Table of Contents
Two days with his family is more than enough, Sidrie Malikah thought.
In truth, she would have cut Andre's time even shorter if not for the Void Legion update. Having the first protocol made her want them all as soon as possible. And if what she'd heard from the hotel room was any indication, there was the potential of a greater reward in forcing the issue. She tried not to get her hopes too high. Only to have them dashed. She'd been there countless times over the last decade.
She was still staring at the entrance cam when the door swung inward. Andre Taylor stood just inside, a short hall opening into a larger room behind him. His expression was flat, but his brown eyes were daggers.
"Hello, Miss Malikah." Dre's gaze shifted from her to Mr. Risenor. "Sir." He dipped his head then returned his attention to her.
Sidrie arched a brow. He had purposely called her Miss Malikah rather than Sidrie as she'd asked. Just like his father, the boy was ready to dig in. Well, if he wanted to play, so would she.
Putting on her best distressed expression, Sidrie gestured to the man in the cheap suit beside her. "We're here with news for your family. This is Mr. Risenor, a senior official with North American Immigration Logistics."
Dre paled once she mentioned NAIL. He opened and closed his mouth. His eyes darted from her to Mr. Risenor and back again. His fear was almost palpable.
Sidrie loved every minute of it. She knew his mind was working, calculating if the news was good or bad. If she had kept her part of the bargain. Or if the NAIL official was there to deliver orders for deportation.
"That's a wonderful smell." She inhaled, long and deep, savoring the spicy bouquet wafting from the apartment. "Is that Jamaican stew chicken?" Knowing Dre was caught off-balance by his concerns and the seemingly innocuous question, she used that moment to sweep inside and by him before he could answer.
Wearing a wolfish smile, she strutted down the hall. Two sets of footsteps followed on the tiled floor in her wake. She passed the pristine stainless steel and white kitchen, crossed the living room, and entered the dining area. Theresa and Kai were sitting at the long glass table before an array of enticing dishes. Mariel, the MX4 droid assigned to housekeeping, was serving them.
"Theresaaa." Sidrie spread her arms as if greeting an old friend. She put on her warmest face as she approached. "So glad to see you up and about. My doctors said you had almost fully recovered. I had to see for myself. Amazing."
The almost bronze of Theresa's skin said she was quite healthy now despite all she had suffered. Not that Sidrie did not know this. The cost in resources and credits for the woman's recovery scrolled down one side of Sidrie's optics. A few million for such an unremarkable piece of flesh. It grated Sidrie's insides.
Smiling broadly, Sidrie stopped a couple feet from the table and shifted her attention to Theresa's daughter. "And hello, Kai. You're so beautifulll."
"Thank you." The little girl smiled shyly.
"Hello, Sidrie." Theresa's stolid expression matched her voice. Her brown eyes took in Mr. Risenor for all of a moment. "I'm glad you're here, so I can thank you in person for helping my family. For saving the lives of myself and the twins."
"You're most welcome." Sidrie inclined her head.
Dre took up a position beside his mother, eyes shifting from Sidrie to Mr. Risenor. He was stroking a little black ring on his pinky finger. Sweat beaded his brow.
Good, Sidrie thought as Dre agonized over the visit. Aloud, she said, "It was sheer luck things worked out the way they did. Providing assistance was the least I could do to honor your late husband, who was our top AI engineer." Sidrie caught Theresa's split-second grimace at the mention of Alphonso before the woman straightened her face. "I regret my absence from the funeral. I was stuck across the country due to a storm."
"Not your fault." Theresa shrugged. "Care to join us for lunch?" She gestured to the food with an open palm.
"On any other day, I might, but I have some pressing matters." Sidrie indicated the short pale-skinned man beside her. "The first of which was to come here with Mr. Risenor. As I told Dre, he's a senior NAIL official."
Theresa's eyes narrowed at the mention of NAIL. Dre rested his hand atop his mother's shoulder. Theresa brought her hand up to cover his in an act of comfort, nervousness, or a bit of both.
"Good morning, Miss Taylor," Mr. Risenor said in a nasal voice.
"Good morning, Mr. Risenor." Voice giving away nothing, Theresa stared directly at the man.
Sidrie admired the woman's fortitude. Another person in a similar position as Theresa would be in a panic right now.
"As you know," Sidrie began, "your son and I had an agreement. The details of which I'm certain he already informed you. I had to go about it in a rather forceful manner, but sometimes such things are necessary." Sidrie swept her hand out, palm up. "This apartment, your health... all were a part of the agreement. As was the petition I filed on your family's behalf with NAIL, which has been approved."
