the machine, and dragged the cup over for a long draught.

Moments later, he pulled away again. "This is really horrible coffee," he rasped, a horrified eye on the cup. "I just thought you should know."

"Your face is the terror of young children everywhere," she informed him, swinging a glare over one shoulder. "I just thought you should know. "

In the gaps between her moving arms, he saw her call up a black screen speckled with letters. "Are you running a search on the code?"

She tapped at a few keys, and bristled. "Zero matches - but that can't - it only makes sense if..."


"Never mind," said Jane, and sloughed through a few more frames, mumbling dire words. Abruptly, she stood.

"Get up," she growled down at him. Bewildered, Bastian only stared. "Shang! Up!"

He scrambled to get up. She yanked the chair out from beneath him nearly before he had caught his balance, hefted its weight, and hurled it at a far wall. Then, looking back to the computer, she crumpled onto the desk, tucking her legs in under her chin. "I cannot believe I'm going to have to do a manual search through the code."

"That's very sad," Bastian agreed after a beat, but carefully, in case this was cause for renewed hurling of chairs. "Why are you going to have to? The police--"

"--likely ran the code for all the usual stuff, and most of this is pretty usual. The dragon's surface looks like a virus, but look--" with a vicious jab, she opened another box filled with marquees and shimmering symbols. "--underneath, someone got lazy. They filled outmost of the middle the way you'd code a simulated animal, not a virus. It couldn't have gotten through security the way a virus did - it doesn't carry sinkers the way the Trojan-based models usually do. But that's not all - mainframe itself is shifted. Not enough to do make security yowl, but the conditions for the setting have been changed. Though the changes are--"

Jane was glowing, half-twisted to face him, her hands lifted in a speaking movement. She could go on about it for hours, he thought, if he let her. But they didn't have the time.

Tiredly, he raised a hand, pushing another through his dark hair. "This is like the verbal version of your coffee," he said and frowned, trying to tug it back out again. "Don't talk to me about coding, you know how I am with the stuff."

"Oh," said Jane, with a small, reminiscent smile, wanly thumbing the space between her brows. "Right. I forgot. This is the guy who managed to blow up an entire lab--"

"I only blew up three computers, the rest of them happened as a chain reaction," Bastian muttered. "It wasn't all my fault. Give me the simplified version."

"It's an inside job," Jane said simply. "I know that the Lady Pirate's a good hacker, but nobody's this good."

"That's probably what they said right before the Great Hacking of Train Corp." Seeing her expression, he switched gears. "You think that it's a set-up. Someone's trying to frame the Lady Pirate."

"Let's face it, nobody wears eye patches to a crime scene anymore. The pirate look is out."

Bastian made a faint noise and leaned his weight on the desk, staring grimly into the illegible screen. "I hate tangled cases," he said. "All right. Plan. We find the Lady Pirate, we get her to tell us who might bother about her like this, we find the man and haul him off."

"Or her," Jane said. "Or she-he. Or he-she. Or it. You sexist." She tipped him a bright grin. "Anyway, have you forgotten? The Lady Pirate is a wanted criminal. Not a psychic, not the girl next door. What are you going to do, put an ad in the holos?"

"The Lady Pirate," said Bastian, "is obsessed with her image. Using a dragonvirus to infiltrate the system is unnecessary. Making it take corporeal form in the simulated world is even more unnecessary, but she's made it her calling card. So if we let the word out that some small-timer has been infringing on her cred by using it, we'll get into contact with her. We can trade with it. She'll know it's not a trap, because we won't try to meet her and we'll put all our cards on the table. We'll tell her who we are and we'll give her everything to do as she likes. If she's half the hacker she's been making herself seem, she'll know that we're true."

Very slowly, Jane tore her eyes from the screen. She was grinning, a sharp mean grin - a narrow smile with wicked eyes.

"That," she said, "is a golden idea. I knew I kept you around for a reason. I thought for a while that it must be to be decorative, but then I realised the flaw in that."

Bastian made a feeble noise. "Stop babbling, I think your coffee reacts to it. It's dissolving my head. And stop using my last name as a pun."

