Port City, USA
The eerily quiet docks
Dawn, Monday morning
The start of the strike
It's not that the docks are abandoned. It's just that in the area of the docks that the Dockworks Co-operative Confederation operates, almost no one is doing their job.
Crystal Smith is one of those who is.
A quiet patrol with two quiet co-workers. No one travels the docks alone today, not even security. The three of them, all near the end of their shift, are tired but enthused.
"Can you sign me out?" the tall, thin man—Robert—asks. "I'm parked just a block down from HQ, and if I don't have to go back in it'll save everyone some time. Nothing to report on this last walkabout anyway."
"Yeah, I got it," replies the quick-eyed Jessica. "Or Crystal can help if I can't remember how to spell your name."
Robert sighs and laughs. "You get a little bit drunk once..."
Jessica smirks. "A little? I've never seen someone pour so much straight vodka down their throat."
"That was six years ago!"
Before Crystal's time. The twenty-year-old had only been in Port City four years, had only been part of the DWCC for three, had only been on security for eighteen months.
Had only been a mole for sixteen.
But the object in her coat pocket, the small speaker, the... what had he called it? The subsonic inducer. That's new. She's used to giving information about patrols, security systems, events, people... Information was simple. Straightforward. And she needs the money.
Or, really, her sister needs the money.
It hadn't been Crystal's choice to leave. When she'd told her parents her name, that was it, out the door. No son of mine were the last words she'd heard her father say. On that, they agree, she is no son of his, or anyone's.
The only contact she has with her old life is her then younger sister, ten years old when Crystal left, now close to fifteen. Liana had understood from the start, but now she doesn't have an older sibling to take the worst of the abuse.
Through a friend, Crystal has managed to get Liana a phone that she keeps secreted away. They send text messages to each other, when their parents aren't protectively watching over Liana—something which has only got worse since Liana discovered boys, and they've discovered her.
There's a bank account at First National Port City with a fake name on it. There's enough there for a bus ticket to the coast, two months' rent in a decent studio apartment, and about eight weeks of groceries. The instant Liana gives the word, Crystal will buy the ticket, see that her sister gets on the bus, and two days later be there at the terminal to pick her up. After that, the money she's making both in security and through... other means should be more than enough to support the two of them, even in separate apartments.
At least Liana won't have to go through what she had, to get here. The co-op had been nice enough to advance her payment to cover the interest from the loan sharks and landlord when she was hired, but there was still that year between...
She put that thought from her mind as she and Jessica walked through the front door of security HQ. There's no fancy sign outside, no indication that this is anything more than just another warehouse, which is deliberate. If you don't know what you're looking for, the collective can be a very confusing place to navigate. That, too, is a deliberate choice, at least where it comes to security; no security offices were clearly marked from the outside.
Among other things, it makes packing up and moving offices easier, not that that's a common occurrence. It also means that even veteran dockworkers get misdirected on occasion. That's why the security team has to know every building and every route at all times. Which is part of what makes her intel more valuable even than, say, someone working in deliveries.
But this... this is more. Above and beyond, like mom used to say. This isn't just passing on routes and locations and camera spots. The cafe fire had shaken her up some, especially knowing that she might be partly responsible for it, and now only a couple days later, the Brights are asking her to turn a colleague.
But it's a lot of money.
She walks into the CRO's room. Conflict Resolution works hand-in-hand with security, and so there's a ConRes officer on site at HQ at all times. All the while, Crystal isn't entirely sure what she's doing, or why.
The officer—a short, middle-aged African refugee named Tahiil—stands as Crystal comes in. They don't know each other well, but they had worked together before, and she has no trouble with him.
"Good morning, Crystal. How was your patrol today?" Tahiil asks.
She isn't entirely sure why she'd walked into the ConRes office. Still, now that she's here, she wants to be polite and tell him about her night. But instead she says two words: "Project Sunset."
Tahiil pauses a moment, then nods. "Ah, yes, I see." He grabs a pad of paper and scribbles something down quickly. "Here." He hands her the note he's written: a phone number, and an address. "Text what you told me to that number, and you'll receive a time to go to the address."
Crystal is confused. "Wait, what is this? What's do you mean?"
Tahiil smiles. "It is of no great matter. It is just what we must do sometimes."
"Sometimes? When? What's going on?"
"That's not for me to know, that is between you and Project Sunset." He shakes his head.
