His head throbbed. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears accompanied by white noise.
A burning sensation lingered on his hand.
Cain opened his eyes and was blinded by bright lights. He was exactly where he originally fell asleep. More specifically, he was nude, lying on a massage table, and next to a spa bath. He frantically looked around and found that the android, Mara, was nowhere in sight and that he appeared to be completely unharmed.
He was overcome by a feeling of lightheaded sickness and nausea originating from both stress and a mild hangover. After struggling to walk over to what appeared to be a sink next to a minibar, he promptly vomited into it. His vomit was blood red, much like his bloody mary, and in the aftermath, drool dribbled from his lips. This was joined by acidic bile.
Every fiber of his being felt like death. If his mind had to come up with a rational explanation for whatever the hell he just experienced, a deadly cocktail of pain medication, alcohol, and stem cell gel made him lose his fucking mind. He was pretty confident that was not how drugs were supposed to work.
Nonetheless, he made a mental note to never combine those three things again. It was hard for him to know what was real, a hallucination, or just a figment of his imagination during his intoxicated stupor.
Like many times before, alcohol was the cause and solution to all of his problems. So, he took a sip of what was left of his bloody mary after cleaning himself up. It reminded him of the lingering taste of his vomit, so he tossed it across the room.
Then he started putting his outfit back on. His kevlar armor combined with a leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet blended seamlessly together. It was also bulky enough to conceal his compact gauss gun, and he made sure it was still where he left it. However, his heart skipped a beat upon being unable to find the data cache. He was put at ease once he found it deep inside of a pocket. Lastly, he put on some gloves, oblivious to the fact that there was now an odd emblem on the palm of his left hand that looked like a black wheel with three interlocking patterns.
Suddenly, someone knocked on the door. This was followed by hissing that his helmet promptly translated and personalized to sound like a young human man.
“Are you two done in there yet? It's been hours! What's the holdup?”
With a few heavy stomps of his boots, Cain walked to the door and slid it open. He came face to face with two Kailka in the form of a small male holding bundles of restraints and a larger female who looked embarrassed to be at a brothel. Blue blood rushing to the scales on her face made this obvious enough.
“You were in there by yourself?” asked the escort as he tilted his head.
“No, no… I went in here with a human android by the name of Mara before passing out.”
The escort crossed two of his four arms. “Last time I checked, we don't have any human androids or any by the name of Mara.” He paused to look at a human woman nearby. If Cain had to take a guess, she was some kind of receptionist. “Hey! Check the security footage and see if this guy is telling the truth. He said he came here with one of our androids.”
The escort dismissively pointed at a camera in the corner before slithering into the now unoccupied room.
“Sorry about that, my dear.” he hissed while his female client followed him.
The door promptly slammed shut as soon as Cain walked away from it. Now he was in what amounted to a waiting room with a television playing pornography. This time, the video featured a Kalika woman coiled around a young human man, although it could be hard to tell what they were doing in this position. It was titled Barely Legal Boys
in the corner.
There were also two other people in the room.
The first was a bald, middle-aged, human man wearing sunglasses arguing with the receptionist.
The second was a small Menaki man holding a bundle of bioluminescent flowers. He averted eye contact with Cain. The Menaki appeared to be shy, out of shape, and physically weak. Odds are, this was one of the elusive Omega males that Amber told him about, who finally decided to leave the comfort of his home.
Then again, they were both in a brothel, so he wasn't exactly in a position to judge him.
The Omega's ears perked up upon seeing a pink feathered Gasheran strolling into the room. She was wearing fine silk wrapped around her avian feet and other garments on her wings. He stood up and padded over to her location while wagging his tail and he presented the bundle of flowers. The Gasheran’s eyes sparkled as she stared at the flowers, which were slowly changing colors, shifting between shades of blue, red, and purple.
“Aw!” she chirped. “You shouldn't have!”
She gave him a little peck on the nose by pressing her beak against it and delicately licking it. From there, she presented one of her wings, and he grabbed it before they both disappeared into a room together.
