Waking up in Shion’s apartment is an experience like no other. It’s warm and dry for one thing, and having spent time in the Zone, I can tell you what an improvement that is. There’re no pests as well, no rats, mice, spiders, or other creepy-crawlies trying to share your bed, your food, or take a bite out of you. Speaking of beds, it’s queen-sized (no surprise, considering how tall the Boss is), firm, and piled with blankets and pillows. Far better than the worn mattress on the floor of some decrepit flophouse that I used for a time. But best of all, it’s quiet.
That sense of quiet, of pleasant stillness, makes a huge difference in the morning. Oh sure, there are some sounds I welcome when I waken—frying bacon, percolating coffee, the chatter of birds on a spring morning, but in the Zone you were apt to get yowling cats, grunting pigs, crowing roosters, arguments in the streets, and loud stereos (Yes, even in the Zone. The wonders of solar power.)
I wake up in Shion’s apartment and it’s totally different. There’s blessed silence—just me and the Empress, and she’s not the earliest of risers (then again she does work some odd hours). We’re nearly 100 stories up, with the only real neighbor being whoever it is that lives on the other half of our floor, and they’re totally inaccessible from here. Oh sure, there’s people below us, but Shion has an indoor pool, which means those on the floors below are easily yet another floor down from where they would be if this was a more normal condo.
So I lie awake, and take it easy. I’m pretty sure we don’t have anything planned for today. Or to be more accurate, Shion doesn’t have anything planned for today. The Empress can teleport half-way around the world on a whim, and does, usually to visit her sister and sister-in-law in Hong Kong. Me? If I’m lucky, she tells me where we’re going. If not, I’m left standing there staring at empty air.
Anyway, after a bit I crawl out of a very warm bed and decide I really should be getting breakfast ready—which isn’t has difficult as it sounds, since Shion buys her meals in bulk a week at a time. All she... well, all I need to do is heat water and run the microwave. Pretty hard to mess up, but then again, I’ve seen Shion ‘cook.’ I’m still trying to figure out how she got by before I was around. Probably ate out for every meal.
I pull on a long-sleeved t-shirt that hangs to my knees and pad out into the hall that will take me to the stairs. A quick check shows that Shion’s door is closed—no surprise there—when an odd sound brings me to a halt. It’s a strange, rhythmic noise, sort of like an engine, changing pitch on an almost regular basis. I check the Boss’s door again—still closed.
I think about this for a moment. After my first visit, Shion upgraded the locks, so I really doubt someone’s broken in. The sound is coming from downstairs, so it could be the entertainment center, or something to do with the pool. Moving forward as silently as I can (not hard considering the noise) I creep down the spiral stairs and peek around the wall.
I find Shion standing there in the hall between the entertainment center and the pool, dressed in a worn housecoat and slippers, her hair tied up and out of the way with a simple scarf. She has a cup of what I guess to be tea in one hand and the handle of vacuum cleaner in the other.
There’s a long moment where we both stand there, staring at each other. I feel like an utter idiot. Of course Shion wouldn’t allow maids into her inner sanctum, either human, replicated, or cyberdroid, and I’d never seen any sweeperbots about. It’s just all of my mental images of her don’t include one where she’s performing domestic chores.
“Well?” she says finally, still running the vacuum about the carpet while giving me one of those looks she does so well.
I what? I heard a strange noise and came down to investigate? Shion, all you need is the stub of a cigarette and you’d be perfect for some inane online sit-com? Are those really fuzzy bunny slippers?
“.... care for breakfast?”
The Mercedes Benz SL2028 AMG might be the finest car made today. I’m not saying that as an idle boast either, seeing as I drove one near 200 mph up I-95 while being chased by armed lunatics who were doing their best to shoot it full of holes.
Mercedes replaced that one for free, just like they did the one of hers someone stole out of a Neo York parking garage. While it doesn’t hurt that Shion has an endorsement contract with Mercedes Benz (the advertisement shot of her laying on the hood of a SL2028 SMG in a sheer white robe might be the most popular download on the Net) there’s the whole public relations factor to think of. The one that was all shot up was taken off to be studied by their engineers in order to make next year’s model that much better, while the one that was stolen... well, the SL2028 SMG lock codes are supposed to be unbreakable now aren’t they?
While working as Shion’s valet may not be the best job (although I can think of ones that are far, far worse), it does have its perks. Driving the aforementioned SL2028 SMG for example. There’s something intoxicating about that much luxury combined with that much power. And having made that screaming haul up I-95 I appreciate both.
