One month later
The techbar decor was a throw back--all chrome, black tile, and twisted tubes of colored neon. The only modern touches were the moving nanowall advertising the Can-Ook Pride concert next week and the games. The games at Flash Point were top of the heap technology.
Day Daniels opened her coat and leaned one elbow against the slick bar. Music throbbed from the floor in a driving monotone of synthesizers and screeches. Four-foot fans pulled in cold air from outside and circulated the mix, keeping the machines from overheating. The industrial-sized breeze tugged her braid, and she ran a hand to smooth the hair. Damn, but she missed her hat.
She eyed the customers at the panels of computers and immersed in the virtual games. Which one was her snitch?
“What’ll you have?” The bartender matched the decor-dark hair tied back, black leather, chrome gray eyes with less softness than metal, and two spots of color in the electric blue glass rings piercing the top of his ears.
On him, she liked the look.
“Root beer with a double shot of caf blend. Lian,” she added, noting the name tag.
Lian lifted one thick brow. “Double shot? Never seen a lady your size who could handle that much buzz. Not enough body fat.”
“You’ve never seen a lady like me.”
His easy, practiced glance ran from her braid to her boots, then lingered at her eyes. Most people found them disturbing, being different shades and all.
He didn’t. “That an invitation? I get off at midnight. Thirty minutes.”
She met him square. “Not a chance. Just give me the R-Beer.”
He laughed, not the least offended by her refusal. “It’s your nervous system.”
With deft skill, he twirled the bottles of root beer and caf, shaking them into a precise fizz as he assembled her drink. She paid, then sipped, savoring the cold contrast of sweet beer, bitter caffeine, and bubbles. “Perfect.”
“We do it all,” he said, pocketing the tip she’d added.
At the familiar phrase, she gave him a sharp look. Be it All; Do it All, the unofficial motto of twenty-second century Mounties. Did he know?
Before she could figure out, a fight broke out over the legitimacy of a move in Viral Warrior. Seconds of escalation later, the combatants were waving their laser daggers and sonic prickers. No surprise there. The decor might be from a few centuries ago, but, Flash Point was a No-Border hang out. If betting were legal, then she’d be laying odds every patron here hid at least one weapon both tech and lethal.
She watched the confrontation, but didn’t move. Weapons weren’t illegal.
Lian the bartender wasn’t so easy minded, however. He stalked to the two combatants and, with a few choice words-plus a couple of well-placed nerve jabs-had the situation back under control.
Day swivelled in her chair, turning her back on the bartender, and canvassed the room again, looking for Bart, the man she’d come to see.
They’d never met; Bart preferred it that way. She’d humored him because he was a good source-knew every underground movement in this half of Canada and always in need of cash to feed his nanochip habit. When he’d given her some bad leads on the current case, though, she figured a face-to-face was needed.
Dude extra ordinaire, he’d described himself once. Meaning he was a master of a hundred and fifty year old culture that no longer existed except in places like this bar. If you’re not good enough to figure out who he is from that, Day, then you should be hanging up your badge.
So, who was Bart the snitch? She dismissed the screen-mesmerized ‘puting-jocks, including the recent fighters. The chuck at the end of the bar was a different breed however. Dressed in the current rage-chamois over recycled denim- he was smooth and broody. Hunched over his drink like it was a pot of true champagne, his body language said “stay away,” but it was a mixed command, because something about him drew the eye.
The caffeine blasted down her veins as he glanced at her. She’d expected ruggedness, not cruel beauty, in his face.
“He said his name’s Rupert,” said Lian, leaning against the bar and jerking a head toward the cruel beauty. “Want an intro?”
Some interesting secrets there, she’d bet, but Rupert wasn’t dude extra ordinaire material. “No, thanks.”
An exultant shout from the previously rapt crowd surrounding the Yeux de Serpent sphere caught her attention, and she strolled over, still sipping that perfect beer-n-blast.
Yeux de Serpent Eyes of the Serpent. One of the toughest games around-if you set it up right.
The Yeux corner was darker than the rest of the twilight-shaded room; the glowing, multi-hued playing field was the only source of light. One of the players slumped in his seat, and when she glanced at the tally screen she saw why. He’d been neatly annihilated in a mere five minutes.
No record. Her worst defeat at Yeux was four minutes.
The winner, a young male about as thick as a wheat stalk, accepted the accolades of his peers as his due. Apparently, he was a celeb in these walls, the guy who’d never been beaten at Yeux de Serpent.
Dude extra ordinaire.
