2292 – Before it all began
It was almost the end of the year, over a decade since the end of the war. All around him people were gearing up for the most wonderful time of the year. In the States the streets were lit up with fairy lights and good news all around. People kept their smiling faces on and the only news was good news. No one wanted to hear about the ongoing rebellions in other parts of the world. People just wanted to have their fancy Christmas dinners.
He wondered sometimes, if she’d experienced anything like it before he found her. Certainly not that year. That year she had been twelve years old in body, decades older in spirit, and she hadn’t known him yet. Then again, he hadn’t really known himself yet either. He looked at his reflection in one of the store windows, and past the holiday splendor and abundance he saw his own reflection. His eyes looked about a million years old to him. He grinned at himself, trying to show a little outward cheer at least.
“Yo, buddy!” Hugh’s voice startled him out of his reverie. “Yo, Stender!” he called out again, as if the sound of his name would get his attention sooner. After being called ‘Buddy’ by the other man for over five years, it barely made a difference.
“What?” he asked, turning to look at the other man. Hugh looked horribly out of place this far north. He looked like he belonged on a sunny beach somewhere, drinking tequila with a pretty girl on his knee no matter what the season was. Hugh grinned at him and shrugged.
“You looked a little zoned out right there, my man. Thinkin’ about our new venture?” He looked so hopeful Stender couldn’t bring himself to tell him otherwise.
“I’m just not sure what’s in it for us, man.” he said instead, shrugging casually. Hugh looked about ready to launch into another speech about influence and profit and reputation. Stender held his hand up to cut him off. “Let me rephrase that. I know exactly what we can gain from retrieving the data-case. What I don’t see is why we personally need to be there to ensure that it happens.”
He turned back to the window display. Inside a kid was yelling at his mom. “Oh what a wonderful time…” he muttered, before glancing back at Hugh. “I’ve seen enough battle, man. I don’t see what the benefit is of dragging my ass to Rotterdam, in the middle of the fucking rebellion I might add, just because it’ll look good on the news if people see my face there, instead of the face of some no-name mercenary.”
Hugh sauntered over to him and grabbed him by the chin, turning his face to the window. “That’s ‘cause you don’t know the value of this face, buddy. You see just some shmuck trying to get his corporation on the path of world domination. These people on the other side of the glass? They’re going to see ‘mister hand’s on’. They’re going to see the guy that doesn’t send other people to clean up his own mess. They’re going to see someone who’s willing to invest in the future, no matter what the danger.”
He let go of Stender’s face. “Also, sending a full SAR-squad into Rotterdam at this point might cause a political shitstorm, what with Zaheer denying all involvement in the uprising. People know you have assets there. Going there in person to retrieve them just shows people that you have balls of steels and you don’t give a shit about a so-called hostile environment. Just think about it, Senator McDowell is going to look like a fucking pussy compared to you ‘cause he’s sitting on his hands while state-assets are left to rot, and you’re going to look like a hero because you went to retrieve ‘em.”
“I went to retrieve my own damn data-case that should’ve gotten lifted with the evacuation.” Stender corrected him.
Hugh chuckled. “Details, good buddy. You walk in there with your own squad, you retrieve the data-case, you walk out with your own assets and state-assets, and McDowell is going to have to do some serious ass-kissing to stay on your good side after you’ve solved his problem for him. Ass-kissing in the form of those rights he refused to sell to you earlier.”
“Which he still won’t give me if there’s any way he can deny that it’s my corporation that saved the day.” Stender turned his back on the cheerful store-windows, suddenly sickened by the sight. “Fuck. Fuck that greedy sack of shit.” He looked at Hugh, grinning. “Do you ever get the feeling this would all be so much easier if I just went into politics? You know, if I just got over myself, and ran for congress or something? ‘cause fuck these guys, I could be president within a decade.”
Hugh stared at him for a second before bursting into laughter. “Politics…” he wheezed after what felt like an eternity. “Oh buddy, you in politics… that would be terrible. You’d blow the world up in a heartbeat because you got sick of all the bullshit. Nah, mate, trust me on this one. There’s not enough power to be had in politics to ever satisfy your hunger for it. Too many committees, too much scrutiny. You couldn’t even take a piss without someone asking about it.”
Stender blinked at him for a moment. “I’m not in this for power, Hugh.” he muttered after a minute of listening to Hugh rant about restrictions and legal obligations. Hugh stopped mid-sentence, looking at the other man with something close to pity in his eyes. Stender felt his heart clench for a moment.
“I know, buddy.” Hugh said, leaning against the wall next to Stender. “You’re in this for control. And I get that, but I hope that you get that you can’t have the one without the other.” He squeezed Stender’s shoulder gently. “You don’t have to do this. We can keep at it the way we have been, or find another way. But if you want to expand now, and if you want that global network now, then we need those rights, and to get those rights we have to get leverage on McDowell, and to get that leverage you need to be seen riding into Rotterdam on your white horse. You need to go the distance that he won’t.”
