One in a Million
"I have eyes on the target," Shadow said over her comlink implant, then she giggled. "I'm lovin' this spy stuff."
"I'm glad you're having fun, but try to stay focused." Machiko shook her head and smirked ever so slightly. The girl was just picking up the informant and taking him to a safe house. Just a milk run, though the message Newton Callahan had slipped the Justice Foundation had indicated something big brewing. He'd seemed confident enough when setting the time and location for the pick-up, but Machiko had her core team ready to go if this went haywire.
"Callahan definitely knows what he's doing," Shakira said, and Machiko turned to find her waving a hand over her bank of monitors. "The meeting place he picked out is a blind spot -- there's no coverage from any of the traffic or security cameras in the area."
"Nice," Otto said from a separate computer and set of monitors behind Shakira, sitting back-to-back with her. "If any bad guys are trying to keep tabs on him, they won't be able to use the cameras and they won't have any video of Shadow picking the guy up."
"This is certainly off to a good start." Machiko crossed her arms over her chest. "Let's hope it stays that way."
She took a moment to run a check on the Foundation's network of cybernetic comm implants just to be sure they were functioning properly. The agents who had the implant pinged her back immediately. A few others hadn't gotten them yet, so handheld comms would have to be good enough.
"He's sitting at a picnic table," Shadow reported, "right where he said he'd be. I'm going in."
"Copy that. We'll send you the location of the safe house once you're underway. Good luck, kid."
"Thanks, boss. Here we go."
Shadow got out of the car and stretched, trying to look casual in case anyone was surveilling them. Not that she didn't need to stretch after having her tail pinned against the seat and her wings folded uncomfortably during the drive to the park, but still.
The guy at the picnic table noticed her and waved. The pool of light from a nearby lamp was just enough to give her a general idea of his appearance -- around her age, maybe a year or two younger, with shoulder-length, dusty blond hair. He wore cargo pants and a Doctor Who T-shirt. She waved back and approached him.
"Right on time," he said.
"I try." She stopped at the table and cocked her head. He wasn't the kind of guy she'd expected -- someone who worked for Evolved Genetics, International and claimed to have info on something naughty the corporation was up to.
On the other hand, the Justice Foundation had a thirteen-year-old hacker working in its office and Shadow was quite young, herself, so maybe such things were relative.
"Have a seat." Callahan motioned at the bench and a pair of paper cups filled with coffee and covered with plastic lids. "I brought mochas. And don't worry, I ordered low-caf so it won't keep us up all night."
"Queen to Queen's level three," she said without having the slightest idea what the hell it meant. It was the phrase Machiko had told her to use to verify that this was, in fact, Newton Callahan.
He lit up the whole park with a brilliant grin. "Queen to King's level one. Always glad to meet a fellow dork."
Okay … if you say so. She nodded at her car. "Ready to go?"
He raised both eyebrows, shifted nervously, stuttered for a moment, and then pointed at the cups again.
"What's the hurry? Oh, wait, uh, do you not like coffee? Or mocha, specifically? I thought …"
"Oh, yeah, I like coffee, especially mocha. I just …" Huh. Okay. Maybe he's planning to just tell me what he knows. Or he's trying to keep me here for some other reason. Maybe to pump me for information or set me up for something else. She shrugged and sat beside him. Guess I can play along for now and see what happens.
He picked up one of the cups and handed it to her.
He smiled. "It's still a little hot, so be careful."
She nodded, lifted the lid, and sniffed. It smelled like a normal mocha, no poisons or drugs as far as her super-sensitive nose could determine. In fact, it was the exact mixture she'd picked up countless times from a coffee stand down the street a couple of blocks. She took a cautious sip. Not bad at all.
He glanced around as if trying to find something to talk about. She decided to offer some reassuring words on the assumption that he was legit and was just worried about repercussions from the info he was about to hand off.
"No need to be nervous. You're gonna be just fine." She smiled. "I'll take good care of you."
A surprised look crossed his face, then he smiled back and his face turned red as he continued looking around. Finally, his gaze landed on her car. "That's a sweet ride. Looks older, but it's in really good condition."
"Yeah, the previous owner kept it in really good shape."
"You have wings, but you drove here in a car?"
Well, the car is to take you to the safe house because you don't have wings. She arched a brow ridge, shrugged, and decided to go along with it.