She pushed forward when the fan base left to get him a beer. “Bart?”
“Name’s LaseMan.” He gave her an assessing leer. “I’m busy right now, chica, but you sit on that couch and I’ll join with you real soon. The hands are fast, but the night won’t be.”
“I’ll pass. And you’re Bart. No one else in this bar would dare claim the title dude extra ordinaire.” Either from fear of retribution by LaseMan or from utter embarrassment at the label.
“So, who’s asking?”
She held out her hand. “Day Daniels.”
He ignored the hand, and the leer turned hard. “You’re too puny for a Stiff Brim.”
She didn’t take offense-much- at the weak slur. She’d been called worse. Still, would have been nice if she could have worn her hat, the symbol of her authority. People always took her more seriously with the hat.
“I’m wiry.” She resisted the urge to rub her bare head. Instead, she lowered her hand and took a long swallow of her drink. “You want me to flash my badge to prove who I am?”
“In a No-Border techbar? They’d stake me for talking to you. You must be hopped on some powerful drug ‘tail if you think I’ll talk here.”
“Your last info turned bogus. I want the real stuff.” A tattooed girl joined them and handed him a beer. Bart tasted it before answering. “I’m busy now; prepping for a new challenge.” He leaned down and gave the girl a sloppy, open-mouthed, tongue-filled kiss before slanting a glance Day’s way. “Go away. We’re done talking.”
One of the sycophants laid a hand on her shoulder, and the sting from his sonic pricker throbbed across her jaw. Day shook him off and downed her drink in a single swallow, feeding irritation with a dose of the alkaloid. She didn’t have any more time to waste with this self-important, stonewalling mucker. A Mountie had died; she was charged with finding the killer.
Day ran her options, feeling the bite of escaping time. She could put on her hat, make it official and bring Bart in for questioning. Or . . .
“I challenge you,” she said abruptly.
Bart ignored her for the tattoo chick.
This was going beyond irritation. “You chicken? Afraid I’d beat you?”
That got his attention. “What are you spamming about?”
She nodded to the Yeux panel. “I challenge you to a game of Yeux de Serpent.” She lowered her voice. “Send your fawners out of earshot, and we talk as long as I keep in the game. I’ll even sweeten the deal. No questions the first minute of the game, but after that you answer everything, prompt and true, until the game ends. Then I don’t bother you ever again about this.”
He fingered his knotted goatee. “What’s in it for me?”
“Your usual fee. Plus, you’re spared the humiliation of them seeing you back down from a challenge. By a woman,” she tacked on for good measure.
“Throw in a kiss when you lose, and you got yourself a deal, chica.”
“Bring it on.”
Bart promptly claimed the Settings chair and turned on the playing field. Ah, machismo was alive and well, even in the twenty-second century Dominion of Tri-Canada.
Day sat in the Colors chair, enjoying the double buzz of caffeine and challenge. She laced her hands, stretching the fingers and cracking the knuckles, as she studied the layout.
Playing field surrounding them in a sphere of color. Easy moving swivel seat with full range. Standard controls on the hand sets, but each machine played a little different, she knew. She’d suggested the minute delay as much to give herself a chance to get the feel of the controls as to give him a nudge. From Bart’s smug grin, she knew he expected the game to be over before that minute was up.
“Do you know the rules?” he asked condescendingly.
“Let’s review them, just to make sure one of us isn’t playing by a different set. Eyes of the Serpent. Slice off the opponent’s eyes before he slices all of yours. Left hand grows your serpents, right hand slices. No crossing bodies; sliced serpents disappear. Anything else?”
“That’s it. Let’s set up and go.”
She wasn’t surprised to see he chose the highest level settings - max number of serpents’ eyes, fastest body speed - but she also saw her choices surprised him. Most people picked a natural setting, letting the serpents swing from jungle trees or slither between desert rocks. She preferred her nature with scents and weather, so her background was fire.
Four different colors were used. Two - different for each opponent - were the pulsing target dots, the eyes, and two were the machetes drawn to slice each eye. She’d chosen shades of red, her favorite color, at a setting where the differences between the four colors were subtle.
“Easy to slice your own eye or hit a body.” Bart frowned; he’d just stopped taking her lightly.
“Order them back,” She jerked her head toward the gathering crowd. “Or do you want them to hear?”
“Everyone, step back,” Bart commanded. “The lady isn’t used to playing with an audience.”
“I’ll offer for a little one-on-one playing,” called someone from the audience.
