42 4 20

Aria buzzed through again. Again again. "Let me in, JD, seriously." Finally, the gate opened to let the cab through, then slid shut behind it with a whisper and a click. There was space inside for the cargo, but not enough. Aria would still have to shift things around to make room, but that wasn't unusual. Lights flashed and flickered in conversation between machines in various states of activity and repair. The place was a tip. So many people Aria knew were comfortable living and working like that. Her fingers twitched with the urge to tidy.

She got out of the cab. Ruby started to follow, then stopped, half in and half out of the door. Her hands shook against the frame. How long would it be until she stopped needing to hold on to something to make new places seem less threatening? It was a familiar feeling to Aria, distant, maybe more like a memory, but there was no time frame attached to it. Some things stopped mattering along the way, or they got pushed aside by other things that started to matter more.

JD was elbow deep in a case of wires, muttering threats at it until an eardrum-piercing shriek screeched out and rose to a blessedly inaudible pitch.

A shade of a headache passed behind Aria's eyes, then melted away to nothing. "JD, this is Ruby Ibarra, fugitive and recently assigned protectee. Ruby, this is Jeanne d'Arc Lindberg, tech wrangler extraordinaire and ethical void."

JD raised her head, assimilating the information, looking at Ruby with one of those stares that could suck your secrets out through your pores. "Need screened?"

Ruby flinched and looked at Aria, anxiety tightening in her jaw. "I think so?"

"Yeah, you do." Aria glared pointedly at JD. "Taf told me to bring her here tonight, so can you do it as soon as possible? Please?" It wasn't really a question.

JD mulled it over for a few seconds. "I'm not busy and Molly's out on a job, so yeah, sure. I'm going to set up another cast first though. Want in?"

Aria nodded. Ruby shook her head and took her last hesitant step out of the cab, letting go of the door frame. She looked back as if she was checking for an escape route and came to stand half next to Aria and half behind her.

JD rolled her chair over to the least chaotic desk and clicked into her leg blades, then got up and rummaged in a drawer for the cells. So much mess. She gave one to Aria and they attached, something calm to help JD work and to help Aria not work, at least once she finished moving everything around and unloading the cab.

About as proficient as Aria at navigating other people's fear, JD talked to Ruby the way someone might talk to a frightened animal. "Screening doesn't hurt or anything. I don't need to start digging around in there, cutting bits out and replacing them. That's always an option, but it's tidier just to program what's already there since we can. Then you can flash your sensors with new IDs any time you want, or you can be a ghost. Whatever."

Ruby looked no less terrified, standing alone now in open space. "And what? It stops scanners from being able to pick me up or..?"

JD recalibrated her explanation. "The scanners won't be able to pick up any real information about you. If you want, you can be basically invisible to them because you're not carrying any of the code they're looking for. But also, you can add in all sorts of false info that you want them to be able to pick up instead, like code for a different name or job title. Does that make sense?"

Aria stopped the heavy lifting and looked over.

Ruby wasn't shaking as much, but there was still a layer of tension holding her rigid. "I think so. And it's not invasive at all?"

"Nope." JD and Aria spoke at the same time.

Ruby looked from one of them to the other and back again. "Are you screened? Both of you?"

Aria got on with lifting and carrying, drifting between closeness and distance, keeping an eye on everything, leaving JD to answer. "Kind of, but we're old-school exsensory. It used to take full-on surgery to dig out all the tech, then you had to replace it with hacked versions so you could—sorry. Short answer, yes. We are. It's part of the job."

Ruby took a few more steps into the room, towards JD. She still looked like she might bolt, but there wasn't anywhere to go. "The job? Are you a trader too?"

JD raised an eyebrow in Aria's direction.

Aria shrugged in response because what was left to hide?

JD tilted her head from side to side, cracking her neck. "Sort of. I mean, I'm involved in trade, but I focus more on the technical side. See all that cargo Aria's taking out of the cab? I'll be adjusting it so it can be used for not its intended purposes by people who aren't supposed to have it."

Ruby's eyes widened. "I knew all this went on, but I didn't think...I've never met anyone who...sorry, I don't really know what to say. I don't want to be rude. It's been a long day. Or days, I think." She twisted her sleeves between her fingers and looked at the floor.

JD prepped the screening gear, wires and wires and tools and lights. She motioned to a table, plastic so it didn't interfere with the machines. There was a pillow, more of a gesture than an actual comfort, and grippers lying open at points where they could reach the wrists and ankles of a person who wouldn't stay still if it came to that. She beckoned Ruby over. "Right, I need you up here."

Aria left the rest of the unloading. It could wait. Priorities.

Ruby climbed up and lay back. Her fingertips brushed against the grippers and she pulled her hands back like she'd been burned, clenching them into fists by her sides. "And this definitely won't hurt? At all?"

JD was in her element. Even though she had some kind of low-level tranquil focus aura casting almost all the time, she still got hyper when she was firing up her gear. Everything she used was self-built and she was pretty attached to it. "Nope. It'll sound a bit like...actually it doesn't really sound like anything else you'd have heard, and you won't hear it as such anyway, but you'll feel it. Sort of. Doesn't hurt though. You'll be good. Just stay very still."

It was going to be fine, of course it was, but maybe it was too familiar to Ruby in all the wrong ways. It wasn't the same set-up as they had in rehab, but it was close enough, especially since this wasn't her world yet. Aria rested a hand on the table, next to Ruby's still-clenched fist. "It'll be really quick, I promise. Less than a minute and it'll be over. You'll be all right."

Ruby attempted a pale impression of a smile and closed her eyes.

JD grinned, a rare display of emotion. She slid a narrow plate under the back of Ruby's neck and another under her right wrist, lining them up with her intrabio sensors. She pulled a corresponding set of plates down from an arm above the table, checked their position and made minuscule adjustments until something spat out a soft crackle of white noise. "OK, hang in there." She swiped and tapped a screen in front of her. For a second or two, the air felt charged with a shadow of static, then it faded.

Ruby slowly opened one eye and then the other. "Is that it?"

JD removed the plates, set them aside and pushed the hovering arm back out of the way so Ruby could sit up. She lifted a scanner—the kind Authority agents carried—and held it over the back of Ruby's neck, then her wrist.

The scanner didn't react beyond its neutral low hum.

JD nodded her approval, dropped the scanner onto the desk behind her, and gave Ruby two thumbs up. "Congratulations. Now you can be anyone you want, or no-one at all. Welcome to the Other Side."

Heavy Frequency [updates Tue + Fri]Where stories live. Discover now