"Golden jokes are the kind that never grow old," Jane said with evil cheer. "Not to mention I didn't know you five years ago."

He pushed away from the desk with a roll of his eyes. "I'm leaving now."

"So soon?"

Bastian cast a dubious look around at the piles of paper scattered across the floor. He toed a red fleck in the carpet, which answered with a glare. "When I start to think that your carpet is giving me the evil eye, it's high time I go home. And my house is perfectly clean, I'll have you know."

"That's my point," Jane said. "It looks like nobody lives there. Which is kind of true, I mean, a nobody lives there--"

"Don't stop your babbling on my account," Bastian said. "I'll let myself out."

Still, she followed him to the door and keyed in the code for him. His eyes followed her fingers darting on the pad, though he had learned it several years ago and still remembered. But it didn't hurt to be underestimated. Not that Jane would betray him, but...

"Jane," he said as he stepped across the threshold. She stopped, hand on the keypad to the door, lifting her eyes. "You didn't ever think that I might be just hallucinating?"

"Bastian," she said gently. "I think you're always hallucinating."

"How kind."

She flashed him another small grin. "I promise I'll go over the coding some more, if it bothers you that much." He was about to thank her when she went on, "But it would be really interesting to have a prophetic partner. I could win the lottery and then I'd never have to work again, and I'd buy a mansion and have nubile and attractive young
attendants stand around to obey my every--"

He closed the door between them before he could hear the rest. She'd be focused again by Tuesday, he thought. Things would be all right.

Tuesday began like a nightmare.

"You're kidding," Jane said. Her voice had gone tight with laughter, mouth screwed into a wry line as she leaned over Reynolds' counter.

Reynolds flickered an apologetic look at Bastian above her head. "I'm afraid not," he said. He whisked off his glasses and started to clean them on a fold of his checkered vest. At his back, clockwork and snarled wires clicked and flared at them ominously. The strains of a gentle melody drifted out from unseen speakers.

Jane grinned. In a long movement, she spun away from the cash register and careened madly through the shop, a blaze of blue and beige. "This is excellent! This is brilliant, this is--"

"How is my having no street cred anymore brilliant?"

She stopped on an arching step, beamed, and advanced in deliberate hops, looking for all the world like a crazed ballerina. "For one," she answered, "it means I get to talk to all the interesting people from now on, to save time in case they don't want to talk to someone who does interesting things with squirrels."

"I am so sorry," Reynolds said, muffled, face now buried within his hands. "I have no idea how this particular rumor got about. I will try to have the damage mended as soon as possible. And, er, I'm sure there's no truth in it. Whatsoever."

"I don't know," said Jane. "There was this one time we had to go on watch in a park, and he had a really interesting reaction to--"

"Stop trying to scar me for life," Bastian told her. "You can't scar scars."

"I bet nobody's ever tried--"

"On a lighter note," Reynolds said as his head came up, voice a near bark in the shop's confines, "there's been an answer."

They both turned then. "You're kidding," Jane said again, and her eyes lit. "This is the best day ever. I knew the code was looking at me in a funny way and my partner wasn't any crazier than usual! Tell me that there's someone young and attractive and scantily-clad looking for me too, while you're at it."

Reynolds slid a print-out across the counter and hunched, thumbs twiddling in quiet satisfaction. "Mr. Golden's looking for you all the time," he added while Jane snagged the paper and started to read. Bastian, following over her shoulder, rocked back on his heels when she slung him a considering look from beneath lowered lashes. Rapidly, Reynolds said, "Not like that! But Mr. Golden should be quite enough for anybody."

"Truer words have never been said," Jane conceded, eyes focusing once more on the paper. "Unless they were saying, 'You can never have too many nubile people around.' Not that you're nubile, Bastian. You're like a brother to me. The way, you know, the Minotaur was to Ariadne."

"They want to meet at your apartment," Bastian said, skirting around Jane's insanity. "Well, that's reasonable, at least. It'll be easier to set on fire."

