Ryard Vancing adjusted his high collared coat against the chill northern wind which swept through the narrow rightward walkway of the market district, intensifying its feverish clangor, and side-eyed the woman Syzr had assigned to accompany him. He’d missed her name during their hasty introduction and attempted to surreptitiously acquire it from her gleaming monochromatic armor. His gaze alighted upon the left side of her breastplate. No name tag. He looked next to the woman’s left pauldron, observing only Kryos’ distinctive sigil, black against the metallic-polymer carapace. He grimaced and cursed internally, annoyed by the informational dearth, embarrassed by the momentary mental lapse.
“Why’d they remove the name tags from your uniforms?”
The woman’s voice crackled mechanically through her facemask as a group of vendees passed slowly by, peering at the contents of the hastily assembled market stalls, “Its Sirin, Sir. Elyse Sirin.”
“Names can be a health hazard.” She lowered her voice and leaned slightly toward Vancing. “See how they leer.”
Vancing looked to the vendees passing along the passage before them, their eyes narrow, brows furrowed, mouths disdainfully curled, their garb cheap but garishly worn. One of the men, a lean, mangy souther with boisterous facial tattoos, rammed his shoulder into the CAV-keep’s own, knocking Vancing off balance.
“Watch it,” the souther shouted with a half-suppressed grin, prompting laughter from his rambunctious confederates.
“You’re the one who ran into him,” Sirin declared flatly, looking to the interloper from behind her helmet’s pall.
The souther whirled upon the woman, face contorting with malice. “What’d you say?”
“You ran into him. You should apologize.”
“That so, bootlicker?”
“You should pay more attention to where you’re going.”
“You should pay more attention who you’re talking to,” the man took a firm step toward Sirin, “Bootlicker.”
“Its alright,” Vancing replied with mild trepidation, raising his hands. “No harm done.”
“Wasn’t talking to you, company man,” the souther spat without taking his eyes off Sirin, inches from her face.
“You people think you’re so special. Think you run this city.”
“Not as much as you run your mouth.”
The man spat suddenly, coating Sirin’s helm in effluvia. Ryard flinched, expecting tragedy. Sirin said nothing. Unmoved. The souther’s companions ceased their laughter and tensed.
“Nothing? That’s what I thought.” The man puffed out his chest, chin titled upward, eyes wide, jerking his upper body threateningly toward the woman. She observed the man silently as spittle slid down her helm. When Ryard moved to intervene, a member of the branded upstart’s party nudged him in warning, staring around with concern. “Les git, man.” The tattooed man grimaced, realizing his antics had aroused the displeasure of the surrounding shoppers and vendors, some of whom were armed, and, in degrees subtle to overt, made the fact plain for all.
“I’ll be back for you, bitch. I’ll be back for you.” The man made a rude gesture with his tongue and left off with his friends.
Ryard sighed, turned to the woman and handed her one of the antiseptic wipes he kept in his inner jacket pocket to clean up after machinery maintenance runs. She took the synthetic cloth and cleaned the spit off her helm methodically.
“The facial tattoo marks him a Red Reaver.” She declared, disposing the cloth in a nearby metal waste bin which stood between an automatic food crafter seller and a hand-made jewellery stand officiated by a young girl whose hair was decorated with myriad feathers.
“Guessing that’s not a comic book fan club.”
She nodded focusing her attention to the affin module mounted into her left gauntlet, checking the images of the hooligans captured by her helm’s monitors. “Local gang. Souther upstarts, mostly. Suspected by the Security Commission of three turf dispute homicides on rival gang members in as many months.”
Ryard raised his brow and spread his hands. “Why’s nothing been done?”
“With the continual influx of migrants the security commission has been overwhelmed. Doesn’t have the manpower to investigate. If they did, its doubtful they’d find the will to sustain an investigation into a protected class, regardless of the damage being done for fear of sparking further insurrection. Its one of the reasons why district locals started stocking weapons. Legal and otherwise.”
“Perhaps you should change into something else,” Ryard gestured to the woman’s white armor as he wound through a pack of errant skytechs.
“Is that an order, Sir?”
“I’d prefer not to sneak around like a common criminal in my own district.”
“You live here?”
“Used to. I was born here.”
“I thought all KSRU personnel were sourced from the deep colonies.”
“Used to be. Syzr changed the recruitment policy after the agency transitioned from special operations to general policing. A move intended to win trust with the local communities.”
“Doesn’t seem to have worked out.”
“Not as well as he’d hoped. That’s why you’re here, Sir.”
