Vanna pulled out a tablet and sent a text message. In a few minutes, she got a reply.
“I need to get me one of those.” said Cian.
“What? Oh, the tablet? Yeah. Picked it up in Gregar’s Hill. Only two thousand credits. Got a new portable comm relay for my helmet, too.” said Vanna.
The pair got in an automated taxi shuttle and Vanna put in the address. Cian paid the 25 credit fee. Soon they were flying over downtown Valcim, heading toward a large office building.
“Who is this guy we’re going to see?” asked Cian.
“He’s a professional middleman. I only know him by his code name, Juniper. He finds things for people, for a modest fee. He’s a little eccentric, but he’s good. He’ll find us a deal and even negotiate the price for us. His fee will be included, but with his negotiation skill it’ll be ‘bout the same or less than what we’d pay if we found it ourselves. And it’ll be a private sale, just in case the Syndicate is looking for you by name.” said Vanna.
“I thought you said there was no chance they could track us down?” asked Cian.
Vanna laughed. “I pride myself in bein’ overly paranoid when it comes to powerful criminal syndicates and black ops orgs.”
Cian smiled. “Fair enough.”
Their shuttle landed on a small balcony landing pad attached to one of the larger high-rises and the two of them hopped out. Several large offices were on this level, but most of them weren’t labeled beyond a number. Their destination was a small office down a side hallway. Unlike the other offices, there weren’t any windows facing the hall, and the door was solid starmetal. A camera overlooked the door and a small intercom and number pad was next to it.
Vanna pushed in a twelve digit code and spoke into the intercom. “Hey Juniper. It’s Vanna. Got a friend with me. We need your services.”
The door clicked and slid open. Inside was a small hallway with another, identical door.
Vanna walked in and motioned for Cian to do the same. He followed, and the first door slid closed. A scanner beam swept the room, and an automated spoke over a speaker in the ceiling. “Please place all weapons and explosives in storage.” A small panel slid open beside the far door, exposing a storage cubby.
“Don’t worry, we’re safe here. Juniper just takes his security seriously.” said Vanna as she put her pulse pistol and pair of Gauss pistols in the tray.
Cian followed suit, putting his pulse laser gun and the revolver he had taken as his sidearm on the tray. “Okay.” he said when he was done.
The tray closed, and another scanner beam swept the room. The automated voice said: “More weapons detected. Please place all weapons and explosives in storage.” The tray popped open again, empty now.
“Oh, sorry.” said Cian as he slid his backpack full of Pa’Ran spear tips into the tray.
The tray closed again, and another scanner beam swept the room. The automated voice said: “Thank you. Have a nice day.” as the door opened.
The inside of the office was not what Cian had expected. It was cluttered. All kinds of toys and knickknacks were all over the place. Newton cradles, Rubix cubes, mechanical puzzles, 3d puzzles, and various logic puzzles and gadgets that Cian didn’t even recognize took up most of every surface. The walls were covered in various optical illusions.
A stocky fellow a bit shorter than Vanna, around 4’4”, stepped out from a back room. His skin was a dark gray and he had a long, graying, black beard. He was dressed in a black business suit and wore a gray fedora with a bright red feather in it. What stood out the most about him were his eyes – they were jet black, seemingly all pupil with no sclera. In his hand was a large caliber sub-machine gun of some type.
Cian recognized him as a Boralan.
“Vanna my friend! Always a pleasure to see your lovely face. I heard about what happened in Chalo. I’m sorry.” Juniper gave Vanna a side hug with his free arm, seeming to notice Cian for the first time. “And a human!” Juniper sneered as he said ‘human’ and his demeanor instantly went from warm to ice cold. “Who’s your friend, Vanna?” he said, casually waving the SMG at Cian as he asked about him.
“Juniper, meet Cian. He’s saved my life several times over now, you can trust him. Like I said, we need your services.” said Vanna.
“But he’s a human. A human!” insisted Juniper, waving the SMG around with fervor.
Cian just stared at the gun and at the two of them. “Uh… I don’t m-”
“Shush, human!” interrupted Juniper, anger evident in his voice. He was pointing the gun directly at Cian’s head now.
Vanna stepped in between the two of them, right in front of the gun. “Hey! Don’t point that at my friend. If you don’t want our business, we’ll go elsewhere.” she said firmly.
Juniper’s demeanor instantly warmed again and he lowered the gun. “Fine. If you vouch for him I guess I can tolerate his presence.” He smiled sweetly at Vanna. “What do you need, my lovely friend?”
“We need a ship. Something basic for delivery runs with decent agility and some teeth. If it’s got aftermarket defense upgrades that’s a plus. Maybe an upgraded Merchantman or Trade Runner. Or an old Express Hauler if you can find a smuggler refit. Nothing that stands out too much. Budget’s around five, seven if it’s got all the bells and whistles.” explained Vanna.
Juniper smiled. “Oh ho ho, I get to put the great Vanna back in a ship? Never thought I’d see you headed off world again. I’ll find you something good, love. Don’t you worry.”
