by Terry L. Mirll
With Hildy supporting him, Frank slowly hobbled down the hallway. Despite Hildy’s tender smile and gentle disposition, Frank eyed her worriedly. She, in contrast, seemed amused and self-satisfied, the surest sign she knew something he didn’t.
Trusting her was simply out of the question, but at the moment his best option was to get on the move again, before the Grunts could find him. When Hildy offered him safe transport, he agreed. Draping him in Dippy’s hideous tunic, she had eased him out of bed, and together they made their way to the exit.
“You work for Ouroboros, right?” he said. She made no reply, but gently patted his arm.
“I mean, I’ve seen you before,” he said. “Ouroboros is a monster of a corporation, and I’m sure you don’t know me from Adam, but I’ve seen you. Somewhere.”
They continued in silence until at last reaching the outside. She escorted him to her transport, a long, sleek vehicle with a closed cabin and tinted windows. They climbed into the back, resting comfortably against the car’s luxurious, velvet seats. An automaton sat dutifully behind the forward controls.
“Please, Nick,” she said, patting his knee. “Stop worrying, won’t you? Yes, I work for Ouroboros, but I’m here to help. For the moment, we need to focus on getting you out of here. I’ve contacted hospital admin and cleared you for release.”
He returned a blank stare, too dumbfounded to reply. She smiled.
“I can call you Nick,” she said. “Can’t I?”
“Well,” he said, “I really think we’d better stay with Frank. For the time being, I mean.”
“Yes, you’re absolutely right,” she said. “All right, Frank it is, then. And, really, please call me Hildy.”
“I thank you most humbly,” Frank said.
There was an awkward, lingering pause before Hildy could muster a reply. “What?” she said, and giggled.
Frank wearily rubbed his eyes. “Sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why I said that. The meds seem to be playing field hockey with my brain.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Hildy said. “For the moment, we should leave. Any second now, Dr. Lohman will have discovered I’m not in his office. If he puts two and two together — and I’m certain he will — he’ll realize that I’m with you and how I tracked you down. He may already be on his way. Oh, and just so you know, he’s requisitioned three Grunts for his personal use. If they find you—”
“Then let’s quit yakking and get going,” Frank said.
“So, where to?” Hildy said. “By air or by land?”
“Bring us up fifty meters, survey mode, and move out bearing north. Not magnetic north. True north.”
“May I ask why?”
“Just a hunch. Tellureans pray in that direction. I figure that’s the heading Dippy would take traveling on foot.”
The car lifted itself gracefully into the air, where it pushed forward. As they set out, an aerial view display console unfolded before them, and Frank leaned into it closely, looking for any sign of the outworlder.
Hildy, meanwhile, had her eyes on Frank. He wasn’t bad-looking, in a beat-up, bandaged, disheveled, shell-shocked sort of way. Of course, he’d need new clothes instead of that hideous paisley tunic. But, all in all, quite passable.
“You’re wondering how I found you so easily, aren’t you?” she asked.
Startled, Frank lifted his eyes from the display and glanced at her sideways, as the question had indeed crossed his mind, and he had been scoping for an opportunity to pose it. Then he returned to his search for Dippy. “Yeah, now that you mention it.”
“Well, as you probably have already guessed, I work for Ouroboros security. Officially, I’m personal secretary to the security director himself, Dr. Richard Lohman.”
“Aw, dammit to hell!” Frank cried, turning to her. “You mean to say I’ve got Headhunter Lohman himself gunning for my ass?!”
She smiled at his deplorable use of metaphor. “I mean to say.”
“Then call the coroner and order me a box. What’s the use? Better to take us up a hundred meters and kick me out the door. I’m a dead man, sugar. You’re talking to a dead man.”
She reached over and gently stroked a lock of his hair between her fingers. “Now, Frank, it’s not as bad as all that. You knew Dr. Lohman was security director when you decided to begin your escapade, so you must have had a plan in mind for dealing with him. For all that people say about him, he’s a mere human being, like any of us. You’ll be fine.”
“Well, just between you, me, and the man in the moon, I hadn’t really planned it in too much detail. I was hoping I would only have the Grunts after me for a few months until Ouroboros declared the search non-cost-effective and called off the hounds. With any luck, everyone would have just counted me a disgruntled employee who took a few drastic steps to disappear. I was hoping to leave a mystery not worth examining. Really, Lohman was never a consideration.”
Hildy leaned back, crossing her arms as she thought. From her seated position, the knee-length skirt of her suit rode a few centimeters up her thighs. Frank tried not to stare, though he could hardly help sneaking a peek. Aw, man, is she gorgeous, he thought. Just my luck, to meet a girl who works directly for the men trying to kill me.
“I’ll admit,” Hildy said, “failing to account for Dr. Lohman is a setback, now that he’s taken the lead in pursuing you. But hardly insurmountable. Fortunately, you don’t have to outwit him, just stay ahead of him, and that’s something you’ve done rather well.”
