Log Title: Atypical
Summary: One has never resleeved, the other fights the urge to resleeve constantly. They fight crime?!
IC Date: Sun Mar 03 19:45, 2381
OOC Date: Sun Mar 03 19:45, 2019
Related Logs: Nineteen Alpha Thirty
winterroyal

 

 

"Organized, militaristic, zealotous rebellions do seem like they would overlap in operational approach."

* * *

The sun has gone down, which only makes the Neon District brighter, with greens and violets, reds, blues and magentas blaring, flickering, flashing and competing. Cast half in shadow and half in their neighbor's purple glow is Tau Psychosurgery, it's shingle hung with nary an extra light to be seen, and the sign on the front door turned to Open.

There's a soft chime as the door opens, and within is a warmly lit and inviting space with chairs and a couch around a coffee table, a wall of books and magazines and a fish tank currently housing a pale anemone with purple-tipped tentacles and a pair of clownfish splitting their time between snuggling up in the anemone and darting about as if they have important business to attend to in this corner!… then that corner!… then down on the bottom! It's a little exhausting to watch, but they certainly are pretty. So, perhaps Royal will feel a kinship.

The doctor is absent at first, or most likely in the room with the door mostly shut and a pale blue light seeping out from the bottom. It's about a minute before that door opens and Wisteria Tau steps out, currently clad in a chunky, pale sweater that shrugs off of one shoulder or the other and a pair of dark purple palazzo pants that swirl around them as they walk. "Hello," they greet with a nod and an easy smile. "You're right on time. Something to drink?"

* * *

There are a lot of flashy dressers in the Neon District, but none quite so smart. Royal is wearing an oxblood three piece suit with a very classic cut, though the vest is asymmetrical. The colour of the fabric seems picked perfectly to compliment his skintone and the dark of his hair. Either he's dressed to impress the doctor, or he has an engagement after this meeting that required dressing smart. His shoes are wing-tips and patent leather with a high gloss. He's bent over, gazing in the fish tank, like he's trying to determine whether the creatures within are real or simulated.

He looks up when he realizes he's no longer alone. "Hello, Doctor Tau. No, thank you. I'm quite all right," he steps forward and offers his hand. "Dante Taylor. Hello." He smiles warmly. When he gets closer, there's a faint aura of expensive, musky soap and something else complex and earthy. It's only apparent when he's quite close, and it's not overpowering.

* * *

Winter closes the gap between them, offering their hand in a firm shake. "Wisteria Tau, though of course you knew that. I also go by Winter if you prefer not to stand on formality. Do you have a name or title that you'd prefer I use?" Winter smells a bit like soap (not the expensive kind) and just faintly of ozone the way one tends to if their stack has been jacked into VR for a while.

* * *

"Most tend to call me Royal, for reasons that are likely a bit on the nose," says the detective with another grin. As usual, his ONI is open and public, openly sharing basic biographical details. He returns the shake just as firmly. He's clearly not a man who works much with his hands, given the general lack of calluses. "Thank you for taking the time to meet with me."

* * *

Winter dips their head in acknowledgement of the nickname, or maybe of the joke it represents. "Yes, but that wasn't my question."

* * *

"It doesn't bother me to be referred to that way, if that's what you mean. I'd certainly prefer that over Your Grace," says Royal. He rocks on his heels and grins. It's the sort of grin that was boyish and playful in his younger years, and now just makes him look a bit like a troublemaker. "I do have an ingrown aversion to being referred to by my first name by all but those closest to me." He rolls his wrist. "Make of that what you will."

* * *

Winter returns that roguish smile with a softer one that only tugs one corner of their mouth upwards. It looks bemused or… fond, perhaps. "We are all products of our upbringing, one way or another. Now, tell me, did you make this appointment because you're looking for the services of a psychosurgeon? Or, is this regarding some other matter?"

* * *

"It's regarding the death of the Longbow clone at the Panama Rose," Royal cuts to the heart of the matter. "There was an illict recording of the fight we managed to get our hands on. We identified you and Doctor Grey as you attempted to preserve the stack. Quick thinking, by the way. You managed to preserve a great deal of evidence." He seems to mean that as an honest compliment.

* * *

"Mmm," Winter replies, not sounding especially surprised. "We did our best, but the DHF was too corrupted to save. We were lucky we were even able to copy it over to a clean stack." They lift a hand, gesturing towards the couch and chairs. "Would you care to sit?"