Meanwhile, Cain walked past the receptionist and the man arguing with her.
“Come on!” said the man that looked like a slimeball. “I have to pay five hundred energy credits just to suck on some tits? That's ridiculous. Four hundred is the best I can do.”
The annoyed receptionist had caramel colored skin and hazel eyes. With a stiff upper lip, she replied to the slimeball.
“You’re not allowed to haggle. It’s disrespectful and demeaning to our escorts.”
“Fine,” said the slimeball, “Four hundred and fifty.”
The woman rubbed her eyes and snarled. “Hold on a moment.”
With a few clicks of her computer terminal, the pornography on the television was replaced by security footage of the last few hours. After fast forwarding through it, she paused upon finding footage of Cain. It showed him walking into the brothel by himself before locking himself in an empty room. Then the once absent receptionist returned, oblivious to the fact that he was in a room by himself.
In the meantime, Cain completely ignored all of this as he strolled out of the brothel and back into the strip club.
“Wait, excuse me, sir!” shouted the receptionist. She grunted and looked at the slimeball. “Why the hell do all the assholes and freaks always come here?”
The slimeball shrugged. “Beats me. Anyway, I think we can come to a compromise at four hundred and seventy-five energy credits. That's my final offer.”
These words resulted in the receptionist facepalming. She pressed a red button underneath her desk.
“Can I speak to the head of security?”
Soon enough, Cain was back at the main attraction of Hell's gate.
Oddly enough, they weren't dancing anymore. The electronic screens previously showcasing several leaderboards were replaced by an emergency federal broadcast. Strippers and patrons alike had their eyes glued to the screen as Cain passed by them. He could faintly hear the voice of a news broadcaster.
“... and federal forces failed to arrest several prominent Kalika matriarchs that brought up the possibility of seceding. Our sources say that open hostilities have broken out between aristocratic Kalika militias and peacekeeping forces.”
The televisions switched to videos of humans being apprehended on Earth.
“Meanwhile, in the Sol system, political party leaders deemed a danger to democracy have been taken into federal custody. Following this, all terrorist activities on Earth have completely ceased. Although the conductor is calling this a step in the right direction, Earth's federal forces are on high alert with the elections finally proceeding as normal.”
An infographic showed the Egalitarian party in the lead, due to the other parties being disbanded. The only competition it had was from obscure political parties and partyless independent candidates. These were just more signs of a laughable and decaying democracy.
Regardless, Cain stopped hearing the broadcast after leaving Hell's gate behind. He walked outside where soft rains washed over his body and dripped down his helmet's visor.
From there, he mindlessly strolled down a sidewalk until he was standing in the middle of a bridge. Below him, a torrent of water coursed down an artificial river. He figured all of this rainfall had to go somewhere in this city. There were several guardrails near the edges of the bridge, signs with helpful reminders not to kill yourself, and information for a suicide support hotline.
After digging through a pocket, he procured the data cache.
The object that caused him so much trouble.
He contemplated simply throwing it off the bridge or finding a way to thoroughly destroy it. Cain wasn't sure if his delusions were correct about whatever information was inside of it, but regardless, it seemed like a bad idea to let the Sons of Sol get their hands on it. Before he could come to a decision, Amber's smart device buzzed in his pocket.
This confused him at first, but nonetheless, he quickly answered the call from an unknown number.
“Hey, who is this?” he asked.
“Finally.” said a masculine voice on the other end. “It's about time we finally spoke to each other.”
“...Who the hell is this?”
“You don't remember me? We're like brothers, you and I.”
Cain growled. “Tell me your fucking name and how you got this number or I'm ending the call.”
The man on the other end sneered. “I couldn't help but notice that Amber didn't have her special smart device. Those things are quite useful. I found her contact information easily enough, called this number, and what do you know… you picked up the phone.”
While Cain contemplated whether or not answering was a mistake, the man resumed speaking.
