Sophie sighed with longing. She pressed her hands against the shop window, itching to go inside and feel the soft fabrics and delicate lace and bows, and maybe try on the fluffiest, frilliest dress they had. Imagining herself hiding away in the dressing room for hours, she jumped when another little face suddenly appeared in the glass. The girl inside gawked at her in surprise, not even attempting to hide her gaze as it traveled from Sophie’s frayed collar to her messy hair.
Growing angry, Sophie narrowed her eyes and squashed her face against the window in a hideous expression, smearing it with her tongue and breath. As the girl screamed, a noise she couldn’t hear but could easily imagine, and vanished, she pushed back with an audible pop, and stalked off with her head held high.
“I’ll wear clothes like that,” she promised, granting no thought to the people around her or where she was going. She swiped an abandoned newspaper off the ground and swung it at the pigeons who dared to step in her way. “I’ll wear better than that!”
She chased the birds down the whole block and beyond, and didn’t stop until a nagging instinct forced her to pause and see where she was. Sophie realized she had come all the way to one of the long streets where the commerce and science districts melded together, full of people in dark suits or white coats, but nothing interesting for a ten-year-old. Hoping for some distraction, she briefly scanned over the newspaper, but quickly tossed it over her shoulder in a huff. It only talked about some stupid rich person with nothing better to do holding some stupid competition thing so they could give all that money away.
Sophie kicked the newspaper disdainfully and kept walking. If she had enough money told a tournament, she’d never give it away. She had resolved long ago to be rich, and to spend it only on herself and things she liked.
That made her stop again, and she reached into her flower-bedecked bag, feeling for the change purse she had found outside a restaurant that held her savings thus far. Sitting on an overturned recycling bin, she counted out at least twelve dollars. However, she felt her cheeks go red when she realized most people wouldn’t accept the three dollars made of pennies and nickels. Dimes and quarters she might be able to get away with, though.
Sophie put her treasure away and drummed her feet on the bin. “I need a big break,” she said aloud, searching the crowd for a good target, “something to make a lot of money really fast. I don’t want to live like a rat in the subway.”
Speaking of the subway, something promising caught her attention as it emerged from the train tunnel a short ways down the road. Getting to her feet, Sophie snuck through the tide of power suits and briefcases, making an unnecessary effort to be stealthy as she pursued her prey.
Both stopped at a crosswalk, and from her place on the curb, Sophie could get a good look.
What she had seen from so far away was the glaring platinum color of the woman’s hair against the gray-dominant background, something that appeared as if it might actually be a miracle of birth. Sophie, however, wrinkled her nose in disgust at the woman’s outfit. With her tight-fitting ensemble, in black, of course, and her many-pocketed black pack, she was like a character from the old action movies she sometimes saw through the nursing home windows, and she definitely signaled a hard User. It was flattering on her, Sophie admitted, but it was just like what she’d seen a lot of in the bad parts of town, in the failed parents of her companions. People started wearing slinky pants and flashy tops, ignoring their own discomfort to draw attention to their new talents, their special abilities. Just like everyone else did. But the self-absorption always outlasted the latest Boost, which was good news for a kid after Easy Street.
Sophie scrambled across the pavement and followed the woman, waiting for a chance to get her hands in that bag. It was quiet, even simple. She didn’t look back once, and Sophie felt confident this would be good day. But when the woman veered into a side alley, she flung herself against the wall of an empty storehouse, afraid she’d been spotted. Curiosity, however, won out, and she peeked around the corner.
Her eyes grew wide as she watched the woman, with her back to the sidewalk, pull a belt from her pack, click it around her waist, and then remove two shiny handguns. She slid them into the holsters on her hips, and proceeded to stretch like it was the most normal thing in the world to arm yourself in a civilian business section.
Sophie drew back and covered her mouth to keep from breathing too loudly. It wasn’t a very secluded alley; where were the adults?
But business hours had already started, and the only people left in the open were herself and the few men and women so late they wouldn’t stop if a house caught on fire under their noses. She swallowed and stood up straight. “I’ve gotten this far,” she whispered to herself, “and a gun would fetch a lot of cash.”
That cheered her up. She had hoped to grab a wallet, which would be a first, or sneak a leftover to sell while she shot up, which worked well, but a gun- no, two guns- to the right person could be a year of someone’s wages.
And, Sophie thought, if this blonde woman’s one of those nuts, out to shoot three people before lunch, like in the paper, she could be a hero for disarming her. She might be part of Comet, and think of the reward money that would make!
