The Winter Principle The maglev train was running late. All the while, the beaming face of Ephraim Gray fulfilled his role of talking head on a monitor nearly three meters tall and half as wide. The same overly enthusiastic and warm voice he always spoke in. The same promise of 'the best in edu-tainment the market has to offer'. That same thrice-damned desk strewn with dozens of stuffed toys, neon-green monitors covered in smiling yellow faces, and romping dinosaur toy that contained one of the most powerful processors known to man. Gray was the most ridiculous attempt at marketing Richardson had ever seen grace the face of international data streams - but somehow it worked. "Calm your yín chóng ass down," Lenora grunted; she'd noticed Richardson's fists grow taught and white from strain at his sides. "Train's here." Torn from his silent, steaming distaste towards Ephraim Gray, Richardson glanced over at Lenora and nodded once abruptly. Lenora made quite the eyesore with her bright blue synthetic arms, red-leather jacket cut off at the shoulders, and hot pink boots laced up to her knees, but he knew better than to comment. "You know damned well I don't speak a lick of Mandarin," Richardson replied in his thick drawl of a northeastern accent. "It's for the best you don't," the retired soldier's bodyguard replied with a wink of her yellow-tinged eyes, cosmetically altered to change color periodically. The pair mounted the maglev right as the artificial operator's voice began to advise others to step away. The moment the doors sifted closed behind the two, the train shot into motion, the neon-hazed cityscape flashing by within instants. The voice of Ephraim Gray had faded, leaving in its stead silent, flashing ad boards across every surface of the train's interior; all of them were entirely intrusive and blaring from holographic images floating before passengers to flashing strobe lights. "This haul's got a good sight to 'em," Lenora finally broke the silence that had built up as the brightly-lit and well-kept city center gave way to the industrial sectors. Outside ad boards and slick offices were replaced with peeling billboards decades old, decrepit factories left to minimal operational efficiency, and cars so old they still required wheels. "'Course, that'll be up to you, though there's one you'll have to check for certain. Lenny's brain was scrambled when the chòu biǎozi looked at him. He drew his pistol, blew out a clump of 'civvies then turned the gun on himself and..." Lenora mimed brains splattering out the back of her head with a finger gun put to her mouth. "Splat." "You got that thing in check?" Richardson questioned, lenses whirring over to meet Lenora's now orange-glazed eyes. "She 'sorta just...Fuck it...fell after that. Like God almighty flicked her pretty little life switch to off," she snorted, "Good riddance to her little mind games. She's got some anti-stims flowing through her as we speak. Since we don't know what her tweak is, we can't suppress it with drugs. Never seen a Chiral that badass 'fore." "Make sure she's up and running by the time we get there." Lenora nodded. --- Twenty minutes later, the maglev glided smoothly to a stop and the pair exited onto the border between the luxurious rows of apartments that dotted the dubbed 'suburbs' and the industrial graveyard. From there, it was a quick walk to an old 21st century warehouse with a faded logo etched over the massive garage door. In its decades of disrepair, a fine layer of rust had formed over nearly every metal surface and cracks filled with weeds wormed their way across walls. Lenora kneeled downward, braced her arms against the bottom of the garage door, and shoved upward. With the whine of motor-servos and powered joints, the electric blue synthetics shot the door upward rapidly in a sharp creak of rusty steel. Richardson winced at the harsh, sudden noise and kneeled to enter the spacious, dimly-lit warehouse floor. Lenora shut the door with a slam behind them and followed suite, rolling her shoulders and giving the floor a look over. In the center of the floor stood two faux-oaken chairs, practical if not exactly luxurious, atop a plain and dust-filmed woolen rug. Between the two chairs stood a coffee table made of the same material as the seats. Two armed guards - Richardon considered them more thugs with guns than even 'street-professional' security - stood at either doorway; the garage door remained unprotected. In what would have been the manager's office now shone a dull electric glow of security monitors and mainframes. In there, every record of every Chiral Richardson's crew had captured was stored and a security mainframe monitored the warehouse and a five-block radius around it. "Get the Chiral ready," Richardson began, "I'll be down in a moment. I'm going to see Chrome's report on her before I make any hasty judgment calls." Lenora nodded and set off to where the Chirals were kept on-site. Most of them, when their business was in good standings, were anti-stimmed and stored in cryo banks to await a screening and questioning from Richardson. After awakening from two layers of suppressants, the Chirals were often complacent enough to avoid too fierce a struggle. Leaving Lenora to her work, Richardson began the hike up the ladder to the manager's office; the lift and stairs had long since fallen into horrendous disrepair, and a ladder made the office a veritble fortress against rival gangs. Once inside, he was met by a cluttered workspace lined in printed-paper, folders, spare files, and all other assortments of 'hard' data. Chrome - he'd never said his real name, only used the alias 'Chrome Bit' - sat in a plush leather chair typing away at a keyboard from a terminal that dated back to the early 21st century. Everything operated old-fashioned. New technology left a digital footprint, one that could easily be traced with the kind of power corporations and law enforcement possessed. "Not going to like it, boss," was Richardon's greeting as the automatic door slid behind him with a soft clink of metal upon glass. He noticed now that a vitals diagnostic was plastered to wall and a blank slate was showing for the identity monitor. Not good indeed. "We've got a Ghost." "Not just that," Chrome continued, offering one spare glance at Richardson before returning to work with one hand running across the extent of his bald and extensively augmented scalp, finally resting at scratching where two wire ports were located, "she's got no discernible augs that match any of the shit we've got on all the other Chirals. Public records don't have anything on it, and I don't have the hardware to jack into the Net and snoop around a bit on some of Cross' old lèsè. She'll be worth a CEO's ransom on the market, but I doubt we'll get her out with ringing alarm bells everywhere." "Noted." Richardson waited for Chrome to continue. When no response was forthcoming, he clambered back downstairs and took a seat on one of the wooden chairs. Two mugs of soykaf now sat on the table and the guards had finally awoken the girl, who was currently being escorted towards the table. The two men set her down, not ungently, and took their positions by the doors again. Lenora was smoking an e-cig by a vent entrance and examining a pad in her left hand, eyes a bright purple noticable even from Richadson's distance. "Right," began Richardson, the drawl replaced by all charm and confidence, "I have a dilemma here with you. You have no records on public access, and I don't want to risk my Netter snooping around in areas he shouldn't for the perseverance of his well-being. This means we have two potential reasons why you aren't real: you aren't officially a person, which means I cannot protect you from whatever awful things will happen in the real world to zeroed people such as yourself or you have friends in very high places who would take offense to my act of taking you hostage. If it's the latter, no doubt they'll reward me for escorting you home safely and that'll be that. If it's the former, then you're in quite a spot of danger. Regardless, though I may be the hawk and you the rat - do not consider that an insult, most do - I wish not to see another Chiral dead on the street because she picked a fight or was mismarked on a sensor grid. People at large have done enough harm to people like us for enough time, so tell me, which is it? Are you some CEO's private agent or just a child locked away, born in a cellar so she might live a normal life?"