And this is it for Undercity. For now, at least. Be here on Tuesday for a new story!
Through the front doors, there’s a small lobby, the kind common to a lot of apartment buildings. It’s almost as big as the entire first floor, stretching all the way to the back of the building and mostly empty. There are a few paintings on the walls, the non-descript cityscapes and idyllic countrysides that don’t exist in Undercity. There is a single plant, a tall green stalk in a pot that looks healthy if not thriving. One of the walls is dominated by small mailboxes. There are a few rooms branching off the lobby, but the single biggest feature is a staircase leading up to the second story.
“Office?” I say aloud.
“Well. Business is done here, at any rate.” Bryant nods his head in the direction of the stairs. “Come along. Up we go.”
We go up to the second floor and step into the hallway. We walk down, numbered doors on either side of us, before us, behind us, and I wonder about the lives of the people that live in this building. Do they know what kind of secrets are harbored here? Do they know that three strangers have stepped into their homes to do who knows what?
We stop in front of one of the doors, 217. Bryant considers it for a moment before nodding. “This one,” he says.
“Shall I?” Alan asks. Bryant just shakes his head.
“Subtlety first. If that doesn’t work, then you may.” With that he steps forward and knocks on the door. There is no response, none at all, and Bryant knocks again louder.
Alan sets his one hand on the door and the other on the knob. He braces his shoulder against it, and I wonder what he expects to accomplish without building up momentum first. But then he just twists the knob and the door swings wide open. Alan stares at the entryway before us for a moment, then sniffs. “Well. That’s disappointing.”
“The quieter, the better,” Bryant says. He pushes past Alan and steps into the apartment. Alan just grunts then enters behind him. I shut the door behind me as I follow them in.
The entryway splits into a hallway, with a living room and a kitchen to our right and a bathroom and a single bedroom to our left. The apartment is sparsely decorated. There are no plants, no pictures on the walls, little furniture to speak of aside from a small couch and a table barely big enough to seat two. Inside the kitchen there are a few dirty dishes in the sink, but disposable plates and bowls everywhere, empty packages of single-serving meals. I have never seen an apartment that so thoroughly screamed “bachelor” before. But even as my eyes wonder over everything, take it all in, I’m thinking in the back of my head that we haven’t found the thing we’re looking for.
“The bedroom, then,” Bryant says. We follow him in there, stepping past a bookcase in the hallway as we do so, and we see that the bedroom is dedicated much the same as the rest of the house: barely. There’s an unmade bed and clothes on the floor, sheets and shirts and socks everywhere. It looks even worse than my room, but without any kind of identity to speak of. Judging from the clothes, a man lives here, but I have no idea what he’s like, what kind of music he listens to, what friends he has. I don’t know anything about him other than the fact that he’s probably lonely, and that makes me kind of sad.
Meanwhile, Bryant moves to search the closet, curses under his breath when he finds nothing aside from more dirty clothes and a few clean ones.
“Maybe this is the wrong apartment,” Alan says. It isn’t a question.
Bryant shakes his head. “Kuhlmann told us it was 217. That terminal is here somewhere.” He’s silent for a moment, and then he snorts. “We’re going to tear this place apart. Maybe he has a mobile terminal secreted away somewhere. And if this somehow is the wrong apartment, then they’re going to learn a very valuable lesson about locking their front door.”
For half an hour, we go through every drawer, every cabinet, every possible spot in the house. We flip the mattress on the bed, look inside the sofa cushions, the oven, the fridge, the tank on the toilet, the freezer, and no matter where we look, we find nothing. I can tell that Bryant is growing more and more frustrated, and at last, he turns his attention to the bookcase. He’s eying it suspiciously. I just shake my head. “There’s no mobile terminal back there, I promise. I’ve never seen one thin enough to fit behind something flush with the wall. I don’t think they exist.”
“I don’t give a damn,” he says. He pulls at the side of the bookcase with both hands, as if to swing it out into the open, but it doesn’t move at all. He grunts in frustration, tries the other side, gets the same result.
The bookcase is the only thing in the house with any sort of decorations on it. There are some pretty stones on it that must have come from someplace far outside Undercity, a few statues that were probably crafted in Sky City, a few bricks and chunks of concrete with writing on them that suggests they once were part of buildings that were demolished ages ago. There are even a few real books on it. I’m sure it’s quite heavy, but it surprises me that Bryant couldn’t move it at all. “Do you want some help?” I ask.
“I’m fine,” he says. He goes around to the side, puts his shoulder up against the bookcase, and tries to use his legs to push with more force. Still the bookcase doesn’t move. He steps back and stares at it, his usually calm demeanor threatening to boil over into rage. “Alpha!” he shouts. “Come help with this!”
