Preview: Guardians of Liberty

Guardians of Liberty
(Beginning 5/25/18)

Martin Black, aka N1T3, is a hacker between worlds. Centrally located on the fine-line between hero and villain, his world is one of Corporate dominance and slavery. Now forced to flee for his life because of it, he knows corp-sec are coming– and they’d prefer him dead to alive.

Going off-grid proves more dangerous expected, but N1T3’s few, effective resources make it impossible not to. More importantly, he must; a logic-vision of formed of careful and meticulous analysis, makes it clear that the time is now or never to safeguard the future of not just technology, but Humanity as well.

Until then, his society is hurtling headlong toward disaster. Aided by a few, choice friends, N1T3 must find a way to safeguard the vision or risk seeing a second Roman-Fall. Given the way things are going in his world, too, it could be the last.

But will it be? Find out here starting next Friday, May 25th , 2018 on the Logbook.

Guardians of Liberty is a postdigital novella set in near-present day London, heavily combining technology, programming, freedom, and their inherent conflicts with pulse-pounding results. Don’t miss it!

Excerpt from Ch 1: Losing Home

Things had changed.

The pre-digital age had given way to the postdigital with no delineation between itself and not, or even the transitory state between. That is to say, the nether-realm of quantum mechanics between 0 and 1. That fickle bitch of nothingness between program and switch whose existence made possible the idea of AI, ghosts– anything damaging to a functioning system.

But that was ultimately life, or the possibility of it. The simultaneously all-important and utterly vestigial “in-between.”

Hard Lessons: Part 17 (Conclusion)

17.

Mr. Brownstone

The Roadrunner screamed to a stop outside an abandoned, Happy-Fish packing-warehouse. Wyatt had done his part at least. Titus’ Custom Porsche came to a rest beside him, its high-performance tires and brake-systems able to stop on a dime, in silence.

The trio piled out at top-speed. Angela led. She crossed the distance to the doors in a stride. Another put her through a door, at the edge of a warehouse floor. Across it, Lucas stood before a heavily pierced and tattooed ganger. His ink was old, faded; an O-G, surviving on wit– and the wide line of enforcers around him.

Ganger-contractors were the real thieves; running protection to people they’d murder in their sleep for a better fee. More often though, they just cut their bosses enemies to pieces and stuffed them into cement-filled drums. Gruesome, but effective.

The trio’s sudden appearance prompted a drawdown.

Unarmed, Lucas blurted in shock, “Angela!?”

The dealer drew on him. “Fuck’s goin’ on? You fuck us?”

“N-no, this is–“

“His sister.” Angela stepped forward, a modded-Sig trained on the dealer.

The dealer grew a sardonic smile. “Oh, little sister coming to reconcile with junkie brother, eh?”

“Big sister, actually.”

“Oh, big sister. My bad. My bad.” Then, with a shout and spittle, “Bullshit! My deals don’t go South. Get out, bitch!”

Lucas pled, “Angie, just go.”

“You stole something from me, Lucas,” she said, eyes on his. “I need it back.”

“I talkin’ to a pair of deaf ‘n blind street-rats!? I said, fuck off!” The dealer spat.

They ignored him. The room twitched, bowing with anxiety. Its various players eyed one another, their leaders. Lucas reached a hand for the tablet in his pocket. The room broke into shouts. Lucas froze.

The dealer laughed, “Finally, some recognition. Aye? How d’you know I won’t just shoot him?”

“You do, you die. You’re not that stupid.” She knew his type. “You still want his cash. Can’t have it if you’re dead. Won’t get it if you hurt him.”

The dealer laughed, lips pursed and rocking, impressed she’d deigned his thoughts. “I think I might like you, sis, but you still gotta’ fuck off. Junkie, give sis her shit so we can get this on with.”

Lucas hesitated.

“Go on fuck-wit. Move it along. Got brown to move.”

Angela kept her gun level, eyes flashing. Lucas started forward; the dealer caught the flash, stopped him. “Ho, ho, wait, Esse.” He’d tasted desperation on the air. “Sis, what good’s a little piece’a shit like this to you?”

“Lucas, bring it,” she said, carefully.

“Nah, Lucas, stay.” The dealers gun leveled on him a hand. The other drew the tablet from Lucas’ pocket. “Good boy, Lucas. Sit. Stay.”

The air thickened.

The dealer thumbed the tablet with one hand, “Now, me, I’m thinking, big sis gets her crew together, brings ‘em ‘ere to get somethin’ from little bro. Risks a deal. Means he’s carrying somethin’ important. Somethin’ she wants back. Bad.

“Right, mi hermanos?

His crew nodded mischievously. He hefted the tablet in a hand, the other firm at Lucas. “I’m thinkin’ this might be worth somethin’ to her. Or someone her crew works for. Aye?” He leaned toward Angela in a hush, “Catchin’ on, am I sis?

Angela’s body tensed, rigid, “Yeah. You are.” Her face tightened, sharpened. “You won’t get out of here with it. Give it now, we all walk away. Make your deal. Don’t. Otherwise… what’s another sour deal in Jackstaff?”

He mmm’d and stepped back shaking his head, gun on Lucas, “I dunno, sis. Sounds like a threat to me. What’chu think mi hermanos? Big sis got a hard-on for putting money where her mouth is?”

Lucas twitched at the agreement, his fear and detox growing, “Let’s all jus–“

“Shut up, Lucas,” Angela ordered.

The dealer mocked her with a grating, nasal tenor, “Aye, shut up, Lucas. Big kids’re talking.”

“You walk out with that, you’re worse off than if I killed you,” Angela warned.

“Dead men don’t have no problems, sis,” he said, eyeing the tablet. “Live men on the other hand, got bankroll. Make me an offer.”

“I just did; your life.”

He laughed; deeply and uproariously, tablet held to one side of his head, mid-air. “Big sis ain’t gonna risk lil’ bro over–“

His skull’s innards splat across the tablet, spraying air with a passing slug and a paste of blood, bone, and brain. The dealer’s body crumpled.

The room was frozen save Curie’s John. He appeared alongside the bullet’s obvious source: one of a cadre of heavily armed men in fatigues. The enforcers were still processing. The John’s men raised their weapons, said nothing. The John strolled toward the newly unemployed posse, catching them before they’d grasped reality.

He projected to be heard, “I am a reasonable man. Our associate here was not. The police are on their way. You have precisely ten seconds to flee or we will open fire. Ten… Nine.”

He continued to count. One of the dealer’s men fled. The rest aimed, dove for cover. A wall of fire cut two down before they were in, the rest scrambled.

Angela tackled Lucas. She huddled over him, ballistic-weave coat fanned to shield them from the automatic weapons rattling and chattering overhead. Semi-automatic barks of low-caliber pistols answered back in sparse desperation.

Titus and Crystal kept down at one side of the warehouse’s edge. The John’s wall of fire was continuous, unrelenting.

“Let ‘em work it out, Cee,” Titus instructed, gun ready.

It took only seconds longer for them to cut down what remained of the dealer’s people.

Then, choking silence.

Crystal and Titus rose slightly. Angela and Lucas eased themselves up. Lucas was utterly stunned, but Angela was waiting, curious if the John would kill them too.

The John instructed a man at his left, “Mister Norman, if you please.”

Norman stepped over and rolled the dealer’s corpse sideways, exposing his grisly death-face and the cracked-eggshell state of his head. Norman collected and wiped the tablet, handing it to the John. He removed his card from its side, reached into the inner-pocket of his jacket, and exchanged it for a USB stick. With indefatigable grace, he stooped to place the stick on the floor before Angela.

“A job well done, Miss Dale. My regards to the Madame.”

The John was gone before the distant sirens forced them to flee.

Lucas lagged behind the others, panting and running, but too focused on the stash he’d stolen off the dealer.

No point letting it go to waste.”

Angela sent Crystal with Titus, fled with Lucas in the Roadrunner. She drove until she was sure they weren’t followed, then pulled over in a nondescript alley to breathe. Meanwhile Lucas prepped a and snorted a lump of brown. Seconds later, he was calm, collected.

Angela waited for his head to clear before it fogged up again.

He smiled, “That was wild. What the hell was that? I mean, I knew you were–“

“Get out of my car.”

His face fell off. “Huh?”

“I said, get out of my car. Now.” She safetied the Sig in her lap. “If I see you again, and you’re not clean, I’ll turn you in. I swear on my life, Lucas. I survived our childhood because of you, and I’m sorry I couldn’t get you out with me, but I loved you then and I love you now.

“So get out, and stay away from me.”

“Angie? What’re you–“

She wasn’t listening.

“You could already die for what you know. Get out. Otherwise, I don’t want you here. Take Wyatt’s money, the Dealer’s brown, and get the fuck outta’ my city.”

He was visibly hurt, “Angie, I–“

She hardened with finality, “Get clean or don’t. I love you, but I don’t care. Go.”

Mechanical habit forced him from the car. He watched, slack-jawed as the car trundled off through pouring rain and steam-frosted air. Some lessons had to be learned the hard way. Angela knew that. Either you learned ‘em, you died trying to, or you were killed failing to.

Hard lessons, but important lessons.

18.

Never Go Home Again

Crystal and Titus stood across from Arthur at the island counter. Arthur was relaxed, more-so than the others; as if a sudden weight were lifted from them all, but him most of all.

Crystal figured it for the best, “Angela left. She say anything about it?”

Arthur shook his head. “No, but I know why.” He looked to Titus, “We may need help.”

Titus slugged back beer, curious nonetheless. “Details?”

“Have any contacts in CPS?”

Crystal’s eyes narrowed, turned to meet a similar expression in Titus.

