The Petals of Aphrodite

by Ulquiorra9000

Chapter 23

April 26th, 2046

"Still feelin' up to this, Jess?" Arthur asked again that evening as he walked briskly but casually down the street's crowded sidewalk and into an open air market, deep in Little Serbia. His long, black trench coat hid the submachine gun strapped to his back. His heavy, buckled boots splashed up leftover rainwater on the concrete sidewalk.

Jessica nodded. "I feel fine, Arthur. Besides..." She forced a smile. "You know I can't sit still when there's work to be done."

"Yeah, that's the thing about you sisters," Arthur said with a return smile. "This city can't keep you down for long."

Jessica felt a chill at the meaning of Arthur's words but didn't show it. Images of her father's murder once again flashed through her mind, and Nataliya and her sisters as they chased Jessica across Little Poland's streets to kill her... And the imagined horror of the assault on Steiner Manufacturing's campus...

May caught Jessica's eye and grinned. "He's right, you know. We'll come back from this, one mission at a time."

"Just stay close to me." Jessica clapped a hand to her sister's shoulder. Though Aphrodite's medical team had patched her up quickly, her rib still throbbed on occasion. Push through it.

Around them walked three more members of tactical squad B, Arthur's unit. More agents were spread out around this street and nearby alleyways, all connected to Arthur's personal comm frequency.

Neon signs in Serbian cyrillic flashed overhead while obnoxious club and pop music played over loudspeakers. Men and women of all backgrounds swapped goods all around Jessica at their stalls: prosthetic arms and legs of varying quality, expensive laptops and accesories, bullet-resistant coats and steel-toed boots, and all manner of hard drugs and rare wines.

Jessica jumped as Arthur led her past a cluster of men admiring a roaring tiger in a steel cage, the great cat huffing as it glared at the potential buyers. Nearby, exotic birds screeched and flapped their wings against their cage bars, and a few women had colorful, genetically-altered pythons draped around their shoulders, calling out prices in Serbian and Polish.

Arthur coughed on the fumes of a passing garbage truck. "Okay, looks like we're getting close. Guys, try to look like excited buyers. Just don't actually buyanything, okay?"

May, who had just reached for her wallet in her jean's back pocket, instead shoved her hands into her pockets with a look of deep disappointment.

Then, it appeared: The Gentleman's Palace.

Arthur tapped a gloved finger to his earpiece comm as he stood near the Palace's entrance. Buyers bustled around him, going in and out of the ornate, three-story building's front doors. "This is Centaur One to Desert Fox, come in."

Jessica perked up as Arthur opened a channel to the chief of a city police squad, codenamed Desert Fox. Only yesterday had Susie finished experimenting with Jessica's gathered Blue Moons intel, and now she, Christina, and Yousef Harrak had pieced this mission together.

This could be the night! Jessica felt her heart race, and she fought not to smile too broadly.

Arthur paused as he listened, then nodded. "Yeah, the platoons are in place. All geared up. We're going in."

Desert Fox said something back, and Arthur cut the line. He turned to Jessica and May, eyes hidden behind his sunglasses.

"Act naturally," he said. "It's pretty... uh... baroque in there. You know who we're dealing with."

The others nodded. Jessica felt as though a snake had just crawled through her insides. Oliver Gillian...

Arthur removed his sunglasses, revealing the glowing red lines in his ocular implants. His normally-cheery face was somber. "Look: weapons are allowed inside, but only for self-defense. Don't draw 'em unless I say. Just follow my lead and I'll take us through the route that the police figured out. We've only got one shot at this."

With that, Arthur motioned for the others to follow and joined the crowds thronging into The Gentleman's Palace.

Quiet music played on speakers at the lobby's corners as Jessica stepped inside with the others. She felt a little under-dressed; her skintight blue jeans, black tank top, and parted red coat didn't match the suits and fine gowns that the older men and women wore in here (though the younger people dressed street-casual). There were even butlers in black silk vests serving trays of wine glasses and hors d'ouvres to the guests. It was almost a step back in time, if not for the butlers' shiny prosthetic hands and the pistols holstered at their belts.

Arthur wordlessly led the squad deeper inside, past armed enforcers clad in long gray trench coats, black boots and slacks, and heavy sunglasses equipped with holographic displays. Jessica recognized the style as belonging to Oliver Gillian's elite agents, not unlike the agents she had met while running with the Blue Moons.

Come on... where are you guys? Jessica knew the targets: a squad of Richard Marshall's men, here to buy more hacker repair kits from Oliver himself. Apparently, TS-46-1 was still having some trouble, and Richard would pay top dollar to plug the cyborg's leaks. That meant that Oliver would step out of the shadows.

And into Arthur's net.

Side halls all led to more markets and auctions, and Jessica got good glimpses of them as she passed. She saw not just more body augmentation hardware and computer parts, but firearms, more exotic pets... and sex slaves.

Oh, no. Jessica's bones went cold as she peeked at an auction for prostitutes, where a line of attractive young men and women stood on the stage, handcuffed and watched over by armed guards. Businessmen and women eagerly bid on the sex slaves, and each young man and woman on the stage had the same look of cold resignation on their faces.

"Sold! $3,500 for this lovely piece," the auctioneer, and older woman, called out. She had three wires plugged into her neck, connected to her podium's expensive laptop. The woman motioned, and a guard escorted a brunette young woman in a skimpy tube top and short jean shorts to a large businessman, who stood to receive her. His ring-encrusted fingers ran along her jaw, and she glanced away in disgust. Then, a boy about Jessica's age was brought up, and the process started again.

