“Suddenly, I am popular!” Celeste pulled up her holo-display listing two new messages. Leaning back on the sofa sipping her early morning coffee, she reached up with her free hand gesturing to decrypt and read the first message:
<#!== PRIVATE MESSAGE KEY: CLJ2LZJFJR7RN7TCLPCN ==>
Omni onto me.
Big bruiser trailing me.
Data archive still safe, but not sure for how long.
New price due to risk: 50,000 ISO
Will tell location and decryption keys if you pay.
“Pshh, amateur,” Celeste rolled her eyes as she gestured the next message into the display.
<#!== PRIVATE MESSAGE KEY: NJ3WDP3QMQCE9E69H92C ==>
Meet me at Cloudspire, tomorrow, one o’clock?
Have something for you.
“Oh, oui-oui!” Celeste sat upright and smiled. She checked the date and time on Titus’s message. “He sent this last night? So he means to meet today? Mon Dieu, he could learn to communicate better, that man.”
Orion drifted into the locker room. Elle had just finished dressing, and glared at the luminescent being floating before her, “No couth. If you’d walked in on me naked, I’d have split your face.”
“Mortal flesh does not concern me,” Orion’s voice echoed against the metal and tile. “We have work to do.”
“Yeah, I heard,” Elle finished buttoning her jacket and pulled it smartly down, then looked herself over in a nearby mirror. She hoisted her laser shotgun and checked the charge, “Another day, another murder.”
As the two made their way down the hall, Elle asked, “Target’s last known location?”
“The former technician was spotted by a taxi driver leaving Cloudspire. The same driver dropped off Titus, however, so all haste is necessary in recovering the stolen data archive.”
“You think Helio sent Titus after the archive?”
“We are certain Helio is involved by this point, probably merely as the buyer, but have not made a definitive connection to Titus.”
“Two murders for the price of one. Fine by me.”
A white van with a large, purple Omni logo emblazoned on the side drifted down at the landing port and the two climbed aboard.
“He doubled the price?” Helio scowled.
“Oui. This is what you get for dealing with an amateur.”
“I’m sure he’s an inside man. There’s no way he could have swiped the data before you, otherwise.”
“Oui,” Celeste drifted off, staring out the window toward the distant Cloudspire sky-garden. She smiled and checked the time, then turned back to Helio, “I have another appointment. Call me and let me know, oui?”
“I’m not paying that much. If Omni’s already found him, I’m sure they already have the data back by now. We’ll just wait. If he contacts you again to assure the data is still safe we’ll negotiate.”
“Ok, talk to you soon,” Celeste waved as she headed out the door.
Titus walked out of the house and immediately noticed Khita headed in his direction.
“Titus I’m booored. What plaything can you offer me today?” Khita said in a deep voice as she shuffled up next to him.
Titus stopped, his face twisted up in confusion, and looked down at Khita.
“You know, that super old holo? Where that bored intergalactic bad guy is going to destroy the Earth by crashing the moon into it, and there’s this hero, kinda a blond version of you, who goes to the bad guy’s planet and causes a revolution and stops the bad guy from destroying the Earth? I really liked the music.”
“You watch too many holos,” Titus rolled his eyes and started walking again.
“I really am bored, though. You want to do something today?”
“I have an appointment.”
“Contract? Can I come?”
“Which is it? Not a contract, or I can’t come along?”
Titus stepped into the taxi and looked over at Khita who stood scowling at the edge of the garden. As he closed the door, the window slid down, “I left something for you by your tent.”
She watched as the taxi sped off into the city, then turned back into the garden and kicked small stone, “‘I left something by your tent.'”
“Always leaving stuff and leaving me behind,” grumbling she kicked the stone again, watching it bounce off a tree trunk.
“I know, right? What a jerk.”
Khita arrived back at her tent, and saw a colorful bag sitting next to it. She lifted the bag and read, “Salted dark chocolate kettle corn.”
She plopped down and tore the bag open, “What’s this? Something chocolatey and delicious?” As she munched on the treat with a big smile, she flipped through her list of holo-vids and sang, “Duhn, duhn, duhn, duhn, FLASH! Ahhh aaahhh! He’ll save every one of us!”
Celeste had just started walking into the skygarden when Orion and Elle appeared from around a row of bushes. All three freelancers froze at the sight of each other. Elle and Orion in full combat gear, but Celeste dressed for a casual weekend in the park.
Orion quickly dismissed any doubt, and bellowed, “I knew your thieving hands would be involved! Now pay the price of your indiscretions!” His arm came down and a beam of energy followed.
Celeste jumped away from the explosion and scuttled over behind a bench, taking whatever bit of cover that she could. She watched as Elle tossed a drone up into the air and then the tall, slender woman stalked around to flank. The distinctive sound of Elle’s blaster overcharge rang throughout the park.
With this brief moment of opportunity, Celeste dashed from the bench and sprinted into the park, shouting, “You idiots! Why do you attack me? I’m only here to meet a friend!”
Elle’s voice called out behind her, “You can’t run from death.” The ensuing blast from Elle’s laser shotgun shredded some bushes, and a strange series of popping noises erupted around and behind Celeste as she rand deeper into the park.
