Simple Lodgings and Difficult Words

((From => Chasing Echoes))

A single bed, a night stand, a desk and a bathroom. Plaster board walls and a carpet marked by many cigarette burns. A closed laptop on the desk and a black personal terminal glowing faintly on the night stand. The cheap room had no windows, and the single light bulb was dim and flickered every few moments.

A man in a long coat sat on the bed, looking at a girl with hard eyes standing on the night stand, and silence stretched between them.

Rogan looked away for a moment, then forced his eyes back, taking in her stance again; she was breathing deeply, but controlled, like it was an effort. Her jaw was clenched tight, as were her fists by her side. Her eyes... the red was gone, but there were still other signs she'd been crying earlier, and yet her gaze was just as fixed as the rest of the tension in her stance.

He had to fix this; it didn't matter what was truth or emulation – it just didn't matter, when she was standing right there, and the heavy weight of his own actions that coiled and twisted inside him was being weighed down further by what his necessity had done to the program in front of him. Silence reigned, awkward and stony. How did he start?


Lyntael fought the torrent of feelings that threatened to escape her as she let her eyes stare at the man she desperately needed to still believe she knew. Some of the feelings would be stormy tears; others would be painful, betrayed shouting. Others still... to beg, to plead for him to take it back somehow, as impossible as that was. The time she'd taken away had let her calm herself, but now it had all rushed back again, unresolved and turbulent. Here they were, with the dark deed between them, and all the simple answers and justifications didn't matter. None of it would help. Not now.

Her fingernails were digging into her palms as she tried to breath and keep herself calm. There had to be something she could say; something that would work. His eyes broke away from hers, and for an instant, she glimpsed the pain behind them. They both knew everything that mattered in this moment... but knowing it just didn't help anything. What could she say, that wasn't something she knew he knew already? Her chest heaved as she tried to keep her breathing steady.


Rogan swallowed. The first thing – that he had done what he had needed to, felt pointless to say. They both knew it, and they both hated it. It wouldn't help anything to say. He looked away from her again, passing his eyes over the rest of the forgettable room.

“I... I've finished my work for now. Reviewed things...” It was a weak start, but he had nowhere else to begin. The words fell into the empty space and disappeared into the thick silence right away. The urge to shuffle was one he hadn't had to suppress in a while, but he found himself pushing it down now.

“Was it worth it?” Her voice sounded... tight. Controlled and hiding anger, he would have guessed. He looked back to her now.

“No. Two people are dead. My fault. It doesn't matter how important what I've learned is. It wasn't worth their lives.” As he watched, he saw her pull back slightly, surprise breaking through her tension for a moment. He saw her pull her hands up to hug herself, prising her own fists open to wrap them about her arms instead. Her stare broke away from his, looking down at herself instead. Had she expected him to think the cost was justified? Could he blame her for thinking that?

“You won't tell me.” This time, her words were quiet; awkward and sad, but utterly certain as well – there was no hint of a question in them. Rogan fought to contain a wince, and shook his head slowly instead.

“I've learned a lot about this group. It would upset you.” He knew they were the wrong words to use the moment he said them, but the silence swallowed them up before he could pull them back. Lyntael's eyes snapped up to him, suddenly furious and incredulous again.

“So you think there's another person in this room? Someone to be upset?” The words were contrary and borderline sarcastic, but somehow still awash with her hurt. Rogan felt a tightness in his throat; he didn't trust himself to answer. He couldn't hold her stare through the moments, though, and looked away again. Silence claimed the space again for long seconds.

“I joined a net faction. Trying to make the net better.” The girl's words brought his attention back to her again. It was a strange things to jump to instead, and she sounded oddly calm and off-handed as she said it now, but he could hear in her voice, as much as he could see it in her movements, that the casual air was a very thin act that trembled even as she cloaked herself in it. “They've got a uniform...” She fidgeted, then shrugged. “But I won't show you it. It would upset you.”

The silence grew awkward again as Rogan struggled to process what the girl was telling him. She had looked away in an act of feigned unconcern that they both knew was paper thin, but Rogan still found himself trying to guess at what she was meaning. That she had done that while he was reviewing his work was a surprise in itself, but what kind of uniform did she think would...? That surely wasn't what he should be trying to think about right now. She knew how to keep his existence and his identity safe, and she knew not to put either of them at risk when she slipped out on her little excursions. It wouldn't be anything about other organisations or associations... but then what? The sudden idea of her parading about on the net in something inappropriately adult or skimpy fleeted through his mind. Why did that make him feel so suddenly uncomfortable to contemplate? He cleared his through with a forced cough.

“Lyntael... I,” He shook his head again and sighed. “Listen, I— ”
“You did what you had to.” When his eyes snapped to Lyntael this time, the girl seemed to have unwound and crumpled; her soft words had drained completely of anger, leaving only the hurt and the echo of tears behind. She had slumped down, and now pulled her knees up to wrap her arms around. Rogan hung his head.

“I made a mistake. I... I wish... I regret that you had to be there to see it. I regret that I... messed up, and that now you have to bear that along with me. Lyntael... I'm sorry.” He meant it, he realised. Program or not, emulation or not, real or not. He regretted adding her as witness to his mistake, and adding his mistake to her burdens.

“I know.” Her voice was a soft whisper and he saw her close her eyes and hug her own knees tighter. “I am too.” Outside, the grey cloud cover began to spit a scattered, patchy rain, while inside the small hotel room, silence reigned again.

A day passed, then another. They travelled, and Rogan met with buyers in innocuous open-air cafes and public parks. Lyntael didn't speak much, but she watched him, and listened, and he often felt her eyes on him as he worked – a quiet hurting acceptance that dragged at him. The sick, leaden feeling that followed him gradually faded into just another scratch on the wall of his psyche as he gave the feelings no room to affect him, but Lyntael was waiting for something from him, he was sure of it. She would need to speak up, though – he had too much work to take care of to spend time playing guessing games with her.


It was night, two days their last serious talk, when Lyntael caught herself pacing her living room with a sense of agitation that she couldn't place and stopped herself for what surely had to be the dozenth time. She stepped outside, into the small garden and lay on the grass, under the clouds, and looked up at the pattern of stars that poked through between them. A cool breeze brushed her skin and moved the grass while the stream murmured to itself in the darkness. Her skin crackled as she stretched, uncomfortable and unsettled. Lying still didn't help; moving around didn't help. It wasn't always there but the sensation of restless energy was there often enough to distract her from almost anything she tried to do. It was like having a muscle that she couldn't stretch out.

A sigh of frustration escaped her and she sat up again, then rolled over, then stood. After another moment of looking about she took a careful step across to some of the smoother stones at the edge of the river, working just by starlight and the dim glow of the window that looked back into her home. She took a second glance about, then slipped off her vest and skirt and undressed, before diving into the river. The water closed over her, briefly drowning her other senses with a rush of cold and the sensation of water across her skin. She dived to the bottom and ran her fingers through the loose, smooth stones there before surfacing for a breath.

The sudden difference of sensations was enough to clear the restlessness for a little while, and she relaxed into drifting on her back, kicking with lazy motions just enough to keep herself more or less level against the gentle flow.

