Port City, USA
A cool evening in May
An ordinary-looking nightclub.
A short thin woman of Asian descent stands twenty feet from the entrance, shivering slightly in the chill breeze. Her long-sleeved red shirt doesn't do much against the wind, and neither do her loose-fitting jeans. Despite that, she's not distracted from the phone in her hand.
"Your name is not Sterling fucking Grey," Tanya says. "No one's fucking name is Sterling fucking Grey. That's such fucking bullshit." She pulls out her phone from the pocket of her jeans. "Fake name means real fucking trouble."
She activates the app to connect to her private network uplink, then pulls out a cigarette and lights it, waiting for the signal. Every time she proves herself a valuable asset, the Bright Society gives her more leeway to obtain resources—and to use them as she sees fit. Given the number of times she'd thwarted scam artists, cyber-security attacks, and botnets, and how she'd even been involved in countering Gallotron and helping the Society to fight the technical giant to a standstill, despite not having powers herself, she feels that she's earned a little personal use of company equipment.
Besides, if this "Sterling Grey" is as fake as his stupid name, it might be a lead to something deeper. Some people hide their true identities for good reasons, but those people arent the ones to try to pick up her friends using the fake name.
A double beep told her that the secure connection was complete. She pulled up the individual search function, typing in 'Sterling Grey.' Proper security and thoroughness came at the expense of time, though, especially since she was sending a signal from the club to her apartment through an obscuring network of seemingly random and shifting connections, and her main computer setup was using a similarly powerful series of stealthy interactions to access the Society's network.
And then, after finishing about half her cigarette, she has her answer.
"No way." She stares at her phone in disbelief. "No fucking way."
Sterling Grey. Son of Julian and Nataszia Grey. Only child. Scholarships. Bachelor of Arts in psychology. Middling grades, not exceptional. Self-employed (no details) for a few months, then working as a supervisor in a dockside warehouse for a while, then helped to establish Port City Dockworks Co-operative Confederation, and has been working there for over a decade.
Driver's license, birth certificate, social security... all check out. No criminal record, not even so much as a parking ticket. Not a person of interest.
"Holy fuck. He's real."
She nearly drops her phone in shock.
"He's goddamn fucking real. How is that..." She stares at the phone. She rereads the profile, looking for anything that might be unusual, but the Bright Society had no reason to suspect him of anything, so there were no flags.
"So what's the verdict?" Sharon asks, stepping out into the evening air. Without her jacket, she's even less dressed for the weather than Tanya, but despite that, she doesn't seem as affected by the chill.
Tanya shakes her head. "Not going to fucking believe this, but he's clear."
"Cool," Sharon says with a shrug.
"You don't sound surprised."
"You do, for some reason."
"Sharon," Tanya rounds on her, "his name is Sterling Grey. Sterling. Fucking. Grey. That's like a cheesy comic book character name. It's not fucking real."
She shrugs. "Some people have weird names, I guess?"
"You're too calm, you know."
"You're too worked up." Sharon shrugs again. "Not every guy who's interested in us is a criminal."
"You're gonna let Chelsea go home with that..."
There's a pause.
Tanya looks at Sharon's red face. "No. No, Share. You can't be..."
Sharon nods. A tiny, almost completely imperceptible motion, which Tanya wouldn't have noticed except that she was looking for it.
"Chels' gonna be pissed at you."
Sharon chews her lip.
There's a pause that hangs in the air between them.
Tanya stares. "Just so we understand one another, Share..."
"I should get back inside," Sharon says, turning away.
Tanya puts her hand on Sharon's shoulder, stopping her from leaving.
"Are you seriously both planning on going with him?"
"I should get back in," Sharon responds immediately, embarrassment clear in her voice.
Tanya frowns. "Sharon, is this going to be a total disaster?"
She doesn't answer, but she doesn't move either.
She shrugs. "Dunno." Tanya can almost feel her friend's face twist into a grin. "But you could come watch if you wanna be sure."
Tanya laughs. "Fuck you."
"We did that once. Didn't go well." Sharon's voice is warm and gently teasing.
Tanya makes a kissing noise, then lets Sharon's shoulder go. "I'll meet you on the ground floor when I'm done smoking."
Sharon doesn't look back. "We'll be there." She disappears into the building.
Tanya takes a long drag off the cigarette, then looks back at her phone, as if expecting the search profile to have changed. It hasn't. And yet. "My instincts tell me that something's fucked here," she says to herself, looking over the profile a fourth time. "And my instincts are usually right. So what the fuck's wrong with you, Sterling Grey?"
