Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Chaos Angel

by Roderick D. Turner

The space was small but it was front and centre, the closest you could get to the main doors. No other spot would do. Matt Rymer pulled his checkered Manx alongside the next car and slipped it into reverse. He spun the wheel tight and craned his neck, judging the distance, backing slowly, the car's long tail swinging smoothly round...


It took Matt a few moments to realize what had happened. His neck ached from the whiplash, but that would pass. He glared angrily back at the tiny pink Viper that had stolen his space. Not only stolen it, but rammed him in the process. The windows were black tint, and he could see nothing inside the vehicle.

"Son of a bitch," he said. "Always someone has to be a smart ass."

He thought of backing hard into the Viper, but his precious Manx would probably get the worst of it. He knew from experience. Besides, he had to get off the street before a traffic regulatory robot came along and tagged him. TRR's had no interest in excuses.

Matt pulled his car out and ahead, found another spot five spaces down, and parked. He looked at the heads-up video display, which showed a duplicate of what he saw out his front window, and touched the mode switch twice. The display switched to a rear view.

"Rapid review, one minute back," he ordered.

The image whizzed back over the past minute, and...

"Freeze!" Matt said.

There it was. The whole thing on memtape. License and all.

"All right. This time I'm not letting it go. I've got you on tape, and you're getting the shaft."

He slammed his fist against the dash in satisfaction. The display reset itself to a live rear view, and he stared at it in confusion. Then he froze.

The door of the little Viper opened and a tall, slender woman stepped out. She wore a luminous pink notch-cut cotton skirt and a loose smocked blouse. The notch was pulled high in front, very high, showing long legs and... She whirled, a blur of movement, and he watched the skirt shift provocatively as she walked away, each rapid step a melody of motion. The camera lost her as she moved out of range.

Matt gulped, and drew a deep breath. "I've got to talk to her," he whispered hoarsely.

With an effort he shook off the spell and stumbled through the car door onto the street. He caught sight of her disappearing into the Pirelli tower and sprinted across the metalled sidewalk after her, his portable control unit bumping awkwardly at his side.

In the vast high-vaulted lobby he spotted her easily, heading down the wide central corridor towards a bank of elevators. The woman's loose blouse was half-length and draped unevenly on her shoulders, the wide collar partway down her left arm. She carried a brown leather bag, its strap slung across her back up and over her bare left shoulder. Thick ragged-cut brown hair cascaded down over the strap. She reached an open elevator and stepped in, just as Matt caught her.

He collided with the closing door, smashing his control unit hard against the unyielding plastisteel. There was a sighing whine as it struck and the sound registered in the back of his mind, but he was too preoccupied to think about it. With a lunge he blocked the door with his arm and braced it with a foot, forcing it to open again.

"Not this time, lady," he said breathlessly.

She turned and he saw her face for the first time. Young and intense, mouth set in a tight pout, smooth-skinned brow furrowed. Striking green eyes distant, looking past him. They snapped suddenly into focus, and glared at him hard.

"What's your problem, mister?" she said. "I gotta be somewhere." The voice could have been soft and gentle, but for the harshness it carried.

Matt hesitated, then drew himself up. He could not back down now.

"I'm taking you to small claims," he said hoarsely. "You cut me off out there, and I got it all on tape."

She smiled coldly. "So take me. Who gives a shit."

Her eyes never left his as she reached down to her bag and pulled a pink card from a side pouch. She threw it past him onto the floor.

"Take my card and get the hell off this elevator," she said. "I'm busy."

Matt stared at her in shock. He tried to speak, but no words came. Then, as if in obedience to her command, he turned and reached down for the card. By the time he had straightened, the elevator door had closed. She was gone.

"Digger's knees," Matt muttered. "I know just how to pick them." He sighed, frowning at the closed door. Then a thought struck him. He looked up at the floor indicator, watching the numbers flash past. They slowed and stopped at forty-two, then after a few moments began to drop again. At thirty-three, there was another pause. Another at twenty. A final one at eight. Then the elevator doors opened. There were three passengers, and she was not among them.