Tonight, however, I’m driving at far more sedate speeds through the streets of Neo York, avoiding the gaggles of pedestrians, clusters of bicycles and electric scooters, and the omni-present yellow hybrid cabs. The latter are the worst—they don’t mind a few dents and figure if you’re driving in Manhattan you won’t either.
Shion had gone out for the evening to have some time alone—which usually means she’s going to some high-class nightclub to drink. If it was dinner, she’d ask me along, if only to have someone to talk to. But if she’s drinking? Usually she’s got something on her mind, and trust me, you don’t want to be around the Boss when she’s A) drinking, and B) thinking things over. A depressed and/or morose world-class esper weapon does not make for a good drunk.
So it’s near one in the morning and I’m making my way through the still-crowded streets of Manhattan. It could be worse, it could be Hong Kong, where I swear I’m never going to try driving again. Manhattan is merely crowded, Hong Kong is packed.
Anyway, I park the SL2028 SMG right in front, quietly enjoying the looks the car gets from the scattered Z-listers along the sidewalk. As I swing the door up and get out, I glance over at the club. The name, sedately back-lit in neon, is “Plumm” and the place looks like what I’d expect Shion to frequent when she wants to get her drink on. Classy, expensive, and exclusive.
The doorman is either a genetic upgrade or a replicated human. He’s got that ‘too good to be true’ look to him, which I’ve seen before. Nice enough, but there’s far better. He glares down at me, trying to use his height to full effect, but I basically ignore him. I work for the Empress, who has intimidation down to a science. This guy’s still in training. Anyway, I stare at his open hand for a few moments and decide it’s “WWSD” time. What would Shion do? Stare him down mostly likely, if she didn’t simply imperiously sweep past. Okay, scratch that. Still, I can use her name to my advantage....
“Pick up for Ms Shion Nys.” I return his glare with a steady gaze, putting just a little bit of emphasis on the name. His reaction is amusing—the glare turns off, the open hand vanishes, and he cocks his head in the manner I’ve come to associate with people using an implanted cell.
“Yeah, she’s inside.” He points his thumb at the door. “Shelly’ll show you the way.”
‘Shelly’ turns out to be a tall, thin, pinch-faced blonde, who looks down at me with a mixture of apprehension and irritation. And maybe a little fear. The looking down part I expect, I’m just over five feet in height, and it seems all of the nightclubs in Neo York go out of their way to hire six-foot plus bouncers and head waitresses. The rest? Well, I have my chauffeur’s uniform on—it looks best that way, so she probably thinks I’m beneath contempt, but I am here for the Empress, which means I might be able to make her head explode just by crossing my eyes.
There’s a gaggle of waitresses clustered near the door, all whispering together. They glance at me then the far end of the club, and return to their huddle. I’m reminded of a cluster of Zoner hens pecking at grain... or pigs at the trough. Typical gossiping, but I have to wonder, what did Shion do?
Inside the club seems nice enough. Wood paneling, scattered plants, low couches, chairs, and tables, and recessed lighting. It’s dim without being dark, the music loud enough to enjoy but not overpowering, and there’s a welcome lack of flashing lights, smoke machines, lasers, and the like.
Shelly leads me to the far corner of the club and then stands aside, revealing the Boss.
How does she do that? How does she fall asleep in a nightclub? I want to shake my head but do my best to stay in character. A show of emotion is reserved for inside her condo, not out where where people can see.
I stand there for a moment and marvel at how peaceful Shion looks. I think the only time she can really let go of her ‘Empress’ persona is when she’s asleep and even now, in the middle of this place, I find it hard to disturb her. On the other hand I can see the blogs now: ‘EMPRESS PASSES OUT IN NITECLUB.’ Yeah, like that will help her rep any.
She’s sitting on a low chair, her long legs crossed before her on a stool. Her right arm rests on the table next to her, propping up her head. There’s a scattering of glasses and bottles on the table—did she really drink all of that? Dumb question. Shion has an amazing capacity for alcohol.
The real question here is how to wake her up. I’ve learned that the Boss can go from fast asleep to full awake in an instant, and she’s often on combat alert, especially if she’s somewhere where she doesn’t instantly recognize... like a nightclub. I try not to picture the result of the bouncer shaking her awake.
I stand here for a moment while Shelly looks down her long nose at me and gives a barely audible sniff. Shion’s too well dressed (and too well off) for them to simply dismiss her as a drunken bum, but it can’t do their image (or hers) and good to have a client passed out on a couch. Taking a deep breath I reach out and touch the toe of her boot.