So this was the kind of place where Oliver lived and worked. This was where Port Newton's ugliest features showed through.

Jessica felt the weight of her Desert Eagle in her pocket. How easy it would be to draw it and fire on the businessman who had now taken hold of his purchase's wrists and leered at her as she tried to wrench herself free!

"We're close now," Arthur added, snapping Jessica back to the mission. He slipped his shades back on. "Guys, we're almost at the software and hacker market. You all ready?"

Jessica tore her eyes from the auction scene. "Y-yeah," she said shakily. "Can't wait." Around her, Arthur's other men faked excitement to buy Oliver's goods.

The hacker market was just as Jessica had imagined it.

What appeared to be the largest room was divided into countless vendor stalls, all giving off light and noise. Not only did Oliver's business sell software updates and hacker hardware, but actual hacker people, C-tier and B-tier, sat at private booths for hire. Mercenaries of the digital battlefields, Jessica thought.

"Hey, you lot look like you could use a guy like me!" a C-tier called out as Jessica passed his booth. He wore only black underpants, seated around a few monitors and computers that plugged into his back through thick cables. He pointed, and the screens scrolled with data. "I've got a real rep, you know. Stolen millions in the last five years!"

"Thanks, but we've got something else in mind," Arthur said crisply.

The hacker's face fell. "Your loss, pal."

Not thirty seconds later, a middle-aged woman in a dark gray outfit held up CD cases at her stall, and she caught Arthur's attention, waving her goods in his face and speaking in rapid Serbian.

One of Arthur's men, a man with a blond mohawk and a holographic visor over his eyes, translated. "She can make any hacker work like a tier higher, without the expensive hardware upgrades. A C-tier can take down a B-tier with her codes."

Arthur smiled easily. "Tell her thanks, but no."

The woman scowled, then turned to a pair of young women with fancy, pink-dyed hairstyles and black lipstick, repeating her message.

Jessica winced as people kept crowding roughly past her, from burly men in black coats with hacker ports on their foreheads, to chatty women in wild outfits and carrying oversized purses.

"Hej! Badz bardziej ostrozny, ty glupia suko!"

Jessica froze as a young woman smashed into her with her shoulder, snarling in Polish. The other woman shoved Jessica back in disgust. She had on knee-high black boots, a parted pink leather jacket over her white tank top, and a provocatively short skirt. She wore a visor over her eyes that blinked with blue and green lights.

She wants ME to be more careful? And she called me a bitch?! Jessica snapped in her mind. She took a deep breath, hands held out placatingly. I'll just apologize to keep things cool... She cleared her throat. "Przepraszam. Prosze mi wybaczyc."

The woman jabbed a finger at Jessica's stomach and opened her mouth to say something, until a boy her age joined her and took her shoulders. He quickly muttered in her ear to calm her down, then gave Jessica a funny look before steering the girl away. Probably her boyfriend, judging by his words.

Jessica rejoined Arthur's party. "Everything okay?" Arthur asked sharply.

"Yeah." Jessica smoothed a lock of her hair. She still had her blue hair dye from the Blue Moons, but thankfully, not the horrible black lipstick or eye shadow. "Some girl bumped into me and blamed me for it. Her boyfriend broke it up."

Arthur shrugged. "Sorry, Jess, but that's the sort you'll get around here. Let's keep moving." Then, as he rounded a corner with the group, he stopped. "There. I've got a visual on 'em."

Four men in typical gray coats and black slacks stood guard around a large stall, situated next to an exit door. Five other men in black business suits and shades stood in a cluster, chatting in low voices with another man who nodded at their words.

The last man stood out from the others. He wore a black leather jacket over his white T-shirt, and blue jeans and brown work boots. He had a lean, predatory face with D-tier hacker implants on his forehead. He spoke clear English with a distinct Canadian accent.

Arthur tapped into his comm. "Desert Fox, it's Centuar One. Primary target spotted."

When Arthur got off the comm, he cleared his throat. "The other squads and the police are ready and in position," he said, making sure that no one could overhear. "We know Oliver's escape route. All this squad has to do is start the attack and chase Oliver out of here. Then, he's right in our snare. His personal guards will be outnumbered."

Jessica swallowed and nodded. Finally!

This time, Jessica could vaguely hear the Marshall mafia men speaking to Oliver, and Oliver motioned for them to follow his head. He slunk through the exit doorway, probably to a hidden room of secure goods. Two of his enforcers followed the group, the other two staying to guard the outside.

Arthur lowered his voice even further. "This is it. Draw weapons and fire on my mark. Scare 'em into the planned route and pursue."

Slowly, Jessica inched toward Oliver's retreating back with the others, and she discreetly prepared her pistol, clicking off the safety, the weapon hidden behind her jacket. The others did the same.

Her heart racing with adrenaline, Jessica stalked over to Oliver and the Marshall men and pointed her weapon. Arthur, May, and the others took aim as well. The crowds around them parted, gasping and crying out in varying languages.

Jessica heard a new pistol's action slide into place. A woman's voice threatened her in throaty Ukrainian.

Slowly, Jessica turned around. Five Blue Moons sisters had parted from the crowd, and now had their pistols and mini-Uzis trained squarely on Arthur's squad.