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.

Short Story: The True Patriot

His fingers flew over the keys with pointed urgency in place of agility. Normally, he might take his time, savor each string of code written or command entered. Today, he was only concerned with finishing before the clock hit ten-to-five. If it did, the entire plan would be shot, and he’d have to return to his handlers with nothing, forced to slog through one more day where his ruse might falter.

His name was Shane Yates; a nobody, low-level programmer working for the largest tech firm in the known world. Arc Systems was the number one creator and distributor of mobility and security software for cybernetic augments and prosthetics. Shane had written code for them on everything from Optical HUD augs to bionic-limb movements. Most every major augment on the market had some of strings of his work in them. All the same, he lived on minimum wage, ate day old leftovers, and showered in cold water with the lights off.

Such was the nature of the US after the Corporate Take-over displaced the Government as the country’s overseer. Unlike London or Paris, where silent or violent revolutions were taking place, the US had willingly allowed the take-over. The population had been pacified by a bolstered economy that allowed higher-wages, lowered cost of living, and faster, freer internet porn. Even to those that were awake, aware, the revelation that the Corps were taking over was nothing new. Most didn’t care. Those that did, found themselves as an extreme minority.

All of that changed with the Corporate Accountability Act; a ratification to the US Constitution that gave corporations all the rights of individual people with none of the responsibilities nor– contrary to its name– legal accountability of the people. In essence, the CAA allowed Corporations the right to do anything a person could without fear of reprisal. In America, that meant espionage, sabotage, and the lobbying of political figures for one purpose or another. It wasn’t long before the government’s power was almost wholly transferred to the few, corporate boards that already controlled its economy.

Shortly after, the US militaries were absorbed into local branches of Corps whose headquarters were scattered around the globe. A few, smaller businesses still remained here and there, but only through the laziness of the thirteen, global corporations that couldn’t be bothered with things like dry-cleaning or pizza delivery.

Shane was one of the “lucky” few who managed to keep their job when that American Dream turned into a seedy nightmare. The Corps’ lobbying power was unmatched, their only concerns their competition with one another. Their money lined the pockets of every politician until they nearly drowned in a sea of their own materialism. Then, once sated by the glitz of the money offered, they blindly ratified new bills and laws so filled with legalese even lawyers couldn’t properly discern them.

Everything changed then; the CAA led to power for the Corps whom corrupted the government until it was, quite literally, useless. All the same, a few, minor acronym agencies managed to survive the obsolescence of their governing system. One of those few, was the CIA.

Though its funding had been cut, and its duties merged with that of the maligned and poorly perceived NSA, it still largely functioned as intended. In an era where Corporate-Security was both police and national defense, surveillance was more invasive than even most, high-level Corp employees knew. With its coverage, the CIA remained powerful enough to act as the last investigative body and line of defense against any threats, internal or otherwise, to America’s sovereignty.

With that in mind, it was of the utmost importance they procure the work passed off to Shane; next-generation augment-software that controlled small, embedded magnetic fields and cameras to create true-to-life invisibility. With the magnetic field capable of masking both thermal and motion-sensors, as well as deceiving both human and electronic eyes, there was no end to the possible applications– whether for a national spy agency or a rogue, terrorist force. More importantly though, Shane wanted out, and the CIA knew that.

Shane had always been a simple person. After graduating from College, he’d been happy just to get a job. The nature of the world was soon revealed to him though. He began to slave away each day for less pay than he was worth. The bolstered economy showed its true face then. It was little more than a facade to keep the people in-line, give them enough to live on but not to become overly roused by passions or pass-times.

Unlike most other countries, whose digital currencies were still worth something, the US’ digital dollar was mostly useless outside a few, non-corporate shops. Otherwise, everything was calculated in terms of debt. What had once been credit-card balances became life-debts; the amount owed to any corporation by an individual that had “charged” anything. When first introduced, the idea was meant to help repay a surplus National Debt from decades of war, but like everything else, it too became yet another collar and chain around the peoples’ necks.

The CIA approached Shane on a park bench. It was one of the gray-afternoons he’d come to expect of his rare days off. He sat alone, staring, with hazel eyes glazed over by the ferocity of his exhaustion. A man sat next to him with mirrored, wrap-around sunglasses.

“Don’t get up,” he instructed. “Don’t make eye-contact. We’re being surveilled, but I’ve managed to deploy a net to interfere with any audio devices. We have two minutes.”