One shake later and she’s awake. She starts, open her eyes, and then stands up all in one smooth motion, causing Shelly to take a few steps back. It’s like watching waterfall in reverse. There’s a moment where she sways, ever so slightly, and then steadies.
I breathe a slight sigh of relief and then stifle an laugh. I can see the wheels turning in her head. Where am I? What’s going on? What was I doing? Then she sorts it out and relaxes.
“One AM?” she asks.
“One AM,” I reply. “As you requested.”
She nods and turns her attention to Shelly. Shion produces a neatly-folded collection of bills from the depths of her coat and hands it over. It’s probably twice what she really owes, but it’s not my place to comment. Besides, a sizable tip should silence the gossipy waitresses... I hope.
There are times (like this one) where I feel more like a babysitter than a valet, but hey, as I mentioned before, I do get to drive that incredible car of hers.
Just how strong is the Boss? This is a question I’ve pondered more than once. I’ve seen her jack open a locked door with just a shrug, man-handle military class cyberdroids, fight a combat graft cyborg to a standstill, and swing around full-sized 25mm anti-material rifles with one hand. Her exercise room doesn’t have weights, just a rowing machine, but she uses it at full resistance for upwards of an hour at a stretch.
I know Shion isn’t a genetic upgrade (she’s told me as such) and doesn’t have any cyber implants. I know she’s naturally strong --- I’ve seen her nude, and there’s a lot of muscle under those curves. But there’s no way she can fight cyborgs and cyberdroids on natural muscle alone. My best guess is its her esper talents at work. Some form of telekinesis applied in a very direct and limited fashion. Which is interesting, when I think about it, since I’m pretty sure her true telekinetic abilities (You know what I mean. When an esper lifts something just by looking at it.) let her lift 70 ton combat tanks (I’ve seen the video). But pure ‘muscle’? I’m not so sure.
I finally got my answer when we were working an op together. I’ve done some calculations since then, and the results scare me.
You might find it surprising to hear about Shion working with someone else on an op, but it happens. She’s brought her sister in before, and I have it on good authority that there are few street sams faster, stronger, or more skilled than Marta Nys. In fact, my first work as Shion’s valet was backing her up on an op to wreck some anti-esper cyberdroids a company was trying to market. Well... not so much as ‘back her up’ as ‘stay out of her way’ as she flattened everything in sight.
Anyway, even the Empress can’t see everywhere at once (at least... I don’t think so) and considering the nature of the op (dealing with some African warlords who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer), Shion thought it prudent to have an extra set of eyes (not to mention an extra gun) along.
I won’t dwell on why we were there. Suffice to say that Africa didn’t fare too well during World War III. Most of it was in bad shape to start with, especially considering how most governments are kleptocracies (in which the ruling few got richer at the expense of everyone else) or the nearest thing to it. Then add in AIDs, HIV, famine, drought, no relief efforts from the outside, and good-old ‘tribal warfare’ (a nice way of saying genocide) and it’s no wonder most of the governments collapsed, letting the multinationals move in.
I’m not sure life is any better (or worse) with the multinationals running things, but the general effect is apparently (to hear Shion tell it) akin to Italy during the late Renaissance. In other words, most of Africa is now made up of multinational corporate city-states, with a lot of empty space in between. It’s in those spaces where the trouble brews. People who didn’t want to submit to multinational rule, nomads who want to stick to their traditional ways, militants, and who-knows what all. It’s a mess, and some place I’d rather not be.
But be there I was. Of course, I had a world-class epser weapon at my side, which makes all the difference.
The op was intended to smash a local warlord’s power base. A lot of property destruction, denial of assets, that sort of thing. Shion and I were supposed to make a mess behind the lines, while a contingent of multinational security forces shot-up the front lines. It looked good on paper, but Shion and I both know how well anything that looks good in paper does in the real world.
Things went like I expected—we did our part, the security forces did theirs, and then everything went, as they say, into the pot. Apparently, this wasn’t just some run-of-the-mill warlord with surplus miltech and vision. Nope, he was getting supplied on the side by another multinational to do just what we were doing—property destruction, denial of assets, that sort of thing.
Fortunately, his supplier wasn’t handing over MBTs and the like. No, it was more sedate stuff—firearms, body armor, communications gear, and some low-end APCs. And that last item let Shion demonstrate just how physically strong she is.