* * *

"Thank you," says Royal. He moves to sit, undoing the front button on his jacket so that he can sit without straining or disturbing the lines of his suit. "You haven't been questioned yet by the police. Is that correct? The fight drome was chok a block with people of interest that night, so I'd imagine they have quite a bit to get through."

* * *

Winter claims the seat opposite Royal's leaning back a little, crossing one leg over the other and resting their hands on them. "I have not. As you say, I'm sure there's a long list, and I don't appear to be a person of interest. They have the stack back in their custody, as I understand it, so I'm not sure what further assistance I could be to them." A corner of their mouth lifts in another one of those small smiles. "Or to you."

* * *

Royal crosses his leg and leans comfortably back against the chair. The posture reveals a teal sole to his shoe that compliments the patterned pocket square tucked into his jacket. "You're suspicious of me because my clients are the Longbows, aren't you? Or is it because I'm such an intimidatingly snappy dresser?" There's a twinkle in his eyes. "On either front, I promise you I'm not here to make trouble for you. I'm just looking for a little conversation about your experiences that night. I was there as well, but as I was in the stands, there was much I didn't see."

* * *

"Yes," Winter answers calmly for Royal's direct question, "The former, that is. While I find your dedication to custom shoes quite impressive, I wouldn't say I'm intimidated by it. I don't think you mean to make trouble for me, but you have ties that make me leery." They cant their head thoughtfully. "I know you were in the stands. I saw you. As I said, I don't think I've much to offer in any case, but ask your questions and I'll answer as best I can."

* * *

"You saw me. I'm flattered. There were a great many people there." Royal leans forward, still smiling. And then he makes a soft sound. "Understandable. But I put this to you, Doctor." He presses a finger to his lips, then gestures with it. "We're all working for the meths in one way or another. The only difference is, I happen to know which one is pulling my strings." His eyebrows arch.

Then, "I wondered if you wouldn't just walk me through her last moments, in your own words."

* * *

"Not so many had four bodyguards with them," Winter returns with a faint lift of their eyebrows. "We may all work for the meths in that all roads lead to one if followed long enough, but you have the active attention of one who is awaiting results. That worries me. I am willing to be convinced otherwise." So, there. The (silk) glove has been flung dow. Winter considers a moment before speaking further, reflecting back on that night. "The fighter who had defeated her unmasked Fatale who everyone clearly saw was in a clone of Ariana Longbow. She laughed and then her eyes rolled back and purple froth came from her mouth."

* * *

"Ah yes. The entourage," Royal looks a little…embarrassed. "Seeing as the nature of the crowd was a bit…rougher than usual, the embassy insisted that I not go alone." But he motions around. "No entourage now, though. Just my charming self."

Then, "I understand, Doctor. But the only direction I have had from the family is to find answers. They haven't been breathing down my neck. Nor have they offered me extra resources or connections. And well, I'm not motivated by money." Since he has plenty of his own. "The only thing that motivates me is solving this crime and this mystery. Certainly we both can agree that people willing to slag their own stacks with a biological agent in the name of high theatre are a potential danger to us all."

Then, he listens to the account. He visibly tenses as Winter recounts the real death of the person riding that clone. His hand grips on his knees, then one hand goes to his cufflink to start turning it idly. "She laughed," he echoes. "How disturbing."

* * *

Winter watches Royal, their gaze drifting to the the way his hands curl around his knees and then fiddle with his cufflink. "And self preservation?" the doctor queries gently. "Does that not motivate you?" After another beat, they nod. "She laughed. She seemed… pleased. And a little unhinged. I expect a great deal of planning went into that night. Her death was likely the culmination of all that work. Or so I hope."

* * *

"Why would my self need preserving? Do you mean, if I do an unsatisfactory job and the Longbows take it out on me?" Royal shrugs. "I suppose that's a possibility, but it would draw the definite ire of the Queen, and her good graces are still a place that some of the meths, particularly the older families, would like to be in." His fiddling with the cufflink slows, but he's still turning a rotating bit. It makes a soft sound.

"It was an incredibly calculated bit of pageantry. Did Carnage tell you that the woman initially calling herself Fatale - whether the same DHF that was slagged or not - initially wanted a broadcast bout? This was supposed to be a far larger audience, but he wouldn't put her on broadcast because there wasn't the story build-up."

