I was beginning to think I’d go mad if I had to hear the goose scream “Hiii-yahhhhhh!” one more time.
The Darcko & Sadatake office sat mostly deserted, with everyone else out on various jobs, leaving me holding down the fort and the reception desk. There’d been no assaults on the fort yet, probably because of the pounding spring rain streaking the front windows. Even the phone sat as quiet as a dead thing on the desk. I didn’t mind, since I hate phone duty. I’d clipped my nails, checked the charge on my .368 LaserWaster, and browsed my email. I worked a page of Anagrammatics—with paper and pencil, yes, because that’s the only civilized way to do puzzles—and listened to the soothing cadence of the rain outside and the not-so-soothing sound of the goose playing video games in the back room.
Not that I have a problem with the animals who were affected by the meteorite spores, or their descendants. They didn’t ask for what they got, any more than the rest of us did. It’s just that they’re relatively scarce, and I hadn’t been around a lot of them until lately. We’d had a family dog around the time the spores happened, and overnight, he developed human-level intelligence. At first it was great—we taught him to talk, he learned to use the tv remote, and he seemed even more like one of the family. We changed his name from ‘Hotdog’ to ‘Frank,’ at his request. There was always a tension, though, like he wasn’t sure how he fit in with us any more. Eventually he…moved out. I’d say “ran away,” but that sounds more like a regular dog, who wouldn’t leave with luggage.
Anyway, I stayed away from magic-sapient animals after that. You can’t avoid them entirely, but you can generally ignore them. When I joined the offices of Darcko and Sadatake, “Security Consultants,” a year ago, that changed. It takes some serious focus to ignore a talking goose with an addiction to video games, especially when he’s essentially the office mascot and considers you a friend. The talking, the games, the friendship; those I can accept most days. I never get used to the hands, though. They just look wrong.
The goose in question waddled in from the back room, which also serves as the lunch room. I heard him coming. I hadn’t known, before I came to D & S, that a goose has claws on its feet, and they sound a lot like the tick-tick of a dog’s paws on a tile floor. He paused in my doorway, pretended I’d taken him by surprise, and dropped into some kind of martial arts “guard” position. Those disconcerting hands were right up in front, looking totally out of place on the ends of his white-feathered wings as he bobbed gently in place for a few seconds, as if considering me. Then he erupted into a swirl of feathers, hands, and spindly orange webbed feet.
He fetched up on the desk, the tip of his carrot-colored bill about six inches from the end of my nose, beady but intelligent blue eyes watching for my reaction.
I yawned, being careful not to suck in any feathers. “Hi, Trip.”
“Come on, Kit, you’ve got to admit those are some killer moves!” he complained, pulling back from my personal space. His voice sounds pretty much like what you’d expect from a goose, a little squawky and crackly when he’s upset. Well, all the time, really.
“Oh, killer,” I agreed. “If the office is ever invaded by—what is it in the game? Flying ninja monkeys?—you can take point and we’ll have nothing to worry about.”
“Funny girl,” he retorted, leaping down from the desk with his wings outstretched. When he wasn’t actually using them, he could tuck his hands inside the soft sweep of his feathers. “You’re nasty when you’re bored, you know that?”
“I know.” I sighed. “Sorry, you’re right. I am bored.”
He did that thing with his bill that signifies grinning. “They’re still great moves. I can’t wait to try them out on some little wanker who’s got more to say than he should about a goose with hands.”
I hid a smile. Trip had acquired the hands by magic, sure, but it was legal magic and I’m sure he’d paid well for them. Or I suppose my boss, Saga Sadatake, had paid. Not that Trip is his pet—I think the term “pet” goes out the window when the creature in question can carry on an intelligent conversation. But I wasn’t one to ask Saga questions about his business or his goose’s business, however you wanted to define their relationship. When you’ve got secrets of your own you tend to be reticent about sticking your nose elsewhere.
“Oh, that reminds me,” Trip added, and waddled out of the room again. He was back in a moment with a dust-laden magazine in hand. “I found this behind the cupboard in the kitchen.”
I took it gingerly and blew some of the cobwebs and detritus away. It was the unfinished book of Anagrammatics puzzles I’d lost a month or more ago. “Thanks, Trip,” I said, suddenly sorry I’d teased him. He has a good heart, for a goose.
The phone rang. Voice only, no vid. I went the same route. If they can’t show me their face, they can’t complain if I don’t show them mine.
“Darcko and Sadatake,” I answered, doodling a little stick figure on Kiku’s notepad. I don’t tend to go in for the whole chirpy My name is Kit, and how can I help you today schtick. When Kikufaax is at her preferred post at the reception desk, she tends to lay it on, like the happiest thing she’s done all day is take your call, but from me, you get straight-up answering.
“I need to make an appointment,” a thready male voice said. “And I need it soon.”
“No, you don’t,” I said.
There was silence at the other end for a moment. “Excuse me?”
Childish, I know, but like I said, I was bored. “What I mean, sir, is that you don’t need an appointment. We have walk-in service here; there’s always someone in the office during normal business hours, which are nine-to-five, Monday through Friday.”