We were both dressed in full milspec-grade armor. She had on her bodysuit, clamshell, and some armor plate strapped on over that. She even had on her cloak and mantle—despite the heat—in order to look even more intimidating. Like a 6’1” woman with snow-white hair down to her knees needs to look even more intimidating. As for myself, I had the typical kit of body armor, gloves, boots, helmet, and a Jinsei M-100. It’s a big battle rifle, sure, but it packs 100 rounds, a grenade launcher, and puts holes in things. Shion was hauling around a cyborg-class SAW, feeding it from a big bin slung over one shoulder. I think she got the idea from one of the Lovely Angels.
Anyway, things had gotten pretty much out of hand—half the place seemed to be on fire, the rest was getting there. Bodies littered the ground and everyone still in the fight seemed to be racing to empty their magazines as fast as possible, aiming be damned (which is apparently par for the course for firefights in Africa). Shion and I had taken cover behind a broken wall while we debated what to do next. She seemed ready to single-handedly take out everything in sight (I’m pretty sure she could to), while I tried to talk her out of it. It wasn’t I thought she might get hurt (I really doubted that), but I figured if any of the multinationals got caught up in the mess we could forget about getting paid.
Shion had just mentioned teleporting the two of us out of there (we’d accomplished our objectives), when an APC came crashing through the wall next to us, the turreted machine gun spraying rounds everywhere. I dropped, rolled and tried to get the M-100 up. Could it do anything against an APC? I wasn’t sure, but I felt it couldn’t hurt.
At the same time, Shion dropped her SAW, stood up and caught the front of the APC! It pushed her back a bit (I watched the dirt spray around her boots), then she got her shoulder down and braced herself. The APC stopped. I mean stopped dead.
There was a long moment where man and machine faced each other—the Empress versus the impersonal bulk of the APC. I could hear the APC’s tires spinning, trying to get a grip in the dust and gravel. I could just see Shion’s face, red from exertion amid the bright white stands of her hair. She gave a very undignified grunt, shifted her one foot and pushed the APC back. Physically pushed it back.
I have no idea what the APC’s crew was making of all this, in fact I’m not sure how much they could see through the vision blocks. The turret came around with a whine, followed by a buzz-saw rip as it opened up, the gunner trying to get the barrel depressed enough to hit Shion. There was a cloud of dirt and grit spiraling around her, which told me she had her esper powers going full force. I actually think the gunner managed to tag her once or twice, but when Shion goes full defensive (like now), I’m not sure MBTs are sufficient to hurt her.
I finally woke up enough to get my M-100 around. I wasn’t go try try firing anywhere near Shion, so I shot at the line of tires in front of me. Let me tell you, 10mm armor-piercing does wonders in a situation like that, no matter how reinforced a tire you have. The APC sagged slightly on my side, but I knew any military vehicle worth the name was going to be using run-flats, so it wasn’t like I’d stopped it. On the other hand, shredding the hubs did wonders for slowing it down.
Meanwhile, Shion had had gotten under the front of the APC, out of sight of the gunner and the driver. Even I couldn’t see her, just her boots and the spreading depression where she stood. That made me back up. I’ve seen what happens when the ground sinks around Shion, it’s not pretty, not by a long shot.
My back against the wall, I scooted away from the APC as quickly as I could. The driver gunned the engine, the gunner fired a long burst at nothing but smoke and dust, and the APC slowly, ever so slowly, started to tilt to one side.
I can only imagine the panic from the APC’s passengers and crew. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing. But as I moved around behind the APC, I could see Shion again, now under the APC’s hull, her body shaking with the effort as she lifted the front of the APC off the ground and tipped the whole thing over on its side. It came down with a crash that made me stagger.
For a long moment (but probably only a few seconds), there was silence, punctuated by the distant pop of weapon fire. Shion stepped out of the shallow crater at her feet and shakily made her way over to me, her limbs trembling with adrenaline.
“Boss?” I asked, hoping my voice didn’t crack.
“I’m okay,” she said (I had to wonder at that assessment). “Let’s get out of here, we’re done.”
“Yeah,” I replied, looking at 15 tons or so of APC laying in its side. There was a clang as a hatch opened somewhere. “Lets....”
Shion is probably the healthiest person I know who isn’t a genetic upgrade or a cyborg. But in my opinion those guys don’t count anyway, considering all of the gene-splicing, genetic tinkering, and bio-ware filters they have to screen out germs, viruses, and anything else that might disagree with you. Shion on the other hand, is all natural (well, as natural as a world-class esper weapon can be), and as I said, she’s the healthiest person I’ve ever met. She never gets sick, ever. So, as you might expect, the rare occasions where she does come down with something are somewhat monumental.
