It was a very tense moment when Eleanor stepped into the room. As she was one to keep up appearances, she wore neither scowl nor frown, and did she did not snap or yell at Ral when she entered the room. But she radiated such a negative energy that not only did it convey to Ral, but also to the police officers in the room.
Ral wasn’t a suspect in the case, though the officers had of course made no such assumptions before questioning. He had done as much right as could have been done in that situation, it was determined, and he had neither been responsible for the illegal goings on in the club or for failing to report it, and so on and so forth. The cops had a very roundabout way of telling him he hadn’t done anything wrong.
His mother didn’t care about any of that. She had told the boy to stay home, and he had not listened, and now he was at a police station because of it. He had taken a car that had been hers not only without her permission but specifically against her instructions. And because he was still listed as her dependent when all this had happened, he had done nothing wrong in the eyes of the law unless she so decided. But she couldn’t do that, because of the media attention it would generate. No, for her own purposes, she could not so openly admit to the world that her only son was a black sheep.
While it was all but inevitable that this conversation would involve her legally removing him from her guardianship and forcing him to live on his own—he was of age, so she could do that, Ral still felt that he had been the one who got the last laugh. It didn’t help that he had roughly three billion credits to his name, which would last him for a while.
“Raleigh. For the past nineteen years, you’ve constantly been a thorn in my side. You’ve pushed against me, you’ve shouted at me, you’ve defied almost every single command I’ve given you.”
Ral crossed his arms and rolled his eyes as he quipped, “Maybe you should have given me fewer commands.”
“You’ve lived frivolously, irresponsibly, against everything I’ve tried to raise you to be-”
Ral snapped back with more anger than he knew he could muster, “You’re not supposed to raise your children to be anything! They’re supposed to grow up to be themselves!”
“You don’t even know what conversation we’re having right now, do you? Do you have the slightest clue?”
Bringing his voice under control, he replied coldly, “Because I crossed the line, stole your car, went to a club, and nearly got shot. That about right?”
“Because no mother should ever have to worry about burying their only son. You didn’t listen to me, and it almost got you killed.”
“Yeah, well I’m nothing but a liability to you anyway, so what’s the big deal? I’m part of the city life that you’ve spent so long campaigning against.”
Eleanor stated, “No mother ever wants her son’s death, no matter how much he fails her.” Her attempt to affirm his worth—which she all too often underplayed—was lost in her own unappeased frustrations.
“Well I’m sorry I haven’t been much of a son then, Mrs. Clean. Perhaps it would have been simpler if you didn’t have a son in the first place?”
Eleanor slapped her son across the face. “Don’t you dare...don’t ever say that.”
He looked at her, dumbstruck. She had never hit him like that before.
She continued, “I may not be perfect, and I may not agree with you, and I may not like you. But Ral…as your mother, I will always love you.” It was the first time she had ever called him by his nickname, and tears rolled from her eyes as she said it. It was in fact hard for her, as she had named him after her late and beloved grandfather. She was now forced to acknowledge that her son was not and would never be the kind, white haired man she had adored as a young girl.
And with that, they embraced, as mother and child once had before. When they released each other, Eleanor wordlessly put something in his hands: the keys to the car, as she had promised him long ago. And with that, she walked out of her son’s life, leaving him to either prove to the world that he was a man or fall into oblivion.
The inspector, a grizzled man with a khaki jacket and a short cut named Detective Welsh, stopped Ral at the door. “Mr. Waters, I just wanted to let you know that we’ll be in touch if we need you to answer more questions. We don’t exactly have a lot of leads, is all.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“And one more thing. That controller at the scene…we may need to ask you questions about her at a later date as well.”
“Can I leave now?”
The detective reached into his pocket and retrieved a pseudocigarette. “Sure. Thanks for your cooperation.”
Walking out of the police station, Ral felt a little empty inside, like the energy had just drained right out of him. He started thinking of how he was going to live now, as if seeing his mother had given him a new outlook on life. But he couldn’t tell how he had changed, just that he had.