“But anyway, I have many names. Most refer to me as Timothy. I'm surprised that you don't remember me when we recently met at a place called Purgatory.”
“You were at Purgatory?”
“Yes. I remember it like it was yesterday, Cain. One day, I decided to lure you away from her for the sake of killing two birds with one stone... breaching a blacksite and killing you. At best, I was hoping you would have created a distraction that would have simplified things for me. Then I could have killed Amber. But no. I came to the nightclub, stuck a tracking device on your motorcycle, and discovered that you single-handedly killed everyone and took the data cache for yourself. It was quite a surprise.”
“So you're that asshole that shot me in the back.”
Cain clenched his fists while Timothy talked.
“Well, now I have Amber's credentials, making her demise unnecessary. I wasn't expecting us to take her alive… but now all I need is the data cache. However, I'm curious as to why you took it for yourself and didn't turn it over to the federation.”
“You have Amber?!” Cain's eyes went wide and his voice became stone cold. “Where is she? Where are you?”
“Answer my questions and I will answer yours.”
With a sigh, Cain complied. “...I took the data cache out of ignorance. I had no idea what the hell it was and wanted to find out, but now I'm starting to understand why its original owner preferred killing herself compared to being hunted down like an animal. As for why I didn't turn it over to the feds when I was imprisoned, I was hoping to potentially use it as a bargaining chip since they failed to find it. But now? I don't know what to do with it. Maybe I'll sell it.”
“Of course,” said Timothy with scorn in his voice, “You materialistic whore. Like the other federal goons and henchmen, you fight for money rather than a cause greater than yourself.”
“No… I only fight for myself.” retorted Cain.
“I know. You seem like the type of cancerous individualist that only cares about himself. I bet you'd gladly let the galaxy burn if you got something out of it. In fact, that's exactly what I'm counting on. But tell me. Do you even know what's on that data cache of yours?”
This caused Cain to shrug, and he felt a bit stupid once he realized that Timothy couldn't see him.
“Data on how to make bioweapons…?”
The voice on the other end went completely silent for several seconds.
“...And to think, I took you for a dumb brute. I suppose it takes more than luck to survive what you've gone through. How did you possibly decrypt the data cache when you need the credentials of a FIB director and their two vice directors to do just that?”
Part of Cain found himself bewildered. Apparently, there actually was information for conducting biological warfare on the data cache.
“I have my ways,” replied Cain, “What I really want to know is what you plan on doing with that sort of information.”
“What do you think?” asked Timothy with a chuckle. “Even in a best-case scenario where both the Kalika and Humans rebel, the Gasherans and Menaki still make up roughly sixty percent of the federation's population. Biological weapons would even the odds and end some of the fighting before it even starts. But do you know what the ironic part is?”
“No, I don't.”
“Well, I'll tell you. The federation originally intended to deploy bioweapons against any species that rebelled against them while vaccines were given to the loyalists. Not only could we develop countermeasures with that data cache in our hands, but we can turn their own tools against them by hoisting them with their own petard. It could help us free our people.”
“And at what cost?” asked Cain. “Countless innocents getting killed by the Sons of Sol?”
“Cain, I think the real question is how much those so-called innocent people matter to you. You're very special to me, so I'm making you a special offer I wouldn't make to anyone else. If you give me the data cache, I will allow you and Amber to live. Then you would be permitted to flee to wherever you pleased.”
“What, so you can become the ultimate cartoon villain by jerking yourself raw over the thought of genocide?”
“...Alternatively, I shoot Amber in the head. Even if you run, the Sons of Sol will keep pursuing you until that data cache is in our hands. We don't have to kill you or Amber if you just give us what we want.”
With a pensive look on his face, Cain went silent and stared across the bridge at the surrounding city. Neon lights flickered in the occasional puddle and raindrops.
“...How do I know that you even have Amber with you?”
“Would you like to speak to her?”
Cain nodded. “Yes. I would.”
“Very well. Just give me a moment.”
