“Here is the list of names,” Eve said as she handed me the slip of paper.
“They all work at Elaka Nota Corporation?” I asked.
“Yes. Or they did at the time when they came to see the progress of my… experiments. I do not know the passing of years so it could mean that they no longer work there, or that they are dead. Or that they are dead because they no longer work there. Such is the way of things.”
“Confirmed. Do you need anything else while I am out?” We checked into a nicer hotel a few hours after we had escaped the police, and we’d spent the rest of the night talking about our next steps. Neither Eve nor I were skilled enough at using computers to dig into the employment history of Elaka Nota, but she knew enough about computers to find out where I might hire someone to do the work.
“I want to come with you, of course.” She smiled at me, and I realized I was getting used to the sight of her fangs.
“Too risky. You wouldn’t be able to take your helmet off. Besides, we don’t know if there was a video monitoring system at the mechanic’s shop. They might know about the helmet. They also might know what motorcycles we are riding.”
“If that is the case, they also know exactly what you look like, Adam.” She crossed her arms, and a half smile came to her lovely lips.
“I don’t much care about that. I can escape. I was trained for situations like this.” I gestured down to my belt where I wore my twin pistols and the massive revolver I had stolen from the pimp’s holster. They were partially hidden by the oilskin duster I’d bought from the hotel’s gift shop, and I doubted anyone would be able to see the bulk of the weapons under the bulk of the coat.
“Very well. Don’t forget your hat. I won’t be able to speak with you from far away. Perhaps you could purchase some paired communication devices?” she asked.
“I’ll get some. Good idea.”
She nodded at my words, and then we stood uncomfortably still for a few moments. I realized this was our first time being separated since we had saved each other. I didn’t like the idea of leaving her alone. Was that because I was worried about her safety, or because I just wanted to be around her?
“I’ll get going then,” I said before my thoughts lead me down a path I didn’t want to take. I did have affection for the strange woman who saved me, but we were in danger on this planet. Hell, we might be in danger for the rest of our lives. I didn’t need to mess up our relationship by developing feelings for her.
Have your feelings messed up relationships before?
Her voice came into my mind as I exited our room. This was another series of painful memories for me, and I set my mind to the mission at hand.
A quick elevator ride took me to the ground floor of the megatower, and I made my way to the nearest public transportation system. We had access to a better information terminal inside our new hotel room, and Eve was able to pull up better maps of the city, along with the information we needed for contacting a hacker.
I felt a bit naked without my armor, but I still stood taller than most of the other inhabitants of the planet. I also had the three pistols on my belt and could turn into a super strong weretiger within a few seconds. No one knew about my abilities or my guns, of course, but my size was enough to ward the usual criminal riff raff away. I had no problems getting on the maglev train, or finding a spot in a corner car to sit in solitude.
I watched the neon lights of the city fly by from the window. There was a bit of irony to my situation, and I found that letting my mind wander there was better than thinking of my relationship with the strange vampire.
My coat and hat were akin to those worn by the classic cowboys or gunslingers in those ancient movies. Even my handguns were the old tech. Cartridge based projectile guns were reliable, but most of the militaries in Earth’s solar system had moved to magnetic-projectile, laser, plasma, or ion tech. I even had a revolver in my belt. It was a double action style, but it was still a design that was a good two thousand years old.
The technology inside of me was new. The powers the experiments gave me made me superhuman. Even when I wasn’t in my half-tiger form, I was still many times faster, stronger, and more aware than been before my change. The world was alive with colors, scents, sounds, and raw emotion. I could sense all of it as it flew by me. It had taken a while for me to get used to myself after the final phase of their experiments. I was probably more animal than human. Unless one considered humans to be animals, then I was probably more tiger than man. More monster than thinking creature.
More hunter than prey.
The maglev train stopped, and I double checked the paper in my hand to make sure the flashing Asian style symbols matched my location. They did, so I stepped out of the swinging doors and into the thoroughfare outside of the car. This station was nearest to one of the largest marketplaces in the city, and I could smell the press of thousands of bodies combined with raw fish, cooking meats, and grain alcohol. I followed the crowd of people through the yellow tiles of the maglev station. A minute or two later the crowd emerged from the underground station and into the drizzling rain of the city.
The small sun was beginning to rise, but the bazaar didn’t seem to be in any sort of transitional phase. It looked busy, and thousands of people walked through the makeshift stalls to examine the various goods for sale.
The scent of cooking meat distracted me, and my stomach told my feet to move my legs until the rest of my body was standing before the nearest food vendor. The old man was selling large hunks of meat cooked over wood and charcoal fire. I had no idea what kind of creature he was cooking, but it didn’t smell like human flesh, so I guessed it would be okay for me to eat.
The man took my cash and handed me a piece of the meat impaled on two bamboo sticks. The food tasted even better than it smelled, and I devoured the hunk in half a minute. I thought about going back, but there were other places to eat in the marketplace, and I still had my mission to complete. I continued to wander through the crowded stalls toward the meeting point of our contact.
