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Down The Chute

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It's like all the action has run into a wall at Mach 1, just like the motorbike in Hiro's office. Mom makes her promise never to scare her like that again. Y.T. doesn't mention the money. It's not like she has it yet, anyway. In fact, no-one mentions the money for several days, because Y.T. spends the next week in bed with some kind of miserable fever no doubt imported from the slums of some godforsaken jungle nation on the Raft, feebly fending off Mom's attempts to feed her chicken soup or call the Feds' health program nuts or something counterproductive like that.

The first call that gets through to Y.T. is Raven, because he doesn't bother with that technology shit, just walks up to her door one day when Mom's out at work. When the peephole program gets her attention by politely displaying her visitor on the ceiling, Y.T. drags herself out of bed, shoots a despairing glance at the mirror, and runs a hand through her hair in the mystical belief that this will make her more presentable. Common sense tells her not to answer, but common sense and Y.T. are barely passing acquaintances, and in any case if he's got this far through Blooming Greens security then she doesn't expect the door to be much more than a courtesy.

Trying not to look too obviously like she's hanging onto the door frame to stay upright and keep the spinning in her head down to deafening, Y.T. yanks the portal open and attempts not to look too brain-damaged as her heart skips a beat and begins to mount a determined assault on her ribcage. There's something wrong with Raven's left leg, she notes with the part of her brain that's still functioning on autopilot, and is that a pizza delivery car?

"No pizza," deadpans Raven as he notices her scoping his ride. "You are missing one of these?"

It's not her skateboard - that thing's probably several sub-basements down in some Fed storage facility by now - but it looks like the same model, as far as her eyes can focus.

"This one too requires its explosives recharging," he continues. She absent-mindedly notes the mostly healed speckling of many small wounds across his face, like one might get from e.g. riding too fast through a wall of still-exploding glass shrapnel. "Will that be a problem for you?"

"," she manages to get out. "I mean. Come in. Can I get you anything?" Her mouth is now also connected to her autopilot, leaving what passes for higher brain functions to drink in Raven, here, against the backdrop of mundanity which had hitherto been pretty much unpenetrated by her real life outside the Burbclave. Raven looks kind of disappointed, so her eyes narrow. "Look, that's a nice set of wheels you brought me, but I am pretty much expiring of the goddamn plague after we went for a nice cruise through a ship of Refus, so I'm sorry if I'm not quite on top of my game here. If you don't like it, you know where the offramp is."

"I was hoping," he says, with only a slight hint of wistfulness and no particular sense of urgency, "that we could go for a drive."

Y.T. is attempting to form the words, "My poor mom would totally do her nut," when her libido manages to kick in her rationality and she finds herself saying instead, "sure, let me get into something more sensible," and snagging what was left of her Kourier coverall from the pile where her mother had been pointedly ignoring it.

"As long as you can do that within the next two minutes and thirty-seven seconds," replies Raven, not even checking a watch, "which is the lead I think that we have on a certain uncle of yours who might also be interested in dragging you from your sick bed this afternoon."

Hiro tried to call, once, but there's no way that Y.T. is thinking straight enough to show up in the Metaverse and he's got enough business to drown a megacorp, so he puts it off and lets it slide off his to-do list. Just until she's better, he promises himself. After all, Uncle Enzo would be pissed if he didn't get the money situation sorted A.S.A.P., although that point is looking further and further away as he feverishly attempts to devise traffic-sorting systems faster than the influx of insistent messages, mostly from the kind of guys who a serious firewall is about as much good for keeping them off your property as a three-day-old Chihuahua on your lawn. And then there's Juanita, posing a much more immediate problem, although it's the good kind of problem for a guy to have. He thinks.

When Hiro eventually gets around to looking up Y.T. again, the first thing he finds is a Missing Persons notice. That's not good. Suddenly he feels himself hanging on the end of a long rope, waiting for the drop. Someone - something - should have told him about this earlier. That they didn't makes him think that he's just been left to get good and sorry before the block drops out from under him and he's left to swing. Juanita thinks he's being over-dramatic. Where the Mafia is concerned, Hiro tells her, it's not possible to be over-dramatic.

In fact, that he got to the Missing Persons notice so fast is itself a bit of a mystery, when he does a little digging. It seems the normal places you'd expect it to be advertised have quietly failed to pick it, or link it, or publicise it in any way. It's only because he had so many direct searches set up for her that he'd got it. Another factoid drifts across his attention field, some usage data that the Librarian had dug out of Blooming Greens' not exactly state of the art systems. Since that Missing Persons report was filed, the lights haven't been on and no-one's been home.

Hiro feels a brief pang of guilt about that. Sounds like Y.T's Mom is not having the best time of it either. Paradoxically, he doesn't worry about Y.T. so much. He's worried about finding her, sure. It'll probably take him somewhere interesting, and if he doesn't look bothered about it then someone in a nice suit will probably come and have a word with him quite soon about that whole 'splitting the money' thing, and that word will probably end at the bottom of a larger body of water than he particularly wants to be involved with right now, or possibly just the end of some kind of firearm, depending on how important they think he is. But after the whole escaping-from-a-moving-helicopter thing, he figures that Y.T. can, in fact, take care of herself.