Shane’s mind was dulled, but intrigued. He kept his eyes forward, “Who are you?”

“Who I am isn’t important,” the man replied over a gust of cold wind. A casual glance swept the the park ahead as he continued, “What I want is simple; your employers have something you will receive. I need you to copy it, then corrupt everything they have on it.”

Shane’s eyes widened, his neck locked against turns for fear of reprisal, “Are you insane? Why would I do that? I’ll lose my job, and Corp-Sec will murder me.”

“My people have been watching you,” the man explained quietly. “Like many others, you’re not happy with the state of the country. You can decide, here and now, whether you’ll be one of the few that does something about it.”

Shane swallowed hard, “What’s my incentive?”

The man checked his wrist-watch, replied, “Let’s just say, our government still has enough support that you can choose to start fresh anywhere you want, as whomever you want.” He rose to button his long coat, readied to walk away, “If you choose to help, we’ll contact you.”

“How will you know?”

He began to walk away, “We’ll know.”

And so he sat, one week to the day later, at his desk. His eyes darted between the clock and the progress bar on his screen. It crawled forward as it copied the gigs of data the software represented. The seconds ticked away. At ten to five he was expected to be up, ready to clock out with all of the other wage-slaves like him. The progress bar jumped to completion. He sighed relief, exchanged the USB drive for another, and shut off the screen to his computer.

A few minutes later Shane was in the street, waiting for the bus. About now, the auto-injection computer virus contained on the second flash-drive had finished uploading. It would be unfurling its corruption through Arc Systems’ servers.

A man in a fedora and black overcoat appeared. He walked toward Shane with mirrored sunglasses and a hand stiff at his side. Shane palmed the flash-drive in his right hand. The man brushed past him and with a sleight of hand, took the drive from Shane to disappear into the crowd.

The large, electric bus rolled quietly into place. Shane Yates entered the bus for the last time that afternoon. Who he had been was gone, and who he was to become hadn’t been decided yet. In time though, the CIA would repay the man that had turned against his masters, helped ensure the sovereignty of his homeland. No matter what the Corps would call him, he was a true patriot, willing to cross the line, give up everything when his country asked him to.

Short Story: Modern Day Trojan Horse

England had become a police state. It was all over the news; coppers in riot gear, clouds of tear gas, the city on fire. London burned. It wasn’t the first time. No-one was fool enough to believe it would be the last either. Nothing could stop burning, not then. Hell, maybe not ever.

It had started in Paris, with something called the Paris Incident. Basically, every cybernetic and bionically augmented person in Paris had finally had enough. They rallied to march on the city of light, waving banners to protest the corporate occupation there. Every major corp had some outlet in Paris then, still do now– almost makes everything that came after seem pointless.

The numbers were never officially recognized, but everyone saw it; thousands and thousands of people clustered butt-to-gut together, stomping their way through the city. They chanted, thrust signs upward; some with obvious bionics, others with theirs carefully concealed by proto-plastics that resembled skin. Still more were bone and flesh, normal humans fed up with the mistreatment of their friends, family, lovers. If they’d know then what was about to happen, maybe they would have run. Hell, maybe they wouldn’t have. Maybe it would have made them all the more determined to stand their ground, and they would have made a difference.

What sparked their tempers was a string of bad decisions that even today no-one understands. I know I don’t. Though the Augs had rallied behind a single image, an icon, for what became known as the Paris Incident, each of them had their own reasons to be there. Renee Lemaire was just the tip of the iceberg, a rally cry for a people already subjugated, oppressed. She’d supposedly been murdered after it had been discovered that her neural augs had been activated without her knowledge. Simply put, she was brain-hacked by some entity to do their dirty, wet-work. The casual observer of her eventually-public revelation would have blamed the French Government, but everyone else knew the Corps ran the government.

Even before she was killed in a car-bomb, supposedly another “tragic loss” for Locust Group Inc, her employers, the augs had long been mistreated. Corporate Security had taken over the streets of Paris in the years preceding the event, were particularly prejudiced against augs. Corp-sec had developed a strict beat-first, question-later policy. Just about every Aug in Paris had felt some measure of that prejudice.

