The Crystal Spire was the sort of restaurant no cop in Gamma City could afford to patronize even for special occasions. It wasn’t that the menus were the kind that didn’t have prices listed on them, it was that there were no menus at all. Meals at the Crystal Spire were individually prepared affairs.
The first step to joining the “Dining Circle” was to meet with the chefs. That meeting consisted of a lengthy interview to determine preferences, particular favorites, and ingredients which had to be avoided. A single meeting cost more than a GCPD officer’s yearly salary, and it was not uncommon for the chefs to request three or four interviews, with subsequent meetings offering a selection of dishes for the prospective diner to comment on.
Heartless had held an invite to the Crystal Spire for years but had put off the preliminary interviews because Ai was diligent about avoiding any public appearances that could link her two identities. The mere fact that Heartless was recognized by the Crystal Spire’s clientele list was enough to open doors that would have been otherwise impenetrable and that was enough for her purposes.
It had seemed like a safe and sensible strategy at the time, but as she savored a beef dish that had no name because it had been created solely for her palet, Ai felt pangs of regret at the meals she’d missed in her pursuit of reclusivity.
“I take it your food is good?” Harp asked, watching Ai’s expression as she ate.
“No. Definitely not good,” Ai said. “Calling it good would be a sacrilege. This is somewhere north of divine. How is yours?”
“I don’t know,” Harp said, looking at the iridescent splashing fish made from a variety of fresh vegetables, caught midleap from a sea of salad greens. “It’s too pretty. I don’t know where to start.”
“They left a little imperfection on its left flank,” Sidewalker said. “That’ probably where you’re supposed to dig in.”
“Thank you for joining us,” Ai said, forcing herself to savor each bite. Aside from Agatha’s cooking, food had been a means to keep herself from starving for most of Ai’s life, so she tended to tear through it as fast as possible so she could get on with the activities she was otherwise engaged in.
The meals at the Crystal Spire were another matter though. They were more than nourishment. Each one seemed designed to not only fortify the body but also to expand the senses and open the mind to new vistas of possibility. How they managed to achieve that was a mystery though. Zai had checked the chemical makeup of the dishes as they ate and there were no psychedelics, hallucinogens, or other exotic compounds present. The food was just what it appeared to be, but arrayed together to become something much more.
“Hard to say no to a place like this,” Sidewalker said. “Or to someone’s who’s been such a good employer.”
“How long did you two work together?” Harp asked, gently digging into her own dish.
“I think our first job was three years ago?” Sidewalker said.
“Depends how you count it,” Ai said. “You did a job for Heartless about four years ago but it was through one of the ‘subsidiaries’ I’ve worked with.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised,” Sidewalker said. “You always seemed pretty cautious. I thought you were probably someone famous trying hard not to caught.”
“Well, that was half correct,” Ai said. “I fell a little short at the end there, but given what they eventually sent to find me, I’m still going to chalk it up as a win.”
“That was how my team felt too,” Sidewalker said. “I’m sorry they’re not here to join us but everyone pretty much agreed that last mission was too good of a run to ever top, and with what you paid out, we could stop taking stupid chances and find some more sensible things to spend our time on.”
“I’m glad,” Ai said. “You had a great crew, I was hoping they’d come out of it Ok.”
“Oh, they’re better than Ok,” Sidewalker said. “Your digital friends saw to that. Records cleaned up, information on missing family members found, and new identities as needed. I don’t know that I’ll ever see most of them again, or if I could even find them if I tried, and I think that might be for the best. They’ve got new lives. Ones they deserve.”
“What about you?” Ai asked. “You’re still answering the same number I had for you before.”
“The world’s a lot more transparent these days,” Sidewalker said. “Less call for people skulking around in the shadows ferreting out secrets and doing work that’s better not done in the light of day.”
“Less need, but not none,” Ai said.
“No, I don’t suppose there’ll ever be a time when people don’t keep at least a few secrets that other people’ll pay to find out,” Sidewalker said.
“You’re putting together a new crew then I take it?” Ai said.
“Considering it,” Sidewalker said. “I know that my last crew had it right. The work we did isn’t the kind of thing that leads to a long and happy life. Getting out of the game now? Every grey cell I’ve got, and my new partner, they all agree that this is the right time.”
“But a part of you still doesn’t want to give it up?” Ai asked.
“Well, I was never all that good at quitting,” Sidewalker said.
“Plus what else would you do right?” Harp asked. “What else would feel as important?”
“Spoken like someone who’s been as deep in the game as I have. You used to work for her too?” Sidewalker asked with a look of camaraderie in his eyes.
“Not exactly,” Harp said.
“She saved my life,” Ai said. “A couple of time at least.”
“Sounds like you got caught before the machine intelligences got to you?” Sidewalker asked.
“It was that or keep falling and go splat,” Ai said. “Which, having also fallen to my death, I can say is miserable and not something I ever recommend.”
“Someday I’d love to hear what your story really is,” Sidewalker said.
“Picture of series of questionable decisions and risky gambles and you’ll have the overall shape of it,” Ai said.
“Sounds like we’ve all got that in common,” Sidewalker said and raised his glass in a toast.
Ai and Harp joined him as the next course was brought out.