"No, it won't," Jane said reasonably. "Are you kidding? I have evil staring carpets to guard me. They'll get eaten alive before they know it." She folded the printout and raised a brow at Bastian, who nodded. With that, she began to tear it to shreds, smiling at the strips flung about like a storm of feathers.

"Go home, now," Bastian said, while she was pawing at the last floating pieces. "Not that I think that the Lady Pirate would be so dishonorable as to set up a trap - especially since she can't have enough time to lay her showwoman's mark on it - but it's best not to be caught off-guard. Reynolds," the man's head jerked up at his name,
"is the back way open today?"

Behind the spectacles, the lashes fluttered. "For you, always," Reynolds said. Bastian made a face.

"It would be best were you to stop picking up Jane's speech patterns," he advised. "Jane is not a role model."

"I am, too," Jane said, brows drawing together, fists against her hips. Then she winced. "You big lug," she said, and kicked Bastian in a shin. "Don't make me get mad at you, I still have a bruise on my hip. It looks less like a rotten grape now, though. It's almost a tattoo, except only a fruit loop would get a tattoo of a grape." She waved a hand at his expression. "Leaving! Leaving! Ceasing to babble!" She slung herself over the counter. "Reynolds?"

"A moment, if you please - Mr. Golden, what are you planning to do to my shop?"

Bastian blinked. "Nothing," he said. "Just going to stay in here for a little while to give her time to get home and make sure there isn't an ambush. If they think that she's leaving with me, they won't be prepared for anything else. What have you heard?"

"A few things about you that I should have discredited more quickly, by all appearances," Reynolds said. "Mostly quite absurd; the usual assortment of solved cases and love affairs. But then, that source was the one who told me about the squirrels."

"You believed someone about--"

Reynolds turned. His eyes glinted a strange twisted hazel, like the mechanics and tangled wires on display. "I don't presume to judge, Mr. Golden. And we must all have our own little ways of relaxing." Before Bastian could remark upon the difference between relaxing and doing immoral things to rodents, Reynolds continued, "I'll be seeing Mad'sel Lee out, then. I trust that, with this latest case, the fee I am due for the past several months will be...?"

Jane smiled and laid a hand on his skinny arm, drawing him to the spindly passage way that led into the back rooms. "Practically in the bank already, Reynolds," she said as they started on the staircase. "Honestly, you worry too much. Would we cheat you?"

Reynolds' reply, made halfway up the steps, was layered in dust and distance, but Bastian suspected he heard the word 'squirrels' anyway. He shook his head and examined several old books whose faded titles flaked gold on his fingers and could not be read, a model car whose controls required actual physical handling , and a box filigreed with tender gold that sang clinking mechanical notes when opened. He prodded at cheap porcelain replicas of ancient landmarks, caressed a tiny sphinx with folded silk wings and eyes that sparked when a finger brushed a knob on her spine, and nearly smashed a priceless gizmo with no apparent use that creaked and yowled evilly when he tried to put it down.

Reynolds hadn't returned yet.

It wasn't necessarily a cause for worry - he had never actually stayed to wait for someone to emerge from the passages of the back way before. It had never been necessary. Their names had never been involved save at the conclusion of a case, when credit was given and they watched the criminals file into prison. Laserfire and toxins had been minimal, considering their profession.

This was the first time that he had truly flung their names out to the open.

Seeing motion in a blurred clockwork reflection, Bastian pivoted and tensed for an attack, only to realise that it was himself, pacing. But he couldn't be worried. It was not yet time to be worried.

A nearby wall glistened with the time. Only twenty minutes had passed. Ten more before the margin was safe.

Twenty minutes was careful enough, he decided, and his paranoia could be sated by that or it could go find a job as someone else's madness. He opened the shop door and stepped out into gray daylight. There was no reason for this mad insistence on safety when--

Something rolled by his foot. He had an instant to glance down, see a slim smoking tube - hardly a thumb's length - and think a cigarette butt? before he threw himself out of the way.