She zeroes in on the few months out of university where the psych major was self-employed. "What were you doing there, Mr. Grey?" She sends out a command to the home network to search for information on him in that period. Adveritising he purchased. Interviews on local radio. Reviews of his services, whatever they were. Any media, anywhere.
And why psychology? Did that matter? Or was it just the easiest thing a lazy student could find for an undergrad degree? Tanya hadn't gone in to college, unlike her two friends, so she doesn't quite know what to make of the accomplishment, doesn't know what it took to get those letters.
"I don't like it," she says, crushing the butt of the cigarette in the provided ashtray. "Do not fucking like it at all."
It's difficult to find specific information that far back into the archives, so when Tanya's phone informs her that it's dug something up, it's something of a surprise. "'S. Grey, Life coaching?' Seriously?" An old social media advertisement, archived many years ago, but it had nothing more than a title and a now-defunct email link. "So Mr. Grey was a life coach? Wonder if I can dig up any of his old clients. If he ever got any clients."
The thought alone of that sort of research makes Tanya weary. "Worry about that later," she says. "Right now, it's time to go back in there, try to have fun, support Chels." She steels herself, then goes through the door. "Not like some ten-year-old life coaching client is going to have an impact now anyway."
Tanya walks in to the strains of DarkShepherd's EDM crossover hit, Solemn Words. The bass was up too loud for her taste, but she'd grown used to it when going to the club. There were a handful of dancers on the floor, moving to the pounding drum and the singer's warm alto voice.
There's no choice... too absurd... just can't hear... your solemn words...
Tanya hums along idly as she walks around the edge of the dancing area, looking for Sharon and Chelsea. She spots Chelsea moving in time with Sterling, her long skirt flaring around her as she spins. Tanya looks at Chelsea's partner; he can't keep up with the nurse, of course, but he's holding his own. Tanya notes that he's actually a fine dancer, just overshadowed by a younger, more energetic woman.
When you speak... swear I heard... something in... your solemn words...
The lyrics don't make a lot of sense, but they're not the point. Tanya takes a seat in a comfortable booth where she can keep an eye on her friend. She catches Chelsea's look and gives a small wave. The song's almost over anyway.
Tanya looks around. Sharon's not here, so either she's upstairs or in the bathroom. Doesn't really matter which, Tanya knows she'll be here here in a moment or two either way. A furtive glance at her phone confirms that it's back to seeming normal; without her voice-activated password and iris scan, it wouldn't open up into what she thought of as 'spy mode.'
A new beat starts up, and Chelsea appears at the tableside, breathless and glowing. "Tanya! You didn't get lost after all!" She laughs and slides into the booth beside her friend. "You gonna have a spin out there?"
Tanya shakes her head. "Nah, not right away, anyway. Got a plate of nachos to digest. I don't know how you two managed."
Sterling takes a seat opposite the two women. He looks tired and sweaty. "Whew," he says, smiling. "I'll need a little break and a lot of water. If all the nurses I knew danced like that, I'd get hurt a lot more."
"Where Share?" Tanya asks, looking around.
"She had the first dance with him," Chelsea replies, pouting a little. "Then she had to run off to the girls' room."
"And you got the next two songs," Sterling says.
Chelsea nods as Sharon walks up to the table accompanied by a young-looking waiter. "Thought you might like something to drink," she says, slipping in to sit beside Sterling. "I know that Chels can be a little bit of a firecracker."
The waiter politely sets down four large glasses of water and heads back to the bar.
Sterling gratefully takes one of the glasses. "That's putting things lightly." He drinks deep, nearly downing half the glass in one go.
"So much for 'dignified,'" Tanya snarks.
Sterling snickers, and Sharon gives Tanya a small glare.
Chelsea, no doubt sensing the tension, grabs Tanya's hand. "Come on, we're doing the next one."
"I think I'll just—"
"Nope," Chelsea says, getting up. "Not taking 'no' for an answer." She takes a glass and a quick drink, all without letting go of Tanya's wrist.
"Help," Tanya says, letting herself be pulled to her feet.
"Not a chance," Sharon replies, reaching for a glass of water and shifting her body more towards Sterling.
"Come on," Chelsea insists. "I requested some beautiful '80s cheese to rock out to."
Tanya sighs. Chelsea's earnestness is difficult to resist, even if her music choices leave something to be desired. Still, a chance to talk to her away from Sterling and Sharon, maybe to warn her about her instincts, is probably worth taking.
Agonizing, piercing synthesizers roared through the speakers, and Chelsea hops to the beat like it was exciting. "Come on!" she says, tugging on Tanya's arm as she bounced. Half-heartedly, Tanya dances along. There's something about the forthrightness, the enthusiasm of the sound, that grates on her nerves.
