Animated conversations rang out from all corners of Sylvia’s cafe, occasionally drowned out by a clap of thunder. Better in here than slowly disintegrating out in the rain, Kit thought.
She glanced across the table at Kenji. It had been difficult making conversation, as though they were complete strangers. But Kit supposed in this context they were. At least she didn’t feel quite as self-conscious about her nervousness anymore. Kenji looked like he might break underneath the brave facade. He was doing a decent job of hiding it; she’d had to sneak a glance astrally to know for certain.
She couldn’t be sure, but it looked like he was trying to hide a foul taste in his mouth as he sipped the soykaf. “Don’t like it?” Kit asked.
“No, no.. it’s .. it’s good.” Kenji said.
“You don’t have to lie, man,” Kit said with a smile.
“I’m not lying, well, not really. I don’t want to insult or offend you. I know you like this stuff. But to be perfectly honest, it’s.. ahh… well kind of bitter.”
“Pshh,” Kit waved dismissively. “You’re not gonna offend me. I get it. Sylvia ran outta the good stuff and now we’re back to cheap ass soykaf.” She brightened before he could clarify. “Say, I picked this up the other day while I was out. Check it: this is one of those module things that I could use to check out VR, right?” Kit held up a little black box, just smaller than a lighter.
Kenji chuckled. He could tell from a glance that it was some off-brand piece of garbage. “I think that thing is trying to be a sim rig. But it is doing a pretty poor job of it,” he said with another chuckle.
“Ok. So let’s you and me go find a better one. And I know a place that’s got real honest-to-drek coffee. If you wanna check it out after we hit the store?” Kit said.
The shop looked so barren. Kit was used to places like the Stuffer Shack. But one couldn’t buy the kind of equipment she wanted at a Stuffer Shack, apparently. She handed Kenji her credstick. “You’re the expert. Find me something decent.” Before long Kenji was looking over things Kit couldn’t see. He approached the elf manning the counter and they exchanged some tech-talk Kit didn’t understand.
“Oh yeah,” she said and approached the counter. “I need a good commlink too,” she muttered to Kenji. “The last one was a Transys Avalon, but y’know, use your best judgment.” She trailed off and looked askance at the elf before turning to watch the street outside in astral space in order to avoid looking clueless.
After a while, Kenji walked over to her. “All right, we’re good,” Kenji said and opened the bag. Kit glanced in to see a commlink, a headband with some trodes built in, and a tiny little black rectangle. She pursed her lips. “I don’t see a difference, but I trust you.” She smiled at Kenji. “Now let’s go get some coffee.”
The pair climbed a wide, well-lit staircase.
“Is this one of those hidden, members-only clubs or something?” Kenji asked.
“I suppose, in a way.” They rounded a corner off the landing. Kit smiled and produced a key. She unlocked and opened the door to her left.
“Oh…” Kenji said. Kit turned to lead the way inside the apartment right about the time his blush started, for which he was immensely grateful.
Kit placed the bag on the couch and stepped up to a kitchen counter. She grabbed a bag out of the freezer and the sound of whirring soon filled the apartment, soon replaced by the rich scent of brewing coffee.
Kenji looked around the apartment. The place was large, with high ceilings, hardwood floors, brick walls, and enormous windows overlooking the traffic on Fourth Avenue. The lights from the buildings beyond Fourth were just starting to outshine the waning late afternoon sun. He stepped up to one of the windows and looked out. “This view is pretty swag.”
Kit busied herself finding clean mugs amidst the chaos that was her cupboard. It wasn’t hard: she owned three cups. “Thanks,” she said. “It’s pretty posh for a punk like me,” she added with a laugh. “I’m gonna miss the place in a way.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Kenji spied a bed on the other side of the room. His thoughts drifted back to when he doctored up Kit and she was down to her skivvies..
Kit slid the cupboard door shut and called over her shoulder, “How do you like it?”
“Um..,” Kenji said with a gulp, “to be honest.. I.. ah, have never done this kinda thing before.” He paused. “How do you like it?”
“What?” Kit asked without turning, a bag of sugar in her hand. “You’ve never had real coffee? Ok, well… then I guess I’ll just surprise you.” She dumped two large spoonfuls of sugar into each mug and stirred them vigorously. “Aw, drek,” she muttered as coffee sloshed over the sides.
She carried the ceramic cups emblazoned with cartoon characters over to the sitting area. She set them down on a chipped glass table where the coffee running down the sides quickly made a small pool around each. “All right, let’s see what we got,” she said, and tipped the bag upside down. The equipment tumbled onto the couch cushion.