Probably better than Hiro can take care of her, anyway.

The Librarian is wading through an inconceivably massive pile of surveillance camera data for him when Hiro finds the data card.

He's taken his goggles off for the moment, and opened the fridge for the first time in weeks. Mostly he's been living on takeout and warm Dew, and whatever Juanita brings him on her fly-by visits, which have been his main excursions into the real world. There's the usual mouldering pizza remains, a bottle of some kind of fruit product he doesn't remember buying and is well past its expiration date in any case, and a plate of cold quiche with a passive-aggressive little note from Juanita instructing him to eat properly, for goodness sake.

Then there's the CostaNostra pizza. Hiro definitely didn't order that. Especially not with that topping: mushrooms, peppers, and one completely anonymous data card. He considers just not touching the thing - that's what common sense would dictate - but the method of delivery makes him suspicious as hell and anyway, if they can get into his fridge, they could have just put a bullet through his head or something less melodramatic. Better to find out who has been sneaking pizzas into his apartment (Juanita's apartment, really, he reminds himself) while he was out in the Metaverse, without activating any of his meticulous array of sensors designed to pick up exactly this sort of intrusion.

Also, he's pretty sure it's the Mafia. It has their signature all over it.

He constructs quite an elaborate software cage for the thing before he lets it loose in his office, because he's becoming paranoid in his old age or something, and because it'd be bad for business if Hiro Protagonist Security Associates was hacked by something that came out of his fridge. Whatever's in there buzzes around like a mosquito for a bit, and the Librarian informs him that there's a ninety percent probability that it's just some kind of video involving a human face, three quarters that it's at least attempting to look like Uncle Enzo, and only about half a percent that it's some novel form of contaminant that they haven't been able to classify.

Hiro figures it's probably just the old-fashioned kind of memetic assault - a good telling-off - and braces himself to receive his rightful ass-kicking. It is, he understands, entirely his fault; he should have given the split with Y.T. way higher priority than he had, and blaming it on Juanita and her possible reserves of jealousy for the kid was just being unfair and childish about the situation. He flips the card out of its cage and splashes it up on a nice big screen. There's no point trying to limit the impact; it'd only risk masking vital information about exactly how pissed of he'd made possibly the most powerful individual in the good old U S of A.

Uncle Enzo steps out of the screen and claps Hiro on the back in an avuncular fashion.

The katana is, Hiro dimly notes, only half of the way out of the sheath, and what the slightly unexpected avatar is saying makes him quite glad that he appears to have found a way to stomp on his standard reactions in the case of being about to disembowel particularly important personages. The avatar, on his part, is obviously looking in the direction of the katana.

"That looks like my Hiro," he says approvingly, in what is unmistakeably Enzo's voice. "I don't suppose you have a moment to spare your old Uncle a security consultation?"

When the third Lincoln Town Car joins the chase, Y.T. starts to get a bit edgy.

"This is the pizza car that got stolen from the airport, isn't it?"

"Uh-huh," says Raven, taking a long swerve around some kind of enormous articulated lorry which had decided to camp in the fast lane, presumably because no-one was big enough to move it. It's attended by a small flock of undertakers in their imitation Jaguars and beat-up Sonny's My First Hand-Me-Down with the under-lighting and the extra blaring horns for expressing their amped-up teenaged anger at being kept from knocking a few milliseconds off their journey time as Raven cut them up with aplomb.

"Have you been looking for me since then?"

"You didn't exactly leave a forwarding address," he notes as the traffic gets inexorably thicker around them, and cutting from left to right seems to be gaining them less and less headway. The impenetrable blur of Taxilinga coming from a speaker hops up an octave and gets more frantic than Y.T.'s ever heard before, which neatly complements Raven's extreme steering as they take the off-ramp with a minimum of notice.

Y.T. aims her head to catch the sign as it flashes past - Welcome to Learia! All participants must register at the Oak Lodge before... and then it was gone.

"Uh-oh," she comments as they run straight through a rickety wooden barrier. Raven doesn't answer - he's listening to something.

"Duck," he says.

An arrow flies straight through the bullet-proof windscreen and neatly impales the seat-back, about where Y.T.'s heart had been a few nanoseconds earlier.

"Bow and arrow country," he explains, as they head off the track - it can barely be called a road at this point - into what looks to Y.T. like some pretty serious-looking woodland.

It was not often that a gentleman, having achieved a station in life as exalted as Enzo's, finds himself wearing what appears to be a rather indifferent ninja costume over copious quantities of red body paint, topped off by a rather fetching pair of red elf ears. The built-in systems in the ninja suit make him feel much more like a gargoyle than he ever expected to, prior to this fool's errand, haring across the continent after the gentleman who was making himself something of a nemesis to him and his organisation. But it isn't the Mafia Way to make his people engage in this slightly ridiculous behaviour without providing the personal touch.

