Bonus Short Story: No Questions Asked

A news-vid blared on the television. It was an old, tube type. Manta wasn’t even sure how it got signals in the digital age. She didn’t need to be. It was like her; it did its job, no questions asked, and that was that. It was currently saying something about Aries Security Corporation’s CEO being missing. Manta turned over on the tattered old couch, groaned with a hangover, and tried to sit up.

Beer and whiskey bottles cascaded off of her and clattered onto the floor. Manta’s head was saved from the brain-melting noise by a series of fast food wrappers dampening the ruckus. It wouldn’t have been a problem were it not for the damned, vat-grown liver she’d been given after an accident. She’d been on retainer then with a corp, off-the-books of course, and when she wound up in hospital, the corp footed the bill. Auto accidents were a rarity these days. Few cars filled the roads, even fewer manually piloted.

So she’d been drunk, big deal. Locust Group still had had no right to go rooting around in her organs. Though if they hadn’t, she’d be dead of cirrhosis, or something-else alcohol related. That would’ve been fine by her. Billions of dead creatures over the years and not a single one had ever complained. Meanwhile, ten dentists couldn’t agree on what kind of toothpaste to use– although you could be certain it would be made by the corp that owned them, and the most expensive of the choices at that.

She sat upright, then fell forward in a hunch. Her head rang. Goddamn vat-grown organs. They could be engineered and catalyzed to literally grow overnight. In the morning, they’d be more robust than any natural-one that’s ever existed. Still, she wouldn’t wish it on her worst enemies.

She couldn’t get drunk, or rather could, but only with great difficulty. She could still smoke cigarettes, grass, and take pills– as long as their ingredients weren’t metabolized in the liver– and she’d get high, no problem.

But Drunk?

If she wanted to get drunk she had to spend damn near all her creds on beer and whiskey. Nightly. Forget trying to go out, that was a one-way ticket to the poor-house. The only thing that had somehow remained the same, or rather grew proportionally, was the morning-after hangover. It was like having an 18-wheeler roll half its wheels over your head, turn around, then do it again with the other half.

“Bastards,” she muttered habitually.

The corps had no right to go rooting around in her organs– or they shouldn’t have had one anyway. L-G, ASC, and the other head-honchos, managed to get all the rights of various state citizenships with none of the responsibilities. Manta had heard years ago of a “new world order;” this was it. Corps. Slang for corporations. In other words, big, hydra-like entities with more money and brown-nosing than a stripper’s asshole at a fetish-party.

Manta begrudgingly cursed life and her still-functioning organs, drug herself to her feet. Wading through the liquor bottles that covered the flat’s floor, she swayed, eyes half-closed, to the kitchenette. She went about the excruciatingly noisy process of making coffee– real coffee, one of the few luxuries of being used by one corp against another. It was always in her contract, at least since L-G’s “mandatory” organ replacement.

She leaned back against a counter, closed her eyes to open a comm-channel with her in-built augments. Another gift of the corps, this one a necessity even to her. Internal comms were encrypted to user specs, could be changed with one good session at a PC. Plus, when she wanted it, she got a HUD with everything imaginable. If something she could imagine wasn’t there, she’d just spend another session at a PC creating and uploading it.

A tone like a phone’s sounded. Then, a man’s voice, “Yeah?”

“Where d’you want the package?” Manta yawned.

“I’ll transfer a set of coordinates. Be there at Noon.”

The comm went dead and Manta knew he was gone. She flashed her HUD on to check the time. “10:28” was sequestered in a lower corner with a few, monitored vitals. It wouldn’t be long now. A small mail icon flashed in the HUD’s upper-left corner. She opened it mentally, linked its info to her GPS software. A mini-map appeared below the mail-icon. Waves of light rolled across it over a line that appeared, directing her through the city from her present location.

She sighed, downed a cup of coffee, then weaved through the bottle-filled floor for a door off the kitchen. She opened it to a small, cramped pantry. Instead of shelves of non-perishables and snack boxes, a man was curled up. He leaned to one side, hands bound, eyes covered by a swatch of cloth, and mouth duct-taped.

Manta nudged him with a foot, “Hey.” He jerked awake, yelling into the tape in a muffled attempt at intimidation. Manta shook her head, jabbed him with a booted toe, “Look, I don’t care what you’re saying. I’ve gotta’ job to do. You’re wanted across town, and I’m to deliver you there.”

The man cursed loud enough, that even muffled, Manta understood him. She jabbed him with a toe again, “Shut up and stand up. I’m too hung-over to pick you up.” The man slowly clawed his way up the wall. “Don’t worry, I can still kill you pretty easily. Benefits of augs and all that.”

He sneered a little beneath the duct-tape. She pulled him forward, got behind him to direct him. A few minutes later they were sitting side-by-side in a black, Hyper-Dyne sedan. The alley was empty, but its windows were tinted black to hide them from passersby anyhow. Manta keyed up her location, started the engine manually. They rolled out onto a main street. She wished for a working radio, but the corp-sedans never had them; it was extraneous, not cost-effective.

Instead she reached sideways, tore the duct-tape off the guy’s mouth. He instantly shouted, “You’ll never get away with this!”

She winced, blinked hard, head throbbing from the volume, “Christ man! I get it. You wanna’ be freed. I can’t do it. Sorry. We’ve gotta’ make our creds. All of us. Me included.”

“You’re going to kill me,” he growled angrily.

“No,” she countered reassuringly. “They might, but I won’t. Not part of the job description. There’s only one person I want dead most days– two when I’m really feeling my self-loathing.”

“You’re a nutjob.”

