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.

Short Story: Sprawl Life

They strolled down one of the sprawl’s side-streets. It was a typical city image; neon signs and LED billboards atop shades of gray that afflicted your teeth with the tastes of grit, gravel and sand. Her natural, left arm was linked in his right, cybernetic one. He’d elected to have it to harness the advanced tech and its strength. He was already built like a Mack truck, and hit like one too, but the fresh chrome and carbon fiber completed the look. Taking the street-name Mack didn’t hurt either.

Conversely, she looked as intimidating as the moniker she’d taken on. Rabbit wasn’t sure whether she loved or hated Mack, but walked arm in arm with him all the same. She did it with a saunter that accented a tight ass in even tighter leather pants. They matched Mack’s leather biker jacket, its chrome zippers identical to the glints of silver in her nose, lip, and ears. The only thing that made them stick out like a sore thumb was Rabbit’s hair; shaved clean on one side with the other a wave of bangs and electric-blue.

A few cars whizzed past spewing exhaust– old, manual things. The new auto vehicles weren’t common around these parts, unless you counted vans with massive corp-logos emblazoned on their sides. Corps or cops, same problem in a different wrapper.

Rabbit steered Mack into a diner. It was as ancient as the waitress that came to take their order. The owner seemed to have made it a point not to let the place get cleaned. It had a retro, 1950s feel, beneath a layer of vintage dirt and grime worse than the street’s.

Mack stared out a window from a booth while they waited for their bacon and eggs. The place may’ve been a pit, but it was one of the few that could still get their hands on the real thing. Rabbit had even speculated the owner raised and slaughtered his own pigs. Judging by the floors and walls, it wasn’t that wild a theory.

Outside the sun peeked through deep, dark clouds, then immediately hid away again. The first of the rain came down immediately after. Buckets poured beneath their mutual silence. It wasn’t for lack of words, but rather protection form the hellish hangovers they both had. Any sound made their heads echo like chasms. Only the place’s paint-thinning coffee could force away the pain. At least usually anyhow, today seemed like a different story.

Rabbit was half-way through her second cup when she realized something about the day was off. It was one of those gut-feelings that said it was best to crawl back into bed, pull the mylar covers over her head, and hide.

She couldn’t though. There was a lot to be done. She’d probably see the sunrise again before it was all over– or at least what counted for one. Sprawl-life was like that, there wasn’t sun, just smog and rain. Even if there had been sun, she still wouldn’t see it beyond the sporadic times she ended up in the diner, with or without Mack.

Once breakfast was finished, the waitress ambled over with her aged gait, poured one last cup of coffee for each of them. She tore the check from a yellowed pad, slid it across the table, and returned to the bar-counter across the diner. The woman stood sentinel at the register, unmoving until Rabbit approached moments later, one cup of coffee fuller. She waved a USB stick over the RF reader, verified her various bank account details. The reader was old enough to have retained a debit card slot, but read the cred-stick without hassle. Bit currency was a God-send, especially for miscreants like her.

Mack met her at the door. They stepped out to smoke. Rain still poured down, splattered their sneakers as they nestled against the building’s front beneath its awning. Rabbit deliberately leaned against the “no smoking within 8 feet” sign, and let the rain draw her mind along with its polyrhythms. There was a definite sprawl-way to the rain. It wasn’t like in the rural areas– if there technically were any anymore– the wind didn’t hit the city the same way so the rain developed its own way of falling. It always seemed to have polyrhythms and rests with distant, syncopated drumming behind it.

Rabbit sympathized. Life here was all about falling gracefully, hitting the ground as softly as possible, or with both feet and running, whichever was needed.

An old-era Ford thundered to a squealing stop in front of them. Three guys got out, tatted up where they weren’t gleaming with chrome, carbon-fiber, or leather. Rabbit and Mack both watched the last guy in line, who walked with a stiff, left, cyber-arm against an otherwise billowing trench-coat.

The three guys passed Rabbit and Mack without a second look, stepped inside. The two exchanged a glance. They didn’t need the still-running Ford to tell them what was going on. Rabbit gave a heavy sigh, and pulled open the door in dejection. Mack rolled his eyes, stepped in ahead of her.

The moron with the stiff arm now had both locked before him with a sawed-off boomer in them. He shouted at the old lady whom hurriedly transferred creds to a stick in the register.

