March 11, 2021

Chapter Two: Play Time

Chapter Two: Play Time

Cut it," Reneau said, waving to a Vance's right, to a camera-wielding woman the courier hadn't seen entering the room. "That's the reaction we needed. We'll dub in the audio later."

The room flipped into a frenzy, with Sasha laughing as she took the breakfasts from Vance's hands and set them on the table. The two goons who'd been beside him slipped back from the room, chuckling to themselves too. Had hte whole world gone mad? Was this all some dumb prank on Vance?

But no, they couldn't have known Vance would be at the diner, couldn't have—

"You all right, my friend?" Reneau asked, coming over with a frown, one nulled by his twinkling eyes. "A bit of a shock, no?"

"Nah," Vance found his voice. "I'm totally used to seeing my friends tied up and laughing about it."

Reneau nodded, as if he bought Vance's words, "A necessary evil for today. We are ever showmen, my friend, but this day, of all days, we must truly be theater's kings and queens."

Vance winced. The farther up the Troupe's chain you climbed, the more ridiculous they became. Some Troupe victims, the ones who hadn't paid up or who failed to deliver the requisite amount of applause for a performance, muttered about 'thees' and 'thous' in the clinic afterward. A regular Renaissance roughing up.

Sasha brought an egg sandwich over to Reneau, while she herself ate a bacon piece as if savoring every salty centimeter with her lips. Behind her, picking over the breakfast, Nema rubbed her wrists and looked none the worse for wear.

"But it's good you are here," Reneau put up a dire sigh, ruining the effect with a strong sandwich bite on the back-end. Sloppy hot sauce dribbled to the tiled floor. "You see—"

"Reneau," Sasha broke in between licks of her baconated fingers. "Please don't talk while you're eating. It ruins your flair." Reneau inclined his head at her comment and let Sasha take over. "What he's saying is that we need to have our video here delivered, and you're just the one to do it."

"Can't you send it?" Vance asked.

Anywhere on the station could get beamed a file in seconds. Anywhere not on the station, well, Vance couldn't help with that anyway.

"A private performance," Sasha replied, shaking her head ever so slightly. "We cannot chance the wrong party might listen in, or steal it."

"Because Nema being held hostage is so compelling?"

"Because of what it means, Vance," Sasha said.

Reneau, face filled with sandwich, and Sasha both locked stares at Vance, as if the whole puzzle should've been solved then and there. How could this courier not understand what was happening here, what wonders were afoot in this rank basement?

Remember the rewards, Vance. No matter how insane, how frustrating, the Troupes would pay. They were reliable. That made them better than half Vance's customers, and keeping on their good side meant Vance would still have business in the Shades, the Fibbonacci quadrant all these morons, himself included, called home.

"You're gonna have to give me something here," Vance said.

"Must we always work with the simple-minded?" Reneau, fingers covered in egg and sauce, asked Sasha.

"It is our lot in life, I'm afraid," Sasha replied, then glittered her look Vance's way. "A performance must have an audience, Vance, and this one is very special."

"The audience or the performance?" Vance asked.

Nema, her own snack secured, made her way over to the quartet. The camera woman rustled by Reneau and whispered something in the man's ear to earn a nod before vanishing out the door and away.

"Both," Sasha said. "The Shades have attracted considerable interest thanks to our impact on its culture. Our little home has an identity now, a beauty others on Fibbonacci are finally starting to see."

With Nema nearby, Vance had someone to share a skeptical glance with. Nema even shot him a wink, something Sasha and Reneau, locked into their own full fledged performance, missed.

"Indeed," Reneau said, taking over with slopping vigor. "The Lady's Arms have decided to embrace our small part of the station, and we would prefer they look elsewhere." Reneau snorted. "Their particular brand of art is rather stifling."

Stifling? More like single subject. Sympathy wasn't a feeling Vance had for the Troupe, but getting smothered by a cult worshipping a long lost astronaut wouldn't be good for anyone. At least the Troupe had some variety in its insanity.

"That's why we took Nema here," Sasha entered again, stage right. "The Lady's Arms only respect strength, not showmanship, so we needed to prove to them that we are not afraid. That the Troupe is not just an act."

"Isn't it though?" Vance said.

Both Sasha and Reneau laughed, a crystallized sound with a cutting edge. Yes, they could take his joke. No, they wouldn't hesitate to kill him if Vance ever said those words outside this room.

"Which brings us to you," Reneau said. "We need you to go to the Lady's Arms. Find Emiline and deliver the video. The reward will, of course, be substantial."

"Of course," Sasha echoed.

"Of course," Vance decided to throw his own affirmation in, because it seemed like that's what the two wanted.

"Of course," Nema added in on the end, but too late, drawing disapproving glares from the Troupe's top two. "Sorry."

"Never apologize for a missed cue, my dear," Reneau replied. "The only remedy is to do better next time. Now, if you would wait here, post production calls."

Swashing away, Sasha and Reneau vanished from the room and up the stairs, leaving Nema and Vance alone in the theater's basement. The table and its snarfed food remained their only companion, along with the still-lit show lighting and the costume boxes.

"Did all this just happen, or am I asleep?" Vance asked the air.

"Definitely happened," Nema said. "But I can pinch you if you want."

The sparky girl had giggles in her eyes, despite her recent hostage experience. Scuffled out before she'd made her usual morning markers, Nema's pajamas matched her scattered hair, but if the disarray bothered her, Vance couldn't see it.

"So you were coming to rescue me?" Nema asked. "Save me from the Troupe?"

"Sasha offered me the job," Vance fought the fluster, failed. Tried to redirect. "Cook's worried about you. That's where I was, the diner."