“And you’re an asshole, elitist, corp-CEO. D’you know what I could get for the bounty on you?” She asked pointedly. “I can guarantee you it’s a fuckuvalot more than what I’m getting for this job. But see, I’m not nuts, and wouldn’t do this without another corp covering me.”

“Oh yeah? Why’s that?” He asked crassly, though Manta detected morbid curiosity.

“You know as well as I do what’d happen to someone that just flies off the handle and starts taking out high-ranking corp execs.”

“No. I don’t. Enlighten me,” he said with an acidic tone.

She rolled her eyes, “The same thing the corps do to any threat they can’t buy off. Even if I managed to duck on corp-sec, I might as well be dead. None of my contacts would ever wanna’ work with me again. They’d be too afraid to be put in coffins themselves.”

She paused as she made a wide turn into an empty parking lot. The car rolled to a stop.

“So like I said, I won’t kill you. It’s them you gotta’ worry about.”

There was a momentary silence as he contemplated her sincerity. He was suddenly curious, casual, “Who are they?”

She cracked her window, lit a cigarette, shoved one in his mouth and lit it too. She exhaled a large plume, “I don’t know. Might be L-G. Maybe Arc Systems or Guardian L-L-C. Hell, it might even be someone in Aries gunning for your spot. I don’t know. I don’t care. I just do the job, get paid, and drink. No questions asked.”

A black van appeared beside them. It rolled to a stop and its back doors opened. A few, large men appeared. One moved for Manta’s window.

She snuffed out his cigarette. “Ride’s here.” The door opened and he was pulled out. “G’luck.”

She rolled down her window enough to be receive a usb-stick. It would be filled with a bit currency routing number to receive payment from. She’d slot it once she got home, get the other-half of her paycheck. The van’s doors slammed shut and the man at the window disappeared. The van rolled away.

Manta stayed long enough to finish her cigarette. For a moment she wondered what would happen to the guy. It wasn’t long before she remembered it didn’t matter. She didn’t ask questions, ever. She just did the job, got paid, and got drunk. It was the same indifference the corps used, and she didn’t mind emulating it, especially against them. Seeing as the first two acts of her mantra were complete, it was time for the third.

She started the engine, headed for the liquor store.

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Short Story: All in a Day’s Work

It was dark, dank. The whole place had a smell of mold and mildew. It was just like the places she’d hung around in her youth; abandoned basements with random, leaky pipes. The only difference was that she was above ground. A few hundred feet above it, actually. She wasn’t even sure what the hell could leak from this old junker. All she knew was that it was, and it felt more homely for it.

Izzy Merritt was twenty. She had all the markings of someone her age who’d lived with the streets and shadows as their home. Her brown dreadlocks, streaked with rainbow highlights, bore bone clasps and pipes interwoven with neutral colors. They accented the other, random objects like dyed feathers and random hemp twine. Enough piercings covered her face and ears for them to glint silver in passing, but not enough that any competed for view-time.

Her body bore the eccentricities of youth and street living too; rail-thin, almost emaciated. A sinuous strength said it spent as much time running from corps and cops as swaying to hypnotic trance beats. It had even infected her walk with a saunter that seemed crafted to tease and tantalize. Most would have called her a free spirit, though some derisively. Izzy, on the other hand, knew that was bullshit.

There was no such thing as freedom anymore. Not really. Either you fought the system, or it swallowed you whole. If there was anything Izzy was, it was a fighter. Maybe not physically, though she could hold her own, survive, but mentally. Brain-over-brawn attacks were just as effective, more so even, provided you knew what you were doing. At that, Izzy sure as hell knew what she was doing.

She presently stood in the bridge of a mostly hollowed-out freighter. Its gnarled corpse of steel and rust had come to rest in an ancient Tokyo harbor. CRTs for radar and informatics displays were still present in the place, despite being out of use for decades. Back in the day, they’d kept the ship on course or from running into others. Now they sat beneath layers of dust, puddles, and trash, as unused as any of the old gear like them. It was obvious the ship hadn’t run in decades.

Izzy figured as much. It was barely standing. It only remained above water because, aside from being taller than the harbor’s modest depth, it had come to a rest at a slight angle. Curiously enough, though it had been scrapped from roughly the mid-point to the stern, it remained sound enough to host a little street kid and her tech without much grief. She sensed she’d found something, if not permanent, temporary enough to call home.

The Bridge’s slight angle meant any thing cylindrical would roll away. She circumvented the issue by laying out her sleeping bag against the rear of a console. Ahead was another, but with enough space between them that she could lay out her bag and gear without issue.

She sat down, tattered backpack before her. She had a place to live now. Tokyo had been unforgiving lately, but it seemed karma was coming ’round to make her even again. Or at least, it would until she finished what she was about to do.

She dug through her pack for a laptop, set it on her lap. The odd protuberance of the battery in the rear bulged out awkwardly. The solar cell collector she’d installed was one of her own design, the battery it serviced even more-so. She’d created both to get around never having power outlets to jack into. The design and juice was more than ample, especially for what she was about to do.

She pulled up a list of net connections nearby, ran a brute-force software crack she’d designed. Thanks to the years of rising security, a WEP-key wasn’t difficult to crack anymore. Not for someone with a program like this. A command prompt opened, spooled out thousands of lines of code with each blink.

She pulled out a bag of Tokyo Cheeba to roll a joint and pass the time. Grass was easy to find now that most of the world had legalized it. Japan was still a ways behind in that regard, but it didn’t stop smugglers, traders, or everyday tourists from bringing the stuff in by the truck-full. It also made it easy for a street-kid to do five minutes of work, make it look like thirty, and walk away with a few ounces as payment for a job well done.