* * *

"I more meant if you uncover an inconvenient truth," Winter replies, "but I wasn't aware of that. It makes sense. She did this in front of an audience, so I'm not surprised to learn she wanted a broader one. And… there was a video, you said?"

* * *

"Yes. Carnage just about ground his synth teeth into a fine powder when I told him there was an illicit recording of the event. With focal length masking, so we weren't able to pinpoint where the person who shot the video was sitting. But it's a bold, dangerous move, as you likely well know. When Carnage says no broadcast, he means no one gets to see it who isn't in the room."

As for inconvenient truths? Royal clears his throat. "I hadn't quite thought of that. But I suppose you're right."

* * *

Winter regards Royal in silence, one finger slowly tapping on their knee. They stand and walk over to the fish tank, one hand lifting and fingers flicking in a way that wordlessly requests his Grace join them. Winter tips their chin towards the clownfish and anemone. "Tell me what you see."

It's not immediately obvious, but after watching the way the clownfish dart hither and yon, it becomes apparent that the motions aren't arbitrary at all. They're an intricate pattern, a fibonacci sequence in three dimensions that expands and then repeats like a fractal. It's similarly mimicked in the way the anemone's tentacles move and sway in the current. It's subtle, and certainly not something that would be easy to spot unless one was already looking for it. Or simply had a way with patterns.

* * *

Royal is not sure what Winter is on about, but he is a curious sort. So he does as he's told. He watches the fish for a moment, eyes flickering, some subtle calculations going on in the back of his skull. "It's artificial. I was trying to work it out earlier. The exact formula would take a little more work, but…" he points to a place in the tank, which is very close to where the creature moves next.

He looks over at the doctor, dark eyes wide and curious. "And the point of this? Is this about the case, or psychoanalysis of me?" He doesn't sound offended. On the contrary - he sounds interested.

* * *

There's a small nod from Winter as Royal points to the spot very nearly where the fish dart next. "I need help," they reply. "Your help, potentially. I thought you might be particularly sensitive to patterns. Your history and the topic of your dissertation suggested it. But, I'm concerned that the meth who holds your leash… I don't think the fightdrome was the end of it. I think it was the beginning. Of what, I don't really know, but something significant. And something I fear that your mistress might be keener to cover up than illuminate. And I'm afraid, if I trust you, when it's time to pick a side, you'll choose hers, because that would be safest. You have a great deal to lose 'Royal', and I don't judge you for understanding that. Except of course I do. Just a little bit."

* * *

"Ah, you did your homework," says Royal as he straightens. He smiles. It seems genuine. "As a former and still sometimes professor, I like people who do their homework." He slides his hands into his pockets. He listens to what Winter has to say, expression darkening a little. "Doctor, the only people who hold my leash do so in fun, consensual ways. And believe me when I say, I have no particular loyalty to the meths. And yes, I have much to lose, but I am in ways protected because of my family. It's a lot more difficult and risky to disappear me than a civilian investigator or a police officer. My profile is too high. Not to mention…those on the other side seem dangerous as well, and less likely to have their hand stayed because I'm a member of the House of Windsor." Then, his smile tightens a bit. "That was also a very polite way of implying that I'm a coward."

* * *

"Well, you are a little bit," Winter replies, "or have been, historically. From what I've read in my homework." They don't sound apologetic about this statement, though they don't sound particularly disapproving either. "But, you're probably right that whoever these people are, whatever their goals, they may not be deterred by collateral damage." They press their fingertips over their mouth for a long moment before their hand drops again. "If I show you something, would you feel obligated to bring it to the police?"

* * *

"No," says Royal, quite smoothly and immediately. He looks a little called out, which is dampened his bravado a little. "My client in this instance isn't the BCPD. We're at cross-purposes for much of the investigation, but I have no doubt they're withholding things from me. I'm happy to return the favour. And the Longbows aren't asking me for regular updates at the moment. They're being surprisingly hands-off."

* * *

Winter considers Royal for another long moment, weighing up the sincerity of those words, or weighing his heart against a feather maybe. But at length they let out a soft breath. "Follow me, then, and I'll show you the rest of it, if you're willing to tell me what your investigation has uncovered in return."