Stender dragged a hand down his face. “I know, I know… and I do want to go global with this. Man, I need to go global with this, and I need as much leeway from politics as I can get. I just… I mean, have you seen the footage of Rotterdam right now? It’s a warzone. And I don’t feel like getting shot at again, you know? Been there, done that, didn’t care for it.”
“So we wait a month. See if things calm down a little. I’ve got ears on the ground with Zaheer, I’m pretty sure I can figure out a good time to strike, when it still looks impressive but actual danger is minimal. We hand-pick a squad to go with you, we drop you within a hundred feet of the target, lift you out as soon as you have the data-case, all while making you look like the best damn thing that happened to the States since Halver.”
Stender scoffed. “Halver’s a war criminal, Hugh. I don’t think I want to be remembered that way.”
Hugh shrugged, looking pensive. “You say that, but I can guarantee that a good ninety percent of all State-households don’t think of him that way. The man was ruthless, but he got us victories where no one else could, and that’s exactly what you’re going to do in Rotterdam. And the good thing is that you’re just about the only guy who can right now, without stepping on a million political toes. You already have a global presence with the corporation. You have good ties with just about every faction. If you manage to kick against some extremist shins in Rotterdam no one’s going to shoot you down for it. After all, when you do it you’re just protecting your assets. When McDowell does it he might as well be declaring war. You’re in a good spot here, buddy. I think we should take advantage of it.”
A silence stretched between them as Stender thought over his options. Hugh was right, of course. It was all about control, and Stender would never have enough of that until he could take his network globally, and for that he needed those broadcasting rights that McDowell guarded so diligently. In the end, the choice was to remain static, or to move on.
“Fuck it.” he muttered after a few moments. “Lets do it. You find a good time for it, preferably somewhere in January, and I’ll ride in with the cavalry and get some proactive, forward thinking, solution-driven ass kicking on.”
“Oh God, management-speak.” Hugh groaned. “I’ve changed my mind. You’re not the right person for the job, you really should be in politics. Sweet Jesus. I think you gave me an aneurysm. You owe me a beer for that, buddy.”
Stender slapped him on the back and nodded towards the nearest bar, Christmas-themed the same way every store on the street was. “Lead the way, man.” he grouched. As they crossed the street, small flakes of snow filled the air. “Seriously?” he muttered at the sky.
Hugh laughed at him. “Didn’t you get the memo, buddy? It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
2293 – Beginning somewhere in the middle
It had been the third Monday of January. Hugh unironically selected the date because, as he put it, everyone would be feeling like shit that day anyway, and they needed a bit of good news. Or if it failed, then at least it wouldn’t bring people lower than they already were.
Stender pressed his back against the wall, and hoped for a way to fix the clusterfuck the mission had become. A bullet impacted into the wall two feet from where he was standing now, and he crouched low. He pressed his fingers to his earpiece. “Anderson! Where the fuck are you? Why is no one holding the corner?” His voice sounded frantic even in his own ears. The rifle in his hands felt alien, even though he’d been a soldier once. He’d been in combat before. Hell, he’d even been on missions like this before. But none within the last five years, and that had felt unimportant before he embarked on the shuttle this morning, but it sure as hell mattered now.
“Fuck.” he breathed, getting nothing but static over his connection with his team. Either his comm was broken, or they were all dead. Whatever it was, it still meant that he was on his own on a mission he’d never felt comfortable with. He could see his destination across the street. The building with his own corporation logo on the side. It might as well have been on the other end of town. He was pinned down by a group of anti-establishment rebels with guns. The briefing hadn’t covered the extent of their fire power anywhere near well enough.
He was pinned down. Pick up would happen from the rooftop of his own building. It had his logo on it and he was sure that somewhere, the name of his corporation was on the deed. His data-case was inside, but he couldn’t get inside without getting shot by people who had no idea who he was. He wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing.
He needed to get to the top of the building, at the very least. A glance at his watch told him he had exactly thirty minutes before the helicopter would set down to lift him out of this nightmare. If it didn’t get shot out of the sky. If they didn’t have rocket launchers or something similar. If he missed his pick-up, they’d try again 12 hours later. Then they’d give up, but it was never supposed to get that far. The resistance was supposed to be minimal. “We’re going to have words about this.” He muttered angrily, thinking of all the reassurance Hugh had given him before he embarked.
It seemed like the firing had died down a little at least. Maybe the rest of his squad was dead. It wasn’t a comforting thought at the least, but he held on to it anyway. If they thought they’d killed the entire squad, then maybe no one would come looking for him. He braced himself against the wall, contemplating the options he had. There weren’t many. He had to get to his building. He’d have to make a run for it.
Just as he was about to push himself off the wall movement to his right caught his eye. He stared wide-eyed as he saw a young girl sprint across the street, limber as a deer. She couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. The sunlight caught on her hair. There was a red tinge to it, and it seemed a little tangled. Her clothes seemed a little dirty. His mouth dropped open as he saw her duck around a corner. He heard a door open and close. The street was quiet again, and there was a little girl inside his building.
