Family Affair

-The files of Marion Rhodes-

I don’t know what sort of stupidity you like to post, Mr. Reddy, but I can safely say whatever point you were trying to make was overshadowed by how big of a douche you are. You say Ms. Rhodes is only after the money? That greed motivated the Xiang Jing heist? Well, allow me to turn it right back at you. How’s life as a sellout? Collecting your big fat corporate paycheck and forgetting all about the hard-working people you stepped on to get your probably enormous rump into your current position.

See Mr. Reddy, that’s what this is about. That’s what the heist was about. Trying to give back to the little folk that the corporations, the Dragoons, and you have forgotten about. But I guess when the bloke holding your lead tells you to bark, you bark; like the good little bitch you are. So if you’ll excuse me, I am going to backdoor myself into your system and flood it with obscene images of dogs copulating. After all, that’s probably the only thing a piece of anal discharge like you can get off on anymore. Cheers! <3

~Gally Nova—Wunderkind—Hacker Slash Genius

Sweat was beginning to trickle down into my eyes as I waited for Gally to finish her work. It wasn’t just the heat that was causing me to perspire. No, I think it had a lot to do with the probably two hundred crazed guerillas surrounding us. Well, I guess the heat wasn’t helping either, or rather, the humidity. Jungles are generally not cold places and less so in the dead of summer.

Less than an hour ago we’d crept our way into their camp, Bao garroting a sentry to keep our entrance a secret. The guard couldn’t have been more than Gally’s age, and I tried not to think about it as we slinked past his corpse. Locating their comms center had been easy; everything in their encampment crude, save for a small industrial prefab with a series of antennas and arrays poking off the roof of it. Ria covering our six, we’d slipped into the comms building, and, after Bao sent the guerilla manning the controls to the afterlife, Gally plugged in.

It had been easier than we expected to track the weapons sales from the Kerensky aquaculture farm to this ham-handed operation in the bush. No one had bothered to cover their tracks, either electronically or otherwise. I’m betting no one was expecting to be followed, which was a little peculiar given the dangerous nature of being a radical militia. But sometimes people in causes aren’t gifted with an overabundance of brains, so I let it slide.

Our client had made it very clear that he or she wanted to know what this group’s next target was to be and ideally laze the camp for a presumable airstrike. Now, we could have observed the site for a period, maybe interrogate a loner or two for clues, but that seemed so much more tiresome than hacking into their system and downloading whatever data they had perceived as being important.

“Ria, how we looking?” I hissed into my throat mic as I watched Gally work.

From her position outside the comms center, Ria had the best view of the camp. Nestled in a big patch of ferns and covered from head to toe to keep her glowing tattoos concealed, she was angry, hot, and our first true line of defense if things went south.

“The same as it did five seconds ago, Marion,” she growled back to me though her microphone couldn’t quite pick up the guttural nature of her tone and it instead sounded more akin to a cat’s purring on my end.

Mopping the sweat from my head, I peered down at Gally’s work. “What’s taking so long?”

“These bastards have got some serious encryption here,” the girl answered, her brow furrowed in concentration. “We’re talking military grade, top of line, cybersecurity crap.”

“And? Can you break through?”

A small, conceited smile formed on Gally’s face. “Oh, yeah.”

From the other end of the comms building, I caught sight of Bao looking at me, the holographic glow shimmering in his gilded irises. It was striking, like some sort of beautiful phantasm gazing at me from the darkness. But his expression wasn’t one of affection or voyeurism. No, it was a silent message that told me what I already knew: This is taking too long.

“I’ve got some activity,” Ria crackled over the earpiece.

Moving silently, Bao crept toward a tiny porthole in the building’s wall. “What kind of activity?”

“Not sure. Looks like a truck’s rolling in. They’re going to greet whoever it is.”

“Can you see anything?” I asked Bao as I struggled to peer through a small aperture near my head. The glass fixed there seemed to be opaque, which only permitted me to see smudges of light.

“What the actual hell?!” Gally jeered suddenly.

I could feel my trigger finger start to twitch. “What? What’s wrong?”

“Someone just triggered the kill switch!”

“So?”

Gally slapped her terminal in anger. “So!? That means I’ve been shut out! The whole system is buggered!”