* * *

"Well that depends, Doctor. You've done a great deal of analyzing me and my motivations. What's your interest in this beyond the fact that you had a front row seat for the inciting incident?" Royal is clearly trying to recover shaken swagger. He does it by straightening his posture, by dipping his hands in his pockets so they're less likely to fidget. People notice a lot of things about him - his subtle arrogance, his fine sense of high fashion style, his carriage, his observational skills. Few people have ever picked up on his less neurotypical traits, as he's fairly good at concealing them. He's left feeling a bit exposed.

* * *

Don't bring a knife to a gunfight. Or secrets to a pyschosurgeon with something to lose. Winter begins walking to the back room, holding the door open for Royal to step through first. "I think someone has declared war on the methuselahs," they reply, "which is not something any of us can avoid if it goes full blown. I want to know who and why, before it does."

* * *

"And if you find out the answer, then what?" Royal asks as he passes into the room ahead of Winter. Then he takes a moment to look around. He doesn't comment on his surroundings. He stays standing, hands dug in his pockets. He's found something to fidget with in there, but it's subtle. "Are you a vigilante, doctor? Are you hiding a cape and mask, hmm?" He rocks on his heels.

* * *

"I only wear them in VR," Winter answers straight faced as they step up to the server console and begin typing. "I don't know what I am," they admit after a moment with a soft sigh, "except ravenously curious and interested in knowing all of my options before they're taken from me." They glances over at Royal, fingers pausing on the keyboard. "I thought those might be motivations you could understand as well."

* * *

"VR is where all the good stuff happens. Well, as long as you've got good resolution." Royal does have a pattern of defaulting to sex jokes when he wants to deflect. "I'm just trying to determine your motivations. That's important for me to know before I go sharing information that could potentially be dangerous in certain hands." As for motivations? "Well, I've been accused of being ravenous before, but not ravenously curious." There's the sex joke again.

* * *

"Really," Winter replies, brows lifting. "I thought that's why you were a GPPI." Their hands move away from the keyboard so their arms can cross loosely. "I want to understand what's pushed these people to come at the meths directly and if they have more than a snowball's chance in a firestorm of doing anything other than hurting innocent bystanders along the way. I'm not opposed to shattering the new world order, but I am opposed to doing it badly or at too high a cost. So," their smile becomes a touch wry, "there's one of my inner workings in your hands."

* * *

"You of all people should know the dangers of making a diagnosis without speaking to the patient," says Royal in a bit of a sing-song. Though he doesn't explicitly say she's right or wrong about his motivations. It's all dodging. More about him has already been laid bare than he's comfortable with. "The incidents so far do seem to be quite isolated, and harming no one but the suicide clone." He said incidents. "Which to me, suggests they may be courting the sympathy of people like yourself as they plan on escalation."

* * *

Winter huffs a soft laugh and dips their head as they're sort of chastised. "That's possible, but I wouldn't consider myself gullible. And I might be more qualified than others to determine what they want or how to stop them. What say you Royal? Shall we be allies or no?" This time it's Winter who offers out their hand.

* * *

Royal eyes the hand, eyes Winter. "Allies. Hm. Interesting. I suppose that works," he steps forward and shakes the offered hand, squeezing gently and pumping twice before releasing. "From what I've learned about the private investigation business, it does pay to have friends sprinkled about. Or at least, people with whom you share a mutual understanding."

* * *

"I would say working towards a common goal, without the intent to betray, makes us allies. Friendship is something of a different beast." Winter smiles faintly. "I don't mean to suggest I'm removing the option from the table. I just think friendship is more organic than the arrangement of mutual need in which we find ourselves." Their expression turns a touch playful. "Or so say all the textbooks, anyway."

* * *

"True enough," Royal agrees. "Friendship is a good thing to work towards in general as it implies mutual trust. And that's really what this whole business is based on, isn't it?" He flashes a smile. "Baby steps. But I'm told I'm quite likable."

* * *

"Really?" Winter asks with a blink. "By who?" But they don't give Royal much time to answer before glancing back to the console and opening up what looks like a video file, though the starting frame is only black. "I lied, by the way. We were able to do a bit more than just move the DHF to another stack." They click the play button, and the recording of a VR session opens onto an interrogation room, the floor filled with purple goo and a humanish shaped piece of living fragmentation strapped into the chair. Winter and Dr. Grey are present as well.

* * *

Royal smiles, but then the expression flits off in a twitch after Winter asks the question. He clears his throat. Fortunately, there's other matters to pay attention to. "Well, good job I'm not the police." He steps over to the monitor, head tilting as he observes the fragmentation. "What…what am I seeing? Is that…" he points. "…you managed to spin up a badly-corroded stack."