*

Seattle was a big city. Bigger than ever these days. It was obvious the sprawl was taking over. Approaching metros was like coming in for cross-country landings; the highways forcing you to taxi a holding pattern until you could be pointed to a terminal. Save they did it with traffic jams and convoluted loops of concrete that made sense on paper, but not in practice.

It was no wonder auto-cars were taking over; they were just plain simpler.

In spite of everything though, Seattle never felt less like home. Unfortunately for Angela, that wasn’t necessarily a pleasant thing. She loved the city itself, but returning was like standing on hot coals while force-fed milk and honey. It took all of her emotional control not to treat it like walking straight into a lion’s den.

Guns weren’t an option here though.

To Angela’s credit, better than anyone might expect, even if she felt differently. She’d been fighting to figure out her approach. Eventually, she decided on winging it. Improv was her forte, after all.

Just past midday, she stepped through the doors of an old, back office to speak with the woman there. She was pretty, if plain, and brimming with all the pleasantness of over-educated civil servants finally meeting intellectual stimulus again. The woman disappeared a few moments later.

An eternity of hand-wringing later, she reappeared with a young girl in tow.

Alison was an almost perfect duplicate of Angela at her age; primly groomed, bicep-long curtain of hair, bright teeth and fresh braces. Thick, conservative clothing covered roughly every inch of the rest of her, like some pseudo-modern take on a puritan-pride ad. All the same, that image missed one subtle but crucial thing.

That one thing hinted itself with flashes of gold beneath Ali’s collar.

Few might have caught it, but Angela’s attention to detail was beyond the realm of most’s imagination. That last detail also made Angela’s heart ache. She knew the habit, had it herself through childhood– was partly why, despite her piercings and eccentricities, she’d never taken to necklaces.

She despised the cross, all it stood for. Ali did too. Hiding it was the only vigil of rebellion open. Angela knew her parents, knew Alison wouldn’t have been allowed a scrap of unsanctioned writing, let alone a diary. Thus she expressed herself the only way she could.

She entered the room with grace, poise. Her eyes were on the counselor. She never even noticed Angela; never expected anyone to come for her, let alone her own sister. Angela’s heart broke, its effect felt in the sudden turn Ali gave.

Her eyes met Angela’s, widened, “A-Angie?”

Tears welled, duplicated by sisters separated by a generation of suffering and now rejoined to heal. It was safe to say Alison remembered her, only time would tell if she could forgive her.

Hard Lessons: Part 16

16.

Your Time is Gonna’ Come

Dawn was growing. Its rays warmed the slick, half-frost formed atop the days of rains from the cooling wind. Angela had done all she could from home. Waiting longer only worsened matters. She’d rallied her people, whom were pinging various contacts or prepping for the shit-storm to come. She had only one decision to make now.

One that might well destroy her– to say nothing of her brother.

Angela stood before the three people she’d asked for help; those she trusted most and who’d gone out of their way for her; she for them. Even if one were as close to coworker as she could have, his disposition assured he reciprocated. After all, the others were technically her employees, were more family now than not.

None of that changed that three of the four of them could soon easily lose their livelihoods, possibly, their lives.

Angela took a deep breath, eyed Titus at one side of the island. He gave a resolute nod and dialed a cell phone. The inbuilt encryption took an extra moment to engage before the call was made.

Titus spoke without ceremony, but deep respect, “Madam, we may have a problem… No. Yes, Dale. The younger one, yes… Yes.”

Among other things, the half-conversation confirmed Curie had known of Lucas’ presence. Possibly everything since. How didn’t matter, only her reaction. That she’d obviously anticipated the issue was evidenced in the short time it took to reach Angela.

The inevitable moment came. Titus handed Angela the phone. She took a deep breath, lifted it to her ear, and gave a long, hard blink.

“Yes, Madam?”

“Listen well, Angela. I will say this once; you have damaged my trust in you.”

Angela swallowed, throat cut.

“However, given circumstances we’ll continue to do business, provided you retrieve the merchandise and answer one question honestly. If it is learned this answer is false, our relationship will be terminated, as will your access to my resources and contacts. Is that understood?”

Her throat healed instantly. “Yes, Madam.”

Curie’s charisma was aged, fine wine; the result of decades of the politesse of shadow dealings.

Her lethality was something else. Something supernatural. It cut through the audio compressed encryption, the distance– the whole damned universe, and held a knife to Angela’s throat. Then with still-water clarity, it became firm and mechanical.

“Is it remotely possible your sibling might have been working to compromise you? Think deeply. Answer honestly.”

Angela hesitated for several reasons. Chief among them was the question’s curious nature. It’d never occurred to her Lucas might be a plant. Especially now, it was obvious his focus was solely on one thing. Before, she’d been unwilling to admit what that one thing had been. Now, she knew if she didn’t admit, Curie would kill him.

Almost for that reason alone, she was willing to say no. Still, she hesitated. Respectfully more than anything. Curie’s mechanized confrontation with it meant, she was now staking her life on her feelings, whatever they were.

In other words, was she certain her brother wasn’t an imposter of sorts?

Angela knew for certain no-one on Earth– not even were Julia alive, could have so thoroughly duped her. The person she’d met, let her stay in her home, was Lucas. Warts and all, as they say. Which also meant she wouldn’t believe he was any more than a junked-out, manipulative loser running from debt.

That hard truth’s silver lining firmed her response, “No, Madam.”

A slight hesitation, as if Curie were eyeing fresh ink on a contract. “Very well.”

Her tone shifted as if akin to a sentencing, “Then meet the buyer. Explain the situation. I will arrange the details but he will deal with you as he sees fit. Though you remain under my protection for now, I stress that this is your mess. You are to clean it as quickly and discretely as possible or I will.”

Angela could only imagine what that meant.

“Yes, Madam.”

“You have breached etiquette. As such, you’re to take full responsibility. The buyer will be informed of this, but I expect you to address it as well. Ensure it never happens again.”

“Thank you,” she replied, suppressing the lump in her throat as her should-be severed head mysteriously attached.

She returned Titus’ phone. He stepped out to confer privately with Curie. Five, long minutes of utter silence bridged the gap to his return. No-one breathed. No-one wished to. Crystal watched Arthur, whom scrutinized Angela: her pale face glistening from eyes catching stray light through distant thoughts.

Titus returned quietly, shelling out a series of instructions and insisting they break for sunrise topside, immediately. Crystal and Angela would meet the buyer together. The former would while the latter explained things. It was as much for Angela’s protection as anyone’s.

Besides, Crystal’s identity was irrelevant. She had nothing to do with the job. The premature meeting and its circumstances were suspicious enough, compounding that with paranoia of an ambush was foolish. So, she rolled to an idle purr outside an old florist’s shop. The Roadrunner’s 440 echoed off the not-quite-abandoned-nor-painted part of town.

Her HUD disappeared to see Angela better. “Ping if you need me.”

Angela noticed, breathed gratitude. She slipped out alone. Crystal suddenly understood the old mafioso, their fears of being wacked.

Angela pulled open the darkened, empty interior of a former florists shop. The place was littered with the refuse of a thousand dead plants, sticks, and crumbling tendrils of ivy. The place was so long dead, even the mold had dried out.

A middle-aged man awaited her just inside; familiar, but in the manufactured way. A hit for the Man Zi Tong? A revenge play. No. He wasn’t armed, it was obvious. He thought himself above it. The vague hint of something scholastic to the air convinced her otherwise. He gazed up at the highest draping point of a once-grand kudzu, now withered to nothingness.

“Ms. Angela Dale, I presume?” He said, almost languidly.

She affirmed, and after a moment of respetful silence, explained her purpose there.

He replied with a discipline so stiff, it could only have been garnered from whatever scruples his illicit activities eroded or formed in him. “As I told your Madam, it is a most displeasing situation. However, I was assured you would rectify it. Unfortunately, she does not understand the extent of the severity this mis-step represents.”

“She does,” Angela corrected respectfully with a slight bow. “As do I.”

“Yet the problem remains.”

“Forgive me, but however unfortunate it is, it is coincidental rather than engineered. I promise this much to you.”

“As you promised timely delivery of my merchandise?”

A gut-punch, but hardly undeserved. She took it well enough, “Be that as it may, one does not punish the child for the warzone it finds itself within.”

He seemed ready to cut. His eye rose, teeth grit. He’d been bested– worse, stalemated. At least defeat was a reason to flip up the board and storm off.

Angela knew types like this, well-off Asians from homelands where life was discipline or death. Ideological languages of the Samurai and Shaolin Warriors were filtered through them via a sieve of generations of force-fed shadow-dwelling, its effects.

Angela continued formally, “As offender, it is my duty to mediate I will have the merchandise soon. This is merely a formality to ensure any blame falls where it belongs.”

He gave a single, deep nod, recognizing her flexibility to his customs, then frowned. “Be that as it may, the importance of these matters must be accounted for. Thus, my associates are forcing me to take it into my own hands. As you were no doubts informed, I can do you no harm nor hindrance without also scorning the Madam.

“As I’ve no desire to do either, you may leave unharmed to find … your brother.”

It came from his mouth with such repulsion Angela swallowed to clear it from her own tongue.

He continued thus; “Meanwhile, I will be seeking my merchandise. Rest assured, as you will find your brother soon, I will find it. Whether these two conflict is entirely up to you.”

Angela winced, concealing her fury poorly. The John about-faced and disappeared through a back door. Angela did the same through the front and slid into the Roadrunner with her gaze averted. Crystal waited. The car’s comm rang. Angela answered, toggled it to she and Crystal’s comms with a thought.

“You have something.”

Arthur echoed in their ears, “Not him. Locale. City-feed around midnight, he–“

“Arthur, the point please,” Angela said, audibly distressed.

He grumbled a reply, “The Factory. Meet Titus there.”

“That shit hole? I should’ve known.” Crystal was already heading for The Factory.