Day rolled her eyes. Why did men always assume that she was hoping to open her legs for them? Was it the long hair? The one hundred-sixty-centimeter stature? Or the mere fact that she had breasts and ovaries, while they had testosterone?
At least the audience obeyed LaseMan’s command. Now she and Bart aka LaseMan could talk without being heard. Day wiggled her fingers into the control gloves, and the game began.
Bart was good. Damn good. With the unfamiliar controls, she was hard pressed to keep up with him. Only her slice of the eyes behind his back kept him from a quick sweep. As the seconds passed, though, she gained comfort with the controls, giving her fractions better speed as the red lines raced across the holofield. In the first minute, she regained a little space, a little breathing room.
She’d had a lot of Yeux games since that four minute defeat.
He was better than she was, but then she didn’t spend five hours a day playing the game either. Still, Day figured she had two advantages. One, most men, she’d discovered, didn’t like to talk when they competed. Two, she didn’t need to win. She just needed to play defensively and hang in long enough to find out what she needed.
He boxed her in, but luckily he mistook one of his eyes for hers, and she found a corridor to escape. Still, his confident little grin came back.
Wouldn’t it be nice to sour that look?
“Minute’s up. What do you know about the murder of Luc Robichaux,” she commanded, using her best lawman voice.
He didn’t answer, his focus on the game.
“LaseMan. Bart,” she barked. Startled he looked at her instead of the field. She took advantage, swung her chair, and sliced three eyes, wiping out a corner of his advance in the process.
“Shit,” he muttered, scrambling to gain back the advantage.
“We play. You talk. That’s the agreement.”
“Or I tell everyone here you’re feeding info to a Mountie.”
“No-Borders. They killed the Constable.”
“You told me that before. Now give me solid leads.” He swore again as she sliced two eyes. “Enough with the curses, Bart. I want facts.”
“I got none.”
“You’re lying. Mounties always know when someone’s lying.”
“No-Borders will break my fingers if I talk about them.”
“Mounties would go for the wrists, too,” she said just as he twisted his hand in a spectacular move that had her silent and scrambling to counter. “Start spewing.”
“They listen to the Voice of Freedom.”
“So does my wolf.”
“It’s a rallying point.”
“It’s a sexless electronic voice over fiberoptics.”
“There’s a message.”
“What? Free choice? Stand up to the United Colonies of Earth Imperialists? A better life for all? We Canadians got that message a long time ago.” Since their once friendly southern neighbor, the UCE, had helped the U.N. close the borders and enforce the quarantine. “We’re the only independent, democratic nation left, and we aim to stay that way.”
It cost her an eye before she realized he wasn’t rejoicing. “What’s Banzai?”
“Not what. Who. A woman. Spoken of by the Voice of Freedom. The Voice says she brings the ideals of the past. That’s all I know.” Bart leaned forward, intensifying his push to win.
“That’s it? Not worth what I’m paying you. Shall I make my big announcement to your buddies?” She got lucky and sliced four more eyes.
When he saw that he wasn’t going to get a reprieve by a quick end to the game, he said, “Talk to Scree, the scavenger. In Winnipeg. Heard he recently made a big sale to the No-Borders.”
“And if Scree doesn’t come through?”
“Try the Shinook. Word is, there’s a connection. Something with their tribe leader.”
This she hadn’t heard. In the chaotic aftermath of the plagues, the Affiliated Indian Nations had been formed from the regrouped survivors of the old Native First Nations and had reclaimed sovereignty over their hereditary lands The Shinook were one of the wealthiest of the AIN tribes. They were also staunch isolationists and advocates of the ancient traditions. They kept to themselves and ignored the rest of the country unless it served their purpose. In fact, no one was exactly sure where they were right now.
“What about the leader? ”
“His name’s Jem, and rumor says he’s a man you don’t cross. Nobody touches him.”
“What’s the connection between an isolationist tribe and the No-Borders?”
“I don’t know.”
“Bart,” she warned.
“I swear. I don’t.” He was sweating, now.
She sliced an eye for emphasis.
“The No-Borders got something big going on; the Shinook have a piece of it. But all I heard was a name. A place. Citadel. That’s all I know, I swear.”
Citadel. Day stiffened, her lines stuttering on the fire field. A place of awestruck legend.
The cheers from the watching audience shook her out, told her she’d almost lost the game. Still, she had the new leads she needed, and all he’d give her. She could quit now. Instead, she bent to the controls. Be it all. Do it all. Neither motto allowed for throwing a game.
