Beware the company of dragons, for you are crunchy, and good with ketchup. ó stole this one from the author who quoted it from someone, whoóno doubtóstole it from somebody else . . .

A Night at Pinkís
by Brandon Hill ©2008


"So howís the pot roast?" Jackie asked.

"Should be called 'rot roast.'"

"Hamburgers?"

"You really want me to make a pun of that?"

Jackie exhaled, long and loud, not bothering to hide her exasperation. She then put down the menu and glanced to her right and left furtively, scanning the restaurantís scant guest numbers; none human besides herself and Kate. "So, is there anything good, or did you just bring me here to gross me out?"

"Hey, Iím doing this for your last favor," Kate said. "We could always stop."

"Thatís not what I meant." The tiny white beads at the ends of Jackieís cornrow braids rattled as she shook her head. "Itís just that this place is way out in B.F.E., not to mention on the Bridge, and you canít even tell me whatís good?"

"Try the eggs," Kate said.

"Eggs?" Jackie said. Her expression switched from incredulity to dismay. "Thatís it? Just the eggs?"

"Theyíre good eggs," Kate answered, and flashed a faint smile.

Jackie grumbled something nigh inaudible, and then buried her face back into the menu.

"I guess youíve been here before," she said after a long moment of silence.

"Of course."

"Why do you like it here, then? I mean, itís on the Bridge!"

"What do you have against the Bridge?" Kate asked, and frowned. "Donít tell me youíre spooked by off-planers. Thatís not a healthy mindset to have in our line of work, you know."

"No, itís not that. Itís justÖ" Jackieís voice trailed off.

"Youíd think that a person with your job would deal better with off-planers," Kate said. "Manís folly for screwing with the fabric of the universe. Theyíre not just going to go away, you know."

"I told you, thatís not it!" Jackie snapped, careful not to raise her voice. Her whisper became a sharp hiss.

"Iím sure," Kate said blandly. "So what is it, then?"

"Iím just curious about why you like this place so much," Jackie said. The décor, a mix of green and white striped wallpaper bordering yellowing sheetrock, all held together by thin plywood panels and plascrete sealant seemed just as cobbled together as any of the structures on the Bridge, but in a curiously well-kept way. Though the table had more than a few graffiti and carvings on its surface, the tableware was clean, the menus were pristine, and there were rows of photographs neatly lined up in wooden frames on the yellowing sheet rock walls. "I mean, itís not much to look at, and the food sucks, so why bother?"

"History."

Jackie gave Kate a blank stare.

"The Yellow Snowmen, D-Stroy, and Cornucopia," Kate said, pointing towards the nearest row of photos, catty-corner to their booth. "This place has been host to some of my favorite bands. I used to hang out here with Stacie and Tex before I joined the League, back when I was still working at Cybersoft. Theyíd have indie cover groups here every Saturday night; I loved Ďem. Too bad the new management shut it down." She pointed towards a small stage on the restaurantís far side, obscured in darkness that had not seen light in years. Its curtains were dingy and laced with cobwebs, and the floorboards were buckling. "Guess he didnít think rockers attracted the demographic he wanted. Heís suffering for it now; people sure as hell didnít come here for the food."

Jackie made a tiny cough. "Well, well, girlfriend, I didnít think you were a rock chick. For some reason, you donít strike me as that type."

"Oh?" Kate said, raising an eyebrow. "What did I strike you as?"

"You looked more like a classical music girl to me," Jackie said. "You know, Mozart and krid like that?"

"I like that as well," Kate admitted with a nod. "Iím just not picky with music. But I guess Iím a rocker at heart. Hell, I wanted to be a singer when I was a kid."

"A singer?" Jackie said, amused. "Now that I can imagine."

"Really?" Kate said.

"You got the look down pat."

Kate laughed as she watched Jackieís eyes scan her clothing, a blue cotton blouse over old black jeans. These looked more like thrift store duds than any of the hyper-stylish to gaudy apparel of holo-stars. Her looks were exotic, attributing to the Asian heritage on her motherís side; but only modestly so, surely not camera material.