"I've always liked cars. It's not exactly comfortable, stuffing my wings and tail in there, but I don't mind too much if the car's fun to drive."
"Fair enough." He took another slow sip.
Huh. Shadow pulled her left leg up and rested her ankle across her right leg, then put her right hand on her calf while drinking a bit more of her mocha.
Callahan got that nervous look on his face again, moved his hand as if uncertain what to do with the cup, and then placed it on the table. The nervousness faded and was replaced by a goofy grin as he suddenly reached out, gently grasped her ankle, and tickled the bottom of her foot.
"Eep!" She lunged away and tried to jerk her foot out of his grasp. He tightened his grip a little, laughed, and tickled harder. She twisted and pulled her leg away again, noticed she'd almost tipped the cup over, and hurried to put it on the table before she spilled it. Callahan held on to her ankle, laughed again, and went after her foot with even more vigor.
What in the hell? Shadow spun and whipped her tail around. The end of it slapped across Callahan's face and, when she turned back to him, she found him sliding off the end of the bench. He landed on his ass, grunted, and shook his head as if to clear a sudden daze. He rubbed his hand over his cheek and stared at her with wide eyes.
"Sorry! I'm sorry! I thought -- I didn't mean to …"
She gave him an exasperated stare and held one hand up as if to say, "Seriously?"
"I didn't mean to startle you. It's just … well, Darius said you liked to be tickled." Callahan's face turned red again as he got back on the bench and picked up his mocha with a trembling hand.
Who the hell is Darius? She shrugged, sat, and watched Callahan from the corner of her eye, staying ready to feed him his own teeth if he tried to grab her again. New guy, maybe? Machiko had brought on quite a few new support personnel recently, so maybe this Darius guy was the one who'd arranged the pickup.
But if he was, then why the hell would he tell Callahan that Shadow liked to be tickled?
What kind of game is Darius playing, anyway? A prank, maybe?
"Sorry," he muttered. "It's kinda dark here, so I couldn't quite read your expression. All I can really see is your glowing eyes and your teeth. So it looked like you were smiling. I thought you were enjoying it."
"Okay, people have had trouble seeing my face in the dark before. My skin barely reflects any light. It seems like something the bioengineering corporations would've used for their combat units, but I was designed for a … different use." She shrugged again and motioned at her chest. "But next time you want to grope me, my tits are up here."
He stared wide-eyed at her and blushed again, and she tried not to wince.
Why did I say that? I mean, he's cute. Really cute. But this is business. I need to keep my brain-mouth filter in place for once in my goddamn life.
He chuckled and averted his eyes. "I'd have trouble seeing those in the dark, too, if you weren't wearing that vest." He motioned at it. "Huh. Is that a tactical vest?"
"It's modeled after one, but it's made for civilians, hence the designer colors, muted though they are. And a real tactical vest wouldn't show this much cleavage. I wear stuff like this because I like having a lot of pockets and pouches and whatnot. And the zippers add to the 'cool' factor." She grinned and motioned at her cargo shorts. "You can never have too many pockets."
"I feel the same way. Looks like we're gonna get along famously."
Whatever you say, buddy. "Well, don't grab me again without warning me first and you'll be just fine." She tossed him a lopsided grin.
"I won't, I promise."
She picked up her mocha and took a longer drink to give the awkward moment a little more time to pass. Finally, she nodded toward her car again.
"About ready to get out of here?"
"I've never done this before," Callahan said, staring at the ground and tapping a finger on the side of his cup. "And, uh, I haven't really … um, had any … experience with one of you. Engineered people, I mean."
What does that have to do with this?
"I mean, yeah. Sure. We can go to … uh, your place, if you want."
Shadow flicked another confused glance at him, then shrugged it off. He could be a mental case, or maybe just not too bright. Or, possibly, an agent from EGI trying to interrogate her but was really, really bad at it. Either way, she could handle it.
"Okay, let's get going." She finished her mocha, found a trash can and tossed the cup into it, and smiled.
"What a weird little bastard," Otto muttered, and Machiko nodded slowly. Shakira chuckled and shrugged.
"He might be socially awkward. If he's in a position to know something important going on at EGI, he's probably high up in the company. Maybe a savant. I wouldn't be surprised if he never learned to interact with people because he just had his mind on tons of other things all the time."
