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Status Quo - Chapter 33

Written by: Paullell

 Lana can’t stop a giggle from bursting out of her throat at the comment about a week.  She hurries to catch up with Daray and can’t resist teasing.  “A week you say; is that all?  Then again, with your appetite we would starve to death long before either of us could be satisfied…”  She makes her way over to the cab and climbs in.  She is finding that she feels surprisingly comfortable in the outfit Daray had picked out for her.  She leans forward in the seat while her eyes take in their surroundings and her entire posture gives away her eagerness for their destination.  She throws Daray a nervous smile as she climbs in behind her and the tip of her tail flicks across the seat like an excited dog’s.  If she had the right kind of nose it would not surprise Lana if she had tried to stick it out the window as the cab took off even as she tried to rein in her behavior.

 

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“Well, I wouldn’t want to put your health in danger…” Daray chuckles in response to Lana’s comment about ‘only a week’. Then she grins, “Lana, I can’t remember ever being more satisfied in all my life, than I have been just being near you.”

 

She climbs into the car behind Lana and tries not to laugh at her eager behavior. “Like a kid in a VR arcade…” She chuckles as she punches the address of the cafe into the vehicles computer, then turns back to her friend. “And the sex is mind-blowing by the way, even if my apparently inexhaustible appetite may lead you to think otherwise.”

 

The vehicle moves smoothly away from their temporary home and starts winding a path through the various domes, connecting tunnels, and open streets of Hector.

 

WHen they finally arrive at their destination and climb out of the vehicle, they find themselves in front of a good-sized, two-story building with a glass front facing the street. Inside they can see numerous tables with holographic computer displays floating around them, and a half dozen or so patrons, most of whom are munching on some sort of food, or sipping at a beverage as they sit and use the terminals.

 

The facility is light and airy, not really what one typically pictures when thinking of a net cafe where hackers would be likely to hang out, and the attendant behind the counter is a middle-aged man with a pair of horns protruding form his balled head, and a cybernetic right arm. He is busy browsing some sort of portable data device as he sits behind the counter, watching the cafe disinterestedly with is feet up on the counter.

 

“You look great by the way.” Daray comments as she pulls the door open and holds it for Lana with a grin. “I was right about that form-fitting cat-suit look…”

 

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Lana climbs out of the cab when Daray holds the door and gives a little twirl for her benefit.  “I like what you picked.  It is surprisingly comfortable although I feel like I belong in a spy movie or something.”  She grins and slips ahead to hold open the door to the café for Daray.  She winks at her as she holds the handle.  “It’s only fair after all.”  

 

Once inside Lana really takes in the scenery and the patrons.  She leans over and whispers in her ear. “This is not what I expected at all.  I guess I was thinking it would be some barely lit hole in the wall with wires and terminals that were left open  and exposed like halfway performed surgeries as shifty looking people fiddle with wires and devices.  This place looks disappointingly benign.”  Lana bites her lip as she looks around, trying to spot a single person who looks malicious or morally corrupt enough to be attempting to erase someone’s life.  Her excitement at finally arriving at their destination dims somewhat as she realizes that this is not going to be as easy as she had hoped. 

 

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Daray grins at Lana’s display, and even goes so far as to trace a line across Lana’s stomach as she moves past her into the cafe. “Aren’t we living a spy movie? Computer hackers, disappearing lives, smuggling aboard ships to avoid the powers that be…”

 

-Not to mention the experimental Artificial Intelligence that guides the intrepid pair through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered.- APRIL adds in uncharacteristically.

 

Daray chuckles as she sweeps her eyes across the cafe. “More like the plucky comic relief at this point APRIL.”

 

She nods at Lana’s assessment of the establishment. “Yeah, some of these places are like that, but more often than not, those are the harmless ones. Most serious hackers, the ones working anyway, tend to stay away from the places that ‘look’ like they are criminally inclined.”

 

At this point, the man behind the counter seems to decide that they’ve been standing around gawking for long enough, and clears his throat. His voice is not unpleasant, although it sounds a bit like he may be a habitual smoker of something rather harsh. “Can I get you young ladies anything? We’re still serving breakfast, just got some real pork sausage in yesterday, so its good and fresh. There’s a crate of fresh oranges too, for juice and the like, and terminals are ten credits a half-hour.”