Which is why I’m sitting in a chair next to Shion’s king-sized waterbed (yes, you read that right), attempting to play nurse-maid to the Empress. It all started when I picked her up at her personal physician’s while driving sex-on-wheels (a.k.a the Mercedes SL2028 AMG). Shion slid into the back, looking miserable, her eyes red, and her normally smooth contralto tones rubbed raw from sneezing.
“Well?” I asked, putting the car into gear and checking the monitor for traffic conditions. I want to get her home as fast as possible. She’s not in a very good mood right now, and getting into one of Neo York’s infamous traffic jams may cause her to crack. And I really don’t want to think about what an upset Shion would do to gridlock.
I glance into the mirror. She downs a bottle of water before answering. “Bronchitis.”
“Bronchitis?” Is my intelligent reply. “How did you come down with something like that?”
“That op a week ago. In the Zone.” She opens another bottle and drinks half of it in a single swallow. Yeah, she’s sick.
“Oh, that one.” I remember that op. A solo job, Shion versus the Zone in a search-and-rescue gone bad. She was never able to find the target, and ended up getting ambushed by a Jinsei patrol on search-and-destroy. It ended with her getting blasted into Long Island Sound by a salvo of cyberdroid ion cannons. In the middle of winter. She’d shown up back at the condo soaked to the skin, her wet hair plastered to her body, having apparently walked across half of Manhattan before finding a cab willing to pick her up. I asked her later why she hadn’t ‘ported or flown back, and she told me getting dunked into the icy Atlantic had given her such a headache she couldn’t concentrate.
Now she’s buried up to her neck in blankets amid a mound of pillows, the waterbed’s heater turned up in an effort to counteract her constant shivering. I have to admit, I’m a little frightened, mainly because her breathing’s so raspy and full of phlegm. At least her throat’s better. Shion’s cure is a bit unorthodox, but works—she drinks room temperature saké by the bottle. Apparently, it numbs everything to the point where she can talk without coughing. She’s even nice enough to share some with me.
I’m trying to clean up (collecting dishes, tossing used tissues into the trash, that sort of thing), when Shion looks over. “Help me up.”
There’s a sigh, then she pushes the covers away. “I want to take a shower. As hot as possible.”
She starts trying to get up when there’s a sudden disconnect and I blink out for a moment. Instead of helping Shion, all I can think about is what Evelyn would say. The Empress, all 185 centimeters of her, is getting out of bed, dressed in one of her sheer nightgowns (that’s creatively sticking to her due to how she’s sweating).... Evelyn would probably explode with delight.
“Right!” I shake my head and try to dispel any lingering thoughts. I’ve seen Shion nude (or nearly so) before so it should be no big deal... but to be honest, it never gets any easier. She has that effect on people.
I offer my hand, but instead she grips my shoulder. There’s a very undignified grunt as she tries to get up, followed by a very unexpected cry of pain. But not from her—me. Shion settles back onto the water bed (which rocks under her, making her body sway, a sight sufficient to almost distract me from my shoulder) and asks “What happened?”
I raise my arm instead of answering and make sure it’s still functional. A finger wriggle later and I decide everything is still in working order. “You squeezed as you stood.”
“And?” It’s obvious from her expression she doesn’t get it.
“Shion...” I think back to a toppled APC lying on its side in a dusty African side street. “You can lift tons. I’ve seen you.”
“Oh....” she motions to my shoulder, “So when I tried to get a good grip....”
“You almost broke something.” Unbidden, the thought comes again. The one I’ve pondered from time to time, the one that scares me when I consider it for any length of time. How strong is she?
There’s a long moment of silence as Shion thinks about what just happened. Then she lifts an arm and nods. “How about I just lean on you instead.”
So now I have 70+ kilos of Empress using me as a crutch. Amazing—one moment she’s capable of turning my shoulder into pulp, the next she needs help getting into her own bathroom.
Let me digress and describe Shion’s bathroom. I think ‘luxurious’ is too simple a word. It needs something with a greater connotation of extravagance. Like ‘opulent.’ First there’s the tub, which you have to step down into. It’s big enough for Shion to stretch out in, which makes it the size of a small pool. And then there’s the shower, which has dimensions similar to a small walk-in closet. In fact, I think it used to be a walk-in closet. It has three shower heads, two of which are on tracks and can be used to get a full-body massage. Oh, and there’s a bench along the back, in case you want to sit and shampoo your hair (and considering Shion’s hair, the bench is a virtual requirement).
