The Princess and the Thief
Yan Sun’s fingers danced over the haptic interface of her desk, noting down every word said by Mrs. Wright, who stood in the front of the classroom in one of her usual atrocious outfits. Apparently padded shoulders was the latest fashion on the Citadel. Most of the other students were using the desks’ auto-transcription software, but Yan Sun insisted on typing down what was said manually. No better way to remember the lecture, after all. She was pretty sure had already memorized this information weeks ago, but her father would never forgive her if she failed Friday’s test, so this was no time to slack.
Her early advancement to university had been a saving grace. She’d been bored out of her mind in secondary school, and nearly failed several times. Here, here she was in her element. Learning about the latest and greatest in the tech world, from Earth and beyond. Being allowed an early enrollment on merit alone was virtually impossible. Her parents had paid a great deal for her current education, she knew that much. Some of the others were like her, 16 or 17 year-olds on their second year. The rest were older, admitted through normal channels. HKUST was a prestigious institution these days, and with an ever-increasing pool of applicants a great deal of money, or a connection to the Party, was more or less mandatory to get in. Luckily, Yan Sun had both.
When the lecture ended and students started filing out Yan Sun was quick to gather up her things, tuck her dark hair back behind her ears and head for the exit. She made her way outdoors, going for a walk along one of the many tiled paths overlooking Clearwater Bay. It was a sunny day, and the buildings on the campus cast long shadows all the way to the sea. The name of the bay hadn’t been appropriate for well over a century. The cleanup efforts had been extensive, but it was still many decades away from being safe for swimming. You wouldn’t guess from the surface though. Sparkling blue as ever.
She decided to stop by the VI Labs before going home. It had been a long time since she’d gotten to do any practical work, and she was itching to see what the others were working on. Plus she was pretty sure Lei Huang was a guest lecturer today. She would be a little late to the shuttle, but it should wait for her. The VI Labs were housed in their own building, on a separate network from the rest of the university for security reasons.
The sliding doors opened to the student ID in her omni-tool, letting her into the maze of corridors and doors that was the VI lab. The voices of half-finished personality reconstructions spouting iconic dialogue sounded from one of the rooms she passed. The next was nothing but long rows of idling computer terminals. She passed a lot of rooms like that one. Some filled with students, others empty like the first. After that came the room that housed some of the university’s rarest hardware under lock and key, only to be brought out when needed. Computers from across the galaxy, for test-running software on alien hardware. High-end asari omni-tools. A cutting edge quantum computer. And, of course, the prize of the collection: A decommissioned geth platform.
She finally came to the door she was looking for - one of the only lecture halls housed in the VI Labs building. She slipped in quietly and took a seat near the door. Lei Huang was near the end of his lecture. About AI simulation, from the sound of things. Lei Huang was a man in his late 20s with short brown hair and a look of perpetual excitement over his work. He was a technician at SunTech, and he was also a HKUST alumni and recurring guest lecturer. Aaand… a friend? Sort of? Yan Sun often went down to the VI workshops in the Tower in her spare time - she had been hanging onto his chair and looking over his shoulder at the screens in the workshops since he was an intern. Long before she had any clue what any of the code that filled the screens meant.
After his lecture ended she stuck around, intercepting Lei Huang. The conversation was short, most of it work-related as usual, and it ended with a promise to stop by workshops to check out the alpha for the next-gen SunTech medical VI. And plans to do the new Galaxy of Fantasy raid come the weekend.
After the conversation ended, Yan Sun started heading towards one of the computer labs to see what her classmates were working on, but she didn’t get far before she saw something that made her stop. There was someone at the door to the hardware room, and she didn’t look like a teacher. She looked maybe a couple of years older than Yan Sun, and had short, unruly hair dyed a vibrant teal. She was clad in form-fitting black biker’s leathers that had tech inlays that matched her hair. She was also looking around uneasily as she keyed something into the door interface and it slid open.
Yan Sun remained frozen in place for a moment after the unfamiliar girl disappeared into the room. Does she go report it right away? Maybe she had permission to access it. It did seem like she knew the code. She hesitantly approached the open door, peeking inside. The storage room was cramped and dimly lit, with rows of shelves that housed various components and fully assembled systems. The decommissioned geth was mounted upright on a rolling base, much like a biology-class skeleton, and the unexpected sight of it right next to the doorway was enough to prompt a startled breath.
The sound caused the stranger inside to spin around from the shelf she’d been turned toward, blinking when she spotted Yan Sun. Her gaze darted around for a moment.
“Can I… help you?” she asked tentatively.
“Uhm… no, I was just-... uh… are you allowed to be in here?”
The girl’s reply took a moment, eyebrows furrowing slightly. She was holding what looked like one of the high-end asari omni-tools. A Nexus. “Uhh… are you?”
The reply caused Yan Sun to blink in confusion. “Uhm… I’m-... I’m not in there…?” A bit of unease entered her face as she glanced down the corridor, pointing a thumb towards the entrance where the administration was. “I’m gonna-...”
She didn’t have time to finish the sentence before the stranger closed the distance between them, tugging her into the room and poking her head out to take a quick look around the corridor before closing the door.
“What are you-... get your hands off me!” Yan Sun exclaimed frustratedly as she wrested free from the stranger’s grip on her shirt, taking a couple of steps back. “You’re not allowed to be in here, are you?!”
The girl winced, running a hand through her short hair. “Not exactly, no, but look, just-”
“I’m gonna report this!” Yan Sun stepped toward the door only to have her path blocked by the leather-clad stranger.
“Look, let’s just stay relaxed here. No need to-”
“No I’m not gonna relax! What are you doing with that thing?” she asked with a nod towards the omni-tool in the suspicious girl’s hand. “Are you stealing?”
“I’m just-...” The girl trails off, letting out an exasperated sigh. “Yeah, I’m taking it. Is that a problem?”
“Wh-... yes it’s a problem! It’s illegal. It’s wrong!”
“Oh, come on. The university has, like… infinite donation money. They’ll just buy new ones. If they even notice it’s gone.” the thief said with a roll of her eyes, hand dropping from the doorway.
Yan Sun took the opportunity right away, trying to slip past the intruder, only to be shoved back against the wall. A jolt of fear ran through her body as she realized for the first time that this might actually be a dangerous situation. She also just now realized how much taller the thief was than her, and how little trouble she seemed to have holding her in place. Strong grip. There was muscle hiding beneath the leather. She found herself tongue-tied, just staring at the tall girl that suddenly seemed a lot more intimidating than she had a moment ago.
“Sorry. Can’t let you leave the room.” the stranger said, her voice quieter now. Up close like this, she could feel her breath. It was warm. “My friend needs help, and to help him, I need this.” she said, wiggling the omni-tool in her free hand in the small space between them. She actually sounded a bit apologetic.
A chill ran down Yan Sun’s spine as she tried to figure out what the first statement meant. “Are-... are you going to kill me?!” she blurted out as the thought suddenly occurred to her, eyes widening.
The thief let out a surprised snort at the sudden panic. “What-... no! No, I’m not gonna kill you!” she was quick to assure, seeming amused by the outburst. “Just… need you to stay in here until I’m out, yeah?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow questioningly. Yan Sun’s attention lingered on the amused grin that was still on her lips, travelling up the piercings that decorated her face until she met her gaze. Uncertainty and embarrassment started settling in as she realized she had no idea how to handle the situation. It was probably safest to just… do as instructed, right?
“I-I-I-... uh… yeah. Okay. Yeah. I’ll just-... yeah…” she blurted out, gaze falling to the floor as she felt her cheeks burning. The thief continued to study her for a moment in silence, her expression shifting a little. Then she stepped back, her hand no longer gripping Yan Sun’s arm, her body no longer blocking her path.
“Okay. Okay. Cool.” Her gaze darted over towards the door, and for a moment there’s a hint of nerves shining through her confident demeanor. How well did she plan this?
Yan Sun hesitated as the thief pocketed the omni-tool and headed for the door. “Your friend. Why does he need help…?” she asked hesitantly, prompting the stranger to stop and look back.
“Not really any of your business.” she said before taking another step.
Yan Sun only had a moment to decide whether to say anything. She was a thief! Why should she warn her? But-... crap.
“Wait! There’s a tracker on the omni.” she called out before she could regret it. The girl stopped, turning around fully now.
“A tracker. All uni hardware has tracking software installed. They’ll see it wasn’t signed out. You won’t get far.”
The thief spat out a curse, uncertainty entering her face. It was obvious that she had thought she’d be able to just walk out once she had the omni-tool.
“Can you sign it out?” she asked, sudden urgency in her voice as she held up the omni-tool, her gaze focused on Yan Sun.
“I mean, yeah, but-”
“Do it!” she instructed, thrusting the omni-tool towards her, an intense look on her face. She winced slightly. “Please.”