Behind him, it made a shrill noise. He had just enough sense to stuff his fingers into his ears before it erupted. The explosion shuddered through his bones. Raining shrapnel struck a shoulder blade. His throat was drying closed because he specialised in holo-crimes, in a spectral transparent world where nothing could ultimately destroy him, and something slippery was snaking down his cheek, dripping from his chin. He felt the tight pressure of fingers clamping on his arm as someone pinned and straddled him.

The assailant was masked, which he should have expected. If he had been Jane, somewhere in the back of his head he would have been calculating height, build, approximate age from the way the stranger punched and held up a shining needle filled with silver. But he was Bastian, and Bastian could barely spare a thought to guess the weight by how hard he needed to buck before the other was thrown off.

Somewhere far away, he heard something shattering, glass in hissing pieces on the smooth ground, and then stood and saw nothing but motion: blind to everything but the fight.

He was a lousier fighter than he remembered. His attacker caught his first punch and he sprawled again, every vein in his head screaming and his ankles throbbing with bruises from the kick.

Then his opponent, sitting snugly atop his ribs, started to fumble with Bastian's clothes and his own. Bastian, staring, wheezed a curse as his attacker pulled out a second needle, lifted his hand in a dramatic gesture, and began the plunge down--

--which was caught in flight by another hand, a gloved hand too small to be a man's.

A stranger's voice said, "Not your luck today, honey. I'm afraid I need him." The sun brightened, obscuring her face and gestures to a haze of shadows. Even so, Bastian felt the impact jump through his opponent's body, which shuddered - once - and fell terribly, suddenly still.

"Oh, my," Bastian heard someone say. "You're more darling than I thought you would look. Wait. Damn, has he gotten..." The gray sky tangled with some darkness come unseen, and he lost the thread of the stranger's accented words.

His head pulsed. Very carefully, in case he beheld a scene of someone about to try and stab him with more needles, he opened his eyes. The sight that greeted him was only mildly less horrifying.

"... cute, I can't believe you and he aren't..."

"We just work together," said a voice familiar in its gliding sweetness. "He hogs all the blankets and snores like a hog, too. Sleeping with him is out of the question. If you meant the euphemism--"

"If you are talking about me," Bastian said carefully, trying not to croak, "I beg you, don't. Jane?"

"You're awake! Oh, my darling, I was so worried - sorry," she said, waving off his glare. "I've always thought that coma patient scenes in soap operas were excellent, but no soap opera wanted me on set. Did you know you have a streak of blood on your face? It looks like you were crying blood."

"I must be really awake after all." He groaned as he sat up, scrubbing at one cheek. "You could not be this annoying in my dreams."

"I appear in your dreams?" Jane waggled her eyebrows.

Wincing, Bastian scrabbled for another subject. "Why do you have the shrunken heads of men on your ceilings?"

"They're porcelain copies," she corrected cheerfully. "And they're the heads of every man I've ever dated."

"Out of the many spare bones of the men she dated," Bastian said dourly, and wondered whether he dared trust any drink in Jane's apartment not to be filled with evil. Then, in a rush, he recalled - the shop, the explosion, the fight. "How did I...?"

"You were rescued," Jane informed him, clearly relishing each word. "By her. Three guesses as to who she is, and if it really takes you three guesses, I will make you drink five pots of coffee. She left her eyepatch at home," she added with a helpful air. "This is her disguise."

"A pleasure to meet you," said the Lady Pirate, and offered a dainty hand. "I understand that you've been looking to meet me."

Bastian stared. She didn't appear any smaller out of the sun, only slightly taller than Jane and slender where Jane looked like a figure put together out of pins and glee. There was a strange elegance to her waistcoat, faintly embroidered with dragons, to her outlandish old leggings and the glistening sapphires that pinned back her hair. Still, Bastian saw nothing in her honey-dark skin, in her pale eyes or the slim gloved hand, to explain how she had managed to overcome someone that had almost killed him.

"Not you," he said, at length.

"That's hurtful," said Jane. "Where are your manners, Bastian? He's a bear," she told the Lady Pirate. "You have to feed him honey when you want him to behave nicely and chain him down for the rest of the time. Also, when you catch him in the right mood, he does little dances. It's hilarious."