Then Jackie gestured towards a photo of a band on the opposite wall. One of the trio was a tall, muscular black man with a keyboard slung across his back; the second, the bassist, was an off-planer with gold skin and a crown of horns that grew from his scalp; the third was a woman in black denim jeans and jacket that she left unzipped to reveal a leather bustier, also black. She had a guitar proudly in her arms. Her dark hair was cropped and styled into wisps with soft purple highlights, so different from Kateís thick, bodiless ebony mop. There was a mischievous light in her eyes as she half-smiled.

"You look like her, as a matter of fact" Jackie said, glancing at the picture and then back towards Kate. "Come to think of it, you look a lot like her."

Kate twisted around to view the picture more closely. "You think so?" She said. "Well, Iím flattered."

Jackie nodded. "Um, who is she, by the way?"

"No freakiní way!" Kate twisted back around and slammed her hands on the tabletop, startling a few of the nearby restaurant guests. "I had to have told you about Ambush!"

"IÖ gather you like Ďem?" Jackie said, taken aback by Kateís unexpected gush.

"You better believe it. I used to come here whenever they had a concert. Iíd sneak out of the house and get in on my looksÖ if you know what I mean."

Jackie licked her dry lips, her face froze into an ambivalent grimace. "You used to whore yourself out to see a rock group?" It sounded more like a statement than a question

"Yeah," Kate said. "I was with the bandÖ all of them."

Kate noticed that Jackieís normally chocolate colored skin had actually turned pale.

Kate sat silent and straight-faced for a moment more, inviting Jackie to almost buy into her statement. At last, a half-smile broke out on her face. It broadened; she squeezed her eyes shut, and shook in barely-contained laughter.

"Aw!" Jackie feigned throwing a silverware roll, and then snorted. "Well then, it looks like you saved me from giving you too much credit."

"You mean youíre actually disappointed that I didnít whore myself out for a concert?" Kate asked.

"Forget it," Jackie said, waving dismissively. "But still, you do look like that chick in the photo."

"Chevroness."

"Who?"

"Thatís her name," Kate said, gesturing casually towards the painting. "Her stage name, at least. But youíre right; I do kinda look like her. Iím surprised I never noticed it before."

"You two could be related, to tell the truth," Jackie said, giving the picture a more studious stare. "Her hairís shorter, not quite as thick, and her nose is longer, but not as close to her mouth as yours. Thatís about it."

A strange look came over Kateís face. It was brief and vague, almost like a grimace. It passed, but not before Jackie noticed it. "Something wrong?" She said.

"Itís nothing." Kate shook her head. "Just a thought."

"Penny for it," Jackie said.

"I said itís nothing," Kate said, more forcefully.

"Okay, okay," Jackie said, raising her hands in a warding gesture. "Geez, donít bite my head off." She checked her watch. "You know, we ought to order. You gotta be at work soon, right?"

"Not for another hour," Kate said, removing her credplate from her wallet. She placed it into the slot on the wall beside the table and made her choice from the selections that appeared on the touch screen above it. "Besides, weíre on the Bridge." She pointed to the windows by the restaurantís entrance. Beyond the Bridgeís stainless steel girders, the League Pyramid loomed above the harbor and the skyline. "HQís just a straight shot across the highway."

"Yeah, but it takes a good fifteen minutes for you to get your uniform on, let alone synch with all the nano-crap in it, right?" Jackie mulled over her own meal decision for a moment longer, and then sulked while she finally punched in her choice.

"Geez, whatíd you order?" Kate said in a sympathetic tone. "The look on your face was like you went and asked for the chili."

Again, Jackie blanched. "Oh, GodÖ I did ask for the chili."

"Toilet paperís a blessing and a curse," Kate said, pursing her lips, "and youíll be finding that out before the dayís done."

"That bad, huh?" Jackie said.

"Well, I did tell you to stick with the eggs," Kate answered. "But then again, you probably donít have that much to worry about. I mean, when they hook you up to your console, donít you have a catch tube installed in yourÖ?"

"It can overload if Iím sick," Jackie said.