"Why are you doing this to me?" Tanya asks plaintively.
"Because you're being a grouch on my celebration day, and I want you to have fun!"
She sighs. "Then why are you doing this to me?"
Chelsea laughs and spins. "So at least I can have fun."
Tanya takes Chelsea's hands and moves with her, not at her level of excitement but at least keeping time. "So I talked with Sharon," she says.
Chelsea nods. "I bet." She keeps dancing, her actions not betraying any nerves or embarrassment.
"Are you seriously considering...?"
She smiles. "Wouldn't you?"
Tanya frowns, performing an intricate step. That's a strange response. "Well, no, I wouldn't."
"Well, yeah, I guess you wouldn't, but if you were me?"
"I'm not you."
Chelsea spins around and steps close. "Use your imagination, then!" She grins. "Cute guy buys me a drink, wants to dance, looks like he wants to take me home..."
"He's not 'cute'," Tanya says, too quietly to be heard over the music. She raises her voice. "And Sharon?"
"I like Sharon, so..." Chelsea shrugs. "Why not?"
There's a lot more that goes into sex than just liking someone, Tanya thinks to herself. "I can think of a dozen reasons," she replies.
"Well keep 'em to yourself," Chelsea says with a laugh. "If I can find the courage, I'm gonna do it."
Tanya can't help but soften a little at her enthusiasm and honesty. "I don't really trust him."
Chelsea shrugs, so much a part of her fluid movement that it takes Tanya a moment to realize that it even happened. "I do, though, and so does Sharon."
Tanya frowns a bit. "Yeah, she does." The music is winding down. "Not sure why."
"Why does anyone trust anyone?" Chelsea grins, taking her friend's hand and walking back towards the table. "Why don't you trust him?"
Tanya shrugs. "Instinct." She doesn't have time to elaborate more before they rejoin the other two. Sharon has moved closer to the tired office-worker, practically talking in his ear against the sound of the music, her arm on the back of the booth around him.
Chelsea rolls her eyes as she slides into the booth opposite the other two. "I said don't steal him."
"Oh did you?" Sharon replies with a smirk. "I must have misheard."
"Jesus Christ," Tanya swears under her breath. She raises her voice. "The two of you are fucked in the head, you know?"
Sterling laughs... nervously? Tanya isn't certain, but he sounded a little nervous, although the laughter of the other girls and the music in the room covers his chuckles too quickly for Tanya to be certain.
"Sterling," she says. "You and me need to talk."
"Gonna be momma bear tonight, Tan?" Sharon asks
"Well, since you're not stepping up..."
Sharon laughs again. "Alright, alright. I get it." She finishes her glass of water. "Look, I haven't lost my mind, here, Tanya. Neither has Chelsea. We're both lucid, neither of us are drunk. The only person acting out, really..." She leaves that statement hanging.
Tanya glares, but before she can answer, Sterling is speaking. It's a bit difficult to hear him over the music, so Tanya concentrates, focuses in on his words. "Alright, I don't want to cause problems between friends. It's clear that there's some friction here." She feels an odd sensation in her mouth. Has she bitten her tongue? "Let me try and smooth things out here, if I can, alright?" No, there's no blood, she doesn't taste blood, but she feels like she ought to. "I would really like everyone to get along." It's a distracting feeling, like she's imagining it so hard that she can almost actually taste it. "So if it would help Tanya to feel better..." She's wondering if Sharon and Chelsea felt the same. Certainly they look relaxed. Comfortable. They look focused, too, but maybe they're as distracted as she feels. "... then I would gladly chat with her, to help ease her mind." She's nodding. They all are. It's a reasonable position to take, of course. And she has no doubt that she would feel better after talking with him; that's why she had suggested it a moment ago, after all.
"We're all good friends here," Chelsea says. It's not something that needs to be said, but Tanya feels better that she says it.
Sharon nods, or keeps nodding, Tanya's not sure. "Tan, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything."
Tanya smiles at her friend. "I'm sorry, too, I shouldn't have said what I said. Things are just ... strange. I'm on edge." She's still imagining that feeling of the taste of iron on her tongue. She turns her gaze on Sterling, softer now but still stern. "We still need to talk."
Sterling smiles back. "Of course we do."
Tanya knows that it was her idea to have a chat, but she also has the impression that Sterling had the same idea, that he wants that conversation as much as she does. She's not sure where that impression is coming from; it almost feels like it's external to herself, like it doesn't belong in her thoughts.
The double-life shit is exhausting, she thinks. I'm starting to lose it.