The duo walked in silence for some time through the busy souk, assailed at regular intervals by tricket hockers, used clothing salesmen, scrap merchants and children asking for donations for “the local church.” Sirin shooed them away, explaining to Vancing that there were no churches in the entire district. Shortly, the pair stopped before a stall in the end of the north-western edge of the bazaar where a mechanically magnified voice echoed from the piazza beyond. Only snippets of the speech were audible. Ryard caught “Plantation of doubt,” and, “We true sons of Aecer.” Sirin ignored the distant orator and turned to Ryard.
“May I attend to a personal errand, Sir? Won’t be more than two minutes.”
“Of course. We’ve got plenty of time.”
Sirin moved through the packed crowd to the old man behind the stall, who smiled and inclined a balding head in greeting.
“Ms. Sirin. Back so soon. And with company. What’s your name, son?”
“Ryard. Pleased to meet you, Sir.”
“Nice to meet you, son.”
“Any fresh eels, Cab?”
“Oh, my dear, we just ran out.”
“Don’t fret!” The fishmonger smiled and bent, with considerable effort, underneath his wide, hand welded table, withdrawing a culinary cryo-cube, which he set upon the tabletop and patted proudly. “Still have one box of jellied eels. Colony’s finest. Saved them just for you.”
Ryard arched his brow as the woman bent with delight to the large black box before opening up her credit application and hastily swiping her wrist bound module over the old man’s processor.
Ryard folded his arms and jerked his head towards the oratory, “Whose giving the speech?”
“Kriezer Sonderon. Haven’t you heard of him?”
“Heard of him. But not much. Heard he’s running for the Chancellorship.”
The old man bobbed his head. “Moonshot. But I gotta respect his dedication. He’s been giving speeches all across the sector for months now. Always in person. Always on time. Been getting impressive crowds of late.”
“He still drawing venom from the press?” Sirin inquired as Cab took the culinary cube and placed it on a hound-sized courier drone perched upon a pallet which rattled and crawled dutifully towards the customers.
“Sure, sure,” the old man rubbed his jaw, “But he’s popular round here. Not often the big whigs speak directly to the public, specially not here. Chancellor certainly doesn’t. Vis Corp’s headlines play well with the cognoscenti. Less so with the man-in-the-street.”
“I see. Well, we’ve got to be going. Thanks for the eels, Cab. I owe you one.”
The pair moved off from the market lane, the fishmonger’s transport drone following close behind, clicking over the wind-polished pavement. Ryard searched the southern edge of the throng which had assembled in the spacious plaza beyond the souk. At the center of the mass a small man, unimpressively dressed, spoke from a pedestal ringed by large men with dark body armor, stunners at the ready.
“-no longer will we hang our heads in shame, no longer will we bow before alien masses, no longer will we sit idly by while the Consortium strips us of our birthright. Our guests jeer. Clearly, they disagree. They disagree because they’ve gotten just as fat and complacent as us, the only difference is that we, brothers and sisters, have at least gotten fat and complacent from our own work. From our own blood and sacrifice. It was aecerites that built this city. Not federants. Not southers. Not these others whose origins are opaque even to themselves. Yet they demand access to the full fruit of our labor as a impetuous child would demand sweets from his mother. And like children, they throw tantrums when they do not get what they want. What, I ask you, do our demanding guests themselves build? Certainly they do not build stable societies, otherwise they’d have no reason to pour into ours.”
The southers present jeered and booed, some shouting obscenities, others shaking their fists and chanting in unison, all drowned out by the thunderous cheers of the surrounding aecerite multitude.
“That him? Sonderon?” Ryard inquired, gesturing toward the stern-faced man upon the podium at the center of the plaza. Sirin nodded, her hand moving to rest gingerly on the cutter sheathed upon her hip as a fight broke out between several dissenting southers and Sonderon’s supporters.
“Stay close, Sir.”
“I will. Hey. Its her. Fawnell. There.”
The officer followed the CAV-keep’s gesticulation and discerned, amidst the increasingly raucous crowd, a well-dressed middle aged woman in conversation with a man who wore a ragged chartreuse coat.
“What would you like to do, Sir?”
“Not an opportune time. Too much commotion. And I don’t want to roll up on her with you. Might intimidate her. No, I need to reach her alone. Let’s wait. We can try and talk to her after this circus wraps up.”
“And if she leaves before Sonderon finishes?”
“We’ll follow her.”
