Status Quo - Chapter 62

Written by: Paullell

 Lana is swamped by a cacophony of emotions; fear, sorrow, anger, curiosity and longing which turns her skin a muddy brown.  After a brief glance down at her hands she mutters under her breath.  “It’s worse than wearing a damn mood ring.”    She notices that while Melissa -or whoever she is- is still holding the knife her back still turned to them and she has not yet made any aggressive actions.  To Lana this means one of three things, she is either extremely confident, has already initiated her attack, or she is willing to try and negotiate through this situation.  


Lana takes a deep breath and let’s loose with what she is thinking.  “Look, whoever you are.  I have no idea who my father is. He abandoned my mother when she was pregnant with me.  He apparently works with human trafficking and is not above erasing my life and history from legal databases.  If he really wanted to see me he could have approached me any time within the past twenty five years and up until a week or so ago there is a chance that I might have welcomed him into my life.  I have a life that I am enjoying now with friends.  If he would like to get in contact with me he can use the net or a phone just the same as any other person.  I have a lot going on right now and I’m not the helpless girl that I was just a few days ago.  Is there any chance we can send you back to him without violence and you can deliver that message… please?  And incidentally if you could finish cooking before you leave, if you promise the food is not poisoned, we would be grateful”




Melissa chuckles a bit, placing her palms on the counter and letting the chuckle turn into a heart-felt laugh, the knife pinned between her hand and the counter.  APRIL passes a very confused look from the laughing woman’s backside to Lana, then pulls the skewer out of her mouth, pinching the meat between her teeth to insure that it stays there, and eyes the stick curiously as she chews.


-I am not detecting any of the telltale signs of poison…-


“Damn Lana! That was awesome!” Daray chirps over the comm link so only Lana and APRIL can hear.


At last, Melissa stops laughing, snaps the knife up off the counter and turns around to face the stove, quickly grabbing a hot frying pan and jerking it off the heat. She gives it a few shakes, then curses, “fuck!”


Setting the knife on the counter, she empties the pan into the sink, wipes it out and returns it to the stove top, adding some oil and spices and then staring hard at Lana over the top of the stove, “The vegetables burned…” she finally says, after watching Lana’s skin shift through a few different shades.


She then turns to the side, and grabs another plate of spring rolls, and one of the beef skewers and sets them both between Lana and APRIL, who immediately picks up one of the skewers and starts munching on it. -This is excellent. I think I like tasting good food very much!-


“Alright honey. Let’s get a couple things straight before we move any further here. First off, my name ~is~ Melissa. Secondly, if I ever intend to knock you out, or kill you, rest assured, you’ll be armed, and you’ll be facing me. I would never ruin good food with anything so cowardly as poison or drugs, and food isn’t worth eating if it isn’t good.”


She picks up the knife again and quickly breaks down a few more vegetables, depositing them in the pan where they start sizzling away as she continues, “now as to the rest of your comments, I can not say what kind of people your father has been in touch with before me, but I have worked with him before, and I can assure you that he has always been honorable in our dealings. He has never betrayed anyone that I know of, and he most certainly is not involved in any kind of slave trading.”


She sets the knife down and retrieves a large baking sheet with a huge mound of salt on it from the oven, sets it on the counter and begins breaking the salt open to reveal five divinely smelling cooked fish beneath it. She continues speaking as she works on plating the Mackerel, “now, I’ve been instructed to bring you back to him, alive and unharmed. For this, he has paid me a considerable sum of platinum. He has also debriefed me on your companion and her known abilities.” 


She looks at APRIL pointedly and recites from memory, “Daray Bowen, no middle name. Age, unknown. Height, 5-3, weight, 120, although you don’t look a pound over 90 I have to say. Known bio-mods include speed, strength, reflexes, uncharted regeneration, climbing claws, and advanced senses. Cyber-mods limited to a universal headjack which you use for various forms of breaking and entry. Skills of note, hacking, blockade running, corporate espionage, and a more than adequate skill at hand to hand combat. Formerly an employee of Solidarity Online, where you prevented the release of a deadly computer virus into the Kalijor servers by rival Aegis Online before going freelance.” 


She stops for a moment to stir the vegetables, then plates them next to the fish and pushes three of the plates over the table toward the women as she finishes her line of speaking, “now what your father failed to inform me of, is the fact that you,” she nods toward Lana, “seem to have significant genetic modifications of a largely unknown nature. And you,” she inclines her head toward APRIL, “are not Daray Bowen, despite the fact that you look exactly like her.”