 

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Lana is still mostly full from breakfast but she decides a drink wouldn’t hurt.  It probably is more suspicious for a non-paying walk-in to start asking questions about another patron than for a paying one.  “Um… I’ll just have an orange juice for now please.”  

 

She bites her lip for a moment as she has a flash of inspiration and then continues.  “Um… I’m looking to hire someone to handle some… ah… record keeping for me.  A friend told me she used someone who is a regular here but she didn’t give me a very good description.  Just told me they had been working here almost daily for the past week.  Does that describe a lot of people?  I don’t know how much time I have to sit around and wait.”  Lana does her best to look innocent and wide-eyed at the man behind the counter.  She knows that she can’t pull off someone competent when dealing with this type of people so she goes for earnest and inexperienced instead.

 

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Daray steps into the cafe and starts poking around the tables and eying the patrons as she moves, making it look like she is just wandering aimlessly.

 

-I will have a fix on the network address of the last hacks in moments.- APRIL’s voice chimes out to them both.

 

“Orange juice, coming up.” The man responds as he stands up and moves over a few feet to grab a glass and a pitcher from a cooler beneath the counter. He continues to speak as he works, addressing Lana’s question with a fairly cheerful tone, “If you’re looking for someone specific, I’m afraid you’ll have to do a little better than that young lady, I have a lot of regulars.”

 

-This is the terminal that seems to have been used consistently for the activities based in this facility.- APRIL says.

 

Daray points subtly to the terminal in question for Lana to see and offers her a reassuring nod to indicate that she should continue with her current tack.

 

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Lana nods.  “Of course that makes sense.  She was just so vague.”  She takes the juice from him and takes a sip, savoring the cool tart flavor. She smiles shyly and stares with open admiration at the man’s horns. 

 

 “Yum, this is good.”  She leans in and whispers conspiratorially.  “It’s so nice to see someone else with…”  She waves her hand as she pretends to search for the best word. “… augmentations.  I was beginning to feel like a freak here.”  She gives her tail a little swish to further confirm what she means.  Then she widens her eyes as though she just had a realization.  “Oh!  I have no idea if this will help or not.  She said this someone’s favorite terminal is…”  Lana pauses and looks up at the ceiling as though reciting something from memory.  “… fifth from the wall and two rows in… Does that help?”

 

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The man grins at her as Lana speaks, inclining his head as she mentions his horns and offering her a wry grin. “Yeah, it’s not really popular amongst these Hector folk. Real salt of the earth farmer and rancher types. Not much time or patience for someone who would choose to do such a thing I’m afraid.”

 

He raises an appreciative eyebrow at her tail swish and seems to be falling for her act until she mentions the computer terminal, at which point his smile fades to a more business-like facsimile. 

 

“So you’ll be Lana Maxalis then…”

 

Daray’s head snaps toward the man then, her muscles tensing and her right hand moving to the flap covering the baston in the sheath she is still carrying in her left. She makes no further moves however, waiting to see what happens and obviously ready to dash off after the man if he should try to make a break for it, but her face says she is clearly surprised by this development.

 

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Lana’s stomach feels as though it drops to the floor and her heart starts to race in her chest as a pit of fear forms deep inside her.  Her eyes widen and her tail drops; she fails utterly to keep the look of panic out of her face.  Of all the things she had expected it was not to be recognized in this manner.  She takes a few deep breaths and reminds herself that Daray is with her and won’t let anything bad happen. Lana raises her chin; there is a small quiver in her voice when she speaks next but it is apparent that she is doing her best to rally her confidence.  “Yes, that’s me.  Could I have your name sir?”

 

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The man offers her a polite smile. He seems a little concerned about Lana’s reaction, but presses on, even as Daray moves up beside Lana, baston sheath open and hand on the exposed metal sticks, ready to brain him.

 

“I’m sorry if I’ve upset you ma’am.” He raises his hands defensively, “My name is Joe, but I don’t really have anything to do with whatever’s causing that look, and your friend to get a riled up.” He opens a compartment in his cybernetic arm and pulls out a data crystal, which he then sets on the counter and slides toward Lana and Daray, quickly raising his hand again to show that he doesn’t want any trouble. “So about three weeks ago, this guy comes in here and tells me that another guy is going to be coming in regularly to do some work for him, and that before too long, a young lady matching your description, and responding to the name Lana Maxalis would come in asking about him. He paid me to give you this crystal when you finally came around.”