She hadn't known what to say to Rogan, since that night. She'd had thoughts about coming out to see him in that ridiculous uniform, but hadn't gone through with it. He hadn't called her threat of showing it off, either, but she'd seen the moment of discomfort he'd had, thinking about it, just for a moment. It hadn't really helped. She hadn't gotten him to admit that he actually cared, or to acknowledge her as something more than a string of code. She ran hands through her hair and sculled in the water, making small splashes. He'd apologised. He'd said he regretted the situation, but he'd followed that up with a real apology too, and that really mattered, even if she didn't have the words for expressing it. It was more than he'd allowed previously, at least.

While her thoughts wandered, the girl turned and dived down again, retrieving two handfuls of the small river stones, then returned to drifting on her back. Gently, careful of balance, she began to place the stones one at a time, first on her shoulders, then delicately down the lengths of each arm, careful not to tip them off. He was keeping as much as he could from her, about this whole mess with the Sharo mafia, and the organisation they were investigating. He'd said it would upset her, and what she knew of it so far, he was right... but he was still refusing to admit that it was a real concern, and not just controlling inputs to a program, so as not to impede her function... as though that wasn't a truth for any person, after a fashion. It wasn't fair... how could she break through that insistence he kept in place? Arms moving carefully, she finished placing a stone each on the back of her wrists, then with delicate movements moved to begin placing a line of the small stones down the centre of her chest with the ones that remained. Everything wobbled as she caught herself on a rock with one foot and kicked away again.

He knew how she felt. He knew that she felt. He knew she was real, and that she had cares and needs... but he still kept up that denial, explaining it away. What could she do? The line of stones moved past her breast bone and down the soft of her middle, until she placed one gentle on her belly button and allowed herself a pleased grin. It almost became a giggle that would be sure to end the game, but she held it back. She had four more stones and moved to place them one after another at the end of the line. Rogan was suffering as well; he'd admitted that much to her, and she knew it was true, but if he wouldn't tell her the full story about what he was doing, she couldn't really help him in the ways he needed... that he refused to accept he needed.

She had to know more, but more than that, it needed to be him telling her. The last stone nestled against the soft down of hair that her game had reached, and as she tried to settle it properly, some of the pebbles began to slide off her forearms and elbows. Lyntael sighed and let her arms drop, to the scattered sound of pebbles dropping back into the water. Her hand lingered at a place just below where she'd set the last stone, fingertips brushing and circling in a distracted, and distracting, way. They were in this together now, regardless of what Rogan thought of her. He might want to spare her the details, but like it or not she was as involved as he was, and she needed to know the risks. She pulled her hand away before it became too distracting and rolled over in the water, letting the rest of her stones tumble off and sink back to the bottom, then paddled to the bank again and climbed out, reclaiming her clothes in one hand and keeping them away from her dripping body. The water was cold anyway – refreshing, but cold. A shower, warm pyjamas and tea, that was what she needed now. She shook off most of the water clinging to her and darted inside.

Her clothes were thrown onto her bed as she skipped through the living room quickly to avoid drips, through her bedroom and into the en suit beyond; as much as the air was mild and temperate outside, and the river was only cold, and not freezing, she was still beginning to feel more than a little chilled as she flipped on the heat lights and tile warming and retreated into the shower. As she turned on the water and adjusted the temperature, she caught herself wondering exactly what Rogan's response would be the first time he called for her while she was in the shower or otherwise indisposed. The thought made her grin, but not without a hint of a blush as well.

Steam filled the space, rising slowly as she stepped under the water and left her body relax into the blissful heat. A long sigh joined the thrum of the water running over her and onto the tiles and Lyntael let her head drop, swaying from side to side slightly and rolling her neck and shoulders; after a few moments she began to go through the slow motions of washing, but it was only halfhearted; she was clean enough, this was just about the warmth and the relaxation.

She turned and stretched, lifting her head to let the water hammer down against her front instead of her back and shoulders; thousands of tiny impacts made a soothing vibration against her skin and she sighed again, humming softly to herself. Her thoughts drifted, spacing out and slowing down as she let the water do its work; worries about the dangers of her life, about Rogan and his job, and about what came next, drifted together in a slow stream that she didn't end up focusing on with any clarity. Just an evening off to not be called, and to not think about any of it too closely, once in a while, that was important, wasn't it?

She turned and twisted slowly, shifting to let the central pressure of the shower massage different parts of her as she warmed up again; the chill had passed and a rosy pink was blooming across her skin now, and it felt nice. Her eyes were closed, but she continued to run hands across her form slowly, spreading the sensation. Before long, her hands lingered; her fingertips brushed and stroked across the soft, sensitive swells at her chest, first one side, then the other. Lyntael heard her breath catch and draw in more sharply as she kept going, letting herself repeat the motion slowly, and again. One finger circled and rubbed with a sneaky deliberacy across a nipple, teasing as the soft point grew firm and prominent beneath the attention. Her eyelids fluttered, though she kept them closed. It was almost as though the thrill of sensation drew a line through her body connecting each sensitive spot to every other one, and especially a faint tug and tingle much lower down.

Decided, Lyntael shifted to let herself lean her back against the tiles of the shower, and reached up to twist the shower head, letting it cascade across her properly as she lay her head back. She'd read that it was common for girls to feel ashamed of what she was doing, but most tied it to archaic social pressures. She was still discovering many things about her body, but once she had started to experiment she'd learned the important bits quickly enough. Instinct had long since shown her the way, unburdened by any kind of shame or guilt.

One hand stayed, slowly stroking and massaging her chest with gentle movements beneath the water, while her other crept up to trail delicate fingertips around one ear, over her cheek and then down across her neck. She bit her lip, dragging her fingertips more firmly down over her shoulders and collar bones, until the roving hand took the place of the other, to begin playing with a building eagerness at her breasts. The displaced hand moved lower now, sliding down across her midriff to stroke and rub firmly around the curve of her hips. She could feel the beat of her heart quickening; the thud of it growing as her breathing made her chest rise and fall. One hand lifted from her chest to stroke at her cheek and neck again, feeling the hot flush that was spreading now beyond the effects of the water. Her other hand reached further, dragging the backs of her fingernails down across the top of one thigh and sending shivering jolts of sensation back up through her core. On instinct, she shifted her legs, moving her feet apart in the suggestion of invitation and the reaction from her body dragged a small, quiet groan from her lips.

She could feel the glow of charge suffusing her skin as she continued, letting the feelings wash through her as her body told her what it needed. Behind her eyelids, the warm glow of the heat lamps was joined by tiny flickers of spark light that danced in the falling water. Her questing hand reached down as far as she could and began to drag upwards again, achingly slow as it pulled hard fingertips up the inside of her thigh now, towards the part of her that was beginning to clench and tighten with yearning. She switch to the other thigh, dragging her fingernails down the top and then up the inside again; each motion sent jolts of sensation through her and she felt her toes curl and flex. She gasped and swallowed, then reached out with a fumbling hand to touch the controls for the water, increasing the pressure before returning to caress her face and neck further; she brushed a finger across her lips, biting it softly then licking and kissing the digit for an extra moment as her other hand continued to tease, each up and down stroke growing firmer and ending closer and closer to the core of her growing heat.