“Alright,” Mack said with a grim scowl. “Who’s first?”

The guy with the shotgun kept aimed on the woman. One of the other morons spun ’round with an S&W .44 aimed for Mack’s head.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Rabbit warned. “Give the old lay back her cash while you’re at it.”

“The fuck you say blue?” The third moron demanded. He swiveled with a 1911 in-hand.

Rabbit gave Mack a look, then heaved another, colossal sigh, “Alright. Fine. Have it your way.”

Before they could react, Rabbit had the shotgunner on the ground, boomer in hand. She gave a heavy, booted kick to the guy’s head, aimed for the guy with the 1911. Mack unleashed his semi-truck force with a lunge, knocked the S&W wielder out cold. Mack wasn’t sure, but he might’ve given his brain a jolt; blood leaked from an ear and a nostril.

The third guy shook a little. His hand swayed. Rabbit shook her head. His eyes darted between her and Mack. His finger tapped the trigger. The sawed-off boomed. He was dead on the ground, half his guts missing, before he squeezed.

A stray round hit an overhead tile, buit Rabbit tossed Mack the sawed-off, retrieved the two pistols from the dead morons. She nodded to the old lady who’d fallen into a chair behind the counter, shaking and hoping to recover her wits.

“For next time,” Rabbit said casually, sliding the 1911 across the counter. “See you.”

She and Mack left nonchalantly. There was too much to do to hang around. It was all just another day of sprawl-life, nothing special– even if it was her birthday.

Short Story: Eternal Optimists

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Paris Incident by now. Who hasn’t? It was the sole trigger to the single greatest atrocity in modern history– and I speak as a German whom hasn’t forgotten her history. The Corps may have purged the bombings from the light ‘net and the media archives, but where I’m from, we still live with it. Everyday.

I wake up to a half-leveled horizon outside my window. There’s always frost there when the sun comes up. It doesn’t help that we have no heat in the building. Unless you count barrels of fire as heating. I don’t. After I eat whatever I’ve scrounged up or gathered from the air-drops by neighboring rebels or surviving humanitarian organizations, I head downstairs to the book store I live above.

Funny how some things never quite go out of style. For decades there were people who said that print media was dead. E-readers and web-books were supposed to make the written word obsolete. I can only laugh at the thought– one of few that elicits such emotion nowadays. Those people never realized you couldn’t use e-readers without electricity, or god forbid, the internet.

I miss the light ‘net. All we get around here’s the dark-net, and that’s used for encrypted communications between rebel cells. We simply can’t risk linking the light-net to any of the people here. The few that even have access are lucky. Most of them rigged scavenged-solar cells to old, power-hungry laptops provided by various cells around the continent. Most are grateful, but it makes me feel like we’re a charity case.

Imagine that, all of Berlin, once a powerful seat of progress in a technologically-minded country like Germany, groveling for scraps and hand-outs. There are probably only a few thousand of us left now. The corp-bombings saw to that. When Lemaire fell, and Paris burst into flames, London and Berlin were next in line. There were other places too, but most were small– too small to notice when they were wiped out completely.

But as a haven of technology and free-thought, instilled since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had the greatest concentration of Augs– that is to say Cybernetic or bionically augmented humans. Whoever wasn’t directly an Aug, was an “Aug-sympathizer.” Everyone knew that, including the corps. So when the proverbial sheisse hit the fan, everyone was splattered with it. When I say that, what I mean is; after two weeks of battling on the streets in major cities around the globe, the offended players banded together to bomb the rest of us back to the stone age. Literally.

Berlin got the worst of it. If there’s any solace to be take from our fate, it’s that we managed to wound the corps’ bottom lines enough to push them out of Germany altogether. We’d taken over most of their buildings, destroyed the rest, cut down those whom sided against us in the fighting. Most were slayed by the waves of bodies that filed through the burning streets.

We Germans have a way of being ruthless to a point of barbarism at times– not from a lack of humanity, quite the opposite in fact. We care so deeply and passionately about things that our natural ambitiousness makes us too strong-headed and hardhearted at the worst of times. Maybe if we weren’t so consumed by our ambitions then, we’d have stopped to look around at what was happening, or sensed what was about to.

Maybe if we weren’t so enamored with listening to our hearts we’d have heard the Raptor-cries. Maybe even, if we hadn’t been so loving of our augged brothers and sisters– whether literal or figurative– we’d have been righteously hardhearted enough to save ourselves.