Yan Sun bit down on her lips as she hesitated. She could get in trouble for this. She almost certainly would get in trouble for this. Why did she even say something? This girl was trying to steal from the university! But… she could tell what she’d said about her friend needing help was true. Serious.
“Fine!” she spat out, reaching out to take the omni-tool. The sleek, default-orange interface lit up and she keyed in her student ID. As soon as she’d handed the omni-tool back she felt the panic rising in her chest. What the hell was she doing?! “Oh my god… I-... I’m going to be expelled. Arrested. My dad’s going to be furious, I-I-”
The leather-clad thief blinked as Yan Sun started freaking out, not quite sure what to do at first. “Hey. Hey! Look, uhm… how about… once I’m done with this…” she said, shaking the omni-tool a little. “...I’ll bring it back?” she suggests, eyebrows rising slightly. When there was no immediate response she gave her arm a pat and added: “Sound good?”
Yan Sun was quick to give a couple of nods. It was about the best she could hope for, wasn’t it? The promise of a thief didn’t do all that much to ease her worries though.
“I’m gonna bring it back. Promise. No… getting expelled.” she assured with an amused snicker, gesturing around aimlessly as she spoke. “Appreciate the assist, yeah? I’m Changying, by the way.” She wasn’t sure if the name was real, of course. Wouldn’t make much sense for it to be. But maybe it was an offering to back up her assurance?
“Uhm… I’m Yan Sun.” she managed, just barely, remaining awkwardly in place as the thief nodded and smiled, pressing the panel for the door.
“Nice to meet you, Yan Sun.” she said with a wink and a grin before disappearing out into the corridor. Yan Sun remained in the now-empty storage room, her gaze going to the lifeless geth that studied her with a lone, judgmental eye.
What just happened?
A week. It had been a week since Yan Sun made what is surely going to go down as the biggest mistake of her life. What on Earth was she thinking? She had come across a stranger stealing university property and instead of reporting her she had just… frozen up.
No. It was worse than that. She’d helped her. She was an accessory now. If word got out… the only thing she could think of was what the look on her father’s face would be. He had invested a lot of money in her education. If she got expelled... the thought of letting him down was terrifying. Sure, they had disagreements, but university was something that they had both agreed on. She wanted to make him proud, doubly so after the effort he put into getting her an early enrollment.
And now… she’d done this. Nobody had noticed yet. At least she didn’t think so. Nobody had asked. It was only a matter of time before somebody did though.
She had been a mess of nerves during the flight home the day it happened. Part of her panicking over what she’d done, wondering what would happen if someone found out. Part of her wanting to believe that it’d be fine, that the omni-tool would be returned the next day like nothing ever happened. Part of her berating herself for being an idiot, just wondering what the hell she was thinking. There was also a part that couldn’t stop thinking about how she’d felt, the genuine fear when she was cornered. Fear and-... no. Just fear. She’d been intimidated and acted like an idiot, that was it.
She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the chance encounter all week. The worry made it hard to focus on her studies. She’d spent most of her free time gaming to distract herself, hoping the next day would be the one. Of course, with each day that passed, it became increasingly obvious that she was an idiot. What kind of thief would come bring back what they stole once they were done with it?
That was what was going through Yan Sun’s head as she walked towards the university parking lot after yet another day without any sign of Changying. The thief. Obviously that wasn’t her real name. Idiot.
As the parking lot came into view, she spotted the sleek white skycar in the same spot as always, idling smoothly a couple of feet off the ground as it waited for her. She was already on her way across the pavement towards it when she noticed the bike out of the corner of her eye. Or, more accurately, the girl leaned against it.
Changying. She was there. Casually leaned against a motorcycle. The bike was a lean, sporty thing with black paint that shone in the afternoon sun. Changying was dressed in biker’s leathers, just like the last time she’d seen her. She had an equally black helmet with a polarized visor under her right arm. A second helmet sat on the back of the bike. A grin spread across her face when she noticed Yan Sun, and she raised an arm to wave her over.
Yan Sun couldn’t quite believe it. She’d finally come back? Really? Was she going to hand it back? Why else would she be here? Just to rub her stupidity in her face?
“Yan Sun!” she exclaimed as she got closer. The grin on her face just grew.
“Changying. You-... are you here to give it back? I thought-... I really thought I was never gonna see you again.” She tried to temper the wave of relief that was already flooding her mind, she didn’t have any confirmation yet, but she couldn’t help the relieved laugh that slipped out.
“Oookay, somebody’s happy to see me.” she replied with a snicker, her grin growing a bit cockier as she studied the student before her. She waited just a moment, until Yan Sun’s smile wavered from hesitation, before pulling the Nexus out of her jacket pocket, showing it to her. “Relax. Said I’d bring it back, didn’t I…?”
Yan Sun could feel her cheeks flushing with embarrassment over her week-long freakout. Sure, she had good reason to doubt, but it was hard not to react when called out.
“Not gonna lie. I thought about keeping it. We… could really use one of these.” she said, shrugging her shoulders slightly as she studied the omni-tool, turning it over in her hand. “But… you helped me. Didn’t have to do that. Not gonna get you in trouble over it.” With those words she flashed a small smile and underhanded the omni-tool to Yan Sun, who… blinked as it impacted her chest, hands scrambling to catch it far too late.
Yan Sun’s eyes went wide as she looked down at the device on the pavement. Changying just watched in disbelief. She hurriedly crouched down to pick it up. “Pleaseworkpleaseworkpleasework…” she chanted to herself as she went to activate the haptic interface. She let out a loud sigh of relief as she was greeted with the home screen. She gave the case itself a quick look-over. A little scuffed on one side, but hopefully no one would notice…
Changying had a balled up hand over her mouth as Yan Sun stood back up, trying and failing to mask her laughter. It caused her embarrassment to return in full force. “You good?”
The only response she could muster was a couple of nods, avoiding the older girl’s gaze.
“Okay. You need to hand that thing in right away, or… you got some time?” she asked with a questioning raise of her eyebrow.
Yan Sun frowned in confusion, attention going back to Changying. “Uhm… it’s… no rush, I guess. Why…?” she asked, no shortage of suspicion in her voice.
The girl that was leaning against the bike grabbed the second helmet with her left hand and held it out towards Yan Sun as a wide grin crossed her lips. “Thought we could go for a ride. Figure I at least owe you a drink or something after you helped me out…”
Yan Sun eyed the helmet in disbelief. “Uhm... I-... what?”
“Head into town, grab a drink or something and chat for a bit?”
“I mean-... but-... what? I can’t-... I-I have a car waiting...” was all she could manage, her gaze darting over to the skycar that was still waiting for her just a few slots away.
“Just an offer.” she said with a shrug, letting the arm holding the second helmet drop to her side as she pushed off from the bike. “No big deal if you don’t wanna come.” she assured with a little smirk, although there was a hint of disappointment in her eyes as she straddled the bike, slipping her own helmet on.
Yan Sun bit her lip, frozen in place as her gaze darted between the shuttle that took her home every day, and the mysterious thief that was starting up her black bike. The lights that came to life around the wheels were the same teal as her hair. She wasn’t really thinking about this, was she? Hopping on the bike of some random criminal going to who-knows-where was a really, really dumb idea. She’d done enough stupid things in the past week, no need to-
“Wait! I’m coming!” Crap.
She could feel her heart beating faster as she struggled to climb onto the rear of the bike and Changying handed her the spare helmet. What was she doing? It was over! She had the omni-tool back! There was absolutely no reason to do this. The helmet went on, bulky and uncomfortable. Changying reached over to make sure that it was on right, gloved hands tugging at the straps.
“All good.” she confirmed with a thumbs up, her smile unseen behind the polarized visor, but heard in her voice. “Just wrap your arms around my waist and hold on tight, okay?”
Yan Sun was very glad the helmet hid her face because she was pretty sure it was bright red as she wrapped her arms around Changying from behind, trying to hold on just the right amount. Not so much it’s weird, and not so little she’ll fall off.
The bike rumbled to life. It wasn’t loud, little more than a faint whir as Changying backed it out and left the parking lot. Few bikes were all that loud these days, unless they were gas-guzzling antiques. But she could feel the vibrations of the engine. Deceptively powerful for such a small vehicle, which she learned in full when it pulled onto a larger road and the speed climbed rapidly.
She suddenly found herself holding onto Changying a whole lot tighter, leaned close as she hugged her for dear life. Part of her registered the vibrations of laughter from the girl in front of her, but she couldn’t hear anything over the wind rushing by, and the rest of her mind was far too preoccupied with the fear of imminent death to care.
The motorcycle slowed when they left the coast and started to make their way into more urban territory, but Yan Sun didn’t dare loosen her grip. Entering the city proper from the east they quickly ended up passing through the Burn. Blocks of nothing but debris and the empty husks of burned-out buildings. The remnants of the fire of ‘70. Most of the eastern slums had burned down before the fire could be contained. Reconstruction efforts had made a lot of headway since then, and the streets were all cleaned up, but there were a lot of ruins that hadn’t been knocked down yet.