The last stroke grew too much and she felt herself respond to the urge, opening her thighs further and pushing her knees apart; the act along sent a rush of pleasure and sensation washing over her in response and she gasped, groaning as her other hand dropped to clutch at one breast with a firm pressure. She knew better than to wait in that moment, though, and let her lower hand begin its true work right away. It started with delicate touches first, the tips of her fingers dragging up slowly to either side, barely even touching her outer lips. The fingers came together again, pulling upwards just above her peak and rubbing a circle in the soft hair just above, before splitting to course down again, firmer now. She wasn't touching her most sensitive spot yet, but even the initial motions, so close and rubbing against delicate skin, was enough to make her breath catch again and her legs tremble.

Her head rolled to one side and then slowly back the other as her heart built up to a rapid hammering and her breath came shorter. She continued the slow motions, up and down, each time aching for more. The fourth time, her fingers stayed closer together and began to rub more directly across her sex, coating themselves in the thick, slippery fluid that her body had kept hidden until now. The hot water swiftly washed it away as her fingers parted her lips and traversed the inner folds that cried for attention. She continued for a few more seconds, her pace increasing, until need made her shift again. She stood straight, then turned over, stepping away from the wall and leaning towards it. One arm pressed against the wall and she rested her head on it, letting the water beat out its vibrations across her back as her other hand returned swiftly to its desperate work.

Lyntael felt her toes curl and clench again as she worked at her body, fingers moving in rapid, harsh motions. She let her hips roll with a regular rhythm pushing back at the end of each cycle, in answer to the purely instinctual demand that drove her closer and closer to its goal. The cycles grew faster, her hips moving the rest of her body in turn; her breathing matched it, fast and shallow and releasing soft moans with each exhale; her heart doubled the pace, quick and trembling as her form became a synchronised whole with a single purpose. Sparks jumped and crackled about the shower bay, and through a hazy slit in her eyelids, Lyntael could see the way her skin danced with light and energy, close to bursting.

The tension grew, filling her in every fibre until the movement of her form hit a strain it couldn't push past, then pleasure; ecstasy and euphoric release breaking across her in a thunderous wave. She heard her voice cry out in a ragged gasp, saw the play of lighting arcing and storming from her to the rest of the room, and felt the muscles in her body grip and spasm, contracting against each successive wave of release. The pulsing ripples came one after another, smaller than the initial release, but the sense of pleasure, and good sensation remained and Lyntael gasped a breath, her hand moving still. Her knees felt weak, shaky, but she kept going, moving her fingers now from the still contracting folds of her sex to the more sensitive place, hidden away beneath its hood, higher up. She'd learned swiftly how easy it was to overdo things with that particular part, but now this was what she needed and it sang with rebuilding sensation out of the aftershocks.

She leaned heavily against the wall now, head down, shaking and gasping as her hand worked its magic; there was no erotic rhythm now, just base desperation for more. She threw her head back, eyes squeezed tightly shut and a teeth-clenched groan sliding from her lips until a second, fresh set of spasms wracked her and another wave of pleasure and release hit. This one was rougher, harsher and Lyntael heard herself cry out again, barely able to breath through it. Her charge rebounded, crackling madly as lightning grounded itself through any bit of metal nearby and Lyntael slipped, sliding down the wall until she ended up shaking on her knees.

Trembling and gasping, Lyntael pulled her knees together with an effort, then let them slide apart again; together, then apart, squeezing her hand in between each time and letting it continue its steady rubbing and sliding in between. It still felt good, but her muscles felt like water, robbed of strength. She reached up to fumble at the shower controls, turning the pressure up further and pulling the hand-held head away. She sat back, then let herself lie down in the shower bay, feeling the water bearing down across her sensitive skin and spreading her knees wide so she could feel it on her private places too. Her hips arched up in response, thighs apart as far as they could go, and she moved the shower head in slow patterns across her chest and middle, snaking it down until it reached her groin. Her eyelids fluttered and her eyes rolled back as she held it there, moving it only slightly and letting the overbearing water pressure provide the continuous blast of sensation her own hands just couldn't. It built up slowly but unrelentingly, the shallow thrusts of her hips inconsequential to the power of the water. She felt herself teetering on the edge for several long, blissfully tense seconds before her body crashed over the line in a third climax that was far quieter, but perhaps the most intense. Her body bucked and shuddered, all sense of conscious thought lost to the harsh, drowning pleasure until a spike of discomfort cut through it and Lyntael managed to roll to one side, dropping the shower head and shielding her delicate areas from any more stimulation.

She lay still for another minute, a barely alert smile on her lips while small aftershocks passed through her, making her body twitch and clench. By the time she had caught her breath, the feeling of weakness had passed and she sat up again, grinning to herself and trying not to giggle. She was still learning all the things that made her body decided that it had had enough, and the things that made it want to keep going, but that was a good one... just what she'd needed.

She picked herself up and righted the shower controls, rinsing off and running her hands over her body one more time. She was glad that she'd taken the time to make sure that her bedroom and bathrooms were completely safe for any amount of electrical discharge, and hadn't let embarrassment get in the way of ensuring it... these little moments would be no fun at all if she had to repair her home every time. She shook her head and finished rinsing, then stepped out of the shower and reached for a towel.

Lyntael had just finished towelling off her hair properly and was part way through doing up the buttons on her pyjamas when Rogan's voice filtered through to her bedroom, calling for her. The instinctual clutch at her top happened anyway, even though she knew the room was privacy screened now, and she called back as she finished getting dressed.

“Yes, sir. Just a moment.” She flicked her fingers down the length of the soft silk, straightening it, and glanced at herself in the mirror; green eyes peeked back at her above a very cute swirling cloud design on blue and white night clothes that covered her all the way to wrist and ankle. She was feeling much warmer and cosier now, after her shower, and was ready to sleep, but if Rogan was calling now, when he didn't have any meetings or other appointments planned, then it would have to be something new. Even so, she'd made up her mind about that, and this time she wasn't meaning to give him a choice in the matter. She nodded to the mirror and moved out into the living area, activating the display and reaching through to exit her home, into the run down lodging that Rogan was staying in.


Rogan had turned his attention back to reviewing documents in the handful of seconds that passed between Lyntael's answer and the small girl appearing to pull herself up from the screen of the PET that lay on the desk beside him. He looked her way, but his eye lingered an extra moment before turning back to his work. She wasn't wearing her usual outfit, but was dressed in what looked like loose fitted pyjamas, silk, probably, light blue and white, with a wind and cloud motif. He wondered if she'd made those herself as well. She seemed to have taken to the idea of designing her own clothes rapidly after he'd turned most of the PET's permissions across to her. Sleep-wear would make sense, he supposed, given how much she insisted that she needed it. His mind jumped briefly to the comment she'd made about an outfit that would 'upset him', but he banished the thought.

“Lyntael. I've received a... summons...” despite himself, he felt the small grimace twist at one side of his mouth. “From our Sharoan friend.” A work offer was one thing, but Varda's language was growing more certain and more possessive; she wanted him in the fold and under her control, and he was not going to give her that. He glanced at the documents in front of him again and then closed his laptop and pushed back in his chair, looking at Lyntael properly instead.

“Three days from now. It sounded like she has more work for me, and there wasn't any obvious urgency or caution, as far as I could tell. If she suspected anything amiss was my doing, I wouldn't have such a lenient time frame.” Rogan stopped and hesitated over his next words while Lyntael watched him. There was something behind her eyes that he couldn't read, not properly. Something was on her mind, like it always was, but there wasn't any anger, or hurt lingering now. When she didn't speak up right away, he felt obliged to continue.

