10 Days Earlier.
"Where are we going?"
Talim looked around the neighborhood as the ork tried to tug his armored jacket into something resembling respectability. For once, Talim fit into the environment while Aswang failed to match the surroundings; the houses in the neighborhood through which they walked sat on their own minute plots of land, a few with actual grass but most with small, well-tended gardens highlighted with pots of flowers. She felt herself vaguely surprised at the intense care on display, her vague mental framework of Filipino culture having been more satisfied with the poverty and squalor she'd seen in the Manila favela. The precise and elegant lines of each house's floral beds, despite the unfamiliar blooms and color choices, were nonetheless pleasing to the eye and clearly tended with close attention.
"Hm. Let me ask you something first, Talim. What would you call us?" Aswang resumed walking along the side of the road, moving easily but not as swiftly as he had on their way to the bus.
Talim kept pace, but frowned at his question. "I don't understand. What do mean?"
"Us," explained the ork, gesturing to the two of them with his thumb. "You, me, Mahirap, Suno and Yelo. All of us, the whole team."
"Um ..." She fought her way through the Tagalog she knew, trying to figure out what he meant. "Kawaruhito? Metahumans? Well, I guess not Yelo."
Aswang shook his head. "No, not that. The team as a whole, people who do what we do. Not our metatypes, but ... our business."
"Oh." She was silent for a few steps, trying to translate from one language to the other, finding words that half-meant the terms she knew in Japanese. "Hanzai-sha? Mga kriminal?"
"Well, okay, criminals, sure. Anything else?"
"Um ... supai? Batyaw?"
He lifted his hand and rubbed at his cheek. "Spies ... I suppose."
They walked for several more seconds as she thought it over. "I don't know. Most of the time we just called them criminals. Or kugutsu-kage, shadow puppets. There is ... a phrase in English they use. Shadow-runners."
Aswang snorted, a rough and inelegant sound. "I guess it gets the point across. Yeah. Agents-for-hire, black gloves, whatever you want to call it. Well, here in the Philippines, there are also rebels."
She blinked at the bald statement, then glanced quickly around. Though there were signs of the Japanese (there were always signs of the Japanese, both Imperial Marines and security from the various corporations), they were few; the closest security presence she knew about was a couple blocks away. Still, that was the closest she knew about. "Should we be talking about this in the open?"
"If the Japanese wanted to throw everybody who talked about the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon," he said wryly, "they'd have to throw us all in jail - and half their own people to boot. Seriously, do you really not know about them?"
She blushed, looking down at her feet, inexplicably remembering grabbing the running shoes from her closet and shoving them onto her feet into them at the start of the chaos of her escape from the Tengoku Enclave. "I ... had other things on my mind."
The ork grunted. "Gotta get your head out of your ass. You don't know what's going on around you, you can't see where the shots are coming from. I'd guess they taught you that in bodyguard training, but it don't apply only to bullets and bodies."
Nodding, she looked up and around again. "You mean, like, the news?"
"Yeah. Lawin keeps up with it the most, but Mahirap pays pretty good attention to corporate stuff. Really, we all keep our ear to the ground - our asses are on the line too. So it's a good idea for you to pay attention, ya?"
"It's okay. You're new at this. First time on the wrong end of the law, huh?"
She looked back down at her running shoes. Two shoes, two guns, two swords, a dagger and a baby girl, all in a mad desperate dash to survive another second, another minute, another hour. Another night. "Pretty much."
"How old are you?"
Talim looked up, blinking. "Me? Twenty-five."
"Really??" The ork looked sideways at her, down and up, then shook his head and seemed to be paying attention to the fronts of the buildings. "Geez."
"I dunno. I would've guessed younger."
Annoyed, she asked, "Well, how old are you??"
Looking surprised at the irritation in her voice, he glanced sideways at her again. "Eighteen."
"Whaddaya mean, 'what'? I'm older than you are, 'leastwise where it counts in this biz. Been on the streets my whole life." He looked irritated in turn, his shoulder blades lifting slightly as his body responded by getting him ready to fight back. "Mahirap picked me up once I got some control of my adept abilities under my belt, four years back, but I'd already been doing small-time stuff for a while. Orks grow up fast. We have to, if we really only live forty or fifty years. I've been in a gang, or pretty much one, ever since I could run around outside and get into trouble on my own."
"When was that?" she asked curiously.
Aswang shrugged. "I dunno, not like we keep really close track of time around here. Four, maybe five years old? Probably five, I guess."