She heard the woman shoulder her bag, and got ready to make her move. Steps grew louder and louder, and she tensed, waiting to spring. The dull sunlight lit up the woman’s hair like a starting flare, and Sophie lunged. She had both her hands out, reaching for the handles, brushing the cool metal, when a vice snapped shut on her wrists and held her fast.
Immediately Sophie started to howl, and tried to kick out as she was lifted up, abruptly realizing her opponent could and might shoot her. “Let me go!” she shrieked, “Let go, or I’ll bite you!”
“Please don’t,” the victim turned assailant replied coolly, “I might catch something.”
She set her back on the ground and lowered herself to Sophie’s eye level, though she didn’t let go. “Don’t hurt me,” the girl wailed, her eyes flicking to her feet as she tried to determine where she should aim. “I’ve got a gang! They’ll come after you! They’re probably coming up the road right now!”
“This is why reckless children should not be allowed to take guns,” the woman said wryly. She released Sophie’s wrists so unexpectedly she was stunned into silence.
Standing again, she gently pushed her to the side. “I can tell you’ve had it rough,” she offered kindly, starting her way again, “so just go home.”
Sophie stayed where she was, watching her leave until she could no longer hear the dull slap and jingle of the buckles and fastenings on her bag. Balling her hands into fists, she ground her teeth while her face went hot for the second time that morning.
As if the massive building was difficult to find, street signs, heavily emblazoned with the company logo, proclaimed a walker’s proximity to the site of CoreTech headquarters, becoming larger and more ornate as the distance decreased. Evelyn Pettigrew, a lone woman in the road with unintentionally bleached hair and a set of handguns snug against her hips, retrieved her letter from its place, wrapped around her arm under her sleeve. She had expected there might be trouble getting in, so she’d hidden in it away from the luggage, but she didn’t think it would be a child trying to rob her.
“Stranger things have happened,” she murmured, prodding the envelope to make sure the key was still there. It was.
A thick pack of civilians, young and old, was shouting and cheering up ahead. Here, the signs looked as if they might collapse beneath their weight, yet like faithful soldiers, they managed to stand at attention and declare as one that she had arrived at CoreTech Central.
Smiling at a cardboard note some miscreant had used to adorn a soldier’s uniform tittering that, technically, she still had some fifteen yards, two feet and eight inches to go, Evelyn lifted her bright eyes to scrutinize the block and several stories that made up a space as large as its company.
It dwarfed its brick and concrete neighbors, and was so long the buildings on its other side could not be seen. Close up, it seemed as if it would overflow onto the concrete and asphalt. The windows were polished like mirrors and tinted ebony. If you could manage to see past your own reflection, the only reward for your trouble was a peek at black ice; whatever was inside, the company clearly didn’t want it known.
The pack had grown to a small mob as she traversed the crosswalk, screaming and drumming its feet, craning and straining to see the magnificent lobby or break its way inside. Reluctant to try dipping her foot in such dangerous waters, Evelyn wondered if she should try sneaking through the ventilation, when she noticed someone waving from what must have been a side entrance, carefully hidden by an overhang to avoid such flocks.
“You look like a contestant, miss,” a pretty young woman in a cerulean dress suit and CoreTech badge called sweetly as she jogged up. She dipped her head in the direction of the main entrance and smiled brightly. “I don’t think you’ll want to sign in there.”
“Can I get in from here?” she asked, noting the possibility of other nooks and crannies in the architecture, and the strange white orbs gathered in the corners above the elegant glass door.
“Of course,” she assured her. Gone were the days of clipboards and tables of paperwork; her only weapon of mass administration was a small handheld device Evelyn didn’t think she had seen on the main market, and the woman shook it like she was simply dying to try it. “That is,” she amended, “if you have your key.”
She held it out in answer, when Sophie, a mere flash of brown, leapt from behind a garbage can and bolted for her, claws outstretched, ready to snatch it away. Just as suddenly, a crack of lightning, Evelyn spun on her heel, swept her out of the air, and swung her into a restraint against her chest. “Little girl,” she hissed in Sophie’s ear as the official finished her gasp, “you are getting to be a real pain, you know that?”
Sophie made no reply, but hung limp from Evelyn’s arm, breathing hard and too dazed to speak. Evelyn growled to herself as she realized the girl must have tracked her the whole way, and instantly regretted not dropping her at a police station for missing kids or something.
“What’s going on?” the woman asked, puzzled. She kept blinking and peering closely at Evelyn, and it made her feel uneasy.