"I do not do dances," Bastian growled, ignoring her claims about an incident involving a bar, a holobed, and a horse genetically altered to an improbable color. He looked back to the stranger who sat sedately between the bed and Jane, ankles tucked beneath the chair, hands folded. "It's simply not practical for a wanted, I mean, for a- You could be caught at any minute. This could have been a trap."

The Lady Pirate lounged in her chair, her features lofty with studied grace until her chair's back broke off and splintered to the floor. Then, she only looked a little put out. "I do apologise," she said to Jane, who only grinned.

"It's all right. I threw it at a wall the other evening." She passed Bastian a critical look. "It would have never held up in the long run anyway. Bastian would have crushed it like a bug. A bug who eats all the leftovers when we have takeout. Because that's his job."

But the Lady Pirate wasn't listening. "As for traps - well, I trusted you. Was that so foolish of me? You asked to see me, openly. I could have made your house explode. I could still make it explode after I leave. So it is by a mutual foolishness that we've come to meet each other. And I do believe that you promised me something in return for my presence - a name?"

"About that," said Jane. The waver in her voice must have betrayed a word that she did not speak, for in the time it took for the Lady Pirate to bow her head, her hand came flashing out in a whirl of silver that stopped just short of Jane's throat.

"Am I to take it, then," she said, her voice so gentle that Bastian felt his skin grow cold, "that this is a trap after all?"

He met Jane's still eyes over the edge of the knife. "We haven't got one yet," he said, swift and sure because if he wavered, she might try to kill them both. "We're looking, but we needed your help. We suspect an actual connection between whoever undertook the theft at the bank the other night and you - has there been anyone you've offended that might be correlated?"

"Connections," the Lady Pirate drawled, "are everywhere, sweetheart. You've just got to know where to look."

"Just as long as the knife is not connected to my throat while we debate this, I'll be okay with whatever insane theory you guys come up with," Jane said.

The Lady Pirate laughed; still she lowered the knife. "What was stolen?"

"A certain amount of funds," Bastian said, as Jane said, "Possibly information on a genetics project that the head of the bank was funding. Something about mutations, and fire."

Bastian narrowed his eyes. "The patron didn't mention a disk."

"Well," said Jane, "you should never trust a man who teleports around in pink sparkles. Anyway, the accountants and the clerks in the numbers department wear green wristmarks. The clerks in security wear silver, and the creepy red-light's district was full of silver-marked clerks."

"And, of course, you couldn't trust me with this before."

"You didn't ask! And I forgo - I didn't rem - it wasn't like the guard was all that reliable, he was trying to flirt with me. Men have lied about bigger things when they want me." Less certain, she added, "And I couldn't be sure."

Because they'd chased Jane's theories before, and most of them had led off into ends that were not only dead, but had been buried decades ago. And Bastian remembered saying, never again, but he had not meant - he hadn't...

A rhythmic clicking called him back. The Lady Pirate was tapping the knife tip to her teeth. "A disk."

"Yes," said Bastian. "As opposed to a square, or a circle. Do you know anything?"

"Plenty of things, and certainly more than you. You can't even fight. But if you mean about this specific instance - yes. I do." Her eyes flew up, mouth crooking. "And I have a plan. As many of the aspects are part of the secrets of others, however, I must ask for you to trust me. And not to turn me in."

"We work for money," Jane said before Bastian could speak. "You haven't done anything interesting lately, so the price on your head's gone down. Well," she admitted, "except for the fake job on the bank, but we can't get paid for that. It wouldn't be honest, and we are full of honesty." She looked noble; her kick to Bastian's shins was quite discreet. "We won't start chasing you until someone brings the price up again."

"How terribly forthright of you," said the Lady Pirate, looking comfortably amused. "Unfortunately, my plan is not quite so. We'll have to truly break into the bank this time."

Bastian felt his mouth flatten into a tight line. "And do you really expect us to put our necks on the block, potentially offend a client and keep your secret for nothing?"