I’ve thought about the possibilities of a bath (or shower) like that, but have wisely refrained from mentioning them to Evelyn. She’d probably want to know if I’d ever shared a shower or bath with the Empress... and I’m not sure how she’d take my answer. But then Evelyn seems to be more than a little obsessed with the working and living arrangements between myself and Shion. And I can’t even begin to imagine the scene if she ever met Shion’s sister Marta, or Zhen Zhen, Marta’s lover. Probably accuse me of holding out on her... or try to seduce Zhen Zhen... or both. Yeah.... That’d end well.
To make matters worse for Evelyn, I help Shion undress, which isn’t all that erotic, considering she’s fairly sick and her nightgown smells of it. I toss it in a hamper and leave Shion to set the shower to whatever scalding temperature she feels comfortable with.
With the Boss safely out of the way for a while, I decide to go back to cleaning up the bedroom. I strip the bed as well, and remake it with fresh sheets. The old sheets end up in the washing machine downstairs, the trash goes down the chute in the outer hall, and I fire up the ceiling fan to get some air flow (I’d open all of the windows if I could). By the time I’m done it’s been about an hour and Shion’s finished with her shower.
What follows is, strangely enough, the most enjoyable part of the whole process—I get to brush out the Boss’s hair. It’s a measure of Shion’s vanity that she keeps her hair as long as she does. But then, it’s part of her image, her mystique, and an essential component of her whole ‘Empress’ persona. It’s also absurdly long—almost as long as I am tall. And I get to brush all of the water out of it.
The shower has done Shion some good. Her breathing sounds a lot better and she’s not coughing as much. She just sits there in the humid bath while I first comb what seems like gallons of water out of her snow-white tresses (which isn’t a dye job—as I can personally attest) and then follow up with the blow dyer.
Finally I lead her back to bed, tuck her in, and seriously consider taking a nap myself. Instead I keep watch as she drifts into sleep and am reminded how peaceful she looks. Heh... this at least the third time I’ve kept watch over a sleeping Empress. It’s getting to be a habit.
What do you get for the woman who has everything? I’m serious. Shion pretty much has it all. A huge penthouse, a ridiculously fast car, more clothes than she can ever wear, and an impressive bank account. What sort of birthday present can I get here that will A) mean something, and B) be something she doesn't already have or can get for herself.
I mull this over as I walk down Fifth Avenue, trying to ignore the interactive advertisements that switch to products demographics show are most in demand for someone of my sex and age group. Annoying as they are, it could be worse—it could be December. When bundled up for a Neo York winter I look androgynous enough for the recognition software to mistake me for a young boy... which does nothing for my self esteem. Shion, naturally, never has that problem. Then again, her appearance is unique enough I’m willing to bet she’s directly programmed in.
I turn into Saks Fifth Avenue and almost instantly wish I hadn’t. I mean, what am I doing here? This isn’t my kind of place, not with it’s five hundred dollar belts, thousand dollar boots (which would look good on Shion), and two thousand dollar over coats (which would also look good on Shion). This place is so far above my usual haunts I doubt I can even see them from here. But it’s perfect for Shion. Too perfect, in fact, as I stop dead in one aisle to find her image being used to hawk a selection of perfumes.
I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. She does have an endorsement contract with Mercedes after all—they give her a new car every year (or even sooner if something bad happens to the old one). Why not with other companies? She’s financially canny enough take such offers as they come, as they mean no-risk income and plenty of free product. I pause for a moment to wonder what else she shills for. Jewelry? Swimsuits? I decide to stop my train of thought right there! The image of the Boss in your average designer bikini is a visual I recommend staying away from if you wish to preserve your sense of self-esteem (if you’re a woman, men can drool all they want.) I swear not even genetic upgrades look that good.
Sixty seconds of this and I’m done. Shopping right now is a pointless endeavor so I make my way to Saks’ cafe, where I do my best not to suffer heart failure at the prices. Of course, working for the Empress herself means I have the money to pay for brunch at Saks Fifth Avenue, but it’s the principle of the thing. I mean, really, $5.95 for a glass of water? (Even if it is bottled in Italy.) And I won’t even discuss the price of the sandwich I ordered to go with it.
