Deeper: Part Two
Buzz nodded and I walked out, in search of the shooting range. I followed the map on my screen. I reached the room and went in. It was a long room, with targets that had adjustable length. I pushed the target all the way back and unholstered my blaster. Since Garoo's visit to the offices of the Weekly World, I had been training with the blaster.
My pretense was writing an article on several varieties of the Virtupets weapons, their pros and cons, for a series of Battledome articles. Learning how they worked and getting a feel for them would be a normal part investigative journalism, and gave me an excuse in my normal life as to why I was suddenly a Virtupets weapons' expert. It had proved a good bonding experience with Chloe, who had been only too happy to share her experience with me.
But, the real reason was to provide realism for my character. I had to be a good shot, or otherwise people would realize there was something wrong with Eva Starender. It would definitely blow my cover.
I raised the blaster and took aim, firing several shots. I stopped and looked at the target. All the laser marks on the target were in the inner rings, which was very good for the distance. Part of me wanted to cheer, surprised that Kristykimmy could ever manage to hit the target, let alone hit the inner rings at that distance. However, for Eva Starender, that was normal, and she had to look completely blasé about it.
I simply pressed the button to have it eject the old target and bring up a new one.
"Nice shots," a voice from behind me said. "You're pretty good."
"I'm better than good," I replied coldly.
"I didn't mean to offend--" my blaster fire drowned out his attempted apology.
My shots were even tighter around the middle this time. The guy behind me whistled appreciatively.
"So, you're Eva?" he asked.
"You can call me Starender," I replied.
"Buzz's new partner. Boy, are you lucky. I didn't even know that guy was still alive. He still the legend he was?"
I snorted derisively. "He's got some skills still, I won't deny that, but he's a relic."
"Oh," the voice sounded uncertain, like he was disappointed, but also didn't really want to believe me. "Hey, you want to come and meet the guys tonight? We meet every week to exchange stories. I bet you've got a bunch."
"Who exactly are you and the guys?" I asked, rolling my eyes and finally turning around to look at this guy. Given his voice, I'd been expecting some average sized Neopet. He was a Starry Acara who stood at least six feet tall and was built like a tank.
"Oh, uh, sorry, I guess I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Lieutenant Nigel. The others are the rest of the lieutenants stationed here currently," he said. "So, do you?"
"Not particularly, but it might be good for the laughs. I've got nothing better to do at the moment," I replied.
Nigel looked uncertain as to whether he should be offended or take it as a compliment. He decided to just let it pass and took out his Virtupets Portable Computer. Mine beeped and I took it out. It was a message from him, providing me a location and time.
"Maybe I'll be there," I said as I turned back to the console and selected a new target. If Nigel tried to respond, it was drowned out in the noise of blaster fire.
I continued with target practice for another half hour, and then went back to the office Buzz and I were sharing for the duration of our time there. I walked in and nodded at Buzz before sitting down on the couch.
"That was a good job handling the Lieutenant," he commented.
I spilled the coffee I was pouring all over the table. "What? How do you know about that?"
He spun the monitor on his desk around to show me the screen. It was security cam footage from the hallway outside the office. He pressed a button and it changed to the shooting range.
"What do you think I'm doing here, Kristy? I'm not just here to sit and look pretty to get you some cred with the people here. I've got an eye on you at all times to make sure you're safe. If anything ever happened, I'll be the first to know. I'll be there before anything could happen," Buzz said.
"Do you think there is significant danger?" I asked.
I knew danger was always a part of being an undercover agent; I'd been in some pretty dangerous situations in the past, but for Buzz to be watching my every move concerned me.
"You never know what these people will do if they feel cornered. You're my partner, whether I like it or not, and I'm never losing another partner."
"Partners level with each other," I said. "Are you telling me the honest truth? Is there anything about this situation you're holding out on?"
"No, Kristy. I've told you everything you need to know about this mission. Aside from the fact that there is a mole, and I think they work for Iniquitous, we know nothing about this person. Which makes this situation even more dangerous, because there are so many variables and elements that we can't predict. And that's why I'm watching."
Buzz's tone was sincere. I mopped up the coffee spill as I nodded.
"Okay, Buzz. And thanks, for looking out for me. I'm sure I'm kinda a lousy partner, especially in comparison to Lynette, but I'm going to do better than my best for this."
"I would never have picked you, to be honest, and I furious when the Overlord sent you. I was certain you'd blow the whole thing in a week, but I guess the Overlord saw something I didn't. You're actually halfway decent under pressure," Buzz said, softening more than I thought possible.
"Mortal peril brings out amazing things in people," I chuckled.
"I was angry when Lynette was assigned to be my partner, too. I guess I'm not the best judge of people. I seem to miss the hidden quality some people have," Buzz suddenly confided.
"Oh? I didn't know that," I replied. I really hadn't and was more than a little surprised.
"I had always worked alone, and having such a young and relatively inexperienced partner annoyed me to no end. But, on the first mission together, I made a dumb mistake, and she saved me. After that, well, I expected that partnership only to end with one of our deaths. I just never expected it would be her, or so soon."
"How long were you partners before..." I trailed off, he knew what I meant.
