Bonus Short Story: The God Damned Human Element

A deep subwoofer thumped a beat that rattled the crowd’s teeth. It made them all but deaf to the world around them. Combined with the pulsing lights and erratic muscle spasms most called dancing, it wasn’t difficult to understand why sharks and adrenaline junkies sought the type of places like this. The entire crowd undulated with a hypnotic, sexual rhythm, as though some lustful creature in a different universe altogether. The X and coke didn’t hurt the xenoic aspirations either. It was as much a given that spaced-out face-fucking was taking place as it was that someone would wake up regretting it the next morning.

In the middle of it all was Hailey Russell, part-time drug-dealer, full-time club owner. She’d been one of the first to carve herself a place from the Awakening’s rubble. Once a Sleeper, she’d run net-casinos through countless shifting proxies. They racked up all forms into online chips and credits from poker tourneys to slot machines. If it weren’t for the damned Awakening, Hailey would still be one of the richest people in the world– or at least Tokyo.

Instead, she was middle of the food-chain. Those that had brought about the Awakening, a nameless group of vigilantes with more swords and balls than brains, were undoubtedly at the top. Even fewer people realized that than knew of their existence, but it remained true all the same. They’d set themselves up right before the fall of civilization, and their elimination of the so-called Collective; a group who’d supposedly run the world.

To Hailey, it was a bullshit line from bullshit liars.

Like most Awakened ex-pats, she knew the world outside ran differently than the one inside. That knowledge alone had given her the club, the connections, even her take-no-shit attitude. The net though, had been a godsend. People like her didn’t fit into “normal society.” They made their own rules, were ruthless in pursuit of credits. After the Awakening, the flux-state forced upon the world had there wasn’t a society so much as tribal cliques. With most cliques’ home’s– the net– gone, society was forced remold itself– was still doing so.

So Hailey and others like her did what they did best; set up shop, and catered to clientele looking for whatever they could provide. In most cases, the best sellers were escapes from reality. In Tokyo especially, it was drugs and sex. The city was rampant with destitution, and most people in the club owned only one set of clothes more than they were wearing, and were certain to lose half their wardrobe over the night. Hailey’s job was to ensure that happened and she was damned good at it.

She leaned over a cat-walk railing on the club’s second floor. Somewhere to her left, one of the girls whoring for money was just barely audible over the thumping bass. She’d been fucking her brains out for near-on three hours. Everyone in the VIP section had taken her for a ride, one right after the other. Hailey wasn’t any different– or at least, wouldn’t have been given she were lower on the food chain. Money was power, and selling her body was the easiest dollar a girl’d make nowadays.

Hailey’s eyes scanned the crowd that ground and writhed against one another. Peaking X so prevalent it tainted the sweaty air. Ushers passed out free bottles of water as they palmed cred-chips in exchange for X-tabs, nitrous-poppers, and eight-balls. A few men and women looked ready to spaz out completely. A few more straight-edged wall-flowers huddled in shadows, probably drug in by their girlfriends or boyfriends looking for a fix. No doubt the poor shits would be single again in the morning, or swapping spit from mouths that had been sucking strange cocks or tonguing foreign muff– maybe both.

Hailey smiled at the thought; it was pure anarchy. There was no room for the “human element.” At least not the one that people thought of usually. Instead it was the reptilian brain that lusted for every known drug, synthetic or otherwise, that allowed for greater pleasure. She hated the other human element– the touchy-feely bullshit about honor and love and school-girls that weren’t being actively sodomized. That bullshit had cost her the net, and more money and power than most dreamed of. Everything she owned now was physical, credits a worthless means to an end. Money was a middle man between her and the things she’d use to rebuild her power’s foundation. Whether formed of X-tabs, sound systems, synth-ahol, or old-fashioned whores, she wasn’t going to let even the smallest iota of power slip past.

She turned from the anarchy of the dance-floor and the VIP-whore’s latest orgasm, for her sound-proofed office. It sat along the club’s rear-wall, shades drawn closed on a window that watched lines of minors with fake-ids.

The office was a quiet refuge in a haven of chaos. Only the lowest thumps made any ingress, barely audible as her heels clicked for the seat behind her desk. She snorted a line off a sterling-silver tray. Her heart skipped beats from the rush while her groin tingled. She loose a heavy sigh, laid her head back against the chair-back, and entertained the idea of heading down stairs to pick up one of the wallflowers and popping their cherry.