"Not nothing," the Lady Pirate said coolly. "You'll have the truth you were called upon to investigate, I promise you that."

"Will we have our contract and our freedom, is the question," Bastian said. "I hear the Caribbean is a considerably nicer place than prison at this time of year."

"Don't break the rules," Jane translated in the wake of the Lady Pirate's silence. "We go in, we get the disk and the perp, and we walk out. We don't hurt anybody on bank grounds, for bloodying a patron's shag carpeting often offends. Deal?"

"If you insist."

"Excellent, so we're agreed. Another dangerous plan," Jane said cheerfully. "My life is really brilliant lately, I fully expect little attendants to show up at my doorstep with palm leaves to fan me any minute now. Does anyone want coffee again? We'll probably need the caffeine."

"Jane," said Bastian, "while we're on this honest streak - it counts as turning her in if you feed her your evil coffee and then drag her off to a state doctor."

Jane sulked.

It was much easier than Bastian might have believed to get access to the bank at night. But they had been hired to do a job, and this was - in part - something they could justify. So, at dark, they rode one of the low taxi-flights to the bank and paid with bills, which weren't as good as card-cred, but were better than having their identities checked.

"Golden & Lee agents, and consultant," Bastian told the 'com, while Jane chortled in the background at the Lady Pirate being called a consultant. The doors opened smoothly, so they went in.

Inside, the night guard only nodded at them, hands passing across the holo-screens to denote three persons with legitimate reasons for entering.

"Going to be a bit of a loud night, " he called as they filed into the escalator. "Mostly everybody's still here. If'n you wanted to interview people, you'll have to come back and ask me for a list. He's hired on a bunch of new night crews. Got everybody in an electric terror, thinking the dragon's going to come again. Like myths happen to you twice in a lifetime." He gave a churring laugh.

The doors slid closed.

"New people," the Lady Pirate said, her undertone thoughtful. They did not speak as they rode the way down to the banker's office.

Security stayed remarkably lax. The elevator opened without a stammer, and they passed down the bare winter hall to the dark door at the end. Jane tried the knob; it turned smoothly underneath her hand.

"You're not going to do anything--" Bastian started, but the Lady Pirate had already stepped inside, Jane following close on her heels. With a sigh, he went after them.

"How marvelous," said the Lady Pirate, spinning slowly, wonderingly, to take in the enormity of the office. The ceiling was painted with classical images: a cavalcade of monsters storming from skies broken open by thunder, chariots blazing with shadows sprayed from the fireplace at the far wall. Holobeds lay tucked away in a corner lit by
fluorescent lights. The main office was furnished like an old-world study, with a thick froth of red carpet, an ornate desk at its precise center. "How utterly strange that he should trust you so entirely. Well, this will be far easier than I had anticipated."

"Actually, I must admit that I have been expecting you," said a voice at their backs.

The door kicked shut. The banker glared out from behind it, eyes seamed with red, silks crumpled, a rough beard prickling on his chin. "I was expecting you several days ago, actually," he said belligerently. "Haven't slept in all that time, waiting for you.
You're tardy. Hardly the prompt and effective service I paid for--"

"He smells even worse than your new cologne," Jane said, sounding astonished. She fired Bastian an affronted glance.

"I'm not wearing--" Bastian started.

"Enough," the Lady Pirate said, stepping forward. "Where's the disk?"

"The disk?" the banker repeated, and began to laugh. "Oh, don't try such tricks. You may have your lover fooled, but the rest of us know better. You stole--"

She moved like a wildfire; her waistcoat swayed up to reveal, too late, the scabbard at her waist, empty as she cut him off.

"You know perfectly well that the theft the other night was staged for the benefit of the agents you hired," she murmured, pressing close. He backed away, and she followed him until she had him against the desk. "You know, too, that you have it still in your possession. It has not left. The company left it to you when you bankrupted them as a promise of their goodwill, should you ever find it in yourself to fund them again. Of course, they did not know who had bankrupted them, who had driven their rival companies to such low prices that they could not compete, to actually put their final plan into production. I'll ask only one more time: where is the disk?"