She sparked up the joint as the program cracked the WEP-key. The computer icon winked in the upper corner of her OS with a notification, “net connection complete on secure uplink: The Varden.”

It was one of the nearby freighters. She couldn’t say which, but calling a net connection something like that was what people hosting public access points did. “The this” or “the that,” or corp-name “guest network–” Things that only made them easier targets.

“Whatever,” she muttered for no reason in particular.

Her thoughts had been hectic lately, especially given her last “home” had been raided. She wasn’t the only one squatting there. In fact, she was one of a few dozen. Some asshole though, had got it in his head to mess with the Yakuza. Instead of just killing the guy outright, they’d sent in their corporate-security. Everyone scattered, scrambled for freedom– or rather, just fled. Some were gunned down. Others were arrested, printed, charged, and wouldn’t see daylight outside a corp-prison’s grounds for another twenty years, if ever.

She pulled up a pair of web browsers side-by side, fished a sheet of old-fashioned paper out of her pack. A list of numbers and words were scrawled on it, neatly spaced. With a series of quick clicks, she brought up logins for administrators of each of the sites. The banks would never know what happened. Her IP was masked, her MAC non-existent, and everything else identifying her a forged or stolen credential.

She flitted over to one window, keyed in an account number, then transferred a few thousand bitcoins into an account she’d memorized. She closed the window, repeated the process with the next, then closed it too. She slotted a chip into a reader on one side of the laptop, then keyed in a few commands on a prompt.

A few lines of code made a rubric with account numbers to one side, “transfer” in the middle, and a bit-currency amount to the right. The account balance below them read, “10,000;” somewhere around $500,000, if the US economy had ever survived.

She took a deep hit off her joint, shut the laptop, and kicked back. The banks could never trace the encryption on her bit-currency account– or any bit-currency account for that matter. That was the point. The black market functioned solely on that encryption, and there were a hell of a lot more people who wanted it that way than didn’t. Didn’t matter if they were on the corp’s side or not, bit-currency was here to stay, and so was the encryption.

She relaxed with a long exhale, felt the stoned haze descend. She gazed up at the dusty, dripping room, “It’ll work. With some new décor, anyhow.”

She laughed to herself. She could afford to buy a ship brand new now. But she wasn’t stupid. She wouldn’t blow all the creds at once.

She took another deep hit, exhaled slow, “All in a day’s work.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE LOGBOOK!

So here it is, a year since I began regularly posting to the Logbook. Essentially, a year since its birth. A lot’s been said, or rather typed, and I couldn’t be more pleased by the result. I’m eternally grateful to everyone who’s read my work. It always makes my day when I receive comments, likes, and follows, or see the stats page with its ever-growing numbers. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life but writing, and I sincerely hope the past year is just the start of things.

With all of that in mind, let’s get down to brass tacks: I’ve posted tons of work, and will continue to, but there’s something else lingering on the horizon– or rather, a few things. First and foremost is my book, The Omega Device.

For those unaware, I’ve written a book (several actually) that is about to be self-published. Why? Simply, I don’t care to wait for agents and publishers anymore. I’ve put over five years of blood, sweat, and yes even tears, into this book. It’s the culmination of a lot of things in my life. From the time of its first draft to now its final, I’ve struggled to find purchase as both a writer and a person. Now however, I feel I can take a leap of faith and maybe not splat on the ground quite so terribly as I might have before.

And that is largely due to all of you, readers.

The next thing, is the Logbook Archives. If you’re a regular to the site, or simply have explored beyond the main page, you may have seen the Logbook Archives page which lists all of my posted works. Its usually updated every few weeks. You may also have seen the previous posts where I’ve talked about collecting them into an ebook. Well I just want to assure everyone, that will soon be happening. It will be released shortly after The Omega Device, and will be found wherever it can be hosted.

Lastly, there is one other thing. I’ve always tried to refrain from talking too much about money. I don’t care for the subject, and it turns a lot of people off (myself included.) That said, it’s always going to be something I have to address as a starving artist-type. So to make it easier for all involved, in addition to my book release, I will also be starting a Patreon page for those who want to donate to keep me writing. (If you don’t want to donate, please disregard this and buy the book instead.)

Before I go, I also want to say; (though I don’t want to get too mushy, or personal, because as I’ve said, I prefer my writing to speak for itself.) It is extremely heartwarming and humbling to have put part of myself “out there” and not have it bludgeoned into oblivion. Most of my life I’ve struggled with extreme anxiety. For a writer, that’s a dangerous condition. Against my better self-preservation instincts, I began to post what I’d been working on for years. The confidence you, readers, have helped to impart has allowed me to continue on to new works that have surpassed even my wildest expectations.

As much as I do it for myself, I also write for all of you. I have a strangely, innate ability to distance myself from my work enough to read it as a reader might. I’ve found myself both laughing at and along with myself, being thrilled, suspended over precipices, and strung along excited with the rest of you. I continue to do what I do so that we can share in that together, even if part of me also does it to remain sane.

So before I belabor things too much (too late!) I want to say thank you, and I hope the next year’s even more fruitful than the last. Thank you for an amazing first year!

SMN

P.S: Just so you all know I’m not just talk, I present the cover to The Omega Device, coming soon to a digital bookstore near you! (I’m still in the process of purchasing the font rights, so don’t sue me.)

Coming Soon!

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: Crazy or Brilliant?

The Galileo Space Station hung like a massive caltrop over Earth. It could’ve been used in a game of cosmic-scale jacks. At one point, it had been small enough to miss spotting with the naked eye. Now though, it was a shining star nearly a fraction the size of a waning crescent moon. Built of modular pieces, it could expand theoretically expand forever. Given each section’s exterior was covered in radiation shielding, power-collecting solar cells, it would do so without much trouble on Humanity’s part.

