Nadia, a story by Miquel Morales.
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Finding the Blue Dragon hadn’t been precisely easy. It turns out speakeasies, those hidden bars that had been so popular at the beginning of the century, were back in fashion. Exclusive cocktail lounges, disguised as laundromats or hidden in the basement of a regular restaurant. Secret meeting places for those who like to feel special and mingle with the ‘different’ people. Although you can’t really call them secret when they are all listed online. But this one wasn’t.
Nadia had wandered around the apartment building at 4 Chance St for quite some time before finally finding the right door. She had mistakenly knocked on at least four flats, their inhabitants greeting her with caution before closing the door again. At the fifth doorbell she rang, a nice old lady with an evident passion for spying on her neighbours had pointed Nadia the way.
“I believe you want to go to the end of that hallway, my dear. Third door on the left. People have been up and down making a fuss all afternoon. Odd-looking bunch, if you ask me.”
Nadia was now sited on an expensive leather couch, sipping on some unpronounceable drink that tasted like mouldy oranges and leftover coke. Tom hadn’t arrived yet. Thought real leather had been banned years ago. A self-described staunch defender of animal rights, Nadia decided she couldn’t afford to enjoy that blood-stained comfort any longer and headed for the bar.
The place didn’t look like a cocktail lounge. The layout was all off, as if was someone had squeezed a bar and a few tables into a regular apartment. The walls were covered in red, velvet-like material, with dark curtains separating the main hall from the smaller private rooms. At the front door, the security guard who had taken Nadia’s invite card was welcoming a young couple in fancy attires. Here and there, small groups of people engaged in quiet conversation. Their soft chatter made for a good accompanying tune to the synthetic jazz playing through the speakers.
“There you are!” Nadia jumped up startled as Tom’s arm hugged her from behind. “See, love. I told you she’d come.”
Tom’s breath smelled of alcohol and smoke. Clearly, he had had a head start. His boyfriend Hao was standing behind him with an apologetic grin. He seemed colder than usual.
“I thought you prided yourself in never being late,” said Nadia while poking Tom’s arm with one of those tiny cocktail umbrellas.
“And I wasn’t!” responded Tom triumphantly as he signalled the bartender to bring another round for three. “We were closing a deal in one of the backrooms,” he said patting Hao’s shoulder. “You didn’t think you’re the only one who knows how to do business, right?”
“Oh, great. Another one of your crazy ventures,” said Nadia. “What was the last one, again? A virtual bar for AI assistants to go on dates?”
“Please: more like a soulmate bazar,” corrected her Tom. Nadia spilt her drink as she burst out laughing. “Say what you want, girl, but it was a brilliant idea. Why bother wasting time on dates when we could simply send our AI assistants to figure it out for us? I still don’t get why people weren’t that into it.”
“Yeah, quite the mystery, huh?” All this talk of AI assistants had taken Nadia’s mind back to EVE. Thankfully she had been quiet so far. Hopefully, she would remain like that for the rest of the night. “So, these are your friends, Hao?”
“Oh, no. They already left,” he said quietly. Something was off between the two; Tom’s uncharacteristic early drunkness and Hao’s unusual gloomy mood. Nadia wondered what had happened during their meeting. Somehow she got the impression that Hao wasn’t okay with the whole thing.
“Trust me, Nadia. This time it’s something big,” said Tom in a serious tone.
The bartender arrived with a sumptuous, pyramid-shaped ensemble of fresh fruit and laurel leaves. Three cubic glasses sat at different levels of the pyramid, holding a golden liquid with no observable bubbles. Whatever. Better enjoy before she’s back. They each grabbed a drink and let the night take its course. Things ended up picking up the pace when the music changed to something more upbeat. Hao loosened up a bit and accepted Nadia’s invitation to dance. At least until Tom came back to steal her dancing partner as a knight in shining armour. Jokes and office gossip were exchanged in between several more pyramids. Tom decided to move on from virtual matchmaking and devoted perhaps too many efforts to find a suitable someone for Nadia among the attendees. A fun yet embarrassing pursuit. It wasn’t a bad night.
The retina-tracing lasers of the holovisor cabins were clearly not designed for hungover eyes. Nadia stepped out of the egg-shaped enclosure and poured a few eye drops after a long yawn. Unbeknown to Nadia, a red alert popped up on the system’s main dashboard.
“How about a little walk, stretch your legs?” suggested EVE.
“So, you care about me all of a sudden?” said Nadia as she exited the RayStar security room and made it down the hallway.
“Oh, Nadia. I have always cared about you and your loved ones, tried to keep you all safe.”
The security wing was at the very top of the building, so at least employees could compensate for the long hours inside a holopod with 360 views of the City. A corridor went around the whole floor along the window. It took about two minutes to complete a whole round. Nadia knew because she had timed it before.
“I still don’t see what you are hoping to get out of this,” said Nadia.
“You will soon.”
Dark clouds were gathering beyond the city skyline. A group of tiny people could be seen doing yoga in the park across the street. A cargo drone flew by, carrying a debris container from the construction site next door.
“You know I only have access to the RayStar servers. The encrypted attachments you are making me…” Nadia interrupted herself as she crossed paths with a group of technicians engaged on a heated debate. Something about a game?
“The encrypted attachments you are making me hide in my messages to colleagues. Whatever they are, they are not going to get you anywhere. Our system is designed in a way that all accounts are independent of one another and from the central system itself. When I send them a message, they only get a representation, an image of the message, not the message itself. Whatever is in the attachment will never make it out of my account.”
“Let me worry about that.”
Nadia had completed a full circle around the building and was back in front of the holovisor room. It had taken her longer than usual. She should better get back to work. Plenty to do before lunch. Nadia rested her chin on the biometric scan. But the system made a beep and marked and error. Weird. Nadia tried again. Access restricted.
“Nadia?” said EVE
And just like that, EVE’s voice disappeared. But someone was still calling her name. Coming down the hallway were a couple of security guards. A police officer accompanied them.
“Nadia? Nadia Zabeen?”
“Run,” whispered Ziza’s familiar voice.
To be continued…
Read the next chapter: Nadia — Chapter IV
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