Yan Sun rarely saw this part of the city - her route back from university just passed over most of it, heading straight for the Sun Tower landing pad. When she explored the city it was mostly the core districts. She found her gaze wandering a bit to study their surroundings as they passed. As much as her still-present fear allowed, anyhow.
It wasn’t long before the burned-out buildings gave way to construction sites, and then monolithic, towering gray housing projects, perfectly uniform and fully integrated into the city network. These were the buildings that housed all those that lost their homes in the fires. Sure seemed like an upgrade. SunTech was handling the tech for the new buildings. It was nice to know that their company could do some good work.
For a brief time Changying’s path took them into the central districts, where tall, glimmering spires of glass and greenery towered above, leaving the ground level streets in perpetual shadows. It was odd to see familiar territory from such a different angle. She was used to wandering the boulevards and walkways that ran above them, between, along, and at times through the buildings. The streetside down here wasn’t all that different from above - lots and lots of stores and establishments of all sorts, but the brands were different and the signage was a whole lot more haphazard - old neon signs intermingled with newer holographic displays, with irregular heights and spacing.
They didn’t remain long in the central part of the city, Changying weaving expertly between cars to get keep a steady pace. Soon enough the buildings were shrinking in size, and getting older. A gradual, but noticeable progression. They were in the northwestern part of the city now, closer to the ports. In the distance, the highways ran elevated off to another enclave of towering skyscrapers to the north, and beyond that, the virtually endless expanse of the rest of the Guangzhou megacity. Above the highways, a freighter could be seen descending towards the spaceport, it’s underbelly covered in a colorful quilt of shipping containers. Yan Sun knew some of this area was considered slums as well. The architecture here was some of the oldest in the city. Crooked residential buildings a few centuries old mingled with modular, semi-modern additions.
It was only when the bike came to a stop in an area that seemed to consist mostly of old, half-abandoned buildings with few people about that she came to the realization that not only did she have basically no idea where they were, but this didn’t exactly seem like the safest area to begin with. Changying pulled the bike into an alley between two old buildings, stopping at a seemingly arbitrary shutter.
She remained on the bike for a couple of awkward moments until Yan Sun realized that it was time to let go of her, at which point she jumped off and went to pull up the metal shutters, revealing a room of barren concrete that must have been a garage or a delivery bay for a store or something at some point. After Yan Sun got off she backed the bike in and went to close the shutter, prompting Yan Sun to pry off her helmet before stepping in to stop her.
“When you said ‘a drink’, I was kind of expecting a cafe or something, not… whatever this is. Honestly, I’m-... I’m pretty freaked out here. If this-... if you brought me out here to murder me or something that’s… a really weird and messed up way to go about doing… crime… stuff. You already had the omni-tool! Just-... I think I just want to go home.”
Changying let out a sigh under her helmet, turning to study Yan Sun. “What exactly is it you think that I do…?” she wondered aloud, before shaking her head and pulling her helmet off. “Look, just-... we’re almost there. If you really wanna go I’ll take you home, but… you’ll miss out on that drink. One time offer…” she hummed with a little smirk, right hand still resting on the shutter handle above as she looked down at the shorter girl.
Yan Sun remained awkwardly in place as she considered her options. Going home was definitely the smart option. She didn’t even have to get back on the bike. She could have the shuttle over in a minute. But… she hadn’t exactly been picking the smart option so far. She found her gaze lingering on Changying’s face. The smirk. The hair, messed up and a little sweaty from the helmet. The little scar on her chin.
“Okay. Let’s go.” she said with a hopefully nonchalant shrug, trying to look more confident than she felt. Changying’s smirk grew into a wide grin and she gestured towards the door at the back of the room before closing the shutter.
It was ten flights of stairs to get to the roof. Apparently, the elevator in this building hadn’t worked in years. She wasn’t quite sure if anyone lived here or if the apartments were abandoned. Once on the roof, they crossed a rickety bridge to the neighboring building. At least the suspiciously homemade-looking bridge had railings.
A number of modular prefab units were stacked on top of the roof they now found themselves on, adding a couple of additional, albeit irregular, floors to the building. Changying approached a locked door, punching in a code.
“Why did you take me to some… ruin? What is this place?”
“It’s, uh… it’s my home.” came the reply, accompanied by a less cocky, more awkward look from Changying. “Head’s up. Just moved in. Kind of a work in progress.” she warned, before the door opened to a large prefab room filled with all sorts of worn-down furniture, cardboard boxes and miscellaneous crates. In the center was a hole in the floor that led directly to the stairs down into the building proper. It seemed that the entire structure surrounding the top level of the stairs had been removed. A ladder led up to the next level of prefabs.
Yan Sun looked around, caught between curiosity and fear as she stepped into the room. She took a peek down the stairs, prompting Changying to speak up.
“Ah, we’re headed up. Kind of a mess down there. Like I said. Work in progress.” She gestured towards the ladder, and up they went, two floors. The top level. The highest part of the irregular, three-tiered prefab pyramid was basically just a single unit. A plain bed against one wall, a tiny table, and a dresser. A shuttered window looking out at the city. The far wall had a door, but it seemed to just go… nowhere. That’s where Changying went, grabbing a couple of bottles from a crate just inside before stepping out.
As it turned out, the door led to the roof of the prefab below. A makeshift balcony of sorts. She sat down on the edge and gestured for her guest to join her. Yan Sun hesitated for only a moment before sitting down next to her, looking out at the view. They faced west where they were sitting, the low sun partly hidden behind the massive, elevated highway that stretched from south to north, filled with a steady stream of people going to and from the spaceport, and beyond it the other megacity zones. Beyond the highway the cargo cranes at the docks towered.
Changying held out a bottle for Yan Sun to take. According to the label it was beer. Not strong beer, but beer nonetheless.
“Uhm… I can’t-... I’m 16.” she explained awkwardly, prompting a long look from Changying as she tried to decide whether the refusal was joking.
“Yeah, I’m-... I’m not gonna tell, you know.” she assured with an amused expression, still holding the bottle out. “What did you think ‘a drink’ meant?”
Yan Sun scratched her neck, blushing a little as the embarrassment started to come back. “I don’t know, tea?” she suggested with a shrug.
“Sorry, this is all I’ve got right now. Gonna have to take a rain-check if you want a cup of tea.”
Yan Sun furrowed her eyebrows, sucking in her lips as she considered. It… wasn’t that big of a deal, right? One beer? Another glance at Changying sealed the deal and she took the bottle, eyeing it hesitantly for a moment before taking a small sip. It was… not good. Not even a little. The grimace on her face must have told as much because Changying burst into laughter while watching her. “Not a fan?”
“Wh-... this is disgusting! Why-... just why…?”
The girl in the biker’s leathers snickered. “You are just adorable.” she mused quietly under her breath before taking a long swig from her own bottle. As Yan Sun heard the comment she could feel her cheeks heating up, and she was quick to take another sip from her beer in the hopes that it would help her growing embarrassment. That was how alcohol worked, right?
As it turned out, a single bottle of low-alcohol beer didn’t do much of anything. Aside from being gross. But the two of them ended up talking for quite a while, well after the bottles were emptied. Changying confirmed that things had worked out with her friend. He was no longer in trouble. But she didn’t want to go into detail. She also explained she’d found this place a couple of months ago, mostly abandoned. The stairwell was collapsed, so the upper floors were entirely uninhabited. Yan Sun had a whole lot of questions about who she was, what she did for a living, and why she was living up here, but she didn’t dare to ask most of them. Instead they talked about the bike, about what kind of drinks Yan Sun might like, and about her studies at the university. Which led to a confession that Changying had been more than a little freaked out when she’d thought things had gone sideways while grabbing the omni-tool.
Eventually, the two of them just ended up watching the view. They watched the ships coming and going from the spaceport, and after a while, the sun starting to set over the water, bathing the hazy sky and the buildings around them in an orange glow. It was then that Changying got on her feet with a grunt, offering a hand to help Yan Sun up.
“Alright, let’s get you home, yeah?” she said with a smile, nodding towards the door behind them.
“Uhm… I-... yeah.” she agreed, nodding and looking over towards the door before looking back to Changying. “Hey, uh… I was just wondering. Why did you bring me out here?”
She smirked at the question. “Like I said, you helped me out. And… I had a good feeling about you. Think I was right.” she replied.
“What? I don’t-... what does that mean?”
“You’re a good person. I can tell. I think you should come back some time. Meet some of my friends.”
Yan Sun blinked. “Uhm… okay. Uh… I mean, maybe…? I’m not really sure what that means, and you’re doing the thing again where you’re being weirdly cryptic and it’s kind of setting off some alarms, you know?”
Changying let out a snort and shook her head. “It’s nothing weird. They’re good people too. Just think you’d get along, that’s all. And… you’re pretty cool. I’d kinda like to see you again, yeah?”