“What the…” he whispered to himself. The girl had just sprinted across the street, through what had been a battlefield just a minute ago, and nothing had happened. Stender listened for a few more minutes, but the street remained silent. “Well… here goes nothing, kid.” With a sharp exhale he pushed away from the building, running towards his destination.
He slammed into the wall on the opposite side of the street, without being shot. He could feel his heart pounding in his throat as he ran into the alleyway, looking for the door. There was only one. “Please be open.” he uttered a silent prayer to whoever would listen and yanked on the door handle. It opened. The hallway behind it was dark. He removed his flashlight from his belt and stepped inside.
Inside the silence was oppressive. The sound of his own breathing was thunderous in his own ears. He pressed his ear to the door, but couldn’t hear anything beyond the rush of his own blood. It seemed quiet outside. Maybe he had gotten lucky. Maybe no one noticed two people rushing into a building in rapid succession. He glanced down at his watch. Twenty-five minutes until the first pick-up. He could make it.
The data-case was supposed to be on the fifth floor. The elevators were down, of course. He’d be surprised if there was any power at all in the building. The business segment of Rotterdam had been closed down completely after the bombings, which had been the start of his current predicament. “Fucking terrorists.” he found himself muttering. “Couldn’t blow up the damned Black City, could ya? No, it had to be the Rotterdam harbor district. Fuckers.”
The little girl was nowhere in sight. Stender wondered about her briefly, thinking of all the ways a girl that young could find herself in a situation this bad. The world was a mess, and there were a million ways for it to happen. She’d been lean though. Strong, from the looks of it. Maybe she’d survive this whole mess. Maybe she was better at it than Stender, who hadn’t been caught out this bad in over five years. Who had people to do this kind of work for him, usually. Either way, he hoped the little girl was safe. Maybe raiding the cafeteria. He’d heard good things about the cafeteria of this particular site.
His boots sounded loud on the polished floors. He imagined the sound was clear throughout the building. He just hoped he and the little girl were the only ones there to hear it, and that it wouldn’t scare her too much. “I’ll be out of your hair in twenty minutes.” he whispered, as if she could hear him. As if she’d care. For the first time that day he found himself smiling.
Five minutes later he found himself on the fifth floor, data-case in hand. It was small enough to fit into his back pocket, and worth more than every single building on this street put together. He hadn’t been joking with Hugh when he said that he’d take getting the case back over getting the broadcasting rights from McDowell. He could take another shot at getting the rights. Losing the case would damage his operations in a far more critical way. Of course that had been why he wanted to send a fully trained squad in, instead of going himself. His hands were still trembling around the flashlight. Nothing about this felt like ‘the good old days’. But then, he’d never cared much for his stint in the military, aside from how good it looked on his resume.
“Right. Time to get out of here.” He still had another fifteen floors to climb, and his ride would be waiting for him. A nice, comfortable shuttleride back Stateside, and then he could forget this ever happened. He could go back to his cushy retirement, as Hugh liked to call it. Back to business, only now with McDowell kissing his ass. He stuck his head out of the door and looked left and right. The hallway was empty, just as he’d left it. He spared another thought for the little girl. Why would someone that young be on her own anyway?
He felt an awkward twinge in his chest as he remembered the bombing of his own family home. He hadn’t been much older when he lost his entire family. At the time it had felt like he’d lost everything except his life. Years later he still felt the same way. He’d just rebuilt himself from the ground up. He’d become a different person all together. The only thing he kept from his youth was the family fortune, which he had since invested, quadrupled and more. No one from the old days would have recognized him anymore. Even his name was different. His mother could have walked right up to him in the street, and she wouldn’t have known the boy she raised.
Not that she could have. She died with the rest, after all. The corner of his mouth twisted in a wry half-smile. Wasn’t that the point of everything? The corporation, the data-case, the rights, everything he needed to gain more control. To ensure that no one could ever sneak up on him again, and steal his loved ones away. He ignored the little voice in his head that cheerfully told him those were few and far between as well, these days.
“Get a grip, buddy.” he told himself as he ran up the stairs. Ten floors to go, and he already wished the elevator was still working. His rifle was slung around his back. He was alone in here, after all. Just him and that lonely little girl, who was probably too scared of him to cause any trouble. Just wanted to be left alone. He could sympathize. “Just a few more minutes.” He promised himself and the girl.
He didn’t realize he’d made a mistake until he burst onto the rooftop and took a bullet to the leg. His momentum sent him sprawling onto the gravel. For a second the pain in his hands from where he caught himself eclipsed the pain in his thigh. For just one blissful second he could pretend he’d tripped. “Oh fuck.” he breathed, before the gunshot wound started throbbing in sharp, agonizing pain.