Sterling says something, but she doesn't quite catch it. Still, Sharon's nodding and standing up, letting him out of the booth, and he's offering his hand to Tanya. Almost without thinking, she accepts it, getting to her feet.
They were going to have a dance. Right. That made sense. And after a spin around the floor they'd definitely have a better impression of each other.
DarkShepherd comes back on the speakers, and Tanya smiles, immediately recognizing Sleep, their first big hit, apparently based on the synth player's unsuccessful attempts to battle insomnia with self-hypnosis. There aren't a lot of words to get in the way of the music, and the lyrics are repetitive and easy to ignore.
"I always liked this one," Sterling says, walking to the middle of the mostly-empty dance floor. "It was just before I met her."
"Valerie Scheff." He starts moving to the beat, and points to one of the speakers.
"What, the singer?" Tanya's eyes widen. "You know DarkShepherd?"
Sterling nods. He's not a bad dancer, Tanya notes. "Yeah, I met the drummer in college, we stayed in touch, he introduced me to the rest of the band when they started to play together. He's a bit older than the rest of them."
She starts bouncing along to the music, mirroring Sterling some. "I keep waiting for them to break out of the local scene."
"Not sure that they want that," Sterling replies. "Two of them have young kids, and Valerie's partners are both active in city politics."
"Yeah I guess," Tanya says. She's holding his hand, and she's not sure when she started doing so. "Wait, partners? Plural?"
Sterling nods. "I wouldn't spread that one around, though." He smiles. "None of them are openly together."
"Oh, right, of course." Tanya moves with the underlying, slower beat. Despite herself, she seems to be having some fun. "What were we talking about again?"
Sterling laughs. "You wanted to interrogate me about tonight, remember?"
"Shit, yeah. You threw me off balance."
"I seem to have that effect on people." He effortlessly spins her in time with the bass.
She snorts, stepping close to come face to face. "Yeah, well, stop it. I think you've done whatever you do to both my friends, and I'm not really alright with it." She hears herself, steps back and sighs. "Sorry, I sound like a fucking paranoid or something."
He smiles. She wishes he would quit smiling. "I understand. An older man shows up alone, buys you all drinks, pretty plainly hits on you, and is going to walk out of here with two of your friends, both of them acting a little out of sorts."
Something about the song, the words lining out the text of the synth player's meditations, seems to intensify, the soft sounds resonating strongly in Tanya's bones. Sterling is still talking, and his words seem to fit into the rhythm, weaving around the rapid synth lines and the drums almost like it was a missing line of the music. "But they're adults, and so am I, and we can all make our own decisions. I know they appreciate you, and what you're doing."
They do appreciate me, Tanya thinks.
"And it's nice for me, too, to know that you're looking out for them," Sterling is saying. "I'm not a monster, I want them to have a great time, too, as much as you do."
I do want them to have a good time. The music is just perfect for dancing right now.
"Since you know you can't really stop them, I'm sure you're here to tell me about them, so we can all have the best possible time. Since you're looking out for them."
I guess I'm looking out for them. The song was winding down. "Ugh," Tanya grunts. "Do you smoke?"
Sterling shakes his head. No, of course he doesn't.
"Well, you're coming outside with me anyway while I do," she insists. She's still holding his hand. She heads for the table, noting with some satisfaction how she managed to surprise him and force him to jog a bit to keep up, grabs her purse without a word to Sharon or Chelsea, and drags Sterling towards the exit.
For the second time that evening the shock of the cooler air makes Tanya shiver as she steps outside, this time with Sterling in tow. "Christ, you're annoying, you know that?" she says, walking down to the ashtray.
"What do you mean?" Sterling asks, sounding equal parts confused and amused.
"Jesus, Sterling, I want to fucking hate you, you get it?" She opens her purse and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. "But you're just ... so... URGH!"
"Nice?" he suggests. "Pleasant? Reasonable? Kind? Friendly?"
"Shut it, dockie." She jams the cigarette in her mouth and starts digging for her lighter. "And fuck it, yes, that's the goddamn problem." She rounds on him, lighter in hand. "Who the fuck are you, Sterling Grey?"
He raises his hands in surrender. "I'm a conflict management officer in the docks who's looking forward to taking your friends home. That's it."
"And is that what you're doing now?" She lights the cigarette and takes a short puff. "You're managing a conflict?"
He nods. "I suppose I am." His mouth crooks a bit. "What would you call it?"
There's a long pause. "Yeah, fuck, I guess that's what you're doing. Jesus Christ, you're making this hard." She let out a long breath. "Look, dockie, if you hurt them, I do not care who you really are or what you really do, I will find you, and I will slice you into little pieces, starting with your balls, get me?"