The ride was short, padded between bouts of Angela’s random, furious swearing. Crystal guessed her thoughts fed her fury, but didn’t much care to know the particulars. It wouldn’t have changed anything anyway, better to stay focused and keep from getting hit by shit, than try to redirect the fan.

They pulled up in the strip-joint’s lot. The gray shadows left the Factor unchanged despite the daylight hour, making Angela wonder if the place’s sordid patronage ever left. Gut instinct doubted it; parasites rarely abandoned hosts.

Titus approached the car and Angela specifically, his hand out. “Cee and I will handle this.”

“Titus–“

“Your brother, your game. But we’re out of time. You want him back? Leave this to me.”

She bit her tongue, acquiesced and sat still. She watched the pair as she fidgeted and squirmed, idly.

Crystal eyed Titus as they approached the door. “Plan?”

“Don’t have one.”

“You want me to–“

“No,” he said firmly, hesitating outside. “Wyatt’s a fixer. Cap him, you’re rogue. Has to be me.”

She gave a reticent nod, then pulled the door open. He stepped in with an authoritative spine, led her along the hall toward the club-proper. He surveyed the room with a wide sweep, located Wyatt, and headed straight for him.

The club’s never-ending procession of grease-balls and their eyes tracked his every step. They split toward Crystal; grease sloughing off air after her only to meet her leather’s thick armor instead.

“Ah! Titus,” Wyatt said with a grimy smile. “Didn’t think I’d see you.” He offered Titus a seat, half-sarcastically.

Titus took it all in stride; firm, indifferent, but with an obvious aura of threat Emilio all but disregarded. “Where is he?”

“Who?” Wyatt asked, shit-eating grin knowing damned well who.

Titus warned, “I won’t repeat myself.”

The slime-ball smile grew across Wyatt’s face, giving him the wide-mouthed grin of cartoon villains and fools. Somehow, it made him more disgusting. Crystal guessed Wyatt was the type of person the archetype was created for. Were it not for his obvious middle age, she’d have thought him the inspiration for even the eldest representations.

Wyatt suddenly sneered. “That’s right, Titus. You won’t. And neither will I.” He produced a cigarette, then drew over a reeking candle, hesitated to light it from its flame. “I’m not telling you shit.”

Wyatt leaned in to light the cigarette.

His face slammed the lit candle, shattering it. Crystal reacted, drawing her TMPs to spin about on the room that was drawing and diving for cover. Titus forced Wyatt’s bloody forehead against the table, shoving glass into it and forcing a pistol against his neck. He gave a wet squeal. The room froze.

Titus’ strength forced through the accumulated grease on the back of Wyatt’s neck to grip it like an iron vise. The semi-auto barrel pressed Wyatt, an unwavering certainty of death at any further bullshit.

“You’re alive because others deem it so. That can change. No-one will argue with Curie if I take you out. And she won’t argue with me if she feels I did what was necessary. That is the price you pay for operating the way you do. Everyone here knows it.”

Wyatt was instantly a weasel squirming along a table in its own blood and grease. Crystal’s hands were firm, ready.

“Alright. Alright!” Wyatt intoned, blinking at blood and glass. “Dale’s brother. Came in looking to score. Gave him some cash. Favor for a favor sort of thing.”

“Why?” Titus demanded coolly.

“Why not?” The vise tightened. He groaned, “Really. Baby Dale owing me a favor. Why pass that up? Everyone knows I wanna cut that bitch down a peg.”

“Stupid fuck,” Crystal mumbled.

No one heard her. At least, no-one admitted to it.

“You set up a deal. When? Where?”

“I can’t do that, Titus. Be as good as snit–” Titus’ grip tightened again. “Argh! Alright. North-docks. Abandoned warehouse. Smiley squint-eyed fish. Can’t miss it.”

“That all?” Titus equally asked and warned.

The first hints of actual sincerity entered Wyatt’s tone, “Yeah. Guy didn’t have a time. Kid didn’t mind. Gave ‘im a hold over. He was… shaking. Detoxing. While we were talking. Dealer’s smaller time but he needed a score too. Big enough to pack heat though, so I didn’t ask questions.”

Titus prepared to release him, “I find out you’re dicking me, I’ll be back.”

Titus released him. Crystal lowered her weapons. The room eased back into motion, however slowly from now-cooler grease. A few kept their weapons drawn to show the others their way out. The pair couldn’t have been happier to oblige.

They exited the club, met Angela, then got the hell out.

They split up in two cars headed for the nearby deal. City-feeds showed someone was there. If the feeds’ last few hours were to be trusted, so was Lucas. Angela could only hope they got there before the deal ended… or Curie’s John showed up.

Hard Lessons: Part 13

13.

Complex Problems

Crystal smeared anti-ID paint across her face as she monitored the vids for the signal. Her weapon harnesses and belt-pouches clasped with industrial clacks. She tested the fit of her clothes, re-laced her boots; she’d have only seconds, would need them all. She checked the baby Deagle at her side, flipped the safety off, just in case.

Titus reported in, “’round the corner.”

Crystal watched a figure in high-end silks enter from one side of her digital surveillance net. She turned for the door, HUD superimposing the vid-feeds on a corner of her vision. It tracked Saito, shifting cameras as recog-software cycled angles along his passage of the buildings.

Crystal slipped from the rear of the building and into the shadows amid the downpour. Rain puddled on the porous jungle of concrete, reflecting the gray behind the blare of countless, incandescent street lights. Water rebounded off sheet metal, ricocheted into the distant gurgle of street-drains suckling rainwater. Their gullet’s resonance said it they did so as dutifully as failing infrastructure could; as the prideful, final remnants of a near-ruined system might, when emblematic of the depth of its own flaws.

Dim, GPS blips tracked Titus and Saito across her HUD. The information was further resolved on the screens before her. Titus remained in place. Saito moved laterally, toward the edge of the building where his palm-pad was hidden. Beside it, the alleyway concealed the entrance to his vault as the alley outside Angela’s apartment concealed her garage.

Saito’s blip gave only the slightest moment of hesitation. Crystal watched him on the PiP-feed: He glanced over his shoulder, around. In only a beat more than usual, he continued for the side of the building, his hidden panel. He rounded a corner and disappeared behind a series of columns and overhangs.

“Go,” Crystal instructed.

Titus sped past like a shadowed freight-train. Cameras tracked him, their recog scrambled by his face-paint. He doubled his pace on the PiP view. Saito hesitated again.

“Wait!” She commanded.

Titus stopped a step before the edge of the building that would expose him to Saito, the alley, and blow the job. He back-stepped quickly, doing his best to look nonchalant despite the exposure he felt. Crystal watched Saito rubberneck the alley, then put a hand on the wall. A section of alley-floor sank into darkness, revealing only the slightest hint of stairs in the edge of its scant light.

Saito was moving again. Titus was ready. He struck with precision; the sniper’s distant bullet, there and gone for one purpose. He flashed through from obscurity and into the alley. In two steps he’d bridged half the distance. The mark stopped mid-step. He’d had just enough time to squint through the rain at his assailant.

Titus struck. Saito was down, dazed. Titus reeled back a fist. Then, Saito was out.

Crystal was too busy running to watch. She sprinted over puddles, never splashing ground, silent. The street became alley, the alley, stairwell. A moment later, groaning, mechanized hydraulics re-sealed the hatch and she found herself in the dark.

“I’m in.”

Titus strained against Saito’s unconscious weight as he carried him to their hiding spot. Crystal crossed from stairs to floor. Lights flared on in the walls, forcing her to blink against suddenly-wet eyes. Her HUD engaged her new software, readjusted the contrast. She blinked out the last of her confusion and took in her surroundings:

The staircase had deposited itself in an unceremonious foyer. One of necessity rather than form. Walls of light, as in Angela’s garage, confirmed the shared architect. The design, as much for function as form, equally complimented the post-digital-age aesthetic. A style further evident in its extra-wide, utilitarian corridor running the length of its high-strength vault.

From the layout above and below, Crystal judged the vault-proper as just below the near-edge of the warehouse. The design of Angela’s home and garage said the vault was likely built up beneath the warehouse-floor, kept as innocuous cover easily investigated.

That was a popular theme in the shadows; the sleight of hand that kept one looking in the warehouse for wrong-doing, not the property above or below it that was equally there and open to construction. It was an obvious relic of a Pre-3D age. One where the idea of everything came from notions built on paper.

Paper was flat. 2 sided. Or at least, only 3 sided after exceptions or manipulation.

The post-digital-era was different. People weren’t flat anymore. They had depth too; had gone beyond the X and Y planes to the Z, even the T. 1 and 0 was old news because it had done so much more already. It was a symbol, sure, but an old one. One that wasn’t right for the times.

She started down the long corridor. Immediately drawn right, into a dead-end occupied on either side of a smaller hallway.

To the right, safety-glass walls sectioned and protected computer panels controlling various, connected hardware, no doubt monitoring and linking the vault’s various systems. In addition, large breaker panels and high-voltage symbols and cabling led in, spliced from the nearby grid-work that fed the warehouse

None of that was technically illegal, but it wasn’t exactly board-approved building code either. Clearly Saito wasn’t entirely above using old connections, despite the game he supposedly wasn’t part of. Their job aside, Crystal could already tell this guy was headed the way of his old boss if he wasn’t careful.

Judging by immaculately organized patch-panels, network switches, and other routing tech more was freshly interconnected here than procurable outside his former-network. She knew what network it was, because it fed her and Titus too.

Crystal focused left, on the immensely-thick vault-door half-protruding from the wall.

The door was decidedly intimidating. More than that, it was disheartening. Vaults doors couldn’t be picked or tooled. Most couldn’t even be blown open. They had to be plasma-cut or utterly removed. Neither was an option here

Unless they contained a small key-panel to the side; a standard panel for a non-standard door. One Crystal couldn’t help but smile at.