“Not according to you. You said you found me right off, which brings us back to my original question: How?”
“Dr. Lohman’s greatest flaw is his hubris. He’s so confident in himself that sometimes he overlooks the self-evident. Immediately after getting his assignment, he set off to track you down, forgetting that where you are is less important than where you’re going, and where you’re going is Nutrisynth.”
“Not that I’m confessing to anything, but how did you figure on that?”
“First, Ouroboros knows you stole the Shmeat files.”
“By retracing the security feeds they keep on every employee. They found the data portal you used to download the files.”
“Because the data you stole concerns some new way to grow Shmeat. Obviously, you took the data to sell it, and who’s a more likely buyer than Nutrisynth? They rule the West Coast every bit as much as Ouroboros does the East, so they’d have the greatest interest in the data, not only for producing cheap Shmeat, but for preventing Ouroboros from getting an edge over them. And, of course, they would be in the best position to pay your price, which would have to be considerable.”
“But I still don’t see how knowing that led you to me.”
“Because, Frank, selling the data is not the sort of exchange you can do long distance. You need a face-to-face meeting, and that means you need to travel cross-continent. You’d know we’d have Grunts covering every gate of every airport; you’d have to travel by land. You would also need to move fast; you couldn’t just thumb a ride, and that means you’d have to arrange transport. You don’t own a car. So you would rent. On your salary, I figured a cheap rental from the New York DMV would be all you could afford.
“I contacted the NYDMV and ordered tracers on all west-bound traffic out of the city. At first, of course, there were millions, but the numbers quickly dropped as the traffic stopped in other zones or rerouted to different districts. Once the count dropped to below 1,000, I set up a filter to identify any travelers showing signs of panic or hurry. That turnaround you pulled when you spied the DMV control wagon was a dead giveaway. By the time you were outrunning the IFF, I was already on my way to intercept you. Then you had your accident. I could have ridden a bicycle to catch you.”
Frank forestalled his search for Dippy. The transport came to a halt, hovering quietly and motionless in the air. “All right, let’s just suppose that what you say is true. Why help me? How do I know you’re not taking me back to Ouroboros?”
She leaned forward, and he could smell the light perfume in her hair. “Because you’re not the only disgruntled employee at Ouroboros.”
“Yeah? And, like me, you’re looking for a decent non-employment opportunity?”
“Don’t forget, darling, my immediate supervisor’s nickname is ‘Headhunter.’ As badly as Ouroboros treats its employees, Dr. Lohman is far worse. Ouroboros just thinks you’re cattle — Lohman thinks you’re his private livestock, and God help the gal who finds herself his prized heifer!”
Frank didn’t trust her, not in the least. But, as he looked deep into those large, brown eyes, he discerned in them the barest hint of sincerity. Despite his skeptical nature, he decided — for the moment — to trust her. After all, he had nothing to lose but his life, and unless he found Dippy, his life was forfeit anyway.
“All right,” he said. “You wanna help, you can help. Not to question your motivation, but I imagine you expect something in return.”
“Obviously, you plan on making quite a lot of money with Nutrisynth when you sell them the data. I’d like an equal share. Then we’ll both be free of Ouroboros.”
“As it should be, yes?”
“Not quite, babe. There’s a snag.”
“Your Tellurean companion?”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about his companionship. I need my clothes back. Shit on a shingle! What the holy hell was going through that outworlder’s brain that would make him steal a man’s clothes?”
“I take it you had the stolen files in your pocket?”
“Not exactly. Hidden.”
“In other words, we’re in a lot of trouble if we don’t find him fast.”
“Not ‘we,’ sugar. Me. There’s still time for you to opt out. You can dump me and head back to New York. Lohman will be none the wiser.”
“And that’s where you’re wrong, darling. As I said earlier, most likely he already knows what I’m up to. And even if he doesn’t, I don’t want to go back. Believe me, I’ve had all of Richard Lohman I care to take. Those huge, rough hands all over me. His feeling me up at every opportunity. The slobbering trysts in his private elevator, or hauling me into bed whenever the fancy struck him. You have no idea what it’s like... the difference it makes, to make love with someone because you want to.”
“No idea? Doll, I’ve got no idea at all. I haven’t gotten lucky in years. Don Juan I ain’t.”
“No? Well, maybe this will seal the deal,” she purred.
Leaning closer, she kissed him like he had never been kissed in his life. Her tongue softly but teasingly burrowed deeply within him as she, despite his injuries, put the full weight of her firm body upon him. He gasped, first from the pain, then from the tumescent effect she had upon him. With his conscious mind screaming that he simply was in no condition to do this, he told his conscious mind to take a hike.
Copyright © 2015 by Terry L. Mirll