“Given... everything, recently... If I need to do more work for Varda soon, can I... rely on you, Lyntael?” He watched the girl as her own gaze bored back up at him. After a moment he saw her chest and shoulders rise and then fall again in a longer sigh and she took a few steps over to the edge of the PET and sat down, one leg hanging over the edge and the other propped up, hands wrapped around it while she rested one cheek on her knee.

“I always want to do the best I can for you, Rogan. It doesn't matter how often I say it, it's still true. I want to be here for you, and to help you, however I can...” Her eyes slid away from his, and looked down at where her loose foot kicked back and forth slowly. “Even when that means doing things I don't like, or things I know are wrong. I want you to be safe.” Her head shook and she lifted it from her need to look back up at him directly.

“Maybe you'll tell yourself, that all of this, is all just words, with no real meaning to them, and it's all just part of following some clever coding, to put on an act... that there isn't really anyone else in this room, and nothing that's genuine or alive enough to want those things... but some part of you believes it; I have to believe that some part of you believes it, and knows it's true... and I do, Rogan. I do.” As she spoke, there was a soft resignation to it; she didn't sound sad, not exactly, just calm. He felt a tightness in his throat and swallowed, but as he opened his mouth to speak, she continued, cutting him off.

“Don't.” He waited, but it was another second as she drew a long breath, before she continued.

“I want to be everything you need me to be, Rogan. I want to be everything I can for you... but I need to know more, if I'm going to keep going into these situations. I'm sorry, Rogan... I don't want to push it, when I know you don't want to say... but I'm involved in this now, every bit as much as you are, and I need to know.” He found it hard to hold her gaze as those earnest, pleading eyes looked up at him, and he found himself at that same conflicted crossroad he'd faced many times now. His rational brain swatted down every reason he had for keeping the details of what he was pursuing a secret from the young navi, and yet he couldn't justify the pointless horror of describing it to her... but what horror, what really, when she was simply a program; it would cause reactions, and she'd not be able to help herself behaving in response to them, so good was the emulation, but it still wasn't real... and so the circle went around in his mind again.

He wondered if it would help, telling her how often he'd struggled with the question of telling her more... to share it, or to spare her the information. Probably not. He started to shake his head, picking his words carefully, but Lyntael's voice cut in sharply, in a hurry to prevent the answer.

“I know you'll keep me safe, Rogan. I know you won't ever leave me behind, or abandon me...” The objection he'd been planning died in his chest as her plea undercut his thoughts. No-one ought to trust him like that. He was too selfish to be worth that amount of trust, from anyone... but he had spent all this time forcing her to do just that. The thought lingered as Lyntael continued.

“You won't, and I know you won't... but I need to be ready. I need to know what I might learn, or see or find, the deeper we get in this. I need to know, now, before any of it catches me by surprise. Look...” She stood again, standing straight and spreading her hands to either side as it would help make her point; Rogan had to banish the side thought that the pyjamas were far too cute and made her look even younger than she was designed to look. Her expression was far from cute at least; that was serious and stern.

“You can tell yourself that this is all just code, and that you're just giving data to help adjust expected outcomes and enhance the probability of successful operations, or something like that, if you want to. Say there's no-one here, and you're just speaking to an empty room, or a data recorder, or whatever. I don't mind.” Despite himself, his ear caught and noted the quaver of tightness and tension that crept into her voice as she said that, before it was smoothed over again. “Don't ask me to do dangerous things for you, and then treat me like a child on either side, Rogan, because I'm not. Whether you believe that because I'm just a mass of cleverly made code, or whether you believe that because I'm a young woman, fully grown, you have to believe that much at least. Please, Rogan,” the edge of pleading came back to her voice, “tell me. I want to be here for you, but I can't if you won't tell me what you're going through.” Rogan felt his eyebrow quirk down slightly as she finished, and he caught a pink tint flash across the little navi's cheeks. The phrasing made him think that her meaning had drifted a bit towards the end, and the blush confirmed it. Still... He sighed, then slowly let himself nod.

“Okay.” He set his shoulders and looked at her; an expression of surprise had replaced her momentary embarrassment. She'd been expecting him to tell her no again, no doubt. He nodded again, to confirm it, then let himself relax and lean forward, hands clasped in front of him on the desk. “Alright... What should I tell you?” Lyntael hesitated, then stepped down onto the desk top itself and moved to place both her hands on his wrist, looking up to him.

“Everything you can. All of it.” Eric had always been mysterious about how he'd done what he had with her hologram; he'd realised only afterwards that many of the things he took for granted about her were impossible for other navi projections. He felt the faint warmth and pressure of her hands holding onto him.

“Well... legally, on paper, they call themselves Caoránach Creative...” Slowly, in quiet tones while the rain drummed down outside in the dark night, Rogan bean to tell her what he'd put together.

The name had bothered him from the outset – it was a reference to a legend that existed further north, where he and Eric had grown up. The creature took different forms depending on the version of the myth you heard, but in many it was the mother of all manner of strange and monstrous beings. It could be as simple as an attempt at an edgy name, or the name picked by someone who thought they were too clever for anyone else. Either way, he hadn't liked it from the start.

The corporation itself was just a perfectly legal conglomerate umbrella that controlled a wide variety of other smaller firms and businesses, each themselves perfectly legitimate. Following other trials of money and resources, however, had eventually led to other more off-book endeavours that these legitimate fronts fuelled. Beyond that, there were research divisions conducting many different experiments, but much of it was focused around weapons development, both net side, for navigator use, and in the real world as well. Incursions had been made, or attempted, that he'd traced back to this group, attempting to steal or copy designs, research paths, and other projects from other weapons tech entities, both those who worked in production, and those who worked in design.

Then there were the navigator experiments; Rogan had hesitated before delving into this part of the puzzle, but pushed on regardless. They had been running experiments of all sorts on navigators – legal at first, using blank store-bought shells devoid of advanced AIs, but about a year ago, their focus had shifted, and run aground of navigator ethics laws that protected advanced AIs from the kinds of things they were doing. They had attempted to buy their way around them in several places, but failing that they'd publicly ended those branches of research.

That was when the first threads tying them to disappearances and thefts of advanced navis had started to appear. The picture was desperately fragmented, even for him at this point, but he'd pieces together enough to see the shape of it. They'd begun acquiring advanced custom navigators from any walk of life they could find – the more advance, the more heavily customised, or the more specialised to a purpose, the better. Many navigator sanctuaries that weren't overseen and protected by the GNA directly had suffered incursions, raids and losses that he'd been able to trace to people working for them, always taking the most advanced custom navis they could find.

The experiments themselves, as near as he'd been able to uncover so far, included the sorts of things that would be considered destructive, torturous, sadistic and inhumane, had they been carried out on humans, with few surviving; indeed, often subjects were pushed through increasingly destructive versions of whatever experiment was being run, until they did fragment, fail or were otherwise destroyed.

Their experiments were often in strange conflict; they wanted to crate a navigator that went beyond security hardening of their data storage, to the point of being impervious to any attempt to breach and extract their memories and records of their sense data... but they also wanted to perfect tools that could crack, break and extract that very information from any navi without fail, though without regard for whether or not the victim was destroyed in the process. They wanted navis that could assimilate and weaponize any native string of data in some way, but also navis that would be preternaturally resilient to any kind of code alteration or affliction from external network sources.