I’ll admit I’m not some technology whiz or a master of electronic warfare, but I could surmise that if someone triggered the kill switch and crashed their whole system as we were hacking in, it was a pretty good bet they knew we were meddling with it. And, if they knew that, it was only a moment before they came kicking in the door of the comms center and filling us full of holes.

Ria’s voice came almost like a whisper. “You need to bail. Now.”

Signaling to Bao, I grabbed Gally’s arm and began ushering her toward the exit as quietly as I could.

“At least let me pack up my gear,” the teen protested as she clung onto her terminal like a child scared of losing their favorite toy.

Bao switched off his assault rifle’s safety. “Do it fast. And quiet.”

Shooting us a scowl, Gally began gathering up her equipment, grimacing as she was forced to stuff data-pads into various pockets. I’m sure when we got back she’d have to be up all night reorganizing everything because of this. Then again, if I missed some sleep because of her complaining, at least that meant I wasn’t a smoldering corpse in the jungle.

I cracked the door of the comms center open and was greeted with at least a score of tactical torches shining toward me. There wasn’t any doubt they knew were here. Now it was all about figuring out the best exit strategy.

“We’re blown!” Ria yelled. “I’m lighting this bitch up!”

Or that.

An explosion rocked the camp as Ria triggered the demolition charge she’d placed when we’d snuck in. The commotion prompted all the lights to spin toward the rising fireball, and I blinked as my eyes struggled to adjust. They really wouldn’t get much of chance.

Ria opened up on the whoever was holding the torches, the muzzle flash from her machine gun like a flare amidst the darkness. Her swath of gunfire shredded into them and one by one, their lights winked out as they smashed to the jungle floor. A few lucky ones took cover and returned fire, bullets ripping through the walls of the comms building.

“Go!” Ria shouted as she poured out another offering of lead.

I was first out of the door and used the opportunity to put a few rounds downrange at our adversaries, the motion of working my rifle’s lever almost cathartic. In the darkness and confusion, it was hard to see if I’d hit anything, but as long as it kept a few of their heads down, I’d be happy.

Bao hustled Gally out of the structure, using his body to shield the young hacker as they maneuvered away from the fighting. They sprinted behind the building and ideally into the tree line.

“Ria, move!” I ordered, snapping up my rifle to wing an overly audacious guerilla.

In one fluid motion, Ria was up and running, the vegetation she’d used as camouflage tumbling off her like some bizarre dog shedding its bizarre coat.

More paramilitaries rushed to join their comrades, and the firefight grew larger than I could ever hope to contain or even waylay. Pitching out a flashbang, I turned to follow Ria toward the safety that the jungle now offered. I’d barely reached the tree line when the entire world seemed to shake. It was like god’s fist had punched the ground, my legs wobbling from the vibration.

Glancing back, I could see a hefty armored shape powering toward me, anything and everything flung aside as it tore across the forest floor. Faint red light emanated from its head, where likely the operator was examining us in a wash of sensory data and targeting algorithms. The air behind the armored machine twisted and danced from heat distortion, the micro-compact reactor powering the death contraption, roaring as it was forced to keep up with the demand the pilot required.

“You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me!?” Ria cursed as she spotted the machine as well. “How the hell do they have this shit!?”

I couldn’t blame her. Powered combat armor was an expensive acquisition, usually found in the likes of corporate security or affluent private contractors. It had been conceived as a means for a human being to stand toe to toe with a Dragoon and, ideally, win. But, like so many other things, it had turned into another tool of oppression. That aside, seeing a suit of it amidst some motley jungle freedom fighters was extremely abnormal. And I might have taken a moment to ponder the implications of its presence better if it wasn’t charging to murder me.

“Bao, we’ve got a serious bogey!” I shouted as I resumed running, this time with considerably more vigor.

“I can feel him. What is it?”

“PCA!”

This time it was Gally who replied: “What model?”

“I didn’t exactly have time to peek under the hood!”

“Marion, it’s important!”

Sighing, I glanced back at the armored suit now chopping its way through the bamboo stalks as it tried to reach me. I wasn’t an expert in power armor. In fact, my expertise comprised seeing a few suits on display during a university trip back in the day and lazily thumbing through a catalog that Gally had stashed under her bed like an adolescent boy with porn. So for me to scrutinize this war machine in the dark, while fleeing for me life, was a bit of tall order.

“I…I think it’s…a Zû?” I stammered, trying to compare the silhouette chasing me with what I remember gazing up at as a student.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m not bloody sure!”