"Six years. She was only twenty-five," Buzz said. "I was twenty-eight. It is fast approaching twenty years ago, now. Not a day goes by that I don't wake up praying that these years were just a bad dream and she's safe and sound somewhere."
"If you had a do-over, would you do anything differently?" I asked.
"I would have packed our bags and gotten out of here quick as I could. Taken her somewhere safe and lived ordinary lives together. She joked about an ordinary desk job and a house in the suburbs the day before her death. That's why I went to Neopia Central. Looking back, I think that she wasn't actually joking. There was a part of her that wanted a normal life. I'm living the life she wanted for us. Well, almost."
I almost asked him why he was telling me this, but I didn't. He wasn't telling me for my sake, it was for his. He just wanted to talk about Lynette. He wanted to remember her no matter how much it hurt. It was saddening, but I was touched that he shared her with me.
"I think she would be happy if she knew, Buzz," I said.
He didn't answer. His gaze was distant as he stared down at his desk, lost in the past.
Eva Starender entered the café, looking as smug as was usual for her. Heads turned to look at me. I buried Kristy, who wanted to be upset by all this attention, and forced out Eva, who loved it. I spotted Nigel, who was waving at me to get my attention. They were seated around a table, one chair open, clearly reserved for me.
I slid into the chair and gave a slight head toss in response to Nigel's greeting. The Acara waved to his companions, there were five of them. A Lenny, two Ixi, a Bori, and an Aisha.
"Guys, this is Eva Starender, Buzz's partner," he introduced me.
The young people around the table all suddenly sat up straighter, showing various levels of excitement.
"Wow," a tough-looking Lenny girl said. "You are so lucky. Everyone said Buzz would never take on a partner again. Most people said he was dead."
"No, he lives, I suppose. If you can call a relic like that living," I scoffed.
"This is Moire," Nigel said, introducing the Lenny.
The Aisha was introduced as Miles. The Bori was Andrea, he told me in no uncertain terms not to call him Andy. Ixi one was Sharron, she giggled as she reached out to shake my hand. She seemed too flighty to be a lieutenant, but I figured she had to be better on the battlefield. The other Ixi was Nicola.
"So, why don't you share some stories, Eva?" Nicola suggested once the introductions were over.
"I'm the guest and you expect me to provide the entertainment?" I asked, raising my eyebrow at him over my drink.
He got flustered and tried to apologize.
"Oh, well, I suppose I can oblige. I'm sure your lives are so dull that I would be bored to death if I had to hear about them," I said with a smirk.
There was some laughter from my companions, probably hoping I was just being witty. I launched into a tale about the time that Buzz and I had intercepted a Resistance patrol and used them to get to a cash of Resistance supplies. Captain K intercepted us on the way back, and we got into a fight with him and other Resistance members.
Of course, the whole thing was fictional. One of the many stories Buzz had invented about our fictitious partnership. But, since he had crafted it based on his experiences, and I'd rehearsed it so many times, it sounded perfectly real. They were on the edge of their seats by the end, their eyes wide with admiration.
"So, yeah, not a big deal, really. Maybe if you can convince me to like you, I'll tell you some of my better stories," I finished.
"I knew it. Being Buzz's partner gets you the best missions," Andrea said.
"No, being the best merc this side of Neopia gets you the best missions. I am the best merc you are ever going to meet, and don't you forget that," I replied, finishing off my Grobleen Fruit Punch.
I rose. "Anyway, I've spent enough time in this lame joint. On a Station this big, I'm sure I can find better ways to waste my time. Thanks for the drink."
They protested my going, trying to convince me to come back. I waved at them, a mere flip of the hand as I walked away. I didn't want to come across as too eager to make friends. I was an arrogant, success hungry, jerk of a mercenary, and I needed to impress that on the mole as quickly as possible.
I walked back to our office and found Buzz sitting at the computer, monitoring the situation. He turned the monitor to me. It was the café, focused on my new friends. They were talking about me, all of them star stuck to some degree.
"I think I made a good impression. That was one heck of a tale I spun, and they ate it up. You are good," I said.
"It isn't too far off a mission I took on for Garoo last year. There aren't too many details about it, so if they look into that, it will lend credence to your story. Not that they have any reason to doubt you with me here and having been brought in by Garoo."
"So, are we placing bets yet?" I asked.
"No, it could be any of these young people. They all fit the profile, in fact they are the only ones who do, but it is too soon. I want you to focus on them solely. You did a good job tonight, Kristy," Buzz said.
"I had a good teacher, even if he is a relic." I smirked at him, hoping I hadn't overstepped my boundaries.
Buzz laughed heartily and slapped me on the back, none too gently, but in a friendly manner. "Be careful, Kimmy. You might grow to enjoy being Starender."
My mind flashed back to my kids and I shook my head. "No, I couldn't be. I've got a reason to fight, but also a reason to come home. Nothing could make me give that up."
Buzz actually smiled at me, a truly genuine smile, when I said that. He turned back to his monitor and went back to watching the six lieutenants and I pulled out a notepad and pencil and doodled comics. I figured that in my down hours I shouldn't forget that I was also a journalist and cartoonist for the Weekly World. I knew Buzz wasn't about to.
To be continued...