She can see him trying to contain his laughter. He does an admirable job, not concealing his amusement entirely but at least not voicing it. "I get you."
She supposes that it is a bit of a ridiculous threat; she's a foot shorter than he is, and he doesn't look to be in bad shape. Still, she's not about to let on. "Good. Now let's get this straight. Sharon's the real mother hen. I'm not good at this shit. She's the protector. Treat Chelsea good, and Sharon'll be happy. Do anything less and she's gonna worry the whole goddamn time. Fuck, she might worry the whole time anyway, but at least you'll have a chance."
Sterling raises a hand. "Question. What would you call what you're doing now, if not protecting?"
"Shut up!" Tanya laughs despite herself. "I dunno, call it a warning. Or preemptive revenge. I'm not a defender, I'm a fighter." She takes another puff. "It's not Sharon I'm worried about anyway. She's pretty strong, and she's been around the block a couple times."
"Chelsea, then," Sterling concludes.
"No fucking shit, Chelsea." Tanya sighs. "Okay, if you tell her I told you this, I don't care if she has the night of her life, you will die, and the last thing you see will be my angry face, and it will not be a pleasant, easy death." Sterling waits while Tanya considers her words. "Chelsea isn't just celebrating her job. I mean, she is celebrating that, but also. Urgh." She puts her hand to her forehead. "Do you know what alopecia is?"
Sterling nods. "Is that why...?" he taps his head.
"She's bald. Yeah. She's celebrating owning it." She crushes out the half-finished cigarette. "Right up until she started this job, she wore wigs. She tried doing a few little things to deal with the patchy spots, but two days ago she just shaved. Had enough of it. And I know she's super fucking fragile about it. And more generally, she's just kinda ... well, yeah, fragile. She's had her share of relationships and shit boyfriends and things, but she's still a bit of a kid, you know?"
"Mhmm, I get you, for sure."
She lets herself relax for a moment. "Sharon will be miserable if you hurt her. But me? I will be vengeful." But the heat isn't there this time. "So you get why I want to fucking hate you, you know?"
Sterling chuckles, but it's not at her expense. "You want me to be a prick so you can tell the other two you ran me off."
"Jesus, now you're making me sound like the jerk." She grins. "If you weren't dragging my girls home, we could almost be friends."
"And you'd just hate that," Sterling retorts, matching her expression.
"You know it, fuckface." She moves past him, towards the door. "Now come on, I've had enough dancing. I wanna go home to my warm apartment and my porn collection."
Tanya gets out of the back seat of Sharon's car. She had insisted that she and Sterling sit away from the other two, mostly out of spite, but also because she doesn't want Sharon to get distracted while driving, either by Sterling sitting beside her, or by what Sterling and Chelsea might get up to alone in the back seat. She walks up to the door of her modest high-rise, turns her key in the lock, and heads up in the elevator, getting off at the seventh floor.
She climbs down the stairs to the fifth floor. There aren't any security cameras in the stairwell. Paranoia comes naturally, at this point.
Her key slides into the lock in her own door, and she turns it counterclockwise, to open the deadbolt, then clockwise to lock it, then to the center, then clockwise again, then counterclockwise, turning off her custom-built alarm system before going inside. She opened the door to the dimly-lit studio apartment, hanging her purse on the hook she'd set on the wall. Off go the shirt and jeans, onto the floor. Now in her underwear, her intricately-patterned tattoos running from wrist to neck on full display, she walks over to the corner that hosts her significant computer setup, opposite from the corner with her wardrobe and sewing machines. She wakes it up with violent palm on one of the keyboards.
Four monitors flare to life, brightening the room significantly. The last activity of the system was the checks she ran on Sterling Grey, so there's nothing running in the background that she hadn't put there. Reading a couple more rundowns on ongoing Bright Society projects, she sees that nothing much has been going on in the world, or at least the parts of the world she's being paid to care about.
"Fine. See if I care." She stands from the console and stretches tall, feeling tendons pop. She's about to put on some music when she spots a strange white envelope that someone's slipped under her door. Either it was done since she's been home, or she unknowingly stepped over it on her way in. It didn't matter. Curiosity demands that Tanya check the missive, of course.
A plain white envelope, unmarked. Tanya shrugs and opens it up. It's an advertising leaflet for a new café in the docks. "Okay, why should I give a—" she cuts herself off as she flips over the document to see a handwritten note.
Want info on S.G.?
8:47 pm tomorrow
Tanya gapes at the message. Unconcerned about her state of undress, she steps out into the hallway to see if she can spot the deliverer, but there's no one in sight.