The Edge of the Woods

((On a couple of weeks from => An Evening on the Beach))

It was a different evening that saw Rogan returning to the quiet mafia lounge where he had conducted business with Varda in the past. He didn't feel the same level of confidence or control that was his usual armour as he made his way down the steps and pushed through the door; the more he learned about the business going on, the more he had to acknowledge that this was a deeper mess than he usually tangled with, and a part of him was still off balance from the situation with Lyntael, and her previous... encounter. It had been almost two weeks now; two weeks of very little interaction between himself and his navi, that had seen him chasing extra leads on information, doing quiet research and picking up a couple of side jobs that he knew he wouldn't need her assistance for. Lyntael had kept mostly to herself, but she hadn't seemed to have had any nightmares at least in the past few days, so perhaps that was something.

He pressed his mind back to the task at hand. In the end, it didn't really matter whom he was working for, or whom against; either side could see him killed if he played his cards wrong, and more and more Rogan was feeling like he should try, gradually and carefully, to begin washing his hands of the business as soon as he could, if that were even still possible.

Varda was waiting at the table for him already, and he strolled over and took a seat. The problem was, this was turning out to be the kind of business that you couldn't just walk away from, especially not when he'd already pushed the boundary on demanding higher pay for previous jobs. The soft folk music was playing a piece he was less fond of today, and he was more aware than he wanted to be of the numerous eyes not-watching him around the room. None of it showed through his cool outward demeanour, but Rogan himself was aware that he wasn't at his best.

"Evening Varda, nice afternoon for a quiet drink, wouldn't you say." He grinned and nodded politely to her as he sat, while his contact watched back with a satisfied expression. It made him wonder, again, how much she knew about his recent escapades. It was worrying. She took a sip of some unidentifiable drink; it was mostly clear, but he didn't expect her to be drinking anything strong while working.

"The night approaches, and the will 'o the wisps come out from their hiding, is that not so, little Night-Wisp?" She turned her head slightly, to watch him from the corner of one eye. "Does its thirst for knowledge lead it to dangerous places, I wonder?" Rogan kept his expression neutral, and shrugged. If she knew he'd been at SciLab, he'd find out soon enough, but until then, there was no point giving anything away.

"Who can say? What is danger if it cannot catch you? Perhaps I just enjoy how much a woman of your standing pays for jobs that she knows require a certain touch." He still hadn't even the slightest inkling about what the Sharoan Mafia actually wanted with the operation going on here, and not knowing was the biggest danger in this game, but he was on shaky enough ground with what he'd learned about the operation itself. Lyntael wasn't watching from his pocket this time, of course... She was still hiding in her PET, and had barely spoken at all, other than when he spoke to her first, and a few even more worrying cases besides. She wasn't crying any more, though, for the most part. His eyes came back up to Varda from where they'd settled on his coffee. It had arrived at some point after he'd sat down, without him needing to order, but he hadn't taken a drink yet. The woman across from him was watching back, studying him.

"If your mind is wandering, mister O'Conaill, allow me to bring it back on course. I do not care to repeat myself or waste my time, you know. So. You have shown interest in what we do here, and for that you have drawn more than we would offer for an odd job. You would know more, and your skills are of value to us. Perhaps we may find you useful enough to bring into our fold, yes? Then maybe you will be granted the understanding you desire?" It was an offer he'd had from different individuals and different organisations in the past, but never from a benefactor as hard to refuse as this. Still, it was an entanglement he didn't want to get into. He sighed and sipped his drink, feigning unconcern.

"I just want your coin, Varda. I'm a simple man. You can keep your stories, I'll keep my nose clean if that's what it takes." Her brows drew down and he heard her intake of breath come sharper for a moment. That hadn't gone down well; she clearly wasn't accustomed to being refused on an offer like that, but he didn't blame her.
"Some would say it is not wise to spurn such an offer, you know. Some would say it is a dangerous thing to do." She certainly sounded less than pleased, but it made Rogan himself feel a bit better; the response was one he'd predicted, and it felt like it was helping him get his head back in the game.