Kenji took the headband and put it on Kit’s head, gingerly pressing the trodes onto her temples.
“Okay. Lie back,” he said and grinned. “Here we go.”
———–Kenji and Kit go to the Matrix————
The apartment slipped away, as if someone were turning down the color and light at once. A thicker shade of black replaced the black somehow, and far sharper color and light than those she’d just left shone out from icons all over. There was her commlink and her tridset (the icon told her it was recording a repeat of “Battle Bikes All Star Bout” from ’73). She’d forgotten she was recording that: she had wanted to see just what exactly Fraguire did for a living. There was her coffeemaker, fridge, oven, alarm clock… and a happy-looking creature made entirely of puffy white rolls. It wore a sailor’s hat, blue denim collar, and a red neckerchief. “Hey, Kit – It’s Kenji,” the creature said.
Suddenly, banners and flyers sprouted up all around. One of them chastised Kit for not going downstairs to Reno’s Happy Hour in over a month: didn’t she need a break? Another was from Card Services, warning her that her interest rate could be lowered. Yet another told her she looked nova hot today, but she could do even better if she just stopped by Miss Marguerite’s during their 30%-off sale. More and more flew past and around, threatening to block out her vision.
“Wait – what the frag?” Kit said.
“Here, Kit – hang on. Lemme mark your commlink,” Kenji said from behind the din.
“Sure, whatever!” she said, batting ineffectually at the adverts. She wondered briefly whether she had hands with which to bat at them, when all at once, they faded and disappeared. The sailor man dusted his hands off and said, “There. That’s better.”
Kit exhaled, then regarded the sailor with a raised eyebrow. “It’s my persona,” he continued. “You have one too, and you can change it to whatever you want. Wanna be a fox?” The puffed sailor/Kenji man flashed her a grin.
“What do I look like now?” Kit asked.
The sailor hat tipped to one side as he looked her over. “Well, you’re… blank: it’s a brand-new commlink. We’ll have to reboot you to change it. But you can look. Just think about a mirror.”
She thought about a mirror, and a mirror materialized, floating in space in front of her. The reflection looking back at her was a pale blue three-dimensional silhouette of a person. “Holy frag! That’s creepy as drek!” she said, recoiling from the image. The mirror disappeared.
Kenji laughed. “You can change it. Let me show you.” he said.
“Sure, do whatever you need to do. I’m lucky I can tell my coffeemaker to do its job at the same time each day.”
A tiny chest of drawers appeared. The top drawer opened, and a collection of characters flew out and stood before her in a ring. They slowly paraded around in a circle, the front-most character larger and more vibrant than those farther behind it. There were anthropomorphized animals, cartoon characters, manga characters, a princess, a spaceman, a cowboy… the list seemed never-ending as he scrolled through. “See anything you like?”
“Can I just be me?” Kit asked.
“Sure. You can be nearly anything you want, as long as its metahuman sized.” The ring of characters slid back into the chest of drawers and it disappeared. “So we’re gonna have to do a soft reboot. You’ll come up outta VR and back down, ok? Ready?”
“Hang on,” Kit said quickly. The puffed sailor man looked at her questioningly. “Gimme a fox tail, too,” she said with a grin.
Kenji grinned and nodded. The Matrix faded to black around her, then smoothly back to where they just were, the icons glowing garishly all around her.
She conjured up a mirror, saw herself, then turned and gave her orange and white fox tail a flick. “Nice!” she said. “All right, gimme the tour.”
“Okay, so these are our personas. You’ve seen the adverts, I’ve filtered them out for you. Those are icons,” he said, motioning toward the appliances. They’re for anything active on the Matrix, like your trid there, your commlink, stuff like that. Those,” he said, pointing up, “and those,” pointing out toward the virtual horizon “are hosts.”
Kit looked up and saw, floating in the green expanse of sky, the most impressive collection of architecture she’d ever seen. Ziggurats, spheres, columned facades, all adorned with and among corporate logos glittered in the sky like massive jewels. Farther down toward and on the ground, other, smaller structures sat. Kit recognized a Stuffer Shack she frequented, exactly where it was supposed to be, a thought that gave her pause: she wasn’t sure the direction she was facing here was the direction she’d been facing on the couch.
“C’mon,” Kenji said, and he floated up into the sky. Kit goggled, then considered the desire to fly, much as she had considered a mirror earlier, and she floated up to meet him. “This is kickass,” she said.
Kenji grinned and motioned at something Kit couldn’t see. “Wherever data travels, it leaves datastreams. See them? They’re those beams of light.”
“No. Not seeing beams of light.”