The game advanced in waves with Bart pulling ahead and her battling back. Fatigue entered the match, and her previously injured shoulder started to burn. Day had no doubts about her stamina; but, frankly, she was getting bored.
Then, she smelled it; the unmistakable acrid aroma of UCE tobacco. Illegal as hell for a hundred years, but making a comeback, thanks to the No-Borders’ smuggling. She sniffed again, risked a glance off the sphere to locate the direction. There, at the rear. She saw a door.
And Rupert, the beautifully cruel man from the bar, was exiting through it.
Abruptly, she stood. Behind her she heard the click of assorted weapons. Slowly, she pulled her hands out of the controls and conceded the game, accompanied by the gasps, then silence, of the encroaching audience. She glanced at the field. Oh, hell, she’d been six slashes away from a win.
But, the law came first. “You win, lover.” She leaned over and gave a thorough kiss to the shell-shocked Bart.
Never let it be said a Mountie reneged on a bargain.
But, her hand resting on his pressed into the nerves at his wrist, causing him to gasp in pain. His fingers would be powerful sore the next few minutes. She whispered, “Never give me bad data again. Or call me chica.”
She released him, then slipped through the crowd, who swarmed around Bart with congratulations. On the far side of the back door, she paused in the empty hall and exercised the kinks from her wrists and fingers. Her shoulder still felt like hell.
At least the caffeine was working her system. When her hands were limber, she drew her hat from her pocket, unfolded it, activated the nano-fed stiff, narrow brim, and then set it atop her head. Official at last.
The tobacco law had been on the books for more than a hundred years, one of the first of the border laws. After the bioterror agents’ release in Toronto, the hospitals and Health Canada were overwhelmed with caring for those victims. Health problems from optional behavior like smoking had seemed a luxury Canada couldn’t afford and UCE tobacco was banned. With each passing year since, the border laws had strengthened.
Day liked it that way, but even if she’d been a No-Border; she’d still be here. Agree or not, a Mountie enforced the law, not debated it.
Cautiously, she advanced down the plush, cold passage, her cloud of breath leading the way. The tiled hall was lined with polymer sculptures and splotch-color art. The hall twisted past some rooms, none of which radiated that distinct odor, all of which were empty when she checked them. The hall doubled back before it ended at an exit. The odor was stronger here.
A sound from behind caught her attention. Footsteps? She paused, head cocked, listening and smelling, annoyed that her heart tripped against her ribs. All she could hear came from the bar she’d just left - music vibrations, talk, the ping of games. Must have been the echo of her boots.
That left outside.
The door opened smooth and silent into a private courtyard. Used for clandestine trysts she guessed from the profusion of pornographic statues, their wire lovers twisted into kama sutra contortions. A narrow tributary of Thunder Creek bisected the courtyard, and behind the thicket of trees lining the banks, she heard indistinct voices. She wound closer until she nudged against a pile of white boxes. Staying in the shadows, keeping one eye on the four men talking and smoking, she crouched down and opened one box. One sniff and taste of the dried leaf inside confirmed her guess. Prime UCE tobacco, ready for rolling and banned for over a hundred years.
This just went from a minor smoking bust and a few coins fine to dealing. Still a misdemeanor, but the fines were heftier.
She wrapped a handful of leaves in her scarf, then pocketed it. Arrest by a Mountie was a conviction, but a little physical evidence never hurt.
The murmur of conversation sharpened in front of her, but so far the four men hadn’t spotted her. No weapons in hand, she noticed. They’d have to take a part of a second to draw on her. If they were so inclined. Most tobacco busts were smooth. You arrested them; they paid their fine before the court, and that was it.
Still, she drew her weapon-the mere sight of a Distazer eliminated a lot of pointless bravado and resistance. Long, slow breaths, five of them, gave her oxygen and focus, as she visualized the action plan, then she straightened her hat firmly on her head and stood. The odor of burning tobacco stung her nose, and a smoky haze clung to the air. She pressed back a cough and strode forward.
“Evening, gentlemen. That’s an illegal substance you’re smoking there. Lay down the cigs and put up your hands real slow.”
“Shit, a Mountie,” snarled one as they sprang apart.
What happened to surrender? Already this was off plan. She skimmed a line of warning fire, close enough to tingle the hairs on their arms. “Stop! Don’t move, except to stretch ‘em high. Last warning.”
Halifaxing Hell, they kept circling, and they were pulling out weapons. Training kicked in with the dregs of caffeine. Ducking behind the nearest bush, she blasted one in the sciatic, one on the shoulder before he could finish throwing a lethal laser dagger. The dagger clattered uselessly to the ground. She got the third in the elbow, and he cursed as his arm flopped nerveless to his side.