"What is this 'Project Sunset'? Why aren't you answering my questions?" She's starting to feel some agitation. Maybe it's just exhaustion starting to creep up on her.
Tahiil sighs, but the ghost of his smile remains on his face. "I'm not answering your questions because I only know the procedure, and nothing else, for when someone comes to me and says those words. I do not have the answers, Crystal; the only place you'll find them is on that note."
It isn't really information, but Crystal has little choice but to accept it. "Okay. Okay, sorry, Tahiil. I'll do what you recommend."
"This would be best," Tahiil nods again. He looks a little concerned. "Are you well, Crystal?"
"I think I am? I'm tired and confused, mostly." She shrugs. "I didn't sleep well on my break." She hadn't slept at all on her break; she had taken a walk alone, against regulations, to a boat on the marina to meet with Reginald Bright.
"Of course. It has been a difficult few days for us all, but especially those of us in security, and in conflict resolution." He looks distant. "It was difficult to see one of our own being attacked on the street like that, and then for so many to be..." He trails off.
She smiles, but doesn't feel any happiness in it. "Hopefully the strike will work." She means it, genuinely. She sells information, but that doesn't mean that she wants the co-operative to fail; just the opposite. Which is why she's so conflicted about trying to turn someone else, especially someone who doesn't want to turn on their own.
"Yes, we're all hoping so as well." He offers her his hand, which she accepts. "It is too often in dealing with the police and the Bright Society that 'conflict resolution' means going through conflict, rather than avoiding it."
"Mhmm, 'security' right now feels a bit more like a combat job."
"I understand that the clinic has contact information for good trauma therapists, if you need. And that should be covered by medical."
Crystal grins. "The benefits here are awfully good."
"Let us hope that they stay this way."
She gives Tahiil a little wave. "I hope so too." She turns away and heads out of the ConRes office, and then out of the security HQ. Her phone is already in her hand as she reaches the sidewalk in the early-morning light, texting the number Tahiil had given her, sending the same two meaningless words she'd said to him. Project Sunset.
Crystal looks at the address. It isn't far, just a little ways outside the docks. Probably would take about fifteen minutes to jog there.
Jessica walks out from the building. "Hey Crystal, heading home?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, done for the day and stuff."
"Need someone to walk with?"
Crystal shakes her head. "No thanks, Jess, unless you need someone to walk with." The sound of a text message arriving alerts her to her phone.
"I'm waiting for a rideshare." Jessica shrugs. "Got places to go, y'know?"
Crystal taps the message open. All it says is, 7 AM. A little less than an hour. She looks back at the other security officer. "Haha, me too. Don't worry about me, though, the sun's up and I'm sticking to the major streets."
"Don't forget that it'll be pretty quiet today. Not got the usuals running around. You sure you don't want a lift?"
Crystal shakes her head. "Nah, I want a jog more than a lift."
"Always running," Jessica smiles. "I wish I had half your energy."
"If you ran as much as me you might!" Crystal laughs. "See you tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow's... Tuesday, by now, yeah. See you then!"
She's used to keeping the mask up. Hiding stress and confusion is nothing new, she's been doing it since she was eight. Jessica wasn't going to notice anything wrong in the friendly goodbye wave, given that she hadn't noticed anything over a ninety-minute patrol.
Crystal starts jogging. She expects that she can find a cafe or a bakery open early enough to get a coffee and a roll of some sort and still be at the location in time for her meeting. Or whatever it was she was blindly rushing towards.
I know where I'm going, Crystal thinks to herself, but I don't have a clue what I'm gonna find there. It's a strange feeling, but not entirely new; she'd felt the same when she made her way to Port City. She'd known where she was headed, but she'd had no idea what she was in for, or even that four years later she would still be here and not gone to New York or Boston or Miami or something. But here she'd found friendship and acceptance, even if she keeps them at arm's length.
And of course, one of the reasons she stays is that she hasn't heard the name "Henry" in three years. The co-op had helped with all the paperwork, covered the fees for the official name changes, and even provided insurance for medical care and helped her navigate that logistical mess.
She has a hundred reasons to work security for the co-op. She has one, but a hugely important one, to sell the information she's party to.
Which brings her back to the device in her pocket. How does that conversation sound? I got the money to bring you here by betraying a community of good people who have been very kind to me and mind-controlling a maintenance worker to betray her community of good people. Even if it gets Liana away from their parents and gets her to Port City, even if it stops there and goes no further, is it worth it? Can her conscience handle it?