"Makes sense." Otto un-muted his mic. "Shadow, stand by for the safe house's location."
"Huh," Shakira said. "Just got a text from Callahan. He said he's not able to get to the meeting."
What? Machiko turned around and shook her head. "He's right there. Oh, hell." The realization sank in quickly and her eyes widened.
"That's not Callahan," Otto said at the same time, spinning his chair around to glance at her and then Shakira. "Did he say anything else?"
"Just got another text. He said he noticed a suspicious van parked across the street when he went out to his car, so he locked himself in his house."
Goddamn it. "Who's closest to his location?"
Otto glanced at one of his monitors. "Ramirez and her team."
Machiko connected with Ramirez's comm implant. [Lola, Callahan hasn't left his house yet and there's a suspicious van across the street. I need you guys to go check on him.]
[On it, boss.]
Machiko switched to Shadow's implant. [Shadow, that guy isn't Callahan. Abort.] Several seconds passed with no reply. [Shadow? Do you copy?] Again, silence. Machiko pinged Shadow's comm implant and nothing came back. She pulled her phone out and dialed Shadow's number.
"I'm sorry, the number you have dialed is out of range or the phone is turned off. Please hang up and try again."
Machiko contacted another of her teams. [Jack, something's hinky about this. I'm not getting a response from Shadow's implant and her phone's either off or out of range. She may need backup. Go find her.]
Socially awkward, huh? Shadow figured Shakira's comment made sense, given the context. In a way, it was kind of adorable. If Callahan was really trying to flirt with her, maybe she could get a bonus out of this once he was debriefed.
"Oh, is that a manual transmission?" he asked as she started the engine.
"Don't see many of those around these days."
"Yeah. I think a few manufacturers still make them for people who prefer the stick." She waited for him to buckle his seatbelt, then she accelerated gently and shifted up to second gear. "I used to prefer automatics, but once I got used to the stick, it started growing on me."
He grinned suddenly and a few seconds later it sank in.
Oh. Right. Stick. Growing. Oops. She laughed softly, shifted up to third, and drove on in silence while waiting for the safe house's location. When the silence stretched out and turned awkward again, she turned the radio on.
"Oh, that's Cheap Trick," Callahan said. "'Reach Out,' right?"
Shadow glanced at the screen above the radio and nodded. "I was never a big fan of them, but I like that song."
"One of my grandfathers listens to all sorts of classics from the previous century and got me hooked on a lot of them. I grew up listening to stuff mostly from the 1980s because he and my parents are way into it."
"A lot of that music has a certain charm, definitely. You got a favorite?"
"Duran Duran, a bit of Gary Neumann, Bonnie Tyler, Pat Benatar, some of Bruce Springsteen's stuff." He laughed and his face took on a hint of red again. "One of my all-time favorites is the Neverending Story theme."
"Interesting. Don't think I've heard that one." She reached out to the screen, tapped the search icon, and returned her gaze to the street ahead while telling the stereo to find the song. It came up a split-second later and Shadow touched the play icon. She listened for a moment and smiled. "Catchy tune. I like it."
"Awesome." He flicked a sidelong glance at her, worked his mouth for a moment before he could say anything, and then he gave her another brilliant grin. "There's a diner not far from my house that has an '80s theme. They have a karaoke night every Wednesday. We should go on stage sometime." He blushed again and shrugged. "Just for the hell of it."
"That sounds like fun, actually."
"Cool. So, that'd be, like, a date, then?"
Huh. Sure, what the hell. "Yeah. It can be, I mean." She activated her comm implant and sent, [Still waiting for the safe house location, guys.] To Callahan, she said, "When you said you didn't have any experience with bioengineered people … well, you've been acting like you're okay with me not being human, but I've run into a lot of humans who are still freaked-out by us."
"Nah, I'm okay with it. I mean, it was a surprise at first. I didn't know Darius knew any. But we're getting along nicely." He winced. "Um, aside from that rough start at the picnic table."
"Aw, don't worry about that. Just a misunderstanding. You're doing fine." She realized she still hadn't gotten a reply from Machiko or the others. She pinged their comm implants and got nothing back. Huh. She slowed as they approached a red light and tapped the icon for the phone app on the console screen.