“But will it be someone…I mean…this is very important. I’d like to speak to Mr. Darcko or Mr. Sadatake in person if possible.”
“That would be Mizz Darcko,” I corrected, “and you don’t want to get it wrong if she can hear you. All the investigators here are trained professionals, Mr…?” I let it hang.
He didn’t jump at the chance, but he gave in when I stayed silent. “Coro,” he said finally. “Aleshu Coro.”
Good thing we weren’t on the vid or he would have seen my eyes go wide. Coro was the millionaire CEO of MageData, Inc., one of a handful of database companies responsible for handling the NorthAm continent’s RIMA—Registry of Individuals with Magic Abilities. Why he’d be looking to hire us, a relatively small-time, low-profile bunch of private investigators, I couldn’t begin to guess.
I expended a little bit of magic energy to see if he was lying, not enough to make me sick, since I hadn’t taken any Maginox® today. Just a quick scan—and read no hint of a lie. If it wasn’t Aleshu Coro on the other end of the line, it was someone who could block my magic. I added a halo of dollar signs to my stick man doodle.
“Ms. Darcko and Mr. Sadatake should be in the office all day tomorrow,” I suggested. For Mr. Aleshu Coro, they would be. “Would you prefer a time in the morning or the afternoon?”
“There’s nothing today?” he pressed. “It’s very urgent.” Fear crackled in his voice like static, evident now that I was paying attention. He was well and truly scared of something, but I honestly couldn’t get him in any faster. Anna Darcko was undercover and it could cost me my job if I tried to make contact. And Saga Sadatake was in Ireland looking for a runaway Transmute. He’d be home tonight, with or without her, but he couldn’t get back sooner even if he wanted to.
“They’re both out of the office today, and I have no way to contact them,” I said, sincerely sorry now that I’d recognized that static buzz of real fear. I added two wide eyes and a squiggly, down-turned mouth to my doodle. Trip snickered and I made a face at him. “They’ll both be here first thing in the morning. That’s really the best I can do.”
He sighed, but as a man at the top of a company ladder he probably understood the futility of trying to get past the office border guards once the lines had been drawn. “First thing in the morning, I’ll be there, then.” He paused, then added, “If I’m still alive. Thank you for your time.”
Coro broke the connection, and I stared at the dead receiver for a minute. Then I X’d out the stick man’s fear-wide eyes.
Once I hung up the phone I logged directly onto the Netz and messaged LemurCandy. He’s the office information hound, data retriever, and general Netz expert. It would look good to Saga and Anna if I had all the background work done before Aleshu Coro even set foot in the office tomorrow. Or at least, it would look bad if I didn’t.
Lemur didn’t have his Chatterz® open just then, so although I dislike wearing a faceskin where anyone might see me, I slipped the clear, thin film of bioplas over my face and pulled on my synth gloves. The familiar tingle rippled along my face and hands as the tiny, hairlike sensors connected. I called my favorite avatar up onscreen (she looks almost exactly like me, with just a few minor…adjustments) and spent a few minutes changing her clothes and hairstyle so she wouldn’t look exactly the way she had the last time I’d met up with Lemur. Even in the virtual world, appearances count, and when you’re using the Netz, if you’re anywhere that offers a graphical interface, your avatar is, for all intents and purposes, you. I once read that people who create good-looking, well-dressed avatars become more confident and attractive in real life. While I didn’t consider myself exceptionally attractive, virtual reality let me spruce myself up pretty good.
I went searching for Lemur in a few of his usual online haunts, hoping I wouldn’t find him in any of the meat virtuals. He claims he only visits them in the course of his research, but I don’t like the desperate atmosphere in most of them, the avatars “enhanced” out of all believable proportion, and the pick-up lines I’ve heard a thousand times already. Who cares if they’re only looking for a virtual rendezvous and I’d never have to actually meet them? Most of them come off just like any slimy guy in a cheesy bar.
Not that it was any of my business what LemurCandy did, on the Netz or off. Just that—here’s one of those secrets I mentioned earlier—I was pretty much in love with LemurCandy. Or at least as much in love as you can be with someone you’ve never seen, never met, never spoken to in realtime, and of whose gender you’re not even completely certain. I thought he was male. I hoped he was male. He certainly seemed male and always wore male avatars. But these were the Netz, after all. You could appear to be anything you wanted, at least until someone managed to cajole or magick the truth out of you. And on the Netz these days, in the post-Spores, magic-filled world, anyone really might be a dog.
I figured if I ever did meet Lemur, it would be just my luck to have him turn out to be either female, gay, twelve years old, or a magic-sentient animal. At thirty-five, I’m still not attached, although I have it on reasonable authority that I’m not bad-looking myself. It just seems unlikely that my luck’s going to change at this point.
Trip and Glaive would tell you that my personality is the defining factor there, and that luck doesn’t really come into it, but how much weight can you put on the opinions of a goose and a former hit man? And I do have an attractive avatar, so that should count for something.
Anyway, back to LemurCandy. That’s his default username, the one he uses with me and in all his dealings with Darcko and Sadatake, and the only name I have for him. Someday I’m going to ask him how he came up with it.