"Excuse me," Matt said, "but did any of you see a tall young woman wearing a bright pink skirt?"

A dumpy brown-suited man ignored him completely and pushed past. The tall arrogant youth in forest green T-shirt and pumpkin-orange knee-length pants looked at him strangely, then glanced slowly back over his shoulder. Finally he turned to Matt and sneered at him.

"What's it to you?"

"I -- "

"She wouldn't give you the time of day," he said. Then he strode past and bounced jauntily down the passage, whistling.

The only remaining passenger was a plump, middle-aged lady in an unsightly polyester suit. Her face was a thick mask, a layer of makeup a day for the past twenty years. Either her perfume was overpowering or Matt was getting dizzy from so much abuse. The woman smiled saucily at him, notching deep crevices in her cheeks as she did so.

"What would you say to having lunch with me?" she asked sweetly. "You look like you need some company."

Matt stepped back a couple of paces to catch a breath of clean air. He forced a weak smile and shook his head. "Thanks, but I've got other business."

"Well, I suppose if you're busy," she said. "But you're missing something good." For a moment she stood there, her eyebrows raised invitingly. Then she shrugged and waddled off towards the main entrance.

Matt took a second to collect his thoughts. Had the Hallowe'en teenager really seen her? He felt a strong desire just to grab an elevator and go hunting. A part of him was drawn to her like a magnet, and he had to fight to remain logical. He looked at the card in his hand.



AJAX 053/499/2251/6677

"You name it, I do it"

"And what in the name of Ming are Contact Services," he muttered. He looked at the slogan again and shook his head. At least the number looked valid. He scanned the lobby for a Netlink terminal and found a bank of them set in an alcove near the entrance. After another brief hesitation he stepped into a booth and plugged in his PCS card, then dialled the number. Ajax. Where was that?

A face appeared on the screen. Young, male, confident. The garish pink collar of his shirt dazzled the eyes.

"Meir. Hey, what can I get you?"

"I -- I'm checking on someone, a Ms. Romana -- "

"She's on a job. You want I should pass on your request?"

"Yes -- well, no. I don't think you need bother. I'll get in touch another time. Sorry to trouble you."

He reached for the disconnect switch, but his hand froze in mid-stroke. Over the link he heard a familiar female voice in the background, and it made his heart jump.

"You OK, digger?" The kid on the screen looked sceptical. "Sure you don't want me to put you on the paging list?"

Matt listened hard, but the voice was gone. "Maybe you could, after all," he said. "And can you give me your address? I want to visit in person."

"Sorry China. That's what they all want. Tie up the business end first, then we'll see. You got a Roam?"

"This is my PCS number. She can get me any time. And please tell Ms. Romana that -- " he hesitated -- "that it's urgent."

"Yeah, I can tell. I'll put you down. Catch ya."

The screen faded, and Matt let out a long breath. "I must be losing it," he said. "What am I doing trying to contact her? All I have to do is give Rick the tape, let him process it, and I'll see her on the court Net. Rick's a good lawyer. I'm sure..."

He suddenly realized what he was doing, and clamped his teeth tight. There was talking to yourself, and then there was talking to yourself. This was getting scary. Time for a reality check.

Matt looked at his watch and clapped a hand to his forehead. The meeting. He had completely forgotten his original reason for being here.

He snatched his card out of the terminal and raced towards an open elevator. At the door he screeched to a halt. His briefcase. How could he be any use without that? He turned and sped back out the main doors of the building, across to his car. As he approached, he felt through his pockets for his access card. A sickening feeling came over him. He had left it in the car too. Now he was not only without his precious product portfolio, but also without transport. This whole incident with the woman had royally screwed up his day. He peered dully in the side window, saw the card he needed sitting on the seat. He did not carry a spare, and he was already late. There was nothing for it but to cancel his appointment with the Pirelli Corporation, and hope they would be gracious.