A no-signal error appeared. Frowning, Shadow pulled her phone out. No signal there, either. She tossed Callahan a sidelong glance.
"Is your phone working?"
He raised an eyebrow, dug his phone out, and checked it. "No." He glanced around. "I've been in this area lots of times. The reception's always perfect. Both of our phones couldn't have been turned off at the same time."
"Yeah, that can't be a coincidence. My boss was gonna send me the location of a safe house, but I haven't heard from her." Shadow glanced at the radio. It's still playing music, but maybe that's only because the next few songs were already buffered. "I think someone's using a jammer."
"Wait -- safe house?" He stared at her.
"Yeah. That's where I'm taking you. Or, would be if I had the address."
He kept staring at her and she frowned back at him.
Why did he just look at me like he thinks I'm a serial killer? She looked into the rearview mirror and spotted a black SUV four car-lengths behind them. Ugh. Why do those assholes always use the exact same vehicle?
Callahan seemed to notice her staring into the mirror. He turned to glance out the rear window.
"Easy, there. Keep your head out of sight." The traffic light turned green and Shadow accelerated at a casual pace, just keeping up with the other traffic, not wanting to tip the potential pursuers off that they'd been made. She took in the street ahead, noticed an alley coming up, turned down it suddenly, hit the breaks, then moved forward again, then flipped on her turn signal, hoping she looked like an idiot rather than someone who was trying to lose a tail.
Callahan braced a hand on the dashboard and threw a wide-eyed glance at her. "What are you doing?"
"Just seeing if we're being followed. If we are, the last thing we want to do is get into a high-speed chase with all these bystanders around. I should be able to lose 'em if I keep driving like a dumbshit until they make a mistake." She glanced into the mirror and found the SUV darting into the alley and staying behind her. "Yep, looks like at least one vehicle is tailing us."
"Oh, hell," Callahan moaned softly. "What have you gotten me into?"
"Me?" She shook her head. You're the one who wanted to … oh, never mind. She followed the alley until it intersected with another street and made a right turn. A glance into the mirror showed her that the SUV was still behind her. At least she was approaching a residential area, so there wasn't as much traffic as before. On the other hand, that meant fewer witnesses if they started shooting.
She came to a stop sign, signaled for a right turn, and turned left instead. The SUV started to turn right, then lurched to the left and kept following her. She slowed, whipped the car into a sudden U-turn, and caught a glimpse of the SUV's driver in the corner of her eye gaping at her. She did her best to put on a confused expression and hoped he'd think she was just discombobulated in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
In the side mirror, the SUV hung a U and kept following. Shadow sighed.
Jesus Christ. Really?
Callahan flicked another utterly confused glance at her and mumbled, "What the hell is going on?"
How can he not know …? In the mirror, three more SUVs joined the first and lined up behind her. Oh, come on!
"Do you owe these guys money or something?" Darwin Madigan leaned over for a look into his side mirror and tried not to panic at the sight of four sinister black SUVs following him and his date. Before he could sit up straight, two more came out of the intersecting street to the right and tried to cut her off. She swerved around them, snarled in the general direction of the drivers, and the cyan glow in her eyes brightened.
Oh, hell, what has she gotten me into the middle of? He braced his hands on the dashboard again, glanced to the left, and found another pair of SUVs emerging from an alley and lining up with the rest. No, what has Darius gotten me into? He set all this up. He shook his head. Darius, you sonofabitch.
"What the hell are you talking about?" she said once she'd gotten past the additional SUVs. Her eyes flicked toward the mirrors and leveled straight ahead again. "What did you do? Did you witness a murder or something?"
"What?" He gaped at her and she shook her head.
"Never mind. Look, we need to ditch the car and try to find a place to hide or, uh, borrow another car to get away in. There's almost no traffic here, so if they're gonna start shooting at us, this is where it'll most likely happen."
Shooting? Darwin shrugged, took a few breaths, and looked around slowly. "W--well, there's a building under construction over to the left, there. Maybe we can lose 'em in that."
"Worth a try. Might be somewhere to hide in it, or if nothing else, a way to split them up and pick them off."
"Pick … you mean, kill them?"
"Not my style. I try to stick to non-lethal methods unless there's no way to avoid it." She gripped the gear shift with one hand and the steering wheel with the other. "We need to get out of their sight long enough to ditch the car or they're just gonna keep following us. They're probably tracking us with traffic cameras or surveillance drones."