"Oh, so you weren't wandering around outside, coming in here helping Sasha at random?" Nema's grin only grew larger.

"Does getting tied up in a chair always make you this happy?"

"Only happened once so far. Might try it again."

Rolling his eyes, Vance checked his buzzing phone. The app demanding his delivery presence grew more insistent with every second as available jobs piled in. The day hit its stride, everyone needing things schlepped from one corner to the next. If Vance didn't get jumping on these soon, he'd lose ground.

Zeke always hovered close behind in the leaderboards, and once that spastic nut had his coffee, he'd be sprinting the avenues non-stop till night.

"You said Cook was worried about me?" Nema asked as they climbed the stairs back to the lobby. Reneau and Sasha had said to wait, but unless they were paying Vance for his time . . . "Nice to know she cares."

"Sure she does," Vance said. "Every minute you're not there means she has to deal with customers."

"Disaster."

"Exactly."

They made the theater door, drawing disdain from Troupe members lounging around in their foppish finery. If Vance hadn't seen the costumed clowns beat up and smash down enough random citizens to know the truth, he'd laugh those glares right outta the room.

Instead, he and Nema fell quiet as they coasted into the avenue.

"So you're not going to wait?" Nema asked. "Reneau and Sasha aren't going to be happy."

"They're not my only customers."

"As your friend, I feel it's important to point out they could hurt you," Nema said.

Vance shrugged, held up his phone. "The Shades loves me, Nema. Sasha and Reneau would make too many people angry."

"Someone's feeling important today."

The phone buzzed again. Vance grinned. A close gig, from a good customer, sent directly to Vance.

"Glad you're okay, Nema," Vance started backward. "See you later?"

Nema gave a little wave as Vance turned and dashed away, but he didn't miss the worried frown drifting over her face as he joined in the moving crowd.

The Shades, just like every other district on Fibbonacci that Vance had ever seen, heaved and hurled like an ocean, sending people and robots coursing through its narrow lanes in packed hustles. Vance always found it astounding, given how much could be done with a phone, that so many people needed to be moving all the time.

Fibbonacci, though, depended on precision. As Vance understood it, the station sucked up so much energy every second that people needed to be in place ready to route it to the right batteries, to the right ships, to the right reflectors to beam it back to other orbiting stations waiting for their juice. All that work required hands-on attention from secure facilities, one in each district.

The place Vance headed now.

While the Troupe had the Shades matching their general, theatrical aesthetic—the calendar said Halloween approached, so orange and black decor laced the walls, skeletons propped themselves up in corners, and eerie music piped from speakers the Troupe had installed throughout—the Volt Station evaded any such character. Fibbonacci's official overlords would bring down the heavy weapon hammer on anyone messing with a Volt Station, so its plain, clean silver walls sat as they always had: coated with warnings about unauthorized approach.

Vance walked right up to the curved entry built into the building's corner and bristling with cameras, scanners, and even a visible, black, hook-like weapon that'd emit a nerve-blasting noise upon command from the inside. Vance didn't know what events had prompted the hardcore security, but the Volt Station had been a fortress since Vance graced this galaxy with his presence.

"You know me," Vance said, waving to the camera. "Gio put in a request?"

"Confirming," came a bored voice from the other side.

"C'mon, Reed, would I ever lie to you?" Vance tapped his phone's case. "Have a lot of orders coming in today."

"You chose to take this one, you wait," Reed replied, Vance's comeback not quite enough to rouse him from the morning stupor.

Vance settled back on his heels, took in the scene rolling around him. The mood in the Shades today seemed to be a good one. Chatter bounced around the base, flying happy and thwarting the spooky sound effects. The coffee-and-croissant morning scents were fading away to the station's more neutral metals and ozone. Above, the faux-sky tilted towards a frosty fall blue.

If Gio could get his act together, Vance ought to make a solid profit on the day. Happier people tended to place more orders, tended to tack on bigger tips. Tended not to curse Vance out whenever a package, a message turned out to be a disappointment.

The corner door whirled open. Vance expected to step inside to the building's small lobby, but instead Gio came out his way. The squat man with a beard reaching to his ankles, a snarled gray mess shadowing a face shining with age-defying chemicals. Gio defied stereotypes, choosing to keep the beard—gray meant wise—while fighting wrinkles—weak—to his last breath.

The man's hands, gloved in the black-and-yellow reserved for Volt Station workers, held a thin folio. The slow, cautious way Gio held it out to Vance changed the job's nature. This one wouldn't be going in Vance's pack. It'd be a hand-held job all the way.

"No other stops," Gio said. "Take it direct. You'll get the premium."

Vance took the folio, quirked an eyebrow at the object's heft. "What're you sending this time, Gio?"

"You know I can't tell you that," Gio answered. "Get going now, before someone notices."

"Notices?"

Gio waved Vance off, "I mean it now, direct. No getting distracted."

"As if I ever do," Vance said, cradling the folio in his left arm and glancing at his phone with his right, confirming the destination. "Scarlet Roads? This isn't close, Gio."

"That's why I sent it to you. Need someone I can trust."

Vance eyed the folio, "You know the rules, Gio."

No radiation, no bombs, no weapons. Vance wasn't gonna die for a package.

"Don't worry. Make it quick, and you'll be just fine."

Gio gave Vance a second to come up with other questions, but the courier already had his mind spinning through the routes, finding the best way to run. Scarlet Roads. Been a while since Vance had a package going that far. But, when he put up the destination into his phone, marked it priority, the reward came back fat and juicy.

"I'll get it done," Vance said, and Gio took the goodbye for what it was, slipping back inside his Station, the door whirring shut behind him.