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Status Quo - Chapter 39

Written by: Paullell

 Lana’s eyes return to where the color had been.  Purple black was never a good color, it usually indicated grief, sorrow, depression, frustration or malice.  The fact that it faded as soon as her eyes returned to it has her wondering if she is imagining things.  She wants to dismiss it, but she just can’t seem to. Finally she looks up a local personal site, one for couples to meet each other, and after creating the account ‘Lfox’ types out a personal add and posts it.  

 

April,

I got separated from you on the tour.  Tell D-Girl that I saw the footage and I’m relieved she survived such a crazy stunt.  I’ve been to the library and I’ve looked up all the sites to see and have decided to go to the Ranch next because you know how bad my allergies are.  Even though you aren’t here it’s like someone is with me, Watching out for Me.  Tell D-Girl I love her.

 

LFox

 

It’s a wild thought, but April seems to monitor so much that Lana figures there is a chance she might notice the message to her.  She hopes that April has her medical records and notices that she doesn’t have a history of allergies, and sends Daray to the opposite of the ranch.  She doesn’t even know why she is doing it, but she feels like she ought to leave a trail, that way Daray has someplace to investigate if she doesn’t make it back to the house.  

 

Lana notices one of the other readers stand up and head to the public restrooms in the back of the library.  She logs off the terminal and follows.  Once inside she pretends to primp and powder her nose while the other woman goes into a stall.  Lana takes this opportunity to look around and notices a small window above the last sink.  It is narrow and will be a tight fit but she should be able to make it.

 

With a soft grunt she hefts herself onto the sink and wiggles the latch on the window.  In a stroke of luck it actually opens for her.  The other woman is whistling and Lana uses the noise to cover the squeak of the window opening, she then lifts and pulls herself through the narrow opening.  Once again her wide rounded hips get her stuck but with a bit of wiggling she eventually pops through. She lands in a narrow alley between the library and the next building.  Her wrist screams from yet another impact and Lana feels tears in her eyes as she stifles a cry of pain.  She finally climbs to her feet, dusts herself off with her good arm and heads back out to the main street heading in the direction of the hanging gardens, her injured arm held stiffly at her side.

 

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The walk to the hanging gardens is not unpleasant, if a bit long. The easiest route leads Lana back out to the dome wall, where she can walk along the street with the ruddy red Martian landscape not more than three feet from her, and perfectly visible through the crystalline glass of the dome. Vehicle and pedestrian traffic are both fairly light along the route, making one wonder how someone could not be amazed by the view and come this way whenever possible.

 

It takes the better part of half an hour to reach the connecting tube indicated in Lana’s research as the way to reach the gardens. Being used to the tight, claustrophobic spaces of Venus Station, the tunnels isn’t much of a challenge for her, especially as it is large enough to handle several large cargo transports at a time, but the transparent walls and roof of the tube are a new element for her. The feeling is that of being enclosed and yet, completely exposed at the same time. A feeling which is only enhanced by that nagging sensation of being watched. Maybe it’s just her nerves after all?

 

On the other side of the connecting tube is a dome within a dome. The outer dome has a wide road paved around its inner wall, allowing vehicles of all kinds easy access to its perimeter and thus, the many other connecting tunnels branching of from this dome. Directly across from the entrance she uses from the main city however, is another entrance, in the form of a huge airlock, capable of handling massive delivery vehicles two at a time. Through the wall of the inner dome, she can see a rainbow of colors, as far as she can see in any direction.

 

Cycling through the airlock with a few other people, most of whom seem to pay her no more mind than she is used to on Venus Station, maybe they are tourists? She steps into a warm, humid environment that smells of fresh, growing things, and positively thrums with the energy of life. The main road leads off straight from the airlock to a building that can be seen off in the distance, but there are walking paths branching off in every direction from where she and the other tourists enter.

 

The gardens are composed of a series of elegant racks that rise up about ten or twelve feet from the ground and support multiple tiers of hydroponic trays. From the trays grow green plants and flowers in every conceivable shape and size. The paths between the hydroponic racks are wide, about ten feet, but the entire affair still serves to make one feel a bit small in the face of all the amazing vegetation.