There was an electronics stall on my route, and I picked up a pair of long range phones. One of the women who occupied the stall explained to me that the devices were encrypted, but I doubted her words and tried to negotiate the price down a bit. My tactics proved successful, and I ended up paying half of what she asked for initially.
Finally, I reached a noodle stand with an orange painted metal roof. The tiny restaurant had wheels on each side and a long handle. It made me think that it was hand pulled to each location. There was no one sitting on the stools at the serving counter, and I slid my ass into the assigned spot.
“Whatcha ya wanta?” the woman behind the counter asked. She had a wide smile, big cheeks, and dimples.
“You got eel?” I asked.
“Yah, ah gata it. Five ah,” she gestured for the money, and I peeled off a single bill for her.
I checked the crowd as I waited for my food, but no one seemed interested in me, or the noodle shop where I sat. The drizzle of rain had turned into more of a mist, but people still held their umbrellas up to protect their heads. Most of the devices had neon glowing advertisements on the outside, and the pathways of the bazaar looked like a river of beautiful florescent women wearing makeup or eating food.
“Eel noodles ah up. Here ah go,” the woman said to me, and I turned around to see the bowl of noodles.
I went to work on the meal and watched the crowd on the other side of the cart. When I was halfway done a woman sat down on the stool next to me, and our eyes met.
“That looks good,” she said with a nod to my bowl.
“It is. Want me to buy you one?” I asked. She had long blonde hair over one side of her head. The other side was shaved, and her scalp was covered with maze-like tattoos.
“Sure. As long as you are buying,” she said.
“One more, please,” I said as I pointed to the blonde woman.
“Ahh new eel noodle coming up.” The big cheeked cook smiled at us and then went to work.
“You new in the city?” the woman sitting next to me asked.
“Yep. How about you?” I asked. We had just completed the string of questions that Eve set up through the information contacts, and I was sure I was speaking with the correct person. I felt some relief in my stomach, and I let out a slow exhale. Perhaps I expected this whole thing to be a set up to lure me away from Eve. Granted, my vampire partner had reached out to these people, but she hadn’t exactly told me how she knew about them.
“Been here a while. It is a shithole, but it is my shithole. The contact asked me to call you ‘A.’ Does that work?” She nodded at the cook when the bowl of noodles was passed across the booth counter, and I peeled another bill off of my roll to give to the wide cheeked woman.
“That is fine,” I said.
“You can call me ‘Z’ then. Ha.” Her laugh didn’t sound cheerful, but I guessed it was because she took her first mouthful of noodles.
We both ate in silence for a few moments, and I ran my eyes over the crowd. It was easy enough to spot the blonde woman’s bodyguard. He was probably her boyfriend or something. His hair, clothes, and body positioning seemed identical. The man was drifting between the various vendor stalls surrounding us, and he watched us out of the corner of his eye.
“This is good. Not the best I’ve had, but I didn’t even pay for it. Sooo, yeah,” the blonde woman said after she finished another slurp. I guessed her to be young, maybe only eighteen to twenty Earth years in age, but life on non-Earth worlds tended to age people quicker, so she could have been in her early teens for all I knew.
“I agree,” I said.
“Tell me what you are looking for,” she asked.
“Here are the names,” I whispered as I passed her the slip of paper. “They used to work at Elaka Nota. They still might be there.”
“You looking for addresses? Family? What?” She took the paper without looking at it and slipped it under the napkin next to her bowl of noodles.
“Whatever you can find. I want to get up close and personal with them.”
“Hmmm.” The blonde woman looked me up and down before she smiled. “I’d hate to be one of them then. You look like a scary motherfucker.”
“Ha. I try.”
“Hacking Elaka Nota isn’t a cake walk. My broker said you needed some tough work done, so he sent me. He gets a flat referral fee that I pay him. Give me a second, and I’ll tell you how much I’m going to hurt you.” The woman reached into her jacket pocket, and I felt my adrenaline surge. She didn’t pull a gun, though, it was just a male connection plug she inserted into the side of her skull under her blonde hair.
I watched her glance at the paper under her napkin, and then her eyes closed. I guessed she had her computer stored somewhere on her body, but it must have been a small unit since I couldn’t really see any bulges under her jacket. She said it would only take a “second” but a few minutes passed before she opened her eyes.
“Hmmm. These are some higher ups. Deep dark security going on.” She sighed and then pulled the plug from her skull. The cord must have had some sort of winding mechanism in her pocket because it slid away from her as if on a reel and then disappeared into her jacket without her touching it again.
“So you can’t do it?”
“Oh, I can do it. Ha. I’m one of the best on the planet. However, Elaka Nota doesn’t have shit security, and I was led to believe this was just going to be a question of getting into their system to yank some quick info out.”
“I feel like you are lubing up my asshole,” I said.
“I am. It will be twenty. I’ll take thirty percent up front.”