A rustle of leaves sounded behind her. She whirled. Rupert! Must have heard her coming and circled. She dove, and the deadly beam aimed at her heart sliced the tree instead. Rolling behind a marble pedestal holding a six-foot glass phallus, she pulled her second Distazer, upped the power on both, and slashed with stunning fire, aiming for the pings coming from both directions, getting one.
“Back up!” she scratched into her comm. “Five shooters in the Flash Point courtyard.”
Three smokers and the unseen Rupert scrambled for cover, still armed and firing. The night shook with silent energy blasts. The fourth smoker tossed the tobacco leaf into Thunder Creek.
What were they doing out here? This misdemeanor bust had gone loco.
One smoker ate the dirt, but she didn’t bother to celebrate. That still left two, plus Rupert, and they weren’t taking turns in coming after her. Panting, she spared a glance for her guns and swore. Half charged. There hadn’t been enough sunlight to recharge the Graetzel cells.
The sculpture above her shattered. Day ducked and rolled. The hat protected her face, but glass shards sliced and stabbed her arms and nape. Threw off her aim, too, but she didn’t stop firing blind into the night. All that kept them back was her resistance.
An enemy blast hit her elbow, paralyzing her wrist and hand. Number two gun dropped. Blood-her blood- dripped onto the handle. Where had they moved? She held fire. Sweat blinded her as she tried to see how the opponents placed. Her side arm beeped a low power warning.
The fourth smoker finished dumping the leaf, then disappeared, probably circling her. The other two smokers had used her pause to creep forward. Before she could pick one off, a man burst in to view. Lian, the bartender. Great, now she had a civilian to worry about.
“Get ba-.” The warning died in her throat. This civilian was packing one of the sweetest looking Distazers she’d ever seen.
Coolly, he picked off the closest smoker.
Fine looking gun and he knew how to use it.
“Day?” he called, ducking back behind the covering of trees.
He knew her name?
“Nah,” and just to prove it, she brought down the third smoker.
That left the leaf tosser and Rupert, who’d shattered the glass phallus and walloped the nerves in her arm.
Before she could shout a warning, Rupert shot at the bartender--who avoided being hit only with an athletic sideways leap. She got in one shot before her gun powered off, but it was enough to keep Rupert from finishing the deed. She scrambled for her second gun, hoping it still had power, as the reckless bartender raced forward in attack.
Rupert must have decided the odds were no longer in his favor, for she saw his shadow join his companion’s in a race toward the rear of the courtyard. Day followed. From the corner of her eye she saw Lian run a quick perimeter, making sure the downed smokers were all still out of commission and wouldn’t be launching sniper attacks, then he followed her out into the cold, still night of Moose Jaw.
Just in time to see Rupert and companion disappear down into the ancient tunnels beneath the city.
“Stay here,” she commanded Lian, the civilian. “You were lucky before; you could have gotten hurt. My RCMP backup with be here in a nano.”
He nailed her with a hard glance, and for the first time she felt at a dangerous disadvantage. Bleeding, right hand still useless, shoulder on fire, one gun out of power.
“You were outmanned.” he snarled, as he squeezed through the opening in the wooden slats and plunged down into the tunnels, reputed to have once been a haven for smugglers.
Day scrambled down the creaking wooden steps into the first dirt-packed cellar in pursuit. At the bottom, she choked down a cough. The tunnels, a labyrinth of dirt walls and storage cellars, smelled of mold, rat droppings, and disuse.
“I was bringing them down,” she whispered, making a swift reconnoiter to be sure Rupert didn’t look to ambush them from behind one of the barrels.
“Especially the one aiming for your heart.” Lian scanned the other half of the room.
“I had a plan. Lian, get back topside. You’re not authorized. You shouldn’t be here -”
For a moment, his radiating fury was almost palpable, then the hardness in him morphed to a mocking grin. “Could you at least say thanks for speeding along the plan?”
Fine looking weapon. Fine looking man, she realized abruptly, and she’d bet he knew how to use that asset, too.
“Quarry went down here, Day.” Lian disappeared into one of the branching tunnels.
She turned on her narrow beam light, then caught up to him in the narrow tunnel, Distazer pointing straight at his shoulder blade. “How’d you know my name was Day?”
“Day Daniels, I’m Lian Firebird.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Point that Distazer some where useful. I’m your new partner.”