So what the French had was a largely lawless flame burning in the hands of the Corps, and a powder keg of resentment in the form of mistreated, augmented humans. There was no way that shite wouldn’t catch, explode, and blow a few thousand people the hell. Christ, these people were the very reason half those corps had as much power as they did. Almost every Corp had some stake in physical or cyber augments. Half were even software providers for Neural and prosthetic augs from the other half. Still their own people were prejudiced against them. It was almost dizzying the level of hypocrisy: the augs kept the Corps in business, and the Corps paid corp-sec the augs’ money to beat ’em senseless.

I guess we should have expected the fucking horror show that came. Everyone had Lemaire as their symbol, but in their own ways, they each had their “Lemaire moments”– those times where because of what they were, or were associated with, they’d been looked down upon. Usually that downward look came from the end of a corp-sec barrel or fist. For those lucky few that escaped unscathed, the look came from at least atop a high-horse, however rare that was.

After the initial march began, it was clear that corp-sec wasn’t going to be able to contain thousands of people to the streets. Damn near all out chaos broke out then. No-one was sure what happened first– if someone threw a punch, a rock, a bullet and then corp-sec responded, or vice-versea– but it wasn’t long before they tear-gas was nearly choking people to death, and others were dead or bleeding from random shots fired into the crowds.

Paris became an all out blood-bath. Augs and norms alike were attacking corp-sec, corp-sec was attacking everyone not in their color uniform, and anyone not being attacked was fleeing before they were. I happen to know for a fact Aries Security Corp even took out a couple of Warhound Protection squads in the insanity. Whether this was an accident or just an opportunity to dent a rival corp’s bottom-line, no-one but the corps could say. Let’s face it though, if corps could talk, they still wouldn’t give a shit about telling the truth.

What I can say is that the blood bath didn’t end for almost two straight weeks. There was nearly a full-on civil war that raged after those first shots were fired. It was a while of people attacking corp-sec on hit-and-runs before they rallied to fight back… fight back, right. What the corps did would be classified as a war-crime if there were any governments left to charge them.

Basically, the corps banded together for once. A terrifying thought for a group hell-bent on cutting each other’s throats at every opportunity they got. Clearly it was in everyone’s best interests to nip the bud before it bloomed though. I think even the augs would have quit while they were ahead if they knew what was to come.

The mega-conglomerate dropped a few special deliveries on the 14th night after the marches turned into a massacre. Both Aries and Warhound birds– supersonic jets composed of all menacing points and screaming turbines– flew in squadrons over twelve different districts of Paris. Each one was residential, outside the territory of the corp’s own housing buildings. The packages they delivered lit the night sky with fountains of blood and fire.

Everyone in the world saw that. The corps wanted us to. It was a message; those of us that wanted could rationalize the move however we chose, but the corps were in power. To go against them in such a way as the augs had was to risk their wrath. And if the news-vids were anything to go by, that wrath was smite and hell-fire.

Of course everything was “authorized,” and “sanctioned” by the various governments, but those of us that knew the truth about the governments didn’t even bother to listen. The battle was polarizing. To a point where countless cities rose up in attempts to kick the corps out or offer safe-haven to the augs, or even declare their allegiance. Berlin was one of the safe-havens– notice past tense, was. To see it now, you’d almost think the blitzkrieg had turned on itself. I guess, in a way, it did.

London though, we’ve been of the first group. The uprising started roughly around the time the corps declared war on the people that didn’t serve them. Really, those people are slaves. They don’t have the same chains around their necks, or whips at their back, but crushing corporate debt and fear of stepping out of line work all the same.

I wish I could say I have hope, but I don’t. We’re really just trying to survive. We’re like Paris in a way; outlets of all the major corps nearby, and half our historic sky-line bombed to rubble. See, the thing is though, we’re English, so we don’t quite do things the same. We prefer to infiltrate the corps, poison them from the inside, then get out before the whole damned entity dry-heaves and withers.

I can’t help but straighten my tie in the mirror with a smug grin. I’m the Bond of the twenty-second century, and my evil villain’s my employer. I live large– as large as I can– off the corp while I sequester a little away for myself, or to the side for my comrades in the ghetto. I can’t help but feel a little sympathy for them, stuck in the damp and dank, wet cold while I’m riding penthouse suites to the bank. But I never forget my job here.

My counter-surveillance software makes sure too, that the corps don’t know I’m wired to the teeth with augs, neural and otherwise. One day, it will all be worth it. Until then, I just bide my time, feed a little information to the others like me. Or else, I fuck with the Corps a little more to keep them on their toes, keep them from watching when we extract someone important, or steal something to help us bring them down.