Alan walks over to us and stares at the bookcase for a moment before gesturing for Bryant to move. He takes up the older man’s spot alongside the bookcase and pushes. Nothing happens. “Guys,” I say. “Maybe we should take some of the stuff off of it first?”
Alan pushed again, visibly straining against the bookcase. The screech of twisting metal fills the air and I jump, startled. The bookcase moves a few inches along the wall. Alan takes a deep breath and pushes again. The bookcase moves further, and I see light peeking out from behind it.
Bryant snorts. “A hidden room. Clever.”
Alan pushes once more. There’s a snapping noise and the bookcase tips over onto it’s side. There are some wires and some twisted metal fixtures on the back that must have been holding it in place. We step over it into the hidden room. I gasp.
The setup in here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, even in the academy. The terminal is a new model, there are screens projectors, devices I’ve never seen before.
“You’re up,” Bryant says. I nod and step forward, sit down in the chair. Put on the gloves, the headband, feel that familiar pinch and sizzle, and then I’m in.
* * *
“Hello, Master. Cerie welcomes you back.” It’s a woman’s voice, thick and sensual and maybe a little childlike, like something out of an erovid. There was no security, none at all. I just stepped right into this umbra’s, this Davon’s, node. I guess he was counting on the physical security in his apartment to keep his information secure, cause there’s certainly no digital security here.
I look around, take in the setting. It’s all glass and steel, but instead of that being the simple governing aesthetic, it’s been taken one step further to simulate an office in a skyscraper. I’m in a plush chair, the desk an endless sea of wood before me. The wall in front of me isn’t a wall at all, but a pane of glass. Blue skies and clouds stretch off into the distance, and beneath them are other skyscrapers, all of them smaller than the one this office is supposed to be in. I can’t even imagine how high up I’m supposed to be. It’s a little frightening, to be honest.
“Can Cerie get you anything, Master?” comes that woman’s voice. But it’s not in my head, like when the Magister was yelling at me when I outsmarted his test. It’s right next to me. I look over my left shoulder, and there’s a tall blonde woman standing there, naked except for a black collar around her neck. Her hair is curly, trailing to her shoulders. Her figure is curvy, her hips and her breasts and her waist all impossible. She is smiling. Her eyes are vacant.
I hate this Davon, whoever he is.
“Not right now, thanks.”
“As you wish, Master.” She disappears with with a giggle in a haze of blue light. It’s a pretty effect, and while I don’t want to think about it, this Cerie program has been carefully developed as well. Davon’s clearly spent a lot of time perfecting his node. But that’s beside the point. There’s work to be done.
I close my eyes and focus, trying to access the files stored here. There’s almost nothing on the node itself except for the ones dedicated to rendering the world and Cerie. There are a few behavioral files for Cerie that I don’t look too closely at once I realize what they’re intended for. I switch over to the terminal, and groan, annoyed.
None of the files on the terminal are organized, and the names he’s given them makes no sense. It’ll take too much time to go through them one by one, especially when I don’t know how much time I have. There’s some noise in the background, something bleeding through from the real world, maybe Alan and Bryant talking to each other.
“Cerie,” I call out. She appears before me in another flash of blue light, smiling and empty as before. I frown and look away.
“Search the files on the terminal, please, and bring me any with the name ‘August Panopta.’” Cerie winks out of existence for a second, and when she reappears, she has a few documents in her hand. She sets them on the desk before me. “Thank you, Cerie.”
“Do you need Cerie to do anything else for you, Master?”
“No, thank you.”
“Would you like Cerie to give you a massage, Master?”
My eyes go wide. Is this what male umbras do in their nodes? Disgusting. “Definitely not. That will be all, Cerie.”
She vanishes, leaving me alone in the relative splendor of Davon’s digital office. It’s quite the view. I guess there’s something to be said for it, although I still prefer my own more natural setting.
I look down at the desk, pick up the files and look over them. They’re just lists of names, like Bryant said they would be. I open a Network connection and send them to my own node, then shut it and erase any record of the connection from the Davon’s terminal and his node’s history.
That’s it, then. Mission accomplished. I close my eyes and disconnect my Interface. I’m back in Davon’s real desk. “I’ve got it, guys,” I call out.
“Excellent!” Bryant says. “Let’s get out of here.” I pull the headband off, the gloves off, turn around in the chair.
There’s a boy, only a few years older than me, perhaps the same age as Alan, sitting in the corner of the room. He is gagged and bound. Bryant has a gun trained on him.