“Thanks Juniper. Lemme know when you find something. We’re gonna head out. Been a long month, gonna find a nice place to relax.” said Vanna.
“Thank you Juniper. It was nice meeting you.” said Cian.
“I’ll have you something by end of day, my friend.” Juniper said to Vanna. He ignored Cian entirely. He walked back into the other room, and the door to the entry hall opened.
Cian and Vanna went back into the entry hall. The panel in the wall opened with all of their weapons in it and they gathered their gear.
“Sorry about that. I knew he’d had bad dealings with humans, but I didn’t think he would behave like that. ‘Specially after I vouched for ya.” apologized Vanna as they left the office.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m starting to see how humans have been treating others, and I can understand how people feel about us.” replied Cian as they walked toward the building’s exit.
“That still don’t excuse his prejudice. Ya can’t just treat someone like that ‘cause of their species, even if other folks done ya wrong. It aint right. He’ll do the job and get us a good deal, but I don’t think I’ll be usin’ him again.” said Vanna.
Cian got the door and followed Vanna out, then leaned against the wall on the balcony. “So, what now?” he said.
Vanna pulled out her tablet. “Gotta get you some kinda device so we can keep in touch. Then I wanna go rent a room to stow this gear and find me a nice spa. You can join me if ya want.” said Vanna as she tapped away on her device.
“Yeah, I do need to get me something.” Cian agreed. He wasn’t accustomed to needing a device to interact with the world – his interface normally provided maps, communication with other players, and bank account information. But it hadn’t done that ever since he used the alien device. “I’ll let you have your spa day to yourself, though. I have some things I need to do.” he finished.
Vanna smiled. “Fair enough. I called us a taxi. We can hit the mall and get you fixed up.”
An automated taxi shuttle landed in front of them and the door popped open. The two of them hopped in and Vanna set the destination and paid the fee. The taxi lifted off and zoomed toward the mall.
“Been a while since I been shopping at a proper place! You ever been to the Capital Mall? It’s pretty great.” Vanna said excitedly.
“Not really. Just the clinic here. Last time I was here things were a bit hectic, I didn’t get much shopping in.” replied Cian.
Vanna’s enthusiasm faded. “Oh, right, you said you were here during the attack.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring it back up.” apologized Cian.
“No, it’s okay. Heard they hit this place a couple days before Chalo. How’d you end up on the other side of the planet after that?” asked Vanna.
“Uh… It’s… complicated. I’m not entirely sure what happened.” Cian said.
“What do you mean?” asked Vanna.
Cian wasn’t sure how Vanna would react if he told her everything, and he didn’t understand it himself, so he edited it a bit. “It’s a bit confusing to be honest. I fought in the attack here, we lost. The Pa’Ran took me with them to Chalo. I witnessed the end of the attack and tried to help the defenders, but they blew us apart with the ship guns. Then I woke up in the Chalo spawn bunker.” he explained.
“Oh. Like, they took you as a soldier? And you broke off and fought against ‘em?” asked Vanna.
“Something like that.” agreed Cian.
“Then you died. And came back to life in the bunker?” asked Vanna.
“Yeah. I know, it’s weird.” said Cian.
“Yeah, but it’s okay. I know you humans can use those things. It makes you a new body and uploads your mind or something, but you don’t always come back out quite the same. Would you pop back up in one if you died again?” asked Vanna.
“I’m not sure. That artifact did something and things don’t feel the same now. That’s one thing I wanted to look into while you visit the spa. I want to figure out what it did and what’s different.” explained Cian.
“Oh. Wish I knew someone to help, but I don’t know anyone who knows about any of that in Kiana. If my pa was around he might be able to help, he’s dealt with Weaveborn relics since I was a babe. But who knows where he’s at now, probably on some lucrative cargo run on the other side of the network. Not too many folk know much about those things ‘cept the Kitani, but they aint sharing. It’s a dangerous hobby to have.” said Vanna.
“Yeah. I’m going to try to talk to other humans. Maybe one of them will be able to help me figure out what’s up.” said Cian.
“Just be careful what you say. You don’t want any word getting out about what went on that attracted those goons. I doubt they’ll take your word for it that the device is gone now, and even if they do they might wanna take you apart and study you.” warned Vanna.
The taxi shuttle approached the mall. The structure was immense – the center was a huge skyscraper topped with an ornate spiral spire that towered over neighboring buildings, and four shorter but still large buildings connected to it by sky bridges. The entire thing was covered in advertisements for various products. A shirtless, plain looking Boralan man with a strikingly beautiful Erisian woman twice his height in a swimsuit were advertising some kind of cologne. A Celduran woman in lingerie with a laser cannon much like the one Cian had was advertising a gun store.
“What does a half naked woman licking a gun have to do with quality guns?” asked Cian, laughing.
Vanna giggled. “Beats me. Look at that one!” She pointed to a holographic ad showing a Rinjorn dancing a jig. It was an ad for a restaurant called the ‘Happy Rinjorn Saloon.’
Cian and Vanna shared a good laugh at the ridiculous ads as their taxi landed.
