Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Koreshi Chronicles - Chapter VI: Happy, Belated

11 Summer, 1926

“Lyta, honey, it ain’t your birthday, is it?”

Ellen Cranby regarded the slice of cake with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. The candle sticking up from the middle of it was not a birthday candle. The hotel gift shop had not sold birthday candles, and Lyta hadn’t been in the mood to go hunting for one. They had, however, sold long tapers in calming pastel colors, the sort that rich executives’ wives might strategically place around a bathtub to try to forget that they were in a city made primarily of trash.

The mauve taper looked out of place atop the generic slice of chocolate cake Lyta had bought with her cawfee. It looked even more out of place in the TNTR café-bar, which reflected a certain modern minimalist aesthetic not suited for pastel candles. Lyta lit it with a tactical fire-starter and watched the flame hover gently.

“No,” she said, not looking up. “It was Ti’s. Last week. I didn’t…” She stopped herself. I didn’t remember, she nearly said, but she clamped down on the thought before it left her mouth. “I wasn’t really in a place where I could do this.” She looked up to see Ellen’s expression softening. “Blow out the candle with me?” she asked.

The older woman nodded. “1… 2…” They blew together and the little flame flickered and went out.

“Happy birthday, Ti,” Lyta said softly.

“Happy birthday, Ti,” Ellen echoed across the table.

Lyta licked her lips, trying to figure out what to say, and finally just passed a fork across the table. “Might as well share it,” she said.

Ellen took the fork but made no move to take the first bite. “Lyta, sweetness, it’s a good thing you’re doing, remembering him like this, but you can’t let the memory own you.”

Lyta stabbed the fork into the narrow end of the cake. “Yeah,” she said, bringing it to her lips. It was not particularly good cake. It was slightly stale and the icing was lumpy. Still, it was Ti’s birthday cake.

Ellen also began to eat, and clarified her thoughts between bites. “I mean it,” she said. “You got enough grief already, and enough anger. Don’t go adding regret to the package. You can’t live your life on mighta-beens.”

Lyta nodded slowly. “I know,” she said. “I know, but after we talked last time, I was gonna… And then he fired us and there wasn’t any time before—”

“You ain’t listenin’ to me, Lyta. Nothin’ you can do about that now. You knew him for a good, long time, and you had your moments. There’s plenty of folk who didn’t, and they’re the poorer for it. But you start thinkin’ about what you coulda had if only things had gone different, and you’ll never move on. You know that better’n most.”

Lyta chewed thoughtfully, saying nothing.

Ellen kept talking, more to fill the void, Lyta suspected, than for any better reason. “You ain’t gonna forget him. Don’t you worry ‘bout that. There’s enough here – and in Prince Gable too, I wager – to remind you. But that don’t mean you gotta mourn about it. My Pa says death’s a reminder of life. ‘You best get busy livin’ or get busy dying,’ he says. You can’t stop life from throwing itself at you, good and bad, but you gotta cherish the good while you got it.”

It was amazing, Lyta reflected, how similar Ellen’s thoughts were to Alain’s. “Yeah,” she said, “it’s just hard.”

Ellen nodded. “Always is,” she said. “But that don’t mean you shouldn’t try. You’ll have your good days and your bad days, but you just keep movin’ forward.”

They sat in silence for a moment as they polished off the last of the cake and focused more intently on their mugs. After a while, Ellen cleared her throat. “Look, you don’t mind my sayin’, but you sounded mighty upset when you called before. Sounded like there was somethin’ you wanted to get off your chest, more’n just raising a glass – well, fork – to absent friends. Something on your mind?”

Lyta sighed. She’d almost managed to forget the reason she’d jumped out the hotel room window in the first place. “Yeah,” she said, her voice tinged with frustration. “We’ve got a new employer.”

“Right…” said Ellen.