From there, Cain heard the man walking around a presumably empty room. Following a few moments of this, he heard what was undeniably Amber growling. A sound he knew way too well. Then he heard screaming and yipping from her accompanied by the sound of what sounded like electricity shocking someone.
“Rise and shine,” faintly said Timothy, “It's for you.”
There were several seconds of what sounded like the smart device being fumbled around with.
“Hello?” said a weak and feminine voice.
“Wait… Cain…?” He heard her gasping on the other end. “I… I didn't think I would ever to get to hear your voice again.”
“Where the hell are they holding you hostage?” he asked in a state of rage.
“I don't know. I'm in a cold and dark room, but that's not important. I've had some time to think about… all of this.” She sniffled. “This is all my fault. I'm sorry for lying to you. I guess now I'm paying the price for what I've done. Don't try to rescue me. My life isn't worth what… they
“Just hang in there Amber, everything is going to be alright. I'm so sorry for leaving you behind. I didn't want you to get dragged into this…”
“SHUT UP!” she snarled. This was followed by several moments of silence and a sniffle. “Destroy that data cache. As much as it pains me to say this, go find a new mate that will make you happy. That's all I-”
Suddenly, her screaming joined the sound of a constant electric shock. Cain could hear the smart device on the other end rattling on the ground. Then there was silence. It was broken upon hearing a masculine voice and heavy footsteps.
“Hopefully that proves that I have her in my custody now.”
Cain didn't grace the man with a reply as his body locked up.
“It's funny, really.” continued Timothy. “You're willing to fight and die for this literal two-faced bitch, yet you couldn't tell the difference between her and the other woman that I sent you pictures of. It just goes to show that these aliens are a dime a dozen.”
“You're a dead man, you know that?”
“No, I'm not. At this rate, you and Amber will meet the fate of all trespassers and traitors. You're two sides of the same coin, really... but if you want to take up my offer, I'll send you the address to where we can make the exchange. No one has to die if you just simply comply.”
Cain remained silent, forcing Timothy to keep talking.
“...You get two days to think it over before the offer expires. Then I'll kill her. Choose wisely, brother.”
With that, Timothy ended the call.
In the meantime, Cain was a bit weirded out by how he called him brother. The Sons of Sol always called each other brothers and sisters like they were in some kind of cult, but they didn't do the same for their human enemies. He chalked it up to lunacy and paced up and down the bridge in an obvious state of stress.
Part of him wanted to show up to the address he was given guns blazing. However, barging headfirst into danger when he thought that Amber was in trouble was exactly how he managed to get into this situation to begin with. Hell, Amber chastised him for falling for what she called a stupid male power fantasy by trying to rescue what he thought was a damsel in distress.
Although in Amber’s case, it was more like a badass in distress. If she was a high ranking FIB agent with cybernetic implants, that meant that she was potentially even more dangerous than him. Besides, if that were the case, what chance did he stand if she couldn't fight them off?
Even if he gave the SOS the data cache, he had no guarantee that they would honor the deal. If he fled to the neutral zone alone, Amber would surely die. Trying to take a third option by using force could easily lead to the death of Amber, himself, and the loss of the data cache. It overall seemed like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.
For once in his life, he decided to apply his cunning to solve this problem.
Personally, he blamed his peacekeeper training for his current mentality of acting on instinct and impulse. It was drilled into his head that a good plan now was better than a perfect one later and that a split second of hesitation could get him killed. Although it was a good mentality to have on the battlefield, it wasn’t such a great one in the civilian world. This couldn’t be better demonstrated than with peacekeepers adopting an infamous shoot first, ask questions later doctrine that brought that mentality of war to their homes in the name of fighting the federation’s domestic enemies.
He started making plans to head to the nearest spaceport in proximity to the address that he was given. On the way, he would find outlets to purchase contact lenses, hair dye, and the equivalent of a jump drive.
What he wasn’t entirely sure of was whether or not Amber would be leaving the planet with him.