Ivan stood atop the skyscraper, savoring the night breeze against his skin. Halcyon’s tropical heat gave way to pleasant coolness after a storm, and the scent of petrichor filled the air like perfume. Growing up in Nocturnov, fresh air was a rare treat you only got to experience if you dared to venture surfaceside, and even then all you got for your trouble was snow, sleet, and maybe hail if the weather was particularly exciting. Exile had its perks.
Mei had left on a cordial, if awkward, note soon after their argument, promising she’d spend the night tomorrow. It wasn’t quite late enough to go to sleep - they’d planned for a leisurely night in, but he’d gone and ruined it.
Still keyed up from the eventful day, he’d decided to take a walk around the central business district to work off some nervous energy. Even in the dead of night, it was bright enough to make him squint, arclights spelling out the names of restaurants, businesses and hotels on every surface.
Beneath him, an advertisement played on loop. A dog Animus actress struck a cute, not-quite provocative pose with a can of some sports drink next to her face, her figure writ large over the crosswalk below by glamer projectors set into the buildings around it. The resolution on the illusion was surprisingly high - he could see the individual strands of fur on her ears, even though the illusion was almost ten stories tall. Halcyon wasn’t quite as magitech-forward as Altus, but it had strong trade relations with the flying city, and any innovations that came out of Altus’s laboratories and factories inevitably turned up here soon after, often in the hands of the Hegemony.
Thankfully, the tricks for spoofing divination sensors and tripping security abjurations that had served him well in Nocturnov still worked here. Between the skeleton keycard he’d gotten from R and good old-fashioned lock-picking, he’d been able to go pretty much anywhere he liked in Halcyon.
Like the top of the Albion Arms. For one of the more prestigious hotels in Halcyon, boasting an unparalleled view of the waterfront, an array of restaurants catering to every taste imaginable, and a whole range of indulgent amenities, it had surprisingly lax security. It also had the best view of the executive levels of Hisakawa Tower anywhere in the central business district. From the helipad - of course the hotel had a helipad, it had to justify that five-star rating somehow - he had a clear view into the office of Alice Hisakawa herself.
The Hisakawa business group was a homegrown economic powerhouse with ties to everything from aviation to zoomancy, and had played a pioneering role in making Halcyon an international business hub back in the day. Of course, that meant it had Hegemony connections, though the precise degree of influence the government had over its business decisions remained the subject of speculation. At any rate, it was a veritable institution unto itself, with most of Halcyon’s old-guard business elite being involved with it in one way or another.
At the forefront of the new generation of Hisakawa business talent was Alice Hisakawa, the scion of the main family. She’d actually declined to work for the family business after graduating from university (double degree in accountancy and social sciences, masters in business), instead taking an offer from a multinational consultancy firm to get some overseas experience. Eventually, however, the prodigal daughter had returned home to head up a new real estate division in the Hisakawa Group, which had apparently set its sights on Emperor Drive recently.
Ivan had looked most of this up on his phone in the time he’d been standing here looking down at her office, scrolling through articles and reports about Alice and the Hisakawa Group. She was almost a celebrity of sorts, and he could see why - for the inheritor of a business legacy, she certainly was easy on the eyes.
He switched the phone to projection mode, and its screen seemed to pop out of its frame and double in size, hovering at an angle a few inches above the device itself. This model was several generations out of date, so it didn’t support multi-screen displays, but it was alright for a burner phone. The hardlight screen it projected into the air showed a photograph of Alice at some gala, resplendent in a black and gold gown, dark blonde hair done up in a braid.
She was dressed in a white blouse and black jacket now, and her hair was pulled back in a simple bun, but he could recognise her features even at this distance. Yes. That was her, seated at her desk, alternating between typing on her workstation and sifting through documents. Almost one in the morning, and she was still hard at work, even when the rest of the building was mostly dark. Rushing an urgent matter, or just a workaholic?
He studied the office, mapping potential routes of ingress and egress, blind spots, and possible places a safe might be hidden. Faint footsteps echoed up the stairwell behind him, and he slipped the phone into his pocket, then took a quick sip from the hipflask he kept in his jacket, swishing the whisky around his mouth.
“What are you doing up here? This area is off limits! Step away from the ledge right now!” Female, young, Halcyonite accent, and genuinely shocked to find someone up here. He didn’t hear anyone else coming up the stairwell, so it was unlikely that he’d set off an alarm. Turning to face her, he revised his estimation of her age - her face and physique were that of a young woman, but the silvery streaks that dominated her hair told a different story.
Hair like that only occurred naturally in Sparks, and served as the only sign of their ageing. Judging from the balance of black to white in her sensible bun, she was likely on the upper end of middle age, unless she’d burnt up part of her lifespan for enhanced brainpower. And judging from the sober charcoal pantsuit and gold nametag, a hotel manager - even in a five-star hotel like the Albion Arms - wasn’t the transcendental genius type.
