Ivan jerked on the bed, snapping back into consciousness as the electrodes on his chest jump-started his heart. He gasped for breath, pushing past the pain in his chest. It was a familiar pain, and everything hurt anyway, his body still sore from yesterday’s acrobatics even after proper cooldown and stretching. Beside him, a girl said something, but he couldn’t take it in, his mind filled to overflowing with the chip he’d swallowed. Grabbing his phone, he unlocked it and pulled up the transcription app.
His vocal cords moved on autopilot, vomiting a litany of sharp-edged syllables that seemed to gouge his throat on the way out, words that meant nothing to him, that he forgot the moment they left his lips. It didn’t matter. The transcription app recorded everything perfectly, strings of characters and symbols scrolling across the screen, and closed itself the moment he stopped speaking. In its place, a new app popped up, showing a loading screen he’d never seen before.
“...You ok, Ivan?” Mei touched his shoulder lightly, concerned.
“Yeah.” He laid a weak hand over hers and sank back onto the bed. “Just had to get something down.”
“Did you get what you were looking for?” Mei peeled the electrodes off his chest, winding them back up into the defibrillator kit.
“I did. All set for the meeting later. Thanks for helping me with this.” He drank from the bottle of water he’d placed on the bedside table, soothing his throat.
“Usually when a guy says he has a kink, you expect spanking or asphyxiation at most. This Flatline shit is something else.” She gathered her clothes, shedding the t-shirt she’d borrowed to sleep in. “Anyway, if you’re all set, I have to get going. Got a shift later.”
The hotel room wasn’t quite cramped enough that she needed to crawl over him to reach the bathroom, but she did anyway, long black hair flowing over his midriff like a curtain of silk. Glancing down, she smirked.
“Glad to see your near-death experience hasn’t changed you much.”
“Hey, give me a break. My heart can only take so much at a time.”
“You have until tonight to recover, then.” The shower clicked on, filling the room with steam and the sound of rushing water - the bathroom door was broken and refused to stay shut, so she didn’t bother closing it. He’d seen it all already, anyway.
The hotel was luxurious by Leigang standards, which meant the upholstery was moldy, but not peeling, and it actually had a window. It faced the brick wall of the neighboring building, but still. That said, Mei’s slender figure was by far the most interesting view in the room.
No doubt there were better accommodations in the city, but he was on a tight budget, at least for now. When he’d first arrived in Halcyon with little more than the clothes on his back and a few precious tools of his trade, he’d needed cash to get settled, and he needed it fast. No legitimate bank or moneylender in Halcyon would extend credit to a foreigner with no record, and the authorities had seen through his forged documentation soon after his arrival. If he ever wanted to leave Halcyon, he needed a new passport. A new identity.
In desperation or recklessness, he’d turned to the most unsavory fixer he could find in this sanitised city, Hock. Yes, even in the squeaky-clean, low-crime-rate authoritarian utopia of Halcyon, you could find his sort - illicit, unlicensed, and unscrupulous in the extreme.
He’d cut a deal with Hock - a deal he’d come to regret more and more with every passing day, but one that he was bound to honor nonetheless. Hock was a lieutenant in the Mirokyu Clan, one of the bigger triads in Halcyon, and if Ivan got in his bad books, he could make life very unpleasant indeed.
Hock hadn’t gotten to where he was through brutality or skulduggery alone - his claim to fame was a knack for shameless, untrammeled usury. His modus operandi was as simple as it was despicable: he’d find someone who needed money desperately and lend it to them at interest rates on the upper end of reasonable. Then, he raised the rates faster than they could pay back the capital, so that the debt snowballed out of control. As the debtor got deeper and deeper in debt, Hock would send goons to demand payment more and more frequently, using every trick in the book to break them down - graffiti, harassment, the occasional pig’s head.
There was no wriggling out, no declaring bankruptcy and wiping the slate clean… but Hock wasn’t entirely heartless. He offered alternative means of forgiving one’s debt, typically involving payment in kind or services rendered. In Ivan’s case, Hock had offered a stint as a ‘silencer’, which Ivan suspected was an euphemism for an assassin of some sort. Just a few jobs and they’d be through, Hock had promised, and no thank you, Ivan had said.
He’d settle his debt to Hock on his own terms. Today, in fact. With the cash from yesterday’s adventure and the information he’d pulled from the police database, he felt pretty confident walking into his meeting with Hock later.
“Hey, pass me my conditioner?” Mei called from the shower.
Ivan rose from the bed, the soreness in his chest mostly manageable by now, and reached into her overnight bag to pass her the bottle of conditioner. He’d first met Mei a few months ago whilst investigating Hock’s known associates, and bonded with her over their mutual hatred of the bastard. Since then, they’d gotten to know each other better, in more ways than one.
Like Ivan, Mei was in debt to Hock. Unlike him, she seemed pretty alright with the arrangement. Raised by a single mother, she wasn’t quite into her twenties when her mother started suffering from some kind of neurodegenerative illness. She’d taken a loan from Hock to make sure her mother was cared for at a decent assisted living facility, and ended up working for him.
As he understood it, this wasn’t her first foray into sex work - she’d done some compensated dating in college to help with tuition, so it didn’t come as a complete shock. More like going from an independent practice to joining a large firm, as it were. She was a professional, though with him she let herself relax and actually enjoy the ride. Unless she knew he liked pleasing her, and kept up the act for his benefit, but if she was being less than genuine, he doubted she’d be unguarded enough to take her makeup off in front of him.
Speaking of which.
“Do you have a filter earring? A clip-on, if possible.” He looked back to his phone and the strange app that R had given him. Get a filter earring, she’d said. His ears weren’t pierced, but most filter earring brands had clip-on models. Mei emerged from the bathroom in a t-shirt and jeans. She’d get fully dressed at her workplace, but even in everyday clothing she was stunning.
“Another fetish of yours?” She rummaged through her bag, hair wrapped in a towel-turban thing. “I’ll bring my lingerie next time if you’d like to try that on too.”
He rolled his eyes, but he was used to her teasing - it was how she flirted, when she was off the clock. She handed him the earring, a small blue gemstone set into a loop of metal that could be clipped around your ear. The metal was engraved with fine runic markings, the code that made the device function, but the earring itself was otherwise plain and unremarkable.
That was the point of filter earrings. Their primary function wasn’t to be decorative, but to project a minor illusion over the wearer’s face. Filters could subtly alter your jawline and the contours of your face, make your eyes look bigger, and provide a range of other cosmetic enhancements. Most women still used makeup, but would pair it with a filter earring to round out a look. The earring synced to an app on your phone, making it easy to erase blemishes, smooth wrinkles, or accentuate cheekbones, all in real time.
He synced the earring to his phone and clipped it to his ear, then opened the app, raising an eyebrow at its name - PhaseHack. It looked similar to most filter apps he’d seen, showing his own face through the phone’s front-facing camera, overlaid with a list of cosmetic options. However, at the bottom of the list, there was also a ‘capture’ function that he’d never seen before. Tapping on it switched the app to what looked like a standard camera interface, with a capture button and facial recognition. Through the back-facing camera, he watched Mei tie her hair into a ponytail in the bathroom mirror.
“Hey, let me get a picture of you. I want to try something.”
“You’re not going to post it anywhere, are you? I don’t want to have to deal with creeps.”
“No, I promise. Just trying out this new app.”
Mei sighed, but turned and smiled for the camera anyway. He took the picture, and she screamed.
“What? You ok?” Alarmed, he got up, but that only made her scramble back into the bathroom.
A disturbed look passed over her face as he spoke. “Y-your face. Look in the mirror.”
He did, and Mei looked back at him.