He struggled onto his back, his hands pressed firmly to his thigh to stop the bleeding. It didn’t feel like blood was rushing out too fast. Maybe he’d just gotten clipped. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked. A shadow loomed over him all of a sudden, and a heavy boot kicked him in the chest, sending him flat against the gravel again. /Fuck./ He scrambled for his rifle, but the boot planted itself on his chest, and he found himself staring in the barrel of a gun.
“Easy, cowboy.” The man attached to the gun had a thick accent. Maybe Russian. Maybe Slavic. “No one else needs to die here today.” The man’s face was Russian too. All flat planes, a red nose from too much alcohol. His grip on his gun was unwavering though. Maybe a mercenary. Maybe not. “Except for your friends on the pod. They do need to die.” He sent a mean grin Stender’s way before bringing one hand up to the comm-piece in his ear, and uttering a few words in Russian. It definitely sounded like Russian to him. He’d need to take a few classes, if he made it out of this alive.
In the distance Stender could hear the humm of an approaching pod resonate between the buildings. It was a heavy, armored thing that had been commissioned for this mission especially. Stender heard it before he saw it, just like he heard the sound of a rocket being launched before he saw it flit through the sky. “No, wait!” he cried out, struggling to get to his feet. The man above him knocked him to the ground again. Seconds later the pod exploded in blue fire.
“Easy now, Mister Stender. There is no reason for struggling.” The man’s accent seemed even thicker now, following the explosion. Stender stared at him wide-eyed as he muttered a few more things into the comm-piece. “There.” The man said, looking terribly pleased with himself. “No more interruptions. Your squad is dead, your pod is broken. It is just you and me now. And what better place for Stender to die than on top of his own empire?”
“Who the fuck are you?” Stender ground out. There was something about the guy. Something vaguely familiar, tickling at the back of his memory. A face… Everything blacked out when the man stood on his wounded leg and pressed down. Stender screamed. He imagined he could hear the guy laughing above him.
“You don’t remember Vasilley? No, of course you don’t. I’m sure you push people out of their own operations every day, huh? Big man from the states.” He rolled his shoulders, chuckling a bit as of the genuinely thought the situation was amusing. “That’s alright though. This is not about revenge. This is about the data-case. I just wanted you to know who’s fucking you over before I kill you and burn your corporation to the ground. I would say, remember my name, but I’m going to blow your brains out in a moment, so it really does not matter.” He motioned with his left hand, while the gun was still fixed on Stender’s head with the other. “Come on. Give me the case, or I pry it from your cold dead body. I don’t care either way.”
“I do,” A shadow said from somewhere above them.
Stender barely had enough time to look up before he was hit with the warm arterial spray erupting from the man’s jugular. The little strawberry-blonde girl leaped down from above, ramming a knife deep into his throat. He squeezed the trigger of his gun, but his shot went wide from both Stender and the girl. She kicked at his hand. Stender imagined he heard the bones of his wrist crack as she knocked the gun away from him.
He staggered backwards, one hand at his throat, the other grasping the air in front of him, as if he could grab hold of the girl. The girl that moved like lightning, leaping at the guy. “Don’t!” Stender cried out, just as her feet landed square on the man’s chest. She flipped backwards, pushing off on the guy. The man stumbled backwards, over the edge of the roof just as she landed on her feet. He didn’t scream. Stender figured that was because of the knife in his throat.
Stender found himself staring at the girl. She really couldn’t be much older than twelve. Her hair was a little messy, as if she’d cut it herself, and a little dirty, as if she hadn’t managed to wash it properly for a while now. There were a few tears in her clothing, but she looked fairly well put-together. She had another knife stuck in her belt, and she was shifting back and forth on her feet, shyly almost.
“Uhm.” She said, giving him the same once-over he’d just given her. The corner of her mouth twitched when her eyes landed on his bleeding leg. “You probably shouldn’t run out onto a rooftop when you have no idea who might be waiting there for you. Because obviously, someone might be waiting for you.”
“Yeah, I figured that much.” Stender couldn’t help but grin at her. His ribs felt bruised from getting stomped on, his leg felt like it had a bullethole in it, and his life was just saved by someone half his size. “I’m Stender.” he said, because ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m the luckiest bastard that ever lived’ felt inadequate somehow.
The girl smiled at him. It was a tentative, wry little thing. “Yeah, I heard. With the whole ‘Easy now, Mister Stender’, thing.” she mimicked Vasilley’s accent to a tee when she said his name. Stender laughed first, then groaned. The girl stopped smiling. “I… uh… I’m Valentina.” She pressed her lips together, as if she wasn’t entirely sure about the words that just left her mouth. “But you can call me Val, I suppose.”
“Alright, Val. Do you think you can help me up? We should probably get inside, seeing how there were guys with rocket launchers not that long ago.” He struggled to sit upright, not noticing at first that Valentina isn’t moving until she cleared her throat. “What?” he asked, following her gaze. At his riffle. “Oh come on, I’m not going to shoot you. You’d stab me to death before I get myself untangled from this strap. I’ve been shot, some guy stood on me, a twelve year old saved my ass… I just need to lie down for a while.”