 

The air here is fresh, and tinged with the aromatic presence of pollen, and live filtration, something the best air purifier made by the hands of man could never replicate. The place is undefinably alive, a sentiment which is only reinforced as Lana comes to a sign proclaiming:

 

Welcome to the Hanging Gardens of Xanthe Terra, please follow these simple rules, and enjoy your visit!

  1. Please do not pick, or damage the plants or flowers. You may however, touch the plants if you are classified as Base-Line human plus or minus G3.
  2. Mind the bees. They are working hard to keep our garden flourishing and will leave you alone, as long as you do likewise. Fresh honey is available in our gift shop.
  3. Please be aware that our eco-system is carefully monitored and controlled. You will see many animals while you are here, all of which roam free in the course of their business. Please do not disturb them.

 

As she reads the sign, Lana is buzzed by a small bird darting after a bee, the pair o them quickly disappearing back into the gardens again, leaving her wondering if she’d actually seen them. But not for long, as her line of sight catches the form a tall woman with a long mane of vivid, green hair, pulled back into a simple ponytail. She is a few dozen yards away, and turns her head just slightly, enough to lock eyes with Lana for just a second, before she moves behind a hydroponic rack and vanishes from sight. The brief glimpse of the woman’s face strikes a chord with Lana, her vibrant green eyes and intelligent look, combined with numerous rings pierced through her eyebrows, lower lip, nose, and ear are bound to make her wonder if this situation is even possible. What are the odds? To be reading about some complete stranger in the news, and then suddenly find them thirty minutes away? 

 

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At first she stares in awe at the beauty of the gardens.  Flowers of impossible hues seem to stretch on forever.  Despite her paranoia she smiles, glad that she decided to take the chance to see this place.  It’s a little like the old picture of earth that her mother had shown her once, filled with green growing things wherever she looks.  Speaking of green… Lana blinks in stunned silence at the green haired woman who vanishes behind the racks.  All of the paranoia that she had been fighting off comes crashing back down on her.  

 

She looks back towards the exit and her entire body is poised, ready for flight. as she tries to pick between the two options that she has.  Pursue the stranger in the hopes that she can shed some light on the mystery of Lana’s records and the attempt on her life; or assume she means harm and might have valuable information that could help her.  Lana tries to recapture her feeling of trust for the woman that she felt from the picture.  In the end though, it comes down to feeling alone.  Without Daray she doesn’t feel safe or capable on her own, so she goes out on a limb and decides to trust.  Lana relaxes and follows down the path that Alina had taken.

 

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Her trust is put to the test almost immediately, as her green-haired target leads her on a long, frustrating chase through the garden. She stays yards ahead of Lana, constantly turning corners just as Lana catches sight of her again. The chase goes on for the better part of twenty minutes before Lana turns a corner and steps into an open area with a small gazebo in the center. The trellised walls of the domed structure are overgrown with some kind of climbing vines bearing huge bunches of blue and white flowers. Birds seem to congregate on the roof of the structure and there is a cacophony of song and chirping filling the area as the woman disappears once more, this time into the shadowed interior of the gazebo.

 

This time however, she stops. As Lana cautiously approaches the structure, she can begin to make out the form of the woman, who has turned to face her, and is beckoning with her hands for Lana to join her inside. Her clothing is dark, but practical, a simple pair of tights and a tank top, with a light jacket covering her shoulders and arms. A jacket that would be perfect for concealing a myriad of weapons, which is a thought Lana wouldn’t have had a week ago.

 

Her face is serious, but compassionate, and something seems to be interfering with Lana’s ability to read her aura. She can see the auras of the birds on the roof of the gazebo, and even the plants tangling their way through and around the walls, but the woman inside remains unreadable. Peering through the shadows, Lana can see she is mouthing the words, “It’s OK, I won’t hurt you,” but there is no sound coming from her.

 

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Lana looks around nervously but doesn’t see anyone else in this secluded little alcove that she has been led to.  She pauses even as the other woman is encouraging her closer. She notices the fact that she can’t hear her through the birds and she wonders if that is the point; To keep them from being overheard.  She climbs the steps to enter the gazebo but her steps are just as skittish as the fox she has been designed to look like.  She stops before they are within touching distance and stands with her uninjured arm ready to reach for her stunner.  “What do you want with me and how did you know where to find me?” are the first questions out of her mouth.