He decided that the first step of getting on with his life would be to find somewhere to spend the night, or whatever was left of it. He tapped at his wrist digi, and after pressing his way through a few screens, he was looking at a list of nearby places where he could stay. There were all sorts of hotels, but with his finances he wasn’t about to skimp on comfort if he didn’t have to. That narrowed down the list a lot. His options were looking like either Hotel Casanova or Terminus. He’d been to Terminus before, so he wondered about trying something different. But he decided that with the sudden change, it was probably best to go with what he knew.
His car was still way off at the garage, where it would remain perfectly safe until morning. Instead he paged a taxi, which descended on the parking space after a short, five minute wait. It was autopiloted, and Ral was glad because he didn’t want to deal with some short-tempered driver. And because he had used the wrist digi to call it, the destination had already been set when he stepped through the scissor door and sat on the black and grey vinyl seat.
He watched the city pass him by, though it was very difficult because the windows were tinted and the computerized driving mechanism didn’t drive slowly enough for sight-seeing. He did manage to make out Riquezas, a famous café which featured white marble columns, stucco walls, wavy trim made of wrought iron, and a red tile roof. Its Spanish architecture was an anachronism, but made it one of the most renowned and expensive restaurants in the city. He had personally never been, for whatever reason, though the idea definitely intrigued him. “Maybe I can go there now that I own my own car.” he thought aloud.
A little tired, he half fell asleep; he leaned against the door as the lights of the city blended into a single image. He shut one eye and squinted the other, every so often snapping both open as the vehicle turned a corner. Autotaxis could give a much smoother ride than people, he noted. He’d only ridden in one once before, because autopilot was a new feature for cars which had barely gotten out of the concept stage and into public prototype testing.
When the taxi finally pulled over to the side of the road Ral found out why it was still in the prototyping stage. The sight that greeted him was not the hotel he was looking for. Rather, it was slick and stylized office building with windows that were darkened to the point of being opaque. The building footprint appeared to be a figure eight pattern, although it was just a guess since he couldn’t see the other side from where he stood. Two-thirds of the way up the massive forty story building, circular towers rose and were joined at each floor by skybridges. The concrete pillars were like charcoal, both smoky and reflective. And the sign at the top read, in massive, bold letters, “Aldus,” printed on an infinity sign—the company’s logo, hence the shape of the building itself. It was the name of a well-known financial group. His mother, in fact, was the CEO of its primary business rival, the intuitively named “Waters Financial Group.”
Aloud but to no one in particular, he asked, “Where…am I?” This was not to say he couldn’t tell from the sign, but because he was having trouble believing what happened.
There was a ping as a message appeared from his wrist digi: Go inside the building. It’ll be worth your while.
“Go inside…who’s this guy?” Don’t know you, he typed in reply.
Well then I guess we’d better fix that.
An electronic tone sounded from his wrist. Someone was trying to call him. He got an image of the sound waves, meaning that the stranger had opted not to show his face for whatever reason.
Ral spoke into the device, saying “Hello? Who are you, exactly?”
The bright blue line jumped and bristled with energy “Is that how you normally greet someone?”
“Normally I know the person I’m greeting.”
“What a novel idea. Well maybe if you do what I say, you’ll get my name as a reward.”
The nerve. Exasperatedly, Ral exclaimed, “I’m hanging up.”
“If you don’t do what I say, you’ll be faced with the harsh reality that you don’t have any money left.”
“The world is a cruel place, Mr.…Raleigh Waters, is it? Well, while I’m not responsible for hacking your account, the taxi was my doing. The money is an unfortunate loss. I’m giving you the chance to compensate.”
Standing on the cold concrete in shock, Ral asked, “…I’m…broke?” He scrambled to access his bank account, and he discovered the truth for himself.
Echoing circumstance, the strange man told Ral what he had just seen on the screen of his wrist digi. “Mr. Raleigh, you are broke.”
Ral was thinking aloud more than he was actually talking to this mysterious man. “This is a nightmare. What am I supposed to do?”
“Follow my instructions to the letter, and you can earn some proper money. But of course, there’s more to life than money, isn’t there?”
Ral wasn’t listening. “How can I live on my own without a single credit?”
“What are you going on about? Just go inside the building already. What do you think you have to lose? Well I can’t wait indefinitely; you have sixty seconds to enter reception.”
This caught his attention, for some reason. “Sixty seconds…what happens then?”