They landed on a rooftop pad on one of the outer buildings of the mall. It was a luxury hotel, which only had parking zones for taxis. They quickly departed the taxi and a couple that was waiting hopped into it. Cian and Vanna took the elevator to the lobby, located at the center of the building next to the main sky bridge to the mall.
“I’m gonna get a room to stow my stuff. You getting one too?” said Vanna.
“Isn’t this place expensive?” asked Cian.
“Only like five thousand credits. Live a little!” said Vanna
Cian blanched. Five thousand for one night? “I’ll think about it. I’ll wait here for you.” he replied.
“Righto, see ya. Gonna grab a quick shower too.” said Vanna, approaching the front desk.
Cian looked over the interactive map on one of the terminals in the lobby while he waited. It turned out that the other three of the four surrounding buildings were mostly parking – the ground floors were parking garages, and the top levels had landing areas and hangar systems similar to the setup at DD Shipworks. Sandwiched between the parking areas were levels with a large daycare area, food court, and compact apartments for rent. The small apartments were the type that most players rented, since they didn’t sleep in the game and just wanted a place to store things and safely log out.
The mall proper was all located inside the high rise. Each level was nearly identical, laid out as a loop with stores all along the outside and inside of it. Some of the larger stores were located in the center of the building and on the corners. Elevators going between levels were located in the middle of the walkway at each corner, and a single stairwell was located in the center of the building. Filtering by product type, Cian found over two dozen different stores that sold communicators and other electronics.
Just then, Vanna walked up wearing a modest white, floral print summer dress with blue flowers. All her fur was neatly brushed out and her hair was pulled back into a pony tail. “Miss me?” she said.
Cian looked her up and down. “Hey, wow. You clean up nice. Where did you get the dress?” said Cian appreciatively.
Vanna blushed “Oh, just a little something I picked up in Gregar’s Hill. Hadn’t got a chance to wear it till now.” said Vanna, then she noticed what Cian had been looking at on the map and continued, “Oh, you don’t need to find a store. Most of those places only sell branded junk. We want unlocked hardware. We need to go to Unlimited Power. Goofy name, great stuff.”
“Oh, okay. Lead the way, oh wise and beautiful one.” said Cian, smiling as he beckoned for her to take the lead.
Vanna punched him on the arm, smiling and shaking her head as she moved toward the sky bridge.
They stepped out to the sky bridge. It was a sealed tunnel, and a steady stream of little platforms full of people zipped back and forth at alarming speeds. Cian followed Vanna through the crowd and onto the little platform. He was surprised when the noise of the crowd suddenly vanished and the platform zoomed across the skybridge without any feeling of motion. In seconds they reached the other side and outside noise resumed.
“What was that?” asked Cian as they disembarked the platform.
“Huh? Oh, you never been on an inertialess platform? Just uses force shields and antigravity to keep you from feeling the air or the G’s. Same tech they use on ships.” said Vanna.
“Oh, okay. First time is all.” said Cian.
“Yep. Let’s hit the elevator, Unlimited Power is on level 115.” said Vanna.
The mall path was wide, about 30’, with stands scattered around in the middle of it. The mall was crowded with all kinds of different people, but it only took a few minutes to find the elevator and make it to level 115. The elevators and shafts were all made of glass or some other clear material, and used the same inertialess technology that the platforms did to move at extreme speeds between levels. All the levels and people blurring by as the thing moved was a bit disorienting.
Unlimited Power was a small shop in the middle of the 115th level. It was fairly busy, and the walls were stacked from ceiling to floor with various electronics and components. They even had a section for cybernetics with implants and limbs. Cian felt a bit out of place. Not a single other human was in there, and all the other customers were giving him a wide berth.
“So whatcha want for communication? Over the ear headset? Handheld communicator? Tablet? Cranial implant? They got comm links that go in the helmets too, but you gotta put it on to use it.” asked Vanna as they looked over the available options.
“I guess the same thing you got. A tablet and a comm for the helmet.” answered Cian, picking up a tablet box and reading about it.
Vanna pointed out a tablet and a comm link in plain, unbranded white boxes. “These are good. Not bad price either. Only 2150 and 1550. This tablet’s better than mine, will work good for ya. The comm link installs in your helmet just like mine, be good if we get in a combat situation. I’ll help you flash em both to a custom firmware my family uses, more secure than the mass market crap.”
“Okay, that works for me. Thanks.” Cian said, grabbing the suggested items and heading for the checkout.
As they left the store, Cian had a thought and asked Vanna “Aren’t purchases like this traceable? If they knew who I was, couldn’t they see where I’ve been from where I’m spending money?”
“From credit chips? Nah, they’re anonymous. That’s why people like ‘em, just gotta make sure not to lose it or keep too much on it. And the bank we’re using doesn’t collect any location data when you transfer funds to or from a credit chip. That’s why we set it to use your fingerprint combined with voice and the password you set for any external transfers out – anyone transfers money out of it, it aint comin’ back. Now let’s head back to my room to set your stuff up.” said Vanna.
“Okay.” agreed Cian.
They both headed back the way they came, with Cian in the lead this time.