 

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The woman backs up as Lana enters the gazebo, giving her room to feel more comfortable and still allow them both to be under the roof. As Lana steps through the open archway, a curious thing happens, all of the bird noise, and all of the other sounds of the garden, stop completely. Her own voice rings out clear and true, but there is no echo, no reverberation, and it sounds a little lout to her ears in the otherwise total silence. It takes a moment, but Lana also becomes slowly aware of another sensation, that of a dull, not quite painful, ache in the front of her head, and trying to use her psionic abilities to look any deeper into the stranger’s state seems to make the ache worsen.

 

“Please, I know you’ve been through a lot lately, but you have to try and keep your calm. My name is Alina. I’m…” She pauses for a moment, a sad look spreading across her face as she seems to consider her words, and their ramifications, very seriously before speaking again, “I’m a friend… of Daray’s.” She looks sort of forlorn, and turns slightly away from Lana, casting her gaze a little sideways, out another of the gazebo’s doors.

 

After a moment, she seems to refocus and turn back toward Lana, a weak smile on her face. “I’m sorry for the game of tag, but this structure is only one of a couple oubliettes in the garden. There is a sound dampening and anti-psionic field surrounding us, so we can talk in true privacy. Something it sounds like you’ve been sorely lacking of late.”

 

Her smile widens a little as she reaches into a pocket on the front of her jacket and slowly, so as not to startle her new companion, withdraws a tightly-rolled bandage and a small heating/cooling strip that looks about the right size to wrap around a wrist or ankle. “APRIL said you could make use of these.”

 

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As soon as the effort of trying to see her companion’s aura edges past discomfort to true pain she gives up and shuts her ability off.  She can think of no reason to force herself to deal with a migraine on top of everything else going on.  The mention of Daray’s name relaxes her slightly but the mention of April has her smiling in relief.  From her experience Daray keeps the information about April very secret and she assumes only a close friend would know about her.  “She got my message then?  I had worried I was being too cryptic!”  Lana gratefully takes the bandages and sits down in one of the available seats, completely at ease. She shrugs off her jacket and pushes up the sleeve of the body suit so that she can get to her injured wrist and she begins to try to wrap it although it is apparent that she only has a general idea of what she is doing.  “This is just too wild.  I came across a news article about you only forty minutes ago and here you are.  This kind of thing never used to happen to me!”

 

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Alina kneels down in front of Lana and gently takes her hand, gritting her teeth and inhaling at the sight of her swollen wrist. “Here. let me bind that for you.” She pulls the adhesive cover off the heating/cooling strip and deftly wraps it around the wounded joint, then begins wrapping the limb tightly as she speaks.

 

“About Daray. Listen, you can’t tell her that you met me. Not ever,” she looks up from her ministrations and locks eyes with Lana for a few seconds, until she is sure her words have settled home for Lana. Then she continues as she looks back down and resumes her work, “APRIL saw your ad, that was pretty clever by the way, and sent word to me that you would be here. She wasn’t terribly specific about your situation, just said you were in trouble, and that Turin may be involved…” At the mention of Turin, she pulls the bandage quite a bit tighter than previous passes, and presses her lips into a hard line. When Lana winces from the pressure, she quickly hisses again and relaxes the bandage before finishing up her work and backing away and regaining her feet.

 

“I’m sorry. I just… have nothing good to say about the man. If you can call him that. Anyway, APRIL asked me to tell you that they are fine. They’re going to stay outside for a few more hours before they sneak back in and head for your rendezvous point.” She turns around and reaches into her other jacket pocket, slowly pulling out a tiny, disposable hypo-spray with a vial of some kind of almost-clear liquid with just the faintest twinge of pink to it. Holding the device in the palm of her hand, she offers it to Lana with that same, pained look on her face. “Take this. Keep it safe, and well hidden. On your person. When Turin makes his move against you, this may be the only thing between your safety, and a life as a slave in his harem.”