A vibrant cascade of beautiful floral scents and colors rained down over Celeste and the small area of the park where she hid. As she crouched behind a low wall, she picked up a bright pink cherry blossom and looked at it quizzically. Petals and blossoms finished drifting down, dusting every surface with new color. Seconds later, she heard the distinctive racking of Elle’s shotgun as it grew nearer, and the monotone taunting, “Your tricks and traps won’t save you.”
In the distance Orion’s bellowing voice called out, “We will have the data archive! And when the engineer arrives to make the exchange, we will destroy him as well!”
Celeste slipped on her gloves and activated the nano-grapplers, grumbling softly to herself, “Bah, these idiots mean to ruin my day.”
Titus emerged from the Could Deli with the lunch basket he’d ordered and stepped back into the taxi. The driver sat staring at the holo, waiting for his fare to return.
“Cloudspire,” Titus said calmly as he settled into the seat and set the picnic basket down beside him.
“No way, pal, looks like some ‘lancers are having it out up there.”
Titus turned his attention to the holo and his eyes went wide as he watched a drone relaying images of Orion and Elle stalking into the park, weapons bared. The drone’s camera zoomed and he saw Celeste kneeling by a low wall, examining one of his cherry blossoms.
The driver reached up and flipped the holo off, “Where to?”
Titus’s hand landed heavy on the driver’s shoulder, his fingers digging in, “Cloudspire.”
Celeste tossed out some smoke bombs and sprinted behind a row of bushes separating the opposite landing port from the park. In her wake, more of the popping sound, followed by petals and blossoms raining down around her. Hiding behind the bushes and waiting to strike, she watched as a taxi pulled up next to the white and purple Omni van.
Before the taxi even managed to come to a complete stop, the rear door slid open and Titus bolted out of the cab and into the park, his legs a blur of motion as he roared. Celeste caught a glimpse of the taxi driver through the opened door, grimacing and rubbing his shoulder. She turned back toward the direction Titus ran, more popping sounds following his movement and leaving a plume of colorful explosions in his wake. She watched as the series of tiny explosions sent sprays of bright, pastel colors in every direction as he flew through the park and collided with his target.
Titus arrived at Orion in a second, putting his shoulder into the floating being and knocking him flat. A swirling orb that hung over Orion’s head exploded at the impact and sent a ripple of searing pain down Titus’s shoulder and back.
Just as Titus straightened back upright from shouldering Orion to the ground, Elle stepped around the corner, grinning, “Gotcha!”
The tall, slender woman raised her hand and an invisible drone blasted Titus straight in the chest.
“Haha! Not quite!” Titus chuckled as his arm came up and he launched the picnic basket straight into Elle’s face where it exploded, sending sandwiches, fruit, and bottles of drinks outward.
Stunned, Elle stumbled backward, wiping mustard from her eyes as Orion floated back up off the ground and hovered in front of Titus. Orion paused, looking around at the burst luncheon spread out across the ground and the flowers scattered about.
Considering Celeste’s casual attire, and Titus’s arrival with a picnic basket, Orion turned back to Titus, “What is this? A picnic?”
“It’s about to be a crime scene,” Elle growled, picking a leaf of lettuce from her hair.
Celeste stood up from behind the bushes, “I tried to explain this to you.”
“We are mistaken,” Orion said, calmly. “We will take our investigation elsewhere.”
“Oh, this isn’t over,” Elle sneered as she walked past Titus, who simply glared back at her.
Celeste stood and watched as Orion and Elle made their way into the Omni van and drove off. She then stepped over to Titus. Together they stared down at the destroyed lunch basket.
“It was a very nice thought,” She said, resting her hand softly on his shoulder, partly to investigate the injuries he had sustained but also to soothe the barbarian’s rage. “Here, let us sit a moment,” and she eased him over to a bench next to the koi pond.
As they sat a series of pops emanated from behind them and soft, colorful petals drifted down over them and onto the surface of the pond. Light pastels landed on large man’s torn shirt and reddened shoulder. Celeste simply smiled into his eyes, “I am sorry your gift was ruined.”
“Not entirely,” Titus said, reaching over the back of the bench and into the koi pond. His hand soon emerged with a small black data device that he handed to her. “Someone stashed this here last night. Thought you might be interested.”
Celeste smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “Oui, very much. Lunch is on me, mon cher.”
Helio leaned back in his chair, smiling and turning the data archive over in his fingers, “You know it’s only a matter of time before Emmett and I crack this thing open. You can save me time by giving me the decryption keys for, say, half the original asking price?”
The voice on the other end of the line didn’t sound nearly as happy about the outcome of the transaction, “Fine.”
“Done,” Helio said, and gestured to transfer the ISO to the secret account the man had established for the transaction.
“Confirmed,” the voice sighed on the other end of the line, “It’s a tetra-lock, here are the codes.”
Helio waved to decrypt the new message that arrived and transferred the codes directly to the device.
Once all four codes finished unlocking the device, a massive amount of data began pouring into Helio’s main data store.
“Pleasure doing business with you,” Helio said and hung up.