"Maybe, but those people are too afraid of falling to jump, and I am not just anyone. The dark abyss holds no far for me, Varda, not when the night is my home already." Okay, he might be stretching his flowery metaphors a bit, but it had the impact he was hoping for anyway: Varda leaned in, glaring at him.

"Fear or not, you could be dead by the morning, if I decide you are more trouble than you are worth, mister O'Conaill." He grinned towards her in response, flashing teeth.

"Yes, I suppose I might, but then you wouldn't get done the job that you called me here for, would you, Varda? And I know that if there was anyone better suited for the task, you would be talking to them, and not me, so, shall we begin again? The night approaches; what would you ask of this wisp in the darkness?" After a few seconds longer glaring at him, Varda sat back and visibly relaxed. The posing and roaring was done with for now. When she spoke again it was a much calmer tone of voice.

"The documents we had you seize and destroy came from a firm which was operating well outside its means. This you know. They were backed by someone hiding their own work within SciLabs. This also, I trust you know by now, yes? The people I represent have something of an interest in the work that group of people are doing, but they are very good at covering their tracks, you know. In this age of data manipulation, we find, sometimes, that the more old fashioned method is the more effective, and you do old fashioned very, very well, Night-Wisp." She paused for a moment, drinking from her glass again and Rogan nodded for her to continue.

"I would have you travel to the Okuden Valley. At the location I will provide, you will find a small business that operates as a camping supply store, however, there is a... facility, below ground, connected to the property, and we suspect the way in is through that business. One of the individuals who is deeply involved in this operation; we expect he will be working at that facility for the next few weeks, you know. We believe that obtaining copies of his work there, without anyone knowing we have done so, will be very enlightening to the people we represent, but, we will not risk association, yes? So, we would send you. If you fail, or are discovered, then at least it does not trace to us in any way, you understand? We cannot acquire the data by normal means; there are too many safe-guards for us to be certain of doing so without detection, you know, and so this case requires something more... old fashioned." She folded her hands on the table between them, waiting to see how he reacted and Rogan held himself still for a moment, this expression thoughtful. It wasn't really a question, truth be told, but it was never a good idea to seem over-eager, in this business.

"What does it pay?" His tone was flat and serious, and Varda lifted a small, palm-sized clip board from beside her and slid it across the space between them. It contained a single sheet with a figure on it and Rogan raised an eyebrow. More than the last job she'd given him, and more even than he'd pushed her to for it. If anything, it sent a few alarm bells through his mind, but he pushed them aside. The document also contained the location details and co-ordinates of the property he was being sent to, and the name of the business that owned the property.

"I'm not so sure this is worth it, Varda..."
"The offer is more than generous!" She snapped back almost immediately, and Rogan flashed a grin. So, it was the genuine deal then. Perhaps she had been serious about offering him a place in their organisation.
"Yes, it is. But the task has many risks, and I know that you do not have my back on it."
"Perhaps if you had accepted my earlier offer, Night-wisp, we might have." He'd been expecting that too. Nice try. He almost chuckled to himself.
"No Varda, if I had accepted your offer, you would have declared this to be a test, and I would be accepted only if I succeeded without incident." Here she smiled back at him, then inclined her head.
"Maybe so... You accept?"
"I do. I'll contact you again as soon as I have acquired all that there is to discover. You will have what you seek by the time the target moves on." He nodded, as he spoke, slipped the folder into his breast pocket, and finished his coffee. As he stood to leave, he heard Varda's voice call out to him again.