 

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“Thanks Alina, I’m pretty much useless at all of this.”  She waves her hand helplessly expressing how out of her depth she feels. “Ouch!”  Lana can’t help the sharp exclamation at the suddenly too tight binding.  She breaths a sigh of relief when Alina corrects the pressure.  Her mind tumbles over why she would call herself a friend of Daray’s and then tell her she must never mention her, but she nods to let her know she understands it is important, although she makes a mental note to ask April for further confirmation later.  Despite her helpfulness, Lana owes more to Daray than this stranger and she’ll let April tell her what is in Daray’s best interests.

 

Lana nods her head in agreement.  “I can’t say that I saw anything in the news reports to make me think I would like him any better..”  She takes the vial and looks curious at the pale pink liquid.  “What is it?  I’m sure you’ll understand I don’t like to put anything in my body that I don’t know the contents of…” 

 

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“I’m sorry,” she repeats about the pain she’d caused. “And don’t worry about being new to all this, it takes a while for anyone to get acclimated to thinking on their feet and running for their lives all the time. To be honest, I’m not so convinced that getting used to it is a good thing either.”

 

Alina nods and smiles at Lana’s question. “It’s called Psy-Null. It’s an extremely rare and expensive concoction that will increase your ability to fight off mind-control. Turin is an extremely powerful psychic Lana. I can’t even begin to tell you how strong. I know you’re mildly psychic too, and I have to give you full disclosure here. It’s going to hurt your head, a lot. Psychics don’t take well to the stuff, but it does work for them. Just know that whatever abilities you do have, will be useless until your system breaks it down. Once you dose yourself, it will keep you protected for right around forty-eight hours, give or take a couple hours.”

 

She turns again, and paces a few steps, hands clasped behind her back, then turns on her heels and locks eyes with Lana again. “Look I’m sorry, I’m all over the place here. I have a lot going on, and when APRIL contacted me it was kind of a bolt from the blue you know? It’s been a long time since Daray and I…” Her eyes mist up a bit and she turns away again, “we started to… connect… I guess. It was just one date, but there was something about her. Like she’s this apex predator, absolutely the top of her class, but at the same time, she’s like this little kid…” 

 

She hugs her arms to herself and looks back over her shoulder at Lana, tears wetting her eyes, but not quite falling. “We went and saw a resonance concert, and we missed the monorail on the way out, so we were walking to the next station, having a great evening. We stopped on a side street for a moment and…” Now the tears began to track down her face and she turned away again, leaning heavily against one of the vertical posts of the gazebo.

 

“It was like the first time she’d ever kissed anyone in her entire life. So soft, and timid… and then they came out of the shadows, and demanded valuables… Daray pushed me to the wall and stood between them and myself. I didn’t know who she was, or what she was capable of at the time. I didn’t know how easy it would have been for her to just handle it and be done…”

 

She rolls herself around, leaning her back against the pole and looking at Lana with tears new streaming down her cheeks. “I saw the knife flash in the light, Daray was dealing with one of the other thugs. I acted without thinking. Threw myself in front of the blade. It all happened so fast. All I remember after that searing pain in my stomach is Daray screaming like some kind of wounded animal. There was some noise, flashes of light. I think she held me for a minute, but then she was gone and it was so cold…” She wipes the tears from her face and sits down on a bench opposite Lana’s, leaning heavily forward, with her elbows propped on her knees.

 

“I woke up in the hospital. I guess the authorities arrived within moments. There was security footage they showed me, of Daray literally ripping them to pieces. I’ve never seen anything like it before. She came unhinged when she thought they’d killed me, and she hammered them into the street until there was almost nothing left to scrape up.”

 

She opens her palms and buries her face in her hands as she finishes her story, “I went to ind her after I was discharged, after Turin tried to strangle me. I almost killed him, but then I saw my dad’s face and I knew he wouldn’t want that, so I let him go, let the authorities take him. I should have killed the bastard… Anyway, I went to find her, to tell her I was OK, but she’d already gone to the Conglomerate and turned herself in for killing the muggers. They thanked her for her honesty and locked her up. i couldn’t get in to see her, couldn’t get any messages to her, nothing. So one day I get this message from APRIL, and she explains… not everything… but a lot… enough anyway. And I was on the next boat to the Tyconderoga to talk to Solidarity Online. They made a deal, got her out of prison, cleared her record, the works. Only part of the deal was that I can’t go near her any more. Xavier wants her working, wants her out in the field tying up loose ends and fetching his trinkets for him. If I was to suddenly reappear, she might change her mind about her life and try to settle down, give up the game. So to win her freedom, I agreed to work for SO, and they implanted a transmitter in me that, if I get too close to her, will detonate the failsafe hidden away in APRIL’s memory manager. The explosion would be enough to take her head off, and I don’t think even she can survive that kind of damage.”