“Oh, hang on… There. See them now?”
Threads of multicolored light faded into view, whizzing around in all directions. “Whoa. Yeah – it makes me think of how the world looks when you’re traveling in astral space, except everything looks like that instead of just beams of it.”
“Here, see that over there?” He gestured to a host near the ground that looks like a multi-sided structure made entirely of woven metal. She recognized it instantly.
“Hey, isn’t that the library?” she asked.
“Yeah. Think yourself over there at the front doors.”
She did, and she was. A figure popped in beside her a moment later. It was a librarian character from some popular kid’s trid from a little under a decade ago. She didn’t recognize it from having watched it; she recognized it from his being on t-shirts she found at the thrift store. She turned her head to the side and regarded him. “Kenji?”
“Yep,” he said with a smile. “Just so you know, most hosts don’t look like the buildings do in real life.”
A message appeared, floating in mid-air, that invited them to have their library cards scanned. Kit frowned, and after a beat, a button appeared titled “I don’t have a library card.” She pressed it. At that, a pair of buttons appeared: one that read “Enter as Guest,” and “Register now.” She chose the former and the doors opened. They walked in.
The room was enormous. People flitted here and there between stacks that floated everywhere the eye could see. On the floor were a registration desk and a bank of terminals. The patrons looking through the stacks made sweeping motions with their hands that turned an invisible lazy-susan of stacks. As a stack was swept away, it disappeared, and a new one materialized in its place. Judging from the number of patrons and the size and the number of stacks they swept away, there were thousands of items here.
“… Wow,” was all Kit could manage. “I don’t even know where to start.”
“If you want, we can go somewhere a little more exciting than here,” Kenji offered hurriedly.
“Sure,” she said and they took off toward a spiral tower. She was grateful he traveled slowly and figured it must be difficult for him to check himself around here. She wasn’t sure she could remember to not flit off at the speed of thought in astral. Just then he stopped and turned to face her. He was himself, sort of. Kenji looked like a taller, more polished version of himself in stylish, expensive-looking clothing. Kit’s breath caught when she saw little iridescent flames coming off him from all over. She inadvertently took a small step backward, willing her heart to slow down. Luckily, he didn’t seem to notice her reaction. “N-nice!” she tried to say quite earnestly. He did look nice – mostly.
“Thanks. Say, you head up there,” he motioned to the top of the tower. “Here.” He handed her what looked like a credstick. She stretched her arm a little farther out than she normally would have to take it from him. “They’ll ask you for this and for your mark and you can go in. You should be good to head down to the fifth level, I think. I’ll meet you there, ok?” he said.
“Ok,” Kit said. He nodded and disappeared. She swallowed and steeled herself. Stop that, for frag’s sake – it’s not real, she told herself.
She willed herself at the top of the tower and was startled to see a demon standing in front of a pair of massive stone doors. The logo for Dante’s Inferno flickered far above. The demon held out a hand, into which Kit placed the credstick. “SIN?” it growled. “Uh..” she hesitated, then willed her SIN into her hand. Relief flooded through her when it appeared. She handed it to the demon, who gave it a cursory once-over before handing it back. He motioned for her hand, which she stuck forward. The demon stamped the back of it and waved her forward.
The doors opened with the rough sound of stone rubbing across stone, and she entered. She’d been here before, and it didn’t look much different except that it was VR and inherently… different. The layout was the same, though, and she knew that the crowds consisted of VR visitors like herself and physical space people whose images had been “pasted” into VR. Likewise, the VR visitors’ images were “pasted” into AR for the benefit of the physical space patrons.
She made her way toward a ramp and headed down three levels, past the decor of winds and storms, torrential rains, and the weight of wealth, to the fifth level. Here the decor was that of swampland. Further down, she could see the next level had a fire motif and breathed a silent sigh of relief he hadn’t chosen level six.
She scanned the crowd and found him sitting at a table. To be clear, she actually saw a line of dimly flickering arrows that lead from her to the table. Having seen AROs in AR, she figured this must have been his doing.
Walking toward his table, Kit passed a waitress who looked like she’d been drowned a few months ago. Her hair floated as if underwater, her skin was pasty and semi-transparent, and as she passed by, Kit watched in fascinated horror as a beetle crawled out of her nostril, across her cheek, and into her ear.
Kit joined Kenji at the table. “Made it,” she said. She couldn’t really look at him for more than a few moments at a time for those damned flames. She really hoped he didn’t notice. “This place is wild. How come you didn’t come in with me at the door?”
He laughed and smiled. “They, uh,” he lowered his voice to nearly a whisper, “they don’t really like my SIN here. It says I’m too young.”