"I doubt youíll get that sick," Kate replied. "Iíve seen you eat stuff a vacuum cleaner wonít. Not to mention Iím one of the few people whoís actually seen you eat. Most of the folks back at HQ think you spend your life hooked up to the mainframeís systems, with the computers just socking the food to your veins."

"Is that a fact?" Jackie said.

"You sound surprised."

"Well, it ainít all that shocking, come to think of it," Jackie mused aloud. "After all, I do run some long hours there. And I gotta admit, being on the I-Link is hella more exciting than the real world."

"I resent that," Kate said. "The real worldís my jurisdiction after all . . . well, mostly."

"And there are folks at HQ who think that you enforcers donít ever take your uniforms off," Jackie remarked with a broad grin, "but I know better."

"Well, itís easier to leave it on," Kate said. When she nodded, it seemed sad, almost grave. "But I donít. I think the others are crazy to do it."

"Whyís that?" Jackie said. "The stuff Iíve seen you do with it over the security cams-"

"So now youíre a voyeur?" Kate said, eyeing Jackie curiously.

"Hey! Thatís not what I meant," Jackie snapped.

"I know." Kate made a soft laugh. "I couldnít help it. You left yourself wide open for that one."

"Well, I meant it," Jackie said. "The krid you can do with that suit sometimes makes me want to become an enforcer myself."

"You like what you do too much," Kate said, shaking her head. "ĎSides, itís not as easy as it looks."

"What could be so tough about it, besides the training?" Jackie asked.

Again, Kate fixed her with an odd gaze, covered just as quickly as before.

"If you only knew," she said.

"Knew what?"

"Trainingís the easy part," Kate replied. "But the synchingÖ Thatís something else entirely. Iíve seen men, bigger and stronger than me, lose their minds."

She stared at her open, empty right hand. Beads of condensation still clung to her skin from the glass of iced tea she had been nursing from when they first arrived. She flexed her fingers once, as if testing to see if they were real. "Itís like having to learn how to control new limbs, like having an infinite supply of arms and legs. They load your nervous system up with so many bionics just to make it a part of yourself, you begin to wonder if your every move will start going with a sound effect. Some peopleÖ they didnít take well to the synching. It unbalances them mentally for a time; someÖ they justÖ"

Her voice trailed off.

Jackie was silent.

"Just be glad you didnít have to go through that," Kate said. "At least all your implants were voluntary. And most of the stuff you do in the I-Link is automatic." She glanced at Jackie, again with her curious stare. "So, you still want to join the family?"

"WellÖ you gave me a lot to think about; thatís for sure," Jackie said. She gave a nervous laugh.

"Getting cold feet now, Jacks?" Kate said. "Thatís not like you."

Jackie shook her head resolutely. "No, not really. Itís just a bit more than I thought, is all."

"You know, having a suit that becomes an extension of you isnít the only plus about being an enforcer," Kate said.

"It isnít?" Jackie said.

Discreetly, Kateís hand went to the CANCEL icon on the ordering screen.

"Another thing is the obscene amount of tech weíre hooked up to, like detection software," Kate said. "Itís designed to search for just about anything, you know. Hidden people, places, things, I-Link anomalies, illegal gatewaysÖ" Her metallic gray eyes locked dead onto Jackieís large brown ones. "Brain ridersÖ"

Kate had barely finished the last word when Jackie sprang from her seat. But Kate moved with near-invisible speed. In a fraction of a second, Jackie was slammed back against her seat, held securely by the neck against the wall by a pair of black tendrils. The projections grew from the sleeve of Kateís blouse Ėnow distended and sheathing her hand and forearm in blackĖ, wrapped double around Jackieís neck, and impaled into the boothís wall, at first soft and malleable as leather, and then solid as steel.

"Donít make a scene," Kate said. "Youíll scare the civvies, and Iíll have to inject you with some of my own nanos. You know the rest, I think: Youíll go night-night with Jackie, stuck in that body, and then the League techies will have to pry you out. That means tracing you, and going through all the legal krid that I hate. Worst part is youíll be executed for hacking a League operative. So why donít you just come on out of there and save me a lot of boring paperwork?"