“There’s another option you could consider,” Ai said as plates with a delicate custard-like substance were placed before them. “You don’t have to leave the game, or keep walking on a knife edge between the law on one side and an inevitable betrayal by your employer on the other.”
“You offering me a job?” Sidewalker asked.
“It’s not like I’ve got less to work on than I did before,” Ai said. “I know you can manage a team, and you know I’m on the ‘less-likely to screw you over’ end of the boss spectrum.”
“So, what, I would be a legit employee of Heartless Enterprises or something? A corporate security goon rather than a gun for hire?”
“I don’t need a goon or a gun for hire,” Ai said. “What I need is a leader. Someone who can take a team with diverse skills and turn them into an effective force in the face of a world where people can now fly at will and download the schematics to turn themselves into walking tanks if they’re having a bad day.”
“And what would you do with a force like that?” Sidewalker asked. “Try to take over the world?”
“Taking over the world is the last thing I want,” Ai said. “That’s too much trouble for anyone to be bothered with, plus I already had the chance to do that when we rolled out the Omnigrade. It seemed like a bad idea then and it seems like a worse one now.”
“Why put a crew back together then?” Harp asked, joining Sidewalker’s curiosity.
“I spent years in the shadows too,” Ai said. “I’ve hidden who I am and what I can do since I was a toddler. I like what the Omnigrade has done for the world but I have no illusions that every use it’s put to is going to be a good one. I can’t fix all of that, and there’s a lot of things I don’t have any right or need to put my nose into, but even with all the tech and glitter, these are humans we’re taking about, and there’ll definitely be some that’ll need to be stopped. There always are.”
“Sounds like you need a bunch of troubleshooters? Maybe with a bit more shooting than usual?” Sidewalker asked.
“That’s the general shape of it,” Ai said. “You can take your time thinking about if it sounds like what you’re looking for though.”
“Don’t need to,” Sidewalker said. “After everything that went down and how you saw us through it all? Sign me up.”
Ai blinked. That had gone significantly better than she’d imagined it might.
“Well that’s good to hear,” she managed to say without stammering.
“Honestly it’s a better deal than drifting from job to job waiting for the one where I get shot by our boss, or have to shoot them myself. At least if you choose to shoot me, I know you’ll probably have a good reason and you won’t botch the job.”
Ai wasn’t sure how she felt about that endorsement, despite it carrying the ring of truth.
Sidewalker stayed with them through the next course but begged off from trying the dessert courses due to another engagement.
“I made my sister wait twenty years to hear from me,” he said as he left. “I’m pretty sure if I make her wait for this get together, she’s going to shoot me and no one will convict her.”
Ai waved goodbye to him and turned to the first confection laid before her. From it’s presentation it could have been a simple chocolate heart cake. From it’s texture and flavor though it was far from simple.
“If you’re looking for a troubleshooting crew, I’m surprised you didn’t make an offer to the Valkyries,” Harp said, enjoying her own piece of cake.
“I thought about it,” Ai said. “You’re every bit the leader Sidewalker is, and the Valkyries are already a more effective force than any other tactical unit on the planet.”
“Why didn’t you reach out then?” Harp asked.
Ai drew in a breath and tried to put her words into a sensible order. The answer was more complex than she could find a straight path through so in the end she grabbed a thought and ran with it.
“I don’t want you to work for me,” she said.
“Ok?” Harp said, amusement and confusion flickering across her eyes.
“I mean I want to work with you, as equals, even though that feels weird to say.”
“Why would it be weird?” Harp asked, her voice softening.
“Even with the Omnigrade and all the tech stuff out of the picture, you’re still…well, you,” Ai said.
“With all the tech stuff out of the picture, I’m a corpse, but ok, so I’m me, that’s not that big a deal.”
“Isn’t it?” Ai said. “You’ve been a star to the whole world. You’ve been someone who’s done the incredible, even the impossible, in public, for years now. Even if no one knew who you were, there’ve been people who worship you. I mean you have fan pages and forums dedicated to every part of your life the public has been able to see.”
“Valkyrie-1 has,” Harp said. “She’s…not exactly me. She’s more like a part of me.”
“But she’s not a fake part of you,” Ai said. “Not like Heartless was for me. You could step forward and claim all that fame and glory and the world would love you.”
“No thank you,” Harp said. “I’m not great with people. The idea of everyone knowing who I am? That’s basically my version of hell. If I could have gone your route and been a Heartless Valkyrie, I would have worked in secret forever.”
“For someone who’s not great with people, you see like a pretty damn good leader to me,” Ai said. “And I’ve never found you to be anything but amazing either.”
“That’s different,” Harp said. “That’s individuals. Some of those are easier to be with. And anyways, let’s talk about amazing. Do you think saving the entire world somehow puts you in a lesser bracket than I’m in? The Valkyries saved a few hundred or maybe a few thousand people. You saved billions.”
“That was largely the work of other people though,” Ai said.
“Yeah, because you see how people work together. The pieces make sense to you. I can’t do that. I can see how some people fit with each other, but when I try to make a bigger picture out of it everything falls apart.”
“What about us then?” Ai asked. “How do we fit together?”
“I don’t know,” Harp said, meeting Ai’s gaze. “But I think I’d like to find out.”