There was a pause, and I wondered if we’d lost the connection or maybe I was already dead. Hey, I don’t know. Maybe everything goes silent right before you die?

Gally’s voice came back through the earpiece. “I’m doubling back.”

“That ain’t the brightest idea,” Ria replied, and I agreed.

“Bao, stop her.”

“Little late.”

Gritting my teeth in anger, I whipped my head back to see the power armor was gaining on me, the foliage not thick enough to hinder the machine. Stab-lights exploded to life from its shoulders and the jungle was suddenly filled with a blinding florescent glow. It gave the night something of a monochromatic look and I found my depth perception struggling to calibrate.

“Well howdy there!” an almost comical voice called from the armored suit. “Come on, lady.  Just give yourself up.  Your legs have got to be tired.”

I was totally unsure how to respond, and a small part of me was wondering if I was meant to be offended. Was he trying to say I was old? I’ll admit, I’m not as young as many, but that doesn’t mean I can’t flee terrified through a jungle like the best of them. No, no, I was thinking about it too much.

“You really can’t outrun me,” the machine’s pilot said. “Make it easier on yourself.”

Diving into a tangle of roots, I nestled in, praying the foliage might reduce my thermal signature. I knew my rifle wouldn’t do much against the suit’s plating. After all, they had designed the machine to shrug off small arms. That left me with one viable option, though it meant getting close and not becoming a red smear in the process.

I pulled my revolver from its holster and spun out the cylinder. Sure, most would say that it doesn’t hold as much as a semiautomatic, but it also doesn’t jam. Plus, it can send a much larger bullet down range than most of them.

This pistol had been one of my first purchases when I’d decided to shift careers toward freelancing. I can still vividly remember the pride when I’d brought it home. Think I played with it all night like a child, feeling oh so badass. Not anymore, that’s for sure.

Pulling two of the bullets out, I hastily replaced them with a pair from my belt. That was also another reason I’d purchased this model. It could fire a few different rounds, and, in this case, I was trying my luck with an EMP variant. I’d had outstanding success with it against small security drones, but never tried it on something as large and shielded as power armor. It was probable I was going to die.

The death machine shook the flora as it searched for me, the lights on its pauldrons sweeping the bush with methodical precision. I knew the pilot’s patience was going to wane, and he’d enhance his search by firing indiscriminately.

“Time’s running out, lady! I don’t like being up this late!”

Inhaling a breath to calm my nerves, I gently drew back the hammer on my revolver. Though I had two rounds, I really only had one shot at this. Either my aim was true, and I stunned the armored hulk, or it blew me to smithereens. It wasn’t great odds.

Rolling the dice, I rounded out of my cover, my pistol at the ready. The shape of the power armor lined up with my iron sights and I squeezed my trigger. Automatically, my fingers readied the hammer again, the cylinder rolling to prepare the next specialized bullet. I fired the second shot and hurled myself back into concealment. The hits either worked or they didn’t. I really wasn’t keen on standing up like an idiot to see their outcome.

“Oh, that’s how you want to play!” the suit’s pilot bellowed, the playful tone replaced with one of anger. 

I’m not sure what weapons the machine carried, but its operator turned them against nature, and the jungle exploded into fire and ear shattering detonations. I pressed myself to the earth as what I assumed were rounds the size of soda cans tore their way through the bush before exploding. The concussive nature of the fusillade was so intense it actually hurt my brain to think. I know that sounds insane, and it is, but that’s what it was like.

The firestorm abated momentarily, a skull searing ringing echoing about my cranium. Slowly, I dragged myself forward, each centimeter seemingly an accomplishment. Destroyed foliage lay everywhere and someplace not far off the jungle was burning. The feral aspect of my consciousness told me to remain still, that the threat would pass when it couldn’t find me. But I couldn’t bank on that or the fact that I might be scorched alive while waiting.

“There you are!” the pilot called and one of the stab-lights shown around me. I’m sure I was basically a goose dinner, all dressed up and ready for the kill. At least it’d be quick.

A sickening mechanical groan resonated throughout the forest, and I could barely make out the frustrated whine of servos.

“What the shit!?” came the enraged cry from the power armor.

A figure appeared beside me, their head almost entirely concealed beneath a respirator and a camouflage tagelmust. But I knew the eyes, those gold flecked irises that stared down at me with concern. They must have been saying something but my brain was still having trouble rebooting all my senses.