Already it had long surpassed the sizes of the ISS and its descendants. In fact, if laid upright by one of the caltrop’s spines, it would be the tallest structure ever to grace the Earth. For now though, the honor of hosting it belonged to space alone. And there the SS Galileo (SSG)– as it was often humorously called– was merely one artificial wonder among the infinite natural ones.

Life on SSG was an exercise in zero-gravity discovery. At least for those whom found themselves on it later in life than usual. Those born there, like all the others, couldn’t imagine eating anything but ultra-processed foods, sleeping strapped to a wall with their bed-bag zipped around them, or moving in a sort of air-swimming they’d developed. That is, of course, to say nothing of the infinitely enhanced activities of courting and sex in zero-G.

But it was, everyone aboard new and old knew, an essential, long-term study of human space-living and its effects and influences. Unlike most newcomers, none of the dozens of children born aboard SSG– in extremely complicated c-sections– had ever felt dirt beneath their feet, true-rain on their face, or real wind on their bodies.

Like them though, Lisa Sterling was as near as normal a little girl growing up in space could be. She’d even managed to build an average set of muscles, that though sinuous and lanky, could’ve allowed her to pass for any Earther without need to hide anything. She’d taken to weight lifting and physical exercise at precisely the ages required by the physicians and enjoyed them. More importantly though, she’d also taken to– and overtaken at that– the knowledge-based courses required for any of the hundred jobs aboard the ever-growing SSG.

At only fourteen, she graduated high-school-level mathematics and language courses to college-level courses. Having found freedom in helping to fix broken bits of the SSG, she was summarily offered a job as a mechanic and carried out her first space-walk at fifteen– the youngest person in history to ever do so, and indeed possibly the only one that might.

It was a short time after her sixteenth birthday that she sat– or rather floated– in her bed, arms out to scribble equations across a digital data-pad. Tablet computers had long been utilized aboard SSG where space was at a premium and only the most important things could be written on their limited paper-supply.

She was scribbling out a series of trigonometric equations when something dawned on her. She suddenly scrolled away from the previous work to start fresh. There she wrote her first theory. Through the course of a full-night, the young girl, brimming with life yet to be lived, scribbled and scrawled and and drew and charted. By morning, she was exhausted, but exhilarated.

She immediately went to the Overseer, a man as old as any aboard and in charge of running every administrative aspect of the SSG. She presented her work to him as she simultaneously shook off lackeys that tried to keep her from his office.

“Mr. Minaret, I have something you should see,” she said in her high, crackling, teenaged voice.

“Hmm? Ah yes, Miss Sterling.”

He waved off his secretary and head resource manager. They turned away begrudgingly, air-swam to the door and out through it. Minaret offered her a place before his desk, sat behind it with a slip of a belt against himself. Lisa followed suit before the desk and settled as best she could against the chair and its restraints.

“Now what can I do for you, Miss Sterling?”

She handed over her data-pad. He looked over the first line with a, “hmm?

For a long time he said nothing else. In fact, it was so long, Lisa considered excusing herself, but knew she shouldn’t. She needed to be here when he finished. She needed him to look her in the eyes and either tell her she was crazy or brilliant.

Unaware of her inner-thoughts, Minaret instead lowered the tablet to his desk, unconsciously keeping it from floating away. He stared past Lisa with his mental gears visibly at work.

“Ab-so-lutely ingenius,” he muttered.

Lisa felt tension drain from her. She could’ve sworn she felt herself float a little higher off the chair than before.

A few months later, Lisa stood before her completed design– or at least, what of it could fit or function inside the SSG-shuttle she now occupied. The ship looked like a compacted version of the old shuttles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Indeed, if one had had its middle section removed, it would be identical to the ship she stood in. However, in the center of the rear cargo-hold, stood a curious contraption.

It was roughly four-feet tall, a equally as many deep. Its bottom half was like a 3D “X” that formed a plinth. From the X’s straight faces, tubes draped down into floor-panels, through the ship’s hull and into the vacuum outside. Via extensive fuel and electrical lines in them, the tubes fed a battery of engines formed around the shuttle’s rear. All of this was quite common, though not normally found in this section of the ship, nor indeed inside it at all.

Atop the X, stood Lisa’s contribution in a large, transparent cylinder. Through the cylinder’s center a thousand ultra-fine, superconductive filaments connected to a ring, in turn, suspended above a large hole that led into the fuel lines. Held tightly in the ring, was a jagged, blue stone like any other amorphously shaped rock. There was nothing inherently special about its milky, dirty look. It would’ve hardly even been worth a rock-polisher’s time.

It was, in fact, so much more than it appeared. Even a layman understood the importance of a new element added to the periodic table. That it had been created in a particle accelerator aboard the SSG by none other than sixteen year-old Lisa Sterling was little more than one more of its dozens of notable merits. Its most important one, however, was about to be tested.

Lisa double-checked the shuttle’s systems and locked down the its hatches. Seals hissed and inflated as she sat before the pilot’s controls. She’d spent a month alone learning how to fly the ship. The rest of the time– not spent building the contraption and its internal element– was spent convincing various worry-warts to allow her the test-flight alone. Seeing she would not be swayed, they could do little but acquiesce, no matter their arguments.

She ran through her pre-flight, then double-checked the straps that held her g-suited body into the shuttle’s command seat. She readied to decouple from the SSG.

“Everything’s in the green. I’m ready.”

A tense voice replied over her headset, “We read you, Sterling. Decouple when ready.”

“Decoupling now.”