Theresa's eyes widened at those words. She squeezed her son's hand on her shoulder. Dre let out a relieved whoosh. Sidrie allowed herself a ghost of a smile.
"Thank you." Theresa's voice was breathy. She wiped at the corner of her eyes.
Dre cleared his throat. "Thank you, Sidrie."
Mr. Risenor strode over to Theresa. He opened the small folder and removed three blank cards made of a slim yet sturdy transparent plastic. "These are your new Green Cards. I just need to scan your biometrics. If you'll call your daughter over?"
Theresa motioned for Kai to join her and Dre. A few minutes passed as Mr. Risenor positioned himself at each person's right shoulder and asked them to lift their sleeves to expose their biometric tattoos. The blue light of implants flashed in his eyes as he scanned their tattoos followed by their faces and retinas. Each of the cards lit up in green upon activation.
"As usual," Mr. Risenor said in a bored voice, "you don't need to travel with the physical cards. They're just for emergency. Your new status is logged on the Grid."
"I don't know what to say." Theresa was shaking her head, brown eyes sparkling as she regarded Sidrie. "Thank you so much."
"Thank your son." Sidrie gestured to the boy. "He performed admirably. He's well on his way to becoming one of Equitane's prized employees."
"Employee?" Dre repeated, brows drawing together.
"Yes. How else do you think I was able to petition for your family?"
"I--" Dre began.
"It's not what you expected." Sidrie formed a steeple of her fingers in front her midsection. "I get it. Particularly since we got off to such an early misunderstanding."
"It was more like a threat." Dre scowled.
"In your eyes, perhaps. For me." She pressed her palm to her chest. "It was a matter of stating the steps I would take after being denied by someone I saw as ungrateful. I do not take such things lightly." She regarded him impassively. "And I'm even less tolerant of anyone who forgets themselves and touches me in a hostile manner."
Theresa tilted her head up and to the left to regard her son disapprovingly. "Dre! Is that true? Did you try to put hands on her?"
Dre's mouth downturned. He nodded glumly.
"Apologize." Theresa glowered at her son.
"But she--" Dre began sullenly but cut off at his mother's raised brow. One hand balled into a fist, he took a deep shuddering breath, looked toward Sidrie, and grumbled, "Sorry."
Sidrie dipped her head. "Apology accepted." She gestured to their surroundings. "I hope this apartment, your new resident status, keeping your family away from the dangers you would face in the Bottom Wards, your mother's health, as well as a two-hundred-thousand-a-year salary, convinces you of my good intentions."
"I'm sure it does," Theresa said.
"Well, congratulations to your family." Mr. Risenor dipped his head to the Taylors. He turned to Sidrie. "I have some other pressing business to attend, so I'll be on my way."
"Certainly." Sidrie nodded once.
"I will see him out." The MX4 droid left from beside the table and followed Mr. Risenor.
The NAIL official was halfway across the living room when he stopped. He faced the group. His gaze shifted to Dre. "I almost forgot. Make certain you remain in Equitane's employ. Your status is dependent upon it." He turned and departed with Mariel on his heels.
"Aren't you worried he'll report me to the Family Planning Corps?" Theresa asked the moment Sidrie heard the front door close.
Sidrie shook her head. "I would not have brought him here if the FPC were a concern."
Theresa appeared to relax. "Fair enough. This work of yours that my boy's doing... it involves playing that game?"
"For the record, I don't like it. I never liked it."
"Be that as it may, it's my requirement for services rendered." Sidrie shrugged. "If it makes you feel any better, then I promise to make certain no harm comes to him."
"I'll take you at your word." Theresa stared at her icily. "And you should take me at mine. If anything happens to my son, I will find a way to make you and your corporation pay."
Sidrie laughed. She could not help it. Theresa had said the words with such conviction. The woman truly believed them. As preposterous as they were. It took a few moments for Sidrie to gather herself. "Your warning has been duly noted."
"I hope it has."
Despite the desire to put the woman in her place, Sidrie offered a derisive smile instead. "I have always admired people who have such love. It's a strength."
"As I've always pitied those who never got to experience it," Theresa retorted.
Sidrie fought back a scowl. Yet again, she found herself wondering why she had listened to Dr. Redmond and saved Theresa. Until she glanced down at the woman's round belly. Sidrie smiled instead.
"I will leave you to your lunch." Sidrie eyed the boy, ready to deliver the true reason for this visit. "Dre, your services will be required in an hour."
"What?" He threw his hands up. "I've barely been back for two days. You said I could spend time with them."
"Isn't that what you're doing now?" Sidrie motioned to the Taylors. "At no time have I broken our agreement. Besides, prep should give you a day or two more."