“Marion!” Bao was shouting at me and slowly it was becoming clearer. I reached a hand out for him to help me up and he complied, though I found my limbs quite gelatinous. Unsnapping his ventilator, he shoved it over my mouth and without thinking I inhaled, the stimulant cocktail filling my lungs and subsequently my bloodstream. Vigor coursed through my veins, a feeling of unimaginable confidence accompanying it.

Bao refitted his mask. “Gally is working her magic on the PCA, but we need to move!”

Nodding faster than I thought possible, I followed Bao through the ruined flora, my entire body feeling like an elastic band. It was pretty obvious why people could become addicted to stims; it was like an incredible shot of euphoric adrenaline surging through you. A few times in my student days, I’d used a stim for that extra edge but, like wine, these things all had different vintages and potencies, because what I took back then felt nothing like I did now. But maybe I’m just getting old?

Legs whirling around me, I sprinted between trees till I screeched to a halt in front of a river.

Ria stood waiting in a sampan; her machine gun leveled behind us at any unwanted pursuit. Even in my adrenal state, I was not pleased to see a boat. We’d come in by land, a hired truck driving us up a logging road before we’d parted ways and slipped into the jungle to find the guerilla camp. Now we’d have to escape using my least favorite type of transportation.

My brain was on overdrive, but I think I said something like. “Why a goddamn boat!?”

“What’s with her?” Ria snorted to Bao.

Bao tapped his respirator, which prompted Ria to chuckle darkly.

“Can’t handle her stuff, I see.”

I think I might have stammered a few other obscenities as Bao hustled me into the boat. My body was on fire, but in the best way possible. I wanted to rush back into the trees and fist fight the power armor and somewhere in my mind I thought I could actually win.

An eerie silence settled over the forest as we waited at the boat. The insanity pulsing through my brain so strong I couldn’t perceive why we weren’t launching. I mean, I was here, and I felt like a god, so why not just shove off?

“Where is she?” Bao whispered, peering at the seemingly unending rows of bamboo. Quietness continued to prevail, save for the lapping of the river and the hammering of my heart. Unconsciously, I placed a hand against my chest, weirdly thrilled by rhythmic beating.

Ria took a step toward the tree line. “I’m going after her.”

“No,” Bao said. “I’m better suited.”

“Like hell. I got a better chance against that PCA than you.”

As if to reinforce her point, Ria patted the top of her machine gun, and I could make out ‘Brünnhilde’ crudely painted on the side of the weapon like some back-alley badge of honor.

“I can move faster than you. Besides, I know the jungle better,” Bao retorted.

“Whatever gasbag! I’m bringing back the twit.”

Gally’s sudden emergence from the jungle ended the conversation, the teenage girl running with panic toward the boat. She was waving her arms frantically, and I was willing to bet that meant the power armor had somehow broken free of her technophile grasp.

Bao motioned toward the back of the boat as he stepped to intercept Gally. “Fire up the motor!”

The adolescent practically leaped into his arms and together they tumbled into the wooden sea craft. Spitting curses and oaths, Ria slapped the starter, the still of the night interrupted by the roar of the boat engine. With everyone safely abroad, she kicked off from shore and gunned the motor, so we zipped out onto the river. Sporadic flashes appeared from the tree line as, seemingly, a handful of guerillas tried to take potshots at our boat.

Laughing maniacally, at least that’s what Bao informed me later, I turned and emptied my revolver in their direction, hardly caring if I missed or that each of the bullets would cost me upwards of eight quid a piece. Shaking her head in disbelief, Ria shoved me back down to the floor of the sampan.

“Thanks for waiting for me,” Gally shouted over the sound of the engine.

Bao offered her a polite nod in return and Ria didn’t even acknowledge the comment, too engrossed in steering.

Smirking like a fool, I leaned down toward Gally. “They’re trying to act all cool, but they were arguing about who was going to save you. They loves you.”

Gally glanced up at the other two, who both were trying their best to ignore her now adoring stare. In fact, Ria’s face darkened and, flashing her metal teeth, she punched Bao in the shoulder. He held up his hands in annoyed confusion.

“Never give her that shit again!” she yelled, pointing at me.

It felt like years as we powered the sampan down the river. In reality, it was only a few hours, but with my body still working through the stimulants, everything seemed to move so slowly. That is, until it wore off.

