“Where are you right now?”
O’Neil’s voice rings through my earpiece. He is breathing heavily, footsteps thudding in the background.
I look forward. People mill past me; most of the traffic heading north toward Foreman’s Arena where Ita Ru is holding a public speech. I am not attending.
His skeletal face is plastered on the inside of my Specs and I watch him from here – where I am relatively safe. “Today is the day,” he says and his aura oozes confidence. His form is straight and the determined expression in his almond shaped eyes is empowering. “Today is the day that the citizens of New City finally unite against the blight of Rereading. Today is the day our voices ring through the streets so loud, that congress in Groenstad will hear our cry. Today we will not be silenced. Today, I make the official stance against Rereading and the first movement against its infringement on our rights.”
On the screen, the crowd erupts in a joyous uproar. Do they even know what they’re cheering for?
“We will not stand idly by as our thoughts are read, as our privacy is invaded and as –"
He makes it seem as though Rereaders can read minds. As though the process is instantaneous. As though it can happen to the living. As though it can happen to anyone. As though it does not cost a small fortune to arrange a Rereading. To compensate a Rereader for the trauma suffered.
“I was on my way to purchase newer Specs. I’m tired of these,” I say to O’Neil. I glance up at the sky. Safe grey. The bleak sun is shining today. Weak pastel yellow sneaking through the cracks of fluff.
“Sign up for an Optics Display.” O’Neil’s tone is distracted. He shouts to someone. Probably Led. A shiver of malicious joy courses through me. Then Led shouts back. I roll my eyes.
“Not excited to have someone root around in my brain.”
O’Neil snorts ironically. “Your eyes, your ears, your arm. It’s not a brain surgery.”
“Since they’re only cutting in to my eye, I guess that’s totally okay. I’ll sign up right now,” I scratch my forearm in discomfort. The thought of anyone cutting into any part of my body unnecessarily, unnerved me. I had been in enough people’s heads to know I wanted no one in mine.
“What? I had the surgery.”
“Is that a hint of defensiveness I hear?”
“Only a hint, Aylah. Only a hint.”
“Will you two stop flirting and get to it?” Led’s annoying voice comes through. I roll my eyes.
“We did some research last night –”
“I did some research last night. You just went to bed,” Led accuses.
“ – And we got a hit off a building downtown. Coming or not?”
Led huffs in the background. I smile. It must dent his ego to be ignored. “What do you need me for, again?”
“Well, you did find the ‘V’, so how about your excellent observation skills?”
“Flattery? You know the way to my heart. I’ll send over my coordinates.” I look around for a clear landing area and spot a clearing between two grey buildings. I don’t know why I decide to join them. The possibility of me rereading Vui still presses into my shoulders, forcing them into an exhausted slump. But I enjoy the light banter O’Neil always seems to provide, and maybe it is the hope that just as he dashed my spirits by bequeathing me this burden, he can also take it away – if only somewhat.
“We’ll airtram you in five.”
I raise a brow. “I thought you were barred from police trams?”
“Who said it’s a Precinct tram?” And a devious undertone sparkles beneath his words.
“Yeah,” Led grumbles in the background. “Who says?”
I set my timer to it and they touchdown in three not five. A white unshielded tram descends from the greyness. The door pops up and O’Neil stands there in all his black uniform glory. He offers his hand to me, and his grip is strong when I take it. The door slides shut soundlessly. Led is sitting glumly at the back with his upper lip hidden beneath a pout. I slide off my rebreather.
“Whose tram is this?” I ask. The seats are in synthetic white leather with turquoise thread. There’s a row of chilled water bottles sitting neatly on a shelf, the glass misting.
"Led Whitson. Whitson," O'Neil tells me. "Ring any bells?"
"As in Carriah Whitson? Foreman Carriah Whitson?"
"Carriah Peqqa – she divorced my father ten years ago.” If possible, Led’s pink pout deepens.
"Your mother's a Foreman?" I repeat, albeit cluelessly. Carriah is one of the more respected Foreman, residing in Groenstad.
"Yeah." The intense green of his eyes bore into mine. I blink quickly to break contact and look away; his stare turns into a dark glare and he follows suit.
"We do seem to be running into a fair bit of Foremen, lately." O'Neil's eyes are unfocused, and his fingers tap away at his arm. Ita Ru, Sinead Vui and now Led's mother. Something sparkles at the edge of my eye. I tap the zoom button on the rim of my Specs and they download the information in a flash of blue: Happy twenty-first birthday, son. Love, Mom. 2269 LC.
I look at Led again, but money doesn't seem to be dripping off of him. From the tips of his honey blond hair to the toe of his police-issue boots, he looks as uniform as every other officer.
I relax into one of the seats and my Specs get a signal that my body is being heated externally. Seat heating? Crazy. I shake my head as though the momentum could shake the strangeness from me. “So,” I say, desperate to get my mind away from this exorbitant opulence. “What’s the lead?”
“Vui’s body was found in a back alley in Lowtown. Coroner downloaded Tirete’s last location from the remnants of the Optics Display he had – Tirete had just come from a building three blocks away from the scene of Vui's murder a year ago. We crosschecked that with Vui’s last locations that we have on file – she as in the same building.” O’Neil’s eyes are still glazed over as he focuses on his Optics Display instead of me while he talks.
"There interviews with the Madame of the house and some," Led coughs, "employees, but they're inconclusive."
"Maybe why Lio was there can tie into why Vui was?" I say.
Led coughs again; this time it is obvious he is attempting to unsubtley hide a laugh. "That's unlikely."
Most things are unlikely with Led's logic. "Why?" I can't prevent the undertone of irritation from creeping in.
"Well," O'Neil looks anywhere but at me. "It's The Painted Rose."
The name has no meaning to me. I'm not synced to the tram's cams; I can't see where we are. I remember the days when trams had windows – or rather, when we were in secondary school and they showed us pictures of trams with windows that carried hundreds of people but were called planes and had foldable wheels.
I sigh and resolve to search it up on the data stream. My fingers slide across my glass tab and web results glisten on the receiving end of my Specs.
I choke on spit. “A brothel?”