(late January, 2034)
"So," David asked from where he sat at the 'net terminal, "Do you want the good news or the bad news?"
Sandra looked around before answering. The two of them were sitting in a small motel room, clean (at long last!), dry, and most of all, comfortably warm. And best of all, they were out of the Zone, which, in the end, was all that mattered. "Bad. I can take it."
Turning to look at her, David brushed glossy black hair away from his face. When they'd first gotten back, he washed it over and over, and claimed to have left several pounds of dirt and grime behind in the tub. Sandra was fairly sure he'd been exaggerating... but not by much. Still, it was nice to be clean.
"I don't have a home anymore."
Okay, that was bad. "Oh..." she replied, feeling that there wasn't much else she could say.
"My car has been repossessed. I was evicted from my apartment for failure to pay the rent. All my belongings were either thrown away or more likely stolen. SimTech doesn't exist. It was dissolved about a week after I ended up in the Zone."
"Oh..." Sandra winced and wanted to slap herself. "Oh" wasn't what David needed to her right now. Apparently her ability to be articulate had just gone out the window.
Swallowing, Sandra tired a new track. "And the good news?"
David gave her a slight grin. "My bank account is untouched and Michael is still alive."
"Michael?" Sandra asked.
"Michael Erica de Normandie," David rattled off, smiling at Sandra's confused look. "She was SimTech's other lead programmer. The one they wouldn't dare let into the Zone."
"That's good." She said. "It means you have someone there for you on this side." Sandra looked up at the roof. "It means you're doing better then me."
"Not necessarily," David replied. "Besides, don't you have anyone here? No family or the like?"
"My family and I..." Sandra began. "We don't talk. My parents never agreed with me about any of my decisions in life. They don't want me talking to my sister either, in case I fill her head with silly ideas." She smiled. "But then, I chose the lifestyle, so I live with it. What happened to you was... well, damn. I never did find you what you were doing in there."
David shrugged. "The boss wanted someone to come with him to pick up some software program he was buying. I don't know the details, other than I figure it was something being done under the table." He paused and looked out the window. "And someone else killed them all for it."
"Damn. That's... that's pretty harsh. I'm... I'm sorry to hear about it." Sandra said. It was beginning to see what was happening here. It sounded like David and his boss had been set up all along. "And from there you ran into me."
"You want to see her? Let her know that you're still alive and well and not been eaten by mass-murdering serial puppy-kickers?"
"Mass..." David stopped and shook his head. "Uhm... anyway... Yeah, I'd like to see her if I could, tell her I'm okay. But then what?"
"Well, we've got a couple of things we can do. First thing is we can track down an owner for that damnable laptop you've been hauling around. That's got to be worth a little bit of cash, so we can get back on our feet," she stated. "Then, well, I do have a place we can go, but it is a bit out of the way."
"You've got a place?" he asked. "Why didn't you mention it before?"
"Well, as I said, it's a bit out of the way." Sandra smiled for once. "It's in Hong Kong."
Sitting in a Starbucks, watching the mad rush of people asking, demanding, and squabbling over their choice of coffee (it came in 32 flavors and 57 varieties), Sandra tried, and failed, to relax. David, on the other hand, didn't seem to have a problem. But then, he hadn't spent most of his life either investigating dangerous situations or running from them. In fact, he almost looked happy.
"It's the little things you miss the most," he said.
"The little things." David gestured at his cup. "Like good coffee. Heat on demand. Hot water. Clean clothes."
"And a lack of gun fights?" Sandra added dryly.
"Ahhh..." David sipped at his cup. "I wasn't going to go there."
Sandra smirked. To be honest, in some ways, David was right. It felt good to be free of the Zone. Although she felt she'd never really be "free." She'd lived there too long, seen too much, been too involved to ever really put it behind her. Besides, knowing her luck, she'd be back.
"So," she asked, changing the subject to something more relevant, "What's this Michael person look like, anyway?"
"Michael? Can't miss her." David sketched the air with his free hand. "She's about five-five and weighs around one hundred pounds even. Pale skin, red eyes, and white hair."
"Pale skin and white hair?" Sandra muttered to herself. It reminded her of something, but she couldn't think what. "Is she an esper?"
David thought for a moment, "I'm not sure... Unless always knowing what time it is counts."
"Somehow I doubt it," Sandra replied with a smirk. Whatever it was that was bothering her could wait.
Glancing at his (new) watch, David sighed. "I hope she shows."
Sandra looked up. The woman standing there had to be Michael, going by David's description. She was one of the most striking-looking women Sandra had ever seen. Slightly below average height and slender, she had very pale skin, long silvery-white hair and reddish-pink eyes. She was wearing an immaculately clean light gray suit, complete with jacket and a high collar.