She resolved to think on it, opened her eyes to a small movement ahead. Her reflexes snapped her upright. The scarred face of a man she knew and loathed appeared.Yang-Lee’s dual katanas were sheathed, a better sign than his presence alone. Unlike her, he was a Tokyo native, one of the few directly responsible for the Awakening. Apart from being one of the nameless order, he was also a cut-throat bastard with delusions of authority. Everything from his rigid spine to the slight stretch of his scarred face said he held himself above Hailey and her club.

She blinked hard to keep the coke at bay, “The fuck d’you want, Lee?”

His jaw was tighter than usual, not a good sign. “Rachel told you to close up shop, Hailey.”

Hailey cocked a smug grin, “Dahl can slurp on my cunt if she thinks she’s gonna’ take anymore of my money.” She fingered a button on the arm of her chair, “And you can tell her I said that yourself.”

Two large men appeared behind Yang-Lee, wider than brick shit-houses and thick as steel. One of them put a hand to Yang’s shoulder.

He cocked his head slightly to one side, “If you wish to retain use of that hand, I would remove it. Now.” Hailey’s eye twitched. She gave a nod and the man backed off. “Wise.”

Hailey’s eyes sharped with ice, “If Dahl wants a war, I’m more than willing to commit to it. Otherwise, fuck off and don’t come back.”

Yang-Lee remained in place, his posture unaffected, “A war suits no-one’s agenda.”

“Says a coward that know’s he’ll lose,” Hailey said. She pushed up from her chair, crossed the room to lean in on him at nose-length, “If you thought the Yakuza’s remnants were hard, you’re not even prepared for me.”

A lone corner of a scarred eye tightened, “You do recall, Hailey, the Yakuza no longer exist because we will it so.” A corner of her mouth lifted in a snarl. “We lost not a single man in that war. Think. Accept that you only remain here because we do not will it otherwise. Do not give us reason to feel differently.”

She grit her teeth, “Get. The fuck. Out of my club.”

Yang-Lee didn’t flinch. There was a flash of hands and steel. Hailey stumbled back, fell to her ass, back against her desk. Her vision focused in time to see Lee’s dual Katanas withdraw from her dead guards. He rounded, approached her with shadowy features. He put the bloody tip of a blade beneath her chin, lifted it gently.

His voice was calm, quiet, “There is no need for war when our only conflict is with you. We will simply eliminate the problem. Consider this your final warning; stop poisoning our city, or we will ensure your end is swifter than theirs.”

Yang-Lee stepped away, blades whirling. They threw droplets of blood across the room, returned to their sheathes. The door opened to the momentary sounds of sex-driven rhythms then went quiet again. Hailey heaved a terrified breath. She’d have pissed herself were it not for the thousand-cred pants she wore. She pulled herself up along the desk’s edge with shaky hands.

The god damned human element had won out again. It always did in the end; fight or flight, terror and fear– the manifestations of that stupid reptilian brain she so heavily relied on. She hated the fucking thing, both her greatest asset and worst enemy. She stamped a foot against the floor with a loud “fuck” that cresendoed into a growl. The god damned human element always won.

Bonus Short Story: You’re On!

You’re On

“I don’t give a good god-damn who you are, get out of my house!”

Arvin was pissed. Clearly. The fact that he shouted this particular phrase down the barrel of long-nose .44 didn’t hurt in conveying his otherwise less-than-mellow state. The problem was, at least from his wife’s perspective, there wasn’t quite anyone there for him to be shouting at.

For the last twenty years, Arvin and Marjorie Dunn had been blissfully married. They’d survived a long-distance college relationship, ten years of growing older and bitter, tying the knot and two kids that were now grown and out of the house. In all that time, Marjorie hadn’t seen Arvin raise his voice nor hand in anger. He’d never needed to. He was a frightfully stern-looking man, with eyebrows made for the colossal grump he appeared to be. But really, he was a teddy-bear– all soft and cuddly, and stuffed with more plumped up fibrous tissue than a life-size version of the aforementioned.

In the moment, it didn’t seem to matter. Any of it, in fact. He cocked back the hammer of his home-defense .44, ready to rain swift hell-fire on the air. Marjorie was still frozen in horror behind him, not sure whether to run or cry, but all the same unwilling to anger the beast with the large revolver. She wasn’t sure what to do, nor of how things had progressed quite to this point.

She’d already traced it’s origins; this had all started when the Matthews’ moved out. They’d been the Dunn’s neighbors for nigh-on fifteen years, had been there twice as long as anyone else in the suburb– one of the first families to settle the subdivision when it was first built. Granted Warner Matthews was always a couple decades older than Arvin, they grew together as friends.