Ryard continued to observe Fawnell as the fight between the souther hecklers and Sonderon’s security agents intensified as members of the crowd joined in. Ryard cursed as his view of Fawnell was suddenly blocked by the swelling mass. Bodies pressed against him as the discord grew. Ryard jerked as a firm hand fell upon his shoulder. He turned, expecting Sirin, but was greeted by the man with the chartreuse coat’s smiling face. Sirin whirled, drawing her cutter, lowering it just as swiftly as Ryard held up his hand for peace. The man’s face was familiar.
“Surprised to see you here.”
“Shouldn’t be. My work takes me to all districts. How’re you fitting in with Syzr’s crew?”
Ryard looked over Illander’s left shoulder to behold Fawnell nervously glancing back and forth between the melee and Sirin.
Illander removed his hand from the CAV-keep’s shoulder as one of the protestors was brought down by a stun-shot from Sonderon’s guards and spasmed upon the ground, screaming in pain. The crowd cleared away from the guards momentarily as they spread out in a wide circle around the orator’s makeshift podium. Fawnell gasped and Sirin tensed, primed to draw her weapon.
“This powder-keg is about to blow, Mr. Vancing. I suggest we take our leave before it does.”
Ryard nodded curtly. “Have you eaten, Mr. Rehdon?”
Vancing looked to the courier drone which carried, upon his back, Sirin’s well-stocked culinary cube and then returned his attention to the green coated man.
“Do you like eels?”
“I do. But that’d make a scant meal. I’ve a overstocked pantry and few to share it with.”
“That’s a very kind offer.”
“Is it accepted?”
Ryard looked queriously to Sirin, who stood guard at his side.
“Up to you, Sir.”
“Accepted it is.”
Rehdon clapped his hands together and rubbed them, a wide smile on his wan face. “Splendid. This way.”
Ryard and Sirin followed Rehdon and Fawnell down the pulsating streets of the market district as Consortium klaxons sounded in the distance. Fawnell flinched and drew her collar taunt about her neck, as if to gird herself from the aural onslaught. Rehdon leaned to the woman, put his hand lightly upon her lower back and whispered something in her ear, after which she nodded, smiled sadly and relaxed. The group then passed north beyond the market district where the tessellated crowd thinned and arrived before an ancient theatre surrounded by incongruous tenements, bedecked with motley desaturated recyced plastics and small bands of low-end automated street cleaners and package couriers moving water filters and bandages, errant wide-eyed children and small flocks of birds whose smoky coloration rendered them near-indistinguishable from the housing exteriors upon which they perched and clucked and cooed. Everywhere the scent of decaying batteries, avian fecal matter and fresh sediment, residue of residential tofts and construction plats.
Rehdon halted before the high, decorated glass and wood double-doorway of the antediluvian theatre and turned to his companions with a smile, “Welcome to my humble abode.”
“You live here?” Ryard inquired, craning his neck to the top of the opulent structure, dwarfed and shrouded by the surrounding tenements.
“Yep. Well, partially. Whole place was going to be demolished. Found that to be a shame, given its history. Luckily, used some contacts from The Center to get in touch with the Aecerite Historical Society. After some back and forth I persuaded them to delay the demolition long enough to scramble funds to buy it. Ever since its been a home away from home.”
“And a delight to the community,” Fawnell added as Rehdon opened the rightward door and ushered his guests inside with a dramatic bow.
Once inside the lavish confines of the old theatre, Sirin slowed, waited for Fawnell and Rehdon to pass, turned to Vancing and slowly removed her helmet, revealing a smooth oval face wreathed by pale blonde locks, clipped-down at the left of the head and the base of the skull; her eyes, blue, lips thick, and about her jaw and brow, a series of small irregular scars.
“Sir, I think its a good idea to keep watch at the entrance in the event those reavers from earlier decided to follow us.”
Ryard stared at the striking visage. Lips slightly parted, poised words stunted.
“Sir, are you feeling alright?”
“Hm, yes. Yes. Fine. That’s a good idea.”
“I’ll call you if I see anything.”
The woman inclined her head curtly and removed a packet of pre-cooked eel from the courier drone and ordered it to follow Ryard, then turned and walked back to the entrance, helmet under her left arm.
“Is your friend always so standoffish?” Fawnell asked from where she stood a few paces ahead of the man.
“And easy on the eyes?” Rehdon interjected slyly.
Fawnell nudged the man in the ribs. He grinned and held up his hands as if in surrender.
“I couldn’t tell you. First time working with her. So, how did you two meet?” Ryard queried suddenly, desperate to change the subject, walking to his remaining companion’s sides, hands in his coat pockets, drone following.
“We met through Astrid Sodabrucke’s campaign.”
“I hear she stands a good chance of winning the election.”