* * *

"Very briefly, but yes," Winter replies. "I'm not especially likable, but I am very good at what I do." On the screen, the scene plays out as Winter and Violet work to minimize the corruption and eventually form a womanish figure, still constantly shifting between faces and nonsense. Purple goo slowly fills the room. The edges of the virtual world begin crumbling away into an ominous abyss.

"Ddddd…dddesignation nnnnnnnineteen alllpha th-th-thirty."

* * *

The tall figure that is Royal leans in to the screen. He looks…curious at first, but as the seconds tick by, he starts to look troubled, then downright disturbed. His lips twitch, his brow furrows, his hands stay clenched in his pockets. "This is…horrid. And you were right there, in Virtual, as it was all coming down around…" he stares at the display. "Designation…another number. Like the striptease one."

* * *

"Yes," Winter agrees softly. "I'm sure that's not a coincidence." They glance briefly towards Royal before looking back to the screen. "It's a pattern."

In the video, the woman says, alien and monotone yet strangely more alive and aware, "I'm not telling you my name." Winter and Violet do what they can to garner more information despite the instability of the DHF and the VR environment. Violet seems more concerned about the instability than Winter who remains intently focused on the corroded DHF.

"The false gods will pay."

Nineteen Alpha Thirty begins to slam her hand down on the arm of her chair, and the corruption within her spreads outward, further infecting the VR space. Error messages begin to appear, and Violet works to restabilize the program. Winter tries harder to get answers.

* * *

Royal steps back from the monitor when the hand-slamming starts. He does look more than a little disturbed. Then again, until recently he's led a rather sheltered life. Seeing a corrupted DHF barely speak and spread out…corruption is more than a little unnerving.

"There was…corrosion on the stacks. On the ones that were distributed…" his ONI flickers momentarily, then stops. "Part of why I went to see Carnage was to warn him that the substance she activated might not have actually been Aubergine. Did you see any residual effects from having her spun up?"

* * *

"Yes," Winter replies with a small nod. "The corruption remained in my server, even after we closed down and defragged the program. In a completely unrelated environment, I saw similar corrosion." They gesture to where the edges flake away as the video continues. "Another VR space began to peel off similar to this. It wasn't difficult to find or repair the corrosion once I knew about it. But… that shouldn't have been possible. Not without some viral component from somewhere." Their finger moves down to hover over the pause button. "Are you all right, Royal? Should I stop?"

* * *

"No it should not have been possible," says Royal in a quasi-haunted way. "Clearly what we need to do is find some evidence of corrosion on the threatening stacks and see if there's any lingering chemicals that matches the sample the police managed to pull from her sleeve. I don't suppose you were given a piece of jewelery recently?" As for stopping? He thinks a moment, looks like he wants to say yes, then, "No."

* * *

Winter nods, taking Royal at his word, rather than at his face, and the video continues. "If you mean a ruined stack on a chain, then yes. I did hear some people were wearing them around their necks at a recent event."

19A30 bangs her hand in a rhythm that reverberates oddly, the environment becoming less stable and more corroded despite Violet's attempts to counteract the corruption.

"I'll give you a r…rrr..riddle," sing-songs the faceless woman. "How does a mortal steal the form of a god?" This time there's a slight hint of an archaic accent, difficult to pinpoint through the distortion of her voice. Violet announces that they're pulling the plug. Winter seems less keen to go, pressing for a few moments longer as they continue to speak to the mangled DHF.

* * *

"Yes. A DJ event. And there were several people there wearing fakes as well. Which is a disturbing new development. I'd heard stories about people courting death on the ground, but I always thought it to be snobbish hyperbole." Royal can't take his eyes off the screen and when he speaks, he sounds far away. "You…have to wonder how much of her behavior is because of stack corrosion and how much was…just the last words of a zealot."

* * *

"I do wonder," Winter agrees. "She wasn't corrupted when she activated the toxin that destroyed her DHF. She wasn't corrupted during whatever patience and planning was required to bring her to the moment where she activated it. And, though it hardly needs to be said, she couldn't have been working alone."

On the video, Nineteen Alpha Thirty repeats her designation as the environment comes apart like wet and crumbling sand. There's an intensity to Winter's expression, a way that they lean slightly towards the yawning abyss, that might make one wonder if they would have let themselves fall into that gaping madness. But, they don't get to make that choice. Violet closes down the program, they both vanish and the video abruptly ends.