And for fifteen years, the two men grew older, fatter, balder while they counted the time in barbecues and beers, football games and nachos, and fourth of Julys and hot dogs. They were the best of friends, helped to keep each other grounded. That’s not to say that Darlene Matthews wasn’t the same for Marjorie. They too were the best of friends, but in the way of women whom largely preferred to sit at home with books or cross-stitching were. They just weren’t quite the level of close the other two were.

It was always known between Arvin and Warner that one day the latter’s pension would come due. He and Darlene would pack up their most precious belongings, sell the rest, then run off to Florida to live out their days. Promises to visit on both sides might eventually be upheld, but unfortunately, it just hadn’t been long enough yet to tell if there was any truthfulness to that.

Indeed, the day they did finally finished selling off the less-desirable elements of their home and history, they packed up Warner’s old pick-up (Darlene’s car atop a long-bed trailer towed behind it) and drove off into the sunset. Arvin was happy for them then, as any man or woman might be watching another achieve their dream. He was even happier the next week when they received a post-card of the new condo on the beach in an envelope with a picture of the boat the couple had bought from selling their vehicles.

But that too, was the day when all of this started. It seemed innocuous enough when Marjorie returned home with groceries, and Arvin saying something about new neighbors. Being laden with armfuls of groceries, she didn’t quite hear him, and his mind was too easily swept up in aiding her in the task otherwise. The conversation didn’t re-emerge until the next day, when once again Marjorie came in from the car, keys jangling as she set them in the bowl just inside the door.

Arvin said something about new neighbors again, this time mentioning that he’d only seen the one car. Evidently the new couple– a husband and wife in their thirties– preferred to share a car rather than have two payments. Marjorie’s suggestion to run across the lawn and introduce themselves was met with the curious recollection that he’d seen them both leave just before she’d arrived home.

“Well then,” Marjorie replied. “You’ll just have to make sure you tell me when they’re back so we can introduce ourselves. Otherwise we’re gonna’ be livin’ next to strangers ’til we’re dust.”

He’d chuckled with a casual compliance, but the thought had left his mind somewhere between there and dinner, and by the time that was over, he wasn’t sure he had the energy to get off the couch. The cycle of one thing or another keeping them from meeting their neighbors continued for almost a full week.

That’s when Marjorie noticed the first of a series of insidious changes in Arvin. Where he’d always been one to rise with the sun, have himself a wholesome breakfast before work, then putter off to wile away the day at the salt mines, he was suddenly late for work. For anyone else, it might’ve slipped by unnoticed, but Arvin was a punctual man. Provided you caught him on a normal day, you’d be able to set your watch by him– so long as you knew what time he did what each day.

For Marjorie, this lapse raised her guard. Ever the housewife, she watched three days pass like this, her time wasted in worry rather than up-keeping the house and flower-beds. The front petunias withered, only saved by a short rainstorm that managed to perk them back up. Even so, Marjorie’s routine was as shaken up as Arvin’s.

On the fourth day, she paced about the house, so tense at Arvin’s shift she wasn’t sure what to do. Over the previous days and nights, Arvin had spoken more of the young couple next door. He’d managed to run into one of them at the gas-station and introduce himself. Unfortunately, due to their schedules, the two were almost never home, both instead absorbed by positions at a mutual job concerning computer-something or other– Arvin couldn’t recall, he was too old for computers to make sense to him.

On that fourth day, Marjorie devised a plan. By four AM of the fifth day after Arvin’s failure to rise began, she was up. She lurked in the shadows of the window that faced the Matthews’ old house. She refused to leave, almost refused to blink, even when Arvin rose, once more late for work. He left as the sun settled into its passage through-out the sky, and by the time Marjorie recognized high-noon coming, she’d devised another plan.

She didn’t wait to execute it. Instead, she sneaked over to the Matthews’ old house, through the back, wooden gate, and across the paver-block patio that Arvin and Warner had built one summer a decade ago. She rifled through the mulched flower-bed beside the back door, fished out an old, fake rock that contained a key to the door. Evidently, the new neighbors hadn’t moved it yet, or even replaced the locks: the key slid in just as it should, turned without issue.

She slipped into the house only to be chased out moments later by a bilious feeling that sent shivers through her spine: the house was empty, just as she, Arvin, and the Matthews’ had left it after they’d filled Warner’s pick-up and Darlene’s car.