"Not if I kill her first," "Jackie" said, and made a sneering, smart aleck grin . "I could stop her heart if I wanted."

"Donít flatter yourself," Kate said. "We both know you wonít do it. And even if you did, donít think that Iíd stop you. Jackie made a commitment to the League, the same as me. She knew what that would mean, just as well as I do."

"You donít have theÖ"

She froze in mid-sentence. Her eyes went wide, and then rolled up into her head. A small trickle of blood ran down her neck from the enfolding layers of tendrils.

"You were saying something?" Kate said. "Kinda uncomfortable for you, isnít it? I can make them sharper if you like, but then I think youíd be suffering from a bad case of Ďlook, ma, no headí syndrome."

Kate dulled the edges, and Jackie relaxed.

"Well, it looks like you got it all figured out, huh?" The quality of her voice wasnít like the Jackie that Kate knew. It was hollow, more direct, and mocking. There was no question as to the type of presence that managed to subsume her friend.

"Now I know what you are," Kate said. "Scared kridless one moment, talking krid the next; you sure act like a hacker."

"Youíre perceptive. Howíd you guess it so fast?"

"Like you said, Iím perceptive." Kate said with a shrug. "Jackie knows that I donít take the suit off until my days off. Sheís not that much into small talk; she likes to keep it down to important stuff. Also, she knows more about my past than I do, and never lets me forget it. She also hates it when I call her ĎJacks.í Oh yeah, and when I told her about Ambush, she knows that I donít gush like some airhead teeny-bopper."

"Wow, man, it sure looks like I screwed up," the hacker said, still eerily confident. "Not that it matters. I didnít get much from you, but it was enough."

"Data mining?" Kate said. "You couldíve just tapped the source. What happened? League mainframe was too much for you? No chance of you telling me what company you work for, I guess."

"Iím not working for a company," the hacker answered. "And hereís another surprise: Iím not exactly what youíd really call a Ďhacker.í"

"So what are you, then?" Kate said, feeling her patience beginning to slip. ThisÖ whatever she was, was definitely fond of talking, but was telling her nothing. And her own scans gave her a big goose egg, save for the presence of a rider.

"I alone am not your worry," the presence said. "But my colleagues have a great interest in the LeagueÖ specifically its defenses. You were my primary target, as a matter of fact. But we underestimated the defenses in your suitís man-machine interface. Youíve got some really badass krid on you, but your friend was a bit too easy to get into. So I just used her to get what I needed from you."

"I didnít give you anything sensitive," Kate said. "Any monkey can get the stuff I said off the I-Link."

"General stuff," the presence said, "not specifics, which you did give me. Like just how hard it is to synch with your nanos. That ring a bell?"

"One whole thing," Kate said dryly.

"Small steps, is what I call it," the presence replied. There was no arrogance in the voice, no swagger, but plenty of salt. "Not to mention the fact that we did find a weakness in the Leagueís defenses. Good olí flawed humans. What díyou say to that?" "Give us time," Kate said, and smiled. "You know you canít sting us in the same place twice."

"Maybe we donít want to," the presence said. "Maybe weíll just rest satisfied that the League isnít perfect."

"Whatíve you got against the League anyway?" Kate said, more curious than frustrated. "Theyíre the reason why humans still exist on this planet anyway, and why all of creation wasnít just turned into some giant jigsaw puzzle. Are you even faintly aware of the dangers of screwing around with dimensions?"

The presence laughed Ėnot mocking, only amused.

"Typical of League dogs: bred to think weíre all stupidÖ that we couldnít possibly know, that we couldnít ever fully appreciate, what it is you do. Tell me, enforcer, how can we not, when the League never lets us forget it? If itís one thing you do well, itís keep the propaganda wheels turning."

Kate was silent. Against her better judgment, she tasted the words the brain-rider and realized that in the back of her mind, even though they were the banter of a common thug, they made sense.

"Your eyes are opening," the presence said. Jackieís face made a knowing grin. Kate replied with a sour look.

"Good; you didnít insult my intelligence by denying it," the presence said. "That means youíre smarter than most."