* * *

"Hardly. She surely had accomplices. I would like to determine whether it was the same stack riding the sleeve that auditioned for Carnage as the one who fought, though I'm not certain how to do that. The Panama Rose doesn't exactly require ID scans from the fighters throwing themselves into harm's way. Cannon fodder doesn't need to be verified." Royal watches the simulation come apart, expression haunted. "Is there…a particular reason you decided not to share this with the police?"

* * *

"Lack of trust," Winter replies, "lack of confidence in their skills, lack of desire to highlight my involvement." Their head cants as they consider. "Does Carnage film auditions?" they asks, "or might there be any other records of Fatale in her other sleeve?"

* * *

"Possibly, but I'm not sure I'm the one to pressure him for those records if they do exist. He talked to me because I'm also a patron and I've lost a fair bit of money there. He had a reason to stay on my good side. But if I push at him too much, I won't be worth his while any longer." He rubs his chin thoughtfully. "This represents a potential threat to the public. If this corrosion isn't limited to physically touching the stack. I'm not sure if I can in good conscience keep this from the BRPD." A beat, a sigh, then, "…but I can obscure how I know it's a threat."

* * *

"What would they do?" Winter asks, though they sound more curious than derisive. "Ravaged stacks were distributed, potentially containing the corrosive substance, and people were wearing them. If you're concerned about spread through physical touch, it's entirely possible that horse has already left the stable."

* * *

"My worry is that this was some sort of test. That this substance might be used in a wider-scale chemical attack. If the theory holds true, then we're talking a few hundred stacks that show signs of corrosion. Maybe something like…a modified Rawlin's Virus. And considering how virulent that virus is, that should worry us all." Royal purses his lips. "The designation seems to suggest an organized effort. It seemed almost like her version of name, rank and serial number."

* * *

Winter gives a small nod for this logic. "Speak to the police if you think it will help," they say. "As a GPPI, I'm sure you have some experience working with them. If you have faith in their capabilities, I'll trust that. Or… accept it at the very least." Winter considers Royal's second point, fingertip tapping at their chin. "It did sound military to me. Either some secret C-TAC contingent, another military, or as you say, some new organization with its own rank and file."

* * *

"What worries me is that it sounds similar to how the Envoys operated back in the day. And no one should be looking to them for examples." Royal's shoulders have tensed, messing up the lines of his fine suit. "It never goes well when zealots get their hands on biological weapons." He looks back to the monitor equal parts thoughtful and troubled. "Have you learned anything else?"

* * *

"Organized, militaristic, zealotous rebellions do seem like they would overlap in operational approach," Winter replies. "I mean, if I were intending to undertake such a thing, I'd probably study the ones who came before me, learn from their successes and failures, and use what I learned to inform how my organization acted to some degree." For what more they know, Winter exhales softly. "Not a great deal else. I was able to clean up and analyze the audio file of the one line 19A30 spoke with an accent. It's probable she came from either Latimir or Danae's Moon. And then there's this." Winter touches the ended video, pulling it to a spot they've pored over more than once. The brief moment where 19A30's face appears to be melting wax. "This bit isn't frag. It's trauma of a very particular sort."

* * *

Royal's face twitches in distaste at the image. He's going to need a good stiff drink or three after this meeting. "Yes…that's…" He blinks. "Hold on. I've read about this. A lot of my research was focused on the early days of the Protectorate. It looks…very similar to organic damage from a mining accident. If the vent holes were obscured, chemicals released from mining operations could cause flesh to liquify. Fortunately, it generally left the stack intact, but I seem to recall the trauma left quite a mark."

* * *

Winter dips their head in another nod, and perhaps they're a little bit kind, because they close the video, removing the disturbing image from the screen. "Exactly. These patients can be extremely challenging to rehabilitate, and some have had to be placed in storage rather than resleeved, their trauma was so severe. Considering her accent and that image, my current theory is that she's a survivor from a mining accident on Danae's Moon. Which, if she's not the only one, may be one of the reasons why Ariana Longbow was targeted. The TBT was recorded on Latimir, but I wonder if that has more to do with the Hippodrome being there than with any of the agents being native."