While I sit and pick at my over-priced sandwich (it’s good, but not that good), I think about my rather unique relationship with Shion Nys. Most people only see what they want to see. Otaku view her as little more than a collection of obscure facts, multinational executives see her as a living weapon, her fellow espers are often outright afraid of her, while the general public tends to regard her as an impossibly beautiful socialite. Of course, this latter attitude is based on her product endorsements and public appearances at corporate trade shows and the like and has nothing to do with her real job, which I guess is just the way Shion likes it.
So what do I see? Well, I don’t see her as a weapon, or a sex object (uhm... mostly), or as a face selling a product. I like to think I see her as a person. I mean, I’ve seen Shion in good moods and bad; I’ve seen her healthy and nursed her while she’s been sick; I’ve seen her nude and all her fully armored Empress glory. About the only thing I haven‘t seen in the time I’ve worked with Shion is her angry. Really, really, angry, which is something I’m quite grateful for.
All of which brings me back around to my current dilemma. What do I get for Shion? Anything I find her at Saks she probably already owns, or already has been given to her, or she can buy outright. So I need to find something different. Something she will value, and not in a monetary sense.
After I pay the check I start to wander, eventually making my outside and back onto Fifth Avenue. I pass store after store—Abercrombie & Fitch, Lord & Taylor, Van Cleef & Arpels, Armani, De Beers, Gucci, Prada.... Places Shion frequents when she feels the need to spend money. Not the sort of stores I’d go to. This makes me realize that Shion might be the richest person I know personally. I mean, I’ve met individuals with more money, but in most cases the interaction was brief and fleeting, with none of the closeness I’ve experienced during my tenure with Shion as my boss. For example, not only have I seen Shion sober, I’ve seen her drunk, and when Shion gets intoxicated (no easy task), she sometimes tends to ramble, telling me things I’m not always sure I should be listening to. This is how I know she grew up on the streets of Chicago during the war, which is why she likes her money—she never wants to be poor again.
And thats when it hits me. Shion is not what people think she is. Shion’s not an esper weapon, she’s not her bank account, she’s not her Mercedes (even if she did drape herself over the hood), she’s not her clothes collection (extensive as it is.) She’s not an armored-plated killing machine, she’s not a pretty face (and figure) selling perfume or designer clothes or luxury cars. She’s not even the Empress, not really. She’s a person, a real, live, breathing person, just like you and me, with her own dreams, goals, desires, and despite her icy Empress facade, emotions. What she really is, deep down, when I think about it, is... lonely.
After that it all comes together.
We’re sitting together on the couch in the living room when my birthday gift arrives. Shion’s on her laptop, tapping away (doing something with her finances I think), while I’m reading a book. A real, honest-to-God book, with paper pages. It’s a huge book, with a hard-bound red cover and gold embossing. It’s also about 80 years old. Titled The World We Live In, I find it utterly fascinating, mainly because the science inside is so incredibly out of date. I’m also trying not to fidget, since inwardly I’m a bundle of nerves, hoping everything comes out okay.
Then the doorbell rings.
We both look up and Shion gives me a questioning glance. “Maybe you should answer that,” I reply, trying to keep my expression neutral.
“Just in case.”
I think it’s a testament to the sort of life Shion leads that she accepts my statement without question. I get up as well, dashing off into the kitchen once I’m sure she’s out of sight in the foyer. While I’m piling a tray high with drinks and snacks I hear Shion’s sister shout “Surprise!”
I’m setting things up on the table in front of the sofa when they walk in. First there’s Marta, who’s only a little taller than me, nearly as beautiful as her older sister, and just as dangerous. Following is Zhen Zhen Li, who’s tall end exotic with her cosmetically tapered ears and glasses. She’s Marta’s... ahhh... wife? by way of a civil ceremony held back in Hong Kong last year. Shion brings up the rear, looking just a little dazed but also genuinely happy. I know she didn’t expect this (her birthday’s actually tomorrow), but I can also tell this is going to mean a lot to her.
Marta’s talking a mile-a-minute, her arms loaded with packages, probably teasing her sister to no end (she’s the only person in the world who can get away with it too). Zhen Zhen looks calm and collected, as usual, although I can see the hint of a smile at her lips. Shion’s recovering fast, shepherding the two in, her laptop and the business deals on it forgotten. There’s a quick moment while she looks over and catches my eye. I’m not sure what to expect and feel a slight twinge in my stomach. Then she smiles and nods her head and every thing’s all right. I have to smile myself. Looks like I did good.
To sleep, perchance to dream....