She flicked a few switches, fired a short-burst thruster for a half-second. The Shuttle drifted harmlessly from its docking position.

“Coming about to get clear of Galileo,” she radioed.

One, in-built, flat-panel display that took the place of the pilot’s forward-window cycled through external camera views. It came to rest on one that simulated its position as if it were glass. The screen beside it was subdivided into nine views from various, other cameras that altogether gave a full image of the shuttle’s interior and exterior.

Through her forward display, Lisa watched as a few thruster bursts propelled her past the lengthy caltrop and into open space. She drifted aimlessly in vacuum, a slight spin to her momentum. She corrected to an imaginary, level-plane in her mind.

“I’m clear of the station. Preparing to fire the drive.”

“Roger that, Sterling,” the command center replied. “We’re all holding our breath down here.”

“Don’t pass out, Command, I’ll need you to dock,” she joked.

There was a laugh, and Command went quiet. She knew they were watching through an uplink aboard, but it was far from her mind.

With a deep, calming breath, she flicked up a red trigger-guard and threw a switch. Behind her, a hum rose to steady thrum.

“Holding so far, Command,” she radioed. No one replied. They were too tense. She knew why, and only worsened it with her next words, “Opening main fuel line and beginning burn.”

There was a hiss, not unlike a ruptured seal, and the thrum rose with a buzz. With a gentle, forward-press of a joystick, the shuttle lurched forward. Lisa was thrown back in her seat. No-one spoke or breathed.

Suddenly Lisa was shouting a long sustained, “woooh!” and laughing. It bled through her comm, shattered the tense silence. She barrel-rolled, looped, and zig-zagged to test the shuttle’s maneuverability, shouting excitement the whole way.

From an external view she saw Earth and the SSG as mere points on a horizon. Mars inched nearer with each minute. She aimed for it, five minutes later used its gravity to slingshot her around the planet and back toward Earth and the SSG. She was almost near the speed of light– not at it of course, but realistically as close as Humanity might ever get.

When she finally disembarked the shuttle, people were cheering, calling her the girl that conquered space. True as it was, and ecstatic as she was, Lisa thought of only one thing; she was either crazy or brilliant. Whichever it was, she had conquered space, opened its farthest reaches to a people long confined to one tiny planet, its moon, and its skies. No more, she thought, however crazy or brilliant.

The Collective: Part 10 (Conclusion)

10.

Retribution

Rachel had been right, the streets were total chaos. The diamond-formation the group took up as they walked was the only thing approaching order in all of Tokyo. Everywhere people rampaged back and forth, lingered on street corners, in building alcoves, each of them groggy, confused. Most were emaciated, death-camp refugees who’d only just escaped. It seemed too, every one bore at least some symptom of mania from addiction. They craved the ‘net like a junkie craved a fix, but there wasn’t a scrap of electro-dope to be found in all of Tokyo anymore.

The first armored transports they found were empty. Evidently the GSS had deployed before the pulse took out the city’s systems. Whomever had been en-route was no doubt now foot-bound, likely on the way to whatever rendezvous they’d been given. If Lex knew anything about the Collective’s two, remaining members, she knew the American head of GSS would be in-country to keep order.

James Hobbs’ cruelty was unmatched, by the Collective or otherwise. He’d been established the prisons and protocols for dealing with those that refused to sleep. He’d also ensured anyone whom survived those protocols lost a piece of themselves. More importantly, he personally saw to the interrogation and brutalization of Alexis Thorne.

He’d given her more than a few injuries himself. His own, bare hands, had intimidated and threatened her with every form of violence, and made good on some. Hobbs was a sadistic bastard Lex would ensure paid for his cruelties.

Finding him wasn’t nearly as hard as Lex thought it would be. Arrogance and over-confidence could be added to the list of the scumbag’s traits. He and his men had broadcast their location with gun-fire and explosions from a park-square near the city’s center. Lex and the others arrived at its perimeter through the herds that stampeded away like rats from a tidal-wave. What vehicles still worked formed a full barricade around the large square.

Marble statues gleamed like porcelain under flood-lights, powered by generators inside. The white-marble matched concrete walkways. Equally tinted, extra-wide planters were arranged around the flat square beside benches. Japanese Maples, Cherry and Plum Blossoms loomed beautifully over colorful hydrangeas, chrysanthemums, and morning glories. The palette of color on white was warmth against the black steel of vehicles and armed soldiers assembled or patrolling inside.

Lex had gathered her people for this. She’d sent runners to round everyone up. The ever-awakened made their way through the crowd on all sides of the square, marching as Lex was, Rachel beside her. In a moment, Lex and the others would strike with the fury of oppressed millions.

The crowd did its best to unwittingly thwart their advance, but each side reported through ear-comms. The city seemed to take a breath. Then, with the scream of APC guns, exhaled to fan flames of chaos and revolution.

The barricade of vehicles had turned on its owners. Twenty-five millimeter cannons diverted the tides of chaos from the crowd outside to the one inside. Generators exploded. Fuel lines spilled. Columns of fire sprayed in all directions. Ammunition caches were immolated. Stray bullets fired randomly, caused bodies to fall with those from the vehicles’ fire.

The square became a smoke-filled slaughter-house. The only light left was that of the vehicles’ muzzle flashes and growing flames. Men and women flashed through it. They tossed aside arms, fled, died, or huddled in terror. The APC’s guns beat a constant war-rhythm. Dying screams syncopated with splattering blood. The mayhem turned the newly-awakened into gawking statues.