Dawn was just breaking when the weakened sense of euphoria turned into sweat inducing dry heaving. Curling myself down into the bottom of the boat, I worked on slowing my breathing to keep the nausea at bay. I really wanted to hate Bao for making me inhale those drugs, but he’d probably saved my life. I mean, I had no idea how long I’d have languished in the jungle while my body tried to recover from the shock of the power armor’s attack.

“Water?” Gally asked, offering me a canteen. Slowly, I drank from it only to upchuck it a moment later.

Squinting from the rising sun, I looked at Bao. “How do you survive on that stuff?”

With his ventilator now removed, I could barely see the smile form at the corners of his mouth. It was a nice expression on him.

“I’ve had years of practice.”

Focusing on keeping my stomach from doing flips, I leaned over toward Gally. “What did you get off their system?”

“Not a whole lot. They shut me out before I could pull anything large.”

Bao’s trace of a smile vanished. “They knew we were there.”

“And does anyone want to tell me how the hell they had a PCA?” Ria demanded from the back of the boat.

I might have been willing to take a gamble at answering her question, but any thought of that vanished as we rounded a bank in the river to face two large, armored patrol crafts waiting for us. Gun barrels jutted from the decks of the boats, and I could see the Gaiden Corporation logo emblazoned on the side of their hulls.

“This job just keeps on giving,” I murmured, more to myself than anyone else.

“Unidentified river craft, cut your engine and submit to inspection!” a voice ordered from one of the patrol crafts, armed personnel, staring down at us like fish in a barrel.

Gally turned to me in her naïve way. “Are we in trouble?”

All I could do was nod.

Detention centers are dreadful places which makes sense as technically no one should want to be in one, but once again, that was where I was finding myself.

After the Gaiden security officers screamed at us and threw a few ill meaning kicks, they locked each of us in our own cell, the space about the size of one of those coffin hotels. A steady scroll of holographic text on the ceiling dutifully informed me that compliance was mandatory and that the officers were only there for my benefit. Not that I believed it for a second.

Corporate security usually employed less than scrupulous people, many being little more than garbage human beings who wanted to legally have the authority to hurt someone, and those are only the lower ranks. Once you climb the metaphorical ladder, the number of sociopaths and delinquents increases astronomically. I should know; I applied to be one of them. Figured it was the easiest career I could choose to anger my somewhat pacifistic parents.

Wasn’t sure how long I waited in the cell, they hadn’t exactly given me a clock or anything, when they summoned me for interrogation. It was a long yomp past row after row of those capsule cells and I stalled as much as possible to search for my companions before the officer leading me swung his truncheon. I think he wasn’t trying to hit me. Just remind me who was in charge. Then again, maybe he was, but he just sucked that much.

The interrogation room wasn’t anything particularly interesting. A plain chamber with a single chair set before what resembled a lectern. When the officer sat me in the chair, restraints snapped around my ankles and I felt a slight pain in my back as the device burrowed itself into my skin. I’d been around the block enough to know a spinal arrester, the contraption employed in case I lashed out at my captors. If that occurred, a steel spike would inject itself into my vertebrate and likely paralyze me. Most civilized places had illegalized them as being too barbaric, but companies like Gaiden ran those places, so they probably just wanted a bit of constructive PR.

A moment later, a woman entered the room, everything about her reeking of corporate toadie. From her well-tailored suit to the bob of her haircut, it was all so cliché. I’m betting even her perfume and heels were dictated by her superiors. And if that didn’t vomit company loyalty enough, there was a small Gaiden Corporation pin clasped to her lapel, in case you ever considered doubting her.

With a wave of her hand, the lectern powered up and a holographic display rose out of it. Staring at the glowing symbols, I realized I couldn’t comprehend any of it. The data projected in some sort of code. It was my guess that the woman had a type of specialized cyberoptics that translated the information, just another way the company could safeguard its secrets. She scrolled lazily through the files before acknowledging me.

“Rhodes. Marion. Forty-three years old. University educated. Child of a good Omni Corps family. Strange to find someone of your upbringing and…vintage in here.”

I glared back at her. “That was a dig against my age? What the hell?”

The corporate woman swept her hands, and the holographic display split into two large glowing columns on either side of her.

“Ms. Rhodes, do you know what the penalty for being a terrorist is?”

“Hold on just a goddamn minute! I’m not a terrorist!”