With that, the blush made its return, and Yan Sun turned her gaze sharply to the view, drawing in a short breath. “Uhhhyeahmaybe.” she blurted out. “Look, I’m-... I think I’m just gonna call my shuttle to get home. You’ve had that beer, and, just, yeah.”
The thief - friend now? - regained her amused look. “It was one, low-alcohol beer. I can still handle-... wait, shuttle?”
Yan Sun’s gaze snapped back to Changying. “Uhm… y-... yeah? I mean, it’s-... it’s just a skycar. It takes me home from uni, but I can just… get it over here.”
The short-haired girl’s eyebrows furrowed as she studied her guest. “Where’s ‘home’?” she asked with newfound curiosity, doing nothing to help Yan Sun’s embarrassment.
“Uh… it’s… Sun Tower.” she replied quietly.
“Sun-... wait. Wait, wait, wait. You’re… Yan Sun as in SunTech?!” She seemed genuinely baffled, studying her in disbelief.
“Uhm… yeah…” she managed, voice somehow even quieter. She could feel herself wincing.
“...holy shit.” A surprised laugh followed, baffled look remaining on her face. “Didn’t realize I was hanging out with fucking royalty.”
“Please don’t.” ‘The corporate princes of Hong Kong’. It was an awkward and almost always derisive way to refer to the handful of CEOs that were influential enough to have a major influence on the way the city was run.
“Wait, is this some trick? Did you-... is this some… weird setup? Because of some omni-tool?”
“What?! No!" Yan Sun immediately blurted out, feeling the offended frown form before she even thought about it. "What does that even-”
Changying blinked, not having expected the visceral reaction, holding up her hands defensively. “Okay. Okay. We’re cool. Just… kind of a surprise, you know?”
Yan Sun let the tension fade from her shoulders with an awkward laugh. “Yeah… guess it’s a little weird.”
“You’re… not gonna tell anyone where I am, right?” she asked, shifting a little uneasily.
“...no? Who-... who would I tell, exactly?”
“Look, just… nevermind. You’re cool. We’re cool. I believe you. You just… uh… get back to your Tower? And… you wanna hang out again, you know where to find me.” she said, offering a slightly awkward smile before realizing something. “Actually… do you have an omni-tool?”
“Of course.” Yan Sun replied, still a little distracted by the previous exchange, but the idea of hanging out again brought a smile to her lips, and she was quick to dig her own omni-tool out of her pocket as Changying did.
“Okay… there you go. Now we can stay in touch.” she announced after a couple of seconds of typing.
“Great.” Yan Sun replied, shifting her weight as she remained in place.
“So… guess you’re calling in that skycar?”
“Yeah… I, uh… I guess.”
“Sure you don’t want me to give you a ride?” Changying suggested again, raising an eyebrow.
The question brought out a slightly flustered smile and a small nod, trying to restrain her reaction as she felt her heart speed up again at the thought of getting back on the motorcycle with Changying. “Uh… yeah. It was-... it was pretty fun. Maybe you can just… drop me a couple of blocks from home?”
The ride felt like it was over in an instant, and once again she found herself reluctantly letting go of Changying, although this time she was the only one stepping off the bike. She waved an awkward goodbye. "Uhm... see you around...?"
"Later, princess." the girl on the bike replied with a snicker from beneath her polarized helmet, cranking the throttle and then speeding off down the street, out of sight in a moment.
Yan Sun let out a long breath, just looking down the street where Changying had disappeared. It had been a long, crazy afternoon. But everything had worked out, and she was... weirdly excited. The omni-tool was back. She wasn't the least bit murdered. And she'd made a new friend. That's a win, right?
She started to walk the last couple of blocks towards the street-level entrance to the Sun Tower, paying little attention to her surroundings. Her mind was stuck on how fun the motorcycle ride had been. The speed. The-... okay, she was mostly thinking about how nice it had felt to hold onto Changying as they rode through the streets. Which... was a pretty weird and really not appropriate thing to be thinking about her new friend. Her new... criminal friend.
What the hell was she doing?
Yan Sun was sitting in her room, staring at the messaging app displayed on the projected screen of her omni-tool. The room was spacious and modern, with comfortably light gray walls and floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the cityscape. Above the king-size bed was a poster for Knights of Calmare III: Allegiance. Specifically, it was a limited edition character poster of one of the main characters, the leader of the elven insurgency, cleaning her wounds after a fight, armor half peeled off.
One corner of the room was entirely taken up by a large desk hosting an impressive computer setup. Top-of-the-line hardware, mostly self-assembled with SunTech components. Three adjustable monitors and a blue haptic interface. The desk was also temporary home to a folder of homework, a datapad and a couple of cans of energy drink. On the shelving above the desk a number of figures in original packaging sat neatly lined up. The entire series for Knights of Calmare and Void Cause, as well as a few others, including various limited editions and promotional figures.
It had been almost two weeks since Yan Sun had gone on the motorcycle ride with Changying. A stupid, reckless decision that could have ended badly. But it hadn’t. She had almost stumbled over her words when her parents wondered where she’d been. Why she hadn’t taken the shuttle home. So far her explanation of having wanted to try walking home hadn’t been questioned, although she’d been admonished for it. Been told it wasn’t safe.
She still wasn’t quite sure what she had been thinking, or why she couldn’t stop thinking about it. There was something fascinating about Changying even though she barely knew anything about her. They had been messaging for the past weeks. Mostly about Yan Sun, or about shared interests. She had tried to find out more about Changying, but… without much luck. Why didn’t she-
Yan Sun was ripped from her thoughts by the loud roar of thunder outside, gaze snapping to the window just in time to catch the flash of lightning, bright enough to make the windows dim a little to compensate. A storm was rolling in, the wind loud enough to be heard even in her room. As she slipped out of bed and headed over to the window, she could see the ships in the harbor moving into shelter. It wasn’t supposed to be a bad one, but still enough to shut down most transport, and businesses not equipped to operate in heavy weather. And, of course, uni, which was why she was home in the first place.
Her omni-tool. She was quick to bring the screen back up. It was Changying.
Ready to meet my friends?
you miss the weather? can’t go out in that
What, afraid of some rain? (^_<)
...it’s a storm!
I know. You coming or not? Come ooon!
No! you’re crazy
Maybe. It’ll be fun, promise.
where? what are you doing?
Sent you the address. It’s a storm-watching café. Meet me there?
Yan Sun hesitated, hand hovering over the interface as she chewed her lip. Apparently her response took too long, and another message from Changying arrived.
I won’t get you in trouble. Just want to show my friends that you’re cool. Okay?
Ok… I guess (>_<)
Crap. What was she getting into this time?
It was okay. She was just getting to know some new people and watching the storm. Right?
She grabbed her light-blue, semi-transparent raincoat, just in case, and left her room, headed for the stairs. They took her up to the landing platform, and a quick button press started the process of retrieving the shuttle from the garage as she stepped outside. There were mass effect fields in place to dampen the winds up here, but they were still strong enough to rock her a little this high up, rain whipping in her face. She hurried to the shuttle, letting out a sigh of relief upon sitting down in the climate controlled interior.
“Hello Miss Sun. Are you headed out today?”
Guang Huan, the VI that ran most of the building, and drove her shuttle. It’s voice pleasantly smooth and polite, visually represented by a glowing white circle projected on the back of the empty driver’s seat.
“Uh… yeah, just watching the storm with some friends.” she said while punching in the address.
“Very well.” the VI responded as the shuttle started to take off. The storm wasn’t strong enough to ground skycars, not yet. “Do stay safe out there, miss Sun, the weather is quite nasty today.”
The rest of the ride went by in silence, the skycar’s mass effect generator compensating for the wind to make it a smooth ride. The café was on street-level, near the harbor, with a waterproofed door and a big balcony covered in reinforced glass.
She got out on the pavement close to the entrance, bracing herself against the weather and waving the shuttle back home. She barely had time to take two steps towards the door before a hand pulled at her arm. As she turned, startled, she was met with Changying’s grinning face, a cheap disposable rain poncho covering her leather.
“This way!” she said, pointing a thumb over her shoulder. She had to practically shout to be heard over the wind. Yan Sun’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
“I thought we were going inside?!”
“N-... no, not here! Just come with me! It’s like a block away!”
Yan Sun hesitated for a moment, not too happy about the apparent change of plans, but coming with seemed better than standing around out here. Plus she couldn’t help but be curious. With a nod she started to follow, flinching against the rain whipping into her face and soaking her pantlegs as they hurried down the block, turning down a smaller side-street after a bit. Fortunately the buildings that surrounded them provided a decent measure of protection from the wind here. They stopped outside what looked like an office building. Closed down for the day because of the storm. There were two other people outside, talking to each other. A girl about Yan Sun’s height with long, black hair and an equally black raincoat, the hood of which almost obscured her face, and a tall, lean guy in a flimsy plastic poncho similar to Changying’s, and short black hair with regrettable frosted tips. It was hard to tell exactly, but both of them seemed close to Yan Sun in age. Changying raised a hand in greeting as she approached.