All at once the guns went quiet. No-one on either side moved. All were still. Only a few cries from the dying broke the silence. They settled, soothed or dead, into nothingness. The last of the guns’ smoke rolled across the square, and a silhouette appeared. Blades pointed downward at its sides. A leather coat swirled behind it. Confident steps propelled it forward.

In the square’s center, a man rose from behind a planter, pistol in hand. The aged, graying features of the American hardened. His sweat-lined, dirt-covered face pulled taught defiantly. He emerged, outgunned and outnumbered, but with his weapon trained on the figure. A lean to his posture said he was ready to duck back if need be, but he sensed Lex’s presence was more a challenge than anything. She continued forward. Hobbs shouted throw down her weapons, warned of impending fire.

Rachel watched from atop an APC beside Ryo and Kaz. Another shout. Then, a three-count. A shot rang out. Both sides saw the silhouette hit. Blood sprayed shadows. Lex didn’t flinch. Ryo readied to radio for fire.

Rachel stopped him. “No,” she said, her voice pained, airy. “She has to do this herself.”

Hobbs yelled something Lex ignored. To either side she was merely a faceless warrior, a silhouette, as symbolic as anyone could hope for. No bullet could stop her now.

Another shout. A second bullet sprayed blood near Lex’s hip. She took the hit, fueled by adrenaline, warmed by leaking blood and vengeance. She marched in stance, blades hungry for their bounty. Awakened and soldier alike watched, afraid to breathe.

A grunt and a growl. Five more rounds littered Lex’s torso. Anyone else would have been dead. She should have been, but her body was no longer her own. It was fueled by revenge, justice for countless lost and aimless souls. An almost a collective gasp sounded when Hobbs emptied his magazine into Lex.

She kept walking. He was terrified.

In thirty years of special forces work, running GSS and its prison camps, and breaking its prisoners, he’d never once seen someone so wholly refuse to die. Her face emerged from smoke, stained orange and red from the fires at her sides. Her leather coat shined wet with blood while her clothing clung to her body, obvious even at-range. Fifteen holes leaked the last of her life from her, poor kill-shots each of them.

Hobbs cast the gun away, Lex at arm’s-length. He threw a punch. It was caught in her left arm. Her right sword’s hilt slammed his face. She twisted his arm until it crunched, dislocated. The right blade stab his left thigh, forced him to a half-kneel. His left hand grasped her left sword, managed to clench it. In a single move, the swords plunged through opposing flesh.

Lex didn’t budge. Hobbs’ eyes went wide. Blood began dribbled down his chin. With one, final rip, Lex tore the sword from her own abdomen. It thrust downward beside the other in Hobbs’ chest. His eyes rolled back. He slipped backward, dead.

Rachel bolted. Lex fell to her knees, slumped sideways, caught before she hit the ground.

“Lex!?” Rachel said, her composure cracking. She felt Lex’s blood coat her lower-half, “Lex? C’mon. No! No!”

A glimmer beside Rachel’s face twinkled in Lex’s vision, “Stars over Tokyo…” Lex met Rachel’s eyes. The last of the color drained from her face, “F-finish it.”

Ryo and the others approached slowly. Lex’s eyes shut with a final exhale. Rachel couldn’t help but nod, caress her hair while her eyes leaked tears. Her chest fluttered with sharp breaths.

She eased from beneath Lex, “I will, Lex. I p-promise.”

She laid Lex flat. The city eased into motion again. They closed-in somberly, soldier and awakened alike, to see the woman who’d defied death– even if for an instant. Rachel choked down tears, oblivious to the encroaching presence. She rose to her feet, legs strong as she stepped to Hobbs’ dead body.

With a resounding rip, she tore Lex’s swords from the body, “There is one member of the Collective left alive. We finish this– for Lex.”

***

It was a little over a month later. The awakened had only just begun to adjust to the world. Tokyo was already largely rebuilt from the chaos but the global economy was still in shambles. Most places were back to the barter system. Others were in full-blown civil war. A few however, like Monte Carlo were still civilized. There, most everything came on credit from fear or respect. It was only logical then, that the last member of the Collective had sought refuge in its coastal embrace.

He was a man older than time itself nowadays; Wei Zhou, former-chemist and researcher turned entrepreneur and billionaire mogul. He’d stumbled onto a formula to slow the aging process. He was the eldest, highest ranking member of the Collective. It had been his brain-child decades ago, before it could even be enacted. The man was cunningly clever, difficult as wet eel to pin down, and just as snake-like. The local mafioso protected him like their own, but even they feared the incise of dual blades.

Zhou sipped from a wine glass on a balcony that overlooked the Mediterranean sea. He wore a white sport-coat and slacks that blew in a mild wind above his tucked-in, black shirt. Between his sunglasses, panama hat, and the Gardenia in his lapel, he exuded all the intimidation and class of mafia Don himself.

He swirled the Cabarnet Sovignon in his glass, looked through it to check its color and consistency. The whole of the world around him was reflected in a deformed caricature, including a shadow.

He spoke french, “I said I was not to be disturbed.”

A hand whirled him around. His face met Rachel’s. The shock bucked the glass away. It shattered red wine across the balcony’s paver-stones.

She grit her teeth, “Alexis Thorne sends her regards.”

Lex’s blades pierced Zhou’s chest together. He fell to his knees, hat blown to the wind. He stared up, his white suit stained red. Rachel pulled the blades out. Zhou fell, dead. Rachel’s teeth ground with satisfaction. Lex’s blades whirled to fling blood away.

She turned to march away, comm active as she re-sheathed the blades, “It’s done.”

The Collective: Part 9

9.