Realization dawned on her face and she laughed, turning a little in her chair and scanning the crowd. “You should get that fixed. So you, uh, just…” she made some looping pointing motions with her hand. “… Got here.”
He nodded with a smile. “Want a drink?”
Kit frowned. “A drink? What?”
“Oh yeah!” he said and a flaming scroll materialized in front of each of them. Kit started with what she hoped was a barely audible gasp. It didn’t appear as though she had to hold it, but it was still too close. The heat from the flames weren’t strong but she shrunk back in her chair anyway. “Could – uh, could you order for me?”
“Oh… oh no,” Kenji said suddenly. “You’re – I…” He sighed and shook his head. “I take you to Dante’s Inferno just after you get taken out by a fireball. I am so sorry, Kit. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“No,” Kit started. “No, it’s.. It’s ok!” She tried to make her tone bright, but it just wasn’t working.
“No, I’m so sorry,” Kenji said. “I’ll.. I’ll take us out of here.”
Lights and colors rearranged themselves as they moved back into the physical world. Kit removed the headband and stared at it sheepishly. Kenji sat staring at the floor, shaking his head. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Seriously, no,” she turned and looked at him earnestly. “It’s ok. It’s my thing, I’ll get over it.” She smiled. “That really was kickass.”
“So, that’s what you do, then?” she asked. “Well, that and some other stuff? I could view it because I have this sim module. You can do that stuff, and the more fancy drek, because you’ve got a cyberdeck, right?”
Memories of his father come crashing in to him “YOU CAN TELL NO ONE”. “THEY WILL HUNT YOU”. “THEY WILL FEAR YOU”.
Visibly shaken as he has never had anybody question him point blank about his abilities, “Well it is mostly my fancy new COMMLINK” he says looking down, looking away and defiantly not making eye contact with Kit.
Quickly changing the subject “This is a really wiz place you have, it beats the drek out of the Cannery” , he smiles big looking back at Kit finally.
Kit’s spirits fell. She was really freaking him out with that fear-of-fire drek. Stop being a damned flake and act *normal* she chastised herself.
“Yeah, it is!” she said, a touch too eagerly. “It’s nice for sure. But do you know I found one of King James’s guys here once? I came home and he was sitting right there,” she indicated the couch where they sat, “waiting for me. Creeped me the frag out. So, it’s gonna be wiz to live somewhere where I know I’m safe.”
“What about you and your mom? Are you… moving somewhere else or anything?”
“No way mom would leave that house. It’s all she has left of pops, well, that and a few pictures. I want to tell her I am going to move out, but she will freak the frag out. I don’t want to put her in danger either. Not sure what to do. But I know I am putting in some very discrete security measures.
Going to talk to her about a home automation system.. with turrets and everything, but I am not going to mention the turrets”, Kenji laughs.
“Ya know, something to assess threats basically, and drop down blast shields… Notify K.E. to send an Alpha Strike Team. That kinda Drek”.
“Yeah I know Alpha strike teams don’t come to Tacoma, but they do if you put in the correct codes”. BIG GRIN on Kenji’s face
Kit’s eyes bug out. “Holy frag, that’s pretty hardcore!” Kit laughs. “You sure you should talk to her about all those mods and stuff? Maybe just give her a present of a week away at a spa or some drek, then install everything when she’s gone! I thought about doing something like that after I caught that dude here – well, I can’t do all that stuff you’re talking about, but I at least wanted to change the damn maglock, y’know?” Kit chuckles weakly. “I’m kind of glad I’m moving out.”
What the heck was Mr. King James guy doing here? Did Mr. King James even know about it? How long ago did this happen? I don’t think that kind of action is acceptable. Wow, just thinking about that is getting me worked up. Did you get this guy’s name ?
Kit smiled wanly and sighed. “He was here to offer me the job that was sort of a training run for King James, which is how I impressed him, which is how I met you all.” Her tone had a sing-songy quality to it as she listed these off. “So it was a while ago, I guess. I tried to go after him when he got into his car, but the King’s other chick, that mage? She had some spirit in there that bitch slapped me when I stuck my head in.” She flushed, obviously embarrassed by the encounter.
“But hey, I’m moving out and we got better things to talk about.” She fixed him with a grin. “You gave me a wiz tour of the Matrix… wanna see astral space?”
“YES!” he said.