 

She takes a few calming breaths, trying to get herself under control again, sitting up and hugging her arms to her body again. “So I gave her up. Just like Niko. Only this time I did it for love Lana, not revenge. I guess it’s my lot to be alone in this world. But Daray doesn’t have to be. She’s happy with you. APRIL told me how much she’s changed already, and that’s all because of you. With you to support her, and be there for her, she can get out of the game, get away from Xavier and his schemes. You can ground her, keep her focused and sane. She doesn’t know about the failsafe. Neither does APRIL. I told APRIL that I gave Xavier my word, which I did, but she doesn’t know she’s a time-bomb in that poor girl’s head. So you see, you can’t tell Daray about me, and you can’t tell either of them about the device. Nothing can be done about the bomb, and Xavier isn’t so petty that he’d kill her just because. But if Daray hears about me, then she’ll come unhinged, and do something drastic. I don’t want that. As much as I want to find out what we could have had, I’d rather she live a long and happy life in your arms, than see her dead attempting to do something foolish about this entire mess.”

 

She finishes her monologue and looks up imploringly, meeting Lana’s eyes and waiting to hear what she might think of the crazy woman in front of her.

 

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As Lana listens to Alina a myriad of emotions run through her.  When she talks about the date and a connection being made, she feels a sudden and intense flash of jealousy, this woman has been a rival.  Lana is astonished at her own reaction.  She accepts the feeling and examines it.  This is a woman from Daray’s past, not her present.  Her feelings of jealousy are completely unfounded and childish.  Once she realizes that, she is able to put the petty emotion aside and concentrate on the rest of her story,  she listens with growing horror as Alina continues.  The lengths that these large corporations will go to manipulate people astounds her and makes her sick at the same time.  When Alina is finished speaking, Lana sees the pain in her eyes and does the only thing she can do.  She walks over to her and hugs her.  A simple hug that shares her pain and offers sympathy and understanding, rocking her in her arms like she would comfort a child, and after a few moments to collect her thoughts, she steps aback again and looks her in the eyes.

 

“That may be the saddest, sweetest, stupidest thing I have ever heard.”  Lana shakes her head.  “There are so many problems with that story I am astounded, I can only assume the corporation is playing on your fears to make you believe it.  First of all.  Even if there is something hidden in Aprils programming that would ignite an explosive, the explosive still has to be there in her skull.  I have personally seen her suffer a shot directly to the head that turned her brain into tapioca pudding.  Also a beam ended up lodged through her brain, either one of those could and should have exposed a foreign object like that, even if only to make April aware of it.  At least if she is aware of it she will stop trying to block injuries with her head,” Lana adds sarcastically.  

 

“Also, by both you and April’s decision not to tell her that you are alive and all right I can almost guarantee that Daray is living with completely unnecessary guilt.  If I have learned anything about her over the past several days it is that she tries desperately to make everything her fault and seems to use her history and her previous pain to keep her from being happy.  She probably believes it is her fault you died because she couldn’t protect you.  I’m certain she would love to know you are alive and at this point could probably hear the information without running off and doing something rash.  And lastly, by yielding to their demands and separating her from someone she cares about, you are giving them permission to do this over and over again.  What’s to stop them from taking me and doing the same thing?  If they want her undistracted and working for them then I am a huge liability.  I’m sure they would love to get to me, so now not only do I have to deal with Turin or whomever is already after me but I bet the corporation will be joining in the hunt as soon as they realize how important we have become to each other.  And I can promise, if they will do what they did to you once, they WILL do it again.  It’s how people with no scruples work.”  Lana’s speech is stern at times and very impassioned.  She finally grows silent and waits for Alina’s reaction to her not so understanding lecture.


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