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Chapter 6

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Ger slumped under the yellow-stained water and sighed. He had two minutes to scrub the alley and the fear-stink from his bruised and beaten body. Forcing his arms up, he rubbed the shampoo in as well as he could letting his mind drift back over the night.

The Club.

The Rooftop. The HT. The Fall.

And the girl.

Isla. GNG346.

His lip curled as he fell back into the memory of her beating him — unfairly in BERSERKER — and how she had ratted him out to The Emporium 'bot when he had gotten busted over the VPN. But she got busted first. And I get it. I do. Make them look at someone else while you bail. Smart.

< One Minute Shower Remaining>

Ger sluiced the grey soap suds off his head, scrubbing himself with the scratchy washcloth that Nagatomi provided. She had guts though. Up on the roof. A shudder rippled through him as he tried to stretch the dull ache out of his wrenched back. A sharp snap sounded under his bruised hands.

She smells nice, too.

He shook his head. Where had that come from?

< Thirty Seconds Shower Remaining>

Ger grimaced into the thin spray and spat the water up into the stall. Underneath his feet, his t-shirt was draining brackish flotsam from the alley. He rubbed his feet on the torn shirt kneading the last of the dirt from the sodden fabric.

< Thank you for using our shower>

He punched the RESET button on the grimy plastic cubicle knowing the answer as he stepped out into the chilly bathroom.

< Only one shower per customer please. Time limit elapsed.>

Ger sighed as he wrapped the paper thin towel around his slender hips. Pulling the t-shirt from the stall, he wrung it out over the drain and tossed it into the sink, staring into the cracked mirror.

I look like hell…

Yellow bruises ringed his eyes and a large purple bruise blossomed on this too-thin chest. Punctures from the barbed wire sketched chicken tracks across his back as he turned in place surveying the damage. Could be worse. Ger clumped into his sneakers as he plucked his socks from the steaming radiator under the window. Condensation fogged the barred window in the communal bathroom as he gathered his clothes and padded out into the hallway.

 

He didn’t expect her to still be there as he clambered up into his coffin bed. Isla wiped her eyes hiding the telltale smear of mascara.

‘You’re still here?’

Isla nodded.

Smiling quickly at Ger and then recoiling in horror at his half-dressed state.

‘Dude. Modesty much.’

Ger shrugged and pulled his still-wet t-shirt on as he slid into the small bunkbed room. Firing up the computer, he busied himself in scanning the news feed as he stared at the monitor.

‘Whatevs,’ he mumbled as he tried to hide his burning red face. ‘How’d it go? You didn’t tell your folks where you were, did you?’

‘I’m not stupid, Ger. Of course I didn’t.’

Ger shrugged, scrolling through the online feed and as he booted up a deep web protocol designed to access police and 'bot comms. He yawned and chanced a look over his shoulder.

Isla was staring at her cracked and chipped nail polish working up the guts to say something.

‘What?’ Ger asked as he turned back to the computer feed. Nothing listed on us. No BOLO’s or location tags. Maybe they were in the clear?

‘I, uh… wanted to thank you,’ Isla mumbled.

Ger paused. This is new?

Making sure he was carefully covered, he turned to Isla and waited for her to continue.

‘Things could have gone really bad back there, we coulda been caught, done time… and you got me out — got us both out and I never had a chance to say — thanks.’

Ger shrugged. Awkward.

Scratching his still-wet head, he smiled at Isla and tried to change the subject.

‘What your folks say about all this?’

‘My mom,’ Isla said. ‘It’s just my Mom. My Dad’s off-world so he’s not really part of the conversation, you know?’

‘Yeah, I get it. It’s just my Mom too. And she’s in Rehab.’

Isla paused. Looking away from Ger, he could tell she was the one who felt awkward now.

‘Anyway,’ continued Ger, ‘it’s all good. She’s getting out soon. And then we’ll hook up and then maybe get a place like we had before. I dunno.’

Isla nodded. Her green eyes sparkling in the coffin room’s recessed lighting. She has green eyes. ‘I told my Mom it was all a big misunderstanding and that someone had swiped my debit card and I didn’t even know what happened. I basically lied and told her I wasn’t even anywhere near The Emporium and that I’d had a wipeout on my scooter in the rain and that I was on my way home.’ Isla showed Ger the road rash on her left arm she’d picked up on their rooftop escape. ‘Lucky I got tagged when we were booking from that HT…’

Ger smiled. She’s good. Yeah, that’ll play. I’m pretty sure that The Emporium wasn’t running Hi-Def cameras in the club and your detection scarf probably kept you hidden anyway. Just deny everything. It’ll be their word against yours… You could always cry?’