“Thirteen.” Val corrected him. “I’m thirteen, not twelve.” Apparently appeased by his words she made her way towards him, gently helping him sit up. “And what do you mean ‘some guy’? Don’t you know who that was?”
“Oh God everything hurts.” Stender groaned, carefully pulling himself up to his feet. “That guy?” He nodded in the direction where he tumbled off the rooftop. “No idea.” Val stepped in beside him, offering her shoulder to lean on. He could feel her body freeze.
“Wait, really? But he just tried to off you. He had the whole speech with it too, and you don’t even know who he was? What the hell?” She sounded frustrated with the situation. Stender just hoped she wasn’t frustrated with him. He’d seen what she could do with a knife. “That is so weird.” Val finally concluded, pulling him towards the door.
Inside it was still dark. With the power down and the sun setting the entire building would be trapped in darkness soon enough. “There’s an office down the hall that’s nice.” Valentina offered, flinching a little every time Stender took a step, because every time he took a step pain shot through his leg. “I’ve been living there a bit.” she continued, her voice easy and calm, as if he was a wounded animal and not a wounded person. Maybe she’d never had much occasion to deal with wounded people. He hoped not.
“You’ve been living here? Why here? Don’t you have a home?” Stender heard himself asking before he could swallow the words. He felt Valentina shrug under his arm, appearing unphased by his lack of tact.
“Nope.” was all the answer she had for him though. She helped him lean against the wall by the door. “Wait here for a bit, ok? I just wanna make sure it’s clear.” she whispered, sliding her knife out of her belt. Without a sound she opened the door to the office and slipped inside.
The silence that fell over him in the abandoned hallway was deafening, and stretched for minutes that felt like an eternity. Stender glanced down at his watch, mentally calculating the time for his next pick-up. If they hadn’t abandoned him. For all he knew Hugh would assume he was dead. He’d failed to check in, and if Vasilley had told the truth then Anderson wouldn’t be checking in either. The pod had been destroyed. Maybe they really thought…
He dropped his head against the wall. “Get a grip.” He told himself. The pick-up would be there, and if not he’d find a different way out. He’d been a soldier once. He could still do this, even if he’d done a piss-poor job of it so far. A loud click busted him out of his reverie. The office door swung open, and Valentina poked her head out.
“Hey.” she said, looking him over. “You look like shit. You should probably lie down.” Stender shuffled his way inside the office, finding it mostly empty and dark inside, except for a few candles that were lit next to the comfortable looking couch. It cast an eerie light into the otherwise sparsely decorated space. He flopped down on the cough, groaning as it jolted his leg.
“So, this is home, huh?” He looked around, curiosity getting the better of him. He could see signs of her living there, but none too obvious. One might think the cleaners had skipped a day or two. As he turned around he noticed a framed picture of a man looking frighteningly like himself, shaking he hand of another stern looking man. What was his name again? Van Kleef? “Huh.” he uttered. Valentina reappeared at his side. She grinned at him.
“Imagine my surprise when I saw you enter the building.” she said, nodding at the picture. “I mean, on the picture you’re all suited up and stuff, and now you’re wearing tac-gear, but I recognized your frowning face anyway.” She knelt down on the ground next to the couch and flashed an apologetic smile at him. Then she pressed a towel to his leg, and after a bright flash of pain everything went black around him.
He came to to the sound of her voice. She was babbling, half in Dutch and half in English. He barely understood one word in every ten. When he glanced down at his leg he saw that the wound was dressed. Primitively, and he’d definitely still need to get it looked at, but it wasn’t a poor field-dressing. “…And all that time I thought the fat guy owned this place, but now I know he just works here. Which is totally weird, because you’d expect the fat older guy to be the owner, not the young guy, but then I heard what your name was, and apparently the fat guy is at your beck and call. Who knew? Oh, hey, you’re awake.” She beamed at him from the armrest of the couch.
“How long was I out?” he managed to croak out. His throat felt parched, and his tongue felt like it was swollen twice the usual size. She winced slightly and handed him a bottle of water, which he chugged down gratefully.
She shrugged, flashing him that same half-guilty smile. “Not that long. Less than an hour, I think. I should have warned you, about that.” She gestured at his wounded leg. He shrugged.
“Nah, that’s fine. That’s not half bad. Where did you learn that?”
Her shoulders shuddered in another half-shrug. “Places. I’ve been on my own for quite a bit. Some hospitals don’t make too much of a fuss when you come in at night. I helped out a few nights. Mostly watched, helped holding stuff up, but it’s easy enough to pick up.
Stender knew it wasn’t his place to pry, but he couldn’t help it. She’d saved his life, maybe twice, and he was fascinated. “And that thing on the rooftop? Did you learn that in the hospital as well?” he found himself asking.
Val chuckled. “What, the thing with the knife and the kick? No, I didn’t learn that in the hospital.” She bit her lip and was silent for a moment, looking at her hands. Stender figured that that was all he was going to get from her, the elusive girl who could kill as easily as she could bandage wounds. To his surprise she carried on. “Streetgangs.” she muttered after a while.