"Do not fail, mister O'Conaill. Your services are valuable to us, and it would be a tragedy if you were to disappear before we could own them properly, you know?" He paused, turning his head just enough so that she would be able to see him nod, then kept walking.
Out on the street again, Rogan took a long breath and let it out again slowly. No talk of cat and mouse this time. It was a dangerous dance; if they wanted to secure his work enough to bring him in, then they would probably soon also want to ensure he didn't work against them just as strongly. How long could he play? There was a niche he could nestle in neatly, if he could hit it just right, and it was one of the only ways of surviving the irresistible weight of properly organised crime, without becoming a part of it. It still meant he'd be doing work for them for the rest of his career, probably, but better that as an informal contractor, valued for his skill, than being made part of the family. He'd had more than enough of 'families' to last a life time. He shook off the small shudder and ran a hand through his hair.

His mind was already beginning to plan, and he found himself wondering how much he would be able to rely on Lyntael to do as he told her. He had let her be for a while now, but she'd still acted hurt when he'd subtly run a diagnostic to assess whether she was malfunctioning in any way. It had come up clean, of course. The same thoughts chased around in his head: it was the affectation that was the issue, really. Anywhere where her human-affectation displays conflicted with his orders, there was as much chance or more that they'd overrule him, and continue. He knew that it wasn't due to anything being broken though; in his heart, he knew that there was no flaw in Eric's programming. Lyntael behaved this way because Eric had made her to behave this way, which meant his brother had given him a child-like trojan horse that he intended would force his hand into treating the little bundle of code like a person and a friend.

He had no intention of playing his brother's game, not unless he had to. It was demeaning and silly, and he didn't have time for any of it. It was the same conversation he'd had with Lyntael herself before, and it played in his mind, going around and again. His thoughts would reminded him how he'd felt having to re-watch the footage from SciLabs, then respond that it wasn't the same thing, not really. People got uncomfortable watching movies that had that sort of thing, even though they knew it wasn't real. Seeing the puppet show between Lyntael and the other navi was the same principle. But there was no sense denying that, show or not, she was causing him to feel genuine, if misguided things. And so the thoughts circled without end, any time he dwelt on the problem.

He arrived at his car and got in, though he didn't begin driving right away. Instead he fished his PET out of his pocket and began to run a few searches on his new destination. Lyntael hadn't slipped out to sit in the dash alcove like she used to, but he hadn't expected it. He still hadn't heard a peep from the girl, before or after his meeting with Varda. Why had Eric done this? It really went too far. It was bad enough that she was displaying trauma behaviours since SciLab, but then the whole incident with... cycles... had come up as well. What kind of insanity was that? Where was the point in any of it? He was distracted from his searching by the memory of the incident.


It was almost a week ago now, when he had wanted to see if she was ready to begin working again. It had been something simple, really; he had just meant to send the girl into a local network just to bypass some clearance levels more easily and let him collect some passingly useful reading material. She hadn't spoken all night, which wasn't any different from many other nights since SciLab, but when he'd called on her to get jack in, all that had come back to him was a very quavering sound.

"I... I can't." She didn't sound tearful, or scared, at least not any more than she had of late, but her voice was worried. Rogan frowned, though he didn't take his eyes off the building he meant to borrow from.
"It's nothing major, Lyntael, and I've given you time. Come now, you will be fine."
"I can't. Not now. I just... Rogan I need to call Eric, please." This time her voice sounded even more uncertain, though likely as not it was because she knew he wasn't going to allow that. He reached into his pocket beginning to pull out his PET.
"Eric?" Initially he'd expected her to contact his brother right away, but she'd resisted, and even refused when he suggested it... so why now? "Call Eric after we've done this, Lyntael. Now—"
"This can't wait!" That was enough to make him look down at the display. Hearing her raise her voice towards him directly was something that never used to happen; never before SciLab, and only once or twice since. He started when he saw the young girl and immediately flicked the display to show her vital statistics in full. She had been huddled on the floor of the part she slept in, hands about her knees, but at a glance he'd been able to see a deal of red staining on her skirt, and more on one of her thighs. How had she gotten damaged without even leaving the PET, and why hadn't it simply restored her? The diagnostic screen showed that the girl was at full health and completely unharmed, and he brought the display back to check what he'd seen. His eyes weren't mistaken, and a sudden thought was accompanied by a dreadful certainty of it being the right explanation as he asked her a new question.