She stepped over, producing a small, cordless drill, and started working out hex head bolts. The internall-suppression mechanisms, some self-modified, withdrew the bolts in utter silence. The panel of number-letter keys and LCD readouts came free.

She fished through the internal wiring, feeling for the connectors. A wrench and a twist freed a pair of wires from a conduit, spliced them. A spark, a whiff of burnt insulator, and the grinding clicks of a few thousand pounds of meshing gears and bolts fell open.

Then, a prolonged hiss as the door eased open within its extra-wide corridor.

Crystal never ceased to be amazed at how few whom relied on digital technology actually understood it. Whether the highest-grade, state of the art containment facility, or the lowliest car-door lock, it relied on and required one thing to work; power.

Thus, power was also its greatest weakness and vulnerability.

Crystal couldn’t help but think of what Titus had said about vulnerabilities. In context, people whom didn’t understand such basic principles of digital security were incapable of planning for its exposure. Most electronic-locks had the fail-safe of a latch lift-able in the event of a power failure. Thus, the idea was to never lose the power in the first place.

State of the art facilities with billion dollar security systems compensated for this with multiple redundancies, complimentary fail-safes to prevent total system-loss. From their own, private police forces to their own power-plants, there were back ups to the systems.

All the same, Crystal guaranteed one or more vulnerabilities existed. Even in the most powerful systems, there was some weakness to exploit. What made her job difficult were the redundancies, the layers and overlap.

All of it though, required power. If it couldn’t be cut, that meant peeling back layers until getting to the target. As mentioned, it made her job difficult.

What made her job hilarious, almost pathetically easy, was ignorant fools putting a half-mil door on a vault they never bothered to reinforce digitally or electrically. It was its own weak-link in the chain of security.

The door stood open before her. Were she not so certain of Saito’s own foolishness, she might’ve hesitated. Fortunately, the door told her all she needed to know. No matter what more lay inside, protecting the vault and its various charges, something would betray them.

“I’m in,” she said, HUD scanning for anything suspicions.

It found nothing but clear ground.

Titus’ drugs would keep Saito out for hours, but he couldn’t risk him becoming lucid. Worse, if something happened to him, Curie might hesitate with him in the future. Their relationship required knowing exactly when and where to strike, how to compliment each other therein, for the best collective effect. It wasn’t always a Grand-slam, but it was never a miss outside their control.

Meaning, mostly fielders like Crystal assigned to jobs, fucked up.

Those were the requirements of a Fixer-Middler relationship; trust and loyalty. Curie was the M to his Bond, or near enough to be indistinguishable. Shaking the foundation meant shattering the usefulness of that partnership. It would happen eventually, if they lived that long– always a question in their line, but until then it couldn’t happen.

Neither side was prepared to weather it.

“You’re looking for a workstation. Concealed. Its drives.”

Crystal stared down rows of sleek, metal cabinets, counters, and drawers. Each was locked with a number-print bypass. Nothing beyond her skill, but the room looked to be half as wide and long as the warehouse above.

“Anything more?”

“No.”

“Titus, this place is fucking enormous.”

There was a long, deliberate quiet. Crystal was left utterly alone, just beyond the intimidating vault-door. She’d never wanted to run from a job so thoroughly. Something about the looming walls, the cold sterility of the vault; the sudden silence and aloneness. She felt trapped, imprisoned.

Something clicked. She suddenly understood the vault.

Rounding the door and heading out along the short hallway for another, her steps and HUD scanning. Lines of invisible code flickered like particle collisions in an accelerator inside her brain, processing for traps, lasers, trip-wires, pressure-plates, anything that might signal something.

There was nothing but white-light paneled walls, ceilings, and tiled floors.

Her steps remained cautious regardless; if she’d learned anything, it was that the more benign something felt, the more benign it was. Call it intuition; simple human sensory-logic, but if a room felt unused, it was.

Vaults had that feeling as a rule, most times. They were seldom used, but always contained the lingering presence of humanity. A distant, decayed hint of cologne, perfume; the last, infinite echo of a footstep; the hint of minor, animal warmth long since cooled.

That was what comprised reality. What gave an old house its musk. An old leather its feel. In simplest terms, it was life’s effect on a thing.

But Saito’s vault wasn’t merely empty. It was sterile. It didn’t reverberate. It didn’t smell. It didn’t echo. It didn’t linger or breathe. It was dead. Or rather, had never lived. It was just one more redundancy in a 2D system turned 3D. That’s how she knew it.

She found herself at the end of the hall, still awaiting Titus’ reply and knowing why he’d been silent. He didn’t want her getting dependent on him. They’d had sex. The relationship had changed. They hadn’t. She snapped back to her senses, alone but recomposed.

She found it then, another door. Expertly concealed to a human eye seeing a 2D plane, her HUD spotted it instantly. The wall panel rose imperceptibly but outside digital tolerance, decidedly out of place to the software in her HUD. In its adherence to remain innocuous, it sacrificed any further, external security.

Were the room beyond it not 3D, unlike the unliving, unbreathing vault, it might gone unnoticed. Even had the HUD missed it, Crystal knew she’d have sensed it eventually. Ultimately, this saved time. She looked about the door and scanned for any hidden method of entry. She slid her hands along its edges. They suddenly hissed, came loose, and slid into the wall to reveal the small, glass-walled entryway inside.

“Found something. Lab-like.”

“Worth a shot,” he said, tapping Saito’s phone as he squatted beside his unconscious body.

Crystal pushed forward through an inner glass door that sealed behind her. Decon fans spun-up and whirled gaseous air. She tensed up, too focused on the room beyond to notice. The sterile white made more sense now.

What didn’t was the thing lying in pieces on a steel table across the room.

The door to the lab-proper opened on something crossing an OR mid-surgery with a tech-workshop. The steel table, like a gurney, contained one-half a vaguely-human thing. It wasn’t, of course. Too much of it was open, exposed to the air; too much mechanical, robotic, to be human. All the same, Crystal couldn’t contain herself.

Jesus Christ,She breathed, eyeing the craftsmanship of the micro-joints beneath a hand. “It’s like Blade Runner in here.”

“Cee, stay focused,” he instructed. “The drive.”

Crystal swallowed, giving the creation one last, awe-inspiring look before turning for a nearby table and a computer there. Contrary to Titus’ expectations, it was not concealed. Even further contrary to Crystal’s expectations, it was also not protected in any way worthy of what likely resided within.

With a quick, few applications of her cordless driver and deft fingers, she worked the small SSDs from the computer and server cases and pocketed them. After one, last look of eerie sorority at the half-assembled creature, she hurried out and toward the stairs.

She started up, triggering an automated protocol that opened the staircase again. Top-side, Titus was stuffing Saito into his driver-less Continental, its scenic-route re-programmed. He shut the door, and it started away for the other side of town. Between that and the drugs, they’d have more than enough time to pack up and get out before anything was discovered.

The pair started through the rain to pack-up their hideaway together.

Hard Lessons: Part 6

6.

Stake out, Take out

Crystal was surprised to find herself enjoying her time away from home. Though forced to keep lights off, Titus had managed to re-tint her optical augs using certain settings. She turned it to auto-run at certain points, most notably, in the building.

In other words, they jerry-rigged her optics into night-vision.Every time she reached the warehouse’s upper floor, the settings shifted; the contrast dialed up, the brightness and saturation shifting subtly with it.

No predator-vision, but the upper-floor of the warehouse became like a faint day-light she could tweak at will.

All told though, were it not for the generally spartan surroundings, he might’ve lived there. The few cases they’d lugged in, added to the few stashed there, said this was one of Titus’ safe-houses. For now at least.

Enough was present that no-one wanted for anything in event of catastrophe, but it was infinitely more bearable with each, minute luxury you smuggled in.

For now, that translated to wanting for nothing within reason.

Crystal knew the play then. He’d likely abandon the place, compromising it if the job went right. Otherwise, he wouldn’t need it. It was like building a temporary shelter for a project too large for a shop. He’d leavewhat he didn’t want as fuel for the next person that stumbled onto it.

That was his contribution to making the world a better place. If only a part of it. Even if making dues knocking off the rest of it, he had some honor. Every one like he and Crystal did. The game-players. Fielders, middlers, fixers; didn’t matter. They all had to observe the rules or no-one played.

Presently, Crystal was prepping cabling for cameras stationed along the floor’s long, rowed windows. Most of the DSLRs were freestanding, sitting in the open but invisible by virtue of the seeming darkness inside. They were section in the main, storage area just beside the stairs.

That section separated them from the stairs beyond their main work-space’s wall. Unlike the foreman’s office they occupied, that area didn’t require additional work now. Their space did.

Crystal carefully positioned and aligned the office cameras behind their gear. She checked their feeds, rolled Titus’ heavy, dark curtains down carefully to conceal them from both sides.

The whole set-up was linked through facial recog on the small network of laptops spread along an old, six-person fold-out table.

Crystal double-checked her work as Titus slipped into place before the laptops. He keyed one up, pushing aside clay-blocks toward her and instructing her to place them in each corner of the room.

Crystal obliged, “Overkill, don’t you think?”

“Always need an exit.”

“Uh-huh, Can’t be too careful.”

“No, but you can overbuy on C4.”

She laughed, lifted a block, “Does it come with a guarantee? Lose a limb or money back?”

He chuckled, “Nothing in life’s guaranteed, Cee. You know that.”

“I guarantee you won’t explode if you don’t play with explosives,” she retorted studiously.

“Depends how you live.”

She snorted, busying herself with a table of gadgets. He settled to rhythmically scanned the feeds. Most angles of the building ahead were straight-on, more for redundancy and catching every detail and recording it.