Rude Awakening

The group returned to Tokyo unscathed. Nothing had changed; either the Collective wasn’t sure of the damage done yet, or they were expertly keeping it quiet. Lex guessed the latter. Rachel agreed; it was doubtful anyone in the Collective was willing to admit defeat, let alone when it spelled disaster for the world’s economy. Credits were still good for the moment, despite not being backed by anything hard, but the news would eventually get out.

Containment was one of the few things the Collective hadn’t been able to exert over the Sleepers. Their lives in the virtual worlds were all connected by RSS-feeds, news blotters, chat-logs, forums; information flowed freely through them all. The Collective had learned the hard way long ago that the more one attempted to manipulate its flow, the more pressurized it became. All the same, contingencies would be enacted to keep people from waking, rioting once the news got out. Lex aimed to make any countermeasures pointless.

She and the others were ready to move almost as soon as they reached Tokyo’s limits. The deaths of Steinsson and Andersson would ensure that the final, few members of the Collective were even more heavily-guarded than the last. Without a doubt there’d be whole GSS contingents between the remaining four members of the Collective and Lex’s group.

They were secondary targets now though. The main targets were already sighted, and their last asset was ready to take the playing field. He’d been informed of his duties on return from Switzerland, all relevant information transferred to him. His allegiance had been assured by the murders of Li and Kay before him, the continued deaths of the Collective further ensured he would honor their deal. Regardless, it wouldn’t be long before the Sleepers woke, with or without him.

Lex and the others piled out of the van long enough to eat, rest, and await nightfall. They vacated a hideaway beneath Tokyo’s streets as the last rays of sunshine were snuffed out, gave way to Tokyo’s neon, light-polluted glow.

Lex led the way through alleys toward their destination. Vehicles were too easy to track given their sore-thumbed obviousness on empty streets. They were easily concealed along the surface all the way to the target building; a giant, server-storage site that stole most of the nearby real-estate with an impressive expanse. It looked about as futuristic as it was; all angles with windows that formed an upward curve along two-thirds of its front, ended with the lowest third’s roof. The rest of the building rose like a giant, crystal chrysalis into the sky. If Lex had to guess, she’d have said there were roughly a hundred and twenty floors between the lobby and the roof. At its very top would be her targets.

She split off from Rachel and the others at the rear-entrance. There was an almost mournful look in the latter’s eyes, but both women knew there was nothing to be done about it. Rachel was needed elsewhere and Lex’s assignment was something she needed to do herself.

She stealthed her way through empty, service hallways. The narrow paths cut through the building’s interior to a grand lobby. Granite floors and marble-topped half-circle reception-desk sat beneath a quarter-wall that split the lobby in half, extended sky ward to the crest of the curved windows. The Global Entertainment logo of a wire-frame globe with solid continents stared down.

Lex passed it, careful not to be caught on any of the dozens of cameras around, and skirted the walls for the elevators at the back of the lobby. She stepped inside an elevator to await the signal, watched a small LED screen glow with an animated version of the globe-logo. It flashed to a face and Lex’s eyes narrowed on the man she’d ordered to speak for the Collective.

His Japanese features were obvious, pristine, but he hadn’t been glitzed with make-up– the sweat that gleamed off his face said as much. In fact, Lex knew for certain he was hiding in a hole, broadcasting through a remote up-link the team maintained from a server-room.

He cleared his throat, “On behalf of Global Entertainment, I would like to speak with you, our loyal audience, for a moment.” Japanese subtitles repeated his words in character script as Lex’s jaw tightened. “Two days ago, the final reserves of Platinum and Gold bullion that back our digital currency were destroyed. For those that do not know, it is these reserves that all money is based off. In effect, our entire economy has been eradicated.”

Lex quit listening. By now there would be chaos across the ‘net. The two Collective’s members on-site, heads of tech Kazue Matsuoka and her lover Maja Stroman, would be scrambling to shut down the link, confused as to why they couldn’t. Lex hit a button for the top-floor penthouse. The elevator lurched upward. She was the distraction, meant to buy time to finish the broadcast, enact the final part of their plan.

Lex touched a communicator in her ear, “I’m moving up.”

Rachel looked back at Ryo as he hunched over a keyboard on the edge of a floor-full of servers. He pressed his ear as he worked, “The broadcast is thirty seconds out. I’m hacking the system now. You’ll be the only functioning elevator. There’s a whole contingent in the penthouse. Be ready.”

Lex’s hands clenched into fists, “Just get it done.”

Rachel cast a look between Yang-Lee and Kaz, racked the bolt on a GSS rifle, “Here we go.”

The elevator-doors opened at the penthouse floor. Twelve rifles lit up the insides. For a moment there was nothing but the sounds of sustained fire. Someone shouted something in Japanese, and it stopped. The squad leader pointed to two of his team, sent them in to scour the elevator with a pair of gestures. They inched forward, leaned into their rifles, with rigid bodies. The rifles swept left and right inside, up and down, found nothing. They relaxed in confusion, turned back to face the rest of the squad.

The squad’s arms lowered. A near-silent of metal on fabric swished. Lex’s boots slammed a vent cover atop the elevator. She plunged through, landed blades-out. The swords angled up, stabbed in at the spines of both men. Blood sprayed from punctures as the blades pierced their fronts. Rifles rose again, chattered against Lex’s double-wide meat-shield.

Holes riddled the dead men. The blades propelled them forward. Lex growled, burst from the elevator with a flying leap, flipped up, over the line of armed men and women, landed behind the squad leader. Fire lagged behind, followed, went silent before it killed the commander.

One blade went left, the other right. A pivot turned to a pirouette. A hand followed through. Lex mentally counted down; Eight.

A wide leg sleep, low gravity. Two bodies tumbled, stunned. One more fell from a dual slice across the belly. Seven.