"What's wrong, Lyntael?" He wasn't sure how she would answer, but inwardly he was thinking of many uncharitable things to say about his brother. Lyntael looked up, then shifted to try and hide the blood from him.
"Please, Rogan, I just need to speak to Eric. I'm... I'm not injured. But it's important. Please."
"You're bleeding." His voice came out flat and unamused; it hadn't been a question. Lyntael didn't answer, but her head dropped. After a few more seconds she nodded, her cheeks burning bright, though she didn't look up. Rogan sighed.
"I swear... I am going to strangle that man." Well, Lyntael could have her wish at least: Eric could deal with that, since he programmed it. "Fine. I'll call him, just get it sorted out." Still glowering darkly at the screen, Rogan threw up a quick call screen to protect both ends and made the direct line to Eric's home PET.

"It's Rogan, Caminus. Get Eric for me." He only waited a few moments after the navi that had picked up was replaced by the image of his brother, looking unshaven and a little surprised. "You're a cruel an unusual man, Eric. This is your doing, so you can handle it yourself. Lyntael needs to speak to you." He didn't give the other man much of a chance to respond before flipping the call to internal and passing it to Lyntael, then tossed the PET over into the passenger seat in disgust, reaching through the the back seat to retrieve another folder of documents he still needed to read through at some point.

"It's good to see you Lyntael, how are you settling in?" Rogan realised he hadn't closed the external output before throwing the device aside, as he heard Eric greet his navi, but he couldn't motivate himself enough to pick it up again, and tried to focus on the documents in front of him.
"I... I'm alright, Eric. Um, there's something..."
"Lyntael... you look worn out, sweetie. Is Rogan treating you alright? Are you getting enough sleep? Have you been eating properly?"
"I don't get the chance, I... um..."
"Is he even looking after you at all, Lyntael? I'm worried now... Hang on, let me see that again, show me your room, Lyntael..."
"I swear... I am going to strangle that man." Rogan couldn't help but notice his brother repeating his own oath word for word, though he didn't realise just how completely identical in exasperated tone it was. "That's not a space for living in, Lyntael, it's... a blueprint... a cell. Don't tell me he's not even let you—"
"It's not important now. Eric, please." Rogan could hear the edge of tears in the girl's voice again, and if he could detect it, then he was sure Eric must.
"Right. I'm sorry... What was it you wanted to tell me, Sunshine?" Now that he'd asked and given her space to talk, Lyntael seemed to hesitate and falter.
"Um... I... I've ah..." already soft, her voice grew smaller, and quieter. "I've started, um... started my..." smaller, quieter. He could almost picture the way she was probably mumbling down the front of her vest. "Started... started bleeding?" To himself, Rogan wondered exactly what his brother was going to say about that.

"Aww, Lyntael, dear one, sweetie... are you feeling alright? You understand what's going on, don't you?" There was a short pause where Rogan guessed Lyntael was probably nodding in that embarrassed, confirming way she did.
"Y-yeah... I think. Internet. I was afraid at first, but I searched around. I think I understand everything."
"Sorry it took you by surprise, Sunshine... I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting this to happen for... another six months, a year maybe. I was going to sit you down and talk about it next time you visited. But you're doing alright?"
"Bit uncomfortable. I hurt. A bit."
"Alright, well, I'd rather have you here at the table with me, but, life isn't predictable. You know it's all normal and healthy though. Nothing to worry about. I'm sorry you don't have a proper mum to relate to for all this, but I know you'll manage." Rogan had to fight the urge to scoff. 'Normal' he said... as though inflicting an AI with all the difficulties of humanity when it was utterly unnecessary and without point or purpose was normal.
"I think so. But, Eric, what... what can I do about... about, uhh..."
"Right. Yes. This is why I was hoping you'd be here, when the time came. I know it's going to be more or less impossible for you to get the necessities from anywhere, so I made you something. It wasn't ready when you went with Rogan, so I was going to sit you down when you visited, have the talk with you, and give you this. Here, I'm transferring it now." Rogan resisted the slight urge to pick up the PET and check it. He trusted anything his brother sent, especially if it was for Lyntael, but he was vaguely curious about what it might be. Eric explained a moment later.