As Titus had explained it, he had no certainties the mark would make his rounds soon. Onlyt that he should. Something might’ve changed that he’d missed, however slim the chance. No matter how careful he’d been, someone was bound to have seen him come or go.

Whether they cared enough to make note of it, or had reason to, was the question.

It was unlikely; requiring patrols and the like, things certain to draw attention. Even the few souls occupying this place wished to forget it as soon as possible. Besides, their mark didn’t like attention. Even less, drawing it. Titus was certain of that, and Crystal through him.

He and Crystal traded places for the first leg of surveillance. She settled, less tense than she’d expected. Anxiety for a job was usual. If you weren’t a little tense, your instincts– and reflexes– were shit when it came time to use them.

Too tense though, and you were equally shit.

It was all about finding the right groove to fall into. Finding the right job to fit your skills. For the uninitiated, that was finding Fixers and Middlers that saw your value too. The game required them to help put fielders in the rightful places.

Everyone needed each other, somehow.

Mostly.

She sighed, something wasn’t sitting right in her guts. Lucas, she knew. Time was the only thing left to her, for good or ill. Arthur’s intel said he was bad news. She guessed nothing would be a stretch for him. Slime was like that, malleable, thin. It needed to be to get anywhere.

Lucas oozed his slime-ball personality the way a slug oozed trails on a sidewalk; not intentionally, as more a byproduct of his existence. It was slime all the same, made clear his movements wherever he went via the sticky trail following behind. Visibly, or in the scent of his wake, he left his mark.

They’d yet to speak of it, but Titus seemed to be intentionally avoiding the conversation; enough to relay his feelings as mutual. Near-enough.

Evidently, only Angela didn’t see the danger Lucas brought. Was it any wonder though?

Angela was his sister, his family. She was one of the few people he was most practiced at deceiving. He’d have done it since childhood, starting as a kid to divert attention to and from him. Inevitably, he’d have found the various avenues and manipulations available– the cons to get what he wanted.

All of them: the few to be used anytime. The few only for emergencies. The few that never missed, usable only sparingly.

It was obvious to anyone looking inward.

In this case, everyone was outside it save the one playing and other being played. Whether or not Crystal’s interference was warranted could only be based on examples of two, specific, trash-lumps she’d called parents.

She had no experience with familial situations otherwise. At that, she’d have been better off that way. Starting from a base-line of 0 rather than -1 was net-gain in her mind. One she wasn’t privy to.

What she needed was critical thinking. A skill she’d become adept at, especially under extreme pressure. The problem was, those situations generally involved a subject she was well-versed in or confident at working with.

This was different, emotional. She was no stranger to emotions, but certainly at handling them properly. With the least collateral damage. It was a whole other world. Only Arthur’s sentiments kept her from feeling too alone.

With Titus yet to sound off, Crystal could only tell herself what she’d done was with earnest intent. Her last conversation with Angela was merely to remind and alert; even one’s family could betray.

Crystal was a prime example of that reality. Angela knew that. Well enough to know Crystal’d been cast out. Age aside, her mother favored a display-case lifestyle over her own daughter. Crystal had wallowed in that for all of a single night on the street, was otherwise occupied with staying alive thereafter.

When Angela appear, she jumped. That’s why Angela appeared. No-one knew that or the reasons therein better than the woman herself.

Crystal hoped Angela would think on things, recognize her attempts at neutrality, and avert the otherwise inevitable catastrophes that came with people like Lucas. She could do little else, save duck once shit met fan.

Titus appeared, fiddling with a tablet before leaning to type at a prompt on a screen. Crystal watched from a corner of her eye, the rest of her attention fixed on the feeds.

She cleared her throat, “So, who is this guy? Really?”

He alternated between tablet and computer, typing as he spoke, “Akira Saito. Former contact for Hiro Nakasumo, a middler.”

“Like you.”

“Mmm.”

“You knew ‘im? I thought Nakasumo only dealt with Japanese.”

“He did,” Titus replied astutely. “Ironic the one time he didn’t, he was murdered.
“More effect than the cause, Tee,” Crystral reminded. “Nakasumo was running against another fixer. You know that’s not allowed. Everyone does.”

“True, but he didn’t know it either. Saito did. He worked with whomever he could, like the rest of us. After Saito’s death, he tried turning pro, failed. Fixers never accepted him as anything more than a two-bit middle-man. Didn’t have the instinct for it.”

Crystal eyed him, “You think he set up Nakasumo? How? Curie and the others would fry him.”

“You know how the game is, Cee; we don’t carry grudges ‘less we wanna end up dead in our sleep. We care about money. Big enough job comes around, everyone sucks it up, throws down together. Even if we hate each other.

“Nakasumo didn’t work like that. He wasn’t playing the game wrong so much as trying to play a different one entirely.”

“Could’a worked if Saito’d been the loyalist type, like youf,” Crystal said of his strict one-fixer policy.

“The Madame does right by me. I do right by her. We earn income from that. Soon as that changes, we reassess, but we all know it won’t change. That’s not Curie’s style. Mine neither.”

She shrugged, more to herself than to him. “Still doesn’t explain Angela last year.”

“It does,” he corrected with a grimace. “In its roundabout way. Even the Mafia, ‘least at large, doesn’t break the rules, Cee. That’s the difference between what Nakasumo was trying to do and what Caruso did. He was trying to adapt wrong. He measured the game wrong. Caruso went to war without sanction.”

“You mean ’cause fielders are only fair-game on jobs.”

“Yeah. And off jobs, its Johns taking heat.” He reiterated what they both already knew. “There’s exceptions, but Caruso wasn’t endorsed by anyone. The Families don’t go off on whims. They’re like a corporation, a central command structure all the way down. No-one level acts without each above-level’s permission.”

She nodded, “I know. And that’s the reason they never retaliated. Far as they’re concerned, Curie– meaning us– did them a favor taking out a rogue element.

“Still doesn’t explain why we’re here. Grudge or not, nobody rips off someone they know without reason.”

He paused, focusing solely on the tablet screen. A light buzz faded up, reached full strength, then lost itself in the humming laptops. A small drone hovered near Crystal’s head, sank to buzz its camera at her face. Titus watched the tablet, thumbing it.

He began again, still focused downward, “Akira’s not a middler anymore. He’s not in the game at all anymore. That puts him outside it. Given circumstances, he could be a John or a mark. Since he stiffed me on a job, and Curie needs to occasionally flex authority, this week he’s a mark. “

“Still a grudge,” Crystal argued.

He smiled slyly, “I like to think of it as being in collections. There.

Crystal hesitated, brows furrowed. The drone returned to its charging pad behind her on recall protocol. Titus held the tablet out; her furrowed face stared back in a still, almost deranged with perplexity.

“Looks like someone dropped their pants to show a tattoo.”

Titus laughed, “Look good to me.”

“You need your eyes checked,” Crystal joked with the slightest hint of a smile.

Lucas and Angela sat across from one another in the main dining room of Aggiornamento, one of the more upscale casual places Angela frequented. Among other things, the food was exquisite. Given she hadn’t seen her brother in a decade, and that all they’d eaten together was left over bar-food, she couldn’t resist a nice meal.

They were perusing menus when Lucas whistled a bombshell dropping. “Pricey.”

She replied with a short, “Mm.”

He half-joked, “Guess I’ll owe you.”

She didn’t bother looking up. “S’on me.”

“Must been doing well. I mean damn, the chicken’s thirty bucks.”

Angela rolled her eyes. Lucas was famous for that. Anything that wasn’t skid-row was extravagance, never mind a half-chicken for twenty-eight creds was nearly the best bargain in all of Jackstaff. Especially at higher-end places. Hell, right time and place, a glass of water could cost that.

Lucas settled on a Filet Mignon with a bottle of beer; Angela fileted Salmon topped with crabmeat and shrimp. It went down with 10 year old Italian Pinot Noir.

For Angela, it was just another high-end meal. She partook at least once a week or so. This hardly bank-breaking. For Lucas, it was the most decadent meal of his lifetime. He settled into it finely.

Too finely.

He was clearly feeling atop the world. Angela didn’t notice. Things were too light. She was high on laughter, rosey-cheeked amusement, and expensive wine. Lucas soothed something deep within, so intimate, familiar, yet foreign. She couldn’t help finding herself giddy.

Drinks came and went.

Before long, Angela was ready to order an auto-cab. Lucas snatched her keys away then, “You wanna’ leave a ‘68 Chevelle overnight in a Jackstaff lot? Are you nuts?”

She blew a raspberry, half slurred, “Nothin’ll happen to it. I know th’owner.”

“C’mon. I’ll drive.”

“You’ve been drinking since breakfast,” she scoffed.

“I’m more practiced,” he said, headed for the car.

She hesitated, hurried after him. The ride home was much calmer and collected than she’d anticipated. Lucas took every corner expertly, foot tempering the allure of the 396 SS as it begged to roar. Instead, it carried them home at posted speed-limits, into the garage and the parking space without a hum out of place.

Angela stumbled into the apartment ahead of Lucas. She rounded, hugged him with a wet kiss on the cheek and a “goodnight,” then swaggered to her room and closed the door. He rounded for the hall to his room and straight into Arthur. The old man’s hand was flattened out expectantly, his face set like an angry father at a truant son’s homecoming.

“Keys.”

Lucas half-examined the old man. “Hmm? Oh. Here.”

Arthur slipped them into a pocket, eyes never faltering. “I know your game, kid. Seen it a million times. She’s family. I’m not. Put her in danger, I’ll put you in the ground.”

Arthur about-faced. The hall-door shut before Lucas snarled, slumped, and slime-trailed away.

Hard Lessons: Part 1

1.

Business is Business.

