Cylee was at home when she got a notification.
Julian: Hey here’s the address. Want me to come pick you up, or just meet at the restaurant?
Cylee: I’ll see you there!
She thought about changing, but, nah, she was wearing a green top and looked pretty good. It didn’t make sense to let Julian think he was important enough to warrant a dress. She did braid her hair, though, in two braids that started at her temples and joined at the back of her head. She caught a cab and watched Seattle flow by out the window. The address was in a rebuilt part of town, all oppressively hip eateries and civic-government-approved “Local businesses”.
Julian was waiting on the curb, once again dressed like an insane peacock from an earlier century. Tonight it was a purple button-down shirt with a far-too-large collar, and silver, tight, shiny pants. He really liked silver, and Cylee really wondered why.
“I almost couldn’t find you,” Cylee said as she stepped out of the cab. Julian smiled and took a theatrical bow. “You look very nice,” he said in response and led her inside. “I’ve already secured our table. “
“Was it formerly in a war zone? “
“Place like this, on a Thursday evening? Pretty much.”
“I figured Friday would be war zone night.”
“Nah, Friday night is for middle age married couples on regularly scheduled 'Date Night', young bon-vivant types like us have more esoteric haunts.”
Julian pulled a chair out for Cylee, eliciting looks from pretty much everyone else. These ranged from vaguely amused to moderately dirty. Cylee ignored them all and insinuated herself into the chair. She was slender, lithe, and graceful and could move like an attractive river when she wanted to. She then opened the menu while Julian got to his seat.
“Drinks?” The waiter said. He apparently felt that the social script here didn’t require all the other words in the sentence.
“Just water,” Cylee said, not looking up.
“Peach soda,” Julian said and Cylee kept her head down until the waiter left.
“Are you seven?” She asked openly smiling.
“Neither of us ordered anything expensive. He’s going to be worrying about his tip. We should get appetizers, make him feel better. And what’s wrong with peach soda?”
“The have to try the hummus nachos. Except I’m not sure how different that will be from just…really dry pita. And nothing’s wrong with it. Hey, if you like peach soda and aren’t afraid to order it on a first date…you do you, Julian.”
Julian did the little sardonic bow again, except this time it was basically a nod.
They figured out their orders and put the menus down, then made the waiter feel better by ordering individual appetizers, and decent mid-price entrees. The waiter left again and Julian set his elbows on the table and folded his hands, and looked over them at Cylee.
“So Miss Cylee, tell me about yourself.”
“Nope. Let’s start somewhere more interesting. Where’s the last place on earth you would ever consider for a week-long vacation and why. And no cop-outs like 'my own house har har har', somewhere far away and terrible.” Cylee was aware that this wasn’t how dates were meant to go but she didn’t want Julian getting comfortable. Besides she had questions she wanted to ask him. For now this stupid question would do.
But Julian barely blinked. “I’d probably have to say Moab, over in Bonneville. Mostly because my parents used to love going there for vacations and it’s horrible. Have you ever been there? It’s a desert. It’s all hot sand and hot red rocks and wind, unless it’s raining. Then it’s cold mud and wind. What about you?”
“Nah, you have to think up a different question.” Cylee said. She didn’t want to admit that she had never been outside of Alaska, Washington, or Oregon.
“Okay. And I’m guessing there’s a 'no questions about your personal history' rule—that wasn’t a question, hold on—okay, here’s one. If you could be any animal you wanted for one week, then be yourself again, what would you choose? AND, what do you think would be the little annoyance that made you glad to be human again?”
Cylee sat back, stretched her legs under the table and smiled. “I feel like I’m supposed to say something Alaska-y like 'the wise northern raven, who can survive anything and have fun doing it'. But nah. Okay, I got it.” Cylee leaned forward. “Listen, because this one takes some explaining. So, years ago, when I was little, I went to an art museum when there was a big 'Artifacts of Rome' exhibit in town. Actually it probably wasn’t that big of an exhibit, but I was small, I didn’t know from art collections.”
“Sure,” Julian said, his light eyes watching hers.
“Anyway, there was this little black copper snake. I guess it was varnished or lacquered or something. Whatever, the sign said it was copper and it was definitely black. It was small, about twenty centimeters from nose to tail, maybe six centimeters tall. And she had the brightest little eyes, a little snakey smile, and an air of confidence that was as clear and obvious as it was when someone sculpted it thousands of years earlier. It was clear that, whoever made that little copper snake, they really knew snakes.”