At the lobby Netlinks he dialled the Corporation president's direct line, and waited nervously. This was probably the biggest contract he could ever hope to obtain, and he might have blown it before he even got in the door. Pirelli ran the world's largest tactical conferencing service, providing worldwide video conferencing connections that boasted ironclad security, integrity that had never been breached, and guaranteed error-free links. But how could he possibly hope to sell them on his camera multiplexing system after a first impression like this?


A young man's face glared at him from the screen. Matt had arranged his original appointment through a scheduling secretary, and this was definitely not him. The Corporation president, then? An arrogant smile spread across the youth's face. Matt couldn't help thinking he looked familiar, somehow.

"Mr. Rymer, I presume." It was a statement, not a question. "So you've called to offer your excuses."

"I'm most terribly sorry, but I had an accident on my -- "

"I know. So what are you going to do about it?"

Matt stared at the screen. He could swear he'd seen that audacious young face before.

"I'd be -- uh, most happy to provide you with a demonstration system which you can test out. Unfortunately I don't think I can get it for you today, as my -- "

"It's today, or not at all. Get up here within the next half hour, with the system, and I'll look at it on the spot. Otherwise you can forget it."

Matt swallowed convulsively. He opened and closed his mouth, but no words emerged.

"And another thing, Rymer. I strongly suggest that when you have business to attend to, you learn not to get so distracted by pink skirts."

The screen went blank. Pink skirts. The teenager in the elevator. It wasn't possible.

Matt backed slowly out of the booth, thinking hard. If it was a hoax, it was a good one. But if there was any chance this guy was for real it would be worth the risk. He headed back out to his car, pulled his jacket off and wrapped his left hand in the material. Then he made a tight fist and smashed in the passenger window. The alarm went off immediately, but he reached under the dash and silenced it. He snatched up his key card and briefcase, and made his way back into the lobby, ignoring the suspicious glances that followed him.

A few moments later he stepped into an unoccupied elevator and asked for the top floor, one twenty six, the penthouse level. The indicator registered forty two when an alarm rang suddenly and the elevator jolted to a halt.

"Shit. The last thing I need now is a screwed-up elevator," he said.

He scanned the control panel, found and pressed the emergency call button. Within seconds a mechanical voice echoed through the elevator cab.

"Thank you for calling our help line. All our repair technicians are busy at the moment. Please stay on the line and we will be with you as soon as a technician is available. In the meantime, relax and enjoy this soothing musical interlude."

There was a click, and an uninspiringly mediocre rendition of 'Tales from the Vienna Woods' began.

"The ultimate form of torture," Matt muttered. "Trapped in an elevator with nothing but elevator music for company. And there goes any chance I had of making a good impression."

He set his briefcase down on the floor as a seat, and lowered himself onto it. Only when his portable control unit struck him in the ribs did he remember it was there.

"Of course!" he shouted. "I can call and explain. Maybe Pirelli will give me a break."

He opened the case and frowned at the instrument panel. His portable unit was identical to the control panel in the car, with two miniature video display screens and full recording and editing controls. It was also directly linked to the car cameras and to a set of up to twelve miniature remote cameras he could deploy as needed. Both screens showed live displays, and were in active recording mode. He quickly checked his inventory of remote cameras and realized he was one short. The incident with Romana at the elevator suddenly came back to him. That whining noise: the collision must have accidentally launched one of the remotes.

"And I guess I put them into record mode when I broke into my car." He laughed. "Maybe I can find out where she is after all."

He studied the screens more carefully. One showed a rear view from his car, the mode he had left it in earlier. The second camera was in motion, travelling along a corridor at a fast walk. He toggled the controls to that camera, the remote, and used the tiny joystick controller to pan the camera's field of view. The focus auto-adjusted, and for a brief moment he was looking upward from the waist of Romana's skirt, towards her face, the loose blouse hanging free and open. She was, he confirmed, bra-less. Then she shifted her bag and it covered the lens, blocking his view. Matt swallowed convulsively, then sighed. There was no doubt -- he was smitten.