But we weren’t. We were eternally the optimists. The same people whom, even generations later, were socially guilt-ridden for Hitler’s actions and determined to make up for it. Each of us felt the shame of World War II, promised not to repeat the mistakes that led to it. Somehow, we still let the corps take charge, and until they began their Nazi-esque campaign of extermination against the Augs, we supported them.

That was the issue though. It always has been for us. We let the evil into our hearts with open arms, ever-believing in the good of Humanity. Instead, we’re soon shown to have been manipulated, our love used against us and those that would otherwise truly deserve it.

The first bombs that fell over Europe targeted three, initial cities; Paris, where it all began; London, where the revolution looked to spread most violently, and Berlin, where the Augs that wouldn’t or couldn’t fight were likely to find sanctuary.

Raptors screamed over Europe with their hard-angled noses spitting chain-gun fire and their rounded bellies splitting to unleash hell. In minutes, any hope for a life in Berlin– for Aug or otherwise– was exterminated, burned to dust in the fires of evil. Before the sun rose the next morning, tens of thousands were dead or dying. Those not killed or critically wounded– and even then some– were distraught, chaotically confused. They tried to save what few they could. Everywhere you went it was like standing in a crowded metro whose noise and movements made you want to cower and weep. Many did. A few couldn’t take it, led themselves out.

I was eighteen when the bombs fell, just into university. I was just old enough to drink, and just young enough to feel the last of my innocence dissected from my heart. It was like I’d been given bypass surgery without anesthetic. The sharpness of grief in my chest was omnipresent in those days, punctuated by the stabbing sounds of rubble as we combed for survivors and dead alike. Most found were the latter.

I remember the worst of it, not because of the grisly scene, but because it was the first time I felt hatred. Hatred is something humans speak of out of anger most times. It is often despair masked by the ego to keep one’s image intact. This was different. This was real, pure hatred; a feeling that filled my mouth with a wetness as though I were goring the throat of a foe with my teeth. From there, it infected my being with a sharpened determination, a strength I have not lost since. It has kept my muscles taught when they should have faltered in fear, steadied my hands when they would have trembled with terror.

I saw a young girl curled in her bed. We’d dug a path to her grave from beneath the collapsed upper-floor of her apartment building. Everything around us was charred black. We were forced to don respirators from the dust and stink of days old, immolated flesh. Then I saw her; curled in her bed as if sleeping peacefully, but where her skin should be was the marred, blackened flesh of a war-crime. She was like one of those Pompeiian victims, forever frozen in her death-pose.

I am a healer, a medic, a surgeon and I feel no shame in admitting I have a strong stomach. I have seen things that could bring the strongest men and women to tears and pained retching. Most of the time, I’m forced to power through them for the sake of the victims– my patients– and I do so. This was so awful I stumbled away in tears and vomited all the grief that I’d held back since the attacks.

Every morning I wake up she occupies my thoughts. Even as I go down through the bookstore, and out into street I think of how she was stolen from this world. She could have been my daughter had I not been more careful. At that, she could have been me if the bombs had been dropped only a few years further beyond than that.

So I walk along the street, largely clear of its debris, and watch the city around me with her in mind. It still has the look of the blitzkrieg turning in on itself. Full, corporate towers are replaced by mounds of rubble, steel and concrete land-fills. Nature has done its best to reclaim the rest while we keep it enough at bay to carry on in our missions.

To that end, my part is simple; keep people alive. I do it for her. Most that come to my clinic down the street are badly injured, either from work-accidents, refugee status, or as acting rebels for the cause. Germany is not without its remaining corporate outposts, but even they steer clear of Berlin. I guess it’s to pick their battles. They already took our government away, any representation or sympathy therein gone with it. Maybe they let us live just to remind the world that, while there may be a place for Augs to hide, it is still due to their good graces.

All the same, every morning I rise for her. The hatred of her image never falters or fails to arouse my determination. So I leave, patch up those whom may one day lead us from darkness and into light. While Lemaire’s death may have caused everything, an unwitting catalyst to a global revolution, it was us that let it happen– the survivors. Whether from our own convictions, or a greater cause, we can not allow ourselves to fall again. At least for us Germans, we’re eternally optimists, believing in a better world with heads even stronger than our unshakable hearts, and finally working toward it.