Isla’s glare cut through the near-dark. Uh oh, that was a mistake.

‘What? You think I’m some kinda wuss that’s just gonna start bawling and my Mom’s gonna back off because of it?’

Isla stared at the wall. Avoiding Ger.  ‘I will if I have to. And I will hate myself - but I will.’

Even in the near-dark, Ger felt the fire burning in the angry gamer girl. He stammered. Definitely the wrong thing to say. ‘ No, uh… I, uh…’

Isla laughed and punched Ger in the shoulder. He winced. Ow!

‘Relax. I was just messing with you. Yeah, last resort only…’ Isla threw on a pouty-face and Ger watched transformed as her lip trembled and her eyes filled with tears.

‘I— fell—off—my—bike— Mom,’ Isla play acted as snot bubbled and she trembled in feigned performance. She’s pretty good.

Isla burst out laughing wiping her nose as she smiled at Ger.

’Two years in theatre pays off.’

‘Ger grinned. ‘You don’t look like a Theater Geek to me, GNGR.’

Isla shrugged. ‘When Dad went off-planet, I was angry, you know? Mom sent me to all kind of therapists and doctors. They suggested theater. I said, why not, it’s better than making up stuff for you guys.’

Ger nodded. ‘I hate doctors.’

’Tell me about it,’ grimaced Isla as she started gathering her gear. She looks tired and it was pretty clear to Ger she was planning to bail.

Ger pointed at the computer. ‘Hey, before you go… you wanna game of BERSERKER? You owe me a chance to get even.’

Isla stopped packing and Ger could see the gears turning.

‘C’mon, no AI’s, no VPN’s. We play for reals. See who’s better? Then you can go home and know that you suck as bad as I know you do.’

Isla’s eyes flashed. Gotcha.

Glancing at her comm-link, she checked the time and pulled herself over towards Ger.

‘You are so going down, DD’

‘Byte me, ‘ grinned Ger as he spun to the computer and fired up the game.

Isla pulled her micro-controller from her messenger back and tossed it to him as she shouldered up next to the machine.

Oh, no. I am so dead.

Isla’s eyes popped opened as she realized that things had just gotten worse — way worse.

She had fallen asleep in Ger’s room. Her heart hammered as she realized that not only was she not home — she was actually sleeping next to the blond gamer. Ger snored softly next to her oblivious to her waking up. She patted herself down quickly, thankful that she was still clothed and that nothing weird or strange had happened as she stuffed her keypad and dead comm-link into her bag. Time to book.

Looking down at Ger, she wanted to wake him and thank him for all they he had done — but he was completely zoned and it was better to let him sleep. I actually had a good time with him. I’d still kicked his butt in BERSERKER but at least it was close. He’s a good dude. She grabbed a marker from inside her bag and scribbled her DM ID on Ger’s arm — GNGR :) HMWD346 **//

Isla swung off the bunkbed coffin and dropped to the floor.

The LED clock at the end of the hall read 0530 so it was still technically night and she could get home and deal with her mom then. Mom. She is gonna kill me!

Stuffing her feet into her almost-dry boots, Isla raced off into the hall towards the exit.

 

Her scooter was still where she left in locked outside The Emporium. The streets were as quiet as they ever were at this hour with sanitation 'bots removing graffiti from surrounding walls and the steel shutters of the internet club firmly in place. Secret shadows flitted in the alleyway. No cops though. No bots. 

She slid onto the e-scooter and used her thumb to activate the recognition module and fired off into the morning traffic. If I’m lucky, I should make it in twenty minutes.

Isla concentrated on the road racing north towards home.The wind helped Isla think as she navigated the uphill streets to the gated Homewood community. Her long red hair blew free in the wind as she tried to rehearse what she was going to say to her mother.

I got nothing. What am I gonna say? If she’s still up, I’m dead. I could tell her about having scooter trouble and wiping out and show her the scrapes on my arm. Maybe Ger was right. Maybe I should cry? And all that stuff about Jericho, I am going to totally deny.

Ahead, the security way station to Homewood loomed. Her e-pass would blast her through no problem — and it wasn’t like anyone was going to be up right now. Their community came to life at seven-thirty promptly with everyone getting ready to go to work or heading for the train. Nobody would see her now.

The dawn light broke through the trees that lined the approach to the community. They looked incredibly real in this light as Isla marveled at how well the synthetic replicators had duplicated real ones. She’d seen one once at the museum when they had taken a field trip with PS 327 a long time ago. The sad, wizened trunk and brown leaves didn’t look as good as the plastic replications on display here.