I’m like a modern day Judas and Trojan Horse all in one, and sooner or later, I’m gonna’ open up, bring this place to its fuckin’ knees. Lemaire might be dead, but the rally cry lives on. Whatever its purpose, I’m with the others; Viva Le Revolution!

Short Story: The Murder of an Angel

I found her wandering the Ginsu Corporate Japanese garden. I’d been called to the scene to address a public nuisance. Such is the way of our culture now that even this woman, goddess though she was, could not escape our surveillance drones nor there automatic report. Though she was non-violent, I knew from the report I received en-route, that I’d have to take her in. What I found when I arrived though…

The Ginsu Corp’s Japanese garden is an enormous courtyard in the center of a sky-scraper made of all modern, sleek angles, stainless steel trim, and large, open windows. That last bit seems the most important for what I found, but it was hardly on my mind when I entered from the lobby-side. The door there was designed to open and close like a sliding door, but was hidden in the windows to appear as one. Something about architects and their styles– or some such nonsense– made it necessary to hide the door.

There was a persistent, purposeful gurgle of water in the garden. A make-shift river was cut through its center with clever, hidden plumbing and a slow-trickling waterfall to the left side. The water would slip down those rocks endlessly, follow the twists and turns of its man-made banks, flow beneath a foot bridge in the middle, then exit somewhere far to the right to start the process again.

The few, Japanese Maples Ginsu had imported were delicately placed around the garden’s stone pathways and small clearings so as not to overshadow the countless foreign hedges, flowers, and ancient, potted bonsai-plants. Over the sky-scraper and through the foliage, the sun’s rays cut streaks through a mist that persisted over the area. It gave the garden an almost ethereal look.

It was surreal. There I stood in heavy, corp-sec armor with an LR-30 five-five-six in my hands, in a veritable garden of Eden. It was even more surreal when I made my silent progress to the footbridge, then clomped over it in my weighted gait into the Garden’s heart. Somewhere behind me a Koi jumped at one of the various water-dwelling insects. It landed with a splash that I missed but caught the ripples of. Even at the distance I could see the Koi in the river; they were massive, all manner of mixtures of orange, black, white. Some were wholly patterned, the rest mostly solid colors with speckles of others splattered across them. There must have been a few hundred that swirled through the water, added life to the already-teeming garden.

I found her a few paces from a split in the hedges. To say I was breath-taken would be an understatement. She sat in the dewy grass in one of those shining sun-rays that gleamed down from the heavens. The metaphor was all the more apt then. Her knees were drawn up, legs curled beneath her while she leaned on an arm. She glowed with an aura of the sunlight– or maybe it was her angelic features– while a hand pensively hung at the back of her neck. She stared upward in trance, as oblivious to me as I was of what was to come.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but it was enough to eventually rouse her curiosity. I should have said something, anything, but I knew I couldn’t. To add anything to the sounds of that low gurgle, distant, quiet birds, and the faint scent of fresh mist would have been blasphemous. Instead, I watched her. As if of her own volition and nothing else, she rose from the ground and angled toward me.

She was clad in little more than a transparent dress. It wasn’t a thing from any of the corp-owned stores in town. They’d have never allowed it. Even so, she wore it like a goddess, could have fit in with any of the old myths about ancient women whose beauty brought men and women their knees.

She tilted her platinum blonde head– which curiously seemed natural despite its impossibility– and drew a slow hand upward. My eyes caught the motion to see her pale skin beneath the dress, her body bared for the world, for me. The glow behind her gave an outline of something voluptuous to her already-transcendent beauty. It was difficult not to stare. Even so, something in the way her hand curled beneath the hard angles of her jaw made it seem as though she wished me to, took pleasure in it.

Imagine me, all corp-sec clad and rifle-toting ready to rain hell-fire on rebels and revolutionaries, being met with a match so fully inverse of myself– in appearance or otherwise. Surreal didn’t quite cut it anymore, if only because of the ethereal, extra-worldly magnificence before me. I was the beast in the metaphor, a perfectly sculpted image of terror, torture, and pain, and somehow I’d found beauty that brought me to my knees. Literally.