Compared to Sandra's ragged black hair and sun-darkened skin, it was hard to imagine her looking any more different.
"David! It is you!" Michael cried as David turned to look. She then rushed forward to embrace him in a hug. "I thought you were dead!"
"No, not dead," David replied with a smile as he hugged her back. "Just lost in the Zone for a while." Pulling free he pointed to Sandra, "And Sandra here helped me escape. I owe her my life."
"I found him wandering around and helped him get out." Sandra said. "And, uh, he did save my life once, too," she admitted.
"Oh!" Michael suddenly flushed, the red a sharp contrast to her pale skin, "Where are my manners? I'm Michael Erica de Normandie." She held out a hand to Sandra. "I used to work with David at SimTech."
Sandra took her hand and shook it. "Sandra Blackmore," she began. "It's good to meet you. I, ah... only wish that it'd been under different circumstances." Damn, that sounded bad. "I mean, without David getting trapped in the Zone first." Not much better.
Michael sat down and gave Sandra a slight smile. "I think I understand."
"Thanks." She said. "It took me a lot longer to get him out then I'd expected. The Jinsei invasion of the Zone made a real mess of all my plans." She smiled. 'Still, somehow we managed to do it."
"Somehow," David agreed. "And I hope to never have to go back."
There was one last thing Sandra needed to do before she left. Before she'd gone back into the Zone and before she'd met David, she'd been staying with someone and being, at least in her mind, the world's worst house guest. She'd gone into the Zone on some business some moths ago, met David and, well... it had all gone downhill from there.
So she'd basically left poor Korey hanging. As far as Sandra was aware, she hadn't given Korey any indication of where ash was and what she was doing. Heck, for all she knew, Korey may have been sending Ray out to find her for the last few months. Damn. Now she felt like a total tool.
She slipped away from David for a minute and pulled out her phone, punching Korey's number in. "Pick up, pick up, please oh please oh please pick up."
Message bank. Great.
"Hey Korey, Ray. It's me, Sandra. I, uh, I just wanted to say that I'm alive and well. I'm... I'm not coming back there. I'm going to Hong Kong. Please don't worry about me. I'll be fine. Really."
She hung up. Well, that's it, she thought to herself. I'm finished here.
From the instant they touched down in Hong Kong Sandra had seemed to be in a hurry. Going through customs and immigration had seemed to drag on forever, with Sandra being even more grouchy and impatient then normal. David had thought it impossible, but somehow she had managed it. Despite how little the pair of them had (nothing beyond carry-on luggage), she'd been acting like it was taking them forever to get through. After finally making it out the other side and claiming their baggage, she'd all but dragged David out of the airport and into a taxi.
"You're in a hurry," David had finally managed to get out once they were in the taxi and Sandra was through shouting at the driver.
"Sorry," Sandra said. "I just want to get home, that's all. After all the months of fighting and bleeding and dying, I wanted to... well, I just want to get home, relax and put my feet up for five seconds. So naturally I'm in a hurry to do it."
"Home?" David asked.
"Yeah, of course," Sandra said. "I do have a home here."
That struck David as more than a bit odd. In the Zone, she lived in whatever hole in the wall she could find and had only a little money for food. In Neo York, she had nothing to go to at all. He couldn't imagine what she'd have in Hong Kong. Whatever it was, she'd decided that it would be better for the pair of them to be there.
The taxi pulled up outside a gleaming white, modern tower. He figured it to be more then sixty stories tall, part apartment complex and part shopping center. "Is this it?" he asked.
"What?" Sandra replied. "Do you think I'd live in a slum or something?" She grinned. "I'm not dragging you to another continent for nothing."
"Well, so far you've dragged me from one hole to another," David replied. "I guess a change would be nice."
"Look at this place," Sandra said as the taxi left. "Four walls. A roof. No bullet holes. No missing windows. No large chunks of structure missing. Isn't it great?"
"I suppose when you put it like that, I can't complain."
"Come on," she said. "There's someone I've got to see before I move back in, and I'd like to introduce you to them as well."
They entered, Sandra leading the way. "We'll need to get about a zillion things before we can get settled in properly. I didn't have much food left in the place and I suspect whatever's left may be a little far gone. Clothes too; I've got little beyond what I'm standing up in." She gestured to the shops on the ground floor, "Fortunately, most of that is convenient to us. For now, I just want to lie down and die a little."
Taking a lift up to the sixth floor, Sandra led David around to one particular apartment. "Is this it?" He asked.
"Naw, this is where my friend lives. Now step back, there may be trouble." She gently knocked on the door. David took up a position behind her, somewhat apprehensive. Sandra seemed to cause trouble wherever she went.