Some experiments seemingly conducted purely for the sake of seeing if they could, or even just to 'use up' 'materials' they had on hand, often without any true purpose other than, seemingly, pure sadism. They moved ever more towards higher complexity targets, and increasingly extravagant weapons tech goals, and this was where Varda's people had taken an interest. They didn't want an unknown getting its hands dirty on their game board, unless they controlled it.

Rogan spoke for a little over two hours, while Lyntael listened. He looked down at her as he finished; she was huddled up in his hands now, leaning against him. She was distressed and upset, shifting slightly and breathing in long, slow, controlled breaths, but she had kept her thoughts to herself up until now. He could feel the warmth of her body against the soft skin of his palms. A part of him knew that the warmth he was feeling was almost certainly just a result of the energy output of the whatever Eric had done to make her hologram body tangible... but as she shifted in his hands, it didn't feel that way. Unbidden, his mind jumped back to earlier days when Lyntael had made a habit of playing around his hands and fingers when they were talking. Looking back, she'd seemed to enjoy the closeness, and, he supposed, the fact that he'd humoured her antics at least with his hands. He hadn't thought much of it, back then. Back then... it had only been a handful of months. He looked down at her, his thoughts in conflict as he reached the end of his story, and Lyntael looked up when the silence drew out.

“So... Why?” She might have been asking why a group would do these things, but as he met her eyes Rogan knew that wasn't the question. He glanced away, out at the darkness of the night and the pouring rain.

“It pays well, and its putting my skills to full use. I enjoy the challenge of it.” Inwardly, a thought followed on, asking if those feelings were worth the cost of his mistakes, and the black line of tally marks etched in his mind. It felt like it, when they weren't close or recent, but at times like these, when there were fresh marks on the wall, he wasn't so sure. Lyntael just looked up at him, and when he glanced down again, he felt her gaze locking him in place.

“That isn't all. I know it's not. So why?” Rogan hesitated. She could have just accepted the answer and called him the callous bastard that he knew he was... or, she wouldn't call him it, but she'd think it, and he'd know. Instead she was pressing him, and Rogan felt his teeth clenching. He forced his jaw to relax.

“Would you believe me, if I said it was about freedom? Obligation and entrapment, control and enslavement... I see it all there, in this, and I think I'd like it to stop.” He felt Lyntael flinch softly in his hands, and her look drew into something of an accusation, mixed with confusion.

“You don't think that way about navigators. You can't enslave or entrap something that's not alive, or not able to think and choose.” Her words were a challenge, though he couldn't tell what response she actually wanted him to give. Instead closed his eyes and looked away.

“How someone treats their tools is all too real a sign of how they treat the people they see as tools. They may not be running experiments on humans yet, but the way their research is moving, it's only a matter of time. When they do, they'll be every bit as sadistic and destructive to them as they are being towards the programs they're using right now.” He opened his eyes to look at her as he felt the tiny girl's body go faintly limp in his hands, and he saw her looking away from him, out the window now. When she spoke it was barely a whisper.

“So why don't you treat me as nicely as you treat the people you see as tools?” The question caught him off guard, and Rogan blinked. Several different answers jumped up in his mind and he swallowed them all back while different thoughts fought for dominance.

“Lyntael, I don't...” he stopped himself. There was no point in saying that he didn't treat her poorly; she would respond like a human might, and if she were a human his protestation would be a lie. He swallowed and cleared his throat. “Lyntael... most of the people I work with I smile for, as I attempt to deceive, swindle, cheat and undermine at any real opportunity to do so safely, for my own benefit. Even those I work with see my charming side only because it suites me to relax them. I act nicely, but I would not say I treat them well at all. I at least do my best to be honest with you.” When she looked his way again, her eyes were considering, until, after a few quiet seconds, she nodded. He was just wondering what to say next, and how to break the quiet again when he felt Lyntael stand up, and climb out of his laced fingers to place one hand on his wrist.

“Alright. I'll help you. I'll do everything I can to make this work.” She spoke softly, but her voice was clear and firm all the same, and Rogan felt a knot that he hadn't been aware of unravel between his shoulders. As he relaxed, he caught himself wondering why the statement had relieved such a tension in him, and why the tension had been there to start with, but he set the worry aside. Lyntael walked across the desk top, moving to place her hands against the window as she looked out at the night. She pulled her hands away after a second, then rubbed at her arms, looking back at him with an accusing look.

“Rogan, it's freezing in this room. It's... it's seven degrees! Have you even eaten since you got here? I know you only had a coffee and a biscuit for breakfast!” She moved back to his hands quickly, rubbing her back against his skin for warmth; he felt the shifting of the silk pyjamas against her back as she shivered. Rogan looked around behind him as the the room might somehow provide an appropriate response. He didn't feel cold, but then he couldn't really remember the last time he had; vaguely, he was aware that the room temperature was indeed very low, but shutting out discomforts like cold was something he'd been doing so long that it was unconscious now. He shrugged.

“I'm fine, Lyntael. But if it will sooth you, I'll go and get something once I neaten up the rest of these.” He flicked his eyes to his laptop indicating the documents he'd been working through before the message from Varda had come in. Lyntael gave him a small frown, but relented as she rubbed at her arms again.

“Don't forget. You're really bad at that. If we're going to be doing all of this dangerous work, you have to take better care, Rogan, you have to.” He sighed and nodded; he'd long since learned that insisting that he took adequate care served no purpose in these conversations. Lyntael glanced at the window again, then back up to him.

“Ah, can I go, then? It's cold out here and I want to get inside and have some tea.” He let her go with a small nod and a flick of his fingers, and the small girl darted back to the PET. As usual, her image froze as she stepped onto the screen, then dissolved away a second later. Rogan found himself watching the spot for several more seconds, then glanced down at his hand, his mind recalling the sensation of her small form shivering against him in the cold. He shook his head and returned to his work.

The time until his appointment passed quickly; a small amount of travelling and a handful of valuable information deals were the punctuation to his troubled thoughts about his navigator, rather than his primary focus. Rogan pulled into a parking space a fair distance from his destination, and glanced towards Lyntael, sitting in the alcove of the dash and watching him. She quickly stood and returned to the PET as he scooped it into one pocket and set out on foot.

Lyntael for her part had been... if not secluded, then certainly contemplative, just as he was. They'd spoken, over various necessary things, but it had been cool and reserved; perfectly cordial and sensible, but it had bothered him all the same, eating away at the back of his mind. His own thoughts continued to linger on the choice he'd had to make, and the consequences of it, unconsciously replaying every moment of the incident in different ways, even though he knew it wouldn't help. By the second day, he was able-minded enough to lock the rest of it away with his other mistakes and move onward, but it wasn't until he had made the error of challenging Lyntael on her earlier claim that they had actually managed to return to something approaching what passed best for normal between them.

It had been in the evening, two days after their more serious talk, in a different hotel room, and as he showered, his thoughts had still been on the quiet girl, and the bright exuberance she had first exhibited when she'd been given to him, compared to her demeanour now.