“Now I find myself a in a bit of a quandary here,” she continues as she adds some huge tuna steaks to another hot pan after removing them from the marinade she’d made previously. “On the one hand, I have been paid all this money to retrieve you. But on the other, I find the situation to be nothing like what I was told it would be. Including the fact that your father told me you had run away due to some family trouble and would be overjoyed to know that he was not holding anything against you and would welcome you home.”


Returning her gaze to Lana, the intensity of the stare is enough to allow Lana to see that her eyes, while they look amazing real, are actually artificial, cybernetic prosthetics. “If you intend to resist me, I could most certainly restrain you. But probably not without hurting you. And it seems fairly clear to me that she,” she points at APRIL, “whoever she is, will put herself well in harm’s way to prevent me taking you.”


Finally she picks up some odd scraps of food from her various cuttings and cookings, and begins to nibble at them, leaning forward, elbows on the counter, as she pontificates, and waits for food to cook. “It appears that we are at an impasse. I am not willing to forfeit my contract, nor can I carry it out within the prescribed parameters, and you do not seem willing to comply. So. I am open to suggestions…”


A long pause hangs in the air, filled with a quiet sound of APRIL chewing at her fish and vegetables happily. Finally, Daray breaks the silence with a chipper, “I like her!”




Lana eyes Melissa dubiously until her laughter.  Her skin shifts to bright pink from embarrassment at how naive she sounded in her rant but settles to a paler shade of pink at Daray’s approval.  She looks in irritation at the still muddy brown hair on her head and tail, and glares at it until it shifts to a deep fusha.  Lana decides that Melissa has been open and honest with them so she decides to return the favor.  She points at the speaker system.  “That is Daray.” She then points at April.  “That is April.  April is Daray’s extremely advanced AI system that she works with.  And that would be the first  and most important problem that I need to deal with before I do anything else.  Daray’s consciousness due to some very unfortunate circumstances was separated from her body and we need to re-unite them as soon as possible.”  Lana then pinches the skin of her forearm and shakes it.  “This was a complete accident that I do not as of yet understand at all.”


Lana bites her lip and finally gives into the question that has been burning in her chest her entire life.  “Melissa… Who is my father?”




Melissa looks the pair over, offering an occasional glance toward the terminal in the kitchen, then finally smiles again as she begins plating the tuna and vegetables for them.


"Well, I can't say as I've ever heard of someone swapping bodies with a computer, but I've heard some other, pretty strange, stuff before." Finally, she inclines her head toward APRIL and says, "April. Nice to meet you." She then looks toward the terminal and repeats the process, "Daray."


""Hello," APRIL offers back around a mouth full of Mackerel.


"Melissa," Daray responds, using the house speakers again. "I just want you to know that, despite how forward and accommodating you are being. If you harm Lana in any way..." She pauses as if trying to find the appropriate words to use, then finishes with, "well I know threats won't work on you anyway, but know that I will stop at nothing."


"Understood Daray. I would expect nothing less," Melissa returns her attention to Lana. "As for your accident, I hope it wasn't anything you aren't willing to live with. That can be a terrible mess to sort out. Now, as to your father, I'm afraid I can't give you much information as I don't really know much. We only dialogue via proxy servers on the net. I don't even know his real name. All I know is that I've worked for him almost exclusively for the last ten years and change. He's never steered me wrong, never done anything to betray me, compensates me very well, and treats me like..." she raises an eyebrow contemplatively before finishing the sentence, unsure of how Lana might react. "Well... like a daughter I guess. He always seems concerned about me, although he'd never come out and actually say so, but it shows. And he's always sending me jobs that require a lot of research, like he's trying to force me to learn and better myself, you know?"


She stands up straight, having leaned her elbows on the counter while speaking, and returns to mixing some things together, then puts two bowls in the freezer. Returning to the stove, she clears a pan out and cleans it, then replaces it on the heat and begins putting in ingredients for the fillet and prawns, taking a moment to pull out the duck and chicken and begin prepping them for cooking as well.


"I don't even know what he does really. Just that he's obviously very wealthy, very well-connected, and very good at playing the corporate game. While I can not vouch for him, or his activities with any sort of direct knowledge, I would just like to reiterate that I find it extremely unlikely that he would ever be involved in any form of slave trade. I have no doubt that he is involved in some shady dealings here and there. I mean, why else employ someone like me? But, he has always struck me as being honorable, a bit kindly, if bull-headed and difficult, and concerned about the greater picture."


She drops the fillets and prawns into the pan and looks over the sizzling and popping at Lana, pressing her lips into a hard line as she adds, "so, what do you propose we do about this situation?"