———–Kenji and Kit go Astral… sort of————
Kit grinned at his enthusiasm for the idea. “Wiz. Well, okay – to be fair I can’t really take you to astral space. I mean, I could, but I won’t – I mean, I could but it would involve dealing with a free spirit and we might not be able to get back to this plane, and it’s bat-shit-crazy-dangerous… so I guess I really can’t…” She took a deep breath. “Okay. Sorry. I can show you an illusion of what astral space looks like. So, I figure, you tell me where you wanna see, I’ll project there, take a look around, come back here and show you. That okay with you? Just nowhere like inside a corp or some heavily guarded place or anything. I don’t want to bring trouble back, you know?” Kit grinned.
“Oh wow, okay..” Kenji said. “Lemme see… Well, anywhere is great!”
“Okay.. Well the places I know are my house, school, the Cannery..” He trailed off uncertainly.
“Cool. So home,” she ticked each place off on a finger, “your school, and the Cannery.” She looked up toward the ceiling as she thought, then regarded Kenji again with a smile. “And I’ll add one last stop for fun. All I need are addresses.”
Kenji gave her the addresses and she found them using the map program on her commlink. After a moment of study, she rearranged the couch pillow behind her head and reclined. “So, I’ll be out for a little bit while I get a good look around. If you need me for anything… well, you won’t be able to reach me, so -” she shook her head. “You’ll be fine. This place is safe and plus, I won’t be gone long.” Kit closed her eyes, then opened them again, shooting Kenji one last glance and a sideways smile. “No funny business while I’m out.”
The world slipped away and was replaced by a grey replica of her apartment. She couldn’t help stopping a second to regard Kenji’s aura. For the life of her, Kit could never understand why other mages thought looking at people’s emotions like this was rude. How the hell else were you supposed to know where you stood with someone? She was taken aback to see a thick terror clung to Kenji, despite the fact that it was dissipating. She was apparently scaring the crap out of him; she’d have to check herself. He wasn’t like the guys she was used to: it’s the whole reason she invited him out in the first place.
Auras and technology blurred past as she made her way first to Kenji’s house. Kit slipped in through the roof and descended to the kitchen floor to get the proper perspective on the place. She marveled at the normalcy throughout the kitchen: it didn’t look like any part of this place was neglected. It didn’t get much more normal than this. As if she were a good judge, she chided herself.
Then her gaze fell on the front room. A few weeks ago when she was in this room astrally, she had been utterly preoccupied and, as a result, hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the overall atmosphere here. She could recall enough from that visit to notice the colors and lines of the aura here were darker and sharper, though not nearly so dark and sharp as they had been then. Helplessness and terror clung here, thin lines of corrosion on the otherwise domestic and attentive vibe to the place. The terror didn’t carry the sharp points anymore, but it continued to hang here in faint and shallow swells. A wave of thick, navy empathy bubbled up within Kit’s own aura, but she swept it under. That is certainly not what she was here for. And this was not going into the recreation she brought back. She floated away from the window in search of brighter things.
A large woman sat near what looked like it may have been a closet in a cozy-looking back room, rummaging through boxes of stuff. Some things she tossed into a container, others she placed carefully in a different container. Kit couldn’t tell what was what, but the items that were placed carefully were a bit brighter-looking, and half as many in number, than the ones she tossed. The room itself caught Kit’s attention first. If the family-oriented feel of this house had an epicenter, she thought she’d found it. It had a worn-in rosy glow: love, happiness, togetherness… She stared at it, examining it from different angles like the rare bird it was. And then Kit peered at the woman working. Kenji’s mother’s aura smelled of chocolate, suggesting to Kit that she was well-grounded, and it shone in bright colors, suggesting she probably had no problem speaking her mind. Kit filed that last bit of information away for later and looked more closely. His mother took something out of one box and her aura shone with a topaz pride, struck through with rose-hued love. She placed the object carefully in the second container. Generally speaking, the woman was happy, maybe a little wistful right now… but beneath the brighter and lighter-weight colors, there were others.
Fear. She was full of it. One was a sharp, dark grey sort of fear that felt like it held potential energy rather than wanting to shrink away like other sorts of fear. Kit had once seen a cat standing between its kittens and a rat. The cat just vibrated, tense, ready to block whatever attack the rat tried. This fear had much of that potential energy and tension within it. Another layer of fear shared the same greyish hue, but was softer. This one had almost a molasses-like look to its edges. Kit guessed she had lived with this one for a long time. There were other colors mixed in: a rich pink and deep blue. This fear was mixed up with love and some serious loss.
Kit backed away and steadied herself. She was unaccustomed to so much aura-gazing. Ray had told her once that she was quite empathic, but the ability or desire to connect had been beaten down by circumstance, as it usually was with empathic people. She had responded by telling some off-color joke involving circumstances and beating off. But now, as she centered herself and looked at her own aura, she could see the crystalline grey fear and clinging blue just beginning to fade. She would have to be a little more careful. That and find some astral drek that fit into a pleasant tour, dammit!