There was a moment of silence and the then sound of footsteps. "This had better be important!" a woman's voice said, before the door opened. David blinked in surprise, definitely not expecting dark blue hair and pale blue skin. "Sandra?" The blue woman asked.
"Hi, Sarah," she said. "Sorry for not calling in advance."
Sarah stood there for a moment before saying anything. "You're back here? No, back up one, you're alive and unharmed?"
"Pretty much." Sandra replied. "I mean, I picked up a few more scars and all, but mostly I'm fine. I take it you heard about the Zone invasion."
Sarah nodded. "It was all over the news here. Most of the channels were giving it a lot of coverage. What I saw looked pretty bad."
"Yeah, well, I was in the middle of it all... damn, where are my manners." She stood aside for a minute. "Sarah, this is David Lam. We met in the Zone. He got marooned in there by accident and I helped him get out. David, this is Sarah Ferrari, my landlady and good friend."
David quickly decided that after spending six months in the Neo York Zero Zone, he'd see stranger stuff than a blue-skinned woman. "Uhm... Pleased to meet you," he said as shook her hand. "Sandra said she had a friend here, but I didn't think it'd be the landlady."
"Few tenants do consider me to be one. I think most of them settle for 'piece of equipment.'" Sarah shrugged. "That's okay to me, I ignore them as much as they do me."
"Thanks a heap, Sarah." Sandra muttered.
Sarah glanced back at Sandra. "So why have you decided to come back here?" she asked. "Had enough of Neo York?"
"Basically. I wanted to get as far away from the fighting in the Zone as possible, and I figured this was the furthest I could get where I could find a bed," Sandra replied. "David here has very little to go back to in NY, so he thought he'd come along for the ride." She grinned. "Actually, he's a pretty good friend. We got to know each other well while we were being chased and shot at. He even saved my life once."
"Sandra's being modest. She saved mine a good number of times."
"So he's a good friend?" Sarah said, quirking one eyebrow. "I think I should add a filter to that tub of yours."
"What?" Sandra shouted.
"Joke," Sarah smiled, raising both hands in a mock gesture of surrender. Sandra could tell the synth was glad that she was alive and well. Very few people ever were glad to see her, so it was a start. "So," Sarah continued, "Why did you come to me first rather then dumping all your gear and making yourself presentable?"
Sandra sniggered, then blushed a bit. "I lost my key. It took a bullet for me. That key was buried with honors."
Sarah shook her head. "So it's 'Hi Sarah, I missed you, I'm alive, give me my key'." She sighed. "Good to see that living in a war zone hasn't changed you any."
"And you haven't changed either." Sandra added. "Been okay without me? Place hasn't fallen down? Tenants haven't driven you over the edge?"
"Very funny." Sarah stepped out of her apartment, keys in hand. "Okay, let's get you back in. I don't think I could stand you living on my doorstep otherwise."
David had to admit that Sandra's place in Hong Kong was nice. Certainly it left his old place for dead. He did have to wonder how Sandra who was normally scavenging for her day to day food supply and living in holes in the wall could afford a million-dollar penthouse apartment in Hong Kong. Alternatively he realized that, given what they'd been through together so far, he probably didn't want to know.
After dumping what little luggage she had, Sandra had excused herself to go and wash up, saying something about wanting to feel almost human. He could understand. She'd been living in the Zone for far, far longer then he had. She probably considered hot running water to be a rare luxury by now. He certainly did.
"Sorry to run off like that," he heard her say. Turning around, he could see her standing there in the doorway to the living room. She was wearing only her bra and briefs, as well as a towel draped across her shoulders. Her hair, while still damp, was long, straight and clean looking, a far cry from the scraggly, straw-like mess he was used to. Her face was free of all the dirt, grime and mess that usually covered it. And under all the layers of torn, stained and rather bulky clothing she normally wore, she was actually rather attractive, scars aside.
"What?" Sandra said.
"You're um..." David began.
"Yeah, sorry about that," she admitted. "I don't have anything else to wear right now."
"You..." David tried to look Sandra in the eye but found his gaze wandering. "You look nice," he managed in a lame tone of voice.
"Thanks," she said, a lot quieter then normal. "Very few people say that about me." She smiled a bit. "You don't look too bad yourself when you're all cleaned up."
"Thanks." David considered saying more but found himself entering into the one thing he wanted to avoid—an uncomfortable silence in which both he and Sandra obviously wanted to say something to each other but were unsure were to start.
"Um..." Sandra said, looking at him, unsure of what she wanted to say. She liked him. She really, really did. He was the sort of close friend she hadn't had since... Since she and Jason had broken up. She just didn't know how to put it. "Uh..." Damn. She just didn't know what to say here.