"I won't - the two--"

The Lady Pirate smiled. "Oh, my dear. I would think less closely about your investments and more about surviving, were I you. What does it matter to you now if someone gets both? I'd focus particularly on sharp edges nearby, and how I might go about to get them further away."

"Wild, raving female--" the banker croaked. "She's a criminal. She stole... Help me--" His eyes were wild, flickering all over the office, hovering unsurely on Bastian and Jane.

Or where Jane would have been.

But she had already bolted from Bastian. A foot inched between them, prising them apart. Dragging at the gloved hand that clutched the sword, she elbowed the Lady Pirate in the throat. Her words came clear and steady through the dark.

"You don't harm anyone," Jane said. "That was the deal."

"I won't," said the Lady Pirate breathlessly, head forced back. "So long as he tells us where the disk he has is."

The blade trembled as they struggled for it, and Bastian found his hands shaking, too. He should help, he knew, but there was a plan. The Lady Pirate hadn't hurt the banker yet and there had to be a reason for that, since she had shown that she already knew how to use a sword. There was a plan, and not a chance that she might escape. She had to hold to the deal, she knew it, and she would if Jane didn't stop her.

"Let her go, Jane," he heard himself say.

"Bastian," Jane said, fast and so desperate that his name blurred on her tongue. "Help."

And suddenly she was close - though he had not remembered moving - and all four of them tangled in an impossible knot. The hard lights blinded him; a thin high note like a knife sang in his ears. Every bone blared tension, every instinct clamoring to protect the patron - or better yet, himself. They were all pressed too close. He could feel the sword only inches away.

His hands locked on Jane's wrists. "She'll hardly hurt the keeper of a secret she needs, will she," Bastian said, though all the only thing he could see was a haze of blood and edges and Jane. "Let go."

He might have protected the patron for the sake of their fee, but this was not about fees now with a blade hovering over patron and partner. It was a choice between the banker or Jane, and Bastian knew without thinking which he chose, the decision hazed with illogic and coffee and Jane singing when she felt like it, Jane sticking her head out of the window to shout at the world, Jane dashing into danger without a second thought and a danger that might not throw her back intact, rising before their eyes.

Bastian felt her fists slackening under his grip, in her bones. Without looking, he pulled her away to the corner, watching the banker's face to see his reaction and perhaps - he thought - because he could not look at Jane. "I'm afraid, unorthodox as her methods are, our... consultant has raised some interesting points, sir," he said aloud, surprised to find his voice a languid unshaken curve. "And there do seem to have been a few critical facts left out of our enlightenment. You hired us to discover the perpetrator of the theft. Given the contract, this is well within our jurisdiction."

Silence gathered.

"Never mind," the Lady Pirate sighed. One bare hand sheathed the sword; the other grasped the banker by the lapels and cast him away.

A fleeting dazzle of light glancing off the skin under her glove. Bastian straightened, seeing steel and circuits trapped under glass. That a tiny girl could tumble both a thug and a banker sated for years on fine meals made a lot more sense if one took into account the mechanical arm--

He snapped away as their patron reeled and stumbled into a wall, where he slumped, panting, his throat pricked with red. Jane made a small noise and went after him, her hands slipping from Bastian's loosened grasp - presumably thinking about a lawsuit filed because a pirate had let all that dragon-riding go to her head and had hurt a Golden & Lee patron when she had promised she wouldn't, or maybe only of getting away from her partner. For which he could not blame her, though he could not think of it at all.

The Lady Pirate's attention lay elsewhere. "He looked in this direction once too many," she breathed. "It must be here..." She ran her hands over the wood of the desk, and exhaled, delighted. "Ah... but surely... hmm. Here?"

She pressed down. A hidden compartment sprang out.

Her eyes, shadowed by pity, lifted to glance at the banker in Jane's arms. "Not even mechanised? Didn't you trust technology for this? Admittedly, it would have had to be hand-designed, so someone would have known exactly what you needed and exactly where you needed it, but..."