Lana listens to Melissa and her story gives her a mild fluttering of confusion and even envy.  It is only by sheer stubbornness that she keeps her skin from reacting.  “I don’t hate it.  It’s very odd and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to gain some control over it rather than just it being an automatic reaction to my moods.”  


Lana takes a spring roll and chews on it while she ponders their situation.  “That doesn’t sound like what has been happening to me.  My electronic records have been entirely erased except for what April was able to salvage.  My previous place of employment was shut down due to hacker manipulation. I was stalked and kidnapped by a man named Turin and nearly turned into a personal slave of his household.  I’m very hesitant to go anywhere that is in the control of someone rich and more powerful than my little corner of the world.”  Lana pauses again as she thinks.


“Your contract is to take me to him safe and unharmed… I don’t know if there is a time limit on that but if you are willing to wait until Daray is back in her body. I’ll be willing to go with you if you will agree to a contract with me.  Daray and I will both go with you and if when we meet him he turns out to not be the person you describe and we want to leave at that point your contract with us is active and you are to get us back out of there as safely as possible.”  


Lana glances up at the speakers of the room.  “Does that sound good Daray?  That way if he is the person who has been making my life miserable we will finally have a face and a name to go with him….”  She gulps and voices the tiny kernel of hope that has steadily been growing in her stomach.  “.. and if he is not the one who is responsible for Turin’s hunting of me.  I might have a chance to know the man responsible for my existence…  The man who my mother never stopped loving until the day she died.”




Melissa listens to Lana’s suggestion, chewing her lip thoughtfully as she tends to the chicken and duck. Moving the chicken to the oven and depositing the duck, scored skin side down, into a skillet and pouring some kind of dark sauce over it as it begins to sizzle.


“That doesn’t sound bad Lana, although I’m not convinced we’d actually need her assistance in order to make a break for it. If he’s a scumbag then I won’t feel to bad about hurting his people or damaging his property on the way out…” Daray replies with a tone of sarcasm.


“I knew I liked you,” Melissa comments, “from the first moment we spoke.” It’s not immediately clear whether she is speaking to Lana or Daray. Flipping the filets and prawns over in their pans, she adds some seasoning then looks back up again, meeting Lana’s eyes. “Daray is right really. If things go south, then you probably won’t need me to help you get out. However,” she looks at the computer terminal and smirks, “a little backup never hurts, right Daray? Or were you operating the high-powered rifle at the same time you were fighting AO troops on the roof and in the street during your raid on their R&D building?”


There is a long moment of silence from Daray, which Melissa lets hang in the air for effect, then continues, “right, point made. I like your line of thinking Lana, but you have to consider the fact that I’ve been working for this man for years, and he’s treated me very well. For me to turn on him would require both solid reasons, such as intentionally erasing someone’s existence, and substantial compensation, since I will no longer be able to work for him and would have to seek other, likely less well-compensated employment.”


“What assurance do we have that you won’t turn on us? If you’re so loyal to this guy, can we trust that money is enough motivation to hang him out to dry? You’re a professional, so erasing someone form the system to ruin their life may not be such a big deal to you…”


“Valid points all, Daray. In truth, all I can offer you is my word. As a person in the business, I am sure you understand the significance of such a thing however. At this point I guess I should offer full disclosure… He didn’t tell me that you ran away…” She pauses to plate the fillet’s and prawns atop a bed of rice and veggies, pushing three plates across to Lana and APRIL, then continues, “he told me that his family never approved of his keeping your mother, and that they concealed your birth from him so that he wouldn’t continue to soil their image. He found out about you just recently, while going over payment records that led to various digerati. Lana, he wants to meet you because he loved your mother with all his heart, and was forced to give her, and in turn, you, up by a lie.”




Lana groans and puts her head down on the countertop.  “That sounds perfect.  Just what every little girl who was abandoned by their father wants to hear.”  She adjusts so that instead of her head on the counter she is resting her hands on her arms as she looks up at Melissa.  “I hope you will understand, that sounds far too much like a fairy tail for me to believe it out of hand without seeing some proof to back it up.  Good god,  even if it is true; I’ve been a whore for seven years, if his family had a problem with my mother who was a companion, how much worse is their opinion of me going to be?”  


Lana closes her eyes and rubs her temples, her stomach is churning, both from fear and excitement, and probably hunger, she’s been so involved in the information being disclosed around her she had been forgetting to eat despite growing more hungry as time continues on.


Lana finally sits up again.  “Tell you what, Daray and I are still arguing about finances and I have no idea what a reasonable rate would be to hire you.  How about you just agree to wait until Daray is fixed and you just promise not to accept another contract from him that involves me for at least an hour which means that he won’t have your help to keep us from running away.  If he’s as good with business as you say he is he should understand that loosing your services over that is a bad choice when it was the only way you could fulfill his contract without harming me.”  Lana holds out her hand.  “Do we have a deal?”