His mind often drifted like this as he washed, letting the warm water run over his body and working out his neck and shoulder muscles slowly. He ran fingers through his hair, massaging his scalp. Compared to when they'd first met, the way she acted now was very different. She did all the same things, of course. Still hassled him about sleeping and eating enough, still fretted about the situations he was putting himself in... but the little things were different, in subtle ways that he was finding he really noticed, when he let himself think about them.

As he turned back and forth under the warmth, his left hand rubbed with practised care across the long scar that ran across his ribs, on the right hand side of his chest – not his only blemish, but the one that still ached the most, against all reason. His other finger tips sought out the three other smaller marks – gunshot wounds – each a small reminder of mistakes made, though he didn't feel them any more; not like the scar. No scars from the latest incident, at least, none visible on his body.

The tally marks, etched into his subconscious and attached to memories he had to keep, were another matter but they didn't show on the surface, so it was alright. He turned the taps off and ran his hands over his body one more time, flicking most of the remaining water from himself... Lyntael could probably see them, given how easily she seemed to read him half the time. Would that make her forgive him the decision, or just hate him more? As he passed the towel over himself once and fastened it temporarily about his waist, he caught himself looking at his reflection in the mirror – the cheap bathroom didn't have a proper fan, but his showers were rarely hot enough to fog up the glass. The idea that she knew as much as she did about him now, and still thought that some uniform she'd been given would upset him seemed like a ludicrous through. Without really realising, he shook his head and chuckled to himself as he stepped from the bathroom.

Lyntael looked back towards him as he emerged into the main room – she had been looking out the hotel room's window, watching the mid-morning world go by outside. Now she turned and jumped down from the window ledge, to walk out to the edge of the desk and watch him instead.

“Rogan, there was a knock at the door, before, and the hotel service navigator popped in on the entry way projection unit, but I said you were showering. He said they'd accidentally overcharged you for the room, seeing as you meant to check out before five.” Rogan nodded, but he could feel the way Lyntael's eyes were lingering on him. He glanced her way and saw her avert her eyes just as quickly, almost like she didn't want to get caught looking. Again that creeping feeling of amusement threaded its way up through him as he pulled clean clothes from his bag and unrolled them. Girls her age always – he stopped the thought with a small frown, then gave up and let it continue; he was tired of scolding himself over thought correction. They always found things appealing, and then didn't know what to do with the feeling, and Lyntael didn't seem any different.

“I'll just check in about it when we leave. Lyntael, have you— ” A small gasp and squeak of sound gave him pause. He'd just unfastened the towel and put one foot up on the side of the bed to begin drying himself off properly, and Lyntael had stood straighter quite suddenly, turning most of the way to the side so she could only barely see him out of her peripheral. He laughed at her reaction, feeling his cheeks crease as he continued. “And to think you said that you had a uniform that would upset me. Whatever artifice makes you respond as you do, Lyntael, I've no doubt it would never even let you show such a garment off in the first place.” He caught her look his way with a sharp motion, as though to respond, then quickly avert her eyes again. He dried his body with a thorough efficiency that nevertheless seemed to be taking a toll on the girl.

“I- I have! It's terrible! You'd.... you'd have a fit if you saw it!” A few feet away, he could see that her cheeks had pinked considerably, and her left hand was fidgeting, running fingertips around the emblem at her chest. He'd seen the behaviour from her before – it was a nervous tick; a subconscious action. She had a tell. It was another thing that made no sense whatsoever for a digital program to have but somehow he felt certain that Eric hadn't actively programmed the behaviour into her at any point, as much as he didn't want to admit the thought to himself. He began to dress, but arched an eyebrow at her after he pulled the fresh shirt over his head.

“Oh? After everything, you still think so? Okay then... I still say there's no way you will be able to demonstrate such a thing regardless. Am I wrong, Lyntael?” He knew that even if the uniform was scandalous enough for her to think it would upset him, there was simply no way she would have the courage to show him.

At his challenge, he saw her open her mouth, then close it again, one fist clenching as though she was about to make another protest. He body language told the story of an internal war as she started towards him, then pulled herself back, seeking an answer, and then failing to form the words. After a moment, however, she tilted her head up and look at him squarely with an intense expression on her features. Intensely what was hard to say; she looked both determined, but also terrified at the same time, and Rogan began to wonder what can of worms he'd actually just opened.

“Fine! Fine then! You... You– sit down! Just wait!” Rogan found himself hesitating at the sheer edge of nervous mania in the little program's voice as she instructed him, then dashed back the few steps to her PET and disappeared. Not quite sure what he was doing or why, Rogan frowned and sat down on the end of the bed, opposite where the device rested on the desk. He began to pull on fresh socks, and told himself that was the only reason, not that he was waiting for her at all.

A minute passed, but just as Rogan was about to call out, Lyntael appeared on her own. She had her back to him, and from the amount of pale bare skin he could see suddenly, Rogan thought at first that she must still be changing. He averted his eyes from her all but bare back and exposed behind, and started to speak, but he found himself cut short by a sudden motion from the girl, as she half turned, twisting her shoulders and putting one hand back towards him with a finger raised, pointing... scolding almost, he might have said. A pink blush was already marking her neck and cheeks, he could see, but the gaze she turned on him was... Rogan felt more strongly like he ought to be looking away from the smouldering look.

There was nothing but thin strips of green and yellow fabric, as far as his eyes told him – just scraps, held together by prayer and giving the false idea of a top and a skirt, but she was still all but naked despite it. He tried to object again, but her look held him still.

Lyntael turned to face him more slowly, taking broad, reaching steps that made her body ripple as she showed herself off. The font side of her 'outfit' was no better. Unbidden, his eyes quickly traced her form; bare skin save for the scantest covers over her nipples and – he felt something catch in his throat as he breathed in unexpectedly and almost choked. The girl had little in the way of a developed chest at all, but the outfit didn't hesitate to show almost the entirety of what swell she had, and yet, when his eyes scanned lower, before he could stop them, the lower half of the garment was worse. He'd seen narrow 'v' swimwear before, but this design veered so low that he could see the top of... her excessive personal details.

He needed to look away; this wasn't at all appropriate. Lyntael finished her turn, and then, in an altogether too sultry manner, pushed herself back to sit on the edge of the PET, hands behind her as she stretched and showed off, crossing one leg over the other with a grin. She was smiling and sultry, perhaps, but she was also rapidly blushing an increasing crimson in the process. She didn't stop, though. In one acrobatic motion, the girl uncrossed her legs, stretching them out and wide in a flicker of motion that made the faux skirt streamers flare as she turned over and moved back to her feet with her back to him. As she made the transition, Rogan's eyes were drawn to the focus of the movement before he could stop them, looking down at her hips and groin. He felt like the flimsiness of the outfit and the stretch itself briefly showed off something even more private than her pubic hair, but the move was over too quickly to be sure. Internally, Rogan cursed himself for looking in the first place.

Lyntael stood now, looking over her other shoulder at him, then slid her legs apart a little more so she could gracefully bend forward, away from him, to put her hands on the edge of the terminal; she arched her heels off the ground and her hips swayed gently, drawing his eyes to – Rogna tore his eyes away and turned his own body to look out the window instead. His voice caught as he grasped for words in a rush.