My rifle dropped from my hands first, the safety thankfully on. She was within arm’s reach, could see all the subtle curves of her supple breasts, perfectly-rounded hips, and the glistening green of her eyes. The left side of her head was shaved. The rest short but with bangs that angled around her forehead. The seemed to weight it into a tilt to one side, then drifted in the light breeze that made it over the gargantuan walls of the around us.

I met her eyes with a breathless, parted mouth. I was only vaguely aware of the people gathered around the garden and surveillance cameras. Most would be watching out of curiosity, others out of arousal. So repressed has our society become that this woman was committing a crime simply by existing. By then, I had forgotten my job there. She could have murdered me, if it meant only a touch from her unearthly wonder.

Our eyes were still locked when I fell to my knees. Her mouth formed a sadness then that still stabs my heart when I remember it. With a pair of nimble, silken fingers, she lifted me upward by the broad-underside of my chin. Her touch sent a shiver through my spine. I was ready to faint, so powerful was she.

Why what came next happened, I don’t know. Maybe she knew what was to come from it. Maybe, like I with her, she’d been captivated by something in me that I didn’t know existed. Or maybe she was as enthralled as I by the unseen, primal forces of lust and love that have allowed our species to propagate. Whatever it was, she gave a small shake of her head as I rose to full-height from the light pressure beneath my chin. Then, slowly, both of her soft hands rose to either side of my face. She pulled me into a long, deep kiss that nearly made me buckle again.

Her breath was hot, inviting, her tongue soft and trained like a dancer. Between us a slow, almost mournful ballet began. I’m not sure how long it lasted, but I never wanted it to end. My hands were warmed through my gloves at her hips while the breeze tousled the creased, see-through dress around them as its anchors.

I know she sensed what was to come. I felt it in a burst of passion that surged between us. If I had known though, I might have done something more. But all I knew was her; a glowing, pulsing beacon of beauty, love, and good in a world literally gone to hell. Outside that garden, there were a dozen different corps all vying to carve out the largest part of the world they could. Anyone that got in their way was labeled a traitor, dissenter, terrorist.

My job was to rid the world of those people, the undesirables. All I ever did was drive wedges between people and their families, murder the righteous, and taunt the rest into choosing sides in a war for the most basic of freedoms. I will never know her name, but I’m sure that she was all of those things and somehow… I couldn’t have done more than I did in that moment.

There was a sound like a someone shouting in the distance, but I didn’t hear it. Then a hiccup in the low gurgle. I was a million miles away, riding a beam of sunlight with a queen of stars. Her passion never faltered; not from the moment our lips met. It merely stopped as she slipped down my body, clutching at my armor. I was hit by reality like a freight-train ramming an unseen motorist off the tracks. Another apt metaphor that was just as bloody as my armor as she slipped away from me.

Before I knew it, she and I were surrounded by one of the Corp’s Emergency Response Squads. The ERS are guys sent in to “contain,” a “situation.” In other words, I didn’t do the job fast enough or well enough, and some assholes kicked down the door. They murdered an angel. I know no-one believes in that stuff anymore. Neither do I, really, but then again I never believed in love, or love at first sight either. I do believe in those last two now.

She bled to death in my arms. Her glowing gown was stained red from the exit wound in her chest. I was safe from my armor and its built-in kinetic compensators. I wish I hadn’t been. I’d have rather died there with her.

I held her, breathless tears welling in my bestial eyes. She never stopped smiling. Not even after the life left her eyes and her last breath eased from her chest and tore out my heart. I was arrested for indecent public conduct and displaying affection while on-duty. The latter was a reprimand, the former a felony.

I took my forty licks– corporate lashings that we all agreed to allow when we signed on with corp-sec. Why wouldn’t I? I was cold, numb, without feeling. I had become the very thing the corps always wanted out of us. It wasn’t until I realized that that I finally understood why she’d smiled even with a bullet through her heart and her life fading: she’d made a statement with her life, her death, and the moments leading to it. I was the punch-line to a joke about trying to remove the humanity from a human.

Even now I don’t mind. Every day I wake up in my dingy hovel, help more people to escape the prison-compounds the Corps have turned most cities into. I use my power, my authority, despite my Spartan living and appearance, to do the one thing I know she would approve of. I help people find feeling again, just as she did for me. Even if she didn’t love me, I loved her, and I’ll go to my grave doing everything to honor that. It took the murder of an angel to awaken me, but I’ll be damned if it was in vain.