She moved on to the school. Self-consciousness, jealousy, lust, fear, depression… they fairly dripped from the walls. There were some bright spots: joy, self-satisfaction, camaraderie, awe… but they were far fewer. Kit passed along the hallways in astonishment. This was where normal kids spent years: every day in preparation for adulthood? She had imagined it would look differently.
Kit wandered around, looking for anything astrally interesting besides the jumble of emotions – drek, they practically grew out of the walls, they were so strong – when she passed a hallway and stopped. Wheeling back, she turned to look at the glimmer that had caught her eye. At the end of the hall, an elderly-looking janitor beamed as it passed its hands through and over pages that covered the walls. Kit drifted over to get a better look. While she couldn’t see what was on the pages, she could see what went into their creation. Wonder and hope glittered from most of the pages, in sharp contrast to the hallways she’d seen earlier. She looked at the janitor, who regarded her with a beatific expression.
Do you come here often? It asked.
No. This is my first time here. This a regular hangout of yours? Kit asked.
I just love it here. Such unsullied optimism. Sometimes it seeps through, you know. It said, and laid a finger along the side of its nose. And when it does, it’s usually here.
Kit peered more closely at the pages, observing the swirling tendrils of expression. She turned again to the janitor, and found it had disappeared.
She realized with surprise that she couldn’t remember if the janitor had been a he, a she, or even a metahuman. The only certainty was its costume.. Uniform.. What had it been wearing again?
Her next stop was the safehouse. Traveling there took an instant, and she looked around, satisfied this could be the easiest portion of the tour. “Hey, Larry,” she said to the Spirit of Beasts she had bound and asked to patrol here. The large fox grinned at her with teeth a little too large for its mouth. Kit reminded herself that Larry was on her side, but thought she may part with some reagents to keep on his good side when she got back there.
Her first stop was the “office.” She wondered when they’d stop calling it that – probably never. Maverick was there, doing something that looked intricate with lots of pieces of technology spread out on the table before him. He wasn’t perceiving astrally, so she took the opportunity to look him over. She couldn’t remember whether he took umbrage with her doing that or not. She was a little surprised to find his eyes were cyber; she’d naively assumed they were contacts like hers. There was a sense of purpose and determination about him; she guessed he was working with his guns. His thoughts wandered a bit at the edges, though, and she was surprised to see a deep blue regret tinged with sadness. She allowed that she didn’t really know anything about this group of people, so the idea that this cocksure cowboy kept regret and sorrow beneath that veneer shouldn’t have surprised her.
She moved on and found Haze out on the ladder, climbing down. Frustration leached from Kit as she looked him over. The color was so murky, she could barely make it out. He bordered on being more a hole in the astral world than a resident. The idea made little eddies of revulsion spin off from her. What she could make out was an electric-tinged nervousness. It was more a motion than a color. The guy was a walking wad of cyber; what would he have to be nervous about? She shook her head: why hadn’t she checked out the team earlier?
Fraguire worked on some piece of technology Kit figured may have been her bike, from the size of it. Here was another hole in astral space. Marveling at the decided lack of color, she wondered idly whether anyone would go for cyber or bioware if they knew that they wouldn’t look that far different from metahuman-shaped refrigerators from this perspective. As Kit watched, a muted sort of yellow-orange frustration spiked off Fraguire, with undertones of a muddy depression. She could certainly understand the frustration; Fraguire struck her as the sort of chick who was pretty much all business. She probably hated downtime. Of course, maybe not. Kit was never a very good judge of people, which is why she felt the need to gawk at them in astral space.
Kit swept toward the doors on her way out and passed through Roland’s van in the process. She did a double-take and headed back, having forgotten Roland was using it as his quarters. His aura undulated a little, something she’d learned to attribute to some sort of chemical influence. Looking over a colorful aura was a relief to her senses though, after hunting for the humanity in some of the others. As she looked, her mood worsened: regret, loss, and depression were the predominant flavors here. A good amount of that emanated off a piece of paper he was holding. It was a small relief to see a touch of love woven in there too.