“Oh, I don’t know….do you want to be there to find out?”
Somewhat alarmed by this vague statement and struggling with his already massive level of stress, Ral started walking towards the building. After all, what else was he going to do?
Stepping into the lobby, Ral was amazed by the sights which befell him. The palette inside was the antithesis of the dark concrete and one-way tinted windows outside. The greater portion of the first floor was a wide, open space which stretched several floors up and was dotted with gleaming columns. It tapered inward as it went up, and walkways lined each floor creating what were essentially contour lines as he gazed at the ceiling. Ral found his eyes drawn to the display of palm trees on a circular, granite pedestal in the middle of the room. He was also aware of the secretary who didn’t notice as his shoes clacked against the smooth granite floor. Ral waved at her, but she was too oblivious or disinterested to return the gesture or greet him. He began to start, but there was a slight tingling on the back of his neck and he turned around. Propped against the wall with his arms crossed behind his head was the mysterious man from the club. He even wore the same long, black jacket. Ral realized that it had been that man’s voice in the call, so it seemed plausible that he had been sending the messages.
“You? What are you doing here?”
“Yo. I don’t have a lot of time right now, so I’ll jump to the point. Do you know about controllers?”
Ral scratched at his chin. He did this not because he was struggling to recall facts, but because he was puzzled why someone would ask such a simple question. “They’re like psychics or something, right? They do mercenary and espionage work, a lot of the time.”
“It’s common knowledge, isn’t it?”
The man “Well, you certainly have a knack for keeping up with useless facts, hmm? Meanwhile, ten seconds.”
Ral felt panicked and uneasy as the hairs on his neck started to stand up. His heart rate slowly started to rise. He didn’t know what was about to happen, but his body did. “What are you counting down for?”
The man stepped away from the wall and grinned, his eyes fixed on a door near the top of the building. “Three…two” He gripped Ral by the shoulder with a grip firm enough to cause physical pain as he pronounced the last number with an anticipative smile. “…one.”
Something thundered and boomed outside, and orange light flooded through the heavily tinted windows before they all shattered. This was enough to make the lethargic woman by the desk let loose a piercing scream, slap her hands on the top of her head to shield herself, and drop into a curled up position under the desk.
That was when Ral’s feet left the ground and the two men suddenly hurtled through the room towards the highest floor. There was no other way to describe what was happening; it was almost like gravity itself had changed direction. Aside from the horrifying vertigo which aggravated Ral’s moderate fear of heights, it felt strangely familiar. Then as the walkway at the top floor was within reach, they started to slow down. The stranger released his grip. Ral cringed as he hit the floor sharply and rolled into the wall with a dull thud. The other man landed as gracefully as a feather in the wind.
The controller frowned as he stared Ral up and down, and it seemed to the young man that he was disappointed somehow. It might just have been contemplative rather than condescending, but it was hard to tell. He spoke, “Do you know why I brought you along?” Ral was still in shock and was in no condition to answer, so the stranger answered his own question, “It’s a test, Mr. Raleigh. You showed me that you have the knowledge and ability, and this is about how well you can apply them.”
“I don’t have any idea what’s-”
The man cusped Ral on the shoulder “You are a controller. I’m gauging your potential.”
“What do you…Look I’m not cut out for this! You didn’t even ask my opinion!”
The controller turned to him and replied, “It was the same,” and he suddenly drew a pistol from inside his long black coat and fired over Ral’s shoulder as someone yelped in pain, before continuing, “…for me when I first found out. What no one taught me that I am going to the trouble to teach you, my friend, is that with powers like that, there’s really no other options left for you. You want to hear the story?”
“Yeah, I—oh, right. Let me guess: you-”
Peering around a corner, the man interrupted, “I don’t have time right now, you’re exactly right. Follow me closely if you want to survive this.”
“Aren’t you going through people that want to stop you and kill you? How does this help keep me safe?”
“You want to take on a bunch of trigger happy guards without my protection under the assumption that they won’t shoot first and ask questions later?”
Ral swallowed, realizing that there was only one way out: this man, who was the very reason they were in such a sticky situation in the first place. He could also tell somehow that he would be wise to not cross this man, the way an animal might recognize something more dangerous than itself. This man might be insane or psychotic, for all Ral knew. But if so, it appeared there was a method to the man’s madness, and Ral’s sense of self-preservation kicked in.