“Stop, Lyntael! Stop, that's enough! That's not—” He could feel heat in his cheeks. He swallowed and took a longer breath. He felt uncomfortable and slimy, like he'd unwittingly violated something he shouldn't have. Telling himself the feelings were completely irrational didn't help at all. Not in the slightest.

“Told you.” The voice that reached his ear was soft, vaguely nervous, but he caught hints of a determined vindication in it too. He risked a glance back. Lyntael was sitting on the edge of the PET now, legs tightly together for decency and with her arms crossed over her chest in a protective huddle. The burning, seductive expression was gone now and she was bright crimson. Despite telling himself to be rational, Rogan's first reaction came before she could stop it.

“Lyntael, what is that? That's never a uniform for anything. At least not anything decent.” She lifted her chin and looked away slightly, sitting straighter.

“It is. It's my uniform for the Neo-shogunate. General Yasu assigns them herself.”
“Neo-” He shook his head and brushed the line of inquiry away; the Neo-shoguns rang a bell – there had been some good work surrounding their activities a few years before, but he hadn't dealt with anything related to them since. It wasn't important right now.

“Lyntael, you can't go out in public like that. That isn't-” he hesitated. “You're too-” again he curtailed the explanation. Lyntael looked back at him, a renewed intensity in the green of her eyes.

“Yes? Too what? Finish the sentence, Rogan. Why are you afraid to? Why, if there's no-one here, but you?” He met her gaze, searching for a way to phrase his thoughts reasonably and she leaned towards him, still covering herself. “Just say it. Say it and we'll talk from there. Please, Rogan, sir.” Rogan winced.

“Please, Lyntael, do not call me 'sir' in that voice, while you are dressed like that...” He sighed, then looked down and pressed fingertips to the bridge of his nose.

“What I want to say, Lyntael, is that you are too young to be dressing like that, out in public. And it is irrational and foolish a thing to say. You aren't...” he waved a hand. “Fourteen...”
“Hardly. Regardless, age is not a factor for navigators, and so it is a foolish impulse to have. So I control it.” He hadn't actually answered the question she was getting at, and she zeroed in on it again before he could deflect further.

“So why are you uncomfortable then? It doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense to you, just say it... there's no-one else here to judge you.” She was pleading now, begging him to admit to something that simply wasn't true. It was hard to resist those eyes; he closed his own instead, drawing a breath.

“Lyntael, you have been made appealing, beautiful even. You're very attractive and it doesn't require... that... for your attractiveness to show through. You also look like you're fourteen to me,” he forestalled her objection with a hand. “However old you say you feel... that's how my eyes see it. And beyond that, my brother cares about you very deeply, and he, at least, thinks of you as his very own daughter... so even if I know that you are just a program that only emulates those things, the way he feels about you matters... and so when I look at you, and find your features...” he hesitated, despite himself, and scrambled for a tactful phrasing. “Appealing... I also feel slimy and vile for it. I feel distinctly unclean, seeing you dressed like that, behaving like that, and having my eyes devour the view before I can look away. It makes me feel like a lech. I did not believe that it would make me uncomfortable, but it has. So, I suppose you win. Are you satisfied, Lyntael?” He crossed his arms as he watched her, and tilted his head, arching one eyebrow as he finished.

Lyntael, for her part and relented with the piercing gaze and was looking down at herself instead. He saw a small smile creep up across her lips, but he knew her expression well enough to know that she wasn't simply happy or satisfied with the outcome. There was something wistful there too. After a moment she looked up and grinned more broadly with a nod.

“Thank you.” After a moment, she shrugged and rubbed at her arms, glancing about the room. “It's really not very practical. I feel practically naked.” Rogan gave her a flat look.

“That would be because you are, Lyntael. That isn't seriously a uniform for this faction you've joined, is it? They don't expect you to wear that thing when you work for them?” Lyntael glanced away the side new, rubbing at the back of her neck.

“It is. It actually is, official and everything. But... Well...” She trailed away.
“Well, ah, when Yasu makes the uniforms, she has a questionnaire. About, ah... there's a question about how much skin you want to show. One to ten. I, um... I said eight. Everyone else seemed really surprised.”
“And... why?” Now Lyntael shuffled, not making eye contact with him at all any more. Rogan gave her time.

“I... I was upset, and I, um, I wanted to get a reaction out of you...” After everything, that was what she seemed embarrassed about now, more than the show she'd just put on? Rogan didn't really know what to do with the answer, though. What was there to say to that? In spite of the situation he found a wry smile trying to find its way onto his lips and he let a dry chuckle escape. It was all too absurd. Across from him, Lyntael smiled as well, then put a hand to her lips as she stifled an awkward giggle. Brief, self-conscious laughter filled the space between them from both sides.

It had been a strange way to break down the tension that had lingered between them, but broken it had. Lyntael had returned to something approaching her usual self, though it was clear she was still dealing with the recent events at some level. She had been brighter and more relaxed, however, and as much as he didn't like to admit it, that fact alone had set Rogan himself more at ease as well.

He pulled his thoughts back to the present as he descended the steps into secluded bar that served as his contact point with Varda. The dimly lit folk club room was the same as it always was. The patrons were a different collection of nondescript faces, but the same watchful sense radiated from every one of them, if you knew what you were watching for. He nodded to the barkeeper and moved towards one of the tables on the left. The music that was playing was a different group this time, but it was another northern netopian folk tune that he recognised. To himself, Rogan wondered if it was the barkeeper's choice, or if Varda was doing it deliberately for meetings she had with him.

He was only waiting for a minute or two before the woman herself slipped smoothly into the place opposite him in the semi-private booth. Today she was wearing a formal blouse, in a dark red colour with a moderate hint of cleavage which Rogan ignored to focus on the more calculating blue-grey of her eyes. She was smiling and her eyes didn't change; he hadn't expect it anyway.

“Mister O'Conaill. You come when you are called it seems. This is good.” She knew it bridled him, but he resisted rising to the bait and instead offered her a small incline of his head in return with a smile.

“What can I say, Varda? When I have such a reliable client who pays as well as you do, I'm inclined to treat them well.” There was the smallest hint of a pout from her, but it was still just a part of the act.

“It is a pity we do not meet more often. Business is moving at pace, you know. Perhaps if we had a closer... relationship, we might have even greater rewards for you, no?” She shifted slightly and recrossed her legs under the table, then straightened her blouse in a seemingly innocent readjustment. Rogan let himself curl a lip in a small answering smirk.

“Perhaps, Varda, perhaps... But alas, you can't put a wisp on a chain. I'm afraid you'll just have to appreciate its magic from a safe distance.” She shrugged and he inclined his head again. “So... what can this wisp in the night do for you this evening?” Varda glanced aside and made brief eye contact with the barkeeper, then turned back to Rogan, seeming to relax somewhat.

“Your services have been of great value to us, mister O'Conaill. It would seem that, despite your own reluctance, our family have decided to... let us say, bring you in, just a little bit more, no? For now, we will retain your skills, and we will not acquire them by force. It would be a simple matter if we decided it necessary, you know. But we do not, for the time being.” The barkeeper approached and slipped a small opaque drink in a tall glass across to Varda's place and cast a brief glance towards Rogan; he shook his head. Once he left, Varda continued. He had no doubt the interruption was deliberately timed to give him a few seconds to digest the statement in silence.