“Mm hm. Better than Sonderon, that’s for sure.”
The woman looked to Ryard. Weighing his response to the jab. When he said nothing she continued.
“I was a staffer during last years election and early on Ms. Sodabrucke asked me to reach out to local organizations. First group I contacted was The Center For Social Progress.”
“I was just a volunteer organizer at the time,” Rehdon added.
“He’s just being modest. He really helped me along.”
A young girl was visible upon the stage of the auditorium, flowers in her hair. Her garb, a patchwork of shoddy materials. The girl smiled and waved to the entrants. Rehdon waved back as he waltzed down the traverse.
“Ah, Mallory. Be a dear and grab three of those prepacked lunches from the pantry, will you.”
The girl beamed, whirled and bounded behind the high scarlet curtain and vanished into the darkness of the stage house, footfalls receding to a muted patter, then, silence.
“Dear Mallory is an orphan. Formerly a sifter. Worked the landfills prior to the Markov Plan. When it was put in place, she had nowhere to go, so I hired her to keep the theatre ship-shape. Make yourselves at home,” Rehdon bid, moving to stand athwart the stage as Ryard took in the strange masks, marbled busts and pieces of scrated and shanty mail arrayed about the stage as Fawnell took a seat in the front leftward row with a sigh of relief.
“I feel as if my legs are gonna fall off.”
“That’d be a shame, they’re quite shapely.”
The woman shook her head at the verdant coated man as Ryard lowered himself down beside her.
Rehdon pranced to the edge of the stage, twirling a cane he’d fetched from the bric-a-brac piled haphazardly about the dais, “A show before our meal?”
Fawnell arched a brow. “You going to dance for us?”
“Ah ha, a dance, what a splendid idea.”
Rehdon fidgeted with his carpus-wound module, whereupon an ethereal waltz played from the auditorium speaker-system. The stage-borne man swayed to the rhythm, his movements growing progressively more bizarre and exaggerated. Fawnell giggled, turning to Vancing with an embarrassed, amused expression.
“He’s such a cad.”
“He seems nice.”
“He really is. When we first met he told me I had the voice of a songbird. Said I must be a singer. I was shocked. Because I am. Not a very good one though. I had a big show coming up, I was so nervous. I was convinced I’d screw it up. My friends told me I was worrying about nothing. And they were all too busy with their day jobs to practice as much as I’d like to allay my fears. So you know what Illander did?” Ryard raised his brows expectantly. “He helped me practice. Right here, on this stage. And when we were finished he said ‘Its not your voice that is the problem, its the tune, its not a proper song for a songbird.'” She laughed and when she realized the impatience in the man’s eyes, cleared her throat, going stiff, “But I take it from the presence of your friend you didn’t come out here so we could talk about the my social circle over a light brunch.”
“No. I’m just a CAV-keep.”
Ryard remained quiet a moment as the triple meter orchestration swelled ominously and cut out.
“Well, I’m going to go see what’s taking Mallory so long,” Rehdon declared over his should as he spun his cane with practiced ease and vanished behind the stage house curtain.
“Alright,” Fawnell replied, raising her voice. She waited for the host to leave before returning her attention to Vancing, “I’m guessing you want me to talk to the press? Put out a statement?”
“That would be helpful.”
“I don’t mind having lunch with you, Mr. Vancing. You seem nice. You really do. But I’m not going to discuss this matter any further.”
“Most of the information blacked out after Markov is maintained by the KSRU.”
“Kryos Industries manages the database for the ASC.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I was briefed. Saw Danzig’s priors. Next time he decides to slice someone up,” he pointed to the girl who reemerged from behind the stage curtain bearing a covered polymer tray, “It might be someone like her. More his type.”
Sadness and fear shone in the woman’s eyes.
“It’s not that simple.”
Ryard met the woman’s gaze, “Why?”
Fawnell clutched her hands together and exhaled deeply.
“Because of Sodabrucke’s campaign. She maintains me as a consultant.”
“You’re afraid they’ll do to you and her what they did to Syzr.”
“You know how sensitive issues are surrounding aecerite and souther relations. Can imagine the headline, ‘Sodabrucke connected to anti-souther fanatic.’ I won’t chance it.”
“Who profits by your silence? Danzig, or his next prospective victim?”
Mallory traversed the retractable stair of the newly refurbished stage and proffered the tray, which Fawnell took and placed in her lap. She watched Mallory retreat back up the stairs and turned to Ryard with sudden resolve.
“Fine. I’ll do it. Under one condition.”
“Security. Until this blows over.”
She nodded and opened the tray. Sliced pomegranate.