He panned the camera to look forward again, and Romana entered a stairwell. The number on the door indicated the one hundred and twenty sixth floor. Pirelli's floor. She began to descend, leaping steps four at a time. A sudden thought struck Matt. He switched the monitor from live feed to recorded video and scanned backwards, consciously flinching when he passed the segment where he had panned the camera upwards. He forced himself to continued the scan and soon realized that what he had suspected was true. She had been in Pirelli's offices. He allowed the tape to run back to the point where she was just entering the Pirelli Corporation's main doors. Then he let it play back at normal speed.

She approached the desk rapidly, the view rolling and swaying to the movements of her body.

"Can I help you?" The receptionist was male, in his early twenties, and had a body like an aerobics instructor. His eyes were not on her face.

"Keep your eyes to yourself, jerk," Romana snapped. The man's gaze flicked upwards, and his expression hardened.

"What do you want?"

"I want to see your boss. Now." She handed him a card.

"He doesn't talk to just any bitch off the street," the receptionist answered coldly. "I suggest you leave now before I throw you out."

"You?" Romana laughed. "What, you're Superman in your spare time or something?" Before he could react she leaned across the desk and grabbed him by the shirt collar, twisting her knuckles into his windpipe. For a moment she held him there, watching him squirm and thrash as he tried to get air. Then she let him fall back into his chair. "Just give him my card. He'll see me."

The receptionist swallowed several times, rubbed his throat, and nodded. He moved off slowly to one of the three doors leading from the reception area, entered a code at an access panel, and was gone.

Romana scanned the room, swinging the camera's field of view round to encompass the entire entry area. It was large and richly decorated, giving no indication of the kind of business that was run beyond the closed doors. All three doors had huge mirrors on the walls adjacent to them, suggesting that they were one-way windows. Matt's cameras were sensitive to radiation well beyond the normal visible light range. He tuned the image to show a reconstructed infrared view, and instantly the rooms beyond the mirrors became visible. One large room held an array of computer desks, each manned by youthful operators. Another appeared to be a vast library filled with storage banks. The third was an office area, and Matt recognized both the receptionist and Pirelli, standing in front of a series of doors leading, he presumed, to individual offices.

But this was not the scene that interested him. Something had caught his eye, and he couldn't quite put his finger on it. At slow speed and highest resolution, he searched back through the recording of Romana's scan. It was as if she had done it deliberately, precisely to record the images for later analysis.

Suddenly, he found it. An operator in the largest of the rooms, glancing furtively around him, unnoticed by his neighbors. Matt zoomed the image, tightening the view and enhancing the optical contrast to allow him to read the operator's monitor. Even at the high capture rate of his camera the message was only visible for a brief instant.

'Virus Initiated'

As soon as the words had flashed past the monitor returned to normal display, and the operator rose from his station. Matt stored a snapshot of his face as he moved out of the field of view. A saboteur. If he was right, Pirelli might just be interested in doing business with him after all.

He let the recording run again, and watched as Romana scribbled a note on a small black-bordered pink pad and dropped it on the receptionist's desk. Then she left Pirelli's office and headed down the corridor. As she was walking past the elevators an alarm sounded, the same one he'd heard just before his elevator had stopped.

"A security alarm," he said aloud. "It's not just my elevator. The whole damned tower is shut down."

He toggled back to live display. Romana had made it down to the fortieth floor during his study session. If the building was on alert, why hadn't she been stopped?

He had no chance to ponder the question. There was a lurch, and his elevator surged upwards again. By the time he had closed up his control unit and scrambled to his feet, the elevator doors were opening onto the penthouse hallway. Two security guards stepped into the elevator and seized him roughly by the arms.

"Wait a minute," Matt protested. "What are you doing?"

"That's not for you to ask," the taller of the guards replied. "Come with us."

Matt complied. The guards led him through the double doors and into the Pirelli Corporation reception area, where an outraged Pirelli stood glaring at an unhappy-looking security woman. Matt noticed a small piece of pink paper in Pirelli's hand.

"Never," he shouted, waving the paper at the guard. "It's never happened, and I won't let it happen. I won't allow the integrity of our company to be damaged by sheer incompetence."