Easy, Reggie had said. And, Harmless. And she did believe him, it was hard not to, especially with her sister's future on the line. She had approached the Bright Society looking to make that extra money, was it really a stretch to get from selling information to helping someone else do the same?
That has to be all that the Brights wanted, after all. They have information from security, a few tidbits from maintenance couldn't really hurt operations compared to what Crystal could offer.
Which... doesn't make sense. Why Sharon, why a maintenance worker? The Brights don't need more information, which means they want her for other reasons. Which means...
Is... is this about sabotage? Crystal wouldn't damage the co-op, but Crystal wasn't under the influence of the subsonic inducer, and even if she was, the harm she could do was limited. A maintenance worker, on the other hand, has access to a hundred little things in the course of her day that she could rig or manipulate, none of which might be suspicious until it falls apart, catches fire or blows up. Maybe not even afterwards.
The subsonic inducer might be easy and harmless, but whatever Sharon does after it's used might not be.
"A reasonable concern," the voice said, smooth and soft, deep and masculine, sounding like it was coming from within her own mind.
"Thank you." Her reply was simple, definite.
"You will be receiving more instruction from the Bright Society, at which point you will contact Project Sunset again immediately."
"Yes, of course."
"You will continue your contact with the Bright Society as normal."
"I will, yes."
"And what will you not tell them?"
"This meeting. 'Project Sunset.' You."
"Why will you not tell them?"
"Because I forget about them."
"Why do you forget?"
"You told me."
"Who am I?"
She names him. "Silver Tongue."
"And when Silver Tongue commands...?"
Crystal beams with pride.
"So here's what's going to happen."
It had been a long run home. Crystal steps into her apartment and flops down on the couch, covered in sweat. She's sure she'd had another destination in mind at some point, but whatever it had been, she isn't able to sort out. Must be because she's tired after such a long shift; she's maybe got to start taking her nap breaks as naps.
She walks back through her morning as she opens the bakery box she brought in with her. A lovely iced cinnamon bun sits there, just waiting to be devoured. It looks like it was well worth the long line-up.
It had been a normal patrol. She had signed out as normal, had a quick conversation with Jessica, and then... There was something she'd intended to do, she's sure of it.
She pulls of a bit of the pastry and takes a bite. It's delicious. Definitely worth the wait. Whatever chore it was that she'd skipped over during her trip home obviously isn't that important.
She pulls off her jacket. The subsonic inducer in the pocket lends it a strange weight as she lays it lightly on the couch. She still has to decide what to do about that. But, funnily enough, the run seems to have cleared her head some. She feels a little more fatalistic about it, as though the decision isn't really in her hands, and she's entirely okay with it.
She takes another bite of the cinnamon bun. It's good enough that it cuts right through her concerns, and she is at ease.
I'll just finish this, she thinks, then shower, then bed for a couple hours. Grocery shopping when I get up, and then readjust my sleep schedule for Tuesday. She laughs. A full day ahead of me.
A block near the docks
Chelsea, half-awake, smells coffee.
She's in an unfamiliar bed. Sharon's unfamiliar bed.
Her muscles ache, but it's a good ache. The ache of exercise.
She's naked. This neither surprises nor bothers her.
She's happy. This, on the other hand, does both.
Sharon is not there in the bed, which makes sense, her host is no doubt making the coffee.
She had lost three wrestling matches last night, and had managed to control the Angel and only freeze Sharon once more, after her second fall.
After Sharon had pinned her the first time, they had kissed. Repeatedly. And then more. Chelsea stretches and smiles. Of all the things she did not expect to come from her night out last Wednesday (it hasn't even been a week!) adding "With Benefits" to her friendship with Sharon was almost at the top of the list, but here she is, naked in her friend's bed after several literal wrestling matches.
Sharon appears in the doorway, also naked. "Mornin', sunshine," she says. She's holding two mugs of coffee.
"Mmm, hey," Chelsea replies, sitting. "Surprised you're up."
"Surprised you're not." Sharon walks into the room and sits on the edge of the bed. "Busy today?"
"I have a shift starting at eight tonight. Otherwise, I kinda think you've got me occupied."
"Well," Sharon says, handing over one of the mugs, "I have a couple things on my plate."
Chelsea takes a long drink. "Yeah? Like what?" The coffee is wonderfully flavored, perfectly sweetened, and cooled just enough.
"A work call, believe it or not." Sharon bites her lip. "A meeting about the protests."