"Yeah..." She said, her mind wandering. "I... I mean..." Unable to think of what to say, Sandra took off around the room, rambling as she went. "I mean, don't ask about the apartment, it's a long story that I really don't want to go over again, gave me a few more scars of course, but then again everything I've been through has, so it's just a few more to the collection, but the really neat thing is that I've got a fully paid-up luxury penthouse apartment in one of the nicest spots in Hong Kong that I'm free to do whatever I... choose... with..." She trailed off, her path having inadvertantly taken her to stand directly in front of David again. She couldn't help but notice how close they now were. "So uh, what I'm trying to say is..."
"You don't want to go to dinner."
"Ahhh..." Sandra mentally went through a dozen responses and settled on the simplest one. "No."
David was quiet for a moment. Then glanced from her to an open doorway and back. "Hot tub?"
"Yeah..." She said, looking almost embarrassed, something he hadn't seen her do before. "I mean, what I mean is, David... I... I like you. A lot... In fact, I like you more then I've ever liked anyone before..." She blushed. "And yeah, uh, that was what I was thinking and..."
Then she kissed him.
David opened his eyes to find himself looking at the ceiling. A clean white ceiling with no water stains, cracks, mold, bullet holes, or other discernible damage. He was also lying in a bed, that albeit rumbled and messy, was made with clean sheets and a fairly solid mattress. He was also quite naked.
Putting two and two together, David decided he wasn't in the Zone. In fact, he hadn't been in the Zone for the better part of a week. Right now he was in Hong Kong, in an apartment belonging to... he looked to his left.
"Mmm?" She was lying in bed next to him, still half asleep. He couldn't see for certain, but it appeared that, like him, she was naked. Rested and clean, she looked quite different than the woman he'd met all those months ago. "David? Something up?"
"No..." He shook his head. "Nothing's wrong. I was... uhm... just making sure this was all real." He laid back down in the bed, after glancing around to find clothing scattered all about the room. "It's not every day I wake up in Hong Kong in bed with an attractive nude woman."
Sandra smiled. "And I rarely wake up with attractive naked men, in Hong Kong or anywhere else." She propped herself up so she was looking him directly in the eyes. "And nobody ever calls me attractive. Thanks."
They lay there for a moment before either of them spoke. "Um... Sandra?" David asked. "Can you please explain Sarah to me?"
Sandra looked confused. "What do you mean, explain?"
"Why is she blue?" he asked. It had been bothering him since he met her yesterday.
"She's a synth." Sandra replied. "Didn't you figure that?"
"There are people in the Zone with full-body tattoos," David said, remembering some of the stranger people he'd met while living there. "And cyborgs who look... well... look like walking transmission systems from an '05 Chevy."
"We're not in the Zone any more," she replied. "This is the real world"
"Oh sure, Hong Kong is more real than the Zone..."
"Hong Kong has soft beds and hot tubs," she explained, glancing around the messy room. "We could have done it on as bare floor with a trickle of water coming from the roof"
"I'm glad we waited then," David said and smiled. "That sounds like the voice of experience speaking."
"Actually, it was a rusty bed with some very bad springs and a suspect mattress, but you get the idea," Sandra replied. "But that was a long time ago."
He decided he didn't want to think about it. "Right... So, Sarah's a synthetic, then?" He had to pause to think about that one. "Wait, she's your landlady?"
"Damn right she is," Sandra said, sounding almost defensive. "She's an Australian citizen... which means she's got full people rights. Whatever that means."
"They do that?"
"Damn right they do. They passed some bill a while back, when synthetics became a viable technology." Sandra paused as if trying to remember something. "Any synthetic living in Australia is a full Australian citizen, not just a piece of property. Of course, it's probably only to bilk the corps for more tax dollars and make them hire more of Australia's unemployed masses."
"I didn't know..." He'd never heard this interesting fact before. Probably useful to remember. "Actually... I've never really met a synthetic. At least, I don't think I have."
"Blue aside, she's perfectly normal. Heck, she's a lot more human then a lot of people I've met," she replied."
"But what do I say to her?" David asked, nervously.
"What do you mean by that?" Sandra looked confused. The fact that Sarah was a synthetic had never really bothered her.
"I mean... oh, I don't know, I've never talked to a synthetic. What do I say? What do I do?" he seemed almost panicky.
"Treat her like a normal human," Sandra replied. "Just don't mention the 'blue' thing and you'll be fine." She smiled. "Actually, I was thinking that we could all go out to lunch together today. Yesterday aside, I haven't seen her in months."
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