She stared at the far wall, but kept talking. “I hang out with some streetgangs every now and then, when I don’t feel like being on my own. Some of the older kids are pretty good at fighting. They learned it on the street, like me, or sometimes they learned it in the juvenile correctional institution, or even from their parents. Either way, some of them didn’t mind teaching me a few things.”
She rubbed at her hands. It was an oddly self conscious gesture. Her voice wavered a little, but she went on. “When I was like… ten or something, I used to hang out with these two kids from the orphanage. We… uh… we ran away, because that place was a mess, and we figured we could take care of ourselves. I mean, even when my foster parents were still alive I already spent more time on the street than inside, so…” She shrugged, as if that explained everything. Maybe it did.
“Anyway, we mostly got by on the streets. Some of the gangs were a little nasty, but we were all quick, right? And we figured no one could beat us up if they couldn’t catch us, so we made sure we’d never be caught.” Her lips curved into a wry smile. “You should’ve seen Thomas, he was like a ninja, you know? Always bouncing off walls and shit.” She shook her head, as if she suddenly remembered where she was. “So… yeah… that’s where I learned to do that thing with the jumping and the knives.”
Stender found himself staring at her as if she was some kind of mythical, never before seen creature. He could picture her running along the streets, stealing to survive. “I didn’t know things were this rough in Rotterdam.” he heard himself say. Valentina shrugged again.
“I suppose you could call it rough. I mean, Rotterdam is a lot worse than other cities around here, or so I’ve been told. Aside from the harbor district people don’t really care about the city, I guess, so pretty much all the scum in a hundred mile radius comes here. Takes more time to clean up, I guess.” She shrugged again, as if it didn’t really matter to her.
Stender couldn’t imagine what her life was like. It fascinated and horrified him at the same time, thinking of how this skinny little girl had been forced to survive on the street. Then he mentally kicked himself in the teeth. /It was her choice/. She’d said as much. And if anything, she was more capable than most people he knew when it came to survival.
He was still trying to wrap his head around it while she drummed on her knees with her fingertips, looking a little uncomfortable for the first time since he met her. “So I was thinking… you probably need to get that thing out of here, right?” She asked, her voice hesitant.
“What thing?” Stender asked, still lost in thought.
“That thing you picked up from the fifth floor. The thing the guy was going to kill you for? You know, the box, in your back pocket.” She made him sound like an idiot.
“Oh, this?” His heart skipped a beat as he pulled the data-case out of his back pocket. It appeared in-tact, but he couldn’t be sure of that until he got it back Stateside and connected to his network. “This is a data-case. It contains… well, just about everything there is to know about my corporation and more. All of my plans, information on my opposition. The works.”
As he spoke the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. It was so easy to trust little Valentina, with her easy wit and her smiles, but he’d seen her kill a man not too long ago. What would stop her from prying the data-case from his cold dead fingers? And here he sat, waving the thing in front of her, because he… what? figured she was on his side?
He was broken out of his reverie when a pillow hit his face. “Dude. I’m not going to steal your data-box from you. You can stop with the panicking, because it’s not going to happen.” She sounded a little disgruntled. “I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I got it anyway. And it would be totally counterproductive. I just saved your life!” Her angry glare told him she was not impressed.
Stender shook his head. “Sorry, I’m just… not really used to people saving my life without wanting anything in return.” He shrugged, feeling as if he was the thirteen year old kid in this conversation. It wasn’t a feeling he enjoyed much. He cleared his throat. “There’s another pick-up scheduled for me in… well, ten hours from now.” he offered instead.
Valentina shook her head. “On the rooftop again? Man, that’s the worst idea. Didn’t you see what happened to the pod? Besides, maybe they think you’re dead. You can sit around and wait for people to figure out that you’re not dead, and either come to save you or kill you and steal your box, or you can come with me. There’s a maintenance tunnel that leads to the metro about twenty feet from the door, and that leads straight to the harborfront. There’s a navy ship over there. I’m sure you can show them some ID, then you can call your friends and then they can come pick you up.” She nodded decisively, as if she’d spent the hour while he was out coming up with the plan.
“Why are you helping me?” Stender asked, his eyes fixed on Val’s face. She looked down at her hands again, looking shy for the first time since he met her. “I meant what I said, Val. I’m not used to people saving my life for nothing.”
“I just thought…” Val started, her lips quivering slightly. She looked every bit as young as she really was, “I mean, I just hoped…” She looked up at him, her eyes shining a little in the candlelight, “Take me with you? Just Stateside, I can make my own way from there. I just… I don’t want to be here anymore. I’ve been here all my life and I just can’t get out of this place, and…”
She rambled on for about a minute, until Stender reached over and touched her knee. “Hey. Of course I’ll take you with me. Of course. God, that’s the least I can do. You saved my /life/, Valentina. That’s worth something. That’s worth everything to me.”