"10:30," she says. "About forty-five minutes. And I need to get cleaned up." She tips her mug into her own mouth. "So, sweetie, you can stay if you like, I'll be back after, I can bring lunch."
"Tempting," Chelsea says, truthfully. She climbs over the bed to sit beside Sharon. "Maybe I should have you swing by my place and pick me up some clothes."
Sharon puts her arm around Chelsea and slides close. Despite her musculature, Sharon can be wonderfully soft. "Maybe I just make you walk to work naked."
"I will absolutely freeze you and steal stuff from your wardrobe if you try. I'm not quite ready for that level of exhibitionism."
"Until the Angel comes out."
"That's different." Chelsea stands up. "I'm not about to buy a whole second wardrobe just so I can go out on the town as a superhero, so until Tanya made me the dress I just had to get used to it."
Sharon gives Chelsea a little squeeze on the bottom, causing the bald woman to jump and quickly adjust her grip so as not to spill her coffee. "Think you can handle hanging out here for a couple hours?"
"I think I'll probably have a hot shower and go back to bed, honestly." Chelsea stands up on her tiptoes and reaches high, feeling several tendons pop in her legs and back. "Might raid your pantry."
"Sure thing, you're always welcome. I'm gonna go get clean." Sharon drains her coffee mug and sets it down on the floor. "I'd invite you in, but last night you kinda made a mess everywhere."
Chelsea blushed dark. "'Sides, you have to get to work."
"Yeah, I hate to run, babe, but I got an early meeting..." Sharon laughs and Chelsea laughs with her. "Actually, I really do hate to go, but apparently it's an emergency."
"Maintenance emergency must be pretty serious."
Sharon nods. "Guess I'll find out what it is when I get there."
Chelsea wraps her in a hug. "Then I'm going to finish my coffee and crash in your bed, and when I wake up I'll get clean and grab a snack."
Sharon smiles. "I'll be back with a burger."
"You'd better." Chelsea sits back down on the edge of the bed. "You know they make good ones at Catelli's?"
"The pasta place?"
"Yeah, Sterling brought me one from there when he came by the other day. Really good."
Sharon nods. "Figures he'd know a place. He seems to know everyone and have connections everywhere."
Chelsea shrugs. "Good to know someone like that."
"It is." Sharon's tone is a bit skeptical. "Be back in a couple hours. Catelli's is out of the way, I'll just hit the Argent on the way back, grab off their lunch menu."
"That'll be great." Chelsea finishes her coffee and puts the mug beside Sharon's. "You go. I'm gonna lie down again."
"You lie down, I'm getting gone." Sharon laughs as she walks out of the room.
Chelsea did. But the thought of Sterling floated back up to her mind. She hasn't really seen him since Friday, at the hospital, with Tanya.
She wonders how Tanya's doing. Hopefully she'll be released today.
She wonders, too, how Tanya will take the news that her two friends are fucking one another. It was probably bad enough that either of them were fucking Sterling Grey, but then, Tanya never really likes any of the men they date.
And she's thinking about Sterling again. While Sharon is in the shower down the hall. Just after... after all that had happened. She can't get him out of her head. His words still rattle around in there, even if he hadn't known he was saying them to her.
Instinct, Tanya had said when she was asked why she didn't trust Sterling. Chelsea wonders what that really means. Her instincts seem to be either useless or completely counterproductive (her hands twitch as she thinks about Sharon frozen trying to leave the bathroom). Maybe she can't trust her instincts.
But then... what can she trust, if not her own instincts?
The Angel is no help, here. She is Chelsea's instinct, or a part of it, and she wants to go to war, even the playful war that she'd had with Sharon. They had wrestled, they had struggled, but Chelsea had remained, and remains, (comparatively) short, un-winged, and bald. If the Angel has her way, Chelsea would never just be Chelsea again. She'd be treating patients at the hospital with silvery wings flaring out behind her.
If she can't trust the Angel, she can't trust herself, or at least part of herself. So what's left, then? Who's left?
Sterling? Maybe, but really she barely knows him. She'd like to know him better, partly to know if she can trust him, and until she does, there are limits to just how much she will. Plus he doesn't know her secret, doesn't know about the Angel.
Sharon? Logical choice, but at the moment Chelsea doesn't really trust her instincts, either. Sharon seems to want nothing more than physical pleasure from her at the moment, which isn't a fair assessment (and is also simply wrong), but that's the impression. Which ties back to Sterling, too. Sharon seems... different, somehow, and Chelsea's not entirely sure what to make of Sharon-since-Wendesday, as opposed to Sharon-before-Wednesday. Chelsea adores her, absolutely, but there's something there, raising suspicions.