The girl’s attention snapped their way as the conversation was interrupted, a frown immediately setting in upon noticing Yan Sun. “...you brought the corpo heir? What the fuck?!” she exclaimed, shooting the both of them a scowl.
“Wasn’t it bad enough you took her to the new place without even asking the rest of us?!”
Yan Sun winced as she listened to the argument and it became very clear that the others hadn’t been expecting her. Changying shot her an apologetic glance before turning back to the girl, Hotaru apparently, with a frown.
“She’s cool, okay? You said you wanted a fourth person on this and since your brother couldn’t make it, we don’t have a lot of options. Plus I would’ve been fucked if she hadn’t told me about the tracker on that omni.”
“That doesn’t mean you can trust-”
“But I do! I’ve got a good feeling ab-”
“Oh okay. ‘Good feeling.’ That’s what you’re call-”
Changying and Hotaru had gotten closer to each other, their gesturing increasingly aggressive as they argued over each other, and it seemed the guy had enough, stepping in. “Guys, come on! We can’t just stand around here! What’s done is done, so let’s just get started and we can argue later, alright?”
The two of them continued to glare at each other for a moment, but then Changying stepped back, collecting herself with a nod. Hotaru took longer, but then reluctantly did the same. After shooting Yan Sun a final scowl.
Yan Sun glanced around the alley as the argument died down, her confusion and discomfort only growing without the distraction. “Get started with what?! Nobody’s told me what the hell is going on. Why are we outside some random office in the middle of a storm?”
Another wince from Changying, and an accusatory glare her way from Hotaru before she turned to explain. “Okay, so… here’s the thing. We’re, uh… breaking into this building and grabbing their servers.”
Yan Sun blinked, staring at Changying in disbelief. “...what?!”
“Office belongs to a med-tech company. We got a tip that they have the schematics for a new medical implant stored here. Could save a lot of lives. But they’re selling them for insane prices, and they’re FRM’d, so nobody else can make them. We’re gonna grab the schematics, put them on the extranet.” she explained with a confident smile. There was pride there, pride at what they do.
Yan Sun opened her mouth to protest, but she was having a hard time finding something she actually found disagreeable about that. If this company was really doing this… that wasn’t how it was supposed to work. Innovations were supposed to make people’s lives better. But… they were still talking about breaking in and stealing their tech.
“I-... I can’t do this! This is crazy! It’s illegal, I-... you promised you wouldn’t get me in trouble, what do you call this?!”
“Nobody’s getting in trouble, because we’re not getting caught, alright? The storm is the perfect cover for this. Just-... just trust me. Please. We’ve done this before.”
“I don’t-... I’m not a criminal!”
“We’re helping people here, okay? And all I need from you is to keep an eye out and help us carry the stuff.”
“Changying, I-... I really don’t know about-”
Changying leaned in closer, placing a hand on Yan Sun’s arm, a frown on her face as she lowered her voice. “Hey… please? I promise it’s gonna be fine. And-... and we need your help here. I told the others you were cool. That you’d-... that you’d get it. You do, right?”
Yan Sun swallowed, meeting her gaze for several seconds of silent hesitation. A small nod. “I-... okay. Yeah. Okay.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “Nobody’s getting hurt, right?”
“Of course not! That’s not how we do things. Building’s empty.” Changying was quick to exclaim, giving Yan Sun’s arm a pat as she let go and turned around to face the others.
“Okay, let’s get this show on the road! Hotaru, kill the interior cameras and get the door. Yan, help Yang get the crate from the van!” Changying said the last part with a nod towards the simple vehicle she only now noticed, parked just nearby. The guy, Yang, was already moving to open the rear doors. Hotaru was heading over to the building door. The external camera watching the entrance seemed to have already been brought offline, and cables were dangling from it, hooked up to a datapad which she grabbed, starting to type away with a focused look.
Changying grabbed Yan Sun before she could follow Yang, having just realized something. She dug a hand into her pocket and handed her a pair of simple black gloves. “Put these on.” she instructed before heading towards the front of the van, opening the driver’s side door and reaching in to do something.
“Spek, we’re getting started. Give me an update on the grid?” A brief pause as a response came in. “Okay, good. Keep monitoring. We’ll be back before you know it.”
Yang had opened up the back of the van by now, and Yan Sun moved to help unload the large plastic crate that sat in the back while doing her best to suppress her unease with the whole situation. This was crazy. Completely crazy. But there was no time to back out now. Just get this done, go home, and never talk to these people again. Or-... or-... why was she doing this? To impress Changying? What was wrong with her?!
The crate never hit the ground after leaving the van, suspended a couple of inches up by an integrated mass effect generator. It was easy to slide it over towards the door. Changying joined them after closing up the van, and Hotaru opened the door just as they all arrived.
“See, this is gonna be a piece of cake.” Changying said, flashing Yan Sun a smile and leading the way inside, using her omni-tool’s flashlight to light the way. As promised, the building seemed entirely empty and dark. They made their way through a bland office corridor and up the stairs to the second floor before Changying eventually stopped them in front of a closed door. “Hotaru, you’re up again.”
The long-haired girl wasted no time in crouching down by the door, pulling out an access panel and starting to mess with the wires. It didn’t take long before the door slid open, revealing a small server room. Compact, high-end hardware.
“Okay, start loading these up!” Changying instructed, everyone springing to action. Yan Sun did her best to keep up, disconnecting and moving the hardware into the crate. Everyone worked in tense silence for several minutes, Changying keeping watch by the door, but there was no sign of anyone interrupting them, and soon enough they had loaded everything up. Changying took a peek into the crate and then glanced around the room. “We’ve got some extra space, grab whatever looks expensive and let’s get out of here.”
Yan Sun’s eyebrows furrowed as she looked over towards her. “What?!”
“Better than leaving it with these assholes. They’ll just buy new ones anyway.” she replied with a shrug. Yan Sun opened her mouth to protest, but Changying saw it coming and interjected again: “Not all of us have rich parents that can pay for everything, okay?”
The words weren’t said with malice but they stung regardless, enough that she went quiet, looking a little embarrassed. Hotaru tossed a high-end holographic monitor into the crate to fill up the last empty space, shooting Yan Sun a frustrated look before starting to push the crate out. All of them moved in silence down the corridor, back down the stairs. When they reached the door, Changying took a peek outside, only to immediately duck back in. “Fuck!”
Hotaru’s eyes widened, looking to her in confusion. “What?!”
“There’s an autoresponse unit out there!”
Yan Sun blinked. “A what?”
“PubSec. Car, two mechs.”
A flash of fear briefly crossed Hotaru’s face before being replaced by a scowl. “I can fry them.” she said, her omni-tool already lit up in fiery orange.
Changying’s gaze snapped her way. “Two? And the car? No fucking way.”
Yang headed over to one of the windows, taking a careful look outside. “We need to do something, soon.”
Changying ran a hand through her short hair, staring up at the ceiling. “Fuck, fuck… uh… just let me think…”
Yan Sun could feel a chill running down her spine. Was this it? Was she going to be arrested? Why had she gone along with this? What would her parents say? What-... only… wait… what had Changying said? “You said mechs? PubSec mechs?”
Changying looked her way, her previous confidence frayed by the unexpected obstacle. “Yeah, yeah, why?”
“I’ve got it.” Yan Sun scooted over to the wall just by the door, activating her omni-tool and starting to type frantically.
“What are you doing?!” Changying’s voice.
“She’s wasting our time, we have to take them out.” Hotaru, sounding frustrated.
Find their network, spotty in the storm, but there… connect. No access, but… key in the-
Yang’s face gained a look of astonishment as the two mechs outside suddenly went dark, frozen in place. He nodded a confirmation to Changying.
“What did you do?” she asked, peeking out the door with a baffled look.
“Factory reset. They’re-... they’re SunTech models. I-... I’ve got a lot of access codes.” Yan Sun explained a little sheepishly, prompting Changying to let out a loud, relieved laugh and pull her into a quick, but firm celebratory hug. “Fuck! Yes! You’re the best!”
Yan Sun couldn’t quite muster up a response as she was released, but fortunately she didn’t have to, Changying already looking to the others. “Let’s get out of here! Hotaru, fry the car?”
Hotaru nodded, shooting Yan Sun a brief look of… well, it wasn’t very easy to tell if it was begrudging respect or disdain, before heading out the door, aiming her omni-tool at the sleek, white vehicle that the mechs had emerged from. Suddenly sparks erupted from it, the blinking lights shattering and the engine going up in flames, steam sizzling as the pouring rain struck it.
With that, the group hurried back to the van, pushing the floating crate into the back. Changying took the driver’s seat, nodding for Yan Sun to get in up front with her while the other two sat in the back. As soon as the doors were shut, she hit the gas, the van shaking as she ran over the inert mechs for good measure.