“What are you even supposed to be doing, Mr.…?”
The man exhaled deeply and stroked his goatee as he thought for a moment on how to best answer, after which he said, “Well, first answer in short is that we’re here because the CEO is not a very nice person, and the second is that until I have a reason to trust you, you don’t get to know my name. I told you already, didn’t I?”
Ral was less than amused. “I’m supposed to trust you, and you can’t return the favor?”
“I apologize, that’s not what I meant. I don’t believe for a second that you’re capable of stabbing me in the back even if you wanted. But that’s actually sort of the thing, you see: what I don’t trust is your ability to do anything. The way I see it right now, you’re useless until you do something useful. And I don’t get personally involved with walking luggage, oh no—that’s an honor I reserve for friends, family, and lovers. That is why you don’t get my name.”
Ral groaned in frustration, “So I’m on par with a suitcase, am I?”
“If I had a suitcase that carried itself? Yes. So make sure you don’t go and get injured so that I have to lug you around. It’ll keep my opinion of you from dropping.” He sighed. “But if you really need something to call me, I’m your sensei. Or teacher, if you want to be insensitive to my ancestors. I don’t really care.”
“What if I don’t want to call you either of those?”
“Stubborn, aren’t you? Well I guess you can call me Joe, as in Joe Doe.” This satisfied Ral, at least temporarily.
They approached the end of a corridor, where Ral’s self-proclaimed sensei shut his eyes and placed his hand on the elevator’s call panel. Ral didn’t see the point when the elevators were obviously locked down. Because of this assumption, he jumped when the polished steel doors slid open. Joe could tell, and he explained, “With luck and effort, you’ll be able to do the same someday. But in the meanwhile,” pausing as he tossed Ral his handgun, who juggled it about awkwardly before grasping it by the handle, “You’ll have to make do with that.”
Shouting from around the corner told of an incoming security team, and in the case of a company like Aldus, it was bound to be well equipped. As the bullets started flying, the controller clapped his hands together. There was a burst of air that swept his long hair back and the thudding of several bodies against the walls. He swept up a machinegun from the ground with his foot and blasted the one enemy who was stupid enough to try to raise their weapon.
Without a second glance, he told Ral, “Come, we’re almost at our destination.”
“Which is? I’m still not sure what we’re doing. Are you…assassinating this guy?”
“No, no, no. I don’t do murder. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Shooting a man with a gun who is keeping me from doing my job and poses a threat to my wellbeing is different from shooting a man who’s relaxing in his office and doing his job. Make sense?”
“It does, I guess.”
“Well take notes then, kid, because this will be the world you work in soon enough.”
Ral nodded half-heartedly, but he had no expectation to be part of this other part of Andromeda City which he’d never seen before. “So you really think that this is something I can do?”
Joe shook his head, “It’s very simple, really. You learn this now, because no matter how hard you try to fight it, this is where you’ll end up.”
“How can you possible know that for a fact?”
“No time.” Joe looked rather sad as he said this, but he quickly distracted both Ral’s and his own attention by putting his open palm up to the steel door in front of them. It shattered and fell inward like plate glass instead of metal. The room inside was white walled and featured two lines of server computers, for a total of six. “Keep watch for me, Raleigh,” he replied to his reluctant companion.
“Ral, please. I prefer to be called Ral. Rolls off the tongue more easily.”
“Well thank goodness! Your name is exhausting. Who thought of it, again?”
Ral was glad that there was something they agreed on. It helped to build that trust that Joe so wanted. He thought for a minute before replying, “I believe it was a tall blonde woman with a name like Eleanor.”
Joe started placing his hand on each server computer as he had the elevator panel before. It was as if he was looking for something in the wiring, but Ral wasn’t sure how it was possible to do so with one’s eyes closed.
“Let’s see…this one is for email…this one is for financial records…ah, here we are!” It wasn’t clear what he was actually doing. Ral wasn’t paying him much attention at that point, because he had just noticed the camera with the tiny red LED that had been placed over the doorway. “Uh…they know where we are.”