Instinctually. Chelsea laughs. Can't trust my instincts, except where they tell me not to trust someone else, apparently.
So... Tanya? Yes, absolutely, but Tanya's in jail. Not available for a conversation, at least until she's released. That prompts a slow breath (she considers a jailbreak briefly). Hopefully that won't take long, she needs Tanya's protections as well as her friendship. She wonders if anyone's been able to dig into her secrets, with Tanya out of commission.
All arrows point to Reggie, like they had the night before. Her instincts are a bit on edge about him, for some reason, but her instincts aren't the most reliable at the moment. Maybe it's time to just put them aside and just give Reggie a call. No harm in chatting over coffee. She starts to plan her day: resting up, a hot shower, lunch when Sharon gets back, a quick trip home, coffee with Reggie if he's free, then work. Sounds like a good day.
She settles back against the pillows and closes her eyes. It feels good to have made a decision. Good enough that she only realizes that she's fallen asleep when she hears the door to the apartment close as Sharon leaves for her emergency meeting.
Reluctantly, she rolls out of bed, wandering naked to the front room to retrieve her phone. She sends a quick text message to Reggie, then checks notifications. A few items of little note, and one that stands out: an invitation to dinner. Sterling. She taps out a reply.
Chels: Unfortunately I have a work shift tonite :)
The reply comes back almost immediately.
Sterling: I could drop by on your break if you want.Chels: You sure? I dunno when I get lunchSterling: Any time before two is great for me.
Now that's interesting.
Chels: I'll text you around midnite k?Sterling: Sounds perfect. I'll grab Catelli's.
Two burgers in one day? I've put out a lot of energy this weekend. I deserve it. She grins. Besides, I'm not going to have breakfast.
She heads to the bathroom without waiting for a reply from Reggie. Whether he accepts or doesn't won't really affect her plans for the day, But she does hope that he accepts, it would be nice to talk to a more experienced person with powers, someone who's been through some of this before.
The spray of the shower is warm and lovely, helps her wake the rest of the way up, soothes muscles she hadn't been aware were tired. She's confident that this is going to be a good day.
An unknown space
Sometime in the late morning
Sharon wakes up.
The room is dark.
She's sitting. The chair is comfortable. It feels like an office chair.
She tries to lift a hand. Her wrists are tied to the hard plastic arms of the chair.
She's not afraid, for some reason.
She tries to piece together what's just happened.
She walked into the maintenance building, was directed to the general conference room.
She had opened the door. Someone she hadn't recognized was already in the darkened room, and had raised one of those little sprays that security carries, and...
She'd been knocked out.
So she must still be in the conference room. That would make sense. And she'd been...
"You're tied up," a soft voice says. Low and easy to listen to. From behind her.
"Yes," she replies. Seems ridiculous to say, and yet it seems like she's supposed to say something.
"You're not in danger," the voice continues.
"I know." And she does. It's an odd feeling; if she were anywhere else, this would be probably be terrifying.
"I hate to have to do this, this way, but this is something that has to be done. If there were any other option—"
"You're Silver Tongue." It's a revelatory statement, a sudden awareness. One that doesn't really bring a lot to the discussion.
"That's right." He seems to be standing right behind her. "And I don't really like doing this, but I'm on a tight schedule."
Sharon says nothing. She's not sure what to make of this.
Silver Tongue keeps speaking. "There's a security program, here. A connection between security and the conflict resolution team. Project Sunset."
"Okay. Why am I here, then?"
"Because we'd like you to be involved with it."
Sharon nods. It was the answer she had half-expected. "Why me, if it doesn't involve maintenance?"
"Because it doesn't involve maintenance. It involves you."
"Yes. You, and your friend in security."
Her friend in... "Crystal?"
"Her, yes." Silver Tongue's voice grew a little darker. "Crystal is a mole, selling information."
"What?" That prompts some emotion from Sharon, emotion other than confusion.
"She has her reasons, and I've spoken to her, and they're good reasons. She's not to be condemned. She triggered Project Sunset in order to deal with an escalation in her handler's requests."
"And this involves me?"
"It does." Silver Tongue takes a deep breath. "She's been asked to use a device, a subsonic inducer, to influence you to also become a mole."