"It was some kind of freak incident, sir," the guard replied meekly. "Or else, it was engineered by a truly smart operator. The security system just went dead."

"That's not good enough! Our entire communication system was on the verge of shutdown. We're still struggling to get it back to normal, and who knows how long it will take to be sure it's completely secure. And you can't tell me who's responsible?"

"Maybe she can't, Mr. Pirelli," Matt said. "But I can."

Pirelli swung to face Matt, his face livid. "Who the hell are -- " He stopped abruptly. "Oh, it's you Rymer. What do you mean, you know who's responsible?" Pirelli's face suddenly contorted with renewed anger. "Did you have anything to do with this?"

Matt shook his head vigorously. "No, of course not," he said. "How could I? I don't have the first clue about how your system works. But I did see the culprit in action."

"What in hell are you babbling about? You've only just walked into the room, and you've never been up here before."

"It all has to do with pink skirts," Matt said quietly. "I believe we have a mutual acquaintance."

Pirelli's glare softened, and for a moment he looked confused. Matt seized his chance.

"If you'll allow me a few moments of your time, Mr. Pirelli," Matt said, "I know I can identify your saboteur." He was suddenly anxious to be somewhere else, to have a chance to look at his portable unit display and see Romana, to find a way to stop her before she was beyond his reach. The importance of this potential contract seemed to have dwindled into insignificance.

"Let him go," Pirelli ordered. He turned to the woman he had been berating. "And you. Scour the building for anyone that doesn't belong, and bring them here for interrogation. I want to question everyone personally."

He gestured for Matt to follow him, and led the way through into the office area. Matt was soon ushered into a spacious and luxurious office with huge windows looking out across the city. Pirelli shoved him into a hard, uncomfortable chair in front of an imposingly large expanse of polished oak. Then he took up a standing position on the other side of the desk, leaning forward on both hands and glowering down at Matt.

"Well?" he said.

"I've got it all on memtape," Matt said. "One of your technicians planted a virus in your system."

Pirelli nodded slowly. "Show me," he said.

Matt flipped open his portable control unit and eyed Romana's camera image. She was out of the building, moving across to her car. He almost panicked. How had she got out of the tower, with the place on full alert? As she reached the car he saw her finger suddenly descend in front of the lens, and from his car's camera view he could see that she was removing the remote camera from its place on her skirt. She had known it was there. All the time, she had known it was there. She turned the miniature device upwards to look into her face, and gave him a tight smile.

"I got your message, of course. And you got your contact. Now for the last time, go to hell."

The smile widened briefly, then was gone. The camera's view spun as she dropped it to the pavement, and went black as she crushed it under her heel. Then on his remaining camera Matt watched her climb into her Viper and start the engine.

"Shit, no," Matt shouted. He sprang from his seat and ran to the window. It leaned outwards slightly so that there was a clear view of the street below. Her car was a tiny pink speck. As he watched, it pulled out of its spot and sped rapidly away.

"What in hell are you looking at, Rymer?" Pirelli had come up beside him and was trying to follow his gaze. "What's so damned important?"

"I think I'm in love," Matt said dreamily. "With a guardian angel." He looked up at Pirelli. "Well, I guess that's not exactly the best description. She's a bit of a bitch, really. But then, nobody's perfect."

Pirelli seemed to calm down visibly. He nodded slowly.

"Pink skirts," he muttered dreamily. Then he handed Matt the paper he had been holding. "Take a look," he said. "I think I get the picture now."

The paper was pink with black edges, and had Romana's personalized heading at the top, the same as on her business card. Below the heading, she had sketched a caricature of a woman with a halo and wings. Written in neat print below the sketch was a single line.

'Michael Pirelli. Meet Matt Rymer.'


© 2009 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: Roderick D. Turner has been actively writing fiction since 1990. To date he has written one novel and close to 100 short stories. Two of his stories have been published in paper or electronic form, and another recently reached the quarterfinals in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the FutureContest. His story Perspective Warp appeared in the October 2008 Aphelion.

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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