She held up a disk like any other disk: a shimmering glass-fine circle. Examining it in the faint light, the Lady Pirate smiled. "This is what he claimed I stole."

Jane raised her head. "But he hasn't said," she said, "why--"

"Why don't you ask him?" the banker choked, surprisingly furious for a man with his head in Jane's lap, and looked as though he might have spat had it not been his office. He dragged a poisonous - or possibly coffee-stained - glare over Bastian. "She's probably told him everything. She's told everyone that she's in love with him, after all!"

"What?" said Bastian. Reynolds' voice returned, carrying echoes of the rumors: A few things about you that I should have mistrusted more. Mostly quite absurd; the usual assortment of solved cases and love affairs.

He whirled to see that the Lady Pirate had vanished, as had the disk.

Jane did not speak to him for three days after the case.

On the fourth day, Bastian arrived at her doorstep with a sheaf clutched in one hand, a folder pinched under his arm, and a gigantic cake. He had debated having the cake iced with I was trying to protect you, you idiot, you keep endangering yourself and it's not a sensible thing to do, but not all the words had fit. Eventually, he'd given up.

"What, no palm leaf?" said Jane, but she stood by to let him in. Shadowed, he could see nothing of her but her knuckles, loose on the door's edge. "I refuse to do paperwork while eating cake, by the way."

"Casework first, then." Bastian set the cake on the nearest stack of papers that looked least likely to tip over. He glanced around, wondering where to put the papers that wouldn't be lost among all the other stacks. Her apartment was beginning to resemble an industry complex.

"Of course," Jane said politely, and brushed past him, into the corridor to the kitchen. "I'll make coffee."

"Please don't." Leaving their casework atop the cake, he followed and reached for her shoulder. She stilled but did not turn.

"I can't make coffee with one arm, Bastian."

"Good," he said, but let her go, thinking strained apologies without any way to speak them. "Nobody wants coffee."

"I am not a nobody," she informed him. "You are. For that reason, I will make you a whole pot to yourself."

He waited in the doorway, helpless, watching her slam through the cabinets. She picked out a chipped cup, a bag of dusty beans, an elaborate confection that, through careful surveillance, he guessed to be a ladle. (Though it might have been a refined probe; the similarities were stunning.)

"She was playing us all along," she said at last into the silence, still turned away. "She knew that the banker had the disk, so she started the rumor about being in love with you, knowing that we're the most respectable people that a bank would go to in case of trouble. The banker set up the theft and framed her, expecting us to try and track her down so that he could get the first disk from her when we did. The rider on the dragon was a distraction keyed specifically to your electronic signature. When you signed onto the system, only you would be able to see her. It was programmed into the holobeds, not the system, so the recording only showed the irregularity that let him set it up. Only you were supposed to go after her. I wasn't to figure into the equation at all. That was what the guy was for. You went off the plan. You saw that she'd been framed, and it was a last-ditch attempt to pick her up and get the first disk back. And that was why my house was unguarded by goons.

"It was an excellent plan." Jane sighed and looked over; some of the sharpness evaporated from her face. "Absolutely glorious. I wish I'd been there to plan it. I'd have put in a few goons for myself to fight. Why should you get to be the manly one?"

"You're terrible at fighting," Bastian pointed out from the doorway. The coffeemaker buzzed at him. "You fight like a robot greased with alcohol."

"It's too bad she was evil," said Jane, heedless. Her fingers dabbled with the buttons to the coffee machine. She set out a cup and poured. "She was quite lovely. I'd have hacked that. Hacked like a really manly axe-woman. Hacked like the mahacker ever to surf the," she leered down at the coffee, "web. Like--"

"That was more about your love life than I ever wanted to know, and possibly the worst pun I have ever heard," Bastian said. "Ever."

She laughed. A small face tilted up, teeth bared in a cutting grin. "Jealous?" Jane said, and offered a steaming mug. "Drink some coffee, you'll feel better."

"You're not going to get out of paperwork by poisoning me," Bastian said, but smiled all the same.

the end
Tags: author: thornsmoke, book 03: cyberpunk, story

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