Sharon shakes her head. "No. No way. I love the co-op. I'm not going to—"
That calm, single word, cuts through her babble, silencing her.
"I'm here to give you the choice."
"The choice? To become a mole?"
"Not a mole," he replies. "A double-agent."
Sharon is stunned into silence.
"I would like to program you now, so that you would report anything Crystal asks you to do, and would wait for our instructions to proceed."
That makes her stammer a little. "P-program?"
"Yes. Implant a series of ideas, suggestions, really, so that you will help us carry out this project."
"What if I refuse?" Sharon asks. "Wait... you're Silver Tongue. How come I'm being given a choice at all?"
"I could make you accept," the mysterious figure replies. "But I don't like to do this, especially where this might affect your safety. This could be a dangerous operation for both you and Crystal. She's already agreed to her part, but I would never ask you to do this against your will."
She shivers a bit in her chair. "But you could."
"But you won't."
Silver Tognue chuckles. "I'm not a monster, Sharon. And it's far, far easier if you agree."
She takes a deep breath, trying to process everything. "What happens if I say 'no'?"
"You walk out of here having had a good but boring meeting about some minutiae in terms of checking over areas where the police or the Brights might have caused damage in their patrolling. We tell Crystal to refuse the operation, and she returns the device to her handler."
Sharon nods. "And if I say 'yes'?"
"Your experience of this meeting will be the same. But when you walk out of here, you will have a new set of ideas and instructions buried in your subconscious. You and Crystal will become closer friends—something which may well happen anyway, but her inducer will assure that. She will use the inducer to... actually, we're not sure yet how she'll use it, but she'll be getting instructions from her handler, which will be passed to us, and we'll be interpreting them for her, she'll pass them to you, we'll be interpreting them for you..."
"Sounds complex," she laughs.
And he laughs with her. "Complex on my end. For you, it's simple, you just go about your life. We'll make sure you don't hurt anyone or harm anything vital while under Crystal's influence."
Sharon nods, smiling into the dark. "How does this help?"
"It lets us know how what the would-be saboteurs are targeting, for one," Silver Tongue explains. "And it lets us draw them in, gives us a line on our opposition, makes them move against us in ways we can counter. Commits their resources to a failed plan."
It takes Sharon a moment to decide. Silver Tongue waits patiently.
"I'll do it."
"You drugged me, tied me to a chair in a dark room, and gave me this whole presentation. If this isn't a sex thing, it must be pretty serious."
She's gratified to hear Silver Tongue laugh. It's a familiar laugh, one that she recognizes, though she can't put her finger on it. "Last chance to back out," the stranger says, and she feels a hand on her shoulder.
"Not going to back out. We're doing this."
The hand on her shoulder squeezed. Suddenly, she felt warm, heavy. Words in her ears make no sense, or rather, they do, but she forgets what they were as she hears them. Soon, it's just as easy to close her eyes, in the dark, and dream about the words she's hearing, instead of listening to them. She only has a moment to wonder if he can really do what he said he could before she's walking out of the meeting room, shaking her head about new protocols, things to check and re-check...
Sterling Grey is there by the door. "Hi Sharon, good to see you," he says.
"Sterling," she smiles and gives him a strong hug. "What brings you here?"
"Well, it's on my way," he replies. "I knew there was a meeting here, and I wanted to see you."
"See me?" she asks, a little taken aback. "What for?"
Sterling just smiles. "Walk with me?"
That sounds like a good idea. "Sure."
Sharon doesn't notice that she's the only person to walk out of the meeting room.
We return to Sharon's apartment
Chelsea grabs her phone, hearing a text message come in.
Sharon: Hey Chels be home in two minutes and not alone
"Shit." Chelsea gets out of the bed, looks in the full-length mirror. She looks... right. Very right. But wrong, all the same.
Nude and beautiful. Too tall, but the perfect height. Long, black hair that isn't hers cascades down her back. Most obviously, silver-crystal bird's wings spread from shoulders to knees, framing her gorgeous body.
And not her body.
Grateful for Sharon's warning, Chelsea watches herself transform, imperceptably slowly at first and then faster and faster, her wings evaporating like dry ice on a hotplate, her hair dissolving into so much dust and blowing away, her body shrinking down five inches, the bare Arctic Angel becoming just naked Chelsea, rushing to get herself dressed from Sharon's wardrobe, managing to pull on a set of green yoga pants and a black sweater that fits her a little more tightly than it does for Sharon. The fabric feels rough against her otherwise-naked chest, but at least the pants aren't skin-tight. And at least she won't be naked in front of strangers.