"Am I really, now?" Kate said flatly. "Maybe I just called for backup."

"Maybe you did, but I wonít be around for that long."

"I firewalled Jackieís bionics when my blades cut you," Kate said. "Youíre not going anywhere."

Again, the presence laughed. "Ever arrogant, eh? You League types really are all cut from the same mold! Weíre not without our own resources, and some of us are just damn good." Jackieís body sighed. "But now youíre starting to bore me. And this bodyís getting a crick in its neck, so Iíll be going now."

"Excuse me?" Kate said, half in disbelief. Was this brain-rider stupid or was he or she really that good? League firewalls were supposed to be impossible to break. "Yes, enforcer chick," the presence said with a wink. "Iím just that goodÖ better than you, even. Oh, and just to prove itÖ"

A jolt of electricity cut through Kateís forearm: a spear of pure pain tearing through her fingertips, down through the knuckles, wrists and into her elbow. Her muscles hardened reflexively as she yelped and pulled it back, the force of the shock knocking her against the back of the seat. The tendrils from her uniform buckled and went limp, unfastening themselves from Jackieís neck.

Jackieís eyes un-focused then shut. She slumped down, and fell limply into the booth.

Kate groaned, and righted herself, grasping her wrist and swearing. Her vision refocused and she squeezed the remaining tears from her eyes. She looked across the restaurant, and was relieved to find that no one had noticed what went on. Jackie, however, had collapsed sideways in the booth. Ignoring the lingering pain and numbness in her arm, she hopped out of her seat and went to her side. Seeing the small gash in her neck, she took several napkins from the holder, and pressed them against the wound. She tried to use her suit to inject her with repair nanobots, but the shock had overloaded her systems. Her biocomp was still trying to compensate. Even the tendrils from her suit hadnít retracted. They hung flaccidly from her fingertips, slowly sagging across the surface of the table and seat like caramelized ink.

"Jackie, speak to me!" Kate said, tapping her on the right cheek. "You still in there?"

Jackieís eyes fluttered, and then went wide as they focused on her.

"You remember who I am?" Kate said.

"ĎCourse I do," Jackie said, sounding almost offended. "Youíre the grand duchess of Gaia, come for tea."

Kate grimaced, but was surprised at how it seemed that nothing had happened. "Itís you all right. But I think that rider made your sense of humor even lamer."

"You know, if my head didnít feel like it had a baby, Iíd hit you," Jackie said.

"My point."

Jackie sat up and winced. She took the napkins from Kate and pressed them hard against her neck. "Gawd, whatíd you do, girl? Try to cut my head off or something?"

"You had a brain-rider in you," Kate said. "How much do you remember?"

"Bits and pieces. It happened yesterday, back at work, when I was still hooked up to the mainframe. He mustíve been waiting for me in the system. How he hacked so deep, though, thatís something Iíd like to know." She glanced around. "So we came here to eat?"

"Not anymore," Kate said, helping Jackie to her feet. "You can walk? Itís almost time to be at work."

"Youíre kidding!" Jackie said in dismay.

"Donít get that way with me," Kate answered as her biocomp finished rebooting. Hurriedly, she made a scan for the brain-rider, and then relaxed. She was clean. "I just saved your cyberized assÖ not to mention my pride." She discreetly retracted the tendrils. "ĎSides, youíre probably in for a little time at the infirmary, probably a CAT scan too. Iím pretty sure youíre clean, but I wonít be completely satisfied until I make sure that rider didnít leave anything behind."

Jackieís stomach growled as she righted herself and headed out, supported by Kate on her right side. "Aw, man! And I gotta eat the food at the HQ cafeteria!" She groaned miserably.

"Trust me," Kate said. "Itís a step up from this place."

"Then whyíd you come here?" Jackie said.

"Never mind. We had this conversation before."

x x x

Actually, I donít think that it isóthe end, I mean. Jackie and Kate are far too interesting as characters to leave like this. And this hard sci-fi gem begs for another chapter or two. How about it, Brandon HillóAKA Brandon Victorian? Gonna give us more? Your answer is welcome hereóas long as itís yes. -GM
x x x




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