"What if Mom goes into labor while I'm gone?"
"I promise to pull you from the game if she does. She still has two months, according to my doctors."
Dre made to open his mouth, but it was Theresa who spoke. "It's alright, Dre. I'll be fine. Beggars can't be choosers." Mom's eyes were brown daggers, making Dre believe those last words weren't meant for him or her. "She gave her word. Let's just enjoy the time we do have together."
Sidrie met Dre's glare. "See you downstairs in the prep room. Theresa, it was good to see you well again." She gestured to the MX4 bot. "I will let myself out."
"Sidrie." Theresa's face was blank now. "I kinda understand the route you took with my son in order to get him to test this game of yours. He's stubborn. And he made a promise to me and his father that he wasn't going to break. Plus, knowing him, he'd not only want to be with his little sister, but he'd also want to be here the moment I woke up.
"But I'm awake. Did it ever occur to you to ask him now?" Theresa grimaced. "To ask me now? I owe my family's life to you. It's not something I'd forget. Throw in the offer of a job paying the credits you mentioned, and I might have agreed." Theresa let out a breath, obviously calming herself, and shook her head slowly, expression radiating pity. "Yet, you didn't ask. You chose what amounts to extortion."
Sidrie made to give a scathing reply but stopped. Dre wore a small smile. She wanted to wipe it and Theresa's expression from their faces. Sidrie schooled herself to calm. Or as calm as she could manage. She pictured Theresa's twins as gameborn. The image helped.
Face a mask, she regarded Theresa. “Extortion is a strong word. As well as a crime. You should be careful of such accusations. What I have done is simply cut to the chase, disabused you of the notion there is a bargain to be made. A middle ground. I am the one in control here. Do not take my kindness for weakness.” She spared an icy glare for Dre. "A tech will be waiting for you outside." She turned on her heels, strutted back the day she'd come, and left the apartment.
Her mood improved as she imagined having all the protocols, and the things she would do once she no longer needed the Taylors. If she had to provide extra incentive, even in-game, then so be it. She'd treat Dre like a pet hound, pointing him in whatever direction she wished.
A notification lit up her optics. A communication from Keenan Costace. She accepted. A video of the coffee-skinned former NAR soldier turned head of Equitane security popped up in the corner of her vision. The man had arms that threatened to burst through his sleeves, a chiseled face and gunmetal eyes that missed nothing.
"Miss Malikah." He dipped his clean-shaven head.
"The assault's a go. Four days from now. We're gonna start in the Bottom Wards of the Seven's main buildings and work outward. Will most likely take a few days just to cover Downtown Brooklyn. Plan to sit in on it?"
"Of course. I would not miss this for the world."
"Alright. See you upstairs, ma'am."
Sidrie severed the connection and smiled. The DeGens had to be hit hard. They had to feel the repercussions for daring to attack her.
With a little luck, the attack might yield Hank Kim and his work. A thrill built at the thought. She crushed the feeling before her hopes got too high.
Up on the two hundred and fortieth floor, Sidrie Malikah sighed and disconnected her tether from the MX7 prototype. The clone would follow regular parameters, enacting her daily activities.
Exhausted, she closed her eyes as Doctor Shorin worked, adjusting TNT levels. "How long?"
"Six months. Perhaps a year."
She smiled mirthlessly. "Ironic, isn't it?"
"I'm head of the greatest tech company humanity has known. Because of me, we've made all kinds of breakthroughs. Marrying TNT with artificial brains. Brain emulation. Developed cures for almost every disease known to man.
"I'm the reason for the NAR, the reason North America survived. My work, driven by my dire need, has saved countless lives. But I lack the means to save my own."
She grimaced. She hated feeling sorry for herself. She hated feeling. Period. I deserve to live. After all the things I have done for humanity, I deserve to live.
Smiling, Dre watched Sidrie leave. When he heard the door close, he came around in front of his mother, shaking his head, amazed at how she'd dealt with the CEO. "Mom! What was thattt?"
"What?" Mom shrugged, a sheepish expression on her face, yet her eyes twinkled.
"Whatever happened to what we spoke about a little while ago?"
Mom snorted. "Because you're worried or fearful of someone, or because they're richer than you, doesn't mean you let them walk all over you. Or that you can't tell them about themselves. Even the powerful need to be put in their place from time to time."
"She might hold it against us," Dre argued.
"She might. But she gave her word."
"And a person is only as good as their word," Dre finished.
"Exactly." Mom nodded. "We taught you well. Now, let's eat."
"Yes, ma'am." Dre grinned.