"Y--yeah, sounds right." Whatever you say, as long as we get out of this alive, it's all good.
"Okay, I'm gonna attempt a maneuver. Hang on to your titties."
Wonderful. He kept his hands firmly planted on the dashboard as she shifted down to second gear and stomped on the gas. The car launched forward and she shifted up again, then spun the wheel to the left, drifting through the intersection and around the corner. She kept accelerating and shifted up again.
"Looks like we lost 'em for a few seconds. Hold on." She whipped the car into another left turn and fired it off a gravel embankment into a pit that was probably going to become the building's foundation and basement. The car landed with an impact that jammed his ass into the seat and something in the front end of the car snapped.
She turned the lights off, killed the engine, and popped her seatbelt.
"Let's go," she whispered.
Sure. Yeah, why not? He released his seatbelt and followed her into the building's framework, his heart pounding and his legs wobbling as if his muscles had turned to jelly. She grasped his left hand and led him to a ramp up to the second floor.
"If we can get to the top," she whispered, flicking her wings, "I can glide us out of here."
At least we won't be trapped. He followed her across the floor until they found a ladder. She motioned for him to climb first while she turned and kept an eye out for the SUV guys, then she climbed after him. They made their way up the next four floors and crouched beside a stack of lumber so he could catch his breath.
He found a maze of stacks of two-by-fours and pipes, sheets of plastic fluttering in a gentle breeze, power tools left sitting on tables and benches, and a forklift over in the corner.
His companion appeared to be listening for something. Engines or footsteps, probably. He kept quiet and let her do her thing.
I wonder what her name is. He'd been waiting for a girl named Bianca, but he doubted this was her. Wonderful. She probably showed up right after we left and thinks I bailed on her.
At least this draconid chick was cute. She had a nice body, aside from the wings, tail, and weird lower legs and feet. And she seemed friendly enough and clearly knew how to handle situations like this one.
Maybe we can salvage this. Like, go out on an actual date if we make it through whatever the hell's going on.
"I hear vehicles pulling up and stopping," she whispered. She motioned for him to stay put, crept over to the edge of the floor, and squinted at the street. She turned back, pointed at another ramp, and led him up two more floors. There, he found several partial walls and more stacks of pipes and two-by-fours. They ducked between a wall and a pile of long pipes bundled together. "I counted six humans in tactical gear and ten low-grade mechs. Non-sentient ones. Just robots programmed for basic combat, probably. They're following us up."
"Great," he whispered back. "They know we're here."
"Looks that way." She opened her mouth to say something else, then she turned to stare over her shoulder. "Some of them are coming up the ladders and ramps. Sounds like some are climbing up the side of the building."
She crept over to the edge and peered down. Darwin joined her and found four of the mechs scaling the wall in single file.
He took a quick look around and found a pair of acetylene tanks nearby. He arched an eyebrow at … whoever this female was.
"You're sure those bots aren't sentient?"
"Yeah," she whispered back. "I recognize the model now. Some friends ran into some on a job a few months back. They aren't capable of thinking for themselves."
"Cool." He walked over to the tanks, picked one up, and hobbled back with it. Damn, this is heavy! He lowered it to the edge of the floor, caught his breath, and glanced at her. "Hold on to me so I don't fall off."
Her eyes opened wider and she clamped a hand around his belt and braced the other on a nearby girder. He wiggled the tank to the right until he was sure it was directly above the climbing robots, then he lifted it and she held him steady as he positioned the tank just far enough out not to catch on anything on the way down.
He let go of it and waited for gravity to do the rest. They watched it plunge straight down and smash into the nearest bot's head, driving it into its shoulders and ripping its body from the side of the building. It plowed into the robot directly below, carried it into the next one, and finally the fourth. They plummeted from the fifth floor into the ground and landed in a mangled heap. Several arms and legs ripped loose and flipped through the air.
She eased him back from the edge, stared at him with widening eyes, and an awestruck smile appeared in the darkness.
"I … I think I'm in love," she whispered.
"Well, you're certainly off to a spectacular start." She took a few breaths, fanned herself with her hand, and pointed at a ramp on the far side of the floor. "Sounds like they're rushing toward the ruckus you just caused. We can get to the roof, jump off the far side, and glide away before they can spot us."