The lights of the main dining room flicked off in tandem. The low radiance of the remaining sconces bathed the restaurant in the upscale aura that often separated wealthy from even-wealthier by way of the room’s central, blinding strength and shadowy perimeters.

The restaurant told of Triad affiliation in its carefully selected, hand-woven colors meant to eternally bloom in light, never faded no matter the blood spilt over them. In that way, it said this was Triad territory; these shadows Triad-shadows from which they watch, embrace, and if need be, hide a corpse.

The décor complimented the message with a disciplined elegance. Highly polished Tang-dynasty shields were spaced between Middle-Chinese script-borders, sections of frosted glass of beaded dragon-reliefs, lotus flowers, and filigree. Any museum could’ve inundated the owner with offers, but even those just there for soup knew there was no point in asking.

The very thought of such flagrant wealth and power had always made Zhou Xun laugh. Even before he’d murdered Li Guo Hsu, his men, taken charge of the business. Hsu amassed stories were always amusing, from a time of youthful, aristocratic forays.

In his earlier days, one man had offered Five K for the Jian at his side; a paltry sum for the restaurateur even then. More-so given the sword was passed between Man Zi Tong Enforcers for over a century, once belonged to a royal guard of the Qin Dynasty.

Needless to say, it was worth millions if a dollar.

In Li Guo’s hands, as with the Enforcers before him, it had spilled its share of blood. Xun had watched the Jian cut down more than a few traitors and failed attackers himself. None had imparted the satisfaction of its final thrust through Li Guo’s heart by Xun’s hand. He found it a fitting end for the cutthroat, all-business man Li Guo had once been.

He was hardly that then. Hsu had softened, had grown fat on American decadence, the excreted dollars of their highest class. Despite his relative attachments to his former mentor, Xun saw an opportunity and took it. Hsu should have known, prepared.

He didn’t. His instincts were eroded by a time and lifestyle that felt them unnecessary; him, untouchable. Xun proved otherwise.

But that was the way the game was played. Few Man Zi Tong met peaceful ends. Those that did, were extraordinary. Hsu was not one. Presently, his Jian rested in a lighted case behind the register. It sat just high enough to broadcast a message across the entire restaurant; Li Guo was gone, wasn’t coming back.

No-one knew that more than his son Jun, rightful heir to his father’s business and teetering on the brink of war with Xun, his men. The Man Zi Tong was in the usual chaos of regime change, still too near to reeling to have fully settled. The only hope Jun had without his father’s resources was fronting the money to make a statement.

It just so happened a Golden Triangle trafficker liked the idea of Xun’s death, and fronted the cash. After that, all Jun needed was the statement. Jun took the cash knowing he’d pay off the trafficker or die, one way or the other. Business was business, after all.

Currently, his statement crouched at the edge of the restaurant’s roof, eyeing the door below. Crystal Kane and Angela Dale were another student-mentor pair whose bond involved significantly less interpersonal knife-play– at least where their own partnership was concerned.

The door opened below, forcing them into the shadows. Dress shoes and silks the cost of an average salary preceded Chinese tobacco wafting on Jackstaff’s autumn winds. Low Chinese broke at a pair of heels that clicked up and into place beneath them. The soft rustle and click of a fashionable clutch’s latch prompted them to peer at the newly-assembled group.

Crystal’s digital-HUD implant flashed real-time Chinese-English translations.

– won’t shake the hornet’s nest,” one man said.

“Don’t be so sure,” another replied.

The woman allowed one man to light her smoke. “If Jun is to have his revenge, he will have it. She loosed a ball of smoke that plumed up, past her face. “There will be nothing to stop him. We must accept that. What happens afterward is our concern.

The group broke for a pair of high-end sports cars nearby. Their exit alone confirmed their association with the Man Zi Tong, but their words erased any doubts as to their place in the organization. They were near the top, cavorting with would-be kings.

Crystal recalled once fearing these kinds of people. Then, she recalled fearing nothing for a long time. Since then, she had only feared any whom mightthrow her back in the street. That number grew smaller with each day. The Triad offshoot of Sun Yee On expanding throughout Jackstaff the last few months was hardly intimidating. They were tourists in her town, and so long’s she did her job, her game protected her.

Binnacle Sound was the new Puget Sound. Both a thriving port city, and a dead harbor filled (not entirely metaphorically) with corrupt officials. It was more difficult to know whom not to pay off these days.

For an organization like the Man Zi Tong, it was paradise. A new gold rush in a new Santa Fe. The most important thing, as usual, was carving out as much of the resource as possible and gaining power through it.

In Jackstaff, the greatest resource available was shadows. The city was a new port for the Golden Triangle’s drug trade, shipped straight across the Pacific to North America. The rest of the West coast had gotten wise, cut into the profits. To the Triads, it was too much.

It wasn’t a surprise Man Zi Tong had a presence in Jackstaff. No-one expected much of the place after the closure of the city’s main chemical and fishing industries. (The two more linked than the city admitted.) Most people in the once-thriving seaside town struggled to find ends, let alone make them meet. Unemployment was beyond a problem. It was an epidemic.

For those with far more than they could ever need but unwilling to share, coercion and loss were mainstays. Most others had nothing to lose anyhow.

Crystal had felt the latter first-hand most of the last decade. She’d lived on the graces of fools biting off more than they could chew and throwing the rest out. She’d lived on the streets, out of trash-cans, wishing to die but never willing to.

Then, Angela appeared, living high in fast cars, fashion, and offering every dream she might dream. In exchange, Crystal agreed to be her partner. What that entailed, among other things, was waiting for the group to enter their sports cars atop the restaraunt’s roof.

Glossy curves reflected exterior neongrids and filigreed ornamentation in passing; gaudy dècor were its execution not so exquisitely refined. The first car disappeared into the night in a sonorous cry of high-performance cylinders. The other remained in place, forcing Angela to huff frustration.

The clock was ticking. The job needed to be done. The longer they waited, the shorter night became and the less time they’d have if things went sideways. Crystal shared her anxiety, but was calm for the sake of balance.

It was their way; one worried, the other foiled. That duality kept them ready for anything.

Crystal focused on the second car, the man and woman there. Darkness beyond the building was too complete for even her HUD to compensate. The couple were mere silhouettes in darkness where only a glowing, cherried-clove marked their continued presence. Silhouettes began shifting. The cherry was steady at the passenger-window. A rhythmic stir began

It took Crystal a full minute to comprehended the movements, their repetition.

She rolled her eyes at Angela, “Really? Let’s just do this.”

Angela shook her head, the woman’s upper-half bobbing but her hand stock-still, hanging on the window so her cigarette didn’t tip. “Light’s too direct. Move now and they’ll see us.”

Crystal sighed, resolved to silence.

They watched the act, as equally removed from its sexuality as intrigued by its utter apathy. A rigid business-like quality commanded the scene. Crystal guessed neither man nor woman had much romantic feeling.

Gangers were like that, Crystal had learned; no real emotions outside fury. Everything else was a formality; sex, joy, hunger, excretion. It didn’t matter what. So long as there was a need, a requirement, it would be met. No matter how awkward it seemed from the outside.

Crystal couldn’t imagine such creatures being born. It seemed too personal.

In a way, their client was the inverse. It may have been Crystal’s reading alone, but Angela would recognize it at some point too. Hsu had contracted Curie, and thus them, for what a sentimental heist. The money was right for a Triad, but the cause of the job itself was odd. Neither of them knew what to make of it.

Hsuhad admittedpartial sentimentality to Curie, possibly for the sake of camaraderie rather than conveyance of feeling, then offered half upfront to keep that quiet. Angela and Crystal shut up after that. Cautionary acts meant taking care not to make more enemies than healready would.

Angela all but confirmed the subtext later, along with another:Hsu didn’t expect more than he was willing to pay for.

In other words, if caught, giving him up in exchange for their lives was perfectly acceptable. Angela mused this might serve his purpose as well as taking the Jian in the first place, or it wouldn’t matter as they’d be dead. Triads were like that; as likely to send a message as to let you go on good behavior. Their unpredictability was their real threat.

Crystal watched the business-fellatio, knowing all her years of street living had never quite served up a scene so emotionless. Even the eldest, cheapest whores she’d known put some life into it. This was like watching a reanimated corpse try to swallow a hot dog anchored to a car-seat.

It ended as indifferently as it had carried on; with a movement and the distant sound of spit. The cherry flared again and the engine roared. The car pulled away, leaving Angela and Crystal to work, however utterly flabbergasted by what they’d seen.

They double-checked the area, then felined their way beneath the back-door light. Inside would be cameras, security guards, night time dealers running numbers and playing cards in the basement meat-lockers. Their best chance was bypassing the cams, cutting the alarms, and finessing the Jian from the case.

They were inside in moments. Crystal slipped her lock-picks into her belt while her HUD ID’d cameras, superimposed their vision cones across the building. Angela’s HUD did likewise. The room became a mix of faded cones, dotted paths between various blind-spots.

Far ahead, the Jian gleamed in its case, freshly oiled and set upon red velvet and satin like a shining beacon. Obviously Xun had never thought anyone ballsy enough to steal it.

That was one of the problems with such creatures; he thought only of the way he himself would think, act. He was incapable of considering the minds of those unlike him. More than that, Xun likely never considered Toolers couldn’t be touched for stealing from Triads. Especially not when on contract with other Triads.

Then again, Xun wasn’t a Triad. Not really. He thought himself one. In reality, it was Jun Hsu that was. Son of a former Enforcer and allowed to operate as Man Zi Tong by the graces of Hong Kong’s Sun Yee On. Hsu was given a choice of successor. His son was the logical and groomed choice.

Of course, Hong Kong would always back a winner, but Xun couldn’t make a case if he wasn’t given time to earn anything.