"Five ..." She looked away, her heart seizing up in her chest. Someone like him, caught in a place like the favela. Born there. The poor were poor because they didn't follow directions, didn't want to advance or work hard - so she'd always been taught. Now, she was actually talking with someone whose childhood family feast had been the food thrown away from a decent restaurant.
It was forcing her to see the stark contrast to the way she'd been raised - advantages, opportunities, instruction. Thinking of him as real, as a person, instead of one fleck of the grumbling, dissolute masses outside the corporation, was something Shiawase hadn't wanted her to be able to even imagine, she realized with bone-deep shock.
The ork looked at her out of the corner of his eyes, and didn't miss her reaction. "Well, it wasn't like it was a real gang, y'know, protection and guns and drugs. We were five. It was about football games and little bruises and brawls with the kids from the next block over. Getting into fights where the worst that could happen was a cut or something from a thrown rock."
"Thrown rocks can kill people."
The ork mused upon that for a dozen or two steps. "I guess. Tough luck if that happened, though, from a five-year-old, even a five-year-old ork."
She shook her head again, feeling again a sudden sharp loss of place, a difficult thing for a young Japanese woman who'd always known where she fit in.
Once more, Aswang looked sideways at her, then reached out and gripped her shoulder. "Hey, don't be that way. You bring something the rest of us don't have, you know?"
She looked up and over at him. "You think so?"
"Sure," he said, dropping his hand and looking back at the neat houses and their tiny gardens. "If you didn't, Mahirap would never have let you stick around."
That surprised a laugh from her, though there was some bitterness to it. "Not one to keep useless things, is he?"
"Oh, sometimes," the ork smiled, deliberately jutting out his lower jaw. "Not for long, though. Everyone has their place, their advantage and reason for being in the team. Not just muscle, but upstairs, too, you know? Telling him about the Tsunami guy, that probably clinched it. You got insight to the corper mindset, none of the rest of us have that."
She nodded, considering his words. "So what do you bring? Upstairs, I mean."
"Me? I'm his ear on the street, of course. Having been in gangs for so long, I met a lot of people, lot of people know me, hey? Gangers especially. Got a rep as a tough guy to fight even before Mahirap got a hold of me, so I get respect from them. Pating would say I'm a big-ass mako shark in a bay full of barracuda or somethin'."
Talim smiled at the suggestion. "Probably. What about Suno and Yelo?"
"Well, you got a taste of Suno. Besides Matrix stuff, she does conspiracies and all that. Goes after the crazy stories." He glanced at her. "Likes giving the newbies a hard time."
She gave a sour smile. "And Yelo?"
"Yelo ... pays attention. He isn't one for planning, and really he doesn't track news or anything, but if he's awake, he's always paying attention to everything. And to be honest, I've never seen him sleep, so I'm honestly not sure if he does."
"Kind of ... a bodyguard, then?"
"More like a watchdog. But when Mahirap and Lawin are doing the planning thing and Pating is tearing their plans to pieces, Yelo will suggest pretty much every possible angle for them to consider."
She frowned, considering that. "Do you think ... do you think he gets that from an implant?"
Aswang considered that for a little, then shrugged. "I dunno. Don't think it matters, really," he added, then snorted and stopped. "Almost missed it. Here."
The house was completely unlike every other one on the street, and in that way, completely like them as well. A profusion of flowers and vegetables, tended with what looked like microscopic precision, decorated every square foot of front yard space. That every other house had similar flowers and vegetables made them look practically identical to her eye, but clearly the pattern was unique and identifiable, for Aswang swung onto the quarried-stone walkway and jandered to the front door, knocking on it with confidence.
"So who are these people?" she asked, scanning the street as they waited.
"David's a carpenter and a sculptor," Aswant replied. "Works only in wood. Getting pretty well-known in corporate and government circles, in fact; he's very particular about who he sells to. He makes the approach, doesn't put his stuff on the open market."
"That's ... kind of odd."
"Way he does business, is all. He makes enough, though; bought this place." He waved to the tidy house. "Maria's his wife."
As if on cue, a plump matron opened the painted panel up, wiping her hands clean on either side of her apron. "Javier!!" she caroled in a voice that carried for several houses in every direction, extending one flour-dusted hand towards the ork. Aswang managed to look embarrassed, but returned the short human woman's one-armed embrace, patting her on the back as she hugged him tight. "Come in, come in!!" she sang, looking past him to see Talim trailing reluctantly up the path after the ork. "Is this all you brought? Where's Raffi, you lunk? Come in, girl, come in, don't be shy - Javier hardly ever brings pretty girls by, so he's easily embarrassed."