I'm not quite sure when I dozed off, or how long I've been out for. As I look around the cabin, I see the lights are coming on and the attendants are beginning to move between the passengers. That means we're nearing the end of our trans-Pacific suborbital flight. I smile dozily and stretch my arms under a blanket which some attendant no doubt draped over me during our trip. I'm still getting used to flying first class, but my fellow passenger is no doubt well accommodated to the luxury. With that thought in mind, I look over at the seat next to me and it becomes clear that my services are required. I get to perform another unique, highly specialized task requiring care and precision beyond what my former mercenary life had prepared me for.
I have to wake the sleeping Empress.
Sleep is an interesting subject around Chez Nys. For starters—and contrary to popular belief and rumor—the Boss does, in fact, require sleep. It’s just her esper-enhanced physiology means she can go a long time before finally crashing. And when she does sleep, I’ve seen her stay in bed for 14 to 18 hours (or more.) It also doesn’t help that the Boss keeps some odd hours. She tends to stay up late (like all-night late) and sleep mostly in the early mornings. Fortunately for me, she isn’t the sort to assume that since she’s up I have to be up. The Empress is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much.
Actually, I have stayed up watching over a resting and recuperating Shion at least three times now. Twice it was due to injury—the Boss has gotten into some horrific fights with other espers, cyberdroids, Exo-Suits, and the like. The other time she was really, really sick and I ended up acting as her nurse. That was interesting, as I tended to Shion in her own bedroom, which meant helping her in and out of her king-sized waterbed (Yes, you heard me, the Empress sleeps in a king-sized waterbed.) No regular mattress will do, I presume... but, you know, I’ve got to admit, it’s a hell of a way to spend the night. I should know, I’ve shared Shion’s bed.
Now, before you bring up any wild fantasies involving me, the Empress, and things that run off of batteries, let me point out I had been foolish to watch an extremely suspenseful and scary movie, and there was no way I was spending the night alone (and this is coming from someone who’s been in some fights almost as horrific as Shion’s.) The Boss was nice enough to relent and let me stay... after telling me the one person normally allowed to sleep in her bed was her sister Marta. Which I’ll readily admit resulted in some lurid fantasies of my own.
So... getting back on track, the one thing that surprised me about the Boss’s sleeping habits was her tendency (or ability) to seemingly doze off at will. I’ve seen her nod off during car rides, fall asleep on a scramjet flight, and once found her sound asleep sitting on a lounge in a Manhattan nightclub. And lets not count the times I’ve found her passed out on the couch. So while my current situation is far from unique, this service is definitely needed.
I spot an attendant approaching and I step in. I rise from my seat and lean over, taking a gentle hold of Shion's shoulder, positioning myself so that I'll be the first thing she sees. And yes, my exaggerated care really is necessary. Usually there's only one rule when it comes to waking a sleeping Empress... Don't.
No, really, don’t. Shion can go from apparently fast asleep to wide awake faster than anyone I know. And if awoken (as opposed waking up on her own), there’s the risk of her coming up expecting a threat—and the Boss isn’t known for pulling her punches. I quickly learned to simply let her be (unless it’s an emergency)—although I’ll toss a blanket over her, just in case. However, at times she'll ask for a specific wake up call, like one AM at a club, or close to landing.
Which is why I'm here. I give her shoulder a gentle squeeze. The change is very subtle, and for a second I wonder if I'll need something harder. But then her eyes open and she looks at me casually, as if we had spoken just a minute ago. We're-coming-in-to-descent, I nod to her and she nods thank-you-for-the-reminder back.
I glance up at the attendant and she moves on. As I settle back into my seat, I try not to think what might happen were she to find a stranger shaking her awake. Headlines reading "Mid-air tragedy!" and the like spring to mind. I try to dismiss them, but instead come to an entirely different realization.
In my opinion, if there's one thing worse than a sleeping Shion Nys, it's a sleeping Marta Nys. Not because she’ll wake up ready for a fight, but because if Marta’s at Shion’s, then odds are Zhen Zhen will be close by. For example... I entered the living room one time to Zhen Zhen sitting on one of the couches, reading a datapad. Marta was there as well, sound asleep, lying with her head in Zhen Zhen’s lap. She looked peaceful and utterly calm, almost without a care in the world. For her part, Zhen Zhen held the datapad in one hand and quietly stroked Marta’s hair with the other.
I took one look and had to leave the room. Too many memories of people I’d left behind. I also noted Shion was no where to be found as well....
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