Chelsea grabs her phone and goes to sit in the front room, but doesn't make it to the chair before the door opens. Sharon's there, but also—
"Jesus fuck, you're here too?" Tanya groans, but can't keep a grin from her face.
"Hey!" Chelsea tosses her phone in the soft chair and lifts her arms to embrace her friend. "Good to see you!"
"No hug for me?" came a familiar voice as Sterling Grey walked in behind Tanya.
She smiles at him. "Of course," she says, giving him the requested show of affection, careful not to crush the two paper bags he's carrying.
"Ugh," Tanya says, kicking off her shoes and throwing herself onto a kitchen chair. "I'll forgive you this one. Once. That's it. Also what the fuck are you wearing?"
"What I could find," Chelsea explains honestly as she lets Sterling go. "It's a long story."
"I bet," Sterling chuckles. He walks carefully past her to put the bags of food on the table, and the delicious scent of burgers and fries wafts along behind him.
Oh God, Chelsea thinks. Does he know? Does Tanya?
Sharon gives her a smile as she closes and locks the door. "Sorry to bring guests, but I didn't think you would mind. Besides, Sterling gave us a lift, and bought lunch."
"I don't mind, especially these guests," Chelsea replies, unthinkingly giving Sharon a kiss on the cheek.
The room is suddenly silent. Chelsea turns back to see Tanya staring, and Sterling looking thoughful.
"That explains a bit." Tanya sounds incredulous. "So those ugly green sweats are Sharon's, huh."
Chelsea winces. Idiot.
Sharon just laughs as she walks in to the room. "Wednesday night was interesting," she says.
"I bet," Tanya says. "I'm too fucking hungry for this discussion right now, Sterling, serve some chow would you?"
Sterling laughs. "Coming right up," he replies, pulling out a wrapped burger and a service of fries, and handing them to Tanya.
Chelsea grabs her phone from the chair and sits on the floor, receiving a burger that Sterling tosses to her. "Look—"
"Nope," Tanya says around a mouthful of food. "Don't care. Right now, want food." She swallows. "Later we can talk about how everyone in this room except me are fucking each other."
"I got the notice that she was being released on bail this morning," Sterling explains. "I headed over to Legal to pick her up, since I knew Oleksandr would be bringing her there. They granted her bail partly to deal with the influx of protesters."
Rioters, the voice in Chelsea's head corrects, but she suppresses it easily. "I'm guessing that they'll be released soon?"
"Well, we're on strike at the docks until they are," Sterling says, handing a burger to Sharon. "Which means nothing to us at conflict resolution, or maintenance—" Sharon nods and makes a little mhmm noise around her food, "or security or communications, at least for a little bit." He starts counting on his fingers. "Transport, rideshare, warehousing, a good amount of legal, administration, some medical..." He shrugs. "We're only about a third of the docks, but that'll still put a big dent in the city's economics, and it's not like the other companies there don't use our services. Generally. Right now we're not available to them." He unwraps a burger of his own.
"What about the workers?" Tanya asks.
"They're still getting paid," Sharon replies. "Some of us are still working, but no one's losing any wages."
"Each division of the confederation always has enough money on hand to support its members for two weeks without work," Sterling explains. "After that, or at least at the start of next week, we'll have a big strategy meeting to plan out what we do next. But I don't think we'll have to wait that long."
Chelsea swallows a bite of her burger. "You don't?"
Sterling shakes his head. "I suspect that the police will receive their orders this evening. The city council's called an emergency meeting. None of the arrests will hold water anyway. Best case scenario, everyone's home to their beds tonight."
Tanya raises an eyebrow. "Worst case?"
Sterling lets out a slow sigh. "Worst case, coucil demands an all-out war, tries to dismantle the co-ops, and we tie them up in court for months or years, which strangles the city economy, putting thouands of people out of work. You might remember the strikes of over a decade ago? You'd all have been in school then, I guess." He shakes his head. "That's why the co-op confederation was born in the first place, to deal with instability in the docks. And the people working there are happy now. It would take a militarily-enforced court order to break us up at this point." He smiles, a little wistfully. "You can shoot a person to death. You can't shoot a person to work."
I can freeze you until we find a replacement, though, Chelsea thinks. But... a thousand people? A thousand people with a variety of specialized jobs, requiring specific training? The logistics of it boggle her mind a bit.