2296 – The worst and best is yet to come
He exhaled slowly, his hands tight around the door handle. His heart felt like it was beating a mile a minute, and he felt like he was losing control. For the first time in nearly two decades he felt like he was losing control.
On the other side of the door his protégée, the sixteen year old girl he’d taken under his wing after she saved his life in Rotterdam was telling his new associate that he’d never touched her inappropriately. That he, Stender, was not a child abuser. Because that’s what the other woman had thought. Irina Weisz, victim of years of abuse herself, had thought that Stender was molesting Valentina.
And it broke him. There was no other way to describe it. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, even though he talked himself through the exercises that Valentina had taught him, right after she’d learned herself. Calming breaths, the way her martial arts instructors had taught her. The way she had taught him.
Part of him wanted to walk into that kitchen, and explain that Irina wasn’t seeing it right. That she was perverting something that meant the world to him. He would never hurt Valentina. He would never force himself onto her. She was family to him in a way that went beyond blood, beyond reason.
His fingers tightened around the door handle again, but he knew he was pointless. He wasn’t going to walk out there. Even though he knew Valentina was struggling, even though he could hear it in her voice he couldn’t go out there. He couldn’t pull her out of the situation, the way he’d done in Rotterdam three years ago. If he interrupted, Irina would see her point proven. He swallowed against the bitterness in his throat as he wondered how often Solchov had stood behind her, his hand on her back while he forced her to pretend she wanted to be there with him. How often he had made her lie. No matter what he said now, Irina wouldn’t believe it. She had to hear it from Valentina.
So he listened instead. His fingers shook as he pulled them away from the door and he slowly stepped back. He stepped back until his legs hit the bed, and he sagged down, feeling boneless while he heard Valentina talk about their relationship, and how it was family, and nothing else. And everything else. He listened, letting her words flow over him, pulling him back from the edge he was on.
/I trust him more than I trust myself./ He heard her say. He exhaled slowly, feeling his heart slow in his chest. He knew, of course. He’d always known. She had even told him, during those long nights in the beginning when she’d been unable to sleep, unused to the sounds of the compound, and too wired still to feel safe anywhere. Except with him. Valentina had always felt safe with him, even before she knew him. Even when she’d just been hiding out in his building, and had only known him from a picture.
Valentina had sought him out. She’d saved his life. She trusted him more than anyone, and he knew he could trust her just the same. He felt it in his bones. Valentina sleeping in his home was as much a comfort to him as it was to her. A familiar heartbeat. More than family. She knew him better than anyone, and that went both ways.
He shook himself out of his reverie, hearing the conversation between his protégée and his associate wind down. He exhaled again, slowly. When he opened the door his hands were steady and his face neutral, as if he hadn’t just heard Irina accuse him of molesting the one person in the world that made him feel human. He glanced between them, offering a small smile. It was all he could do, and it didn’t feel adequate.
2300 – The end of the world as we know it
The sky erupted in a thousand different colors, signaling the start of the twenty-fourth century. The sound of fireworks was deafening, the cheer of every single person at the party was rowdy, and Stender missed most of it, hidden away in a corner of his private balcony as he was. He hadn’t counted, but there had to be over a thousand people at the party. ‘Close friends and family only’, Sybil had assured him.
“Close friends and family, my ass.” Stender grouched to himself. He understood the value of having these people over, of course. Every event was good for networking. But for once he would have liked to have the turn of the year to himself, actually with his close friends and family. He shook his head, smiling at himself. That would’ve been just Valentina then, on the family-side of things. Maybe just Valentina on the close friends-side of it too, on days when he felt particularly cynical. He swirled his whiskey in his glass.
Today felt like one of those days. Hugh was inside somewhere, schmoozing. They weren’t as close as they’d been seven years ago. The days when he trusted Hugh to have his back in a tight situation were long gone. Hugh was a player, and he loved the game more than he loved anything, even though he’d never own to it. On the surface of it all they were still as close as brothers, but Stender hadn’t trusted him with anything vital in a long time. Not since Rotterdam, if he was entirely honest with himself, and he tried to be.
In a world where people made it their life’s mission to suck up to him, the only person he could count on to always be honest with him was himself. Well, and Valentina, but he’d known long ago that Valentina was the exception to every single rule he ever made.
Including the rule that he didn’t give anyone the codes to his private quarters, but as the balcony door slid open he realized that this rule didn’t apply to Valentina either. “Hey.” he said, not bothering to turn around. There really was only one person it could be.
“You missed the countdown.” Her voice was soft and steady. Surprisingly sober too, but he hadn’t really expected her to mainline champagne with the rest of his guests anyway. There were too many predators out and about. He felt her appear by his side, the warmth of her radiating through his suit. Maybe he should ditch the tie.
After a moment he glanced to his side, where Valentina looked radiant in her expensive evening gown. Her hair was a little messy. She’d probably been dancing earlier, and Hugh probably tried to ruffle it when he wished her a happy new century. “Beautiful.” She breathed, her eyes on the fireworks in the distance.