 

Before Lana can do anything, Daray snatches the crystal off the counter, offering Joe a harsh glare as she slides it off the metal surface and moves to the nearest computer terminal. Sliding a short ODN patch cable out of her baston sheath, she plugs one end into the terminal and the other into the tiny port behind her right ear. Sitting down in the chair, she slots the crystal into the terminal.

 

-Beginning analysis.- APRIL chirps in Lana’s ear.

 

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Lana relaxes when he raises his hands and offers his name.  She is baffled when he pulls out the data crystal but nods none the less.  The hair is standing up on the back of her neck and she can’t imagine who would have left something here for her.  Daray’s reaction and grabbing of the crystal does nothing to sooth her. “Thank you for holding on to it. It must have seemed like a strange request but I’m glad you held on to it.  It looks like we are going to be using a terminal.  We’re not sure how long it will be so if it is all right with you we will settle when we finish.”  Her words are polite but she doesn’t really give him a chance to refuse.  She hops down off of the chair and hurries over to Daray.  She leans over so that she can see what she is doing and whispers.  “Who would have left something here for me?  I didn’t have the funds to move off planet.  If we hadn’t met I never would have made it here.”

 

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Joe nods at Lana, slowly sitting back down into his chair and watching the pair with more than mild curiosity.

 

As she moves in beside Daray, Lana can see four holographic screens, each paying through pages and pages of information, faster than any normal person could ever hope to read.

 

-I am currently comparing the information on the crystal against records on the net to determine possible source and validity information.- APRIL comments to them.

 

“It contains personal information for someone that lives here in Hector.” Daray adds.

 

-Information on-line seems to agree that this individual, one Nathan Tennant, was a former employee of Aegis Online’s network security division until eleven months ago, when he was terminated for unknown reasons and has been working as a freelance digerati ever since.-

 

“This is weird.” Daray pitches in again. “All of his personal information is here. His address, his methodologies, family history, favorite foods, a complete psyche profile. It’s like he’s being handed to us on a silver platter.”

 

-This activity does not make sense. I do not understand why someone would share this information about a person in advance of them being paid to commit such an act. Human logic continues to confound me.-

 

“Yeah, me too APRIL.” Daray removes the crystal from the computer terminal and hands it to Lana with one hand as she unplugs herself from the terminal with the other. “We need to know who dropped this data off here.” Her dark eyes narrow, their color deepening to an almost black as she grips her baston again and turns her gaze on Joe, who is busy pouring a drink for someone and hasn’t seen the intensity of her look just yet.

 

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Lana sees Daray’s darkening look and puts a restraining hand on her shoulder.  “Wait, before you do anything too drastic why don’t you pull up an image and make certain that the man in this record is, in fact, the one who has been coming here daily?”

 

She waits for Daray to access an image and then stands up and tries to catch Joe’s eyes, letting him know that he has another question for him.  When he finally makes his way over, she points to the image Daray has found and asks her question bluntly.  “I’m sorry to bother you again.  I’m sure you are busy but I was hoping you could confirm if this is the man you mention had been coming in to work here.”

 

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Joe grunts as he works his way out from behind the counter and toward them, but his sour mood turns a little self-concerned when he sees Daray glowering at him. Her whole body is pulsing with energy, to the point where a few faint spots on each of her forearms can actually be seen glowing very faintly.

 

Cautiously approaching the terminal from Lana’s side, careful to keep her between himself and Daray, he eyes the display and nods almost immediately. “Yeah, that’s the guy. He’s been in here almost every day for the past two weeks. Sat right over there at that terminal you pointed out earlier.” His gaze shifts nervously toward Daray again, then quickly bounces back to Lana when he sees Daray’s dark eyes boring into him.

 

“The weird thing is that the first guy, the one who brought the crystal in, was here at least a week before this other guy ever showed up. BUt he sure has hell knew the other one’d be coming, not to mention the fact he described you to a tee. Nice figure, blue and white hair, fluffy tail, sexy as shit…”

 

When Daray comes up out of her chair, half-reaching for the man with her forearms glowing quite intensely now, Joe hops rather nimbly back from the terminal, the look on his face is one of very healthy fear. “...Scary friend…” he adds to the description with a nod. “Yep. He captured every detail.”