He followed her, both of them trying to sprint as quietly as possible, and emerged onto the top floor. Suddenly, the city stretched out in all directions around him, an ocean of LEDs, neon, animated billboards, and holographic projections. There were far taller buildings in the distance, but not many in this area.
"Is this high enough for you to fly off?"
"Yep." She pointed at her back. "Lock your arms and legs around me, but try not to hamper the motion of my wings." She waited for him to do as she asked. "Hold on tight."
Heart pounding, he nodded and whispered, "Okay." He took a moment to secure his legs around her waist, clamped his arms around her, and said, "Let's go!"
Carrying him without any outward sign of strain, she ran to the edge, crouched, pushed off, and spread her wings. His heart nearly blew out of his chest as they fell for a few seconds, then her wings caught the wind and he found himself gliding over the city. He squinted against the wind rushing into his face and had to fight the urge to let out an overjoyed whoop.
We're flying. Oh, holy shit, we're flying! He forced himself to breathe, kept his arms and legs as tight around her as he could, and grinned like an idiot as she soared away from the goons who'd been chasing them. And even better, I don't hear any gunshots behind us.
He sighed with relief and let his chin rest on her shoulder.
We made it.
"Oh! Finally got a ping from the network!" Shadow descended abruptly and Callahan tightened his grip until she touched down on a roof across the street from a burger joint. She connected to Machiko's implant and sent, [Hey, we're finally out of jamming range. We need you to pick us up right now!]
[Jack's team is on the way,] Machiko replied. [They're tracking your signal.]
[Good. Thanks, boss.]
"What?" Callahan shook his head. "What ping? What're you talking about?"
"Cybernetic comlink implant." Shadow pointed at the side of her head. "It's linked to a network at the agency I work for. I just requested extraction."
"Oh. That's pretty cool." He grinned and let out a relieved breath.
"It's definitely proved itself useful -- when it's not being jammed by the bad guys, at least." She pointed at the burger place. "We can wait in there and grab a quick meal if you're hungry. Looks like there'll be a lot of people inside. Plenty of witnesses, so the goons who chased us wouldn't be willing to try anything even if they could find us." At least, she hoped they wouldn't be that stupid. She aimed another reassuring smile over her shoulder. "You'll be safe in there."
"That's, uh … good to know." Yet another confused look flickered over his face.
"By the way, we're not in the air anymore. You can let go."
"Oh!" His face turned red again as he placed his feet on the roof and took a step back. "Sorry."
[Shadow,] Machiko sent, [are you okay?]
[Yeah, we're both fine. We'll be in the burger place on the corner.]
[Shadow, that guy's not Callahan. He informed us that he couldn't get to the meeting just before the jamming started.]
[Ramirez and her team picked Callahan up at his house. He spotted a suspicious van across the street, so he stayed put. The van left the scene when Montoya started walking toward it. We have Callahan in one of our conference rooms.]
"You okay?" Not-Callahan reached out to touch her shoulder. "You're staring off into space."
"Oh, I'm just giving the boss a rundown on what just happened." To Machiko, she sent, [So who the hell is this guy?]
[We don't know, but if you were pursued by EGI security, he's probably with them.]
[I'll keep him at the burger place, then. Hey, do we have anyone at the Foundation named Darius?]
[We do not. Who is he?]
[I'll see if I can find out. Stand by.] Shadow spotted a maintenance ladder and pointed at it. "We can get to the street from there. Come on."
Shadow slipped her hand into his as they entered the building. While holding the door open for him, she caught a glimpse of another of his goofy grins.
I sure hope he's not just pretending to be such a nice guy. Now that I've gotten the idea into my head that we could have something together, if he turns out to be one of the pricks who were chasing us …
"Ah, there's an empty table right over there." He pointed.
"Cool." Shadow smiled, nodded, and followed Not-Callahan over to the table. She slid the menu screen out from the edge of the table, placed an order, and pushed the screen back into its slot. Then she shifted around for a moment, trying to get her tail into a comfortable position, and finally got up, turned the chair around, and sat backward on it. She rested her arms on the back of the chair, smiled at Not-Callahan, and hoped she didn't look as suspicious as she'd suddenly become.
"Now that I have a moment to think about it," Not-Callahan said as he placed his order, "I've worked up a bit of an appetite."