“Kid’s trying to steal my letter. It’s got the key in it,” she clarified, glad to redirect her attention. She hoisted Sophie before she hit the ground completely. “But it’s all right, I’ve got her.”
Instead of any reaction Evelyn would have expected, the woman pursed her lips and made a pronounced step to her right. Tiny gears began to whirr, and Evelyn jerked her head up, trying to trace the sound. If she wasn’t mistaken, the orbs in the corner had rotated, and as she watched, apertures slid open, training a tiny camera on them.
“Your key is an important part of the CoreTech tournament administration and its success, miss,” she intoned calmly. Evelyn set her feet and stared in horror as thin red targeting lasers blinked and settled on the girl in her grip. The woman continued, saying, “Outsiders cannot be allowed to jeopardize the success of CoreTech and its affairs.”
Sophie roused herself enough to go ghostly pale, her eyes crossing as she tried to follow the lasers darting on her face. Evelyn could feel her tremble as let out a pitiful, barely audible whimper.
“She’s not an outsider,” she said quickly.
“No?” the woman questioned, her doubts plain on her face.
Evelyn forced herself to laugh. “No, no, the little rascal’s my assistant. I mean, she’s with me. She’s part of the team.”
Sophie choked, and Evelyn gave her a discreet pinch. “It’s a game we play,” she insisted, almost waving the letter in the official’s face, “I promised her if she got good enough to take it from me, I’d buy her a pony. You know how kids are.”
Cerulean no longer looked like such a friendly color when she laid her hand on the opposite arm and flicked her thumb across the device’s screen. The lasers still weren’t turned off. “Name?” she asked.
Somehow she typed it in with her thumb. Inclining her head in the girl’s direction, she asked, with a slight note of triumph, “Name?”
“I can speak for myself!” Sophie interrupted impetuously. Staring the woman down, she declared, “My name’s Sophie Hapsburg. It’s spelled like royalty.”
Evelyn tried not to wince as the woman sneered, but she tapped it in. The laser points disappeared, though neither party relaxed. Resigned to her duties, the official emptied the envelope, returned the letter, and used the gadget to scan the key. “Very well,” she said a tad icily as she gave it back, “your key is true. Please go inside and make your way to the upper floors. You’ll recognize them.”
Thanking the woman for her time, Evelyn took Sophie’s hand and shuffled her ahead, up the stairs, and through the door. It was a straight shot to the main lobby from here, and they could even see where the thin hallway opened into the larger room. Wasting no time, Evelyn grabbed Sophie around the middle and bolted in the opposite direction at a speed that warped her already garbled scream.
“Who are you?” Sophie cried when they finally stopped. She was dropped unceremoniously on the floor, and she sat there, letting out every bottled up question and accusation she remembered since the recent confrontation with the lasers. Evelyn ignored her and began kicking open boxes.
They were in some kind of mass storage unit, an oversized closet in the back of the building. Its only redeeming feature was a functional elevator, but for their purposes, its most attractive trait was the apparent negligence the company had for it, from the lack of evident cleaning.
“Are you with Comet? Are you a terrorist? What are you playing at? I don’t need your help, I don’t owe you anything! ”
“What are they putting in these things?” Evelyn pried open another set of cartons. “How ironic; they’ve packaged bubble wrap. Oh, this one’s empty.”
“What’s with this tournament thing? Why’d you drag me here? And what was that back there? There aren’t any Stimms for…for whatever that was, that running thing!”
She flinched slightly, dragged a tarp off a shelf, and shook it free of dust.
Getting no reply, Sophie stood up and shrieked, “Are you listening to me?”
“I am now.” Evelyn folded the tarp and laid it so it covered the bottom and sides of the crate. “Give me a minute, and I’ll give you some answers, if it’ll make you quiet.”
Rubbing her eyes, she breathed deeply and spoke carefully. “As for who I am, I’m not a terrorist, I’m a private agent doing her own job for once. I don’t know what ‘Comet’ is. You already know my name as well, and by this point, that’s enough.”
Yanking off her bag, she started tossing packs of food and bottled water into the box. “And for your information,” she told her plainly, “I didn’t drag you into this; I rescued you from unknown consequences, though I think it’s safe to say they didn’t involve butter and ice cream.”
Sticking her tongue out at the combination, Sophie pressed on. “How’d you do that grabby thing? And the sprint?”
“What grabby thing?” she asked innocently.
“Don’t lie. You’re bad at it, and I don’t how we got away with that. But you can’t fool me, even that dumb lady knew she saw something weird, and you can’t hide the running.”