To be standing between the kitchen and front room now, watching her husband curse and swear with a gun in his hand made her feel all the more guilty. When he’d returned from work, she’d confronted him. With little more than a short argument, and a promise to bring one of them over, he’d left the house. What Marjorie didn’t realize was that he’d retrieved the .44 from the bedroom after he’d stormed off. Why was anyone’s guess, but all the same here they were.

“I said get out of my house god damn it!”

“Arvin there’s no-one there!” Marjorie wailed.

“The hell there isn’t!” He said.

He fired two rounds through the air into the man he saw before him. A moment later, the man was on the ground before Arvin, blood pooling on the cream, shag-carpet. Suddenly Marjorie saw him too, but it wasn’t a man. Instead, the long, distended features of caricatured humanoid creature lay before them. Arvin dropped the gun, back-stepped in horror. He’d grown too frustrated, angry at the world and the break in his routine. Marjorie hadn’t seen him snap at his co-workers, or flip off other drivers, or feel the rise in his pulse and blood-pressure during the argument.

It all seemed to make sense to Arvin, but to Marjorie, nothing made sense.

“My god, what is that?” Arvin said, finally seeing the creature’s true form.

A woman appeared in the doorway, fell to the ground wailing, “No, no!”

The woman suddenly lit with a bright, glowing light. A similar figure to the creature became apparent through it. Marjorie fainted.

When she awoke, Arvin and the two creatures were grouped around her, but they once more resembled their human selves.

“Honey, I think we need to listen to these people,” Arvin said, still sickly pale.

The woman spoke, the man still clutching his side, though no longer bleeding. “We’re terribly sorry for all of this. We knew we could not keep the masquerade up forever.”

“I… I shot him,” Arvin said breathlessly.

The wounded man gave a grunt, “We heal… quickly.”

“You’re… not human, are you?” Marjorie asked.

The woman shook her head. The man attempted a joke, “For once that’s… a good thing.”

“I-I didn’t know… I swear. After what Marjorie said… I-I-I thought you weren’t real.”

The man gave a shrug. The woman grimaced, “This wouldn’t have happened if we were honest with you to begin with.”

“Honest?” Marjorie asked. “About what?”

The two creatures exchanged a look, then, the man gave a pained nod to his partner. She frowned, “The Matthews, the ones you believed lived beside you? We’re them.” A mutual “Huh?” escaped the Dunns. The creature claiming to be Mrs. Matthews explained, “We’ve lived her for a long time. A lot longer than the short life-span humans carry.”

“Problem is…” the man said. “Every few decades we have to change our appearance or else we draw suspicion. I mean, we can fool you with gradual aging, but eventually humans have to die.”

“We don’t die so easily,” the woman added.

“So clearly,” Marjorie said, overwhelmed.

Arvin shook off his guilt long enough to speak, “So… you’re telling me, you two are… what Aliens? And every sixty or seventy years you change your appearance to keep blending?”

The man’s features flickered from the handsome thirty-something to the wrinkled, white-haired countenance of Warner Matthews. “That’s the long and short of it, pal,” he said with Warner’s tell-tale buddyism.

“Warner?” Arvin said. “It really is you!”

The man morphed back into the thirty-something, gave a nod, “Yeah-huh.”

The woman explained to Marjorie directly, “We didn’t want to move away from our home, our friends. So we just pretended to. We’re still waiting on having the new furniture delivered– that’s why the house is empty.”

“But what about not seeing you?” Marjorie asked.

The man replied, “Just bad luck. We had the day off today. When you came in to examine the house we hid ourselves– the same way we trick you into seeing these forms instead of our true ones.”

“The trickery requires focus, concentration, that’s why you saw him when he was shot,” the would-be Darlene said.

“My god,” Arvin said. “You really are our neighbors then.”

The young man chuckled, already almost fully head, “Yep, that’s us.”

“Can you ever forgive me for shooting you?”

Warner smiled, “You’re my friend, Arv and I couldn’t trick your wife and you together yet. It was as much my doing as yours. I wasn’t sure if I should tell you everything, and I’d’ve had to after we saw Marjorie break in earlier.”

“So… it’s really my fault, isn’t it?” Marjorie asked.

“Let’s just say,” Darlene began. “Everyone made mistakes.”

The human couple swallowed hard and exchanged a look. Arvin glanced up at his extra-earthly neighbor, “Lemme’ at least make it up to you. I got some steaks and some beer, we’ll have a cook-out– just like old times.”

Darlene and Warner exchanged a laugh, the latter nodded, “You’re on pal.”