Talim blushed, but allowed Aswang to gesture her into the spice-scented house ahead of him as he glanced in both directions before closing and securing the door behind. "Talim, this is Maria. Maria, Talim. Is David here?"
"Another Talim?" Maria's response held amusement instead of scorn, the way Suno's had. "Yes, yes, he's in the shop - a bit of fine cabinetry work. You know how he likes to keep his hand in."
"Thanks," said the ork. "If you don't mind, I'll go and get him."
"You go right ahead, give us girls some time alone." Maria smiled at the ork with clear fondness, watching him stalk through the house before turning back to her newest guest, her other hand emerging from behind the apron quite competently gripping a small but clearly well-used and -cared-for pistol.
"Into the kitchen, dear. I don't like interrogating people in the foyer."
"David? Maria said you were in here." Aswang stopped at the shop's entrance, nostrils flaring at the scents of machine oil and wood shavings.
"Workbench," came a man's laconic voice.
Stepping through the first room and its various electrical implements, Aswang halted again in the doorway between the two rooms, blinking at the ork with a wire connecting his head to the ceiling. The ork held a mallet in one hand and appeared to be carving a fairly sizeable log. As Aswang watched, he picked up a chisel without looking, quickly but carefully placed it, delivered a precise whack to seat it, and then used a series of judicious, sharp blows to peeled a strip off the block. Without taking his eyes off the block, he replaced the first chisel and selected a second, simultaneously engaging a foot-pedal to rotate the turntable and bring another portion of the block into view. "That always gets me," Aswang said, crossing his arms and leaning against the doorjamb as he looked at the row of chisels, the first one replaced exactly in its place, as it had been before the other ork had picked it up. "Like a machine."
"You knew what I was up to when Maria said I was doing fine cabinetry work, so don't start complaining," replied the other ork, flicking a glance towards the adept while knocking several chunks out of the block with the new chisel. "Why are you here?"
"Mahirap wants to know if the Huk have a camp up in the mountains past Alfonso Castañeda."
"What a stupid question; of course they do. Devil's in the details, boy. If I know Omar, though, he sent you along with exact data. Plug's on the workbench next to you."
Aswang looked down, and after a moment found the console underneath a piece of oilcloth. Another moment had the chip out of his pocket and slotted into the receiver. "Got it?"
"Hmm. No, nothing of the Huk there, and nothing within five air kilometers of that. Rough terrain, there; I'm surprised there's anything at all in that area. Probably used to be some sort of resort."
"What makes you say that?"
David moved his current chisel to the turntable and tapped it. An ancient-style trideo projector in the corner clicked on, its pseudo-hologram slowly coming into focus. "Here. See this rectangle? That's a swimming pool if ever I saw one. You don't get many swimming pools in mountain rebel training camps. Give me a minute, let me pass this around."
Aswang watched David work for a few moments, then wondered out loud, "Do you know any other decker with this kind of setup?"
David smiled, the turntable twitching the clamped-down block of wood first one way, then the other, mallet and chisel knocking off chips each time. "No. But then, there aren't a lot of deckers who've invested in a reality filter; it takes a lot of time to hone the programming. You can bet that if I ever run into something that suppresses my filter, I'll engage the RAS overrides faster than you can blink."
"Yeah, but doesn't it bug you that you can't tell what's real and what's not?"
"Right now, big guy, it's all real to me," the woodcarving decker stated as he continued to work. "So who's that cute little piece you brought along? Does she know you're interested?"
"I am not!!"
"Denial, thy name is Javier. Did you know she's interested??"
"Obliviousness, thy name is also Javier," the woodcarver said with a laugh. "Never mind. Hmm. Here's something for you - nobody on-call knows anything of what's up there. If I were you, I'd be ready for anything. Everything. If they're not part of the Huk, they could be anyone, though I think I'd guess a training camp for someone international. TerraFirst!, ecoterrorists or anarchists or who-knows-what. Why your Salaysay wants it hit, I can't imagine."
Aswang looked a little disgruntled, but kept his peace. "What's the target you're working on?" he asked as David klocked mallet against chisel a few times.
"Government system on Mindao. Relocation data."
"Oh. Gonna sell it to them?" he asked, gesturing with his chin at the block David was working on.
"After I get it polished up, turned into something that looks like something, of course. By the way, who vouched for your chit inside?"
"The Kind Man."
David paused, mallet lifted. "Uri himself?" Whack! "Well, crap. You better go tell Maria that before she puts two into the girl."
"Huh? Oh, crap!!" Aswang left at a run.
"They're in the kitchen!!" David called after him, shaking his head and knocking more pieces of wood off the block in front of him.