Evelyn sighed, feeling more tired than before, and leaned on the carton for support. “It’s not a Stimm, or any kind of drug,” she explained wearily, “When I was much younger, I became part of an experiment on the body’s neural network system, specifically with interneurons and motor neurons. Using high voltage to stimulate the rate at which these messengers travelled down the nerve axon and jumped synapses, they were able to decrease the time it took my muscles to respond to internal commands, thus creating an exponential increase in my…original…”
She trailed off at one glance at her young companion’s blank, baffled face, and hastily fabricated a description she might understand. “I was zapped with electricity until my brain caught on fire,” she enunciated deliberately with a vague, random hand gesture, “Now I can move really fast.”
Sophie stared at her in awe. “So you’ve got a real superpower?”
“I guess you could call it that, yes. My friends call it ‘hyper speed,’ though I don’t really call it anything when I use it. As for the tournament, CoreTech is offering a lot of money, which I wanted to win, though now I have a bigger problem.”
Sophie lit up at once. “How much money is it?” she wanted to know.
“The flyer called it ‘nothing to sneeze at,’ and ‘enough to buy and sell companies several times over’,” she answered warily.
“And, with this ‘hyper speed’ thing, you think you’ve got a good chance to win?”
Evelyn whipped her guns from their holsters and spun them on her fingertips. “I can use these too, you know,” she said, raising her eyebrows.
“But enough chit-chat,” she finished brusquely, shoving her weapons back into place, ignorant of the wide, sly smile breaking across the girl’s face. Patting the side like a trusty pet, she waved her over. “Come on now. Hop in the box, so I can hide you somewhere.”
The smile evaporated. “I’m not getting in that,” Sophie told her matter-of-factly, crossing her arms indignantly.
“Sally, Sophie, whatever your name is, this isn’t something I can take a child into, especially one without any experience or survival skills. I know I signed us up together, but that was only out of desperation to save your life. You just met me,” Evelyn reminded her, getting a sinking feeling from Sophie’s imperious manner, “I am under no obligation to protect you, and there are going to be dangerous people out there- people willing to do anything to earn this kind of money.”
“That’s exactly why I’m going,” she responded with that greedy smile.
“Besides,” she interjected quickly when Evelyn tried to argue, “you can’t drop me here by myself! What if I run out of food, or if I’m found?”
“Or,” she persisted, seizing on what she thought was a most powerful persuasion, “what if they realize one half of your registered team never went upstairs, and they kick you out, or you actually win and they don’t give you the money and instead punish you for fraud! Or some psycho comes this way like we did and murders me!”
Realistically, Evelyn knew she couldn’t leave her to fend for herself, though she wished she hadn’t found reasons of her own. If the kid had been shy or scared, she might have found a loophole in the universe and gotten away with it.
Sensing victory, Sophie awarded herself a snort. “You didn’t honestly think you could stick me in a box, did you?”
Evelyn dumped the supplies in her bag. “Don’t push it, girl,” she grumbled. “This goes against my better judgment entirely, taking you up there. You’d probably be safer here.”
“Maybe,” Sophie remarked while Evelyn pushed the ‘up’ button on the elevator. She skipped over, happily singing, “You should recognize your responsibility as a grown-up to protect me, and share the reward, since you got me into this. That’s it, isn’t it? Shame on you if it’s not.”
“Oh, it’s responsibility all right,” she growled. “Certainly not because you deserve it. Which reminds me, kid, there are some rules we need to go over if you’re tagging along.”
“I’m not tagging along,” she corrected, sounding annoyed. “We’re supposed to be partners. Call me Sophie.”
“Then call me Evelyn.”
The elevator bell “dinged” and finally began counting down to their level. “First,” the agent informed her, “I’m in charge.”
An agitated mouth opened to tell her exactly what she thought of the first rule.
“Because I’m older, bigger, and I have guns,” Evelyn added flatly.
The mouth closed.
“Second, you listen to me. You do what I say, when I say it, or I can’t guarantee you’ll come out of this alive. I can’t really promise that anyway.”
Another set of chimes tinkled cheerfully, announcing the elevator’s arrival. The doors slid open and the new partners went inside. “Rule three,” Evelyn said, taking out the key, “don’t go off on your own, and don’t involve yourself in any fights.”
“I want to do it!” Sophie decreed loudly, breaking into her statement and pointing at the key in her hand. “Let me!”
Giving it up, Evelyn reclined against the railing while she chose one of the formerly restricted floors at random, and resigned herself to her fate. “This,” she murmured despairingly as the elevator ascended to unknown heights and Sophie released a flood of chatter, “has turned into a nightmare.”