The others were talking during the ride, but Yan Sun wasn’t paying attention, instead just watching the passing buildings and the violent weather that sometimes rocked the vehicle, still feeling the adrenaline coursing through her system. Holy crap. They had done it. It felt unreal. She had thought it was over for a moment. That she was going to pay for her stupidity. But they’d done it. She’d done it. And Changying had-... she swallowed hard, gaze darting briefly to the girl next to her in the driver’s seat. She was focused on the road, while chatting with the others about how to celebrate when they got back. There was a grin on her face that she just couldn’t seem to keep away. Yan Sun only just realized she had a shaky smile of her own on her lips, quickly turning her attention to the windshield again. This had been very, very stupid. And very, very exciting.
It wasn’t long before the van pulled into a familiar alley, stopping outside the same shutter where Changying had parked her bike. Yang hopped out and opened it up so they could pull into the concrete loading bay. The bike was there, off to the side. The van shut down and everyone started getting out. Changying headed over to the shutter, waiting to get Yan Sun’s attention as the others started heading towards the stairs.
“Hey, uh…” she reached up to scratch her neck, an uncomfortable look crossing her face. “I’m sorry about that. I should’ve asked first, and… and I promised no trouble, and then-...” she trailed off with a sigh, gaze falling away.
Yan Sun shifted a little in place, unsure how to respond. The adrenaline had started to fade but she was still feeling worked up. A couple of awkward nods, to start off with. “Y-... yeah… I wasn’t really-...” she trailed off briefly, eyebrows furrowing. “...b-but it’s okay. I know-... I know you’re trying to do something good. And-... and it worked out.” she said, her voice almost a mumble.
A few equally awkward nods from Changying, her hand fidgeting uneasily around the handle to the shutter. “Yeah…” she sighed. “Look, uhm… I totally get it if you wanna head home, but… we’re gonna have a little celebration, and, you know… you’re welcome to join us.”
Yan Sun stood frozen in place, a hesitant look on her face. On the one hand there was a part of her that just wanted to go home, lock herself in her room and process what just happened. On the other hand, the butterflies in her stomach as she studied the slightly nervous look on Changying’s face were telling her to stay. “Uhm… I’ll-... I can stick around for a bit?”
Changying let out a quiet breath, a big grin crossing her lips as she nodded. “Okay! Awesome.” she said, starting to close the shutter. Yan Sun couldn’t help but mirror her smile, a slightly shaky laugh slipping out as she nodded too. “Okay.”
The walk up the many stairs was just as long today, leaving Yan Sun more than a little winded by the time they reached the roof, once again braving the rain whipping into them as they crossed the bridge. It took Yan Sun a little while to get across, one hand firmly gripping each railing out of fear that the wind would blow her off.
It was a relief to get inside. The interior of the triple prefabs that made up the ‘ground floor’ looked different than last she’d seen it. Several of the boxes had been unpacked, and furniture moved into place. A large, comfy-looking, albeit slightly shabby couch took up a lot of the space on the right side of the stairs, along with a makeshift crate table, an armchair that had seen better days, a couple of smaller crates with pillows on them, and just a plain mattress laid out on the floor. There was a large TV on the wall too, haphazardly hooked up to the prefab’s power. Where the prefab was getting its power from wasn’t quite clear. The left side of the stairs was still mostly filled with boxes, crates and old furniture stacked randomly.
Hotaru and Yang were already sitting around the crate-table, along with a greasy-faced guy about the same age with short blonde hair and a pair of bulky AR glasses. Changying raised a hand in greeting, which he returned with a grin from his seat in the armchair. “Hey! They were just telling me what you pulled out there, that’s awesome!” he exclaimed enthusiastically, with a look toward Yan Sun, who blinked, feeling a little embarrassed by the sudden praise. “Uhm… thanks?”
Changying started to head towards the couch, gesturing towards the unfamiliar guy. “Yan Sun, this is Spekt8. The one who was supposed to warn us if he detected any PubSec activity.” she said with a pointed look his way. His reply was an indignant look.
“Hey, the storm interference goes both ways! You know that!”
The reply garnered a snicker from Changying and a nod of acknowledgement as she sat down on the couch. No hard feelings. “Spekt8, this is Yan Sun. The girl that saved our asses out there.”
Yan Sun’s cheeks flushed a little with Changying’s words, and she remained awkwardly in place until the older girl gestured for her to take a seat.
Hotaru, who already had a celebratory beer in hand, looked Yan Sun over for a moment before the faintest of smirks tugged at the corner of her mouth. “She did alright.” she conceded before her unimpressed look returned. Yang just rolled his eyes, reaching over towards a crate sat on the floor to grab a beer of his own.
Seeing the others with beers in hand seemed to make Changying realize something, and she turned around in the couch, reaching down behind the backrest to grab something. Soon she popped back up with two blue bottles with colorful labels in hand. Alcopop. “Got this for you, thought you might like it.” she said with a smile, grabbing a bottle opener and opening both before handing one to Yan Sun, who took it and looked it over for a moment.
“Oh, uh… yeah, okay.” she said, not sure what to make of the fact that Changying went out of her way to get something that wasn’t beer for her. Changying clanked her bottle against Yan Sun’s with a “Cheers!” before taking a swig of her own, prompting her, after the briefest hesitation, to do the same.
It was… good. Sweet. Much better than beer, for sure.
Yan Sun wasn’t quite sure how long she spent gathered around the table with the others. It was nice. Everyone was in a good mood, happy about their success, and relieved after the close call. The drinks were tasty and helped to relax her after the chaotic experience, alcohol replacing fading adrenaline. She mostly listened as the others chatted away. It was obvious that they were all close. Hotaru and her brother had come from Japan. He wasn’t here, busy dealing with unspecified personal business. She was the field half of the tech team, while Spekt8, who was from Australia, as it turned out, usually kept an eye on things from back here. Yang was less eager to share, but he seemed to be from the mainland, while Changying was from right here in Hong Kong. It seemed like she was the leader of their little group, the one that had put it together in the first place. Changying, Spekt8, Hotaru, and her brother lived here, while Yang came and went.
They discussed how to best get the schematics out there without it being traced back to them, and how much the hardware they grabbed might sell for. It seemed like none of them had regular jobs. Or classes to attend, for that matter. This was their life. Yan Sun only spoke a little of herself, it felt weird to do so. She was the one out of place here. Still, Changying worked hard to make sure she felt included as they talked, laughed and drank. Dinner consisted of some cup noodles. Eventually they all decided to turn on the large, no doubt stolen, TV, and play some games.
Once things wound down and evening was starting to approach, Yan Sun realized that she needed to be getting back home. She said her goodbyes to the small group, strangers no longer, and Changying accompanied her down the stairs back to the improvised garage. After sliding the shutters open she looked to Yan Sun, a small smile on her face, gaze a little dulled by alcohol.
Yan Sun returned the smile with an awkward little laugh, the blush just coming faster to her cheeks after a couple of drinks.
“Do you want a ride?”
“It’s-... it’s storming… and you’ve had a few drinks. I’ll just take the shuttle.
Changying swallowed, letting out a laugh and nodding slightly. “Right, yeah… just, uh… don’t call it right outside here?”
Yan Sun nodded. “I won’t.” she assured. “I, uh… this was-... this was fun, actually.”
Changying’s smile returned. “I’m glad… that mean you might… come back sometime?”
“I-... I’d like that. Yeah.” she agreed with a nod, trying to keep her composure under the taller girl’s gaze. It wasn’t going great.
“Good.” she said, the smile turning lopsided as she leaned a little closer to Yan Sun, still holding onto the shutter with one hand. The other slowly, slowly moved towards her cheek.
Yan Sun felt her cheeks burning as Changying’s thumb brushed across her skin, letting out a nervous breath and remaining rooted in place. The sudden flash of confidence in her face when Yan Sun didn’t pull back was all too captivating, and she knew she was just staring at her like a mute idiot but then Changying leaned in and pressed her lips against hers and her brain shut down.
This was happening.
This was really happening.
For a moment she was just standing there like a mannequin, completely frozen, before she managed to process what was happening enough to return the kiss, hands holding on aimlessly to her leather jacket.
Her lips were soft and warm and tasted like alcopop and for a moment she could feel her tongue and then… it was over. Changying pulled back with a quiet, breathless laugh, a soft, cocky smile on her lips.
Yan Sun thought she was smiling too, but she wasn’t quite sure. Her brain was still overloaded, and she just stared a little dumbly at Changying as she caught her breath.
“Well, uh…” The leather-clad girl that was leaned oh-so-close over her sucked in her lips. “That was nice.”
Yan Sun tried to reply, but it amounted to little more than a faint, vaguely constipated noise.
“...uh-huh.” she managed, offering a couple of rapid nods.