“Loud.” Stender countered, just to be obstinate. She threw her head back and laughed. It was the best thing he’d heard all evening. “I’ll come back inside in a minute.” he offered, knowing damn well that Sybil was probably ready to gut him because he had guests to entertain.
Valentina shrugged. “I think eighty percent of the people inside are drunk, and the other twenty percent is either annoyed, harassed or embarrassed by drunk people. They can spare you for a few more minutes. Sybil might disagree, though.” She finally turned her head to look at him with a merry twinkle in her eyes. She looked like she owned the world. Like the universe had no more secrets for her. Like the only thing that still confused her was Stender. It was a silly notion. Stender felt like he was an open book around her.
“Happy New Century.” he finally said. She smiled at him again, softer this time. Even her eyes were soft as she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.
“You too.” She whispered in his ear. In the distance the fireworks raged, and the party inside the compound would go on for hours still, but out on his balcony it felt quiet. It felt like they were in the eye of the storm.
“Sybil would probably want me to tell you you’re a bad host, and you need to get your ass back inside now.” She said with a cheeky grin. Stender deflated a little. If it was up to him they’d stay outside all night. Val nudged his shoulder. “But I’m glad I caught you out here on your own for a minute. There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you, but it never really felt like the right time.”
Stender arched an eyebrow at his protegée, ignoring the way his heart seemed to skip a beat. Next to him Val bit her lip, oblivious to the way his hands suddenly felt clammy. He pulled at his tie, trying to loosen it a little. “No, you can’t kill Gershan. I know it might seem like good sport now, but Irina would mind.” He joked. Valentina rolled her eyes at him.
“Please, as if I’d ask your permission for that.” she scoffed. “Besides, he’s actually quite nice, once you get past the whole coldblooded killer facade. And kind of pretty, with that ponytail and those soulful eyes. I see why she likes him.” She batted her eyelashes at Stender, until he had no choice but to give her a little shove.
“But that’s not what I wanted to ask.” She shifts slightly from one foot to the other. In her heels she was tall, but that wasn’t it. She wore them often enough to be comfortable in them. It was almost as if she was nervous. She looked down at her hands, and for a moment Stender couldn’t breathe, remembering exactly how she’d looked seven years ago in Rotterdam, before she asked him to take her Stateside with him.
“I…” she started. Stender could barely hear her over the pounding of his heart. “I want to join the league.” She blurted out. Stender stopped breathing for a moment. He stopped thinking for a moment. He almost felt like his entire life stopped for a moment, because Valentina, little Valentina wanted to join the league that he had set up. Valentina wanted to join in deathmatches. She wanted to risk her life, time and time again.
What felt like an eternity later Stender shook his head. Valentina was still talking. He could hear her clearly now as she explained in perfectly rational sounding terms why it made perfect sense for her to throw herself in harms way time and time again. Before he realized what he was doing he fell down in one of the loungechairs on his balcony, cradling his head in his hands.
“Woah!” Valentina exclaimed, kneeling by his side in a second. Again he was reminded of Rotterdam, how she’d tended to his wounds. “Easy there…” she muttered, her hands rubbing up and down his thighs in a comforting gesture.
He shook his head. “I’m alright.” he managed to croak. “Headrush. Maybe I had more to drink than I thought.” Only he hadn’t. His whiskey stood forgotten on the balcony railing. It had only been his second. Val smiled at him in a way that told him she knew he was full of shit, but she was too polite to call him on it.
“I know it’s a bit of a surprise, but… we’ve talked about the league, Stender. We’ve watched it together, you and me. And you know I could do better than any of those other schmucks. You know I can. You’ve… you’ve said as much, Stender, and I want it. I want it more than anything. And I can win. I can… I’ll be the greatest thing you’ve ever seen. I promise.”
Valentina looked up at him with eyes that were bright with excitement and anxiety. Stender found himself looking at her for long moments. Really looking at her, the way he so rarely allowed himself to do. Then he closed his eyes, and imagined seeing her through the cold, unforgiving lenses of a hundred camera’s. Imagined sitting on the edge of his seat, watching her kill for sport. She’d be magnificent, and league-fans around the world would worship her.
He opened his eyes and looked at her. With every second that ticked past she looked more and more anxious. As if she expected him to say no. As if he had the ability to say no. He’d never had that. Seven years since she first asked something from him, and he hadn’t learned how to deny her anything in all that time. “All right.” He heard himself say, his voice surprisingly calm.
Her eyes went wide. For a moment Stender sat there, watching about a dozen emotions flit across her face before it settled in pure joy. She threw her arms around his neck and held on for dear life as she squealed. He wrapped his arms around her and allowed himself to hold her tight. It was the start of a new century, and for the first time that night and many nights before Stender felt like it was the start of something new. The overjoyed young woman in his arms believed it was the start of something amazing. Stender closed his eyes, and wished he could feel the same.