He allows himself a slight smile of satisfaction as his heads-up display reports that his quarry have just made life rather easier for him than he was expecting them to, but he supposes they hadn't thought ahead and brought their own adequate disguises. The Learian branch of the Enforcers use a rather eclectic selection of technology, but the upshot is that the armour plating on that pizza delivery car, developed to withstand a wide range of conventional assaults, isn't doing too well when faced with the molecule-thin cutting surfaces of the supposedly 'traditional' Learian weaponry.

A knot of several 'Pyrians' are closing on the wooded area where the target presumably had ditched his car, when Enzo is most callously interrupted by a bean-bag from some careless and probably clueless participant sporting blue strips of cloth tied around her wrists and really not much else.

"Paralyse?" she says hopefully, as the appropriately-installed systems calmly inform Enzo that apparently he's meant to stop moving his arms now. He sighs and taps one of the provided wrist-bracelets to signify something about a healing potion while a nearby bush neatly bisects the girl with a greatsword, or would have if the sword didn't consist of a hilt and some technological artiface which Enzo had disabled as soon as he was out of sight of the Oak Lodge.

A swift de-braceletting later, Enzo curses the incompetence of some under-informed squadron commander.

"For goodness sake, don't let them get to the river," he mouths into his supposedly secure microphone channel.

Then he sees the Enforcer, black ribbons blowing in the breeze, calmly drawing a bead on him as a muted drone mentions something about 'unauthorized communications technology'.

The last that the Mafia sees of Y.T. and Raven is a rather garbled report of a kayak towing a skateboard down a river, which is also incidentally the last transmission out of Learia for some time.

The particulars of Enzo's situation become apparent to Hiro as his software meticulously studies the data link behind the 'video' he was in reciept of courtesy of one of Y.T.'s friends in a subtly different branch of the Kourier organisation - a facility he should have guessed the existence of, given their wide-ranging permissions and passports. Enzo is still wired into the global net that eventually gives out into the Metaverse, but if he sends anything that looks particularly distinct from white noise, that link might be in some jeopardy. He's probably got ten other guys working on it somewhere else, but he's decided to give Hiro a little face-time because of his recent skyrocketing reputation in the security business.

This is a shame for Hiro, who hasn't come up with any solutions beyond 'ship some bits out there', which of course Enzo's already doing. The extraction is already being staged; what's got Uncle Enzo so worked up is the way that Raven has completely dropped off the face of the planet.

Hiro can't exactly explain to him that he won't get any work done until the Don is back in the box and not hanging over his shoulder providing 'useful' commentary, so he switches to his other mode of operation: looking busy. He dredges up a phenominal quantity of information about the Aleut people, river systems in the area of the disappearance, and a riotous map of Mafia friendly enclaves and franchises in the area, along with those not so much in favour. This all looks very colourful and exciting, and he's kind of disappointed that Enzo doesn't tell him to cut the crap and make some actual progress, although he's sure that the old guy's just humouring him for some long-term, third-order, deeply complicated and unfathomable reason of his own.

And the thing is, he isn't even sure he wants to find them. 'Not crossing the Mafia' is pretty high up on his priority list, sure, but he has a bunch of other friends in high places he's made since then. Not to mention his own personal sorceress. He's got his happy ending. Why shouldn't Y.T. get hers?

That way, he won't even have to split the cash.

So he starts working on something else, in the background, quietly isolating the data chip process from any output from his new occupation. Uncle Enzo's eyes narrow and he asks him, "Where's your eyes, boy?", but he makes up something off-hand about the cat being on fire and not quite having turned into a gargoyle yet. This doesn't quite mollify Enzo, but Hiro realises that the other man is like a caged lion. Sure, in half an hour he can break the cage, have the Lincoln Town Car show up and some humourless gentlemen send you to the bottom, but right now Hiro's got the keys.

Keys being the operative word. There's some nice fancy crypto and steganography going on between where Uncle Enzo's pouring out of his data card into his personal space, and where the guy is sitting in some log cabin in the woods looking bored and maybe throwing virtual bean-bags at people from time to time, but anything can be made to have a pattern if you push it hard enough. And there's so much information flowing through the office that the number of lowest-bits to tweak is staggering. Maybe someone's watching him on a camera to see what he's doing, but maybe they aren't.

The avatar of Enzo has the decency to look surprised as it develops a surprisingly realistic arrow through the head and falls to the floor of the office.

As the Graveyard Demons arrive to take it away - the firewalls are stopping anything just disconnecting and dropping out of his office - Hiro considers keeping it as a souvenir, but there's putting a middle finger up to a serious organisation full of men with guns and there's just tacky, and he figures that using Enzo's last avatar as a souvenir is getting on for the latter.

"Have a nice day," he says, as the trapdoor swings open and the demons disappear down the chute.