Changying’s eyebrows furrowed slightly, a bit of hesitation entering her expression. “Look, if, uh… if I misread…”
Yan Sun blinked. This really just happened. And she liked it. She definitely liked it. A lot. But she can’t. She wasn’t supposed to. Crap. “Uhhh…”
Changying swallowed slightly, nodding to herself, trying to cover up embarrassment and disappointment with a chuckle. “No worries, just, uh-...”
Yan Sun’s eyes widened, the look on Changying’s face causing a sudden stab of regret. “No!” she exclaimed loudly. “I-I-I-I-... no, IIII… reallyreallylikeditactuallyyy…” she blurted out in a sudden panic.
Changying seemed a little caught off-guard, her arm freezing in the middle of an uncomfortable gesture, the smile slowly returning to her face as she realizes what was said. “Oh…” she said quietly, the smile turning into a little grin. “Well…” a relieved chuckle, gaze darting down briefly before returning to Yan Sun’s face. “I hope you… stop by again soon.”
Yan Sun sucked in her lips, nodding several times, too many times, as she backed out of the garage. “I will! I-... yeah! I’ll be-... soon!” she agreed, doing her best to form coherent statements. The stuttered words brought out a laugh from Changying, who started to close the shutter with a final: “Looking forward to it…”
Yan Sun walked two blocks over in a daze before calling the shuttle, her mind spinning. This wasn’t good. This wasn’t good at all. Changying was a criminal. And a girl. And still the only thing she could think about as she waited for the skycar to come take her home was the kiss. The way she’d leaned in above her, the feeling of the hand on her cheek, the soft warmth of her lips. She wanted to do it again. Soon.
This… was going to be a problem.
It had been over a month since that evening during the storm. Since the break-in. Since Changying had kissed her. Yan Sun hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it afterwards. A lot had changed since then. She’d visited again, more than once. Helping out with some tech in their makeshift home, getting to know everyone, and just… hanging out. She liked them. The whole group, not just Changying. They were very different from anyone else she knew her age. It seemed like most of them had lived very different lives to her. Harder lives. No one there to look out for them - until they found each other. The stories they told… they were alien to her. Yan Sun was well aware that she was in a privileged position, albeit one that came with a great deal of expectations and responsibility - but she had never thought life in the city could be like that. There were people, institutions that were supposed to help. But the stories and hard truths brought to light during talks with her newfound friends were eye-opening. Personal experiences. She believed them. She believed them when they talked about corruption, coverups and a broken system that doesn’t care. It was uncomfortable to think how little thought she had given to these things just weeks ago.
It was strange to have her perception of her home shifted so drastically. And still, that upheaval somehow paled in comparison to the fact that each of her visits had ended the same way. A kiss goodbye from Changying. Tender, careful kisses as if she was afraid of scaring Yan Sun off. Maybe she sensed her hesitation. She wasn’t sure what Changying was making of it. Last time had been different. They had all been watching a bad movie, celebrating a job that had gone well - she hadn’t asked about the details, but it sounded similar to the one she’d been dragged along to. Changying had leaned in for a kiss during the movie. It hadn’t been a ‘goodbye’ sort of kiss. It had been different, sitting on the couch with Changying’s hand on her leg, her body pressed back against the cushion as the kiss intensified. It had been the sort of kiss that made her think about things she really shouldn’t be thinking about, so she’d made a hasty retreat, blurting out an awkward goodbye and calling the shuttle to cut the evening short.
There’d been some uncomfortable messages exchanged with Changying after that, but she hadn’t made a complete mess of things. At least she hoped so. Because today was her birthday and Changying had said that her and the rest of the Little Dragons - that’s what their little group called themselves - had made plans for a party. She had no idea what to expect, not really, but she’d agreed to come of course. It was the first time since middle school that she was going to a birthday party with friends. And… Changying. That last kiss had been stuck in her mind on repeat the past few days. The little grin just before she leaned in, and then the taste of her lips. The hand finding itself on her knee, slowly sliding-
“Huh? What?” Yan Sun blinked as she scrambled to return her focus to the present, silently hoping her expression remained neutral.
“How are your classes going?” It was her mother. She was sitting across the glass and metal dinner table, a curious look on her face and her dark hair in an impeccable bun as ever.
“They-... uhm-... things are pretty… quiet right now. I’m still waiting for the new AI studies class to start.” she managed to reply, gripping her spoon to scoop up some breakfast soup and give her something to do while she collected herself.
“What about the exam?” Her father. He was sitting at the end of the table, eyebrows furrowed as he studied her.
“A+.” she confirmed, although the usual sense of accomplishment that accompanied the phrase wasn’t quite there. Part of her mind was still stuck on her previous thoughts.
A small, proud grin crossed her father’s lips, breaking up his serious look. “Of course… that’s my girl.”
“Our girl.” her mother corrected with a hint of a smirk as she glanced towards Yan Sun’s father. “We’re proud of you, Yan.” After a brief pause and another look towards her husband she spoke again: “We were wondering…”
“We were wondering what you would like to do for your birthday.” her father finished. “You haven’t said anything. The Arcade, like last year? Or… I know you were talking about wanting to see space. I could still tell Lam to head down to the spaceport. It’s your choice, Yan. This is your day.”
“I-... thank you, father. But-... uhm… I actually… some friends told me they wanted to throw a party. And I… would really like to go.” she said, unable to feel a little worried that there might be follow-up questions.
Her father’s eyebrow rose. “Friends? Someone I know?”
“No. They’re from the programming hobby club I told you about. We’re… probably just going to play some games and talk omni-tools if I know them right.”
It was about ten hours later when the van stopped outside an establishment that looked an awful lot like some kind of nightclub judging by the thumping music and flashy holography that adorned the entrance. There was also a line, filled with people in garish outfits. High collared jackets, glowing tech inlays and revealing dresses. A bouncer, a large man in a well-fitted suit was letting people in.
Yan Sun’s gaze scanned across the building before shooting Changying a baffled look. “Uh… what’s-... when you said ‘going out’ I didn’t think you meant-”
“That a problem?” Changying seemed amused by the reaction. She’d dressed up for the occasion. A jacket not unlike some of the ones in line, albeit a bit more beat up. A cropped thing with a tall collar and bits of glowing teal to compliment the tanktop underneath. Elaborately torn up jeans and heavy leather boots.
“Wh-... yes! I’m-... I'm turning seventeen, not-... I’m not getting in there!” Yan Sun had dressed up too, per instruction. Of course, she hadn’t known what she was dressing up for, not to mention that fact that most of her ‘nice’ clothes were dresses meant for the various galas and events her parents would drag her along to. As a result she’d opted for something pretty plain. A white blouse and a knee-length skirt. It wasn’t an outfit she particularly liked, but then again the only clothes she had that she really liked were the jeans and hoodies she wore in her room and to university. That was her comfort zone, but she was used to leaving it when she needed to. Then again, it seemed like the usual might have been a better fit than what she picked here.
“Good thing we’re not taking the front door.” Changying said with a shrug and an innocent smile, tapping the seat in front of her. “Hotaru?”
Hotaru had an altogether different style than Changying. An orange crop top with long sleeves and a pair of tight black pants coupled with heeled boots. She was quick to nod and crack her door open, leading the way out of the van. Changying got out too, motioning for Yan Sun to follow. Yang was there too, his outfit the simplest of the lot. A gray t-shirt and some nice jeans. Spek apparently wasn’t all that fond of going out, and Hiro was, according to Hotaru, at least, too young for clubbing. They’d both sent their congratulations, though.
Hotaru led them on a winding path, down an alley, up some stairs, through a maintenance corridor of some sort, and, finally, stopping at a completely unremarkable-seeming door. That is, aside from the muffled thumping of music from somewhere beyond. She knelt down next to it, starting to remove an access panel.
“I-... I really don’t know about this, I mean… I didn’t think-...”
The stuttered hesitation prompted Changying to step up behind her, wrapping an arm loosely around her waist. “It’s gonna be fun. Just trust me. You’ll like it.” she said, leaned close enough to her ear that the small grin accompanying the words could be felt.
“B-But… I don’t want to get in any trouble. And-... and I told my parents we were probably just going to play some games or watch movies or something.” Changying’s sudden proximity was enough to bring out a slight blush, and it was doing nothing to help her keep her head straight.
“They won’t find out. Besides, it’s your birthday, isn’t it? What do you wanna do? If you really want, we can head back to the Den. Orrr… we can daaance…” Changying’s free hand sought out Yan Sun’s with those words, her arm tightening a little around her as she swayed a bit in tune with the faint music. Her antics caused Hotaru and Yang to exchange exasperated glances as the former kept working on the door.
“W-... B-... I-I-I can’t dance!” Yan Sun exclaimed, as if that invalidated the whole idea. It was true, of course. She was a hopeless dancer, tripping over herself more often than not.
“I’ll teach you…” Changying replied without missing a beat, quite obviously enjoying Yan Sun’s flustered responses, and seemingly pretty confident that she’d want to come along.