“Hmmm.” I growled softly. Eve expected it to be expensive, but we had both thought it would end up around ten thousand at the top end. We did have thirty thousand in cash as well as some of the payment cards we took from the bodies of the men who had attacked us. I just didn’t want to spend the majority of it on information.
But we would be stuck on this planet if we didn’t get the info. Maybe there was another hacker who would be less expensive.
“As I said. I’m one of the best. I’ll have you the info in eight Earth hours.” The young woman seemed to have read my thoughts, and she smiled at me over her bowl of noodles.
“It is a lot of money,” I said.
“Maybe, or you could think it is rather inexpensive. You are paying to have one of the best hackers on the planet break into the most powerful corporations on the planet’s database to get private information on some of its top employees.” She shrugged and took another slurp from her noodles.
“I will need some time to think about it,” I said after I had thought about it for a few more minutes.
“Hey I get it, but here is the deal. I don’t really like going outside. Ruins my vampire complexion,” the young woman gestured at her pale skin.
I almost laughed because Eve’s skin was still a few shades lighter, and the dark-haired beauty actually was a vampire.
“I don’t see why that--”
“So you are going to try to find someone else. I’m telling you right now that you are only going to find two others who can do the job. Maybe. They aren’t as good as me, though, and they will probably charge you more. They might even get caught. I don’t know what you want with this info, I don’t care, but Elaka Nota will want to find out who hired someone to dig into the records of. . .” the hacker looked over her shoulder at the crowd and then leaned into me a bit so she could whisper. “The president of Elaka Nota’s spacecraft engineering department. The president of their weapons department. The chief director of their flight school. The vice president of their genetic coding department. The vice president of--”
“I get it. They are some powerful people in the organization,” I interrupted her.
“Yep. Part of me thinks you might be trying to trick me. Happens sometimes. I get a client that wants me to break into their own company so they can try to catch me and then land a fat reward. You aren’t some sleazy corp slave, though. I’m thinking you want to know where these people live so you can see how large of an exit cavity you can leave in their skulls.”
“No. That isn’t--”
“Hey, I’m not judging. Elaka Nota gets no love from me. They own everything you see here one way or another.”
The blonde woman gestured to the surrounding marketplace, and I did a quick scan through the crowd just in case she made the gesture to alert anyone of our presence. Her muscle hadn’t moved from his spot a few stalls away from us, but no one else seemed to care that we were here.
“Still. It was more than I thought it would be. I will need to--”
“How much did you believe it would be?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Ten,” I answered.
“So you only brought ten? Is that what the broker said? Fucker.” The woman sighed and looked down to her bowl of noodles. It was halfway done, and she reached for her fork again.
She hadn’t decided to leave yet, and the inaction made me think I might be able to talk her down. I didn’t quite know what to say to move the conversation in that direction, though, and I wished Eve was here. Negotiations were much easier when you knew what the other person was thinking. When we got off this planet, Eve and I would need to visit some casino halls. Her telepathy would probably make us the kind of money we would need to fuel our mission.
“I’m not going to do it for ten. Sorry. It’s just too risky. If I get caught, I’m going to need to book the first shuttle off of the planet, and that will run me five for shitty seats.”
“I understand,” I said.
“No. I don’t think you do, or you wouldn’t be thinking that I’m charging a lot. I can do eighteen, but that is the lowest I can go.”
I nodded and thought about our finances again. It was still eight thousand more than what we had planned to spend, but the young woman sounded confident in her ability. Was it worth paying more for the best? It probably was if failure meant that Elaka Nota would find us.
“Alright. We will deal,” I said.
“You are making a smart decision. I’ll take a third now if you don’t mind.”
“Confirmed,” I said as I dug into my pockets. My cash was in rolls of a thousand each, and I passed her six of them under the table where we sat.
“You can count it, but it is all there.”
“I’m fine. If it isn’t there, I’ll collect the rest before I give you the data that you want.”
I nodded at her words and then scanned the crowd again.
“You got a phone number?”
“I just bought two,” I said as I opened the package the devices came in. I read the number off to her, but she didn’t bother to write it down.
“I’ll contact you in less than eight hours with the new meeting place. Any questions?”
“I think I’m good. Thanks for the help.”
“Ahhh. Aren’t you polite? Thanks for the work. You are much nicer than you look.” She laughed.
“Nicer than I look?” I asked with a smirk.
“Yeah. Well. I’ve got a man, so don’t take this the wrong way. You’re plenty good looking. You’ve just got this intensity to your eyes. They are all yellow, like an animal’s or something. Makes me think you are thinking about eating me, and not in a good way. Ha! Anyways. Nice to meet you, A. Thanks for the noodles. I’ll be in touch.” She nodded at me and then slid off of her stool. I saw her walk toward her muscle, and the two of them quickly disappeared beneath the river of neon umbrellas.
I finished my bowl of food and then took a different route back to the maglev station. I had thought about wandering around the marketplace or city for the next eight hours, but I needed to give Eve the second phone I bought, and I needed to get more money to pay the blonde hacker.
I was also missing the dark-haired beauty, and I wanted to give her a recap of the deal.