They're violent rioters, she reminds herself. We can find a way if we have to.
"Hey, You okay, Chels?" Tanya asks. "You look pissed."
"Huh? No, I'm good, thanks." Her phone jingles. "Hey, I should check this, pardon me a moment." She puts her half-eaten burger on the side table, still in its wrapper. The others made accepting noises as she headed down the hall.
It's Reggie, replying to her text from earlier, requesting that she call him. She ducks into Sharon's room and taps the relevant button.
"Hello, Chelsea," Reggie answers.
"You'd like to get together this afternoon?"
There's a strange, fuzzy sound on the line. Chelsea ignores it. "Yes, I just need someone to talk to about... things."
"Of course, I understand."
She could tell from his tone that he did. "Great, just... if we could get coffee or something? I start work at eight, so sometime around three would be great, since I'd like to be leaving my apartment by seven."
"Wonderful, Chelsea." She hears him chuckle. "Can you meet me outside Bright Tower at three?"
"I'll do that." She smiles. She's happy to hear it. She's not sure why.
"See you then."
The line goes quiet. Chelsea smiles, heading back out to Sharon's living room.
"So," Tanya says as she enters. "Now that I'm full, why are you and Sharon sleeping together?"
Sharon chokes on a French fry and starts coughing. Sterling gets up to make sure she's alright—she is—leaving Chelsea to answer.
"What can I say? We had a lot of fun Wednesday night, didn't see a reason to stop." Chelsea glances at Sterling, distracted by helping Sharon, and mouths, Angel stuff.
Tanya nods and winks, though she's not smiling.
Sharon recovers. "Yeah, that," she confirms.
"And it's the same for you and him?" Tanya continues, indicating the only male in the room with her thumb.
Chelsea rolls her eyes and sighs. "Yes, it's the same for me and Sterling. Although thanks to someone getting hospitalized and arrested we haven't had a whole lot of time together."
Tanya smirks. "I bet someone getting his ass frozen to the pavement cut in to cuddle time, too."
"It did, yes," Sterling replies, giving Sharon a rub on the back. "And so is the strike. And Chelsea's job."
"Sounds like the two of you are adults with real lives," Sharon remarks sarcastically.
"Goddamn it," Chelsea says with a grin. She walks over to Sterling and put her arm around his shoulders. "I guess we'll just have to make do." She kisses his cheek the way she'd kissed Sharon's, earlier.
"No one mind me. I'm perfectly happy alone," Tanya says, her tone nowhere near as bitter as her words.
"Aww, our friend's happy for us, Chels," Sharon teases, standing on Sterling's other side.
"Just don't expect me to join you."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Sterling replies.
Tanya points at him. "You. I am prepared to accept that you're not a complete shithead, but if either of them tells me you hurt them, I will separate your kneecaps from your legs."
Sterling smiles. "Wouldn't have it any other way."
"'S'about all you could reach anyway," Sharon jokes.
Chelsea laughs. She admits to herself that knowing she's going to have Reggie to talk to about her troubles has lightened her mood a lot. She's not even dealing with that insistent voice in her mind insisting that they're violent rioters. Everything feels better right now. Tanya's back. So much has been sorted out in the past day. So much more is about to be.
The three others are looking at her. "It... wasn't that funny," Tanya says.
Chelsea snickers a bit. "It was just... I'm just happy, you know? You're here."
"I'm on bail. I have a court date."
"Doesn't matter. You're here. Sharon's here. Sterling's here. Things are getting a bit more normal. Everything's going to be fine." The other three in the room seem a bit skeptical. "Hey, I like optimism."
Sharon shakes her head. "Can't fault that." She heads back to her sat and her fries. "You were right about Catelli's," she says to Chelsea.
"Yeah, I gotta admit that this was a great burger," Tanya says begrudgingly. She gets to her feet. "Chels, this is driving me up the fucking wall. Let's go raid Sharon's closet and get you in something that doesn't look like shit, okay?"
Chelsea grins. There was the excuse to get her out of the room and aside for a private chat. "Yeah, alright, I kinda had to get dressed in a rush."
"Don't need the details, girl, just need you to get out of that." Tanya heads down the hall to Sharon's bedroom.
Chelsea shrugs and follows behind, leaving Sharon and Sterling alone in the living room.
A quiet park alongside the river
Crystal pauses on her walk to the grocery store, looks at a text on her phone, and nods.
She sends a message to Reginald Bright.
"I'll do it."
There is no reply.