Outside on the neon city streets, bathed in colored lights and the smoke of the city, hazy and shifting. The pavement shimmered with the last of the day’s heat, a radiant breath. Even in the late hour it swarmed with bodies. A restless crowd moved through the city, supplying the street vendors and hustlers and gawkers.
Not everyone in the crowd was human. Certainly not everyone was what they seemed. But that was the beauty of living in the future, he thought.
He moved quickly, trying to keep the woman in his line of sight. She flickered like a mirage, sometimes disappearing between the people crowding the pavement and spilling into the edges of the road where cars honked and moved like restless piranhas. He couldn't stop moving. Then she would reappear, her hair pulled up to bare her neck against the darker crowd. At a crossing he caught up to her, came within a few feet. Close enough to see the slinky, liquid dress that wrapped her from neck to ankle in black. Her feet were planted firmly and the crowd gave her a breath of space not granted to anyone else. It was like watching a predator move through the streets, radiating danger and blood.
She looked extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. A woman to love, to lust after, and to fear. Her dark, luminous eyes didn't show any expression, just the abstract concentration of a pedestrian fighting her way through the night crowds. But he knew that somewhere on her lurked a murderous intent. It was after all her intent that brought him to this place.
The lights changed and the arcane rules of traffic unleashed the crowd into the crosswalk.
He knew she was human, for the most part. Augmented, upgraded, expensively adjusted in the ways they all were now. But still underneath her skin was a human heart, red blood pumping.
Following as close as he dared, he chased her down the block towards the high rises of hotels and nightclubs that formed a solid block. Their glass fronts reflected the street level lights and the neon tracing up lesser buildings. Their entrances were bound with velvet ropes and enormous men in anonymous black suits, standing guard over faux classical entrances. The street crowds gawked at the beautiful, the rich and the unremarkable who made their way through the gates.
He was surprised when she walked right in, only because he had figured she might pick a more discreet path. But she swept into the hotel without so much as a sideways glance. Twenty steps behind her, he wondered if he would make it in behind her. The man at the door scanned him, and his false identity held up on the surprisingly heavy scrutiny of the hotel’s security system. It had been a good choice to throw on the new suit and a crisp white shirt before heading out tonight. With his ethnically ambiguous features and dark hair pulled back, he could pass for one of the many nouveau riche currently in New Shanghai to buy, sell, trade and steal in the spaceport’s booming economy.
Now another man, one with a significantly more flush bank account and a respectable name, he entered the brilliantly lit lobby. He could see the woman ascending the stairs to the mezzanine level and headed towards the bar area. The milling crowd in fancy clothes swallowed her up, despite her height. With a muttered curse he tried to move after her. A display appeared in the lower left corner of his vision, registering the room his false identity possessed in the hotel and a scrolling list registered guests that his interface pulled from the hotel system.
At the bar, he ordered something red and bitter over ice, something that smelled faintly of oranges and herbs. Too much time off the ground dulled the senses. It was good to drink something he could taste. He minimized his interface and took to an old fashioned survey of the crowd. For all his own enhancements, there were still some things in his life distressingly human. He made it work for him though.
On the stairs under the enormous shimmering chandelier of old world glass, her black dress drew in the light of the chandelier and the white steps to render her even taller and more imposing. Her earrings glittered in the light, bands of light hovering over her shoulders. They looked almost like crystal circuit boards to him, and he wondered if she would be crazy enough to store the data in something she was wearing.
He took a half step away from the bar, and their eyes met. She just watched him coolly for a long moment before she turned away. He snatched up his drink and went after her, unsure what that glance meant. Did she know why he was here? Had she seen him on the street?
In the echoing halls, he followed her, trying not to lose her in the rooms and corridors. The sound of music from the ballroom echoed over their footsteps.
All at once she was there, and he was moving too fast. Pulling up abruptly, his drink splashed forward onto her. It soaked into the black silk, left traces on her skin. Frozen, for a moment they just stared at each other. He still didn't know what he was doing or what she thought, if she knew why he was following her. Perhaps she just assumed some other intent and she wouldn't be half wrong about it. Her lipstick was a red slash over her mouth, a brightness that drew his gaze.
Then she undid the knot at her neck and her dress slipped down, an expensive fabric that rested on her hips. The surprise of it took his breath. The smooth planes of her chest were masculine, delicate pink nipples on her pale skin. Her gaze was a challenge now, her posture subtly different. It undid him, completely. He cut the interface that connected him to ever present data flow, the world’s invisible machine heartbeat. With shaking hands, he opened his own shirt, revealing the binding that compressed his own small breasts.
For a long moment, they stood there in an empty room with their hearts bared to each other.
“No one said...” he began, breaking the long silence.
“Who?” she asked in a voice made of velvet and smoke.
“The job was for the data. You weren't supposed to be important.” He ran his fingers through his hair, freed from the habitual pony tail he wore while working.
“You followed me because of the data?”
“I had no idea...” He stopped again. “I had no idea we were so alike. I wouldn't have taken the job.”
“I suppose they want all loose ends eliminated,” she said. “A shame. I had hoped to see the stars, before the end.”
He could only nod, feeling just the slightest bit ill. A job was a job and he never thought beyond that. Eyes closed, he finished the last of the bitter drink, half melted ice cubes sliding around the glass. He could feel it now - the edge of the knife, a moment of choice. Even disconnected from the net he knew there were a thousand calculations spinning out there somewhere trying to predict all the outcomes. That was his business, eliminating outcomes. How much would have clients spent charting the possibilities? His reputation would make the statistical likelihood of such an answer so small as to be insignificant, especially if no one had connected the dots on what they both were...
He opened his eyes and his connection. Data filled his vision. He could see clearly now, both her face and the crystalline earrings holding something incredibly valuable inside. Data that people were willing to kill for, apparently. He had no idea what it was, or why it mattered to these people. Part of his job was not asking these very specific questions at specific times, unless it was absolutely necessary to see all the ends.
“It is no small thing to leave your entire life behind. But there’s a chance that no one will have run the odds on the idea that I didn't take the data back, that I didn't kill you and instead took you off planet.” He spoke carefully, quietly, hoping to impress on her the seriousness of the choice they were about to make. He dropped his glass on the carpet, where it rolled and spilled a few slivers of ice. Holding out one hand, slightly sticky with spilled drink, he reached across the space between them.
She placed her hand in his, and as she leaned forward to brush her lips across his cheek she whispered.
“Tell me your name.”