Isla cruised to a stop and waited for the scanner to complete its job at the Homewood front gate. A crossbar across the road complete with armed response warnings warned possible intruders that security was high here at the Axiomm sponsored community. A green light flashed an all-clear as she zipped through the checkpoint.

I have no idea what I’m going to tell her.

Isla slid her scooter into the backyard as she coasted to a stop. She’d shut off her engine a block away from home and pushed it up over the driveway and around the side of their tidy home to make sure she was as quiet as possible. No police or autobot vehicles were visible as she skirted the property. Isla’s stomach turned as she figured out her next step. Do I go in the backdoor crying or creep up the side and slip into my room?

She pressed her face up against the window looking into the downstairs dining room.

She couldn’t see her Mom at all. Nothing moved.

Sighing, Isla shouldered her bag and began climbing up the trellis outside her bedroom window anticipating her mother.

She peered into her bedroom — the room was empty with the door closed.

Isla slid inside the room, feet moving in cat-like silence as she quietly placed her bag on the ground. Her ears straining to hear anyone within the house.

Still nothing.

Then footsteps. Coming fast.A knock sounded at the door.

‘Isla, wake up, dear. Come down for breakfast.’

Her heart hammered in excitement as Isla leaned up against the door keeping her mom from coming in. She called out to her mom pretending that she had just woken up.

‘… Ok, Mom… I’ll be down in a minute. I want to have a shower. Okay?’

‘Don’t be long, honey. We’ve got a lot to talk about…’

Isla sighed.

There was no way she was going to get out of having a long talk about what happened and she’d have to agree to a whole new bunch of rules before Mom would let her outside of Homewood. Stretching, she tore off her filthy clothes and noticed that she still smelled like the stinky Nagatomi hotel — burnt plastic, wet sheets — and a hint of sandalwood. Ger had used the shampoo at the coffin hotel and he had smelled of that. I smell like a boy. Like I’ve been with one. Her checks reddened as she slipped into the compact bathroom through the pocket door in her room. I definitely need a shower.

 

Downstairs, Marta sat at the dining room table as the auto'bot hovered with a pitcher of coffee. Two plates of breakfast — real bacon and eggs arranged to make a smiling face on the plate and fresh-squeezed OJ completed the scene. Isla took it all in as she breezed through smiling wearing a light summer dress she had dug out from Sasha’s wardrobe. She had tied her hair back away from her face and stayed away from her usual brighter lip and eye colors.

‘Don’t you look nice, honey. Come in. Sit down.’

Marta smiled at her daughter clearly bursting to tell her something. Okay, this is a total disconnect. Why is she happy? Weren’t the cops here. Why isn’t she screaming at me?

‘Breakfast looks great, Mom. Thanks, I really appreciate it.’ Even though I’m not eight years old anymore — and I’m a friggin’ vegetarian, Mom. Isla slid into her place at the table making sure to turn her bruised and thrashed arm towards her Mom.

‘I’m really sorry about last night, Mom. It’s a long story…’

Marta dismissed Isla’s apology with a curt wave of her hand as she leaned forward to her daughter. She was humming with barely contained excitement. Jazzed to the max.

‘Don’t worry about that now, I’ve got some great news…’

Isla blanched. Is Mom on meds? Why isn’t she freaking out?’

Noticing Isla’s torn arm, Marta snapped at the hovering servant 'bot.

‘Bot, Isla’s hurt her arm. Please go and get the first aid kit. We must get this looked after.’

<Should I contact the doctor?> the 'bot enquired.

Isla shook her head. Not wanting to let everything spiral out of control with other people in the house. Right now her mom was in a good mood and she wasn’t about to get anyone else involved in what happened. What is going on?

‘I fell off my bike, mom. I had a little accident…’

Marta’s eyes flashed in sympathy as she gingerly touched the scraped arm

‘Are you sure you don’t need a doctor?’

Isla shook her head. ‘I’m okay, I wiped out on the way home. I had to file a report and everything. That’s what took so long…’

Marta, clenched her hands in nervous anticipation not hearing a word Isla was saying. ‘I’m glad your okay, dear. I took a sleeping pill after we talked and you explained about the comm-link being broken. We’ll get you a new debit card today. People today. No respect for anything.’

Changing gears, Marta clasped her daughter’s hands.  ‘I have something to tell you. It’s really important.’ Leaning forward to her mother, Isla smiled, feigning interest. I don’t care what’s got her so jazzed, I’m just gonna go along with it if it keeps me out of trouble.

‘Okay, Mom. What’s so important?’

Marta smiled.

‘Your father. He’s coming home. Tonight.

What?!

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