"Me, too. Oh, I just realized I never introduced myself. My name's Shadow."
"Nice to meet you. I'm Darwin Madigan." He grinned and reached across the table. She shook his hand and chuckled.
Okay, he just went ahead and told me his name. Assuming it's not a cover identity. But he's not even trying to pretend to be Callahan, so …
She decided to cut right to the point. "Any idea why those guys were after you?"
"Me?" He shook his head and looked genuinely bewildered. "I haven't done anything aside from trying not to be picked on at school. With wildly varying degrees of success." He shrugged. "Some of the jocks are harder to avoid than others."
"So … you don't know anything about Evolved Genetics, International? Specifically, something big they've been up to lately?"
"Never heard of 'em. Who are they?"
"It's a bioengineering corporation."
"Like genetically modified crops and whatnot? Or … people like you?"
"A little of the former, but mostly so they can appear legit. Mostly the latter."
"I thought there was a ban on producing more chimeras."
"There is. I'm guessing they're either defying it or planning to. Underground labs producing more of us have been found occasionally, so it might be something like that."
"Huh. I don't have a problem with more of you being created. I mean, it'll have to be done someday to prevent all these new species from going extinct. But I am dead-set against forcing them to be toy soldiers like the original ones were."
"We're definitely on the same page, there. We figured you might have some vital info about that, since they seemed so determined to capture you."
"It doesn't make any sense that they'd be after me. None at all. I don't work for that company and, as far as I know, none of my relatives ever worked there."
A motion in the corner of her eye drew her attention and she turned to find a robot wheeling up to their table with a pair of trays. She smiled and took her tray from it.
"Aw, thank you." She didn't know if the bot was an AI or just a simple automaton, but she'd made it a personal rule to always treat them no differently from anyone else. It was partly a way to be remembered positively in the event of any of them gaining sentience later, but more than anything else, she just considered it the right thing to do.
Both of them took a few bites of their sandwiches and sipped their drinks before Darwin spoke again.
"Okay, so, since it's unlikely those guys were after me, could they have been coming for you?"
"Huh. I suppose it's possible." A realization slowly sank in and she grimaced. How did I not even consider this? "When I was briefing the boss on what happened to us, she said the guy I went to the park to meet wasn't able to make it. He caught someone surveilling him, so he stayed home and notified my boss. She tried to tell me, but that's when someone jammed our comms. They may have been trying to get me just to see if I knew anything."
"So … okay, so … you weren't there to meet me?" Darwin shook his head quickly as if he'd been slapped.
"Looks that way." She took another bite of her chicken sandwich, sipped her root beer, and frowned. "Why were you there?"
"It was a blind date my friend Darius set up."
"A blind …" Shadow stared at him for a long moment. "You just happened to be there at the exact time and place I was sent there to meet an informant?"
"L--looks that way." He shrugged. "He set me up with a girl from school, Bianca Zadzisai. We were going to meet there and go see a movie or something." His eyes opened wider and he gasped and pulled his phone out, stared at the screen, and winced. "There's a flood of texts from her asking where I am. She must've started sending them after my phone was jammed."
"Oh, no." If he's being honest about that, it's a damn shame. That poor girl must think he's been in a car accident or something.
"Oh, hell." Darwin dropped the phone, leaned forward, and facepalmed. "She's pissed."
"Seriously? She's pissed off instead of worried about you?"
"See for yourself." He pushed the phone across the table and rubbed both hands over his face.
Shadow picked up the phone and skimmed the last few messages. Whoa. I don't think I've ever seen a single person use that much profanity in such a short time. She pushed the phone back and covered her mouth with her hand.
"That's just not right." She reached across the table and laid her hand over his. "Y'know, if this is how she reacts instead of considering the possibility that something might've happened to you, then you might be better off without her."
"Huh. I suppose." He managed a shaky smile, turned his hand over, and clasped hers. "I can't imagine having as good a time with her as I just had with you, anyway."
"Really? This was fun?"
"Well, once the fear wore off and I started getting into the spirit of things, yeah."
"So, uh … you'd be open to the possibility of a second date?"
"I would, yeah." He grinned.
Well, at least tonight wasn't a total loss, then.