 

At this point, Daray is only growling at him, her fingers closing reflexively into fists and a palpable energy coming off the glowing spots on her forearms, even her baston have been left on the computer console, forgotten in her rising anger toward Joe, and the situation in general.

 

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Lana noticed the warning signs and once she had conformation that the man in the image was the one they needed she only half paid attention to the rest of what Joe said.  She moved closer to Daray and reached out to touch her shoulder gently, trying to help her maintain control.  Daray doesn’t even seem to notice her touch as she advances menacingly at Joe.  

 

Lana’s eyes snap back to him when he mentions a scary friend but she can’t ask about it now.  She easily scoots in front of Daray and blocks her path with her arms held out at her sides in a non threatening manner.  Once Daray’s own movement brings her into reach Lana leans forward, purses her lip and blows directly into Daray’s eyes.  In her experience there is little as immediately distracting as having a steady stream of air blowing in a person’s face and eyes so she expects this to be enough to diffuse some of Daray’s obvious frustration. 

 

Once Lana sees any hesitation in her she speaks calmly, “No Daray.  He’s being helpful without violence.  We’ll find someone you can punch soon enough.”  She looks back over her shoulder at Joe.  “Thank you for the help Joe.  Unless you can think of any more pertinent information I think you had better give us our total for how much we owe you for the juice and the terminal use.”

 

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The stream of warm air in her eyes seems to shake Daray loose from her murderous intent. She shakes her head slightly, blinking and glancing at at Lana, then back at Joe again. The spots on her forearms begin to dim, but she continues to glare at the man angrily. 

 

“But -HE- needs punched!” She protests. “Did you hear the way he was talking about you? Not to mention how complicit he is in this whole business.”

 

-If I may interject for a moment, it may behoove us to ask Joe about the person who brought the data and paid him to hold it for you Lana.- APRIL adds.

 

For his part, Joe takes a step back, still holding his hands out in as non-threatening a manner as possible. He offers a nervous smile and shakes his head slightly. “Don’t you worry about the drink or the couple minutes of time. I’ve already been paid for you anyway.”

 

Daray’s hand snaps down to her baston, snatching them from the table and casting Joe an icy glare as she squeezes the metal sticks through their sheath. She seems quite unwilling to speak to him in any sort of civil tone.

 

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Lana puts her hand on Daray’s cheek and gives her an intimate smile.  “He meant it as a compliment.  Why don’t you go back outside and see about getting another cab.  I’ll be right out.”  Lana turns back to Joe and tries to give him a non threatening smile.  “She is very protective.  I hope you can forgive her aggressive nature.  I just have two more quick little questions and then we will be out of your hair.  First off.  I need the most complete description you can remember about the person who gave you that crystal.  Secondly; did he give any other description that matched Daray other than ‘scary companion’?”  To Lana this was almost the more important question.  Timing didn’t match up.  This man would have been in here long before she had ever met Daray and she couldn’t for the life of her think of any other person in her life that would have brought her here and been considered scary.  

 

She looks at Joe with wide sorrowful eyes ands finishes her request with the gentle comment. “Please, this is very important.  Anything you can remember would help me so much.”  She waits then with her heart in her eyes and hopes that he will answer.

 

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Daray all but growls at Joe as she turns around and stalks out of the cafe to summon transportation.

 

Joe watches her leave with more than a little relief showing on his face. He waits until the door closes behind her before he shakes his head and whispers, “have you considered selling your bodyguard into the pit-fighting circuit? She could easily win most of her fights with her glare alone.”

 

Seeing the look Lana gives him, he changes tack with a heavy sigh. “Damn, that was three weeks ago, and I only saw the guy for a few minutes. He was kind of tall, and skinny. He was dressed all in black, long jacket, dark glasses, even had a hood up. All I can really tell you is that he had a forked tongue, spoke with a bit of a lisp, and seemed to know exactly what was going to happen.”

 

He spares a glance out the front window where Daray is now leaning up against a vehicle, its door open, and glaring back at him through the transparent wall. “As for your bull-dog there. He described her to a ‘T’, except for the length of her hair. He said it would be short, sort of like a curtain… I got the distinct impression that he was psychic, clairvoyant maybe. Don’t see to many of those, especially not ones who see things that accurately.”


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