Joe paused for a moment before shrugging and replying, “Of course they do. Not for long, though.” He threw his hands out and visible tendrils of electricity coursed through the room. Ral flinched instinctively and crossed his arms in a “t” in front of himself while turning his head away, shielding himself from the bright orange sparks that flew from the servers. Then the room went black and his ears started ringing.
Was he dead? No, he was fairly certain that death hurt a lot less, provided that one was dead and not dying. His body suddenly ached, his heart was pounding, and his nerves were constantly reminding him he was alive. Was he dreaming? It wasn’t that either, as far as he could tell. What was different?
“Well done. As per the deal I made earlier…the name’s Vintor Masaru.”
“Huh? But I didn’t do anything, did I?” He started trying to follow the sound of Vintor’s voice.
“I’ll tell you later. But for now, put your hands up to either side of your head like blinders and try to widen your eyes.”
“What do you-”
“Just do it. And try to imagine for second, what the room would look like if everything was glowing.”
Ral did a he was told, unsure what would come. There was a feeling of warmth and he was so startled that he almost let loose a scream. The room before him was so well lit that it was like daylight. But there were no windows…where had the light come from? It was a very strange light, sort of like everything in the room was glowing. He was fairly certain that it was not normal for objects to glow like that.
“What do you see?”
Ral whirled around and Vintor was already at the door, waiting to leave. “I…I don’t know. I can see the hallway, and…wait, why can I see?”
Vintor explained, “You can see, Ral, because you are a controller. And what I was looking for was for your abilities to surface.” There was something in his voice which sounded speculative, almost awestruck. “The light you see isn’t real. It’s imagined. Controlling is founded on figuring out how to stimulate certain parts of your brain to trigger your innate psychic ability, for effects ranging from physical to mental. Now then, we’re done here. Let’s go, shall we?”
“What…what did we even do here?”
“That’s not important anymore. The job is done, and we need to leave.”
Ral sighed and they started walking through the unlit hallways as their footsteps echoed through the darkness. Vintor walked confidently, acting like he owned the place. The hallways were empty and devoid of life, and there was nothing keeping them from getting to…A window on the same floor?
Vintor shot it to pieces with the machinegun he had commandeered before tossing the empty weapon aside. He pulled back his left sleeve and tapped at his wrist. A moment later, he began talking into it, “Hey, Lux? Yeah, hurry up. I got the data and wiped the servers, but things are too quiet here. It’s unnerving. Hmm? Sure, that’s fine. Bye.”
Ral raised his eyebrow quizzically.
“Well, we’re going to wait around for just a minute. Our ride is coming, and you can bet that he’s one of the best.” This statement was followed by a series of loud pops in the distance, like fireworks that were louder than they were supposed to be. Vintora approached the window to look. “Oh dear, it looks like he’s got his hands full.”
Ral noticed that things were no longer illuminated. He did, however, hear the sound of footsteps from around the corner that Vintor didn’t notice. He didn’t know if it was a guard or just some employee—or his imagination for that matter, as he was extremely tired—but he was loath to assume either. He tried to remember how Vintor had said to generate light, but he couldn’t seem to replicate it.
Think, Ral. Think!
That was when it hit Ral that there was a faster solution. He pulled the trigger twice and watched as the gun’s flash illuminated a man with a tight black jacket. The stranger wore what appeared to be a set of sports shades, and wielded a menacingly large weapon. The sudden gunshots made him jump, whirl around to face Ral, and let loose a shot that missed by mere inches. Ral fired again and hit him in the shoulder, causing him to grunt in pain, while Vintor shouted, “C’mon! Jump!” Ral approached the window but found himself frozen with fear He wasn’t good with heights, and he was being told to bet his life on jumping off of one.
“JUMP!” Vintor shoved Ral forwards over the edge, and Ral instinctively kicked at the ground, lifting himself from the smoky white tile floors. A grav car sped under him and he landed perfectly in the back row. There was a thud on the trunk and Ral glanced behind to see Vintor’s hand. The Japanese man pulled himself into the car and smiled.
“Heights aren’t so bad when you know how to trick gravity. I’ll teach you later, when I have time.” Ral simply eased into the seat, exhausted, and fell asleep.