“Well let’s count this up,” the woman began snootily, “You were armed and found in a restricted zone where a known extremist cell operates. In addition: one of your party has two outstanding warrants against her from Dye-Tech and we recovered an illegal hex editor from your boat. That seems pretty suspect to me.”

I shook my head as emphatically as I could. “We were hired to investigate that cell, to help identify its financiers. “

“Hired by whom?”

“I’m…really not at liberty to say.”

Rubbing her hands together with a little too much satisfaction, the woman took a small step toward me. “Ms. Rhodes, hiding behind a confidentiality agreement, will not save you here. In fact, it is simply going to make you look guiltier.”

“I can’t tell you. I signed a contract.”

“With whom?”

“Can’t say.”

“Here at Gaiden, we pride ourselves in owning a plethora of means of extracting the truth. Now I can use some of them or you can simply tell me.”

I felt myself swallow as I stared back at the conceited expression on the woman’s artificially flawless face, probably the result of hundreds of expensive dermatological treatments that cost more than all my gear put together.  

“Why do you want to know so badly?” I asked, trying my best to inject some haughtiness into my tone. 

The corporate woman nonchalantly raised an eyebrow. “It’s for your own benefit, Ms. Rhodes. You should be asking yourself: why do you want to be known as a terrorist?”

“Well, if you were actually keeping tabs on that cell, you’d know they don’t typically associate with known freelancers or even hackers, for that matter. As you said, they’re extremists.”

“But we all know your type,” the woman answered. “The desperate and greedy type. You don’t care where your meal ticket comes from so long as you get it. I’m betting your first heist was robbing your parents.”

It took a lot for me not to throw a fist at her stupid, smug face. Teach her what real pain felt like. I might have come close, maybe given her a small fright, but in the end the spinal arrester would have done its job and I’d be slumped over in that chair like an invalid. Some petty aspect of my brain told me it was worth it if I could just land the blow. It took some work to tell that part to shut up.

The corporate woman suddenly tilted her head, like a dog that’s hearing something its master cannot. Tracing gracefully up the side of neck to behind her ear, I could make out the faint line of cybernetics that were transmitting a message privately to her right now. Whatever it was saying must have been distressing because without thinking she blurted out a profanity. I wonder if she was being recorded and if so, would they penalize her for the outburst? Really hoping they would.

Eye twitching from indignation, she turned back to me, “You…are free to go, Ms. Rhodes. My humblest apologies for any distress you may have suffered under our care.”

I couldn’t help but stare back in bewilderment, even when the ankle restraints snapped open and the spinal arrester retracted.

“Ah…what?”

“Allow me to show you out,” the woman said, ushering me to the now open door where a smiling cherub faced corporate aide waited for me instead of the angry eyed officer who’d brought me in.

Still confused, I cautiously exited the interrogation room and followed the aide down the adjoining corridor. As we walked, other doors slid open, Ria and Bao stepping out to join us. They looked as mystified as I was.

“What did you say to them?” Ria whispered as we continued to follow the ever-smiling assistant.

“Nothing,” I replied. “One second I was going to be tortured and the next–you’re free to go.”

We wound through the complex for what seemed like an hour before entering something of a conservatory, the ceiling and walls all made of transparent aluminum. Gentle sunlight streamed in allowing a pleasant atmosphere to permeate the room and making the group of loungers scattered about altogether more enticing. Gally was sitting on one of sofas, her gear occupying the rest of it. She offered us a sheepish look as we made our way over to her.

I took one glance over at the corporate aide speaking to her. “Did you do something?”

Gally didn’t have time to speak, the assistant stepping forward as though he was her newly appointed valet.

“It was Miss Nova’s request that you all be discharged post haste.”

“Miss Nova…?” I queried, eying Gally’s face for any kind of reaction.

She didn’t seem to give one, but signaled to the aide. “That’ll be all, Jensen.”

The assistant offered her an overly polite nod before sauntering off. Gally waited for him to leave the room before speaking to us.

“It’s all a bit of a mixup, really. They scanned my biometrics and saw my dad works for SHI and they just, ya know, freaked out, let me go, wouldn’t stop apologizing. Usual stuff.”

Bao gave Gally a hard look. “What exactly does your father do at SHI?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she responded, squirming. “Executive stuff?”

“Your father is a corporate executive!?” Ria exclaimed.