“And our employer decided that we needed someone else to round out the team’s skill set, some sort of computer security expert. Which is fine, right, he’s the boss and we really don’t have anyone who’s good with hacking. Except the guy he got is this…” Lyta closed her eyes a moment, trying to figure out exactly how to describe Mads and why he annoyed her so much. “He’s this prep school kid in a wheelchair who’s never been operational before and has the attitude of… of… a prep school kid.” She was annoyed at herself for the lame finish, and she took a sip of cawfee to cover her frustration.

“And you’re worried that… what exactly?”

Lyta struggled to answer the question. “I don’t know. He’s never been in the field before, and if he screws up, it’s our necks on the line.”

“You think he’s likely to muck it up?” asked Ellen. “If you do, you owe it to your brothers and your employer to tell ‘em before he gets the lot of you killed.”

Lyta shook her head again. “No, that’s not it…” Jimmy had vouched for him. Apparently even Oscar had vouched for him, and that was about as good a recommendation as you could get in the field of computers, as far as Lyta was concerned. The kid knew his stuff.

Ellen regarded her across the table as Lyta stammered. “I think you’re jealous,” she said. Lyta looked up in surprise. “Jealous, or maybe just resentful that this guy got what you used to: family, money, and comfort.”

Lyta opened and closed her mouth a few times. “I never told you…”

“You didn’t have you,” Ellen cut in. “You think you can hide the fact that you come from a rich family? I see ‘em enough. You got the accent, the way of talkin’ like you grew up with a silver spoon. Hard to get rid of that. Your big brother, he covers it up good, but you still talk like you’re comin’ outta the country club. I know you don’t got it now – you wouldn’t be in your line of work if you did – but you didn’t start off so different from this new guy, I’m guessin’.”

Lyta stared with her mouth open, realized what she was doing, and closed it.

“So what you gotta ask yourself,” Ellen went on, “is why you wanted to get rid of this guy from you the second you saw him. If it’s ‘cause you don’t want him to lose everything the way you did, then you’re the sweetest little thing there ever was. But,” she narrowed her eyes, “if you just worked yourself into a huff because he wants to get away from his boring life and have some adventures, then you’re not protectin’ anyone, you’re just being selfish.”

Lyta’s eyes darted around the room, trying to find some sort of retort she could offer to the older woman. They landed on businessmen dressed in crisp suits; her father would have blended in easily with them ten cycles earlier. “He can’t even walk,” she said finally.

“And what’s that gotta do with anything?” asked Ellen sharply. “You said this kid’s a computer hacker. Don’t need no legs for that. And, more to the point, you’re changin’ the subject.”

Lyta sighed and took a sip of cawfee. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “I just… I can’t stop from hating him, the second I saw him.”

Ellen held her gaze. “You can. If the only reason you’ve got it in for this guy is ‘cause he reminds you of what you mighta had, had things gone different, you owe it to yourself and to him to stop it. You don’t like him ‘cause he might get you killed, that’s another thing. But hating him just for spite… that’s cruel. And it’s beneath you.”

Lyta licked her lips. “Yeah,” she said slowly, “I guess. I didn’t… I never used to think feelings were the sort of thing you could change, but I guess maybe they are. Alain says they are.”

Ellen leaned forward. “Who’s Alain?”

Lyta looked down. She hadn’t meant to mention the Southerner, but then again, maybe she had. She still wasn’t sure what to think about Alain, and Ellen would at least be able to give her advice. She hoped. “He’s a… a guy we met in Port Arthur. We body-guarded him for a while. He’s from the South, and… well, we’ve been talking the last few days.”

Ellen curled her fingers around her cawfee mug. “What’s he like?”

A hint of a smile played around Lyta’s lips. “He’s… really funny. And he’s a good dancer.” Her eyes brightened as she warmed to her topic. “He was in the Olympics. Fencing. He won a gold medal in 1912.”

Across the table, Ellen nodded encouragingly. “Sounds nice.”

Lyta realized she didn’t want to say what she knew she had to say next. But she had to. To keep silent would be to avoid the one thing she wanted advice from Ellen about more than anything else. She hesitated, took a deep breath, and looked back down at her mug. "And... he's an assassin."