But Xun didn’t understand that. He also didn’t understand security wasn’t just a feeling. It was an art. One he was not well-versed in. Li Guo had been. In the way that all powerful men were; people feared violating their security, so they didn’t.

No one feared Xun though. Not like they had Li Guo.

Most of all, Angela and Crystal didn’t fear anything beyond the job. That was the game, how it was played. During jobs, all bets were off. Toolers were the ones going suffering most immediately for those fuck-ups. Before or after, it was the Fixers, Middlers, or Johns.

Mostly, if someone wanted revenge, it was the Johns that got hit. Can’t shoot the messenger, or no-one’s bringing you messages anymore.

They reached the case. Angela set to work. Crystal fought open a security panel on the wall. She clipped a pair of leads to hot and cold wires, linked them to a small tablet. With a few swipes of her fingers the lights flickered, went out. Through-out the building heavy locks slammed shut.

A sudden clamor sent them reeling. Shouts preceded flash-lights flaring beneath automatic rifles and SMGs. Chinese and English were shouted in equal measure, both commanding them to freeze. A dozen different barrels trained and closed in, forcing them nearer one another.

“Intel was off,” Crystal whispered over shouting Chinese.

“Spilt milk.”

The Chinese went silent. A pair of men parted, allowing another through. He sidled up to the register, pistol in-hand.

“Mr. Hsu’s representatives, I presume.”

Xun stepped forward; a Chinese-American more white than most of his men. Late fifties, and dressed in the silks of crooked businessmen, his left hand was framed by a tailored cuff and leveled on Angela. It ended in the fingered trigger and loaded barrel of a chrome .45.

Crystal muttered, “Well?

“Improvise.”

Xun surveyed the suppressed TMPs harnessed on Crystal’s chest, the baby-Deagle at her side, and the gear strung along Angela’s body.

“Going to war?” Xun joked.

His men chuckled. He glanced aside. Angela struck.

A spinning kick forced the .45 through the air, morphed it into a body-throw. Crystal triggered a smoke grenade that instantly filled the room. Gunfire blatantly refused to erupt, Xun’s men too afraid of hitting him as he slammed back onto the Jian’s case, shattering it.

A moment later he was on the floor, Crystal and Angela ghost trains fleeing through smoke and out the back-door. It slammed, latched and locked again. A breath later a motorcycle zoomed up, unmanned. Angela was atop it first. Crystal adjusted the Jian on her back, climbed on behind her.

They took off, rocketing away in a scream of BMW horsepower.

Before the door opened again, they were gone, lost before they could be tracked, and a hundred G’s wealthier.

Back in Sol Again: Part 20 (Conclusion)

20.

Marble and Granite

It seemed ludicrous. Even despite her agreement to it– more than agreement; arrangement, planning. It was a terrible idea. She knew it, felt it. Above all things, she was a servant of the Alliance, the Federation, Sol. She was Ambassador. “Evolved” or not. A woman of the people. One whom took their plight seriously.

Thus, standing before the airlock to an anti-Humanist shuttle, her security detail in-tow for safety’s sake with three of the four Anti-Humanist prisoners, she couldn’t help feeling as if betraying something. If things went wrong, if the plan didn’t work, they were committing treason. Then again, if things went wrong they’d likely all be dead too.

Mataan’s objective was simple; exchange all but Fera for a small portion of supplies. The anti-Humanists had agreed thus far. Fera would be kept to ensure they didn’t use the opportunity of the shield deactivation to blow the station to hell.

In reality, she was simply too valuable. Saffron and Fera were the real prizes among the prisoners. Thus they kept one, gave the other as a gesture of diplomacy. Anti-Humanist acquiescence to the plan made sense; an entire planet had only just made contact with Sol. Among the first-contact team were several non-Humans. That might still be spun to the Anti-Humanists’ advantage, but only if they did not appear unnecessarily hostile.

Of all things, they that meant not endangering the Vuur.

At least, not yet.

Mataan had anticipated this. Snow, in his wisdom, anticipated the siege-leaders did too, wouldn’t risk damaging already-fragile reputations with the Vuur. Otherwise, they might never manipulate them later.

Snow and Mataan came up with vague plans to counter unknown but suspected motivations. Simon would help however he could, despite his relative confinement but Ka’at had already admitted she considered him a hero. He hated it. Her previously sudden, undeniable hesitation made sense now, but it made him reluctant to do much of his own constructing.

Nonetheless, he once more found himself disdained by the label of Hero. He wasn’t a Hero. He was the only one around that knew how to do what needed to be done. So he did it. So they wouldn’t all die. Him included.

There was nothing heroic in that. It was selfish. It made watching the airlock seal worse. He was the hero, but Snow, Niala– and worst of all Lina were going off to do the heroic thing. How was that fair? He sighed, deflated, and slumped off to await the inevitable command to initiate the next phase of the plan.
Just beyond the sealed airlock, Snow was leading the way out, up– as much “up” as existed in space.

In moments, the Evolved were magnetized “atop” the station, the Human Lina between them, ready to earn her wings in the asinine-but-required school of space-exploration. Their suits and helmet-comms were open, but quiet. Even to Niala’s surprise, Lina was calm, her breaths controlled.

Niala doubted Snow noticed, focused as he tended to be, but it astounded her how calm the human was. Simon was a wuss in comparison. His first outing was a string of panicking and hand-wringing until nearly killed and forced to act. Maybe Lina had learned something from his mistakes, maybe it was natural. Either way, she was clearly better-suited for it.

She took Snow’s lead and focused on the task at-hand. Everything had to happen just right; coincide so no single entity might fail. Most of all, it had to happen without comms. Only faith in the various constituent parts and persons would allow them to function properly. That was how, after the few minutes of mag steps, Snow and the others found themselves atop the Anti-Humanist shuttle.

The group sank to their knees like cement to an ocean floor between two, cramped, protrusions venting protrusions. They dialed up their magboots. Snow distributed a series of small, spherical devices. They engaged with a touch, emitting shields, visible only by their slight shimmer at close-range, other wise invisible.

The ship jolted, launched through space. Suddenly, they were car-surfing a quarter-galaxy away from any terrestrial vehicle while somewhere below, Mataan awaited docking.

She had nothing to say to the anti-Humanists in the cock-pit, choosing instead to ride out the passage in the cargo section. She’d been allowed the liberty of her security escort, as a show of good faith. Mataan personally suspected arrogance, but truly, what were a few, armed soldiers against an armada of disenfranchised fanatics?

Snow would’ve called it a tactical error. Niala would’ve called them fools– mostly, just to say it again, and while Mataan would’ve agreed on both counts, she didn’t. Couldn’t. Still, she knew the trio of hell-raisers lie in wait above.

Mataan glanced beyond a bulkhead and into the cock-pit. The usually vast, emptiness of space was dotted by various ships and shuttles of differing sizes. Each one, armed. Each armament trained on either the shuttle or the station behind it.

She couldn’t help but feel her hair stand on edge beneath the layers of silk and spandex. If she’d been less in control of herself, she might’ve purred with fleeting terror. Instead, she cleared her throat slightly, and stiffened her spine.

Directly ahead, lay their destination. The cargo frigate’s guns tracked their progress more intently than the other ships. It was pulling double duty as both hauler and med-ship. Neutral ground, Mataan knew, but no less guarded. Neither side would risk injured or innocent for the sake of vengeance, not with the Vuur watching.

Who was making that decision on the other side, Mataan still didn’t know.

With a slow, hateful sneer, Saffron angled in front of her, blocking out the viewport. Mataan huffed, withdrew again to sit against a wall beside one of her escort, Hudson. The old, scar-faced Tom-cat exchanged a tense look with her.

It was clear; neither knew what to expect, nor what to do if things went their way. Snow was adamant that no-one know more than necessary to do their part. Otherwise, they might give something away inadvertently, screwing the pooch as it were.

The more Mataan and her people believed they were aboard the frigate to exchange prisoners for supplies and begin peaceful negotiation, the less likely they were to betray their intentions as exactly the opposite. Particulars weren’t necessary. Thus, they weren’t known.

Saffron’s malice caused them to miss the boarding, but Mataan knew well enough how it went. They’d come up alongside an extendable arm to dock; ostensibly, the ER-entrance where shuttles rushed wounded in when necessary. Given peace time, or as best could be called such, the double duty loading-bay only made sense to dock in.

Among other things, the dual-duty ship forced Mataan to recognize how very wrong they’d been about the number of F-drives already in service.

The shuttle’s rear doors opened. Saffron led the way in. The others followed. Elondo and Roenig were immediately rushed to examination. Saffron led the others to a central locale on the ship. The twists and turns of corridors were maze-like, dark and labyrinthine. Mataan only hoped whatever Snow had planned was enacted before the negotiations inevitably broke down.

Atop the shuttle, the trio disengaged their shields and mag-boots, leapt a distance to put a section of upper-frigate. The ship was five times the size of the shuttle, levels deeper. Arrays of pipes, conduits, and millions of other, important pitfalls and obstacles formed the plane of the ship’s top-side.

They aimed for the sort of conning tower mid-way astern, formed of a series of comm-equipment atop the distant Bridge. The Bridge’s warden-like gaze surveyed everything forward with as little resolution as possible, given its innumerable blind-spots.

Snow halted the others to plan their route; cameras littered the path to the emergency hatch they sought, invisible to the untrained eye but meant for scuttling more than emergencies. In the event the ship needed evacuation, leaving through such a hatch just put someone outside it, not in safety.

Snow was still grateful that idiotic bit of bureaucracy made it into the design, if only for a breath.

He started forward, hustling without risking being seen. Any camera could be active at any time. The only way to safely bypass any was to treat them all as active threats.