The sweep turned acrobatic. A flying round-house staggered another man. A blade sliced a second’s throat beside him. Six.

She began another landing; a blade cut the calf of a woman. The other plunged up, in, and out her sternum. Five.

A wide, uplifted sweep, lacerated another woman’s torso. Four.

Lex’s legs drew nearer, body upright. The three staggered men began to recover. She whirled with a spin, made circles to aim. A stab inward through the heart of the last man standing, and one on the ground. Two.

With another sweep, and a fluid shift, she kept the last men down. The blades whirled, plunged down through soft bodies. Zero.

She hesitated a moment to control her breath, then ripped the blades out to survey the carnage.

Tell-tale abstracts of blood were painted across the penthouse’s beige walls. Corpses lay where they’d fallen; some atop one other, others sequestered, alone. All were covered in blood. The penthouse’s hardwood-floor was a crimson pool of still-warm blood beneath Lex’s boots. She straightened with a whirl of her blades. Blood flung from the tips as she marched forward along the wide hallway, into a massive, main room that looked out on Tokyo with a bird’s -eye view.

The sight was breathtaking. Tokyo was a glowing jewel of prosperity in an otherwise blackened sea. Lex was compelled toward the windows. She took a few steps to the large, six-person dining table atop a platform. It shined from a lacquer finished that mixed the faint neon of Tokyo with the room’s low sconces on its supports and walls. For a moment, Lex almost regretted what was about to happen. The click of a pistol’s hammer reminded her of its necessity. From the sound, she guessed something German.

“Miss Stroman. Nice of you to join me.” Only the faintest of feet scuffed wood from a corner of the room, “Tell your wife to stay or I kill her before she reaches the elevator.”

The German woman’s hard-angled face sneered, pulled high-lighted hair tighter around her round forehead. Lex didn’t move. Stroman shot a glance sideways, froze her wife with a look, “Your reckoning has arrived, Alexis.”

Lex ignored her, “It really is a beautiful view here at the top.” The German took a few steps forward, angled wide around Lex with the gun on her. “Join us, won’t you Kazue?” The Japanese woman remained frozen. “Very well then.”

Stroman took the platform’s steps one-by-one, settled even with Lex. The gun’s aim was firm, “Whatever you intended to prove ends here.”

Lex’s body remained steadfast. Her eyes swept the multi-colored beauty ahead, “Maybe.” Stroman’s left hand gripped the pistol beneath the right, further steadied her aim. Lex sensed the shift, waited, her eyes on the horizon, “Then again, perhaps I’ve already completed what I set out to do.”

As if flicked by switches, Tokyo’s city-blocks went dark one-by-one. Stroman didn’t notice until the lights went out above her. Kazue spoke from the corner of the room, “Maja!”

She glanced sideways to see the emerging darkness. Lex struck. In one move, she had Stroman by a wrist, gun pointed outward, away. Stroman eyed the blade hilt-deep in her gut. She grit her teeth, bucked back and forth. Kazue gasped, began to sob in the corner.

Maja’s mouth leaked blood, “You… Bitch…”

“The Sleepers are awakening,” Lex said coldly. “In two minutes power will return across the city long enough for an EMP to detonate.” Stroman fought with her last ounces of life against the grip on her wrist. Lex’s hand was firm, “In two and a half minutes, your world will be ours again.”

She ripped the blade from Stroman’s torso. Her body tumbled down the platform’s stairs to the floor. Kazue launched herself across the room, fell into howls beside Maja. Lex dislodged the gun’s magazine, tossed it across the penthouse. She turned, blade pointed downward, for Kazue.

“You’re a monster!” The woman screamed at Lex. She repeated the phrase, shoved her face against Maja’s chest to weep.

Lex stared down while the words echoed through her head. She didn’t doubt their truth, but couldn’t deny it was the Collective that had made them such. All she’d done was set out to right the world’s balance. There was never a choice for her but to ensure the Collective’s debts were repaid in blood. There was no system left to punish them. No courts to hold them accountable. No police to arrest them. They’d seen to that. With it, they’d as much signed their own death-warrants as formed the monster bound to slaughter them one and two at a time.

“You know what has to happen, Kazue,” Lex said. She ignored her, but her cries went silent. “The Sleepers must awaken. The debt must be repaid.”

Kazue sniffled. She kissed Maja softly on the lips and cheek, rose with a final breath. Her eyes were hard, tearful, but accepting. They met Lex’s. Kazue swallowed hard, stiffened her neck and spine with a small pair of nods.

Lex made it quick; a lone thrust through the heart. Kazue went limp against the blade, fell beside her lover as it retracted. The power faded back for a brief moment, then the sound of something like metal grating shook the building. A wave rolled out across Tokyo. The penthouse lights flared brightly, then died out. A door opened near the elevators, a shielded flashlight attachment on a rifle blinding Lex even at the distance. It lowered to reveal Rachel’s face, the others behind her.

Rachel jogged forward, met Lex halfway up the hall with a pant, “We’re ready to move. We’ll have to take the tunnels, the streets are already turning into chaos.”

“No,” Lex said defiantly. “No-one hides anymore. Hold your own, but don’t harm anyone. The GSS will be inbound. We need to ensure the people are protected.”
Rachel gave a nod, leaned to look past at the two bodies beside one another, “Stroman and Matsuoka?” Lex gave a sole nod. Rachel huffed from exertion, “Good. Come on.”

The rest of the group turned for the stairwell. Lex hesitated, mind caught in Kazue’s willing sacrifice. She hadn’t begged, or pled, merely accepted her fate. Lex sympathized, started forward to follow the others down the thousands of steps to the lobby.