“Hey, mind if I sit here?”
Those were the words that had turned a dreary evening into a fun, laughter-filled time for Francis Trellen. Francis grinned nervously over his drink at the woman opposite him who flashed a charming grin at him and clinked her glass with his. She had a shock of blue hair that gave her a playful youthfulness.
“To steel underpants!” She said, raising her glass in a toast.
“Actually, while a lot of citizens think power armour is steel, they’re universally made of composites, though we can’t discuss them, they’re grouped under radio-plastics. No underpants either, but the team wasn’t sure if we should have included a waste receptacle, it would be rather intrusive and ergonomics ca…”
He stopped, flushing as he realised the woman opposite him was laughing, “So serious Francis, I thought we decided we were going to cheer each other up. Drink up.”
Francis faltered and realised he’d been doing it again. He loved his work, but it had become quite apparent over the years that very few people shared his joy of the intricacies of servo-neuron interaction or synaptic resonance. He drank his drink obediently, coughing as he felt the sharp, burning fluid slide down his throat. Not his sort of drink, this vodka. Then again, Francis had never really dabbled in alcohols until his new friend had decided to share a table with him.
“Hey! Is that Teetotal Trellen? Stars above, it is! Never thought I’d see you in here, I pegged you as a digizen.”
Francis felt himself colour yet again, embarrassed by the simple truth that he was indeed the sort to spend more time as a digizen than a citizen. It didn’t help that the speaker, his colleague Harri Wester had a way of projecting confidence and panache. He watched behind his glass as Harri sauntered up to the table and did a near double take at Trellen’s new blue-haired friend.
“Well, hi there, mind if I sit there?” He said, indicating the seat next to Francis’ new friend. Katya, with her easy-grin and playfulness seemed much more likely to be an acquaintance of Harri than him. Francis was filled with sudden loathing for his colleague’s effortless self-assurance.
He almost didn’t hear her reply. Almost. Katya’s voice grew cold as she looked Harri up and down. Her lips curled dismissively. “Sorry guy, you look like you’d be as much fun as a negative-impulse in a servo-neuron link test.”
Francis felt his jaw open. She’d really listened to everything he’d talked about earlier, not just dismissed it out of hand. He was too stunned to complain when she took his arm and pulled him, her strength surprising as she guided him to the dance floor at the back of the club.
Francis learnt a great deal about himself in just a few hours. The first being that he wasn’t great at holding his drink after three shots of that star-cursed vodka. The second was that dancing came as naturally to him as an overweight hippo in an Anna Karenina ballet.
Now, he was busy puking his guts out on the street, with Katya patting his back as they huddled beside a Dynacore L. The expensive groundcar was a luxury few could afford and Francis avoided placing his hands on it, lest a zealous guard decide he was up to no good. He felt Katya shiver in the growing downpour. “It’s only going to get heavier.”
There was no going back inside, they’d been thrown out after he’d thrown up. All over a Navyman’s wife.
“The R&D lab is just down the road. We can wait there for the rain to stop.”
“I’m sure we can keep ourselves occupied while we wait,” Katya said with an impish smile before she helped him up and pulled him along.
Francis felt less off balance when he returned to the lab. It was a cramped, low-ceilinged affair, filled with just enough space for his array of tools. The terminal he shared with Harri owned a cluttered corner of the lab, nestled beneath the detritus of late nights. Katya wrinkled her nose at the smell of a rat gyros so far gone it could be used to develop bioweapons.
Instead, she turned her attention to the sum total of Francis’ ambitions. An incomplete suit of power armour loomed over her. It lay open, awaiting an operator to insert the waiting interlink. Katya had to admit it was different from the models she was used to seeing.
“Why does it hunch over like that?” She asked the most pressing question that came to mind. Francis positively beamed as he pointed at the back of the suit.
“Miniaturised fusion core. Modified heatsinks there and there. The operator can flush the core’s heat sink to add considerable upthrust.”
“Evge! You’re telling me you built a core small enough for a suit and it can fly too? Erracom would kill for this tech.”
“Well, yeah, that’s why I submitted the patent earlier today.”
“You did what?” Katya asked flatly, the bubbly cheerfulness was gone, the former warmth replaced by ice.
“Patented it. I’ve heard stories, you know, people disappearing, that sort of thing. Katya?”
But Katya wasn’t listening, she was speaking to the air with a faraway look. “Patented it. How should I proceed? Understood.”
Francis was standing there with a confused look on his face that didn’t do him any favours. The look didn’t improve at all after Katya gave him a new smile below his adam’s apple with her molecular-edged knife. She left his twitching body on the lab floor as she settled at his terminal, sweeping the mouldy food away. A single worm was all it took to scrub the entire local and digisphere databases of Francis’ work. A second worm found the patent office’s address from a stored message.
Satisfied, she wiped her image from the street cams and security footage before making her way out into the rainy night. As she clicked the door shut, she turned around to see Harri staring at her.
She rolled her eyes, before smiling at Harri, warm this time, her mask back in place.
“Invites me to his place for an evening together. Turns out he’s only got eyes for his terminal.” Katya said. She narrowed her eyes thoughtfully at Harri, “But I suppose this night might not be wasted. I got a place over by Junction 12, the Rheinstadt building.”
Harri felt a smile return to his face as he unsubtly gave Katya the once over.
“Why not?” He extended his arm, together they walked off, with Harri filling the silence between them. “You know, we submitted our patent at the Rheinstadt…”
It took four days for the fire at the Rheinstadt Patent Office to peter out, and when it had, no one thought to connect the death of a two-bit researcher to it.
Harri Wester was never seen again.
Erracom would submit a patent for a miniaturised fusion core a month later.