"We've verified his identity," Machiko said to Shadow in the conference room. "His parents knew he went out on a date and assumed he was at a restaurant or a cinema. His being at the meeting place at the exact right time seems to be nothing but a coincidence."
That is such a relief! Shadow nodded, turned back to Darwin, and grinned. "See? You're off the hook."
"Thanks." He looked up at Machiko and added, "Thank all of you. I was getting nervous for a while there."
"What I'd like to know," Otto said after taking four bottles of RC from the vending machine in the corner and passing three of them to Shakira, Shadow, and Darwin, "is how you knew the passcode. I mean, word for word."
"Thanks." Darwin accepted the drink and shrugged. "It's like I told Shadow -- I'm a dork. I've seen every episode of every Star Trek series more times than I can count. I'm amazed that anyone else in the world had even heard that phrase before. Most Trek fans don't even remember anything about that episode except the Orion woman." He chuckled. "I just assumed Darius told Shadow what kinds of things I'm into or she was showing off her geek cred."
Machiko shook her head slowly. "I certainly never expected anyone to know it."
"Wow." Shadow turned a wide-eyed stare on Darwin. "If anyone else had been there instead of you, they wouldn't have known the passcode and I would've just gone back to the car and hauled ass outta there."
"I guess we were lucky, then." Darwin smiled back at her.
"I guess so."
"So, Mr. Madigan, you're free to go. I can arrange a ride for you. Or your parents can pick you up if that's what you'd prefer."
"Well …" He grinned at Shadow. "Would you mind flying me back home? Maybe after an actual date?"
"Well, the night is young." She slipped her hand into his. "I'd be happy to."
"I won't keep you from it, then." Machiko bowed. "Once again, I apologize for your being caught up in all of this."
"No need. It was fun."
She smiled. "Shadow, Mr. Madigan, enjoy the rest of your evening."
"Thanks, boss." Shadow led him out of the room, keeping her hand in his, and they walked through the corridors toward the huge door leading to the surface. "You really had a good time?"
"Yep. This was the most interesting thing that's ever happened to me."
Glad it didn't scare him off.
"So … the Justice Foundation. What kinds of work do you do?"
"It's different from day to day. In my case, it's usually non-combat stuff. Gathering information, acquiring items needed during investigations, making contact with informants, and so on."
"How'd you get started here?"
Shadow swiped her badge through the lock and tapped her passcode into the keypad, then replied while waiting for the enormous door to open.
"I was a thief. Did a lot of B&E, picking pockets, that kind of thing. I got caught robbing someone and would've gone to prison if Machiko hadn't intervened. She said she could use someone with my skills, so she gave me a choice."
"Work for her or go to prison?"
"Exactly. So here I am." She grinned and walked with him up the paved ramp. "It changed my life. I probably would've remained a petty thief and ended up spending half of my life in jail or maybe getting shot and killed while slipping into someone's house. She still has me using some of my old skills, but only to help people. I've made friends here and what I'm doing matters."
"I'm glad you were able to turn your life around." He laughed softly. "And you found your purpose at such a young age. I'm still trying to figure out what to do with my life."
"Well, there's plenty of time for that. It's probably better to work it out at a natural pace, rather than have it forced on you, anyway." She chuckled as they stepped out of the "maw" and onto a grass lot. They kept walking and the maw closed.
"I'll focus on what's directly in front of me, then." Darwin tried to meet her gaze, blushed for what might have been the millionth time tonight, and leaned closer to her. He hesitated, finally made eye contact, and said, "Um … may I?"
Sure, why not? She leaned in to meet him halfway and they kissed. When they parted, both of them grinned from ear to ear and her face turned hot, but at least her blush didn't show thanks to her obsidian skin.
"So," he finally said. "I figure we've got time for a movie before I have to be back home. Or we can just hang out."
"That sounds nice. No one chasing us, no risk of being shot at, just a nice walk around town."
"Yep. I mean, that stuff was fun, but other stuff can be fun, too." He fired off another goofy grin and she laughed. They walked on in silence for a moment, then he said, "I'll do my best not to make a fool of myself again. Like, the tickling thing."
"Heh. I've never really been ticklish. I was just reacting to being grabbed suddenly." She shrugged and giggled. "As I said earlier, next time you wanna grope me, go for my tits."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Cool." She smiled and marveled at how things had turned out tonight.
Sometimes you just get lucky.