“Wait. Since when are we arguing about finances?” Daray asks, a bit of hurt in her voice, “I’ve got your money from that last job ready to transfer. We just need to make sure your accounts aren’t going to vanish again after we deposit the funds! And as we discussed, it’s a perfect, fifty-fifty split! And I don’t mind saying that you’ve made a much better first payday than I did in this business…”


Melissa looks to the terminal for a moment, but receives no further information about Lana’s potential worth, so she forges ahead, “Lana, I understand your hesitance, and your concerns about his family. Believe me when I say, I have my own feelings on the entire matter, and they aren’t all good ones. All I can say is that I have been given no reason to doubt his sincerity in the matter.”


She applies some weight to the sizzling duck in the form of another pan pressing down on top of the cooking meat, then returns her attention to the conversation, raising an eyebrow at the silent form of APRIL, who has mowed through every scrap of food set before her and is now licking a plate enthusiastically. “How about this… as a thought experiment, of sorts… I like my work. I’ve never had to do anything so deplorable that I have any trouble sleeping at night, and I’d very much like to keep it that way. I like what you three are building and I think I stand to bring a lot to the table. If your father turns on you, I will help you make your escape, whatever it takes, no questions. In return, you cover my severance with a million credits in hard platinum, which I will turn around and invest in your operation as an equal partner. We can get an office, set up a real shop, and pick and choose our jobs as any top-shelf operation would. Plus, you’ll get my services as chef a couple times a week. I’m not asking to move in or anything. I’ve got a lace of my own after all. But it looks like you two could use a good cook. Even with your metabolisms, eating out all the time is not good for you.”


She picks a few vegetables off a nearby plate and chews them thoughtfully while Lana and her friends consider her proposition.


-She makes several very interesting points. Another experienced hand would lend credence to any jobs we bid since we no longer have Solidarity Online as our exclusive employer. Her moral character seems to be upstanding, although further searching of the net may reveal more information, and the tax benefits of establishing an actual corporation are substantial.- APRIL’s words are not entirely unexpected, her being a computer and all. She also adds, -Additionally, if she normally cooks like this, I can’t see either of you passing up the opportunity to keep her around.-


“Well, there you have it then…” Daray’s voice switches back to the private comm link. “She seems nice enough Lana. I never really thought about running an actual operation. This is all happening pretty fast. I was just getting used to the idea of not working alone…”


-I take exception to that remark.-


“Sorry APRIL, I meant without another physical body working with me. I couldn’t do half of what I do without you. Anyway Lana, it’s a lit to think about, but I have to admit that the idea has merit…”




Lana rolls her eyes at Daray’s hurt tone.  “We’re not done arguing because a fifty-fifty split is hardly fair when I’m a novice and you’re experienced.  I don’t even know how much we made off of our first venture and I don’t want to be taking advantage of your good nature.”


“A million credits. People, do you not understand that I am used to dealing with denominations of less than a thousand?  I have no idea if that is reasonable… Daray can we cover that?  I like the idea Melissa; and I definitely like the idea of your cooking being around more often.” 




Melissa chuckles at Lana’s admonishment of Daray, turning back to her cooking and pulling the extra pan off the duck. She adds some more sauce, sliding the pan around on the heating element to loosen its contents up and coat them in the thick sauce.


Still using the private comm link, Daray speaks somewhat tentatively, “uh, Lana… Your cut of that job is two-million credits. Ex-Sergeant Killgore was a bad, bad man, and AO wanted him badly enough to let you go, despite the fact that I am wanted by them, and pay you the offered rate for his capture to boot. I’ve put your money in an escrow account at my bank, so it’s safe and waiting for you to claim it. You could walk away right now and possibly never need to work another day in your life, if you manage your money well. We don’t usually make that much on a job, but if we keep steady work, we can make that every couple of months, maybe more often in a good quarter. But I want to pay her severance from my own funds, please. As a professional courtesy.”




Lana makes a choking noise as her lungs suddenly forget how to work.  She waves her hand at April indicating that she is alright as she coughs a few time and clears her throat.  “Oh my… well then.  Melissa it seems we are all three in agreement.  If need be… Daray is insisting on covering your severance package herself if you decide it is appropriate to terminate your employment with my father and come work with us.”  Lana digs into the newest plate feeling somewhat better now that things are more resolved.  After April beats her to the last helping of vegetables on the spare plate Lana stops eating to talk again.   “Daray, we are around our fifth course here, how much longer does Dr Yamato think he will be needing?”

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