* * *

"My theory on that is the resolution of the Hippodrome." Royal purses his lips. "It's well-known as the best resolution for TBT in the Protectorate. The file needed to be compressed to be passed around easily, and starting with the highest possible resolution would ensure the experience remained….potent." He shudders involuntarily at the memory of the experience. He feels a little bit of sick rising in his throat, but chokes it back down. "And it would seem a probable theory, about Danae's and the mining accident. Which certainly points to the last vestiges of the quashed uprising as being responsible. But…something about that strikes me as too obvious."

* * *

"Mmm," Winter hums, arms crossing as they consider. "I would say that a DHF that far corrupted likely wasn't able to control how she was manifesting in VR, but she had remarkable control for any DHF. So, it's possible that was a false lead, or this group is capitalizing on a known catastrophe to cover their intent. In which case, the questions remain of who are they and what do they want? What is all this meant to prove?"

* * *

"Or even more sinister…she subjected herself to actual trauma in the real or in virtual to ensure that the memory would come out as a vivid and tragic event that would survive stack corruption." Which might seem extreme, but the Envoys were known to do more extreme things in their day. Royal starts to play with his cufflink again. "What seems off to me is how personal all of this seems. You generally can't rally a mass cause of people willing to give their own lives simply to humiliate one person. My gut tells me there has to be a larger agenda at play."

* * *

"I agree. I think what we're seeing now are only the opening volleys. Either meant to cause interest or confusion, or maybe intended as a message for… someone or some group of someones," Winter replies. "But, now it's your turn. What has your investigation found about theses events?"

* * *

"Not much more than I've already said, I'm afraid. My investigation is now taking me in the direction of the DJ, who appeared masked, and to try and track down the maker of the fake stacks. If nothing else, then to warn some potentially foolish people about what they're playing with." Royal huffs a breath. "And back to the police with one of the threatening stacks to see if they can match residue with the chemicals on the clone body. Another member of the GPPI is chasing down a few other leads, and I do need to touch base with him."

* * *

"If I can get access to videos of Fatale in her initial sleeve and the night of the fight, I may be able to determine if it's the same DHF in both. Mannerisms, motions, some things carry over from sleeve to sleeve," Winter muses.

* * *

"I think I'll be able to get you the video that was illicitly shot of the fight. It already spread a bit before its reach suddenly dropped, so it's not a massively sensitive bit of information." Royal will just have to work his charm. Which…may or may not work on the police. "As for audition videos, your friend, Doctor Grey, might have more luck convincing Carnage. He seemed to me like he didn't really want to be involved in this business when I spoke to him."

* * *

"I'll ask her, I think she might be willing," Winter agrees. They consider the screen, now just a generic background of a console waiting for a program to be opened on it. Then they look back at Royal, quietly considering the man. "You're pulling yourself out of your comfort zone. Have you noticed?"

* * *

"Well, that's not especially difficult when one's comfort zone is as narrow as mine," says Royal with a bit of a tight smile and a tilted head. "But lives are in danger, and I'm on this case for better or worse. So I haven't got much of a choice but to leave my personal discomfort aside." He looks down at his hands that nearly twisted his cufflink off, and instead jams his hands back into his pockets.

* * *

"Still," Winter says, "it's impressive. You don't have to sell yourself short." Their gaze dips down to Royal's poor cufflink and then his hands as they press into his pockets. "Do you mind if I give you something? I think it might be helpful."

* * *

"Is it a drink? Because I could certainly use one after all you've shown me," says Royal with a bit of a tight chuckle. He stands quite straight and he's averting his gaze from the monitor, even though it's not displaying anything disturbing at the moment.

* * *

"I haven't got any alcohol immediately on hand. There's a bar across the street, though." Winter steps over to the cabinets that sit above a very small portable fridge. They open the doors and take a small box off the top of a stack of three. This is offered out to Royal. Within is a silver-hued ring with an outer piece that can be easily rotated around the finger. There's a electrode pattern in gold on the part that spins, likely functional but also quite aesthetically pleasing, and as it's turned, the gold catches the light and reveals prismatic undertones. As Royal examines it (if he examine it) his ONI will flicker with a request to upload a program, and if he consents, a cloud of tiny, swirling dots will appear above his hand, their colors and motions changing based on how he rotates the electrode-covered portion of the ring. Potentially endless patterns to form and observe.

