The lift makes a clanging sound and halts. After a worrying pause the doors bid farewell to each other noisily and begrudgingly. She looks down, finding that the 17th floor isn’t quite flush with, but gets out anyway.
She’s deposited herself into a corridor that tunnels away in both directions. There’s a smell of a vacuum cleaner having gone round someone else’s carpets… A stranger’s.
She makes a left and trundles along the corridor till she arrives at the brass glyphs nailed here: ‘1’, ‘7’ and ‘6’.
She stares at the numbers for a while, and finally reaches out to press the small white button on the edge of the door frame. It bings, like the lift probably should have done… only the bings are strung out in a sort of pleasing 4-note melody.
She presses it again. And again. And is about to press it again when the slight mustiness of lived-in air fills the doorway.
She looks at this slender, anxious-looking man; naked highdens Iridium eyes boring holes into her.
“uh… I’m Lisa.”
“Oh…” His demeanour changes slightly, but he far from relaxes. “Lisa, as in Tranton?”
“Yep. The one and only”, she says, beaming at first and then thinking better of it. Stop trying to be cool.
The occupant of 176 looks her up and down, seems to resign himself to her presence. He stretches out a hand. “I’m Jack. I mean, obviously…” He tries to smile, showing big square teeth with the tiniest hint of grey around the edges. “I live here, so I must be Jack, right? Ha Ha.”
She returns her own awkward smile.
She follows him in, noticing that he doesn’t apologise for the mess, which has already won him points on her own poorly understood, entirely subliminal teenage scorecard.
She half-follows his light pink tee and fraying grey pants, motion-detecting the triangular lines of glue-spiked dark brown hair atop a longish head; narrow, bony shoulders with skeletal arms dangling from them. All this at the corner of her eye. What has her fullest attention is the small forest of discarded clothes intermingled with fast-food containers and other bric-a-brac. Several headcases of different colours and sizes litter the whole place; some are cracked open in a fetishist display of high-dens circuitry.
What she surmises of Jack Hitori fits well with her basic understanding of the re‘facer lifestyle. Looks like he eats and sleeps and works from this one tiny room… a room she’d glimpsed before in virch as it happens; some people took their presentation modes seriously.
“Will this fit?”
He’s holding up yet another headcase. Not a branded-looking one. It’s missing the now-fashionable smooth hollows at jowl level for pulling the thing on and off. And then there’s the colour – white. White is so… revival. And so, she decides, this robust and wholly unsexy contraption had to be one of those newer ones coming out of the shops in Hawaii. She’d heard about Polynesian manufacturers carving their way into the virch economy – building VR interface kits loaded with features, priced to slash into the established markets of bigger brands.
“It’s a 6,” Jack says, studying her with a slightly nervous look. “It’s the smallest I could find.”
It feels strange to be here in his apartment, after an even stranger correspondence of a few months now, virch-to-virch.
She forces her focus to coagulate, finally, around the plasticky helmet in Jack’s hands. Bony fingers, spread-eagled about the spherical structure, almost enveloping it. Another thing she’ll remember forever.
“Err…” She tries to think: “I take size… actually, I’m not even sure. Five, I think. I don’t have my own.”
Shit. Why did she reveal that?
“Can I try it on?” she asks, trying to advance the plot. She reaches, takes the headcase from him, gingerly. She peers at him all the while, and finally decodes what lies behind his stare. Unease. He’s…
“You look worried,” she says finally, hugging the headcase to her chest to rest its weight.
Probably the first time he blinks. The lines on his forehead barely change. “Yeah well… You’ve gotta admit. This is…” He makes a sign with his hand. “I’m still waiting for you to explain why you’re here, really.”
On the surface of it, it’s amazing she’s even gotten this far. Getting Jack’s coordinates was easy enough – her Mum’s business accounts were entirely accessible from within her own four walls. A flaw in her ‘always online’, ‘always working’ habits…
And once she’d made contact with Jack Hitori and introduced herself as none other than Yemi Tranton’s daughter and protégé, well… she was hardly going to be ignored, was she? You don’t diss one of the world’s leading Axen by telling her young daughter to piss off, when she comes knocking. Especially if her mother happens to be one of your own core business partners.
Getting past Jack’s personality had really been the only tricky part. Getting someone of his ilk to take any notice of you usually meant breaking something they’d built, or showing them something you’d built yourself. She’d opted for the latter, baiting him with the axe kit she’d spent the last 2 years perfecting.
He’d ripped it apart, of course, in about six or seven lines of terse and snarky prose sent over POTMESS, the ‘plain ole’ text messaging service’… he hadn’t even bothered to virch. But there’d been enough bruised ego left over to initiate the right arguments over the right bits of code which still had merit. She’d managed to inch herself into a clumsy sort of apprenticeship.
“Jack,” he says, looking mildy irritated. “Just call me Jack.”
“Jack.” She stands with her feet shoulder-width apart, trying to look serious; grown. She straightens and lowers the headcase into a one-handed, left-hand grip, small muscles tightening all the way up her left arm to accommodate. She lowers the pitch of her voice. Every little helps.
“I’m Junior Entry Specialist at Axe Rampant, as you well know. You have my credentials. I can commandeer whatever resources I need for my axe runs. And You Surp Inc. has the best headcase tweaks. That’s why we partner with you guys, right?”
“So this is all above board? Your mother knows about-”
“You mean my boss, Jack. My employer. I have a corp account like everyone else does. I’m allowed whatever resources I need.”
“Hmm…” says Jack. “I’m suppose to be given full details of any axe that my wares are going to be used for, though. Standard procedure. So for the last fragging time, Lisa. Seriously. What is this about?”
The sudden familiarity is jarring. Suddenly it’s virch Jack – the Jack she knows. She almost caves then, with those Iridium inlays scanning for subliminal cues to feed on, and probably finding tons.
“It’s about trying out the run we talked about. Look, here’s your payment code,” she deflects, pulling her phone out of her back pocket with her spare hand, and scrolling quickly to her credit key. She hopes to hell the mere fact of carrying such a device is impressive. It had better be. She points the phone at the giant concave monitor on Jack’s desk. I need to get out of here, she thinks, feeling her plans coming apart. She doesn’t know why she’d expected Jack to be more receptive than this. Being here in person has damn near ruined everything. He looks at her and just sees a child. She understands that now.
She taps the SEND icon on her phone with a vengeance and prays for compatibility. No joy.
Jesus. What kind of frag-ass system doesn’t recognize VaultExchange 2a? She turns back to look at him, trying to hide her exasperation and imploring for help.
He reaches his control pad within a few loping strides and taps a couple of icons. The giant monitor suddenly surrounds them with the VaultExchange’s public interface. Looks like ‘Marina’ is the day’s reception persona. “Welcome Vault Exchange”, she says fawningly and somewhat ungrammatically; Lisa could swear it was intentional. “Shall I initiate transfer from Axe Rampant account 209135235 to You Surp Inc. general receipts account?”
Marina waits, blinking her big wet eyes and shifting her gaze from one side to the other, as if she knew they were standing there, imploring them by turns, to make a decision.
They pull away from Marina’s gravity well of visual seduction to stare once again at each other.
“I take the money, that’s it,” Jack says. “I’m totally implicated.” He folds his arms across his pink tee, thinks better of it and finally stuffs his hands into his grey trouser pockets. He looks down, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
Again, Lisa is surprised to find the mannerism familiar.
She’s hugging the headcase again. It’s heavy. “I need this, Jack. It’s an important axe. And.. and you promised. Don’t you wanna find out if the kit’ll work? Don’t you?”