Gally hunched her shoulders and stared down at her shoes. “Look, it’s a long story. Just don’t make a big deal about it.”

“Sure woulda liked to know that a thousand times before this! Kinda coulda come in handy!”

Bao placed a hand on Ria’s shoulder to calm her, the line of discussion clearly uncomfortable for Gally. Seeing a small opening, I interjected.

“Why don’t you guys retrieve our gear? I’m sure they’ve got it stored somewhere in this place.”

Ria seemed reluctant but went with Bao nonetheless, leaving me alone with Gally in the conservatory. I knew she was barely more than a kid but, at this moment, it was overly apparent to me.

“Does your father know what you do for a living?” I asked.

Gally shrank further into the couch. “No. He doesn’t even know I’m alive. Or care, for that matter.”

I leaned back, somewhat stunned.

“Illegitimate birth?”

“No,” Gally answered with a shake of her head. “As I said, it’s…a long story.”

“Well, we got time.”

The girl sighed, and for a moment we sat in silence, enjoying the warmth of the sunlight. I assumed that was the end of the discussion, the extent of our trust reached. Couldn’t blame her either, it was just part of this line of work.

“When I turned thirteen, I was in an…accident. It was bad, Marion. The doctors assumed I wasn’t going to live. But somehow I managed to survive, though it cost me these,” Gally said, holding up her arms to showcase the cybernetic appendages.

Hesitantly, she continued. “My injuries had been so bad that they weren’t able to graft vat grown limbs to me. In fact, the only thing that seemed likely to fuse with my jacked up nervous system were these clunky things. The same went for my legs, my spleen, pancreas, and a few other organs. So there I was, turned into some cyber monster overnight. I felt like a freak, like a deranged science experiment. But it only got worse”

“Did your father assume you were dead?” I asked.

“Not quite.”

Again we sat in silence and once more I wondered if her telling of the story ended there. I didn’t want to prod for fear of offense or maybe worse, making her cry. I try to tell myself I’m a hardened contractor but poke me in the right soft spot and I’m liable to get a wee bit mushy. 

Gally turned to look at me, tears rimming her eyes. “When I came home from the clinic…I found my father playing with a girl who looked like me. She sounded like me, even dressed like me. Somewhere during recovery he’d told the doctors that I was no longer his daughter, that his child couldn’t be this mess of wires and metal lying before him. So he illegally ordered a flash clone, even implanting some of my stored memories into it. They don’t live very long, maybe a year or two, but he simply orders another when they pass, so his little girl will forever be as he remembered her.

When they scanned our biometrics, I came up as whatever model he’s currently calling his daughter because, according to all records, me as I am now doesn’t exist.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. For starters, having two people in existence with identical DNA is a crime almost everywhere, the nature of that kind of genetic manipulation considered taboo. If Dragoons found out what her father was doing, they’d storm his residence immediately and execute him as a threat to humanity. But how could he not know the Gally before me still lived? Wouldn’t an incident like this be bounced back to him? Perhaps he didn’t care so long as his world was how he wished it to be. And I thought my childhood was a nightmare. 

“Well, to hell with him,” I said without thinking.

“What?”

I shrugged. “If you’re dead to him, then I say he’s dead to you, right? You’ve still got a full life ahead of you. And you know what, you got people here who love you just the way you are.”

Gally turned to see Ria and Bao walking back into the conservatory, their arms laden with our gear. They seemed so out of place amidst the sterile corporate background, the ex-ganger with her bioluminescent tattoos and the former child soldier with his drug addiction. Both of them offered something of a grin when they saw Gally looking in their direction.

“See, Gally? Blood doesn’t make a family,” I continued. “Having each other’s backs, accepting you for your faults, all of that stupid shit is what makes a real family.”

The girl wiped at her eyes. “Your pep talk could use some work.”

“Just being honest.”

Gally and I stared at each other for a moment as if both of us were trying to gauge the other’s authenticity. I know she’d shared something personal and likely confidential but the walls were up again and we were back to business as usual.

“What’d we miss?” Ria inquired as she saw us looking at each other.

I chuckled. “I was educating Gally on what makes a family.”

“Oh that’s easy. Ya see, when a mama and a papa decide it’s time to make a baby-”

Bao quickly waved his hand to cut off Ria. “And that’s enough of that!”

Gally giggled before looking at me one last time: gratitude in her eyes. 

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