Sparks burnt themselves up to achieve great discoveries, create acclaimed masterpieces, or break impossible ciphers, exchanging years of their life to access a heightened state of mind. They lived fast, died young, and left behind testaments to their genius.
Or else they languished in mediocrity, working pedestrian jobs like anyone else.
“Please step back from the ledge now… sir.” She’d noticed his attire and features, and realised that he might be a guest - couldn’t afford to offend him, now.
“Oh, hello! Didn’t see you there, young lady!” Ivan put on a plummy Albion accent, and stumbled away from the edge of the helipad to approach her. Halcyonites still had some degree of reverence towards Hesperians in general and Albionites in particular, a holdover from their colonial past. On top of that, the Albion Arms was a popular choice amongst Albionite tourists - the ones who could afford it, at least.
He’d explored the PhaseHack app’s features a little more, and it turned out you could capture someone’s face, then apply further cosmetic effects. Currently, he wore a face he’d captured off some old Albion geezer in an expat bar earlier, though he’d smoothed out the liver spots and wrinkles, and added a toothbrush moustache. On top of that, he was dressed in the nicest suit he could steal. The whisky breath completed the look, painting him as the typical Albion tourist who’d had a little too much - they were veteran drinkers, and being on holiday only put them in the mood for more merrymaking.
She wrinkled her nose slightly as he came up to her, vindicating his attention to detail, but quickly covered it up with a valiant attempt at a service smile. “My name is Lydia, sir. I’m sorry to disturb you like this, but the helipad is strictly out of bounds to guests. It’s unsafe, you see.”
“Yes, yes, I see.” He looked around bemusedly, like he hadn’t noticed the dead drop on all sides. “Well, I just wanted to take in the city, you know. Absolutely stunning, that waterfront, we don’t have anything like that back home.”
“...Sir, the waterfront is on the other side of the building.”
“Oh, is it? I must have gotten turned around. The architecture here is… well, you know.”
“Indeed, sir. Halcyon can be disorienting for newcomers, but it’s beautiful once you get used to it. I recommend appreciating it from the observation deck, which is just two levels down from here. I can show you there, if you’d like.”
“Lead on, darling.” He came a little too close for comfort, leering at her. She kept her service smile on, though she couldn’t cover her annoyance entirely. Dealing with drunken boors must be part of her job description, but he sensed a certain degree of personal distaste - no, disgruntlement - on her part even as she led him down the stairs with a practiced, professional air.
He thought he understood. A Spark working a job like this was in a losing position all around. Spark society would subtly disparage you as a slacker who didn’t have the guts to put your mind - and your life - on the line, whilst non-Sparks would look askance at you, questioning why one of the intelligentsia would deign to descend from their ivory tower and join the unwashed masses, and coming up with whatever answers they liked. To be treated as nothing more than a bit of eye candy on top of that - it was enough to drive someone up the wall.
There were exceptions to this rule, of course. Some Sparks found success in entertainment or sports, taking advantage of their apparent eternal youth to stay at the top of their game for decades. Still, even they were spoken of with some discomfort, as if their success was something to be ashamed of. Someone in Lydia’s position, with a lifetime of resentment on her shoulders, might just have a sore spot for that kind of thing.
“So are you a waitress or an escort of some sort? I didn’t know the Arms provided such services.”
“I’m a manager. Sir.” She kept her tone pleasant, though the delivery was let down slightly by her clenched teeth.
“Oh, I see! I thought Sparks were too brilliant for that sort of thing. Too busy curing cancer, or some such.”
“Some of us find other lines of work more rewarding, sir.” Her answer had a practiced air about it - this was familiar territory for her, but that didn’t make it any less distasteful.
“Well, you might just have found your calling, beautiful. The Arms could do with a few more pretty little things like you around…” He kept up the patter all the way down the stairwell, feeling her mentally withdraw from him more and more with every condescending word. Better that she remember this as an encounter with a boorish pig than a suspicious figure somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be.
He noted Lydia heaving a small sigh of relief as they emerged from the stairwell into the muted lighting and cool air-conditioning of the hotel proper. In fact, it was downright freezing, and the arclights were flickering weakly, covering the corridor in shadow. In the half-light, he glimpsed a figure standing nearby, wearing what looked like a uniform.
“That’s odd.” Lydia frowned, striding forwards. “You, are you with the maintenance team? What’s going on here?”
“That is none of your concern.” His voice was the light countertenor of a young boy, with a Federation accent. He reached up, removing mirrored sunglasses to reveal glowing red eyes. “My business is with him.”
He was a vampire. Worse, he was a Federal Agent.