She left the car quickly, aware that she’d sworn to be more careful in examining auras too closely. As she made her way out of the safehouse, she caught one more familiar aura just outside. Tiny appeared to be double-checking some bag he wore. It was really tough to tell what he was doing. He was another metahuman-shaped refrigerator that just happened to be larger than most refrigerators. What she could see on him undulated just as Roland’s did, but she did make out a crackling of relief on him. Maybe he found what he was looking for or maybe he was just relieved to be outside, she couldn’t know. Frag, he was harder to see than Haze or Fraguire. He looked up and appeared to be ready for something, from his posture. Curiously, a faint jolt of excitement passed over him, then disappeared among the grey expanse of dead space that apparently made up almost half of her team.
Kit grinned to herself as she traveled to her last stop, The Alabaster Maiden, a club with a reputation for a bias against non-magically awakened patrons. So, maybe Kenji wouldn’t be coming in here in the physical, but it was a lovely example of what fun astral perception could grant you when the club owners put their minds to it. Soft, steady glows emanated from the plant life in here: they lined a sort of shelf along every wall up toward the ceiling, and they topped every horizontal surface taller than six feet. Auras of physical-space patrons and the projections of astral patrons filled the club, some a little more unusual than the average metahuman.
Freely assensing everyone who intrigued her, she received more than a few glares and outright challenges in response. She grimaced, having forgotten the game had changed once she stepped through that door. Instead, she sat by herself at a table near the edge of the club and did her best to drink it all in: the living flow that thrived in here. There was a band, naturally. Awakened clubs didn’t much go for pre-recorded music as it had essentially no aura compared with that of a band giving a live performance. The audience appreciated the show, and Kit watched the give and take between the performers and the crowd, wishing there was any way to record it all: the colors, the flow, the feelings. Her plan would have to do.
She sighed and made her way back to her apartment, picking apart her trip in her mind to try to find the choice bits.
Kit dropped off, and Kenji sat. His mind was whirling and he gulped in a breath, trying to calm himself. He stood up and walked to the windows to take in the view. He was pretty sure he’d deflected her question about his abilities. With the panic having mostly seeped away by now, all that remained was the excitement, the nervousness- no, best not to think about nervousness.
His eyes slid over to look at Kit’s apparently-sleeping form, then darted back out the window again. The bed across the room from him loomed, despite it being nearly fifteen feet away. He found himself looking her over again and pulled his eyes away, exasperated with himself. But then, what was the harm, really? It wasn’t as though he was doing anything. The thought of doing anything made him blush. He damned biology and willed the flush to subside. VR was so much easier. Still. He was at A Girl’s House. A hot girl’s house (a thought that made him grin)… in the flesh. His blush deepened. Dammit.
It occurred to him suddenly that she’d said she put a spirit on patrol around the safehouse. He wondered whether there was one here, too. He glanced around. He didn’t know as much as he may have liked to know about magic. Could a spirit read his emotions? His thoughts? Would it report back to her? No. He dismissed the notion: it wouldn’t do any good to panic about that – if spirits could do those things she’d already know all that stuff by now. He did his best to keep his eyes and thoughts fixed on the view outside, when a deep intake of breath from the couch told him Kit was back to her body.
“Okay,” she said and got to her feet. She motioned for Kenji to sit down on the couch before her. “Are you ready? You’re gonna have to allow yourself to see the illusion, don’t forget.” She moved through the tai-chi-like poses Fox had taught her and raised the illusion. The couch remained constant, but the walls, floor, and ceiling disappeared and were replaced with the view of them from astral space.
“This is what technology… non-living material looks like – this grey drek. That, over there,” she gestured to part of the room that rounded the corner past her bed. There was a bowed-out, shimmering wall just visible from here. “That’s my lodge. And this,” she closed her eyes and looked inward. Opening her eyes, she put the nearest estimation of her own aura around herself: bright colors, predominantly orange. “Is my aura. And this…” She looked closely at Kenji’s aura in order to recreate it. It wasn’t hard to recreate – it was sort of just like painting the illusion over it, but she had to make it out first. She tipped her head to the side, examining. His aura was bright like hers, Maverick’s, and Roland’s. No dead spots like hers and Roland’s. And unsullied like hers. But it was certainly different from the auras of the rest of the group. Maybe it was the age difference, maybe it was his outlook, who knew? Although his colors were more muted than his mother’s (maybe he hasn’t learned to speak his mind completely freely yet?), they were bright and colorful. He was excited, that much was certain… nervous, but she’d known that… there’s that persistent happiness… and that terror still hung there. It wasn’t in the foreground like before, but it had a quality to it, like an old scab wound that would always stand out from the skin surrounding it. She swallowed and left that particular part of his aura out of the picture. “Is your aura,” she finished.