“So… you would want to be a copper snake…and what would make you want to change back?” Julian said.
“No no no, I want to be the snake that the copper snake was modeled on. Somewhere in Ancient Rome, just…slithering around, then hanging out in some artist’s studio for a while. What would make me want to leave would be day three of him picking me up and moving me around all the time. I gotta have my space, sculptor.”
“Okay then.” Julian actually laughed, and seemed actually happy. The conversation paused again when the food was delivered and only picked up slowly. It seemed that Julian had something else on his mind. Or possibly his Spine, Cylee realized. He was just as Augmented as she was. “I should tell you something,” Julian said and hesitated. Cylee’s heart jumped and she realized that she really definitely never wanted to work with a large organization again. Too many social situations. What was he going to tell her? He loved her, even after such a short time? He was sent to kill her, even after such a short time? The stun gun causes cancer, even after just two exposures? And such a short time?
“I know who you really are. The Lady does as well. We were looking for you specifically.” Julian said. He picked up his soda glass and looked into it deeply for a few moments.
“And you bugged my charger. This new Spine was just a way to get a tracker on me.” Cylee said, impressed with herself that she was able to answer so casually. Of course. Of course they knew who she really was. Of course she was hooked with a Spine upgrade.
“So who are you? Why are you tracking an ex-PDF soldier—“
“E. P-E-F. You were expeditionary, not defense.” Julian corrected quietly. “Sorry.”
“Fine, why are you tracking an ex-PEF soldier? Are you clone hunters? Mercenaries? Fed?”
“Because you’re not just a soldier. You were a prototype for one of the Four Faces. They were younger than you, usually helmeted and masked, but you’re the base model for the Alpha clones.”
“Yeah, I know who I am. Who are you? Why did you bug me? What do you want with me? You captured me once but I won’t go down without a fight this time…”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on,” Julian said, hands raised, palms facing her, and smiling slightly. “One question at a time. Who we are: The Lady has asked me not to tell you that yet, but I believe that once you find out you’ll want to join us. Bugging you: I didn’t know we did that, but I guess I should have expected. If it wasn’t us it might have been that someone at Shiira knew who was buying that Spine and they bugged us. We don’t really need help tracking you…like you said, we caught you once. What we want with you is for you to join our organization, but not by force or coercion…I mean, beyond kidnapping you and taking you to Oregon that one time. Okay, was that all the questions?”
Cylee sat back. She felt…tricked, exposed, hurt…and not as scared as she had been.
“One more question. Why should I sit here and have dinner with you? Why did you bring me here?”
“Oh, that has nothing to do with The Lady or our organization. I just thought you were interesting and…pretty…and wanted to take you on a date.”
“Well…okay then.” She shifted slightly and took another bite of her dinner.
“So, Mister 'I know all about you,' what do you know about me?” She asked.
“Well, your name is Karen Ligaya Bodfish, which is an odd combination. Karen is a “Fed” name, Ligaya is “Happiness”, or maybe “Joy” in Tagalog. Which I guess makes sense; your father was a Filipino cruise ship employee. You were born in Anchorage but grew up on the Kenai peninsula until you were 'drafted', and then…”
“And then my life is just part of the tragedy of the past decade.” Cylee said. Suddenly this wasn’t fun any more. Everything Julian had said was true, but so stripped down that it felt almost insulting. “So, what about you, sci-fi boy? What’s your story?”
“So now we are talking about the past?”
“Well, you seem to know all about mine, so it only seems fair.”
Julian smiled and ordered another drink and the dessert menu.
“Let’s see. I was born Julan Baum Pierce. I go by 'Julian' because that’s what everyone calls me anyway. I was born in California before it was Texicali and my parents moved us all up to Washington shortly before the Texicali Rebellion, and down to Oregon just before the Pacifica Rebellion. I’m honestly a little surprised he didn’t buy a house in Boise before Bonneville seceded.”
“Okay, sure, but next question: why won’t you tell me what your organization actually is? Why is Ms. Happy so secretive about it?”
“Hmmmm…Like I said, I promised not to tell you what she is planning, but I can tell you that everything she told you is true. We are manufacturing new Spines, the Augment Disrupter is meant to level the field between Augmented and non-augmented armies. I can also tell you that we’re not mercenaries or terrorists.”
“Just kidnappers and spies.”
Julian shrugged. It was like arguing with a smiley face sticker. “We do what needs done to…move our work forward.”