* * *

"Why doctor, we just met! This is all moving far too quickly," says Royal when presented with the ring box. He even goes so far as to touch a hand to his heart and make a soft gasping sound. But then his interest in whatever this is all about overrides his desire to be cheeky. "Well, this is dangerously distracting. My flat has virtually no clutter. Everything is stored away behind panel doors because otherwise I can't quite think clearly. I'm not sure I'd get any work done with this." He doesn't put the ring on, but he does tap it as his ONI flickers and the patterns dance.

* * *

A faint smile is quirked as Royal does his charming sassy thing. "I see," Winter replies to his answer. "Certainly don't feel obligated to keep it if you think it would be more distracting than useful. It's been beneficial for a couple of my less neurotypical clients, but nothing is 'one size fits all'."

* * *

Royal's playful little smile flits away. He grips the ring in his hand and his ONI flashes off. "I appreciate the gesture, doctor. I do." He breathes in. He's getting, well, uncomfortably British. He's quite open in general, but there's certain topics that cause him to tense up. "Less neurotypical. What does that mean, exactly?"

* * *

"In your case?" Winter asks. "It means you can easily see and isolate patterns most people can't identify without long hours of study or a program to help isolate them. It probably means you're exceptionally deductive secondary to your ability find patterns. And it means you have to do things like put all of your belongings behind doors, because if there are patterns, or the possibility of patterns, you can't easily focus on other things. There may be more, I couldn't tell you just from cursory observation and a little research."

* * *

"I see," says Royal. He looks Winter in the eye for a moment, then corners a gaze off. "Is it…something that requires treatment? I've developed strategies that have allowed me to function quite well. I mean, I do hold a doctorate." That last bit is a little defensive. He looks down at the ring and flicks at it, even though it's not currently connected to his ONI.

* * *

Winter quirks a faint smile that's a little gentler than the ones they've offered before. "No. It's not a sickness. It's just a… variant. If anything, it makes you a little exceptional, in my opinion. But, society is shaped around the neurotypical, and for some, that can mean they need what you've already found. The ability to identify the reason why they might struggle at certain things and the development of mechanisms to make that struggle easier. I don't have non-neurotypical patients because they need fixing, I just see them if they want some support in adapting to a world that doesn't entirely understand their needs."

* * *

It's clear that Royal is made uncomfortable by the conversation, despite Winter's compassionate approach. The very idea that he might not fall within the bounds of 'normal' seems to bother him - even if at least on some level, he must have always known that to be the case. He clears his throat, then slips the ring back into the box. He sets it down on the nearest surface. He pats the top of the box. "I very much appreciate your advice, doctor. And I also do appreciate your help and insight on the case. But it would seem wise if we didn't cross a professional relationship with a doctor-patient one."

* * *

"Of course," Winter replies easily, letting go of the topic as Royal sets down the ring. "I say 'they', I suppose I should really say 'we'. You'll keep me updated as you learn more about the case? I'll do the same, if I uncover any additional information."

* * *

"Yes, of course. And please, do be safe? Whomever sent those stacks aren't the types to be trifled with." Royal seems to register the change from 'they' to 'we,' but is sufficiently off-guard that he doesn't ask for more information. "Thank you for your time, and your candor."

* * *

"And yours," Winter returns as they lead Royal back out into the entry room with its secretly patterned clownfish and comfy seating area. "If you'd like, the bar's just across the street and two doors down. It's hard to miss, there's a neon martini hanging overhead, complete with olive." They don't suggest joining the duke, not when he seems so eager to make a (dignified) escape.

* * *

"I make it a habit to never drink alone outside my own flat," says Royal. "But thank you." He reaches to offer his hand for a more formal farewell, perhaps also solidifying a boundary he's attempting to draw. He's not used to feeling exposed, and it's happened both with the doctor, and with a House courtesan, both within a few days. He clearly thought his swagger covered up more than it actually does.

* * *

It probably doesn't help when one's chosen companions have made it their profession to learn to see beneath swagger and most other compensatory behaviors. Winter opens their mouth as if they might say something, but then they only nod and shake Royal's hand. "Of course. Have a good night, Royal."

* * *

One can almost feel the walls that Royal is attempting to erect. They're walls he doesn't normally have up, instead preferring to be playful and open, if a tiny bit overcompensating. But Winter has seen past his armor, and seen things he doesn't even want to admit about himself, and that's left him feeling vulnerable in a way he doesn't really like. He squeezes the offered hand, then withdraws. "Good evening, doctor. Thank you again." And with that, the duke turned PI heads for the door.