Ellen nearly choked on her cawfee. “Beg yer pardon?”

She couldn't stop now, not once the topic had been broached. She talked softly, speaking into her cawfee cup. "When we met him in Port Arthur, it was at this fancy ball. Someone died. We don't have any proof or anything, but we're pretty sure it was him." She could feel Ellen's eyes on her from across the table. "Lyta, honey," she said gently, "are you sure you want to be associating with someone like that?"

"I'm not!" she said too fast. Her head snapped up, her eyes wide. "No! See, that's the point!" She shook her head, dislodging the very idea. "And he's almost 40," she added. "Ew."

Ellen regarded her across the table. There was a flicker of amusement in her eyes, then her expression settled back to concern. “Well, I’d be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t think some people was better off dead. But for money?” She paused and chewed on her inner lip. “I just don’t know, darling. That doesn’t sound… virtuous.”

“We kill people too,” Lyta said. “For money, sometimes.” She wasn’t sure why she rose to the challenge. It wasn’t like she supported Alain being an assassin. But somehow, she couldn’t stop herself.

“That’s different and you know it,” said Ellen. “You don’t kill people unless you have to, and it ain’t like you make a business of hurtin’ others. People die sometimes in your line of work, we both know that, but it ain’t like you go out of your way to do it to them.”

Lyta sighed. She didn’t know why she’d come to Alain’s defense when he wasn’t even there. “I know,” she said. “It’s just… The rest of the time, he’s really nice. And funny.” Lame, Lyta, she thought to herself. It sounds like you love him almost the way he loves you. She shook her head.

Ellen stared a moment. “You talk to your brothers about him yet?”

Lyta looked aside, avoiding the older woman's gaze. "They met him. We body-guarded for him."

"Right," said Ellen, drawing out the word. "But have you spoken to them about him?"

Lyta looked down at her mug again, eyes darting across the tabletop and finally settling on the dark liquid. "No," she said softly.

Ellen leaned forward and placed a calloused hand on Lyta's wrist. "You know they want to see you happy, right? We all do."

Lyta nodded slowly. She knew she should speak to Lukas about Alain. Of course she should. But after their argument earlier about Minnie and how he was only ‘gathering contacts,’ she realized she had no interest in mentioning that she’d been ‘gathering contacts’ of her own.

“All I'll say is this: you're a good judge of character. You go with your instinct on this. If you think he's a decent man, then you'll probably right. And I already told you what Pa says. So don't go throwing caution to the wind or nothing, but don't dawdle neither.” Lyta nodded slowly. “And anythin’ happens to you on account’a this guy, he better watch out, ‘cause he ain’t only gonna have your brothers to deal with!”

Lyta laughed. It felt good to laugh. “Nothing’s gonna happen, Ellen. Not like that. If anything’s gonna happen, it’s gonna be when we’re out in the field sometime.” When Ellen looked concerned, Lyta shook her head dismissively, as though the idea of being killed was all in a day’s work and didn’t particularly concern her.

Ellen sighed and looked out the picture windows of the café. “It’s getting’ on midday. Shouldn’t you be takin’ siesta?”

The sun was high in the sky, glinting off the shining piles of scrap metal. Lyta sighed. “Yeah. I probably should.”

She stood up, and Ellen followed her a moment later. “Thanks, Ellen,” said the younger woman as she picked up her bag.

Ellen nodded. “You remember what I said. About that guy and what’ll happen to him if he so much as looks funny in your direction.”

Lyta gave Ellen a swift peck on the cheek. “Whatever you say, Mom,” she teased. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m late for my nap.”

Lyta walked out of the café with a light step, and Ellen watched her go. When she had pushed through the doors and out of the oasis tower, Ellen sighed and sat back down. “Girl’s in for a world of trouble,” she said to no one in particular. “I just hope she comes through it okay.”

Heavy Gear Roleplaying Game


Hermes 72 - Heavy Gear RPG - Most artwork Copyright 2002 Dream Pod 9, Inc.