The rest of the tour continued like that. She explained that this was the best she could do, but that it was not nearly the same as the real thing. The colors were part of the package, but auras were smells, aromas, and entirely emotions here. She glossed over any of the bad drek she found out there, particularly the front room of his house and his mother’s fear. She didn’t know what to make of the spirit at the school – she’d forgotten what it looked like – but she tried to explain that she figured it was free spirit who enjoyed hanging out in the Art department. When she got to the safehouse, she focused more on the vast differences between their cybernetically-enhanced teammates and those who were not, rather than the themes of depression and loss she found on so many of them. The club she saved for last, more as a capstone of what astral space could look like at its richest and wildest (from her experience, anyway). She took the opportunity to ask him to find some club music he liked and play it for them. She didn’t know the band she’d seen, nor any of their work, so she replaced it with the music Kenji found. She had the illusion appear to be playing the music that played and she showed off how the audience and band interacted.
“And that’s that,” she said with a weary smile. She dropped the room-sized illusion and the aura illusions and stopped astrally perceiving. She flopped down on the couch next to him.
“Wow…” Kenji said. “Wow – I just… it’s really hard to put into words, you know? I can only really compare it to the Matrix, ‘cause that’s what I know. But the colors – they were so real and vibrant. You can see what people are feeling. It’s really interesting… Kinda overwhelming, but totally interesting,” he added hastily.
“It definitely is that. I’m glad you liked it,” she said wistfully, staring up at the ceiling. A smile quirked her mouth to the side. “Say,” she said, sitting up and turning to face him. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Um, sure,” he said, a little perplexed.
She narrowed her eyes and flashed him a smile. “Can you make a phone call?”
The comm rang.
“Hey, uh, Ma?” Kenji said.
“Yeah… Hey… uh, my boss needs me to… to work overnight tonight…”
The sky was black and the lights of Seattle glimmered past the windows.
It was early in the morning, but when teenaged blood is up, the idea of sleep is a dim memory.
Kit heard a key activate the front door lock. Abruptly, she threw up an illusion on the bedroom side of the room, covering the view of the bed from the doorway with an illusion of a room divider she sometimes used. “Get dressed!” she hissed, and threw on her pajamas, which she kept handy in a pile on the floor by the nightstand.
The door opened and Lucas walked in. “Hey,” he called out to no one in particular. “It’s me.”
Kit composed herself, and, feigning calm, padded out from behind the illusory room divider. “Oh, hey, what’s up?”
Lucas threw open the refrigerator and stuck his head inside. Kit threw a panicked glance back toward the other side of the room, and was relieved to see Kenji emerge, clothed, from behind the room divider.
Bottles in the door clinked together as Lucas let the refrigerator door slam shut. He had a large jug of orange juice, which he put to his lips and chugged. With the jug tipped up and Lucas stretched to his full height, he appeared nearly two meters tall. He was slim and wiry, his muscles clearly defined, which made him look older than he was. Only his face belied his young age. Kit’s eyes darted between Lucas and Kenji, but when Lucas set the jug down on the counter, she threw a lazy look on her face.
Lucas let out a deep sigh and rolled his shoulders back, cracking them in the process. He scratched his head lazily, then his hand darted out with the speed of a snake to muss Kit’s hair.
“Hey!” she said, bending down and back to get away from him. “I just had that replaced,” she muttered.
Lucas chuckled good-naturedly, turned and saw Kenji.
“Oh, hey, man,” Lucas said by way of greeting, and walked across the room. He threw a leg over the back of the couch and dropped onto it. The trid faded on after a moment.
Kenji looked at Kit, eyes wide. She gave him a look that included a slight roll to her eyes, a thinning of her lips, and seemed to say “I’m sorry” and “Dammit,” at the same time.
“Lucas, this is Kenji. Kenji, that’s Lucas, my brother.”
“Hey,” Lucas called from the other side of the couch, “I haven’t been to Ray’s in a while. I didn’t know he’d picked up another stray.” His head turned just enough to fix Kenji with one eye, “Er.. No offense, man.”
“Um.. None taken?” Kenji said, confused.
“Hey,” Kit said perhaps a little too sharply, “what are you doing here? I thought you got yourself a place.”
“Aw.. Yeah, but they’re partying – it’s too loud and I just wanted to chill, you know?”
Kit ground her teeth together.
“It’s ok,” Kenji said. “Maybe… maybe I should go-”
“No,” Kit said quickly. Her eyes fixed on something down and to her right as her brow furrowed. She looked at him and her tone softened. “No, you don’t have to go. You can come with me, though. I got a SIN and some cash.” She winked at him.
“You leaving?” Lucas asked from the couch without turning around.
“Yeah,” she said, waving Kenji through the door before her. “Don’t wait up.”