“We feel you should know a little more about the tasks we have set you to, yes? You are a curious one, and we know that you will work at your best for us, if we share a little more of our knowledge. This is a gift of good will, mister O'Conaill.” She paused and he nodded to her. Better to keep the serious tone intact at this point. Varda waited a few extra moments and took a small sip of her drink, then produced a plain grey folder, sliding it across the table to him.

“The group you have investigated for us reaches far and wide, under several different names. We think you know this already, yes? These are the names and details of many of their cover businesses.” Rogan lifted the cover of the folder to let his eyes scan the top page and make a brief guess of how many pages were present.

“The group does research upon a great many topics, behind their screens, where the laws do to see them. We see them, mister O'Conaill, and we do not care for the work that they are doing. It... encroaches on business that our family has held dear for many generations. You understand how uncomfortable this can be, no?” Rogan glanced up, but her attention was on the folder and him – she didn't seem to have intended her comments about family as any kind of jab. The names in the folder so far were all ones he knew, and it was missing several that he had tracked down, though it was too early to say whether they were unknown to Varda's family, or simply excluded from the report for him.

“Well, protecting one's family is of course important, Varda. Family must look out for each other, after all. This group... this... Caoránach Creative, as they call their legal umbrella...” He mispronounced the name ever so slightly, just in case. “Their research looks... worrisome. What would you like me to do about it?” She still hadn't given any sign that anything was amiss. If she had any suspicion about his activities in Sharo, or even that he had been there in recent days, he was sure this interview would be going very differently. It was a good sign. Varda made an expression of distaste.

“We do what is best for the family, by agreement of all, of course... You should know, mister O'Conaill, I was against employing your services for this matter. I would have moved already to put an end to this bother in a more permanent manner, and yet...” She shrugged. “There are some in our family who see great value in what they are doing, if it can be turned to our benefit. So. We come to you, yes?” She paused, raising her eyebrows at him and glancing back down at the folder.

“Underneath the names and group entity registrations, you will find information about a particular location. We are sure you are a man of many means, yes? Travel will be of no consequence to you. This place, it is where they have recently been doing some very particular research and testing. Experiments that... let us say, the GNA, SciLab, and all manner of other net organisations would surely denounce them for, no? We believe the very head of this sea monster, he works here frequently in fact. It is... his playground, so to speak. You are to go there. At the times mentioned in the documents, the base will be all but entirely unmanned. It is a part of their security measures, and the way they cycle on-site employees, you know. The base is electronically isolated, and digitally secure at all times, to a very high degree, but physically... a man of means could do well, no? The past week, Fitzpatrick... he travels between this base, and others not too far from it. The file contains the times he has been noted moving.” Varda paused to sip her drink again, and Rogan took the cue to flip through the pages that had been presented to him. It was still all familiar information. He knew about Lance Fitzpatrick's movements, at least roughly, and had begun to build a small personal dossier on the organisation leader, and his personal navigator. He made a pretence of rapidly eye-scanning he document and absorbing 'fresh' information with veiled eagerness, until Varda set her drink down and cleared her throat. He snapped his attention up, playing along.

“When he is absent, you will infiltrate and you will acquire detailed copies of any projects you can, but in particular, we require information on the code names in the file, yes? It is imperative, in this case, mister O'Conaill, that you leave so sign of your presence. They are to have no indication that this information has been taken.” She paused again in order to make a motion of indifference “If you fail, of course, we will not be tied to you, and offer no protection; you are not family after all. We know that this group, they are not concerned with making small bothers disappear if they find a thorn in their shoe, yes?” She steepled her fingers on the table in front of her and waited. Rogan nodded slowly and glanced down a the folder again, then back to Varda.

“The pay?” In response her eyes dipped back to the file. Rogan lifted up the corner of it and thumbed to the back sheet, where he found a small mission statement along with the printed compensation. Despite his caution he felt the small flicker in his eyebrows and face before he could control them.

“For that much, Varda, I feel like I should ask if there's another detail I ought to know.” She gave a calm shake of her head, closing her eyes only briefly before fixing on him again.

“No secrets, mister O'Conaill. But do not mistake the simple statement for an easy task. It is a gravely dangerous request. If you fail, you will not return. You would not be the first to disappear within their ranks, you know. They will kill you, if you are caught, but they will do all they can to extract what you know before this. They will use all manner of tortures to do this; they do not care for unreliable witnesses, you know. It is the suffering they seem to enjoy. Do not fail, mister O'Conaill. It would be a shame to lose your skills, yes?” She was watching him with the focus of someone skilled at reading faces, likely gauging how nervous he was made by the information. Rogan was well aware of the risks already, and his mask gave nothing away. Instead he slowly picked up the folder with a nod and slipped it into his coat.

“It will be done, Varda. I will contact you when I have what you need.” He cast her a confirming glance then stood from the table once she gestured her agreement. “Have a good evening. We'll talk again soon.” He turned to leave, conscious of the various eyes in the club room deliberately not looking his way.
Out on the street, Rogan glanced at the faded sign one more time, then set off away from where he had left his vehicle. He took a few random blocks, then made his way back around. Lyntael was only able to keep quiet for about a minute before he felt her shift, now out of her PET and poking up from his pocket. He put a hand down and assisted her in shifting to his shoulder as he walked and she hung on.

“She didn't say anything about... about Sharo. What does that mean?” She sounded nervous, despite how well things had gone, and Rogan answered in a low tone, mostly under his breath.

“It means I am in the clear, I believe, Lytnael. If she had known that I was responsible for the incident, we wouldn't have had that meeting, and the next meeting we had would not have been on such polite terms. She doesn't even suspect that I had anything to do with it at all – no hint or suggestion of it means that it's just another family incident that isn't any of my business. That's what I need them to believe. It's good news.” He paused to acquire a coffee from a street vendor as they passed one. Lyntael waved to the server and she waved back with a grin before Rogan's stride carried them away.

“Chances are, in fact, that they might have pinned their suspicions on agents from Fitzpatrick's group. That would be ideal.” By his collar, he felt Lyntael flinch and shudder.

“Lance Fitzpatrick... He's the one who... He's... the operator, of, of...” She stumbled over the words and Rogan finished for her.

“Yes, he's the man who operates Vigilance, the navigator you've encountered before. It's not the only navigator he operates, technically, but Vigilance is his personal one. We will not encounter them if Varda's information is correct.” He hadn't learned too much about the man's private navigator, but given what he'd seen of it in Lyntael's own encounters he felt he knew enough. Where Lance was merely a rational sociopath, Vigilance displayed all of the abject cruelty and sadism that Lance himself did not emote. He wondered whether he'd had the navigator programmed that way specifically, or if he had simply settled on Vigilance because he found the behaviours suited his ends. Lyntael had gone quiet again, until she murmured a soft sound by his ear.

“I'm sorry...” Rogan frowned as he arrived at his vehicle and slipped into the driver's seat.

“It is none of your doing, Lyntael, and as I said, we won't be encountering them, so you should be able to work without that consideration hampering you.” As he started the car, he reached out one hand and let Lyntael run down it quickly to assume her usual spot in the dash alcove. His eyes lingered on her after she settled in, watching the small girl hug herself with a nervous, retreated expression. After a moment he looked back to the road and pulled away from the curb.

((To => A Far-off Jungle))