Yan Sun’s only response was an indistinct noise as Hotaru finally got the door open, but sure enough, after a little nudge she got moving despite her hesitation, gaze wandering the poorly lit corridor they found themselves in. The music was almost immediately much louder, and as they rounded a corner they found themselves right in a corner of the club. An emergency exit, maybe? She wasn’t sure.
The club’s interior was best described as an assault on the senses. Loud electronic music, a large dancefloor lit up by flashing multicolor holography and dozens and dozens of people, some moving to the beat and others gathered around tables on elevated platforms, or at the bar, where rows and rows of bottles and canisters housed a rainbow of liquids.
Changying led the way towards a table in an area partly shielded from the dance-floor enough that conversation wasn’t drowned out. Yang, meanwhile, headed for the bar to fetch some drinks. For everyone but himself, as it turned out when he returned. Apparently he was making sure everyone was getting back home okay.
Yan Sun wasn’t sure what the drink she’d gotten was, but it was delicious and sweet with a shimmering multicolor glow. They just sat and talked for a while. The spotlight was on Yan Sun, which was… weird. She was always worried about being judged when talking about herself. Judged for everything she had that Changying and the others didn’t. But there wasn’t any of that today, not even from Hotaru, who was usually the first to get some barbs in. They all just laughed about the silly things and the differences. And then, eventually… they were off to the dancefloor…
Yan Sun absolutely did not know how to dance. She never had. In an environment like this, less than ever. Her rhythm was entirely off, and she was struggling not to step on anyone’s feet or fall on her ass. There might have been a couple of near misses, but Changying had been quick to catch them. So there she was, flailing awkwardly. But maybe it was the drinks or maybe it was Changying’s hands on her hips, trying hopelessly to guide her and keep her from toppling over, but she was having fun. A lot of fun.
As the intense beat shifted into a slower song Changying moved closer, her eyes darting across Yan Sun’s face. They’d drifted towards the edge of the dancefloor over the course of the evening. Hotaru and Yang were still further in, and, in what had been a complete surprise to Yan Sun, they were making out quite enthusiastically. Changying shot a brief glance their way as she moved faintly in tune with the mellow beat, an amused snicker slipping out before her expression turned a little awkward upon returning to Yan Sun.
“Can we talk…? About what we’ve got going on here? Because I’ve been getting a lot of mixed signals…” she said, her voice quiet enough that it was barely audible despite their proximity.
The question caught Yan Sun off-guard, and she blinked as she scrambled for a response. “Wha-... uhm… I don’t-...”
“Look… I like you, princess. And I’m pretty sure it’s mutual.” The last bit is added with a little smirk, although there’s a question underneath it. “So what’s the problem?”
“I-I-I do like you, I just-... it’s not-...” How was she supposed to explain this? What was she even doing? She wasn’t supposed to be doing this. She wasn’t supposed to feel what she was feeling. This wasn’t a valid option for her.
“It’s not what…?” Changying asked, her thumbs stroking Yan Sun’s sides as she watched her, sending shivers up her spine in the process.
“I mean-... I’m-... I can’t-... I’m not supposed to-... I’m not gay. I’m sorry.”
The girl looking down at her seemed… less than convinced. The skeptical look was almost amused in nature, the corner of her mouth tugging upward. “...really?”
“I’m sorry.” she repeated in a mumbled response, gaze falling away under her scrutiny.
The face looking down at her was shifting into a frown, concern and subdued anger. “...is this about your parents? This some bullshit they’ve-”
“You don’t understand. This isn’t-... I’ve promised-... I can’t be self-”
Changying pulled her into a kiss before she could finish her rambling. A deep kiss. Her train of thought derailed completely as she froze in place, letting the taller woman press her close, her own hands awkwardly holding onto her jacket. As their lips parted she drew a surprised breath, blinking a couple of times as she stumbled to find words. Changying beat her to it.
“...you like that?” Her voice was still a little breathless, her gaze intense, face hovering close as she studied the girl in front of her.
Yan Sun swallowed, still stunned as she stared back at Changying. “I-... b-... w-... yeah…” she managed, just barely, her voice a quiet little whine almost lost amid the music.
Changying looked off to the side a bit for a moment, an apologetic expression on her face as she looked back and shrugged a little. “Sorry to tell you…” she hummed in an amused tone. Yan Sun was considerably less amused, a distressed noise slipping out as worry and embarrassment filled her face.
“This isn’t funny. It’s not-... it’s not some joke. I-... I don’t-...” Her words were cut short as she started choking up, panic rising alongside tears gathering in her eyes. She swallowed hard, trying to collect herself with little success. “I can’t do this, I can’t-...”
“Hey, hey… I’m sorry, I-... fuck…” Changying was caught more than a little off-guard, scrambling to fix things. She placed a hand on Yan Sun’s shoulder, trying to get her attention to no avail as the tears started to roll. Instead she pulled her into a hug, which was quickly returned with arms wrapped tightly around her.
Yan Sun had no words on offer, just sobbing against Changying right here on the dancefloor, unable to make sense of the mess of thoughts and feelings running through her head. Making an embarrassment of herself. As usual.
Changying sucked in her lips, drawing in a breath to keep herself together as she did her best to calm the girl in her arms. “It’s okay, alright? I wasn’t-..." She went quiet for a bit before sighing and saying: "Look, if... if you want to end this… whatever it is… that’s-... that’s fine. No hard feelings, okay?”
Yan Sun lifted her head as the tears were coming to an end, and a faint nod followed as she stepped back, avoiding Changying’s gaze. “I’m sorry…” she mumbled, catching the disappointed look on her dance partner’s face, but all Changying said was “Hey, don’t-... don’t worry about it.”. A number of nods accompanying the words. She reached up to wipe the tears from Yan Sun’s cheek before distancing herself and waving Yang and Hotaru over.
“Let’s get back to the den, keep celebrating, yeah? It’s still your birthday, and the others wanted to celebrate too…” She was doing a good job of covering her emotions, but there were hints of hurt underneath the little grin she propped up.
The trip back to the group’s rooftop home was quiet and uncomfortable, but it was over soon enough. Things got better once they were back. They all had some drinks and played some games. She argued with Spekt8 about VI programming. She tried not to think about what had happened. It wasn’t all that successful - every time she looked to Changying every emotion swirled right back to the surface. But she kept trying. And they did have fun.
Soon enough the night drew to a close. She’d been convinced to stay the night through a group effort. There was a spare mattress near the couch anyway, and she wasn’t exactly eager to explain the smell of alcohol to her parents. She borrowed a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt from Hotaru and got ready for bed, but sleep proved difficult to achieve, despite being more than a little tired after all the dancing and drinks. And not just because the mattress was a far cry from the cloud-like bed in her room. She just kept staring out into the dark as thoughts of what was said at the club played through her head. Thoughts of Changying. Thoughts of the past, and of her father. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed by the time she got out of bed, but the place was dark and quiet.
She stood in the dark hesitating for what must have been several minutes with her hand on a rung of the ladder to Changying’s room. Then she started climbing. She stopped awkwardly after stepping off the ladder, standing in place. It was less dark up here, open blinds letting in the light of the city, faintly illuminating the prefab unit. There was no need to announce herself. Changying was awake, propped up on one elbow to look towards the ladder, eyebrows furrowed. She must have heard her climbing. Her short hair stood a bit all over from the pillow. She uttered a quiet, hoarse and slightly hesitant “Hey…”
Yan Sun drew in a long breath, replying with an awkward little “Hey…” of her own.
Changying’s frown softened a bit and she sat up, scooting back a bit. “What’s up…?” A cautious question, uncertainty lingering. She wasn’t sure what this was.
Yan Sun hesitated, struggling to not just leave again. No. She couldn’t just ignore this. “I, uhm… I just thought… maybe… could I stay up here?”
Changying blinked, seeming a little surprised, but it didn’t last long. Her gaze remained on Yan Sun as she shifted to the side a bit to make room, pulling the covers back.
Yan Sun took the silent cue, suppressing her embarrassment as she crawled into bed and Changying tugged the covers back over both of them. She lingered close in the dim light. Not that there was really much choice, the bed wasn’t made for two.
Changying’s face was close, barely visible in the gloom. Her body was, too. Warm beneath the covers. Dressed in an old t-shirt and some underwear. Yan Sun felt like she ought to say something, but her heart was beating fast and she wasn’t finding any words so instead she shuffled a little closer and leaned in for a cautious kiss. She hoped she’d understand. She wasn’t sure how to deal with any of this. It was all new and unfamiliar and it was supposed to be wrong but right now it didn’t feel like it. Right now all she wanted was to be right here in this bed as Changying returned the kiss, briefly breaking it with a questioning look, prompting an awkward little nod and a flustered chuckle from Yan Sun that made her deepen it, shifting her weight and pressing the girl now beneath her down against the mattress, taking the lead as Yan Sun hoped she would.
She wanted this.
She really wanted this.
The guilt could wait.