"It's a little medicine cabinet program. Just set it up in your bathroom, or wherever. It'll always have whatever you need, however you decide you want to take care of it. Ordered by type of product. First hygiene, then, ah..." Eric's voice hesitated. "Lyntael, I don't think you're ready for this kind of thing yet... but one day you will be, so, the cabinet can also provide you with any number of different birth control options too, if, you know... if you find yourself with a need for such things." Rogan dropped the papers into his lap, rolling his eyes upwards.
"Oh come on, Eric, that really is too far! What is the point of any of this?" If Eric was surprised to realise that his brother was still listening in, he wasn't letting it show in his voice. Instead, the response came just as quickly as his own outburst had, and with a very firm edge to it.
"Choice, Rogan. It's about choice. You can't be free unless you can make your own choices for yourself, and you can't make your own choices unless you have choices to make. You understand that as well as I and better than most, brother of mine." Rogan bit back a response and settled for reclaiming his reading and shifting in his seat. His brother continued after a few more moments that he was sure was filled with a pointed glare meant for him.

"Anyway, Lyntael... If you've got any concerns, I'm never more than a call away. You're probably going to be at their mercy for a the first few months, but they should settle into a stable cycle and even out after that." There was a longer pause and Rogan heard Eric draw a breath and sigh.

"Lyntael, I know you might not want to say anything, but if something is wrong, I need you to let me know. If something has happened, and you aren't doing so well, please, tell me, Lyntael. I look at you now, and I'm worried." Rogan felt himself go still as he waited through the long seconds of silence that followed.

"I'm fine." The words were quiet, and he could hear the tones of veiled sorrow in them. "I miss living with you, Eric, that's all. But... but what you said? You were right, so... I'm fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." It was only when he exhaled that Rogan realised he'd been holding his breath. More than anything, though, he was puzzled. Why hadn't she said anything? Surely, if she had been so fixated upon all the affectations about how terrible and traumatic recent events were, and how much she hated doing work for him that she claimed was wrong... then why would she not say anything when Eric asked her about it? Eric loved the little program enough; she'd only have to say the word and he'd insist on taking her back and bringing her home, where he cold take care of her properly... So why hadn't she? He was still pondering the thought, staring down at his documents without really seeing them, while Lyntael said her goodbyes to Eric.

"Visit soon, Lyntael, and bring that idiot brother of mine with you when you do. Promise me you'll visit soon."
"I will, Eric, I'll do my best!" Finally, her voice sounded something more approaching her normal brightness, but Rogan had heard enough of her fear, sadness and uncertainty to realise that it wasn't as genuine as it might have been. He blinked and corrected the thought a moment later; it didn't make much sense to talk about how genuine something was, when comparing empty affectations made by an inanimate program. One just seemed more so than the other, that was all. You couldn't fake something that was already artificial. Why hadn't she told Eric what had happened?


The thought had nagged at him badly enough to throw him off his research for several hours, and he'd been distracted while working through the network authentications that he'd intended Lyntael to bypass for him. With a small shake of his head, Rogan realised that this wasn't the first time he'd lost his train of thought reflecting on that conversation, either. He refocused himself. Okuden Valley, and chasing further down the rabbit hole. He let out a short breath and collected himself, then began driving.

((To=> Okuden Valley))