Mag-boots at half-power, he turned Zero-G to Moon gravity without the bounce. In this way, he carved a zig-zagging, weave between blind-spots, ducking in and out of them with carefully paced timing.

Niala and Lina followed, not bothering to hesitate or question. They understood as well as he. Follow in-step, in rhythm, or risk it all. Each second in the open was an eternity. Each pause between was agonized relief as if halting a slog through a sea of molasses-tension growing thicker each moment.

Before they’d covered half the distance, they found themselves beneath the gaze of the Bridge. It loomed overhead like the inadequate guard-tower it was. The mutual realization gave them all renewed confidence, conveyed and strengthened through the open comm and relief in their breaths.

Niala took point at the hatch. Her careful movements produced a tethered pouch of tools, its implements necessary for opening the hatch’s control panel. The others could only wait, hunkered down and feeling supremely exposed. Being spotted before their moment would destroy everything, including the station.

Likely, the Vuur too.

The thought made Lina’s heart race. Her breaths quickened. Snow thunked a knuckle on her helmet, said with a glance, “even if they cared to look, they’d never see.” His face resolved that confidence into a certainty. Oddly comforting, given how intimidating he was, and that he’d only ever shone her scorn or complete indifference.

Now, she felt an equal. It stilled her breaths.

Niala turned, tool-pouch re-secured at her waist, and gestured them in. The airlock hatch slid open silently. She’d disabled the alarms but at cost of shorting the systems. That meant re-pressurizing by hand. It would need to be precise– as much to keep from killing themselves as to avoid blowing a hole in the ship and alerting it to their presence.

Niala directed the group to various walls, set them to work opening panels for pumps and internal mechanisms. A steady stream of commands flowed from Niala across the comms until the last pump was prepped ninety-seconds later. She sparked a pair of wires and the room began to pressurize.

Minutes from 0-hour. From D-day. Either everything would go right, and the threat would be neutralized; or, everything would go to hell and civil war would break out.

They slipped in, immediately dodging security cameras for the Bridge’s rear-elevator. They piled in, ascended to the control room. The door opened on a roomful of consoles and moving bodies. Evolved creatures of all types had manned the ship in extravagant numbers, with nary a Human to be seen outside Lina.

The group hid behind the walls of the elevator as it opened, silently. No-one paid it any mind, too focused on the consoles and screens scattered about. Snow was ready. Across the open doors, Niala was too. She poised to close the doors with a button. In a flash, Snow hurled something out, the doors slid shut, and a distant, incapacitating screech gave way to ringing silence.

The elevator doors opened again on total stillness. The previous moving and shuffling of life was gone. No-one had time to notice. Snow and Niala broke for a pair of consoles at the front of the room. Lina dove toward one nearer the elevator. She took over, began issuing orders to realign, re-route, and charge various, specific electrical conduits.

Several floors below, Mataan stood before Shafer and Saffron. Between them, a pair of crates. To one side, a folding table set with a pair of chairs; one at either side. Shafer sat in one. Mataan took the other. Behind them a short way, their security teams; save Saffron, whom stood directly at Shafer’s left.

“Speak,” Shafer said.

“I’ve nothing more to say. Either you accept our arrangement or not.”

He chewed his tongue, teeth grinding. “We have. You were brought to negotiate surrender.”

Mataan placed her paws together. Her empirically statuesque figure became all the more graceful, concealing a slight of hand neither Saffron nor Shafer caught.

“Indeed,” she said firmly. “Your surrender.”

The lights flickered. Darkness. Something exploded in the distance. A massive flash of incapacitating light emitted from Mataan’s hands. She was unconscious. Shafer and Saffron too. Hudson and Rodriguez’s rifles spit violet plasma, cutting down Shafer’s escort. Emergency lighting flickered on.

Across the would-be battle-field, secondary explosions were triggering. Lina watched them through the control room screens and their external cameras. Before her, the drive command flickered, “successful.” The EMP rolled out through space, multiplied by every ship it hit. Any, purely internal systems would be unaffected, life-support for instance. Whereas anything with external connections were having their components fried.

An alert screamed aboard Snow’s shuttle, still docked at the station. Simon was ready. The power went out, cut off intentionally to protect the shuttle and Melchondo’s cruiser. Gravity dissolved. The air stilled. Behind him, the Vuur felt it in their mass.

Simon was too focused on a silent five-count to notice the rotten-egg stench returning too. He re-engaged the ship’s systems, bursting super-speed for Vursara. He hadn’t the nerve to admit to the Vuur he’d never flown a shuttle. He’d driven air-cars. They were sort of smaller, planet-bound versions of shuttles, but it was in his youth… decades ago now.

That youth felt a long way off now. Save its familiarity with the inability to admit truths to oneself. Incidentally, Simon’s current lack of self-admission was his inability to fly the shuttle. So at least he and the Vuur were being equally deceived by him.

Breaching the atmosphere triggered a series of readings and guides on the view-screen’s transparent HUD. Soon, they’d be on the ground, landed or burning. His knuckles whitened, heart seized between beats. The energy it took managed to shut off his olfactory senses. The worsening rotten-eggs worsened.

Above, Melchondo’s cruiser broke rank. A second later, it formed a wide, triangular grouping around the disabled armada in tandem with both Homer and Alpha-Wolf. The pair had appeared simultaneously, almost invisibly, in the distance.

The Frigate’s control room was abound with both Niala and Snow shouting to launch all ships’ remaining shuttles. Mataan reported in; the cargo hold was secure.

Simon blasted through Vursara’s atmosphere, guides at forty-five degrees from one another. He nudged them toward level. The shuttle tinted red at its viewport’s edges. Sweat pooled in his lap from, oozed through his locked grips. Both injured and uninjured arms ached equally now. His armpits dripped, neck immersing his collar.

The perpetually clouded-atmosphere made it impossible to see anything. He panicked; it might never break. Never. The ship might just strike, one more, temporary source of ground just slight hotter than before.

Ingstrom reported in; shuttles were making contact. Anti-Humanist ships were in chaos, their crews offered no resistance. Snow’s second reported the same. Mataan’s team had finished securing the last of the cargo hold’s prisoners and were hunkering down. Niala locked out all control of the ship. No-one was going anywhere.

Simon’s heart felt ready to burst. Someone had put it in a vise. Then pumped it full of some adrenaline-concoction that enlarged it worse than a lifetime of bacon. He was about to die, prepared to die. There seemed no other choice.

The black gray broke, shattering like a mirror into neutral, patchy floral grounds plastered between massive stretches of glossy Obsidian. Plateaus were offset by beauts of pumice, basalt, rhyolite. Simon wrestled the ship swooped from its dive-bomb, leveled at a safe-altitude.

There it was; Vursara’s civilization, constructed of Marble and Granite. Ancient Rome had a rival for beauty; this was it.

Lina radioed in, “Simon? Simon, are you okay?”

He breathed deep, oblivious to sulfur-smell, pain, or anything else but the wonder before him.

“Yes, but Vursara, it’s… it’s magnificent.”

A small hand, seemingly too heavy for its size, pressed his shoulder. He glanced over to see the Ka’at gazing warmly outward. He followed her gaze, deciding he wasn’t so unqualified for his job after all.

21.

Back to Sol Again

Festivities aplenty had occurred since the miraculous thwarting of the Anti-Humanist fleet. Thus far, somewhere on the order of two-thousand people of all species, excluding Humans, were arrested and processed. The ships, whose origins remained a mystery, but whose design was decidedly Solsian, were still being combed for evidence.

That was, of course, apart from those few shuttles Snow had taken to replenish his ship’s stocks– and the ones stolen for Niala and Simon as parting gifts.

He left Vursara not long after to dismantle the would-be rebellion brewing on Ganymede. What would happen was anyone’s guess, but Simon sensed he’d see the Wolf again soon enough. In the wake of his departure, Mataan officially began full, diplomatic negotiations with the Vuur, using the damaged frigate as a sizable, more accommodating neutral ground than the cramped station. Its engine would one day be repaired, but no-one yet wanted the headache of deciding who it went to.

Niala considered taking it, but ultimately didn’t care to fuel it. Even after a century of space-flight, Solsians still needed gas-money.

The first portion of their primary mission achieved, Niala, Lina, and Simon boarded Homer to return to Sol for the expedition’s reassessment. In time, they’d return, continue the exploration, but given all that had transpired, the ISC and Alliance felt it best to postpone any further forays temporarily.

With that in mind, Simon settled in for the trip back to Sol. It would take a few days, given the start-stop necessity of the F-drive– and the crew’s general lack of wanting to return. Everyone needed R&R; emotionally, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, Simon was content in occupying his time between Lina and Rearden’s repairs, forced into a leave of absence as he was by his injuries. He was fine with that, and currently, tending to Lina.

The door opened to his bathroom, steam billowing out from the hot shower Lina had enjoyed. She pivoted out like a burlesque dancer, closing the door behind her, whipped the towel off her head. It cascaded through the air as her hair tumbled about sensually, like an animal ready to pounce.

Indeed, she was.

And precisely when she tried to, they learned several things:

First, trying to throw one’s robe off while it was caught in a door was difficult. Simultaneously, doing so made it impossible to properly throw her arms and head back to thrust her nude torso outward as she intended. Lastly, they learned that a robe caught in such a way, tended to throw one off-balance.

And in that way, she tried to be sexual.

And in that way, she thrust forward in an awkward spasm, was tugged back too fast, then thrown off-balance inside wet, slick-bottomed slippers.

She landed face-first on the floor in front of the bed, legs splayed, brain scrambled, and utterly buck-naked. Simon fell beside her, rolling and laughing. Her wits returned enough to realize two things; she too, was laughing as hard as he was, and they were perfectly, equally stupid– and absolutely perfect for one another because of it.