I finally found him in one of his favorite virtuals, but it was a mind virtual, not one of the meats, so I was secretly glad. This one called itself Cogitario Now—a little over-the-top for my liking—and sported a sumptuous decor in the style of an 18th century French salon, the virtual walls hung with richly detailed portraits of great thinkers and other period artworks, the muted brilliance of Persian carpets on the floors, and chairs scattered about in deliberately conversational groupings. There was also, of course, a marble-topped bar, which was where I saw Lemur.
<Hey, Kitano Kick-ass> he typed when he saw my avatar. The words appeared in a separate text chat window and his avatar threw me a friendly salute. “Kitano Kick-ass” is not my actual username, just what Lemur calls me. He has the advantage of me, since he knows who I am off the Netz.
Today he wore one of his favorite avatars; a lean but muscled bod in a pale green transform shirt and jeans, jet black short hair with an allover wave, and a smooth, chiseled face. The shirt enhanced the darker green of his eyes, and he winked at my avatar. I have myself convinced he favors wearing this avatar because it’s what he really looks like.
<What’s the word from the office today?>
<It’s not a word, it’s a name,> I answered. I moved my synth-gloved hands to make my avatar lean backwards against the bar and rest her/my elbows on the marble-texturized surface. I smiled, and the faceskin picked up the expression and translated it to my avatar’s features. <Can we get a room?>
He raised his eyebrows, even though he had to know I just meant we needed a secure link, and nodded. A heartbeat later a security code flashed on my screen. I touched it, and the virtual’s 18th century background morphed into a much more modern plush red velvet bedroom, complete with mirrors on the ceiling and ambient floor-lighting tiles. Lemur’s avatar sat on the heart-shaped bed, and patted it invitingly.
<Haha, nice try> I typed, making my avatar roll her eyes.
LemurCandy shrugged. <Can’t blame a guy for trying,> he said with a grin.
If I thought you really meant it, I thought, but brushed those fantasies aside. I made my avatar cross her arms and look businesslike. <Aleshu Coro. What can you tell me?>
LemurCandy’s avatar jumped at the name and then went still for a moment.
<What’s wrong?> I asked. <He called the office today.>
<Oh, okay.> His avatar sat smiling blankly for a moment or two, only his hands moving as if entering keyboard and touchscreen commands. I knew that somewhere, real-life-Lemur was accessing his secret databases and wherever else he digs up information on people. Then the av’s face came back to life.
<CEO of MageData, Inc.,> he said, <but you already knew that. Pretty private guy, keeps to himself, not out in the celebrity circles although he’s certainly got the money to run with them if he wanted. He’s on his third wife, she’s French, no kids. Supposedly a lifetime contract this time, but they’re easy enough to squirm out of if you really want to. Seems basically clean. He’s registered as a level one Mancer, just a Talent.> LemurCandy chuckled. <Has the ability to bring on light rainshowers once a day.>
The chuckle bothered me. Sure, light rainshowers is a pretty meagre ability, laughable and fairly useless unless you’re a farmer maybe, but it wasn’t that. I have no idea if Lemur has any Mancer rating himself, or what he thinks of those of us who do, or what his magic abilities are if he does have any. Sometimes I get the impression that he looks down on Mancers in general, but I could be paranoid—reading a whole lot into it that just isn’t there—one of the drawbacks of wholly cyber-interaction. After so many years post-Spores, Mancers are just part of society—hell, they figure ninety percent of the population has some magic ability now. But I still get the feeling that, instead of us pitying the mundanes, it’s the other way around. The arrival of magic changed the world, in lots of ways that are good, and it also caused a lot of problems. If you ask me, most of the time, magic just sucks.
<What’s up with Coro?> Lemur wanted to know, and I snapped out of my musings. Normally I would have told him what Coro had said, but the chuckle had left me piqued.
<Don’t know yet, but I’ll keep you posted,> I said shortly. <Thanks. Could you send whatever background you have over to the office? Saga and Anna will want to take a look. Talk to you later.>
I didn’t wait for his reply and broke the connection, then immediately felt stupid and childish. I peeled off the faceskin and gloves, rubbing my face to remove the sticky feeling—completely imaginary, or so I’ve been told. The quiet office felt eerie, as if ghosts whispered in the corners. And now I was mad at myself. I sighed, looking out through the rain-streaked front window at the colorless street outside. The rain seemed to have washed away every pigment but grey. Grey traffic, grey buildings on the other side of the street, and a few grey pedestrians.
The soundtrack of Trip’s “Flying Monkey Ninjas from Wormhole 7” game trickled in from the other room, but I wasn’t sure if the accompanying thumps and bumps were from Trip playing the game or practising the moves in real life. It annoyed me either way. I waited impatiently, clicking random Netz links until the data packet arrived from LemurCandy, copied it to both Anna and Saga with the message about Aleshu Coro and his appointment, and did one more Anagrammatic puzzle. Then I decided it was close enough to closing time, said goodnight to the goose, and went home in the rain.
It was the last “normal” day I’d see for quite a while.