Cylee stood up. “Sorry, pass. I don’t mind working with you guys, you plan weird jobs and crash things into other things, but I’m not looking for a cause.”
“Cylee, wait! Okay, no more cause talk, I get it. What about—our little date?”
“You can’t think this went well,” Cylee said, pulling on her jacket.
“The first part did.”
She paused. That was a mistake. The first part had indeed gone well, and was kinda fun. But Julian was watching and her pause was all the opening he needed to talk some more. She should have just kept walking, ignoring anything he said. Just get out the door.
“So let’s go back to that first part. Let’s just play around, ask each other stupid questions. Have some dessert.”
He never sounded like he was begging or wheedling. His tone was even, level, and sensible. And it might have worked. Had she been just a little less proud or a little less unnerved, she might have sat back down and eaten dessert with him. Instead, she said, “Maybe another time. Maybe.” And walked out. She found herself wanting to hit him again. For being so in control. For being so connected to—whatever his group was—and for keeping her in the dark.
So she went outside into the real dark, letting her Augments give her vision beyond sight.
Cylee walked out into the night, threading her way through the party people around the door, out into the street, down he street, into the dark.
Cylee had always believed she had nothing to fear in the dark, as there wasn’t anything in Seattle more frightening than her. But Julian and Cassandra and Isaac and Howard had proven her wrong. Apparently she was easier to capture than she thought. Apparently everyone out there knew who and where she was, and it was just a matter of time until someone was willing to talk to the Feds to turn her in. She was just waiting until the profit/loss on that transaction was favorable.
Cylee took a cab to aa little lot she knew of where she could rent a car with cash. She drove out into the mountains, past all the abandoned suburbs, heading north. This was costing her a fortune but money wasn’t useful if you’re someone’s prisoner.
When she was an hour past the last huddled outpost of houses she pulled off the road and walked into the woods. She pulled the bugged charger out of her pocket and some matches. Building a little fire was a good way to clear her head. She watched it grow and threw the charger into the middle of it. There were pops and snaps as the plastic and silicon warped and melted. The smoke was acrid and terrible and she stood back a way.
Probably, Seattle wasn’t utterly ruined for her. Probably she could go back and work with…whoever they all were…and still get free. Probably she could just take other jobs.
But then there’s the other question: Why? What’s in Seattle for her? Maybe she could head into Bonneville. Or Canada. She rejected Texicali, although she could probably do well there. She heard that people hired ex-soldiers as bodyguards, and Texicali had been friendly to Pacifica. But what was there for her in Texicali? She might be slightly safer from the Fed, but every neighboring nation had extradition, so she wouldn’t be all that much safer.
Bonneville wasn’t really her style. Everything there sounded too…innocent. At least in Seattle she could appeal to someone’s finances and self interest. In Bonneville someone would probably turn her in because it was the “right” thing to do. Best not to chance it.
The world was closing in on her. She couldn’t find safety in nations, the only safety was in finding a quiet but profitable little corner to hide in.
So. Where did that leave her? Cylee threw a little more wood to the dying fire and thought.
Mitzi was in Seattle.
Also…it was close to her Cave. Suddenly she knew why she would go back. She wanted to show Mitzi the cave, see if she could get Mitzi to at least understand what had happened there. Then she’d go meet with Doctor Patel—for whatever reason—and then she’d leave. Maybe Mitzi would come with her, maybe not. Probably not.
Well. People had been hunting her for years. She was used to it. She had been foolish for getting comfortable, for thinking she was invisible. This just meant she had to go back to being on full alert.
The charger was a surprisingly small twisted lump of plastic now, still bubbling slightly in the bed of coals. Cylee spread the coals and covered them with damp earth, then covered them again, then put down leaves. Someone might still be able to track her, to find where she had destroyed the bugged collar, but she didn’t have to make it easy for them.
The drive back was easier. Driving home always was.
Cylee: You’ve been quiet lately.
Agent: As someone once told us, we have no heart. Most of what you’ve been doing lately has been very…human. We felt it best not to interfere.
Cylee: So talk tactics with me. Am I making a mistake? Is Seattle now a no-man’s land? Or at least a no-Cylee’s land?
Agent: What has changed? The facts are the same, it is simply your perception of the facts that has been altered. Now that you know what Seattle has in store, you can react accordingly.
Cylee: True. Okay. I’ve got things to finish up in Seattle.
Zoom out, watch Cylee’s rented car head south in the predawn light, nearly alone on the road as it approaches the swarm of lights that is her destination.
And wonder who else is watching her like this.